How the Wimbledon men's final re-ignited the GOAT debate and some final thoughts on tiebreaks, strategy and more from Wimbledon 2019.

By Jon Wertheim
July 24, 2019

Cleaning out the bag post-Wimbledon (and post-vacation week).

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

• All hail Jamie Lisanti for her Sports Illustrated cover story on the fashionable Serena Williams.

• Robbie Koenig is next on the podcast and he was, of course, excellent.

• A few of you asked about the Renee Richards piece. Here it is: 84-year-old Renée Richards reflects on breakthrough.

• RIP Peter McNamara.

• Free “Hello Peril” tennis balls to everyone!

Some Q/A….

You have to admit, Novak Djokovic is now the GOAT!
Andres, Paris

• Because so much history weights and freights these matches (see below) every counter among Federer-Nadal-Novak turns into a GOAT referendum. I feel like an annoying reservationist at a fancy restaurant but “Would you mind if I put you on hold?”

The plea again: let’s enjoy the derby, take a moment to reflect on our good fortune, and weigh in on GOAT designation when all three careers are finished. Djokovic, unquestionably lurched last week. (And Federer missed a big opportunity.) But no debates were—and will be—settled based on one tournament. 

One thing I will say about Djokovic: he handled himself with extraordinary grace. You can lose with grace. But you can win with it, too. There was no gloating, no shirt-rending, and an acknowledgement that the guy on the other side of the net had just suffered a deep loss. He came by Tennis Channel maybe an hour after the match and, well, watch and judge for yourself…..

I thought 2008 hurt for us Fed fans. Having two match points is the worst way to lose. The way Djokovic comes through in the clutch against Federer time and time again really defines this rivalry. How many times in Federer v. Nadal or Nadal v. Djokovic has someone come back to win from match point down? Djokovic came back today and the two U.S. Open semis in 2010 and ’11. The difference why Djokovic is better than Federer is he is more resilient and more clutch. Today is going to be the major I remember as to why Federer will not have the most majors when all is said and done. Fed fan, no matter how bad I feel….
Kreits

• Someone asked: would you rather lose the way Serena lost to Halep—6-2, 6-2—or lose the way Federer did. Me? I think most mortals could go either way. In the first case, you were barely in the match and were thoroughly outclassed. In the second case, you didn’t win, and came devastatingly close, but, hey, at least you were at the threshold. 

I’m paraphrasing, but I posed this a to a recent top player who essentially said: “Not even close. In Serena’s case, you say, ‘She was too good today.’ Next time it will be different. Pity. Where are we going for dinner?’ In Federer’s case, you never forget that match, the missed opportunity and the match points in particular.”

I'm as thankful as the next fan that the men's final went to a tiebreak at 12 all in the fifth, but the standard 12-point tiebreak seemed a bit anticlimactic, perhaps even a bit ordinary considering the occasion. Wouldn't a super tiebreak (first player to 10 points) have been a more fitting conclusion?
Jason Rainey, Austin, Texas

• I’m in the middle of the see-saw here. Like everyone—including, to their eternal credit, the two principals—I hated the Anderson-Isner match and the absurdity of 26-22. We needed a finish line and I credit Tim Henman with making it happen. Yet when we finally got to 12-12 for the first time in singles—and it happened to be the men’s final—it felt too abrupt. All the more so, given the history at stake. This was a two-Slam turn in the Great GOAT Race. (Either 21-15 or 20-16.) We talk often of “small margins” but this was an encapsulation. A few backhand shanks in a tiebreak—or steadiness on the other end of the court—it has these major historical echoes. 

One point that I do resist: this idea that there’s no consistency and each major has a different way to conclude matches. I say, good. Each major is played on a different surface, with a different ball, in a different country and time zone, amid a considerably different atmosphere. I’m fine with a little more differentiation here. Plus, only, roughly, one-in-30 matches go the distance.  It’s just that the most recent came in the Wimbledon final.

What’s the solution? Wait, here it comes….

If the point is to give the winner a fighting chance in a subsequent round, then there is NO RATIONALE for a final set tiebreak in a FINAL. The outcome here might have been the same, but the fans and the players were cheated of finding out who TRULY deserved to win. You have an issue with coaching as being against the basic premise of the game, well no different with this either. Let them lay it all out there, and win it the old fashioned way.
Ho

• Right on. Since preservation is no longer an issue, why not amend and emend the rules to play out the final? 

Nice final—good drama and entertainment. But I think Fed's strategy was bad; engaging Djoker in baseline battles is a losing strategy. Fed was doing well at the net. Why he didn't go for more of that, I don't know. At this point in Fed's career (and at his age), the mis-hits are just a given, so there's not too much to do about that. But the strategy is within his control, and it didn't seem too good. What's your read on it?
Chris

• I would love to see some stats on mishits. The Federer “shank-a-saurus,” that unseemly species that roamed in 2013, seemed to go on the endangered list with the switch to the bigger racket. Man, there were a lot of mishits in the final. Then again, there was almost 422 points played.

As for strategy, it’s always easy—and tempting—to say, “She won 80% of her net approaches. Why didn’t she come in more often?” The other way to look at it: she made judicious choices about when to come in. If she came in more often, that success rate would be lower.

Further to your comment on deceptive tennis stats, I would like to suggest a new stat (I haven't seen it anywhere) that measures how difficult a tennis player's tournament(s) was/were. To calculate this stat, each seeded opponent's score is his or her seed. Unseeded opponents get a score of the highest seed plus one. The lower (higher) the sum of opponents' scores, the more (less) difficult the opponents were.

For example, a player faces Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal at Wimbledon this year. His total difficulty stat for three rounds is 1 + 2 + 3 = 6 and his average difficulty per round is 2. If he had played three unseeded players, his total three-round stat would have been 99 and the average difficulty is 33. Federer, Nadal, and an unseeded opponent totals 38 and averages 12.67. This stat truncates difficulty scores at 33 because if ATP rankings were used, unseeded players would be over-weighted (in my opinion). Your thoughts?
Phil Beaulieu

• Sure. Have some sort of “strength of schedule” component. Here’s one for you: When Sascha Zverev won the Geneva title in May he did not have to beat an opponent ranked in the top 70. When he won the ATP World Tour Finals six months prior, EVERY opponent was ranked inside the top ten. Should there not be some signifier? To its credit, the UTR is on to this.

*Long as we’re here…this isn’t unique to tennis. I get agitated when you hear an announcer say something to the effect of: “He’s averaged 20 points a game during the season, but he’s dropped to 17 during the playoffs.” In the NBA, the worst 14 teams don’t make the playoffs. It stands to reason that when the weaker half of the competition drops out, your stats will tail off a bit. 

Since you brought it up the other day in your 50 Parting Thoughts, let me ask: If an ace is considered a winner (it is, isn't it?), why is a service fault not considered an unforced error? (It isn’t, right?) At the very least, a double fault. After all, your opponent has, obviously, nothing to do with your serve. If you blow it, it’s all on you. 

Also, how about a little rule change: If you throw it up, you hit it. Not because it’ll save much time or anything, but just because, again, it’s all on you. If you don’t throw it up just exactly where you want, well, deal with it. (We recreational players know that sometimes just hitting our serve tosses counts as a pretty good get. I would think the pros can handle it.)
Gavin Spencer, NYC

• Yes and yes. Counting aces as “winners” does a terrible disservice and really distorts the picture of the match. A hard-server can post a decent stat sheet, while getting beat off the ground the vast majority of the time. An effective server like Federer or Djokovic who doesn’t seek aces, per se, but rather well-placed serves to set up the +1 ball, are effectively punished. The least we could do is balance it out, by counting double-faults as errors.

I like your other point as well. You toss it, you hit it. Why do servers get to do the “sorry, mate” routine and catch a toss that doesn’t meet their standards?

From the stats world on how odd the Wimbledon final was: Other than it being the first decider tiebreak in SW19 history, Federer actually won 15 more points than Djokovic, hit 15 more aces than and 40 (yes, 40) more winners than Djokovic. If you just looked at the stat sheet—you’d think Federer of course has his name engraved on the trophy. If he played anyone else, that’s probably true. But the killer stat: Djokovic made nine fewer unforced errors than Federer, and Roger made a few more in those crucial tiebreaks trying to force the issue.  Federer played a tactically brilliant match. Djokovic as he often does, just weathered the storm—he bends, but don’t break! But statistically fascinating, right?
Deepak, New York

• This was Simpson’s Paradox comes to tennis. We talk about “big points” and it’s not just cliché. Some points really are hingepoints. I want to be clear though: this is a virtue, and not a defect, of tennis.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but all three of this year's inductees won one Australian Open and one French Open. Did the HOF plan it that way?
Sean, San Diego

• Correct. Three different players. Three different sets of circumstances. But, yes, a French and an Aussie for each.

I love the point you have been making consistently that tennis is “at its best when men and women compete simultaneously” and since I just read you say it again right after the conclusion of the Women’s World Cup in soccer, it made me wonder about doing it for other sports. 

What if the women’s and men’s World Cup tournaments were held simultaneously? How about the NBA and WNBA Finals? I suspect that many would say either that the women’s events would feel like an afterthought, but isn’t that what many would have said about women’s tennis? 

It could extend itself everywhere (though not without complexity): golf’s Grand Slams, skiing World Cups, and it’s already in place for swimming and diving. It could be called the Wertheim Principle….
Will

• Hey, thanks. Far be it from me to reject an eponymous principle. But I don’t think it works in other sports. I have friends who are ardent NBA fans but can’t name the WNBA franchise in their own market. There is scant overlap between the PGA and LPGA. In soccer, I suspect neither the women nor the men want to share their World Cup with the other sex.

To me, this is one of the great assets of tennis. No one says, “I like Federer and Nadal, but which one is older, Venus or Serena? No one says, “I love Ash Barty and there’s a controversial male player from Australia whose name eludes me.” Fans toggle between men and women. Media and television treat them both as (relatively) equal. Analysts and journalists are, rightly, expected to be knowledgeable about both tours. Men and women alternate on the schedule, play simultaneously on adjacent courts, share a players’ lounge, etc. Tennis is waaaaay ahead of the game here. It’s a virtue. It’s an asset in the marketplace. It sends a hell of a message. And instead of squabbling over how to split up the dinner check —“Wait, who ordered the soup?”—the sport ought to be taking this unique arrangement to the marketplace. 

Despite all the gnashing of teeth about Serena's unfortunate results in her last three Slam finals, I think that it should be pointed out that in the six slams she has played in after having her baby, she has amassed a record of 27-5 (84%). While that may not be very good by Serena's astronomically high standards, let's compare her record (in those last six slams) to those of her leading rivals: Halep 23-4, Osaka, 20-4, Barty 20-5, Stephens 19-6, Kerber, 17-5, Pliskova 17-6, Svitolina 16-6, Kvitova 13-5, Muguruza 13-6, Bertens 12-6, Wozniacki 9-6.

In each of Serena's finals losses, Kerber, Osaka, and especially Halep, played wonderful, wonderful tennis and, deserved to win. In Serena's fourth loss, vs. Pliskova at the AO, she turned her ankle at a critical point of the match, and in the fifth loss (vs Anisimova at RG) she was playing on one knee.

In short, while Serena's failure to win a final in the last year and a half is no doubt extremely disappointing to her, it is remarkable, not that she's lost three finals in a row for the first time in her career, but that, even as a 37-year-old mother she is, slam in and slam out, still the most dangerous player in the world. When she loses in a final, the world gasps in disbelief at such a disappointing result; When her leading rivals lose in the first week, as they have all done at least once in recent slams, the whole world yawns.
Pat Finley, La Verne, Calif.

• Absolutely. She is a victim of her own standards. Absolutely, she is held to greater scrutiny. (Naomi Osaka was the No. 2 seed, was not expected to do much; did not do much; and her exit was a non-story.) Trivia: how many other WTA players, under the age of 37, have been to three major finals in the last 13 months? All that said, Serena is Serena. We expect more of her in part because, as you note, she has given us so much reason to expect more from her.

Remember when I said Nadal is the most competitive athlete I’ve ever seen and no one is even close? Friend disagreed and said Pete Rose. That stopped me cold.
James B.

• I might suggest that Nadal is considerably more worthy of your admiration. Nadal’s fighting spirit it obvious to the naked eye (and audible to the naked ear) when he plays. John McEnroe tells a story of practicing with Nadal and being flattered that he was so earnest during the session, thinking it was a show of deference; then he saw Nadal practice the next day and realized, no, he’s always like this.

Competitiveness manifests itself in different ways. Doesn’t Djokovic’s career revival, his unapologetic pursuit of Nadal and Federer, suggest a certain level of competitiveness? For that matter, doesn’t Federer’s persistence in playing at this come-within-a-point-of-winning-Wimbledon level as he crowds age 40 suggest a certain level of competitiveness? And what of the players, male and female, who are ambitious and committed and despise losing but simply lack sport’s ultimate card: talent. Could we even go so far as to suggest that “competitive athlete” is redundant?

As long as we’re making lists, though, I’d put Serena—in her prime—up against anyone.

In an era of high tech, some props in order for radio. Thought the Mailbag may appreciate the quality of the Wimbledon Radio broadcast, for the women's and men's final. Though I couldn't see a point, it was fantastic to hear descriptions such as Federer pulling off an "oil painting of a backhand" or Djokovic with his returns "clipping the net and just dropping over" to "level things up.” Perhaps the umpeenth reminder the sport is worthy of any medium. Thanks for a great tournament!
Andrew Miller, Silver Spring, Md.

• I will happily plug Wimbledon Radio. And add that all four majors have some version.

HAVE A GOOD WEEK EVERYONE!

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