While marveling at both Indian Wells finals, while wondering, like so many, whether an in-form Carlos Alcaraz beats an in-form Novak Djokovic, while wondering if The Republic will enjoy the Boris Becker documentary as much as I did, while amused the Indian Wells and Miami tournament directors both have ownership stakes in paddle sports …
… we move onward.
I'm watching the women's Indian Wells final as I write this. I'm stunned by the power hitting of both Rybakina and Sabalenka. I saw Agassi & Sampras play each other in San Jose in '96 and I think, minus some MPH on the serves, the women are hitting about as hard/fast as the men did in the 90s. I know the racquet and string tech have made a difference, and I'm aware these are two of the bigger hitters on the women's tour, but still - wow.
At the start of Indian Wells, I noticed the chatter was about the absence of power, specifically star power. No Serena, Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. By the end, the chatter was about the abundance of power. The women’s final was a session of it. The Elena Rybakina–Aryna Sabalenka match was akin to a UFC fight that never went to the ground. The men’s final between Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev was a classic offense/defense, and the defender stood nearly 6’7”.
The short answer: The slugging in the women’s final was extraordinary, just as it had been in Melbourne the last Saturday in January. I’m not sure it does us much good to compare men and women or era to era (someone also referenced the Monica Seles-Jennifer Capriati U.S. Open match from the early ’90s), but there was a know-it-when-you-see-it quality Sunday. We were watching what was possibly an unprecedented level of bashing—not just the winners, but the mid-rally balls. More of this, please.
It seems Indian Wells also marked a plot point in tennis. We have been talking for years about transition in the sport and coming out of the Big Four. We are coming off a tournament that featured none of them and still featured elevated, high-level tennis. Charismatic players. Rising stars. Drama. Aggro. This is what transition looks like. Again the distillation: we’re going to be fine here, folks.
What is the deal with Holger Rune's behavior? I'm absolutely baffled at him disrespecting Wawrinka like he did. If this is the future of ATP Tour-- trash-talking-- then I am out!
Rune is simultaneously working on two different reputations—an ascending player with the potential to win Slams and being a baby. Not a bad boy or a punk or a menace, but an unsporting whiner. That seeped out during and after his French Open match against Casper Ruud. Same with his past two matches against Stan Wawrinka. There was also this regrettable bit of behavior that, while not as aggro with a colleague, was more disturbing.
Still, I have a hard time divorcing Rune from his age. He’s 19. Repeat: 19. There would be something extraordinary and remarkable if he weren’t occasionally petulant, if he were fully in compliance with the ATP social code. His interaction with Wawrinka after their match last week was almost poignant in its clumsiness.
You’re supposed to gloat, “What do you have to say to me now?” when you win, not when you lose. Still, Rune approached the net and let it fly. It’s like missing a jump shot and snarling at your defender, There’s more where that came from. Wawrinka was less upset than he was confused. Wait, what? Huh?
I am conscious of sounding old, but how many times have we seen this from male and female players? From Andre Agassi from Victoria Azarenka to Lleyton Hewitt, rising stars come with rough edges. Eventually they plane those down. Everyone wins in the end. You’d suspect, a decade from now, a wiser elder statesman Holger Rune will be talking about how helpful it was that veterans like Wawrinka put him in his place. To your question, stick with tennis. Rune is the future—part of it, anyway—of the ATP. His 19-year-old persona is not the future.
I just returned from Indian Wells. My first live tournament since the pandemic.
1. What happened to the line people? Is the ATP/WTA taking care of them now that they are mostly out of a job? I would hope so.
2. I watched the match between Iga Swiatek and Claire Liu. I assume Asics is their sponsor. They were both wearing the exact outfit from shows to shorts to top. Even their underclothes were identical. If I were a casual sports fan clicking through channels, I wouldn't be able to distinguish the two and would quickly move on. I assume Asics produces tennis clothes in different colors. Can't the two players wear different colors with perhaps the higher seed getting first choice.
1. The linespeople have been ChatGPT’ed, replaced by technology. Yes, you feel like tennis has a moral obligation to find these people alternative work in the sport. But if we proceed on the assumption that line-calling exists for the purposes of accuracy and fairness and the integrity of the sport, are we not obligated to use the system that comes closest to optimizing these goals?
2. Swiatek is the one who seldom misses, but your point is well-taken. When two players take the court wearing the identical outfit, everyone loses. Fans can’t differentiate. The players—in an individual sport that thrives on individuality—become indistinguishable. The sponsor gets half value. Tennis looks JV overall. Easy solution: equip players with multiple outfits. If your opponent is sponsored by the same company, the higher-ranked player chooses first. Next case!
I was watching Medvedev’s whiny clown act during his Indian Wells match against Alexander Zverev. It was highly entertaining, for sure, but I noticed the chair umpire was basically just letting it happen. A baseball umpire would’ve told Medvedev to shut the hell up. And this seemed like typical chair umpire behavior—very deferential to the hysterical player. Why is this? Is it a European thing? A tennis thing? Am I overgeneralizing based on this? Do chair umpires put the players in their place and I just don’t see it happen?
In keeping with last week’s theme, we want bright red lines (is that the cliché?), but there’s nuance here. If the player is beefing with his/her opponent, it’s one thing. If an opponent is simply offloading frustration and stress, let him (and the majority are men) go. It’s harmless. In this case, it was downright funny.
And engaging the player or warning him is simply going to antagonize him. In the case of a baseball umpire, the dispute is often personal and a direct protest over a specific call. This is a player—by his own admission “a little crazy sometimes”—ranting about a playing surface. You imagine the umpire concealing a giggle and thinking, “What are you yelling at me for? I didn’t pave the damn court.” When Medvedev resumed play, Zverev was smiling at the rant along with everyone else. Again, context.
Something that has bothered me for decades is that whenever certain TV stations (pretty much all of them that ever show tennis highlights) show a one- or two-point tennis match highlight, they insist on showing match point (and then the obligatory handshake, which is also boring unless there's a confrontation), when oftentimes, match point is a pretty routine missed shot. This is especially unnecessary when it's a one-sided match. Who cares about seeing the last point of a 63, 62 match unless it happens to be an epic point?
The quality of points is so incredible these days. Why not show at least one great rally or at least a great shot from the match? Showing just the last point would be like just showing the kneel down from the end of a football game. The only logic I can think of for this is it's easier when cutting highlights to just use the last point and not have to comb through the whole match, but again, stations manage to show the best action from other sports.
If you don't have any influence on getting stations to change this habit, maybe you can at least explain the reason?
Match points feature closure and conclusion, but they are often unremarkable, save the fact that the players’ shifts have ended. It’s a lot to ask highlight loggers and cutters to find the pivotal point of the match or the highlight-reel shot. But your point is well taken. I would add that we all want to see the post-match handshake. It’s revealing. It’s our first close-up of both players. Sometimes it’s significant for what is being revealed (and suppressed). It’s hard to show this without the point that preceded it.
Tennis Magazine did a fascinating series about the most romantic shot in tennis -- the one-handed back (side note, let's have a brief series on the best two handed forehands. No prizes for guessing the best). Now we all get to chime in and critique the list. So here's mine -- how do you not include the Graf slice backhand? We of course remember Graf best for all the right reasons -- Die (Fraulein) Forehand, the footwork, the stoicism, but you don't win 22 Grand Slams with just a forehand, and her success isn't in line with what Tignor wrote about the durability of a slice.
"...With its long, long-to-high arc, the modern one-hander has been transformed into the sport's most expressive shot. But that transformation has also been a matter of survival: In our power-baseline era, you won't stick around long with a simple slice, the way you could back when everyone rushed the net."
Sorry, but Graf won almost all of her Slams against baseliners. The slice didn't hit winners, but it set her up to move around and hit her forehand. You would not have the Graf forehand as she used it without the biting Graf slice backhand to draw a weak reply.
Two-handed forehands? Monica Seles, Cliff Drysdale, Marino Bartoli, Jan Michael Gambill, Fabrice Santoro. (Ironically, Peng Shuai had a two-hander, did she not?) As for your disagreement, point taken. Graf’s one-hander wasn’t the standard blasting shot in the manner of Justine Henin or Stan Wawrinka or Dominic Thiem. But yes, the scything, ground-hugging slice could be just as effective as the one-handed drive. I would add this: Graf’s greatest weapon, of course, was her forehand. That as context, a low slice was often the perfect set-up shot, taking her opponent out of position and putting Graf in position. When seen as part of a one-two punch, Graf’s backhand gets even higher marks.
I agree with you comments in last week’s mailbag that Sharapova is Hall of Fame worthy, but I thought you were pretty dismissive of her doping. If intent matters, Sharapova is clearly guilty of intentional and sustained doping over pretty much her whole career. You can make the argument that meldonium is of dubious value in improving performance, but the reality is that Sharapova went to great lengths to obtain a prescription medicine from overseas while living in the US (where it is not approved), used it in an off-label manner (consistent with Russian doping schemes), and failed to report taking it in routine reports to the WADA.
Regardless of the value, the intent is pretty clear. You could also argue that meldonium was not illegal for most of that time, but again, the intent to capture a performance benefit through the abuse of prescription drugs is hard to avoid. I don’t think anything here is “messy”. The picture is completely clear and Sharapova’s arguments for why she was using it were transparently ridiculous. It’s all pretty much water under the bridge and this point, but Russian doping is still a hot topic and that tennis was caught up in it is something we shouldn’t whitewash.
There’s no whitewashing here. By any definition, Sharapova undermined the integrity of competition with her meldonium use—banned, unbanned, on label, off-label, prescription, OTC. No one could reasonably look at the facts and conclude otherwise. And to me, the cover-up was worse than the crime. That she has an eponymous candy brand and yet attributed her use to a family history of … diabetes? That’s either patently false or something approaching evil. (We have a family history of black lung disease, yet I am affixing my name to a brand of anthracite coal; look for my pop-up store in Wimbledon Village!)
The discussion, though, was whether this disqualifies Sharapova from the Hall of Fame and whether her doping supersedes her tennis. I say no. She will get my vote.
Just my two cents, but Novak's anti-vax stance has well and truly outstayed it's welcome. If nothing else, it undermines his attempts to improve the tour and player conditions since his withdrawal, as the number one player on the world, from Tier One tournaments based on his own personal medical stance threatens viewership and therefore sponsorship and the tour can't exist without either of those things.
Also, it stokes an already stale but still toxic debate about vaccinations, especially on social media. I question too the mixed message from a player who otherwise seems passionately motivated about health and science but on this issue seems to lean towards conspiracy theories and paranoia. Nobody is being forced to have the Vax, but his ongoing resistance - as well as his documented flippancy regarding covid in general - seems very peculiar. What’s your view?
My best instincts say to leave this alone. It’s exhausting. It’s polarizing. It’s played out. It guarantees social media toxicity. No one is swaddled in glory. And my other instinct says, “The dominant player in the sport is absent from events by choice. This issue—tiresome and tiring as it may be—involves macro issues and questions of personal liberties versus collective responsibilities. It exposes tennis’s structural flaws. It’s a dereliction of duty to ignore this story and pretend there’s nothing here to see.”
So here goes:
I tweeted this before Indian Wells and it’s essentially where I stand.
What do I mean?
1. I flew to Europe earlier this month and did so without a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vacation. I counted one person on the entire flight—including flight attendants—wearing a mask. And my assumption was not that they were being cautious in avoiding COVID-19, but rather they had COVID-19 and wanted to spare other passengers. At this stage of the COVID saga—and given what we know about the data and science—the current (happily lapsing) U.S. policy is awfully hard to defend. (And the lack of attempted defense was telling.)
2. Two years ago, it was absurd that tennis fans had to show proof of vaccination … to set foot in an arena and watch players who did not have to show proof of vaccination. Now, we have the opposite. Vaccinated players competing before potentially unvaccinated fans. In fact, a player who has to show proof of vaccination simply to enter the U.S., but can be approached for a selfie by a fan who might be COVID-positive? As the kids say: make it make sense.
3. Nine months ago, after the Australia debacle, high ranking USTA execs were quietly annoyed Djokovic wouldn’t just get vaccinated and make this mess disappear. And that his fans were disparaging the tournament and conflating U.S. policy with tournament policy. The USTA tried, strenuously, to avoid getting sucked into a controversy, claiming it was simply “following the rules.” A few of us in the media were approached about stressing the USTA’s intentionally passive stance and dispelling the idea that there was any ideology behind it. Why then, last week, would the USTA enter the fray and issue this polarizing tweet? What levers were pushed for this about-facer, this but of performative outrage so lacking in 2022? As a friend noted, if the USTA really has suddenly come to hold such strong views about public health and vaccinations, perhaps it should refund the Moderna sponsorship dollars.
4. In Welcome-to-Polarized America, where every issue gets conscripted into the culture wars’ segment, was there anything more predictable than Djokovic getting used for cheap political points like this? Regardless of where you stand politically, I would argue it's seldom a good thing when the extreme flanks from any party are using you for their gain.
5. Again, Djokovic is a magnificent player, incontrovertibly among the—if not the—greatest. But that doesn’t make him immune from criticism and second-guessing. There was an easy, free, fast solution here, one that every one of his colleagues opted for. He did not. This was an insight into his thinking and supreme self-belief—he, and only he, should decide what to put in his body. His temple. His choice. But he should also accept the consequences, without seeking loopholes or waivers or enlisting power-brokers.
I made this analogy last year. I once worked with someone who was convinced that airport magnetometers were sources of cancer. He allegedly had “data” supporting this. But we believe in the rule of law. And there are laws and policies—however onerous; however personally disagreeable; however “ineffective” someone’s study found them to be—that state airline passengers must pass through these screening machines before boarding flights. Should my colleague have been forced through them? No. His choice and it should be respected. But he accepted his decision and found alternatives to commercial flights. He didn’t seek to petition the FAA for an exemption or recruit high-powered friends to grant waivers.
Where are we? Another event without the best player in the world. Another issue that cleaves the public and makes both sides—Djokovic as freedom fighter; Djokovic as a selfish tennis demon—dig in. Another episode that highlights tennis’s congenital dysfunction.
The good news: barring some new viral strain, this, soon, will not be an issue. This silly U.S. policy will lapse. Djokovic will be back. The U.S. Open will get its star to offset the absence of Federer, Serena and, perhaps, Nadal. We can all move on. But we learned a lot —mostly about tennis’s stress points—along the way.