As we learn that the Cincy event is staying in southern Ohio …
Does tennis have an Iga Świątek problem? What do I mean by this? Great player, but does she move the needle? It doesn’t seem that way. What does she need to do differently (for the sake of tennis if not for her own sake)?
• The quick-and-dirty answer: She is doing great. Obviously, Jeff is not alone here. A prevailing and often-whispered assessment goes something like this: Świątek is an extraordinary player and could win double-digit majors before she is done. But what a pity she is not more marketable.
I don’t get it. The extraordinary player is beyond dispute. She could retire tomorrow, at age 22, and be a no-brainer Hall of Famer. She is a wonderful athlete. She is far grittier than credited. (Note how she embraced the role of No. 1 after inheriting the spot from Ash Barty; note how she has won majors when she has been far from her best; note matches like the 2023 French Open final, where she course-corrected and simply would not leave the court as anyone other than the winner.)
And the critiques, if that’s the right word, of her personality seem so errant. She has little interest in the look-at-me game or fashion or the trappings of celebrity. Good for her. She doesn’t make outrageous comments or social media provocations? Good for her. She doesn’t betray much emotion when she plays or magnetizes fans. Good for her.
Is she an introvert? Sure. (So is Naomi Osaka, who has more endorsements than Taylor Swift has hits.) But that doesn’t make her boring. She reads books. She has interests beyond tennis. She has political opinions—note the Ukrainian flag pin on her ball cap. She doesn’t traffic in talking points and gives “didn’t-have-that-on-my-bingo-card” answers. Her sportsmanship is impeccable. Her reverence for tennis history is strong.
She needs to do very little differently. Fans need to readjust the way they see her. Her representatives need to readjust how they position her. The sport ought to be thankful it has her.
Regarding Johanna Konta’s comment that tennis fans en masse find it “trendy” to dislike Djokovic “for no reason.” Firstly, some champions are more loved than others. Trophies and popularity do not always go together … just when we had the “GOAT” feud dead and buried, we’re now turning to this. It’s so boring!
• Mark is referencing comments Konta made last month. To be clear, she was being charitable to Djokovic. But I have the opposite take. Just as he has put to rest the GOAT discussion, he has already buried the old story line about lagging popularity. I would argue that, if anything, it is now trendy to like Djokovic. He has continued winning relentlessly into his deep 30s. He has risen to the challenge posed by younger players. He has continued speaking with insight and eloquence. He has been a model father. He has been loyal to his country. He has been remarkably accessible for a global superstar. We could go on. From where I sit, the Djokovic Popularity Index is, rightly, at a historic high.
Fandom is, of course, the underpinning of sports. And it will always be subjective. So much is in the eye of the beholder. Different players trigger different emotions. Different players present differently to different observers. All good. But too often this gets lost: Athletes are people. People are complex. People evolve and devolve. People change over time.
Some fans are ride-or-die, and are unconditional in their support. Some fans are stubborn haters, unwilling to come off their negative position. (As John Updike once wrote about Ted Williams: “Greatness necessarily attracts debunkers, but in [Williams’s] case the hostility has been systematic and unappeasable.”)
But I would contest that most fans—and media—are not fixed in their views and adjust them accordingly. Serena Williams is extraordinary. When she threatens to stuff a ball down an official’s throat, she is less extraordinary. And that’s fine. Her greatness doesn’t insulate her from criticism. And the one occasional regrettable act doesn’t offset the 999 preceding and successive acts of virtue. Likewise, when Djokovic is winning 24 majors and speaking just as many languages and entertaining kids off-camera, it’s great. Some of us—self included—found the Adria Tour and his comportment during the pandemic less great. Then the grievances recede with time, and the player overwrites and overrides this with excellence. This is all healthy. This is all human. This is all consistent. As a wise man said, “You can hate ‘Shiny Happy People’ and still love R.E.M.”
Your idea that players don’t benefit from the betting is way off. Millions go into player pension each year, and challengers are hugely subsidized via betting dollars. Social media abuse is difficult to solve and sadly it would exist irrespective of betting deals.
• No one is saying players get zero indirect benefit from gambling revenues. When the tours sign “data deals” some of that revenue must, necessarily, redound to the players. (The tours, after all, are “true equal partnerships between players and tournaments.”) But the players cannot use—much less endorse—these products. When even coaches provide voice-overs in commercials, they are fined. (“As a sport, tennis has decided that accredited individuals should not have commercial relationships with betting companies,” ITIA CEO Karen Moorhouse said.)
Again, players can hit the ball in front of a gambling logo affixed to the back wall. And during the changeovers commercials for a sportsbook will air on the television coverage. And their tours and the ITF can sell their data to oddsmakers. Yet the players cannot wear a postage-stamp-sized patch from the company? And then they are the ones getting the social media poison and threats. You’re right that social media is complex. But can we agree that it is intensified when the offending parties—here, gambling losers—are already (A) in a state of emotional arousal and (B) on their phones, anyway?
My point: There is real hypocrisy here. If the product is so potentially corrosive that players are forbidden from using it, that’s a problem. If sports gambling is so normalized that it’s O.K. to take the revenue, shouldn’t players share in the windfall?
Speaking of players getting the short end of the racket …
Not to too heavily promote a fellow writer on the sport (Pete Bodo), but I’d like to call attention to a piece he wrote recently on tennis balls and player complaints, given different balls are used at most tournaments, arguably resulting in a (necessary?) hazard for pro players given the dizzying ways the sport has changed (space-age strings, racquets, new training regimens, super servers now moving with the stealth of a lynx, speed of a cheetah, etc.). I recognize there’s little empirical evidence here other than “different balls (and contracts) for different tournaments” and “players freely choosing their calendars.” How do you see this and who’s responsible? Did the sport’s handlers go too far in trying to make the sport more viewer-friendly, or do the balls contribute to the “any given day” ethos of this gladiator sport?
Thank you for considering and thanks always for the amazing tennis mailbag!
Andrew Miller, Silver Spring, Md.
• I will happily promote a fellow writer, especially when it’s Bodo. Here’s the piece in question. This seems like an easy fix. A committee—with players well represented—demands some standardization. You can have players complaining about conditions like court speed and the bounce of the ball. You cannot have them complaining about getting injured from these variables.
We had a good laugh at the headline in The Age in Melbourne: “Australian Open gets extra day to cut late-night finishes.” The PR spin here is impressive. The tournament is being extended by a day, however, that just means they’re playing the first round over three days rather than two. By the time they reach Round 2 and for the ensuing 12 days of the tournament, they’ll be playing just as many matches per day as they always have. There’s nothing wrong with having an extra day, of course, but let’s be clear that this is about bringing more people through the gates and earning a bigger profit and has nothing to do with having fewer late-night finishes.
Cam Bennett, Canberra, Australia
• Let’s start here: We should all be firmly in favor of majors wrapping around three weekends. These are tennis’s showcase, flagship events. Why not maximize time/exposure/TV offerings/fans’ ability to watch and attend—which are higher on weekends than during the week? The Olympics span three weekends. The World Cup maximizes weekends. Look what the NBA does with its finals. That said …
1) Somehow linking this added day to late matches insults us all. Just call it what it is, a money grab, albeit one the event should feel entitled to make … provided:
2) The players share in on the loot. If you’re going to spin this, wouldn’t it help buy-in to say, “As a result of this additional session, prize money will increase?”
3) Bear in mind that all this plays out in the face of both a United Cup that is a money loser, and the concern over Saudi Arabia sniffing around January as the time for a 10th ATP 1000.
Not sure Serena needs to jeer from the stands as she did with that post, but is there an argument to strip titles from players who fail doping tests and award the trophy to the runner-up (if the runner-up wasn’t doping, too)? They do that in athletics (Ben Johnson), while in cycling Lance Armstrong’s years are listed as “no winner.”
• Joey is referring to this. We should have no issue stripping dirty athletes of their titles and points and prize money. But it needs to be backed up with evidence. There is nothing to suggest that Simona Halep was cheating in 2019, the year she beat Serena in the Wimbledon final.