Jon Wertheim discusses Serena Williams's calendar year Grand Slam chase and her inclusion in the GOAT discussion, as well as more reader mail.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Still on the subject of Serena: for those who keep saying that she is playing in a weak era, I have two arguments:
1. She has a dominant head-to-head record against at least two generations of multiple Grand Slam winners. All those fierce rivals are now long gone, either driven out of the game by age, injury, or the game has passed them by. Serena is still on top. Longevity of excellence at least counts for something.
2. People forget that only prior to last year's U.S. Open, Serena lost early in the past three Grand Slams. That shows depth of competition. She slides down even just a small inch, she got beat. But that also shows her indomitable spirit. Her greatness is undeniable.
I think Serena, Venus, Federer and Djokovic will continue to push the trend of having long playing careers, just like Rod Laver retired at 38. The financial incentives of playing to maintain their Q Rating is high, I hope.
• This question provides an opportunity to plug the new “Brain on Sports” podcast. This week we discuss the importance of rivalry and talk specifically about Serena. Adding to Nestor’s points, I still stress that there is something counterintuitive here. Leaving Venus and the family psychodrama out of it, Serena is 35-5 against the two most players likely to be cast as rivals, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. How could this not cut in her favor? Look across the aisle at Roger Federer. What’s one of the big knocks on him? The unfavorable head-to-head against his rival. Slay the competition and you're accused of succeeding in a weak era. Face a challenge from a rival and not only is your haul of titles reduced, but you’re vulnerable to, “How can you be eligible to be the ‘best of all-time’ when it’s not even clear you’re the best in your era?”
Serena’s real rival is, of course, Serena Williams….we’ve seen what happens when the drama wins, when doubt and fear and nerves and runaway emotion trumps talent and resolve. Lately we’ve seen the opposite. Her titles are as much about emotional management as aces and forehand zaps.
Why is Serena playing a tournament the week after Wimbledon, on clay, in Sweden? Huge guarantee? Seems like a perfect time for some rest before attempting the nearly impossible in September.
—Miles Benson, Hudson, Mass.
• You don’t think a clay event in Sweden the week after Wimbledon is an obvious scheduling move? We jest. It’s a fair assumption that she was being compensated well over and above the prize money. (And we should clarify from last week: appearance fees ARE now permitted by the WTA.)
As we said last week, we’re all in favor of players cashing in, whether it’s Serena in Sweden or Federer in Istanbul or Nadal in Barcelona. The star has created this market distortion whereby their value to the tournament greatly exceeds the prize money. Let them benefit from this, especially at lower events they wouldn't otherwise attend.
In your post-Wimbledon Mailbag, you made a comment about how tennis is ahead of the curve on certain social issues "race, homosexuality, globalization." Could you explain how tennis is ahead of the curve on homosexuality? I see a sport that has no top male players who are publicly known as homosexuals. Although this is similar to most mainstream sports, how would tennis compare to diving or gymnastics? While there are several on the women's side who have made their sexuality public, I'm not sure that this is any different from many other sports (WNBA, soccer, etc.).
—Matthew, Manila, Philippines
• First, don't discount the women. Martina Navratilova verily laid the groundwork for Jason Collins. (He says as much.) Renee Richards predates Caitlyn Jenner by decades. I’ve said before—at least I think I have—that one of tennis’ quietly great moments came in 1999 when Amelie Mauresmo came out. She was 19—19!—at the time and basically said, “I’m gay. It’s cool to talk about my girlfriend. Deal with it.” There was one unfortunate remark (issued by an even younger teenager) that got attention; but the sport’s collective response was a “good-for-her” and a shrug. It wasn’t a cause celebre. It wasn’t controversial. Sponsors didn’t flee. Administrators didn’t wring hands. Players didn’t much care. Neither did fans. Mauresmo would take a backseat to few players in terms of popularity. Nothing to see here, folks.
As for men, there might not be any prominent players who are out on the ATP Tour—which, of course, is different from saying there are no gay players—but I would assert that there is an overall atmosphere of hospitable inclusion and acceptance. There are gay administrators and officials and, of course, female colleagues. You have players make public statements like this. And you have players make their attitudes clear in deeds. When Andy Murray, for instance, hires Mauresmo as his coach, he’s revealed plenty about his sensibilities and sensitivities.
How come this is not done more often, Jon? Steffi Graff and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario analyze their famous 32-point game in 1995 Wimbledon one year later. May be you should suggest that to Tennis Channel and do this more often.
• I love that idea. Cue up the video and have, say, Lleyton Hewitt walk us through his 2001 U.S. Open final. If you have both players there, so much the better. We’ll pass this on our benevolent Tennis Channel overlords. Good thought.
Hi Jon, thanks for all the great tennis coverage. I'm a big fan and think it's great you take time to do the Mailbag column—hopefully you'll see my email and my question will make the cut! Like the rest of the world, I'm eagerly following the narrative of Serena Williams' tennis year and salivating over the idea of her winning the calendar year Grand Slam and also gasped at the news of her injury at the Swedish Open (which hopefully won't become a bigger problem).
But like many other readers (as you touched on in your previous Mailbag), I was surprised to read that Serena was even entered to play in the tournament so soon after Wimbledon….I thought about it again and realized the implications of that mentality. In this age of Grand Slam glory, it's almost as if these smaller tournaments don't really matter (in a historical sense).
One stat that doesn't seem to come up very much in the Serena Williams GOAT debate is the number of total career titles. Serena, currently at 68 singles titles, isn't anywhere close to the top of that list, which is ruled by Martina Navratilova and her 167 titles (not to mention her 177 doubles titles!). For both players, their longevity in the game is one factor that makes them both legends and leaders in the sport—but while Navratilova's number of career titles reflects that longevity, Serena's title total doesn't quite add up.
Unless there's another reason for that discrepancy, this leads me to question: is the fixation on Grand Slams making smaller tournament titles less important for today's players? And a second question: how important is the title tally in the GOAT debate to you?
—Berwin (American living in Singapore)
• You made the cut! You raise a question—both directly and indirectly—that underscores both the fun and frustration of the GOAT discussion. The standards are fluid and the priorities of players in one era are different from the priorities in another. Today, the Slams are of unprecedented importance, reflected in everything from the ever-swelling purses to the bonuses in players’ endorsement contracts. Serena could win a dozen small titles. If it comes at the cost of one major, it’s a tradeoff not worth making.
And the four majors are on relatively equal footing. There was a time when this wasn’t the case. The Australian Open was once the weak link. So much so that players would opt out. Today, you have legends like Martina Navratilova say, “If I had known Slams would be the ultimate measuring stick, I would have played Melbourne every year!”
It adds a layer of complexity, but I think you have to judge players in their era. Davis Cup was once of paramount importance. It no longer is. So while Roger Federer will not get demerits for “only” winning once and sometimes declining to play, Davis Cup excellence should elevate players from the 60s and 70s. Same for success in doubles. And what about the Olympics, which matter today but didn’t even exist in 1988? As for Serena’s relative paucity of smaller titles—which, I would submit, have also enabled her to continuing going strong well into her 30s—they don’t offset much given the priorities of today.
It seems like every time a new or little-known player does well at a big tournament, the WTA tries to position them as a new star. It seems like an upset now, but big things are coming. We heard this about Lisicki, Radwanska and Bouchard and a bunch more I’m sure I’m forgetting. That said, how good do you think Garbine Muguruza REALLY is?
• Here’s my stat of the day: the last 11 Wimbledons have yielded 11 different losing women’s finalists. To some extent, I see Jeff’s point. We’re inevitably told that a player making a surprise run through a draw is on the cusp of greatness. Sometimes that player (see: Oudin, Melanie) simply had the best tournament of her life and hit her 52-week high. And the media is as much to blame as the WTA and their reflective need to brand every player under age 64 a “rising star.” Then again, what are we supposed to say? “Meh, don't get too excited about Player X. She’s zoning this week but don’t get accustomed to seeing her last this long in tournaments.”
Anyway, in the case of Muguruza, the optimism is well-founded. Her talent is obvious. Her size and ballstriking power is considerable. That she reached the latter rounds of both the French Open and Wimbledon in the span of 13 months speaks to versatility. She seems to have the proverbial “good head on her shoulders” and I like the way her handlers are taking a long view on her, cautious about creating too many commercial distractions. Serena Williams may have been exceedingly gracious when predicting that Muguruza would win Wimbledon soon; but her sentiment is justified.
Great wrap up of the Wimbledon tournament, as always. At 56 years old, I did get a chuckle out of seeing Hingis characterized as middle-aged (when 34 seems so very young from my end of the age scale), but then again, in the sports world, that is probably an accurate description. On another matter: Where is Courtney Nguyen going that you are wishing her Godspeed? Please don't tell me that her tennis column is going away...
—Lilas Pratt, Marietta, Ga.
• A few of you noted that. If 34 isn’t middle age, what is it? YA, Young adult? Anyway, after her years of excellence service at Sports Illustrated, Courtney is well, we’ll let her tell you:
I find it amazing that the only player to be playing two finals in the five Wimbledon events is barely two years out of retirement: Martina Hingis. With all of the stars of singles and doubles, and considering how many doubles stars can play both single-gender and mixed doubles, it’s amazing that Hingis came roaring back to the game so strongly. I understand that 34 isn't that old anymore for doubles (Kimiko Date-Krumm, anyone?) but since there are so many players both young and old that stayed in top competitive shape (for example, her mixed doubles partner), it's amazing that after only one true competitive year back on circuit (she wasn't that competitive until Miami 2014) that she has topped the doubles landscape.
—Ted Ying, Laurel, Md.
• A few points: a) We are seeing what a genius Hingis truly is/was. She may lack the power to be a competitive singles player, but she can still bring her peerless set of hands and her “Tennis Cortex” to bear in doubles. The results speak for themselves. B) less charitably, her success underscores how few top players chose to play alongside a partner. You can't blame the players given the singles stakes. But it’s not as though Hingis is playing the mixed doubles team of Williams/Djokovic or some such. c) Before the tournament, Hingis was named a “global ambassador” for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It sounds like one of those corporate sinecures; but then she goes and wins Wimbledon titles with two players from India, the sport’s great growth region. Oh tennis, your capacity for irony is limitless. D) If you can get your hands on the poignant post-match press conference transcript from Hingis and Leander Paes, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.
• Lots of chatter about Serena and media coverage and physique. This was the issue that launched a thousand Op-eds. Here’s the original piece. Here’s one that caught my eye. Here’s my esteemed colleague Elizabeth Newman weighing in.
• Busy week for Chris Evert with cameos in both Seven Days in Hell and Train Wreck.
• Press releasing: One of tennis’ most star-studded charity events is coming to Las Vegas for the first time this fall, courtesy of Sir Elton John and Billie Jean King. Four former World No. 1s—Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Andy Roddick—will headline Mylan World TeamTennis (WTT) Smash Hits on Monday, Oct. 12 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
• Nicole of Bartlesville, Okla., writes: I always enjoy reading your articles, as you really seem to try hard to be as fair and unbiased as possible. But I have to confess that I have had it up to here with articles that ask "why is Novak Djokovic not more beloved/as beloved as Federer/Nadal?" or purport to state why is he is not more beloved or tell us why he should be more beloved. It seems almost impossible lately for tennis writers to talk about Novak's most recent achievements without mentioning (or bemoaning) the state of his lack of beloved-ness. After reading one (more like several) too many of such articles, I guess you could say I snapped. I wrote this blog post and I would love for you to read it, and perhaps pass it on to your readers if you are so inclined.
• The Western & Southern Open has renewed Cincinnati-based company Western & Southern Financial Group as title sponsor of the city's tennis tournament through 2017.
• The latest on the New Haven player field.
• The great Helen of Philadelphia Has Long Lost Siblings: Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) and Grigor Dimitrov