What does Roger Federer's future hold?; more mail

Wednesday December 18th, 2013

Roger Federer, down to No. 6, finished 2013 with his worst year-end ranking since 2002.
Erick W. Rasco/SI

Provided you read fast, you're receiving this during in the tennis offseason.

Real quick, before another year commences, step over here -- past the bearded woman, miniature pony and the "Guess Kimiko Date-Krumm's Age" booth -- and behold this fun-house mirror, as we take inventory of tennis in 2013 ...

We had Rafael Nadal start the year with his career imperiled and end it at No.1 and on a trajectory to claim tennis' all-time Grand Slam record. Serena Williams turned 32 and cruised, producing another gilded season. Roger Federer turned 32 and hit a series of speed bumps.

We witnessed the first British men's Wimbledon winner since 1936. We had a woman win Wimbledon and then retire a few weeks later. We had the Maria Sharapova/Jimmy Connors partnership that made a Kardashian marriage look like Old Golden Pond.

We received the welcome news that the U.S. Open will get a roof. But it's unlikely to cover many Americans, because the state of U.S. men's pro tennis is at a low-water mark.

And we had the one-man reality show that is Bernard Tomic. Crazy, wacky fun times in tennis. But then again, aren't they always?

As we reflect on the year, here's our annual lapse into sap territory: If you get half as much pleasure (guilty, to be sure) from reading this column as I get from writing it, we're all doing pretty well. Your questions and observations are, reliably, thoughtful and informed and passionate, and please know that every last one -- even the ones wishing me incurable cold sores -- is read. Think of this as a sincere invitation to belly up to the bar in '14 and we'll do it again. And to make good on our resolution to do more podcasts.

A few questions before we shut it down:

Roger Federer is ranked No. 6. Does he finish 2014 ranked higher or lower?
-- Anonymous

• Good question. Is it me, or is assessing Federer turning into an internal cage fight, pitting our hearts versus heads? We all know of Federer's sorcery and native talent and celestial carriage on the court. His work ethic is beyond reproach. In terms of karma and cosmic forces, he deserves more success. Yet, the trend lines paint a clear picture. The stock analogy: "If you saw a company with this profile, would you invest?"

The ranking is a bit of an artificial benchmark. I think the real question is: Can Federer summon his past with sufficient frequency?

Here's one element of this discussion that I don't grasp. Athletes have always drawn motivation from tension, friction and slights, real and imagined. Federer seems particularly drawn to disproving the clueless cynics in "the media."

To which I say: Who are "the media" so hellbent on chronicling Federer's decline? I've seen nothing other than support, measured optimism and calls for perspective. Twitter trolls notwithstanding, who among us isn't secretly pulling for Federer?

The incentives and motivations vary. In many cases, it's just visceral. You want good things to happen to good people, the sport to do right by someone who has done right by the sport. In some cases, it's more cosmic. Here's a towering presence and relentless force; why would you want to usher him off stage?

In some cases, there's probably a financial calculus. If Roger Federer is no longer an active player, the Swiss sports TV station or the Geneva Gazette might need to reallocate resources. Trust me, if the media were scripting this, Federer would ride high for as long as he wanted.

NGUYEN: Federer will have lots to prove at start of 2014 campaign

I didn't expect to see a story about Novak Djokovic hiring Boris Becker as his coach. What do you make of the move?
-- Jim F., Florida

• While it's not quite Maria Sharapova hiring Jimmy Connors, the tennis world got a bit of a shock with the announcement of the Djokovic-Becker partnership. On the surface (pardon the pun), this seems like an odd pairing. Think about Djokovic's game -- bereft of much in the way of weakness -- and it's unclear how Becker will help.

It's not as though Becker has a lengthy CV or track record as a coach. Djokovic has tried these arrangements in the past -- with Todd Martin and, more recently, Wojtek Fibak -- and the results were marginal. It also seems as though, for all the spin about a "team," Becker's title of "head coach" suggests that Marian Vajda has been demoted.

That said, coach-player relationships are deeply personal and often more a matter of chemistry than common sense. Who would have thought thaat Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl would go so well? There's something encouraging and admirable about a player seeking to innovate and improvise and making moves to suggest he's still seeking incremental improvement. (Message to the field: I'm not complacent winning just one Grand Slam title in each of the last two seasons.) This particular pairing, though, has a ring of whimsy. It's like a pairing on tinder.com. We'll see how long it lasts.

DAILY BAGEL: How new coach Becker can help Djokovic

If Bob and Mike Bryan had won the U.S. Open to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam, would they have been given any consideration (beyond by you) for Sports Illustrated Sportsmen of the Year?
-- Jon Rapkin, North Caldwell, N.J.

• A lot of you weighed in with thoughts on the magazine's award. I need to be careful here, but, even given my tennis bias, I had no issue with the choice of Peyton Manning. The Sportsman criteria are purposely murky, which makes for spirited debate but also can be a source of frustration. How does one even start to compare Manning to Serena Williams to David Ortiz -- men, women, individual sports, team sports, 16-game season, 162-game season -- in a meaningful way?

There are some intuitive guidelines: character, durability, resilience, peak performance. As a rule, the bigger the sport, the more weight to the candidacy. (To answer Jon's question, the Bryan brothers would have been severely handicapped by the fact that men's doubles is such a niche sport. It's the equivalent of a lower RPI rating.) Williams, on the other hand, may not have played in the NFL, but her level of dominance made her a worthy candidate. And, as we've said several times, her comportment was generally exceptional. Chris Evert was among Serena's most vocal advocates.

NGUYEN: Can Serena, rest of WTA stars match or exceed their 2013 performances?

There's been a Twitter debate about whether Conchita Martinez belongs in the Hall of Fame. Where do you stand on this?
-- Matt, San Diego

I turned my ballot over to the tennis vox populi and the message was clear: Lindsay Davenport is in. The other nominees, including Martinez, have your admiration, your support, your affection, but not your vote.

This is a theme that has bubbled for years: The standards -- such as they are -- create real problems. Can you have a credible Hall of Fame when the prerequisite is only one Slam title? Conversely, can you adjust the standards of a Hall of Fame, rejecting players whose achievement stack up favorably with players already inducted? Clearly most of you chose the latter option. Thus, even though Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion and former world No. 2, has credentials comparable to, say, those of Gabriela Sabatini or Pam Shriver, you've chosen to draw the line.

Me? I'm sympathetic to the players who are excluded, but I support this. The Hall of Fame loses its gravitas when it turns into a hall of good.

Grigor Dimitrov: Can we reach a conclusion about the guy already?
-- Serge Malotov, Moscow

• First, we need to adjust for inflation. Age inflation, that is. We're no longer in an era when teenagers win majors. (Andre Agassi was a flaming disappointment when he made it to age 20 without winning one.) So while you wish Dimitrov's ranking were lower than his age (currently 23 versus 22), he still falls squarely in the "prospect" category. The talent is there. That's undeniable. And the maturity has caught up to the skills. I think it's now largely mental. I don't sense that he has an "I must annihilate you" personality. Then again, neither does/did Federer. Let's check back here in a year, and we'll know much more.

Whatever happened to the job of tennis commissioner? Wasn't this supposed to be John McEnroe's title? Is there a chance this could actually happen?
-- Paul, St. Louis

• McEnroe floated this idea, as well as his candidacy. If each of McEnroe's various and sundry proposals came to fruition, tennis would consist of singles-only events played with wooden rackets, held mostly in greater Manhattan.

The idea of having some sort of overriding authority is thoroughly logical. But it means each of the various fiefdoms would, necessarily, cede some authority. Which means it will happen around the same time we return to wooden rackets.

I keep hearing about how the USTA is so political. What does this mean exactly?
-- M.B., Brooklyn, N.Y.

• We should start by pointing out that it's probably less political now than it's ever been. You could write a book about this topic, but the fundamental fault line divides the professional tennis side and community side. The professional side says, "We run this enormously successful global sporting event. A) We should be paid accordingly. B) We can't be bothered to worry about whether the regional boys' event is threatening to move from Wichita and Tulsa." The other side says, "Wait, you guys are flush with cash and seersucker? And your mission is to grow the sport? Well, then how come I can't get funding to repave my courts and why is participation stagnant?"

Then there are divisions within divisions. Player development sometimes stands accused of taking prospects and not giving proper respect to the kids' original coaches who got them to these heights. (I'm always reminded of that old Dennis Miller joke about the air traffic guys on the tarmac with the orange cones and the pilot saying, "I flew this jumbo jet in from Kuala Lumpur. And now you want to tell me where to go? I think I got it from here, thanks.")

The USTA side goes something like this: "The same way venture capitalists who back an enterprise don't let Uncle Chet be CEO, if we're providing funding and resources, we're going to have some control in the oversight and decision-making. Even if that means jettisoning the kid's junior coach."

I would contend that the current (euphemism alert) challenging environment has reduced infighting and turf battles. The USTA needs to produce more players and goose participation. And any time spent battling over who gets credit or who feels slighted is time wasted.

Shots, miscellany

• Again, anyone who contributes here receives a signed book from me.

• Francis Tiafoe, 15, became the youngest boys' champion in Orange Bowl history. Varvara Flink, 17, won the girls' event. Here is a recap from Colette Lewis.

• Note that Tiafoe's father was the maintenance manager at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md. You fight the instincts to hype a 15-year-old, but, yes, that's the "backstory meter" you hear beeping in the background.

• The BNP Paribas Open has renewed its contract with Tennis Channel.

• Nice to see Vera Zvonareva, 29, on the Australian Open commitment list. The former No. 2 hasn't played since the 2012 London Olympics because of a shoulder injury.

• Sloane Stephens has committed to the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., in March.

James Blake talks with my former Sports Illustrated colleague Jeff Pearlman about retirement, his career highs and lows and more.

• Tommy Robredo received the Player of the Year award from the Spanish Tennis Writers Association, which makes sense. Who else would have been in the conversation?

• Andy Murray is your BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year, everyone

WERTHEIM: Awards for the 2013 season; more tennis mail

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