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Mailbag: Longevity a hallmark of Williams sisters' careers

Serena (left) and Venus Williams have been on the pro circuit for two decades. Photo:

Serena (left) and Venus Williams have been on the pro circuit for two decades.

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

It seemed like the Williams sisters were always saying that they would play tennis only for a few years before moving on to bigger and better things. But here they are continuing to compete in their mid-30s. How surprised are you that Venus and Serena are still playing?
-- Deb, Philadelphia

• Here’s the sisters' father, Richard Williams, in 2001: “I don't think [Venus] will be around for a very long time. I doubt it will be a long career for her. She can make a lot more money out of [tennis] rather than in tennis."

Yet at age 34, Venus is still out there, 20 years after turning pro. If she’s not the player she once was, she’s still fighting fiercely. Last month she gave the Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova, her toughest test of the tournament, a tight three-set, third-round match. Here was part of Venus' news conference afterward:

Q.  Are you amused by the fact that you've played well this year, you won Dubai, you played a pretty intense match, that people are always trying to retire you?

VENUS WILLIAMS:  No, people have been trying to retire me since I was like 25.  For some reason in tennis we always do that to our players.  It's weird.  We don't encourage them to stick around.  It's like, Get out of here.

So I'm not getting out of here.  I think this year has been a great year for me.  I've had some tough losses, but I've learned a lot from them.  I'm finding my way back on my feet.

I'm proud of myself for what I'm achieving on the court.

Meanwhile, less than two months from turning 33, Serena is -- for all the dramatic turns her career has taken, including of late -- still ranked No. 1, spending her 199th week in the top spot, fifth most all time. (Incidentally, Venus and Serena are beginning preparations for the U.S. Open at this week's Bank of the West Classic. Venus won on Tuesday to set up a second-round match against Victoria Azarenka, while Serena was to play her first match since Wimbledon on Wednesday.)

There are a lot of forces at play. Careers are longer. The sisters' abbreviated (or, what we now call “sensible”) scheduling that drew so much ire in their earlier years? It’s enabling them to get that mileage on the back end. I would submit that the presence of the other -- that they have both kin and a kindred spirit going through this drill and traveling the world -- has helped them both. I also believe that the sisters, independently, reached the conclusion that tennis was, ultimately, their greatest source of strength. They might enjoy design and music and acting. They might be quite good at them as well. But they were not one-in-billion good the way they were at tennis. And we’re all the better for it.

I look at the rankings and of the few Americans around many went to college (John Isner, Steve Johnson, Bradley Klahn). Then I saw you wrote that Noah Rubin, the Wimbledon boys' winner, was not turning pro but going to school in the fall. Is it fair to say that college tennis is making a comeback?
-- Ben B., California

• I’d say that’s fair. And it’s not just U.S. players who are using college tennis to enhance their games. Germany’s Tim Puetz, a former All-America at Auburn, qualified for Wimbledon and won a round in the main draw in his first tour-level tournament. The spectacularly named Blaz Rola, a Slovenian who was the 2013 NCAA singles champion at Ohio State, also made the second round at the All England Club and is ranked a career-high No. 80.

Why is college tennis on the upswing? There are a few factors: As the field ages and full physical maturity is a prerequisite on both tours, college becomes a more appealing option. What’s more, most schools offer players a chance to return and get their degrees, even if they turn pro.

As for Rubin: He may well not last four years at Wake Forest, which he committed to after winning junior Wimbledon. But at least this way, he turns pro knowing that if -- for whatever reason -- his career doesn’t flourish, he can always go back to school.

I’d go so far as to put it his way: if the situation presents itself, unless you’re a 17-year-old Rafael Nadal, you’d be crazy not to spend at least a year on a college campus.
 
During the 1950s and 1960s, Australians dominated men’s tennis. For most of the 1970s and 1980s, we saw geographic diversity among Grand Slam champions, including multiple wins by players from Argentina and South Africa. Beginning around 1989 and continuing through 2003, stars such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Andy Roddick made the United States top dog. For the past decade, though, it has been the golden age of European tennis. The next trend? I think we’ll see a return to diversity in a few years. But what’s the buzz on tour?
-- Daniel Rabbitt, Morrisville, N.C.

• “European tennis” is obviously broad. Great Britain ≠ Spain ≠ Serbia. (And, yes, part of the motivation for writing that previous sentence was using the “not equals” sign. If anyone has a Danish question, we’d like love to use that “O” with the line through it.)

Where were we? Oh, right. Tennis is so unrelentingly global that it’s hard to envision one country reigning supreme. Sure, Spain or France or Serbia might be disproportionately represented. But the notion of one country claiming, say, half the top 20 is absurdistan.
 
I wonder why Bob and Mike Bryan never play singles (except for some Davis Cup and 2004 or before). I would think they definitely could get a wild card to certain U.S. tournaments. And my question is, How do you think they would do? We've seen strong singles players Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil do well at Wimbledon in doubles, but how would the good doubles teams do in singles?
-- Matthew Rogers

• They made the decision years ago that doubles was going to be their thing. Obviously, it’s worked out well for them, with 98 titles together and more than $11 million in prize money apiece. You have to think that Bob in particular -- big, lefty server, good athlete, first-rate net game -- had top-50 potential. But they both sublimated the individual for the good of the team.

Now, though? As 36-year-olds who have spent the past 15 years covering half the court? Let’s just say that Sock and Pospisil are more of a threat in doubles than the Bryans would be in singles.
 
Here’s a simple question for you from Down Under. What are your current thoughts on Bernard Tomic? He won a title in Bogota recently.
-- C. Withers, Melbourne

• Your guess is as good as ours. Or, for that matter, his.

You’re prepared to write the kid off, another casualty of arrested development and parental issues ... and he suddenly shows flashes of being a top player, like he did in winning the Claro Open two weeks ago or in challenging Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon. You’re ready to declare him mature and ready to tap into his abundant talent ... and he does something galactically knuckleheaded. I don’t want to minimize this, because there’s an element of tragedy here. But I think we just need to resign ourselves to perpetually calibrating and recalibrating his stock, based on his mental state and the propinquity of his father.

Long as we’re here: The goal of any athlete is, principally, to win and compete honorably. But only the most naive among us would ignore the commercial component. Look at the best players and consider how some -- including Nadal, Roger Federer, Li Na and Maria Sharapova -- make much more (like, by orders of magnitude) in endorsement lucre than they do in prize money. When Tomic behaves as he has, when his father remains a volatile distraction, one cringes at how many millions the family is basically lighting on fire.

This might be a weird question, but who is the nicest player, you’ve ever covered?
-- Charles, Boston

• Not weird at all. And I would have to say Marcelo Rios. That guy was like the social coordinator of tennis. Actually, it’s amazing he had to time play tennis, what with all the companionable yakking he did. He especially loved being approached. But if you walked by and so much as acknowledged him or said, “Hey, Marcelo” (or, better yet, used a nickname like “Hey, Marci!”) you may as well have pulled up a lawn chair.

Get a load of this yarns this guy could spin. Boy, do we miss old Marci, keeping everyone loose and chatting up a storm.

Shots, miscellany

• This from Laurie Abraham at Elle magazine: “As the features director at ELLE, and Lizzy Goodman's editor, I'm happy you’re writing about Goodman's July profile of Sloane Stephens. We take reporting and fact-checking seriously at ELLE, and we'd like to address the email Mary Carillo sent you, which you posted. As you know, Carillo accused us and Goodman of misquoting her, and of generally 'getting a lot wrong on [Carillo's] end.' We have checked the audio recording of Goodman’s 40-minute-plus interview with Carillo and stand fully by our story.”

Here’s the piece, in case you missed it. This is a clinic in building a rapport such that subjects are comfortable speaking freely in the journalist’s presence.

• Nicole Gibbs, 21, a two-time NCAA champion at Stanford, earned a U.S. Open wild card for her performance in USTA Pro Circuit events.

• ICYMI, it’s the Andy Samberg tennis mockumentary. Just hope it looks something like this.

• Also ICYMI: Taylor Townsend goes solo during a World TeamTennis doubles match.

• Bobby Reynolds, a 32-year-old American who reached No. 63 in 2009, is retiring.

• Nice to see Juan Martin del Potro hitting some backhands.

• A look at the post-retirement life of Roddick, whose plan to play doubles with Mardy Fish at the U.S. Open didn't come together in time.

• Demi of New York has long-lost siblings: Stan Wawrinka and a young Friedrich Engels.

Have a question or comment for Jon? E-mail him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

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