As it is written, Wednesday is Mailbag Day…..
Let’s start with a topic that has drawn a lot attention—in your communiques, in the press room, and inevitably on social media. Novak Djokovic has been outspoken about his hamstring injury entering the tournament. This has drawn praise. This has drawn criticism. This has drawn a response from Taylor Fritz that was fair and measured and insightful. The Melbourne Age headline “Insult to injury: Novak’s Niggle the Talk of the Town” says it all.
Two main thoughts here. Athletes are not above condemnation or judgement. But I’d read carefully on this topic. If an athlete denies and injury or downplays and injury, they stand accused of being disingenuous. If they address an injury, they stand accused of drama queenery. Apart from the damned-either-way aspect, injuries are personal, injuries are unpredictable and injuries and hard to diagnose.
Often athletes simply do not know what's happening. They are worried. Or they are optimistic. Or they think adrenaline can cure what ails them. Or they don’t know. Give athletes wide berth here. Nick Kyrgios played an exhibition (ironically against Djokovic) on the eve of the tournament. Barely mentioned his knee….then he withdrew from the event and went into surgery. Djokovic missed practices and spoke at length about his injury…and has scarcely looked better on court. (Much as Fritz, as Netflix viewers know, was in searing pain the morning of the Indian Wells final. But then overrode his coaches’ advice and played, only to win the title.)
Here’s another thought: let’s imagine a worst-case scenario. An athlete exaggerates an injury. He does this to mitigate pressure. Or to play a mind game with the opponent. Or to create uncertainty. And….who cares? This might violate a code. This might run counter to the bromide “If you play you’re fit; if you’re fit you play.” But I would contend that something other than full truth about an injury—overstating or understating—is within bounds.
Players go to great lengths to gain mental edges. Players go to great lengths to tell themselves stories that will optimize performance. If an athlete (especially in an individual sport) wishes to dwell an on injury or throw off a scent because doing do might be in service of winning… that seems to me quite reasonable.
If Rafa could turn back the clock, I bet he would reimagine the final Sunday early evening Roland Garros 2022 with the trophy in hand, say goodbye, mic drop. It's so difficult to leave on top, and perhaps the moment passes before our stars can grab it. Woulda shoulda coulda been an epic farewell.
Now we most likely will get a press release saying goodbye, or worse, another early round exit - at Paris?! - as Rafa hobbles off after an early round defeat. Tragic. Your thoughts on what Rafa does now?
Timing the perfect retirement is like timing the stock market. Lots of “woulda shoulda coulda” but hard to pull off in practice. Sure, if Nadal had retired after Roland Garros it would have been an “epic farewell.” It would also have deprived him of reaching the Wimbledon semis. Plus, we—and more importantly he—would have wondered what if. You’re halfway to the frigging Grand Slam and you’re quitting? You’ve padded your all-time majors lead, 22-20-20 and you’re done?
Since the 2022 French Open, it’s been tough going for Nadal, now 36, mostly owing to injury. Says here, he’ll rest and try to defend his title in Paris. Then he’ll reassess. If he’s not successful? We might get an announcement.
And we’ll take this topic up in the 50 Thoughts column but I think we needed to distinguish between talking about an athlete’s retirement and encouraging them to leave. We should want athletes to play as long as they want. Their choice. (Imagine someone saying, “You have a one-in-a-billion talent. Now, it’s one-in-500-million. Please stop.”) If Venus Williams is fulfilled, here’s hoping she plays another 50 years. Why would anyone want Picasso to stop painting or Frank Bruni to stop writing? That said, speculation —will Biden run for another term? Was “The Fabelmans” Spielberg’s last film?—seems normal and appropriate.
We are frequent and obsessive viewers of tennis and thus far have been dumbfounded with how difficult it is to watch the Australian Open. We have ESPN (though not ESPN+) but as far as I could tell on Monday evening the second night of the tournament you couldn't find a match on U.S. television. Am I missing something?
You—and millions of others—are missing something: Australian Open tennis. It’s easy to shout (and tweet) at ESPN. But to me, the bad actors here are the folks at Tennis Australia. If ESPN wants to bury tennis and shove it on streaming and broadcast irregularly and keep the team* in Bristol, that’s its prerogative. They can (and do and will) make business decisions as they see fit. But why would Tennis Australia not put in contractual guardrails protecting against this “rights abuse”? It’s terrible for tennis. It’s terrible for integrity of the event. It’s terrible for fans. (Remember fans?)
* Stating the obvious: the on-air talent (to say nothing of the non-talent) has no say over these decisions. Don’t take your frustration out on the ESPN team that, overall, does such strong work.
Apologies to Waterdrop, whatever that is, but why doesn’t Danielle Collins have a real sponsor?
Here’s the deal: the big brands have either slashed budgets or larded contracts with performance clauses or invested heavily in only a few top players. The bad news: the $100,000-$250,000 deals that were once available to, say, 15 players are no longer. The good news: there have been more opportunities for creative deals, equity stakes and start-up investment.
See the Bryan brothers are set to play the Legends' Doubles at the Australian Open.
Question: Do former players get paid to play in this exhibition or is it just comped travel / hotel?
James in Saigon
The short answer is “yes.” No one is doing this pro bono. But as I understand it, there’s a package deal: “We’ll pay you X, but includes legends doubles, some appearances, some media obligations, some social media, etc.” It’s a win/win. The tournament fills sessions, plays into nostalgia and takes care of sponsors. The players get, say, $15,000 and a trip to Melbourne.
Statistics are fun and tennis is a sport where there can only be one winner (of a match/tournament) but why has this FRENZY of non stop bean counting of records taken over via social media? Each great player has their own special collection of unique achievements and so a record by one player is neutralized by a unique record of another. Only one has won a a single major 14 times, only one has won each major at least 4 times, etc. I'm only asking because many fans will defend their favorite to the expense of all others by plucking this or that record—can we just be happy to say that all great players did great things?
Amen. I wrote this about tribalism and social media a few months ago.
The American men’s success Down Under has been a welcome story, but does it really justify the Tennis Channel experts total silence concerning the superstar in waiting–Holger Rune?
(Anyway I have really enjoyed you guys every day.)
John R., Middletown, CT
This was clearly sent in advance of Rune’s (devastating) loss to Rublev. For the record: Right in the middle of a Tennis Channel show, I picked the winner of his match with Djokovic to win the event! Seriously, you’re probably right. We should have discussed him more as he had lost zero sets heading into that match.
But note that sometimes attention is schedule/context-dependent. Especially in the early rounds, there’s an upset but it takes place as, say, Andy Murray goes to a fifth set or Danielle Collins prematurely celebrated match point.
Plenty of triumphs and breakthroughs get underplayed not because of media bias or ineptitude, but simply because something else was going on at the time.
If you are in Australia, what is the vibe in the grounds of Melbourne Park? Although the seats seemed to have sold out for Novak's game, there were many empty seats in many matches. Also, could we agree to count to 1000 before pushing the panic button and declare a big problem in women's tennis just because Iga and Coco are out? Elena Rybakina and Vika won. Jelena, I could not believe it, seems to be back and so is Belinda Bencic. Why aren't we calling out the "crisis" in men's tennis after Rafa and Daniil Medvedev lost? At the end of the day, Martina Navratilova, whom I consider the best human being ever to play tennis (and I am a Federerite), did not win all of the matches she played. Let us all take a mighty big breath, hold for 10, then exhale.
Regards, L. Pereira, British Columbia (Canada)
In order…sadly I am in (frighteningly growing) media contingent covering this event remotely. (Ironically, I have to go to Melbourne for other business next week.) Tennis has an attendance problem. I noticed this in the Netflix doc. Even big matches—the Sakkari/Krejcikova French semi to name one—was, rightly, hailed as a career-pivoting match. Then the cameras pan to crowd to reveal seas of open seats. Some of this is the nature of an event with multiple stages. Some of this is what happens when hospitality figures so prominently. Some of this is simply unsold inventory. But it makes for horrible optics. Yes, on the women’s draw. Sure it’s a disappointment that, as I write this, there is one top 20 seed remaining (Sabalenka). But there are plenty of compelling storylines. And so long as a player defeats seven opponents to take a title, we’ll be fine here, folks. It’s sports. Not “content” with pre-written scripts.
At what point does (did?) Ostapenko's non-stop complaining about line calls she thinks are clearly out (that are inevitably well in) become an annoyance to opponents & a detriment to her own game?
Jelena Ostapenko is that rare athlete who cares not one fig what we—fans, opponents, media—think of her. And this, a priori, makes her awesome.
On the ESPN Aus Open broadcast, there is a blank flag shown for match scores of Russian/Belarussian players—however, when ESPN shows the overall tournament bracket, those players have Russian/Belarussian flags next to their names. Any clue why this discrepancy exists?
I blame Norman the intern. According to the IOC, there should be no flags or imagery for athletes from Russia and Belarus.
Take us out, Srikanth Reddy:
We all seem to agree that for the good of athletes, fans, event/site employees and volunteers, professional sporting events should not be going on much past midnight. In tennis, that leads into lots of knotty discussions about scheduling, best-of-five-versus-best-of-three, gender equity, tournament finances and television programming. But it seems to me that everyone overlooks a big problem with tennis: Matches take too long. A five-set match should not take 5 hours and 45 minutes. I understand that the length of the Murray-Kokkinakis match was an outlier, but it would have been too long even if it had been an hour shorter. (I believe Andy Murray himself would agree. He made similar comments when he was commentating during Wimbledon in 2018.) You could literally watch two marathons in that time. Address that and you'll solve, or least greatly mitigate, the problem of late-night finishes.
Are there any data on the average length of tennis matches over the years? I know McEnroe and Wilander played that Davis Cup match that went over six hours in 1982, and Lendl and Wilander played back-to-back U.S. Open finals in '87 and '88 that each approached five hours. So yes, there have always been really long matches (even setting Mats Wilander aside), and always will be. But I'd be surprised if the average length of matches and the number of extra-long matches haven't both increased significantly from the '70s, '80s and '90s to now.
The sport—and I know no single entity is in charge of the sport—should strive to have matches ordinarily wrapped up in, say, three and a half hours, tops. (Maybe best-of-five matches on clay get 4 hours.) There are so many long, punishing baseline rallies during this Australian Open. Those should be special, not routine. (If there were fewer of them, maybe, as an added benefit, players would stay healthier. Not every round of every fight can or should be Round 1 of Hagler-Hearns.) So encourage players to finish points earlier. Make the courts faster. Approaching and finishing points at the net should be a viable strategy everywhere, even if it's more viable on grass and less viable on clay. Regulate racket and string technology if necessary, to make it a little more difficult to trade and run down and retrieve groundstrokes.