Who is your most underappreciated person in tennis in 2018?
JANE VOIGT – @downthetee
Before I expand on my selection, let me give full credit for my idea to John Branch, sportswriter for The New York Times.
In 2009, Branch wrote a story about players at Roland Garros who leave their soiled and sweaty laundry outside their locker-room doors, where it is routinely picked up, then cleaned and returned. The story blew the lid off my beliefs on tennis reporting because it was a great story hiding in plain sight.
I sent a complimentary email to John. He responded in his kind manner, thanking me and telling me that reporters don’t often get flattering emails. That, too, flabbergasted me. Nonetheless, I make sure to miss nothing he writes now.
This all brings me to my most underappreciated people of the year: the folks who work in the underbelly of tournaments. They are food workers, garbage collectors, people who clean the stadiums after matches and tournaments pack up and leave town, volunteers who drive players to and from sites, take tickets, guide folks to their seats, and hold doors. They are local parking contractors and police forces, those big dudes who secure a player’s safety and, yes, the laundry folks who take bags and bags of soggy clothes out for cleaning and then return them fresh as a daisy.
“Well was very hot outside there today. Can you see? You was there? [laughter],” Rafael Nadal said to me, responding to a question I’d asked during the press conference. He had just lost the final to Novak Djokovic at the (then) Sony Open tennis tournament in 2011. “You were in the shade, yeah, so you wasn’t there. I sweat like crazy, like ten t-shirts,” he snapped.
So maybe we should name the most underappreciated award The Branch Award and call it a year.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
I am not going to pick one specific individual for this category, but I am going to use this opportunity to get something off my chest in terms of the most underappreciated type of individual in tennis year after year, including in 2018: the female tennis coach or fitness trainer.
I am not talking about the lack of female coaches in the worlds of the ATP and WTA who are visible to the common tennis fan. In other words, the likes of Amelie Mauresmo are not my focus here.
If you really want to get a true idea of what I am talking about here, try to catch a glimpse of practice courts during the qualifying week of a major, or attend some ITF-level women’s competitions. It is not uncommon to see several practice courts in a row with female players practicing – at times, four on a court – and yet see bunch of male characters roaming around them, as coaches, trainers, or even sparring partners. In fact, there is a decent chance that you will count more male figures on that particular row of courts in an instance like that than female ones.
Over the last decade, I have personally talked to more than one player about the option of working with a female coach or fitness trainer, and I never got a straight “no” answer (except once), but I constantly got an “Oh yeah? Who is it?” question, followed by a shift in interest to nonchalance once the player realized I was talking about a female coach.
In contrast, when a male coach is mentioned, the interest does not waver. Often, questions like, “Really? Who has he worked with before?”, or “Where is he located now?”, quickly follow. I attempted to recommend a fantastic fitness trainer (a female who was herself a solid college tennis player in the United States, now making a living as a personal trainer) to a couple of players, but as soon as I revealed her identity, their interest level dipped to that of a vegan looking at a menu at a steakhouse.
I know the subtitle is “the most underappreciated person of 2018,” and I somewhat meandered around the specificity of the category. Yet, since the female coach/trainer who fits the bill in 2018 probably did so in 2017 and before, and will probably continue to do so in 2019 and after, why not now instead of later?
ANDREW BURTON – @burtonad
The most underappreciated person in tennis is Greg Sharko, the ATP’s stats guru. The ATP website is a treasure trove for those who love tennis and equally love letting their nerd flag fly. The WTA site, sadly, is playing at a 3.5 level to the ATP’s 7.0.
Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation on Twitter) is a consistent Sharko booster, as is the International Tennis Writers Association, who awarded Greg the Bud Collins Award in 2017.
BRIANA FOUST – @4TheTennis
I chose to focus solely on the most underappreciated person in tennis in 2018, because it is a complicated answer requiring a more detailed explanation.
When we think of the most underappreciated person in tennis, most would think of a player who is known worldwide to the tennis masses but doesn’t receive the adoration that would be assumed to come with their accomplishments. Recently retired Agnieszka Radwanska, world number one Novak Djokovic, or even 2018 Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber would be good guesses for that accolade, but personally I think that honor belonged to the WTA Tour in 2018.
So many changes seemed to be on the horizon of the tennis landscape, but one common denominator always seemed prevalent: The women weren’t involved in any of those innovations. Davis Cup reform did not lay out a concrete framework for its women’s alternative, Fed Cup, in 2019, while Davis Cup will begin a $3 billion-funded format change.
The four major tournaments are tinkering with the final set in a traditional scoring format, but the concern seems focused on how to save the men from a grueling finish line without really acknowledging that Simona Halep had to be hospitalized after her herculean efforts in the Australian Open final.
It is also frustrating to see women’s tennis not be able to obtain a concrete platform to showcase the incredible variety of athletes in the United States. Tennis fans in America learned this fall that while the WTA Tour will be returning to Tennis Channel airwaves in 2019, this agreement no longer allow fans to purchase WTA TV within the States.
Sometimes I wonder if the powers that be remember that at the turn of the century, Hingis, Venus, Serena, Capriati, Davenport, Dementieva, Jankovic, and a whole host of other personalities helped made tennis engaging to watch while men’s tennis was wondering who would dominate after the legend of Sampras. Not everything made of gold lasts, but it is worrisome to think that as those heralded WTA players aged out, the tour’s leadership has struggled as well.
Back in 2008, the WTA had a promotional tagline, “Are you looking for a hero?” Ten years later we are borrowing from another female icon who left us too soon. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
The most underappreciated person in tennis is a very personal question, as you can see from the wonderfully diverse and thoughtful responses shown above from Jane, Mert, Andrew, and Bri. I love each of those answers – they are all fantastic!
I thought about coaches. Consider Wim Fissette, who doesn’t seem to be spoken about with the same reverential tones given to Magnus Norman or Marian Vajda or Toni Nadal.
I thought about players. Consider Anastasija Sevastova, who is quirky and cranky and immense in stature, but who has carved out a tremendously successful career and flourished in the second half of 2018. She won’t be a legend or icon of tennis, but her Martina Hingis-like feel is a delight to watch when she is on.
I thought about bloggers such as James Peeling of Moo Tennis, and podcasters such as the good folks at The Body Serve, who put so much effort and care into their product. I thought about television commentators such as Tracy Austin, who aren’t talked about as much on Tennis Twitter because they don’t try to stir the pot. Austin does what so many fans appreciate: She focuses on the match and generally doesn’t drift into a narrative overlay while a competition is taking place. She lets the tennis remain the focus when calling a match on television. That is a “quiet skill” which doesn’t receive a ton of publicity.
I thought about a lot of people in and around tennis, but I ultimately felt I had to pick a chair umpire.
Mo Lahyani made headlines at the U.S. Open when he created the appearance that he was coaching Nick Kyrgios. I personally found the incident unworthy of great controversy, but I totally understand why so many people were upset. We all know that Mo went too far there, but I don’t assign any severity to his actions, imperfect though they were. I like it when officials in any sport show concern for athletes. If we want human beings and not robots to officiate sports, empathy has to be at the heart of the profession of officiating.
On the opposite end of the spectrum at that emotionally-charged U.S. Open, Carlos Ramos became the antithesis of Lahyani: the hard-ass, the stickler who goes strictly by the book. I disagreed with his decision to penalize Serena Williams to the extent he did, but as with Lahyani, I completely understand why he did what he did. That doesn’t mean I like it, but I can nevertheless relate to his position. Having officiated sports myself, I knew what he was going through, albeit not with such significant stakes and not in such a high-visibility position.
Who is the most underappreciated person in tennis in 2018, then? It’s a person who struck the perfect balance between Lahyani’s excess of generosity and Ramos’s lack of leniency: Alison Hughes.
You might recall that Hughes officiated the U.S. Open men’s final between Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic. Hughes did what great officials do in any sport: She officiated the players and the situation in front of her, not adhering to the strict letter of the law. She could have enforced shot-clock violations on several occasions, but did so only once. She accounted for the crowd noise and the emotions of the players, emphasizing the need to manage a situation more than being a strict policewoman who would hand out a jaywalking ticket if you strayed just a yard or metre from the crosswalk.
There were no controversies in that men’s final. The players played without incident or meaningful disruption. Tennis needed a calming day, roughly 24 hours after the Carlos Ramos-Serena Williams firestorm which set Tennis Twitter ablaze and dominated the media airwaves (and print space). Hughes provided it, showing that as in every other aspect of life, balance is needed.
Yes, there is a time to enforce rules, but there is also a time for the use of discretion and prudential judgment. Officials need to juggle the need for consistency with an awareness that athletes are emotional beings who – in a pressure-packed situation such as a major final – need a little more space to breathe. Hughes offered one of the finest demonstrations of sports officiating anywhere on the planet this year, and for that, she is my most underappreciated person in tennis for 2018.