Mailbag: Which Player Has the Biggest Upside Right Now?

As the unusual 2020 tennis season nears its end, which players are poised for a big breakout next year?
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Housekeeping:

• Our most recent podcast, longtime ATP tour manager/troubleshooter/consigliere, Weller Evans.

• This week’s guest, Thomas Gilovich, chair of the Cornell psychology department and a leading light in behavioral economics, explains why we like dominant champs—provided they are in individual sports. And Britt Collens explains this.

Guillermo Vilas comes to Netflix.

• Vilas aside: Note the tweener he hits at the 3:30 mark. Can anyone recall a tweener before that?

• For our American audience, please vote on Tuesday. If not before.

Onward…

Mailbag

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

If you could buy stock in a tennis player (male or female) at their current price, who would it be? In other words: Which tennis player has the biggest upside as of now?
—@ I can’t seem to find the person who asked this via Twitter

• As always, it depends on price. And it depends on investment goals. And risk threshold. There are the value stocks and growth stocks. As far as stocks undervalued by the market….Jannik Sinner and Iga Swiatek would have been good picks a month ago. But the market has caught up. Carlos Alcaraz is probably trading cheaper right now than Lorenzo Musetti. Coco Gauff is having a rough quarter, she is still a strong buy. Alexander Zverev and Aryna Sabalenka have had a nice uptick these past few weeks, though I would recommend neither. Not yet anyway.

If we are looking for real upside, what about the players who are, say, No. 40-60 but capable of halving their rankings. This is where I would park my shekels. A player like Casper Ruud who started 2020 in the mid 50s and will likely end in the mid 20s. Or a resurgent Victoria Azarenka (who started the year outside the top 60 and could finish inside the top 10.) That, to me, is a better play than trying to find a unicorn.

The analogy of athletes to securities is as unseemly as it is un-fresh. But the parallels are indisputable and it’s a heathy exercise. It’s reminder that growth doesn’t come overnight. That charts don’t move in straight lines. That there are stronger and weaker quarters. That some innovations and rebrands and personnel moves work better than others. That it’s easy to hype; and easy to overlook the steady presences.

As a possible question triggered by this. Gael Monfils had a very strong start of 2020, including winning two tournaments and nearly defeating Novak Djokovic in Dubai. Then COVID-19 hit, and he's had a miserable return: 0-4 in matches and winning only one set. At age 34, can he bounce back, or might we be seeing the end of his memorable career?
Rob Ritchie

• For the record, Rob sent this before Monfils called a press conference for Tuesday then—after eliminating fears that he was retiring—announced that he was shutting it down for the season. Which, for all intents, he had done already. The guy was dazzling for the first two months of the year; and awful—like, unrecognizably awful—for the two months since the COVID reset. Monfils is, improbably, 34. And athleticism, his great gift, tends not to age well. But by his own admission, he doesn’t always crash into walls pushing the limits of his training. He can win playing defense. His girlfriend is on tour, which also might add to his longevity.

We periodically get questions positioning Monfils as a disappointment. But I have a hard time biting here. You could argue—and many do—he is the most extraordinary athlete ever to play the sport. But I think that’s a narrow definition of “athlete.” And while he hasn’t won majors, he hasn’t scraped the bottom of the tennis barrel. He is closing in on 500 wins, $20 million and spent considerable time in the top 10.

Also—and… I will tie myself to the mast and… avoid invoking Nick…Kyrg….never mind—Monfils has discharged his duties with such lightness and joy that you, strenuously, want to avoid criticism. He’s the kind of person you want in your workforce. There’s a generosity of spirit and desire to entertain and such an innocuousness. This may be his hallmark—even more than the ability to jump three meters in the air to hit an overhead. Bring some joy to the job and it really changes the framing. People are inclined to say, “If he cared more about putting on a show than winning Wimbledon, well, where’s the harm in that?”

As a new father myself I’m having a hard time understanding Sam Querrey’s decision to bring his infant son halfway across the globe during the middle of a pandemic. He certainly has the means to do so and it is well within his rights to do what he feels is best for his family but his handling of his positive COVID test and subsequent “escape” from Russia leaves much to be desired. I also have to ask why isn’t the Sam Querrey story getting more attention by the major tennis outlets here in the U.S.? Tennis.com/ESPN/Sports Illustrated, including yourself, have barely mentioned it (forgive me I’ve you’ve discussed it on Twitter). I first heard about it via Yahoo Sports news which is hardly a go to source for breaking tennis news. Thank you and hope all is well.
Ryan

• Fair enough. The question now: how will the ATP respond and what kind of sanctions will Querrey face. Me? I can’t imagine why Querrey would take his wife and young son on an overseas trip during a global pandemic. Breaking quarantine was not the height of social responsibility. But, having tested positive, I can understand fully the instinct to do everything in your power to get you and our family out of such an unstable situation. “I’m in a strange country. I don’t speak the language. Policy is unclear. Candidly, my confidence level in this government and its treatment of westerners might not be optimal. I’m getting outta here and will deal with the consequences later.”

Great coverage as usual on the French Open and the implications on the GOAT race. One question I have is why are only Slams typically discussed? Yes, Djokovic is behind in the Slam race, but he has a winning head-to-head record against both his rivals, is the only man to hold all four Slams at the same time since Laver, is the only guy to have won all nine Masters events, has the highest ELO rating of any man ever, stacks up well in number of weeks at No. 1, etc. I think Djokovic is not striving to catch up to his peers, he’s already leading the race. I analyze numbers for a living and if I had to rank the big three on demonstrated performance, I’d say Djokovic, Nadal, Federer. I think it would be interesting to put a bunch of statisticians in a room and create a GOAT scorecard with points for various accomplishments and see where the big three fallout (as well as former greats).
Paul Haskins, Wilmington, N.C.

• We all give different weight to different criteria. Which is both the fun and the frustration of these discussions. But for a variety of reasons, the majors are the four coins of the realm, the four pillars holding up the entire revival tent. They have the biggest draws, biggest purses, biggest durations on the calendar, biggest ration of sets demanded of male players. Every signifier suggests that these tournaments matter the most. This, incidentally, is part of what makes the players’ push to squeeze the majors for more revenue a bit problematic. It makes sense. And it’s easy to argue that the players are underpaid, especially relative to revenue. But the more money earned in the majors—already, a few wins at major can pay more than a title at a 250 or 500—the more diluted the run-of-the-mill events.

I have a unique suggestion. Since 2020 was an unusual season due to COVID-19, why not in 2021 play two Wimbledon Championships? The first one can have an asterisk as retro 2020 champion and the champion of succeeding Wimbledon would be the 2021 champion.
Leslie H.

• If we have Cologne 1 and Cologne 2 this week, why not two Wimbledons? There are practical concerns—the dates on the calendar. There are horticultural concerns: imagine the grass after FOUR weeks of tennis. There are economic concerns—are television and sponsors interested in ponying up twice? But I like Leslie’s thinking. All norms are off these days. So why not consider what, a year ago, was unthinkable? And it is strange that history will contain a blank space for “Wimbledon 2020.”

Thanks for your excellent reporting. I've enjoyed your coverage and outlook on tennis for years. Please help me understand why the women don't have to play best-of-five-sets for the Grand Slams—yet they make the same prize money as the men and earn the Grand Slam recognition. It can't and shouldn't be because the Grand Slams are longer tournaments. FYI, I am a 70-year-old lesbian feminist. So what's the deal? It's been bugging me forever. Feel free to pass this around. Particularly to (I don't know how to reach) Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Venus and Serena Williams, Tracy Austin, Mary Carillo.
Roxanne Betesh

• It’s a reasonable question. I feel like we need an FAQ. As I see it: A) we pay for quality, not quantity. Actors don’t make more for longer movies. Concerts aren’t priced according to the length of the set list. Athletes in other sports aren’t paid more if games go to overtime. These aren’t hourly workers; they are entertainers and “duration of shift” doesn’t change the value proposition. B) “Sets played” is just one metric. Length of rally, time of match, games-per-set. The day, say, Djokovic beat Ricardas Berankis 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in 83 minutes, Martina Trevisan beat Coco Gauff 7-5 in the third in 132 minutes. Should Djokovic get paid less? C) If we are just going by length, the obviously strategy is for the WTA to approach tournaments and say, “We’re willing to play best-of-seven. Please kindly compensate us accordingly.”

The debate rages on about the GOAT, but at this point there should be no doubt about the GROAT: Nadal vs. Djokovic is the greatest rivalry of all time in men’s tennis. Not only have they met more times than any other pair, but the balance is tremendous as well. Djokovic has won more matches overall, but Nadal has won more of their matches at the Slams. They’ve met in all four majors, at the Olympics, and in Davis Cup competition. Each player has defeated the other at a major at least once on grass, hardcourt, and clay. And they have traded places several times atop the leaderboard for most career Master 1000 titles. (Of course, a lot of Federer fanatics will insist that the greatest rivalry has to include him, but that claim is less credible than Simonya Popova’s Hall of Fame credentials.) What sayeth JW?
D. Rabbitt, Morrisville, N.C.

• Bonus points for the Simonya Popova reference. Man, that’s a relic of another time. And more bonus points for GROAT.

Empirically, you are correct. But I would argue that rivalry is more than a quantity. It also contains elements of relationship and dynamic and contrast and representation and narrative. Yes, Chrissy-Martina was a rivalry because they played so many damn times. But it was really shaped and sharpened by all the contours, the stylistic differences, the temperamental differences, the relationship they had with each other.

In the case of Nadal-Federer it had these classic echoes of champion/challenger, of grass/clay, of—crassly—form/function. There was this swaying narrative and these defined plot points and this seminal match. And, of course, you have what has been, overwhelmingly, a warm and generous relationship. Ask casual fans about Nadal/Djokovic and what would they say? How would they characterize it? What’s the most memorable match they’ve had? I suspect most would say the 2012 Australian Open final, though it was known more for its comical length than anything else. An aside: the Djokovic d. Nadal Wimbledon semi from 2018 is on the short list of the Best Matches of the Last 10 Years. Alas, it was eclipsed by the ridiculous Isner/Anderson match that same day that led to both “Wimbledon fifth set finish line” and then a non-competitive final.t

None of this is to discount the Djokovic/Nadal rivalry. They are have played more head-to-head matches than any two male players in the Open era. And as the two youngest members of the Big Three, you would expect that number to grow and their matches to grow in intensity and stakes. But, again, I’d submit that there’s more to rivalry than raw numbers.

As I'm currently teaching my daughters how to play tennis, I'm wondering what is the role of a tennis academy in developing one's game? Did an academy show Nadal how to hit his lefty forehand or teach Roddick how to serve? Or is the main role of an academy to provide structure, ample hitting partners, fitness training etc.? It seems that many of the top players were taught by their parents, and while they may have passed through an academy, it doesn't seem to be the place where they developed the foundations of their game. I wonder if an academy might even stifle creativity and have a negative effect on developing one's talent.
Robert

• Another underrated virtue of tennis: There is no one path to success. The Williams sisters were taught largely by their father on public courts in South Central L.A. (They later availed themselves to academies for training, but hardly had the Infinite Jest experience.) Nadal was taught by curious uncle on a Spanish Island. Other players came through the conventional academies, benefitting from the Cluster Effect, all that accumulated talent—and available practice partners and instruction and spirit of competitive/rivalry and economies of scale—in a single location. It sounds so terribly trite: but do what’s right for you. I suspect it’s an excruciating decision. But make it knowing that there is no “right” answer. And that you can course-correct.

Tennis used to have the tradition of retiring a trophy when a player won a tournament three times. Given Nadal’s run at Roland Garros, and his religious roots notwithstanding, should the Coupe des Mousquetaires be bar mitzvah’d?
Skip Schwarzman

• Well played. Mazel tov. And might I add: your name sounds like a set-up for a Carnac routine. “What do they call a bye given to the highest-ranked Argentine player?”

• Megan F. of Indy has LLS: Andy Samberg and Ugo Humbert

HAVE A GOOD WEEK, EVERYONE!