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Breaking Down the Novak Djokovic-U.S. Open Situation

In Jon Wertheim’s latest mailbag, he looks at the recent changes in Naomi Osaka’s camp, ranks the majors by prestige and explores ways to tweak the Laver Cup.

Hey, everyone...

• The U.S. hardcourt swing has begun. Good soldiering, your Tennis Channel listings here.

Why do international players make up more than half D-I tennis rosters?


There were a lot of questions and social media chatter about Novak Djokovic and his U.S. Open status. Let’s avoid litigating Covid protocol, its logic and ill-logic. Let’s avoid a semantic discussion about anti-vax and pro-choice and anti-science. Let’s resist the easy play of turning this into a referendum on Djokovic versus the USTA, as John McEnroe—who, of all people, ought to know better—seems to have done. Just a few factual points:

1) Denying entry to unvaccinated non-citizens, is not USTA policy, much less a policy aimed at Djokovic specifically. It is federal government policy that the USTA has chosen to follow without pushback.

2) We have already gotten a vivid illustration re: what chaos and no-one-comes-out-looking-good morass can occur when a tennis tournament opposes a government. You can hardly blame the USTA for avoiding the Australian Open fiasco. The USTA has essentially said, “Whatever you guys tell us to do, we ain’t gonna fight it.”

3) Read the policy and there are exceptions for unvaccinated non-citizens. A pro tennis player—even an accomplished one—would not seem to fit those categories, prima facie. The USTA, moreover, has explicitly said that it will not seek exception or exemption for any player.

4) Give some credit to Djokovic on this point: he is aware of the policy, he has made a decision; he is prepared to deal with the consequences; he is not lobbying for special treatment. Comparing Djokovic to Muhammad Ali makes for a risibly awful hot take. But it ought to be mentioned that Djokovic is not martyring himself. It’s his fans doing that on his behalf.

5) Does it make sense that Djokovic could he play in 2020 and 2021 and cannot in 2022? Or that unvaccinated Tennys Sandgren can play while Djokovic cannot? On its face, no. But inconsistency is a way of a life. Especially in a pandemic, where targets and data are moving.

6) It’s late July. Policy can change. Djokovic’s stance can change. Both are unlikely. To invoke the great sports cliche, it is what it is. The policy—again, government policy, not USTA policy—is X. Djokovic’s stance is Y. The consequence is Z.

So it goes.

7) I cannot recall a player (athlete?) as polarizing and magnetizing as Djokovic. Can we all agree that is a remarkable fact pattern. Here is a generationally great player, on the threshold of history, age 35. And he might miss two Majors this year, not because of injury or illness but because of volitional decision. Some of you will say “If he just received one vaccination that billions of people worldwide received—not because they necessarily wanted it, but because there was a collective responsibility—and we wouldn’t be here.” Others will say “Good for him for sticking with his convictions.” Can we all pause and simply marvel that for all the permutations and combinations we factored into the GOAT race, who saw this coming?

[Osaka] literally just dropped her coach... so did for example Pliskova earlier this month. Where were the thinkpieces about that?!


So last week I had two sources tell me that Osaka has abruptly parted ways with her team, was rethinking her organization, including bringing her father back in the fold; and was generally reassessing her place in the sport and what tennis means to her. The coach, Wim Fissette, quickly confirmed the split on Instagram. I was able to corroborate that the trainer, Daniel Pohl, relatively new to the enterprise, split with Osaka as well.

I tweeted as much. And the responses came fast and furious and generally trifurcated. 1) The media sucks. 2) What about…Pliskova and Sinner and Halep, etc. 3) Leave her alone.

Let’s truth bomb this. We are all sensitive to Osaka, her challenges, her singular personality. But this has to be balanced against news judgment and independent reporting. Here is a player who has won four Majors since 2018; who makes tens of millions of dollars in addition to prize money; who—especially after the abrupt retirement of the former No.1—holds great sway in women’s tennis, this as the WTA Tour is about the close a nine-figure private equity deal. In the last 90 days, she has not won a match. But she has split from her prior management group; entered the management game herself; signed a controversial player— a Wimbledon finalist who also stands accused of domestic violence—and has now split with her team.

It’s hard to make the objective case that this isn’t newsworthy. It’s hard to make the objective case that this ought to go unremarked upon. It’s hard to make the objective case that her admirable admission of fragility ought to trump coverage. And the “whataboutism” falls flat, as it often does. Karolina Pliskova is not a four-time Major winner. Jannik Sinner does not make $60 million in off-court income. And all sorts of pixels and print and airtime HAVE been devoted to Sinner’s shake-up, Simona Halep’s curious recent personnel moves, etc.

Larger point: jay-vee or varsity? Independent coverage—not fan sites, not curated social media, not self-serving press releases—is a sign of heft, not weakness. A top player is missing events because of his refusal to get vaccinated? The Kyrgios domestic violence allegations? A legend missing a historic occasion because the tournament doesn’t provide her with a fleet of cars? Those aren’t pleasant stories. They may not reflect well on the player you support. But they are relevant. Failing to acknowledge them may protect the individual in the short-term but do disservice to the sport.


If they're ever going to depart from the silly Europe vs. World format at Laver Cup, this is the year, and here's how. (It's my fantasy, so I'm going to assume everyone below will participate.)

Team Old (or Team Rehab or Team Aches 'n' Pains or whatever you want call it)

Rafael Nadal

Novak Djokovic

Roger Federer

Andy Murray

Stan Wawrinka

Marin Cilic

Alternate: Dominic Thiem

Captain: Juan Martin Del Potro (sorry, Bjorn Borg, you were a legendary player, but you bring nothing to this event)

Team New

The six best players you can get from anywhere in the world, preferably below the age of 30 (or 25, even). Assuming Russians aren't allowed to play in London, a team might look like this:

Stefanos Tsitsipas

Carlos Alcaraz

Felix Auger-Aliassime

Jannik Sinner

Taylor Fritz

Matteo Berrettini

Alternate: Hubert Hurkacz

Captain: Nick Kyrgios (yes, that's right) (thanks for your service, McEnroe brothers, but you never won, and you got skunked 14-1 last time; if this is a real competition, that costs you your job)

Wouldn't that be interesting, with all of the star power and the generational clash? And wouldn't Team New have a real chance, despite a 72-0 disadvantage in majors?


• The Laver Cup has all sorts of elements to recommend. It’s a net positive (forgive the pun) and should be commended. But it can also be improved. At a time when there is one American—a lovely guy but one with two career titles—in the top 12, we need a new dimension on which to divvy up teams.

And here’s the answer: we need a dodgeball-style draft. In addition to equity, it’s a value. (Whom would you rather have, Zverev or Tsitsipas? How much do you put stock in Jack Sock’s doubles? It will be even more strategic when we do the right thing and add women. Done! Next!

Hi Jon

I was wondering how players/journalists/historians feel about the prestige of each major? The winner always says “this major is the one I always dreamed of winning when I was a child” but I take that with a grain of salt. For example, in golf, the PGA Championship has always been relegated to number 4 in terms of prestige, and The Open Championship was third, similar to the Australian Open players weren’t always amenable to traveling long distances. In my humble opinion I feel Wimbledon should be #3 because the average person doesn’t play on grass, Australian #4 because back in the day lots of pros skipped it, French #2, US Open #1.

Best Regards,

Eric Bukzin, Manorville, Long Island 

• Great question. And I would submit that this is a real virtue of tennis: the four Majors are plenty differentiated but there is no obvious hierarchy. For years, Australian Open ran a distant, consensus fourth. The Ringo of Majors, if you will. But Tennis Australia deserves much credit for catching up. Each Major has its many virtues and few drawbacks. Down-and-dirty thumbnails, I would say:

4) Australia: features well-rested, optimistic players on a democratic surface. Pleasant vibe. Lovely, easy city. Drawback: climate change is the bane of this event, long term. More immediately: that it takes place in a far-flung locale for most of the world might strip away a bit of publicity if not prestige.

3) Roland Garros: A glorious event in a glorious city. Drawback: clay is not everyone’s surface of choice. And it’s the smallest venue of the four.

2) Wimbledon: the history, the prestige, the tradition…the grass, a surface on which so few play.

1) U.S. Open: The sheer scale. And the hardcourt event at the end of the summer (usually offering more prize money than any other Major) is as much testament to durability as it is to tennis. Drawback: the chaos (and traffic) isn’t for everyone.

But again, I don’t think there’s an obvious weak link or obviously superior Major. Different tastes and different priorities. I’m not sure this kind of natural parity exists in other sports.

Jon, a simple question:

Is there a better doubles player on Planet Earth than Jack Sock?

Gregory S., Sag Harbor

• No, there is not. 


Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios has been awarded a wild card into the 2022 Western & Southern Open, where he was runner-up in 2017. It will mark Kyrgios’ sixth appearance in Cincinnati and first since 2019.

 New Balance and rising tennis superstar, Coco Gauff, have officially announced her first signature sneaker with the brand. New Balance Coco CG1 is a mid-top, 90’s inspired silhouette built with the brand’s most innovative performance technology in a timeless design made to transcend sports and fashion. The current World #11 debuted the CG1 Pompey colorway on-court last night at the Atlanta Tennis Open.

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