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Mailbag: Takeaways from 2016 Australian Open lead-ups, more

Jon Wertheim answers reader questions about Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray at Australian Open 2016, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and more in his weekly Mailbag.

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

A quick Mailbag as we prepare for the first major of 2016. On Thursday we’ll post our preview podcast with Lindsay Davenport, the 2000 champion. Friday we’ll post seed reports. Onward….

Catching part of the match between Djokovic and Nadal led me to believe it was more indicative of Nadal's level than Djokovic's. I was amazed to see so many points where Nadal's ball landed inside the service box four or five times in a row. Along with serves landing halfway inside the service box, that is going to be recipe for disaster against most top players. It brought me back to when Nadal was first winning on clay and hadn't transitioned to hard court. I think he's got a long way to go to start challenging for titles again. 
Jordan, Madison, Wis.

• I recently heard a commentator refer to Nadal’s 2015 crisis of confidence and say something to the effect of, “We need to think of it as an injury and now it’s healing and he’s coming back.” It’s an interesting perspective but probably too simplistic. This is a not knee injury that takes time to heal where there’s a predictable trajectory to the convalescence. (By July, you should have full range of motion.) An absence of self-belief is much more delicate. Even last fall, there were days when Nadal played like the Nadal the World Beater, positioning inside the court, whipping the forehand, moving with the authority. There were other times when he played defensive, risk-averse tennis. His deep court positioning and the shallow placement of his balls—like ballistic tests—offered evidence. He was particularly passive against Djokovic, to whom he’s now lost five straight matches and 11 straight sets, none worse than last week’s Doha dustup. The good news about confidence: it not only comes and goes, karma chameleon-style; it self-perpetuates. A few courageous wins, a few matches played with conviction and self-belief returns. If you’re a Nadal fan or team member, this should be a great hope, comfort even.

Djokovic crushes Nadal in Qatar Open final

All that said, I think the real takeaway from Week One of the ATP season is a carry-over from 2015: Djokovic is residing in his own gated community right now. He’s simply at a different level right now. And, assuming full health, you have to consider taking him against the field. We talk about his peerless defensive tennis, but he’s clocking the ball and dictating rallies.  We talk about his returning, but his serve is becoming invulnerable. He wins on all surfaces. He comes to play at the majors but also at the smaller events. Who’s beating this guy? And taking down Nadal 6–1, 6–2, on the eve of the year’s first major? It’s the equivalent of trash talking without using your mouth.

There was a time when Andy Murray was notching up wins against Federer on a consistent basis. However, of late he just does not seem to figure out Federer's game (he won just one set in the pair's last five meetings). It is not like Federer's game has elevated to that an extent. Neither has Murray lost his game; he still moves great, serves good (the first serve i.e) and carries a formidable backhand. What happened?
Sash, India

• This is an interesting quirk in tennis today. Murray is ranked one spot ahead of Federer, but has lost their last five head-to-head matches and hasn't beaten Federer in almost three years.

Likewise, Federer may not have won a major since 2012—and only has only one over the last half-decade—but he has been holding his own against the other top players.

Mailbag: Concern over injury withdrawals ahead of Australian Open

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think the real question Sash raises: what’s going on with Murray? There’s only one guy ranked higher. He has his Davis Cup glory, his Hall of Fame credentials, his admirable personal life, his Under Armour deal. But you wonder about the GPS coordinates of his tennis. Does he have the conviction to try and take down Djokovic, much as Nadal did Federer? Can he make a real run for No. 1? Can he win another major? His Melbourne campaign will be clouded a bit by his upcoming paternity—which is totally understandable. But 2016 will be a big year for him.

Should the WTA calendar be shortened more or should we have gaps in between events?

• As we were saying last week, I think it’s much more a question of economics and players erring on side of caution. Let’s revisit this after Melbourne. Again, my assumption is that most players have executed this as a risk assessment and determined the potential windfall at the Australian Open was too great to jeopardize by coming in a little dinged up. We’ll know within the next weeks how many of these injuries are more serious—in which case the administrators can decide whether this is a problem worth addressing.

Granted it appears to be sponsored content. But I credit the WTA for updating fans on this topic.

Andy Murray discusses new apparel technology, kit for Australian Open

I can't help but compare the number of mid-tournament withdrawals on the men's and women's tours. It seems to me that the men take more responsibility for the success of the ATP tour as a whole. I imagine that may be due to the attitudes of their top players over the last decade who have been active in governing the tour. I often hear about the ATP Players Council and readily found the current members online but couldn't even find a mention of whatever similar group exists for the WTA.  I’ve come to the conclusion that the top women players simply are out there playing for themselves with very little concern for the Tour's reputation and therefore have no compunction about withdrawing despite the consequences for the tournaments and the fans. Is this unfair?
Diane from Illinois

• I wouldn’t say unfair. But I would say one order of magnitude too harsh. I do know a number of former champions who are concerned that current players don’t take sufficient pride or ownership in the collective. My response to that: a) a number of top players do involve themselves in governance, Venus Williams among them. B) Isn’t this—perhaps in a perverse way—a sign of progress? If the WTA were still imbued with this sense of mission, a sorority less than a competitive enterprise, something would be amiss. Instead we have players, traveling with their own teams, making decisions that benefit themselves sometimes at the expense of the collective. “I’m going for $3.85 million in Melbourne next week and I’ll be damned if I’m going to arrive in a compromised state; if that means withdrawing from a tune-up event, that’s collateral damage.”

Is it too late to predict that Coric advances into the top 10-15 (but not Top 10) this year? Also. If I had to place money on a sure bet for a Grand Slam women's winner this year it has to be Azarenka. With the injury problems of Serena, Sharapova and others, there is an opening! Cheers.
Patrick Kramer, Oslo, Norway

• It is not too late. I’m very much in agreement with your take on Coric. Usually we see young players with precocious games who require some emotional growth. I feel like Coric is the reverse. Very professional and organized on-court disposition (and, by extension, personality) belying his youth. He knows how to win. Now, he needs to grow into his game a bit. An 11-15 ranking by year’s end.

Victoria Azarenka wins Brisbane International to end WTA title drought

As for the women, no question there is an opening. It’s not a slit, either; it’s a chasm. If a Radwanska or Muguruza took advantage of a limping field and took the title, who’d be surprised? Especially with Serena in a shaky physical state, I see no “sure bets.” I’m bullish on Azarenka as well, especially in Melbourne where, of course, she is a multiple-time winner. But she hasn’t been to a Grand Slam semi in almost three years. “Baby steps” ignores the realities of tennis. But is she ready to get back in the business of winning seven straight matches? We’ll see.

TGMisanthrope feels obliged to offer a correction of your misrepresentation in answer "e" of question six, "Tennis at the 2016 the Summer Olympics will:" in your recent chuckle-inducing article: Looking ahead to the upcoming tennis season as 2016 kicks off.  While mojitos are quite tasty in their own right they're actually a traditional Cuban highball; the Brazilian national drink is the caipirinha, a mix of cachaça (a hard liquor distilled from sugarcane), sugar and fresh limes. Having on occasion enjoyed a caipirinha or two (or sixteen, and TGMisanthrope has the scars to prove it!) with TG's Brazilian wife and her family, TGMisanthrope can attest to their power of persuasion. 
Regards, TGMisanthrope

• We shanked on that one. Well played. We owe you a drink, provenance be damned.

Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Former Top 10 ATP player Mario Ancic

Love your writing, always, but yes, Steve Miller totally sold out with many mindless hits, so no HOF argument here. But in the 1960s, very early ‘70s, he was an awesome Bay Area singer/songwriter/rock n’ roller and he made great music, with among others Boz Scaggs. Check out his double album "Anthology" which includes Sir Paul McCartney sitting in on a track. 
—Jeff, Atlanta

• Astonishingly, a good half-dozen of you defended Steve Miller and his musical talent, such as it is. David Bowie? Hall of Famer? This guy? Where to begin? Maybe here, with one of the great non-sequiturs:

“Some people call me Maurice / Cause' I speak of the pompitous of love.”

Oh, THAT’S why they call you Maurice. Now it makes sense. Just one more question, if I may: what’s a pompitous?

Here’s Miles Davis weighing in posthumously.

Shots, Miscellany

• On the most recent Beyond the Baseline podcast, we chat with former top ten player Mario Ancic.

• Look for a new podcast on Thursday, sizing up the Australian Open with Lindsay Davenport.

• Speaking of, Tennis Channel will be all over the Australian Open. Check listings here. Brett Haber, Martina Navratilova, Jim Courier and I will do the “morning” show throughout the event, starting at 6 p.m. ET.

• Here’s your 2016 Australian Open suicide pool link.

The nomadic history and evolution of the Australian Open venues

• Even hard core fans may have done a double-take when they saw reference to Jarmila Wolfe playing well to start the year. Who? It’s the Australian veteran formerly named Jarmila Gajdosova as well as Jarmila Groth. In November, she married U.S. Marine pilot Adam Wolfe…. We’ve had player change names before. But it’s hard to recall a player with two name changes.

• Shortly after the U.S. Open, the sports management and marketing agency Lagardère severely restructured its tennis division. Some Lagardère players left, including Aga Radwanska and Kevin Anderson—and, most recently Sloane Stephens— who are now with IMG. Other players, including high-earning Caroline Wozniacki are still under contract with Lagardère. Others are trying to negotiate exit strategies. “Honestly, it’s a mess,” says one former Lagardère agent. Regardless, expect for this to be a hot topic in the players lounge as hallways of the Australian Open.

• WTA Insider, Courtney Nguyen (@WTA_Insider) caught up with Sam Crawford.

• Helen of Philadelphia writes: No shortage of irony in tennis...Bouchard's last match win was in mixed doubles, playing with Nick Kyrgios....until this week's win, over Donna Vekic.

• John Isner will play in the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship. The April 4-10 event has also received early commitments from Kevin Anderson and Benoit Paire.