Mailbag: Who has the best chance of winning a Grand Slam title in 2017?

Besides Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, which players have a chance to emerge as a Grand Slam champion in 2017? Plus, a look at the impact of tennis economics on career length.
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Man, a lot has changed since last week. And we’re not talking about Milos Raonic’s return to health or Belinda Bencic’s new agreement with IMG. In a spirit of healing, let’s start with three causes to promote and support:

1) Paul Tuozzolo, a sergeant and 19-year veteran with the NYPD, was killed last week in the line of duty. His wife Lisa has been a longtime member of the U.S. Open Officials crew, serving, among other roles, as point person for the uniforms. A contingent from the USTA attended a wake and funeral last week. The Sergeant’s Benevolent Association has set up a Go Fund Me page, which is accepting donations for a scholarship fund for Paul and Lisa’s two young children. Go here to contribute.

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2) Chris Wallace, a former ATP employee, is now with the Prudential Center and—partnering with the Covenant House and the New Jersey Devils—is spending a night sleeping on the streets to experience the same as two million kids in this city. He is trying to raise $5,000 in the process. Click here to donate.

3) This is for the family of a longtime friend, whom I suspect some of you know. 

On to tennis talk, which has, at once, never seemed so trivial and yet so comforting.


How you think Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro will do in 2017? I think apart from French Open that both of them will contend in other three majors. And both beat Andy and Novak this season in big matches as well. As long as Delpo stays injury free and Cilic stays in-form, both can be dangers in the Slams next year.
Darren Walker, London

• We talked about this a bit last week. I still think it’s the Big Four/Five and then a loooong escalator ride down to the next level. Put it this way: if we work on the assumption that Murray-Djokovic are a duopoly, who are your next two picks to win majors? Late blooming Stan Wawrinka perhaps, who, of course, won the previous major and is a big game player; though he suffers a lot of bad losses (see below) and turns 32. After that? I’m taking Federer at Wimbledon and Nadal in Paris.

Del Potro is next on my list. In 2016, he’s beaten Djokovic, Nadal, Wawrinka and Murray. And he’s won a major before, though it was (gulp) more than seven years ago. Then again, does he have the durability to win seven best-of-five matches given all he’s been through? Cilic might next, though, again consistency has not been a strong suit—the 2014 U.S. Open notwithstanding. For so many players the Big Four/Five bloc is, at once, this unmovable object and this unstoppable force. They will play out their career as fine, well-paid players; but ones wishing they didn't have the misfortune of laboring during this top-heavy era. They see this monolith at the top and, to borrow from Calvin Harris, say to themselves: “You are the one thing in my way.”

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Dear Jon, in your opinion, who has better shot at completing the singles' career Slam: Stan Wawrinka or Andy Murray? And on the women's side: Who might have the best chance at completing the singles' career Slam?
Thanks, Henry

• Good question. Ironically perhaps, Wawrinka is closer, only needing one Wimbledon to complete the box set. (“Only” in quotes.) Murray has had the more decorated career overall, but has won neither the French nor the Aussie. Still, I'd say Murray—who’s reached the final in Melbourne and Paris—over Stan, who has never really mastered grass.

On the women’s side, I’d say Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Oh, wait, you mean of players who have yet to achieve this? Boy, that’s tough. I guess Kerber would be the pick, given that she’s halfway home and has a well-rounded game.

Given that the age it takes for a tennis player just make it into “break even” financial territory has significantly increased, and are thus playing at a loss for a greater period of time, what sort of impact do you think this has had on players potentially more talented, but unable to throw money hand over fist at their career for a prolonged period the way some better funded athletes are?
Jesse, Darwin. Australia

• Funny, I was just having the opposite discussion with someone: does the fact that players can now earn a living deep into their 30s change the economics of being a tennis player? I’ll say this: given the extended career length—and the fact that you no longer need to arrive as a teenager—I can’t grasp why players would turn down a year of college tennis. It’s a free insurance policy; and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it won’t stall your progress.

Stan is a big match player. The problem lies in getting to the big match.
James, Portland

• I wouldn’t disagree with that. Wawrinka is another one of these guys who throws the consistency of the Big Four into vivid relief. Winning Slams is hard. But you know what else is hard? Winning week in, week out. Figuring out ways to advance even when you’re not playing your best. Avoiding bad losses. Djokovic’s 2011 and 2015. Nadal’s 2010. Federer’s 2003-07.

What do the following having in common: Jan-Lennard Struff, Gilles Simon, Grigor Dimitrov, Mischa Zverev, Sascha Zverev, Fernando Verdasco, No. 114-ranked Juan Monaco, Andrey Kuznetsov? Each scored a win over Wawrinka in 2016. This isn’t meant to knock Stanimal, who had a terrific year, winning a major and likely finishing at No. 3. But it goes to shows the risible consistency of the Big Three.

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Big fan of the Mailbag and podcast. Still trying to mentally digest the Ulrich episode.New thought:While I'm on the fence, I understand your preference to reduce or eliminate best of five. But, I've never seen any data on the question. I think two basic questions are:

a. How many times does best of five change the outcome of a match that would have been observed if it was instead best of three?

b. Of those instances, how often does the higher-ranked player win? I would guess more than 50% (higher N, less probability of an upset), but how much more? If one of the goals of best of five is to reduce upsets, would be interesting to see how effective the format is. (Would also be interesting to look at differences across the Slams.)
Thanks! Troy

• I repeat my plea: if someone with the statistical abilities has the time, I will provide payment in kind. We need data to support/refute the notion that injuries and withdrawals are surging and that we need to reconsider best-of-five. It’s a trickier undertaking than you might think. We need to control for all sorts of variables. (What do we do about matches in which the a player is completely compromised and simply there to collect the first round loser’s check?) Still, it would help to have some empirical backing.

I am a week behind in my reading of your column, so this is a bit of a late observation. I got to thinking about your comment regarding the relationship between Mischa and Sascha Zverev and in particular this: The older brother is a journeyman; the younger brother is a star with wings. Their age difference is almost a full decade. And yet they’re still close.

From my perspective, the things that quite understandably appear to be barriers to a close bond might actually be key factors in the bond. It relates to birth order and sibling rivalry. A man usurped by his younger sibling is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedies. There appears to be some of this kind of tension in the Murray brothers’ relationship, Andy clearly outperforming his slightly elder sibling. If the siblings’ pursuit of a similar goal overlaps, there can be intense rivalry; if one is far superior than the other at the time, this can also contribute to high tension. The fact that the elder brother had an opportunity to try to be a star with wings before the younger brother demonstrated greater capacity allowed.
Jason Bauche

• Hey, thanks. There’s a fair amount of research w/r/t birth order. Often it’s the youngest sibling who fares the best. This stands to reason: the older siblings are the proverbial canaries in the coalmines, the guinea pigs . Families learn from their mistakes—training, financial, philosophical—and the youngest siblings benefit from this accumulated wisdom.

Credit reader Scott G. who offers Mike Maddux and Greg Maddux as an example. Both pitchers. They are nearly five years apart. The older sibling went 39-37 for his career. The younger one? A shoo-in Hall of Famer who won 355 games. Duff Jordan writes, “Best I could do was Frank and Joe Torre. “

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Thanks for the Alison Riske podcast. It's a pity that it isn't easy in this country to market her as a mass-market role model. Tennis does have a problem in that respect, 41st best women's tennis player in the world is very, very, very good, but in a wider world they tend to be regarded as also-rans.  
Rahul, Brooklyn 

• Regional tours is the answer. Divide the world in three regions. Players come together for the big, mixed-gendered soirees. Otherwise the players stay regional. It’s an easier sell with sponsors that may have money to spend but aren’t interested in a global play. It’s easier for television and media partners. It’s easier in terms of travel expenses. And, yes, it's a chance to mint more stars. Sports fans to tend to be provincial. If Alison Riske, since you brought up the name, were playing in front of predominantly American audiences, she would be immensely more popular. Same for, say, Kristina Mladenovic in Europe or Shuai Zhang in Asia.

How come you’re always writing about Kyrgios and not Tomic? No, not from a behavioral standpoint. From a tennis standpoint. You always mention Kyrgios as someone you think can be champion. Why not Tomic, who has also been in the top 20 and gone deep in Slams? What do you have against his game?
Jeff, Brooklyn

• Kyrgios is a vastly superior player. He’s younger and has already surpassed Tomic’s ranking and achievements. More power, more weapons, way more athleticism. (Tomic? That guy is slower than academic publishing. You Just Got Ginsburned!) Is it possible that Tomic is both an underachiever and an overachiever? His works ethic, his level of professionalism, his decision-making ….all leave something to be desired. At the same time, how does a player of such a) stinting athleticism and b) generous family psychodrama become a top 20 player?

Shots, Miscellany

• This week’s podcast: Jamie Lisanti fills in capably and talks with Genie Bouchard.

• A few of you asked about the sports-and-autism piece I did in conjunction with 60 Minutes Sports. Here it is.

• Venus and Serena Williams opened a community center in Compton.

• The USTA announced a multi-year agreement with PepsiCo, making the food and beverage company an Official Sponsor of the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.

• Kayla Day, 17, of Santa Barbara, Calif., has earned a berth into the main draw of the 2017 Australian Open after clinching the USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge this weekend. This will mark Day’s first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw outside the United States.

Tennis Hall of Fame member Gardnar Mulloy dies at 102

• At the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Final, the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) honored former French Fed Cup standout Nathalie Tauziat with the 2016 Fed Cup Award of Excellence.

• The USTA announced the top American collegians selected to represent the U.S. in the annual Master’U BNP Paribas International Collegiate Team Competition December 1-4 in Marcq-en-Baroeul, France. Two-time USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Champion Francesca Di Lorenzo (Soph., Ohio State; New Albany, Ohio); top-ranked collegiate singles player Hayley Carter (Sr., North Carolina; Hilton Head Island, S.C.), and Riviera/ITA All-American Championships finalist Ena Shibahara (Fr., UCLA; Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.) will compete on the women’s side, while No. 5-ranked collegiate singles player Christopher Eubanks (Jr., Georgia Tech; Atlanta); No. 6 Tom Fawcett (Jr., Stanford; Winnetka, Ill.) and two-time All-Big Ten selection Strong Kirchheimer (Sr., Northwestern; Cary, N.C.) will compete for the men.

• This week’s reader riff comes from Bruce Goldstein, PTR Professional: In your Mailbag article on the Nov. 9, there was a question as to why Nadal hasn't replicated his serve of 2010. There is precedent for baseliners who ramp up their serves for periods of time to back off the pace after a time. In the prime of his career Borg served noticeably harder than other times. Guillermo Vilas is another example of a player who increased his service speed for a short period then reverted to his previous power level. 

If serving for power is not a natural part of someone's tennis makeup, the effort to maintain a higher power level is a constant challenge, technically, physically and mentally and the players above were most often good enough to win without the additional power.  In addition all these players played a good bit on clay and found the extra power not to be as effective as on hard courts, so the effort to serve bigger brought diminished returns and they worked less on their service speed.