Jon Wertheim answers questions from readers about Rafael Nadal's recent reflections on his career and his new Tommy Hilfiger commercial and more.
A quick run through the mail while hailing the U.K. and Belgium on their Davis Cup heroics:
Lots of crazy opinions in this write-up. Serena losing a Grand Slam semifinal is in NO WAY the greatest upset. Let’s not go crazy on the hype here. She was not entitled to the trophy. And Serena's semifinal loss after having demonstrated that she was a nervous wreck during all of her first five matches should not have been a shock to anyone with a brain.
• I took this from the comments section—often the province on the trolls—but, it's a valid question and this has come up in various contexts: How big an upset was Serena’s defeat? With 10 days’ detachment and a diminishing recency effect, I stick to my assertion and say “huge.” We’re talking about an athlete who not only hadn’t lost at a major in more than a year, but had won the U.S. Open three years running. She had won 26 of the 28 matched required for the Grand Slam. There were no top 20 players separating her from history. And then she simply buckled.
“Nervous wreck during all of her first five matches” is not accurate. Throughout the entire year, Serena endured some rough patches. She is human; not a machine. But one of the beauties of Serena in 2015 has been her ability to fashion escape routes. Whether it was the tiebreak in the Aussie Open final, her emotions in her first match in Indian Wells, the various three-setters in Paris, or the Heather Watson Wimbledon match, she always overcame. In New York, she was a “nervous wreck” for segments in her first five matches but always survived. (Her match against Madison Keys, by the way, was some of the best tennis I’ve ever seen Serena play.)
In the semis, Serena was, unquestionably, anxious. One former player described it as “a full on-court panic attack.” Despite (or because?) being the vastly superior player, who won the first set 6–2. Despite (or because?) playing in front of a partisan crowd. One sensed she would pull it out. Despite (or because) of her success in New York, you figured she wasn’t going to let a 26-match U.S. Open streak get snapped by a journeywoman with no real weapons or finishing power. And, yet, Serena never fashioned that exit strategy.
Her movement let her down. Her serve let her down. Her nerves, ultimately, let her down. In the end, of course, she lost to a player ranked outside the top 40, to whom she had never dropped a set. Check all the boxes—context, opponent, score—and this is an absolutely titanic upset.
Another point: it’s not exactly a news flash that incivility is the lingua franca of the comments section. But the notion of logging on to a public space, taking a stand on issue and closing by essentially saying “anyone who feels different from me lacks a brain,” continues to mystify me.
Like many people I really wanted Federer to beat Djokovic but was utterly disgusted with some of the fans applauding Djokovic’s errors and even first serve faults. That is over the line. I thought Djokovic handled it well. I think a few years ago, he would have complained about the lack of crowd support.
—Reader’s name misplaced
• I don’t disagree. A loyal reader noted that in my scolding the inhospitable fans, I neglected to mention that the three-hour rain delay before the final meant that fans had more time to visit the adult beverage concessions and that alcohol intake was high. This might be a better explanation for the rude (borderline hostile) treatment Djokovic received.
Jon, in your 50 parting thoughts on the U.S. Open, it appears you took uncharacteristic cheap shots against Rafael Nadal, castigating his suggestive underwear commercial. Since when did you become a Puritan? Lighten up. And to make matters worse, you then hypothesized that Nadal's willingness to make this commercial was because he wants to exploit his sex appeal due to the erosion of his tennis skills. That's just not right.
• A lot of you weighed in this, pro and con. I take issue with “cheap shot.” It’s my respect and admiration for Nadal that made this so off-putting. This is one of the great, great players in the history of the sport. Seeing him reduced to wink-wink eye candy is like seeing Willie Mays endorsing cigarettes or Pete Rose mocking himself for Skechers. I stand by the premise: Nadal has been projecting the impression that he himself believes the end is nigh. Not only is this premature for a guy who is still in his 20s; it’s a defeatism that other players are starting to perceive.
On the other side of the ledger, I got a few letters like this one below from a prominent Nadal fan. I assume she wants to remain nameless, and will err on the side of caution, but here goes: “I would never admit it publicly, for obvious reasons, but I agree with you on each of your observations regarding Rafa. First, the resignation. I began to worry in 2013, a glorious year for him, when I kept hearing ‘don’t worry, I’ll lose again…,’ or ‘I’m not 20 anymore….’ Why was he, at 27, feeling like an old man on a lucky streak instead of embracing his success and believing it? I remember thinking this had better not become a self-fulfilling prophesy, but he certainly seems to be perpetuating it two years later. His philosophy has always been that family and life beyond tennis is the complete landscape, and tennis is merely a noticeable tree in the background, but he’s too young to be thinking so far ahead at this point (in my opinion). Is he tired? Is he bored? Why is he so content with his life away from tennis already? Why is he not seeing these ball bashers and servebots coming up as a new challenge instead of the inevitable evolution of the game he loves? Yes, he seems resigned. The wild enthusiasm of the kid in pirate pants who first took down the regal, untouchable Fed in 2004 is gone already. The other point you made, the incongruity of the Hilfiger campaign, is perplexing indeed…This couldn’t be happening! Rafa is shy and modest and grounded. Who are these Wall Street vultures who have convinced him to be an exhibitionist?...It seems as though his preparation to meet life financially beyond tennis has begun prematurely, or his acceptance that tennis is over for him is a reality, not a fleeting notion.”
I am a bit confused by the language regarding the new WTA Elite Trophy to be held at the end of the season this year. Everything says that the competitors will be the women ranked 9 to 19, plus one wildcard. But then this is the latest on the field:
Last I looked, Caroline Wozniacki was ranked No. 6 in the world. Not No. 14. It LOOKS like they're using the Road to Singapore Leaderboard to determine entry, which is logical, but that isn't what they are saying. Or, perhaps more accurately, that isn't what they are conveying. Can we confirm that is actually what determines who plays? And I am also correct in thinking that if I, holder of multiple tertiary degrees and rather big tennis fan, is confused, then the WTA has dropped the ball here?
—Rob L., Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
• Me? I’m a little confused about the “Road to Singapore.” It’s like the “Maritime route to Iowa.”
Anyway, Wozniacki is sixth in the rolling 52-week rankings, but this includes successes from last fall in Asia as well as her appearance at the 2014 WTA Finals. If everyone started from zero in 2015 and we simply gauged performance based on these nine months of play (i.e. a race from Jan. 1 to the present), Wozniacki would be significantly lower.
I empathize with your confusion. But I think this falls under same heading as “Churchill-on-democracy.” It's hard to come up with a ranking system that rewards and reflects merit over the course of a fixed time.
Were you surprised at who was selected for the U.S. Davis Cup team? I expect Sock and Young to play the singles. I hope I’m wrong, but I think the U.S. is going to lose to Uzbekistan. Your thoughts on both points please.
—Andrew, Hummelstown, Pa.
• Obviously this question/concern was sent prior to the weekend, as the U.S. did manage to defeat Uzbekistan. John Isner, a stalwart in the past, decided not to play so he could focus on trying to make the World Tour Finals in London. I would call Steve Johnson over Donald Young only the mildest of upsets given the conditions and court surface. Turned out that the U.S. won 3-1, so not a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking required.
I was surprised that you wrote that successful junior careers don't predict successful pro careers. I can think of dozens of players—starting with Belinda Bencic—who were great junior players and then became great pros. And if junior success doesn’t predict pro success, what does?
• The results are all over the place. For every Bencic, there is a Ksenia Pervak (a former junior star now ranked No. 543.) The player Bencic defeated to win girls Wimbledon a mere two years ago? Taylor Townsend, who, sadly, is now ranked outside the top 250. Here’s a list of junior Slam champs. You’ll see some familiar name and some less familiar names. This is hardly unique to tennis. Here’s a terrific basketball movie Yannick Noah’s son, Joakim, helped produce on a player billed as a rival to LeBron James.
For all sorts of reasons—injuries, motivation, personal situations, funding—some prospects don't pan out, just as some breathless IPOs falter and some child actors see their career peak before puberty. All the more reason it helps to have a group of prospects rather than one anointed star. Diversify, diversify, diversify….
Novak Djokovic will achieve Career Grand Slam and go on to be first player in open era to do so twice. What say you?
• Let’s start with one. But, yes, given Djokovic’s claycourt expertise—and his various close calls in Paris—I have to think that a Career Grand Slam is in his future. I am too boring and too rational to believe in curse and hexes and sports karma. Eventually, you have to think, Djokovic wins the French Open.
The Ashe roof superstructure created some new shadow patterns this year. Was it a problem for the players? Does anyone know what effect the completed roof will have on this issue? Could it be positioned so as to shade the court completely at all times (without, of course, making Ashe an indoor stadium)? Would this be fair/desirable?
—John R., Conn.
• Before the tournament, a friend who works closely with the USTA described the National Tennis Center as a “construction site” and expressed concern that shadows and erratic court speed of Ashe would become major topics at the 2015 U.S. Open. This never really came to pass. Considering that we were all “living in construction” this year, there were remarkably few complaints. And many of us were heartened by the fact that the roof is no longer an abstraction. Bodes well for 2016.
With Martina Hingis's amazing success at the Slams in doubles this year, and with the inconsistent results of the players on the women's tour due to injuries, etc., I can't help but wonder: How would Hingis do in singles play if she devoted herself to a year of it? What ranking do you think she would achieve by the end of the year, and how would she do at the Slams?
—Brent, Toronto, Canada
• Doubles is perfect for Hingis. She can show off her hands and head. She only needs to cover half the court. Her absence of power can be masked. All respect to Hingis and what she is achieving at age 35. Apart from the titles I would add that it’s just damn exciting to watch her perform and, clearly derive so much pleasure from the sport. But I don't see her as a top 20 singles player. Just too little power, starting with the serve.
• We can argue about the Davis Cup format. What we cannot dispute: www.daviscup.com is a first rate website. Get caught up on last weekend’s action…
• From Slate: “How to Write a Roger Federer Think Piece”
• Here’s Gerald Marzorati on how Federer thrives in an age of disruption.
• Here’s last week’s Sports Illustrated tennis podcast. Stay tuned for a new episode on Thursday featuring a current player:
• If you missed this Charlie Carillo piece, this is a good one.
• Here's Andre Agassi in the current Harvard Business Review.
• The Oracle/ITA Masters was held last weekend.
• Ana Ivanovic helps you overcome jetlag.
• Here’s the amazing story that relates to Roger Federer and a coma patient. I jokingly suggested that we start a Kickstarter campaign to get this guy to a match. I was quickly alerted that Federer learned about this while on vacation and is already all the case. Of course he is.