Mailbag: Early French Open storylines; too-soon retirements
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While being a good soldier and noting that Tennis Channel will be covering the French Open live from Paris, dusk-till-dawn starting May 22…..
For a casual fan who follows tennis at the majors but loses the plot during the year, I wonder if you can give us some storylines heading into the 2016 French Open?
—Matt Lewis, Brooklyn
• We’ll do a full French Open preview next week and—with some luck and groveling—we might rope a certain California-based WTA Hall of Famer into a preview podcast. But, sure, here are three stories to follow:
1) Can Novak Djokovic overcome his career bugbear and win the French Open title? (If so, this would mean many things: completing the Career Slam; bolstering his GOAT candidacy; avenging last year’s defeat by Stanimal; looking pretty, halfway to a Grand Slam.)
2) Can Serena find her juju and mojo and assorted other vaguely exotic-sounding non-words denoting aura? For all her excellence, it’s been more than 10 months since her last major.
3) Whither (or wither) Federer, Nadal and Murray. Federer is up to No. 2 in the rankings—more on this below—but has done little since Australia, on account of illness and injury. Nadal is in a better place than he was last year, but is still clawing back. Can he find the magic in Paris for a 10th time? Can Murray (sans Amelie) build on his play in Madrid and make inroads against Djokovic?
4) Can others emerge? This applies to both genders. More than ever players make their bones at the majors. Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Simona Halep, Belinda Bencic and even you Victoria Azarenka…. Big results are nice at the run-of-the-mill events. But, ultimately, you assert yourself at the Big Four.
5) Can Angie Kerber keep her Grand Slam hopes alive?
Post Borg, whose retirement do you feel was most premature, with the biggest potential loss to the sport? I would exclude Kim and Justine because they came back, and anyone that was specifically injured, sad as that is. And conversely, was anyone's last few years of their career painful for you to watch, wishing they would have called it a day a little bit earlier?
—Robert J., Toronto, Ontario, Canada
• Let’s go in reverse order. In 2002, Pete Sampras lost to the likes of Wayne Ferreira (his career long nemesis), Fernando Gonzalez, Alex Corretja on grass, Felix Mantilla, Max Mirnyi, Nicolas Escude, Andrea Gaudenzi, and then George Bastl at Wimbledon, prompting Boris Becker to declare this. This was excruciating. And the summer was no better for Sampras: three hard court events in the U.S. resulted in losses to Tommy Haas, Wayne Arthurs, Paul-Hank Mathieu. This was, at the time, the all-time leader in majors, a thoroughly dignified champion. And each week was like watching Muhammad Ali lose to Trevor Berbick. Then of course—cue music—Sampras remembers that he is Pete Sampras. And promptly wins the U.S. Open. This was one of the great performances of Sampras’ career. It doubles as a reminder that athletes often know themselves better than the rest of us do.
As for athletes who retired too early….I suspect a lot of players watch Serena Williams and even Federer winning into their 30s and think, “I should have kept going.” John McEnroe won his last major in 1984 when he was 24. Consider: Djokovic is middle aged and turns 29 next week. A refrain you hear much more often: I wish I had been smarter about my schedule. I was recently talking about this with Martina Navratilova (he says name-droppingly). Had she known she would one day be judged almost solely on the basis of majors won, she wouldn’t have skipped the Aussie Open fourteen—14!— times.
I really don’t understand some of the top pros’ aversion to playing in the Olympics. Isner would rather play in Atlanta; Thiem says it’s not a priority for him; and others haven’t done enough to qualify. If you’re a pro playing at the same locations year after year, wouldn’t it be interesting to play somewhere different or at least for an OLYMPIC MEDAL?
—Dax in Indianapolis
• Four years ago, there was a sense that the Olympics was akin to a fifth major. Virtually every (uninjured) eligible player competed. Many players were flag-bearers at the opening ceremonies. There were tears after losses. When Serena Williams and Andy Murray took singles gold, it further certified the event.
This year, the enthusiasm seems a bit diminished. This owes to everything from Zika to an already-crowded schedule. As careers grow longer, more players than ever are Olympics veterans. That includes Isner. He has already has the experience. Now, he can stay in the U.S. and improve his ranking (and net worth via appearance fees). Or go through the Olympic experience, which is cool, yes, but has some lost novelty and entails much hassle. You and I might choose otherwise, but you can see where it might pose a dilemma.
Here is a way the on-court coaching system can be misused on the WTA tour: Player A calls her coach. That interaction is shown on TV. Player's B coach sees it on his phone/tablet. Then he signals to his ward, meets her (Player B) and bases his instructions on what he saw and heard. This is a clear disadvantage for Player A. This is possible, right?
• Fair enough. What about this: Player A’s coach consults data during the match while he glances at his phone. (And, regrettably, the vast majority of WTA coaches are male.) Not winners and errors, which often flash on the courtside scoreboard and allow mindful players to consult themselves on changeovers. But serve placement and advanced metrics about court positioning and the like. Then he conveys this to his charge.
I suspect we’ve mentioned it before, but on-court coaching is just the worst. It's the Nickelback of sports gimmicks, the tempeh burger of so-called innovation. It reeks of desperation, a lame attempt to attract an electrons partner. It bastardizes one of the great virtues of the sport, that of self-sufficiency. The optics are horrible, undermining the WTA’s otherwise valid message of strong women. That the losing players are almost always the ones to summon coaching means that the interactions are usually negative.
Hi Jon, I say this as an unabashed Monica Seles fan, but do you suppose grunting in tennis became more acceptable as a consequence of her stabbing incident? Before that seminal moment in sports, she was criticized, and afterward I don't recall a peep. Since that time I wonder if grunting in general has been given a pass.
—Jon B., Kennewick, Wa.
• Interesting point on Seles. This predated my time covering tennis but I was told that her saving grace was that she hit the ball so damn hard and intensely, the thinking was that this made for an unfortunate soundtrack but was not an act of gamesmanship. Then—I think you’re right—after the tragedy in Hamburg, it was hard to work up any outrage against her.
Always enjoy your column and nice seeing you more on Tennis Channel these days. Two weeks before the French Open, and the 76th-ranked player cannot get direct entry into the French Open? What's the rationale for that? While I have some sympathy for a rule that doesn't take into account points earned at a tournament that ends the day before the French begins, it seems to me that with modern travel and communication, one or two weeks is plenty of time to organize one's affairs, and would properly reward players with solid recent results.
• Thanks, I would agree with that. Time was, the draw cut-offs were made far in advance so players could plan their schedules accordingly. In the age of expedia and Airbnb, these dates probably ought to be moved up so the draws reflect the rankings as closely as possible.
Jon, I'm very curious to get your thoughts on how tennis can subtly position itself as a "safe, concussion-free" sport. Often the best athletes will gravitate to the glamour sports like football (or hockey here in Canada). Given the concerns that parents are starting to have around putting their children into these sports, there could be a great opportunity at a grassroots level to start encouraging kids to pick up tennis. The cost is certainly lower than equipment for insurance-intensive sports like football or hockey. Could this be the catalyst for a resurgence in North American tennis?
—Neil Grammer, Toronto
• Tennis isn’t alone here; I think a lot of sports have an opportunity to take some market share. I’m not sure how this is done tastefully or whether it’s really a selling point. “Concussion-free” is not exactly a choice marketing slogan. (I’m reminded of the Woody Allen line: “The brain is my second favorite organ.”)
I do think tennis ought to take advantage of the aging field. The average NFL career is 3.5 years. The average NBA career is under five years. Even baseball is only 5.6. Sure, tennis players may earn less on average. But Roger Federer is playing his 18th French Open next week. Novak Djokovic—not yet 30—is playing his 12th. Serena Williams is playing for the 15th time. When you can play well into your 30s, the math is a little better. Plus, when you retire you still have your wits about you.
Hi Jon, Both Roger and Andy have 7,525 points, according to the new rankings. So why did Roger edge up to No. 2? Should it not be a tie for No. 2?
—Best regards, Rommel
• From the ATP: “Federer is number two because he has more mandatory points than Murray. Mandatory points are Grand Slam and ATP Masters 1000 points.”
Have you ever seen a better-played return game than this?
And the opponent wasn't some no-name, Roberto Bautista Aghut is No. 17 in rankings and No. 9 in the ATP Race to London this year.
• Thanks for sending this. This encapsulates the greatness of Djokovic and the benefits of a peerless return game. This also encapsulates why it’s often hard to explain his appeal to the casual fan. Federer’s rococo shotmaking? Okay. Serena’s blitzing aces. Got it. Nadal’s lefty spin. I sort of see that. Djokovic’s gifts are more subtle. And in a here-we-are-now-entertain-us world, too often casual fans see Djokovic and say never mind.
• The most recent Sports Illustrated tennis Beyond the Baseline Podcast guest, the inimitable Dick Vitale, tells tennis stories, talks Federer and explains his fandom.
• Next guest: Gerry Marzorati on his new book “Late to the Ball.”
• ATP announced its pension plan results for 2015. The total contribution to the plan for 2015 was $8,596,500. Each player who qualified in 2015 will have $52,100 added to their account, available when they reach the retirement age of 50.
• Nice to see Frances Tiafoe signing with Nike.
• Former NBA vice president Kirsten Corio has been named Managing Director of Ticket and Digital Strategy for the USTA. Corio will report to USTA Chief Revenue Officer Lew Sherr.
• It’s not often we link to TMZ but here’s some tennis-related gossip…
• The ATP and Infosys, a global leader in consulting, technology, outsourcing and next-generation services, have launched a new statistical way to measure the best performing ATP World Tour players across three key categories: serving, returning and under pressure.
• Press releasing: The USTA announced that July’s Davis Cup the between the U.S. and Croatia will be held in Beaverton, Oregon. Remember, it was in Portland that the U.S. last won the Davis Cup in 2007 when the red white and blue, led by Andy Roddick, beat Russia. Stowe, Vt., was also a possible site for the tie, but we were told that altitude was a concern.
• The USTA today announced that eight top junior girls qualified for the 2016 Team USA National Junior Team, a training program designed to give a collection of America’s best young players, born in either 2000 or 2001, opportunities to train together during the summer and travel to play against top junior competition from around the world.
2016 Team USA National Junior Team – Girls
• Amanda Anisimova (14, Aventura, Fla.; Coach: Nick Saviano, Kostya Anisimov)
• Elysia Bolton (16, Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.; Coaches: USTA Training Center – East)
• Carson Branstine (15, Orange, Calif.)
• Abigail Desiatnikov (15, Sandy Springs, Ga.; Coach: Eugene Desiatnikov)
• Ellie Douglas (15, McKinney, Texas)
• Claire Liu (15, Thousand Oaks, Calif.; Coach: Mike Gennette, Adam Peterson)
• Caty McNally (14, Cincinnati; Coach: Lynn McNally)
• Natasha Subhash (14, Fairfax, Va.; Coach: Bear Schofield)
• The Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship along with Keith and Alice Mosing have combined to donate $60,000 to Pediatric Trauma at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital following the 2016 tournament at River Oaks Country Club. Three sources combined to fund the donation.
• Note the John McEnroe reference in this piece.
• Nick De Toustain has LLS: Game of Thrones’ Bran Stark and a young Marin Cilic: