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.