Mailbag: Marathon Matches, Margaret Court Protests and More

Jon Wertheim answers reader questions from the Australian Open in Melbourne, where Roger Federer outlasted Tennys Sandgren, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova made headlines and much more.
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Wednesday is Mailbag Day so here goes…. Note that we are only answering reader questions and will return to remarks about results and tournament happenings tomorrow. Onward…


So be honest, Jon. What happened? Did Roger Federer put in a great performance? Or did Tennys Sandgren give it away? I mean seven match points is brutal!
Charles T.

• Yes, a lot of questions about the wackiest match of the tournament. For the second major in a row, it looked like Federer’s body was going to wage an insurrection. Then, his groin loosened, the opponent tightened, the ghosts came out, so did the Federer aura…and the 20-time major prevailed in five sets.

We always undertake this exercise, don’t we? How much of a match is a Player A winning? And how much is Player B losing. We make our judgments but “How in the world are you the winner in his match?” Federer’s response: “Sometimes you get lucky.” We can—and will—talk more about Federer, who now faces Djokovic for the 50th time. But spare a thought for Sandgren. He reaches the Round of Eight for the second time in three years. And, again, leaves in disappointment.

It’s gut wrenching to see what happened to Kobe and his 13-year-old daughter, who was a basketball prodigy herself. I thought Nadal’s response to McEnroe on court when asked about Kobe was very poignant. Rafa said he learned about Kobe's ability to bring his best when the game was on the line from Pau Gasol. Nadal's psychology, dedication and single mindedness in trying to win essentially defines Mamba Mentality. With condolences pouring in from all corners of the globe, I wanted to send a small note as well. The Laker Faithful cry for Kobe and Gianna.
Deepak, New York

• My only add here: Kobe was at the 2019 U.S. Open. Sometimes celebrities come, get a photo op, watch Serena or Federer for a few games, and leave. Kobe was there for days, marveling at play, walking around, watching players other than the stars, really considering the nuances of the sport. I knew that he was friendly with Osaka and Djokovic etc. I was blown away by how deeply he impacted so many players.

What is your view on the protest of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, and on the naming of the court after Margaret Court? Do you feel she should have been honored on her 50th anniversary?
Alice Hume

• I am totally in the tank for my colleague Martina, do know that. And here is John on the issue.

Tennis Australia tried to thread an unthreadable needle. You cannot name a public venue for a figure who is—present tense; this is not a Confederate monuments discussion—a bigot. You just can’t. This isn’t political correctness or cancel culture. This is common decency. The person whose name is on the arena is actively opposed to various groups who might enter. That can’t happen. The organizers created a moral vacuum. Two former players filled it.


Tennys Sandgren did have a good run. Although it is still early in this decade, do you think the American men go another full decade without a Grand Slam winner? And if not, who would be the most likely to win one?
Ken Wells, Gardiner, Maine

• An American can definitely win a Slam this decade. As I write this, Sonia Kenin has only two matches left. There’s Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, and I haven’t written Serena off. (For my next impression: Andy Murray). If we’re talking men, though, I am somewhat skeptical. Winning 21 sets of tennis is a life-changing quest that can be achieved in a mere two weeks; it is also a herculean effort. If I had to pick a name, Reilly Opelka at Wimbledon would be the fallback. Maybe Taylor Fritz can make the good-to-great leap. Maybe in an age of no Big Three, someone like Frances Tiafoe (now out the top 70) can catch lightning in a recyclable bottle. But it’s hard to see right now….

Excellent analysis from yourself and the Tennis Channel. On a minor note, you have twice referred to Australia as being an island. Due to it’s size, Australia is a continental land mass, not an island. In the same way that even though it’s possible to sail around Africa, that doesn’t make it an island. The “other” sports channel has part of their team also as coaches who have active players in the tournament. This not only has bad optics but has extreme conflicts of interest.

• Thank you for the support. Sometimes we feel like we’re out on a land mass.

Jon, what would you rather be as a tennis player? Really undersized like Diego Schwartzman? Or being really tall like John Isner?
Scott C.

• Good question. There’s something almost evolutionary about athletes. They adjust for their shortcomings. Strictly utilitarian: I think I’d rather be a big guy. You can beat any player on a given day. You can play until you are 40, as Ivo Karlovic demonstrates. You can preserve your legs since the points are short.

Aesthetically? No contest. I’d much rather be scrambling and constructing points, marrying offense with defense and so on….

During Caroline Wozniacki's last match in Melbourne, one commentator remarked on the Saharan-like nature of tennis in Denmark—in essence saying that Caroline has been the only tennis representative from that country. Yes, history does have memory lapses, but I would hope that you would put in a good word for Torben Ulrich. You know his record, you know his stats, and he also was a mentor (at least musically) to Jeff Borowiak, a somewhat recent and very interesting professional tennis player from the U.S. Keep history alive, Jon!
Michael W.

• Very good. And from the Ulrich camp: “And not to forget Kurt Nielsen, two-time Wimbledon singles finalist, and his grandson Frederik, who I think surpassed some of T’s Davis Cup totals!”

Hi Jon, This is more for Sharko: has a player ever won a match after saving match points in the third, fourth and fifth sets? Khachanov came close after saving match points in the third and fourth sets against Nick Kyrgios.
Blake Redabaugh, Denver

The response: Never!

Watching the start of Mattek-Sands/Kenin doubles match and one of the Chinese opponents had to take scissors and remove a patch from her shirt. I thought tennis players were allowed to wear such promos. We see soccer players and race car drivers wear patches all over them.

• I didn’t see that, but I strongly suspect, it’s all about the size. Patches must conform to certain height and width restrictions.

You're a forward-looking person I know, but do you ever go back and check the predictions you make each year, do a little score card?
Joe Cook

• They are always correct. Trust me. (Says the man who picked Serena to win this title.) Seriously, I am conflicted about predictions. Some pan out. Some look ridiculous in hindsight. Readers seems to enjoy them. I would contend that they are an essential part of the “sports fan experience.” Yet nothing I write seems to erode credibility like a pick gone bad.

For long-lost siblings, how about John Millman and Georges St.-Pierre?
James Stuchell, Savannah, Ga.

• Well done!

John Albin of New York City, take us out:

• Regarding ball “kids” and towels: For many years (late 80s through mid 2000s) I was part of a crowd of regulars at the public courts in a NYC park. Around 1997–98, a newcomer joined our ranks for a season. He was in his late 20s at the time, and (shades of Kramer), had been a ball man(?) boy(?) at the U.S. Open for a few years. His high point (or low point, depending on how you look at it) was working the infamous Sampras-Corretja barf match in 1996. He was the guy who had to mop it up. He kept the towel. Make of that what you will.