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  • In his latest Mailbag, Jon Wertheim discusses the significance—if there is any—of Nick Kyrgios' latest triumph and answers your questions.
By Jon Wertheim
August 07, 2019

Hey everyone. 

Housekeeping

• Last week’s podcast guest was Patrick McEnroe. And he was outstanding. (And a good sport to schlep downtown to appear in person.)

• Next up: 7-foot, 21-year-old American Reilly Opelka, who is all the way up to world No. 43.

• Some great summer news: Wilander on Wheels is back and fully operational! (We are completely in the tank for Mats, but you should check out this bit of tennis populism.)

• Long as we are in this era, Yannick Noah is still badass.

• Props to Jessica Pegula for winning the Citi Open.

• Props to Caty McNally (up to No. 124 and winner of the D.C. doubles title)….can someone get her a proper photo?

• Props to Caroline Dolehide. A day after winning a doubles gold medal, she took the silver medal in women's singles at the Pan American Games on Sunday in Lima, falling to Argentina's Nadia Podoroska, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6(4). By nature of reaching the singles final, Dolehide gave herself an outside shot at qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as she'd earn a spot on the American team if four U.S. women don't earn direct acceptance via ranking on June 8, 2020.

We digress. 

Onward….

Mailbag

What can we take away from Kyrgios and his enjoyable run to the title in Washington, D.C.? Only that it's memorable, or something more? He was the classic entertainer in the tradition of Connors—playing ping pong with kids as his warm up for big matches, asking a fan where to serve before match point. He and Tsitsipas playing doubles together seemed to do wonders for both of their respective games, allowing for a free-flowing, serious-yet-spirited and fun match to unfold when they met in the semifinals. Kyrgios even admitted to putting more effort into his practice time. Is this an example of the stars aligning for one tournament, or is there more to say here for how players acknowledge the pressure of the tour and make it healthier?
Andrew Miller, Silver Spring, MD

• The lame answer: time will tell. Was this yet another reminder that Kyrgios is supremely talented, admirably different in his mode of being and able to captivate crowds like few other players? Or could this be something more meaningful, a fulcrum moment when he realizes that when he is not profligate with his gifts and indifferent with effort, greatness beckons? Stay tuned. We’ve seen this before—Kyrgios playing light-out at a smaller event, only to backslide the next event (see: Acapulco + Indian Wells). Let’s see what the next few weeks bring. (editor’s note: Kyrgios lost in straight sets to Kyle Edmund in the first round of the Rogers Cup on Tuesday).

The pop psychology explanation for Kyrgios’ career management goes something like this: he is afraid of failure; afraid of fully committing himself and getting suboptimal results; afraid of going back to being the chubby kid in the Wu-Tang Clan attire, vulnerable to teasing. In a team environment he can thrive. He can be one of the guys, show off his skills, and he’s happy to share the glory of winning if it also means sharing the burden of defeat. But in this one-on-one sport, every match becomes a character referendum and he resists that.

He is, in a way, reminiscent of the smart kids in school who “don’t apply themselves.” They don’t study. They sleep through class. (He doesn’t have a coach, doesn’t train and doesn’t play the percentages.) Sometimes they dazzle and get A’s mostly by dint of native intelligence. Sometimes they fail. But when they bring home a bad grade, it’s easy to rationalize. “I got wasted the night before the final!” Sometimes those kids get their stuff together before graduation. Other times not.

[Coco Gauff is] my daughter’s best friend. I’ve known her and the family years. It’s all about family and the family’s decision. Do you give them the keys or not? Ten events per year will result in more pressure during the tournaments she does play...and that’s dangerous. In junior events, kids play two matches a day in 100-degree heat. Is that better?
@ltcol_gsnells

• I don’t disagree with your premises. 

A. The Gauff team seems to be entering this eyes-wide-open. Her parents appear to be cool and supportive, with no interest in using their daughter as the family ATM. Her management team does not appear inclined to send her around the world chasing checks. The WTA has been great so far, acknowledging Gauff’s achievements without going overboard on the promotion. 

B. Restricting a player’s ability to compete is problematic in any sport. For that matter, restricting someone’s right to work is problematic in any field (FDR once tried to stack the Supreme Court over issues of economic libertarianism and the right of individuals to make their own contracts!)

C. These rules can have the perverse effect of bringing more pressure to a player to make the most of the rare playing opportunities they DO have.

I still maintain that on balance, these rules are correct, they are responsible, they are wise, they are virtuous. Applying them, subjectively, on a case-by-case basis is a recipe for disaster. (By “disaster” I mean “litigation.”) And during a week that the previous No.1 player has, with admirable candor, expressed her hardships dealing with celebrity and expectation, https://www.instagram.com/naomiosaka/?hl=en, we have still another reminder that we are obligated to guard against too-much-too-soon.

I see that Krygios is in the final today. He clearly has the talent and wherewithal if he puts it all together. What would it take to get Brad Gilbert to team up with and coach him? 

(Can you ask him on air?!)
Alex

• From the horse’s mouth: 

“Funny, I am confident in my coaching abilities but not sure I understand Nick enough to be able to coach him, not sure he wants to be coached in the first place obviously likes what he is doing, not to mention I am very happy at ESPN.”

Watching @NickKyrgios at the Citi Open this week was infinitely more exciting than watching the Red Sox stumble. Why isn’t tennis more popular? 
—@edjusten

• Beauty is in the eye of the remote holder.

Whenever the Western and Southern Open is brought up, you tend to make comments about how the players have to subject themselves to chain restaurants and joke how it's across from the Kings Island amusement park. The comments come off as condescending. Can you show a little more love for the tournament?  It may not be as exotic as Madrid or as beautiful as Rome, but its intimacy is unmatched. The tournament is accessible for young kids and casual fans, and also allows die-hards to see their idols up close and personal. The players enjoy themselves and appreciate the Midwest hospitality and relative calm before the frenzy of the U.S. Open.
Michael S., Cincinnati

• Not at all meant that way. As someone who grew up 90 miles or so from Cincinnati, maybe I take too many liberties here. But I ADORE this event. Here’s from a recent essay I did for Tennis Channel:

“Paris, Rome, London, New York, Shanghai……The tennis caravan threads its way through the world’s A-list locations, the kinds of Cities of the World you see on ads for expensive watches and clothing. It’s part of what gives tennis its international mystique. ….It can be hard to reconcile this with the scene at the Western and Southern Open held in…Cincinnati, the third-largest city in….Ohio. Actually, it’s not really Cincinnati. The tournament venue is situated a good half hour from the Queen City up Interstate 71 in Mason, Ohio. Most players stay at the same chain hotel where they stand in line at the breakfast buffet. They forage for meals at Applebee’s or the Olive Garden or the chicken-fried steak at the Cracker Barrel. 

Here’s the punchline: venture to this unlikely tournament in the guts of Middle America, and you’ll find one of the gems of the circuit. Most players like it. The fans turn out in droves. Sponsors get their money’s worth. You can’t help leave Cincinnati feeling better about the state of the professional game. 

There’s plenty working in the tournament’s favor. No least, history.

It's a well-paying tune-up before the U.S. Open.

But it’s also clear that the same Heartland folksiness that makes the tournament so different, is what infuses it with charm. The Cincinnati event feels like just that: an event. At how many other tournaments do fans mob the qualifying matches and the practice courts. At what other event do strangers ply the players with homemade three-way chili as they leave the complex? 

The players are embraced …and they hug back. Without the big city pressures and traffic and hustle, they have the time to participate in this clinic, that hospital visit or to mingle with the fans. They play the U.S. Open in New York, of course. But Cincinnati might be the true U.S. Open.”

I preface this by saying I disagree with virtually all of her views on social issues and realize that all her Australian Open titles have skewed her count, but do we underestimate Margaret Court's career during the early days of the Open Era? She did win three of the Slams in '69, the rare calendar slam in '70 that included a 14-12, 11-9 win over Billie Jean King at Wimbledon and a victory at the U.S. Open over Rosie Casal…and then came back to win three of the Slams in 1973. 
Bob S.

• I think that’s probably right. Part of me says, too bad. When players remain relevant, one consequence is that it enhances the way history deals with them. The example I often cite: the casual fan is often shocked to learn that John McEnroe won fewer majors than Jimmy Connors. Why? Because McEnroe is relevant and engaged, and Connors is not. Same way Charles Barkley—winner of zero NBA titles—probably gives his playing legacy a boost by being irresistibly likable in his 50s. The reverse is true, too. Athletes can see their careers “underrated” when they disgrace themselves in retirement. O.J. Simpson would be an example that springs immediately to mind.

Anyway, I’m with you on Margaret Court. Take away her Australian Opens—some of them won against stronger fields than others—and she has won 13 majors. Credit where it’s due.

Apart from her bigotry, one minor point that is more the curiosity than anything else: how the hell did she lose to Bobby Riggs, the same summer BJK beat him so handily?

Here’s a simple question: why is Dominic Thiem playing a small tournament on CLAY after Wimbledon and before the hardcourt season?
Tomas, London

• The simple answer: because economics. Because said event was held in Austria, Thiem’s home country.  If the Austrian event can’t attract the top Austrian player—and if the top Austrian player can’t cash in playing an Austrian event—then the ATP has failed in maximizing opportunities for both player and tournament. 

You could argue that this isn’t optimal preparation for Thiem before a critical part of the season. (As I write this, he is still in the draw in Montreal, though I suspect he’s exhausted.) But he should have the ability to play a few lower-tier events that reward him with an appearance fee.

Last week you mentioned Sascha Zverev winning a tournament and not having to play against anyone ranked in the top 50 or whatever it was. Other times, players have to beat great players. (Imagine if Federer had won Wimbledon, beating Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back!) Why don’t we give more points those wins, or at least have a way distribute points based on the average ranking of the opponents?
Tyler T., Charleston, S.C.

• I like the thought. But that can be misleading, too. At Wimbledon, we kept hearing that, before the final, the average ranking of Simona Halep’s opponent was something like 80. You’re thinking, “That’s awful given that there are only 128 players in the draw.” Then you remember, “Ah, right. She played Coco Gauff, who was then ranked outside the top 300.” Yet if you think No. 302 was an accurate reflection of Coco Gauff’s standing, I have a payday loan, an Avon franchise and ATP World Team Cup to sell you. 

The tours also used to give bonus rankings points for beating the best players. But that idea was, rightly, scotched. The stars sell tickets. Why would you give the rest of the field EXTRA incentive to beat them?

We’ve seen golfers get the putting yips. We’ve seen it happen to tennis players on their serves. Have you ever seen it on something other than serves? Like someone who couldn’t hit an overhead?
@redbirdcraig

• Hmmm. A player who is otherwise rock solid but struggles on overheads? One name comes to mind, but I’m trouble placing it….

What’s interesting about the yips: they tend to impact athletes who are initiating rather than reacting. In tennis, the only shot you control entirely is the serve. (Everything else depends on the placement/power/position of the opponent’s ball.) Patrick McEnroe was talking about Djokovic’s service yips and the time when he averaged a double-fault each game. Yet once the ball was in play, he was fine.

 Speaking, sadly, of yips….

Dimitrov lost to Kevin King (world #405) yesterday. Where is the bottom?
J.B.

• The wheels haven’t just come off. They are in a ditch off to the side of the breakdown lane. 

So I was watching the Atlanta final, and Alex de Minaur's serving was just unreal. Turns out he dropped seven points on his first serve all week (something like 116/123). Which is, of course, absurd. How much of this reflects the level of competition vs. de Minaur being a legit top-flight server? I came into the final thinking he was sort of one of a pack of pretty good young guys and came out thinking he might end up winning majors someday. I'd be interested in your thoughts.
Tom P., Durham, N.C.

• In fairness, de Minaur has the giant Opelka-esque frame, so it’s not surprising to se him dropping bombs. (That was a joke. He is listed, rather charitably, at 6’0” and 152 lbs.) Did he have to beat a Murderers Row of top-10 players to win the title? No. But that serving display was awesome—and would have been impressive against anyone.

Does the ATP consider Gianluca Moscarella to be the “Nick Whisperer”? In the chair last night and today. Or did he just draw the short straw?
Helen, Washington, D.C.

• Long as you brought it up, this gets me every time:

Re: a question in this week's mailbag:  The definitive term for a match in which every set ends in a tie-break is a "breaker box" (the official term for your circuit breaker panel at home).  It's a box of breakers.
Keegan Greenier, Macon, Ga.

• Well done.

Reader Riff

Russ of SoCal takes us home...

Loved your feature on the Honorable Middle. Because I love the middle.

My favorite players come from the middle, beginning years ago with Sania Mirza and her thunder forehand; Zheng Jie, who overcame her lack of size with hustle and intensity; and Kimiko Date Krumm, showing age is just a number.

Now, I like Wang Qiang (so sad that her longtime coach Peter McNamara passed away, hope you have a tribute to him sometime), who is determined to become more than a pretty face; Hsieh Su Wei, demonstrating two hands can be better than one; Caroline Garcia, loyal to her father as coach through thick and thin; and Belinda Bencic, admirable dedication in her rise after being sidelined so long.

Besides it being a tournament in my hometown of Los Angeles, what was so pleasurable about the WTA event in Carson was the accessibility to players on the outside courts. There was no security fences separating fans from competitors. I remember Chakvetadze sitting down next to me to watch a match; Keothavong doing stretches as I walked by; and Mirza practicing with her mother acting as a ball boy. 

Best of all at Carson, one time I was there with a young tennis friend who I hit with and she convinced me to get our rackets from the car and hit on an empty court. While we were hitting, Serena Williams, who had been working out on another court, passed by and stared at us. I would have given a penny for her thoughts (my friend had stayed at the Bollettieri Academy for awhile, so she was a decent player).

Have to add that Washington showed fans love doubles as packed crowds saw the women's final and even a quarterfinal in men's. All you need is name player on the court (more than Honorable Middles).”

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