Mailbag: Taking stock of recent coaching changes and partnerships
A flurry of questions came in Tuesday asking Novak Djokovic’s parting with Boris Becker. This may have been the least surprising coaching break-up in recent memory. You have a pairing that’s been together three years. Or roughly 2.5 years longer than many expected. You have a former champion with interests beyond tennis who doesn't necessarily need the money. You have a current champion whose game has stagnated, who speaks openly about mental fatigue, and who has already taken the unusual step of hiring a team member on the grounds that he gives, “absolute priority to the person's well-being, feelings and emotions.” (There are no rules about monogamy, but you imagine Boris saying, “What? I don’t give absolute priority to your emotions?”) On the continuum of surprise break-ups, suffice to say this is closer to Brad and Angelina than Al and Tipper Gore.
A tip of the cap—the white, wide brimmed baseball hat—to Becker. He established himself as a real super coach and his record speaks for itself. Six out of 12 Slams won on his watch? Keep the watch. I suspect other offers will be forthcoming should he wish to stay in the coaching game.
And good for Djokovic for recognizing that the relationship had hit its expiration date. Now he can try and apply the jumper cables to a career under a new coach. A few years ago we had this flurry of “celebrity coaches.” Edberg-Federer. Lendl-Murray. Navratilova-Radwanska. Goran-Cilic. Davenport-Keys. Who would have thought Becker-Djokovic would be the most successful—and long lasting—of them all.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Buy, sell or hold: Monica Puig.
—Teddy C, in NYC
• I definitely wouldn’t sell. Sure it would have been nice had she had spent the fall building a bit more robustly on that Olympic gold medal. But that week in Rio should be the kind of confidence inflator she can access anytime. Poised play in big matches. Effective counterpunching against bigger ballstrikers. Taking down former Grand Slam champs and the player who is now the world No.1.
Bear in mind, too, Puig was awarded no ranking points for the title. And still, she is currently at No. 32, high enough to be seeded at the next major. With a new level of stardom—globally, but especially in Puerto Rico—the last few months have surely been an adjustment. You suspect she’ll get accustomed to her new status and continue climbing in 2017.
Jon, I've got a strong buy on Novak for 2017. Like a Buffet blue chipper, the fundamentals haven't materially changed and he's currently trading at a discount. He has no discernable injuries and his movement is still excellent. I think the first round loss in Rio damaged his psyche more than the market realized at the time and now it's baked into his "stock price." Once he gets back on his home court in Melbourne and takes home another Slam look for a run up that may surpass his previous 52-week high. Buy this stock!
—Neil Grammer, Toronto
• As we discussed, Djokovic is a volatile enterprise. Some absolutely gangbusters years (2011 and 2015) and then some years of underperformance. If I’m in the buy-sell-hold game here, I think his Q1— i.e. Australia—is crucial. If he wins again, you assume the inefficiencies have been corrected and we’re back in business. If he doesn’t win in Melbourne it will mark a still underperforming quarter—three in a row—and, with age 30 approaching, you wonder where this stock is headed.
I do agree that “the fundamentals haven't materially changed.” You can’t point to a concerning injury or a moment of reckoning that would explain this drop-off. This could fuel you with optimism that it won’t take much for Djokovic to return to three-Slams-a-year mode. You could also be fueled with concern that his drop-off is organic.
I'm interested in your take on the comparison between Stan Wawrinka and Garbine Muguruza. Except for their ages, they're beginning to look like similar players to me and I could see their careers ending with similar stats. Dangerous, powerful, and when they get in their zone, they can beat just about anyone on any surface. But when they're off, a little off-balance or nervous or distracted, things can go wrong in a hurry. This year, they each peaked at one major and played excellent finals against two of the greatest of all time, yet flamed out early elsewhere. Wawrinka has been more consistent during the year, with fewer mystifying losses, but they're also both exciting to watch because you never know what you're going to get. I'd love to see them play mixed together….what do you think?
—Willie T., Brooklyn, N.Y.
• That’s not bad. The obvious difference—apart from the rococo one-hander versus the textbook two-hander—is, as you note, the age difference. Wawrinka has nearly a decade on Mugu. So it might be a little premature to start comparing her. But I agree that they both display a huge range. Catch them in good periods and they can—and do—win Majors. Catch them in blue periods and they can—and do—lose to vastly inferior players.
With all of the talk about expanding into new tennis markets in Asia, do you know why there are no professional tennis tournaments in the Philippines, a country of about 100 million people, and a good number of tennis fans? It seems that even ITPL won't be coming here this year. I learned after the tournament was over last year that there was even a "real" tennis tournament here last year (Manila Open ATP Challenger Event) but I don't see that on any 2017 schedule either. Has ATP (and WTA) concluded that there is no market for tennis here in Manila?
• Good question. I can add that a wildly disproportional amount of my mail comes from the Philippines as well. I don't have a great sense of the economics or the inventory of promoters willing to invest. And there are certainly not local pro players you build around. (The highest ranked Filipino player on the ATP computer rankings checks in at No. 923.) But in terms of an Asian market with tennis fans, yes, it seems that the Philippines is under-served.
The recent arrests in Spain for match fixing on the Challenger and Future Circuits are quite disturbing. One on one athletic competition is particularly susceptible to fixing (you only have to influence one competitor and it is virtually impossible to detect) and because the Challenger and Future matches fly way under the radar, the competitors make very little money, and the governing bodies do not have the resources to watchdog, monitor and conduct investigations, the temptation is even greater. This raises the question of whether legal gambling should be permitted on Challenger and Future matches. Aren't there enough athletic competitions in the market to satisfy the public's gambling lust?
• I am self–conscious about my answer to this because I don’t want it to seem like I am minimizing the very real issue of match-fixing. Once a sport loses trust that the competition is honest, it’s cooked. (That and playing said sport often leads to traumatic head injuries.) And I also am congenitally opposed to spin, having seen often how public relations can be the enemy of truth and transparency.
But—ready, here goes—tennis must do a better job of messaging this. “Pro tennis match fixing” is a terrible headline. But the point needs to be stressed and trumpeted to the masses: this fixing occurs at multiple levels removed from pro tennis as we know it. The “players” being caught are often not players at all. They are hobbyists. Go through the list of suspected and convicted match fixers and note how many have never earned a single ATP ranking point. Note how many have less than, say, $10,000 in career earnings (more on this in a bit.)
Imagine if you work for Major League Baseball and see a headline: “Steroids found in the clubhouse of a pro baseball team.” If it’s the Cubs or Yankees clubhouse it’s one story. If it’s the clubhouse of an independent league team in Manitoba it’s quite another. That’s the equivalent here. The players in Spain were ranked between 800 and 1200. Tennis officials ought to be clear that—intolerable as match fixing is—we’re not taking about the equivalent of the majors.
As we’ve written before, the other issue here is simple economics and game theory. Last month Mexican doubles player Daniel Garza was banned for match fixing.
He is ranked No. 530 and is 31-years-old. His winnings this year were less than $6,000. When he lost in the first round of Pittsburgh earlier this year, his prize money was $36. For the week. Thanks to online betting, tens of thousands of dollars can trade on the smallest of matches. The incentive to venture to the dark side are vast, at least compared to prize money. It’s easy to see why the Daniel Garzas of the world would be tempted. Until the risk/reward calculus changes—ban betting at these dinky events, which is tough; add prize money, which is tough; increase penalties—you will have corruption and players/hobbyists who are rational actors, not moral actors.
So, what really is the psychology behind this decision? We have seen it many times in tennis as well (Clijsters first, and to a smaller extent, Sampras) retiring immediately after they have won a Grand Slam. Last weekend, after three incredibly tough years, Nico Rosberg beat his teammate and arch-rival nemesis to win his first F1 world driver's championship, and he retired three whole days later, without even trying to defend it. Shed some light on the psychology please (in general with regards to sports)?
Why retire at the very Zenith of your career?
• Let’s start with a story. I was in the Midwest last week and—as I often do when I’m out of town—checked the docket for local comedy. I had the good fortune to catch Dana Gould, a former writer for the Simpson’s and an A-list stand-up. (Encourage you to see him or, at a minimum, watch his YouTube clips.) He had a bit about the tragedy of being an astronaut. After you’ve been to the moon, how do you find fulfillment in daily life? How does everything after not have the unscrape-off-able crust of anticlimax? “Hey honey, you’re right. Those batteries are on sale. You know where else I used those batteries? WHEN I WAS IN OUTER SPACE!” (Actually this “Astronaut complex” is real.)
I thought of this Dana Gould riff when I got your question. You are a professional athlete. You know that once you retire, you’re life isn't even half over, and it's likely you will never replicate the charge and excitement and notoriety (and income level) you receive as an active athlete. That in mind, wouldn’t you want to suck the marrow out of this experience, relishing every morsel?
The competing instinct is really the same instinct in miniature: we have this romantic notion of “going out on top” of ending your career at its apex. Athletes strive to win championships. Once you have done that—especially late in a career—there can be a nagging sense that everything else is going to have the odor of anticlimax. Why not quit while you’re ahead?
All of which is to say, we ought to cut athletes a wide berth with their retirement decisions. In fact, we ought to recognize how intensely difficult and this must be and reserve judgment.
Could you enlighten us in your Mailbag on what day the tennis offseason lands on this year?
But seriously, you invited a debate a couple months ago about whether Gael Monfils may be the world's greatest athlete. I could see him as a Richard-Sherman-type defensive back, but Monfils would need to add a little weight. Monfils is an inch taller than Sherman, so he is about the same height as Dwyane Wade, but Wade also outweighs him by about 20-25 pounds. I wonder how much Richard Sherman or Dwyane Wade would weigh if they were tennis pros. (I think the one athlete that the tennis world was deprived of, who could have been an all-time virtuoso, was Allen Iverson.) But when I think of Monfils' athleticism, what I really wonder is:
Would Monfils be less of a clown on the tennis court if he had grown up in the United States? It's hard to imagine any coaches or sport authorities in the U.S nurturing such an attitude. If he had grown up in the U.S., maybe he doesn't even play any sport because of the American sports culture.
—Jim Yrkoski, Silver Creek, Neb.
• Interesting. This recalls one of our old “geography as destiny” discussions from Mailbags past. If Monfils were born outside of France….that’s an interesting hypothetical. In the U.S., once his silly level of athleticism was apparent, he would have faced pressure—starting with his elementary school gym teacher, I suspect—to play football or basketball. Soccer, even.
Let’s flip your question on its head, though. What if Monfils’ instinct to entertain is as much a part of his make-up as his athleticism? Isn’t tennis the perfect activity to accommodate both? Put him on a team sport and he would have been scolded and demoted for “showboating” or “not putting his team first.” Football, of course, has an even lower threshold for individualism.
There is a great debate going on re: Tennis.com's Facebook page whether Federer has accomplished the "Agassi Slam" of all four majors, Olympic Gold, World Tour Finals and Davis Cup. Fed has gold in doubles not singles so lots of people don't think it counts. I disagree. What's your take?
• I think we board everyone’s favorite water park ride—“New for spring, with more jets than ever, it’s the Slippery Slope!”—when we equate doubles with singles. Federer’s gold in Beijing was a real plot point in his career; and he’ll tell you it ranks among his favorite achievements. But it’s not the same as a singles gold. And, by extension, it can’t be seen as on par with Agassi’s achievement here.
Just wanted to add how thrilling the Davis Cup was, and how happy I am for Del Potro and the Argentinean team for a well-deserved first DC trophy. We all love the talented Del Potro, especially after all that he has been through. The Argentinian fans rock! I also want to congratulate the Croatian fans for being such hospitable and gracious hosts. Very impressed by both countries.
• I’m glad you raised all of those points. Not least the hospitality of the Croatians. Given all that was at stake—and the brutal nature of the draft, up 2-1 in matches and 2-0 sets love in the potential clincher—the home crowd was admirably gracious.
Australian Male Tennis Player Role Model!Although not as well known as some of the other Aussie's, this year's winner of the John Newcombe Medal is the type of player and person all can honor. Congrats to Olympic Gold medalist Dylan Alcott.
—Ken Wells, Renmark, South Australia
• Here, here. You guys ever see this Tennis Channel piece?
• The most recent podcast: Jack Sock.
• Next up: Nicole Gibbs.
• Here's the unlikely friendship between Jayson Williams and Charles Oakley.
• Naomi Osaka has signed long-term sponsorship deals with broadcaster WOWOW and food brand Nissin.
• Offered without comment or prejudice, it’s the USTA’s 990.
• The coaching carousel continues spinning. Jo Konta is in the market.
• Madison Keys has parted Tomas Hogstedt, who is now with Genie Bouchard again. And Milos Raonic has gone from a three-man both to a one-man booth, working only with Ricardo Piatti.
• The ITF today announced that Steve Wilson, a highly-respected journalist with vast experience across the international sports world, has been appointed the ITF’s Executive Director of Communications and International Relations. Wilson has been serving for the past 25 years as European Sports Editor for The Associated Press (AP), where he has established himself as the most read and trusted source on the Olympic movement.
• Press releasing: Philippe Dore, a veteran sports and entertainment industry marketing executive, has been tapped to be the Media and Marketing Director for the BNP Paribas Open and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, it was announced today by BNP Paribas Open Chief Operating Officer Steve Birdwell.