June 22, 2020

Oh, Novak - Part Two

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the tennis community really stepped up. It proactively closed down tournaments to contain the spread, entertained us with the most creative of #TennisAtHome moments, donated millions of dollars to supply protective gear to medical staff. And after weeks of debate and discussion, we finally came up with a plan to hold the U.S. Open on schedule, in a way that will hopefully mitigate risk.

But after this weekend, we seem to have taken a huge step back.

At least two players at Novak Djokovic's Adria Cup tested positive for COVID-19 at an event in Croatia -- Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric. And honestly, it's no surprise.

There were little to no precautions taken at the event, which kicked off June 12th in Belgrade and was slated to travel to Montenegro this weekend. Press rooms were packed seat-to-seat, stadium risers were full of fans, players shook hands, hugged and even interacted with ball kids, and crowds gathered en masse outdoors.

Now, I get the need and desire to return to normal. We're all tired and restless after being couped up for months, and there is a real necessity for people to get back to work and earn a paycheck -- even for tennis players, the majority of whom have been effectively unemployed since March. But these exhibition matches felt less like a way to bring in a little cash and more a chance for some chest thumping.

And it may come as no surprise that Djokovic is at the center of it.

Though he contributed generously to relief efforts early on, he also raised a lot of eyebrows when he expressed his aversion to getting a coronavirus vaccine if and when one is available, also spouting some questionable "theories" about changing the molecular composition of water with your emotions. More recently he took issue with the U.S. Open saying it may limit players' entourages to one person, calling that an "impossible" condition. It bares noting that his fitness coach in Zadar this weekend just tested positive as well.

At the start of the Adria tour, Djokovic seemed to brush off concerns about safety protocols since the region hadn't seen as bad an outbreak as other hotspots and so, presumably, didn't need to be as careful. Now, with Sunday's championship match and next weekend's Montenegro leg called off, hopefully he's reconsidering.

But we need more.

Nole is, far and away, the elder statesman of this group. Not that Dimitrov, 28, and the rest of the players who participated -- mostly in their early to mid 20s -- shouldn't have known better, none of them participated against their will. But Djokovic has clout and a platform and, frankly, a responsibility that the others don't. And yet, we haven't seen a statement from him, nor an apology. And if photos over the last few days are any evidence, he's one of the few involved who hasn't gotten tested. (CORRECTION: Djokovic did get tested and is currently waiting for results of his COVID test. Though he took it after leaving Croatia, and after Dimitrov announced he was positive.)

Who knows what this weekend's developments will mean for the U.S. Open and other tournaments currently on the calendar for August. If cancelled, that again puts players in need of any prize money in a bind. But if not, the risks could be much worse.

This is an important time, not just for tennis but for the world. And the world's most influential people owe it to the rest of us, if not to make a difference, then at least to set an example.

And if the top ranked player in the world won't do it, who will?

June 12, 2020

Looking for a Solution

If there's anything we've learned over the last few months -- probably something we should have learned a long time ago -- it's that there are seldom perfect answers when things are toughest. And as we continue to wait for official word about what will become of the U.S. Open this year, there's been a lot of conversation and frustration around the possibilities.

After all, with Wimbledon cancelled outright and Roland Garros currently scheduled for the end of September -- the usual capstone of the Grand Slam season could turn out to be the second Major of the year. And it would come under extraordinary circumstances. 

Since the world went on lockdown in March, there's been no official tournament play in months, and there won't be until at least August. Sure there have been some matches -- the UTR exhibition events in May and the kick off this weekend of Novak Djokovic's Adria Tour in Europe, where social distancing seemed to be more of a suggestion than a practice. 

But even in the best case scenario, an actual event, with a single elimination draw, prize money and ranking points at stake, won't take place until August. And when and if that happens, things will be very different.

Let's not forget that COVID-19 is still very much a threat. While some restrictions have been lifted, most of us are still worried about a second wave of infections and have accepted that it'll be a while before things get back to normal. 

We've talked for months about holding sporting events without fans, but there are other steps being considered for tennis and the U.S. Open in particular, from keeping players' teams to just one person -- no cadre of coach, trainer, physio and hitting partner, forget a wife and child -- to requiring players to stay at one hotel near Flushing Meadows in order to limit travel to and from the event.

There are possible structural changes as well -- talk of eliminating the qualifying rounds ahead of the main draw, reducing the size of the doubles field, moving the lead up Western & Southern Open from Cincinnati to New York, again to limit travel, or even moving the Open itself out of New York, by far the biggest hotspot for the virus in the U.S. Or the whole thing could be canceled entirely.

Not surprisingly, players have a lot of thoughts on these options. Simona Halep has voiced concerns over traveling from her native Romania, while Rafael Nadal has questioned safety of New York in particular. And Djokovic has gotten a lot of backlash for saying that limiting his team to just one person puts him in an "impossible" situation -- a statement that drew rebukes from world #51 Danielle Collins, who pointed out that most players on tour, especially the lower ranked ones who are more financially in need of returning to competition to earn a paycheck, are lucky to have anyone in their entourage, much less more than one.

So what if the top players choose not to play the event? Sure, that may give those long shots a better chance at advancing deep into the draws, but no one wants to win a competition that way. Besides, a lack of star power doesn't do much for sponsors and advertisers willingness to pour money into the Open -- and if broadcasters aren't incentivized to air matches, that's a huge problem for fans who can't attend in person and to the development of the sport. 

As much as we'd like to believe that money isn't a factor -- it certainly is.

Cancellation is no good either. While it might lessen health and safety concerns, it'd deal a further blow to those athletes who've already been effectively unemployed since March. And as Collins and others point out, we're not talking here about the million-dollar stars, but the ones who pay their way to get from one tournament to the next for just a shot at a couple thousand dollars.

For what it's worth, it feels to me like the best option is to get out of New York, go somewhere less risky where it's easier to control crowd size. Of course no solution is going to please everyone, but getting players back on court safely should be the priority. The world's economies are all trying to figure out how to get back up and running, and the tennis economy is no different -- and while some sacrifices will certainly have to be made, health should not be one of them.

June 6, 2020

Don't Stick to Sports

It's a popular refrain we hear whenever a notable sports figure deigns to go outside his or her supposed expertise and comment on a political or social issue consuming the world.

"Stick to sports."

After all, you're just here to entertain me. Your value is wholly in your performance on court or on the field. You're not paid to opine on topics outside your purview.

But if we've learned anything over the last few weeks, it's perhaps exactly when athletes don't do that that they have the most impact.

In a year that's already been rocked by so many tragedies, the tennis community has again come together in the days since the brutal death of George Floyd to make a statement.

Frances Tiafoe and college star Ayan Broomfield came together to put out a powerful video featuring the sport's biggest talents and a haunting message: "#RaquetsDownHandsUp"

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“Our Lives Begin To End The Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter” Martin Luther King Jr. Thank you to everyone that joined us in this, it starts with each and every one of us. • • @serenawilliams @iamgaelmonfils @katadams68 @malwashington @kgmontjane1 @zackeveee @k1ng_2._0 @heatherwatson92 @jarmere @naomiosaka @sloanestephens @tennisdarian @eastpoint_jenkins @tsongaofficiel @asia.muhammad @coacho.g @r_bizzeee @donaldyoungjr @mcneil8970 @coreygauff @haileybaptiste @ymerjr @philsbrainparade @thechandarubin @michaelmmoh @sachiavick @kamaumurray @cocogauff @garrisonzina #tennisforequality #lovewins #itisbiggerthantennis • • Song: Glory (@johnlegend @common) Thank you for creating such an impactful piece of art. Special thank you to Brian Tsao (@the_general_tsao ) for helping with edits. • • @wta @atp @espn @usta @itf__tennis @shaunking @bleacherreport @theshaderoom @octagon

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Coco Gauff, all of sixteen years old, spoke to crowds in her hometown of Delray Beach with an eloquence that many politicians and most adults can't seem to muster for these trying times.

And Naomi Osaka, who just as lockdown was beginning made a vow to be less shy, has come out swinging in the fight for social justice and equality.

They're far from the only people trying to use their platforms to speak out. Martina Navratilova, Andy Roddick, Nicole Gibbs, and of course Serena Williams -- whose husband resigned from the board of the company he founded so a black director could take his place -- have all been huge advocates for the cause.

And why shouldn't they be?

The argument can't be that they have no base of knowledge to comment on the subject. It was just a few years ago that my dear James Blake was a victim himself, abused by police after being mistaken for a criminal. As he writes, if it weren't for the fact that another cop recognized him, he doesn't know what might have happened to him. That's a kind of fear that no one should have -- famous athlete or not.

And with their base of fans, athletes are arguably the best chance of spreading the message and affecting change that we have. And the more that sign on, the better -- Colin Kaepernick's been trying to make his point for years, and it was only after this latest movement that the NFL finally admitted that its treatment of player protestors was wrong. Whether that gets Kaps back on a roster remains to be seen, but it's a start.

Of course the "stick to sports" trope can be trotted out selectively. Laura Ingraham was quick to defend Drew Brees's respect of the U.S. flag while commanding LeBron James to "shut up and dribble." And I found myself with "stick-to-sports" feelings when Lisa Raymond tweeted (and subsequently seems to have removed) a post equating "bad apple" cops to "bad apple" protestors. But we need to hear their voices -- all their voices -- if we're going to be able to educate ourselves.

And hopefully, even when there are once again live sports to stick to, the voices calling for justice will continue to be heard far louder than anything that's happening on court.

May 24, 2020

Roland Garros Rewind (2016 - 2019)

So here we are on what should have been the first day of the 2020 French Open, and instead of watching magic on clay, we're on the verge of what will be the third straight month without professional tour tennis.

There are signs of hope out there, though -- this weekend, a couple ladies are taking the court in the second UTR Pro Series in Florida, and Novak Djokovic recently announced the Adria Tour, which will feature top stars in exhibition matches around the Balkans in late June and early July.

Still, with the WTA and ATP officially on hold until at least mid July, whether Roland Garros will actually kick off on the twice-rescheduled September 20th as now planned remains to be seen. I clearly can't continue with my original plan of predicting the final four for this event, at least not yet, but I can take this opportunity to look back at the action I missed in Paris the few years since I last wrote about it.

As with my lookback on Indian Wells and Miami, there were a couple things that took me by surprise, some standout performances that slipped my memory -- certainly on the women's side, but even a few on the men's, which has obviously been so dominated by one name over the past decade and a half. There were players that really made a name for themselves at the French, some of whom have lived up to that glory, others who've faded away a bit. But all of them, I'm sure, hold these courts in a special place in their hearts and are eager for the day they can get back to work on them.

The Men

Not surprisingly, the French Open remains Rafael Nadal's to lose. The twelve-time champion has a stunning 93-2 record on these courts and could be one appearance away from hitting the 100-win mark. There have been some bumps in recent years -- we all got a little nervous in 2015, when the Spaniard's game seemed to be flagging a bit, and he lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarters. A year later, a wrist injury not only forced him to pull out of the third round in Paris, but also allowed Nole to complete the task he fell just short of the season before, when he lost to Stan Wawrinka in the final -- winning the title and the career Grand Slam. But Rafa got back to top form in short order and in the last three years, has only lost three sets on his way to the titles.

That said, we know Nadal's reign will eventually come to an end, and we're getting some glimpses of who might be ready and willing to take over. Dominic Thiem has reached the finals at Roland Garros the last two years and has quickly become the second best clay court player on tour right now. He's won ten of his 16 titles on the surface and last year beat Rafa in Barcelona and Djokovic at the French. His performance in Melbourne this year further showed he's capable of capturing the biggest titles, and I expect that sometime in the not so distant future, we'll see him lifting this trophy too.

But there were some other players that lasted late into recent draws at Roland Garros that flew well below my radar. Unseeded Albert Ramos-Viñolas made a solid run to the quarters in 2016 with wins over Milos Raonic and Jack Sock. It was by far his best performance at a Major and followed four straight first round exits in Paris. And Pablo Carreno Busta got as far a year later, but ultimately pulled out in the second set against Nadal with an abdomen injury that also forced him to skip the grass court season. But he rebounded to make the semis in New York and even spent a stint in the top ten.

The real shocker at the French Open over the last few years, though, was a little-known Italian named Marco Cecchinato. Though he picked up his first career title in Budapest as a qualifier in April 2018, he was still ranked just 72nd in the world when he hit the court in Paris. But he took out in turn Carreno Busta, David Goffin, and against all odds, Novak Djokovic, who at the time was ranked all the way down at #22 after elbow surgery the year before kept him off court for six months. Cecchinato became the lowest ranked player to make the Roland Garros semis since 1999, and he eventually jumped into the top twenty, picking up trophies in Umag and Buenos Aires to boot. But last season didn't go quite so well -- he lost in 21 first rounds, putting together a string of nine straight losses over the summer, and with a 1-7 record to start 2020, he's now down at #113. Of course, he could come out of this lockdown swinging, but something tells me this Cinderella story may have come and gone.

The Women

Things have been a little less straightforward on the women's side of things, where we've seen a different champion in each of the last six years. I was closely watching in 2014 and 2015 when Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams respectively repeated their crowns, but I hadn't realized we were in for a whole new world in the women's game by the time 2016 rolled around.

It started when Garbiñe Muguruza, who'd only won two titles at that point and was ranked fourth in the world, stunned the defending Williams. who'd drubbed her in the previous Wimbledon final, for her first Grand Slam crown. Her career has been up and down since then, winning at the All England Club the next year, then struggling for most of the last before definitively reasserting herself as a force at this year's Australian Open.

Then there was Simona Halep, long held up as the star of the next generation of tennis, she came close but fell short of the biggest titles a couple times before finally breaking the seal -- she very well could have won that title against Sharapova in 2014, lost at the same spot three years later, and came in second again in Australia in 2018, this time to Caroline Wozniacki who won her first and only Major that year in Melbourne. But fourth time was a charm for Halep -- ten years after winning the Juniors title in Paris, the pint-sized Romanian -- meh, she's two inches taller than me -- finally came home a winner, beating Sloane Stephens for the 2018 title. She added a Wimbledon trophy to her collection last year and at #2 in the world seems well in place to add a couple more before all is said and done.

But maybe more significant are the slew of upstarts who've really had their break on the courts of Roland Garros. First there's defending champ Ashleigh Barty, who currently holds the #1 ranking in the world and put together a solid 11-3 record this year before play was called. Still, it remains to be seen whether she'll be more than a one-hit wonder -- the ladies' draw last year was, after all, rife with upsets, and the four semifinalists had an average rank that would barely earn a seed at a Slam. Barty's had big wins since, of coure, claiming the year-end championship for example, but she's also more than fallible and she'll need to fight to reclaim that title. As for the other three who made the semis -- finalist Marketa Vondrousova, Amanda Anisimova, and Johanna Konta -- I've put a lot of faith in their career-making runs, and I'm still waiting for a couple of them to make good on them.

The biggest outlier among the women's titleists, though, is 2017 winner Jelena Ostapenko, who started the event a teenager ranked 47th in the world and ended it a 20-year-old Grand Slam champion. She'd never won a title before that run, but beat six higher ranked players during it, including former French finalist Sam Stosur, Wozniacki, and Halep in the final. But it's been a rough road since -- the Latvian lost in the first round at the French the last two years, and while she did crack the top ten and reached the Wimbledon semis in 2018, she's had trouble making a big splash. Still, she's young -- 23 next month -- and has a lot of time to perfect her game. I'm not ready to write her off, but sure would love to see her come out of the lockdown with a little more fire in her belly.

Because, of course, we will come out of this, and there's a long list of players who not only want to add themselves to the champions' roll but will be able to do it. And like everyone of you reading this, I can't wait to get started.

May 20, 2020

The Grand (Re)Opening: Take Two

This week we were supposed to be in the final stretches of the 2020 clay court season, getting ready for the French Open, which was originally scheduled to kick off this coming Sunday. 

Things are different now, of course, with tour-level tennis now on hold until the end of July at least, even as some countries and states begin what will undoubtedly be the long and arduous process of reopening not only their courts but their entire economies.

Still there is some reprieve for those aching for some live professional sports -- South Korean baseball has resumed with fake fans filling the stadiums, Nascar held its first race over the weekend in South Carolina, and Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson won a charity Skins game benefitting COVID-19 first responders. 

And on the tennis front, this weekend we'll get the second edition of the UTR Pro Series event, with four ladies this time competing for the first title since February and a little bit of that much-needed prize money.
Danielle Collins and Amanda Anisimova, semifinalists at the Australian Open and Roland Garros respectively last year, Alison Riske, who was just off a career-high ranking at #19 in the world when play was stopped, and Ajla Tomljanovic, will compete in round robin style down in West Palm Beach, Florida, hoping to duplicate the success seen by Reilly Opelka a few weeks ago.

And while each of these players may be a little rusty after two months without true match play, some of their results pre-lockdown could give us a glimpse of what to expect now. So why not take a stab at telescoping what we might see when play gets underway.

Alison Riske is the on-paper favorite, with the highest ranking of the group and the most career titles -- two. But despite the low hardware count, she's had some solid wins over the past year, taking out Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina in Wuhan, and taking Serena to three in the Wimbledon quarters, after ousting world #1 Ashleigh Barty a round earlier. She's been a little quieter this year, losing the two matches she's played since the Australian Open and beating no one in the top twenty to date. Of course, she's got a lot of talent, but there's plenty of opportunity for someone to notch an upset here.

Anisimova too comes to this event a little vulnerable. While she remains in the top thirty, the eighteen-year-old American is still riding high on the points she earned at last year's French, where she stunned Simona Halep and took Barty the distance in the semis. But a back injury kept her off court for most of the back half of 2019 and she'd been a little slow at the start of this season too, getting demolished by Serena in Auckland and pulling out of Doha after an admittedly impressive win over Svitolina. And while she did win the U.S. Open Juniors title back in 2017 -- beating Coco Gauff, by the way -- it still feels like she might've done better had the clay season gone as scheduled. 

So it may just be that the biggest surprises come from the lower-ranked entrants. Danielle Collins came out swinging this year -- while she fell well short of defending points from her 2019 Melbourne run, she did score wins over Svitolina in Brisbane and both Sofia Kenin and Belinda Bencic in Adelaide. And Tomljanovic, the only one of these four not from the States, actually has the most match play this year -- albeit with the only losing record at 5-6. Still, with two career wins over Riske and another over Anisimova, she's had the most experience against this group, and knows how to win.

Of course, all that said, we'll certainly see a few surprises this weekend. Overall, these ladies don't have a lot of experience playing each other, and, as above, it could take some time for them to shake off the cobwebs that have collected over the last few weeks.

But if this UTR Pro event is a success, it could really help set the stage for more play this season. And after all, no matter how different it feels and looks, isn't that what we all want the most?

May 12, 2020

Trouble With the Serve

Over the weekend, Reilly Opelka won the first pro tennis event since lockdown began over two months ago, defeating Russia's Miomir Kecmanovic in three sets to claim the UTR Pro Match Series championship.

The victory didn't earn him any ranking points, but he did score some hard-to-come-by-these-days prize money -- he was quick to point out that ATP Officials have been paid their full salary since March, even as tour play has been suspended, while players themselves have had no means of truly earning their keep -- and that all-important match play during this unprecedented time.

And in watching Opelka on court, you can't help but be reminded of another American player with very similar attributes. 

At 6'11" (!!!) the 22-year-old is actually an inch taller than John Isner, and he understandably shares his compatriot's big weapon -- down 15-30 to Kecmanovic in the third set Saturday, he fired off three aces to win the game. In his two months of regular play this year, he's already hit 214 service winners, and over the past 52 weeks he trails only Isner in average aces per match.

But as we've also come to know, a serve in this sport is not everything. I've long lamented how many times Isner is forced into a tiebreak -- nearly half his sets this year have been decided in, well, deciders -- and if you can't break your opponent's serve then what good, really, is dominating yours?

Opelka is not entirely innocent of posting similar stats. He's only won 12% of his return games this year; Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, wins more than one of every three. And he's racking up as much time in tiebreak land as Isner -- every one of their ten sets against each other last year went 7-6 or 6-7.

But he is working to improve. That 12% record compares to the 10% he won on the receiving end last year, and is several times better than the 7% he notched in 2016. And he's consciously focused on fixing his weakness.

“I've spent a lot of time on my return,” he told the Tennis Channel after his win this weekend. “I returned well in Delray, and I returned well in Davis Cup. I’m much more confident in my return game. It’s so much more fun for me as a player to believe I can break serve. I’m not just focused on holding serve. It adds a whole other element to my game.”

Will that translate into more success when regular play resumes? Hopefully -- the world #39 has already had some decent results this season, taking Fabio Fognini to five sets in his Australian opener and winning that title in Delray, the second of his career, beating Milos Raonic along the way. Last year he beat Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon. 

And, since the comparison with Isner is inevitable, Opelka won all three of their matches in 2019, so at the very least he seems to be winning the battle of the big servers for now. 

Of course, I don't mean to say that Isner's career isn't something to aspire to -- we could all do a lot worse than being ranked in the top twenty for the balance of a decade -- but I would like to see Reilly do even better. We could talk for hours about how long it's been since an American played a Grand Slam final, never mind won one. Opelka may or may not be our best chance at that, but he's certainly an option.

But even beyond the hardware he could earn, for him to really thrive on tour, we need to see a more well-rounded game. I have confidence he's getting there, and can't wait to see what he does when he's truly at the top of his game.

May 1, 2020

The Grand (Re)Opening

Tennis is getting back in action -- like real, live, professional tennis.

The Tennis Channel and MyUTR today announced the launch of the UTR Pro Match Series, whose first event will take place next weekend. ATP pros Matteo Berrettini, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open last year, Reilly Opelka, Tennys Sandgren and Tommy Paul will vie on an actual court for actual prize money starting May 8 -- the women, Amanda Anisimova, who made the final four at Roland Garros in 2019, Alison Riske, Danielle Collins ('19 Melbourne SF), and Ajla Tomljanovic, hold their own event starting May 22.

The matches, to be held in Florida, come as countries around the world and about half of U.S. states begin to lift some stay-at-home restrictions, even as the threat of the coronavirus remains front and center. It won't be exactly like the tournaments we're used to -- there won't be spectators or ball kids, and players will have their own set of marked balls to serve with, so there will hopefully be minimal risk of cross-contamination, and they'll have to provide their own drinks and towels.

The format could give us a glimpse of what Tour events might look like for the next several months. As I've said before, unlike other pro sports with obvious physical contact, tennis itself is presumably more adaptable to social distancing guidelines, and with proper steps can probably be kept relatively safe. That's the good news.

Another positive -- this gives an opportunity for players to earn what could be some much-needed income. Players and pundits have been quick to point out how big an economic toll the lockdown orders are having on lower-ranked players, Opelka even calling for tour officials to take a pay cut, as we've seen happen in other professional sports leagues.

This week's virtual Mutua Madrid Open was a nice first step in providing support -- Andy Murray and Kiki Bertens donating their winnings to the players' relief fund and the UK's National Health Service -- but it certainly doesn't solve the problem entirely. And, of course, neither does hosting an event with all the entrants in the top hundred, albeit far from the big endorsement players who will no doubt be fine during the shutdown.

But hopefully this event can give us a framework that'll eventually get more athletes back in the game. The exhibition matches being played between even lower-ranked players this weekend will help as well.

Still, is now the right time to get started? I don't know. I will say I'm not surprised host state Florida is one of the first in the U.S. to loosen restrictions, and I'm not sure people, Florida or elsewhere, have enough self-control not to rush the malls, beaches, and restaurants once that happens -- Central Park whenever it goes over 60° in New York is insane. But hopefully these events will be held to a higher standard, and players, officials and anyone else involved will take the necessary precautions.

After all, I'm surprisingly heartened by the tennis community's response to the pandemic, both in donating to health programs and front-line workers, and in taking #SocialDistancing guidelines not only seriously, but to new levels -- questionable vaccine beliefs notwithstanding.

So here's hoping our first event back is not only successful, but safe. I mean, we can all kind of agree with Sandgren here.

April 26, 2020

An Experiment Worth Watching

Tomorrow the Mutua Madrid Open kicks off its innovative Virtual Pro tournament -- a stab at not only giving tennis players and fans something to watch during the global shutdown, but also helping support those who may be under more pressure these days than the biggest stars. It's a truly noble effort, one I hope other events will be able to replicate as this pandemic drags on.

But I've already talked at length on the competition's virtues. So instead, today I'm going back to the good old days when we could actually size up the field.

To be fair, "sizing up the field" in an event like this requires some bold assumptions that may not have any basis in reality. Like with the year-end championships, the Virtual Pro is structured in groups of round robins, where the top two finishers will make the quarterfinals and then will play a traditional bracket-style elimination after that. But with the players battling on screen rather than on court, any advantage that comes with seedings and brute strength is all but eliminated when they pick up a game controller.

Still that allows for a motley group to participate. Caroline Wozniacki and David Ferrer are both retired, Bianca Andreescu was still recovering from a knee injury that's kept her out of play since October, and I'd never even heard of Fiona Ferro before this event. There's no reason these guys couldn't "upset" Rafael Nadal or Karolina Pliskova. And maybe I'm just stereotyping the generation, but I imagine that Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are probably pretty good at video games.

So having said all that, and without consequence, I'll go ahead and pick who I think will make the quarters in each group.

The men: Denis Shapovalov, Gael Monfils, Dominic Thiem, David Ferrer, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Kei Nishikori, Alexander Zverev, and Karen Khachanov.

The women: Fiona Ferro, Carla Suarez Navarro, Elina Svitolina, Victoria Azarenka, Bianca Andreescu, Caroline Wozniacki, Donna Vekick, and Genie Bouchard.

But of course, in the end, it doesn't really matter who comes out on top. It's just good to know that all these guys are playing for a good cause, and hopefully we'll all come out better off on the other side of this.

And if you want to watch all the action, you can do so on Facebook in English or Spanish starting tomorrow morning.

April 21, 2020

Oh, Novak

I'm sure I'm not the only person who was surprised to learn this week that Novak Djokovic is an anti-vaxxer.

Regarding the possibility that players would be required to inoculate themselves against the coronavirus when play resumes, the current world #1 and hugely influential superstar, raised some eyebrows when he said Sunday in a live Facebook chat, "Personally I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel."

He did suggest that his personal beliefs might have to change if such rules are implemented and he wasn't able to play, but the general message certainly hit a lot of people hard. One prominent epidemiologist in Nole's homeland cautioned him against making such statements, given how much of a following he has.

Of course, some of this discussion is moot since there isn't currently a vaccine for COVID-19, and one might not become available until next year. If officials decide to make vaccination mandatory -- something that isn't yet in the books, but was vocally supported by two-time Major winner Amelie Mauresmo last month -- it could be a looooong time before we get back on court, way beyond the current mid-July return that's currently on the books.

Yes, that would suck, but the alternative is probably worse.

Tennis is obviously an international sport, with players, fans, and everyone involved in the community traveling not just from state to state, but across the world, week after week. That not only exposes them to the virus, but could bring whatever potential latent germs and bacteria they're carrying to areas that either might not have been hit hard yet or which had been starting to get on the right side of the curve.

Those concerns, like everything these days, extend far beyond tennis. I often find myself wondering how long after stay-at-home restrictions are lifted I'll feel comfortable going back to the gym, the movies, on vacation. And for players who, while free from continuous physical contact with their opponents like in other sports, nevertheless are still surrounded by tons of people in far more remote locations, it makes sense to guard against any possible risk.

What makes Djokovic's comments even more shocking is the fact that he's been so on top of the response to COVID-19, from donating a million euros to help hospitals get the ventilators and other protective equipment they need, to posting one #TennisAtHome video after another. Clearly he takes this seriously, so why not be equally serious about developing and receiving a much-needed vaccine?

To be fair, Nole has long been a proponent of natural heeling, even delaying surgery a few years back before ultimately relenting. He told the New York Times his focus is on how to build immunity to the disease. He didn't make clear whether he opposed all vaccinations, and he didn't totally preclude taking one for the coronavirus if it were available.

Still, the anti-vax thing is baffling to me, especially in this case. If there were ever a time when you'd think everyone would be clamoring for a vaccine, it would be this one. And hopefully one comes along soon that allows us all to focus again, not on this outbreak, but on the things we love and want so badly to get back to normal.

April 16, 2020

Keeping Tennis Alive...#TogetherApart

Well here we are in mid-April and no closer to the end of seeing the coronavirus's impact on daily life around the world. And as we've discussed plenty over the last few weeks, tennis is far from immune from the effects -- and those extend far beyond the obvious cancellations of some of the biggest events in sports for at least three more months, likely much longer.

But the tennis community is doing its part to help its members during these very uncertain times. After all, the sport is not just about the professionals lucky enough to sit atop the ATP and WTA or those winning those events. There are hundreds of thousands of athletes -- from those who plod away on tour with double and triple digit rankings, who foot their own bills to fly to and enter tournaments with only a chance at earning a couple thousand dollars a week, to those who run local clubs and coach casual players, to those who hope one day to be the Next Big Thing -- who are, like so many others, indefinitely out of work.

Today the USTA, the body which runs the U.S. Open, said it would commit over $50 million to help support the industry, offering grants to facilities, instructors and other organizations so they can get back up and running when restrictions are finally lifted.

"The foundation of our sport begins with these stakeholders, and we need to ensure they can weather the storm and remain viable as the storm recedes. This is all about relief, recovery and rebuild for our industry." - USTA CEO Mike Dowse.

On the relief side, the Mutua Madrid Open last week announced a pretty ingenious way to help those pros who are struggling without any opportunity to earn prize money. As we've noted before, just because tennis is your full-time job, doesn't mean you're living the high life.

So the Tier 1 clay court event, run by the wonderful Feliciano Lopez, which was supposed to be contested the first week of May, is now holding a virtual (yes -- that means video games!) tournament at the end of April, where winners will vie for a €350,000 (about $380,000) purse that can be donated to players in need. Among the top-notch stars putting down their tennis rackets in exchange for game controllers are Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka, and defending Madrid champ Kiki Bertens. And they're already training up!

As for the return of actual play -- well we're all still waiting on that. In its announcement today, the USTA said it currently still plans to hold the U.S. Open at the end of summer, but a final decision won't likely come for a few months. There's some talk of staging the event without fans, an idea being floated by some other sports organizations. And to some extent, without real person-to-person contact, tennis, like golf, is probably better suited to that option than, say, football or the NBA, but officials say there's still a risk on court and organizers didn't yet seem ready to pull the trigger on green-lighting empty stadiums.

Whatever they decide though, it's imperative that we have a sport to come back to at some point over the next few months. Initiatives like the USTA grants and Madrid's virtual tournament are just a start in providing the support that's needed, and hopefully we'll see more programs over the next few months. And when we get through all of this, here's hoping the sport comes out better for it.

April 12, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- The Winners

Okay, we've come to the end of my list highlighting some of the outstanding performances we saw on the tennis courts before play was cut short just about a month ago. We've seen some breakthroughs, some trailblazers, and some new faces, and today I pay tribute to a couple players -- one veteran and one rising star -- who have really taken the game by storm this year.

But before I reveal the winners, here are some headlines that have crossed since my last post.

  • Former USTA president Katrina Adams revealed she tested positive for COVID-19
  • The Rogers Cup officially put off its men's and women's events until next year
  • We got a first look at some of the players who'll take part in the Mutua Madrid Open's groundbreaking virtual tournament
  • The ATP and WTA teamed up to launch Tennis United, hosted by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Vasek Pospisil
  • Roger Federer ignited a wall-tennis frenzy with his #TennisAtHome challenge

The Men: Gael Monfils

Age: 33
Current Ranking: #9
Title(s): Rotterdam, Montpellier (just this year!)

The showy Frenchman is no stranger to the spotlight and has been one of the real workhorses of our game for over a decade -- he first broke into the top ten in 2009! And while he's had some ups and downs, even falling into the triple digits for some time back in 2013, he's really seemed to find new life in recent months. After a fourth round exit at the Australian Open, he stormed his way to the title in Montpellier, kept his momentum going for another in Rotterdam where he didn't drop a set, and even pushed Novak Djokovic in the Dubai semifinals before his win streak finally ended at twelve.

Believe it or not, this is the first time he's ever won more than two titles in a season, and while it's looking increasingly likely that he snuck those in just under the gun, his somewhat uncharacteristic consistency could well be something he carries with him when play gets back underway. Call it what you will -- a renewed inspiration for the game, a little extra push from his equally talented girlfriend -- but it sure seems like the best of Monfils may still be to come.

The Women: Elena Rybakina

Age: 20
Current Ranking: #17
Title(s): Hobart

I've extolled the outstanding performance we've seen from the young Kazakh before, but it bears repeating. After starting the year ranked outside the top 30, she was on court week after week (after week) this season to slice that number to bits. She kicked off 2020 making two finals in a row, earning a title in Hobart, and after Melbourne -- really the only event where she hasn't gone deep -- she made the finals in St. Petersburg and Dubai too, scoring wins over Karolina Pliskova and Sofia Kenin along the way. She finally ran out of steam in Doha, pulling out before her third round against Ashleigh Barty, but given her jam-packed schedule that's really no surprise.

To that point, I had been worried she was in danger of burning out, but hopefully this forced hiatus will give her the opportunity to regroup, recharge, and come back on court in a few months swinging big. And when she does, I don't think it'll be long before she starts shaving a couple more spots off her ranking.

Thanks for hanging out with me for by "Best of 2020" list! And while you're at it, check out who else made the cut here!

And while this list may be over, #TennisAtHome isn't! Here's today's moment:

April 7, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- The Old(ish) and the New

Okay, we're almost at the end of my countdown -- which means I need to figure out my next gimmick as we wait for the end of #quarantennis (can we make that a thing?). But that's my problem, not yours, so let's get to it. But before I reveal the #2's on my list, let's take a look at the some of the latest headlines in our world.

And now, without further ado, here are my runners-up for the Best of 2020 -- so far.

The Men: Tennys Sandgren

Age: 28
Current Ranking: #55
Title(s): Auckland (2019)

The American sorta-veteran has been around for quite some time and has even risen to higher heights than where he sits now, but his performance in Australia really put him on the map for a lot of people. Not only did he take out Matteo Berrettini and a somehow-lower ranked Fabio Fognini, but he had seven match points against Roger Federer, any one of which could have given him entrée to his first ever Major semifinal. He may not have been able to capitalize then, but perhaps he'll be able to pick up where he left off when things go back to normal.

After all, he's had some nice wins over the years, beating Dominic Thiem and Stanislas Wawrinka Down Under back in 2018 and reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon last year. He's not quite as consistent as I'd like him to be, though, and he still spends a lot of time on the Challengers' circuit. Even still, his run in Melbourne this year seemed to demonstrate what he's capable of, and I'd love to see him make the most of that when we return.

The Women: Leylah Fernandez

Age: 17
Current Ranking: #118
Title(s): None (yet)

On the other end of the spectrum is someone who was only nine years old when Sandgren turned pro -- I'm not going to even go near how old I was when she was born. But Leylah Fernandez has certainly shown, in her short career, that she's could be a big force in the sport. Then 16, she won the French Open Girls' title last year, and while she may be a bit miffed the clay court portion of this season is all but scrapped, she certainly showed she could do some damage on other surfaces as well.

The Canadian stunned Belinda Bencic in the Fed Cup round robins and took out Sloane Stephens in her last event before shutdown in Monterrey. But her best run came the week before, when she came out of qualifying and made the final in Acapulco, even taking a set off Heather Watson in the championship match.

She may not have the ranking points yet, or the star power of other teens like Coco Gauff, but she may just be the workhorse in the next generation that surprises us all. And I'm excited to see what she has for us.

There's one more to come in by "Best of 2020" list, so check in soon. But in the meantime, check out who've we've already honored here!

And for something a little light, here's today's #TennisAtHome moment:

April 4, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- Breaking Through Barriers

Well, we're about to enter our fifth week of tennis isolation -- or is it the fourth? or the nineteenth? -- and we've got at least two months before we see any live action on court. So I'll continue looking at some of the best players we've seen on the tennis tours this year with a look at two stars who're really coming into their own this year and truly making a name for themselves.

So without further ado, here are the #3 picks for the Best of 2020 -- so far.

The Men: Thiago Seyboth Wild

Age: 20
Current Ranking: #114
Title(s): Santiago

The young Brazilian burst onto the scene a few months ago when he stunned his way to the title in Chile, advancing past red-hot Cristian Garin in the quarters and beating an on-the-rise Casper Ruud in the final. It was quite an accomplishment for the then-teenager, who'd only one two ATP-level matches in his career before.

But then Wild really shocked us all when he became the first tennis player to test positive for COVID-19 -- just a few weeks after capping his South American swing with that title.

I haven't heard any updates on his condition since that post, but hopefully he'll recover fully and quickly. While I'm sure tennis isn't the first thing on his mind these day's, I can't wait to see what's still in store for him. After all I doubt he was destined to top out ranked in the triple digits, and I'm sure (I hope) when things get back to normal, we'll get to see him on top again.

The Women: Ons Jabeur

Age: 25
Current Ranking: #39
Title(s): None (yet!)

Jabeur may not be high on most people's radars yet, but the Tunisian trailblazer is rising up the rankings quickly.

Her first big win of the year came in Melbourne, where she effectively ended the career of a retiring Caroline Wozniacki in the third round of the Australian Open. She backed that up with a win over the woman who beat Serena Williams. In Dubai she put on a brilliant show against eventual winner Simona Halep and a week later took out Karolina Pliskova on the way to the semis in Doha.

But perhaps the bigger accomplishment for Jabeur is what she's done for her country. She was the first Arab woman to make the final eight at a Major, and the first to break the top fifty. She's even passed compatriot Malek Jaziri, the veteran who peaked at #42 in the world early last year. Pursuing a career that's not really traditional in her community, she's certainly trying to set an example for an entire group of people.

She may not have won a title just yet. But something tells me she'll do something about that when she gets back on court.

There's still more to come in by "Best of 2020" list, so check in soon. But in the meantime, check out who else made the cut here!

And here's today's #TennisAtHome moment, courtesy of former Wimbledon champ:

April 1, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- Some Surprising Shout Outs

Hi everyone! Welcome to the second edition of my #SociallyDistanced "Best of 2020" list -- the players who've caught my eye in the few weeks of the tennis season we've had so far.

After all, with Wimbledon officially cancelled this year -- for the first time since World War II -- and tennis now on hold until at least mid-July, there's not a ton of live action to speak of. So why not look back on what's already happened this season. And there have been some highlights.

So coming in at #4 on my list are a man and woman who you might not expect to see in these countdowns, but they've both pulled off some solid wins this year and show promise to rise even higher whenever we get back on court. They may not have established themselves as consistent threats just yet, but hopefully that day is not too far in the future.

The Men: Tommy Paul

Age: 22
Current Ranking: #57
Title(s): None yet

I've said it before, but I'd been a little absent from the game for a few years before this season started -- great time to get back in, right? So I had never heard of Tommy Paul before this season. Since winning the French Open Juniors title in 2015, the American had spent the vast majority of his career on the Challengers Tour and trying to qualify for ATP events. He had to prove himself to start 2020 too, but made it to the semis as a qualifier in Adelaide with wins over Pablo Cuevas and Albert Ramos.

His more impressive wins, though, came after that -- he outlasted Grigor Dimitrov in a nail-biting second round at the Austalian Open and stunned Alexander Zverev a few weeks later in Acapulco -- the first top ten win on his resume. Now he's at a career high ranking, and while he still lags many of his fellow Americans, he seems to be on the rise. And I'd love to see him make a big run on the other side.

The Women: Ekaterina Alexandrova

Age: 25
Current Ranking: #27
Title(s): Shenzhen

The Russian is a little further along in her development than Paul, getting seeded at a Slam for the first time at this year's Australian Open. She was riding a pretty impressive win streak into that event too, winning a 125K tournament in Limoges to end the 2019 season and claiming her maiden WTA trophy in Shenzhen to start this year. For that win, she'd claimed victories over eventual Melbourne runner-up Garbiñ Muguruza and a red-hot Elena Rybakina. Alexandrova had some nice results after that too -- a win over Donna Vekic (and a walkover by Petra Kvitova) got her to the semis in St. Petersburg and earned her a career high ranking at #25 back in February.

She's a little older than most of the players on my list, but she still seems to have a lot of potential that she's just coming into now. And hopefully we'll get to see it come to fruition soon.

There's still more to come in by "Best of 2020" list, so check in soon. But in the meantime, check out who else made the cut here!

And here's today's #TennisAtHome moment:

March 30, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- So Far

As we head into Week 3 of the Great Global Quarantine, tennis, like so many other sports, businesses, and organizations, is still on indefinite hiatus. We should be in the back half of Miami, getting excited for the French Open, and speculating over who'll make the Olympic team, but instead we're practicing #TennisAtHome, or whatever else we can to stay sane.

But given everything else on our minds, it's easy to forget that we actually got in quite a few weeks of great tennis this year, crowning a host of new champions and seeing a couple new stars emerge on the scene. And while I desperately hope that this won't be all the evidence we get for this season, there's a good enough amount to do a quick status check on the best player stories of the year so far.

And so I've decided to spend the next few days and weeks counting down my favorites of 2020. Now, I warn you, these aren't necessarily the players who've won the most trophies or the ones who lead the races to their respective -- if not unlikely-to-be-played at this point -- year end championships. I'll give you a heads up -- Rafa, Roger, and Nole are not on this list. Some are players who've surprised me in their accomplishments, some who've been impressive in their consistency, some who just marked a milestone for themselves. But in all cases, they're the ones I'm sure going to be watching closely whenever we get back on the courts.

And I'll appropriately start with #5.

The Men: Casper Ruud

Age: 21
Current Ranking: #36
Title(s): Buenos Aires

Norway isn't usually a country you think of when you're trying to name tennis powerhouses -- I was frankly shocked to see them entered as a team in this year's ATP Cup. But there they were to kick off the year, headlined by the then-#53rd ranked Casper Ruud, son of former pro Christian, who had some success on tour in the mid- to late-90s.

The younger player had notched some solid wins of his own over the last few years, beating an on-the-rise Matteo Berrettini last year at Roland Garros and an on-the-decline David Ferrer a year earlier in Bastad. But he seemed to find a groove to start this season, beating both John Isner and Fabio Fognini in those ATP Cup round robins. When he won the title in Buenos Aires -- the first ever captured by a Norwegian -- he bumped his ranking up to #34 in the world, higher than the #39 high his father reached back in 1995.

Ruud seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a force in the sport, and with a nearly 64% win record on clay might have caused some real damage to the big guns heading into the French Open. It's of course a shame that his momentum was stopped so abruptly, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him come out on the other end of this stronger than ever.

The Women: Sofia Kenin

Age: 21
Current Ranking: #4
Title(s): Australian Open, Lyon

Okay, okay, I know -- how could the year's only women's Grand Slam winner come in at the bottom of my list? Well, as I mentioned, I'm not putting this together the way ranking points are tabulated, and of my picks Sofia Kenin's showing in Australia may have been the least surprising of this bunch. (Let that serve as an indication of how much fun is still to come in these lists.)

That said, what the young American did Down Under was certainly worthy of celebration. Seeded just 14th for the event, she dispatched teenage ingenue Coco Gauff in a match where she was clearly not the crowd favorite, stunned the top seeded Ashleigh Barty in the semis, and then outlasted two-time Major champion Garbiñe Muguruza in the final.

Kenin seemed to struggle a bit in the immediate aftermath of that win, going 1-1 at Fed Cup the next weekend and then losing two straight first round matches in February. But she kicked off this month with a title run in Lyon, getting severely tested in four of her rounds, with her semifinal against Alison Van Uytvanck going three tiebreak sets, but ultimately getting back the momentum she had to start the year.

Of course, she hasn't faced off against many tippy-top players this year -- Barty was her only victory in the top twenty -- but she's slain plenty of giants over the last year: Serena, Osaka, Svitolina to name a few. And I know we're all excited to see how many more wins she can add to that list when we get back to it.

Okay, well those are the first two players to make my "Best of" the first quarter list. Come back soon when I'll tell you who came in fourth.

And in the meantime, enjoy today's #TennisAtHome pick:

March 24, 2020

My Dream Team

And so, it's official.

Tokyo and the IOC announced today that the 2020 Summer Olympics will be postponed, likely not happening until next year.

It's not a surprising move, given all the other cancellations we've already seen -- not to mention the fact that Japan was smack dab in the middle of the coronavirus crisis at the outset.

Still it throws yet another wrench into what's already been a tumultuous season for tennis, and how the Games are ultimately scheduled brings up a lot of questions for the sport, as Jon Wertheim lays out so well in this Sports Illustrated piece. After all, officials aren't planning according to the tennis calendar -- as much as I'd like to believe that this sport is the one around which all others revolve, they've got to plan for everyone participating, athletes and otherwise, and there's no guarantee that the same weeks between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open will work next year.

But all those issues aside, one opportunity the delay does provide is that players not quite in the running to make the team this year can put their nose to the grindstone and qualify in 2021 -- that, of course, assumes they have a chance to put their nose to the grindstone. So today I'm going to wildly speculate about a couple of people I'd like to see play in some sixteen months time -- and since I'm in New York, I'll focus on the home team.

Let's start with the men -- John Isner currently sits atop the Americans' singles rankings, and while he did make the quarters in London, he skipped the Rio Games in favor of Atlanta and was already leaning toward sitting out this one too. Still there are a host of other men who could fill his shoes. Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka have the ranking points, and Tennys Sandgren, after his stellar run in Melbourne, has (had?) the momentum that could propel him to the top shortly once we get back in action, and you know my heart had early on been set on a star turn from Frances Tiafoe.

Unfortunately, some of the younger players way down the rankings who could be hitting their prime next year, may not get enough match play in time to boost their stature -- teenagers like Brandon Nakashima and Sebastian Korda have both had some nice results recently, but sitting sub-200 they may be a little too long of a shot.

By the way, let's not forget doubles. The Bryan Brothers, long a staple on the American roster, are supposed to retire after the U.S. Open, which should have allowed them to raise the flag for their country one more time. Will they change their minds, or do we need to look for some other options? I'd love to see Rajeev Ram take the lead -- the Australian Open champ has been playing a lot with Britain's Joe Salisbury, but could be a good anchor for a U.S. pair.

And then there are the ladies, who are also in danger of seeing some of their most stalwart representatives passing the age sweet spot for the sport -- Serena Williams will be 39 and Venus could be 41. Sure there's a cadre of young talent in the mix, from Sofia Kenin to Alison Riske to Coco Gauff, who'll finally be free from restrictions at the ripe old age of 17 next summer.

But there are a couple other women who could also make the cut. Outside the highest-ranked players, there's Jennifer Brady, who beat Ashleigh Barty in Brisbane and Elina Svitolina in Dubai, and Jessica Pegula, who reached the final in Auckland. Either one may storm back on the scene and surprise us all. But let's also keep an eye on 18-year-old Caty McNally -- she's had most of her success on the doubles court and is far overshadowed by her compatriots, but she's still got a win over Sam Stosur this year and took a set off Serena in New York in 2019. We always like to find a few star to focus our attention on, and there's no reason she can't be the next one.

Of course, like so many things these days, all this prognostication is like spitting in the wind. Who knows when we'll be back on the tennis courts and how even the best players will fare after such a long gap between match play? Still with so much real uncertainty out there, why not create a little of a more frivolous sort?

And as we all wait for the one day when it's actually safe to #ReopenAmerica, I'll send you all a virtual hug and hope to see you on the courts soon.

March 19, 2020


As the world looks to stop the spread of the coronavirus, we've all had to adapt to a new normal. Whether it's working from home, skipping a night out with friends, or watching our hands shrivel up into prunes from how often we're washing them, our daily lives are way different from what they were just a few weeks ago. And tennis players, now officially all on hiatus until at least June 7, are no exception.

But luckily for us, #SocialDistancing hasn't kept them off social media. Whether they're entertaining or informing us -- Andy Roddick has been a surprising source recently -- they've certainly been communicating to all of us during these troubling times. So today I decided to share some of their takeaways over the last few days.

Find ways to occupy your time

Stick to your routine

Keep active

Help if you can

And most importantly...stay safe!

Hang in there, guys!