An underrated WTA star, senior tour quandaries; more mailbag

Wednesday October 23rd, 2013

If Simona Halep keeps up her form, look for her to be one of the toasts of the tennis world in 2014.
Misha Japaridze/AP

OK, there must be some reason Simona Halep is being purposely ignored. She's No. 14 in the world and just won the Kremlin Cup, and there was NO coverage of her whatsoever by any Sports Illustrated writer. Why? I get the feeling if she won a Grand Slam title, she would be ignored. What gives?
-- Randy Mayes, Prescott, Ariz.

• Busted. Yes, you caught us. There is a little-known oath that we took before 2013 agreeing not to mention Halep, regardless of her achievements. (To play it safe, we don't mention the tournament in Halle, either.) In case you are wondering, there was also an ATP player -- Mikhail something or other -- we're prohibited from mentioning. He, too, must be a horrible person.

But of course I jest. Let's open this week's kaffeeklatsch with a discussion of Halep, who has spent the better part of this year collecting titles the way the University of Chicago economists collect Nobel Prizes. With five titles and nearly $1 million in prize money, this was a career year for her. She's moved up to No. 14 in the rankings, and her results this year really didn't turn gaudy until May -- she lost to Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-1 in the first round of the Australian Open -- so it's easy to envision her cracking the top 10 in 2014. What's more, at 5-foot-6 (which is generous) she's routinely punching above her weight class.

However, her titles have come mostly at smaller events, and her play at the Grand Slams (she lost in the first round of the French Open and second round of Wimbledon before a fourth-round appearance at the U.S. Open) hasn't kept pace with her play at the WTA whistle stops. This all explains why she has (cliché alert) flown under the radar. Still, watch out for her next year.

Besides, maybe it's better you didn't read the Associated Press story about her victory over Sam Stosur in the Kremlin Cup final. It contained lines like this: "Halep constantly trapped Stosur in the corners and beat the 2011 U.S. Open champion with precise crosses and shots down the line." Beaten with crosses? That's a felony in 19 states.

Why would Andy Roddick and James Blake (or any freshly-retired player, for that matter) even consider joining the senior tour? First, both should easily handle their opponents, since they're both under 35 years old, no matter how decorated in the already distant past. Second, isn't this akin to playing women: There is no glory if the male player wins, but there is a lot at stake if he loses? Do they both need extra cash or do they already miss the exposure? Shouldn't the senior tour introduce a minimum eligibility age of, say, 35?
-- Les Banas, Denver

• Ever since the Phoenicians invented money, the motivation behind such behavior can be explained. At one point there was a rule that players on the "senior" tour had to be 35. But that seemed a bit arbitrary and disqualified some potential gate attractions. It also seemed a bit rigid for a tour that is all about fun. Sure, they keep score and some players (see: McEnroe, John) genuinely care about the results. But for the most part, the senior tour is an exercise in nostalgia, a chance for fans (and, not insignificantly, corporate clients) to see former pros -- many of them still capable of playing at a high quality. And it's a chance for players to feed their competitive jones, mingle with old colleagues, spread the gospel of tennis and, yes, pick up a nice check for a night.

I have watched minor tournaments post-U.S. Open featuring Sloane Stephens. She has game to propel her to finals, but I feel like she just drifts away in the middle of a match and does not sustain the intensity she brings to majors. How does a player fix this? She has potential to be in the top eight already and just falters outside of majors.
-- Ope, Chicago

• Spun more charitably, Stephens tends to record her best results at the biggest events. Better to falter "outside of majors" than inside the majors, no? And she is still in the pubescent period of her career -- where consistency is often difficult to sustain, from tournament to tournament, match to match, and even game to game.

All told, she ought to be proud of her year. And she ought to view 2014 with the knowledge that there are abundant areas for improvement.

Who do you see making the big breakthrough to win their first Grand Slam out of Milos Raonic, Fabio Fognini, Grigor Dimitrov, Jerzy Janowicz, Bernard Tomic or Kai Nishikori?
-- Len, Edinburgh, Scotland

• I think Dimitrov, for instance, is a superior player to Janowicz, but I think Janowicz has a better chance of winning a major right now. Especially in the short term, there's little substitute for a machine gun of a serve. We got spoiled during the Big Four era.

I wanted your thoughts about the recent tournament victories by Novak Djokovic. Quite frankly, I usually tune tennis out after the U.S. Open since it's the last Slam of the year, but I can't help be impressed by Djokovic's victories. Even though he lost the U.S. Open final, don't you think his performance in all four Grand Slams and post U.S. Open tournaments surpass Rafael Nadal's achievements this year?
-- Dan McCune, Downingtown, Pa.

• This is why we love tennis right now. Just when we think we can make sense of the landscape, it shifts.

Novak owns Rafa! He's in his head! Novak/Andy Murray is the hot, new rivalry! Oh, whoops, here comes Nadal. He's as good as ever. And he's solved the Djokovic riddle. No, wait. Nadal is hurt again. It's the knees. And his confidence is shot. Novak/Murray is the hot, new rivalry! Take that back, Rafa is back, winning the U.S. Open, outfighting Djokovic in the final. No, wait, Novak has his number again and is ruling Asia like Genghis Khan.

Bonus points for wins over top players? I have a better idea: Why not just automatically gain your defeated opponent's ranking if higher than your own. It will be good for the game!
-- Daniel, Cleveland

• It's like the challenge ladder at the club, or combat sports. Hey, beat the champ? You get the belt!

A number of you had issues with this idea, which surprised me. It's not a new concept. In previous years and incarnations, both tours awarded bonuses for wins, and intuitively, I think it makes sense. Step up to the plate and beat a higher-ranked opponent and perhaps you should earn a bonus. Again, though, we have to consider both the structure and incentives of the tours: the tournaments want the stars (i.e. the big draws) to remain in the events for as long as possible. Why provide further incentive for upsets? Likewise, the top players are unlikely to approve of this system.

Interesting idea to do something skill-based instead of a coin flip to determine the choice to serve or receive to begin a match, but does it really matter who does what in the opening game? In some sports, the initial decision about how to commence can be important, as in football where the coin flip has consequences throughout a game, and the order of service clearly has an impact at certain stages of play in tennis. But the coin flip always seems like an empty ritual and never have I read an account of a match that said something like "From his opening service hold, Roger Federer was dominant as he upset Rafael Nadal in the finals of the French Open..." Does, say, serving first give a player any particular advantage? Are there stats on this?
-- John Fleming, Clearwater, Fla.

• Two years ago, I tried to find out what percentage of players who win the toss elect to serve, whether it changes by surface and whether it differs between men and women. I gave up in frustration. As for whether serving first confers an advantage -- and is it overcome by the less likely but more important feat of breaking first? I have a project for all you stats geeks out there... First plausibly accurate analysis gets a 2014 U.S. Open ticket.

David Nalbandian and Xavier Malisse both retired at an obscure point of the season, but it would have been nice to see guys with their pedigree going out at a Grand Slam. With their rankings well-outside of Grand Slam entry territory, it would be nice to see the Slams opening up one or two of their excessive WC spots for retiring players to get a decent farewell.
-- Stephen B., Toronto

• I put this on the players, not the tours and administrators. If you want to retire at a prominent event, do so. But it is -- dare I say -- immoral for an event to earmark a few slots on the draw for also-rans simply looking for a full-throated send-off? This holds true for wild cards in general. There are too few spots and too many hard-working, barely-above-the-poverty-line grinders to award these draw slots to less deserving types. Want to give the promoters a spot or two to lure a star at the last minute or reward an up-and-coming junior? Fine. But should, say, IMG have a slate of spots to lavish on its clients in Miami, at the expense of higher-ranked and more deserving rank-and-file.

Does Serena Williams win too much now or are her tournament wins too routine for there to be coverage on? She did win a WTA premier tournament in Beijing this weekend and fans of the WTA would be hard-pressed to have known from this site since there was no mention of it anywhere.
-- Katrina, Willingboro, N.J.

• I think you're conflating two separate issues. The jury is back from deliberations and we all agree that, especially in individual sports, powerhouses are better than parity. Give us Tiger Woods or Serena or Federer over anyone-can-beat-anyone fields. If you have a cadre of top players, (i.e., the Big Four) or a gripping rivalry (Graf-Seles), so much the better. But Serena can never win "too much."

As for the coverage, I agree it was lacking. The combination of shrinking media travel budgets and general malaise for the fall season contributed to the modest attention this received.

I saw Roger Federer beat Adrian Mannarino on Monday and was very impressed. He looked crisp, like the "old" Roger. I know it's only one match, but he looked much different than he did in his last match against Gael Monfils. What happened?
-- Claus, Switzerland

• Mirka secretly replaced his fresh cup of sports drink with Folger's crystals? Seriously, intentionally, we went easy on the Federer questions this week. But just because he's no longer in the top four doesn't mean he's forgotten how to hit a tennis ball. Even at 32, even coachless and even in the throes of a forgettable year, Federer should beat Adrian Mannarino 95 times out of 100. Yesterday was one of them. We talk about minimizing our hype and controlling our superlatives when players are going well. But the reverse applies, too.

Shots, miscellany

• Who do you have in your ATP CEO pool? Pick among current ATP in-house candidates Mark Young and Laurent Delanney and inside/outside candidates Steve Simon, Chris Kermode and Dave Shoemaker. We'll handicap the field and throw in some prop bets next week.

• Andy Murray has confirmed for the Mexican Open in February.

Vince Spadea will play your wedding or Bar Mitzvah.

• For a tennis guy, John McEnroe is all over the New York City Marathon promotion.

• So, apparently, is Rafael Nadal.

• The ATP announced a multi-year sponsorship agreement with Mercedes-Benz to be the platinum sponsor of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

• Here's an Andre Agassi sighting!

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