Discussing the role of the underdog and the ideal build for tennis in today’s game, the Weak Era theory, the use of the Weeks at No. 1 metric and more.
A quick Mailbag this week…..
• Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliott—a competitive tennis player before losing his religion—was last week’s podcast guest.
• Next up: Ryan Harrison.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
I’m wondering what you think from your up close perspective on this question: do you think people root for the short player more against a tall player? I personally find it so hard to get behind someone who only has to serve his way out of trouble rather than actually play. Maybe that’s a biased statement in itself. Is this where tennis is going? What can be done that can be implemented even at a club level, assuming shorter service boxes/taller nets are out?
—Jon B., Seattle, Wa.
• First the rooting: as fans, we gravitate toward the underdog and that applies to size as well as status.
No need to apologize for that bias.
I would also push back on your thesis. Maybe 15 years ago there was this existential fear that tennis was going to become the province of these bionic behemoths, these Philippoussis-types who would robotically serve aces and bleach all nuance from the sport. There was a Wimbledon match—it slips my mind at the moment….Ivanisevic/somebody—where the average rally length was vanishingly small and alarm bells sounded. (The conspiracy theorists will tell you this inspired the Wimbledon groundkeepers to turn their tightly trimmed grass into the fields of Flanders.)
But what’s happened since? Roger Federer is 6’1”. Same for Nadal. Among the Big Five, not a one of them is gobbling cheap and easy points by serving aces. Sure, you have the giants. But a) they don’t much populate the upper echelons. b) Their movement is often a weakness that can be exploited. c) I have no data, but they do seem prone to injury.
What’s more, note how many of the up-and-comers are modest in build. Alex de Minauer can’t weight 150 lbs. soaking wet. Denis Shapovalov is 6’0”, 165 lbs. Diego Schwartzman weighs 141 lbs. If anything, size is more of a pre-req—or at least an asset—on the women’s side. But, again, you’re not seeing too many WTA players “serve their way out of trouble.” Overall, this is an underrated tennis virtue. The sports can accommodate seven-foot Reilly Opelka, who beat Ryan Harrison in Delray on Tuesday. It can also accommodate Diego Schwartzman who weighs less than my first cell phone.
I'm not sure your depiction of Harrison was fair. Sure, he's had his share of differences with other players but so has Fabio Fognini and others. The important thing is this is the first time he's been charged with making racist comments. That also needs to be seen in the context of Donald Young. He can be a hothead also. Remember his four-letter twitter rant aimed at the USTA. Why didn't you bring that up?
Time will only tell what the real story is. If Harrison said something when they were standing at the chair, why didn't the umpire do anything? I don't think it's right to label Harrison a racist because of his past.
• The Harrison/Young contretemps, naturally, inflamed a lot of passion. Some of this was about the actual dispute. But it was also hard not to see this dispute through the prism of politics and these hopelessly divided times. Add in the outrage-accelerant that is social media and we have a full-blown controversy.
First, to the reader’s point: I did not accuse Harrison of being a hothead. I did accuse him of being a hothead who's had way too many disputes with opponents, especially recently. I also thought that context was important. These were not two random guys on the drawsheet who had a tense moment. There’s a lot of backstory and dynamic here. Failing to mention that—and withholding information that would paint a fuller picture—seemed naïve.
Since the initial allegation, the burden has shifted to Young. After dropping that grenade, he’s all but vanished. He’s said little. He’s turned down interview requests (including one from me.) His social media has been minimal. I would argue Terry’s point here. Young is NOT a hothead, at least when it comes to confrontation. (That USTA rant, by the way, was seven years ago and Young not only apologized but closed down his entire account.) But you can’t level the serious, staining charge of racism and then disappear. You just can’t.
For whatever you think about Harrison, ultimately we make our decisions based on evidence. And evidence was—or at least currently is—lacking here. No audio that was picked up. No one else on the court heard anything. No fans (in “woke” New York), who surely would have volunteered had they heard anything, came forward.
I would leave open the possibility that Young didn’t lie, per se, but that he misheard or his memory failed him. I would leave open the possibility that racism—and the perception of racism—is complex. Still, it’s problematic. And the ATP can now decide how and whether to sanction a player for leveling a charge that seemed to lack the weight of evidence.
When the news broke, this story generated considerable attention. When the ATP sent its Friday statement, effectively exonerating Harrison, it generated far little attention. We asked Harrison if there were more he wanted to add or explain and, well, here you go.
Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina have more weeks at No. 1 than Venus Williams. I’m not sold on use of that as a metric.
• Full context: when Roger Federer reached No. 1 the other day, the ATP sent out a congratulatory release. One of the items was a list of how many weeks each No. 1 served at the top. While Federer is the leader with 302 (and counting) who knew, for instance, that Djokovic’s reign was more than Borg’s and Agassi’s combined? Here’s the WTA’s list, which, as the reader notes, contains some unexpected quirks.
To the reader’s point, “Weeks at No. 1” is a bit flimsy and subject to the vagaries of the rankings system. If Venus, for example, restricts her schedule, she will have—and has had—a hard time sustaining her top ranking, even if she is holding multiple major titles. On the other hand, look at a player Wozniacki (71 weeks; compared to Sharapova’s 21) and you come to appreciate their sustained excellence a bit more.
A nice segue to…
Regarding your statement: "I voted for no candidates on this recent slate and cannot see myself ever voting for a player with only one major singles title" you don't really expect us to believe that you are NOT going to vote for Andy Roddick for the Tennis Hall of Fame, do you? Love your Mailbag!
• A few of you asked about that. I did indeed vote for Roddick. And without much internal debate. Only one singles major but—to use a voguish phrase that is fast calcifying into cliché—he checks all the other boxes. No. 1 ranking? Yes. Davis Cup success? Yes? Other Slam finals? Yes. Longevity at the top? Yes. Unquantifiable “credit to the game” points? Max out.
If another One Slam winner with his credentials came across the ballot, they would have my vote. Someone like Caroline Wozniacki—other Slam finals, 67 weeks and counting at No. 1—would be a strong contender. But a run-of-the-mill one-Slam winner such as, say, Flavia Pennetta or Marion Bartoli, would be tough to justify.
I have a question that may have already been asked and answered—if so, I apologize. What is your opinion of the Weak Era theory? I've read arguments for and against, seemingly bipartisan, depending on the whether the writer is a Fed fan or not. I believe you'd offer an unbiased viewpoint.
• Thanks, Sue. It’s a fair point but I always find there to be something circular about this. People ask, “Sure Steffi/Sampras/Serena/Federer/whoever, was great; but who did they have to beat?” But there are a finite number of titles. If Player X wins a large share of those titles, it stands to reason that Player Y’s credentials will look paltry by comparison.
Given that Federer is playing with two other contemporaries who have won double-digit majors, it’s hard to denigrate the field. But in the case of Serena shouldn't her record be a point to her favor, not her detriment?
Back to the men, over the last 15 years three guys have dominated. And five guys have basically made it a closed shop. But again, this cuts both ways. Every time you see a Grigor Dimitrov or Sascha Zverev or a Tomas Berdych or Gael Monfils fall short you could ask, “Where’s the competition pushing the Big Four/Five?” But you could also say: “This goes to show how impressive it is when Andy Murray reaches 11 Grand Slam finals.”
WTA Stars posing in the SI Swimsuit Issue: Exploitation? Selling out? Or growing the game?
—Jim in Tulsa
• With the preface that I am oblivious conflicted here…..as usual, I go totally libertarian on his. No one is posing under duress. It's totally volitional and voluntary. Forgive the pun, but everyone has agency. For some players, they’re interested and they seek out the opportunity.
I don’t think I’m breaching any industrial secret when I share one observation from last week: Genie Bouchard has immense popularity beyond tennis and on social media. A few weeks ago, one of you asked how she is still getting wild cards when her ranking has slipped outside the top 100. (It’s currently No. 116.) I have seen some of the traffic reports from the Swimsuit roll-out and, suffice to say, I can see how brands and tournaments would want to capitalize on Bouchard’s appeal, despite her on-court record.
With the tour being more brutally physical than ever and injuries being a big problem, wouldn’t it be the perfect time to push for a final set tiebreak at all the Grand Slam events? I’ve never understood why a tiebreaker is good enough to decide all other sets, but not the deciding set. Is tradition the only reason all Slams except the U.S. Open eschew the final set tiebreak?
—Andy Krouse, Hummelstown, Pa.
• I can go either way here. Tennis looks goofy when matches go 23-21 (to say nothing of 70-68) in the fifth set. And beyond that, as you note, there’s the physical wear and tear. In some case, competitors play an entire additional set and spend additional hours on the court. Again, when Halep went from the Australian Open to the hospital—UFC style—it was not a good look.
But who doesn’t want the drama of a decisive set at a major? When Lauren Davis and Simona Halep or Kerber and Halep were playing knock-down, drag-outs in Australia, no one sad, “Gee, I wish they’d play a shoot-out tiebreaker, first to seven points, win by two.” And the lack of a tiebreaker is also an earmark that this is a Slam and not a run-of-the-mill event.
Great column as ever. One nit: “The Passenger" is Iggy Pop's song; Siouxsie covered it.
• Right on. But the Siouxsie cover was the one on the I, Tonya soundtrack.
• It's always a treat to see a Mailbag reader pop up writing for other sites. Here’s Alex Pullin on Andy Murray.
• Apropos of nothing, it's nice to see Stan Wawrinka back among us. And while you praise his team for their enterprise, this announcement has interesting media ramifications. It reminds me of Andy Roddick doing that guerilla commentary for Grey Goose during the U.S. Open.
• “Tracy Austin has been named the Tournament Honoree for the 118th Ojai Tennis Tournament and will be celebrated at a special fundraiser during the event, which runs from April 25-29 headquartered in downtown Ojai’s venerable Libbey Park.”
• Nick De Toustain of New Jersey has this week’s LLS: Ron Weasley and a young Boris Becker.