Mailbag: What Has Made Ash Barty So Successful This Season?

Plus an appreciation for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, some thoughts about exhibitions and player health, and much more.
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• Our most recent podcast: talking tennis with Vanderbilt coach Geoff Macdonald, who was great.

• Next up: Mark Knowles.

• Congrats to Rafa Nadal who takes over the No. 1 ranking from Novak Djokovic.

• Special acknowledgment to Sloane Stephens, one of those players who does an awful lot behind the scenes to enrich the tennis culture. And seeks no credit. Fifteen years ago, she attended a Diversity Camp, which she attributes to her becoming a professional player. Once again, she and her foundation are underwriting a similar camp at the USTA training center in Orlando this week. The goal is to support multiple camps around the country next year.

Who wants to work in tennis and work in one of the great American cities?

Onward….

Mailbag

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

I saw what you tweeted about Ash Barty winning $4.4 million dollars. I say good for her. But I still can’t figure out what makes her so good. Can you help me?
Chad B., New York

• Sure. First, I feel like this point ought to be stressed. In 2008, Serena Williams—having won multiple majors—was the WTA’s prize money leader with $3.8 million earned. Last week, Ash Barty won $4.4 million for taking the Shenzhen title. On the year, she won $11.3 million. May we all enjoy such returns on investment.

This is an unseemly topic to some. But I think it’s important to discuss. We are, largely, creatures, of incentives. Most of us don’t play sports—or put our kids in sports—thinking about future earnings. But when talented young athletes are asked to choose a path, economics can loom large. When nine of the top 10 earning female athletes are tennis players, it is to the long-term benefit of the sport. (Conversely, when a mediocre NBA player makes more in a guaranteed contract than Novak Djokovic earns in prize money, is it any wonder that men’s tennis can struggle to recruit the Gym Class Heroes?)

Back to Barty…what does she do? Everything. There is so much functionality, so many gears, so many levels and layers. That means she is a threat from surface to surface. That also means she can respond to virtually any style on the other side of the net.

Her real gift, though, might be her demeanor. She’s the embodiment of low-drama, of Aussie fair dinkum, of “not-too-high-too-low.” This expresses itself in a match. This also expresses itself in how she experiences success.

We talk all the time about the aging field and “30 is the new 20.” This comes with a lot of benefits. Fans and brands have more time to associate and bond with players. A more mature workforce means fewer immature knuckleheads. Longer careers also mean less pressure to compress success. In Barty’s case she—altogether now—took a sabbatical to play cricket. She did so unsure she would ever return to tennis. But she knew that if she DID return, she would have plenty time to find success. Which she has.

It was nice to see Tsonga push back into the top 30 this fall. Made me think what will be the epilogue on his career...underachiever, overachiever, something else? So I took a look at his resume and quickly found that he’s somewhat quietly built a stellar, remarkably consistent career even if he does not bag a major title. To recap: He finished top 15 from 2008­–17 with six top 10s. He's won 18 titles, including two Masters (more than Stan, Del Potro, and Cilic and the same as multiple major winners Hewitt, Rafter and Bruguera). He will almost certainly be one of two men (Berdych) who tell their grandchildren he beat all the Big 5 in a Grand Slam best-of-five. He made the finals at 2008 Australian Open and made five other GS semis on three surfaces, including two at his home Slam. He was nearly a lock for the second week for many years, with a 73% winning record in majors. He beat Novak and Roger six times each. He made the finals of the YEC in 2011. He led his team to and played in 3 Davis Cup finals, winning in 2017. He won the Hopman Cup and nabbed a Silver Medal in doubles at the 2012 Olympics (and won a Masters in doubles). He brought an exciting game of power tennis mixed with fashion, great hair, and charisma for days, took $20M in prize money to the bank and named his kid Sugar. His post-match celebration was pure joy. This guy showed up.

So while we sometimes get lost in the noise and incredible numbers a certain trio are putting up on the board, and relentlessly focus on the majors, I hope we give Tsonga some due in his last few innings out there because he's certainly earned it and would be a lock for the HOF in any other era.
Matt George

• I love this post. And not simply because Tsonga named his son Sugar.

Obsessed as tennis is—not wrongly—with the Big Three and their relentless greatness, we tend to overlook too many other players. Tsonga certainly among them. Here’s a guy who has contributed so much to the sport—grace, style, longevity, some big wins, accountability in victory and defeat. He is the cast member who doesn’t get the top line on the movie poster and the big box office points on the back end; but he, indisputably, elevates the entertainment proposition.

For as long as Tsonga has been a reliably strong cast member, he truly distinguished himself in 2019. The guy turned 34. He has a wife, a child—did we mention the superfantastic name, Sugar?—and, less happily was diagnosed with a sickle cell anemia. Here’s what else he has: a love of the sport and an unwillingness to quit.

He starts the year with a ranking deep into triple digits. He plays challenger level events and qualifying draws. (Because he has the audacity of pledging fealty to a management agency other than IMG, Tsonga—a former top five player trying to come back from serious illness; with a son named Sugar—did not get a wild card into IMG-run Miami.) But he plays his way back into form, wins a bunch of matches, bags two titles and is now back in the top 30. Just look at these results.

That, friends, is a professional. He may not end up in the Hall of Fame. But whenever it is Tsonga pitches his last inning, as Matt puts it nicely, he’ll leave knowing he turned in a hell of a career. And he made the sport better.

Jon, ATP players in particular have lamented that the season is too long, resulting in injuries due to body fatigue. Yet now there seems to be a proliferation of more exhibitions, all over the world, both one-on-one and team, such as recent exos with Federer and Isner in Japan, Nadal and Djokovic in Kazakhstan, the upcoming Exo with Federer and Nadal in South Africa, the Laver Cup and the ATP Cup. The proliferation of these exos will result in either more body fatigue and possible injuries or more players withdrawing from tournaments that matter. My first question is why so many exos? And second, are all these Exos, which may have the effect of depleting player draws at meaningful tournaments, fair to the fans who, by paying for tickets at tournaments and watching on TV are responsible for the revenue that pay tennis players? 
Mordechai

• I agree that the players complaining about the length of the season undercut their case when they spend November and December traipsing the world playing exos.

But that is outstripped by a) my libertarian sensibilities. If there’s a market and players can make bank for a one-night-only event, why begrudge them that.

B) an acknowledgement that exos represent a completely different stress level than conventional tournaments. Results don’t count. The player on the other side of the net is less an opponent than a dance partner. Beyond that, the rhythms are completely different. There’s a defined starting time. There’s no need to worry about rehydration and post-match cool-downs. There’s none of the ambient stress—peering at the draw; eating strategically; worrying about travel—that comes with playing a tournament.

On a related note….

Wanted to get your thoughts on what's transpiring in Shenzhen—we've now had Osaka and Andreescu, the two next gen stars who are tapped to fill the void once Serena retires, pull out of the tournament with injuries. Naomi's replacement, Kiki Bertens, then retires in her match against Bencic. Sofia Kenin (was she next in line?) is now set to play Svitolina...who has already qualified for the semis. My question: is this just a one-off, tough luck situation for the tournament or a precursor of things to come given the length of the calendar and increased physicality of the sport? The WTA made changes within the last few years to lengthen the off-season, but is it working, especially when your two up-and-coming/already-here stars withdraw with injuries? Gives more credibility to the idea of ending the season shortly after the U.S. Open, thoughts?
John

• The season is too long. The season is also too wide. It’s the demands placed on players during matches—strings, rackets, increasingly strong and well-conditioned athletes make for an unprecedented physical challenge. It’s also the demands placed on them in terms of travel and distance. You take the eight most successful players. Some of them—you mention Bertens—have played more than 80 matches. For most it is their third time crossing the Pacific. What could possibly go wrong?

Regarding the first-round byes for top players, isn’t another factor in favor of the byes the likelihood that they played on the previous Saturday and Sunday, unlike the lower players?
Ann Cain

• Right. In the olden days—when players used wooden rackets, traveled by Pullman and played back-to-back matches—seeds were given byes because of the likelihood they would be late-arrivals, having played deep into the weekend in the prior event. Now, of course, it is the rare top player who enters events on consecutive weeks.

Just a quick comment re: the “which result would you change” question. (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?) I liked the question because...

I don't have any strong feelings at the moment on the women's side...but on the men's, if I could change one result it would be the 2009 Wimbledon final. Yes, Roddick had previously won a major. And by many accounts, he was an overachiever, getting everything he could out of his game. But damn...he really left it all out there that day and as much as I love Roger, I would reverse that result in an instant if I could.
T.A., Bentonville, Arkansas

• I concede being a bit surprised by how many people have strong thoughts here. My thinking: by asking to change a result you are depriving or begrudging the winner. Unless there’s an obvious, howling injustice—Juan del Potro against Wayne Odesnik?—I am agnostic to results. The better player that day wins. Congrats to them.

I guess that if I had to give this more thought, I’d like to have seen Serena get that 24th major. Not to the detriment of Osaka/Kerber/Andreescu—or Stosur or Venus or Sharapova, etc. earlier in the derby. But simply because Serena has, flatly and with uncommon transparency, made it a goal to tie/exceed Margaret Court’s all-time mark of major singles titles. And it would be nice to see her achieve her goal. Tennis karma and all….

Love your articles—but they are getting too hard to find. About a month ago the Sports Illustrated has hidden the 'Tennis' section under some nondescript menu bar. Worse yet, if you click on it, that most recent article is a mailbag article from October 2019. If I click on your name/by-line, I find the weekly Mailbag postings for the time since then (and other articles.) I know football is king (and high school prospect is rising fact) but gimme a break...
Chuck, Portland, Ore.

• Thanks. I have not been able to respond personally, but I appreciate those of you who have written in with similar concerns. Candor: Sports Illustrated is under new ownership and we’re working out some of the transitional details. Where tennis fits into the priorities is among them. As long as you’re reading, I’ll be writing. We’ll find a home for this somewhere.

Shots, Miscellany

• The USTA Foundation, the national charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association today announced that it has appointed 2017 US Open Champion and world No. 23 Sloane Stephens as the National Excellence Program Ambassador. Stephens will kick-off at the Excellence Program College Pathway Camp on Nov. 8 at the USTA National Campus in Orlando. In her new role, Stephens will help to promote the five pillars of the Excellence Program including Individual Player Grants, Coaching Education, Activations, College Preparation support and a Team component, while supporting the USTA Foundation’s overall mission, its programs, and player success stories. The USTA Foundation, the national charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association today announced that it has appointed 2017 US Open Champion and world No. 23 Sloane Stephens as the National Excellence Program Ambassador. Stephens will kick-off at the Excellence Program College Pathway Camp on Nov. 8 at the USTA National Campus in Orlando.

• The United States Tennis Association (USTA) and International Tennis Hall of Fame today announced that the Hall of Fame Open, an ATP 250 grass-court tournament that has long kicked off the U.S. summer tennis season, will officially join the US Open Series beginning in 2020, increasing the number of ATP events on the Series to six and reconnecting the US Open with its original home in Newport, R.I.Scheduled for July 12-19, 2020, the Hall of Fame Open will launch the 17th year of the US Open Series. The tournament will now receive the same level of on-site, broadcast, digital and grassroots support from the USTA provided to all US Open Series tournaments.

• WTA World No. 31 Danielle Collins, career-high World No. 10 CoCo Vandeweghe and nine-time Grand Slam Doubles Champion Bethanie Mattek-Sands are among those awarded wild cards into the main draws of the Oracle Challenger Series Houston, to be held November 10-17, 2019 at the George R. Brown Tennis Center at Rice University. Rice University juniors Sumit Sarkar and Linda Huang also received wild cards into the main draws.

• Casper Ruud, the 2019 Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship singles runner-up, has committed to play the 2020 tournament April 4-12 at River Oaks Country Club. The announcement comes as Ruud is taking part in the Next Gen ATP Finals, an event featuring the Tour’s top-ranked 21-and-under players in Milan. Ruud, 20, will participate in that event this week alongside fellow 2020 US Clay commitment Frances Tiafoe.