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The Year Tennis Was Hit By A “Submarine…”

Often, analyzing a tennis year is straightforward. This past season was anything but. Mark Winters and Cheryl Jones look at the fragments of a year that was at best, disconnected, but finally came to an end.

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Mark Winters and Cheryl Jones

 

Trying to find a way to put 2020 in perspective is challenging. Words alone can never tell the story. A collection of general comments wouldn’t carry the day. Even a book, a lengthy one or several of them, might come close to explaining what took place. There was a pandemic and it seized the limelight from critical issues, such as social unrest fostered by a range of disparities. For much of the time, tennis was hidden behind masks that aimed to protect but against high odds, the game… survived. 

Make no mistake; much that happened beyond the court did have an effect on the sport at every level. Because of the way the year played out, a summary of highlights is the best way to take a “lookback” and endeavor to make sense of a period that was, overall, fragmented.

Imagine…Not The John Lennon Version

Imagine if that during the bushfires were ravaging the states of New South Wales and Victoria, where Melbourne is located, tennis officials had made the decision, because of the dismal air quality and the extreme heat, to cancel or postpone the Australian Open?  True, hindsight is often twenty-twenty but if anyone had a premonition that COVID-19 would bring about the cancellation of both the BNP Paribas and the Miami Opens, the Australian Open could have been played in the time slot that it has chosen for 2021. 

Dylan Update – The Schedules Were Are A-Changin’

In mid-March, the Fédération Française de Tennis “fait un geste audacieu” (made a bold move) when the organization decided to postpone – not cancel – Roland Garros. September 20th to October 4th were the dates first selected for the competition. Then manifesting a “true anti-laissez-faire” attitude, they nudged the championships a bit further on in the calendar to September 27th until October 11th. Initially, it was hoped that 11,500 spectators could be admitted daily and dispersed among the Stade Roland Garros show courts (Court Philippe Chatrier, Court Suzanne Lenglen, Court Simonne Mathieu and Court 1). When there was a rise in virus cases, the Minister of Health chose to reduce the number of attendees to 5,000 each day. Later, another spike in the infection rate dropped the number of mask wearing attendees to a mere 1,000 per day.

Rather than downplay concerns about the health of players, the game and spectators, Wimbledon was realistic. Given the gravity of the situation, tournament officials donned a proper bowler and reacted in appropriate fashion, cancelling The Championships on April 1st (and it wasn’t an April Fools’ joke). Fortunately, for the past 17 years The All England Lawn Tennis Club has had an insurance policy in case the tournament had to be cancelled. In 2020, that wise planning by management resulted in a $141 million pandemic payout.

Not wanting to be defaulted in the Slams rearranging dates game, the USTA, in June, announced that the US Open would begin in late August and finish in mid-September. Insuring that its reputation would remain “Broadway Big”, the decision was made to hold two tournaments at one location so the Western & Southern Open was added to the fan-less package as a “warm-up” for what normally is the year’s final Grand Slam tournament. (This year, Roland Garros took the final curtain call.)

Osaka – Nobel Peace Prize Worthy …

https://twitter.com/BJKCup/status/1343860225162539010


In New York, Dominic Thiem of Austria was the men’s titlist, edging Alexander Zverev of Germany, 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6, to win his first big four championship. In high drama, Naomi Osaka of Japan defeated the rejuvenated and resurgent Belarusian, Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 for her third slam trophy.

In a year that was exhausted by death, criminal government incompetence, anger, road-rage like eruptions in society and much more, Osaka made an impact. During the Open she “facemask” messaged match by match. Her desire was pure and unfettered. She wanted to create an awareness of what had been taking place and have people “see the names”, of the Black victims of police violence, such as Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor. 

Following Floyd’s death at the hands of a group of rogue policemen in May, she traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota and took part in the peaceful protest that was held. In July, she co-wrote an article that appeared in Esquire Magazine concerning racism and what it was like “being all things together at the same time…” After Jacob Blake, an African-American, was shot in the back multiple times by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, she withdrew from her Western & Southern Open semifinal. Realizing the significance of her decision, tournament officials suspended play at the National Tennis Center for the entire day in support of her social justice expression.

As an individual who is actually quite shy, Osaka had made a momentous decision. Because of the platform provided by her extraordinary tennis talent, she would use the resulting attention to help stem systemic racism.  (It was fitting that during the final days of the US Open, the works of eighteen artists were featured in “Black Lives to the Front”. It was a Black Lives Matter art exhibit that was on display in the lower rows of the empty seats at Ashe Stadium.)

Given the USTA’s growing attempt to bring about significant racial change, along with altering the public’s perception of the organization, the staunch PR effort was foiled when Osaka was restricted during the trophy presentation ceremonies.  Asked if she had thought about wearing one of her “telling” masks when she addressed the audience, she said she had…but was told not to do so…” More revealing, she added, “I just did what they told me…” By whom? Was this an official dictate or a television move or…? After the awakening that she brought about during the two tournaments held at the National Tennis Center, an enlightenment that the Open and tennis benefitted from, Naomi Osaka should have been shown more respect…

Having turned 23 in October, she received the ultimate accolade when Sports Illustrated named her Sportsperson of the Year. To add to that, the editors and the beat writers named Osaka the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in honor of her noteworthy activism and her on court success. 

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If Rafael Nadal Can Struggle With Self-Confidence, So Can You!

Ubitennis spoke to sport psychology consultant Adam Blicher about the role of believing in oneself in tennis.

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The best tennis players look and act very self-confident, but we forget that what they are experiencing might be completely different from what we are able to see from the outside. They too are experiencing uncertainty and doubt. Just like you and I. Some days, you feel like you move effortlessly, and it almost seem like you can’t miss the court with your forehand. Other days you doubt if you can even put your forehand into the court.

 

20-time Grand Slam Champion Rafael Nadal talked in press conferences about his lack of self-confidence in 2015. He expressed how he did not experience the feeling of self-confidence despite the fact that he will go down in the history books as one of the best players the world has ever seen.

So if you sometimes get the thought that you are the only one struggling with confidence, remember that even the best players in the world struggle. The best players in the world are not super-humans who only have positive thoughts, are always motivated and feel very self-confident.

Also remember that more self-confidence is not always better. There is a very fine line between having high self-confidence and having too big of an ego. If you are having too big of an ego, it often leads to not preparing well enough, or you might get a little bit too cocky in the way that you are going about your performance.

That said, it can also be problematic to not experience any self-confidence at all which might then lead you to dwell and to struggle with quick decision-making on the court. You might find yourself accepting to hit too many backhands instead of covering more of the court with your forehand; or, instead of stepping up close to the baseline, you find yourself playing more defensive a meter behind the baseline.

We need to redefine our understanding of self-confidence. We cannot let out emotional state dictate our performances as our emotions are fleeting and very hard to control. If you try to control your emotions all of your focus and energy will be occupied fighting an internal battle instead of having full awareness on your gameplan and executing your shots fighting the outside battle against the player on the other side of the court.

The act of self-confidence comes before the feeling.

When Rafael Nadal talks about his lack of self-confidence, he is talking about the feeling of self-confidence. Rafael understands that he can’t control the feeling, but what he can control is his actions. He understands that the antidote to the doubt, and the worries that is creeping in on him, is courage. The courage to step up to the line, covering two thirds of the court with his weapon and keep following his gameplan despite the feeling of self-confidence not being present at all times.

Rafael understands that the feeling of self-confidence is a bonus that comes after the good performances. Not the other way around as many tend to think. Many are stuck in the belief that we need to feel or think in a certain way before we are able to perform well. That “if I only had more self-confidence, then I would perform better.” Maybe in reality it’s about having the courage to act like you already had the confidence in order to provide yourself with the opportunity of performing well. Then, after the good performance, the nice feeling of self-confidence might arise as a bonus making it easier to be courageous in your actions for the next match.

Remember that the act of self-confidence comes before the feeling.

Adam Blicher
Danish Sport Psychologist Consultant Adam Blicher is a member of the International Sport Mental Coach Association

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EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION: Does Tennis Have A LGBT Inclusivity Problem?

Is it just a coincidence that there are no out players on the men’s Tour or is there a more significant reason that the sport needs to be aware of?

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Tennis has an illustrious reputation when it comes to LGBT representation compared to some other sports.

Billie Jean King, who was first outed by the media in 1981, played an instrumental role in the formation of the WTA Tour and the campaign for equal pay highlighted by her infamous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs. It was also during 1981 when Martina Navratilova came out as gay for the first time. Despite being one of the sports biggest stars, the multiple Grand Slam champion admits that she lost endorsement deals due to her sexuality. Nowadays the treatment and promotion of LGBT players have improved for the better, but does more need to be done?

In recent years tennis has dabbled in and out of the Rainbow Laces campaign with the British Lawn Tennis Association throwing their weight behind it. The initiative was created by LGBT charity Stonewall and initially marketed specifically towards football’s Premier League. The idea is to get players to wear rainbow laces in order to raise awareness of LGBT representation within sport. As for its effectiveness in combating homophobia, it is debatable.

“In the UK, sports teams have also been holding Rainbow Laces for the past seven years, yet homophobic language also remains common. Two-thirds of teenage football players and nearly half of male rugby players admit to recently using homophobic language with teammates (for example, fag), which is generally part of their banter and humour. At the amateur level, gay and bisexual males remain invisible,” Erik Denison from Monash’s Behavioural Sciences Research Laboratory wrote in a 2020 report.
“However, recent research suggests that refocusing the current Rainbow Laces campaign, which is underway, away from professional teams and strongly towards amateur sport settings could help fix these problems. We also need to change the education that is being delivered.”

It is important to take Denison’s conclusion with a pinch of salt as his assessment focused solely on team sports and not tennis. Inevitably, some of his findings might be also applicable to tennis, but it is unclear as to what extent.

If the rainbow laces approach does help the LGBT community to some degree and therefore any potential closeted player, should tennis bosses do more to promote it?  UbiTennis has approached three governing bodies to generate their view with all of them saying they would be in favour of allowing players to participate.  

“The work Premier League and Stonewall are doing to drive awareness around LGBT inclusion sets a great example, and we would absolutely support any ATP player that wishes to support such an initiative, or personally express themselves,” an ATP Spokesman told UbiTennis.
“We believe that tennis has an important role to play in promoting inclusivity in sport, and across wider society, and earlier this year Tennis United served as a platform for ATP to amplify voices around this important topic. The ATP has directed efforts for positive change across many causes via the ATP Aces For Charity programme, and we are currently reviewing our overall approach in this space.”


Unlike their female counterparts, there is currently no openly LGBT player on the ATP Tour and few historically. Bill Tilden, who won 10 Grand Slam titles throughout the 1920s, struggled with his sexuality during a time where gay sex was illegal and not accepted by society. More recently, America’s Brian Vahaly was a former top 100 player during the early 2000s, but chose to come out after retiring from the sport.

The WTA points out that they have been working with the ATP last season and addressed LGBT topics during their ‘Tennis United’ chat shows which was broadcast online.

“The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity, along with positivity and progress, and wholeheartedly supports and encourages players, staff, partners and fans’ commitment to LGBT+ initiatives,” a statement reads.
“The WTA supports tournament and Grand Slam LGBT+ projects both logistically and financially, amplifies our athletes’ voices on this topic through the Tour’s global platforms, and increased awareness by incorporating the LGBT+ spirit  into our corporate identity in June across our digital platforms.
“Despite the challenges 2020 has presented, this year saw the WTA mark Pride month with a series of podcasts and web articles, interview guests on the WTA & ATP digital show Tennis United from the LGBT+ community, and through WTA Charities collaboration with You Can Play, offer equipment and financial donations and players participate in a virtual panel discussion.”


The International Tennis Federation is responsible for overseeing the running of the junior Tour, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Cup (previously known as Fed Cup) and the Olympic Tennis tournament. A spokesperson said they would endorse any campaign which would support an equal playing field in the sport. Making reference to their Advantage All campaign which aims to ‘develop and maintain tennis as an equal advantage sport.’

“Tennis has a proud history of its athletes being at the forefront as advocates of positive social change, using their voice and platforms to raise awareness. We would be supportive of initiatives that reinforce the positive message that tennis is an equal advantage sport which is open to all,” UbiTennis was told.

 
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Post-lockdown performance: Djokovic leads the way

Thiem won the most ATP points in the Grand Slams, while Rublev won the most matches. Nole had a more traditional schedule, while Nadal played fewer events but won big – whose approach was better?

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It’s been written countless times, but a few days before the start of a new tennis year the truism needs to be busted out once more: the 2020 season was unique in the history of the game, and in some ways it was not one season but rather two, given the five-month chasm blasted by the coronavirus between March and August. The hiatus has caused a temporary ranking reform, which has ensured the permanence at the top even to those who, for various reasons, elected not to play at the restart or underperformed, stifling the rise of newcomers and partially obscuring the competitive nature and meritocracy of the rankings – disclaimer: this is not a criticism, the chosen system was the best possible under such trying circumstances.

 

For this reason, it is interesting to look at who has done better between August and November, in order to see what the current hierarchies of the game may be and if the results of the last few months can have a predictive value for 2021, especially in terms of reliability. To do so, three metrics ​​were chosen: percentage of wins, total wins and total points.

THE DATA

What follows is a list of the 15 players with the highest winning percentage on the ATP Tour from August to November, with tournaments in which they have won more than half of the games played in brackets:

·   Djokovic 82.14 (Cincinnati, US Open, Rome, Roland Garros)
·   Rublev 78.79 (US Open, Hamburg, Roland Garros, St. Petersburg, Vienna)
·   Zverev 78.57 (US Open, Roland Garros, Cologne 1, Cologne 2, Bercy)
·   Nadal 77.78 (Rome, Roland Garros, Bercy)
·   Medvedev 76.92 (Cincinnati, US Open, Vienna, Bercy, Finals)
·   Thiem (US Open, Roland Garros, Vienna, Finals) and Raonic (Cincinnati, US Open, St. Petersburg, Antwerp, Bercy) 76.19
·    Sinner 72.73 (Rome, Roland Garros, Cologne 2, Sofia)
·    Hanfmann 70 (Kitzbuhel)
·    Bautista Agut 68.75 (Cincinnati, US Open, Hamburg, Roland Garros, Cologne 1)
·    Humbert (Rome, Hamburg, Antwerp, Bercy) and Carreno Busta (US Open, Roland Garros, Bercy) 66.67
·    Davidovich Fokina (US Open, Cologne 1, Cologne 2, Bercy) and Dimitrov (Rome, Roland Garros, Vienna) 64.7
·    Tsitsipas 64 (Cincinnati, US Open, Hamburg, Roland Garros)

Continuity is the main theme here. As you can see, in fact, the six leaders are all part of the Top 8 of the actual ranking, a sign that the best have substantially continued to amass victories, including Rublev, who earned his place in the Finals from August onwards but at the same time had already won two tournaments (Doha and Adelaide) at the beginning of the year – the fact that these players would keep pacing the competition isn’t to be overlooked or taken for granted, as it indicates a constructive approach to the months of the tour’s hiatus.

The only intruders at over 70 percent are Milos Raonic, who if healthy proved to be still competitive at the highest level (he did well particularly at Cincinnati/New York and Bercy), Yannick Hanfmann, buoyed by the great tournament played in Kitzbuhel but still a solid performer even when the match sample extends to qualifiers and Challenger (he won two thirds of the total matches he played) and Jannik Sinner. The Italian finished the season by winning 13 of his last 16 bouts (one of the defeats was a retirement, while the others came against Nadal and Zverev) and demonstrated a great continuity that bodes well for the future, especially considering that, after a slow start in New York, the South Tyrolean has begun his rise on his least favourite surface, clay, and this is perhaps the most comforting element for him.

His ascent is even more evident when looking at the 15 players who have won the most matches on the ATP Tour, in which he comes up in fifth place:

·   Rublev 26
·   Djokovic 23
·   Zverev 22
·   Medvedev 20
·   Thiem, Tsitsipas, Raonic, Schwartzman and Sinner 16
·   Nadal, Humbert and Carreno Busta 14
·   Shapovalov 13
·   Mannarino and Coric 12

Sinner is not the only Next Gen player to appear in one of these standings (two names of up-and-coming standouts but perhaps not yet too well known, and whose presence in these lists can therefore somewhat surprise, are those of Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Ugo Humbert), while the presence of players over 30 years old (other than Nadal and Djokovic, ça va sans dire) is beginning to peter out – the only additional names are those of Bautista Agut and Mannarino.

To summarise, in any case, the relationship between the two data is represented in the following graph, which includes those who have won at least 60 percent of their matches:

The first thing that stands out is that the same players occupy the podium in the two categories, with Djokovic and Rublev taking the lead in one list each and Zverev right behind them in both. However, while Nole plays and wins almost exclusively at the top tournaments (Masters 1000 events, the Slams and the ATP Finals), the Russian and the German have diversified a little more: Rublev has won 15 games (out of 15) in the three 500 tournaments he’s entered, more of half of his grand total of 26, while Sascha (who nonetheless reached two big finals at Flushing Meadows and Bercy) pumped up his tally with eight consecutive victories in the Cologne fortnight, a double tournament created almost exclusively for his benefit.  

By virtue of this bottom-up and more subdued approach of the two, things change when looking at the 15 leaders for total points, with Zverev slipping to fifth and Rublev to sixth:  

·  Djokovic 3870
·  Medvedev 3545
·  Thiem 3260
·  Nadal 2940
·  Zverev 2690
·  Rublev 2565
·  Schwartzman 1750
·  Tsitsipas 1735
·  Carreno Busta 1360
·  Raonic 1275
·  Shapovalov 990
·  Sinner 865
·  Coric 850
·  Ruud 740
·  Humbert and Bautista Agut 720  

What is striking in such a temporally circumscribed ranking is that the two Grand Slam winners (who thus received 2000 points each) do not occupy the top two places, something that tells us a lot about how physically costly it is to clinch those seven, three-out-of-five matches. After winning the US Open, Thiem (who led in both the second half of 2020 as well as in the season as a whole for ATP points notched at the Grand Slams) missed Rome, ran out of steam in the fifth set against Schwartzman in Paris, played Vienna while smarting from a foot issue, missed Bercy, and played his best again only at the O2 Arena over two months later; Nadal, on the other hand, chose (rightly) to focus on his favourite Grand Slam, winning a relatively small number of matches but clearly getting what he wanted from his scheduling philosophy – except perhaps getting a big indoor title after 15 years.

Both are surpassed by Medvedev, who had a performance in some ways opposite to that of his compatriot Rublev: in 500-point events, he had a record of just three wins and as many defeats, while he won 17 matches out of 20 in the Masters 1000, the Slams and the ATP Finals (10 out of 15 for Andrey).  

That said, it can be noticed how Djokovic leads both in percentage of wins and in total points. It is therefore funny that some might consider the post-lockdown campaign as a failure for Nole, because, while it is true that he has not managed to get closer to Federer for total Slams won (indeed losing ground to Nadal) nor to equal the Swiss’s wins at the ATP Finals, he has still won two Masters 1000 (in major events he has won 21 matches, more than everybody else, and is second only to Medvedev in terms of winning percentage, 85 percent to 84) and has secured his sixth year-end N.1 crown, equalling Sampras’s Open Era record and getting closer and closer to the record for the most weeks spent at the top. Nevertheless, the question naturally arises as to which approach was better, whether the more traditional one of the Serbian or the more calibrated one of Nadal, who decided to pace himself by playing (and winning) only one Grand Slam – the answer can only be subjective in this case…  

Daniil Medvedev at the ATP Finals

CONCLUSIONS

But let’s go back to the initial questions: are the rankings of these three months a faithful representation of the hierarchies ​​of men’s tennis? Can they give us indications for the future? As always, the answer is not Manichean. On the one hand, the manifest superiority of the top players who played was mentioned, validating their position of pre-eminence, and this would seem to suggest that the status quo of the elite of the game is consolidated, and it probably is.  

On the other hand, however, there are equally obvious caveats, represented by the absence of many great players and by the psycho-physical conditions of others, which was so underwhelming that it cannot objectively be considered as a long-term trend. Since August, four top 100 players have never played: Federer, Kyrgios, Tsonga and Pouille. Others have not won a single match: Basilashvili (zero out of nine!), Monfils and Querrey haven’t gotten on the board at all, while those who have won matches but not on the main tour are Chardy, Sousa, Ymer, Kohlschreiber and Mager.  

In the ATP Top 50, moreover, several players remained far below their standards, often for specific reasons: among them Fognini (recovering from a double ankle surgery), Paire (whose lack of effort during the lockdown was never in doubt), Edmund, and to a lesser extent Goffin, the only other Top 25 in addition to Fognini and La Monf to win less than half of his matches – in his case, wedding preparation and the subsequent positivity to Covid-19 are the probable causes.  

In summary, therefore, many players have had to take this phase (in spite of themselves) as a transitional period in which to solve their physical issues with the comfort of the new ranking, while for many others it is possible that the motivations have languished, both for the security provided by the rankings and for the absence of the public – for others, their conduct during the hiatus may not have been professional enough. In addition, the distribution of tournaments in terms of surfaces was a little different than usual, with no grass events, a much lower percentage of outdoor hardcourt tournaments and likely unique conditions on clay – players who did well especially indoor, such as Mannarino, or on the “heavy” red clay of last autumn, may not be able to repeat the same results in 2021.  

The sum of these factors therefore suggests that the decline of the underperformers can only be temporary, even if it should be emphasized that many of the players listed among the inactive or among those with a negative performance are most likely in the twilight of their careers, and as mentioned the players over 30 who have been doing well since August are not many – it is possible that the long break spelt doom on most of the ATP Tour’s veterans.  

CHALLENGER AND QUALIFICATIONS

Finally, let’s take a brief look at who has been particularly solid in the ancillary areas to the main tour. Below is a graph that correlates total wins and percentage of those who, including qualifiers and Challengers, have achieved 60 percent wins: 

With the exception of Stan Wawrinka, who decided to play the two Prague Challengers instead of travelling to New York, ending up facing opponents well below his level, and Ricardas Berankis (too few matches to make an evaluation), the others (Cecchinato and Martinez in particular) have all won consistently, often finding exploits in the major circuit as well. And in 2021, having clinched so many matches could push them to rise further in the standings, because a win’s a win at any level, and finding continuity and self-esteem in a phase with so few tournaments could give them an advantage, even if, it is urgent to repeat it, conditions could be very different in 2021.

Article translated by Andrea Ferrero; edited by Tommaso Villa

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