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The Faceless Men And Women Of The U.S. Open

Anastasija Sevastova and Ana Konjuh defied expectations and their low rankings — both outside the top 40 — to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals. They have something else in common: For the first week of the tournament, where their photos were supposed to appear on the U.S. Open website and app, there instead appeared black rectangles with the flags of their countries and the words “NO BIO PHOTO.”

“I saw on the live score, yeah, on the U.S. Open app, yeah, it says, like, ‘bio’ or something,” Konjuh said when I asked about her absent photo at her news conference after she upset Agnieszka Radwanska in the fourth round.

Every sport has these faceless men and women, the ones who aren’t supposed to make the team or get off the bench, who are so new they haven’t been photographed, who may get rushed in front of a digital camera so media staff can get a snap worth posting.

Tennis majors face a special challenge in filling those blank rectangles: Up to 128 players enter each of the men’s and women’s qualifying draws, and more than 100 others enter each of the men’s and women’s singles draws. There can be more than 100 players competing only in doubles, and an additional 100 or more might enter only the juniors or juniors qualifying draws. As of the two-week event’s middle Sunday, there were 698 players on the U.S. Open player page.

But some of the snubbed U.S. Open players are hardly nobodies. Early in the tournament, 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, No. 10 Dominic Thiem and former No. 9 Nicolas Almagro were among those missing photos. Asked about them on the first Thursday of the tournament, Chris Widmaier, spokesman for the U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open, said, “It’s a disappointment.” I asked if it’s a priority to get photos for the players — all of whom have been professionally photographed at dozens if not hundreds of matches worldwide, and who have pictures that appear on the ATP and WTA websites and on their U.S. Open credentials. “It is now,” Widmaier said.

(And the slights aren’t limited to photos: At least one American’s photo was accompanied by an Italian flag for one of her doubles matches.)

By the first Friday of the Open, the tournament had added photos for many players, including del Potro, Thiem and Almagro. It took a little longer for many women, including Konjuh and Sevastova, who finally got their photos added by that Sunday.

Not all the players minded their missing photos. Sevastova, after upsetting Johanna Konta to reach the quarterfinals, said in response to my question at her postmatch news conference that she’d noticed her photo was finally added. “Now I have a photo,” she said. “Now I saw my photo.” Having no photo was better than if the U.S. Open had just used her “WTA picture with short hair,” she said. “I didn’t like it, actually, so it was OK without [a] picture.”

The U.S. Open provides an unusual opportunity to check out what the faceless men and women of sport have in common because the tournament lists hundreds of players, all gathered on one website. On the first Friday of the tournament, I did an exhaustive survey of all 579 players on the page — the number shifts during the tournament as draws are finalized for events that start later in the tournament, such as juniors. More than one third of the players — 211 — were missing photos. That includes 44 players who were in the men’s or women’s singles draws, the most prominent events at the Open. In addition to Konjuh and Sevastova, that list included Naomi Osaka, who’d just lost a third-round thriller in Arthur Ashe Stadium to Madison Keys; Laura Siegemund, who was playing seven-time major champ Venus Williams in Ashe the next day; 2015 French Open quarterfinalist Alison Van Uytvanck; Laura Robson, who made the fourth round at the 2012 U.S. Open; and Americans Christian Harrison and Danielle Collins.

It’s no coincidence that more women than men were missing: According to Widmaier, there was a lag in adding women’s photos even after the problem was identified. (He wasn’t sure why.)

So what factors decided who got a photo by the fifth day of the tournament and who didn’t? I checked a wide range of factors,1 and the determinants of whether a player had a profile pic weren’t surprising: Americans, players active on tour and veterans were mostly likely to have a photo. Being from the U.S. increased a player’s chances of having a picture on the site by 30 percentage points. With every singles match a competitor played this year, his or her chances went up by 2 percentage points. A year of age added 3 percentage points.2 So perhaps the most surprisingly snubbed people were the American women’s doubles pair of Ashley Weinhold, 27, and Caitlin Whoriskey, 28. Their faces remained missing on the second Thursday of the tournament. (Then again, neither has ever been ranked in the top 100 in singles or doubles.)

Konjuh, who is 18, said she understood why she didn’t have a photo. “Like probably most of the other players that are young or coming didn’t have pictures,” she said in her news conference.

Widmaier promised a more completist approach to player photography at the 2017 Open: “It will be improved upon next year.”

Footnotes

  1. By grabbing data off each player’s U.S. Open page and running a regression between whether the player had a photo on the night of the tournament’s first Friday and the player’s other characteristics.

  2. The percentages assume a linear relationship, which wouldn’t apply at extremes. (We don’t think someone who has played 60 singles matches this year has a greater than 100 percent chance of having a photo.) The exact percentages depend on which variables we include. I also tested, for instance, peak singles ranking, career matches and matches won, but those all are closely linked to both singles matches played this year and to age.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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