Mailbag: With Federer's 2017 results, is it time to put the GOAT debate to rest?

In his weekly Mailbag, Jon Wertheim answers reader questions on Roger Federer, Nick Kyrgios, the GOAT debate, Maria Sharapova and more.
Publish date:

Straight to the questions this week...

Federer is now swatting his way through his THIRD generation of tennis players. Can we please rest the GOAT debate already? Since switching to the larger racket Federer is 4-1 against Nadal. The mind boggles with “what if” scenarios.

Prior to his epic semi-final loss to Federer, Kyrgios was an unbelievable 4-1 against Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal combined; if not for two sloppy serves, that tally would have been 5-1, and yet he has won exactly one set off Murray in five matches. I cannot wrap my head around this (yeah, yeah, I know, “The Big Four," but as any serious tennis fan will tell you, it’s really “The Big Three & The Other One”).Also, that Miami crowd ought to be ashamed of itself.
Croydon F, Chicago

• Lots of questions and comments about Federer this week, entirely well-deserved. Imagine saying this on Jan. 1: Three months into the season, Federer will have won three titles—his 18th major and the “sunshine double” of Indian Wells and Miami—beat Nadal three times in two months, and climbed from No. 17 to No. 4.

We’ll save for another time a discussion of the backhand and the racket and the benefit of full health. Let’s talk GOAT. As Croydon notes, this recent surge really burnishes Federer’s credentials. Quite apart from adding a major to the haul and making inroads on the Nadal head-to-head, Federer has shown tremendous resilience and longevity and durability. To play this level of tennis—not just qualitatively, but with this level of fight—at age 35? It makes an awfully forceful statement.

Roger Federer's dominant year continues as he beats Rafael Nadal to win Miami Open

The flip side: how inspiring must this be for the rest of the field. While Federer burnishes his GOAT bona fides, Nadal and Djokovic ought to be taking some comfort. I can be doing that, too, in five years. A few injuries and setbacks need not be fatal. The knights of the keyboard trying to retire me? Screw ‘em.

And this extends beyond tennis. Remember Tiger Woods. Golfer? Cablinasian? Zipper issues? Name a ring a bell? He and Federer used to joke about who’d win more majors. Tiger pulled out of the Masters today, still another major missed. And while it appears as though he’s danced his last dance, he ought to look to Federer as inspiration. The usual metrics don’t apply to the great ones.

(And, yes, on the Miami crowd.)

In your last Mailbag you brought up the inevitable post-Big Four and post-Serena recession. They have been the main attractions for over a decade now and the reason the sport has reached new heights. However, I think tennis has done nothing to combat the inevitable recession with the way the sport has been televised, covered by the media, and marketed. Because Serena and the Big-Four are so popular, they justifiably get top billing over every other player combined and they dominate every storyline. To me, this is like a business relying on a few big clients, and having no contingency plan in place if they were to lose one or all of these clients. Do you think the sport as a whole could have done a better job setting itself up for the inevitable end of the Big-Four an Serena eras?
Brooks, Birmingham, Ala.

• I don't know. I think it's a little different from a corporate succession plan. You have these decorated, dynamic champions who are still performing at the peak of their powers. The ATP’s current top five—Murray/Djokovic/Wawrinka/Federer/Nadal—have won 50 majors (!!!) among them and minimum of three each. What are the Tours, the media, the schedulers supposed to do? Jam some Borna Coric down everyone’s throats?

Hi Jon,more of a comment than anything: How often have we wished in the past that one of our favs could summon the magic once more, a la Connors 1991. How lucky are we all as fans to see two of the gods in all of sport summon the stuff for us in this, the autumn of their careers? 

Thanks for sharing with us all!
Jon B, Seattle

• I would add Agassi. I would add Serena. I would add Venus. I would add Pete Sampras struggling through 2002 and then—boom!—winning the U.S. Open in what would be his last match ever. These late career surges are really elegant, poignant statements about greatness, no? The consistency may not always be there. The body can clear its throat and make itself known. I may not be as fast as I was at 19. But when everything breaks right, I can still do this as well as anyone.

Roger Federer, Microsoft's Gates to play doubles for charity

ATP top 50 rankings as of Monday April 3, 2017. Only ONE pro under 21. And only a handful (4) under the age of 24. (16 over age 30).

ATP top 50 rankings as of Monday April 2, 1990. NINE pros under 21. Twenty two (22!) under the age of 24. (3 over age 30, Johnny Mac, Jimbo, Lendl).

Selective stats? I don't think so. I don't even think improved conditioning explains this. Maybe improved finances lead to lesser wear 'n tear? Physios, jet travel, nutrition, equipment, and even gurus? BTW: based on the stats, isn't it paradoxical that a 19-year old Sampras was more mature (physique/psyche) than any of the sub-24 year olds currently touted as potential major winners?
Rex Jim

• The field is getting older, careers are expanding. For all the tennis topics we can debate this is not among them. The numbers don’t lie. Here’s a safe assumption: with each subsequent major, we will set a new record for “oldest field.”

We’re all looking for an explanation but I think there are a lot of interlocking, interweaving factors. Here are four; and I suspect we could triple this list if we wanted to:

1) “The sport has never been more physical.” It requires an unprecedented level of leg strength and core strength. Teenagers are not ready. But players get these years on the back end.

2) Sports science, starting with nutrition. Players are smarter and more knowledgeable about their bodies. Rehabilitation and strength training has come a long way. Bio-data and technology are important, too.

3) Money. The financial incentives to stay late at the party are high. The wealth also makes it easier to afford travel and physios and amenities like first-class airfare that can extend a career.

4) Injuries. It’s counterintuitive but it’s hard to name a player who hasn’t taken time off in their mid-20s to rehab an injury. The physical break doubles as a mental break, a mid-career sabbatical that enables a player to re-charge mentally. It also means a year of forsaken wear-and-tear that a player can apply in their 30s.

Djokovic says elbow healed, looking to return to competition

Hi Jon, lots of talk about Djokovic's decline. Are we in the same worry space about Kerber? Last year it seemed like she really came into her own and set the standard for play on the women's tour. If I'm not mistaken she hasn't won a tournament since the U.S. Open...and isn't exactly losing in the finals of the tournaments she has entered. What do you see as being different this year? Have the other players figured out how to play her? Is it a confidence thing? Any thing else happening behind the scenes? She was such a great story last year...where do you see her heading this year?

• Fair point, but I'll attack the premise a little bit. Despite their comparable rankings, there’s a difference between a 12-time major winner—riding a streak of four straight Slams, at this time last year—and a two-time major winner coming off a career year. The decline of Djokovic is much more newsworthy and noteworthy.

You are right, though. Kerber has slipped. Since winning the 2016 U.S. Open, she is without a title. She’s crashed out of draws in 2017 and didn’t exactly mount a robust defense of her Australian Open title, falling meekly to CoCo Vandeweghe.

This is not a knock—if anything it’s a compliment. But she is not physically imposing. She’s not armed with much in the way of weapons. The lefty serve out wide can be effective but her second serve is a liability. That she reached to No. 1—winning two majors, reaching a Wimbledon final and picking up an Olympic silver—made for a feat. Now we’re seeing a regression to the mean.

And people think that the tennis world is kind of messed up??? (See here.)  
Lilas P.

• Funny, I had the same thought, imagining an analog. What if, say, Venus Williams had beaten CoCo Vandeweghe at the Australian Open. A fan at home, though, happened to notice that Venus has foot-faulted and the call hadn’t been made. The next day they are required to go back on the court and resume playing at 4-3 in the third set. Ridiculous.

Brit Johanna Konta beats Caroline Wozniacki to win Miami Open final

Hola Jon! I have a petition, based on this: First, I saw it live a week ago in the match between Jerzy Janowicz vs. Denis Shapovalov (Jalisco Open semifinals), and then yesterday it happened again at the Kyrgios-Federer match: an irresponsible spectator called a crucial ball out, distracting the Australian who was leading the decisive third-set tie breaker. Janowicz was the victim in the other match, and both players were of course very upset AND it affected the result. The chair umpires decided the same: since it was a spectator who called “out!” there was nothing to do but warn the public to stop doing so. I sincerely believe this is wrong: the point has to be replayed, it is definitely a let situation, and the spectator has to be removed from the stadium. This can´t continue to happen. I am a Federer fan, and I don´t condone the post-reaction of both players who were affected… but please! Let’s play it fair.
Carlos, Guadalajara, Mexico

• I like that. New rule: players are entitled to demand a replaying of the point when they claim to be distracted by a spectator. We operate on the assumption that they will be honorable and not exploit this power. Technology will determine when players (like Kyrgios) are in their rights versus when they use it strategically.

Dear Mr. Wertheim: Just a random thought/question about food poisoning on the tours: I feel like it happens way more in tennis than in any other sport. Is it more common because of the perils of eating on the road 40-some weeks a year? Is it because of the sometimes-paradoxically fragile constitutions of elite athletes? Is it just more commonly noticed in an individual sport, where there are no teammates to help offset an ailing player's illness? What gives, Jon? Wherefore all the food poisoning? Do the tours need to employ tasters?
Trent Miller, Indianapolis

• Prefacing this by making clear that I am no medical expert, here’s a theory: all the travel and jetlag and disrupted rhythms that tennis players endure? It weakens the immune system. When players go on a conventional road trip—or travel from Hilton Head to Atlanta to New Orleans, as tennis once did—it’s one thing. When they go from Miami to Melbourne to Monte Carlo, as the American Davis Cup is being asked to do, it’s something else entirely.

In the case of Kyrgios, I have it on good authority that his food poisoning was caused by a pink smoothie he ordered in the players’ lounge the night after he played doubles and beat Djokovic. So this was probably nothing other than bad luck. But I do think you’re onto something: entourage members—“my team”—could really earn their keep by serving as tasters.

Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Robbie Koenig

Kyrgios has no one to blame but himself for how fans treat him during matches. After the “Wawrinka/GF” and the “No Effort/Suspension” incidents, he has more than earned his reputation. Is he a great player? Yes, when he wants to be. The bottom line is, when a player has that kind of reputation, the fans are just waiting for a reason to boo/taunt him. And Kyrgios usually obliges. The Fed/Kyrgios match was such an occasion. Of course the fans appreciated his great play, but all the other stuff over-shadows that. Obviously Federer was going to be the fan favorite that night, he usually is; and any wrong move Nick pulled was going to be exaggerated when compared to Roger. 

Kyrgios had no reason to go ballistic over that “out” call in the final set TB. It was for the shot on Fed’s baseline and should not affect Kyrgios. It certainly didn’t warrant his colorful language. In the first set TB when Fed had a SP, the Kyrgios shot went deep and “out” calls rang out. Fed made an UFE, but he didn’t go ballistic. As for racquet smashes—they will always draw boos. Normally I don’t mind them, per se, but after MP? And then to do another one right in front of Fed who was waiting at the net? That crossed the line.

I don’t feel sorry for Kyrgios at all. 
Sincerely, Michelle 

• I have mixed feelings here. I have had it—and this goes for all players—with the racket smashing. Curse all you want but destroying equipment is just shabby sportsmanship.

Yet a) Kyrgios did get jobbed. b) I think we sometimes underestimate the stress levels players endure in competition. c) I expressed my views on Kyrgios last week (we’ll take him, warts and all.) I tend to side with this letter from Emily M. of Red House, W.V., which took the same interlude and interpreted it differently:

Dear Jon, I confess I don't understand the vitriol directed at Nick Kyrgios for shouting at a disruptive fan during his Miami match against Federer. Federer himself did this at the French Open in 2012, yet still won the ATP's sportsmanship award that year. Instead of brooding over a broken racquet, let's celebrate the fact that we finally have a young player with the grit, guts, and game to consistently challenge the Big Four. Nick Kyrgios is the one we've been waiting for! Last night he proved that he cares whether he wins or loses a tennis match, and now, for the first time, I care too.

The whole wildcard fiasco has brought to the forefront once again the sad state of Maria Sharapova's friendships within the confines of the WTA. 

This whole cold persona has followed Maria all of her career (you can argue that it's both accurate, and part of the public's imagination of her as a female Ivan Drago). But it's 2017 and the narrative should stop.

The change should begin with the reporters, for they are the ones that ask the question but it also should include fellow WTA players. It bothers me is that there's never been a concrete instance of disrespectful behavior that justifies that characterization (if there is, it's about damn time we know about it), but a generalization of "nobody likes her,” "she doesn't have any friends.” It all boils down to an unfortunate exercise of that old "smile more" that follows so many women. 

Tennis is a sport. Her use of Meldonium, the subsequent ban and the award of wildcards all have an effect on competition and they are fair game to be discussed, specifically by players. 

But her personality? That Sharapova's and it should be respected. If that personality includes having no friends in the top 100 of the WTA, so be it. The way we talk about women has evolved. Film and TV have started to embrace women as complicated, complex, multi-dimensional creatures. The WTA locker room has always been full of them. Let's do better by them than by defining them by their number of friends or asking other women to comment on it. 
Maricarmen Sanchez, Miami, Fla.

• Thanks for a thoughtful note. There’s a lot to unpack here. But I would start here: Shouldn’t we view Sharapova’s absence of friends as a sign of… progress? I have this argument often with a former player of great repute. She laments the lack of sisterhood and solidarity today. “Everyone has a team so there are no friendships.” My response: “Yay! This means women’s tennis has evolved. We’re in an age when players can afford to insulate themselves and operate in this competitive industry as independent proprietors. If players were still piling into station wagons and sharing hotel rooms, it would foster cohesion but it wouldn't be good for business.”

It’s not an either/or. Some players—on both tours—are collegial and congenial and social. They vacation together in the off-season. They attend each other’s weddings. They play doubles together. They are named Serena and Caroline. Others prefer to divorce themselves from the players against whom they're competing. So be it.

While tennis heads to clay, Roger Federer heads for vacation

Kyrgios? Just a haircut and a second serve.
J. B., Portland

• This was sent in jest—I think—a play on this classic tennis line.

But, man, is it easy is it to draw parallels between Agassi and Kyrgios, down to the older brothers who were appended to the entourage. Can one of Kyrgios’ myrmidons keep him off the set of “Suddenly Susan?”

More seriously, Kyrgios is closer in age—and emotional maturity—to Jaden Agassi than he is to Andre Agassi. But maybe we can set up a GoFundMe, whereby Andre takes Kyrgios to dinner and gives the “here’s-what-I-wish-someone-had-told-when-I-was-your-age/stage” speech.

Shots, Miscellany

• Robbie Koenig was—not surprisingly—excellent on the most recent SI/Tennis Channel tennis podcast.

• Icky self-promotion Part I: I helped a friend and former classmate write his first book. It came out last week and I am thrilled for him.

• Icky self-promotion Part II: Philly readers, I’ll be appearing at the Villanova Sports Law Journal Symposium on Friday.

• These look-at-me announcements strike me as unseemly. But someone asks you “please promote on your social media channels” and ignoring the request seems unseemly as well. What’s a Midwesterner to do?

Charlie Carillo has a new novel out. Buy it.

• Davis Cup champ Cliff Richey has a new book out, “Your Playbook For Beating Depression.” It’s available for sale and download where ever books are sold, including

• This reader riff comes from Professor Emma Esther, whom you might recall from last week’s bMailag. For the sake of full disclosure, on occasion—rare occasion; but occasion nonetheless—we edit mail for length and brevity.

Dear Mr. Wertheim,

I appreciate you publishing part of my letter in the March 29th edition of your "Mailbag" column regarding GQ naming Roger Federer "the Greatest of All Time"—however, I am disappointed that, by selectively editing my letter, Sports Illustrated completely misrepresented the key issue to the readers of your column (and to SI readers in general). 

In your rebuttal to my letter, you state that “…when Federer is declared the GOAT it’s implied 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.”

However, when ESPN conducted its most recent survey to determine the “Greatest of All Time, it compared the achievements of both male and female tennis players together to determine the “GOAT.”

Likewise, when the Tennis Channel conducted its survey to determine the “Greatest of All Time” (in 2012), they also compared the resumes of male and female tennis players together.

Now just for a minute, let’s take the polarizing Serena Williams out of the equation. So according to the Tennis Channel’s 2012 poll, Roger Federer’s then 17 Grand Slams are greater than Steffi’s Graf’s 22 Grand Slams, Graf’s calendar year slam, Career Golden Slam, almost 100 more weeks at No. 1, complete ownage of her rivals, etc. (clearly Graf’s numbers are far superior to Federer’s). Yet somehow Federer is the “GOAT”? So what conclusion is a young girl (or a young man) supposed to draw from this—that grand slams won by women are of less value, easier to win, etc.??

The part of my letter, that was conveniently left out, addresses this double standard head-on:

“If you’re going to qualify Serena's accomplishments by calling her the Greatest Female Tennis Player of All Time, then please be consistent and fair & name Federer the Greatest Male Tennis Player of All Time.”

In conclusion, it’s all about consistency and fairness—either get rid of the gender pronouns/adjectives altogether OR use them consistently to apply to both males and female athletes. To do otherwise, is disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst and it certainly contributes to subliminal degradation of the accomplishments by women in our current climate in America. And lastly from journalistic point of view, one can never go wrong by publishing an editorial in its entirety and letting readers come to their own conclusions based on the facts instead of on your or my "assumptions" or "understanding.” While it may be easy to simply dismiss my position as "politically correctness" or "feminism", it is high time we stop minimizing the accomplishments of 51% of the world's population. Thank you in advance for your time and I look forward to SI publishing of my editorial with the last paragraphs included.
Respectfully Submitted,Professor Emma Esther

• Chris Brown has LLS: Wimbledon and French Open champ Jaroslav Drobny and singer Robbie Williams.