Mailbag: Nadal is in state of decline but it's not irreversible
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As a huge Nadal fan these past 10 years, it is obvious that he is losing (even on clay) because his court coverage has decreased due to age/wear and tear. He used to make players win points 3x to actually win the point. Now some are able to hit it by him, even on clay. The young Nadal established this aura primarily (not exclusively) because of his unbelievable defense. Most opponents were psyched out because his perseverance in each point was overwhelming. He will never get this back. Tweaking his forehand, backhand and serve will only accomplish so much, and therefore it will be difficult for him to regain that aura/confidence. It is always surprising when writers and commentators focus so much on his strokes. They are missing the main point. What say you?
• The “What’s up with Nadal?” questions hit the double-digit mark this week, after his latest loss to a lesser-ranked player—on clay, no less. This time it was Pablo Cuevas, the kind of journeymen Nadal would dispatch 6–2, 6–2 not long ago.
We want easy solutions and explanations. Fire Toni! Take a year off! Quit now! But this doesn’t lend itself to hot takes. We are, undeniably, witnessing an athlete in decline. And tennis is both the cruelest of sports and the most accommodating. You can’t handpick your opponent the way an aging boxer can. You can’t accept a lesser role or specialize. You go out there and play and—without fig leaves to spare you embarrassment—you are completely exposed.
In the case of Nadal, his declining confidence is apparent in all kinds of ways. You see earmarks (especially on clay, where those marks serve as forensic evidence) that his shots are not penetrating the court, that his positioning is passive. You see it on the stat sheet, too. Reader Rohit Sudarshan noted: “It was a tough South American trip for Rafa Nadal. The problem is twofold; he's showing vulnerability to lower ranked players, and he's struggling to win decisive points/deciding sets. From 2013 to 2014, 21% of his matches went to deciding sets but he won 83% of those matches. Since the start of 2015, 30% of his matches end in deciding sets, but he's winning just 57% of those matches.”
The good news about tennis: decline is seldom irreversible. Confidence and aura can return quite easily. It only takes seven matches in a two-week window to completely reframe your career. The transience of the sport can be exhilarating in its way. (It’s not like you're going to the same lousy arena every day; surfaces and conditions and locales are always changing.) Nadal is not yet 30. His body, improbably, is holding up. Nadal may never win a 15th major. But I don't see how you flatly write off a player of his caliber. The first step is regaining that self-belief and translating that on the court. Taking more risks on the serve, in the rallies and on big points. Playing closer to the baseline. Finishing off third sets. Right now, he doesn’t need a new coach so much as needs Stuart Smalley reminding him of who he is.
You may be in the minority not being outraged with Gael Monfils. Imagine if you were a teacher and there was a middle of the road kid, but then out of nowhere, he excelled, only to drop off again. And the cycle kept happening. Wouldn't you be a little troubled? That is how many tennis fans feel when Monfils and Gulbis (have to throw him in this conversation) go through their productive times and they do not last. You expect more and when it does not happen, you are left shaking your head. I just hope Nick Kyrgios becomes the next young Slam winner and not the next underachieving Monfils/Gulbis, because he could go either way.
—Shlomo Kreitman, Passaic, N.J.
• I hear you and agree that I am in the minority and you are not. But my spin on your school/teacher analogy: Monfils is the kid who could potentially get straight A’s but prefers the entertainment of the school band to the rigor of academics. He’s not a tortured soul—he is conscious of and comfortable with his decision and his preference. He is not mean to the other kids; on the contrary, he’s a popular member of the student body. He does not get into trouble. He simply prefers a path of artistry to a path of singular focus pure empirical achievement.
The flaw in the analogy, of course, is that sports is/are not school. It is competition. There is a loser for every winner. You’re not there to hang out and play “Twenty-five or six two four” in the band room. And if you’re not fully committed to being a winner—for residing on the left-hand side of that d. designation—why even bother?
Still, it’s hard for me to work up much outrage about Monfils. The cast is, in the end, richer for his presence. Plus, he’s not an a$%hole.
Is it too late for Indian Wells to add a small mixed doubles tournament this year? With the Olympic mixed doubles coming up and the excitement of teams like Federer/Hingis, an 8-team draw of potential Olympic pairings would be great. Raonic/Bouchard. Williams/Isner. Lots of possibilities.
—Ken Wells, Mole Creek, Tasmania
• Boom. Great idea. And you’re right: especially in the year of Olympic tennis —to be played on hard courts, no less—it makes all the sense in the world. Larry Ellison, you have a call on line one….
Dear Jon. I liked your podcast with Justin Gimelstob a lot. He was honest and I respected that when you asked him some hard questions, he gave you real answers. I’m just wondering, as you talk about conflicts of interest in tennis what would you do to change things? And is it realistic to think that things will change?
—Peter, Philadelphia, Pa.
• What was it Big Country once sang? “I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert.” But I am expecting management groups not to both represent players and events. And that no one serving on the USTA board should derive salary from USTA-funded projects. And that wild cards are distributed equitably.
To me, part of it is about establishing some basic policies and best practices. This isn’t a moral crusade, so much as it’s about doing what’s best for the business. All the coziness is a growth stunter. It’s also about disclosure. (And to his credit, Justin, unlike others, is very up-front about his various and sundry duties. At least everyone knows that he has a financial relationship with one player, John Isner, while serving on a board designed to oversee the best interests of all players.) “Transparent”—apart from being the name of the best show on Amazon—has become a term so laughably overused it has lost meaning. But the principle stands.
I’m 49, former D-III college participant, and avid tennis fan (for now). After Federer retires, I expect my interest in watching to drop to near zero. I think I’m typical of many fans, especially in my age group. Do you agree? IMO, the technological advancement of the racket, coupled with fewer variations in playing surfaces and the tennis ball itself, as compared to a generation ago, has resulted in a homogenous, boring-to-watch game with no contrasting styles. Almost all of the players below the top five are interchangeable. It’s amazing to watch Wimbledon and at the end of the tournament to see that the T at the service box is not worn out. If you could force all of the current players to use a Dunlop Maxply Fort racket for a grass tournament, who do you think would win? Who would be hurt the most by a return to the 1970s? I think Nadal would be most greatly affected in a negative way. I think a Fed-Djokovic match would resemble vintage McEnroe-Borg.
—Bill in N.J.
• There’s no question men’s tennis will have an adjustment period after Federer and the Big Four depart. In a circular kind of way, it will be worsened by the fact that so few other players are significantly accomplished. (Of course, if they were accomplished, that would diminish the greatness of the Big Four.) But I urge you to hang around. Sports have a great way of regenerating. It’s like when starfish lose limbs. “The NBA is over when Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson leave. No, wait, there’s this teenager from Akron with the body of a man….”
As for your question, there’s no doubt that equipment has played a role in the homogenization. Players will tell you it’s more about the strings than the racket. The shrinking differences among the surfaces has also exacted a price. But a) I still see lots of diversity. We can cherry pick. Dustin Brown versus Ferrer! Radwanska versus Pliskova! But just look at all the body types. If tennis were simply this mono-sport, it would weed out body types. b) I tend to think we overrate the impact of equipment of rankings. If everyone suddenly had to play with graphite or wood (or long-handled skillets) I suspect the top of the spot would look much as it does now.
Hope winter is treating you well. So, Simona Halep just lost another early round match. (Although Vesnina is a solid player.) Could a ranking plummet be just what Halep needs? Her results seem best when the expectations are low. Her talent and personality are great for the game but I'm starting to wonder about her long-term prospects. Is it time for her fans to panic?
—Cainim, now in Minnesota
• There’s no panic in tennis. Mild concern? Yes. Halep sent that grim Facebook post after her Australian Open loss. A member of her camp told me that during the offseason, she had days when her virus was so bad, she struggled to get out of bed. She vowed to take time off. And then—poof—she’s showing up in the Middle East to play February events. I suspect she just needs time off. (Indian Wells starts in just two weeks!
In what has been a great week for Italian Tennis—Roberta Vinci breaking into the Top 10, Sara Errani winning her first Premier title in Dubai and Francesca Schiavone reaching her first final since 2013 (and potentially winning her first title since then too as this was written before the final was played)—I just wanted to get your view on this great generation of Italian players who along with Flavia Pennetta have had an incredible impact in the world of tennis. They have all been ranked in the world's Top 10. Combined they have won 36 WTA Tour titles (37 if Schiavone wins this week too) including two Grand Slam singles titles and have also reached another three Slam finals, have collectively won six Grand Slam doubles titles (including a full sweep of all four as a team for Errani/Vinci) and also been Fed Cup champions four times. What a record! So often I read articles or commentaries on tennis players not reaching their full potential. How refreshing therefore to see a group of players who have maximized their talents, made the most of the opportunities which have come their way and seemingly used each other's successes to spur them on to reach their own.
What do you make of this remarkable quartet and how do you think they will be remembered once they all decided to hang up their rackets? I look forward to hearing your views. Love the column.
—Christopher, a loyal reader from the U.K.
• Bravissima or brave. Or whatever the correct plural female ending is. That’s a really good point and I can't recall it being made quite like that. This has been a—what’s the equivalent of belle époque?—for Italian women’s tennis. And there’s similarity and symmetry among the players. None is physically imposing. All have their quirks. And each maxed out their talent. Put another way: no one is sizing up Schiavone or Errani or Vinci or Pennetta and saying, “Too bad they didn’t fulfill their potential.” (Note to self: there is a good Tennis Channel feature here.) Another good point you raise: in no small part because of the 2015 U.S. Open final (as well as the Errani-Vinci doubles partnership), these players benefit from the cluster. They will be recalled as an Italian collective, an Olive Garden combo meal as it were.
Enjoy your tennis podcasts. Requested interview question: As a tennis player I’m interested in the players thoughts while playing. I suspect most will tell you they think tactics or just play instinctively. However, at the lower (much) level instructional thoughts (watch the ball, move your feet, etc.) tend to happen while the point is going on. I’d love to hear if some pros do this (perhaps while things aren’t going well) and if they do what their thought mantras might be.
—Joe Basco, Tx.
• Great idea. Cutting-and-pasting your email will serve as a remind that we should do a podcast with a pro aimed at helping recreational players.
Great interview with Pearlman. More Beyond the Baseline Podcast interview suggestions: cancer survivors Victoria Duval, Corina Morariu.
—Wilbert (Wil) Lewis Blake Jr.
• Hey thanks. A few of you asked about it—including a loyal reader who saw me in person last night—so grudgingly, I’ll link this. (There’s actually some tennis riffing). I like your ideas for the podcast, too.
You say Kvitova could quit tomorrow + have a Hall of Fame career. Surely Mary Pierce achieved more but you aren't sure of her?
• I might go weasel on you and say that Kvitova’s two Wimbledon titles exceed one Australian and one French. But I wouldn’t be arguing with conviction. I think you are correct. If you admit Kvitova into the club, you have to admit Mary Pierce. I can’t recall expressing ambivalence about her but I am pretty okay with her. Not only did she win majors but she did so at a time when the WTA was loaded. (Look at that French she won. Other players in the draw: Hingis, V. Williams, Davenport, Seles, Capriati, Davenport, Mauresmo Sanchez-Vicario.) I also give Pierce bonus point for overcoming a fairly horrific personal situation.
I submitted the Laver vs. Rosewall question in response to your column re: tennis rivalries. See the subject field in my February 10 message.
—Mark Flannery, Fullerton, Ca.
• Got it. Fair enough. The subject was “Tennis Rivalries.” This rivalry predates me, but, wow: They played 144 times!?
Can you tell us your top five left-handers of all time? Men and women, Nadal and Navratilova excluded. #mailbag
• Laver, Martina, Nadal, Seles, tie: Connors/McEnroe. I’m doing this off the top of my head and feel like a) I’m leaving someone out and b) it would be dishonest to Google it. Feel free to send your own.
When was the last time every single seed in a tournament lost her/his first match? #dubiousindubai
And wow, what a missed opportunity for Madison Brengle.
• What a missed opportunity for so many. Check out this decimated draw.
• The most recent SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline podcast was with Justin Gimelstob.
• Next guest on the Podcast will be Andre Agassi.
• Roger Federer + Infographics = this.
• Tennis’ version of Cannonball Run—i.e. the derby to sign Francis Tiafoe now that he turned 18— has been won by….CAA.
• Bill Simons—who will not be renaming Inside Tennis, “The Ringer”—has a short piece on Harper Lee and tennis.
• Maria Sharapova is coming to a Topps set near you.
• Frontrunner for best press release of 2016: “Nulo Pet Food is proud to announce a new ambassadorship with top ranked American tennis player, John Isner, and his dog, Magill.”
• More press releasing: Mary Edman has been appointed as the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's new Membership Coordinator. Edman, a 2015 graduate of Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado, began her duties with the ITA on February 16.
• The two most recent champions of the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship—Jack Sock (2015) and Fernando Verdasco (2014)—will return to River Oaks for the 2016 tournament. Fabio Fognini, the top-ranked Italian on the ATP World Tour, has also committed to the April 4-10 tournament.
• Two young WTA players have joined the 2016 Volvo Car Open's player field: Sloane Stephens and Genie Bouchard. Stephens and Bouchard join Angelique Kerber, Belinda Bencic, Venus Williams and more in the April tournament, taking place on Daniel Island in Charleston, S.C.
• The Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation will take over the management of the $10,000 “Futures” tennis tournament. The tournament will be called The Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships and will now benefit the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation, the non-profit tennis foundation benefiting children.
• LT from Toronto has LLS: There's a contestant on this season of American Idol named Olivia Rox (doubtful that's her real last name). Anyhow, she looks about 10 feet tall and strikingly similar to Maria Sharapova. (Ed: I always thought Tea Leoni was a Sharapova double. Also, I see Ivanka Trump and I expect to see windshield-wiper forehands and hear grunting.)