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Mailbag: Who's the Men's Singles Favorite Now?

Plus: the Djokovic aftermath, ESPN+ complaints and analysis of Garbine Muguruza's chances

Wednesday is Mailbag Day. So let’s go to the ‘Bag. Lots of Djokovic questions so we’ll try and get through as many topics as we can….

I will add that, in the interest of good soldiering—i.e. we feel icky playing the role of promoter but also duty-bound to do some soap-selling—Martina, Lindsay, Steve Weisman and I are doing a two-hour live Tennis Channel pregame show at 5p ET before the matches every day.


I notice you often pick Garbine Muguruza to do well. I don’t get it. To me she is one of the tennis underachievers. What do you see that I don’t?

• Multiple Majors? We should all underachieve like this….Honestly, I hadn’t noticed that. But, yeah, I do think highly of Muguruza, especially when she is in the right headspace and coaching situation, as she now seems to be. Power, athleticism, a game that can be—isn’t always, but can be—orderly and composed and strategic. She is coming off a triumph in Guadalajara at the WTA Finals and often plays well Down Under. (She’s never lost in the first round and has made a final in Melbourne—one that, candidly, she should have won.)

Here’s my favorite stat about her: she has won 10 titles. Eight have been on hard courts. The other two? The French Open and Wimbledon. Think she doesn’t have an Aussie Open title—or at least deep run— in her?

Coco Gauff. Buy/sell/hold?
-Bruce in Fla.

• Buy on the dip. The reminder that in mid-March she turns…18. She can’t vote and she’s on the cusp of the top 20. She’s doing fine.

That said, this was a disappointing swing. Two weeks ago, she had Ash Barty, the world No.1, on the ropes—up a set and break— and couldn’t close. She played another event, won a few matches and lost another close one, to Madison Keys. She then came to Melbourne from Adelaide, without leaving herself much time to adjust to a new court and surroundings, and flames out against Q. Wang, who came in ranked outside the top 100. Lesson learned.

Different players have said different things. And some have said very little. What, really, is the players’ take on the events of the last two weeks with Djokovic?
-Peter S., Boulder

• There is no consensus. I see this in the interview room and the transcripts. You see this on social media. I see this in my DM’s.

a) Everyone was disappointed this dragged on long as it did and impacted first practice conditions and then the draw. And there was a sense of “Enough, already.”

b) There were exceptions here, but there did seem to be a regional split. Players from Eastern Europe and Russia (and Russian extraction) seemed more supportive of Djokovic than players from western Europe.

c) Multiple coaches confirm to me that most players had stronger feeling than they expressed publicly. Those supporting Djokovic were reluctant to jump into the fray and stand accused of being anti-vaxx. Those deeply opposed tempered their remarks, reluctant to humiliate a colleague or an event.

d) It bears remembering that, yes, cynically, players want to protect their image and sponsors and alienate as few fans as possible. But also, they are in Australia to compete in a tennis event. Anything not in service of that—i.e. fomenting controversy? They are not incentivized to go there.

e) There was relief that focus could return to the tennis. But the real question: now what? Will Djokovic capitulate and get vaccinated? Or will he stand by his principles at the expense of his reputation and of history?

Related: is there any shabbier fallback in sports than the specter of the “asterisk.” We always ask this question: “Will circumstances XYZ present an asterisk?” It never does. No one dilutes any title because it was played in Covid. Or there was a bad scheduling decision. Or Serena/Roger/Rafa/Novak wasn’t there. The 2020 French Open held in October? The 2020 U.S. Open when none of the Big Three made the second week? The 2003 U.S. Open when players had to play four back-to-back days? None of it matters.

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With Djokovic out of the draw, does this make the field open? Or is it now a two-man race between Medvedev and Zverev?
-Mike R., London

• You name the two favorites. Will Medvedev—a finalist last year and the winner of the last Major—fortify? Will Zverev break through finally? Or will we see a new face? (Or—in a criminally underrated story—will the only previous winner in the draw, Nadal, win again, thereby taking the men's ALL-TIME MAJORS LEAD???...digression: we have obsessed over the GOAT race for a full decade. And yet we miss some obvious historical storylines. To repeat: NADAL IS 18 SETS FROM TAKING OVER AN ALL-TIME RECORD.)

We digress. My pre-tournament pick was Zverev, and his odds, obviously, improve with a nine-time champ out of the draw. Could another player break through? Sinner or Flex or Alcaraz or any of a dozen others? Sure. Remember, we are coming off a Major won, on the women’s side, by a qualifier.

I do think this: like never before, circumstances will matter. Scheduling. Tweaky injuries. Long matches that deplete players mentally as well as physically. Match-ups. For more than a decade, these variables were minimized by the Big Three. In this event, a few breaks—rain delays that trigger the roof and change court speeds, a five-setter in the previous round, a blister—could have huge bearing.

Hi Jon, One more question for the pile. Is it possible that Novak Djokovic asserted such a vigorous legal defense because he suspected 2022 may be his last chance to play the Australian Open unvaccinated? Looking into his mind, “how many times can I catch COVID in a timeframe that fits with what I’m being told by Tennis Australia about exemptions?”
-Jay O.

• He rejected a plea deal and got a harsher sentence. I still struggle with this: for a decade-plus, we obsessed over this GOAT Derby. You’re telling me it might now hinge on a player’s unwillingness to get vaccinated and the travel restrictions that imposes? Wild.

I can't believe how much of this year's Australian Open is on ESPN+. As I am not interested in staying up all night to watch the tennis, I would normally DVR the matches and watch them the next day. As far as I know it is impossible to record a streaming channel. ESPN has so many channels, I can't believe that they couldn't leave one open for the tennis. My guess is that it is a blatant attempt to push people, who are already paying an exorbitant amount of money for ESPN through their cable company, to pay for ESPN+ also.
-Pat Long

• I completely understand this move from ESPN. What I cannot fathom: how does Tennis Australia think this is wise in the long run. If growing the sport and growing the relevance of the event is at all a priority, this has been an abject failure. I have ESPN+. I have Tennis Channel. I have every incentive and interest to watch as much tennis as possible. And I am struggling. I can only imagine what the casual fan is enduring. Actually, I can: they have given up and are watching something else from the endless universe of options.

Happy not so New Year! I have a question: Has anyone checked on the health of the children, parents, reporter and photographer from L’Equipe to see how they are doing? They all have been exposed to the virus thanks to Novak Djokovic. In all of the noise, I think people forgot about the health status of all those exposed. Your turn Jon.
-A.H., Queens, NY

Here you go. 

A thought exercise: imagine if the roles were reversed and a journalist—knowingly Covid positive—went to an interview with an elite athlete and made no disclosure. Even Djokovic’s most ardent supporters would have to concede that this is grotesque.

How about a congrats to Feliciano Lopez for not missing a grand slam event in 20 years?
-Garth Christensen, Captain Cook, HI

Aloha. Just flew in, Covid-cleared, under the wire. Streak is alive! (He lost in round one and called out a fan.)

So, the Djokovic saga is over. He has left the building. But, is it just me or does anyone else think that there is likely to be more to this story that is going to come out over the ensuing days and weeks. I mean, Novak clearly intended to play in the tournament— if he didn't, then why was he practicing at home on courts with Australian Open like conditions as was reported in December. And, he had to know that the only way he was going to get a medical exemption was by testing positive for COVID. But, it isn't like you can guarantee that you are going to go out and catch the virus. So, how convenient that he did test positive on December 16. And, how nice of Tennis Australia to recognize that despite the test being six days past their stated deadline. It does seem like a lot of corners were cut by a bunch of folks (well beyond Djokovic) in order to reach a predetermined outcome. How many heads are going to roll within Tennis Australia after all this? 
-Lilas Pratt, Marietta, GA

• I’m not sure we need to relitigate this, but yes, what we were being asked to believe was preposterous. Despite months of coyness about his intention, Djokovic was going to miss the Australian Open, but for this fortuitous positive test?

Hi Jon, In response to your AO seed report query (answers to which have, doubtless, already rolled in):

"Sidenote: has there ever been a player to reach the top 10 without winning a tournament of any size?" 
A> See: Pioline, Cedric

Always a pleasure to read your musings and insights on tennis, these past decades (!). Cheers!

Good call! (We were talking about Felix A-A, into the top 10 without a title.)

Enjoy the matches, everyone….provided you can find them.