10 Things I Don’t Understand About Tennis

As yet another Australian summer of tennis comes to an end, I find myself utterly bemused with regards to 10 things I still don’t understand about the sport.

1) How do Australian television hosts and commentators not know how to pronounce the names of players correctly?

At times this summer, while the umpire and Jim Courier in the commentator’s box would pronounce a player’s name correctly, whichever random Aussie commentator was next to Courier was likely to use an entirely different pronunciation.

Making things worse, a number of the players who commentators were having trouble with have been around forever. Anyone who’s been watching tennis for a while now knows it’s “Kay” Nishikori rather than “Kai”, and “EE-vo” Karlovic rather than “EYE-vo”.

What this appears to prove is that Aussie commentators don’t do the most basic research on players – not even visiting player profiles on the ATP website. There, the ATP has a brilliant innovation: a recording of each player saying their own name. Not sure if it’s JOCK-a-vitch or JOKE-a-vitch? Click the button under Novak’s name and he’ll tell you. And while you’re at it, brush up on Raonic, Tsitsipas, Pouille, Shapovalov, and de Minaur, all of whom Aussie commentators struggled with at various moments this summer.

2) Why isn’t tournament news shared with fans on-site?

One of the most entertaining aspects of attending a tennis tournament is the choice you have as to which court you’d like to watch at any given moment. Incredibly, though, while scoreboards around the grounds will update you on what is happening at the tournament, once you’re on a court, hardly any news from outside that court is passed on to you.

For example, let’s say you’re watching a match on centre court, but your favourite player is due to play on court 3 later in the day. If the match-up your favourite player is in changes – perhaps there is a court change so that the match will begin earlier – this news is not relayed to those who are on centre court.

It’s not hard, tournament organisers: how about each court’s scoreboard show news updates from the tournament at every changeover?

This year, I felt most sorry for the two Chilean fans I saw in Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney. They had sat through a 5 hour rain delay and then a match on KRA while they waited for their man Nicolas Jarry to play on Court 1. Turns out that when they then went to the court, they learnt that Jarry had pulled out of the tournament. I have no clue when Jarry had made this decision, but for argument’s sake, let’s say it was many hours before his match eventually started. Any chance these fans could have been told and changed their plans for the day accordingly? Similarly, no announcement was made that Guido Andreozzi was the player who had replaced Jarry in the tournament, so any Argentinians or other fans of Andreozzi had no way of knowing that he was going to be playing unless they were checking the live scores online themselves, and even then it’s unlikely they would have reached the match before it began.

3) How are single-use plastic water bottles still a thing?

Andrea Petkovic Instagrammed a blatant advertisement for Adidas recently, in which she asked “being quite aware of the fact that we tennis players do not have the best ecological footprint in the world with our constant plane rides and traveling, i‘ve been trying to cut down on my meat eating habits and use of plastic bags, catching trains and walking instead of taking the car whenever possible….what have you been doing?”

The best response came from Lara Arruabarrena: “I’ve been losing all my matches lately so i don’t have to drink from plastic bottles again.”

When you consider how long other sports have been using re-usable water bottles for, it’s absolutely inexcusable that in 2019, a sport in which players consume copious amounts of water chooses to ignore sustainability and instead chases the corporate dollar – including importing bottled water from China for the Australian Open. Surely a tournament that can hand out $62.5 million Australian in prizemoney isn’t in desperate need of the sponsorship of a bottled water company?

4) How are towel boxes not yet a thing?

Of all of the “innovations” being proposed in tennis at the moment, the most obvious one to introduce is the idea that instead of handing a gross, sweaty towel to a ballkid, players should instead put their towels in a box at the back of the court. This seems to be even more of a no-brainer when players like Reilly Opelka and Jaume Munar have a habit of putting their towel in their mouth while carrying it to a ballkid. It’s utterly bizarre watching grown men take something out of their mouth and hand it to a child.

At Milan’s “Next Gen Finals” last year, towel boxes were used. Players had to take an extra second or two to collect them en route to their chair, but never were the audience wondering about the physical grossness of the players and their towels.

5) Why are players allowed to catch poor ball-tosses?

Here’s Christopher Clarey of The New York Times, with one of his wishes as to how to improve tennis in 2019: “Eliminate players’ right to catch a service toss without penalty. If a player chooses not to hit the ball once tossed, it should count as a missed serve. This will also speed play and, in making the ideal toss more elusive, take away a smidgen of a server’s advantage.”

It’s always been strange that a player can have a mulligan on a ball toss, but not on any other part of the serve. The ball toss is part of the serve, right?

This rule is even more bizarre now that the serve clock has been introduced. The serve clock requires a player to be in their service motion before the clock reaches zero. If a player throws up a ball toss, they are considered to be in their service motion and the clock is turned off. But players could, if they wanted to, throw up a pretend ball toss, catch it, spend some more time setting themselves, and then actually start the next point.

6) Why is the ATP determined to undermine the sport’s meritocracy by awarding ranking points to team events?

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the structure of world tennis is its design as a meritocracy. Every player must start by playing the smallest events. If you earn enough ranking points, your ranking will climb, and you’ll then gain access to larger events. Earn even more points and reach the top 100, and you will gain access to the four slams.

It’s truly beautiful. You’re a kid from Mallorca with your uncle for a coach? Sure, earn enough points and you’ll be in our tournament. You’re a naturalised Australian from the Gold Coast who’s generally reviled even by fans of the sport in your own country? No worries, earn enough points and you’ll be in our tournament. Class? Sexuality? Race? Who cares. If you’re good enough to earn the points, our door is open to you.

Other than wild card provisions, the one time this meritocracy is challenged is when points are awarded for team events. For example, points used to be awarded for the Davis Cup. And next year, the ATP’s new ATP Cup is due to award “up to 750 ATP rankings points” to the winners of the tournament. This will go against the usual paradigm of tennis’ meritocracy in two ways in particular.

(1) A player such as Stefanos Tsitsipas from Greece will not be able to play in the tournament, as despite him being ranked 12th in the world, there are no other players on tour from Greece. The same goes for 22nd ranked Nikoloz Basilashvili from Georgia.

(2) Players might earn or miss out on ranking points depending on how many good players are from their country. Take Feliciano Lopez, who is ranked 63rd but is only the fifth best player from Spain. Lopez is ranked one spot ahead of Cameron Norrie, but is less likely than Norrie to be able to play in the ATP Team Cup because Norrie is the second best player from Great Britain and thus more likely to earn a place on his country’s team.

 7) How can players who pull out of qualifying still make the main draw of an event?

Sometimes, a player will pull out of a tournament just prior to it beginning, leaving the draw with an open spot. This is filled by a “lucky loser”, a random player selected from those who lost in the last round of the event’s qualifying tournament. While this system seems completely fair and in step with tennis’ great meritocracy, the rule currently has one bizarre and unfair potential outcome.

A player can retire while playing in the last round of qualifying, presumably because of injury, and yet they can still be selected as a lucky loser and entered into the main draw of the tournament. Surely players who haven’t completed their final qualifying match shouldn’t receive the same right to a lucky loser spot as those players who have?

8) What’s with the Australian Open Wild Card Playoff?

Every December, Tennis Australia host a Wild Card Playoff – a knockout event on both the mens and womens sides, in which 16 players compete for one wild card into the Australian Open. While this makes perfect sense, Tennis Australia then provide four Aussie men and three women with bonus wild cards, and for some reason the results of the Wild Card Playoff appear irrelevant in these selections.

This year, Luke Saville annihilated Alex Bolt 6-2, 6-4, 6-1 in the semi-finals of the Wild Card Playoff, yet Bolt received a wild card while Saville – who went on to lose the Playoff final – did not. The same thing happened in the women’s tournament, when Astra Sharma defeated Zoe Hives in the semi-finals, yet Hives received a wild card and Sharma did not. Even stranger was Destanee Aiava losing in straight sets in the first round of the Wild Card Playoff and still receiving a wild card.

The most egregious of these decisions was made in 2016, when Ben Mitchell reached the final of the Wild Card Playoff tournament, but chose not to play as his partner was giving birth to their first child. Tennis Australia congratulated him by giving wild cards to Jordan Thompson and Omar Jasika, two guys who had lost during the Wild Card Playoff to players who Mitchell then defeated.

This year, if Tennis Australia knew that they would give Alex Bolt and Destanee Aiava wild cards into the Australian Open regardless of how they performed in the Wild Card Playoff, why not make those announcements before the playoff? This will allow their spots in the playoff to be open to other players and make every match in the playoff genuinely important.

9) Why do they start matches so late at night that they can start after midnight?

 I get that fans purchase a ticket to a night session that is due to include two matches. But I don’t get how there isn’t a provision that says something along the lines of “If the second match hasn’t started by, say, 10:30pm, it will be moved to one of the 15 courts that are otherwise not being used. Ticket holders can suck it up, viewers at home can at least catch a glimpse of their favourite player before falling asleep on the couch, and players won’t be in the ludicrous situation of finishing matches at stupid o’clock in the morning.”

That’s not too harsh on those who have tickets, is it? Particularly considering how few of them hang around to the end of these extremely late matches?

10) How can people possibly think they’re “bigger” or “better” fans than others?

Dear Tennis Twitter,

I am a reader of your work, rather than a contributor. I appreciate your thoughtful banter throughout tournaments, as it makes me feel wonderfully connected to a world of others who are in love with this beautiful, silly little game.

But please, when you have a difference of opinion with someone, could you ditch the “you’re not as big a tennis fan as I am” claim?

This is at its most common when the “should men play best-of-five or best-of-three in Grand Slams” question is raised by a fan or a journalist. It’s always incredibly disheartening to read the comments of so many that are filled with arrogance and hubris. If you like best-of-five, that doesn’t mean that you are “a bigger tennis fan” than those who argue for best-of-three. The best-of-three crowd have a number of arguments – including, but not limited to, (1) they want the best players to be able to compete more regularly as injuries should be less frequent, (2) they want to see a wider variety of players while watching the same number of hours of tennis, and (3) they want top players to play more tournaments between majors. You can feel free to disagree with all of these arguments, but arguing against them certainly doesn’t make you a “bigger tennis fan” than those who hold this opinion. Similarly, the best-of-five crowd have a number of arguments – including, but not limited to, (1) watching two players slug it out for five sets in the early rounds of a slam is a fascinating spectacle, (2) Grand Slam tournaments are marathons rather than sprints and players who win early matches more easily should reap the benefits of this, and (3) today’s major winners have to go through exactly the same experiences as those who have come before them. You can feel free to disagree with all of these arguments, or prefer the arguments on the other side, but this doesn’t make you a “bigger” or “more compassionate” tennis fan.

It’s sport, folks.

It’s not for you more than anyone else.

Let’s all enjoy it together.

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Voting for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, 2018

I texted some mates last month: “Fans get to vote for the Tennis Hall of Fame this year. How many of them will take this role as seriously as we all know I will???” Laughter ensued. And so did my endless thinking.

While I’m not sure exactly what I expected, the design of the role that fan votes will play this year feels a little bizarre. For a player to achieve entry into the Hall of Fame, they need to receive 75% of potential votes from the International Hall of Fame Voting Group. However, the fan vote does not work on percentages at all. Instead, the player with the most fan support will receive a 3% boost to their score, the next player a 2% boost, and the third player a 1% boost. While individuals within the Hall of Fame Voting Group can decide each year how many players deserve their support, voting for as many or as few players as they deem worthy, the collective fans are treated entirely differently – we will support three players, regardless of how many players we as a collective appear to deem worthy of induction. If the third ranked player only received the support of 40% of fans, they’ll still earn a boost. Alternatively, if the fourth ranked player receives support from 80% of fans, they’ll earn nothing.

This means that ultimately, the fans end up ranking the nominated players against each other, rather than purely against the historical parameters that we assume Hall of Fame voters use when considering their votes. And the number three appears to be an entirely arbitrary number of players who will earn a boost through fan support. On only four occasions this century have three players from the ‘Recent Player’ category been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including the 2010 class when four doubles specialists in the Woodies, Zvereva and Gigi Fernandez were voted in. Otherwise, 15 of the 19 Hall of Fame classes from 2000-2018 saw only one or two players inducted.

The strangeness of the number of players who will be boosted by the fan vote is only exacerbated by this year’s nominees. The Hall’s eligibility rules state that prior to appearing on a ballot, a player must not have been “a significant factor on the ATP, WTA, or Wheelchair Tennis tours within 5 years prior to induction.” This means that we as voters know that Li Na, who retired in 2014, is on the ballot for the first time this year as her first year of eligibility for the Hall is 2019. What we also know, though, is that all of the other nominated players have appeared on the ballot previously and not received enough votes for induction. Jonas Bjorkman retired in 2008, Conchita Martinez and Mary Pierce in 2006, Goran Ivanisevic in 2004, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 2003, Sergei Bruguera in 2002, and Thomas Muster played 3 matches in 2010-2011 after ostensibly retiring in 1999.

It is common to all Halls of Fame that some players are deemed worthy of induction well after their first appearance on a ballot. However it’s worth questioning the idea that this year, the collective fan votes will provide a boost to the chances of at least two players who the Hall of Fame Voting Group have repeatedly determined are not worthy of induction.

Looking up the eligibility criteria for the Player Category of the Hall of Fame revealed a marvellously vague statement: “a distinguished record of competitive achievement at the highest international level, with consideration given to integrity, sportsmanship, and character.” Fans are not provided with any clear sense as to what “a distinguished record” actually entails, nor are they instructed as to how much consideration they should give to a player’s integrity, sportsmanship and character. As such, the only obvious way to receive some clarification on what the eligibility criteria actually means is the career achievements of recent inductees into the Hall.

In 2018, the two player inductees into the Hall of Fame are Michael Stich and Helena Sukova.

This just makes everything even murkier. For let’s compare Stich with one of this year’s nominees in Conchita Martinez. Stich won Wimbledon in 1991 and reached the final of two other slams. Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994 and reached the final of two other slams. Both players had a highest ranking of 2, with Martinez finishing a year in the top 10 on 9 occasions to Stich’s 3. Stich won the Tour Finals once, but only had 18 titles on tour in comparison to Martinez’s 33. They both had some success in doubles, with Stich winning a major title and Olympic Gold while Martinez won three Olympic Medals. Martinez also won the Fed Cup five times with the Spanish team. Both players were – to my knowledge – sound of integrity, sportsmanship and character.

With two such relatively similar careers, it is impossible to determine exactly what caused 75% of voters to vote for Stich, but a certain percentage of those 75% not to vote for Martinez. Indeed, these two players are perhaps the best example of how the parameters of a “distinguished career” are defined by every individual voter, rather than through a common understanding. In everyday terms, both Martinez and Stich have distinguished careers, however in Hall of Fame terms, this is clearly debatable. And so, here we first-time voters are, needing to determine for ourselves how much worth we will place on various achievements. How much weight should be placed on Olympic medals? Doubles success? Davis and Fed Cup? Playing style? Press conference affability? As a rule of thumb, the tennis world appears to see two Grand Slam wins as leading to guaranteed induction into the Hall, and yet Pierce, Bruguera and Kafelnikov all aren’t yet enshrined. And what of rarer accomplishments, such as that of Hall of Famer Michael Chang who has a relatively similar record of achievement to Martinez, but who holds the record as the youngest ever winner of a men’s major singles title?

In a recent podcast regarding the Basketball Hall of Fame, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck suggested that one unofficial definition as to who deserves a place in the Hall should be whether or not a player needs to be mentioned if you are telling the story of their era in the sport. The Hall of Fame is a museum, of course, and the players who are enshrined should be those who are an integral part of the story of the sport’s history.

I like this idea. “Distinguished career” for me in this instance can be translated into “distinguished enough to be someone who belongs in the museum of the sport.” Indeed, it’s this definition that leaves me thinking that Michael Stich doesn’t really belong in the Hall of Fame. In any condensed retelling of tennis in the 80s or 90s, does Stich’s name make an appearance? I wouldn’t have thought so. Ditto Martinez.

And yet, another player might have a shorter career, but a story that is more prominent in the sport’s history. Take Li Na. She won 2 Slam titles, and in comparison to the remainder of the nominees and a number of players already in the Hall of Fame, she hardly won anything else. She only won 9 singles titles and 2 doubles titles on tour. But she was the first Asian player to reach a Slam final, let alone win one, and the first Chinese woman to win a title on tour, let alone reach the top ten. She is a pioneer, and certainly an integral part of the story of the sport over the past decade. One needs her to be a part of tennis’ great museum.

But what of the others?

Bjorkman certainly doesn’t fit my criteria. The others are less certain.

Muster won a slam and was number 1 for 6 weeks, winning 8 Masters titles as well.

Bruguera won two French Opens, reaching the final once more, and was clearly one of the best clay-courters of his generation – alongside “King of Clay” Muster.

Ivanisevic won Wimbledon once after reaching the finals on three previous occasions.

Kafelnikov won two Slams, reaching the final in a third, won Gold in singles at the Olympics, won four major doubles titles, and was number 1, like Muster, for 6 weeks.

And finally, Pierce won two Slams, reaching the final in a third.

Cases can be made for and against all of these players, all of whom can make up some of the story of tennis depending on how you want to tell it. But for me, I agree with the voters who have previously declined them entry. They were all spectacularly brilliant players, who aren’t quite spend-time-with-them-in-a-museum-if-you-want-to-understand-the-history-of-tennis worthy.

My vote may change over time. I’m especially torn on Kafelnikov. But this year, I’ll do my bit to push Li Na up the list of the collective fan vote, and the collective fans will also reward two other players, whether the majority of us believe it’s the right thing to do or not.

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If I Were a Playwright

The audience would first see a woman on stage. She’s wearing pyjamas, walking across to the queen bed in which she is the only inhabitant. After sitting herself up under the covers, she scrolls through her phone. She settles on something and reads. Finally, she looks up at no-one in particular and asks a seemingly rhetorical question.

“Oh my God, what have you done?”

The stage goes black. Once our actress has disappeared off the stage, the back wall of the stage will be illuminated with GIFs from Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The remainder of the narrative would consist of a Copenhagen-style loop. A range of stories that are all potentially true, though just as likely to be false, would play out regarding the man who enters the stage as the lights slowly raise. The first of these tales begins as the bird’s face continuously peers out over our protagonist for close to a minute while the man puts down his luggage and opens mail on the dining table. His wife walks in, phone in hand. They look at each other for a moment before she quietly breaks the silence.

“What happens now?”

The play will return to this place and this question every time a new prospective narrative of the couple’s life begins to evolve on the stage. It’s a reminder of the tragedy at the heart of the story – the way that one person’s words can cause so many people to ask this horrifying, almost existential question. For there are no winners in this story. There is no place for even the wryest of smiles from the audience, nor any potentially joyful endings.

The dramatis personae are threefold: the man is Nico Hines, who we soon come to know as the London Editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. We also meet his unnamed wife and child. All other people in the world of the narrative never appear on stage, but rather are only raised in conversation or are the authors of the occasional projected Tweet.

In the opening narrative, we learn that Hines has returned from the Rio Olympics, during which he wrote a controversial story that caused him to return home early. The couple talk in disbelief over the events of the previous week – of how the story was published, edited and then removed and replaced with an apology. They talk of the hate that was directed to him online. He talks of how he went to ground in Rio while she talks of not being able to separate herself from her phone, watching the hate seemingly increase by the minute. Everyone they’ve ever met has texted or left Facebook messages for them – sometimes supportive, just as often asking how he could have done what he did. They worry about their son. They appear lost.

“What happens now?”

She explodes at him. It’s in this moment that she reveals to the audience what she calls “The moment you took the ground from beneath my feet without letting the Earth then swallow me.” Every sentence is a spitting rebuke, spewing forth so fast that it feels like she can’t bear to hold any of the words on her tongue. The headline: “I Got Three Grindr Dates in an Hour in the Olympic Village.” The premise, as read from her phone: “I expect you’ve heard the legend of the athletes’ village; tales abound that the Olympic Games is a hotbed of partying athletes, hookups, and sex, sex, sex….Can an Average Joe join the bacchanalia?” The identifying information included: “You named their country, their height, their weight, the position they finished in!” The result: “You outed them.”

She quietens only when their child enters the room. He’s so young that he cannot understand anything other than the undeniable anger of his mother towards his father. It surprises and scares him. His mother whispers scornfully. “How old will he be before you explain to him what they do to gay men in some of the countries you named? Or will he Google it, just like he’ll Google his Dad?”

His family leaves him alone.

He speaks aloud.

“What happens now?”

He leaves the stage as the lights go down. Numerous headlines from websites are projected on the back wall. The BBC: “Daily Beast ‘sorry for outing gay athletes”. The Washington Post: “Trash, unethical and dangerous’: Daily Beast lambasted for Olympic dating article”. The Los Angeles Times: “Bad form at the Olympics in Daily Beast’s Grindr-baiting story”. Queerty: “Everyone’s Pissed At This Straight Journalist Who Used Grindr To Out Gay Athletes.” Mic: “Seriously, F*ck That ‘Daily Beast’ Gay-Baiting, Life-Threatening Olympics Piece.”

He re-enters from the other side of the stage. Alone. Drowning in regret. He hasn’t left the house. It’s shame. Or fear. He turns the phone on and it rings. He doesn’t answer it. It rings again. This process repeats itself ad nauseam until he turns it off. He glances at a bottle on the table and pauses. He pours a glass, turns the phone back on and listens to the sound of it ringing intermittently, along with text message and email alerts. He ignores them all and drinks some more.

His child runs in brandishing a “Present for Daddy!” His wife follows, exhausted. He opens the shopping bag the kid’s handed him. It’s a new phone. He turns to his wife. “You’re home way too earl-” “Until this precise moment, you wouldn’t answer my calls. I was sitting there and didn’t even know if today was the day when you decided to top yourself.” He tries to console her. Tells her that Internet shaming always slows down and then disappears. She is not comforted.

“What happens now?”

The couple sit together warmly on the couch. “It’s not about what happens to us,” he says, “it’s about what happens to them. Whatever happens to me might mean nothing in comparison.” She finds herself agreeing, they discuss with horror what they have researched about the treatment of gay men in various countries. They talk with reverence about Amini Fonua, the Tongan Olympic swimmer and his Tweetstorm. They can quote it, they’ve read it so often.

He is desperate to apologise and presents a plan to his wife – he’ll travel to meet with each of the men he’s effected to apologise and learn about the impact that the story had on them. “What if we’re worried for nothing and they’re all absolutely fine?!?” His wife looks at him and smiles. She knows he wants to make amends and yet making amends is impossible. “But that’s still about how you feel, Nico. The world knows what you look like now. No-one’s meeting with you.”

Her final comment then escapes her lips almost before she realises. “And it’s not just about them, either. How will you apologise to the gay kids who read your article, huh?”

“What happens now?”

The bird reappears on the back wall. For all the audience can tell, life in the Hines family appears calm. Nico types away as his family come home from their day. He’s living life as a hermit, but has a new life as a journalist with a pseudonym.

Once the kid’s off to his room, The back wall glows with @nicohines’ Twitter feed – a feed that has not changed since the events of Rio.

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He suddenly turns to his wife. “I can’t live like this.”

She walks over and holds him.

“I know. You may be here. But my husband is forever at ‘Rio for the Olympics’.”

The curtain falls.

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