During the week of July 25, a WTA 250 tournament on hard courts was played in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, to begin preparations for the North American swing prior to the U.S. Open. This event had one of the weakest entry lists of the year in terms of the average ranking of the players of the main draw, but there are some peculiarities that made Prague very special: seven Czechs were part of the main draw and three of the qualifying (showing the power of women’s tennis in that country, which is taking the place of Russia during the 2000s as the new great factory of players), and of the 32 players who competed, 10 were born in 2001 or later.
Of these young players, one reached the final, two the semifinals, three the quarterfinals, and five the second round. And actually, from those five, four got their first ever tour level win there, and all within less than three hours on July 26th: Selekhmeteva beat Cîrstea, Nosková beat Vikhlyantseva, Šalková beat In-Albon, and Havlíčková beat Palicová.
Bouzková ended up being the champion of this tournament. Remarkably, in the final, she hit a total of ZERO winners, something unprecedented in the recent history of the WTA. But the important thing for this story is which players she faced on her way to the title in the Czech capital.
1R → Kraus, 2002, 20 years old (6-2 7-62)
2R → Šalková, 2004, 18 years old (6-1 6-2)
QF → Selekhmeteva, 2003, 19 years old (6-3 6-0)
SF → Nosková, 2004, 17 years old (7-64 6-3)
F → Potapova, 2001, 21 years old (6-0 6-3)
Bouzková beat five players all born in the twenty-first century, all under the age of twenty-two! This is the first time this has happened, not only in the WTA, but in professional tennis in general — an obvious sign of the sudden change that is coming in the tour.
II: The Top 10
In recent years, the word that has probably been used most to describe the women’s tennis circuit is “inconsistency”. The feeling that top players are not reliable when it comes to having strong results and reaching the last rounds of big tournaments, especially Grand Slams, has become widespread in the audience of this sport (often in a tone that is not at all constructive, but contemptuous and dismissive). Since 2017, of the 22 Grand Slams played, ten — almost half — were won by players outside the Top 10, including four by players ranked not even in the top 50 (Ostapenko, Stephens, Świątek and Raducanu). When these numbers are compared to those of the ATP, where basically all the major titles have been shared between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the conclusions are not auspicious for the WTA.
During Roland-Garros this year, the debate grew even more after world number one Iga Świątek was the only one of the top ten seeds to make it to just the fourth round. All the other nine lost in one of their first three matches. At Wimbledon, the situation was not much better: only Ons Jabeur, the eventual finalist, and Paula Badosa reached the round of sixteen to represent the top 10 seeds.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that the WTA playing best-of-three in majors, rather than best-of-five for the men, cuts down on their margin for error, resulting in more upsets. But the reason behind the frequent upsets is deeper than just that.
During the French Open I did some research to try to explain the disappointing performances from the top players. I indicated three other factors:
The terrible design of the WTA calendar during the clay swing (the thirty-two women’s seeds played on average just three tournaments and seven matches on the surface prior to Roland Garros, which contrasts sharply with the five tournaments and twelve matches of the men).
The distortion existing in the rankings due to the disappearance or absence of points from big tournaments because of event cancellation (only seven of the nine WTA 1000 were contested last year, the WTA Finals was suspended in 2020, and the WTA Elite Trophy has not been played since 2019 and probably will not be held this year either) and the sudden retirement of Ashleigh Barty, who was the world number one, reigning champion of two Grand Slams, one WTA 1000 and two WTA 500 tournaments when she retired.
The generational shift.
III: The generational shift
These were the names of the Top 10 players in early November 2020, less than two years ago: Barty, Halep, Osaka, Kenin, Svitolina, Plíšková, Andreescu, Kvitová, Bertens and Serena. How many are today, just 21 months later, inside that same group? NONE. Two are retired. Another will retire in less than a month. Four are outside the Top 20. One is even outside the Top 400. Only Halep and Plíšková can say that they are still in the Top 20 today. (With her strong performance in Montreal, Halep will re-enter the top 10 shortly.) This exercise can be extended to several other players who also were a big part of the WTA for the best part of a decade, such as Azarenka or Kerber.
We got used to seeing these names for years at the top of the rankings, and while not all of them won too many Grand Slam titles (or even one), all were established players in the elite of women’s tennis.
And then the pandemic break came. Of the twelve names mentioned, since 2021, only Barty and Osaka have won a 1000-level title or something bigger. Does this mean that the rest were inconsistent or worse players? Not at all. Quite the opposite. But age comes for everyone, and many of the aforementioned players have already reached thirty years of age. The four months when the tour was suspended saw them lose all the competitive rhythm they had from ten years ago. And when they returned, they met at least thirty or forty players of an extremely even and remarkably elevated level (the depth of talent in the WTA is a reality), all of them younger and fitter. Just watch Leylah Fernandez outlast Kerber in the U.S. Open fourth round last year. In addition, the accumulated mental fatigue is greater for the older players.
After Miami 2022, Plíšková was the only one of these twelve players left in the Top 10. The other nine? Świątek, Krejčíková, Badosa, Sákkari, Sabalenka, Kontaveit, Collins, Muguruza and Jabeur, SEVEN of whom first entered this group after May 2021. In plain terms, in less than a single year, essentially the entire top 10 got replaced. The “old guard” said goodbye to the elite positions so suddenly, and to top it all off, the only player who was giving a firm sense of stability–Barty–retired with little warning. The top of the WTA tour was left to seven players inexperienced in being one of the best in the world.
Obviously, the transition was not going to be easy for this group. Normally, when entering the Top 10, one finds five or six experienced women who have been there for years. But in this case, all eyes and demands for great results fell on players who were just getting their best historical positions. Do you think that if Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer had retired in 2017, Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and company would have had much time to consolidate themselves before the masses started to demand that they win big titles, as people do for the WTA? Not at all. Having a firm star at the top gives a sense of security and tranquility to those who lie slightly lower in the rankings, as it does not immediately put them in the eye of public scrutiny and lets them continue on a slow but upward path, without great responsibilities.
IV: The future of the WTA
Apart from Iga Świątek and Emma Raducanu, who are both around the age of twenty, the top 10 has an average age of twenty-six. There is still an entire generation of players under them waiting and preparing for their opportunity. And I am convinced that they will not miss it. The women born in 2000 could not be more promising.
I already mentioned ten, and they were only those who competed in Prague, who also have a relatively low ranking in general. To those can be added:
Those who have been on the tour for years, which has made us lose perspective on their achievements → Świątek, Gauff, Anisimova, Andreescu…
A group momentarily of second category, but that in no way can be discarded for the future → Potapova, Li, Gracheva, Juvan, Kostyuk, Wang Xinyu, Wang Xiyu…
The upcoming young prodigies → Erika and Mirra Andreeva, Linda and Brenda Fruhvirtová, Jiménez Kasintseva, Bejlek, Shnaider, Eala, Marčinko, Bartůňková…
We are in a transition process that under normal circumstances would take five or six years to be completed, but the pandemic has accelerated it. An entire generation of female players saw their places in the ultimate elite of women’s tennis upended in a moment. The puzzle that the WTA had managed to put together and consolidate for years was completely dismantled in just a few months. And some of the pieces that, almost by obligation, came to replace them, barely had time to adapt to their new positions. Here we must be a little patient. The pieces of that puzzle will be consolidated little by little, and those that arrive in the meantime will be enriching additions. The depth of talent in the WTA is undeniable. I hope the organization and its fans are aware of the tremendous opportunity they have to promote these new names and to grow this sport once and for all as it deserves, instead of waiting for generational stars to appear as if by magic.
Li Na, the winner of two Grand Slam titles, might have retired back in 2014, but her legacy goes on with many other Chinese women among the top echelon of the game. A trio between the ages of 19 and 21–Qinwen Zheng, Xiyu Wang, and Xinyu Wang–have already broken the top 100, joining Shuai Zhang and Lin Zhu. Former World No. 12 Qiang Wang is having a bit of a decline this year, but also sits pretty close to the world’s best-hundred. Unfortunately, Shuai Peng has recently made headlines for reasons unrelated to tennis, but back in her prime, she led the WTA doubles rankings, a feat that the aforementioned Zhang could achieve with a good result in Toronto.
Despite all that amazing success for Chinese women, the country has never had a top 100 male player. The one that came closest was Zhizhen Zhang, peaking at World No. 136, edging Di Wu (140), and Ze Zhang (148). While the latter two are probably more or less out of the picture by now (Wu hasn’t played since the pandemic, Ze Zhang is sporadically showing up on the ITF circuit), Zhizhen Zhang is still very much in the running to be his country’s first top 100 player on the men’s side. It could be a real race between him, Yibing Wu, and Juncheng Shang as all three claimed ATP Challenger Tour titles across the past month.
Junior star developing at an amazing pace
Let’s start from the teenage prodigy Shang, who has just claimed his maiden Challenger title at the age of 17. The summer before, he made it to the top of the ITF Junior Rankings and while he wasn’t able to capitalize on it with a Grand Slam title (lost the US Open final to Daniel Rincon), soon enough he was simply too good for the under-18 circuit. Shang won four titles in his first eight ITF Men’s Tennis Tour main draw appearances, which quickly allowed him to play a Challenger-oriented schedule, even if in most cases he had to start from the qualifying.
Truth be told, until Lexington last week, it wasn’t even going that well. Shang’s game is still very much unpolished and doesn’t have that much consistent weight of shot. He’s not powerless though. When he unleashes on a forehand, it’s an extremely satisfying stroke. His skills of using some bits of that power to build up the point are still lacking, but there’s just a lot of natural talent and shotmaking capabilities.
Many Asian talents have struggled to take their games to the main tour in the past, mostly on their weak physicality. One could argue that even Kei Nishikori has suffered from that, despite making a Grand Slam final and getting to the top 5, he’s always struggling to keep himself injury-free. Shang’s still growing and maturing physically and hopefully, he can avoid these issues in the future plus develop his game in that way.
He comes from a sporting family. The father, Shang Yi, made a couple of appearances for the Chinese national football team, while the mother, Wu Na, won three medals at the Table Tennis World Championships (including gold in Mixed Doubles 1997). Shang was spotted early by IMG and has been working at their campus in Florida for the past three years. In the last couple of weeks, he’s also added the former World No. 1 and Australian Open runner-up, Marcelo Rios, to his team. The Chilean legend will soon decide whether he wants to work with Shang long-term.
Coming back from a three-year-long hiatus way stronger than before
Yibing Wu was the Junior World No. 1 as well, achieving a pretty incredible feat back in 2017. He won the US Open boys’ singles and doubles titles, before going straight to a Challenger in Shanghai and winning that too. Unfortunately, it took a long while before this turned into any consistent pro tour results. Being extremely injury-prone, Wu had to schedule himself lightly and still wasn’t managing to stay in good shape. At the beginning of 2019, he started a hiatus from his playing career that ended up lasting almost three years.
It wasn’t just the injuries, the pandemic was obviously a factor as well. The aforementioned Shang probably wasn’t impacted by it that much living at the IMG Academy in the States, but a lot of Chinese pros disappeared off the tennis map (on another note, Wu is signed up with IMG too). From time to time, we’d only get reports about him competing (and winning) some all-Chinese exhibition tournaments.
The 22-year-old came back to professional sport this year and while in the middle of April he had just one ATP point, he’s already made another three hundred since. Wu currently owns a 30-4 win/loss record for the year and the crazy part is, three of these four losses have come via retirement (and two of them not even in losing positions, 5-5 vs Gage Brymer and 6-1 5-5 up on Shuichi Sekiguchi).
While it shows that fitness is still a problem for Wu, he’s simply been a beast this year, already adding three Challenger titles to his Shanghai crown from 2019. His return game is excellent, he’s got some truly amazing hand skills and generates a lot of power despite not seemingly having the biggest frame (while also staying consistent). He disappeared for three years only to return with a much more complete game and while it’s a shame we hadn’t seen him for so long, maybe this kind of run never would have happened without it.
Sudden clay breakthrough, incredible confidence
Zhizhen Zhang is in a much less developmental stage of his career. The 25-year-old won a couple of hard-court Challengers in China back in 2019, which helped him get to the aforementioned peak ranking of World No. 136. He wasn’t able to push on though and had a poor start to his 2020 campaign, before the pandemic really stopped him in his tracks again.
Unlike Shang and Wu, Zhang has already debuted in a Grand Slam main draw, qualifying for Wimbledon last year and losing in five sets to Antoine Hoang. While some perceived him as a potential top 100 prospect back in 2019, it had really been a while since he looked like it on the court. It all changed very suddenly in Luedenscheid at the end of July. Zhang made the final and went on to score 18 wins to just 3 losses since then, including a Challenger title at Cordenons last week.
Zhang’s game wasn’t easy for me to comprehend in the past. I asked him about his improvement last month in Braunschweig, to which he replied – “Beginning of the year, I was losing all the matches almost. I think also it’s part of because last year, I didn’t play too many tournaments. After Wimbledon, I [went] back to China. Then I missed a lot of weeks and just built my game from the beginning, step by step. Beginning of the year maybe my mental was a little bit of a problem. (…) Now I have more confidence, you win some matches and the confidence is coming and then the tennis is just coming.”
To be honest with you, I was really hoping for something more game-related, but in hindsight, confidence is really the key. Zhang is way more trigger-happy now, but in a good way. He wants to be the first one to strike and has supreme belief in his shots, not afraid to go down-the-line from either wing. His serve has also become a very potent weapon. Being tall and extremely strong physically, he can probably avoid a lot of the issues Asian players have faced in the past. While his Braunschweig run ended in a semifinal loss to Maximilian Marterer where he missed eight match points (most were brilliant saves by the German though), this didn’t even seem to make any dents in his new-found confidence.
Who’ll get there first?
Wu and Zhang are both firmly in the top 200 and there are a couple of reasons why they’re the frontrunners in the China top 100 race. They both made it into the US Open qualifying, where a few main draw wins could get you an insane amount of points. They also aren’t defending a single result until the end of the season – due to his hiatus, Wu will only drop one point before April 2023. Zhang’s window isn’t that long, but he finished his 2021 campaign after Hamburg (July) to return to China, so he’s not defending anything until January.
Both players seem to have some surface question marks over them. Wu’s game on American hard courts this year was quite reliant on the pop on his groundstrokes he was getting in faster conditions. He also likes taking the ball pretty early. If that’s gone, can he do damage on clay or when it’s much slower? Zhang had his rise on European clay for the past month and while he’s shown he’s capable on hard courts in the past, we’ll see how smoothly the transition goes for him this time around.
Gambling is a huge part of modern life. While it’s not something I’ve ever dabbled in myself, it is a big part of the sporting–and tennis–experience for a lot of people.
You only ever hear about the dark side of gambling in tennis, which is usually linked to some form of organised crime. There’s usually at least one low-ranked player who is suspended for match fixing, usually in an attempt to make some money as they struggle below tour level. (I’ll leave digging into this to professional investigators and journalists.) In addition, the amount of abuse players receive on social media has been linked to people who are lashing out having lost a bet on the outcome a tennis match. I probably don’t have the resources to really look into the second point much, but I did want to look at how gambling affects the fan experience of engaging with a tennis match.
I’m going to jeopardise my amateur journalistic credentials even further by admitting something else. The obvious thing to do here would be to place a bet on the outcome of a match and see how it affected my own viewing experience. However, if I am honest, the idea fills me with genuine anxiety. I’ve never placed a bet before, so there’s that element of the unknown, but money is also something I am in a continuous sense of stress about. It takes a lot for me to spend on anything other than food and bills. Yes, there is the possibility I could make a profit, but it is always safest to assume you will lose rather than win when placing a bet (or so I have been advised).
Gambling does not appear to be something most people I’m friends with on Tennis Twitter have much experience with either. I ran a poll on my account and of the 32 people who voted, 75% said they’d never bet on a tennis match. However, I still was able to talk to a few people over messages about their experience of betting on a tennis match.
The first person I spoke to was Ryan Desper, someone I’ve had regular interactions with on Twitter. He is a part of Gambling Twitter, betting on several sports including tennis. He bets every single day, placing wagers on multiple matches. I spoke to him during the match between Taylor Fritz and Alexei Popyrin at the Washington Open, he having bet on his fellow American to win in straight sets. It was interesting to speak to a person who could be called a pro gambler, someone with a lot of experience and very different mindset to my own. “Depending on where they are located in the world, I will usually scour the slate the night before if matches start at like 4 am (I’m on USA east coast time) or like now while they are starting at noon, I’ll do it when I wake up in the morning,” Desper told me.
I asked him about his emotions during a match he has bet on, as he almost always finds time to watch. “My emotions typically go up and down as much as you would expect them to, if someone gets a break and closes out a set it elevates me and if someone gets broken or loses a set (especially if it’s a straight-sets bet and they lose the first) there’s the obvious frustration, but there’s nothing better than having good money on something and riding the roller coaster of a tie break, it’s really a high. Race to 7 is like the ultimate test of tennis.” He said this as he was very content in watching Fritz breaking to win the first set and being in control of a match that he didn’t face break points on until the final game, which did frustrate Ryan a little. However, when he reflected on the immediate aftermath, he was still pretty calm. “With him serving for match it was a little different ’cause if he loses it then it probably just goes to tie break where he wins it anyways due to his serving. Not to sound kinda odd, but I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s almost become expected and I have won some money betting the other side of service games too.” He then went on to explain that you can bet on the winner of specific service games, not just matches. This is something I would not consider in the moment, as I tend to focus on the larger narrative of a match.
During our conversation, I asked Ryan about how he usually feels after a match where he has money at stake and he gave an interesting answer: “Regardless of the match outcome, I always look at it in a perspective of what did I pay for time of my entertainment. If I bet $25 on a match, and it goes 3 hours and was a good match; then win or lose I feel satisfied because 1) it’s just money I’ll make more of it and 2) I just look at it as you know I paid $8 an hour to be entertained for 3 hours. To me that’s a fair exchange in any form of market anywhere.” I wondered if for Ryan, gambling is almost like paying for a ticket, having money riding on something acting as part of the entertainment value. Ryan said it’s about how much your time is worth to you, and likened the experience to going to a casino.
This brought us to a conversation around what it must be like being an in-person spectator at a match you have bet on. It is a challenge for Ryan to attend an event and keep up with all the matches he has an investment “all while being basically in awe of exactly what they are doing”. It’s clear he is still a massive fan of the sport, and the gambling aspect does not take away his respect for the players. He was one of the few fans to attend qualifying for the Washington Open, something only true die-hards can claim. And yes, he bet on all the matches happening on Stadium Court on that Saturday.
I then asked about how Ryan deals with the emotions after watching a match he’s had money riding on. “The emotions for gambling for me and for most people are always very short lived because there’s always something going on. If I hit a massive bet I’m elated and probably show it to some friends, maybe withdraw some winnings, but then it’s always something else to find to bet to keep the streak going if you’re hot or to try and resolve a cold streak. There are some losses that hurt more than others, for example I had a $50 bet to win $180 on Venus the other night, and she blew 6 of the last 8 games with 14 doubles to lose the 3rd set and that made me pretty salty, but at the end of the day there’s always another chance to make that huge bet payoff or do something that’s not expected and pick a huge underdog.” It is clear that in the moment he is frustrated, but then he quickly moves on to find a match where he can make some money.
Another person I spoke to is Popcorn Tennis writer and the host of the excellent On The Line podcast, Jack Edward. Jack bets semi-regularly on tennis. At the time of writing, Jack had most recently put an accumulator on Tuesday’s play in Washington and Los Cabos, putting his hopes on the combined efforts of Benjamin Bonzi, David Goffin, Facundo Bagnis and Thanasi Kokkinakis. However, the last match he watched having placed a bet on it was a second-round match in Hamburg between Lorenzo Musetti and Emil Ruusuvuori. He described his experience to me:
“I had convinced a friend to put the same bet on and we were WhatsApp-ing back and forth as Musetti reached the finish line… At 5-3 40-15, my friend told me his cash-out option – he would lose 8p of his overall £23 profit if he cashed out now to which I jokingly replied “Well that would be 8p wasted wouldn’t it?”. Musetti went on to lose the next two points. “That’s £2 lost now.”… to which I replied “I guess that would be £2 wasted?” Musetti went on to get broken. “… £5.” … to which I replied “Flop-enzo Washed-etti.” 0-30 5-5 and I finally snapped. “I FUCKING HATE THIS SPORT.” Several games and break points saved later without either of us cashing out, it went to a tiebreak. I told my friend I was cashing out on Musetti’s first match point. I lost £1 and made a profit of £20. My friend stuck it out until the end and got his 8p + £23 winnings.”
Jack then declared: “I’m never watching Lorenzo Musetti if I’ve bet on him again.”
This sounded like a massive roller coaster of emotions, but with stress at the core. I feel that way when I want a player to win because I like them, or I’ve put my pride on the line and declared they’d win the tournament. “To say watching a match you’ve bet on is stressful is an understatement. Sure, there are smarter ways to follow a match you’ve bet on but if it’s a bit of fun with a friend, it’s easy to let logic slip out the window,” Jack added. “And honestly the stress is all part of the fun. I rarely watch the matches I’ve bet on for this reason alone – matches can turn on a dime and missing the boat on making the right decision can be incredibly disheartening…Bottom line – I try not to watch the matches I bet on!”
There clearly are ways betting on a tennis match can enhance the fan experience, which is certainly the case for both Jack and Ryan. If I think about when I watch a tennis match, either it has to be super dramatic or high quality to hold my attention all the way through or one of the players involved is someone I’m rooting for. The latter is far more common, and there is a tremendous high in seeing someone I like win and of course a tremendous low if they lose. I imagine emotions are even higher if money is on the line, where there is a benefit or loss for yourself depending on the outcome of the match. If you win, not only are you right but you made some money. If you lose, you look like an idiot and you are out of pocket. For Ryan and Jack, it seems this added adrenaline rush adds something to the overall experience of following the sport. By betting, there is now something in it for you from the outcome of the match, not just the winners and losers on court. However, for someone like Jack on a bad day, and myself, it could also negatively impact your ability to enjoy the match. You could find yourself thinking about money more than the dramatic story unfolding on the court, which would hold most fans’ attention. I’m not convinced I would enjoy that, but it’s fine for anyone reading this to do so.
Something Ryan mentioned which I hadn’t thought of before is that gambling can also help someone who is saturated in sport more invested. “Sports became sort of boring during my mid 20s due to college baseball basically being a job, and having some stake in the game really made me grow to watch sports again.” I can sympathise with this, if I watch tennis non-stop for weeks, I can lose some sense of enjoyment from feeling like I have to have a match on. It’s why I regularly take time away to make sure I get the emotional benefit from watching my favourite sport. Coming back to it this week has been like a breath of fresh air. Neither way of ensuring continued investment in the sport is better than the other per se, but it is interesting to see other ways around this almost burnout.
I noticed that both Ryan and Jack got frustrated with players personally, even if it was briefly. Ryan was highly critical of Venus Williams during her loss whilst Jack called Musetti a flop as he struggled to close out that match. It makes sense, after all the result is in their hands to an extent. However, gamblers need to remember that if a result goes against them, it is not solely the fault of the player they backed. The performance of the opponent will always be a factor, especially if they have such a good day the loser wasn’t allowed to play their best. In the end, the gambler is the one who chose to wager their money on this player; they were not under any obligation to do so. Holding someone else solely accountable for your own mistakes is often recognised as a toxic trait. As we’ve seen on social media, it gets really nasty if someone decides to take it out on the player directly. Fortunately, Jack and Ryan are good sports and quickly shrug these feelings off, accepting whatever happens and moving on. If only more people followed that example.
This is meant to be an honest portrait of the gambling experience in our favourite sport, and how I feel looking at it. So I’m not going to encourage you to bet on a tennis match. I will not be doing so myself as I feel I already get a really good experience engaging with a match. Plus, I want to enjoy what I’m watching and not be (overly) stressed about it the whole time. However, I won’t discourage gambling either. Betting on a sporting contest is not a bad thing in itself. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy watching tennis, it will vary from person to person. Betting may make you enjoy it more, it may make you enjoy it less. It’s up to you.
If you do, I will encourage you to gamble responsibly. Even a seasoned gambler like Ryan expects to lose money at some point due to the sheer volume of bets he places and has a limit of how much money he puts on the line. Please make sure you have a limit (of both time and money), you stop when it stops being fun and if you lose, please don’t take it out on ‘your’ player. They didn’t know you bet on them, they tried their best, and they don’t owe you anything. If you choose to gamble, you must take responsibility for your decisions, win or lose. Ryan had this to say: “My advice to anyone gambling is don’t bet money you’re afraid to lose, and don’t bet money to try and make money to get yourself out of a hole. There’s an old gambling adage that if you use bill money to try and make bill money you’ll just wind up deeper in the hole”.
To all those who watch tennis, regardless of whether you bet or not, I hope you continue to enjoy this wonderful sport.
Little has been done about the situation. After announcing in 2020 that they will conduct an internal investigation, the ATP finally reached out to Sharypova in April. The ATP announced a review of its safeguarding policies in 2021, but no real change has come out of that. Two in-depth stories about Sharypova’s experience have been met with near silence.
The problem here is that Sharypova is not the only person to have been allegedly abused by an ATP player. She’s one of a few that have come out in recent months. But the tour remains relatively silent, updates are rarely given and no one truly knows just how much work — or if any work — is being done behind the scenes.
For some people, Sharypova’s statement would be taken more seriously if she had gone to the police and filed a report. That is simply not true. Only 28% of sexual assault cases are reported to the police. Most cases of domestic abuse aren’t even reported to the police.
I happen to be one of the many people that didn’t report. Here’s my story, why I decided not to report, and why the ATP should take domestic violence more seriously.
When I was younger, I had a hard time making friends. I was the shy, weird, fat girl that tried way too hard — and failed — to fit in. But one person I knew growing up didn’t seem to care about that. She, like me, just wanted a friend. I thought to myself, “why not? I think I can trust her.”
I could not trust her.
It was the third time I had a sleepover with her. Her and her mom lived in a small, two bedroom apartment in Delaware, where I’m originally from. We slept in her room together, like we’ve always done, in separate beds.
Like we always did, we watched a DVD of Jesse McCartney’s music videos. But something felt off. I was in my normal spot. She was not.
As the night wore on, she got closer to me. Out of fear, I froze and pretended to be asleep, hoping that would stop her. It didn’t.
The next morning, my mother picked me up and I ran into her arms. I was seven when this happened. I didn’t go over there ever again.
Four years later, my brother and I were talking about a case of domestic abuse we had seen on the news. I told him I wish I had the bravery to tell someone what happened to me. He stopped, cut off the tv and asked me what I meant by that. My brother was the first to know, then my mom, my dad and then her mom.
The friend, like Zverev, vehemently denied everything. Her mother wanted me to tell my mother that I was lying, that I just wanted attention. There I was, an 11 year old girl, sitting in the pastor’s office of my home church — we all went to church together— wondering where I went wrong.
The thing is that I didn’t do anything wrong. I just spoke up.
Much to my family’s surprise, I told my mother I didn’t want to file a report. Apparently, to the friend’s mother, that was enough proof to her that I was lying. In reality, I just wanted to begin the process of healing.
I was just a kid when it happened. No kid should ever have to go through this. But, unfortunately, one out of every four girls and one out of every seven boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18 in America. The first thought on everyone’s mind should have been about how to protect the victim and how we can prevent this from happening again.
That wasn’t the case with me and that isn’t the case with Sharypova.
As a society, we have created a culture around sexual assault and domestic abuse where a victim must fulfill certain requirements in order for our story to be true. When, in fact, only 2% of reports are proven to be false. Countless stories have proven to be true and yet when another case like this pops up, many people would rather judge than to help.
All Sharypova wanted to do was to help future victims find their voice. All I wanted to do is to protect myself and others from my abuser. Yet, both of us were called liars.
Domestic abuse and sexual assault is prevalent throughout all sports, not just tennis. But tennis is one of the few sports where a policy is not in place. The ATP has shown that it would much rather let this situation blow over than to actually deal with it.
That won’t work.
Implementing a policy isn’t about making someone guilty until proven innocent. It’s about protecting the people in the world of tennis and creating a safe environment for everyone. That should be the priority.
As fans, we may never know the full story of what happened between Sharypova and Zverev. But we shouldn’t have to know everything to want to assist someone in getting the peace and help they deserve.
We are constantly told to strive for our best in life. It’s “do your best” before a test or a job interview, it’s “well, at least you tried your best” when things go badly. Tennis coverage is often similar — after an epic point, you’ll hear a commentator excitedly cry “Oh, that’s Player X at their VERY best!” After a match, someone usually evaluates the winner’s performance through the lens of their best level. That tends to sound like this:
“Player X advances. Nowhere near their best, in truth.
“Player X advances, and you’d have to say that’s pretty close to as well as they can play.”
“Player X is through, but they’re going to have to make serious improvements to have a chance in the next round.”
“Player X survives a day when EVERYTHING seemed to go wrong, but they’ve survived.”
You get the picture. After repeatedly hearing evaluations like the first and fourth one on that list, I started to wonder just how often a tennis player actually is at their best. Not very often, is the answer. Tennis is a low-margin game. In baseball, an “error” is a massive deal. You’ve screwed up badly if you make so much as one during a game. Two is grounds for having news segments on you and your deep struggles. In tennis, making dozens of errors in a match is pretty normal. We even separate errors into categories: forced and unforced. And errors are so prolific that even on a day when someone is at or close to their best, they’ll make a few unforced errors.
Point is, a player’s best level is not something they can summon on command. There are way too many factors: the surface, which may or may not be unfavorable; the opponent, who can be anyone from the world #200 to one of the best to ever pick up a racket; little things like how your stomach is feeling on a given day, or the weather, or how even-keeled you can be temperamentally. When you are trying to hit a small ball with a small racket with incredible pace and precision for hours on end, even a feather can become an obstacle. If they’re lucky, a player will be at their very best three or four times in a calendar year. It’s even rarer in big matches, with the increased pressure and level of opposition.
Peak level might just be a bad metric for performance evaluation. After all, an average top-10 player will win most of the matches they play without being at their best. More to the point, anyone can win regularly if they play at their best. The threshold between winning and losing is not being perfect but being good enough.
So why not pay more attention to that in analysis? I’ve been thinking about Carlos Alcaraz lately. This year, he’s beaten Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Matteo Berrettini, and other top players. He’s lost just five times this year. So it’s safe to say that peak level is not his issue — when he plays his best, he wins, drowning his opponent in a storm of heavy groundstrokes and quiet drop shots.
But what about those five losses? One was a close loss to Nadal in Indian Wells in which both players came up with very good performances in gale-force winds. We can set that one aside. But three of the five were losses in majors, in all of which Alcaraz lost the first two sets en route to a four or five-set loss, which feels like an area we can hone in on. Alcaraz’s opponents were Berrettini (who he’s since beaten), Zverev (who he had recently punked in the Madrid final), and Jannik Sinner (who Alcaraz was ranked higher than). At the least, all of these matches were winnable. And in all of them, Alcaraz played well below par for the first two sets, playing a part in his opponents taking a generally insurmountable two-set lead. Alcaraz made each of his opponents sweat even after losing two sets — he took Berrettini to a fifth set tiebreak, he had a set point against Zverev in the fourth set, he had break points against Sinner early in the fourth — but the vast majority of the time, going two sets down is not a winning proposition.
Alcaraz’s peak, or ceiling, was not to blame for these deficits. His floor was. What is a floor? Well, it’s the worst a tennis player can play. It’s what happens when nothing seems to go right. Despite everyone avoiding situations like this at all costs, a player’s floor is incredibly relevant. When you’re at your worst, you want to lose as little ground as possible, so when you come out of the dip, the match is close enough to still be winnable. Unlike the ceiling, where everyone can usually win when at their best, only a few players can reliably win on their worst days.
There are several ways to stave off the floor. Some players try to blast their way through it. Some play safer, trying to cut down on errors to slow their opponent’s momentum. Some might mix up their gameplan, saving their most aggressive play for the big points and playing safe the rest of the time. Right now, Alcaraz is in the first category, and it’s not helping him. His game — massive hitting, winners at will, soft drop shots — is low-margin. He’s on song an impressive amount of the time, but when he’s off, things fall apart quickly. When he starts missing his groundstrokes a lot, he’ll fall back on the drop shot, but when a player knows to expect it, countering a dropper is easy.
I’d like to see Alcaraz stretch out points and play with less risk when he’s in a bad period. He’s supremely fit, so would be able to go toe-to-toe with pretty much anyone in long points. Hitting more shots would naturally ease him out of his low points, and aiming at big targets would limit his errors. When I’ve watched him play badly, he seems impatient, trying to end points as quickly as possible. I think this falls into the trap of the floor — a bad patch has to be outlasted rather than overpowered. Plus, going for (and missing) really powerful shots is often frustrating, making it all the more difficult to play calmly and safely.
Today, Alcaraz lost a close final to Lorenzo Musetti, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-4. He saved five championship points, often with outrageous shots, including two forehand passing winners. Most players on tour would have lost 6-4, 6-4. But it’s likely that if Alcaraz had been able to summon a better base level, he never would have had to face a match point.
At the end of the day, no one can rely on their best level consistently. It’s way too elusive. Iga Świątek didn’t win 37 matches in a row because she was at her best every day, she won 37 matches in a row because she learned how to survive her 80% days. Djokovic and Nadal are as successful as they are in large part because they know how to navigate the days when nothing goes right: don’t take unnecessary risks, let the opponent beat themselves, then play assertively on the big points. Their floors are probably the highest on tour, which is why they can show up at a major semifinal, play terribly by their standards, and come away with a four-set win.
All of this is much easier said than done. Improving one’s floor, paradoxically, requires that a player have less faith in their game rather than more. You have to accept that at times, the tennis shots you have spent a lifetime refining into sharp weapons are going to fail you, and that a backup plan is necessary. Earlier in this tournament, Alcaraz demolished Karen Khachanov — a very good player in his own right — 6-0, 6-2. It was brutal, it was ruthless, it was perfect. But Alcaraz can’t count on that level showing up for him day in and day out; way too many things can go wrong at any time.
For what it’s worth, I think Alcaraz will get there. He’s about to be ranked in the top five. This issue is something most players never figure out, and at 19, Alcaraz has all the time in the world to figure out the ins and outs of this bizarre sport. He’s already way ahead of any reasonable pace. Being a bit more patient is the next step.
Here’s an excerpt from Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ book The Circuit, an exceptional summary of the 2017 ATP tennis season:
“When Roger Federer plays a tennis match, the questions are almost all about Roger. And when Roger Federer doesn’t play a tennis match, the questions are almost all about Roger. At Indian Wells, I was witness to this up close, and words fail to explain the phenomena. I worry for any tennis pro armed with high aspirations and the initials R.F., because he or she will no doubt end up facing four to five questions per match about how they handle the pressure of having the same initials as Roger Federer, if they asked Roger for advice on having the initials R.F., and if a name change was ever under consideration.”
From page 78 of The Circuit
Phillips went on to summarize an exchange between Pam Shriver and Stan Wawrinka: Shriver asked Wawrinka if he had watched Federer demolish Nadal 6-2, 6-3 the previous night. Wawrinka had to say no, because he himself had been playing the night before. “She [Shriver] followed up with another question about Federer,” Phillips wrote.
It goes without saying that Roger Federer has left an indelible mark on the tennis world. That kind of thing tends to happen when you win 20 major titles.
And make 23 consecutive major semifinals.
And win Wimbledon five years in a row.
And win the U.S. Open five years in a row.
And spend 237 consecutive weeks at #1 in the world.
But Federer’s impact on fans is different to that of other legends, even ones with equally insane CVs. Part of it was the timing of his rise — Federer exploded into prominence shortly after Pete Sampras retired and while Andre Agassi was riding out the last couple years of his career, neatly filling the superstar vacuum on the ATP side. The rest of Federer’s influence, though, is down to the way he played tennis. He was so dominant so early that people were calling him the GOAT by 2004 (for reference, he had all of four major titles by the end of that year). John McEnroe declared before the 2006 Roland-Garros final that if Federer won — it would mark his eighth major title and complete his Career Grand Slam — he would become the greatest ever. Keep in mind that Pete Sampras had 14 major titles at this point.
In retrospect, these seem like exaggerations, but watch clips of young Federer and the takes seem positively appropriate. Prior to Federer’s rise, the ATP tended to be ruled alternately by players who were either defensively sound (your clay specialists who routinely won Roland-Garros) or offensively sound (your servebots who routinely won Wimbledon). There could be some overlap — Agassi managed to win all four majors, and Sampras won each of the non-clay majors multiple times — but players who were a threat to win every tournament they played in were not really a thing on the ATP in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Then Federer came up. Watching him play Agassi once he hits his prime is kind of hilarious — Federer not only easily overpowers the American on the forehand side, he defends so well that Agassi can’t possibly hit through him. You could call it man versus boy, except the boy is really a god who eats men for breakfast.
Federer managed to excel at both offense and defense. His forehand could tip the balance of a point in a single stroke, almost regardless of where on the court he made contact with the ball. His incredibly quick feet and good reach made it difficult to hit the ball past him, and that was if you were lucky enough to get on top of a rally. He not only served accurately but used virtually the exact same toss for vastly different serves, making it near-impossible to guess where he was going. Federer’s backhand wasn’t the best, but it did a great job of blocking massive serves back into play (just ask Andy Roddick, poor soul), perhaps a better job than any other one-handed backhand in history. In rallies, his world-class slice was more than enough to protect that weaker side, and the sheer might of the forehand ensured Federer didn’t have to hit that many backhands — and if you came to net, he would pass you with that backhand time and again. All this is to say it’s no wonder everyone was so agog with Federer. Sure, other players were shouldered out of the spotlight, but it’s only right when one is that much better than the rest. It wasn’t until the rise of Rafael Nadal that the world-beating version of Federer faced any kind of serious threat.
But the threat Nadal posed was beyond serious. As a mere 17-year-old, Nadal beat Federer 6-3, 6-3 in their first meeting. When they met on clay, Nadal would almost always win, and sometimes it would be routine. He could expose holes in Federer’s game like no one else — the slice didn’t work against him, because his violently quick racket head could send the floating ball racing to the corner at will. So Federer would be forced to hit topspin, but that was also a challenge, since Nadal’s intense topspin sent the ball flying at shoulder-height or higher, hardly an ideal proposition for a one-handed backhand to handle. As fast as Federer was, Nadal was faster, making it borderline impossible to reliably hit winners against him. After gatekeeping Roland-Garros for years, Nadal beat Federer in a famous Wimbledon final in 2008, snapping a streak of five straight titles for the Swiss, and would push him out of the #1 spot later that year.
Federer would win Wimbledon again in 2009 (not to mention his first Roland-Garros title, which widely sealed his GOAT status), but Nadal took over again in 2010, and the following year, Novak Djokovic began his peak. Like Nadal, Djokovic preyed on Federer’s weaknesses and neutralized his strengths — Djokovic didn’t have the high-kicking forehand, but his all-time-great return of serve allowed him to get into points constantly, after which he could slowly outlast Federer from the baseline.
The twin advents of Nadal and Djokovic brought Federer’s dominance to a shrieking halt. He won 15 majors from 2003 to 2009 and just two from 2010 to 2016. Federer certainly did decline a bit from his peak years — the forehand got slightly worse, as did the movement — but he was hardly crippled by his advancing age in his big matches with Djokovic and Nadal. Though he didn’t always take them, Federer would have his chances: a tiebreak in a crucial set here, a break point late in a set there.
What is most exceptional about phase two of Federer’s career is just how long he kept at it. Writers started speculating about if not outright predicting his retirement as early as 2012. Jacob Steinberg wrote this in a liveblog of the 2012 Roland-Garros semifinals, a match in which Djokovic beat Federer in straights:
“He [Federer] really isn’t going to win another slam, is he? You have to wonder if he’ll quit at the end of this season.”
Not only did Federer win four majors after this was written, many of his losses in majors were to his peaking Big Three brethren. Many just assumed that Federer would be so discontent with not being number one that he would retire, never mind that he was still more than capable of being an explosive #3.
Explosive as he still was, the 2010-2014 years revealed that Federer could be somewhat tactically inflexible. (It was no wonder, given how destructive his natural game was during his best years.) A notable example was the 2012 Australian Open semifinals against Nadal. At this point, Nadal had a convincing 17-9 record against Federer and hadn’t lost to him at a major since Wimbledon in 2007, a pretty clear indication that Federer would have to step out of his comfort zone to win. He went into the match on a 24-match winning streak, which included a 6-3, 6-0 win over Nadal at the ATP Finals, so there was reason to think he would be confident.
Federer started exceptionally well, striking his backhand fiercely but also attacking Nadal’s backhand with his forehand, a favorable pattern for Federer but one he didn’t always use. Despite a late Nadal comeback, Federer won the first set in a tiebreak. After a bad second set, Federer went up a break in the third set, but promptly lost his serve at 15 to hand the break back. Federer had a break point to go up 5-3 in the fourth set and two break points when Nadal served for the match, but wound up losing in four. Despite Federer playing enough cerebral points to demonstrate that he knew what the correct tactics were, on the big points it was right back to approaching the net to Nadal’s forehand, a pattern that had gotten him burned time after time, dating all the way back to 2004. It was like Federer knew the strategy was sure to get him killed, he just couldn’t help himself. Patrick McEnroe and Chris Fowler, commentating for ESPN, couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Faced with clear disadvantages against Nadal and Djokovic, it was obvious that Federer needed to adapt, but he was often reluctant to do so. His second serve returning, a historical liability, remained passive on big points. Federer’s rivals were and are exceptional at taking charge in crucial moments, but the Swiss’s meek chip returns off slow serves gave them opportunities to go on the attack which they might not have had otherwise. Against virtually everyone else (this could also get Federer in trouble against Andy Murray, who at one point had an 11-10 record against the Swiss), starting neutral rallies was favorable to Federer. It just wasn’t enough against his great rivals.
To his credit, Federer did adapt eventually. He reworked his backhand in 2015, using it to attack more frequently, and in doing so eventually broke the long-established pattern of losing out to Nadal’s crosscourt forehand. He stopped chipping returns as frequently, doing significant damage with drive backhand returns. At the 2017 Australian Open, Federer beat Nadal at a major for the first time since 2007, capping a dazzling comeback run. (He hit eight backhand winners in the fifth set!) At Wimbledon two years later, Federer beat Nadal again, proving 2017 wasn’t a fluke with more sharp backhands and effective returns, then pushed Djokovic to the very brink in the final, who was heavily favored to win comfortably.
All of it, especially the three majors Federer won in that 2017-2018 resurgence, felt wholly deserved. Federer had hung around for years without winning a big one — he played at a godlike level for the second half of 2015, for instance, a level that would have netted major titles in practically any other year, but he lost out in two major finals because he had the misfortune of playing against arguably the best-ever version of Novak Djokovic.
The stats tell us that the adjustment came too late, however. Even with his 2017 turnaround, a year in which Federer beat Nadal four times out of four, he trails 16-24 in the head-to-head. He’s 23-27 against Djokovic. Reducing the records to matches at the majors, Federer is 4-10 against Nadal and 6-11 against Djokovic. He is 4-10 against them in major finals and 16-27 against them in all finals. Djokovic is 9-0 in Australian Open finals and Nadal is 14-0 in Roland-Garros finals; Federer is 8-4 in Wimbledon finals. Then there’s the fact that he is now third in the major title race with his rivals.
Despite all this, I think Federer deserves serious credit for even the years in which he didn’t win majors. He was the gold standard that Nadal and Djokovic chased for such a long time, motivating them to become as good as they possibly could. Being #1, in some ways, is a death trap — someone inevitably replaces you, and the prominence of the position makes everyone try to hunt you down, studying the ins and outs of your game to give themselves the best chance of killing the king. Unfortunately for Federer, Djokovic and Nadal were extremely reluctant to allow any trend reversals once they had dethroned the Swiss, but he played a part in them becoming as great as they did.
After the recent Wimbledon final between Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios, I tweeted this:
A few people thought I was being tongue-in-cheek or excessively harsh by grouping Federer with the interlopers rather than his Big Three brethren, but I think there is merit to this grouping. Regardless of your stance on the GOAT debate, you cannot ignore the fact that 15 of Federer’s 20 major titles came before 2010. He has often been relevant since then, but at no point has he dominated, aside from maybe 2017. Since 2010, Federer has made 20 major semifinals. He’s lost 10 of those semifinals and five of the finals; 13 of those 15 losses have been to Djokovic or Nadal. The cold reality is that for the majority of his career, Federer has been worse than the other two in the big matches, and it’s generally been a surprise in the past decade when he’s beaten Djokovic or Nadal at a major. (From 2005 to 2010, Federer went 6-8 against Nadal and Djokovic in majors.)
Interestingly, Federer doesn’t have many signature wins, both because his early rivals were mortals to his titan and couldn’t push him far enough to get matches into the “epic” territory and because he usually loses to Djokovic and Nadal on the big stage. There was the 2017 Australian Open final, a defining victory after years of torment at the hands of Nadal. There were the 2007 and 2009 Wimbledon finals, both five-set struggles Federer toughed out. But Federer has probably lost more historic matches than he has won. There was the 2006 Rome final, a five-hour thriller that Federer lost after having two match points. There was the 2008 Wimbledon final, where Federer made a brilliant comeback from two sets down, winning a pair of tiebreaks and saving two match points in the latter one…and lost in the end. There was the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal, where Federer found himself on the receiving end of arguably the most important shot of Novak Djokovic’s career, eventually losing after having a two-set lead and two match points in the fifth. Then there was the 2019 Wimbledon final, where Federer outplayed Djokovic on average for five sets, but Djokovic managed to rescue three of them, saving two match points en route to victory yet again.
It’s totally at odds with the sheer dominance of the first phase of Federer’s career, but many of his most compelling matches have been losses. He has lost from match point up more than 20 times. He’ll often end big matches with damning break point conversion rates. (One I’m not sure many know is that Federer was 4/25 on break points in the 2011 Roland-Garros semifinal against Djokovic, a match Federer actually won anyway.) Playing one’s best under pressure is a widely recognized landmark of greatness. Federer has done it so often; you can cite any number of matches in which he’s pulverized aces to save break point or won from match point down or made a thrilling comeback. But when he comes up against those two rivals of his, it’s pretty apparent that they are more clutch than he is.
Despite the splendor of both phases of Federer’s career, a significant part of his legacy is the beauty with which he plays. Perhaps the most famous piece of tennis literature ever written is David Foster Wallace’s “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” I even had to read it for a writing class last year (that had nothing to do with tennis). When you read about Federer or listen to commentators talk about him, you get words like “balletic” or phrases like “poetry in motion.” During the peak phase of the rivalry with Nadal, the matchup was sometimes hyped by emphasizing the battle between Nadal’s forehand and Federer’s backhand, ignoring the fact that when Federer managed to beat Nadal, it was almost exclusively in spite of his backhand rather than because of it.
The extent to which Federer’s style is celebrated has started to bug me over the past couple years. Some technical truth tends to get lost in fawning over the aesthetics; by far the weaker of Federer’s groundstrokes — the backhand — soaks up a disproportionate amount of praise at the expense of better, more utilitarian backhands. (Not to mention Federer’s forehand, the infinitely more remarkable shot of his.) But I also fundamentally disagree with the premise that an attractive style makes a player “greater”. Sports are not an art form, they are a competition. Shots and movements that increase the odds of winning are good ones; shots that don’t are not. It’s more than fair to pick a favorite player because you find their style attractive, but I fail to see how said attractive style is a measure of greatness.
I’m comfortable with the logic — I love watching Federer hit backhand winners, but I also love watching other players hit backhand winners, and there are several who do it much more often than Fed does. But I realize I’m in the minority here. It’s not just Federer fans who are seduced by the way he plays tennis, it’s commentators and analysts as well. At times, I feel a bit like Ben Wyatt trying to figure out why everyone is obsessed with Li’l Sebastian in Parks and Recreation.
It’s also started to bother me a bit how the willingness to shower Federer with accolades doesn’t always extend to Nadal and Djokovic, who are by now clearly on the same level as Federer. It’s not that Federer didn’t deserve the GOAT accolades when he surpassed Sampras in 2009, it’s that he’s never had to deal with the nonsensical arguments made against Nadal and Djokovic. You know the ones: “too many of his titles are on clay”, or “he’s not universally liked enough”. Federer was much better off by comparison — the New York Times published an opinion piece in 2020 arguing that he would always be the GOAT, even when he lost the statistical battle. The piece mentioned his elegance, popularity, and on-and-off-court classiness (much of the tennis world seems to have agreed to collectively forget this press conference) as reasons the Swiss deserved the eternal GOAT label.
It’s near-impossible to imagine anyone besides a hardcore fan making the same case for Nadal or Djokovic (not that they should), and I can’t help but think the adoration for Federer’s style has gotten out of hand — not the love itself, but what we think the love should mean.
When I got into tennis, I was a fan who watched the sport because of Roger Federer. I was drawn not to his elegance but the way he conducted himself on court, loving the smooth, subtle fist pumps and the practiced brush of his wristbands on his forehead. Many times when I watched him play, a commentator would stress how rarely he lost his temper. Who couldn’t love that? I was totally invested in Federer winning, all the time. Watching him beat Marin Čilić from two sets and match points down at Wimbledon in 2016 was a transcendental experience even through a TV screen. (His loss to Milos Raonic in the following round utterly destroyed me, a feeling I remember to this day.) When Andy Murray crunched Raonic in the final, I looked at how few aces Raonic had hit compared to the match against Federer and was almost personally offended at the idea that Murray might be a superior returner to Federer, much less a better player. I had fallen hard.
It’s funny to think back on those days, because I’ve felt emotionally detached from Federer’s results for a while, and I’m still not completely sure why. (Had you told me in 2016 that I’d write a piece like this one day, my Federer-loving brain would have recoiled — not because I’d disagree with the arguments, because me saying anything not wholly complimentary of Federer would have been unfathomable at the time.) Part of it is that I started to appreciate other players after a few months of watching tennis — in watching Nadal lose to Gilles Müller at Wimbledon in 2017, for instance, I was spellbound by the Spaniard’s never-say-die attitude even though he fell short in the end after coming from two sets down and saving endless match points. I came across the 2012 Australian Open final during an archive dig and emerged dazzled by Djokovic’s physical fortitude. Another factor was that once I started trying to write about tennis on top of consuming it, I had to think with my head more than my heart.
That’s not to say my preference faded immediately. I couldn’t watch the 2019 Wimbledon final, but I followed live scores, and was left heartbroken by the result. I had given Federer no shot going in, but seeing that he had won the second set 6-1 and wasn’t giving Djokovic so much as a break point chance gave me some hope. Once I saw the numbers tick from 8-7 in the fifth to 8-8, though, I knew Federer was toast. I was miserable for the rest of the day; I can remember writing in a journal that there was no reason Federer couldn’t win the 2019 U.S. Open in an effort to make myself feel better. When my parents asked how I was doing on a phone call the next day, I reflexively said I was depressed. Watching a hampered Federer lose to Grigor Dimitrov in New York later that year, a tournament I firmly believed the Swiss had a chance of winning, was agonizing. But since then, I’ve usually been able to see Federer as merely another player rather than the one all my hopes ride on.
Part of it, surely, is that Federer simply hasn’t played much in the last two and a half years, so there wasn’t much choice but to focus on other players. His loss to Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon last year was heart-wrenching for legions of his fans, but I had already made my peace with his career coming to an end. But the nostalgia is intense for the general tennis world, and Federer is yet to even retire. Christopher Clarey recently wrote a book called The Master: the Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer; Geoff Dyer recently wrote The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings (I feel it is my duty as a tennis fan to inform you that this one is much more about “other endings” than “Roger Federer”). I went to Roland-Garros for a few days this year, and the most common piece of tennis merchandise I saw by about five hundred miles was the RF cap. He wasn’t even playing in the tournament! Oh, and you should hear the screams he got when he walked onto Center Court this year:
For all of the very worthy reasons to celebrate Federer with teary eyes, I feel like I’m watching this from the other side of a blurry glass divider, dulling the sensation I get from these final pages of his glorious career. At this point, he’s physically diminished enough that when he has stepped out on court, I see something different than what I think of as “Roger Federer.” He’s a ship that has replaced its mast six times, its hull once, its deck eight times, and its crew five times. The movement has fallen to pieces, his forehand no longer even resembles the laser cannon it once was, and his return of serve — always a relative shaky point, at least on second serves — was all over the place the last few times he played. Whatever the reason, these days I find myself quietly unattached to Federer. I don’t regret the time I spent as a huge fan of his, but I don’t miss it either.
I came to the opinion that Djokovic and Nadal were better players than Federer in early 2020. I don’t think you can argue with their superior head-to-heads and better big-match records, and now that they’ve gone past Federer’s 20 majors, the hierarchy seems ironclad. But Federer’s legacy remains immense. The best part of this era on the ATP — the glorious battle royale between Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal — was sparked by the now 40-year-old. (Take a second to think about the fact that he is 40, and he still intends on making a comeback to the tour. It’s just amazing, isn’t it?) He set the outrageously high bar, playing a huge part in pushing men’s tennis to the lofty plane it wound up reaching. He helped push his rivals to unheard-of heights, forcing them to climb alongside him, and even beating them at times once they went higher.
Even if you’re a diehard Fedfan, I think it’s more than okay to be content with Federer’s place in history. He has a glittering legacy that does not need the extra shine of eternal GOAT status. The way he makes you feel can just be a bonus.
The UK and most of Western Europe is currently going through an unprecedented heatwave, with temperature on the continent well over 40 degrees Celsius. In the UK, there is an expectation that we will see the hottest day on record within the next 48hrs. Climate change is intensifying, and this provides reasoning for the tennis world to ask the question: are the tours fit for a world where the temperatures are increasing year after year and if not, what can be done to make it so?
First, we need to look at the effects of very high temperatures have on athletes. Dr Miguel Enrique del Valle Soto, Professor of Sports Medicine at the University of Oviedo, went into this when asked about the expected high of 30 degrees Celsius and 70% humidity at the Tokyo Olympic Games last year. He noted that athletes who competed in endurance sports where the most affected and at risk in high temperatures and humidity, with tennis players being categorised as endurance athletes.
It was found that sporting performance can drop by 10 to 15% in extreme temperatures, with male athletes being more affected than female athletes. The main effect that comes from these extreme temperatures leads to excessive sweating to cool the body down. However, with excessive sweating this can cause dehydration, and this leads to a dropping of blood pressure and greater strain on the hearts of athletes.
We have already seen tennis players being affected by the heat. There was a move a couple days into the Tokyo Olympics to push the start times back to a cooler part of the day as players complained about the extreme heat. The most notable of these players was Daniil Medvedev who said, ‘If I die, who’s responsible?’ midway through an early round match. At the Australian Open in 2014, temperatures exceeded 43 degrees Celsius and play was suspended on all outside uncovered courts during the heat of the day for safety concerns. Extreme heat has also been seen at the lower levels. At an ITF W100 event in August last year in Landisville, Pennsylvania, five players were forced to retired mid match due to heat exhaustion (most notable of them was Emma Raducanu) and there where long periods of no play due to the extreme heat during the middle of the day.
All this considered, the tennis calendar is probably not suited to the world we live in. Here’s a list of potentially workable suggestions to address the problem.
A forced break after Wimbledon of about a month, events starting back up in early August. American tournaments be moved from late July to late August for a start date and European clay tournaments would move from early July to early August. This would move all tournaments to a cooler part of the year and reduce the risk of tournaments occurring in extreme heat months. All tournaments past the US Open would get pushed back in the calendar and we’d have a shorter window from the end of one season and the start of the other, but it might be worth the trade-off.
Moving the Australian tournaments to March, the small, scattered February tournaments to January and moving Indian Wells and Miami to February. This is mainly designed to move the Australian tournaments out of the hottest summer months for them into a cooler month. The South American tournaments would then be played in a hotter month, but this at least takes care of Australia.
Earlier starts for day matches and increased scheduling of night matches. Most tennis tournaments during the day tend to have a 11:00 a.m. start time, and this is great when you have stable and pleasant temperatures. However, during extreme heat, it would be wiser to have an 8:00 a.m. start time where matches can be completed before midday and avoid the extreme heat of the afternoon. Regarding night sessions, we would need to see tournaments either embrace night matches as a concept for player safety or those that already have night session extending that to as many courts as possible to allow more players to complete the matches during the event and in safer conditions.
There are plenty of other options out there for addressing extreme heat, but this will be an issue that will occur more and more as the planet heats up due to climate change. So, alongside the current plans to increase the size and scale of Masters 1000/WTA 1000 events, I hope the tours have one eye on the climate emergency and its effects on the players and the tour.
In the late afternoon sun, the Wimbledon queue was all but empty. A few tents and stragglers were around, the stewards were lazing in lawn chairs, and I stood staring at my phone screen, waiting for the text that would turn my stressful travel day into a dream. Forty minutes earlier, I had been laying in a patch of grass by Charing Cross station in a sweaty, tired heap. I hadn’t eaten for eight hours, and I had been unable to navigate the grimy swarmed streets of London to find a café or a grocery store. I couldn’t get to my friend’s flat until early evening, and my inability to read a subway map had landed me by Embankment station, where I was told by someone that to get to the part of town my friends were in, I needed to take a boat across the Thames. After a day without food and a general fear of drowning, there was no way I was getting on a water taxi. I walked until I found ground to sit on. It was nearing 4:00 in the afternoon, and I was just starting to chill out when my phone buzzed. It was a message from Jack, a tennis podcaster I knew from Twitter. We were planning to be at Wimbledon the same week, so there were tentative plans to hang out at the tournament. I knew he had scored a ticket to Andy Murray’s match on Centre Court that evening, and I was naturally jealous. I opened the message, and read, “I will more than likely have a spare ticket if Scott can come good!”
“To Andy?” I replied.
“Will confirm when Scott confirms!”
The match was scheduled for 45 minutes from now. I had to decide. It would take half an hour to get to the park and it was far away from where I was staying. If I got into the match, who knows when it would end? I didn’t have a key to my friend’s flat, I didn’t know how to get there, and my phone was losing battery. Would there be time to eat anything?
Two weeks earlier, I moved to the UK from California, where I grew up watching Wimbledon in my living room every summer. It was the only grand slam I could watch uninterrupted; there was no school, the matches were on at six in the morning, and my summer job at a theatre was in the evenings. For every final, my mother would make popovers (or Yorkshire puddings, as they’re called here in the UK) with jam and strawberries. I dreamt of going to Wimbledon one day, perhaps before Roger Federer, my favorite player, retired. It all appeared so inaccessible to me, thousands of miles away in a grassless city. On television, they showed all the Hollywood actors in the stands, those with the means to travel continentally just for these matches, those who could afford show court tickets and accommodations, decked out in Ralph Lauren polos that were probably complimentary. It looked glamourous and out of reach from my suburban living room.
Later, I learned of grounds passes and Henman/Murray Hill where spectators could sit in the rain and watch the action. With some planning, that experience seemed within my grasp. Before I even purchased a ticket to London, I made plans to get to Wimbledon. I found family friends who would let me crash for a few nights, and a grounds pass would be enough. There were few opportunities to see live tennis in my hometown, though California is always sprouting new and talented players. The closest tournament was Indian Wells, but that was hours away and never scheduled during my spring break. For 26 years, I had only ever seen tennis on television or a computer screen.
Before Jack could confirm, I gathered myself up and headed for the train.
Holding my overnight bag and trench coat, I hung around the front gates and peered through like a lost dog. Court No.1 was ahead of me, and I saw purple and green flower arrangements decorating the walls of the stadium. Jack came to meet me and told me that the ticket to Andy’s match may have gone to someone else. “No, it hasn’t,” I said. “I’m already here.” I don’t usually believe in manifestation, but today I was summoning all the powers of the universe to bring me this ticket. Jack suggested I buy a grounds pass anyway so I could sit on the hill to watch the match. We walked to the short queue, chatting about tennis and my chaotic day in London. As we reached the tents, Jack pulled out his phone. He smiled and showed me the message from Scott.
“She’s all good to go!”
As the powers of the universe descended upon me like a long-awaited storm, all my hunger, exhaustion, and disbelief rose to the surface of my brain, and I burst into tears. Jack was laughing at my comical appearance, and the woman at the ticket counter asked what I wanted. I stopped hyperventilating and choked out “Just a grounds pass.” “Five pounds,” she said. I began to tear up again.
When we reached our seats, I took in Centre Court in its entirety. It was smaller than I thought it would be. The court was a bright green, with no dry brown spots yet. Andy Murray and John Isner were already mid-set, and our seats were right above the scoreboard. I snapped a picture and sent it to my parents in California. At once, they turned on their televisions and focused on finding me in the crowd rather than the match. It was surreal. Andy Murray was right in front of me, fuming as always. The wallop of Isner’s serve reverberated through the stadium, so fast I couldn’t see it. The energy from the crowd was like caffeine, and I forgot to feel hungry or drained.
The crowd was predictably biased, and I fell in step with the Andy fans, cheering wildly and pumping my fists with every point won. I was grateful for the crowd’s energy. At home, watching with family, there is often a slew of screaming and swearing, with the occasional sob. Friends know me to be intense when I watch tennis, so much so that watching me was more entertaining than the match. Sitting in Centre Court, I didn’t know if my usual vigour for tennis would be appreciated, or even allowed. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that everyone was here for the same reason. After years of dreaming, I was at the epicenter of the sport I fell in love with when I was ten. I was planted amongst people who understood why I was screaming, who wouldn’t laugh derisively when I cheered so hard that I fell out of my seat when Andy won the third set. The community that I found through Twitter, of all places, had led me here. Tears rolled down my sunburned cheeks and I felt deeply indebted to those who had welcomed me into this circle. Jack chuckled at my constant displays of emotion but understood exactly how I felt.
The rest of the weekend at Wimbledon is blurry now, a jumble of long queues, red wine, and grass stains. I moved from court to court, catching bits of every match. I, regrettably, left before the end of the third set of the Liam Broady-Diego Schwartzman match, thinking it was soon to be over after Diego won five games in a row. I watched the end of it on the hill. When the early evening rain came down, I stood under my umbrella as everyone ran for cover. The hill emptied and I stood alone, the sky was grey, and I was soaked, but I hardly noticed. When the clouds cleared, the scent of rain and earth rose up and the purple and white flowers were glowing. The grass looked even greener.
Sunday afternoon was a straightening-of-the-tie sort of afternoon for Novak Djokovic. He shined his shoes and fixed his collar and did his hair and slipped on his jacket. He glanced one final time in the mirror and nodded a knowing nod, a reassuring signal to himself that things were OK again. And then without a backward glance, he turned and went to work.
And what work it was, for Nick Kyrgios with all of his serving and his ranting, could find nothing to jam the form-finding fine-tuning levels of tennis that smoked at times with the force of movement from the shoes of one of the very best to ever do it.
Of course, the usual talk of Djokovic’s greatness and guile followed this match but if there’s a stand out takeaway from this Wimbledon men’s final, it’s that the Serbian’s ability to mentally compartmentalise issues both on and off the court remains unmatched. He simply refuses to let the struggle get to him and instead wears it, fitting himself around it, manipulating his joints to remain capable of hitting a tennis ball so perfectly while simultaneously warding off demons that flap like bats around brains in moments of difficulty. He revels in all of this, these times of stress that threaten to consume and take his thoughts wandering away from him. Never has there been someone so capable in men’s tennis of remaining cold in the heat.
We saw this most obviously in the dropping of the first set, Kyrgios winning it with a skip and a jump to his chair. But the thing is, the Djokovic-first-set-loss is a trope now, wheeled out in major matches to tickle fans of his opponents and get them excited. They stand and they clap and they get their hopes up off the ground a little. It gets them talking and buzzing, murmuring to one another with tentative smiles, uncertain of whether this is some practical joke or not, about to be whipped out from underneath them.
But while it’s not a joke, it’s so often only temporary. For there are levels to playing Wimbledon finals that only the greats can reach but rarely do they snap their fingers and instantly appear up on them. No, it usually takes a little while, it takes some warming up, it takes a bit of a shove from themselves to get them going but when they do, when they do get going, they’re gone so fast that you could never ever really hope to keep hold. They’re gone and you’re left with only the vaguest of recollections of at one point being ahead.
Responding to setback with fightback is difficult because it requires a soberness of thought that only the top tier can manage. Watching Djokovic drop sets in big-time matches before digging some sort of form out through the gratings of his game is beautiful to watch because it’s art, in a way. All he requires is a little bit of a something and that’s when you feel it, the turning tides of a contest changed, and you see it play out, you see it happening again and his opponents know it too. They try different things, different shots, different rhythms to disrupt and stop but when these men and women of tennis intimidation let you know they’ve arrived, you better come up with something other than a surprise underarm serve or you’re finished.
You’re gone. You’re done. You’re finished.
Novak Djokovic’s early slip-ups have become more frequent in recent years. Perhaps it’s age. Or perhaps he just lets himself bleed a little to let us know that he’s human.
In any case, Sunday night was a straightening-of-the-tie sort of night for him. He shined his shoes and fixed his collar and did his hair and slipped on his jacket. He glanced one final time in the mirror and nodded a knowing nod, a reassuring signal to himself that things were OK again. And then without a backward glance, he walked away as a 21-time major winner and went to the Wimbledon Champion’s Ball.