Mailbag: Young American prospects and the effects of expectation, hype
This week’s Mailbag is a Midwest edition. But before we get started, a quick announcement: As we have done in past years, I’ll be converting my Hall of Fame ballot into a “fans ballot.” That is, I’ll tabulate your “yays” and “nays” and cast my vote accordingly. Pick as many as you like among this year’s nominees: Justine Henin, Marat Safin and Helena Sukova.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
I thought of this question after the French Open, but I decided to hold onto it until the indoor season to see how the year’s results shook out. I’m feel I’m on pretty solid ground now, so here goes. I’d like to propose that Novak Djokovic has achieved something truly remarkable—possibly even unprecedented on the men’s side. That Novak is the best player in the world right now I trust no one would argue. As the No. 1 ranked player, he has had, by definition, the most consistently good results across all surfaces this year. There’s nothing new there. That’s simply how the ranking system works. But, right now, I would argue Novak is not only the best player *across* all surfaces, he is the best player on *each and every* surface. Clay, grass, outdoor hard court, indoor hard court—I’d favor him to beat any player in the world on any surface. Now, I’m only 40, so my ability to form an opinion on the matter only stretches back so far into the annuals of tennis history, but I can’t think of any former No. 1 on the men’s side who could make this claim. Can you?
—John Dugan, Memphis, Tenn.
• That’s a really sound point. And one that I have never seen spelled out quite like that. If we were ranking players by surface, regardless of what is underfoot, Djokovic is tops. I can think of no analog. Neither Sampras nor Federer were the best on clay. Neither Wilander nor Lendl were the best on grass. Even at the height of his powers, you would never have claimed Nadal was the best indoor player.
The larger point: what Djokovic is doing these days is verging on the risible. The other night I tweeted, “Is there a more unsung story in sports - never mind tennis - right now than @DjokerNole play?” I meant outside of tennis. The general sports media—at least in the U.S.—has shown little awareness of this.
But even within tennis, I’m not sure Djokovic has gotten his due. Here’s how reader Helen of Philadelphia puts it: “Is it possible that we've just become jaded to mind-boggling excellence? 'Yeah, yeah; just another one of those GOAT candidates who dominates the field and expands the limits of human capability...whatever....yawn...”
I want to stress that this is our collective deficiency, not his personal deficiency. But this run seems to be received with almost a grudging admiration. Certainly not with the wide-eyed awe nor the celebration we have seen for other players in the past. Put it this way: no essayists I know of are composing pieces titled “Novak Djokovic as Religious Experience.”
This is a pity. He has won relentlessly, under all manner of circumstance all over the world. He loses the French Open title and rebounds by winning the next two majors. At a minimum, he is personally unobjectionable. If he’s not getting full credit for this run, it’s on us, not him.
So many young Americans have been hyped up as the next big thing—Ryan Harrison and Donald Young and now Tommy Paul, Taylor Fritz, Stefan Kozlov etc. In the meantime, it is the under-hyped Jack Sock (No. 26) and Steve Johnson (No. 31) who have worked their way up in the rankings, and are still climbing. The common denominator of both is that they possess weapons and can impose their games on others. Maybe before the American tennis media starts hyping American juniors they should do a quick review of each one’s games. If they don’t have a premium shot(s), please don’t waste our time. Any thoughts?
• I don't dismiss your point out of hand, but I take issue with much of that. For one, Sock came swathed in plenty of hype. But some disappointing results, some injuries and some questions about his fitness/professionalism had the effect of diminishing expectation. Ultimately this may have ben a blessing. Over the last 18 months, he has really flourished under less intense lighting. He is a dynamite athlete and—as you note—he has a monstrous forehand. Specifically, he needs a license and mandatory waiting period (in some states, anyway) to walk around with that forehand, a fearsome finishing shot. Johnson is Sock’s neighbor in the rankings and also possesses a top-rate forehand. But he is a different player who charted a different path (four years in college) that, inherently, resists hype.
As for the new Americans, Taylor Fritz would seem to be your best bet. The body, the power, the self-belief, the game requiring the least adjustment to the pros. Reilly Opelka will be a top 50 player, solely on the basis of his serve and backhand. If can improve the other components starting with movement and return-games-won, he has big potential. Jared Donaldson, a year older, is making strides. So is Francis Tiafoe. While I like your term “impose your game on others” I take an expansive definition of that. Brute force and the ability to dictate baseline rallies = imposition of will. But so does superior fitness and defense and speed. Kei Nishikori can impose his will, just as Tomas Berdych can. (Same applies to women as well, by the way.)
Finally, this business of hype is also a balancing act. Yes, there have been instances of exuberant optimism (desperation?) in the past, especially with respect to American prospects. A few nice wins at the U.S. Open transformed a teenaged Melanie Oudin from a solid, if undersized player with a top-40 game to the second coming of Chris Evert.
But prospecting and projecting talent is an essential exercise and one of the joys of being a fan. What is National Signing Day but an exercise in speculation? What is the NFL Draft but a future’s market. What are we supposed to say: no junior tennis players get mentioned until they cracked the top 50? Just a matter of balance and perspective. But wouldn't it be strange if these young players won these junior majors and “the American tennis media” (inasmuch as there is such a thing) DIDN’T discuss their professional potential?
I'd rather see an empty seat than some $%*&!@ courtside looking at their phone.
• Two symptoms of the same problem. The choice seats are often being sold to corporations and firms, who use the seats for entertaining. (And take a tax write-off unavailable to the common fans.) No one in the office can duck away on a Wednesday? Meh, the seat goes unfilled. Corcoran can go, but he needs to stay on top of the Osbourne account while he’s out of the office? Meh, he’ll spend the day buried in his phone.
In the former scenario anyway, the solution is obvious: let the real fans occupy the prime seats until the rightful owners arrive. Happily, some events have started this.
I've been enjoying your Mailbag for years. I had to write in, though, to make a point related to empty stadia on at televised tournaments, particularly in the early rounds. A sparse crowd in a main stadium is often not the result of poor attendance at a tournament but rather evidence of many other quality matches going on at the tournament in outer courts. I've been lucky enough to attend the Indian Wells and Miami tournaments multiple times. Both are by all accounts successful and well attended. During the early rounds, though, you may have 10 matches going on simultaneously. Many of the smaller venues provide the opportunities to see the action from the front row (or pretty darn close). Additionally, these tournaments also have wildly popular practice session viewing that draws huge crowds. So please don't perpetuate the myth that an empty stadium equals a poorly attended event or lack of interest in tennis. It may represent quite the opposite.
• I agree in theory. The U.S. Open would be another example. Next year, note the “first match on” at 11:00 a.m. The big house, Arthur Ashe Stadium, is devoid of fans for that Angelique Kerber–Haley Dunphy match to start off the session. Meanwhile, the bleachers at the practice courts are full, hordes are making their way through security, and the line to get into Louis Armstrong resembles the immigration line at Heathrow. But the discussion last month was specific to the indoor events in Asia. In those instances there are seldom additional show courts.
Certain years on the WTA Tour, such as 2008, have seen many players hold the No. 1 ranking. This year, three different women held the No. 2 ranking behind Serena: Sharapova, Halep, and Kvitova. In what year on tour did the most different women hold the No. 2 ranking? What about the men for both No 1 and 2?
• If there’s an easy way to obtain this info—absent of leaning on Greg Sharko and Kevin Fischer at the ATP and WTA respectively; two guys whose bosses ought to their know how valuable they are—it eludes me. Which is a problem. Again, tennis needs to step it up in the “access data” department.
Anyway, strictly as a statistical exercise, three different No. 2 players in a year doesn’t strike me as abnormally high. If one player (i.e. Serena) hordes to majority of the points, it stands to reason that there will be fluidity among No. 2–10. Add in injuries, surface preferences and unreliable (Kvitovian?) performers, and you’d expect some churn.
I just had to laugh at the question last week calling out Federer fans specifically in reference to whether Djokovic is dominating due to a “weak era.” Djokovic and Nadal fans have done the same thing in trying to discredit Federer's accomplishments with similar arguments and not just on this topic.
The bottom line is all three of these guys have accomplished quite a bit despite playing in mostly the same era. Federer is 5–6 years older than both of them so not quite the same era, but these guys have played each other so often that it feels like they are all the same age. But in that respect, there's no doubt that Fed facing the younger Nadal and Djokovic is quite a bit tougher than Djokovic facing the younger Nishikori and Dimitrov. No doubt “generation-next” has not been on par with Fed/Djoker/Nadal. And so far, I'm not sure about “generation-next-next” either. I just wish rabid fans would stop trying to diminish anything Fed, Djokovic and Nadal have done. They are all great players made even more so because they did it against each other.
• Well put. While we’re here, consider this our semi-annual reminder to enjoy this gilt era more, and denigrate The Troika less. I also think we need to re-examine the very idea of “generations.” At a time when careers span 15 years, maybe generations should now span five years, not three.
What is lost in Federer's victory over Nadal in Basel is the fact that even when Nadal was beating Federer regularly, Federer still would win against Nadal on an indoor surface. And an argument can be made that indoors is the least credible tennis surface, as evidenced by the fact that the indoor season comes after all the majors have been played and most ATP players are simply playing out the string. Is the significance of Federer's win over Nadal being exaggerated?
• I think we need to define the significance first. It’s a nice win for Federer. It enables him chip to away a bit at the head-to-head. It’s obviously his first win over Nadal as a 34-year-old. But, as you imply, an indoor win the day after Halloween, is not exactly the same as a win on a conventional surface, in the middle of the season, much less at a major.
I come at this neutrally: but as a thought exercise, imagine if Nadal had won. The narrative. Even in this season of torpor and disappointment; even indoors; even late in the season; even in Federer’s frickin’ hometown, even with Federer favored and ranked higher…Nadal still wins their head-to-heads!
Hey Jon, please finish this story: Albus Dumbledore walks into Dimitrov's hotel room in Paris. Grigor is sleeping peacefully knowing that he is unbeaten in November. But Albus is not happy and decides to bless Grigor with three boons to help the young lad take his tennis to greater Slam-winning heights. He raises his wand and......
• Freezes Djokovic’s racket for the next five years?
• On our most recent Podcast, the witty and charming Courtney Nguyen stops by to discuss the state of the WTA Tour. Be sure to share your feedback, suggestions for guests and comments on the podcast on Twitter @SI_Tennis or with me at email@example.com.
• Our “Brain on Sports” podcast featured Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne. Given my absence of cricket knowledge, this was a wide-ranging discussion that dwells mostly on talent and athletes’ decisions about retirement. When we were done, we had an animated discussion about tennis. Both of them play Warne claims that Federer will attest to wickedness of his kick serve.
• Loyal reader Nestor Cotiyam of Quezon City, Philippines, offers this perspective from Asia:
The WTA Finals in Singapore was so much fun! Totally enjoyed watching the singles and doubles matches. I didn’t get to see my dear Venus Williams, my all-time favorite, but I am just so happy that she is healthy and playing well again and decided to go to Zhuhai for the WTA Elite Trophy. WTA is really doing great for us Asian fans by having these tournaments and I hope they continue to do so for many more years. But if I may suggest a little tweak to the calendar: How about swapping the schedules of the WTA Elite Trophy (players ranked No. 9-20) tournament and the WTA Finals (players ranked 1-8) so that the yearend championships actually closes the WTA year?
• Data, not opinion….
Paul Haskins of Wilmington, NC pointed us to this FiveThirtyEight piece on the “biggest upset” in tennis history.
• Oh, the irony! Here’s Genie Bouchard’s latest:
• What's Torben Ulrich up to and where can I purchase his tennis ball art? Funny you should ask. Here’s your answer.
• Press releasing: The USTA announced that ESPN3 and WatchESPN will deliver the men’s and women’s singles semifinals and finals of the 2015 USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships Nov. 14–15. The full singles and doubles fields, subject to change, are available on the ITA’s website.
• Press releasing No. 2: PlaySight and the ITA are proud to announce an exciting new tennis and technology partnership. Both organizations share the same goal: to grow the profile and success of collegiate tennis across the country.
HAVE A GREAT WEEK, EVERYONE!