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RG18

DON’T GET THROWN OFF THE SCENT AT ROLAND GARROS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

You’re not a bad person if you get thrown off the scent. It is human nature to be attracted to shiny objects or tasty desserts in the room instead of staying on the path we need to follow, in one way or another. We live in a world of distractions. So many messages and topics bombard our brains — which are being (and have been) rewired by Google and hand-held devices — that it is hard to remember which news stories matter, and which are relatively fluff or window dressing.

This piece will not be long, but it needs to receive your full and conscious attention. The thesis is very simple: Now and in the near future, you might get upset by court assignments at Roland Garros. In many of those cases — perhaps even ALL OF THEM — you might have a legitimate beef. Court assignments do confer levels of respect and stature toward players. That is not a meaningless, irrelevant consideration in the larger architecture of tennis scheduling at tournaments. If other competing tensions do not exist, by all means raise your voices and your ire about court assignments.

However, when there ARE competing tensions, you need to weigh court assignments against them. In most cases, court assignments will not become (or remain) the biggest scandal on the scene. Chances are the other parts of tennis scheduling will be more urgent and more worthy of your outrage.

Don’t get thrown off the scent.

The immediate example of this dynamic came from Tuesday at Roland Garros, where the flow of events — combined with the release of the Wednesday schedule — created competing tensions.

One problem was — and is — much worse than the other.

The release of the Wednesday order of play put the showcase match between Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas on Court 18, not one of the three main show courts at Stade Roland Garros. Grigor Dimitrov also received a Court 18 assignment. Those assignments are worthy of ridicule when viewed in a narrow framework or context. Featured matches with top-eight seeds, especially when they have made the Roland Garros semifinals in recent years (Thiem) or are top-four seeds who have made other major semifinals (Dimitrov), belong on show courts partly because fans deserve to see top players in bigger stadiums (where tickets are more plentiful), but mostly because the highly-seeded players have earned the right to play in front of more fans. This “right of the players” is more important than ticket selling precisely because it is so easy to do what the French Open organizers do: Put French players on the show courts to sell tickets.

Jeremy Chardy, who is undeniably a mediocre professional and not a title threat or even a significant quarterfinal threat, received a Philippe Chatrier court assignment on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Alize Cornet — very similar in stature and potency compared to Chardy — will play Pauline Parmentier on Court Suzanne Lenglen, the No. 2 show court at Roland Garros. That these players get show-court assignments wouldn’t be a problem if highly-seeded players were taken care of and the French players got the leftovers in an order of play which lacked star power. Of course, this early in the tournament, that is not the case. The field is loaded with high seeds; only a small number of top-10 seeds have been knocked out.

Yes, the court assignments in favor of French players represent a problem… but they represent a problem not primarily because Thiem-Tsitsipas is being relegated to Court 18. The fact that Thiem-Tisitipas is being relegated is not irrelevant or meaningless; it merely takes a back seat to a larger (competing) problem: An inability to create scheduling parity.

If you have read my work before — either here or at Patreon — you have very possibly read about this notion of “parity.” Another word which can be used: balance. This concept means that if the tournament is at risk of forcing some players to play postponed matches a day later than their competitors in the same section/quarter/half of the draw, the tournament’s FIRST responsibility is to avoid that problem. Parity — keeping players on the same footing in terms of rest and recovery time from match to match — is at the top of the list for tennis tournament schedulers. Parity must be a top priority.

It wasn’t on Tuesday.

Yes, the court assignment problem is worth getting angry about, but it’s not worth as much anger as the greater failure on the part of Roland Garros organizers to treat Simona Halep fairly.

This is the No. 1 seed for the women’s French Open. If any player deserves to be accommodated, a No. 1 player has as strong a claim as anyone — maybe not STRONGER, but certainly just as strong. Yet, on a Tuesday when French Open organizers had to finish a number of suspended matches from Monday’s late-evening rain and therefore KNEW that backlogs on courts were likely, Halep was scheduled last on the order of play. Instructively, she received a show court, but since the show court assignment came at the expense of not playing on Tuesday, Halep was denied parity relative to the other players in her section.

The French Open plays its first round over three days. The U.S. Open had done the same thing before truncating its schedule a few years ago to accommodate U.S. television interests, leaving the French as the only major with a planned three-day first round. A No. 1 seed not being accommodated over THREE scheduled days of play rates as an entirely preventable error. First, Halep should have simply been scheduled earlier in the day. Second, Chardy could have been moved from Chatrier. Third, if tournament organizers felt they had to keep Chardy in his slot, the Halep match could have been moved to a smaller court. It would have been the worst of the three possible solutions, yes, but it still would have been better than forcing Halep to start her tournament on Wednesday and fall behind schedule relative to her competitors.

Sure, the show-court assignment issue merits criticism, but that is often the shiny object in the room. Don’t focus too much on the glitter and sparkles. Halep being scheduled last on Tuesday — which led to the predictable postponement to Wednesday — represents the far bigger scheduling failure.

Don’t get thrown off the scent — not today, not in the next week and a half, not at Wimbledon, and not in any instance when parity is ignored by tennis tournament organizers.

Image source – Jimmie 48

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RG18

NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.

At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)

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RG18

WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.

“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.

Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.

Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.

We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.

Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.

The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.

More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.

Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.

Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.

2018 Roland Garros - 24 May

Both Images taken from – Jimmie 48

Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.

In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.

The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.

The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.

In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.

We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.

 

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RG18

Testigos de la grandeza

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.

Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)

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