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Mixed Messages Over Social Justice Leaves Question Marks Over Tennis Unity

Naomi Osaka lead the charge for social justice but tennis’ mixed messages seem to raise more questions than answers.

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Naomi Osaka (@BleacherReport - Twitter)

Recent mixed messages over social justice in tennis have left more questions than answers in regards to tennis’ call for unity.

 

It was on Thursday, where the sporting world made their stance clear in regards to how important social justice and inequality is.

First the Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA boycotted a few days of play after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, 35 minutes away from where the Bucks play.

Then baseball and other major American sports organisations made their stance clear by following the NBA’s example.

Finally we get to tennis, where Naomi Osaka decided to boycott her Western and Southern Open semi-final as her and Coco Gauff have refused to remain silent on how important social justice is and sharing the message that black people’s lives do indeed matter.

What followed was beyond Osaka’s wildest dreams as the ATP and WTA united in joining the world number 10’s boycott and paused play for the day.

It was an unexpected and a perfect scenario for Osaka as she said after her eventual semi-final win yesterday over Elise Mertens, “I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. Then I got a call from Steve Simon and he said he was really supportive.,” Osaka was quoted as saying by Courtney Nguyen.

“My one thing I didn’t want people to blame me for the one day break if it messed up their schedule. But everyone I talked to was really supportive.”

This was now Tennis’ chance to lead by example and show the world that tennis is taking social justice seriously. The US Open followed by showing a video of the importance of black tennis players in the past.

However Tennis’ united stance did not last long as during yesterday’s press conferences with Naomi Osaka, Elise Mertens and Victoria Azarenka, WTA’s moderator reiterated that questions should stick with tennis.

A disappointing setback, with that same tone seem to be missing when other issues have been brought up in previous press conferences such as the Belarus protests.

In addition, Victoria Azarenka refused to answer the question about tennis’ pause to celebrate social justice with also there being speculation that the male tennis players were not best pleased that tennis was paused for a day without their consultation.

This latest obstacle shows that tennis is more divided than ever before with Naomi Osaka’s hopes of long-term longevity fading pretty quickly.

Now ahead of Novak Djokovic’s and Vasek Posipisil’s players association, that may not include women, there seems to be no united way forward.

A few months ago Roger Federer’s idea of an ATP-WTA merger received a positive reaction from WTA’s players as they looked to negotiate equal pay at all events amongst other potential obstacles ahead of a big move in tennis.

Now, ahead of the US Open, the players and tennis governing bodies seem more split than before on tennis’s direction on the future of the sport and it’s position on social issues.

Naomi Osaka made her voice known on Thursday through her actions and was hoping that her colleagues would back her up for the long term.

Her colleagues supported her through their words but not through their actions. Now tennis has more problems to solve and more questions to answer.

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Internazionali d’Italia Day 4 Preview: The Men’s & Women’s Match of the Day

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Court Pietrangeli at Foro Italico (internazionalibnlditalia.com)

On Thursday in Rome, the prevailing theme will be established veterans taking on the new generation.

 

A trio of two-time Major champions will face three of the WTA’s most impressive young talents: an American teenager who was tennis’ breakout star last summer, a 24-year-old who already has 23 wins in this abbreviated season, and a 21-year-old who was the shocking winner of this year’s Australian Open.  On the men’s side, 30-somethings Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils, and Fabio Fognini will all battle opposition approximately a decade their junior.  What will win out on Thursday: experience, or youth?

Sofia Kenin (3) vs. Victoria Azarenka (SE)

In their only prior encounter, youth prevailed.  18 months ago in Acapulco, Kenin pulled out one of the most significant wins of her burgeoning career, 7-5 in the third.  But this is a very different Azarenka that Kenin faces today.  After years of injuries, personal setbacks, and tough draws, Vika is back in a big way.  Following four consecutive losses prior to last month’s Western & Southern Open, Azarenka is now on a 12-1 run.  Once she got a few wins under her sails, the floodgates have opened.  While Kenin is rarely an easy out, she also doesn’t possess any significant weapons to contain a reborn Azarenka, who remains one of the game’s best returners.  The two-time Australian Open champion should be favored to overcome Melbourne’s most recent victor.

Kei Nishikori vs. Lorenzo Musetti (Q)

Musetti has a lot of the tennis world talking after his startling upset of Stan Wawrinka on Tuesday night.  Lorenzo, the 249th-ranked player in the world, was the junior champion of the Australian in 2019.  Two evenings ago, he dominantly took the first set from Wawrinka 6-0.  But even more impressively, he did not fold after donating a second-set lead, persevering to complete the win in straights.  His one-handed backhand is a thing of beauty, and his composure is noteworthy.  Is Italy’s new star ready to dismiss another top name?  Kei Nishikori missed a year of action due to an elbow injury and the pandemic, and is 1-1 since returning.  Nishikori certainly has a solid clay resume, but he’s currently far from his best.  In a week where Italian men have exceled, another Roman conquering is not out of the question.

Other Notable Matches on Day 4:

Garbine Muguruza (9) vs. Coco Gauff.  Coco routed an in-form One Jabeur in the last round, while Muguruza comfortably excused another American, Sloane Stephens.

Anett Kontaveit (14) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Their only previous meeting occurred in Rome two years ago, with Kontaveit winning after two tight sets.

In his first match since February, Gael Monfils (5) vs. Dominik Koepfer (Q), who upset Alex de Minaur in a third set tiebreak on Tuesday.

Fabio Fognini (7) vs. Ugo Humbert.  The 22-year-old Frenchman won his first ATP title earlier this year in Auckland.  Fognini has only once reached the quarterfinals in twelve past appearances at his country’s biggest tournament.

In a rematch of a dramatic fourth round match from 11 days ago at the US Open, Petra Martic (8) vs. Yulia Putintseva.

And in a battle between two rising ATP prospects, Andrey Rublev (9) vs. Hubert Hurkacz.

Full order of play is here.

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Internazionali d’Italia Day 3 Preview: The Men’s & Women’s Match of the Day

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The Grand Stand at Foro Italico (internazionalibnlditalia.com)

The favorites to win this event will play their first singles matches on a busy Wednesday in Rome.

 

For defending champion Rafael Nadal, this will be his first match in over six months, against a fellow Spaniard who reached the semifinals of last week’s US Open.  And this is the first time we see Novak Djokovic on court since he was defaulted two Sundays ago for hitting a lineswoman in the throat with the tennis ball.  On the women’s side, top seed Simona Halep arrives on a nine-match winning streak.  She was the champion in Dubai back in February and in Prague last month.  Simona is joined today by recent Rome champions Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina.  But the day’s most marquee women’s matchup features the US Open runner-up against the last player to beat her prior to that run in New York.

Victoria Azarenka (SE) vs. Venus Williams (WC)

Last month in Lexington, Williams comfortably defeated Azarenka 6-3, 6-2.  It was right after that loss Vika went on her 11-match win streak, becoming the champion of the Western & Southern Open and a US Open finalist.  By contrast, Venus is 0-3 since beating Azarenka, though her three losses have come against top 30 players.  Neither woman would describe clay as their favorite surface, but Vika reached the quarterfinals here last year, with impressive victories over Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza.  By contrast, Williams is just 2-5 on clay over the last three years.  However, Venus has the 6-2 edge in their head-to-head.  That includes their two most recent meetings, though Azarenka claimed their only match on clay.  Even though it was only four days ago she played her first Major final in seven years, Vika’s confidence level should be enough to get her through this tough opening round.

Rafael Nadal (2) vs. Pablo Carreno Busta

There has been much speculation regarding Rafael Nadal leading into his first match since the 29th of February.  He and his team have spoken openly of how affected he has been by the pandemic, which caused him to opt out of traveling to New York to defend his US Open title.  And in his return to professional tennis, Nadal faces a man who just five days ago reached his second Major semifinal.  But this is a matchup that significantly favors Nadal.  He is 5-0 against Carreno Busta, with Pablo securing only one of 11 sets completed.  Rafa also has a history of dominating his fellow Spaniards.  And Pablo is not your typical Spaniard who excels on the red clay.  He actually went just 7-9 on this surface last season.  But it will be intriguing to see how Nadal performs today coming off such a long layoff.  It’s been a challenging six months for everyone, with Rafa seemingly more impacted than other players.  And while Nadal is easily the best clay court player of all-time, he’s also a player who is at his best when he’s match tough.  He will be eager to gain some significant court time over the next week in Rome.

Other Notable Matches on Day 3:

Four-time champion Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Salvatore Caruso (WC), a 27-year-old Italian who came back to defeat Tennys Sandgren yesterday in a final set tiebreak.

In a match between the two most recent ATP Next Gen Finals champions, Stefanos Tsitsipas (3) vs. Jannick Sinner (WC).  This is Tsitsipas’ first match since his epic loss to Borna Coric in New York.  Sinner survived the soap opera that was his opening round against Benoit Paire two days ago.

Two-time champion Elina Svitolina (4) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  Anastasia leads their head-to-head 3-1, though they’ve never played on clay.

Two-time finalist Simona Halep (1) vs. Jasmine Paolini (WC), who upset Anastasija Sevastova in the first round.

Defending champion Karolina Pliskova (2) vs. Barbora Strycova.  Pliskova is 4-1 against her fellow Czech.

David Goffin (6) vs. Marin Cilic.  Goffin is 4-3 lifetime against Cilic, though Marin prevailed when they met in Rome three years ago.

Italian No.1 Matteo Berrettini (4) vs. Federico Coria (Q), an 18-year-old Argentine who came through qualifying and already has four match wins this past week.

Full order of play is here.

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Does Finishing A Match Require The ‘Big Three’?

Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier columnist James Beck reflects on the US Open.

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Dominic Thiem has finally arrived at 27 years old.

 

He’s been good enough for several years to have arrived earlier, but there was always the “Big Three” of  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic standing in his way, along with a list of others waiting to “arrive.”

Alexander Zverev is still waiting with the “others” after being a part of Thiem’s historic rally from two sets down to win Sunday’s U.S. Open men’s final despite both players winning an equal number of games in Thiem’s 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6) victory.

THIEM TOOK ADVANTAGE OF THE SITUATION

Of course, if Thiem had been playing any of the game’s “Big Three” on Monday, it’s highly unlikely that Thiem would have rallied from two sets down to capture his first Grand Slam title.

Superstars Federer, Nadal and Djokovic obviously know how to finish matches since they are the top three all-time leaders in Grand Slam titles, Federer leading the way with 20 titles, followed by Nadal’s 19 and Djokovic’s 17.

Federer and Nadal skipped New York, and Federer also is not entered in Paris where the red clay event will start in less than two weeks.

But you’ve got to hand it to Thiem. Those forehand passing shots by Thiem against Zverev in critical situations near the end were a thing of beauty, the kind of shots Federer, Nadal and Djokovic might hit in pressure situations.

NADAL MAY BE TOO GOOD IN PARIS

It should be all Nadal in Paris as he chases Federer’s record-setting 20th Grand Slam title, but Djokovic will be there to keep Nadal in check.

But what about Thiem?

The amazing Austrian should be more relaxed this time in Paris — if he is fully recovered from Sunday night’s ordeal in New York. And, of course, Daniil Medvedev and Zverev both are fully capable of  winning their first Grand Slam title.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MEDVEDEV AND ZVEREV?

But what happened to Medvedev and Zverev in New York may haunt them for awhile, Zverev especially after blowing a two-set lead against Thiem.

Zverev is a real puzzle after coming back from two sets down to defeat Carreno Busta in the semifinals and then dominating Thiem in the first two sets on Sunday, only to lose.

Maybe Thiem just lucked up this time, hot having Federer, Nadal or Djokovic on the other side of the net in the U.S. Open final. Someone else had to win.

THE AZARENKA PUZZLE

That’s as puzzling as Victoria Azarenka’s last two rounds in New York, not showing up in a first-set rout by Serena’s Williams before taking the last two sets. Azarenka had the exact opposite result in her loss in Saturday’s women’s final to Naomi Osaka, with Azarenka winning, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, over Serena and then Osaka beating Azarenka by the same score.

So, what’s going on in tennis? It’s almost as unpredictable as the coronavirus.

But “tennis things” may return a little closer to normal in the French Open. It’s highly unlikely that Djokovic will hit another lines person with a ball as he did at the U.S. Open, which led to his ejection. And Nadal is virtually money in the bank in Paris.

James Beck is the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at http://www.postandcourier.com/search/?l=25&sd=desc&s=start_time&f=html&t=article%2Cvideo%2Cyoutube%2Ccollection&app=editorial&q=james+beck&nsa=eedition

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