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Given how Rafael Nadal has been known for being mentally the strongest, it seems ironic and appropriate that his struggles suggest that mental issues are plaguing him right now. An optimist would say given that the body is still strong, it's just a matter of a match or two for his mind to get the belief back. A pessimist would say the decline is visible to others when there issues start showing in your strongest of strengths. As a pragmatic observer, I'll say Nadal should get married right away and have triplets/quadruplets if possible, ASAP!
—JJ, San Diego, a happea pea from the land of the sun!
• Discussions of Nadal—gloomy and gleeful, plangent and pragmatic—dominated the mail this week. By now we’re accustomed to results that, like his topspin-laden shots, pop up and divebomb with little predictability. But his play in 2015 has been flat. He is down to No. 7, his lowest ranking since he was a teenager. He has lost early and often. And his most recent defeat to Andy Murray was on clay and in Spain. More dispiriting are the losses to the rank and file. (With precious few good wins in between.) And most depressing: he is starting to resemble Tiger Woods with an iron, simply shaking shots he’s accustomed to converting in his sleep.
Nadal lays bare the false distinction between body and mind, the physical and emotional. They are, of course, connected. You don't trust your body and it erodes self-belief. Here’s how a sage tennis observer put it to me via email: “He is not moving nearly as well in 2015 and as a result he is fractionally late to shots. Cascade effect to all areas of his game…and eventually even the strongest mind men’s tennis has ever seen starts to capitulate.”
It also seems strange that for a guy with a poker endorsement, he would show his cards to everyone at the table. When Nadal compounds defeat with open admission that he lacks confidence, he is simultaneously inflating the confidence (and optimism) of everyone else in the locker room.
Inasmuch as there is good here, one of tennis’ great virtues is that turnarounds can happen quickly. Nadal returns to his personal sandbox in Paris and reminds himself that one player—not currently active—has beaten him here over the last decade. He wins a few matches decisively, proving to himself that he can shift to Beast Mode. He wins a few others with persistence, proving to himself he can still win on days when he lacks his best tennis. If he is limping around, conspicuously hurt, we panic. When his biggest problem is full faith and credit in his own skills, well, that’s a problem can solve itself—and quickly. All of which is to say: let’s revisit in four weeks.
Two questions, somewhat linked. Outside of Novak Djokovic, will any of the other members of the Big Four ever take the No. 1 ranking again, in your opinion? And, if you were a betting man, who would you predict is the next male tennis player outside the Big Four who will earn the No. 1 ranking? I was hoping it'd be Grigor Dimitrov, but it’s not looking as likely anymore. Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric, Milos Raonic, Dominic Thiem? Anyone else I'm missing?
—Rick M., Los Angeles
• That’s an interesting question. Injuries are obviously the great variable. Otherwise? I suppose Roger Federer is the heartstring answer. Djokovic meets some hard-server (Karlovic) and loses early at Wimbledon and Federer wins the title, achieves No. 1—and the Hollywood tastemakers send notes on the script saying that it is too cheesy.
In terms of probability, Murray is the youngest of the three candidates. Nadal is slumping now but had Djokovic’s number not long ago. Overall, though, this looks like a reign to rival Louis XIV. As for the young player to dethrone Djokovic, it will—inevitably—happen. But right now it’s hard even to entertain a player like the ones you mention topping the Serb. He is simply playing a different caliber of tennis right now.
As an Australian I am pretty much required to be a fan of Kyrgios, especially when he beats players like Federer and Nadal in big tournaments. I am certainly a fan of his game and his courage, but definitely not of his on-court antics—swearing, smashing rackets, complaining, etc. What do other guys in the locker room think of this kind of stuff? Does the “he’s only 20 years old” excuse wear thin pretty quickly?
• Turncoat! No wonder you didn't use your last name! I see your point but I give Kyrgios some wide berth here. We complain about bland athletes and the personality bleach that is “media training.” Here’s a guy who’s expressive and candid and his worst sin is…what exactly? Cursing? Smashing a racket? “Youthful indiscretion” in other sports means Jameis Winston (to our overseas readers, this is NSFW stuff). We can live with Kyrgios. He doesn't turn 21 until late April of 2016. I figure “he’s only 20” wears okay for the next eleven months.
As for “guys in the locker room,” I’ve heard from a few entourage members. “Insanely cocky,” is one phrase I recall distinctly. But so long as the kid keeps winning, I think that mitigates. You know what they say: “It ain’t a silly affectation nor a manifestation of narcissism if you can back it up!”
"The self-belief and unblinking intensity of, say, Victoria Azarenka..." OK, obviously you wrote that before her match with Serena in Madrid. With the caveat that she's still getting back into form, is this nonetheless the worst loss of Azarenka's career? She was in full control of the first-set tiebreak, and to have three match points and win only one of the next 13 points is just a shocking meltdown. Her draw would have been nice after this, too, and I have to think the springboard into the rest of the season would have been just what she needed. Now it seems as if she's back to square one.
—Don, Amherst, Mass.
• We keep talking about Nadal and what an important week this is for him. But Azarenka is not far behind. Moral victories are particularly cheap in tennis. And coming within a point of Serena is less an occasion for self-doubt than hopefulness. Azarenka loses that match 6-4, 6-4 and she can have a pleasant dialogue with herself, essentially tell herself that she started the year outside the Top 40 and is progressing nicely. Lose that match after squandering a match point and it fissures self-belief. I’m not sure she’s back to square one, as Don writes. But it takes some serious denial not to see that as a referendum on your competitive instincts.
It’s a recurring theme because it's true: brutal sport, this tennis.
Can Maria Sharapova defend her French Open title?
• If Peter Frampton can make his guitar talk, what, really, is impossible. (Sharapova won this event twice. Even given her poor form this year, she has to be among the top five contenders.)
With all due respect how about, you know, congratulating Murray. Rafa is making his way back from injury, Andy played well.
• Totally. Nadal’s abysmal play is your headline. But let’s make sure Andy Murray comes in for credit. Ten days ago, he had zero claycourt titles. Today he has two. The most recent of which entailed a defeat of Nadal. In Spain. And one of you noted that this streak coincides with Jonas Bjorkman joining the team. To which we chortle. Or chørtle, much as we love those Scandinavian imprecations afforded us by the option keys. Bjorkman is a lovely, løvely guy. But he was not brought on for his claycourt prowess. Or prøwess. If anyone deserves credit it’s Amelie Mauresmo.
Long as we're here: given the state of Nadal’s game and psyche, I don't see how Djokovic isn’t the favorite in Paris. It is heresy—or homeless recency effect—to suggest that Murray might be second? Or does winning an event nine times over the last decade give you standing—regardless of your record in the tune-ups?
Serena was definitely off her game right from the beginning against Azarenka in Madrid. How much of that do you attribute to it being her first match with Sasha in the opponent's corner (i.e. rooting against her)? That must be a huge psychological barrier—Dani Vallverdu times a hundred.
—James Pham, Garland, Texas
• Let’s be clear: Azarenka is no slouch of a player, and neither is Berdych. It’s possible that Serena and Murray, respectively, struggled in those matches because the opponent is capable of most excellent tennis. But I do think you see how close-knit these teams are. And how disruptive personnel changes can be.
Don't understand why more players don't serve into Serena's body. She doesn't get out of her own way as well.
• Good point. The strategy in singles is often to hit hard, flat and deep—to the middle of the court. Go for the corners and you give her angles and chances for her to beat you with superior speed. Put her in the middle of the court and you might catch a break and get her to make errors. (Or open the court and swing for the lines.) Surprised more players don't employ this when they serve.
Not to duel with a fellow Philadelphian (Helen), but how could anything top Anna Smashnova?
• The only better name would something even more bellicose and militaristic. Like, I dunno, Anna Smashnova Pistolesi.
• As reader Mike T. suggested, we’re going to try and do a few sports-themed Periscope videos—outside the grounds!—this summer. If there are specific requests for content, feel free to pass them on
• More crowd sourcing: who wants to win tickets to the U.S. Open? I’ll happily contribute a pair for the best suggestion for a cover image for this book, one that emphasizes Freaknomics-style fun and makes sure this is NOT about head trauma.
• A Steffi Graf peek in.
• A year ago, Andy Ram was a top doubles player who had won three major titles. Today he is an Israeli tech entrepreneur. His watch Pulse Play is a wearable device that connects to an app designed to improve the playing experience of all racket sport players. Look for his indiegogo campaign.
• And Ram isn't the only tech entrepreneur to have played tennis. Former ATP pro Zack Fleishman, who reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 127 in 2007, is taking the Shark Tank plunge on May 15 with his new company Shark Wheel.
Press Release City:
• The Mutua Madrid Open enjoyed a huge turnout from the fans this year, with a record total of 221,386 fans visiting the grounds in 2015.
• Prize money increases have been approved for the ITF Pro Circuit. The phased introduction of increases begins next year and will seek to minimize the impact of prize money rises on tournament numbers and player opportunities worldwide.
• The Greenbrier Resort will hold the grand opening of a 2,500 seat tennis stadium, Center Court at Creekside, on June 20th featuring Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi and a concert with Earth, Wind and Fire.
• Defending Champion and World No. 4 Petra Kvitova has committed to play the Connecticut Open in August.
• Boast USA, a classic tennis brand founded in the 1970s, has become the official BB&T Atlanta Open apparel sponsor.
• The USTA announced that CiCi Bellis and Claire Liu headline the eight top junior girls selected for the 2015 Team USA National Junior Team.
• Marian writes: Want to comment on a post from Lacey two weeks ago. You wrote about being moved from the cheap seats to the front row for a match that wasn't fully attended. Had a similar experience a couple of years ago at the U.S. Open. I was at the Admirals Club at LaGuardia for the flight home when someone walked in who obviously had been to the Open. It turned out he worked for one of the major sponsors of the event. I suggested I'd be happy to sit in the front row during the first week when the really great seats always seem to be empty. Much to my surprise next year I received tickets for the first three days. We were right behind the players—in fact, Max Mirnyi took our picture. You could really see the speed of the service and the amazing quickness of the players. It is an experience I will treasure always. But it was really tough going back to the cheap seats!
• I feel like we’re all playing for second place after “Yanina Wickmayer and Girl with the Pearl Earring.” But Jason Rainey has LLS:
Novak Djokovic and Bates Motel actor Nestor Carbonell
GALLERY: MADRID OPEN 2015 [FULL SIZE]