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: