WIMBLEDON, England — Here is a grab-bag mailbag, trying to get to as many of our questions as possible as Wimbledon 2022 rolls on.
First up, are we headed for another Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal men’s singles final clash?
Wimbledon is looking like Djokovic versus Nadal on the men’s side, No. 1 seed versus No. 2 seed. (And the women’s is wide open as usual). Are they that good? Or is the rest of the field that soft?
I am writing this Tuesday night, and we still have a lot of tennis left before Djokovic potentially plays Nadal, as expected. Just a few hours ago, Djokovic was down two sets against 20-year-old Jannik Sinner. But therein lies a big part of this: The best-of-five format is a secret hiding in plain sight. Simply as a probability exercise, it allows the best players more opportunities, a longer interval to burrow their way into the match and play through rough patches; it’s more time for a regression to the tennis mean. And it’s self-perpetuating—the more they win long and important matches, the more their confidence swells.
Sinner has played relatively few five-setters and has yet to beat a top-five player. He has yet to test his body and spirit in a big match, in front of 15,000 fans. He is at a huge disadvantage—having nothing to do with serve percentages and playing patterns—before the first ball is struck.
But I buy Carlito’s other explanations, as well. Djokovic and Nadal are that good. For all their experience, accumulated victories and earnings that entitle them to the best in coaching and travel, they are extraordinary, generational players. (As an aside, we had a spirited conversation today about which of the two is the better athlete. Feel free to weigh in.) They move, strike the ball, anticipate, compete and handle pressure better than virtually anyone in history.
And, whether it’s causation or correlation, they also benefit (to some extent) from a lack of competition. Perhaps the most talented contemporary, Nick Kyrgios, is chaos personified. (As if he didn’t create enough dissonance at this event, reports surfaced Tuesday that he will be making a court appearance next month for a domestic assault allegation.) Some potential opponents may grow into the role, but are currently too young and inexperienced (see: Carlos Alcaraz). Others are too old or bear too much scar tissue from losing. There are flukes, too. The current No. 1 player in the world (Daniil Medvedev) is banned from this event. The No. 2 player (Alexander Zverev) has a bad ankle and is also facing an investigation around abuse allegations.
All of which is to say, it is looking like another showdown between the two stars. Nadal currently has 22 Slam titles after winning this year’s Australian and French Opens, while Djokovic sits with 20. A final matchup here gives another major title swing in the offing—23–20 is much different from 22–21. Sure, they benefit plenty from the variables, but, more important, they benefit by being peerlessly good at the sport.
Judging Djokovic and GOAT debates
I know that most of the media doesn't like Novak and you are probably in that camp yourself but are we going to pretend that a 20 slam winner (as of this email) banned from 2 out of 4 slams in the year is good for the sport, no matter how many times you claim "he did that to himself?" Not to mention the farcical Russian ban?
First, stop with “the media doesn’t like Novak.” It’s not true. No one dislikes anyone. A number of us, myself included, are disappointed with how he decided to respond to COVID-19. The end. There is otherwise a warmth and mutual respect. He is “banned” from tennis the way people who arrive at a terminal without a ticket are “banned” from flying. There’s an easy solution, and it’s incumbent on him.
What is your take on whether Wimbledon 2022 should be counted in the GOAT debate, since ATP will remove this tournament in the ranking system due to the Russian ban? I am sure Nadal and Djokovic fans will have their own opinion based on who wins the tournament!
I’m inclined to resist asterisks to start with—they seldom hold in sports. Winning a title in a lockout-shortened season? Winning without having to face a top opponent? Even winning during the COVID-19 pandemic? It seldom carries less weight or valence. I suppose if players had boycotted Wimbledon in protest—diluting the field more—there might be a case. But that didn’t happen. If Djokovic wins, he’ll be at 21, not 20.9. Rafa, 23. No more, no less.
Tangent: I’m surprised by how little the Russian ban has even surfaced here. It was big news in April and May and a bit of a talking point at Wimbledon. (Who remembers Naomi Osaka’s press conference and all the references to “exhibition”?) Here, it’s barely come up, especially once the Kyrgios Show got going. What has come up: the lack of points and the injustice for players like Heather Watson or Tim Van Rijthoven, who are turning in career results and will not receive a deserved rankings increase.
Time to reevaluate the default rule
It is not a question of speed or force. Jon, are you advocating DQ for near misses or no DQ for hits below a certain speed? Serious question, I'm trying to understand where you are coming from.
This question was in response to a discussion we had Saturday night during the Stefanos Tsitsipas–Kyrgios match. I marveled that Djokovic was defaulted at the 2020 U.S. Open when his slapped ball inadvertently struck an official in the throat. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, played on after a ball he sliced into the stands narrowly missed a spectator.
My stance is simple: You rifle a ball recklessly in anger or frustration into the crowd, you get defaulted—whether or not it hits someone. I’m fine with the Djokovic default, but Tsitsipas skates because he happened to miss hitting someone on the fly (only on the ricochet)? Ridiculous.
Pretty soon, a fan is going to get hurt, and tennis will have only itself to blame for seeing this problem fester and incorporating scant deterrents.
Re: No buzz at Wimbledon?
I'll throw in my two cents on Wimbledon lacking buzz. So far there have been some very good matches. But considering that Russian players aren't in the tournament (which includes 2 of the top 10) AND there's no ranking points on the table, which distorts not only the current rankings but also removes the normal changes that occur after a slam, it seems like we're watching a 500-level tourney. It's just hard to find the excitement and feeling of significance. In the long run, the title will likely mean just as much, but for now it's a snooze.
Now, maybe one could argue "Well, yeah, we're still dealing with a pandemic, and war in Europe. Maybe a tennis tournament SHOULDN'T be a big deal. Maybe this is a reality check that there are many more important things going on which deserve our attention." And I'd agree with that. But, ya know, then why even have it? It just seems to have been handled poorly by the AETC.
The engagement and ratings seem to suggest otherwise, but, to many, this does seem to be a Wimbledon lacking a certain something. You’re right that there are many factors—macro (war in Ukraine, unpleasant times in the United States) and micro (no Russian players, no Federer, transit strikes). I don’t think that matters much. The Russian ban and the response are self-defeating and ineffective. But, at least during matches, neither players nor fans are thinking about whether this result impacts a rolling 52-week ranking.
I rather like your second point. During the event, we—fans, media, even players—attach to these issues and side stories. Who broke COVID protocol? Does a French Open in October even count? The rain has messed up the schedule and we need a roof! Within days of the events ending, all that endures: who won and how many major titles it gave them.
Get off their lawn!
At the risk of sounding like a grouchy armchair expert, the 100-year celebration felt a bit incomplete ... Very unusual for Wimbledon. I think we can all agree that past champions can’t make it for various reasons. But there were glaring omissions. No official mention of Goolagong, Navratilova, Graf, Becker, Jimmy Conners, Pete Sampras, Davenport, Virginia Wade (hello!?) or Serena. Not even a video tribute to all of these amazing players. No mention of Jana Novotna who couldn’t be there because she passed away, with whom we shared heartbreak in ‘93 only to weep with joy in ‘98 when she won. Opportunity missed.
I rather enjoyed the ceremony. In these situations, it’s a given you are not getting perfect attendance. Would it have been preferable if Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras, et al., could have come? Yes. But different players have different schedules, priorities, obligations and thresholds for travel (and, in the case of Martina Navratilova, COVID-19 test statuses).
I got some blowback for writing this the other day, but I thought—along with other current and former players I spoke to, including a “B. Gilbert”—it was worth noting Djokovic attended on a day when he was playing a match. He is trying to defend his title and win a 21st major after a 12-month gap. It’s midway through the event. Unlike Nadal and Simona Halep (who also attended while active), Djokovic had a match that day. Rhythms are important during a tournament, and I know a lot of players in that situation who would have bailed.
Is the WTA … falling apart?
Amélie [Mauresmo] caught a ton of flack for saying that the WTA isn't consistently offering up as good a product as the ATP. She backtracked for PC reasons but honestly, with the women's draw falling apart AGAIN, it's time to recognize that she had a point, at least for now. Yes, you have a dominant World No. 1 (until today), but look down the line and there's little consistency among the top players with former champions arriving in terrible or non-existent form. It was even hard to pick 3 favorites for the title (which are now basically all out). The tennis world needs to apologize to Amelie.
What does “falling apart” mean? Players incapable of hitting a ball across a net? If so, you have a point. If “falling apart” simply means seeded players are losing earlier than anticipated and unexpected results are the norm, then, a) why equate this with an inferior product, and b) as I type this, a player ranked outside the top 100 just took two sets off of Djokovic. And it’s cracklingly entertaining.
Checking in on Serena
When was the last time Serena Williams was what you would call a full-time tennis player?
I would say 2019, when she played all four Grand Slams and reached two finals. She is obviously far from full time now, but give us freelance or part-time Serena over no Serena any day of the week.
Yes, COVID-19 is still a reality at tennis Slams
Alize Cornet said [players] all self-tested as a pact in Roland Garros? At this point, why don’t we just start treating injuries by praying and throwing flowers at a torn ACL?
The biggest risk at Wimbledon this year? It’s not slipping on the grass, but tendinitis from crossing fingers so intensely in the hopes you don’t get COVID-19. A year after a full-blown bubble, there is no testing at Wimbledon or proof of vaccination required. This, as more than 1 million people in greater London currently have it.
‘You were right, I was wrong’
About a year ago I made a comment about how Denis Shapovalov was going to have a similar career as Fernando Gonzalez...mainly because he has great tournaments and then backs it up with the first or second round exit. You seemed to disagree, thought I was being too harsh, and believed there was more to Shapo's game than I do. Do you still feel that same way and are sticking to your guns...or are you starting to get some concerns and are ready to come over to my side?
Right now, it looks like you were right and I was wrong. Shapovalov reached the quarters in Australia before losing against Nadal. Since then, he is sub.-.500, parted ways with a coach and will drop down the rankings when the Wimbledon points fall off. And, do note—Gonzo got to a major final.
Let’s play the Name Game
Just an observation as I was perusing today’s scores:
J. Cabal vs. F. Cabral
Venus W. vs. M. Venus
J. Sinner vs. J. Isner
T. Maria vs. Maria S.
All that’s missing is maybe a Mertens vs. Bertens.
Well played. As long as we are name-adjacent, here is one of my new favorite tennis names. (Or is it a new cryptocurrency?)
I’m probably late to the party, but is there agreement on a good nickname for the great mixed doubles team of Coco Gauff and Jack Sock. My suggestion is CoJack, but that probably ages me.
Well played. That’s better than mine: Sockgauff-agus.