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Mailbag: Five Thoughts on Reilly Opelka's Candid Interview

Plus discussion on the underhand serve as a tactic, Iga Świątek on the first anniversary of her triumph at the French Open and more.

While wondering …

a) Why the ATP appears to be using linespeople and not Hawk-Eye Live at the tour finals when the technology has been successful.

b) Whether Regency Enterprise’s interest in the WTA might result in a documentary series, to go along with the cash infusion.

c) If Indian Wells would be a different tournament if the courts were faster and less gritty.

… let's get to this week's Mailbag.


Jon: What did you think of Reilly Opelka’s interview that seems to be getting a lot of attention on social media?
Dustin P., Ohio

• My two headlines: “Tennis’s Bad Art Friend” and “Oh-oh-oh-Reilly, auto-parse.” I’ll be selling merch in the back after the show.

So if you missed it, here was the interview. I alternated between applauding and cringing. It was a great, lively exchange and all credit to Opelka for his blazing candor. We all want players to open up, to express themselves, to resist one-match-at-a-time, my-serve-was-working, I-had-to-step-it-up-on-the-big-points clichés and pablum. Give me Opelka’s honesty and ironclad opinions over benign blandness any day. Absolute top marks for speaking his truth. I hope he knows that his honesty is appreciated. I hope any fallout has no chilling effect on his willingness to remain a blunt instrument going forward.

Why the cringing? There was so much to pick apart.

1) First, any art devotee should know about the perils of painting with a broad brush. It would be nice if Opelka made distinctions and differentiated members of a job class, resisting the urge to view an entire workforce as the monolith. Opelka’s blaming “the tennis media”—if such a species even exists—for Chris Fowler’s intemperate remarks or some stupid press conference questions, is akin to his being praised for winning Wimbledon, or celebrating his recent 40th birthday, or hitting a nifty underarm serve against Carlos Alcaraz, or taking time off to address mental health challenges. Wait, that wasn’t you? Sorry, I just lump all the tennis players together.

2) Quick story. One of the first events I covered, a journalist asked Pete Sampras about “all the long volleys out there.” Obviously, he meant “long rallies” but didn’t know the correct terminology. This was not a member of the tennis media. This was a general sports reporter, asked to cover a match in a niche sport. It was an awkward moment, but this is part of the way tennis grows. Likewise, one strongly suspects that it was also a general sports media member who asked Opelka the same tired, lame question about the absence of American Slam winners. Just as it was a generalist who asked Serena about whether she could beat John McEnroe. Or asked Roger Federer when he might retire. It’s annoying. It’s easy to empathize with the players, asked, as they are, the same inane questions again and again. Blame-the-media is a voguish ballback. But it’s unfair to conflate a few outsiders with the knowledgeable, hardworking cohort grinding away and seeking out quotes from Yulia Putintseva’s hitting partner.

3) You are free to like or dislike Chris Fowler and (see this follow-up piece) there are considerable constituent groups on both sides. Fine. But however you might feel about him, this is undeniable: Fowler has been a fixture at big events for more than a decade, flying across oceans and calling the finals of most majors. The suggestion that he is a hack who parachuted in from Tuscaloosa is, again, manifestly unfair.

4) No one is asserting that mixed doubles holds the key to tennis salvation. But it’s a fun value-add that highlights tennis’s mixed-genderedness. It bears mention that Venus Williams—whom Opelka rightly and admirably sees as a life force—is, to great fanfare, both a longtime and recent devotee. And mixed doubles puts money into the hands of struggling players. Maybe that money is better spent financing struggling singles players; but there’s a lot of overlap.

5) We have outside investors trying to buy equity in the tours. We have a potentially transformative ATP strategic plan hitting snags. The WTA is rethinking its China overleverage. We have a top player accused of domestic violence. We have data challenges. We have robots replacing (or not) linespeople. ... Players possessing firm opinions about the direction of the sport? Their frustrations? Their “If I were commissioner” musings? Awesome. Yes, please. More. I just wish Opelka had been a bit more macro and taken bigger cuts, as it were. Go off on the Masters Series event declining to disclose financials; reiterate your Laver Cup skepticism of Alexander Zverev’s denials. That’s more important than Chris Fowler’s unforced error or the virtues of mixed doubles.

Again—I can’t stress this enough—good for Opelka. Good for him for hitting these verbal first serves, ignoring spin and safety. Good for him for giving us a glimpse of what he really thinks. We all ask for candor. When we get it, we ought to pause and be thankful. At the same time, we can appreciate unsanitized remarks and still challenge the substance. It’s healthy on both ends. And I hope it continues.

Jon: How would you rank the players you covered? Give us the top five, men and women.
Hans Simmel

• I’m not sure I get this question. Are we talking personal fondness? Aesthetics? Or simply greatness? If the last, I’d just rank by majors:

1–3: Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal/Novak Djokovic+

4. Pete Sampras++

5. Andre Agassi

+ A fluid situation. No sense ranking until the last match has been played.

++ Imagine telling Sampras in 2002 that before he turned 50, he would be fourth on the majors list.

Steffi Graf and Monica Seles pretty much predated me—at least peak Steffi and Seles— so I get to avoid that thorny topic. For the women:

SI Recommends

1. Serena Williams

2. Venus Williams

3. Justine Henin

4. Martina Hingis

5. Kiim Clijsters

Long as we’re here, one of you asked me a relevant hypothetical a few weeks back that I never answered. (And, candidly, I cannot seem to find the original.) Essentially it was this: If a player wins the most majors, is there any way he is NOT the GOAT. That is, if, say, Djokovic, were to win 21 majors but then spent a few years getting beaten early and often—seeing his win percentage dip, seeing his head-to-heads dip, seeing him fail to continue his ritual excellence—could it ever undercut his greatness to the point that pulled him under Federer or Nadal?

I get the question. But I don’t see it. If you have the most majors, that supersedes. Venus Williams hasn’t won a major in more than a decade. Would anyone argue she has undermined her status in that time?

I really must disagree with last week's Mailbag assertion that the Laver Cup's one-sided scoreline cries out for a coaching change. When one team consists of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Medvedev, Thiem, Tsitsipas, Zverev and Rublev, then what outcome were we expecting? The Rest of World team might as well hire Vince Lombardi, General Patton and Mahatma Gandhi as coaches. They're still gonna lose.
Rich, New York City

• The reader’s point was this: If the Laver Cup is hell-bent on distancing itself from exhibition status, wouldn’t it want to fire a captain/coach that is 0–4 and coming off a 1–14 drubbing. Would the Ryder Cup ever stand for this?

My solution: keep John McEnroe and do away with the arbitrary Europe-vs.-all-comers conceit that makes the teams so lopsided. I’ll add this: At a time when the tours are entertaining all sort of ways to increase collaboration—I’m told this came up more than once during the Andrea Gaudenzi/Massimo Calvelli trip to the desert last week—the Laver Cup will be ahead of the curve when it opens its excellent tennis celebration to both genders.

Can you please explain why Twitter is going crazy with Andy Murray’s underhand serve? It’s a cheap way to win a point, especially against a kid half his age. I don’t get it.
Name misplaced

• Two points:

1) It’s time for our periodic defense of the underarm (and opposed to underhand/underhanded) serve. If we are comfortable with drop shots, we ought to be comfortable with the same strategy—taking advantage of an opponent’s court positioning—off the serve. It’s completely legit. And, I would add, good for the sport that’s come into vogue. Adapting is the sign of any healthy industry. You want to stand back and graze the cameras when you return? Great. But there’s a counterstrategy.

2) A few years ago, we mourned Murray, the first casualty of the Big Four. His hip was in a state of insurrection. He was going to move on to the next phase of life. It’s funny now that with the Big Three absent, Thiem absent, and the Next Genners still scratching and clawing their way out of the egg, Murray has added so much star power to Indian Wells. He had his social media moment. And, as of this writing, has been backing it up with his play.

Hey Jon: I know u have deplored (frequently) the lack of a data culture in tennis and when I saw this today, I thought of you. Interesting read, even more so because it marries the metrics to the essential core of the game itself, namely how entire matches can swing on a single point.
—Stewart S.

• I was thinking of this watching Max Cressey the other day against Diego Schwartzman. Cressey has match point on his serve to pull the upset. He double faults. Seasoned tennis fans knew—just knew—there was a good chance he was cooked. Sure enough, he barely won another point and fell.

I remember talking to an analytics guru about something similar. She essentially said that we can be fooled by luck. These are two closely matched players. There are a finite number of points. She was unconvinced that there was the kind of choking/surging that The Economist story would have us believe. I wonder whether pacing isn’t a factor here as well. In other sports, we call timeouts and make substitutions and disrupt rhythm. In tennis, none of these levers are available.

Jon — I watched Iga Świątek play in-person and I was very impressed. She hits HARD and is a better athlete than I thought. Not just a claycourter. She seems to have lost some buzz. Maybe that’s thanks to Raducanu and others coming along. What do you think of her and her year?
Peter C.

• A good question to answer on (at this writing) Oct. 11, the first anniversary of Świątek's romp through Paris. And on the same day when she announced a significant contribution for World Mental Health Day. If the standard is winning more majors without droppings sets, she fell short in 2021. If the standard—more realistically and healthily—is playing consistent, top-shelf tennis, showing physical durability, concretizing herself in the top 10 … check, check and check. She doesn’t turn 21 until the French Open. Thanks to COVID-19, this is really her first full year on tour. She is currently No. 4, she entered Indian Wells 33–12 on the season and picked up a pair of titles in Rome (winning the final 6–0, 6–0) and Adelaide. She’s also continued to reveal herself to be a delight. Even without adding to her major haul, I’d say this is/was an awfully solid sophomore season.

Shots, Miscellany

• Bill Simons fires back at Reilly Opelka (and Fowler).

• Unsolicited book recommendations: Richard Evans, The History of Tennis; my old colleague (and proud Djoko-phile) Joe Posnanski; and tennis fan Mark Oppenheimer.

• Nice to see the 2021 U.S. Open champs make nice with the Hall of Fame.

More Tennis Coverage:

• Mailbag: ATP to Investigate Domestic Abuse Allegations Against Alexander Zverev
Is This Wimbledon? No, It's Iowa.
Mailbag: Three Issues the Laver Cup Needs to Address