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  • It's easy to suspect that Novak Djokovic's injury layoff is about more than just his elbow. Will the break help heal all wounds and vault the 12-time Grand Slam champ back to his winning ways? Plus questions on American men's tennis, Hall of Fame candidates and much more.
By Jon Wertheim
August 02, 2017

Quick housekeeping:

• Ana Ivanovic is our most recent podcast guest.

• A reader riff at the end comes in video form, a cri de couer about the state of tennis in the United States.

On to the questions:

Mailbag

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

The news about Djokovic would be more shocking if Federer hadn’t done the same thing last year. BTW, did Djokovic plan to make his announcement on the very same day?? Personally I don’t see these “breaks” as similar.  Federer had knee surgery and probably came back too soon. As he said, he didn’t take the break because he wanted to, he had to. 

Can I say the same thing about Djokovic? Not sure. I believe he does have an elbow issue that needs rest. But I think this break has a lot more to do with his mental state than his physical state. I think had Federer not taken his break last year and come back so strong, Djokovic would not have taken the rest of the year off. I think he may have skipped an event or two, but not the rest of the year. Federer doing it gave Djokovic a “free pass” so-to-speak.

We know Federer’s break (and Nadal’s too) were strictly about injuries.  But Djokovic freely admits that he was “flat” and searching for motivation after he won RG. There’s no denying he had other issues—you don’t fire your entire team over an injury! I think this break is about much more than just his elbow.
Michelle

• We didn’t talk much about Djokovic’s break last week, so maybe we should start here. Quick points:

1) Like Michelle—and like many of you—it's easy to suspect that this is about more than an injured elbow. To anyone who’s watched Djokovic, followed his results, followed by his perplexingly uncharacteristic (and uncharacteristically perplexing) personnel moves… it’s clear there’s a lot going on here in addition to a physical issue.

2) And so what? This is a grueling line of work. All the more so when you have the pressures that attend becoming a global celebrity and a one-man brand. Even making this decision to take this sabbatical must have been excruciating. By shutting it down for the year, Djokovic has idled his coach and others on his payroll. He has made things awkward for Lacoste, his new apparel sponsor, who was surely relying on his appearing in New York. He has complicated the 10-part Amazon documentary. Above all, there’s existential question about how this will impact his career going forward.

3) Whether it was coincidence or inspiration, the parallels to Federer are unmistakable. They announced their “shut down” exactly a year apart, after a loss at Wimbledon. More important, from Federer to Serena to Nadal, there are now ample data points to suggest that taking time off is not career suicide. In fact, it can be restorative. In these next few months, Djokovic can see how deeply (or not deeply) he misses tennis. That alone could be extraordinarily valuable self-knowledge as he plots his return.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

4) How fortunate is the Australian Open? Whether it’s Federer or Serena or now Djokovic, that’s the one event that hasn’t been compromised by the absences. Time and again, you hear players wear down during the year and then pinpoint Melbourne—start of a new year, the air perfumed with promise and fresh potential—as the return date.

5) Wish him well. This is a towering figure. Some of you like him. Some of you, less so. But surely we can all agree, he deserves better than the last 14 months.

Couldn't you still make the argument that Pete Sampras is GOAT? Why? Simply because shouldn't the number of Grand Slam titles be compared relatively to the players' peers rather than across generations. Sampras won 14 titles, Agassi the next on that list won eight. Sampras won a whopping 75% more titles. Shouldn't that tell you that it was more difficult to win Grand Slam titles in that era? Shouldn't we also take into account that the game has changed (Technology, training, court speed etc.) since the 90s and made it possible to have far more consistent results?  
Rahul, Brooklyn

• You can make any argument for GOAT, which is part of the fun and frustration of the discussion. I’m not sure I’m following your logic, though. If I’m winning 19 majors and my contemporaries are winning 15 and 12—that is: I have some really, really accomplished colleagues—doesn't that work to my favor, not my detriment?

I agree that training and court speed and strings all distort head-to-head comparisons. But, again, these factors cut both ways. Rod Laver didn't have the benefit of NetJets and a phalanx of coaches and on-site masseuses. Then again, neither did his opponents.

I don’t necessarily have strong feelings here, but I also think we need to consider the “applicant pool.” When you’re valedictorian of your Harvard Class but your school doesn't allow women and has quotas of minorities, it’s not quite the same as being valedictorian today. Likewise, when you're a tennis dynamo in an era when Grand Slam draw sizes were 32 and the field came mostly from only a subset of countries, should that be discounted? Yes, the player can't be blamed—and perhaps shouldn’t be penalized—for demographics. But shouldn’t, say, Serena Williams get credit for supremacy at a time when the sport is so much more global and the field is considerably deeper? Discuss…..

Tennis
Mailbag: Appreciation For Mirka Federer and Her Impact on Roger's Career

Just in the last few days, Rublev won a 250 event at age 19, Opelka blew at least six match points. Tiafoe, Fritz stumbling. Players changing coaches...

there is nobody I can find writing about this. Where do you get info online about this stuff? Any discussion sites, blogs you'd suggest? Could you write on emerging Americans, how they vary in balancing tournament scheduling/practice, long-term vs. short-term goals, and what their projected ceilings are (expected best ranking by expert consensus)? Also: What is the effect of having young kids on performance? (Murray, Djokovic, Fritz—injuries don't heal if you don't sleep/are carrying babies.)
Andy F.

• Your first question is valid. For a variety of reasons—media economics, the global nature of the sport—it’s hard to find one-stop shopping for tennis results. How many U.S.-based outlets are sending writers to Umag to cover Andrey Rublev’s unlikely run? Not ESPN, not The New York Times, not Sports Illustrated. On the plus side, there’s social media feed. A tennis feed would have provided the info, albeit in 140-character form.

As for the Americans, I’m trying to ease my way out of the prediction game. Honestly, who knows? Right now it’s Francis Tiafoe leading the scoreboard dot race. (Me? I think there’s a lot to like about his game and his personality; but I worry a bit about how many close losses he takes. Just last night he took another, falling 7-6, 7-6 to Thanasi Kokkanakis in Los Cabos.) Last year it was Taylor Fritz. (On account of injury and “he’s got a lot on his plate,” Fritz has backslid a bit in 2017.) Lately Tommy Paul has been coming on strong. A few months ago, he was barely on the radar.

All of which is to say: who knows? But, like a diversified stock portfolio, you figure that if you have a few hits among your positions, you’ll do well.

Tennis
Attorneys seek Venus Williams' cellphone in fatal crash

Jon, are you really waffling about Stan Wawrinka and the Hall of Fame? I think he gets in easy, especially if you look at others already inducted
Ben B., New York

• Not sure where this started (fake news!) but I want state emphatically and unambiguously that Stan Wawrinka could quit tennis tomorrow and he would still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Absolutely has my vote. Three majors, Davis Cup success, a long-term lease in the top five, Olympic success, all achieved in the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic era….IN.

Jon: Thank you, thank you, one thousand times, thank you. Not once, ever, have I found Friends even remotely funny. I've often contended that if all six of the actors were replaced with outstanding comedic talents that weren't remotely attractive, the show would've been canceled within its first season. The acting is bad, the writing is even worse. Save for Aniston, whose image carries her more than her abilities, the rest of the cast have proven to be true hacks (albeit grossly wealthy hacks). Kal Patel, in a GQ interview a few years back, chose Friends as that "thing" everyone else finds hysterical, but he simply could not get.

Take care, Jon.  Your comment put some skip in my step today.
Respectfully, Jay Zavislak

• We aim to put skip in steps. My point, though, was about trolls. If you don’t like Friends (as Jay and I—and apparently someone named Kal Patel—don’t) you don’t watch Friends. The idea of taking that next step and articulating your dislike directly to the actors and writers? That falls somewhere between strange and sociopathic.

Tennis
Serena Williams: How Black Women Can Close the Pay Gap

I have a question (or questions) about the way Grand Slam tournaments manage their mixed doubles events. I know many of the pairings are ad-hoc but how does a tournament decide who to accept and who not to? I assume most doubles specialists would be happy for extra games and extra prize money so there must be a set of rules about who qualifies. Once the entries are settled, how are seedings managed, and are ranking points awarded? Many thanks for years of inspiration and insight.
Ben Kiggell

• The combined rankings are used. So if, say, Lucie Safarova and Marcelo Melo teamed up at the U.S. Open, they would be the top seed, even if they had never before played together. And there’s a draw cutoff accordingly.

The book mentioned by Ana Ivanovic, What Alice Forgot, is by Liane Moriarty, who is also the author of Big Little LiesAna was great.
Ann, Troy, Mich.

• For the truth serum portion of today’s show: These podcast are good fun, but the dynamics are a little challenging, especially when they’re not conducted in person. These aren’t really conventional interviews, but neither are they conventional conversations. You’re not getting facial cues or visuals that help dialogue and interaction. But, yes, I agree that Ana was, not surprisingly, great. Really great. Engaging. Funny. Thoughtful. Game. And any athlete—male or female—who reads voraciously and carries around Moleskine notebooks to jot down thoughts, has already won me over.

And, damn, you’re right about Liane Moriarty! If only I had known I could have asked for guidance v/v my ambivalence over Big Little Lies— that is, my indecision over whether it was* man-hating dreck or compelling great television and one of my favorite binges of 2017. (FWIW, Chris Evert is squarely in the latter camp.)

*Maybe we need to get out of past tense.

Tennis
Tennys Sandgren Earns Spot in U.S. Open Main Draw Due to Injured Yoshihito Nishioka

Jon, did you seriously just report that a girl named Volynets won a junior tournament without making any comment about her name?? It's like I don't know who you are anymore. I mean, that's gotta be right up there with Smashnova-Pistolesi! Can you at least confirm she's not a strict baseliner? 
Woody, Calgary, Alberta

• Like Tennys Sandgren—who will be in the main draw at the U.S. Open—you can’t make this up.

Shots, Miscellany

Bravo Dan Steinberg and bravo Stevie Johnson.

• The week before the U.S. Open is shaping up as a strong tennis week for New England. As the New Haven WTA plays out, Stowe, Vermont, will host Kooyong-style event Aug. 22-24 featuring Tommy Haas, Frances Tiafoe, Reilly Opelka, Albert Ramos, Jared Donaldson, Vasek Pospisil, and Jeremy Chardy.

• Two longtime FOMB (friends of the Mailbag) committed exceptionally strong works of journalism recently, even if they are the non-tennis variety: Here’s Megan Fernandez and here’s Hua Hsu on Bob Marley

• Petra Kvitova will make her Charleston, South Carolina tennis debut at the 2018 Volvo Car Open, March 31to April 8 on Daniel Island. The two-time Wimbledon champion returned to the WTA circuit in May 2017 after a complex hand injury following a home invasion in Dec. 2016.

Tennis
Elbow Injury Sidelines Novak Djokovic for Rest of 2017 Season

• We have few rules here. But here’s one: any press release that makes mentioned of Rennae Stubbs gets included. So: The Connecticut Open presented by United Technologies, a WTA Premier event taking place Aug. 18-26, will feature expansive weeklong coverage on ESPN2 and ESPN3. More than 50 hours of action at the Connecticut Open, featuring all singles matches played on Stadium Court, will be shown live across ESPN’s networks. The early rounds and quarterfinals will be available on ESPN3 and streaming live on the ESPN app, while the semifinals and finals will air on ESPN2. The ESPN broadcast team covering the tournament will comprise Rennae Stubbs and Jason Goodall, with Pam Shriver joining for the weekend action.

Our old Mailbag friend, Ivan H., back in New York has LLS: #NextGenATP Ernesto Escobedo and #LastGenATP Vince Spadea.

Michael Dodge/Getty Images;Andy Lyons/Getty Images

• Finally our Reader Riff comes from Javier Palenque who—not wrongly—is concerned about the declines in tennis participation in the U.S.

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