A Deep Dive: Five Reasons Why The Calls To Change Davis Cup Are Generally Bogus - UBITENNIS
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A Deep Dive: Five Reasons Why The Calls To Change Davis Cup Are Generally Bogus

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photo credit: sportycious.com

We are the Davis Cup Preservation Society / God save two man teams, home courts and partiality / We are the Five Set Match Appreciation Society / God save tennis courts in all their different varieties

 

Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways, for me and for you. / What more can we do?……..

(with sincere apologies to Ray Davies. God Save The Kinks)

Like all sports, tennis has a bible of stock phrases uttered and memorized over the years by coaches and fans alike. “Keep your eye on the ball.” “You’re only as good as your second serve.” It’s not a break until you hold.”

It appears a new one’s been added: “We need to fix Davis Cup.”

Argentina’s historic 2016 Davis Cup triumph has done little to dampen critics of the event; one could argue that the Argies’ loss in the 2017 first round furthered the campaign for change. Does Davis Cup needs to be fixed? And why?

My answer is no. Mostly. Before continuing, however, it’s cards on the table time: I am old enough to remember the Challenge Round, and am a huge fan of Davis Cup. Advertisers swear millenials need snappy, short entertainment fixes, but I’m not one of them.1 I’m firmly convinced that not changing Davis Cup in any major way is a position that can be defended, and should be.

In no particular order here are 5 of the top items bruited about as reasons for change or as solutions to supposed problems, and my replies:

  1. Eliminate 5 set matches
  2. Play each tie over 2 days and not 3
  3. Standardize the court surface across the competition
  4. Change the format such that teams gather in one, pre-determined site that might well not be home to any of the teams in the finals or, alternatively the semi-finals, if the last 4 teams are brought together for the semis
  5. Davis Cup is not television friendly

 

Eliminate Five set matches: This has long been discussed across the tennis spectrum. Davis Cup is now one of only five annual tennis events with 5 set matches, the others being the Big Four Grand Slam titles.

Yes, a best of 5 match has the potential to last a long time. That is not guaranteed to happen, however. Of the 483 2016 Grand Slam men’s matches played to completion, all of which were best of 5, less than half went beyond 3 sets.

Tennis is an endurance sport. Or was. True, there’s a physicality to the modern game that wasn’t so prevalent 40 years ago, but Ivan Lendl and Thomas Muster were ready to go 5, on clay (and did), and tennis styles don’t come more physical than theirs. Best of three set matches against David Ferrer aren’t easy, but why should tennis be made easier? Doesn’t that take away an edge that some players have over others, their superior fitness?

A sloppy 5 set match that goes the distance isn’t compelling, we know that; you can find yourself thinking, “Okay, get it over and move on the next match.” Discontinue 5 setters, however, and we lose the amazing, incredible ebb and flow of truly epic contests. If you’ve watched an amazing 5 set match you know it’s as exciting a sporting event as any; Federer vs Cilic/Wimbledon 2016, Juan Martin del Potro’s maybe-the-greatest-comeback-ever2 over Dominic Thiem at the 2017 US Open or, more to the point, del Potro’s mammoth 5 set victory over Andy Murray in the 2016 Davis Cup semi-final.

Two or three years ago tennis was said to have become so physical it was impossible for players to avoid injury. The game has to be changed! Games have to go to no-ad and sets reduced to best of five. Or three!

Except now we’re all talking about the success of oldsters on both tours. Forget including Federer or Nadal in that discussion, they’re clearly aliens, but no one’s ever said that about 44 year old Daniel Nestor. Candadian, yes. But alien? No. Then there’s Feliciano Lopez, Venus and Serena both, Mariana Lucic-Baroni, and a slew of veritable kids getting ready to pass from their twenties to their thirties. Evidently players aren’t getting beaten up so badly by the strain of playing that careers are being ended left and right.

(Yes, without 5 set matches commentators would not be able to quote Boris Becker [yet again] about the 5th set not being about tennis, but nerves. You win some, you lose some.)

I’ve made my case; remind me, please, why Davis Cup has to go to best of three?

Play each tie over 2 days and not 3: Points in favor of this: a) easier scheduling of venues, b) minimally easier scheduling for players, c) it’s easier for television (more on this in #5).

Points against: a) one day’s fewer tickets to sell and therefore less revenue for tennis federations around the globe, b) less opportunity for surprise substitutions, and most importantly, c) this makes two man teams impossible. No team of two could possibly play 2 singles of any length plus a doubles on day one, and then the reverse singles on the following day.

Do we really want to deny the sport a chance to witness the over-the-top commitment of two man teams?  Ivan Ljubicic/Mario Ancic 2005 Davis Cup run to the title, or Laver/Newcombe’s 1973 Cup win?

Allow me a (c)2 on this: if he’d had to play on consecutive days, could Steve Darcis have managed his astounding performance of the February 2017 ties when, as the 58th ranked player, he beat the world’s number 19 and 22? I think not.

I ask further for a (c)3: some nations might not be able to field a 3 man team, period. What do they do?

One of the greatest things about Davis Cup is how frequently the betting lines are worthless. Time and again, from World Group to Group III, lesser players, inspired by hearing the score called by their country’s name instead of their own, rise to heights with victories over their betters they’d never achieve on tour. Two day ties will make that even more impossible to do. We’ll be the poorer for it.

The record setting Davis Cup crowd for Canada’s tie in Ottawa. photo credit: TennisCanada.com

Standardize the court surface across the competition: It’s not hard to understand why, as an example, Spain doesn’t want to play Australia on grass, or the converse. The fact remains that many countries have court types that predominate in their local tennis world, and their players have naturally adapted a playing style suitable to that surface. A worldwide competition is not well-served by disenfranchising participants with rules that handicap them from the get-go.

Besides, homogenization of court surfaces leads to homogenization of playing styles; this is not a plus. It’s generally conceded that the best chance of seeing a fine match is when the combatants’ playing styles are different from each other. Contrast makes for a more interesting push/pull.

Change the format such that teams gather in one, pre-determined site that might well not be home to any of the teams in the finals or, alternatively, semi-finals if the last 4 teams are brought together for the semis: Versions of this include more than 4 teams, based on a round robin format that leads into a knock-out semi-final structure. Other suggestions are based on getting only the 4 semi-finalists in one location.

Naturally it would be easier to book and promote a venue well in advance for an event like that if where it took place no longer required a connection to any of the countries involved; Buenos Aires, for example, could be booked before the year’s competition began knowing that whichever 4 countries made the semis would go there. National associations currently have to find viable locations on relatively short notice; no one gets more than 4 or 5 months to ink a contract for a tennis site that has either dependable weather or a large enough indoor facility, and which is otherwise not rented out. Fans could book travel to the event well in advance, too, since they’d know where it was to be held irrespective of who makes the semi.

This is far more difficult to pull off successfully than it first appears.

It’s a big question if tennis fans would commit to such a scheme without knowing if teams or players they adore would be in the semis or finals. This is especially true of a competition based on nationality. How many Brits would buy tickets  to Argentina at the end of the year (in our example) if they had no idea who’d be playing? I’m not sure many Brits would commit to going to Buenos Aires knowing that Team GB and Andy Murray might not be involved, with Murray instead on his couch watching tv and drinking Irn Bru. Selling more tickets under this plan is well short of being guaranteed.

Let’s point out, too, that no one’s yet said where in the ATP calendar they’re going to stick a new time commitment for Davis Cup. Yes, the plan frees up some time on the calendar (if only for the last 4 teams), but players will have to arrive to practice and acclimate before the first matches, adding a minimum of another 2 days. This plan calls for 6 days of competition plus one of rest. Add the 2 days for practice, etc., and it requires the teams in the semis to set aside least 9 days.

It’s unquestionably hard to fit Davis Cup ties into the ATP calendar. As long as the pro season continues to begin in January and end in November – a topic worthy of another discussion entirely – Davis Cup matches will never be convenient for everybody, every time.

Nothing is perfect, including Davis Cup, but the idea that the ITF is responding to players’ complaints, and only players’ complaints, is not accurate:

I can tell you the players do not want to do that.” – Jamie Murray, ATP Player Council member, when asked about plans for the final to be at a neutral site.

A neutral site for the finals, or semi-finals, is far from being problem free.

Not tv friendly? Davis Cup: India vs New Zealand.                     photo credit: lbtimes.co.in

Davis Cup is not television friendly: Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. Of those looking to modernize (sic) Davis Cup, there is one motivating force that comes through repeatedly: television, and its advertising revenue.

Tennis is a niche player in the world of sports marketing, like it or not. Compared to football, American football, basketball, baseball, the North American hockey league (NHL), and of course golf, tennis is small potatoes. As a whole tennis doesn’t come close to generating the advertising revenue of the other, more omnipresent sports.

Why?

It’s not a matter of participation; fans of team sports are not playing those other sports to any significant degree. American football amongst a bunch of 47 year olds? Doesn’t happen enough to rate a mention. Golf can boast of some 12 million participants worldwide2 (2015), but tennis can lay claim to 75 million participants around the world (2007). Tennis may lag in the advertising revenue department compared to other sports, but it’s not because there are fewer people playing tennis than those revenue-rich sports.

Last week, North Carolina won the NCAA tournament. Baseball season opened. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Masters. And—far and away—the big story was Tony Romo’s retirement and move to CBS Sports. For all the slings and arrows football absorbs, man, the NFL is still King.  Jon Wertheim, of Sports Illustrated and Tennis Channel, from his online Mailbag column of April 12:

TV hates nothing so much as topics it cannot broadcast in simplistic terms, and the unique nature of tennis’ scoring – plus no time limit on the length of matches – means tv producers live in fear that casual fans will be turned off by a scoring system then don’t understand, or a long, hard fought match.

“Sure, hardcore tennis fans will stick around, watching commercials and the advertising banners around a court,” they’ll say, “But modern television is all about holding eyeballs, keeping them excited so they don’t get bored and click the remote, looking for another adrenalin rush while our advertisers are ignored…..”

Similarly, they maintain that the Cup’s format works against efforts to build excitement; it’s a multi-nation tournament played out over the course of an entire year. Each tie is a three day affair – a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – with further complications of multiple zones and tiered competition across the globe. “Who can keep track of the bloody thing?”, they cry. “No one’s played Davis Cup for months.”

Much of that is true, at least the facts of how the competition works. But there is a lot that these complaints ignore:

• Every year, on the first weekend of Davis Cup, the 16 teams in the highest tier, the World Group, play an initial knockout round. It’s near impossible to find accurate attendance records (I tried), but Canada’s recent tie set a record for Davis Cup attendance with 5000 spectators each day so it’s safe to figure that at each tie there are 3800 attendees each day. That’s 91,200 tickets sold, worldwide, over 3 days.

Compare that to the record for one day attendance at the US Open: 65,797. If the ITF and ATP want exposure for live tennis, especially in places where there isn’t a pro tournament, they can’t ignore Davis Cup’s results in this regard.

• That’s just the World Group. Add in the lower tier Group I and Group II ties (a total of another 50 teams, or 25 ties played), use 750 spectators for each day’s matches, and you have another 56,250 seats filled without including the tiers below those. (For the entire Davis Cup structure see this page at daviscup.com)

Yes, tennis is a niche sport, but we’ve just tallied a minimum of 147,450 folks watching live tennis over 3 days for just the first Cup weekend of the year, not counting television or online streaming viewers,. That may be niche, but it’s not shabby.

• These matches’ revenues add mightily to national tennis association’s finances, especially in countries were there is little grass roots tennis infrastructure. Many tennis associations claim they can’t survive with that income, and it’s easy to believe them.

• Similar to competing at the Olympics, players tell of how different it is to have the score called out by country and not the athlete’s name. “Ad in, United States,” lends a meaning to Davis Cup that affects every player. Many pros have their greatest moments in Davis Cup competition, or their worst.

We feel for players who come up short, but are amazed by how often rank-and-file players punch far above their weight class for one day, one match. Sometimes they make a weekend of it: Last February, 58th ranked Steve Darcis came through huge for the Belgian team, defeating Germany’s 29th ranked Philipp Kohlschrieber and the 19 year-old phenom, 22nd ranked Alexander Zverev.4 It’s a safe bet Belgian news carried that story far beyond the dedicated Belgian tennis fans. And the Belgian news media were able to follow it up with Darcis’ exploits in April when the he beat Italy’s 37th ranked Paolo Lorenzi in Friday’s rubber. Even more emphatically, Andy Murray won both his singles and paired with his brother for the doubles win to clinch the Davis Cup in 2015.

Tennis should come to grips with the fact that it’s never going to challenge the truly major sports for tv time and advertising dollars. There’s little to suggest otherwise, however much the ITF, ATP, and WTA wish things were different. The numbers above illustrate that enough fans buy tickets to make us feel perfectly fine about tennis’ not being perfect for television.

As it is tennis fans get antsy with the pauses caused by medical time outs, bathroom breaks, and toweling off after one-shot points. Will tennis improve if tv gets to drive the decisions about how the sport is played? I think not.

••••••••••

As I said earlier, Davis Cup is not perfect. The changes the ITF Board of Directors presented to the Davis Cup Annual General Meeting (AMG) were not all accepted at the August 4th meeting. What did get a green light was:

  1. Davis and Fed Cup champions of one year will get their choice of home or away for the first match of the following year.
  2. Match court availability and practice court requirements will be lowered to reduce hosting costs for national associations, and
  3. Davis Cup pre-tie commitments for players will be reduced to a single function combining the draw, post-draw press.

Best of 5 sets remains the format, as does the 3 day schedule.

There’s room to change Davis Cup and make it better, which is to say make it more popular among players and the public.

  • Final set tiebreakers, perhaps at 7/7? Sure.
  • Figure out a way to free up players from complete dead rubbers without burning ticket holders? Why not?
  • Reinstitute the Challenge Round so any year’s champions get to revel in their win for more than a few months? Of course, or maybe even find a way to give them a bye in the first round or two.
  • Play it as a bi-annual event? It’d break my heart, but as a compromise it might satisfy the calls for change and increase Davis Cup’s profile.
  • Tweak the ATP calendar so there’s a proper off-season? Now just hold on there…..

The fact is that, on the whole Davis Cup is pretty Fabulous, and I don’t use the F word often. Consider:

  • In the past 3 years there have been 3 different Davis Cup championship teams, 2 of whom have been first time winners.
  • The largest crowd in Cup history was recorded in one of those finals (Switzerland vs France, Lille, France 2014).
  • 3 of the next 4 largest Davis Cup crowds have happened in the last 10 years.
  • The number of nations competing is close to tying the all time record of 139 countries in 2001 (128 in 2016).
  • During that 2014 tie in Lille, 14 million fans watched on tv, including a high of 3 million during the doubles (!). As Andy Murray played for the Cup in the 2015 final versus Belgium, BBC1’s coverage alone averaged 3 million viewers, a 22.9% share, and amazingly had an audience peak of 5 million at one point.
  • An estimated 4000 Argentine Davis Cup fans attended last year’s final round tie, away!, versus Croatia.

I say that’s a description of a sporting event that takes in just about the whole world and posts strong numbers doing so.

There’s room for tennis to draw more people to the sport, and I’ve written about it elsewhere. In the end, however, broken is as broken does. The numbers simply don’t make a case for Davis Cup’s being broken.

As sports drama it’s unmatched if you like tennis, and that’ s the rub. Will a bigger event, more like the major sports’ structures, bring fans who don’t already love tennis to buy tickets? I seriously question that, especially without some empirical evidence. Will more existing tennis fans commit to travel to otherwise uninvolved cities to watch teams that aren’t theirs? Or, perhaps more to the point, will these changes get more people to sit down in front of their televisions?

The desire to change Davis Cup has more to do with jealousy over what other sports are, and what tennis is fundamentally not, than they do with questions about why Davis Cup doesn’t work as it is. Is Dwight Davis’ creation improve-able? Yes. Definitely. Exploring ways to increase Davis Cup attendance and visibility should be encouraged. As we’ve seen above, though, tennis has a special jewel in Davis Cup. We should be careful to protect all that makes it successful on its own terms, great and unique on the world’s sporting stage. At the risk of repeating myself: broken is as broken does. Davis Cup isn’t broken, far from it, but if we break it with changes there’ll be no going back.

There’s nothing like Davis Cup®.

____________________________________________________________________________

This weekend, 15-17 September, the Davis Cup semi finals are being played: Belgium vs Australia, in Brussels, Belgium, and France vs Serbia, in Lille, France. You can follow the box scores and news at daviscup.com where you can also find live streaming or, without irony, on television depending on your local access.

Big tips of the hat to The Andrews; Andrew Burton (@burtonad) for pointing me to http://www.tennis-data.co.uk/alldata.php , where I mined the 5 set match data, and to Andrew Friedman (@toquelandandrew) for his invaluable Edward Bulwer-Lytton assistance.

1 Apologies to millennials, who I personally am not convinced need to be constantly mesmerized by ever-changing stimuli. It’s cited here as a common belief, it’s just not mine

2 Per Darren Cahill

3 If the embedded link has been problematic for you – it has been for me – copy and paste this link in a browser if you wish to see the source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/darrenheitner/2015/04/04/the-state-of-the-golf-industry-in-2015/#267176721871

4 This was Zverev’s ranking at the time.

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Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?

Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.

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Iga Swiatek (@TennisHandshake - Twitter)

The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.

 

First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.

However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.

After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.

Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.

But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.

As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.

“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.

“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit. 

“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”

It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.

It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.

The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.

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Steve Flink On Lleyton Hewitt’s Induction Into The International Tennis Hall Of Fame

Five years after being inducted himself for his services to tennis, the veteran commentator reflects on Hewitt’s achievements as a player.

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Having attended every International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony since 1995 in Newport, Rhode Island, I have grown familiar with and fond of the surroundings in that idyllic setting.  It is less a three hour drive from my home in Westchester, New York. It is a place made for summertime activities, and it is where the first U.S. National Championships were held in 1881. In 2017, I was fortunate to be inducted as a contributor at the Hall of Fame.

 

Every single Hall of Fame ceremony is staged with a deep and enduring reverence for the sport and the greatest players who have ever stepped on a court. This year was no exception to that rule. Lleyton Hewitt became the 34th player from Australia to be inducted at Newport. This indefatigable competitor was elected to the class of 2021, but with travel in and out of his country complicated by Covid, Hewitt was unable to make the trip a year ago to join his classmates (the late) Dennis Van Der Meer and the “Original Nine” of women’s tennis which included Billie Jean King.

It was sad that Hewiitt could not make it to Newport a year ago. But no one who appeared on the ballot for 2022 was elected. That was unprecedented. And so the fans and the tennis community were grateful that Hewitt could make the journey from the land “Down Under” this year to accept the ultimate honor of his career at the age of 41. Being there for all of the festivities— including a dinner the evening before and a brunch on induction day— it was strikingly apparent to me that Hewitt fully recognized the magnitude of the accolade and took nothing for granted. He relished the chance to take his place among the elite performers in the history of his profession, and conducted himself with unmistakable grace and dignity. 

https://twitter.com/TennisHalloFame/status/1548013640313278466

Hewitt celebrated a multitude of soaring achievements in his time as a top flight player, winning the US. Open in 2001, taking the Wimbledon title in 2002, leading Australia to victory in the Davis Cup twice. He concluded 2001 and 2002 as the No, 1 ranked player in the world and competed in at least one major tournament for twenty consecutive years (1997-2016). He secured 30 career titles in singles, but was also a first rate doubles player, capturing the U.S. Open alongside Max Mirnyi in 2000. Hewitt must be regarded as one of the most resilient competitors of his or any era. His courage and unflagging commitment to the game were commendable.

Presenting Hewitt to the fans in Newport—and those sitting in their living rooms watching on television at home— were, fittingly, John Newcombe and Tony Roche. These two Hall of Famers formed one of the greatest doubles partnerships of all time, winning Wimbledon five times. Roche won one major (Roland Garros in 1966) in singles while Newcombe garnered seven Grand Slam singles titles, securing three crowns at Wimbledon in 1967, 1970 and 1971.

But I digress. Newcombe and Roche were seen on video saluting Hewitt because they played critical roles in the evolution of this inimitable individual as a player. Newcombe was Hewitt’s Davis Cup captain, while Roche was his coach in the 1990’s and beyond. They contributed mightily to Hewitt’s technical and tactical understanding of the game. Moreover, both men were loyal and unwavering friends of Hewitt’s. Roche even made an unannounced trip to Newport to be there in person for Hewitt, a magnanimous gesture that was very well received.

Roche recalled his introduction to a 12 or 13 year old Hewitt at a charity event in Adelaide. Newcombe recollected Hewitt coming to his tennis academy in Texas. Hewitt was 14 and asked Newcombe if he could interview him. Newcombe agreed to do it immediately, and the precocious kid had 25 questions prepared for one of his heroes. As Newcombe reflected, “That [gave me] a good idea of how organized he was.”

Both Newcombe and Roche vividly remembered Hewitt’s spectacular Davis Cup debut at the Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston. Hewitt was replacing an injured Mark Philippoussis in the Australian lineup. Hewitt upended Todd Martin on the opening day and led the way for the Australians to topple the U.S. in the quarterfinals during the celebratory centenary year for Davis Cup in 1999. Later that season, he took apart Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov as Australia defeated Russia in the semifinals, and then the Aussies took the Cup by ousting France in the final.

https://twitter.com/TennisHalloFame/status/1548352647530287105

Four years later, Hewitt was instrumental again as the Australians were Davis Cup victors once more, defeating Spain in the final at home in Melbourne. His Davis Cup record was astounding. Altogether, Hewitt won 59 of 80 matches playing for his country, prevailing in 42 of 56 singles matches and 17 of 24 doubles contests.

Roche summed up Hewitt’s competitive days succinctly, saying, “What a remarkable career Lleyton has had. He was one of the youngest players to ever win an ATP Tour event in his hometown of Adelaide[  early in 1998 when he was still 16] He’s still the youngest ever No. 1 ATP ranked player at the end of the year [2001, when he was 20]. He won two year-end Masters tournaments, two Grand Slams, and his Davis Cup record is the greatest in Australian history. He’s played more ties and won more matches than any other Australian, and we’ve had some great Davis Cup players.”

That, of course, was a deliberate understatement. Among the many standouts Roche was referring to are Frank Sedgman, Roy Emerson, Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and, of course, himself and Newcombe. In any case, Newcombe and Roche covered the spectrum of Hewitt’s career and got to the essence of Hewitt as a human being impeccably in their tribute. Newcombe concluded with these poignant words: “Yeah, we’re proud, Lleyton, to have known you and to be able to spend some time with you. It was an honor for us.”

Now it was time for Hewitt to step up to the microphone, and he was not at a loss for words. In nearly all International Tennis Hall of Fame ceremonies, honorees largely try to keep their remarks relatively short because there are generally multiple Hall of Famers in any given year. But Hewitt had the luxury when he took his turn up at the rostrum to speak expansively without worrying about going on too long. He could relax and convey his thoughts deliberately in front of an attentive and appreciative audience early on the evening of July 16.

Hewitt delivered his impressive speech passionately, authentically and self-deprecatingly. He was much more interested in saluting those who had played leading roles in allowing him to realize his largest dreams than he was in patting himself on the back. He thanked the Hall of Fame for the honor, paid tribute to his 2021 classmates Dennis Van Der Meer and the Original Nine, and then became philosophical as he reflected on his exalted status.

He said, “The Hall of Fame seemed like something that was so far away from me ever being a part of. It was never something I thought about as a player, and it was always, I thought, for the people who were my idols growing up and the absolute legends of the sport…. To think that it all began for me on junior courts in the middle of nowhere in Adelaide in Australia, with no one watching, no TV cameras, and then to make the full tennis journey and now be coming into the Hall of Fame [is very special].”

Following up on that theme and displaying his gratitude for competing for so long against formidable rivals from different eras, Hewitt pointed out, “I feel fortunate that I was able to play across different generations, that I was able to be on the same court as my heroes Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and then go on and compete against three of the greatest tennis players our sport has ever seen in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.”

What Hewitt left out was that he celebrated some immensely rewarding moments against all five of the aforementioned players. He finished with a 5-4 career winning record against the redoubtable Sampras, including a 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-1 triumph in his first major final at the 2001 U.S Open. Hewitt was 4-4 against Agassi. He was 9-18 against Federer after taking seven of their first nine duels, but it must be mentioned that Hewitt stunned the Swiss Maestro in their last appointment ever at Brisbane in 2014. Although he lost seven of eleven duels versus Nadal, Hewitt toppled the Spaniard at the 2004 and 2005 Australian Opens. Even then, Nadal was awfully tough to beat. Finally, Hewitt was 1-6 against Djokovic, but achieved his lone victory over the Serbian at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Be that as it may, Hewitt next spoke of his affection for Newport, a place he performed many times. As he recounted, “You feel the history and tradition of tennis as soon as you walk in here. I first came here as a 17-year-old playing the Newport event back in ‘98…. Later on in my career I came here quite a few times and thoroughly enjoyed it. I came close a couple of times, losing in the final in 2012 an 2013. That just made me more desperate as the kind of person I was. I wanted to get my name on the trophy here and actually win where the Hall of Fame [tournament] was played. I was able to do that in 2014. It was so perfect. It ended up being the last title of my career, which I look back on and I’m so proud of. Believe it or not, in my 20-odd-year career I had never won the singles and doubles at the same tournament ever, but that particular week in 2014 in Newport I did it.”

Hewitt was flowing freely now, relieving his entire life in many ways, thoroughly enjoying the chance to reminisce. He retraced his youth playing AFL (Australian Football League), the highest level of Australian Rules football. As he mentioned, “It’s a tough, true Australian team sport. My Dad, my grandfather and my uncle all played it professionally. That was my dream to one day follow in their footsteps.” He spoke of his transition to tennis as a kid and the sound advise he received from his earliest coach, Peter Smith, who started working with Hewitt when the youngster was six.

Naturally, Hewitt soon sent some praise in the direction of Darren Cahill, the coach who boosted him immeasurably during the heart of his career. As Hewitt explained, “I had a few coaches during my career and I want to thank all those tour coaches, but especially Darren Cahill…. It wouldn’t be until the end of 98’ that I started traveling with Darren as my tour coach.  We had plenty of things in common, but the biggest thing was our family’s connection with AFL football, even though we absolutely hated each other’s AFL teams. But it was really special that I could win my first Grand Slam in singles and doubles and get to world No. 1 with my coach from my hometown of Adelaide, Darren Cahill.”

Hewitt was leaving no stone unturned as he reflected on years gone by, milestones met and people who inspired him along the way. One of them was Sweden’s dynamic Mats Wilander. As Hewitt said, “ I became known for my ‘c’mons’ on the court and my celebration sign. Not many people knew, but Mats was the one that started it. It was called the ‘vicht’. He did it from Sweden.”

https://twitter.com/TennisHalloFame/status/1548482648405790726

After lauding Davis Cup captains John Fitzgerald and Pat Rafter, he then offered some well deserved praise for Newcombe, who was so inspirational in a multitude of ways. “Thanks, Newk, for all of your support over the years, mate. I loved nothing more than going into battle with you.”

And it would not be long before Hewitt would let it be known just how critical a role Roche had played in his life. 

“I wouldn’t be receiving this honor if it wasn’t for this bloke,“ he said of Roche. “Rochey, mate, you mean so much to me that you made the effort to make the long trek over from Australia to be here with me today. I’ve been so fortunate to have you as a coach, mentor  and more importantly to call you a mate. What you’ve done for Australian tennis is second to none. In my opinion you are the greatest coach, but it’s the culture you’ve created through the Australian Davis Cup team that sets the tone for future Australian tennis. You’ve done it for decades now. We’ve been through a lot together, mate, on and off the court. We’ve helped each other through some really tough times and celebrated the great moments.”

Hewitt paid homage to many others, including his parents, wife and three kids, before concluding with this: “I want to thank all the past Hall of Famers for being here this weekend. It wouldn’t be the same if you guys weren’t here and I didn’t have people to look up to that had done it before me. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me, the whole buildup the last couple of years, but especially this weekend. I think it’s fitting for me to be inducted here in Newport at such a special place.”

Afterwards, a number of Hall of Famers from other classes assembled not far away from where the ceremony took place to pose for photographs together. Afterwards, a group of Hall of Famers including 1992 inductee Tracy Austin and 2017 honoree Andy Roddick circled around Hewitt and shared some congenial banter. I was delighted to be a part of that because I had never seen anything like it. As the sole Hall of Famer on the stage this year, Hewitt was deservedly showered with considerable affection and respect from those who had been there before him. They wanted to share their thoughts with him, and Hewitt was happy and humbled to hear what they had to say.

The next day, I made the three hour drive home with my wife, and found myself reflecting on what made Hewitt the champion he was. It started with his unshakable psyche and his towering qualities as a competitor. Another significant factor was his magnificent return of serve. Across the last fifty years— at least in my view— Djokovic’s return of serve has been the very best, with Jimmy Connors right behind him. But in my view Hewitt’s return must be regarded as the third best of the last half century. Some experts believe Rafael Nadal’s return of serve belongs up there with Djokovic and Connors, but I in my view Hewitt’s was better than the Spaniard’s.

Hewitt might have achieved even more if his career had not been plagued by so many injuries over his last ten years on the circuit. But the fact remains that Hewitt made the most of his opportunities and fought with astonishing ferocity to accomplish everything he did. He need not look back with any regrets. In the final analysis, Lleyton Hewitt was an exemplary professional, a fellow who never made excuses, a player who was as professional as anyone in his trade, and a man who landed fittingly in Newport to put a capstone on his sterling career. 

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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