Post U.S. Open Mailbag: Nadal-Federer Rivalry Will Be Theme of Fall Season
Cleaning out the mail after an eventful event.
1) Most recent podcast guest Paul Annacone was terrifically prescient. Now buy his book.
2) Dirk Nowitzki is our next guest in advance of his annual tennis fundraiser.
3) If you missed it, Sloane Stephens is this week’s Sports Illustrated cover girl.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
I really felt bad for Venus. I wanted her to win so badly and then “pull a Pete,” i.e. retire as an American U.S. Open champion. Not this year.
—Rusty, Cincinnati, Ohio
• No, but she sure came close. She has not indicated that she is retiring. And it must so heartening that she has become an unconditional, unqualified tennis favorite. Often we don't appreciate athletes until they're gone. Not in this case.
Love the most recent thoughts post-Open, very reasoned and measured. Was such a throwback in this era of hot takes.
In the search for a storyline and then an alternate post-Roger/Rafa storyline, and even with the "Rafa beatdown-city" storyline, I was struck with: "The heck with storylines, tennis is about leveling up and TAKING it." Taking it is what got Anderson to the final and what Delpo did to Roger, and was the core of Sloane Stephens’s amazing relentlessness. Maybe that’s not as profound as it seems to me now, but that’s the beauty of peak Nadal, just an "all-in" taking of the match. Oops ,that’s a storyline I guess.
—J Baab, Seattle/visiting NYC for the U.S. Open
• “A throwback in this era of hot takes” is at once so depressing and gratifying. So thanks. I think.
Sure, I can run with your storyline. Every draw is pregnant with opportunity. As Don Henley once asked, “How bad do you want it?” The answer is usually in the match results. Two danglers on Nadal. 1) Empirically, he did not have his toughest draw. That’s empirical fact. Sort of. (I would contend that, for instance, an in-form DelPo is way tougher than his modest No. 24 seeding.) But this shouldn’t diminish his title. And talk of an asterisk is just absurd. He beat the seven foes before him. End of conversation.
2) We talk of the pressure of playing in your first Slam final, with the chance to rewrite your career. Some (Sloane Stephens) handled it better than others (Kevin Anderson and Madison Keys.) But there’s also pressure coming in coming to big match as the overwhelming favorite. Nadal is too realistic not to know that losing to Kevin Anderson would mark be brutal missed opportunity. Especially at age 31. Especially given the context to this year. He didn’t get enough credit from meeting the moment, even if the result was expected one.
One suggestion...include your choices of "Match of the Tournament" for men's and women's. They are rarely the finals, if you ask me...
• Good suggestion. Men: del Potro versus Thiem. Women: Venus d. Kvitova. Both DelPo and Kvitova, by the way, were the U.S. Open sportsmanship award winners.
A quick word about the former: two days after the match, I ran into Thiem at the players’ cafeteria. We spoke a bit about the match and his handling of the aftermath. While this was strictly casual conversation and thus presumably off the record, let’s just say: Thiem is a player worthy of your fandom. A “mensch” as they in Austria.
I don’t think anyone would have predicted the men’s majors would be swept by Federer and Nadal this year. There is still a lot of tennis to be played, but at this moment, who is your men’s player of the year?
—Kelly Wayne Gulley
• We were debating this on Tennis Channel. I lean toward Nadal. Higher ranked. More Slam matches won. And—while it was validated by the Wimbledon title—doesn't Federer earn some sort of markdown for his decision to skip the entire clay season? Jim Courier sided with Federer, citing the 3-0 head-to-head record. Honestly, I could go either way.
Here’s the real story: not unlike 2016, the fall season is imbued with real intrigue. Sometimes the events after the U.S. Open “savor of anticlimax” (trivia: name the author) but in this case we can watch Federer and Nadal race to No.1.
Do you know who Katrina Adams was referring to in her speech during the trophy presentation? It sounded as though she said “Don Tencel who we lost last night.” I'm assuming he's an important person since she mentioned him first...
• I thought she said Don Ohlmeyer, the legendary—literally legendary; there’s an entire canon of Ohlmeyer stories— NBC sports producer*. But, yes, that was kind of jarring, especially amid a trophy presentation ceremony.
*Anyone else surprised by how prominently Norm MacDonald’s SNL firing has figured into the Ohlmeyer obituaries?
With Andy Murray's late withdrawal from the U.S. Open, an already lopsided draw became almost farcical. Shouldn't the two remaining top seeds, Federer and Nadal, have been repositioned on opposite halves of the draw? It might have led to the coveted NYC final between the two greatest players of all time. (And to some extent, shame on Murray for pulling out after the draw had been announced).
—Teddy C in NYC
• I suspect this rule will be revisited. But I don't think you can fault the USTA here. There are policies in place and the tournament simply complied. Perhaps more so than even the fans, you don’t think that organizers—tasked with maximizing value and ratings—wanted these two stars on the opposite sides of the draw?
Jon, now that Nadal's wins at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open have reinvigorated the GOAT debate, it seems as if the ATP World Tour final titles do not get just consideration in the analysis. The majors predominate followed by weeks at No. 1 and then Masters 1000s. The ATP World Tour finals is worth more points than a Masters 1000s, heavily marketed by the ATP and consists of the top players for the year. I believe Federer has won six times. That’s quite good. Do you agree that the tournament gets short shrift in the debate. And if so, why?
• I don't want to diminish either tour’s final event. They are both welcome—and financially necessary for both tours—capstones to the season. For players, there’s a real achievement in qualifying. But it’s hard to compare an eight-player field and round-robin format with a conventional tournament. Especially at the end of the year, when it’s an open secret that some players are physically compromised and there without genuine ambitions of winning. And when the matches are played indoors, i.e. on a surface featured at no Grand Slams.
Does Federer’s ritual excellence at the year-end event go in the win column? Absolutely. It’s testament to his durability and professionalism. Finishing strong and all. And while the field is low on quantity it’s obviously high on quality. But does winning an eight-man event compare to a 64-draw Masters 1000? Midseason? With different match conditions? And no round robin quirks? I’m not so sure….
Was disappointed to see how Sharapova went after Serena in her new tome. Rich irony that the 6'2” adjudicated PED user makes herself seem so vulnerable (like a "little girl") against the 5'8”, drug-free African-American champion "with thick arms and legs" and who is "intimidating" in personality. Jealous that Serena has beaten her like 20 times straight? Or playing on the worst kind of racial stereotypes in order to explain her own futility?
• You weren’t alone in your reaction. Sharapova HAD to address Serena in her book. But some editor’s sensitivity meter ran out of battery. We’re excerpting Sharapova’s book on SI.com later this week so, in the interest of balance, we’re entitled to link this takedown.
We mentioned this last month. The dilemma for the athlete: you’re being paid an advance to dish and settle scores and provide insight. A cliché parade doesn’t cut it. But should an active player be talking about another active player so candidly?
I was disappointed you had to mention Roger Federer in the opening paragraph of your 50 Parting Thoughts from the U.S. Open. You always reserve the first four spots for exclusive raves about the men's winner, the women's winner, then the runner ups, in that order. Rafa and Federer are the Evert-Navratilova of men's tennis, but why not in this instance just celebrate Rafa alone? I don't recall you mentioning Rafa when celebrating Federer's win at Wimbledon. Federer lost in the fourth round. You could have mentioned their rivalry when you got down to that part of the list, no?
• Federer and Nadal are the spindles around which the men’s game currently rotates. (Just as Serena serves that role with the women.) Federer, at 36, was in a race for No. 1. He won the previous major. He won the previous hardcourt major. His potential showdown with Nadal was a storyline starting in July. You don't think his loss was among the top stories?
Others of you complained about omissions. CoCo Vandeweghe for reaching another semis. Sevastova for her clever tennis and takedown of Sharapova. Andrey Rublev, the teen quarterfinalist. The diminutive Diego Schwartzman…all valid points. But life is full of tough choices. Not everyone can play a night session on Ashe.
When a player goes off court for a bathroom break, is his/her coach allowed to be in there too?
• Players and coaches can only confer when there is an authentic break, such as a rain delay. Unless you’re a WTA player during a non-Slam and your tour has cynically decided that, rather than confront cheaters, it would just distort and contort the sport’s essence and make coaching legal. But that’s a rant for another day.
Total respect for Sloane Stephens...not even for the match, but for the concern she showed for Madison Keys after. I suspect that during that hug at the net, she counseled Keys to go off court for a few minutes, to compose herself and so that she would not have to watch Stephens' celebration with her box. Then to sit with Keys after, to talk and share a laugh—well, that's class! And that's real friendship, when you take the time to support the emotional needs of a friend while celebrating the biggest moment in your life.
—Helen of Philly
• Amen. You can prepare for a lot of eventualities. But this was impromptu.
I understand that the rivalry between Federer and Nadal is what makes for riveted TV viewing. Here is a question or two for you.
Who would have benefited more without the other? Nadal or Federer? By simply substituting one for the other, Federer would have six more majors but Nadal would only have three more. Does that highlight the singular problem that Nadal poses for Federer or that Nadal has more people to solve at other Slams? Would it also be possible that with Federer nowhere, Nadal would ride the confidence carried over from French and Wimbledon into the hard courts (circa 2006-2007) and could have ended up with a better distributed Slam count? You alluded to this in your thoughts about the uneven distribution of the Nadal slam count on TV with Courier and Co.
—Venky, Ann Arbor, Mich.
• I would turn this question on its head. Federer would have more majors, were it not for Nadal. Nadal would have more majors, but for Federer. And yet both—and I think they both appreciate this—are better off the existence of the other. Not only did a rival push them to improve and innovate; but they are immune from the (often circular and bogus) charge that they thrived in a weak era.
In response to Kent Jordan from Atlanta, at the end of the Madison Keys match last night, she was given four balls to hit into the crowd, not three. I noticed it because she couldn't hold four balls in one hand, and, because she's a pro, it didn't even cause her pause. She just bounced one with her racquet while holding the other three.
—Miles, Hudson, Mass.
• And who says tennis ignores the voice of the fan?
• Chris of Minneapolis has this week’s LLS: Kevin Anderson and British actor Mackenzie Crook aka Gareth Keenan in The Office.