Mailbag: How Long Will the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic GOAT Race Continue?

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Hey, everyone:

• Mark Knowles was our most recent podcast guest. And he was great.

• Coming this week, a chat with Sloane Stephens, fresh from hosting a diversity camp in Orlando.

This was a regrettable incident, but you must respect the barrel roll.

Calling all Philadelphia readers/theater buffs.

• Farewell, Dominika Cibulkova.

Onward:

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

Hi, Jon. In case there's any doubt how important the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic debate is, I offer this. My grandfather is a huge tennis fan who passed on his love of the sport to his grandchildren, but not his children. He was recently diagnosed with cancer. His prognosis is good. At a recent family event, someone remarked that he will be around for a long time more. He said, "I hope so. I can't die without knowing who the GOAT is." My cousins and I laughed our heads off. Our parents had no idea what he was talking about.
Pat B.

• Great story. Thanks for sharing that. And best of luck to your grandfather. Without getting too morbid, if your grandfather gets a definitive answer, I suspect he will have lived a good, long time. All three players are keenly aware of the scoreboard—20, 19, 16 of course. And it’s easy to see Djokovic, in particular, playing for many, many more years, chasing the prize.

One sidenote: it’s been suspected that one reason baseball favors the home team: by batting last, they know exactly how many runs they need to win. (Yes, there are other reasons for the home field advantage, more notably umpire bias. And yes, this is an ironic point to make coming off a World Series in which the road team won all seven games.) But stick with me here….the thinking is the home team can plan accordingly in their last at-bat. If the game is tied heading into the ninth inning, the visiting team just tries to put runs on the board. If the game is tied in the bottom of the ninth, the home knows they need only one run to win and can simply worry about that.

Why am I noting this? Because it seems to me that Djokovic has a real advantage in Slams. Federer is simply trying to put as many runs as possible on the board. Nadal knows what he has to do to topple Federer—a theme to his entire career—but, he, too will simply and try amass the highest total. In the case of Djokovic, he will likely know the magic number. And he can be really strategic about planning his assault.

At some point we should do an update of the Tennis Frankenstein. We tend to build it around strokes. Isner’s first serve. Federer’s second serve. Rafa’s forehand. Djokovic’s return. (Or Serena’s serve, Halep’s movement, Barty’s net play etc.) We ought to build this using more subtle characteristics and virtues. Five to get us started:

• Nadal/Djokovic’s ability to break back in the game immediately after they were broken.

• Coco Gauff’s ability to play with the absence of scar tissue.

• Medvedev’s momentum.

• Ali Riske’s outward disposition

• The Murray Brothers’ healthy relationship with a tennis-obsessed parent.

Good day to be 0-5 head-to-head against your opponent at the ATP World Tour Finals.

James

• This pertains to Monday’s results. Tsitsipas and Zverev beat Medvedev and Nadal respectively. They were 0-5. They are now 1-5. A few of you have asked about how much weight to accord the year-end clambakes. My response: “Some. Not a ton.” The players are tired. The event means more to some than to others. The round robin format changes the rhythms. But you are talking about the best eight players competing on a fairly neutral surface for a boatload of points. I also think that the players who win make a real statement about their durability.

Jon, what do you think of the idea to combine the ATP Next Gen event with a similar women’s event. I would think you would be all for it. Are you?
Charlene, New York City

• Before or after women appear at Laver Cup? Joking. This idea floated last week. I am maximally in favor of ATP/WTA combos. I am maximally in favor of more opportunities for more players to earn more money. There are a few issues here. Namely, the WTA Tour is, collectively, younger than the ATP Tour. Note how many players 21 and younger were in Shenzhen and There are the usual calendar and travel issues. And of course the vexing equal prize money issue. (At some point the men must give this up, take the high road, and realize that growing the professional tennis pie will ultimately be more lucrative than squabbling about how to divide it.)

This probably a better question for next year's U.S. Open, but after Barty's success at the year end and the most recent Mailbag about her, I may as well put this out there. One of the best things about the U.S. Open is that the best tennis, and the future of tennis, is not always on the show courts. In 2017 I was lucky enough to watch Sloane Stephens and Ash Barty play a third round match in the under construction Louis Armstrong court. We know the rest of the story—Sloane wins the U.S. Open that year and is a finalist the next French Open. And in 2019, Ash Barty takes a page from MJ and has an MVP year. Going back to that 2017 match, your comment about Ash Barty is spot on: her demeanor, even in that lopsided loss was even keel. I like to call it the Ash Barty swagger—on the outside, it's hard to tell how up or down she is feeling. She's a pretty cool looking customer.

P.S. In 2015 I saw Thiem-Anderson in the third round, first row of Court 18.
Duane W.

• Amen. We all have stories like this. Not only do the backcourts feature some of the most competitive matches, but often it’s a place to play catch-a-rising star. Side note: when there’s no Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Serena, court assignments—and the accompanying lobbying/grievances—are going to be very interesting.

Not a question really, just writing in to mention that the NextGen Finals rules changes appeared ridiculous to me, until I got a chance to spend the past week watching the event for the first time. I'm a tennis fan since the mid-80s so the sport doesn't fail to entertain me anyway, but the NextGen format (no ads with short sets) was just pressure-packed fun. I'm a convert and I want to see this more often. Highlights of the week were seeing Hawk-Eye overruled by video replay, Frances Tiafoe's coaching exchanges with Zack Evenden, and Jannik Sinner emerging as a superstar. The format has its hooks in me so badly that the first set of “normal” tennis from the London finals today felt slow in comparison!
Chris

• My boy, Zack. There’s a moral here somewhere. We bristle at change and reflectively resist “innovations” like short form scoring. Then we experience the product and—what do you know?—it ain’t so bad. I like some of the Next Gen twists. Others feel like cheapening gimmicks. But I applaud the ATP for the experimentation. And it makes sense to do these beta tests with the young players.

ATP Newcomer of the Year. I'm guessing it's a runaway. Unanimous, maybe?
Mary B.

• Jan Sinner? Part of the problem with these awards: the points of demarcation. Is Medvedev—whom I’m guessing this pertains to— really a newcomer? He’s closer to age 25 than he is to 20. And he was among the top 16 seeds at the first major of the season. Felix Auger-Aliassime? Maybe. But he sure cooled off in the second half of the year.

Why is it that every time Thiem beats Federer, we consider it an upset? The guy handles Federer on a regular basis, and Federer has not beat him in quite a while. The other way around would be an upset.

Shlomo K.

• Right on. This is not meant pejoratively. If anything it’s a positive. But there is a cohort of casual fans who still believes it is a shocking upset when Federer loses at all. Or at least to players not named Djokovic or Nadal. After the U.S. Open, I can’t tell you how many people referenced Federer’s “upset loss to some no-name from Bulgaria.” It was, of course, Grigor Dimitrov.

In the case of Thiem….I’m at a loss here. He’s a hell of a player, Thiem. But Federer tends to play well against one-handers (before the aforementioned loss to Dimitrov, he was 7-0; he’s 18-2 against Gasquet and even 23-3 against Stan.) Federer has more touch, more gears and at least comparable power. Thiem’s record against Federer? It’s 5-2 including three wins in 2019.

Watching Stan Wawrinka play the Paris Masters a few weeks ago made me look back on the Grand Slam count. I’m sure others have figured this out, but I don’t remember ever hearing (or reading) anyone discuss it. Here it goes…

It is amazing that had Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray NOT won their Slam titles, then Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic would all be tied at 20. If Nadal beat Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, Nadal would be sitting at 20 Slams. If Djokovic had beaten Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open and the 2013 Wimbledon, and also beaten Wawrinka at the 2015 French Open and 2016 U.S. Open, he would be sitting at 20 Slams. (The only other Slam from Wawrinka or Murray was the 2016 Wimbledon which Murray beat Raonic). That being said, it shows just how much Wawrinka and Murray helped change history concerning the Slam count (and thus has kept Federer in the lead).
Tim in Atlanta

• Very interesting. Obviously a hypothetical stacked on a hypothetical. And the majors record is 20/19/16….a swing of five majors, whereas Murray and Stanislas have combined for six. But your larger points is excellent. The Great Majors Derby would look very different but for the two guys tied for fourth among active men.

Jon, what’s the one city you wish had a pro tournament that currently does not?
Charles, Los Angeles

• I’ll take “pandering” for $500, Alex. It’s nuts that Los Angeles—home to the Williams sisters, Sampras, Tracy Austin, Jack Kramer, top college programs, links to the entertainment industry, etc.—currently has no pro event. (We’re not counting Indian Wells, of course.) If we’re going non-North America division, hmmm maybe Manila? I get an awful lot of mail from fans in the Philippines.

Maybe I missed something, but the tennis section of the SI.com page hasn’t been refreshed in over a month. Is there a reason behind it? Thanks and kind regards.
Peter Hanko, Hungary

• I’ll say it again: I really appreciate the concern. Stick with me here. Sports Illustrated in under new management and the coverage and allocation is being reassessed. But—by hook or by crook—I’ll keep doing this column. We’ll figure this out soon.

HAVE A GOOD WEEK, EVERYONE!