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Mailbag: What Did We Learn From the Start of Serena Williams's Comeback at Indian Wells?

After winning two matches and losing one (to Venus) at Indian Wells, how far away is Serena Williams from winning majors once again?

INDIAN WELLS – A quick essay and some quick Q/A from a strange-yet-entertaining BNP Paribas Open…..We can’t promise 50 thoughts, but we’ll try and wrap up on Sunday. Enjoy the last few days, everyone!

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Imagine a casual fan, a local, who attended the BNP Paribas Open last year. Then, they lost track of the sport a bit. That happens. They return this year. One can only imagine the conversation they have with a seatmate:

“The ball is still yellow. It has to clear a net, land in the right boxes and can only bounce once. But is this still the same sport? I barely recognize it.”

“Of course. Why do you ask?”

“It just seems so different.”

“Different how?”

“Last year in Indian Wells, Andy Murray, Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Rafael Nadal were the top five seeds. What happened to those guys?”

“It’s a rough sport, tennis is. They’re all hurt.”

“And you told me that Novak Djokovic was going through a rough patch mentally but would be back soon, gobbling up wins.”

“Still could happen...”

“I remember you saying that teenagers could no longer cut it in this sport. Too physical and all that.”

“Yeah but—”

“Everywhere I look, I see these kids. They’re not old enough to buy a drink—can’t even vote in some cases—but they sure can smack a tennis ball.”

“True, but….”

“And Maria Sharapova—you said her suspension was ending, and watch out, she was going to return with a vengeance.”

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“Yeah that hasn't really…”

“And Serena Williams. You told me she was out with a left knee injury. You didn’t tell me she was pregnant and wouldn’t play again until now!”

“I was only going by what she told us. Besides, she’s back!”

“And what about Federer?”

“What about him? He’s here.”

“You said, it was nice to see him beat Nadal in the final and win that Australian Open at age 35. Something about lightning in a bottle and a fitting capstone to his career. Now he can retire in peace.”

“Yeah, I guess that plot kinda changed, too, in that last year.”

“I can barely keep up with this sport. Thankfully, there’s still that time-honored competition of Davis Cup. Four weeks a year. Nation against nation. Home and away. That’ll have to anchor things for me.”

“Um, yeah…”


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

Jon, you saw it up close and in person. How far does Serena have to go before she is back to winning majors?
Steve T., New York

• Funny, I saw her play six sets and….I’m not sure we learned all that much. She can still hit the ball. She can still compete. She is—completely expectedly—dusted, if not coated, in rust. The better she serves, the more effective she is. (No kidding.) Too many errors pock her game. (No kidding.) After childbirth and motherhood, her conditioning might be suboptimal. (No kidding.)

The good news is that we are nowhere near the lower extreme. I was told that there was real concern in her camp about this comeback. She extinguished that notion early, winning her first four sets against credible opponents, showing her usual knack of playing her best when the situation called for it. The less good news: she is a considerable distance removed from her Aussie Open 2017 form.

Overall, I would contend that this tournament worked out well. Any doomsday fears were quelled. Yet she knows there’s work to do, which is noting new—or daunting—to her. You know the H.L. Mencken line, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public”? The tennis corollary: no one ever went rich underestimating Serena Williams.

We all love Roger Federer, but what does it say about the ATP when a 36-year-old man can win so easily?
Aaron S., Princeton, N.J.

• I think that’s a fair question to pose. We had plenty murmurs about “what does it say about the WTA if Serena can come back from pregnancy and childbirth and recovery and win?” Well, what does it say about the ATP when a 36-year-old father of four cleans up?

The rebuttal is multi-pronged. We’re talking about Federer. This passes the eye test. He is playing exquisite tennis. The results are much more a function of his excellence than the opponents’ shortcomings. And surely he would be challenged more often if Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka (and even Nishikori) were playing.

Buy or sell on Grigor Dimitrov and Sasha Zverev? If I owned stocks, I'd be worrying, especially about Zverev.  
Shlomo Kreitman

• I’d hold both. But I would diversify my portfolio. Dimitrov tantalizes us with his style, his versatility, his thorough likability as a human being and his occasional result (see Cincinnati and London.) But the consistency has always been elusive.

As for Zverev, I do think he will win majors one day. But that day is not tomorrow. And it may come in the foreseeable future. There are still too many lapses of focus to see him winning seven best-of-five matches.

While you have some of your Tennis Channel colleagues who are both former players and coaches, perhaps you could ask them about coaching a player during the match. Not the abysmal WTA on court coaching, but rather the not so subtle coaching coming from the box during the match. As former players who know the rules and the codes, do these current coaches feel they should toe the line and not coach at all from the box or do they push the limits?
Ken Wells, Gardiner, Maine

• I’ve heard everything here from “I don't do it” (even when there’s video evidence to the contrary) to “I can’t help myself” to “everyone does it so I’m disadvantaging my player if I don’t do it, too.” This “not so subtle coaching coming from the box during the match” is a justification for the WTA’s on-court coaching “innovation.” Shoot, everyone is cheating. So why not legalize it and try to capitalize on the entertainment value?

As many of you know, I have many issues with this “innovation.” Chief among them: it shows the players at their worst. The winners and the players who succeeding are seldom the ones using the dial-a-friend option. (See: Venus and Serena.) It’s the addled and the testy and the flummoxed. It’s players who are having an unpleasant internal monologue that soon becomes an unpleasant external dialogue. It highlights WTA players at their lowest moments. But fear not, the tempered and wise males are there to straighten out these emotional women!

Shots, Miscellany

• This week’s LLS is the audible variety. Reader James B. of Portland notes that Pam Shriver sounds much like NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly.

• This week’s reader riff comes from Karl Miller of Phoenixville, Pa.:

At Indian Wells for the weekend. Looking at order of play, we decide to catch some Jan-Lennard Struff v. Alex De Minaur. If you’re at home, it’s not a TV match. Neither player is top 40, so it doesn’t merit more than a passing reference. It’s a first round match between two non-seeds, so it’s on a smaller court that’s we’re able to get courtside seats with no difficulty.

What we saw was the best match I’ve seen in a couple of years. Two warriors making incredible plays, chasing each other all over the court, hitting serves and making returns that made the crowd gush in admiration again and again and again.

If you watch from home, you’d never experience it. That’s even if you had a chance to see it at home. There’s a lot of reward for supporting your favorite sport by attending live matches. I’ve added two new faves to my list, and I’m so very excited for young De Minaur, who appears to be the real deal.