For Girls’ Champion Lea Antonoplis – Memories Remain Strong After Forty-One Years - UBITENNIS
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For Girls’ Champion Lea Antonoplis – Memories Remain Strong After Forty-One Years

Lea Antonoplis returned to Wimbledon, with her husband, Ken Inouye and their daughter, Kristina, over four decades after winning the Junior Girls’ championship…

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Looking back at the events that took place forty-one years ago, one thing is abundantly clear – the world was dramatically different. In 1977, Jimmy Carter became the US President. Soon after taking office, he pardoned those who had opted out of the Vietnam War by avoiding the draft. In the Middle East, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel, meeting with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The home computer became a reality. The same year, optical fiber was used to transmit television programs for the first time.

 

In the world of music, the Supremes performed their last concert in London and so did Elvis Presley, but in Indianapolis, Indiana before dying at his Graceland mansion, later in the year, at the age of forty-two. Led Zeppelin set a record when 76,229 spectators attended the group’s concert at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan.

At the All England Lawn & Tennis Club, Virginia Wade put on a record-setting performance in 1977. She established a standard that has yet to be surpassed. Nine days before her thirty-second birthday she defeated Betty Stöve of the Netherlands, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 to win the Ladies’ singles title in the Centenary Year of The Championships. She was the last British woman to loft the Venus Rosewater Dish.

Forty-one years ago, Lea Antonoplis (now Lea Inouye) also put her name in the Wimbledon record book. The 18-year-old from Glendora, California, was a last-minute addition to the draw. Yet, she played her way to the Girls’ singles title, downing fellow American, Mareen “Peanut” Louie, 7-5, 6-1 in the final.

The semifinals was a test for both youngsters. Antonoplis edged Anne Smith, the US talent who had won the Roland Garros’ Junior Girls’ title, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. Louie was extended to three sets before defeating Sylvia Hanika of Germany, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. (In a historically significant quarterfinal victory, Antonoplis routed Claudia Casabianca of Argentina, a player with one of the game’s most theatrical names, 6-2, 6-2. In September, Casabianca would go on to win the US Open Girls’ Junior championship,)

Antonoplis, an athletic serve and volleyer, was the “Greek Freak” (at 5’5”) before the moniker was bestowed on the 6’ 11’ Giannis Antetokounmpo of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. Blessed with an effervescent personality and an ever-present grin, she had uncanny quickness and hands as skilled as a surgeon’s. Her fiery, bold skill set was highlighted by an ability to play superbly with the Wilson T2000, a racquet that very few players – other than Jimmy Connors – could use to their advantage.

She remembered, “I started playing with the T2000 in late 1975 and used it at both my Junior Wimbledons. It was very heavy (compared to today’s racquets) and powerful.  Since I was a serve and volleyer and a pretty flat hitter, it added power to my strokes. It was definitely a big help on the grass.”

Commenting on her good fortune to slip into the 1977 Wimbledon Junior Girls’ championship, she admitted, “I almost didn’t play. I was the first alternate on the US Junior Team. Peanut (Louie) and Anne (Smith) were chosen to play.  So, the first week of Wimbledon, I played the Ladies’ tournament and got to the fourth -round and lost to Sue Barker in straight sets. I had a great tournament.  But, on the middle Saturday, I was told a player had dropped out and I could play Junior Wimbledon. I moved to the dorms just like the year before. I still had no family with me and no coach to help out.  But, once I got into Junior Wimbledon, Sue Bodnar, a lady that I housed with during the Easter Bowl, (when it was played in New York), decided to fly over and watch.”  

As Frank Sinatra sang in his epic hit song “Young at Heart” – “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you… If you’re young at heart…”

Always young at heart, Antonoplis played The Championships for the first time a year earlier. “In 1976, I went alone to Wimbledon – No family, no coach, no close friend,” she said. “My family couldn’t afford to go, so they just put me on the plane.  Mike Meissenburg, a close friend who I had known since I was twelve, had played the summer circuit in the England, and told me about a place to stay. It was a B&B – the Beaver Hotel – in Earl’s Court near the Queen’s Club. It was great because I could be near the practice courts and the tube. It was also a place I could afford. I stayed there until the end of the first week and then I moved to the dorms where they were housing the Junior Wimbledon players.

“Since my first Wimbledon was a little intimidating and overwhelming, I can’t say I remember that much about playing Natasha (Chmyreva of Russia).  I do recall that she was physically imposing and had gotten to the fourth-round in the Ladies’ tournament, so I didn’t think I could win our quarterfinal match. We played on the court in front of the big clock and it was packed, because she was a big deal and I had made a name for myself by getting to the third-round of the Ladies’. Many people thought it would be a good match.” 

The Russian won, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2, but the result really belies Antonoplis’ “it was pretty good” comment.  She continued, “It was hard to break her serve, it was just like my match with Martina (Navratilova) in the Ladies’ event. Two matches later, Natasha won Junior Wimbledon for the second year in a row. That final was the last match she ever played at Wimbledon. I never got to know her because they kept Natasha pretty secluded. This was right after Martina had defected and the Russians clamped down on Natasha. She stopped playing in 1978.”

(An aside is needed because most tennis fans have no idea who Natalia “Natasha” Chmyreva is or how extraordinarily talented she was.  In 2014, Natalia Bykanova, an outstanding Russian tennis journalist and a long-time personal friend, wrote a detailed story about Chmyreva titled “The Champion That Tennis Lost.”  In it she describes how a one-of-a-kind talent, whose career came to an end after reaching No. 13 in the world as a teenager, was literally brought to “heel” by the old Soviet system. It is a must read – http://tennis-buzz.com/tag/natalia-chmyreva/)

As mentioned, Antonoplis made “a name for herself” when she lost to Martina Navratilova 6-1, 6-4 in the third round of the Ladies’ competition at Wimbledon. “Martina was always a gracious person and I got to know her as a player and later, I worked with her when I was on the WTA board,” the former Junior Girls’ Wimbledon winner said. “Since it was so hard to break Martina’s serve, playing her was about holding your own serve.  If you didn’t serve well and didn’t get into the net, you couldn’t win. For me, playing Martina was ‘who could get to the net first?’ She had a bigger serve than me and was quicker, so my odds of winning, like everyone else’s, were low.”

Her Wimbledon success made 1976 very special, but there was more to come. “I came home and because I wasn’t a pro or a member of the WTA, I played all the summer junior tournaments,” Antonoplis recounted. “Since I was already in the US Open singles, I needed to play a warm-up tournament and I decided to go to the Tennis Week Open in Orange, New Jersey. Most of the players boycotted (the event) because Renée Richards had entered. A lot of low ranked pros and juniors played.  No one in the Top 50 for sure.  But, the press was there in force.  I got to the semis and that is when I played Renée.”

The 17-year-old triumphed 6-7, 6-3, 6-0.  Looking back on the encounter, Antonoplis said, “I can still remember playing that match like it was yesterday. She was so nice. There was no way to think of her as a villain, like the press was making her out to be (and the WTA was too).  She was so soft spoken and intelligent.  I never felt nervous about playing her, plus after watching her matches, I knew I could win.  After I did, the WTA and the press started changing the narrative.  They said that if a junior could beat her, then Martina and Chris (Evert) could for sure. Then, they let her into the US Open a few weeks later.  She was well liked by almost everyone, and I credit her for raising the awareness of women’s tennis that needed a boost at that point to move forward.”

Though Marise Kruger of South Africa defeated her 6-3, 6-2 in the singles final, Antonoplis, besides admitting that she is still in touch with Richards, added, “I must say that was the most incredible summer of my tennis career.” 

Having drawn attention at The Championships, the year before, her “she’s a player with a future” creds were validated when she reached the fourth-round in Ladies’ play, losing to Sue Barker of Great Britain at Wimbledon in 1977.

“When I got into the tournament, the adidas representative, (Claus Marten), came to me and asked if I thought I could win Junior Wimbledon and I said, ‘Yes’,” Antonoplis recalled. “So, I was given outfits to wear for the whole tournament. I never before had a clothing sponsor. It was super cool to be a kid and get that much stuff – clothing, shoes, bags, sweats, everything. It sounds funny today with all that players are given at such a young age, but it was really big then.”

Playing for a championship, as prestigious as Wimbledon, can be both exciting and nerve-racking. “Before our final, Peanut and I were moved to the Center Court waiting room before going to play on Court 1,” Antonoplis said. “Virginia Wade and Betty Stöve were also in the waiting room. It was amazing to see how nervous Virginia, who was about to play the biggest match in British history, was.  There was a Ficus tree in the room and she was pulling off the leaves as she paced around. I was just amazed to be in there with them.”

Inspired by “the act of adidas believing in me” and having Claus (Marten) and Sue (Bodnar) watching, Antonoplis was on a mission. “I really wanted to win for them,” she said. “We played next to Centre Court and it was really noisy with every point Virginia won. We finished about twenty-minutes before they ended, and I got to see the last game and watch everyone sing ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.’ The Queen, who was celebrating her Silver Jubilee, and Margaret Thatcher were there.  It was one of the more memorable moments I have ever seen at Wimbledon.  That day was one of the greatest of my life.”

(Tennis administrators are a breed unto themselves. This was very apparent in 1977 when the USTA selected Louie and Smith to play the Wimbledon Girls’ tournament and made Antonoplis a US alternate though she was higher ranked than they were and would finish the year as the No. 1 junior in the world.)

Thatcher is part of another recollection. “I remember being picked up (for the Ladies’ tournament) by the Wimbledon transportation service,” Antonoplis said. “Everyone around my B&B (the Beaver Hotel) was amazed.  At that time, the cars dropped you off right in front of the steps that lead to Centre Court entrance. I felt like a queen because all the fans watched to see who would get out of each car.  In 1977, I was in a car coming into the grounds and there was a Bentley in front of us.  Margaret Thatcher got out and stood on the steps for a minute.  I got out and was right next to her for fifteen seconds.  That couldn’t happen today.”

Analyzing her career, she offered, “I think I played my best tennis from 1976 to 1985.  After that, I had ‘off and on’ injuries that made it hard to stay in shape.  I was a serve and volleyer, with a good backhand. As I lost foot speed with age and injuries, my singles game dropped off and I played a lot of doubles with a lot of success. I made it to the WTA Championships in New York one year and was seeded at the Grand Slams.  I played with Barbara Jordan mostly.”

After playing intercollegiate tennis at USC, she became a regular on the pro tour. Following her retirement, she spent a couple of years coaching Alycia May, (a talented junior from Beverly Hills, California, who competed at UCLA for season, before joining the professional ranks). When May stopped playing, after two years, Antonoplis was approached about becoming the Head Professional at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. She took the job, and the rest is history…

“I taught at lot of people including Hollywood movies stars and million-dollar financial advisors,” she said. “After two years, I wanted to make a change and one of the financial advisors offered me a job. I took it and have been a financial advisor for twenty-four years. I always loved studying the stock market. As a teenager, I would spend a lot of time reading about companies and investing.  I started buying my first stocks when I was 18-years-old. I still enjoy it today. I think having to make quick and educated decisions while playing tennis gave me confidence to help others decide on their investments.  I trust my instincts and my research. Tennis gave me the confidence to do that.

“This Wimbledon will be the first time I have come to the tournament since I retired in 1989.  I played singles, doubles, or both from 1976 to 1989.  So, it’s forty-one years since I won Junior Wimbledon and twenty-nine years since I last attended the tournament, and I am really looking forward to it.”

Additional Wimbledon memories are sure to ensue as Lea Antonoplis Inouye, shares her “look back” adventure with her husband, Ken and daughter, Kristina.

A visit to The Championships is guaranteed to do that.

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ATP To Make Changes To Toilet Break And Medical Time-Out Rules Ahead Of 2022 Season

Rule changes on toilet breaks and medical time-outs are set to be implemented before the start of the 2022 season.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas (@ToiSports - Twitter)

The ATP are set to make changes to the rules around toilet breaks and medical time-outs ahead of the 2022 season.

 

The issue of toilet breaks and medical time-outs has been long a discussion in tennis with players often accused of using the lenient rule concerning these two topics to gain an advantage using gamesmanship.

More recently this issue has flared up with Stefanos Tsitsipas accused of using eight minute toilet breaks to take the momentum away from his opponent just like he did against Andy Murray at the US Open.

The Greek has often denied that he has done it for those reasons and says he has not broken any rules.

However that might be about to change as an ATP source has told Reuters that there are discussions to change these rules next year, “There will be a change to the rules for bathroom breaks and on-court medical timeouts as well,” an ATP source told Reuters.

“I hope that before the next season begins in January, we will have a stricter rule when it comes to toilet breaks and medical timeouts. I think it’s getting to the point where it’s definitely becoming a big issue. It’s been an issue for a long time but we are taking quite a serious approach now to try and change it.”

Players such as Sloane Stephens and Alexander Zverev have also spoken out against the gamesmanship surrounding toilet breaks and medical time-outs.

Although Tsitsipas did get some support from world number one Novak Djokovic who doesn’t believe the Greek deserved the criticism that he got, “I’ve got to stand for Stefanos Tsitsipas,” Djokovic told reporters at the US Open.

“I don’t think he’s doing anything wrong. I support him. The rule is not clear. Of course you can argue it’s all relative, everyone sees it differently. This was a hot topic last couple of weeks. I think he didn’t deserve that much attacks that he was getting in the media from everyone.”

Changes are hoping to be made before the Australian Open in January which starts on the 17th of January.

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US Open, Medvedev Finds His Spot among the Greats, but Djokovic Is Not Done Winning Yet

The Russian can become a threat on every surface. The world N.1 couldn’t find his best game to clinch the Grand Slam, but won over the crowd like never before

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The cognoscenti of tennis have been waiting for a couple of years for Daniil Medvedev to place his name among the game’s elite performers as a champion at a Grand Slam event. Medvedev has been on the verge of this accomplishment for quite some time. Through the summer of 2019 and on into the fall, he made immense strides as a player of the front rank. In that span, he made it to the final of all six tournaments he played. Most importantly, he moved agonizingly close to establishing himself as the U.S. Open champion. Confronting none other than Rafael Nadal, Medvedev was down two sets to love and trailing by a service break in the third set but, stupendously, he nearly won that match and claimed that title.

 

Medvedev pushed Nadal into a harrowing five setter that stretched from late afternoon well into the evening. He even battled back from two breaks down in the fifth set and saved two match points before Nadal held on from 30-40 in the last game of a compelling contest to win 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. Medvedev had concluded 2018 stationed at No. 16 in the world but his stirring surge in 2019 enabled this estimable individual to reach No. 5.

The 6’6” Russian continued along his ascendant path in a stellar 2020 campaign. He made another spirited run at the U.S. Open crown, sweeping into the semifinals without the loss of a set before losing to an inspired Dominic Thiem. Undismayed by that setback, Medvedev was invincible at the end of 2020, capturing back-to-back titles as the Masters 1000 event in Paris and the year-end ATP Finals at London, where he went undefeated in the round robin event. Moreover, he ousted the top three seeds in that tournament—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem—and that was an unprecedented feat.

In that spectacular span of two tournaments and ten match victories in a row, Medvedev accounted for no fewer than seven wins over top ten players. By the time Medvedev reached his second Grand Slam tournament final at the start of this season, he had raised his total to 20 matches in a row. Many authorities believed Medvedev would make his breakthrough on that Melbourne stage and take his place as a major champion, thus underlining his authenticity.

But Djokovic denied Medvedev that prestigious prize, playing a masterful strategic match and executing it to the hilt, winning a ninth Australian Open with a comprehensive 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 triumph.

That setback took more than a little wind out of Medvedev’s sails. He did make some amends that could be construed as positive steps. Arriving at Roland Garros with a career match record of 0-4, Medvedev found some confidence on the red clay and went to the quarterfinals but, much to his chagrin, he was soundly beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals of the French Open. Medvedev had toppled Tsitsipas in six of the seven head-to-head battles they had fought up until Roland Garros, so that setback had to be stinging.

On to Wimbledon went Medvedev, and once more he reached the fourth round of a Major. But he let a two-sets-to-one lead against Hubert Hurkacz still from his grasp in a two day meeting, falling in five sets. And yet, Medvedev did recover his form over the summer when he won the Masters 1000 title in Canada.

And so he came into the U.S. Open as the No. 2 seed, quietly confident and cautiously optimistic, a man on a mission. Medvedev took advantage of a favorable draw. He did not drop a set prior to the quarterfinals, but did struggle slightly against the Dutch qualifier Botic Van de Zandschulp before winning 7-5 in the fourth set. But then he took apart No. 12 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets.

That win over the athletic Canadian took Medvedev into his third major final and his second in New York. To most avid tennis observers, it was a fitting way to settle the outcome of the last major in 2021 when it all came down to Medvedev against a man on an ineffable historical quest named Novak Djokovic.

The world No. 1 was coping with the kind of pressure that only a fellow of his extraordinary stature could possibly understand. Once he had captured his second French Open in June to put himself half-way to a Grand Slam, Djokovic had his mind fixated on that lofty goal. He went to Wimbledon not simply to win the world’s premier tennis tournament but to garner a third major in a row and go to New York in search of the last piece in the puzzle. No one in men’s tennis since Rod Laver secured his second Grand Slam in 1969 had taken the first three majors of the season to land in such lofty territory—one tournament away from a Grand Slam.

Surely Djokovic was informed by media figures and fellow players that only five players had ever taken all four major tournaments in a single year to win the Grand Slam. The first time it was done was in 1938, when the Californian Don Budge—owner of perhaps the best backhand tennis has ever witnessed—pulled off the remarkable feat. Maureen Connolly was next on the list in 1953, succeeding largely because her ground strokes were the best in the women’s game and her footwork was exemplary. The left-handed Laver—an incomparable Australian shotmaker— took his first Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur and his second as a professional seven years later.

Next up was another Australian stalwart. Margaret Smith Court—a magnificent attacking player— realized her dream of the Grand Slam in 1970. Eighteen years later, it was Steffi Graf’s turn. The German with fast feet and explosive forehand was unbeatable at the Grand Slam tournaments in 1988.

So there you have it. No one since Graf has won the Grand Slam, proof of what a difficult task it is for both the men and the women. Keep in mind as well that some of the sport’s most luminous figures have never come close. To be sure, Roger Federer celebrated three seasons (2004, 2006 and 2007) when he was victorious at three of the four majors, but he never made it even half-way to a Grand Slam because he was unable to come through at Roland Garros in those years. The one year he won the French Open (2009) he had already lost to Nadal in the Australian Open final.

Nadal won the last three majors of 2010 in Paris, London and New York but he had been beaten at the Australian Open in the first one. The only time Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009, he suffered his first loss at Roland Garros against Robin Soderling and the Grand Slam chance was gone. Djokovic himself managed to sweep four majors in a row from Wimbledon of 2015 through Roland Garros of 2016. That meant he was actually half-way to a Grand Slam in 2016 but he lost in the third round of Wimbledon to Sam Querrey so that opportunity evaporated.

Meanwhile, a small cast of players has won the first three majors of the year to stand within striking distance of a Grand Slam. The first one was Jack Crawford of Australia in 1933. He took the first three and then was in the final of Forest Hills at the U.S. Championships. He was only one set away from the Grand Slam but lost to the gifted Englishman Fred Perry. Similarly, the Australian dynamo Lew Hoad was also one match away from a Grand Slam in 1956 but his countryman Ken Rosewall knocked off Hoad in the Forest Hills final. And then in 1984, Martina Navratilova was the champion at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. At that time the Australian Open was the last major fo the season, and Navratilova was beaten in Melbourne by Helena Sukova in the semifinals.

And so Djokovic was surrounded by all of these historical facts as he came to the U.S. Open this year. The 34-year-old was seeking to establish himself as the oldest player ever to win a Grand Slam, and he navigated his draw well across an arduous fortnight in New York. At the U.S. Open, his anxiety was evident all the way through the tournament but time and again Djokovic overcome his difficulties and raised his game when he needed to.

In the first round he went into a tailspin in the second set against Danish qualifier Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune but romped in the end 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-1 as the teenager suffered with cramps. The Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor faced Djokovic in the second round and the top seed granted his adversary only seven games across three sets. 2014 U.S Open finalist Kei Nishikori took the first set from Djokovic before the Serbian beat him for the 17th time in a row 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. In the round of 16, the young American wildcard Jack Brooksby came out with deep intensity and Djokovic was unsettled, but the 34-year-old found his range in the second set and never lost it, winning 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

Now in the quarterfinals Djokovic was pitted against the No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini. The flamboyant Italian had lost to Djokovic in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and again in the final at Wimbledon. Now Djokovic prevailed for the third time in a row against the big server 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

So the stage was set for Djokovic to play No. 4 seed Sascha Zverev, who was on a rampage. Zverev had won 16 matches in a row heading into his appointment with Djokovic, taking the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo and then winning the Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati. In Tokyo, Zverev rallied from a set and a break down at 6-1, 3-2 but swept eight games in a row and ten of the last eleven to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-1.

But in New York, Djokovic played his best match of the tournament, turning the tables on the German. Djokovic rallied ferociously again to gain a pulsating five set triumph over Zverev 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 in three hours and 34 minutes. In the fifth set of that scintillating encounter under the lights, Djokovic collected 24 of 30 points to open up a 5-0 lead. Although Zverev pridefully won the next two games, Djokovic finished it off with a third service break of the set in the eighth game.

Many of us expected Djokovic to repeat his Australian Open final round win over Medvedev in New York. No one was taking Medvedev lightly or assuming he would not put up the toughest possible fight. But Djokovic’s big match prowess and his vast experience on the premier stages was paramount in the minds of many experts. This was, after all, his 31st Major final, a record number he shares with Federer. Moreover, Djokovic has grown immeasurably across the years as a player who knows how to bring out his best on the biggest occasions.

He had won 12 of his previous 14 finals at the Grand Slam events heading into this U.S. Open.  Djokovic’s record was once 6-7 in the middle of 2014, but he then won 14 of 17 to put him at 20-10 in his career leading up to Flushing Meadows. That success rate made him the favorite at the Open to win a record 21st Major crown as well as realizing the most demanding goal of his career—a Grand Slam sweep of all four majors.

But it was apparent from the outset of his duel with the 25-year-old Russian that Djokovic was nowhere near the level he needed to be physically, mentally or emotionally. The first ominous sign was in the opening game of the match. Djokovic led 40-15 but he was coaxed into four consecutive errors and thus lost his serve immediately. Medvedev was clearly buoyed by that beginning, holding his serve at 15 for 2-0 with two aces. Djokovic then fell into a 15-40 hole by making his eighth unforced error of the young match. Although he won four points in a row and finished off that third game with two aces, Djokovic had not commenced this contest with the standard he needed to meet the moment.

Medvedev required only 47 seconds to hold for 3-1 by virtue of two aces, a service winner and a forehand winner. In his next three service games, Medvedev conceded only two points. Djokovic was not reading that serve at all and was slow to react whenever he did. Medvedev captured that set confidently, 6-4.

It was early in the second set that Djokovic found some openings that might have altered the course of the match had he exploited them. He reached 0-40 on the Medvedev serve but steered a forehand retrieve of a drop shot and was passed down the line off the forehand by the Russian. Medvedev released an ace for 30-40 and then Djokovic botched a backhand slice, sending that shot into the net. He was infuriated. Medvedev held on crucially for 1-1 with an ace followed by a service winner.

Djokovic saved a break point on his way to a 2-1 lead and then had two more break points in the fourth game, but Medvedev produced a low forehand drop volley that drew an errant forehand pass from the Serbian, and then saved the second break point with a backhand down the line deep into the corner that Djokovic could not answer. Medvedev made it to 2-2, broke Djokovic in the fifth game as the top seed put only one of six first serves in play, and then the Russian conceded only two points in his last three service games to wrap up the set 6-4.

Djokovic was clearly despondent. He was not simply below par as he would say later; he was way off his game in every respect. Medvedev rolled to 4-0 in the third and soon moved to 5-1. The capacity crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium was filled with Djokovic fans cheering him on vociferously, but they had little to shout about for most of the proceedings. Djokovic held on in the seventh game. Medvedev had a match point at 5-2 but served a double fault at 120 MPH into the net as the crowd callously applauded his mistake. He then served another double fault and Djokovic went on to break. When Djokovic held easily in the ninth game, the crowd’s applause for a man they had seldom supported was astonishing and much appreciated by the world’s best tennis player.

Djokovic shed tears into his towel at the changeover. Medvedev then served for the match a second time and released another double fault at 40-15. No one knew it then, but the Russian was fighting cramps, a fact he hid awfully well from his opponent and the audience. At 40-30 his first serve was good enough to force Djokovic to miss the return, and so Medvedev averted a potential crisis to defeat his rival for the fourth time in nine career clashes 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

Medvedev had handled the occasion remarkably well and had tuned out the crowd with great discipline. For Djokovic the situation must have been both maddening and saddening. To have an audience so fervently behind him at one of the Majors is something he has rarely if ever experienced. But he struggled inordinately to find anything even resembling his best tennis. He approached the net 47 times in the three sets and won 31 of those points. He played serve-and-volley surprisingly well, taking advantage of Medvedev’s court positioning so far behind the baseline for his returns.

But Djokovic had neither the patience, the physicality or the inclination to stay back and grind with Medvedev the way he always has done. His legs were too weary, and his mind was cluttered. In the end he played into Medvedev’s hands. The Russian is among the most astute players in the sport to read the map of a match and adjust his strategy. Medvedevs’ shot selection, variation of speed and pace, and capacity to make Djokovic uncomfortable were first rate. Medvedev knew full well he was not playing the essential Djokovic, but he was performing in front of an antagonistic crowd and trying to pull off a first Major title. Those were not easy circumstances but Medvedev was able to deal with it ably. Medvedev did everything that was asked of him and more. He was thoroughly professional.

When it was over, Djokovic was very gracious and unwilling to drown himself in a sea of self pity. He lauded Medvedev and refused to make any excuses for his sixth defeat in nine U.S. Open finals against five different opponents.

There will never be another opportunity like this for Djokovic. He admirably put himself three sets away from the first men’s Grand Slam in 52 years. That can hardly be portrayed as a failure. Losing in New York will only make Djokovic more motivated for 2021 and the pursuit of a 21st Major title in Melbourne that would enable him to stand alone at the top of the list for most men’s majors and separate him from his co-leaders Federer and Nadal. He will turn 35 in May but Djokovic remains very young for his age. To be sure, he looked much older against Medvedev, but that was circumstantial. He has a lot of winning left to do.

As for Medvedev, this triumph at the U.S. Open should lead to many more landmark victories. Over the next seven years, he should be good for at least five or six more majors, and perhaps a larger number than that. The key to where he ends up will depend to a large extent on his adaptability. Medvedev has proven irrefutably that he is a prodigious hardcourt player and that will put him in good stead at both Melbourne and New York year after year. But can he demonstrate a larger self-belief on grass and clay courts?

To be sure, he did well this year with his quarterfinal appearances at Roland Garros. But he will need to prove that he can do more damage than that on the red clay of Paris and the lawns at the All England Club. Had he finished off Hurkacz this year in London, Medvedev would have almost surely made the final and played Djokovic there. Had he managed to overcome Tsitsipas in Paris, he might have gone to the final there.

The view here is that Medvedev will make inroads on the other surfaces and be a threat everywhere in the years ahead. The 2021 U.S. Open was a launching pad for a competitor with a wide range of goals and deep determination. He will often be going to other lofty destinations in 2021 and beyond.

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Editorial

EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players

The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.

 

The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.

“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.

“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”

In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.  

The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.

“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.

“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”

Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.

Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.  

“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.

“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”

The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready. 

Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.

There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”

The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013. 

“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue.  I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis. 

The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.

Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.

More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.

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