When we discuss tennis or any other sport, we might often feel the need to say that an athlete or team almost won. This particularly refers to underdogs who are playing with house money and have nothing to lose. They can be free and not suffer consequences if they fall short. “Almost winning” feels like an achievement in itself, and commentators don’t disagree with that notion.
What does it mean to play with “house money,” though — to have a coin you can throw in a fountain? Does it refer to ANY underdog in ANY circumstance, or is it more particular than that? I am not going to insist that there is only one legitimate answer, but I WILL indeed insist that one answer is a lot more convincing to me than others.
Having “house money” — being in a situation free of negative consequences — could reasonably be viewed as a circumstance belonging to any underdog. However, I don’t think it should be seen in that light.
The two showcase ATP quarterfinals on Friday in Rome fit neatly into my conception of what it does — and doesn’t — mean to play with house money.
It is true that Fabio Fognini and Kei Nishikori were not expected to win their respective quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. It is also true that Fognini and Nishikori exist on very different planes of achievement and reputation. They also own different reasons for not achieving at higher levels in their careers — Fognini being petulant and unwilling to battle, Nishikori being quite able to battle but falling victim to injury and losing small amounts of critical points in important matches. In so many ways, Fog and Kei are different tennis creatures, but they do share two basic similarities, no matter how different the underlying REASONS for those similarities are:
1) They have both achieved less than their talents would suggest they should have achieved by now. Where one sets the bar is up for debate, but they have both left some money on the table.
2) Fog and Kei — in order to achieve at a higher level — have to go through the elite players on tour in big moments. A Masters quarterfinal is not as big as a major quarterfinal, but it still rates as a comparatively important, a potential gateway to a Masters title, which neither man has achieved. Fognini has not even reached a single Masters final.
Heading into Friday, the Fognini-Nadal and Nishikori-Djokovic head-to-heads were remarkably similar in several ways. The win differentials were significant even though a lot of the matches between the players were close. Nadal has been pushed hard several times by Fognini on clay in recent years, and a similar story has unfolded between Kei and Nole, especially in Rome, where Friday’s quarterfinal was contested.
More similarities: Fognini and Nishikori scored their biggest wins over Nadal and Djokovic, respectively, at the U.S. Open. Fognini took advantage of Nadal’s 2015 nadir, while Nishikori springboarded to his only major final by beating Nole in New York four years ago. Yet, those huge wins are conspicuous as aberrations, not as reflecting larger trends. Both men, Fog and Kei, have profoundly struggled to win the handful of points they need to beat Nadal and Djokovic in other big tournaments. Djokovic entered Friday 7-0 against Nishikori at Masters events, Nadal 5-0 against Fognini.
Yes, Fog and Kei were underdogs, but for men who have labored in the vineyard of tennis for many years and are trying to achieve specific breakthroughs, not being expected to win isn’t necessarily an example of being free from pressure or consequence. If anything, the knowledge of having fallen short (especially for Fognini) or the knowledge of having been injured so many times when on the cusp of doing something special (Nishikori) can and do weigh on athletes until they cross those thresholds for the first time.
For a young pup such as Stefanos Tsitsipas, or for an older journeyman such as Dusan Lajovic, there truly isn’t a large amount of pressure to do well. Tsitsipas has ample time to develop and learn about life on tour. Lajovic does not possess the prodigious talent of his peers; he has done well to go as far as he has, whereas Fog’s and Kei’s resumes feel like disappointments by comparison.
That is the essential detail at the heart of “house money” and the freedom from pressure it offers: Players might be underdogs, but if there is a gnawing sense that they haven’t fulfilled various reachable aspirations, there is no house money, only the burden to do better.
That burden was real in Friday’s Roman quarters, where men other than Fognini and Nishikori felt at home.
Anyone can win — and lose — one set in a match. To go back to the beginning of this article, sometimes it is written that an athlete “almost won,” but for Fognini and Nishikori, that is not a happy or positive statement. It merely confers a haunting subtext of “what might have been” upon an athlete starving for a Masters title and a much higher Roland Garros seed or position. Conversely, those of us who are sportswriters or commentators rarely write that an athlete “almost lost.” If the athlete wins, s/he accomplished the objective. Very little weight is assigned to the reality of coming close to a defeat. Almost all of the emphasis (properly) belongs with the fact that the athlete solved a problem and found a way through a thorny thicket.
These two sides of the coin were abundantly evident in Fognini-Nadal and Djokovic-Nishikori.
Anyone can win one set, but after winning first sets, Fognini and Nishikori promptly let down their guard in set two. While Nishikori put up a much better fight and played a much better and more resilient match than Fognini, it remains that both players — against opponents who have tormented them many times — couldn’t win the proverbial handful of points needed to change the conversation and write a different story. Yes, whereas Fognini faded, Nishikori played a lot of sublime tennis in the third set against Djokovic. On many levels, these were different matches from men who have accordingly produced at different levels in their careers. Broadly viewed, Nishikori’s career is a shimmering diamond of nobility compared to what Fognini has produced — all true.
Narrowly viewed, however, it meant EVERYTHING that Djokovic was on the other side of the net for Nishikori. Kei struggles so persistently to win The One Really Big Point against Nole, and that reality maintained rent-free living space inside Kei’s cranium on Friday.
Why mention this? Why go in this direction? Simple: A lot of people very reasonably questioned Djokovic’s ability to win a third set, something he had yet to do in 2018 before this match. Trusting Djokovic to get the job done might have seemed, on its face, to ignore recent history, as was the case in Indian Wells against Taro Daniel or against Martin Klizan in Barcelona. Yet, the act of trusting Djokovic in this match did not occur in a vacuum; it was more a matter of considering the opponent Djokovic was facing.
Djokovic-Nishikori (Nadal-Fognini on a similar level) is an example of how “muscle memory” — or just memory in general, without the muscle — figures prominently in shaping the battle. It’s not as though the underdog can’t play really well and push the favorite. Kei and Fog often do make Nole and Rafa work very hard for match victories. Yet, “muscle memory” — the realization of having done (or not done) something many times in the past — is very hard to shake for either player. Djokovic and Nadal use this to their advantage, while it is a burden for Nishikori and Fognini.
The key word in that last sentence: “burden,” because it shows the absence of house money. This is not a coin one can afford to throw in the fountain.
Image taken from zimbio.com
Roundtable — ATP Major Showdowns in 2019
What is the one ATP matchup you really want to see at the major tournaments in 2019?
Before we begin:
We offered our selections for the WTA matchup we most wanted to see at the 2019 majors in this roundtable at Tennis With An Accent.
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Now, on with the show, and the answers to today’s roundtable question:
JANE VOIGT — @downthetee
ATP rivalries have been concentrated at the top for over a decade. Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, or any combination of those three, sell boatloads of tickets and even draw the attention of international celebrities. Their names will never be forgotten. However, tennis marches on, so my 2019 scorecard looks beyond the tried-and-true to the kids, such as Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Alex de Minaur for best matchups on the radar.
All four of these rising stars are court-runners, meaning they have not only raw footspeed, but anticipation. I gasped the first time Tiafoe dug out a dribbling drop shot. His takeoff speed looked like top speeds from other competitors. Then de Minaur popped up at the Citi Open in July. His slight build is a big asset, meaning he never says no to a tennis ball coming at him no matter how absurd a return seems. Tsitsipas bloomed in 2018. Shapovalov continued to impress. But for sheer “wow factor,” I say Tiafoe and de Minaur is the hot ticket. The sooner the better, too, which means the Australian Open.
ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad
In contrast to the WTA, the ATP can look forward in 2019 to the continuation of some of the most storied rivalries in the Open Era.
That’s if the top players are healthy – and of course it’s a big if, as Rafael Nadal’s knee injury in New York and Andy Murray’s and Stan Wawrinka’s slow climbs back to full fitness have demonstrated. By October 1, there won’t be a single male Grand Slam champion younger than 30. One of the younger champions, Juan Martin del Potro, has started to emulate other 30+ stars in paring back his schedule.
A few younger players have begun to establish rivalries. Sascha Zverev (21) and Nick Kyrgios (23) have played six times to date, splitting the spoils. We had a first meeting at a Grand Slam between two Generation Felix stars, Denis Shapovalov (19) and Felix Auger-Aliassime (18). (Editor’s Note: Ask Andrew what he means by Generation Felix if you are unsure of the reference. It will be worth your time.) Will that be one of the great rivalries five years from now? Perhaps.
Sorry if this isn’t very imaginative, but I go back to the Big 3 for my two main matchups to watch. After reversing fortune in 2017 against Nadal, Roger Federer hasn’t played his former nemesis once in 2018. Could we hope for some rematches in 2019? If there’s one single match I’d like to see, it’s Nadal versus Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. Djokovic is the one player who has consistently threatened – and on one occasion beaten – Nadal in his fortress.
Bring it on, one more time.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
There is not much to say here due to the giant gap that still exists between the top 3 and the rest of the arena, so to speak. The same can be said for quality of play. When the Big 3 play each other, top-quality tennis is much more likely to be produced than in any other matchup not involving them.
Assuming they come into the two weeks not carrying injuries, Djokovic versus Nadal at Roland Garros would be my top priority for 2019. Federer-Djokovic at Wimbledon would be number two (the last two matches they played against each other there were excellent).
If I had to include a match not involving two of the top three, I would go with Juan Martin del Potro versus any of the top three at Wimbledon.
If I were forced to choose a match without any of the top three, I would take an in-form Fabio Fognini at the Australian Open or the U.S. Open versus any of the top members of the Next Gen, the people he enjoys criticizing so much in some of his pressers.
SAQIB ALI — @saqiba
Sascha Zverev versus Novak Djokovic. Zverev will win majors one day, but where will he be in 2019? I would love to see him go up against Djokovic? How quickly will Zverev develop under Ivan Lendl?
MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek
I also regard Zverev-Djokovic as the match I most want to see at the majors next year. Given Djokovic’s high ranking, it is likely that such a meeting would occur in the semifinals of a major. If it happens in the quarterfinals, so be it, but if it happens in a semifinal, it would probably mean that Zverev will have made his first major semifinal, which would spice up tennis and create fresh hope that the younger generation is ready to make its mark.
Of the eight ATP major finalists in 2018, only one – Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros – is currently younger than 30. Thiem isn’t even 26. Having a 21- or 22-year-old Zverev (he turns 22 in April of 2019) make a major semifinal or final would give tennis a glimpse of the future and offer fans of non-Big 3 players the assurance that the next decade might give rise to a championship-caliber force.
The other reason a Zverev-Djokovic match would crackle: Zverev’s win over a man who, in retrospect, was far from fully healthy in the 2017 Rome final. Zverev is the challenger and the man trying to make his mark, but Djokovic would be playing for revenge.
Djokovic would be a heavy favorite in 2019 should the two men meet, but if they do meet in a major semifinal, the confrontation might give rise to subsequent reunions in 2020 and 2021. It would move forward the story of tennis.
Postscript/addendum: If forced to pick a matchup other than Zverev-Djokovic: Thiem-Djokovic at Roland Garros. A Zverev-Djokovic match would be interesting on any surface.
Roundtable – “Mo Money Mo Problems”
Is the ATP’s suspension of Mohamed Lahyani appropriate – the result, the process, both, or neither?
Tennis authorities have sent a clear message to umpires in the last two weeks: exercise more discretion. Sorry, don’t exercise any discretion. Treat players as human beings. Wait a second, don’t do that. We value your experience. We’ll throw you under the bus as soon as anyone complains about your decisions.
Only the last of these will be heard by chair umpires, and they’ll likely act accordingly.
The ATP’s decision to fine and suspend Mohamed Lahyani after his intervention with Nick Kyrgios may have been the same even if another umpire, Carlos Ramos, hadn’t become embroiled in an even more controversial incident at the end of the tournament.
I doubt it.
You can find fault, if you choose, with either man’s handling of his respective match. Both were hung out to dry, and now we learn that at least one of the officials has been publicly sanctioned.
Their fellow officials will draw the right lessons from this: Don’t take risks. Don’t stand out. Don’t attract controversy.
If you do, be prepared to pay for it. Interpersonal skills and judgement – even occasionally flawed, human judgement – aren’t appreciated.
Get ready for robots in the chair.
Lahyani’s actions with Kyrgios were not appropriate, especially the part where he passionately talked to Nick for an extended period of time (not the part where he — at first — tried to tell him to show better effort). Hence, I see nothing wrong with some type of penalty applied to Lahyani for his actions and do not find the two-week suspension inappropriate.
I do question, however, the timing of the sanction and the entity that made the decision. The incident occurred during the U.S. Open tournament run by the ITF and the USTA, and it took place two weeks ago. One can see it as the ATP doing what the ITF and the USTA should have done expediently at the time.
There is, however, no agreeable way to justify the fact that the ATP itself waited two weeks to pass this suspension. I consider that particularity to be a procedural failure on the ATP’s part.
A hypothetical for your consideration: Arsenal plays Manchester United on August 17. Two and a half weeks later, after two more Premier League games have been played by both teams, the league announces a sanction on one of the referees for a missed call in the Arsenal-Man U match.
The Dallas Cowboys play the New York Giants in Week 2 of the NFL football season in the United States. The NFL announces a suspension for a referee who made a bad call in that game, but makes the announcement after Week 4 of the season.
An NBA basketball official makes a terrible mistake in Game 12 of the 82-game regular season. He works a 13th and 14th game but then gets suspended before his 15th game.
This is essentially what tennis did with chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani. I personally disagree with a two-week suspension; I thought that relegating Lahyani to doubles matches during the second week of the tournament was punishment enough. Yet, the suspension – a result of a process – is a minor issue compared to the process itself.
This process was — and is — atrocious.
Sports officials don’t need an FBI investigation after they make a mistake. Information and context can be gathered from the relevant parties relatively quickly. People in supervisory roles look at the visual, textual and circumstance-based evidence. They determine how well an official performed. They suspend him or downgrade him or caution him within 36 hours if not 24.
I have had my (basketball) officiating performances graded right after my game ended. I met with the graders in the locker room. They talked to me about what I did right, what I did wrong, and what I needed to improve. It comes with the territory… but the process is not supposed to be prolonged.
Relegating Mo to doubles at the U.S. Open nevertheless meant he was allowed to work matches. Why should a sports official be allowed to work matches when an unresolved situation hangs over his head? What if I made a bad call in a basketball game on Monday but was then allowed to work on Thursday, did the Thursday game, and then was suspended for the next game on Saturday? Why would I have any confidence in the leadership of the officials’ association I worked for? How could I trust the governing body of the sport I was officiating?
I can see the need to wait 24 hours to gather information in situations such as this, but not much more. Workers – that is what chair umpires are – deserve swift resolution of performance-based matters. This is exactly the kind of thing a tennis umpires’ union would be able to address.
I hope umpires get angry and focused enough to band together in the right ways and for the right reasons, especially since they are already underpaid and are being given more work (monitoring serve clocks).
You can approve of the suspension itself yet hate how the ATP carried out this process. You can accept the result yet loathe how the ATP had no sense of timing — none whatsoever — in bringing it about.
Follow Andrew on Twitter: @burtonad
Follow Mert on Twitter: @MertovsTDesk
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The Roundtable Cup — Davis and Fed and Laver
If you ruled tennis for 24 hours, how would you arrange or rearrange Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Laver Cup, and related events, either in terms of the calendar, the format of the events, or anything else you feel is important?
With Davis Cup and Fed Cup, my initial changes would be to make the competition format the same for both the men and the women. The differing rules can be confusing, so I would use the format of Davis Cup for both genders. Why? I like the way Davis Cup highlights the doubles rubber and makes it a pivotal moment for winning a tie.
I would also make Fed Cup and Davis Cup into alternate-year events. The new Davis Cup format has retained home and away ties for the qualifying round, but I would bring that back for the final round as well. Neutral locations can be used for the first iteration; the champions earn the honor of hosting the finals the following year. That solves the issue of home ties being in an unresolved location and gives the champions the potential bragging rights of hosting the best team-competition finals.
For an exhibition such as Laver Cup, I would get rid of it with adequate changes to the national competitions. There are enough demands on players with the current schedule. If I had to keep Laver Cup, I would move it to the down period after the Australian Open.
I would consult with the players first, although the question presumes I can proceed at my own discretion.
In scheduling, I would give the priority to Davis Cup and Fed Cup because they have a history (regardless of the format change), whereas Laver Cup and other events like it qualify as “intense” exhibitions in which winning or losing does not matter as much to the players (or to the masses). I would go back to the pre-reform format in Davis Cup (in all aspects), but if I cannot, meaning my hands are forced into some type of modification, I would at least keep the three-day format with the reverse singles intact, which was a characteristic unique to Davis Cup and set the stage for a potentially dramatic weekend.
Laver Cup is a separate category of event (as I mentioned above). I would work with its runners to make the best of it, but in terms of priority, it would come after ATP and WTA Tours, Davis Cup and Fed Cup.
If I ruled tennis for 24 hours, I’d take stock of my kingdom. The first thing I think I’d conclude is that it’s broken into squabbling baronies – more Game of Thrones than the Berlin Philharmonic.
So I’d realize that until we sorted out the whole calendar, and the balance between the demands and opportunities for players, the needs of tournaments, of national organizations and trans-national groups such as the ITF, ATP and WTA, sorting out one question — non-tournament-based competitions like the Fed Cup, Pique (formerly Davis) Cup and Laver Cup — creates issues elsewhere.
It’s all part of a web. Tug on one strand, another vibrates — or breaks.
As long as money remains the bottom-line goal of sports, in this case tennis, people will expand the number of events in order to increase income. Capitalism might have been unique to the U.S., but its supposed value has circled the globe. Therefore, as long as earnings upstage the value of players and what they bring to tennis, the expansion of the number of tournaments won’t cease. So how do we arrest this cycle?
Tennis needs an overarching body under which are all other bodies in the game fall: ITF, ATP, WTA, Grand Slams, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and expositions such as Laver Cup. Its first job: Limit the season in order to decrease or, at least, stabilize the rash of injuries. Next: Pay players equally, no matter the level of event. Grand Slams pay all players equal amounts. However, outside of them, women are paid substantially less per tournament. Next: Throw out the newly-signed ITF legislation that eliminated home-court advantage in Davis Cup. Use best-of-three format for Davis Cup – fine. But for goodness sake, did you hear the crowds’ roars during the semifinals this past weekend?
Davis and Fed Cup should be held every year, and under their traditional formats, but the demands on ATP players at four different points on the calendar should be considered. My one tweak to Davis Cup: Give the four semifinal nations a reward for playing deep into the previous year’s calendar by giving all of them a first-round bye into the quarterfinals. This would give top ATP singles players a lot of incentive to play the quarterfinal ties each season. Since players are generally fresher early in the season, that idea makes structural sense.
In Olympic years, one could make Davis Cup an eight-team tournament with either no February ties OR, as an alternative solution, putting the quarterfinals in February and the semifinals in April. I would lean toward February quarterfinals and April semis in Olympic years.
Speaking of Olympic years: There should be no Laver Cup in Olympic years. The Laver Cup, if it really does want to be the Ryder Cup of tennis, should be held every other year, just as the Ryder Cup has been. Laver Cup would ideally be held in odd-numbered years to avoid conflicting with the Olympics. Therefore, after Geneva in 2019, the next Laver Cup should be in 2021.
What I would also like to see with Laver Cup: Rotate it through different periods of the calendar year and see if that adjustment can free up new possibilities in the tennis calendar. Late September is a time when a lot of players are worn down. Try something else and see what it can offer.
One specific set of possibilities: In 2021, move the Bercy Masters to February, specifically when the Dubai ATP tournament is normally held. Move Dubai to two weeks before the Australian Open so that the year’s first major is preceded by a 500. Move the ATP Finals to the week vacated by Bercy. Then make Laver Cup two weeks after the ATP Finals, neatly placed between the ATP Finals and the Davis Cup Final.
Have comments about these ideas? I’ll explain mine, and my colleagues will explain theirs if you ask nicely. Catch me at @mzemek.
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