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ATP Tour

DJOKOVIC STEPS FORWARD — AND STEPS UP

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Why is writing about tennis so utterly and endlessly interesting? Many reasons exist, but the biggest one is this: The friction of a tennis match creates an inevitable tension between valuing what the winner did and what the loser failed to do. That tension between two players is the constant and recurring challenge of making sense of a match and a sport whose existence is built on these mano-a-mano confrontations. 

Plenty of times, the tension between “what the winner did and what the loser didn’t do” is easily resolved for reasons which require no explanation. Then there are matches like the one between Novak Djokovic and Borna Coric on Wednesday in the Monte Carlo Masters. This was a match in which the result was caused by both the winner’s quality and the loser’s lapses. At worst, this was a 50-50 balance. At best, one could make the case that two-thirds of this match was based on what Djokovic did well, one-third based on what Coric failed to do. Accordingly, your opinion of how much this match means — or will mean — might differ greatly from the people you talk to about tennis, or from the people you interact with on #TennisTwitter. Diving into a discussion of these differences is what makes tennis writing fun and fascinating.

Let’s jump into the pool at the Monte Carlo Country Club and try to make sense of Djokovic-Coric, then, shall we?

A primary and central point of sports analysis (not just tennis analysis) is that any effort to note the deficiencies of the losing side should not be taken as implied criticism or diminishment of the winning side. It is true in many instances that athletes or teams will win in unconvincing ways, and that the lack of conviction in a victory is a sign of impending trouble down the line. Yet, that is one of many ways to refer to a close win — it’s not the only way, and it is not a “default setting” in sports analysis, either. Everything should be treated on a case-by-case basis, because each competition is framed by its own set of very particular circumstances. Such is the basis for an appraisal of Djokovic-Coric.

It is true that Coric — most specifically and consequentially on a routine forehand miss at 5-5, 15-40, in the first set — helped Djokovic in a number of key moments. It is true that whenever Coric took one step forward, such as breaking Djokovic in the 10th game of the second set after saving a truckload of match points, lost focus moments later. Coric still fought and battled, but he lacked the same belief which carried him to impressive performances in the early rounds of Indian Wells and Miami while lifting him through tighter spots in the latter stages of those tournaments (Kevin Anderson in Indian Wells, Denis Shapovalov in Miami). Coric surmounted obstacles in the United States in March. Wednesday, he did not. His forehand misfired often in the first set, especially on that 5-5, 15-40 point, and his game never stabilized when he was in a neutral scoreboard position.

Note that last qualifier: “when he was in a neutral scoreboard position.”

Yes, Coric’s game DID stabilize at points in the match, but only when he trailed. He fell behind 4-1 in the first set to level for 4-4, but then couldn’t get over the hump, short-circuiting when on the verge of getting a break lead and a chance to serve for the set. Coric fell behind a break early in the second set, then stayed in the conversation with a few tough service holds, but again, as soon as he had a chance to take a 6-5 lead in the set, he faltered. He also faltered in the first-set tiebreaker. In Indian Wells and Miami, Coric regularly pounced on those moments instead of shrinking in the face of them, the exception being his loss to Roger Federer in a match he had many chances to close down.

Plainly put, this marked a step backward for Coric.

A point of emphasis: I would like to think that identifying one player’s backward steps is not assumed or implied to represent an indirect or backhanded diminishment of what Djokovic achieved on Wednesday. Let’s now move to an assessment of the Serbian’s performance… and of sporting events which represent turning points for both sides of the competition.

It is often true in sports — commonplace, to be more precise — for two competitors to enter an event heading in different directions… and to then leave that competition as thoroughly transformed entities. One side’s season-changing negative turning point becomes the other side’s equally season-changing positive turning point. One side’s flagging confidence receives a huge boost from the ability to conquer a big moment which had recently proved hard to master. The other side’s previously surging confidence suddenly takes a noticeable hit after a crucial mistake and the mounting awareness that the pressure of the occasion is proving to be too large. This is not unique to tennis, but since tennis is a solo-athlete sport, the effects of such moments often carry more weight. 

When an athlete on a team makes a big gaffe, he has teammates to pick him up the next time. In tennis, there are no teammates. The individual has to walk over the hot coals of doubt. Personal triumphs and failures become more conspicuous because of the individual nature of tennis. 

What is therefore worth emphasizing in the wake of Djokovic-Coric is that while Coric took a step back, it should be far more evident — and far more significant — that Djokovic took a big step forward in the attempt to restore his greatness, the greatness which dominated tennis at the highest level in all of 2015 and the first half of 2016.

Coric is a young and generally unproven player, which makes this match murky in terms of using it as a barometer for the rest of his season. Djokovic, as a proven champion, owns and deserves levels of trust other players lack. Accordingly, the ability of a champion to fight through difficulties as Nole did against Coric should be seen as more noteworthy than what the challenger (Coric) failed to achieve. The focus should not be on the idea that this match easily could have gone the other way. The focus after this match should settle on the fact that Djokovic fought through problems and solved them.

In the first set against Coric, Djokovic outlined a pattern seen in his Indian Wells and Miami losses: He played well in the first six games but then went through a bad patch. That bad patch cost him the first set in each of those matches, and — it is fair to say — the matches themselves. It cannot be emphasized enough how big it was for Djokovic to rise to the occasion in the tiebreaker. Coric played that breaker poorly, but Djokovic also played — and hit — cleanly. For all the criticisms one could make about Coric’s balky forehand, it is just as true that Djokovic hit a cleaner, heavier ball with noticeably more depth. This might not have been full-flight Djokovic — this is still part of a building (or rebuilding) process for the Serbian superstar — but it was several notches better than anything seen in the United States in March. Djokovic looked less tired and more prepared for battle. That he married his preparedness with crunch-time solidity, especially seen in his flurry of aces late in the second set, reveals a clear and distinct progression in his game.

Sure, one can “what if” all day long about how different this match might have been if Coric made that forehand at 5-5 and 15-40 in the first set… but tennis has always been a sport of small margins and a handful of points. The iconic players of this or any age — the players who establish greatness at the highest level, as Djokovic has — ruthlessly pounce on the one or two key points an opponent fails to finish. Djokovic did that on Wednesday. It’s something he didn’t do in tight scoreboard situations against worse players (Taro Daniel and Benoit Paire) a month ago.

Dominic Thiem is next for Djokovic. If Nole loses, many will be quick to say that this win over Coric didn’t mean much. However, as I wrote earlier in the week, this was always the match which would show if Djokovic was on the right track. I’m not going to shift the goalposts now. Djokovic has already gained something substantial in Monte Carlo, even if he can’t get past Thiem. Moreover, by merely earning a match with Thiem, Djokovic gets a chance to measure himself against the biggest non-Nadal clay threat on tour (other than Nole himself, of course). The simple ability to test his game against an elite player will give Djokovic more information for the rest of the clay season.

So much good has come from this match, and Novak Djokovic did so many things well to put him in position to make this match a positive building block in his 2018 season, which suddenly doesn’t look nearly as dark as it did a few weeks ago.

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Image taken from Zimbio.com
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ATP Tour

Roundtable – “Mo Money Mo Problems”

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Is the ATP’s suspension of Mohamed Lahyani appropriate – the result, the process, both, or neither?

ANDREW BURTON:

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.

MERT ERTUNGA:

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.

MATT ZEMEK:

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.

Bollocks.

Follow Andrew on Twitter: @burtonad

Follow Mert on Twitter: @MertovsTDesk

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ATP Tour

The Roundtable Cup — Davis and Fed and Laver

Matt Zemek

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Robert Hanashiro - USA TODAY

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?

BRIANA FOUST:

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.

MERT ERTUNGA:

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.

ANDREW BURTON:

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.

JANE VOIGT:

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?

MATT ZEMEK:

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.

Briana: @4TheTennis

Mert: @MertovsTDesk

Andrew: @burtonad

Jane: @downthetee

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ATP Tour

Roundtable — On The Role Of The Chair Umpire In Tennis

Matt Zemek

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Eric Bolte - USA TODAY Sports

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?

NICK NEMEROFF:

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.

BRIANA FOUST:

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.

MERT ERTUNGA:

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.

SAQIB ALI:

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.

ANDREW BURTON:

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.

JANE VOIGT:

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.

MATT ZEMEK:

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.

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