Five is Such a Pretty Number – A Fortieth Anniversary Tribute to the Greatest U.S. Winter Olympian

ūüď∑: KSL.com

Raise your hand if you can name the only athlete ever to win five gold medals in a single Winter Olympic Games.

(Without Googling, that is.)

What about the only athlete in an endurance discipline to win gold at every Olympic distance?

Or the athlete who offered this pithy response to Cold War posturing around the Olympics:

“Sports and politics don’t mix.”

The answer?  Arguably the greatest U.S. Winter Olympian of all time, Eric Heiden.

ūüď∑: NYDailyNews.com

The year was 1980, at the height of the Cold War; the setting, Lake Placid, New York, host to the Winter Olympic Games.

Scant weeks later, on March 14, President Jimmy Carter would crush the Olympic dreams of many hundreds of young athletes by announcing the U.S. boycott of the upcoming Summer Games in Moscow.

But for the moment, for a fortnight in late February, a spotlight shone on the thrilling sports contested on snow and ice.

Largely lost to collective memory are the aspects of the 1980 Games that were unsurprising at the time: Soviet Bloc dominance of pairs figure skating and ice dancing, Alpine nation dominance (11 of 18 medals) in Alpine skiing, and an even split of Nordic (cross-country) skiing medals between Scandinavia and the Soviet Bloc.

Perhaps the hallmark moment of the 1980 Winter Games was the legendary Miracle on Ice — the men’s hockey semifinal game in which a spirited group of American college students attained a highly improbable victory over a team of Soviet professionals.¬† (The U.S. squad went on to win the 1980 gold medal.)

Watching the Miracle on Ice  from a seat in the raucous arena was speedskater Eric Heiden.  A native of Madison, Wisconsin, and winner already of four gold medals at the Lake Placid Games, the 21-year-old was scheduled to race in his fifth event of five on the following day.

Not surprisingly, the euphoric Heiden found sleep elusive that night.  Come morning, he missed his alarm.

Off he raced the track, a few pieces of bread in hand, his preparations truncated and pre-race routine abandoned.

At last he stepped to the mark on the Games’ outdoor racing track, his iconic muscular thighs aerodynamically encased in a yellow skinsuit, and awaited the starting pistol’s report.

ūüď∑: SI.com

In each of his previous four races at the Lake Placid Games, Heiden had set an Olympic record.¬† On this day, in speedskating’s longest, most grueling race – the 10,000 meters – he set not only an Olympic record but also a World record en route to his fifth gold medal.

“That’s the last world record I had ever expected to break.” – Eric Heiden

By the time the Lake Placid Olympic flame had been extinguished, Heiden was the most successful Winter Olympian of all time at a single Games.

Heiden had won speedskating Olympic gold at the following distances:

  • 500 m (Olympic record)
  • 1000 m (OR)
  • 1500 m (OR)
  • 5,000 m (OR)
  • 10,000 m (World record, OR)

The American public was elated and proud.  Here was a humble, polite young man from the Midwest who had competed in five races and won them all.  Heiden was profiled in newspapers and magazines and appeared on the canonical Wheaties box.

The most successful individual athlete from the 1980 Winter Olympics patiently rode his short-lived wave of fame before fading, with a sigh of relief, from public consciousness.

Heiden left speedskating soon after Lake Placid and shifted his competitive focus to cycling.

“Maybe if things had stayed the way they were, and I could still be obscure in an obscure sport, I might want to keep skating.¬† I really liked it best when I was a nobody.” – Eric Heiden

Eric Heiden competed in the 1981 UCI Track Cycling World Championships before switching to road cycling and racing with the 7-Eleven Cycling Team.  In 1985, he won the U.S. Professional Cycling Championship. In 1986, he competed in the Tour de France but was knocked out by a bad crash five days before the finish.

After a year as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Heiden transferred to Stanford University to complete both a Bachelors degree and an MD.¬† He trained as an orthopedic surgeon (his father’s profession) and has since the mid-1990s enjoyed successful practices first in Sacramento, California, and then in Park City, Utah.

ūüď∑: SFGate.com

Now 61, Heiden has been married for a quarter-century to hand surgeon Dr. Karen Drews, with whom he has a daughter, Zoe, and a son, Connor.

Heiden has stayed in close touch with the Winter Olympics, providing TV commentary in 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1994, and serving as a team doctor to the U.S. speedskaters from 2002 through 2014.

ūüď∑: Wikipedia

He remains a legend within the world of speedskating.

But the magnitude of his Olympic achievement may not be sufficiently appreciated by the public at large.

Imagine a track athlete who runs and wins both the 100 meter dash and the 10,000 meter run as well as three races at intermediate distances.

Or a swimmer who wins the 50 meter sprint and the 1500 meter “marathon” as well as a 100, a 200, and a 400.

Or a cross-country skier, or a cyclist, who wins the sprints, the long distances, and the races in between.

No athlete does this.  Not one.

No athlete wins both the short races and the long races in the same Games, or even in different Olympic cycles.  In the 21st century, no runner, swimmer, or speedskater even attempts to compete in both the sprints and the long distances.

Eric Heiden did so on the Lake Placid outdoor racing oval in 1980, with stunning success.

Then he went on with his life.

ūüď∑: AthleteSpeakers.com

 

References:

Eric Heiden on Wikipedia

YouTube: Eric Heiden recalls oversleeping before his Olympic 10,000 meter race.

From SFGate.com: PROFILE / Eric Heiden, Olympic gold medalist / From skates to scalpel / Five-time gold medalist says career in medicine is his greatest achievement

From ESPN.com: Eric Heiden was a reluctant hero

From WSJ.com: Eric Heiden: Life After The Olympics

“Five is such a pretty number” is a line from a very old Sesame Street song (1970), copyright Children’s Television Workshop.

 

“Sydney, we have a problem.” – Team-tennis Event Overload

The first edition of the ATP Cup is in the books.

Styled as a “World Cup of Tennis” and contested 3 – 12 January, the ATP Cup pitted 24 national teams against one another in round-robin competition in three Australian cities – Brisbane, Sydney, and Perth.¬† Three knock-out rounds, featuring the top eight teams, followed in Sydney.

Serious and casual tennis fans can be forgiven for confusion, or for a sense of d√©j√† vu, since the ATP Cup was the sport’s second World Cup-style team event in a span of only eight weeks.

The Davis Cup and ATP Cup are consecutive events in the men’s tennis calendar, sandwiched around the sport’s all-to-brief off-season.

Setting aside for the moment the absurdity of tennis’ having two separate World Cups, here are a few thoughts about the conduct of the 2020 ATP Cup.

 

1. American player Reilly Opelka was right that it is unfair for the ATP to allow the small number of ATP Cup participants – two per country – to count the ATP Cup as a nineteenth tournament for the purpose of yearly rankings, while everyone else may count only 18.

 

2. It is unreasonable in the extreme to expect the Perth round-robin players to fly 2,500 miles across three time zones and then compete on an equal footing with the players who begin the competition in Brisbane or Sydney.

This year’s Perth teams, Russia and Spain, won their quarterfinal contests in Sydney, but members of both teams suffered from travel exhaustion, jet lag, and sleep deprivation.

In order to ensure fairness, all of the round-robins ought to be contested on Australia’s east coast.¬† The fan-favorite Hopman Cup exhibition, displaced this year from Perth by the ATP Cup, could be reinstated.

 

3. A problem common to both the Davis Cup and ATP Cup: 1 a.m. finishes, and the consequent 5 a.m. bedtimes (after cool-down, press commitments, physio recovery, and rehydration), are detrimental to both the quality of competition and the players’ health.

 

4. Video review of footfaults, lets, net touches, double bounces, net overreaches, etc., is valuable and good.  I hope the ATP and the ITF expand its use on the tour.

Much heartache, injustice, and distortion of results could have been avoided had video review been available when Milos Raonic got away with touching the net against Juan Martin del Potro in 2013, or when Novak Djokovic got away with reaching over the net against Andy Murray in 2014.

 

5. For players, it makes reasonable sense to hold a team event in Australia in January.  All can benefit from tune-up events before the Australian Open; extra time Down Under only aids them in acclimating to conditions and overcoming jet lag.

 

6. From the perspective of stadium fans, however, it does not make sense to hold a national team event in Australia.

What makes team events uniquely exciting on the grueling tennis calendar is festive stadium atmosphere: energetic, nationalistic, and loud (though preferably not so raucous as to disrupt the players at work).¬† Triumphing over both the distractions of a Davis Cup environment and the emotions of representing one’s country has launched many a player over the years into the sport’s upper rankings.

Since few tennis fans around the world can afford to fly to Australia to watch a team event in person (especially when facing a choice between the ATP Cup and the more prestigious Australian Open three weeks later), the ATP Cup’s crowds consist primarily of locals.

For the first ATP Cup, this was no problem Team Serbia.  A sizable klatch of Australian Serb transplants generated enough noise and mayhem in support of their team throughout the event to rival the wildest of historic Davis Cup crowds.

Other visiting teams will not be so fortunate.  Few will ever attract passionate crowds in Australia (especially after beloved stars have retired).

 

7. Australia may not be an optimal event location from the standpoint of television revenue.

In Europe, the ATP Cup’s competition times were 50/50 acceptable (day session in the wee hours; night session in the morning).

In the Americas, the scheduling – especially for the night sessions – was inconvenient.

Only avid tennis fans (and not even all of them) will watch the ATP Cup in the middle of the night.

 

Proposed Solutions

It is not practical – indeed, it is a bit farcical – for the men’s tennis annual calendar to include two World Cup events.

And it is difficult to imagine that both the Davis Cup and the ATP Cup will survive for long financially after the sport’s aging “Big 3” stars (Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic) retire.

That said, the colorful 120-year history of the Davis Cup demonstrates the durable appeal of a national team event to both players and fans.

How to move forward?

– Merge the Davis Cup and the ATP Cup into a single event.

 

– Call the event “Davis Cup.”

The current generation of young players has grown up dreaming of representing their countries in Davis Cup.  Permit them to do so.

 

– Schedule the event for the current Laver Cup week in September, after the U.S. Open.

With its limited field size (only ten to twelve players) and its idiosyncratic format (don’t ask), the Laver Cup makes more sense as a year-end fluff event than as a quasi-serious autumn tournament.

 

– Vary the event’s location.

Since most tennis teams are European, it makes the most sense for both box office and TV viewership to place the team event primarily in Europe. (For U.S.-based TV viewers, schedules at European tennis events – especially for night sessions – are usually convenient.)

 

– Vary the event’s court surface so that it does not test merely which country produces the best players on indoor hard courts.

 

– Continue using video review.

 

– Award ranking points, but do not allow the team event’s participants to count the event as an extra tournament for ranking purposes.

 

– To increase anticipation while lightening players’ workloads, schedule the team event for alternate years – preferably the odd years, in order to avoid overloading Olympic seasons.

 

Voil√†¬†– a prestigious, exciting men’s national team event that appeals to both players and fans.

Will these changes come to pass?

If not – if the stakeholders insist on keeping both competitions – might I suggest one modification to the current situation:

Schedule both Davis Cup and ATP Cup for only alternate years, both in the same calendar year, and in the odd years only.

Thus, instead of only a six-week interval between Davis Cup and ATP Cup, team touraments would be separated by about a year (13 months and 10 months, respectively).

“You Boys Should be in Pictures!” – A Proposed Cinematic Treatment of the 2019 Davis Cup Finals

Movie-worthy stuff from Nadal and Bautista Agut the last few days and weeks.” — Ricky Dimon

Late autumn is the traditional season for Oscar films – those motion pictures destined to garner awards in the new year.

The 2019 Davis Cup Finals, contested among 18 teams last week in Madrid, delivered a storyline worthy of greatest of mythic sports movies.

Within the narrative of the champions’ quest, one finds a treasure trove of classic sports film motifs:

  • Heroes who overcome challenges either undertaken voluntarily or thrust upon them.
  • Aging veterans in search of redemption and “one last win.”
  • Talented, feisty challengers who represent the future.
  • Camaraderie.
  • Adversity.

And if not an entirely happy ending, at least a satisfying one for the heroes’ team.

How might the 2019 Spanish Armada’s path to Davis Cup victory be written for the screen?

I offer for your enjoyment a retelling of the team’s journey of body and soul, framed as a film treatment and illustrated with photos in the manner of a partial storyboard.

As you read along, you may wonder as I do…If this story with its dramatic peaks and valleys were proposed for the screen, would anyone actually consider it believable?

 

Setting

The athletic contest central to the story, a newly resdesigned “World Cup of Tennis,” is accessible to a broad audience.

Each three- to five-member tennis team represents a country.¬† The teams’ head-to-head contests consist of two singes matches and one doubles match.¬† The first team to take two matches wins.

 

Photo: @DavisCupFinals

 

Each team plays two round-robin rounds before the knockout stage, which consists of quarterfinals, semifinals, and the World Championship final.

 

Dramatis Personae

A squad of aging stars, the oldest team in the competition, has won the world title five times already but has lately suffered a seven-year slump brought on by injuries and poor performances.¬† Offered a chance to play before home crowds in their nation’s capital – and finally injury-free and in good form – the team seeks glory in what may be its last opportunity to win.

 

 

 

Characters and Plotlines

Two interwoven plotlines drive the narrative.

Plotline 1 concerns Hero 1, a standout as an individual player whose achievements place him among the few candidates for Greatest of All Time.  Having just completed a stellar season in which he won two Major titles and finished, at 33, as the oldest-ever year-end #1, Hero 1 has nothing left to prove.

Nevertheless, Hero 1 is determined to do his utmost to carry his team to victory.  He revels in playing with a team and shines while competing for his country.

Dogging Hero 1 are persistent concerns about injury.  He has averaged at least one serious injury per year for his entire professional career.  Especially problematic is the chronic tendonitis in his knees, which is exacerbated by stopping and starting on hard courts like those he will play on this week.

By undertaking to play the world team championship, Hero 1 is risking his health and his readiness for the rapidly approaching new season at a moment in his career when his remaining chances to win important titles are few.

The story will see Hero 1, whom I will call “Rafa,” play eight matches in six days – five in singles and three in doubles.¬† Five of his eight matches (three singles, two doubles) will carry the extra pressure of being do-or-die/win-or-go-home matches for his team.

 

Plotline 2 concerns Hero 2, who is two years younger than Hero 1, and who has not yet played winning World Championship team.

A hard worker and consistent performer for many years, Hero 2 has just completed the best season of his career, featuring two wins over the then-World #1 and his first-ever Major semifinal.  This year, at the relatively advanced age of 31, he has broken into the Top 10 for the first time and finished the season at a career-high ranking of 9.

Unfortunately, Hero 2 has a troubled history with the team event, having perhaps succumbed to the extra pressure brought on playing for his country in front of a home crowd.  Over the years, he has lost several matches in the team event that some say he should have won.

This week, Hero 2, whom I will call “Roberto,” seeks to overcome the ghosts of his painful match history while serving as his team’s #2 singles player.

 

The remaining cast of primary characters consists of Player 3, who specializes in singles; Player 4, who specializes in doubles; Player 5, who can play either singles or doubles; and the captain, a veteran tour player himself.

 

Story Treatment

Act 1: Laying the Groundwork

On Tuesday, the first round of team competition starts out poorly for Hero 2.¬† He loses the first singles match after winning the first set and then holding service break leads twice in the third set.¬† Outside observers might wonder whether the competition pressure will dash Roberto’s hopes of helping his team win the title.

Hero 1 is thus forced to play his first do-or-die match on the singles court.  He wins in straight sets.

A doubles pairing of Players 4 (“Marcel”) and 5 (“Feli”) prevails in a tight, three-set contest that finishes well after midnight.¬† The heroes’ team has its first win.

Wednesday sees a smoother day of competition.  After an easy, two-set win, Hero 2 appears finally to have conquered the demons that have historically haunted him in the team event.

Hero 1 plays and wins both singles and doubles.  Neither match is do-or-die.

The team notches a second win.

Photo: @DavisCupFinals

 

Blindsided

Late Wednesday night, Hero 2 receives terrible news: “Your father is dangerously ill.¬† He needs you at home.”

Hero 2 leaves the team Thursday morning and races to his father’s bedside, arriving in time to say goodbye.

Out of the blue, Roberto suffers a devastating personal loss.  He finds himself unexpectedly at home, shattered and immobilized.

 

 

Act 2: Rolling with the Punches

Although Roberto’s plotline has taken him away from the tournament venue, he looms large in his teammates’ thoughts.

On Friday, when they enter the stadium for their quarterfinal contest, they leave a space in line for Roberto.

 

Photo: @BautistaAgut

 

Player 3 (“Pablo”) steps in to play the first singles match of the day.¬† Although he begins well, he suffers a mid-match injury and is unable to pull off a win.

 

Photo: @DavisCupFinals

 

For the second time this week, Rafa faces a do-or-die singles match, which he dispatches with staggeringly virtuosic tennis in less than an hour.

 

 

With the teams tied at a match apiece, the doubles point becomes crucial.  Rafa returns to the court, paired with Player 4.

The doubles match is an intense, hard-fought, three-set affair that sees Rafa’s willing Marcel to a higher and higher quality of play —

 

 

and himself displaying flashes of genius.

 

 

Eventually, just before 2 a.m., the heroes’ team prevails.

 

 

Rafa turns in that night at 5:30 a.m.

 

A Reunion

On Saturday – to the surprise of some fans and the great relief of his teammates – Roberto rejoins the team.¬† Mere hours after his father’s funeral, Roberto watches from the bench and cheers for his teammates as they contest their semifinal.

 

 

Roberto later explains that “when he got ahold of himself” he wanted to repay his teammates for their staunch support, adding in a separate interview that his father “would have given him an earful” had he stayed at home instead of returning to the team.

 

 

With Roberto sidelined and Pablo injured, Feli is called up to play the first singles match with insufficient preparation.  He fights valiantly.

 

 

But his opponent wins in straight sets, putting the heroes’ team in a one-point hole for the third time in the tournament.

Again facing do-or-die, Rafa takes to the court against a spirited youngster.

 

Photo: Ella Ling

 

Rafa begins slowly, obviously feeling the effects of long matches and late nights, but holds his serve and gradually takes control of the match.

 

 

He finishes with a flourish, dropping a bagel (6-0) in the second set.

 

 

For the decisive doubles match, Rafa teams this time with Feli, because Marcel is nursing an injury. Across the net is the most difficult doubles pair the team has faced all week.

The match is hotly contested and tight from beginning to end.  There are no breaks of serve.  Each set is decided by a tiebreak.

 

 

The second-set tiebreak is especially hard fought.  Rafa pulls some heroics to squelch a set point for the other team.  Eventually, Rafa and Feli win, again well after midnight.

 

Photo: Getty

 

Climbing Back into the Saddle

Prior to this moment, Roberto has not planned to play.¬† When his team qualifies for the final, though, something “changes in his head.”

His message to the team’s captain is so common in sports films as to be a cliche: “Put me in, coach.

Roberto volunteers to play in the final.  Though he carries a heavy emotional burden, physically he is the freshest man on the team.

 

 

Act 3: The Final

The climax of the narrative, and the greater part of the action, occurs on Sunday, the day of the tournament final.

The opposing team is young, talented, and high-spirited, bursting with potential for victory and success in the years to come.  With nothing to lose, they present a formidable threat to the more experienced but physically slower, and seriously fatigued, home team.

 

 

Hero 2

First up is Roberto, three days past his father’s death and one day after his father’s funeral, facing a taller, faster, highly gifted opponent 12 years his junior.

 

 

Roberto is aware of the physical cost of Rafa’s efforts through the first four rounds of competition and may realize that although his match is not technically do-or-die, it is in effect a “must win.”

On top of that pressure, and the memory of his past struggles at the team event, Roberto carries a personal grief whose nature only he and the people close to him can know.

The stadium crowd (and the theatre audience) holds its breath.¬† All, even the partisans of Roberto’s opponent, are pulling for Roberto to hold together against an unimaginable internal strain.

Roberto begins the match flat of affect and emotionally reserved, as though (one observer notes) he has been sedated.  His tennis is tactically sound.  He defends well and draws his opponent into errors, but he does not assert himself.

Gradually, he becomes more aggressive.  After taking the first set, he starts swinging freely.  His winner rate rises in the second set as he takes control of the match.

In the end, Roberto’s performance is stunning: mentally strong, emotionally controlled, tactically savvy, patient, mature, and victorious.

After the last ball, Roberto points upward and blows a kiss.

 

Photo: @Stroppa_Del

 

Then he leaps and shouts, “PAPA!” toward the sky.

 

 

He bear-hugs his captain and jumps into the stands to embrace his teammates, one after the other.

 

Photo: @genny_ss

 

Only when he steps onto the court to acknowledge the rapturous cheers of Spanish crowd does the dam break.  His tears flow.  For a moment, he is wracked with grief.

 

 

A reporter waiting nearby to interview Roberto is unsure of what to do.

 

 

Sensing the predicament, Roberto composes himself, takes the microphone, and delivers a speech that leaves few dry eyes in the arena.

 

Photo: @Stroppa_Del

Photo: @Stroppa_Del

Photo: @Stroppa_Del

 

Reflecting later, Roberto says, “To overcome what happened, I had to face this….I didn‚Äôt know if I could measure up, but I left everything there.

 

Photo: @DavisCupFinals

 

Hero 1

With the payoff of Plotline 2, the theatre audience experiences relief, joy, and a tincture of sadness, but the overarching emotion must be (indeed was) awe at the astonishing feat it has just witnessed.

The story is far from over, though, and the tension continues unabated, as we prepare for the denouement of Plotline 1.

 

 

Sleep-deprived and physically drained, Rafa walks onto the court to face his most difficult singles opponent yet: a fast, powerful, feisty left-hander thirteen years his junior who has (in Rafa’s words) “something you can’t teach” and the makings him a future star.

From the beginning, the match is close. Rafa’s footwork and power are both hampered by fatigue, leaving too many of his shots short and enabling his opponent to hit winners.

 

 

Although Rafa holds his own serve well, he struggles to wrest control before finally achieving a break late in the first set.

The second set is even tighter than the first.¬† As Rafa’s energy ebbs, his service games become lengthy and more arduous.¬† He is forced to gut out a nine-minute service hold to reach 3-3.

Rafa’s opponent, sensing the exhaustion across the net, speeds up his own play, allowing only 10 seconds or so to elapse between points.¬† Rafa eventually resorts to wasting challenges on his opponent’s aces in order to buy corresponding extra minutes to breathe.

After twelve games with no service breaks, the set is to be decided by a tiebreak.

Rafa’s team, and the stadium crowd, and everyone watching at home, can sense that Rafa’s reserves are nearly gone.¬† If the match goes to a third set, the chance that he can win is vanishingly small.¬† And if the opposing team were to win the match, Rafa surely would not have the wherewithal to fight and win the ensuing doubles match.

The tiebreak becomes do-or-die for Rafa and for his team in their quest for the title.

The opponent, whom I will call “Denis,” seizes the early advantage in the breaker when Rafa commits an error.¬† Two points later, Denis returns the favor, putting the tiebreak back on serve.

Running on fumes, Rafa holds for several points before securing another advantage.  At 6-4, Rafa has a pair of World Championship Points, the first on his own serve.

Unfortunately for Rafa, the first Championship Point is lost, as have been many others on this day, to his fatigue.¬† His bread-and-butter cross-court forehand, lacking it’s usual power and depth, sits up for Denis to put away with a winner.

One Championship Point remains at 6-5 but on Denis’ serve.¬† He snuffs out the opportunity quickly with a powerful serve.

Another big serve gives Denis a 7-6 lead and a set point on Rafa’s serve.

Rafa must win both of his two service points. Failure to do so almost surely means a lost tiebreak, a lost match, and a lost title.

 

Photo: @DavisCupFinals

 

Somehow, Rafa manges to reach back and find two powerful, well located first serves, neither of which Denis can return into play.¬† When he needs them most, Rafa gives himself two easy service points to take the tiebreak’s score from 6-7 to 8-7.

Again it is Championship Point on Denis’ serve.¬† “It is now!” the captain shouts to Rafa, who must surely be thinking the same.

Waiting in the ad side of the court, Rafa edges leftward to cover the sliding, wide serve favored by left-handers like Denis and himself.

On cue, Denis serves out wide.

Rafa returns the ball cross-court, directly back to Denis.

Denis lines up to hit his down-the-line forehand – a shot that has served him well throughout the week.

He takes back his racquet and whacks the ball.

Into the net.

It is over.¬† The heroes’ team has won.

 

 

Rafa collapses to the court in relief, having squeezed every drop of fight from his competitive spirit.

 

Photo: Getty

 

He later admits that at this moment he had no more to give.

 

Rafa is swarmed by his euphoric teammates, who pull him to his feet.

 

 

The team’s joy is absolute.

 

 

The plotlines converge in an especially poignant moment when Hero 1 embraces Hero 2.

 

Photo: Getty

 

Speeches are made.¬† Rafa is named the tournament’s MVP.

 

 

Trophies and medals are awarded.

 

 

Joy and relief rule the day.

 

 

Fade out.

Roll credits.

House lights up.

 

I think it is safe to conclude, back in the real world, that Spain would not have reached the Davis Cup final day without Rafa’s extraordinary efforts throughout the week.

Just as surely, Spain would not have won the final without Roberto’s gutsy win.

 

Roberto remarked afterward, “I had the opportunity to play today because everybody did an unbelievable job since I left.

 

Rafa’s rejoinder: “I won eight matches in six days, but what Roberto did today is inhuman.¬† It is an inspiration and a lesson I will carry for the rest of my life.”

 

Me too, Rafa.

Me too.

 

 

 

 

 

Red Dirt Ballet Revisited: The Beauty And Drama Of Clay Court Tennis, 2019 Edition

RN_Clay_Shoes

(Photo by @puepppy.)

What follows is a revised and updated edition of Red Dirt Ballet…, originally published in 2016.¬† I hope you enjoy it!

 

In April, professional tennis players change their shoes.

Gone are the standard smooth “tennies” designed for comfort on hard courts.¬† In their place are textured soles optimized for traction on loose red powder.

A whirlwind of travel that carries players through the summer heat of Australia and South America, and sets them down in March on the hard courts of North America, delivers them in April to the “red dirt.”¬† There they contest a series of clay court tournaments that culminates in the French Open.

Over the course of seven weeks, in nine countries, on three continents, players are tested in what many fans consider the purest form of tennis – where the surface imparts no advantage to raw power, where players must be proficient at every aspect of the game (serve, return, groundstrokes, volleys, and defense), and where players face the greatest physical and mental demands of the year.

 

What is the “clay”?

Fusion x64 TIFF File

Fusion x64 TIFF File

The “clay” in a modern clay court is typically crushed brick layered upon a gravel base to improve drainage.¬† The court’s top layer is a fine red powder.

Much as an ice rink is smoothed periodically by a Zamboni, a clay court is swept to rid the surface of footprints, skid marks, gouges, and ball marks.  Usually, a clay court is swept after every set and sprayed with water as needed to prevent the top surface dust from blowing.

 

What makes clay court tennis special?

Clay_Bounce

The key characteristics of a clay court, from a player’s perspective:

 

  • It is slippery.

Movement on a clay court is night-and-day different from movement on the hard courts on which professionals spend most of the year.¬† Stopping, starting, and changing direction are all made more difficult by the court’s dusty top layer.¬† Balance becomes especially critical.

The slipperiness influences tactics (for example, it’s especially profitable on clay to aim a shot behind a moving opponent) and profoundly affects a player’s timing.¬† The most adept claycourters learn to slide into their shots.

 

 

  • The ball’s bounce is relatively high.

Clay rewards players who use heavy topspin (i.e., forward spin), because it gives topspin shots a high bounce.  (By contrast, on grass courts and many indoor hard courts, top-spinning balls tend to say low.)

Facette.net

The high bounce can throw off an opponent’s timing and/or place the ball above an his optimal “strike zone,” in either case making it difficult for an opponent to return a topspin ball with power and accuracy.

 

  • When the ball strikes a clay court surface, it always leaves a mark.

At clay tournaments, players cannot ask for computerized “Hawkeye” challenges, because every shot leaves a mark.¬† Instead, players can summon umpires out of their chairs to check ball marks.

In rare cases, a player might compel a cameraman to photograph a mark.

 

  • Play continues on a clay court in light rain.

Clay is the only outdoor tennis surface for which light rain does not suspend matches. (Heavy rain, such as that which interfered with the 2012 French Open men’s final, makes play impossible.)

In rainy conditions, a clay court becomes soggy.  Bounces slow down.  Balls become waterlogged and heavy, coated with mud.  The dry-slippery court surface becomes sloppy, forcing players to modify their footwork.

Clay court tennis requires players to adapt to a wider range of conditions than they would ever encounter during matches on either grass or hard courts.

 

  • The surface is “slow.”

When the ball strikes a clay court surface, the friction between the ball and the clay grips the ball for an instant, providing the opponent an extra fraction of a second to reach the ball. (By contrast, grass courts and many hard courts are “fast.”)

 

Speed (from news.bbc.co.uk)

 

Consequently, it is much more difficult on clay than on a hard or grass court for a player to hit an unreturnable shot.  Matches are both physically and mentally arduous on clay.

Clay rewards players with good defensive skills (i.e., the ability to chase down opponents’ shots and keep a ball in play).¬† Some of the tour’s most proficient claycourters, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer, and Diego Schwartzman, excel at forcing their opponents to hit “one more shot” and eventually miss.

Defense alone, though, is not sufficient to guarantee wins.  Those who succeed on clay know when and how to hit an aggressive shot that either takes control of a rally or wins a point outright.

Clay rewards decision-making, shot-selection, problem-solving, patience, and the vanishing art of point construction – the chess match wherein each player tries to think several shots ahead and outmaneuver his opponent to make space on the court for a winning shot.

Executed well, clay court tennis offers both breathtaking athleticism and fascinating drama.

 

The Spring Clay Court Season

The marquee event of the clay court season is the French Open, second of the year’s four Major tournaments, held at Roland Garros in Paris. To ensure that players reach Roland Garros in optimal clay court form, the tennis tour devotes seven weeks to warm-up tournaments in the U.S., North Africa, and Europe.

 

Week 1: Houston and Marrakech

The men’s clay tennis season opened in the week of April 8 with 250-level (i.e., fourth tier, if the Majors are first-tier) tournaments in Houston and Marrakech. Since most of the top players sit this week out to train for more prestigious events to come, young rising stars and experienced middle-ranked journeymen dominate the draws.

 

Tournament: Grand Prix Hassan II (Marrakech)
Category: 250
Singles field: 32
Top seed: Alexander Zverev (current ranking: #3)
Defending champion: Pablo Andujar
Trivia: Contested in Casablanca until 2016, this tournament is the only ATP event held in Africa.

 

Tournament: Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Clay Court Championship (Houston)
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: Steve Johnson (#39)
Defending champion: Steve Johnson
Trivia: This is the only ATP clay court event held in the U.S.
Some members of the hosting tennis club open their homes for the week to players.

 

Week 2: Monte Carlo

Leading off the European series is the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters tournament.  First played in 1897, this Masters 1000 event (one tier below the Majors) offers fans and players alike the most beautiful venue of the year.

MC_View

Rafael Nadal won eight consecutive titles in Monte Carlo, from 2005 through 2012, a feat that might never be equaled.  Currently, Nadal owns a record 11 Monte Carlo titles.

 

Tournament category: Masters 1000
Singles players: 56
Top seed: Novak Djokovic (#1)
Defending champion: Rafael Nadal
Trivia: A club restaurant overlooks the spectacular center court.  Players must tune out a din of conversation and the clinks of porcelain and glassware during their matches.

 

Week 3: Barcelona and Budapest

During the week of April 22, some players who did not qualify for Monte Carlo will begin their French Open preparations at a smaller event Budapest.

 

Tournament: Hungarian Open
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: Borna Coric (#13)
Defending champion: Marco Cecchinato
Trivia: Five weeks after winning his first-ever career title in Budapest last year, Marco Cecchinato upset Novak Djokovic at the French Open.

 

 

Most higher-ranked players will either sit this week out or contest a 500 (i.e., third-tier) event held at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona – 1899, one of the oldest tennis clubs in Spain.

Barcelona’s crowds are the most polite of the tennis season.

Because Barcelona’s Open Banc Sabadell serves as the Spanish national championship, nearly every healthy Spanish player is in the field.¬† Thirty-seven-year-old David Ferrer has said that a Barcelona title would mean as much to him as winning a Major.

 

Tournament: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell
Category: 500
Singles players: 48
Top seed: Rafael Nadal
Defending champion: Rafael Nadal
Trivia: After hoisting one of the the heaviest trophies of the season, the tournament’s singles champion traditionally jumps into the club’s swimming pool.

 

(The trophy is no longer quite as formidable as in this 2013 photo, but it is still hefty.)

 

 

 

Week 4: Munich and Estoril

Week 4 serves as a break for most the top players and therefore offers opportunities for lower-ranked players to shine at 250s in Munich and Estoril.

Tournament: BMW Open by FWU (Munich)
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: Alexander Zverev (#3)
Defending champion: Alexander Zverev
Trivia: By tradition, the singles champion dons Lederhosen before the trophy ceremony.

 

 

Tournament: Millennium Estoril Open
Category: 250
Top seed: Kevin Anderson
Defending champion: Jo√£o Sousa
Trivia: Last year, Jo√£o Sousa became the first Portuguese to win either this event or its pre-2015 predecessor, the Portugal Open.

 

 

Week 5: Madrid

Since the early 2000s, the lead-up to the French Open has included three Masters 1000 tournaments. Two of those three are the events in Monte Carlo and Rome.¬† Until 2008, the third Masters 1000 on clay was held in Hamburg.¬† Because of Hamburg’s inclement weather (and, most likely, some behind-the-scenes politics), the third clay Masters 1000 was moved to Madrid in 2009.

The Madrid tournament poses a unique challenge during the pre-Roland Garros swing: high altitude. The ball travels faster through the air in Madrid than at the sea-level events, and Madrid’s relatively dry air makes the court both faster and more slippery.

As a joint men’s and women’s event with limited court space, the Madrid tournament is known for its long competition days.¬† Nearly every year there are matches that begin after 11 p.m.

Highlighting the 2019 Madrid tournament are a return and a farewell featuring two 37-year-olds: Roger Federer will use the event to return to clay for the first time since 2016, while Spanish veteran David Ferrer will close his career in Madrid in front of the partisan home crowd.

Tournament: Mutua Madrid Open
Category: Masters 1000
Singles field: 56
Top seed: Novak Djokovic (#1)
Defending champion: Alexander Zverev
Trivia: In 2012, the tournament used blue clay instead of traditional red clay.  Although the contrast between yellow balls and the blue background was wonderful for television, the bleached-then-dyed clay particles created a treacherously slippery surface.  Several players, including Djokovic and Nadal, announced that they would refuse to play the event again on blue clay.

 

 

Week 6: Rome

The week after Madrid takes the players back to sea level for the season’s third and final Masters 1000 event on clay.

Tournament: Internazionali BNL d’Italia
Category: 1000
Singles field: 56
Top seed: Novak Djokovic (#1)
Defending champion: Rafael Nadal
Trivia: The tournament grounds feature a steeply raked stadium surrounded by classically-styled statues and located atop the site of the swimming venue for the 1960 Summer Olympics.

 

 

Week 7: Lyon and Geneva

The week before the French Open will find most of the top-ranked players in Paris practicing at Roland Garros, speaking to the media, and appearing at sponsor events.  Meanwhile, 250-level events in Nice and Geneva offer final tune-up opportunities for middle-ranked players as well as a few hometown stars.

 

Tournament: Open Parc Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes (Lyon)
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: John Isner (#9)
2018 champion: Dominic Thiem
Trivia: France, with five events including the Lyon tournament, hosts more ATP tournaments than any other nation in Europe.

 

 

Tournament: Banque Eric Sturdza Geneva Open
Category: 250
Singles field: 28
Top seed: Fabio Fognini (#18)
Defending champion: Marton Fucsovics
Trivia: Novak Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, won the event in 1988.

 

 

Weeks 8 and 9: The French Open, Roland Garros, Paris

On 26 May, 128 men will begin the quest for the year’s second Major singles title at the French Open at Roland Garros.¬† Fifteen days later, one man will hoist aloft the tournament’s storied trophy, the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Coupe

Because Roland Garros is the only Major site with no lighting for night matches, and since clay matches tend to be long, the French Open is the only Major whose first contests are held on a Sunday.

Every Major tournament offers compelling drama from the start.  It is fascinating to watch players ranked 70 or 80 in the world, with no hope of winning the title, battle tooth-and-nail for the right to advance to the next round.  Every day of the first week promises valor, heart, and sportsmanship.

One of my favorite tales of Roland Garros valor took place in 2013 and starred then-31-year-old Spaniard Tommy Robredo.  Known as a tenacious fighter, and expert like many of his countrymen in the art of tennis on clay, Robredo outdid himself by coming back from two-sets-to-none deficits to win five-set matches in three consecutive rounds, a feat unmatched in the previous 86 years.  After his third comeback, Robredo collapsed the court in tears as the stadium crowd chanted his name.

TR_RG13

More drama, of the “never-a-dull-moment” variety, erupted later in the same event, when flare-wielding political protestors crashed the men’s final between Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, spooking both contestants.

In addition to the French crowd’s perennial hope for a homegrown champion, the intrigue at Roland Garros 2019 features a cast of both veteran contenders and talented rising starsm, many of whom have fascinating storylines.

 

Tournament: French Open
Category: Major
Singles field: 128
Top seed: Novak Djokovic (#1)
Defending champion: Rafael Nadal
Trivia: The “footprint” of space around Court Philippe Chatrier, the main stadium court, is the largest of any tournament court in the world. The consequent extra running room is a great boon for players during baseline rallies.

 

The Contenders

It is highly probable that the man left holding the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 9 will be one of a short list of favorites.

The King of Clay – Rafael Nadal

Thirty-two-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player in the history of men’s tennis.¬† Regardless of how the 2019 season unfolds, he is the undisputed King of Clay.

  • Nadal leads all men in the Open Era with a staggering 90 percent of matches won on clay.
  • In Best-of-5-Set matches on clay, his win-loss record is 106 – 2.¬† 106, and 2.
  • He won a record 81 consecutive matches on clay from 2006 to 2008.
  • He won in excess of 50 consecutive semifinal matches on clay from 2008 to 2015.
  • In 2017 – 18, at the age of 31, he set a record for consecutive sets won on any single surface with 50 straight sets won on clay.
  • The only male player to have won 10 or more titles at any event, Nadal owns 11 trophies at each of *three* clay tournaments of different tiers: Barcelona (500), Monte Carlo (1000), and Roland Garros (Major).

 

Collage by @JeuSetMaths

 

Several attributes of Nadal’s unique playing style are especially well suited to the red dirt.

  • The unmatched topspin he applies to his shots, especially to his forehand with the distinctive “lariat” follow-through.

  • Excellent footwork, both relentless and precise.
  • A deep understanding of tennis tactics and point construction.
  • Formidable problem-solving skills.
  • Great competitive intensity that wears down many opponents as Nadal plays every point as though it were his last.

In addition to his three “Undecimas,” Nadal has won four Madrid titles on clay (and one when the tournament was played on an indoor hard court) and eight Romes.

Nadal is no slouch on surfaces other than clay. He owns four titles, including two Wimbledons, on grass (which, fast and low-bouncing, is essentially the opposite of clay).  On hardcourts, he has won nineteen titles, include three US Opens and one Australian Open.

Nadal’s career has been plagued by injuries.¬† Custom arch supports he adopted in 2006 to protect a congenitally deformed bone in his left foot have wreaked havoc on both of his knees.¬† He suffers from chronic patellar tendonitis and often plays in pain.

Over his 16 years in the ATP Top 100, Nadal has missed more than 24 months of competition and nine Major tournaments due to injuries.  Notwithstanding, he has remained in the ATP Top 10 every week since he joined in the Top 10 in the spring of 2005.

Today, in the words of Nadal’s characteristically blunt uncle and first coach, Toni Nadal, “Rafael is not a tennis player but an injured person who plays tennis.”

At hard court events, which comprise two-thirds of the ATP tour, Nadal seems almost a tragic figure Рequipped at age 32 with some of the tactically smartest tennis of his career, eager and determined to play, but much of the time thwarted by his body.  Of the 21 hard court events he has been scheduled to contest since September of 2017, Nadal completed five tournaments (winning two and finishing two as runner-up), retired injured from five, and withdrew in advance due to injury from eleven.  Sudden stops and violent accelerations on concrete are brutal for chronically injured knees.

Clay, with its forgiving, powdered softness, is blessedly different.

Nadal opened 2019 by reaching the Australian Open final without dropping a set only eleven weeks after pre-season ankle surgery.  In March, he played well through four rounds on the Indian Wells hard courts before being forced to withdraw injured (again) before his semifinal match. He skipped the Miami hardcourts to recover and commence training on clay.

What can one expect from Nadal on the clay his year?

As is his wont, he will respect every opponent he faces.

We can count on him to play every point as though his life depended upon it.

Along the way, he may well win some titles.

 

The “Prince of Clay” – Dominic Thiem

Twenty-five-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem has a powerful, aggressive game ideally suited to clay.  Thiem imparts speed and blinding spin to both his his forehand and his gorgeous one-handed backhand, enabling him to push his opponents back even when he himself is well behind the baseline.

Many fans view Thiem, the 2018 French Open runner-up, as Nadal’s heir apparent on clay, because Thiem has won eight of his 12 career titles on the red dirt, and because Thiem is the only player to have beaten Nadal on clay in the last two years (in Rome in 2017, and in Madrid in 2018).

After struggling to adapt his big strokes to faster surfaces, Thiem has finally realized his potential on hard courts in the last six months.  His match against Nadal on at the 2018 U.S. Open Рin which Thiem blew through the first set 6-0 and finally succumbed by only a whisker in a fifth-set tiebreak Рwas voted by fans the best match of the year.

In March, Thiem confirmed his ability to fight toe-to-toe with the best on a hard court by coming back from a one-set deficit to beat Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final.

As long as Thiem stays healthy, the question of his hoisting the Roland Garros trophy is one of “when” rather than “if.”¬† He is a title threat at every clay court tournament he enters.

 

The Reigning World #1- Novak Djokovic

When in late January 31-year-old Serb and World #1 Novak Djokovic won the 2019 Australian Open final in straight sets over Rafael Nadal, speculation among tennis’ talkers coalesced around a new narrative: would Djokovic be able to win his second French Open in 2019, enabling him to capture four consecutive Major titles for the second time in his career?¬† Fashionable wisdom screamed, “Yes!” Typically hyperbolic commentary from the likes of Tennis Channel’s Mary Carillo declared there was no reason to think Djokovic wouldn’t win every tournament he entered for the rest of the season.

Then, in early March, Djokovic returned to competition, on his favorite surface, and proceeded to lose early Рto #39-ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber in the Round of 32 in Indian Wells, and to #25 Roberto Bautista Agut in the Round of 16 in Miami.  By all accounts, Djokovic was healthy and thus could not account for his unexpectedly weak performances with physical disability.

Because of his poor results in Indian Wells and Miami, Djokovic is not the current betting favorite for the French Open.  He has titles from Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome as well as from Roland Garros, so he is capable of performing well enough to win.  To do so, he would need more consistent focus and intensity that he exhibited on the hard courts in March.

 

Alexander Zverev

Twenty-one-year-old German Alexander Zverev plays with a well rounded game blessed with power he can summon from his 6’6″ frame.¬† He has a big serve, decent returns, and strong groundstrokes from both wings.¬† The only weakness in his game becomes clear when he plays at the net.¬† (If/when he becomes a proficient volleyer, watch out!)

Zverev has already won three Masters 1000 titles, including clay titles in Rome and Madrid.  Last year, he upset Djokovic on an indoor hard court to claim the year-end Tour Finals trophy.  With multiple wins over both Djokovic and Federer (but none yet over Nadal on any surface), Zverev has been hailed by the press as a future star.

That said, Zverev has yet to perform well at a Major.  He has reached only one Major quarterfinal, at the 2018 French Open.

Whether Zverev’s collapses at Majors have stemmed from nerves, from fitness problems, or from bad luck, it seems inevitable in light of his prodigious skills and talent that he will break through at a Major sooner or later.¬† The 2019 French Open could be his time.

 

The 2015 Roland Garros Champion – Stan Wawrinka

SW_Trophy

Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka, a thirty-four-year old veteran, is always a threat when healthy. Fueled by power in his serve, his forehand, and his lethal one-handed backhanded, Wawrinka’s game has carried him to two French Open finals and Major titles from Australia, Roland Garros, and the U.S. Open.

Wawrinka is on a comeback trail after two knee surgeries that sidelined him for half of 2017 and most of 2018.  He might not yet be back to his best, but after six weeks of competition in April and May he could be ready for Roland Garros.

 

The Wildcards

It is unlikely that any of these players will be able to win the French Open, but each of them is skillful enough on clay to spice up the draw with upsets.

 

Roger Federer

RF_Trophy

Of the “Wildcards,” Roger Federer is the only player who might actually have the game to win the French Open (his second, after hoisting his first trophy in 2009).

Federer is vulnerable on clay for several reasons: because he completely skipped the clay in 2017 and 2018 and thus hasn’t played a clay match in nearly three years; because his one handed backhand is susceptible to attack from an opponent who adds heavy topspin to his groundstrokes; and because, though his shot variety is a rich as ever, at 37 he doesn’t move as well as he did when he was in his prime.

I would not pick Federer to beat a healthy Nadal, a healthy Djokovic, or a healthy Thiem, or any combination thereof, on clay.¬† However, if Federer were to catch some “lucky” breaks – if Nadal, Djokovic, and/or Thiem were disabled, and if other dangerous opponents lost early – Federer could conceivably hoist the Coupe.

 

Kei Nishikori

With a playing style similar to Djokovic’s, Japan’s Kei Nishikori established himself solidly among the game’s Top 10 before suffering a series of injuries in the last two years.¬† When he is healthy, Nishikori’s easy power and precise ball striking can carry him past any player.¬† He has notched wins over Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic.

Two of Nishikori’s twelve titles have come on clay, both in Barcelona.

Like Wawrinka, Nishikori is on a comeback trail from injury.  He is unlikely to have the physical resilience necessary to win one of the big clay titles this year, but if he stays healthy he could cause some early-round upsets.

 

Stefanos Tsitsipas

Twenty-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas made a big splash in Barcelona last year, when he beat several strong clay-courters (including Dominic Thiem) en route to the final, where he lost to Nadal. Three months later, he made an even bigger noise at the hardcourt Masters 1000 event in Toronto, defeating four Top-10 players, including Djokovic and Zverev, en route to the final (where again he lost to Nadal).

In Australia this year, he riveted the attention of the tennis world by defeating Roger Federer in the Round of 16.

Tsitsipas has a well-rounded, aesthetically pleasing game and a cockiness that serves him well on big stages.  He may not yet have the physical stamina necessary to win seven best-of-five-set matches over two weeks in Roland Garros, but no one will be eager to see him across the net.

 

Roberto Bautista Agut

Thirty-year-old Roberto Bautista Agut is the rare Spanish player whose best surface is hard court rather than clay.¬† Consistent, hard-working, and highly competitive, “RBA” (as he’s called in the tennis press) has steadily improved his game to a point where he can compete with the best.¬† Two of his three career wins over #1 Djokovic have come in 2019 (in Doha in January, and in Miami in March).

Bautista Agut’s clean, well-rounded game is probably not strong enough to carry him to the trophy stand at any of the spring’s clay events, but he could serve as a spoiler.

 

Nick Kyrgios

Twenty-three-year-old Nick Kyrgios has three wins over Nadal (none on clay), two over Djokovic (both on hard court), and one over Federer (on clay in Madrid).  The brutal efficacy of his unreadable serve is somewhat diminished on clay, but he can still be dangerous to anyone in the field if he plays well.

 

Diego Schwartzman

Both of Diego Schwartzman’s titles, including a 500 trophy in Rio in 2018, have come on clay.¬† The twenty-six-year-old Argentine is one of the fastest movers and most skillful defenders on the ATP tour, and he can deliver remarkable power from his 5’7″ frame.

Schwartzman was one of only four players to take even a set from Nadal on clay last year (along with Thiem, Zverev, and Fabio Fognini).  No one will want to have to face him this April and May.

 

Ga√ęl Monfils

France’s best hope for a homegrown Roland Garros title is also an almost universally loved player on the ATP tour, the highly entertaining 32-year-old Ga√ęl Monfils.¬† Blessed with prodigious talent and staggering physical abilities, Monfils has reached the final at Monte Carlo and the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

It is unlikely that he can win any of this year’s big titles, but he could produce impressive runs to please both his coaches and the crowds.

 

Karen Khachanov

Twenty-two-year-old Karen Khachanov of Russia can be a joy to watch on a tennis court if one is not rooting for his opponent.¬† Khachanov’s blistering power and big serve have garnered him some impressive results.¬† Two of Nadal’s closest and hardest fought matches over the last eighteen months have come against Khachanov (at the 2018 U.S. Open and last month in Indian Wells).¬† Against Djokovic, Khachanov scored an upset on an indoor hardcourt to win the Paris Masters title last November.

In part because he has struggled with health issues, Khachanov opened 2019 with relatively weak results. If he is healthy for the clay season, he could pose a stiff challenge to any opponent.

 

Nikoloz Basilashvili

Twenty-seven-year-old Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili currently sits at a career-high ranking of 17, after a year in which he won his first two titles.  Both titles came at 500-level tournaments.  One was on clay (in Hamburg last July).

Playing with a bazooka-hitting style similar to Khachanov’s, Basilashvili is capable of playing wonderful matches en route to a Round of 16 finish or perhaps even a quarterfinal.¬† If he gets a top player on a down day, he could pull an upset.

 

The Youngsters: Borna Coric, Alex de Minaur, Frances Tiafoe, Denis Shapovalov, Félix Auger-Aliassime

Gallons of ink have been spilt about these five rising stars.¬† Instead of detailing and extolling the achievements and virtues of each, I will note that they have all earned special mention.¬† Individually and as a group, they are better than any generation in men’s tennis since Nadal/Murray/Djokovic.¬† None of them is likely to hoist a big trophy between now and early June, but within three years it is they who will contest Major finals.

 

Who will win?

I don’t make predictions. ūüôā

 

Quote for Today

“If” doesn’t exist in sport. That’s the real thing. If, if, if – never comes. The thing is, you have to do it. – Rafael Nadal

A Farewell Hymn to David Ferrer, Unsung Hero of the Big Four Era

David Ferrer never stops moving.

He paces. He bounces. He hurls himself at an opponent’s serve. He sprints. He swats a shot with all the power he can muster. He pivots and hits again. And again. And again. When at last¬†a point ends — more often than not over the years in his favor — he slows down. And¬†returns to¬†pacing, back and forth, back and forth.

Nicknamed the Energizer Bunny, the Little Beast, the Wall, and “Ferru,” 36-year-old Ferrer is renowned on the men’s professional tennis tour for his tenacity, his stamina, his competitive intensity, and his work ethic.

Over the course of¬†his 18-year professional career, Ferrer has¬†earned 27 tour-level¬†singles titles, including¬†a prestigious¬†Masters 1000 level¬†trophy (in 2012, indoors, at Paris – Bercy).¬† He reached the quarterfinals or better at all four Majors, reached the semifinals at three (not Wimbledon), and reached the final of the 2013 French Open (losing to countryman and “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal). From the beginning of 2012 through mid-2014, he reached the quarterfinals or better at ten consecutive Majors.

Ferrer is the most decorated man playing entirely in the Open Era (1968 – present) never to have won a Major title.

He spent 15 years in the ATP Top 100 and over five-and-a-half years in the Top 10.  He qualified five times among the Top 8 for the year-end World Tour Finals.  In 2013, he finished the year ranked #3 behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (and ahead of Roger Federer).

All of this he has achieved in the “Big Four Era,” the most competitive¬†period in the history of men’s tennis.

Against the Big Four, Ferrer has notched 17 wins: he is 5-16 against Novak Djokovic, 6-14 against Andy Murray, and 6-24 against Rafael Nadal.  The only member of the Big Four against whom he is winless (in 17 tries) is Roger Federer.

Since he has never managed to beat Federer, some tennis writers are at times tempted to downgrade Ferrer in favor of other Big Four Era also-rans, such as big hitters Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, both of whom have wins over Federer at Majors.

In terms of overall career stats, Ferrer ranks well above both Tsonga (16 singles titles, two Masters 1000 titles, one Major final) and Berdych (13 singles titles, one Masters 1000 title, one Major final).

Why might Ferrer, for all of his success, have been unable even once to solve the puzzle of Roger Federer, while the less accomplished Tsonga and Berdych have managed six wins over Federer apiece?

The answers are simple: height, and the advantage height confers in shot power and court coverage.

Federer is 6’1″. Tsonga is 6’2″. Berdych is 6’5″.

Ferrer is only 5’9″.

In spite of¬†Ferrer’s tremendous skills and dogged determination, Federer was an unfortunate match-up for Ferrer.

¬†(With¬†6’8″¬†Jerzy¬†Janowicz¬†after¬†the¬†2012¬†Paris-Bercy¬†final.)

How Ferrer has been able to create such a wildly successful tennis style with his limited stature is a classic story of optimization. Lacking in power, Ferrer specialized in pinpoint accuracy.  Ferrer could place his forehand anywhere in the court on a dime. He compensated for his relatively soft service delivery by befuddling his opponents with serve placement.

Lacking the wingspan to prevail consistently¬†at the net, Ferrer instead wore his opponents down with a tactically sound baseline game.¬† Groundstroke after groundstroke flew from Ferrer’s racquet to locations over the net that made his opponents uncomfortable.¬† Compensating for¬†his lack of reach with lightning footspeed, Ferrer ran down every ball, sent shots back to awkward locations, and — at times through lengthy and arduous battles — wore his opponents down.

Ferrer also excelled at reading and returning his opponents’ serves – a talent that bought him great advantages against the 6’5″ and taller “servebot” players he encountered with increasing frequency late in his career.

One of the best matches I ever saw him play was a win over 6’10”¬†American John Isner on the fast, dry clay in Madrid. Again and again, Ferrer launched himself at Isner’s fast, high-bouncing serves, often making contact with the ball while airborne himself, and nearly always getting the ball back into play.

 (With John Isner in Madrid.)

Another of¬†Ferrer’s¬†trademark skills is his uncanny ability to break an opponent’s serve when his opponent is serving for a set.¬† (Among some of his fans,¬†earning a crucial set-saving¬†service break is known as “pulling a Ferrer.”)

 (Meme created by @bellezavitale)

Ferrer’s most ardent fans might disagree on this point, but for me the match that best exemplified Ferrer’s dogged fight and determination was the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinal against hard-serving countryman Nicolas Almagro. After winning the first two sets 6-4 6-4, Almagro served for the match three times.¬† Each time, Ferrer managed to break.¬† Ferrer eked out the third set 7-5 and the fourth set in a tiebreak before he¬†crushed Almagro’s spirit and cruised to a 6-2 win in the fifth.

Even after a signature win such as that one,¬†he never bragged. Reserved, soft-spoken, and¬†thoughtful, Ferrer, who¬†early in¬†his career¬†described himself as¬†“the worst player in the Top 100,” remains to this day humble and¬†unassuming (in spite of a very respectable $30 million career¬†prize money total). He lives in¬†Valencia¬†in his home country of Spain¬†rather than in a tax haven.¬† He is close to his family and loyal to his friends.

Ferrer played for Spain at three Olympics — 2008, 2012, and 2016 — coming closest to a medal (heartbreakingly close) in the 2012 doubles competition, when he and partner Feliciano Lopez finished fourth.

 (With Feliciano Lopez.)

He loves playing for his country. He has said that early in his career he would have handed out water bottles just to have a chance to participate in Davis Cup.  By his own reckoning (as reported in several interviews), his best and most important performances have come in that team competition.

In 2008, he helped Spain to its third Davis Cup trophy (a/k/a “salad bowl”) in nine years.

In 2009, he came back from two sets down to defeat the tricky and unpredictable Radek Stepanek in the final as Spain won its fourth trophy in ten years.

In 2011, he played what he himself calls the best match of his career in a five-set win over 6’5″ Argentine rocket-launcher Juan Martin del Potro. The match was a dogfight.¬† Ferrer was so often behind on his serve that one of the U.S. commentators quipped, “to save time, Ferrer should begin every service game 0-15.”¬† In the end, Ferrer’s defense and stamina prevailed over del Potro’s power, helping Spain to another Davis Cup trophy.

In 2012, with Rafael Nadal sidelined with knee injuries and Ferrer playing some of the best tennis of his career, Ferrer led Spain’s Davis Cup team to the final against the Czech Republic, where he did all he could for the team by winning both of his singles matches,¬†in front of¬†a hostile crowd, over Berdych and Stepanek.

Perhaps it is fitting¬†in light of Ferrer’s many years as a Davis Cup star that his last great performance delivered a crucial point for Spain in this years Davis Cup quarterfinals.

Ferrer arrived at the tie, held on a clay court in the bullring in his hometown of Valencia,¬†riding a years-long decline in form.¬† After a decade without what he termed “important injuries,” Ferrer started suffering pain in his Achilles tendons in 2015. Recovery time away from the tour cost him shot precision and endurance.¬† The consistency that had been the hallmark of his game left him, sapping his confidence. No longer able to rely on his groundstrokes and the accuracy of his serves, Ferrer saw his form and ranking decline.

Notwithstanding those set-backs, Ferrer never lost his love for tennis or his desire to compete.  He even won a title in the summer of 2017 on the claycourts of Båstad, Sweden.

By the time of the Germany/Spain Davis Cup tie in April of 2018, Ferrer had recovered his game sufficiently to play for the Spanish team in his hometown and in front of his family, his wife, and his friends.

¬†(“The¬†Armada”¬†in¬†Valencia.)

“The Armada,” as the Spanish team calls itself, was the oldest team contesting this year’s Davis Cup quarterfinals.¬† Its opponent, Germany, fielded the youngest.¬† Throughout the weekend, Germany’s youngsters pushed Spain to the brink.

Rafael Nadal delivered wins in his two singles matches, as was expected (or at least hoped,¬†given his¬†winter injury struggles)¬†of the “King of Clay.” Ferrer lost his first singles match to 6’6″, World #3 Alexander Zverev.¬† The doubles match — crucial to many Davis Cup ties — was a nail-biter,¬†lasting five sets and eventually going to the plucky German pair.¬† The outcome of the tie was to be decided by a contest between Germany’s veteran, 34-year-old Philipp Kohlschreiber, and the 36-year-old Ferrer.

Over five hours and seven minutes, Kohlschreiber and Ferrer scrapped and battled. More than once, Kohlschreiber appeared to have the match in hand, only to have Ferrer seize the initiative by (as is his wont) breaking when Kohlschreiber attempted to serve for a set.

On the match point, after Ferrer hit his final blistering, crosscourt backhand, he stood and waited, unsure whether his shot had landed in.  After Kohlschreiber had viewed the ball mark and slumped in resignation, Ferrer collapsed to the ground in relief.  Hero of the weekend, Ferrer had ensured that his team would play this coming September in another Davis Cup semifinal.

That valiant and emotional victory will stand as one of the last, if not the last, of Ferrer’s landmark wins.

In the weeks after his Davis Cup triumph, Ferrer withdrew of four tournaments in order to be home with his wife, Marta, when his son, Leo, was born.  When he finally returned to competition in May, Ferrer was a shadow of his best.  He has since won a few matches but never two in a row. Ferrer admits today that the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion of having a new baby has worn him down.  He no longer has either the physical consistency or the mental focus crucial to the success of his game.

Ferrer has realized that “this journey of¬†[his] life is coming to an end.”

In July, he announced his plans to retire. He said he would play the North American summer hard court events.  For the rest of 2018 and the start of 2019, he plans to play events if he is invited to. He hopes to retire at home in the spring on clay, in either Barcelona or Madrid.

This week, for the first time since 2003, Ferrer has dropped out of the Top 100. He arrives at the U.S. Open eager to play (declaring that he “loves tennis”) but far below his best.¬† He plays for the joy of it now, even though at times his Achilles tendons hurt so much that he can barely walk down stairs.¬† With Marta and Leo at his side, he says he plans to “live” the U.S. Open as his last Major.

 (Posted by David Ferrer.)

He will walk onto court for his first-round match on Monday night against teammate, rival, friend¬† — and World #1, and defending U.S. Open champion! — Rafael Nadal. On paper, Nadal is a terrible draw for Ferrer, but Ferrer says he views the match as “a gift.”¬†¬†Facing Nadal enables him to play what may well be his last U.S. Open match in tennis’ biggest arena, Arthur Ashe Stadium.

When Nadal and Ferrer last met at the U.S. Open — in the 2007 Round of 16 — Ferrer prevailed in four hard-fought sets.¬† Ferrer is not as strong a player today as he was then, and Nadal for his part has improved. Although it is possible the Ferrer will beat Nadal on Monday — he has, after all, beaten Nadal six times — the most likely ending will see Ferrer waving good-bye to the crowd as he exits the court for the last time.

Ferrer reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals three times and the semifinals twice. As the Ashe night session crowd watches what may be his final effort at a Major, I hope they remember his shining moments in Flushing Meadows.

– His 2007 victory over then-#2 Nadal, which helped propel Ferrer to a Top-8 finish for the year.

– His riveting win over Janko Tipsarevic in the 2012 quarterfinals, which came down to a fifth-set tiebreak.

РThe first-set of his 2012 semifinal against Novak Djokovic, in which Ferrer adapted beautifully to windy conditions while Djokovic struggled.  (The match was called because of a threatened storm, which never materialized. When the pair resumed play on the following day in still conditions, Djokovic won.  Had the match continued in the wind, Ferrer might well have prevailed.  This was certainly the closest Ferrer came to a U.S. Open final. It might have been his closest brush with a Major title.)

– His 2013 rematch against Janko Tipsarevic in the Round of 16, which Ferrer won in four sets, and in which Ferrer characteristically broke serve at least once while his opponent was serving for a set.

I hope the crowd on Monday night bestows upon Ferrer the respect and admiration he deserves. Ferrer always gave his all and fought until the last ball had bounced twice.

Ferrer’s¬†career ranks him among the sport’s all-time best, possibly (as some fans suggest) meriting a¬†place one day in the Tennis Hall of Fame.

The ATP World Tour will be much poorer without Ferrer’s fight, his heart, his humility, his work ethic, and his soft-spoken wisdom.

Adiós, Ferru.

And thank you.

 

The best Ferrer highlight reel I have seen.

 

Australian Open For All To See: Two Ugly Facts Brought To Light By Nadal’s Early Exit

The men’s tennis World #1, Rafael Nadal of Spain, was derailed in his attempt to win a second Australian Open title by an injury that forced him out of his quarterfinal against Croatia’s Marin Cilic.

Injury, and specifically injury in Australia, is familiar territory for Nadal and his fans.  On three previous occasions Рduring his quarterfinal against Andy Murray in 2010, during his quarterfinal against David Ferrer in 2011, and during the final against Stan Wawrinka in 2014 РNadal suffered injuries that stopped him in his tracks (knee, thigh, and back, respectively).

This year’s setback, though, differed from the others.¬† During his previous Australia injury losses, Nadal was never in a winning position.¬† He lost in 2010 and in 2011 in straight sets, and he won a set in 2014 only because Wawrinka played execrably for a half-hour.¬† Against Cilic in 2018, however, Nadal was up in the score by two sets to one and playing well enough to win¬†when, in the fourth game of the fourth set, he pulled a right hip flexor muscle on a sprint to the net.

Had the injury not occurred, Nadal might well have won the match.  His record against the semifinal opponent, Kyle Edmund, suggests that absent the injury, Nadal would probably have reached the final.

While¬†Nadal’s fans gnash their teeth and grumble about the Spaniard’s rotten luck in Australia¬†since his 2009 title run, his serendipitous absence from this year’s final¬†cast a spotlight onto¬†two unpleasant facts that would have remained sub rosa had¬†Nadal¬†played for¬†the trophy.

 

  1. Roger Federer is not the infallible box office draw that journalists, commentators, and others in the tennis establishment assert that he is.

Midway through the tournament’s second week, ESPN’s John McEnroe declared, “Roger Federer is the player people come to see!”

This rang false when he said it.  The 2017 Wimbledon final between Federer and Cilic garnered poor television ratings in the United States, while the most-watched stream from that Wimbledon tournament was a match featuring Nadal, not Federer.

Because¬†about 90 percent of tennis¬†commentators and writers are Federer zealots, it is understandable that McEnroe, who seems rarely to step outside the tennis media bubble, might be under the impression that Federer sells the most tickets.¬†¬†Evidence from this year’s Australian Open final suggests otherwise.

Here was Roger Federer, treated as a god by many in the sporting media, reputed to be the most graceful athlete ever to don gym shoes, attempting to win an historic 20th Major title in a sparkling career.

And there were still tickets available at full price (or at discounts!) a scant four hours before the match was to begin?

Had Nadal played in the final, the match would have sold out; his sizable and enthusiastic local fan base would have snapped the tickets up.

Nadal’s absence from the final made it¬†all too evident that Federer is not McEnroe’s “player people come to see.”

The tennis establishment Рcommentators, writers, governing bodies, and tournament managers Рdoes itself a disservice with its worshipful focus on Federer.  Data from Wimbledon 2017 and Australia 2018 suggest that if the sport continues to promote Federer at the expense of other players, it does so at its peril.

 

2. The tennis establishment¬†is willing to “grease the skids” for Federer.

Throughout the Australian Open fortnight, Federer played essentially a different tournament from everyone else.¬† Daytime temperatures soared above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching at court level¬†in the “heat bowls” of the stadia up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.¬† Federer’s potential opponents for later rounds, including his most recent vanquisher, World #7 David Goffin, sweltered through afternoon matches and lost.¬† Federer, meanwhile, was generously scheduled for the cooler evenings in five of his first six rounds.¬† (The sole exception was a gimme fourth-round¬†contest¬†with world #80 Marton Fucsovics.)

Fans complained mightily and with justification as six-time former champion Novak Djokovic was forced to play¬†the highly entertaining, and box office gold, Gael Monfils in oven-like conditions on the same day as one of Federer’s evening matches.¬† (On the other half of the draw, the box office stars Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov¬†alternated in the daytime and evening slots during the five rounds they both played.)

That Federer’s¬†salubrious scheduling throughout the tournament smacked of favoritism all observers agreed, but no one could¬†identify clear¬†bias on the part of the tournament until the final.

Conditions were forecast to be hot for the 7 p.m. final on Sunday, 28 January, with temperatures in the high 30s C (above 95 degrees Fahrenheit).  Cilic warmed up for the match on an outdoor court in order to become acclimated to the conditions.  Presumably, he set his string tensions, which are sensitive to temperature and humidity, accordingly.

Meanwhile, Federer made the puzzling decision to prepare for the contest on an indoor court.

Shortly before match time, the tournament announced its decision to close the roof of Rod Laver Arena and turn on the air conditioning.  Cilic had been given no warning.  His string tensions were all wrong.  Unsurprisingly, he started slowly.  Cilic lost the first four games of the match and, although he pushed the match to five sets, he never recovered.

According to the tournament’s own Extreme Heat Policy (which had not been invoked a day before, when the women’s finalists fought so hard over nearly three hours that one was sent to the hospital¬†with dehydration), the stadium roof¬†is to¬†be closed only when both the following criteria obtain: ambient air temperature over 40 C, and a humidity measure called “wet bulb”¬†above a specific threshold.¬† Although the wet bulb reading on the evening of the men’s final was slightly above threshold, the air temperature was never over 37 C.

From the tournament’s official media guide:

Closing the stadium roof changes court conditions profoundly.  Indoor courts are windless and more humid than outdoor courts.  Tennis balls tend to bounce lower indoors than outdoors.

All four of the Grand Slams are supposed to be outdoor tournaments at which players are tested against the elements.¬† Only two men’s Slam finals have ever been played under roofs: the 2012¬†Australian Open, and 2012 Wimbledon.¬† In both cases, the matches started in the open air, and the roofs were closed only because of rain.¬† The 2018 Australian Open final is the first men’s Slam final to have been played entirely indoors.

Not coincidentally, Roger Federer is one of the best indoor players in the history of tennis.  Wind is his adversary, neutering his aggressive attacking style.  A closed roof suits him to perfection.

Had Cilic been warned that the roof was to be closed for the final, he would have had a chance.  He would have prepared himself and his racquets for the conditions he would face.  But he was not told in advance.

And Federer is quite candid about the fact that he was told.

So the Australian Open violated its own heat rules to close the roof for the men’s final, thus handing the better indoor player (Federer) an advantage.¬† They told Federer in advance, enabling him to prepare himself and his string tensions for the cooler air. ¬†They did not warn Cilic.

In the long and colorful history of sports malfeasance, I think medals and trophies have been stripped for less.

Of course, it is not Federer’s responsibility to keep his opponent informed.¬† He might not have known that the tournament was leaving Cilic in the dark.

That said, the tournament’s cheating on Federer’s behalf rather than Federer’s cheating himself does not render his title¬†any more legitimate.

Only the appearance of corruption is necessary in order to ruin a sport and thus destroy the livelihoods of many.

As writer Andrew Prochnow pointed out, “Had Nadal been in [the] final, blowback from roof closure would have made that act impossible.”¬† The tournament would not have dared pull the same trick.

Tennis fans have long suspected tournaments and the sport’s governing bodies of taking¬†subtle steps to favor Federer, from¬†unfair scheduling decisions, to¬†selective rule enforcement (such as¬†a disproportionate focus on the Time Rule during Nadal’s matches in 2015), to selective rule non-enforcement (e.g., in¬†Montreal in 2017, when Federer should have been called for both ball abuse and audible obscenity and thus lost a penalty point against Ferrer but was not¬†cited for either infraction), to ad hoc¬†rule changes (e.g., requiring players to stand for¬†the coin toss within 60 seconds of walking onto court, which affects Nadal more than any other player).

Even the Slams’¬†dropping from 32 seeds to 16 seeds in 2019, which appears to be favored only by a handful of bored journalists, would have the effect of knocking out the player(s) who¬†make(s) slow and/or nervous starts¬†in the Slams.¬† This is usually Nadal.

Until now,¬†tennis fans have been unable to prove¬†structural¬†favoritism toward Federer.¬† With the 2018 Australian Open final,¬†everything has changed.¬† It is now demonstrably clear that the tennis establishment, if given the opportunity, will cheat on Federer’s behalf.

This is terrible for tennis.

 

PC Guerrilla Warfare: The Sportscaster Whose Apt Word-Choice Cost Him His Job

broken_tennis_ball_by_ Photo by mountainboy965C

The Backstory

Dateline Melbourne, Australia, in sunny mid-January of 2017.

The¬†world of sport¬†is abuzz with excitement over¬†tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year.¬†¬† Tweedy veteran writers, chatty ex-players, and disheveled bloggers, blessed with a surfeit of subject matter¬†in the waning years of tennis’ richest¬†era,¬†feverishly weave narratives¬†from the week’s trendy storylines.

Can Serena Williams reassert herself at the top of her sport at the age of 35?

Will Novak Djokovic rediscover his unbeatable 2015 form, or will his 2016 wobbles continue into the new season?

Can the sport’s rising, hot-headed¬†youngsters dethrone¬†any of the grizzled veteran champions?

Can Rafael Nadal produce in 2017 another miraculous return from injury as he did in 2006, 2010, and 2013?

What about Roger Federer and Venus Williams, both great champions¬†over 35¬†— can either of them put together a strong run in Australia?

Starved of live tennis during the month of December and of Grand Slam action since September’s U.S. Open, the¬†sport’s global fan base (whose semi-official slogan during the Australian Open is, “Sleep is for the weak,”) is as eager as the commentary corps for drama and action.¬† To satisfy fans with immediate, complete event¬†coverage, many broadcasters¬†deliver¬†live¬†streams of most or all competition courts throughout the two-week event.

The principal U.S. broadcaster is ESPN, a sports programming¬†leviathan that¬†began presenting the Australian Open in 1984 and now covers three of the season’s four tennis Majors.¬† ESPN¬†supplies¬†U.S. fans with¬†streams from Australia of¬†all 254 singles matches and¬†many doubles matches, employing an army of¬†on-air staff — some former players, some professional “talking heads” — who work either¬†individually or in pairs to provide live play-by-play coverage.

Many¬†of ESPN’s live-stream voices¬†offer commentary both more analytical and more useful to the viewer¬†than that of the big-name stars on ESPN’s flagship channels.¬† From this “B team,” one might hear:

“Although Joe clearly walked out today with a game plan to attack Steve’s backhand, he has changed tactics and is now hitting short to the forehand to draw¬†Steve into net against his will and either pass him outright or hit a two-shot pass.”

By contrast, the¬†less prepared and more ego-driven¬†of ESPN’s stars might deliver rhetorical¬†gems such as:

“This is painful to watch.”

(Coasting on his reputation, John McEnroe rarely seems to do in-depth homework and devotes much of his¬†commentary to reminiscence about players he faced in the 1970s.¬† Chris Evert’s statements are at times so¬†vapid that she has inspired a¬†widely used,¬†colorful hashtag.¬† Pam Shriver talks mid-match about her children.¬† When Mary Carillo doesn’t especially like the players in front of her, she tends to chatter about anything but the match;¬†late in¬†the 2014 French Open men’s final, she infamously digressed onto the subject of 1980s-era boxing.)

Prominent in¬†ESPN’s¬†live-stream¬†broadcasting stable is Doug Adler, a 58-year-old former tennis pro who played during his college years the University of Southern California.¬† A veteran of commentary since¬†2004 and an ESPN employee since 2008, Adler is so adept at spontaneous¬†play-by-play narration that he frequently covers matches without a partner.

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The Fatal Moment

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mic

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It is¬†Day 3 of the Australian Open, Wednesday, the 18th of January (and Tuesday evening, the 17th, in the U.S.)¬† First up in the main stadium, Rod Laver Arena, is¬†36-year-old American Venus Williams, the 13 seed and winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, and two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles,¬†to accompany an Olympic gold medal in singles, an Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles, and a staggering three Olympic golds in women’s doubles.¬† Her opponent is Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele, nine years younger, six inches shorter, and roughly 100 ranking spots below Williams.¬† One of the team of two ESPN live-stream commentators is Doug Adler.

Not surprisingly, the match is a rout.¬† Voegele is unable to counter Williams’ superior power, variety, movement, and court coverage.

Early in the second set, as Voegele struggles to hold her first service game, Adler says this:

“She misses the first serve, and Venus is all over her…You’ll see Venus move in and put the [guerrilla?/gorilla?] effect on, charging…”

What exactly does Adler say?  Please listen for yourself to the following 21-second video clip.

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Update:¬†The video above was pulled from YouTube on the day after I published this article.¬†¬†Below is a new video.¬† Adler’s words begin at the 40-second mark.

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The Controversy

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Storm 2

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Adler claims he said, “You’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on,” adding that his use of “guerrilla” referred to a successful “Guerrilla Tennis” ad campaign¬†undertaken by Nike in the 1990s.

The 1995 Andre Agassi Nike Guerrilla Tennis ad:

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“Guerrilla” is indeed an appropriate descriptor for¬†Venus Williams’¬†charge as she pounces on her opponent’s second serve.¬† Tennis writers and commentators¬†frequently invoke the term “guerrilla” to characterize sneaky attacks.¬†¬†Had neither player been of African ancestry, Adler’s apt comment would have¬†passed unnoticed.

This particular match, however, made Adler famous.

Within minutes, social media were¬†flooded with¬†rage from indignant fans under the impression Adler had said “gorilla.”

New York Times reporter Ben Rothenberg, whose deliberately provocative and bratty online snark has earned him the nickname “Trollenberg,” decided to fan the flames.¬† Rather than ask Adler to clarify his intent, Rothenberg tweeted outrage to his 51,600 followers.

Rothenberg went so far as to dismiss out of hand the possibility that Adler had said, “guerrilla.”

br_011817

Why “doubtful,” Mr. Rothenberg?¬† Do you read minds?

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The Aftermath

pink-slip

ESPN suspended Adler immediately after the Williams/Voegele match, demanded that he apologize the next day on every live stream (which he did, citing an unfortunate choice of words), forbade him to comment upon any more matches in Australia, and sent him home in disgrace.

Within days, Adler was fired by ESPN.

On February 14, Adler filed suit against ESPN for wrongful termination,¬†stating that his reputation is “damaged forever.”¬† In the words of Adler’s attorney, David Ring, “It was not only political correctness gone overboard, but also a cowardly move that ruined a good man‚Äôs career.”

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Justice?

scales

Since it is nearly impossible to discern from the recording whether the word uttered by Adler is “gorilla” or “guerrilla,”¬† it would be fairest and most reasonable to¬†assess Adler’s past record as a broadcaster before branding him a racist.

Had Adler ever exhibited any signs of racism?¬† In his¬†13 years of full-time tennis broadcasting, had he ever referred in a less than respectful manner¬†to Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Donald Young, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Ga√ęl Monfils, Dustin Brown, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Frances Tiafoe, or any other player¬†of African ancestry?

I believe the answer to those questions is No.

Adler’s friends and colleagues, including African American radio host Larry Elder, attest to his character (although among Adler’s friends¬†only Elder has had the courage to speak publically¬†about the recent travesty).

There is every reason to believe Adler’s statement that the¬†word¬†he used was indeed “guerrilla.”

In effect, what happened here?

  • While providing commentary for a Grand Slam tennis match, Doug Adler used a completely appropriate word to describe a player’s sneak attack.
  • Some viewers misunderstood the word as a racial slur.
  • A social media mob called for Adler’s firing on the basis of that misunderstanding.
  • ESPN caved to the mob’s demands.

Should ESPN require that its on-air staff treat athletes and coaches with respect?  If they want to attract viewers, yes.

Is ESPN entitled to fire broadcasters who behave inappropriately on the air?  Certainly.

But was ESPN within its rights to fire a broadcaster, and effectively brand him a racist and thus torpedo his future career prospects, merely in response to the clamoring of an hysterical mob?

I say no.

The Courts will decide.

As a knowledgeable aficionado of the sport myself, I admit that I occasionally¬†find¬†Doug Adler’s¬†assessments of and prognostications about specific tennis players wrong-headed.¬† While not always¬†in agreement¬†with his opinions, I cannot remain¬†silent as¬†he is railroaded out of his chosen profession at the instigation of a PC mob.

So here’s what I think:

Doug Adler is entitled to the benefit of the doubt from the world of sport.

Ben Rothenberg owes Adler a public apology.

ESPN owes Adler financial restitution and reinstatement as a tennis commentator.

Stay tuned.