This year’s Australian Open has come to an end with Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki winning the singles titles. It has been a tournament that has attracted a record crown to Melbourne Park, but some of the issues raised by players are worth talking about further in 2018.
1) The scheduling of matches
The scheduling office at the Australian Open did not show a lot of love for women’s tennis. Out of the nine instances where the night session on Rod Laver Arena included a men’s and women’s match, the women went on last seven of those nine nights. When the women follow a best-of-five men’s match, the women often don’t take the court until at least 10 or 11pm. There’s not much energy for those matches in front of a mostly empty arena at that late of an hour. While the tournament tried to balance that by often scheduling the women first in the Margaret Court Area night sessions, any time where the women go on second can leave them without much of an atmosphere. Years ago it was customary for the women to always go on first. While it’s been a nice experiment to mix that up in the pursuit of equality, we should go back to the way it was as long as the men continue to play best of five. It’s also unfair that three of the four women’s quarterfinals are played during the day, as are both their semifinals. Scheduling the women on weekdays with sparser crowds, while the men get the prime time spotlight at night, is not fair. This was even more of a shame in a year where the women’s tournament was much more captivating than the men’s. I understand TV partners can have a lot of influence over such decisions, but it’s time for all parties involved to re-think the tournament’s scheduling.
2) The ATP calendar
Following his retirement from the tournament, Rafael Nadal had the following to say: "Somebody who is running the tour should think a little bit about what's going on. Too many people are getting injured. If we keep playing on this very, very hard surfaces what's going to happen in the future with our lives?" These comments come in the wake of other top male players such as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Milos Rainic continuing to struggle with injuries over the past six months. There's many changes the tour can consider to limit the damage to players' bodies, including decreasing the amount of hard court tournaments, as well as going to a best-of-three set format in at least the earlier rounds of the majors. Regardless of what the change is, it's clear the governing bodies need to consider the health of the players as a higher priority.
3) The hot weather
Speaking of the health of the players, this heat rule in Australia is ridiculous. Not only is the "wet bulb" standard confusing, but the standard required to close the roofs and halt play on outer courts is way too high. It's not fun to watch players suffer from the effects of the heat, which result in lower quality matches. It was highly uncomfortable to watch Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils play during one of the hottest days of the year, which is just one of many examples where a match suffered due to the heat. In addition, it's uncomfortable and unsafe for the fans. The modern game of baseline rallies is too grueling for such conditions. The Australian Open has three roofs – let’s make better use of them.
4) The grunting of players
The level of grunting/shrieking/screaming coming out of Aryna Sabalenka during her first round match against Ashleigh Barry was excruciating to listen to. It was an automatic use of the mute button, or even worse for the sport, a channel changer. It was so absurd that fans in the crowd began imitating it, to the point where the chair umpire had to ask they stop. The WTA has been saying for years that it would work to prevent this annoying form of gamesmanship at a younger age. But this 19-year-old is proof significant progress has not been made, and it's a shame: it drives fans away from tennis.
5) Changes to the draw
There was much talk during the tournament of how starting with next year’s Australian Open, majors will go back to only having 16 seeded players in the singles draws. Simon Cambers did an analysis here that’s well worth reading, regarding how the number of early round upsets decreased in the men’s singles draws after seedings were extended from 16 to 32 players. It’s appealing in that 16 seeds will result in more interesting matches during the first week of the majors, as players ranked 17-32 will no longer be protected from playing a seeded player before the third round. For example, at the Australian Open, 17th-seeded Nick Kyrgios could have drawn top seeded Rafael Nadal in the opening round. However, will we end up with worse matchups in the second week? If so, I’d argue this is not a positive change. I wonder if the major title counts of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic would be the same under the 16 seed format, and if their records will be harder to chase now.
6) The new clock
One innovation that was a welcome addition to the sport is the introduction of a countdown clock for the pre-match warm-ups. A clock on the scoreboard counts down one minute for players to walk onto court and report to the umpire at the net, followed by a five-minute warm-up. They’re then allowed just one minute to be ready to play the first point. It's a common sense change to speed up the time from when players walk onto court and when the first point is played. If players go over the allotted time, they receive a fine. Most fans likely didn't even notice this new rule, which makes me like it even more. Subtle changes like this for the sake of expediency and transparency are always welcome.
7) Zverev’s punishment
Mischa Zverev was fined $45,000 for what was deemed an unprofessional first round performance. A new rule allows players to still receive half their first round prize money if they withdraw prior to their match, and allows a healthy player to not only take their place in the draw, but also the other half of the first round prize money. This is a result of the large number of male retirements that happened in the first round of majors in recent years, as players not ready to compete at their best were not inclined to withdraw before the match as they would lose all their prize money. Yes, this punishment seems rather harsh in Zverev’s case, as Mischa is a player with a good reputation. He cited a viral illness as his reason for retiring during the second set, and perhaps he arrived to the court hoping to tough out the illness and give his all. But the clear message sent to players going forward is a good one: you’ll be better off financially if you withdraw rather than retire mid-match.
8) Talks of a union
Tennis is a sport filled with conflicts of interest, some more harmful than others. But it was still surprising to hear of Novak Djokovic’s unannounced closed-door meeting with the ATP Player Council. As the Daily Mail first reported, Djokovic asked for non-players to leave the room, and then spoke for close to an hour about the need for a players’ union. The ATP is a governing body that represents both players and tournaments, and there is speculation amongst players that they are not getting their fair share of increased revenues from the tournaments. There was even speculation regarding a potential boycott of next year’s Australian Open, but Djokovic played down that talk when speaking to the media. This may be the biggest tennis story to follow as 2018 progresses.
9) Halep’s heroics
If tennis gods exist, they really owe Simona Halep a break. Following a tortuous 2017 Grand Slam season, her 2018 Australian Open was just downright cruel. After saving match points in multiple matches that went passed 6-6 in the third set, she was just two games away from winning her first major title before losing the last three games of the women’s final to Caroline Wozniacki. Halep complained of feeling faint at times during the final, and was later taken to a hospital for treatment of dehydration symptoms. Considering the long matches she played in the hot temperatures, it’s no wonder. It was so refreshing to see a first-time WTA number one so valiantly fight for their first Grand Slam title following their ascent to the top of the rankings: too many recent new number ones have immediately faded after achieving that honor. Karma owes Halep a few good draws at upcoming majors.
10) Federer’s legacy
As tennis fans, we are really lucky to be able to see this record-breaking men’s era, featuring such likeable players that are not afraid to share their emotions with us. Watching Roger Federer’s twentieth major victory was special enough. But his emotional post-match speech, followed by extended applause as tears ran down his face, was just a great moment in sports. The 36-year-old still loves the game so much, and we should embrace every last tournament where a uniquely talented champion with such character is present. Federer, as well as the other veteran champions like him, will not be easily replaced when they retire.
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
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
Why Are So Many Tennis Players Skipping The Olympics?
It isn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic which are putting players playing off going.
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.
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
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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