A total of 10 clay Masters 1000 tournaments have been held in Madrid, the first one being in 2009. Rafael Nadal has won four of them, an outright minority. By his otherworldly standards on clay, that’s a very small number of trophies. Nadal’s displeasure with Madrid clay is and has been well known. On Friday against Dominic Thiem, he did not look comfortable on the surface inside the inappropriately named La Caja Magica, which takes away Nadal’s magic. If Nadal can cruise through Monte Carlo and Barcelona with seemingly effortless ease, hardly ever playing more than 100 minutes per match, Madrid is the tournament which often throws a monkey wrench into his game. Madrid is the place where Nadal’s gears are gummed up before he fires up the engines again and restores order at Roland Garros, where “real” clay (not that Madrid stuff at altitude) exists.
Nadal’s history with — and in — Madrid makes Friday’s loss to Thiem nothing to be concerned about in terms of the condition of Nadal’s game. The man who won 50 straight clay sets was due for a bad match, and he played one. We are not perfect beings, last time I checked. Thiem, of course, was good enough (not as spectacular as many seem to think, but very impressive nonetheless) to take advantage.
Thiem in many ways flipped the script Nadal and other legendary players normally write. Contrary to what many people think, he wasn’t incredibly good in this match — he had break leads in both sets and gave them both away with shaky play. However, Nadal gave Thiem second chances, which is when Thiem steadied himself and played authoritatively to close out each set and score a gigantic win for his season. Thiem has not yet won a clay Masters title, and now he is in tremendous position to do so.
“But it’s Madrid,” people will say. Yes, it is only Madrid.
“But Rafa didn’t play well,” people will say. They are right. Rafa played poorly.
Both statements are true. What is also true: Thiem, who looked very uneven for large portions of play against Federico Delbonis and Borna Coric — and who got crushed by Nadal in Monte Carlo and bowed meekly out of Barcelona against Stefanos Tsitsipas — was ready to compete against Nadal in Madrid. He stepped up to the moment and took advantage of the gifts Nadal gave him.
Is this the way Nadal is likely to play in the coming weeks? Of course not. Yet, we have seen many players face C-level Nadal on clay and not beat him. Thiem — had he played the way he did in Barcelona or against Delbonis — would not have beaten Rafa. He had to play better. He knew how huge this match was for his season. He responded. He doesn’t deserve a ticker-tape parade or a Congressional Medal of Honor for winning this match, but he certainly deserves credit after all the criticism he rightly absorbed for his performances on hardcourts. Like another Madrid semifinalist, Kiki Bertens (who subsequently powered her way to the Madrid final in the match preceding Thiem’s on Friday), Thiem is in his mid-20s and has not been able to win consistently on non-clay surfaces. On this stuff, however, he has shown once again that he can stand up to Nadal on dirt.
What is fascinating about the reaction to Thiem’s win is not how widely he is expected to win Madrid now. Quite the contrary. His semifinal opponent, Kevin Anderson, has never lost to the Austrian in six meetings. None of those matches were on clay, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from thinking Kando will win Saturday’s first semifinal.
It’s an understandable and reasonable position: Anderson can serve huge at altitude in Madrid and win a lot of cheap points. Moreover, the mental strain of beating Nadal has been known to ambush Thiem before. I can certainly see where — and how — Anderson can win this match. Giving Anderson a good chance of winning is entirely fair.
Yet, thinking this match is a toss-up? That’s different. That posture diminishes the fact that Thiem has already made the Madrid final and very nearly won the first set against Rafa last year. Viewing Kando-Thiem as a 50-50 match on red clay minimizes the extent to which Thiem’s game falls neatly into place on this surface. Even if it’s Madrid clay and not Roman or Parisian clay, Thiem’s huge cuts and powerful hitting do not lead to a tidal wave of errors. Shots that go well long on hardcourts stay within the baseline on red clay, even in Madrid.
The other basic point which needs to be made is this: Thiem was certainly tired after beating Nadal last year in Rome, but the man he had to face next was Novak Djokovic. In Monte Carlo, Thiem played Nole and Rafa on consecutive days. It is true that Thiem could suffer a letdown on Saturday against Anderson — that is entirely possible, and it would not be unprecedented on a general level. However, there is regularly — if not always — a special amount of mental strain involved in playing Nadal and Djokovic in back-to-back matches. Thiem failed to beat both in Rome and Paris last year, Monte Carlo this year.
Saturday in the Madrid semifinals, Thiem does not have to do that. Skepticism of his ability to beat Anderson — Kevin Anderson! — on red clay is a sign of how much Thiem’s game and mentality are still distrusted.
Yes, I am a firm believer that one should doubt certain players until they show they are ready to overcome a familiar hurdle in sports. This is why I thought the Cleveland Cavaliers would still beat the Toronto Raptors, despite the fact that Toronto won a lot more games during the regular season and the Cavs were a mess for most of the year.
What is different here: Though Thiem has never beaten Anderson, he has also never played him on clay. Given Thiem’s surface-specific prowess, this match on Saturday does not fall into the “never done something before” silo a number of people are using to discount Thiem’s chances.
It is strange but true, in a very unexpected way: As big as it was for Thiem to oust Rafael Nadal on red clay, stopping his 50-set clay winning streak and giving him his first clay-court loss in 51 weeks, the Anderson match might mean more to global tennis observers in terms of how they perceive Thiem’s readiness to lift his career to the next level.
Image taken from Zimbio.com
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.
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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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Roundtable — On The Role Of The Chair Umpire In Tennis
NOTE: The four major tournaments have come and gone in 2018, and for many, this marks a quieter portion of the tennis calendar. Yet, as Ted Kennedy said in his 1980 Democratic Convention speech after he lost the nomination fight with then-President Jimmy Carter, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
We at Tennis With An Accent had a lot to talk about at the U.S. Open, and we will unpack the conversations we had in private editorial meetings and discussions. You will get to see — and discuss, and debate — what the TWAA staff thinks about various hot topics in tennis. We don’t have to tackle everything at once. We can tackle each small issue in a separate forum.
We therefore present to you single-issue roundtables with input from our staff writers and contributors. This week, we are pleased to have staff writers Briana Foust and Jane Voigt; staff contributors Mert Ertunga, Andrew Burton, and Nick Nemeroff; and site co-editors Saqib Ali and yours truly, Matt Zemek.
Away we go. Interact with us on Twitter at @accent_tennis or catch Matt at @mzemek.
QUESTION: If you had the ability to change ONE THING about the role of chair umpires in tennis, what would it be?
My belief is that chair umpires need to be compelled to show less discretion.
In the past, umpires have been criticized for not applying the rules closely enough, specifically as far as time violations are concerned. Now, Carlos Ramos is being criticized by some for not showing enough discretion.
To avoid debates over discretion, which is essentially the crux of the debate, I would like to see umpires be encouraged to avoid using discretion and subjective judgement.
The rules are the rules. Apply the rules where they need to be applied, regardless of players, match or setting.
If I could reform one thing about the way chair umpires do their job, I would like to see video reviews of umpire judgments in addition to the challenge system.
For example, with the current challenge system a player cannot challenge a foot fault. With the video review system, there could be an umpire or supervisor in a booth with the ability to see video replay, in addition to watching live. The umpire or supervisor could examine the incident that sparked the challenge before ultimately determining whether the call was correct.
I think video replay could help players feel more secure in umpiring, relieve some of the pressure placed on umpires as the sole ruling voice, and — similar to the WTA’s on-court coaching — show fans another behind-the-scenes look at tennis.
I am not sure if this is a required procedure as it stands now (I don’t believe so), but I believe chair umpires should be required to write a written report of the incidents that occurred during their match once it is over. The report should include the details of each incident when a code violation was issued and a discussion with the player ensued. To facilitate this process, there should be a mic attached to the umpire’s chair, or the umpire him/herself, that records the conversations between the player and the umpire. Thus, the accuracy of the report can be verified and not questioned.
As it stands now, umpires have no voice or ability to defend themselves and are left vulnerable to speculation on what they should have said or done. The report and the proof via the recordings will eliminate that problem. The version of both sides (the umpire’s and the player’s) should be accessible to the authorities and public for an astute judgment. Currently, we only hear the players’ side – they get to comment either in postmatch press conferences or individually on social media – yet, we never hear the umpire’s point of view.
It’s a larger conversation that goes beyond a single instance or a match. Unfortunately we have arrived here because the U.S. Open women’s final was affected. In my opinion the governing bodies of the game collectively have to back their chair umpires to execute the rules fully, as they are laid out throughout the season, irrespective of the players involved. This will serve the principle of consistent application. Fans, both die-hards and casuals, will see the rules enforced and hence will understand the situations better.
As an extension, tennis can introduce an additional umpire who oversees the coaching signals and will keep the players’ boxes honest. This will be like a third umpire in cricket who watches the overall field more than just the batsman and bowler. I only say this because any rule is as good as its enforced application.
For the most part, I think the current framework allows umpires to maintain control of a match, and to allow players to question calls and the basis for making some calls. The tenor of exchanges between players and umpires is infinitely more constructive than it was in the bad old days of the ATP in the 1980s, partly because of a consistent code and partly because of technology.
I think there’s an opportunity to recruit technology further in some situations. A player ought to be able to use HawkEye to challenge a service let: Ball tracking can establish whether a serve cleared the net or did deviate in flight as it touched the net cord. In big matches an umpire should be able to ask for a video replay, in conversation with a second umpire off court, about other points of contention — a double bounce, or a disputed mark on clay (as happened in Goffin-Nadal, Monte Carlo 2017 semifinals, when Cedric Mourier horribly botched a call.) These video reviews happen in rugby and help referees to make more correct and fair calls, to the benefit of both players and spectators.
Chair umpires are in a tough spot atop those seats. They oversee matches and judge according to the rules. Yet, they are human and have attitudes formed over their lifetimes. Therefore the basic nature of the job is subjective, even though rules rule. Tournament directors can tell them that no matter who’s on court, men or women, top 10 or top 100, apply the rule that fits. Most of the time that has worked. But now, after the women’s singles final at the U.S. Open, everything has changed.
What to do?
Step 1: Put a mic on the chair umpire and review recordings when necessary. Step 2: Add another umpire to each match. This one would watch one player and the other chair umpire would watch the other player. Mic them up, too. Step 3: Umpires should form a union, which, by design, should protect them.
Tennis has to make a choice: Does it want chair umpires to have more responsibilities or fewer? How it answers that question should affect how much money umpires make, but of course, that is a separate conversation. Let’s start with the basics: Does tennis, as a sport, want the chair umpire to be a super-cop or a match caller without a police presence?
I am firmly in the camp of making the umpire a match caller. The policing has to be done at a higher level, where fines and sanctions can be levied after matches. If we are interested in getting better calls and better enforcement of matches themselves, chair umpires need fewer responsibilities.
Chair umps should not have to police a serve clock or coaching violations. How tennis arrives at that is a much broader debate, but the more chair umpires can receive a reduced job description with a more narrow scope of burdens and duties, the better. Remove items from their plate — that is a more healthful and balanced diet for them… and for the players.