Cleaning out the inbox ahead of the 2018 Australian Open, including thoughts on Eugenie Bouchard's career, the mystery of tennis players' injuries and more.

By Jon Wertheim
January 10, 2018

A quick Mailbag before the 2018 Australian Open. First, housekeeping:

• Come back once the draw is out for our 2018 Aussie Open seed reports. And come back after that for the SI Roundtable.

• Meanwhile, Mary Carillo comes on the podcast to preview the Australian Open, talk Margaret Court, Nick Kyrgios, Boris Becker et al.

• Good Soldiering Part I: Tennis Channel is back for its 11th year at the Australian Open. The pregame show starts at 6 p.m. ET each evening (morning in Oz) and then we have match coverage.

• Good soldiering, Part II: Tune into 60 Minutes this Sunday.

• Good Soldiering, Part III: Appeared on this podcast talking investigative journalism and was asked to publicize it. So I shall. 

Mailbag

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

Jon, such mystery regarding professional tennis players’ injuries. Djokovic (elbow injury) and Murray (hip injury) take off six months and are still not fit and nobody knows what the true nature of the injury is or the prognosis. It seems as if there is much more transparency regarding injury disclosure in other sports. Are there any rules here for the disclosure of tennis players' injuries? 
Fernando, Valencia

• Sure, other sports are more transparent about athlete injuries. (The dirty secret: this transparency is in part to appease gamblers; but let’s save that for another time.) The difference: in these other sports, a team is paying the player’s salary and serving as employer. In tennis, the players are independent contractors and, as such, owe no one a duty of information or full disclosure. If a tennis player wishes—for whatever reasons—to be coy and secretive about their health, they’re entitled.

Completely understand your stance on no comment for the sake of the child. But this is sexism 101. A male tennis player in this position could go do his job. Love you, but your silence on this stinks.
@bookshrike

• I’m not sure I get this. I’m reluctant to go too deep on Azarenka, mostly because it’s deeply personal and pivots on the welfare of a child. A child who’s done nothing wrong, has no agency in this and doesn't need this custody dispute to be what defines him when your Google his name 25 years from now. It would no be different if a male player were the principal figure.

Just to be clear: as I understand it, Azarenka is free to play the Australian Open. She simply cannot leave the country with her child. And so it is that she’s chosen not to. No different if this were a male or female.

I realize the topic was non-Federer Big Four rivalries, but the two Wawrinka victories over Djokovic at Roland Garros especially (2015) and the U.S. Open (2016) still stand out as two great examples of an underdog finalist rising to the occasion (sartorial choices notwithstanding). 
Yves, Montreal

• Oddly enough, if we include Wawrinka, we get some tremendous head-to-heads, with Wawrinka winning some and losing others (see U. S. Open 2003). Take it away, Chris Clarey.

Hi Jon, happy 2018 to you and your loved ones. I recall that a similar question was asked to Pierre Paganini about Federer. I dug up the interview by a New York Times reporter. I find it funny that in that 2012 interview Paganini was also asked whether Federer had lost a step. Below is what he replied at that time to the former question and the link to the full interview.

Q. If Roger were not a tennis player what would be his best sport?

A. In soccer, he could have been really good. Roger has coordination from head to hands to feet. He could have been a good javelin thrower, he could have been good in basketball or volleyball or skiing because he has a great sense of balance. He’s very versatile. I think young players should draw inspiration from this because it’s like learning a language. When you develop a good, wide capacity for coordination when you’re young, it helps you express a lot when you’re older. Training for tennis shouldn’t be done in a tunnel. It should be in more of a courtyard.
Venky C, Ann Arbor, Mich.

• Thanks, Venky. And long as we’re here, how about a nod to Pierre Paganini, a deeply underrated figure in tennis. Here’s a guy who has worked with Roger Federer on his training and flexibility and injury prevention and…well, the results speak for themselves. He also worked with Stan Wawrinka. A) that’s more than 20 Majors between them b) those are two radically different body types and yet Paganini has accommodated both.

WTHIGOW Genie Bouchard?
Claire, Quebec

• I’m at a loss here. And so sadly, it seems, is Bouchard. “Struggling” barely paints the depth of the problem here. Once a top five player who reliably made the second week of majors, Bouchard now plays as if her entire hard drive was wiped clean. She’s won two matches since 2017 French Open. (After beating Sharapova and Kerber at the previous event.) Over the last three years, she’s cycled through coaches. She’s cycled through agents. She’s tinkered with her game. She’s sued the USTA. All to little avail.

You can decide whether this is a benefit or detriment, but because she is Bouchard—and has a tremendous social media presence and following—she will continue to be gifted with wild cards, ranking be damned. And as long as she is appearing in main draws, she will earn a few points. So there’s a bit of a safety net there. But one way or the other, this distressing trend cannot continue forever. A favorite saying here: “careers are not linear.” But I can’t recall a career quite like this: a top five player who suddenly goes months upon months without winning a solitary match.

Hola Jon! Happy New Year, all the best in 2018 from a fan of your wonderful column through all these years.

Isn’t Nick Kyrgios the Marcelo Ríos of these times? They share so much in common, starting with the incredible talent, the on-and-off commitment to the sport (and to themselves), and the potential. Hopefully Kyrgios can YouTube some videos of Ríos and understand he doesn’t need to repeat history; the great Chilean’s career was like a comet: came brilliantly, but went too soon. I admire genius, both of them are. It’ll be great for tennis to add the Australian to the Grand Slam winners of today.   
Carlos Acosta, Guadalajara, México

• Thanks. Not bad. We can nitpick and come up with some differentiators: one was a diminutive lefty; the other a tall righty. One was abrasive and combative; the other was immature but a good guy whose sins were mostly self-inflicted variety. Rios got to No.1; Kyrgios, for all his notoriety, has yet to crack the top 10.

But I see your broader point: for all his talent, Rios’ temperament and on-again, off-again commitment prevented him from maximizing his potential. What a pity it would be for Kyrgios’ career to suffer the same fate. Talent needs to flow. It cannot be a spigot that gets turned on and off.

Long as we’re here—and on the occasion of the 20th anniversary—let’s reflect on Rios, 1998 Australian Open. He reached the final, but then falls to Petr Korda. Later that year, Korda tests positive for nandrolone. We all have our own moral codes. But if this were the Olympics, doesn't Korda get stripped and Rios wins gold?

Stop the ridiculously intentional grunting. It is much too pervasive in women's tennis. It is bad for the game, and imagine how awful it would be to see youth mimic this at tennis courts around the country.  It is cheating and annoying to listen to as a fan. Do introduce a "shot clock.” Do limit five-setters to only the finals or semis of majors.
Mike Zambetti

• Fair enough. My new rule: we—and I hasten to include myself here—need to scale back with these relatively minor suggestions until we address the injury crisis in a meaningful way. Let’s triage. Let’s fix our broken leg before we start quibbling about shoe styles.

Shots, Miscellany  

• Everyone watch this Boris Becker documentary on Netflix. Not unlike the subject, the flawed and self-sabotaging but ultimately endearing. Then we can have film salon.

• Federer/Bencic ain’t a bad mixed doubles team.

• Novak Djokovic and his Asics kicks are coming soon, to a commercial (and blue court) near you.

• Speaking of endorsements: “As the sport of Pickleball continues its rise as the fastest growing recreational sport in North America, the professional game is gaining momentum as prize money and prestige for the best players in the world continues to increase. Today, Selkirk Sport, a leading manufacturer of high performance Pickleball paddles and accessories, announced the signing of 2017 USAPA National Champion, Ty McGuffin, to the largest endorsement contract ever in Professional Pickleball.”

• The United States Tennis Association today announced a restructuring of its Community Tennis division prompted by the success of the USTA National Campus in the Lake Nona district of Orlando, Fla. This restructuring will allow the USTA to better focus its people and resources as it continues to innovate across all grassroots areas, including youth and adult tennis, tournament play, digital outreach, education and overall tennis participation. 

Kurt Kamperman will assume the role of Chief Executive, USTA National Campus. The success and potential of the USTA National Campus necessitated focusing Kamperman’s role to ensuring the Campus continues to grow and reach its full potential. He will oversee the facilities team and lead the development of a long-term infrastructure plan to sustain growth. Additionally, Kamperman will have oversight of USTA-U, the USTA’s innovative approach to raising coaching and educational standards for the sport of tennis in the United States, He also will continue as the USTA point person with tennis industry partners and all allied organizations.

• LLS comes courtesy of Helen of Philly: Composer Georges Bizet and Benoit Paire. The collar detail really seals it.

Helen of Philly

• Jim Barber of Atlanta has out reader riff: So Jon, I spent some of the off-season reflecting on the women’s game, especially the hubbub over Halep finishing No. 1 ahead of Wimbledon winner Muguruza. Personally, I think Halep gets a bum deal with the criticism of her efforts. I know the Grand Slams are the crown jewels of the game, but outside of Serena’s win in Australia last year, the other three winners were for all purposes flukes. They could have easily have lost the first round as well as won the title. Frankly, the Slams were like every other tournament on the WTA calendar—anybody inside the top 20 could have won. Oops—make that top fifty, thank you, Ostapenko. All that to say that Halep was without doubt the most consistent performer on the tour. She played fewer tournaments than anyone in the top 10, five less than Muguruza. In another year (think Wozniacki), Muguruza would have been castigated for padding her ranking and yet, even with five more tournaments to her credit, she couldn’t wrestle away the No. 1 spot. Before this era of parity, winning a Grand Slam meant more in my opinion. When Davenport won her first U.S. Open, Venus her first Wimbledon, they were putting exclamation points on their rise to the top—and they continued to perform consistently. When Graf or Serena won a Slam, they merely lived up to expectations. Compare that to Stephens who came out of nowhere to win the U.S. Open last year and hasn’t won a match since. Or Muguruza who went into Wimbledon on the heels of a 6-1, 6-0 loss—don’t think too many people were expecting her to win the Big W. All this to say that maybe we need to just accept that the rankings may have it right when it comes to who is the best overall performer on the tour—especially in this time when there is no dominant player.

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