Mailbag: Agnieszka Radwanska is building momentum for 2016

Wednesday November 4th, 2015

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I was very excited for Aga Radwanska and impressed by the level of play she showed in Singapore. I was starting to wonder about her and fear that she just didn’t hit hard enough to compete against the Big Babes. Now I can't help wonder if 2016 will be her year? What do you think?
Johan, Warsaw

Sure, let’s start with the WTA Finals in Singapore, an event that—for a variety of reasons—didn't get the coverage it warranted. We return to this theme below, but it was doomed the moment Serena Williams withdrew. This is not her fault. At this stage of her career, her health has to be paramount along with her scheduling; and no one is blaming her for pinpointing the Slams and declining to fly halfway around the world in month 10 of the season. But when you have one overwhelming star, it has the effect of dimming all event at which she doesn't appear.

Mailbag: What impact does Serena's absence have on WTA Tour, Finals?

The opportunity to fill this vacuum, though, should have galvanized the field. And Aga Radwanska ultimately took the greatest advantage, winning the biggest title of her career. And, as Johan notes, after a dismal first half of the year, suddenly Radwanska is setting herself up for big things in 2016. In this era of polyester string and WNBA bodies, I still take power above craft. But Radwanska ought to feel optimistic about her game and her competitive skills right now.

This event also framed the reality facing the WTA Tour. The bad news is that one day, women’s tennis will not have Serena Williams hoisting up the enterprise. Without a doubt, a rough interval will ensue. The good news: there will always be tournaments and winners and storylines. Someone has to win. In addition to Radwanska’s run, in Singapore, we also saw Garbine Muguruza continue to accumulate buzz. And Maria Sharapova showed that she’s still capable of top-flight tennis. And Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza closed out the doubles. There were stories—“narratives” to use the voguish word. And so long as that is the case, there will be reasons for us to care.

Since my question wasn’t included in last week’s Mailbag, can it be considered for inclusion this week because it’s still relevant? Thanks. Here it is again:

Federer fans keep trying to discredit Djokovic’s recent success by saying that we’re heading into, if not already in, a weak era, pointing out that the generation younger than Djokovic is relatively weak and a “lost generation.” Can’t you say that Fed’s reign started in a relatively weak era, though? Hewitt, Roddick, Kuerten, Johansson, Ferrero, Costa, Gaudio, Coria, Nalbandian, Philippoussis, Baghdatis, Haas, Davydenko, Ljubicic and Ancic were good, but not exactly the strongest era by any measure. Safin was a head case and thus, an underachiever, and Agassi was at the end of his career. Even though the generation younger than Djokovic is weaker and Nadal might be in decline, Djokovic still has to contend with Murray and Wawrinka, and competing against Federer can be compared to Fed competing against Agassi at the end of his career. Can’t you say it all Djokovic had to start out during that strong era? If anything, Nadal won the most majors during the strongest era, and I say that as a Djokovic fan.
Evan, Albany, N.Y.

SI Tennis Podcast: James Blake on NYC Marathon, NYPD incident, more

• Thanks, Evan. There’s a lot packed into your question. Some of this is about the benefit of hindsight. Some of it owes to the recency effect. Some of it is about what is simply a statistical conundrum: if Player X is winning three majors each year then, yes, the rest of the field will look weak. Evan’s question mimics some of the same criticism (such as it is) that falls on Serena Williams and was also leveled at Steffi Graf during the “Steffi and the Dwarves” era. Sure, they’re great, but there’s no competition. The obvious rejoinder: When a player dominates, the rest of the field—by definition—will look threadbare. If the field were deeper, the player would not have been so dominant. Hard to have it both ways.

One solution: while it’s a tougher exercise empirically, try to assess the player in absolute terms and not relative to the competition. Watch Roger Federer hit against a wall, and it’s obvious that he is abundantly talented. Watch Rafael during practice and it’s clear that he is doing things to a tennis ball that hadn’t been done before. Clock Serena Williams’s serve or watch her storm back in a third set and her greatness should not rest based on who is on the other side of the net.

All that said, I do think that if you were building a case for Djokovic, “quality of opposition” is a point is his favor. Whether it’s Federer (three times in the last 15 months) or Murray (multiple times in Australia alone) or Nadal (think: 2011), Djokovic is beating Hall of Famers in the finals to win his majors. Not dispositive. And you could chip away at the logic. But definitely a point in his favor.

I urge you to consider your view about David Ferrer and the Hall of Fame. I’m sure you saw Ferrer qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals in London yet again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player get more out of their talent. What he has done (and continues to do) is just amazing!
Brad, New York

Beyond the bounce: Different tennis balls mean varied player preparation

• I had a friend send me a similar email recently. I don’t deny the amazingness of what Ferrer has done (and continues to do). But we’re talking about the HALL OF FAME. We simply can’t admit players with zero Grand Slam titles. Just can’t. If anything, the pendulum needs to swing in the other direction.

Side note: I don’t how Todd Martin and his minions at the Hall of Fame capture this, capitalize on this or (as we say in media culture) monetize this. But, man, there is a lot interest and debate about who does and doesn't get into the Hall of Fame. When I started this gig in the late 90s, I scarcely knew the place existed. Now, it figures prominently in each week’s batch of questions.

Simple question: Petra Kvitova: buy, sell, or hold?
Sam, San Francisco

I’d say hold.

Serena Williams is dealing with same knee issues as Rafael Nadal

Your question is relevant and fair. On talent alone, Kvitova is an obvious heir to Serena Williams. Her ball-striking is monstrous. She’s an underrated athlete with room to improve. She has court presence. Her left-handed power is unique in today’s WTA. The insouciance that we’ll get to in a second also means that she won't implode.

But….it’s easy to lapse into cheap clichés like will and desire and heart. This is seldom helpful and too often simplistic. Yet, there’s a lack of urgency with Kvitova. As Chris Evert recently put it: “There is a hunger question…How much do you want it?” It’s apparent to the naked eye, but also reflected empirically (data!) that can be puzzling. We’re talking about a multiple Grand Slam champion who wins titles and is squarely in the top 10. But the notion that she not only failed to reach a major semifinal in 2015 but lost each time to a lesser player triggers both disappointment and warning signals.

How many books a year do you read, how do you find the time with all your professional and family responsibilities, and what are your three favorite books (in order and excluding those you've written) in each of these categories: tennis, other sports nonfiction, general nonfiction and general fiction?
Paul Bauman, Sacramento, Calif.   

• Wow, I usually try to steer clear of these kinds of personal question. Unhappily, I don’t get to read as much as I want. (Which sounds redundant; who among us DOES get to read as much as they want?) Happily, I have fallen hard for (on 1.5 speed). Unhappily, I always try to have my own lit project and feel guilty when I am reading someone else’s book and not writing mine. Happily, I always have a book on my phone so even on the subway or the Hertz shuttle, I can knock off a few pages. Unhappily, my fiction reading has really tailed off. Happily, behavioral economics books like Nudge, Situations Matter by my co-conspirator Sam Sommers and most recently Dick Thaler’s Misbehaving have filled the void.

WTA Finals in Singapore are played on unique wooden hard court surface

Three favorite books of all-time? I would say John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, Pete Bodo’s Courts of Babylon and Gordon Forbes’ Handful of Summers.

More sports: Breaks of the Game (Halberstam), Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby) and The Sports Gene by David Epstein. Note that I have dutifully avoided mentioning work of SI colleagues but—from Jack McCallum’s Dream Team to Gary Smith’s anthology to Scott Price’s book on baseball in Cuba—you can’t go wrong here.

General Non-Fiction: Anything written by A.A. Gill, the Teddy Roosevelt biography, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

General Fiction: The Brothers K (David James Duncan) and, a nod to the recency effect, I’ll say Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Shots, Miscellany

• James Blake was our guest on the most recent SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline Podcast. Check back on Thursday for a new episode and be sure to share your feedback, suggestions for guests and comments on the podcast on Twitter @SI_Tennis.

• And congrats to Blake for finishing the NYC Marathon.

• This is waaaaay inside baseball. Or tennis. But the implosion of the tennis division at the Lagardere Agency is really a sight to behold, an event that has big consequences for the sport. Lawyers have been summoned and contracts are being parsed as we speak. Multiple top ten players are fashioning their exit. Agents have been divorced from clients. Tournaments are impacted. Media rights deals are impacted. From Jerry Maguire to Ari Gold to Arli$$, the breakup of a management agency is neither unique to tennis nor sports. But the fallout is considerable.

• A list of the top 20 college tennis venues.                 

• Serena Williams is the headliner in the BNP Paribas Madison Square Garden event. But note the undercard. Stan Wawrinka versus Gael Monfils is tennisnerd heaven. 

• Andre Agassi wins Halloween:

Happy Halloween everyone! Posted by Stefanie Graf on Saturday, October 31, 2015

• Actually my friend Eric did:

• Perhaps you remember the documentary Journeymen from a decade ago or so. Mark Keil, former ATP player, has a sequel out titled Journeymen 2, featuring interviews with a bleach-blond teenage Roger Federer, Pat Rafter et al.

• The ATP and Peugot announced today a new global partnership, beginning in 2016. The partnership will see Peugot become the Official Car of the ATP World Tour, with a fleet of 500 vehicles worldwide. 

• RIP Mike Davies. The former British No. 1 passed away on Nov. 3 at the age of 79.

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