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A tribute to Jana Novotna, a look at the rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal and more year-end discussion on the 2017 season.

By Jon Wertheim
November 22, 2017

Housekeeping:

• Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

• Next week we’ll post our annual Baggies Awards wrapping up the 2017 season in tennis.

• Paul Annacone is next up on the podcast. We replay 2017, talk Federer-Nadal, tennis changes and whether the sport is too nice.

Mailbag

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

Jon: On thanksgiving eve, a somber note: as fans, we love the single fisted fluid elegance of a backhand, and sincerely appreciate and have Jana Novotna in our thoughts. May she rest in peace.  How would you characterize Novotna in tennis terms ? A wonderful Thanksgiving to yourself and your readers as well.
Deepak (Seattle)

• Yes, a wonderful Thanksgiving to you guys as well. And while we’d prefer to speak about Grigor Dimitrov’s triumph in London or the changes at the 2018 Grand Slams (see below) let’s start by memorializing Jana Novotna, who passed away on Monday at the unacceptably early age 49.

We can start with “tennis terms,” as Deepak requests, in part because Novotna’s personality was manifest in her style. All lightness and grace and elegant efficiency, Novotna was the kind of player you would stop to watch practice. Her backhand was a study in elegance; her slice was a scythe; she was the most skilled net player of her generation; she might be the last, best serve-and-volleyer in the women’s game.

It’s difficult to talk about Novotna without discussing her mental game. But I would contend that this isn’t—forgive the word choice—a delicate subject at all. Rather, it one of tennis’ great comeback stories, a tale of inspirational tale that has never been told enough.

For years, Novotna was known, of course, for her brutal loss in the 1993 Wimbledon final and her memorable reaction, crying on the shoulder on the Dutchess of Kent. With the specter of this match lurking for years—threatening to define her career—Novotna finally, at age 30, won Wimbledon five years later, not only slaying her mental Demogorgon, but doing so on the same court as her disappointment. This reframed her career. It enabled her to enter the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It marked a great show of character, one of sports great examples of overcoming a setback. We talk often of karma and “getting the script right” but this wasn’t some cosmic accident. Novotna worked on her abilities to close out a match much as another player would a dodgy forehand. And she won. RIP.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Hi Jon. For all the digital ink spilled on Federer vs. Nadal in 2017, I submit the real story of the year is Djokovic vs. Nadal. "Huh?" you say. True, they have not played each other at all, but consider this: if Djokovic and Nadal had extended their 2016 records into 2017, then Djokovic would have edged Nadal out on the GOAT list—14 slams, but more weeks at No. 1, five WTF wins, better H2H etc. Instead, their years were almost exactly swapped (two slams and six or seven titles). I simply don't see Djokovic winning four more slams, so mark my words (but don't bet on them!): 2017 will go down as the year Nadal finally distanced himself from Djokovic on the GOAT list. Your thoughts?
AM, San Diego

• Interesting. They played once in 2017—Nadal won in Madrid 6-2, 6-4. And this pushed their career head-to-head to 26-24 in favor of Djokovic. Think about it: these are two titans with more than two dozen majors between them. They’ve played each other 50 (!!) times. (That is, almost four times more than the 14 matches between Borg and McEnroe.) One has won 52% of the time; the other 48% of the time. Why are we not talking more about this rivalry?

I would bite harder on your question if we were speaking with the benefit of hindsight. But this is an active, evolving rivalry; a fluid situation, as George Bush would say. We could have five more years of these two squaring off. Could Djokovic win four more Slams? Heck, yes. Could Nadal win a few more? Absolutely. Let’s wait until all the returns come in before calling this race and pointing to 2017 as the hinge-point year. (But I do like your thesis.)

Hey there Mr. Wertheim. Long-time reader, but first time I’ve emailed. I *may* have lost the thread on a couple parts of the conversation around ATP Player of the Year, (so maybe redundant, hope not) but was wondering . . .

1. Someone (arguing against Fed) said it was like batting average in baseball, and you need the minimum number of plate appearances. Well maybe, but you could also say it’s like the home run title. You hit the most dingers, you get the title. You could even be a DH and not do anything on the field and get it. Fed hit the most dingers. And with fewer chances to boot.

2. Why even have the Player of the Year if it’s just gonna be the No. 1 on the computer? Just call it “2017 No. 1.” It was sort of interesting on the women’s side that it didn’t come down to that.
Tim Carpenter

• I think there’s a reasonable—I would even contend: fun and valuable—argument to be had on both sides. Federer wins seven titles, goes 52-5 and beats Nadal four times. (Aside: note the average ranking of the five players who beat Federer in 2017.) Wait, Nadal, wins 12 more matches (he went 67-11), six titles, and more than $1 million additional in prize money. Plus he played the whole season, on every surface. Who had the better season? The guy who batted .350 with 400 at-bats? Or the guy who hit .333 with 600 at-bats?

What is the deal with "year-end No. 1" anyhow? Who cares? Or more to the point, why do the players care? That really doesn't seem to be one of the main stats followed, like number of weeks at No. 1. Does the ATP provide a financial incentive? 

Nadal showed signs of injury in Shanghai, chose to play in Paris anyhow, and played just long enough to secure the year-end No. 1. Now he's played one match and pulled out of London. 

Doesn't seem to me that achieving year-end No. 1 was worth aggravating the injury he had already sustained, but apparently it was to him. Have to wonder, were all the losses to Roger this year a motivating factor? And perhaps on some level, he didn't trust that he might ever have the opportunity again?
—Helen of Philly

• Chris Clarey recently wrote about the various bonuses, some tied to year-end rankings, that incentivize players.           

For Federer and Nadal, both deep into nine figures in wealth, you suspect the prospect of a few extra shekels has minimal power to change behavior. So why does year-end ranking matter so much? There’s probably an interesting behavioral economics bias at play here. But there’s also something symbolic here. The season is over.

We can’t figure out why a guy with almost 20 Slam wins would decide to play in a Challenger in central Illinois where it’s cold and the crowds are generally slim. But our college town has many Indian students and faculty, who showed up with lots of enthusiasm and Paes has been more than gracious. And the tennis has been pretty spectacular! Great fun.
Mary Ann Royse, Champaign, Ill.

From the horse’s mouth, as it were:

“Playing with a new partner, you need a lot of match practice. You need a lot of situations to overcome as a team, to build the glue between the team. That's the reason I'm here at this Challenger level, to build the camaraderie. With Purav [Raja], I'm looking to build a longer partnership. I'm looking to play with him through 2018. If we won today's Champaign final in straight sets, it would have been quick and easy, but we went to a match tie-break that tested us even more.”

I always judge a person by how they treat people below their station (so obviously I will judge you on whether or not you respond to lil’ ol’ me). What players on the tours are the nicest and the most malevolent to the ball kids, support staff, etc.?
Craig Berry, Frankfort Ill.

• A few points here. A) I agree in theory. As a wise person once said: there’s no such thing as a “good guy” who talks down to the wait staff. B) I can't stress this enough: there are so few jerks in tennis right now. Put forth your thesis: it’s trickle down from Federer and Nadal? Technology and the threat of being exposed on social media is a curb on bad behavior? The money is such that players have lost some edge?

Also, again, I cut players some slack for their behavior during the aroused state of competition. When I was writing my women’s tennis book in 2000, I occasionally asked people your question. You know who had a terrible reputation among ballkids? Conchita Martinez. Deeply superstitious, she demanded to play with the same ball after winning a point. When ballkids didn’t retrieve the winning ball, she would not react well. I remember meeting Conchita Martinez at the 2000 French Open and bracing myself for an encounter with a fire-breathing dragon. You, of course, know the punchline: she was this lovely, soft-spoken woman who spoke about her sports psychologist, her love of wine, her fondness for San Diego.

Moral of the story? Yes, it’s fair to judge people by how they treat others “below their station,” as Craig says. But don't frame people based on one encounter. Or one habit. Especially when their neurochemistry is in high gear.

Love your post and always listen to your podcast on the way to work. There is an article on the "arrogance of ignorance in tennis" that I feel needs to be exposed. Those facts need to be public knowledge. What are your thoughts? Have you seen it? Here is the link.
Joelle Silverman

• Full disclosure: I’ve had some correspondences with Javier Palenque, the writer who skewers the USTA in this piece. I take issue with some of his data and conclusions. But he feels passionately he’s invested great time and energy here and I do think this is worth reading. I’m happy to put this out there and then leave you to decide and reach your own conclusions.

 Have you seen this little Tasmanian devil play? Schwartzmann with the short body and less-than-Argentinian appearance? I have been watching him since the U.S. Open and truly, if I were ranked in the top 20; I think he would be absolutely the last person I would like to see on the other side of the net. He has a presence about him, almost Federerian. Calm, bear-strong. What a great player he has become. How high do you think he will climb? With a reworked serve, I think he may be our next Hewitt! 
Patrick Kramer, Sunny Drammen

• Wait, he’s Tasmanian and less-than-Argentinian?

This recalls many of our recent conversations about physically slight players: Goffin, Ferrer, Nishikori, Radwanska. It’s going to be tough to win Slams when you simply lack the physical weapons of other players. But horsepower can overcome firepower. Schwartzman—generously listed at 5’7”— is now up to No. 26 and climbing.

Again, this emergence speaks well of Schwartzman. But it also speaks well of tennis. How many other sports can accommodate such a range of body types, all competing in one weight class?

Tennis
Maria Sharapova Investigated By Indian Police In Housing Fraud Case

Hi Jon, I love your work and thoroughly enjoyed your book Strokes of Genius. Not sure if you’ve come across this, but it’s quite an off the wall commentary of the fifth set between Nadal and Federer at this year’s Australian Open. It’s a slow burn, but just gets better and better and the ending is quite ridiculous. I thought with your sense of humor you might enjoy it and perhaps some of your readers at Sports Illustrated wouldn’t mind being tipped off on it on it as well. Cheers!
Frank Marrazza, Sydney, Australia

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlH3TIEwJ3I​]

• Cheers!


Shots, Miscellany

RIP Pancho Segura. 

•  The Grand Slam Board (“GSB”) completed two days of Meetings in London on November 15-16.  A significant portion of the GSB Agenda concerned possible Grand Slam Rule amendments and trials in 2018:

- It was unanimously agreed to support 2018 Australian Open’s application to the ITF for a waiver of the 20 seconds between points required by the Rules of Tennis, in order to allow for enforcement of a strict 25 seconds utilizing a “serve/shot clock” system in line with that trialed at the 2017 U.S. Open.

– The timing of the pre-match warm-up will be strictly enforced (1 minute after walk-on to be ready for the pre-match meeting, followed by the 5 minute warm-up, then 1 minute to be ready to start the match). Violation of this timing may subject a player to a fine up to $20,000.

– Any Main Draw singles player who is unfit to play and who withdraws on-site after 12:00 noon on Thursday before the start of the Main Draw will now receive 50% of the First Round Prize Money in 2018.  The replacement Lucky Loser will receive the remaining 50% plus any additional prize money earned thereafter.

– Any player who competes in the First Round Main Draw singles and retires or performs below professional standards, may now be subject to a fine up to First Round Prize Money in 2018.

– The 2018 Grand Slam tournaments will continue with 32 seeds in singles and intend to revert to 16 seeds in 2019.

• Who wants Billie Jean King’s “Battle of the Sexes” racket?

• Tennis legend and New York Open honorary ambassador John McEnroe, 2017 US Open women’s tennis champion Sloane Stephens, Canada’s No. 1 WTA player Eugenie Bouchard and 2007 U.S. Davis Cup champion James Blake will take the court at the inaugural New York Open ATP World Tour event at NYCB LIVE, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, February 11 at 7:30 p.m. Players who will be competing in the main draw include John Isner, Kei Nishikori, Noah Rubin, and the Bryan Brothers. More players will be announced soon. 

• The USTA today announced the 2018 College MatchDay schedule, which will showcase a number of the country’s top college tennis programs at the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, with eight team matches on six dates, including several rivalry matchups and two combined men’s and women’s events.

The National Campus’ 1,200-seat collegiate stadium—the only off-campus stadium in America built specifically for college tennis—will host 14 of the country’s premier NCAA Division I tennis programs, beginning on Sat., Feb. 3, when the Florida and Florida State men and women will play simultaneously on both sides of the Campus’ 12-court stadium.

Admission is free for each College MatchDay, which will feature kids activities, live music, specialty food and drinks, games and giveaways on-site at the National Campus. Guests will be able to reserve free tickets on Ticketmaster, beginning Jan. 12. For more information, visit: www.ustanationalcampus.com.

A tennis play, 0-40, that debuted concurrent with the Basel ATP event.

• Leif Wellington Haase has this thought-provoking Reader Riff:

I agree with you and your co-author Aryeh Bourkoff that tennis has adapted well to globalization and that for a few top-ranked players who have become global brands, and a handful of others who are especially market-savvy, that the transition has been profitable. 

I'm also a fan, within reason, of the liberal global order that is now under assault both from the Trump administration and increasing autarkic (and autocratic) sentiment around the world. 

That said, as a sponsor of four Challenger-level tournaments in Northern California, I can assure you that while we aren't trying to break even on ticket sales the draw even to very dedicated local tennis fans and players is nationalistic.

I'm equally enthusiastic whether a Marterer or a Bemelmans rather than a Mmoh or Tiafoe wins the tournament...99% of the others associated with the tournament are not. And having spent at least half my life living outside the U.S. I can assure you that Canadians and Germans and Chinese (Zhang Ze won the SF Challenger this past year) are just as fervently nationalistic when it comes to rooting for, and paying for, tennis. (I've also been involved in the management side of ATP 250s and know many folks who run the 500s and Masters, and the appeal isn't much different there.) 

The upshot is that dividing the world into global tours, with players given a year to perform and then moving up or down to a "world" bracket, much like the PGA tour, isn't such a dumb idea, especially for those ranked over 75 in the world. Easy to divide into four regions which roughly match the current complement of players ranked in those areas and heighten the excitement when players clash in Grand Slams and Masters. And (governance challenges aside), it would be natural to fit a revamped Davis Cup into this regional pattern. 

Reduction of travel, relief from the hamster-like 52-week ranking method, and highlighting of regional rivalries would all be advantages of this reform. The 500s would be the apex of the regional tours and the Challengers would become regular tour events, as many now effectively are...the major gap, as is appropriate from a competitive standpoint, would be between the new ATP tour (500s, 250s, 150s, and 100s) and the Futures, with #s 75-300 in the second tier tour and 300+ in ITF Futures. 

Another point your article fails to address is that the wide appeal of tennis, I would argue, is less pronounced than the distribution of tournaments. The tournaments that were relocated from the U.S. to South America, so far as I can tell, are in financial jeopardy, while those in Southeast Asia and China may be no more than a fad. When stars fade and if homegrown stars haven't been minted, I suspect that the sport will retrench to its historic roots in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Hope to be wrong about this but I think it would be remiss not to see the possibility of it happening. 

Thanks as always for your tremendous commentary on the sport, and all best.

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