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  • After a surprise win at the 2017 U.S. Open, Sloane Stephens fell into a slump, and then returned to capture her sixth career WTA title and a top 10 ranking. What should we expect from the American next? Plus John Isner's win, Novak Djokovic and his coaching situation and more.
By Jon Wertheim
April 04, 2018

Quick housekeeping:

• Our next podcast guest is Danielle Collins

Here’s a listen to put you in a good mood.

Gunter glieben glauchen globen…. 

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

Jon please help me understand Sloane Stephens. She comes from nowhere to win the U.S. Open. Then she can’t win a match. Then she wins the Miami Open. What’s the deal here?
Steve T., Philadelphia

• Buy/sell/hold has become this shorthand for assessing players. Here’s a buy rating with the caveat that this will be a wild ride. Investing in Stephens is not for the fixed income crowd. There will be dramatic highs and dispiriting lows, and little indication when the nodes and crests are coming.

This would be more concerning if the player were trying to solve the riddle. But it appears as though Stephens herself is resigned to—comfortable with, even—erratic results. You’ll recall that she did indeed win the U.S. Open, with a dazzling intermarriage of poise and power. She didn’t win another match the rest of the year. At the subsequent major, the Australian Open, she lost in round one and said blithely: “Even though I lost, I'm not too sad. Oh, my God, no. Everything is good. Relax, everybody. It will be okay. Don't worry. We will get back to having fun soon. Just give me a little bit to regroup and we will be okay.”

To the outsider it may have sounded like a rationalization or a delusional self-assurance. Turns out, Stephens was absolutely right. It would be more than okay. She plumped her confidence with some fine play in Indian Wells. By Miami, she looked like a worldbeater. She won the second biggest title of her career and is now in the top ten.

My assessment of Stephens—and this is not a knock—is that she likes tennis and likes being a top athlete and embraces the trappings of success including celebrity. But does not have the unwavering passion for tennis that other players possess. So there will be stretches when the sport bores her and there will be stretches when she will lose matches that she might otherwise win were she playing with more conviction. But then the passion will return and she will win big. At some level, it’s admirable she knows herself well and is conditioned to deal with moody and mercurial results.

Right now the going is good. At some point, the going will be less good. She’ll handle it with calm. We should as well.

So, it was a fitting red, white and blue closing for the last Masters 1000 at Crandon Park. Americans won all four major events with John Isner, Sloane Stephens, the Bryan Brothers and CoCo Vandeweghe (with Aussie partner Ash Barty—should we make her an honorary American for one event?) all taking home trophies. No one could have predicted that all four trophies would to go the home nation for the final time played at this amazing site.

So, a question for Sharko. When was the last time that one country swept the field in an event that hosted both men's and women's events (obviously the slams, a handful of Masters/Premier Mandatory events and a smaller handful of lesser tourneys that have tried to mix the two tours)? How about the last time all Americans did that?

Congrats to the Red White and Blue (at least Ash Barty also wears those colors) and all the winners.
Ted Ying, Laurel, Md.

• As we wait for the Sharko/Kevin Fisher collaboration, let’s start on an up-note and toast American tennis. We ought to take it as an article of faith that tennis is a relentlessly global sport for the moment and for the foreseeable future. This is a virtue and an asset. Other sectors, inside and outside sports, would kill for this kind of global reach. But it means that the days of one country dominating are as outmoded as wooden rackets and argyle attire.

So when the United States can lay claim to five of the six winners at a significant tournament, it’s a real achievement. Add in the ascent of Frances Tiafoe and Amanda Anisimova. Recall that Serena and Venus Williams remain spindles on which the entire sport is wound. Consider that Madison Keys, while mired in a bit of a slump, still has Grand Slam potential. Consider, too, that college tennis continues to incubate talent from all over the world. I would contend that, overall, American tennis is pulling its weight.

Hi Jon. You, on Wednesday: "Djokovic should take comfort knowing that one man on the planet singularly experienced in returning from tennis burnout is on the payroll." Agassi, on Friday: "We far too often found ourselves agreeing to disagree."

So now what? Also, I'm wondering about the similarities between Djokovic (after the French Open title) and Wilander (after 1988). ,
YC Chien, Taipei, Taiwan

• Until tennis players officially retire, I resist would any instinct to declare any player’s career over. But this is a slump that has grown legs and a tail. We’ve all seen players ebb and flow, ascend and descend. But two years ago today, we were talking about a player absolutely dominating the sport, with a good shot of winning THE Grand Slam. Today, his decline is tennis’ great mystery. “Lost soul”—a phrase conveying confusion but also a certain poignant solicitude—is an explanation in heavy rotation.

We had all heard that the Agassi-Djokovic relationship was tenuous. Agassi allegedly counseled Djokovic against playing Indian Wells on the grounds that the player wasn’t ready. Djokovic played anyway. Agassi allegedly counseled Djokovic to add a few pounds of bulk. The player still has the BMI of a car antenna. At some point, one suspects, the teacher wondered, “If the pupil isn't listening, what am I doing here? I’ll save my breath to blow on my coffee.”

Djokovic has been through a lot personally in the past two years. At some point he may address the specifics. But right now the seeker is still seeking. His fans have not abandoned him. But something sure has.

Fellow New Yorker chiming in. First off, congratulations to John Isner. The way he played, he could have beaten anyone including the likes of Roger, Rafa or Novak playing their best. No asterisks needed here. 

My question is, what do you think about Sasha Zverev's performance? He played the match too cautiously and made zero adjustments. Isner was playing the best tennis of his career and making fewer mistakes than usual, I was surprised he did not catch on. He played the match too nervously evidenced by the fact he hit no backhands down the line. And he kept hoping that Isner's game would break down at some point. It didn't. Instead of forcing the issue, he played subdued hoping Isner would lose the match in the end. 

It doesn't bode very well for a player touted as almost certainly a future No. 1. Still think he will get there, but the performance left me with more questions than answers. 
Rahul, New York

• Let’s start by pointing out that—at a time when careers are extending like an accordion—Zverev doesn’t turn 21 until later this month. He’s still way ahead of the curve, literally and figuratively.

But your larger point is valid. This was supposed to be a year of emergence, all the more so, given the disintegration of the Big Five. And so far it's been a rough 2018 for Zverev. Another disappointing Slam performance. Parting with a coach, who hinted at a lack of professionalism on his way out. Early losses to lesser players. A nice run to the Miami final, but losing a winnable match against John Isner.

The good news here: the swirling rumor has him conspiring with Ivan Lendl. Not only is Lendl an ideal coach, who will brook no immaturity and has a track record of making good players great; Lendl, too, knows about the burden that comes with expectation and taking longer than preferred to break through.

So now DelPo has announced that he will likely skip most of the clay season. Fernando will not mince words. Maestro Federer has legitimized skipping the clay season even though healthy and now all the sheeple on the ATP tour are following along. It's a disgrace to tennis, the fans and the integrity of our sport. The clay season is being marginalized. Is there a journalist brave enough this call this out.....? Mr. Wertheim?
Fernando

• Not I. This is the beauty of the markets. Tennis authorities, such as they are, present a schedule that is simply unsustainable in terms of the demands they make. Tennis authorities, such as they are, have declined to take seriously the injuries that compromise player after player. And what happens? The labor market responds accordingly. Players—starting with Federer—are taking matters into their own hands and making decisions that are best for them, regardless of whether this breaches convention. This is no different from LeBron James declining to play all 82 regular season games or Broadway stars sitting out performances to rest. (The role of “Juan Martin del Potro” will be played by understudy Joao Sousa in tonight’s performance.)

Want to call something out? Call out the schedule makers and the unwillingness to ask serious questions about why it is so many top players conclude that it is in their best interest to fashion their own, shorter work schedules.

As I am sure so many people asked the question "Who is Danielle Collins?" after seeing her actually out-hit Venus Williams, I found the answer here. I'm sure you know who she is, but I didn't...so actually seeing how well-prepared Collins is, coming from college tennis, made all her wins this week make more sense.  

Kudos to college tennis! Preparing student athletes to not only perform well, but make a huge impact on the pro tour, going deep into major tournaments, is pretty impressive.  

Venus probably should have done a bit more homework on this opponent, but the result isn't as surprising, after you look at the Collins resume. As always, love all the coverage. Mit freundlichen Grüßen aus Köln
Curt B.

• Vielen dank. Get to know Danielle Collins here. Collins is up to No. 53 and, for the foreseeable future, she is defending points the way, as I write this, the Michigan Wolverines are defending the three-point shot (very little).          

This is my [first] time writing, so here goes. I am writing this on the eve of finishing watching the del Potro­–Raonic Miami Open quarterfinal, and though I am pleased that DelPo won such a tough, riveting match (I am a huge fan) I am disgusted with the way the match went.

I am all for showing love for your favorite player, but to jeer and shout after missed first serves and cheer after double faults...it's unacceptable. The crowd in Miami was so blatantly biased and disrespectful that it ruined the enjoyment of the overall match for me. It reminded me of the Federer-Kyrgios epic in the semis the year before, where an out call from the hugely pro-Federer crowd caused Kyrgios to erupt in response with some rather vulgar words. While his response was uncalled for, the crowd's unanimous booing of him was even more so.

Patrick McEnroe also tweeted during the match that del Potro complained when the Indian Wells crowd was rowdy for Roger the way it was for him tonight against Milos. However, Milos didn't complain at all. All credit to him for showing composure, dignity and respect to a crowd that didn't show him any of that.

This doesn't make del Potro a hypocrite for not speaking out against a pro-him crowd, but it does seriously make me question if there is more the sport can do to counter such crazed fans. What makes this all the more frustrating was the ump's inability to temper the crowd. Your thoughts, Jon?
Ben from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

• We all have our issues. I hate the cynical and sexist farce that is on-court coaching. Many of you have been turned off by grunting. Excessive toweling is another.

Fan conduct strikes me as tricky. Tennis has tried to get away from this “quiet please” priggishness. It’s tried to attract new audiences by downplaying etiquette and preciousness and trying to make tennis more like conventional sporting events. Yet there are those of us who might suggest that decorum isn’t all bad. And that, more important, players must be able to hear the ball come off their opponent’s racket and they must not be distracted by bogus “out” calls and heckles during their ball tosses. For whatever reason, Miami seemed to have some real issues this year.

Rule of thumb: go crazy before the match, during changeovers, and even for that interval between points. But quiet when the ball is in play. Go easy on the profanity. And go easy on the personal attacks. Keep it civil. And if you want to boo and rail against a player during the on-court coaching break, go nuts.

Adding to Fish's comment about players' use of towels during matches: Why does the ATP require ball kids to serve as personal valets to adults throwing sweaty towels in their direction? This seems above and beyond the responsibilities of the position. Why can't the ATP set up a box or hook at a corner of the court and require the players to manage their own towels? I attended the 2017 Montevideo Challenger and, as a result of an errant towel toss and a gust of wind, I was asked to return Joao Souza's towel from a bush. One time handling a soggy towel was enough for me; I couldn't imagine doing it repeatedly over a course of a match.
—Mark, Montevideo, Uruguay

• “I was asked to return Joao Souza's towel from a bush.” That, friends, is our line of the week. I’m with the reader here. Ball kids should fetch the balls. They should not be asked to handle towels dense with bodily fluids.

Not one mention of the great start Brian Baker has had this year on the doubles circuit? He and Nikola Mektic took the title in Budapest and Memphis, are into the semis in Munich and are up to No. 13 in the team rankings. He and Daniel Nestor had a semifinal finish in Miami.
Helen of Philly

• My moles tell me he’s at home in Nashville rehabbing from minor back surgery at the very end of December. He’s working on the Davis Cup tie for Belmont, helping out with the U.S. Team and is hoping to be back on Tour in the middle of the year.  


Shots, Miscellany

• Who among us hasn’t been here?

• Here’s a curious use for a tennis ball:

• Martin Hingis will act as ambassador of Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, Switzerland.

• BNP Paribas has extended its title sponsorship of the BNP Paribas Open from 2019 through 2023. BNP Paribas began its title sponsorship of the tournament in 2009, and over the course of this agreement, the bank will become the longest running title sponsor in the event’s history. “The title sponsorship of the BNP Paribas Open has proved itself a success and continues to deliver a level of quality that aligns with BNP Paribas’ values,” said Jean-Yves Fillion, Chief Executive Officer, BNP Paribas USA. “The event has expanded immensely, and along with Bank of the West led by Nandita Bakhshi, we look forward to being part of its on-going growth. Our engagement with the event reflects our business commitment to California and throughout the US where we employ 16,000 people; and to the sport of tennis where we are recognized as one of the leading global sponsors. Together, we are proud to be a part of a world-class experience that is enjoyed by so many of our customers, team members, and fans.”

• Top young juniors Jenson Brooksby (17, Sacramento, Calif.) and Katie Volynets (16, Walnut Creek, Calif.) won the adidas Easter Bowl Boys’ and Girls’ 18s singles titles on Sunday, each earning wild card entries into the U.S. Open Junior Championships in September and future USTA Pro Circuit events.

• The Greenbrier Champions Tennis Classic will celebrate its seventh anniversary in a big way September 15-16, with a weekend packed full of tennis and the game’s biggest stars.

Venus Williams and Serena Williams highlight a six-player lineup, which includes two current men’s tennis players and two tennis legends, who will be announced in the coming weeks.

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