Hello and welcome to the seventh issue of Tennis inbox. In case you missed it, on Tuesday we published a profile of world #116 Chris O’ Connell. O’ Connell tells a story of having to work in retail and clean boats so that he could afford to travel and play on the ITF Futures Tour and Challenger Tour. After his struggles, O’ Connell went on to have one of the best years of his professional career in 2019, scoring wins over Tommy Paul and Steve Johnson (to name a few). O’ Connell’s tale highlights the disparity between players at the top of the game and those who’re working their way up.
In this week’s issue, we ponder whether Serena will finally equal Margaret Court, accept that tennis without a live crowd present isn’t really the same, and see how the Adria Tour’s f*ck up raises some interesting questions for tennis as we move ahead. Read on to find out more.
Will Serena win her 24th this year?
Serena Williams is already the greatest female player of all time. There’s no discussion about it, unless you’re a die-hard Steffi Graf fan. Graf did complete the ‘Golden Slam’ in 1988 (A Golden Slam is when a player wins all four Grand Slams in a calendar year as well as the Olympic Gold Medal), but she only has 23 total Grand Slam titles (22 singles, one doubles) compared to Serena’s 39 (23 in singles, 14 in doubles, two in mixed doubles). Serena’s numbers are truly impressive (we’ll get to Margaret Court in a bit).
As an aside, a freaky fact we just discovered is that when Serena and Venus make it to a doubles final in a Grand Slam, they have never lost. Absurd. They are 14–0!
But there is one statistic that has eluded Serena for the past few years: The highest tally of singles Grand Slam titles. Serena currently sits at 23. Margaret Court is at 24. And Serena has lost her last five Grand Slam finals trying to equal Court, her latest loss coming to Canadian Bianca Andreescu in the 2019 US Open final.
Today, Margaret Court is known better to the public for her conservative Christian views on the LGBTQ population than for her tennis accolades. Though Court has a total of 64 Grand Slam titles (24 in singles, 19 in doubles, and 21 in mixed doubles), a large chunk of her titles came before the Open Era, where competition was not as fierce and the field wasn’t as substantial as today. It’s very difficult to make the case that Court was playing against the same depth of competition that Serena has faced throughout her career.
Serena has apparently been training and has even taken a shipment of the compound used to make the US Open’s court surface so that she can build a comparable court at home. Stacey Allaster, the US Open tournament director, is quoted as saying:
“I can confirm the surface provided by Laykold for the 2020 US Open and Western & Southern Open was shipped to Serena’s house. She’s got a new court in her backyard so she has been training. She will be playing and she’s excited to come back.”
We’ll see how things play out in September for Serena. Perhaps she can finally equal Court’s record this time around. What do you think—are we wrong? Should Margaret Court be considered the greatest ever based simply on her title count?
Do us a favor. Just listen to the highlights video that we’ve linked below. Pay attention to the reactions from the crowd, their little “oohhs” and “ahhhs” as players scramble across the baseline or smack huge winners. Listen to the thunderous applause which echoes throughout Arthur Ashe at the end of a point.
Now imagine that same stadium empty.
Imagine these same points played out without a live crowd.
Are you seeing a problem yet?
It won’t be the same.
No matter what newfangled system or gimmicks the USTA and its broadcast partners come up with to boost audience interaction and participation from home (and we’re guessing that there will be a few), we’re finding it hard to believe that anything will equate the roar of a drunk Arthur Ashe crowd who’re making their pleasure known after a long rally.
What about pumping in spectator sounds into an arena? If the below example from Patrick Mouratoglou’s Ultimate Tennis Showdown is any indication, it could take some getting used to. The manufactured crowd responses at the UTS sometimes sound out of place—almost like the laugh track on a bad sitcom when you know that the joke isn’t really that funny.
It’s only something we’ve started thinking about recently. Some fans we’ve spoken to say that it won’t matter to them—that they just want to see live tennis again. But we’re not so sure that it’ll have the same allure.
What happens if and when players start getting coronavirus?
On Monday 22nd June, Grigor Dimitrov announced via Instagram that he was positive for the coronavirus. Dimitrov was part of Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour series, which was promptly cancelled after Dimitrov’s announcement. Djokovic had been slated to play Andrey Rublev in the final. Though Dimitrov only played one match, losing to Borna Coric, he had been in close proximity to Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic, and Alexander Zverev.
Half a day later, Borna Coric announced that he had tested positive for coronavirus.
The next day, news broke that Victor Troicki and members of Djokovic and Dimitrov’s staff had tested positive.
The final (and perhaps predictable) domino in this saga fell when Novak Djokovic released a statement (see below) that he and his wife had also tested positive for the coronavirus.
Djokovic’s Adria Tour series has raised eyebrows worldwide for filling its stands with spectators. Players were also seen hugging, playing pick-up basketball, dancing at nightclubs, and not observing the recommended social distancing protocols.
More questions than answers
Moralizing and internet scorn aside (and there has been a lot of it), all of these cases raise some interesting questions for the slew of upcoming tournaments the ATP, WTA, and ITF have planned.
For one, will they let players who test positive compete in the US Open (and other tournaments)? The obvious answer is a no—but what happens if a player is having the tournament of his or her life and have made it further through the draw than expected? Factor in that clinical sensitivity of RT-PCR tests (diagnostics swab tests) ranges from 66% to 80%, meaning that nearly one in three people who are tested can receive false negatives, and we could very well have a scenario where a player finds themselves cleared to play while being asymptomatic with the virus.
How about another: once Novak, Coric, and Dimitrov recover, will they be allowed to compete at the Western & Southern Open and the US Open? Why or why not? Who is the medical authority that will make this decision?
Consider that it was a common occurrence to see pros pre-coronavirus competing at tournaments while carrying small colds and flus, blowing their noses discreetly into tissues at change of ends. Commentators often remarked about these players’ tenacity and determination for fighting through their sickness to be on court.
Obviously, the coronavirus is no common cold. But will players be forced to withdraw from the US Open even if they don’t want to? There are no fans, and players will only have small teams with them. If they’re self-isolating and feel they are capable of competing, will regulations and officials deem that they’re not allowed to play?
The details of all these scenarios are not yet clear. What do you think?
Team Peace vs Team Love
Women’s tennis has been quiet during this pandemic. Other than a UTR series and a few regional exhibitions, play has almost been nonexistent on the women’s side.
The Credit One Bank Invitational held in Charleston, South Carolina has changed that. The invitational is a team event featuring 16 players split into two teams.
Some of the big names at the Credit One Bank Invitational are:
- Sophia Kenin (#4 WTA)
- Madison Keys (#13 WTA)
- Alison Riske (#19 WTA)
- Danielle Collins (#51 WTA)
- Victoria Azarenka (#58 WTA)
- Bethanie Mattek-Sands (# 20 WTA Doubles)
Safety is paramount for the Credit One Bank Invitational. Tournament director Bob Moran told Tennis Channel,
“It was important that we could show that we could come back safely…. If we’re to come back and get tennis back to live sport again (sic) we all have to work as one team. And that’s our team here at the event and also the players and their teams.”
(Perhaps the organizers of the Adria Tour can learn a little from the Credit One Bank Invitational.) Moran also told the Tennis Channel that the event is for a good cause and is “raising money for the frontline healthcare workers at MUSC.” MUSC is a university hospital associated with the Medical University of South Carolina.
It’s nice to see the women back on court again—we feel that they haven’t had as many chances to compete as the men have had.
On another note, we don’t know who was hired to do the marketing and strategizing around team names for the event. Team Peace and Team Love? Maybe it works for some, but we think it’s just a little too kumbaya.