The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Lindsay Gibbs, January 29, 2019

An insider's take on Naomi Osaka, an Australian Open review, a look ahead, and sexism in coaching with Sarah Stone.

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Welcome back to Tennis Tuesdays, friends. Before we get going, I want to encourage all of you to reach out to me at lindsayjgibbs@gmail.com. As I work to develop this into the ultimate newsletter for tennis nerds and tennis novices alike, I want to hear from you. What players or coaches or analysts would you like me to try to get for the interview segment? What big — or minute! — tennis topic would you like to hear my opinion on? What links am I missing? I’m open to ideas. I’m excited to hear your thoughts. And I’m pumped to be on this journey with all of the readers of The IX.

This week, I’m going to get you all caught up on the Australian Open news, look at this week’s tennis action, and dive into why there aren’t more women in tennis coaching in a conversation with Sarah Stone, the coach of American tennis player Alexa Glatch.

But first, we must talk about Naomi Osaka.

As you likely know by now — though, no shade if you don’t, the Australian time zone can be tricky for many of us — the 21-year-old won her second straight major title last weekend at the Australian Open, with thrilling three-set wins over Czechs Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals and Petra Kvitova in the final.

There is so much that impresses me about Osaka, but the thing that really stuck out to me was how different her path in Melbourne was compared to her path to victory in New York. At the U.S. Open, Osaka only dropped one set all tournament, in the fourth round against Aryna Sabalenka. She was gifted with a fairly easy draw, and she played lights-out tennis the entire time. It was an arrival.

But at the Australian Open, Osaka’s journey was much more complicated. She played four three-set matches, and game after game there was an opportunity for her to surrender — difficult moments against a talented players where it would have been understandable if Osaka had folded, weighed down by the increased pressure that comes along with being a major champion. (She was in tears at the end of the second set against Kvitova!) But every time she started to fade, she rose to the occasion instead. It’s an amazing evolution from the ball-bashing, mentally fragile teenager that burst onto the scene five years ago.

In order to gain a better understanding of Osaka’s evolution, I reached out to my friend, WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen, who has had a front-row seat to Osaka’s growth over the past few years. Her insights were so phenomenal that I’m going to share them pretty much in full.

Here’s Nguyen on how Osaka has changed as a tennis player in the past few years:

At 16 she had opponents dropping f-bombs in response to her raw power. The kid never saw a ball she didn’t want to leather for a winner. Sometimes it worked. More often, it didn’t. All an opponent had to do was put a little scoreboard pressure on her and she would self-destruct.

THAT Naomi has been a stranger in the last 5 months, and this is where I think the mainstream media can tend to get her all wrong. She’s taken huge strides mentally to fundamentally change as a player. When she won her 1st title last spring in Indian Wells, she did it by blasting the ball. She won the US Open by adjusting mid-tournament - it started in her big win over Aryna Sabalenka in three sets in the Round of 16 - to be willing to win points by out-rallying her opposition. That she’s gotten stronger and faster only helps the cause. Osaka no longer believes she has to end rallies early. She can grit it out.

And here’s Nguyen what she feels the media gets wrong about Osaka:

I think the thing we take for granted about Naomi is simply that: her mental toughness at 21-years-old. She speaks softly, talks about Pokémon, her love of Overwatch, and often wears a look on her face that makes you want to go out of your way to protect her. Already, so many people have expressed their concern that she can’t maintain this innocence/naïveté with what is about to come at her in the way of fame and money.

But you don’t come out of the crucible that was that final at the US Open if you’re weak or full of self-doubt and insecurity. And you certainly don’t go from being in tears on court at the end of the second set of the Australian Open final against one of the game’s best competitors, and find a way to win. Osaka said she was able to reset herself in that last set of the final by remembering that she has no right to feel entitled to anything, that she should be grateful for being able to share the court with one of the game’s greats on one of the greatest tennis stages in the world. Her humility has become her strength. She doesn’t act entitled. Which is why she keeps on winning.

Thank you, Courtney. Thank you, Naomi. Now, let’s get on to the rest of the show.


This Week in Tennis

Alert! Alert! Brian Phillips on Naomi Osaka. “Naomi Osaka is too good. She’s too exhilarating. She inspires an altogether alarming amount of hope.”

I also loved Steve Tignor on Osaka and her “Millennial-style self-deprecation.”

It was certainly heartbreaking to see Kvitova fall in the final, and she didn’t hide her disappointment. But, as always, she is maintaining perspective.

In doubles, Shuai Zhang and Sam Stosur won the Australian Open by taking out the top two seeds.

You have to listen to Stosur and Zhang talking about their win with Courtney Nguyen on the WTA Insider Podcast. (Best line? Zhang telling Nguyen, “Sam is my best friend and I don't want Sam to be sad because of me.”)

While you’re at it, listen to the WTA Insider Podcast episode with Naomi Osaka, where she reveals what her mother said to her after she won.

I’m still not totally sure what to make of Serena Williams losing a 5-1 lead in the third set of her quarterfinal against Karolina Pliskova. Yes, she twisted her ankle. Yes, Pliskova played incredibly. But I think it primarily comes down to this: Winning 24 majors is unbelievably difficult.

Always read Jon Wertheim’s 50 Parting Thoughts. Among other things, he reports about the future of on-court coaching and shares a wonderful anecdote about Sloane Stephens. And count me in favor of a Mueller Report for tennis.

I love this anecdote about the friendship between Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova.

For ThinkProgress, I wrote about how it’s long past time for Margaret Court Arena to be renamed.

CoCo Vandeweghe is the new star of My Tennis Life on Tennis Channel.

Never change, Andy Murray.

This week, there are already two tournaments underway: The Toyota Thailand Open, where Garbine Muguruza is the top seed and you already missed the match of the year, between Monica Niculescu and Hsieh Su-wei; and the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy in Russia, where Kvitova is the top seed and we are blessed with a Victoria Azarenka/Kvitova second-round match (!!!). Tennis: The sport that never sleeps.

Oh, and THE MOST IMPORTANT THING: Serena Williams will be on Lip Sync Battle on Thursday. As will Andy Roddick. I’ve never been this happy.


Tweet of the week

I’m obsessed.

Five at The IX: Sarah Stone

Sarah Stone is a coach on the WTA Tour and the founder and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Coaching Association. She has coached Sam Stosur and Aleksandra Krunic, and currently coaches American Alexa Glatch.

Lindsay Gibbs: Why did you establish the Women’s Tennis Coaching Association (WTCA)?

Sarah Stone: The WTCA’s purpose is to teach male and female coaches how to better communicate with female tennis athletes, so that more girls and women will stay in the sport. I think through having education for male and female coaches, it creates a space where male and female coaches can thrive. It's an inclusive environment. Of course there’s the broad issue, which is the disgusting gender bias where girls are taught to view male coaches as better than female coaches. I think most tackle it just as, let's get more women in coaching. But we need male allies. At most of the major federations, it's 80-85 percent registered tennis coaches are men.

Lindsay: You referenced the bias against female coaches that many tennis players — including women — have internalized. How does that bias manifest itself?

Sarah: It's staggering. When I hear these things, I'm shocked. These are from top pros. I've heard, “Too many women on tour would be too emotional.” I've heard, “I just wouldn't respect a female coach.” I've heard, “Women can't hit as well as men.” And a lot of top pros have never had a female coach, and when they get to the top of their career, they're hesitant to try something new.

Lindsay: Female coaches were more visible at the Australian Open. On the men’s side, Amelie Mauresmo coached Lucas Pouille to the semifinals. And on the women’s side, the dynamite duo of Rennae Stubbs and Conchita Martinez were in Pliskova’s corner. Does this give you hope for the future?

Sarah: I think visually and role-model wise it's really good. They're all exceptional coaches, so that's a good start. But there's such a high bar -- all of them are Grand Slam champions. And if a woman has to be a Grand Slam champion to get those positions, that's being qualified to a 10-times higher standard than male coaches.

So we need to have the conversation include Biljana Veselinovic, who coaches Krunic, and Elise Tamaela who coaches Kiki Bertens. We don’t want women to have to have won multiple Grand Slams to coach men or women. There's a high number of male coaches who didn't get a ranking of 1,000 inside the world, or didn't even have pro careers. 

Lindsay: I’ve always been curious: How does one go about getting a coaching job in tennis?

Sarah: Usually, if you want to get hired working for a player, it's very much an inside circle for those jobs. It's not like, Jo Konta puts an add on a board, saying I need a coach. It's all about networking, branding, experience. A lot of coaches are already a part of the tour, so once they leave one person they go to another. Players don't want to risk an outside person. And agents head hunt a little bit.

Lindsay: As a female coach on tour, have you ever experienced any discrimination?

Sarah: Last year, one of the WTA tournaments didn't have a female coaches’ locker room but it had a male coaches’ locker room. They used the female coaches’ locker room for exercise bikes. I didn't need to use the locker room, but if I had needed to, I had to go in and ask the WTA staff to look into it and see if there are any male coaches in the male coaches’ locker room, and they’d be asked to clear out.

This was not the fault of the WTA. The WTA really didn't want that to happen, and they really stuck up for us. They even fined the tournament, but it was sprung on them last minute.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women's Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports ThinkProgress
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren PGA.com
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster