On George Floyd, racism, Naomi Osaka’s activism, and the struggles of Ashe, Gibson and Noah - UBITENNIS
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On George Floyd, racism, Naomi Osaka’s activism, and the struggles of Ashe, Gibson and Noah

Decades ago, black players had to concede contested points to their white opponents, and also had to pick up the balls during changeovers. In college tennis, white student-athletes dined in restaurants while their black teammates had to wait for a sandwich in their cars.

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There can be no indifference to what happened in America after George Floyd was brutally murdered last May by a policeman who had previously gotten away with multiple instances of violent, inhuman, and racist behaviour. “I can’t breathe” has become the motto of more or less peaceful protesters around the world, including, among the non-violent, recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka.   

 

What happened in Minneapolis stirred the public discourse globally, not just in the United States. Everybody knows that racism still exists, even if not as virulently as it did in the time of slavery. It’s not just an issue pertaining Trump’s America or its violent and aggressive cops, and it’s not just an issue pertaining football fans who taunt the other team’s black players.

A tennis website is not the most suited space for a discussion of the complex implications of racism – there are far more appropriate places and commentators than those that UbiTennis can offer. For the time being, all I want to do here is to say that there is no more dishonourable stance than to claim that the problem doesn’t exist, or that it’s being allotted too much room by the media.

The problem exists, and we can all see it. Having said this, I’d like to do my part by reminiscing on the tribulations that so many African American tennis players have had to endure. The first example that comes to mind is that of Jimmie McDaniel, the best black player before World War II, a 6-foot-5 lefty who won the American Tennis Association’s segregated tennis championship four times, and who was “allowed” to play an exhibition match against Don Budge, the first man to complete the Grand Slam, on July 29, 1940. He lost that match, 6-1 6-2, but the encounter moved the American public, an extraordinary feat, especially given Jimmie’s turbulent past – the son of a Negro League baseball players, he had gotten a 15-year-old pregnant when he was 18 and had spent two years in juvie. Former Olympic medallist Ralph Metcalfe (he won four in Berlin, including the 4×100 relay with Jesse Owens, right under Hitler’s furious gaze, and had personal bests of 10.3 and of 20.6 seconds in the 100 and 200 metres, respectively) awarded him a track scholarship to attend the Xavier University in New Orleans, but Jimmie’s real penchant was for the racquet.  

Don Budge and Jimmy McDaniel (Photo from Whirlwind The Godfather Of Black Tennis by Doug Smith)

Another name is that of Oscar Johnson, from Long Beach in California, the first African American to win a national championship, the National Parks Junior Singles, when he was 17, in 1948. He died last March, after being awarded in Newport’s Hall of Fame in 1987, an accolade he received long before he was enshrined into the Black Hall of Fame in 2010. One more is that of Robert Ryland, one of the first two black players to compete in the NCAA tennis tournament, in 1946, who once recalled: “In those days, we had to face so many struggles due to racial discrimination. When we set out to go to play in Indiana, against Purdue or others, we used to send our white teammates to a restaurant, where they were allowed to sit and eat inside, so that they would buy us some sandwiches to have in our cars.

In the ensuing decades, Althea Gibson rose to prominence after enduring all sorts of abuse, as did Arthur Ashe, who won the US Open in 1968 at Forest Hills, inside whose West Side Tennis Club he theoretically wasn’t have even allowed to enter, seven years before becoming the first African-American to win at Wimbledon. In 1981, Ashe said: “You can’t really compare tennis with football or basketball. When Jackie Robinson broke the colour line in ‘47 by starting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, there were dozens of good players in the Negro leagues who were ready to follow suit. When Althea Gibson, the first important African American woman in tennis history, won the National Championships on the grass of Forest Hills in ‘57 and in ’58, there were no talented black players waiting in line to cross that threshold. Black people don’t identify themselves with this sport, neither on nor off the court.”

In 1987, he added: “What we need is an American Yannick Noah. In many ways, I wasn’t a great model to follow. We need someone with flair and who plays a creative brand of tennis. And this person should behave like Julius Erving [Editor’s note: an NBA player, nicknamed “Dr. J”, who was famous for his athleticism as well as for his distinguished manners]”

Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil, who grew up playing on public courts in Texas, have told many stories about the abuse they had to face. Right now, I don’t have the time to fetch their autobiographies from my personal library to recount some of these unbelievable anecdotes, but I can tell you how embarrassing they are for any human being provided with even a shred of awareness and sensitivity.

The Williams sisters didn’t have it easy either. Although breaking out as champions when they were teenagers certainly opened a few more doors, their father, Richard Williams, never trusted this sort of indulgence. Maybe he exaggerated (but this is the type of character he was) when he said that the crowd’s racist taunts during Serena’s 2001 Indian Wells final was “the worst act of racial prejudice since Martin Luther King’s murder,” but it’s true that the crowd was utterly disgraceful that day, insulting him and Venus as well as soon as they took their seats in the stands.

I hope you will now forgive me for going through a collection of quotes on the subject, most of them by Ashe, a great man before he became a champion – the American delegate to the UN once said of him: “Arthur Ashe took the burden of race and wore it like a mantle of dignity” – and by a young Cameroonian, Yannick Noah, who was discovered by Arthur himself during a trip to Africa.

Here’s one of his memorable quotes then, pronounced in 1988: “Thanks to the combination of a few factors, black Americans now constitute the majority of athletes in all major sports. This didn’t happen in tennis because the sport was organised to discourage the participation of black people.”

I remember a fan in Rome cheering him on, “Daje Arturooo!” (“Come on, Arthuuur!”), during an indoor match, but I also remember the ineffable Ilie Nastase giving him the moniker of “Negroni” without pissing him off, at least until their match at the 1975 Stockholm Masters, when, under my own eyes, Ilie started to shamelessly complain about the lighting inside the Kungliga Halle: “Every time Ashe comes to the net I can’t see him, it’s too dark in here!” He said that, and more, until the match was suspended. Ashe, incensed like I’d never seen him before, walked out of the court, and the match was at first defaulted to his opponent, before the decision was deservedly overturned – Nastase was noted for his offensive off-court humour, and what’s more baffling is that he used to say, “hi, racist!” every time he ran into South African players like Drysdale or McMillan.

I recall one of Arthur’s prophecies, from 1992: “It’s more likely that the next black Slam champion will be a woman rather than a man. The best male athletes still prefer basketball, football, or track.” It’s fair to say that the Williams, who were initially nicknamed “the Ghetto Sisters” by the press, fulfilled this forecast, and then some! Serena won 23 Slams to Venus’s 7…

On page 2, the words of Althea Gibson and Yannick Noah as well as Naomi Osaka’s emergence as an activist

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The Most Emotional Moments From The 2021 Australian Open

With everything going on in the world, and the 14 days of quarantine players went through before playing this event, it’s no surprise there were so many emotional moments during this past fortnight.

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Alexei Popyrin provided a refreshing dose of excitement with a loud Aussie crowd in attendance (ausopen.com)

The first Grand Slam of 2021 provided the tennis world with plenty of tears and jubilation throughout it’s two-week period. There was epic match comebacks, injury misfortunes and victories for those who has been absent from the game in recent months due to a variety of issues. UbiTennis looks back at those emotional moments that took place during the Australian Open.

 

Gael Monfils in tears after his first round loss

Prior to the pandemic, Monfils had won two consecutive titles in Montpellier and Rotterdam.  But since the tour restart, he’s now 0-6, and lost in five sets in the opening round to Emil Ruusuvuori.  His comments are in French, but he was asking for “mercy” during his press conference.

“I don’t have any confidence. I would like to get out of this nightmare but I can’t,” Monfils said.
“I don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s hard. Every time I get here I feel judged, I’ve lost again. I can’t serve, I’m playing badly. I’m being honest and it’s going to take time.”

Bianca Andreescu wins her first match in 16 months

The 2019 US Open champion didn’t play at all in 2020, due to injuries and pandemic restrictions.  She’s described many low moments she experienced during that time.  And after going through 14 days of hard quarantine upon arrival in Melbourne, with her coach testing positive for COVID-19, the Canadian was holding back tears after winning her opening round in three sets.

“I feel pretty damn good,” Andreescu said afterwards in an on-court interview. “I mean the match wasn’t easy at all and I’m super, super happy with how I fought it out, especially towards the end.”

Alexei Popyrin saves match points to stun David Goffin

This was the first exciting match to take place in front of a full audience in nearly a year, as Aussies packed Court 3 to cheer on the comeback win of the 21-year-old Australian.  Popyrin saved four match points in the fourth set tiebreak, and the crowd reaction to his victory sounded amazing.

“I think it just shows that the work I did in pre-season, the mentality that I’ve taken on this year is all paying off, and my game is improving, and I can feel that,” Popryin commented on his victory.

Thanasi Kokkinakis wins his first match since 2019

Kokkinakis’ struggles with injuries over the years are well-documented, so it’s understandable the 24-year-old Aussie was brought to tears in picking up his first tour-level win in 18 months, especially at his home Slam.

“At 5-0 (in the third set) I felt this massive roar and cheer from the crowd and I started tearing up,” Kokkinakis said.
“It was a bit of a soft moment but there was just so much stuff behind the scenes to get back to that point that not a lot of people realise.
I definitely got a bit emotional.
“I had a lot of friends and family there watching. They probably made up about 90 per cent of the stands, so I’m appreciative of that.
“Just playing with that energy and crowd and being able to win – there was so much work behind the scenes and so much pain – it’s just a massive relief.”

In the second round Kokkinakis took Stefanos Tsitsipas to five sets before getting knocked out of the tournament.

 Venus Williams suffers a nasty ankle injury

This was hard to watch.  Venus screamed out in pain and hobbled around the court after injuring her ankle.  And she had arrived on court with an injured knee.  After a long timeout to address both injuries, with a despondent Venus in tears, she showed her grit by finding a way to finish out the match in the event’s most inspiring moment.

You can’t always prepare for the triumph of the disaster in sports or in life. “You can’t control it all. What you can control is how you handle the ups and the downs,” Williams later wrote on Instagram.
“No matter the outcome I always hold my head high and I leave everything I have on the court.
“I never look back in regrets because no matter the odds I give it all.
“You don’t have to look back when you leave it all out there. Always look forward, the deepest dream you could be…”

Nick Kyrgios saved two match points in a five-set epic

In another emotional moment involving an Australian, Kyrgios’ epic 5-7, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-4 win over Ugo Humbert was a thrilling affair on Nick’s favorite court, John Cain Area.

If you were in my head, I was just thinking about all the s*** I was going to cop if I lost that match,” Kyrgios told the Nine Network after the match.
“I don’t know how I did that, honestly, it’s one of the craziest matches I’ve ever played.”

Kyrgios lost in the third round to Dominic Thiem.

Donna Vekic in tears after ousting Kaia Kanepi

Vekic was immediately in tears after converting her own match point, advancing to the second week of the tournament despite losing six straight matches coming into this event.

Matteo Berrettini battles through pain to defeat Khachanov

The Italian suffered an abdominal injury during the third set, and was teary-eyed after closing out the match in straights.  He would have to withdraw from his fourth round match against Stefanos Tsitsipas due to the injury.

““I felt something on my ab. I thought that [it] wasn’t something really big, but the next day when I woke up I felt it was big. So I spoke to the doctors and they told me, ‘Look, it can get [much] worse’. So it’s not worth trying. I’m not 100 per cent. To beat these guys, you have to be 100 per cent. I think it’s not really professional to step [onto court] when you’re not the best.” Berrettini commented on his injury.

Stefanos Tsitsipas fights back to defeat Rafael Nadal

Tsitsipas became only the second man to ever do so at a Grand Slam event, and described himself as “speechless” when interviewed after the match.

Serena Williams’ wave goodbye after her semifinal loss

https://twitter.com/AustralianOpen/status/1362260576446132226

This felt like more than simply “See you next year, Melbourne.” Serena stopped her stride as she exited the court, waving and placing a hand to her heart. After being asked about the moment in press, she broke down and quickly exited the room.

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Australian Open Day 14 Preview: Novak Djokovic Faces Daniil Medvedev for the Men’s Championship

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Novak Djokovic is 17-10 in Major finals (twitter.com/AustralianOpen)

Djokovic is 17-0 in Australian Open semifinals and finals.  Medvedev is 20-0 in his last 20 matches.  One of those streaks will end on Sunday.

 

11 years ago at this event, Novak Djokovic won his first Major title.  It would take three more years for Djokovic to win his second, but he went on a tear over the last decade, claiming 16 Slams between 2011 and 2020.  Regardless of today’s result, he is guaranteed to remain the world No.1, and will overtake Roger Federer for the most weeks at No.1.  A win today would place him just two Majors behind Federer and Nadal, with half of his Slam titles coming on Rod Laver Arena.

Four years ago at this event, Daniil Medvedev made his Grand Slam debut, losing in the first round of the 2017 Australian Open to American qualifier Ernesto Escobedo.  Two years later in Melbourne, Medvedev would advance to the second week of a Slam for the first time, and achieved his first Major final later that year in New York.  That was part of a run where he reached six consecutive tournament finals, winning three of those events with a match record of 29-3.  Due to a drop in form, as well as the pandemic tour shutdown, it would be another year before he would win another title.  But now he’s on a similarly impressive streak, winning his last 20 matches, and 12 in a row over top ten opposition.  With a win today, he would not only earn his first Major, he would also ascend to No.2 in the world, becoming the first man outside “The Big Four” to do so since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005.

The men’s doubles final will also take place on Sunday, with the defending champions looking for their second consecutive title in Melbourne.

Sunday’s action will begin at 3:00pm local time with the men’s doubles championship, followed by the men’s singles championship at 7:30pm.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Daniil Medvedev (4)

Djokovic leads their head-to-head 4-3 overall, and 3-2 on hard courts.  Their only previous match at a Major occurred at this tournament two years ago, when Djokovic prevailed in four sets, but not without Medvedev exhausting the eight-time champion.  Daniil’s first victory would come later that year on clay in Monte Carlo.  A few months later, at the Cincinnati Masters, Medvedev was down a set and a break when he decided to just start bludgeoning the ball, hitting Djokovic right off the court.  Medvedev also claimed their most recent encounter, comfortably winning in straight sets last November at the ATP Finals.

Djokovic experienced a bumpier road than usual to this championship match.  He played four straight matches that went at least four sets, and struggled mid-tournament with an abdominal injury.  Medvedev picked up his first-ever five-set win over Filip Krajinovic, but otherwise hasn’t dropped a set in his other five matches.  Daniil has served magnificently during this fortnight, striking 74 aces and just 18 double faults, and winning 81% of first serve points.  It will be crucial for the Russian to maintain those levels against the best returner of all-time.  However, that will be extremely challenging considering temperatures are forecast to be quite cool on Sunday evening, resulting in the courts playing a bit slower.  Djokovic has also been serving extremely well, and has hit an inordinate amount of aces this tournament, with 95 aces and 21 doubles.  Both men will look to attack their opponent’s second serve, which Medvedev was much more effective at doing three months ago in London, winning 61% of second serve points compared to only 43% by Djokovic.

Medvedev is vying to become the newest Major champion in the sport, and to become only the third man outside “The Big Four” to defeat one of “The Big Four” in a Slam final (Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin Del Petro).  He’ll surely strut onto the court believing he can win: not only due to his current winning streak, but also recalling the way he was able to push Rafael Nadal to the brink of defeat in his first Slam final.  However, until Novak Djokovic loses a semifinal or final on this court, he must be considered the favorite to win his 18th Major title.

Other Notable Matches on Day 14:

In the men’s doubles final, it’s defending champions Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury (5) vs. Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek (9), who won two tour titles in 2019.  Rajeev Ram already won the mixed doubles title on Saturday with Barbora Krejcikova.

Sunday’s full order of play is here.

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Australian Open Day 12 Preview: Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas Battle in the Semifinals

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Stefanos Tsitispas, after his emotional victory over Rafael Nadal on Wednesday (twitter.com/AustralianOpen)

The winner will play for their first Major title on Sunday against Novak Djokovic.

 

25-year-old Daniil Medvedev has reached his third semifinal out of the last five Slams, all on hard courts.  He will walk onto Rod Laver Arena with a 19-match winning streak, dating back to the Paris Masters in November.  This is also a third Major semifinal for 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, though unlike Medvedev, he’s yet to advance farther.  Two days ago, he pulled off an amazing comeback victory over Rafael Nadal, becoming only the second man to defeat Nadal from two sets down at a Major.

Three significant doubles matches will also take place on Friday, including the championship match in women’s doubles, featuring two of the top three seeds.

Friday’s doubles action will begin at 1:00pm local time, with the men’s semifinal to start at 7:30pm.

Daniil Medvedev (4) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (5)

It’s the 2020 ATP Finals champion against the 2019 ATP Finals champion.  Medvedev has dominated their rivalry 5-1.  And it’s a rivalry that started out quite bitterly.  In their first meeting, at the Miami Open in 2018, they exchanged harsh words after the match, as both were frustrated by extended toilet breaks the other man had taken.  In comments since that incident, they’ve expressed a bit more respect for each other.  Medvedev claimed their first five encounters, with Tsitsipas prevailing in their most recent one, during his run to the title at the 2019 ATP Finals.  Their only previous match at a Major occurred at the 2018 US Open, which Daniil won in four sets.  The Russian should be the physically and emotionally fresher player today.  While Medvedev did appear to be cramping a bit after his three-set win over Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals, he spent two full hours less on court Wednesday than Tsitsipas.  Stefanos fought late into the night for over four hours against Nadal, though the Greek did receive a walkover in his previous round from an injured Matteo Berrettini. 

Medvedev has been serving excellently this fortnight, striking 57 aces and just 15 double faults.  And he’s won 80% of first serve points through five rounds.  Tsitsipas’ service numbers have not been as strong until he played Nadal, when his serving was simply stellar, with 17 aces and no double faults.  Stefanos not only won 79% of first serve points against the all-time great, he impressively earned 69% of second serve points.  Breaks of serve may be crucial on another hot day in Melbourne, so the man who holds serve more comfortably will have a significant advantage.  But considering their history, as well as Medvedev’s current winning streak, Daniil is the favorite to reach his second Major final. 

Other Notable Matches on Day 12:

In the women’s doubles championship match, it’s 2019 US Open champions Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka (2) vs. Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova (3), who won two Majors in 2018.

In the men’s doubles semifinals, it’s defending champions Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury (5) vs. Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares (6), who won two Slams in 2016, and are undefeated since re-forming their team this year.

And Salisbury will also play in the mixed doubles semifinals, as it’s Desirae Krawczyk and Joe Salisbury vs. Sam Stosur and Matthew Ebden (WC), who the Aussie fans will undoubtedly be cheering on.

Friday’s full order of play is here.

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