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The Trouble with Towels

You knew this one was coming: My rant about why no ball runner, whether child or adult, should ever be asked to handle a tennis player’s towel. Although people have recently raised this issue in light of Fernando Verdasco’s verbal abuse of a ball boy who failed to deliver his towel fast enough–

 

–I have for years felt a deep hated for the rule that obliges ball runners to handle the towels of the pros.

Full Disclosure: I was an adult ball runner who handled pro towels. I used to love ball-running. I didn’t so much seek out ball-running as it found me: My town’s Challenger level tournament falls during a school week, leaving its organizers shorthanded for help on day sessions. Tournament staff stalk the courts and round up any adult players they know well enough to trust with throwing the ball in the right direction at the right time.

In my perfect world, everyone would  get the chance to be a ball-runner. There is no better view of the sport than being on the court, staring down the path of an incoming serve, praying that the player in front of you gets returns it before you have to test your reaction time. You’re never closer to the action than where you can smell the rubber from some player’s sneaker skid, and hear the subtleties of tone when racquet strings hit against ball. Even three hours on court fly by when you have to be attuned to every point. It takes great discipline. No matter what happens, no matter what players mutter to themselves or to their opponents or to you, you’re not allowed to speak. For people who, like me, talk for a living, that’s a welcome respite.

Of course, some players know you can’t speak and take full advantage of that situation by treating you like shit. And so what got me out of ball-running was not the serve I took from Tim Smyczek that left a bruise on my abdomen for a week, nor the damage to my knees from constant sprints and bending.

No. My Waterloo came when then 19 year-old Jack Sock, after winning his game, headed straight to the bench while snapping his fingers behind his back at me.  Forty-year old me with a job and a house and a husband and a PhD had to pick up his sweat-saturated towel and scamper quickly after him. Like a dog.

I didn’t love the sport enough to put myself at the mercy of a 19 year old entitled brat, I decided. So I ceased to volunteer for ball running spots after that.

I’ve never forgotten what it feels like to be treated like a servant. So I was not at all surprised to see Verdasco act up at that ball boy in Shenzhen. Players seem to get off on being catered to, and have the ready excuse for their behavior that it is born out of the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, kids who are eager to be close to their idols will pay any price, including the risk of humiliation. We’re never going to stop kids from handling pros towels if this is a question of etiquette.

There’s a far stronger, nearly incontrovertible argument for at last making pros handle their own towels, though, and it is this:

You might as well ask children to carry around the player’s toilet.

I’m not exaggerating. Towels are excellent vessels designed to retain bodily fluids harboring bacteria and viruses. Although sweat itself might not have a ton of bacteria in it, the skin it sits on does. That bacteria is rubbed into the towel every time a player rubs it over their face, arms, head, and–eek–torso. The towel–moist, warm, handed from person to person–is thus a perfect vehicle for spreading disease.

Doubt me? The second time I acted as a ball runner, I got norovirus the next day. “Oh, a lot of the ball kids have come down with that,” the tournament volunteer coordinator chirped. As if there was no common denominator there. You think players whose paychecks and careers ride on the outcome of a match are going to withdraw from a tournament just because they feel something coming on? No way. They’re just gonna chug some Immodium and get on court.

A cold or a little stomach bug is one thing. Far more horrifying is that MRSA, the killer antibiotic-resistant strain of Strep, has been documented as spreading via athlete’s towels. We’re talking a potentially deadly threat that, in the name of honor, or tradition, or just saving pros two steps, we’re happy to risk exposing children to. And those children may or may not have fully functioning immune systems. Believe me, they don’t put you through a full physical before throwing a tournament t-shirt at you and sending you off to a court. You’re lucky to get pizza and a drink on break. That’s what you get for the honor of exchanging bodily fluids with Jack Sock.

Because science is on the side of the towel rack, I think it’s coming to tennis, and probably sooner rather than later, having been already tested. It’s just a matter of time before some litigation-phobic counsel in ATP legal makes it permanent and official. Rather than lament yet another change to our sport, how about we make lemonade out of lemons? Each new towel rack could be prominently sponsored by Purell, or Lysol, or the Department for Infectious Diseases at Mayo Clinic. Players could practice yelling at the rack instead of the ball kids or their coaches. It’s a win-win, except only a qualified victory for ball runners, who still have to risk infection from the balls themselves. Because until Robin Soderling or some other ball manufacturing guru figures out anti-microbial felt, we’re all still taking our chances for the love of the game.

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The Case Against Patrick

In the wake of the twelve-car pile up that was the women’s U.S. Open final, institutions at all levels of tennis will be taking a good hard look at their rules and practices, and no doubt changes will be made. But from my perspective, the first change that needs to happen is a no brainer.

Patrick Mouratoglou needs to go.

No one tells Serena what to do, and I’m not addressing her here. But for the benefit of the rest of us, here’s my case against Patrick Mouratoglou.

Exhibit A:

This tweet drove me nuts from the moment I read it. As I’ve written before on this blog, nobody knows if a birth will be a joyous event or result in death. Patrick no doubt did not know, but Serena would be fighting for her life over the next week. And yet he had to remind her at the moment of her daughter’s birth that “we” (inserting himself) were a priority. Get off that hospital bed, lady, and start hitting forehands!

AND he spilled the beans of the birth before Ohanian and Williams had confirmed the news, robbing them of their chance to announce their daughter to the world. Letting everyone know that baby and wife are fine is traditionally the role for the husband and father. That would be Ohanian’s role, which Patrick seems to want to limit as much as possible, if not usurp.

Exhibit B:

He told her to stop breastfeeding. Apparently Serena wasn’t happy about it. Yet Patrick whinged that Serena was now making decisions through the lens of family rather than the lens of tennis. Who the hell says such things like they’re a bad thing? But Patrick felt upstaged. And he really wanted that stage back, which brings us to the kicker,

Exhibit C:

He not only coached, he admitted it:

Look it’s fine if you want to say you were in the wrong. But the way Patrick tried to divert attention away from himself, by maintaining he was a regular practitioner of coaching from the stands just like everyone else, directly contradicted Serena, and contradicted her on the very hill she was apparently willing to die on–that she does not cheat. He implied that she does, and that she does it regularly, because everyone does.

Whatever Patrick has brought to Serena and her game over the years, the downsides of his presence now clearly outweigh the upsides. His involvement in her family life has reached the level of creepy. He gave her nothing to go into that final with to counter Naomi Osaka’s game. But most importantly, he implicated her as a cheat to save his own skin. It would send a good message to her supporters if Serena let him go for that alone.

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Want to KNOW if an Ump is Sexist? Here’s How:

The mess that was the women’s USO final has spurred several questions and debates, perhaps the most core to the integrity of the sport is, are umps handing out code violations without discrimination on the basis of race or sex? New York Times reporter Chris Clarey made no secret of feeling that Serena William’s claim to having been the victim of sexism were off-base. Now, he’s written what he considers to be definitive proof refuting her claims.

The article goes on to break down the types of code violations handed down in Grand Slam events by gender of recipient to come to the conclusion that because men are fined more frequently than women, there is no gender discrimination from the chair.

Sigh. It is sad to think that one has to explain basic statistics to a sports reporter but here we are. Clarey would likely calculate a batter’s average by counting the number of times he hit the ball. It’s frustrating, and maddening, that this article made it to press, because several days before, Clarey tweeted out the aggregate amount of code violations given to men and women at this USO, and was told over and over that that was a meaningless statistic.

Props to Amy Lucas, PhD in sociology, who broke down exactly what is wrong with Clarey’s methodology in a tweet-thread:

Clarey’s data tells us nothing because it doesn’t tell us when a person should have gotten a warning and didn’t, Amy goes on to explain.  But then she goes on to propose a solution that actually might work. Observe the matches over a long period of time and take note of each interaction, counting violations that received codes and violations that didn’t.

Does this sound laborious? It is. And I’m going to suggest we do it. Because this is what researchers in Education, Sociology, Linguistics, Communications and related fields do ALL THE TIME. And it works.

Maybe you think the interactions between ump and player are too varied to characterize reliably. They’re not. Let me tell you a story. My mentor in graduate school became fascinated with student-teacher communication.  It turns out that a frightening percent of classrooms are characterized by what we now understand as IRE discourse: Teacher Initiation, Student Response, and Teacher Evaluation. You know how this goes. Teacher asks a question they already know the answer to, like, “What is the capital of Wisconsin?” Student responds, “Madison!” Teacher says, “Very good!” Or maybe the Student gets it wrong and says, “Green Bay!” and the Teacher says, “Are you sure about that?”

The problem with IRE discourse is that it is nothing like a real conversation. In a real conversation, people generally ask questions they don’t already know the answer to. For example, a person will ask, “What time is it?”  An interlocutor responds, “3 pm.” What the person then does not do is say, “Are you sure about that?” Because they actually wanted to know the time. My advisor theorized that “authentic” questions would encourage more learning because they would invite new knowledge into the classroom.

But he had to prove it. So he trained people to recognize patterns of discourse. And then sent them out into 500 classrooms. And collected tapes of classroom interactions over the course of a semester.  They coded all the interactions, and then compared them with achievement tests given at the end of the semester. Voila, his proof.

If you’re still with me, I hope your immediate reaction to this is, wow, that guy must be crazy. He was a little crazy. But he also knew his methodology. He knew the only way to prove a point is to collect interactions in natural environments over a long period of time, code those interactions, have multiple people do the coding so you can control for subjectivity (inter-rater reliability testing it’s called), and then compare with a measure of achievement.

So now let’s imagine how this works in tennis. As Amy (let’s call her Dr. Lucas) pointed out in her thread, you have to get all the interactions. You can’t just listen to the TV. You need people in the stadiums coding gesture and speech of both umps and players. You need the audio feed from the ump’s chair to catch all the dialogue on changeovers. You would need to decide what your discourse categories were. Obviously, expletives as we saw during the women’s final weren’t what ticked Carlos off. Instead it was demands (you owe me an apology), pejoratives (thief; liar), and gestures (pointing).

It would be fascinating to do this full analysis of what exactly umpires consider verbal abuse before we talk about it. And it would be interesting to see if there are other issues beyond the player involved determining when umps snap and hand out a code. It might be something we don’t expect. A study of judges granting sentencing discovered that the most determining factor in the severity of the punishment was whether the judge had just eaten lunch, or not. The methodology of that study has been widely critiqued, but the point still stands that other factors should be considered when we look for patterns of behavior.

So let’s do the work. It’s been done before. It could, and should, be done here. ITF, my fees are reasonable. I’m sure Dr. Lucas’ are as well. Give us a shout.

UPDATE: John Burn-Murdoch, stats reporter for the Financial Times (the only good newspaper left in my opinion) breaks down what’s wrong with Clarey’s stats (and what’s revealing in people’s responses to them) in a tweet thread this morning. Give it a look.

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“How did Andy play today?”

That was the question one of my British tweeps, one of the most avid Andy fans, put on twitter after Murray’s first round Cincinnati match against Lucas Pouille. She’d had to work and missed the match, the topsy-turvy scoreline (6-1, 1-6, 6-4 Pouille), and wanted a report. So I reported.

But that question has been bugging me ever since. There’s a weird and lovely element of fandom where we take daily measure of our favorites. And in the question “How did Andy play today” is the implied, is his hip okay. Did his hand find it after every point as it did before his surgery. Did he grimace. Did his movement belie lingering concern of re-injury. Will he be able to continue playing tennis. At all.

This is my tenth anniversary of the first time I came to Cincinnati. I’d never been to a tennis tournament before. At the time I was a staunch Federer fan (stop that gasping–yes). I’d seen the 2005 Australian Open semifinal between Federer and Safin and emerged a fan of both, and of tennis. I’d never watched tennis before that, but I was stuck at home nursing a month-old baby so would watch anything. Three years later I took that toddler and my husband to Cincinnati, the nearest Masters tournament to our town, so that I could glimpse the phenom that was Roger up close.

I had figured out the practice schedule and went an hour early so I could get a good view of Fed. But I had underestimated the ardor of Federer fans. I couldn’t get near the court. So I positioned myself one court away, but where I could peer through multiple chain link fences to gain a glimpse of my prize.

To my immense irritation, a scrawny kid and his team took the near court just as Federer came out, obscuring my view.

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Note the total dorkiness. He didn’t pick up a racket. Instead, he and his coach (Miles MacLagen) started a game of footie. 1929698_28156673273_7402_n 3.jpg

Note the crowd behind them. None of them are looking. They’re all watching Federer who was putting on a masterful display of, well, Federerness. I did get some photos from far away as Fed went through his business-like routine and then courteously, almost heroically, signed a zillion autographs.

But watching the contrast between Federer and this skinny kid, something struck me and stayed with me.  This kid just radiated joy. Radiated it. And as a relatively new mother, joy was a quality I had come to recognize and value. It’s exactly what you want to see in your child’s face. And my little toddler did not disappoint in that department.

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I watched Murray leave the court. A young boy stepped in his path unawares and he tripped around him with a quick and pleasant “no worries.” He attracted no attention that year. No security forces attended his movements. Meanwhile, Djokovic could barely walk five feet without his progress being halted by adoration.

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As we now know, Murray would go on to win Cincinnati that year, his first Majors title. His ranking would soar from 12 to 4. The next year, he would overtake Nadal and reach number 2. And you know the rest. With that fame came the scorching white glare of the British press. Will he reach number one? Will he end the Wimbledon drought? Does this Scott secretly hate England?

At least in public, Andy Murray acquired his unshakable reputation as the dour Scott. The moper. Mr. Buzzkill.

I knew better because I had seen him before. And so had a handful of others on my twitter timeline–fans who’d been following him since before I knew his name, now gathering under the hashtag #teamhotmess to cheer Murray on through the ups and downs, and to defend him from the onslaught of bad press.

It was one of those tweeps who asked on twitter that question, “How did Andy play today?” Here’s one answer to that question. Horrible. The first set was horrible. Andy couldn’t seem to move, hit, or serve. But in the next set, the brilliance showed.  Unfortunately, in the third set, so did the rust, and he lost to Pouille, a man he should have beaten.

But that’s not the correct answer to that question. The correct answer is, who cares. This is Murray’s fourth match on hard court since he took eight months off to repair and rehab his long-nagging hip. He’s ranked 375 in the world, he’s 31 years old, he has nothing to prove except to himself and he’s still trying to prove it (he f-bombed himself continually except when he fist-pumped himself for pulling off a point). And, you know, he played a pro match on hard court and his hip didn’t fall out.

We need to stop asking how Andy is playing “today.” It’s hard to give up the hyper-vigilant fretting, the armchair diagnosing, the micro-expression reading. All that made us great and stalwart Andy fans, but it’s not the best way, I decided at least for myself, to be an Andy fan in 2018.

It’s time to simply appreciate. To take the long view, both forward and backward. As a parent, I’ve found the hardest thing is to recognize when your child has changed. And then to also change. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because the son I took to Cincinnati a decade ago is now taller than me, shaving, and looks like this:

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We can’t predict the future. And while we think we can imagine a trajectory for a player based on past performance–indeed many try to make money off it–no one really can. We love the game today. Our favs are playing today. Let’s not ask “how” as often. Let’s just marvel that they do.

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A Maternity Leave Policy for the WTA

Since Serena Williams advanced the extraordinarily sane proposition that women coming back from having a baby should have a protected ranking and be seeded in tournaments, we have seen a lot of speculation on the “fairness” of that to other players who chose to put off having babies (or don’t want babies at all) and have worked hard to earn their seeds. And a lot of this silliness has come from people who a) haven’t gone through childbirth, or b) will never go through childbirth, and c) think they understand childbirth and its aftermath because they 1) saw some movies, 2) heard about it, 3) saw their wives cope with it–heroically, of course, and with their full support.

I’m going to break down the logical case for maternity leave, but first allow me to get a primal scream out of the way.

Some time in the second week of sitting on a hemorrhoid cushion fitted with an ice diaper, the thought came to me that comes to every new mother: Nobody told me it would be like this. People tried to tell me. Women who were older, wiser, looked me straight in the face and told me labor would be the worst pain I’d ever experienced. Brooke Shields wrote a book explaining what postpartum depression felt like–a book I only bought after I had postpartum depression. Friends who had cried on the phone to me about their problems trying to get the baby to “latch.” Everyone told me, but no one could tell me.

And that’s the problem with this whole conversation. There are some experiences (and childbirth is definitely one) where you can imagine you understand, but you can only truly understand once you go through it. I think about this every time I see that photo of men in Congress deciding the fate of women’s health.

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That’s a little what tennis twitter has felt like this week.

But I’m going to admit that before I had a child, I would only have been slightly more ready to opine on what childbirth is like. I would have told you I’d readily prefer the pain of childbirth to drugs during delivery (yeah, fuck that!) and that I wouldn’t allow the fact of motherhood to “change me” (whatever that meant) and that being a healthy 35 year old who danced right into her 38th month, I’d be sure to have an uncomplicated delivery and recovery (it was 45 hours, with lots of intervention, and I now routinely see my pelvic organs protruding from my vagina).

YES I am sparing you NOTHING. Because you need to know. All y’all. Probably if you polled WTA players what they thought about seeding players who had babies, you might get an answer. But if you polled the same group after they all had kids, you would get another answer.

But even if you haven’t experienced the pleasure of bringing a human into this world, the information is out there that would lead any sane person to conclude that no organization–most especially an organization founded on the well-being and rights of women–should incentivize women to “wait” to have kids until after their careers are over, or end careers precipitously in order to have a kid.

You tell women to “wait” and you are killing them. Lest you think I exaggerate, I bring you the mournful maternal mortality chart.

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And the stats for African-American women are even worse. Serena Williams is how old you say?

You are also asking them to risk never having a child at all. Here’s the fertility chart by age:

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For those who say, well it’s a woman’s choice to put her career before having a child, it’s only a “choice” if you’re not punished for doing so. I put off having a child until I got tenure. I took the risk at 35 years of age. But I might have done it earlier, had my campus not had a retrograde maternity leave policy when I was hired, whereby you had to accumulate enough sick days over the years to use as maternity leave. Read that again and see how fucked up that is. When a chancellor (a woman and a mother) finally instituted a real maternity leave policy, there was a population explosion among women on the tenure track (which, given you have to get a PhD to be hired, typically is the years between your late twenties and, ta-dah, 35, during which you must write a book in order to get tenure while teaching, etc., etc., etc.)

So I’m disgusted with a lot of the opinions I’ve seen advanced on twitter over this issue. But in truth, I’m more disgusted with the WTA. They need to fix this, and they need to fix it today.

 

 

 

 

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Watching NCAAs: The View from College

Most of the time, like the rest of tennis twitter, I am obsessed with watching and commenting on pro-sports. But there’s another side of my life where I get to see great live tennis on the regular, because I live in a town with a university that supports two outstanding Big Ten tennis teams. The year, both the men’s and the women’s made it to the NCAA tournament. The women got through the first round but fell in the second down in Lubbock. But the men are often seeded high enough that they play early rounds in what is almost literally my own back yard. Ok, it is actually .9 miles from my house. I watched them take out Marquette today. And I’ll be there tomorrow to see them take on preppy Vanderbilt.

So what, you may well ask, what does watching college tennis give you that you don’t get from watching the pros?

A lot. I get to see these players develop over four years. I get to see them practice when they’re not playing. I get to see the team gel, work together, and support each other–a sight you rarely get in pro tennis unless you’re watching Davis Cup. I get to see on-court coaching. I get to see their parents put on brave faces when things are not going well, (or stifle celebration for the sake of staying positive for opposing parents, also present). I see them walking to class with their backpacks in the few hours they are not on court, because they have to juggle being students. In short, I get to see how so many American players these days are made.

As you know, we’re not in a particularly inspiring moment right now in American men’s pro tennis, so amuse me, for a minute, while I sing the praises of the current roster of the University of Illinois men’s team, which exhibits so many of the qualities we in tennis twitter land are currently searching for and not finding when we go to the tournaments and have to stare at Isner, or Harrison, or Sock. I think these college students deserve the kind of profiles that the pros get, so here I go (all photo credits to @IlliniMTennis):

Aleks Vukic, Senior, Current ATP ranking: 444

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This guy had to bolt from the stage with diploma in hand to make it to his NCAA match. This will be the last time I see Vukic play as an Illini, because win or lose, the NCAA tournament moves on somewhere else to the Round of 16. Vukic is from Australia but chose to come to Illinois for both its current strengths and its illustrious history. You *will see him on the pro circuit, so pay attention starting now. He’s one of the hardest working players I know, constantly working on his serve, even when other members of the team aren’t around. As an homage to his Australian roots, the team cheers him on with the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy Oy Oy!” yell, though we’re not really sure he likes it. Goes by “Vuk.” This is a photo from last year’s NCAA, and if you look super carefully, you’ll see BadToss with BadToss Jr.

Aron Hiltzik, Senior

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Aron is one of the many Chicago based players who stayed in-state to play for their home team.  And that’s what I love about this team. It really is a slice of Illinois. There are very few players from out-of-country, and those that are, are generally in keeping with the ethnic tone of Chicago and Illinois (like Vukic, whose family is Croatian, and could just as easily have wound up in Illinois). So Aron is one of the many “ic” and “ik” suffixed players who represent our state’s diversity. He followed his brother Jared here and played on the same team with him for two years. So Mama Hiltzik, visible in the background, as well as Papa Hiltzik have been more or less a fixture for six years running now and will be sorely missed.

Zeke Clark, Sophomore

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There’s always that guy who holds a team together, and you know who that one is by their sophomore year; they have irrepressible spirit, and a ruptured vocal chord from cheering on their teammates. On this roster, that guy is Zeke Clark, who has been granted the Spirit Award, the Strength and Conditioning Award, AND the Most Improved Player Award by his team.  He’s a crowd favorite.  From Tulsa, Oklahoma, he’s everything good about the heartland. A little guy at 5’6″, he was ranked third as a junior. He’ll be making waves.

Alex Kovacevic, Sophomore

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Just call him “The Clinchah.” This kid clinches the match more times than any other. Mentally tough, he has no problem taking the team’s win or loss on his shoulders, delivering with great variety and clutch serving. And his Mom is adorable. After a bad call I thought she was going to run down to the court and rip the ref’s head off herself. Another first-generation player, Aleks was born in New York City, but joins the ic and ik vibe of this roster. Often I’m watching his court because he’ll make great stuff happen.

Alex Brown, Freshman

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Because we don’t have enough guys named Aleks/x. Big “A.B.” is 6’5″, with a great serve which has earned him First-Team All-Big-Ten honors this year. He’s from Iowa, so another Midwest dweller like Zeke. I’m thinking he’ll only be getting more powerful in the years ahead, adding even more strength to balance out his frame. Even given his size, he’s an incredible mover on court. There’s nothing serve-bot about his game.

Caleb Chakravarthi, Freshman

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As a freshman recruited from Irvine, CA, Caleb is already holding down the number six singles spot with a winning average.  He has incredible reflexes at net–almost cat-like. I’m looking forward to seeing him play a lot more. Side note: when the whole team got super-sick after eating at the same restaurant, Caleb recovered the quickest. You want a guy with an iron gut on your team.

The Illinois team is seeded eighth in the NCAA tournament this year, so recapturing the 2003 glory of winning the title is a stretch. But I love my team and look forward to cheering them on year upon year. I see in them what I hope to see more of in American tennis on the pro-level: A little diversity. A little bit of variety. A commitment to fighting for something bigger than themselves. Not all college tennis teams are like this. I looked at the roster of Drake University (located in Iowa) and saw that every player on their team came from the United Kingdom. I watched the Vanderbilt boys in their polo shirts with gold stitching and their bleached-blonde emo haircuts and wanted to barf. I hope my scrappy, “ic and ik” public school team hits the felt off the ball tomorrow against them and goes further than second round, but if they don’t, I’ll still be thankful that I get to watch a version of American tennis I can cheer for.

Go Team!

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I Was Wrong

When I wrote my last blog post about Tennys Sandgren’s heinous abuse of social media, I introduced it on twitter saying that the mainstream media wouldn’t talk about it, but that we must.

I was wrong.

Over the next few days, I was shown that the media would talk about it.  Did talk about it. And indeed, couldn’t bury it.  So how did that happen?

First, it happened because tennis twitter is full of amazing and frankly spiteful bitches who do not forget.  Those who already knew of Sandgren’s social media activity began screen-capping and sharing the worst of what he said (really, we were drowning in data here). I will avoid the shout-out to the one person who did the most work, only because as I was doxxed, I don’t want to put her in the way of the lovely backers of Sandgren who have spent the last two days threatening me through my work email and tweeting me instructions to suck dick.

The well-connected, international world that is tennis twitter spread the word so efficiently that by the time Sandgren got to presser after beating Dominic Thiem, a question about his social media use was waiting for him.  The question was asked, notably, not by an American journalist, but by British journalist Simon Briggs. Bravo Simon. We salute you.

The next 24 hours was full of either American journalists finding their backbone quickly, or searching for it while fretting about how to write about Sandgren without losing their access to his friends like John Isner. Isner, meanwhile, was busy trying to destroy my credibility by tweeting a link to my blog. A little tip, John. Writers love it when you use your social media platform of a quarter million followers to share their work. Enjoy the beatdown you got in your replies.

Sandgren made life a lot easier for everyone to find where they stood when he deleted all his tweets, leaving only the link to the complimentary article I wrote about his play before I followed him on social media. This move seemed creepy and stalky, particularly as the tweet contained my name and probably made it easier for me to get doxxed.

Of course, by then it was too late. When Sandgren stepped on court to have his ass handed to him in straight sets by Hyeon Chung, Serena Williams laid down perhaps the greatest two word subtweet of all time.

Nobody who was following tennis at this point misunderstood what Serena meant. She provided the clear sign that Sandgren’s tweets had been measured, weighed, and found wanting at the very height of American tennis. Meanwhile the media rightly noted that Sandgren’s washing of his twitter history was a gutless and self-serving gesture. So when Sandgren sat in presser reading his prepared statement condemning the media and championing his own right to speak, he metaphorically shot himself in the foot. If he had literally shot himself in the foot, it might have done less damage to his sponsorship prospects.

While Sandgren’s buddies from the Challenger tour were weighing in with tweets in support of Tennys’ good guy-ness, Serena Williams decided to go from subtweet to tweet:

Tennis, writ large, now had to respond, and it did. Martina Navratilova (of course) led the charge from the podium on Tennis Channel, backed by Jim Courier, Captain of the Davis Cup team, who seems to have quickly decided what side of history he wanted to be on.

The next day, John McEnroe, much to our shock and surprise, came through with the spike. Loved this.

Game over for Tennys, but not for tennis. If American tennis wants to make sure that this never happens again, it’s going to take more than the wizened ones speaking down to one bad actor from on high.

While various idiotic takes were musing through the question of whether sport and politics should mix, the larger question was missed: Why did this social media mess happen in tennis but not in other sports?  You have no analog of Tennys Sandgren in the NFL, NBA, MBL or NHL.  I’m not saying you don’t have white athletes in those sports who don’t share his views. Of course you do. But they can’t get away with tweeting pizzagate conspiracies.

That John McEnroe can call himself “the self appointed commissioner of tennis” brings up the problem that there is no actual commissioner of tennis, an international sport where athletes essentially self-fund and can’t afford PR help until they break through to the top. The institutional structure of tennis is extremely weak, making it difficult to corral any bad actors.  If we want to avoid another round of this, we have to look at American tennis’ structures for repair.

The juniors circuit is obviously the first place to start schooling aspiring pros in how to use social media. We keep thinking the next generation might “naturally” be more savvy users of the Internet, but we see time and again that is not the case.

The USTA player development program is also clearly culpable here. Shouldn’t part of player development involve helping them navigate the profession they are entering without endangering their own careers?

How is it that “ATP University” has failed to school their students in social media usage? How have they not educated them that twitter is forever, and if they want the endorsements, they need to appeal to a wide audience? Could they perhaps teach players that the First Amendment guarantees (hopefully) only protection against government retribution, but not consequences from any other entity, be that fan, media, fellow player, or corporate sponsor?

These are now American tennis’ problems to wrestle with. Whether Tennys Sandgren goes on to win a grand slam or disappears into obscurity doesn’t matter. It takes a village to enable a racist. It will take all of American tennis to correct the course for the long run.

But that doesn’t mean tennis twitter can’t take a moment to bask in this well-deserved win. Tennys had to take the shit down, Isner is cowering in silence, American pros have been put on notice, and sponsors are no doubt a little more wary than they were. That’s huge, and it wouldn’t have happened without the dedicated fans who love their sport and want to see it continue to thrive. I raise a glass to you all tonight.

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Tennys Hits the Big Time

When long-time Challenger-level player Tennys Sandgren dispatched his third round opponent Maximillian Marterer last night, my blog stats went up 5000% immediately. I am one of the few faithful attenders of Challenger level tennis and had previously written about Tennys seizing the title here in Champaign, IL in 2013. May I repeat before I go further, that you should all be watching the Challengers. Any guy in the top 500 in the world is playing excellent tennis. If you’re a fan and live near an event on the Challenger tour, check it out.

Having seen Tennys Sandgren more or less annually, I was curious how the media would cover this break-out performance. Predictably, the media has latched on to the obvious contours of Tennys Sandgren’s inspiring story: a hard-working grinder who finally makes good, becoming the LAMP–the “Last American Male Player”–in the Australian Open. Chris Clarey and Ben Rothenberg both remarked on his instant media appeal: humble, generous to other players, unassuming, knowledgable about the game, and philosophical about his career and chances.

But I was gratified, truly, when various tweeps quickly reminded seasoned journalists that Tennys has another side–as an avid social media amplifier of alt-right views disparaging immigrants, women, and the very notion of equality. I had been retweeting those views enough that word got around in “these twitter streets,” as the Body Serve podcast likes to call them, that Sandgren was one of a heap of right-wing American players, and perhaps the most classically white supremacist of the bunch.  And so when Chris Clarey of the New York Times chimed in with how wonderfully humane Tennys was in interview,

he was quickly checked.

And if you follow the replies, Clarey was checked, and checked, and checked again. I love you all. You make a Mom very proud.

Someone asked me if I thought the mainstream news would ever pick up the story of Tennys’ extreme views. I doubt it. Tennys Sandgren would not have been spouting off all these years if he didn’t feel very secure that nobody who counted would ever push back. He could comfortably imagine his views would be seen as irrelevant as long as he appeared to be a nice easy-going guy, and played good tennis.

And he’s got reason to believe that. It’s not clear to me that John Isner’s following or endorsements have suffered any from his constant RT-ing and liking of Trump’s tweets, even as Trump’s popularity enters a death spiral. Athletes are not generally asked about their politics if they are white. Of course, we have abundant evidence from the NBA and the NFL that if a black athlete expresses political views, they’ll be made to answer for it, even if they aren’t fined outright.

And so we have to address that inequality by making the political views of white athletes more visible–as visible as we can. As I pointed out when people said, well Tennys Sandgren can’t be a nice guy if he holds those views, you’d be surprised. He is humble (about the sport). He does have perspective (about his career). He can be very nice if you meet him in person, as I’ve already discussed. He’s often courteous to ball runners and tournament staff. By the general definition of the word “nice,” Sandgren is nice.

But as I also argued, that’s totally irrelevant to me now.  Hitler didn’t get elected and swing into power because the rank and file Germans of the time were bad neighbors lacking in common courtesy. The rank and file Germans loved their kids and friends. The rank and file Germans were athletes, and opera singers, professors, and shopkeepers. They were not all stupid, uncultured, or lacking in sympathy for people who seemed similar to them. But they were also, in sufficient measure, racist, and supported Hitler because he would get rid of people they considered not desirable.

Americans have difficulty reconciling this apparent contradiction.  We’ve seen too many movies in which Southern separatists are depicted as monsters and German Nazis as  sociopaths. We have to get over that if we want to understand how Trump got elected, and how he could get elected again.

And that, folks, is why I began forwarding the offensive tweets of the American players I had previously admired. We need to know what we’re supporting when we support players who by virtue of birth (and, in Sandgren’s case, by virtue of his mother’s immigration from South Africa), get to put USA after their names.  They automatically get support from a mass of American tennis fans who are–understandably–dying to see that our country can reach the peak of the sport again. But many folks, like me, don’t care anymore how good you play or if you’re “nice.”  We want to see a lot less hate promoted in this world.

One commenter to my blog asked why I didn’t just tell Sandgren how I felt when I had the chance face to face instead of going behind his back on the internet.

Well, there’s a few reasons for that, which I hope would be obvious.

You might not have noticed, but Sandgren is over six feet, nearly two hundred pounds, and has a powerful right arm. I’m a tiny woman. He sought me out to talk about politics, and I didn’t want to have that conversation. I was a fan, not a journalist, at this event. It was…weird.

The second reason is I only have seen him at tournaments where I go out of my way not to disturb players.  I wouldn’t want someone coming to my office with a personal beef.

But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Sandgren can put whatever crap he wants on social media, feeling pretty secure none of the groups he maligns will face him directly. If he didn’t feel secure, he wouldn’t do it.

I didn’t take his hood off. He did that all by himself.

Sandgren Peterson

 

 

 

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The Battle of the Sexes: Blake’s Take

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As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reviewing James Blake’s excellent Ways of Grace chapter by chapter so as not to miss anything. Of course I will miss things anyway, so please, buy the book.

His first chapter “Early Trailblazers: Accidental Activists” is devoted to those athletes who were forerunners of social protest, whether they set out to be or not, and thus faced the most severe consequences for their beliefs–or really, for daring to play sports at all. Blake starts with baseball’s great Jackie Robinson, but devotes most of the chapter to Billie Jean King, his friend, colleague, and idol.

My reading of this chapter was well-timed. The movie Battle of the Sexes had finally come to my tiny town, two weeks after its limited open on the coasts. I went with my twelve year-old son, his friend, and his friend’s mother. Go ahead and watch the film because why wouldn’t you. The tennis is impressively rendered, LGBT pride issues are featured prominently, and, for once, Emma Stone did not irk the shit out of me. That said, you’ll learn a lot more from James Blake’s book about what Billie Jean King risked, lost, and won when she faced Bobby Riggs.

For example, while the film concentrates on the USTA’s rejection of Billie Jean King once she formed the Women’s Tennis Association, Blake takes pains to note that King first lobbied for women players to join the ATP, but the men wouldn’t have it. The irony Blake drives home is that the high profile Battle of the Sexes, watched by millions in the era when ABC owned sports broadcasting, didn’t just raise the profile of women’s tennis. It raised the profile of ALL tennis. Tennis, hitherto a country club sport, was suddenly hot. After King beat Riggs, tennis courts in parks were booked solid. My mother in the mid-seventies enrolled me in tennis lessons in one of these parks. I remember it clearly.

The point Blake is making is that King didn’t just make money for herself. She didn’t make money for women. She made money for TENNIS. And she didn’t stop with her victory over Riggs. The following year, she founded World Team Tennis, increasing the visibility of tennis as a co-ed sport.

The movie Battle of the Sexes ends, of course, with Billie Jean King’s victory, and gives a few cursory notes about the amicable divorce of the Kings. This left my son and his friend–both queer-identified–wanting more information on King’s coming out. Was she out after the Battle of the Sexes? How did she managed to be out and simultaneously married to a man?

Perhaps not imagining an audience of gender-queer, inquiring twelve-year olds, the film completely skips over an episode Blake does not: King’s forced coming out in a palimony suit launched by Marilyn Barnett, long-time partner featured in the film.  The 1981 lawsuit made still-married King’s sexual orientation a matter of public record. Her privacy thus compromised, Billie Jean King gave a press conference in which she admitted to the affair with Barnett.

Within twenty-four hours of that press conference, Blake tells us, all her endorsements were gone. Credit to James Blake for going where the film wouldn’t. His book enters the 1980s, where activism took a relative lull, the Reagan years reviving respectability politics.

Blake’s chapter ends with a long transcript of King’s conversation with Blake about equality. I’m glad Blake left it for us to read in quotations, because King’s voice here is important.  She makes clear that sports has never been just about sports. That it never could be for her, and never was from the moment she picked up a racket. Born into relatively humble circumstances, she saw sports as a way to get a platform to address inequality.

Here Billie Jean King gives us language to counter those who say that in choosing your sports heroes, you should only look at their achievements on the court, rather than have their politics affect your opinion of them, or your enjoyment of the game. For Billie Jean King, the ethos of the athlete is important.

To me I never felt I knew Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as human beings. For a while they dominated sports. I always felt that they were on a pursuit of excellence. I can understand that, especially operating at their level athletically. But what did they feel about society? What did they feel about people of color? What did they think? They never talked about their personal take on those things.

We love our sports heroes, King reminds us, because they are human, and when they diminish that humanity, they diminish our ability to connect with them. Blake quickly notes that he agrees with King. He bemoans the period of quiescence that followed the activism of the 1970s, and lauds its resurgence in athletes like LeBron James, Kaepernick, and (more recently) Steph Curry.

The last paragraph in the chapter is another long quote from King, who talks about seeing her father, a firefighter, leave for work. As she watched him walk out the door, she wondered if he would he ever make it back.  Each time he went to work, he risked his life for the betterment of others. Athletes, King and Blake suggest, could in that frame stretch themselves to do their bit for others, even if it costs them.

 

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Review Of James Blake’s Ways of Grace

Okay, I’m lying. I’m not reviewing the whole thing in one post. It’s so meaty, I’m going to take it chapter by chapter. This post will take you through what you can expect in the introduction and no farther, because James Blake has a lot to say, and we owe it to him to take it in slowly.

Introduction: Mistaken Identity

You think you already know the story of how James Blake, racially profiled by New York police, was tackled to the ground outside his hotel room in broad daylight. You don’t know. There are significant details that James reveals here that, frankly, blew my mind. It’s ten times worse than I knew, and I thought I’d looked into the incident carefully.

First, the police lied about what happened. They lied a lot. In their first statement, they said they only held James for less than a minute, that he was never handcuffed, and certainly wasn’t manhandled. James was so astounded to hear this account, so at odds with what he recalled. So he, himself, personally went back to talk to hotel security and got access to the tape. Indeed, there he was, detained for twelve minutes, not for less than one minute, and put in handcuffs for ten of those minutes. They paraded him in this ad hoc perp walk on a crowded street until an older cop checked Blake’s USTA badge against his profile on the internet, and they let him go. Nobody except this man–who wasn’t even the one tackling him–apologized. No one showed a badge.

Taking his account with the video to the press, Blake secured a spot on Good Morning, America. In response, police commissioner William Bratton issued a second statement suggesting this was a case of mistaken identity. Bratton released a photo of the man they were seeking who turned out to look nearly exactly like James Blake. But that was an Australian national who wasn’t even in the country at the time.

Blake could have written the whole book about this incident and how it changed him. And I would have eagerly read that book. But Blake casts a much wider net.  He doesn’t direct the attention at himself, but rather the history of activism by athletes, and what they have gained and sacrificed choosing to use their public platform in unsanctioned ways.

Working from the inside out, he first credits his personal hero, Arthur Ashe, in guiding his thought of how to take what happened to him and use it for the greater good. He reminds us that Ashe, weakened by HIV/AIDS contracted from a bad blood transfusion in 1983, nevertheless marched in DC in support of better treatment of Haitian refugees. And of course, Blake’s title, Ways of Grace, is an homage to Ashe’s autobiography, Days of Grace. 

He goes next to the WTA, recalling Billy Jean King’s 1973 win in “Battle of the Sexes,” but more broadly, her tireless advocacy on the part of equal pay in sports. As the third chapter of Ways of Grace is subtitled “Gender Biases in Sport,” we’re certain to return to that theme.

Moving further back in the chronology and away from tennis, Blake mentions Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics during the playing of the anthem. That is a deliberately reference point, because he’s going to get to Kaepernick shortly.

But before he does he takes a paragraph to laud the white Australian Peter Norman who won the silver that year, and thus shared the podium with Smith and Carlos. Blake notes that Norman’s quiet sympathy with Smith and Carlos inspired possibly even more backlash than Smith and Carlos faced, and cast a long shadow over his life.

I’m going to say that Blake’s shift to focus on the role of whites in protesting abuse is strategic and damned smart. It’s not just tennis that got him into Harvard. He’s aiming this book in part, if not in whole, at the white audience who at the moment is wondering why his/her sports program is disrupted, why his/her favorite athlete or team can’t just stick to sports, why politics has to get into everything. When he gets to Kaepernick in the next paragraph, he spends just as much text  highlighting the risks that 49ers safety Eric Reid takes in kneeling with Kaepernick as he did on Norman. Athletes, whether black or white, face fines, sponsor pushback, public scorn, and loss of friends and fans in the choice to take a public stance. It is no small thing, Blake wants us to know.

So in this book, Blake is going to look at it all, from protests against racism, sexism, and homophobia, from tennis to basketball to football, from pro sports to the NCAA. He ends the introduction by circling back to Arthur Ashe who, he says, taught him to help others, and try to find a way to make the world a better place. Blake is not the same man, he tells us, as the one several officers so callously tackled outside his hotel room. He sees the world differently, and he wants us to as well.

As a tennis fan, one can’t get to the end of this introduction without having a bad case of “ubi sent.” Ubi sunt references a style of mourning ballad in the medieval period. It’s Latin for, basically, where my peeps at?  It lionizes those who were great who passed away before us, and who we miss dreadfully. When we look at the Trumpsters who make up the current roster of top American ATP players, we can look at James Blake and Arthur Ashe, and the tradition of activism and commitment to equality they represent, and we have every right to wonder what the hell happened to our sport.

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Serena Williams has given birth. What not to say.

 

On the day Serena Williams went into labor to give birth to her first child, Reuters reported that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said that Serena would have to put her career before her child if she wanted to regain the top spot in tennis.

As a working mother, I deem what Patrick Mouratoglou said to be horseshit, and damaging horseshit at that. The sheer number of articles wondering if working mothers are putting their child or career “first” is itself injurious to women who are trying to get on with their lives without the scorching white glare of everyone’s scrutiny. As if we didn’t suffer enough in debates over birth control and abortion under the microscopic attention directed toward our uteri every moment of our pre-birth lives. And as in the case of those debates, few of the people involved in discussions over working motherhood are actually working mothers. So my temptation is generally to ignore the likes of Mourotaglou (I mean, continue to ignore him) and get on with my life.

But so many people on twitter took pains to let me know that they agreed with him, that I’m resorting to long form response here to take this horseshit apart turd by turd.

First let’s take Mouratoglou’s statement on its face. Its logic implies that moms who are elite tennis players can’t have a career without their kids suffering, or they can’t have kids without their careers suffering. I’m going to take apart that second assumption first, because it’s easier.

I’m not an elite tennis player but I am a professor at a large public research university, where the “excellence as mother or in career but not both” argument is familiar to me. When I was first hired twenty years ago, none of the junior faculty (meaning tenure-track, but as yet untenured) had kids. I assumed, as did the institution, that people who had kids on the tenure clock were nuts, because clearly one couldn’t do all that was required of devotion to your students and research while nurturing a new life into this world. And that idea was ensconced in policy, in that there was no family or maternity leave. If a woman wanted to take a semester off to have a child, she’d have to save up enough sick leave to do it, which would basically take your entire seven years till tenure plus some to do anyway. As a result, of the four junior faculty in my cohort, two of us had kids after tenure (when the odds against fertility start to stack against you), and two never had kids.

But then around the time I got tenure and started trying to have a kid (which by the way took no time at all so don’t try this at home unless prepared), our university hired a female Chancellor—our first ever!—who instituted this strange new policy called “parental leave.” Taken by new fathers or new mothers, it allowed for a partial release of duties (you don’t teach classes, but you do have to oversee your grad students) for a semester after you have your child.

Suddenly, a population explosion. Suddenly, junior faculty started having kids AND getting tenure! The impossible became possible! And new fathers found it just as helpful as new mothers.

Oh, but you would say, being a professor is demanding, but it isn’t a physical career. Well, people used to say that prima ballerinas couldn’t have kids, to the point that even married dancers had trouble getting hired. Now we’re witnessing a population explosion in dance. Practice often changes before perception—a few brave women defy the limitations put upon them, and then others finally accept what has always been true. That mothers can excel at whatever they want. This shift has yet to happen fully in tennis, but it will.

So back to the tougher question: Can a woman have a career without hurting her child?

There is no sugar-coating the upheaval caused by having children. They are time-sucks on your life. They need your attention, and your good attention, not just your “yea yea yea I’ll hold” attention. They change your relationship to your spouse, your family, your friends, and of course, your work. But this change isn’t measurable in terms of more or less time. I’m not sure if I worked more or less than when I had a kid, but I did work differently, and better, when I became a mother. I started saying no to some things I could say no to. I didn’t go to as many extraneous events. I planned my travel more carefully, and considered the impact of it on my husband. I considered carefully what I wanted to spend my work energy doing.

But I also know that I never needed my work more than when I had a kid. Following two weeks of relative bliss after my son’s birth, I started to slide emotionally. At six weeks, I had full-blown post-partum depression. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. My father died when I was seven months pregnant. He never made it to see what would have been his first grandchild, and he wanted to. I wanted him to. It was not to be. I had a lot of time to think about this devastating loss between feedings and naps. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, while was I grieving I stopped eating, but my son never did. Soon I was perilously thin, he was getting hungrier, and I was exhausted from trying to satisfy him with what few resources my body could muster. Fortunately, a doctor listened through my tears and started me on a course toward treatment.

Part of that treatment was returning to work. I went into the office just a few hours a week, but it felt good. I began writing again, finished my next book (working alongside another new mother who was also writing a book), and was promoted to full professor before I was forty. Of course my spouse temporarily reduced hours and I hired some extra help. I learned how to ask for what I needed. I learned that to be a good mother I needed to reconnect to the identity I had inhabited for 16 years before having a child. I would not, and would never be, a stay-at-home Mom of someone else’s dreams. It just wasn’t in me.

It isn’t in a lot of women, but they are excoriated for admitting it. Remember when Hillary Rodham Clinton admitted that as a mother and First Lady of Arkansas, she could have stayed home and baked cookies, but that she chose to continue to pursue her career in law? She was pilloried in the press, labeled a bad mother, an unfeeling shrew, and—even worse—charged with failing to appreciate what a hard job baking cookies was.

Women my age remember that moment well. Coming as it did in the early 1990s, on the heels of decades of growth in the rights of women, it hit us like a slap in the face, whether we then had kids or not. We were working on our careers, and the message we received was “get back in the kitchen” if you have kids, and don’t come out again till they’re in college.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider how motherhood really happens rather than how we think it should happen. How many American women, denied the generous maternity benefits provided in other countries, can stay home for years at a time? How many can afford to be supported by their spouse’s one income (assuming that the father decided to stick around)? How many mothers are really the breadwinners who work while their husbands stay home or work a more flexible schedule (or in the case of marriage to a millionaire, don’t need to work at all)? How many mothers who have five or more kids can give each one the attention that can be lavished—for good and for ill—on an only child? How many immigrant women must leave their homes to work care jobs in another country, sending money back for their children, living with father or grandparents, so that child can have a better life?

In the end we really don’t ask these questions, because asking them would be taking into account men’s work and parenting responsibilities (always appreciated yet rarely assumed). They would also have to acknowledge that the chilly winds of capitalism blow through, as well as around, families—and that parents are always parsing their attention, and their funds, between their children even as they profess to love them equally. It’s so much easier to assume a hermetically sealed family unit, with two parents, including a mother with an either/or choice—time on job or time on kid. These abstract hypothetical problems are easy enough for the likes of Patrick Mouratoglou to imagine solving (as he acts like he has neither a real job nor kids), but the calculations he uses to get to the answers are meaningless. He’s doing addition and subtraction. Real working mothers are juggling so many shifting factors they’re doing calculus.

Not even Mouratoglou knows Serena well enough to forecast how she’ll deal with the months in front of her. None of us do. And the last thing Serena needs—the last thing any new mother needs—is more discussion of the many ways they can fail to live up to our expectations.

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Serena Williams is Pregnant: An Etiquette Guide

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Serena Williams announced this past week that she is twenty weeks pregnant. If the current pace of buzz surrounding this announcement holds up, we are in for roughly nineteen more weeks of speculation as to what this means. As a formerly pregnant woman, it has come to my attention that the twitter-sphere would benefit from some guidance as to how to discuss the pregnancy of another human being. And so I will temporarily don the Emily Post hat, big though it is, and offer, gently, some suggestions so that we might all survive Serena’s pregnancy to term.

Rule #1: If you have never been pregnant, shut the fuck up.

No need to ooh and ah that she won the Australian Open while pregnant. Pregnancy is not necessarily a disability. Although every movie you’ve watched might have dramatized the discovery of pregnancy by showing a woman puking in a toilet, some women have no morning sickness whatsoever. In fact, in some cases, they feel better than ever.  But when I pointed this out earlier this week, I was not even imagining that some one would make the opposite argument: that pregnancy afforded Serena an unfair advantage in match play. This theory, when poised against the time-honored chestnut that Serena has always enjoyed an unfair advantage because she is a man, is enough to make my head spin right off its axis. Surely, then, the ultimate advantage would be to play as a pregnant man such as Thomas Beatie. Yet somehow, in a Williams v. Beatie match-up, I still pick Williams, so shall we move on?

Rule #2: If you are a man who cannot get pregnant, really, shut the fuck up.

The mere sight of any man speculating as to what pregnancy might feel like or entail has been totally ruined for me by the current crusade to end coverage of maternity health care on the grounds that men don’t need it. You know what men also don’t need? Sex. They don’t need sex. The correct Emily Post etiquette for dating a guy who believes he should not have to pay the cost of your birth control or pregnancy is to sit, legs tightly crossed, while he pays for dinner, drinks, and dessert. Then laugh in his face when he begs for sex.

Rule #3: Expect anything.

As our Congress seems to forget, pregnancy can be a high-risk venture. I’ve had friends who have lost pregnancies in their third trimester. Friends who have carried a fetus to term only to deliver it dead. Friends who have been put on bed-rest for months. Friends who have almost died of preeclampsia. I had a great pregnancy only to be zonked with postpartum depression. We want Serena to have an easy pregnancy, an uncomplicated delivery, and a wonderful recovery.  But we want that for everyone.  So please, support Planned Parenthood, excellent maternity care, and guaranteed maternity leave for all.

Rule #4: Don’t speculate on what the baby will look like.

This rule is for Nasty Nastase.

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Post-Trump Tennis Fandom

I always look forward to the Champaign Challenger coming to town. I go just about every year. In 2013, when my day job allowed, I covered it for The Changeover. I love the Challenger tour. It’s a mix of “tomorrow’s stars today,” as they say, and sometimes yesterday’s stars today, which they don’t say, but whatever. It’s pro tennis, and it’s good. And more people should go.

But this year, more than ever, I needed to go. I lost three friends this year, two to cancer and one to ALS. One was my midwife (or rather mid-dude) who delivered my child and about a third of the kids in town. He chronicled his journey with ALS, and was also profiled by People magazine for his bike ride across the country, completed with one working arm and a lot of help. Just one of those splendid people you feel glad you knew at all, but can’t believe are gone so soon.

The other two were women even closer to me. Brilliant, strong, funny women who mentored me and changed my life as a professor, mother, and human. One held an endowed chair and was courted by Harvard. The other was a finalist for a Pulitzer. But the main thing is, they were irreplaceable to me, and I loved them both.

As it happens, watching tennis is my favorite antidepressant. That makes pro players the best manufacturers of my drug of choice. The week the Challenger came to town, I wanted to sit on a bench as much as I could, and take it all in.

Or rather, not all, because even before the election, I had noticed that most American male players, either quietly, or vociferously, voted for Donald Trump. This is not a deep, dark secret. Twitter has lately played host to the airing of inter-pro tension over politics, with Nicole Gibbs and James Blake generally holding down the liberal fort, and just about everyone else piling on from the other side.

On twitter, there has been no one more vocal about his politics than Tennys Sandgren. A cursory view down his twitter feed (if he doesn’t delete posts, which doesn’t seem to be his style) will show that he is a consumer and amplifier of alt-right social media sites. As anyone who has seen him play will note, he wears whatever he’s feeling on his sleeve for the whole world to see. I interviewed him three years ago at the Champaign Challenger, and wrote that piece in which he, as the tournament winner, emerged as the protagonist. Subsequently, I followed Sandgren on twitter and noticed that he was politically to the Right of Genghis Khan. No, even farther Right. Keep going. His tweets drip with hatred of women, Obama, and Muslims. I did horn in once. When he questioned James Blake’s experience of being racially profiled I said he should have more respect for his elders. And then I stopped following him.

And I stopped rooting for him. I just…can’t.

So when Tennys Sandgren came over to talk to me at the Challenger, I was in that moment actively trying to get out of his path.

I don’t go up to players and say hello. I know when I’m working and trying to focus, I don’t really like small talk. Also, I’m not a selfie collector. When I watch tennis, I just want to zone and think about the game.

He said he wanted to say hello, that he was sorry we obviously couldn’t agree about politics but… I honestly don’t remember the next three sentences because I was trying to think about how to change the topic. I said, well that was sweet of you to say hello (my Northern version of “bless your heart”).  I may have looked pained (I am these days) because he was striking a consoling tone. I told him I’d had several friends and mentors die this year and I was low and looking forward to the tennis. (I really do want to remind people to respect their elders, because they’re not around forever.)

And then we talked briefly about tennis.

Why didn’t I carve him a new one on our many, many points of disagreement? I felt that was neither the time, nor the place.

But this here, right here, is the time and the place. This absolutely is. And I’m going there now.

Tennis, post-Trump has changed for me.

I know I’m not alone. Numerous tennis fans are struggling with enjoying their sport while realizing that the very factors that have nurtured the sport along in America (country clubs, lots of money, privileged paths to college) are often the very factors that supported Donald Trump’s rise. Sure we have the Williams sisters, paragons of the civil rights ethos. But they are outliers. They are also women. The ATP is a less democratic affair. When I went to the Challenger I was hoping to see players other than Sandgren win, and maybe, to see him get beat. The problem was, I knew several people playing him were also Trump supporters, even if they had been quieter about it.

The American men are not only failing to reassert themselves at the highest ranks, they’re getting a reputation around the circuit for their sense of entitlement. Although the American exceptionalism award for the year has to be given to Steve Johnson for suggesting a past champion shouldn’t get a wild card at the US Open because Americans would be upset, the general behavior of American men on court seems to suggest that they’re unnerved that the rest of the world is eclipsing them. Martina Navratilova has had some words about why that’s happening, delivering an unsparing rebuke of the coddling American men have had their whole lives.

I agree with that. And after the election, I have even more to say.

If you deep down believe that you’re better because of what country you were born in, or your skin color, or your religion, you’re not going to win at your game. You’re just not. And you’re not going to improve until you get over yourself. Because you’re not really listening, and you’re not really learning. Imagine if Andy Murray at age 15 had decided, I’m going to stay in Scotland to train, because I don’t want to have to learn Spanish.

As for me, I’m not going to stop watching tennis. I’m just going to change who I support.

So what American men will I cheer for now? I will cheer for players like son of immigrants, Frances Tiafoe. I’ll cheer for Michael Mmoh, whose twitter feed is as clean and uplifting as his game. I’ll cheer for Christopher Eubanks, whose only political tweet was on November 9, and it was about caring, not hating.

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And I have this to say to Tennys Sandgren: Don’t explain to me that you’re sorry about what you’re not sorry about. Don’t think you come out looking better for being able to hold a short, civil conversation with a white woman with different views.  That’s too safe. And it changes nothing in the long run.

As we say in some parts of this country, you can’t put lipstick on a pig.

You just have to stop being a pig.