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Effect of Djokovic's fall slump on 'best year ever' talks, more mail

If Novak Djokovic had pulled a Serena Williams and packed up and gone home in September, citing injuries or exhaustion or whatever, we'd be talking about his 2011 as a contender for the greatest year ever -- which can no longer be the case. It would have been easy for him to do that, and like Serena, he would have been excused in the long run. But I find his commitment to the last part of the season admirable -- particularly since he must have known that he was running on fumes and what was at stake historically. How much credit do you give him for that, and conversely, how much does it show up Serena's habit of running from competition? (Did she even pretend to be injured this autumn, or did she just not bother showing up?)--Alex, London

• I'm glad someone brought that up. And I think you raise a good point, Alex. All credit to Djokovic for his season. And credit him, as well, for playing out the string and meeting (most of) his commitments when he was clearly, understandably, exhausted and diminished. More generally, apart from his peerless play, I thought he handled himself exquisitely well this year and discharged his duties like a real pro.

Had Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal not set the bar so damn high, we'd be talking about Djokovic as a "leader" and a "sportsman" and the like. Ask yourself: What's the worst thing you could say about Djokovic in 2011? He once used a controversial egg contraption? He faded in the fall? His parents stopped showing up wearing those super cool T-shirts? Just a standout year in every sense.

Anyway, all that said, I'm not sure the Serena comparison is relevant. Serena might be the standard on the women's Tour. But on the ATP, the top players don't play simply when the urge strikes. They don't take off entire chunks of the year. They don't bail midway through events with dubious injuries and then show up at celebrity weddings a few days later. We can revisit Ye Olde Serena Debate. (Does she disrespect the WTA and undercut her credibility with her erratic scheduling? Is she the most shabbily managed athlete of all time? Is she smart to preserve herself? Is she admirably bold and rebellious, putting her physical and emotional interests ahead of the Tour's interest?) But, ultimately, it doesn't matter.

She is not the standard for Djokovic. Federer and Nadal are. (And before them, Pete Sampras, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, et al.) When the other great seasons in men's tennis history have entailed a player competing year-round, you're bound to that standard. When your rivals play through November -- however absurd that may be; however much they complain while doing so -- you can't shut it down in mid-September.

If Djokovic "pulled a Serena" after the U.S. Open and was backstage at the Drake concert in New York (just hypothetically, of course) while the caravan carried on and his contemporaries were battling on indoor surfaces deep into the fall, it would militate against the "Best Year Ever" talk. In retrospect, a record of 63-2 sounds a lot better than 70-6. But -- and Djokovic can largely blame Federer for this -- it would come with an asterisk if he didn't play the full season the way the others had.

My Sportsman: Novak Djokovic

We just finished watching Roger Federer destroy Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-0. OK. Here is the good news: Roger is playing at an extremely high level. The bad news: The Grand Slam surfaces do not play nearly as fast as London and the top players will be rested in time for the Aussie. So please restrain your giddiness for your readers' sake.-- Andrew, Omaha, Neb.

• I realize that tennis has become polarized and fans have their allegiances. But I was surprised by the volume of mail these past weeks denigrating Federer and leveling charges of Federer Slurpee-dom at anyone impressed by the results of the month.

Let's look at this objectively. Here's a decorated player who, for the first time since 2002, went a year without winning a major. In his final shot, he lost in devastating fashion to Djokovic, squandering match points on his serve in the U.S. Open semifinals. He is north of 30. In tennis years, this is tantamount to residing in an assisting living facility, needing a little extra time to make your way down the jet-bridge. Yet Federer closes the year 17-0, winning three events, waxing his historic rival and taking the year-end title for a record sixth time.

Was the rest of competition diminished, done in by injury and fatigue? Absolutely. Would Federer have traded in all those wins for winning one major? Absolutely. Will the rest of the field return at least somewhat refreshed and rejuvenated after a six-week break? Absolutely. Does Federer's smashing autumn ensure that he will win a major in 2012? Absolutely not.

But a little credit is in order here. This is a significant plot twist and a real statement by a player (too) many surmised had reached the expiration date on his greatness. I get the request for restraint. But I don't get the out-of-hand dismissal of all Federer has done this past month or so.

2012: The year Jo-Wilfried Tsonga breaks the top four? If not him, who else could do it?-- Yves, Montreal

• I'd say he's the most likely candidate, a notch above David Ferrer and the galactically erratic (and now dome-shaved) Tomas Berdych. JW-T can play with anyone, has become a threat on virtually every surface and made some nice strides in 2011. I worry, though, about his proneness to injury. A three-month layoff really kills you in the points department.

How come you didn't mention Daniel Nestor teaming with Max Mirnyi to win the doubles title in London?-- Tony L., Toronto

• Is there a more underrated player in tennis than Nestor? You think Federer is playing timeless tennis? At age 39, the Canadian lefty is at the peak of his game. Playing alongside Mirnyi -- a new partner this year -- Nestor defended his WTF title. The team beat the Bryans in the semis and then Polish team of Mariusz Fyrtsenberg and Marcin Matkowski in the championship match. This was Nestor's 75th title dating to 1994, encompassing a career Grand Slam (all four majors) and an Olympic gold. As long as doubles players are being afforded admission into the Hall of Fame, how do you overlook this guy?

Most talented player never to make No. 1? Gabriela Sabatini. She's got two Tour Championships, Olympic silver, one Slam title, 27 WTA titles to Svetlana Kuznetsova's 13 and lots of semifinal Slam appearances. I don't see Mary Pierce or Kuznetsova matching those numbers.-- Paul Haskins, Wilmington, N.C.

• That's pretty good. Though I think you could make a case that two (different) Slams always trumps one. Crazy that Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic each has done a turn at No. 1 while Sabatini never did. That's what happens when you have the misfortune of having your career coincide with Steffi Graf's.

Michael Chang is Asian-American. Arthur Ashe wore an Afro. Boris Becker is red-headed. Andre Agassi had long hair. It's all good, no problem with the commercial. And I am an anti-racist social worker and educator. In fact, I wish there were more people of color in tennis. But that is another comment for another time...-- Brent Diaz, Hollywood, Fla.

• Thanks, Brent. I'm relieved by the dozen or so of you -- of various ethnicities -- who wrote saying you found nothing offensive about the Afro wig. (I'm also relieved we live in a world of anti-racist social workers and educators.) Let's move on.

Great article on Rog's durability, but he DID once withdraw from a tournament early -- the Paris Masters in 2008 with back problems. (James Blake got a walkover. Here's the draw.)-- Linda Walton, Lawrence, Kan.

• I was dreaming when I wrote that. Forgive me if I went astray. The ATP's Greg Sharko actually noted the same and I just whiffed. "My bad," as the kids say.

The head-to-head record between Federer and Nadal is what it is, and we've all seen how much Nadal has dominated it. But that 6-3, 6-0 dismantling indoors in London was a reminder that playing surface matters and that they have played far more times on Nadal's favorite surface than Federer's. Do you think there was a carryover effect, that losing on clay got Federer in the habit of losing elsewhere?-- Steve Brawner

• Interesting question. I have wondered whether timing has, at least sometimes, played a role in the rivalry. In 2008, for instance, Nadal just crushes -- we're talking a comprehensive humiliation -- Federer in the French Open final. Four Sundays later, they meet in the Wimbledon final and it resulted in one of the most epic matches of the Open Era.

It's easy for both men to say, "Each match is different" or "I was just focusing on the present." But if you have cleaned my clock less than a month ago, there's no way that isn't lodged somewhere in my brain when we rematch less than a month later. Likewise, if you have smoked me recently, that has to swell your confidence when we face each other again shortly thereafter. Yes, I realize there are counterexamples. But note the heavy concentration of Nadal's wins, often on clay.

Obligatory question about Caroline Wozniacki deserving No. 1 when she hasn't won a major and Federer's chances of ever winning another Slam?-- Armin Khansari, Houston

• A month ago, I would have given this a fair amount of thought. Today, I would say the odds of Federer's winning another major -- even with so many fewer draws -- are incalculably higher than Wozniacki's winning her first.

Here's a question a friend asked me (and was debated in SI.com's tennis blog): Who wins first, Wozniacki or Andy Murray? I go Murray. I admire Wozniacki's sunny disposition. (No other player has triggered as many "great girl" characterizations among her peers.) I applaud her commitment to the WTA, her industriousness, her professionalism. I think she has handled this ranking situation with poise. But I just don't think she has what it takes to win a major.

Question regarding University of Maryland dropping men's tennis. Did you know that its home courts hosted this year's U.S. Open wild-card playoff? While it does have plenty of foreigners, this program has been steadily improving and it's in the best shape in years. Plus, it has access to a fantastic facility.-- John, Greenville, S.C.

• Which makes it all the more shameful that the program stacks the roster with overseas ringers. A program in a major conference with a major facility should have an easier time recruiting top American talent. This is classic prisoners' dilemma stuff. At some point these college tennis coaches need to get together and say, "Guys, we're imperiling our jobs here. When we recruit a roster filled with overaged, overseas ringers -- some of whom have ATP points and, mysteriously, sometimes prize money on their ledger -- we not only mock the principles of college sports, but we also dig our own grave here."

Again, this is hardly unique to Maryland. Check out, for instance, Baylor, a program that's already been scrutinized for some highly dubious overseas recruitment.

Recruit a few non-Americans for your tennis team? Great. That can enrich the atmosphere for everyone. J.R. Smith plays basketball in China. Goldman Sachs has offices all over the world. And we live in an age of globalization. But when seven of the nine players on your roster come from other countries? That's just not right. If a college coach wants to defend this practice, I'm happy to provide a forum. But I'd encourage these coaches to consider the long-term impact of their recruitment, both on college tennis and American junior tennis as a whole.

Excellent reference to Wedding Crashers -- people helping people -- in last week's mailbag. Speaking of, that movie could've used a tennis scene while displaying the preppie attributes of some of those characters.-- Chris Hermann, San Francisco

• That's what tennis needs. More mainstream depictions of the sport as a pastime of entitled dweebs.

• Great responses to the "My Encounter with a Tennis Pro" exercise. I'll post a few each week. I'm always struck, though, at how the smallest gestures -- good and bad -- are recalled decades later. Whether they know it or not (and like it or not), these pros have so much power. One fulfilled autograph request or photo becomes a seminal experience for the fan.

James Pham, Phnom Penh, Cambodia: "It was 1990 and I had just gotten a beat-up old Hyundai from my parents in order to get to my magnet school 45 minutes away. But I also used my newfound mobility to become a volunteer usher at my local Virginia Slims of Washington. All through the week, I had been working after school, watching matches while doing my homework on my lap. As a kid, I loved serve-and-volley and my locker was plastered with Martina [Navratilova] pictures, much to the chagrin of my friends. Tennis was not a 'cool' sport. In my sophomore naivety, I had even written Martina a card inviting her to lunch and offering to play city guide for the week.

"Friday came along and being quarterfinals day, it featured a who's who of women's tennis at the time: Martina, Zina [Garrison], Monica [Seles], just to name a few. I made the mistake of telling my mom I was skipping school for the day and got a firm, 'Oh, no you're not!' But I did anyway. And it was one perfect day of tennis. For one match, though, I was stuck guarding the stairwell down to the basement but it turned out to be amazing as every player in turn came and went. When Martina came by, I asked, hopefully, 'Did you get my card?' To which she answered, 'Yes, and the banana bread was delicious! Thank you!' Banana bread? She had obviously confused me with another fan, but I still have that picture of me shaking her hand, along with Monica and Zina. A singularly great day!"

Steve B., Toronto: "It was the 2006 Rogers Cup tournament. I was editor in chief of my student newspaper at the University of Toronto -- a publication which had nothing to do with tennis -- and managed to secure a press pass for the tournament. All week I attended dutifully and peppered tough questions at the players during the postmatch press conferences. Federer was my favorite and I got to ask him questions all week long (on one occasion he corrected a stat of his that I had misquoted).

"Anyway, the tournament ended on Sunday and I was upset it was over. I purchased one of those white Nike Fed headbands and got off the grounds. That night while I was walking through Yorkville (an upscale area in downtown Toronto), I literally walked into Fed and Mirka on the street. The tournament was over and Fed, who was headed for Cinci the next day, might have been on his way to a celebratory dinner. The street was completely empty. As I walked by Mr. and Mrs. Fed, I asked Fed if he remembered me from the press room. He said he did. I shook his hand and told him it was a great tourney and then he moved on. As I continued down the street I realized the goof that I was, that I, the esteemed journalist, was still wearing Federer's head band that I had just purchased for $22."

• Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion (and the Mitt Romney of current ATP politics), will replace the injured Ivan Lendl in this week's AEGON Masters tournament in London.

• Nice showing for Tsonga in London, especially given his recent stint in the boys' 12 division. (Thanks, Rachael Wong.)

• Tineke van Buul of Amstelveen, Netherlands: "Jon, you were taken to task in [last] week's mailbag by Richard Lim. But even he didn't get the proverb right! 'The proof of the pudding is in the eating,' see here. And thanks for yet another year of wonderful mailbags. I may not always agree with you, but I never miss reading your columns."

• Jack of Oregon: "Did you know that Fed's win over Rafa was the most one-sided match ever between the Big 4 in terms of percentage of points won? Fed won 67, Rafa 33." Full figures here.

• Sue Hunt has been named the USTA's chief marketing officer.

• Matt Hughes of Medford, Mass., (who shares a name with a neck-deprived UFC fighter) writes: "Kudos to the ATP World Tour Finals for replacing the withdrawn Andy Murray with replacement Janko Tipsarevic on their website's home page so quickly. Too bad they spelled his name wrong -- "Tipasrevic" -- when they first updated the graphic."

• Several of you noted the irony of Milos Raonic, age 20, getting the Newcomer of the Year Award, sponsored by the alcoholic beverage brand Moet & Chandon.

• Subhadeep of Greenville, S.C.: "Watching the year-ending men's doubles final, I could not help but wonder if Daniel Nestor and John Cryer from Two and a Half Men are long-lost twins."

Have a great week, everyone!

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