Mailbag: What to expect from the ATP's quest for the next generation of stars
- A look at the ATP after today's great stars move on, more commentary on Nick Kyrgios and his suspension, what's going on with Novak Djokovic and more.
Hope everyone is well. Quickly:
• Round of applause for the WTA. So far (it’s Tuesday night for me) the Singapore event has been thoroughly entertaining, featuring top-shelf tennis and a mid-match haircut. This without Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka in the field.
• The most recent podcast guest: Mischa Zverev who was terrific.
• Next podcast guest: Torben Ulrich, just your everyday poet/artist/writer, who reached the semis of three majors, holds the record as oldest Davis Cup player and once backed up Louis Armstrong on clarinet.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Hi Jon: Just when we were despairing over the decline of our heroes Rog and Rafa, suddenly two new stars have emerged who I think will keep us entertained for many years to come. I personally think Lucas is a little in front of Sasha but both should share a bit of serious silverware really soon. How soon do you think they will take over? Cheers!
—Patrick Kramer, sunny Oslo
• Patrick of sunny Oslo is referring, of course, to Lucas Pouille and Sascha Zverev. I might pump the brakes on anointing any two players the successors to Federer and Nadal. But your question references a point that ought to be made and stressed: the next few years will be marked by the ATP’s version of Star Search, a quest for the next great players. Federer and Nadal may or may not win again. Djokovic and Murray turn 30 next year. Wawrinka is already there. There will, almost inevitably, be a star vacuum, a NBA-after-Magic/Bird/Jordan-phase. Ratings will likely decline. Attendance might as well. There will likely be high-stakes matches pitting players unfamiliar. There will be calls—and they be successful—to tinker with the format and add some wrinkles.
But then, it will change. Like nature, sports abhors a vacuum. We will fix our gazes on the present, not nostalgically on the past. The hard-core fans will be fascinated seeing who ascends. How long can the Big Five hold on? Will del Potro win another major at an advanced chronological age but a moderate tennis age, given how much time he’s missed? Will Zverev or Pouille or Thiem fulfill potential? Will young Kyrgios get his head together? Will any of the young Americans pan out? Will a middle-aged player like Nishikori or Raonic or even Dimitrov “pull a Kerber” and enjoy a late-career breakthrough?
There will be a top ranking. They will still hold the majors. There will still be “silverware” as Patrick puts it. There will still be upsets and comebacks and signature wins. Rivals will emerge. And soon will fix our collective eye on the present and future; not the past.
I have a suggestion regarding the long calendar and the anti-climatic feeling after the U.S. Open: Remove the Paris Masters and, to mitigate the loss to Paris, alternate the World Tour Finals between London and Paris. This should be a relatively modest sacrifice for both cities, since they already have Slams. And there is already a precedent for an alternating tournament (Toronto and Montreal). What do you think?
—AM, San Diego, Calif.
• Not bad, in broad strokes. I’m not sure the finances work out, at least not under the current contract. The London promoters are paying big money for the right to hold their event in London and carve their deals in London. Obviously the whole agreement would have to be renegotiated if the event toggled from London to Paris.
The idea of splitting a franchise has been raised before. Hell, in the NBA, the Kings once split their time between Kansas City and Omaha.
I think it's one of those ideas that sounds better in theory in practice. The selling point is that you are including two markets. The flip side: neither market feels totally invested.
To ask a stupid question regarding tanking by Nick (and others in the past) why don't players just fake an injury or illness and walk to the net and shake hands instead? Presumably the prize money and points is the same for a forfeit or a loss, so why continue to play if you've already decided not to try?
—Michelle, Brisbane, Australia
• No stupid questions here. And you’re right. If you’re going to throw a match or give less than best efforts, why wouldn’t you simply fake an injury? I’m not saying there’s a ton of honor in that either. But it does seem more palatable than blatantly going through the motions, doesn’t it?
Dear Jon, Why does Kyrgios get more hate from tennis fans and the media compared to say Tomic, Paire or Fognini? All tank way more than Kyrgios does and Fognini has had incidents where he's stuck a finger up at the crowd, threatened umpires verbally and called his opponents gypsies. Do you think that more people hate on Kyrgios because of his potential to do great things? He's top 15 in the world and won Tokyo before the Shanghai incident, basically doing well despite only trying 50% of the time, are people frustrated by him not fulfilling his potential? Do you also think that people see Nick as a threat to their favs, unlike Tomic and Fognini?
• We need metrics for tanking. Sharko, get on that! It’s funny—as you can see below, there’ a real split. Some of you think Kyrgios is getting off too easy and kid gloves are applied since he is a promising star. Others are convinced he is being targeted unfairly. I don't think it’s an either/or. Kyrgios is a budding star whose ranking (13) is less than his age (21) and he already reached the quarters of two majors. Not surprisingly he comes in for more scrutiny than, say, Benoit Paire.
At the same time, Kyrgios’ displays have been more concentrated and more blatant, starting with the Stan Wawrinka disgrace. It stands to reason that he receive more “hate” from fans.
The hope of course is that this is a phase and this is all chalked up to youthful transgressions. Kyrgios grows up a little. The tennis establishment gets a bit more comfortable with a player whose m.o. is completely sui generis. (Mischa Zverev’s “tortured genius” analysis was really quite strong, I thought.)
And maybe we all look back on this, the way we look back on Agassi’s Lost Years.
Do ATP suspensions apply to participation in Grand Slams, Davis Cup, and the Olympics? Or just ATP controlled tournaments?
• From the ATP: “Only ATP Tour and Challengers are included in our power for suspensions. The Grand Slams and/or ITF would have to take action separately.”
Hopefully, next summer will be my first time abroad and I'm looking at Paris during the French Open. I know getting tickets to majors can be complicated and in some cases come down to luck, but what are the best ways? Mostly in regards to getting center court tickets.
• I try to stay out of the ticket game. But my sense is that good seats are available. I have friends who have found seats online quite easily. I have friends who have used the scalpers near the Porte d’Auteuil metro station. I say just go and don’t sweat the tickets. All-time worst case scenario: you’re still in Paris.
Does Djokovic ever get nominated for the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award? I haven't gone further back, but he was not nominated the past two years, while the other members of the Big Four were. Kind of makes you wonder why his peers are not nominating him?
—Nancy Ng, Montreal, Canada
• The polls are rigged! Seriously, I’ve wondered this, too. I’m happy if the ATP wants to float players for MVP or Comeback Player of the Year. The choices usually come accompanied by the empirical justification anyway. But how are the “Sportsmanship Award” candidates being chosen? It often comes away feeling like a pretext for “fan favorites.” For the record Djokovic is on the ballot this year along with a dozen other colleagues, including the other Big Five. But I have no idea why some players are included and others aren’t. Lucas Pouille made the cut but, say, Dominic Thiem did not? Whatever….
I noticed you don’t talk much about Aga Radwanska. Have you given up? Or is she still the Best Player Never To Have Won a Major, in your book?
—Charles, Los Angeles
• The Poles are rigged! I like Radwanska and enjoy watching her witty brand of tennis. But she’s 28. She hasn’t been to a major final in almost five years. And she is still prone to being hit off the court. Disciplined, unsentimental investor that I am, I think it’s time to sell a bit.
As a fan of yours, I was disappointed to read your reaction to the light penalty Nick Kyrgios got for throwing his recent match. His acts were so “antisocial and such an act of self-sabotage” that they called for particular sensitivity? What a crock of psychobabble. A multiple repeat offender essentially gave a stiff middle finger to paying tennis fans and for his disrespect received a suspension for a period of time when he probably wasn’t going to play anyway. Boy, that will teach him!!
How about this? Give him appropriate consequences for his bad behavior by suspending him from playing in all of the majors next year. Those tournaments don’t need him; it will affect him; and to the extent he wants to rehabilitate his reputation he can do so in the minor tournaments that could use his star power.
Having said that, if I ever start a bar fight while in the throes of a self-destructive, antisocial, drunken rage, I want you to be my judge and jury.
—Chris Bode, Scottsdale, Ariz.
• Humble-brag: last weekend, I actually met the met the man who coined the term psychobabble. That is a contributor to the culture.
Anyway, it’s funny but I thought I had a fairly even-handed response to Kyrgios. The ATP had to do something. Yet Kyrgios’s mental state and fatigue seemed to be more at play than real malice on his part. So the ATP punished him while offering a chance at commutation. “The suspension will be reduced to three tournament weeks upon agreement that the player enters a plan of care under the direction of a Sports Psychologist, or an equivalent plan approved by ATP.” Uncommonly sensible for tennis.
I know the sports media is often accused of being jaded and resentful of athletes. For me—at least in tennis—it’s the opposite. The players are yanked all over the world. It’s a brutal sport mentally. In the absence of a union, there is little regard for their health (and mental health) and safety. Outside the top 20, there’s a real drop-off in economics. And yet the overwhelming majority of the players are good, decent, approachable folks.
I've been watching highlights of the WTA stops in Asia and this week in Moscow and have to ask how these tournaments are liquid. There seem to be only a handful of people in stands for the early rounds and not many more for the finals. Moscow is even turning out the lights in the stands.
As a sponsor, I wouldn't be super excited about giving my money for some signage and a shout out during the trophy presentation. Any insights as to how healthy the fall swing of the WTA is?
—Steve in Dallas, Tx.
• Some dirty secrets to air: A) Everyone wants a beachhead in Asia and China in particular. Everyone sees the demographic potential. But the attendance suggests that we have a long way to go. Pam Shriver recently tweeted a photo of Nadal playing in front of a crowd that would disappoint a high school tennis team. This has to be addressed before we—and I include myself—talk seriously about moving more big events to China. B) When governments get involved in the funding of events, it changes the economics. This is a complaint of U.S. promoters and it has some merit. That is: “I’m not bidding against another promoter. I’m bidding against the deep pockets of a national sports ministry. C) Media rights—and to a lesser extent, sponsorship rights—are the lifeblood of an event, not the ticket sales. If you have media partners (and costs are being defrayed by the sports ministry) you can run a profitable event regardless of attendance.
Long a we’re here….here’s a sponsorship question that was posed to me during the U.S. Open. I would love it if a marketing type could weigh in. I have a friend who bought a scandalously overpriced bottle of water at the U.S. Open, provided by the tournament’s water sponsor, and wondered if this wasn’t backfiring. “It’s like having a Mercedes on the grounds with a sticker price of four times what the car would cost at a dealership. The difference is that I don’t need a Mercedes the way I need water. I pay $4.50 for a bottle of water that costs $1 at my bodega and I never want to buy that brand again. How is that a good sponsorship play?” He got me. If anyone has thoughts, fire away.
I'm sure I won't be the only one asking this, but WTHIGOW Novak Djokovic? I wonder if he's approaching a Jim-Courier-reading-Armistead-Maupin stage. I wonder if his heart and head are in the game anymore, and if they will be again. Maybe he's developing and growing as a person (which is commendable), but at the expense of his tennis. Thoughts?
—Srikanth, Washington, D.C.
• I’d like to know what impact Jim had on the sales of Armistead Maupin. Inspired choice. The ATP is missing a revenue opportunity by not formalizing a “Tennis Changeover Book Club.”
A favorite player refrain lately: “I’m not a robot/I’m not a machine.” And this is another example. Competing in an individual sport is brutal.
A friend and former player made this point to me the other day: “The behavior of Kyrgios underscores how tough champions like Serena are. He played one good week, took a title, and couldn't possibly summon all the effort required to back it up the following week.”
I’d say the same for Djokovic. Look at how players struggle put together two good weeks and his 2015 becomes even more comical, his 2016 looks more normal.
• One of our favorite readers compares the Al Smith dinner to the Agassi/Sampras “Hit for Haiti” night.
• Thought this was interesting. Here’s Svetlana Kuznetsova on Sharapova: “I think in general it doesn't matter for Maria if she has her colleague's support or not. She fights for her rights, and doing everything right. That's my point to this situation. Of course, the opponents are not waiting for her come back, because she can beat them. As always, one strong opponent less, and all are happy. Some girls have some kind of envy that she is famous, but also earns more. One of my friends told me yesterday, this is the most stupid feeling: envy will give you nothing good, but only take all your light and peace. So ... It's great when people eager to do what they like.”
• After two WTA titles in the past month, Caroline Wozniacki has committed to play in the 2017 Volvo Car Open, April 1-10 in Charleston, S.C. This will be her fifth time competing in Charleston, where she won the title in 2011.
• This week's LLS comes our friend Helen of Philly: Not siblings exactly, and specific to Philly, but every time I see Doug Pederson on the local news, I'm reminded of a young Andy Roddick. Roddick can blame this on the folly of youth, but I'm not sure what Pederson's excuse is.
• Dale Stafford has this week’s reader riff: I write with a couple of comments about Roger Federer’s racket.
I’ve been disappointed with my choice of frame for some time. Too long, in fact. So I began the journey of selecting another frame. I’ve never been quite as satisfied as I was with Wilson sticks (sorry for the promotion), so returned to the family. I tried out every frame they developed over the last three years, and in the process eventually spent a few hours with Federer’s frame, the Pro Staff RF. Now, a bit of backspin: I do NOT contend that Roger Federer is Roger Federer because of the frame that he uses. I’m sure he’d be dazzling with a broomstick. But at the margins, the frames matter. Some of the skills that define Roger Federer are made easier by his choice of weapon. For example, if you want to be able to hit a slice backhand that smokes as it comes off your racket….a slice that feels as heavy to your opponent as any flat drive…one that you can drive long and heavy and hot and feels to your opponent like he is lifting a barbell when he deadlifts it back over the net…then buy this racket. If you also want to be able to hit the classic Roger-slice that, the one that is short, choppy, even cloying…that one that skids through no man’s land and presents to an opponent like a pop quiz on his willingness to volley….then run, don’t walk, to your nearest retailer. The point is, in trying this racket I was reminded how much a frame matters (at the margins) in defining what is easier to do (and harder to do) with a tennis ball.
The second insight from spending time with this racket is how heavy it is, and that over the course of a long match, this must surely matter. My forearm was sore the next day after spending just an hour with this frame. By the end of the hour, I found it harder to make the subtle adjustments with my wrist required to get over the top of the ball, especially on the backhand side. I know, I know…who the frick am I to compare my pedestrian abilities to the transcendent incantations cast by the Herr Doktor. Nevertheless, I submit this must also affect Federer in the back end of a match. Sure, he has adjusted to this frame. But saying that it doesn’t matter would be like saying that Andy Murray is completely inured to five-hour matches and so he’s the same Andy Murray in hour five as in hour one.
The moral of the story…we don’t talk enough about why players choose the equipment they do. Perhaps a different way to say it, we don’t talk enough about how people play the game, and the implications for the equipment they select in support of their style. It’s not for nothing that nobody is hitting one-handed topspin backhands with the Babolat Drive frames.