Tennis Mailbag: Rafael Nadal's Wimbledon Record, Roger Federer's Commencement Address and More

Jon Wertheim answers your burning questions in this week's mailbag, including a point on the lost art of the lob.
Nadal has won Wimbledon twice (2008 and '10).
Nadal has won Wimbledon twice (2008 and '10). / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Submissions have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Hey everyone …

• Here’s this week’s Served podcast. Max Eisenbud, Andy Roddick and I pull back the curtain, unfurl our purses and discuss the taboo topic of … money.

• We will have Wimbledon seed reports next week, as well as a Served draw show …

• Note a lot of Shots, Miscellany, and a thoughtful reader rant at the end … 

We've done four already but now we're steady …


Jon, I saw your tweet about [Rafael] Nadal and Wimbledon. How would you rate him as an all-time grass court player? 

Enson

• For what it’s worth, I noted that, if, indeed, Nadal has played Wimbledon for the final time, it’s poetic that A) he won his final match (as Roger Federer did at Roland Garros) and B) his final defeat was to … Federer.

How good of a grass courter was Nadal? Interesting question. And this was always a strange dimension to his gilded career. Nadal at Wimbledon was wildly inconsistent. From 2006 to ’11, he was a beast and reached the final in all five years he entered, winning twice. His inroads against (and, finally, takedown of) Federer—a four-set final loss in ’06; a five-set final loss in ’07; a five-set final win in ’08—is a crowning achievement. Late in his career, Nadal was terrific, winning 15 of his last 17 matches at SW 19. 

And in the middle? He lost to Dustin Brown, Gilles Müller (15–13 in the fifth), Steve Darcis, Lukas Rosol and a teenage Nick Kyrgios. Sometimes he was less than 100% physically. Sometimes he was running on fumes after his romp through the clay. But, sometimes he lacked confidence and tactics and went down with mystifying passivity. 

Go by Nadal’s highs—two titles and eight semis or better—and he is an all-timer. Go by his win percentage (83%), and it dips. A reader came up with this ranking of the greatest men’s Open Era grass court players. Nadal has to make the list, if barely. It’s hard to quibble with too much here, and it’s a fun thought exercise.


Jon - [Federer’s commencement address] at Dartmouth is so poignant and soulful and your audience would love it. He said he won 80% of his matches but only won 54% of total points played. Case in point—he needed to move on from the points he lost, even if it was a bad double fault in a crucial tiebreaker. Talent might give you a head start, but work ethic and discipline—took him far beyond his imagination, he said.

It was so uplifting and wanted to share with you and your audience.

Deepak (New York)

• Thank you. Everyone should set aside 20 minutes and watch this address. And I totally agree, Federer nailed his speech. Having recently been a proud audience member at a college graduation, I can tell you that not all keynote speeches are this polished, well-conceived and well-delivered. 

I, too, loved his winning point about … winning points. Even the best tennis players lose 47%, or so, of the points played—a virtual coin flip. So, either they reset really well from adverse results, and/or they win the most important points. A lesson is in there for all of us.

As for the talent riff, here’s a hot take: Kyrgios is the best thing that ever happened to Federer. Why? He serves as a sort of one-man placebo, a control group. The two have commensurate talent, but two completely different careers. If Federer lacked grit, commitment, professionalism, an insistence on improvement or a willingness to learn, he would’ve had a career akin to Kyrgios’s. Talent only gets you so far. Well, we now have an actual representation of that distance.


Hello, Jon. Thank you (and TC+ and Andy Roddick) for the wide-ranging and excellent FO coverage, which we massively enjoyed.

[A] brief parting thought for you and the mailbag community. Mary Carillo's unabashed and unmistakable joy in watching and discussing tennis. I love to hear her announce. 

Regards, David, California

• Amen. One hopes that the best broadcasters find favor with the new Warner Bros. Discovery overlords who will be overseeing the Roland Garros coverage starting in 2025. It will be interesting to see if ESPN lets talent moonlight for another network. This was once inconceivable, but in today’s shifting media landscape—with leverage moving back to talent—who knows?


Hi Jon,

Now that coaching is legal, I was wondering whether you see any difference in the matches. Has the quality of play changed now that players can focus on execution and not so much on tactics? Presumably, they are receiving the tactics from their coaches in real time. Has it resulted in a better product?

Secondly, why not move the players' sit-down area to right below where their coaches are? This would allow for real discussion between player and coach during a changeover. The discussion would be on what to do in the next game as opposed to body serve or move back on return etc, etc.

Ananth

• Here’s my view on on-court coaching.

1) I am still opposed. The ability to demand that players solve their own problems and craft their own solutions is a pillar of tennis’s unique appeal. 

2) I think we tend to give coaches too much credit. The idea that they are Prometheus bringing fire to the benighted mortals is off-base. The players are the ones out there, exposed, trying to meld power and control. They should get an overwhelming amount of the credit. If a coach can improve or optimize performance by 5%, he—and the overwhelming majority are male—has earned his keep. But let’s not forget who’s doing the heavy lifting. 

3) The capitulation by tennis “authorities” to legalize mid-match coaching was, for lack of a better word, lame. Everyone’s doing it anyway, is not a reason to give in. 

4) Now that it’s here, it has not created a seismic shift. I’m not sure the promised added benefit to fans has materialized. But neither is coaching a blight on the sport. As with many proposed changes, the impact is not as dramatic as feared and we all quickly adjust.

5) Right now it’s permitted when the player is on the same side of the court as the coaching entourage. Still—what’s up Stefanos and Apostolos Tsitsipas?—some teams manage to flout the rules.

6) As for effectiveness, I think it varies from player to player. Some (Carlos Alcaraz) clearly rely on their coaching. Note his court positioning, the body serve and the small change in tactics. Note his somewhat vacant performance in Australia against Alexander Zverev—when his coach was absent—and his buttoned-up performance in Paris. 

Alcaraz has found success with coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, mostly recently winning the 2024 French Open.
Alcaraz has found success with coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, mostly recently winning the 2024 French Open. / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Hi Jon,

I want to thank you for your mention that the French Open wouldn’t give Nadal a wild card. I thought that was bizarre. That they would build a statue of him while he was still playing and not prevent what actually happened. I follow you in all your appearances. I’m a big fan.

Joanne Merritt

• Thanks. I think Joanne is referring to the French Tennis Federation’s decision not to seed Nadal at Roland Garros this year. This devotion to the rankings opened the door to him facing Zverev in Round 1. There was something poetic about Nadal losing to Zverev in the opening round …. and then Alcaraz, the next in his Spanish lineage, playing avenger and beating Zverev in Round 7. In retrospect, I think the event could have made an exception here and no one would have cared. We all can see that a 14-time champion is an absurdity, warranting special consideration. No seeded player would have minded seeing Nadal get some draw protection. And unseeded players (the No. 32 guy notwithstanding) wouldn’t have minded either.

It will be interesting to see what Wimbledon does with its remaining wild cards. This is the major that opts out of the reciprocal corruption and treats these precious slots with some dignity.

As long as we are here … does anyone share my ambivalence about calling the French Open Roland Garros? As a rule, we ought to call people by their preferred names. As a rule, we ought not to be co-opted in marketing and rebranding exercises. You were Margaret and now want to be called Peggy? Great. You were ESPN and now want to be known as The Worldwide Leader? Um … 


Hi Jon,

YouTube is able to confirm my recollection of '70s women's tennis: A player could pretty much reset the point by hitting a lob deep enough to the opponent's court. Today's female players are, for the most part, able to crush a winner even from the baseline on a lob, if facing the opponent when the lob is coming at them. But what about a well-placed lob when the opponent is at the net? It seems that players are not hitting the lob high enough and deep enough over a player at the net. Most of the attempted lobs I saw at the French Open were returned by the opponent without the ball even hitting the dirt. It seems the well-placed lob is a lost art. (Mirra Andreeva did hit a perfect lob on match point to beat the ailing Aryna Sabalenka; Sabalenka did not even try to run it down.)

Regards,

Jim Yrkoski, Silver Creek, Neb.

• Who among us doesn’t romanticize the lob … That delicate parabola, tracing a rainbow, landing over the opponent’s out-stretched arms, but inside the baseline? I’m not sure it’s a lost art, so much as it is a sub-optimal tactic. A combination of string technology, height and athleticism works against the lob. As a rule, players’ overheads are really strong these days. And those are the shots that end points. Make players hit volleys and, even if the passing shots don’t go whistling by the opponent, they aren’t automatic winners. Lobs have their place. Make opponents pay a price for getting too close to the net. Change up tactics. Up a rally with a moonball. But I’m not sure it’s the percentage play it once was.


While there’s no question that cheating does occur in collegiate tennis, some of your information is dated.

There are no service lets in college tennis.

Also, the penalties for getting caught making bad calls ramp up pretty quickly. In the coming season, every overrule after the first one results in a code violation. So, second overrule, point penalty (assuming no other CVs have been issued for bad behavior); third overrule, game penalty; fourth overrule, default.

R.G.

• This was regarding a point made in SI’s 50 Parting Thoughts From the French Open about rampant cheating in college tennis. A few of you suggested that cheaper technology will eventually solve the problem. I might suggest that honor costs even less than this.


After her fourth Roland Garros win, Iga Swiatek is aptly called the "queen of clay." A broader measure I haven't seen mentioned is this:

In the past three years (2022–24), Iga has entered eight big clay tournaments at the 1000 and major levels. She has won six of those.  Of the two she didn't win, she lost in the finals in one (’23 Madrid to Sabalenka) and withdrew due to injury concerns at 2–2 in the third set in the other (2023 Rome vs. [Elena] Rybakina). 

If you throw in the Stuttgart 500s in this period, it is eight wins out of 11 tournaments entered.

Since the start of 2022, she has won 19 trophies. No one else is close.  Also, if you subtract all the clay tournaments from the rankings, Iga would still be No. 1 but by a much smaller margin (7500 vs. 6590 for [Coco] Gauff). The clay doesn't make her No. 1 but widens the margin considerably.

Bruce Beeghly, Youngstown, Ohio

• Well played. We are entering Nadal territory here. My favorite Swiatek stat: She has been in 26 finals and won 22 titles.

Swiatek has four French Open titles to her name at 23 years old.
Swiatek has four French Open titles to her name at 23 years old. / Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Shots, Miscellany:

Serena Williams’s Next Challenge? The Rest of Her Life

Sloane Stephens Is Freezing Her Eggs So She Won't Have To Choose Between Tennis And Motherhood

• Recalling our talk about the inimitable Torben Ulrich, do note his new book is available. 

Who wants to be a 2025 U.S. Open ball kid?

• Congratulations to Roland Garros survivor pool winners: Vanessa Nommensen (WTA) and Patrick McMahon (ATP).

• Andy Krouse of Hummelstown, Pa., take us out ...

Hi Jon,

I believe I may have mentioned this before, but I’d like to suggest Tennis Channel look at some of the remarkable streaks in tennis over the years. It would be an entertaining multi-part show by the great analysts there, like the underrated series a couple of years ago. It would also bring attention to some bits of history that some fans may not know about. Some of the streaks are of DiMaggio-ian proportions.

I couldn’t include everything, but here are the ones that leap to mind:

Roger Federer:

Won three slams in a year two years in a row and three times in four years.

Won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year three years in a row.

Won Wimbledon five straight years (2003–07).

Won the U.S. Open five straight years (2004–08).

Reached 10 straight grand slam singles finals.

Reached 23 straight grand slam semifinals.

Won his first seven grand slam finals.

Won at least one grand slam singles title eight straight years (2003–10).

Rafael Nadal:

Won 81 straight matches on clay and 50 straight sets.

Won 14 French Opens, including four in a row (2005–08) and five in a row (2010–14).

Undefeated in French Open finals.

•  Won at least one grand slam singles title in 10 straight years (2005–14).

Novak Djokovic:

Won three grand slam singles titles in a year four times, the first and last times being 12 years apart.

Won 10 Australian Opens, is undefeated in the finals there.

The only male player to reach the finals 10 times in two different Grand Slam events (Australian Open and U.S. Open).

Between the 2018 Wimbledon and the 2023 U.S. Open, played 20 slams, reached the finals in 15, and won 12.

Won four straight Grand Slam singles titles (2015 Wimbledon–’16 French Open).

Pete Sampras:

Won a grand slam singles title eight years in a row (1993–2000).

Won Wimbledon seven times, three straight (1993–95) and four straight (1997–2000).
•  Undefeated in Wimbledon finals.

Was ranked No. 1 at year-end for six consecutive years (1993–98).

 Bjorn Borg

Won Wimbledon five straight years (1976–80).

Won the French Open–Wimbledon double three consecutive years (1978–80).

Ivan Lendl:

Won the U.S. Open three straight years (1985–87).

Reached the U.S. Open final eight straight years (1982–89).

Andy Roddick:

Undefeated in matches when attempting to close out a Davis Cup tie (12–0).

The Bryan Brothers:

Undefeated on the road in Davis Cup. Also undefeated when the team was down 0–2.

Serena Williams:

Won grand slam singles titles 18 years apart (1999–2017).

Won the U.S. Open three straight years, and reached the final four straight years.

Steffi Graf:

Won the calendar Grand Slam in 1988, the only person to do so on three surfaces.

Won at least one grand slam singles title in 10 straight years (1987–96).

The only player, male or female, to successfully defend a grand slam title at every event. She’s successfully defended at each event at least twice.

Reached 13 consecutive grand slam finals.

Martina Navratilova:

Won Wimbledon nine times, six consecutive (1982–87).

Reached 11 straight grand slam singles finals.

Won the calendar Grand Slam in doubles with Pam Shriver in ’84.
Won six straight slam titles in doubles.

Won 74 straight matches in singles.

Chris Evert:

Won 125 straight matches on clay.

Won at least one grand slam singles title in 13 consecutive years (1974–86).

Won her first 48 grand slam quarterfinal matches.

Reached at least the semifinals of 34 consecutive grand slams.

Won the U.S. Open four consecutive years.

Monica Seles:

Between 1991 and ’93 Australian Opens, played in nine grand slam events, reaching the final in all of them, winning eight.


Published
Jon Wertheim

JON WERTHEIM

Jon Wertheim is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and has been part of the full-time SI writing staff since 1997, largely focusing on the tennis beat , sports business and social issues, and enterprise journalism. In addition to his work at SI, he is a correspondent for "60 Minutes" and a commentator for The Tennis Channel. He has authored 11 books and has been honored with two Emmys, numerous writing and investigative journalism awards, and the Eugene Scott Award from the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Wertheim is a longtime member of the New York Bar Association (retired), the International Tennis Writers Association and the Writers Guild of America. He has a bachelor's in history from Yale University and received a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He resides in New York City with his wife, who is a divorce mediator and adjunct law professor. They have two children.