Mailbag: What should we expect from Sharapova post-suspension?

Will Maria Sharapova come back in fighting shape from her drug suspension? Would it be smart for tennis to make changes to its scoring system to speed up matches? And is the Djokovic-Becker pairing truly the best coach-player combo ever?
Publish date:

Crazy week, so let’s go speed round and cruise through some questions.

When her doping penalty expires, Maria Sharapova is scheduled to return to tennis this spring. How do you see her comeback going?
Michael L., New York

• Funny, I talked about this with guest Pam Shriver on the podcast this week. Sharapova turns 30 right around the time she returns. Usually tennis comebacks—whether from injury, maternity, emotional R/R or anti-doping—fall into the unremarkable category. Players haven't entirely lost their edge and can still hit the ball; they still notch some decent wins or make a deep run. But they don’t quite return to where they once belonged. Just run through the list. Occasionally there’s a dazzling comeback story: Kim Clijsters returning to win Majors or Juan Martin del Potro playing top-five tennis during the second half of 2016. But most returns fall into the “pleasant but unthreatening” variety.

But my prediction for Sharapova: no mediocrity. This is one pole or the other. She’s either winning trophies or the magic is gone. She’s been staying in shape, and the time off might be a blessing in disguise. Ferociously competitive to begin with, she won’t lack for motivation. She will see the faces of the tribunal members on each ball she strikes. With her tormentor, Serena Williams, now 35 years old and a soft pocket at the top of the WTA rankings—if Sharapova and Angelique Kerber played 10 matches on a variety of surfaces next week, might there be a 5–5 split?—opportunity is there

On the other hand, what has this time off done to Sharapova’s timing and resolve and rhythms? What are her reserves of confidence after such an unpleasant, humiliating event? What’s the status of her team dynamic after such a costly administrative lapse? Will her colleagues’ collective schadenfreude dull or charge her motivation? If she takes a few losses, does she start thinking about the next phase of life?

All of which is to say: I could see her as a Grand Slam champion by year’s end. (If she were to win the French, her first Major back, would it surprise? Not me.) I can see her retiring at year’s end. I can’t see her at No. 13 with a string of quarterfinal runs. It should be gripping theater no matter what.

American Voices: 18-year-old Michael Mmoh aims for breakthrough in 2017

Honestly, what is the point in changing the scoring for matches? Making a four-game set or [introducing] a "shot clock" isn't enough to entice TV networks to broadcast matches because it isn't substantially changing the amount of match time. Besides, it's not like tournaments play one match a day. The starting rounds of majors and masters events have over ten matches a day to be played, so it's not like a channel like ESPN could possibly broadcast tennis for six or seven hours. Scoring changes will mess with the traditions of the sport, and also entice no additional attention to viewers.
Vivek, Houston

• I love tennis. It’s one of my true passions. I’m fortunate enough to make it part of my job. I’m deeply interested in the players, the competition, the context. And I struggle to sit through a four-hour match. My kids and their friends? Even the ones who are casual fans? No chance. The phones would be out by second changeover. I have another friend who is hardcore. His policy: He won’t start watching pro tennis until it’s six games into the set. He figures that if it’s 6–0 or 5–1, it’s not worth watching. If it’s 4–2 or 3–3 ... well, now the tension begins.

Apart from the fans (and the presentation), reducing duration will preserve players’ health. We’ve spent enough bandwidth discussing injuries and the authorities’ callous indifference to the parade of the wounded. But suffice to say four-game sets would be easier on the body. Shorter matches —with something approaching time certainty—will be better for the television and media. And shorter matches mean that more players (and doubles) can be featured. Sometimes less really is more.

Training with Jack Sock: The No. 23-ranked American is going back to the basics

Am missing your tennis Hall of Famers chats. Are there any players you would like to see entered who are eligible but haven't been invited yet? Also, while there have been more umpires clamping down on time between points, surely the biggest problem is the long momentum-shifting toilet break?
Alex, London

• The bathroom break is like the school hall pass. You’re not sure if Madison or Taylor or any of the other voguishly-named kids really has to pee, or if they’re using the hall pass for less wholesome purposes. But do really you want to be the teacher that plays skeptic?

As for the Hall of Fame (the other hall pass!): Usually we talk about having too many enshrines, not those missing. Let me give that some thought. I’m open to suggestions. My instinct: It would come from the non-player category—types like Howard Brody.

It's been some time I've written into the mailbag, but today's was especially good, so it sparked some thoughts. You mentioned that the [Novak] Djokovic-[Boris] Becker coaching marriage was the most successful. I'm not arguing, but Djokovic had already won six slams prior to joining up with Becker. That's kind of like Barry Switzer's Super Bowl title with a Cowboys team that had already won two titles, no? Isn't the [Ivan] Lendl-[Andy] Murray union more impressive in that ALL of Murray's Slams have been won with Lendl, and Lendl was the one instrumental in really assisting Murray in breaking through to become a Slam champion?
Jay Zavislak

• The is always the skepticism, right? Phil Jackson coaches Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant? Hell, roll out the balls and remember the key to the locker room, and a monkey could coach them to 60 wins. I agree that coaching Novak Djokovic—at age 26; when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are in relative decline— is not exactly buying low. Still, I give Becker a lot of credit.

You’re right, though, about Lendl-Murray. In effect, the data speaks for itself. Many of us applauded the open-mindedness of the Amelie Mauresmo hiring. But if you look at her as a “control group”—what happens when the controlling variables are absent?—the results of the Lendl experiment are made still more clear.

Mailbag: Taking stock of recent coaching changes and partnerships

Salaries for the USTA execs are off the charts. Wow. You should have had a breakdown or analysis of it done and published before putting out the link.
Stephanie, Canada

• I offered it without prejudice! This is the fundamental dilemma/identity crisis for the USTA: Do you compensate your employees in keeping with your nonprofit status, or do you compensate in keeping with your status as a wildly profitable sports entity? If you think it’s the former, the salaries are astronomical; if the latter, the salaries are in-line, as we say. I had once a friend remark that the USTA is like a non-profit that holds a bake sale for two weeks at the end of the summer—a bake sale that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Whatever happened to Genie Bouchard’s lawsuit versus the USTA?
Melissa, Chicago

Still pending. To me, the issue is going to be proving damages. Even if the USTA had been negligent, given Bouchard’s 2015 results, how much more money would she have won—in prize money or endorsements—had she not fallen on the wet tiles? (Bear in mind, she was supposed to play Roberta Vinci in the fourth round. They had played two weeks earlier in New Haven, and Vinci had won 6–1. 6–0.) This strikes me as the kind of slip-and-fall accident that should have been quietly settled many months ago. Not sure anyone is winning except for the lawyers at this point.

Shots, Miscellany

• Our most recent podcast was with Nicole Gibbs, and she was terrific.

• Our longtime pal Pam Shriver is next on the docket.

• Speaking of podcasts: David Law does a great job and is seeking Kickstarter help.

• Thanks to reader Damir:

"In case reader Deepak, or you, are interested. Joe (owner and writer of this blog) is among the very highest-regarded F1 journalists, having not missed a race (in person) in 40 years. Hope it's of some interest, an entertaining read at least."

• We come to praise Rajeev Ram.

• It’s Orange Bowl time, and Colette Lewis has you covered.

• Donald Tisdale, a longtime member of the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) board of directors, has been named “Person of the Year” for 2016 by Tennis Industry magazine in the publication’s January 2017 issue. Tisdale led off the magazine’s 16th annual “Champions of Tennis Awards,” which honors people, businesses and organizations dedicated to improving the sport and business of tennis.

• Press releasing: ITF announced that Andy Murray of Great Britain and Angelique Kerber of Germany are the 2016 ITF World Champions. This is the first year that either player has received this honor.

In an historic year for the Murray family, Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares of Brazil become Men’s Doubles World Champions, and French pair Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic are Women’s Doubles World Champions. This is the first time that two brothers have been named as men’s singles and men’s doubles World Champions in the same year.

Gordon Reid becomes the third British player to be honored in 2016, being named as ITF Wheelchair World Champion, with Jiske Griffioen of Netherlands becoming women’s World Champion for the second year running. Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia and Anastasia Potapova of Russia are named ITF Junior World Champions.

• More press releasing: If 17-year old Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic makes history on the pro tour like he has on the junior circuit, it will be hard to avoid comparing him to his 12-time Grand Slam champion countryman. Kecmanovic won the Metropolia Orange Bowl Boys’ 18s singles title for the second consecutive year on Sunday, beating China’s Yibing Wu, 6–3, 6–1, on green clay at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation, Fla. Kecmanovic, who will finish the year as the world’s No. 1-ranked junior, is the third player in the Orange Bowl’s 70-year history to win consecutive Boys’ 18s singles titles, joining Billy Martin (1973–74) and Harold Solomon ('69–70). Kecmanovic also joins Dominic Thiem (2011) and Andy Roddick (1999) as the only players to win the Boys’ 18s singles titles at both the Eddie Herr in Bradenton, Fla., and the Orange Bowl in the same year, dating back to '93 (the tournaments are played in consecutive weeks).