Be patient with Sloane Stephens; more mail

Wednesday March 26th, 2014

A coaching timeout with Paul Annacone didn't help Sloane Stephens in a desultory loss in Miami.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

What are your thoughts on Sloane Stephens? I'm selling!
-- Lucy, Durham, N.C.

• Holding. It was all but predictable that Stephens was due for a rough patch after last year's surge, when she closed in on the top 10 by making the fourth round or better at all four Grand Slam tournaments, including the Australian Open semifinals and Wimbledon quarterfinals. Some of this owes simply to the circadian rhythms of being a pro. Some of this is regression to the mean. Some of this is the result of plying a teenager with attention and money.

Stephens has obviously come in for quite a beating lately. I'm at the Sony Open, and her shaky effort against Caroline Wozniacki was still the talk of the tournament a full 48 hours after Sunday's match.

It's hard spin a 6-1, 6-0 defeat -- which included 37 unforced errors in 82 points -- as anything other than an abject disaster. That the opponent was Wozniacki, a player with a dearth of weapons, only makes it more dubious, though this isn't the first time that Stephens has struggled against the former No. 1.

NGUYEN: Notable quotes from Stephens, more players at Sony Open

Stephens has some holes in her game -- both her tennis game and her mental game -- in need of spackling. For all her success, she has yet to win a title -- or even make a final -- which is like a hole in your jeans that only becomes more glaring and tougher to conceal with time. (See: Kournikova, Anna.) Questions about Stephens' attitude and motivation surfaced long before this event. Her point construction remains mystifying at times.

We're talking about one match, though. Name me a player and we can point to a dismal effort. Give Stephens some slack and some time, in equal measure. She's a top-20 player who turned 21 just last week. There will be nodes and crests, peaks and valleys, sharp wins and horrible defeats. All part of the process.

An image of Paul Annacone's talking to a despondent Sloane Stephens during a coaching timeout bubbled up in my Twitter timeline and something about the photo struck me. Stephens is not listening to Annacone at all. Is it just me, or is this the dynamic in nearly every on-court coaching timeout you've ever seen? I don't see what difference these sessions could possibly make. Moreover, I can't recall a single instance in which a coaching timeout significantly improved a player's level (I can, however, recall several recent incidents in which the player's level dropped after a timeout). And so I wonder if the most damning thing we can say about on-court coaching isn't the bad optics, but rather that it simply isn't efficacious.
-- John Dugan, Memphis, Tenn.

• This is the New Coke of tennis. You respect the innovation and the willingness to try something new. But at some point, you must have the humility to recognize that it's time to cut bait.

Would one be more likely to pick a perfect bracket for the men's French Open or the NCAA tournament? I feel like the tennis might be easier (leaving aside the extra-round factor), in part because the players tend to have longer track records against each other. Both might be impossible, though. Have you ever heard of a perfect bracket at a Grand Slam event?
-- Stephen B., Toronto

• Against all odds (ba-dum-bump), we probably had more questions about brackets than any other topics this week. Stephen's question, of course, references Warren Buffett's offer/ruse of awarding $1 billion to anyone with a perfect March Madness bracket. First, let's discuss the absurdity here. You could fill out 90 billion brackets and still have only a 50-50 chance of winning. This was a great publicity grab, but Buffet was in no danger.

As for tennis, I do think the odds would be different. As Stephen notes, we have a lot more to help guide our picks. Head-to-head records. Different surfaces. Current form. We're also talking about an individual versus a team. In the case of the men, the best-of-five format gives us a bigger sample size, which works to the advantage of the superior player. Even if an underdog can get hot for a set or two, he still needs to win a third.

But, again, a perfect bracket is such a statistical long shot that it's almost not even worth discussing. If my rudimentary probability skills are right, think of it this way: There are 127 matches in a major singles draw. Even if you knew with 80 percent certainty that a player would win -- which is wildly generous -- the percent of a perfect bracket would be 0.8 to the 127th power. (You stand only a 41 percent chance of getting the first four matches right.) In other words, you have a much better chance of personally winning a Slam title than turning in a perfect bracket.

Here's some bad math for young ATP players. No man will ever match Roger Federer's 17 Grand Slam titles, or even Rafael Nadal's 13 (with likely more to come). Besides, obviously, their extraordinary talents, both had plus-perfect timing. They won majors early while the tour still accommodated young champions, AND they evolved with the sport as it began rewarding maturity more than ever before. Players in the future will have their Grand Slam-winning years truncated on the front end but probably not extended enough on the back end to compensate. Thoughts?
-- Paul Treacy, Washington, D.C.

• I'm out of the prediction game here. Who would have thought that anyone would catch Roy Emerson (who won 12 Slam titles before the Open era)? Hell, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were, objectively, better players, and they didn't come close.

Then, of course, there was Pete Sampras. He had a paucity of rivals, played with unrivaled skill and was emotionally impregnable. Thirteen, then 14 Slams? You have to be kidding. Who would catch him?

Then, of course, there was Federer. Singular talent. All-court skills. A body that resists injury. He didn't even let Sampras hold his record for a measly decade. But, wait. Here comes Nadal. Thanks in no small part to his mastery of Federer, he is only four major titles behind the 32-year-old Swiss -- and is nearly five years younger.

Who's to say there isn't some 12-year-old in Upper Slovakia or Lower Slovenia or Scarsdale who won't make a mockery of the record in 2030?

To Paul's point: Yes, a lot militates against another player's winning double-digit Slams. The game has gotten so much more physical that injuries are an unprecedented threat. If you don't start winning in your early 20s, it's akin to blowing off your 401(k) until your 40s. You're unlikely to catch up. Rivalries elevate the sport but hinder individual greatness.

Still, who knows what tennis will look like in the future or what singular gifts a player could potentially summon? Perhaps some LeBron James or Clayton Kershaw comes along, eschews basketball or baseball (or soccer or football) and transforms the sport.

I am not a tennis player, but I am fairly sure that wrists are a prerequisite for being a decent, if not great one. Is it time to write off Juan Martin del Potro, given his similar wrist injuries on both hands? His potential really seemed to be great, and it is a shame that the 2009 U.S. Open could be his only Grand Slam title. Where would you rank him on the one-Slam-wonder list?
-- Rachel, Fair Lawn, N.J.

• We shouldn't write off Del Potro yet. It's a little early to consign the 25-year-old to the one-Slam-wonder bin. Yes, wrists are essential to tennis. But wrists heel, as Del Potro himself showed last year when he made the Wimbledon semifinals, matched a career high with four titles and re-entered the top five to continue his comeback from the first surgery. Wish him well in his recovery. (And if his left wrist continues to hinder his progress, there's always a one-handed backhand.)

A few years ago, I remember that you gave a reader some tips about music for a nephew. Can you help me do the same and recommend some young musicians?
-- Marie, Florida

• Young musicians? Start with Neil and Angus. Seriously, I will throw in a shameless plug for Federer fan Eric Hutchinson. I will also recommend Arcade Fire.

Shots, miscellany

• It was 10 years ago that Federer met a Spanish teenager in the third round of the Miami event. The 17-year-old won in straight sets and thus was born the Federer-Nadal rivalry, which now stands at 33 installments. As I write this, the next one could come as soon as Sunday. After a dismal 2013, Federer looks like his old self. He crushed Richard Gasquet 6-1, 6-2 in 49 minutes on Tuesday. Two weeks after looking decidedly flat in Indian Wells, Nadal is suddenly in top form, and needed all of 62 minutes to dominate Fabio Fognini 6-2, 6-2 on Tuesday.

• Two tennis start-ups worth your investment dollars: Elina Svitolina of Ukraine doesn't turn 20 until September, but she is already set to crack the WTA top 40, with a bullet. In Miami, she beat No. 19 Eugenie Bouchard in the second round and took a set off No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska in the fourth round. Almost to the day, she is a year younger than Austria's Dominic Thiem, who will likely be an ATP top-50 player by the summer. While he hasn't quite earned his nickname, The Dominator, he has already won 16 matches (including qualifying) this year, as he climbs the charts. (He has climbed to No. 86 after starting the year at No. 139.)

• He may have lost to Kei Nishikori in the third round of the Sony Open, but Grigor Dimitrov was your big winner last week.

• The mail keeps coming about my idea to hold the U.S. Open in Indian Wells periodically. Let's be clear: It's fanciful and unlikely to happen. The BNP Paribas honchos explicitly shot down the suggestion. Besides, the USTA is using bond financing for the forthcoming upgrades, secured by U.S. Open revenues. It's not likely that the lenders/noteholders will allow the event to move, absent a guarantee revenues won't go down. Still, it's food for thought.

• Doug M. of St. Charles, Mo.: "I compared the head-to-head records of the Big Four and here's where it stands. Andy Murray: a combined 24-34; Roger Federer: 37-50; Novak Djokovic: 44-47; Rafael Nadal: 58-32. Something to consider when trying to determine the best of the four or GOAT."

• Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting likes her some tennis.

• Raul Amezquita of Evanston, Ill.: "For the 'Unsolicited Suggestions for the ATP & WTA' section of your column: For each match won in a tournament, add one bonus point for each spot in the rankings separating players. For example, if a player ranked No. 100 defeats a player ranked No. 2, the winner gets an extra 98 points. If the higher-ranked player wins, no bonus points. Not perfect, but it provides an additional incentive, not to mention a fair reward, to the player who hits the jackpot on any round."

Are athletes born or made?

• A few of you have given me grief for neglecting long-lost siblings. Nick De Toustain of Montclair, N.J. has a March Madness-themed edition: Andy Murray and Matt Howard, who starred for Butler during its back-to-back appearances in the national championship game.

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