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Mailbag: Why Federer is like the Golden State Warriors right now

Jon Wertheim answers reader questions about the Golden State Warriors, Federer, Djokovic and the GOAT debate, and more in his weekly Mailbag. 

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This is one of the great injustices of celebrity and it’s not limited to athletes. Unsavory stories get the prominent placement, the modern equivalent of the 40-point headlines. The retractions and corrections receive significantly smaller mention. So let’s do our part to offset this, clear the name of a Czech tennis player and note that:

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

Let’s do a fun comparison. Who is the GOAT between this year’s Warriors and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls? How do those two teams compare to, say, Federer’s GOAT candidacy versus Djokovic’s GOAT argument? 

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• “Apples and oranges” doesn't do justice to the fundamental differences here. It’s not simply because we’re talking about two sports; or team versus individual. Of the four “candidates” you mention, only the Bulls are in the past tense. If the Warriors don’t win the NBA title, their golden season is, of course, largely invalidated. If/when Federer were to win another major in his mid-30s, his GOAT credentials expand. Same for if/when Djokovic wins the Career Slam.

Still, you’re right that this is a fun comparison and discussion. I’m writing this on Wednesday morning, before we know whether Golden State breaks or ties the record. But I am still partial to the Bulls. In part because they won the title that season. In part because of Michael Jordan. In part because of the league was so much more physical. But let’s revisit after the playoffs.

In terms of the tennis comparison, Golden State reminds me of Federer. These Warriors are happy warriors, playing with smiles on their faces, enjoying the quest, winning over crowds and leavening the intensity of history with fun. As we said a few weeks ago, this team is a pleasure to watch and difficult to root against. Why? “They’re doing things we’ve never seen before.” “There’s no braying, swaggering confidence.” “They seem to take pleasure in the performance and artistry.” Tennis fans, of course, have heard these refrains before.

I was scanning the ATP doubles rankings and was surprised to see that Bob and Mike Bryan were ranked No. 6 and 7. I knew they haven’t won a major in a while but didn’t realize they had fallen that far. What’s going on there? Do you think they’re coming to the end of a great ride?
Bill, NorCal

• We can start by using the Federer/Nadal/Serena cut-and-paste. The great ones are always victim to their own success, prisoners to the standards they’ve set. Bob is 37. Mike is at least that old, too. They’re coming off a win in Houston, the 4,314th title of their career. (Actually it was the 110th). A ranking of 6/7 is nothing to sneeze at, no reason to cry into your ionized sports drinks. All in all, it doesn’t sound bad. But, yes, when you’re accustomed to winning multiple majors each year, this is a decline.

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What’s going on? Some of it is the irreversible onslaught of age. (“Fighting out of the blue corner, making his home in Monte Carlo and is still undefeated: Father Time!”) Some of this is the emergence of other excellent teams, not least Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares. Some of this is life: both twins are married. As a father of three, it’s easy to see how Bob Bryan might have his time and energy (and sleep) compromised.

As with the other great ones who aren't, perhaps, as great as they once were…we’re within our rights to note decline and ask what’s wrong. That’s part of the compact of being a sports fan. Still, bear in mind that decline is a relative term. (Even Nadal’s “disastrous 2015” was a gilded year by most players’ standards.) It also triggers our reminder: you write off athletes at your peril. Especially in this sport. If the Bryans won the French Open, for instance, it should not surprise us in the least.

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Isn't it interesting how the players in the "next generation" the ATP is pushing all play about the same game? Just look at the Top 10 men and you will see that they vary quite a bit. Gasquet is quite different to Djokovic, as Roger and Raonic are not even close to the same style. Of the young kids, I like Sasha Zverev of course. Something about him that oozes potential. His game is quite like Taylor Fritz, who plays quite a bit like Borna Coric...who plays like...  I watch the C-more tennis channel and in the early rounds you see these youngsters, 6’3” to 6’9” big serve, baseline penetrating game. No angles, no net play, many can't return well. Somehow I think that these will be the journey men of the future, while the guy who does it a little differently (Thiem, for example) will probably make it to the top 10. Who do you see as the next great hope of men’s tennis?
Patrick Kramer

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• Interesting question. I think we need to recalibrate “difference.” Thanks to everything from the diminishing differences among surfaces to equipment to strings, we’re not going to have the diversity of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But I don’t think anyone is confusing, say, Francis Tiafoe with Taylor with Sasha Zverev. I don't see Taylor Fritz and Coric as interchangeable. Tommy Paul does not remind me of Reilly Opelka.

I also think—and this is true of any competitive industry—that the style of one generation triggers innovation and change. If every car is built like X, they will be supplanted by the Y model. Put another way: the notion that pro tennis players are this monospecies is overstated and overrated.

Zverev is like the hot candidate for Congress who is being groomed by the party for the presidential run in four years. Clearly his talent is abundant. But—as long as you’re giving me the choice—I’ll go with Thiem. More data points. He’s already up to No. 14 in the world.

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Monte Carlo: 22 combined French and Spanish players including eight out 16 seeds. Zero combined Australian and American players.
J.B., Portland

• My defense, such as it is, is multi-pronged.

1) Monte Carlo is no longer mandatory.

2) From Jack Sock to Sloane Stephens to the teens, the Americans have acquitted themselves quite well overall on clay so far this year.

3) I am writing this on April 11. It’s an awfully big ask to expect players to spend six weeks an ocean away from home, living in hotels before the French Open even starts.

In last week's Mailbag, a reader made an observation about the critics of Federer and Djokovic who say they have no competition, instead of acknowledging that they are (or were) that much better than the rest of the field. Wasn't the same thing said about Sampras? There was an article, which I believe was written by your colleague S.L. Price, The Passion of Pete, that said, "Men's tennis is rightly believed as a vanilla universe of Sampras and a bunch of second raters." 

It just shows me that some people are never satisfied. When there is no dominant player, the critics lament that there is no true No. 1; when one player dominates, he or she has no competition.
Andrew Krouse, Hummelstown, Pa.

• As Rage Against the Machine once put it: “Now testify!” Andrew is right. This is one of the great bits of circular logic in sports.

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Tim Smyczek, Denis Kudla, and David Goffin are all superb “middleweight” players with no ostensible weakness.  All are also excellent athletes. In your analysis, why has Goffin risen to the top 20 while the others are playing challengers (primarily)? I don’t see any major differences in their games so I am turning to you for wisdom on this matter. 
Ben, Queens

• As it is written….Goffin doth discharge his duties little bit better than the aforementioned on most dimensions (a little better serve; maybe a little heavier strokes). And he has possesseth one of the mightiest and unswervingly accurate backhands in all the Kingdom of Tennis. And he runneth faster than Verizon Fios.

But your question is a good one. Why is Goffin a top 15 player while others of similar stature—and few material differences—are a tier down? Unlike other sports, you can’t really point to obvious empirical evidence or analytics. (He throws X miles-an-hour faster or he shoots X percent more accurately.) It underscores—cliché alert—the thinness of margins in this sport. It also underscores how success begets success, how confidence begets confidence. Not long ago, Goffin was playing at the level of Smyczek and Goffin. He wins some matches, moves up a caste, and gets the benefits of automatic entry and then seeding. And now he’s encroaching on the Top 10.

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I just watched Camila Giorgi play in the Katowice Open, and, with so many shots of her father, Sergio, on the broadcast I had to wonder: Has anything ever happened with his breached financial commitments concerning Camila's career? Is it possible she would get in any kind of trouble for that? What's the story with that father-daughter dynamic?
Dax, Indianapolis

• Funny you should ask. Giorgi—or, more accurately, her father—was in the news again this week for a dispute over finances. Money quote, so to speak: "We're waiting for them to pay up and they certainly won't, so at that point it's difficult to be in good standing with the people who you asked for help," Binaghi said. This echoes a theme sounded by many in this piece.

Has anything happened with the breached commitments? Put it this way: I am not aware of any of the sources I quoted being repaid. And I know that multiple legal actions are still pending.

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It’s all a pity. Giorgi is an immensely talented, immensely unpredictable and fun-to-watch player. Yet she is known as much for her arrears as her tennis. While she lost the Katowice final that Dax references, she has won a WTA title, almost two million in prize money and been in the top 30. Again and again, we hear that she is quiet and unassuming and the issue is her father. But she is 24 years old; at some point you need to take control of your career and reputation.

Not sure if it could ever happen since I know you all have hectic schedules (and I'm not sure if you would want to alter the one-on-one format), but a combo Podcast with you and Davenport and Mary Carillo would be phenomenal. 
Trent Miller, Indianapolis

• Total coincidence, two Indy questions in a row. Agree that Mary and Lindsay at once would be great fun. We’ll put the request out to their representatives.

Tennis podcast guest suggestion: @MonicaSeles10s please!

• Good one. Request submitted.

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Shots, Miscellany

• Here’s the most recent SI Tennis podcast. Andy Roddick was—no surprise—a consummate guest:

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• Bob Hewitt was expelled from the Tennis Hall of Fame last week.

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Press releasing: The USTA announced the tournaments for the 2016 USTA Pro Circuit Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge. Three women’s events will be hosted in Dothan, Ala., Charlottesville, Va., and Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., and three men’s events will take place in Sarasota, Fla., Savannah, Ga., and Tallahassee, Fla. The American player to accumulate the most points wins a spot in the main draw of the French Open.

• Some marginally good news for American players headed to Europe for claycourt season. One Euro is $1.14 today, a bit stronger than it was last year at this time. Still it’s a far cry from the days not long ago, when one Euro was worth in excess of $1.40—a reminder that currencies and exchange rates can have a big impact on players’ prize money.

Press releasing: The USTA announced that coed intramural and club tennis teams representing 64 colleges and universities across the country have qualified for the 2016 USTA Tennis On Campus National Championship. The event will be played at the Cary Tennis Park in Cary, N.C., April 14-16.  

• Jason Rainey has submissions for LLS: Sloane Stephens and How to Get Away with Murder actress Aja Naomi King