Roundtable Part II: Analyzing ATP and WTA storylines from the season so far
With the first three-plus months of the 2014 tennis season behind us, Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand, Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover, Erik Gudris of Tennis Now and Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times joined Courtney Nguyen for a roundtable to reflect on what’s happened so far, and look ahead to what’s to come. The roundtable took place on Wednesday, April 16 before Rafael Nadal's loss to David Ferrer in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals, but edits have been made where necessary.
WTA: What to make of it?
Nguyen: Am I wrong, or is the first part of the WTA season much more difficult to explain than the ATP's?
Gudris: I agree. Injuries, illness and fatigue have all played a part in many of the results. Some have thrived while others seemed to be almost MIA heading into the clay court season.
Rothenberg: Minus Eugenie Bouchard's and Simona Halep's solid results, I'd argue that we have learned nothing this year except that Serena Williams is not quite the juggernaut of last year. Victoria Azarenka is where she was in Istanbul, and Maria Sharapova's comeback is predictably lumpy.
Nguyen: The only thing stopping me from saying there's a vacuum at the top is the fact that Serena is still winning titles when she's apparently drop-dead tired. But how concerned are you guys about the health of Serena and Vika -- the two women who have really ruled the tour the last two years?
Gibbs: I'm very concerned, Courtney, especially when you add Sharapova in the mix. Halep has been impressive, and Li Na's consistency is huge, but I feel like last year the WTA was building consistency at the top with Serena, Vika and Maria, and now that's out the window due to injuries, which is unfortunate.
Rothenberg: There's definitely concern with Vika, Courtney. She had a very solid Brisbane, but since then she's been broken physically and doesn't seem to have handled it well at all -- at least not in that circus of a match against Lauren Davis at Indian Wells, anyhow.
Gudris: I'm more concerned about Azarenka than Serena at the moment. After that opening-round loss in Indian Wells, a match I think Vika should not have played, she's been basically MIA. She's recovering, but I'm beginning to wonder if these foot issues, similar to this time last season, won't become more common for her.
Bouchard vs. Stephens: The battle for North America
Nguyen: Do you think Bouchard's rise has helped or hurt Sloane Stephens? On the one hand, everyone has a new young gun to focus on. On the other hand, the way Bouchard goes about her business seems to emphasize -- nearly every week -- how frustrating Stephens' non-results and lack of development have been.
Rothenberg: The direct comparisons do Stephens few favors at this point, there's no getting around that. Bouchard exudes hunger, and I think many people in tennis desperately want Sloane to show a fraction of that.
Gibbs: In theory, it should help Stephens -- it gives her a rival of close to the same age and takes some of the attention off of her. But as Ben mentioned, the comparisons at this point are unfavorable. Three of us were in the press room at Charleston with both, and their attitudes could not have been more opposite.
Gudris: Only Stephens knows what she really wants from tennis, or at least I hope she does. To try to figure her out just gives me a headache.
Dimon: If anything, Bouchard should be both taking pressure off Stephens and also fueling fire in the young American. Of course, neither seems to be happening, but I certainly don't think it's going to hurt Stephens. If she's losing sleep over Genie, she has some serious problems on her hands.
Nguyen: In his guest mailbag for SI.com, Milos Raonic addressed the Stephens/Paul Annacone situation and Raonic said it was important to be patient and let coaching relationships develop. They take time. What are your thoughts on it? I admit I'm a little shocked that Annacone is still on Team Sloane.
Gibbs: First, I'm not surprised that Raonic gave such a thoughtful answer. I'm surprised that Annacone is around, and it makes me think there's more to Stephens' drive than she is letting the media see. Because if there's not, it's hard to see what Annacone is sticking around for.
Rothenberg: I don't think Annacone is a quitter. If he's still with her in Madrid, I think he'll stick around through Wimbledon. That said, the Roger Federer-to-Sloane Stephens transition, in terms of success and competitive fire, has to be jarring.
Dimon: Well, Raonic is just speaking from experience. His first few weeks with Ivan Ljubicic were almost as bad as the one-match Sharapova-Jimmy Connors partnerships (which, coincidentally, came against Stephens). Now, Raonic and Ljubicic are working out like gangbusters.
Gudris: In parting ways with Federer and joining Stephens, Annacone went from fine-tuning a Stradivarius violin to fixing a piano that sounds way out of tune to everyone except its owner. Is Annacone really up for a long-term overhaul of Stephens? I can't see it happening. Sometimes even clients have to be fired.
Dimon: Annacone will be back in the company of the ATP sooner rather than later.
The Boris Becker effect
Nguyen: Speaking of coaches -- yes or no: Boris Becker will be in Novak Djokovic's box in Paris.
Gudris: Yes. Because of the confidence he brings to Djokovic. (His words, not mine.)
Gibbs: Yes. But not at the U.S. Open. I just don't think Djokovic will make any big changes during clay season.
Rothenberg: I think Becker sticks around through Wimbledon because of his grass chops. But if Djokovic doesn't win there, auf wiedersehen.
Dimon: I will go with no to Becker. He may not be fired outright by then, but either one should be able to come up with another excuse for Becker to be "unable" to attend.
Gibbs: I also think that the legendary coaches narrative has been waaaay overplayed. It's neat, sure, but I don't think it's as significant as many do.
Nguyen: Totally agree, Lindsay. The best coaches of the the first quarter: Magnus Norman (Stanislas Wawrinka), Roger Rasheed (Grigor Dimitrov) and Papa Dolgopolov.
Gibbs: I concur with those names. And would add Nick Saviano (Bouchard).
Dimon: Gunther Bresnik (Ernests Gulbis and Dominic Thiem) was in serious contention until about three weeks ago.
Clay season: Buy/Sell?
Nguyen: As we move to the clay season, who are you buying and who are you selling?
Rothenberg: I am selling Jerzy Janowicz hard. Dude is in absolute free fall.
Dimon: I mean, I am selling Janowicz in general (always have), but I don't think you can sell him for the clay-court season. He was never an option to be bought on clay.
Gudris: On the WTA side, definitely sell Azarenka, Angelique Kerber and -- gasp -- Sara Errani. On the ATP side, sell Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Buy Fabio Fognini and Halep, though she's probably overpriced by now.
Nguyen: Whoa, you're selling Errani on clay, Erik?
Gudris: Yeah, I think Errani has peaked on clay. There's no way she should have lost that match to Belinda Bencic in Charleston. Do we really think Errani is going to win Madrid, Rome or Paris? Really? I think one should buy Ferrer now, but I'm still not sure if he can win an ATP 1000 on clay, even after beating Nadal in Monte Carlo.
Dimon: I'm buying low on Errani (yes, her stock is back on low again). I'm buying RBA, GGL, PCB and pretty much anyone else with three names. I will also buy Ferrer, given that most probably have his stock low, even after his upset. I'm selling Gulbis and Tsonga.
Gibbs: I'm buying Halep and Dominika Cibulkova, They can both do damage on clay in the injury-ravaged WTA. Also, Alize Cornet. We haven't talked about her yet, but she's had some great (and some insane) moments this year.
Dimon: Roberto Bautista Agut could definitely reach the French Open quarters if he's in one of the five-eighths of the draw that does not host Rafael Nadal, Djokovic or Federer. And, yes, Ferrer would win a Masters 1000 if someone else knocked out the big dogs before he had to face them. I can see Ferrer going the entire clay-court swing without losing to anyone other than Nadal, Djokovic or Federer.
Gibbs: Selling Azarenka and Angelique Kerber on the WTA side. I'd hold on Errani for now, just for clay season. For the ATP, I'd buy Berdych (minus his terrible shirt), Wawrinka and Dimitrov. Sell anyone French, and anyone named Tommy and Nico.
Nguyen: Based on this conversation, I am straight up buying Petra Kvitova, whose name has not come up once this entire time. That means I can probably afford eight million shares, even on my blogger's salary.
Gibbs: Shhh ... if we mention Kvitova, we'll scare her away.
Gudris: Any thoughts on Sharapova? Does she slide out of the top 10 or rise during the clay swing?
Rothenberg: I gotta think Sharapova is out of the top 10 by Wimbledon. Just so many points to defend after winning Stuttgart and making the final of Madrid and the French Open last year.
Gibbs: It's hard to see her gaining ground, but I think she finds a way to barely hang onto the top 10.
French Open lead-ups: Do they really matter?
Nguyen: How much significance do you place on the French Open warm-up tournaments?
Gudris: I don't know if people care, but I do think those results, especially on the WTA side in Madrid/Rome, do portend quite a bit for Paris. The top guys could lose early at Madrid/Rome, but actually benefit from being a bit fresher going in.
Gibbs: They can be important if some of The Others can get some confidence going and build on that momentum in Paris. For Rafa, Serena and Djokovic, I won't look into their results too much unless they involve a dreaded injury.
Dimon: In terms of their bearing on the French, I'm not too interested in any ATP matches other than Nadal vs. Djokovic. Before Nadal's loss to Ferrer in Monte Carlo, I expected them to positively dominate the clay-court swing and play in the final of every tune-up event in which they are both entered. For whom do you think the pre-French H2H matches are more important? One one hand, Djokovic destroyed Nadal in Miami. On the other hand, Nadal has had an obvious edge on clay.
Nguyen: I don't think they matter at all for the men. Rafa and Novak have played each other enough to know it's just about who's better on that given day. It's hard to use results or form to predict how their tussle will play out.
Gibbs: I felt like a big upset was going to happen at some point this clay season, and I got it earlier than expected when Ferrer upset Nadal in Monte Carlo.
Gudris: Regarding Nadal, this loss doesn't change my outlook for him unless he loses again in Madrid and Rome. That would prove his vulnerability is growing although best of five against Nadal in Paris is still the toughest task for anyone.
Dimon: Ferrer's win indicates that Nadal is no longer invincible on clay, but we already knew that. After all, Nadal also failed to win Monte Carlo last year, flirted with losses at his other French Open warmups and of course was potentially a Djokovic net-touch away from bowing out in Paris. It's not as bad as if he had lost to, say, Djokovic in straight sets, but it does increase the importance of winning in Madrid and/or Rome. And on the bright side for fans of Spaniards, pity the fools (lots of them) who greatly exaggerated the post-2013 demise of David Ferrer.
Nguyen: I think the most interesting thing coming out of Nadal's surprising loss to Ferrer is Nadal admitting that he's still struggling with his confidence. It makes me think that loss to Djokovic in the Miami final -- in which he got absolutely routed -- really rocked him. I still don't think the loss to Ferrer will mean that much in a month when we're in Paris, but the match does underscore what we all spoke about inititially: You can't take anything for granted this season, not even Nadal on clay.
Rothenberg: Three people matter in the clay season: Serena, Rafa and Novak. Everyone else needs those three to be far less than their best. It's that simple.
Dimon: Yes, but everyone else on the WTA needs Serena to only be far less than her best in Paris. It's not like someone like Errani is suddenly going to believe she can beat Serena in Paris just because (insert name of whoever it was [Jana Cepelova]) beat Serena in Charleston. No pre-French results matter for Serena.
Nguyen: And I agree with you on Serena to an extent Ricky, but not as it applies to the French Open. It's the only tournament that she does need the warm-up results. They help her confidence on her worst surface, whereas she knows she can walk into any draw on grass and hard an win regardless of how she's played the month before.
French Open front-runners
Nguyen: Who's winning the French Open? First names only.
Dimon: Since I'm on the three-name bandwagon, I'll take RNP to win the men's. Serena for the women's.
Gibbs: Rafa and Simona.
Gudris: Rafael and Na.
Rothenberg: Rafael and Jelena. Because why not.
Nguyen: Jelena "I somehow lost to Caroline Garcia on clay in straight sets last week in the Bogota final" Jankovic, Ben? You are truly voting with your heart and not your head.
Rothenberg: The women's side is as wide-open as ever if Serena isn't in 2013 form on clay. Who says the City of Light can't be the City of the Light and the Joy?
Nguyen: As for me: Novak and Simona. Because why not.
Dimon: You need some Halep if you're picking Simona to win the French.
Gudris: Or maybe Gael Monfils will win the French? And then retire the next day.
Rothenberg: Sign me up, Erik.
Nguyen: LA MONF 4 ROLLY GGibbs: