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Mailbag: It's Federer vs. Nadal for Player of the Year, But Who Wins?

The race for 2017 Player of the Year is on, but should Nadal or Federer take home the crown? Plus thoughts on Maria Sharapova's first title since her doping ban, a look ahead to 2018 and more.


• Our most recent podcast guest, Rajeev Ram, talks about life on the ATP Tour. We’re going dark this week but we’ll have another guest next week.

• We had a lot of deeply partisan questions about Maria Sharapova after she won the title in Tianjin. So I’ll say it again: I think the Sharapova story is breaking the way it should. She screwed up. She paid a price. Now she’s working to rehabilitate herself and her ranking. Her most vocal critics can’t complain that she was given star treatment. (Fifteen months is a hefty chunk of her career.) Her most vocal fans can’t say she’s been a victim. (She was given wild cards and largely hospitable treatment.) To the delight of her critics, she has taken some lumps in her return. To the delight of her fans, she’s shown signs of charting a course to the top. Isn’t this the way punishment ought to work?

• RIP Alan Little.



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

GOTY (Greatest Of The Year) to Rafa or Fed now?! Who needs GOAT when we have GOTY? Both have six (!) titles this year, including two Slams. Rafa has two Masters 1000s and Fed has three. Rafa has a significant number more match wins (and more losses) and he got to three (!) slam finals, whereas Fed didn't play one slam (and skipped the whole clay season, albeit understandable) and Fed wasn't there for the U.S. Open dream semifinal or China (although that was an ATP 500). I think a 4-0 record head to head in favor of Fed seals the deal—but only for now, because we still have Paris Masters 1000 and the London season ending championships.  Also, in this unexpected, beyond extraordinary year for these two exemplary athletes, they managed to "sneak in" some team time/doubles together at The Laver Cup. (How incredible that this occurred this season!)

So Fed is the GOTY for now, but it is not yet a done deal for 2017.
Scott Brooks 

• Before addressing this question directly, let’s pause, put partisan politics on hold, and acknowledge your first paragraph. Here we are in 2017 and Federer and Nadal—their combined age approaching 70, their career head-to-head encounters approaching 40—are still ruling the roost. All hail the greatest rivalry in sports.

As for your GOAT/GOTY point, after Federer beat Nadal in Shanghai a lot of you brought up this up. I have a number of thoughts—some of which I have shared—but here’s the beauty: we don’t have to decide. Sometimes tennis presents counterfactuals that will never be answered with any certainty. (“How many Grand Slams would Monica Seles have won, were it not for Hamburg 1993?”) In this case, why not wait until after the World Tour Finals event in London—when we have a full complement of data points—and we can reassess. And, similarly, while we can chart the stocks as we go, why not wait until both careers are over to make your final GOAT determination?

As for GOTY, again, I think Federer taking leave of the clay season cuts against him. I likened it to a valedictorian who avoided courses in his weakest subject. One of you made the comparison to a baseball player who hit .400 but didn’t get the requisite at-bats. You also wonder if the 2017 head-to-head wouldn't be closer if the two had met on clay. (Broadening this: it’s a reason head-to-head is of limited value in the GOAT conversation.) I would also point out that when the No. 1 player isn’t the MVP, it undercuts the integrity of the ranking system.

The inevitable counter-argument….I have two Slams. You have two slams. I have beaten you each of the four times we’ve played? Case (pretty much) closed.

This is a fun discussion and a logical one. But let’s wait until after London and then declare a winner, shall we? Meanwhile, it’s not too early to raise a glass to Federer and Nadal, jointly, for their play this season.

Mailbag: The Ups and Downs of Nick Kyrgios Continue

Simple question: who comes back stronger in 2018, Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic?
Keith T., Brooklyn

SI Recommends

• Good question.

I start this by saying athletes have some sports variation of HIPAA. That is to say: they’re entitled to a measure of privacy with respect to their injuries and medical records. Especially in an individual sport. We—as fans and reporters and observers—ought to tread very lightly here when it comes to expressing skepticism over the severity of an injury or second-guessing an explanation.

In this case, though, I think it’s safe to assert that Murray and Djokovic are absent for personal as well as strictly physical reasons. That’s totally acceptable. (Especially these days when careers run longer than ever.) Both men are new fathers. Both are 30, an age when you can rest before another five-year push. Both played an awful lot of tennis in the previous decade.

But to answer your question, I think we need to know how spiritually rejuvenated both players will be to start the year.

After the Asian swing, cannot help but speculate that Laver Cup would have had a very different look (result, Kyrgios, Zverev, Team World sideshow celebrations…) if Juan Martin del Potro had not withdrawn.   
Ann, Troy, Mich.

• Interesting. Maybe more important: the fact that, a month later, fans are speculating about the Laver Cup suggests it was a success. Speaking of DelPo….

I know it used to be Ivo Karlovic. But who are the guys nowadays that other players now want to avoid like the plague?
Don Charles, Washington

• First, can we discuss this metaphor? I never got this one. Does anyone really seek to avoid the plague? I hope to hell that I—and you as well—never get it. But “avoid”? I avoid the comments section. I avoid putting cheese on fish. I avoid the roadkill in the median. I’m not sure anyone actively avoids pathogens.

Anyway, yeah, there are players who come with a fear factor. Del Potro is an obvious answer. Big servers like San Querrey and Gilles Muller are always going to be feared. Unusual, hard-to-replicate players like Denis Shapovalov. And the answer varies depending on surface and circumstance. Right now there are more of the dangerous floater types on the women’s side.

Even if Federer wins Basel, Paris and ATP World Tour, he cannot and should not receive the Player of the Year award. The "Year" includes the clay season and Federer made a deliberate choice not to participate. The rationale is the same as requiring a certain number at bats to win a batting average title in baseball. 
Martin, Valencia, Spain

• There’s the baseball analogy. I think there’s a fair case to be made both ways. Again, the integrity of the ATP rankings is undermined if the No. 1 player is not the Player of the Year (or MVP as I shorthanded it, to the dismay of one twitter troll.) 

The thought in creating the Milan Next Gen event was it would serve as a reward for the young guys who are nowhere near qualifying for the Nitto event, so they can have an event of their own. Obviously, Alexander Zverev did not read that script, and has had an amazing year. Do you think Zverev will play in both Nitto and Milan? 

• From the horse’s mouth. Zverev’s, that is: “This is something I'm going to talk about with my whole team, but London is obviously the bigger event out of those two. If I have to choose one, it's going to be London.”

Hi Jon. I mean, the argument writes itself no? "Sure he's No. 1, but he can't even beat his greatest rival." The irony is rich today!
Jon B, Seattle

• I’m amused that BOTH Federer-philes and Rafael-ites have seized on this and essentially made the same point: “You can’t have it both ways.”

I do think we’re seeing the limits of the head-to-head. If Federer plays the clay season, the 2017 head-to-head record might swing more in Nadal’s favor. By the same token had Nadal not lost early at Wimbledon for the last half-decade, the career h/h results might swing more Federer’s favor.

I'm taking my boys (ages 10 and 9) to London next month, as the Cardinals will be facing the Rams. Considering you frequent the city quite regularly, do you have any recommendations for a dad and his sons? I studied in London 22 years ago, but I'm sure things have changed. Any recommendations are welcome. Thanks so much, Jon.
Jay Zavislak

• Honestly, as many times as I’ve been to London, I’m usually headquartered in Wimbledon and only make it occasionally to Central London. (Ironically, most recently, I went into town to see Tom Petty in Hyde Park. RIP.) Off-hand I would say:

1) Get an oyster card and don’t mess with the cabs. As you soon as you see the meter, the quaintness diminishes dramatically.

2) You can't go wrong at either/both Tates or the National Gallery/Trafalgar. The British Museum is a winner, too.

3) I’m a sucker for a boat tour and always feel that The Thames is underrated.

4) I put The Changing of the Guard in the same category at Madame Tussauds and the London Eye. Kind of miss-able.

5) Westminster Abbey > Big Ben.

6) Drink, don’t eat, at the pub. Go for Indian food instead.

7) You’ll have fun at the game but if there’s an EPL game on Saturday, go and then play compare/contrast.

What Makes the Fall Season in Asia Different?

If J.B. from Portland would not have used Raonic's name for the question, and you would have left out a few Raonic specific facts from your answer (Wimbledon and country), your answer really could have applied to Kei Nishikori's career too. Scary. 
Shlomo Kreitman

• I feel like we’ve discussed this before. Maybe not. But, yes, you’re absolutely right. Raonic and Nishikori may have opposite bodies and opposite games, but other similarities border on uncanny. Same age. Same generation. Same number of major finals (one). Both are the best players their respective countries have ever produced. And both struggle mightily with durability.

Longtime reader/fan here, also a big theater-goer. You should make time for this very good tennis-based play, which runs through December in Midtown.
Sharon Ruwart

• Thanks much. Here’s the NYT review with a Carillo cameo. 

SHOTS, MISCELLANY                          

• It’s “Tennis Hobo,” a derailed memoir.

• The United States Tennis Association today concluded its celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month—a month highlighted by multiple Hispanic engagement accomplishments.

The association also announced its continued efforts to grow the sport in the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. This year, USTA Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has seen an increase in Hispanic youth tennis players as a result of grant funds awarded to many programs serving Hispanic communities.

• The USTA has announced the four award winners who were honored during the annual USTA Next Generation Workshop, Oct. 13-15, at the Renaissance Orlando at Sea World in Orlando, Fla. The honorees were recognized in a variety of categories for their dedication to growing the game. This year’s honorees are: Eve F. Kraft Community Service Award​: Hollis Smith, Indio, Calif.; Janet Louer USTA Jr. Team Tennis Organizer of the Year:Deby Caldwell, Columbus, Ga.; Community Tennis Association of the Year:Columbus Regional Tennis Association, Columbus, Ga.; National Junior Tennis & Learning Chapters of the Year:East Palo Alto Tennis & Tutoring (EPATT), Palo Alto, Calif.

• Melissa Pine, VP Asia Pacific for the WTA Tour and Tournament Director for the WTA Finals will be joining the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center Advisory Board at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business. 

Mark Flannery of Fullerton, Calif., has LLS: Steve Johnson and Stan Smith


This week’s reader riff, tied to data, comes from reader Rich Gruber of NYC:

Jon, Regarding your request for feedback on sports data and analytics, here are some thoughts. (I only follow tennis—and a bit of boxing—so I’ll only be talking about tennis.)

To me, tennis on TV offers a lot of statistics, but they often detract from the viewing experience because they focus on the wrong statistics. My pet peeve is the fixation on winners and aces. If Player A hits a big serve that Player B desperately lunges at and frames into the flower beds, that is every bit as good as an ace, but it is totally ignored in the match summary. Instead of counting winners and aces, we should be counting Unreturnable Shots (which is admittedly a judgment call, just like unforced errors is a judgment call).

Another stat I don’t like is the break-point conversion ratio. Which player would you rather be: the player who goes 2-for-2 on break points, or the player who goes 2-for-20 on break points? I’d rather be the 2-for-20 guy, but often on TV that kind of ratio is portrayed as a negative. I think the better stat is to ask: for all games in which the returner held a break point, what percentage of those games did he/she actually break serve?

Tennis on TV also offers a lot of spurious statistics. In the semifinal of a major, they will announce that Player A has more aces than, say, Ivo Karlovic or John Isner. Well, duh! If Karlovic and Isner lost in the second round, then the guy who made it to the semi’s has more aces because he played four extra matches, not because he’s a better server than those guys.

And lastly, my all-time most hated statistic: “When [Big-4 player] wins the first set, he has never lost a match since the Peloponnesian War.”