Jon Wertheim names five things he's impressed with at the BNP Paribas Open and addresses the Maria Sharapova doping admission one week after her announcement.
INDIAN WELLS — Some mid-week questions from the desert as we head into the business end of the tournament.
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I see you every morning on Tennis Channel and know you are in Indian Wells. I also know that you like top ten lists. So give us 10 things that have impressed you so far this tournament!
• This is one of the first questions in Mailbag history that came to us not via email or social media but in person. It was a pleasure meeting Sue. I am indeed in Indian Wells. And I do like top 10 lists. (Though I like top five lists even more). I write this on Tuesday night, so forgive me if news events overtake anything. But:
a) I am impressed with Sasha Zverev, the 18-year-old German (who lives in Monte Carlo and trains in Saddlebrook.) A big kid, 6’6” or so, who moves well, hits a big ball and seems awfully buttoned up. More importantly, you know who else speaks glowingly about Zverev? Rafael Nadal, his next opponent.
b) Speaking of, I am impressed by Nadal. His tennis has been a mix of terrific and tentative. Sometimes he looks like the Mt. Rushmore player he is; other times he looks like the guy who’s retreated (literally and figuratively) from the top. But he’s walking around with smile, speaking openly, and not looking like a guy who’s plotting an exit strategy.
c) I’m impressed with Karolina Pliskova who is (over)due for a real breakthrough.
d) I am impressed by the volatility on the WTA Tour. I say this non-pejoratively. Truth serum: sometimes the uncertainty and unreliability of top ten players makes for more gripping sport than the predictability. But, boy, is every match a toss up. (see Azarenka discussion below.)
e) I am impressed by Indian Wells. I suspect the casual fan may get sick of the fawning about this place—starting with the tournament’s immodest hashtag #tennisparadise. But it really is an exceptional sporting event. Well-run, well-promoted, well-regarded. Yes, it helps to help the backing of a billionaire; but that only goes so far.
I’ve already changed my mind twice about Maria Sharapova, but here’s what I think: Apparently, roughly 60 athletes also tested positive for meldonium. There’s no way that 60 athletes all have the same unusual medical conditions that meldonium treats, so clearly it is perceived to be a performance-enhancing substance. I’ve also read that meldonium is meant to be taken for several weeks, not steadily for ten years. So I’ve reached the conclusion that Sharapova was most likely taking the drug—legally—for its performance-enhancing qualities. We now come to Jan. 2016 when the drug becomes a banned substance. At that point, either Sharapova knew it was banned and kept taking it anyway, or she didn’t know it had been banned. Given the rigorous drug testing in tennis, the former strikes me as borderline sociopathic, so I believe that she truly didn’t know. The one scenario we’ll never know is this: the drug was legal up until Dec. 31, 2015. If Sharapova had stopped taking it on that day, wouldn’t she still have tested positive a few weeks later at the Australian Open? What would we be saying then?
—Rich, New York
• Programming/full disclosure note: Despite the fact that we’re in the guts of the BNP Paribas Open—the fifth major we’ve been told ad nauseum—l’affaire Sharapova remained the most common discussion topic. Five points:
• There’s still a lot we don’t know. There are points that cut in her favor, such as her allegedly small dosage. There are points that beggar skepticism, not least the mounting number of athletes—most Russian— who have been testing positive for meldonium. One critical issue: through the years, did Sharapova list meldonium on her various forms? Presumably this will come out at her hearing. If she did so, I think it mitigates guilt. If she didn’t, it suggests something more sinister. Not dispositive, but very important. Same with whether she sought a retroactive therapeutic use exemption.
• The commercial dimension to this is interesting. As I noted last week, Nike’s fast retreat was a forceful statement. Head’s vigorous advocacy—not often you see a corporate press release from a racket company reference dosages—was a forceful statement of another kind. Different companies have different risk thresholds and business justifications. But still, what a range of responses….
• The p.r. is a) a central part of this and b) kind of fascinating. In retrospect, one critical misstep, it seems to me, was Sharapova’s explanations of her ailments. Had she simply said, “I’ve been taking this for ten years for personal reasons,” she would have been within her rights. Her specificity left her vulnerable to attack and questioning. (“Wait, you have these concerning conditions and you’re taking this drug—unavailable in your chief country of residence—that other athletes are now likening to an over-the-counter vitamin?”) But this specificity also set a precedent for level of detail the public now expects from her.
• The personal animus has no place in the discussion. I applaud Kristina Mladenovic’s candor and she makes some valid points about spirit-of-the-law adherence and situational ethics and what legal scholars call “avoision.” She undercuts aforementioned good points when she talks about Sharapova’s perceived arrogance.
• There’s a balance between avoiding a whitewash and being reckless. We all want the truth to emerge. If any athletes undermined competition by doping (s)he should be penalized harshly and receive scorn from their colleagues, fans and sponsors. And the enablers should be shamed, too. But some of the emails and conversations I’ve had here veer dangerously close to defamation. And Rafael Nadal will enable us to see how far idle conjecture can go. You surely saw the former French sports minister accused him of doping. Either she has information no else does—which would be troubling in its own right. Or she’s mounting a character assault absent evidence. Not only has he vowed to sue but I’ve heard that the Nadal camp has already consulted the lawyer and begun the process. Along with the Sharapova case, this is one worth following.
I know you’ve talked about this in the past, but I still haven’t seen a real explanation for why the Indian Wells doubles draws are so good. This year you had Murray, Raonic-Isner, Nadal-Verdasco and Juan Martin del Potro.
—Your fan, Charles
• Thanks, Charles. As I write this, ironically, delPo is the only one who remains in the draw. Why do so many singles stars enter the doubles here? A few answers.
1) In this Olympic year, players from the same country are particularly likely to play together. (See DelPo and Leo Mayer, who might join forces to represent Argentina in Rio.)
2) On this first outdoor hardcourt event since Australia, players can accelerate their surface transition playing alongside a partner.
3) That this is a 12-day event—sometimes without back-to-back singles matches—makes the scheduling more agreeable.
4) Optimistically: perhaps a few stars feel that playing doubles is an expression of thanks to Larry Ellison for his largesse.
I heard you say on Tennis Channel that you think Victoria Azarenka will win another Major. Why do you keep going here when it's been so since she’s challenged? I have to ask, is it because she writes for Sports Illustrated.
—Carl, New York
• Yes! Exactly! Azarenka is a washed up hack. And if she didn’t occasionally write for si.com we could approach this with more clear-eyed perspective.
Seriously, Serena Williams is 34, Maria Sharapova is out of commission for the foreseeable future. Who is better positioned than Azarenka? She is 26. She has been No. 1. She bludgeons the ball. And best of all, she competes. She doesn’t always win, but she is not a head case. This week we’ve seen Madison Keys bow out meekly. We’ve seen Angie Kerber, fresh from winning the Australia Open, drop her first match. We’ve seen Garbine Muguruza tell her coach, during a match, that she did not want to be playing. Azarenka comes to play every night and her self-belief doesn’t waver. That seems to be half the battle in women’s tennis right now.
Simple question for you, Jon. Is Rafael Nadal the favorite at the French Open?
• No. Last year we kept saying that—no matter how grim his results heading into Paris—he was the favorite until he was beaten. Well, he was beaten. And now I think you have to consider Djokovic the favorite (though, of course, he’s never won the title.) Nadal’s record in Paris is incroyable, as they say. And note that I used present tense. It would be no surprise if he won yet again. But for now, the King has been deposed.
I am an avid listener of your Podcast. I recently enjoyed your interviews with Taylor Fritz and Noah Rubin (although one was a bit more talkative then the other). I am 19 years old and I love that there is a generation of young Americans rising up through the ranks. If possible I think you should get all of this promising young generation of American stars on your show over the next year. You have already got two of the Elite Eight down, you should also interview: Michael Mmoh, Tommy Paul, Reilly Opelka, Francis Tiafoe, Stefan Kozlov and Jared Donaldson. I believe that this generation of Americans will rise to the top levels of professional tennis and—similar to the great nineties generation—push each other even further to compete with the rising international stars such as Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Andrey Rublev, Hyeon Cheung and Elias Ymer. I like forward to next week’s podcast.
• Hey, thanks. Frances has already been put on notice. We’ll work our way down the list. Implied in your larger point: even discounting 20% or so for the inevitable hype, this group has triggered a lot of excitement and interest. Will they all become creditable pros—much less Grand Slam champs? Unlikely. But there are an awful lot of good players born within 18 months of each other
Nice interview with Beeg. Didn't "Winning Ugly" originally describe the '83 ChiSox under erstwhile East Bay resident genius Tony LaRussa? I'm over the Warriors right about now though they do have an amazing balance like the short lived Trailblazers run in the late 70s with The Red Head, Dr. Jack, Maurice Lucas, et. al. FiveThirtyEight has an underhand free-throw article so the second greatest Warrior (after Wilt) will probably earn some discussion. The PED test for Sharapova seems like a shot heard round the tennis world and more prominent than the illegal player wagering. LaRussa's A's and Balco definitely evoke PED stories by the Bay.
• Amen on your last point. The tremors are so much more intense, profound and frequent than those of other positives. The reality is that a star getting popped is an entirely different set of circumstances from a journeyman. We are really seeing an animation of the cliché: “It’s a star-driven sport.”
Regardless of guilt or innocence, this is a huge story with all sorts of angles. And it’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.
• Our most recent SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline Podcast was with Brad Gilbert and he was great.
• A lot of you wrote in about which two-handers hit the best one-handers. We note that Jack Sock hit a zinging one-handed winner in his match against Michael Berrer in Indian Wells. More than a few of you mentioned Tsonga. And Daniel Mundie noted: I recall Mikhail Youzhny, some (several)times hitting a two handed backhand, even though he predominantly hits a one-handed one.
• The 2016 College MatchDay series kicks off this Thursday when the No. 14 Texas A&M women visit No. 7 and defending NCAA champion Vanderbilt in Nashville at 5 p.m. ET. The match will be delivered on the SEC Network +, available through WatchESPN and the ESPN app, with USTA National Coach, Collegiate Tennis Stephen Amritraj and coach Mark Bey serving as on-air talent.
• Sam Lee has LLS: Djordje Djokovic (Serbian tennis player, younger brother of Novak) and Steve Alford (former Indiana University basketball player, Olympian, current UCLA coach)