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  • Martina Hingis' final chapter in Hall of Fame career, Angelique Kerber's disappointing season, the WTA's broadcasting problem and more reader questions.
By Jon Wertheim
November 01, 2017

Housekeeping:

• Our most recent podcast is Jared Donaldson, fresh into the top 50.

• Note this announcement from Mark Hurd, a great friend and patron of the sport, on the new Oracle Challenger Series.

Mailbag

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

Now that Martina Hingis retired for the "definite" last time, I was curious where you would rank her career now that it appears that she completed the final chapter? In addition, I was curious of how many more tournaments you think that she might have won had her body not been so injury prone? Even after her first ankle surgery she was able to beat both Williams sisters back-to-back at the 2002 Australian Open so I can't help thinking had she stayed healthy she might have won one to two more singles Grand Slams before she became too old to be competitive in singles anymore. What do you think?
Shawn, Irvine, Calif.

• Yes, let’s start with Martina Hingis, who announced her retirement last week. This was the third time Hingis called it a career and you sense that, in the words of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, this time it’s for real.

Meanwhile, say this with certitude: Hingis has put together a career worthy of the Hall of the Fame. Why certainty? Because she was already enshrined in 2013. Since then, though, she put another a SECOND Hall of Fame-worthy resume, winning 10 majors. As we write this Hingis is 37. She’s retired. She’s two decades removed from winning her first major. And she is STILL the world’s top-ranked doubles player.

This obviously speaks to her longevity. It also speaks to her level of talent. Hingis was never the biggest player or the biggest ballstriker. (And she paid a price for this in singles, especially as the Williams sisters learned how to take ownership and control of their power.) But she compensated with guile and tactics and consistency and deft hands and an unerring sense of where to hit the ball. I would submit that her doubles success deep into her 30s cements her legacy from her teenage years. She may have passed by the Heavy Hitters; but if you needed evidence of her skills, her recent body of work helps shape how we ought to view her entire career.

Hello, I'm writing to get your thoughts on what appears to be a decision by Tennis Channel to show early rounds of men's tennis in Basel rather than the women's year end tournament. Yes, not having Serena makes the tournament less of a draw, but on the other hand, not having Serena makes it a more open and competitive event. Apparently there was a fantastic match between Venus Williams and Jelena Ostapenko that I'll never see. I'm not willing to buy more channels and I think that the flagship tennis station could show a bit more respect for women's tennis.
Thanks, Amy

• I preface this by saying that, as someone who works for Tennis Channel, I’m completely conflicted here. So know that up front.

Quick story: I love my neighborhood in Manhattan, but I hate how many stores are vacant. Why are they vacant? Because the supply curve and the demand curve for rent aren’t intersecting. Landlords may think their commercial space is worth $X. But if tenants aren't willing to pay that price, the space sits empty. And no one wins. The landlords don’t get their rent. The potential tenants don't move in to do business. And the public is deprived of goods and services.

The same dynamic is being dramatized in tennis. The WTA and the networks—chief among them Tennis Channel—could not agree on a price for broadcast rights. The WTA’s price was too high for the networks. The network’s price was too low for the WTA. Fine. This happens all the time. You put your home up for sale and some offers are untenably low. Plenty of items never sell on eBay because they’re priced too high.

The issue: the WTA didn't seem to have much of a back-up plan. They signed with BeInSports for events held outside the U.S. This, of course, is their prerogative. But judging from the volume of your complaints—and, objectively, the lack of visibility—this has been deeply problematic. For one, the marketing and promotion was lacking and few fans knew about this switch, much less where to find the network on their dial. BeInSports didn’t help, often showing matches on tape delay or not at all, in favor of soccer. Maria’s Sharapova comeback? Martina Hingis’ last match? Honk it you saw it live.

If I’m a player—or an agent—I am deeply distressed. How do you brand an athlete or find endorsement value when your tour is undercutting visibility? If I’m a tournament, I’m displeased. As so many of you (not wrongly) complained, the WTA Finals, for instance, suffers diminished prestige when so few fans can access broadcasts. Most of all, tennis fans suffer, yet again. The WTA set their rents too high. And we, as women’s tennis fans, are left with the equivalent of an empty storefront.        

*A reader complained about all this and I handed it over to Tennis Channel. Here’s an exchange worth reading:

Dear Mr. Solomon,

For many years the Tennis Channel has been my "go to" channel for TV viewing. At this time I am greatly distressed at not being able to see the women play. You may be showing it on Tennis Channel Plus; however, not all tennis fans can afford two tennis channels. I cannot. I am 85 years young and live on a very limited income. If women's tennis isn't going to be shown I will be cancelling my subscription.

Thank you,
Joann Martin


Dear Joanne,

Thanks for writing. We agree! No one is more upset than all of us here at Tennis Channel. The WTA chose to give much of their tour and finals to another network who has international ties (and ownership) and that doesn't air the majority of the matches throughout the year. They do not seem to care.  It is frankly disturbing and unfair to the players and the fans of tennis across the U.S. We have continued to reach out in an effort to find some solution, sadly to deaf ears and no avail.

Thanks for sticking with us, as our team works very hard to bring all the tennis we can to loyal fans like you. There is no one more focused on gender equality and diversity than the folks here at Tennis Channel, which makes all this twice as difficult for our team. Feel free to write the WTA and tell them how you feel, they really do need to hear it directly from you.

Thanks and regards,
Ken

Ken Solomon
President, Tennis Channel

Am I being cynical, Mr, W, if I think that Federer won't play Paris so Nadal gets No. 1, while Nadal didn't play Basel so Federer could win his home tourney? Gentlemen's agreement over pizza?
Ng in Vancouver, Canada

• Nah. Too Cynical. Just two guys picking their spots, balancing match play with rest. I wish you could give both these truth serum and then ask this:

a) How much does finishing the year at No. 1 mean to you?

b) How much more does it mean knowing that you’ll be eclipsing/surpassed by your rival?

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Year-end ranking points as of the WTA finals: 2042 points for Kerber in 21 tournaments. 2030 points for Serena Williams in 2 tournaments. Where does Kerber go from here and how does she revitalize her game in 2018? Are we looking at another lightning in a bottle Mauresmo 2006 campaign (one of my favorite players of all time) and this is a revert back to the mean? 
Khaleel Seecharan

• Mercifully, this topic didn't get the attention it perhaps deserved. After a dynamite 2016—two Slams, a Wimbledon final, an Olympic medal—Angie Kerber started the year at No. 1. She finished at No. 19 winning zero titles and barely half of her matches. That is a remarkable decline, especially given that she played the entire year.

Here comes the tennis ogre: Kerber deserves copious credit for last season and her play overall over the last five years. But watching her play, you were never awestruck by her gifts. Good athlete, lefty skills, solid competitor. Her serve was vulnerable, especially her second serve. She wasn’t going to blow you off the court. When her confidence was punctured, her result followed.

Is it possible that THIS is the reversion to the mean you reference? (I realize “reversion to the mean” takes on a double-entendere here and this answer is cruel, maybe unduly harsh.) But I wonder if she isn’t a 11-20 player who had a few outlier years. If she proves me wrong, I will say “Good for her.”)

If there's something in the tennis world that's disappointing me for some time, it's the apparent lack of respect from tennis fans towards several players, specially the non-"Big Four" team. For instance, this week a ATP-website commentator called David Goffin a "C class player" while making his point that Federer's Basel campaign wasn't all that worth.

I agree that the "Big Four" players have a distinct combination of quality and stability, which is why they're the most accomplished players of the current era. But aren't we (and by "we" I mean the whole of tennis fans) diminishing other players’ feats?

Much of this year's narrative has been about that: "Wimbledon was easy for Federer, for he had not to beat any Big Four” or "Nadal's U.S. Open was pathetic, for all his opponents were weak.” I mean, Goffin is a top 10 player! Have tennis players gone SO blind that they fail to recognize him and so many other great players?

Thanks a lot! Really enjoy your Mailbag. And pardon my English!
Felipe, Porto Alegre, Brazil

• Amen. An unfortunate (if unavoidable) consequence to the Big Four phenomenon: it has the effect of rendering the rest of the field also-rans, especially in the eyes of the mainstream or casual fans. So yes, Tomas Berdych becomes an underachiever and David Goffin becomes a journeyman and any event that doesn’t feature at least one of the stars has the savor of second-rate. We ought to stand back and acknowledge that even if David Goffin, to use your example, has not won a major, he can still count on his hands, the number of people in the entire world who do his job better. How many of us can say that?  

To me this recalls the Serena-played-in-a-soft-era claptrap. (Can we pause to admire the word claptrap. Terminally underrated. It’s the Davis Goffin of nouns.) Where were we? Oh, right, Serena. You hear that she lack competition and you want to respond, “If a player wins nearly every other major for 15 years, you do realize that everyone else’s achievements will look skimpy in comparison.” As long as the Big Four is greedily winning everything in sight, there ain’t much left for the rest of the field. That doesn’t make them marginal players or “C class.” It seems make them a little less good than the best.

Hey Jon. As always, sending you good wishes. I really like Kevin Anderson’s professionalism, power game, and his commitment to displaying positive energy on the court. But, I noticed something during his matches. He fist pumps and gives shouts of “come on” or other encouragement after every point. I think it’s great he’s trying to pump himself up, but I wonder if in fact, he is losing positive energy and concentration by not picking and choosing his times to do this. It’s almost like a person who says I love you every five minutes. It starts losing meaning after a while. His mind and body will respond with a surge if he does this at key points or critical stages of the match rather than all the time. Otherwise his body and mind will react like it’s just another point. Sure, keep up the positive body language and energy all match, but save the more overt displays for when it counts. I think this would help his results go even further. What do you think? Thanks
Scott, Jacksonville, Fla.

• We talked about this during the U.S. Open. Yes, like the parents of toddlers before a beach vacation, Anderson expends a lot of energy on inflation. (Sorry, that analogy was so tortured I am duty-bound to leave it in.) But I tend to give athletes wide berths for their habits and routines and idiosyncrasies. If it works for him—and he can convince himself to “come on” even if he just did that a few points prior—so be it. Likewise if Andy Murray is offloading stress by turning to those closest to him, mid-match, and declaring them inbred piglets or larcenous accountants or whatever insults he’s dispensing that day, hey, who are we to argue?

I felt it was interesting to note that for the second year running a player will have won two slams and not finished No. 1. I wonder has that happened before 2016?
Kieran

• Hadn't thought about that. But you’re right. Obviously Djokovic was our 2016 subject, winning Australia and Roland Garros and finishing No. 2. Then this year either Federer or Nadal will do the same.

Dzumhur and Brankis are playing two straight matches against each other (finals in Moscow, first round in Vienna). Is there any way to find out how often this happens in tennis?   
Shlomo Kreitman

• Big props to rankings guru Graham Edgar, who does an incredible job keeping up with all the qualifying Finals scenarios at this time of the year. He passed this along…

- 2013 Simon vs. Feliciano Lopez when they played the Final in Eastbourne then first round of Wimbledon
- 2010 Hanescu vs. Wawrinka when they played the Final in Casablanca then the first round of Monte Carlo

Shots, Miscellany

• John McEnroe has been named ambassador of the New York Open. We can only hope it doesn't come to this:

• Big Chris Eubanks has turned pro and will be repped by IMG.

• Magnus Norman and Stan Wawrinka decouple amiably. 

Maria Sharapova announced a partnership with architect Dan Meis, "best known for designing sports facilities" like the Staples Center in L.A. and Safeco Field in Seattle, according to Brian Braiker of AD AGE. Together, the two have formed an "as-yet-unnamed business to design health and wellness facilities (and tennis courts) for hotels and resorts around the world." Meis "was taken" by Sharapova's "Instagram aesthetic." His pitch to Sharapova was let us "do for tennis and training what Ian Schrager did for hotels in creating the boutique category." Meis said, "One of the niches we carved in the marketplace early was to think about the fan experience. We didn't think about the perspective of the athletes. And I really see her brand as being about tenacity and this comeback has been really inspirational. She has a lot of that Nike vibe: Just do it, keep at it. That allows this idea to go beyond tennis." Their venture will look to "revamp the drab hotel gym experience and create upscale, modern stand-alone fitness and tennis facilities" 

Like this idea from reader Tom P. of Madison, W.I.: Just thought of a way to improve end of the year for WTA. Switch Zhuhai with Singapore to give the top eight players an extra week to rest, especially if they just qualified. Make the 12 who qualify for Zhuhai battle it out to see who becomes an alternate for the WTA Championships. Winner would be first alternate. Finalist would be second alternate. It would give hope and purpose for those who had no chance of qualifying for Singapore to begin with, and it would help encourage more players to show up. I know switching the calendar is logistically impossible, but I thought I would throw this idea out there in hopes to get the conversation started.

• This week’s LLS: Stevie Johnson and Luigi:

• Nice reader riff this week from Patrick Finley of La Verne, Calif.: Hey, Jon: Love your articles and podcasts.

On Oct. 25 you wrote, “But the 2017 MVP is Garbine Muguruza, who won Wimbledon and garnished it with a Cincinnati title a few weeks later. Not the strongest MVP resume; but stronger than all the others.”

You might possibly recall that the day before Venus lost a three-set thriller to Sloane Stephens in the U.S. Open semifinals, I e-mailed you asking if you thought that Vee should be considered for Player of the Year based primarily on her outstanding season-long performance at the majors. Venus won 20 Grand Slam matches this year to Muguruza’s 17, Ostapenko’s 15, Pliskova’s 14, and so on.  You politely (after Vee’s lost to Stephens, IIRC,) replied something to the effect that, ‘No, you pretty much have to go with a slam-winner for Player of the Year, and you tapped Muguruza who had recently won both Wimbledon and Cincinnati.’

Well, if the award was named “Player of the Summer” I could not but agree with you. But, I still think Venus’s year-long campaign deserved serious consideration, and now that Venus has gone to the semis of the WTA Finals and Muguruza (and Halep) have not, the argument on Venus’s behalf seems stronger than ever to me.

Putting aside my lachrymose spilled milk for the moment, here are a few hopefully interesting facts that may have escaped the attention of many:

1) Unless I am misunderstanding the arcane prize money allocation at Singapore, Venus will end up as the WTA’s No. 1 money-winner for the year, regardless of whether or not she wins her SF match. She will have won $5 million this year, having never surpassed $4 million in a prior season. And she did so playing a very limited schedule (12 tournaments.) Venus has only been the top prize money earner in one other season—2001, 16 years ago.

2) Venus has a significantly better winning % in 2017 than Muguruza, 74.5% to 70.8%. (Frankly, I’d be a bit surprised if any former Player of the Year was under 80%—the Everts and Navratilovas and Grafs and Serenas were usually around 90% in their prime.)

3) While Venus did not win a tournament, in three of the four majors she lost to the eventual champion, losing to Muguruza at Wimbledon after playing the first set almost dead even. Venus lost a heart-breaker to Stephens in New York, and of course she lost to a pretty fair player in the Melbourne final. At the French Vee lost a three-setter to Bacsinszky, who has made it to the Roland Garros semifinals two of the past three years.  

4) While Venus didn’t quite rise to the occasion to win a major, she is an astounding 11-1 in tie-breakers this year. Her concentration usually wanders at some point during a match, but in crunch time TOLFC (The Old Lady From Compton) is one tough competitor.

5) Finally, while this has nothing to do with the 2017 Player of the Year issue, I think it’s quite interesting.  I don’t think that many would have guessed that, despite being 10-15 years older than ALL of her opponents in Singapore, all of whom have only played her in her “declining years,” Vee has by far the best cumulative head-to-head against the other players in the field:

V. Williams: 17-6, 73.9%
Pliskova: 21-16, 56.8%
Ostapenko: 7-6, 53.8%
Halep: 14-14, 50.0%
Svitolina: 12-13, 48.0%
Muguruza: 16-18, 47.1%
Wozniacki: 13-22, 37.1%
Garcia: 5-10, 33.3%   

It’s also quite surprising to note that, despite a few bad losses at bad times, Venus does not have a losing record against any of these young rivals. (Incidentally, Serena’s record against the Singapore 7, not counting Venus, is a snazzy 29-6 (83%); Muguruza has beaten Serena twice, while Wozniacki, Halep, Pliskova, and Svitolina have beaten her once each. Finally, one has to wonder if someone had staged an alternate tournament across the street from the Singapore event featuring Serena, Sharapova, Azarenka, Radwanska, Kvitova, Kerber, Konta, and Cibulkova, which event would have drawn the biggest crowds. (Serena's record against that distinguished septet is an even more snazzy 63-9, 87.5%)

2017 was a tough year for the WTA. If they can get everybody fresh and healthy (and undisqualified) for 2018 it could be a great year.

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