“Tennis” Tomorrow

In case you haven’t heard, a tennis tournament is starting tomorrow. Well, sort of. It’s a virtual tournament featuring top players, including Nadal, competing on PlayStation. Sixteen men and sixteen women will be taking part.

Action begins tomorrow at 9 a.m., ET. Supposedly Tennis.com will be streaming it live here:

https://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2020/04/watch-live-mutua-madrid-open-virtual-pro-video-game-tournament/88543/

I have no idea what we’ll actually see in the streaming. Presumably it will be more interesting to watch than Pong. Will we see the actual players? Hear them trash talking one another? I don’t know, but I’ll be tuning in to find out. I’ll take any tennis I can get.

My Review of “Different Strokes”

This morning, my husband, daughter and I were puttering around the kitchen, each of us foraging for breakfast and wearing that glass-eyed, slack-jawed expression that I’ve come to call Quarantine Face. Quarantine Face is what you get after far too many hours looking at the same walls with far too many hours still to go. A whole day’s worth of hours stretching out ahead of you, only broken up with food and dog walks.

But not even dog walks today because it’s raining and my dog detests the rain.

So…just food then.

To brighten the mood, I turned to my zombie-esque family and said, “Hey! TGI Friday!”

I was met with bitter, hollow laughs.

So, yes, I’m tired of quarantining, as I know you all are. What is one to do with a Friday to mark it as something different from, say, Tuesday? Your assignment, in the comments section, is to share the best thing you’ve done on lock-down…that doesn’t involve food. (Seriously, no food. I’ve already gained five pounds.)

But first, before you share your suggestion for a fabulous Friday night in the house, we should talk about that book I was telling you about in my last post, Cecil Harris’s Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution.

I have to admit that I dragged my feet a little bit on getting started reading. The problem was not the book. Racial inequality in sports is a worthy subject, and Cecil Harris is a fantastic writer, as you saw in his guest post.

No, the problem is that I, as a comfortably sheltered white person, don’t always want my little bubble pierced. In fact, I almost never want my bubble pierced. I like my bubble. Most days, my bubble and I float along perfectly content, unaware that there is anything outside the bubble, other than a raging pandemic.

I’m not a complete moron, of course. I knew that blacks had been banned from competing and that courts had been segregated. I’d heard of Althea Gibson and even wrote about Arthur Ashe once in this blog. Harris does a nice job profiling the careers of trailblazers Gibson, Ashe and the Williams sisters.

But I’ve been sort of embubbled in thinking these inequalities were largely a thing of the past. Not so. As with other areas of society, racial laws may have changed but other systematic problems endure.

Harris exposes the unequal representation of blacks in the sport’s administrative ranks. No African American has officiated at a single’s final at the U.S. Open—an honor reserved for highly experienced “gold badge” officials—since 1993. Following a lawsuit alleging discrimination, New York’s attorney general required the USTA to create a new position to foster inclusion and diversity. The person the USTA hired? He ended up suing the organization for discrimination.

Blacks are underrepresented among players as well. Harris explains that the USTA devotes its development resources to training facilities and to young players whose parents will commit to the travel and expense of the junior tennis circuit. What the USTA fails to do is grow the game by bringing tennis to the masses. The cost of an elite Florida training academy (up to $80,000 a year) combined with the isolation a young person of color may feel as a minority at one of these centers help explain what keeps tennis a largely white sport.

A number of initiatives have been started to try to address this issue. Dale Caldwell, a former board member with the USTA, has begun laying the groundwork for a new minor league. Called the People Up tour, the circuit will offer players the chance to compete in tournaments closer to home. Tennis is a global sport, and players pay their own costs for travel, hotels, meals, and coaches, with no guarantee of actually earning any money. People Up gives players the opportunity to earn money and ranking points without the expense of travel, meaning tennis can remain a viable option for people without other financial backing.

And in 2018, Kamau Murray, coach of Sloane Stephens, opened the XS Tennis Village on Chicago’s South Side. Sited on the grounds of a former urban housing development, the center provides instruction and mentorship for youth who otherwise wouldn’t be able to develop their game.

Despite the problems that remain, I found Different Strokes an optimistic book, filled with stories of black athletes who beat the odds—and the leaders trying to improve those odds for the next generation. Definitely a good read as we wait for the return of the sport we love. (See how I reconstructed my bubble there?)

Now…what’s the most fun thing you’ve done during lock-down? And what new television show have you discovered? I just started watching Succession—most entertaining!

Serena’s Slam Quest

“How’s that three-posts-a-month resolution coming?” snarked a so-called friend the other day. Okay, I’ve fallen a little short on that, but in my defense, coronavirus. I mean, how can I be expected to work under these conditions?

Fortunately, there are writers out there who are way more professional than I am, writers who wouldn’t let a global pandemic stand in the way of quality tennis prose. One such writer is Cecil Harris whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, and many other publications.

Cecil has just come out with his new book, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution. As you might surmise from the title, it’s about the Williams sisters and other black tennis players, the strides they’ve made, and how much farther there is to go to achieve true equality in the sport we love.

Speaking strictly for myself, I could use a little more education on these matters. I plan to read Different Strokes over the weekend and blog about it next week. You probably have some time on your hands these days—why not download a copy for yourself so you can weigh in? (No, seriously. How many times are you going to organize that damn sock drawer? Let’s read a book, for cryin’ out loud.)

In the meantime, I asked Cecil if he’d be willing to write a guest post on Serena’s quest to beat Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record—and boy, did he ever come through! Keep on reading—you’re in for a treat.

(Don’t get too used to this level of professionalism, folks. Next week, it’s back to amateur hour.)

 

Serena Williams Faces Tougher Road, But Don’t Count Her Out
By Cecil Harris

Serena Williams’s quest to win a record-tying 24th major singles title has become tougher with the cancelation of Wimbledon because of the coronavirus pandemic. Wimbledon had not been canceled since 1940–45 because of World War II.

In this tennis year unlike any other, Serena may have only two more opportunities in 2020 to match Margaret Court’s record. Yet there is no guarantee that the U.S. Open will be played as scheduled from August 31 to September 13, and no guarantee that the French Open will take place as rescheduled during the final two weeks in September.

If you’re an optimist and a Serena fan, then surely you’ll root for tennis to return by September—not only to give Serena a chance to tie or surpass Court, but also because the French Open would be played when she turns 39 on September 26. In that case, her best birthday present could be the one she gives herself.

But if you’re a pessimist who roots for Serena, then you’re truly lamenting the removal of Wimbledon from the 2020 calendar. Serena’s incomparable serve and power game have enabled her to win seven singles titles on the famous grass courts. Wimbledon’s Centre Court is also where she crushed Maria Sharapova, 6-0, 6-1, to win the Olympic gold medal match in 2012.

Serena has also won seven Australian Opens and six U.S. Opens. Her fewest major titles have come on the slow red clay at the French Open—three.

However, that does not mean she couldn’t win in Paris again. A determined Serena has done remarkable things over the years. But her road will be tougher now because of the wave of young talent that has swept into women’s tennis in recent years—a wave that includes 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, who upset Serena in the French Open’s third round last year.

Serena and her elder sister, Venus, have inspired not one, but two generations of female pros to play a faster, quicker, hard-hitting and more athletic brand of tennis. Many of those players are beating the Williams sisters. Aside from Kenin’s victory in Paris, Naomi Osaka defeated her idol Serena in the 2018 U.S. Open final, and Bianca Andreescu beat Serena in the 2019 U.S. Open final.

Add to that list Coco Gauff, now 16, who conquered Venus in the first round of Wimbledon last year and the Australian Open this year, and it becomes clear that Father Time will not be Serena’s only formidable foe.

Yet no player has won more big matches or big tournaments than Serena. With 23 major titles, she’s the most celebrated champion in the Open era, which began in 1968 and made tennis a truly professional sport.

Someone really should tell Google about Serena’s achievement. Yahoo and Bing should learn, too. If you enter in a search engine “most major tennis titles in the Open era,” the answer you get is Roger Federer. That’s wrong. Serena has won 23 majors to Federer’s 20. Because of sexism in the algorithms, the search engines treat the men’s record as the default answer.

Serena deserves better. She also should not take a back seat to Court.

Court, a star in the 1960s and ’70s, and Serena played in completely different eras. But Serena is widely considered the superior player. Eleven of Court’s titles came at the Australian Open, including seven in a row from 1960–66. In those days, many tennis stars did not make the long round trip to Australia when it was summer Down Under and winter in North America and Europe, so Court often played against less challenging competition. In all, Court won 13 of her 24 majors before the Open era.

Serena, on the other hand, has played her entire career in professional tennis, against full-time players rather than a mix of part-timers and full-timers.

But Serena still yearns for the all-time record—because it is within her grasp. She can erase any doubt about who stands above all in women’s tennis history by winning one more major to tie Court or two more to own the record.

Serena’s most recent major title came at the 2017 Australian Open—while pregnant! She gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia on September 1, 2017 and returned to tennis in March 2018. Since then, she has been foiled in her efforts to add to her list of majors:

  • 2018 Wimbledon: she lost to Angelique Kerber in the final
  • 2018 U.S. Open: she lost to Naomi Osaka in the final
  • 2019 Wimbledon: she lost to Simona Halep in the final
  • 2019 U.S. Open: she lost to Bianca Andreescu in the final

Also, in the 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals, Serena held four match points and led 5-1 in the third set against Karolina Pliskova before she sprained an ankle. Rather than call for a trainer, Serena continued to play with increasingly limited mobility. She failed to win another game.

Setbacks such as those would sap a lesser player’s confidence. But Serena is more likely to be hungrier to win in 2020 or 2021. Given her talent, determination and motivation, she can win any Grand Slam event she enters.

Although Serena is among her sport’s oldest competitors, she may have a potential advantage during this global sports shutdown: While other top players find it virtually impossible to practice because medical experts have mandated physical distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve, Serena can practice against another future Hall of Famer at almost any time.

As long as Serena and Venus stay on opposite sides of the net, that’s more than enough physical distancing. The sisters can keep each other’s game fine-tuned until competitive tennis returns.

Nobody knows exactly when that will be. But if Serena has taught us anything in a stellar career that has spanned four decades, it is this: Never, ever count her out.

Cecil Harris is the author of Different Strokes: Serena, Venus, and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution (University of Nebraska Press).

Australian Open Worst Dressed, with Bonus Academy Award Poll

Have no fear. I didn’t forget about the worst-dressed Australian Open players, as much as I might like to. There really were some doozies this year, although I suspect our first nominee will run away with this thing. Continue reading “Australian Open Worst Dressed, with Bonus Academy Award Poll”

Friday Fashion Face-off: Australian Open Best-Dressed Woman

I’m trying to catch up on my New Year’s resolution to write at least three posts a month. Today’s post counts toward January’s total. Am I allowed to do that? Of course I am. It’s my blog.

The ladies at this year’s Australian Open runway didn’t disappoint. Nobody blew me away, mind you. But it was a respectable showing for the year’s first Slam. Continue reading “Friday Fashion Face-off: Australian Open Best-Dressed Woman”

Friday Fashion Face-off: Australian Open Best-Dressed Man

Yup, I know. It’s Sunday, not Friday. Not only that, but this Best-Dressed Man post should have run nine days ago, not two. What can I say? Disorganization is part of my overall charm.

So without further ado, let’s get to our nominees… Continue reading “Friday Fashion Face-off: Australian Open Best-Dressed Man”

Aces for Australia

Could I be turning into a Nick Kyrgios fan?

Not of his tennis—I was always a fan of that. But of him as a person. The temperamental Aussie may be finally winning me over.

I imagine he’s won over quite a number of people recently. You’ve probably heard of his pledge to donate $200 for every ace he hits during the Australian tennis season to support victims of his country’s devastating wildfires. That’s a hefty pledge for someone who serves as many aces as Kyrgios does.

Under that brash exterior lies a heart of gold. Meanwhile, I sit behind my iPad snarking about everybody’s clothes. Kyrgios is putting me to shame.

It’s time to step up! I’m hereby matching Kyrgios’s pledge. I will donate $200–no, make that $250!—for every ace I hit during the month of January.

Oh lord, I just crack myself up. That would have been a pretty safe pledge for me even before my frozen shoulder.

Here’s the real pledge. A quarter for every ace Kyrgios hits. That works out to 1/800th, or .125%, of Kyrgios’s pledge. Sounds stingy, I know, but I don’t have his kind of money and he’s super-motivated to hit aces right now. A motivated Kyrgios is a dangerous thing. He hit twenty aces in his very first match!

In fact, just to be safe, I’ll cap my pledge at 1,000 aces.

Anybody want to join in with a pledge of their own? $10 for every ace you hit this month? $1 for every ace your team hits? Ten cents for each Federer ace? Let’s see if this blog can do some good for a change.

You can send donations to the Australian Red Cross.

Please share this post with any tennis fans who might want to participate.

Go, Kyrgios! ❤️ 🎾

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