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What I Learned – Mailbag: Media access in tennis, pre-match interviews

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Hey everyone. A short vacation Mailbag….1) Our most recent podcast guest: WTT CEO Carlos Silva.2) Next up: Wifi willing, it’s Richard Gasquet.3) Congrats Sam Stosur.4) We’re hearing that while the WTA’s China stretch is deeply imperiled, the ATP Finals are still on the docket for London. It will likely be a no-fans scenario, but cancelling the event would mean a $10 million swing for the ATP.5) Your name in the Hall of Fame…Fans can get involved here. Onward….MailbagHave a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.Jon, did you see John Feinstein’s column about media access in golf versus tennis? If so what did you think and is this something that tennis needs to address?—Sam S., San Francisco• First, here’s the column. I like John professionally. I like John personally. (I first met him when I was in eighth grade and he was in my town writing Season on the Brink.) But his tennis playbook might need an update. The sport still has a long way to go in the media relations department—and any journalist satisfied about the level of access would be committing an act of professional malpractice—but it’s not as bad as he makes it out to be. If you’re a member of the International Tennis Writers’ Association—which has requirements for membership, but they are reasonable—you usually have access to the players’ lounge. Some players are happy to engage on social media and respond to DMs, eliminating the middle-folk. Players’ agents are generally helpful. I also think media relations are largely top-down. A quarter century ago, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf liked being interviewed about as much as they liked getting their serves broken. Other players picked up on that ethos. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are much more media-friendly and this, too, marinates throughout the sport.John tells that Henri Leconte story. But note how many players have spent more than 20 minutes on podcasts or videos. I linked this piece a few months ago re: Djokovic spending multiple days with American journalist Graham Bensinger. (In December—the off-season—I was in Mallorca with Nadal for multiple days as well.)More important: access is only relevant if the players have something to say for themselves. I have covered golf and—at the risk of the same wild generalization I gently accuse John of indulging—you can fill notepads and recording devices and not have one quote worth using. I remember asking a golfer named Justin Leonard a question. He looked me in the eye, smiled and said, “I’m not sure it does me any good to answer that question.” He was a gentleman and was gracious. But if that’s the attitude, I’m not sure it did me any good to cover golf.Say this about tennis (at least tennis in the last decade or so): When you get to the athletes, the assignations are often worthwhile. They are engaging and funny and quotable. I’m not even talking about Nick Kyrgios. Here’s Taylor Townsend. Here are the Bryans. Here’s Naomi Osaka. Here’s Federer talking to a journalist aboard a private plane. Here’s Nadal. There’s a meta point to be made in here somewhere…but in tennis, the pursuit may be a challenge; but the payoff is usually worthwhile. Whenever I catch Jan-Lennard Struff (currently playing in Thiem’s 7), I always remark that he has a game similar to John Isner’s, but with better mobility. Why has his career never taken off the way John’s has?—James in Ho Chi Minh City• I like Struff and like watching him as well. I wouldn’t necessarily compare his serve to Isner’s but he’s a heavy hitter. His movement has improved, but he’s still a big lumbering guy and can struggle with fitness. Note his record in best-of-five matches: he’s 15-26 at majors, which is really low for a guy who’s usually on the verge of getting seeded. He tends to beat the players he should beat and lose to those above him. Now 30 (when did that happen?) he is ranked No. 34.Jon, I assume you caught Mardy Fish winning the Celebrity Golf title. Maybe now more people will realize that tennis players are serious athletes!—Colin, New York• Somewhere Gael Monfils shakes his head. (“I can leap over the Eiffel Tower to hit an overhead; but some dad crowding 40 and wearing pants can thwack a ball out of some tall grass and suddenly tennis players are athletes?”) We jest. Congrats to Mardy.Huge fan for more than a decade. I’ve been wanting to ask you this for some time. How much of “what questions you choose to answer” is driven by internal SI politics as opposed to everything else ? After all, even Hannity claims he’s fair and balanced. What’s the thought process and the system for choosing which questions to answer? Has there ever been a case where you are friends with a player and have chosen not to entertain a question from someone who has less (much less) than complimentary things to say about said player? Enlighten us! —Deepak, New York• Hey thanks. It’s an imprecise science, but there’s no politics here other than my own. Some heuristics:1) I’d like this to reflect the tennis vox populi. So if 75% of the questions are about, say, the Adria Tour, I feel duty bound to discuss. Some topics (labor economics of tennis) interest me more than others (the GOAT debate) but I feel like this is every bit as much the readers’ column as it is mine.2) I have no Facebook-style algorithm, but I try to reward regular readers. Some of you have noticed repeat names (Helen of DC, Megan of Indy, Sally of Switzerland, Shlomo, Fernando, Deepak himself.) That is no accident.3) I shy away from questions about physical appearance. Who’s hot and not. Who looks good/bad in what outfit.4) With the possible exception of Wayne Odesnik—multiple doping cheat—I have no personal animus toward any player. By the same token, I try not to let relationships or personal fondness interfere with analysis.Hello. Do you know what happened to Wu Yibing? He was a promising young junior and then disappeared.—@sflatennis• From the Beijing bureau…here’s his agent:Thank you for your email. Wu Yibing is a very talented player. He was suffering from elbow pain and finally decided to have a minor operation on his elbow last August. He was recovering and doing treatment at the IMG Academy since then. And it was very unfortunate that he was getting ready for competition and the ATP Tour got suspended because of the COVID-19. Thank you for thinking about Wu. Hopefully we can get back to competition soon!Do you like the pre-match interview?—Brian T. Barnstable• Does David Foster like the horns section in Chicago? The pre-match interview is excruciating for all parties. It is made worse by “questions” that trigger predictable, numb responses. Q: “How excited are you by this opportunity?” A: “Oh, very excited. I want to enjoy the experience.”Q: “You lost to her the last time you played. What are you going to have to do differently?”A: “Be more aggressive and take my chances.”Q: “Does David Foster like the horns section of Chicago?”A: “Why no. But it did lead to the breakout solo career of Peter Cetera.”Can I please call for an immediate and permanent moratorium on the use of the phrase “balletic grace” in regards to the playing style of Roger Federer? So many journalists and commentators use it (though not you, as much as I can remember), and if they aren’t using it in an article about him, they’ll use it in all other articles not about him (for example, to emphasize, say, the physicality of Nadal’s playing style). It’s become comedic and there are so many adjectives in the English language…—Mark• You’re very kind but you probably give me too much credit. I suspect “balletic grace” has infected my writing at one point or another. My pet peeve phrase to retire? “Maestro.” Here’s a moratorium for athletes: “Prove the doubters wrong” and “fueled by my critics” and “not-so-fast to all the people encouraging me to retire.” This is a classic straw man. Who are these doubters? Who—besides Papa Djokovic—actively wants Federer (or Venus or Sam Stosur or the Bryans or whomever) to retire?• Matt George, take us out:I’ve been thinking a lot about Yetunde Price lately. Yetunde was a mother of three, a nurse, and a small business owner who was tragically killed as an innocent bystander in gang-related violence on September 14, 2003, about a mile and a half from the Compton public courts where her two younger sisters, Venus and Serena Williams, learned tennis from their parents. When her boyfriend called paramedics and the police, he was actually arrested although he had nothing to do with the crime. Although Venus and Serena had both missed the just finished U.S. Open with injuries, they had combined for nine of the previous 13 Grand Slam titles. Yet they would not win a Grand Slam title in 2004, despite both being at the absolutely prime of their games. And while they each nabbed one title in 2005, 2006 was also a drought, and it probably wasn’t until Serena’s comeback win at the 2007 Australian Open that really re-sparked both their careers. During this time, however, the killer was unsuccessfully tried two times, before pleading to a lesser charge, and in her true courageous fashion Serena addressed him in court, concluding that, “Our family has always been positive and we always try to help people.” True to their word, the Williams’ sisters opened the Yetunde Price Resource Center in 2016, whose mission “works to ensure that victims of direct or indirect senseless violence have complete access to existing resources and that where there is a dearth in services, new resources are created.” Although this topic must be unbelievably painful to discuss, Serena has opened up more about it the past couple of years, explaining how the scourge of gun violence has impacted her family and the depression it caused her during these years her results tailed off. So I’m surprised that Yetunde is not a bigger part of the Williams’ story, and my own conclusion is that the tennis media has failed to fully address or incorporate this into the narrative simply due to its blind spots about the unique difficulties African-American tennis players have had to face in their off-court lives. Indeed, in May 2006, one Hall-of-Famer wrote an open letter that was sent to the entire USTA membership describing Serena’s lack of results as being “sidetracked with injuries, pet projects, and indifference.” I wonder if this player ever thinks about how the grief associated with the murder of a sibling might have impacted her life, let alone her match results. If John McEnroe had a mid-career drought after the murder of his sibling, would he have been publicly chastised this way? I don’t think so. And as much as we all agree a deranged German man altered the course of tennis history in April 1993, I believe it is a foregone conclusion Serena would be well past Margaret’s mark already had her sister not been killed when she was.So when the tour resumes, I believe it is incumbent on you and members of your profession to ask (with permission of course) our African-American players about the unique challenges they’ve faced, so they can be heard and seen for who they are, so that their results can be appropriately placed in context, and so that we all may learn from their experiences and do better. We owe it to Yetunde. 


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