- In his latest mailbag, Jon Wertheim answers questions on Grigor Dimitrov, Eline Svitolina and the U.S.' disappionting Fed Cup lineup. He also gives his picks for who will be the next first-time Grand Slam winner.
We’ve got time for a quick, speed-round mailbag today. But first…
• Taylor Fritz—now in the top 50—is this week’s SI/Tennis Channel podcast guest, in advance of his playing the NextGen event in Milan.
• Next up, Jamie Lisanti and I talk tennis in 2018.
• We’ll beat the crush and wish American treasure Billie Jean King a happy 75th birthday.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Simple question: With Karen Khachanov winning in Paris and Elina Svitolina winning in Singapore, I ask: Who is the next player to win their first Slam? This year we had three first-time winners on the women’s side (Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka) and none on the men’s. Who’s next?
• This is a twist on BPNTHWAS (Best Player Never to Have Won a Slam) which doesn’t quite have the easy acronym of “GOAT.” I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, let’s not discount the current winners. It’s been more than two years since a man outside the Big Three has won a major. Between the best-of-five format, the days off, the experience and the great ones’ propensity for peaking at the right time, the incumbents are still favored in the races. (Yes, we’re writing this as we watch midterm returns.)
On the other hand, the Big Three aren’t going to play forever. And so long as they’ll continue holding Slams—and we’re pretty sure they will—there will be new winners minted. Will Stefanos Tsitsipas or Sascha Zverev or Dominic Thiem win double-digit majors? Unlikely, perhaps. But will they win a few? More likely.
Anyway who’s next? Khachanov broke through last week; but really he did so months ago. For avid tennis fans, his win in Paris wasn’t such an upset. He’s a monstrous physical presence with a big game and a professional approach. He would be the hot pick. But I’ll stick with Zverev. He’s gone from “due” to “overdue,” but there’s just so much game there.
As for the women, there are fewer choices. I wouldn’t sell my shares of Madison Keys, despite an unremarkable 2018. Aryna Sabalenka is a player on the ascent. But I’ll go with Svitolina, the lone player in the top five never to have won big.
I love Svitolina, both on and off the court (from what I can glean).
On it, she’s tough as nails—moves like Justine Henin, fights like Serena Williams circa 2002-2003 and has such a beautiful backhand. Off it, she admits to struggling and seems to be a real person, displaying honesty and confidence. But I think she is the tensest player I’ve ever seen on the court. She’s nail bitingly tense and this didn’t change during her win in Singapore. How she won while still being so tense is amazing. Imagine what could happen if she loosened up!
• Heard a great Arthur Ashe quote today: “The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight.”
This was something of a blah year for Svitolina. Some dismal losses. Early exits at two majors. Some physique issues. And then she salvaged it by winning Singapore, finishing on a high and finishing the year at world No. 4. I’m not sure I see tight. What I see is a player who struggles to decide whether to be offensive or defensive and calibrate accordingly.
Grigor Dimitrov: Unfulfilled potential? Still capable of maximizing potential? Already reached potential? Unfairly over-hyped? Buy or sell?
• Why do you do this to me, backing me into a corner where I either lie or sound like a jerk? In 2017, Dimitrov won Cincinnati and the ATP Finals, the latter of which is still the biggest title of his career. His gifts were finally coalescing. And then…he finishes 2018 with a record of 24-19, winning zero titles and losing in the first round of two Slams. (Yes, unluckily drawing and losing to Stanislas Wawrinka both times, but still.)
Unfulfilled potential? Absolutely. Still capable of reaching potential? Sure. I reject “unfairly overhyped.” Sure, it was regrettable Dimitrov was conferred the nickname “Baby Fed.” But his talent was so obvious to the naked eye from such a young age, you can hardly call it an injustice.
There are few points militating in Dimitrov’s favor. His collaboration with Andre Agassi is a source of intrigue and perhaps optimism. He is still only 27. And talent is talent. But the window is closing, and Dimitrov’s 2018 was beneath him. I would consider buying on the dip. But we’re overdue for uptick.
Happy off-season (sarcasm). This is technically a rant, but I’d love your two pesos on this. Can we, but especially journalists, tone down the celebration and build-up of the “nice guy” narratives about Fed, Djoker, and Nadal? Fans like me find it cloying to highlight how chummy players are instead of focusing on their competitiveness. (This is not even considering the on-air commentators, who go Hallmark at every opportunity.) The sport, like all others, thrives on rivalries, not BFF’s. Can you please tone it down? Yes, in the context of these dark socio-political times it is refreshing to see a story or two about the human side of our celebrated champions. But you guys have taken it to an excessive level. I’ve noted several times you chide Nadal- and Fed-heads who spar in their comments. That is what the sport needs. We understand that at the end of the day, these are all great champions. But for now, let us savor some Cowboys-Steelers, Sox-Yankees, Ali-Frazier sizzle.
• I get it. We all like friction. We all like schoolyard fights among the boys and (he says with maximum sexism) catfights among the girls. Feuds sell. But I still say that—especially at this cultural moment—opponents who are adversaries, not enemies, is admirable. And if athletes are good people and don’t manifestly dislike each other, it’s dishonest to turn them into WWE heels and UFC staredowns.
I realize that “good guys” and “virtue” can be a tough sell. But I still wonder how tennis can capitalize on the collective decency and humanity of the players, male and female. We’ve said this before: Nick Kyrgios, tennis’ notional “bad boy,” would be Citizen of the Year in other sports.
Watching the final of the Paris Masters, I was reminded again that Novak is a really good fellow. Sure, he probably wasn't pleased about losing, but he showed real class and genuine happiness for Khachanov at the net directly after the final point and during the trophy presentation, too. We could all take a lesson from his example and treat our opponents—in sports, politics, love, and life—with respect and dignity. Especially in these trying times...
• The damn nice guy narrative…
If a 37-year-old Federer plays a match against a player at the peak of his career, in the best form of his life and loses by the closest of margins, isn't it ultimate proof that Federer is the better of the two? I contend that a 31-year-old Fed would be beating a 37-year-old Djokovic quite comfortably.
—Marcin Zielkiewicz, Warsaw
• We have to proceed on the assumption that the better player is the one who wins the match. We quickly get into sticky territory if we start handicapping for age. When Djokovic beat Federer at the 2008 Australian Open, should it weight double since ND was still finding his game and Federer was in full flight?
But embedded in your question are two points worth mentioning. Federer at age 37 is still competitive. And when players extend their career they get a psychic bump. It doesn’t matter on the draw sheet, but in hearts and minds, Federer is getting credit for his level of play at 37.
I’m following up on the chair umpire question from your last mailbag. It was the most intriguing question of the lot and you punted. What gives!? Anything informative to add?
—Kam Nielsen, Salt Lake City
• You’ll recall that this pertained to a question about whether umpires received the equivalent of “combat pay” and were compensated more for difficult players. It’s an amusing suggestion. And I’m sure officials wish they were paid more for difficult matches. But it’s equally impractical and subjective.
I just don’t understand the US Fed Cup lineup. I don’t want to disparage these women, but this isn’t even the “B” team, it’s more like the “C” or “D” team. Are our top women players (Keys, Stephens, Williams) injured, tired, tied up in other commitments, or is it something we fans are unaware of? There has to be something more than meets the eye.
—Eric Bukzin, Manorville, NY
• Let’s not disparage anyone. Let’s disparage a competition that has outlived its usefulness. When neither Williams sister nor Madison Keys nor Slone Stephens nor Coco Vandeweghe commits, this is what you get. (Remember, too, the Fed Cup is a cudgel the ITF holds over players for Olympic eligibility.) Bottom line: just as Davis Cup has been re-imagined, Fed Cup needs a similar re-examination.
• Interesting to read Roger Federer on Serena Williams.
• FILA has signed a sponsorship agreement with 19 year-old American Sofia Kenin, who will make her first appearance on the US Fed Cup team this weekend as they compete against the Czech Republic for the title.
• Not to be outdone, Coco Gauff signs with New Balance.
• The No. 1 Canadian on the ATP World Tour, Milos Raonic, has committed to play in the 2018 Hawaii Open Tennis Tournament, joining the competitive lineup including U.S. Open Semifinalist and ATP World Tour No. 9 Kei Nishikori, former Wimbledon champion and WTA World Tour No. 17 Garbiñe Muguruza and former Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard. The Hawaii Open is scheduled for Dec. 21-23, 2018, at the Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, Hawaii. This will be the first time the tournament is held at this venue, which is located in downtown Honolulu.
• The USTA today announced the top American collegians selected to represent the U.S. in the annual Master’U BNP Paribas International Collegiate Team Competition November 29-December 2 in Grenoble, France. Competing for the U.S. are: Ashley Lahey (Jr.; Pepperdine; Hawthorne, Calif.), the 2018 NCAA singles runner-up; Jada Hart (Jr.; UCLA; Colton, Calif.), the ITA’s No.15-ranked women’s singles player; Maria Mateas (Fr.; Duke; Chapel Hill, N.C.), who holds the highest professional rankings on the team at No. 303 in the WTA rankings, with a career-high of No. 284; Brandon Holt (Jr.; USC; Rolling Hills, Calif.), the ITA’s No.4-ranked singles player;Oliver Crawford (Soph.; Florida; Spartanburg, S.C.), the 2018 SEC Freshman of the Year; and Emil Reinberg (Sr.; Georgia; Atlanta), who reached the singles semifinals and won the doubles title at the Tulsa Futures event this summer.
• John Farley writes: Something possibly for your mailbag: Here is my new blog post on the Young Belarus Triumvirate (Aryna Sabalenka, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, and Vera Lapko)
• ROSSETTI, a multi-disciplinary global architectural design and planning firm, celebrated the topping out of the Miami Open’s new permanent Grandstand Court and Broadcast Tower at Hard Rock Stadium on October 11. ROSSETTI is the design architect and planner for the renovation project to move the ATP Masters Series and WTA Premier Mandatory event into its new home in time for the March 18-31, 2019 tournament.
• Developed by the Miami Dolphins and event owner IMG, the project includes 31,000 square feet of improvements to Hard Rock Stadium including the renovation of the stadium’s locker rooms, officials and coaches offices, family lounge, office suites, premium seating suites, off-field support and stadium infield, as well as an extensive exterior campus.
• On November 16, 2018, 23-three year-old American tennis player Madison Keys will host the third annual FearlesslyGIRL event, which will be a pep rally for female students in the Quad Cities and online. FearlesslyGIRL is an internationally recognized leadership organization for young women, which Keys joined as an ambassador in 2016. This is the third annual FearlesslyGIRL event that Keys is hosting in her hometown, following up on last year’s Anti-Bullying Assembly that reached 17,600 girls across 17 states and provinces. This year’s FearlesslyGIRL Pep Rally will encourage and inspire young women to improve the world, their lives, their schools and their communities by taking action. So far, thousands of young women will join Keys and FearlesslyGIRL founder Kate Whitfield in Iowa, along with girls who will tune into the pep rally online from all over the country. The rally will consist of empowering discussions, inspirational keynotes, team- building activities, live music, interactive activities and guest speakers. There is still time to sign up, either for live attendance or online participation. Visit www.fearlesslygirl.com for details.