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RG18

SHARAPOVA: FAMOUS LAST WORDS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Yes, we’re going to have a talk about grunting in tennis again. Yes, I know it’s an uncomfortable, often cringe-inducing, subject. Yes, it has often been handled poorly by anyone who tries to address the topic. The challenge: to address the topic in a way which enriches instead of irritates, and which doesn’t single out the women more than the men.

For starters, this is not a single-gender problem in tennis. Marcel Granollers has been a regular offender in terms of using an invasive, intrusive grunt in matches, and people who watched Jaume Munar beat David Ferrer in round one of this French Open told me that Munar’s vocalizations possessed an especially grating quality. Women, men — it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter: Players of both genders who make vocal utterances beyond the realm of normal effort, and/or who change the cadence or intensity of their vocalizations on big points, should be cited for a hindrance. We know that tennis has been woefully inadequate in policing this part of the sport over time, so don’t get your hopes up in terms of meaningful change appearing anytime soon.

Why address the topic, then, you might ask, if you feel nothing is likely to be done?

Good question. I have two reasons.

First of all, grunting — displayed to the extreme by Maria Sharapova in her first-round win over Richel Hogenkamp on Tuesday at Roland Garros — should be viewed by tennis (the people who govern the sport) as a far more urgent concern than pace of play. We really need to establish this point and cement it into the sport’s culture.

It is FAR more off-putting and distracting for an invasive noise to cut into the natural symphony of elite athletic competition than it is for a player to take 31 seconds after a point than 24. A match which goes seven minutes longer than it otherwise would (due to delays of several seconds between points) represents a “long day,” but sitting through a match with cutting, calculated noises is a much “longer day” — long in the figurative sense of being annoying and frustrating, not the literal sense of time elapsed. I would like to think most people in the tennis industry would agree on this, yet all the regulatory/reformist momentum in tennis seems to lie with pace of play, not these vocal utterances.

That’s a problem and a deficiency. Hopefully the flow of conversation in the power circles of tennis — and places such as the United States Tennis Association, which has quickly moved to put a serve clock at the U.S. Open — will devote more attention to more urgent issues and cultivate a better and more appropriate sense of priorities.

The second reason for addressing this issue — in spite of the clear-eyed awareness that reforms are not imminent or likely — is that it would be the best thing for Maria Sharapova’s career.

At the very least, if “would” is too strong a word, it certainly “could” be the best thing for the five-time major champion and two-time French Open winner.

Tennis historians will recall the 1992 Wimbledon women’s singles final, in which Monica Seles — after a fortnight of sustained attention and scrutiny — suppressed her vocal grunt and looked like a shell of her normal self in a 2-and-1 blowout loss to Steffi Graf. It is undeniably true that Graf played a great match that day, but it was hard — if not impossible — to ignore the notion that Seles played with a cluttered mind, too overtly conscious of the grunting problem and therefore distracted from doing what she did so well: hitting the bejeezus out of the tennis ball.

To be honest, the furor surrounding Seles seemed unfair at the time, even though the absence of grunting from a Wimbledon final was pleasant to the human ear. Seles had been playing the tournament while grunting, so playing the final without grunting represented an interruption of her normal routine. To that extent, the controversy enfolding Seles was manufactured rather than representing an intelligent, measured, structured, planned response to a problem. 26 years later, tennis still hasn’t sufficiently addressed this issue, which leaves me sympathetic toward Seles — she was pounced on in a specific moment rather than becoming a gateway to sport-wide reform. Similarly, it’s not as though anything should be done at this French Open to regulate Sharapova’s utterances. If they were allowed on Tuesday in round one, they have to be allowed in any subsequent match Maria plays. Tennis or any other sport can’t maintain credibility by abruptly changing rules or points of emphasis during tournaments. Reforms have to occur between tournaments and then stick once tournaments begin; they can’t be introduced midstream.

What I would like to say to Sharapova — also to the men who grunt excessively, but especially to Sharapova given her champion’s pedigree — is simply this:

I admire Sharapova’s competitiveness. Many dismiss her resolve and resilience because of how well Serena Williams has rebuffed her over the years, but that’s Serena Freaking Williams. Being consistently outflanked by Serena is no point of shame. Sharapova truly is a world-class fighter, no matter how much the contrarians might try to insist otherwise. Sharapova — say what you want about the other aspects of her personality and manner — has set a hugely positive example for young tennis players around the world by showing how far a strong work ethic can take a person. She has worldwide fame on a vast scale, and yet plays as though she is fighting for every last dollar or ranking point on the challenger circuit. I find that hunger inspiring and instructive, a great legacy to leave behind. It’s a huge gift to the sport, always the thing I will admire most about Maria.

Before Sharapova hangs up her racquet — whenever that might be — I would like to see her display her trademark resolve without all the crutches and aids she incorporates into her matches. The comfort breaks after second sets are mildly annoying, but well within the rules and not pervasive throughout a match — that tactic belongs only to one moment, not the full two and a half hours of a Sharapova three-setter.

The elongated, extended grunting, however, IS pervasive, and to put a finer point on it, different.

As annoying as grunting might be, it is still tolerable as long as the sound is a quick burst — the sound goes as soon as it comes. I (and I’m sure, many players) don’t like it, but players can understand and relate to the need to offer a quick expulsion of energy and not feel overly constrained on court.

What was different about Sharapova’s grunt on Tuesday against Hogenkamp is that after the initial expulsion of sound from the vocal cords, Sharapova layered on a second, more jagged sound. The effect was not just a longer sound, but a two-part sound. A reasonable person can associate the first burst of sound with normal, ordinary effort, but a two-part sound with an altered midpoint delivery should be seen as an intentional manipulation of sound beyond ordinary effort.

Regardless of what tennis does — or more likely, doesn’t do — to (fail to) reform this issue, I would simply like to see Sharapova try to compete at her best without these elements of window dressing. Regardless of what anyone thinks about grunting, wouldn’t it be great for everyone, Sharapova most of all, if she could come back from 0-3 deficits in the third as she did against Hogenkamp on Tuesday WITHOUT vocal aids? Removing that layer of controversy (not to mention noise) from her portfolio would enable many people who are ambivalent about her career (in part because of her meldonium suspension) to see her in a more positive light.

That gets to a final and surprisingly simple point: Sharapova is very conscious of her brand and identity, and works very hard to cultivate them.

What better way to improve her brand than by trying to limit the length of her grunts, and let her tennis do more of the talking?

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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