Mailbag: Does tennis have a Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning equivalent?
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Keeping the fires burning during the off-season (such as it is)….
Friends and I were kicking around the question of who has fallen to the lowest depth: Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning or Tiger Woods? It's funny when people call for tennis Player X to retire. I can't think of an all-time great player with a resume similar to any of those three who has comparably bottomed out.
• Heaven help us, if Roger Federer or Serena Williams professes a new interest in writing poems. The point you raise is a good one. The fall of the once-mighty Tiger Woods, well publicized as this decline has been, remains the most underrated story in sports. Here’s a guy who made his bones with unshakable mental strength, playing rounds of golf that would embarrass weekend hackers. (Whether it’s causation or mere correlation, his drop post-Thanksgiving 2009 only adds to the intrigue.) It’s painful to watch Kobe Bryant—and that’s in a team sport—and, like Fred Astaire, he’s chosen to retire lest he disappoint anyone, not least himself. I’m admittedly in the bag for Peyton Manning, but his decline, while also hard to watch, is more about sheer physical deterioration.
In tennis, we seldom see champs fall so brutally. In fact, I can't come close to thinking of a player who bottomed out. Pete Sampras won the last Slam he played, the 2002 U.S. Open. Li Na retired six months after winning a major. Andre Agassi was competitive until the end. Steffi Graf is the highest exponent of going-out-on-top, having retired the same summer she won the French Open and reached the final of Wimbledon.
Franklyn from Australia raises a good point about Federer: “Djokovic ran the tennis table in 2015 by making 15 straight finals and winning 11 titles. But at the age of 34, Federer made 11 finals and the five he lost were to Djokovic. Has any other player made 11 finals in a year at that advanced age? Take Djokovic out of the picture and Federer would still be the No. 1 player in the world. He continues to astound and burnish his legacy.”
We had a question a few weeks ago about Lleyton Hewitt, still playing more than a decade after his meatiest years. (Hewitt will, of course, play his final match at the 2016 Aussie Open.) From where I sit, Hewitt has done the opposite of diminish himself. To me, there’s something thoroughly dignified in the way he’s managed his career. He realized that, even if he were no longer competing for trophies, he was competing with each match. And that’s been enough to sustain him.
I’ve been following the Davis Cup news and was really hoping for Britain to lift the Davis Cup. But with every article I read about Andy Murray, what I don’t understand is why tennis writers make a big deal about Andy winning three matches in a row for Davis Cup. What is it about the Davis Cup that winning more than two matches is a big deal? You have to at least win three matches in any tournaments anyway, even in the Olympics, so why do writers always highlight it like it’s the hardest thing to do?
—James from Hong Kong
• Someone else asked me this same question on Twitter. Winning nine nets in three days is formidable. (Remember at majors there’s a day off between matches; the Olympics are best-of-three.) But more than that, I think it’s the fact that Murray had a hand in each of the three points Britain required for victory.
Let me be the elephant in the room! Considering Novak's recent success and considerable domination—beating Roger in the Wimbledon, U.S. Open and year end championships—is it time to admit that he is the best player ever? Sure Rafa is right up there with Novak and Roger, but Rafa was never No. 1 for years in a row. Thoughts please!
—Joe J, Easton, Pa.
• Before we get to Joe’s question, can we get a zoological consensus here: Is the elephant in the room? The white elephant? The invisible elephant? The 500-lb. elephant? Or is it the 500-lb. gorilla? Or is it an 800-lb. gorilla? (Which is, presumably, the larger species of the monkey on someone’s back?) Those of us who traffic in cliché need to know.
More animal imagery: It’s likely coming soon; but right now I have a hard time including Djokovic in the GOAT conversation. A few more majors and a career Slam—both of which are likely—and then he at least gets into the conversational pasture. But for now, he’s still on the outside, his face is still pressed to the terrarium plexiglass. Okay, enough zoological imagery for one month. Oh, wait…
Elephant in the room that no one seems to mention when it comes to appreciating Novak Djokovic: his tendency to run his mouth earlier in his career. (Some folks will also mention the frequent retirements, but I know that gluten allergies are no joke.) As soon as I became aware of Novak, he left a bad impression that myself and many other tennis fans I know have been unable to shake. We have the admission of using injury timeouts as a tactic against Monfils in 2005, the bizarro "I was controlling the match" comments after Roland Garros 2006, the run in with the crowd at the 2008 U.S. Open...I could go on. His skill on the court is unimpeachable, but I can't quite shake the thought that Novak used to write some checks that his posterior wasn't capable of cashing initially, and it's harmed his appeal in the long run. (And should you think I'm being petty for mentioning long ago incidents, Serena's U.S. Open blowups still seem to get mentioned quite a bit, even though they were both years ago at this point.)
—P.H., Champaign, Ill.
• More pachyderms! More animals! We had a lot of theories about Djokovic’s popularity gulf. A few points: 1) I think we need to establish a statute of limitations on bad behavior. Tactics against Monfils in 2005? I don't recall seeing too many tweets about that lapse. Know why? Because Twitter hadn’t launched yet. 2) Let’s allow for athletes to evolve. Most of us—even those of us who weren’t teenagers at the time—may have behaved regrettably ten years ago. 3) I admit to fanning the flames, but I’m going to take a break from the “Why is Djokovic underappreciated?” speculation. It’s starting to get in the way of our, well, appreciation.
Q for you or your stats guy* (*guy used here as a gender neutral term): Is top 10 at the end of 2015 the oldest ever? I didn't do the calculation but it seems like the average age is just a shade under 30.
—Tim Forsyth, Arlington, Va.
I am not a big tennis fan, but I cannot agree with you more that Serena Williams deserves SI’s Sportsman of the Year. She is so dominant it is not funny and she should be recognized for her amazing achievements and talent. Sports Illustrated sometimes overlooks the athletes outside of football, baseball, and basketball. I was disappointed when Wayne Gretzky did not win the award pretty much every year during his prime. Again, a case of an athlete who was a quantum leap better than everyone else in his sport.
• For the record, Gretzky did indeed win. But tennis gives us two sterling candidates in 2015.
Interesting tidbit: Djokovic made more official prize money in 2015 than Andy Roddick made in his entire career:
There are both great champions, but do you find this fact to be at all telling?
• What I find most telling: there have been some serious prize money increases in the past few years. Note that Djokovic has won nearly $20 million more in career prize money than Nadal and is within $4 million ($97.3M to $94.1M) of Federer. (As @bobbyb63 asks on twitter: who gets to $100M first?)
Here's a line you don't hear often: Roger Federer got robbed. He was plainly the second best player in the world this year, but somehow will end up at No. 3 on the year-end rankings. Six titles, two major finals, the finals in London too, and as many wins again the World No. 1 as the rest of the field combined. When's the last time a 34-year-old could say that? But the better question is how did Murray, whose year on the biggest stages was relatively disappointing, slip past him to finish at No. 2?
• We shy away from printing anonymous correspondences; but this seemed harmless. Fair point our unsigned, resigned reader raises. Given truth serum, who among us wouldn't have preferred Federer’s year over Murray’s? (It is unlikely to change much, but it’s probably worth pointing out that this was sent before the Davis Cup finale.)
Enjoyed reading the Mailbag for several years and asking a question finally: Which season was better: Djokovic 2015 or Federer 2006? Federer had a better match record (92–5 vs. 82–6) and more tournament wins (12 vs. 11). But I would give the edge to Djokovic because Federer's extra wins came at smaller tournaments and Djokovic had more Masters titles (six vs. four). Your thoughts? If you agree, where would Djokovic’s 2015 rank among the all-time great ATP seasons in the Open Era?
—AM, San Diego
• One of the great pleasures of this Mailbag: it's like crowd-sourcing the Tennis Vox Populi. My sense: many of you feel, deep down, that Djokovic’s year was the fairest of them all. Better than Federer in 2006. Better than Nadal in 2010. Better than McEnroe in 1984. The quality of the titles. The quality of the opposition. The 27–1 record in majors. I deduce this by both the comments in Djokovic’s favor and also by the halfhearted defense lodged in favor of the other candidates.
I want to give you 24M USD, are you trustworthy?
• If I said “yes” I could be lying. If I said “no,” I might be telling the truth, but you might not want to do business with me. So you’ll have to find someone else take that 24M USD. Just being trustworthy. (Ah, spam filter, you fail me again.)
• On Thursday, look out for a new episode of the SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline podcast. Mary Carillo is our guest.
• Here’s Andy Roddick on Serena Williams.
• James Blake recognized by GQ.
• Ryan Rodenberg writes about playing an ITF Futures event in his 40s.
• Handicapping the field re: your next U.S tennis champion.
• Bob and Mike Bryan as well as 2015 top seed Feliciano Lopez have committed to play the 2016 Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship on April 4-10 at River Oaks Country Club.
• 2015 was a disappointing year for Milos Raonic, the Canadian who fought a series of injuries, underwent foot surgery and finished the year ranked No. 14, a decline of ten sports from earlier in the year. This hasn’t sat well with him and already he’s made some changes. On Thanksgiving day, Raonic announced that he was parting ways Ivan Ljubicic, his coach of the last two years. Raonic isn’t the only Canadian with a new coach in 2015. Genie Bouchard will be working with Thomas Hogstedt in 2015. Hogstedt, affiliated with IMG which also reps Bouchard, has worked with Carolina Wozniacki, Li Na, Maria Sharapova and Sloane Stephens in the past.
• Then age 15, CiCi Bellis was a breakthrough star at the 2014 US Open. She’s tried to keep a low profile since then but that could be hard. Only 16, she is up to 229 in the world—this despite playing a modest schedule. Last week at Carlsbad she won a pair of matches before losing 6–4, 6–3 to Yanina Wickmayer, a current top 50 player who was the eventual Carlsbad champion.
• The Carlsbad runner-up, Nicole Gibbs, has one the great social media posts:
• When the TIU, Tennis Integrity Unit, announces punishment to players, it sometimes commutes sentences with the vague distinction that a player provided “substantial assistance.” While it’s often unclear what this means, we have one example: David Savic, a Serbian player who never made it to the upper ranks was banned several years ago for match fixing. Savic was allowed back in the sport as a coach. Why? One reason: before playing ITF events, all entrants are required to watch a video laying out rules of competition and featuring a confessional former player talking about a mistake he made. That disgraced player in the video? David Savic.
• Shlomo Kreitman of Passaic, N.J. has LLS: I just noticed that a young Andy Garcia really resembles David Ferrer. Was Andy Garcia perhaps invited to the Ferrer nuptials, as uncle of the groom?