Mailbag: Closing thoughts on ATP Finals, plus research on retirements at Grand Slams

A reader presents data on the idea that tennis has never been more physically demanding, and that format changes are needed. Plus thoughts on the year-end No. 1 players.
Publish date:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Last week we offered optional homework and encouraged anyone with the time and data skills to confirm/refute the assertion that tennis has never been more physically demanding.*

Lots of gold stars to dispense—and we’ll keep on this—but Emmett Stanton is first to present his research. He sent along spreadsheets. He writes:

1. The average number of retirements in Slams per year has gone up, fairly consistently, with a few outliers. My question on those slams where there's a significant spike in retirements (Australian Open 2014, Wimbledon 2013, etc.) is if there's an additional circumstance, such as extreme heat or rain on the grass. If I had time, I'd reference the retirements by round (that data is in the spreadsheet) and see if those rounds were contested on especially hot days, rainy days, etc.

ATP announces 'Next Gen' finals for 21-and-under players

2. I did two distinct breakouts (easy to do, and I was curious):

Retirements by round (i.e. how many retirements happened each year in the first vs. second vs. third, etc., round of each Slam). This turned up the fact that retirements happen, by round, at roughly the rate of matches per round. So, 64 out of 127 matches at a Slam are in the first round, and just over 50% of retirements happen in the first round. Eight out of 127 matches are in the fourth round, and just shy of 6% of retirements happen in the fourth round. Those numbers were averaged out over the entire 25 year span, but if I were to do a next step, I'd see what the changes have been in five year increments. For example, an increase in first and second round retirements in the past 5-10 years would be in line with your theory about physically compromised players entering for the prize money with no expectation of winning a round.

Retirements by number of sets completed (i.e. did a player retire before a single set had been finished, say 2-2 in the first, or after one had been finished but not two, etc.). This was actually interesting and seems to somewhat bear out your theory about physically compromised players entering slams solely for the first round money. Since 2005, the average number of matches a year that end in a retirement without a set being completed has jumped from about one match per year to 2.5 matches a year. If I get a chance, I'll cross reference those retirements by the round. If the '0 sets completed' matches tend toward the first round, that would be a red flag.

Mailbag: Djokovic's spiritual coach and why Murray deserves to be No. 1

3. Beyond that, it's interesting to see which names cropped up a lot (i.e. who retires in Slams a lot).

(*And by extension that format changes need to be considered. It’s interesting to note that during last weekend ATP World Tour Finals in London, there was an announcement that in 2017 Milan would host a “Next Gen’ event, where seven 21-and-under players, and one Italian wild card will compete for $1 million. Buried in the release was this line: “The tournament will trial a number of rule changes and innovations, to be announced in due course, with a view to ensuring continued growth in popularity of men’s professional tennis.”)

On to some Q’s….


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Answer your own question, Jon! What’s the bigger surprise: Angelique Kerber as the WTA’s No. 1 or Andy Murray as the ATP’s No. 1?

• For context, we asked on Twitter, “What gets you crazier looks? Jan 15: "Angie Kerber will finish 2016 at No. 1" or June 15: "Andy Murray will finish 2016 at No. 1"

I think you have to go with Murray. In the case of the WTA, Serena Williams was obviously the preseason favorite, coming off a three-Slam year in 2015. Then again, she turned 35 this year and played only seven events total. You didn’t expect Sharapova to get the anti-doping pop. You didn't expect Azarenka to take pregnancy leave. But…Kerber as the year-end No. 1 is unexpected but not crazy.

No. 6 Karolina Pliskova parts with coach Jiri Vanek

While Murray was, of course, a two-time Slam winner and deserving No. 1, on June 1, he was practically playing a different sport from Novak Djokovic. Not only was Djoker about to win still another major—four in a row and, presumptively, the bigger hurdle in his Grand Slam quest—but he simply owned Murray. A tired match in Rome notwithstanding, ND had beaten AM 12 of the last 13 times they had met. (It would be 13/14 in the Roland Garros final.)

Huge credit to Murray for this takedown and his play overall in the second half of 2016. His defeat of Djokovic on Sunday in the final ATP singles matches was a fitting coda to the year. But Djokovic’s slippage from June 1 to the present is staggering as well.

Bemused that Milos Raonic is ranked No. 3, Mr. Wertheim. What has he done to get to this stage? General impressions are that 1. He is a serving robot; 2. Constantly injured; 3. Chokes in big finals; 4. Not consistent. And can other players learn from whatever he does?
M Ng, Vancouver where housing $$ coming down, Canada

• Well…How uncharacteristically uncharitable for a Canadian! The guy won more than 50 matches this year and reached the Wimbledon final. Clearly he did more than serve aces robotically/go to injury rehab/fail to close. But your larger point is fair. Raonic won only one title this year. (And that was the first week of the year—if he doesn’t defend, he could be No. 3 with zero titles to his name.) And, yes—the Wimbledon semi against Federer notwithstanding—you’d be hard-pressed to cite a standout match. And he did lose a lot of finals. But consistency counts for a lot.

Beyond the Baseline Podcast: USTA chairman, CEO and president Katrina Adams

Remember, too, that when two guys are clearly superior—obviously Murray and Djokovic here—it only leaves table scraps for the others. Two win 3/4 Slams and all but one Masters Series title and it stands to reason that the credentials for No. 3 might be thin.

Full disclosure: Raonic draws a lot of digs from you guys. And, as is the case with our reader, the word “robotic” comes in for frequent use. To me, though, Raonic is a great overachiever: modest juniors credentials. Not much raw athleticism. Not much dynamism to his game. But he is a real technician who treats “tennis maximization” as a problem to be solved. Hard to take issue with anyone so studiedly intent on improvement.

So when's the "Bruno Soares & Steve Darcis are actually the same person" discussion? Kept doing a double-take @ ATP Finals...

• Not bad. Not bad at all.

Does Serena Williams have it in her to win another Slam?
Steve N., Michigan

• Come on. Does Pitbull have it in him to pump his fist? Does Kate McKinnon have it in her to make us laugh, even in the face of these intensely not funny times? Does Steph Curry have it in him to score over a larger defender?

Serena Williams’s four majors for 2016: F/F/W/SF. And while she is closer to 40 than she is to 30—think about that one for a moment—the extra day off at majors is an equalizer.

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

I think I already know your answer but how do you think Genie Bouchard will fare in 2017 and beyond. As a Canadian, I hope she can turn things around but I suspect her Wimbledon final appearance was actually the anomaly. Her inconsistent serve and inability to channel an inner Nadal mental toughness will conspire against her going forward. Hope I'm wrong.
Neil Grammer, Toronto

• I always feel the need to stress one of the inherent virtues of tennis: it’s relatively easy to turn things around. Andre Agassi is playing the backcourt at challengers and working as his own ballboy; within a year, he’s in the top 10. Juan Martin del Potro is ranked outside the top 1,000 in February. He finishes the year top 40. Caroline Wozniacki’s game is in the commode; a strong fall and she might well get a top 16 seed for Australia. You get the point. All of this is to say: write off Bouchard at your peril.

That said, I fear that this is trending toward the territory of Ana Ivanovic (maybe a better example: Daniela Hantuchova?). Any player can endure a slump, especially when you’re dealing with a jarring level of scrutiny and expectation. But after a certain period of time, “slump” hardens into “new reality.” There are players who take so many losses, and get so emotionally hardened to defeat that they never regain the magic. Their eroded confidence never thickens. You fear that, after 30 months now of dismal results, Bouchard is nearing a point where she just doesn’t have the self-belief.

Should I invest in property in Puszczykowo, Poland? Is this a new tax-free haven for world No. 1 tennis players, perhaps the Monaco for the 21st century?
Cheers, Ken Wells, Tailem Bend, South Australia

• Stick with Canadian real estate.

Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Eugenie Bouchard talks offseason, Instagram, more

Shots, Miscellany

• For the first time in its 135 year history—and at an exception to the bylaws—Katrina Adams was given a second term as USTA president. Readers of this column know that we have concerns about what can be accomplished in any executive job when your term is only two years. So far as we’re concerned, this is a welcome development. Katrina was this week’s podcast guest.

• Next up: Jack Sock, after a week off for the Thanksgiving holiday.

In praise of Juan Martin del Potro.

• Congrats, Eton Sam Gewirtz (early favorite for the 2034 Junior Boy's Draw at Roland Garros). May this be the first of many Google hits.

R.I.P. Gardnar Mulloy.

• Press releasing: Monica Puig stunned Angelique Kerber—and the world—by winning the Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Her incredible achievement has been recognized by the Association of National Olympic Committees as one of the best of the Games The Puerto Rican, who won the first Olympic gold medal in her country's history, traveled to Doha, Qatar to receive the prestigious ANOC Award for Best Female Athlete at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The celebration was hosted by the International Olympic Committee. "A big, big thank you to Puerto Rico," she enthused on stage. "You guys have stood by me through the highs and the lows and thank you for always believing in me."

Djokovic suggests round-robin format for Olympics, Davis Cup

• More press releasing: Johanna Konta, the new World No. 10, Sloane Stephens, the 2016 Volvo Car Open champion and Elena Vesnina, the 2016 Volvo Car Open finalist and Olympic gold medalist, have all committed to play in the 2017 Volvo Car Open, April 1-9 on Daniel Island in Charleston, South Carolina. They join Former World No. 1’s Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, World No. 8 Madison Keys and Olympic Gold Medalist Monica Puig in the player field forming for the 45th year of the WTA premier tournament.

• Congrats to Denise Tyler—who does a terrific job running the press operations at Wimbledon—on winning the Bud Collins Award presented by the International Tennis Writers Association.

• Congrats, too, to Mike Dickson, winner of the Ron Bookman Media Excellence Award.

•  Michael Mmoh, 18, of Bradenton, Fla., has earned a berth into the main draw of the 2017 Australian Open by clinching the USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge. This will mark Mmoh’s first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw outside the United States.

• For the second year in a row, Karolina Pliskova's lethal serve lands her at the top of the WTA's ace leaders list. Pliskova finishes the year with 530 aces to her name, becoming the only player ever to do so (since the WTA began recording match stats in 2008).

Murray ends season as No. 1, beats Djokovic at ATP Finals

• This week’s reader riff comes from Duncan. It was clearly submitted before the London final, but I do think the premise holds: 

Hi Jon,As seen on your last Mailbag, I can't help thinking that Andy Murray isn't getting the credit he deserves for reaching No. 1 in the world. For some reason, everything he does is always filtered by “but Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are struggling,” something I've never seen when any other player reaches No. 1.

By the summer of 2013, Murray had won the Olympics (beating Federer in the final), the U.S. Open (beating Djokovic in the final) and Wimbledon (again beating Djokovic in the final). He looked well placed for an assault on the No. 1 spot and to go on and win many more majors. And then he had back surgery.

I may be wrong, but as Murray spent several months recuperating from his surgery, I don't recall anyone saying that Djokovic didn't deserve his ranking because one of his biggest rivals was incapacitated. As Murray's ranking tumbled while he struggled physically over the next couple of years and Djokovic pulled away, did anyone claim that Novak wasn't a worthy No. one?

What Murray has achieved is astonishing. He lost a couple of what should have been the best years of his career as he struggled with the effects of his surgery while Djokovic surged ahead, but despite this he has managed to drag himself back up the table to finally be able to state that he is the best player in the world… and yet this still isn't good enough for some people.

This season he has beaten both Djokovic and Nadal, won one Slam and reached the finals of two others. He won an Olympic gold (for which he received no ranking points) and six other tour-level events. This is despite a slow start to the season following the concerns over his father-in-law's health and the birth of his daughter.

Murray is a worthy world No. 1, as was Djokovic, as were Federer and Nadal, all of whom benefitted from their predecessors fading a little. Maybe it's time to appreciate his achievements instead of always knocking him.

 • Reader Berwin has (two) LLS for this week:

Ivo Karlovic/Daniel Day-Lewis

dr ivo day lewis.jpg

Juan Martin Del Potro/Damian Lewis (of Homeland fame)

damian del potro.jpg