Tennis Mailbag: Putting Carlos Alcaraz’s and Iga Świątek’s French Open Wins in Perspective

Jon Wertheim answers your lingering questions from Roland Garros, including queries about compensation, the draw and Darren Cahill’s coaching track record.
Alcaraz won the third major of his career at the 2024 French Open.
Alcaraz won the third major of his career at the 2024 French Open. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Submissions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Hey everyone …

• A lot of weekend questions from Paris. And let’s tiptoe onto the grass.

Here’s Carlos Alcaraz on the Tennis Channel after the French Open final. 

• ICYMI, here’s the 50 Thoughts recap column from Roland Garros.

• Here’s the latest podcast episode of Served with Andy Roddick.

• It’s official: TNT snags U.S. rights to broadcast/air Roland Garros.

Onward …


Hi, Jon,

Just turned 23 years old, Iga Swiatek has now won five Grand Slams, including four French Opens. But surprisingly, she has only reached the quarterfinals in three slams away from Roland Garros. But in reviewing Rafael Nadal's Grand Slam history, I see he had six Slams by Swiatek's age, including four French Opens. After turning 24, he started a run of getting to the finals of eight of the next nine Slams, winning five of them. How likely do you think it is for Iga to have a similar breakthrough away from clay?

Thanks!

Rob

• In short, very. Sometimes it’s easy to grasp why Player X struggles on surface Y. Stan Wawrinka needs more time than grass permits for that one-hander. A player with iffy footwork and footspeed is going to struggle on clay.

But what does Swiatek—who has already won a hard court major—lack that would prevent her from winning Wimbledon? I asked her a similar question the other day and here’s her answer: 


Hi, Jon. Just a reminder that Alcaraz's win marks only the second time since 2003 Wimbledon (Roger Federer's first major win) that men OTHER than the Big Three have won two majors in succession. The only other time it happened was the 2016 Wimbledon (Andy Murray) and U.S. Open (Wawrinka). Eight years ago! The Big Three still account for 79.5% of major wins since the '03 Wimbledon.

Keegan Greenier

• More Alca-arcana. Alcaraz has now played more five-set French Open finals than Nadal. (Yes, Nadal, 14–0 in Roland Garros finals, never went the distance.) Juan Martin del Potro is the last non-European male to win a major. That was the U.S. Open in—wait for it—2009. Alcaraz has won more majors than all male players born in the 1990s combined (h/t to @tennisinthepar1). For as often as we talk about globalization, there have been 25 French Opens held this century—Spaniards have claimed 17 of them. 


We had a healthy discussion on [X, formerly Twitter,] about data. I really like data. I am frustrated by the “counting” on the stat sheets. Winners to errors tell only a partial story—especially when aces are included as winners. 

But in my experience, a deeper dive into tennis’s equivalent of “exit velocity,” seldom seems to resonate with the audience. My feedback? Fans are more interested in how a player’s character and all those unquantifiable traits and adjectives—gritty, gutsy, fortune-favors-the-bold, hard yards, spine, guts, heart, crafty, feisty, plucky, soft, shaky, capitulating—impacts a result. This isn’t an either/or … we can integrate data but also talk about core characteristics. But I would submit that part of tennis’s appeal is its referendum on character. How often do we see a match that we know, deep down, isn’t best explained by the empirical?

You mentioned Kei Nishikori often playing five sets. Is it me or does he also retire with injury from every tournament he enters?

Jeff, New York

• Not every tournament. But your point is well taken … While Novak Djokovic did not win a 25th major, nor did Nadal win a 15th Roland Garros, some benchmarks were extended. Nishikori retired midway through his match against Ben Shelton, the 19th ripcord of his career. On the women’s side, Lesia Tsurenko injured her back midway through her first match and retired mid-match for the 22nd time in her career. Both are believed to be records.

Your points are not unrelated. Play five sets (especially with a game lacking weapons) and it’s easy to see how tires go bald.


Swiatek’s workload vs. Alcaraz’s ... I realize it's 2024, but how is equal prize money justified in these Slams? The disparity in value is cavernous. 

Ben

• Your periodic reminder: workload is not the relevant metric. If it were, the women should just play best-of-seven and demand superior wages. Nadal never played a fifth-set final at Roland Garros. Is he not worth more than Alcaraz or Alexander Zverev? 


Hey Jon, I hope all is well. Just reading the RG 50 parting thoughts … I’m confused about #4—how is Zverev the only player (male or female) to reach the semis or better at RG in four straight years? Nadal won the title four years in a row (and then five years in a row). Roger and Novak have also gone on four-year+ stretches of making the semis or better. Am I reading it wrong?

Best,

Lanny (Toronto) 

• Not well-worded by me and a few of you noted that. Present tense. Zverev has reached the semifinals (or better) in 2021, ’22, ’23 and ’24.


There were tons of questions, comments, top-line thoughts on Zverev … some scattered thoughts:

• The topic of partner violence and the dynamic of reporting is extraordinarily nuanced. There are all sorts of reasons why people who experience abuse don’t report it to authorities or are reluctant to cooperate. It also is an explosive allegation, and, though it is in the minority of cases, an unfounded accusation carries an indelible stain (See: Trevor Bauer). Also consider: A) It’s a topic singularly ill-suited for debate over social media. B) All the more when it combines with the legal system of a foreign country, which has different procedures and standards.

• Jonathan Crane has been excellent in covering this from the courthouse in Berlin.

• To be clear, there was no proven or adjudicated guilt here. There was, explicitly, no admission of guilt. But neither was there “innocence,” as Zverev contends. The case was “discontinued” per mutual agreement of three—not two, three—parties. The accused, the accuser and the court.

• We all believe—or should believe—in the presumptive rights of the accused and due process. But no conviction, no guilt is an oversimplification. Former NFL running back Ray Rice was never convicted or adjudicated in criminal court. (A grand jury indicted him, but charges were dropped.) But he was caught on video assaulting his wife. Are we really arguing his punishment was ill-deserved because it never made it to a court of law? (Rice won an appeal of his indefinite suspension by the NFL in 2014. He played his last game with the Baltimore Ravens in December 2013.)

 No, which leads up to …

• It is glaringly clear that the ATP’s fecklessness in the absence of a clear policy made matters worse. It didn’t help Zverev. It didn’t help the fans who wondered why a player twice accused of heinous acts was allowed to keep playing. Some clear protocol and steps—perhaps mandating an immediate internal or external investigation? Perhaps putting earned prize money in escrow, pending resolution? Perhaps an immediate suspension, as the sport does with doping accusations? I am not an expert here, but experts do exist! In team sports, with guaranteed contracts and players unions, it is easier. But the ATP’s response of our hands are tied served no one.

• More than ever, we like binaries. We hate complexity. You rock! You suck! I love him! Lock him up! Fomented by social media, we find plenty of Zverev bought his way out of trouble, and A gold-digger sullied his good name! If years of litigation did not resolve this matter with clarity, we are not going to do it over X, formerly Twitter.

Ultimately, it’s an individual decision. Fans need to weigh the composite and decide for themselves how they feel and how intensely to root for the guy. From the responses I have gotten, it’s clear some will still revile Zverev and boycott his matches. Others will revere him more than ever. It’s a personal choice that you, as a fan, will have to make.


Hi Jon, I was wondering, how are tennis draws determined? Are they computer generated or determined by some committee? It begs the question, especially after the Nadal-Zverev and [Naomi] Osaka-Swiatek first [and second] round matchups, perhaps there has to be a better way.

Best Regards;

Eric Bukzin, Manorville, NY

• Seeds are arrayed accordingly. One on top, two on bottom. Three in one half, four in the other. Five–eight is split accordingly. Then 9–16. And then 17–32. And the unseeded players are then randomly—at most events computer generated; we have mostly left the draw-out-of-the-hat era—placed. That is why we could have two qualifiers facing each other in Round 1, though that would mean two players outside the top 100 facing off. 

Aside: There’s a one-credit statistics/probability course in each draw reveal.

Osaka nearly defeated Swiatek in their second-round matchup at Roland Garros.
Osaka nearly defeated Swiatek in their second-round matchup at Roland Garros. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

I believe you predicted [both Swiatek and Alcaraz] would win Jon!!!

@anthonymione

• I did! I also picked two Chilean players to go deep. And both lost in Round 1. I picked Nadal to summon the supernatural and preternatural and beat Zverev. And Djokovic to reach the final. 

Again, futurism is a critical part of sports. It’s fun and I would argue essential. Sports’s great appeal is the unscripted nature of it all. So it stands to reason that pre-scripting is part of the drill. But picking the winners doesn’t make you a genius. Getting kicked in the groin by Nicolas Jarry doesn’t make you a moron.


Hi Jon, I am curious ... Do you think [Stefanos] Tsitsipas will ever get a win over Alcaraz? [Tsitsipas] was in pretty good form coming into Roland Garros ... and still lost in straight sets!  

Keith Jacobson 

• I like Tsitsipas’s game aesthetically. I fear his window has closed. Especially with so much chaos and distraction. If it’s going to happen on any surface it’s clay. And …


Jon, I appreciate your attempt to defend John McEnroe last week. But can’t you admit his time has passed and he doesn’t prepare?

Anonymous

• It is in bad form to criticize a colleague. But beyond that, I maintain that John is, ultimately, a force of good. And he’s not being hired for his store of knowledge about Alejandro Tabilo or his facility with data. He is there for, yes, his name and reputation but also his ability to react with perception and wit to what is playing out before him. If I were Warner Bros. Discovery, I would call his agent ASAP. Which I suspect they will. Or have. (And congrats to John for this.)

Here’s the deal with former players in the booth: in some ways, playing this sport is great preparation. In other ways, it’s terrible preparation. The best—I am in the tank for Jim Courier and Lindsay Davenport; my professional and personal fondness for Roddick is obvious—are all about preparation, observation, problem-solving and finding solutions and answers. The former players who struggle, can’t get beyond the narcissism that tennis sometimes requires. They mediate everything they see through personal experience. They cannot adjust to the reality that their reality isn’t everyone’s reality. Speaking of excellent former player broadcasters …


Hi Jon … has there been a coach with a better track record than Darren Cahill? He coached Andre Agassi, Simona Halep, Lleyton Hewitt, and now Jannik Sinner. All have risen to the top of the game under his (and others') tutelage. John McEnroe recently suggested Darren should be inducted into the Hall of Fame at some point. I couldn’t agree more. Your thoughts?

Thanks,
Kelly G., Louisville, KY

• He would get my vote. Ironically the only person I can think of offhand with a comparable track is Brad Gilbert, his colleague. 

A few quick thoughts:

1) Truth bats last. Cahill is not a self-promoter. He has no shtick, catchphrase or outrageous attire. He doesn’t work his brand on Instagram. He just goes about his business with a quiet dignity that is impossible not to respect.

2) Last year, I did an Australian Rules football story for 60 Minutes. When one of the subjects, who was a coach, found out I liked tennis, he told me of Darren’s dad, John Cahill—who was the John Wooden of the Australian Rules—and he nearly came to tears. Apple and tree. 

3) For all the questions we get about the Hall of Fame’s standards, for the life of me I can’t figure out why more non-players are not up for enshrinement.

4) In addition to his coaching, Darren’s full-throated support of Simona Halep—after she had moved onto a new relationship—in the face of doping allegations that would have scared off so many was something to behold.

Cahill joined Sinner's coaching team in 2022.
Cahill joined Sinner's coaching team in 2022. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Shouldn’t Slams be able to do a lucky loser in the main draw as well. Sucks for fans and the remaining players that Casper Ruud is getting a free pass to the semis.

Sramkuma

• This came up after Djokovic pulled out of his French Open fourth-round match. But it’s hardly the first time the topic has come up. (See: Nadal’s 2022 Wimbledon mid-tournament withdrawal.) 

Quick thoughts:

1) Let’s differentiate this from the conventional lucky loser. There’s a world of difference between letting a player outside the top 100 into a draw after defeat and letting a player who loses a high-stakes match back into the tournament.

2) Why didn’t Player X get to match point and then retire if he knew he couldn’t play the next round? I’d cut the player slack. Players aren’t doctors. They may have a sense of whether an injury’s serious but don’t often know with 100% certainty that they won’t be able to play the next match. They would also deprive themselves of the ranking points and prize money. Which leads to …

3) Especially in this world of sports gambling, there is way too much potential for corruption and manipulation here. 


Jon, I am a bit fearful o

James T.

• As well you should be. 

Seriously, this question cut off and, clearly, was sent too soon. But now I am curious about the second part. Of Djokovic’s future? Of the impacts of tennis brought by global warming? Of tennis’s late realization that conflicts of interest are a sure way to shrink (sink) the enterprise? 


Marc Drexler, take us out!

Greetings. My name is Marc Drexler. I am a poet, a tennis fan and a mathematician.

I am writing you because you are well-known as a sports journalist, you cover tennis and you are also to some degree an investigative journalist. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) needs some help with a problem they don't know they have, and I need some help finding someone there to speak to about it.

During the WTA finals last year (2023), I noticed a problem with the tiebreaking procedures which could lead to a situation where one player would benefit by throwing an in-progress match they were trailing in order to guarantee advancement to the semifinals. This action could adversely affect one of the non-participating players. By the time I figured this out, it was no longer a possibility for 2023, but I wrote the issue up and looked for someone at the WTA to contact.

I couldn't find an appropriate e-mail address. Finally, in February of 2023, I informed them using their web page's feedback form, but have received no response at all, likely because of the impersonal communication method and the person who received the message not realizing its import.

Here is the problem. There are four players in each half of the finals who play a total of six round-robin matches against each other in order to determine which two advance to the semifinals. If there is a tie, specific tiebreaking procedures are used. One of these, the flawed procedure, is overall percentage of games won. It is possible for the players in the sixth match to already know the final scores of all previous matches—this was the case when Swiatek and Ons Jabeur faced each other last year—and for one of them to end up in a situation where she will advance if she loses the final set of her match 4–6, but fail to advance if she loses the final set of her match 5–7. Serving at 4–5, she could advance with four double faults. Would she risk failing to qualify by winning the game for 5–5, with the possibility of ending her tournament if she lost 5–7? I don't know, and I would hate to see any player in such a position.

Last year, the day before the final round-robin match between Swiatek and Jabeur, I first noticed this problem. I came up with some actual scores which would give rise to such a situation as a proof of concept, but by the time of the sixth match it was not possible, or I would have been making phone calls. I was able to easily come up with alternative scores, all reasonable, for the first five matches which would have led to this problem without changing who won any of the matches. I will attach a detailed and concise write-up of the entire situation, including the mathematical analysis, to this e-mail.

Thank you for looking this over, and, I hope, for taking some action that will lead to the WTA amending their tiebreaking procedures before the 2024 tour finals in order to avoid even the micro-probability of placing one of their players in a severe ethical dilemma.


Have a good week everyone!


Published
Jon Wertheim

JON WERTHEIM

Jon Wertheim is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and has been part of the full-time SI writing staff since 1997, largely focusing on the tennis beat , sports business and social issues, and enterprise journalism. In addition to his work at SI, he is a correspondent for "60 Minutes" and a commentator for The Tennis Channel. He has authored 11 books and has been honored with two Emmys, numerous writing and investigative journalism awards, and the Eugene Scott Award from the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Wertheim is a longtime member of the New York Bar Association (retired), the International Tennis Writers Association and the Writers Guild of America. He has a bachelor's in history from Yale University and received a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He resides in New York City with his wife, who is a divorce mediator and adjunct law professor. They have two children.