Jon Wertheim discusses why Novak Djokovic is not getting proper due for his 2015 achievements, Maria Sharapova, IPTL tennis and more in his weekly Mailbag.
1) Tennis can seem a little frivolous right now given world events. But let’s play on…
2) We closed off the Hall of Fame voting on Sunday. Thanks to all who responded—more than 100 total—and, in the interest of transparency, Justine Henin got a vote, while Marat Safin and Helena Sukova did not.
3) We’re writing this on Tuesday, so we’ll cover events from London and the ATP year-end shebang.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
I loved your Mailbag opener this week. I thought I would take a stab at why Djokovic isn't getting his due: We look at a Djokovic or a Nadal (or Connors, Agassi, etc.) and in our mind's eye, we think: "If I work really hard and play as often as possible, I think I can do that,” however improbable that is. When we look at a Federer, or a McEnroe, or a Laver, we simply sit back and believe we are witness to the majesty that our sport can occasionally produce. We know that no matter how much work we put into the game, there's just some heights that are virtually unattainable, and thus we wax poetic. Announcers gush, writers write, players and poets weep.
—Jon B., Kennewick, Wash.
• Not bad. And many of you weighed with theories, while few of you attacked the premise. Djokovic’s year is without precedent. His professionalism is unwavering. Want a family man who lives wholesomely? Check. Want awareness beyond sports? Check. On the most surface and shallow level, want a nice looking guy? Check. What accounts for the disconnect between the achievements and the public fanfare?
A lot of you had interesting ideas. Many of you cited tennis history. Fans split their vote (and loyalties and emotional energy) between Federer and Nadal and were tapped out by the time Djokovic came along. Some mentioned residual effects of Djokovic’s impersonations. (Which, ironically, I always thought cut in his favor, a display of fun.) To be candid, more than one of you cited the discomfort triggered by Djokovic’s pressurized egg. Many cited aesthetics. Here's reader Leif Wellington Haase, a Djokovic admirer: "Federer is a GOD, Djokovic is a mechanic.” One friend of mine sneered. "I want to be careful with how I word this, but I offer this pet theory: I’ve long wondered if ambivalence and ignorance about Serbia plays a role. What do I mean by this? Nadal comes from Spain. Fans have an inherent understanding and context. They yell ¡vamos! They understand the lineage of past Spanish champions. They picture him fishing on the Mediterranean and touring the Alcazar of Seville. Same for Federer. People understand Switzerland and make jokes about neutrality and chocolate and timepieces and opaque banking practices. His precision and facility with language and non-confrontational ways? Makes sense! Nishikori and Japan? Again, people get it. (And there are loads of Japanese companies prepared to support the player, which boosts his popularity further.) Andy Murray and Scotland? Understood. Kilts, bagpipes, Groundskeeper Willie. ‘My neighbor just got back from a trip there and loved Edinburgh!’”
As we’ve discussed in the past, Serbia does not often trigger feelings of familiarity. There’s a complicated—and at times regrettable—history that few grasp. It’s not a common vacation destination or global business hub or, for that matter, a location threaded by the tennis circuit. We like context with athletes, these easy cut-and-paste archetypes. Lebron James who comes from hard scrapple Akron and returns home. The Mannings of New Orleans’ Garden District. The Williams sisters. Even Sharapova who leaves cold Russia and blooms in Florida. We relate to athletes when we relate to their stories, their “brand narratives,” in the horribly overused marketing-speak. Djokovic resists this.
Again, it’s not his fault. And it’s not even a value judgment—not about him, not about Serbia. It’s just an ignorance and an unfamiliarity. But ultimately it’s his popularity that suffers.
Bigger Upset: Roberta Vinci defeats Serena at U.S. Open or Holly Holm’s take down of Ronda Rousey at UFC 193?
—Ken Wells, Adelaide, South Australia
• We had a lot of fun discussing this on Twitter. I’m inclined to say Vinci d. Serena. Women’s MMA, growing as it is, remains a relatively small talent pool. And because the fights are so seldom held (four bouts is a busy year for a fighter) and so short, meaningful data points are hard to come by. In retrospect, a top-shelf boxer (Holm) beating a top-shelf judoka and ground specialist (Rousey) isn’t so crazy.
In the case of Vinci beating Serena, you’re talking about a career journeywoman taking out a titan. She’s beating her not with a kick to the head; but with two sets of tennis built cumulatively over hours.
Applying the standard of the BBWAA, for the 2016 Tennis Hall of Fame class I vote for….no one. But seriously, none of the eligible ex-players deserve to be in a real Hall of Fame.
—Jim Yrkoski, Silver Creek, Neb.
• There’s an enshrinement weekend each summer, so there has to be at least one figure inducted. Besides that, how do you not vote for Justine Henin? Even using BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) standards, she’s a lock. Seven majors. No. 1 ranking. Played Serena Williams as well as anyone. Compensated for modest physique with outsized mettle. She’s a 300-game winner, a 500-home run hitter in my book.
I'm curious how the Russian public reacts to hearing Sharapova celebrate and exhort herself in English ("come on") during key points of the Fed Cup final. She appears to think in English. I'm sure it's understood there that she grew up in Florida. Still, it's got to be weird for the everyday Russian to hear when she is representing their country. Is she very popular in Russia or do they resent it (or both)?
—Jackie McCann, Detroit, Mich.
• To me, this is less about Sharapova than about the problematic nature of international competition in the age of the global village. Sharapova, of course, is based in the U.S.—and has been for 75% of her life. Jelena Jankovic is a self-described “California girl.” Caroline Wozniacki has a residence a few subway stops from Milos Raonic’s pad….in New York. Kei Nishikori has a place in greater Tampa. Switzerland’s Roger Federer keeps a residence in the Middle East; while most top French players reside in Switzerland. And half the tour, it seems, lives in Monte Carlo. This is healthy. This is pragmatic. This is logical. But it does dilute these nation-versus-nation competitions.
How about Bjorn Borg as best on every surface? Its tough to make a definitive case for him on hard courts since he never won the U.S. Open, but he was arguably the best on that surface before McEnroe reached his prime. Next to Nadal, he was the best ever on clay and won five consecutive Wimbledons back when clay and grass courts played far more disparately than they do now.
• Good one. But I think you answer your own question. Hard to say Borg was the best on hard courts when he never won the U.S. Open nor Australia. One more about the “best on all surfaces” designation. I would contend that Serena holds that distinction now, no? (True she played no indoor matches in 2015. But the old if-your-life-depended-on-the-outcome game: is there a player you’d rather pick to play indoors on your behalf?)
I was wondering how is the IPTL able to get so many top players to participate? If it's the almighty dollar then where are they getting their funding especially since there isn't TV for this in the U.S.?
—Eric Bukzin, Manorville, N.Y.
• It’s the almighty Rupee and Yen and Philippine peso, if not the dollar. But so what? Whether investors find value here or whether they are simply happy to play the part of tennis mogul and are acting irrespective of P/L, I see the IPTL as a force of good. Tennis is coming to new markets. The television prospects will openly improve. Sponsors are coming to the sport. Players are making additional income. Carry on.
To be fair, there would be more fans in attendance at a Kerber-Dunphy match if Haley applied herself and put up a better fight against her opponents—but she seems too distracted most of the time. Maybe if she brought on a coach who understood her better (Clive Bixby?), she would show signs of improvement. Just saying.
—Stephen Ryan, Lanham, Md.
• That, sir, was well played. I thought you were to going to suggest that her brainy sister run some analytics. For the uninitiated, we're talking Modern Family. Which—by entire orders of magnitude—is less cool than talking Games of Thrones or Walking Dead or Master of None. (But, damn, those ducks are cute.)
I was watching one of the classics, the Australian Open Final on Tennis Channel played between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf and noticed that both players were wearing wrist sweat bands which they used regularly instead of asking for towels. The game moved much faster. Today we see players ask for their towel after every single point, sometimes even after a botched return of serve. What’s your opinion on the excessive towel use by tennis players these days between points. Should something be done about this?
• Wristbands will come back into fashion. They always do. (Like you, I hate excessive toweling. Equally dilatory and unhygienic.)
Just a quick note to say I enjoy the Beyond the Baseline Podcast very much. I especially like the variety of guests so far. It's not just people very specific to tennis, only players or just covering the same old topics. One or two suggestions for later guests, if at all possible: I would love to hear from Mary Carillo, she can talk about anything and everything and make it interesting or funny. Find her career an interesting topic and how she's grown and developed her roles within sports and reporting generally.
Also similarly wouldn't mind hearing from some fellow tennis writers like Pete Bodo, Chris Clarey etc., those that have covered the sport for a long time and could maybe talk of the changes around tennis in terms of the game itself & more specifically how it's covered and how that's changed over the years. And Lindsay Davenport is always a great one to listen to!
• You’re in luck. Mary is our guest next week. And she was, predictably, terrific. Stay tuned the week of Thanksgiving for the epsiode.
These podcasts are great fun and thanks to the many of you who have written in. This will sound both cheesier and more pretentious than intended, but one of the goals is to act as surrogate for the fan and basically ask questions that the sport’s followers would like addressed. So I’m always open to suggestions both in terms guests and topics to discuss.
• The most recent SI tennis Beyond the Baseline Podcast features Stev(i)e Johnson, the 32nd ranked player, who discusses everything from college tennis to whether Novak Djokovic is beatable.
• Here’s a Tennis Channel piece we put together on the Paris tragedy and tennis.
• Props to the reader who notes: Djokovic vs. Federer in 2015: 4–3. Djokovic vs. rest of tour in 2015: 74–3
• This Genie Bouchard vs. USTA contretemps has officially gotten ugly.
• Tulane's Dominik Koepfer earned the ITA's third and final Division I national title of the 2015 fall season.
• The ITF announced that Lucie Safarova has won the final Fed Cup Heart Award of 2015 in recognition of her performance during Czech Republic’s semifinal victory against France in Ostrava in April.
• Czech Republic Fed Cup Captain Petr Pala was honored with the 2015 Fed Cup Award of Excellence.
• Samantha Crawford, 20, of Tamarac, Fla., has earned a berth in the main draw of the 2016 Australian Open after clinching the USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge today after rain halted play yesterday. This will mark Crawford’s first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw outside the United States.
• Finally, some USTA Awards winners:
Adaptive Tennis National Community Service Award: San Diego District Tennis Association, Wounded Warrior Tennis Program in San Diego.
Eve F. Kraft Community Service Award: Carol Cohen, Rockville, Md.
Janet Louer USTA Junior Team Tennis Organizer of the Year: Jennifer Toomy, Chesapeake, Va.
National Community Tennis Association of the Year: InnerCity Tennis Foundation, Minneapolis.
National Junior Tennis & Learning Chapters of the Year: Legacy Youth Tennis and Education, Philadelphia.
Faculty of the Year: Bill Dopp, Monroe, Ga.