Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Monday here at The Changeover. You can find past editions of Stray Shots here. Let’s get started!
The Walking Wounded
What would you say if I told you that Janko Tipsarevic, the World’s ninth-best tennis player, has not won a single set of tennis since retiring at the beginning of the second set of his Australian Open Round of 16 match against Nicolás Almagro? Bear in mind, that was over a month and a half ago. You’d probably answer with a question of your own: has Tipsarevic played any events since then? Here’s the puzzling answer:
Yes. Four of them. Janko Tipsarevic showed up to play in Montpellier (lost to Llodra), Marseille (lost to Tursunov), Dubai (lost to Davydenko), and Indian Wells (lost to Gulbis). Tipsarevic has also been on the receiving end of a bagel in the last two matches, capping off his Indian Wells showing by only winning nine points in the second set.
Since the Australian Open, there have been only two weeks where Tipsarevic decided not to play: the first round of Davis Cup (right after the Australian Open ended, giving him two full weeks out), and the week between Marseille and Montpellier.
Let’s go back to that Australian Open match against Almagro. Tipsarevic had played two extremely grueling five-setters before that Round of 16 match, and when he pulled the plug vs the Spaniard, Tipsarevic cited a foot injury. That same injury was cited when Tipsarevic pulled out of Davis Cup. This is all very understandable.
However, I did find it bizarre that after losing early in Marseille and Montpellier, Tipsarevic pulled out of the quarterfinal Davis Cup tie against the United States, which will be held in Boise, Idaho the week after Miami ends. The reason?
Tipsarevic has frequently played for his country but is currently battling injuries, and said that he isn’t sure that his body can hold up in three-out-of-five set matches.
Yet … Tipsarevic played Dubai that week, lost early, and a little under two weeks later, he would have his worst showing of the season at Indian Wells.
If Janko Tipsarevic is struggling so mightily with injuries … why does he keep showing up at tournaments?
At the end of September of last year, Juan Mónaco, currently the World No. 14 but then-World No. 11, won his first hard court tournament in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Until the end of 2012, Mónaco went 2-4, with both of his wins coming against the same player: Grigor Dimitrov.
Still, this is not rare: players typically break down at the end of seasons – nothing new with that. And Juan Mónaco had a fantastic year in which he won four titles.
However, 2013 shows a more problematic situation. If you take the first round Davis Cup tie that Mónaco played (as the Argentinean No. 1), the current World No. 14 hasn’t won a single set of tennis. This season, Mónaco has lost to:
– Andrey Kuznetsov in Australia,
– Guillaume Rufin in Viña del Mar (where Mónaco played doubles with his friend Rafael Nadal),
– Simone Bolelli in Sao Paulo,
– Marinko Matosevic in Indian Wells (the second set was a bagel)
Of course, between Australia and Viña del Mar, Juan Mónaco played a key role in Argentina’s thumping of Germany in Davis Cup. He won his first singles rubber … but somehow decided to play a dead rubber on the third day, when the tie had already been decided. The great Fue Buena blog reported after the tie ended that Mónaco had practiced with pain in his right hand in the days before the tie started, and that he needed a pain-killing injection just to be able to play Mayer.
Mónaco’s issue with his right hand started in the pre-season, according to his own quote in this Fue Buena piece. Rafael Nadal’s buddy did pull out of Acapulco because of that same issue, and didn’t play the week before in Buenos Aires, either.
But why on Earth did Mónaco play that Davis Cup dead rubber? Why did he go to Viña del Mar to play singles and doubles? And then go do the same thing in Sao Paulo?
Before being harsh on these two gentlemen, let’s remember a key element in the life of professional tennis players: if they don’t play, they don’t earn any money. You might point out that they have sponsorship deals (the details of which are mostly unknown to us). Sure, but only the very top guys can count on the constant stream of income from juicy deals. Janko Tipsarevic and Juan Mónaco are both 28, and even if they both have earned a sizeable amount of money (6.7 million for the Serb, 5.7 million for the Argie), we also know that they’ve been on tour for quite a while. In fact, both turned pro in the same year: 2002. Moreover, we need to remember that tennis players have to pay for all of their expenses: if they were a professional sports team, they’d be the players, the owners, and the general managers of said team. Tennis pros hire their coaches, physios and the like, and have to play for most of the expenses of flying this team all over the world.
But let’s go back to the money part: Tipsarevic has been a pro for 11 years. He’s made $6.7 million since then, along with an unknown amount in sponsorship deals (my guess is that it’s a small percentage of that figure). That means he’s earned an average of around $600,000 per year just from his tournament earnings. Naturally, all years are different: Tipsarevic only made $16,915 in 2002. Six years later he made $516,401, and last year he made close to $2 million.
One thing to remember is that all this money is not really a salary – it’s more like revenue for a company. Coaches, trainers and physios have to be paid, travel expenses pile up, health care cannot be cheap for them, and of course, taxes have to be paid … in many different countries, no less. Oh, and nobody is keeping a retirement fund for tennis players, whose careers may be over at some point in their early thirties.
So even if we see millions of dollars in revenue, I’m not quite sure how much of that is left as profit.
So why do guys like Tipsarevic and Mónaco keep playing even though they probably shouldn’t? Maybe they need the income – you do get a check for losing in the first or second round. Maybe they both got those nice (and extremely opaque) appearance fees from smaller tournaments like Marseille, Montpellier, and Viña del Mar, where they might be one of the top four seeds.
This makes me think about what the ATP is doing about any of this. As we know, the ATP is a hybrid of a pro sports league and a union. I wonder if the ATP thought of finding ways to lower the expenses of travel (hopefully the new deal with Emirates helps with this) and health care for its players (thinking as a union) or at least ensure the best possible condition of their assets (thinking as a pro sports league). I wonder if the ATP has thought about creating some sort of fund players can access when they’re injured and can’t play. Or if the ATP is helping players plan their retirement.
I have no idea what the answer to these questions is, but I sure hope the ATP is at least thinking about these issues.
Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think
Americans, Onward and Out – by Steve Tignor (tennis.com)
Steve Tignor is on site at Indian Wells, and his dispatches are always a treat. In this post, Steve talks about watching Jamie Hampton and Taylor Townsend from up close. I haven’t been able to watch Hampton play at Indian Wells, but I sure liked what I saw when she pushed eventual Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka to three sets earlier this year. I agree with him when he says Sloane Stephens, despite her bad loss to Urszula Radwanska in her Indian Wells opener, will end up being a better pro than Hampton.
However, what I was most curious to read about was what Steve wrote about Taylor Townsend. As you know, I watched big chunks of Townsend’s second round match against Ana Ivanovic while I was liveblogging the Saturday action, and I really liked what I saw. To me, Townsend looked like an irresistible natural talent: her game is full of subtleties already, and she seems to have a knack for mixing it up in terms of tactics: Townsend chipped and charged on an Ivanovic second serve, and she threw in her fair share of serve and volley attempts (to mixed results). Moreover, she has that huge lefty forehand that is devastating when she hits it down the line. It’s such a nice, straightforward swing that you can’t help but feel that this specific shot will be the bedrock of future success.
I joked on Twitter that I was buying Taylor Townsend stock like a madman. I also couldn’t remember having more fun watching a player lose 1 and 2 in less than an hour. Townsend is a natural, and watching her develop will be a pleasure.
However, there was one part of Steve’s piece that worries me quite a bit:
“[Townsend] was coached for a few years by Donald Young’s parents, and the two players’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as their service motions, are similar.”
While I was watching Townsend play for the first time, and enjoying it so much, the thought of Donald Young kept coming up in my head. Not for the reasons Steve points out – I haven’t seen Young play in a long time, so the similarities in strokes didn’t pop out to me – but because watching Townsend hit the tennis ball did remind me of Young’s natural ability with a tennis racquet.
I still remember the only time I’ve watched Donald Young play in person: I was at the Washington, D.C. tournament to catch the quarterfinals, and I saw Young easily dismiss Marcos Baghdatis. His talent was so obvious, almost overwhelming, and his win put him in the semifinals of an ATP 500. Plus, Donald was 21 back then, so there was still hope that he, the most talented American of his generation, was going to get it together.
Alas, that hasn’t happened. Donald is currently ranked at number 190 in the world at age 23. He’s still coached by Donald Sr. and Illona Young.
At this point, there’s no need to rehash everything that has gone wrong with Donald Young. I feel like he could have his own “30 for 30” documentary – and maybe that might not be enough. What is clear, if only from the obvious results of Donald Young’s career, is that Donald Sr. and Illona Young aren’t the greatest tennis coaches out there.
Taylor Townsend has been working with Kathy Rinaldi for a while (Ed. note: Townsend and Rinaldi’s 3 year relationship ended, and Juan Todero, who also oversees Madison Keys, is also in charge of Taylor Townsend. He’s a USTA coach. Here’s a piece on that), and one can only hope that
Rinaldi Todero along with the USTA, do everything in their power to avoid a repeat of the sad Donald Young story. Particularly in the USTA’s case, I sure hope they learned some lessons from their involvement in the Young debacle.
Because it would be quite tragic for tennis to lose out on a talent like Taylor Townsend.
For Gulbis, a Fast Climb After a Steep Fall – by Ben Rothenberg (New York Times Straight Sets Blog)
The man on the 12-match winning streak is the talk of tennis at the moment, and his match against Andreas Seppi will be on Stadium 2, to the detriment of Gasquet-Janowicz, which features a top 10 player and a top 25 rising star. During this interview, some interesting nuggets popped up. This bit about deciding not to go to Australia was fascinating, given the financial theme of this week’s column:
It was a tough decision, because the career is as long as it is. And to skip a Grand Slam is a big decision. But Australia is pretty far away, everything is really expensive to go there, and if you play qualies you don’t make nothing, so basically you have to put your own $10,000 to go there, and then who knows how it’s going to pay off? So basically I chose to put that money into building my game up, instead of going to Australia, and who knows how I would have done there?
Of course, we do remember that Ernests Gulbis is the son of a Latvian millionaire, but maybe the quote above means that he’s not getting much of a subsidy from his parents anymore. Hence, Gulbis has to make the tough choices other lower-ranked players make every day. Janowicz himself declined to go to the 2012 Australian Open for more or less the same reasons.
Still, this is the part that really stuck with me:
But still, it’s really easy to see who’s got game and who doesn’t have game. The way the people hit the ball in the practice. When somebody has the pace, and somebody’s ball after the ball bounce is really heavy, and with a lot of spin and a lot of pressure. And somebody is just hitting the ball and running and doing nothing. For me, those guys can never win nothing big, you know? And some players, you see the ball is heavy. And the top four guys have the heaviest ball. That’s why they’re there.
For us watching on TV, and maybe even in the stands, this concept of the “heavy” ball isn’t really an obvious thing we can focus on. We see the ball traveling at a great speed, or traveling rather slowly. We don’t have a way to feel the weight of a player’s ball. But naturally, all the men and women on tour know exactly what Gulbis means: they feel it every time they practice with one another, and when they play each other in official matches.
This got me thinking about the one shot of the Big Four that struggled mightily to get that “weight” consistently: Andy Murray’s forehand. To me, the biggest achievement in Ivan Lendl’s coaching stint with the current US Open champion is getting Murray to hit a heavier forehand as often as possible. The results of this improved stroke are quite staggering: Murray has not only won his first Grand Slam title, but he’s played in the last three Grand Slam finals. The Scot also won the Olympics, and beat Roger Federer in two best of five matches (after never doing so previously).
This also got me thinking about David Ferrer, whose ball tends to drop short, struggling mightily to push opponents back. As we know, Ferrer won his first Masters 1000 title last year in Paris, and has never made a Grand Slam final.
Who knew – Ernests Gulbis can indeed say interesting things that don’t relate to illegal drugs, ladies of the night, and not practicing hard enough!
Entertaining on the Inside – by Steve Tignor (tennis.com)
Not much to add about this one – Steve’s look into what goes on inside Azarenka’s head before and during matches is simply outstanding.
Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
Just watched Kar Wai Wong’s ‘In the Mood for Love’… am I strange to be loving this?
— Andrea Petkovic (@andreapetkovic) March 6, 2013
Andrea Petkovic continues her quest to be the coolest tennis player ever – we already know of her comedic abilities, her admirable musical taste, and now we see her branching into artsy films from over 10 years ago.
“In the Mood for Love” remains one of my top five favorite films of all time: I still remember the first time I watched it, in Quito’s lone art-house movie theater. Back then I was starting to consider film as something I’d like to do with my life, and Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece just blew me away. It’s simply a gorgeous work of art: every frame, every scene, every bit of music is as beautiful as it is haunting. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are unbelievable. If you like films that aspire to be art, you will surely enjoy this one.
Music Used to Write this Column
Yesterday I had a weird dream in which I was set to direct a series of short films around PJ Harvey’s latest album, which didn’t really sound like PJ Harvey’s latest, Let England Shake. One of the songs sounded remarkably like a song by Beth Orton I loved from her latest album, Sugaring Season. The song is called “Dawn Chorus”, which I first heard on the Tiny Desk Concert Orton did a while ago.
Here’s Beth performing a band-less version of “Dawn Chorus” at a place where people talk during performances (that place could be anywhere in the United States, sadly. People love to socialize at concerts over here):