Jon Wertheim answers reader questions about Indian Wells, Novak Djokovic's equal pay comments, Taylor Fritz, Serena Williams's loss in Miami and more in his weekly Mailbag.
Get all of Jon Wertheim’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
So to recap 2016 thus far: Australian Open coverage was largely about match fixing in tennis. Indians Wells kicks off with one of the highest profile tennis stars admitting to taking a banned substance and failing mandatory testing. Not to be outdone, a former French tennis official, without merit or substance, accuses Rafa of doping. Then on the morning of the Indian Wells (5th slam!) final, the tournament CEO makes public statements so sexist, demeaning and derogatory, they would make Bobby Riggs blush. As an added bonus, the No. 1 men's player suggests that tournaments should not pay equal prize money to women, because the men's game is more popular.
I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln's famous “House Divided” speech. Thoughts?
—Aaron Mayfield, Chicago
• See, Aaron, if you’d only waited a few days you could have included the murder investigation (!) of an ATP coach.
Some of you have (cynically) suggested that any publicity is good publicity. This may not have been the ideal set of circumstances; but when else is tennis making the cover of the New York Post in January? If Novak Djokovic simply wins Indian Wells, it’s a pleasant, unsurprising result. If he wins and then makes a p.r. blunder, it’s worldwide news.
I’m not quite there yet. This year has been, well, unseemly, so far. We always knew that the sport was, collectively, nuts. But it was mostly in a crazy uncle kind of way. The doping and match-fixing and alleged ties to organized crime—to say nothing of murder—introduces a much darker and sinister branch of the family.
I put Ray Moore and the equal prize money controversy in a different category. Instead of “House Divided” I’m going e pluribus unum here. A (the?) great strength of pro tennis is the collective, the ability to accommodate so many. Men, women. Teenagers and fortysomethings. Players built like linebackers and players built like NBA center and players built like accountants. (See David Goffin discussion below). Players from six continents in the top 10 over the past year. (Get your act together, Antarctica!) Words and policies that erode unity are to the detriment of the sport.
Typing this right after Svetlana Kuznetsova's upset of Serena in Miami. While the head-to-head still favors Serena, it seems like after Azarenka, Kuznetsova is the player that seems to give Serena that most problems. Many matches have gone three sets and on the way to her French Open title she took Serena out. What is intriguing is that while Top 10 players like Sharapova, Radwanska and others have trouble winning a set over Serena, Kuznetsova (while a two-time Grand Slam champ) has been out of the top 10 most of the decade. What is it about her game that troubles Serena, and more mystifying, why does it seem that Kuznetsova has trouble applying this to the rest of the field?
—Bob Richter, Green Bay, Wisc.
• Kuznetsova is absolutely maddening as a player—and to her credit, she admits as much. She hits with power and she can defend. She has talent at the net. Even in her 30s, in terms of athleticism, she’s in the top quartile of the top 50. And her results approximate Lombard Street. Some days she beats Serena; other days she loses to players outside the top 100. To me your second question is more mystifying. I can think of various reasons she can beat Serena—especially on a day when Serena is struggling to find the court. What I can’t fathom: how has such a talented player taken so many brutal losses.
On Twitter, following the Monday match, we had a spirited debate about Kuznetsova’s chances at the Hall of Fame. I say she’s in. Two majors + longevity + doubles success + pleasant personality = nod.
I found myself in this conversation:
Jane: If women fought for equal pay, shouldn't they also be fighting to play five sets at slams? Otherwise aren't we demonstrating the soft bigotry of low expectations?
Jeremy: Some players probably are fighting for it. I'm guessing it's the financial institutions (TV networks for instance) that stand in their way.
Jane: Okay, then. Which players?
Jeremy: I'll ask Jon... Wertheim... The SI writer... Who we occasionally see when TSN airs the Tennis Channel...
So! 1. Have current WTA players called for five-setters? 2. Why aren't there five-setters in the women's slams (even if just in the finals)?
—Jeremy Thomas of Calgary (again)
• This is the great red herring. (Trivia break: how did red herring get its name?)
a) NO ONE should be playing best-of-five until the second week of a major. “The sport has never been more physical,” we are told ad nauseum. Few fans are demanding four and five hours of one match. It’s a brutal television proposition. This is akin to four-hour movies or multi-day cricket contests or 20-round fights in boxing.
b) Duration does not equal quality. I would rather see Pearl Jam play one note than, say, Steve Miller play an all-nighter. We don’t pay for movies based on their length. In many pursuits—think combat sports—there’s more value in brevity.
c) It’s entirely possible that women will do as much labor—hitting as many shots—playing as many games in a best-of-three match than men in a best-of-five.
d) Best-of-five, of course, is only the rule at the majors. It still wouldn’t solve the issue at joint events like Indian Wells and Miami.
Go ahead and challenge the fairness of men splitting prize money 50/50 when their product is valued more highly. (Again, I say it’s a losing, short-sighted proposition). But resting your argument on sets played is a non-starter.
Am I the only one who knew the ATP and WTA played with different tennis balls? How different are they? In what way?
• Here’s Gayle Bradshaw, the ATP’s Executive Vice President, Rules & Competition: In non-scientific terms:
Although on hard courts they are referred to as the “Women’s” ball, it is actually a “Regular Duty” ball with the “Extra Duty” ball used for men’s matches. For the men, a regular duty ball is used on clay and the extra duty is used for hard courts while the women use the regular duty ball on all surfaces.
The feel of the regular duty ball versus the extra duty ball is that it is lighter and more lively (faster) whereas the extra duty ball has a heavier feel. However, the weight of both balls must fall within the same range to be approved (56.0 – 59.4 grams). The size, rebound, forward deformation, return deformation all have the same tolerances for each ball.
I think the difference in feel is caused mainly by the felt. The felt on the extra duty ball is different from the regular duty ball so that it can better withstand the friction of a hard textured surface.
Dear Jon, as a long-time reader I am happy that you don’t disappoint with your stance on equal pay. If moral grounds is enough of a reason for you to support equal pay, that is good enough an explanation for me to continue reading your columns without immediate boycott. My beef is with Mr. Djokovic. Since he believes that prize money should be “fairly distributed” based on “who attracts more attention, spectators and who sells more tickets,” I would like to know where does he draw the proverbial line? Why not put a figure above the heads of every individual player? Delpo winning the U.S. Open is worthy of X dollars in prize money, but Federer winning the same tournament is deserving of X plus another ten million in prize money. In the hypothetical future, I hope Mr. Djokovic beats Andy Murray in a Wimbledon final only to be awarded the same amount in prize money as the losing finalist. It only makes sense.
• I want to pause and cut Djokovic a little bit of slack here. His response was regrettable in the extreme. But a) he was coming off the court after a title and—surely unaware of the full extent of the cause celebre that had been brewing—was caught flat-footed. B) I credit him with recognizing as much and having the decency/courage to meet with Billie Jean King and Chris Evert in the days that followed. C) A lot of you chastised me for not going after Chris Evert for her unfortunate comment that cultural differences accounted for Djokovic’s position. I see how many of you were offended and saw her statement as jingoistic. But I do think her larger point is worth considering. That is, sometimes more sensitivity is in order. If you’re speaking in your second language and not accustomed to the vocabulary and phrasing of sensitive issues, it’s easy to see how remarks meant innocuously can quickly go sideways.
Your other point is very well taken. If we’re going to talk about which tour is worth more and pay out prize money pro rata, why stop there. When, say, Djokovic played Bjorn Fratangelo in Indian Wells, I suspect 99% of the fans were there to watch the world No. 1. He was driving the tickets and television coverage. Yet he and Fratangelo were competing for the same prize money. If we’re going to start compensating based strictly on the market, the stars should be getting an entirely different wage scale throughout an event.
Since when did tennis writers become anti-capitalist? The criticism of Djokovic for suggesting that prize money consider market factors is ridiculous. All athletes in all sports are paid based on various market conditions. There is nothing wrong with his suggestion, even if reasonable people can disagree. The inference that Novak’s comments were sexist, as suggested by quite a few prominent tennis writers, is not just unfortunate, but suggests that any opposition to the “equal pay view” is not a debate reasonable people can have, which is disturbing. Let’s be clear: it is not sexist to suggest markets dictate who gets paid what.
Tennis fans deserve better than Moore, but tennis readers deserve better as well.
—Joe J, Toronto, ON
• See above. You’re right: we can have a reasonable debate about whether men and women should be paid equally when their tours are valued differently. I’d like to think my argument FOR equal prize money is based largely in capitalism, too. The business of tennis is better served by equal wages. The alienation and bad publicity is not worth the tradeoff. Plus parity is advisable re: the inevitable day when the market swings and the women are valued more than the men.
But when you start talking about “hormones” you have surrendered your boarding pass.
During the past week and a half, several young players made significant strides in their development. Borna Coric, Sasha Zverev, Frances Tiafoe—among others—looked like they were ready to make a run up the rankings. A year ago Thanasi Kokkinakis was thought to be part of that next generation. What happened to him? Can we consider his stalled career to be collateral damage from the Kyrgios-Wawrinka dust-up?
—Judy Adams, L.A.
• Thus spoke Sharko: Kokkinakis underwent right shoulder surgery in December and has not played this season. Here’s a piece from Down Under that just came out on him.
A fellow New Yorker chiming in. Thinking Taylor Fritz is a throw all your money in buy! Does he remind you of a young Novak? Bigger serve, but otherwise a similar game. Steady groundstrokes and a very good return of serve. Doesn't give much ground. Mentally he seems very far along, just watched him finish up Bolelli. No excitement after getting the first break in the second set. Just went back to work. Had absolutely no trouble in the rest of his service games and continued to play at a high level. When he served out the match, wasn't trying to finish a match, putting a lot of thought into each serve and winning each point. He could be a multi Grand Slam winner. One negative: not physically there yet. This one isn't hype (I sincerely hope).
• This is my great internal conflict in miniature. You want to resist hype and burdening kids with great expectations (“a young Novak” is a hell of a standard.) At the same time, part of the fun of being a fan—and journalist—is prognosticating and buying low with hopes of selling high. So, yes, it’s hard not to be impressed by Fritz. A very complete game. Competitive resolve. A pro’s body—especially when he adds 10 more pounds or so.
We can have a longer discussion here at another time but what do we make of the fact that his family’s fortune does not depend on his success? Plenty of examples from both sides. When you’re Sharapova or the Williams sisters—I’ve always contended that they are more kindred spirits than the frosty relationship suggests—and your success had the potential to transform your family’s lifestyle, it can imbue you with a certain intensity. Yet when you’re Federer or Nadal and can play without worrying about how your family is surviving absent your prize money, is it not liberating?
How often does a player with a title in the current season enter a qualifying draw?
—James B., Portland
• I suspect James is referring to Francesca Schiavone who qualified for Miami. We note that she is, of course, a Grand Slam champ as well.
So, am I the only person to find it hilarious that it was the ATP's Feminist in Chief who blew a fuse because he accidentally played a couple of points with a women's ball?
—Gilbert Benoît, Ottawa, Ontario
• Gilbert refers to Andy Murray and this. And speaking of titles:
Have we reached the point at which regular readers of this column should consider David Goffin the ATP’s new Chief Maximizing Officer? Lately, I’ve found myself experiencing the same quiet admiration and rooting interest once reserved for David Ferrer during Goffin’s matches. Surely I’m not alone here, right?
—John Dugan, Memphis, Tenn.
• You are not. Good call.
Would it be funny or offensive to name my fantasy football team "Ladies Know What I'm Talking About"?
—Jim Savage, Orlando, Fla.
• Close call. We need to expend a challenge and consult Hawk-Eye as to whether that crosses the line.
• For the New York crowd: I’ll be speaking at “In Your Face New York” at Symphony Space next week. Patricia Marx, New Yorker humorist, hosts.
• Tweet of the Week goes to @ajlobster:
• The Library of America is publishing the book, String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis, with Introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan on May 10, 2016.
• Here’s a podcast on The String Theory.
• The best deal in tennis is/are the practice courts.
• Here’s Marina Hyde on Novak Djokovic.
• The real Rick: If you want to get depressed about what Del Potro was and could've been, this is a sad reminder:
• Photos: President Obama takes the tennis court.
• ITF President David Haggerty announced today that long-serving ITF Chief Operating Officer Juan Margets will be leaving the ITF at the end of 2016.
• In honor of Bud Collins. What is it about sportscasters and attire?
• The Sit-Down with Mahesh Bhupathi.
• Lights, camera, action meets game, set, match, when film buffs and sports fans gather for a packed weekend of sports documentaries and programming hosted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. The inaugural newportFILM SPORTS film festival is set for April 29 - May 1, 2016. newportFILM SPORTS is a joint venture between newportFILM and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
• Here’s Marian Hyde with a takedown of Sharapova Inc.
• As it celebrates its 10th year of coverage from the grounds of Roland Garros (commonly known as the French Open) May 22-June 5, Tennis Channel will be the sole cable, satellite and telco provider of on-air matches during tennis' most prestigious clay-court competition, and its greatest digital provider. Approximately 80% of all live, televised French Open competition will be exclusive to the network as it adds match blocks that it had sublicensed for the first nine years of its rights agreement with the tournament, one of the sport's four majors; an agreement in effect through 2023.
• The USTA announced that the USTA Pro Circuit is launching the USTA Pro Circuit Collegiate Series, a circuit of more than 10 tournaments held on or near college campuses nationwide to provide a platform for college players to gain pro experience, transition to the pro ranks and the chance to collect valuable ATP or WTA ranking points.
• I liked this Serena Williams op-ed on the Miami Open.
• But how could it go unrevealed or unremarked upon that this embattled event is owned by IMG, the same entity that represents Serena? This would be like Kevin Durant writing a favorable review of a controversial Jay-Z album.
• Jason Rainey of Texas has LLS: I hesitate to submit these...well, for so many reasons, but every time I see Andreas Seppi, I think of Eric Trump, The Donald's son.