Mailbag: Tennis’s Weird Year, Wild Cards and TV Talk

Jon Wertheim answers your questions ahead of the French Open, unpacking Ben Shelton’s major potential and Juan Carlos Ferrero’s Hall of Fame case.
Ben Shelton, yet to win a major, looks to follow up his semifinal run at the 2023 U.S. Open.
Ben Shelton, yet to win a major, looks to follow up his semifinal run at the 2023 U.S. Open. / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, everyone …

• A short column this week. We will be back in a few days with a Roland Garros 2024 seed report and a guide for visiting the event.

Here’s the latest Served podcast with special guest Danielle Collins. Andy and I have plans to do a Roland Garros preview episode when the draw comes out.

• Heads up: check out CBS Sunday Morning this Sunday. We hear rumors that there might be a lengthy tennis piece …

• Good soldiering: Tennis Channel has you covered in Paris, starting this weekend.

• A lovely Mother’s Day read from Joel Drucker.

• Texas two-step: TCU and Texas A&M won the men’s and women’s NCAA titles. Colette Lewis, has you covered, naturally.

Onward …

Jon, Is it me or has this been a weird year in tennis. Iga is a queen. Sinner is great but may not play in the French Open. Seems like a lot of comebacks (I’m thinking of Osaka) haven’t gone as planned. And [Nadal] and Djokovic aren’t really factors. What are your thoughts for the French Open? Will things start to make sense?

Emily C., NYC

• Yeah, it’s been a weird year so far. We are on the eve of a major, and that might bring some clarity. But imagine if someone said, by mid-May …

  1. Novak Djokovic—coming off a three-major year—will have zero titles, have blown up his camp, suffered a concussion and lost to a battery of players with double (and triple) digit rankings.
  2. Two major winners will announce their retirement … Garbiñe Muguruza and Dominic Thiem.
  3. Danielle Collins will announce her retirement … and win 19 of her next 20 matches.
  4. Jasmine Paolini will be close to the top 10.
  5. Ons Jabeur will play sub-.500 tennis.
  6. Barely two years from earning worldwide acclaim for “putting principles before profits” and taking its business out of China, the WTA will hold its nose and make the grudging announcement that it is taking its tentpole event to Saudi Arabia.
  7. The majors will band together and contrive plans for a Premier Tour.
  8. A tennis movie—flawed, but credible and creative—will pierce the mainstream conversation.
Collins has been on a tear since announcing her retirement, winning the Charleston Open in April.
Collins has been on a tear since announcing her retirement, winning the Charleston Open in April. / Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

But let’s use this opportunity to reinforce a point: we have been spoiled over the past two decades. The statistical outlier is not the champion faltering, the unexpected ascent or the qualifier reaching Week 2. The outlier is four reliable and durable champions playing simultaneously, and each winning 20-plus majors. We are seeing a regression to the mean now. As I said to a friend recently, Gastón Gaudio winning the 2004 French Open out of nowhere isn’t the weird result. The weird result is four players combining to win 89 majors.

“The Cartel”. Really Wertheim? That’s all class comparing sporting admin to villainous murderous drug rings. What’s wrong with you, man? Act your friggin age

Sean Martin Hingston

• This came on X, formerly Twitter. We should do a weekly segment on social media polluters whose incivility, disproportionate outrage and profanity contaminate the pool. Again, imagine sending off “What’s wrong with you, man?” and thinking this is an acceptable way to communicate with a stranger in a public space.

Anyway, last week the French Tennis Federation revealed its tranche of Roland Garros wild cards. I note that the majors trading wild cards among them—“reciprocal wild cards” in their vernacular—is cartel-like behavior. Not a drug cartel. But a cartel is defined as, “a coalition or cooperative arrangement between political parties intended to promote a mutual interest.”

Wild cards carry a hold-your-nose-and-accept-them quality. One of tennis’s great virtues is its fundamental fairness. Win and your ranking goes up. Lose and it goes down. Players need not impress coaches and rely on teammates or subjective judges. The sport is generally—forgive the cliché and mixed metaphor—a level playing field. Then comes this contrivance whereby players get to skip the line and leapfrog those with higher rankings.

Does the tournament need a way to accommodate star attractions and unforeseen circumstances? Sure. Rafael Nadal wants to play in Washington D.C. as a late entry? Great, get him in. In fact, let’s move heaven and earth. The French Open wants to honor France’s Alizé Cornet in her final major, her 69th in a row? Swell. Spain wants to accelerate the ascent of a young Carlos Alcaraz? ¡Ole!

But this system is so often abused. Management companies own events and guarantee future wild cards to players they are angling to represent. Ick. The majors—pause to praise Wimbledon for opting out of this gaucherie—swap slots. Double ick. Players’ siblings and girlfriends get wild cards. Ew.

Last week, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Emma Raducanu and Dominic Thiem—all major winners—were denied in Paris, while a cadre of locals got in, as well as the swapped chattel from the U.S. and Australia. Not cool and not fair.

Hi Jon;

As a fan of Dominic Thiem, I appreciated your favorable take on his merits for enshrinement in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And that got me thinking about another single major champion who I think makes the grade—Juan Carlos Ferrero. I was surprised to see that he has not already made the HOF, to be honest. It seems to me the corroboration is there—reaching number one in the rankings, two other Slam finals, 16 overall titles, Davis Cup heroics. Do you think he’s earned a spot in the HOF? And, given his success coaching Carlos Alcaraz, does his coaching prominence add some intangible momentum to his candidacy?

Ted Cornwell, Minneapolis

• Compare stats and it’s a bit tough to deny Juan Carlos Ferrero and admit Thiem. They have the same number of majors. Ferrero had the higher ranking and won way more matches but has won one fewer title.

I do like your thinking. If the Hall of Fame is hellbent on having an annual ceremony (it is) … all the more so when it loses its ATP event (it is) … and is stuck between respecting precedent and falling prey to It’s too easy to get in charges (it is) … why not consider candidates’ overall bodies of work? We spoke of Carlos Moyá, who not only won a major and got to No.1, but then coached Nadal all those years. He’s in. Ferrero won a major and harnessed Alcaraz as a coach. In. Why not expand to include a composite body of tennis work?

Ferrero won the 2003 French Open, the lone major title of his career.
Ferrero won the 2003 French Open, the lone major title of his career. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Jon,

I echo the many who are happy to see the mailbag return. I'm especially happy to see that the four article limit has been dropped. I love you and your mailbag but not enough to subscribe or sign-up to be annoyed by junk mail. I got to be very good at clearing cache.  😜…Big Ben Shelton. How big do you think the pressure is on him to get that big title? Full disclosure, I love him, his raw energy, how calm his father is, how humble his mother is and his persevering attitude. I think the people around him are realistic about his development. But, pressure comes from many places and so much depends on how you handle it. Your thoughts?

Best regards, 

Jenny, Marietta, GA

• Thanks. First, Ben Shelton’s mother is from Indiana, so naturally, she is the bee’s knees—as they say in, well, Indiana. Anyway, Shelton has two career titles, including one this year (Houston) so I assume “big title” refers to a major. He is still only 21, so there is some cushion there, too.

There is so much to like here. The live arm. The energy. The athleticism. The lefty-ness. The physique. The work ethic. The sense that he is already a top-15 player and learning the hacks and nuances. As you note, there is a nice marriage between professionalism and an “enjoy the ride and don’t get seduced by the empty trappings of stardom” attitude.

I’m not sure I see this as a matter of pressure. It’s more a question of levels. Does he have one or two more rungs, enabling him to stand alongside Alcaraz or Jannik Sinner (and Holger Rune?) and truly compete for majors?

Can we please talk about players raising their hands after winning points on [net-cord dribblers] … are they truly sorry to have WON the point? It’s ridiculous. Imagine a baseball player apologizing for a broken bat single.


• Meh. We say “gesundheit” after someone sneezes, even if we don’t speak German or know the person well enough to wish them health. Sometimes social conventions exist as reflexive gestures, not as sincere expressions of deeply held feelings.

Can you please help me understand why the US Open wants to have a straight-up head-on collision with NFL Opening Day? I’d really love some insight and understanding into this because it really stinks for fans.


• Network television, baby. It’s back and ready to party. Yes, the same way the women’s Final Four was on big ABC, the folks at Disney announced the U.S. Open men’s final would be announced with the ESPN team, but broadcasted on ABC. Why? While most people in 2024 draw few distinctions between broadcast and cable, there are more eyeballs (i.e. better ratings) on the networks.

Why isn’t the women’s final being broadcast on ABC? Because it’s Saturday and college football—the counterprogramming—is a behemoth.

More TV talk …

The first round of the French Open kicks off on Sunday.
The first round of the French Open kicks off on Sunday. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Question for mailbag: what should tennis do to make the ball more visible on red clay for people watching on TV?

DC Bedard

• I kicked this to Ross Schneiderman, executive producer at Tennis Channel. Twelve years ago, Ian Ţiriac had the brilliant idea to change the color of the clay to navy blue. The idea was great, but the installation of the courts, not so much. After the first year, the players threatened a boycott of the event, claiming the blue clay was too slippery compared to the traditional red clay. The one-year experiment was scrapped. Even with the advancement in television technology, it remains difficult to see the tennis ball on clay in certain lighting situations. Is the answer a darker tennis ball?  Black clay? Thus far, we remain in search of an answer.

What’s that? You want more TV talk?

Jon hello again, was reading your column and one of the reader requests was how to identify the voices of people who were commentating. There is a pretty good website, internet commentary database, think it’s I’ve used it before to identify the voices I want to mute 🤣


• Thanks. This is our friend Leif Shiras who does such strong work at/with/on the Tennis Channel.

The mailbag’s discussion of Torben Ulrich reminded me that when he passed last year, it was not reported in the NY Times Obituaries. I called this to their attention, and after a long pause, received a response that basically said “Ulrich wasn’t sufficiently well known for us to report his death.”

This was from a major news organization that will report the passing of every minor celebrity in the world of fashion and art.   

Mark Flannery

Fullerton, California

• More fodder for the Torben Ulrich fascination.

a) Here he was on the old Sports Illustrated tennis podcast.

b) Check this out (and note the price).

c)  Here’s his ATP page, if you’re interested.


• Good soldiering: Tennis Channel will devote one day a week exclusively to women’s competition when it introduces Women’s Day on its T2 channel, beginning Tuesday, June 11. Throughout the year, Tuesdays will feature the best women’s tennis players in the world live on T2, widely available throughout the U.S. for free.

• It’s good to see tennis making the next slate of ESPN’s 30 for 30

• Check out this 2024 French Open survivor draw pool.

• The USTA announced that Kevin Flaherty has been named the USTA’s chief financial officer. This position will report to Lew Sherr, the USTA’s CEO and executive director.

Jon Wertheim


Sports Illustrated executive editor and senior writer L. Jon Wertheim is one of the most accomplished sports journalists in America.