Mailbag: Does Olympic tennis help or hurt the sport's growth?
Before we get to some quick Q/A, some housekeeping…1) Last week’s podcast: Outtakes with Serena Williams. 2) This week’s podcast is with CoCo Vandeweghe. 3) We’ll try and do an Olympics tennis preview before Rio. 4) Note that Tennis Channel is crushing it—as the fleek kids say—at the Citi Open this week.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Regarding your tweet about the enthusiasm gap for the players between golf and tennis at the Olympics, I think you can’t discuss this issue without also noting this weekend’s Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and Serbia is occurring without Djokovic and Murray. While the ostensible goal of adding a sport to the Olympics is to grow the game, Olympic tennis has clearly done so at the expense of other events, and you have to wonder if it’s growing the game or merely shifting interest from other events?
When McIlroy and Spieth decline to play in Rio, it’s met with a collective yawn by golf fans, because we know that both of them will be at Hazeltine this fall for the Ryder Cup. As a golf fan, I find the Ryder Cup format unique and immensely more compelling than the medal play format the Olympics will use (which incidentally makes it identical to every PGA Tour event that occurs every week). Sure, I would like to see the top players in Rio, but not at the expense of the many excellent competitions that already occur.
Like the Ryder Cup, the Davis Cup presents a unique format that is different from what we are accustomed to seeing every week on the ATP/WTA tours. While tennis may be thriving at the Olympics, maybe it’s worth considering if that’s been good for the sport as a whole?
• I do think Steve raises a good point: commitment to the Olympics means “de-commitment” elsewhere, whether it’s Davis Cup or summer tournaments. Still, I would contend that it’s not a zero-sum. Tennis is stronger for having the Olympics; the Olympics is stronger for having tennis.
While the ITF fiddles, Davis Cup and Fed Cup burn. This scenario animates the business maxim: “If you hate change, wait till you try irrelevance.” With staggering intransigence, the organizers have chosen to make few material changes to Davis Cup in particular, a potentially dynamic competition with a deeply flawed structure and schedule. One result: among most countries —and among most players— it’s fallen in prestige. Another result: the Olympics have replaced it as the foremost international competition. If Davis Cup had the gravitas (and relatively minor commitment) of Ryder Cup, I suspect tennis players would resemble Spieth and McIlroy in their indifference.
This is probably not feasible but I'd love to see a “match of the day” bonus for losing players. (Think UFC "fight of the night")
• Match of the day. Comeback of the day. Submission of the day. I love this idea. The cynic (and behavioral economist) will come up with ways this will inevitably be corrupted and manipulated. Subjective bonuses are inherently fraught. But this is a great idea. It adds a level of intrigue and engagement. It rewards a player like Bjorn Fratangelo (Indian Wells v. Djokovic) or a Christina McHale (Wimbledon v. Serena) for a close-but-not-quite effort or a rousing comeback. It puts some money in the pocket of a player who could use it. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the phrase “gamification techniques” lately, I could fund this bonus. Like this idea a lot.
After Novak Djokovic was beaten in the third round at Wimbledon, he made a statement at his post-match interview that confused me. He said something to the effect he didn't want to dwell on his failures...but he had won four (Slams) in two different seasons.
Am I missing something? He only won the French Open once. What constitutes a season? January through December? If so, no way he did win four in that time period twice. Not only did I hear him say this in his interview but saw it in print. No one questioned it but perhaps it just went over their heads.
—Carolyn Christ, Las Cruces, N.M.
• I assume that means he’d won four straight majors, the first two in 2015 and the latter two of 2016.
Curious about your thoughts on David Goffin. Can he win Slams or is he just a good player?
• He’s a bit like David Ferrer with a software upgrade and a better backhand. Le Goff is a pro’s pro and a talent maximizer who makes you beat him. At the same time, in most matches he’s going to be punching above his weight. Can he win a major during the era of the Big Four? Not likely—the same way it hasn’t happened for Ferrer. Can it work out in four years, when Djokovic and Murray are 33 and Goffin is still in his 20s? Maybe.
I, like many others, am very impressed with Serena’s Wimbledon success. But what impresses me most is the fact that she rarely plays any other grass tournaments. In fact, in most years, Wimbledon is the only grass tournament she plays each year, yet she holds seven singles titles, six doubles titles, and a mixed-doubles title at Wimbledon. Are there other players who have managed that much success on a specific surface with limited or no warm-up tournaments to acclimate to the surface?
—Dayo H., Cordova, Tenn.
• I’m not sure that’s what ought to impress you most. But your point is well taken. As in the past, Serena played no warm-ups on grass this year. (Trivia: in many years she’s prepared by playing on the grass courts belonging to….Jack Nicklaus.) Serena’s game is so well suited to grass, it’s not as though it takes a lot of adjustment. At 34—and closing in on twenty Wimbledon appearances—she knows the surface and the courts. (Bear in mind: she also knows she’s only likely to play on one of two courts.) At this stage, she’s better off practicing for a major, than playing a tune-up.
You touch upon innovations in tennis from time to time. Has anyone in tennis ever tried a "jump serve" in tennis, to copy the mechanics of a jump serve in volleyball? (It would seem that the location for striking the ball would have a devastating effect on the angle where the ball would bounce in the receiver's court.) I was once told that such a serve would be illegal in tennis, but I do not see any provisions in the rules that would forbid it. It would seem that a (tall) tennis player with some dexterity could train him/herself to use the same motion as a jump serve in volleyball, with devastating effect. The Fosbury Flop for serving in tennis.
—Jim Yrkoski, Silver Creek, Neb.
• I recall this guy, Brian Battistone, from a few years back:
And check this out:
I like your larger point: is there room in tennis for a completely different approach, an (cliché alert) outside the box execution?
What do you make of the fact that top singles players like Serena and Venus can waltz away with the doubles title whenever they choose to play? Does that make them special, or are we over-rating doubles specialists like Santina?
—Ashok Korwar, Pune, India
• For the record, what a disappointment that Venus and Serena didn’t play Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza in the final. They could have come out to Limp Bizkit lyrics and made plans to see American Pie afterwards.
Anyway, I think your analysis is way too harsh. First, we’re talking about Venus and Serena Williams here, the two best players over the last quarter century. We’re also talking about an established team that has won 14 majors dating back more than 15 years. If two other random top singles players—say, Angie Kerber and Petra Kvitova—made a shotgun lefty marriage and went on to “waltz away” with the doubles title, it would be one thing. But I think we need to give Williams-Williams more credit, both individually and as established brand.
I believe the Murray Wimbledon victory is the first Grand Slam win since Gaston Gaudio (French Open, 2004) where the winner didn’t play Fed, Rafa, or Novak at some point in the tournament. Hope all is well.
—George McCabe, New York
• What about Federer at the 2009 French? Martin, Acasuso, Mathieu, Haas, Monfils, Delpo, and Soderling in the final. If you’re talking about players other than Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, I believe you are right. Then again, we’re only talking about—get this—seven of the last 46 majors.
I was surprised to hear you and Jim Courier talk on Tennis Channel about Brian Baker and whether or not he deserved to play in Olympics. Here’s my question: as Davis Cup captain, couldn’t Courier just refuse to name him to the team?
—Todd, Los Angeles
• As I recall, we were both neutral on the issue, simply pointing out the incongruity. At the time, Baker had not won an ATP match in 2016 (he did pick up a win in Newport) and had a points ranking deep into triple-figures. Yet because of his injury-protected ranking—which, of course, he earned—he found himself eligible for a spot on the Olympic team. I could argue this either way, and I don’t think there’s as easy answer. But ultimately it was Baker’s decision to make and he chose to avail himself. For the record, too, Jay Berger will be the U.S. Olympic coach, not Courier.
Hi Jon, I was hoping that in your next Mailbag you would make mention of the lovely but mysterious Patty Schnyder, who made her WTA main draw comeback at age 37 at Gstaad this week, with a close loss to Siniakova. Hopefully we'll see more of her. And that reminds me, any recent intel on Nicole Vaidisova's comeback? There was a lot of hype last year and then it fizzled out.
—Shannon, Baltimore, Md.
• Absolutely. Good for the “lovely but mysterious” Patty Schnyder, one of the true tennis eccentrics. (We mean that in a good way.) One of you alerted me to the match and I was trying to follow on my phone. At one point Schnyder was up a set and 4-2. Apart from being born after Schnyder started her pro career, Siniakova is a nice player. (Nice doubles player, too.) That’s not a bad loss at all.
As for Vaidisova—who is a full decade younger than Schnyder—she was playing pro matches as recently as May, but her agent claims that her comeback bid has ended.
• Pick the Ultimate U.S. Open champion.
• Nick of Irving has LLS: Carlos Moya and John Corbett from My Big Fat Greek Wedding:
• Young American CiCi Bellis leads the women’s standings in the USTA Pro Circuit’s 2016 U.S. Open Wild Card Challenge, as the race for a women’s main draw wild card into the U.S. Open finished its first week with the University of the Pacific $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit Challenger in Stockton, Calif. Bellis reached the semifinals in Stockton, while former college standouts Jamie Loeb and Robin Anderson reached the quarterfinals and are tied for second place in the challenge.
Play continues this week with the $50,000 FSP Gold River Women’s Challenger in Sacramento, Calif., the second of three women’s events. The men’s wild card challenge kicks off this week with the Levene Gouldin & Thompson Tennis Challenger, a $50,000 Challenger in Binghamton, N.Y.
• Rohit notes: Very glad to see Safin inducted into the Hall of Fame. I will admit that, as impressed as I am with his career, he did underachieve a bit. However, his two Grand Slam triumphs were incredible. I noticed that he had the unique challenge of having to defeat home players in the finals to win his two majors (Hewitt in Australia in 2005 and Sampras in the U.S. in 2000.) He's in very special company; only Federer, Vilas, and Wilander also defeated two home players in major finals. The leader of the pack in this category, however, is Edberg who's beaten three home players to win slams (Cash in Australia; Courier and Sampras in the U.S.). It probably didn't hurt that he was a thoroughly un-booable guy, even for partisan fans around the world.
• The telecast of the Wimbledon 2016 Ladies’ final—which also includes the Williams sisters winning the Ladies’ Doubles Championship—earned a 1.1 U.S. rating, representing an average of 1,604,000 viewers (P2+) according to Nielsen, making it the highest-rated and most-viewed Ladies’ Championship telecast since 2012, when ESPN began airing the match. Ratings are up 9% over last year and viewership is up 12% (1.0; 1,428,000). Compared to 2014, ratings are up over 110% and viewership is up over 125% (0.5; 704,000). The Gentlemen’s Championship match telecast of No. 2 Andy Murray and Canadian Milos Raonic came in with a 1.2 rating and 1,791,000 viewers.
• This week’s reader-ranter is Chris Brown of San Francisco: Hi Jon, Over the years, Andy Murray has really earned my fandom. I think he’s a tremendous person and a fantastic tennis player. Discussions of him so often mention his place in the Big 4. For context and perspective, it’s interesting to note some comparisons to Pete Sampras: Murray has a slightly higher career winning percentage, one more Master’s titles, and both an Olympic Gold and a French Open final that Sampras never achieved. And Murray’s certainly not done yet. We’re talking about a downright incredible player who would almost certainly be No. 1 in another era but whose accomplishments have been blunted by the bad luck of going up against three (three!) of the greatest in the game, ever.
Now, of course one might say that this very misfortune is what’s driven him to achieve at such a great level. But the Sampras comparison does put a different shine on his career thus far. I just had to speak up for my boy Andy. While I’m at it, what a time in the game! Serena Williams is probably the best women’s player of all time, and the Bryan Brothers are the most accomplished men’s doubles team ever. It’s an embarrassment of riches for us fans. But it won’t last forever; all of the above are 29 or older. Let’s be grateful for what we’re seeing in today’s game.