Mailbag: Final Takeaways from the 2020 Australian Open

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An Aussie wrap-up Mailbag, speed round style….

• ICYMI, here’s the 50 Parting Thoughts column from the 2020 Australian Open.

Last week’s podcast was with Goran Ivanisevic.

• Next up, Tennys Sandgren was good enough to spend a session revisiting his bittersweet Australian Open.

• For the Indiana crowd (and an incremental page view pop for Indianapolis Monthly) It’s Rajeev Ram, your 2020 Aussie Open doubles champ.

Onward….

djokovic-australian-open-mailbag-recap

Mailbag

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

What age are we living in when we have to explain, almost apologize for Djokovic's abilities or results? There was a time when a lot of the greats made their bones hitting back every ball and winning with power, precision, and supreme athleticism. Must we be maximally entertained at all moments today by "shot-making"? If you look at your own "shot of the tournament," where is that guy, talented as he is? How many people at the league level can make a "shot of the tournament" once or twice a season? Djokovic makes a "shot-of-the-point" on almost every ball. I suspect that's why it's not notable. He (and so many others) do it with such regularity that it no longer surprises us. (In contrast, I would say, to my first pro tournament where I watched Sampras and Agassi play back to back in Davis Cup and every shot seemed like a bolt from Olympus.)
Martin Burkey, Huntsville Ala.

• Totally with you here. (Even as I cop to that “shot of the tournament” charge. Who among doesn’t like the around-the-post winner?) We spend way too much time talking about what Djokovic isn’t. Let’s talk about what he IS. Relentless. Reliable. Resourceful. He’s up to 17 majors now, within three of Federer. (Last time it was this close? 3-0 and Djokovic was 15 years old.) We talk about his haul of Aussie Open titles—eight and counting; with zero losses in the final—but let’s remember, he’s won more majors outside of Melbourne than Agassi, Lendl, McEnroe et al won total. And if he’s not a shotmaker in the YouTube sense—formally known as highlight reel—there’s a lot of “talent” in the ability hit ball after ball within a few inches of the intended target, especially as the match tightens.

Sometimes athletes dazzle with their play but then, upon retirement, are quickly forgotten, comets that quickly fizzle. Others fall into the opposite category and are accorded their full appreciation only after they stop competing. It’s late, but not too late, for tennis avoid this fate with Djokovic.

I'm sorry, but if Serena had laid a fingernail on the umpire in that U.S. Open final she'd have been defaulted from the tournament. It is actually a serious breach of the rules to touch the umpire. Why no point penalty or even a warning when Djokovic does it?
Mark

• A lot of you wrote about this. Here’s the clip.

To be clear: Djokovic was out of line here. The guy was doing his job—capably. Why are you humiliating him in front of a worldwide audience? But given the context, it merited no penalty. I would put this in the “not cool” category, rather than the flagrant abuse. a) it was more teasing than menacing b) it was a major final c) reputations matter and Djokovic is a player with a reputation for decency. I’m totally okay with discretion and departing from the letter of the law.

To Mark’s point, this is the argument we made 18 months ago about Serena. If we are going to be strict constructionists with the rulebook, it’s a hell of a precedent we’re setting.

Apology in advance as I am not the person writing under deadline pressure: "betrayed the true champion’s knack for precision under pressure.” A most tedious quibble, but I would have gone with “portrayed” instead of the pejorative. Thanks and carry on.
John S.

• NEVER apologize for suggesting alternative phrasing. No writers worth their salt will ever resent it. I was going for definition four here. Betray meaning “show/indicate/reveal” not “act with treachery.” But if I had a second serve, portray would probably have been better.

Let’s just say all three were of same age and started professionally at the same time—the weakest of them would always be Federer.
@pedjazoo

• A former player—a, I don’t want to brag, Hall of Famer—made this point to me as well. This, of course, is in the GOAT context. Basically: “if Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all started together, Federer would be the third best.” (This is a cousin to: “compare the competition of who Nadal and Djokovic have beaten in majors and then compare that to Federer.”) I would be really careful here. A point I think gets lost too often: there is a real advantage—in most competitive industries—to arriving second. You know exactly what you have to do to topple the competition. Nadal could (did?) literally tailor his game to beating Federer. It’s like being the first sibling. You pave the way. The others can avoid your missteps, cherry-pick your successes, and do what’s necessary to unseat you. Or, better example, it’s like being the home team in an extra inning baseball game. The visitors just swing away. You, meanwhile, know precisely what you need to win; and can gameplan accordingly.

What’s your parting thought on Maria Sharapova?
@karenohiggins

• Here’s Maria Sharapova in 10 acts:

1) Let’s start here: Sharapova, overall, is a force for good. I would vote for her for the Hall of Fame tomorrow. She is professionalism personified. Keep this in perspective. But…

2) Sharapova got popped for a banned substance, meldonium. This was not a Lance Armstrong-style operation. I don’t believe she had the doping equivalent of mens rea, the knowledge of wrongdoing. The substance was licit (though “monitored” by WADA) and then moved to the banned list. I—and, more important, a panel—believed this was an act of carelessness more than performance enhancement. Still, it was a positive test. And we are in a world of absolute liability. You are responsible for what you put in your body.

3) A huge unforced error, Sharapova did not attempt to seek immunity, as other colleagues taking this substance did. She, instead, held a regrettable press conference and announced that she had taken meldonium for health reasons, including an iron deficiency and a family history of diabetes.

4) This triggered all manner of skepticism, inside and outside of tennis. If this was so innocuous, why did she fail to disclose meldonium on disclosure assorted forms? How, morally, could she moonlight as a for-profit confectionist when diabetes ran in the family? At minimum: a bad, bad look.

5) Sharapova got her penalty reduced, but her appeal was expensive, embarrassing, and above all, took her out of the action for more than a year.

6) When she returned, Sharapova appeared surprised that the reception among her peers was cool; and her results were cooler.

7) Like many athletes coming off a doping ban, upon her return, Sharapova wasn’t just playing to restart her career, she was playing to preserve what she had achieved previously.

8) Whether correlation or causation, it was hard to ignore that she was not nearly the player she once was. Her power didn’t penetrate. She was often injured. She had trouble stringing together back-to-back matches. Then again, she was north of age 30.

9) Now 32, Sharapova is ranked outside the top 350.

10) The beauty of tennis: Sharapova controls her own fate. She can choose to keep playing and, if she wins, she can write happier chapters. She can also retire tomorrow and will be recalled foremost as a five-time major champion. Perhaps not the tidy ending she envisioned. But, on balance, a career worth celebrating.

I was curious about your thoughts on the Hall of Fame inductees this year. I was watching a segment in which some tennis pundits were saying that Caroline Wozniacki was now “a lock” for the HoF since she won a Slam. While I was watching the segment, I remembered an old Mailbag in which someone had asked what you thought about Conchita Martinez’s HoF chances, and then I found out she was being inducted this year! Your response back then was something like “You love the Cheetah. I love the Cheetah. We all love the Cheetah, but we’re talking Hall of Fame here!” (I can’t find the original post.) I wonder what your thoughts are now, both about Wozniacki and Martinez and Ivanisevic for that matter. Thanks as always for your excellent work.
Trent Miller, Indianapolis

• “You love the Cheetah. I love the Cheetah. We all love the Cheetah, but we’re talking Hall of Fame here!”

Same discussion as always. Is she—or, for that matter, Goran Ivanisevic, this year’s other inductee—a towering figure, worthy of immortality? Can you tell the story of tennis without mentioning her name? Well…

On the other hand, given the standards and precedents, is she worthy of admission? Absolutely. If we’re not budging what has hardened into the standard—roughly: one major, at least one other final, a long tenancy in the top five and maxing “them’s good people” points—well, here we are. You’re going to allow Michael Stich and Helena Sukova but then pull up the drawbridge for Conchita Martinez? I think not. Three other points:

1) Not a week goes by without a Hall of Fame question. Props to the good folks in Newport for making this a relevant institution/discussion in a way it wasn’t when I started covering the sport.

2) Back to Conchita…note that both she and Goran Ivanisevic were at the Australian Open finals as coaches. We essentially vote on the basis of playing careers. But maybe “totality of contribution to the sport” should be considered.

3) Wozniacki? In, in, in. Not only for her major (and multiple finals) but she achieved the No. 1 ranking in 2010 and then again in 2018.

His movement is exceptional and not spoken about enough…he’s like a panther around the court. It’s power-movement rather than light and quick (like Goffin for eg)
Robbie K.

• We had a good discussion on Twitter about player quickness. I think most of us acknowledge that Gael Monfils is the best athlete—by most conventional metrics—in the history of the sport. But after watching Dominic Thiem run corner to corner against Djokovic I asked whether he might be the next fastest player on court. A good discussion ensued. Alex de Minaur quickly—and rightly—drew high marks. Same for a healthy Nishikori (sadly, a virtual oxymoron) and Goffin and Schwartzman. Frances Tiafoe was also mentioned. Same for Nishioka and Tommy Paul. And even a player calling his own number.

Here’s a tip for the ATP and WTA: a skills competition. Target practice. A fastest ground stroke contest. Sprints. Ninja Warrior stuff. Fans LOVE this conversation.

You’re on point about the pre-match interviews. Equally cringe worthy, but seldom maligned is the loser walk down the corridor. Who enjoys seeing this?
@teachjourno

• They had no pre-match interviews at the Australian Open. Not once did I hear someone say, “You know what I really missed….” As for the loser walking down the corridor, guiltily, I admit to voyeurism.

Dominic Thiem plays in his first three Slam finals:

In the 2018 French final, he meets Rafa who's won 16 Slam titles before that match.

In the 2019 French, he meets Rafa who's now won 17 prior to that match.

In the 2020 Australian, he meets Novak who's won 16.

So, the combined Slam titles tally of Thiem's opponents in his first three Slam finals is 49 titles. This is clearly a record. My question is, who is second on the list? Before Thiem came along, which player's opponents in their first three Slam finals had the highest number of combined Slam titles? Hope that makes sense!
Cam Bennett, Canberra, Australia

• Paging Doctor Sharko!

Are there more terrifying words than “Nadal on clay?”
@katinephoto

• Djokovic in Melbourne.

Prediction: if Nadal gets upset at the French Open this year, the Big Three’s major count will ultimately end like this: Federer 20 Nadal 19 Djokovic 18
—@atlsportsholar

• So the world ends after the French Open?

What are your thoughts on competing tennis-themed podcasts? Do they fall into the worrying media landscape you describe? They are a bit shocking in their gossipy nature but they are creating new opportunities for interest in the sport.
@2cloverdale

• I’m all for it. 1) I love podcasting as a medium. 2) It’s well-suited for tennis. 3) As you say, I’m in favor of anything which expands opportunity, especially in an uncertain media space. As with any product, some are better than others. Ideally, the ones that are worthwhile will find an audience. The ones that are “shocking in their gossipy nature” will not.

Shots, Miscellany

• We really appreciated getting this book, “People of the Boot.” Highly recommend.

• Shout out: Princeton women’s tennis.

• Take us out, Elsie Misbourne of Washington D.C.: Is the sweaty-towel ball-kid debate really the hill we want to die on? What happens to the locker room workers who have to scoop up cart loads full of bacteria laden material? What about the food workers on the site dealing with the waste and the clean up? Public transportation in any big city is a maelstrom of swirling bacteria. And what about the balls, they are handled by sweaty players? We all love Rafa but by the time he has tugged at his nose and his ears and his mouth and his rear end during his service motion, the bacteria transferred to the balls must number in the millions. Why shouldn't the ball-kids help with on court chores? Don't they do it in every other sport?

Leaving aside the health issues, do we really want to add 10 to 15 seconds for players to walk back and forth to a towel rack on every point? A minute and a half per game could add up to an extra half hour for a women's match and an hour for a men's match. It's a wonderful step forward that there's a time clock between serves but can you imagine the players' reaction if the trudge back and forth to the towel rack was going cut into their time allotment.

A bigger question is why the toweling off isn't limited more—there are plenty of sports where players sweat profusely in hot conditions. What would basketball look like if toweling off were to be allowed after every score? Rafa claims that he "sweats a lot" but there's no evidence he sweats more than others and even if there was, why should heavy sweaters have a special dispensation? Let's let short player stand closer to the net to serve and give heavy players more time because they use so much energy getting around the court. Get over it, Australia is burning up, there's a nasty virus in China and the U.S. President has been impeached. Can anyone point to a single occurrence of a ball kid being sickened by contact with a sweaty towel? If the ball kid debate was a really serious issue it could solved by issuing the kids with disposable sanitary gloves but the TV providers probably wouldn't like the look of that.