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Rafael Nadal Inching Toward Record Slam at Australian Open, But a New Rival Looms

In our latest mailbag, we look at the men's draw, television schedules and Tennis Australia's handling of #WhereIsPengShuai attire.

We are nearing the men's and women's semifinals at the 2022 Australian Open, but Wednesday is Mailbag Day. Before I dive in, a few programming notes:

• The television proposition was problematic (see more below), but from here on out, ESPN should have the matches as before.

• Tennis Channel’s pregame show with Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport, Steve Weissman and a hack writer starts at 5 p.m. ET.

It's Nadal's Aussie Open to lose, Jon. Have you seen his draw? [Alexander] Zverev losing made it a cakewalk draw to the final! Amazed he wasn't everybody's favorite the way he's playing now. Four-time losing finalist in addition to his sole 2009 title but playing the best of anybody left in the draw. And with all due respect to [Daniil] Medvedev, in a one-off final, I fancy Nadal over him every day of the week, on any surface. Thoughts?
-James W.

• I wouldn’t say it’s Rafael Nadal’s to lose. Medvedev—a finalist in 2021 and winner of the previous Major—is the favorite as I write this. But Nadal is now six sets from the title and, with it, a record. [Heading into the Australian Open, Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were tied with 20 Grand Slam titles apiece.] What a story. His draw has not been especially difficult. But whose has been? He has benefitted from his choice of scheduling—requesting to play in the day when the ball is popping off the court. But those are the perks conferred on a 20-time Major champ. A lot of tennis left.

Jon, I watched Nadal play and have been blown away by his level, especially at 35. How can it be that he has won the Australian only once?

• He has won only once (2009), but he’s had plenty of success. And realistically he could have three or four titles. His body gave out against Stan Wawrinka. He lost that absurd final to Novak Djokovic in '12. He had Federer up a break in the fifth set in '17. I remember Jim Courier speculating a few years ago that Nadal needed some time to work his way into a season and for all the players who could start the year hot (see: Agassi), Nadal wasn’t necessarily one of them.

Hello, Jon, I hope you are well. Fair warning: wacky conspiracy theory ahead. Fact: There was not one second of ESPN TV coverage on Peng Shuai or an entire women’s sport leaving China. Possible explanation? Threat from China to ESPN’s parent company as has been seen with movies from that parent company? Pretty thin evidence for the theory, but any thoughts?
-Anthony, Brookline, Mass.

• I can’t speak for ESPN. I would think a more obvious explanation would be: When you have a “partnership” with an event or league, it does not behoove you to take critical or controversial stances. I say this with a lot of pride about our production meeting at Tennis Channel. Martina had strong thoughts on the topic and asked that Peng Shuai be addressed. The response was effectively, “Go for it.” Here’s the work product:

From [Tennis Australia CEO] Craig Tiley’s bungling of the entire Djokovic mess to the tournament’s decision to force fans to remove their “Where is Peng Shuai?” clothing, I can’t recall a major tournament committing so many unforced errors. Can you? We all love the Aussie Open, but the leadership has embarrassed itself here.

-Andy, New York City

Yes, to their credit, the event—and it seems ridiculous as I write this sentence—reversed its ban on the #WhereIsPengShuai attire. (Deeming a question over a player’s health and safety “political speech” backs you into a hell of a corner.) Craig Tiley has done an extraordinary job running this event and elevating it over the past decade-plus. But this year has, objectively, been a step back, filled with unforced errors, hollow statements and reputational damage.

One overarching criticism: These decisions show such a lack of confidence in the product. The entire Djokovic saga had an underlying message of, “We’re in deep trouble if we don’t get the stars here. Roger and Serena Williams are out. Nadal is a question mark. We need Novak and will go to extreme lengths to get him here.” It should have been, “We’ve built an extraordinary event that has extraordinary fans and while we, like all tournaments, want the deepest field possible, we are confident that will prevail no matter who comes.”

Likewise, the Peng Shuai self-goal smacks of, “We don’t want to anger the Chinese sponsors.” How about: “If the WTA can remove ten friggin’ events from China in the name of doing the right thing, we can risk an angry call—and even lost revenue— from a beverage manufacturer.”

Hi, Jon, I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the idea of Zverev as the AO favourite. When was the last time a non-major winner was talked of as a genuine favourite? When was the last time the GOATs didn’t eliminate that possibility?
-Beate, England

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• Good point. Full disclosure: I picked Zverev. I was not rewarded for that show of confidence. Should have stuck with Wilander Rule: You can’t be a favorite to win a Major until you’ve won a Major. (Nadal at the 2005 French is the exception.)

When Zverev lost in straight sets to Denis Shapovalov, one reaction I had: all praise for the Big Three (and add Murray here as well.) Their relentless excellence, playing deep into Majors, is laid bare by results like this. Dominic Thiem wins the U.S. Open and falters at the next Major. Zverev wins the ATP Finals and can’t get beyond the middle weekend of the next Major. Statistically, this is normal. Some days you just don’t have it. But note how seldom Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer had these rough days.

Is there a particular reason you neglected to give a grade to Felix [Auger-Aliassime]?

-David H.

• Too many players to hit them. But, also, a weird first week for Felix, no? Struggled and sprayed balls for the first two rounds. Then absolutely chopped up Dan Evans, who had beaten him in Melbourne last year. And, subsequent to that, Marin Cilic—against whom he was 0–3.

I’m typing this in advance of the semis. But what an auspicious start to the year for Felix. He’s still susceptible to some rough error-strewn patches. (Note a 0–6 set against Medvedev earlier this month.) But he’s also shown real poise playing himself out of these lapses. He lost the first set against Cilic—against whom he was 0–3—and then cruised. He is the underdog against Medvedev. It’s unlikely his first title will come at a Major. But he’s shown his top ten bona fides in 2022.

Sam Stosur as a Hall of Famer? Really, Jon?
-Andy W.

Really. At her behest, Sam Stosur’s retirement was underplayed. She declined to play on a show court and, I’m told, asked repeatedly that any celebration be small. Without undermining her wishes, the Republic of Tennis ought to acknowledge a truly stand-out career. A Barbora Krejcíková-vibes mid-career upgrade from doubles player to singles stalwart. A French Open final. A U.S. Open title beating an in-prime Serena in the finals. Major doubles titles deep into her 30s. (She is still playing doubles, by the way.) One of those players about whom you never heard anything but admiration and affection from her peers. One person, one vote, but she’s a Hall of Famer on my ballot.

Hi, Jon, just wondering if you could explain the puzzling Australian Open coverage practices of ESPN and Tennis Channel this year. With so many attractive matches available during the early rounds, this fan finds it maddening that while many are uncovered, others are shown live on ESPN, then on tape on the Tennis Channel and still later on tape on ESPN. (As I write this I am watching Collins/Mertens and Halep/Cornet for the third time and wondering why we saw not a minute of Osaka/Anisimova live or on tape last week even though it was of sufficient interest to be mentioned on the CBS Morning news. My guess is it has something to do with greed and ESPN +.

-John Rossitter, Middletown, Conn.

• This has to be addressed going forward. Here are the incentives: Tennis Australia—especially after two years of reduced attendance—needs to repair balance sheets and cash the biggest media rights checks possible. ESPN needs to repair balance sheets as subscriptions fall. This means pushing content to paid streaming platforms (especially during football season; especially during infomercial hours.) No one is acting egregiously. The problem: it is to the complete detriment of the fan and, by extension, sport. As every other entertainment option gets easier and easier to find, tennis gets increasingly difficult.

I know the memo is "bash Novak" and that is your playbook as that plays to the mobs that form the majority of your readership. But if the media had any integrity, why are they not asking why the Aussie government kicked out a healthy Novak (on the pretext that he might catch COVID and pass it to an Aussie) while they quietly let in an infected [Andrey] Rublev into the country? I am sorry, this is an inconvenient question, so please feel free to skip it and pander to your base.

• There’s no memo. There’s no bashing. There’s no playbook. There’s no mob. There is a contingent of people—a vast majority by every indication—who thought a stubbornly unvaccinated player, applying after the deadline, who was not entirely truthful on his forms, was not on firm grounds trying to enter Australia. In the case of Rublev, a) he was vaccinated and b) despite his positive test from December, he fell within an exemption—positive and “persistent shedding” but recovered. Some light reading for you.

A C for Djokovic is much too generous. He definitely deserves an F as does Tiley.

• The gentleman's C, we call it …