Jon Wertheim answers questions about teenage Grand Slam champions, Dominic Thiem, the one-handed backhand, left-handers and more in his weekly Mailbag column.
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Preliminary note: Jump to the bottom for a long disquisition on Nadal….
1. What's the shortest turnaround between winning the junior Slam title and then the main draw Slam title of a given major? Andy Roddick won the junior U.S. Open title in 2000, then took the men's championship title in 2003. Has any other player, male or female, matched or bettered that stat?
2. I recently came across this beaut of a Wikipedia article that shows Open Era slam champs and the age they were the first time they ever hoisted a trophy. Interesting to see how many were teenagers when first winning, though it's now been over a decade on both the men's and women's side since a teen has won seven matches in a row at a given Slam. With the increasing physicality of the game, think we'll ever see a return to teenage Slam champs?
—Stacy R., Miramar, Fla.
• Good ones. And with Taylor Fritz—age 18—entering the top 100, it’s topical as well. Quick thoughts:
a) Martina Hingis’ career is a joke. Let’s say that up front. She wins the French Open junior title as a 12-year-old in 1993. She defends in 1994. In 1997, she wins the Australian Open women’s championship. (Ironically, the French Open would be the one major she’d never win as an adult.) Now, of course, in her mid-30s, she is the best doubles player in the business.
b) Borg won the Wimbledon junior title in 1972. In 1974, he won the big boys’ French Open.
c) I know people differ with me on this—including my frequent (and always good-natured) sparring partner, Jim Courier. But I don’t see how a teenager today, or in the foreseeable future, can win a major, especially on the men’s side. Part of it is the relentless physicality of the sport. Part of it owes to the general homogeneity of the surfaces. I also think part of it is the off-court rigors of the sport—everything from media/marketing obligations to jetlag. When, say, 17-year-old Boris Becker won Wimbledon, largely serving bombs for seven rounds, it was a different sport, played with different tools under different conditions. Sure the pendulum can swing back. But to me, the teenager Grand Slam champ has gone by way of the 6’6” NBA center.
Can Novak Djokovic win the French Open?
—Mike P., Chicago
• Come on. Can Brittany Howard hit the high notes?
I love your column and read it every week. Two interesting scores involving wildcards caught my attention this weekend. Olla Mourad, a wildcard, lost to Sesil Karatantcheva in the first round of qualies love and love. Fatma Al Nabhani, a wildcard, lost to Donna Vekic in the first round of the main draw. Mourad's ranking is officially No. 9999, which I assume means she doesn't have a ranking, or it is over four digits. Al Nabhani's is No. 379. It seems like wildcards are being given to people who may or may not really know their way around a tennis court. Could a sponsor employee (say, the president of a bank) not perhaps influence the tournament to give one to her/his high school age son/daughter, who always wanted to play a pro? Could Donald Trump not buy one? Could there be a Facebook contest? Auction? Just wondering what you think.
• Here’s a great response from Gayle Bradshaw, the ATP’s Executive vice president of rules and competition: “Yes, good question. Wildcards are an issue from time to time but the ATP (I can’t really speak for the WTA) has taken steps over the years to try to prevent wildcards going to undeserving players.
In 2007 we changed our ranking rules so that players had to win a round to receive ranking points. Prior to that there were some claims that a lower events wildcards were being given out just to get certain players a ranking point. Having a world ranking and never having won a match undermined the integrity of the ranking system so the Player Council/Board supported this change in the system. The one exception was for the mandatory events, direct acceptances to those events received points for each round, including the first. Wildcards in mandatory events had to win a match to receive points.
ATP instituted a wildcard form that the tournament director must complete when submitting his list of wildcards. On the form the tournament director must list the reason for the wild card such as: marquee player, local interest player, national player etc. I think in the example [above] from the WTA Doha event the player was most likely a local player of interest.
Auctioning or direct selling of a wildcard. ATP has specific rules against this. For the tournaments: ‘No ATP World Tour or ATP Challenger Tour tournament, or any person who directly or indirectly has a controlling ownership interest therein or who is the Designated Representative (as deﬁned in the ATP By-Laws) or tournament director or other employee or agent of an ATP World Tour or ATP Challenger Tour tournament shall directly or indirectly, accept compensation in exchange for a wild card.’ For the players: ‘….players may not oﬀer compensation in exchange for the awarding of a wild card.” Violation of this rule by either the tournament or the player would constitute a major offense.’
Tournaments may, and do, run contests to determine one or more of their wild cards. Some events may hold a pre-tournament wild card event for a spot in the qualifying draw, we have an event that holds a national event with the winner getting a spot in the main draw doubles with a regular tour player. In this case the tournament presented to me the standards put in place to insure that this would not be a joke match. The entrants were restricted to a certain level national classification or those players who had previously been included in the ATP rankings. This has been a huge success for the event and in the second year this team won their first round match and in all years they have been competitive.
Ebay: several years ago I heard that a wild card into a challenger main draw was being sold on ebay. I set up a Hotmail account and bid on the wild card through my ebay account (my ebay name would not disclose my identity). I actually won the auction at a very low number but never heard from the person who put the wild card up for auction. This was prior to Pay Pal so I would have had to send a check. It was never disclosed where the event was so it could have been just a scam."
As if in response to the Feb. 16th article on SI.com calling the single-handed backhand a dying art, all three ATP tournaments in the last week of February were won by single-handers: Pablo Cuevas (Sao-Paulo), Dominic Thiem (Acapulco) and Stan Wawrinka (Dubai). Carla Suarez Navarro's victory in Qatar seemed like the cherry on the cake.
It seems to be true that the double-handed backhand is easier to learn, is better for return of serve, and you can probably control the direction of the ball better. However, it appears that you can put more topspin and pace with the single-hander, and it may be better for an all-court game. My question is this: by eulogizing the single-handed backhand, are the coaches (especially Americans) missing out on a possible weapon?
—Saurabh, South Riding, Va.
• Interesting. I think a lot of us are torn between aesthetics and pragmatism. We all like the looks of the one-handed backhand. And, yes, reports of its demise are exaggerated. But we recognize its limitations and vulnerabilities.
This weekend’s final between Dominic Thiem and Bernard Tomic intrigues me as it is the first meeting between two of the youngest up-and-comers on the ATP tour. Both are close in age, have moved up the rankings yet both have only had one R16 appearance in a Grand Slam so far. What do you feel are the strengths and weakness of Thiem and Tomic's games and where do see each five years down the road? Potential Grand Slams? No. 1 rankings? Also, if you can give a shout out to Suarez Navarro. A growing trend in the WTA where we are seeing players like Kerber, most notably, Radwanska with the WTA finals and now Carla, who all at one point last year went through months where they literally had trouble winning a match, now capturing the biggest titles on their careers.
• For the record, Thiem won that match in Acapulco, claiming still another title and capping a stellar month of February. The new clip-and-paste, by the way, is “Future Top Tenner” Dominic Thiem. There’s a lot to like here. Good athlete, good physique (6’1”, 177 lbs….note that Djokovic is 6’1”, 179 lbs.) Also, I remember that at the 2014 French Open, Thiem lost in the second round. He was sharing a coach (Gunter Bresnik), though, with Ernests Gulbis who made a run to the semis. What did Thiem do? He stayed in Paris with Bresnik and put in long sessions every day. That’s a pro move for a guy who was 20 at the time.
Thiem is starting to put it together. It’s a little early to start making these gnomic predictions about true greatness. We’re talking about a guy who’s never made it past the fourth round of a major. But he’s only 22. And has a one-handed backhand. And the future is promising.
As for Tomic….he’s probably the worst athlete in the top 50. So that’s a deficiency. But he is blazingly talented, he has real variety in his game including a superior slice and plays smarter than he sometimes acts off the court. I’m more bullish on Tomic than a lot of people. His father seems to be a diminished presence. He benefits from Nick Kyrgios who both pushes him (“I want to be the King of the country”) and absorbs some of the Bad Boy attention. And, almost always, kids tend to grow up.
At the end of your column on Feb. 24 was a question about top lefties. You included Laver, Martina, Seles, Nadal and McEnroe/Connors. I can't disagree. But I'd just like to throw in Guillermo Vilas. And a shout out to Thomas Muster... after his tragic injury/accident (in Miami?) to come back the way he did was impressive. I enjoy reading your work and listening to you, thanks. Speaking of good tennis conversation, and lefties... isn't Mary Carillo a lefty? Put her on the list! And how is she doing? Maybe I'm just not looking in the right spots, but I like her work as well. I'll be “cutting the cable cord” soon, and it appears that Tennis Channel is going to be a victim of my economic decision...But I'll keep reading!
• I will always give Mary an honorary nod, absolutely. And I try to stay out of the sales side. But if you insist on cutting the cord, there’s always TC Plus.
"The good news about tennis: decline is seldom irreversible." Seriously? Seems it's almost always irreversible. Once you stop winning majors, you stop winning majors. Happens to every top player. Nadal is done in this regard.
• Geez, I don’t know….Venus Williams was struggling mightily a few years ago. Last fall, she re-entered the top ten. Pete Sampras had a miserable first half of 2002, punctuated by his Wimbledon loss to George Bastl. Then, suddenly, he channels his inner legend and wins the U.S. Open. Steffi Graf loses to Patty Schnyder at the 1998 U.S. Open. Two Slams later, she wins the French Open. Even Federer is playing better now, approaching 35, than he was in 2013. We love seeing journeymen become stars. We hate seeing stars become journeymen. But I'd argue it's seldom that linear.
So, interesting results from Dubai. Can Sharko or someone tell us the last time a player beat the No. 1 ranked player in the world and the No. 1 ranked doubles team in the world on the same day? Although Dokovic retired due to injury, Lopez was up one set 6–3 when he won the match. And there isn't any asterisk next to the doubles win where Lopez beat Wimbledon and ATP Finals champs Rojer/Tecau in straight sets. Kudos to Lopez for a fantastic day at work.
—Ted Ying, Laurel, Md.
• As we await Sharko, we acknowledge that this is an excellent question. Kudos, indeed, to Feliciano Lopez, age 34.
• Andre Agassi was this past week’s SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline Podcast guest. It will come as something less than a shock to learn that he was magnificent.
• Upcoming BTB Podcast guests: Taylor Fritz and Brad Gilbert.
• Good soldiering: Tennis Channel will air more than 185 live hours—and nearly 500 overall—during March's “Fifth Slam” events in Southern California and Miami. Note, too, that we’ll be reprising the pre-game show each morning before the matches.
• Press releasing: The United States Tennis Association (USTA) today announced that it will be hosting youth and family tennis events throughout the month of March in celebration of World Tennis Day on March 8. The USTA is partnering with tennis facilities, parks and clubs nationwide to introduce tennis to the youth and family audience, while providing a platform to register for spring and summer programs. World Tennis Day is anchored by the BNP Paribas Showdown at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
• Tickets for the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament go on sale to the public March 1, 2016. Last year’s event brought a record 199,217 fans. WSOpen.com for more info.
• The Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation announced it has taken over the management of the $10,000 “Futures” tennis tournament, which will now be called The Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships and benefit the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation.
• Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard are committed to play Charleston.
• Guy Forget was named Roland Garros tournament director.
• There may be fewer events than ever in the U.S., but there are events coming to the New York area. This year’s BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden will take March 8 and feature Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Gael Monfils and Stan Wawrinka. In December, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn will play host to a two-night exhibition featuring Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, James Blake and Andy Roddick. We were told that originally, the Williams sisters were considered before that fell through. Also, look for Nassau Coliseum on Long Island to host a future tennis event.
• Special thanks to Eszter, a behavior scientist in San Francisco, for this contribution: Hi Jon, I wanted to contribute to the Mailbag for years. I’ve never once missed reading it at least this past decade and have several times been on the cusp of writing, but have never been able to overcome the nerves to execute. (Also English not being my first language I fear sending you a note that is not well written,) However your first paragraph in the two weeks ago mailbag had me motivated again: “Yes, and it's feeling like Federer 2006. He’s fast turning the rest of the competition into a personal chew toy. So much so you’re inclined to take him against the field. Apart from the obvious reverence for Djokovic, you know who I am respecting a lot these days? Rafael Nadal. Looking back, in around 2007, he basically took inventory of Federer at the peak of his powers and decided, “I am going to extend my mastery of this guy on clay to other surfaces; and then I will try to construct an all-out takedown. I will not settle for ‘Roger is too good.’ I want to be No.1.”
So here it goes: Rafael Nadal has explicitly employed positive psychology and behavior change tools in playing tennis, and while that may have been triggered by playing Roger Federer, in using this generic tool explicitly Nadal is still peerless, even if he struggles in matches right now.
I think people watch tennis not only for the athletic but also for the mental performance. Tennis lends itself well to this because of the scoring system, points and games and sets not being equal, it allows strategies and tactics played out beautifully in real time. Looking back at Rafael around 2007, he not only tried to construct an all out takedown of Federer, but one could observe that he applied behavior change principles on the court as he was playing. I would argue that for example in the 2009 Australian Open final after four sets of momentum swinging back and forth, Federer got annoyed at himself at a mistake he made in the fourth game of the fifth set while Nadal stayed calm, resulting in two points (the backhand failing) and Nadal breaking. Staying calm for one point longer in a pressure situation after four hours of playing was what behavior scientists call today a “baby step” for change which was small enough to be executable in the moment, and enough moments make it the tipping point in winning a mentally and physically exhausting up and down match. This was clearly years in the making, Rafael Nadal applying this tool more and more until it accumulated to enough force to change the outcome. Although in itself would not have been enough, when you string together these mini behaviors purposefully it can become a big a weapon in addition to one’s athletic ability and present form of course. This mental ability, combined with the intrinsic motivation to win and the demeanor exhibited on the court (throwing rackets or not, tearing shirts, fist pumps or lately some players talking to the opponent in a manner to trigger reaction) and off the court, together combine for a psychological story of the player. This story implicitly plays a huge role in deciding whether one enjoys watching a particular player play in my opinion. Why? Because this aspect of the play transcends tennis, fans identify with the patterns of mental approach which they also likely employ or admire in other aspects of life.
I think Federer’s mental strengths have played out more in the realm of very successfully dealing with the fact that he was the eminent player for so long. Fans may tremendously admire him (viewing his play as a religious experience) as they do but can’t identify with that story personally as well, since few of us are so perfect in our endeavors. But look at how keen everybody is on Federer adjusting now, how much people want to see the results of bigger racket and charging to the net tactics. Changing behavior is very difficult, especially while you are under stress and have to physically execute the playing of tennis as well. I think that the amount of fans enjoying watching Roger play has not dropped even though he has not won a Grand Slam for a while, because people instinctively identify with the psychological effort he is making, thinking and adjusting his behavior as he goes.
The psychological story of Novak Djokovic is unfolding as we speak, and it has been raising some questions being more convoluted than either Rafael Nadal’s or Roger Federer’s. The mixed signals he and his coach Boris Becker have been sending may in my view sufficiently account for the consistent observation that he is not as popular as his impressive results would indicate. The story he acted out on the courts felt to my subjective self less of a mindful, explicit approach, and more a pattern of reacting, whether he practiced tennis while NATO pressured his country with military force, retired or won earlier in his career, made attempts to gain fan’s favor or played against their sentiments (USO 2015 being a very good recent example). When he executes his all over excellent game now, fans can’t detect the underlying psychological strategy, some even accuse him of playing in a boring, robotic manner. This is exaggerated by off the court communication, for example stating that being a father inspires him while screaming at a ballboy, saying how Federer and Nadal made him a better player only to be counteracted by comments indicating no love lost between him and them, or describing him as a perfectionist and a street fighter in the same breath, which are in psychological terms diagonally opposite characteristics, as you would certainly lose in a street fight with any perfectionist approach. I think that in practice Djokovic is happening upon a holistic approach in his training, eating, playing, and behaving. We will see how far he goes in that direction. I think it has huge potential for people to identify with and follow, but it needs to be communicated more clearly. However, until now, unless one had the same nationality, it was harder to identify with this psychological story even though the athletic effort became peerless over time.
This brings us of course back to Nadal, if he has the conscious ability to change his behavior, can he not find the mental game to adjust to his changing physical capabilities (instead of overtaking Federer) and think his way through to victory again? As I watch him play from the behavior science perspective, I detect that he gets increasingly less time to think and to construct points and strategies on the court and thus his very mindfulness is undermined, trusting less and less his effort to practice the baby steps until the pattern leads to the tipping point in results. As I am impressed by exhibiting a high level of mindfulness and ability to change, I would like to see it play out again. However, even if he is not able to do that, I credit him with making this aspect of the tennis game explicit for the fans, and not only thus making my/our tennis viewing enjoyable but motivating me/us to apply these tools in the area of my/our own expertise.