On the (Open) road again ...
My gaze never strays from the NBA, but tennis detours to Flushing Meadows have been invigorating for your humble correspondent for 35 years
NEW YORK — When I launched this Substack, I promised to take you on my trips with me, at least to the extent that writing about my travels and sharing some pictures makes that possible.
The part I didn't plan: My first sports trip as a Substacker involves tennis rather than basketball. I didn't go to summer league in Las Vegas after launching this endeavor in earnest in mid-July, but I have indeed made it to Manhattan for one of my absolute favorite sporting events, after COVID-19 brought a halt in 2020 to my streak of seven straight U.S. Opens.
Regular readers know by now that I am an incurably sappy sports romantic, as Zach Lowe once teasingly dubbed me, and those tendencies are even harder to harness once I get around tennis and tennis players because of my rampant teenage dreams about making it on tour. My first U.S. Open was 35 years ago, in 1986, when I discovered that qualifying matches were free to the public. I relished every second I could muster at the courts in Flushing Meadows on a dream trip before my senior year of high school with my El Toro HS doubles partner Craig DiFilippo — and a ritual was born, in this nostalgia-governed brain, that put Open qualies on a pedestal most would only deem worthy of the singles final itself.
Qualifying for the 2021 Open started today and is closed to the public as tournament officials ease back into the idea of opening the gates and hosting fans at the National Tennis Center. Yet I have been granted entry as part of Mitchell Krueger's three-person family and coaching entourage alongside his wife Jeannie and coach David O'Hare.
I know, I know: I am ridiculously spoiled … and so grateful to be welcomed again into an Open competitor's inner sanctum. In 2016, while still at ESPN, I wrote this piece about my joyride as the luckiest lucky loser in the history of tennis when I got to masquerade as a coach for Germany's (coachless at the time) Benjamin Becker against Kei Nishikori. In 2018, I wrote the next chapter for The New York Times about my stint as an assistant coach for all three wins in qualifying that put Israel's Julia Glushko on a path to meet eventual champion Naomi Osaka in the second round.
Also in 2018, I was there alongside Jeannie for every point of Krueger's three wins in qualifying, when he reached the main draw of his country's Grand Slam event for the first time. He's going to try to do it again this week, with no fans in the stands this time to give the 175th-ranked American an extra push, starting with his Wednesday opener against Canada's Steven Diez.
I'm obviously doing a lot more supporting and cheering than coaching on these fantasy-camp excursions, while reveling in the up-close vantage point that comes with being able to embed in the camps of professionals. Even the mundane stuff — riding buses from the Midtown hotels everyone stays in to the event site in Queens, swapping stories in the player garden, seeing how much so many tennis players enjoy coffee (just like us!), attending practice sessions, picking up a fresh racket from the tournament stringer — is endlessly fascinating to a tennis nerd.
I still struggle to explain how invigorating it feels to walk into a tournament hotel and see tennis bags strewn all over the lobby floor as players from all over the globe congregate. No matter how silly or childish that sounds, it’s what happens every time I enter a world I dreamed of reaching as a kid.
To be clear: My day job is very much a dream job. I will soon begin my 29th consecutive season of full-time NBA coverage and I can't believe it when I say that out loud, either. There's just something about these Open dalliances that can instantly take me back to 1986 and make it feel as though I got pretty close to living out what I spent so much time in my teen years trying to imagine.
I had no real delusions back then about reaching the tour as a player or coach, but there was an all-consuming plan to find a pathway onto the circuit toting a notebook instead of a racket. Entranced by books like The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle, and the way Sparky made the life of a Yankees beat writer seem like such an integral aspect of Major League Baseball's machinery, I was already strongly convinced by the age of 9 that I was going to be a sports scribe. That career path was cemented once I took up tennis as a teenager and quickly deduced that journalism was my most realistic pathway to the pros. It was way too late as a starting point to have any meaningful playing aspirations, so it wasn’t long before my high school hopes were focused on trying to become the next Bud Collins.
Those were the glory days for the sport in this country, when John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors had bigger-than-tennis international profiles and were soon to be joined by the starry quartet of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. Even then, though, making a lasting living as a sportswriter who could focus exclusively on tennis seemed like more of a longshot than aspiring to become the next Peter Vecsey or Bob Ryan.
So when my chance came to move onto the NBA beat in February 1994, after writing as much tennis as my various employers allowed from 1987 through 1993, I grabbed it and never let go. The Los Angeles Daily News assigned me — ME — to start traveling with the Clippers at age 24. Working for the worst-paying big newspaper in America, as we not-so-jokingly referred to it back then, did have its advantages. Daily News stalwarts were frequently recruited for jobs in greener pastures and that helped position me to start covering #thisleague at such a young age (and a good 20 years before hashtags). The NBA was by far my favorite of the major sports leagues in North America, especially after covering my first summer league in 1989 while still at Cal State Fullerton, so it was a gig I knew I would love as much as tennis or soccer.
Anything I write in this sentence about how well it has all worked out and how fortunate I am would be insufficient.
Yet it's likewise true that the lure of tennis, especially when Open qualies arrive, never lost its hold on me. The sport's stature in the United States sadly doesn't compare to where it was throughout the 1980s, and the corresponding opportunities to cover it full-time have dwindled to levels that barely register, but making the trip here has become an integral part of my annual recharge ritual before NBA training camps begin.
There is naturally a profound level of COVID-19 apprehension in the air that I've never experienced at the Open, with masks mandatory in essentially all indoor situations, testing every four days even for the vaccinated and full fan attendance looming when the main draw starts next Monday. Credentials cannot be collected until the first negative test is registered and I cleared that hurdle Saturday after a surprise reunion at the player services desk with longtime NBA credentials expert Mark Fischel, who is making his own tennis detour at this Open. (The cookies pictured above are courtesy of Mr. Fischel.)
Saturday was the first day players were permitted onto the National Tennis Center grounds, but all of Sunday's practice opportunities were washed out by Tropical Storm Henri. The only way to guarantee practice time Monday, on Qualies Eve, was booking an indoor court.
So Krueger practiced inside with Mikael Torpegaard, using half the court while Maxime Janvier and Zdeněk Kolář used the other half. Mitch was in the midst of this afternoon session when the qualifying draw was announced and first-round pairings became known.
As players were sneaking peeks at their smartphones during water breaks to learn their first opponent, I spotted someone practicing one court over: Diez. That snap realization ramped up the tension nicely and let me know that I was really back where I belong in late August.
👋 Thanks again for following me to Substack, reading this newsletter and sharing in my journalistic endeavors like you do. It is a very rewarding feeling! 🙏
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I get the question often and not only from readers. Lots of media colleagues have been asking about it, too: Why are agent names so frequently and prominently attached to the reporting of new contracts in the NBA?
I’m not quite sure how this comes across as a mystery. Agents get free high-profile marketing when they announce deals on Twitter. They also have the license to make deals more official in the early days of free agency every year when the annual moratorium on finalizing transactions is in effect leaguewide. Teams are prevented from publicly commenting until the moratorium is lifted; agents are not governed by the same league rules.
As a result, agencies frequently inform teams that they want to be the party that makes the deal public, rather than teams leaking them via unnamed sources.
The rise of agents controlling this process has been accelerating for years. What more accurately qualifies as new this offseason is the increasing insistence from the presiding agents that multiple agent names are attached to every deal.
So the far more curious trend to me, in that light, is the practice of releasing contract details that will be swiftly revealed as inflated once the contract is filed with the league office and the actual numbers circulate. The most notable recent example was Chris Paul's new deal with Phoenix, which was reported as a four-year, $120 million windfall … only for the actual contract to feature two fully guaranteed seasons and $75 million in guaranteed money.
(I initially intended to include just near the end of that last sentence, but that would make Paul's contract, which is still plenty robust for a 36-year-old point guard, sound too much like a consolation prize.)
Another eyebrow-raiser from the recent rash of sign-and-spin deals was the contract that kept restricted free agent Josh Hart in New Orleans. The announcement featured three agents from Creative Artists Agency trumpeting a three-year, $38 million contract via the only CAA-repped reporter through whom they will disseminate such news ... even though Hart's deal included only one year and $12 million guaranteed.
The market can evaporate quickly and cruelly on restricted free agents like Hart — no one understands that better right now than Chicago's Lauri Markkanen — but I didn't expect the Pelicans to come away with a deal so strongly in their favor. Not after Hart finished tied with Dallas’ Luka Dončić for second among guards last season at 8.0 rebounds per game, behind only Russell Westbrook's 11.5 RPG.
🏀 When the Los Angeles Lakers play host to the Brooklyn Nets on Christmas Day, it will be the first time (health permitting) that LeBron James and Kevin Durant square off in exactly three years. The last time they opposed each other was Christmas Day 2018, when LeBron's Lakers routed KD's Warriors in a game remembered for the groin injury that derailed James' first season in Los Angeles. Durant missed the entire 2019-20 season while recovering from his torn right Achilles tendon and they each missed one of last season's two meetings through injury.
🏀 Friday's release of the full schedule for the 2021-22 season included a reminder from the league and its television partners that only three franchises have participated in every one of the NBA's first 75 seasons: Boston, New York and Golden State (née Philadelphia). The Warriors contested 13 NBA seasons (and three before that in the Basketball Association of America) in Philly before becoming the San Francisco Warriors.
🏀 When the Hawks visit Madison Square Garden on Dec. 25 to face the Knicks, it will be Atlanta's first Christmas Day game since 1989, when the Hawks featured Moses Malone in addition to Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis and Spud Webb.
🏀 Even with Zion Williamson as the centerpiece of the roster, New Orleans has been booked for just 10 national TV appearances in the coming season on ESPN and TNT — down from last season's 20.
🏀 Of the 167 respondents to our first-ever contest, not a single entrant managed to successfully predict even four of the five Christmas Day matchups announced by the NBA last week. A perfect 5-for-5 showing was needed to win the prize of one-year subscription to this Substack.
🏀 I paid $15 for an hour of terrible airline WiFi last week. There are obviously much, much, MUCH bigger issues in this world, but how is this allowed in 2021?