Second-Line Players Save US Expedition To Australian Open - UBITENNIS
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Second-Line Players Save US Expedition To Australian Open

With American headliners falling in early rounds at the Australian Open, “journeyplayers” pick up the baton and step into the Melbourne lights

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The wise men in tennis say: “Keep working and results will come. You will have your time in the spotlight”. For a few of the American journeymen and journeywomen populating the tennis world, the time in the spotlight has arrived at this 2018 Australian Open, where US tennis has known one of its worst Majors in a long time. On opening day, the “stars and stripes” team went 3-12, with only Nicole Gibbs, Ryan Harrison and Mackenzie McDonald to survive the carnage. Day 2 went marginally better, but at 7-9 American players were still well below .500 and only three out of the six seeds advanced to the second round, with a few Top 70 players like Donaldson, Johnson and Bellis already on the way home before the tournament had even properly begun.

 

In the men’s draw, only Sam Querrey (#13) made it to the second round, while Jack Sock (#8) and John Isner (#16) both fell on their first match; amongst the ladies, 2017 Finalist Venus Williams (#5) went out to the up-and-returning Swiss Belinda Bencic in possibly the toughest first round she could face, while 2017 Australian Open (and US Open) semifinalist Coco Vandeweghe was routed in two sets by Hungarian Timea Babos and was fined $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct for an expletive-ridden outburst towards her opponent as well as a surreal tirade with the chair umpire regarding her rights to demand bananas readily available on court.

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It was therefore their time to shine time for the “peones”, those who normally sweat in the smaller tournament around the world, where you are lucky if there is a referee watching your matches and support facilities are a far cry from the spotless grandiosity of Grand Slam venues. Former NCAA champion MacKenzie McDonals, 22, ex-leader of the UCLA team and turned professional at the end of his junior year in 2016, came through qualifying, won his first-round match against Swedish hopeful Elias Ymer and engaged in a long battle with world n.3 Grigor Dimitrov, losing only 8-6 in the fifth after a 3 hours, 25 minutes battle. “Mackie” made a roaring debut on the ATP circuit in 2013, when as a skimpy 18-year-old high school graduate he received a wild card for the qualifying tournament at the Masters 1000 Western&Southern Open in Cincinnati where he defeated then-Top 100 Steve Johnson and Nicolas Mahut to make the main draw and lose 6-1 6-1 to Belgian David Goffin. After a successful college career with the Bruins team where he won the 2016 NCAA title in singles and doubles, McDonald turned pro in June 2016 and after the second round at the Australian Open he will climb in the ranking from the n.186 where he was the week before the tournament to around the 150-mark which will allow him to attempt some incursion into the ATP 250 qualification draws as opposed to the almost Challenger-only scheduling he has had to play so far.

Certainly less unknown but equally unseeded, Ryan Harrison has made a run to the third round in this year’s Australian Open with a 5-set win against Dudi Sela and upsetting seed n.31 Pablo Cuevas from Uruguay before falling to world n.6 Marin Cilic. A teenage sensation in the early years of this decade, Harrison established a few precocity records and took part to the 2012 Olympics in London with the US team before falling into a spiral that almost led him outside the Top 200. In 2016 he started his comeback with some good results during the North-American summer and, after proposing to long-time girlfriend Lauren McHale (sister to WTA player Christina McHale), in 2017 he set up his team with two part-time coaches, Italian ex-pro Davide Sanguinetti and USTA pro Peter Lucassen, winning his first ATP title in February in Memphis. In this 2018 he replaced Lucassen with former player Michael Russel and started the year with a final at the very well-attended ATP 250 Brisbane International and this third round at the Australian Open, projecting him within a few spots of his career-best ranking of 40.

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Quite new in his role of “LAMP” (Last American Male Player), Tennys Sandgren is the prototype of the Challenger animal populating the second-tier tournaments around the world and trying to make it to the big stages. His name has Swedish origin, his great-grandfather was from Sweden and he was named after him, and bears no relation to the sport he is playing. “It’s always a weird conversation – he says – I have come to terms with it, I have the mindset that every person I explain my name to is one less person I will have to explain it to in the future. But when I order a sandwich or a coffee I usually pick a normal name like ‘David’ or something like that, I really don’t want to get into the ‘your name is Tennys and you play tennis, how cool’ conversation more than I have to”. He just crept into the top-100 in October 2017 after his name (pun intended) came to the attention of the main tennis fan when he won the USTA Challenge to obtain a wildcard for the French Open (and the attached coveted first-round prize money) and then he repeated himself a few months later to get a wildcard for the US Open, too. In New York he was supposed to play Andy Murray on the first round, but the Scot pulled out and he played Marin Cilic instead on Arthur Ashe Stadium. “It was the biggest stage there is in tennis – he said after defeating Wawrinka on the second round – but this was definitely my biggest match and my biggest win”. After the 4-set win against Marterer that made him the “LAMP” for this Major, his thoughts went to his mother Lia, who coached him from the age of 5 until when he went to college. “She grew up in South Africa and didn’t play till she was in her early 30s. Picked it up, played little league tennis, got passionate about it. She’s a passionate person, when she kind of dives into something, it’s all in. My dad was a more serious player, but he wasn’t as invested in the tennis part. He enjoyed the game, he enjoyed playing. The way I played as a junior wasn’t necessarily out of enjoyment. I was a feisty, more negative version of what you see now. That was kind of a turnoff. My mom stuck it out with me, which I appreciate, she didn’t have to. She had to take a lot of nonsense from me, and she did, helping me grow and learn and improve”.
“I was homeschooled from the fourth grade onwards and I was coached by my mom. There’s a lot of time together. You could say that tensions would build up. We both are pretty stubborn, strong personality. We would butt heads. Ultimately, I wouldn’t change it. We have a great relationship. It worked out, for sure”.

On the women’s side, the medal for the American who has stepped into the limelight must surely go to Lauren Davis, the Cleveland girl who crept into the Top 30 last year but is now back down to n.76, who played an epic 3 hours, 44 minutes classic against world n.1 Simona Halep. Lauren had three consecutive match points when she was leading 11-10 in the final set, but she eventually lost 15-13. “Today I feel I have turned a corner because I showed myself what I’m capable of – said Davis after the match -Throughout my career I have always struggled with being so critical and being hard on myself. So I made a commitment to myself before this tournament that I’m going to be my own best friend and just my greatest supporter, and accept all that God has to give me. I think there is a ton of positives, looking at it, and I’m excited for what the future holds for sure.”

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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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