Skip to main content

Father Time Is Looking Over Rafa Nadal’s Shoulder

Also in this week’s mailbag: why aren’t there more female coaches on the WTA circuit?

Some housekeeping/good soldiering….

• Tennis Channel has you covered for World Tour Finals coverage and features  the doubles team of Courier and Roddick.

• The Federer/Nadal Rivals doc series is out. Airing on Tennis Channel and Big Ten Network among other places.

• Here’s the Paper Brigade piece from last Sunday’s 60 Minutes.

• On a lighter note….why did the NBA flame out in Vancouver?

Tennis talk? Ah, yes…Onward



I cannot handle these retirements. First Serena, then Roger and now….how much longer can Rafa keep going like this? Surely the end is near?

Dennis, Atlanta

Actually it’s “surely the end is near, no?”

Context: Nadal is 36 now. He hasn’t won a tournament since the French Open. He’s been a shell of himself since Wimbledon. And this reader’s question was raised as Nadal was losing for the second time in two matches at the ATP World Tour Finals.

This falls in that nebulous area between reporting and conjecture. “Informed speculation?” “Quasi-informed speculation?” Anyway, a year ago, Nadal was thinking seriously about his tennis mortality. His body has been a concern in the best of times. And these were not the best of times. After a loss to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open, he played one other event: Washington D.C. And was clearly hobbled. He didn’t play again the rest of the year. When he left for Australia, he didn’t know if he could play. He was 35. He had won 20 majors, a nice round number that tied him with Federer and Djokovic.

Also, he was feeling time in other ways. When I visited Nadal in Mallorca right before Covid, I was struck by the fact that, more than once— and without prompting—he mentioned wanting to start a family. He was building a house for a family. He joked about the stacked roster of familial babysitters nearby. In the months that followed, you can imagine how Covid magnified his existential thoughts.

Anyway, he goes to Australia, recovers from Covid, not only plays Australia but wins…beating all these kids and winning the final after going down two sets. And not only that, he emerges as this elder statesman. There was never anything hostile or jealous, but for years Nadal’s attitude was, Roger and Novak, you can put on tuxedos and go to Met Galas and hang out with Anna Wintour and talk finance with Ron Burkle and Steve Schwartzman. Knock yourself out, boys. I’ll be barefoot and fishing in the Mediterranean with my friends.

Suddenly, Federer is out of action and Djokovic is on this self-imposed exile and for the first time in his career, Nadal is this moral force. And he kinda warms to it. He’s giving long-winded philosophical answers (in English) and delivering speeches to ballkids and taking stances. All as his tennis soars and, not coincidentally, his body is behaving itself. In a short amount of time, his spirit is rekindled. He gets injured in Indian Wells but it’s a fluky broken rib, not chronic foot/knee/back stuff. He wins the French Open, as usual. He’s up to 22 Majors. Life is good.

And then not so much. Another injury ruins his Wimbledon and his bid for the grand slam. By now. He’s 36—a ridiculous tennis age not long ago. Djokovic is back. Nadal’s wife is pregnant. His spirit flags. Because he’s Nadal, he presses on, but there’s a ton of sand in the gears. For fifteen years he dominated Americans. He loses to one in New York, two at the Laver Cup, another in Paris, a third in Milan. He is unexpectedly moved by Federer’s retirement—his rival has departed and it leaves him bereft. Tennis mortality plays out in real time. He leaves immediately to be with his wife and soon becomes a dad.

Sterling as the first six months of 2022 have been, the second half of the year puts him back where he was a year ago, questioning his future and thinking about an exit strategy. He has committed to some exhibitions. The promoters are nervous. If he does play, they’ll double as stress tests for his body and mind and willingness to travel with a son at home. Because he won last year and honor demands you show up and try to defend, he’ll likely play Australia and Paris. But already he is talking about how events “could be my last.”

Where is Nadal? Essentially where he was this time last year, hard as that it to believe. His play will have to improve. His health will have to improve. He’ll go to Australia unsure when and where the end will come. I’m hopeful, but enough of a realist to know that his current situation isn’t sustainable. Something’s gotta give here.


[Re: Up-the-line versus down-the-line] Per one of the questions: Shiras, Koenig and I formed a tribunal and came up with this answer:

If you hit it inside the baseline — particularly an approach shot — it’s down-the-line. You’ll never hear anyone say, “The ball came short and I approached up the line.” Nor does someone say, “His volley was short, so I passed him up the line.” Yes, that’s down the line.

If you hit a thundering drive on a straight line from behind your baseline — ala vintage Kuerten — then it’s up the line.

Joel Drucker, LA

Good enough for me.


I saw the link you posted to the WTA’s Inclusion program aimed at getting more female coaches to enter the profession. My questions: why are there so few to begin with? If you want to tell me that a male player can beat a female player, fine. But you won’t convince me a men will automatically outcoach a woman! And do you think it will work? This has always bothered me!

Barbara P., Hamden, CT

Will it work? It’s a little like our discussion of China last week. The good news is that soon we will have some data points here. A year from now, the WTA either will or won’t go back to China. A year from now, the WTA either will or will not have more players coached by women.

Why are there not more women coaching? Two theories I hear most often: 1) There are far more men than women who double as hitting partners. If you are preparing to play, say, Iga Swiatek, there are not many women who can replicate her level of power and spins. An assortment of male players can. 2) Without turning into a gender studies discussion, more men than women are willing/able to forsake a family (either an existent family or a prospective one) for life on the road. Some of this is biology. Some of this is cultural. Some of this, yes, is unfair and worthy of broader re-examination and plays into some of the issues Serena raised in her retirement.

Apart from the optics and (very reasonable) conjecture that a female coach might understand and connect with a female player in a way a male coach cannot, I wonder if there’s something larger here. The CEO of the WTA? Male. Most coaches? Male. Most agents? Male. So you have this group of men (largely white and middle aged) making decisions and holding authority—both micro and macro—for and over women ages, say, 18-35.

Correlation is not causation, of course. But when you have players retiring in their mid 20s, in part because of demands….and players winning four majors in 30 months, only to lose interest in tennis….and players speaking openly about mental health and fatigue and demands….and players having panic attacks on court….maybe it’s time to re-examine the folks setting policy?


Is Italy becoming the next France in men’s tennis? Between injuries and some tough losses, 2022 has been a disappointment for the Azzurri. Today, all three Italians were eliminated from the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan, no less….like the French a decade ago, lots of talent!


We shall see. But you’re not alone with this concern. Italy has become this men’s tennis hotbed. Top players. A Wimbledon finalist. Ascending talent. ATP leadership. Year-end events, which can fund lesser events, a virtuous cycle, which can give more homegrown players access to points and prize money…..

But is there a future major champion in the bunch? Valid question. You worry about the durability of Berrettini and Sinner, both over the course of a career and over 21 sets compressed into 14 days. The French comparison is a good one. The Tsonga/Monfils/Gasquet/Simon (Mahut and Herbert?) Era was (is?) a strong one. But it accounted for zero major singles titles.

Hi Jon,

Has Ryan Harrison officially retired?

Kelly G., Louisville, KY

I sent Harrison a text but did not hear back. (I’m aware he’s been a polarizing force among tennis fans, but I’ve always found him accessible and accountable.) He is not retired but he is outside the top 500 and has had a rough go of it lately. A few weeks ago, he retired after losing the first set in Charleston qualifying. Total prize money? $130. (This is someone who made nearly $5 million over the course of his career.) He’s 30 now, not young, but no longer creakily ancient.


Who takes the fall and gets fired at the WTA for the embarrassing crowds in Fort Worth?


This is a cancel-culture adjacent, but we have gotten way too cavalier about calling for people’s jobs. There’s something hugely destabilizing about job loss. The financial uncertainty, the logistical uncertainty, the dented self worth. Do some people deserve to lose their jobs? Yes. But when we go Muskian and call for someone’s firing, it’s really quite a stance we’re taking.

The crowds for the WTA’s season finale were disappointing. And puzzling. How did Guadalajara—which actually had less set-up time than Texas—outdraw and outperform this tennis market? (See below for a local/regional perspective.) Whether or not the WTA goes back to China, this has to be addressed in 2023. Apart from the bad optics and bad press (and fodder it gives the anti-equal-money crowd) this event is way too important to the WTA’s overall bottom line to have a miscue like this. But I’m not sure calling for someone’s termination is the solution.


The Australian Open is back with Channel Nine.

What happened to all those athletes who went hard on crypto and NFTs?

• Neil Harman, longtime fixture in tennis, has a new book, “All My Own Words: The Sportswriter was the Author of His Own Downfall.”

Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski clinched year-end No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Team Rankings on Sunday when they lifted the Rolex Paris Masters trophy. It is first time either player has been part of the year-end No. 1 duo. The Dutchman and Briton made a quick start to their partnership at the beginning of the season and have not looked back. The pair has won seven titles this year, including triumphs at three ATP Masters 1000 events.

• “Next week IMG Academy will be hosting The Eddie Herr International Junior Championship, the largest international juniors tournaments in the world. The tournament will take place from Nov. 22 to Dec. 4. The Eddie Herr welcomes over 2,000 junior tennis players from over 90 countries and attracts the world's most competitive athletes. This is the 29th Eddie Herr and all have been hosted at The Academy. Previous winners include Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic, Whitney Osuigwe, Miomir Kecmanovic, Michael Mmoh, Andy Roddick, Xavier Malisse.”

This week’s Reader Riff, take us out Rika Burr:

Long time reader and fan of your work! I guess this is more of a rant than a question, but anyway. I am a huge tennis fan, but living in Oklahoma limits the amount of professional tennis I can see without having to get on a plane. When I saw the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, I was so thrilled and I knew this was likely a once in a lifetime chance to see the top women’s tennis players compete, so I shelled out for the best tickets and took time off from work to attend, and it was truly a magnificent experience. The players stayed to sign things after their matches for a long time, the arena was clean and well kept (aside from the weird light issue at the end of the Wednesday session during the Gauff/Pegula doubles match), and overall it was just a great experience. The attendance was shockingly low and my first thought was “I paid a lot for these tickets but anyone could pretty much sit anywhere they please at this point….” And admittedly it was regrettable and I felt bad for the players.

As I have read some comments on Twitter (ugh) about how FTW has no real tennis appreciation and the attendance was so low and it was just the wrong place to go to, I would counter that it was not necessarily the location but the advertising. When I went out to eat in the evening and my husband and I told people why we were in town, people that worked at restaurants just down the street from Dickies Arena didn’t even know it was going on. There was no advertising on any of the local channels. There were no posters anywhere aside from around the Dickies Arena. When I told my friends/coworkers about it, they somehow assumed it was me that was competing because they hadn’t seen anything whatsoever about a big tournament anywhere close. I feel like this is a deep oversight on the WTA. Having to pick a venue with only a few months lead time should automatically mean you have to ramp up your advertising to bring awareness to the area that typically does not have events like this.

Maybe I am just feeling sad because people will write off Texas/Oklahoma immediately for future events, but I feel like we did not get a fair shake to represent our love of tennis. Tennis, in Texas in particular, is HUGE! So I honestly feel like it is a bit of snobbery from the “elite” East/West Coasters to just automatically assume that no one in Oklahoma or Texas cares about tennis.

More Tennis Coverage: