Federer is God! Federer is the King Of Tennis! Without the Maestro, there is no tennis!
Look, folks — before I professionally began my tennis writing career in 2014, I wrote for a Federer fan blog. I used to be a Federer fan. I am not anymore because I am now a commentator. I can say that I am a fan of tennis because I love writing about the sport professionally, but I can no longer call myself a fan of any player. When anyone makes the jump across that bright red line from fan to commentator, the world has to change. The way one evaluates anything and everything in the theater of activity one covers has to change. It’s that simple.
This doesn’t mean one doesn’t take enjoyment from one’s job — as someone who gets to write tennis and hope that people will donate to Tennis With An Accent to fund my work, I enjoy having this opportunity. Yes, I will need to make some money from this work; otherwise, I won’t be able to do it on a continuous basis. Yet, I do enjoy writing about tennis and having the chance to see if a media philanthropist might notice what Saqib Ali and I are trying to do here at TWAA and help us enjoy a long life as tennis commentators. I enjoy my work — that is allowed — but if I speak and write in ways which are consistent with a fan, I’m not cut out for this line of work.
I think you know how a fan reacts, since if you’re reading this column, you are almost certainly a fan of a particular player. I think you can distinguish how a fan reacts from how a commentator reacts. Both can be excited, both can express a large range of emotions, but when you are covering a sport as opposed to being a fan of a player or group of players, the big picture is what has to be accounted for.
When you are blogging for a fan site or live-tweeting a match as a fan, there is no sense of responsibility — this is not a criticism of anyone who comments the way a fan does, merely a simple representation of the fan’s mindset and the fan’s experience. When anyone moves from “fan blogging” or fan-style commentary to professional coverage (coverage for which one gets paid to any slight degree), that person has to look at the wider range of views. She or he isn’t writing for one rabid fan base; s/he is writing about the sport as seen from a collection of perspectives which need to be taken into account. When a fan writes something at a fan site, the intent of a column is to look at the tennis world through the prism of that one player. When writing professionally, individual columns can certainly look at life through the prism of individual athletes, but that process of examination must be spread out across the tours, across the sport. If someone has an inner view of an athlete as a fan blogger, that view must become a more outward view as a professional writer, something with a more emotionally detached tone which blends into observations of other athletes.
Professional sportswriting is not — and cannot be — a one-perspective business. Seeing the world through various sets of eyes is a prerequisite and a non-negotiable part of doing this job well. I am allowed to feel things in a very deep, private corner of my being, but the measure of professionalism in my writing and live-tweeting — my public commentary on tennis and any other sport I cover — is that I must represent various truths and various viewpoints, not just one. I have to be fair, I have to look at a broader landscape, and I have to be generous with various athletes, not just one. Otherwise, readers will know I am playing favorites, and as soon as a readership knows a writer or commentator is playing favorites, the game is over. I would need to seek a new line of work. I would not have professional respectability, and I would not have earned it, either.
Why this long prelude after Roger Federer’s stunning loss to John Millman on Monday night-turned-Tuesday-morning at the U.S. Open? Because as much as my former Federer fan self might very privately and inwardly enjoy TV broadcasters waxing poetic about how incredible Roger Federer is, the professional commentator in me has been irritated by the extent to which honest praise has at times turned into fawning over the years.
To be clear: Roger Federer has definitely earned the right to be spoken of in very lofty tones. It is inherent to the nature of an iconic athlete to draw more praise than his peers. That he receives constant praise is not the problem. Not at all. What gets me is when Federer is spoken of as a deity or a king or something beyond this world. That’s when the line gets crossed.
Let me say something very specific: A lot of over-the-top praise of Federer or any athlete or any public figure is often a calculated attempt to get more pageviews in the media industry, since pageviews are at the heart of the current business model for many publications or outlets. Praising Federer lavishly is a great way to get into the media bloodstream. The article might get noticed by a Fed fan in a given nation (where the publication is based), and that Fed fan circulates the article among friends, and it goes viral. This happened all the time before I joined TennisTwitter in 2009. I was on Peter Bodo’s TennisWorld blog as a commenter who interacted with Rafa and Djokovic fans in the comments sections. Articles would get passed around by fans like hotcakes. This was the emerging internet world which has changed media consumption habits so profoundly. It is a world in which political tactics are now so highly dependent on using the web to create viral patterns and messages which resonate with certain groups of voters and create enthusiasm leading up to Election Day.
Praising Federer, to reiterate, is simply good business these days in a media-centric context — but that doesn’t mean it is honest or thoughtful analysis which adds value. So much of what passes for commentary is or can be clickbait meant to stimulate emotional responses more than educate a reader about a subject. This, too, is a relevant distinction between a fan’s perspective and a professional commentator’s perspective.
Long story short, no one is truly helped or nourished or illuminated when Federer is talked about in a reverential way. Praise is great — it has been well and truly earned by Roger — but reverence is hagiographic and hyperbolic when coming from anyone who calls himself or herself a professional commentator or writer. There is nothing professional about treating human beings as something more than what they are.
Here, then, is the central point on which I hope to illuminate you, the reader of this piece: Not only should Federer not be spoken of as a walking God; it actually helps to appreciate his career and its remarkable successes when one RESISTS the impulse to treat him like something bigger than just a man.
Federer has played over 1,420 matches in his career. Per tennis writer Utkarsha Mitra [@utkarsha97 on Twitter — he is a good follow], this loss to John Millman marked only the ninth time that he has lost tiebreakers in consecutive sets. The Evgeny Donskoy match in Dubai in 2017 was another recent example. Those are weird, weird matches, rarely replicated. One of those matches — one of those days when you get out of bed the wrong way or get suffocated by miserable humidity — happened to Federer in Dubai a year and a half ago, and it happened again versus Millman, who was fit enough and strong enough and ready enough to win the match of his career and make a first major quarterfinal at age 29. Three cheers for him — and more will be said on him in a separate column later in this U.S. Open.
It was no more complicated than that, everyone: The miserable, choking humidity and heat which plainly caused Novak Djokovic to suffer against Marton Fucsovics — and nearly got him down 2 sets to 1 before he rallied late in the third set — affected the 37-year-old Federer. Yes, this was not a normal experience for Federer, who said that it was very rare for him to have the feeling of not having a full amount of air in his lungs. Yet, isn’t it in the nature of getting older to have more struggle-bus nights such as this one? Sure, we didn’t expect this — none of us did, fans or writers — but we knew the weather in New York was miserable. Federer got ambushed by it, and his opponent was skilled enough and fit enough to take advantage.
There was no injury. There was no severe illness. Federer is older and couldn’t win the few points he needed in multiple sets to survive this one difficult night.
I said this after Djokovic-Fucsovics and I will say it again here: Nasty weather during a tournament requires players to survive the night when the conditions get to them and create a miserable experience. Djokovic survived his match. Rafael Nadal was suffering with taped knees against Karen Khachanov. That match easily could have gone the other way — like Federer-Millman, it also went into a third-set tiebreak tied at one set apiece.
Djokovic is therefore not the only player for whom heat-related empathy should apply. It should apply to other players who suffer in such conditions. So many of the problems or mistakes that afflict tennis are viewed by various fan bases as player-specific problems, as though one person embodies — either as the victim or the beneficiary — all the ills of a sport.
But that viewpoint is precisely how FANS think about issues. Professional commentators can’t filter all the problems of a sport through one player, especially since we have now seen all three members of the Big 3 struggle with the humidity in New York. Making Roger Federer into something or someone more than human is merely one side of the coin; on the other side of the coin are those who make him the villain of tennis and the man responsible for every problem. Neither view is balanced; both views are extreme and help no one.
A person shouldn’t hold Federer uniquely responsible — or expect him to be the one to act on — various problems in tennis scheduling, court assignments, the use of roofs at tournaments, or various other policies. Just the same, other people shouldn’t expect Federer to be an automatic victor in moments such as Monday night’s match against Millman, to the extent that if he loses, he MUST be injured or MUST be ill or, most of all, must be nearing the death of his tennis playing career.
Whether it is hyperbole in a great athlete’s moment of triumph, or runaway hysteria in the wake of a shocking upset loss such as Federer-Millman, both cases share the fundamental trait of being wildly disproportionate reactions in relationship to what actually occurred.
Remember the 2013 U.S. Open, and Federer’s loss to Tommy Robredo? I know it was five years ago, and that a trillion different things have profoundly changed our world in that period of time, but try to recall that Monday evening in New York. Also in the fourth round, also one match away from facing a member of the Big 3 (Nadal) in the quarterfinals, also playing in very sticky and steamy conditions, Federer was a mess. He didn’t serve as poorly then as he did against Millman five years later, but he gout routined in straight sets, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4. He was 2 of 16 on break points. He made errors with a level of regularity that no one in the tennis community was used to seeing. He did have back problems earlier that summer in Hamburg against Federico Delbonis and then against Daniel Brands, so his form could have been questioned heading to the U.S. Open, but then again, he played a highly encouraging and entertaining Cincinnati quarterfinal against Nadal in which he held up well. The performance against Robredo — who, like Millman, is a grinder and hardly a big hitter — was out of the blue and very much unexpected. Yes, Federer was likely to get demolished by an in-form Nadal in the quarters (much as I thought Federer was headed for a decisive loss at the hands of Novak Djokovic on Wednesday, had he gotten through Millman), but the Robredo loss was still a thunderbolt.
After that match, the flood of voices calling for Federer to retire to preserve his legacy — as though being human and struggling to work his way back to the top would seem grimy or beneath Federer’s supposedly glossy and peRFect exterior — were numerous, including among Fed fans. That moment was the darkest of Federer’s career. It was emotionally easy as a fan and intellectually easy as an observer to think, with Federer at 32 years of age, that the end was near. After all, most tennis careers — if they haven’t run out of juice at 32 — hit empty soon after that. Pete Sampras was done at 31. Ivan Lendl’s best days deserted him at a similar point in time. Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg didn’t make it to age 32. Neither did Bjorn Borg. John McEnroe made a few deep runs at majors in his early 30s, but ceased to be a regularly consistent force on tour well before turning 30.
Most human beings who are really good at professional singles tennis are done at or near age 32, so at least on a conceptual level, it was understandable why so many began to write Federer’s career obituary after the Robredo loss.
There was just one problem with that: Much as deifying Federer is an overreaction to his greatness, “the sky is falling” reactions to terrible performances are just as extreme and unwarranted in the other direction.
Federer knows this better than anyone. He said after the loss to Robredo, “The story of my life: When I lose, people are shell-shocked to see me play this way.” It did feel like the end of the world for a lot of Fed fans — and the beginning of a hopeful new period for his detractors — after that match. Yet, the proper response to that match as a professional commentator (which I had not yet become but wanted to if I ever got the chance) was not that “doom has descended upon Federer.” The proper response was to say that Federer’s career never felt more uncertain than it did at that moment.
When Federer lost to Delbonis and Brands on clay, he was trying out his new racquet and got injured, likely in an attempt to physically adjust to his new stick and the movements and reactions it involved. He wasn’t as physically compromised at the U.S. Open, so when he got drummed out by Robredo — something which wouldn’t happen on most days for him — the panic set in around the world. That panic manifested in the calls for his retirement or (from some professional writers and commentators) the proclamations that he was DONE and would never win another major title.
What did I think at that point in time? I thought, very consciously, about these two notions: First, that I had no idea what to expect. I would have been lying to myself if I said I expected a very particular career trajectory after that moment. Nadal and Djokovic met in that 2013 U.S. Open final, much as they are expected to meet in the 2018 final this upcoming Sunday. They were joined by Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka had just made the U.S. Open semifinals in 2013, days after Federer crashed out. The tour was getting tougher. Rafa and Nole were thriving. Murray had just won Wimbledon. Yes, it was hardly ludicrous to think Federer was in trouble.
That was one of my two very conscious thoughts after the Robredo match.
The other thought: If I or anyone should write Federer’s career obituary, I need to wait for compelling and legitimate evidence that it was warranted.
Federer’s streak of 36 straight major quarterfinals was snapped at Wimbledon in 2013 by Sergiy Stakhovsky. That was one of the most ridiculous runs in the history of tennis. In the two months encompassing Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Federer encountered a world of misery… but it was only two months.
Surely, any objective analyst or commentator needs to see more than two freaking months before weighing in on the long-term reality or trajectory of a career. That was where a number of professional writers and commentators (some of them preceding 2013 — I can personally go back to 2010 to find highly-paid media figures in the United States pointing to Federer’s demise at age 29) shoveled dirt on Federer’s tennis grave without having nearly enough evidence to be credible.
I recall thinking to myself after the Robredo match that if Federer spent the 2014 season losing in the second rounds of most tournaments and never going past a quarterfinal — something like that — his decline would be complete, his chances of winning championships at big tournaments essentially finished.
We know how 2014 turned out — no major trophy, but a 2014 Wimbledon final in which Federer had break point at 3-3 in the fifth set against Djokovic, plus semifinals in both Australia and the U.S. Open. Federer made three major semis in a year when he turned 33 (in August). Very few men in the Open Era have done that, Jimmy Connors being one.
Next year, Rafael Nadal will turn 33. In two years, Novak Djokovic will turn 33. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they match Federer’s feat, but if they don’t, that won’t be cause to think they are finished. Surely some people felt Nadal was done in 2016, and that Djokovic would either take a lot longer to build back his form or that he would never regain it again this past March.
As I sit here, five years after another fourth-round U.S. Open loss by Roger Federer that no one anticipated, I can only look back at the Robredo aftermath and marvel at all the enormous accomplishments Federer has put together in what is the “old age” portion of a tennis player’s career. Oldest No. 1 ever. 20 majors. Repeat Australian Open champion. A record-setting eighth Wimbledon. The pile of wins over Nadal. World No. 2 at age 37. Six finals in nine tournaments played this year. The Indian Wells-Miami double last year. Seven titles last year.
For all the people — fans or over exuberant commentators — who gush about Federer or fawn over him as though he is not made of the same stuff that you and I are, those voices don’t add to an appreciation of Federer. They mythologize him and turn him into this “other” being, something from another planet or galaxy. That makes him less relatable, not more.
It is best to view Roger Federer as human — strong but vulnerable; consistent but not immune to noticeable failures; extraordinary in his feats and athletic prowess but subjected to the same forces as the rest of us in our own jobs. When realizing that a gifted but imperfect, flesh-and-blood human person has achieved what Federer has achieved, both in the run of his full career and in the five years since losing to Tommy Robredo, it makes the journey, the man, and the accomplishments so much greater than when assigned to a god or a member of a royal family.
Roger Federer does not exist outside the laws of physics or the forces of the universe. He is not a being set apart. He is made of this earthly clay. He has managed to forge remarkable works from that clay, but he is not exempt from the struggles of the artist or the challenges of the scientist as he tries to figure out the next challenge, the next tough match, the next difficult night at the office.
Hysteria might flow through Twitter on nights such as Federer-Millman at the U.S. Open, but all that can be waved away with a simple response: Human beings have bad nights, and can’t magically control how they feel on each and every day they are lucky enough to wake up and have another go at life.
If that response isn’t convincing enough, here’s an even simpler truth to end on: Getting older is not easy.
If we are thinking like human beings, not gods; if we are acting like human beings, not worshipers of a king; and if we are truly focused on the need to be kind and empathetic toward public figures as human persons, despite the rare and specific circumstances they inhabit, we can allow Roger Federer to have a bad night, and not think this is any more profound — or worrying, or newsworthy — than that.
Image – Aditya Prabhakar(Tennis with an Accent)
RAFAEL NADAL AND THE COMPLICATIONS OF A GOLDEN ERA
The Golden Era of men’s professional tennis has received a new stamp of greatness with Novak Djokovic’s 14th major title, making the Big 3 a true big three in major championships. Federer 1, Nadal 2, Djokovic — and Sampras — at 3. The moment is historic, resonant and powerful, affirming how great these three tennis players — from Switzerland, Spain and Serbia — have been over the past 15 years.
As the 2018 U.S. Open recedes into memory, Djokovic’s championship and his triumphant 2018 rightly exist as the most important ATP tennis stories of the year. Djokovic has stolen Fedal’s major-tournament thunder to become the best Big 3 player at tennis’s four most important tournaments in 2018. Djokovic deserves to be spoken of in the same lofty and exalted tones Fedal has received in recent years. The Big 3 is much better viewed as a brotherhood than a three-part hierarchy with a clear order of quality.
This next sentence needs to be absorbed and processed with care, and I will do my best to make sure it is absorbed and processed with care: Rafael Nadal embodies the complexities of the Big 3 era more than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
The key word: embodies.
Nadal isn’t necessarily a more complicated player than Federer or Djokovic — that is not being said or implied. Nadal merely EMBODIES these complications in ways which are more conspicuous.
The 2018 U.S. Open brought those complications into full view.
The point is familiar — so familiar, in fact, that it does not need to be commented on at great length: Rafael Nadal has lost more major tournaments to injury than Djokovic or Federer have. Hardcourt tennis in particular, and full-season tennis in general, have been less kind on Nadal’s knees and knee joints than on any body part belonging to Nole or Fed. That is not a criticism. That is not an indictment. That is not a diminishment. That is a simple reality.
What people choose to DERIVE or CONCLUDE from that reality is the great debate involving the Big 3. Should Nadal be downgraded for these injuries, or should he be upgraded given how well he has been able to push past and transcend them so many times in his career? You could make a case for each answer, which means you could make a case for a “both” or “all of the above” answer as well. What you choose to do in the process of interpreting the meaning and value of Nadal’s injuries will shape how you view Nadal and the era.
This is not the only complicated story of the past 15 years. How Federer has played since 2010 has been very good, but not usually good enough to beat Nadal or Djokovic in their primes in five-set matches at majors. How does one evaluate that? It is a very complicated question.
Djokovic currently has six fewer majors than Federer, but he has won 14 majors by venturing into the teeth of the Fedal axis, whereas Nadal and especially Federer accumulated a large chunk of major titles before the Djokovic ascendancy of 2011. How does one evaluate that? Again, it’s a complicated question. All three members of the Big 3 own enormous complexities and contradictions. Nadal isn’t necessarily MORE complicated… but his complications are easier to identify, partly because they emerge more often, as shown at this year’s hardcourt majors.
It is a very striking fact, is it not? Nadal — who did not play Acapulco, Indian Wells or Miami, and then skipped Cincinnati when the time came — has played only three hardcourt tournaments this year. In two of them, both at major tournaments, he had to retire. Nadal is rightly celebrated for pushing to his limits and then finding a way to push PAST those limits. He is “the great transcender” of this era, the one who seems to defy reasonable limits of stamina and endurance.
Yet, much as a 37-year-old Federer has shown his physical limitations this year, and much as Djokovic finally ran into injury problems after his enormous level of output and success from January of 2015 through June of 2016, Nadal — for all his transcendent powers — is not able to defeat the laws of physics all the time, only occasionally. His work ethic, intensity, and full-tilt tennis have enabled him to climb the highest mountain, but they haven’t come without cost. This U.S. Open reminded us of that.
In reviewing the ATP side of the U.S. Open in 2018 — a tournament which put ATP players through a hellhole of profoundly attritional situations and forced them, including Djokovic and Federer, to play in conditions unsuited to tennis — the Nadal story is relevant for numerous reasons. It is probably beyond the scope of this column to dive into several different reasons. (It is also beyond my pay grade, given that Tennis With An Accent has not yet raked in large sponsorship dollars from businesses and is still dependent on donor support through our GoFundMe page, which is also posted on our website’s Twitter page.)
Allow me, therefore, to focus on just one question Nadal’s unfortunate exit from the 2018 U.S. Open raises about this Golden Era of men’s tennis: Has it been a blessing for Nadal to play on relatively slow(er) and homogenized courts which have similar speeds, as opposed to highly differentiated ones?
I would bet that if I asked 100 random people in a room this question — “Have slow courts helped or hurt Nadal?” — a solid majority (at least 60 people if not 65) would say they have helped him.
Uh-oh, you might be thinking. MATT IS GOING TO THROW THE CURVEBALL AND TELL YOU THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS WRONG.
No… but I’m not going to say that it is COMPLETELY right, either. Hashtag #ItsComplicated.
A slower court has often helped Nadal, making it easier for Rafa to play defense, engage in long rallies, and wear down opponents. Slower courts magnify Nadal’s immense powers of concentration, his stamina, his willingness to hit the extra ball, and his penchant for problem solving. Slower courts have helped Nadal in his matchups on grass and hardcourts against Federer…
… but you will notice that I did not refer to clay.
The one clay venue where Federer had reasonable success against Nadal was Hamburg, when the tournament was part of the Masters 1000 rotation and before it was downgraded to a 500 event played after Wimbledon. Hamburg clay was often heavier clay. Slower surfaces on hardcourts and at Wimbledon gave Rafa more time against
Federer’s attacking strokes, but on Hamburg clay, the heavier conditions made the ball bounce lower. This put more shots in Federer’s lower strike zone while reducing Rafa’s ability to plant that reliable topspin forehand crosscourt to Federer’s one-handed backhand. When Rafa hit the forehand to Federer’s backhand on Hamburg clay, it was a lot harder for Rafa to make Federer hit shoulder- or eye-level backhands.
In marked contrast, the clay of other ATP venues — Monte Carlo and Rome — plus Roland Garros was not as heavy. In those tournaments, a sun-baked clay court was much more receptive to the ball, creating the spinny, high bounce which would force Federer to hit backhands way out of his preferred strike zone. On clay, court speed worked differently in the Fedal rivalry compared to grass and cement.
Then consider this point about court speed, which goes beyond individual matchups in this era: What if more hardcourt tournaments — on a tour whose primary surface IS hardcourts — had noticeably fast surfaces? If processed through the prism of individual matchups, Nadal might have lost at times. However, if he knew he had to hit bigger — something Nadal definitely did at the 2010 U.S. Open, which might have been his best start-to-finish performance at ANY non-Roland Garros major tournament he played — Rafa probably would have been able to make the various adjustments needed to succeed.
Moreover, Rafa probably would have made those adjustments and, as a result, shaved many hours of court time — hardcourt time on those knee joints — off his odometer. He might have lost a few more matches in 2011 or 2013, but he might have won more matches in recent years and might not have had quite as much wear and tear on his body.
All the members of the ATP Big 3 own complicated careers and resumes which deserve extended examination. Rafael Nadal’s complications aren’t necessarily greater than those of his two celebrated peers, but they can be easy to miss below the surface…
… and below the speed of the surfaces of the courts on which he has played.
WORLD OF TENNIS STILL SPLIT OVER SERENA, BUT ADMIRING OF OSAKA
This U.S. Open should have been a celebration. After all the Open Era began in 1968, 50 years ago. Serena Williams was inches from her 24th Grand Slam title. Novak Djokovic came through to win multiple majors in a single season: Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Yet, this tournament ended poorly.
Celebrations were overshadowed by the women’s final, where Williams and Naomi Osaka jettisoned the expected celebratory moment way beyond the confines of Arthur Ashe Stadium. They went to a place many didn’t want to inhabit.
Reactions have varied, though. Twitter and Facebook remain alive with opinions, most siding with Serena. But was Serena right? Was Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire for the final, just another man on a perch dealing out male judgments toward a woman? Was he right to dock her a game? Was the incident sexist?
Monday on ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption, Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser stood with Serena. Wilbon thought Ramos should be sanctioned.
Sally Jenkins, columnist for The Washington Post, took a firm stand alongside Serena, writing, “Chair umpire Carlos managed to rob not only one but two players in the women’s U.S. Open final. No one has seen anything like this.”
Tuesday morning Martina Navratilova aired her opinion in an op-ed for The New York Times, “Martina Navratilova: What Serena Got Wrong.”
Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, thought Williams was partially right.
“There is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behavior is punished – and not just in tennis,” Navratilova wrote. However, she questioned the incident from another angle: “Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?” She asks if Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire, could have “gotten away with calling the umpire a thief” if the player was male.
Finally, she made this point: “We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on court.”
Bottom line: There’s a time and place for disagreement and outright yelling, but the U.S. Open final isn’t it.
I appeared on “The Drive, Monday Sept 10th,” which aired on ESPN Blacksburg radio. The show’s host, Paul VanWagoner, asked me who was to blame for the chaotic conclusion to the match. I finally admitted “Serena,” adding that she might not have reacted, and continued to react, so boldly had she been playing better. Previous outbreaks from Williams during major finals — the 2011 U.S. Open against Samantha Stosur comes to mind — have followed poor performances, or at least, outbursts tied to what Williams would have considered poor performances, namely … not winning.
Novak Djokovic, who won his fourth Open title Sunday, also chimed in. He split the incident. In his postmatch press conference, he said that Ramos “pushed Serena to the limit” and “changed the course of the match, which in my opinion was unnecessary,” The Independent reported.
So what about Naomi Osaka? She was the winner of the women’s final, the player who was caught up in the whirlwind that had fans packed inside Ashe Stadium booing. On which side of the net have reactions to Osaka landed?
The Associated Press in Japan struck a different perspective. “Osaka charms Japan with her manners – and Broken Japanese.” The piece focused on Osaka as the winner of the final who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. Japanese readers, it seems, have “embraced” Osaka and her victory, calling her “‘a new heroine that Japan is proud of” and the “New Queen.”
Their readers were captivated by Osaka’s game, her manners, and her broken English. Who can forget the image of her bowing to Serena at the net after her victory and, again, bowing on the podium as she accepted the trophy after apologizing for her win?
“I know everybody was cheering for her; and, I’m sorry that it had to end like this. Thank you for watching the match,” Osaka said at the time, as I reported on Twitter.
There is no right answer to this unfortunate occasion. No one person, place or thing to blame. However, this episode will make tennis think about its rules and organizational structures, its own prejudices, and its place in the evolving history of women athletes competing in what we all can agree is a male-dominated world of sports.
THE U.S. OPEN IS TOO TOUGH — BUT NOT TOO TOUGH FOR OSAKA
In order to gain perspective on the past four women’s tournaments at the U.S. Open, consider the culture of tennis within an American perspective. This scene-setter — establishing the background for a review of the WTA at the 2018 U.S. Open — will take some time, so be patient as I slowly move through the distant past and work my way to the present moment.
When CBS carried the U.S. Open on American television, the network had a style which was very different from ESPN, the current American broadcaster of the event.
CBS was the American TV outlet for the U.S. Open’s championship weekend from 1968 — when the first U.S. Open was played — through 2014. ESPN took over in 2015. USA Network carried the weeknight matches at the U.S. Open for decades before Tennis Channel occupied that space roughly a decade ago. ESPN then gained full broadcast rights more recently. Tennis Channel is now allowed to show replays of matches, but it no longer shares live coverage with ESPN.
When CBS covered the U.S. Open’s biggest moments, the Open carried a certain degree of romance with it. Part of this was the late 1970s and early 1980s tennis boom in the United States, a product of telegenic stars made for the age of television: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova. Fire and ice, explosiveness and steely determination, stoicism and animation — the contrasts in emotional profiles were as stark as the contrasts in playing styles at the top levels of both the men’s and women’s tours. Johnny Mac and Martina were the swashbuckling net rushers, Borg and Evert the stone-cold assassins from the baseline. Connors was both the ruthless baseliner and the emotional fireball, a man who occupied both sides of these worlds.
Those days marked a very different time in the history and evolution of tennis. The dramatic transformations in racquet and string technology which have so greatly altered the nature of the sport had not yet taken root. Change was just beginning, but it had hardly solidified and led to a dramatically different approach among tour players. The playing surface was a lot faster then. If a set ended with an even-numbered game (6-4 or 7-5), the players played the first game of the new set without a sitdown… which occurred after the first game of the new set. Sets began with one game and then a sitdown, not three straight games as they do today. HawkEye was not particularly close to becoming a reality.
So many parts of the way tennis was played — and regulated, and orchestrated — were different back then. We can see with the benefit of perspective that serve and volley was still a substantial part of the sport 35 to 40 years ago. The variety seen in tennis surely helped to make the sport more popular at that time in the United States.
Yes, the personalities powered the sport, as did Billie Jean King’s win over Bobby Riggs in 1973, which gave women’s tennis an enormous push and made women a bigger part of the sports marketplace. Yet, the variety seen in tennis — the lack of a cookie-cutter style among all the top players — also contributed to the rise of the sport.
Were the late 1970s and early 1980s a tennis nirvana? On many levels, yes, but not completely. In particular, the variety in the sport and the faster courts hardly offered a guarantee of quick matches, because the racquets had not developed to the point that players could easily hit through the court, even with the faster speeds. Moreover, players such as Ivan Lendl were beginning to change the style of tennis in ways which would reverberate through the next 35 years and into the present day. More serve-and-forehand tennis, establishing a foundation of rock-solid consistency from the backcourt, was beginning to emerge in Lendl’s game. When racquet and string technology continued to evolve in subsequent decades, and court speeds became slower, and Wimbledon grass became more sturdy and resilient, it was easier — at least in the sense of involving fewer risks — for players to adhere to a more baseline-centric playing style than to adopt serve-and-volley methods.
The trajectory of the sport would follow a clear path through the 1990s and 2000s and into the present day.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, tennis enjoyed one of its richest and most colorful periods. Because fans, players, and journalists were all having such a good time (in the early 1980s, covering an important tennis match was not a sideshow in the American media realm; inspired by the Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final, significant tennis matches were very big occasions in those days), it didn’t seem to matter that much when matches were played.
No tournament gave less thought or consideration to when matches were played — relative to players’ needs — than the U.S. Open.
It seems preposterous today, and it is something which eventually became a talking point in the late 1990s, but in the early 1980s, it was not a source of widespread outrage that the U.S. Open played Friday women’s semifinals and a Saturday final, or Saturday men’s semifinals and a Sunday final. Again, everyone in tennis was having too much of a party to put up much of a fight.
Then came Saturday, September 8, 1984.
If there was any subterranean resistance to the U.S. Open’s championship weekend schedule, September 8, 1984 blew it out of the water.
Super Saturday became a regular part of the American tennis lexicon in 1984. Any American tennis fan or commentator older than 45 (I am 42, by the way) likely owns a vivid awareness of where he or she was on 9/8/84, one of the most remarkable days in tennis history.
Pat Cash-Ivan Lendl. Chris and Martina. Johnny Mac and Jimbo. Three matches, all going the distance, all creating a prizefight-level spectacle.
13 sets. Roughly 10 hours. (The full day’s order of play lasted just over 12 hours, but that included a three-set men’s over-35 match between former major champions Stan Smith and John Newcombe.) The day was a buffet of great tennis played by recognizably elite players under championship pressure at a supremely prestigious tournament. It was a perfect combination for television.
At the time, the continuous coverage on CBS represented an American television record for continuous coverage of one event on one day. The significance of the matches, the enormity of the personalities, the quality of the tennis, and the influence of network television at that point in American history — before CNN became a powerhouse news channel and ESPN became the juggernaut sports channel — all combined to create “Super Saturday.” This was a ratings gold mine for CBS, which wanted to carry as much tennis as possible on Championship Saturday at the U.S. Open, since the following Sunday marked the beginning of the NFL football season.
The schedule might have been unfair to players by depriving them of added rest and — in the case of the women’s final — denying the women’s finalists a set start time they could depend on (something echoed and amplified in this year’s scheduling of the Wimbledon women’s final after the curfew-delayed men’s semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic). However, the TV publicity undeniably gave the sport a bigger spotlight and a larger platform. That sustained the popularity of the sport and gave it a significant place in the media realm. Players were willing to sacrifice on certain levels in order to promote the sport. Today’s stars owe a debt to the greats of that generation, who did so much to create a context in which tennis could grow.
I am moving to the present day, but I need to mention one more basic detail about “The Good Old Days” of the past.
In the 1990s and 2000s, whenever a rain delay would arrive on the weekend at the U.S. Open, CBS would play one of two retrospectives on television: Jimmy Connors in 1991 against Aaron Krickstein… or 1984 Super Saturday. The Super Saturday identity became so entrenched into the public consciousness of Americans that it became synonymous with the U.S. Open. Yes, the schedule was brutal for players. Yes, the championship stages of the U.S. Open became very taxing for the players. Yet, it was television magic, so when Bill Macatee or other CBS commentators in the early 2000s called the U.S. Open “The World’s Toughest Tennis,” it was hard not to fall in love with the slogan.
The challenge of the U.S. Open — in the late 1970s, in 1984, and in the ensuing decades — has been compelling to watch. This is a tournament where the elite players normally shine, because they know how to handle their bodies late in a tennis season. Super Saturday 1984 involved only one player who was not a superstar — Pat Cash — and even he won a Wimbledon title and made other major finals.
The great players win in New York: Martina and then Steffi Graf followed Chris Evert in the 1980s. Lendl followed McEnroe and Connors in that same decade. Monica Seles and Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, and the ATP Big 3 carried the freight in the next few decades. Once in a great while, the U.S. Open provides a Kuznetsova-Dementieva final (2004) or a Cilic-Nishikori (2014) championship match, but those examples are conspicuous for how rare they have normally been. “The World’s Toughest Tennis” has normally been a way of saying that the U.S. Open is where the best tennis gets played under difficult conditions. That has often been a selling point for tennis… but not now.
As we move to the present day, let’s get this on the record first: None of this should undercut or minimize what either Naomi Osaka or Novak Djokovic did in winning the two singles championships. They both played their best when it mattered most, and lived up to the idea that they played “The World’s Toughest Tennis” with more toughness than anyone else. That is the mark of a champion. Both deserve lavish and flowing praise for what they achieved. They transcended the brutal heat and withering humidity. They were both terrific in their semifinal and championship-match demolitions of their credentialed opponents.
However, one can praise the singles champions at the 2018 U.S. Open — especially on the women’s side — and yet notice that this celebration of “tough tennis” no longer seems appropriate. “Tough tennis” is no longer focusing on tennis, but on attrition and survival. The men more easily become the focal point in this discussion, since they play over four hours in some matches, but notice how hard the women were hit by attrition at this tournament:
Of the 7 “end-stage” matches at the 2018 women’s U.S. Open (4 quarterfinals, 2 semifinals, 1 final), none had a set which went 7-5 or closer. No set lasted more than 10 games (6-4).
Of those 7 end-stage matches, none went to a third set. None were closer than 6-4, 6-3 (Serena Williams d. Karolina Pliskova and Madison Keys d. Carla Suarez Navarro). None involved a match in which the losing player won at least 8 games.
Lesia Tsurenko was physically and emotionally exhausted after her marathon fourth-round win over Marketa Vondrousova. She had nothing left for Osaka in the quarterfinals.
Sloane Stephens did not feel well in her loss to Anastasija Sevastova. She was clearly bothered by the sun, heat and humidity in New York. She didn’t lose because she lost a feel for how to play tennis. She lost because of health and the oppressive conditions… and Sevastova’s ability to take advantage of the circumstances, to the Latvian’s great credit.
At earlier stages of this tournament, we saw the conditions affect WTA players. Angelique Kerber — a very fit athlete who depends on her ability to run — was visibly worn down in the first week. She was similarly affected in Cincinnati, where she lost energy midway through her loss to Madison Keys. Caroline Garcia played an exhausting second-round match against Monica Puig and then lost to Suarez Navarro in the third round. Jelena Ostapenko played three-setters in her first two rounds and then had very little to offer Maria Sharapova in a decisive third-round defeat.
How WTA players managed their matches had a lot to do with how they fared during this fortnight.
Osaka deserves more focus here. Much like Juan Martin del Potro on the men’s side, Osaka won her matches so cleanly and efficiently that she was not overextended heading into the second week. She endured her one big challenge against Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round. Once she got past that, she knew she had been battle tested and could refocus for the stretch run of the tournament, which is exactly what she did. When so many other players take scenic routes through matches, Osaka drew a lot of directly straight lines. It mattered, and it contributed to her ability to maintain razor-sharp focus even when a New York crowd was agitated and booing in the contentious final involving Serena.
Osaka could not have played a better tournament — not when one realizes how well Sabalenka was playing, and how much work Osaka had to do to fend her off. Yet, even while acknowledging Osaka’s legitimate greatness, it cannot be denied that in the latter stages of the third set of that very consequential fourth-round encounter, Sabalenka finally showed signs of a fatigued player who had played 13 matches — 5 in Cincinnati, 5 in New Haven, 3 in New York — over the previous three weeks. Late in that third set, Sabalenka’s serve lost its accuracy. Her groundstrokes began to break down. It wasn’t a dramatic collapse, but it was still noticeable, more than enough for Osaka to pounce on. Osaka might not have won the match because Sabalenka got tired — Osaka had to serve really well to stay in front in that third set — but if Sabalenka had not carried so many matches or third sets into that battle, the outcome might have been different.
Freshness — as much as people try to tell me it doesn’t matter that much — DID matter at this tournament. What’s more is that beyond 2018, the last four U.S. Opens have generally reinforced the notion that players who do not carry an overly large workload through the middle portions of the tennis season are the ones who succeed in New York.
Serena Williams won three straight U.S. Opens from 2012-2014. Since then, the women’s U.S. Open has become very unpredictable. The past four U.S. Open women’s finals involved these matchups:
2015: Flavia Pennetta vs. Roberta Vinci
2016: Karolina Pliskova vs. Angelique Kerber
2017: Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys
2018: Naomi Osaka vs. Serena Williams
I have done my research on these eight players, but I invite you to do your own instead of taking what I say as Gospel truth. Go look at how these players performed in the clay, grass, and August hardcourt portions of the tennis season before coming to New York. For Pennetta and Vinci in 2015, Pliskova in 2016, Stephens and Keys last year, and Osaka and Serena this year, notice how few matches they played from May through mid-August of the years in which they made the U.S. Open final. Pliskova did win Cincinnati in 2016, but she didn’t make big runs in important tournaments before then. Sloane went deep in Canada and Cincinnati in 2017, but she was coming off an extended injury layoff which made her a lot fresher than her peers when the 2017 U.S. Open began.
Of those eight players listed above, only Kerber in 2016 — Angie made the finals of several very important tournaments — had logged a lot of court time and matches coming into the U.S. Open. The other seven were not pushed anywhere close to their physical limits in the four months preceding “The World’s Toughest Tennis.” It does not seem like an idle coincidence.
As climate change gets worse and conditions at future U.S. Opens are likely to be very uncomfortable, it is not an act of hysteria to say that the U.S. Open will continue to be defined by who can survive the best. The past four years offer convincing evidence that players who haven’t played especially large quantities of tennis in the late spring or early summer will have an especially good chance of making a deep run in this late-summer tournament, when so many players are either running on fumes or dealing with harsh conditions (or both).
Naomi Osaka was simply masterful at this U.S. Open and deserves every accolade and plaudit thrown her way. She nevertheless reflects an emerging trend at this tournament: Those who play less tennis in June and July are more likely to come alive in late August and blossom in Flushing Meadows.
Osaka should be lavishly celebrated for her tennis and for her equally winning combination of humor, sincerity and warmth.
Should the toughness of the U.S. Open — with its roots in Super Saturday — be celebrated any longer?
That’s a different matter… and it no longer seems appropriate to answer that question in the affirmative. Which was once romantic in 1984 is now a central problem in tennis. This tournament wasn’t too tough for Naomi Osaka, but its toughness has gone beyond the bounds of what is reasonable or enjoyable.