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  • At the U.S. Open, injuries will be the cause of absences and comeback trails; retirements and resurging stars—but what's really behind the wounded field? Plus thoughts on Melanie Oudin, the popularity of tennis in America and more.
By Jon Wertheim
August 23, 2017

Hey, everyone. A short Mailbag in advance of the 2017 U.S. Open. Some housekeeping:

• Roger Federer makes the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. The cover story will be posted on Friday.

• Our annual Users Guide to the U.S. Open. (Thanks to many of you for great suggestions)

• We’ll have seed reports and a roundtable later this week.

• The most recent SI/Tennis Channel podcast featured the great Rod Laver.

• Next up is surging American, Tommy Paul.

• Here’s the great Lisanti on Garbine Muguruza.

• Starting Monday, the Tennis Channel U.S. Open pregame shows runs 8-11 a.m. ET in advance of first ball.

Onward…

Mailbag

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

Jon, in Federer’s Montreal press conference following his finals loss to Sasha Zverev, when asked about his take on the upcoming U.S. Open, he stated the following: “There’s going to be a ball change there, which creates different plays, if you like.”

In reporting on Tour matters, we don’t hear or read a lot about the significance of the ball brand and type at any particular event, but we have heard players vocalize concerns about ball quality (e.g., Rafa Nadal in 2014) or the lack of consistency of ball usage. For example, during ATP World Tour spring clay court “season,” many of the events use the DUNLOP FORT Clay Court ball, whereas, Roland Garros uses a Babolat ball, which plays quite differently. 

All can acknowledge that, from a commercial standpoint and provided the ball is approved by the ITF, Tour events should have the autonomy to select an official ball; there are healthy rights fees attached to these deals at the Masters 1000s and Grand Slams. That said, we see ball usage consistency in other sports (e.g., Wilson in NFL, Spalding NBA, etc.).

In your years of covering professional tennis, are there any common themes or complaints you have heard from players concerning ball usage?

As an aside, do we know why certain U.S. Open events use a Wilson regular duty ball (e.g., Mixed Doubles), while most of the other U.S. Open events use the extra-duty ball, which is generally recommended for hard courts?
Jeffrey from N.Y.

• Great question. And a great example of tennis’ congenital dysfunction. In what other sport does the most fundamental piece of equipment change week-to-week? The players don’t have a traditional union, so they don't have much standing to complain. The events are all individual business so they cut their own deals. The Tours don’t have much input, especially when it comes to Slams. So where does that leave us? Even if using inconsistent balls comes at the expense of quality, even if it annoys the players, even if it—more on this in a moment—injures the players, there’s no real recourse.

Players do complain about this issue periodically. Martina Navratilova mentions it on Tennis Channel. Andy Murray has noted this. When the issue arises of using different balls from one week to the next, the fall-back response goes like this: different surfaces demand different balls. True as that may be, it still doesn't explain why the balls in the lead-up to Roland Garros are different from the French Open balls.

KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

Larger point: given the absences in the U.S. Open field, injuries and the physical demands put on players will surely be a talking point at the U.S. Open next week. My stance (and you are likely well aware by now) is one of concern yet ignorance. I don't know if these injuries—this inability of most players to remain healthy for a season—owes to string technology or overtraining or an onerous commitment schedule or a voodoo curse cast by Ronald Agenor. What I do know: not nearly is being is done to investigate and address this existential crisis. (It’s hardened into something much more severe than a trend.)

We can name player after player who has suffered a wrist injury in recent years—del Potro, Madison Keys, Bencic, Nishikori, Laura Robson. Maybe using one brand (and weight) of ball one week and a new brand/weight the next has correlation. Maybe not. But what a pity no one in a position of power seems especially energized to find out.

Greetings Jon... I have felt, these past couple decades or so, that the decline of the popularity of tennis in the USA is not the lack of men winning Grand Slam singles titles, it is not the length of matches, it is not hard-to-understand (?) scoring. The decline is due to the attention (or lack thereof, or lack of quality attention, present company excepted) given tennis by the general sports media. For example, taken from SI.com no less (granted, secondhand from the Associated Press): In women's first-round action, Karen Khachanov beat Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 …”  Discuss.
Edmundo 
Lakewood, Calif.

• Karen Khachanov has the best serve in the women’s draw. Seriously, I think it's a little chicken-and-egg. The media response: “We base coverage on consumer demand. How do we justify coverage when the public isn’t exactly clamoring for Karen Khachanov coverage?” The tennis response: “How do we goose demand among the public when there coverage is so spotty?” I’m often reminded of this:

My take: the decline of events held in the U.S. has been terrible for tennis in America. Roger Federer will play three events in the U.S. all year. The casual American sports fans can handle foreign athletes. But when the sport itself leaves the country, the provincialism sets in. 

Hi Jon, Why does Denis Shapovalov have to play the qualies at U.S. Open. Isn't he ranked No. 67 and thus, gets an automatic entry?
Hareesh

• This comes up a lot. The ranking cut-offs for events comes well in advance of the draw. In this case it predated Shapovalov’s surge. This seems unfair on its face, but makes sense logistically. Players need time to make their schedules and figure out where they are and are not eligible to play.

The real question: isn’t a teenager—fresh from beating Nadal—precisely the kind of player who deserves a wild card?

Speaking of Denis, one N: What's next for Shapolvalov?

Tennis
51 Insider Tips for Attending the U.S. Open

Hi Jon, I appreciate very much your Mailbag column. I read it every Wednesday on the SI.com website. Here are two possible questions for your weekly column:

1) Now that she has announced her retirement (at 25 years old!), what kind of cautionary tale is Melanie Oudin's career?

2) Whenever John Isner is playing, I can never predict the result. However, I can always predict that there will be a bunch of 7-6 sets on the final score... Not to mention those "double-digit-never-ending" fifth sets he enjoys playing so often. John Isner must be the (unrecognized) record holder of most tiebreaks played during a professional tennis career! What explains that? Playing style? Mental/physical endurance? Almost unbreakable serve?

Thanks in advance for your attention.
Marcos Nowosad

• Melanie Oudin’s career obviously peaked at the 2009 U.S. Open. But give her a lot of credit for perseverance in the years since. She chased the dream. She’s only 25, with lots of road ahead. Did her career fulfill the promise she showed as a teenager? No. But “cautionary tale” seems too harsh. Good luck to her in her next endeavor.

As for Isner, he serves masterfully and returns less masterfully. Which, as you note, leads to tiebreakers more often than not. After a disappointing Wimbledon, Isner had a strong a summer on the U.S. hardcourts. The question, as always, is durability. He plays a lot of summer tennis not just in terms of matches but in terms of duration. All those 7-6 sets add up. Add in his unusual physique and summer heat….and it’s a lot of miles on the odometer. We’ll see what he has left in New York.

Speaking of Isner, Amy of Hummelstown, Pa., found this gem. We say it again (most recently with David Ferrer): you write off great players at your peril.

Tennis
Keep Calm and Carry On: Garbine Muguruza Looks to Continue Strong Summer at U.S. Open

Now the X Files! Noooo…. Hi Jon. Can you explain why, after the last point of a brutal three-hour battle has been played and the players are about to meet at the net, the camera will most often show the winner’s camp instead? I think those few seconds where the two players interact with each other, in the heat of the moment, are very telling but we rarely get to see it. Yes, Mom/Dad/Coach/Physio/Agent and the rest of the tennis cavalry are invariably clapping, high-fiving etc. Who cares?! That net exchange feels like a little insight into the players’ state of mind and/or relationship with each other, no? Love the Mailbag....
Eddie Metairie, San Francisco

• TOTALLY agree. This never made sense to me. One caveat: note that often the broadcast you’re watching is going off a “house feed” so don’t blame ESPN (or Tennis Channel) for this curious shot selection.

Do you think Sloane Stephens and Belinda Bencic will get back to their best after all the injuries both players have had? Belinda looked a certain winner of Wimbledon and won a big title in Canada, beating Serena. While Sloane won title in Washington had bad luck this year I hope both can return to form were in before their injuries.
Darren Walker, London

• The two players are at different points in their careers right now. Stephens has made an awfully strong comeback on the hardcourts this summer. So much so you’re tempted to put her in the sleeper category for the U.S. Open. At a minimum, she’s a brutal first round opponent for one unlucky player.

In the case of Bencic, you’re a bit more concerned. She was ranked No. 7 18 months ago. Now she’s No. 200 and has basically lost another year to injury. (Most recently a wrist injury that required surgery.) The good news: she’s still only 20. But for a player who beat Serena Williams, as Darren notes, and was hailed as a Next Big Thing on the WTA, it’s been a concerning year-and-a-half.

Tennis
Victoria Azarenka Withdraws from 2017 U.S. Open

Hey Jon, big fan. In your most recent Mailbag, someone asked why can't 30-30 be called deuce, to which you answered: Your point is well taken. 30-30 is essentially no different from 40-40. Two more points are required to the win the game. Which is fine, unless you're talking no-ad (doubles comes to mind). I know, pedantic. 
Cheers, DM

• Right you are. “Pedantic” is rarely a pejorative in our eyes. If there’s no-ad scoring, 30-30 and 40-40 become very different in the minds of the players.

Shots, Miscellany

• Your U.S. Open suicide pool, jump in here

• Irregular betting patterns ≠ match fixing. But this fact pattern is disturbing.

• As of today Tennis Channel is available to all YouTube TV subscribers. This is the same Tennis Channel broadcast found on cable, satellite and telco providers.

• USTA Foundation, the national charitable organization of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), today announced the 10 winners of the 19th annual NJTL National Essay Contest. The winners, ranging in ages from 10 to 18, were selected out of more than 2,600 entries submitted this summer. Each winner will receive a New York City travel package from Aug. 25 to Aug. 27 as part of 2017 Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day powered by Net Generation, the annual youth celebration that precedes the U.S. Open.

• ATP in association with Infosys, a global leader in consulting, technology and next-generation services, today announced the launch of a new ‘PlayerZone’ app and website. The revamped PlayerZone, an extranet portal for ATP players, their support teams, coaches, and others in the ecosystem, allows users to engage with each other and access information across a wide range of operational aspects related to life on Tour.

 • The Volvo Car Open has announced its second player for the 2018 tournament. Madison Keys will join Petra Kvitova in the player field forming for the tournament's 45th anniversary.

• James of Portland has LLS: If you can find a good pic, Garbine Muguruza looks like a young Joan Baez.

Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images; Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

• Megan Fernandez has one reader rant: When the U.S. Open qualification rounds and Next Gen championship experiment with a lot of changes, I wish automatic line review on any close call were one of them. The last point of Halep's win over Konta in the Cincy semi showed that one of Halep's rally shots was out. The audience at home saw this before Halep made it to her chair. It's a lot to ask for players to stop a rally on match point to challenge a call. It doesn't take very long to call up a Hawk-Eye review, even for a shot in the middle of a rally. I think the booth should review every shot that lands close to the line. Add a few more screens and another volunteer if they have to. Every call could be correct. Why isn't this a top priority?

• Chris of Minneapolis has another: Love your column. I was thinking about this year's men's Slams and what a difference they've been from last year's, and a thought occurred to me. With Djokovic and Wawrinka shut down, that means that none of this year's pairs of finalists include ANY repeats of last year's pairs. That is, from 2016 to 2017 and moving through the Slams, it went:

AO: Djokovic-Murray to Federer-Nadal
RG: Djokovic-Murray to Nadal-Wawrinka
Wimbledon: Murray-Raonic to Federer-Cilic
USO: Wawrinka-Djokovic to TBD (but neither of those two guys)

Tennis
Venus Williams' Phone Records To Be Given to Lawyers Who Will Assess Data After Crash

So I played it back year after year and couldn't find a single instance of this slate-being-wiped-clean going all the way back to ... 1996 to 1997!

The late-90s to early 2000's runs are largely thanks to Sampras, but beyond that the repeating-linking of finalists sure is a testament to the repetitive dominance of the Big Four. And how odd that this year is a totally clean slate given that all the winners in the last two years themselves are from the Big Four. A fun mental exercise and not as time-consuming as it might at first appear...

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