Matt Zemek

Fans, pundits, writers, broadcasters, coaches — many people in each of those five groups think that Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov are the future of men’s tennis. Therefore, their meeting Monday evening at the U.S. Open in New York was packed with excitement and symbolism. This was not a significant meeting — not in relationship to major title hopes or rankings points or the considerations which matter when players gain top-10 status and highest-tier quality. If this match was significant, it was only in the sense that two players might one day recall when they met for the first time at a major, and began the long road — separate yet together — as Canadian friends who could collect tennis’s biggest trophies in the course of time.

This match wasn’t soaked with importance, but it was soaked with excitement. Unfortunately, it was also soaked with humidity, 65 percent at match’s end, with temperatures in the mid-80s in New York, which is reasonably common for late August at the start of a U.S. Open. The heat index was close to 90 degrees throughout the match. It was a very, very uncomfortable day to play tennis… or at least, very uncomfortable to play outdoors.

Auger-Aliassime’s heart problems might not be widely known, but they have been a source of conversation and concern in some quarters. People I interacted with on Twitter during the match, and after the prolonged medical visit Felix received early in the third set, brought up the issue. One person told me he asked Felix directly about the matter in the past. He shared articles with me, but they came from sources (such as TennisWorldUSA) which are not particularly reputable in the tennis news industry. Where the truth lies with Felix’s structural health is uncertain, but his retirement midway through the third set against Shapovalov certainly increases those concerns, wherever they might actually exist. It is not time to freak out about Felix, but it is certainly time for his team to gather additional information and make sure various warning signs, if present, are dealt with in full.

I am not a doctor — and I know that being on Twitter makes it easy for a lot of non-doctors to suddenly seem like doctors — so I won’t wade into the deep pool of pronouncements about Felix Auger-Aliassime’s holistic well-being.

What I can say, after this truncated edition of Felix-Shapo, is simply this: It was played on a court without a roof. The new Grandstand was built just a few years before the renovated Louis Armstrong Stadium. The Grandstand, the site of this match, did not include a roofed court, whereas the new Armstrong did.

One could make the very reasonable argument that at the Australian Open in Melbourne Park, three courts have retractable roofs — Rod Laver Arena, Hisense Arena, and Margaret Court Arena — which would make it seem natural that the United States Tennis Association, with another outdoor hardcourt major tournament, could have done the same. Ashe Stadium would have been one roofed court, the Grandstand being the second, and the new Armstrong being the third this year… but the Grandstand wasn’t part of that lineup.

Tennis is an outdoor sport, so say most people, and so says the traditionalist voice in tennis. I am a traditionalist on some issues, but not this one. I am firmly in the camp — a small one — which believes that tennis is exhausting and physically demanding enough as it is. Running, stopping, reversing direction, sliding, serving, hitting groundstrokes, volleying, hitting overheads, for three hours against a top opponent, trying to win three sets at a major tournament, is taxing no matter the environment. I and anyone else who supports Carl Bialik’s “Cool Down Tennis” believe that the attritional nature of modern tennis have exacted a toll on players. We have seen this in the past few injury-strewn seasons on tour. Therefore, with the sport itself being physically brutal, why not stage more matches indoors and in milder conditions whenever possible?

Tennis is not institutionally or intellectually ready to make this shift. The sport’s collective mindset is in line with the view that tennis is meant to be played outdoors. Yet, on a night when “the future of tennis” — in the form of two young Canadian hopefuls — came to New York before an eager crowd, “the future of tennis” found a different iteration.

“The future of tennis” is found most centrally in the new crop of talented players, but the future of tennis can also emerge — and be enhanced — if the sport is willing to reconsider certain elements of its identity. The outdoor element is one which should be reconsidered, if only because if the Grandstand had a roof, and if that roof was then used, the weather conditions would have been a lot less uncomfortable. This would not have guaranteed that Felix would have been able to play a full match in good health, but it certainly would have increased the odds.

I leave you with this simple question — I won’t answer it but will let it hang in the air while you contemplate it: “If playing more indoor tennis means that Felix Auger-Aliassime’s chances of having a stable and productive career will greatly improve, is it worth it?”

Image – Aditya Prabhakar(Tennis with an Accent)

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