Mailbag: Looking Back at Roland Garros

In his latest mailbag, Jon Wertheim looks back at Rafa Nadal's 11th Roland Garros triumph, Simona Halep's maiden Slam victory, Roger Federer's clothing sponsorship and more.
Publish date:

A post-Paris mailbag.

But first...


• Louisiana Lighting, Chanda Rubin, is our next guest on the podcast.

• R.I.P. Maria Bueno.

• A few words on Rafa Nadal's unprecedented greatness on clay.

• Here are 50 parting thoughts to wrap up the 2018 French Open.

• Due to a bad telegraph reception, in those thoughts we neglected to mention the French Open junior champs. In the boys final, Chun Hsin Tseng from Taiwan beat Sebastien Baez of Argentina.  In still another American/American girls final, Coco Gauff of Delray Beach—who only turned 14 in March—beat 16-year-old Caty McNally, of Cincinnati in a terrific match that ended in a third-set tiebreak. (Ola Malmqvist, Kathy Rinaldi and the USTA girls player development come in for applause and  recognition here; something is clearly working.) More on this match below….


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

Always a great read, but one gripe - the junior girls final with two young Americans was a gripping and fun match that went to a third set tie breaker, multiple match points and comebacks. Great for US women’s tennis and worthy of note!

• Absolutely.  Great for U.S. tennis. But I would submit that this is great for tennis, period. The girls’ final was among my favorite matches of the tournament. Allegedly it involved a 16-year-old from Cincy and a 14-year-old from South Florida. But it sure didn’t seem like two teenagers competing. Instead, I saw two players make adjustments, use the entire court—McNally served-and-volleyed down break point more than once—and make dozens of dashes to the net. (Including Gauff’s successful approach on match point.)

Coco Gauff is such an ascendant star that—despite turning 14 only a few weeks ago—she appears destined for international stardom already. But a word, too, about McNally, who served for the title at 5-4 and was broken but then steadied to force a tiebreaker. I was watching with a former pro whose initials are James Blake. I posed this question: “If you were just watching the tennis and didn’t know the identity of the players, and I said, ‘This is a match between two main draw players,’ would you doubt me?’”

He said no.

Great answer, Venus! Jon, do you ask the men about their clothes too?

• This question refers to this hard-hitting journalism ,and you’re absolutely right. No one has any interest in the attire of male players. Federer could show up to Wimbledon in a Nike toga and we would….wait? He’s perhaps no longer with Nike? Why didn't anyone notice that?

Seriously, I understand your question and we should all be sensitive to double standards. But I push back here. When men A) wear full-body catsuits and B) more importantly, make clear that they are happy to speak about the aforementioned full-body catsuits, then, yes, we would ask men about their clothes.

Back to Federer. There was a lot of chatter at Roland Garros about his rumored departure from Nike. But for every person who suspected he was off to a competing brand, another thought this was simply a negotiating ploy. Jarring as it might be to imagine RF in Uniqlo, this isn’t surprising. Sports marketers play catch-a-rising-star and seek to invest in youth. Veteran athletes want to be paid for their achievements. No one is right and no one is wrong; just two different philosophies which aren’t wrong but aren’t aligned—which is why we often see older athletes (inside and outside of tennis) leave their longtime brands.

A friend/source very much entrenched in this world gave me permission to share with you a text he sent.

While NIKE keeps many of their athletes under contract post-retirement (e.g. Johnnie Mac), the fee associated with such “Ambassadorship” deals indeed drop precipitously. NIKE is a publicly traded enterprise and their core mantra is performance, and top-dollar endorsement deals must be limited to those actually performing on the field or court (save for the rare “Air Jordan” arrangement).  RF was “only” making in the neighborhood of $10 million from NIKE, so an Ambassador post-retirement deal would likely be less. Let’s compare that to Uniqlo, which does not have the same shareholder scrutiny. For Uniqlo, here are the key points: 1. Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Olympic Games and Uniqlo (a Japanese company) has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to promote its brand on the world stage, including through RF playing in his (in all likelihood) final Olympic Games (massive); 2. If Unqilo (a global brand) can pay Kei perhaps $20million per year, it can and should certainly pay RF $30 million per annumr; 3. As RF nears retirement, the media impressions of him will skyrocket, further enhancing their ROI; and 4. Unlike NIKE, Uniqlo is far and away much more of a non-sport, lifestyle brand than NIKE. Thus, the value of RF to Uniqlo in retirement (as this is reportedly at least a 10-year deal) is FAR greater than the value of RF to NIKE in retirement. Any questions?”

Jon, will Mr. Tiriac eat a glass of wine now that Simona has a Slam title? 

• This comes from our pre-tournament conversation with Simona Halep. Ion Tiriac’s great party trick (which he performed when he played World Team Tennis) entails his eating a wine glass.

  • No idea if he ended up doing it for Halep. But we would pay top dollar to see it.
  • When he played for the Boston Lobsters, Tiriac played doubles with John Lucas, the former NBA player (and an all-time mailbag friend.) If anyone has footage, we pay top dollar.
  • Heard a great line recently about Tiriac: he was the "greatest player who couldn't play."
  • One of the great scenes every year at the French Open: Tiriac sitting regally in the front row, the best seat in the house. “Je suis le roi.”

What did you make of the way other WTA players were so happy about Halep winning. Do they really like her? Or do they feel sorry for her, not having won all those years?
Al Lee, Washington, D.C.

• Morrissey has a song “We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful.” This was the opposite. The outpouring from WTA players was testament to A) how well-liked Halep must be in the locker room B) how much sympathy her struggles generated and C) how many players perhaps projected their own challenges and shortcomings when they saw her win.

Honestly, it has become boring to see Nadal win very year. I wonder who would win between him and a peak Gustavo Kuerten.

• We all love Guga (he’s like the South American version of Pat Rafter.) But Nadal ain’t losing three-of-five matches on clay to anyone with a one-handed backhand.

Not badly written considering this comes from someone who thinks Federer is the 2nd-best clay-court player. (The more I think of it... how can a tennis expert be so clueless on some things?)

• Gun to the head: I had to look up what this referred to. But apparently I noted that Federer was the second-best clay court player in the game after Nadal. More accurately: I wrote that the player with the best chance of beating Nadal at Roland Garros did not enter. Anyway, we could argue that. I know Pat McEnroe shares my sentiment. I know Mr. Thiem does not. But “clueless” seems unduly harsh.

The periodic plea: can we disagree with each other without the ad hominem attacks?

Nadal's French Open winnings alone ($18,979,840 with current exchange rate) would put him 20th in ATP all-time career earnings.

• Good one. But I'll take this in the opposite direction. If Nadal had never entered a clay court tournament in his life, his tennis record (including six Grand Slams) would compare favorably with many all-time greats and gain him instant Hall of Fame entree.

Could you see Rafa winning another three Roland Garros titles to tie Federer at 20 Slams?

• I could see that, yes. But I could also see a valid argument for wondering if career Slams is the best benchmark if one player wins the vast majority of his at one site while the other is more evenly distributed.

But here’s what I really see: two extraordinarily athletes who—directly and indirectly—keep pushing each other. Both are thoroughly likable and, though in different ways, do an extraordinary job representing both themselves and the sport.  The GOAT debate is fun and natural. (It would be strange if fans DIDN’T take the discussion here and make their cases.) But let’s not lose sight of the macro. How lucky are we that these two guys co-exist?

Nadals latest triumph was boring to some, inspiring to others. At this point he's not so much "winning" as *defending* his castle against an onslaught of attackers. Maintaining a near impossible standard for as long as he can to stave off what will eventually be inevitable. It's a unique spectacle.

• In what universe could that be boring? If someone had set the global standard for toll-taking or oatmeal preparation for 15 years, I would happily watch them go about their excellence.

I was doing some research on odds of past Wimbledon's for my site and came across this article about the 1975 tournament in Nottingham.

Just curious if you had ever heard about it in your years covering tennis?

Blake Redabaugh, Denver

• Plug away. That’s a great catch. But I had not heard that before.

Hi, Jon,

The Trottier Astronomical Observatory at Simon Fraser University has the Starry Nights promotion on Fridays when the sky is clear.  What does this have to do with tennis?  Well, I believe that, to attract people, they are giving away telescopes—via raffle and while items are available—for those who attend four Starry Night events and a workshop.  There are several options for Slams to adopt a similar promotion and fix this empty seat problem:  A)  Buy a ticket and choose to enter in a ticket raffle (while seats are available).  B)  Pay 25 euros (or a different amount) to enter the ticket raffle.  C)  Buy a gate/grounds pass and choose to enter in a ticket raffle (while seats are available).  D)  Any of the previous options plus using a percentage (5, 10, more or less) to donate to a good cause/local charity.  Of course, the technology must work.  I am just thinking that, if an observatory without the Slams' revenues has found a very enticing way to increase attendance; so can the big tournaments to fill stadiums.  

Lourdes Pereira

• Love it. Thanks.

I think 32-year old Nadal would defeat 22-year old Nadal in Paris. 

Dominic Ciafardini, N.Y.

• Agree. (And when Nadal was 22 he lost to Robin Soderling, paving the way for Federer’s lone Roland Garros triumph.)

Who would you rather be, a winner at an ATP Masters 100 event or a losing finalist at a Slam?

• Quick, who was the runner-up at Wimbledon in 2011? Quick, who won Cincinnati that year? Guessing far more people would know the first answer (Tomas Berdych) than would know the second (Andy Murray.)

  • Points hold the above as well. A slam finalist takes 1200, while a Masters 1000 series winner gets…wait for it…1000. Now that the points from Roland Garros 2017 molted off like snakeskin, Stanislas Wawrinka is now down to world No. 263.
  • Not sure if your question alluded to this, but note the Dominic Thiem has reached a Slam final but has won zero Masters 1000 shields.
  • I can think of a few situation-dependent cases where a player would perhaps chose the Masters 1000 option. Think of a player wearing the mantle of “never won the big match,” coming through Delpo-style in the Indian Wells final, beating Federer in the third set. Might he take that over a Roland Garros whitewash final loss to Nadal? Maybe.

Curious how much a player actually "nets" of the prize money he or she wins at a tournament after paying his or her agent, coach, physio and other members of the team? 

David Honderich, Toronto

• Good question. Bear in mind that coaches’ salaries are often paid by national federations. But even if so, coaches often get bonuses when their players win big; yet players also get bonuses from their sponsors, so this can be offset. So if I’m Simona Halep, my mental accounting: Darren Cahill’s bonus is offset by the extra Nike money I have coming in. Bottom line: it's good to win a Slam.

Not only were the RG website and app a disaster, their highlights on Youtube were a nightmare. No highlights of mixed doubles final, or women's doubles, or juniors and everything is no more that 2 minutes long.

• Again, Wimbledon, Tennis Nation turns its eyes to you….to end this technology losing streak.

Jon, Serving at 2-1, 30-0 in the third set, Rafa was permitted to take a medical timeout. Did you notice this? If he looses that game without the stoppage, Home Thiem is serving at 2-2. Did the umpire blow this one?

• I saw a former pro on Twitter allude to this as well. If someone can explain a midgame medical timeout, I’m all ears. No one is suggesting that turned the match but it did seem strange.

It's fascinating to me that when the men finish playing a tennis match, it's gospel that the loser shakes the chair's hand first and the winner second, while women don't seem to care at all. Please help explain.

• This is an enduring tennis mystery—and has been for decades.

We disagree about best-of-five, but I appreciate your suggestion as a good faith (no snark) attempt to reconcile opposing views. Still, given that fewer than half of 2016’s Grand Slam men's best-of-five matches went beyond three sets (I’ve done the math), it’s hard to believe a quantifiable rationale can be made for their being a major factor in player injuries.

If the sport really believes injuries are a function of playing too much (and not, for instance, court speed, racquet and string technology, and the stroke techniques that exploit the first two), then tennis should address its almost year-long season and leave five set matches alone.

As to your commentary about Danielle Collins (great pod by the way) and the USTA: you should be careful or your might get the first ever Gene Scott award for editorial incisiveness in matters USTA.
Skip Schwarzman

• Let’s table the best-of-five discussion for a bit. The larger question: we all agree that the healthier the field, the better. When top players miss events or when important matches fizzle (Djokovic/Berdych at Wimbledon…Murray/Querrey at Wimbledon….Wawrinka/anyone over the past year….Chung/Federer in Australia….Nadal/Cilic in Australia…Serena/Sharapova in France) it’s bad. In passing, you have provided a half-dozen possible explanations. Shouldn’t we be investigating and try to prove or disprove this speculation? Tennis has spent $25 million—more than what’s been spent on the friggin Mueller Report—to look into match fixing. (Big reveal: it happens at low-level events where players can make more in corrupt practices than by wining the title.) Maybe we should invest in attempting to solve this injury riddle?

Long as you brought him up, I would be honored to be mentioned in the same breath as Gene Scott. It cost him some business and some relationships and some suite visits. But he called it like he saw it, especially vis a vis the USTA’s ineptitude and cronyism.

Long-Lost Siblings

Sloane Stephens and "Insecure" acrtress Yvonne Orji


Reader Riff

Jeff Wood of Milton, GA takes us home:

First, to complain about a tennis tournament in Paris in the spring is a first-world problem...of the first order! The lush landscaping, the enjoyable and not exorbitantly priced food, the glorious weather...but as for the actual fan experience, the French Open has some major catching up to do; I don't just mean with Larry's Desert Garden of Eden in Indian Wells, but even with the friendly folks in the former pasture outside Cincinnati. 

It all starts with scheduling. Silly me purchased tickets to the #1 court, Philippe-Chartrier. Without several compelling names on the male side (Federer, Murray, Wawrinka, Kyrgios), the 10-time champ would certainly play there, right? Alas, Rafa was put on #2, Suzanne-Lenglen instead?! At the other aforementioned tournaments, access to the 2nd court is available via general admission at least. Not so at Roland Garros. It certainly felt like I had been had by some Montmartre swindler.

There were other examples, too, from the loneliest water bottle filling station in the world to sitting in the nosebleeds overlooking box and lower-level seats that never filled more than halfway to being denied access to the new court 18 due to the influx of evening ticket patrons flooding the already-crowded outer courts. Lackluster matches in the show courts also put further strain the outer courts. There must also be creative solutions to crowd flow even with an admittedly tight plot of land (Wimbledon has gone underground, for instance). 

The app and balky wifi were only part of the tech problem, too; how about even installing some basic ribbon scoreboards in Chartrier with updates from around the grounds or at least run a score ticker periodically at the bottom of the big Jumbotron? This all leads me to the inevitable conclusion that the hard core fan who is there to see, you know, tennis is clearly not Roland Garros' target market.