Mailbag: Lleyton Hewitt's Hall of Fame candidacy; Federer or Nadal?
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Jon, any chance you will do another mainstream media piece on this issue in near future? Wld love to keep discussion going!
• The writer refers to the vexing issue of college tennis and the persistent recruiting of overseas players. You're a college coach, you want to field the best team possible. So long as there’s a loophole that permits you to recruit unlimited overseas players—who are often older and more experienced that American kids; who sometimes even have professional experience—why wouldn’t you do it? I’m trying to keep my job and my choices are some 17-year-old from Florida versus some 22-year-old from Slovenia with ATP points?
On the other hand ... This practice is troubling on a number of levels, and it’s a great failure of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and the NCAA to whine about it privately but refuse to take a meaningful stand. This practice deprives Americans—the spawn of taxpayers in the case of public schools—a chance at playing college tennis. It is disincentivizing American kids from playing the sport. It is giving athletic directors a good reason to take a hard look at tennis when it's time for budget cuts. Above all, I would argue, it violates the spirit (if not the letter) of college athletics. Here’s the lament from a parent.
The obvious solution: teams are permitted X number of scholarships or roster sports to foreign players. Foreign athletes and foreign students are a great asset to a team—and to a student body and a university community at large. But stocking an entire roster with overseas ringers is indefensible.
I was piqued by your touting of Lleyton Hewitt for the Tennis Hall of Fame despite the incident with James Blake at the U.S. Open. It was a pretty blatant example of racism by Hewitt. I think racist incidents like ones that Serena and Venus dealt with from the Soviet tennis spokesperson and the boycott of the Indian Wells tournament are more serious than the nationalism being shown by Malek Jaziri but judging from your latest column you disagree.
-- Robert Moore, Jr.
• I’m not sure why you would arrive at that conclusion. I don’t think we need to rank instances of bias. These are each regrettable and should be addressed accordingly. As for Hewitt, you are right: without condoning what he said, I do not think it should disqualify him from the Hall of Fame.
So Serena Williams can refuse to play [Indian Wells] but [Malek Jaziri] can't refuse to play an Israeli?
• Correct. Players are free to pick and chose the events they enter. They are not free to pick and chose the opponents against whom they compete. That violates one of the core principles of sport. Apart from that, the equivalency is deeply flawed. Serena declined to play an event in response to what she perceived as biased treatment. That’s legitimate, and it's hardly the same as declining to play against an opponent because of their country of origin.
As long as we’re in this unseemly neighborhood ... yes, it’s an imperfect analogy and there is, of course, a difference between race and nationality. But imagine if a WTA player—repeatedly—declined to compete against the Williams sisters and other African-Americans. Whenever that matchup loomed, she claimed injury. Her country’s federation had been banned from Davis Cup for encouraging (demanding?) this policy. And even after the ban, this behavior persisted. It's hard to imagine the WTA (or other players) simply letting it slide and not remarking on it.
We can debate Jaziri’s culpability here. I’m inclined to some sympathy. But given the context and previous issues with the Tunisian Federation, it’s troubling that—with an Israeli looming in the draw—he declines to play on account of injury only to recover in time to cross an ocean and appear in the draws of Memphis and Delray. It’s more troubling that the ATP has been silent here.
I'd like to ask about how top players practice. I've heard that [Roger] Federer, [Rafael] Nadal and others invite rising players to their camp, where the pro faces 5 or 6 lower players in a row in order to really push himself and improve. And you've written about hitting partners, who I've heard are players who topped out at Challenger level and are now paid to travel and practice with the pro. And many TV commentators say that the only people with enough tennis skills to really push a top pro are the other top pros, so they often just practice with each other. So I'd love to ask the inside scoop from you about the practice routines of top players. I'd also imagine ranking and economics plays a role. What about differences between, say, players ranked 1-5, 5-10, 10-25, and 25+? Also, differences between the men and women? Thanks!
-- Kahn, Vientiane, Laos
• You lost me there a bit. For one, I would distinguish between genders. The top women—Sharapova, Serena, Azarenka—are known to keep full-time sparring partners on staff. Though be careful about the “topped out at Challenger level” characterization. Sharapova, for instance, hired Vlad Voltchkov, a former Wimbledon semifinalist, and currently employs Dieter Kindlmann.
During events, the men practice with other players in the draw. In between events, anything goes. Some can get by hitting with their coaches. Others will seek specific sparring partners. (Federer, for instance, flew former pro Jesse Levine to Dubai and to Turks and Caicos for sessions.) Federer will also hold de facto training camps, inviting players—recent invites include David Goffin and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—for a few days of hitting. Player clustered in an area (see: Monte Carlo) will play together. Other times, the arrangements are fluky. For instance, Grigor Dimitrov repaired to L.A. this winter so he could spend time with Maria Sharapova. Among his training partners? Mardy Fish.
Who has more upside—Genie Bouchard or Madison Keys? The key difference for me is the relative power-quotient of these players. Madison Keys hits a much bigger ball & can hit through the court and her opponents from even a few feet behind the baseline or from a defensive position. Genie needs to hug the baseline and hit closer to the lines to compensate for a lack of blow you off the court power. And power in tennis is like arm-strength for a QB—it is something you are born with. So I doubt Genie can DEVELOP into a big hitter. For this reason I gotta go with Madison. Your thoughts?
-- Lanka Fernando, Toronto, Canada
• Let’s pause and acknowledge how the strangeness of this entire line of inquiry. A month ago, we’d be laughing at this. Bouchard had reached the semis at three of the last four Majors and was embedded in the top 10. Keys headed to Australia ranked outside the top 30. Yet—cue: recency effect—I share Lanka’s enthusiasm for Keys. We all love cerebral tennis and flair and athleticism. But pure, brute, force—unanswerable power, put more benignly— is the essential weapon in the women’s game now. And Keys has it in spades. Lots to like here. And it’s augmented by her Midwest sensibilities and level-headedness. (Note how I’ve ducked a question comparing Player A to Player B.)
I thought it was refreshing that, after a win at the Australian Open, Serena acknowledged the fan that told her to “add more spin.” Don’t players usually refrain from acknowledging comments from the crowd, fearing that it might encourage more fans to shout things out, either good or bad? What’s your take on that? Could a player even be penalized for coaching? No reason a player couldn’t put someone from their camp in some place other than the player’s box and get some coaching, ostensibly from a fan ... Thanks for your column.
-- Greg Smiley Johannesburg
• Funny, a variation of this actually came up during one of Venus’ matches in Australia. Unbeknownst and unsolicited, a fan yelled instructions to Venus. She then received a formal scolding from the chair umpire. Only later did it get sorted out and made clear that this a random fan as simply yelling to Venus—and there was nothing dishonorable going on.
Like you, I was surprised that Serena acknowledged that tip from the crowd. It was an endearing moment, but it suggested her focus might not be as impermeable as we might think. Still, file it in the no-big-deal category. Remember our conversation last week about the need for discretion on the part of officials? This is a good example. A coach clearly gesticulating for a body serve is one thing. A fan yelling, “add more spin”—not exactly an expression of deep strategic genius—should (and did) go ignored by the chair.
Thanks for printing my question in your mailbag regarding Serena's serve and Sharapova. However you didn't answer my question as to whether you think their head to head record would be different/closer if Sharapova had Serena's serve and vice versa. Cheers.
• Sorry, I guess I misread that. Sure, if the players swapped serves, the head-to-head record would likely be different. But—without being dismissive of analytics—I still say so much of this rivalry is mental. Many have danced around this for years, but let’s just say it flatly: While it may be ebbing, the personal animus there has been a real motivation for Serena, in particular. It's hard to discount how much this motivates her.
An argument against Federer being the GOAT is that he was not the greatest player in his own era—Nadal was. But can't the same be said to argue that Nadal is not the greatest player in his era—Djokovic is? What say you Jon?
-- David, Urbana, Illinois
• I say: Let’s take inventory when all three are retired. Right now, it’s like obsessing over stock options that don’t vest for several more years. O.K., I’ll bite a little—for each point, there is a counterpoint. For every serve, there is a riposte. (Why, it's almost like ... tennis.) Federer has a lousy head-to-head against Nadal, but he’s won more Slams, more titles and is more well-rounded on surfaces. Djokovic acquits himself well against Nadal, but has half as many Slams as Nadal does and lacks the Career Slam. We should also weight the “prime years” of a players’ careers. And around we go. We all enjoy this is as a thought exercise. But it’s a little circular, no? Part of the beauty of the GOAT discussion is the absence of hard, fast criteria. And yet this absence makes it difficult to arrive at real conclusions.
From time to time in your column I see you refer to players like Stan Wawrinka, Thomas Berdych, or others of their caliber as being very good players whose career accomplishments will be limited by the chronological misfortune of playing in an era that features several of the all-time-great players. While this rings true from an observational perspective, it makes me wonder, can you identify some earlier portion of the Open Era that was more favorable to the "merely" very good players, perhaps indicated by one or more "less-than-great" players winning multiple Slams?
-- Ken Mayer, Chandler, Arizona
• These discussions have the effect of denigrating champions, which is always unfortunate. But if we’re being honest here (which we always are), check out the interval between Sampras/Agassi and Federer/Nadal. In 2001-02, for instance, your eight Grand Slam champions were: A north-of-30 Andre Agassi beating Arnaud Clement; Gus Kuerten; Goran Ivanisevic; Lleyton Hewitt; Thomas Johansson; Al Costa; Hewitt, and the Pete Sampras’ Cinderella Open.
• The Body Serve: If you get a chance to listen, we recorded a podcast about Serena, race, and her return to Indian Wells.
• For the fourth consecutive year, the Family Circle Cup has named Antigua as its official apparel sponsor. Antigua will provide the logoed apparel to be worn by umpires, staff and ball crew throughout the tournament.
• The field might be getting older in tennis. A record number of players 30 and older are expected to enter the French Open. And then the record will likely be broken a month later at Wimbledon. But note that there is a place for youngsters. This week in Delray, three teens won matches in Delray—Andrey Rublev, Thanasi Kokkinakis and qualifier Yoshi Nishioka. This marks the first time this has occurred since the Indianapolis event in 1997.
• Speaking of teenagers ... After his run the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios took February off in part to address a back injury. We’re told that while he is progressing, there’s been no decision on whether he’ll return for Australia’s Davis Cup in Prague March 6 to 8. As Wally Masur, the captain, told the Aussie media this week: "If you come back a bit early, you could end up with a fully-blown stress fracture. The rest of this year is important. It will be caution first.”
• It’s been the Lipton, the Nasdaq and the Sony Ericsson. This year, the Masters Series event held on Key Biscayne will simply be the Miami Open, presented by Itau a Brazilian bank.
• Longtime reader Ana Mitric notes: "I’m writing to let you know about a new collaborative project called, per my subject line, Tennis Translations. You’ll find a brief version of the site’s mission here."
• @koaladauphin has LLS this week: Joel McHale and Tomas Berdych