Putting the GOAT to rest, early French Open favorites, more mailbag

Wednesday May 14th, 2014

The tennis world collectively exhaled when Rafael Nadal dominated at the Madrid Open.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

We'll start by saying that Rafael Nadal started resembling, well, himself and won the Madrid Open last week. Kei Nishikori continued his ascent, beating David Ferrer and reaching the Madrid final -- before retiring with an injury. Maria Sharapova won another big title. The Columbia University men's team continued its dream season, knocking off Vanderbilt to reach the Round of 16 in the NCAA tournament (it had never won a match in the NCAA tournament before this season). Federer became a father again (and again). The French Open is days away. And, far and away, the most popular topic among readers was Andre Agassi's thoughts on the GOAT debate.

Lots of responses. Lots of analysis. Lots of parsing. Some of it is compelling and provocative and well-reasoned; some of it is sociopathetic. As a rule, we aim for this column to echo the topics du jour in TennisLandia. But this week, we're going to take a break and put the GOAT out to pasture, so to speak.

Why? I feel like civility and perspective have left the building and the Truthers have taken over. No matter how you feel about either Federer or Nadal, they are two of ... what? The five greatest in tennis history, a pair of sportsmen -- in the truest sense -- whose biggest moral failing is taking too much time between points or making a few too many self-referential comments.

Yet, listening to the chorus, both men are quickly reduced to hacks with substandard personalities to match. To the Federer Fanatics, Nadal is an artless clay-court specialist whose success owes to a combination of luck, a Svengali uncle and ox tranquilizers. To the Nadal loyalists, Federer is a precious prima donna, lucky to beat Hal the club pro, who rivals Nadal the way grass rivals a rider lawn mower.

What's more, the plot twists here are fun, but they remind us that we are dealing with incomplete information. Speaking with certitude here is like having the salad course and declaring, "This is the best meal I've ever eaten!" Or watching the first hour of a movie and declaring it a classic. Let's wait and see how this plays out before making declarative statements.


Well Jon, I'm curious, who are your early picks to win the French Open?
-- @LDavenport76

• I believe it was a French philosopher who put it best: "You win at Roland Garros eight times in nine years and you're the favorite the 10th year -- no matter how shaky your results leading up."

I think for the men, you have to go with Nadal based on his track record alone. Add in his encouraging play in Madrid, Novak Djokovic's uncertain status and the fact that playing best-of-five sets helps the better player. Nadal is clearly vulnerable and beatable. ("There for the taking," is how one coach recently put it to me.) Be that as it may, there's a big gap between that and actually taking down the king.

As for the women, Serena Williams is similarly situated. I would take the field against her -- which is rare -- but she remains the favorite. Mine, anyway.

And as long as @LDavenport76 (aka Lindsay Davenport) is among us, let's note that Tennis Channel is to the French Open what CNN is to the Malaysian Airlines catastrophe. Check the listings here.

In reading some of your previous columns, I get the sense that you are not a fan of Lleyton Hewitt. Would you mind telling us why? Because I will tell you this: He is a CHAMPION!!!
-- Scott, Australia

• There's usually an inverse relationship between "number of exclamation points" and "willingness to entertain query." But -- not unlike a certain Aussie former No.1 -- I cannot resist entering the fray.

First, I take issue with your premise: I'm I lifelong fan of Lleyton Hewitt, for at least the last two years.

Seriously, during his prime, Hewitt was a pain in the posterior for everyone. It started with the opponents across the net, but it extended to so many others. He was so combative, so adversarial. He seemed to thrive on the friction and on making life unnecessarily difficult for so many. Here's a column from (gulp) 2005. And bear in mind, this was a full three years after he was at the peak of his powers.

Yet today, Hewitt makes the short list of players we ought to admire the most. For all the prattling about "love of the game," here's a guy whose fondness (addiction?) for competition is such that he is still out there at age 33, treating his business with maximum professionalism, able to recalibrate his goals and continue to find fulfillment.

Kei Nishikori took the first set against Rafael Nadal in the Madrid Open final, but retired with injury.

Bottom line, Jon. Should I believe that Kei Nishikori can win a major?
-- Charlie P., Brooklyn

• Well, here's why I -- wait ... was that a knock? ... The door is open. Come on in. We have a guest appearance. The Tennis Ogre has joined us in studio. The Tennis Ogre will be taking over for this question. Over to you ...

"Look, I don't want to sound like, you know, a jerk here. Nishikori has been one of the uplifting stories of 2014. He's now in the top 10, and his list of scalps this year include Federer, Ferrer (twice), Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic (twice). Plus, he took a set off of Rafael Nadal on clay before retiring from the match with a back injury.

"And therein lies the problem. For all his speed and savvy defense and improved consistency, Nishikori remains something other than durable. He's retired from more than a dozen matches in his career. This is not to malign Nishikori. Two years ago, he spent much of his offseason in Chicago, living at the Drake Hotel, while he worked out with a trainer. By all accounts, his appetite for off-court work has improved dramatically in recent years. Twice this year, he's pulled out of big events with an injury. The notion of him winning 21 sets? On clay? With only a day of rest in between matches? Two weeks after retiring from a match? That's a big ask right now."

Jon, por favor, s'il vous plait! At some point I would love it if you could do a column of thumbnail sketches of the gentlemen (and occasional lady) in the lifeguard's chair at the Masters 1000s and the Grand Slams. Now mostly retired, I get to watch more matches and my curiosity is awakened by these people and their obvious dedication to the game. Who pays their expenses? Why do they do it? Fly all over the world to sit up there for hours, taking abuse from players and crowds, having to hop down and back up dozens of times, never seeming to need bathroom breaks -- and most of them seem to have a sense of humor, too! I do know about Pascal Maria from your excellent book, but would like to be better acquainted with all of the others. Thanks in advance, just in case you do it!
-- Margaret, Philadelphia

• You know, I think Margaret is on to something. In tennis -- as in most leagues -- the institutional position has been to shield the officials from publicity. We're not supposed to know about the referees and the umpires and, secretly, the leagues seethe when people like Steve Javie and Ed Hochuli become mini-celebrities. Yet these folks are part of the show and, especially today (blah blah blah social media; blah blah blah HD technology; blah blah blah insatiable curiosity), are increasingly recognizable.

It seems like mini-bios would appeal to fans. If the world knew that Kader Nouni was a libra with a voice like distilled honey who could bench-press his weight, cook a mean puttanesca and play a meaner jazz flute -- just, you know, hypothetically -- would objectivity really be compromised?

In a question regarding the challenge system in last week's mailbag, you noted, "If you have the capacity for accuracy, why not maximize it?" Do you feel the same way about the whole grunting issue? In your statement concerning the challenging system, you state that those abusing the system will be exposed. If we used that same philosophy concerning grunting, well, that really hasn't stopped the extreme grunters (Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka). They have been exposed as abusing grunts and the public opinion is that all the grunting is annoying, but they still do it. I don't think public opinion matters to players, so not having rules for challenges or for grunting would not solve any problems. Your thoughts?
-- Tim, Atlanta

• I think it's a bit of apples and oranges. Grunting is subjective. What is ear poison to one fan (and player) is not a big deal to another. In the case of the player who makes scads of incorrect challenges, well, it's pretty unambiguous whether his or her demand for replay was successful.

But to your larger point, I would contend that, yes, the court of public opinion does reflect our views toward grunting, and that Azarenka, in particular, has paid a real price. Here's a two-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 whose endorsements and overall profile lag behind her achievements. When she had her contretemps with Sloane Stephens at the 2013 Australia Open, I would submit that some of the fallout came from the fact that she was already in a position of weakness. (i.e., in the eyes of many, she had come to embody gamesmanship with her shrieking, so many were skeptical that her abuse of the medical timeout was an innocent mistake.) I would say the grunters pay a price -- if not as steep as some would hope.

Nadal is having trouble with opponents who usually were beaten easily. Federer had the same problem two years ago.
-- @ruy11

• Two years ago, Federer won Wimbledon.

Shots, miscellany

• Nice to see Jennifer Capriati score a win.

• Agnieszka Radwanska has committed to play the Bank of the West Classic in July.

• The ITA has announced its 2014 national award winners for NAIA men's and women's tennis.

• The United States qualified for the world finals in all four junior team events -- Junior Davis Cup and Junior Fed Cup by BNP Paribas (16-and-under) and boys' and girls' World Junior Tennis (14-and-under). The U.S. will now play in the Junior Davis Cup and Junior Fed Cup world finals, held Sept. 23-28 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and the boys' and girls' World Junior Tennis finals, held Aug. 4-9 in Prostejov, Czech Republic.

• Press releasing: The country's two main professional tennis-teaching organizations are pushing an effort to get Americans to "Try Tennis for Free," by asking certified tennis teachers to offer free tennis lessons. Consumers should check out PlayTennis.com.

• Credit Ben Rothenberg with drawing attention to why sports gamblers target tennis players on Twitter. A few players have deleted accounts as a result of the abuse.

• The USTA is building a state-of-the-art tennis facility at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla.

• Help a longtime Mailbag community member raise funds for the project "Do I Sound Gay?"

• This week's long-lost siblings comes from a colleague who would like to remain nameless: Andy Murray and U.S. soccer star Landon Donovan.

• And a second submission for long-lost siblings: Eugenie Bouchard and actress Maggie Grace.

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