Mailbag: Young Americans With the Best Chance at a Grand Slam Breakthrough
- Which young American woman has the best chance of a major breakthrough at a Grand Slam? Plus what makes a good on-air tennis analyst, Maria Sharapova at the U.S. Open, a solution for injuries and more.
The most recent podcast guest is singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, who talks about music, tennis, life on the road. And he performs his Roger Federer pop song.
This week, there’s an excellent Reader Riff at the end from a fan who takes issue with best-of-three but has some suggestions for how to reduce wear-and-tear that has reached crisis level.
In the coming day, I’m going compile our Mailbag community’s “Tips for attending the U.S. Open.” If anyone has items to add, fire away.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Hello Jon. Now that Jelena Ostapenko and @GarbiMuguruza are Slam champions and young. When are the three young American women going to win a Slam? I know @Madison_Keys and @SloaneStephens are coming back from injuries. CoCo Vandeweghe is doing well. Is it possible you can write an article about their Slam chances? All three are very talented but have not broken through yet. Why?
• For starters, I wouldn't lump the two summer winners together. Ostapenko is a promising talent but her title in Paris—an unseeded player winning seven matches—was the proverbial bolt of blue. In the case of Muguruza, we’re talking about a player who reached the Wimbledon final in 2015 (playing well against Serena Williams in the final), won the French Open in 2016 (beating Serena Williams in the final) and is generally seen as a No.1 player, if/when she plumps her confidence a bit more.
But your point is well taken: if those two can do it—winning majors, taking advantage of Serena’s absence—why can't the Americans? Keys is the best bet. She’s played deep into Slams. The raw materials and raw talent are there. (It’s like: all along the Western front, people line up to receive. She got the power in her hand, to shock you like you won't believe.) Her Stanford title—over Vandeweghe in the final, ironically—suggests that, on the American asphalt, she has some open road ahead of her. Especially with Serena out, Keys has to be on short list of U.S. Open contenders. That assumes good health, which has been a challenge. But, again, she appears to be on the mend.
Befitting one of the sport’s great straight shooters, Vandeweghe is what she is. A powerful, athletic player with a dynamite serve who has been trending upward in general but especially at the (non clay) Slams. The last jump is a tough one: stringing together seven—not four or five—match wins and playing through those inevitable lapses or the inevitable day when your serve isn’t dialed in. Sounds easy but a slate of players, from Tomas Berdych to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, can attest to the difficulty. But could Vandeweghe win a major? No question.
Stephens is a bit of a wild card. Again, full health is essential. This was a player who was in a wheelchair in March, so a run to the second week of a major may not be likely for 2017. But she’s only 24.
Hello Jon, Hope you are doing well.
Quick question on Sharapova (I haven’t seen mention of this): She is currently ranked No. 149 and not entered in the Rogers Cup. Assuming she is fit, she likely won’t be ranked high enough for a main draw entry into the U.S. Open with only Cincinnati to come. The Qualifying Rounds are only two weeks away, has the U.S. Open made a decision on her status?
—Sameer, New York, N.Y.
• As a former champ, an American resident and player whose doping ban lapsed four months ago, Sharapova is likely to get a main draw wild card. The cynic will say with Serena, Djokovic and Wawrinka out, the event needs all the star power it can get. The more charitable will say that Sharapova served her time and—as a future Hall of Famer with no prior offenses—is owed a boost by the Republic of Tennis.
Forgive me for asking, but what's your level in tennis? Do you play? I often wonder about sports journalists and their level of proficiency in the sport that they write about. As a reader and viewer, I sometimes get irritated when the networks end up having some non-playing tennis "expert" hogging precious TV commentary time just after a match, whereas I am really more interested in listening to John McEnroe or some other great player talk about the game because he has been there and the insights he can give are more authentic. I am sure most tennis fans trust the natural authority that comes from that kind of experience more. With you, I make an exception because of how much I love your writing, so I end up watching you on TV, but to a point. I know that some coaches are not great players themselves (e.g. Bollettieri), but that strikes me as very different because they're actually getting their feet wet on the tennis court with their students. So may I ask you to make the case for why viewers should keep paying attention to pundits when we could just as well listen to the pros? Is it the context you provide? Is it the flair? Is it because you've watched many matches over the years? Is it because you've interviewed thousands of players?
—L, Marwan Hanania
• No forgiveness is required. It’s a totally fair (and interesting) question. I never know how to answer “How good are you?” As a kid, I played at a fairly high level, had a state ranking (granted, it was in Indiana) and probably could have played for a low-level college team. I taught tennis for a few summers. But I peaked at around age 16, never solidified my backhand and, today—one of the drawbacks of living in New York—don't play nearly as much as I’d like.
But I’ve always followed the sport. In college, I worked at the New Haven ATP event. When I came to Sports Illustrated in the late 90s, I gravitated to tennis. Soon, I was going to most of the Slams and a few other events each year. Probably more important, most days, I would have at least one or two tennis conversations or interviews with players or coaches or agents or officials.
This is coming with obvious bias, but I would submit that a commentator’s level of proficiency in the underlying endeavor shouldn’t much matter. Pauline Kael may not have directed movies or been an actress; but she had skills and sources and powers of observation that made her film reviews worth reading. Greil Marcus may not have played guitar, but he was a peerless music critic. You and I might not be able to cook, but that doesn’t mean we forfeit a right to have an opinion—sometimes even an informed and insightful one—about a meal we just ate.
I think that the big key is staying in your lane. As someone whose tennis peaked with a state ranking, I’m not the person who should be talking about what it’s like to play through pain at a Grand Slam or breaking down the finer technical points of the 100 mph second serve. Just as a former player might not be comfortable being put in a conventionally journalistic position. (See: the Serena Williams 2014 Wimbledon coverage.)
I preface this by saying that, for all of tennis’ congenital flaws, the sport’s broadcasting is rather excellent overall. And the former players are generally outstanding. But here’s an irony: often those with the most expertise are singularly ill-suited to convey what’s going on. Why? For the true genius—the violin prodigy, the coding whiz, Michael Jordan—they often skip steps in the execution of the task. To borrow a phrase, they “just do it.” And they have a hard time articulating process. Asking a true expert about their sport can be like asking the rest of us how we walk or breathe. I dunno. I just do it. “Curse of expertise,” it’s called. If you're interested, here’s a fun article.
It’s all the more reason why the great ones who have made the transition to insightful and incisive analyst are to be admired. But it’s also why former rankings (and even playing experiences) don’t make for a strong barometer. Put another way, a player whose initials are Jimmy Connors won more than 100 tournaments. Darren Cahill won three and never entered the top 20. Whom would you rather hear call a match?
With so much happening, Mr. W, you need a Mailbag twice a week! The drama! The speculations! Can we predict Nos. 1 and 2 for Federer and Nadal, or vice versa, and a surprising line-up for the Finals in London? Is there a general ennui in ATP?
—Ng in Vancouver, Canada
• Sadly I’m at full bandwidth. (Note to self: would it be better to chop the Mailbag into two columns, half as long but twice as frequent?)
I do think your other question is quite interesting. Already we know that, with the absence of Djokovic and Wawrinka, there will be some new faces in London. While I’m sure there’s ennui, you feel for the rest of the ATP. I’m envisioning a soothsayer at the players’ meeting the night before the Australian Open.
“Guys, I have good news. Djokovic’s slump will continue. He’ll win zero majors. In Australia, he won’t reach the second week. The Paris, he’ll get bageled in his last set. At Wimbledon, he’ll retire with a midmatch injury and then—like Federer in 2016—shut it down for the year. And get this: Murray, exhausted from the chase of the No. 1 ranking, won't be much of a factor. And Wawrinka, like Djokovic, won’t play again after Wimbledon.”
You can imagine the schadenfruede and the glee overtaking the room. Visions of majors dance in their heads. Kyrgios and Zverev think of the opportunity that awaits. Raonic and Nishikori envision that their generation can finally make a mark. Tomas Berdych and Jo Tsonga and Monfils wonder if they can finally bag the Slam that eluded them during the Big Four heyday. Journeymen consider that this is the year the field opens, the velvet ropes enclosing the top level go down, the access code becomes universal.
Then the seer resumes speaking:
“But here’s the catch: remember Federer and Nadal? You thought they were riding into the sunset? One or the other will win Australia, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid, the French Open and Wimbledon. Any questions?”
Ennui doesn't quite do it. But by now there must be a sort of convulsive fatalism.
As a licensed massage therapist, I wanted to point out that masseuse is not an interchangeable term. You've done this many times over the years so I wanted to bring it to your attention again. Massage therapists are trained and licensed. Masseuses are not and, in fact, the term often refers to sex workers. A little background in case you're interested. Thanks for taking note and for an otherwise terrific column!
—Kevin, Washington, D.C.
• You’re right, I’m wrong. And you're also right that I’ve made this unforced error before. This will end—happily—our incorrect use of masseuse.
Longtime reader of your Mailbag. (Since the beginning I think wah!) Had a couple of questions...
1) What do you think of the USTA's decision to end the U.S. Open National Playoffs? As a frequent participant in the event, I was really disappointed. The reason given by the USTA was that "we have seen from recent competitions that the Playoffs are being utilized by pro tennis players as a pathway to the US Open." I do understand that, and it's true that pros ultimately won the event, but isn't there an easier fix? Why not just bar entry to professionals instead of cancelling a very fun event?
2) Any information on Brian Baker? Seems he is just playing doubles these days. Has he given up on singles?
—Eido J., New York
• The Playoffs seemed like a bit of a ruse. It was billed as an American Idol-style competition. Hey, you—yes, YOU, the recreational player who thinks they’re pretty good—could earn a shot in the U.S. Open qualifying draw! I seem to remember that Mike Greenberg, the ESPN host, had entered the field one year. Then you realized that Jesse Witten is winning the spot. Jesse Witten? Wait, I know that guy! He took a set off Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open one year. I don't think you can begrudge the pros and former pros. They’re just taking advantage of the opportunity, the same way Chris Rock is entitled to perform at open mic night if it suits his schedule and business interests. But it does run counter to this idea that the playoffs represent this chance at tennis glory for the club hack.
And, yes, Brian Baker is a doubles only player now. He’s been out with an arm injury since Halle but should be back by Cincinnati. Tennis karma is deep in arrears to this guy. Here’s a player who battled Stan Wawrinka in the French Open junior final. That’s how good he was. And the injury bug didn’t just bite him. It went on an all-you-can-eat buffet. He’s 32 now and if there’s any justice he will still be playing alongside a partner when he’s the age of Daniel Nestor.
Just some comments after reading this week’s Mailbag. (I love your Mailbag, btw.) My biggest issue with Sampras being GOAT is his never winning the French Open in a time where he didn’t have to face a Borg or a Nadal. Not only did he not win Roland Garros, he never made the final and I think the semifinal only once. That’s not going to cut it when Fed, Nadal, and Djokovic all won each major. And yup, Stan would get my vote for HoF too.
• I hate to put any sort of edges on this wonderfully wide-open discussion. But I have to agree with IdaAnna. You have to win a Career Slam to be a GOAT contender.
And we need to put a moratorium-islas on Wawrinka’s Hall of Fame talk. He’s out of the U.S. Open. But he’s into Newport when his career ends. No more discussion. Just hope there’s no plaid at the induction ceremony.
Jon, I have been wondering whether we would see fewer injuries (for the men) at the majors if they would play best of three sets for the first couple rounds. I'm sure there are plenty of reasonable objections to this. Any thoughts on the pros or cons doing something like this?
—Matt, northern Utah
• This was not a plant! Best-of-three in week one, best-of-five in week two.
And let this be another reminder that we’re seeing way too many injuries. Both defending finalists at the U.S. Open are now non-starters, shutting it down for the year. Both Maria Sharapova and Andy Murray are no-gos for Canada this week. Same for Marin Cilic, fresh from his Wimbledon final appearance. Nick Kyrgios and Simona Halep were among the players retiring mid-match last week.
Sorry, this is not normal. This is not the unpleasant offshoot of a physical line of work. This is an epidemic. At some point, it would be nice if the adults in the room thought to come together and address this in a meaningful way.
Can @aisamhqureshi get a mention in your Mailbag? He is the lone Ace in our 190 million (and counting) serves!
• Yes, of course. Thanks for the link. And how about this: Aisam Qureshi gets a mention, regardless of Pakistan’s considerable population?
Ohhhh Puh-LEEZ Jon. I had to respond: Friends was so much like "Wonder Years" back in the ‘80s. As someone who essentially grew up in the late ‘90s, Friends is something that you come home to every night ... and laugh heartily as you decompress.
I still watch it. Its perfect for Thanksgiving or holidays to play in the background. Lets not go on a Friends-bashin’ endeavor here. Could I BE—any more clear about that? #Chandler
• Could you imagine going to Netflix or Amazon or a network today and saying, “Hey, I have this great scripted play. First, there’s this clapping in the theme music that you’re gonna love. Anyway, there are six friends—get it, the show’s title and all. Three guys and three girls. And you’re never gonna believe it: they have all these shifting allegiances and romantic tensions. Lots of misunderstandings. And they get together—get this—in a coffee shop. Oh, and Ross has a monkey!....You with me so far?”
The gap between the t.v. of the 90s and the t.v. of today is like Suzanne Lenglen versus Serena. Give kids a few episodes of, say, “Game of Thrones” or “Silicon Valley,” and then give them, say, “X Files” or “How I Met Your Mother” and they’d be correct in wondering if there weren’t a full century of artistic evolution sandwiched in between.
• Another unsolicited book recommendation: Unusually Cruel by Marc Howard.
• And a third… Ignore This by Catherine Pearlman.
• Eighteen-year old Sofia Kenin, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., clinched a spot in the main draw of the U.S. Open for the third straight year by winning the U.S. Open Wild Card Challenge.
• Press release: An Independent Tribunal appointed under Article 8.1 of the 2017 Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (the "Programme") has found that Sara Errani committed an Anti-Doping Rule Violation under Article 2.1 of the Programme and, as a consequence, has disqualified the affected results and imposed a period of ineligibility of two months, commencing on 3 August 2017. Ms. Errani, a 29-year-old player from Italy, provided a urine sample on 16 February 2017 as part of an Out-of-Competition test under the Programme. That sample was sent to the WADA-accredited laboratory in Montreal, Canada for analysis, and was found to contain letrozole, which is an aromatase inhibitor that is included under section S4 (Hormone and Metabolic Modulators) of the 2017 WADA Prohibited List, and therefore is also prohibited under the Programme.
On 18 April 2017, Ms. Errani was charged with an Anti-Doping Rule Violation under Article 2.1 of the Programme (presence of a Prohibited Substance in a Player’s Sample). She promptly admitted that she had committed the Anti-Doping Rule Violation charged, and asked for a hearing before an Independent Tribunal in accordance with Article 8 of the Programme to determine the consequences to be imposed on her for that violation.
At a hearing on 19 July 2017, the Independent Tribunal received evidence and heard legal arguments from both parties, and subsequently issued a reasoned decision on 3 August, which is available at www.itftennis.com/antidoping.
• As tickets for 2017 China Open go on sale, Mr. Thomas Ross, the EVP of International Affairs of China Open Promotions Limited (COL) & Co-Tournament Director of the China Open, brought news from the United States, that Maria Sharapova, the five-time Grand Slam champion and 2014 China Open champion, will return to Beijing this autumn targeting another China Open title. She even specially made a video for China Open fans to express her gratitude for the continuous support of SharaFamily and she is looking forward to meeting them at the Diamond Court as well.
• Tennis Cambodia was today awarded the inaugural International Tennis Hall of Fame Global Organisation of Distinction Award in recognition of its outstanding achievements in rebuilding tennis in the nation following the sport’s eradication during the genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. The award was presented by the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) in partnership with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) at the ITF Annual General Meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
• This week’s Reader Riff comes from P. Glews:
First of all if you are reading this then thank you for taking the time to do so. Sadly I see yet another request from you for best of three sets during the first week of a major in the men's singles event. Yet again I see this as a knee jerk reaction akin to putting a band-aid on a broken leg.
Whilst I agree with the principle that there is excess wear and tear on players and that the effect is cumulative reducing the number of sets in week one of a major doesn't remove the problem. Granted that a build up of wear and tear will cause injury it make a player injury prone but I would suggest that this has more to do with the lengthy season and tournaments being shoehorned in just to get it to all fit together: Back-to-back masters tournaments before the French Open, a three-week gap to adjust to grass pre-Wimbledon then back-to-back masters again before the U.S. Open and a while host of 250s and 500s crammed in are all designed to encourage excessive playing in order to maintain or improve rankings due to the points drop.
Additionally there are just over four months from the U.S. Open to the start of the new season that are filled with tournaments that encourage rankings chasing and that could be easily removed from the calendar if they didn't provide an opportunity to promote global interest and allow a wider audience the opportunity to see their favorite players play live (don't get me wrong tennis should be marked globally and these fans shouldn't miss out).
My point is that the rest of the season needs addressing before trying to cut back on what should be the cornerstones of the sport. I do agree with your suggestions around discouraging injured players from playing majors by retaining prize money but giving up their spot to a lucky loser...in fact I think this should apply to Masters 1000s as well and be implemented as soon as possible. I also think that more could be done with the other tournaments and this allows an opportunity to differentiate them before needing to cut down the majors:
- Futures and Challengers: No-ad scoring and a champions tie-break third set applied to all rounds.
- 250 tournaments: No-ad scoring and a champions tie-break third set up to the final which is best of three sets but with no-ad scoring.
- 500 tournaments: No ad scoring with a champions tie-break third set up to the quarter finals which are all best of three sets with no additional scoring.
- 1000 tournaments: No ad scoring until either the quarterfinals or semifinals.
- Majors: no change initially but if injuries are still a factor a couple of years down the road then go for no-ad scoring in week 1 (up to and including round 3) and a fifth set tiebreak at 8 games all (the U.S. Open maintains a 5th set tiebreak at 6-6 and the others can be reduced if required).
- Post U.S. Open. (This last on needs fleshing out I'll admit). A three-week break as a minimum and then the ATP world tour finals are played. Ranking points can no longer be earned post U.S. Open except for in Challengers and Futures tournaments, which will run as normal. Instead an extended Davis Cup format will be played with groups first and then semifinals and finals. Group matches could be best of 3 no-ad scoring followed by best of 3 in the semis and final. Matches could be played in Europe and Asia at the same time. Two matches per week so players benefit from reduced wear during this period plus the venues that would have hosted tournaments still get them and subject to the format the time taken could be potentially reduced...for example one group in Paris while the other is in Shanghai. This makes use of both venues, promotes the Davis Cup by letting it have the limelight will reducing the likelihood of players skipping it.
- Lastly: Restructure points from Masters tournaments so that only the best five results count towards the overall total, i.e. win five Masters and you can still get a payday from the others but the pressure is off from a rankings point of view. This should discourage players who have genuine niggling injuries from playing Masters to chase rankings points. Points would still drop and get added on a rolling basis so this would also reduce the impact of a short-term injury and prevent a player from potentially playing through it.
As an example, if someone had made it to the quarterfinals of the first four Masters, semifinals of another there and the first round of the other two in one year but couldn't play the first two masters due to resting a nagging injury then they would lose no points from resting. They could risk the injury and play anyway but they would need to make the semis for it to be worth it (other than for short term financial gain at risk of an even longer period of injury and long term financial loss). Under the current system they would lose two lots of quarterfinal points and have to wait over a year to make them back up (outside of the Majors or cramming in extra 250 or 500 tournaments).
I appreciate that this has been a long email and that point No. 5 needs fleshing out a bit more, but I would love to hear your points.