- In his latest mailbag, Jon Wertheim answers questions on Alexander Zverev's impressive ATP Finals victory, Serena Williams's future and much more.
Hello all. Time for a Happy Thanksgiving mailbag. Enjoy the holiday. Eat well. And have fewer cups than the ATP calendar. (See the reader riff at the end).
• Jimmy Arias, now the director of player development at the IMG Academy, is our next podcast guest.
• Old news but too late for our deadline week: We genuflect —and scrape our knees—to commend Agniezka Radwanska, who announced her retirement. Short on stature, long on creativity, she made tennis a better place.
• There’s a good reader riff at the end of this one to take us out.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Now that Sascha Zverev has won the ATP Finals (and beating Federer and Djokovic in his last two matches), is he ready to win a Slam? Maybe as soon as Australia?
—Graham, New York
• Great question. And not only because it allows us to start off by praising Zverev for what I would contend is not only the biggest win of his career, but a real statement. Take a title midway through November and you have provided a testament to your durability. Zverev may, not wrongly, complain about the length of the season. But it says something that he was the last man standing.
As for whether he can transfer this extravagant tennis to Australia….I would submit that the majors have almost become a subsport of tennis. Best-of-five is an altogether different exercise from best-of-three. It’s a marathon versus a half marathon. All the more so in Australia, in this era of an ever-hotter planet, in the era of Djokovic in full blossom.
Which is to say, Zverev will win Slams one day. But I’d caution against reading too much into his London triumph qua the prospect of his winning 21 sets of tennis outdoors. Djokovic is still my overwhelming favorite.
Simple question, Jon. But the answer will go a long way toward determining how closely I follow tennis in 2019. Does Federer have it in him to win another major?
—Michael G., London
• Does Federer have it in him to win a Major? Come on, friend. Does John Popper like the harmonica? Does Axe Body Spray smell like adolescent insecurity in mist form? Does someone from Harvard like to tell you they went to Harvard? Yes, yes, yes.
Federer will have to find his form, which largely went into hiding after Indian Wells. He will have to take advantage of favorable scheduling. He will have to catch a few breaks. He will have to emerge from the offseason healthy and avoid the injury bug. But can he win seven matches? Come on. Put it this way: I like his prospects in November 2018 more than I liked prospects in November 2016.
So long as we’re in the neighborhood—sort of anyway; forgive the stretch—I’ve heard through channels that Federer was bothered by this Julien Benneteau “controversy,” such as it was. For one, he’s puzzled. He doesn’t care where or when he plays. (A topic for later, but Federer is remarkably low maintenance and unfussy about some aspects of his tennis). And if his agent is lobbying on his behalf, he’s just doing his job. What’s the big deal? He’s not thrilled with Benneteau, whom he has known since they were teenagers. But most of all, he’s displeased that this has become a story in the Tennis World. Why did some off-the-cuff chitchat on French radio suddenly become the talk of the sport? If he can somehow weaponize this anger—I’ll show everyone!—maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.
Zverev did the absolute correct thing stopping the point for Federer’s safety. If the ball rolls on to the court and Federer steps on it and injures himself, then what? Everyone blames Sascha for not stopping the point. Nothing to apologize for. Well done, Sascha.
• Absolutely. Non-issue as far as we are concerned. And credit Federer for recognizing this as well.
Since I haven't seen Zverev play live, I was wondering how you would compare him to the game's hardest hitters. I'm sure watching him on video doesn't accurately convey how much pace he generates, but on YouTube clips the power of, for example, del Potro, Robin Soderling and Fernando Gonzalez was never hard to figure out. Zverev, based on footage I've seen, seems like separates himself from the pack based on his accuracy more than power. Is that a fair statement?
—Rob York, Hong Kong
• Reflexively, I agree with you. Zverev’s game resists easy categorization. He doesn’t possess the “eye-test weapon” of a Delpo forehand or the easy grace of Federer. There’s no lefty funk. He moves well for a guy his height but he’s not winning track meets. But I would contend that it’s all about levels. He’s sufficiently powerful that he was beating Djokovic off the ground and penetrating the best defense in the sport. He was, consistently, serving harder and more accurately than his opponent. (Check out the stats against Federer.) He held up well physically. This was a strong mental performance.
In this sense, maybe Zverev is very much the avatar, an exemplar of the modern day player. Power and accuracy off both wings. Ever-improving durability. A 6’6” frame. Rather than build a game around an obvious weapon, his real strength is the absence of weakness.
What does 2019 hold in store for Serena Williams? At age 37, can we finally assume that this is her last year on tour?
—Bill Robbins, Arizona
• Tennis’ mother superior? I wouldn’t assume anything. I could see her retiring abruptly. I could see her finishing the year at No. 1. A few points militating toward the latter:
1. She knows that there’s some image rehab to be done after the U.S. Open. That’s not the way she wants to leave her sport.
2. You and I might say it’s not apples-to-apples and Serena is already the GOAT. But she has set her sights on Margaret Court’s record for all-time Slams (24) and this public pronouncement was a way to prolong her career.
3. Serena is among the many athletes incentivized to play through the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
4. Lost in the kerfuffle: Serena has reached the finals of the last two Slams, often playing at an extraordinarily high level.
I am watching the ATP Finals at the moment, and wondered how you felt about the tournament? Given it’s the highest-ranked tournament outside of the majors, it ought to carry a lot of excitement, but it always seems quite flat to me. Perhaps it’s the venue, the crowd, the format or the end-of-year feel, but it never seems to hold the same tension or excitement as some lesser events. How important is it to the players? Does it rank highly, or are they secretly keen to get the year over by this point? Interesting to hear Djokovic say he felt the venue should rotate—the O2 seems too big for tennis to me. What are your thoughts?
• Fair question. You have these various competing forces. The event represents the crescendo of the season, which echoes especially loudly when the top ranking is up for grabs. (It wasn’t this year.) You have the best players in the world. (But not this year, given the absences of Nadal and del Potro.) You have a smart venue in London (though it’s a pity Murray, the hometown lad, missed the festivities again). You have indoor tennis (which prevents fans from strolling the grounds, but also means a surface on which no Grand Slam matches are played.) You have a round robin format (which mean a loss isn’t fatal but also means early matches don’t have win-or-go-home urgency.)
I like both the men’s and women’s finals. The best players should get their own stage—and crazy points and prize money at the end. But these events are so wildly different from the Slams we imbue with such importance. Different surfaces, different draw sizes, different formats, different rhythms. I would submit that the recent winners (Radwanska, Svitolina, Dimitrov, Zverev, Cibulkova—zero Slams among them) suggest that these events are outliers.
I just read your mailbag comments on Benneteau v. Federer and I’m wondering why you didn't mention the really juicy bits about the Laver Cup issue. Benneteau said it is not "based on sporting merit" and he is right. Did Nick Kyrgios deserve to be on the Laver Cup team? Of course not, and now he's ranked No. 36 in the world. Yet Roger picks his favorites and, thus, Nick was in Chicago with him in March. So Kyrgios didn't have incentive to have a strong season to "make" the team, unlike golf’s Ryder Cup.
And Kyrgios got $750,000 for 3 days of tennis? I find this appalling if it's the case. How can the Laver Cup afford to pay him $750,000? I can only imagine Fed, Novak, Zverev, Anderson, Sock, Isner, Dimitrov —all who have reached the top 10 and have had better careers than Kyrgios—command even more then. Is the event that rich?
—Dale Carnoustie, Providence, R.I.
• For one, if there are no ranking points, why should we be offended over whether Player X is picked over Player Y? Run an event and you’re entitled to invite (and pay) whom you want. Likewise, captain a team and you’re entitled to pick whom you want. These kinds of subjective decisions get made all the time. Why did player X get picked for Davis Cup but not player Y? Why did Simona Halep play on Court 2 but Sloane Stephens played on Ashe?
As for the $750,000 figure, it’s wildly inflated…sort of. Stick with me here. It’s an open secret that, with help from the government, Tennis Australia has been able to confer lavish fees on a few select top players. In addition to playing the Australian Open, they commit to playing another run-up event in Australia, maybe do promotional work and play that wacky Fast4 exhibition.
In the case of Kyrgios, it is possible that the $750,000 is an overall fee and his overall commitment including playing the Laver Cup (in which Tennis Australia is heavily invested.) Speaking hypothetically, of course.
• Marian Vadja, tennis’ coach of the year, explains the Djokovic renaissance
• A rough week for Tennis Australia:
• Say what you want about Nick Bollettierri, but the man knows how to give a speech.
• Bradley Klahn and Shuai Peng are your Oracle Challenger Series champs.
• During meetings in Chengdu, China, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Board of Directors agreed on the establishment of an independent ITF Ethics Commission with immediate effect, and approved the ITF Code of Ethics, which will come into effect on 1 January 2019.
• From Chris G.: "The ITF Young Seniors event was recently hosted in Miami - 35+, 40+, 45+. American women did fairly well with a few medals but no gold. I was on the 40+ team who finished 5th behind Spain, France, Holland, Germany. Quite a few former top 100 players but no true stars were playing. Rumor is that Arantxa Sanchez was there helping some Spanish women’s teams, but that was at a different site."
Jason Bauche takes us home:
"I have to admit that my thoughts on this are about as measured as the ATP Cup appears to be, so I apologize in advance for thinking as I write.
The ATP Cup seems problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is beginning the season with an arguably much more grueling event than already exists. This would then be followed by 45 weeks of more wear and tear. If your theory about the schedule, travel, etc. relating to injuries holds any merit, this will only worsen the matter. It seems strange that Novak Djokovic is so firmly behind the idea and I wonder whether there is any “sponsorship” along the lines of Federer with the Laver Cup.
A second problem seems to be in the format itself. The teams are by nation, but the rankings of said nations are based on individual (presumably singles) ATP points. How will seeds and pools be determined? Who in his right mind would also play doubles? Or is that mandatory, making for at least two matches per tie? Are points based on individual or team performance? If based on team, does this not favor large, already tennis-strong nations? Isn’t there a fairer way to determine teams based on seeding? How many matches would players from teams that ultimately make the final have to play during the course of this event (appears that it would be three per tie, three ties per round robin, and three playoff matches)?
Third, what happens to the tour events already on the calendar? If top players opt to play in this “Cup,” these tournaments will be diluted. That could leave the tournaments with “challenger-level” players but “tour-level” points and prize money. It seems quite problematic since it would provide an opportunity to pad one’s raking/seeding in advance of a major.
Finally, and possibly least importantly, what happens to the Davis and Laver Cups? Golf has one such idea, the Ryder Cup, and it happens once every two years during a lull in the calendar. This is what makes it special for fans and palatable for players. The ATP Cup idea seems to reflect an apparently increasing notion that tennis must “innovate.” I’m not one to stand in the way of progress; however, when someone or something perceives the need to make a lot of changes, it often reflects a perception that one is in need of fixing, not improving. Other sports innovate, but they retain the fundamental essence of the game and they also don’t consider changes to the basic structure (# of innings, quarters, etc.) Many of the “innovations” in tennis lately (including on-court coaching, four-game sets, no-ad scoring, and all of these “team” events) represent changes to what makes tennis, tennis. These changes feel desperate, not innovative, and I predict that they will alienate existing fans while not creating enough new ones."