Expectations for Young, Smyczek and other American men; more mail

Wednesday October 9th, 2013

Donald Young won ATP Challenger Tour events in Napa and Sacramento in back-to-back weeks.
Al Bello/Getty Images

So Donald Young wins two ATP Challenger Tour events in a row and is on the verge of re-entering the top 100. What are your thoughts? What are realistic expectations for him and his career?
-- Charles, New York

• Right on. Including his U.S. Open qualifying run, Young has won 14 of his last 15 matches. And after drifting outside the top 200, he's getting close to breaking the top 100, which, of course, means "automatic ins" to many events. (Young, 24, is No. 103 this week.)

At some level, this is sad. Here's a guy who was pegged for greatness, who was ahead of Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro in the juniors. Now we're breaking out the pita chips and generic dipping sauce over a potential high double-digit ranking?

On the other hand, for all the disappointment and setbacks Young has endured, give him some credit. He's still in the conversation, at least the fringes of it. And he's still making a living -- albeit a relatively modest one, with $135,000 in prize money this year -- as a pro player.

How about some props to Tim Smyczek? After his two victories at the U.S. Open and a good run in the Challenger Tour to end the summer, Tim is now the fourth-ranked American and No. 91 in the world. He has carved out a nice career for himself and, hopefully, can start playing tour events more regularly.
-- Mike, Greendale, Wis.

• I put these questions back-to-back for a reason. Smyczek, 25, lost to Young at Challengers in both Sacramento and Napa, but he is in the throes a solid year, cracking the top 100, winning some money (almost $300,000) and, like Young, putting himself in a position to make the main draws of Slams for 2014, which guarantees a six-figure income.

A lot of this is about expectation. If we had told you a decade ago that a kid in the Midwest named Tim Smyczek would become a top-100 player and make a fine living as a tennis player in 2013, one suspects we'd have said, "Wow, sounds like a real success story." If we had told you a decade ago that a kid in the Midwest named Donald Young would become a top-100 player and make a fine living as a tennis player in 2013, we'd have said, "Wow, where did the train go off the tracks?"

The question of who is the best young American seems to have changed this year. One can now debate whether No. 78 Jack Sock, No. 97 Denis Kudla or No. 106 Ryan Harrison is the best 21-year-old American. Also, congrats to Donald Young for his Challenger titles, and a return to relevance. He seems likely to be in the main draw in the Australian Open next year.
-- John, Greenville, S.C.

• Let's take a moment to acknowledge the depressing nature of your question (that is: no American under 25 years old in the top 75). OK, we're done. Where were we? Oh, right. I think you have to go with Sock. Let's see if he can stay healthy. I still have some shares of Harrison LLC, but after two years of fairly dismal results, I've put my broker on alert. I admire Kudla's Lleyton Hewitt-like game, but I worry about the paucity of weapons.

The great ball striker David Nalbandian was the one player who exasperated Fernando more than anyone else. Nalbandian is a lesson for anyone who wants to become a champion in any field. Talent alone will not get you there. One must have a champion's mindset to work hard, train, make improvements, study tactics and develop mental strength and resolve. And most important, one must want to be a champion more than anything else. Fernando hopes that when Nalbandian looks back on his great career, he will have no regrets.
-- Fernando, Valencia

• We say it again: We are suckers for the third person. Not unlike adding the suffix "pants" to any word, there is something inherently funny about people referring to themselves by their own name.

Fernando, however, is off base here. In something of a theme for this week, when we talk about "busts" and players who didn't max out their talent, we should first focus on the cohort of players who never planted a flag, who never sniffed the top 100 or couldn't parlay junior success into pro success. In the case of Nalbandian ("The Armenian-Argentinean" per a press room nickname that, mysteriously, never caught on), we're talking about a guy who spent quite a bit of time in the top five, reached the semifinals or better at all four Grand Slams, won $11 million and took a good many scalps, including Roger Federer's on eight occasions. Here's a guy without much of a serve who ground down opponents and struck an immaculate ball. He endured his share of injury. We should all underachieve like this.

Your bias and disrespect for Rafael Nadal is really over the top. Every single article you write, IF you deign to even make a mention of Nadal at all, you have to say something rude and nasty and borderline slanderous. It really is pathetic and completely unprofessional.
-- Shelley, Seattle

• I can never keep it straight. I just had to block an intolerably hostile Federer fan from Twitter because she accused me of being so blatantly "biased" against Federer and carrying water for Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

We've said this before, but it's the truth: One of the great characteristics of this era is that you can (and should) pick your favorite player among the top four, but it's hard to drum up anything resembling contempt for the others. If you actively dislike any of them, you may want to look inward.

Do you think Nadal will finish 2014 as the No. 1 player?
-- Sofia, Madrid

• As Sublime once put it: "I don't practice Santeria. I ain't got no crystal ball. Let's worry about 2013 first."

Funny about Nadal: He missed the Australian Open and bombed out of Wimbledon. So he failed to win a round at two majors. And yet he's been so thoroughly dominant elsewhere that he will almost assuredly finish the year at No. 1. And what -- save another issue with the knees -- is there to suggest it won't continue? He owns an entire chunk of the calendar, flush with Masters Series events and a major at the end. And he does pretty well for himself on clay, too.

Why do we have a coin toss to determine who elects to serve? Wouldn't it be more fun to have something that is skills-based? Maybe we could have players serve and see who can get closest to the outside edge of the line using Hawk-Eye? Lowest net clearance in a rally without making a mistake? Any other ideas? It just would be more interesting to have something involving the players' taking action rather than a 50/50 shot.
-- Robert B., New York

• Love it. The gears of innovation, of course, rotate slowly in tennis. But this is a great idea. Rally for serve? Something accuracy related? One shot of your choice: Whoever hits closest to the baseline but still in the court wins. And before you knock it as gimmicky, how is it different from a jump ball or face-off?

What do you think about reinstating bonus points for wins over players ranked in the top 10 or 15? I think that it would be good for the game, and that a significant number of bonus points should be added.
-- Doug Messenger, Los Angeles

• I like this idea, too, but it's always a tough sell with the top players. (You think Djokovic and Nadal are going to vote for a bonus system that gives the rank-and-file more incentive to beat them and for which they're not really eligible?) But I think it's good for the sport. When, say, Venus Williams beats Victoria Azarenka or a Camila Giorgi stands up to Caroline Wozniacki, she should be remunerated extra.

A former WTA executive recently complained to me that "there's too much quantity-over-quality in the rankings." Here's an opportunity to reward the players who step up in big matches.

I totally disagree with your Lean In hypothesis about men vs. women Hawk-Eye challenge rates. Out of all the possible reasons for the difference, the media chooses the one that will drum up the most controversy. I encourage you to watch this conversation between Mark Cuban and Skip Bayless, where Cuban correctly points out that the media is allergic to mundane analysis even when it turns out to be correct. It wouldn't surprise me if the difference in Hawk-Eye challenge rates is explainable by something simple and mundane, such as a difference in men's and women's playing styles, and not something as outlandish as women not being "assertive" enough to use Hawk-Eye.
-- Robert, Reston, Va.

• First, as we noted, it was Margaret Neale, a professor at Stanford Business School, who first called this to our attention. So go easy on "the media" scapegoating. Second, I take a backseat to few in my fondness for Cuban. But you're really holding this guy out as a voice of measured understatement? (Besides: isn't this precisely what Mark does? Take quirky or counterintuitive data and try to find an explanation.) You may well be right. Maybe something "mundane" such as playing styles is what's causing this disparity. If you want to expand and expound, fire away.

Shots, miscellany

• Thanks to everyone who came to the Symphony Space event. And, yes, we're all in agreement that Lily Tomlin stole the show.

• NBC wants Rob Lowe to star in a ... tennis sitcom??

• Twitter Q&As from Federer and Maria Sharapova.

• PSA: RadioTennis.com provides live streaming audio play-by-play of professional and top level tennis from around the world, via the Internet. It's a free service. If you would like to webcast your tournament or tennis event to a local, regional, national and international audience, contact TennisQuestion@gmail.com.

Grigor Dimitrov has a new coach and Bernard Tomic is set to appoint one, too.

• Paul Wessel of Ewa Beach, Hawaii: "Not really a question but a graph of the Slam harvest of Federer and Nadal as function of their age when winning. Federer won 2.1 Slams/year until age 29, while Nadal won 1.5 Slams/year, still ongoing. If Nadal can keep it up, he might eclipse Federer when turning 30, unless Federer has one more in him. It seems that Federer was much more dominant than Nadal."

• Michael Downey has announced his resignation as CEO of Tennis Canada. He will become chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association in England in January.

• Marcos Baghdatis does beach tennis.

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