Today, ESPN’s Chris Evert and Brad Gilbert discussed the US Open which begins Monday, August 27, with extensive coverage on ESPN2 and ESPN3. Jason Bernstein, senior director, programming & acquisitions, and Jamie Reynolds, vice president, production, were also on the line.
Q. Wonder if Chris and Brad can both talk about Roger. He’s pretty much had a great year and some people had not really written him off but sort of thought he was kind of the third or fourth guy, and will he ever win a major again and all that. So he’s done real well and I’m just wondering what you think his chances are of winning the U.S. Open.
CHRIS EVERT: You’re right. I think a lot of people did write him off because Djokovic, the engineer that Djokovic had last year was phenomenal, and Nadal was looking sharp and he was looking like he was going to play seven to ten more years. Nadal, physically, to me, those two players looked a lot stronger. And Roger almost looked a little bit frail in comparison, because, you know, just the training that they had done and how fit they were.
But, you know, Roger surprised us all. I don’t know he’s gotten his second wind in his career. It just seems likes there’s been a little bit of luck in the sense that Nadal seems to be injury‑prone and Djokovic, because he had such a great year last year, was sort of in and out this year, and really was inhuman to ask him to duplicate the year that he had last year. So he had a few more up‑and‑downs. But Roger came through and I guess it took the pressure off him when he was No. 3. He wasn’t No. 1 and he wasn’t No. 2, and when he was ranked No. 3, I think not many people were talking about him; people were counting him out and I think it took the pressure off.
Certainly the last few months, he played the most beautiful tennis that we have seen in a long time. And the fact that at the end of the year, he’s still playing so well, is remarkable, because this year has been as we all know, such a long year.
I already feel like we’ve had four Grand Slams, and now we are going to have a fifth Grand Slam coming here. It’s just been a really rugged year for everybody.
BRAD GILBERT: First of all, I think he’s the youngest 31‑year‑old ever and I think he can take a lot of stock in what Andre did about six or seven years, seeing somebody that he can remember that played great until he was 35. He takes amazing, good care of his body and he never gets injured. Has not missed a major in numerous years. Has not in any injuries in his entire pro career. And obviously his team does a great job of keeping him ready and he paces himself unbelievable on the schedule. Doesn’t overplay and seems to know when to take breaks.
I’m a little bit surprised that he made this re‑push, but it’s not like baseball, he went from .370 to .220. He just dropped off to No. 3, and the two guys, maybe the best top three of all time, and he just turned around a couple of matches that he had lost.
I remember the last two Opens he lost were matches where he had match points. He’s been right there. So it’s not like he fell very far and he’s regained his confidence in winning some of these big matches. But the thing that amazes me more than anything, he never looks stressed on the court. He barely even sweats. He’s younger at 31 than Nada at 26. Nadal seems older at his age than 26 than Fed does for his age at 31.
CHRIS EVERT: Also, Brad, to take it one step further about his attitude, the beauty of him is that when he loses a match, even if it’s a big match, he just let’s it roll off his back. And as you said, that’s part of being relaxed. He physically plays a very relaxed game out there. The other two, I think, have to work harder when they play a match. But Roger physically is relaxed; emotionally and mentally, he’s fine, but if he loses, he let’s it roll off his back. He goes back to his family and he’s got another life outside of tennis that maybe keeps him fresh. I think the attitude has a lot to do with it, too.
Q. It does feel like there’s been four majors and I totally get that, given the Olympics. I guess each guy has one, right? So you have Federer, Djokovic and Murray each winning one. Do you view the US Open as kind of settling anything? Can you sum up who has been the dominant player?
BRAD GILBERT: Well, you can definitely argue that whoever wins between Federer and Djokovic wins the Open, will more than likely be the Player of the Year and will almost certainly be the No. 1 player in the rankings at the end of the year. If somebody came from outside of ‑‑ we have not had somebody win four different majors in a season since 2003. So if Murray were to win the Open, it would be four different winners.
I, like Chris, also feel like winning the Olympics is like winning a major, but we do have four majors, and so whoever wins this major will have a huge jump up on not only being the No. 1 player; being the Player of the Year, and I think there’s tons at stake in this event.
It’s just a little bit of a bummer that one of the leading singers in the band is not there in Nadal. So that will completely change one‑half of the draw. It will be interesting to see which half Murray goes on; whichever half he goes on, maybe the other path is the easier path this year to go to the finals.
CHRIS EVERT: I agree with Brad in a sense that I think the Olympics is a fifth Grand Slam. I still think of the top four Grand Slams, because of history and obviously more people play in the Grand Slam tournaments; bigger draws. I think it is a different sort of setup than the Olympics.
But I think Djokovic, Federer, and I think you can say the same thing on the women’s side. The last seven Grand Slams have been won ‑‑ the thing is, Serena is not a lock. If Serena wins the Open, she would be a lock. But if Sharapova wins the Open to win two Grand Slams, that would be a lock. Azarenka won the Australian.
It’s the same thing in the women’s, and I think there for that’s why I think it will be such an exciting US Open, and because there’s so much at stake for both the men’s and the women’s draw. And the fact that I think just so much has to do with how sharp they are mentally, how fresh they are. Everybody’s body seems to be breaking down a little bit now and they are starting to get fatigued.
As we said before, it has been an usually tremendous year for the players as far as opportunities, but really, there’s been a lot of tennis. You throw in a Davis Cup and Fed Cup, it’s been grueling. It’s been a grueling year. So the US Open comes at a time when it’s the hottest. I always felt like I had to be in the best shape for the US Open condition‑wise, because of the heat. You go over to Europe and it’s 70, 75, 80 degrees. It’s almost like the heat doesn’t bother you as much. It’s the end of the year, the toughest tournament on hard court, which is going to be maybe even hotter, and you just have to be physically in your best shape at the US Open I think of any of the Grand Slams. That’s going to be a factor physically and mentally how fresh they are, and hopefully ‑‑ I don’t know, the creme is going to rise to the top during this tournament.
BRAD GILBERT: You bring up a good point, the first week is a lighter week because they stretch the first round over three days. And then if there’s any rain the second week, potentially ‑‑ you know, the last few years, there’s been at the back end of the tournament, sometimes guys having to play three days in a row is a brutal prospect, and it will be, you know, a big thing on who was the most economical in the early part of the tournament, or who is in the best physical shape.
CHRIS EVERT: Well, I just remember the French and Wimbledon, we had jackets on at some times. I mean, it was cold. And the weather was ‑‑ and let me tell you, I mean, I get out here in Florida, I walk outside, and even in New York, you walk outside and you’re sweating in your clothes already. It’s almost too bad that almost the Grand Slam of the year, when everybody is starting to get a little tired, has to be the one that you have to be in the best shape. I mean, even though Australia is a hundred degrees, you still have two months to prepare for it. You know, you don’t really have that time before the US Open to get used to the heat after being in Europe.
Q. With regard to the US Open, for both of you, what makes it special? And secondly, some of your favorite memories from opens you’ve played in the past.
CHRIS EVERT: Well, I guess you’re talking to two Americans, so it’s obvious that, you know, I think for me, just being an American and playing my country’s championship was, you know, was always special. Because when you go to Europe, it’s not the same. In France, I never knew what they were saying, saying about me or saying about anybody. England, you go over there and it has its own charm and prestige and it’s a wonderful, wonderful tournament. But when you go to the US Open in New York, and it’s all about Americans and it’s all about supporting the Americans, and you feel it.
And even though ‑‑ and I don’t mean to complain like it’s the last Grand Slam and everybody is starting to get tired. But I honestly did start to get tired around August, September. But it lifted your spirits and it inspired you to still work hard and grind it out and just try to play your best tennis. It really lifted you up to hear that crowd. And to ask me what my favorite moments are, I can’t even ‑‑ gosh, I can’t even start to, I really can’t. Brad, you go on and I’ll think about my favorite moments.
BRAD GILBERT: Also, too, the US Open is the first major that went to a night session. It’s the biggest tennis stadium in the world. You have the most interesting mix of fans; they come from all over the world, all over the states. You’ve got the hard court fans. To me, you have small side courts, you have big courts, you have ‑‑ if you play on a side court, you’ve got people walking and going. You’ve got music playing. It’s one of the most interesting, I call it, two‑week parties, of all time.
As a kid, obviously as an American, you know, growing up and wanting to be in the Open and it’s one of the greatest cities in all of the world. They just really know how to host the event. I think some of my fondest memories, obviously when I was a kid, I think a crazy one, just remembering ‑‑ I think I just saw a replay of it was when McEnroe was playing Nastase and they got the umpire removed from the chair, Frank Hammond. They got him removed from the chair. And Mike Blanchard, the tournament referee says, “I’ll umpire the rest of the match.
And just seeing night matches for the first time. It was a tough night, but incredible match, sitting there for four sets watching Andre and Pete have no breaks and four sets, one of the most amazing matches that I ever saw in a night match there. Unfortunately didn’t get the last point but it was an amazing match.
CHRIS EVERT: Jimmy Connors, I guess the electricity in the crowds when the American players played, especially Jimmy and McEnroe, I remember Nastase, just with his antics. You took me by surprise with that question, but my first US Open I think was just very special for me because that was sort of the beginning of ‑‑ it was a Cinderella story for me. It was the beginning of my career. Just the women that I had to beat to get to the semifinals and lose to Billie Jean, but having her say to me while we are walking out to the course, “You’re riding on the crest of a wave, enjoy it.” I still remember those words.
I remember Tracy Austin with her pinafores and pigtails. And I remember her beating me when she was 16. It’s the one tournament I remember my losses just as vibrant as my wins. I think that says a lot. I think that really, because it affected me, I remember losing to Tracy and then I remember beating her a couple years later in the semifinal after I had lost to her five times in a row in tournaments, and never lost her again. So it sort of revitalized my career over that win, and I remember that big Super Saturday match with Martina, which I lost. But it was the loss ‑‑ the Super Saturday was bigger than any one match, and I remember that pretty much made history, that one Saturday that you had those three great matches.
I remember Renée Richards coming out and playing at the US Open and what a sort of enigma she was and the curiosity everybody had. A lot of issues, you know, social issues were brought up. Even Arthur Ashe, naming the stadium after him, and Billie Jean naming the whole ‑‑ the same sort, and then Billie Jean naming the whole US Open. Wow, a lot of great things happened to American tennis players. Very poignant.
THE MODERATOR: From a TV production standpoint, Jamie, you’ve mentioned over time how the four slams, all of their different personalities, how does that play out in your efforts?
JAMIE REYNOLDS: I think that’s a great point. The point about this particular event, as everyone knows, the unique character of being in New York and being one of the hottest tickets available, it’s clearly the extravaganza; it’s the paparazzi and the red carpet treatment as the summer wind down and concludes.
With the personalities like Chris and Brad and the rest of our team, the family captures the historical perspective and the energy and excitement that comes across in this event; either through the day session here or certainly during primetime theatre at night, which is our focus through many of these windows to just have an evening that goes well on past midnight more often than not.
So that’s really our approach. When you look at the four majors and the Australian Open, which is great fun in the sun during the winter months here in the northern hemisphere; and the French with its Parisian flair, obviously, and the tonality of what that city offers in a backdrop; and obviously the cathedral that is Wimbledon, is a whole different event.
Now being able to ride the wave of Wimbledon, the success there, and then on through tennis, the buzz that came through tennis in August back at SW and coming now back in New York, it’s a great amount of energy and terrific amount of enthusiasm surrounding this event now, which as Brad and Chris so poignantly pointed out, there are terrific stories that will shape this year and define this year that will certainly make 2013 a great run for all of us.
Q. Brad, how big of a psychological boost do you think the Olympics will be for Andy, and how do you sense the last couple of weeks he’s had where there’s been a few issues? And for Chris, with everything that’s Serena has been through the last couple of years, is it written in the stars that she’s got unfinished business there?
BRAD GILBERT: I think the Olympics was a huge boost to his confidence, because it’s the first time that he beat the No. 1 and 2 in a world in a major. He had done it in Masters Series but never in a major. I think that was a huge piece for him, and especially he lost three times to Roger in best‑of‑five in the finals. And to do it the way he did; I actually thought that would lead him to have a pretty big summer.
But I’m sure made the right call in pulling out of Canada and not stressing. He said he had some sort of knee injury that he never had. I was surprised he lost early in Cincinnati, but you know, I see that Lendl is already there with him in New York and I’m sure that he’ll be able to put all of this behind him and just work his way in the tournament.
I think the big $64,000 question, which half will you go on, will he go on the Djokovic half or will he go on Federer’s half. But the way he was playing at the Olympics, if he can sustain that level for 21 sets, I have no doubt that he can win a major. It’s just the way he played the last two matches in beating Djokovic and Federer both in straight sets; but the way he did it, he did it by winning it, by going through guys. Not waiting for guys to make mistakes.
I think ultimately, that’s what will push him, and I’m sure that’s what Ivan is looking for him to do more of; be more proactive on the court. You know, if he won, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. I feel like the tournament is about three deep to win it, maybe, maybe four if he won, include Djoko, that’s about it. That’s just kind of the way it is in the men’s. It’s obviously a little bit different this year with Nadal not in it, but I’m expecting exciting ‑‑ and I would love to see Andy in the business end of the tournament.
Q. And Serena, the last couple of years, all sorts of things have gone wrong; is it written that she’s a dominant player and she can confirm that again?
CHRIS EVERT: Well, I think Serena has proved more times than none that when she’s motivated and healthy and playing well, she’s the player to beat. I think that’s obvious. If you put Sharapova at her best against Serena at her best playing for a title, you know, Serena is going to be the one to win.
The question is: As we saw at the Australian when she was out early and the French Open when she was out early, and a couple weeks ago when she lost a match, the question is, can she keep that level of tennis for over a two‑week period consistently. The danger, she is going to be her rival or worst opponent. I don’t think it’s going to take a player who has a hot day to beat her. I think it’s more like going to take Serena, if she’s below par, and that very well happens the older you get. You have more flat days.
You have to remember, also, two other things. No. 1, he dominated on the grass. I mean, it was really good luck to her that the two big tournaments, Wimbledon and the Olympics were on grass. Basically that’s her surface and that’s basically where no one is going to return her serve and she’s going to get 20 aces a match. That’s the surface that balls don’t come back as much as they will on the hard court.
She’s going to have to work hard the next two weeks, because there are a lot of eager players out there, as we have seen the last couple weeks, with Li Na and Kvitova and Wozniacki and Sharapova, Azarenka. There are a lot of tough players that are good, solid hard court players; that she’s going to have to play her best tennis. Kim Clijsters, her last year. She’s going to have some momentum going in.
Serena will have to work harder the US Open than she did at Wimbledon. She had a lot of free points at Wimbledon and the Olympics because it was on grass and shots didn’t come back, and she dictated every point. This is going to be a different story. She’s going to have to run down a lot more balls and get a lot more balls back, be more consistent and probably be even in better shape. So therein the question lies; can she do it. Of course she can. But will she do it? I’m not sure. I’m not 100% sure.
Q. Kevin Anderson is really struggling at the moment and probably won’t be seeded; I wanted to know, in general, what does a player have to do when in a slump?‑
BRAD GILBERT: You know, that’s a great question. He’s a big guy, at 6’8″, and about three years ago, he dramatically changed his game. He used to be much more of a counter‑puncher for a 6’8″ guy and then started working with this Australian guy, besides the South African guy he works with.
He’s a statistic ‑‑ a static‑guru guy, and he started working with this guy. And he also works with a few of the other guys that played with him at the University of Illinois on changing his game to being like one of the biggest hitters. I guess he showed him these statistics, this Australian guy, about being aggressive.
Now when I watch him play, it’s almost like he plays too aggressive. You know, he just tries to play maybe too big on every ball. And now, at about 34 I think he is in the rankings, he’s obviously the biggest and he’s going to be a little bit at the mercy of the draw. Because now obviously he won’t be seeded and, you know, potentially, if he doesn’t play a seed first round, he’s got to play one second round.
You know, sometimes with tennis players, it’s quickly as you lose the confidence, sometimes you win one close match, you win a 7‑6 in a third, you win one of those close matches, you can regain the confidence.
I think it’s easier for a guy at 6’8″ possibly than a little guy, because the way he plays, his serve, if he’s having a big day on a serve, he’s tough for anybody to beat. So I think that’s his big shot, big weapon, at 6’8″, and sometimes when I do watch him play, I feel like it’s a guy on the end of a ten‑meter diving board. He’s on the edge by how aggressive he does play.
Q. My question to you about is the depth of American men, there don’t seem to be many players coming through. And I wanted to ask how you feel about the chances of Kim Clijsters.
BRAD GILBERT: Obviously the Americans have four guys in the top 28, but for most countries, that’s pretty good. Obviously for our pedigree and where we’ve been for the last 50 years in tennis, any time we don’t have someone in the top 5, you know, people ask these questions.
Unfortunately, if you look at the rankings, the top four guys haven’t moved. Just because we want to have a top guy in tennis, so does everybody else. I mean, before Fed, Switzerland never had anybody great. It just slows how global the game is, where they are playing all over the world, and there’s just no birthright that you can have a great player. We want to, desperately, and as you know, we have lots of great athletes and lots of many other sports. And hopefully, I’m a patient person, and hopefully, somebody will come. And you know, the USTA is doing more. We are doing a lot more with QuickStart Tennis to try to get a lot more kids involved in tennis. But me included; I want to see somebody in the business end of the majors. I want to see somebody in the semifinals or finals of a major, but we might just have to be patient.
CHRIS EVERT: With Kim Clijsters, she’s won it twice before and she has the game, she has that hard court game. She has every ingredient to win it again. She’s one of the few players that plays great defensively, as well as offensively. So she can run down balls all day. That’s why she needs her body to be healthy and that’s sort of a question mark right now is just the last few weeks, she has been injured. But I think she’s got every shot in the book. She can volley and hit ground stroke and she’s got a good serve. She moves well. She can handle a Serena or a Marina Sharapova’s power very well. Mentally she’s tough, and it is her last tournament. Will she just put everything she has into this one last tournament? I think she’s been a little disappointed with the way her summer has panned out. I think she would have liked to have done better at Wimbledon and the Olympics. But I think at this point, hopefully she’s excited about her last big hurrah coming at a very special time in her life and coming at a very special place where she’s had so many fond memories. But, you know, her body is a big thing. That’s the question mark.
THE MODERATOR: I have a question for somebody who e‑mailed and said they are going to work off the transcript we send out. We brushed by this topic, but what is the impact of the Olympics on players physically, having that extra big event this summer, making it a really crowded schedule?
BRAD GILBERT: Obviously, the hardest thing is most of the top guys, after Wimbledon, they rest for about a month to get ready to play on hard court in Canada. Now, I think the hardest transition is going from grass to hard court, because it’s a surface that’s the toughest on your body. So now, a lot of these guys ‑‑ I mean Djokovic went right from playing the last Sunday at the Olympics to playing right away at Canada. So it’s like these guys had no rest time to prepare for two Masters Series, week off, US Open.
I think that obviously, physically, it’s going to be about how they manage their body and how they can just keep their mind and body free of injury. I mean, I just think it’s a really tough transition going from grass to hard court with no time. So maybe, the guys that played at the end of the Olympics, you might say it’s a little bit of an equalizer potentially; for the guys that didn’t play in it, maybe somebody might have an off‑day or they are tired from the grind of this whole summer.
CHRIS EVERT: Yeah, I think that players, when they look, when they map out their year, they like to have certain periods of the year where they had rest and like to have certain periods of the year where they train a little bit harder. You really have to pace yourself during the year. I think as Brad said, after Wimbledon is one crucial time for a tennis player to take their rest. Because most of them have been over in Europe for anywhere from six to eight weeks, and they have been playing tournament after tournament after tournament.
And before they get ready for the heat, which is going to be ‑‑ which is a factor, along with the hard courts, getting used to; to gradually get used to the heat and to rest, you really as a player ‑‑ I mean, I remember I liked to, anyway. You like to take anywhere from two to four weeks and sort of relax and rest and then slowly get back into, okay, I’ve got one last go here and it’s on hard courts and the heat at the US Open, and then you just start gradually training. Well, the players didn’t really have that this year, at all.
BRAD GILBERT: After the Open, they step it down a little bit.
CHRIS EVERT: And if you look at the women right now, Sharapova, she pulled out of two tournaments because of a virus. And you look at Radwanska, she’s in trouble. She had to pull out of New Haven. I think the players already have showed signs of fatigue; the ones that did well, so far that had played in the Olympics and had grueling summers, and this is actually the right time for those players like a Clijsters or Azarenka or a Kerber or Wozniacki, players that maybe didn’t have that great of a first half of the year to kind of sneak in there and they are going to be the fresher players. So it’s definitely ‑‑ I think we are going to see some effects from some players.
Q. Do you have a dark horse, somebody under the radar that might sneak in and steal it?
BRAD GILBERT: I always like to call dark horses when I see the draw. Sometime it’s easier to prognosticate where guys are. We’ll know the draw more tomorrow. It will be interesting it see where Isner falls in the draw, because I think he is somebody that has potential.
I think the ‘Missile’ from Canada, Raonic, is somebody that has potential, very soon, to make a major breakthrough. I think he’s got firepower, and I think he has next‑level capabilities, where he falls in the draw. Those are two people right away where you kind of see where they are going to be in the draw.
And if anybody, you know, is capable of really making ‑‑ it’s a stretch to say somebody is a dark horse. But I mean, Del Potro, I think is starting to get back. I don’t think he’s back to where he was in 2009, but he’s starting to get a lot better and he’s somebody that obviously has won before. I think that he’s potential to being close to back there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a big Open, as well.
CHRIS EVERT: When I look at the Top‑10 women, it’s so good and so solid and so close that I really don’t see anybody creeping into making any sort of statement outside the Top‑10 as far as reaching the final or winning it or whatever.
You look at Kerber, and even though she’s ranked, I think, what, five in the world right now, she was out of the Top‑100 at this time last year. She’s got that fire in her; she’s got that look that she wants to annihilate you. I don’t think the American public has probably has heard of her as much as some of the other top players, so she can sneak in there, as Kim Clijsters if she’s healthy. Kim Clijsters, again, everybody wishes her to do well, but if she’s healthy, she’s beaten everybody in this draw; she’s beaten everybody in the past five, six, seven years, and she knows how to win. So she could sneak in there. But you know, it’s pretty solid. And I didn’t even mention the defending champion, Sam Stosur; people are not even mentioning her and she won it last year. You know, again, Wozniacki, she was No. 1 last year. Just to look and see how well Radwanska has done this year, and Li Na with the new coach is starting to hit her stride and Kvitova, who won Wimbledon last year. This Top‑10 is so solid and so strong depth‑wise, that I just think the winner is going to come out of the Top‑10.