Contemplating a Murray-McEnroe coaching partnership; more mailbag

Wednesday May 7th, 2014

John McEnroe has expressed interest in coaching Andy Murray, who split with Ivan Lendl in March.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On the occasion of Roger Federer going back-to-back with twins, let the mixed-doubles/Grand Slam/two-sets-to-love jokes begin in 3, 2, 1 ...

Do you have a view on the rumor of a John McEnroe/Andy Murray project? It seems to me a dreadful idea. How can a mix of two volatile personalities create a calm harmony? McEnroe's endeavors in the coaching arena were a disaster and he never won a Grand Slam after he was the age Murray is now. On the other hand, who knows?
-- Elsie Misbourne, Washington, D.C.

• This rumor had been floating around for a while, and it was goosed by recent remarks from both McEnroe and Murray.

This would be a terrific irony, McEnroe succeeding Ivan Lendl as Murray's coach. I'm not quite as down on this as Elise, though, but yes, that's an awful lot of personality for one camp. (Then again, it's an awful lot of major titles, too.) Common sense tells us that this is a bad match. Does McEnroe have the focus, attention and interest to dedicate to Murray? Does he have the knowledge of the current field? Is he subject to the "curse of expertise" whereby his genius as a player undercuts his effectiveness as a coach?

On the other hand, McEnroe has been in Murray's place as a top player, the same way Lendl had, and this was important to Murray. Other coaches may be great tacticians and motivators, but when it's the eve of Grand Slam final, is Murray not thinking, "You have no idea what I'm going through, right?" And, more generally, coaching relationships are seldom rational. Jimmy Connors/Andy Roddick was, reflexively, a combustible combo, too. But they were together for years.

Overlooked in this: Murray hasn't been the same player since winning Wimbledon in 2013. It might be partly physical (he had back surgery last September). It might be an understandable lapse after reaching his career goal. It might simply be a regression to the mean. But change is in order.

Roger Federer frequently begins matches against top players aggressively, wins the first set and then mysteriously becomes more passive and engages in baseline rallies and ultimately loses. It almost appears as if his default mode is more passive even though he's capable of more aggressive play, but it is not his real comfort zone. It is frustrating as a fan to continually see this from him because he isn't steady enough anymore to beat top grinders playing their game. Your feelings?
-- Ben, Queens, N.Y.

• Funny, I just recently had a very similar conversation about this. We come to praise Federer, not bury him. But armchair -- and admittedly simplified -- psychology: Federer is the accidental tennis star. Genetically, there was little to presage his greatness. He was raised as a member of the middle class -- he wasn't entitled; neither did he want for anything. His parents were the antithesis of pushy. When I was writing my book in 2008, Robert Federer told me that he sometimes wanted his son to play less tennis, not more. Without nature or nurture working overtime, Federer still emerges. His talent prevails.

What's always lagged behind, though, is his mindset. This is not to suggest that Federer is mentally weak or passive. You cannot be pregnable and win 17 majors, but Federer has never been mentally wired like a conventional superstar. What do Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Serena Williams and Tiger Woods have in common? They are ruthless competitors. In the vernacular, they are "assassins" and "cold-blooded killers" and "ninjas." Federer has never been an assassin. Even at the height of his powers, you had the sense that he relished performance more than competition. Even when challenged, he resists confrontation.

Again -- he says, trying preempt an avalanche of angry emails -- this is not a knock. It enables him to connect with his adoring fans in a way the aforementioned do not. It will make his post-sports transition to "civilian living" much easier. It emphasizes just how soaring his talent level was/is.

But he never had an I-will-put-my-boot-on-your-throat mentality. He evinced what the poli-sci types call "soft power." He wanted to subdue his opponents, not crush them. Usually it didn't matter. But as Federer has slipped a peg, I would submit that this essentially niceness bites him. The squandered opportunities to close matches. The shanks and passivity on key points. Big picture, it's all part of the appeal. But exceptional as his talent is, I would suggest that, dispositionally, he is strikingly normal. And this is what is manifesting itself in those disappointing third sets.

NGUYEN: Stanislas Wawrinka rallies past Roger Federer to win Monte Carlo Masters

Isn't it strange that players get only three Hawk-Eye challenges per set, but if playing on clay, there is no limit on the number of times they can ask the umpire to leave his chair to check a mark?
-- Fred, Maastricht, The Netherlands

• Good point. Players have a finite number of challenges when all that's required is pushing a few buttons. But they are limitless when asking the umpire to descend from his lifeguard's chair and inspect smudges in clay.

When replay was introduced, there were two reasons given for limiting challenges. (And, note, it's limiting incorrect challenges.) First, Arlen Kantarian, the USTA's CEO of Professional Tennis at the time, liked the idea of adding this bit of intrigue. (Here's a Kantarian sighting, by the way.) Second, there was a concern that unlimited challenges would cause disruptions and be used as a stall tactic by players.

I think we can agree that neither amounted to much. Hawk-Eye is a terrific success. It helps with accuracy. The fans like it. It plays well on television. But the mystery over whether a player will or won't use his or her ration of challenges is seldom part of the appeal. You can go entire sets without players issuing a single challenge, and the average fan has no idea how many challenges a certain player has remaining. What's more, justice comes swift. This isn't the NFL, where empires can rise and fall in the time it takes the zebras to review the call. In tennis, we're talking about a few seconds.

My attitude: If you have the capacity for accuracy, why not maximize it? Let the players issue as many challenges as they fit. Those abusing the system or challenging excessively will be exposed and deterred by the court of public opinion. And, as Fred notes, there is an irony that on clay, which doesn't use Hawk-Eye, appeals are limitless.

Rafael Nadal suffered two surprising losses in clay tournaments he has previously dominated.
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

OK, Jon. Do you have the guts to admit this has been a strange season so far? Rafael Nadal is off form. Andy Murray is off form. Neither the Big Four nor Serena Williams won the Australian Open. Can you give me five reasons to watch the French Open?
-- Ron W., Boston

• I'm not sure your questions "track," as they say in the writing world. I'm in total agreement that this has been a strange season. (I'd add that Victoria Azarenka has been a non-factor, many of the WTA prospects have slumped, Novak Djokovic is now hurt and Federer is kinda sorta back.) But to me, this doesn't detract from the French Open intrigue; it only adds to it. As far as reasons to watch:

1. Can Nadal regain his form (and confidence) and win his ninth French Open since 2005?

2. Can Serena defend her title?

3. Is Stanislas Wawrinka a one-slam wonder, or an awakened bear ready to stake more territory? (Do bears stake territory? Mixed metaphor? Note to self: Google this.)

4. Which of the ATP's Kilroys -- the guys stealthily peering into the top ranks, like Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Alexandr Dolgopolov -- will progress?

5. Which of the WTA's 21-and-unders -- including Elina Svitolina, Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza, Madison Keys and Caroline Garcia -- will come to play?

Five burning questions as the French Open rapidly approaches

Can you spare a paragraph to discuss Dinara Safina's announcement that she will officially retire from tennis? How will you remember her career? I will remember her unfulfilled potential (she reached three Grand Slam finals and an Olympic final, but never got over the hump), and as someone who never could get out of her brother's large shadow. Her game was so powerful. She really looked like a Grand Slam winner, but nerves always set in at the worst possible times. I am going to miss her, as I was probably one of the few people holding out hope that maybe she would come back.
-- Fayga, Monticello, N.Y.

• Let's use the occasion to discuss what Safina DID achieve, not what was lacking. She got to No.1. She reached multiple Grand Slam finals. She won a dozen WTA titles. She banked $10 million. We should all underachieve like this.

Did she match her brother's achievements and profile? No. But that's hardly an indictment. Was she beset by nerves at times? Sure. Like the rest of us. ("I am not a robot," she once said.) She had the double misfortune of peaking early and following her brother. But on balance, she should leave with her head aloft.

Hi, Jon Wertheim. I am Peter Harris and I am wondering if you think the ATP will bring back best-of-five Masters Series finals. Thank you.
-- Peter Harris, Wilmington, Del.

• Hi, Peter Harris. I say: Never. At a time when the sport has never been more physical (I should just have that phrase as a cut-and-paste function), the players are understandably reluctant to play best-of-five sets outside of Grand Slams. Who can blame them? And from that point of view, best-of-three, especially in the era of long points, is more than sufficient.

The real question: When player after player is sidelined with all sorts of injuries, why aren't the grown-ups doing more to curtail long matches? Even the kakistocracy (drink!) that is boxing had the good sense to end 15-round fights!

In the interest of fairness and balance, I cede my remaining time to @roeeorland:

The main argument for shortening Grand Slam matches is "to grow the sport." However, tennis is the second-most-popular sport in Europe and seems to be doing just fine everywhere except in the U.S. media. Seems to me we're at a balance between popularity and integrity. In fact, with the WTA's on-court coaching, we may have gone too far. Tennis is big enough, let's keep the five-setters.

Is the equivalent to baseball's cycle in tennis a win at an ATP 250, ATP 500, Masters 1000 and a Grand Slam? If so, Stanislas Wawrinka is only missing the ATP 500 and is a double away from the cycle. If he can add the Davis Cup title (let's call it a second triple), he will do something very rare I would think.
-- Stephen B., Toronto

• It's a bit misleading, since the top players will often go an entire year without slumming at a 250 event. What about this: "Hitting for the cycle" these days entails an "outsider" beating Nadal, Federer, Murray and Djokovic in a season. In which case Wawrinka need only beat Murray to complete the feat for 2014.

If NFL teams had to draft tennis players, who would be the first player chosen?
-- Ari, Los Angeles

• I guess it all depends on the team's needs. A quarterback with a live arm who can see over the coverage? I would say, maybe, John Isner. A rugged body? Maybe Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Nicolas Almagro. A player seemingly immune from injury? Federer.

Shots, miscellany

• Reader Andrew shared this article: Why is Rafael Nadal struggling? Blame tennis' 13th-major curse.

• Congrats to USTA French Open wild cards Robby Ginepri and Taylor Townsend.

• Mazel tov to Andy Ram, one of the first-team good guys, calling it a career. Over at ESPN, Marc Stein will be sitting shiva until next week.

• Andre Agassi christens a new charter school in the Paris-on-the-Wabash.

• This is simply an awesome press release: "Stan Wawrinka, Grand Slam champion and current tennis world number three, is the new face of Evian Switzerland. This partnership centres around the slogan 'live young' and focuses on leading a balanced lifestyle. Living a healthy life and feeling young are not a question of age, but rather of a positive state of mind." Also awesome is the shirt they gave Wawrinka to celebrate.

• More press releasing: Jim Courier and Boris Becker have invested in and will advise Alchemy Global, the first crowd-funding platform in the sports and entertainment market matching accredited investors with growth companies.

• Rebecca of Lodi, Calif., writes: "How about covering the amazing story of ex-cop Rob Peterson? Thanks!"

• The USTA of Florida could be leaving Daytona Beach.

• You will have a hard time topping this for long-lost siblings.

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