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Mailbag: Grass Court Season, Equal Pay and the Fed-Rafa Documentary

In his latest mailbag, Jon Wertheim answers questions about Rafa Nadal's clay greatness, the argument for Hawkeye on all courts and more.


• This week’s podcast—we’ll call it a half-part Q and double-A—is with the inimitable Nick Bollettieri. Last week's guest was Chanda Rubin, who was terrific.

• Nick is the subject of the documentary “Love Means Zero,” which debuts on Showtime this Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.

• Speaking of tennis docs, I am torn between unseemly self-promotion and wanting to make sure that Tennis Nation—and especially the armies of Federer and Nadal fans—is aware of the documentary that features and celebrates both players and their rivalry through the lens of the 2008 Wimbledon final. “Strokes of Genius” airs on Tennis Channel on July 1 at 8 pm ET (and on BBC if you’re in the UK).

Onward, while wondering how Uniqlo gets away with having a “Q” without a “U”…..


When you wrote that book, did you think both of them would still be winning slams, much less ranked #1 and #2, a decade later?
Megan F.

• This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the 2008 Wimbledon final, the Greatest Match Ever Played. Lots of angles here, but to Megan’s question, let’s play this one: this was perhaps the pinnacle of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Yet when Nadal won, there was a real fear that this was a knockout blow, that Federer had been deposed and might go by way of Borg. This was third straight Slam he’d lost. And these concerns only intensified when Federer lost early in singles at the Beijing Olympics a month later.

What happens next? Federer rebounds and wins the 2008 U.S. Open. He wins Wimbledon the following year, outlasting Roddick in a cathartic victory. Here we are a full decade later and Federer and Nadal have alternated winning the last six Majors. They are batting the No. 1 back and forth as though rallying. At ages 32 and 36, they are seeded 1-2 at Wimbledon. 

So often a match like the 2008 Wimbledon Final serves as a knockout blow. Both for the loser and the rivalry. (Think Ali-Frazier III. Bye-bye Joe.) How remarkable is it that the match stands the test of time; but so do the principals.

Hi Jon,

Just tuning in to watch Federer vs Kyrgios at Stuttgart, and really looking forward to it. Just wondering, is their head-to-head unique in terms of their first three matches being across three different surfaces? 

P.s. hoping for another 7-6 6-7 7-6 either way :D

Kind regards,

This has to be a first. 

Kyrgios and Federer have played nine sets and eight have gone to a breaker. Last week in Stuttgart, Federer d. Kyrios 6-7 (2), 6-2, 7-6 (5).


Might Rafa have more Wimbledon titles if the French Open and Wimbledon were not played so close together?

• Interesting. You have a sense that the French—understandably—takes a lot out of him, as much spiritually as physically. In this sense, sure, he could benefit from a longer transition to grass. On the other hand, note that both times Nadal won Wimbledon, he won the French four Sundays prior. And note as well that Nadal reached the Wimbledon finals five times between 2006-2011 (and didn't play in 2009) and those were the days where there were only two weeks between the two events. With the added week in between, his results have worsened.

So how did Andy Murray get a spot in the main draw at Queen's Club? He didn't come through the qualies. He's not listed as a wildcard (as Djokovic is) or as a special exemption (if that's what SE means, as Chardy is). The last direct acceptance shown is Ryan Harrison at #59, which is about 100 spots higher than Murray's current ranking. What's the scoop?

Per the six-week advanced entry list, he was ranked No. 39 on May 7. His ranking dropped to No. 157 on June 11 after he dropped points at Roland Garros (he reached the semis last year).

Mailbag: Looking Back at Roland Garros

So a few years back, I had asked you a question along the lines of what you thought would disappear first:A player under 6 ft in the top 100ora player using a one-handed back hand in the top 100. Right now, both sector of player seem to be going strong. 

But, how about this ultimate unicorn:A player under 6 ft who uses one-handed back hand. Is there one even in the top 200?
Henry O.

If Denis Shapovalov is six feet (as he’s charitably listed) then my name is Dusan Lajovic…..and, preempting the inevitable: we note that Carla Suarez Navarro is  5-4.

Whenever the GOAT discussion comes up in your mailbag—Rafa winning another three Roland Garros(es?)—I wonder whether we could not simply establish the “Multiple GOATs” category: Federer/Nadal/Rod Laver, Michael Jordan/LeBron James, Jack Nicklaus/Tiger Woods, Jesse Owens/Usain Bolt, Imgemar Stenmark/Marcel Hirscher?
—H. Peter Josiger, Sao Paulo

Multiple GOATS—nuance! Equivocation! Compromise! It’s all at odds with our Hot Take culture. You know the rules: you have to pick a side and then hold on like Jeff Van Gundy on Alonzo Mourning’s leg.

Love your columns.  Some questions.

1.  Why did Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina ditch each other at Roland Garros and pair with other players for the doubles?

2.  Jelena Jankovic has not played since last year's U.S. Open due to a back injury.  Is she going to come back?  If so, when?  (I have not heard any retirement announcement.)

3.  Hope this question is not too cheeky.  What is the ballpark salary of Tennis Channel analysts like Lindsay Davenport, Paul Annacone, etc.?  

Thanks, keep up your great work.
Mark, Encino, Calif. 

1) There are multiple explanations floating around. But as I understand it, the Vesina-Makarova team solved their differences and will reunite at Wimbledon.

2) No retirement announcement.

3) I can’t speak for Paul and Lindsay, but Tracy Austin makes enough to afford the finest meats and cheeses in all of Orange County.

Like you, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ben Rothenberg's article about the recent demolition of the Roland Garros media center, and his memory of Serena's words following Justine Henin-Hardenne's shameful lack of sportsmanship in their 2003 match ("She had her hand up") lingered with me almost as much as the match itself. Justine has since faded from public view, while Serena has distinguished herself as one of the greatest athletes of all time. But more than that, it's now Serena, not Justine, who has her hand up—to advocate for women's rights, gun safety, education, and equality. She's evolved into a champion in every sense of the word, a person whose principled beliefs will be remembered long after the walls of Roland Garros come down.
Emily M, Red House, WV

• Here’s Ben’s piece. (Which reminds us: Brad Gilbert was surely joking when he suggested silencing Ben’s voice. Otherwise, that’s a bully move and Brad is bigger than that.)

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Anyway, athletes have the right to “fade from public view” without having it count against them or serve as a greater referendum on their popularity. But your larger point is a good one. Actually multiple points: A) Acts of both exceptional grace and exceptional gracelessness endure. Fifteen years on, so many of us recall this vividly. b) We talk of Serena’s longevity but her transformation—I resist “evolution”—is no less remarkable.

I have vivid recollections of that match and the press conference afterwards. If memory serves me correctly, it was Rachel Nichols who asked a poignant question and Serena lost it. 

"I'm not used to crying, I'm sorry," she said, wiping tears from her eyes, her voice choked with emotion.

"I was really upset when they booed me. It was just a tough crowd out there today, really very tough. It's the story of my life. It's a little difficult. All my life I have had to fight.

"It's just another fight I'm going to have to learn to win, that's all. I've just got to keep smiling.

Jon, is there a cogent argument that Rafael Nadal’s  incredible  86-2  record and 11 Roland Garros championships is amongst,  if not the greatest, individual achievement in the history of not just tennis, but sport? In addition to the talent, consistency and perseverance necessary to accomplish this age-defying, cross-generational feat, one must also consider the grueling physicality of playing best-of-five set tennis on the surface of clay. I get tired just watching a lengthy rally on a single point! And on a personal level, Nadal has had to overcome numerous serious injuries, so he has not even had the fortune to avoid injury. Hyperbole or rational contention?
Mordechai,  Bedford, N.Y.

• No pushback here. Here’s what seals it for me. As a teenager who had never before played the event—think about this for a moment—he was the favorite in 2005 and won the damn title. Here we are, a bar mitzvah later and, at 32, he is still dominating. When the Golden State Warriors, with the same personnel, are winning the NBA title in 2027, let’s talk….

A bit late with a French Open question—not being a doctor nor an expert on a pectoral injury, but do you think Serena could/should have played her next match, by serving underhand, not hitting overheads but using ground strokes and volleys? Can you imagine Sharapova's reaction to this on court?
Kim, a Hurryin’ Hoosier

• In a vacuum, it would have been interesting to see her try.  And, voyeuristically, it would have been fun to watch Sharapova’s reaction.

But the combination of uncertainty (she didn't know the severity and had never had this injury) and the proximity to Wimbledon made this moot. 

Hi Jon,

I hope the summer has given you a few rays, and maybe a tan!

I watched the clay court season with horror over how poorly the chair umpires have called matches. Tons of bad calls, and almost never a reversal after the lines person had made the call. Yesterday I watched Konta lose in a grass court final in England.  At a very crucial point in the match, the chair umpire does not overrule a terrible baseline call. Konta tells her flat out that it just ain't good enough and that the umpires are making decisions which affect players lives and careers (look at the Youtube, though she did stop shy of bludgeoning the chair like that Czech chick did a few weeks ago.). If I were sitting in the player's union, I would demand that Hawkeye is used in every tournament. It costs, but then again the players deserve this technology to make judging consistent in all events. 
Patrick Kramer, Drammen Norway

What’s a tan? And what’s a tennis player’s union?

Shots, Miscellany

• One of the sport’s good guys, Fernando Soler, will be stepping down as head of IMG’s tennis division.

• Argentinian tennis player Nicolas Kicker has been suspended for six years and fined $25,000 for committing match-fixing offences under the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program.

Half of the period of ineligibility (three years) is suspended on the basis that Kicker commits no further breaches of the Program. On May 23, it was ruled that Kicker, 25, was guilty of contriving the outcome of a match at the ATP Challenger tournament in Padova, Italy, in June 2015 and a match at the ATP Challenger tournament in Baranquilla, Colombia, in September 2015.

He was also found guilty of failing to fully co-operate with a Tennis Integrity Unit investigation into the allegations made against him:

• An obit for a tennis fan.

• The Intercollegiate Tennis Association has names Stormy Nesbit as the organization's new Digital Media Manager. Nesbit began her duties with the ITA on June 11.

Reader Riff

• The unfortunately self-named “Cemo-therapy” takes us home:

I've been a long time admirer and lurker of your column and finally have found a pretext to contribute!

I was part of the surprisingly numerous Romanian tribe at Chatrier (and by tribe I do mean primitive, boisterous and prone to loud and impulsive screaming and chanting)—there must have been at least 1500 of us in the stadium—who cheered for our lovely Simona, who competed brilliantly to win a well-deserved first Slam. I would like to point out two tidbits that I found amusing :

At 2-0 in the second set, Simona on serve, a woman shouted very loudly the Romanian equivalent of "come on Simona, with the help of God!" during her service motion. Well, that's one way to encourage a player...

The Romanian national anthem - "Deșteaptă-te, Române !" (Arise / Awaken thee, Romanian) was played at the end of the trophy ceremony. Here's a rough translation of the second stanza: "Now or never create a new fate for yourself/To which even your cruel enemies shall bow". Quite an appropriate description of the match if I may say so myself.

With a Slam Under Her Belt, Simona Halep Cements Status as World's Best Player

On another note, the late tournament was also marked by Nadal's remarks on equal prize money. As has been pointed out in many a source, great talent, competitive matches, intriguing storylines and ferocious rivalries is not exclusive to either tour, and supremacy in a domain or another tends to oscillate from one tour to another in a cyclical manner. As such, equal prize money not only makes absolute sense in the long term, but sends home a welcome message of equal value of the men's and the women's games in a sport where quality is not dependent on physical prowess.

(Even so, Nadal's scenario of whoever is more popular deserves more money is already easily reflected in the marketplace of appearance fees or sponsorship deals)

However, I do feel that inequality itself is promoted by the simple fact of tournament schedules. No matter the tournament, if there are both men and women competing, the men's final is the last singles match to be played—I can't remember a single instance where this does not hold true. This in itself, I believe, creates the instinctive psychological impression that we're saving the best (men's match) for last. The grand finale. Just like the partisan arguments of the men's tour being inherently better that the women's or vice versa, this simply does not hold true! 

Let's have some fun with this, shall we?

Wimbledon 2005: Davenport-Venus was brilliant, Federer-Roddick was not.
Wimbledon 2007: Federer-Nadal was awesome, Venus-Bartoli was not
AO 2009: Federer-Nadal was exceptional, Serena-Safina was woeful
AO 2016: Serena-Kerber featured a wonderful contrast of styles, Djokovic-Murray most certainly did not
RG 2017: Ostapenko-Halep was a thrilling, wild ride, Nadal-Wawrinka was anything but

Moreover, I'd posit that the generational cycles of supremacy in tennis can be narratively boiled down to Slams themselves. Even in very recent times, AO 2017 was legendary on the men's side, but for the next four Slams the women's tournament far outshone the men's.

So why not go for an equally cyclical tournament schedule ? Each Grand Slam could alternate between a men's Sunday singles final and a women's Sunday singles final, with the corresponding adjustments in the tournament schedule. It would be a fairer reflection of the more random distribution of match quality.

Thank you for your time.