Should tennis players get rank-protected mental health breaks?

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Here is a chronicle on Osaka. Cliffs notes: I have all kinds of empathy here. But maybe Osaka isn’t cut out for athletic work right now. The good thing is. It is dishonest to turn this into a culture war referendum on softness, righteousness and snow. But it’s also dishonest to portray Saturday’s scene as unbridled heroism and to claim that there isn’t something troubling going on here, a mental health issue, which has yet to be addressed, probably away from tennis. Ignoring this does no one any good.

I met Venus Williams the other day. Life is good for her.

Keep Andrei Medvedev in your thoughts.

Forward…

Mailbag

Jon, so far it’s been a good tournament for the American men. Give me your top five now.
—Gwen, Pennsylvania

• The instinctive response to these questions is always to dig deeper. What is the surface? Are we talking about the top five now? Or the long-term top five? Growth stocks or value stocks? But overall I would say:

1. Fritz
2.Opelka
3.Korda
4.Brooksby
5. Tiafoe/Paul

For Gwen, “it” – and by “it” we mean the 2022 BNP Paribas Open – has been a strange tournament. Lots of upheavals. Djokovic, in absentia, regains the ranking n°1. Reborn Kyrgios. A player with a Ukrainian wife beating the Russian No.1…. But another theme was the emergence of American men. We often talk about quality versus quantity. But I would add “diversity” to the discussion. Part of what is so encouraging is the difference in style between the band members. Jenson Brooksby plays nothing like Reilly Opelka who plays nothing like Tommy Paul. The old American men’s scouting report – a serve, a forehand, an exploitable backhand, a fading trend – needs a software update. Post-Big Three Era tennis is beginning to come into focus. We’re not going to see these titans win it all, win titles with predictability, and trifurcate fans. We will see a flatter landscape, but still with many attractions.

Does buying a ticket for a sporting event give you the right to say that a player you don’t like sucks? Pretty sure the answer, which dates back to the days of the gladiators, is yes.
—Karl

• You and I might find it… offensive, scary, uncivil, even pathological to yell “you suck” at a complete stranger, no matter how rich and famous they are and how well we think we know them. And, yes, there is a line here about fan behavior. But, like the reader, I think “you suck” lands on the acceptable side.

An angle to this latest Osaka controversy: Sports are built on passion and unpredictability. You don’t play games on the sound stages. It’s not the ballet or the church. The importance of fan passion and collective vocal energy and rooting interests (for and against) has been heightened during Covid.

That foundation — unscripted results, tribal loyalties — is why the sport is such a thriving industry. The kind of industry that lavishes seven- and eight-figure annual salaries on the stars who are the most gifted at hitting balls with sticks. You can’t have it both ways. If you demand total control of the environment, the prohibition of any tension, confrontation or conflict, you distort the sport. “Gladiators” can be extreme, but, yes, boos and cheers and warm crowds and hostile crowds are fundamental. If that’s not for you, fine. But if you’ve entered that arena, there’s some level of risk assumption here. You do not control the environment.

Should circuits offer protected classifications for mental health breaks? I think so. I think it’s in the interest of the sport and the players. Who would it hurt?
—Megan F., Indy

• Sure. And I can’t imagine who would object. At the best of times, it’s a brutal sport. Too often we get caught up in the prize money and exotic locations and perceived sex appeal of a ‘tour’. We don’t see flight delays and injuries and dislocation. We see the champion cheerfully hoisting trophies. We don’t stop much to consider everyone else heading into the next tournament trying to break a losing streak. Or the paychecks that stop coming if you’re injured. Or the FOMO of watching your peers start conventional families and lives. All of these stresses have of course been intensified during Covid.

For years, sport has had this retrograde view of mental health: if you are injured, rub the dirt on it. Harden. To push. Play through the pain. If it’s not on an x-ray, it’s not real. Player after player – of all ages, rankings and nationalities – spoke about their mental health issues. It stands to reason that the sport would recognize mental health as serious by extending protected ratings.

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The obvious setback, I suppose: players could use the excuse of sanity to protect the rankings. Djokovic, perhaps, could have kept his No.1 ranking had he asked for the mental health break, pending Covid protocols. Two answers: 1) So what? If a player wants to take advantage of this protection, it is better to be too generous than too stingy or scrutinizing. 2) Just like illegal coaching or giving up 0-5 or not admitting you touched the net, or other questionable acts, this is an emptor caution. Players make these decisions all the time: How much do I enjoy winning? Is it worth eroding my reputation with fans and colleagues?

Jon I was surprised to see little mention of Varvara Lepchenko and her doping ban. Here is a player who represented the United States at the Olympics. Why is nobody talking about it?
—Name masked

Yes, it has been underestimated. here is the decision and the press release from last week.

Why this lack of attention? It may be because Lepchenko is 35 and ranked 135. It may be because of the various other international scandals, hot-shots and incidents that have beset the sport in recent weeks. (Aside: Peng Shuai, unfortunately, seems like the tennis talking point equivalent of a wooden racket.) Lepchenko, you’ll recall, was jumped for meldonium at the same time as Maria Sharapova. But unlike Sharapova, she played it close to the vest, never admitted to using it, and shrewdly penalty avoided. For her to then commit another subsequent doping offense is truly a remarkable double-down. Clear Rennae Stubbs said it: “Once a cheat, always….” This may seem a bit harsh. But it is difficult to dispute this conclusion.

Jon, here is a question I have always asked myself: What does a tennis coach earn?
—Thanks, RKO, London

It really varies. Player based. Based on the circumstances. Depending on whether the federation of a country contributes or not to pay the bill.

First of all, it is certain that players take T/E, which can include a premium class air ticket. The golden rule was: “I will make you whole for what you would have earned by teaching in a club or an academy.” Now it’s more complex and generally more lucrative for the trainer. I know a coach who was thinking about a 50-100 player job, asking $3,000 a week. I know another coach was getting $5,000 a week when the player was competing and $2,500 on off weeks. No one is buying Roman Abramovic’s yacht; but it is money, especially since you pay very few expenses.

For star coaches, that amount skyrockets. And, increasingly, coaches receive various bonuses. Famous 80s player won a Major and gave his coach a $50 bonus. We have come a long way since then. It’s not uncommon for a coach to receive a six-figure bonus for a major win. A ranking bonus, etc. I know of a manager who had a sort of ‘360’ deal where he also took a reduction in endorsements and appearance fees.

This structuring creativity makes a lot of sense. This motivates coaches and allows them to share in the success. It also preserves the relationship. A complaint you frequently hear from coaches: “I got them to point X. Then the money came and they dumped me.” Some sort of incentive plan helps guard against this.

We’re in Indian Wells, and glad we were. Although, like a lot of people I guess, we’re completely mystified by the AO redux hijacking the male draw here. I understand there are rules that govern what happens when the tournament loses its number 2 seed after the draw is complete, but surely there are winners (Rublev et al) and losers (Millman ? Sousa?), and surely the tournament and the players (and fans!) would like to prevent that. We don’t want a tournament draw to be negatively impacted by something that seemed so avoidable. Tuesday night after the Eisenhower Cup, we stopped at Stadium 9 and watched the final three games (including the tiebreaker) of Joao Sousa’s first-round qualifier with Max Purcell. So much drama compressed into 15 minutes, with Sousa saving deputies and playing with his trademark intensity and style my life hangs in the balance. Sousa was one of the players who was close to qualifying for the main draw if there was an opening. Help us understand how this stupidity could happen again, and are we overreacting to the impacts on the draw? And hasn’t Djokovic played his hand badly yet?
—Thank you, D&S

• Like so many others inside and outside the sport, we are completely exhausted. We would be happy never to discuss the rules and mandates and the Covid protocol – which, yes, is often confrontational and erratic. Djokovic has already taken too much oxygen with his positioning and repercussions. At the same time, there is a professional obligation to recognize certain stories and not simply ignore them because they have become boring. And the world’s No. 1 player – at the dawn of history – has missed events due to an unwillingness to play by a rule that virtually everyone else in the sport follows…it remains significant.

As for the past week, Djokovic is well within his rights to wait and see if there is a reversal of the policy he finds so personally objectionable. Once the draw was underway, he had to step down. Instead, it stayed and we got the mess described by D&S. I don’t know how anyone – except the most ardent supporters – doesn’t find this deeply (technical term) uncool.

Have a good week.

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