Previewing the 2018 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, plus thoughts on the chances of Roger Federer playing (and winning) the French Open this year.
A quick pre-Indian Wells Mailbag. First some housekeeping:
1) Tennis Channel has you covered at the BNP Paribas event. Brett Haber, Tracy Austin, James Blake and I will be doing the daily pregame show at 10 a.m. PT and then match overage begins.
2) Petra Kvitova is our most recent podcast guest.
3) We’ll have another guest later this week.
4) Stick around till the end for a tremendous reader riff.
Both on Twitter and at a tennis brunch, we had a lively discussion about Roger Federer’s chances if he were to decide to play the French Open. It’s a fun thought exercise, in part because it’s so unlikely to happen. Some quick thoughts:
1) Again, I think we need to stress that this is hypothetical. Federer did not play on clay last year and is unlikely to change his philosophy in 2018. Yes, as someone committed to winning majors, it must be tempting. Yes, he’s won on clay before. Yes, he’s won three of the last four majors he’s entered. Yes, if Rafael Nadal is compromised, entering Roland Garros must be all the more tantalizing for Federer. But I don't see it.
2) If Federer were to enter, would he be the favorite? Not if Nadal is willing and able, of course. (And depending on the state of Djokovic’s body and head….) But Federer would be a real contender; and absent those two, the favorite. Federer has “only” won the French Open once, of course. But he’s reached the finals five times; he’s won Madrid six times; and he’s won more than 200 matches on clay….it’s not exactly a foreign substance.
3) What about the young guys, especially Dominic Thiem, a semifinalist two years running? I think this falls under “you have the win a Slam before you can be favored to win a Slam.” Federer vs. Thiem, in a best-of-five match? Amid the gravitas of a Slam? In front of a wildly partisan crowd? With so much context and subtext? I say that’s Federer, 60-40.
4) So why doesn’t Federer play Roland Garros again? Specifically, a few reasons: Clay is the surface that demands the most out of him physically. The Parisian weather—those damp, heavy days—must spook a 36-year-old man with back problems. Federer wouldn’t likely enter a Slam without any prep work so suddenly he’s entering tune-ups and his entire spring schedule would really be turned sideways. The proximity to Wimbledon means that a niggling injury suffered in Paris might not have time to heal. But the overall reason: Federer is at his most rational when designing his schedule. What rhythms are most conducive to prolonging my career and maximizing my chance at the biggest titles? Playing clay doesn’t fit here.
5) But let’s agree that a) it’s fun to consider b) it’s remarkable that we’re talking about a player—on his worse surface, closer to age 40 than to 30—and discussing this in earnest.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Jon, it's too bad that my favorite player, Rafael Nadal, won’t be at Indian Wells this year. But I will. Still so many good players and it’s such a fun time. What are some of their storylines you’ll be following?
—Jean, Los Angeles
• Thanks for this question. Jean raises another existential tennis issue: pre-tournament news tends to be relentlessly negative, a litany of players who are not competing in a certain event and come in uncertain status. This is a challenge for the sport’s PR practitioners: how to generate more encouraging headlines to combat the inevitable withdrawal news?
Anyway, some of the storylines are obvious. Can Federer defend his title, especially with so many challenges sidelined? How does Serena look in her first event coming off maternity leave? But here are ten other Indian Wells storylines/questions off the top of my head:
1) Whither Novak Djokovic? He won this event in 2016. Then he won the French Open a few months later. And since then, it’s been tough sledding, as the cliché prone would say. Can his comeback start in the desert?
2) Petra Kvitova is back in the top ten and riding a two-tournament win streak. Have we moved beyond the comeback backstory to a place where we can talk about a player who could fill the vacuum?
3)Victoria Azarenka is another player who’s conquered the desert in recent year. Yet she’s played six matches in the last 20 months. What’s the state of her game?
4) Frances Tiafoe had a breakthrough week recently in Delray beating Juan Martin del Potro, Hyeon Chung and Denis Shapovalov to win the title. Can he build at this bigger event?
5) A year ago, Sloane Stephens came to Indian Wells in a wheelchair, still nursing a foot injury. She returns this year as….what? A recent Grand Slam champion, capable of winning the title, and also a player struggling to win matches. (Note her likely showdown against Azarenka.)
6) Simona Halep is back at No.1 thanks to the vagaries of the rankings. How does it fit her?
7) It was two years ago this week that Maria Sharapova tested positive for meldonium. She’s back but is she back? She’s north of 30 (age) and north of 40 (rankings) and, allegedly, less than fully healthy.
8) Ryan Harrison and Donald Young will both be present. Enough said.
9) Who is Nicolas Jarry and why have so many loyal readers from South America touted him as a player we need to discuss?
10) “Uncle” Larry Ellison has ponied up a $1 million bonus to any player who wins singles AND doubles. (Ironically, the defending women’s champ, Elena Vesnina, might be the most likely candidate.) Will this impact doubles draws? And if no player wins in 2018, can we roll over the bonus and play for $2 million in 2019?
Something I think many recreational players must wonder about from time to time (myself included) is how much energy do professional players save in a match as a result of not having to chase down balls after points? Now that we have technology to track players’ total movement during matches, has this ever been used to look at ballboy/girls? It would be fun to look at the total movement of ballkids on one half of the net for a match, which we could compare to player movement to at least get a rough idea of how much energy it takes to pick up your own balls.
—Geoff Auckland, New Zealand
• Interesting. There are no ballkids, of course, in college tennis nor in lower level events. It would be interesting to learn how this impacts player exertion. On the one hand, you’re squandering extra energy chasing down wayward balls. On the other hand, the extra time between points required to accumulate all the balls might be an advantage to the players. You have a few extras second to recover physically and a few extra seconds to collect your thoughts.
On the topic of players and their rhythms between points….
I happen to take notice watching the Delray Beach Open doubles final, which was played in extreme heat, that the four competitors rarely if ever went to grab a towel between points. Some of these points were certainly just as strenuous and if not more so then when a singles player grabs his towel after almost every point (including aces and double faults).
This proves that it is many times unnecessary and just a time waster that slows the pace of play. Probably not, but maybe a new rule/way to limit the number of times a player can go to the towel between points per game? I watch old matches from not too long along players never went to the towel between points. Thoughts?
—Thanks and continued success, Fish
• I’m with you. Our favorite is when there’s a double-fault and the returner takes a towel break. Dude, you literally did not swing, much less make contact, much less play a point. If you are sweating, you have really overhydrated.
Singles players sometimes mention that they towel off, less as a practical action than as part of their ritual. Fine, but that comes at the expense of viewer enjoyment, which is a problem. (Doubles players don’t get a total pass. Too often their Yalta-style strategic conferences between points seems excessive.)
Davis Cup will suffer a slow death unless the best players compete. It’s long, boring and the winners are often not the best players. The Fed Cup has earlier had the short one-week format (I coached the Norwegian team in 83 degrees in Zurich) and I think it is the best alternative. It is not the title, it’s the players. All honor to the ITF for seeing that this is a sinking ship. It will live, and survive, as long as the best players show up. I think the short format will be perfect for the players and also the fans. Too bad the Laver Cup has just been put out of business!!
• I wouldn't bury the Laver Cup just quite yet. Different concepts, different vibes. And don’t underestimate the authority of Federer (and his commercial power) even X years from now, when he is retired. (And by “X,” we mean the Roman numeral for ten.)
As for the future of Davis Cup and this radical proposal, we’ll see. The success depends largely on which players are enticed to participate. But market forces are powerful motivators. And something had to be done. Now—in a battle to rival Federer/Nadal—we’ll see who prevails, the traditionalists or the mavericks. No question that the current proposal has its weaknesses and issues and logistical complications. But the current version of Davis Cup is so flawed, so tone-deaf to the current demands of the sport and, consequently, so lacking in currency…something had to be done.
I was listening to the 30-love podcast with Carl Bialik interviewing Cliff Richey and he discussed getting the "yips" with his backhand partly due to his unorthodox swing and how Arthur Ashe once experienced the same thing with his unique service motion. Once a particular stroke goes "off" perhaps it is harder to reestablish it if the stroke is unconventional. I know you don't have a crystal ball for predicting "yips" but what current tour players on the WTA or ATP have the most unorthodox yet effective strokes? I wonder about that gorgeous leaping Shapovalov backhand and whether it will place a lot of stress on his shoulder as he ages. Thanks Jon.
• This is a good one to crowd source. “Unorthodox” takes on a variety of definitions. The Nadal forehand is wildly unorthodox. Yet for 15 years it’s been terrifically effective, so perhaps it’s more conventional than we think. Nick Kyrgios’s entire mode of being is unconventional, at least to tennis. Serena Williams’ tennis upbringing is unconventional. Same for Federer, for that matter.
More conventionally unconventional, there’s the entire game of Monica Niculescu. (And Ons Jabeur if you really want to go down the rankings.) Pierre-Hugues Herbert serve. Alex Dolgopolov’s serve merits mention here, too. The Ernests Gulbis forehand defies physics and convention in equal measure. Can we discuss Marion Bartoli and her two-handed forehand now that she’s back? As a bonus, there’s Pablo Cuevas doing this.
• Octagon announced the signing of American tennis sensation, Frances Tiafoe, to a worldwide, exclusive marketing and management agreement. The 20-year-old will be represented by Octagon vice president, Kelly Wolf.
• Elina Svitolina has won her first Tie Break Tens tournament, following a thrilling battle with Shuai Zhang in the final at New York’s legendary sports venue, Madison Square Garden. Having seen off Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe in the previous rounds of the new fast-paced, short-form tennis competition, Elina Svitolina dominated in all of her matches to take home the champion’s check of $250,000.
• The PowerShares Series, a competitive men's tennis circuit featuring some of the ATP's former top-ranked players, will return to Charleston on Saturday, April 7th at the Volvo Car Stadium. This year's line-up features Andy Roddick, Michael Chang, Tommy Haas and Mark Philippoussis.
• Five past champions, nine Americans and a trio of 21-and-under rising stars 22 highlight the initial entry list for the 2018 Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship which will be held at River Oaks Country Club April 7-15. The US Clay winner in four of the past five years—Steve Johnson (2017), Jack Sock (2015), Fernando Verdasco (2014) and John Isner (2013)—will be joined by 2007 US Clay winner Ivo Karlovic in the field. Johnson, Sock and Isner are among an American contingent that includes two-time finalist Sam Querrey, Tennys Sandgren, Ryan Harrison, Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Donald Young.
• Sam of San Diego, California has LLS: Novak Djokovic and Pierre Vaultier, gold medalist of 2018 Winter Olympics snowboard cross.
Pierre Vaultier said about Djokovic: “When I am watching him play, his expressions and his intonation, I feel like I am watching myself.”
Vaultier also said that he was a fan of Djokovic and had always wanted to meet him. Djokovic responded by inviting Vaultier to the French Open: "Let's make it happen. See you at RG!"
• Joe S. has our reader riff this week:
As for Eugenie, I'm always glad to see plaintiffs cash in (I was a plaintiffs' whore myself when I was masquerading as an attorney at law). I'm also glad to see that you sure nailed it when you described litigation as a runaway train from which only the lawyers get rich. Litigation is a racket and a scandal with a lot of willing participants including the judges. Let me add a few thoughts to what you observed: Why wasn't the case settled immediately as it should have been—any fool could have seen from the get-go where it was going—? First, consider that it wasn't the USTA but rather its insurer that was the real party defending the suit. Then realize that lawyers for insurers get paid for the time they put in working on a case, "billable hours."* So, when an insurer's lawyer settles a case right away, he makes zilch. Therefore insurance-defense lawyers perfect the art of taking their insurer-clients down the garden path with promises like "We'll beat this" and/or "We'll save you money" and "Leave it to us." Having thus gulled their clients, these sharpie lawyers then spend years "churning the file" by fomenting phony disputes over discovery, hiring experts, taking depositions, filing and opposing motions that they themselves have made necessary, etc., etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. By the time the smoke has cleared a few years later, these lawyers are already into the insurer for a few hundred grand before the plaintiff has even seen a nickel. And, as if that's not bad enough for the insurer, then the plaintiff hits the insurer for a bonanza recovery by settlement or trial. Will it do the insurer any good to fire that law firm and get another afterwards? Of course not, any new law firm will do the same thing all over again in the next case. They're all whores. Their motto is "Please sue my client." One solution that has been tried by insurers is hiring in-house counsel as its own employees on a salary who have no incentive to engage in unnecessary shenanigans, but unfortunately, the salaries offered have not been tempting enough to attract top, effective legal talent.
Anyway, Jon, finally I'm also glad that you have found a way to remain honestly employed in tennis journalism and that you've never had to disgrace yourself by becoming an attorney at law.
*A 29-year-old lawyer dies and storms up to St. Peter in Heaven in a rage, insisting that it's all a mistake, that he's too young to die and that St. Peter has to send him back. "I'm only 29 years old," he expostulates, "It's ridiculous for me to die this young." St. Peter says nothing but calmly opens a drawer in his desk and pulls out a book that he studies for a while, after which he looks up at the lawyer and says, "According to this book, you're 85 years old." "What?" says the lawyer. "That's crazy! Look at me, I'm only 29—by the way, what book is that?" St. Peter replies, "It's the book of your Billable Hours."