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Tennis

Mailbag: Tsonga's resurgence, the trouble with wild cards, more

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, of France, returns the ball against Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, in a men's third round match at the Rogers Cup. Photo: AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, of France, returns the ball against Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, in a men's third round match at the Rogers Cup.

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

Who is this Jo-Wilfried Tsonga? I've never seen THIS Tsonga before?​
-- Erin Bukzin​

• That guy? I recall him faintly from the 2008 Australian Open. And a few select dates here and there.

But -- to your point -- Tsonga looked not only terrific, but almost unprecedentedly terrific in Toronto. He comes to this event lacking anything resembling momentum. At 29, he appears to be on the inexorable downslope of a fine career. His coaching situation is uncertain and he recently changed agents. He knee and back aren’t quite right. He recently underachieved at both the French Open and Wimbledon, his ranking drifting downward deep into what we call the Baja Top Ten, the 15-20 range.

And what does Tsonga do? He turns in one of the great weeks in tennis history -- let alone his personal tennis history -- beating Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer in the final to win perhaps the biggest title of his career.

It wasn’t so much what Tsonga did last week, as what he didn’t do. The brute power and the big serving and the heavy shots off the ground have always been there. In Toronto, though, there were none of the mental lapses that, too often, have pocked his game. He didn’t wilt in the heat. He didn’t let the back injury slow him or neuter his risk-taking. He didn’t retreat from big moments. This was happily uncharacteristic for a likable (and liked) player who too often turns in close-but-not-quite performances against the top players.

All this goes to a favorite theme here. Careers are not linear. Nowhere close. The slightest fissure in confidence or the smallest of injuries can be disastrous. The smallest spike in self-belief or improvement in health or equipment adjustment can have great consequences. Two weeks ago, you would have sold your Tsonga stock. Now, you are within your rights to consider him a U.S. Open contender. It doesn’t take much for fortunes to reverse.

I know it's all about TV and money, but the scheduling for one-week tournaments is awful. I've complained about this before, but I just don't see how having a semifinal at 8 p.m. is fair when the final is the next day at 3 p.m.? This happens at many tournaments... Not just Toronto.  We'll see it again at Cincinnati. I understand that once a player gets a night match, he pretty much has to have night matches the rest of the way to get similar rest. But the worst is having the SECOND night match. But even with accepting that part of it, there must be something done about the quick turnaround from semifinals to finals. Tsonga and Dimitrov finished their semifinals three hours before Federer and Feliciano Lopez even took the court!  That is just awful.​
-- Sincerely, CM Taylor

• It's all about TV and money But this is also ultimately about leverage. The tournaments feel--not unreasonably--that a Saturday night semifinal session is a necessity. (Again, the notion of a night session on a weekend seems like an awfully reasonable proposition when you’re in the live entertainment business.)

But as CM Taylor notes, this session is not necessarily in the best interest of the athletes, not when the winner has to come back and play a final the next day. If the players feel strongly about this, they can ask their representatives to fight it—as they did with the U.S. Open Super Saturday format, which led to a Monday men’s final. If the tournament has the upper hand, they will continue to hold a session that generates much revenue and is TV-friendly, even if it comes at the expense of player fatigue.

Tsonga couldn't get a Wednesday start like Federer, even though they both were in the final on Sunday?
-- @dabigjoker

• Multiple readers mentioned this and I feel like this point was missed: Cincinnati is a six-round event (64 draw) and Tsonga, as the No. 12 seed, did not get a bye. How would Tsonga have gotten a Wednesday start, without risking the tournament drifting into next week? As it stood, Tsonga, understandably tired from his Montreal run, lost meekly in straight sets on Tuesday. This, of course, is the annual peril of having two big events run in successive weeks.

During the CBC's coverage of the first men's semifinal at the Rogers Cup, commentator Jimmy Arias said that he advocates young tennis players to use two-handed backgrounds rather than one since the two-hander is better suited for the modern game. Naturally he cited Rafael Nadal's dominance over one-handers like Federer as proof. I thought it an odd comment though. For one, three of the four semi-finalists sported one-handers (albeit in a Rafa-less tournament), not to mention I simply love watching the purity of the one-handed stroke. What do you think: does Jimmy have a point, or am I the odd one, favoring aesthetics over the realities of the modern game?
-- John Shoesmith, Toronto​

• I stop here to say you should consider yourself fortunate. Jimmy Arias is a top-shelf analyst.

Like you, though, I’m not sure Nadal’s effectiveness should be the basis for dismissing an entire tactic. (Football teams should stop running the ball. Why? Because that Jadeveon Clowney takes their head off!)

But effectiveness has to trump aesthetics. Just has to. The artistry of a one-handed backhand may be a happy by-product, pleasing to many of us. But athletes choosing form over function are setting themselves up for disappointment. (Why, it’s almost as though you could WRITE A BOOK titled, “Winning Ugly.”)

Wow, Federer really feasts on these Spaniards! 11-0 vs. Lopez and 15-0 vs. Ferrer. Too bad he can't play guys from Spain all the time.
-- James Busby

• Exactly! Oh, wait, there’s that lefty, Rafael something or other. Say this: when Mallorca officially secedes, Federer will be the greatest Spanish conqueror since Napoleon.

You don't think it's worth it for the U.S. to get wild cards to Roland Garros and Melbourne? Brian Baker, Ryan Harrison and others gained...​
-- Mike H., California

This pertains to a twitter discussion (oxymoron?) we had Tuesday about the reciprocal wild card arrangement, whereby OMIT main draw slots in the U.S. Open are reserved for an Aussie and a French player and, in return, the winner of US-only playoff gets a main draw spot in Melbourne and Paris.

As many of you know, I’m uneasy with wild cards in general. Yes, tournaments need a device for bypassing the regular cut-off procedures and getting late-entering stars or insufficiently ranked local players into the draw. It flies in the face of fairness, but it’s a business reality. There’s something awfully problematic when management agencies that have stakes in events use these wild cards as a way to lure players and/or enrich them. Octagon isn’t the only culprit but it’s a timely example. The agency has a stake in the Cincinnati event.

Pause here to bear in mind: this is a Masters Series tournament, with significant stakes and main draw access only open to the top 50 or so players. As it has done multiple times in the past, Octagon gave its Cincinnati wild card to… Robby Ginepri, ranked outside the top 250 at the time. No disrespect to Ginepri (who, for the record, made good on his opportunity, beating Dominic Theim in his first match.) But that’s simply not right. Not when top 60 players -- workaday pros, with multiple times Ginepri’s ranking points haul, who happen not to be represented by a tournament stakeholder -- are being forced into THE qualifying draw.

Likewise, if the host of a Grand Slam reserves wild cards for homegrown talent, it’s unseemly. Eight players are getting a huge boost. They’re guaranteed more than $40,000 in prize money. They get a nice allotment of ranking points. They’re unlikely to put fans in the seats -- all the top players are already entered anyway, and the TV deals are in place. You want to call this the residual nectar from hosting a major? I guess. Maybe. Though again, that seems patently unfair to dozens (sometimes hundreds) or more deserving players who, by accident of birth, do not come from a country that happens to host a major.

But when the Slams start swapping these wild cards, we’ve crossed from merely icky into the realm of immoral. This is how cartels behave. It’s terribly unfair to more deserving players. It distorts a natural market. You’re not only saying, “Player X is, empirically, more qualified, but Player Y has superior connections, so we’ll let her in.” You’re now letting this oligarchy of three events--Wimbledon, to its credit, has opted out--use these coveted slots as a sort of currency.

Analogy time: Harvard, Yale and Princeton reject demonstrably more qualified applicants in favor of kids who- by accident of birth - have wealthy alum parents. We argue the equity and ethics of the policy. But now imagine if Harvard, Yale and Princeton collude among themselves and swap slots, so the ill-qualified legacy kid can a backdoor admission to any of three. 

The existence of a meritocracy is one of the core virtues of sport. There’s scoreboard and, for all the subjective judgments and opinions, there are decisive winners and losers. And one of tennis’ real virtues: it might be the most meritocratic of all sports. There are no coaches or teammates to blame; no guaranteed contracts; no judges to impress. Win and your ranking goes up. Lose and it doesn’t. Seems to me that it’s a pity that this wild card system subverts that. It’s not a top-line agenda item. It’s not going to save or ruin the sport. But it’s another one of these inherent conflicts of interest that the insiders take for granted -- and even champion -- but ultimately stunt the growth and corrupt and corrode the culture.

Shots, miscellany

Head to Head results vs. Popp

• Head to Head results vs. Phau

• Alumna of Yale University Class of 1981 will receive the highest honor bestowed by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association when she is presented with the 2014 ITA Achievement Award on Friday, Sept. 5.

• The Statoil Masters Tennis tournament is joining forces with Billie Jean King and Sir Elton John for the annual Mylan World TeamTennis Smash Hits tennis charity event, which will be held outside of the U.S. for the first time in its 22-year history.

• Our friend Helen of Philadelphia takes us out with LLS: Steve Johnson and Benoit Paire​. Good grief, how did we not catch this pair sooner?

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