• Look at WTA Insider, out in front of the Alycia Parks story
• The rampant cheating in college tennis? Maybe naming-and-shaming is the best deterrent. Check out this line call.
• A few of you asked and here’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers piece.
We had quite a few questions and comments this week about both the Alexander Zverev news—"A major independent investigation has found insufficient evidence to substantiate published allegations of abuse”—and Nick Kyrgios’ strange guilty-plea-with-no-criminal-consequence. Two top players. Two partner abuse allegations. Two instances of the ATP’s lack of a collectively bargained policy making for bad optics. But beyond that, let’s distinguish between the two.
In Zverev’s case, there was an allegation made. There was sufficient detail and credibility to warrant publication. There was not, however, a case in any legal system. Books have been written about how and why women are reluctant to file reports and cooperate with investigators and testify against intimate partners. And, yes, in some (small number of) cases, allegations are completely fabricated. Regardless, there was no legal action undertaken here. As it should have done immediately, the ATP hired an outside firm to conduct an independent investigation. After more than a year, the firm could not corroborate the allegations.
We should note that “insufficient evidence” is not the same as “innocence.” (We also note the strange modifier of “major”…as if there is any alternative kind of investigation into domestic violence.) But this is, undeniably, good for Zverev, who is entitled to presumptions. I was sent this statement by Team Zverev. It’s hard to see grounds for discipline here. He can—and should—be free to continue his career.
In the case of Kyrgios….what a strange fact pattern. He committed an act of violence not in dispute. About a year later his former romantic partner reported that matter to police. Kyrgios first sought dismissal citing a history of mental illness. When that was rejected, he entered a guilty plea to common assault. The court then dismissed the charge “on the grounds that Mr. Kyrgios would face a greater harm from it than an ordinary defendant.”
Every country’s legal system has its quirks and inconsistencies. But who knew that an increased capacity to suffer harm when compared to “an ordinary defendant” could impact disposition and sentencing? One imagine the logical extensions of that….
Where does this leave us in terms of tennis? Kyrgios plead guilty but the plea was essentially wiped, the seriousness deemed “low level” by the magistrate. In a sport with a negotiated domestic violence policy, there would be clarity. In tennis, authorities would need to rely on the sweeping catch-all clauses in the code of conduct of the ATP rulebook.
VIII. THE CODE
for ATP players and Related Persons, to refrain from engaging in conduct contrary to the integrity of the game of tennis.
b) A player, or related person, that has at any time behaved in a manner severely damaging to the reputation of the sport, including submitting a falsified Covid-19 vaccination record, may be deemed by virtue of such behavior to have engaged in conduct contrary to the integrity of the Game of Tennis and be in violation of this Section.
c) A player, or related person, convicted of a violation of a criminal or civil law of any jurisdiction may be deemed by virtue of such conviction to have engaged in conduct contrary to the integrity of the Game of Tennis.
If I’m Kyrgios’ lawyer or agent, I’m arguing that there was no conviction. And if the ATP didn’t see fit to issue a provisional suspension, how can it suspend him now that a judge has effectively dismissed the charge? (Discussion for another time: If I’m the ATP, is suspending Kyrgios a way to exert power over the PTPA? If I want to weaken and divide a competing players’ group—made up of women as well as men— why not make them take on the cause of defending a player who has just entered a guilty plea to assaulting an ex-girlfriend?)
Big picture: there are unlikely to be suspensions to either player. Fans can (and will and should) decide how these instances make them feel and whether the accused players are worthy of support. But the stars will play on. No one, though, comes out of this looking particularly good. Not least the sport overall.
My wife, not a tennis fan, does not like the eight weeks of grand slam tournaments, when my daughter and I plan our schedules around watching matches. Despite her indifference, my wife came up with a perfect analogy for the champion, that was ultimately reflected in the awful ratings.
While we were viewing the men’s finals, her comment was:
“If they scored tennis like figure skating, Djokovic would get a 6.0 for technical merit & a 4.6 for presentation”
Being able to skate a perfect figure 8 or repeat the same backhand stroke over & over & over is impressive & highly skillful, but that doesn’t make it an entertaining watch.
By the way–We DVR’ed both finals & watched in the morning.
We skipped a lot of Chris Fowler’s continual passive aggressive dialog (were you aware that he was not in Australia?) and FF’ed between points. Saved over an hour for the men’s final, and Novak’s obsessive ball bouncing didn’t bother me. Highly recommended if you can avoid seeing the results.
Bill from NJ
A few thoughts: As is usually the case in these matters, the ratings owe to a combination of factors. Start with “basis for comparison.” The previous year—coming out of Covid, when all sports got a bump—you had a) the Djokovic circus, which—whatever your views on vaccination/persecution—made the tournament relevant to casual fans. (“Ah yes, it is Australian Open time, isn’t it? Wonder who will win now that the defending champion is being deported.”) You had Ash Barty winning, which was big in Australia. You had Kyrgios winning doubles. You had Rafa Nadal filling the Djoko-vacuum.
This year? No run-up controversy. A litany of absentees (Federer, Serena, Kyrgios, Barty, Osaka, Nadal after round two, even Simona Halep and Marin Cilic, both former finalists.) This will anger his avid fan base (and the anti-vax crowd), but, anecdotally and empirically, the men’s champion—unimpeachable and unsurpassing a tennis player as he is—does not have the widespread appeal of Serena, Federer and Nadal. In the U.S., you also have ESPN’s shabby treatment of the event. The moving targets that were the broadcast windows, which caused fans to throw crockery at their screens—and then give up. The punt to streaming, which, sure might be the future, but doesn’t help grow ratings or fans in the present. The failure to send the broadcast team to Melbourne did send this: a message that this event isn’t worthy to the network—and, by extension, the fan.
And good for Fowler. He went right up the line, expressing his clear displeasure, without getting whistled for 15-yard penalty of insubordination.
After Djokovic's AO win, you pointed out a couple of times that no younger player has honed his game to beat Djokovic. But you also mentioned at other times that Djokovic's game has no weakness...how do you reconcile these two observations? Clearly, Djokovic and Nadal attacked Federer's backhand and also worked on improving their movement. Similarly, Djokovic worked on his return of serve to neutralize Nadal's first shot after serve (Nadal himself admitted that the key to holding his weaker serve was backing it up with a strong first shot). Djokovic also worked on defending his backhand side as well as attacking with the cross-court backhand by taking it early. Along the same lines, what would be your specific game plan against Djokovic, short of doing everything better?
AM, San Diego
Some of this is tactical/technical. Find the weakness. Maybe it’s drawing him in and making him volley. Maybe it’s junking up rallies to mess with his rhythm. Maybe it’s positional. Your implication is right: easier said than done. It’s not like picking on Federer’s high one-hander or making Rybakina hit forehand after forehand from deep in the court. But something.
My real point: you get the feeling the field is waiting for him to age out, rather than confront him. Again, Toni Nadal talked openly about tailoring his nephew’s game to beat Federer. (This excellent piece from S.L. Price was even titled “The Takedown”) When Djokovic beat Federer in 2008, what did Djokovic’s mother memorably say? “The king is dead; long live the king.”
At the risk of sounding like another middle-aged guy complaining about the kids….Where is that attitude among the younger set? Where is the player calling out Djokovic, saying, without apology, “I’m coming for you?” Instead, it’s “Novak is too good. I am making improvements. I just need to keep working hard and good things will happen” which, to a champion’s ears must sound like a concession speech.
I saw your tweet that Jenson Brooksby and his coach are no longer working together. Wouldn’t Brad Gilbert be an obvious candidate to take over?
But wait, Brad Gilbert is a television commentator. Wouldn’t coaching a player—and lobbying for a coaching job—be, like, a conflict of interest? Surely, he would have to choose a lane. Otherwise, the commentary might be clouded and that would work to the detriment of the viewer. Otherwise, resources and commercials interest might be intermingled. (That was a joke.)
Funny, much as I love Brad, I was thinking the opposite. Brooksby already knows how to win ugly. Or, more charitably, Brooksby knows how to use tennis virtues other than brute force. He’s a master at changing tempo and deploying unpredictable patterns. He is precise off both wings. And, yes, there is his unwillingness to bow to tennis’ social conventions clearly gets under opponent’s skin, as evidenced by this and this. Instead of pairing him with Gilbert, go the opposite direction. Find a more conventional coach to add a smashmouth element, starting of course, with the serve.
And, conversely, Joseph Gilbert is sort of the Billy Beane of tennis. He’s figured how to optimize value from players. Not just Brooksby but the spectacularly named Katie Volleynets as well. There are plenty of players treading water. Why not hire a guy with a track record of thinking of tennis a little differently?
Even if Rafa has an underwhelming clay court season, I think the 2023 retirement predictions are very premature. This is a legendary athlete playing for history, with his own world class training facility, top level coaching staff, and with access to the best doctors and physical trainers in Spain. Roger waited until he was 40, with a knee that just would not cooperate after multiple surgeries for him to hang it up for good. He held on for as long as he possibly could. In interviews, Rafa gets annoyed when people ask him about retirement and says he wants to keep playing because he loves the competition, and frankly, he just enjoys playing tennis. Most likely, I see him playing for a few more years, selectively choosing big tournaments throughout the year, and targeting the clay court season. The Olympics in 2024 at Roland Garros has to be a target in his mind too. With their financial resources and immeasurable competitiveness, I can see Rafa playing into his early 40s, and Novak playing into his mid 40s. I’ve seen enough from both Rafa and Novak over the last 18 years to know that the normal retirement calculus for athletes does not apply to them. These guys are different.
Again, I am torn here. It seems distasteful bordering on disrespectful to speculate about retirement and longevity. It is also completely normal. We do this all the time. It would be weird to assume something is forever. How many times did we openly ponder….Is this Tom Brady’s last season? Is Messi going to hold out for another World Cup? Will Diane Feinstein run for re-election? Is this Spielberg’s last film? Is Billy Joel ever going to release another album?
A former player made a great point to me about Nadal: the great ones often decline and then have another spasm of greatness. Tiger Woods went years without winning a major before the 2019 Masters. Federer went almost a half-decade without winning a major. Then he won three between January 2017 and January 2018. Serena gave birth….and reached four major finals. The question: was Nadal’s “aftershock” his first six months of 2022? Or is there another spasm of excellence left?