by Matt Zemek
We should all go Dutch the way Roger Federer just did, collecting a considerable appearance fee for a tournament with a creaky field and a prize known as the World No. 1 ranking up for grabs.
Federer will either take on second-level players in good shape or top-tier players not ready to be at their best. This hardly guarantees victory — look up the name “Evgeny Donskoy” if you need a refresher course from 2017 — but Federer merely needs to win three matches to make the semifinals, which would enable him to return to the top spot in the ATP rankings at the age of 36 years and six months.
As tennis writer Tumaini Carayol wryly observed, this move “is the true meaning of SABR.”
After years of discipline in terms of not overextending his body to chase the No. 1 ranking, and after recent statements at the Australian Open about the need for careful planning and scheduling (which Federer, to his credit, has generally observed in his career), the World No. 2 couldn’t resist the fast-food double cheeseburger, garlic fries and strawberry shake at the local drive-thru. He caved. He splurged. The disciplined scheduling which has prolonged his career flew out the window.
Let’s be clear: Federer has a right to do whatever the heck he wants to — he has earned it. Let’s also note that this move gives Rotterdam residents and Dutch citizens one more reasonable chance to see him play in person. Federer had not played Canada in a few years, and he hadn’t played in Montreal since 2011, making it a fan-friendly move to go to Quebec last summer. Being a fan-friendly player is not something to dismiss for a global brand who faces so many demands on his time. Federer going to Rotterdam has made a lot of people freshly excited about the ATP 500 event in that locality — this move certainly contains a feel-good component.
However, professional sports are focused on one purpose above all others: winning. It’s the winning which produces the money, the winning which creates global popularity, the winning which provides better draws and more favorable court placements in tournaments. Roger Federer has won three of the last four major tournaments, which means that despite approaching his 37th birthday, he has a window of time in which to claim more major championships and make sure that, when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic get to age 36 or 37, they will still be looking up at Federer’s major title count on the all-time leaderboard.
Federer’s choice to play Rotterdam certainly indicates that he’s unlikely to play Miami, and it probably indicates he won’t play clay events this year, but even if Federer is banking on extra rest and other ways to compensate for this decision, one can still regard it as unwise if the purpose of his scheduling arrangements is to maximize his chances of winning more major titles.
I liked the Canada decision from Federer last year because it offered a chance to pick up a fat stack of points, which Federer did (600 for making the final). However, I liked it mostly because of the six-year gap since his last appearance in Montreal. That’s a long time to be away from a fan base at a significant tournament in a major market.
The concern, though, which made Canada such a hard decision for Federer was always the fact that with the tennis calendar sliding Wimbledon back a week (due to the creation of a third week between the end of Roland Garros and the start of Wimbledon, a wise move for tennis), the gap between the end of Wimbledon and the start of Canada shrank from four weeks to three. With four weeks between those events, Federer playing Canada would have been a relatively uncomplicated matter. Three weeks, however, raised the very legitimate possibility that Federer would not have sufficient time to recover.
Through Sunday morning of that week in Montreal, the plan could not have worked any better. Federer played a bad match against David Ferrer but got through it. Otherwise, he didn’t lose a set in his other matches en route to the final. He had the points pickup, relatively minimal strain on his body, and every expectation of playing Cincinnati before resting and gearing up for a U.S. Open in which his chances looked great.
Then came the final against Alexander Zverev. Back spasms emerged, and in a heartbeat, everything about the Canada decision fell apart. The risk seemed worth it at the time of the decision, but it removed Cincinnati (one of his most successful tournaments) from the equation and hijacked his U.S. Open campaign.
The lesson was painful, but obvious: Don’t overextend, especially after winning majors. Don’t come back to the tour for at least four weeks after winning a major. Being disciplined in scheduling is a signature Federer virtue. So what if Rafael Nadal intends to play Acapulco to try to preserve the No. 1 ranking? The disciplined Federer did not chase points outside of Canada last season, whereas Nadal chased points in Beijing and Bercy and — this should not be a point of debate — put his body under more strain. Nadal got the year-end No. 1 ranking he wanted and deserved, but he paid a price, and that strain continued to show up at the Australian Open.
Federer’s discipline maximized his chances to win major No. 20 this past January, and by cracky, he did just that. If Nadal wants to play Acapulco and put his body through the four matches (three wins plus a semifinal appearance, win or lose) it would take to preserve No. 1, Federer — if focused on winning the biggest tournaments of the year — should let Rafa toil and push.
Federer might be serving up a Dutch treat in Rotterdam, and there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but playing a 500 to not play one or more Masters 1000s plus Roland Garros — especially when that 500 comes so soon (two weeks) after the end of a major tournament — is not a reflection of the noted scheduling discipline which has done so much good for Federer’s career.
That burger-fries-and-shake combo meal better taste really good. Splurging can be done every now and then, as long as the cost doesn’t exceed the value.
Going Dutch might cost Federer a lot more than one meal.
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.
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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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