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Tennis

A pep talk for Federer, Serena's rivalries, more mailbag

Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

There's no doubt that 2013 has been subpar for Roger Federer, but that doesn't mean he can't recover.

Lots of Roger Federer questions this week, especially after he announced his split with coach Paul Annacone over the weekend.

I'm a Federer fan, but I must admit that I'm scratching my head at the moment. First, it appears that he's abandoned going to a racket with a larger head, and now he's split with Annacone. All of a sudden my hopes for 2014 are grim. Your thoughts?
-- Mike, California

• Even the most devoted Federer fans will concede that this has been a rough year. The losses. The racket switch. The coaching shake-up. The overall loss of aura, the de-sorcery. At some level, we all knew this was coming. They call it the "arc of a career" for a reason. It's never a vector that crosses the X-axis only once. Still, it doesn't make the decline any prettier.

Let's start with some sources of optimism for 2014: Federer has handled this slippage with dignity, of course. As much as it surely pains him to lose to an opponent he would have once silkily dismissed, he has done nothing -- outside of losing matches -- to diminish himself. He has the right attitude. He is not delusional; he is also not defeatist. Chronologically, he is 32. But between the care he lavishes on his body and the unbearable lightness of his game, his odometer is significantly lower. And, by all accounts, he is committed to continue playing.

How is he going to avoid a repeat of 2013 (or worse)? The consensus seems to be that change is in order. Adjust his style, adjust his equipment, get a new coach as soon as possible. Darren Cahill's name has been in heavy rotation. Though it would be a curious mix of personalities, Brad Gilbert could be a short-term fix. Glenn Greenwald took time out from defending freedom to suggest Martina Navratilova, which is intriguing.

My pep to talk Federer:

"You were the King. And you can still be the King -- at least for a two-week window during a Grand Slam. But to regain the throne and knock off these pretenders, you need to do it yourself. Enough with the courtesans and couriers. Pundon the pard. You need to resume doing it your way. You know when you were most effective? When you took ownership of your career. You had no real coach. You did it your way. You trusted your equipment. You trusted your instincts. You trusted your body. You trusted your game. You trusted yourself.

"The received wisdom: As you grow older, you need a support staff. And your attempts to use your vast wealth to surround yourself with the best and the brightest is logical. But there's a sense that it's robbed you of autonomy. Too many entries in the suggestion box. Too many opinions, some of them conflicting. Too much clutter. You need to simplify and, in turn, rely on yourself. Keep your agent, who can help in simplifying. Keep your trainer, who stifles rebellion against your body. Keep an adviser, such as Severin Luthi, who's always been more of an aide-de-camp, used on an as-needed basis rather than as a formal coach. But otherwise, do it yourself.

"You want to use that 90-inch stick? Do it if it feels right. You want to attack/stay back in the rally? Trust yourself. You want to add Miami to your schedule? You make the call. Rebel against the notion that older athletes need to 'staff up' and create the equivalent of a royal court. Pare down. Don't overthink it. Simplify. And if you're going to down, go down on your terms."

I'm not sure why you think it's a given that Rafael Nadal will be No. 1 at the end of 2014. Granted, he had a phenomenal year coming back from injury, but it should be noted that from Wimbledon onward he was defending no points, and he played this year coming off seven months of rest. I am really looking forward to Australia and onward when he is on an even keel with the other players (and he is the one defending all the points). It should also be noted that he has never defended a title off clay and historically has won only one title post-U.S. Open, so I'm not so sure that the No. 1 ranking at the end of 2014 is as guaranteed as some people seem to think.
-- Carol Jackson, Gaithersburg, Md.

Despite your suggestion that Nadal may end 2014 at No. 1, I'll give you a better-than-average answer: Nadal has never defended a title off clay in his entire career. He better start defending his titles if he wants to hold on to the top ranking in 2014. Nadal was defending nothing this year and had zero expectations. That won't be the case in 2014. I think Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray are all going to be much tougher against him next year.
-- Connie, Texas

• Who would assert with any certitude what 2014 will bring? (I never said he was a given to remain No. 1.) Nadal won three Grand Slam titles in 2010 and looked to be the towering figure. He won one major in 2011 and looked to be a diminished presence. In 2012, he lost a devastating match at the Australian Open, won the French Open and had his balky knees hijack the second half of his campaign (so much so that his career obituary was written in some corners). He returned in February and promptly turned in what some consider his strongest season. All of which is to say: Who the heck knows?

Serena Williams' career isn't finished yet. Serena will be done when she says that she is done. But so far, which Serena rivalry have you enjoyed the most? Serena-Justin Henin? Serena-Jenner Capriati? Serena-somebody else? And, if you had a time capsule, who would you like to see Serena do battle with?
-- Joe Johnson, Easton, Pa.

• Let's first take on Joe's first assertion. "Serena will be done when she says that she is done." We all know intuitively that eventually the great ones decline. (There is, of course, lamentable evidence of this on the men's side.) And while we hope it is not going to happen for many, many years, it will be interesting to see how Serena handles her inevitable fade. Will she emulate her sister Venus and enjoy the battle, even if the results won't meet expectation? Will she relish a farewell tour and lap up the adulation she didn't always get in the meaty years of her career? Will she lose a few matches to the equivalent of a Sergiy Stakhovsky (or an Amy Frazier, as Steffi Graf did in 1999) and say, "I'm outta here, folks"

As for the question, let's first state that Venus and Serena were never rivals. Yes, they played many times, including the finals of majors. But the encounters were -- wholly understandably -- lacking in gravitas and spirit. Serena-Victoria Azarenka still has potential, but my vote goes to Serena-Henin. The time span was disappointingly brief, but for a few years, this was a Grade A rivalry. Contrast in styles. Oscillating results. Some real personal animus. Lyin' and fabricatin' and whatnot. A shame that Henin departed so soon.

We have heard very little about Andy Murray's injury other than the proclamation that he underwent "minor back surgery." Is there any information regarding the specific nature of his back injury, details of the type of the surgery performed and the prognosis?
-- Francesca, Palermo, Italy

• This is the same issue we discussed last week vis-à-vis Nadal's knee injury. The players are individual contractors and, as such, are free to reveal as much or as little as they please. The tours and governing bodies (oxymoron?) basically parrot the players' explanations. Hence Marin Cilic and Malek Jaziri both suffer "knee injuries" when the former pulls out of Wimbledon on account of a provisional doping suspension and the latter pulls out of a match against an Israeli at the behest of the Tunisian Federation.

That said, here's one view of Murray's injury from a tennis physiotherapist.

In regards to the question about reinstating bonus points, since when is it up to the top players to decide policy? So what if it's a tough sell? It would be good for the game, as it used to be.
-- Doug, Los Angeles

• Again, the ATP is an organization "split" equally between the tournaments and the players. So players would need to sign off on the plan to award bonus points for victories against top-ranked players. And given the representation, it's hard to see that getting passed without the political backing of the Big Four.

This is a good time point out that as counterintuitive as this might initially sound -- the inmates running the asylum and all -- it's not so crazy. In other sports, there is a more formal union-management arrangement with collectively bargained conditions. If, say, the NFL were pondering a rule change that was going to affect players and their salaries, rest assured the union would weigh in.

This is a good time to point this out, too: For the better part of a year, the ATP has been without a CEO. Brad Drewett announced last January that he was unfit to continue the position and, tragically, he died in May. Since then, there have been a lot of meetings, a lot of rumors and a lot of nibbles for the search firm. But the position has yet to be filled.

Discuss:

a) The ATP is a well-oiled machine with a capable board, and it speaks well that it can function for a year in the absence of a leader.
b) The position of ATP CEO might be reconsidered, given that the organization essentially has been leader-less for a year, and it hasn't seemed to matter much.

Why is it only in tennis that you find people who still think that players of yesteryear could stay on the court with today's top players? Someone just recently asked why you pick Serena over Margaret Court. You have to be fairly close-minded to think Court could stay on the court with Serena.
-- Tony, Greenwich, Conn.

• If the players of yesterday were indeed better -- if times in swimming and running and cycling did not go down; if we thought George Best was a better player than, say, Lionel Messi; if we suspected Babe Ruth could hit Justin Verlander better than a contemporary batter -- your sport would be in trouble.

After the U.S. Open, you mentioned serious doubts about Juan Martin del Potro's chances of winning a second Grand Slam title. While he has failed to close the deal in his two Masters finals this year, he has beaten all four higher-ranked players in 2013, and he has a good chance of being ranked No. 3 by the end of the Australian Open next year. He is younger than Andy Murray was when he won the U.S. Open, so isn't he at least as likely as the Scot to win another Slam?
-- Daniel R., Morrisville, N.C.

• No one has written him off by any stretch. The strokes are there, but seven best-of-five matches is a lot to ask of a guy whose body and self-belief are both capable of waging acts of betrayal.

What are your thoughts on the WTA's allocating an annual wild card to its Tournament of Champions based on players' looks? Since the TOC's inception, WCs have gone to Sabine Lisicki, Daniela Hantuchova, Maria Kirilenko and Ana Ivanovic (twice). What do these players possibly have in common, apart from failing to fulfill the qualifying criterion? (And no, euphemising this as their "marketability" doesn't help.) Does this not undermine the WTA's "Strong is Beautiful" message of judging female tennis players by their skills, not their looks? How can we take the WTA seriously when it rewards its players for such deeply misogynistic reasons?
-- Alex, London

• We can dance around and talk in double-speak, but Alex's "data" is fairly damning. I won't condescend to say it's coincidental, beauty is subjective, etc. A better answer might be that, again, the tours are split between player and tournament interests. If you're a promoter and you have a P/L statement to worry about, you want to include the most, ahem, marketable players possible. If you want Ivanovic -- looks aside, a former Grand Slam champion and No. 1 player -- to bolster your draw, should you reserve that right?

I had to cut Alex off, but we agree that the real question is why not change the format to showcase younger players? If you really wanted a compelling year-end event, why not pit all the 21-and-unders (Genie Bouchard, Madison Keys, Donna Vekic et al.) in a Generation Next/Catch a Rising Star event? They would like the extra exposure and cash. It would benefit the tour. And I suspect fans would enjoy this as well.

Shots, Miscellany

• OK, who wants to work for the WTA?

• Kevin Skinner -- you, my friend, are zanier than Tuco Salamanca on the Blue.

• Joachim Johansson, 31, qualified for the Stockholm Open this week, his first event in two years. The former world No. 9, whose last full year on tour was 2005, beat No. 112 Alejandro Falla in the first round to set up a second-round match against Milos Raonic.

• In regards to the naming of the U.S. Open's second show court, John Albin of New York notes: "Louis Armstrong was a New Orleans native, and he lived in Corona, Queens, for the latter half of his life. The stadium was originally called the Singer Bowl and was part of the 1964 World's Fair site, but it was renamed Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium in 1973. I believe part of the deal the USTA cut with the city for taking over the site and building the tennis center was that Armstrong's name must be preserved on the new stadium."

• The state of Connecticut is set to take over the New Haven Open.

• ESPN3 and ESPN International will provide live coverage of the Nov. 29-30 Dream Cup Barbados exhibition, which will feature Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who will be playing for the first time since back surgery.

This is What They Want, a 30 for 30 documentary about Jimmy Connors, premieres Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

• Ahmed Mahmoud of Cairo: "Another stat that is overlooked in the GOAT debate: In 2006, 2007 and 2009, Roger Federer reached all four Grand Slam finals in the calendar year. Rafael Nadal has never achieved that -- not yet, anyway."

• Andy Roddick and James Blake will join Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors on the PowerShares Series circuit next year.

• Juan Martin del Potro last week became the fourth player to clinch a spot in the ATP World Tour Finals, joining Nadal, Djokovic and David Ferrer.

• John Gordon of Toronto has long-lost siblings: Martina Hingis and Gilmore Girls' Alexis Bledel.

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