Mailbag: Will the 'Next Gen' Players Ever Catch the Big Three?

Daniil Medvedev's loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final was yet another example of the Big Three's continued dominance.
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Some post-Australia speed round…..

• 50 Parting Thoughts are here.

• We'll do an Australian Open wrap and lookahead podcast this week.

Onward….

Mailbag

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

"The next gen" is soon to be the "never gen." A pathetic showing in the Australian Open final. These next genners aren't really young anymore by tennis standards. Do you agree it's possible the Thiems and Medvedevs and Tsitsipas' of the world will, like possibly with Prince Charles, just be passed over for the "Next next gen?"
Dominic Ciafardini, N.Y.

• That’s too harsh by one order of magnitude. (Though I am a sucker for a Prince Charles analogy.) But your point is well taken. Raise your hand if you’re old enough to recall the time when Jo Tsonga and Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer were, allegedly, getting close. Then we wondered when Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic would break through the glass ceiling. Now Medvedev (25), Thiem (27), Zverev (24 in a few weeks) trudge through desert and mostly end up with mouthfuls of sand. Only one of the aforementioned has a major. That, of course, is Thiem. And that was when Nadal didn’t post, Federer didn’t post. And Djokovic was defaulted.

There are a lot of factors here. We should not lose sight of the big one: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are toweringly, generationally great players. There’s also the “weight of the occasion” factor. Part of this is best-of-five versus best-of-three. And part of this is that the Novak Djokovic who shows up in the Australian Open final is not the Novak Djokovic who shows on a Wednesday afternoon for a round robin event in London. (And as Diego Schwartzman can attest: The Rafa Nadal who shows up in the Roland Garros semifinals is not the Nadal who shows up two weeks earlier in Rome.) Part of this is the “compound interest,” the accumulated scar tissue. The longer the Big Three reign and the older the rest of the field gets, the more the pressure mounts on the challengers, not the champions.

Mr. Wertheim. I've been a longtime reader of your mailbag, and as an aspiring journalist, I've enjoyed a lot of your work both sports and nonsports related.

I read your Osaka-Williams post-match breakdown and tweet about Osaka's Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities. I totally understand the comparisons with Serena Williams—both pioneers transcending the sport and bringing in new fans and players globally, similar playing styles, one idolizing the other. But I'm surprised nobody ever brings up Steffi Graf when discussing Osaka. Graf is the only other player that comes to mind when I think of similar off-court wallflower and on-court killer. Osaka's takedown of Williams reminded me a lot of what Graf did to Evert and Navratilova at the end of their careers.
Spencer

• I appreciate that. My challenge: “Name me another athlete who marries Osaka's endearingly sheepish/self-deprecating personality with this fava-beans-and-chianti personality when she competes....” There were good answers. Stef Curry, the Greek Freak. Someone jokingly said Bob Gibson.

But I struggle to think of an analog to Osaka. In the best sense of the words, she has this quirky, whimsical, and endearingly unscripted manner. She admits insecurities; she stops mid-answer to questions to admire questioners’ outfits; she signs the courtside camera with an admonition to her sister to stop mucking up the groupchat. Then she has real convictions and sense of self. And when she competes, she is ruthless. Steffi Graf—whom we as a tennis community don’t discuss nearly enough—had the ruthlessness down. She was shy and reserved, but I wouldn’t describe her as quirky. In fact, Monica Seles probably comes closer to Osaka.

In any case, for Osaka, it’s both a lovely combination and a reminder that people are complex. You can destroy an opponent, giving her no quarter and snuffing out her opportunities, as if grinding a cigarette in an ashtray…and then ask her how she prefers to be addressed.

How many Slams do you think Osaka will win by the time she retires? 10 to 15 seems to be a conservative guess? She hasn't won Wimby yet but sooner or later, most hardcourt greats figure out grass, as Novak did. If she can win French a few times, I think she can get into the 15 to 20, Martina/Chrissie heights. Agree?
K.V.

• I’ll resist putting a number on it. She has won four of the eight she has entered. So at that clip (recalling as it does Serena and Seles and Graf) we’re talking double figures. It really depends on the extent to which she transfers her skills on hard court to clay and grass.

1. I’m surprised Tsitsipas is allowed to wear a tennis ball-colored shirt.

2. I don’t want to make any wild accusations because Melbourne is 16 hours ahead, but it seems like they put the men on at night/prime time, and women during daytime (in Australia). Seems a little sexist, mate.

3. Am I crazy? I kind of love Courtside Karen.
Paul R.

• 1. I’m surprised more players don’t complain about this. Tsitsipas is hardly the only one. To me the other distraction would be the strings that are the exact same color as the ball.

2. Not only did both finals start at the same time, but I would commend Tennis Australia for being strenuously even here.

3. Full disclosure: I’m sort of with you. The OCD reference was over the line. But if there are drunk and obnoxious fans—slurring their words, and, in turn the myth that this is a sleepy, patrician sport—so much the better. Plus, it gave us all some mid-tournament entertainment.

Hey Jon. Would you like to be called Jon or Jonathan?

You: Jon
OK, Jonathan, I like your column and I’ve read it for 11 years.
Deepak, New York

• Thanks. This, of course, is a reference to Osaka’s unforced error during the trophy presentation ceremony. People who plucked this off social media accused her of “savagely trolling her rival,” which could not have been further from the truth. This was a lovely moment. She just failed to stick the landing. Speaking of….

naomi-osaka-aus-open-win

There is once again an outcry over Chris Evert's "racist" commentary during a Serena Williams match, specifically her recent loss to Naomi Osaka. Twitter is abuzz and I have also seen multiple news reports/commentaries about this. This seems to happen every few months now—I guess every time Serena plays and Evert commentates on it. As I don't listen to TV commentary (preferring radio), I don't know if there is any truth to it. None of the tweets or articles I have read quotes anything in particular from Evert that would be considered racist. Some have suggested it's "subtle." As a person of color, I know perfectly well how subtle (or not) racism can be. But I also don't think any and every criticism of a player of color by a white commentator is necessarily racist. You are someone who knows and works with Evert—and, I suppose, has listened to her commentary. You are also someone who I believe is deeply concerned about racism as an issue. If this doesn't put you in a tight spot, I would love to hear your thoughts on what happened.
Tennis fan, Washington D.C.

• Against better judgment, I’ll bite on this. And I’ll start with Osaka. To me, the truly poignant part of her Jenny/Jennifer question: the implied acknowledgement that the way we address people matters; the way we allow people to define and present themselves matters; the idea that words have weight and consequences. Twitter was indeed abuzz about Chris Evert last week. Just as it was when another commentator turned the identity of the names embroidered on Naomi Osaka’s BLM masks into a guessing game…or another commentator talked about “the blacks”…or the persistence of animal metaphors to describe human beings. Words matter.

Specific to Chris Evert, I didn’t hear the Serena/Osaka broadcast. I gather there was not a specific complaint or remark, but rather an accumulation of perceived subtle slights. I can tell you that, in my estimation, as a human being, she is top-shelf, the equivalent of an 18-time major winner. I have seen so many small acts of kindness and graciousness—when there are no cameras and she has nothing to gain. Her foundation is a model of philanthropy—and, quietly, has been for years. Follow her on social media and you’ll find someone filled with empathy and an open contempt for injustice. (Pet theory: a generation ago, she was cast as an establishment conservative—a tidy and handy contrast with Martina’s fiercely left-of-center sensibility. In truth, this was more about Chris’ personal friendship with George Bush than any political leanings. But the label stuck. And is perhaps informing some of the backlash today.)

Is Chris Evert racist? No. Is ill intent necessary to cause harm? No. At the risk of scanning naïve, is it possible the system is working? Fans are voicing their displeasure and calling attention to remarks and tone they perceive to be insensitive. The speakers (and networks) see and hear this disapproval and take it into account. Nobody is getting fired or cancelled. But there is a new awareness and a commitment to being better.

Jon, I would LOVE to see Hsieh Su-Wei and Dustin Brown play doubles together. Can you imagine?
Chris

• Done. Love it. We took the (borderline unprofessional) liberty of passing this on to Dustin—who is as cool as you suspect, and whom you should be following @dreddytennis. He responds: “Well, I’m sure it would/could be very fun. Why not?”

We, as a tennis community, need to make this happen.

Pressure may be a privilege, but spare a thought for the burden on Serena Williams as she tries to match Margaret Court’s all time major-title record. If a 39-year-old entered the Aussie Open with roughly a third of Serena's major title haul, her fourth-round victory over an in-form, 22 year-old top 10 opponent would be heralded as a heroic, age-defying achievement. The fans would have been ecstatic watching her take out the world number two in the quarterfinals. (See Jimmy Connors, 1991 U.S. Open.) The loss to Osaka in the semis would seem less like a crushing blow than another late career milestone in a first-ballot hall of fame career. Are fans like me expecting too much? Is Serena putting too much pressure on herself to nab a 24th slam?
Teddy C., NYC.

• How’s this for pressure: every time you take the court, the player on the other side has a chance to make history and redefine their career. And seldom does anyone expect this opponent to win. As for the 24th major, we’ve covered this before but I wish Serena’s camp hadn’t made that such an issue. She doesn’t need it for her credentials. It’s a silly, apples-to-oranges comparison. (Added negative: it gives oxygen to Margaret Court and her vile homophobia.)

You skipped over the obvious parallel to Jessica Pegula: Carling Bassett. Her father John owned several pro sports teams, including in the USFL where he butted heads with Donald Trump over the league's future. He signed Dolphins stars Csonka, Kiick and Warfield to the WFL. From the Carling Breweries family.
Jim Bartle

• Good one. Bassett was also a stalwart of truth and decency against USFL rival owner—a serial liar—Donald Trump. Here’s my friend Jeff on the subject. Buy his book. Unless it’s immediately relevant to her tennis, I propose an ordinance forbidding us from mentioning Pegula’s parents. We get the association. Now we ought to focus on her and her accelerating results……And we would be remiss if we failed to mention that “Kiick” is Jim Kiick, father of WTA player Allie Kiick.

With all of the excitement of the Aussie Open, I feel like the media unfairly glossed over the retirement of American player Nicole Gibbs. A standout at Stanford, had some great wins on the tour, and was an unabashed champion of women's rights and mental health. Her candor will be greatly missed.
Jeff

• Amen. Here’s her announcement. (Now headed to law school.) She will be missed. Though you suspect we have not heard the last of her.

Do you know how we talk about greatest players to never win a major? I have an idea for trivia: major winners who never achieved No. 1 ranking. My favorite: Stan the Man!
@rdafreethinker

• Good one. Stan is up there. He never even got to No. 2. Two others who spring immediately to mind: double major winners Petra Kvitova and Mary Pierce.

Shots, Miscellany

• The USTA today announced that it will partner with the U.S. Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) and Professional Tennis Registry (PTR) to grant up to $100,000 in scholarships to current or incoming college students enrolled in Professional Tennis Management programs, a move to support students looking to pursue careers in the tennis industry.

A total of 50 students can receive up to $2,000 in scholarship money for tuition, provided they are enrolled in a Professional Tennis Management program during the 2021-22 academic year. Ten universities and colleges in America have designed PTM programs for students who want to learn the coaching and business skills necessary to be successful in the tennis industry.