Hey, everyone. We’re midway through Miami. Seems like a good time for a grab bag mailbag.
• Check back later this week for an update piece about the WTA, China, Saudi Arabia and, not least, Peng Shuai.
• Here’s my 60 Minutes interview with Charles Barkley.
Is it excessive for Miami to give byes to all 32 seeds? Top 8 or 16, O.K. Also, twofer? Opelka said on the new Craig Shapiro podcast that doubles shouldn’t exist b/c it doesn’t come close to paying for itself. Your take? Is there data on the revenue it brings in?
So it goes with a 96-draw. Look at it as a 64-draw with 32 play-in matches.
I remain torn on Reilly Opelka. We—journalists, fans, secretly the tours—clamor for charisma and color. We hate “one-match-at-a-time” cliches. We hate pablum. We hate it when personal drawbridges go up. Here comes Opelka, this Roman candle of candor, blasting away with all manner of opinion and conviction. Seems a little hypocritical to start shredding him.
And yet ... I think you can attack him on the facts and logic. The data with doubles is dirty. Does it pay for itself? Probably not. But neither do 95 percent of the singles players. If this were strictly about value, we would weigh prize money. Why should Djokovic or Nadal be subject to the same prize money breakdown as everyone else? Nadal gets $2 million a night for an exhibition. Why shouldn’t he get that for a first-round session at a tournament? If the threshold for worth is “paying for itself,” we would have eight-player tours.
Part of the value of the tour is the collective heft and spectacle. Specific to the value of doubles: it contributes to the gestalt of a tournament. It also, candidly, fills sessions. And instead of denigrating your colleagues, why not pivot to “how do we invest in doubles so we build more value?”
Speaking of straight shooters…
Ostapenko is, and has always been despicable. Change my mind.
How’s this for a defense: Jelena Ostapenko—a major champ, we should not neglect to note—hits a clean ball; comes for the battle, unlike some of her peers; succeeds despite a physique that might suggest otherwise; is the epitome of an individual. The kids implore you do you, and she does her.
She’s not interested in making friends with her co-workers. She’s not interested in bland sound bites that steer her clear of controversy. She’s not interested in tennis convention or social convention—from attire to hairstyle to postmatch speeches. And we say good. We need more friction, not less. In pro wrestling terms, we need heels as well as babyfaces. We need athletes that remind us that sports are predicated on competition, not popularity.
Is Ostapenko an acquired taste? Yes. Would she be hell to coach? Yes. Does her name appear in an extraordinary/hilarious number of searches twinned with terms like “criticized” “booed” “fumes” and “ugly scenes following victory” and “ugly scenes following defeat”? Yes. Is she despicable? Hardly.
Do you think Carlos Alcaraz can win Wimbledon this year?
Do Scandinavians like furniture design? Did Prince like purple? Did Howard Hughes like cleanliness? Does Brad Gilbert like the open-collar, no-tie look? Does Daft Punk like a disguise? Do Spaniards enjoy dining on the late side? Did Norman Mailer like women? Does the kid next to me on this flight like Cheetos, no matter how badly he is stinking up the cabin and how much his fingers look like a tennis player who has fallen on the clay at Roland Garros?
Yes. Yes, he can. Slow, fast. Indoors, outdoors. Home, away. So long as it’s tennis, Alcaraz can win.
People, including you, are so naive. Russian players cannot risk upsetting their authoritarian dictator, he makes people and their families disappear. When you ask Russians about the war, you are placing them at risk. This should not be hard to understand.
This stems from Pete Bodo’s opinion—wholly valid—that “Too many in the "tennis media" are afraid to ask the tough but necessary questions of players touched by the invasion of Ukraine. It is so discouraging.”
My take was that a place to start is simply asking players whether they condemn Russia’s war. (War, not territory dispute.) These tensions rip through the locker room. They’ve motivated the world’s No.1 to speak up. And a two-time major champ to clap back. This issue has caused one major to ban players from the offending nations. Recent former players are fighting on the front lines … Seems perfectly reasonable to ask players where they stand. If they decline to answer? Their prerogative. If they have fears that expressing views put their family at risk or “upset an authoritarian dictator,” that’s telling in and of itself, but, of course, valid grounds for declining to answer. But as with most salient issues, it’s helpful and instructive to know positions.
A number of you drew analogies—an imperfect one, but not a false one—to the Iraq War. Where was the outrage and questions to the Williams sisters or Agassi and Roddick twenty years ago? Again, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not uniformly condemned by the international community the way Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been. Specific to tennis, in the wake of the U.S. invasion, players were not suffering panic attacks and refusing to shake hands because of Iraq. Players were not taking positions or wearing Iraqi flag pins in protest. But had there been pointed, respectful questions asked of American players—“What are your thoughts on this military action?” “Do you condemn or condone your country in this matter?”—it would have been fair game.
A hat tip to Rafael Nadal, who has fallen out of the top 10 in rankings for the first time since April 2005-- by far the longest stretch in ATP history.
Notably, Rafa is one of the six players in the current top 25 rankings who is missing the Miami Open this week. They are all the oldest players, leaving 27-year-old Cam Norrie as the oldest among them in the draw. Despite the Big Three outliers, is the brutal pace of tennis an increasing factor in longevity at the top?
Credit to Nadal. And credit to Jim Courier here. We had a discussion on Tennis Channel a few years about the aging field. (Who is old enough to recall “30 is the new 20”?) Someone asked whether we would ever see another teenage champion, as we did in the 80s and 90s. This was certainly at odds with the trends at the time. Jim said words to the effect of course, “Of course. This is how innovation works. We are rational actors and someone will come along who will figure out how to go against the prevailing grain.” He was right.
Good pull on Norrie. Several years ago at the Australian Open the median age in the men’s draw was north of 30. Now the pendulum swings back. Yet I would point out: Novak Djokovic is the youngest active male to have won the French Open, Wimbledon and Roland Garros. And—can this be right?—Medvedev and Alcaraz are the only players under 30 to have won a major.
Thank you for the weekly balm of the mailbag! Amidst the talk of the tennis calendar and the forever season of pro players, it's clear at this point that one idea that has worked for the ATP has been the Next Gen Finals - it has showcased up and coming players and seemed to have turned them (or, more of them) into household names. A few questions you've likely answered - what took us so long? To what do you attribute its success? Also, assuming we're talking about prize money and status here, is the WTA really not up for something similar, even as some eligible players would surely be at the "main event"?
Silver Spring, Maryland
Andrew Miller for the win. Just this week: “The ATP has chosen Deloitte’s Sport Business Group to manage the bid process, which begins today. This year’s tournament is expected to take place in December, with the exact dates to be determined with the successful bidder. Interested parties must complete an initial Expression of Interest form available here. The bid process will also provide an opportunity to express an interest for the tournament to become a combined men’s and women’s event over the course of the term, in partnership with WTA.”
What took so long? For many years the best young players were at the “Big Boy Tour Finals.” There was no need to differentiate between up-and-comers and the standard bearers. Becker, Sampras, even Agassi. They were already top-eight players as teenagers. Same for the women. Seles, Hingis, the Williams sisters … they won majors as teenagers. Only lately—and thanks largely to three men—do we feel the need to create a kids table.
Each to their own, celebrate and thank whoever or whatever you like after a victory. But Djokovic does seem to do a lot of looking upwards, thanking some entity way above the drone cameras, hands clasped in prayer etc during the match and especially after match point if he wins. Good for him. But what if an Islamic player needed to take an extended break to answer the call to prayer if it occurred during a match? Is there any place for religious displays in sport and if so where and why, in your opinion?
Mark, Silver Spring, MD
“An extended to break to answer the Call to Prayer” would be a new source of the time violation. But therein lies the answer. So long as a religious display doesn’t materially impact the competition, I think we ought to be maximally tolerant. If Djokovic wants to look skyward after a winner or a tournament victory, good on him. If Zverev wears a crucifix … if Ons Jabeur acknowledges the challenges of playing during Ramadan … if Diego Schwartzman risks hurting his back lifting the Horah chair … so be it. It all adds to the diversity of the sport.
You guys see this? Displays of religion ought to come with this basic rule: “Promote and display your faith without denigrating the faith of others.”
• Pickleball cannot be stopped.
• Stella Artois is back in the tennis game with its new partnership with Frances Tiafoe! With the partnership, Stella Artois is kicking off a new era by rediscovering the fun and modern soul of the sport while promoting fan accessibility and inclusivity. As part of Stella’s new partnership with Tiafoe, he will be featured on Stella Artois’s custom packaging and promotional materials throughout 2023.
• The FILA Easter Bowl will return to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the 55th edition of one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious junior tennis tournaments. This year’s tournament will take place from March 25-April 1 as a USTA Level 1 event and the official USTA Spring National Championship. Past champions of the event include some of the greatest American tennis icons of all time like John McEnroe, Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick and more. The majority of the current class of professional American stars have also graced the courts of the Easter Bowl in the past, with top current ranked players like Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Jenson Brooksby, Mackenzie McDonald, Marcos Giron, Claire Liu, Emma Navarro and more headlining the list of former Easter Bowl champions who are now competing at the highest level on the ATP and WTA tours. The weeklong event will take place at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the site of the annual BNP Paribas Open. The tournament will feature a 64-person singles draw, and 32-team doubles draw in all divisions including Boys and Girls 18s, 16s, 14s and 12 and under.
• Arthur Ashe’s 1966 Ruiz Romero Futbol Tenis Ciclismo rookie card sold for $5,160 Sunday night through PWCC Marketplace, becoming the iconic tennis champion’s highest-selling trading card of all time.
“Arthur Ashe’s rookie card is one of the finest vintage tennis collectibles in existence, and it’s exciting to see it getting the record-setting attention it deserves,” said Jesse Craig, vice president of sales at PWCC Marketplace. “Ashe was one of the most talented and important athletes of the 20th century, and there’s a very limited supply of these cards still on the market which makes it extremely difficult to find a copy of this caliber.”
PSA graded this record-setting card a Good Condition 2. Only two other copies have earned as high of a grade from PSA.