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Donald Rumsfeld explains the Osaka-Barty WTA debate

Matt Zemek

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We begin this tennis discussion with a few notes about war.

War is morally problematic because even if the cause is just, the party or nation which wages war has to have a decent chance of success with minimal damage or loss of life.

It is not a moral or ethical war if a nation initiates a war knowing that hundreds of thousands of civilians will die in a bloody and prolonged conflict which has very little chance of actually reforming the hostile government one wishes to overthrow or transform.

It is very easy to beat the drums of war and start a conflict. It is very hard to finish a war and resolve the conflict. Launching a war under unfavorable circumstances is a profound moral offense and violation.

This is why Donald Rumsfeld was a horrible United States Secretary of Defense under former President George W. Bush in the early 2000s… and why Rumsfeld would have been a great tennis analyst had he chosen a different career path.

Rumsfeld was part of an effort to lead the United States into the Iraq War. He should have known better, however.

Rumsfeld had enough self-awareness to realize that while dreams of glorious conquest and victory sound good in theory and look good on paper, they are severely constrained by real-world limitations.

Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

He also said, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld helped lead the United States into war, KNOWING how many unknown unknowns there were, which is exactly why the Iraq War was such a humanitarian disaster and a moral failure. HE KNEW how much he and his national security team did NOT know… but he went ahead with the war anyway.

Yet, everything Rumsfeld said about war also applies to tennis. We are ready to discuss today’s naturally and unavoidably interesting topic: the best women’s tennis player in the world.

Naomi Osaka — a juggernaut on hardcourts — lost to Karolina Muchova on Sunday at the Madrid Open.

This, of course, is not the championship weekend in Madrid; it’s the first of two weekends. Osaka is out before the round of 16. It is yet another familiar and not-that-surprising stumble for a player whose results are highly dependent on the playing surface.

Osaka is too naturally talented to NOT figure out clay and grass at some point… but that “point” hasn’t yet arrived.

It leads us to a natural discussion: Is Osaka the best player in the world, or is it Ashleigh Barty, the World No. 1, who has shown she can play well on all surfaces?

In Miami, where Barty strengthened her hold on the World No. 1 ranking, I made it a point to emphasize how much Barty deserved that ranking… and that Osaka had a very clear solution for that problem: Start winning on clay and grass.

I was met with a vociferous rebuttal from people who looked at the last two major tournaments played and noticed that Osaka won them both.

The debate wasn’t really about who was the better player; the debate was actually about the merits of the tennis ranking system, which is a measurement of long-term performance more than big-tournament results.

If we turn to Donald Rumsfeld, he would tell us that we play tennis with the ranking system we have, not the one we wish to have or hope to have.

Is it fair to say tennis should have a different ranking system? Sure. This has been debated for many years, and putting more weight on major titles is something I wouldn’t strenuously object to if the parameters were reasonable. Yet, there is something to be said for being consistent on all surfaces at all times of year.

Naomi Osaka has won two of the last three U.S. and Australian Opens. It is clear she is the best hardcourt player in women’s tennis. Yet, the fact that she falls completely off the radar screen from April through July is impossible to avoid. This is why Ash Barty has retained the No. 1 ranking, and is poised to continue to do so until Osaka solves the mysteries of non-cement tennis, especially at Wimbledon (where one would think her big hitting and serving should be rewarded).

Ash Barty deserves to be the No. 1 player in the world. What I said in Miami still stands.

Yet, having said that Barty deserves the No. 1 ranking, I will turn around and say that Osaka is still the best player in the world.

Wait a minute, Matt — you just acknowledged Osaka can’t fall off the map for four months per year when non-hardcourt tennis is involved!

Isn’t that a contradiction?

Nope. It isn’t.

Folks, we do realize that the No. 1 player in the world and the best player in the world aren’t always the same thing. They often are and can be, but not always.

Rafael Nadal has won more of his 13 Roland Garros championships as a No. 2 seed than as any other seed. He has won a majority of his 20 major titles as a non-No. 1 seed. He has been the No. 1-ranked player in the world for only 66 total weeks over the last seven years. Yet, despite being ranked No. 1 far less often than Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer (two players who have been No. 1 for more than 300 weeks, compared to Nadal’s 209), Nadal was often better than the two of them at various points in a given year of tennis.

Nadal is the best No. 2 player (or No. 2 seed at a tournament) in the history of tennis, and — I would argue — the entire history of sports. Being the best and being No. 1 can be different things.

So it is in tennis… sometimes.

This is one of those times.

Let me close by directly addressing the reasonable argument that Osaka can’t be the best player in the world if she struggles on two of three surfaces. That argument is convincing to many because “two out of three” is a majority. Osaka is strong on “only one” surface. It does seem to minimize how good she is.

Here’s the thing, however: Most of tennis in our modern 2021 reality is played on that “one” surface, hardcourts.

It wasn’t always like this.

Through 1974, three of the four majors were played on grass. From 1975 through 1977, two of the four majors were played on clay, the other two on grass. Through 1987, at least three if not all four majors were played on non-hardcourt surfaces.

Then the Australian Open moved from grass to hardcourts in 1988. The direction of the tours over the past 35 years has steadily moved toward more hardcourt tennis and more standardized surfaces with standardizes surface speeds.

No indoor carpet anymore. Less Har-Tru green clay. Fewer bad bounces — and more baseline tennis — at Wimbledon.

In the mid-1970s, Naomi Osaka would not have done well, while Rafael Nadal would have been favored over Djokovic and Federer at the U.S. Open.

In the late 1960s, Federer would have had three grass majors to play if he had been willing to fly down to Australia (which many top pros did not do at the time).

Yet, that’s where Donald Rumsfeld re-enters this conversation:

“You go to the tennis court with the surface allotment you have, not the one you wish to have or hope to have.”

“There are known knowns, such as how much tennis is played on hardcourts today. There are known unknowns, such as how Osaka would have adjusted to a U.S. Open played on green clay and an Australian Open played on grass. There are unknown unknowns, such as tennis not having a different ranking system, which would create changes in the prevailing tennis culture we can’t really imagine.”

It comes down to this: If we had a tour in which grass was the surface used at three of the four majors, as was the case in 1974 and preceding years, of course Naomi Osaka would not — could not — be viewed as the best WTA player in the world. Yet, because so much of the modern tour is played on hardcourts — that IS the majority surface in tennis, as a measurement of important tournaments played each year — Osaka can comfortably and uncontroversially be regarded as the best player on tour…

… even though she isn’t (and shouldn’t be) No. 1.

1974 ain’t walkin’ through that door.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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