State of Djokovic's game, new offseason league, more mail

Wednesday March 5th, 2014

Second-ranked Novak Djokovic has lost before the finals in his two tournaments this year.
Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images

Many have offered analysis of Novak Djokovic's recent struggles. It seems to me that he is suffering from a buildup of mental fatigue dating to his amazing 2011 season. John McEnroe was never the same after 1984. Mats Wilander was never the same after 1988. Djokovic may never be the same, either, after 2011. Your thoughts?
-- Dave, Bloomfield, Conn.

• I waver on Djokovic. He's won one Grand Slam title over the last two years, failed to medal at the 2012 London Olympics and had a number of lapses that -- while not embarrassing -- were precisely the kind of matches he managed to avoid during his magical 2011.

We eagerly await a larger sample size, but the decision to effectively replace coaches has not paid immediate dividends, either. And yet, he's still No. 2 in the world, still making the latter rounds of tournaments, still a threat on any surface, still generally healthy and still a hot streak away from reclaiming the top ranking. And let's not forget that he ended last season on a 24-match winning streak.

Exhibitions, of course, tend to have little significance. But on the points in which they played full bore Monday during the BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden, Djokovic looked to be superior to Andy Murray.

NGUYEN: Djokovic has favorable draw at Indian Wells

I could go either way on Djokovic. It wouldn't surprise me if he finished the year at No. 1. But it also wouldn't surprise me if he failed to win a major. Statistically, it was almost impossible for him not to have regressed from 2011, when he went 70-6 with three Slams and 10 titles overall. But it's not like he won the batting title and is now struggling to hit .250.

Is Djokovic going through a Pete Sampras-style, post-engagement slump? Or is Roger Federer, who beat Djokovic in the semifinals of the Dubai Championships last week, starting to play more aggressively?
-- Barry Stuart, San Francisco

• a) Federer, the Dubai champion, is playing better than he did at any time during 2012. To me, the key is the backhand. The marshmallow slices have been replaced by generally uninhibited ball striking.

b) Again, Djokovic isn't in a slump or a crisis. But he's had some puzzling losses over the last two years. The Djokovic of 2011 never lets Federer back into last week's match.

c) Let's leave significant others out of this. The angriest I'd ever seen Sampras in his career? Rightly, he was furious when others -- including colleagues -- blamed his flagging results on his wife. The notion of both "muses" and "black widows" is vastly overrated. It's one thing if a player falters and there's simultaneous off-court static. But when a player falters and he or she is in a healthy relationship, it's overreach and an intrusion to blame it on the significant other.

So, in this second act of Boris Becker/Stefan Edberg, I guess we have to say for now that it's advantage, Edberg? I say this not just because Federer beat Djokovic last week, but also because of the two pupils these men are charged with coaching. One seems to be taking the lesson plan more to heart.
-- Jon B., Seattle

• I still need to see more data points before making any pronouncements about Djokovic's work with Becker and Federer's parternship with Edberg. But, yes, Fedberg does seem to be working, the key to this Rogeresurgence we're witnessing. (I'll stop now.) In fairness to Becker, he inherited a player who had been at the top of his game and played the best tennis on tour in the fall. He bought high. In the case of Edberg, there was plenty of room for improvement.

Kudos to Mahesh Bhupathi for signing up big names for his International Premier Tennis League. How many will actually play remains to be seen, but this is a great beginning. Given players' interest (for whatever reason), an event like this should replace Davis/Fed Cup. Don't get me wrong; these two team competitions have great history and still some significance. But increasingly players are becoming multinational. Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and probably many more live and train outside their home country. Post-nation (beyond-country?) initiatives like the IPTL can be more successful. It's a shame that the ATP/WTA/ITF dropped the ball on this idea and let someone else take the lead. What do you think?
-- Sumit, Jersey City, N.J.

Victoria Azarenka (left) and Serena Williams have committed to play in the new International Premier Tennis League.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

• Before Federer went and plundered thunder by winning the Dubai title, the big tennis news last week was the IPTL draft. This ... well, what is it? It's not really a league per se. It's not really a circuit. But it's more organized than a mere exhibition series. This entity is certainly intriguing.

I'm not sure the ATP/WTA/ITF should feel shame, but Sumit makes a valid point: Good for Bhupathi, an ATP doubles star, for recognizing opportunity, lining up the financing and executing. The IPTL -- which counts Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka among its draftees -- begins in late November and continues through December with teams in Bangkok, Dubai, Mumbai and Singapore.

The IPTL has a lot going for it. It capitalizes on the Asian market, where there is wealth being spent on sports and athletes are looking to establish a marketing beachhead. Not unlike World TeamTennis, the IPTL takes advantage of tennis' demographic assets -- men and women, dynamic stars, legends who still have game -- and features a TV-friendly format. For the players, it is an undeniable cash grab. Never mind that Nadal reportedly could make $1 million per night for his services. Each team's "salary floor" is $4 million, which means that it's lucrative for even the most modest players.

There are plenty of potential complications. For all the player gripes about the demands of the job and the never-ending circuit and the scant offseason, it is more than a little hypocritical to then spend Thanksgiving and Christmas decamping to Asia to ... play tennis. (It's easy for players to commit and express enthusiasm now. We'll see how many still have the health and energy when the date arrives.) What happens when players get dinged up in IPTL matches and it compromises their performance at the Australian Open? (Note that a certain Swiss star was not among the players who committed.) There is even a Sports Law 101 argument about whether the ATP and WTA might have a legal claim against a rival circuit.

On balance, though, it's a smart idea that has the potential to shake up the sport, reach a new audience, tap into new revenue and bring new television coverage. There are a lot of nervous onlookers, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The IPTL brain trust should be congratulated for getting to the beta stage, such as it is. Let's see how this plays out. The worst-case scenario is that it is the ISL deal of the 1990s, a financial chimera. The best-case scenario is that it is a new player that makes the rest of the sport reexamine business as usual.

Why are two hard-court Masters 1000 events (Indian Wells and Miami) played back-to-back? Tennis is too physically grueling now for this schedule. It makes no sense for the players or the Miami tournament, which suffers from withdrawals and fatigued entrants on the heels of Indian Wells. And while we are at it, how about a fresh look at the tournament scheduling for the entire year to maximize player participation, fan satisfaction and tournament revenue?
-- F., Valencia

• I admit that some of this is self-interest, but I rather like the Indian Wells-Miami back-to-back. Tennis pierces the public consciousness in the United States during March.

I'm not sure why they both have to be hard-court events, though. I'm not the first to suggest that Miami switch to clay. It would be a welcome respite after a three-month stretch played mostly on hard courts. The USTA could use the facility for upgrading the American collective clay aptitude. The transition from one surface to the other would be abrupt, but so what? A clay-to-grass shift happens in a day.

What is the status of Donald Young, the American who had so much promise a few years back?
-- Tom, Chicago

• You know what they say: Youth is wasted on D. Young. The bad news first: Young has yet to fulfill his potential. His results have been erratic. His commitment to his parents as coaches has not. There have been a few regrettable episodes (Google at your peril).

Here's the good news: At age 24 -- still the first trimester of a tennis career these days -- Young remains in the top 100 (at No. 81, after beginning the year at No. 96), and he's still a dangerous player capable of dazzling tennis. It's barely March and he's already won nearly $100,000 in 2014, thanks largely to a third-round appearance at the Australian Open. He appears to have matured.

Realistically, is he a threat to win majors, as his junior ranking may have suggested? No. But give him some credit. Without much in the way of height or bulk, he is a credible pro. Plenty of other hyped prospects haven't gotten nearly as far.

Would it be fair to say that when there isn't a local player in the mix, Federer is invariably the crowd favorite?
-- Tennis Padma, Minneapolis

• In other words: Accounting for all variables, is Federer the most popular player in tennis? I'd say so, sure.

it was refreshing to see the pace at which Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych played the Dubai final. Even after extended rallies, the server quickly stepped to the line and was ready to go. Which got me thinking about the new time rule. I noticed during the final that Mohamed Lahyani, one of my favorite chair umpires, would wait for the crowd noise to die down and then call the score. Many times I noticed this would be almost right before the server was already to the line. There was no issue for this match, but for the slow, towel-obsessed, methodical pickers (I mean players), this grace period given by the delayed score call could effectively defeat the whole purpose behind the new rule. So, in essence, the new rule is VERY MUCH governed by the chair umpire. One umpire's timing of calling the score may vary dramatically from another's.
-- Greg M., Charleston, S.C.

• I don't disagree. And as long as we're here, is there a less meaningful stat than "time of match"? If Players A and B take 10 seconds between points and serves and Players Y and Z take 25, the actually length of the rallies can be completely offset by the "total time" tally.

I was really hoping to see Marat Safin around Sochi during the Olympics. I really miss his personality. Why do you think he is lying so low?
-- Marjorie Kane, Virginia Beach, Va.

• If I were a Russian politician, I too, might be inclined to lie low these days.

Shots, miscellany

• As I try to balance hype and responsible prognostication ... keep an eye on 16-year-old Francis Tiafoe of College Park, Md., who played a warm-up match at Madison Square Garden on World Tennis Day and drew rave reviews from the salon. The 2013 Orange Bowl International champion is the eighth-ranked junior.

• Federer, not unjustly, dominated the news and social-media traffic with his play in Dubai. But how about Grigor Dimitrov winning the Mexican Open title with three-set victories over Ernests Gulbis, Murray and Kevin Anderson in succession?

• In a rare show of unity, World Tennis Day is officially a success.

• Be sure to read this first-person piece from Sergiy Stakhovsky on the situation in his native Ukraine.

• There's a grassroots campaign to get a U.S. Open stadium named after John McEnroe. Curious how many of you would sign on?

Very cool tennis infographic.

• M. Ng of Vancouver: "This is to amuse you. I was watching Federer play Radek Stepanek in Dubai and thought that Federer's attitude reminded me of my students. First month of term: raring to go and promise to do all assignments by deadline and read all texts. Second month: struggling a bit but still managing the mid-term exam and so avoid a 'see me in my office please' message. Third month: slacking off, partying on weeknights, dating several girls or boys and shocked at a fail on term paper. End of term: came through with a B."

This is why I love Mary Carillo, who just re-upped with Tennis Channel.

The best point from last week.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.