Mailbag: As One Star Retires, New Ones Emerge

Publish date:

• We’ll start by linking yesterday’s piece following Maria Sharapova’s retirement announcement.

• Here, Jamie and I discuss Sharapova in an emergency podcast.

• Our most recent podcast guest, Sonia Kenin, on life as a major champion.

• Lots of Sharapova questions rolling in, in the wake of her retirement. But let’s resume the discussion next week and return to our regularly scheduled programming ...


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

Who is this Elena Rybakina, and is she the 2020 Andreescu? She's not just on a roll in Dubai, but everywhere in 2020.
Megan F.

• Let’s take this question as a conceit to raise a larger point—one thrown into still sharper relief after the Sharapova retirement announcement. It was a strange week in Tennis Land, but an instructive one. Serena Williams was out of action. Same for Djokovic and Nadal. And Roger Federer announced that knee surgery would prevent him from playing until there was grass underfoot. This news was met with disappointment—cue: obligatory reference to Father Time’s career record.

But then something remarkable happened: The news was overtaken. You had Kim Clijsters returning. You had action from tournaments on four continents. You had teenagers breaking through, including Brandon Nakashima, while the Bryan Brothers, now in their 40s, won title 119. Simona Halep won still another title, as much because of her will as her shotmaking. Nick Kyrgios played doubles. Above all, you had Elena Rybakina flicked away top 10 players like lint on her collar, and nearly beat Halep in the front-runner for Match of the Year.

The point, of course: Remember the titans. The Big Three and Serena are major deities. We will marvel at the times they were all in the draw together, almost 80 majors among them. We are unlikely ever in our lifetimes to witness players more accomplished.

But even as a collective, they are not bigger than the sport. There will be new players worthy of our attention and new unscripted drama. There will be streaks and slumps and stories to tell. There will be lurches and dips and breathless existential concerns. But the show will go on. It always does.

As for the original question, “Who is this Rybakina?” Well, she’s 20. She is tall and athletic. She is another Moscovite playing under the Kazakh flag. She deserves a week off. (After reaching two straight finals she is, as of this writing, playing this week as well.) But there’s much more to learn and explore. Which is all the fun.

By all accounts, Juan Martin Del Potro seems like a good guy, so I suspect that your answer will be diplomatic rather than frank. But I have to ask: DelPo is 31 years old and has lost the majority of the past 10 years to knee and wrist injuries. He's just had another surgery. Roger Federer has managed to play until age 38, but he's the exception and has been remarkably healthy throughout his career. Realistically, even if this was the surgery that brought him back to 100%, how much of a career is DelPo expecting to gain? At his age, best case scenario, he might get another two or three years. No disrespect to a nice guy, but has he reached the point where he's sacrificing his long-term joint health for a few more matches?
Judy Adams, Los Angeles, Calif.

• Without giving JDP truth serum and running this by him, I give you three general answers why he’s still out there.

1) A pro athlete once told me that when injured, the competitive fury you once applied to competition gets transferred and transmuted toward the recovery. “I am going to work like hell and fight and connive and make damn sure not to relent.” The injury becomes an opponent. So why stay on this comeback journey? Because in the athlete’s mind, anything less is akin to defeat.

2) By definition, elite athletes have extraordinary skills. Imagine being told, “There is one thing you do better than all but a few people on the planet.” Wouldn’t you try and continue that activity as long as possible? Juan Martín del Potro might be a fine golfer or harmonica player or dumpling maker. But he is unlikely ever to be better at anything than he is at tennis. It’s understandable why he wouldn’t want to abandon that before he absolutely had to.

3) It would be naïve to overlook financial considerations. The last time we saw DelPo at full strength, he was taking a set off Novak Djokovic in Rome. His play that week alone earned him $150,000 for three matches. Two weeks later in Paris, he won three matches, lost a fourth and walked off with another $300,000. He has endorsements that might lapse if he retires. He perhaps has insurance and his coverage status could change. Let’s be clear: This is no criticism. But too often we tiptoe around the indelicate topic of money when it plays a role in players’ decisions, micro and macro.

To your larger point: In what a professor of mine once called “the oppression sweepstakes,” DelPo doesn’t rank too high. The professional athlete—handsome, fit, age 31, with $25 million in on-court earnings—still has it pretty good. But I have immense sympathy for JMDP. As you note, he has indeed lost most of a decade to his various injuries. He’s watched colleagues surpass him. He’s had this Sisyphean existence, recovering triumphantly only to suffer another setback. And though tennis careers are expanding, they are still finite. A year out of action—never mind 10— constitutes a huge chunk of your professional life. JMDP has shown real grace and, dare we say, courage, dealing with this catalog of injuries. Fate owes him. And whether or not his karmic debt is discharged, he has earned this: our admiration.

OK, I know I’m an idiot but what does “LLS” mean when doing one of those separated at birth things, like with Bencic in today’s ‘bag?

• No idiocy. It’s long lost siblings. One of you asked about another oldie, WTHIGOW (what the hell is going on with?) ... Ironically, the subject was Jack Sock, whom, we must note, won in Delray but is not back among the ranked.

In the WTA, there are 16 active players with a major title! That is enough to run a small tournament! Has this ever happened before? What does it mean? The 16 are: Serena, Venus, Sharapova, Cljisters, Kerber, Kuznetsova, Azarenka, Kvitova, Muguruza, Halep, Osaka all multiple majors, and then Kenin, Barty, Andreescu, Ostapenko and Stosur with one each.

P.S. Now that we have an ATP event in Pune, nobody should ask what Pune is, right?
Ashok, Pune

• What kind of a name is Pune? No, of course, we all know Pune.

Meanwhile, that’s a wild statistic. Assuming DelPo, Murray and Federer don’t post, at the next major there might be four men—Djoker, Nadal, Wawrinka and Cilic—in that category.

What does it mean? That the women’s field—with a best-of-three format more conducive to upsets, with a 38-year-old titaness slowing down, with a popular sport played by different women from all over the world now—will flatten. As you would suspect in any competitive industry. Last week we had a Tunisian nearly beat a Romanian, who survived to beat a Kazakh in the final. Of an event played in Dubai. A generation ago (apologies to Virginia Ruzici) that would have sounded like a Mad Libs sentence. When you draw your labor pool from the entire world, it stands to reason that there will be more parity. Which, I’d argue on balance, is—to use the clinical, academic term—awesome.

The first tennis parent to get inducted into the HOF should be Karolj Seles and it’s not close.

• One might suggest that some tennis parents have been already admitted. But, sure, Karolj Seles is precisely the kind of person who might be acknowledged in this expanded “contributors/innovations/characters” wing we are imagining. I can’t tell you how often someone is referenced and the response is, “People don’t realize how important XYZ was to this sport.” Renee Richards, Howard Brody, Howard Head, Jelena Gencic, John McPhee. Wouldn’t you want to include these figures? (And think of the outside-the-service-box speeches.)

Hi Jon, I always liked reading your mailbag and I think it's time I contribute to the conversation. Question: Can you explain to me why the line judges are instructed to call the balls immediately after their contact with the surface? Wouldn't it be better if they wait for the moment that the ball leaves the racket of the receiving player? If they make an incorrect call (as they sometimes do, and it can lead to some very ugly scenes), it doesn't have to be a hypothetical situation and the umpire doesn't have to make a decision that will always anger one player and will often be unfair to the player who loses the point after everything is settled. In my humble opinion, I think they (line judges) should wait for the receiving player's response and then make their call—controversy averted.
Milos, Lisbon

• You have to make an instantaneous call. The idea of shouting out during a player’s ball-striking would be far more problematic—especially in the event the call was incorrect. (It would also mean retraining thousands of officials schooled in calling the ball immediately.) I do think there’s a related point that incorporates your concern: Why not use the available technology more fully? You have access to replay. Why not consult it to see whether the ball really bounced twice (see: Venus-Coco match point in Australia). Or whether a player was truly hindered? Or whether Player X could have made a play on Player Y’s shot?

In last week’s Mailbag, someone speculated on the number of majors each of the Big Three may have won if the other two were not playing. I agree with what you said that having the others around have driven them to greater heights. I think Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played much longer than people thought they might for the same reason. Without speculating on how many majors each would have won without the others around, the only speculation I would make is that if Nadal wasn’t playing Federer would likely have won the calendar Slam in at least one year. Would you agree?
Andy Krouse, Reading, Pa.

• I suspect you’re right. With no Nadal-on-clay factor (and Djokovic yet to achieve full maturity) you suspect Federer would have picked off a French Open in, say, 2006 or 2007, thereby completing a calendar Slam. (Preempting the obvious question: In Nadal’s three-major season of 2010, his only loss came in Australia, not to Federer but because he pulled up injured against Andy Murray in the quarters.)

Back to the larger point, I credit Martina for giving me this quote years ago: “[Chris] and I realized that maybe we would each have more titles if the other didn’t exist. But in the end, we were better for having the other one around.”

Surprised no one has mentioned Michael Russell's famous match with Gustavo Kuerten at French Open back in 2001, where he had match point in the third set before losing in five sets.

I was wondering what was going through his mind as Sandgren's coach as he saw one, two….seven match points go by the wayside. Surely a flashback to that match 19 years ago earlier that would have been a similarly monumental upset!

• From the horse’s mouth ... “There definitely wasn’t a flashback as I just wanted Tennys to win one of those match points!”

Off the wall suggestion for a future podcast guest: Lionel Richie. I read that he was an outstanding tennis player in high school, and then went to college on a tennis scholarship at Tuskegee Institute. It would be great if you and Jamie could work some magic and treat the audience to a guest who’d be a little farther beyond the baseline than usual. Thanks for the show and the Mailbag.
John G., Philadelphia, Pa.

• Off the wall? Or the ceiling? Good suggestion. Thanks.

Shots, Miscellany

Tennis’ contribution to varsity blues.

• From a reader: I thought you might be interested in the former tennis pros who are thriving on the "paddle" courts. At the upcoming American Platform Tennis Association Men's and Women's National Championships, March 5-8, in Darien, Conn., Jared Palmer, once No. 1 in the world in men's doubles on the ATP tour, will be in the mix. Palmer has won a number of APTA championships. Also entered is Eric Butorac, who won 18 ATP doubles titles and currently works with the USTA. Many of the top players in the event are former WTA and ATP players, former top juniors from Serbia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Australia and more, who went on to D-I college competition and now are both tennis and paddle pros at clubs around the country.

• Luminaries from the world of tennis, celebrity tennis fans, philanthropists and supporters will celebrate 48 years of the Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program (HJTEP) helping and inspiring youngsters through tennis and education on April 6th at the HJTEP Spring Gala at Gotham Hall in New York City. Tickets for the gala at available at or by calling 212-491-3738.