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Mailbag: Mix of Old and New at Indian Wells Represents Tennis in 2021

Instead of reliable stars, the so-called fifth Slam gave us unpredictability, compelling competition and first-time winners—a fitting outcome for tennis at this moment.

This week’s Mailbag….

...while wondering whether the ATP anticipated more than 50 candidates when it announced an open call for players-side board positions.

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Mailbag

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

In women's tennis there has never been greater depth of talent or a greater unpredictability of results. We are also seeing a lot of tournaments take place without several of the top players. The result: There is no great rivalry in the women's game at this time. A true tennis fan enjoys watching Azarenka vs. Badosa, but the casual fans who used to watch Evert vs. Navratilova, Graf vs. Seles, or Hingis vs. Williams (either one) probably weren't tuned in. Newcomers are exciting, veteran players have their fan bases, but the sport needs those intense battles between familiar foes. Thoughts?
DR, Morrisville, N.C.

• A catchall Indian Wells discussion to start….I was doing some research a few weeks ago and saw stories alluding to “shocker results” generated by the recent BNP Paribas events. Who were the title winners? Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka—in fairness, before either won their first U.S. Open. On the men’s side, first Delpo and then Dominic Thiem beat Roger Federer in the finals. You wonder what those headline writers would make of the 2021 event, won, as it was, by Paula Badosa and Cam Norrie.

And yet….this is tennis at the moment. We remember the titans. But the Big Three has a collective age of 109, an average age of 37+. Serena Williams, age 40, hasn’t won a major in almost five years. Venus hasn’t won a major in more than a decade. Naomi Osaka, with four majors, is figuring out what tennis means to her and how it might bring her more happiness.

What do we have instead? Dimmed star wattage. Fewer rivalries. Fewer reasons for casual fans to tune in. But wealth of another kind. With this compressed field, we have a welter of dramatic, tight, can-go-either-way matches and ferocious battles. On the heels of the most gripping U.S. Open in recent memory, Indian Wells offered much the same. Players staving off match points to win. Mental toughness on display. A wealth of styles and personalities. Seeds meaning very little. Opportunities galore. Fittingly, the women’s final ended in a third-set tiebreaker. The men’s a come-from-behind three-setter.

This all marks an adjustment. We’d grown accustomed to a caste system, the concentration of wealth. We grew accustomed to reliable stars. We now have the players who are winning the 2021 U.S. Open and then exiting early at the next event. We have little-known players taking big trophies. We have little predictability.

Fans would do well to roll with this. If you’re waiting for players to win double-digit majors before taking them seriously, you’ll miss a lot. If you’re waiting for Casper Ruud to be to the next Djokovic or Barbora Krejčíková to be the next Serena, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. If you want compelling competition and fierce battles and unpredictability, and a sport that accommodates the styles and physiques and temperaments of Ons Jabeur, Diego Schwartzman, Reilly Opelka and Victoria Azarenka….you’ll be rewarded. Soon enough, superpowers and rivalries will emerge.

When you have stars but want depth, you sell the stars. When you have depth but want stars, you sell depth. Right now, we’ve shifted from one scenario to the other. And that will be fine, thanks.

I'm a big fan of Raducanu and I'm amused at all the Sturm und Drang about her loss at Indian Wells, since the same girl (Sasnovich) who beat her also beat Halep. I simply viewed it as a signal that Raducanu's amazing fairy tale run was over, and now the real grind of being a professional tennis player on the main tour had begun. Why was Raducanu's loss viewed as a bigger upset than No. 6 Muguruza's loss to No. 47 Tomljanović, especially since Muguruza has two Grand Slams, and had won the previous week's tournament in Chicago?

Everybody can beat everybody on the WTA tour. That's the reality. Isn't that what makes it exciting?
Cheers, Denny Crane

• The full disclosure here. I’ve been reluctant to talk much about Raducanu. Seen this movie before, seen how easily sweet tennis stories can curdle. She’s 18. Poised? Yes. A major champion? Yes. But still 18. Two months ago, she was playing a $100K event in Pennsylvania. Today, she’s being projected as a billionaire? Humans—of any age—aren’t cut out for that kind of convulsive change. To Denny’s point, that Indian Wells result was no upset at all. It was a regression to the mean. But we are reading instead about how she was “stunned.” No player—and no fan—should ever be stunned by a loss. Everyone on the tour is really good.

Raducanu is a reigning major champion. We can’t NOT discuss her. But let’s give her appropriate time and space. It’s possible that the U.S. Open tapped the spigot on a Hall of Fame career. It’s also possible it marks the pinnacle of her career. We should be open-minded about both possibilities.

A lot of you asked about Raducanu’s coaching situation. This is a valid line of inquiry. Lot of rumors and lots of behind-the-scenes (and in-front-of-the-scenes) lobbying. The rumor that her father wants a different coach for each stroke may be exaggeration, but he is involved in the personnel. One name I had heard from disinterested, non-conflicted sources: Esteban Carril, a former college player at Texas. But I would pay especially close attention to the track record of Max Eisenbud, head of IMG tennis, who involves himself in coaching hires. Note how often coaches for one of his clients end up with another. Look at Li Na (Carlos Rodriguez), Maria Sharapova (Sven Groeneveld, Thomas Hogstedt) and don’t be surprised if one of names resurfaces.

SI Recommends

Hello. I'm an avid reader of your Mailbag on SI. I wanted to get your thoughts about Reilly Opelka's call to abolish mixed doubles events. I am highly against this call myself. I feel like we should add more of those events outside of the majors. Without mixed doubles events, we would never have Serena and Andy, Venus and Nick, Clijsters and Hewitt. These pairings are something that cannot happen without mixed doubles and being able to see my favorite players come together from the WTA and ATP and form dynamic teams are marvels the world may never get to witness otherwise. Thinking back to the Hopman Cup, (which I sorely miss!!!) Federer and Serena across the courts from one another! Two legends going head-to-head that cannot, and would not, happen unless we learn to embrace mixed doubles. There are plenty of big-name tournaments that could look for ways to incorporate mixed doubles so that it becomes more viable opportunities to increase these amazing pairings. Indian Wells, Miami Open, Italian Open, Western & Southern are a few of the large tournaments that the men and the women play during the same week. What are your thoughts about mixed doubles and if there is a way to make this discipline more prominent on the tour?
J.D.

• I think we need to be realistic about mixed doubles. It is, as the Aussies say, a pimple on an elephant, not exactly a transformative force one way or the other. But it’s a nice value add, that brings tennis some additional attention (Serena/Murray was THE Wimbledon news for several days in 2019) and underscores the mixed-gendered-ness. Seemed like a silly target for Opelka to line up in his scope. Especially since his logic—let’s reallocate that money in the hands of struggling players—applies equally here.

DISGRESSION: What do we keep hearing during this NFL/Jon Gruden discussion? “In a league where 47% of the fans are women….” The NFL throws this number around like refs throw pass interference flags. It is clearly not just a source of pride, but valued in the marketplace. I’m thinking, “I know of a sport that has a comparable female fan base. And not only that: the men and women compete simultaneously, at the same venue, interchangeably, and sometimes together. Want to park your sponsorship and ad buys here?”

Flavia Pennetta before Schiavone, who was the first Italian woman ever to win a Slam? Really?
@skotnikov

• The Hall of Fame nominations came out. Here’s the latest. And remember, fans can vote. Pennetta retired after she won the U.S. Open. (Like, moments after.) Schiavone retired only in 2018. I suspect when Schiavone is eligible, she will be on the ballot as well.

The Hall of Fame has really changed. It used to be that most inductees needed multiple Slams (often three for the women) to get in. Out of this group, Raymond seems like the no-brainer with Black in second, and it's strictly for their doubles, although all will probably get in. For the men, this seems to be an unfortunate effect of the success of the Big Three. I don't think anyone would deny Ferrero was one of the top players of the last 20 years, but with them being so dominant, his numbers aren't as impressive as they might have been in another era.
@cassandraleff

• A) We need a doubles wing. Does Lisa Raymond or Cara Black deserve acknowledgement? Absolutely. Should they be competing for enshrinement with singles players? It’s a little weird. Can we really compare, say, Carlos Moya and Daniel Nestor? B) You’re right. When three men are winning 80% of the majors, it’s going to impact the qualifications of the Hall of Fame slate of candidates.

Tennis fans are entitled to see how the voting breaks down. Fan votes, sportswriter votes, member votes etc. Who knows how it’s manipulated!!
@npr40

• I would agree with that. And I would apply this for all Halls of Fame, even beyond sports. Who voted for Yes? Repent now! “Manipulated” is unduly harsh and conspiratorial. But, yes, not unlike draw ceremonies, there’s little reason not to come down on the side of transparency.

Athletes, including tennis players that are accused of criminal conduct, deserve to be treated no differently than anyone else accused of a crime. Once a criminal complaint is filed, the law enforcement and prosecutors' office investigate and if the charges are credible, the alleged offense will be prosecuted in a court of law. In the United States an accused is innocent until proven guilty. The criminal defendant will have a trial, which protects the defendant's due process rights subject to rules of evidence that safeguard the fairness and integrity of the trial. If convicted, a judge will sentence the appropriate punishment. Why should any sports governing body, including the ATP, get involved and interfere with this process?
Fernando

• I realize there are cultural and national differences here. But, at least in the U.S. this fact pattern is quite common and hardly unique to sports. In police forces. On colleges campuses. In corporate America. Sometimes alleged acts are so vile and so deeply at odds with a workforce and its values that the accused is better off staying home—not being a colleague, not being a risk, not being a public relations risk—until more facts are known….regardless of whether law enforcement is also involved. Sometimes it’s in keeping with collective bargaining. Sometimes it’s just common sense.

Of course, we are alluding to Zverev (old school sub-tweeting!) in this discussion. His alleged bad acts occurred in tournament hotels and at events. (In the case of the 2019 Laver Cup, tournament personnel ministered to the alleged victim.) It is not merely appropriate for the ATP to investigate; it is morally imperative. And by the same token—especially in an individually sport; in which athletes are independent contractors—Zverev’s due process and presumptions are such that he is entitled to continue competing before the investigation is complete. It’s all terribly unpleasant. We all await the findings—and sourcing and reasoning—of this independent investigation. But, horrible as this sounds, we’re in the right place, balancing concern with presumptions Fernando alludes to.

I’d rather Opelka worked on his game instead of ranting about the press. Didn’t take him long to lose at IW. How about winning some matches and then worry about how bad tennis journalism is later.
@luv2bowl99

• I had a former player reach out and make a similar point. Paraphrase: Reilly Opelka needs to win more matches before he starts taking shots like that. I would push back there. Winning matches isn’t a prerequisite for holding opinions. There is no sliding scale, valid-opinions-by-ranking; just as one need not publish for a top-tier media outlet to write a valid story.

There’s a longer disquisition here. And I’m not sure most fans care. But this is a brutal time for so many tennis journalists. Though fans are in stands and players need not be vaccinated to compete, the interviews remain on Zoom. The freelance market is desiccated—especially when Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Serena and Osaka aren’t around. The Australian Open is a question mark. It strikes me as mean-spirited to take these potshots—most of them based on the ill-considered remarks of a well-compensated television personality—in this climate. Here’s a tangential piece worth reading.

More Tennis Coverage:

• Mailbag: Five Thoughts on Reilly Opelka's Candid Interview
Mailbag: ATP to Investigate Domestic Abuse Allegations Against Alexander Zverev
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