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The unpredictable state of the men's game, more mailbag

Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic toppled Nadal in the Sony Open final, but his wrist injury may slow him down.

A quick Mailbag this week, Istanbul Airport edition:

Based on his wins at the BNP Paribas Open and the Sony Open, do you see Novak Djokovic dominating Rafael Nadal this year? As a Rafan, I'm now worried about what's to come.
-- Wendy Edelstein Berkeley, Calif.

• We've received a lot of questions in recent weeks about the wacky state of the men's game. After the unremitting dominance of the Big Four, this year has been a change.

Nadal, last year's MVP, has been fading. Djokovic will play in Madrid, but the wrist injury that flared up in Monte Carlo has undercut some of the good vibes brought on by his success in Indian Wells and Miami. Roger Federer has improved his play from a year ago, but still hasn't found the gears that came so easily when he was in his 20s. (And now, to Boomer Esiason's undoubted chagrin, fatherhood threatens his appearance at the French Open.) Andy Murray has parted ways with Ivan Lendl and he, too, has dropped a peg since last summer, with his back injury much to blame.

Clearly there is a regression to the mean. And rather than lament the collective diminution of the Big Four, we ought to reflect on the last decade and marvel that it took this long for the façade to yield.

And still ... I wouldn't declare the era dead just quite yet. With the exception of Stanislas Wawrinka, who else is challenging the big boys winning at Roland Garros? Not the Frenchies, who routinely wilt. Not Juan Martin del Potro and his unfortunate wrists. Not an aging David Ferrer. Not Alexandr Dolgpolov, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic. Not yet anyway, especially in a best-of-five match. I'd put the odds of a Big Four member winning the French at, say, 85 percent.

To Wendy's initial question, I could see Djokovic taking down Nadal at the French Open. (He came within a few points in 2013.)

Maybe this is a dumb question, but I've always wondered: Do most tennis players fly first class?
-- Tom Edwards

• Not dumb at all. Remember, tennis has the wealth distribution of Brazil. The top players will fly privately. (Except to Australia, where -- in keeping with the event's populist vibe -- virtually everyone goes commercial.) A handful of players wouldn't think of flying coach, but the vast majority are like most of us, trying to game the system, finagling upgrades, using points and taking advantage of frequent flier status.

ESPN's Chris Fowler tells the story of boarding a Delta flight from Cincinnati to New York one year and watching as Nadal traipsed back to steerage class. One of you wrote about sitting next to Victoria Azarenka in coach the year after she won the Australian Open. You hear of players reaching the latter rounds of Grand Slams and splurging by flying home by "turning left" when they board. Of the 256 singles players in a Slam draw, I would say the vast majority fly coach. The good news: They were in Boarding Group 1 and got to the keep the entire can of Pepsi.

Where are the female Nadals, Djokovics, Murrays or Del Potros, who step up to pose a relevant and consistent threat to the "old" champions' dominance? Or can't we expect a qualitatively similar competition, just because of Serena Williams' extraordinarily rare and superior physique?
-- Martin Ditz, Cologne

• I'd argue with that premise. Before Australia, it had been nearly a half-decade since a player outside the Big Four won a men's Grand Slam title. And before that, it was nearly another half-decade. Nadal stepped up against Federer. Djokovic stepped up against Nadal. Andy Murray won two Slams and Olympic gold. But outside of that, there was (is?) something of a glass ceiling.

While Serena has been dominant for the last decade-plus, there have been gaps. Justine Henin got in her licks in the mid-aughts. There was the occasional Sloane Stephens or Sam Stosur or Sabine Lisicki, who mounted resistance on the big stage. Great as Serena is, she has won "only" two of the last five majors.

As for "physique," I tend not to go there. Tennis is so deliciously and brutally mental. Whether it's Serena or Nadal or Murray breaking through, I think it's much more mental. My fallback: Success is less about X's and O's or strategy alterations or size differentials than it's about confidence and will. Sure, knowing that an opponent doesn't have the weapons to hurt you can bolster confidence, and vice versa. But I submit that Serena's real gift is between her ears, not between her elbow and shoulder.

So Martina Hingis wins a doubles title, and my tennis crew starts wondering how she and Lindsay Davenport or she and "that other Martina" might do if they committed to a somewhat full schedule. Think they could take a Grand Slam?
-- Ted M., Boston

• I can hear Davenport's laugh from here. My view on these questions is that time frame and sample size is essential. Could Pete Sampras hang with a top player for a set? Yes. A best-of-five match? No. On a given day, could Martina Navratilova and Davenport -- combined age approaching 100 -- beat a top WTA team? Sure. Could they snake through a tournament draw, playing a series of matches, staying free of injury, fatigue and Barney earworms? That's a bigger ask.

Bless Hingis for her accomplishment, but again, she's not exactly trading in orthopedic shoes and knitting needles for a racket. At 33, she is younger than Bob and Mike Bryan. She's covering half a court. And she's been playing WTA events sporadically since last summer. Not that it's a contest, but I'm more impressed with Kimiko Date-Krumm, who is still winning singles matches deep into her 40s.

Is Serena Williams the favorite to win Roland Garros?
-- Charlotte, Tel Aviv

• Was Herod paranoid? Is Bar Refaeli attractive? Does David Guetta make musical hits? We jest. The short answer is "yes." Serena is the defending champion and if she can summon her form from Miami, the rest of the field is in trouble.

The longer answer: For all of the swirling intrigue on the men's side, the women's side should interest us as well. Serena has looked strong (Miami) but also vulnerable (Charleston and Melbourne.) There have been some interesting comers (Donna Vekic, Caroline Garcia, Elina Svitolina, Eugenie Bouchard, even Camila Giorgi) and some cagey veterans (start with Li Na, winner of the most recent major.) Lots of plotlines, folks.

Which of these four under-25 players has the talent or best chance to win titles and help bring U.S. tennis back to where it once was -- Bradley Klahn, Steve Johnson, Jack Sock or Ryan Harrison? I've seen them all play and I think they all have talent and potential, but the question is whether they can play consistent enough to rise to the level of Andy Roddick or John Isner, or even to the top-25 level. Harrison intrigues me, but he can't seem to break through. He is only 21 and certainly has time to develop. Just curious on your take.
-- Anthony, Tolland, Conn.

• I feel like we did a version of this a few weeks ago. Roddick was, undeniably, a talent. He won a Grand Slam the week he turned 21. Even in the age of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic, he was a top-10 mainstay. Isner is something of an outlier, mostly because of his size and that titanic serve. Among Klahn, Johnson, Sock and Harrison, none really fits into either silo.

Harrison has had some tough times recently. His results have tailed off. He had this unfortunate episode. In part because of a back injury, he was crushed by Donald Young in Houston a few weeks ago. His ranking (No. 117) is twice what it was two years ago. But I haven't given up on him.

Can you please explain how appearance fees work on both tours? I am confused. Will Rafael Nadal, for instance, get paid to play in Madrid? I've never understood this.
-- Bruce K., Brooklyn

• Put on your hazmat suit because we're wading into murky waters here. Simple rules: The ATP permits appearance fees in lower events, 250 and 500 designations. They don't apply, however, for Masters Series events and Grand Slams. The WTA (kinda, sorta) prohibits appearance fees.

Not surprisingly, though, there are all sorts of loopholes and semantics. If I own a tournament and pay a player an extraordinarily large fee to pop into town in advance of the event and schmooze with sponsors or meet the local media, is this a "publicity fee" or an appearance fee? If I gift a star player a racehorse (or a cow), is this a fee or a token of gratitude? If a management company represents a player and a tournament, and tells the player it'll cut management fees in exchange for participation in a certain event, is it an appearance fee?

It's easy to roll your eyes at the hypocrisy, the parsing, the robbing of Peter to pay Paul. But it's an interesting economic conundrum. If you're a tournament, you need some cost certainty. If you're a player, you want to be paid fair market value. If you're a tour that represents both events and players, you either actively find a compromise or you let the invisible hand of the market determine the outcomes for you.

I am curious what Serena's winning percentage is in sets where she is down at least one service break and also what her winning percentage is in matches that go the full three sets. I also would like to know how these figures stack up against past and present HOF or HOF-worthy players. Of course, I understand that those percentages may come down at the end of a career, so comparing these numbers for active and retired players can be problematic.
-- Lanka Fernando, Toronto

• Lanka is right to preempt herself and note that this can be misleading. Still, it's a worthwhile undertaking and I will gladly offer a gift for the aspiring tennis sabrmetrician who can find this.

Shots, miscellany

• Thanks again to Milos Raonic for taking over the Mailbag last week.

• Housekeeping: Due to technical difficulties, we've had a hard time getting questions via email lately. If it's easier, please send them to me on Twitter @jon_wertheim to ensure that I receive them.

• Aside to aspiring tennis scribe, Brian Canever: I don't have your email. But DM me on Twitter and I'm happy to answer your questions.

Ivan Lendl: The Man Who Made Murray will be published on May 29 ahead of Murray's defense of his Wimbledon crown.

• J. of Portland: "If Alexandr Dolgopolov can keep this run of good form going, The Dolg Pound could be the new J-Block at the U.S. Open."

• Either this data is wildly at odds with common perception, or David Ferrer's manifold sponsors are getting a steal. From an e-mail I received:

"I thought you might find some information from Repucom's Celebrity DBI useful in your coverage. DBI measures consumer perceptions celebrities. Repucom is a global sports marketing research agency."

"Who do U.S. consumers consider the strongest endorsers?"

1. Andy Murray
2. Rafael Nadal
3. Roger Federer
4. David Ferrer
5. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
6. Novak Djokovic
7. Yannick Noah

(Nadal, Federer and Ferrer are virtually tied, though.)

• Tennis Channel has partnered with DISH to give subscribers access to Tennis Channel's authenticated TV Everywhere live stream.

• The third annual National Wounded Warrior Tennis Camp will take place May 2--23 at the Balboa Tennis Club in San Diego. For information, click here.

• Here's a statement from Venus and Serena filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major on the conclusion of the lawsuit involving the USTA: "We're pleased that tennis fans worldwide will continue to enjoy the film we made about these inspiring and iconic athletes without censorship."

• Long-lost siblings: Novak Djokovic and Philadelphia pizza guy Mason Wartman.

• And another one, from Peter Kelly of Newton, Mass: Ryan Harrison and Anakin Skywalker.

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