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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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Steve Flink: “Jannik Sinner Will Be a Top 10 Player by the US Open”

The Hall-of-Famer journalist comments on Hurkacz’s surprise win in Miami and previews the clay season. Who was the biggest letdown, Medvedev or Zverev? Nadal will soon be world N.2 again, while Andreescu is striving to stay healthy.

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The first Masters 1000 event of the season wrapped up on Sunday, but another already looms in wait in Monte Carlo, and on a different surface. To comment on the situation of the two tours, Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta was joined by his colleague Steve Flink: they focused on Hubert Hurkacz’s surprise win as well as on Jannik Sinner’s great run in Florida – Asheigh Barty’s permanence atop the rankings was also discussed. Here’s their chat:

 

00:00 – The man of the hour is Hubert Hurkacz: “He had an amazing run, defeating five players with a better ranking than his!” What was the key strategy in his final win over Sinner?

07:30 – This was the first Masters 1000 event since 2005 not to feature either Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, or Murray – a wasted chance for Daniil Medvedev? He started as the clear favourite, but his attitude against Bautista Agut left something to be desired…

12.50 – What lies ahead for Sinner? Some of the greatest names in the game did well in Miami in the past – a sign of things to come?

16.20 – Hurkacz betrayed some nerves against Rublev and Sinner, but held on to serve those matches out. Sinner, on the other hand, wasted a 6-5 lead in the opening set – what can he do to improve?

22.50 – Whose great champion does Hurkacz’s serve remind Ubaldo and Steve of? A look at the other players who underperformed in Miami, starting with Tsitsipas and Rublev.

32.00 – “Alexander Bublik reminds me of Safin, he’s an entertainer and he is not boring in press conferences!” What about Sebastian Korda – does he have the mettle of a champion?

40.00 – The women’s tournament: “I expected a great final, but Andreescu was clearly spent – I hope she’ll manage to stay healthy.” Was Osaka’s no-show against Sakkari a worrying sign?

45.30 – If the Canadian is healthy, will she join Osaka and Barty as the defining players of the decade? Who else could make a run to the top?

49.30 – This week, 10 Italian players feature in the ATP Top 100 – will at least one of them feature at the ATP Finals in Turin?

Transcript by Antonio Flagiello; translated and edited by Tommaso Villa

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Editorial

Women’s Tennis’ Best Player Wins Again

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It wasn’t long ago that Naomi Osaka appeared to be a talented young tennis player who had lost her way. On a rather warm April day in Charleston, S.C., in the 2018 Volvo Car Open, the then 20-year-old had had enough. As perspiration streamed down her face while she walked to her bench on
the jam-packed smallish outside Althea Gibson Club Court, Osaka looked at her coach and made the remark that she didn’t want to be there. Of course, she was losing. Osaka finished that round of 16 match, eventually losing to Julia Goerges.

 

NO WORRIES ABOUT PURSE
Obviously, Osaka wasn’t worried about the larger purse she missed by losing that day in Charleston. Money wasn’t that big a deal. Just two weeks earlier, Osaka had earned a $1.34 million check for winning the mega tournament at Indian Wells, Calif. The world was her game.
A few months later, Osaka won her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 U.S. Open. And now the powerful 5-11 native of Osaka, Japan, looks unstoppable with four Grand Slam titles in less than three years. Serena Williams probably is more worried about Osaka matching her record than Serena is
about surpassing Margaret Court in the number of Grand Slam titles.
Osaka is that good these days on the court, while making waves with her politeness and well-spoken interviews.

BRADY NO MATCH FOR OSAKA
Jennifer Brady was no match for Osaka in Saturday’s Australian Open final, falling much the same way Serena Williams had been dominated a couple of nights earlier. Osaka just turned the6-3, 6-4 victory she posted over Williams to a 6-4, 6-3 over Brady and a second straight Australian Open title.
Brady tried to out-hit Osaka. That was a mistake as the 24-year-old former UCLA star couldn’t keep her over-hit balls on the court in the face of Osaka’s meticulously placed, yet powerful serves and ground strokes. Brady fell victim to Osaka’s near-perfect cross-court put-aways from both sides on short balls.

OSAKA WAS A SUPERSTAR IN WAITING
The first time I watched Osaka in person was in the 2017 Volvo Car Open when a red-hot Shelby Rogers (she had just beaten long-time friend Madison Keys) scored a straight-set victory as Osaka watched too many of her shots miss their mark. It was rather surprising even then as a 19-year-old that Osaka was often losing matches. Her game was already spectacularly based on power. She was so talented and good that she was a
can’t-miss future superstar. Osaka is a quicker version of Serena. She has the entire package of talent.

No one in women’s tennis probably has better control of her shots and serves in pressure situations than Osaka. She also must have some of the quickest feet in the game, while being able to fight off her opponent’s hardest-hit shots with her upper body strength. It’s not surprising that Chrissie Evert calls Osaka “the best player in the world.” She may be just that by a long ways.


James Beck has been 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 postandcourier.com and search for James Beck.

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Editorial

Medvedev, Not Tsitsipas, Looks Like A Grand Slam Champion

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Stefanos Tsitsipas looked like he might be a serious contender to win this Australian Open after his startling upset of Rafa Nadal in the quarterfinals.
But then, it wasn’t as much that Tsitsipas won that match as it was that Nadal lost it. Nadal was just out there the last two sets and the third-set tiebreaker after smothering Tsitsipas the first two sets.

 

NADAL WASN’T HIMSELF
Obviously, Nadal wasn’t himself physically after the first two sets. He was completely un-Nadal, even flubbing a pair of overheads in the tiebreaker. Those two overheads told the story for a player who quite possibly has the best overhead in men’s tennis. And then there was the string of miss-hit ground strokes by Nadal while repeatedly not even making a move for the ball at times during the last three sets as he watched Tsitsipas hit winners that normally would have been answered by Nadal.

TSITSIPAS ENJOYED HIS CAKE WHEN HE COULD
Tsitsipas made the last two sets of his 3-6, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-5 win over Nadal look like eating a piece of cake. It was evident that he faced little resistance from Nadal. Yet, I for one was fooled into thinking that the athletic 22-year-old Greek was a little better than he really is.
Even John McEnroe was predicting that Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev might win 10 Grand Slam titles between them. If that happens, Medvedev likely will have to win all 10 by himself.

A GRAND SLAM CHAMPION?
Tsitsipas just doesn’t look like a Grand Slam champion. At least, not in the Australian Open semifinals in his straight-set rout by Medvedev. Tsitsipas appeared to be following the sameformat against Medvedev that he used against Nadal, following two lackluster sets with an upgrade in his energy and play in a tight third set. Tsitsipas had Medvedev thinking the semifinals could be a repeat of the quarterfinals if the Russian didn’t pull his game together late in the third set to wrap up a 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 victory and a spot opposite Novak Djokovic in the final. Of course, the young Greek might get better with age.

MEDVEDEV COULD COOL DOWN AGAINST NOVAK
Tsitsipas might sneak up and win a major when the other new stars of the game see their games briefly fall apart or the “Great Three” of Nadal, Roger Federer and Djokovic have faded into just legends of the game. Of course, there is a chance that Medvedev could cool down before or during Sunday’s
championship match against the rubber-like Djokovic. But maybe not. I could see Medvedev wearing Djokovic down. This will be Medvedev’s second Grand Slam final. He may be ready this time to pull it off this
time.

THE PHENOMENALLY TALENTED NOVAK
Djokovic is a phenomenal talent, especially in Rod Laver Arena in the middle of the U.S. night. His only weakness has been his physicality. He has shown that weakness throughout his career, although not enough to prevent him from winning 17 Grand Slam titles, just three behind Nadal
and Federer. You might say Djokovic has owned Rod Laver Arena. Eight titles Down Under is almost as amazing as Nadal’s 13 French Open crowns. Nearing his 34th birthday, Djokovic, of course, is a little younger than both Nadal and Federer. But Novak is less than a year younger than Nadal. Federer is 39 and looking a lot like Super Bowl wonder Tom Brady.


James Beck has been 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 postandcourier.com and search for James Beck.

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