Mailbag: Why Have Younger Players Struggled To Challenge the Big 3?

In his latest Mailbag, Jon Wertheim checks in from Wimbleon to weigh in on why the Big 3 are still so dominant, Sharapova's retirement down 5-0 in the third set and much more.
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WIMBLEDON, England — Wednesday is Mailbag day, so…

I'm trying to understand why the younger generation of men is having such a hard time (collectively) taking down the Big 3? What, in your view, is the missing ingredient they lack? I doubt it's talent. Is it will? Dedication? Discipline? I mean, are they just not trying hard enough?  
Yves, Montreal

• There’s a lot going on here, and no single reason to point to. I don’t think it’s about will or dedication so much as it is a confluence of factors all cutting in favor of the incumbent and against the challengers. Here are five points:

1. Individually and collectively, the Big 3 is/are incredible. That overused word is meant literally here. As in, scarcely believable. What they have done is unlikely ever to replicated or fully appreciated. They are the Everests and they render everyone else bluffs (in both sense of the word.) We can’t have this discussion before first acknowledging that the Big 3 are extraordinary.

2. Best-of-five really benefits the best. It gives them a greater sample size, more time to let their superior games come to bear. It also means their experience and sense of pacing really helps them. In a best-of-three match, Lloyd Harris wins the first set from Federer and it’s “Hold my Pimm’s, upset alert!” In best-of-five, Lloyd Harris wins the first and it’s “time for Roger to wake up.” Which he did.

3. We are learning more and more about how the top players benefit from economic means. They hire entire teams. They fly private. They enlist data and analysts operations.

This not only prolongs and preserves careers, but can also be a barrier to entry.

4. The pressure on the other players perpetuates. With every title the Big 3 wins, the questions amplify: which of you is going to break the stranglehold? First it was Dimitrov/Nishikori/Raonic that struggled with this pressure. Now it’s Zverev/Tsitsipas/Khachanov et al. Here’s where we are: according to the oddsmakers, the player most likely to break up the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic hegemony at Wimbledon is….Felix Auger-Aliassime. As I write this, he has won a grand total of one main draw major singles match.

5. Say this: the incentive to break through is monstrous. Right now no player under 30 has won a major. When—if?—a member of the younger generation puts together seven wins at a Grand Slam, he will be transformed, reputationally and commercially. 

Why is a big fuss being made this year about Nadal being seeded No. 3 at Wimbledon despite his No. 2 ranking? Hasn't the same formula been used by Wimbledon for years? The same mathematical formula created for transparency, which rewards consistent grass results? I'm not debating the merit of seeding based on surface, I'm just saying the formula has existed for years, so it really should not have come as a surprise to Nadal and/or his fans. 

It's a bit of a moot point now that Nadal and Federer were drawn in the same half, but if Nadal had been in Djokovic's half... OMG how much worse would the outcry have been? 
—Nancy Ng, Montreal

• Agree. And where was the fuss in last year when Djokovic was bumped up from his ranking of 21 to his seeding of 12? But here’s the deal: the homogenization of today’s surfaces—or/and, more charitably, the versatility of today’s players—means that surface specialists have died. Which also means this formula has outlived its usefulness.

I’d like to hear your take on Maria Sharapova retiring at 0-5 down in the third set. She seriously couldn't have shown her opponent the respect of four more points? Henin got slaughtered for doing that to Mauresmo.

• A few of you—including a Hall of Famer—noted that Sharapova retired yesterday against Pauline Parmentier, 4-6, 7-6, 5-0. Which meant that Parementier was a few points from victory. And that Sharapova retired just four points from defeat. 

You try not to speculate about injuries and second-guess pain. But I watched that match and Sharapova did not appear to be in agony. While not a felony, it’s a pity she didn’t play four points and let her opponent win outright.  

Sharapova was asked about it in an emotional press conference. When we say she goes about her business like a pro, this is what we mean.

And let’s go easy on the Henin comparison. That was a major singles final (2006 Australian Open) and not a round one match on Court 2.

Donald Young: buy, sell, or hold?
Doyle Srader, Eugene, Ore.

• We should note that Young—almost 30 and barely in the top 200— lost in qualifying here. Heart says hold, head says sell. And we try not to let emotion impact investing decisions. 

I think you left a pretty significant record off your list. Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver won 109 consecutive matches from April 1983 to July 1985.  That’s over two years without a loss. It’s even more impressive when you consider Martina also played singles in those tournaments as well. 

As for the argument about equal prize money…If number of sets should determine prize money, then hockey goalies should be the highest paid players in the NHL, as they’re the only ones on the ice the entire game. 
JT, New York City

• Well played. Good point, too, on equal prize money. Same idea, but my response to the folly that best-of-five should be paid differently than best-of-three? The WTA offers to change its format to best-of-seven. And demands to be paid accordingly. 

Watching the Kygrios/Thompson match today, seeing the shots to his box and the commentators’ remarks about coaching him, it struck me that he's much like Elvis—people around him enable the destructive behaviors because they benefit from them. 

Am I projecting here?

I love watching him; but it's like watching a train wreck. I'd love to see that talent pointed in the right direction.

• I recognize that I might be in the minority, but Kygrios seldom bothers me. Sure, you wish all athletes maximized their potential. But most of his antics are innocuous. He unfailingly entertains. I also think there’s a mental heath component to this that will change how we view this show. 

Something that doesn’t get enough press is the fact that Serena has won Wimbledon the same year as each of the big four. If fact I think she’s won the same year as Federer more than once.

• I’m not sure if this is tied to the mixed doubles draw, which came out today. Serena, as you likely know by now, is playing with Sir Andy Murray. Venus is playing with Frances Tiafoe. Sam Stosur and Leader Paes—combined age : 82—are a team. Same for Jamie Murray and Beathanie Mattek-Sands. Good luck to the schedulers.

Given that only four men have Wimbledon since 2002 (!) that Serena has won seven times (!!), there’s bound to be some overlap. Yes, she had won concurrent with each of the Big Four, including her new partner in 2016.

 I just had an inspiration for a great Mixed Doubles pairing at Wimbledon (after a 12-hour night shift at the hospital, I might add)... can anyone arrange a Hsieh Su-Wei and Dustin Brown pairing please? That would be magical and great for tennis fans, especially at Wimbledon!
Carl Zerrudo

• Congrats on such an inspired suggestion after a 12-hour shift. Alas, it did not happen.

I'm not complaining, trust me! I despise doing the math in my head. But I was surprised to see the serve speed displayed in mph since England uses the metric system. Care to humor me with an explanation?
Kris, Norwalk, Conn.

• Interesting. The club claims it’s been this way for almost 20 years. No one has been able to tell me why.

Could you urge tennis commentators to please cease their cynical snickering when a player holds up a hand after getting a point when the ball clips the net?  They say something like, “Oh, sure he’s sorry – not!” or “He apologized, but he’s still going to take the point!”  The player is not making a fake apology.  He is making an authentic acknowledgement that he got a point that he didn’t earn.  Nothing “sorry” about it.  Just a polite gesture in the spirit of good sportsmanship, the hallmark of the sport of tennis. 

• I feel like holding up my hand and apologizing. I think you’re ultimately right. Yes, there is something incongruous about an athlete, locked in a competitive endeavor, winning and then apologizing. But, yes, I think it’s more about tradition than rank hypocrisy or inauthenticity.

Are Nadal’s 12 titles at Roland Garros tennis’ most unbreakable record?

I would say his 11 titles at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona are less likely to be broken due to the fact that players are more likely to skip Monte Carlo & Barcelona than they would Roland Garros.
James B., Portland

• Good point.

We all know majors are king, but reader Paul R. overestimates their importance in the Murray/Wawrinka comparison. In addition to the titles and prize money gaps you pointed out, consider these numbers:

Major finals: Murray leads 11-4

Major semifinals: Murray 21-9

Masters 1000 titles: Murray 14-1 (!)

Masters 1000 semis: Murray 21-4

Weeks at No. 1: Murray 41-0 (Stan's career high is No. 3)

Murray's record against the Big 3 is a not terrible 29-56.

Wawrinka's record against the Big 3 is—brace yourself—11-60.

Stan is a surefire Hall of Famer, having won three majors in the era of the Big Three (or Four); and having won them in style, with convincing victories over Nadal and Djokovic. But his greatness was fleeting; Murray's was far lengthier, and more consistent: 41 weeks at No. 1 in the heart of the Big 3 era! Had Sir Andrew Barron Murray (OBE) been born a decade earlier, might he be on the threshold of that hallowed Greatest of All Time discussion?
Jesse, Wisconsin

• We can add Olympic singles gold (2012) to this as well. I bristle at these player-versus-player discussions because someone ends up looking like a club hack. Stan, let’s be clear, is a first-ballot no-brainer Hall of Famer. But he has not had a career commensurate to Murray’s.  At least not yet.