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Mailbag: Given His Dominance, Should Nadal Be the Top Seed at the French Open?

Hey, everyone….

• Here’s a quick Mailbag. We’ll have seed reports later in the week.

• As always, Tennis Channel has you covered from Roland Garros.

• And while we’re here: check out the new Tennis App….

• Texas and its Fab Five wins the women’s NCAA title; Florida wins the men’s…and Colette Lewis, naturally, has you covered from the NCAA championships.




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

Any chance they’ll seed Nadal at No. 2 this year? Medvedev earned his No. 2 ranking but the chances of him getting to the second week are slim. It would be sad to have a possibility of Novak and Rafa in the semi over the final.

• We get precedent. We get slippery slopes arguments. We get policy. We get that the French Federation has agreed to show fidelity to the tours’ rankings.

But at some point, common sense has to prevail, n’est ce pas? The 13-time champ (who didn’t drop a set in seven matches last year) is seeded third. And the guy who’s a spot above him has NEVER BEFORE WON A FRENCH OPEN MATCH…and has a career record on clay of 11-20. Nobody benefits from this. Not Nadal. Not Djokovic, the top seed who might now face his rival in the semis. Not the tournament. Not the integrity of seedings.

Irony: my strong suspicion is that Medvedev himself wouldn’t mind the downgrade. To his credit, he has been side-splittingly self-deprecating (realistic?) about his awfulness on the surface. “Please default me; it would be better for everybody” is in the running for quote of the year. You say that the second seed—and prize money for reaching the finals—is the reward for being ranked No. 2. But, as the correspondent notes, Medvedev’s chances of reaching the second week are so thin—6’6”, 182 pounds thin, you might say—that this is not really a consideration.

Can you graciously explain to me how Rafa Nadal can win his 10th title in Rome and STILL possibly be seeded BEHIND Daniil Medvedev at Roland Garros? I'm struggling to understand this. Medvedev has had a wretched clay court season and could quite possibly lose another first round in Paris but he could still be seeded above the emperor of Roland Garros. I might be missing something but the ATP ranking system is insane. It doesn't seem right to me that Rafa isn't automatically top seed in Paris every year.
Keith Jacobson

• It’s not the ranking system, so much as it’s the seeding “system” that is no system at all, but rather a recitation of the rankings. Two points: A) We are calling for some subjectivity now. But departing from the ranking and allowing for bias (and Wimbledon’s formula contains inherent bias) can be problematic as well. B) There’s really a philosophical question here. Are seedings supposed to be predictive? Or rewards for accumulated past success?

It was disappointing to see Fed blow a 4-2 lead in the final set in Geneva to lose his first match. I know that he's 39. I know that he's only played three matches in more than a year, and he was playing on clay for the first time since 2019. What could I really expect? Still, he needs matches and the only way to get them is to win. Now he's stuck with only practice and the next tournament is a major. With one match, he goes right into best-of-5 on his worst surface. Honestly, he'll be lucky to win a match or two in Paris. So where does that leave him for grass? Not any place good. I find it hard to believe that Fed will be anywhere near the level he needs to be to make a run at Wimbledon. Let's face it: "Tom Brady" does not happen in tennis.

• Insert Phil Mickelson reference here—while noting that this question was submitted in advance on Sunday’s golf result. As Michelle notes, it’s not just that Federer arrives to the major he’s won the fewest times, with a 2021 record of 1-2 (this after missing all but 11 months of 2020). It’s that he has little match play; and the match play he does have yielded two demoralizing defeats. Realistically, assuming Federer keeps his current schedule, this is about honoring the tournament (and perhaps smelling the courtside geraniums for the last time) and getting some match play as it is his legitimately contending.

Side points: 1) A few of you asked about the shortened interval between the French and Wimbledon. I suspect most players will be fine with it. But Federer could use more time on grass and less on clay. He designs his schedule to peak for Wimbledon, and in four weeks we’ll have a much better and truer sense of his game’s GPS coordinates. 2) We say cavalierly that Federer and Djokovic have “only” won Roland Garros once, implying that they are both average clay-courters. The periodic reminder: this is much more about Nadal’s dominance. Absent Rafa, Federer and Djokovic are likely two of the towering clay-courters in history.

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This is a semantic quibble, but that's what the Mailbag is for, right? You called Barty and Swiatek "co-defending champs" at the French Open. I've seen/heard other people refer to them that way as well. Unless there was a tie the previous year (like there used to be in college football) there cannot be co-defending champs. There was a French Open last year. Swiatek—only Swiatek—won the women's tournament. Therefore, Swiatek -- only Swiatek -- is the defending champ.

Nothing against Barty. It's more than reasonable to note she won the French in 2019 and didn't play there last year (for very good reasons). But she ain't the—or even a—defending champ. Just because she won it the last time she played it doesn’t make her a defending champ. (If it did, Steffi Graf would be a co-defending champ if she entered this year’s French Open. Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open, too.) I recognize that Barty still has her rankings points from 2019, so you can accurately say she’s defending those. But she’s not defending her 2019 championship. They played another French Open in 2020. (Cf. Wimbledon, where the 2019 winners, Halep and Djokovic, can still be considered defending champs this year.)

The same goes for the U.S. Open later this year, by the way. Osaka and Thiem are the defending champs. Andreescu and Nadal are not co-defending champs with them.

• You are right, of course. This was a nod to a) the wacky 2020 schedule; b) Barty’s decision not to defend in 2020, i.e. her entering the 2021 event with a 7-0 Roland Garros winning streak; c) the fact that both enter having played superlative clay court tennis this spring.

An ode to Roland Garros:

Servebots beware. Training slackers beware. Front runners beware. One dimensional players beware. Deficient tacticians beware. Mentally weak players beware. Hit-and-hope, serve-and-one and grip-and-rip players beware. Imposters beware. Perseverance. Grit. Heart. Pain. Determination. No quarter given. None taken. The best of five on the Terre Battue. The Surface of Truth. To many, the crowning achievement in tennis.

• Love it. Here are some other caveats….Defending women’s champs (in the last quarter-century, only Justine Henin has backed up her title, 2005/2006). Complainers. (The fans whistle like nowhere else). Male players not named Nadal.

But Fernando’s overall point is a good one. It’s very easy to make the case that no one event demands more of the competitors.

What do you make of Karen Khachanov? Back in 2018 he looked like a future star. I can't figure him out. Does his game need more time to develop? Does he just not have "it"?

• It’s terribly mushy—and probably not altogether fair—but that’s essentially my conclusion. He doesn’t have “it.” He has the Safin-esque physique and moves surprisingly well. Love the whipcrack strokes. Love the ability to change direction. From my limited interactions, he could not be a nicer guy. (Digression: in my experience, athletes who get married at an early age tend either to be either strikingly immature or strikingly mature. KK falls into the latter category.) But it doesn’t obscure the fact that he’s not the guy you want to back when it’s 4-4 in the decisive set.

You reference 2018. That was the year he had Nadal in serious trouble at the U.S. Open. Yet each time the match tightened, Nadal charged and Khachanov retreated. Final score: 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(7, 7-6(3). Sadly, it’s become something symbolic of his career. Then again, he just turned 25 the other day.

• A friend who asked to remain nameless asked about Belarus and where its two tennis stars—Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka—stand w/r/t the country’s strongman leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and what might be charitably called anti-democratic actions. Perhaps the players will be asked to comment at Roland Garros. For now, both have been muted. A journalist friend stationed in Moscow writes:

“I know Belarusian athletes who support the opposition (members of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation) and have spoken out against Lukashenko have been critical of Sabalenka for not voicing support for the movement. Here is an interview Sabalenka gave last year about the criticism against her (in Russian). The most vocal athletes include basketball player Yelena Leuchanka, decathlete Andrei Krauchanka and swimmer Alia ksandra Herasimenia.”

One note of caution here: as we’ve seen in other contexts (within and outside of sports) lack of condemnation can mean support. It can also mean fear and duress. It’s legitimate to ask Belarusian athletes where they stand on their country’s leader and their country’s turmoil. It is also legitimate for them to decline to comment.

Shots, Miscellany

RIP John Powless

• The USTA Foundation, the charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association Incorporated (USTA), has launched the “Rally for the Future” campaign, designed to raise $20 million over the next three years to support more than 250 National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) chapters across the U.S. Rally for the Future is the largest single fundraising campaign in USTA Foundation history and builds on the success of “Rally to Rebuild,'' which raised more than $6.5 million in 2020 as an emergency grant program to support NJTL chapters facing hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic. All NJTL chapters remained open in 2020 with the help of financial grants and technical assistance provided by the USTA Foundation. In addition, 209 chapters provided at least four weeks of tennis programming, while 186 chapters provided at least four weeks of educational programming throughout the pandemic

• World TeamTennis will host its 2021 season at California’s Indian Wells Tennis Garden November 13-28. Five teams will participate in the league’s 46th season, contesting a total of 31 matches over 16 days in the venue’s Stadium 2.

“We are extremely excited to announce that we are hosting our 2021 season at the greatest tennis destination site in the world,” said WTT chairman and CEO Eric Davidson. “The state-of-the-art facility, world class players, incredible weather and destination location will make the 2021 season one of the most enjoyable yet for our fans.”