Jon Wertheim answers questions about Australian Open tune-ups and injury withdrawals, Serena Williams as 2015 SI Sportsperson of the Year, Novak Djokovic's 2016 and more in his weekly Mailbag.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
A quick Mailbag before the 2016 Australian Open. Check back next week for Melbourne seed reports and a preview podcast with Lindsay Davenport. And here’s our 2016 tennis quiz.
Why are injury withdrawals happening at opening events? Downtime not long enough? Seems ridiculous.
• We shouldn't entirely let tennis administrators off the hook here. This sport has become entirely too physically demanding, injuries entirely too common. When five of the top ten WTA players pull out of events in the first week of the season with injuries or illness, maybe it’s time to address the situation in a meaningful way? It could be the strings and other technology. It could be the absurdly long season. It could be the overtraining. But it’s hard to imagine too many other lines of work where the employees are often unable to discharge their duties and the response of management is collective shrug.
But in this case, I think it owes largely to economics and incentive and risk/reward analysis. The purses—and bonuses and overall status—of the majors is so vast compared to the garden-variety events, the players aspire to full health. So much so that they think little of withdrawing from a tune-up with the slightest bump, bruise or bellyache. Just rational actors acting rationally. (Which, granted, is little consolation if you run or attend or own media rights to or simply care about a run-up event.)
Real solid win today by Grigor Dimitrov. Beats a higher ranked player in Gilles Simon who he had never beaten and showed toughness that was missing last year by winning a 22-point tiebreak. Is this the year of the Blackheart?
• This is the match James is referencing. As a matter probability, Dimitrov is likely to improve in 2016. After a dismal 12 months, he’s currently at No. 28. The talent is undeniable. And, at age 24, he has the requisite experience. The question—as ever—is whether he can put it all together. Can the match toughness and decision making and conviction catch up to the shotmaking? We try to resist drama and hype, but this has the echoes of a make-or-break year for Dimitrov. He’s in his prime, has a new coach, appears to be healthy physically and is comfortable with his new racket (which wasn’t the case in 2015.) This could—and should—be a big year. And if it’s not, I think we need to issue a “sell” rating.
Tennis deprivation led me to watch old matches on YouTube and I can't help but reminisce about Madrid's blue clay debacle of 2012. On video, the ball *is* much easier to see against the blue clay. Such a shame. Can the negative PR ever be forgotten and the experiment tried again?
—James Pham, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
• Funny, I had a similar thought about round robin. Especially for these smaller tournaments—which are really struggling, in part because they have buy in the top players’ appearances—it’s not crazy to devise a system whereby these hired guns are guaranteed to play multiple matches. The blue clay was wildly unpopular with the players. That was really the death knell. At least in sports, you can’t have the labor decrying the work conditions.
Serena has 151 consecutive weeks at No. 1. Steffi's record is 186. What are odds the record is broken in 2016?
• On this week’s podcast, I asked Mario Ancic how many Slams Djokovic would win in 2016. (The full episode with Ancic will be released on Thursday.) His response: “Is he healthy?” For better or worse (I would argue the latter) this is tennis in 2016. If Serena’s body holds up, she ought to hold out for 35 more weeks. Right now she still has almost 4,000 points over Simona Halep. If she goes another few months without playing—and the points from Australia and Miami molt off her total like shed snakeskin—this could be interesting.
Sadly all one has to do is remember 9/12/2009 at the U.S. Open when Serena yelled at the lineswoman “I'm gonna shove this f****** ball down your throat" to really know what kind of person she is. Bad pick.
• Yes. That would have made her a regrettable pick. In the year 2009.
I can see why your campaign to get Federer, Graf, Nadal and Novak named as Sportsperson of the Year was not successful. Has there ever been any non-American who has received this award? I think that was the problem with your campaign.
• A few of you—including, richly, Brad Gilbert*—made this same claim. I’m telling you, it's categorically untrue. You’re well within your rights to lament the overlooking of Djokovic. But it was not because of his nationality. (Hell, Johann Olav Koss won this award one year!)
*We love Brad and have expressed our fondness many times in the past. But I need to stick up for the enterprise here. It seems to me that when you can't bring yourself to discuss international players without first giving them Americanized nicknames, you forfeit your right to sling charges of xenophobia.
Hi Jon. I'm beginning to wonder if we should be reevaluating Patrick McEnroe's tenure as director of player development for the USTA. After all it takes several years for a junior player to mature and now suddenly the United States has several junior players that have some potential. Opelka, Fritz, Tiafoe and company are playing well. I don't know if these top young players are products of the USTA player development program but if they are, perhaps McEnroe deserves some praise.
—Eric Bukzin, Manorville, N.Y.
• Totally agree. This is essentially a general manager job. Like Paul DePodesta or Ryan Grigson or Phil Jackson, the assessment of your tenure ultimately comes down to down results. The goal, of course, is to mint top pro and not top juniors. But if/when—and I say when—at least a few of these prospects become quality pros, it will reflect well on the McEnroe era. Some of the aforementioned (and I would add Jared Donaldson, Noah Rubin, Stefan Kozlov, Michael Mmoh and Will Blumberg) were more involved in the USTA than others. But unlike prospects in previous years, the USTA can make rightful claims to each.
Regardless if American Pharoah can be considered a person or not, it is a mute point. The Triple Crown winner was a TEAM: American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza. It would be like giving the SI Sportsperson of the Year to only one of the Bryan brothers, or only one of the players in a beach volleyball team. And American Pharoah is a horse, not a person. With that candidacy, SI was approaching Emperor Nero in ancient Rome who named one of his horses to the Roman Senate.
—Raul Amezquita, Evanston, Ill.
• And, besides, the acceptance speech would have been lacking.
According to Skybet, the odds of Djokovic winning all four major championships in 2016 were 11-1 at the start of the year. (The betting site puts him at 18-1 to grab the “Golden Slam” by adding an Olympic title too.) I don’t know how to look up historical betting odds, but doesn’t it seem like Novak has a better chance of pulling off a calendar Grand Slam than any other male player in recent history? Each time Federer entered a year holding three of the four Slams, he had to contend with Nadal in beastly form guarding Mt. Roland Garros. Nadal claimed three of four in 2010 but sort of limped into 2011 with health issues. Djokovic dominated 2011 but still had to face King Rafa as the French Open favorite in 2012. This time, Novak enters the year as the clear favorite at all four majors.
—Teddy C in NYC
• I’m not sure Djokovic is the “clear favorite” at an event he has never won. (The French Open, of course.) But, yes, 18-1 to win the Golden Slam is remarkable. I’ve made this point before, but betting lines are often instructive, as they reflect this accumulation of where the public is putting its money. That 18-1? It’s some shady oddsmaker in a boiler room speculation. It’s literally a wisdom-of-crowds indication.
I love the IPTL, especially the way they push the sport with such things as a shot clock. I noticed, though, in watching the final with the Slammers vs. the Aces, that of the five sets played, the Slammers got to serve first in four of them. Since the result is determined by a tally of the total games won, this gave them an unfair advantage. With the format, if the player who serves first wins the set having broken serve only once, the point differential will be three games, whereas if the player who serves second wins by one break, the point differential will be two games. This can add up over the course of five sets and actually end up determining the outcome. They should have a coin toss at the beginning, and then alternate each set after that. Thoughts?
—Miles Benson, Hudson, Mass.
• Total candor: I’m not sure of the protocol. But, yes, what you describe sounds like a flawed protocol. More general point: the IPTL is steadily going from this curiosity to a real force in tennis. Fueled by social media—and, yes, deep-pocketed owners—the league has really broken through, to the point that fans are learning rosters and match-ups. That these matches are being held in vital growth markets only adds to the intrigue.
What are your thoughts on the Steve Miller Band making the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I seem to remember you trashing them in one of your Mailbags. It was pretty funny, in my opinion.—Mark, Ashland, Ohio
• I always envision Steve Miller putting “Abracadabra” into a rhyming dictionary, seeing “reach-out-and-grab-ya” furnished as an option, turning to the band with narrowed eyes and saying, “Yeah, we can work with that.”
We think the Tennis Hall of Fame standards are lax? Far as I’m concerned, this guy is a glorified club hack.
• This week’s podcast is with recent law school grad, current Credit Suisse banker and former top ten player, Mario Ancic. Check back on Thursday for the release.
• If you missed it, here’s Victoria Azarenka on her offseason training.
• While Venus and Serena Williams are an ocean way, firmly lodged in the WTA’s top ten, their sister Lyndrea is working overtime as marketing doyenne for Ember Lynn Designs.
• I’m thrilled to learn of two new tennis books coming to market. Gerard Marzorati’s Late to the Ball comes out in May.
And here’s Elizabeth Wilson’s Love Game.
• Kei Nishikori is confirmed to compete and defend his championship title in the 2016 Memphis Open presented by ServiceMaster February 6-14 at the Racquet Club of Memphis.
• Mike McIntyre writes: Hi Jon, just a little article on the IPTL that I wrote recently.
• Clint Swett of Sacramento has LLS: Rockets guard Patrick Beverley and Gael Monfils