Saturday, December 10, 2016

How will the 2016 ATP season be remembered?

Every tennis season on the ATP World Tour is parked by unique characteristics. It could rivalries, matches, scandals or many other things. The 2016 season was marked by an accomplishment, but it may be a few years until fans, experts and commentators recognize this accomplishment as the defining moment of this season.

Right now, many people would say Andy Murray’s ascent to No. 1 in the world is defining accomplishment of this calendar year. It just seems right that all four members of the Big Four have reached the top of the tennis rankings. It’s fitting. It’s also the most recent big tennis story in our minds.

I think that with time, though, the perspective will change and the accomplishment that defines 2016 will be Novak Djokovic’s completion of the non-calendar Grand Slam, joining Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only players to win the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open consecutively.
Djokovic’s win in the final over the eventual year-end No. 1 completed what was without doubt the most dominant 12-most stretch of tennis in the history of the sport, because unlike Laver and Budge, Djokovic won the slam on three different surfaces. On top of that, he completed the slam at the only major he had never previously won.

Add to that what Djokovic had done outside the majors. He won five of the last nine ATP Masters Series 1000 events and reached the final at three others and he was in possession of the Year-End Finals trophy. In total, Djokovic had racked up a record 16,950 ranking points, which was more than the No. 2 and No. 3 players combined.

Certainly, Murray’s climb to No. 1 and the incredible return of Juan Martin del Potro will also be clear memories from the 2016 season. The defining moment, however, continues to be when Djokovic drew a heart on the Parisian clay and laughed in it while Gustavo Kuerten cheered with a smile from the stands. That was the moment that summarized the most dominant 12-month stretch of tennis that the sport had ever seen.

This was a moment that could have been and should have been one that transcended sports. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally in sports, there is a moment so big that everyone stops to watch whether you are a fan of that sport or not.

These kinds of moments don’t happen often, but I can think of a few in my lifetime. It happened when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased Babe Ruth’s home runs record. It happened when Tiger Woods won the 2008 US Open. It happened with Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It also happened at Super Bowl XLII when the Patriots tried to complete the perfect season.

Though to a smaller degree, there have been a couple of those moments in tennis when the sport transcended the entire sports world. Though some tennis fans may want to forget it, the Isner-Mahut match at Wimbledon did grab the attention of even non-tennis fans. Another was last year when Serena Williams went for the calendar year Grand Slam after having already won her second Serena Slam at Wimbledon. Murray becoming the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 2013 was another big one.

So why wasn’t Djokovic’s inspirational moment in Paris one that transcended tennis and showcased the sport to millions of people who wouldn’t otherwise tune into a tennis match? Some of it does have to do with Djokovic being overshadowed by Williams’ own non-calendar slam just 11 months before. Another reason was that to some degree, a Djokovic victory was expected and some people had become bored with Djokovic always dominating.

However, the main reason this moment didn’t get the recognition it deserved was because of lazy journalism. Rather than write about the history that was on the line for Djokovic, they decided to recycle old story lines, because that was easier to do.

Each of the previous three years, Djokovic arrived in Paris in search of the Roland Garros trophy. Three years in a row, he failed to win that trophy. Throughout 2014 and 2015, journalists basically renamed Roland Garros as “the elusive major” or “the one that eludes Djokovic.”

It was the same story line they had used with Andre Agassi and Roger Federer in previous years, so a copy-and-paste was enough to make a good story in 2014 and 2015. However, 2016 was different and should have been treated differently, but the sport’s most prominent writers stuck to old story lines, while the pursuit of the non-calendar Grand Slam was just an afterthought.

New York Times’ Christopher Clarey buried this paragraph more than halfway into a long preview for the 2016 Roland Garros final: Djokovic is not only trying to join the elite club of seven men who whave won all four Grand Slam singles titles. He is also trying to complete a so-called Djoker Slam by winning his fourth major in a row.

Compare that to how the New York Times previewed Roger Federer’s pursuit of the non-calendar Grand Slam in 2007, placing this paragraph prominently near the front of the match preview: This time, yet again, Federer has a chance to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once.

There are a few differences here beyond just where the paragraphed is placed in the article. First, there is no mention of Federer going for a Career Grand Slam followed by a mention of the non-calendar Grand Slam as if it were a secondary accomplishment. Second, the 2007 article gives the historical context for the achievement that Federer was one win away from,  pointing out that nobody had done it since Rod Laver.

And the New York Times wasn’t alone. All of the top-tier tennis journalists in the United States fell into this trap. Compare the way Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim covered the two events in the deck of his articles.

2007: Second-ranked Rafael Nadal defended his French Open title by continuing his domination of No. 1 Roger Federer and spoiling his rival’s Grand Slam bid

Notice: no distinction here between calendar and non-calendar, simply ‘Grand Slam.’

2016 before the match: The 11-time Grand Slam champion opens up about his love for the one major that has eluded him

2016 after the match: This was his 13th title on clay but Sunday’s win was obviously the biggest one and now we can discuss Djokovic without having to make mention of the French Open title that’s eluded him.

To begin with, nobody was making Wertheim use the word ‘eluded’ or ‘elusive’ repeatedly or any of his mentions to tennis demons and tennis karma surrounding Djokovic in Paris. Also, there is not even a mention of the non-calendar Grand Slam or anything slightly resembling an acknowledgement of the ultimate accomplishment in the sport.

Every journalist learns the inverted pyramid in their first year of studying journalism. What the inverted pyramid means is that journalists put what they consider to be the most important and attention-worthy information at the top of their story and less important information at the bottom. Nearly every single article about Djokovic’s triumph in Paris mentions “Djokovic completed the career Grand Slam” before saying “Djokovic has won four consecutive majors.”

But which one is more impressive? Djokovic is only one of three players to hold all four major titles at the same time, while eight different players have completed the Career Grand Slam. The obvious answer is that the Grand Slam, whether won in a calendar year or any other 12-month period is more impressive than winning all four majors at any point over the course of a career.

If tennis journalists had done their job correctly and included some mention of four in a row, the Djoker Slam (or whatever you want to call it) in the lead, then this piece of history wouldn’t have been so massively overlooked. No wonder television producers didn’t make any features on sports shows about Djokovic’s pursuit of history, when they had to dig through more than half of a New York Times article to even find out that history was on the line.

Wertheim and Clarey are easy to point to, because they are the two most note-worthy journalists in tennis in the United States, but they aren’t the only ones. In a big way, tennis journalists missed a massive opportunity to help the sport reach the general sports fan. That is, of course, the main way that we get our sport to grow outside of its niche.

We don’t know when the next opportunity will come where tennis has the chance to transcend the entire sports world, but when it does come, I’m going to be watching to see which journalists are covering the events correctly.

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