Mailbag: What Are the Most Underrated Records in Tennis?

Plus updates on the 2020 U.S. Open, 2021 Australian Open, the cancelled events in China and more.
Author:
Publish date:

Hope everyone is safe, sane and masked.

• Our most recent podcast guest, Steve Flink, assesses and reassesses Pete Sampras.

• Next up, Sam Querrey checks in from WTT, and tennis-loving musician Eric Hutchinson.

Here’s Jason Gay on Regis, a tennis fan now guarding that doubles alley in the sky.

• Reunited; and it feels so gut: Angie Kerber is back with Torben Beltz. He left Donna Vekic months ago; she parted with Didi Kindlmann.

• Here are the plans for the 2021 Australian Open. Be interesting to see if the 14-day quarantine holds or whether athletes—and their entourages!—can get an exemption.

• Here’s my U.S. Open update, subject to change. As we write this, the tournament is still on. The USTA has held a series of calls, distributed a guidebook and invited agents and player reps to ask additional questions. I’ve been told that players coming in from “hot states” might require different rules, including a prohibition on room-sharing. There are still unanswered issues about players leaving the U.S. and then potentially having to quarantine in their home countries. The USTA is adamant that the best-of-five format will not be impacted. But as of now, it’s game on…

Onward….

Mailbag

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

Jon, I know you’ve said that Pete Sampras finishing the year at No. 1 for six straight years is one of the most underrated records in tennis. What else would you put on the list?
Collin, Mass.

• Oh, man. I almost have an easier time with underrated *off-court* achievements. Off the menu? Caroline Wozniacki running a sub-3:30 marathon, with scant training, in the middle of her career. Patrick McEnroe escaping the considerable shadow to forge a career and identity wholly separate from John McEnroe. Tom Perrotta’s writing and reporting. Craig Tiley going from a Big Ten coach to perhaps the most powerful man in tennis. John Lucas, an All-American in tennis and basketball?

As far as on-court achievements….I would tend toward lots of data points rather than few. That is: broad, long term achievements, rather than outliers. Golden sets are flukes. A 70-68 match—not that it’s underrated—is a statistical fluke. So let’s see… The Williams sisters’ doubles record is underrated. And BOTH Williams sisters reaching major finals in year X and then again in year X+20. (Venus 1997-2017 and Serena 1999-2019). “Weeks at No. 1” is an underrated statistic and thus Federer and Djokovic both fare well here. The longevity of Martina Navratilova? Chris Evert’s record at the French Open? Steffi Graf’s 1988?

The truly underrated record is the one in plain sight: namely that Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic—nearly 80 majors among them—are playing at once. Think about this as a statistical proposition. You have a global sport, played on six continents. You have 128 players in each draw. You have single elimination. And four players, competing simultaneously, have combined to average almost 20 majors apiece.

Jon, I noticed you tweeted about the WTA cancelling its swing through China. What are your thoughts on this?
Ty, Colorado

• Let’s be clear, on two points. This applies to the WTA and ATP (though the WTA is more deeply leveraged). This was not the tours’ decision, but rather the Chinese government’s—a point the WTA stressed in its eventual press release. “Due to the recent decision by China’s General Administration of Sport that China will not host any international sporting events in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, all WTA tournaments that were scheduled in China on WTA’s provisional calendar will not be held.”

One unintended consequence of COVID-19: we are, voyeuristically, seeing tennis naked. Or with only the sparest of fig leaves. We see how many players essentially live paycheck-to-paycheck and how dependent they are on the prize money at the majors. How thin the margins are for lower events. How dependent American tennis is on the USTA. How dependent the USTA is on the U.S. Open. How dependent the U.S. Open is on television. How dependent the WTA is on China. How dependent both tours are on their year-end events. How both the absence of pandemic insurance and the debt of capital projects (i.e. covered stadiums to appease the television gods) impact decisions.

As for the WTA, losing the China swing is a big blow. Both in terms of strategy and, of course, finances. Not wrongly, the WTA shifted their center of gravity to this emerging market. It’s great when the government is involved and Gemdale is writing eight-figure checks; it’s not great when this segment of the portfolio closes its borders to international sports.

For decades now, the Olympics have had a host city but also an alternate host, essentially an understudy at the ready, prepared to jump in, if there were a natural disaster or political turmoil, etc. Maybe both tours need to consider likewise. As it stands, it will be a challenge to stage a global event on 100 days’ notice. But not impossible. And perhaps a joint year-end event during a crisis year could be the first step in this ATP/WTA merger.

I enjoyed listening to your recent conversation with Steve Flink about Pete Sampras, especially following the fortnight of "Wimbledon Re-Lived" on The Tennis Podcast (which I strongly recommend to your readers too, partly because you and your poetic talents are a frequent subject of conversation there). But I was surprised you didn't push Flink, a historian, more when he contended Sampras would have excelled in recent years, including against the Big 3, while playing his own game style. What's the basis of his argument? To me, the closest empirical data for predicting Sampras's likely performance in the 2000s/2010s, with slower playing conditions, would be his record on Roland Garros in his own time, especially against dirtballers. It doesn't really hold much promise.

And if I may add (knowing your distaste for GOAT meat), this to me is the reason why Roger Federer is the GOAT. Despite learning his craft in the 1990s and idolizing the likes of Sampras and Stefan Edberg, he has played almost the entire length of his incredibly long career in conditions that increasingly favored his biggest opponents—and has still won as much as he has.
Saif Shahin, Washington, D.C.

That’s fair. Here’s Flink:

I would say to Saif that it was not just my point of view about Sampras versus Federer, Nadal and Nadal but also the likes of Ivanisevic, Edberg, Carillo, Rafter, McEnroe, Billie Jean and others who felt he would hold his own. If he reads the book, he can look at my chapter entitled “Imagining Sampras against Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.” Many of the people I spoke with believe that Sampras was would be well equipped to combat these guys.

Regarding Pete’s playing style, I did point out on your podcast that in today’s conditions Sampras might have made some modifications, including serving-and-volleying less on his second serve. But slower courts would not have prevented Sampras from imposing his will and attacking regularly. As great as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are, they never faced a player of Sampras’s stature who could athletically get to the net. In turn, Sampras is arguably the best server the game has yet seen so the iconic trio would all have struggled to break him.

I understand Saif’s argument but respectfully disagree. Aside from clay, Sampras would have fared well in my view today against Federer, Djokovic and Nadal even on slower hard courts and the slower Wimbledon grass. Don’t simply take my word for it but read what some great players and authorities have to say on the subject.

Pete Sampras will always be remembered as one of the tennis greats but characterizing his retirement as dignified is gilding the lily a bit much. He announced his retirement nearly a year after his final match when he beat Agassi in the U.S. Open Final. Who knows what was going on in his life for that year but the teasers, first for the Australian Open, then Roland Garros, surely Wimbledon and finally the U.S. Open were dangled and then snatched away, leaving officials to trundle him out in street clothes for a wave to the crowd. Here's just one link to many articles at the time. Even Bud Collins made entreaties with words to the effect..."come on Pete, you owe it all of us to say what's going on." Great Player. Sure. Dignified exit. Not so much.
Elsie Misbourne, Washington, D.C.

• I am hugely sympathetic to athletes and this brutal decision of when and whether to retire. You have this one-in-a-billion skill. It has afforded you extraordinary experiences, emotions, opportunities and wealth. Your life is less than half over and you need to reconcile this idea,

“I, likely, will never again be this good at anything. I, likely, will never again have this surge of adrenaline and these experiences. I, likely, will never again have this level of income.” We spoke about this recently on Tennis Channel with Andy Roddick. He was ranked No. 22 when he retired. This was far below his standards. Yet it meant there were only 21 people in the entire world better at what he did. Imagine the agony of walking away from that.

Specific to Sampras, I stand by “dignified.” And I am surprised that Bud—whom I adore—would write something like that. No player owes any of us a decision. Sampras was more than entitled to take a moment and savor his title, assess his body and motivation and consider if he would ever return to the mountaintop. In no way did that delay drain it of dignity. His last sanctioned match on his registry: a win over Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open final. That’s pretty great.

You should turn on ESPN3 streaming now of WTT. CoCo Vandeweghe is on and she is better than any analyst I have ever heard. She is talking about strategy and about players like nobody else has done. It is a delight to hear.
Russ

• I did not catch that. But it doesn’t surprise me. In tennis and life, CoCo lets it rip. Which often makes for strong television.

Mailbag submission re: Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ Twitter soliciting for a team nickname for her partnership with Eugenie Bouchard: “Team Slip n’ Fall”
Anonymous

• Oh, behave, as Austin Powers would say. We wrote the other day that, for all the swirling uncertainty, here’s one bankable U.S. Open prediction: Genie Bouchard will not be getting a wild card.

Note to tennis journalist colleagues: there’s gold here, about the time a player slipped during the tournament and—after a rollicking civil suit—ended up with a settlement check that dwarfed the winners’ checks that year. Adding to the cast: Jimmy Connors (!) was Bouchard’s guru at the time. Incidentally, Bouchard—still only 26!—is now receiving coaching from sushi-lover Rennae Stubbs.

Love your tennis Mailbag on si.com, but where can I get the archives? In particular, I was interested in seeing what you had to say about Vijay Amritraj.
Anirban

• Hey thanks. I think the archives are here. Honestly, I’m not sure what I’ve written about Vijay Amritraj. But there has been some chatter about bolstering his candidacy for the Hall of Fame as a contributor. And I am all for it. Here’s a guy who won 32 titles (18 in singles), played a role in a James Bond movie, served as a coach and competitor and helped start a mini-tennis dynasty, helped popularize tennis in the world’s second-most populous country. As a contributor—the category that ought to be expanded, not shrunk—this is a no-brainer.

I don't get it. Why can golf return, when they also have plenty of foreign players, while tennis is just looking more and more like it won't be back in a normal manner? And let's say tennis does come back. As much as people are waiting for that Next0Gen breakthrough, do we really want to see it happen because top players did not play? Yes, injuries are a part of the sport, so Federer's absence is justified. However, if Nadal does not play the U.S. Open, or if Djokovic does not play the French Open, and in one or both of those Grand Slams we have the Thiem, Zverev, Tsitsipas, Medvedev breakthrough that people are clamoring for, will it really count? I know you have said in the past there are no asterisks for winning a Grand Slam for not playing the best players, because you play who you are drawn to play, but I think this situation is different because the preparation for these events is so out of whack that who really knows what is going to happen.
Shlomo

• The big issue for pro tennis is neither the social distancing during competition, nor the COVID-19 spread at the tournaments. It’s the travel complications. Most golfers live in one of three U.S. States (and fly private.) At last year’s U.S. Open, there were players from more than 100 countries among all the draws.

Hi, this is Mrs. Brenda Lynn. I want to make an appointment for tennis training for my children. Do you accept credit card for payment?
Lynn

• Thank you. But if your children trained with me, you would be seeking to contest the charges to your credit card. But a) I wish you and your children the best, and b) there does seem to be a UTR-style market for connecting tennis pros of all levels with parents and players seeking instruction.

Take us out, James Yroksi with a Long Lost Siblings….