Mailbag: Breaking Down the Importance and Impact of Andy Murray's Antwerp Title

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Hey everyone. Let’s start with some unfortunate news:

• Mark Hurd, co-Chief Executive of Oracle and true supporter of tennis, passed away last week at 62. Here’s a podcast we did a few years ago.

• Alexander Volkov, one of the first Russian stars, passed away last week at 52.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov announced Volkov's death on Twitter, saying: “It's impossible to believe! I will always remember your cheerful smile and our matches for the national team in the Davis Cup. Rest in peace, my friend.”

• Jamie Lisanti and I engage in some assorted tennis chatter, lots centered on Coco Gauff, on the most recent podcast.

• The USTA has a new chief to succeed Gordon Smith. Welcome Mike Dowse.

• The ATP will be announcing their new CEO presently. We hear that it’s a former player—interesting given some of the “extra-tennis” names in the mix.

Onward…

Mailbag

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

Jon, hope you’re giving a shout-out to Andy Murray in the Mailbag this week! What an inspiring story. How can anyone not be so happy for him?
Charles, LondonTown

• Indeed. Last week we toasted a 15-year-old who won her first title. This week we toast a 32-year-old who won his 46th title, one of the most meaningful of his career. Nine months after pondering retirement—and after hip resurfacing—Murray beat Stan Wawrinka and won the Antwerp event. And suddenly, his career is back on. A few quick points trying to incorporate several themes:

1) Remember when Murray awkwardly “retired” in Melbourne in January? He was clearly in despair over the state of his body and the apparent futility of his rehab and recovery from hip surgery. But he never eliminated the possibility of a return. The “Andy is leaving” news took on a momentum of its own and soon he was helpless to stop it. Players (and commentators) lined up to assess his career. He lost in five sets to Roberto Bautista Agut—not exactly a loss that suggests it’s time to go—and stayed for a sentimental video tribute. Murray was, of course gracious while, in effect, attending his funeral. But he was clearly still processing and asking himself, “Is it really time?” For him to go from video tributes to winning titles in the span of months is quite something.

2) Murray—quite reasonably and quite rightly—struggled over if and when to exit. And his “comeback” will complicate the decision-making of future athletes. How many injured players will now consider Murray and say, “My body is starting to mount an insurrection here, but remember how Andy Murray was on the threshold of quitting and how that turned out?”

3) Murray, again, underscores the importance of reputation. The next person not to resist smiling at this story will be the first. Who among us isn’t happy for the guy? Some of this is the simple comeback story and the triumph over injury. But it’s more that he’s a good and honorable guy who treats people right, deploys wit, and has real principles. If you are an athlete described as “polarizing” do you not look at Murray with both envy and self-reflection? It’s much less about winning majors than it is treating people (and the sport) right.

4) For the cold-water portion of today’s show….let’s exhale before assessing Murray’s chances in Australia and winning his fourth major. Winning a best-of-three indoor event is still a ways from taking on Nadal or Djokovic in Melbourne. Without diminishing his seize in Antwerp, let’s get a few more data points.

5) Long as we’re talking good people and three-time major winners….we had some fun on Twitter (oxymoron?) joking that Stan Wawrinka must be disappointed reaching a final and then losing to some British guy ranked No. 243. But it was significant—and sorta perfect—that Wawrinka was Murray’s opponent in the final. A guy with a similar career arc who also knows from injury recovery. Wawrinka was gracious in defeat; must be pleased overall with own 2019; and is another player who is as well-liked and well-regarded for his personality as he is his actual tennis.

Hi Jon, I was wondering if you could provide your thoughts on the recent success of Alison Riske? After her run to the Wuhan final she had an interesting quote, “I’m super excited with the way I’m competing. I feel like I’m seeing things the way I wish I had seen them when I was 18 years old fresh on the tour.” It doesn’t appear that her technical game has improved that drastically over the past few years and based on her quote, she attributes her rise up the rankings to an improved belief in her game/viewing the sport through a different lens.

I think this point highlights how important a players “mental” headspace is as opposed to the technicalities of how to tweak your forehands and backhands. Also interesting that her success coincides with her recent marriage? Here’s to hoping she can keep it up and snag one of the spots on the U.S. Olympic team.

• For the record, she was still unmarried when she reached the second week of Wimbledon, beating the top seed and taking a set off of Serena Williams. But Ali Riske is having a career year—now up to No. 19—and, much as we strive not to root in the press box, it’s nice when good things happen to good people.

There’s a lot to like about Riske’s game. She’s a good athlete. She volleys well, move well and transitions well. Her strokes (and serve) can sometimes look uncomfortable, but she owns them. The joke is so stale it has rigor mortis. Riske/Reward…Riske threshold….Riske-Armitraj or risk arbitrage? But there really is something to her name. She plays with aggression and takes her chances. She’s not afraid to come netward. She’s not afraid for much—sometimes too much—on her serve.

Also, she’s known for her sunny disposition, inevitably shorthanded as “normal.” I would suggest this helps her tennis and her professional outlook. She played a full slate of events in China this fall and headed home. Then she learned she qualified for the WTA’s Elite Trophy event Zhuhai event. No problem. She jumped on a plane and headed back over. It sounds silly but this kind of attitude goes a long way in this sport.

New era, new question: what is the carbon footprint of tennis relative to other sports? Is it any more sustainable than others?
Jon B., Seattle, Wash.

• Story idea: someone should rank sports based on sustainability. In some ways, I suspect tennis fares well. No fields or pitches requiring watering and groundskeeping and greens-keeping (save for Wimbledon). No manufacturing of ice. Few events requiring heat and air-conditioning. Nothing involving the power boats or the palindromic racecar.

The big issue—and I’m not sure how it’s avoidable—is the travel. Here’s a story about the C02 produced by one long-haul flight.

Just do a cursory glance at the average player’s travel schedule and, yeah…..

Coach of the Year? C’mon, it’s clear who the coach of the year is—Roger Federer!! Federer’s guidance through the Hopman Cup launched Belinda Bencic into the best year of her career. And now he may have helped Alexander Zverev turn the corner on his dismal year. Special shout out to Rafa Nadal as well—his spirited coaching during Laver Cup was a revelation.
Helen of DC

• Federer-philes will recall that after Federer parted ways with Peter Lundgren in late 2003, he went autonomous for a spell. No coach. No agent*. His parents answered fan mail. His girlfriend (and later wife)—don’t forget, once a top 100 player—was available for strategy sessions, if needed. If Federer were still coaching himself today (a top three player!) AND helping other players on the both tours, you would have a real case. Three points:

1) I remember being courtside in Australia a few years back when Bencic beat Venus Williams in the first round. Bencic walked off the court, giddily, looking for Federer. He had made his way out of the lounge and greeted her with a congratulatory hug.

2) Totally with you on Nadal. “His spirited coaching during Laver Cup was a revelation.” Well said.

3) We reiterate: in tennis, the coaching duties are so wide-ranging, player to player, that it’s hard to honor a coach of the year. But we’ll stick with last week’s suggestions: Sylvain Bruneau (Andreescu) and Gilles Cervara (Medvedev).

4) *Long as we are handing out story ideas, someone should do a piece on the New Jersey-based agent who signed Federer as a teenager and was unable to retain him.

As we’ve just celebrated our Canadian Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Bianca Andreescu and, not just for her U.S. Open win. Unlike all the other promising Canadians, I truly believe she has the mental “it” factor that Bouchard, Milos, Shapo and even FAA may not. Her demeanor on court reminds me a lot of Monica Seles in that she plays with a controlled rage that I believe gets inside opponents’ heads. This is a rare quality for any athlete and I think it’s like eye color—you’re born with it. FAA may have it but, so far, I don’t see it as he still loses matches he should be winning, even at this relatively young age.

Last thing I’m thankful for—Diego Schwartzman. For any fan who was sad to see the retirement of David Ferrer, I think this is the guy who takes up the mantle for players milking the absolute most out of their own talent to have a lengthy career. Gotta love the everyman!
Neil Grammer, Toronto

• Note that this was submitted prior to the Stockholm Open. On Sunday Denis Shapovalov won his first title. Friend, be thankful for the state of Canadian tennis in general! Especially on a per capita basis, you guys are killing it. You are the envy of the tennis world. Including your congenial neighbors to the south.

I agree with your assessment of Andreescu. We were just saying on the podcast that Coco Gauff seems to have the ineffable and immeasurable “IT factor.” And the same goes from Andreescu. The ability to reset. The sweet spot between supreme self-belief and arrogance. A sense of exceptionalism but also a sense of reality.

Bouchard is in her own category—a lot of extra-tennis pressures and opportunities that came at the expense of her game. And Milos is (note: optimistic present tense) a tennis maxmimizer. It’s too early to make assessments about the competitive resolve of FAA.

With you on Schwartzman, too. You are correct: if you are looking for the next iteration of Ferrer, here’s your man. And his peers know it, too. Note the respect he generates among the players both above and below him in the rankings.

One more thought on the Laver Cup. Instead of the retrograde, Europe vs. the world, which no one is excited about or cares about. How about the old guys vs. young guns. I'd be excited to watch this and care about it and I think the rest of the world also. Basically, Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Murray-Wawrinka vs. the World.

The most interesting meta story in tennis is how long the dominance of this generation will continue. This would place that same dynamic in a team-context. I think the players would care more and fan interest would be significantly higher.
Jaimini Desai

• Very good. Presumably the cut-off would be age 30. The site could rotate between, like, Boca and Williamsburg, one of those Sicilian cities where they have houses for $1 and Edinburgh. I still like Eurozone versus non-Eurozone.

Hey Jon, I think the perfect comp for Medvedev's game is Juan Martin Del Potro. Both are big, rangy guys who move real well despite their size. They can grind out long, baseline points and both have a vicious, flat forehand from which they can hit a winner from basically any place on the court. Both have good serves but not as big as expected given their height.
Name misplaced

• Not bad. Not sure Medvedev has DelPo’s weaponry on the forehand side. Not sure DelPo has Medvedev’s steady backhand or the ability to hang in rallies. Temperamentally, they’re different. DelPo trolls the crowd You’re right, though. Both are big guys who move awfully well. Both can play “smaller” than their height.

Coco Gauff is a top 100 doubles player….Gotta think youngest to hit that mark in a while. Maybe Hingis?
Matt George

• Thanks to Kevin Fischer, one of tennis’ behind-the-scenes MVPs:

“Coco Gauff (15 yrs, 214 days) is the youngest player to make her Top 100 doubles debut since April 26, 1996 when Anna Kournikova cracked the WTA Doubles Top 100 at 14 yrs, 326 days old.”

Also re: last week’s question lucky losers and qualifiers wining the event, Tom Moran of the ITF was kind enough to add: On the women’s side, Gauff is the first lucky loser to win a Tour-level title since Olga Danilovic at the 2018 Moscow River Cup. Two qualifiers have won Tour-level titles this year: Jil Teichmann in Prague and Magda Linette at the Bronx Open.”

Shots, Miscellany

Good soldiering: Tennis Channel will have live matches and comprehensive coverage each day of the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, the exclusive year-end tournament reserved for the top eight singles players and doubles teams in women's tennis. For the first time since 2017 the event makes Tennis Channel its exclusive media home, with Naomi Osaka and her fellow stars competing for the 2019 crown October 27 to November 3. The WTA Finals Shenzhen anchors Tennis Channel's annual "Chase for the Championships" swing.

Here’s the official USTA announcement: The USTA today announced that Michael Dowse, President of Wilson Sporting Goods Co., has been named Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the United States Tennis Association. The announcement was made by Patrick Galbraith, USTA Chairman of the Board and President, who led the search for current CEO Gordon Smith’s replacement.

As CEO and Executive Director, Dowse will be charged with leading the USTA’s overall vision and its strategy for the growth of tennis participation with juniors and adults at all levels, while also ensuring diversity throughout the sport. He will provide direction and support and collaborate with USTA sections, districts, Community Tennis Associations, and national committees for all of the USTA’s grassroots efforts. Additionally, he will set the strategic direction and lead the USTA’s involvement in professional tennis in the U.S. and throughout the world, developing strategies to further promote the health and viability of professional tennis in the United States.