Mailbag: Why Andre Agassi is a good match for Novak Djokovic ahead of French Open
a) Our most recent podcast was with Jake Agna on the promise and pitfalls of growing tennis in Cuba.
b) Next guest: Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, three-time queen of Paris, will join to help preview the 2017 French Open.
c) We’ll have seed reports once the draws are released
d) Here’s the Sports Illustrated French Open preview roundtable.
e) A reminder that French Open coverage starts on Tennis Channel this Sunday. We welcome James Blake to the team.
f) A story to follow. As I write this, Petra Kvitova is entered in the draw and will, I’m told, make a game-time decision as to whether she’ll play. Regardless of her decision, man, that’s great news she’s this far along in her recovery.
g) Your 2017 French Open suicide pool. Everyone in.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
As a (worried) fan, help me decide how to feel about Novak Djokovic taking on Andre Agassi. Seems like a weird choice to me. What does Novak know that I don’t?
—Bill O.S., New York
• Yes, the big news in The Republic of Tennis was the announcement that Novak Djokovic will be working with Andre Agassi. I am reluctant to call Agassi a “coach,” absent more details about the arrangement. But we’ll see. With all due respect to the doubles draw, this suddenly becomes the most interesting pairing at the 2017 French Open, a compensatory storyline after the withdrawals of Serena and Federer and the exile of Sharapova.
What does Djokovic know? Little. Which is part of the appeal and excitement. Agassi hasn't done this before. He hasn't exactly been loitering in the Land of Tennis, making himself available. It’s clear that Djokovic and Agassi don’t actually know each other that well. “We are both excited to work together and see where it takes us,” said Djokovic. “We don't have any long-term commitment. It's just us trying to get to know each other in Paris a little bit. He will not stay the whole tournament. He's going to stay only to a certain time, and then we'll see after that what's going to happen.”
Me? I love this move. It shows that ambition still churns within Djokovic (and perhaps Agassi as well.) It’s a loose enough commitment that it comes with little pressure. Yet Djokovic’s decision to make this personnel move days before he tries to defend a major title (and, abstractly, defend much more) suggests a seriousness of purpose. Lord knows Agassi understands a game predicated on a peerless return of serve. Lord knows Agassi knows about extricating yourself from a slump in the 29-30 age range.
For the thorny portion of today’s show: here’s something else to consider: Djokovic has alluded to “personal issues” as a source of this slump. In Agassi, he has hired a measured, mature, grounded 47-year-old man who has mastered work-life balance, has come to terms with celebrity and is known as much for his philanthropy as his tennis. Agassi is, by all accounts, happily married. He is, by all accounts, a present father. Inasmuch as this relationship is less about Xs and O’s and tennis strategy as it is more general guidance and existential inspiration, Djokovic could scarcely have done better. Sounds almost like a guru.
The crowds at Roland Garros had grown weary of Rafa winning every year. Do you think they will embrace him now that he's had a few bad years? And do you think Djokovic moved to Lacoste to keep them on his side? Vamos Rafa.
—Kathy Nugent, Pittsburgh
• It will be interesting to see where loyalties resides this year. My sense: Nadal fatigue is long a thing of the past. There’s recognition that:
a) He’s inextricably tied to this event—more than any other player
b) Absent a title since 2014, he’s been missed.
c) His mini-comeback this year at age 30/31 is admirable.
d) He won't be the foil of Federer, the crowd favorite, this year.
As for Djokovic, perhaps he gets a small Lacoste local brand bump. He gets a bigger bump for the Agassi hire. And a bigger bump still for being the defending champ who, after years choking on the sand, finally crossed the desert in 2016.
Hey Jon. For all the griping about the travesty of women’s tennis not being shown on U.S. TV, it seems to have been a boon for men’s doubles. I watched more men’s doubles during Rome and Madrid than I have watched in the past year. Kudos to Tennis Channel for filling in the gaps with excellent doubles coverage!
Thank goodness Serena finally said something this week about the lack of women’s tennis on U.S. TV. Why are the other women not more up in arms? Any former female players have anything to say?
—Charlie, Washington, D.C.
• We all love doubles, men’s and women’s. But what a pity that the WTA has botched this so badly. At least in the U.S., women’s tennis has basically been a rumor this spring. I don't profess to speak for any of them, but I do sense that a lot of former players are really torn. They, understandably, don't want to denigrate the tour they helped build. And yet they are distressed by this unforced error.
Jon, there is great emphasis in the tennis world on the dip in Djokovic's level which may have a basis given his admission of some personal issues, but Andy Murray's decline is even greater and has no backstory, or at least none that has been reported. Any thoughts on why Andy's level has declined?
• The early explanation: Murray played himself out chasing—and achieving—the top ranking at the end of 2016. But we’re almost through 2017 and it’s been a string of dismal results. Murray gets a pass through the clay season. But a lackluster grass stretch and, as a wise man said, “We got issues, kids.”
***We continue receiving a lot of Sharapova mail, which is understandable. But I propose that after today, we take a break for a while. We have a major coming up. Sharapova isn't even in the draw. Barring new developments, let’s make like the FFT and divorce ourselves from Sharapova for a bit.
I enjoy reading your Mailbag each week, though sometimes I disagree strongly with what you've said. That's okay, because it probably means you're doing a great job.
Re: Sharapova, here's the simple logic about why her colleagues are so upset: When it comes to cheating, intent is everything. So, the fact that meldonium is not necessarily effective as a performance enhancer, or the fact that it was not yet on the banned list, is irrelevant to her colleagues.
Sharapova's pattern of use was not medical, and therefore there was an obvious intent to game the system by taking what she thought was a performance-enhancing drug. On top of that, she did not disclose her use of the drug (as required), which again shows intent to deceive. That combination makes people angry, naturally. Very different from using elevation or even magic bubbles, even though those issues are very important and interesting to discuss too, and I'm glad you're exploring them.
• First just to reiterate, disagreement is always welcome. With the issue of intent, I think we need to differentiate and specify. Did Sharapova intend to enhance performance? Absolutely. The same way athletes training at altitude or hiring physios or cyclists sleeping in hypoxic chambers do. Did she intend to “game the system,” as you put it? The fact she concealed her usage from her team and on her doping forms suggests so. Did she intend to cheat, to intentionally circumvent or violate written rules? I would submit no.
In Sharpova’s defense, let this soliloquy from “Ivan H. (now in Mexico City)” double as our reader riff:
Jon, all of the silt that's been kicked up around Sharapova this past year has reminded me of the case of Justine Sacco. A successful person makes an honest misstep, and the world around her suddenly leaps down her throat. The main parallel to me is the dissonance between fact and sentiment: in both cases the initial mistake was a misdemeanor at worst and not ill-intentioned, but it seems like the whole world chose to ignore the "legal" dimension and act instead on feeling, using the mistake as a chance to go "Aha!! I told you!" and justify whatever negative feelings they already harbored.
It remains to be seen how the ban & rough return will affect Sharapova's career, but I certainly hope it doesn't follow the downward spiral that Justine Sacco was forced down. I think there's a larger picture to be drawn about the state of the world in the 21st century where everything gets monitored, everything can be used as evidence, the line between fact and feeling is blurred, and the public gets the freedom to act as judge jury and executioner. All my best.
I was a bit surprised today to read the following quote from the head of WTA: "I do not agree with the basis put forward by the French Tennis Federation for their decision with respect to Maria Sharapova," said WTA CEO Simon. "She has complied with the sanction imposed by CAS. The tennis anti-doping program is a uniform effort supported by the Grand Slams, WTA, ITF, and ATP. There are no grounds for any member of the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme to penalize any player beyond the sanctions set forth in the final decisions resolving these matters." How is it the role of Simon to get in the middle of this and advocate for one player over another for a French Open wildcard? Did he make similar statements on behalf of the more than 50 players ranked higher than Sharapova at the cut off date who didn't receive wild cards?
—Matthew, Manila, Philippines
• Yes, this statement fell flat. But I don’t envy Steve Simon here. You want to show your players—and their agents; and your board—that you’re willing to advocate for them. You want to feel part of this conversation, that you haven't completely ceded authority. You want to dispel the notion that a star player is still tainted and being judged with skepticism. You can’t blast the doping code—you, after all, are a signatory. You don’t want to antagonize the Slams, which are paying your players the bulk of their wages, as well as equal prize money. As Matthew notes, you can’t show favoritism to one of your constituent players over another. And there’s inconvenient point that the draw cut-offs are determined by your own ranking system. At some level, Sharapova’s paucity of WTA points is really to blame here.
So what do you do? You issue a painstakingly-worded statement that doesn't take issue with the conclusion but the “basis put forward.” The logic of the statement fails on multiple levels. Wild card distribution is, by definition, discretionary, and therefore the assertion that Sharapova is being “penalized beyond sanctions” is specious. You’ve kinda sorta supported Sharapova. You have respected the anti-doping code. You haven’t objected to the FFT’s decision, but rather the “basis.” You’ve joined the conversation. Don’t envy Steve Simon here at all. This is a delicate situation. But a statement like this throws tennis politics into sharp relief.
• Congrats to the ITF Grand Slam grant winners.
• Funny, we had heard several months ago that Victoria Azarenka was aiming for a French Open return. Her camp sent word that she would resume playing the North American hardcourt swing. She has now announced she will return at the Mallorca Open, which begins in June 19.
• Juan Martin Del Potro has chosen to continue working with TEAM8, the global sports and entertainment company.
• Stefanie Graf will continue as Tournament Ambassador for the 2017 WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai, helping promote the third edition of this elite year-end women’s tennis event, which will be staged at the Hengqin Tennis Center Zhuhai between Oct. 31 and Nov. 5.
• This week’s LLS: George Orwell and Novak Djokovic