I’ve been watching tennis for a long time. The US Open has come down to two compelling finals. In one, Serena Williams faces Bianca Andreescu. By winning, Serena could tie Margaret Smith Court’s record of 24 wins in majors. Eleven of Court’s titles were Australian Opens during an age when not all the players chose to take the long flight down under – but she did win them. But Court’s homophobic religious views have become extremely unpopular inside and outside the locker room, so a lot of tennis people want Serena to consign her to the history books.
Andreescu, though, is a solid player. Just a teenager, she moves well, hits hard off both sides, and competes well, having mowed down every top ten player she’s faced in the last several months. She’ll be tough to beat.
On the men’s side, Rafael Nadal seeks to move to only one win behind Roger Federer’s twenty major titles, with the realistic prospect of winning another Roland Garros next year. After a tired-looking loss to Grigor Dimitrov, Federer’s chances of extending his lead seem about as compelling as his spaghetti commercials. Opposing finalist Daniil Medvedev is fast, powerful and a strong competitor, but has a history of behaving poorly on court, so the wealthy crowd will likely be rooting for Rafa.
Who will win? One strategy is to minimize errors, another is to go for winners, but tennis seems to come down to a balance of consistency and aggression. You can’t just get the ball back in play, but you also can’t give the opponent lots of free points by going for winners on every shot. And, you have to deal with the increasingly intense summer heat.
A few days ago, CNN hosted a Climate Crisis Town Hall for all the major Democratic presidential candidates except Tulsi Gabbard, who is on military duty. Climate activists wanted there to be a climate change-themed debate, but the always timid Democratic National Committee wouldn’t allow it. So instead – over seven hours – each candidate was interviewed in a town hall format by CNN anchors and concerned citizens with prepared questions. In past town halls, these “ordinary citizens” have turned out to have industry connections or concealed agendas, but this batch seemed mostly on point. In fact one flummoxed Joe Biden by asking about him attending a fossil fuel-sponsored event directly after the Town Hall. I’m still amazed CNN let that happen.
Who won the Town Hall? Well, as in the debates, the tone was essentially set by the progressives. Naomi Klein considered it a victory to simply have the words Climate Crisis in large red letters on television. With category 3 Superstorm Sandy shocking NorthEast elites and category 5 hurricanes like Matthew, Irma, Maria, Michael and now Dorian becoming yearly events, even conservative people are realizing that severe weather events are occurring much more frequently than ever before.
How do you win a town hall? Most of the candidates tried to minimize errors, reciting the green talking points they learned from Governor Jay Inslee, who recently ended his candidacy. Some candidates assured us we could still eat hamburgers and use plastic straws – business as usual – while they pursued some incarnation of a Green New Deal.
Several candidates pledged to eliminate waste, or increase efficiency in this or that, which sounds good on the surface. But there will always be a certain level of inefficiency in human endeavors. After hearing decade upon decade of such pledges, I now take them as a veiled promise to not structurally change the status quo.
“Whether they need it or not, government always spends the money it is allotted,” is a standard issue talking point, one I’ve heard since I worked a summer job for county government. Accordingly, Julian Castro recounted an anecdote about Air Force pilots dumping their fuel in the ocean to maintain a yearly allotment of fuel.
Only Bernie Sanders actually went for his shots. Unfortunately for his candidacy, Sanders is proposing to revamp several of our major industries – government/lobbyists, banking, military, pharmaceuticals, insurance, automobiles, prisons – and while he assures us that the workers in those industries are not his enemies, management of those industries will certainly see Sanders as their enemy, as does management of the major media. It remains to be seen whether the Sanders plain-spoken populist agenda constitutes an error or a winner.
As a fan, I have been following the Australian Open (AO) tennis championships, which feature both women and men players. That seems to mean I’m old.
According to a 2016 study of sports leagues, the average age of the ATP’s television audience is 61, fourth highest of all major sports. The WTA fares better; its average viewer age was 55, and the age of its audience decreased between 2006 and 2016.
I actually prefer watching the WTA, but I’m still older than the demographic they want.
After some lean decades, the AO moved from the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club to Flinders Park (now called Melbourne Park) and has blossomed into equal standing with Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. Its main stadiums are named Rod Laver Arena, Hisense Arena and Margaret Court Arena.
In the weeks leading up to the AO, there was a lot of media chatter about players boycotting, or even renaming Court Arena. Though a fantastic player, with 24 major titles to her name, Margaret Smith Court was a traditional woman, who only toured when she wasn’t being a dutiful wife and mother. Though she had played and lost badly to Bobby Riggs in the Mother’s Day Massacre – the precursor to the Battle of the Sexes – Court was reportedly lukewarm towards Billie Jean King’s efforts to start a more egalitarian women’s tour. After her tennis career, she converted from Catholicism to evangelical Pentecostalism, eventually becoming pastor of her own ministry, where she espoused conservative Christian values … and attacked gay rights, as she told the West Australian in Perth:
“Politically correct education has masterfully escorted homosexuality out from behind closed doors, into the community openly and now is aggressively demanding marriage rights that are not theirs to take,”
“The fact that the homosexual cry is, ‘We can’t help it, as we were born this way,’ as the cause behind their own personal choice is cause for concern,”
I believe that Court is entitled to her beliefs, and as an evangelical, to preach them, but I also believe that she had to expect a great deal of criticism in return from a sport with outspoken lesbian heroes like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, to name only two.
But as the tournament progressed, the controversy over Court Arena faded. LGBT supporters wore rainbow colors on their clothing while playing, but no one refused to play their scheduled matches on Court. Upsets and scintillating matches took over the headlines. Two lower-ranked male players, Hyeon Chung and Tennys Sandgren made unexpected runs into the quarterfinals. Chung is a talented South Korean who recently won the ATP Next Generation exhibition in Milan. Nextgen featured eight young players who are only starting to make a mark in the tour. Tennys Sandgren wasn’t one of them, but his name had garnered occasional attention among writers looking for easy headlines, and he seemed to be an affable fellow, and he was an American from Tennessee.
At the AO, Sandgren vaulted from near-obscurity in defeating journeyman Jeremy Chardy, 2014 champ Stan Wawrinka, fellow newbie Maximilian Marterer and world #5 and genuine contender Dominic Thiem. These were his first four wins in the main draw of any major tournament. But he found himself under the scrutiny of the media, and twitterverse callouts of his tweets that had been ignored before suddenly became worth a second look.
Sandgren, it turned out, had been following the tweets of Tommy Robinson, Nicholas Fuentes and had retweeted articles by Jordan Peterson. Tommy Robinson is a pseudonym for Stephen Christopher Yaxley, a political activist who led the English Defence League, founded the European Defence League, worked in the British Freedom Party, a think tank called Quilliam and a UK offshoot of the German anti-Islamist group Pegida (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes). Robinson had been moving away from the more violent groups, but remained opposed to the introduction of Islamic culture. Nicholas Fuentes is not the Peruvian footballer, he is a white supremacist student from Boston University who has been quoted saying, “Multiculturalism is cancer.” He left BU after receiving threats due to his participation in the Charlottesville white supremacy rally.
I can hardly fault Sandgren for retweeting Jordan Peterson. Around the middle of last year, my browsing habits led Google to suggest videos of Petersen speaking with Camille Paglia and other intellectuals, and he sounded fairly reasonable. I looked for more information, and found that he was a psychologist interested in religion and ideology, and had become famous, or infamous, for refusing to use transgender pronouns at his school, the University of Toronto. Many reasonable people reject the more extreme political rhetoric, but it seems that Peterson also espouses a strictly binary view of sexuality in which men are men and women are women. Not unlike Margaret Court. Still he’s a lot more palatable than, say, Ben Shapiro, who recites alt-light talking points as fast as possible and calls it debate.
But Sandgren had also retweeted so-called Pizzagate conspiracy rants, and some insults directed towards black folk in general and Serena Williams in particular. He responded to social media attacks by deleting his tweets, which only made him look guilty of something. After defeating Thiem, Sandgren botched the post-match interview by reading a prepared statement attacking the media’s right to question anything he had done on social media, and proclaiming: “It’s my job to continue on this journey with the goal of becoming the best me I can and to embody the love Christ has for me, for I answer to Him and Him alone.” Yeah, that was going to work.
As his match with Chung began, Serena tweeted simply, “Turns channel.”
Soon after losing to Chung, Sandgren tweeted a sincere-sounding statement rejecting alt-right beliefs. Some folk bought it, but I found his statement politically-correct and unconvincing. I suspect that Sandgren still leans alt-light, but is now afraid to express what he really feels – which is a shame. Even though I disagree, I would rather hear what people really think than hear carefully-constructed pablum. In a similar vein, Glenn Greenwald tweeted that while he in no way endorsed Sandgren’s tweets, he did regret that a young person had no space to make mistakes.
I posted before about the unfortunate near-riot when Charles Murray attempted to debate professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College. As predicted, the Resistance and the MeToo movement have brought about an inevitable backlash. In New York Magazine, self-described Oakeshott-conservative Andrew Sullivan claims even the LGBT movement has lost focus:
The movement is now rhetorically as much about race and gender as it is about sexual orientation (“intersectionality”), prefers alternatives to marriage to marriage equality, sees white men as “problematic,” masculinity as toxic, gender as fluid, and race as fundamental. They have no desire to seem “virtually normal”; they are contemptuous of “respectability politics” — which means most politics outside the left. Above all, they have advocated transgenderism, an ideology that goes far beyond recognizing the dignity and humanity and civil equality of trans people into a critique of gender, masculinity, femininity, and heterosexuality. “Live and let live” became: “If you don’t believe gender is nonbinary, you’re a bigot.” I would be shocked if this sudden lurch in the message didn’t in some way negatively affect some straight people’s views of gays.
While I realize that Sullivan is not entirely wrong here, his POV is very insular. He, a gay conservative, got what he wanted out of the LGBT movement, and that should be good enough for everyone.
The refusal to consider other viewpoints, or to even listen to anyone that disagrees has become a pathology in our culture. It is the key first step in dehumanization of the other. A fellow, Umair Haque posted on Medium that he believes our very culture is severely ill:
American collapse is much more severe than we suppose it is. We are underestimating its magnitude, not overestimating it. American intellectuals, media, and thought doesn’t put any of its problems in global or historical perspective — but when they are seen that way, America’s problems are revealed to be not just the everyday nuisances of a declining nation, but something more like a body suddenly attacked by unimagined diseases.
Seen accurately. American collapse is a catastrophe of human possibility without modern parallel . And because the mess that America has made of itself, then, is so especially unique, so singular, so perversely special — the treatment will have to be novel, too. The uniqueness of these social pathologies tell us that American collapse is not like a reversion to any mean, or the downswing of a trend. It is something outside the norm. Something beyond the data. Past the statistics. It is like the meteor that hit the dinosaurs: an outlier beyond outliers, an event at the extreme of the extremes. That is why our narratives, frames, and theories cannot really capture it — much less explain it. We need a whole new language — and a new way of seeing — to even begin to make sense of it.
It is a bizarre time for tennis.
A few weeks ago, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced a new strategy to reduce the total number of professional tour players. I’m not sure if any sport is as Byzantine as tennis, but essentially there are the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) which runs the elite men’s tour, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) which runs the elite women’s tour and the ITF, which runs a lot of things, like the Davis Cup, Federation Cup, Hopman Cup, Olympic tennis and circuits of smaller professional, junior, senior, wheelchair and even beach tennis tournaments. The ITF “partners” with the ATP and WTA, and “sanctions” each of the four majors – which are otherwise run independently – and manages the ranking system.
The ITF now plans to reduce the number of professional players from around 14,000 to 1,500 – 750 men and 750 women. Their research indicates that half of the current players don’t actually earn any prize money on the tour, and that many more don’t actually earn a living, relying on parental or sponsor support. They also claim that all these journeymen players make it difficult for talented juniors to advance to the elite tours.
I watched one set of the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo last weekend. I usually prefer WTA matches, but TennisTV can’t broadcast those anymore. The semifinal match between Rafael Nadal and David Goffin seemed promising. Goffin was having the best week of his career, bumping off Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. But Nadal is a god on clay, and had already won Monte Carlo nine times. They had never played each other before.
Goffin broke early. He was playing well and was holding serve fairly easily until he served at 3-2. Nadal finally seemed to put some return pressure on Goffin, and in a long game, earned but lost a break point. Then it appeared that Nadal had hit wide on a Goffin game point. Nadal began walking to the service line, but the chair umpire climbed down, circled a mark in the clay and signaled that the point should be replayed. Looking at a replay, the announcers were certain the ball was out by, “a mile.” Goffin held his head in disbelief, but to no avail. The game went back and forth for fifteen minutes with each player holding and losing game points until Goffin hit a ball into the net. 3-All.
Nadal held easily for 4-3, then Goffin rather meekly lost serve again, and with Nadal leading 5-3 I decided to watch something else. I read that Nadal won 6-3, 6-1. Nadal could certainly have come back to win without that bad call, but the match had changed from compelling to a cakewalk.
In Federation Cup action, Great Britain was visiting Romania, whose captain is the talented but tasteless Ilie Nastase:
At a news conference on Saturday to preview the matches in Constanta, Romania’s captain was heard to say of [Serena] Williams’ baby, due in the fall: “Let’s see what color it has. Chocolate with milk?”
On the first day, a win by Simona Halep had Romania 1-0 against Great Britain. In the second match, Brit Johanna Konta, who has been hot lately, was leading Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 1-2. But when captain Anne Keothavong complained about Nastase’s audible comments, he began verbally abusing the chair umpire, Keothavong and Konta from the sideline. Nastase was escorted out, but Konta was rattled and lost the next game. She asked for a time out, then ran out the next five games to tie the rubber at 1-1.
ESPN reported that Nastase had been creepy before the matches:
The 70-year-old, who had a reputation as a playboy during and after his playing career, had previously made Keothavong feel uncomfortable with a number of inappropriate remarks earlier in the week.
Having asked for her room number during the event’s official dinner on Thursday, Nastase then repeated the request when the captains posed together for photographs following Friday’s draw, and he put his arm tightly around Keothavong’s shoulder. When both teams were called back together, Nastase said to Keothavong, who is married and 18 weeks pregnant with her second child: “We keep being attracted.”
Romania went on to win both subsequent singles matches, but Nastase is now suspended by the ITF. Cirstea called Konta weak for needing the time out, and Halep claimed that Nastase is always joking, but a Romanian official took the cake by noting that Nastase wasn’t a racist because he is friends with Yannick Noah.
As other tennis fans discuss whether Rafa Nadal can catch and surpass Roger Federer, Pacific Standard offered a look at a player now long past his prime: John McEnroe and the Sadness of Greatness. I both loved and loathed McEnroe. I wished I could play his attacking style – and tried to for years – but I found his on-court antics embarrassing. He supposedly earned his famous nickname for being precocious, but it quickly became clear that he was as much a brat as a super player.
… thus marked a year during which McEnroe would gradually sense what perhaps only exceptional athletes can sense: the moment of his own demise. …
Blood was spilled all over in 1984. … McEnroe won 78 of his 80 matches that year. It was an astounding accomplishment. For all intents and purposes, a player couldn’t imagine having a better year. Yet, for all his success, the tour was sustained by forces horrible and dark. McEnroe, winning match after match, spent the year getting angrier and angrier, cursing judges, mocking fans, and pacing the court as if it were the common room of an asylum. This anxiety culminated at the Swedish Open … and it came in the form of an upper-shelf outburst that would mark his inevitable decline in tennis greatness at the professionally precarious age of 25.
While McEnroe was great, no one would actually stand up to him. Once he started slipping, though, officials began to find a little backbone.
When I read Simon Johnson’s article, The Loss of U.S. Pre-eminence, in the NY Times Economix blog, I couldn’t help but compare our nation-state, pushed to a shutdown by a petulant, whining Tea Party, with the SuperBrat:
The United States became a superpower in the 1940s and, 70 years later, stands on the brink of losing that status. It rose to global pre-eminence at short notice, and its decline can occur just as abruptly. This week’s partial government shutdown both reminds us that the United States has reached such a precarious position and shows us exactly how things can now unravel as it approaches the really big confrontation over the debt ceiling.
… The United States won its global predominance in a short period, but based on a long haul of industrial development, productivity gain and fiscal prudence. Now the groundwork has been laid for its decline with political polarization, a longstanding tax revolt and a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the federal government.
Yesterday I watched Sara Errani vs Roberta Vinci – a dream all Italian final at the Italiacom Open WTA in Palermo. I had watched Vinci beat a very swarthy Spaniard, Estrella Cabeza Candela, Spain, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 the day before. Errani had defeated Czech Republic’s Klara Zakopalova 6-4, 6-4, but I didn’t watch that one.
Both women wore the same dark blue skirts and blue horizontal-striped singlets over powder blue sportsbras. Even their shoes were the same. Being doubles partners and both sponsored by Nike, it probably never occurred to them that television viewers might have trouble telling them apart. I noticed that Errani wore a bun at the back while Vinci wore a ponytail, but the real giveaway was Vinci’s slice backhand vs Errani’s two-hander.
Errani broke to open, but Vinci pulled even at 2-all. The key to the match was probably the big fight for the seventh game. Vinci couldn’t seem to get a bh dropshot over the net, but saved 5 break points and held for 4-3. Vinci was almost always able to tee off on Errani’s second serve, but in long rallies, was pushed ever deeper by Errani’s steadier strokes. Nevertheless, Vinci won her 6th break point in the eight game, and served out the set at 6-3. The commenters told us that it was the first set she had won against Errani in oh-so-many years.
Errani seemed more error-prone than usual, but focused more, got an early break and won the second set 6-3. Vinci led the third set 4-0, but Errani broke back to get on serve at 3-4. Then Vinci broke and held to 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, ending a run of five defeats to the younger woman, and pleasing fans from her local region.
I watched the match on TennisTV, mostly because it was the only current tournament that wasn’t blocked out in my area. That has been a disappointment. I knew I would not get the majors, but there have been a lot of smaller tournaments that aren’t covered by TTV. I still like the format, but it would be great if I could merge TTV’s delivery and commentary with The Tennis Channel and ESPN’s reach.
Late in the second set the TTV signal dropped a few times, and in the middle of the third set I had to start over and advance to where I had been. Such hiccups are not critical to me, but I could see them flummoxing less experienced users.
Towards the end of a routine Rolling Stone interview, Serena Williams: The Great One, appeared to sympathize more with the Steubenville rapists than the victim:
We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV … Serena just shakes her head. “Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”
To answer her question, Yes I think the rapists got what they deserved (thanks in part to Anonymous). But at the same time I agree that women should be careful of drinking too much at parties. I am aware of the ideal belief that women should be safe no matter what, but I tell my own children that ideal isn’t all that practical in the real world. If Serena had said only that she might have raised fewer eyebrows. And I don’t agree that she – the victim – was all that lucky.
After a great deal of blowback, Serena spoke to the victim and her family and released a statement in which she hinted that she didn’t really say it the way it was printed:
“I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article,” the statement said. “What was written — what I supposedly said — is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.”
But she did say that.
Tommy Haas and Philipp Kohlschreiber won quarterfinal matches at the BMW Open in Munich today. Both men use a one-handed backhand, which practically makes them dinosaurs. Certain religious sects teach that man once lived at the same time as the dinosaur, and that he developed a two-handed backhand to rise to the top of the food chain. According to, The Disappearing One-Handed Backhand, in the NY Times’ Straight Sets blog:
When it comes to winning titles, the age of current crop of one-handers is perhaps the biggest red flag. With the exception of Dimitrov, a Bulgarian who will turn 22 in May, every player in the top 30 on the ATP World Tour who relies primarily on a one-hander is at least 26 years old — middle age for a touring pro.
And, yes, the story is similar on the WTA Tour. Henin’s early retirement eliminated the only dominant woman with a one-hander. She and Francesca Schiavone of Italy are the only women with one-handers in the last six years to win a Grand Slam. Only one woman ranked in the Top 20, 30-year-old Roberta Vinci of Italy, has a one-hander.
Juniors, tomorrow’s champions, see far more two-handers than ever before and are reluctant to trade in their own for a one-hander — no matter how many winners they’ve seen Federer hit with the shot. …
The falling number of champions with one-handed backhands is reminiscent of what happened so quickly to serve-and-volley champions: there were many, then there were a few, and suddenly there were absolutely none.
Two weeks before the Straight Sets post, a very statistically-minded tennis blogger at Heavy Topspin noted that players with one-handed backhands were not yet extinct, but were getting older. In, The State of the One-Handed Backhand, we read:
Don’t write the eulogy just yet. The one-handed backhand isn’t the common sight that it used to be, but there are still plenty of them out there. When the current generation retires, however, we might have an endangered species on our hands. Here’s a quick look at the prevalence of the one-hander in today’s men’s game. …
I think the Heavy Topspin post is more balanced, but neither article got into the reasons for the decline of the stroke. I’ve read elsewhere that it has to do with players learning the game when very young (and very short) on high-bouncing bituminous and clay courts. If you’ve ever flailed at the occasional high-bouncing ball to your backhand, imagine getting a steady stream of shots that were too high to hit with any power while your insane tennis parent, who just drove you four hundred miles to play in some tournament, is watching and having a fit.
So if the two-hander makes it easier for five-year olds to add some power when returning that shot, they’re going to use it, just as they tend towards extreme Western grips to handle high-bouncing balls to the forehand – rather than stick with the one-hander and lose their junior matches. Unlike Pete Sampras, most of them will keep their hard-learned strokes into adulthood.
Update 20130505: Haas beat Kohlschreiber in the final of the BMW Open. Stan Wawrinka, who also hits a one-handed backhand, beat two-hander David Ferrer in the final of the Portugal Open. So it was a good week for the one-hander.