Fact: This was a 250-point tournament.
Fact: Roger Federer played Guido Pella in the quarterfinals.
Fact: As Rafael Nadal fans will be quick to say, Rafa doesn’t play clay-court 250s during his year.
A word many people in the community of tennis fans like to use is “vulture.” The word is used as a verb, meant to convey the idea of flying in and picking up scraps with other elite players resting or otherwise unable to play. Certainly, some will say that Federer “vultured” this title in Stuttgart, Germany, en route to his 98th career title, moving within 11 of Jimmy Connors for first place on the Open Era ATP title list. As far as it goes, within the confines of the discussion, the claim is correct. I won’t mount an argument against the claim. It stands. It doesn’t need to be refuted.
The only necessary response: And? So what?
Yes, Federer picked off some low-hanging fruit by playing only four matches to win a title — not that it was easy. Facing the serves of Nick Kyrgios on Saturday (semifinals) and Milos Raonic in Sunday’s final translated into pressure-packed tiebreakers. Federer split two breakers against Kyrgios on Saturday, but he won the one which counted in the third set. He then remained solid in Sunday’s second-set breaker while Raonic double-faulted at 3-4 to permanently cede scoreboard leverage. The margins were small, but Federer normally stands on the right side of them on grass. Federer’s break from the clay season means rust in his first week back on tour is going to be part of the equation to some degree. This year, Federer finally broke through that rust to win the grass Stuttgart tournament for the first time.
It is not a Masters event. It is not Wimbledon. It is not, in a larger sense, a hugely important tournament. It is just a 250. It is little more than “vulture pickings,” many will say with convincing and reasonable logic.
And yet, even though this tournament is small potatoes on many levels, Stuttgart symbolizes something very important in the process of assessing Roger Federer’s career… on multiple levels.
A first point to make about Federer’s pursuit of Jimmy Connors is that Connors’ 109 titles came from playing anywhere and everywhere, in out-of-the-way places such as North Conway, New Hampshire. Pack a suitcase, hop on a plane to an obscure town, win a small tournament. Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Ivan Lendl, and other prominent pros in the late 1970s and early 1980s fattened their title counts by playing continuously on a less regulated and governed tour with so many more tournaments, affording players ample chances to lift trophies.
Today’s ATP Tour is much more regulated and streamlined. The sport is more physically demanding as well, which makes it harder for players to do what David Ferrer and Nikolay Davydenko did in their primes: namely, play every week. All the elite players manage their schedules relatively tightly and focus on the majors and Masters 1000 events. The 500s serve as occasional tune-ups or as home-nation events, as has been the case for Rafael Nadal in Barcelona and Federer in Basel each year. The way players need to approach life on tour in the 21st century deprives them of the chances to win championships which were available to the elite pros of 40 years ago.
To be clear, this doesn’t detract from the greats of the late 1970s or early 1980s. Winning titles is what players step on a court to achieve.
The point of emphasis is that if the Big Three’s title collections seem smaller, it’s largely because the demands and regulatory parameters of professional tennis — as a business and as a war of attrition — have profoundly changed.
Can you imagine Nadal on clay in the 1970s? He would have run wild the way Vilas did, only more so.
Can you imagine Djokovic in the 1970s at his peak? He would have exceeded Connors with the consistency of his groundstrokes and defense.
Overall championship counts simply don’t reflect the greatness of today’s elite players, and Stuttgart underscores, in multiple ways, how Federer’s 98 titles fit as part of that dynamic.
This was Federer’s 18th grass-court title. Federer has played professional tennis for more years (20 — since 1998) than he has won grass titles (18). That’s a very small number for a man who has won more Wimbledons than any other man, dead (salute, Willie Renshaw) or alive (Pete Sampras).
Why is that number so small? We know why on a general level. Grass is the one surface without a Masters 1000 event on tour. That’s a fact everyone in tennis is aware of. What is also widely known is that before 2015, the elite players in men’s tennis typically played only one warm-up grass event before Wimbledon, given that there were only two weeks between the French Open and The Championships. After playing one major tournament in France, the idea of playing each of the two grass warm-up weeks before Wimbledon was simply not a reasonable proposition. Only now can someone such as Federer skip clay, move to grass, and play two tournaments — Stuttgart and Halle — before moving to the All England Club.
Yes, it’s just a 250. Yes, Federer has not played overwhelmingly tough fields in many of his Halle championship runs. That’s all true. The Federer critics, viewed through a narrow factual lens, are not wrong to make these claims.
Yet, what the critics miss — and what raw numbers of championships will always fail to fully reflect — is how much Roger Federer has been deprived of ample opportunities to collect more grass-court championships.
Imagine if there had been three weeks between Roland Garros and Wimbledon throughout Federer’s career, not just in the last four years. Federer would likely be well over 100 titles by now.
Imagine, then, if grass had a two-and-a-half-month season the way springtime clay does.
Federer would almost surely have passed Connors’ 109 titles by now.
Stuttgart, a little ol’ ATP 250, is not — in a larger sense — a big deal on tour. Yet, this event — which did not exist as a grass-court opportunity for Federer as recently as 2014 — could be the very event which helps Federer to accumulate a few more titles and eventually surpass Connors on the all-time list.
If Federer wins Stuttgart in the year 2020 for title No. 110, there would be a considerable degree of symbolic significance attached to the feat in ways Jimmy Connors, more than anyone else, would instantly be able to recognize and appreciate.
Image source -Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe
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.