Jon Wertheim discusses Serena Williams, WTA Finals, Andy Murray and Davis Cup and more in his weekly Mailbag.
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A short Mailbag this week….
While I do not see Serena retiring for a few more years, this years WTA Finals is really one of our first looks in a few years of the women's field as it would like without her. Do you see in the post-Serena WTA world: 1) A healthy Sharapova and Kvitova starting to gobble up Grand Slam titles? 2) A young star such as Muguruza or Bencic taking Serena’s place? 3) A fitness player like Radwanska or Wozniacki finally breaking through? 4) A potpourri of winners (Bartoli, Stosur, Pennetta, etc.) where whoever is hot for two weeks among the top 32 takes home the trophy?
—Bob Richter, Green Bay
• A lot of chatter this week about the WTA Finals in Singapore and—as you would expect—the absence of Serena. It's hard to sugarcoat this. In the words of the prophets: when a showcase tournament fails to showcase a sport’s indisputable star, a player who has won four of the last five majors and is further from No. 2 than Mercury is from Venus (no pun intended), then, yes, your event will suffer. (And, yes, when the fourth Slam winner is deep into 30s and already spoken of retiring, it complicates matters further.)
But I think it’s possible (easy, even) to place this event in the “disguised blessing” bucket. Transcendent as she is, Serena will not play forever—much as you and I might hope it. “Ride Serena as long as possible,” is not a business plan. The WTA needs to mint some new stars; and some of the candidates need to validate themselves. I am writing on a Tuesday (and events may make this irrelevant) but if this event gives extra credence and extra exposure to, say, Garbine Muguruza or Petra Kvitova, great. If this event enables Maria Sharapova to regain some self-belief, great. Same for Aga Radwanska. If this event galvanizes Ana Ivanovic or Caroline Wozniacki or Victoria Azarenka or Madison Keys to look inward and say, “It’s unacceptable that I’m not in this field,” that’s a win, too.
Whenever Serena exits—and again, you hope it’s years and years from now—the WTA will, inevitably, experience a lull. This is sports, whether it’s the NBA post-Michael Jordan or the Yankees after Derek Jeter. The good news: they will still play events and hand out trophies. New stars will come along. They always do.
Given some of the more gossipy headlines about Serena Williams lately, what are the chances she retains Patrick Mouratoglou as coach in 2016?
—Jason Rainey, Austin, Tx.
• Watch for this next time: when Serena plays, Mouratoglou is often the last one in the players’ box. Why? Because he walks Serena to the lip of the court before she walks out. This might be superstition. He might be filling her head with wisdom and pumping her with confidence. But to me it says something about dependence and closeness. Look at her record B.P. and A.P.—before Patrick and after Patrick—and his value is clear. But look, about the elevated level of preparation and professionalism that correlates with his coaching, let’s be clear: she is doing the hard work. She is the one who is ultimately out there, alone on the court left to execute. But as a coach-player combination it’s hard to top this. For that reason—never mind what other issues and dynamics may arise—one would hope they remain together professionally in 2016.
When Tennis Channel became available in my area a few years ago, I expanded my cable package to obtain it. I have enjoyed watching tournaments that I only knew from scorelines in previous years, and the commentary is always superior to any other coverage. I am left with one observation that echoes recent Mailbag questions: Where are the fans? Regardless of the tournament, tiny Metz or massive Shanghai, the stands seem largely empty until the semis or sometimes the finals. Is this a reflection of disinterest in the game in those markets or is something else afoot? For 2015, 28 of 30 Major League Baseball teams had average attendance above 50% of their stadiums' capacity, and consider how many of those games were meaningless in the late season. Any insight on why tennis fans aren't watching the sport any more?
• At some level you’ve answered your own question. You ordered Tennis Channel and (apart from having access to the best commentary) what does that mean? You have all the matches. And replays. And no line to use the restroom. And no charge for parking. And you order your favorite food and drink at no inflated prices. And you can have a tablet on your lap while you consume the sport. And jump on a call or help the kids with homework. And, oh right, you’re paying pennies on the dollar compared with the in-arena experience. And you’re either watching on a huge TV (which is great) or on your phone (which can be great too). Long story short: there is so much militating against consuming sports as a live, in-stadium event. (I would challenge you on baseball and other sports. Next time there’s an NBA highlight or view from a college football bowl game, note the vast pastures of empty seats.)
The bad news: this is a real challenge for teams and leagues and sports. The good news: the revenue lost on folks like you is outstripped by other revenue streams. If I can sign a TV deal, and then sell signage or a doo-dad on the net—now available to an entire TV audience and not simply the 12,000 fans in the arena—I care a lot less about the unsold inventory of seats and reduced concession sales.
But to your point—and invoking what is fast becoming my least favorite word: optics—it looks terrible when the cameras pan the stands and no one is there. At home, the fan wonders: if folks in that market can't bother to care, why should I?
I was wondering why Andy Murray playing the Davis Cup and World Tour Finals has turned into such a massive talking point. I don't remember it being made into such a big deal when Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka were playing both tournaments last year. In fact, Roger's back injury and his little tiff with Stan were the bigger headlines. But yes, both those men played the hard courts of London before heading to the clay of France to play against the likes of Monfils, Tsonga and the rest of the French team, none of whom had qualified for the WTF. So why the intense focus now?
• Hi, Sheba. Interesting question: why hasn't this issue—a top player deciding whether to play in the WTF, the Davis Cup final or both—arisen before now? One answer: the event was never held in the home country of one such player. That is, a London-based event missing the lone British player takes a hit. Another issue: few players have shouldered more of a Davis Cup load than Murray. Federer and Wawrinka had each other to lean on. If Murray is playing at a sub-optimal level, Great Britain is toast. Third: no player has publicly raised this (valid) concern the way Murray has.
I can’t recall if I’ve pointed this out before. (If so, apologies.) But it strikes me that for all it’s structural and scheduling flaws, Davis Cup works out for the top players. Almost by tactic agreement, their erratic arrangements have the effect of giving each other a chance to win. Think about it: If Murray prevails, it will mean that each of the Big Four, plus Wawrinka, will have claimed the Cup in the last half decade.
Tomas Berdych played Grigor Dimitrov last week in Stockholm. Dimitrov first played Berdych six years ago. Six years ago? Dimitrov has been on tour six years? Wait how old is he? How old am I?
• For the record, Dimitrov is 24. But your question speaks to a bigger point: we need the equivalent of a new currency converter to assess careers now. As long as players are retiring deep into their 30s, 24 is no longer the thick of middle-age. A generation ago we’d say that Dimitrov was squandered talent and we’d look to hype the next 18-year-old. Now Dimitrov is a talented player who still needs to put it all together—but has a decade remaining to do so.
We had this discussion on Tennis Channel during the U.S. Open, but I think this aging field is, overwhelmingly, a trend of good. OK, we no longer have teenagers competing to win majors—and have the easy trope of “A year ago, she was learning algebra; now she needs multi-variable calculus to keep track of her winnings!” But we have a more mature work force, players able to think of their career in longer terms, and under less pressure to win now.
Has anyone else shot up in the rankings like 18-year-old Daria Kasatkina did last week? After being a finalist in Moscow her ranking went from No. 104 to No. 73. Her win in doubles moved her from No. 447 to 121. Was this a one-off or is she for real?
—Jerry White, The Villages, Fla.
• Good call, Jerry. She is, as the WTA would put it, a rising star. And she doesn't turn 19 until May. Nice, clean strokes and no apparent awe of the big stage. Do note: we’re talking about a junior Slam champion, though.
Speaking of the “Your Brain in Sports” book (mentioned in last week's Mailbag): Whatever happened with the cover artwork "contest"? I don't recall hearing if you got a "winning" suggestion from anyone? Or perhaps you are keeping a lid on that until it is published? Just curious. Love the Mailbag, look forward to it every week!
• Hey, thanks. You guys were great here. Again, the goal was to make clear that this was a fun Gladwellian sport book, NOT a treatise on head injuries. Here’s the winning image.
• The most recent SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline Podcast features the great Lindsay Davenport. Listen below and check back on Thursday for the latest episode. Be sure to share your feedback, suggestions for guests and comments on the podcast on Twitter @SI_Tennis.
• Did anyone know this about actress Aya Cash?
• Timea Bascinszky finished the year just out of the money for Singapore. But, mean, you could retire the Comeback Player of the Year award in her honor.
• Who recalls the kid from 2004 ad featuring Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Taylor Dent? Look what he’s up to now.
• This week’s unsolicited book recommendation: Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt.
• This week’s LLS comes from @glen_george and it is a doozy: