Housekeeping: I'm out next week but Milos Raonic is your guest host. If you want to ask him about playing against the Big Four, whether he prefers sandcastles to snowmen, whether he thinks Frank Underwood is more evil than Walter White or what he's doing to adjust to clay, fire away...
I found it gut-wrenching to watch the Davis Cup without the United States involved. How do you explain Kazakhstan in the Davis Cup quarterfinals and not the U.S.? I would say this is the lowest point for American tennis since... forever.
-- Thomas, Atlanta
• Yes, several of you mentioned how strange it was following Davis Cup and seeing (KAZ) but no (USA). Welcome to tennis, circa 2014. A few of you were critical of the USTA, but honestly, a lot of this is simply the function of irreversible, inexorable trends that go way beyond the swings and misses of a federation.
I was on a panel the other day and was asked what the U.S. can do to reverse this. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts. But, as I see it:
1. This is gender specific. The U.S. women are doing fine, relatively speaking, but women are the easier issue to address. There is no NFL or Premier League to poach the top athletes. There are tennis scholarships in abundance. The three highest earning female athletes globally are Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Li Na, so the economic incentives are in tennis' favor. Getting Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys and Jamie Hampton (for the Fed Cup, of course) is easier than getting their male counterparts.
2. As for the men, if "reverse" means returning to the 1990s when half of the top ten was American, forget it. That's not going to happen for any country.
3. If "reverse" means find a few players who will compete for Grand Slams, the key is to recruit the best athletes. Find LeBron James and Julius Randle and Mike Trout and Nick Foles and get a racket in their hands early. And don't stop there. Find the middle-class chemist's kid in the equivalent of Basel with long arms and supernatural talent. Find the hefty lefty in the rural community taught the game by his eccentric uncle. (And don't shunt the uncle aside, simply because he's not a certified federation coach.) Some -- if not most -- of these kids will leave. They'll want to be on a team. They'll want a sport with guaranteed contracts. They'll want a sport with a better chance of a college scholarship. But if a half dozen get seduced by tennis -- as Federer and Nadal did -- you have something...
The top three Americans in the ATP rankings as of April 7 all played four years of college tennis: Isner, Klahn and Johnson. When was the last time we could make that statement?
-- John, Greenville, S.C.
• Well, that's one way of spinning it. Ideally, you'd like to see a few younger stars whose prospects were sufficiently promising that they didn't last four years. But, yes, one happy consequence of the current state of affairs (coupled with the aging field): it's made college tennis sexy again.
Some months ago, Andy Roddick asked via his Twitter account whether Gael Monfils was the most talented player to have never finished the year in the top ten. While I ultimately agreed with him, the two other players I considered were Alexander Dolgopolov and Andrea Petkovic (who has been in the top ten but never finished the year there). Both are off to great starts this year. I suppose it remains to be seen if the Dog can play consistently and Petko can stay healthy, but I wonder how you'd handicap their chances of getting off the list in 2014?
-- John Dugan, Memphis, Tenn.
• John quickly noted that Petkovic did indeed enter the top ten. But his question is a good one, so we let it stand. So much of "finishing the year with a ranking in the top X" now is code for "managed to stay healthy and/or manage their schedule shrewdly." As strictly a points proposition, Dolgopolov has a strong chance. He's already closing in on the top 20. And consider his haul for 2013, a year in which, remarkably, he had a losing match record. He lost in the first round of the French, the third of Wimbledon and the second of the U.S. Open. A few second week runs and another few strong Masters Series events, and presto! The wild card is health. Petkovic is a bigger ask, but it's hardly unrealistic. After winning Charleston, she is up to No. 28 and she's playing well. The key is staying injury-free.
Hi Jon, it has been awhile since I wrote into the Mailbag. I had a tennis discussion with my friends recently about who would make a good coach for Sloane Stephens, and we thought that Chris Evert would be the perfect choice. If there was anyone who knew how to handle the pressure of being the next best thing in tennis, it's Evert. She was able to put all emotions to the side and just go out there and play tennis. While Paul Annacone is good and he has been successful as a coach, I don't think that Stephens needs a coach who is so X's and O's. I think she needs someone with whom she can relate on the sidelines -- a bit of a mother figure really. Thoughts?
-- Karen Bridgette Williams, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
• Hey, welcome back. Always good see the Cayman Island represented.
We speculate about coaches in all sports. It's part of our license as fans. (As I write this, twitter is a-twitter with rumors of that the human oil slick that is John Calipari will now coach the Lakers.) But in tennis the usual rules don't apply, especially since the coach-player dynamic is so delicate. It's an intense relationship, because the underling is also the boss while the authority figure is also an employee. Different players have vastly different needs. An X's and O's genius may have no bedside manner -- and that can be fine. A wonderful motivator may know nothing about strategy -- and that can be fine, too. You have the added complications of family members and federations. See a relationship like Cahill-Agassi or Vadja-Djokovic and it's remarkable. It's like a Hollywood couple staying married.
As for Stephens -- who lost again this week -- there's a lot going on here. She's a young player with talent and skills, but still growing into her game and the extra-tennis demands that come from being a star. She is a potential "next big thing" player. But with that come many proverbial cooks (including, not unreasonably, the USTA) in the proverbial kitchen. You have a player who, by her own admission, can betray a broad range of emotions.
I wouldn't be so quick to discard Annacone. Her results have been modest at best since he joined the enterprise, and her attitude on court does appear to have improved. But if he's teaching her how to construct points, maximize effort in practice and mix up her serve, that's an investment that will pay off in the long run. Give them through Roland Garros and we can revisit. Deal?
I noticed at the end of your last mailbag you noted that Marcos Baghdatis had received a wild card into the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship... why? It seems like this guy, kind of similar to James Blake a few years ago (who I loved, don't get me wrong) always seems to get these coveted wild cards, no matter what his ranking is. Tournaments not on American soil, I can understand that, but he seems to get them for tournaments here too (at the expense of a deserving American). I understand that it is a global game and that, maybe even more importantly, these are business events for the people who put on the tournaments, but just seems odd and inconsistent with the goal of raising the profile of American men.
-- Matt, San Diego
• I know why and you know why. It's the all-powerful Houston Cypriot community, flexing its considerable muscles once again. Seriously, this is the push-pull of wild cards. The event wants a player who might put some butts in the seats. (A former Grand Slam finalist and likable veteran, Baghdatis would fit the bill.) Others of us might prefer a younger player who could really use the boost from the automatic in.
Having sat in front of television through several matches at Australian Open, Indian Wells, Key Biscayne and now Davis Cup, I would like to make a formal request that any mention of Stanislas Wawrinka's "fail-better" tattoo be drowned in Ana Ivanovic's pool, which will be transferred to that hill so that Roddick and Andre Agassi could run up to it in the offseason.
-- Ro'ee, Israel
• I heard that Wawrinka's tattoo was originally scheduled to be inked on his right arm; but his wise and mysterious uncle encouraged him to switch it to his left.
• So many of us make no secret of our unhappiness with the Davis Cup format and diminishing relevance. But the event is still capable of serving up some of the most gripping drama in sports. Last weekend -- thanks to Tennis Channel -- we saw upsets and heroic performances. We saw Roger Federer and Wawrinka lose in doubles; but then both come back to win singles. We saw Fabio Fognini take down Andy Murray. And France come back to beat Germany. Now, if only we didn't have to wait until after Labor Day for the next round.
• The tournament, the television partner and sponsors would surely have preferred for Serena to have won. Or at least not to have lost her first match. But as far as storylines go, you could have done worse than Petkovic winning Charleston last weekend.
• Congrats to Megan Moulton Levy. In one of those results that get lost in the fine print, the William and Mary alum won the first doubles title of her career last weekend in Monterrey. Want a player to support? Here you go. I recorded a podcast with her in February 2013.
• Spare a thought (and perhaps some money) for the former French pro Jerome Golmard, who was disgnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in January.
• Congrats to Jim Courier.
• In a battle of the Americans, Donald Young beat Ryan Harrison 6-0, 6-1 in the first round of the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston.
• Press releasing: The USTA announced that it has awarded $150,000 in player grants, including $60,000 in Multicultural Excellence Program Grants to eight organizations across the country. These organizations each will receive a $7,500 grant toward their competitive junior development programs which train those up-and-coming young players. In addition, the Multicultural Individual Player Grant for National Competition & Training also was awarded to more than 100 student athletes across the country. Those grants totaled more than $90,000.
• Shlomo of Passaic, N.J. has LLS: Are Agnieszka and Urszula Radwanska related to Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer? This photo suggests they are.
• Alix of Tampa, FL: Just saw Alize Lim (Jeremy Chardy's tennis pro girlfriend) play at a small tournament in Florida. The names aren't mainstream, but this has to be near the top of your separated-at-birth entries: Alize Lim and actress Kristin Kreuk of Smallville fame.