Mailbag: Federer and Nadal's Africa Exhibition and the Big Three Narrative

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Housekeeping:

• Last week’s podcast guest, Tennys Sandgren, recounted his 2020 Australian Open. On account of the guest and his candor, I thought this was a really outstanding conversation.

• On this week’s podcast, we recount the Match for Africa with Robbie Koenig, who is always maximum entertainment and information. Spoiler alert: Kenin is on deck, talking about her new life as major singles champ.

• She is the superfluous J, as Stephen Colbert puts it: Welcome back Kim Clijsters.

• Back to Tennys Sandgren:

• New York readers, want to see ATP at A&P prices? It’s the New York Open.

Onward, Christian Garin….

federer-nadal-match-africa-mailbag

Mailbag

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

Are you or anybody else planning to write a book about this incredible era in men’s tennis? I know that there have been books, including yours on the Nadal-Federer Wimbledon classic, through the years. And obviously this era is still very much alive. I am hopeful that somebody, perhaps you, can write a definitive book about what is one of the most magnificent eras in any sport at any time.
Gregg Small

• I agree completely. For one, it’s remarkable statistically, this concentration of excellence. Imagine it’s 2002 and you tell Pete Sampras, “Congrats on an unsurpassed career. You were an absolute credit to the sport, a joy to watch, and you retire with the most majors. Oh, just one more thing to know: by the end of the next decade, you’ll be fourth on the all-time list…and Donald Trump will be president.” You have players with 20, 19 and 17 majors all playing together. As a friend put it to me just today, it’s like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach at their peak within the same decade.

But this tripartite power block….it’s also remarkable in terms of narrative. Djokovic wins the 2020 Australian Open, inching ever closer. A few days later Federer and Nadal—notionally, blood rivals—join forces and play an exhibition on another continent. Nadal is hugging Federer’s mom. The dad is filming it with the grin of a sports parents. Federer is crying. Bill Gates is crying. And that was just last week. Who writes this?

Back to the book, I just wonder if it isn’t best done when all three careers are finished. Right now, it’s so fluid….

Where has Jack Sock been for the last several months? I thought he had recovered but after Laver Cup, he disappeared again. I see he is in the New York Open.
Alice Hume

• Jack Sock has been…well, when you are unranked, there are limited opportunities. Even if you are 27 and were in the top 10 two years ago. We can argue about whether this speaks well or ill of tennis. But it’s an unforgiving—in many ways, value-neutral—sport. Win and your ranking goes up. Lose and it goes down. In other sports, you can trade on your reputation (or guaranteed contract) for a few years. In tennis, it doesn’t really work that way. Sock had an absolutely miserable 2019. And now we see the effects. Few points:

1) Sock is a whiz-bang doubles player. He has said publicly that he doesn’t want to be a doubles specialist. But it seems like a waste that he wouldn’t swallow some pride and play alongside a partner. He is so good and perhaps success in doubles would kickstart his singles.

2) We’ve seen declines in this sport. Ernests Gulbis was a top 10 player who drifted outside the top 100. Genie Bouchard is another prominent example. Ana Ivanovic—eligible for the Hall of Fame soon—reached three major finals in one year. And then failed to reach another for the last eight years of her career. But this Sock swoon is a whole ‘nother level. From top 10 to unranked in 20 or so months—that has to be a first.

3) For the NBA crowd….Jack Sock as Chandler Parsons?

A question for Sharko, perhaps? Dominic Thiem plays in his first three Slam finals: In the 2018 French Open final, he meets Rafa who's won 16 Slam titles before that match. In the 2019 French Open, he meets Rafa who's now won 17 prior to that match. In the 2020 Australian Open, he meets Novak who's won 16. So, the combined Slam titles tally of Thiem's opponents in his first 3 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

• The Great One responds:

Murray lost his first three Grand Slam finals with 28 combined titles by his opponents (actually four overall but for the same comparison):

2008 U.S. Open: (l. to Federer-12)

2010 Australian Open: (l. to Federer-15)

2011 Australian Open: (l. to Djokovic-1)

With Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal playing an exhibition in South Africa, do you see this is as an opening for major tournaments in Africa? ATP 100, WTA Premier Mandatory, or someday down the line a Grand Slam?
Stanley Martin, Jr.
• Well…It would be great to see. There is a lack of pro tennis presence in Africa, sub-Saharan Africa in particular. The first question: could a promoter make it work? One of the beauties of tennis: it’s a global sport. One of the complications: this means the global marketplace comes into play. When your median annual household income is less than $5,000—as is the case for many African nations—how do you meet prize money requirements? The other question: do the facilities meet the ATP criteria? (Not just courts but features like on-site gyms for the players and the television compound.)

Small steps. An ATP 1000 is a long way off, much less a major. But the Match for Africa shows that there’s an appetite. And if/when the continent produces and ties an event to a local player, it will be still easier.

This statement by you in the Mailbag, in summing up where Sharapova's career stands… in both its simplicity and impactfulness:

"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 assorted disclosure forms? How, morally, could she moonlight as a for-profit confectionist when diabetes ran in the family? At minimum: a bad, bad look."

Your point #4 above (i.e., Maria's failure to ever disclose to the Tennis Anti-Doping Unit that she was taking meldonium before it was ever on the Prohibited List) perfectly shows that she knew meldonium was not taken to guard against a family history of certain ailments . . . rather, it was taken solely to enhance performance. This is the headline for me on who Maria is.
Jeff

• Our theme of the day: people are complicated. Anyone assessing Kobe Bryant’s legacy and impact is wrestling with how much weight to assign to what happened in Colorado. To what extent—if any—does Thanksgiving night 2009 color how we feel about Tiger Woods? For that matter: is enlisting foreign aid “improper” or impeachable?

We all have our personal moral codes, our personal scales of justice, and—to mix metaphors—we draw lines accordingly. Personally, I’m less offended by Sharapova’s positive test (for a substance with dubious performance enhancing qualities) than by the cynical and clumsy PR and her trafficking in diabetes when her signature brand has “sugar” in its name. I get it. I understand why she has lost fans; I understand why some colleagues have turned on her as well. But to me, it doesn’t negate five majors or an admirable commitment to hard work. In my periodical, that still remains the headline for who she is.

Waiting with bated breath for one (1) journalist (Jon?) to ask the obvious (to non-Fed groupies) question: Dear Roger, if you were as injured as you portrayed to the press to be last week, how come you are playing an exo this week? Surely any sort of movement could aggravate this severe groin injury and prejudice your entire season. And if you’re planning on not moving at all, why charge all these poor spectators a hefty entry fee for a stationary hitting session?
P.K.

• Perhaps it’s a dirty secret but the difference between exo speed and “real match” speed is—or at least can be, especially with an accommodating opponent—the difference between driving on a golf course and driving on a NASCAR oval.

Shots, Miscellany

• From the Pacific Northwest, it’s Tim Newcomb on Coco Gauff.

• This week’s unsolicited book rec: Adrienne Miller’s new memoir In the Land of Men releases on February 11, published by Ecco/HarperCollins.

• Hanlon Walsh of Birmingham takes us out with a question but it’s also a terrific reader riff:

After recently enjoying my first visit to the Australian Open, I left wondering what this next decade will look like for the WTA. As a fellow American and avid WTA Fan, I was thrilled to see Sofia Kenin come away with the title and earn her well-deserved spotlight. The other part of me, however, left wondering "what if" to many of the highly anticipated matchups that never came to fruition—Serena-Wozniacki Round of 16, Serena-Osaka quarterfinal, or a Barty-Halep final once the second week had taken its course. just to name a few.

This has been a common theme in much of the last decade—and surely difficult waters to navigate at times for the WTA marketing department and tournament directors. For the niche tennis fans, I agree that the depth and unpredictability make the WTA an exciting contrast to the dominance of the ATP Big 3, but shouldn't we want to see some type of happy medium to develop more household names, build compelling rivalries, and grow the future of women's tennis?

I became a WTA fan in the early to mid 2000s when seven or eight players (Serena, Venus, Davenport, Henin, Clijsters, Capriati, Mauresmo, etc.) were running the show and consistently duking it out in the second week of majors. To me, this HOF-filled era wasn't the "boring" dominance that people often complain about today with the Big 3, but a healthier dominance with intense rivalries and contrasting playing styles (not to mention some off-court drama) that regularly produced blockbuster matchups in the second week of Slams.

Do you think we're on the verge of seeing a similar landscape re-emerge with Barty, Osaka, Andreescu, Bencic, Kenin, and other young players emerging to the top of the game? Or do you think the depth, parity, and unpredictability is a trend we should get used to? While I enjoy the current landscape to a certain degree, I'm hoping to see more stability and consistency at the top in the future.

Appreciate all of the great work you guys do.