Despite constant GOAT debates, tennis relishing its group of stars

Wednesday September 18th, 2013

After winning the French Open and the U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal has a shot at claiming 18 Grand Slams.
Darren Carroll/SI

Can I just say how utterly sick I am of the whole GOAT thing? Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are clearly in the club with their number of Grand Slam wins. They both have records that are uniquely theirs (just like Rod Laver and Pete Sampras, etc.). They both have stats that the other will probably never touch. I wish pundits and fans would stop denigrating one to pump up the other. Why can't we just appreciate them both?
-- Colleen, Texas

• Let's start with your larger point, which is well-taken. The "Golden Era" has fast become the moldiest of tennis clichés, but what a special time. You have two -- arguably three -- all-timers on the men's side and a GOAT candidate on the women's side. All four are different in their own way, play a different style of tennis, compete with a different philosophy, look nothing alike and come from four different countries. Before working up a mouthful of foam over whether Nadal takes too long between points or Federer is washed up or Serena Williams says "come on" too often, let's all take a moment for some measured perspective. Most sports would give anything for a quartet of stars like this.

I have GOAT fatigue, but it remains a hot topic among my readers. I stick by my mantra: wait until all careers are over before making pronouncements. But I realize the debate is fluid. My status update: Nadal closed the gap, no question. Federer still leads. I don't think Federer can really hurt his candidacy by losing. But if Nadal can sustain the level of play he showcased in New York -- and here's the big caveat: if his knees don't betray him -- he has a real shot at 18. And given that he has not only won the Career Grand Slam but has also won both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon multiple times, I don't think he pays much of a price for the heavy concentration of French Open titles.

Are you ready to admit that Nadal is the GOAT? Anything you can say about Serena goes doubly for Nadal. The biggest knock against Serena is that we can only assume that she would have the edge of Steffi Graf. We know beyond any doubt that Nadal has the measure of Federer by quite a margin. Now frankly, I've long suspected you of being a Federerite. Granted, you give the required praise to all the players, but I wouldn't be suprised if that were nothing more than a ruse. In the glow of Roger's waning moon and the brilliance of yet ANOTHER Nadal comeback, here's your chance to come on over to the Rafa camp.
-- Brandon, Chicago

• I'm a Federerite, a dendrite, a Hittite, a stalactite -- let's wait until both careers are through before we assess. "Anything you can say about Serena goes doubly for Nadal." You lost me there.

It seemed like this year's U.S. Open was the tournament of the drop shot. Is there any data to support the assertion that it was used more in this year's tournament as compared to past U.S. Opens or compared to other Grand Slams? Or that certain players used it more in this year's tournament compared to their past matches?
-- Allison Roarty, New York City

We said this at Wimbledon, but you raise a good point. Data? I'd love to see it if someone has more success than I did. While we're at it, isn't "drop shot attempted/drop shots successful" a stat we'd all love to see, not least players? If I knew that a certain player was particularly susceptible to drop shots, I'd use that. And if I knew that only a certain percentage of my drop shots resulted in my winning the point, that would be helpful, too.

You praised the ESPN and Tennis Channel coverage, but how about a shout out to the free streaming coverage online? Video from several courts that together featured nearly all the matches I wanted to watch. And the fact that I can recite the Willem Dafoe/Mercedes and Bryan brothers/Esurance commercials suggests the revenue potential is there. It's hard to think this isn't the future of slam-watching.
-- Nick Einhorn , Brooklyn, NY

• Amen (plus the Tennis Channel Everywhere app).

One of your 50 parting shots that caught my eye was "speaking of junior tennis, it was disappointing to learn that Taylor Townsend is through with the juniors and, apparently, no long part of the USTA player development program." From my vantage point, I don't see what she has to gain from continuing playing in junior tournaments. She has made the quarterfinals in each of the last junior majors, and won the Wimbledon juniors in 2012. Given the current state of the USTA and her tenuous relationship with the "getting fit" flap, maybe it's in her best interest to part ways. Could you elaborate on your disappointment? Or if you feel like she is making a mistake?
-- Ralph Clark, Jackson, Miss.

• Taylor Townsend -- now coached by Zina Garrison -- has a bright future (and is a lovely kid, based on my interactions), but needs matches.

I recently read your article, "Challenging the System." As a tennis fan, I found your conclusion very thought-provoking, but I found a few flaws in the conclusions that you drew from the data that, when accounted for, fail to support your claim.

Your argument relies on the assumption that linespersons are equally likely to miss a men's call as a women's call. However, in order to know this, we need to know how many incorrect calls are not challenged by players. You assume that this must be a larger proportion of points for women than for men, but we cannot determine this from the data that you have. The only thing that we can conclude is that men and women are equally good (bad?) at challenging calls.
-- Chris Cabanski, St. Louis, Mo.

• You guys should feel free to weigh in. It was presented as a hypothesis; not a statement of certitude.

I couldn't help but notice a few prominent figures seated in the player's box during the ladies finals. Anna Wintour, Ricky Martin, Eva Longoria were all in Serena's quarter. These people can very well afford VIP tickets no doubt. Why burden poor Serena with their presence. Its enough pressure dealing with the second best player on tour, in the finals of a Major, at the home-slam, chasing record books no less! Could somebody politely inform these distinguished names that they are an unnecessary distraction to Miss Williams, and that they are inviting the wrath of her disgruntled, loyal fans.
-- Charith, Bangalore, India

• Players are so particular about their boxes and the seating configurations, rest assured no one is sitting there without the player's consent.

In your 50 parting thoughts column, I couldn't agree with you more on the USTA/Pat McEnroe situation. But the one point I don't think I have ever seen you raise when you discuss this situation -- which I believe is the "elephant in the room" -- is would Patrick be ever given this leeway with ESPN and the USTA if his last name weren't McEnroe? I think both brands (ESPN and the USTA) are trying desperately to trade (and live vicariously) on that name and reputation (albeit -- honed by his brother John's success) that they allow this travesty of conflicts to continue.

• Someone raised a similar point a few weeks ago and I cannot disagree more vehemently. Patrick has done plenty to distinguish himself beyond the family name and doesn't get sufficient credit for this. When John McEnroe is your brother -- your older brother at that -- it casts an immense shadow. Patrick has managed to step out of it, differentiate himself and create a totally separate identity.

I find it kind of cool when they tell us late in a match how many points each player has won, but I always get the feeling from that they are waiting in the booth until the players have won the exact same number, to maximize the coolness factor. This also gets me thinking, how often are matches won by the player who wins the fewer total points?
-- Nick S., Boston, Mass.

• No matter how often I see it, it never ceases to amaze me how close most matches are in terms of points -- 60/40 is a landslide win.

Djokovic has now played in five U.S. Open finals and lost four of them. I was rooting for him to at least play his best in this year's final, but I think his 53 unforced errors speak for themselves. Multiple sitters hit low into the net, routine backhands sent five feet long. Lately, he just hasn't been able to bring his A+ game to the Slam finals. At Wimbledon, he was probably worn out by Juan Martin del Potro. But last year's U.S. Open and this year's battle against Nadal at the French Open were similar tales. I think he's a confidence player. He needs a good win to get his confidence up so he can play his best tennis against Nadal and Andy Murray.
-- Mike Wretzel, USA

• And at the risk of being dismissed as a Nadalite, note his record in Grand Slam finals.

Shots, miscellany

• Here's the press release announcing the decision of Marin Cilic's doping case.

• Stephen Males, Toronto, Ontario: It's nice to see a softer side to Azarenka.

• American teams won six of 10 Cups at the 33rd International Tennis Federation (ITF) Super-Seniors World Team Championships. The tournament is the senior tennis equivalent of the Davis Cup and Fed Cup competitions, and this year consisted of 153 teams from 27 countries competing in 10 age categories from 60-and-over to 80-and-over.

• EB of Brooklyn, N.Y.: Uncle Toni Nadal with some interesting comments about how athletes, including Nadal, make too much money.

• Here's some tennis talk on "Hang up and Listen"

Rafael Nadal will play in the inaugural Rio Open from Feb. 15-23.

• James Stuchell of Savannah, Ga. has long-lost siblings: Pete Sampras and George P. Bush, grandson of our 41st president.

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