MASON, Ohio — Clearing out the notebook at the Western & Southern Open, the last major tune-up event for the U.S. Open …
1. Collegiate protest: The tennis community is in an uproar over the NCAA’s plans to change the college game. The most notable and problematic change is the elimination of a best-of-three match in singles, with a 10-point match tiebreaker replacing the third set. The NCAA argues that the move — coupled with other tweaks such as scrapping the warmup between players and reducing the time between changeovers — will shorten matches and tennis meets (which can run more than four hours), making the sport more fan-friendly and marketable for television.
Understandably, collegiate players past and present are dead set against the changes, and the USTA and ITA are preparing a joint opposition letter in response to the NCAA. Players such as John Isner (who tweeted this in reaction to the news), James Blake, Lisa Raymond and Bob and Mike Bryan have pointed to their collegiate experience as a formative time when they were able to hone their tennis, develop physically and learn how to compete in preparation for the professional tour.
The NCAA’s rule changes undermine that motivation. How will having a singles player play a match tiebreaker prepare him or her for the physical and mental challenges of competing on tour, where the ability to win three-set matches is the bread-and-butter of any successful career? As far as the NCAA’s argument that a crisper pace will create a more viable commodity for television: If the format changes mean more promising prospects jump directly to the tour because they know they won’t get the proper training and preparation in college, that commodity is virtually worthless.
Part of the appeal of college tennis is seeing and identifying talent that can flourish in the pros. But there might be even less of that to be had if players are forced to play a format that isn’t remotely close to the pro experience.
2. The plague of recency bias: Roger Federer’s comments earlier in the week about the outsize expectations for the next generation of players — namely Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic, Grigor Dimitrov and Ryan Harrison — recalled the long-discussed concept of recency bias in tennis analysis. We all do it and no matter how hard we try, no one is above it. Looking at a player’s results on a week-to-week basis and engaging in a little crystal-ball prognostication is a fun exercise, but when it becomes the basis for castigation — often resulting from one or two bad losses — you have to admit, it’s unfair.
So instead, when it comes to these young guns, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture and their results over the long haul. Raonic, the oldest of the four at 21, is also the highest ranked (No. 19) and has scored the most top-10 wins, with seven, to go with three career titles, including two this year. The youngest, Tomic, 19, has the best Slam results, with one Wimbledon quarterfinal and the Round of 16 at the Australian Open, but the 49th-ranked player hasn’t made a semifinal since the first tournament of 2012. Dimitrov, also 21, made a name for himself not just because he got tagged “Baby Fed” for his one-handed backhand, but also because he won the Wimbledon boys’ title in 2008. He notched his first top-10 win this year, beating Tomas Berdych in Miami, and made his first ATP Tour semifinal, at Queen’s Club. He’s ranked 52nd, tied for his career high. Lastly, there’s the 20-year-old Harrison, who served notice as a 15-year-old in 2008 when, at a tournament in Houston, he became the 11th player in the Open Era to win an ATP-level match before turning 16. Ranked No. 58, he’s the only one in the group without a top-10 win.
3. Don’t worry about Andy Murray: Speaking of recency bias, Murray’s third-round loss to Jeremy Chardy at the Western & Southern Open isn’t much to worry about. The Brit said he was struggling with the high bounce on the hard court, which Chardy was using with great effectiveness on his forehand to get short replies from Murray. Besides, Chardy is no slouch. He may have been a lucky loser into the main draw, but he’s coming off a confidence-boosting run in Toronto, where he defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Chardy backed that up by beating Andy Roddick and Murray here. Keep an eye on the Frenchman when the U.S. Open draw comes out.
As for Murray, let’s not forget what happened in the grass season. He lost to Nicolas Mahut in straight sets in his first match in Queen’s and then made the Wimbledon final. That Murray himself raised this fact in his news conference after Thursday’s loss shows you he’s not panicking. You learn from experience.
4. Double talk: It’s the tale of two doubles teams right now for the Americans. After winning gold at the Olympics, Bob and Mike Bryan are flying high. In an interview this week, Bob didn’t hesitate to bring out his gold medal — of course he had it on him; you wouldn’t put that sucker down either — and it’s clear the guys are still on cloud nine. It’s translated to their tennis, too. On Thursday, the Bryans played through some light drizzle and rolled over Jarkko Nieminen and Stan Wawrinka 6-0, 6-1 in a mere 30 minutes.
On the other side of the ledger are Liezel Huber and Raymond. The top-ranked American pair hasn’t won a title since Indian Wells in March and is coming off a disappointing Olympics, where it lost in the semifinals to Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka and then lost the bronze-medal match to Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko.
Raymond says the Olympics were a significant reason she and Huber teamed up in the first place, adding to the sting of not winning a medal.
“Look, we came up short,” Raymond told SI.com. “There’s no getting around that.”
Raymond was able to redeem her Olympic run with a bronze medal in mixed with Mike Bryan (the two will team up at the U.S. Open), a victory she said meant more to her than the duo’s Wimbledon title last month.
“I walked away with a bronze medal. It is probably a little more difficult for Liezel trying to get over” the doubles loss because Huber went home him without a medal, Raymond said. “But she’s super happy for me.”
5. Winning fixes everything: One thing that stands out from talking to the players this week is how exhausted they all are. You can see it on the court (cue up Serena Williams’ sketchy performances in Cincinnati) and off the court, too, as they go through their media obligations.
“I’m feeling all right, hanging in there,” Williams said after her second-round win. “I was a little tired today. … I have been playing a lot, traveling a lot, training a lot. It’s been a really big summer. Singles and doubles is a tough schedule, so that’s about it.”
But so long as they’re winning, they’re happy. Nothing cures the aches, pains and fatigue like a victory. Li Na, who played a three-set final in Montreal on Monday, was called into a late-night news conference after her three-set win over Sorana Cirstea on Wednesday. Much to my surprise, she couldn’t have been in a better mood. Asked whether she was tired from the quick turnaround between tournaments, Li summed it up perfectly.
“If I can be in the final of every tournament, I like it that way,” Li said, laughing. “I mean, before I come to the court [against Cirstea], I think if I have one more day to prepare, it’s better. But after I win the match, I think, Yes, yes, yes, this is better.”