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  • In his latest Mailbag, Jon Wertheim fields questions on Indian Wells, the rise of Canadian tennis, the potential for performance-enhancing operations and more.
By Jon Wertheim
March 20, 2019

Hey everyone, here’s a quick post-Indian Wells, pre-Miami mailbag, trying to blow through as many questions as possible.

But first, as always, some procedural stuff…

HOUSEKEEPING

• James Blake was our most recent podcast guest, talking about the new, improved and matcha-flavored Miami Open.

Actually, just one procedural thing.

Onward….

MAILBAG

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

With Bianca Andreescu's stunning victory at Indian Wells and the immense potential shown by both Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, these are exciting times for tennis fans north of the border. It's still very early days, but we are dreaming of seeing a Canadian singles champion at a major one day. How realistic is this hope, and as you project their development, which Grand Slam do you think each of the three Canadian teenagers will have the most success at in the years to come?
Hugh, Toronto

• Pet theory: these three benefit from the presence of one another. The hype is sliced in three, and no one player bears the burden of an entire nation. Speaking of hype, I would really resist calling anyone a “future Grand Slam champion,” but one more reason to be even more optimistic: all three can play on any surface. Felix went to South America and beat some of the best dirtballers in the game. Watch Andreescu mix up pace, and slice that forehand, and you have to think that would be effective on clay as well. 

I attended the BNP Paribas Open for the first time. I caught the men’s round of 16, a few very awesome doubles matches and one highly contested women’s singles match. Many of my friends are regulars and rave of the experience, but in general, I’d rather play than watch. Or ideally watch a half hour of high-level athletes, then go hit while the image is fresh. 
Tom Buhl

• I get this a lot. “I watched X match and when it was over, I was so inspired I grabbed my racket and headed to the courts.” 

Did Denis Shapovalov piss someone off? He’s played every match on Stadium 3, and is scheduled back out there today, the lone singles match in a sea of doubles.
Helen, Washington, D.C.

• He wanted an intimate court where, shortly after shaking the hand of his vanquished opponent, he could grab the mic and starting breaking off rhymes

A few of you griped about this. I say: Go back to your game shows, your butterscotch hard candies, your bifocals and your Clapper. This fell somewhere between harmless and fantastic. Good for the kid for having the self-confidence, lack of inhibition and the free spiritedness to try this. Looking back, he may cringe. But that’s the definition of being 19.

I could not have been the only viewer who winced every time Karen Khachanov went for a winner off the first/second ball (and missed) against a clearly movement-hindered Nadal. Even allowing for inexperience, basic tennis IQ dictates that when your opponent is having trouble with movement, lengthen the points. Where are the coaches of these young players? And Khachanov is hardly a wide-eyed newcomer at this point. I do admit to being extra ornery because I’m certain that had Nadal lost the second set, he would have retired and I would have gotten to see another semifinal, but still…

The post-Big-Three generation(s) continue to confound and disappoint.
Croydon F., Chicago

•  Full disclosure: I did not see that match. But I do have it on good sourcing that if Nadal had lost the second set, he might have been unable to play out a third. 

One of my favorite tennis things to do after a Grand Slam event is to read your “50 Parting Thoughts” column. I also like it that you do a “30 Parting Thoughts” column for event like Indian Wells. My questions are how did you come up with the numbers you use for those columns and have you ever struggled to think of that many things to say about tournament?
Bob Diepold

• Ten items per set? When I started doing this [cough, cough] years ago, 50 seemed a good way to address the major storylines but also allow space for the items that might have fallen between the cracks. 

“But I fear this has echoes of Brexit. “The status quo sucks! Let’s blow this up! What’s our plan? Aw, we’ll deal with the details later.” Right now, the burden is on Djokovic and the player board to either A. find a leader who improves the ATP balance sheets or B. offer a coherent path to unionization or alternative structure. But to defenestrate a leader without an articulated alternative is concerning.”

Nailed it.  Great analogy.

So I made it out to my first Indian Wells last week.  Great spot.  Loved the cheap grounds tickets.  Thanks for always pushing what a great tournament it is.
Jason

This was in reference to the ATP coup by the players’ reps on the board. Again, if you want new leadership, that’s your prerogative. But it’s problematic—just ask Federer and Nadal—that no alternative plan or leader has been articulated. And I would add, pre-emptively, that if part of the plan is to roll back equal prize money, the public relations hit will be as devastating as an Andreescu forehand or an Osaka serve. Especially at this cultural moment. Especially at this moment for the sport.

I'm all for the players unionizing to negotiate a better tour for themselves, but I'm a little unclear on the technicals of how that would work. Tennis pros hail from countries all over the world—whose country union laws are they going to follow?  You can't have U.S. players following U.S. union laws and German players following German union laws.  The ATP is based in London, is it not?  Is there going to be a battle for which country the union is going to register under?  If things go to court, which court are we going to?  
Caleb

• The ATP is a Delaware corporation, so in theory U.S. labor law would apply. The real hurdle, though, is establishing that those unionizing are, in fact, employees. In team sports, it’s easy—players get bi-weekly checks from the employer/team, not at all dissimilar from millions of other Americans. It obviously doesn’t work that way in individual sports. Still, a good labor lawyer (see: Kessler, Jeff, for starters) could make a good case that athletes working in one sport, playing for one tour, consist of a bargaining unit. 

I come to praise Djokovic, not to bury him. Unionizing tennis players makes all the sense in the world. A tour that puts labor and management under one umbrella does not. He has spoken with other players about collective bargaining and forming a bargaining unit. Instead of retreating and equivocating when asked about it, he should keep pressing here.

What is your take on the Aryna Sabalenka-Dmitry Tursunov partnership? I am struck by the irony of it. She hits the ball really hard but needs some input on harnessing it and knowing when to mix it up. During his days as a player, Tursunov was known as a mindless basher of the ball. Yes, he achieved a respectable ranking and even sustained it, but he could have done better with the right coach. I think Sabalenka can fast track her development with the right coach to guide her on-court strategy. BTW, that on-court coaching by Tursunov... rather, the complete lack of it was bizarre.
Venky C, Ann Arbor, Mich.

• Jim Courier said of Tursunov, he is so smart, he should not be in tennis. On that recommendation alone, I’m inclined to think that Tursunov has a plan.

I had the opportunity to spend a grounds-pass day on Thursday, March 7 at the tournament in Indian Wells.  It was a great day.  I can't compare it to other venues, but it certainly seems like an impressive one.  I left with these thoughts, generally, about the state of pro tennis:

1. Instead of caving to the "everybody does it anyway" school in allowing on-court coaching, perhaps a better way to control coaching from the stands is simply to require opposing coaches to sit right next to each other.  Imagine the single-frame shots of two people struggling with opposing emotions who are definitely not trying to figure out how to communicate with their players whilst not being seen by the person sitting next to them.  If we are going to make coaches a bigger part of the entertainment (one of the other arguments for on-court coaching), that's a way to do it.  Fans, and cameras, could look in one place for coach reactions and the coaching issue would solve itself without chair umpires ever needing to so much as glance in their direction.

2. The tournament (and presumably other tournaments as well) really needs a way to let available fans fill the pricey big-stadium seats that the 1 percenters have already paid for (or insiders have had reserved for them) but don't bother to use.  If I ran a tournament, I would assign this mission to a smart person: Figure out a financially-viable way to fill the seats, period.  Empty seats don't create new fans.

3. That both tours (ATP and WTA) benefit overwhelmingly from sharing a tournament with the other is blindingly obvious. 
John Campbell, Portland, Ore.

• Yes, yes and yes. And not just because you’re from the 503.

It always amazes me how folks will scream that Roger should retire after a loss.  Did he miss a good opportunity to win IW?  Sure, he did. He probably should have won, I agree. But retire?  Please!  I guess folks forget that Roger won Dubai just the other week.  

Folks probably forgot that Djokovic lost to two next-gen guys in back-to-back finals in Paris and London at the end of 2018.  And then he proceeded to lose to an "older guy" in Kohlschreiber early in IW!  Should he retire too?

Federer is just fine at 37-and-a-half, thank you very much.
Michelle

• Who said that? Name names. Federer played sensationally well until the last half hour of the tournament. 

Pet peeve: no one who covers tennis with any regularity wants anyone to retire. Not Federer. Not Venus. Not Bianca Andreescu. No one suggests it. No one intimates that it’s time. No one looks forward to a day without Player X. You don’t tell athletes when to quit. And—absent proof or well-grounded suspicion—you don’t question injuries. Those are cardinal rules.

The problem: in press conferences, there is no differentiation between the people on the tennis beat and the local pop-ins/tabloid press. So Venus, for instance, comes in and gets peppered with longevity questions. She, not wrongly, grinds her teeth behind a smile and gets agitated. The mood is ruined. The athlete leaves convinced the room is a packed with glass-half-empty skeptics. Or haters, as the kids call them. 

Will Maria Sharapova ever get back healthy and win another Slam?
@chefdrew

We just had an 18-year-old, ranked outside the top 150 on Jan. 1, rip through an off-brand major. So never say never, especially not in this sport. But I’d put the chances of Sharapova winning again in the “slim” category. This comeback has been deeply disappointing. And while she can beat anyone on a given day, she has yet to prove she can replicate that level six more times in two weeks.

I enjoy your Parting Thoughts. At some point could you address how coaches, trainers and staff of top players are paid? Will Andreescu’s team receive a percentage of her winnings, like a caddie does in golf? Or do they get a salary on top of travel, meal and hotel expenses?
@DOM111

I’m pretty sure we discussed this last month. Players pay travel/expense. Salaries ] range player-to-player, as do bonuses. One point to consider: in some cases (and Tennis Canada, like the USTA, is known to be generous here) the national federation pays for some or all of coaching costs. So, while I am not privy to the details of the contract, my strong suspicion that Andreeescu is not dipping deep in her $1.35 million windfall to compensate the staff.

Saw this referenced in, of all places, Peter King's weekly football column.  Given your attention to Camilla Giorgi's "journey", I wonder if you have any thoughts.

A lot at play here, including thoughts about social "justice" and barriers to entry. 
Mike

I’d like to learn a little bit more before weighing in. One element of the story that I hope doesn’t get lost: there were clearly some real sacrifices and struggles here—yet another tennis narrative that departs from the country club myth.

Meanwhile, here’s a statement from Alex Sprio—quite a well-known figure in sports law—who is defending the Osaka family: “While it comes as no surprise that Naomi's meteoric rise as an international icon and inspiration would lead to some false claim, this silly “contract” that Naomi never saw or signed—which purports to give away part of herself at the age of 14—is particularly absurd. This case has no merit and we will move past it.”

In your last Mailbag, you ended on a beautiful positive note with the recap of the amazing, diverse, pleasant players that showed up for Tennis Channel interviews…including one with an artificial hip. Not so long ago, there was controversy about a player having breast reduction.  My question is about whether the ATP and WTA look at medical advancements beyond drugs/steroids as possible advantages?  And I'm not opining that breast reduction or hip replacement is an advantage.  But what about a titanium elbow or wrist?
Kent A.

Great question. As I understand it, the question is essentially: does the treatment take you to a baseline level? Or does it elevate you? As it was once explained to me, “If you get Lasik so you can return to 20/20 vision, it’s kosher. If you get Lasik for 20/15 vision, it’s an unfair advantage.” But this doesn’t solve our issues. One player complained to me about the prevalence—especially in college tennis—of Adderall. Is that for a baseline? Or for performance enhancement? In the past we’ve discussed everything from pressurized PDs to blood spinning to meldonium. Unless we go “anything goes” here—and some encourage us to do just that—there are bound to be these smudged lines.

Can you identify the date for the most recent win by a Canadian tennis player?  If you said March 17th, 2019, you would have won.  Extra reward (self-esteem) if you can identify the winner: Bianca Andreescu.  Now, why would a Canadian channel, particularly TSN, which usually streams Grand Slams, opt to show only the Canada-less men’s final but not the WTA final, WITH a Canadian player.  I was disappointed: we have a channel for NASCAR or NCAA basketball but not one for what I wanted to watch: the WTA. 
L. Pereira, British Columbia, Canada

• Note to self: Tennis Channel Global is my next media play.

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