- In the final mailbag of 2018, Jon Wertheim gives his matches of the year, ponders how good Monica Seles could have been and considers abolishing lets.
I’m on the road, but we’ve got time for a short mailbag to close out 2018.
• We’ll take next week off, but we’ll start up again the first Weds. of 2019
• The most recent podcast: talking about the problematic “transition tour” with Geoff Grant. That'll go up Thursday. Upcoming guests for after the new year include the delightful Chris Evert.
• I’ve been asked to promote this and so I shall: 60 Minutes follows the NFL on CBS this Sunday.
• The annual lapse into sentimentality... “Tennis offseason” might be the biggest oxymoron this side of "anxious patient" and “Cedric the Entertainer.” But in this short offseason interval, we squeeze in the cut and paste from years past: If you get half as much pleasure (the guilty variety to be sure) from reading this column as I get from writing it, we're all doing pretty well. Your questions and observations are, reliably, thoughtful and informed and passionate. Agreements, disagreements, compliments, criticisms—please know that every last one is read. Happy holidays, everyone. Raise a cup or four—Davis, Fed, Laver and the backwash that is the ATP World—to toast 2018. And think of this as a sincere invitation to belly up to the bar in '19 as we'll continue the conversation.
With the year over, give us five stories to watch in tennis in 2019!
• I feel like we did a version of this a few weeks ago. We can pick individual storylines. Can anyone stop the Djokovic Express? Can the Big Three finally get some pushback? Can Naomi Osaka build on her momentum? Wither Serena Williams? What does the other 37-year-old, Roger Federer, have left in the tank?
But I’m more interested in the sweeping, almost existential question: how is tennis transitioning from one era to another? With the obligatory, FCC-mandated disclaimer that we hope all parties play until they are 100, that no one is calling for anyone’s retirement, that age is only a number…at some point, and possibly soon, there will be draws at Majors featuring no Federer, no Serena, no Nadal, no Venus and no Sharapova. Those ain’t moth-eaten holes. Those are gaping chasms. This is the energy sector wondering where we go after fossil fuels.
The good news: they will still hold events and award trophies to the players who go undefeated over seven rounds. There will still be rankings with, necessarily, one player at the top. There will be stories and themes and hungry rookies and comebacks and feuds and plenty of substance. But the sport is in for some change. And how this change plays out—how it’s managed, how fans of Player X are retained—will be far more important than the fate of an individual player.
I thought your insights about Martina Navratilova being great at the wrong time were spot on. I’d certainly extend those sentiments to both Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. I’d also, for different reasons, include Monica Seles in that discussion. In the current era of metal detectors, bag checks and other security measures, Seles likely never gets stabbed by a crazed fan and goes on to win many more Slams. Recall, she was regularly beating Graf for a few years until the attack. Not only would she have solidified an even higher place in tennis history, but her absence deprived fans of a true mensch in the women’s game.
—Neil Grammer, Toronto
• Monica Seles is tennis’ great, tragic counterfactual. “What would have happened if it weren’t for that lunatic…” might be the sport’s ultimate “what if.” Certainly the trend-lines suggest she would have been a Mount Rushmore player. Remember, too, that she was 19 at the time of the incident and already had won eight majors –more than any female player active today not named Serena Williams. Damn.
Yet while we pose this unanswerable question, here’s something we can declare with certainty, both in the short-term and the long-term: Seles handled all of this with an abundance of grace.
I love tennis. I do not like the new abbreviated format they are using now for doubles (with the deciding point). For me, many of the best and most riveting battles in matches revolve around ad points and a player finally getting a break or hold. I hope it is not being discussed for regular singles matches.
But the one rule that does significantly slow the game for me are let serves. I would be so in favor of abolishing them, so players would just play serves that are in and not those that are out. Full stop. Is this ever discussed behind the scenes by the players or the sportscasters or the rule makers? If so, what are the opinions? If not, why not?
• Sure, it’s funny, when I first started covering tennis, this seemed to have traction. The late, great Bud Collins was a proponent. “We have no issue with lets during play; why do we object to them on serves?” I don’t disagree. They would add an element of surprise and luck. Sometimes they would benefit the server, balls that clip the tape, crawl and die a quick death before they could be retrieved on a bounce. Other times, they would benefit a returner, a 120-mph offering clipping the tape and suddenly transforming into a sitter. This is also how matches are played in Division I college tennis: no lets.
Like most changes, it would require the buy-in of the best players. The top players, male and female, would have little incentive to tinker here. But to me this sounds fun, relatively practical and less severe than on-court coaching.
Most satisfying WTA match of the year? My pick would be the French Open final, and I say that as a fan of both Simona Halep and Sloane Stevens. Each of them lived up to or exceeded the expectations. For Halep, anything less than the title would have felt like a setback, and she shed the “best player never to have won a Slam” albatross. Stevens backed up her status as a contender at majors and burnished her resume as a possible HOF candidate someday. And to make sure the final wasn’t a dud, Halep secured her first Slam the hard way, coming back from a set down to win a three set thriller.
—Teddy C., New York
• Someone else asked why we had not talked about the 2018 Match of the Year. I’d be lying if I said I had an obvious candidate. Three quick points:
1. Overall, I’m thinking of far more women’s matches than men’s matches. Take that for what it’s worth.
2. There’s some recency bias…but there’s also some “then what happened?” bias. One of the best matches from 2018 was Simona Halep beating Lauren Davis, two players from the same weight class giving no quarter, battling UFC-style, and playing to 15-13 in the third. But as Davis fell out of the top 100 in subsequent months, that match lost some of its shine.
3. I tend to agree with Ted. The French Open was a fine battle with terrific offense/defense tennis, and while Stephens played well and nearly picked off her second major, Halep’s long-awaited breakthrough gave this match the equivalent of emotional style points.
4. Are we too quick to dismiss Osaka-Serena? It was the most discussed match. It marked a breakthrough for the winner. And while the subsequent discussion was less about the tennis than the theater, isn’t this part of sports and competition as well?
5. As for men, a lot of you noted Nadal-Thiem at the U.S. Open. I’d be more inclined to pick Djokovic’s five-set defeat of Nadal in the Wimbledon semis, the de facto final. Nadal wins that and the entire script for 2018 looks very different.
• Thanks to reader Deborah H. for noting: “I'm a Julian Baggini fan, but hadn't seen this until now. Think you will enjoy it if you haven't already see it!”
Press release row:
• In less than two months, the eyes of the professional tennis world will once again turn to New York as the New York Open returns for a second memorable run in the metropolitan area. With a field full of top players in the sport, including the No. 6-ranked player in the world and defending champion, Kevin Anderson, top-ranked American and No. 10-ranked player in the world, John Isner. The ATP Tour’s only United States indoor championship event promises to once again be one of the most-talked about weeks on the New York sports calendar.
• Rafael Nadal has committed to joining the Laver Cup and playing alongside Roger Federer in Geneva, September 20-22.
• Larry Ellison, the co-founder, executive chairman and chief technology officer of software giant Oracle, has been named “Person of the Year” for 2018 by Tennis Industry magazine in the publication’s January 2019 issue. Ellison led off the magazine’s 18th annual “Champions of Tennis Awards,” which honors people, businesses and organizations dedicated to improving the sport and business of tennis.
• How I became a Division I player in 11 months.
• Canadian Star and former Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard has been confirmed for Cliff Drysdale Management's 5th annual Tennis With The Stars presented by the BNP Paribas Open on March 5, 2019. Hosted at Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa, the charity event will benefit local non-profit Desert Arc and national non-profit ACEing Autism.
For tickets and event details, please visit: www.tenniswithstars.com
• Greetings from Teen Vogue! We've just released our new cover, featuring Serena Williams. In the cover story, 23-time Grand Slam champion joins powerful young activist Naomi Wadler and Teen Vogue's new editor in chief, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, to discuss power, activism, and black girl magic. More details including select quotes and fashion credits are below:
Please link back to the full cover story: http://teenvogue.com/story/serena-williams-teen-vogue-dec-jan-cover
• Tracy Mothershed, in-house MVP for Sports Illustrated by day and chanteuse by night, has just released her new album.
• Talking about Maria Sharapova’s speech at Billie Jean King’s 75thbirthday last month with Mary Carillo…Some more intel:
—Maria followed the comedian Kate Clinton, who’d taken some swipes at Presidents Trump and Putin…
—Maria’s first line: “I can’t believe there’s a Russian speaker here tonight...”
—Maria explained how she first met Billie when she was just a scrawny kid, among a group of other young juniors.
“So she sits down and the first thing she says to me is, “You need to work a little on your forehand.” Which in Russian means, “Your forehand sucks.”
—Billie told her a few more things, then says to Maria, “You’re real skinny. You should probably be eating more. You should eat a hamburger.”
—When Billie left her, Maria said that a bunch of the other players rushed her and said, “Wow! Billie Jean King spoke to you!” And Maria said, “Who’s she?”
—“I had no idea who she was. They told me she was this great player, then one of the girls said to me, “So what did she say to you?” I told them, “She told me to eat a hamburger.”
—Maria then told about how Billie was always kind, always reaching out to her, in good times and bad. She thanked Billie for everything she’s done..and everything she’s meant to her...
• Finally: We got some great Netflix doc suggestions, but Seth B. of Denver wins our contest for the tennis pitch meeting:
How about a series regarding an up and coming player toiling on the Challenger circuit? Some of these stories almost write themselves:
—Perhaps the main character does not come from means, making each victory that much more important.
—To build drama, maybe the end game would be something reasonable, not to win a Grand Slam (at least not in season one), but maybe to get through qualies into the main draw? Or main character cannot afford to travel to Paris for French Open qualies and can only make it if s/he wins the Challenger event the week before?
—Showcase how injuries can truly disrupt an up-and-coming player’s career– either main character’s or a competitor’s.
— Main character is the primary bread winner from a working class family, and someone comes in with a match fixing offer.
—Cutthroat locker room competition and politics are needed.
—Maybe check into the potential loneliness and pressure of a tennis life.
—Overbearing potential coach
—Overbearing tennis parent
—Rare cameos by established players for some star power and to highlight the differences between the haves and have-nots.
—Grueling training and practice needs to be a solid part of the show – show how hard one must work to succeed.
—Offensive tweet by a relative or close