Tuesday September 27th, 2016

Quick housekeeping:

1) Again this year, I’ll take collective fan input into account when casting my Hall of Fame vote. This year’s candidates: Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters. Maybe easiest to weigh in via Twitter?

2) Martina Navratilova was, characteristically, super-awesome as a podcast guest. Listen here.  

3) Between/among Lucas Pouille, Alexander Zverev and Naomi Osaka, it seems like last weekend offered a vivid—and pleasant—view into the tennis future, no?

4) A reader scored Monday night’s debate 4-6, 6-1, 6-0 in favor of Hillary. Maybe we’ll try a real time tennis scoreboard for the next one….

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If Roddick gets in there is no reason Kafelnikov shouldn't too.

• This issue comes up all the time and I feel like it’s one of the great “unspoken topics” in tennis. Kafelnikov’s fans have asked—quite reasonably—for explanation and a justification of his rejected candidacy and this apparent double standard. With some trepidation, here goes: Going strictly by achievements, Yevgeny Kafelnikov deserves to be in the Hall of Fame; it’s hard to argue otherwise, especially given precedent. Multiple majors, a stint atop the rankings, Olympic success, doubles success. Players credentialed far more modestly have been voted in.

Yet—while harder to support empirically—there is what I’ll call a “citizenship component.” Did the player make a positive impact on the culture of the sport? Did the player respect the sport? Did the player have the comportment and professionalism worthy of enshrinement? The respect of their peers? I think Kafelnikov failed significantly here. And while I speak only for myself, his failed candidacy suggests that others feel likewise.

Even during the height of his career, Kafelnikov did little outwardly to advance the sport. He was notorious for taking advantage of a flawed “best of” ranking system by over-playing, banking appearance fee lucre and then tanking. Here’s a story from 1999.

The money quote is from the Czech Open tournament director who found Kafelnikov’s effort so lacking that the declined to pay a guarantee. ("I don't distinguish between a secretary and a Kafelnikov. No work, no money.") Again, this is the No. 1-ranked player in the world and he’s making headlines not simply for losing, but for tanking?

Mailbag: The rationale behind therapeutic drug exemptions in tennis

Among ATP employees, there was a nickname conferred on Kafelnikov: Dr. No. Why? They knew all-too-well that requests—visiting hospitals, meeting sponsors, sitting for interviews—would be greeted reflexively in the negative. It was unclear, at best, that Kafelnikov had the esteem of other players. One example among many, note this dispute with Andre Agassi—at the stage of his career when Agassi was a wise soul and did not pick fights gratuitously. (Agassi: ''My feelings are he should take his prize money when he's done here and go buy some perspective.'')

The denouement of Kafelnikov’s career was also—how to put this?—unworthy of a champion. In October of 2003, Kafelnikov’s name surfaced in a match-fixing allegation based on irregular patterns cited by Betfair. We stress that Kafelnikov stridently denied involvement and he never faced discipline from the ATP. Yet the week after this report marked the last time he played a sanctioned match. He was 29 at the time. By the time he resurfaced to officially retire, he was trying to make it as a professional poker player.

The absence of ironclad guidelines for the Hall of Fame make the selection exercise inherently fraught. But it allows us to fashion our own criteria. In the case of Kafelnikov, if we go strictly by empirical achievements, it’s one discussion. If we believe there’s a good-of-the-sport consideration, you can reach much different discussion. And I do.

The more success Stan Wawrinka has, the more I put Andy Murray's under a microscope. Why? Because now a less-touted-as-the-next-Big-Thing has three Grand Slams, the same as Murray. Murray was initially included in the "Big" based on expectations and talent; then came the results at the Masters. But in all honesty, his Grand Slam success has been good, but not by the standards of his potential.

Enter Stan the Man. He's 3-0 on Slam Finals. Has beaten current No. 1s en route to each and every one of them AND his Slam resume is more diverse than Murray's. Yes, he's lacking consistency the rest of the year. But, using the Buzzword "Hall of Fame"... If Murray has a HOF career because he's is a multi Slam winner, by definition, so should Stan. If Murray is part of the "Big" Club, then Stan should be too. If tennis' pundits don't start recognizing him as such, then the much problematic bias that rules the sport will be in full bloom.  

STAN WAWRINKA IS PART OF THE "BIG" CLUB. Don't hate the player. Hate the game. A game that he plays big when it counts.
María del Carmen Sánchez

• Fair enough. One of you put it this way: What’s better, going 3-0 in Grand Slam finals, or 3-8? Interesting. Though, I think it’s a no-brainer. Give me 11 finals over three any day. This Big Three/Four/Four characterization is open for discussion. This week anyway, let’s agree that concentrated excellence is preferable to parity.

Djokovic withdraws from China Open because of injury

So do you think Maria Sharapova is looking at Varvara Lepchenko and kicking herself for being honest about taking meldonium for the first two weeks of 2016?
Miles Benson, Hudson, Mass.

• We had a lot of back and forth on Twitter about Sharapova. Let’s be clear: per another excellent bit of reporting from Ben Rothenberg, Lepchenko was cleared because she was able to demonstrate that her meldonium use came prior to 2016 when it was not on the banned list. Sharapova, by contrast, conceded that her use continued into 2016. That’s a significant difference.

Yet, I’m a little troubled that you have two players testing positive for the same drug during the same testing cycle; one gets cleared after proving the use was retroactive. The other gets two years, nearly 20% of her career. (Again, compare this to suspension lengths for first-time doping offenses in other sports. Union much?)

I think one reason Sharapova’s doping and suspension has triggered such a strong response is because of the various offsetting factors. (Even in the media, I have some colleagues who think this is a “witch hunt” and unduly harsh; while others think even two years is insufficient.) In Sharapova’s favor: the evidence that meldonium is a performance enhancer is weak. Her error seems to be more one of sloppiness/arrogance and less an intention to break rules. She did take the step of conceding use in 2016, which was going to trigger punishment automatically. (The cynic wonders whether, while morally bankrupt, she could have tried to assert that her use was all prior to 2016.)

Factors against Sharapova, apart from prima facie rule breaking: if this had been strictly an innocent mistake, why had she failed to list meldonium on her doping forms? Her litany of reasons for taking meldonium not only drew skepticism from medical professional but was shredded by the tribunal. And if she was going to get exposed anyway, was her press conference “brave” or was it simply an athlete with vast means trying to control the narrative?

The Sharapova camp is preparing a lengthy public rebuttal, that we are happy to share when available. For now, the proverbial ball is in CAS’s court, which will likely rule on her appeal within the next week.

Serena Williams writes powerful message on police violence: ‘I won't be silent’

Let me preface this question by first saying that I am a HUGE Williams' fan, as well as intrigued by the talent that Pliskova has shown [at the U.S. Open]. With that said...

Inevitably, the few times that a player has been close to the opportunity, announcers go wild with the factoid "X number of players have beaten both Venus and Serena in the same tournament" and this gets further narrowed down during major play with "only X number of players....in a major tournament" 

While this is certainly an accomplishment, and Pliskova is the most unlikely of names added to that short list, I'm curious about how many players have actually had the opportunity to pull off the feat. Given that the sisters spent time on opposite sides of the draw in their early years, Serena missing a considerable number of majors during the middle part of her career, and Venus until late, rarely made it past the third round, my sense is that there are only a handful of players who even had the opportunity to join the club, and much fewer than the statement implies. Any idea?
David M.

• Fair point. This is a classic case of a sports statistic that sounds nifty on its face but has minimal value without more context. The way the stat was presented, the sisters were so formidable that it was damn near impossible to beat both at the same event. But for the reason Dave suggests, it’s fairly hollow. How many times did V/S play the same tournament? How many times were they on the same side of the draw? How many times was one eliminated before it was even possible for an opponent to face the other? What is the rate of ANY player beating two comparably seeded opponent at the same event?

For the record, Pliskova became the sixth player to pull off a Williams-Williams special. The others? Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.

Alexander Zverev stuns Stan Wawrinka for St. Petersburg title

Hello Mr. Wertheim: Dirk Nowitzki remains a pleasantly surprising selection of interview candidates as basketball and Texas suggest among others: John Lucas, Mattress Mac, Nancy Lieberman, Drew Brees, Tony Parker, John Wilkinson, SMU and Trinity regularly play tennis. Though not a Texan, Ion Tiriac might also offer an insightful interview.
Regards, Wil Blake

• Thanks. Wil is our leading podcast guest recommender. We have some good ones lined up but feel free to keep the suggestions coming.

Following on from the question last week about when was the last time only one member of the Big 4 made it to a Grand Slam semifinal: How many Grand Slam and Masters 1000 semifinals have the Big 4 ALL been in? And is this the most number of "major" semifinals that any group of four players have participated in?
Giri Rao, Frisco, Texas

• Sharko is on it. And as long as we’re here, meet the man

Shots, Miscellany

• ITF President David Haggerty announced that Kelly Fairweather will become ITF chief operating officer, effective January 1, 2017. Fairweather is currently chief executive officer of the International Hockey Federation, based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

• Want a reason to like the San Francisco Giants star, Buster Posey? Watch this.

From Austin Karp at SBJ: The U.S. Open finished this year with a total of 688,542 fans coming to Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, marking the event’s lowest total since '11, when there were many ticket exchanges under the USTA’s inclement weather policy. The event’s 24 sessions averaged 28,689 fans, marking the U.S. Open’s second-best figure, behind only last year’s 28,803 (also 24 sessions). From ’01-14, the event scheduled 26 sessions (’11 had 23 sessions due to weather).
The U.S. Open this year set day-session attendance records twice, as 40,780 fans came on both the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend. A night-session record 25,017 fans came on Sept. 4. There were six sessions this year played under the new roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Top storylines to watch for ATP's Shenzhen Open and inaugural Chengdu Open

• Reader James Pham is a contributor for this week's Shenzhen Open tournament and will also do some reporting for SI.com.

This week’s Reader Rant—courtesy of Subhadeep Gan of Cincinnati, Ohio— is not a rant at all, but rather a lovely story about CVG airport: Saturday, August 20 morning. I walk in the Delta gate ready to leave for my two-week vacation in Europe. Am I seeing it right? Rafael Nadal is sitting alone at the Delta counter reading a magazine. Loss at Cincinnati headed to NYC was my conclusion. Looked around and found no entourage. With lots of courage approached him and sheepishly said hi. He looked up with a nice big smile and said hello. Asked if I could take a picture and he asked me to sit down with him and put his hands on my shoulder like a buddy and let my friend take couple of pictures. Couldn't believe I am rubbing with shoulders with 14-time Grand Slam winner, two-time gold medalist in Olympics and if I am not wrong, five-time Davis cup winning team member. So humble and gracious. He also had such a gentle demeanor compared to when he is playing on court like a Spanish bull.

Two of his team members arrived a bit later and coincidentally we ended up in the TSA security line at the same time and all of them asked me to go ahead. As were waiting for security we even chit-chatted: confirmed he is headed to NYC for U.S. Open, talked a bit about Olympics doubles gold and his match with DelPo. Of course, a picture is worth a thousand words.

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