Mailbag: Is Current Form or Past Slam Performance a Better Indicator of Success in Majors?

In his latest mailbag, Jon Wertheim answers questions about Wimbledon, Nick Kyrgios, Federer's sponsorship deal and who will be the next woman to win her first Slam.
Publish date:


• Check back later this week for Wimbledon 2018 seed reports on your favorite players, including the No. 25-seeded Serena Williams. 

• The most recent Sports Illustrated/Tennis Channel podcast guest: Nick Bollettieri.

• The next guest: In advance of the Federer/Nadal doc Strokes of Genius—airing on Tennis Channel at 8 p.m. EST on July 1, Ted Robinson talks about his recollections from calling that match for NBC.

• More podcasting: Former Nike tennis exec Mike Nakajima—one of the all-time good guys—is the guest on the Sports Business Radio Podcast. Especially in the face of Roger Federer’s uncertain status with Swoosh, this is worth your listen.

• Still more podcasting: I spent some time with Ben Rothenberg talking Federer/Nadal for the No Challenges Remaining podcast.


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

Prior to his win over Novak at Queens, Cilic's record in best-of-three set matches, over the past year, has been 27-16, which means, on average, he's losing before the QF at a Masters 1000 event. Yet his record in best-of-five set matches, during this same time, has been 26-5. That means, on average, he's averaging slightly better than a semifinal appearance in majors. 

This underscores an important point about prognosticating for majors: Rather than looking at results over the clay and grass court seasons as an indication of respective success at the French Open and Wimbledon, it's really better to see how a player has performed at that specific slam. For this reason, it's important to remain a bit weary of Borna Coric and Nick Kyrgios at Wimby, despite their great grass court seasons. On the other hand, you should remain bullish on the Big 3 but also on Slam veterans like Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro. Past performance at a major matters a lot, perhaps more than your current form when it comes to winning a best-of-five tournament. 
Rohit Sudarshan, Apia, Samoa

• At some level this is a tautology. “The player who has done better at majors is likely to do better at majors.” But Rohit’s point is a good one. There is a considerable difference—physically, metaphysically, statistically—between best-of-three and best-of-five. The larger sample size and larger opportunity for regression to the mean work to the advantage of better players. Taking two sets from Federer on grass—as Borna Coric did the other day—is one thing. Taking three is something else entirely. Taking two sets from Nadal on clay—as Dominic Thiem did in Madrid—is one thing. Taking three is something else entirely, as Thiem learned in the French Open final.  Beware of putting too much predictive value in tune-up results. 

What is predictive? When tennis has better data—and note the hopeful phrasing—we’ll be able to say with more certainty. Ideally, you’d like to see some track record and aptitude in best of five. (But be careful here. Berdych hasn’t done much of late, and has already pulled out of Wimbledon.) Recent results are helpful—but again, they can mislead. I think age, a pretext for physical maturity, is relevant. Past results on the surface. Record in matches spanning more than, say, 150 minutes. There’s a research exercise here….

I'm officially done with Kyrgios. His on-court antics (language, obscene gestures, lack of trying) have gotten old. The match where he didn't even attempt to return one serve sealed it for me. At what point does the ATP step in and say enough is enough?  He's 23, so the immaturity excuse has run its course. The sad thing is he has the talent to be an elite player. Imagine what he could achieve (or could already have achieved) if he actually committed to the sport and showed the discipline required. What a waste! I hope he either gets serious or hangs up his racquet soon because I can't stand to watch him make a mockery of the sport anymore. Does the ATP have the power to do more than fine him, since that seems to have no lasting impact?
Kris, Norwalk, CT

Anyone can yell an audible obscenity. Anyone can smack a ball out of a stadium. Anyone can play lumberjack on an umpire’s chair. But it takes a special level of—what? Creativity? Perversion? Puerility?—to mimic a sex act with a water bottle. During a changeover. Live on BBC.  

Here’s a passage you don’t come across every dayNick Kyrgios has been fined £13,190 ($17,500) after the controversial Australian was caught on camera making an obscene gesture involving a water bottle at Queen’s Club.  Kyrgios is back in hot water after he was seen performing an imitation of a lewd act at the change of ends during his Queen’s semi-final loss.”

My (admittedly tired) defense of Kyrgios goes like this: the objectionable behavior is self-directed. He ruins his own sand castles; not those of the other beachgoers. His peers like him. He’s uncommonly great with kids. His quirk and color often enrich the tableau. No one is condoning much of his behavior. But felonies get downgraded to misdemeanors when it’s self-sabotage and self-destruction. (The English major out there might be inclined to write a paper on the symbolism of Kyrgios’s most recent bad act, a gesture of self-pleasure. You wish he always treated himself this well.) 

The real pity here is that Kyrgios’s tennis is lagging behind his profile. We all talk about his talent and athleticism and his capability of winning majors. But, as Kris notes, Kyrgios is now 23. He is ranked No. 19. His career has been pocked with injury, his durability suffering on account of his wavering commitment. He has never cracked the top 10. He has never been to a Grand Slam semi. In his last 10 major matches, he is 5-5. At some point, “talented prospect” becomes “talent squanderer.” Though far less original, that’s a more grievous offense than gratifying a water bottle.

Firstly, Federer is smart for skipping clay season to rest his body for the grass season. But now Federer apologists are making excuses for his loss in Halle on the grounds that he was fatigued from playing too many matches at back-to-back grass tournaments. Sounds like we have the tennis version of “fake news” going on here. Can’t have it both ways.

• Agree and agree. I do buy the tennis equivalent of “ring rust.” (See: Sharapova, Maria.) But I don’t think Federer faltered on grass—after winning a title the previous week— because he declined to play the clay.

But the larger point: Who is saying this? What credible tennis journalist is making this claim? Too often either Knights of the Keyboard or press conference interlopers make ridiculous points and it gets conflated with reality. This is a pet peeve of mine. I get apoplectic when I hear “the media wanted Federer to retire.” This became such a common trope that even Federer referred to “you guys” trying to put me out to pasture. The response: Who? Name the names. Show me the evidence. Find one credible full-time chronicler who thinks any player ought to retire, much less Roger Federer. Venus, Serena, Shapovalov, Coco Gauff…may they all play until their dotage, until home-nurses have to guide them to their chairs on changeovers. Who wants to see anyone retire— much less has the self-righteousness to call for it? This is completely artificial. Fake news!

Where were we? Oh, right. I’d not only consider the source but also identify the source before getting too worked up.

Watching Fed and Coric in various shades of Nike teal in the Halle final leads me to ask—do the players camps communicate so the athletes don’t wear the exact same thing?  If so, who gets first pick?  I have the same question for the women. 

John Zirkel, Las Vegas

First match on Monday, as Centre Court is christened, we all wait to see what the defending Wimbledon champ wears. 

In your past mailbag, I noted the shoutout to USTA Player Development for the Coco Gauff Junior Girls title at RG, but [French coach/TV commentator] Patrick Mouratoglou seems to be taking credit for her win—he was in her player box and posted on social media about it (though USTA PD did send her a congratulatory note on Insta). The query, therefore, is whether Coco is a product of Mort’s Academy, USTA PD or some combination of both.

• Success has many mothers. (And the corollary: failure is an orphan.) We’ve always seen this: when a player has success, there’s a landgrab for taking credit. The truth is that often multiple parties deserve to take some ownership. The question—ultimately unanswerable—revolves around proportions. In the case of Gauff, the USTA has been a benefactor for years. Yet who could say that she didn’t benefit from Mouratoglou, especially vis-à-vis learning the nuances of clay?

The USTA is in a tough spot. Sometimes it overreaches. Richard Williams explicitly (and vocally) kept Venus and Serna out of the junior tennis ecosystem. It’s a bit rich when the USTA takes credit. The flip side: often the USTA has put in years of work (and years of financing) to incubate careers. When those careers finally come to fruition, it must be annoying to hear the victorious player thank a private coach.  

What is with the advertisements between games and even during games?!? It doesn’t make me want to buy those products any more than before. In fact, it makes me even less inclined to do so. What’s next, advertising on the players? Oh, wait…
Kelly Wayne Gulley, Tampa

• This reminds me to invite you to take part in our annual thought exercise: how much money does Wimbledon leave on the table by declining to sell out? Naming rights. Signage. Aggressive secondary ticketing. Suites in Centre Court. Forfeiting tens of millions of dollars all because the event would rather not pollute its brand with commercialism. Somewhere a conversation goes like this:

“We want to call it Barclays Centre Court.”

“Sorry, no.”

“Hardball, eh?”

“Sorry, no.”

“We all have our price.”

“Sorry, no.”

“Let me get this straight: There’s a signage for Slazenger and something called Robinson’s Barley Water that no carbon-based organism would ever think to drink. And you’re turning down our millions? All in the name of tradition.”

“Sorry, yes.”

Hello Jon,

Who will be the next first-time major champion in women's tennis? Karolina Pliskova? Elina Svitolina? Madison Keys?
Jeff Greenwell, Riverside, CA

This is kinder phrasing of the “who is the best player never to have won a major” conversation. It depends on circumstance, but with Simona Halep no longer on the board, I guess you have to go with Pliskova, the only member of the three you named to have sat atop the rankings and a player most likely to string together seven straight wins. I like the other two as well. Madison Keys hits a thunderous ball and when she’s in a good spot physically, she’s in a good spot mentally. Svitolina needs to transfer her success at the concert halls to the arena shows. But she’s a terrific athlete and among the best returners in the women’s game.


Re: the mailbag question from last week on players in top 200 under 6’. In addition to Shapo, let’s not forget about Dudi Sela, who is 5’8” on a good day!

Thanks. And good call in Dudi Sela. We should also add….

Mr. Wertheim, Philipp Kohlschreiber is 5’10” with a one-hand backhand. He’s been a top ranked pro for more than a decade. Also has the best first serve of anyone under 6 feet currently playing.
Jay Sherman

• Good one. And I ask this: name me a player in tennis who stands under 6 feet and belts a harder first serve than Kohlschreiber does.


I keep seeing ads for this documentary on Twitter and Tennis Channel.  I'm sorry, but there is no way I'm going to watch a two-hour documentary about arguably the most painful loss for any Fed fan.  The fact that Roger is the most decorated men's Wimbledon champion with eight titles, and yet, this loss is the match that gets all the attention.  I can't imagine Rafa fans would feel too good if after 11 titles at RG, somebody made a documentary about his loss to Soderling.  Yeah, yeah I get that the Soderling match was not between the top two players, it wasn't a five-set thriller, and it wasn't the final.  But you get my point.

I've never read your book and I won't be watching the documentary.  I imagine many Fed fans feel the same way.

No offense to you, but I just can't do it.

'Strokes of Genius' Documentary Commemorates the Iconic Federer-Nadal '08 Wimbledon Final

• I confess: This made me smile. I’d contend this is more a celebration of the Federer/Nadal rivalry than a recap of a match. I would contend also that if Nadal had 20 majors, Soderling had 17 and they each distanced themselves from all other men to have ever played the sport, you might think differently. And that Federer’s gracious participation suggests that this match, while disappointing, is not so crushing to him, and by extension, shouldn’t be so devastating to his fans. But I get it. No offense taken.

Shots, Miscellany:

• Ian Hamilton, longtime friend of tennis, could use some help.

•FILA announced today that it has signed a sponsorship agreement with Leo Borg, son of tennis legend and FILA Brand Ambassador, Bjӧrn Borg. Earlier this year, FILA reignited its partnership with Bjӧrn, a relationship that dates back to 1975.

Leo, who recently turned 15 years old, was ranked No. 1 in the under-14 age group in Sweden and captured the U14 Swedish Masters title last November.

•The USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. will become the new host of the 10th and final event on the 2018 Invesco Series QQQ tennis circuit on December 6, featuring a celebration of American tennis legends. The one-night tournament will feature four American champion players: former world No. 1 and two–time French and Australian Open champion Jim Courier, 2003 U.S. Open champion and former world No. 1Andy Roddick, former U.S. Davis Cup star and former world No. 4 James Blake and former U.S. Davis Cup star and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Mardy Fish.

•The USTA today announced that beginning with the 2018 US Open, ballpersons will roll the ball from point-to-point, rather than throw between positions.  Rolling between positions has traditionally been utilized at the other Grand Slam events.

“By rolling between positions, we are putting less emphasis on a single skill-set, in this case throwing, and instead looking at the importance of slotting more well-rounded athletes at the positions,” said Tina Taps, Director of US Open Ballpersons.  “In making this change, we are able to focus more on speed, dexterity and agility, important attributes for a ballperson, along with overall court awareness.”

Long Lost Sibling

Two top-notch LLS's this week. The first, courtesy of Marc Nichol, is a young Pete Sampras and Drake. 


Next, via Kathy from Zurich, is Andre Agassi and Argentina's soccer national team manager Jorge Sampaoli.