Tennis Nerd Takeaways From The US Open

Photo Credit: Ricky Dimon

Photo Credit: Ricky Dimon

  • A night session on Arthur Ashe stadium is completely different that any other live tennis experience. In the early rounds, just about everybody in the stadium is having a full-boar conversation with the person next to them. The two players trading groundstrokes below serve as perfect background noise for two friends catching up on life. Even I, a tennis nerd, have fallen into the trap. I’ve watched many of these night session matches with Ben Rothenberg, and we hold a conversation for pretty much an entire match. While most of our talking points are tennis related, the atmosphere on Ashe lends itself to gossip, speculation, and banter. And let me clarify: I love everything about the atmosphere here. Sure, the tennis knowledge of some may be lacking, but they’re here for the show, the whole package, not just the tennis match. However, when a match becomes competitive, the fans become wildly invested. Example A: Roger Federer vs Gael Monfils.
  • Another thing I notice about the crowd here is how each different section of the stadium conducts themselves. We start at the bottom bowl, where, as media, I am lucky enough to sit. Obviously these seats are not cheap. In fact, unless you a)know somebody, b) sneak in(many try, few succeed) or c)pay the big bucks, you will not get down to the this level. It’s an interesting crowd. You have the two player boxes, the media section, and then a lot of well-dressed, well-spoken fans who are, most of the time, rather subdued. Next up is the box suites. This one is pretty self explanatory. Either you *really* know somebody, or you make a lot of money and can treat yourself to the perks of being in a suite. (Including but not limited to food, drinks, and alcohol) These people are generally less interested in the tennis being played; instead they socialize and catch up with friends. You also get the celebrities in the suites. (I must note that during Raonic/Nishikori’s 5 set, 2:26 a.m. match, there was only one box with people still in attendance, and they were very vocally supportive of Kei). I will group the promenade and upper deck into one fan base, and say that these are the the hardcore fans. They coordinate chants, yell out in support, wear shirts, and know all the players. You really start to figure out the differences in each fan group when a match starts to gain traction. If it’s starting to get good, the upper levels realize it first, slowly followed by the lower sections. Not sure why I find it intriguing, but I do.
  • Nick Kyrgios. There is not enough time or space for me to write sufficiently about the Australian rising star. Brian Phillips took many of my thoughts and put them into magically constructed words. Read here. The thing that stood out to me most was Nick walking out onto the biggest tennis stadium in the world, looking around, and totally owning the place. As a kid, I played a lot of hockey. Before a big tryout, my father would always tell me to “go out there and act like you’re better than them all.” I could rarely muster up that mindset. It’s all I could think of as Kyrgios destroyed the tennis ball, and his opponent Tommy Robredo, for the first set and a half under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium. His confidence was so pure, so innate. He *knew* he was “better than them all.” And he lost. In fact, he lost after being up 6-3 2-0 40-0. It spoke volumes about Robredo’s incredible resilience and fight. It also spoke volumes about how much Kyrgios still has to improve. His forehand is astounding. On many occasions, he didn’t even have his feet in the right position, and yet he was able to do mind-blowing things with the ball. I can’t even put into words how much potential the kid has. To sum it all up? At 2-5 in the fourth set, a fan yelled out, “you gotta get your swag back Nick!” On the next point, Kyrios hit a forehand winner and yelled “SWAG!” It was epic. It was hilarious. It was awesome. When I asked him about it after the match, Kyrgios simply said,”I just answered (the fan’s) question.”
  • Gael Monfils’ performance in New York made headlines; this time for mostly the right reasons. I’ve always been mystified, confused, and amazed with Monfils. Initially, I saw his talent and figured he should be in the top 5. After watching him for a few years I started to realize that he never really expected much out of himself, which often led to mediocre results, with the occasional(okay, on many occasions) hot shot mixed in. About halfway through 2013 I started to look at Monfils in a different light. His role in tennis is something we all have to realize and appreciate. Yes, he’s an entertainer. And if you can honestly say you’re not entertained watching him play…well then we can agree to disagree. But this US Open was wildly different in out viewing of Monfils. He was focused from the first ball. Through his first four matches, he was 12-0 in sets, and other than this incredible jumping forehand, his highlight reels weren’t on par with Gael the entertainer. He breezed through Richard Gasquet and Grigor Dimitrov. Those results were outstanding, and he looked as determined as ever. Even passing him in the halls–he was always in good spirits, yet looked unsatisfied with “just” reaching the quarterfinals. Of course you all know he went up two sets to one on Roger Federer, held two match points in the fourth set, before eventually falling to the Swiss man, 6-4 6-3 4-6 5-7 2-6. It was the best atmosphere I can remember on Ashe. I’m hesitant to say that Monfils will use this performance as a springboard for greater results. Part of me wants La Monf to just be himself, because he always makes me turn on the TV. But another part of me, a big part, wants *this* Monfils to stick around a while. Maybe win a slam? Just imagine what he would do for our sport.
  • My love for tennis comes from watching the ATP, and obviously all of my writing has covered men’s tennis. But there’s seriously something to be said about the WTA. This stemmed from another conversation I had with Rothenberg. I’ve watched a lot of women’s tennis over the last two years, and there are things that are truly incredible about the game. After getting off of work for the day, I sat down to watch Barbora Zahlavova Strycova face off against Eugenie Bouchard. Zahlavova Strycova is incredibly fun to watch. She talks to herself almost non-stop, and complains to her box on most given occasions.. She yells positively, and negatively, with both being hilarious and awesome. For me, the WTA has a few more “routine” scorelines(ie. 6-1 6-1), which can lend itself to less compelling entertainment. However, when a match is good, it’s great. The drama is unmatched, and you really never know what is going to happen next. Ivanovic/Sharapova in Montreal is the best example of this; I literally could not take my eyes off the screen. The WTA’s unpredictability is highly underrated and undervalued.
  • We now bring ourselves to the much maligned talking point: American Tennis. News broke this week that Patrick McEnroe, head of player development at the USTA, will be stepping down from his position after six years in charge. While American women have flourished(mainly in part to one Serena Williams) during his tenure, American men have struggled mightily. I don’t want to spend much time on the past though, because we’ve all heard that story a million times over. Let’s look at American men for the future. With Jared Donaldson, Stefan Kozlov, Francis Tiafoe, Michael Mmoh, Ernesto Escobedo and many others showing promise, things are going to turn around. It’s not a question of if, but when. Three-four years seems like the right target, with the majority of our talent-crop filling out their bodies and reaching their potential. American men’s tennis, simply put, is in the worst position they’ve been in for the last few decades. But they will rise back to the top, and it’s only a matter of time.
  • My thoughts on McEnroe’s tenure are up and down. I think Patrick was a great face and brand at the top of our developmental system. However, he held other large commitments such as being an ESPN analyst and commentator, which surely took time away from his more-than-full-time job at the USTA. That in itself is a huge conflict of interest. The idea to have one central training facility was good in theory, but they forced it on players and their families way too quickly. And if a player didn’t produce results in a short time frame, they were dismissed from the academy, and left on their own. With the USTA’s plan laid out to have another new training facility in Lake Nona, Florida, let’s hope that they can manage this one with greater transparency and value.
  • Kei Nishikori, at the time of this writing, is about two hours away from his first Grand Slam final. How he got there is surely the best story of this years US Open, at least on the men’s side. I sat with Michael Beattie as Nishikori took on Milos Raonic under the lights of Ashe. Though Nishikori looked as engaged and animated as we had ever seen, we doubted his chances of even finishing the match after going down two sets to one. He was once again being visited by the trainer for a right foot issue, and his movement looked 75% at best. But after the painkillers kicked in, Nishikori was a new man. He was back to his ball-striking best. Every groundstroke he hit seemed to land within a foot of the baseline, and before we knew it, Nishikori was serving for the match in the fifth set.
  • I have to pause that narrative for a second to talk about my most memorable moment in Flushing Meadows. As Nishikori and Raonic we’re playing through the night and into the morning, Beattie and I knew what was at stake history wise. Two other matches had finished at 2:26 A.M. at the US Open, and this one was on track to be remarkably close. As Nishikori broke in the fifth set, Beattie and I knew that this was going to be incredible close to the record. Before the final game, what was left of the crowd gave each player a standing ovation, which lasted about 30 seconds. The clock was now at 2:23. Nishikori raced out 30-0, two points from the match, and chances were looking slim. Raonic won the next point, and we gave a sigh of relief, because every second now counted. Nishikori went up 40-15, and just as the clock hit 2:25, he had trouble catching the balls from ball boy, which ended up delaying the match by about 30 seconds. The point started, and Beattie and I had our eyes locked on the clock, and the players, simultaneously. Nishikori came to the net, hit a great backhand volley cross-court, and it looked like the match was over. But Raonic somehow got to that ball. It was at his shoestrings, but he stuck his racket out and got it back over the net. As Nishikori hit the final volley winner to seal the victory, the clock ticked to 2:26, and the record had been tied, for a third time. I kid you not, as the wilson ball hit Nishikori’s strings, the clock turned, and Beattie and I went pretty nuts. It was almost a sense of pride, of fulfillment, for staying at the match the entire way. I don’t know why, but it was rewarding.
  • Back to Nishikori’s run. The Japan born right-hander’s main issue over the years has been staying healthy over a long stretch of matches. If you had told me, a Nishikori believer, that he would defeat Raonic, Wawrinka, and Djokovic, with none of those being straight sets, I would have probably laughed at you. What Kei has done is truly amazing, and speaks volumes for his work ethic and discipline. Oh, watching Michael Chang in the box during Nishikori’s matches is almost as fun as watching the match itself. Seeing somebody so invested in their player is refreshing.
  • Autographs. I don’t even know where to begin. You should start with the Wall Street Journal piece here. If you’re over the age of 14, and are asking for somebody’s autograph, are you in the right state of mind? If you are under the age of 14, and have never heard of the player you’re getting an autograph from, what value does it hold? Now, if you get a picture with a player, that is really cool. You can always remember that moment. But I’m not sure if that holds true for simply a players signature. I spent extensive time thinking  about the validity of autographs during my time in New York. I was eating breakfast one morning on the porch outside the media and player entrance to Ashe. Just outside the security guards was a young boy, maybe 10, with one of those big tennis balls made for autographs. He had the best strategy of anybody I had ever seen at attaining a signature from the players. In only 15 minutes, he must have gotten 15 signatures. I was enthralled in what I was watching, but soon started think about what those autographs actually mean. I don’t understand how a players scribbling can have any impact on a person. I’m pretty sure I’m the one who is completely lost here, because most people disagree with me. Please, in the comments below, convince me why an autograph can be so valuable. I want to be persuaded.
  • I’ve been rambling on for a while now, haven’t I. I’ll finish these notes, which I’ve worked on in-and-out for the last two weeks, with my thoughts on working vs watching a tennis tournament. I worked for the first 9 days of the tournament, and it’s an experience that I obviously enjoyed. But it’s also something that to some may seem routine, par for the course. I just watch tennis, log matches, tell the producers when something crazy happens, and create highlight clips at the end of matches. It sounds resoundingly easy, and in a sense, it was. But it’s not the kind of easy you’re thinking of. It’s hard work. It’s 12 hour days in an office. It’s 10 cups of coffee per day. But if you truly have a passion for tennis, an unbounding passion, it will not seem like such hard “work”. It will instead seem like hard “play”. I didn’t get much more than 6 hours of sleep per night, but that was by choice. Even if I had completed all my assigned matches for the day(which was usually around 8 p.m., sometimes later), I would get out to Ashe or any court that still had matches going. Most of my colleagues at ESPN, and I surely cannot blame them, went home, got some sleep, and prepared for the next day. But I truly am a tennis nerd, and the best part of being on the grounds was heading to the media room at 1 a.m. to be the only guy requesting Tommy Robredo questions in English. To sit back and chat with the few people that were still there about that amazing day that had just taken place, and how surely tomorrow would be better. If there was ever any doubt I wanted to go into tennis media(writing, tv, communications, who knows), it’s gone now. I loved every second of my time working at the US Open, and I sure as hell hope to be back next year.
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Doping In Tennis

For a while there, many people criticized ESPN for their lack of reporting of possible doping in tennis. However, yesterday Shaun Assael wrote a story on the subject. I’m going to put the entire text here, and we’ll continue the conversation in the comments below. Please let us know your opinion on this controversial subject!

“Before he won his eighth French Open title on June 9, Rafael Nadal was asked how many times he’d been drug tested. According to an account by The Associated Press, Nadal “bristled” at the question before offering his opinion that tennis is a “very clean sport” and said, “We don’t have a lot of cases of doping.”

Left unsaid was that tennis doesn’t have a lot doping cases because it doesn’t do a lot of testing. The International Tennis Federation ordered just 63 out-of-competition blood tests last year, compared to more than 3,000 that were performed in the sport of cycling. (When all tests were included, the 611 players were tested 2,185 times, or 3.3 times per player, compared to an average of nine times per rider in cycling.)

But that’s only part of the problem facing a sport in which the players are more powerful than ever and able to demand pay hikes, such as the 40 percent raise that will go into effect next week at Wimbledon.

The bigger issue is that tennis seems almost comically ill-suited to police its globally growing brand these days.

In the wake of a betting scandal several years ago, the ITF, which broadly manages the sport and runs Olympic tennis, commissioned a report that found the sport was “experiencing threats to [its] integrity from a range of issues.” After much handwringing, the ITF decided to form an integrity unit to help protect the group from “corrupt practices” around the world.

But thanks to woeful funding and a ridiculous structure in which the unit is co-managed by the men’s and women’s leagues, the ATP and WTA, as well as the Grand Slams, it hasn’t produced a single headline case yet.

The best it can offer are match-fixing bans, such as the ones it issued this month against a 789th-ranked Russian and a 23-year-old Dutchman listed at No. 1,158. Personally, I think that if you can get anyone in Utrecht to bet on you with a ranking below a thousand, you should get to keep whatever you make. But, hey, dat is het leven.*

The point is that no one in the tennis world — certainly no one in the top 700 — is scared by any of this. The ITF currently requires its players to submit whereabouts forms that list where they will be three months in advance. But they seem to be rarely used, and, at least in the top ranks, a sore point. Novak Djokovic revealed in January that he hasn’t been randomly blood tested in the prior six or seven months. “It was more regular … two, three years ago. I don’t know the reason why they stopped it,” he said.

“To do the job to the full extent, you need to tackle the higher-profile people and not just the lesser players,” a veteran anti-corruption agent told Britain’s Daily Mail on Sunday last week.

Precisely because the ITF hasn’t fished in those deep waters, it doesn’t wield much clout on the international stage. Take the case of Eufemiano Fuentes, the notorious Spanish sports doctor who was busted in 2010 for running a doping ring on the isle of Gran Canaria. When Fuentes admitted to helping tennis players, Stuart Miller, the ITF’s representative on the integrity unit, asked Spanish officials to release the patient logs they seized from his practice. Miller was met with an indifferent shrug.

“We’d like to see if the alleged links are true, but our request to the Spanish authorities has not been met,” says Miller, who does double duty as head of the ITF’s drug testing program.

It’s hard not to compare that with the aggressive way Major League Baseball is pursuing the South Florida clinic owner, Tony Bosch.

When the Miami New Times published records in January appearing to show that Bosch supplied PEDs to two dozen players, MLB went into investigative overdrive, filing a civil suit against Bosch, seeking information that eventually brought the cash-strapped clinic owner to the table to cooperate. The league’s attorneys also issued subpoenas to Federal Express, AT&T and T-Mobile for Bosch’s shipping and phone records.

To be fair, the doping cases aren’t exactly identical. MLB had specific patient records to guide them in their case against Bosch. The ITF, on the other hand, has to deal with a Spanish judge who seems determined to cover up the Fuentes case at all costs. When the doctor finally came to trial this spring in Madrid, Judge Julie Patricia Santamaria sparked outrage by ordering the destruction of 211 athlete’s blood bags from the doctor’s clinic that the World Anti-Doping Agency desperately wanted to test. (The chief prosecutor’s office in Madrid is appealing that decision and the suspended sentence that Santamaria gave Fuentes after finding him guilty of endangering public health.) Considering that doping scandals flare every other week in Olympic and pro sports, it would be naïve to assume it’s not happening in tennis — a grueling global sport in which the endurance bar has never been higher. But tennis is so fractured, no one has the power to do what Bud Selig is doing in MLB, which has redefined his reputation by going after his sport’s biggest names.

There are signs of changes at the margins, however. The ITF has hired a new integrity director from London’s Metropolitan Police, Nigel Willerton. And thanks to a groundswell among the sport’s most powerful players for better testing, he’s about to get an important new tool.

By the end of the year — perhaps as early as the U.S. Open — Miller plans to unveil a biological passport program, like the one currently used in cycling, that should bring some fairness to the equation. The idea is to require players to supply baseline physiological profiles that all future drug tests can be measured against.

Miller anticipates giving the top players at least three random blood tests a year, in addition to the less comprehensive, more predictable urine tests that are done before and after each event. “This is a very important step and I’m close to working out all the details,” Miller said last week.

Hopefully the next time Rafa says “We have a very clean sport,” he’ll have more evidence to back it up.”-ESPN