Mailbag: Breaking Down a Wildly Successful Laver Cup
• Our most recent podcast guest: recently retired doubles legend Daniel Nestor.
• Up next: My Tennis Channel colleague—and former coach of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Sloane Stephens, among others—Paul Annacone shares his impressions of the Laver Cup.
• Let's reflect on this: Marin Cilic turns 30 in a few days. Juan Martin del Potro turned 30 last Sunday. Which means there will soon be no living 20-something man with a Grand Slam title.
• And this: Serena Williams turns 37 today. Which means that 50 (fifty!) majors have been won by active players 37 and over.
• In the midwest junior tennis circles of the 1980s, there were few more towering figures than Stephanie Reece, who later played on the WTA Tour. Last week an unspeakable tragedy befell her and she could use assistance.
Most of the mail this week pertained to Laver Cup. I’ll make a few observations, trying to incorporate as much of your feedback as possible…
1. The event was an unqualified success. Chicago was a gracious host city. The players did their part. The tennis was high quality in both singles and doubles. It’s only year two but what an extraordinary, quality event we now have.
2. Fans are discerning and take their cues from players. Never mind handing the racket to ball boys and unnecessary tweeners and other exhibition shtick. Crowds can sense when the players aren’t fully invested, and crowds respond accordingly. Conversely, they can sense when players care deeply about performance and outcome. This was the latter.
3. Tennis-at-large ought to note of format's successes. The best-of-three, 10-point deciding tiebreak format was a smashing success. Matches were seldom longer than 90 minutes and no one left unfulfilled.
4. Nice shot in the arm for doubles, the sport’s underleveraged asset. If singles were less taxing and there were a way to incentivize the stars to play more often, everyone would be better for it.
5. I was struck by the diversity on display. Racial, geographic, age, size (John Isner standing next to Diego Schwartzman was an enduring image), stylistic. Singles, doubles, one-handed backhands, two-handed backhands. All from a sample size of just 12 players. Discuss: could a future iteration include women?
6. I forget: to whom did Kiki Bertens lose at the French Open? Pretty basic question. But don't bother checking the WTA’s much-maligned website. At least as of last week, you simply couldn’t retrieve this. Technology and strong social media game is no longer an add-on; it’s essential for a sport and a sporting event. The Laver Cup experience for fans at home was excellent.
7. I’m struck by the bonds and sense of in-group/out-group that formed so quickly and over the most flimsy designations. It reminded me of this.
“Europe” and “rest of the world” are fairly arbitrary—especially if/when Brexit goes down. Must Andy Murray and Kyle Edmund leave Europe as well?—but the players really felt they were part of a unit.
8. We know about Tennis Australia’s investment, but the USTA has invested millions in Laver Cup too, if more quietly. (Challenge: try and find this line item in the USTA’s 990.) Inasmuch as the event brought great publicity and spirit to tennis—in an underserved market—this is money well-spent. Inasmuch as the USTA is making a seven-figure investment in a single-gender, for-profit event, (not even held at a USTA facility), I wonder how this passed board muster.
9. Tennis ogre: It’s named after Rod Laver, but Roger Federer was the cynosure and host of the week, a cloak he wears so easily and comfortably. What does this event look like when Federer is no longer competing?
10. These team events remind me of burrito restaurants in my neighborhood. You wait forever for one to arrive. And suddenly three pop up at once, cannibalizing each other. Tennis can perhaps accommodate the Laver Cup and the new and improved and cilantro-scented Davis Cup. It cannot accommodate three. Here’s a great primer on the behind-the-scenes intrigue.
The Laver Cup highlights the tennis-as-swan analogy. It appears so regal and confident. But under the surface? Man, there's some ugly flapping going on.
(See you in Geneva next year.)
In an age where there's a lot of griping about the length of the tennis season, kudos to the men who made the Laver Cup an incredibly successful outing. It was a riveting, close competition, the players gave their all, and clearly cared about the outcome. Isner was spot on that this was "an exhibition in name only." It was like the other major sports' (NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB) All-Star games, except without any drop in effort whatsoever. Hopefully tennis grows the event in years to come.
—Chris, Roanoke, Virginia
• Nailed it. The absence of “drop in effort” is what legitimizes the event. This means physical effort, racing to dry and dig up very ball. But this also means effort in arriving to town early, effort in match-day preparation and mental effort. For me, the real mark of the Laver Cup: it featured as much professionalism as any other ATP-sanctioned tournament.
Jimmy Arias brought up another interesting point. No one chokes at an exhibition. Notice, by contrast, how many players tightened up at the Laver Cup. That tells you something.
To me, perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship between Federer and Djokovic appeared forced for the camera. There was no genuine warmth. Contrast this to last year. Even the most partisan fans of both Nadal and Federer would have acknowledged that the two players gelled well and enjoyed good camaraderie.
What is your take on this?
—Venky, C., Ann Arbor
• Here’s the New York Times’ decidedly different impression.
I’ll duck this and avoid trying to psychoanalyze Federer and Djokovic. But the mere fact that the fans are pondering this marks a win for the Laver Cup.
All the upsets in the women’s game...why is this happening? I don't buy the 'parity' argument. There must be a reason players that dominate on the WTA tour fail to consistently deliver on the big stage. Training? Scheduling? Who knows?
• The obligatory reference to the unfairness. When Steffi Graf and Serena Williams win relentlessly, the chorus complains that there’s an absence of competition. When each tournament brings a new winner, the chorus complains that there’s an absence of consistency. Quick points:
1. I wouldn’t dismiss the parity argument. Sometimes there’s a clear-cut superior player. Other times not. Serena is coming off childbirth and is closer to 40 than to 30. The No. 1 player, Simona Halep, is not a hulking physical presence armed with weapons. Maria Sharapova is floundering. It stands to reason that the field is more compressed than it once was.
2. A former player (whom I trust a great deal) thinks overtraining is part of the problem. Players spend more time in the gym and less time on court. Players are in better shape than ever, she reckons, but lack match fitness. And too many have lost power as they have lost weight getting in shape.
3. I still consider the point Martina Navratilova makes: “Too many things are done for these players today. They don’t do anything for themselves except for hitting the ball. The coaches, the drivers, the physios. They motion, and someone brings them a towel. I saw a player hold out her arm and someone applied sunblock. They don’t have to take responsibility. Then they get out there [in a Major] and it’s only them. And when the you-know-what hits the fan, and they have to make all these decisions—what shot to hit, how to adjust—they are not prepared.”
After Federer lost to John Millman at the U.S. Open, a lot was made of the fact that Fed had invited Millman to train ealier in the year. I know it's common practice for top players to extend such invitations to their colleagues, often inviting players that play different styles of tennis to give them a smorgasbord of training partners, so to speak.
I was just wondering how these training camps work. Do the players extending the invitations pay the invitees for their services? Or do they just pay for flights, accommodation and meals? Or do they not even do that, if it is considered to be an honor to even train with the likes of Fed, Rafa, Nole and so on?
—Sheba, Brisbane, Australia
• Let’s be clear. Only the top, top players do this. It’s rather like Muhammad Ali flying sparring partners to his prefight camp and them rotating them. I’m not sure money changes hands, but the host surely picks up the tab.
I remembered writing this about Jesse Levine, a former Federer invitee: “When he checked into the Le Royale Meridien Beach Resort and Spa, he learned that the quasi-actress Tara Reid was among the guests. 'I heard she got paid to party there. Just drink for free and get publicity,' he says. Federer had already left a message in his room. Could he hit immediately? Levine dropped his bag and Federer pulled up in a Mercedes and they went to a private court at a nearby hotel. It turned out Federer had invited a young player, a Lithuanian junior, Ricardas Berankis.”
Why had Federer hand-picked a college player and a baby-faced Lithuanian to practice with him? Both were left-handed and it takes something less than an intelligence expert to deduce that they could mimic the style of Nadal, Federer’s closest challenger. But there were other reasons as well. As top juniors, they could supply a competitive hit but not divulge any trade secrets. To be sure, there was an element of noblesse oblige as well.
The stars, though, need to be a bit picky about whom they choose. I wonder if Federer’s past with John Millman didn't serve as a bit of unwanted demystification. Millman takes the court not thinking he’s playing the GOAT, but rather the guy who picked up me and listened to me crack on Tara Reid.
You are one of my favorite tennis journalists and the only one I take the time to read and watch consistently. Reading your Mailbag and analysis of the Grand Slams very much enhances my viewing experience of tennis. But I had to write in (finally!) and take umbrage with your (lack of) coverage of Mike Bryan’s recent accomplishments. At the U.S. Open, Mike Bryan breaks a 44-year-old tennis record…and he doesn’t even rate a mention in your “50 Parting Thoughts” column. Not one peep. Not to even mention the winners of the men’s doubles. Even though he is enjoying the kind of late-career renaissance that completely matches one of your favorite storylines in tennis, even though he is the men’s oldest doubles No. 1, and even though he is doing it in a way, and with partner(s), that no one had anticipated. Mr. Wertheim, you may be the most important voice in tennis journalism today, and when it is so easy for you to continually overlook a series of truly record-breaking and historic achievements just because they’re in doubles…well, it does not give me much hope for doubles when the Bryans do retire.
• I take full responsibility. This was in my master file and I’m not sure why it didn’t get transferred.
"Jack Sock and Mike Bryan won their second straight Major in doubles, beating Marcelo Melo and Lukasz Kubot in the final. What a strange year for Sock (see below) who is miserable in singles…and might well be the best doubles player on the planet. And Mike Bryan is at a different point in his life than a brother, Bob, and good on him for continuing to succeed. How strange will it be, though, for the Bryan Brothers to be inducted into Newport in different years?"
Hey Jon – We’re nearing the end of the season (or are we?). Please please please tell me that the WTA is working on a new TV broadcast deal so that we can finally watch ladies tennis (outside of the Slams) again. They are working really hard on that, right? RIGHT? Jon? Please tell me yes?
• Let me see what I can do. Give me a week.
As that country song goes (like, all of them), "how can I miss you if you won't leave?" How about if tennis just shuts down after the U.S. Open, and we'll see you at the year-end Masters and then in Australia, mate!
—Dominic Ciafardini, New York
• Andy Roddick once made this point similarly. There’s value to scarcity of product. How can you fully appreciate something (or someone) if it never leaves?
Two basic problems with shutting down the concert tour after the U.S. Open:
1. Economics. As long as there are promoters willing to pony up prize money and appearance fees, players will line up. How do you lop off months of a season when you have labor and management willing to make a deal?
2. Legality. If I own a sanctioned event and suddenly you take away my fall dates on the calendar, I am now the plaintiff in an anti-trust suit.
Rant from a life-long fan. Please, no more pre-match interviews. I don't care who's asking the quesions, they are disruptive and never glean anything useful or interesting. Leave the players alone until after the match.
• I’m reluctant to support anything that reduces content and access. And I do think these interviews help establish some connection and identity of the player—especially a lesser-known player— the audience is about to watch.
But, yes, these interviews are generally absent nutritional value and, at times, downright excruciating. It strikes me, too, that the questions are important. Most players are reluctant to speak. So when you come with the most forgettable line of inquiry—“How excited are you by this occasion? You lost to her in Utica: what do you have to do differently to be successful tonight?”—you’re toast.
Rather than totally kill the pre-match interview and cede this ground, I’d like to see tournaments and networks trade it for something more revealing/palatable for everyone. “We’re not going to bother you pre-match, but we are allowed to ask you a question or two as you leave the practice court.” Boom. It’s another win-win.
Great breakdown of Andre/Nole in the mailbag today - but you missed the opp to expound on what I think is THE real story - how Marian Vajda may have helped save Nole's career. Any thoughts?
• I want to pitch Tennis Channel a show: “The Tennis Whisperers.” Vajda, Serena’s trainer, Pierre Paganini, the stringers, Anabel Medina Garrigues. All those people who have such a material impact, but don’t come in for nearly enough credit.
I just got back from attending the Laver Cup in Chicago. What an awesome experience! I loved every second of it. I hope someday this event gets the same media attention that the Ryder Cup gets. It absolutely deserves it. And if anyone uses the term "exho" again to describe the LC, I'm going to smack them. It's absolutely not an exho!! It's a unique event and the two-sets-and-match-tiebreak format is perfect for it. But I would not want to see this format for regular tour events and certainly not for majors. Majors should remain best-of-five.
I love all tennis events but this one has a special place in my heart.
• With your bad knee, you shouldn’t be smacking anybody. (Name the movie.)
A unique riff courtesty of former World no. 5 Julie Heldman:
I was a top professional player in the late 1960s and 1970s, but I left the tennis world in 1978, never really to return. But now I’m back, having just published a unique tennis book called Driven: A Daughter’s Odyssey. The book combines a powerful personal story with important tennis history, shown from an insider’s point of view. I truly believe you’ll be drawn to the book, for the following reasons:
Although Driven has been out barely a month, excellent reviews have already come pouring in. Readers have called it “brilliant,” “compelling,” a “page turner,” “heart-breaking and harrowing,” and “brutally honest.” One tennis aficionado called Driven one of the top four tennis books ever written. A number of tennis folks have already signed on as fans, including Steve Flink, Mary Carillo, Joel Drucker, Nancy Richey, and Peaches Bartkowicz.
Driven’s core theme—my relationship with my mother—reveals both my pride in her magnificent contributions to tennis, through World Tennis magazine and her many successful promotions, and the myriad ways in which she emotionally abused me.
It tracks my tennis career, in which I was twice ranked No. 5 in the world, with wins over every star of my era. And it reveals my tortured connection to tennis.
The book provides a historically accurate account of the beginning of open tennis and the start of the women’s pro tour.
It shows how the women’s tour owes its initial success to its holy trinity: Gladys Heldman, Billie Jean King, and Joe Cullman/Virginia Slims.
It reveals for the first time how, during my mother’s last 12 months of running the women’s pro tour, she began to spiral out of control, resulting in a disastrous lawsuit against the USLTA and its decision to sever ties with her.
It also reveals how my mother ended her own life.
It shows the extent to which, even after I quit the tour, I was compelled to succeed at everything I undertook, from journalism to broadcasting to law to business, at a huge emotional cost.
And it shows my struggles with mental illness, which started when I was 18 but went undiagnosed until I was 50, and the way in which my troubled past, combined with bipolar disorder, resulted in a breakdown, which started when I was 54 and continued for approximately 15 years.
To get started, you could also read the first two chapters on my website, www.JulieHeldman.com.