Mailbag: How will Djokovic's Italian Open loss affect him at French Open?
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While wondering when Hollywood will go beyond McEnroe/Borg and Battle of the Sexes and also greenlight a tennis script based on the contemporary game…..
Programming note: a short Mailbag follows but check in later this week for a French Open preview podcast with tennis doyenne Lindsay Davenport. Starting next week, we’ll try and send daily dispatches from Paris.
Does Djokovic's loss to Murray at Rome release the pressure to win the French Open or send him into panic mode? Djoker's performance in the last two weeks has been shaky at best. How does all this play into his French Open must-win situation? Enjoy your column a lot and look forward to reading it every week.
• Thanks, I had the same thought. Djokovic likely wishes he were coming to Paris on a bit of a higher note. Apart from losing that Rome final to Murray, he dropped sets to Bellucci and Nishikori and allowed Nadal to play him closer than he had in recent memory. But it’s easy to spin this the other way. That is, Djokovic doesn't drowse his way into the one Major he’s never won. Rather, he comes in jolted—the cliché-dripping “wake-up call”—and, sensing his own mortality, is sharper and more focused.
We had many questions about Djokovic’s shaky (by his standards) clay court run-up and what this augurs for Roland Garros. I would say this: don’t discount the importance of best-of-five sets. Greater sample size. More opportunity to regress to the mean and all that. He is precisely the kind of player who benefits from the format. Not only does he bring his peerless fitness to bear, but he can ride out that 45-minute interval when his opponent gets hot.
No question the French Open got a bit more interesting these past few weeks. He may lack a fulltime coach, but Andy Murray has won three of his last five sets against Djokovic and last three of five against Nadal. Nevertheless Nadal is starting to look like his old self. (And unlike last year may get a top four seed if Federer withdraws.) Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios are here to stay. The defending champ, Stan Wawrinka, remains formidable. And still, I think it's a considerable upset if Djokovic doesn’t win this thing.
Hi Jon: Full disclosure: long time non-fan of Djokovic. But where's the fallout from him manhandling the umpire in Rome the other week? It's a violation of the rules that cover both the ATP and the WTA. What would have happened if Serena Williams had laid a finger on that foot-faulting lineswoman at the U.S. Open a few years back? Why no penalty for Djokovic? You can't shove the umpire's arm out of the way on court. And why no media call-out? It seemed like an especially sour act to me.
• It’s a fair point, though—and judge for yourself—I would hardly call this manhandling. This question goes to a tension in sports, we’ve discussed before: we want consistency in the way rules are applied. (Think about time violations.) But we also want to imbue officials with some discretion. What are the circumstances and context of the outburst? What is the intent? Here we have the world’s No.W1 player in a Masters Series final, played in a slight rain. He is clearly not happy with the decision, but he is in control of his emotions. It’s easy to see why the chair umpire would overlook this.
If we’re being honest here, reputations matter as well. Officials are human and it’s only reasonable that they bring prior knowledge and experience to the job. Accumulated good will matters. So does the opposite. When Djokovic makes physical contact with a linesman it’s perceived differently from when, say, Nick Kyrgios does.
My prediction for the French Open is that Serena will not have to play a top 10 seed in winning the title. Whatever happened to rivalries? I miss them so much in the women's game.
—Joe J, Easton, Pa.
• What is this term “rivalry” you reference? Rings a faint bell. You might be right about Serena. (You, of course, recall her run to the title in 2015 when her last two opponents were Timea Bacsinszky and Lucie Safarova.)
I would contend that Azarenka, a quasi-rival, could mount a challenge. But your point is well taken. It's easy to see the winner bushwhacking her way through a draw filled with upsets. And as this point, the WTA rankings don’t mean a whole lot. Right now the long-retired Flavia Pennetta still has a top ten ranking. Venus Williams, 9-6 on the year, will have a top ten seed and Petra Kvitova has played herself out of the top 10.
The old standby as far as Serena goes: At some level we can't have it both ways. Serena wouldn’t be Serena if she had a rivalry to rob her of some of her greatness and statistical dominance. But, yes, right now she can win most matches playing far from her best. It would be nice if she faced stiffer competition.
Hey Jon, love following your columns every week. Has anyone been noticing how Berdych and Ferrer, two top ten fixtures in the past few years, have slowly been dropping down the rankings? They were winning titles and making it far in big events last year. Now Ferrer is dropping out of the Top 10 (after 291 consecutive weeks) and Berdych got double bageled by Goffin in Rome. Thoughts?
—Vivek Tangudu, Houston
• Hey, Vivek. Ferrer is 34 and the fact that he’s still relevant—we’re surprised to see him drop to No. 12—is testament to his professionalism and sustained overachieving.
Berdych, “only” 30, is much more problematic. If he never wins a Slam, it will be a disappointment, but a digestible one given the era. For him to lose the way he has been playing lately, though? It verges on mystifying. The double bagel is clearly a brutal day of the office. But that was preceded by a route loss to Murray, a three-set defeat to qualifier Damir Dzumhur and multiple losses earlier this year to Kyrgios.
I can't help but wonder how the young guns—Zverev, Thiem, Kyrgios and the like—are doing in their early years compared to how Rafa and Roger did when they were 18, 19, 20 years old. Even if you exclude the Big Four as competition, it seems like those young guys have been less successful and consistent than the old legends were in their early years. Along those same lines, how do their records compare to the early records of Djokovic and Murray who took a bit longer to settle in as champions? Will the next big star(s) have to establish themselves early on in their careers like Roger and Rafa did? Or will they be able to work up to it more gradually?
• Nadal was winning majors as a teenager. But for an injury, he would have been the likely favorite at the 2004 French Open, when he was 17. As it was, he won the event in 2005, a few days after he turned 19. (His birthday is June 3.) Likewise we hear about the lumps Federer took early in his career and the years he required to “harness his talent” and “learn how to win.” Still, in the summer of 2003 when he won his first major, he was only 21. For comparison, that’s the same age Kyrgios is right now and a year younger than Thiem who, for all his talent and promise, has yet to make a major quarterfinal.
Some of this is the aging of the field and 30-is-the-new-20 and the full physical maturity required. But also bear in mind the “top heaviness” of the game. For a young player to break through it means thwarting some combination of Djokovic/Nadal/Federer/Murray/Wawrinka. For comparison, Nadal beat Mariano Puerta to win his first major and Federer beat Mark Philippoussis.
Why do you suppose that the WTA players seem to do better at the French Open as they get older? Serena, Sharapova, Graf and Evert have all won the French Open late in their careers. Does clay court tennis require more age and maturity for success as opposed to youth and strength? (Not that Serena is lacking any strength.)
—Bob Romero, Monee, Ill.
• Interesting question. We've come a long way from 1989 when the two winners (Michael Chang and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario) had a combined age of 35. Some of this follows the previous answer. If the best players are older, it’s not really surface specific; it’s just the overall trend. But, intuitively, I think you’re right: clay demands a certain patience and equanimity that favors the mature.
My partner and I are so excited to have a Grand Slam upon us. Give me a dark horse, male and female, to watch at the French Open.
—Christine, New York
• Jelena Ostapenko and Lucas Pouille.
• Our most recent SI Tennis Beyond the Baseline Podcast guest, Gerry Marzorati, talks about his book, “Late to the Ball.”
• We’ll preview the French Open in podcast form with Lindsay Davenport later this week.
• Here’s some French Open television coverage guide.
• French Open suicide pool, enter here.
• French Open pull-outs as of Wednesday: Sharapova, Wozniacki, Bencic.
• Tennis Canada encourages kids to find their moment.
• Here’s the Shia Labeouf tennis movie.
• Meanwhile the Battle of the Sexes movie with Emma Stone and Steve Carrell is filming at the Fox lot in L.A. No joke: the tennis consultant is Vince Spadea.
• Press releasing: The ATP today announced enhancements to the 2017 grass-court swing in the lead-up to The Championships at Wimbledon, with the inclusion of a new ATP World Tour 250 event in Antalya, Turkey. The Kaya Group and GD Tennis Academy will organize the tournament with the support of the Turkish Tennis Federation from June 25 to July 1, 2017. Seven grass courts will be constructed under the expert guidance of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon.
• The USTA has named long-time retail marketing expert Amy Choyne USTA Chief Marketing Officer. Choyne will begin in the position on May 31 and will report to USTA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Gordon Smith.
• Ken Wells, Elliston, South Australia has LLS:
Hungary's top female tennis player and East Germany's top figure skater: Timea Babos and Katarina Witt