Mailbag: Early upsets create golden opportunities for players at Rio 2016
- Analyzing the injuries and early upsets at Rio 2016, plus Juan Martin del Potro's backhand, mixed doubles and more.
Hey, everyone. Tethered to the TV wires, so a quick Mailbag, but here are some thoughts on Serena Williams and we’ll do an Olympic podcast on Wednesday wrapping up all the
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Meanwhile, some quick Q/A:
Hello Jon, allow me add this about the absent of several tennis players at Rio. Yes, Olympics really matter to USA, there are more than 400 American athletes giving their best here. Did you see the Opening Ceremony? Americans (the biggest team) were enjoying and having fun, that is the spirit. Money, points and Zika are not excuse for not participating. Too bad for those "absent" players, they missed a lot, I am not talking about just tennis. I saw Wozniacki, Nadal and Murray carrying their country’s flag, enjoying, proud, happy—such example that is what really matters!
—Magno, Santos, Brazil
• I’d caution against being too judgmental here. The Olympics mean different things to different athletes from different countries. We all make choices that might be right for ourselves but not be right for others. Let’s also pause and reflect on the logistics: expecting road-weary players to get from Canada to Rio and then back to Cincinnati within in two weeks—without the lure of ranking points or prize money—is the proverbial “big ask.”
That said, I do tend to agree with the reader and wonder how many tennis players who missed the Games will regret the choice—especially the ones who have never before been part of the experience. The Games are simply like no other tournament. You have the overlay of team and individual. You’re an envoy for your country. You’re part of something bigger. You see the archers and judokas and you realize how fortunate you are to live the sporting life you do. This is a special experience. And look no further than the tennis players’ reactions to defeat and victory in Rio to see this manifested.
Jon, I follow your columns almost religiously but you showed a complete lack of respect for Elina Svitolina but not giving her any credit. I usually count on you for a near neutral opinion but Serena Williams is not bigger than the sport of tennis.
To intimate that the glamour has gone from the competition shows you have no idea about how the world views tennis and Serena Williams. When is the sports media going to admit that for all of Serena's wins, she might possibly be the most polarizing player to ever pick up a racket—she's either loved or hated, with very few in the middle.
It would be nice to read about a match without the reporter falling back to saying a player was injured—sometimes players are just beaten. I will always be a loyal reader, Jon, but please let's have balanced commentary.
• This is always the push/pull when there’s an upset, right? How much of the result do you attribute to the underdog’s meeting of the moment? How much to the favorite’s drop-off from their customary levels? Sometimes it’s easy. Juan Martin del Potro clubs 29 forehand winners in a 7–6, 7–6 win over Djokovic and we know how to assess and apportion. Other times it’s harder. To what extent did Monica Puig play the match of her life on Tuesday, taking out the No. 3 seed? To what extent did Garbine Muguruza fail to show up, losing 6–1, 6–1 to a player ranked more than 30 spots lower?
Without diminishing Svitolina’s accomplishment and her refusal to fold, that match was much more about Serena Williams playing at a fraction of her level. The stat sheet suggests as much—not least eight double faults in nine service games. So does the naked eye. For whatever reason—nerves, a shoulder injury, fatigue—the player who took the court Tuesday was scarcely recognizable from the player who took the court Monday night, much less won Wimbledon last month.
Del Potro's defeat of Djokovic may have been one of the best forehand displays we have ever seen in a tennis match. Missile winners from everywhere on the court. But, given del Potro's surgeries on his injured left wrist, it was the depth and consistency of del Potro's backhand ground strokes that was also a key to victory. What perseverance by del Potro to come back from such debilitating injures to play at such a high level again. Inspirational to all.
• Absolutely. Here’s a theory that was floated here the other night: opponents are getting so concerned about hitting to del Potro’s backhand that it screws with their patterns and becomes their mental issue, not his. It’s almost like a boxer with a shaky left hand but the best right in the business. You get so concerned with exploiting the weakness and avoiding the strength that you are thrown from your fight plan.
Just a guess, but I bet you have listened to a podcast of Marc Maron's interview of Terry Gross, and if you haven't I can't recommend it highly enough. Here's my thought: I've enjoyed reading the Mailbag for many years and listening to "Beyond the Baseline" and would enjoy a future podcast in which you agree, a la TG, to take a seat in the interviewee's chair and submit to interrogation. If Maron is unavailable, perhaps Pesca would do the honors, or Terry Gross herself. If none of those heavy hitters can be roped in, I'd even be willing to do it myself. Regardless I'm certain your many fans would enjoy a glimpse at the man behind the curtain.
—Roger T. Jones, Waterbury Center, Vt.
• I prefer the other side of the curtain. (Though Pesca is a friend and we’ve broken audio bread together before.) I like your reference to Terry Gross and Marc Maron and encourage everyone to listen. What was interesting to me: sometimes the folks who are comfortable asking questions are thoroughly uncomfortable when the roles are reversed. And I’ve noticed that with athletes, it’s often the opposite. They are accustomed to furnishing answers. They are less skilled and experienced at summoning responses. This is true in the NBA, for sure. It’s true in football. (Who recalls Eric Dickerson as sideline reporter?) I also remember how John McEnroe—usually so insightful and full of opinion—struggled to host his own show.
I know you concentrate on singles in your reports, but I am hoping you will do more on doubles. I think the two biggest crowds for tennis that I have noticed on TV were two doubles matches: the Williams sisters match and Nadal's team vs. Del Potro's team.
Anyway, I think it is a shame that neither of the two most successful active mixed doubles players, Paes and Hingis, are entered in the mixed. I know Federer and Wawrinka are out, but couldn't Hingis find another Swiss male to partner with, such as Mirza did in women's doubles? And shouldn't the Indian team be Paes and Mirza, not Bopanna? Thanks for all your coverage.
—Russ, Los Angeles
• For all the dysfunctional federations, India’s might take the kalakand. We vow to discuss doubles more in the future. One quick point to stress: seedings and entries are calculated using singles rankings OR doubles rankings, whichever is higher. The Nadal/Muguruza mixed team, for instance, is seeded third because of their combined singles rankings. Likewise, Bopanna’s ranking is significantly higher than Paes’.
Random question to a question: to what/where does fine money go?
• They go into a fund for tennis development in underserved countries. In a few years we’ll hear: “He honed his game at the Nick Kyrgios junior facility in Djibouti.”
• Lost in the Olympics has been the play of Nick Kyrgios, your Atlanta winner, as well as 6’1” (and still growing) Reilly Opelka.
• Goran Ivanisevic, having parted with Marin Cilic, will now be working with Tomas Berdych.
• Another coaching change: Look for the Bryans to work with Dusan Vemic going forward.
• In a mild surprise, Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza are reportedly parting ways. Mirza will begin playing with Barbora Strycova. We hear that Coco Vandweghe is Hingis’ next partner.
• Love the retro use of social media:
• The Williams sisters’ huge upset in women’s doubles, and the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic’s major loss in men’s singles, certainly threw fans out of whack. However, it seems members of the UCLA tennis team expected it. An expert group of tennis players, all from the UCLA tennis team, formed a super swarm and pooled their knowledge to make predictions on the Olympic matches. They used UNU, an artificial intelligence based platform that allows groups to work together, in real time, leveraging human intuitions, emotions and sensibilities of individuals so they can reach conclusions that represent the group’s overall opinion. They predicted who would take home gold, silver and bronze for the men’s and women’s singles and doubles matches.
• Robert has this week’s Reader Rant: I completely agree with William Carson's rant, it's not they we don't love tennis, but we have to find a way to make it more interesting and unpredictable. It's like eliminating the three-point shot in basketball, the three-point shot adds "volatility" to the game. If we didn't have it, then there would be fewer upsets.
I think people are getting savvy to the fact that the string technology has fundamentally changed the game. Players have so much more control from the back of the court that it makes no sense to rush the net anymore, and this has been the reason why we see players succeed on clay and grass equally well.
Young players can't break through because the game is increasingly being built on endurance rather than reflexes. As points are longer and service breaks more common, that favors the top players, as "luck" has a lower chance of determining the outcome of a match. I am a huge tennis fan, but the game needs some changes. If we can't ban the rackets, at least speed up the playing surfaces.