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Mailbag: Comparing Tiger Woods's Comeback to Federer's and Serena's

In his latest Mailbag, Jon Wertheim ponders why we think of Tiger Woods's comeback differently than, say, Roger Federer's.

Hey everyone...


• Big thanks to Mackenzie McDonald for subbing in last week and turning in a winning Mailbag performance.

• In advance of his new book Range (which you can pre-order here) David Epstein was our most recent podcast guest, comparing Roger Federer to Tiger Woods.

• Petra Kvitova will be our our next guest.

• This week in “Piece of Tom Perrotta’s Underrated Tennis Writing You Might Have Missed”

• My friend and friend of tennis Josh Levin of Slate has a new book you must pre-order.



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

Tiger Woods’s win was historic. Everyone was talking about him, Ali, & MJ. Why not Federer? He went from ‘12-‘17 withhout a major, sat out months, had tons of issues and then won two majors in 2017. Just saying his should be in the conversation of greatest sports comebacks ever.

• Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: that was an extraordinary moment that unfolded on Sunday. Tiger Woods’ twisting of time, and winning the Masters at age 43 was, as the kids say, iconic. We all know the contours of this redemption tale. And the last time Tiger had won a major? It coincided with Nadal winning just his fourth Major. (Federer was up to 12. Serena had eight.) Barack Obama had yet to be elected to a first term. Speaking of terms, no one had heard of “credit default swap” or “podcast.” If you weren’t moved on Sunday, watching Tiger Woods author this new chapter—and then hug his kids once he’d finished—consult your cardiologist immediately.

But here’s a thought that struck me Sunday: top athletes can pay a perverse price for consistency and maturity and model citizenship. Athletes who don’t take wild detours or plummet from grace or disgrace themselves…they really deprive themselves of this comeback narrative.

True, as the reader notes, Federer went nearly five years without a major. But during that interval, he did not become a late-night punchline, enter rehab, or force the world to reassess what it thought of his character. Nadal and Serena have had their injuries, but they did not endure three back surgeries and drop out of the top 1,000. Djokovic may have had a swoon in 2017 but—unlike Michael Jordan—he did not retire for two years. None of the aforementioned tennis players are like Alex Rodriguez, who has largely repaired a reputation after a doping violation. Or Bruce Pearl, back to coaching a Final Four basketball team after making a mockery of the NCAA rulebook. Or Ray Lewis. Or Kobe Bryant…..

We all love a comeback story. For all the talk that this is quintessentially American—cue the Fitzgerald line—I would submit that it’s universal. It’s very much in keeping with the rhythms of life, and the rhythms of classical myths and legends. We’re all flawed; but flaws need not be fatal. In sports—with competition revealing so much and with scoreboards that leave no doubt about success and failure—it all takes on a superhuman dimension.

But a stirring comeback story, almost by definition, requires a fall. Much as we should applaud Tiger for his comeback, perhaps we should also pause and applaud the athletes who never descended, who never met that pre-req?

If Serena were to winner another major, tying Margaret Court’s record, it would be a amazing. What would be the bigger comeback, Serena or Tiger?
J.P. London

• This is an interesting thought exercise that dovetails with the preceding question. In one case we’re talking about an athlete whose comeback—admirable as it is—owes largely to a decline of his own doing. In the second case, we’re talking about a woman who—at the peak of her powers and in her mid-30s—has a child. After a physical adjustment, an emotional adjustment, recalibrating work-life balance, this working mother wins a record-tying 24th Slam, encompassing a 20-year span of excellence.

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I guess I would say that in the first case, the narrative sweep of the comeback is more dramatic. In the second case, the comeback athlete might be more worthy of our awe and admiration.

Were you surprised by the news that Sascha Baijin is now working with Kristina Mladenovic? Seems like a weird pairing to me!
J.M. Knight, Brooklyn

• Yes and no. On its face, it’s perhaps “weird.” Here’s a guy who worked with Serena Williams and then Naomi Osaka—he’s on a two-Slam win streak—and now he’s with the No. 66 player? But a few things:

1. Apart from being a top doubles player (ranked No. 3) Mladenovic is way better than her ranking suggests. Two years ago she was a top-10 player. She’s a terrific athlete. You might say Baijin is buying on the dip.

2. There’s a Serbian connection here. Both of Mladenovic’s parents were Serbian athletes. (Dad pllaye handball; mom volleyball.) Baijin is of Serbian extraction as well.

3. This is still more proof that while coaching a professional tennis player doesn’t come with much job security, the carousel does spin.

You and last week's correspondent agreed about on-court coaching being for the benefit of TV audiences, but isn't it a given that the global TV audience accounts for the overwhelming percentage of folks watching any match? Lots of them pay cable fees  (I do) and some of that money ends up directly or indirectly in the hands of the players.  I don't argue when you say that the players might not like on-court coaching, but lots of us don't like a lot of things.  I don't like commercials on TV or taxes. But I understand the reasons for them.  It would be interesting to know if the players' views would change if the financial implications were clearer. 

In a final irony, you pointed out earlier in your column that the Tennis Channel has the biggest percentage increase in cable network audience growth. Can you tell us if TC thinks on-court coaching had any effect on that increase?
Elsie Misbourne, Washington DC

To what extent are networks and leagues willing to bend and experiment to appease the television audience? This isn’t just an abstract topic. It’s a practical discussion that every sport deals with.

The TV audience wants, for instance, interviews with coaches. Grudgingly, the NBA—which receives billions from their television partners—will make this happen. The television audience would also like players to wear microphones. That’s a step too far.

I think on-court coaching is a real corruption of the sport. If the players wanted it because it became an extra revenue stream…if television audiences clearly demanded it….if television wanted it because it, demonstrably, helped drive ratings…that would be one thing. But I have seen zero data suggesting any of this to be the case. And if you’re going to try and change rules (fairly dramatically) you should bear the burden of justification.

The results that these youngsters have been putting up on a weekly basis is incredible. However, is there an argument to be made for how much weaker the rest of the field is? We saw Nishikori, Raonic, Cilic, Wawrinka, and Berdych all comfortably sit in the top-10 posting consistent results. Nowadays, it’s a lot easier for a player to crack the top ten with a string of good results (see Isner).

• I speak only for myself, but a lot of my enthusiasm for the kids stems not from their rankings, but the eye test. That is, you see what they do with the ball, how they toggle among surfaces, how they comport themselves….that’s the source of the optimism.

But I do think you raise a point that doesn’t get discussed as much it should (and one that applies to both tours.) In this top-heavy era, the stars hoard an unholy amount of ranking points. When Djokovic/Federer/Nadal dominate as they have, it leaves little for the rest of the field. What does this mean? It doesn’t take as much as you might, perhaps, think to enter the top 10. Win a few small titles, get to the second week of a major, voila.

You mention Nishikori. He had a terrific season in 2018 and finished at No. 9. But he had 3,390 points. Federer had more than 6,000; Nadal had more than 7,000; Djokovic had more than 8,000. Nishikori won zero titles. He missed one Slam entirely. A solid season? Absolutely, especially given that he was returning from injury. But to finish No. 9 and qualify for London without winning a title? That tells you something about the math these days.

As we enter the clay season, here is one vote for clay as “ The Surface of Truth”. In other words,  the best surface for tennis.  Why? Big servers are rewarded but not disproportionally; point construction and tactic are paramount; you must be consistent—no two strike tennis; fitness and stamina are rightfully part of the winning equation; and finally,  you must be mentally strong. There is no easy way out on clay. You have to rally and play tennis.

• All hail clay, the surface that reveals the most.

I feel like I've sent a similar email in the last 20 years, but I still think every GOAT analysis of Graf deserves a little asterisk. I 100% agree that someone can only beat who gets put across the net from them, but anyone who looks at the Grand Slam timelines of Seles and Graf will immediately recognize that without the attack, Graf ends up with maybe 15. Starting in 1991, Seles won seven of nine majors. Meanwhile, nobody has ever had Serena's number for more than a couple of matches. It's an easy call.
—Woody, Calgary, Canada

• I’ve always struggled with this. In the case of Graf, yes, there was certainly evidence that a rival had arrived who was impeding her progress and her Slam count.

But A. It’s hard to accord too much weight to counter-factuals and what-ifs. What if Rafael Nadal had decided to play soccer? What if Nadal closes out the fifth set at the 2017 Aussie Open final? For that matter: what if James Comey doesn’t release the emails or Seth Meyers had not insulted Donald Trump at the correspondents dinner?

And B. You could just as easily turn this on its head. Maybe a Seles-Graf rivalry pushes them both to greater heights. Maybe it reveals another dimension to Graf’s greatness.  And maybe it imbues in Graf the motivation to play beyond age 30. (Pet theory: Nadal, Federer and Djokovic are responsible for adding years to one other’s career.)

Any more updates on Justin Gimelstob?  He was supposed to have a preliminary hearing on April 8th but I've seen nothing.  Is he still actively involved with the ATP Players Council?

• According to public records, his next hearing is April 22.

Hi Jon, I was just wondering if your mailbag column is still a weekly publication? I didn’t see a new mailbag yesterday (April 10) and I know that there was a 2 week gap between the most recent and the preceding mailbags. 

I really look forward to my Wednesday read.

• Not to fear.  We were on vacation. Then Mackie McDonald capably filled in. Now we’re back like Ellesse apparel.