Also in this week’s mailbag: assessing Coco Gauff’s 2022 season and some more pickleball talk.
• From the naked self-promotion department….Inspired by Strokes and of Genius and the Federer/Nadal rivalry, we have a new sports doc series on rivalry debuting next month. First episode: Ohio State/Michigan. (JK Simmons steals the shows as narrator.) Here’s a link. Check your local listings, as they say.
• RIP Tennis Magazine, print edition.
• The New York Times weighs in on the Tennis vs. Pickleball culture war.
• This week’s book recommendation: Jeff Pearlman on the Last Folk Hero.
A Few Thoughts to Start
We had a lot of questions this week about Simona Halep, her positive drug test, her pre-emptive ban, and her curious year overall. Anytime a former No. 1 is popped for a doping violation it’s news and worthy of discussion. The warning label, as it were: we all ought to be cautious here, avoid a rush to conclusions and condemning and condoning, absent more information. But herewith some scattered thoughts:
• Sports doping is a strict liability universe. Meaning that, in highly legal terms, “it’s on you.” Intent doesn’t matter. Mix-ups don’t much matter. You are responsible for what goes into your body. Period. In criminal law, we (generally) operate on an assumption that it’s preferable for a guilty defendant to walk free than for an innocent defendant to be convicted. It’s different in doping. Strict liability, is well, as strict as standards go. As it should be. But it leaves athletes very vulnerable.
• It is rare that an athlete tests positive and says, “Yup, I did it. Busted. I did the crime; I’ll do the time.” In tennis alone, defenses have included a candy confectioner citing a history of diabetes, a kiss with a cocaine user, a drug user to prevent hair loss, the infamous tainted pasta defense. Some defenses have ben more successful than others. Halep announced that she was completely confused and betrayed.
• And yet on its face, her case makes little sense. She tested positive for Roxadustat, a drug meant for anemia patients that boosts red blood cell production (not unlike EPO) and is unapproved, at least in the U.S. Halep’s positive test came at the U.S. Open. The drug leaves the system quickly. Simply as a matter of mechanics and common sense and timing, it strains credulity that an athlete would dope like this before the U.S. Open—when they knew that, win or lose, there was a good chance of being tested.
• Reputations don’t matter….yet they do. That Halep is a well-regarded and popular and a measured veteran won’t reduce her penalty or factor in her sentencing. But it will matter in the court of public opinion. Tennis players can—and often do—build up good will in the course of a career. When there are lapses, real or perceived, it leads the public to extend them the benefit of the doubt. It leads the public to reflect charitably. When other reputable parties—Darren Cahill in this case—weigh in unequivocally, that carries weight as well.
• Three cheers for Novak Djokovic for jumping in with not a character defense of Halep but also a pledge for the PTPA to get involved. Tennis needs an independent players union. This is a vivid illustration why. The tours are not equipped—or, one could argue, even ethically positioned— to defend players in these situations.
• The day the news broke, Pam Shriver issued this cryptic/not cryptic tweet. We can argue about whether this was courageous or perhaps a bit too big a swing. But it’s been an open secret in tennis that this has not only been a convulsive year for Halep; but that these wholesale changes caused many people concern. This was a year of radical change and drama for a player never known for either. I wrote about this at the French Open. Others have touched on it as well. In the last few months, Halep blew up her longtime team…took on a new coach…suffered a panic attack on-court, allegedly for the first time…announced she was divorcing her husband…lost at the U.S. Open to a qualifier who had never before won a pro match…announced she was undergoing nasal surgery (which she noted, with characteristic candor, was for “functional and escethic“ reasons)….and now this positive test result. Quite a year.
• I saw a comment that Halep’s performance has not been enhanced in 2022. This, of course, is silly. Look at positive doping tests in sports from the last 20 years and it’s clear that PEDs are just far more often for recovery than they are for excellence. This is not a statement of conjecture about Halep’s guilt or innocence. But a reminder that it’s often not only and not simply the best in class that are using PEDs.
• Quick: what do Maria Sharapova, Marin Cilic, Martina Hingis, Richard Gasquet, Beatriz Haddad Maia and Mats Wilander have in common? They’ve never been in Cliff Clavin’s kitchen. Besides that, each has been popped for banned drugs. Some were PEDs and some were recreational. Some defenses were more sympathetic (and accepted) than others. But each player recovered, resumed their career, clawed back good will, and moved on.
Simona Halep will be out of action for the foreseeable future. She will devote great time and spiritual bandwidth and likely funds to mounting a defense. But she will likely be back. And the reputation she has put together over the course of a decade will speed her recovery.
Coco Gauff is up to No.4 in the rankings. This is incredible but she has won no titles. How do you assess her year?
Jim T., Portland
Coco Gauff is No. 4 in singles. She’s exceptional in doubles, where she is No.2. She doesn’t turn 19 until Indian Wells. She qualified for Forth Worth. She won matches on every surface and under every condition. She graduated from high school. She continued to be charm personified; and also smarts personified. In start-up talk—a cheap move from the hackneyed buy/sell/hold–she comes in for another series round of financing.
The hitch here is her forehand (literally) and her play at majors (metaphorically). Both are fixable. But the rules of the road in modern tennis: you make your bones at the majors. Had Coco won that Roland Garros final….had she made the Elena Rybakina move at Wimbledon….had she fairytaled the U.S. Open, it would be a much different story. All of her winning and professionalism and steady improvements augurs well for the future. She is still, squarely, a teenager. Everything is angling and arrowing in the right direction. But success at the majors is the big next step she can take in 2023.
Is there a seasonal window to discuss how to improve the marketability of doubles? I play doubles, but am usually disappointed by the entertainment value of the televised professional game. Some opportunities for improvement:
1) Clothing: For singles players, it’s fun to see—and sometimes be snarky about—the players’ kit; Players in pro doubles events seem to dress like random club players. Even if they have different sponsors can’t some coordination occur?
2) How players relate to the crowd: In singles, some players are easily frustrated, some are stoic, some work the crowd, but it is all part of the drama. Doubles teams seem to share their emotions only with each other. Team events are the exception and it makes a difference.
3) Graphics and analytics: these are non-existent for televised doubles. I would love to have some of these complicated points explained in a visually compelling way.
4) Camera work: TV’s reliance on wide-shots for doubles makes sense but is also a limiting factor for getting inside the players’ heads. I’d be interested to know how many cameras are being used and whether visual interest could be improved with an extra camera for close-ups.
Barbara Katzenberg, Lexington, MA
Good post. One of the big complaints/gripes about pickleball: it is not telegenic. But pickleball doubles IS good for television. There’s not a lot of time between points. There are twice as many stories to tell. There’s fast action. It has all those tennis virtues—net play, scrambling, angles, lobs—we sometimes lament go overlooked in tennis. If I’m doubles commissioner, I’d work on the assumption that the singles stars are, at best, unreliable and that promoters will often give me crappy scheduling and courts and slots. I’d funnel all my energy into making doubles as pretty as possible for screens.
I thought you were going to have to eat your words about Maria Sakkari. She had a good week but then lost to Jessica Pegula in the finals.
The flip side: Jessica Pegula took the title, a nod to her professionalism. A promotion to No.3 in the world (which is wild) and a reminder that she is 28. Often as players look to Serena and Djokovic and other stars for inspiration, if you really want a player to emulate—a hardworking pro who wasn’t necessarily blessed by the talent gods, but ground things out in her early career to get to the upper echelons—here is your exemplar.
Kobi Sonoyama, take us out:
Count me as a tennis traditionalist and not a fan of pickleball. Because of my stance, I’m very hesitant to give pickleball any more attention than it deserves, but I just don’t get all the attention it’s getting and have to say something about it. Lebron James AND Kevin Durant are investing in “major league teams”? What does this even mean?? I get that it’s fun to play and there is some creativity/finesse involved with playing. Heck, as a side story I actually played pickleball with Sam Querry several years ago, so I’m not at all surprised that he’s into it. But just because it’s fun to play doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch. What does “major league play” even look like?? Who would want to pay to watch this garbage? What network is going to pick up the coverage, ESPN The Ocho? Pickleball is just a glorified version of racquetball if you ask me, kind of a lazy man’s sport that doesn’t require nearly as much athleticism and stamina as tennis does. I feel like everyone is overreaching here.
And the main reason I’m annoyed, and what isn’t talked about enough, is that racquet clubs and fitness centers are converting tennis courts into pickleball courts to attract the pickle ballers and add them as new members to their business. There are two huge fitness clubs here in Sacramento (Lifetime Fitness) that turned all of their tennis courts into pickleball courts to attract more people. One of the oldest and most beloved racquet clubs near me (Park Terrace) converted two of their outer tennis courts into pickleball courts too. That’s the part that irks me the most. I’m fine with pickleball having its place in the community. But don’t take away some of the public and private tennis courts to accommodate pickleball. That is what’s happening here, and I’m sure it’s happening in other clubs and parks around the country. That’s the main reason tennis rec players like me will never like pickleball. And I get that it’s really not pickleball’s fault. It’s the club owners who are trying to profit off the popularity of this new “sport.” But it’s still happening because of pickleball. Thanks for letting me vent.
More Tennis Coverage:
- There Are No Villains In Tennis’s Big Three
- The WTA’s Return to China Is Going to Be Uncomfortable
- Sam Querrey Won’t Be the Last Tennis Pro to Move to Pickleball