Let’s blame Nick Kyrgios. He frequently throws himself under the media bus. He did the same on Sunday when he withdrew from his first-round match at Roland Garros against countryman and qualifier Bernard Tomic. Nick still had concerns about his injury-prone left elbow, choosing to rest and return down the road rather than risk more problems.
But with his late withdrawal, who would get Kyrgios’s main-draw berth? Enter the lucky losers, those players who didn’t make it through the qualification tournament but were next in line to enter the main draw if players such as Kyrgios withdrew before round one.
This year, there’s an added upside to the happy term: Now “lucky losers” will get half the earnings from a round-one berth, splitting it with the player who stepped aside. This payout wouldn’t have happened last year in Paris or at any major tournament — at least not until two critical first-round matches at Wimbledon last year, out of seven total, prodded the Grand Slam Board to get with the times.
Those two first-round matches featured none other than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. They were cut short when their opponents quit before the matches ended, citing injury. Imagine having purchased a ticket, having settled in your seat, having your dream fulfilled — watching Federer or Djokovic — and, boom, the match ends with a flop. Talk about unfulfilled expectations. Fans threw a fit, and rightly so.
The Association of Tennis Professionals had already recognized this entry point for tournaments as problematic: Who, even if injured, wanted to give up prize money, when he could retire after a few games and bank the paycheck? Yet, the ATP’s rule differs from the one developed by the Grand Slam Board. At an ATP-sanctioned match, the withdrawing player gets 100 percent of the first-round prize money. The Grand Slam Board, however, chose to share the money between the two players.
“‘The Grand Slam rule states that in order to get 50 percent of the prize money, a player must officially withdraw after noon on the Thursday before the tournament begins,’” The New York Times reported last November.
With a whopping 14.29 percent increase in payout for players in the first round of Roland Garros, it means lucky losers will be much happier. Kyrgios will be paid €20,000 and his replacement will earn the same.
The rule and prize money boost sounds tidy, yet they’ve gotten a workout on day one of the French Open: Eight main-draw players, which includes Kyrgios, have withdrawn.
Lucky Loser Mohamed Safwat of Egypt stepped on Court Phillippe Chatrier for the first time in his career on Sunday, after getting the notice one hour before the match that Victor Troicki had withdrawn against fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov. The 27-year-old Safwat said his chance was a “dream come true,” according to the BBC. He had never set foot on this hallowed court and became the first Egyptian man to play at a Grand Slam in 22 years.
“‘I had always seen it on television, but never managed to have that experience, so it was enjoyable,’” Safwat said, after losing to Dimtrov, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(1).
Safwat got his chance because he was mindful that although the cutoff day for withdrawing had passed, main draw players just might pull out at the last moment. Therefore, he signed in with the tournament as ready and able to play Sunday morning, an option that has long been part of tennis. He was the only one who did that as well, which leaves the question unanswered: Who will play Bernard Tomic first thing Monday morning?
As the drama of the situation stretched deep into the afternoon, news spread that Tomic’s probable opponent, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, had already zipped off to a Challenger tournament in Vicenza, Italy. As Ben Rothenberg wrote on Twitter, “This is an unlucky loser.”
Marco Trungelliti, however, hadn’t yet registered for another tournament. This gave him the ability (but also the pressure) to reverse engines, literally, and hurry back to Paris from Barcelona to play Tomic. From the pictures posted on Twitter, he, plus a carload of supporters, packed into a small car, court bags on laps but all smiles. Contrast that with the private jet services the likes of Federer use to hop from tournament to tournament.
The next challenge for the Grand Slam Board: paying room accommodation fees for those qualifiers who just may want to stick around a day or two, waiting from their big Lucky Loser opportunity.
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
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…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
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.
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.
Testigos de la grandeza
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…)