10 US Open Talking Points - UBITENNIS
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10 US Open Talking Points

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Rafael Nadal (zimbio.com)

The past two weeks in at the US Open has been filled with a variety of shocks and surprises. From a series of high-profile withdraws leading into the tournament to Sloane Stephens’ triumphing in the women’s draw, this year’s edition has been one to remember.

 

Here are ten points to take away from the US Open.

1) The feel-good moments

Outside of the Olympics, does any sport have events that continuously provide as many emotional moments as tennis? Every major this year has featured so many inspiring storylines, and the US Open was no exception. After undergoing surgeries earlier this year, two young Americans advanced to their first major finals, and showed such grace in both victory and defeat. Not to mention the winner of that women’s championship was ranked outside the top 900 just five weeks ago. A classy, 37-year-old former champion advanced to her third major semifinal of the season, and won more matches as majors than any other woman this year. A veteran who hadn’t won a match at a major in two years due to illness and injury, and arrived in New York ranked outside the top 400, wins three rounds of qualifying and four rounds in the main draw to reach the quarterfinals. A beloved big man, who has lost years of his career to injury, couldn’t hit one winner for the first hour of his fourth round match due to illness, yet used the energy of the crowd to save match points and win a five-setter. Tennis is unique in providing a new set of compelling stories so frequently throughout the year.

2) Sharapova’s return
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One comeback I was not as inspired by was that of Maria Sharapova. Yes, she served her time. Yes, she is a five-time major champion. Yes, she has millions of fans. But the way in which her return was romanticized is a really bad look for the sport. Let’s not forget Sharapova tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, and admitted to using that drug for the previous 10 years before it had been banned. I can’t speak to the television coverage of Sharapova’s return in other countries, but the US coverage included video packages set to dramatic music which celebrated her return and her fighting spirit. I found this a bit disturbing. On Tennis Channel, Martina Navratilova went as far to say Sharapova’s first round upset of second seeded Simona Halep validated the wild card she was given. While I respect Navratilova more than anyone else in the sport, giving a wild card to Sharapova is the equivalent of rolling out the red carpet to a cheater. She should be given no preferential treatment, and should earn her way back by competing in smaller tournaments and qualifying draws. The result of the match does not validate the issuance of the wild card.

3) The Nick Kyrgios debate
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The tournament also featured the usual debate over whether Nick Kyrgios is good for the sport. This was sparked by his first round loss to a player ranked outside the 200 as Kyrgios complained of a shoulder injury and appeared to again not give his all. Kyrgios’ big game and big personality are very good for the sport. But a player who continues to give less than 100% after admitting to tanking in countless matches, and who has also said he doesn’t love tennis, is terrible for the sport. Perhaps he just needs to mature. Perhaps he’s afraid to fully apply himself out of a fear of failing. We can only speculate as to the reasons, but do the reasons really matter? Until he’s ready to give the sport his all, let’s end this debate and focus our attention on players who do.

4) Fabio Fognini’s downfall
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No one at the US Open was a worse look for the sport than Fabio Fognini. During his first round loss in singles, Fognini swore at a female umpire in Italian, calling her a whore. This is one of three code violations he was cited, being fined a total of $24,000. It wasn’t until three days later, and after he played and won two further doubles matches, that he was suspended from the tournament. What took so long? This suspension came way too late, especially for the two doubles teams that were eliminated after Fognini’s vile display. While Fabio’s apology on Italian television seemed heartfelt, his words deserve more than a $24,000 fine and a suspension from the doubles draw. Let’s hope the Grand Slam Board, who are currently reviewing the incident, impose a much harsher punishment.

5) The clever use of bathroom breaks
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The use of prolonged bathroom breaks to disrupt the flow of a match must stop. After blowing a set and a break lead to Caroline Wozniacki, Ekaterina Makarova appeared near-tears as she dropped the second set tiebreak. Makarova proceeded to take a bathroom break that approached 10 minutes in length. After basically creating her own timeout, she received no penalty. Having regained her composure, Makarova easily won the third set 6-1. Ekaterina is far from the only player to do this: she’s just the most recent example. This gamesmanship has become far too common. There needs to be a certain amount of time allowed for such a break, after which a player is penalized for extending past the allotted time. I’m sure the bathroom breaks would immediately shorten if players lost a point for every 30 seconds they were late in returning to the court.

6) Wozniacki’s rant
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Coming out of that same match, I was surprised the bathroom break was not the story. Instead, Wozniacki complained to the press about her court assignment. On an extremely crowded schedule due to the previous day being an almost total rainout, Wozniacki played her second round match on Court 17. She felt it was unfair to have the number five seed on the fourth biggest court on the grounds, while Maria Sharapova was scheduled on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

According to Wozniacki, “someone who comes back from a drug sentence, and you know, performance-enhancing drugs, and then all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court, I think that’s a questionable thing to do.” When questioned by the press regarding Wozniacki’s comments, Sharapova responded by saying, “’if you put me out in the parking lot of Queen’s I’m happy to play there.” She continued by saying, “all that matters to me is I’m in the fourth round. Yeah, I’m not sure where she is.”

While it isn’t really fair to have Sharapova play all of her matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium when she’s unranked and returning from a drug suspension, there is more to be considered when assigning courts. Like her or not, Sharapova is a big star. Her matches at this tournament drew much more attention than almost all other players. That was also the case before Sharapova’s suspension. It was appropriate for her to be placed on stadiums that can hold more fans. Wozniacki may be a top five player, and a two-time US Open finalist, but she does not draw anywhere near the same crowds as Sharapova.

7) The New York fans
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Speaking of court assignments, they truly can impact the outcome of matches. Perhaps Wozniacki does pull that match out on a bigger court in front of more fans. Certainly we saw Americans such as Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe benefit from playing in front of boisterous crowds on Arthur Ashe Stadium throughout the tournament. To the contrary, Juan Martin Del Potro benefited from not being placed on Ashe. Del Potro said after his fourth round comeback that he would have retired from that match if not for the thousands of fans passionately urging him on, and most of those fans were grounds pass holders who would not have been allowed inside Ashe. Players often cite the fans as a critical factor in a match’s outcome. Sometimes that’s a bit of pandering, but at this US Open, it was apparent just how much court assignment, and a crowd, can impact a match.

8) The scheduling
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On the subject of scheduling, the US Open would benefit from moving one week earlier. By the second Tuesday of the tournament, summer in New York is basically over. Schools are back in session, and the crowds for the day sessions thin out considerably. The amount of fans willing to hang around for the end of the night session also decreases. The USTA tries to combat this by offering discounted tickets for the day sessions in the second week (or sometimes even free tickets), but the empty seats remain. Adjusting the tournament calendar is extremely challenging, but it would help attendance during the second week of the Open.

9)The ultimate pet peeve?
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My pet peeve of the tournament: the fans in the crowd who see themselves on the big screen in the stadium and wave. As a television viewer, it completely distracts from the match. The worst offenders? Those that try to take a picture of themselves on the big screen. This does not happen at other majors. If television directors are insistent upon showing fan reactions throughout the match, there’s an easy solve here: show a different feed on the stadium screen that focuses solely on the action on the court. Please, I beg you.

10) Tour success doesn’t make grand slam glory
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I was taken aback by hearing Alexander Zverev was the pre-tournament third favorite to win the title. I understand the bottom half of the draw was without a “big four” member. And yes, the 20-year-old phenom has won five titles this year, including two Masters 1,000 events where he defeated Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the finals, respectively. However, his best result at a major is one fourth round appearance at Wimbledon. Surely this will change sooner than later, but the difference in results at majors versus non-majors is clear. For the men, winning best-of-five sets is much different than winning best-of-three. As Zverev’s own camp has stated, the youngster’s body is not yet at the top level of conditioning. But we’re also seeing this happen on the WTA tour, where they play best-of-three at all tournaments and physicality is not a factor. 22-year-old Elina Svitolina is a prime example: she’s also won five titles this year, including three Premier 5 events, yet has not been past the quarterfinals of a major. Svitolina defeated four top 10 players in Toronto, but struggles to do so at Grand Slam events. Performing at the majors with more pressure and eyeballs on you is a wholly different situation, and some players take more time to excel on the big stage. Results outside the majors don’t always immediately translate to Grand Slam success.

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Djokovic Isn’t Satisfied With The 20-20-20 Look

The world number one will be the overwhelming favourite at the US Open, but Berrettini is here to stay

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Now that Novak Djokovic has 20-20-20 vision, he says he’s not through.

 

He’s aiming to be the sole leader of the gang now that he has deadlocked Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 Grand Slam singles titles each.

But future Grand Slam titles might not come easy for any of the 20-20-20 gang, even  youngest member Djokovic. Italian muscleman Matteo showed on Sunday in his Wimbledon championship match loss to Djokovic that he has arrived as a legitimate Grand Slam tournament contender.

NOVAK BIDDING TO MATCH LAVER

Of course, Djokovic now has won three Grand Slams this year and has his eyes focused on winning all four Grand Slams in one year, matching something the great Rod Laver accomplished twice about half-a-century ago.

The U.S. Open awaits the challenge. Novak will be a huge favorite, although it would be great to see Rafa and Roger in New York again.

Who knows? These two legends hopefully are already out getting their games ready for the hard courts of Flushing Meadows.

MATTEO AGGRESSIVE, YET PASSIVE

Berrettini had his chances against Djokovic. But he was either too eager or too passive with his shots much of the afternoon. Unlike the 20-20-20 Gang, Matteo really doesn’t have great touch. But power? He has more than he needs.

Between the two traits, Berrettini didn’t take full advantage of his many opportunities. Had he cashed in on the majority of them, Wimbledon might have had a different champion, and Djokovic would still be looking up at Nadal and Federer.

But Novak was always there, ready to pounce on the smallest window of opportunity. He often turned opportunities for Berrettini into his own.

BERRETTINI: THE BIG MUSCULAR GUY

The preliminaries to the match were very English-like, much like the aftermath of the grueling 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 victory by Djokovic. Both players were somber as they made their way onto the court, each carrying green and white Head tennis bags and hand bags

Wearing his usual cap turned backward, the 25-year-old Berrettini looked like a movie star or a tight end with his 6-5, 209-pound figure, overshadowing the 6-2, 172-pound Djokovic, whose thin-man look enables the 34-year-old Serbian to be as nimble as an acrobat.

The first game lasted what seemed like a set as Djokovic survived two double faults and a break point to take a 1-0 lead. Novak broke in the fourth game and led 5-2 before Berrettini pulled his game together to survive the eight-deuce eighth game, then broke Novak and held service for 5-5.

TIEBREAKER BELONGS TO MATTEO

Berrettini surprisingly outplayed Djokovic in the tiebreaker and closed the door with an ace. But the Italian came down to earth and was broken early in each of the last three sets to allow Djokovic to take the title.

Grand Slam titles didn’t always come so often for Djokovic. After notching his first Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, he watched Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer win 10 of the 11 Grand Slams before Novak got in the winner’s circle again in 2011.

EVERYTHING GOING NOVAK’S WAY

But now as Nadal and Federer appear to be struggling with their age, Djokovic has won eight of the last 14 Grand Slams. Overall, he has won 20 of the last 54 Grand Slams.

While all of that has been happening, Djokovic has won five of the last seven Wimbledons, and six in all.

Everything appears to be going Novak’s way, but the young guns of the tour obviously are getting anxious to win Grand Slams. And Novak can’t look like Superman forever.


See James Beck’s Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier columns at postandcourier.com (search on James Beck column). James Beck can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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Why Are So Many Tennis Players Skipping The Olympics?

It isn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic which are putting players playing off going.

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On Monday Canada’s Dennis Shapovalov joined the growing number of tennis stars who have decided not to play in this year’s Olympics Games.

 

In a statement issued on social media, the world No.12 said his decision was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and doing what he believes was best for the safety of his team. Japan, which is where the Games are being held, has been dealing with a surge in cases in recent weeks with a low number of the population to be fully vaccinated. Whilst the country has banned international spectators from attending amid fears of the virus being spread, organisers say up to 10,000 domestic fans will be allowed to attend the Olympic venues.

“After careful consideration I wanted to let you know that I will not be participating in the Olympics this year. Representing Canada means the world to me, but due to the current situation my team and I have decided this is the best decision for everyone’s safety,” Shapovalov wrote on twitter.

Shapovalov’s concerns related to the pandemic aren’t the only thing which is deterring tennis players from attending the Olympics. Over the past week, two top 10 players from the men’s Tour also confirmed that they will not be participating. Rafael Nadal is missing the event in order to take a break from the sport following what was a demanding clay court swing. Meanwhile, Dominic Thiem says he doesn’t want to travel to Tokyo and instead wants to focus on his title defence at the US Open.

This year’s tennis calendar doesn’t favour the Olympics. The Wimbledon Championships concludes two weeks before it begins and the US Open starts five weeks after. Two of the biggest events in the sport which offer the highest amount of prize money and ranking points per round. At the same time as the Olympics two ATP 250 events are taking place in Austria and America.

So much has to depend on where a player is in their career. Have they won an Olympic medal before? How important is it to them? Do they want to travel to Asia in the middle of the summer? For every player I think it is very individual how seriously they take the Olympics,” former Olympic champion Lindsey Davenport told The Tennis Channel in 2020.

Tennis was officially reintroduced into the Games back in 1988 after being showcased as a demonstration sport four years prior. It is different to Tour events with no official prize money on offer. However, some countries such as Russia have previously issued financial rewards for athletes who win medals.

Another sticking point is there being no ranking points available for players participating. Back in 2019 the International Tennis Federation told UbiTennis they were ‘open’ to allowing points being awarded but no progress has been made. Perhaps due to the complex governance of the sport with the Olympic event being run by the ITF. Meaning they will have to form an agreement with both the ATP and WTA for such an incentive to happen.

“Currently, the WTA and ATP do not award points for the Olympic Qualification Pathway. We (the ITF) are always open to discussion on the matter.” The ITF said.

Another issue concerns the location. Players face having to travel from Europe to Asia and then North America within a month. A journey made substantially more difficult than usual due to restrictions related to the pandemic.

Chile’s Christian Garin says his decision not to go to Tokyo is because he feels athletes will not be able to get the full experience due to the current restrictions in place.

“Due to the instability of this year and added to the fact that the established conditions will not allow me to live the real experience of what the Olympic Games mean, that is why I have made this decision,” he wrote on Instagram.

When it comes to other Olympic absentees, a contingent of Spanish players will not be attending due to what newspaper Marca describes as ‘calendar issues and a logistically difficult trip to Tokyo.’ Those skipping the event are Roberto Bautista Agut, Albert Ramos, Feliciano López, Jaume Munar and Carlos Alcaraz. Norway’s Caper Ruud, Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic and Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov will also not be playing.

Despite the surge in withdrawals which will most likely increase in the coming weeks, other top names have committed to playing. Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka, Daniil Medvedev, Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka and Andy Murray have all confirmed they will play.

“It’s going to be my first Olympic Games. We have a great team so we can do some doubles, mixed doubles, everything,” Medvedev said about playing.
“Going to be amazing experience. Of course, with COVID maybe it’s not going to be the same like every year.”

The Olympic tennis event will be held at the Ariake Coliseum and get underway on July 24th.

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The Other Side of Press Conferences

American author and journalist Mike Mewshaw gives his take on the controversy that surfaced at this year’s French Open

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After Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, the debate about press conferences keeps cropping up.  Pressers have been analyzed from more angles than Rafa’s forehand or Serena’s backhand.  Players, both active and retired, have weighed in with their opinions, along with coaches and sports therapists.  The consensus is that tennis reporters are insensitive, disrespectful, sexist, racist, and eager to provoke controversy.

 

The constant threat of illness, the absence of fans, the isolation, and loss of income has certainly added to impatience with reporters.  Venus Williams tartly suggested she maintained her composure during interviews by realizing she could beat any hack in the room; none of them could hold a candle to her. 

But this sort of disrespect runs in both directions.  While players view reporters as pesky publicity machines, at best, or gossip-hounds at worst, some journalists regard players as spoiled high school dropouts who couldn’t write a grammatically correct paragraph if their endorsement contracts depended on it. With all due deference to Naomi Osaka, I would urge her and her colleagues on the ATP and WTA tours to view things from a different perspective.  The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the press just as it has on them.  Plenty of tennis reporters have lost their jobs.  Almost all of them earn less income.  They face the same risks of infection and submit to enough Covid tests to leave them as red-nosed as Rudolph.

Under the circumstances, reporters who travel the tour, along with those covering matches remotely from their basements, have done a creditable job.  Sure, they sometimes sound testy, just as the players do.  Of course their questions can be repetitious, just as the players answers can be. 

Over the past four decades, I’ve covered more press conferences than I now have white hairs on my head.  I’ve heard racist comments, sexist remarks and massively insulting accusations.  But more often than not, the putdowns were aimed at reporters or at other players.  In the old days, these seldom made it into newspapers, and the really offensive quotes and admissions of rule breaking were deleted from press conference transcripts.  In that politically incorrect era, Arthur Ashe, for instance, came in for a raft of prejudice.  Ilie Nastase openly referred to him as negroni.

Although it’s now largely forgotten, Billie Jean King’s sexuality was accepted by the press long before many on the women’s tour spoke up in her defense.  While male journalists can be appallingly insensitive—Italian Hall of Fame journalist Gianni Clerici used to print Steffi Graf’s menstrual cycle in La Repubblica—it would be difficult to find anything less “woke” than Martina Hingis’ description of Amélie Mauresmo as a “half-man” who “travels with her girlfriend.”  Or Lindsay Davenport’s comment after Mauresmo beat her, “I thought I was playing a guy.”

Predictably, both women walked back these quotes, accusing the press of taking their words out of context.  That’s an ancient canard on the circuit—shoot off your mouth, then claim you were misquoted.  I remember Buster Mottram, then the British Number One, complaining about rowdy fans in Rome, accusing Italians of being animals.  At his next press conference he carefully parsed the remark.  Suddenly the voice of reason, he observed that human beings were all, anthropologically speaking, animals. 

If Buster had won a few majors, his quotes might have been immortalized, like Andre Agassi’s wisecrack at the French Open, “I’m happy as a faggot in a submarine.”  That line made the list of Esquire Magazine’s annual Dubious Achievement Awards. 

John McEnroe’s infamously objectionable conference quotes could only be contained on a wall as vast as the Vietnam War Memorial.  Even if one had the space and energy to chisel them in stone, many would have to be bowdlerized.  One that barely passes the censor’s blue pencil is his barbarous backhand at a female reporter who had the impertinence to question him.  “Lady, you need to get laid.”

In some cases actions speak louder and more loathsome than words.  After a match in Milan, a local female journalist asked Jimmy Connors, “Why do you always touch yourself in a particular place?”  Jimmy shoved a hand down his shorts and gave his genitals a good shake.  “It feels good.  You should try it.”

To repeat, I empathize with Naomi Osaka’s aversion to press conferences.  More than she might imagine I agree that they can be frustrating, stress producing, depressing, and borderline transgressive.  I accept the sage advice of deep-think editorials and socially conscious scribes that reporters need to raise the level of their game.  But so do players who could profit from sensitivity training, anger management, and basic etiquette lessons.  With mutual respect for all those who share a rough road toward an uncertain future, the tour could become a better place for everybody.


Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, among them AD IN AD OUT, a collection of his tennis articles, now available as an e-book.

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