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  • In his latest Mailbag, Jon Wertheim answers your questions about media training for young players, Andy Murray vs. Stanislas Wawrinka and more.
By Jon Wertheim
June 26, 2019

Hey everyone – a quick Mailbag before heading to London.

HOUSEKEEPING

Check back later this week for Wimbledon seed reports and a roundtable preview.

• On the most recent SI/Tennis Channel podcast, Sasha Baijin talks about coaching Naomi Osaka and much more.

• We have a bunch of podcasts coming including Nicole Gibbs updating us on her health and some Wimby preview talk.

• Good soldiering: Brad Gilbert knows this already, but for the rest of you, here’s Tennis Channel’s Wimbledon broadcast schedule.

• Here’s a good story (h/t Michelle Kaufman of the Miami Herald) and good cause for a tennis coach in need: A sweet tale of how a 10-year-old tennis player raised $27,000 for her ill coach.

• Bravo, Jose Mourinho. Man, is this an eloquent assessment of tennis.

• Bravo to Wimbledon for these vignettes.

Onward….

MAILBAG

I would love if you could comment on the media training that younger players get. Does it actually help or hinder you as a journalist? I see arguments both ways. For example, the rawness of a young player make for captivating content (Zverev, Kyrgios, young Venus, young and old Serena, young Hingis, etc.) but a trained star can also offer full sentences and thoughtful insight (Sharapova, Roger). 

What do you think? Sometimes youngsters that are trained come across as boring—I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but Anisimova is a touch boring when compared with Osaka, for example (in my unsolicited view).  Would love to get your thoughts, especially from the perspective of interviewing players for Tennis Channel.
Damian, Richmond, Australia 

• I’m not quite sure how to answer this. As a journalist—and this is naked self-interest—you love free-swinging candor. You love athletes who are mature and engaged and capable of conversing and not simply answering the interrogation. You love athletes who have the confidence to depart from talking points and on-brand messaging. 

Athletes like that, of course, make the journalist’s job easier. But by extension, they benefits fans. And I would argue it also works to the benefit of the athlete. From Andy Roddick to Sloane Stephens to Federer to the Bryans to Tsitsipas to Andrea Petkovic to Osaka—it’s a fool’s errand to start naming names—tennis has so many athletes who fit into this category.

At the same time, you must respect that this question-answer drill is not a conventional human interaction and can be terribly uncomfortable for some players. I know Anisimova has been cited by many for her—how to put this?—cautious responses. But I would encourage you to cut her slabs of slack. She is a teenager being interviewed by a different demographic. She is quite shy by nature. It takes time to grow accustomed to the drill.

Both tours offer versions of media training. So do some agents and management companies. At one point, anyway, the ITF held sessions for juniors. (The “do this” example involved watching a video of Federer—engaged, upbeat, smiling. The “don’t do this” involved a prominent player I won’t name.) 

I would love to attend one of these sessions. If it’s simple tips—make eye contact, don’t mumble, vary your voice—great. But too often I fear that media training is designed to sidestep anything remotely controversial (or, put another way, interesting) and bleach the color from the athlete. Why? Because the management firms and tours 1. don’t need the hassle of crisis management and 2. don’t want to jeopardize endorsements and commercial interests with a few intemperate remarks. (Put another way, would you want to be Nick Kyrgios’s publicist?) 

But the media-trained athletes, often easy to spot, are so bland and circumspect and forgettably inoffensive that they undermine their value and, more importantly, they shortchange themselves.  And if I had to advise an athlete, this is the overarching point I’d stress: you do you. If you’re an introvert and uncomfortable in front of a microphone, don’t feel like you have to be Kevin Hart. If you are extrovert, don’t feel like you need the comfort of cliché. Be yourself. Be (marketing buzzword alert) authentic.        

There is another aspect to the on-court coaching debate that I’d like to mention.

I once heard Wozniacki say that she thought it is “interesting for the fans.” But does she really think the majority of the fans around the world can understand the Polish her father invariably uses? When it is in Dutch, English, German, Spanish or French I can follow what’s being said, provided some nitwit commentator doesn’t talk right through it (if this is specifically for TV, why are they not instructed to avoid doing so?). But Ostapenko haranguing her mother in Latvian? Pass. Kvitova exchanging ideas with Vanek in Czech? Pass. Sabalenka cracking jokes (at least that is what it looks like, they laugh a lot) with Tursunov in Russian? Pass. Mladenovic fighting with mom in Serbo-Croat? Pass. Begu listening to a Romanian monologue from Apostu? Pass. Any of the Chinese coaches talking to their pupils? Pass. The only sometimes interesting part is trying to judge the dynamic between coach and pupil from their body language. Which fortunately is fairly universal. One of the innovations the first year of the NextGen finals was the coaching where English was mandatory. But I do not think that is a solution.
Tineke van Buul, Amstelveen, Netherlands

• I love this Michael Bloomberg quote: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

The USTA didn’t see fit to take the time—or didn’t see fit to share their data. But the other day Tennis.com, put up this poll with a simple, neutral question: “Should the US Open have on-court coaching in the main draw?”

Check the results for yourself.

Krawietz and Mies were a revelation at Roland Garros and today, all four men were outstanding, all-court tennis, brilliance. The Men's Doubles final was the best of them all at SW19 last year.
@northymark2

• This followed a discussion we had the other day on Twitter about doubles. It’s been an awfully strong season for this tennis cognate. It started with the Hopman Cup (RIP) and continued through last weekend when Andy Murray and Feliciano Lopez did their thing at Queens Club. The Bryans are back. Top players—Tsitsipas, Barty, Azarenka, Kyrgios, now Murray—often compete alongside a partner. The virtues of doubles are coming clearer. 

For years now, tennis has had remarkable diversity at the top in countries of origin—much more so than golf, say. As of today, for example, 16 of the top 17 ranked men are from different nations, with only Russia having two. Of the top 15 women, 13 are from different countries, with only the United States and the Czech Republic having two each. I assume you agree this is to be celebrated and a good way to underscore how much competition the top players face today compared to past eras where only a few countries dominated. It makes the dominance of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer (and Serena Williams, until recently) all the more impressive and helps explain the churn at the top of the women's game.
Rob

• Well put. And I do believe this should be celebrated. Too often we focus on deficiencies in a particular country without recognizing that, globally, the sport is thriving. I would add the events follow the players. The women have their year-end soiree in China. The men will be in London and then Italy (sponsored by a Japanese concern.) Three team competitions will be held in Geneva, Madrid, and Australia, respectively. The world is flat. The talent pool is spread across the planet. Plenty of businesses—never mind plenty of other sports—would kill for this kind of global penetration and appeal.

Are you hearing anything regarding the causes of Sasha Zverev’s slump? It is quite puzzling. Grigor Dimitrov too?  Anything going on off the court? Both seem so committed. 
Fernando 

• Here comes the cut-and-paste about tennis careers almost never progressing linearly. Sometimes you’re a lob. Sometimes you’re an overhead. 

I think you can buy Zverev at a discount right now. While he’s in danger of dropping out of the top 10, he’s not exactly foundering. He won a (small) tournament in May and reached the second week of Roland Garros. I wonder how much of his troubles stem from his bitter dispute with his former agent and the business/logistical pressures and demands that have suddenly befallen him. 

As for Dimitrov, confidence is a fickle beast.

I feel like Andy Murray, while a great guy and a great champion, maybe got a little overhyped in the States. His career is better, but not substantially better, than Stan Wawrinka’s. I feel like Murray gets put into that “Big Four” category more than he deserves—come on, he has the same number of major titles as Stan! I further suspect this has something to do with sports media assuming the US audience prefers to root for a native English speaker. My friends and family say I’m crazy and that Murray is WAY better than Stan: Murray beats him in highest ranking, Masters 1000s, etc. Do you have an opinion about this
—Paul R

• The caveat is this gets completely distorted when comparing inter-era. But for contemporaries, prize money is a pretty good gauge.

Murray: 45 titles and $61M in career earnings.

Wawrinka: 16 titles and $33M in career earnings.

That’s considerably better. 

I, T.G. Misanthrope, while no fan of any Boston sports team, am forced to consider Bill Russell's run of eleven (11) championships in thirteen (13) years from 1956 to 1969 as an all-time example of sporting dominance.  While basketball is a team game, Mr. Russell was the, hmmm, er, center of those teams and thus its de facto leader.  Rafael Nadal's current French Open—apologies, Roland-Garros—run, in T.G.Misanthrope's estimation, is slightly more impressive due to the higher caliber of competition resultant of modernity, but, ooh wee!, Bill Russell as a basketball player in his prime ruled the court.  T.G. Misanthrope has now finished opining.
T.G. Misanthrope

• That wasn’t so misanthropic. Makes quite a bit of sense, in fact.

I love these bar room topics like “unbreakable” sports records.  It’s so subjective and that’s what makes it fun (no one’s ever going to break Monet’s record for number of dots on Water Lilies).  But since we’re here, I’ll throw in three that have stood the test of time:  DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak will be impossible to break in an era of situational pitching and defensive shifts; Darryl Sittler’s 10 points in one NHL game—high quality modern goaltending has ended that; and, of course, Wilt Chamberin’s 100-point game (not to mention his other “unbreakable” record).  Rafa’s record is so amazing because it’s happened over 15 years as opposed to a singular game or season and because he’s also such a mensch.  Love to get your thoughts on some other unbreakables.
Neil Grammer, Toronto

• “Mensch,” may not be a characterization native to Majorca. But that is really well-put. I was just telling someone this: I wrote about him for the first time when he was 18 and had zero major titles. He was utterly without pretension then; and he has not changed.

As for the record, funny you should ask. Pedro P. comes double-barreling:

Here are some records I believe may be as unbreakable or more unbreakable than Nadal's 12 French Open titles

1. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game

2. Federer's 23 straight major semifinals

3. Chris Evert's 52 major semifinals (34 in a row at one point) but she did skip some events

4. Michael Phelps’s eight gold medals in a single Olympics

5. Margaret Court's 64 major titles across singles, doubles and mixed doubles

6. Venus Williams’s 82 (and counting) total appearances in majors

7. Jerry Rice's 208 career touchdowns

8. Jack Nicklaus's 18 major titles

9. Wayne Gretzky's 200-point season

10.  Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak

11. Brett Favre's 297 consecutive starts as a quarterback

12. Cal Ripken Jr.'s 2,632 games-played streak

“My trivia: what are the two main rivers bracketing Charleston, S.C.?”

Ashley and Cooper.
Mark Flannery, Fullerton, Calif.

• Winner!

SHOTS, MISCELLANY

• A few weeks ago, Sofia Kenin lamented to us that she had nowhere to practice on grass. She’s doing just fine improvising. She won her second title of 2019 last weekend, taking the trophy on the grass of Mallorca.

•  The Western & Southern Open is recruiting volunteers to join its team of more than 1,300 people who participate in a variety of roles at Cincinnati’s annual professional tennis tournament. Those interested in volunteering at the Western & Southern Open can learn more about the opportunities and begin the application process by visiting wsopen.com.

• Your periodic reminder to check out the Tennis Bookshop.

• The USTA today announced the six recent college graduates taking part in the USTA Player Development Fellowship program this summer:

Professional Coaching Fellows:

Jaime Barajas, a former Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and now volunteer assistant coach at Utah State University.

Leah Bush, a four-year letter-winner at NCAA Division III Williams College, where she was a part of its 2016-17 NCAA Championship team.

Nick Castro, currently an assistant women's coach at the University of the Pacific and former player and Kinesiology major at Fresno State.

Aslina Chua, a four-year player and pre-med major at Michigan State, where she played No. 1 singles as a senior.

Rachel Pierson, a former singles and doubles All-American at Texas A&M, the first player in program history to earn singles and doubles All-America honors. 

Performance Analytics Fellow:

Kevin Huang, a recent materials and science engineering graduate from the University of Illinois. 

The Fellowship program, which begins Monday and runs through the 2019 US Open, is structured to provide significant experiential training and opportunity for independent research in the field of professional tennis coaching. The program is based out of the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., and includes traveling with a coaching mentor.

READER RIFF

Eric in Jackson Heights, New York take us out with a riff:

I would like to add one thing, due to the incredibly unfortunate latest injury sustained by Juan Marin del Potro: Juan Martin might be the greatest player to have his career consistently derailed by injuries over the years. He has valiantly tried to maintain a career that could easily have placed him among the very topmost tier of the men's game, each time to be met with yet another injury. He was a joy to watch and a fright to see opposite someone you might be rooting for. Delpo has been a player's player, admired by all. Whatever determination Juan Martin del Potro has shown over the course of his career, I have confidence that he will succeed in the next phase of his life. He has a fine mind, and whatever he chooses to apply it to, I know he will have the whole tennis world rooting for him.

 

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