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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ATP To Lift Bubble Restrictions After Rome As WTA Weighs Up Options

ATP will start lifting restrictions after the tournament in Rome while the WTA waits on a decision.

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(@MutuaMadridOpen - Twitter)

The ATP is prepared to lift bubble restrictions after Rome with the WTA still weighing up their options heading into Roland Garros.

 

According to Tennis Majors and a number of documents that have been sent to players, it looks like for the ATP players that bubble life is nearing its conclusion.

Starting with tournaments in Geneva and Lyon on the week of the 17th of May, players will be allowed more freedom with the ATP set to adopt antigen testing every two days instead of conducting PCR tests every four days.

Using antigen tests will allow faster results which means ATP players will be allowed to live a less restricted life on tour and even the possibility of staying in alternative accommodation is being offered.

Here is the full list of things that ATP Players will be allowed to do on tour now:

  • Leave designated areas at tournaments
  • Eat at outdoor restaurants outside the tournament venue
  • Collect takeaway food from restaurants
  • Unlimited exercise outside
  • Share accommodation with non-credentialed individuals
  • Stay in alternative hotels outside the bubble
  • Use public transport
  • Attend a public pool or beach
  • Go to a hairdresser

However players cannot attend concerts, nightclubs or public gatherings as well as go to pubs.

The ATP have also suggested that those have been fully vaccinated for 14 days or more will not have to be tested with the ATP also amending procedures for close contacts. Although they have warned players that these relaxation of restrictions are subject to guidance by local authorities.

As for the WTA tour, they are seeming more cautious about the idea of relaxing restrictions with them being flexible about how the tour goes forward.

In an email to Tennis Majors the WTA said, “The WTA is currently holding conversations with our players and tournaments to review the COVID protocols and discuss if there should be any adjustments to the current protocols in place. Any changes will factor in a balance that allows us to keep the environment safe so we can continue operating our Tour across the globe without risking the health and safety of our players, staff, fans and local communities.”

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Madrid Open Daily Preview: Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka Meet in a Second Consecutive Final

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Aryna Sabalenka has steamrolled her way to Saturday’s final (twitter.com/MutuaMadridOpen)

Just 13 days ago in Stuttgart, Barty and Sabalenka competed in the championship match, with Barty coming back from a set down to win the title, claiming 12 of the last 15 games.  On Saturday, Sabalenka looks to avenge that loss, and even their head-to-head at 4-4.  The women’s doubles championship will also be decided, between two of the top three seeds.

 

On the men’s side, the singles and doubles semifinals will be played.  Sascha Zverev hit a subpar Rafael Nadal right off the court on Friday, and just 24 hours later will try to take out the next-best clay courter of the last few years, Dominic Thiem.  Saturday will be a busy day for Zverev, as he’s also a semifinalist in doubles.  In the other singles semifinal, Matteo Berrettini and Casper Ruud will do battle, with the winner achieving their first Masters 1000 final. 

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the two most prominent matches of the day, and note the other intriguing matchups on the schedule.  Saturday’s play will begin at 1:30pm local time.

Dominic Thiem (3) vs. Sascha Zverev (5) – Not Before 4:00pm on Manolo Santana Stadium

This will be their first encounter since their dramatic, yet rather ugly US Open final, where Thiem came back from two sets down to eventually prevail in a fifth set tiebreak.  Overall Dominic leads their head-to-head 8-2, and 4-1 on clay.  The Austrian has claimed their last four meetings, with Zverev’s last victory coming in the final of this event three years ago.  

Both men struggled with some nagging injuries prior to this event, but both have looked sharp to this stage.  Thiem overcame a one-set deficit on Friday against John Isner, while Zverev is yet to drop a set.  Defeating Nadal on clay is always a big achievement, especially when it’s your first time doing so.  It will be interesting to see if Sascha can maintain his high level from a day prior.  Zverev struck 28 winners on Friday, compared to only six by Nadal.

In last year’s US Open final, the winner of each set was the player who won a higher percentage of first serve points.  If you’re Sascha Zverev, there has to be some baggage from blowing a two-set lead in his first career Major final.  In a rivalry that has strongly favored Thiem, I like the reigning US Open champion to reach his third final in Madrid.

Ash Barty (1) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – Not Before 6:30pm on Manolo Santana Stadium

They’ve already met twice this year, in Miami and Stuttgart, with Barty taking both matches in a third set by a score of 6-3.  In their Stuttgart final, converting break points was a key difference.  Barty broke five times, while Sabalenka only claimed two out of 10 break points.  That exemplifies the composure of the world No.1, who has won 16 out of her last 18 deciding sets. 

Sabalenka hasn’t faced a deciding set this fortnight, as she’s been dominating all competition.  No opponent has claimed more than three games in a set.  Aryna has spent about three less hours on court than Barty, though that shouldn’t be a significant factor on Saturday.  Both players had a day of rest on Friday, and comfortably won their Thursday semifinals in straight sets.

Barty has amassed several impressive streaks: 9 straight match wins, 16 straight on red clay, and 10 straight victories over top 10 opposition.  She’s also prevailed in 10 of her last 12 finals.  Similarly, Sabalenka has won seven of her last nine finals.  Yet as impressive as the Belarusian has been, winning 32 of her last 38 matches, she’s only 1-3 during that span against the top 10.  If these two go the distance again, it’s harder for Sabalenka to maintain her level than Barty.  And Ash possesses many more backup plans in her arsenal.  In what should be another tight contest, I give the slight edge to Barty to earn her fourth title of the year.

Other Notable Matches on Saturday:

Matteo Berrettini (8) vs. Casper Ruud – Berrettini is on a seven-match win streak, dating back to his title run two weeks ago in Belgrade.  Ruud is into his third consecutive Masters 1000 semifinal on clay, and all 14 of his wins at this level have come on this surface.  Casper has been serving spectacularly, as he’s yet to be broken at this event, facing only one break point thus far.  They’ve split two previous meetings, with the clay court clash going to Ruud in straight sets, two years ago at Roland Garros.

Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova (2) vs. Gabriela Dabrowski and Demi Schuurs (3) – Krejcikova and Siniakova won the Gippsland Trophy earlier this season, and reached the final of the Australian Open.  This is the first tournament for Dabrowski and Schuurs as a team.

Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic (2) vs. Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen – Mektic and Pavic have now won 31 of 34 matches since teaming up for 2021.  Their Belgian opponents won the Singapore Open earlier this year, then went on a five-match losing streak before reaching the final of Munich last week.

Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos (3) vs. Tim Puetz and Sascha Zverev – Granollers and Zeballos are looking to reach their second final of the season.  This is Puetz and Zverev’s second event this season as a team.  In Miami, the Germans defeated Granollers and Zeballos in straight sets.

Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Alexander Zverev Powers Past Erratic Nadal To Set Thiem Showdown

Alexander Zverev secured his best win of his career on a clay court by beating Rafael Nadal in Madrid.

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Alexander Zverev (@ATPTour_ES - Twitter)

Alexander Zverev powered past an erratic Rafael Nadal 6-4 6-3 to reach the semi-finals in Madrid.

 

After a slow start Zverev produced some stunning tennis to knock out the five-time champion Nadal, who had an error-prone day at the office.

The German will now play Dominic Thiem in the last four in a rematch from the 2018 final.

It was the 20-time grand slam champion who started off the fastest as he looked to target the Zverev forehand early with uncomfortable spins and heights.

Eventually Nadal would get his rewards for an accurate tactical game-plan as a Zverev double fault handed him the break.

However that advantage was to be short-lived as the first point of the seventh game would change the momentum of the match with Nadal putting in simple unforced errors especially on the forehand side.

The German took advantage as he used his backhand to dictate points from the baseline. Furthermore, Zverev used his superior net play to his advantage by shortening the points and creating a faster tempo.

An unusual first set from Nadal’s perspective was complete as the fifth seed reeled off four games in a row to seal the opening set 6-4.

At the start of the second set, the Spaniard tried to up his level and intensity as he used some drop-shots at unexpected moments and attempted to bring the crowd into the match.

Despite this Nadal’s return game was lacking its usual ferocity as he couldn’t capitalise on Zverev’s second serves.

There was a lack of confidence in the Spaniard when implementing effective patterns of play as Zverev had a lot of success dictating play and winning the baseline and net rallies.

Another break in the fifth game ensured that Zverev’s dominance was being rewarded.

Although a double break advantage was denied, Nadal couldn’t deny victory for Zverev as the German sealed his first clay court victory over the ‘King of Clay.’

After the match Zverev admitted it was one of the biggest wins of his career, “Definitely one of the biggest wins of my career so far, especially on clay against Rafa. It is the toughest thing to do in our sport,” Zverev said in an on-court interview.

“Beating him in his house, in Spain, is incredible but the tournament is not over yet.”

Lots to ponder for Nadal as an error-prone performance sees him looking to improve in Rome next week.

As for the German, he sets up a 2018 final rematch with Dominic Thiem in the last four as he secured his best victory on this surface of his career.

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