- Novak Djokovic has 13 majors, gives insightful interviews, interacts naturally with tournament staff and is a ferocious competitor. So why doesn't he recieve the same adoration as Federer and Nadal?
• Next up on said podcast: the ascendant 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, tennis’ Greek Freak.
Jon, I’m likely one of those rare agnostics who has equal amounts of love for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. What’s surprising to me is how little relative love Novak gets. He’s a fierce competitor with incredible skills (like Fed and Nadal). He’s won 13 Grand Slams and is the only player who holds a winning record against Rafa. He’s a terrific sportsman who often applauds great shots from his competitors. He is fluent in multiple languages and gives thoughtful, articulate answers in interviews. He engages naturally with tournament support staff like volunteers and ball boys/girls. In other words, he’s a real mensch. Given your insider status, what are your thoughts on this, or is this my misconception?
—Neil Grammer, Toronto
• I’m always surprised at the prevalence (and the valence) of this storyline. To me the top-line answer is that the Republic of Tennis had cast its lot with Federer and/or Nadal. And by the time Djokovic came around to turn rivalry into trivalry, duopoly into oligarchy, fans were out of love to give. “I cast my lot and now I’m in a committed relationship.”
I’m not sure it’s much more complicated than that. Sure, maybe his game isn't as immediately appealing. I’ve written before that I wonder if he doesn’t suffer a bit for coming to a country less familiar on the global stage than Switzerland or Spain. But again, I think the best answer is that he entered the race after the public had backed their candidate.
Yet, that we continue discussing this issue ultimately speaks well of Djokovic. The prevailing sentiment is the correct sentiment. He is a mensch, as Neil aptly puts it. He is a 13-time Grand Slam champion with winning records against both Nadal and Federer. He should be not merely respected but adored. That we ponder this suggests that not only does he deserve better; the tennis public realizes it.
With careers extending, I think it is reasonable to ask if the wisdom that a player's shots/form are set in juniors still holds true. Djokovic has tinkered with his serve, Nadal's two-hander seems more offense-oriented these days, Federer has altered his return philosophy.
• I like your use of the word “tinkering.” Pros generally aren't making wholesale changes to their games. Almost never do we see a player radically change their strokes and/or serve—much less come on tour with a one-handed backhand and leave with a two-hander. But also almost never do you fail to see a player make adjustments and alterations as the years wear on. Sometimes this is situational (returning from injury—the Delpo slice or the Djokovic abbreviated serve); sometimes this is experimental (Federer’s SABR or Nadal’s grip change and turbo-charged serve at the 2013 U.S. Open).
The real changes are not to technique but to approach and physique. I was recently reading old stories about Martina Navratilova, at the time a mercurial player who ate junk food and lost important matches. She was described—by Bud Collins, no less—as “the great wide hope” and a “bouncing Czech.” She would go on to become synonymous with physical fitness, diet, nutrition, and, of course, relentless winning. Some of this is natural maturity and evolution; some of this is targeted. Remember, too, that the sport evolves as well. The tennis Roger Federer and Serena Williams began playing in the 1990s is not the tennis of today. There are advances in technology, advances in training and new players constantly posing new riddles.
As Heraclitus said: “you never see the same tennis player twice, for it is not the same sport and (s)he is not the same player.”
What happens to doubles after the Bryan brothers retire?
—Pete S., Hamilton, Canada
• This is doubles’ challenge much as the singles universe will have to reckon a future beyond the Williams sisters and Federer/Nadal/Djokovic.
1) Undeniably, there will be a period of transition, and this period might entail some pains, some ratings drops and cheap reportage from the mainstream. “Two years ago, the final featured Federer and Nadal, who had won more than 30 Slams between them. Today it features Rublev (who?) and Zverev (huh?) who have won zero.”
2) Unless they cancel the majors, eventually new stars will emerge, new players will win titles and capture the imagination. This is the life cycle of sports, if not all entertainment and industry. Jordan retired and the NBA lagged for a few years; then LeBron James emerges. Apple appears rudderless after Steve Jobs. Here comes Tim Cook to right the ship.
3) Savor the players while they’re still here. Which is to say, delay concerns about life post-Serena et al, especially if it cuts into your current enjoyment.
4) Specific to doubles, I wonder if there won’t be some singles players who make a business decision to switch over. Especially if they have the Bryans’ charisma and off-court appeal, a top doubles player can make more than a singles player outside the top, say, 25. Covering only half the court and playing shorter matches, you can extend a career. I’m curious to see what the doubles field looks like in a few years. Jack Sock is a name that springs to mind. Especially if he cannot turn around his singles play, maybe in his late 20s he thinks about becoming a dubs specialist.
Jon, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard an authoritative explanation of why new string technology has transformed the sport.
Is it because the ball comes off the strings faster? Or that the strings grab the ball, enabling more spin? Or is it that strings are dead so players can take a big cut at the ball and generate huge spin while still making the shot?
Any insights are appreciated.
—Clint Swett, Sacramento
• I turn to Jon Levey, a great guy, a Tennis.com regular and, as he modestly calls himself, a “layman” expert on gear.
“I’ll give it a go. Clint has basically got the answer surrounded. The new technology he’s referring to is essentially co-polyester strings. The early versions of polys were ultra stiff monofilaments—more or less a piece of plastic—known primarily for their durability. As the strings evolved and additives were inserted into the construction, the enhanced playability—namely spin and control—became more of an asset. The stiffness of polys, often accompanied by a textured and/or shaped surface, allow the strings to better bite the ball for extra spin. They’re also less abrasive than most strings and “snapback” during contact for even greater spin generation and the coveted heavy ball. If you’ve ever played with a poly, you know the need to realign strings after a point is pretty rare.
Because they’re stiffer—or deader to some—than traditional, more fibrous strings, players are required to swing harder to achieve the same pace and depth. With less flex, the ball spends less time on the string bed promoting a more consistent response. The old analogy being the difference between throwing a ball against a concrete wall versus a pitchback.
Add it all up: the lack of inherent power, good control and spin-friendliness allow players to take bigger cuts on the ball which provides all that extra spin, net clearance and pace to attack offensively from defensive positions—and you get the video game tennis that was the Djokovic/Nadal Wimbledon semifinal."
With Mikhail Youzhny retiring after this year, I hope he is remembered for something other than smashing his head with his racket. Folks on the Talk About Tennis board reminded me that he has a Ph.D. and looks exactly like Woody Harrelson. He also has one of the better post-match crowd salutes. What are we forgetting?
—Megan Fernandez, Indy
• Yes, at age 36, the Colonel is winding down his active duty. Sadly, I fear you’re right: the viral video—which we will purposely not link—figures prominently in his profile. But let’s not forget, this is a former top-10 player who won 10 titles, will finish his career with more than 500 wins and has reached the quarters (or better) at each of the four majors. Bonus points: a ravishing one-handed backhand. Astonishing power for a player (generously) listed at 6’0”. Quiet professionalism. And loyalty. For his entire 18-year career, he was coached by the same man, Boris Sobkin.
Daria Kasatkina is unquestionably my new favorite player to watch.
What a beautiful, artistic game. She’ll win Roland Garros multiple times. Her first will come next year. You heard it here first!
• I’m not entirely sure why it took so long—she was already in the top 15 and many had certainly seen her play before—but Kasatkina was a revelation at Wimbledon. As Brad notes, there’s a real artistry to her game, a cleverness and creativity. It’s balanced by organization and precision and a sense that you are watching a composed professional and not a whimsical artist. Not a lot of drama. Not a lot of antics. There’s shotmaking and unusual patterns, but also a sense of purpose.
Larger point while we’re here: at some level, tennis is akin to art. You like the style you like. You connect with the still life; your friend prefers portraits or landscapes. You like the flat power of Madison Keys; your friend prefers the speed and defense-to-offense of Simona Halep. (Also, there are preferences within an artist. “I prefer how she does X to how she does Y.) Keeping with—beating to death?—the metaphor, consider this another invitation to view tennis as a museum. Men, women, singles, doubles, severs, returners. You’ll like some exhibitions more than others. But the more wings, the better.
Enjoyed the Wimbledon recap podcast. So I know the answer to this...but how do I concisely explain to the casual tennis fan why Djokovic would rather play Nadal indoors rather than with the roof open?
What’s the best way to explain that?
• Concisely? The lower the bounce—the ball bounces lower indoors—the more favorable to Djokovic and less favorable to Nadal. And indoor tennis benefits Djokovic. Some career winning percentages to prove the point:
Nadal indoors: 68%
Nadal outdoors: 85%
Djokovic indoors: 79%
Djokovic outdoors: 83%
Pre-empting another version of Dirty Tennis Data: We really should be norming this for “quality of opponent.” The big indoor event, the ATP World Tour Final, pits the top eight players against each other in quasi round robin play. Given the quality of the field and the format, it stands to reason that players will have relatively low indoor winning percentages.
I am blocks away from the Citi Open and grateful to have such a great combined ATP/WTA tournament. Interesting fact—there are two three-time active Grand Slam champs with an average ranking of 515. The physical and mental challenges of coming back from injuries. Tough.
• Brutal sport, this one. (And that doesn't include Wozniacki, who just pulled out of the Citi Open with an injury.)
• The International Tennis Federation has appointed Heather Bowler as Executive Director, Communications & Digital Services. Good hire, ITF.
• This week’s unsolicited book recommendation. Astroball by my colleague Ben Reiter.
• World No. 1 and Roland Garros champion Simona Halep has accepted a wild card into this summer’s Connecticut Open, the fourth top-10 player to enter the field and avail herself to the bounty of Louie’s Lunch.
• The USTA announced that Rolex has become an official sponsor of the U.S. Open and will serve as the tournament’s Official Timekeeper and Official Timepiece. The new multi-year agreement begins immediately with preparations for the 2018 U.S. Open.
• The China Open, Asia’s premier combined men’s and women’s professional tennis tournament, has announced the entry of three-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1 Andy Murray to the player field.
• Dimitrov d. Djokovic in a decidedly PG wet t-shirt contest.