Reading the Readers: Feb. 13

Thursday, February 13, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The readers return, for the first time since the Australian Open. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com.

*****

Steve,

I read this week where Dmitry Tursunov, when he was given a warning for playing too slowly, asked the umpire if he had ever given a violation to Rafael Nadal. Do you think he has a point? Don’t you think the rules should be applied the same across the board?—Faisal, New York

Yes to both questions—the rules should be applied the same way across the board, and Tursunov, while he doesn't have an excuse, does have a point. He shouldn’t be punished for doing the same thing that the world No. 1 gets away with. Tursunov isn’t the first player to make the comparison. A couple of years ago at the U.S. Open, Xavier Malisse said something similar when he was given a time warning, and Roger Federer discoursed on the subject after the Australian Open. Their language just wasn't quite as colorful as Tursunov's:

As Cedric Mourier, the chair umpire for Tursunov's match, said, Nadal has been handed his share of warnings, though Mourier and his colleagues rarely go further and take one of his first serves away. It has had an effect: Rafa is playing more quickly than he once did. But as the top-ranked player, everyone sees what he does, and sees how the authorities handle it. Nadal has been a good ambassador for the sport and has taken part in its politics, but he should understand that he’s also a leader by example—abiding by the time and coaching rules should be part of that example. 

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the ATP and its umpires to make sure everyone is held to the same standards. 

*****

What do you think of the “biological passport” system that tennis is going to use for drug testing now? Do you know how it works? Last year Federer said he wasn’t being tested as much as in the past.—Franklin

There are still questions to be answered about the biological passport. Which players will be part of it? How long does it take to determine when a violation has occurred? Will it lead to more player appeals?

In Australia, Stuart Miller, head of anti-doping for the ITF, talked to a group of tennis writers about the subject. He told us that the passport system has been running since last September, and that players need three blood tests to establish an individual baseline. From that baseline, authorities will look for any unusual fluctuations in its components. Miller wouldn’t say who exactly would be enrolled in the program, and it’s unclear whether it will cover the majority of players. Any suspicion of doping will be part of the decision of whether to include someone.

I had the same question you do: What happens if a player appeals? To me, the fact that the passport doesn’t determine, definitely, if and when a specific violation occurred could lead to more appeals from players. Miller says that the system has been challenged by other athletes in other sports in the past, and its validity has been upheld.

As far as Federer’s comment about being tested less often, Miller says that the number of tests done by the ITF has remained roughly the same over the years. He thinks that if there’s been a drop-off, it has come from the players’ national sports federations, which also conduct tests.

*****

TENNIS.com recently commented on the loss of the San Jose tournament and the inhospitable conditions for stateside ATP tournaments in general. Yet there still remain three Masters 1000 tournaments in the U.S. Could that change in the foreseeable future?—Trevor P.

It pays to be big in the States, and to have big backers, and that’s true for the three Masters 1000 events held here. Indian Wells is owned by billionaire Larry Ellison; Key Biscayne is owned by behemoth agency IMG; and the ATP event in Cincinnati is owned by the USTA. 

Beyond that, none of those tournaments has to worry about the specific problem cited in our article by former San Jose chief Bill Rapp: The inability to draw the game’s Big 4 from Europe, Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Murray. At the Masters 1000s, it’s mandatory for those guys to be there. The tournament directors don’t even have to pay an appearance fee to get them. 

Recently, Indian Wells and Cincy have been on the rise, with more money going to revamped facilities. Key Biscayne, in part because IMG has been up for sale and has talked about getting out of tennis, has fallen behind. But the tournament still has big sponsors, a big local audience in south Florida, and plans for new facilities of its own. 

On the one hand, that means tennis appears to be healthy at the highest levels in the States. On the other, at least in California, it has made it harder for the little events to compete.

*****

Can we stop saying "Big 4"? They aren’t the Top 4 in the rankings anymore. Aren’t Rafa and Nole and the Big 2 now?—Marina

It’s true, the so-called Big 4 are currently ranked No. 1 (Nadal), No. 2 (Djokovic), No. 6 (Murray), and No. 8 (Federer). Maybe they should be the Big 1268.

But I’m not ready to discard the (admittedly hokey) Big 4 designation yet. Until this year’s Australian Open, they had maintained their dominance at the most important events. Between them, they won all of the majors and Masters in 2013, and when Stan Wawrinka won in Melbourne, he became only the second man outside the Big 4 to win a Slam since 2005. The top guys have been so all-powerful that those two Slam champs, Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro, have never even won a Masters tournament.

Nadal and Djokovic are the Top 2, for sure, but Murray has won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and an Olympic gold medal within the last year and a half, and he’s a regular in major semis and finals. Federer obviously dropped off last year, but he’s still the game’s biggest draw, and he has shown signs of returning to something like his old form in 2014. We’ve talked about “cracks in the Big 4” for years, but they’ve yet to grow very wide.

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