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Mailbag: What's Causing Novak Djokovic's Downturn and When Will He Return to Form?

Novak Djokovic's recent struggles are concerning, but there are some positives to take away from his downturn. 

A short vacation edition Mailbag. But we’ll be back next to wrap up Miami. And we’ll have a new podcast as well….

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

Serena or Novak: which one in form first?

• I reject the premise of this question. And yet, it’s relevant and encapsulates two of the central themes of contemporary tennis. Here we have two decorated champions, winners of double-digit majors and both are currently out of form, leaving fans to wonder whether they’ll ever regain their mojo.

That’s pretty much where the similarities and symmetry between Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic end. She is recovering from childbirth—a difficult one at that—and trying to play herself back into shape. I continue to stress that there’s an emotional component to this, too. Any parent knows that rhythms and priorities and moods are upended by new additions.

In the case of Djokovic, his decline is far more mysterious and mystifying. I wouldn’t—and don’t—discount his physical ailments, especially elbow pain. But in addition to that, he is simply unrecognizable from the mentally impenetrable player of his prime. Talk quickly turns to pop psychology and we reference a “ruptured spirit” and “searching for answers” and “doubts in need of exile.” But it reduces to this: Djokovic is suffering a crisis of confidence (another term) and no longer seems to possess full belief in himself.

We like data and we like empirical evidence to support and reject claims. But one of the beauties and frustrations of tennis: it often resists quantification. There is no stat for “aura” and no metric for “self-belief.” There’s nothing to tell us the opponent no longer takes to the court telling themselves they have to play their very best—and perhaps even that won’t be enough—versus telling themselves, “my opponent is vulnerable, and I have a real shot.”

To the original question: which player finds their form first? I say Serena. Though never for this reason, she has had these career lulls before and knows she can return quickly. There’s a track record of women playing themselves back into shape after a maternity leave. A few wins, a few clean matches, a few stealing-victory-from-defeat comebacks and her aura comes back.

On a similar topic, one of you asked if there were any silver lining that could possibly extracted from Djokovic’s swoon. Here’s what I have: 1) this slide ought to put into perspective just how fine and delicate a sport this can be. Apart from physical health, mental health is being thrown into sharp relief. One 10% lapse and you are losing to journeymen players. This gives us new respects for Djokovic’s mental game when he was at the height of his powers. 2) Djokovic’s hiring of Agassi seemed like a curious outside-the-box personnel move when it was first announced 11 months ago. Today, Djokovic should take comfort knowing that one man on the planet singularly experienced in returning from tennis burnout is on the payroll. 3) Age 30 ain’t nothing. 4) If/when Djokovic returns to prominence, it will mark an extraordinary comeback tale that could open a real window into the mental side of the sport.

Birth complications evidently a handbrake, but what's your BUY/SELL/HOLD right now on Serena winning a GS title this year?
Mark A.

• I’d say hold. A good way to go broke: underestimate Serena Williams. Yet—even at a discounted price—it’s not the right time to buy, her having lost four consecutive sets. Let’s revisit and re-balance the portfolio in late June?

I'm all for equal pay at Slams and tournaments and I enjoyed your thoughts on equal pay for Martina Navratilova, however, I feel there is an additional consideration beyond what you mentioned. You focused on the name/reputation of Martina and John McEnroe and I agree both are big names and from that perspective, should be considered for equal pay. The point I think you miss is the broadcasting skill of each. Martina, though technically good, is nowhere near as seasoned in the broadcast booth as John. This is likely because John as been doing it much longer and is also a native English speaker. I find it sometimes difficult to listen to Martina call matches. 

I think John likely should get paid more because he has far more experience in the broadcast booth compared to Martina. This should also be considered when talking about pay. They are both big names, but Martina is fairly new to this role and John is highly experienced. 

I would still argue that getting paid 10% of what John gets paid is not justified if that's really the number, but I don't think it's fair to say she could get paid the same as someone that has more experience doing the job and is much better at it (so far).


• Again, I think you shift the burden to the BBC. “You have made a determination that commentator A is worth 10x commentator B. Especially as a public entity, you have a duty to explain business decisions. Please tell us: what’s your basis for this determination. Please show us the data you rely upon.”

Maybe there’s some complex formula, taking seniority and airtime in account. Maybe there’s polling data of audience tastes and preference. Maybe Commentator A is doing promotional work throughout the year. But a vague, subjective decision is problematic, especially given an institutional pattern of wage gappery.

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I imagine many Roger Federer fans are pressing the panic button again. But seeing Federer lose the Indian Wells final and his first match in Miami the way he did reminded me of something. I believe it was J-Mac who was commenting once on the fact that Federer didn’t have a great record in five-set matches (I think it was under 500 then). He said that Federer rarely played five-setters because he normally won easier than that and if he was stuck in a five-set battle, it was probably because he didn’t have his A-game.    

Federer never found his A-game in Indian Wells. He was lucky to escape the semifinals, honestly. So, I can’t say I’m that surprised Federer came out even worse in Miami. And yet it still came down to a final set tiebreak.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d rather see Federer lose like that than a 6-1, 6-1 score line. Plus I’m not going to panic. He had a couple of “what the F?” losses last year too (Donskoy and Haas) and look how that year turned out? He'll be back. Although I'm slightly sad to see him skip the clay season. I doubt he'll ever play clay again.

• A lot to digest here. A) Sadly, I agree that if Federer isn't playing the clay this year—when, I submit, he has/had a real chance of stealing a French Open—it’s hard to see him setting foot on the dirt ever again. One of those accommodations made to a 36-year-old trying to make the strategic moves to prolong a career; but a pity nonetheless. B) Yes, two straight losses for Federer ought to be a disappointment, but not cause for alarm. (FYI, there actually are panic buttons.)

Your other point is well taken. If you are pushing Federer into a fifth set, odds are good that he is playing poorly and you are playing at a ferociously high level.

And on a related note: Here’s Paul Haskins of Wilmington, N.C., concerning this comment from last week’s Mailbag:

“As a Federer fanatic, it saddens me that after yesterday, he is now 1-8 in finals with a deciding set tiebreak. His lone win was against his coach, Ivan Ljubicic, in the 2005 Rotterdam final.”

Right. This is a ground rule in statistics and probability: the greater the sample size, the great the accuracy. Regression to the mean and all that. Flip a coin 10 times and you might get nine heads and one tail. Flip a coin 1,000 times and you are far less likely to get 900 heads and 100 tails. Give each player one shot and some Joe off the street might beat Steph Curry in a shooting contest. Give them 100 and Curry will win.”

I’d be more bent about this comment if science and engineering professionals didn’t make the same mistake all the time, but no, that 1-8 stat is not statistical noise. Two points here, first if you flip a coin ten times and get nine heads, the coin probably not fair. Seven and three, sure. Nine and one (one way or the other), less than 0.3% of the time, not very likely. The other point is that a tiebreak is not like giving each player one shot because each point in a tiebreak is a shot. To win the tiebreak, you need to outshoot your competition repeatedly. First to seven, win by two and Curry is not losing very often to some Joe off the street unless Joe is on fire and I think that is where the Federer stat comes in. The typical pro does not get the Fed to a third set tiebreak. If you are in a deciding tiebreak with Roger Federer, you are playing out of your mind.  The reality is that the Fed is losing those tiebreaks because his opponents are completely in the zone or Federer is having a rare, less than awesome day.  The fact that Federer has only had nine of those over his entire career speaks to how rare that is.
Paul Haskins of Wilmington, N.C.

Curious if you've reconsidered/heard anyone challenging a piece of conventional thinking. We all know it goes like this: pity Berdych, Delpo, Nishikori, Raonic, and, maybe more recently, Zverev, Goffin, Thiem, et al., for playing at the "wrong" (i.e., Big Five) time.  

They couldn't keep up with the Big Five, they can't seem to keep up with 36-year-old Federer (disclaimer: credit to Federer, of course), and, looking at recent Masters and Slam results, it's not like any one of them in particular (Delpo the closest?) can claim to be the perpetual bridesmaid.  

All of this to say: we feel that they pass some "eye test" (can we retire this phrase soon?) that makes us think, "Imagine what they would do without the Big Five!"... but maybe no one of them actually would've turned out to be a consistent winner, even if there was/is no Big Five.
Mike M., Atlanta, Ga.

• This, of course, is one of those unknowables. In the absence of the Big Five, who wins?

Hi there, what do you think about having linesmen/women in wheelchairs? We need inclusion to start in sports of all kinds but I think tennis would be a great place to start, commentators too! COME ON #LETSDOTHIS

• I’m not sure if this is a nascent movement or coincidence, but this has come up a few times lately. Sure, I see little reason why—in and of itself—a wheelchair would preclude someone from serving as a linesperson. Especially since there are entire wheelchair events played during some of the most prestigious tournaments.

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Shots, Miscellany

• The USTA today announced that Konstantin Anisimov, father and coach of 16-year old Amanda Anisimova, the youngest player in the WTA Top 150, was named as the 2017 Team USA Developmental Coach of the Year as part of USTA Player Development’s annual Team USA Coaching Awards. The JTCC in College Park, Md., was recognized as the 2017 Team USA Developmental Program of the Year, while USTA Florida was named the 2017 Team USA Player Development Section of the Year. Renowned coaches Ricardo Acuna, Andy Brandi and Tom Gullikson were also honored with Team USA Legendary Coaching Awards. All honorees were recognized at a reception on Sunday at the adidas Easter Bowl junior tournament in Indian Wells, Calif.

• Nick Kyrgios has been awarded a wild card for the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship, which will take place April 7-15 at River Oaks Country Club. Limited tickets remain available for select main draw sessions of the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship.

• The Volvo Car Open has extended two of its five main draw wild cards to Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Andrea Petkovic. They join a deep field that includes Caroline Garcia, Johanna Konta, Sloane Stephens, Petra Kvitová, Madison Keys, Daria Kasatkina, Julia Goerges, Naomi Osaka and more in the Charleston, South Carolina. The Volvo Car Open will take place March 31 to April 8, 2018 at the Family Circle Tennis Center. 

• Selkirk Sport, a leading manufacturer of high performance Pickleball paddles today announced that Team Selkirk members, Ty McGuffin—the defending National Champion—and professional tennis player Kaitlyn Christian—who acted as Emma Stone's tennis double in the film “Battle of the Sexes”—both captured victories at The Lakes Spring Fling Pickleball Tournament from 3/23–3/25 at the Lakes Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif.