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RG18

TENNIS RULES EVOLVE — IS THE ITF’s MASTER PLAN WORKING?

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

The most popular conversation about rules within tennis is whether new mother Serena Williams should be placed into tournament draws as a seeded player. Being a seeded player is reserved for the top 32 players in the rankings. Think of it as receiving a performance-based reward at a job. Seeded players may receive byes for their first match in tournaments outside of the four majors. A seed allows a player to avoid tough matchups with other seeded players until certain points of a tournament, and gives a tennis tournament the best chance of balancing a draw without being subjected to the temptations (and darker consequences) of any charges of rigging that draw.

During Williams’s maternity absence her ranking slowly receded from world number one to being unranked. Now she can be described as the oxymoronic world number 453. To be fair, being unseeded is not a slight toward Williams, but simply a progression all new mothers currently face when returning to the WTA Tour. Her fame and stature within tennis and pop culture have brought attention to an issue that will need to be addressed. The urgency of the matter is heightened by the reality that the standard length of a woman’s career as a professional athlete is being redefined by Williams and her peers, such as Victoria Azarenka, Mandy Minella, Kateryna Bondarenko and the now-retired Kim Clijsters.  

Still, Williams’s large superhero cloak has managed to draw attention away from current rule changes that began in January of 2018. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) Grand Slam Board voted unanimously in late 2017 to implement a one-minute time limit for players to arrive at the net for pre-match proceedings once they walk on court followed by another one-minute time limit to be ready for the (also) newly shortened five-minute warm-up. Any forms of dawdling, as reported by the New York Times, can leave violators subjected to a $20,000 fine. That is an extremely hefty fine from the ITF, considering most standard fines for egregious behavior reside in the low four-digit range. The ITF is flexing its powers in hopes of modernizing tennis for television audiences. A common complaint by tennis executives across the alphabet soup (WTA, ATP, and ITF) of governing bodies is that the pace of play must increase to keep audiences engaged in the era of cord cutting. Tennis must remain relevant and attractive — most importantly to executives, thereby enabling the sport to compete in a landscape with booming network TV revenue deals.

At the time this article was published, no player has been fined by the ITF for any warm-up violations. That includes the most notorious of time benders such as legendary icons Venus Williams or Rafael Nadal. Nadal didn’t seem fazed when asked in his press conference about the new warm-up.

“No problem. That’s all,” he said. “No that’s things that if they want to do it, I’m completely fine, no problem, not creating any impact on the game.”

One rule that has created an immediate impact on tennis: The majors now split prize money normally given to first-round losers. This split occurs between both injured players who withdraw in the days before a major tournament, and the “lucky losers” who replace them in the first round. As reported by the New York Times, in the past decade the major tournaments have been averaging 3.13 retirements in the first round for the men and 1.05 for the women’s tour. At this year’s Australian Open, there was only one retirement combined between both tours. In Paris, however, Roland Garros has had eight men alone withdraw before their first-round matches. The difference in withdrawal rate between the year’s first two majors can likely be attributed to the physical toll caused by playing competitive tennis week after week over five months. It is also worth noting the effort that the “living” surface of clay requires, since playing conditions can change as quickly as the weather turns.

This new rule also addresses the pay disparity between players who easily can make the main draw of tennis’s greatest prize money offerings and, on the other hand, the ones who lose in qualification rounds. Previously, lucky losers did not get any share of the prize money if a late withdrawal occurred. Their reward was simply a second opportunity to advance to the next round after essentially being eliminated. Now qualifiers are encouraged to stick around and keep their ears to the gossip mill in hopes of pouncing on a withdrawal.

Most famously Marco Trungelliti and his family drove over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from Barcelona to Paris after he was eliminated in qualifying to shoot his shot and seek a richer payday. Trungelliti had already returned to his training base in Barcelona when his coach informed him of his rare chance. This revelation occurred when he saw another lucky loser, Mohamad Safwat, playing Grigor Dimitrov on the biggest tennis stage in Paris.  Incredibly, Trungelliti — whose coach did his job and alerted him of an opportunity when it was still available — won his first match over Bernard Tomic, a former top-20-ranked opponent, in spite of the highest odds. The Argentine received around a 20 percent raise. That figure could grow even larger if Trungelliti manages to defeat his next opponent. I don’t know about you, but I would walk a thousand miles for a chance to see that paycheck.  

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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