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IT’S OKAY TO HATE JOHN ISNER — BUT BE REASONABLE ABOUT IT

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Yes, that is a purposefully provocative story title. Yes, titles of stories — fresh or stale — often determine whether readers click on links and ultimately read written content. However, I don’t apologize for that story title for one reason: Using titles with emotionally rich push-button terms are okay as long as they mesh with the content of the story. 

As a veteran of the sports content industry (side note: I just got released as a copy editor for a media company last week, meaning I have now cycled through three different media companies in addition to various freelance positions in my career), I can tell you this: A lot of companies will create incendiary or eye-popping titles when, in fact, they do not reflect the content, tone or trajectory of the articles attached to them. Plenty of companies and editors are shameless in driving the reader to a link which promises one thing but delivers another.

I therefore feel that as long as the title of a story I write is consistent with — and reflective of — the subsequent text I produce, I have not misled my readers or sold them a false bill of goods. Believe me when I say: “It’s okay to hate John Isner.”

Here is the explanation of that statement after Isner’s first Masters 1000 title, achieved against Alexander Zverev in a close and hard-fought Miami Open final on Sunday at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.

When I say it is “okay” to hate John Isner, I am not approving of said hatred. What I mean to emphasize is that hating John Isner does not make you a bad person. It makes you a flawed person, but we are all flawed, all in various stages of trying to live a better life. Hating a player because he voted for Donald Trump or because his tennis is (in your opinion) boring as hell is perfectly natural within the arena of sports competition.

Before I was a sportswriter, I was a sports fan. Most of us who write about sports were once fans. We loved the thrill of competition so much that we wanted to chronicle it. I do so from my keyboard at home, but others who have risen higher in the profession get to attend matches and tournaments on a publication’s dime, or can talk about tennis on television if they are especially lucky.

I mention my earlier existence as a fan because anyone who has been a sports fan knows what it means to be a fan: You root for your favorites, you root against your favorites’ rivals or against other people who carve out the role of a villain in that particular sport. The New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, Notre Dame football, Duke basketball, and (for Europeans) Manchester United or Real Madrid are either fiercely loved or fiercely hated. They don’t allow for ambiguities. Specific players and coaches on these and other teams are either adored or despised. 

Hatred is part of sport, as organic as the lawns of Centre Court Wimbledon. Hatred, in this context, is relative. It is also an animating force which makes it easier to pour our passions — as fans — into the competitions we watch on a continuous basis.

Hatred, though, has its limits. It needs to in this world, or else we are in deeper trouble than previously thought as a society.

I can hate someone within the context of sports — not an enlightened act, but not an awful act — and still accord that person the respect of acknowledging how good he is or how well he played.

I don’t have to like his style. I don’t have to like his mannerisms. I don’t have to like the vibe he gives off. I don’t have to like his political or off-field/off-court beliefs. I DO, however, have to give him his due when he does well. As a sports fan, the people I hated often destroyed the dreams and aspirations of the teams and players I loved. Their excellence didn’t make me hate them less, but that excellence meant I had to honor what they achieved. 

I can’t speak for non-Americans since I have had virtually no direct exposure to the cultures of other continents’ and nations’ sports realms. All I can tell you is that in American college sports, the fans in arenas or stadiums will often chant “OVER-RATED!” at visiting teams when they lose. These fans don’t seem to realize that in their rush to diminish or demean a hated rival, they undercut their own victorious team’s accomplishment. If you beat an overrated team, your win must not have meant that much. 

That is where — and how — sports hatred goes too far. (Hatred leading to violence and death are assumed to be much worse; I am talking about “hatred” strictly as an attitude carried forth in sports discussions on Twitter and other public platforms, with violence never being a serious consideration or possibility.)

It is “okay” to hate athletes or teams in sports, but the moment one can’t see through the fog of (fandom-fueled) hate and give successful performers their due, something is lost. If an outcome is unstomachable and intolerable to the point of thinking the winner doesn’t deserve any credit or appreciation, doesn’t that go against everything we love about sports? 

Let’s be precise here: The hatred for certain athletes doesn’t have to stop. We can still root against Player X if we want to, which makes his future matches and tournaments more interesting than if we were ambivalent about that athlete. However, if we love it when that player loses, we ought to accept it when that player wins. We don’t have to LIKE it, but we have to accept it. This is what sports is about at a very elemental level: Tasting the thrill of the happy outcome and the gut punch of the sad outcome are two sides of the same coin. If we — I am speaking from a fan’s point of view here — are lucky, we will stand on the winning side more often than not. Experiencing victory with some degree of frequency gives the fan a storehouse of riches large enough to be generous and magnanimous in defeat. Accordingly, losing often enough to know the sting of “almost but not quite” will, in an ideal world, enable a sports fan to cherish the victories that much more when they come, realizing that cycles of constant competition will invite both the sweetness and sorrow of sports. To know one side is to appreciate the other, since they live so close to each other on a weekly basis.

John Isner has spent a lot of his career coming up short — of major-tournament quarterfinals and semifinals, of making Masters finals (only three before this week), and winning Masters titles. He had worn the “almost but not quite” label, lacking a signature achievement at the age of 32. He easily could have gone away after flinching (some might say “choking”) late in the first-set tiebreaker of this final against Zverev. It would not have been the first time. Isner struggled with his forehand volley and was not a picture of lethal consistency from the back of the court (the way he was on Friday against Juan Martin del Potro). He played an imperfect match and could have succumbed to imperfect circumstances… but he didn’t.

His serve was typically clutch. He created 12 break-point chances with a few nifty passing shots and sequences in which his not-always-great footwork came together. He battled. He asked many questions of a 20-year-old player who is still learning to harness both his game and his emotions (including a raging temper). Zverev answered many of those questions well, but not all of them.

Isner played an average match, but he competed at a supremely high level, getting straight As for his intangibles and internals. 

If you wanted to identify a bad men’s match in Miami, think of the puffball fest between a diminished Mischa Zverev and the constantly baffling Benoit Paire. That match was an embarrassment for large portions of play. That was a match worth shielding one’s eyes from, if not avoiding altogether.

Isner-Zverev was a limited match and often a dull one, but not bad. Both men took care of their serves under pressure. Both men made a lot of poised responses to in-match adversity. Isner’s serve forces opponents to walk a tightrope in their own service games. For most of the day, Zverev did what he needed to do… but not at the end.

You can hate John Isner as a sports fan and acknowledge that he competed well, earning this first huge trophy at a relatively late stage in his career. You can dislike his boring game and (possibly) unpleasant personal politics all you want and still acknowledge that he doesn’t go out of his way to impose his views on others or upset the rest of the ATP locker room, where he is generally well-regarded.

You, as a fan, get to hate John Isner… but that also means he gets to have his life and his views as long as he doesn’t impose them on others (which he has not). It is okay to hate John Isner’s style of tennis… but that doesn’t mean his style of play is unsuccessful, or that he didn’t use that style well in Miami the past week and a half.

Hatred is a natural part of the life of a sports fan, yes, but even hatred has its limits.

*

Image taken from zimbio.com

 

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Roundtable — What Shanghai Means For Borna Coric

Tennis Accent Staff

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QUESTION: How did Shanghai change your perceptions of Borna Coric, if at all?

ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad

Borna Coric had a big win over a Swiss star this past week. It wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Stan Wawrinka has showed hints of regaining his form since the U.S. hard court swing. He looked good in Cincinnati with wins over Diego Schwartzman and Kei Nishikori before going out in the quarterfinals. Stan also made the semifinals in St. Petersburg. But Coric, ranked 19 coming into Shanghai, was steady on his serve in set 3, and was able to pocket 1 of 3 break chances. So…

Oh, wait a second. He had a win over another Swiss star, too.

Coric’s win over Roger Federer wasn’t entirely unexpected either. Coric had been a tough out for Federer in their Indian Wells semifinal in March, winning the first set and being a break up in both the second and third sets. He had won a famous victory in the Halle final over Federer. I had the sense, then, that Federer had run out of gas in the third set (he had played nine matches on grass in two weeks), but Coric was well worth the win.

After the final I tweeted:

“Nothing but positive things to say about Borna Coric today – he was mentally really strong, had a solid game plan, served well and attacked the net intelligently. And took his chance in the first set TB, which was a huge moment in the match.”

On Saturday, Coric was even better than he had been in June: He was dominant on serve, conceding no break points. He won the short rallies, the mid-length rallies and the longer rallies. You can argue he won the net points as well, going 100 percent when he came to net, which was once (Federer was 11 of 15).

Coric’s reward was his first M1000 final against Novak Djokovic, who (as we discussed Sunday at Tennis With An Accent) is looking ominously close to his dominant best. Coric wasn’t blown out (as his near contemporary, Sascha Zverev, had been in the semifinal), but he won fewer than three points for every four won by Djokovic. It was a competitive match, but never really close.

Coric announced himself on the ATP World Tour with a win over Rafael Nadal at Basel in 2014, when he was not yet 18 years old. But in the early part of his career he looked to me like a pure grinder, winning matches more with his legs than his racquet. Four years on, he’s still winning more matches with power and consistency than finesse — a work in progress, not yet the full meal deal.

I can’t honestly say that Borna Coric shifted my perceptions of him significantly this week. I think he’ll be a good player, but I’m far from convinced he’ll be a great one.

MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk

I have been following Coric since his younger years and am not surprised by the development in his game, nor by his success. In fact, I would argue that his injury-prone mid-2016 to mid-2017 period held him back tremendously, putting him behind peers such as Alexander Zverev, although Borna has been mentally ahead of them for many years (see, for example, Borna’s win over Sascha in Cincinnati 2015, in which mental toughness and maturity made the difference at the end).

Cool-headedness under pressure and a high IQ have always been a part of his pedigree. Having been forced to press the reset button late 2016 due to knee surgery and then suffering another setback due to other rehabilitation issues after a short comeback in early 2017, Coric could finally begin to focus on ameliorating his overall skills after that.

By now, he has had ample time to upgrade his stroke production and set the parameters for a complete all-around game with no visible weaknesses. His forehand and serve appear to be the biggest improvements, but I would add to that, the forward-backward first-step quickness which allows him to pounce on a shorter ball and move forward when he recognizes an opportunity.

This added first-step dimension, for example, allows his already sound net skills to come to the foreground. I am not saying that he is “faster” or that “he moves better,” but rather, that he is applying his existing great footwork to the enhancements in his game he has made over the last 12 months. This week was comprehensively the best performance of his career in my opinion, including the final.

The next (and the last) puzzle to solve for Coric, before he can be counted as one of the major forces in men’s tennis, is consistency in big tournaments in terms of results. This is where Zverev, to mention one of his equals again, is a step ahead of him. 2018 has not been “that” year for Coric… not yet.

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

Yes, Borna Coric should have beaten Roger Federer in Indian Wells, but he got tight and let that match slip away at the end. Therefore, when Coric met Federer in the Halle final, Coric had something to prove. He played like it, besting Federer in three sets and taking advantage of an ever-so-slight lapse by the Swiss in a first-set tiebreaker.

Over the course of his career, Federer has been very good (against players other than Rafael Nadal) at avenging losses in meaningful moments. The 2010 U.S. Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic was one of the most painful defeats of his career. Then came 2011 Roland Garros, one of the more satisfying wins of Federer’s tennis life. The 2011 U.S. Open semifinal might have been even more painful than 2010. No problem – Federer struck back against Djokovic in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinals.

The beat goes on, and the point is simple: Federer is good about correcting the losses which carry an extra sting – or if not sting, certainly an extra cost such as a Halle title.

Coric had more to prove in Halle after the Indian Wells “agony in the desert.” In Shanghai, this figured to be Federer’s moment of revenge, especially after a high-level performance against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals seemed to get him back into a rhythm.

Nope.

Coric didn’t allow Federer to get comfortable at any point in a routine straight-set match. Coric’s serve – winning the amount of free points Nishikori struggles to win – will lend ballast to his career as long as it remains potent. Coric’s forehand can be very weak at times, but in Shanghai, it looked a lot more solid.

Do I think Coric will have a huge 2019? No… but I do think he will become more consistent.

Coric is like a WTA top-10 player – and this is not a criticism: His results veer all over the place, but he is good for a few very big runs at significant tournaments each season. That’s good – just in a volatile way. I think Coric won’t lose in the round of 64 or 32 at tournaments nearly as often next year. He will make more rounds of 16 and quarterfinals. That’s what this Shanghai tournament has done to change my perceptions of Coric.

Whether he can push beyond the quarters or 16s of big events is something I don’t yet feel confident enough to answer. Nevertheless, Coric is definitely moving in the right direction. Shanghai – specifically the “No, you’re not going to avenge your loss against me!” response to Federer – moderately but genuinely increased my expectations for what he can, and will, achieve.

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Djokovic Wins Shanghai and Carries Excellence Everywhere He Goes

Tennis Accent Staff

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Question: What is the big story coming out of Shanghai?

MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk

Novak Djokovic is getting it done, with a crushing level of domination since his Wimbledon title. The Shanghai title adds to his rise to the top — for me, the story of the year in men’s tennis — in that it is less what he is doing than how he is getting it done: on a variety of surfaces, in all aspects of the game.

He is winning matches with a considerable gap in the level of tennis between him and his opponents. Shanghai ATP 1000 is the tournament that moves the goalposts in 2018’s biggest story in men’s tennis: It moves them from Novak’s “comeback and rise to the top” to Novak’s “command at the top.” The former took place at Wimbledon. The latter is resonating since then, and it seems to be here to stay for a while. It also begs the question: How long will it continue? The last time Novak was in command of men’s tennis, it lasted a couple of years. Can it last that long this time around, too? After the Shanghai title, these are substantial questions that need to be put on the table.

For Novak to be as dominant as he was at his peak — I mean results-wise only, because game-wise, he is already there (another Shanghai confirmation) — he would need to collect titles on all court-speed variations over an extended period of time. Winning Shanghai brings him ever closer to that. He is not completely there (he may get there, depending on his results next Spring on clay), but this title represents a giant step in that direction.

ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad

Two big stories came out of Shanghai – a presence, and an absence.

The presence was the form of the tournament winner, Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has always enjoyed the Asian swing: Nick Lester, the Tennis TV commentator, tweeted after Novak’s quarterfinal win over Kevin Anderson:

Novak Djokovic’s @ATPWorldTour record on Asian soil since the start of 2009 now sits at 56-4.

Make that 58-4. According to Greg Sharko, the ATP stats guru, Shanghai 2018 was Djokovic’s first tour title without getting broken in the tournament. Djokovic won 85 percent of his first-serve points and 60 percent of his second-serve points.

If you couple that with Novak’s trademark return excellence, you have a very formidable tennis player. I took a look at Djokovic’s return stats for the tournament. Only Coric, who had put on a serving clinic against Federer in the semifinal, was able to win more than 50 percent of his second-serve points – a bare majority of 9 from 16. Over five matches Djokovic’s second-return points won percentage was 57, just below his second-serve points won percentage.

Craig O’Shannessy is a tennis analyst and strategist who tweets as @BrainGameTennis and consults with Djokovic. Craig spotted (in a match against Tsonga) that Djokovic had effectively played with three serves to the Frenchman’s one: Djokovic’s second-serve returns were as effective as his own second serves. This is what Novak did for the whole tournament in Shanghai, effectively played with three serves to one.

Novak scrapped his way to the title in the last Masters 1000 in Cincinnati, and a discerning observer (the tournament’s No. 1 seed) suggested that he still had room to improve before the end of the season. A U.S. Open and another Masters 1000 have followed; if Djokovic hasn’t reached his best level yet, the rest of the field ought to be fairly nervous for 2019.

The rest of the field? I hate to say it, but with the honorable exception of the players Djokovic beat on his way to the trophy, you have to mark it down as an absence. Two of the Big 4 were physically absent, with Rafael Nadal recuperating from a knee strain and Andy Murray having shut down his season. The fourth member of the group, Roger Federer, fought his way into the semifinals and looked to have run out of mental and physical energy against Coric.

Del Potro and Cilic, newly 30, had tournaments to forget, with Cilic falling in the first round to Nico Jarry and del Potro laboring with illness early in the week before retiring after a heavy fall caused a knee injury in his R-16 match with Coric. Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, like Cilic, couldn’t win their first match.

Del Potro has qualified for the ATP Finals in London. Barring injury or an implausible Jack Sock- like run in the last tournaments of the year, Cilic and Thiem will join him. But the second big story from Shanghai is the absence of any serious consistent competitor to the Big 3 for major titles.

As Federer and Nadal did before him, Novak Djokovic has returned from injury as an apparently unstoppable force. He will likely go into Melbourne in 2019 as the clear Australian Open favorite. It’s a long way off, but Roland Garros 2019 – and a possible clash between Djokovic playing for a second Novak Slam and Nadal for an almost unthinkable 12th French Open title – is a distinct prospect.

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

The big story could not be anything — or anyone — else: Novak Djokovic put his stamp of mastery and dominance on men’s tennis. At the U.S. Open, the oppressive weather conditions prevented him from playing at his best through the first five rounds, which he still managed to navigate with typical resourcefulness and drive. Once the weather became tolerable over the final weekend of that tournament, he played the lockdown lights-out tennis against Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro which defined him at his peak periods this decade.

Wimbledon was an extraordinary tournament and an equally extraordinary achievement for Djokovic because he wasn’t quite the transcendent, overwhelming force he had been in 2015 and the first half of 2016… yet still found a way to lift the trophy and very quickly complete his revival. Djokovic was outplayed by Rafael Nadal for most of that epic semifinal — a match which will likely be remembered as one of the most important in tennis history — but served remarkably well in crunch-time moments to prevail, 10-8 in the fifth set. That was a spectacular response to pressure, making Wimbledon once again the site of Djokovic’s proudest accomplishments.

At the U.S. Open, however, Djokovic escaped the withering heat and — in his last two matches in New York — kicked two very good players to the curb in comprehensive beatdowns.

We who cover tennis thought that this might be the launching pad for another Pax Djokovic.

That is EXACTLY what we received in Shanghai — only this wasn’t just a two-match finishing kick in the semis and final. This is how the whole week unfolded.

Djokovic is sitting in the clouds, high above Rafa and (even more especially) Federer. The distance between him and Zverev is enormous.

This is Novak’s world, and we are just living in it.

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Saturday in Shanghai Confirms the Djokovic Restoration

Matt Zemek

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It is one thing to desire revenge. It is another thing to deliver it, especially in a dominant fashion.

Novak Djokovic got everything he wanted out of his Saturday in Shanghai.

You KNEW Djokovic wanted to get on a court with Sascha Zverev after the 2017 Rome final in which the young German won his first Masters 1000 championship in a clean and methodical manner. Zverev calmly dissected Djokovic’s game that day in Italy, flashing on a big stage the talent which has since catapulted the (now-) 21-year-old to a large collection of ATP titles, including two more Masters trophies. Zverev is just beginning what has all the makings of a supremely prosperous career. What he did against Djokovic could reasonably be referred to as “The Moment,” a point in time I identify as decisive in a player’s career.

As I have written on previous occasions, “The Moment” — if a player does something significant enough to achieve it — marks a player for greatness. Roger Federer had “The Moment” against Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. Zverev announced himself in Rome one and a half years ago.

Yet, as well as Zverev played that day, the benefit of hindsight allows us to appreciate how physically limited Djokovic was. The Serbian superstar, we can acknowledge, was laboring through pain, which hampered him in an immediate sense, but also interfered with the mind-body dualism athletes need to maintain clarity and fluidity in everything they do. Zverev deserved all the credit for his performance, but Djokovic was not in a position to be at his best.

Saturday in Shanghai, Djokovic — fit, prepared, and at the top of his game — gained his chance to show Zverev what he was capable of.

The result was predictable, but said predictability should not — and cannot — take away from the majesty of a brutal beatdown.

This is Djokovic in full flight. This is the player who put the rest of the ATP Tour at his feet in 2015 and the first half of 2016. This was not about Zverev’s inadequacies (though they exist and need to be reduced by Ivan Lendl in 2019). This was about Djokovic being a fully restored player in every sense and delivering a butt-kicking which reminded Sascha how far he has to climb to reach the Djokovic standard.

In one hour, this evisceration ran its course.

Djokovic will technically be World No. 2 on Monday — surpassing Federer — but everyone can see that Novak is the world’s best tennis player by a considerable distance at the moment. If he chooses to play Bercy, he will be the favorite there. He will be the favorite to win the ATP Finals in London. He will be the favorite (assuming there are no injuries in the intervening months) at the Australian Open in January.

In his first great season — 2011 — Djokovic dominated the tour from January through the U.S. Open, but that immense workload took a toll on his body, and he ran out of gas in autumn of that year. In 2015, he carried his dominance through the ATP Finals, and in 2018, after a first half of the season spent regrouping and rediscovering his rhythmic balance, Djokovic is comparatively fresh with less tread on the tires. He is in position to roar some more — just as he has done against Kevin Anderson in the Shanghai quarterfinals and Zverev in the semis. It is hard to see him losing to Coric — who upset Federer in Saturday’s other semifinal — on Sunday.

A brief word about Federer: One can plainly see that the Swiss, despite his high-quality win over Kei Nishikori in the Shanghai quarters, is struggling to find a balance between rest and match play. It’s almost** as though being 37 years old requires tough choices and involves a struggle to discern the limits of mind and body!

** = NOT ALMOST!

The new world rankings on Monday reflect the flow of the 2018 ATP season: Federer has been the third-best player on tour. That is still phenomenal for a player his age, but Nadal is certainly second, and Djokovic is just as certainly Numero Uno.

The Djokovic Restoration Tour of 2018 continues unabated. That is what Saturday in Shanghai most authoritatively confirmed.

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