Mailbag: Suggestions for schedule revamp; more on Nadal's season
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Whether my family comes with me or not, I'm going to Wimbledon for my 50th birthday. I'm turning 44 this December. Is there any chance I will see Federer at the All England club when I turn 50?
—Richard, Charlottesville, Va.
• “See Federer” as in presenting the trophy? As a member of the All England Club? As a Tennis Channel commentator? Sure. Will you see him compete? Significantly less likely.
But, honestly, who knows? Right now, Federer is a top three player contending for majors as a 34-year-old and doesn’t appear jaded or much physically depleted. You want to be the one to write off the possibility of him still playing in six years?
The old metrics and indexes are becoming irrelevant. Athletes are getting older in all sports (see: Brady, Tom or Bolt, Usain or Rodriguez, Alex.) They are training better. Especially the wealthier ones—such as Federer— can hire a team to facilitate proper nutrition and scheduling and, in effect, serve as career life extension specialists. (Yes, in some cases, there are surely less wholesome explanations.)
I feel a stab of guilt and unease even writing this but in Federer’s case, there is also a crass economic dimension to this. Federer gets paid tens of millions of dollars/Euros to be, well, Roger Federer. A lot of these opportunities will remain, even if his ranking drops. What is his threshold for leaving money on the table? There’s no right answer, of course. But I always find it naïve when we when talk about athletes decision to continue playing and the financial consequences are ignored.
Back to your question: Federer or no Federer, go to Wimbledon. And bring the family if possible. I have yet to encounter someone who went to the All England and walked away saying, “Meh. Didn’t match the hype.” Pretty magical place.
It's quiet in the tennis world so maybe this is a question you'll indulge. I'm talking to my 17-year-old nephew and he tells me how excited he is to be buying the coolest shoes right now. All his friends have them and they're impossible to find. Attempting to be somewhat contemporary, I ask what they are, knowing full well I'll have never heard of them. His answer: "Stan Smiths!" They are the hottest footwear and none of these kids have any idea who he is. Please tell me Adidas pays Stan a royalty. Guess I shouldn't have thrown out my old blue and white super short Adidas gym shorts.
—Neil Grammer, Toronto
• I feel like I should shoot this question over to our friend Paul Annacone while plugging Kith NYC. But, yes, Smith is known to receive royalties. You wonder, though, if he knew that more than 40 years after he won Wimbledon, his signature footwear would still be in vogue. Here’s a good read.
In addition to rethinking the WTA Calendar, Steve Simon will—eventually—have to tackle the issue of the venue for the WTA Finals. Singapore is locked until 2018, and afterwards which city should follow? Do you think it'd be wise to keep the year-end championships in Asia? How about bringing it back to New York, where it had success many years? I think Barclay's Center (instead of Madison Square Garden) would make for a fantastic venue; the way the O2 Arena is great for the ATP Finals. What say you?
—Cristina, New York
• Agree. And, selfishly, I especially love the Barclay’s Center idea. But the inconvenient truth: until that $500 million media rights deal comes through, the year-end championships comprise the lion’s share of the WTA’s operating revenues. So, essentially, it’s a bidding war. When Doha offers to write the biggest check, you overlook a culture of misogyny and a country that is not merely homophobic but makes homosexuality illegal; and you cook up some cynical nonsense about using this event to promote gender equality. When it’s Singapore, you are bringing your sport to go-go Asia, where the energy and climate of growth provide an ideal backdrop. When it’s Youngstown, Ohio, you’re “thrilled to present tennis to the Rust Belt, a region that, too often, has been overlooked by major sporting events, a place whose spirit of grit and determination and perseverance is encapsulated by our athletes.”
It might make sense for the member-players (and, I would argue, for the long-term growth of the tour) to hold the event in New York or London or Istanbul. The exposure. The marketing opportunities. The convenience for the field, already depleted by travel. Or keep it in Asia but seek out Beijing or Shanghai. But for the WTA, it’s essentially a best-offer-wins proposition.
A couple of the TV commentators frequently say that Nadal has a big problem with his shots landing short. While that's certainly true sometimes when he's nervous, I think he does this intentionally more of the time than people realize to bring opponents into the net (or no-man's land) so he can hit the fantastic passes he's capable of. It happened a lot in his first two Beijing matches. Do you agree? Also, looking at your Mailbag from a couple of weeks back, for those who've decided that his Hilfiger commercial signals a loss of interest in tennis, you seem to be forgetting his steamy video with Shakira in 2010—one of his best years ever—and his Armani underwear ads in 2011. I agree they all seem perplexing in light of his seeming shyness, but don't think it signals anything apocalyptic.
—Gayle in California
• First, the lines of demarcation between public and private are always a little blurry with these things. But I think I’m okay sharing this and not violating any confidences. I had a bit of back-and-forth with the Nadal camp last week about another matter. At one point, I wanted to acknowledge my Hilfiger criticism that has drawn so much discussion here in Mailbagland. So I said something to the effect of, “Hope there are no hard feelings about the underwear riff. Just calling it like I see it.” The response, to paraphrase, “No worries. You know we don't operate like that.” This recalls the week in 2009—ah, memories—when we had some spirited back-and-forth about the “15” jacket Federer wore upon winning Wimbledon. You might recall the Federer camp’s response, “No harm, no foul. If we all agreed all the time, it would make the sport duller.” I realize “agree to disagree” hardened into cliché long ago; but it really is a bedrock of civility.
Where were we? Oh, right. Nadal and short balls. Nah, I don’t think it’s tactical; in most cases, he’s not trying to draw his opponents netward so he can unleash passing shots. To me, it starts with his court positioning, which is like an index for his confidence. The more it sags, the further back he plays. Similarly, during this slump, it's not as though he’s committing scads of unforced errors. On the contrary, he’s playing too cautiously. His shots are landing well inside the court, delivered without full conviction, leaving himself vulnerable to players with finishing power.
We’ve been saying this all year—as has his camp, as has Nadal himself. This is really more about self-belief than anything else. “More mental than physical” in the sports shorthand. The good news, it’s not that his body is in insurrection mode. The less good news: there’s no cold plunge or deep tissue massage to heal the psyche.
Your comments on the tennis calendar were thoughtful. What I find anticlimactic about watching the Asian events is that they aren't really going to culminate in anything as meaningful as a Grand Slam. Here's my suggestion: move the Australian Open ("the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific" after all) back to the end of the year, and start the year in April in Miami. Events in Beijing and Wuhan could be followed in Sydney and Gold Coast, and then the Aussie Open. "From Miami to Melbourne" could be the sport's new tagline.
—Jason Rainey, Austin, Tx.
• The calendar is the great Sphinxian riddle of tennis. Everyone has a suggested change but remember: when Indianapolis’ date was changed by a single week and Hamburg was demoted by a tier, it triggered litigation that threatened to bankrupt the ATP. Imagine what would happen if REAL MATERIAL CHANGE were imposed.
If we take it as an article of faith that the majors aren’t moving dates, it’s hard to do much maneuvering. In theory, I think the WTA had it right. While the fourth major had already been played, you finish off the fall season in Asia. Culminate with the WTA Championships in the region. Let everyone off by Halloween for either vacation or dough-chasing on the exhibition circuit.
The problem: by early fall, the players are running on fumes. The travel is just too brutal. Injuries mount. Players are worried about overtaxing themselves before the following year (and being too injured to cash in on the December exos) and drop out. You’re left with a field for your showcase event that is missing the biggest names.
The upcoming Chicago marathon makes me wonder: Caroline Wozniacki trains for a marathon in 2014 and has the best results in years. She was not able to carry that momentum into 2015...after she ran and stopped training for the marathon. Is one thing related to the other or just coincidence? I understand that is hard to answer, but if I'm her, I would investigate.
—Aaron Mayfield, Chicago, Ill.
• Wozniacki has not turned in a strong year. But I’m thinking that her running the marathon is correlation rather than causation. Then again, our sample size is about to double. When James Blake can't win a match on the senior tour next year, we’ll know why.
In 2001 you wrote a book about a season inside the women’s tennis tour. This might be the last year of great intriguing themes emanating from the Nadal, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray Era. Can we expect a book about it from you or would I be better to write it myself?
• It’s all you. I’d buy a copy in a heartbeat—and I agree that there’s a good Big Four book waiting to be written—but I’m committed to finishing this “Your Brain in Sports” book. Meanwhile, here’s the next tennis book I’m buying, Late to the Ball by Gerald Marzorati.
• Here's the most recent SI Tennis Podcast with guest Fred Hersch, discussing parallels between tennis and jazz. Owing to the guest this is a really good listen. Check back on Thursday for a new episode.
• Speaking of, I wanted to include this note from Noah Baerman of Middletown, Ct.:
Thank you for your interview with Fred Hersch! As a professional jazz pianist for about 20 years and a Mailbag reader since the '90s, this was a huge treat. I could literally talk about the tennis/jazz parallels all day, and I use the analogies liberally in my teaching, especially surrounding what it takes to practice in a manner that prepares you for something that is so rigorous yet unpredictable (by contrast, playing classical music is more like figure skating or gymnastics in terms of rigidity).
One strong jazz/tennis parallel that I think it's important to add is the circumstances of the practitioners (the "artists" if you will). Even as non-fans, most cultured folks are at least tangentially aware of Louis Armstrong, John McEnroe, Duke Ellington, Chris Evert, Wynton Marsalis and Roger Federer (though certainly there are many people for whom literally none of those names has any meaning). However, the 150th most successful (I hesitate to say "best") living practitioner in either of these fields is totally anonymous to all but the connoisseurs, and invariably struggles to make a living in spite of a profoundly advanced skill-set.
I've noticed this for a while and it really hit me on a recent visit, with a jazz colleague, to the U.S. Open. I realized how much it's like a major jazz festival—a major boon to the less-prominent practitioners who get more attention and money than they could elsewhere, largely due to the influx of more casual fans drawn by the big names and the overall breadth of the event. And yet most in the audience likely don't otherwise know who they are and in some cases even continue talking during their performances. Perhaps that's why I prefer attending the qualifying rounds, which is in a way more like life in the smaller jazz clubs.
• The entire ATP top 20 is in Shanghai this week. Wow.
• We haven't reached Brett Favre territory quite yet. But Flavia Pennetta seems to be reconsidering this retirement announcement.
• Seven Questions for Billie Jean King.
• Venus Williams and her interior decorating business, VStarr Interiors.
• Kevin Anderson and Time Bacsinszky are his and hers No. 10 players this week.
• Italian players have lifetime bans lifted.
• Here’s an excellent story on Jamie Murray.
• Catwalk C has LLS: Michael Stich and his two LLSs, the Property Brothers, Jonathan and Drew Scott: