Mailbag: Should the Rules on Injury Withdrawals and Walkovers Change?

Plus thoughts on predicting the next big tennis stars, Daniil Medvedev comparisons and much more.
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Housekeeping before a quick Mailbag:

• This week’s podcast guest is Vanderbilt women’s tennis coach Geoff Macdonald. We talk about the state of college tennis, overseas recruiting and the joys of mentorship. Check back on Thursday to listen.

• Good soldiering: “Tennis Channel will televise the ATP Next Gen Finals. The network will have live coverage of men's tennis' best players under the age of 21 in Milan each day from Nov. 5-9.” Check local listings, as we say.

• Good soldiering: 60 Minutes follows the NFL, Sunday on CBS.

• Here’s a really fine piece by Tumaini Carayol on the promise and peril of the WTA in China.

Michael Mewshaw’s classic, Ladies of the Court, has just been brought out as an ebook on Amazon.

Onward….

Mailbag

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

Hey Jon, here is some more “Varsity Blues/tennis” intersection. I guess my question is this: how surprised are you that tennis seems to be coming up a lot in this scandal?
B.L., Oceanside, Calif.

• Some of you are of aware my slight obsession with the Varsity Blues scandal. Note that Geoff Macdonald and I talk about it as well on the podcast.

Tennis, B.L. is right, has come up in multiple instances. But I think it’s more than the fact pattern than anything endemic to the sport, or even the role of class and money. To pull off this scam—admitting ill-qualified students, by effectively bribing coaches— you need a sport that is sufficiently under-the-radar so the athletic compliance folks and the admissions folks would not have detected the scam. No football recruits are getting back-doored via Varsity Blues.

One angle that I don’t think gets sufficient coverage: how demoralizing and embarrassing and ultimately damaging must this be to the kids? You never play a USTA event but you go to Georgetown on the guise being a tennis player? Imagine sending an 18-year-old off to college and effectively telling her, “You couldn’t get in on your merits; but don’t worry, we concocted a way to get it. Sure it’s fraudulent and immoral and costs us six of seven figures. But we get to put the USC decal on our car!”

Pundits should be very careful about predicting the next great tennis star for a variety of reasons. First, just because a player at a young age plays great does not automatically mean he or she will improve over time. Some players just peak early or just cannot improve. Others do not have the mental strength to withstand the pressure when expectations heighten. Still others do not have or want to make the intense commitment necessary to keep improving. Others are plagued by injury throughout their career. Punditry is a tricky business, no?
Fernando

• I have mixed feelings here. Absolutely—and this isn’t restricted to tennis—one can look foolish playing the futures market in sports. There are so many variables, so many unknowns. All the more so, in an individual sport. Injuries, burnout, mental scar tissue, pre-mature peaking….they conspire to make fools of us all.

Once in a cobalt moon, you get players like LeBron James or Rafa who are so obviously destined for greatness. With so many other athletes, well, who knows?

One of the first events I ever covered, an agent pulled me aside and directed me the future of tennis, “the next Steffi.” Her name was Henrieta Nagyová. A fine player, but you will not see her name in Newport at the Hall of Fame. Maybe 15 years ago, there was a buzz at the U.S. Open that the future of American tennis was a lefty from Chicago named Donald Young. (On the other hand, David Ferrer was once told that if he worked hard, he could be a top 100 player.)

Here’s my ambivalence: the essential beauty of sports is the unscripted nature. Nothing is pre-ordained. With that comes a desire—a compulsion, even—to try and predict outcome. Outcome of games. Outcome of process. Outcome of success. Outcome of careers. Saying, “I’m out of the prediction business”—as we sometimes do—is in some ways a dereliction of duty.

After seeing Stan the Man withdraw after beating Tiafoe, allowing Federer a walkover to the semifinals, I thought: Why not let Tiafoe, the “lucky loser,” have the option to choose to take Wawrinka’s spot and let Tiafoe play Federer in the quarters? Maybe give him only 1/2 the ATP points or something like that. Better for the fans to see a match. Same thing happened at Indian Wells when Rafa withdrew after beating Khachanov and Federer got the walkover into the finals. I was there and fans were so disappointed when it was announced that Rafa couldn’t play. What do you think?
T.J. Hyman

• Totally agree. (He says, as he watches Kiki Bertens fill in the alternate role in Shenzhen.) Name me another sport in which so many scheduled clashes never materialize, disappointing fans and television. In team sports, Player X might be injured, but you don’t risk a cancellation of the game. The one conceivable argument is over the points and the money. Why should a player who loses still be eligible for points and cash? The response a) we do this with lucky losers; why not with main draw players who, if anything, are more deserving of this “do-over”? b) If it’s really a problem, simply structure the deal creatively. Make the defeated player win his match before he’s eligible.

Re: the case T.J. cites, Tiafoe would have gotten his money and points only if he had beaten Federer. But he would have been incentivized to try. The tournament wouldn’t have had to pay a dime more incremental outlay.

One more point here: a lot of times the winning player injured is faulted. I would really resist this. Wawrinka cannot be blamed. “Why did he win if had no chance of playing in the next round?” fans sometimes ask. Well, seldom does a player know he will be unfit to continue. There’s always a chance a body heals. There’s always a chance of a rain delay—vanishingly small, admittedly, in an indoor event like Basel—giving him an extra day of rest and recovery. Bodies are delicate instruments.

Hi Jon. I heard this question being asked recently and was wondering what your answer would be. If you could change any one result of a final on the men's side, and also on the women's side, which ones would you choose and why? As a Brit, I'd have to say reversing one of the Murray-Djokovic results in Australia. It's awful to lose five finals there without having won any and if one of them could have changed with Mauresmo in charge, it would also have given a boost to female coaches of elite male players. And for different reasons, Monica Seles never winning Wimbledon is such a shame, so I'd choose her loss to Graff in 1992. How about you?
Alex

• I’m reluctant to go too far down this road. The results are the results. We ought not to begrudge the winners.

Two points I will make: 1) look at the 1998 Australian Open. Petr Korda beats Marcelo Rios, a match pitting two players vying for their first major. A few months later, Korda is popped for doping. While no angel in his own right, if Rios wins that match he doesn’t bear the burden of being the only make to get to No. 1 and not win a major.

2) larger point we often make but will trot out again: man, a lot of history rests on a few points. Djokovic doesn’t shank a few overheads and he perhaps wins the 2013 French Open. Nadal closes a break and he wins the 2017 Australian Open. Federer closes a match point and he wins Wimbledon 2019. A few inches—literally—change the flight path of history.

Awaiting Federer in the final will be Alex de Minaur, who edged Reilly Opelka in the first semifinal of the day, 7-6(2), 6-7(4), 7-6 3). Opelka’s serve was on—he ripped 26 aces in the match‚—but de Minaur played near-flawless tennis, finishing the match with 38 winners to just four unforced errors.”

De Minaur had 34 more winners than UEs?! Is that a record?
Mark Flannery, Fullerton, Calif.

In these instances we go immediately to the stat-buster that is Isner-Mahut. Mahut had 246 winners and Isner 244. Errors? Mahut had 39, Isner 52.

But your point is excellent and thanks for the catch. de Minaur’s 38 winners to four unforced is nuts, especially over 39 games. And bear in mind, too, that the stats count “aces” as “winners”—a gripe for another day. de Minaur is not a big server. So the cleanliness of de Minaur’s performance cannot be overstated.

Why do all ATP tournaments give first round byes to seeded players? Don’t you think it is unfair towards other unseeded players who play an extra match to reach finals? I noticed that Basel Tournament doesn’t have this; all players must play all rounds. I feel ATP should take away this seeded player first round byes, making it consistent. What are your thoughts?
Gorti Brahmanandam, Morgan Hill, Calif.

• This is the push-pull between and among interests. The tournaments want the stars for as many sessions as possible. But they also want to induce the stars to come. If, say, Federer can come to a smaller event with a guarantee of a Wednesday start, that’s an inducement. The ATP wants to provide as many playing opportunities and draw slots as possible; but they also want to make life easy on the stars and create conditions that prolong careers.

Tennis is a meritocracy. It is also a star-driven sport, and the players putting butts in the stands are rewarded in various ways. They play on show courts. As seeds, they are guaranteed to play lower-ranked opponents for the first few rounds. They play on courts with replay. Giving them byes in early rounds, sometimes, is another nod. It’s, at once, a reward for a high rankings, a carrot to some play smaller events, and a way to put a thumb on the scale to increase the chances of their sticking around.

One of your readers compares Medvedev to del Potro in the recent column but to me the similarity is between Medvedev and Murray. Both of them are tall and rangy with power reserved for the right occasion (unlike Delpo's massive forehand). They both employ a bewildering variety of different speeds spins and angles together with extraordinary defense, to confound opponents who have to figure out what on earth is going on.
Elsie Misbourne, Washington D.C.

• I hadn’t thought of that. But on further reflection: not bad. I would say that Medvedev has more pop. Murray has more gears and a more developed tennis cortex. (and more bionic hips.) But that’s pretty good. Like Medvedev, Murray is deceptively tall. It’s funny: in most sports athletes “play big” and try to pass themselves off as taller than they are. In tennis, it’s the opposite. Players are bigger than they look in the rearview mirror.

Rendon celebrates the big moments like Federer…
James, Portland

• This was a World Series joke for our international readers. (The “world” in World Series is a relative term.) One might add that Dave Martinez throws a tantrum like Kyrgios.