Mailbag: What Is the Impact of Rafael Nadal's Roland Garros Dominance?

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This week’s Mailbag…..

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

Hi Jon... Just wondering what your thoughts were on the comments on Andy Murray by Mats Wilander of taking up wildcards that could go to younger players and needing to take "a long hard think.” On the one hand, I get that we want our pundits speaking from their experiences at the very highest level and not giving bland comments. On the other hand, don't you think he went too far and was actually a little disrespectful to someone who has done so much for the game?
Alex (London)

• I’m completely in the tank for Mats Wilander. I disagree with him, strenuously, on this point. Not only has Murray earned the right to guide his career as he sees fit; he is precisely why wild cards exists. If we are going to pinch our nose at these exemptions, they should go to a future Hall of Famer who will drive tickets and interest before they go to some players outside the top 300 simply because he is lucky enough to come from the country that hosts the major.

Long as we are recalling this incident, did Nick Kyrgios’s disproportionately aggressive defense of Murray—thereby putting his pal in an awkward spot—remind anyone of a set piece in a 1980s movie? I’m envisioning William Zabka looking at the Cobra Kai guy and thinking, “I appreciate that you had my back; but really, I didn’t need you to jump in with quite that much zeal.”

And long as we are talking Murray, he has suffered another setback and for all intents, shut down his season. Wish him well. And respect that he is entitled to make whatever career decisions he wants. If he still thinks he can win majors, bless him. If he simply wants to compete and score the occasional win—as he did less than two months ago against the U.S. Open finalist—bless him. If he wants to retire tomorrow, that’s his prerogative as well.

1. I'm not sure which is more impressive. The fact that Nadal has won 13 French Opens, or that he is 13-0 in semifinals and 13-0 in finals.

2. In 2015 and ’16, he was struggling with confidence and injuries. No one could be criticized for thinking he was on the steady decline, even on clay, and that his time as the King was over. The dude then just rattles off four in a row at Roland Garros to go with his other streaks of 4 and 5 in a row there. Incredible.
Anthony, Montclair, N.J.

• Federer is done! Nadal has dethroned him at Wimbledon! No, wait, he’s ok. But this time it’s for real: his back had rendered him an old man and Tomas Berdych and Tommy Robredo are beating him in majors…..Djokovic is toast! Or so it was said in 2017. His head is in the clouds. He can’t find motivation. Neither peace, love, nor Agassi can get through to him. It was fun while it lasted, but, behold, an athlete in despair….Serena is done! She’s losing to Virginie Razzano in the early rounds of majors!

Rapid fire points:

1. In the words of Rudy (or was it Ajla?) Tomjanovich: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”

2. A periodic reminder: sports careers are not linear. Your point is also a good reminder that real life happens to athletes. Their marriages can go through rough patches. They can suffer losses and ill parents and concerns that impact their performance.

3. This is precisely why it is a cardinal sin to suggest athletes retire.

4. Credit Steve Weissman with this dig: Nadal had won (at last) four straight French Opens, three different times!

5. 26-0 once Nadal reached the semis of a major isn’t a stat; it’s a punchline. That is an absolute joke.

For sure Nadal makes the short list for greatest sporting competitor in the modern era. Others might be Michael Jordan and Tom Brady. Agree or disagree? Where do you rank him?
Ben, Queens, N.Y.

• Three immediate thoughts:

1) I think we need to draw a sharp distinction between individual and team sports. Jordan and Brady and LeBron and Messi et al have teammates, which makes “competitor” a different exercise.

2)We always say, “clutch is impossible to quantify.” But, again, Nadal going 26-0 when reaching the semifinals of the French Open is, statistically significant.

3) Speaking of a record, it’s been distorted over the last four years, but go back and look at peak Serena and you might have an analog for Nadal.

This week's column and chat on gender focused on the number of sets. Now here is another: I've always thought it was preferential/sexist to have the men play Sundays. Close out the tourney, treated as the main/feature act, while the women, on Saturday, are like openers. Thoughts? And what if a tourney flipped that schedule?

• This ties in with best-of-three versus best-of-five. If one gender is playing longer format than the other, isn’t it only fair to maximize their recovery time? I do think your point, though, is valid in terms of symbolism. The very last match—the great coda, the last reverb on the guitar—of every major is the men’s final. The message: this is the match that matters most.

For all his amazing successes, something stands out about Rafa's extraordinary feats. Grand Slams often demonstrate how the draw can open up, where in some cases one of the Big Three can play the unseeded/less-formidable opponent right until the finals (see Nadal dodging Isner/Fognini, Zverev, Theim... or 2017 U.S. Open, where he didn't have to play a top 20 player at all...) Now. You can only put your head down and play your best tennis against whomever is across the net from you, as Nadal does expertly, but there is one tournament where you can't evade top players even for a single round: the ATP Finals. And Nadal has never closed that deal, to Djoker and Fed's six apiece. To me this is as glaring an omission on a GOAT's resume as Fed's head to head deficiencies or Djoker's three-less-Slams. Thoughts, my good man?
Jeremy from Calgary

• No question, “Success at the ATP Finals” is not your chief piece of evidence when making the Nadal GOAT case. But I hardly think it’s the equivalent of three fewer majors. Everything about this event militates against Nadal’s success. It’s a sub-optimal surface for him. It’s a lousy time of the year, when his body is at its most beaten up. The round-robin format and the best-of-three also doesn’t serve him especially well. (Conversely, it speaks so well of Federer and Novak that they finish strong.)

On other side of the ledger…..

I hate to add to the GOAT debate and agree we should wait until the Big Three are done to settle accounts. I do wonder whether the Olympics should be included, since it is the only tournament coupled with Slams, i.e. Steffi's Golden Slam. In that case Rafa is currently in the lead...
Justin K

• Point taken. Even if the Olympics only account for half a major—note: best-of-three—Andy Murray has just surged ahead of Stanislas.

You commented on Simona Halep losing to Iga Swiatek in your 50 Thoughts après Roland Garros. In hindsight, not such a bad loss. But is Elina Svitolina getting over losing to Nadia Podoroska anytime soon? I'm still baffled by how someone that talented could lose that match.
Rob, Miami Beach

• It’s interesting what losses do and don’t age well, even as an event progresses. But, yes, I am with you on Svitolina. You are a top five player and you lose in straight sets to a 23-year-old qualifier? That’s a hell of a drawing board you’re going to.

There's no getting around the recklessness of Alexander Zverev. BUT, the difference between the fourth round and the quarterfinal payouts was about $111,000. If he gives his opponent a walkover, he leaves with $0. Can one blame him for thinking to himself that he's not as sick as he really is with that much money on the line? Maybe Zverev doesn't need the money, but what about someone ranked in the No. 70-100 range, who may not see a potential $100,000 payday again all year? Isn't it incumbent on the tournaments to have a financial structure that doesn't incentivize untruthfulness and lack of safety? Give the player a portion of the next round purse, perhaps? I realize that times are tough for tournaments, but I don't see another way to protect the health and integrity of the sport during this time.
—Jim Smerbeck

• A few thoughts.

1)You would like to think the moral imperative trumps financial imperative.

2) Zverev has not only almost $23 million for his career—and probably as much from adidas—but had won $225k for the tournament, which he would have kept.

2) Even if he were motivated by money, the rancid publicity this generated surely has cost him more than $100,000.

3) As I see it, the structure is fine. Even if he had pulled out before the event, he would have received his first-round prize money.

Please submit a rule change to outlaw bouncing the tennis ball more than once or twice before a serve. (Think Roscoe Tanner, one or two bounces, max.) If I get to attend next year’s U.S. Open, I’m bringing my umpire’s counter clicker to log the number of bounces by Djokovic in one match. I’m guessing he averages about 1,500 bounces/average five set match. Quick calculation—assume 18 service games averaging 6 points/game and 50% second serves at 9 bounces/serve—18 x (6 + 3) x 9 = 1,458. Simply unnecessary.
Bill in N.J.

• Bring your clicker and you risk carpel tunnel syndrome. I wonder if this ball-bouncing isn’t like shrieking. There was a time when the WTA was reluctant to confront grunting because it implicated star players. The strategy, instead, was to try and root it out at lower levels, so it was a one-generation issue.

Long as we’re here, know what’s a terribly imprecise stat? Time of match. Djokovic and Nadal could win 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 and the match would have taken 90 minutes, simply by dint of their mannerisms and rituals. We sometimes say, “He’s spent 13 hours on court this tournament” and the implication is that this is hard labor. When half that time is spent bouncing the ball—or waiting for a roof to close; or a sitting during a bathroom break, both of which are also “on the clock”—it becomes a diluted metric.

If Nadal wins his 14th Roland Garros next June (which appears likely, barring injury), he will be two Slams behind Serena and one behind Steffi. At this rate, and with the gap in talent evident between him and Djokovic and the rest of the field, it’s difficult to see how he doesn’t match and maybe surpass Serena’s Slam total.

1. Is it even fair to compare men and women’s Slam totals?
2. Do you think Serena might start feeling a little threatened as Rafa gets closer?
3. How does Novak make up a three Slam difference over the next 3-4 years if Rafa keeps winning Roland Garros and one or two more U.S. Opens?
—Dave H.

• Interesting. I don’t think there’s much comparison—or jealousy/motivation—between men and women here. Just look at last week. Novak was going for his 18th major. We all said that he would creep within one of Nadal and two of Federer, further distancing himself from Sampras. Not once did I hear anyone say, “He would tie Chris and Martina.”

It’s interesting to think about this in terms of best-of-three sets versus best-of-five. One could argue that Serena’s feat was less impressive since she need only win 14 sets per major, as opposed to 21. You could just as easily note: she didn’t have the built-in cushioning, the greater sample size (and thus chances of reversion to the mean, i.e. her superiority) if the matches were, potentially, 40% longer. If she has a best-of-five format, does she lose to, say, Roberta Vinci that afternoon in New York?

The one question I have remaining from the #FrenchOpen is what was the music that sounded like an ice cream truck I would occasionally hear during coverage on court?
Name misplaced

• Guy Forget has all your flavors, guaranteed to satisfy. (Wait a second.) But no, it was not an ice cream truck. Roland Garros has all these weird techno-sound clips that play at random times. Changeovers, warm-ups, between matches. They are not songs and they are not quite corporate jingles. They are these weird earworm-inducing snippets that, allegedly, add ambiance, I guess.

Shots, Miscellany

• Tennis Channel and ATP Media, the broadcast arm of the ATP as the governing body of men’s professional tennis, have concluded a multiyear television and digital rights deal that will make the network the exclusive U.S. television home of the majority of ATP Tour events. As part of an agreement that begins in 2021, the channel will be the sole American broadcaster of the high-profile ATP Masters 1000 events—tournaments that are surpassed in prestige only by the sport’s four majors (the Grand Slams). This means that for the first time Tennis Channel viewers will watch all of these competitions live from opening day through the trophy presentations. The network has had live coverage at all of these events in the past, but now will show all matches at ATP Masters 1000 events played in North America.

• The ATP has its prize money reductions approved for ATP 500 and ATP 250 events in the 1st Quarter of 2021 (i.e., prior to Indian Wells 1000). These prize money reductions follow the current measures used in 2020: 50% reduction for no fans on-site; 40% reduction for limited capacity (i.e., up to 50% capacity); 20% reduction for over 50% capacity

• Charleston Tennis LLC, the parent company of the Volvo Car Stadium, Volvo Car Open and LTP Daniel Island, has announced plans, in partnership with the City of Charleston, to renovate and modernize the Volvo Car Stadium. The 20-year-old city owned facility will undergo extensive upgrades to enhance the stadium experience for patrons, performers and event management, allowing the stadium to attract world-class athletes and performers to Daniel Island. The renovations will be funded by Ben and Kelly Navarro, the owners of Charleston Tennis LLC, as a gift to the City of Charleston.