Matt Zemek

I have written a lot about “Cool Down Tennis” or “Comfort Tennis” recently, so I know I will inevitably repeat myself to a degree. However, I will try not to spend too much time covering familiar ground after Novak Djokovic’s survival — in more ways than one — of his first-round U.S. Open match against Marton Fucsovics on Tuesday in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

You know I believe that more tennis should be played indoors whenever and wherever possible, especially if outdoor conditions are brutally hot or ridiculously windy (recall Tomas Berdych versus Andy Murray in the 2012 U.S. Open semifinals). You know I think tennis should be less about surviving outdoor conditions and more about who can hit a tennis ball better. You know I think roofed courts should use their roofs liberally, not sparingly. You know that I think little of the idea that “tennis is an outdoor sport.” You know I think that tennis players need a union to resolve situations such as the one players faced on Tuesday in New York, with the heat index consistently at or above 100 degrees, a product of mid-90s temperatures and mid-40s or higher humidity readings. You know these things, so I won’t try to say too much more about them after Djokovic — in a familiar scene — suffered for a prolonged period of time before finding a way past Fucsovics in round one.

What new insights can I bring to this discussion? There are a few, and I will share them now.

First, it is more than reasonable to claim that there ARE certain non-rainy, non-snowy, non-lightning-involved weather conditions in which tennis should not be played. The idea that matches are scheduled and players should play, period, in line with the old Australian school of thought from the 1960s, should not be allowed to hold sway in the modern age, when the nature of the sport of tennis is so much more physically punishing and attritional.

It is true that in the 1960s, the tiebreaker had not yet become commonplace in tennis, and that sets could go on forever. The old guard certainly had to be fit to endure life on tour in many instances. Yet, the racquets were wooden, serve-and-volley tennis was prevalent, and grass was the common surface at the biggest tournaments. Indoor tennis proliferated among the professionals before the Open Era began in 1968, but that is a different discussion. Tennis was not as physically overwhelming 50 years ago. Today, the surfaces — more hardcourts — the racquets, the strings, and the baseline-oriented playing style make tennis far more demanding than it used to be, purely in terms of the tactics involved and the demands on the body. The lack of a tiebreaker did prolong matches, and that is not to be ignored, but in nearly every other way, the mechanics of playing elite professional tennis require more from the athletes today.

For the non-Americans who are reading this, let me offer a comparison with American-style football to make the point.

American-style football has a culture and mythology which — like American foreign and military policy — are hyper-masculine and associate “manhood” with extreme physical prowess or endurance.

American football season is just about to start. Recall those delayed U.S. Open men’s singles finals on Sundays the past 25 to 35 years? They were the product of Opening Day American NFL football games, on American television, running late on CBS. Those overruns forced CBS — from 1968 through 2014, the lead U.S. Open broadcaster — to in many cases push back the start of the U.S. Open men’s final from 4:30 or 4:35 to 4:48 or 4:53. Europeans would always wonder why these long delays occurred, especially when their own television schedules indicated that the final would start shortly after 4 p.m. New York time, 9 in London, 10 in Paris. So yes, American football starts this time of year, which means that the training camps preceding the start of the season occur in late July and throughout August, in the middle of the punishing summer heat.

One such training camp occurred in 1954. The Texas A&M University team, which had been struggling, brought in a new coach, Paul W. Bryant. In order to whip his team into shape, Bryant took his recruits into a dusty and remote Texas down — Junction, Texas — and put them through punishing practices in the searing heat. Those who persevered and endured the withering conditions would become real men and champions. Those who quit would need to seek other paths in college and beyond. That was the culture of the time as Bryant viewed it, but what’s more is that the Texas A&M team really did experience a transformation after that point. A&M became a successful program in the ensuing years. The Aggies — that is the school nickname — went undefeated in 1956, two years after that first training camp in Junction. The A&M players who were part of that first camp were called “The Junction Boys,” forever enshrined in college football lore. A book was written about that group of players, and an ESPN movie was produced earlier this century.

“The Junction Boys” represented — and still do symbolize — a central part of American football’s culture. “Real men” suffer and endure. Real competitors didn’t need water breaks back in the 1950s. They toughed it out. Vestiges of that mindset linger in modern American football coaches and training camps today…

… but with sometimes disastrous consequences.

Very recently, the University of Maryland football coaching staff and athletic department were plunged into a firestorm of controversy — the coach, D.J. Durkin, has been placed on leave and could soon be fired — due to the death of a player who was overextended in practices. The training staff did not exercise due oversight and care. The fanatical need for coaches to push their players in practice, so that they will be ready for game play once the season begins, occasionally brings about a lack of sufficient oversight, which leads to players overworking themselves and dying. In many more cases, players don’t die, but they come close. College football, as a sport and an industry, is behind the curve in adjusting policies and regulations which limit coaches and give more empowerment to players so that they won’t feel they are disobeying coaches by taking more breaks during practice in hot weather.

The culture of American football has its glorious stories and its epic tales of perseverance and the other qualities we admire in athletes, but those fabled accounts coexist with preventable deaths and other hugely destructive moments. Those moments are not worth the glories and the victories which get celebrated during a season. Just because this culture has some virtues doesn’t mean it must remain fully intact. Parts of the culture need to be changed so that more players are kept safe, and don’t feel they need to be rebels against their own coaches.

Though tennis is an individual sport without the same dynamics as American football, one can still make a direct comparison between the old-school Australian ethos of the 1960s and “The Junction Boys” at Texas A&M in 1954. They are similar mindsets, and as shown whenever someone talks about “tennis being an outdoor sport based on fitness,” that mindset remains in tennis just as it does in American football.

Tennis, as a sport, needs to get serious in drawing needed boundaries and setting firm parameters to enhance and promote player safety. Tennis, after seeing bodies drop like flies in the searing New York heat on Tuesday — with Djokovic teetering before finally getting a needed heat break following the third set — needs to use this day at the U.S. Open to gain a wake-up call on these interconnected matters.

I don’t blame the United States Tennis Association for lacking the right policies or responses, because the Australian Open and Tennis Australia were not exactly effective or consistent in dealing with weather conditions in their own right. This is not a USTA problem so much as it is a sport-wide problem, with various agencies — embroiled right now in fights about Davis Cup, Laver Cup, and various other “Cups” and international tournaments — not setting aside time for this much more important matter.

I don’t like what tennis is doing to Davis Cup, and neither do most people I interact with on Twitter. Yet, if comparing the future of Davis Cup to the future of player safety issues in tennis, which is more important? There should be only one answer… but tennis, naturally, has shown virtually no meaningful leadership on this issue. That’s the problem, far more than the USTA or any one tournament where harsh weather exists.

One more thought before I wrap up this column: Yes, there IS something noble about digging deep and winning a 5-hour match against a tough opponent who tries everything to foil you… but here is the nuance on the matter of “warrior tennis” or (more broadly) “warrior competition”: The “warrior” aspect of a sport, any sport, should be confined to the demands of the sport itself.

It is hard to play great tennis for four or five hours against an elite opponent, but when you succeed, it’s an incredible accomplishment. It becomes an indelible memory which players, fans, coaches, and journalists — everyone in the industry — appreciate. That’s great.

There is, however, a difference between “the sport itself” and “the surrounding conditions in which the sport is played.” It is physically demanding to play tennis regardless of the temperature. To that extent, “warrior tennis” is fine. However, when tennis is played in absurdly nasty conditions, tennis ceases to be “tennis.” It becomes almost entirely (if not entirely) a matter of survival, as we saw from Djokovic and many others on Tuesday.

Fans in New York wouldn’t sit in seats which lacked shade cover. Retirements and medical timeouts proliferated. The ferocity of hitting was not particularly close to where it would have been or could have been in roofed (indoor, pleasant) conditions, at least on the two courts where roofs existed.

Is that entertainment? To me, it was a theater of needless suffering. There is a difference between being a warrior within the context of a sport itself, and being a survivor of miserable weather in which, it could be argued, human beings should not play professional tennis.

“The Junction Boys” are still celebrated, but that shouldn’t mean today’s young athletes should be deprived of water breaks in hot weather, or should be forced to “tough it out” to satisfy an autocratic coach’s own desires for manhood and endurance. Tennis deeply needs to embrace a similar culture shift.

Novak Djokovic knows this better than anyone else in the sport. We will see what he and his brother — and sister — players on the two tours manage to do about it in the coming years.

Image By: Aditya Prabhakar (Tennis with an Accent)

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