Mailbag: Ultimate tennis "What If?" questions

Wednesday April 19th, 2017

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

In your last column, you asked the question, “What if Rod Laver did not have to go on that self-imposed exile from the majors?” This is a great hypothetical and got me thinking about a few of the other biggest “What If's” in tennis history:

What if Monica Seles was not stabbed in her quarterfinal match in Hamburg at the height of her career?

What if Bjorn Borg had not retired from professional tennis at the age of 26 and had played more than just one Australian Open?

What if other players such as McEnroe, Connors, Agassi, etc. had played the Australian Open every year?

What if Andy Murray had not been born a week before Novak Djokovic?

What if Del Potro never hurt his wrist?

What if Federer played with a two-handed backhand?

What if Nadal had chosen to play soccer?

What if Djokovic never hired Becker?

Exploring “What if?” questions in sports is fascinating to me, so I wanted to see what you thought about my list, and what you think are some of the other greatest “What If’s” in tennis history?
Brooks Schoel, Birmingham, Ala.

• Let’s go back go back to the “What if?” well. First I would add that sports are singularly well suited for these hypotheticals. When the underlying virtue is a lack of script and orchestration and choreography—when every game and season and career is an orbit of possibility—it’s natural (and fun) to work in the subjunctive. Even if most answers, are, maddeningly, unascertainable.

Anyway, a lot of you had passionate responses to last week’s Laver hypothetical, pro and con. Brooks’ questions are good ones. Seles/Graf is, perhaps, the ultimate tennis “What if?” The status change of the Australian Open provides another. (I sympathize with Martina Navratilova who says, “Heck, if I had known Slams won would be the great barometer, I would have made the schlepp to Melbourne all those years!”)

I am utterly confounded by the Djokovic-Murray birth order. What am I missing there?

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Hi Jon, always great to hear from Lindsay Davenport. Though I didn’t see the Muguruza-Sumyk brouhaha, I really appreciated Davenport’s take on it, and how it’s not really good for women’s tennis to broadcast that. Along those lines, I, from the Netherlands, and my tennis-watching buddy Joan, in Texas, have continuously griped about the catastrophe that is the WTA leaving TennisTV. I’ve seen no press coverage of this, other than quotes from the CEO of the WTA talking about how great this move is the for women’s tennis. It’s clearly a clusterduck. Women’s tennis is losing coverage, worldwide. BeIn Sports wasn’t on it until recently, and doesn’t have the online coverage that ESPN, Tennis Channel or, of course, TennisTV had (multiple courts, all tournaments, etc.). What in the world is going on here, and why is no one other than the frustrated fans talking about this?
Anne

• First, let’s get our terms straight: the word is “fustercluck.” But your larger point is a good one. We can argue over coaching and grunting. But a flawed media and streaming strategy is a completely different threat level.

I have heard from countless fans. This one summed perhaps summed it up best: “I am still waiting for a WTA subscription service, but at this point I'm not sure I would sign up, and I'm pretty sure I won't renew the ATP subscription. I may go back to just watching the Slams...when I can. AND I AM A TENNIS FAN!!!!”

I get the underlying principle and perhaps it’s a sound one. (Time—and the market—will furnish that answer.) The WTA wants to control its content and it would rather swallow a short-term loss than sign what it feels is a substandard deal with other networks and outlets, including the ATP. Fine. But in the meantime, your product cannot vanish. There has to be a way for your consumer to, well, consume. As both someone rooting for tennis to thrive and as someone who sits in many media strategy meetings, this was a truly regrettable unforced error.

Tennis
Mailbag: What if Rod Laver's 'lost years' never existed?

Throughout my years as a tennis fan, I have found myself drifting between periods focusing on men's tennis, women's tennis, or both. What drew me was great competition, a consistent rivalry, intriguing narrative and personality.  For example I was drawn to the men's game (Lendl, Becker, Edberg), then with women (Navratilova, Graf and Seles) later again with women (Serena, Venus, Hingis, Clijsters, Henin) and today with men (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray). However, I'm struggling to really get into the women's game today, as it is just so inconsistent (please don't think I'm not in awe of their talent, however). Do you foresee any up and coming young women who you presume will stand a little taller then the rest and, together, form a nexus of a new rivalry?
David, Horseshoe Valley, Canada

• Rivalries take time to bake. Monica Puig against Katerina Siniakova might be the Chrissy-Martina of the 2020s. But we won't know for a while. Here’s my plea re women’s tennis: embrace the inconsistency. It’s ideal counterprogramming for the Big Four’s ritual excellence. There’s something invigorating about the gaping chasm of the field. Every event becomes a ripe opportunity, an open case file.

In this sense, I think the men’s and women’s game complement each other quite well. One tour offers reliable favorites. The other offers surprise winners. Like a Comedy Tonight, it’s “Something familiar, Something peculiar, Something for everyone….”

Did not read your piece yet. I just can't fathom how anyone cannot wear a seatbelt at this point?
James, Multnomah Co., Ore.

• One of you suggested we do one non-tennis question each week. James refers, presumably, to this piece on Isaiah Thomas.

Now is perhaps not the time for tsk-tsking. But, yes, wear a seatbelt, everyone. The risk-reward ratio is pretty stark here.

Tennis
Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Lindsay Davenport

So there is a kid at my school who has won 327 matches in a row. Surely he is the Greatest Male School Player in the World under the age of 18 and above 13 (GMSPITWUTAOEAAT). So next time, kindly make sure you put an asterisk to Federer's GOAT status. Ok, I know it is pushing a bit too far, but you get my point.
BR, Muneeb, Lahore, Pakistan

• Rest assured you will be receiving communiqués from tennis agents asking about this GMSPITWUTAOEAAT.

I get your point. But we do this all the time, do we not? We take context into account and make qualifications, impliedly and expressly. When someone says, “My daughter is an amazing artist,” it doesn't mean she’s ready for a solo show at the Pompidou. It means that, in her cohort of seven-year-olds, she seems to have exceptional talent.

Jon, love the column and podcasts. This would probably be more timely in mid-July, around the Hall of Fame ceremony, but I had the time to send it now. Why isn't Conchita Martinez in the Hall of Fame? Her accomplishments compare favorably to Andy Roddick, Michael Chang, Gabriela Sabatini. All have a similar number of singles titles: Roddick, 32; Chang, 34; Sabatini, 27; Martinez, 33. Similar high singles ranking: Roddick is the only one to have reached No. 1; Chang and Martinez maxed out at No. 2, and Sabatini got only as high as No. 3. Sabatini and Martinez have Olympic medals and were both top 10 doubles players. And Martinez has 5(!) Fed Cup titles. In my opinion, she's overdue for the honor.

On another topic, would a book like Venus Envy (which I loved) be as interesting today as it was when you wrote it? With the higher average age of the top players, seems to me that it would be a *very* different book.
Cheers, Jack, Arlington, Va.

1) Thanks. A quick word about these podcasts. They’re great fun and I’m really heartened that so many of you are fond of them. Honest truth: the guests deserve the credit. These are supposed to be conversational—not classically journalistic— and if the guest isn’t in a sociable mood, they fall apart. Fortunately that hasn't happened yet.

2) You could make a case for Conchita Martinez given the “comps” that have been granted admittance. But I really struggle with one Slam, no No. 1 ranking and relatively few “plus factors” (such as being a pioneer for Asian tennis as Chang was, or a doubles savant, as Pam Shriver was.) Maybe this is a compromise: Coupling her achievement with her status as a female Davis Cup captain, Conchita Martinez gains admission as a contributor?

3) Apart from having the eponymous player still in the cast, yes, Venus Envy would be a very different book.

Tennis
Serena Williams posts, deletes Snapchat indicating she's pregnant

Watching Houston doubles, Bryan Bros vs Paes-Sa. Combined age of players = 158.
Helen o'Philly

• Here’s my Andre Sa story. (And, really, who among us doesn’t have one of those?) Wimbledon 2008, middle Sunday. Federer practices on the Aorangi courts. (I want to say with Yves Allegro.) When he’s done, Andre Sa approaches sheepishly and asks for a photo. Why? Because he is pondering retirement and he wants a keepsake to show his descendants. Federer, you won’t be shocked to learn, happily obliges.

Here we are nearly a decade later. Federer has won the previous major and two Masters titles. And Andre Sa is still out there.

Hey Jon. I was checking out Stevie Johnson a lot this week at Houston, and I actually think his backhand slice is the best on tour (yes including Fed). In fact, it’s probably a better backhand than some players in the top 30. For all the criticism he gets for having a “big weakness,” I still think it gets too low and deep for baseliners to take any advantage of. What do you think?
Vivek, Houston

• Interesting. Steffi Graf comes immediately to mind as a player whose slice could be deployed every bit as effectively as a drive. And this strikes me (no pun intended) as yet another instance of tennis data failing us. You’re not going to hit many—if any—winners off a slice. But if it neutralizes a rally, or disrupts rhythm, or moves the opponent into a position whereby you can set up your forehand, it’s doing its job, stat sheet be damned.

You would think a grip-and-rip drive is preferable to a scythe-like brush. (What’s been the biggest factor cited in Federer’s 2017 resurgence? His decision to drive his backhand.) But look at Johnson’s results—including his Houston title last weekend—and clearly he’s not suffering too terribly for his backhand wing.

Tennis
What do Novak Djokovic, a Las Vegas cab driver and a 120-mile relay race have in common?

Is there a consensus as to how hard sports commentators should try to pronounce players' names correctly, by which I mean the way they would be pronounced in the player's home country? I think we are all placing the emphasis on the wrong syllable of Sharapova, but my husband says I'm being elitist if I say "shar AH pova.” And it seems that perhaps one in three commentators will use "muga RUTH a" instead of "muga RUZ a" as it looks to us Americans. And then there are the Chinese names that may be uttered in either order, and with the lack of consistency in the press, I can never remember whether Li is her family name and Na is her personal name, or vice versa. I was told that Amer Delic really did not care whether we call him AH mer or ah MEER. We Illini chose the latter. But you're a pro. What do you do? 
Mary Ann Royse

• Defer to the player. (Which both tours have made easier thanks to audio files whereby players their own names.) If Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova wants to pronounce her name “Orville Redenbacher” that’s enough for me.

We’ve all seen this, yes?

Dear Mr. Wertheim:

There is an attorney in my office who has been very good to me. He is currently battling cancer and just got a stem cell transplant. Could you recommend a few good tennis DVDs to get him while he is resting? Many thanks.

• Fearful of the potential for violating confidences, I am going to leave off the name of this one. But if anyone has suggestions or—better still—actual tennis DVDs they want to contribute, I am happy to play middle man.

Shots, Miscellany

• The most recent SI/Tennis Channel tennis podcast featured Sascha Bajin, amanuensis to Serena Williams and now Caroline Wozniacki.

 

• Next guest: Paul Annacone comes by the studio.

• This week’s unsolicited book recommendation: The latest in the Tapper Twins series by my friend Geoff Rodkey.

• I’ll be in Cuba this week for a Tennis Channel, sports-as-diplomacy project.

• Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska has committed to play the 2017 Connecticut Open presented by United Technologies, while 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova will return to the tournament to celebrate 20 years of women’s tennis in New Haven. A Premier WTA event that is part of the US Open Series, the 2017 Connecticut Open will be held August 18-26 at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale.

• The NCAA today announced that the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., will be the host site of the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships in 2019 and 2021, as well as the NCAA Division III Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships in 2022.

Tennis
Steve Johnson wins U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship

• The USTA today announced that it has launched a nationwide online audition as part of its 11th annual U.S. Open anthem audition. This is the third year for the online auditions, open to all kids 14 years or age or younger. A select number of submissions will be chosen to participate in a call-back that will be held in New York City on June 27, with those selected earning the chance to perform “America the Beautiful” live in Arthur Ashe Stadium during the 2017 U.S. Open. To submit an audition, children 14 years of age or younger as of Sept. 10, 2017, must upload a recorded version of themselves via a YouTube link, performing all or a portion of “America the Beautiful” a cappella to usopen.org/anthemauditions by May 12. All entries will be reviewed by a panel of judges from the music and entertainment industry.

• This week’s LLS comes from Sung: Karen Khachanov and Liam Hemsworth

VCG/VCG via Getty Images; Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

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