Mailbag: What's next for Novak Djokovic and his partnership with Andre Agassi?
- Reader questions on Djokovic and Agassi's unconventional player-coach relationship, plus more on Rafael Nadal's dominance, counter-puncher Caroline Wozniacki and more.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
It's just great to see how the ITF's emergency Sunday-night meeting produced that rule barring any player from winning more than 10 titles at one major event. I mean, who would actually want to see the same person win time after time for, say, a decade and a half? Especially when his opponents consistently choked, got nervous or intimidated, or failed to try their best due to negative attitudes.
Now if this hypothetical individual was a fine sportsman who represented the very qualities his opponents lacked when they faced him, that would mitigate the situation. But tennis is about competitiveness, entertainment and athleticism, and when these are not shown on both sides of the court, it makes one feel that one should be getting a pedicure instead or feeding the ducks on a warm afternoon. Anyway, now that the ITF has ensured that excessive domination without opposition will never happen, those purists in the audience who want two competitors on the court at all times can rest easy.
By the way, what do you think about a rule barring players over 30?
—Very very sincerely, Mark, Taipei
• Well played. Nadal at the French recalls my feelings about Federer circa 2006 and Serena Williams at the peak of her powers. The suspense and drama resides not in the outcomes but in the ways in which the magic will reveal itself. Nadal’s matches were tremendous entertainment and spectacle, even if the outcomes were not really in doubt.
While we’re here, the ITF comes in for frequent criticism in tennis, most notably for its willingness to let Davis Cup diminish in prestige. (Fortunately, that’s now being addressed; let’s hope it's not too late.) But it does plenty right. Take it away, Ons Jabeur.
Although I agree that Djokovic has only himself to blame for his meltdown (and I hope he recovers), I find it hard not to fault Agassi a little. A player reaches out to you asking for your tips and wisdom (and paying you for that help) and you say, "Yes, I'll help but I'm not staying by your side throughout the tournament"? Even if Agassi had a good reason to leave, such as family issues (I haven't read anything to that effect), why say yes to a job you are not going to commit to 100%? Imagine telling your employer that you may leave after a while, even if said employer really needs you?
Djokovic is right not to blame anybody and has been reverential toward Agassi, but I don't know... It's hard to shake off the feeling that, if the coach was anybody else but Agassi (i.e. one of the greatest players ever), Djokovic would have some harsher words...
Hope to hear from you, big fan of your work!
—Eddie, São Paulo, Brazil
• Someone else suggested that, too. I would contend that a) It was entirely reasonable for Agassi to honor his family commitment, even if that meant leaving the French Open after week one. b) If anything, Agassi’s devotion to family and this display of work/life balance represented a teachable moment vis-à-vis Djokovic. There will always be another tournament; there won't necessarily be another time for a family vacation with my wife and two teenagers. Prioritize, pal.
Here’s something related, though, that interested me. During the French Open, Agassi spoke to Justin Gimelstob. In passing he mentioned that he was in Paris on his own time “and frankly my own dime.” This is noble of him. “I want to see how this goes before I start drawing a salary.” But it also suggests that this might not be a conventional coach/player relationship.
Just watched the Roland Garros men's semi with Stan and Andy. It filled in a lot by the second set, but what's with the empty seats? Any chance we can get RG to move to Memphis? I'd definitely get a tournament package.
—Martin Burkey, Huntsville, Ala.
• It’s maddening and it looks terrible on t.v. The grounds are absolutely packed. And yet the prime seats—i.e. the ones shown on television—are vacant, even when a 10-time champ starts his matches. As my friend Ted Robinson puts it, “The French like their tennis. But lunch is absolutely sacred.” On the bright side, by the second set and digestion underway, the stands fill up.
Random aside: anyone curious why ascending German star Sasha Zverev is not playing Stuttgart and is brother is?
And by the way, Maria Sharapova’s withdrawal from the grass events annuls one of the best deals in sports. The Birmingham organizers and the LTA gave Sharapova a wild card but paid her no endorsement fee—when she would ordinarily command six figures—and secured a two-year commitment from her. That’s a nice bit of leverage-recognition. Pity the event wasn’t rewarded.
While I’ve never been a huge Djokovic fan (Federer-Nadal for life!), this is just painful to watch. How does one go about organizing an intervention because this is now veering dangerous close to Patty Schnyder territory?
—Croydon F., Chicago
• Again, show me a tennis hero, I will write you a comeback story. Federer went nearly five years without winning a major. (He now, at age 35, heads to Wimbledon as the favorite, having won Australia and the “sunshine double.”) Nadal went three years without one and didn’t even reach the latter rounds of a Slam. (At age 31 he is coming off a comically dominant French Open.) Even Djokovic won three majors in 2011 and then vaporized in 2012.
Clearly Djokovic’s emotional machinery is on the fritz now. That last hour against Dominic Thiem was almost bizarre its vacancy—this from a man whom we’ve seen rip his shirt on court, such is the level of his intensity.
But that doesn’t preclude a return to greatness.
I watched some video clips of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's 1998 victory at Roland Garros. Here is an excellent clip:
She won this tournament by beating Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles—which is an amazing feat when viewed in retrospect. She did it by looping up a lot of balls high and deep, slicing a lot of balls at sharp angles, getting in a high percentage of first serves by not going for huge serves, and wearing her opponents down mentally by getting so many shots back.
My question is why do you think Caroline Wozniacki has never been able to win the French Open? She is capable of playing very similarly, but has a better serve than Sanchez Vicario. It would serve her well to watch videos like this to get some ideas on how to counterpunch on clay.
• This question is a holdover but I think it’s relevant. We’re not in the 80s and 90s. Sanchez Vicario’s retrieving-based game wouldn’t be successful today either. Players need weapons and they need to be offense-minded regardless of surface. In the final, Ostapenko hit 54 winners; Halep hit eight. Enough said.
Other players though, should be encouraged by Ostapenko. She is hardly a physical freak. If she is 5’10”, as she’s listed, my name is Paradorn Srichaphan. (I’m about 5’11” and, well, see for yourself.)
But she plays with a go-for-broke mentality. And the dividends were substantial.
As a long-time reader and frequent submitter of questions, I wanted to personally thank you for your strongly-worded condemnation of Margaret Court’s bigotry. I hope that your “quick rant” reached some eyes that needed to see it, and, more importantly, perhaps it changed a few minds as well.
—Aaron Dias, Charleston, S.C.
Can we PLEASE cut the crap regarding gay rights/gay marriage/homophobia, etc. Jon? You don’t know Margaret Court, (I don’t either) but you, like everyone else in the media is quick with the knife whenever ANYBODY criticizes the gay life style. She, like most people in the world (including homosexuals, by the way) is probably a nice person who happens to believe, like at lot of us, that there is, was, and always will be something immoral about homosexuality. There are probably also some homosexuals in the tennis world who openly hate practicing Christians…are you gonna ever write about that? No, because you’d be out of a job, and you know it. And stop with the ‘Let’s Change the Name of Margaret Court Arena Because She’s Such A Bad Person’ campaign…change it to what, Jon, Harvey Milk Arena?
• Against my better judgment, I'll bite here. You lost me at “life style.” But the larger point: it’s not about like or dislike, nice people or bad people. It’s about deprivation. If your hypothetical homosexual simply disliked or disapproved of Christians it would be one thing. (Small-minded and bigoted, but so be it.) If he tried to prevent them from practicing their faith, it would be something else entirely.
Remember that song by Freak Nasty with lyrics, "I dip you dip we dip"? Watching Simona Halep almost grunt through the opposing players shot (and grunt), I'm realizing two players can grunt at the same time. Her rewrite of the song is "I grunt you grunt we grunt." What gives?
• Now you can all considered yourself infected by this sonic unpleasantness:
My old cut-and-paste: grunting doesn't bother me much, especially when it’s the offshoot of labor. (Which I firmly believe is the case with Halep.) I realize it bothers many of you. And I realize the WTA’s deaf ears, if you’ll pardon the pun, was insulting to fans. But I’d encourage you to direct your outrage elsewhere. Like on-court coaching.
Jon, I enjoyed your work on the Tennis Channel at Roland Garros, and your 50 thoughts article for SI was wonderful. One historical point of clarification: Vichy was the part of France Not Occupied by the Germans in World War Two.
• Right you are. Thanks much.
What happened to the Mailbag? I see many more posts during French Open but no Mailbag? I hope it comes back soon! Cheers.
—Gautam R. Mehta
• We’re back. I thought it would be more helpful to postpone the daily mailbags at Slams, and instead write brief daily dispatches. If people have other ideas, I’m open to suggestions.
• Next SI/Tennis Channel tennis podcast: Murphy Jensen talks about the match that changed his life and his five-setter with addiction.
• From the good soldiering department: The Michael Chang Tennis Insider Camp will be held Aug. 7-11 at the Four Seasons Hualalai. Todd Martin, Mark Kovacs and I will participate as well.
• Serving leftovers….Somehow I missed this but I love this line by Renzo Olivo after beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: "I knew it was going to be hard. It was going to be crowdy."
• This week’s edition of the WTA Blooper reel that is on-court coaching:
• Check out the 2017 ATP Race standings:
1 Rafael Nadal 6115
2 Roger Federer 4045
3 Dominic Thiem 3165
4 Stan Wawrinka 3140
5 Alexander Zverev 2140
6 Novak Djokovic 1975
7 Andy Murray 1930
8 David Goffin 1820
9 Pablo Carreno Busta 1740
10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 1570
• Mary Carillo is profiling Frances Tiafoe for the next Real Sports.
• The USTA today announced that Columbia University recruit Austen Huang of Elke Grove, Calif., and Princeton-bound Stephanie Schrage, of Milburn, N.J., were named the recipients of the 2017 USTA National Junior Scholar Athlete Award, honoring high school tennis players who best demonstrate that tennis is the sport of opportunity for education, advancement and character development.
• This week's LLS is from Megan Fernandez: Elena Vesnina and Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner