Jon Wertheim answers reader questions in his weekly Mailbag, focusing on Eugenie Bouchard's lawsuit against the USTA, Serena Wiliams's decision to end her season, the WTA Finals and more.
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This week’s Mailbag, while marveling at Ash Barty and her “seamless transition from tennis to cricketer….”
Hi Jon, I'm sure you've received plenty of mail about Genie Bouchard's decision to take legal action against the USTA after her locker room concussion. I am wondering what you think of this development.
I certainly cannot deny or confirm negligence on the part of the USTA, but it seems to me that Genie's decision to take to the courtroom is a bad signal for fans hoping to see her gain momentum on the tennis court. Further the indication that this could cost the USTA "millions and millions" feels like an indication that a player once touted to be the next Sharapova in terms of marketability has resorted to playing blame games instead of restoring the state of her currently struggling tennis brand.
—Brennan Mange, Durham, N.C.
• You're right: lots of questions about Bouchard and her decision to file suit against the USTA. (Mailbag, torts edition!) We probably ought to reserve judgment under we hear more evidence and testimony. Plenty of lawsuits that seem frivolous when filed later meet a negligence standard. Plenty of civil claims that seem meritorious when filed later get tossed as groundless.
With respect to Bouchard, there’s a lot going on here beneath the surface. The tennis-player-as-independent-contractor theme looms large here. You don’t get paid when you don’t play and absent a real union—that might, say, have a disability policy covering injury—even a star feels the financial effects of inactivity. Bouchard’s dismal year looms large. The USTA is likely to contend that Bouchard’s seeking millions in damages is absurd when she was struggling to win matches. (Discuss: if this accident had occurred in 2014, would we feel differently?) Bad publicity looms as well. The notion of U.S. Open, this riotously profitable event, taking on a 21-year-old woman makes for less-than-ideal optics, especially outside the tennis world. Might that accelerate a settlement? And if only the USTA could retain the services of a venerable defense lawyer for a high profile tort case….
Lost in this discussion: whether it was negligence or simply misfortune, Bouchard suffered a concussion at the 2015 U.S. Open and hasn't played a complete match since. Especially given what we now know about head injuries in sports, her health ought to be our paramount concern. Above all, you hope she’s O.K. and resumes playing soon. I’d feel a lot more comfortable talking this civil suit knowing it was simply about lost wages and not about career-altering disability.
Who had the better career: Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Yevgeny Kafelnikov or Stan Wawrinka? Do all five make the HOF? I say yes to all except Kafelnikov, who probably will never get the respect. All five had better careers than Rafter and Chang who are already in.
• We should just have this as a copy-and-paste. “By conventional Hall of Fame standards—titans, we’ll-tell-our-grandkids-about-having-seen-them standards—you might be hard pressed to make a case for any. Under tennis’ less rigorous standards, all five could get in.”
Hewitt is in good shape—multiple Slams, a top ranking, Davis Cup heroics, a long career. Safin is borderline but probably gets the vote—multiple Slams and No.1 ranking; but a lot of squandered potential.
Roddick is likely in—only one Slam, but No. 1 ranking, 32 titles (Safin has 15 for comparison), Davis Cup heroics, five major finals, almost a full decade in the top ten.
With Kafelnikov, the voters have spoken and he has been denied. Two majors, but it was overshadowed by—how to put this?—a difficult personality and his departure from the game under a cloud.
Wawrinka has never achieved No.1, but he has won multiple majors in the age of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic. I vote “in.”
All the excitement about Shanghai and the rise of tennis in China isn’t passing the eye test. I’ve been watching a match here and there on Tennis Channel and there are literally 100 people in the stadium. Even with Rafa and Roger, maybe 10% of the seats are full. China builds things—there are about 500 empty shopping malls in China—but where’s the excitement? Where are the people? I understand that we have the same problem with empty seats during the early rounds at other Masters 1000 events and even the U.S. Open, but it’s never even close to being this bad. Are these matches really exciting to anyone in China?
—John Gilliam, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
• It’s a little like making television shows in the 1950s. Your audience might be minuscule at the time. But you understand technology and demographics and shifts and you are playing the long game. Today, it looks like my programming is going into a vacuum. But I want to establish this beachhead now because it will pay off later.
With respect to John’s question, beyond filling up stands, there are other ways events mine value. There are media deals and sponsorships and exposure. If I am Nike and paying millions to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, it is important to me that they perform in China. I do think that John’s question, though, is valid. Some of these crowds are astonishingly small. Especially when scale and population density are cited so often as reasons for bringing sports to China, it’s odd to see nine of ten seats unfilled.Eric Bukzin, Manorville, N.Y.
• Fair point. And suffice to say that if you're the WTA, you’re likely thinking along the same lines. To me, though, more than anything else, this underscores the difference between exhibition play and sanctioned play. A star who is either injured or fatigued can still play a few exhibitions. They can toggle to cruise control and go at 80%. They can send signals to the opponent that, this isn't the night to go all out. If they lose, it’s no great shame.
It makes sense (to me at least) that if one wins a Grand Slam, then they should automatically qualify for the year-end championship. You win one of the years most coveted trophies and you receive entry, as opposed to grinding away at lesser tours, like Linz, in order to gain points and risk injury at the end of an already grueling season. (I am thinking of Flavia Pennetta.) Do you have any thought on this?
—Matthew Fisher, Philadelphia, Pa.
• Good point. It’s strange when winners of majors aren't present for the year-end soiree. Remember, though, the tour’s year-end events are meant to generate revenues and elevate prestige for the ATP and WTA. Making majors winners automatically eligible—and, in turn, devaluing the run-of-the-mill events—works at cross-purposes with that ideal.
If Pennetta doesn't qualify for Singapore, the WTA Finals singles field will feature no 2015 Grand Slam champions. Has this ever happened before? On either tour?
Sort of separate question: What do we make of Serena ending her season early? Of course, I can't imagine the devastation of coming so close to making history and stumbling at the penultimate hurdle, but it just seems odd she wouldn't want to close out the year reasserting herself as the best by dominating the WTA Finals. (And with five weeks in between the events, I don't totally buy injury or exhaustion as the reason.) Instead, Serena's season ends on an incredibly low note while the next eight best players must be so ecstatic to get to play a Serena-less WTA Finals (and the sponsors must be furious about it).
• I can't imagine it’s ever happened that a year-end event featured ZERO Slam winners. Not unlike this year, in a year of few winners the odds would be higher. But Graf played in 1988, Federer played in his thickest years, Djokovic in 2011, etc.
As for Serena, she leaves us to speculate. A) She is devastated by failing to win the Grand Slam; so much so that it’s blunted her desire to play out the season. B) She is physically and emotionally depleted—so much so that it’s blunted her desire to play out the season. C) At this stage of the game it’s really only about the majors and she is already looking to 2016—so much so that it’s blunted her desire to play out the season. D) Other.
I do agree with your takeaway. What a strange conclusion to a stellar year. Let’s be clear: this was one of the all-time seasons in tennis history. Three majors. A runaway No. 1 ranking the year you turn 34. An eloquent statement at Indian Wells. Two other big-ticket titles in your home country (Miami and Cincy.) Serena should be doing victory laps as we speak. What a pity, that our last memory is her walking off the court unhappily in her 27th match on a quest for 28.
It's strange to see Nicolas Almagro lose in qualifying.
• Agree. But we should commend him for swallowing his pride and trying to earn his way back.
Rant o’ the week:
• So last week I awoke to the surprising result that Nadal had beaten Wawrinka in Shanghai, 6–2, 6–1. This marked Nadal’s first win over a top five player in more than a year. But the outcome was less surprising than the score. Was Wawrinka injured? Did Nadal play out of his mind? Was there a tank factor? I was curious if anyone had seen the match and took to Twitter to see if anyone had a synopsis.
Many of you were kind enough to weigh in. Most of the responses were, as they overwhelmingly are with you guys, cordial and collegial. A sampling:
Via email, a former player, suggested that Nadal played well, but Stan looked eager to get out of town and return to Europe.
Very good, right? Social media at its best, people from around the world sharing information. Then I received a hostile tweet.
It’s a cardinal rule of social media: it’s a tool for dialogue and even when you make what you perceive to be benign statements, you should brace yourself for some backlash. A second cardinal rule: “Don’t feed the trolls.” But I’m thinking that some postings are so vile and wildly antisocial, the guilty parties should be called out and told in so many words, “This is not okay; this is not an acceptable way to communicate.”
• Michael Russell was the most recent guest on the SI Tennis Podcast. Check back on Thursday for a new episode with one of our regular—and fantastic—guests.
• Here’s the Lorenzen Wright piece several of you asked about.
• Full details will emerge in due time (i.e. when non-compete clauses lapse) but Lagardere’s tennis division is in flux.
• I’ve been asked to publicize this, so here goes: If anyone wants to hang out in D.C. next Tuesday, here’s ticket info for a good cause.
• In the words of the prophets: Steffi Graf can still hit the forehand:
• Don’t look now but Taylor Fritz is tearing it up on the challenger circuit.
• The USTA today concluded its celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month by recapping the organization’s multiple Hispanic engagement accomplishments for the year. Led by USTA Board Member Fabrizio Alcobe-Fierro, senior vice president of the Univision Networks at Univision Communications Inc., the group has been tasked with growing the number of U.S. Hispanic players, particularly among youth and families, by expanding the USTA’s Hispanic outreach in communities around the country.
• I really liked this note from reader Bryan Park of Philadelphia (and not simply because I learned to play tennis at Bryan Park in Indiana):
Hello Jon, in your most recent Mailbag, I read with interest the parallels between tennis and jazz, especially the link between going to the U.S. Open and going to a jazz festival, where the top practitioners are household names, and there's a steep dropoff to great players just under the top tiers, whose names are known only to avid fans. I have long contemplated the parallels between tennis and chess. Consider: Both are intensely gladiatorial competitions that are highly influenced by personal playing style. (I am only considering singles tennis, not doubles.) In both tennis and chess, the most entertaining matches are between players with contrasting playing styles.
There are officially sanctioned rules that can be stripped down for playing time considerations. For example, in WTT, you see no-ad scoring. In chess, you can play five minute blitz games. Within the rules of both tennis and chess, a wide variety of offensive and defensive strategies emerge. Personal playing styles are quite distinctive, widely emulated, and can lead to certain eras in each discipline.
In tennis, serving gives you a slight advantage. A strong service game, with lots of aces and un-returnable serves, can give you a huge advantage. Likewise, in chess, playing the white pieces can give you a slight advantage, which you can turn into a huge advantage by pressing the attack.
In tennis, a good counterpuncher can quickly neutralize the advantage of serving. Likewise in chess, a player with a good handle on various defenses, like the Sicilian, can neutralize the advantage of playing the white side.
Both tennis and chess are intensely mental games that reward devoted study—strategy, tactics, reading your opponent. Each point in tennis is like a mini chess game. The server moves first, the opponent counters, and each point is like trying to get to checkmate. I hope I haven't stretched the metaphor too far. There are definitely limits. For example, there is no parallel in chess for the advantages of equipment upgrades in tennis.
• Let's tip our hat to Jarkko "The Shark" Niemenen, who played his last ATP match today in Stockholm, finishing a very workmanlike career.
• Angelique Kerber and Flavia Pennetta have both qualified for the WTA Finals in Singapore, with one more spot still up for grabs.
Have a great week, everyone.