ATP, You’ve Let Us Down

By Josefina Gurevich and Shravya Pant

​​There’s a certain type of innocence that comes with being a fan; you assume that the person, team, or sport you love is perfect. When the two of us, Josefina and Shravya, first became friends and started bonding over our shared love of tennis, we, too, were full of this innocence. In our view, the world of professional tennis was without flaw, inclusive to men and women, a champion of equal pay, and leading the sports industry with its history of activism. We were excited to share this wide-eyed love for the sport and voice that excitement in our podcast’s coverage of the latest tennis news on and off the court. In our tennis fan infancy, never did we suspect the dark underbelly of tennis. 

The past year or so has exposed some of tennis’ deepest flaws, particularly on the ATP’s side. Tennis is a sport that consistently portrays itself as an advocate for gender equality, which can be credited to the Original 9’s trailblazing activism, and recently has even emphasized unity between the ATP and WTA through the “Tennis United” marketing merger. But don’t let this all fool you. To put it bluntly, the ATP has made it clear that it holds zero regard for women. As multiple active ATP players facing domestic abuse allegations from ex-female partners remain unscathed and the organization refuses to take action on the Peng Shuai situation (so much for “Tennis United”), the men’s tennis tour has served a devastating blow. Watching the organization remain unmoved by the testimonies of Olya Sharypova and Neli Dorokashvili and prioritize business in China over standing up for Peng was a necessary reality check to our innocent tennis fandom. No matter how much we love the sport, its social flaws, particularly within the ATP, are indefensible. 

Domestic Violence Allegations 

In November of 2020, the story of Olya Sharypova’s domestic violence allegations against Alexander Zverev took the tennis world by storm. The two of us were shocked to see this, just a couple months after we had watched his roller-coaster US Open men’s singles final match together on Zoom. “Olya’s Story,” New York Times tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg’s harrowing interview with Sharypova, was published in Racquet Magazine on November 5. Sharypova detailed the abuse she endured during her and Zverev’s relationship, including specific events at the 2019 US Open and Laver Cup. Zverev later came out and denied all allegations while the ATP remained silent; the German lost none of his sponsorships. Sharypova’s (who decided not to press charges against Zverev as speaking out about her experiences was her main goal) testimony held little significance in the eyes of the ATP, Zverev’s sponsors, and the structures of misogyny engrained in the tennis world. 

But tennis fans didn’t remain silent; the hashtag “#IStandWithOlya” emerged and eventually the story reached the mainstream, particularly during Zverev’s run at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The second part of Rothenberg’s interview with Sharypova was published in Slate Magazine in August, just prior to the US Open, which discussed further instances of abuse Olya experienced following the 2019 US Open, substantiated by photos and screenshots of text messages. Four days before this article was published, the ATP (which had been inquiring about the release date of Rothenberg’s second article) stated that it would be doing a review of its “safeguarding” policies, including those surrounding domestic abuse. As a result of this “independent safeguarding report,” the ATP announced an internal investigation into the 2019 Shanghai Rolex Masters domestic violence incident Sharypova described in the Slate piece. While a crucial step, it took 11 months from Sharypova’s initial interview for the ATP to take any meaningful action. And since October 4th, the ATP has released no further information, calling into question the nature and integrity of the investigation.

What makes the ATP’s attitude towards this incident even more disappointing is that Zverev is not the only one of their players to face allegations like this. Brazilian player Thiago Seyboth Wild is currently being investigated by police in Brazil after his girlfriend, Thayane Lima, accused him of physical and emotional abuse. In June of 2020, this year’s Indian Wells finalist Nikoloz Basilashvili’s ex-wife, Neli Dorokashvili, charged him with domestic violence. The Georgian athlete was arrested but then released on bail. Considering Basilashvili’s celebrity status in Georgia and the ATP’s pattern of silence, he faced no significant repercussions, certainly none within the tennis world. 

The ATP needs to seriously look into their environment and rules and take action against these players. Belated investigations and reviews of “safeguarding” policies are reactive moves; the organization needs to examine how it can proactively change its culture, a culture that clearly does nothing to protect the women involved in ATP players’ lives. With their track record even from just this year, it’s clear that the ATP does all it can to protect these male athletes while paying no heed to women, and this pattern extends to issues beyond domestic violence, as well. 

Peng Shuai

“There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our tennis community. We have been deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and whereabouts of WTA player Peng Shuai,” said ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, regarding the Peng Shuai situation on November 15, 2021. While the statement may seem benevolent, since, the ATP has failed to step up and take action for their words. 

People far past the ‘tennis world’ have felt the impact of Peng’s story in recent months. She was the first Chinese tennis player to achieve the No.1 ranking spot in doubles. She holds two Grand Slam doubles titles and is a former top 20 player in singles. She was a star athlete and a prized athlete of China. On November 2, Peng posted on Weibo (a Chinese social-media site) accusing retired Vice Premier of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhang Gaoli, of sexually assualting her. The post was deleted shortly after, but not before gaining international traction. Following this event, Peng was not heard from for several weeks, causing panic as to the safety of her whereabouts. Slowly, she started making appearances in public media again, but with a concerning outlook on her previous statement. Ever since she posted the allegation on Weibo, she has denied it. It is clear that Peng is not intentionally denying her past claims, but has instead been forced to succumb to a position of contradiction at the risk of sacrificing her safety. 

Whether or not Peng is currently safe is not clear whatsoever, so governing bodies of tennis, or even athletics in general, still have the duty to stand up for human rights in her name. Recently, the WTA’s chairman, Steve Simon, made the ultimate decision to suspend all WTA tournaments in China in Peng’s name; note that the WTA, and tennis world on a larger level, has significant financial stake in China, with the WTA Finals and several Masters tournaments set in the country. Previously, Simon had demanded the ability to communicate privately with Peng and for Chinese officials to conduct a transparent investigation into her disappearance, however neither were complied with. He accompanied the announcement of the suspension with, “In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.” Simon’s decision is arguably the most powerful stance taken by any leader of sports organizations, regarding not only players’ rights, but human rights as well. 

Unfortunately, in comparison, we’ve also seen some weak takes, especially from fellow professional tennis governing bodies. The ITF has refused to pull their tournaments from China, stating they “don’t want to disappoint 1.4 billion people.” The ATP took a similar stance, saying, “having a global presence gives us the best chance of making an impact.” However, when presented with a situation to support the efforts of “Tennis United,” the ATP failed to act. Their reaction (and lack of action) was extremely disappointing, and they have been rightfully criticized for it. The worst part is that we half-expected this from the ATP considering their previous stances on issues of violence against women. Even when the entire world, past just tennis enthusiasts, has united to support efforts in ensuring Peng Shuai’s safety, the ATP has failed to stand up for basic human rights for a player that is part of their “Tennis United” community.

So What?

The ATP is one of the largest global governing bodies of professional tennis. They claim that their “mission is to serve tennis,” and “inspire the next generation of fans and players.” Yet, they have neglected countless opportunities to uphold the principles on which they claim to stand. 

Not only are we tennis fans, we are young, female tennis fans and our podcast has given us keen insight to the ATP’s true colors. We’ve had to report the ATP failing to stand up for women being assaulted and harmed by players of their own organization. We’ve had to report the ATP failing to stand up for a woman being silenced and censored. So what’s the message here to female tennis fans like us? Women’s basic rights as human-beings mean nothing to one of the most powerful organizations in our sport? While this may not be the message the ATP sends with their words, it is certainly the message we’ve received through their actions. Until we see a change, we will continue to hold the ATP accountable for their lack of human interest. 

Josefina and Shravya are the co-hosts of Hold On to Your Racket, the podcast for Gen Z tennis fans. We hope you liked this article. If you’d like to hear more from us, check out our podcast! You can follow us on Twitter @HOTYR_TennisPod.

Mental Toughness: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

By Vansh Vermani

An earlier version of this piece was submitted as a school assignment in 2017.

We marvel at the pros on TV. We aspire to be just like them when we step on the court. They make it look so easy. We idolize them, sometimes in a religious manner. Sports, especially tennis (an individual sport), have an emotional attachment where we admire players who overcome difficult obstacles. Some players demonstrate this quality during the course of a single match, while others overcome numerous long-term physical injuries to make their comeback to the sport. 

So what defines a top female or male tennis player? What intangibles do they possess that the rest of the field, who is close in talent, is lacking? These players, the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and the Williams sisters, all have this “it” factor. They have the ability to find that zone of mental calmness, which enables them to play some of their best tennis under tremendous pressure and expectations. For example, at a crucial juncture in a match, where they are in danger of letting the match slip out of their hands like at 5-5 in the fifth set. This is when everybody sees why they are called champions. Brad Gilbert, a well-known sports analyst, former player, and commentator, wrote in his famous book Winning Ugly: “to me, absolute greatness is defined at the highest of levels, when other people will say things are going a million miles per hour, for them it actually slows down to where they actually become absolutely clearer what they are going to do.” Their opponent on any day may be very close to them in talent, but when it comes to crunch time in a big match or occasion, the underdog’s inability to stay calm under pressure may get the better of them. The underdog usually makes a bad decision that costs them the chance to pull off a major upset, and potentially turn their whole career around. When this happens over and over again in tennis, it can be incredibly frustrating and difficult to rebound from, and you find that oftentimes you lose belief in your abilities more and more, losing to players who are ranked below you. It takes a special mindset to break this losing cycle, and start gaining back the confidence. This is the foundation of mental toughness. The willingness and commitment to accept the obstacles that come one’s way and embrace them, for the purpose of personal improvement. 

A good example of a professional player who has had to deal with this pressure is Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov was always touted as the next big thing. The next future star with a game that very closely resembles Roger Federer in playing style and a one-handed backhand, a shot that is rare these days on the pro circuit. The media dubbed him “Baby Federer.” At the age of 23, in 2014, he started to make a push in the rankings, and made the semifinals of Wimbledon, losing an extremely close match to world No.1 Novak Djokovic. It was a match where he had multiple chances to close out the fourth set, which would push the match to a deciding fifth set. After this devastating loss, Dimitrov’s confidence began to fade away. He began losing close matches, time and time again failing to close out wins that were sometimes easily under his belt. He would crumble and wilt under pressure as matches progressed. After two more years of hard-enduring defeats, and crushing blows, Dimitrov began to understand his game more, and switched coaches and racquets. With his new coach, Dimitrov went back to the drawing board, and worked on the basics of his game, starting with his fitness, and making his serve stronger. Dani Vallverdu, a coach who has worked with former top 10 players, got him to push harder in training and helped Grigor develop joy in working hard off the court. He helped his player understand that he belonged at the top of the game. In the beginning of 2017, Dimitrov started showing flashes of the form that got him to the semis of Wimbledon in 2014. He began playing more fearlessly, stepping in and attacking each ball. He seemed to be playing with greater self belief and purpose. He looked stronger as the matches went on. He won a tournament at the start of the year, beating three top 10 players, whom he had never won against. He was starting to play consistent tennis at all his tournaments. He won four ATP titles and finished the season at a career best ranking of 3rd in the world. Dimitrov showed incredible mental strength and maturity during a long process. Two years of struggle cost him many matches, and he dropped out of the top 40 at one stage, but he continued to believe and worked as hard as ever to turn around his fate. Now 30 years old, Dimitrov is ranked 28th in the world, and though a return to the top five looks unlikely, Dimitrov continues to fight for results.

Though he lost in the end, Dimitrov played a fantastic match in the 2017 Australian Open semifinals.

Tennis is not so much a numbers game as people make it sound. At the end of the day, it isn’t about being the greatest player of all time, getting to number one, winning majors. It isn’t a race. It is about maximizing your potential. That can only happen if you build a strong foundation of your mental psyche which can keep you grounded and dedicated to improving for improvement’s sake. In order to be mentally strong and maximize your potential as a tennis player, you must think long term for perspective, but only focus on short term goals. It is important to focus on the process of improvement on a day-to-day basis, without worrying about immediate results. 

So how exactly does a tennis player achieve the zenith of mental strength? The first step is the most difficult bit: training and physical strength. This is also the biggest factor, as a huge part of mental toughness is the feeling of knowing that no matter how long the match goes, your back, legs, shoulders, and muscles don’t get sore and affect your point-for-point intensity. A lot of mental frustration stems from not having the endurance and strength of being able to close out tight matches. Training hard and working out in the gym are the first steps. Once you develop some of that confidence in fitness/training, then it has to be carried over to practice. This may take time, but it is very important for a tennis player to have a long term perspective. You may not win many matches right away, and you may lose a lot of close matches, or you may get completely thumped. That is okay, because that actually gives you more information to work with. Once you discover your niche and where your strengths lie, you then have to deal with the nerves of playing in a match. This is something much harder to deal with at first, because while you were training and winning practice sets and points, there was nothing on the line. Now you must prove yourself and adapt your game to your opponent. It takes a while for every player to maximize their skillset. At first, they may feel overwhelmed, thinking they are expected to hit spectacular shots and outright winners to beat their opponent. However, what usually works best is keeping it simple and sticking to your gameplan. Sometimes though, your game plan might work well, but then your opponent finds your weaknesses. The best players will accept that they are not playing their best tennis, and find solutions to slow down the opponent’s rhythm. Instead of attacking a player’s backhand which may be the weaker side, they think hard in the changeover breaks and realize that their opponent is always hanging on the weaker side, expecting every ball to go there. So they try to mix it up and stretch them wide to the forehand. It is this kind of problem solving that wins matches in tight situations. Many of the best players pump their fist when they play good points, and are mellow and keep a poker face, rather than showing negative emotion. They look at the positives and demonstrate a short memory when it comes to their mistakes. It is very easy to get frustrated over one bad decision, and let it linger into other parts of their game. When I think of mental strength, I see someone who is tough, match in and match out, and says “okay, no problem, another long match, let’s grind it out.” 

Another example of staying mentally tough is not getting affected by the emotions on the other side of the net. Knowing that your opponent is struggling physically, it is easy for a player to relax and say, “I’ve got them now since they are hurt.” But a mature and mentally tough player realizes that there could be a rain interruption, the opponent could start to feel better, they could get lucky with a few return winners and play with nothing to lose, knowing they are unable to  move at 100%. The next thing you know, your level is dropping since you are waiting for your opponent to miss. To prevent this, the mentally strong player who knows their opponent is hurt keeps pressing on and puts pressure on where it hurts. This could mean trying variety, like hitting drop shots if the opponent is injured and their movement is restricted. Or, simply just maintaining high intensity between the points, encouraging yourself to only focus on your side of the net, and not get distracted by the emotions of your opponent. 

The phrase “mental toughness” is sometimes incorrectly associated with only the best players of the world. Mental toughness is shown in incredible ways, not based on results, but on the effort and willpower to change your story and past tendencies. For this, a player must figure out what works for them, and have the patience to put in the hard work and wait for the results. Grigor Dimitrov had low expectations in match play, but he always expected himself to give 100% in training and discussing tactics with his coach and team. He was not content at being ranked 50 in the world. His road back to the top was long and hard. Though he might not stay at the top forever, or have the success many predicted when he was a teenager, he will always have the satisfaction of knowing he took the right steps to get there. 

The common theme of every example of mental toughness is accepting the ups and downs, and showing the grit and determination to bounce back. Taking the expectations and pressures of tennis and embracing them as a challenge to get better is what separates the great tennis players from the rest. 

We must not forget that tennis, after all, is just a sport. But the difficulties that one faces while playing the sport and the tools one learns to overcome them are a vehicle that can help one to succeed in any job or endeavor in the future. Mental toughness is needed in all spheres of life to succeed. Without mental toughness, humanity will struggle to evolve and mediocrity will be the summit for success.

Grigor Dimitrov lifts the 2017 World Tour Finals trophy. Photo: news.xinhuanet.com

Tennis and Bagels/Murray Musings: Top Five ATP and WTA Moments of the Year

If you missed part one, it can be found here.

The teams from Tennis and Bagels and Murray Musings ranked the top five moments of the year on both the ATP and WTA side to round out the 2021 season. Like in part one, chaos and laughter is abundant. Here are links to listen.

Anchor

Spotify

Apple Podcasts

Opinion: Where Doubles Lose Us (And Singles Keep Us From Going Away)

By André Rolemberg

Tennis is a lonely sport. You are on your own: it’s only you, your opponent, and the thrill of trying to battle through a match. There are no coaches, no teams, and no help once you step on court, except the stringer who works almost non-stop during a match (and might deserve a bit more credit than we give them).

But are we really alone? So often we forget that you can actually play doubles in tennis. There is literally a team version of tennis, and communication is key, as is positioning on court and where you place the next shot. At its worst, doubles is a highly strategic game and more akin to a chess game than singles, due to the think-a-move-ahead quality which is absolutely crucial. At its best, it is the fastest form of tennis, and the players’ reflexes are likely unmatched in comparison to singles players. 

Why, then, does doubles seem to always take the back seat in tennis? With all the skill and brain game involved, it should be attractive to many audiences, even more so due to its quick nature, where matches normally finish within a reasonable hour-and-a-half (the length of a soccer match, and not too much longer than a hockey game).

Of course, singles gives a different vibe to the sport. The rhythm and shots are different. Players covering the court, doing it all by themselves, makes a huge difference and some rallies and shots show a form of athleticism that is, sometimes, as the legendary tennis commentator Rob Koenig puts it, “near the gods, where no mortal may approach.” 

But that should not be enough reason for a doubles team to make half the amount of money a singles player makes for reaching the same round, or in the extreme case of tennis, be almost entirely forgotten in the greatness conversations. Doubles specialists are rarely mentioned when we talk about achievements in our sport. Often, the highest regard given to doubles prowess is when talking about great singles players who have done well in doubles too. Martina Navratilova, Venus and Serena Williams, John McEnroe, and even this year’s double Roland-Garros champion Barbora Krejčíková have their doubles achievements mentioned as addendums, or tie-breakers for how great they were. 

Bob and Mike Bryan perform their iconic chest-bump after winning an incredible point.

Or have you never heard something like:

"Navratilova and McEnroe were incredible players. It’s amazing what they accomplished, and on top of that they had amazing doubles results too."

Why is doubles such a secondary modality in tennis? How did it become a sport without a spark, without any “wow” factor?

I would argue that it is an idol problem. 

It is quite hard to identify with a sports team if they don’t have a name.  

You can admire a doubles team, only to see them play with a different partner the next week. The lack of consistency in doubles, the constant changing of partners without further notice, is very hard to follow and frustrating for fans.  

Unless you are a die-hard fan of a specific doubles player, you would not know why they changed partners. And consequently, a horrible question would pop out: “Oh, I thought they were a team?” 

There is no sense of continuity, no sense of belonging in doubles. Fans simply can’t relate. A singles player will always be themselves even if they change part of their identity. They will always be the same person. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray will always be themselves. That’s easy to track, easy to remember, easy to relate because you always see the same game style. They implement new things, but you witness their growth and decline. 

You might argue that team sports also have a high turnover rate. It is true, and it is also true that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lebron James’ fans will still be their fans even if they get traded. But these are not the norm in team sports, they are outstanding people who have a specific following. 

However, rarely is a team sports fan following a single player. They have something that will never change, or will change rarely and in very slow and noisy fashion: a team name. 

The name, the brand, the jersey. The history remains, everything will be written under the name of the team. Real Madrid is not the same it was 10 years ago, but it was still Real Madrid. Manchester United has decades of history, despite having had hundreds of different players. Ronaldo played in both teams. 

What does doubles have that give any sense of consistency? If a player plays for their own name, the other becomes just a tool for winning, a necessary annoyance. Might as well play singles. But doubles players are team players. They change partners to try and get a good fit, a good partnership that will allow each other to bring out their best individually and as a team. 

Without something to play for, a consistent narrative, something that will remain no matter what, fans just lose interest. They do not sense the team is really a team, just some short-lived business venture. You help me out, and I help you in exchange. Where is the glory in that? Where are the ideals?

Good examples of successful doubles partnerships have that in common, that they always give out a sense of something more, beyond just a contractual partnership. The Williams sisters were trailblazers who fought for themselves, defended themselves and their families from outsiders and racism. They were a team. The Bryan Brothers were twins who grew up playing together, who had something special that was unique to them, almost a mystical connection. They were a team. The “Woods” were a friendship formed by fate, a partnership that was destined for greatness, with the magical connection between their names. They were a team. 

Fans hearts will be broken, but a simple “we decided this partnership already gave everything it could” then moving along like nothing happened, is a horrible way to break a fan’s heart. They didn’t support the partnership only to see the players show quickly how unimportant it was to them, it was merely a business thing. They can be friends all they want, this is not a group project in university, it is a professional sport that has to potential to inspire and bring happiness to millions. 

Without a sense of playing for something greater, there is no connection. Without significant history, there is no build-up. Without work, tears, and precious moments together over many years, there is simply no way a relationship can be built. One with each doubles player, one with their fans. 

The impression that is left is apathetic. Doubles does not matter. It is simply a money grab, where players who didn’t succeed in singles go to in order to keep playing tennis. 

And the saddest part is that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. I opened this piece by praising doubles players for their insanely good reflexes, their sharp minds and strategic thinking, their immense and underappreciated talent.  

These players are hungry for win, they love the fight and the grind just as much as the singles players.

However, doubles has the fundamental problem that it is a true team sport, still living in the mentality that it is an individual sport. And that, as you may have guessed, does not make any sense. 

Tennis Origin Story #16: Scott Barclay

By Scott Barclay

Crumbs had fallen, patterning down my chest, a peppery twist of biscuity brown popping against the navy blue dark of my school uniform jumper as they raced each other down folds and creases that were crying out to be ironed flat.

There I was sprawled, a young boy returned from battle having walked through the combative minefield of double afternoon first year mathematics, fingers aching from thumbing calculator buttons in the search for answers that screamed to be found amongst layers of hieroglyphic-like workings out.

Maths was not, is still not, and likely never will be, my forte, and so as my eyes flitted with every flickering passing of every TV channel skipped through, my brain lay dormant, debating – in the rather overdramatic fashion only really capable of 11 year olds – if life were altogether worth living if it required us all to understand the hidden language of numerological whisperings. 

A screen of green suddenly caught my gaze, dragging my mind from the pits of desperate yearnings for a day devoid of school the next day and up to breath amidst an air of a curiosity that tickled at my thoughts.

My engagement with tennis until that point had been a sporadic mix of bored backyard plastic bats-and-nets pasted over with a dreary array of tarmaced local public courts often puddled and flooded-up with seemingly endless Scottish damp, long-faded-yellow tennis balls abandoned in muddy corners left over from some time long ago and painfully rubber-stamping the severe lack of general club usage.

Now, sullenly sinking myself through a packet of chocolate digestives masterfully snatched from the biscuit cupboard while my mum was looking the other way, I sat up slightly to take some notice.

For who was this spindle-legged youth, wearing a shirt and shorts a size or two too big, cap wrapped around curls spilling out sweat and framing a face that growled in its movement at points ending regardless of won or lost, celebration or devastation, almost claustrophobic in its intensity that gripped camera lens edges and engulfed the match coverage with unfamiliar bubbling-over temperament?!

A fist-clenching, teeth-gnawing display of watercolour emotion followed, that clouded and drifted untamed but was spiralled through with potential, unburdened yet by expectation that would soon building-block its way across his shoulders and pressurise him steadily full of impatiently waiting childish hopes and dreams of a nation, all of it hand-crafted through years of yearning desperation.

This was a boy and his love for a sport, intertwined so closely in the heat of competition that it sometimes looked like he hated it all, screams of words that hung in the air around his head like angry red stamps of parental over-protective disapproval that would go on to attach themselves to him in the form of unshakable criticism throughout the early stages of his career.

They would dog him consistently and bark at his victories, baring teeth that dripped saliva wet with tut-tuttings reserved only for those that they felt didn’t represent good-and-proper, something they’d held dear throughout the Henman-era before.

Back then though, I knew not what was to come drifting through the future night, only what was playing out in front of me on the grass of the here and now, and what I saw grappled me still, hooking my skin and rooting me there, a biscuit forgotten and powdering into pieces as they were ground into the cushions on the sofa beneath my hand as I leant slightly forwards.

And forwards and forwards, I did fall, right into being a fan of Andy Murray and all the unpredictable that came with it.

From that point onwards, I began watching tennis regularly, expanding out from that singular moment to become something of an obsessive, letting my enjoyment of the sport guide me through the rest of my school years.

Indeed, tennis followed me as I went to college in search of something. It was there as my heart broke and I embarrassed myself on the dance-floors of nightclubs of uni nightlife. It comforted me during many a morning-after-the-evening-before, easing the dullard ache of the one-too-many. It was there as I took a risk and went to London driven only by a willingness to keep chasing failure in hopes of stumbling somehow someway on success. It’s outlived friendships and family members, attending the funerals of those who passed away, standing at the back of church halls in all-black, its hair done up real nice, its hands clasped in front, head bowed in a solemn show of unseen-by-all-but-myself respect. There it was, condensationing against my windscreen, trailing little rivers through the trials and tribulations that seemed to consume my whole world in the moment but looking back, were the very definition of the absolute nothing much. And it’s here with me nowadays, through the job rejections on job rejections frustrations, watching my face fold with ugly tears endless in their ability to grip my whole body and shake me silly with repetitive angst.

I’ve co-founded a podcast and recorded near 50 episodes made of much madness and laughter. I’ve watched my favourite player win Majors thrice over, become world number 1 and string Olympic golds around his neck. I’ve been lucky enough to attend Wimbledon, the Davis Cup and numerous exhibition events, losing my voice to noise levels intense. I’ve written match previews and racket reviews and transcribed interviews. I’ve coached the game to young Autistic adults at summer camps in America, sat back and watched them outperform their own expectations of how great they could be. I’ve tuned into tournaments in other time-zones until the sun rose, light catching itself between the blinds of my window and casting shadows across my face, highlighting bags beneath my eyes darkened with the delirious. I’ve been late to work and had my boss sigh with knowing understanding, a “tennis again?” worn only by the partly-amused. I’ve met some of the very best people, all of us fortunate enough to find this sport and hold it close. I’ve been eye-rolled by loved ones who don’t quite get it but always at least try to anyway and for that, I only thank them. They know who they are.

When things get hard, I climb into tennis and shut the lid above my head because it’s easy and always, the calendar of the season stretching wildly longer than many others. It’s there consistently regardless, it’s simplistic rhythmic back-and-fourth standing solid in its place amongst all of the ever-changing.

And so once in a while, I try and write about it and I’ll be the first to admit that I find doing so tiring at times, trying to put it down on page, trying to fit it all in, wrestling with my use of language in order to try start something, try spark something, giving up often and leaving things in drafts to gather nothing but dust, dammit, words crunching against each other on pages in ways that don’t quite work.

But let me tell you, it’s worth it for those moments of the few-and-the-far-between, where you look at the completed, the finished, the something you’ve written about the something you love, the final sentence of the final chapter of the final version of your work and allow yourself to smile if only a little

At 28, I haven’t yet got to the point where I truly believe that what I write about tennis is worthwhile but I hope to one day get to the point where I do. 

And I hope Popcorn Tennis – and those who are helping shape it – can be a part of that process for me.

“Scott, can pick a nice professional photo to go with your piece?”
“Sure I can!…”

Trying to Explain Tennis

Tennis, like life, can be confusing. There are apparent absolutes that end up revealing themselves as mere hypotheses in the middle of a big match. In a match in which one player’s backhand is clearly better than another’s, you might think the better backhand will come out on top all the time, or the vast majority of the time. The margins often end up being thinner than the facts suggest.

As Roger Federer hits his first serve on his first championship point for a ninth Wimbledon title, Novak Djokovic leans to his right. Federer’s serve smacks the net tape, a likely ace had it gone over. Not too far from Center Court, England is about to edge New Zealand in a super-over to win the Cricket World Cup.

In the third round of the U.S. Open, eventual champion Emma Raducanu beat Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-0, 6-1. There were 93 points played in the match, with Raducanu winning 60. Sorribes Tormo won just over 1/3 of the points played, yet she won 1/13 of the games played. Such is the nature of tennis’s unforgiving scoring system: play your best on the big points, or the points you win will cease to mean anything.

Returning to the backhand example, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas clashed in the Australian Open semifinals this year. Medvedev’s backhand is one of the very best in the world, even statistically outperforming Novak Djokovic’s in the final of that tournament. Tsitsipas’s, by comparison, has some holes, most notably when he is pushed wide and on the return.

From this, it seems like Medvedev’s backhand would always overcome Tsitsipas’s, either by forcing an error or outlasting it. But tennis swings on errors. Medvedev’s backhand isn’t perfect: his mistakes might be few and far between, but they do happen. Tsitsipas might take a chance with his backhand and hit a shot down the line. This might not be reliable, he might miss often, but it does happen.

Take this 25-shot rally from the match. Shots 3-10 and shots 14-20 see the players trade backhands. The first ad-court exchange ends when Tsitsipas hits a short slice, leading Medvedev to attack with a crosscourt forehand. The lack of pace and proximity to the line on the forehand, plus Tsitsipas’s speed, allow the Greek to get to the ball fairly easily, so the rally goes on. The second ad-court exchange ends as Tsitsipas cracks a backhand down the line, forcing Medvedev into a running forehand. Finally, the rally concludes as Medvedev chases down a sub-optimal drop shot and lifts a backhand winner into the open court.

Medvedev’s decision to move to the right of the service line to hit a backhand on shot seven is an odd one, and might just be a weird lapse in judgment, but his immense trust in the consistency of his backhand may well have had something to do with it.

It’s been established that Medvedev has the better backhand, but from this rally, you might not know it. In professional tennis, the margins are so small. Tsitsipas’s short slice, while a mini-loss in the mini-battle of the ad-court duel, wasn’t poor enough that Medvedev could end the rally with the ensuing forehand. Tsitsipas also made up for his lesser consistency on the backhand side by taking a chance with a down the line shot, which landed in.

This is one example, of course. Tsitsipas made plenty of backhand errors in this match. But even big discrepancies in shots on the tennis court often take some analysis to be made apparent. There are fans out there who don’t understand that Djokovic is a better returner than Federer (including yours truly for quite a while), which might seem insane at first glance. But there are commentators that don’t point this out; there have been matches in which Federer broke serve more than Djokovic; there have been matches where Djokovic returns better but the difference is small enough not to be obvious.

*****

This nature of tennis as an extremely competitive conglomerate of shots, where even shots clearly better than other shots don’t always come out on top, makes it hard to make sense of the sport. Sometimes, stuff happens that just makes very little sense. To return to the Federer-Djokovic rivalry, there’s the fact that across 50 matches, Federer has won 73.1% of points in which he makes a first serve. Then there’s the fact that at the U.S. Open semifinal in 2011 and the Wimbledon final in 2019, Federer had four match points, two in each match. He made first serves in three of them, and he lost all four of those points. A difference in mental strength? Sure. An anomaly? Maybe. Bad serves? In at least one case. All of this aligning, though, feels like only the beginning of an explanation as to how something like this can happen.

What is the answer to this question? I have no idea. Probably a mixture of confidence, a very calm mind, a lifetime of experience playing tennis and facing adversity, benefitting from a bad approach shot from Federer, and the well-practiced technical motions required to nail the pass. Maybe none of this was what made the difference. It says a lot, I think, that after the 2010 U.S. Open semifinal, Djokovic said simply that he was closing his eyes (!) and hitting his forehand as hard as he could.

These moments, and the reception to them, are interesting — it’s the other four-hours-plus of this match that’s easier to comment on. Djokovic having a poor day and Federer having a great one is explicable. Everyone has bad days on court; everyone has great days on court. This five-second point, though, is shrouded in mystique, even though Djokovic’s affinity for saving match points is well-known (especially against Federer). How often does Federer lose a point after making a first serve and hitting a forehand on the first shot? Not often. How often does someone make a passing shot, even a simple one, to save a match point? Not often. The odds of this outcome happening on this point seem so astronomically low that I think while we can theorize about why it happened, we’re really just guessing. We could write pages and pages on what we do know, yet this ability is overshadowed by the desire to pin down the things we don’t. It’s probably self-defeating at times, but it’s irresistible (think of Kyrgios unnecessarily hitting a tweener on a big point in an important match at a major).

All this adds to the intrigue of tennis. Not only is there a physical and mental trial, there’s this invisible, abstruse land in which amazing things happen on match points, or a player chokes violently as the finish line comes into view, or a random error at 2-3, 40-15 in a deciding set ends up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Trying to figure out the “why” of any of this is like standing in a pitch-black room with lights flashing intermittently, and with every new flash the exit has moved to a different place.

I’m as spellbound now by the mystique of tennis as I was when I initially started watching the sport, but I don’t feel as if I’m any closer to putting it into words. I don’t know that any players are, either. Part of the lack of meat to Djokovic’s answers is surely due to a desire to be classy, but when asked about his remarkable escape from the 2019 Wimbledon final, the Serb said this:

“In these kind of moments, I just try to never lose self-belief, just stay calm, just focus on trying to get the ball back.” 

And this:

"It was kind of a flashback to US Open when I saved the two match points against him, as well."

I mean, does this really tell us anything? This is how the man with the best view of this holy-shit moment describes one of the biggest moments in tennis history? What I want to see is an explanation, something that logically breaks down the illogical, something like this:

"My god, I'm in shock. The 2011 U.S. Open semifinals felt like a one-time thing. To save two match points against one of the most difficult serves to read ever required me to lie to myself, to think that there was nothing on the line instead of a 15th major title. Had I not done that, I could never have landed that passing shot inches away from the line. Imagining getting nervous at that moment and hitting the pass miles out makes me shudder. The experience was terrifying; I might have a good return game, but the returner usually has so little control over how points get played against a serve as good as Federer's. I was fortunate that Federer missed his first serve on match point #1 and hit a central first serve on match point #2, and I hit good returns on both points, plus the passing shot. I think Federer had to have remembered the U.S. Open, otherwise he'd probably have won the game even from deuce. But even knowing all that, it feels like all the planets in the universe had to align for me to win this match." 

Even an answer that complex doesn’t get much closer to explaining what happened. Plus, Djokovic probably doesn’t have much motivation to guess. On some level, he knows how he did it, even if he can’t explain it. We know players aren’t the ones to ask about this kind of thing. David Foster Wallace theorizes that the ability to perform these impossibles is inextricably tied to the inability to describe them. I would agree, and posit that maybe it’s because the player’s sole motivation is winning, not figuring out how to win after they have won. The fans are probably the ones best equipped to answer their own queries.

Rafael Nadal gives several interesting thoughts on his 2018 Wimbledon loss to Djokovic in an uncommonly instructive press conference.

*****

Maybe explaining things is just an insufficient way of communicating understanding. Since I’m not a professional tennis player, I can only look to other areas of life as a comparison. From what I can tell as a relatively unexperienced 20-year-old, love is another uncommunicable topic. It seems like even those who end up in happy partnerships for life get there by experiencing painful disappointment after painful disappointment, then a combination of the knowledge from failed relationships and luck result in a happy ending. But even if the process is evident, things have to be felt, not heard. “It will hurt” falls way short of explaining the dozens of moments when it feels like a vacuum is sucking the air out of your chest, resulting in a sensation somewhere between vertigo and anxiety. If experience is indeed the best teacher, tennis fans who aren’t professional players will never understand what they want to know. (Speaking for myself, at least. Other armchair analysts might miraculously start hitting their backhand like Djokovic, but I know it won’t happen to me.)

It’s a frustrating bind — players know the answers but can’t put them into words (maybe there aren’t words to communicate these answers), fans want the answers but have no means to find them. Those who want the key to the door have to work hard to even find clues to its location; those who know where the key is have no desire to go get it. The contrast seems like a slightly-less-morbid version of the coffin riddle.

Maybe David Foster Wallace’s theory — that dry answers like Djokovic’s are actually extremely thorough, such is the ability of the athlete to vacate the mind — is the perfect resolution to this annoying puzzle. But seeing an incredibly rich and vivid series of shots play out on court, then get summarized with “I got lucky on a few of the big points” is endlessly irking. I feel like there must be more to it than what’s been said, even if that information is in a place that no one will ever reach.

I plan on trying to find it for as long as I remain a tennis fan.

Losing to a Tournament’s Eventual Champion: Part Two (WTA)

By Jack Edward

Part One can be found here.

Welcome to the last part in our ‘Losing to a Tournament’s Eventual Champion’ series.

I take it you know how this works by now – you wanna get down to the nitty-gritty of the players that couldn’t stop losing to TECs, the real casualties of the tour…

I GET IT.

You want me to shut up and get on with it…

Have it your way!

Joint-Second: Six Losses

At joint-second, we have three players with six losses to TECs this year! Our first two share similar(ish) stories…

Ons Jabeur (#10):

  1. Sabalenka in Abu Dhabi (3R)
  2. Osaka at the Australian Open (3R)
  3. Sharma at MUSC Health Open (F)
  4. Ostapenko in Eastbourne (2R)
  5. Muguruza at the Chicago Fall Classic (F)
  6. Badosa in Indian Wells (SF)

Barbora Krejčíková (#5):

  1. Muguruza in Dubai (F)
  2. Świątek in Rome (3R)
  3. Barty at Wimbledon (4R)
  4. Bencic at the Olympics (3R)
  5. Barty in Cincinnati (QF)
  6. Badosa in Indian Wells (3R)

Both Jabeur and Krejčíková broke out this year, the latter of course taking the French Open title. 

Amidst all of their winning, they happened to run into tough opponents early in tournaments – Jabeur was particularly unlucky to run into Sabalenka, Osaka and Ostapenko in Abu Dhabi, Australia and Eastbourne, respectively. 

The warning signs were there for Krejčíková’s opponents after she’d narrowly missed two match points against Iga Świątek in Rome. It was after winning the French Open that Krejčíková will be feeling most aggrieved – despite the ranking bump, Krejčíková lost to Barty at Wimbledon and Cincinnati, lost early to Bencic at the Olympics and was taken down by Badosa in the third-round of Indian Wells.

Both players deserved better than this surely?

Then there’s *ahem*…

Katerina Siniakova (#49):

  1. Gauff in Parma (SF)
  2. Kerber in Bad Homburg (F)
  3. Barty at Wimbledon (3R)
  4. Krejčíková in Prague (QF)
  5. Kontaveit in Cleveland (QF)
  6. Kontaveit in Moscow (1R)

Poor Siniaková definitely didn’t deserve this. Like Alexandrova in part one, Siniaková was repeatedly handed shite draws, Barty in the third-round of Wimbledon being the hardest to stomach and the end of her season spoilt by two losses to Kontaveit in red-hot form. 

Here’s hoping a change in fortune awaits the world #49 in 2022!

First: Seven Losses

And finally…

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (#11):

  1. Osaka at the Australian Open (1R)
  2. Kasatkina at the Phillip Island Trophy (3R)
  3. Kvitova in Qatar (2R)
  4. Sabalenka in Madrid (SF)
  5. Krejčíková at the French Open (F)
  6. Ostapenko in Eastbourne (1R)
  7. Bencic at the Olympics (QF)

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova tops the list with seven losses to a TEC this season!

The Russian couldn’t catch a break at the start of the season, her loss to Osaka in the first-round of the Australian Open probably the worst of the lot. Even after reaching the top-20 following the French Open, she was given a cruel first-round against Ostapenko in Eastbourne and came up against an inspired Bencic in Tokyo.

What was a good season could have been a great season if she’d been more fortunate. Fingers crossed for 2022…

Losing to a TEC in 2021

That’s it!

Of all the players mentioned, I feel the most sympathetic towards Siniaková. She lost a lot of close matches this year to superb players, surely deserving a higher spot than #49 in the world. 

Kateřina Siniaková shakes hands with Ash Barty after a 3-6, 5-7 loss in the third round of the 2021 Wimbledon Championships. Photo credit: Getty Images

Do you feel sorry for any of these players or is there a black void where your emotions should be? I can’t help you out in the case of the latter I’m afraid.

Do you want to know your own favourite player’s record this season? This I can help you with – shoot me a wee tweet and I’ll gladly respond (@jackedward1994)!

Speak soon,

Jack

Jack Edward can be found @jackedward1994 on Twitter. He is the author of the ‘On The Line’ blog and the host of the On The Line Tennis Podcast. His work features plenty more deep statistical dives and a very fine attention to detail. You can check out each of his creations here.

Tennis Origin Story #15: Vansh Vermani

By Vansh Vermani

This essay was originally written in 2017 as a school assignment.

The dumpster is associated with filth, disgust, and rotten food. I reminisce about the fondest memories of my childhood, which all started at the local dumpster, two blocks from my house. It was one sweltering hot summer day in 2008. The sun shone brightly overhead and the sweat poured down my forehead as I slouched in my front yard in boredom. No person in sight, no friends, and no routine. 

Life in the summer was getting dreadful and I was dying to go back to school. With nothing better to do, I walked down the street, wanting to lie down in the grass two blocks from my house, to cool off in the shade. I walked past the cul-de-sac and noticed something peculiar lying flat on top of the local dusty green dumpster. I picked it up and stared in awe at it. It was an old Prince tennis racquet. What was a perfectly good tennis racquet doing on top of the dumpster? Without any qualms, my little seven-year old self picked it up and ran back home. It reminded me of the tracquet that my dad used when he played tennis with his friends on Saturdays. The intricate pattern of the strings and its complex design and colorful frame aroused my curiosity about the game of tennis. I wanted to learn how to hit the tennis ball with the strings. So I moved some boxes around in the garage until there was an open space to run and move. With the space in front of the cabinets now clear, I grabbed a tennis ball and watched as I whacked it as hard as I could with the racquet strings. Almost like a golf swing. From then on, I would hit against the cabinets everyday for hours and hours upon end. My hands would tire and my palms would blister from so much practice. This did not deter me. The whole house had to endure the sounds of the ball cracking the cabinets with immense force. Despite the cacophony, my parents were satisfied I had finally found something to do. 

Playing against a wall gives a tennis player a unique opportunity to get a feel for the sweet spot of the racquet. The physics of tennis begins at the foundation of this central spot. As I hit the ball for hours, I started to turn earlier and plant my feet in position at just the perfect moment so I could transfer my weight as the contact of the strings and the ball was straight ahead. I felt like Superman for a second. I practiced coiling my shoulders as I took the racquet back parallel to the ground, and turned sideways. I used my hips and shoulders to rotate my whole body while the shot was being hit. This was the start of my own version of a tennis swing. It was certainly exhilarating as the adrenaline rushed through my veins while I tried to compete against the wall, a contest I was destined to lose every time. I eventually made up my own unique hand-eye coordination drills with the wall, as I would hit backwards or behind the back. It was all physically exhausting yet engaging, as my eyes never wandered from the tennis ball. 

Weeks and weeks of constant and repetitive sound of the ball hitting against the cabinet was all that could be heard as my parents left for work in the morning and came back in the evening. I had found a true passion, and the real tennis hadn’t even begun yet. Little by little, tennis was becoming the love of my life. I was constantly practicing the swinging motion whenever idle, such as when walking around the house. Then, after about six months of playing this kind of tennis-squash in the garage, at 8 years old, I went to an actual tennis court for the first time with my father and his friends. Amazed at its symmetry, I started running around like a kid in a candy store. It was much different than I had imagined. The tennis court was vast from a distance but appeared to shrink as I took footsteps closer in. I noticed the two sidelines on each side of the net, as my dad explained the difference between the singles and doubles alley. I watched in awe as my dad and his friends moved around the court. Looking back now, I realize how flawed their technique was, but their relentless will and determination to keep the ball in play allowed for many intriguing rallies and unpredictable shots.

Obviously not the Prince racquet, but a symbol of how I got into tennis nonetheless!

A few days later, the following week, my father and his friends were in our house watching a legendary tennis match: a historic contest lasting almost 5 hours between the two best players in the history of the sport. Sitting down with my dad that day I watched the agony and ecstasy of tennis. We were witnessing the mesmerizing 2008 Wimbledon final between Rafael Nadal, a powerful and muscular Spaniard with an irresistible amount of tenacity, and Roger Federer, the Swiss maestro.  Federer was a five-time Wimbledon winner who glided around the court effortlessly. At the same time, he was ultra-aggressive with all his strokes, always rushing his opponent. The Swiss champion’s textbook all-round game coupled with the flair and relentless fighting spirit of his Spanish rival was a masterpiece to the eye. It was a contrast of styles, an intriguing match-up hailed as the “beauty and the beast” of tennis. After this nearly 5-hour classic showdown was over, it was hailed by many pundits as the greatest grass court match ever witnessed in tennis history. Rafael Nadal became the first Spaniard in 42 years to capture the Wimbledon crown, and did it over his greatest rival, Roger Federer, denying him a chance to win it for the sixth straight time.

I felt motivated and inspired by these two greats of the game, who used every ounce of their energy on the court. I had my heart set on becoming a professional tennis player. I was willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve it, and I wasn’t going to stop until the day I tasted the bitter-sweet grass at the lawns of Wimbledon and held up the grand slam trophy. How ironic that a dumpster, a receptacle for unwanted and discarded waste, would become the source of my new ambition and motivation for success.  My future was set in stone…until things began to steer away from me.

Tennis Origin Story #14: Owen Lewis

Melbourne, 2009. The Australian Open was coming to a scintillating end, with Rafael Nadal defying the limits of his physical endurance as well as fierce performances from Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer to win his first and only major title Down Under. Coincidentally, my family was on vacation in Melbourne that very week. We didn’t have tickets to the tournament, but my parents were spellbound watching those last two matches on TV. My dad rooted for Federer in the final, my mom for Nadal. 

My seven-year-old-self was asleep in the next room of our hotel. 

Most of what I remember from that week was the insane heat. Every day we were there, I think, the temperature hit at least 43 degrees Celsius. It topped out at 47 — 117 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest weather I’ve experienced to date. The simple act of stepping off an air-conditioned bus into the thick heat made me tired. I recall a kind stranger wafting air towards me with her fan and being grateful, but too lethargic to express my thanks beyond a weary smile.

While I was longing for stronger air conditioning, Rafa was racing around Rod Laver Arena in the slightly cooler night temperatures. He won his semifinal and final in five sets, playing for over nine hours across the two matches. Around eleven years after this, I watched his semifinal match with Verdasco in full on YouTube. For five hours and 14 minutes, I was spellbound: at the lefty patterns, at Verdasco’s bravery to go for risky winners constantly (he would hit 95 of them before double faulting on match point), at Nadal’s willingness to sprint for bullets or tightly angled shots until the last ball. It was the greatest tennis match I had ever seen, its consistent quality easily exceeding that of the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final in 2008 in my view. (People seem to forget that Federer lost five straight games to lose the second set.)

Sadly, I had to wait a while before becoming a huge tennis fan. Had I stayed up late one summer night in 2009, it may have happened much earlier. I would have been able to watch the legendary five-hour, 53 minute Djokovic-Nadal clash, Serena Williams coming within inches of the Calendar Slam in 2015…I would have been able to witness the Golden Era. These hypotheticals are starting to bum me out, so let’s move on. 

*****

I actually have one other tennis memory from 2009 — my parents told me that Andy Roddick had lost to Roger Federer in a very close Wimbledon final. I was deeply disappointed. My family lived in New Zealand until early 2010, and while we still lived there, I had this idea that the US was the greatest place on Earth. I was born in Washington, D.C., and always wanted to move back. In a moment of unfortunate irony, I didn’t realize that New Zealand was actually preferable to me, with nicer people and better food, until we actually did return to the States. But in 2009, my America-bias was still raging, so I was sad about Roddick losing. 

“Will he ever have a chance to win another one?” I recall asking my parents in a moment of distress. 

“Probably not,” they responded. It was my first taste of how infuriatingly conclusive tennis matches can be. Some create intrigue for the next matchup; others seem to say the winner could have won by even more, and they’re never going to lose to that opponent again. Still others are more about the stage than the result, and in retrospect, it was apparent Roddick’s last, best chance to win a Wimbledon final had passed. (Roddick at least got that elusive win over Federer in Miami three years later, though I was unaware of it at the time.)

In 2013, I started taking tennis lessons at a club, where my peers would mention professional players. I didn’t follow tennis myself, but Tennis Channel would play inside the club, so I would inevitably catch bits of whatever match from the archives was playing. As the Federer-Djokovic rivalry ramped up towards the end of the 2015, I recall rooting for Federer out of sheer name recognition from that Roddick memory six years prior. Federer had been the best back then, so I wanted him to be the best now. As Djokovic repeatedly beat Federer at the majors, my preferences strengthened. I didn’t want Djokovic to catch Federer in the head-to-head; I didn’t want him to win any more majors. Federer kept going deep in the big events, but why couldn’t he beat Djokovic? It annoyed me, and I didn’t even watch these matches, I only heard about the results.

*****

Federer-Djokovic might have drawn my attention towards tennis, but the first tennis I watched at length was the Wawrinka-Murray semifinal at Roland-Garros in 2016. It wasn’t the amazing physicality of elite clay tennis that stuck out to me while I watched, it was the scoring system. The fight. As I watched Murray put on a virtuoso display to take a two-set lead on Wawrinka, I craved more drama. I wanted a closer match. With Murray cruising, it didn’t look likely. In the third set, though, Wawrinka started going for more on his shots. He fist-pumped often, pointing to his head and shouting “allez!” The celebrations didn’t strike me as over-the-top, they looked incredibly cool and confident.

I was spellbound. Here was a player who was clearly dead in the water, yet he was playing and acting as if he could still win. If he was faking it, he was a fantastic actor. Not only that, but the sport was telling me that no matter how far behind someone was, if they started to play better than their opponent, comebacks were possible. This wasn’t the case in several other sports. Tennis, I could already tell, was something special. 

Wawrinka won the third set — giving me hope — and lost the fourth to another burst of error-free tennis from Murray. I remember watching Murray knock clay off his shoes with his racket before serving and thinking he looks invincible, a feeling that stuck with me for hours after the match. I remember Martina Navratilova casually saying “flawless tennis” as a stat popped up showing Murray had made something like two unforced errors in the fourth set. Djokovic might be the #1 seed, I thought, but there’s no way this guy is losing the final. 

Murray did lose, of course, despite winning the first set. I was irritated at how big the difference evidently was between the #3, #2, and #1 seeded players. And Djokovic’s tennis, even more solid in its metronomic reliability than Murray’s, annoyed me as well (though I did admire the disguise on his backhand drop shots). There was also an allure to my frustration, though. Those seeding numbers clearly had to have been earned, matches clearly had to be closed out even after building leads. Plus, the way Djokovic had fallen to the clay after winning the final had been intriguing. I wanted to see a celebration like that again. 

After Roland-Garros, I started to watch the ATP players at the majors with increasing frequency. At Wimbledon in 2016, I got to watch Federer in real time for the first time. I loved his coolness on court, which made it more special when he fist-pumped or yelled. I loved the crisp sound of racket meeting ball when he was connecting cleanly with his groundstrokes. He beat Marin Čilić from two sets down, saving three match points. It was incredible. The next round brought me crashing down to earth: Federer lost to Milos Raonic, squandering a two-sets-to-one lead and getting injured early in the fifth set. I was devastated — at the blown lead, the injury, and at Raonic’s comparatively flat final performance after his dynamic takedown of Federer. The sadness didn’t kill my enthusiasm for the sport, though. I watched more men’s tennis through 2017, being thrilled at Federer’s legendary Australian Open victory and taking plenty of schadenfreude from his revenge win over Raonic in the Wimbledon quarterfinals that year.

In 2018, the Australian Open on the women’s side wowed me as Halep, Kerber, and Wozniacki showed near-superhuman endurance to play a plethora of epic matches. The Halep-Kerber semifinal, in particular, blew my mind. Both players saved two match points in the middle of the deciding set, one with a winner and one via the opponent’s unforced error. The symmetry was stunning, and it had happened in the middle of a set of some of the most amazing long rallies I had ever seen. Halep eventually fell two games short of winning the title after playing for three and a half hours to beat Lauren Davis in the third round, then another two hours and 20 minutes to beat Kerber in the best match of the tournament. It was one of the best physical efforts I had seen, leaving me devastated for Halep despite not rooting for her at the outset of the tournament. After this Australian Open, I watched both men’s and women’s tennis. 

Besides this video coming from one of the best matches of 2018 and of the 2010s in general, rarely does a major put this much effort into making a good highlight package. If you won’t watch this because of my recommendation, please watch it simply because of that.

*****

The more tennis I watched, the more I felt my preferences between players fade. I still considered Federer my favorite player through the end of 2018, but over time tennis became less about him and more about the sport. It wasn’t that Federer ever did anything that made me like him less, it was just that I started to notice and like other players as well.

My interest was also drawn more towards tactics as I watched more epics. When I saw a great match, I wanted to understand as much about it as possible: I wanted to read articles breaking down the crucial stretches, I wanted to hear the players talk about what went right and wrong. My hunger to consume tennis media was often unsatisfied by what was out there, so I decided to try my hand at tennis writing. 

My articles were confused at first, but over time I started to think about how I wanted to write when I watched matches, which I think made my writing more tightly tailored to what was happening on court. I still struggle with organization and outlining my pieces, but I’m happy with how far I’ve come in the two and a half years since I started writing about tennis. 

During the pandemic, Andre Rolemberg contacted me on Twitter to see if I wanted to make a guest appearance to talk GOATs on his podcast, Tennis and Bagels. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been engaging in some pretty involved debates on Twitter around that time, but someone was seeking out my point of view on the subject? I can still remember how nervous I was — I sweated a lot — but I had a great time. Looking back on that time compared to where I am now is a bit surreal; I’m now a co-host of Tennis and Bagels with Andre and another good friend, Vansh Vermani. 

From the archives.

*****

In March this year, I was procrastinating on work and reading articles by Juan José Vallejo. Many of his pieces were written at the analytical level I wanted to read; I learned a lot from his tactical breakdowns. Plus, his pieces lacked the vexing I-don’t-want-to-offend-anyone-so-I’ll-avoid-saying-anything-interesting-at-all spirit present in so many mainstream articles. I went through Juan José’s pieces pretty quickly and wondered if he’d written any more things. Before long, I came across The Changeover. Juan José had something like 200 pieces up on the site, and there were many other fantastic articles by the other co-founders, Lindsay Gibbs and Amy Fetherolf, plus new writers who had joined the site over time. I read and reread Juan José’s LiveAnalysis pieces. I found an article Lindsay wrote about the social media endeavors of Fernando Verdasco (on his Facebook page, he wrote an exclamation point after his name) and couldn’t stop laughing. I pored over the pieces for weeks, loving everything I read and being inspired to take my own writing to the next level. 

A couple months later, I applied for a media credential at the Newport 250 ATP tournament, though I would only be able to be on-site for two days. In a pinch-me moment, my request was accepted. I spent the night before the first day of the tournament doing research on everyone in the draw to write in a little notebook, then reading Juan José’s on-site coverage of the 2013 Houston 250 for inspiration. Like with my first podcast appearance, I was incredibly nervous — I walked past Blair Henley, who I recognized from Twitter, and was too shy to say anything — but loosened up with time. I talked to Kevin Anderson, I watched Jenson Brooksby beat Evgeny Donskoy. I consumed far too many blue Jolly Ranchers in the media room and didn’t use the bathroom at all on the second day. I wrote eight articles in just over two days. The experience was one of the best I’ve had, reaffirming a realization I had come to a while earlier: I wanted to be a tennis journalist.

This is a photo I took of Kevin Anderson serving at the Hall of Fame Open in Newport. I tend to be bored by matches involving a huge server when I watch tennis on TV, but watching a tall player (or anyone) blast aces in person is quite an experience.

Midway through the tournament, I messaged Juan José to see if he wanted to guest on Tennis and Bagels. I had wanted to talk to him since reading his pieces way back in March, but wasn’t able to muster up the courage. Sitting in the stands on the show court in Newport, the time seemed good — I wouldn’t have been where I was without taking the chance to apply for a credential. He agreed to come on the podcast, leading to a three-hour conversation containing pretty much everything I had wanted to say, a rare example of when a highly anticipated event ends up being as great as it is in the head beforehand. Again, I was absurdly nervous prior to the Zoom, but I had no reason to be — he was incredibly cool. 

It’s this spirit that I’m going to try to embody moving forward. Tennis doesn’t inspire the live-and-die-with-your-player feeling in me that it used to, but there are new areas of the sport I’ve been able to explore, and even more that I want to in the future.

I might have missed the end of the 2009 Australian Open, but the Happy Slam has since become my favorite tournament to watch — fresh players battling it out on ocean-blue courts with relatively unproblematic crowds shouting from the stands. It’s my goal to one day return to Melbourne to cover the tournament. Like Nadal in 2009, Halep in 2018, Djokovic in 2012, Federer in 2017 and so many other champions, I hope to leave nothing on the table as I pursue my goal.

Losing to a Tournament’s Eventual Champion: Part One (WTA)

By Jack Edward

As you may have already seen, I released a couple of pieces on Popcorn Tennis detailing the ATP players that had lost the most times to a tournament’s eventual champion (TEC).

Having come to some pretty interesting conclusions on the men’s side, it would be remiss of me to overlook the WTA.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Before we dive in, please note this does not include team/exclusive entry events/tournaments that didn’t finish i.e. WTA Finals/BJK Cup/ATP Cup!

Now without further ado…

Joint-Fourth: Four Losses

At four losses each to a TEC, 14 players made it to joint-fourth on our list.

Too many to rifle through the lot but at a quick glance…

  1. Muguruza (#3)
  2. Ka. Plíšková (#4)
  3. Sakkari (#6)
  4. Rybakina (#14)
  5. Mertens (#21)
  6. Gauff (#22)
  7. Bencic (#23)
  8. Kasatkina (#26)
  9. Azarenka (#27)
  10. Collins (#29)
  11. Vondroušová (#35)
  12. Garcia (#74)
  13. Bouzková (#89)
  14. Kozlova (#144)

Unsurprisingly, the top-10 are comprised solely of top-30 players with Vondroušová sneaking the #11 spot at #35 in the world.

It’s worth taking a closer look at our last three players, however, who made the list despite being ranked outside of the top-70!

Caroline Garcia:

  1. Mertens at the Gippsland Trophy (3R)
  2. Osaka at the Australian Open (2R)
  3. Krejčíková in Strasbourg (2R)
  4. Kontaveit in Cleveland (2R)

Caroline Garcia’s gruelling comeback continues. Though she played some shockers this year, her fans can take plenty heart in knowing she was frequently handed some pretty tough draws.

Marie Bouzková:

  1. Barty at the Yarra Valley Classic (3R)
  2. Kasatkina at the Phillip Island Trophy (F)
  3. SST in Guadalajara (SF)
  4. Tauson in Luxembourg (QF)

Marie Bouzková started the year with a bang, only being beaten by some of the best players in the world in the first few tournaments of the year before losing a lot of momentum.

Kateryna Kozlova:

  1. Cirstea in Instabul (1R)
  2. Konta in Nottingham (3R)
  3. Putintseva in Budapest (SF)
  4. Zanevska in Gdynia (SF)

Kateryna Kozlova, ranked as low as #144 in the world, lost to four TECs this year! Istanbul and Nottingham were particularly unlucky – when she did make deep runs in Budapest and Gdynia, it took three sets and the TECs to put a stop to her.

Joint-Third: Five Losses

Two players share joint-third on five losses to a TEC.

Elina Svitolina (#15):

  1. Mertens at the Gippsland Trophy (QF)
  2. Barty at the Miami Open (SF)
  3. Barty in Stuttgart (SF)
  4. Świątek in Rome (QF)
  5. Krejčíková at the French Open (3R)

Bar an Olympic bronze (still essentially a glorified semifinalist), by her standards, Svitolina had a pretty unremarkable 2021. Gael will take heart in some closely contested matches against these TECs, serving for the match against Barty in Stuttgart and pushing Mertens to a match tiebreak at the Gippsland Trophy.

Ekaterina Alexandrova (#34):

  1. Tauson in Lyon (2R)
  2. Krejčíková in Strasbourg (QF)
  3. Krejčíková at the French Open (2R)
  4. Tauson in Luxembourg (2R)
  5. Kontaveit in Moscow (F)

Alexandrova had a ton of good wins this season but unfortunately this didn’t translate to a ton of deep tournament runs. In fairness to her, she came up against both Krejčíková and Tauson twice whilst they were ranked relatively low. In her one final of the year, she came the closest of anyone to beating Kontaveit indoors but ultimately lost from a set and a double break up.

She’s been trapped in top-30-to-40 purgatory for three years now – her luck will surely change at some point!

Losing to a TEC in 2021

Let’s go a bit easier on these folks, eh? Particularly Garcia and Alexandrova, who have had some very tough draws this year.

Okay, after your moment of silence for our poor TEC-victims, you’re probably hungry to find out who has been even more aggrieved than them.

You sick bastards.

Join us in part two for the three players in joint-second and the ONE player in first. Any guesses?

Jack

Jack Edward can be found @jackedward1994 on Twitter. He is the author of the ‘On The ‘Line’ blog and the host of the On The Line Tennis Podcast. His work features plenty more deep statistical dives and a very fine attention to detail. You can check out each of his creations here.