Mailbag: Analyzing Sharapova’s denied wildcard entry, Federer’s absence at French Open
The most recent Sports Illustrated/Tennis Channel podcast features Brian Vahaly and his life after tennis.
Next up: Jake Agna on the challenges and rewards of importing tennis to Cuba.
Hat tip, David Ferrer, who won his 700th match and surpassed $30 million in career winnings this week.
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Lots of speculation as to the reasoning behind Federer's withdrawal from Roland Garros. While the surface, rest for his body, and Nadal's current form could be significant factors, couldn't the 15-day weather forecast also have swayed his decision? Makes sense considering the timing of the announcement, and the Paris forecast for the week leading into the tournament does not call for temperatures above the 60's. Not ideal conditions for Federer's body or his best play.
—Matt Marolf in Long Island City, N.Y.
• The big news this week in tennis was, of course, Roger Federer’s decision to skip the French Open for the second straight year. Pragmatically it's a smart decision. At this stage, Federer wants to maximize his chances of winning. It’s not simply that clay is going to be the most demanding surface on his body. It’s that clay—and the temperamental weather—can undermine his chances of success beyond Paris, ie. at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Federer’s back tightens on a cold, wet day and it could tank his entire summer. Federer’s internal risk management department came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it.
I floated the idea on Twitter that the success of Nadal this spring—“back to clay-GOATing” as one of you put it—might have cemented the decision. (Forgive the mixed surface metaphor.) If the field is wide open and Djokovic is struggling and Nadal—whom Federer has beaten three times already this year—is shaky, does he give Paris more thought? For what it’s worth, one former player wrote me privately and dismissed the suggestion. Another said definitely. (“Lose to Nadal and you might also lose that mental edge.”) A third suggested Nadal’s recent dominance just made the Federer decision easier.
Anyway, big picture this is probably a smart decision. Federer will endure neither the physical grind of clay nor the emotional expense of playing for a Slam. He can relax, be a dad, train, and move on to the grass and arrive in peak health. But, like many of you, the news triggered a twinge of sadness. As I thought about it, I came up with five reasons:
1. It’s a pity the guy who’s played the best tennis of 2017—age and storyline be damned—won’t appear at the second Slam. For 24 of the last 25 years, no male player has won BOTH the Australian Open and French Open. (Ironically Djokovic broke the streak last year.) But this year, we don’t even get the possibility.
2. With Serena out, the French Open really takes a hit. We’re scrambling to research this: when was the last time BOTH winners of the previous major didn’t post for the subsequent major?
3. We are foreclosed from another Federer-Nadal episode. Nadal wins and he breaks his losing streak, nudges the head-to-head back in his favor and the Wimbledon showdown looms. Federer wins and, holy hell, this is an incredible plot twist. He’s not just beating Nadal but doing so on clay?
4. Realistically, Federer has likely played his last French Open. True, he won in Paris fewer times than the other Slams. But still, we’re talking about one of the great claycourt players—and, of course, great champions overall—in the sport’s history. Plus, the French is the closest thing he has to a “home Slam.” (Basel is a few hours by train.) It would have been nice if he could have taken a victory lap of sorts on one of tennis’ grand stages.
5. Before news broke on Tuesday that Maria Sharapova would not be given wildcard entry for the French Open, I wondered whether with Federer’s withdrawal, and stars at a premium, if the French Federation would change their approach. It’s a moot point, but it will be interesting to see if/how Federer’s absence changes things.
Why does Roland Garros have such solid standards while the rest of the tour is handing her wildcards like candy?
• This question via Twitter obviously pertains to the French Federation’s decision on Tuesday not to grant Maria Sharapova a wild card of any kind. Lots of opinions from you guys on this, all over the map. Let’s keep the theme and go with five points.
1. The FFT is to be applauded for their principled stance. It’s reasonable to suggest that players coming off the banned list should not get the concierge service. That the FFT is doing this to the detriment of commerce and ratings makes it more admirable. But is it strange that the FFT signed off on Sharapova getting a wild card—one she didn’t event request—to the Strasbourg event next week. Why is she deserving of a wild card for one event, but not the other? (By the way: Even if she were at full health, I’d be shocked if Sharapova accepted the Strasbourg opportunity given Tuesday’s news.)
2. I ask again: why not give Sharapova a wild card into the qualies? She gets a small bump—an acknowledgement of her track record and state of her game. But she still has to earn her place in the main draw. Everyone wins.
You could respond: “How do you deny a player a main draw wild card because of a doping violation, but you give her one for qualifying?” But the FFT already offered the Strasbourg wild card. And, besides, I would push back that wild cards are inherently unfair. Shoot, two American players are getting them simply because there’s a reciprocal deal with the USTA.
3. This really complicates Sharapova’s summer. She now won’t play Roland Garros at all. Because of her injury misfortune in Rome today, her ranking won’t be high enough to get her into the main draw of Wimbledon. Beyond that, we’ve talked before about the reputational damage that’s been visited upon Sharapova and her (hold your nose) brand. When a major tournament essentially says, Our conscience prevents us from working with you—actual quote: "I know the media dimension Maria has. I know the expectation fans and broadcasters have. But it didn't seem possible for me to go above the strong commitment and the respect for the anti-doping code."—that’s a sign you may have underestimated the severity of your p.r. issues.
4. Why did Sharapova get copious wild cards for WTA events but run into trouble at the Slams? (I’m hearing that Wimbledon, next up, will not be extending a wild card; nor does Sharapova expect it, as she did the one from the FFT.) Because the business models are different. Regular tour events are much more dependent on stars. (And in the case of Rome, the same management firm that represents Sharapova effectively owns and operates the tournament.) Different commercial considerations = different conclusions.
5. I speak only for myself, but I feel real ambivalence today. We’ve come a long way from the ATP essentially burying Andre Agassi’s positive result two decades ago. Any narrative about situational ethics or tennis covering up for stars has been shredded lately. An A-list player took a 15-month sentence for a substance that only went on the banned list a few weeks prior. (And a substance with highly questionable performance enhancing capabilities.) Then, even when she’s served her time, the first major—which she has won twice—snubs her and denies her entry. Tennis anti-doping program is hardly optimal. (Or optimally funded.) But this stance is a better look than this one…..And at the same time, I have some empathy—if not outright sympathy —for Sharapova. She’s now paid a hell of a price for a violation that, while deserving of punishment, is awfully small given the continuum of doping. She’s paid her price. She’s owed the right to get on with her career. With any luck she qualifies for Wimbledon and gets on with tennis.
Do Murray, Djokovic, Wawrinka deserve first, second and third seeds at French open this year? Nadal and Thiem have been the best so far in the clay court season. I would hate for Nadal and Thiem to square off in the quarters!!
• The Federer withdrawal is an interesting twist but, just to be clear, it doesn’t change much in terms of the draw. (Nadal will get a top four seed.)
Anyway, yes, you would hope Nadal and Thiem don't meet in the quarters. If I had to handicap the field today I’d say:
Maybe people are too shy to admit it, but the state of the ATP is just like the WTA if you take away Fed and Rafa. The ATP top 10 isn't as consistent as it used to be, and as a result many more unfamiliar names are getting to the latter stages of big tournaments this year.
• I’m not sure “shy” would be the adjective I would use. And I’m not sure the analogy quite holds. Djokovic and Murray have not been the consistent winners they've been in the past. And you don’t have the inconsistency at the top. A lot of you have harped on Angie Kerber and her failure to honor her top ranking with comparably top tennis. But look at, say, Garbine Muguruza—an up-and-comer who won a major within the past year, a natural athlete and big striker—who has taken advantage of the void at the top by….losing almost as many matches as she’s won this year. But your larger point is well taken: Djokovic and Murray (and Nishikori and Raonic and, of course, Wawrinka) have not been models of consistency in 2017.
Boy that Halep/Mladenovic match sure was a corker! Oh wait...I forgot. I (and most of the planet) didn't see it. Oh well, I'm sure the YouTube highlights will suffice. For the rest of the year.
• For the record, Tennis Channel’s coverage from the 2017 French Open will feature both genders.
Nastase in Madrid was unacceptable. I was disgusted that the entire Spanish tennis federation could not stand up and say NO. As much a great champion he is, and stories have been out there of how he respects all the ladies in his life, I felt he could have risen above the effort in just winning a title and voiced that Nastase is not wanted. The Nadal family is royalty in Spain, especially in the tennis kingdom. They could have easily pushed the issue and by doing that I think Nadal's legacy could have reached way higher than just a great tennis player.
—Reader name misplaced.
• “[H]e respects all the ladies in his life” is a phrase with familiar echoes. I hardly think you can blame Nadal—who was tending to the business of winning a tournament the following day—for the infection of Nastase. The larger point: given recent events, what a show of disrespect to the WTA that the organizers allowed him in the house.
Hi Jon, I have a confession that may make me sound like the prototypical ugly American: I'm having a hard time keeping my tennis-playing Spaniards with three names straight. Currently, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Roberto Bautista Agut, and Pablo Carreno Busta are ranked 19-20-21. All three have played well of late (last week excepted), but they seem to get very little press over here. I wonder if you could provide a little primer on the three that might help those of us who (a) are interested in Spanish tennis beyond Rafa and (b) have commitments (e.g. jobs) that make watching first-round matches at Madrid, for example, unrealistic?
—Thanks, Tamlin P.
• It’s okay. I know plenty of Spaniards who can’t distinguish among Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Michael Carter-Williams. What of this mini-Armada, bunched together in the rankings?
Vinolas is 29 but playing the best tennis of his career. He’s a lefty who doesn’t do a lot wrong but doesn't beat himself either. He’s defending QF points at the French Open this year. Making the most of this career surge, he plays a lot of matches (65 last year and 35 already this year.)
Roberto Bautista Agut—Robby Bats if you need abridgement—is a classic steady-if-unremarkable type who will annoy players with persistence (and sometimes gamesmanship) and win his share of matches by attrition but struggle to threaten the top players. The common comp is the “poor man’s Ferrer” but I’m not sure I’m buying that. Maybe a rich man’s Andreas Seppi?
For my deflated currency, Carreno Busta is the best of the bunch. A limber athletic player with an all-court game, a knack for closing matches and a lot of upside at age 25.
• Take issue with Ilie Nastase’s presence. But otherwise, quite a week for the Madrid event. Record attendance, albeit with no Serena nor Federer.
• The Battle of the Sexes movie is coming, with Steve Carrell as Riggs, Emma Stone as BJK, and scene-stealing by Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman:
• Love this idea from the USTA. It’s the All-American College Combine. Last day to apply is June 1.
• The ATP is really going all-in on experimentation with a new format for the Next-Gen Finals.
Oracle Corp., in conjunction with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, announced that it will bring collegiate championships to Indian Wells this fall. The Oracle ITA National Fall Championships will be held November 2-5, 2017, at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and other resort locations. The event, which serves as the conclusion of the fall collegiate tennis season, will include 128 of the nation's top collegiate singles players (64 men and 64 women) and 64 doubles teams (32 men's teams and 32 women's teams). The event replaces the ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships.
• This week’s reader riff comes from Rick of Portland. A lot to unpack here. But read this and we can discuss next week. Anyway, over to you dear reader:
I find myself obsessing about the treatment that Maria Sharapova is receiving from many of her colleagues as she returns from the doping ban. I have read some thoughtful comments about performance enhancing drugs in sport as a result of the Sharapova case. Unfortunately, I don't think we have done more than scratch the surface of the issue. What is fair when it comes to performance enhancement? It's not an easy question to answer. Are nutritional supplements fair? Is it fair if some athletes eat better food than others, and travel with medical personnel? Is it fair if some competitors take drugs like Prozac for marginal personality disorders, or what might be construed as a simple lack of confidence? Listening to Prozac is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to become the best version of oneself through psychotropic medication. Are such drugs that can fine-tune the mental toughness of an athlete in a sport that is renowned for its mental toughness requirements on the banned list? Is it fair that athletes with deeper pockets can afford to hire a sports psychologist while others can't? Is training at altitude fair if everybody doesn't have access to that method of enhanced training? Is it fair to eat foods that have been genetically altered to enhance their nutritional value? What about eating fish that has been "farmed" in a way that improves their amino acids for specifically human biochemical requirements?
I recently read about neurochemical profiling in Mind Wide Open. Cognitive scientists can use fMRI scans to observe how the serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine neurotransmitter systems in our individual brains are functioning. That means they can develop drugs and other means to optimize those systems. Would it be fair for athletes to use such techniques to optimize their abilities to concentrate and stay positive under pressure? That is the kind of sophistication that a new generation of biofeedback methods is on the cusp of providing.
Fairness in sport is a difficult thing to define. The very idea of it is embedded in the ancient tradition of virtue ethics. The good athlete competes on the merits of his or her talents alone. That's the virtue perspective. But we live in a world where everything is enhanced and improved on the basis of scientific knowledge and achievements. It is possible to breathe pure oxygen on the sidelines. Is that something a good athlete committed to the virtues of fair competition should (would) do? Medical researchers are getting closer to understanding the enhancement that comes from the placebo effect in drug trials. Would it be fair to employ that kind of understanding to improve an athlete's performance? As I see it, the only performance-enhancing drug that is unequivocally off limits is the class of steroids that harm the long-term health of athletes. The Lyle Alzado's of the world paid a steep price for the glory of a short-lived football career. We live in a brave new world. Let's be fair-minded about how slippery the slope really is when it comes to doping and cheating. Calling somebody a cheater for taking meldonium when it wasn't banned seems almost irrelevant. The real issue is so much more complicated, and interesting.