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Tennis

After months of ups and downs, Rafael Nadal back on top -- for now

Photo: Jim Owens/Icon SMI

Rafael Nadal has won two straight ATP Masters tournaments, and is a favorite to win the U.S. Open.

A quick Mailbag in advance of the 2013 U.S. Open. Check back later this week for seed reports and analysis, a guide to the Open and an SI tennis roundtable ...

Is it safe to say that Rafael Nadal is the favorite going to the U.S. Open, after winning back-to-back hard courts Masters 1000 titles?
-- George V., Santiago

• I'll put it this way: Imagine if you had shares of Nadal, LLC and plotted the returns over the past 15 months. Nadal beat Novak Djokovic to win the 2012 French Open, and he's back in business -- until he blows out of Wimbledon 2012 to Lukas Rosol. First, it's a rough quarter and he doesn't make his number. Then the viability of the entire enterprise looks to be imperiled as he misses the next two Slams, beset by that knee injury. Jim Cramer urges you to sell. "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered," he says.

You're happy you didn't unload your shares, though because he returns in February and looks as good as new. He wins on clay. He wins on hard courts. He beats all comers, including Roger Federer and Djokovic. He wins the 2013 French Open and re-enters the GOAT conversation.

Shares reached an all-time high until two weeks later, when he loses in the first round of Wimbledon to another no-name player, forcing another sell-off. Never mind the GOAT conversation; it's unclear Nadal will remain a going concern. Those knees are simply too fragile. The McKinsey consultants come in -- always a sign of trouble. There's talk of private equity firm stripping him for parts. Another awful grass quarter. Jim Cramer is calling you a moron if you don't dump your Nadal shares immediately. "He's more toxic than Steve A. Cohen," he says.

But wait, the turnaround artist isn't done. Nadal returns in August and posts strong results. He beats all analyst estimates (and Djokovic in the semis) to win the Rogers Cup in Montreal. In Cincinnati, he is up to his old trick, outperforming Federer yet again and running roughshod over John Isner in the final. The market swings again, and suddenly, Nadal, all but buried twice over the last year, comes to New York for the U.S. Open as the King of the Street. He is the alpha with the biggest beta. Yes, George V. of Santiago, improbably, Nadal is the player to beat. And just remember: Jim Cramer knew it all along.

Which do you think deserves the "Too Soon" award? Marion Bartoli's retirement or Maria Sharapova firing Jimmy Connors as her coach?
-- Frankie, San Diego

• To beat our finance theme to death even more savagely, I think that if you shorted Bartoli as an active Grand Slam champion, Federer's bigger Wilson racket and Connors as Sharapova's coach, you would have had a nice week.

How costly was Sharapova's decision to part with her coach after one match?
-- James Cowan, Palo Alto, Calif.

• The serious answer: befitting a woman of her means, Sharapova is known to pay well. For a time several years ago, Michael Joyce was rumored to be the best-paid coach on either tour. But this doesn't call for a measured and mature discussion. It begs for tennis' answer to a Saturday Night Live script.

I'm envisioning this conversation taking place over the breakfast buffet in the concierge lounge of the Cincinnati Marriott:

  • Maria: Here it is, one match in and already I'm sick of you complaining about the shrieking, trying to convince me to try that metal spatula you call a T2000 and, for the last time: it's pronounced "Pavlyuchenkova."
  • Jimmy: Whatever. I didn't come aboard to scout a bunch of Olgas and Svetlanas. I came here to help you take down Serena.
  • Maria: You know what? This isn't working.
  • Jimmy: Huh?
  • Maria: Let me clear: Welcome to Dumpsville. Population: you.
  • Jimmy: Well, thanks for letting me know. Since I don't have a say in the matter, I guess I am just here to help.
  • Maria: We're so done. We're over like a Roger and his 98-square-inch Wilson.
  • Jimmy: So I get to go back to Santa Barbara, and I don't get to be your bag carrier for the Asia swing? Gee, how am I going to continue with my life?
  • Maria: Take the Peter Gabriel CD's. Leave me the Vitamix. Besides the cab fare to the airport, what do I owe you?
  • Jimmy: It's not about the money, kid.
  • Maria: Sic transit Gloria.
  • Jimmy: Are you talking about my mom again?
  • Maria: Never mind.
  • Jimmy: Look, this is embarrassing for both of us.
  • Maria: No kidding. This is at odds with the buttoned-up approach I convey to sponsors. What are we going to do?
  • Jimmy: Can't you like, change your name to Sugarpova or something?
  • Maria: What are you talking about? You mean like Rafael Misplaced Richard Mille Watch and his Uncle Toni Iberostar? That sounds like a cheap publicity stunt.
  • Jimmy: You know, just for the U.S. Open. You'll drum up some attention for that candy. And, more important, a name change will take the attention off of our Kardashian-Humphries break-up!
  • Maria: Why, that's so crazy, it just might work!

As to the sorry goings on in Toronto, the doublespeak and bafflegab used to justify the exhibition match between ATP players was amazingly lame. But facts are facts, and the WTA IS an inferior product. If you want to see tennis, watch an ATP match. If you want to see double faults, watch a WTA match (yes, I am aware that Ernests Gulbis recently double faulted an entire game away, but that is extremely rare in a men's match. For the past several years, top female players have served double fault after double fault).
-- G.B., Ontario

• If you want to see some quality ATP matches, check this one out...

Is it time to transfer the "mental toughness" crown in women tennis from Serena Williams to Victoria Azarenka? Serena appeared tentative and almost scared to go for her shots against Sabine Lisicki in the Wimbledon final. Last weekend, she couldn't serve out the match against Azarenka.
-- John M., New Orleans

• Let's revisit this after the U.S. Open; there's a big difference between a Grand Slam and a run-of-the-mill event. Still, while Azarenka has beaten Serena before, you had the feeling that match last weekend was a real breakthrough. It will be interesting to see if she can parlay it on a bigger stage. Say this: whichever player doesn't win the U.S. Open will be deeply disappointed.

What is the all-time record for men's professional match wins in a single season? Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta won another Challenger last week, increasing his record to a preposterous 82-12 for 2013. Yes, i realize a slew of those wins came in futures events, but I don't remember anyone winning this often at any level in the modern era. He still has more than three months left to pile up the victories.
-- Guerry Smith, New Orleans

• It's a bit of apples and oranges comparing both challenger level players to ATP players, as well as comparing today's players to players from another era. Different physical demands, different travel demands, different mandatory events. But an 82-12 record in mid-August is preposterous. Want to see something depressing? Check out his prize money.

Why do you think tennis commentators like Pam Shriver and Rennae Stubbs tout Azarenka as the best hard court player on the WTA tour, and say that Kim Clijsters was the best hard court player before Azarenka, when Serena holds five Australian Open titles, four U.S. open titles and six Miami titles. Not to mention, she has a head-to-head record of 7-3 over Azarenka on hard courts, and a 7-2 head-to-head record over Clijsters (they only met on hard courts). Moreover, statistically, Serena has a higher career winning percentage on hard courts than both Azarenka and Clijsters. Am I missing something?
-- Donald H. Memphis, Cordova

• As a wise man once said: Rennae Stubbs is not one to duck tough questions.

"It's in the last few years, not overall! Azarenka has put herself into that role after winning two Australian Opens and having a successful run at the beginning of last year and at the U.S. Open. Azarenka also beat Serena in Doha. I'm not saying Serena still isn't the best because she is. BUT Azarenka is close on her best days on hard courts."

I am planning on heading to watch the qualifiers tomorrow, but wanted to ask if it gets really crowded or not. I usually go middle weekend to watch 3/4th round matches on the outer courts, but it can be a zoo.
-- Fred R., New York

• We'll say it again: the U.S. Open qualifiers is the best value in sports.

Shots, miscellany

Enter here for a U.S. Open suicide pool enter here.

• This cracked me up: Learn to "master" tennis in two weeks.

• The 7th annual BNP Paribas Showdown, to be held on Monday, March 3, 2014 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, will feature Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, as well as a brothers doubles match between John and Patrick McEnroe and Mike and Bob Bryan.

• The USTA announced that Mayo Hibi and Jeff Dadamo won the 2013 U.S. Open National Playoffs -- Women's and Men's Singles Championships and earned wild cards into the 2013 U.S. Open Qualifying Tournament.

• Rafael Nadal clinched the 2013 Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series men's title when John Isner officially withdrew from the Winston-Salem Open with a hip injury. Isner was the only player who could have overtaken Nadal in the standings.

• This week's long lost siblings: Victoria Azarenka and Grace Gummer

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