PARIS — It’s Wednesday, which means mailbag day…so let’s do some quick Q/A.
But first, here’s my conversation with Lindsay Davenport on the Beyond the Baseline podcast.
I’ve been finishing a project at work and have only seen a little bit of the French Open. What do I need to know so far?
—Mark T., Columbus, Ohio
• Well….in 10 nursery rhyme sentences:
Rafael Nadal has set an impossible bar;
With grandma in the backseat, Marco Trungellitti had to drive far,
Serena Williams played in the suit of a cat;
The defending women’s champ has already gone splat
Zopp beat Sock in a match, onomatopoetic
Djokovic looked solid, and in no way splenetic
“Lucky loser” is a cruel designation
But it’s a subset with an abnormally large population
Sharapova can fight—that we all knew
No major upsets, we’re on to round two….
Say you’re the 100th ranked player in the world and you’re facing a player that, barring extraordinary circumstances, you have little chance of beating. (Facing a big four player in early in the majors/Nadal on clay/Federer on grass/etc.). Why do the underdogs play conventionally? Wouldn’t it make sense for these players to try something out of the norm? They could spin it like Santoro, go for big winners on almost every shot, drop shot on every point, go for aces whenever they serve, etc. If they’re likely to lose anyway, why not cycle through unconventional strategies until they hit one that works? If the new strategies fail, is there really any shame in losing 0, 2, and 2 instead of 4, 4, and 4?
—Steve, New York
• Just in for the day doing three sets, give it up for the lovely and the talented, Simone Bolelli.
The Italian lucky loser has done what few have done this spring – he came at Nadal with a real strategy. It wasn’t necessarily complex, but credit Bolelli with actually having a strategy. He went for broke whenever possible, especially on his forehand. He tried to frustrate and flummox Nadal with drop shots. He worked the backhand. Ultimately, it didn’t work (Nadal won in three tight sets). But it did enable Bolelli to break Nadal’s serve a few times, push him to a third-set tiebreaker and generally displace him from his comfort zone. It also established something of a blueprint.
To his credit, Nadal recognized this and admired it: “It was a good match. It was a difficult match, because he played so aggressive and very well, I think. I resisted, you know, always difficult to play against players that wants to hit every ball so hard, and even more if it's the first round. He played well, I think, so well, playing with lot of risk but having success with all of the risk that he take.”
Desperate times call for desperate measures. You’re not going to out-rally Nadal and win a grind-em-out match with him on clay. May as well try something unconventional, as Steve suggests. I'd suggest going even further. Only first serves, perhaps.
• Lots of social media crossfire about Serena’s catsuit. I’m reluctant to engage but here goes:
1. If you have an issue with Serena’s attire, time to look in the mirror. Here is the most decorated athlete in the history of the sport returning from maternity leave at age 36. She is wearing an outfit, as she puts it,"[For] All the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce, in a middle of everything.”
You don’t have to like the attire on aesthetic grounds. You don’t have to cruise Lululemon looking for your own full-body spandex. But how in the world does that offend anyone? That said…
2. Can we stop with the “double standard” gender policing? “How come we don’t talk about Federer or Nadal’s outfits?” First of all, we do. The pirate pants and sleeveless shirts and cream sweaters and smoker jackets and headbands have drawn plenty of attention. But suffice it to say that if Nadal emerges for his match in a black catsuit—in homage to Wakanda—it would not go unremarked upon.
3. Federer, Nadal and Serena are, allegedly, the only players who have final approval on their clothing. (They tell Nike what they’re wearing; not vice versa.)
4. Can we all agree: we would pay to watch the Williams camp present the catsuit to the Wimbledon fashion gendarmes.
Regarding the question of whether Serena's brilliance is treated differently than Rafa's—I am a huge fan of Serena's (and Rafa’s), and think her dominance is a reflection of her brilliance rather than the lack of competition. However, I was a little surprised at the comparison. Is clay court tennis treated as a separate sport now?
As I recall, Rafa has had a few battles with some guys named Federer and Djokovic over the years, half-decent players who have given clay their best shot. Serena has dominated all surfaces, with no other player coming close, whilst Rafa's dominance has (mainly) come on one surface, amid some pretty fierce competition overall. Are their careers really comparable?
• Let's put a pin in the Serena/Rafa decision. Should we consider clay a separate sport? I mean this in the nicest possible way, but Nadal forces us to do this. His record on clay is so absurd—and so superior to his record on other surfaces—that he invites us to differentiate by surface. His career winning percentage indoors is 68%. On both hard courts and grass it’s 77%. On clay it jumps to 92%. At the French Open it’s 98%.
I know it is too much to send two emails in one day, but I know you have a penchant for trivia. Did you know that Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia ended two players’ careers in the last year? Both Kimiko Date (in Tokyo) and Roberta Vinci (in Rome) decided to play their final tournaments in their home countries. And Krunic sent both to their retirements, beating Date (who was 46!) in September and Vinci this month.
Wish there had been more written about Kimiko's intriguing return to tennis at age 37 after a 12-year layoff, an inspiration for us senior players.
—Russ Ewald, Los Angeles
• Good one. But Venus Williams is eating Kimiko Date’s lunch. We thought it was remarkable she was still playing in her early 40s. Venus is in her late 30s and is embedded in the top ten.
The Surface of Truth—clay—is not for the meek or faint-hearted. The Surface of Truth exposes imposters—the physically unfit, the mentally weak, the "Servebots" and the players who bash without tactic and cannot construct points. Only the strong survive. Only the best win. Rafael Nadal. The best of the best. Rafa richly deserves this mailbag tribute.
• Tribute accorded. Let’s avoid a detour into Federer versus Nadal and resist declaring anyone “best.” But let’s do acknowledge that clay makes certain demands of players unlike any other surface.
Always a pleasure going to the mailbag for some tennis insight.
I have to take issue with a comment you have made repeatedly about Nick Kyrgios. You frequently refer to him as "an uber talent". While I like Nick, and am honestly not offended by his sometimes boorish behavior, I think you (and a host of others) are entirely too generous in your assessment of his game. He is simply not uber talented. He doesn't have the serve of Sampras or Federer or even Safin. He doesn't have the ball striking ability of Andre Agassi or Djokovic or even Yevgeny Kafelnikov. He doesn't have the defensive ability of Michael Chang or David Ferrer or even Guillermo Coria. He can’t volley like John McEnroe or Pat Rafter. He doesn't have the tenacity of Nadal...
Can we all just agree that Nick is just another good player who, if everything goes right, may win a Slam or two (a la Andy Roddick/Rafter/Thomas Johansson), rather than a once-in-a-generation phenom that couldn't put it all together? Perhaps this concession may also help his game, no?
• We’re arriving at the same point a different way. “A good player who, if everything goes right, may win a Slam or two,” sounds about right. To me, that’s a hell of an achievement. (And probably sufficient for Hall of Fame status, though that’s another story.) For you, that’s a disappointment. But that sounds about right for young Nicholas.
I’ve noticed the recent depopulation of the Kyrgios bandwagon and it’s not unreasonable, given recent events. (Or lack of recent events.) Kyrgios is 23. Now, while it’s not the end of the road, we’re getting restless. He’s outside the top 20, has trouble staying healthy and there are the persistent questions about his professionalism. Last weekend he won the doubles title in Lyon; then he comes to the French Open and withdraws. (Discuss: would he have withdrawn had his first round opponent not been frenemy, Bernard Tomic?)
There’s a fine line between rejecting convention and self-sabotage. But I still say Kyrgios, on balance, is a force of good. And this enduring game—will he figure it out?—adds to the intrigue of following his ups and downs.
As Mark Jackson astutely noted in his commentary, if Tatum and James' roles had been reversed in Tatum's dunk (posterization) of LeBron in the 4th quarter, that clip would have been played on a loop for the next five minutes. Though I guess it's not a bad thing that rookies still have to earn respect.
• Not sure how this ended in my mailbox, but didn't we all see a clip of that dunk for hours anyways? I'll end with this: