Mailbag: Novak Djokovic's return and what to make of Milos Raonic's recent form
I was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray….
Hey Jon! In response to Shayne Hull's Mailbag question about the greatest player never to have won a tournament, Anna Kournikova immediately comes to mind. Also as far as youth still coming into their own and not yet having won a tournament, remember Steffi Graf rose to #3 before she finally won her first title. That turned out to be a pretty good career!
—Rod, Toronto, Canada
• I’ve always felt that this was the dirty secret about Anna Kournikova: because she was such a draw and such a publicity magnet, she was required by the WTA to play the top events and was given playing obligations disproportionate with her ranking. It would have served her well to play some smaller events, win that elusive title in Tashkent or Quebec City and rid herself of the never-won-a-tournament albatross. But the WTA rules prevented her from doing so.
This will sound gratuitously provocative (Hot take! Hot take!) but hear me out. Anna Kournikova won zero singles titles—let’s concede that up front. But she pierced the top ten and reached the Wimbledon semis as a teenager. (The notion that she was a somehow a fraudulent player or some marketing creation is equally unfair and inaccurate.) She was also an exceptional doubles player, who reached No. 1 in the rankings, won two majors and won 14 other titles with a partner. She not only brought immense publicity to women’s tennis, but she was: a) a pioneeress for dozens of Russians players—most of them women—who followed her path for b) a pioneeress w/r/t how an athlete can market themselves in the Internet age. c) agree or disagree, consider this a feminist position or a feminist betrayal, a pioneeress inasmuch as she traded unapologetically on her appearance. In retirement she has kept a low figure but has been an advocate for physical fitness among other causes.
Here goes…deep breath….. not as a player but as “special contributor” who helped elevate the sport, might Kournikova deserve consideration for the Tennis Hall of Fame?
Buy/Sell/Hold on Raonic?
• I would say hold. If and when the Big Five ever get around to leaving, Raonic has to be in the conversation of players most likely to benefit from the departure. On the other hand, he has now gone more than a year without a title. And his penchant for injury—which reared its head (or hamstring) again in Delray—continues to be an issue.
It’s funny: he could scarcely be a more different player from Kei Nishikori. Power versus movement, and all that flows from that. And yet their careers are remarkably similar. They’re born almost a year apart, almost to the day. One Grand Slam final apiece. Raonic has maxed out at No. 3, Nishikori at No. 4. (Even today, they’re bracketed together in the rankings at No. 4 and No. 5 respectively). They’ve won roughly the same haul in career prize money. Raonic has won eight titles, Nishikori 11. Two pros pros.
And some more regrettable symmetry: they both suffer from durability issues. Time and again they look to be on the verge of breakthroughs when their bodies saying ahem and call attention to themselves. Knees, groins, backs, thighs, arms. For whatever reasons—and it’s not inattention to detail—both players break down. So much so you wonder whether winning 21 sets in two weeks is too big of an ask.
Was re-listening to your podcast with Jack Sock (from last Thanksgiving) and was surprised to hear that his goal was to be No. 1. I suppose that's every player's goal, but very, very few actually make it there... He's definitely gifted with great hands for a big guy, but 1) do you really think he has a chance at a Grand Slam title, much less No. 1? 2) With a game so similar to Roddick's, if you had to predict, will Sock's career be <, > or = to Roddick's? 3) What's the tennis landscape going to look like in 2020 when the current crop of 25'ish players are at the top of the heap? My feeling: yeesh.
—James Pham, Saigon, Vietnam
• For simple reasons of math, reaching No. 1 is a challenge for any athlete. (Though it’s hard to condemn anyone from listing it as an aspiration.) In the case of Sock, it’s awfully ambitious. His winning a Slam? We’ll settle for his reaching a semifinal. But that’s more realistic than No. 1. (Again, the math: it can be achieved over two weeks and you get four chances each year.) He’s a hell of an athlete, his forehand is weaponized, his moves well, he can—and increasingly does—compete well.
Could I envision him getting hot for two weeks? Sure, especially when the Big Four/Five are retired. As for Sock-versus-Roddick please read this less as knock on Sock than a vote for Roddick’s (underrated?) career. In Roddick, we’re talking about a guy who reached No. 1, won a Slam, won Masters Series events, reach a half dozen Grand Slam finals, and spent a decade nestled in the top 10. If Sock is going to approximate that, let’s just say that he’ll need to upgrade his results, significantly and for a protracted period of time.
Your third question is interesting. If there’s an underbelly to this Big Four + Serena Era, it’s this: very little equity is being built by other players. Almost necessarily, after they leave the stage, there will be some years when the cast will seem thin and the results appear anticlimactic. This isn’t just tennis. Think about the NBA post-Jordan or golf post-Tiger. And not just sports. It’s NBC;s Thursday Night lineup after “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” It’s Apple after Steve Jobs. Eventually, though, the tennis equivalent of LeBron James or “30 Rock” or Tim Cook will emerge and we’ll be fine.
Look at the 2002 male Grand Slam winners. Thomas Johansson, Al Costa, a surly Lleyton Hewitt and Sampras in his final match. Wow, are things bleak. Then Federer and Nadal come along and presto….
My name is Terri Graham and I am the President and Founder of the US OPEN Pickleball Championships. Twenty years ago you wrote an article in SI on the new game of pickleball. Now, just 20 years later, there are 3.0MM people playing the game and the participation number continues to rise according to the SFIA (Sports, Fitness and Leisure Activities report). After spending 21 years at Wilson Sporting Goods, I switched gears and founded the US OPEN Pickleball Championships. Last year was the inaugural year with 806 players competing and 10,000 spectators over a five-day event. This year we have over 1300 players and are anticipating even more spectators than last year. It is the largest pickleball tournament in the world. We also put the pro finals on CBS Sports Network….The event takes place in Naples, Florida April 22-30.
• After getting over the depression that this story was 20 years ago….
I love pickleball and, more important, think it could play a key role in tennis’ growth. At a time when real estate economics are making it hard for tennis clubs to stay open (especially in urban areas), pickleball is a real alternative that can be played on any gym floor. It’s a hell of a lot of fun and holds special appeal to those of us who love drop shots and angles and strategy. It’s also a good workout as it’s popular with kids as it is with senior citizens.
If I’m the USTA, pickleball is a complement, not a competitor, a great way to connect with a growing demographic of racket-sport enthusiasts. And I’m thinking up creative partnerships.
You wrote that Djokovic's form is a mystery, but is it really? If you look at tennis players in a "Dominance" perspective, his current form is to be expected. His last two years can only be compared to very few players, and except for one RF, all the others have similar or shorter dominance periods: Connors in 1974, Bjorg 78-79, McEnroe in 84, Lendel 86-87; Sampras from U.S. open 93 to U.S. Open 95; Nadal (2008, 2010, end of 2013). So now it's just Djokers time to fizzle out a bit. I'm sure he'll be back.
—Gilad from Israel
• Yes and no. I think there’s something afoot and Djokovic’s post-French Open results—and overall mode of being—have been mystifying. Put simply: he seems like neither the same player, nor person who, in June of 2016, stood as a good bet to win the Grand Slam.
But Gilad raises two strong points. Go through an interval when you win five of six majors (and reach the final of the sixth) and anything is going to seem like a slump by comparison. For 18 months, Djokovic played at a level—and won with regularity—that may never be matched again. It stands to reason that his standard and his results would eventually drop. And, yes, Djokovic may well be back. As we’re fond of saying: careers don’t move in arrow-like paths.
Watching Steve Johnson, it is astonishing how far his backhand is below the rest of his game (which is world class). If he can reach the top 30 without a BH, he could probably be a top 15 player with one. Why isn't this obvious to him and his coaches? Why hasn't he done anything to revamp it?
• I’m not sure players in their mid-20s are “revamping” too much of anything. Spun another way: Yes, Johnson’s backhand is, undeniably, the weaker wing. And yet he’s figured out a way to build a game that masks this deficiency. Maybe we celebrate him as an overachiever, proof that you don’t need to have an immaculate game to be successful.
I see Denis Shapovalov played this week in France. If down the line, the referee who Denis hit in the eye, is assigned as the referee for a Shapovalov match, will Denis have the right to refuse him as referee? I remember a situation Rafa had with some calls a referee called against him, and Rafa was allowed to nix him as referee in his matches, and I am just wondering if Denis can do the same. I don't believe there is hatred between them, but even the best person in the world would hold a small grudge on someone for causing them to undergo surgery, and Denis would have to wonder about every close call that goes against him, if it was related to the incident.
• As we saw with even a decorated player like Nadal (and decorated official like Carlos Bernardes) it’s slipperiest of slopes when players can make these requests. One hopes that the supervisors would simply have the good sense not to assign the official to oversee one of Shapovalov’s matches (not give the player a right of refusal.)
At 37 years, 11 months Ivo Karlovic is the second oldest top seed at an ATP tournament. Ken Roswell was 42 years, 5 months when he was the top seed at a tournament in Jackson, MS. Some other notables...
– Rod Laver was the top seed for the last time at 36 years, 8 months
– Eight other players have been the top seed when they were 35 years old: Andre Agassi, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Cliff Drysdale, Tommy Haas, Lew Hoad, Francois Jauffret and Jairo Velasco.
As always, credit Jeff Sackman and his data at TennisAbstract.com
—Blake Redabaugh, Denver, Colo.
• Credit given. For those of you not following Jeff Sackman, you are encouraged to rectify that.
• Ryan Harrison was this guest on this week’s podcast. We covered a lot of ground including the thermodynamics of a tennis slump. On account of the guest and his willingness to talk candidly, this was outstanding.
• I’m on the road this week, but we’ll be back with a new podcast next week from Indian Wells.
• Watch Serena Williams crash a random tennis match.
• Want to watch something beautiful? Put aside 22 minutes.
• Spare a thought for the U.S. Davis Cup team. Sam Querrey, John Isner, Steve Johnson and Jack Sock are all entered in the Houston ATP event in April. What does this mean? The foursome will play Indian Wells and then Miami. Head to Brisbane, Australia, for Davis Cup. And then fly back to Texas. For those scoring at home, that’s more than 20,000 airmiles in less than a month.
• Press releasing: DKMS, the nonprofit leading the fight against blood cancer, will host its annual Game, Set Match For Life mixed doubles tennis tournament, to help raise critical funds needed to add potential bone marrow donors to the donor registry list. Attendees will also have the opportunity to swab their cheeks and register as potential bone marrow donors. Anyone who wishes to register as a potential donor but is unable to attend this event can register online at www.dkms.org.
• Tickets for the Cincinnati Open went on sale this morning. Also, $5 million of facility improvements were announced, including an additional practice court (bringing total to 17 total courts), lights on two more courts (bringing total to 8) and much attention to parking areas, including grading, drainage and paved walkways.