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THIS TOO SHALL PASS FOR TSITSIPAS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Stefanos Tsitsipas will play only one more tournament before turning 20 years old on August 12. For tennis players younger than 23 (the age when Novak Djokovic truly began to figure things out), it is often a premature act to pronounce that greatness will visit a particular player. For every Djokovic or Federer, there are hundreds of players who possess talent but don’t actualize that talent. It’s not that they don’t have the raw material; it is widely known and accepted on tour that the players can hit the ball at a high level. It’s the collection of finer details, polished habits, superior in-match choices, and big-moment responses which differentiate champions from pretenders.

If you were to ask various tennis pundits about Tsitsipas, most would probably be inclined at this early point in the Greek’s career to assign a high ceiling of potential to him. Why not? His breakthrough in Barcelona earlier this year has not been followed by a downturn. Tsitsipas isn’t doing spectacular things on court, but that should not be expected of 19-year-olds. Merely being solid — continuing to win multiple matches at tournaments — represents a significant feat for a player with Tsitsipas’s level of experience. A semifinal result at the Citi Open in Washington reaffirms a slow but steady upward trajectory for him. His career continues to point in the right direction.

It is a good time to be Stefanos Tsitsipas. A positive vibe — reinforced by positive tournaments — surrounds his tennis existence. That much is clear and can be widely agreed upon. Yet, for all the signs of encouragement, he has not had what I would refer to as “The Moment.”

When I speak of “The Moment,” I refer to a match or an accomplishment so great that a young player crosses the threshold from being “possibly a very good player” to “yep, this guy is going to win big when he gets to his prime years.” This is not to say or suggest that Tsitsipas WON’T have that kind of career, only that we haven’t yet encountered a moment which stamps the mark of excellence on a young player with particular authority.

The man staring at Tsitsipas on the other side of the net in Saturday’s first Washington semifinal has been graced by “The Moment.”

For me, “The Moment” came for Sascha Zverev when he calmly dissected Novak Djokovic in the 2017 Rome final. A young player who should have been nervous, should have felt the moment in the way young players usually do, was icy — in the best possible sense — and glacially calm, powering through Djokovic in a Masters final as though he was tending to Tuesday morning errands. The feat of beating Djokovic in straights — in a city where Djokovic has constantly played great tennis in big matches — was impressive enough. The WAY in which Zverev tended to his business was even more impressive. That was “The Moment” for me.

Others could cite the 2018 Madrid final against Dominic Thiem, or the 2017 Montreal final against Roger Federer, as “The Moment” for Zverev. You could take your pick of moments, but to be sure, Zverev forged feats on a tennis court before turning 21 (or at Madrid this year, one month after turning 21) which showed that despite his young age, he appears poised to succeed at the highest level.

Will that moment come for Tsitsipas? Yes, I think it soon will… but it still hasn’t arrived, and until then, that small sliver of caution should be applied to his career.

This is why his loss to Zverev on Saturday can help him a lot in the future.

I often refer to “good losses” in sports. I know that the point of competition is to win, but the notion of a “good loss” is based on the realization that a loss today can set the stage for greater victories or opportunities down the line. In tennis, the most common example of a “good loss” is a loss which enables a player to gain rest at a smaller-point tournament so that s/he can be more prepared for a higher-point tournament. While the Toronto Masters (the Rogers Cup) lies ahead for Tsitsipas, I would not view this result through that prism. Being able to defeat Zverev and play for a 500 title would be a big deal. Preparations for Toronto shouldn’t be viewed as that much more valuable for Tsitsipas.

However, this is still a good loss — just not in the conventional sense. Why would this be a good loss for Tsitsipas? The explanation is not that complicated.

Everyone who watched the match against Zverev could see that Tsitsipas — quite understandably — treated the moment with tremendous enthusiasm and the emotional intensity befitting the opponent across the net. What young athletes (in any sport) have to manage is the fine line between intense emotions and overheated emotions. Intensity is good, but not when it overflows and hijacks concentration. Tsitsipas swam through that chemical cocktail on Saturday, whacking himself in the head at a sitdown and constantly trying to pump himself up. His body language was the exact opposite of a poker face, always revealing to his opponent exactly what he was feeling.

Zverev has endured those moments in great abundance on tour. He can be ornery and agitated with the best of them, his racquet slams and descents into darkness becoming very familiar in his “black” period from September 2017 through early March of 2018, when virtually nothing went right for him. He revived his career with a run to the Miami final against John Isner, but even in that match, Zverev slammed his stick late in the match and lost. The predictable chorus (which I joined) cautioned that he still had to cross certain thresholds in terms of patience, discipline, and perseverance.

Zverev quite clearly answered those questions in Madrid, and then again at Roland Garros with his five-set comeback wins, plural, and his run to the quarterfinals. As is the case with most young athletes, Zverev had to go through the chaos of his own mind and ride the roller-coaster several times in order to gain more clarity and understanding.

Tsitsipas’s team can look at this loss on Saturday and properly identify it as a necessary step in Stefanos’s evolution as a tennis player.

In addition to the internal emotional upheavals which were part of Saturday’s match, Tsitsipas made a mistake he fortunately didn’t pay for. At 4-4 in the second set — part of a long service game for the Greek — he dove for a shot. He made a spectacular backhand volley and created a huge roar from the crowd, but as his coach will surely tell him after the match, you’re not supposed to dive on hardcourts — not unless it’s U.S. Open championship point or something very close to that. Tsitsipas has a multi-million-dollar right arm, an arm which might hit 8,000 aces and propel him to major championships. The second set of an ATP 500 semifinal, trailing by a set and on serve, is not a moment valuable enough to risk that million-dollar arm.

Thankfully, Tsitsipas did not appear to injure the arm. He got away with it. Managing emotions, managing a match, managing a career — Tsitsipas gained a lot of new information on how to carry forward on Saturday, without severely negative consequences.

That’s part of what made this a good loss, but the final detail worth emphasizing is that on some occasions, a young athlete will display bad habits or responses (as Tsitipas did with his head-whacks and the ill-chosen dive) and yet win a match. When a young athlete wins a match DESPITE showing some bad habits, those bad habits can become baked in and solidified. Because Tsitsipas lost, it is a lot more likely — not guaranteed, but much more probable — that Tsitsipas will realize he can’t continue to do what he did on Saturday.

This doesn’t mean these habits or actions (except the dive — that will be nipped in the bud immediately) — will evaporate and never be seen again. This is a gradual process, not a push-button computer program. However, Saturday — because it ended with a loss, not a win — has a much better chance of instilling better habits in Tsitsipas over the longer run of time.

That’s a good loss, and a good education, for a player whose ceiling is as high as his aspirations.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North America
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Roundtable — ATP Major Showdowns in 2019

Matt Zemek

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Robert Deutsch - USA TODAY Sports

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.

You can support our work and our grassroots tennis coverage — tailored to the dedicated tennis fan, not the clickbait-minded casual fan — at this specific link. Tell your tennis-fan friends that TWAA is a destination they can trust for sober, intellectually honest tennis analysis.

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.

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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

Follow Matt on Twitter: @mzemek

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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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