Making sense of Nick Kyrgios and his recent results this spring, plus thoughts on Maria Sharapova's return, Genie Bouchard, tennis after Roger Federer and Serena Williams, and more.
Hey, everyone. Before we start:
a) A quick thanks to Andrea Petkovic for doing a wunderbar job as the Mailbag fill-in.
b) If you missed it, here’s an essay by Zoe Howard—a top high school aged player—on the contagion of cheating in junior tennis.
c) Enjoy the last few days of tennis’ March Madness.
d) We’ll have another SI/Tennis Channel tennis podcast up soon.
"What’s the deal with Nick Kyrgios?"
—Many Mailbag readers
• I must have gotten this question in 20 forms this week—good, bad and indifferent—so why don’t we try a catch-all?
The top 10 beckons. The Celtics are likely to get the first seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s been a good spring for Nick Kyrgios.
I write this on a Tuesday morning—the day after Kyrgios beat Ivo Karlovic in a third-set breaker to make the fourth round in Miami—and the fact we feel an urge to time-stamp this says plenty. By the time you read this, Kyrgios could have won the entire Miami tournament. He’s that good. Right now. And by the time you read this, Kyrgios could have committed an act of self-sabotage that left us wondering whether his maturity level will catch his talent level.
It’s a recurring theme in this year, 2017 A.D. and while it’s meant more cosmically, it applies to tennis as well: we’re too binary. Ideas and policies are either “disgraces” and “embarrassments” or “amazing” and “Big League.” (Or bigly. You can guess the speaker in question.) People either “suck” or “rock.” We hate or love; and whichever side we chose we have no use for nuance.
Kyrgios, like everything and everyone, comes shaded in grey, even if the coloration is starker than most. Let’s get the negative over and done with: he has committed multiple acts that are simply not defensible. That out of the way, let’s now acknowledge the good. And there’s plenty here. While other players ignored the masses, I saw Kyrgios—multiple times—engage the fans and selfie mafia at events, most recently at Indian Wells. Follow him on social media and note how often he heaps praise on his colleagues. And note his gushing over his girlfriend Ajla Tomljanovic. (Not exactly a go-to move for successful male athletes in their early 20s.) He concedes points. He plays doubles (and plays it well). He makes ballkids feel like human beings and not furniture fixtures or hired help.
Above all, Kyrgios’ tennis lately has been, well, Big League. He is always going to win easy points off his serve. But, seeing him at Indian Wells, I was so impressed by the well-roundedness of his game. He didn’t just beat Djokovic, for the second time in two weeks. He out-returned him and, I would contend, beat him from the baseline in neutral rallies. And this game after beating Mischa Zverev in a freighted match in the previous round.
“Future No. 1” is one of those phrases that gets thrown out cavalierly, with too little respect and acknowledgement for the hard work and professionalism and dedication (and luck) that this entails. But if Kyrgios isn’t well on his way to the top, who is? Put it this way: if I were picking a player outside the former Slam winners to be the sport’s next big winner—and next big star—he’s probably tops on the list right now.
Since his disappointing Australian Open, he’s done everything right. No meltdowns. No real breaches of decorum. An unfortunate bout of food poisoning notwithstanding, his body has held up. We'll see how long this continues. But this has been an impressive run. When Kyrgios is on, his opponents don’t win. Just about everyone else—fans, media, the folks in marketing, not least Kyrgios himself—makes out quite well.
You stated in your Mailbag that Maria Sharapova wins a PR battle if she declined wildcards and went through qualifying rounds. It seems to me she has never been liked by her peers and probably does not care what they think. She still has plenty of endorsements so slugging her way through the qualifying rounds is not going to help her financially. As for the media, her suspension will be a topic in press conferences for the first few tournaments and then she will dismiss it as old news. The only benefit I think she would get from playing qualifying matches would be getting actual match practice. What are your thoughts?
—Bob Diepold, Charlotte, N.C.
• I don’t think Sharapova cares about her reception and reputation among her peers. And I take no issue with this. It’s a competitive workforce, an individual sport and she’s there to win trophies, not to make friends.
I do think Sharapova is concerned about her reception and reputation more generally. Her endorsement portfolio—we’ll go ahead, hold our nose and use the cringy word “brand”—is predicated as much on her image as it is her winning. She can (and maybe even should) roll her eyes at the chirping of Alize Cornet and Angelique Kerber and the like. But one excursion to the social media wilderness would reveal that to the general public—even non-tennis fans—she has suffered a severe hit here. Her name has been tarnished. Not inexpungeably. But, still, some image rehab is in order. She plays qualies and, without admitting guilt per se, she is showing humility and contrition. She is proving herself to be a “good citizen of the sports community” acknowledging that it’s problematic to welcome back players fresh off the banned list, even if, by the letter of the law, it’s permissible. She’s projecting confidence as well, telling the world she doesn’t need the gloved concierge service of a wildcard.
Mark my word, here’s what happens instead: in Paris, we will hear and read about the poor French journeywoman or up-and-comer who was planning on the French Open wild card as a “dream opportunity” as well as a way to subsidize her fledgling career. She travels around the Pyrenees playing low-level matches, hoping to win enough in prize money to fill the gas tank of the family station wagon as she chases her dream. Meanwhile the coveted Golden Ticket spot she was hoping would catalyze her career is going to a millionaire fresh off the banned list. Sharapova gets asked about this in the press conference. She answers unsatisfyingly—because, really there is no easy answer—and this breaches the tennis borders and becomes a mainstream story.
When you think about the widespread use of "analytics" in sports today (ie. basketball/football), I am curious to hear your take on its use in professional tennis. Having watched literally thousands of matches, I would guess that the choices of players are at times predictable. Is it used?
—Patrick Kramer, Oslo
• I remain so torn on tennis and analytics. Unquestionably there is value—gold, even—in data. And, geekily, it adds to my interest and engagement in sports. The problem is that I am still unconvinced that tennis and analytics play well together. First, tennis is such a visceral sport that much remains unquantifiable. Second, much of the data is “dirty” or incomplete or downright misleading. One example among many: at the Australian Open I was given a data set of how close players come to hitting the lines. Serena Williams was nowhere near the top. One interpretation (and the one pushed on me) was that she lacks accuracy. My interpretation: her power is such that, wisely, she doesn't need to go for the lines.
When the data is there and tells a story, though, it's magic. In the Indian Wells final, Paul Annacone and producer Ross Schneiderman consulted Hawk-Eye and saw that Federer was returning second serves from five feet inside the baseline while Wawrinka’s second serve contact point was 12 feet behind the baseline. In these instances—when there’s real value and a real strategic point to be uncovered—data rocks.
Dear Mr. W: First, I affirm that I am a Federer fan. But all these media attention, speculations, assumptions, wild prognostications based on two (big) wins: Is it not diminishing the rest of tennis, the many players toiling in round 128, or in Challengers? It's a bit similar to everyone thinking only Franzen or Atwood is a great living writer, when there are many equally good writers who remain unnoticed. Perhaps social media culture is making this inevitable.
—M Ng, Vancouver, Canada, where response is always moderate
• And is it me: or is Jonathan Franzen so personally disagreeable that it can impact our assessment of his writing? Where were we? Oh, right. The difference, of course, is that art is subjective whereas sports are a meritocracy. At some level, sure, Federer is causing others to go unnoticed. But you’re less concerned about fairness because, objectively, he is better. He is beating them directly and indirectly. He has more points. There is abundant evidence that he deserves superior attention.
Your larger point is a good one. Is Federer taking up so much oxygen/limelight/equity/come-up-with-a-better-metaphor that we’re setting ourselves up for a serious letdown? Reader Vijay K posed a similar question this week: “Are you gonna acknowledge that Federer winning now is good news and also very bad news for tennis future viewership? He's the GOAT but he's TOO BIG TO FAIL. Tennis is one Federer knee pop / happy retirement away from some serious ratings withdrawals....and a great recession in ratings.”
My response is two-fold. No doubt there will be a post-Federer (and post-Serena and post-Big Four) recession. The market should “price it in” already. But a) it beats the alternative. What, we’re supposed to wish we never had this era, finite as it is? and b) eventually, just as Kobe Bryant and LeBron dulled the pain of the post-Jordan NBA, just as Oasis dulled the pain of a world without The Police (that was a joke), there will be new champions and stars to follow.
Saw Elena Vesnina's interview after winning the Indian Wells Championship where someone came and took her trophy to use it for the men's ceremony! That was bizarre. So does Indian Wells have only one permanent trophy for both men's and women's?
—Subhadeep from Cincinnati, Ohio
• Tough times out there. Tournaments need to economize.
Genie Bouchard: buy, hold, or sell?
• Hold. There’s still so much talent there. And the unsettled state of the WTA is all the more reason not to unload your stock. My concern about Bouchard: all players go through slumps. But at some point you worry that slumps harden into a new reality. You were once a star player, firmly embedded in the top 10. A few years of losing as often as you win and a lot of scar tissue builds up. We saw this with Iva Majoli twenty years ago. We saw it with Ana Ivanovic more recently. You hope this isn't the case with Bouchard.
As you point out in your 40 Parting Thoughts from Indian Wells, Novak Djokovic's sudden and steep decline from last June is reflected both in his play and his spirit. It has been stunning to see! He may still be ranked No. 2, but he's well outside the top 15 in the season ending points race. Is this the most shocking collapse of play since Borg? I can only think of one another time I've seen this type of fall from a men's No, 1: Mats Wilander in 1989.
—Rod, Toronto, Canada
• One day when they write history of tennis, the fate of Djokovic from June 2016 to the present will warrant its own chapter. A year ago, he was on his way to the GOAT pasture. The French didn’t merely mark his Career Slam. It was his fourth straight major. He could barely see Andy Murray—much less the great Nadal and Federer—in his rearview mirror. And he was still in his 20s, the youngest of the Big Four, with nothing but open road ahead.
Before we start comparing this to a “shocking collapse” let’s gather some more data points. Djokovic defends at Roland Garros and suddenly the train is back on the tracks. And at a time when players in their 30s are winning majors backing that up with Masters 1000s titles, Djokovic has plenty of time to author additional chapters.
But right now, yes, the decline of Djokovic is as striking as it is mystifying. We say all the time that “the margins are slim in this sport” and it sounds like cliché. But when a player is beset and distracted—be it an injury or an off-court concern—and is off by, say, 10%, the results can be catastrophic.
Can you please tell me WHY the ATP/WTA use different balls at Slams and combined events? Drives me crazy!!!
• Because it’s tennis. It’s maddening. (It's also potentially dangerous). And it’s a small—but significant—window into the balkanization that cripples the sport. The other one that gets me: the permitted time between points is different for Tour events than it is for majors? Really?
Hi Jon, talk about Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her TUE for DHEA.
• I don’t know if this was a hot topic on a board or on social media, but I’ve been asked about this multiple times recently. I am fairly familiar with TUE’s, not through tennis but through my covering mixed martial arts and it can anything from disguised blatant cheating to a completely legitimate way for an athlete to return to a baseline level. Very much case-by-case.
Here’s the Ben Rothenberg piece, and, well, draw your own conclusions.
I will say this: I am surprised that the WTA has not addressed this one way or the other, supporting or condemning the player.
Jim Nelson, CEO
Robert A. Sauerberg, Jr, Chairman
So let me get this straight:
• American tennis icon Serena Williams has five more Grand Slams in singles (23 & counting) than Swiss Roger Federer (18)
• 14 more Grand Slams in doubles / Federer has 0
• Three more Olympic gold medals than Federer
• More Grand Slam match wins than Federer
• And has totally dominated her rivals while Federer has losing records to his key rivals Nadal and Djokovic
…yet Federer is the Greatest Tennis Player of All Time???
Nothing like some good old fashioned American sexism and misogyny to start the day LOL
Professor Emma Esther
• I reprint Prof. Esther’s letter in part because it gives us an opportunity to provide this link to a fine piece of Federer writing.
We get versions of this sentiment from time to time and I want to push back. There are plenty of double standards and unflattering gender comparisons in tennis. But I think we ought to proceed on an assumption that there are two tours, two divisions (men’s and women’s) that can be discussed independently. When, say, Serena Williams won her 16th major and trailed only Margaret Court, Steffi Grand Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, it seemed unnecessary to add Roger Federer’s name. When we note that “Venus Williams is the oldest player in the field,” it should be understood that we’re talking about the women’s field and that, yes, Ivo Karlovic is older. Likewise when Federer is declared the GOAT it’s impliedly in “his” division, a statement on his excellence v/v Rod Laver and Nadal and Pete Sampras, not Serena or Steffi or Chris or Martina.
• You must read this Louisa Thomas piece on Indian Wells.
• The Miami Open might get its own Larry Ellison?
• Press releasing: The USTA today announced that Mike Gennette, coach of top juniors Claire Liu and Austen Huang, and Henner Nehles, coach of rising American 17-year old Kayla Day, were named as the 2016 Team USA Developmental Coaches of the Year as part of USTA Player Development’s annual Team USA Coaching Awards. Smith Tennis in Indianapolis was recognized as the 2016 Team USA Developmental Program of the Year, while USTA Northern California was named the 2016 Team USA Player Development Section of the Year.
• This week’s LLS is from Barbara from Lexington, Mass.: Still enjoying Roger's success as the one bright spot in this miserable year for the world and the country...but don't have much to say about Roger that hasn't been said. However, here are two contributions to the separated at birth contest: Old Hollywood star Gregory Peck & Taylor Fritz.