Mailbag: Why Rafael Nadal is still a top contender for another major title
First, thanks again to Andrea Petkovic for filling in last week. Just a tremendous job. Highly recommend reading, if you haven’t already. Tickets to “The End of the Tour” are on us….
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
I just read this story and was surprised by some of the comments. Simple question, Jon: do you think Rafael Nadal will win another major?
—Fred M., New Jersey
• Every time I try to get out of the Prediction Game, you guys pull me back in. Who knows about Nadal? He’s made a career out of defying momentum. He is poised to rule the world and suddenly—whoosh—he vanishes, often on account of injury. He is injured and the career buzzards are hovering overhead and—whoosh—suddenly is back in the business of winning Slams.
This current swoon strikes me as different from the others. As we’ve discussed previously, he’s presenting this vivid animation of the physical/mental overlap. He clearly doesn't fully trust his body. So he is tentative both in micro (running around the backhand, serving passively, stationing himself in another zip code from the baseline) and in macro (talking openly about his absence of confidence.) (If you’re inclined, read this and note the use of past tense.)
He has won titles in 2015 but hasn't beaten a top-15 opponent in the process. His play at the majors has been disappointing; but, maybe worse, so has his play at the Masters 1000s. Pick your metaphor. There has long been a sense that his body would openly wage war, that his gas tank would empty, that his expiration date would approach, that the sands would slip out of the hourglass that is his career. (We didn’t say they would be GOOD metaphors.) When Roddick and others speculate that his days winning majors are over, it’s not crazy talk.
And yet…I have a hard time escaping that this is Nadal we’re discussing—one of all-timers, one of the great fighters when fully committed, still one of the younger players in the top 10, who’s still only 15 months removed from winning a major. His present form is shaky and—not unrelatedly—so is his mentality.
But one of the sport’s virtues is that rebuilding can be an accelerated process.
The optimist in me wins out. Especially if Nadal makes some adjustments. He rations his energy and manages his schedule more judiciously (he writes, the week Nadal supplements his singles play with doubles). Nadal keeps Uncle Toni but adds another aide-de-camp for a fresh perspective. He consults a
sports psychologist performance coach. He catches a few breaks and, most likely on clay, strings together seven matches. Presto. In this sport, the only player discounted altogether from winning majors are those not in the draw. That’s to say nothing of champions with double-digit majors.
Jon, why is the Citi Open not part of this years U.S. Open Series? Is this a sign that the Series is unraveling? I hope not—Atlanta was a great tournament this year with reportedly record crowds.
—Lilas Pratt, Marietta, Ga.
• I am too conflicted to write about this with credibility. Thankfully, Ben Rothenberg has taken the baton: This is awfully “inside baseball” but it speaks to a deeper problem v/v tennis and its media coverage and the asymmetry between the goals of the USTA and the goals of the individual tournaments. Long story short: the USTA took a big check from ESPN, but it came at a price in terms of summer tournament coverage. Washington D.C. took the bold step of essentially opting out of the U.S. Open Series and selling its rights to Tennis Channel. It will be interesting to see whether there will be additional dominoes to fall.
I noticed that the U.S. Open moved the men's final back to Sunday, after holding it on Monday the past few years (and also pushed the men's semis to Friday, as opposed to their traditional Saturday spot). Any idea why the tournament made this switch, given that the roof won't be ready and that final Sunday is also opening weekend for the NFL?
—Jesse Berkowitz, Los Angeles
• The two letter answer, TV. The longer answer: players hated Super Saturday; so to accommodate them*—and with a complicating assist from the rain—the women’s final moved to Sunday and the men’s final moved to Monday. This satisfied the players but was brutal for television. A men’s final that started in the twilight ET and mid-afternoon PT (and near midnight in Europe) was devastating for ratings and perception. Countless fans complained that their local CBS affiliate was favoring Judge Judy over the men’s final.
This year ESPN takes over the broadcasting contract from CBS and with that comes new scheduling challenges and perspectives. ESPN doesn't have Sunday NFL football, so why not offer the men’s final as counterprogramming? It does, however, have Monday Night Football, so it will not want to risk having tennis siphon even a fraction of that viewership.
Overall? We all mourn the absence of Super Saturday but it was neither practical nor fair to the player—all together now—at a time when tennis has never been physical. And playing a major final on a Monday was just tremendously strange and anti-climactic. Notice I use past tense. If the U.S. Open can get a nod from the climate gods this year, the roof will obviate weather delays in the future.
*Pet theory: along with prize money discussion, this is an area where the absence of American players at the top of the sport really hurt the USTA. The current top ten has neither loyalty to nor longstanding relationships with the USTA. When they complain it’s a much different dynamic than homegrown players complaining.
Hi Jon, I will try and keep this very brief. As I have never made the cut with my observations, I will offer you only a question: In the discourse about homosexuality and prejudice in tennis, sports and our societies in general, it is worth noting that as part of our moving incrementally forward, the USTA named our National Tennis Center after Billie Jean King and our preeminent tennis stadium after Arthur Ashe. These are not only accomplishments from a national sports organization, but undeniable, highly visible standards, even if many do not want to live up to what those standards represent.
• You make the cut this week! I agree with your point entirely. For all the sponsorship money sloshing through the U.S. Open, the naming rights are not for sale. Instead the tournament has honored both BJK and Arthur Ashe.
In the past we’ve (half) jokingly encouraged the sport to hire a marketing agent to help reshape public opinion. The perception that tennis is some dweeb sport played by flâneurs in cable-knit cardigans and well-preserved housewives in floral dresses? It is so at odds with reality.
This hypothetical marketer establishes that tennis is a grueling, brutal demanding sport and she then needs to take on the flawed cultural perception. The idea that tennis is a “lily white bastion” or a sport of “stodgy country club privilege” simply doesn’t jibe with reality. A raft of champions has come from modest means. For at least the last century, the sport has been reliably progressive. King and Ashe may be the most obvious exponents. But, remember, Martina Navratilova was openly gay in the early 80s. Renee Richards—now 80 years old!—was allowed to play on the WTA, a watershed moment for transsexual rights. John McEnroe once boycotted South Africa on account of exclusionary policy. Andy Roddick did the same in Dubai. Name a social issue, and odds are good, tennis has been ahead of the proverbial curve.
I was wondering why Novak Djokovic played what I think was the 33rd player in the world in the first round at Wimbledon? Why wouldn't he have faced the lowest ranked, presumably No. 128?
• It’s a funny, fickle beast, tennis seeding. I feel like someone should design a FAQ link we could all consult and link when these questions arise, as they inevitably do. (In fact, who wants a summer project? I’ll compensate in the form of swag.) At Grand Slam events, there are 32 seeds. The remaining players are scattered randomly. Therefore, it’s possible that the No. 1 could play No. 33 (i.e. the highest non-seed possible), which is what we saw at Wimbledon. What this also means: a player lucky enough to be seeded is assured of meeting no player ranked in the top 32 until the third round. This has a protective effect; rewarding top players for their rankings and minimizing upsets. It also has the effect of making for some mismatches in the early rounds.
As for the seeds, No. 1 and No. 2 are placed in opposite poles of the draw. No. 3 and No. 4 are then placed in the remaining empty quadrants; though it is random. No. 3 could be in the same half and No. 1; No. 2 could be in the same half as No. 4. Likewise Nos. 5-8 are sprinkled in the open “eighths” of the draw, but they, too, are sprinkled randomly. This is at odds with conventional tournament positioning. The rationale: if strict format were followed, the same players would often meet in the same rounds (absent a chance in rankings) and the variety is good for the sport.
I know a lot of you take issue with this. Does it not penalize the top player that he could play the fifth seed in the quarters and the third in the quarters; not the eighth and fourth, as would be the case under conventional seeding?
It is likely Serena Williams gets to the U.S. Open final, but who you think she will play in the final? I think it will be either Caroline Wozniacki or Victoria Azarenka. Both of these players will never win a French Open or Wimbledon because those surfaces do not suit them. Wozniacki plays well at this time of the year and was runner up last year. But I see Vika as a bigger danger, and she was able to take a set off Serena at the French Open and Wimbledon. And that was on a surface not suited to her game at all. Who you think be in the final taking on Serena?
—Darren Walker, London
• Obviously it would help to have a draw in front of us. But, like Darren, I think of Azarenka as a likely potential finalist, especially on hardcourts.
Who had/has a better serve, relative to their era, their tour, their gender etc., Pete Sampras or Serena? Thank you again for considering my questions.
—Joe Johnson Easton, Pa.
• Good question. There are countless variables that make this question difficult to address empirically, as an apples-to-apples comparison. Part of what made Sampras so devastating was: a) his reliable timing—it’s hard to recall a player summoning their best serves at the most critical moments in the match. He could serve marginally but then dial in every ball once it got to 4-4. b) his second serve, which was unparalleled and, thus, enabled him to be that more aggressive and daring on his first attempt. That is, if I’m confident I can still dictate play on my second serve, it changes how I think about my margins for error on the first ball.
But—what’s that noise thundering our way? Why, yes, it’s the recency effect—I cannot recall player of either gender using their serve to greater effect than Serena does. I believe it was Lindsay Davenport who first took calling it the greatest weapon in the history of women’s tennis.
The average age of this week's ATP top 10 is 28.5. Is that a record? If not, do you know what the record is?
—Eddie Mallot, Phoenix
• We’ll put the indispensible Greg Sharko on the case. But the safe assumption is that, yes, it's a record. An ATP representative put it to us this way at the French Open: until you’re told otherwise, assume that at every major, a new record will be set re: “Most players in the draw 30 and over.” We can discuss the “whys” another time.
• Here’s the most recent SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline Podcast, a special Throwback Thursday edition featuring an interview I did with Roger Federer in Toronto 2014.
• Non-tennis (sort of) but Larry Fitzgerald—a lovely guy who visited the Tennis Channel set at Indian Wells—weighs in with this essay about athletes and the media.
• Meet Reilly Opelka, who may (literally) be the next big thing in men’s tennis.
• Your 2016 ATP calendar.
• Nice piece on Mats Wilander’s son.
• The USTA announced that the press center at the U.S. Open will be officially named the “Bud Collins U.S. Open Media Center,” to honor the noted tennis journalist and historian.
• Colette Lewis has your wrap-up from the action in Kalamazoo.
• Another fine piece, this one on Victoria Duval as she attempts to return from illness.
• August 3 was Jamie Loeb Day in her hometown of Ossining, New York. Loeb, the 2015 NCAA Women’s Singles Tennis National Champion, also claimed the ITF’s Hunt 2015 $25,000 Women's Tennis Classic (singles) and $50,000 Pro Circuit Tournament (doubles) just weeks ago and has earned entry into the main draw of the U.S. Open.
• From former Illinois tennis player Mike Kosta: “Joel McHale was stupid enough to hire me for a show he is executive producing called The Comment Section. It airs tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET/9:30 p.m. CT on the E! Network, right after The Soup. So watch The Soup, and then leave your television on.”
• Lanka Fernando in Toronto, Canada, has LLS: Steve Johnson/Robby Ginepri/Justin Verlander