Which young star will replace Serena Williams as face of WTA? - Sports Illustrated

Hey everyone.


• Vince Van Patten—the former top 30 player who wrote and starred in the new film “7 Day to Vegas”—is our most recent podcast guest. This is a fun conversation.

• We’ll have another guest soon. And by name-checking my friend the great Renee Richards, maybe this will entice her to come on and talk shop.

• A quick update. Many of you wrote in asking about some of the changes at Sports Illustrated and while I wasn’t always able to respond to each personally, your concern is deeply appreciated. For the record, I plan to keep doing what I’m doing. But it’s a reminder that a robust, independent media is a fragile organism, and premium outlets deserve your support. 



Watching Osaka and Andreescu duke it out at the China Open, I get the feeling that the changing of guard in the WTA has finally happened. These two girls do not fear the pressure of the top spot (very important!), are fiercely competitive faintly suggesting a sense of entitlement, and both have major star power. It’s now easier to imagine a post-Serena WTA now, isn’t it? —Nestor C.

Absolutely. There is always a fundamental paradox to star athletes. We enjoy their presence and marvel at their feats. But precisely because of this excellence, the sport seems depleted when they leave. It’s not like a successful CEO who builds value and then leaves a company in better shape than when she found it. When the athlete departs—taking ratings, interest, sponsorship, the capacity for compelling performance with them—it often takes time for the sport to rebuild. It’s the NBA after Michael Jordan or boxing after Mike Tyson.

Women’s tennis, though, might avoid this. Serena is still a (the?) towering figure and her quest for 24 makes for theater. But meanwhile, there’s enough room on stage for other players to ascend. Last weekend’s match between Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu —the previous two U.S. Open champs; two stars under age 22; two 2019 Major winners; two top-five players—generated much anticipation and hype. And the match itself exceeded both. The entire tennis world collectively nodded and said, “Yes, more of that, please.”

Apart from answering the question “Who will fill the Serena vacuum,” it also gave us a glimpse of “What will fill the Serena vacuum?” The answer: Instead of one peerless player, running roughshod over the field for the better part of two decades, maybe we get a restoration of rivalry. Through no fault of Serena, there was a foil. She’s won 23 Majors of Course. The players with the next highest total in her era was her older sister (Venus, 7), and a Belgian, who would potentially have been a strong rival (Justine Henin, 7) but retired in her mid 20s. The next player after (Sharapova, 5) has lost to Serena 19 straight times.

If the next phase in women’s tennis is marked not by a double-digit Major winner, but players like Andreescu and Osaka locked in a rivalry—with contrasts and drama and wavering results—that can be just as compelling.

I just read this week's mailbag and I'm glad to see that most everyone is against the Laver Cup being a combined event. I see that you again reiterated your point for pushing that agenda is for "competitive balance". The problem with your stance is that the first three versions of the Laver Cup have been anything but unbalanced. Sure, ON PAPER, Team Europe probably should have won all three very easily. But that didn't happen. The daily scoring system and doubles being included certainly helps to balance things out but even most of the singles matches were tight (match TBs added to the drama). The bottom line is all three Laver Cups have been highly competitive and this last time, Team World could easily have won. So your argument has no proof. —Michelle 

I would contend that one can —and often does—make an argument with no proof. But let’s put that aside. The person who designed the Laver Cup format with “accelerating points” feature (gimmick?) deserves much credit. It’s virtually impossible for the competition NOT to come down to the final day when the points increase the way they do.

I’m talking less about the actual competition than the entire concept. It’s a little hard to get wholly jazzed about the team designations when one team has, potentially, more than 50 Majors on the roster, and the others has, potentially, a max of one. (This, sadly, presupposes Juan Martin del Potro is healthy —and that Gaston Gaudio is not waging a comeback.)

This year the Europe team had four players in the Top five. The “World” team had no players in the top 15. And one player ranked outside the top 200. Europe versus the rest of the world in men’s tennis? Again, this is like Thailand-versus-the-world in a lengthy surname contest.

One of you noted that the model is Ryder Cup. Fair enough, Except that in golf, the distribution between European and Americans is much more even. And there’s a rivalry baked into the culture. Most of the PGA Tour—and three of the four Majors—are held in the U.S. So there’s a certain collective consciousness among the European players who—insert Sting lyrics here—can feel inconvenienced by these parameters of the workforce. You know, they have to suffer the indignity of leaving work and taking a NetJet across an ocean; whereas as their American counterparts need only NetJet to Orlando.

Hi Jon,

It looks like poor Sergi Bruguera will get ditched again by the International Hall of Fame. Bruguera won 2 French Open titles and was No. 3 in the world. He also won 14 ATP titles and got a silver medal at the Olympics on hard court. What people forget is the fact that Bruguera was competing in a really tough era when he achieved some of those results. Take a look at the big names competing at the 1993 French Open: Sampras, Courier, Edberg, Becker, Ivanisevic, Korda, Lendl, Chang, Stich, Muster, Krajicek. That’s 11 guys who won or would win slams. And yet he’s overlooked despite having won two slams, not one. I think that’s unfair. —Many thanks, Marwan Hanania 

Let’s turn our attention to the main stage! She’s back with us tonight after a week off. Stay in your seats as she makes her way up, but give it up for… precedent!

Same analysis as ever. In a vacuum, is Sergi Bruguera worthy of a Hall of Fame spot. One of the industry titans who deserves recognition alongside the immortals? I would say no. (Full disclosure—and I think these votes should be public—I did not vote for him.) He won the same Slam twice, an awesome achievement. But he never got to the finals of another, never got to No. 1 and had a losing record at one of the Majors.

On the other hand, if I’m Sergi Bruguera I’d say, wait a second: others got in with one Major; I won two. Just last year a guy got in without getting to No.1. As Marwan Hanania notes, I achieved a lot in a very strong era. “Wait what? Why am I not entitled to admission?”

Jon, After reading the generous ruling handed out by the ATP regarding Kyrgios’s behavior, I have to agree with Nick. The ATP is corrupt. A “suspended 16-week ban”. Huh? Suspension deferred pending “additional support from a specialist in behavioral management”. Again? This smacks of gravy train. How can the ATP show so little integrity? —Thanks, Kelly G.

A few weeks ago, we had some questions about the Kyrgios “ban” such as it is. Outrage seems to have dissipated. The ATP tried to split the baby, disciplining Kyrgios (pointedly after Laver Cup) but not exactly coming with the hammer of Thor.

I’m a little Kyrgios-ed out here, but—in the spirit of full candor—I wrestle with the mental health dimension when taking the measure of this story.

Mental health is, of course deeply personal. In some benighted corners—not, happily, tennis—it can still carry a stigma. No one should be making diagnoses from the sidelines and we should be treading carefully and sensitively. Let’s get that disclaimer out of the way.

But let’s also have an honest conversation. Kyrgios travels, at least at times, with a psychologist, a move that suggests real professionalism, by the way. His last quasi-suspension from the ATP came with a mandatory “psychological counseling” clause, so you could argue this has already been entered into evidence. Kyrgios himself has talked about unhappiness and depression. His outbursts seem to be just that; sudden acts, triggered unexpectedly and with little provocation. And inconsistent with an otherwise pleasant fellow, who, from Andy Murray on down, has plenty of credible defenders.

I envision it’s the year 2040 and we’re watching the 30-for-30 documentary on Nick Kyrgios. The money quote: “It was obvious he was suffering and needed help. But back then you to have remember, everyone tap-danced around the issue and didn’t dare have the pubic conversation that everyone was having privately. So Nick was cast as tennis’s ‘bad boy’, this love-him-or-hate-him punk rocker. Which wasn’t who he was. And which only made matters worse.”

My second favorite podcast (behind yours) is Planet Money from NPR. They recently did a story (Episode 941: Three Bets) on sports betting, and talked about something I was previously unaware of: Courtsiders. These are people who surreptitiously send real-time scores of tennis matches to gamblers so they can get a time advantage over other bettors. I would think that this practice would be going away given the deals tennis has with gambling sites that allow real-time scores to come directly from the chair umpire's laptops, but I'm not sure. Is this something you're aware of? —Miles Benson

Thanks. And we jump at any chance to plug Planet Money. Courtsiders are tennis’s Flash Boys, who take advantage of a slight delay in timing to their financial gain. You tend to see these cretins at smaller events where security is something other than robust. But a few years ago, one was booted out of the Australian Open.

You could argue that turning off the spigot of live-scoring—especially at the rinky-dink events—seems obvious. But you just as easily argue that the presence of live scoring (i.e gambling) will ultimately eradicate these guys. If the wagering is not on the level, the gambling, er, sorry “data” companies are in trouble. So it is in their interests to improve technology.

My solution, find these guys and give them a stern shaming. “Take a good look at yourself. You have mustard on your shirt. You’re smoking too much. Your clothes went out of style with the Rubik’s Cube. I’m not even talking about that. You’re sitting in the bleachers of a tournament in outer Gdansk on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a beautiful day and a beautiful sport. But you appreciate neither. Because you’re surreptitiously sending code so you and your co-conspirators can make a few extra zlotys coding up a forehand winner and laying down an illegal bet. Really? This is what you wanted to be when you grew up? This would make your parents proud? We’re all for taking advantage of market inefficiencies. But really. Polish that resume and go do this with currency markets.” 

[What the heck is going on with] Alexandr Dolgopolov? I know he was taking care of some injuries when last seen but any word since? We have a soft spot for players with his kind of racquet magic who can make the ball dance to any tune a la Fabrice Santoro. Any info appreciated, thanks, and keep up the good work! —Karl

The invaluable Greg Sharko notes that “Dolgo’s last tournament was Rome in May 2018 and he underwent surgery in August that year.”

The ATP will be providing foreign aid to this Ukranian—dad joke!—in the form of a protected ranking. No quid pro quo.

Regarding last week’s question about tennis players, travel, and susceptibility to illness… here’s Anthony:

Hello Jon,

I am a viral immunologist and accept your invitation to weigh in. Who knew my science nerdiness would one day have input into my other passion, tennis! You and your writer from last week’s mailbag discuss infections of mononucleosis in tennis players (don’t forget about James Blake’s bout with Shingles). Mono is “usually” caused by either one of two different viruses: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) or Cytomegalovirus (CMV). Both belong to the Herpes virus family (as well as the virus that causes Shingles, VZV). All human Herpes viruses can infect and remain latent in a person’s neurons, and it is known that stress can cause reactivation of these viruses (Cell Host & Microbe: Cliffe et al. 2015). 

Stress causes corticosteroids to be released which (long story short) interact with neurons and cause activation of the virus. I’m sure plenty of athletes experience stress (just like non-athletes), but it may be interesting to learn about the difference in levels and types of stress between team sport vs individual sport athletes. Or just differences between sports in general. As for other (non-herpes) infections, I would guess “sample size”. If Joe Schmoe has a chance to catch a cold while commuting in daily life and interacting with one particular population of people that have a specific microbial population (number of different infections), I would hypothesize that tennis players that travel around the world, and interact (shake hands, share elevators, etc) with multitudes of populations with a vast microbial populations have a greater chance in getting sick, but I could be wrong. And seriously, jet lag sucks. —Best, Anthony

Further reading specific to EBV if desired: Coskun, O. et al. “Stress-related Epstein-Barr virus reactivation”

On the Laver-Cup-adding-women thread, here’s Ty Henry.