Pandemic Teenagers Take Over the US Open 2021

We are down to the business end of the US Open. Championship Weekend. The crowds have been fantastic. The play, even better. Prevailing narrative: tennis’ old guards are changing! This was not a unique or data driven take. The retirement of the sport’s stars has long been swirling. Their absence weighed heaviest this tournament. Serena, Venus, Federer and Nadal all sit on the injured list. Both tours are primed for change.

On the men’s tour, the odds makers leaned in Djokovic’s favor. He hoped to supplant Rod Laver in the record books and surpass Federer and Nadal with 21 grand slams. He failed. Or should we say, Daniil Medvedev stopped him. In a straight set win (6-4, 6-4, 6-4), Medvedev dashed Djokovic’s historic run by beating him with his own game!

But this US Open will not be remembered for Medvedev’s first slam or Djokovic’s loss. It is now and forever will be the debut of phenomenal teenagers, who crashed the party!

No one saw Carlos Alcaraz as a contender for the title. Yet, the eighteen year old Spaniard made the quarter final and may have reached the semi-finals had it not been for an upper leg and abductor injury forcing his retirement. After two five set matches, one where felled Stefanos Tsitsipas, he could not trifle with the twenty year old Canadian. Felix Auger-Aliassime‘s rise since adding Tony Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s uncle and coach, has been swift. But his semifinal berth was short lived. He was no threat to the in-form Daniil Medvedev (4-6, 5-7, 2-6).

The big four domination is over, as Andy Murray learned in his round one lost to Tsitsipas. The ATP is being reconfigured and teenagers are doing their best to leapfrog over the established contenders.

On the women’s tour, things are no different. There is no big three or four. The women’s bench is deep! For the last four years, there are four different slam winners. And this year will be no different.

All of the women front runners were ousted! The upsets stunned. And two unseeded teenagers (Nineteen year old Layla Fernandez and Eighteen year old Emma Raducanu) vied for a Cinderella finish upstaging the historic men’s final.

Canadian Fernandez was a wrecking ball. She took out: Kanepi. Osaka. Kerber. Svitolina. Sabalenka. In the final, she showed no signs of being overwhelmed. She was a bit flat. Her tank obviously nearing empty. But in the second set, when her adrenalin and competitive nature peaked, her momentum was ended by a five minute medical time out. At 5-3, Raducanu’s bloody knee slide frustrated Fernandez. There was no denying the British prodigy’s talent and commitment. Athletic. High tennis IQ. Great groundstrokes. Good touch. Disarmingly good serve. This qualifier has it all even if her road to the final was far easier than her opponent’s. Zhang. Sorribes Tormo. Rogers. Bencic. Sakkari. In the end, Raducanu’s 6-4, 6-3 championship win was historic. She played the draw she got. If only Cori Gauff were so lucky!

Raducanu’s win has her cemented in history. She’s the first qualifier to win a slam and the first British woman to win a slam since wade in 1977.

This pandemic has established players shook and teenagers invigorated! What other surprises will these youngsters deliver this year?

What does the increasing number of uneven three set matches indicate?

Unlike boxing or gymnastics, tennis scores are not subjective. Still, I have noticed a marked change in score lines. For men, women, slam and non-slam tournaments straight set wins are decreasing. Without looking at the sport’s statistical database, it is clear to any observer, the changes in tennis scores tell a troubling story.

For some, the score line is unimportant. A win is a win. But when a win begins to change the game, if only statistically, one has to wonder. Why is the score line changing so significantly?

A 6-0, 6-0 match was once an anomaly, rare. The lopsided victory tells of a hot, in the zone player, an uneven match-up or worse an injured athlete. We all remember the Serena/Sharapova London 2012 routing 6-1, 6-0. Serena was in rare form, serving whole games of aces and simply outplaying the Russian. She elevated her game for the Olympic Gold. Today, nearly ten years later, she’s playing an awful lot of three set matches. But so are a lot of players. And the score lines are headscratchers. Today Samsonova defeated Bencic 1-6, 6-1, 6-3 to snatch the Berlin Grass Court Championship.

In her prime, Serena used the first two or three games to sus-out her opponent. That was enough for her to test their game plan, skills/weaknesses, and her plan of attack. This is no longer. Players are using entire sets to do this. What else explains the uneven sea-saw scores now prominent on both the women’s and men’s tour?

The tight, competitive match, even the long tie-break match is a thing of the past. The 6-4, 6-4 score is disappearing. But why? An improved field, Fitness. Equipment. Training. Statistics. Nutrition, Focus, Television… No one answer explains this phenomenon.

The next time you see an uneven three set match win, you will wonder a little more about the sport’s decision to partner with betting organization, Bally’s/Bet Works. Tennis Channel (Sinclair RSN) has given said organization a platform to revolutionize the US sports betting, gaming and media industries. This is very different than a sports drink, shoe or clothing sponsorship. We have grown accustomed to seeing these products in press conferences and as backdrops on the court and in the commentator studio. But seeing a betting company logo splashed across a sport blurs the line to the point of erasure.

This may be an unjustified leap, but it does not bode well for the sport nor the overlords (tournament organizers) who sanction this atrocity of ethics.

Will Osaka’s Second Slam Withdrawal This Year Push The Sport To Change or Die?

The highest paid woman in sports has defiantly put down her racket for the second time this year!

The initial narrative imposed by the sport (commentators, pundits, players) had Osaka in the role of bad actor. And like Stockholm Syndrome victims, players parroted the party line and some even ridiculed her. Then the French Open posted a scurrilous tweet, labeling her privileged, ungrateful, difficult. The now deleted tweet, showed a photo of prominent players at post match press conferences with the caption, “they understood the assignment.” Social media erupted. The global press followed suit. The sport had closed ranks, intending to simultaneously strong-arm and ostracize Osaka. They failed! What began as a statement of self-care has magnified to the point of no return.

Osaka vs. Tennis: Disagreement, Protest. Kerfuffle. War.

Every media outlet is reporting on the Naomi Osaka debacle. Sport and non-sport. Print and broadcast. Professional and amateur journalist. They all found an angle to weigh in on tennis’ biggest story of the year. The problem, too many are unfamiliar with the niche sport. Stories are coached in misleading, if not untrue, narratives. Worst, the media at large fail to hold the sport accountable for its many short-comings.

There is a difference between the press and tennis media.

Tennis operates off the radar of most sports journalists. Even ESPN and The NY Times do not have writers and broadcasters dedicated to tennis. So, though tennis is a global sport with an eleven month schedule, the press group is relatively small. It is composed of approximately thirty people, mostly freelancers. The players know them. The tournaments sanction them. The relationship is more symbiotic than adversarial. Tennis media are largely glorified note takers. They are active on social media, and their relationship with serious tennis fans is more combative than raillery, good-humored teasing.

Of course, tennis is pro-press, they own them!

Tennis is much like a traveling circus, at least pre-covid. The post match press conferences is not the only time the media interacts with the players. Each tournament organizes a litany of media opportunities, pre and post match. Yet, the cadre do not produce in-depth, analytical or investigative stories. Their fluff supports prevailing, sanctioned, tennis narratives. Their silence on domestic violence, sexual abuse and the sport’s notorious nepotism and conflicts of interests is deafening.

In Osaka vs. Tennis, the tennis press is not exploring the mental health, misogynoir, the role of the press or bullying angles. For this one needs to look beyond tennis’ sycophant ‘journalists’ to Louisa Thomas at the New Yorker, Michel Martin at NPR, Jonathan Liew at the Guardian, Jemele Hill at The Atlantic… Whether incompetent, compromised or silenced by tournaments, sponsors or sport agencies (IMG, Edge, Octagon…), tennis’ press system is seriously flawed, if not broken.

Tennis media silence on domestic violence, sexual abuse, player owned tournaments is deafening.

Without an independent press to hold it accountable, the sport is floundering. It is disorganized; television scheduling is erratic and ineffective; match-fixing is as rampant as its misogynoir; labor organizing is patriarchial; injuries are increasing exponentially; retiring stars will leave an unfillable vacuum… Under the weight of these issues, the sport may have finally come to a fork in the road. But it will fall due to its unwillingness to see a black woman’s pain, to hear her protests when it has sprouted angelic wings of protection for the short-comings, criminal or immoral, of players who lack melanin!

Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from Wimbledon highlights the shifting dynamics in what was once the most exclusive sport. Black players are unwilling to just shut-up and play. They are are doing what the Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches of our government are unable or unwilling to do, push beyond rhetoric and federal holiday tokens to real change. Will tennis recognize its original sin or die a shameful, unrepentant death?

Tennis’ Four Horsemen Should Be Ashamed!

After a brow beating of apocalyptic levels, Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open. Her decision comes after a first round win over Tig, 6-4, 77-64. This catastrophe sits at the feet of the four leaders of the sport: Moretton (French), McNulty (USTA), Hrdlicka (Australia) & Hewitt (Wimbledon). They coordinated. Threatened. Then grew quiet when she took her racket and went home. She’ll return, hopefully stronger and better supported. But the sport has fumbled yet another ball…

Tennis, like the NFL, is tone deaf and protest blind. Only a right wing sport would post a now deleted tweet with photos of Rafael Nadal, Kei Nishikori, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff engaging in media duties with the caption, “They understood the assignment.” They simply do not have the range. They are unprepared to take tennis into this age of self-care (wellness) especially with the looming racial reckoning/war.

The shame also lands at the press’ feet! As Jonathan Liew details in The Guardian, “Rather than scrutinising what that says about her, it might be worth asking what that says about us.

The Guardian

While media outside of tennis skewer the sport, tennis players and commentators continue to tow the company line. Very few players, and even fewer top players supported Osaka before her withdrawal. Most are afraid of backlash from tournaments, sponsors, fans. Tennis players are bred to be milquetoast. Even Serena Williams’ response was not a ringing endorsement. She really put the owness on Osaka to seek help, without addressing organizational issues. Typical.

It is clear that in this situation, the four horsemen have shown a lack of foresight, and humanity. Their reaction was financial, with more concern for marketing/branding and power/control than player well-being. This will not play-out well for the sport, especially now that the story has crossed over. It is now a hot topic outside the sport; it is center stage on the news, talk shows, podcasts, social media… The View, MSNBC, The Breakfast Club Radio, Ebony Magazine and the like have much to say and they are not fawning over tennis’ leaders.

Our thoughts are with Naomi. We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience

Nike

With the exception of contrarian Piers Morgan, most agree, the sport failed Osaka. The four horsemen will fair no better than NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell. Athletes are no longer willing to just shut-up and play. And they have their fans’ support. Athletes, especially non-tennis, Nike, Mastercard and a slew of celebrities have offered Osaka kind words of support.

Though I am not a trained psychologist, I long observed the signs. In every on camera interaction it was clear that this was not just a shy young woman. This was an introvert with a need for additional support, not coddling, just support. Instead tennis tournaments treated her, and to be fair all its players, like race horses. Objects to be blindfolded, ridden and discarded. Most don’t understand the toll social interactions take on introverts, much less mentally compromised people. But as a sport, tennis should have a full range of mental health professionals on staff to guide their protocols, decisions, players interactions.

Osaka’s withdrawal is the ultimate checkmate!

This colossal blunder, royal faux pas if you will, is far from over. Till Osaka returns and the sport institutes change to support the mental health of all its players, tennis will have a scarlet letter. But this is a sport with no commissioner and an eleven month calendar so its clear, players are not the priority! The leaders of the sport’s four grand slams, can either sit in the shame of this public flogging or put their big boy pants on get to work fixing the sports many ills.