If a woman were dominating like Rafa Nadal is on clay, would the focus be on the lack of competition, not her greatness?

By Jon Wertheim
May 09, 2018

Housekeeping

• Michael Chang is the most recent guest on SI/Tennis Channel podcast. We talk clay court tennis, coaching Kei Nishikori and, inevitably, the 1989 French Open.

• Next up: 22-year-old New York native Noah Rubin, who won the USTA's reciprocal wild card shoot-em-out and will play in the main draw of the French Open in a few weeks’ time.

• Good soldiering: Check out 60 Minutes this Sunday. And every Sunday, for that matter...

• Random, but playing middle man for a longtime friend who is selling a 5’x6’ oil painting of Martina Hingis by the great Scottish artist Lex Braes. If you’re interested, I can make an introduction.

Onward…

Mailbag

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

Hi Jon,

Rafael Nadal has had (as is the case every year) a remarkable run through the clay, winning consecutive matches—most in remarkably short time and with almost intimidating scorelines. Every outlet has praised and hailed him for the impeccable dominance, taking virtually nothing else from his performance. There was little or no talk about how he lacked suitable competition, and when it is mentioned, it usually focuses on portraying him as superior as opposed to his opponents as inferior. 

Had this been a woman—say, Serena Williams—the focus of most blogs and outlets would be on how there is no competition in the WTA instead of focusing on the fact that she is brilliant, as is any player who holds a streak/record. This is only one instance of this observation in our sport. I'm sure there are many more. Hence my question: Is it fair to say that, despite significant improvements made in recent years, tennis still is a patriarchal sport?
Benedict Green

• You had me until the very end. I don’t necessarily think of tennis as patriarchal. (The obligatory disclaimer: I write this from the comfortable precinct of Whitemaleville.) It’s a sport of independent contractors, often ahead of the culture. Equal prize money? Women coaching men? Women representing men? Women officiating male competitors? Women in leadership positions? LGBTQ issues? With little fanfare, tennis acquits itself awfully well on a number of issues.

But, I agree with your larger point. Nadal is a soloist this clay season, with 31, 63 or 127 orchestra members, depending on the size of the draw. And the salon—and I include myself here—has this collective reaction: “Boy are we lucky to witness this unparalleled excellence.”

Serena Williams runs roughshod over the field for the better part of two decades. And the salon—and I include myself here—has this collective reaction: “Boy are we lucky to witness this unparalleled excellence. But, damn, it would be nice if she had a rival. What does it say about the rest of the field when she wins so relentlessly?”

I see a similar double standard with respect to the longevity of careers. We, rightly, love that Roger Federer is still winning majors closer to age 40 than 30, and we marvel at how roughly half the top 50 falls in the 30-and-over demo. But when it was Martina Navratilova winning matches deep into her 30s, we questioned the quality of the competition. 

Again, I give tennis a lot credit in terms of gender equality overall.  Let’s take a closer look at coaching. Becky Hammon gets an interview to be an NBA coach last week, and it’s hailed as another example of the “woke” NBA. From Jimmy Connors to Andy Murray to Tim Mayotte, women have coached men in tennis for decades. Renee Richards predates Caitlyn Jenner by decades. A female chair umpire working men’s matches doesn't even warrant mention, even in the biggest matches. But on this issue of framing dominance, I agree. There’s a dissonance.

Hi Jon,

In the spirit of continuing to bring out further incredulity over Nadal's clay court record, there is one metric that I don't see get much mention: For his career, Nadal has won 55 clay court tournaments against just 35 match losses. That puts his *TOURNAMENT* winning percentage at 61.1%. From what I can tell, no one else in the open era on any surface is over 50% (the closest ones I could find were Federer on grass and Borg on clay—both a bit above 40%). If you then take Nadal's most dominant decade (2005-2014, so 10 full seasons of tennis), he has a clay record of 42 tournament wins to just 14 losses, a tournament winning percentage of 75%. Nadal wins clay court tournaments at a similar rate that most other elite players win clay court matches. Add that to the Nadal clay court statistic comedy routine!
Giri Rao, Frisco, Texas

• Bless Nadal. He’s extraordinary. But where the hell’s the competition?

Dear Jon,

I’m a Nadal fan and very proud of his amazing tennis records. Thank you for your beautiful article on him. I, however, have not seen any article about his unbelievable track record of winning tournaments without losing a set. He’s done it three times in Slams, eight times in Masters 1000s and 11 times in ATP 500s. Is that not worthy of an article? Twenty-two times winning a tournament without losing a set—that record will stand the test of time. Nadal is out of this world incredible.
Josie Ang

• Bless Nadal. He’s extraordinary. But where the hell’s the competition?

It has become borderline ridiculous watching opponent after opponent try to out-hit Nadal from the baseline on clay.  Is there no variety/tactics/thinking at all in today's tennis?  Please clarify what you believe these players are thinking when they stand back there and swing away time and time again? 

Ben, Queens, N.Y.

I don’t disagree with this. Beating Nadal is, of course, the ultimate in easier-said-than-done. But one does sense a resignation in players’ lack of strategy. Hit all first serves. Hit everything to the backhand. Moonballs. Something. Quite simply, you’re not going to out-grind him. And the odds of beating him, especially over five sets, are so slim, you might as well try something different.

I mean, bless Nadal. He’s extraordinary. But where the hell’s the competition?

Taylor Townsend: Buy, hold, or sell? She's still pretty young (22), just reached a career-high ranking and won the USTA’s reciprocal French Open wild card once again. We know junior success doesn't always translate, but with her skills and variety, it's a bit surprising that so many of her peers seem to have passed her by. Is she slowly putting it all together now? Or was the controversy about her fitness a dark exaggeration of a larger issue: a lack of ability to transition from playing a style that works against teenagers to new strategies to beat adult professional athletes?
­—Willie T., Brooklyn

I guess it depends on our parameters. Buy/sell/hold for what? For a Grand Slam title? Probably sell. For a solid long-term career? I’m holding for sure.

There’s so much to like here. A lefty who plays all over the court and fares well on all surfaces? Sign me up. A player who has endured some brutal patches of tennis but has persevered and now, still only 22, is in the top 75, having already won 20 singles matches in 2018? Yes please. A likable, level-headed presence? That’s a bonus.  

If we’re going to talk candidly—and talking about a 22-year-old with more than a $1 million in career prize money is different from talking about a 16-year-old amateur—there remain questions about conditioning and fitness and durability. Different players have different body types, which is one of the great virtues of tennis. But it’s fair to consider Townsend and ask: “Is she giving herself the best possible chance to succeed?”

Overall, though, mad props—do the kids still say mad props? No? I didn’t think so either—to Townsend. She had great junior success. The transition to the pros wasn’t seamless, but here she is, barely 22 and firmly entrenched as a full-time touring professional. She goes about her business with a smile, she’s well-liked by her colleagues and she plays a nice game of doubles. 

Tennis gives us cautionary tales and sports tragedies. (Sidebar: Bernard Tomic is currently ranked No. 243, and Genie Bouchard clocks in at No. 118 this week.) Tennis gives us these soaring success stories, from Federer/Nadal to Serena. But, more often than those extremes, tennis also gives us these Taylor Townsend stories, pleasant vignettes which don’t change the course of history or take on the dimensions of epics, but simply cause the fan to smile and salute. 

Hi Jon,

I've been watching tennis for a very long time, and I'm really confused about one issue that I see with some professional players.  Why does a successful, rich player with a great future use a coach she obviously dislikes?  (A reality that has become quite obvious during these new on-court coaching sessions). I don't know if it's a contract issue or some personal tic that keeps this duo together.  Can you shed light on why some players work with coaches they don't respect?
Valerie Smith, San Jose, Calif.

• I’m not sure to which player/coach coupling you refer—though I do have my guesses—but a few points:

1. Like any relationship—more so than most, in fact—there are swings in momentum here. Players and coaches quite fond of each other might fight like Calvin Harris and Taylor Swift during the immense stress of competition.

2. Certainly this is not always the case, but in some instances, there is a romantic dimension that can complicate the work relationship and complicate a potential split.

3. I’ve heard more than one WTA player resort to this refrain when describing a coach: “I wouldn’t say I like him, but he knows how to motivate me.” Sometimes a coach’s ability to (cliché alert) push the right buttons is incredibly valuable. Even if the pushing of those buttons comes with a side effect of personal friction.

4. In some cases, yes, there is a contractual commitment. Firing a coach might trigger a severance agreement, which would be to the player’s financial detriment.

5. Semi off-topic, but you mentioned it, and I just can’t resist the opportunity to take a swipe at mid-match coaching. Apart from fundamentally ruining a pillar of tennis (self-sufficiency, problem-solving), it showcases players at their worst. When most players are losing matches and their strategy is not working, they will be appear to dislike their coaches. Why highlight this?

Hey Jon,

I’m going to Madrid on Sunday on a last minute trip, and just realized that the Madrid Open is on during the time that I’m there! I’m definitely going to get tickets for at least one day. If you have any tips for attending (or if you’ve provided some in an older mailbag), it would be great if you could share. I’m assuming that with all the other sports happening this time of year, you’re not attending. 

I’m beyond excited. 
Lanny T.

• Can anyone help loyal reader Lanny? I’ve been to Madrid once. Long-term blessing, short-term curse: my wife was pregnant at the time. I recall that I loved the city. Didn’t love Botin. Had lots of hot chocolate and churros after midnight. 

“Fishing for clickbait is second only to plagiarism as a journalistic crime” and yet, express.co.uk continues to pollute tennis-related search results with “you won’t believe the SHOCKING thing this player said!” clickbait that has rendered news pages basically unreadable. Does it bother you that legitimate and interesting tennis articles get pushed down the rank list by this kind of infuriating tactic? (As always, big fan of your columns, thank you.)
Natasha, Toronto

• Thanks. My favorite: You won’t BELIEVE Rafael Nadal’s net worth!!! You click—at least if you, like me, lack impulse control, you click—and the number…is completely consistent with what you might expect. You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many times Roger Federer has been married!!! (One, which I most certainly believe). You wouldn’t believe how many Grand Slam singles titles Venus Williams has won!!!! (Seven, easily Google-able).

SHOTS, MISCELLANY

• Happy birthday, UbiTennis, which turns 10 this week.

• This week’s unsolicited book plug: The Heritage by Howard Bryant:

• Former Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli targets U.S. Open return after near-death experience 

• Tennis Canada welcomes Katie Spellman, who has joined the Rogers Cup eteam in Toronto as the new Media Manager on a consulting basis.

READER RANT

I live outside the U.S., so I don’t have access to Tennis Channel or any of its platforms.  Instead, I subscribed to the ATP streaming service a while ago and I love it—the mobile viewing app is great, it’s easy to see what matches are coming up in my time zone, there’s one click to match stats during the match and I can always watch my favorite players even when their matches aren’t shown on TV (which is a lot, given who my favorite players are). It’s so easy to browse through matches that I’ve even enjoyed watching players I never would have watched otherwise. What a great way for the tour to broaden support.  A few weeks ago I subscribed to the WTA streaming service expecting the same experience and...*shudders*…WHY didn’t they just do what the ATP did?  Unless I’m missing something, it just appears to be web-based with no separate viewing app.  Second, when you click on the “Live” tab, it takes you to a list of courts. Not matches, COURTS, with starting times for that court.  You then have to click on another link, which downloads a PDF with the order of play on each court.  You then have to remember what court the match you want to watch is on, Google the local time to work out the time difference, jump back to the “Live” tab and click on the right court (assuming by that point you still remember what court the match is on and still want to watch tennis at all), and after all that perform a ritual sacrifice to the sporting gods in hopes of getting the streaming to actually work on a mobile device.  I’d happily pay the same rate as the ATP subscription if they just did it right, but as currently constructed, it’s been a waste of money.  Am I the only one?!
Deborah, Sydney

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