• Felix Auger-Aliassime is this week’s podcast guest. If this kid figures prominently in the future of the sport, count us in, please. And we also talk Miami Open with former top-15 pro—and current astute tennis observer—Andrea Leand.
• Not only is Mackenzie McDonald playing in the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston next week; he’s also taking a turn at the wheel here and guest-hosting the Mailbag. If you have question for the world No. 59, fire away….
• Here we are with Q1 results in the books. A prize if you predicted that A. the first 14 WTA events would yield 14 different winners (and none named Serena, Simona, Venus, Garbine, Caroline, Sloane, Elina, or Maria.) And B. that Federer, age 37, would be the best player of the first 90 days.
• Through Q1 of 2019, top five cable networks in audience growth (this, at a time of market erosion):
5. FX Movie Channel +8%
4. MSNBC +9%
3. IFC TV +16%
2. Hallmark Channel +22%
1. Tennis Channel +33%
• Apropos of nothing….sometimes you come across a piece of tennis writing that makes you smile. Here’s the great Tom Perrotta on Robinson’s barely water.
• Quite the April Fool’s joke from the U.S. Open.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @Jon_Wertheim.
Has there ever been a better time to be a Canadian tennis fan? Denis Shapovalov is inside the top 20. Felix Auger-Aliassime is a rising star. And then we get Bianca Andreescu on the women’s side! Too bad the Hopman Cup might be dead. Canada could win that thing for years to come!
• Yes, let’s raise a Labatts to our neighbors to the north. It’s not just that Canada—with one-tenth the American population; and weather as conducive to tennis as insobriety is to darts—have minted three teenage stars. It’s that these stars, each in their own distinct way, conduct themselves with real aplomb. And they each play with variety and flair, so at odds with the typical “live arm” teenage bashing.
But I’m going to zig where the tennis world zags, and use this moment not to dwell on the kids but divert some and attention to…Milos Raonic. The guy is 28 years old and—like cooled poutine, so baked into tennis’ plate—we tend to take him for granted. His game would not be described as artistic or creative or even easy on the eyes. He’s never won a major. He is not outrageous on court or in the interview room. He’s doesn’t do Twitter beefs or wacky self-serving Instagram videos.
What does he do? He coaxes everything from his body and his game. He is consummately professional. He acts like an adult. He reads books. He is a tactician and technician who gives himself every chance to maximize to success.
And while the kids are, understandably, stealing some of the attention that might otherwise redound to him, Raonic figures in their success. He’s shown that a first-generation Canadian can gravitate to tennis and thrive. He’s found that you can devote yourself to this sport, without having it become the sum of your identity. That you can return from injury.
Calling a 28-year-old—still ranked No. 15— a “tennis pioneer” in overstating the case. But when considering Canada’s current embarrassment of riches, I’d encourage you to also consider a consummate pro, who immediately preceded this wellspring. And then consider his role, directly or indirectly.
Lots of chatter about how great the new facilities in Miami are (including Endeavor’s “we’re the new U.S. Open” in the Telegraph)…and yet it seems ironic that after $70 million in investment, all it still takes is a little light rain to dampen the second-week buzz. I mean, it is South Florida, and it is the era of global weirding. Not saying they didn’t consider it…but would be curious to hear about why a facility with a roof couldn’t be part of a forward-looking major tournament overhaul, especially in an area beset by kooky weather (I know this, having spent way too much time in Boca over the last 30 years as a hostage grandchild).
• Who among us has not been a hostage grandchild in greater Boca? Mention “Charley’s Crab House” or “TooJay’s Deli” or “On Sale at Publix” to many of us, and…why, it’s like a Proustian madeline (albeit it with a macadamia and coconut covering.)
Where were we? Oh, right. Keep in mind, putting a roof on a football stadium is a considerable undertaking. But, yes, you would think that for the sake of television alone, one covered court—in south Florida, in March, in this age of global weirding, as you nicely put it—would have been advisable.
Overall, though, a strong rookie outing for the new-look Miami Open. Good crowds—despite what it looked like on television. Good tennis. Good amenities. If the great complaint is the price of parking, you’re doing plenty right. All credit to James Blake.
Who is more likely to complete the career slam in your opinion, Stan Wawrinka or Angie Kerber?
• Good question. Stan’s game isn’t well-suited for grass. He needs too much time to set up and, while athletic, he’s not a grass mover. Kerber has been no great shakes at the French. But I like her chances better than Stan’s at Wimbledon. Plus, she is younger (31 vs. 34) and, in theory, has more chances. This question, though, underscores how difficult it is to win all four majors, even in this age of (alleged) surface homogenization.
A not-so-hypothetical for you/readers: Player A wins 22 grand slam tournaments by the age of 30, and retires. Player B wins 23 by the age of 37, and yet by all modern accounts seems to be the GOAT. I don’t necessarily disagree, but can you help me on the logic here? Is it simply the objective number 23? Or an unquantifiable x-factor?
—Jon B., Seattle, WA
• First, allow me to remove this from my chest: If this quest for 24 majors is what incentivizes Serena, great. We all need a carrot. Especially when we lack a natural rival. But this Slam “record”…it is a record in name only.
Margaret Court won 24 majors; 11 were Australian Opens when it was essentially a national championship. And Australia’s population was barely 10 million. And the draw size was 32. This is not to denigrate Court (an unfortunate offshoot of so many sports comparisons.) But comparing Serena’s titles to Court’s titles is like comparing a successful California senate run to a successful Delaware senate run.
As for your question, I have two answers. First, longevity matters, and Serena’s 20-year sustained excellence probably does count for more than Graf’s concentrated excellence. Serena was also a better doubles player, faced stiffer competition, had more Olympic success, and did her winning when the sports was relentlessly global, the “applicant pool” deeper.
Second, I’ve spoken before about my admiration for Graf’s decision to retire and then sticking to her vow to lead a life out of the public eye. But I wonder to what extent she undermines her legacy by being such a cipher. People are always amazed to learn that John McEnroe won fewer majors than Lendl. (For that matter, people are surprised to learn that Charles Barkley never won an NBA title or that Kenny Smith was a marginal player.) Why? Because McEnroe, like Barkley, has helped his legacy as a player by being so visible in “retirement.” In others words, if Graf chose to be less private—broadcasting, coaching, flogging products—might we hold her in higher esteem as a player?
We agree about on-court coaching (please, dear lord, no! Never!), so this is not an attempt to convince you. This other reason to dump it occurred to me, however, and I believe it’s worth sharing:
On-court coaching has value exclusively for television audiences. Period. Full stop. For obvious reasons, the mic’d coach is not broadcast to a stadium, and on outside courts without television no one hears what’s said besides the player and a few spectators sitting near the umpire’s stand.
Should tennis make an across-the-board change to one of the most unique aspects of the game just for the sake of televised matches? This boy votes no.
• The whole “innovation” is so cynical. It’s cheap and gimmicky. It catches the players at their most vulnerable. Women in distress looking for others—invariably male—to bail them out. And you’re right: it’s done for the sole benefit of TV audiences.
But it’s the marketing that is truly offensive. The proponents will claim that players want it. They don’t. The players either hate it or are indifferent or hedge. Really, find me one player who affirmatively says, without equivocating, “I prefer this to the status quo.”
Absent zero data, the supporters claim fans like it. Certainly not you guys, who are a darn good (and statistically significant) focus group. And this is a fundamental change that is being passed off as a “tweak” akin to shaving a few seconds off warm-up time or putting a serve clock in the corner of the court. This all calls to mind a hack politician tacking an amendment to a bill through Congress, hoping the voters don’t notice until it’s too late.
If there were a clamoring for on-court coaching, I’d still dislike it personally, but I could accept being in the minority and bending to the will of the people. But where’s the evidence that’s the case?
As I was recommending the mailbag to another tennis fan, I said “I’ve been reading it for decades. Wait, is that even possible?” Yes, I think it is. When did you start it? It seems to me it’s been around since before Y2K?
Here’s to a few more decades!
—D. Shields, Ann Arbor, Mich.
• I really appreciate that. Funny story: in 1998, I was a cub reporter at Sports Illustrated and was sent to Toronto to write a piece on Andre Agassi, who was having a resurgent season. These still being the tail end of the fat, gilded days of magazines, the story would run only if Agassi took the title, a “win only” in the vernacular.
There were rain delays and late matches and Agassi was playing hard-to-get. An editor in New York suggested that I could kill time by writing a tennis column for the…gasp…Internet, which was then considered more of a curiosity than a growth area. I was at that point in my career where I would have taken lunch orders if it meant a writing opportunity. I said “sure.” I then had an idea that I could solicit questions and then I wouldn’t have to conceive of an idea each week.
Agassi lost to Pat Rafter in the semis, if memory serves, and I flew home. But the column ran. And more than twenty years later, here we are.
I should convey this more often: As you can probably discern, some weeks I can devote more bandwidth than other weeks, but this column is a source of great fun. It’s enabled me to meet a good many of you in person. It’s strengthened my ties to a sport that I’ve come to adore and care about deeply. But ultimately this is our column, collectively. Your questions, concerns and observation are every bit as essential as the responses. Thanks.
It is Tuesday morning, and both Isner and Tsitsipas are still in the Miami draw for both singles and doubles. I know women have done this before, but has it happened since McEnroe in ‘83 that the singles men’s champion also wins the doubles event at a Masters or Slam?
• Let this be another plea to Larry Ellison to reinstate the Million Dollar Bonus for the player who wins both singles and doubles at Indian Wells. And if we needed still another reasons to be bullish on the young players—male and female—note how many of them excel both solo and with a partner. It’s possible that Tsitsipas and Sabalenka and Barty and even Shapo all end up with top-10 singles and doubles rankings.
As for the history, as we so often do, we now turn to Greg Sharko: “Looks like we will wait on the next doubles winner in an ATP Masters 1000 tourney. Nadal in 2008 Monte-Carlo won singles and doubles (w/Robredo).”
So, Bianca Anreescu and Angelique Kerber have played two competitive matches recently, with Kerber audibly calling Andreescu “biggest drama queen ever” at the end of the second match. I didn’t get to see much of the second match, but from what I read, Bianca was given some flack about her medical timeout. However, given the friction between the two that started in the Indian Wells match, do you think that’s more what Angie takes issue with?
My thinking: Bianca is certainly… passionate. Perhaps to a point of being disrespectful, even if unintended? During the third set at Indian Wells, she would stretch between points while Angie was serving, often making her wait to begin serve. Also, she would slam balls back to Angie’s side of the court, notably after winning a service game and even hitting her with the ball. You could tell this was unnerving Angie. I didn’t get a chance to see the Miami match, just some highlights. Was there a similar tension? Has Bianca been rubbing other opponents the wrong way through such antics?
—Dan B., Baltimore
• My thinking: we all act out of character during moments of stress and arousal. Kerber was already in a “hot state,” and it was compounded by the fact that she, a three-time major champ, was losing to a teenager for the second time in a month. It was much more about that than any legitimate, rational complaints. She said something uncool. She was embarrassed. She apologized. We should let her live.
A lot of you were unhappy with the Twitter responses, and the double standard police was out in full force. But I maintain that reputations matter. Kerber has accumulated enough good will and shown herself to be enough of a “good egg,” that one lapse should not occasion a public execution.
I attended the semis and finals at Indian Wells for five years straight. I love the tournament and the atmosphere. I think Larry Ellison has done an incredible job making it one of the best tournaments in the world as well as making it very fan-friendly. Of course, with all of his money, he could do almost anything he wants to make Indian Wells even greater.
Question: Do you think Larry Ellison should be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame? I do.
• It’s funny. Two years ago or so, the Hall of Fame announced this recalibration. Though no one said it directly, the subtext was clear: no more Mr. Nice Guy. We need to get our standards up. (“That’s why they’re called standards!”). Part of this entailed thinning out the contributors category. After this mandate, the first inductees were Michael Stich and Helena Sukova, who are both lovely, admirable people and fine representaties of the sport; but between them, they won one singles major.
As for pruning the contributors, I don’t get it. Tennis is, of course, an intensely individual sport. And the players, let’s be clear, are the show. But it’s also a community, a sport that, like few others, thrives because of the contributions and innovations of non-players. Whether it’s someone shepherding an all-tennis network into the cable universe, or a wildly successful coach (Uncle Toni, no? Oracene Williams, anyone?) or an influential media figure (Philippe Bouin?) or a philanthropic promoter like Larry Ellison, I’m inclined to give wider—not narrower—berth to these contributors.
I have to say, I was (and still kinda am) a big fan of Stefanos Tsitsipas—a one-handed wonder who brings a refreshing candor and innocence to the game and I think his trajectory is solid on a vertical scale. But after watching this clip (check out the scene at the 4:00 mark), this was pure gamesmanship. I played in the juniors and there is no reason for him to tap his racket twice, it was simply to distract.
It’s cheap and the umpire should have called it. It’s been done before and called out…
• I put this in the Kerber category. Not cool, and he deserves to be called out. (As Shapovalov rightly and slyly did.) But A. some heat-of-battle mitigation, and B. consider the broader context. Here’s a kid who’s 20 years old. He’s out there alone. He’s not from a country with much tennis history or other countrymen to serve as mentors. He’s shown himself to be an open, accessible, authentic guy. He makes one false move and….I’m not sure it’s worth denouncing your fandom. Proportion and perspective…
It is very rare for John Isner to drop a set 6-1, as he did against Roger Federer in the Miami final. Took me a while to find the last time the big serving American was handed a bagel—which was back at Wimbledon in 2010, to Thiemo de Bakker in the second round. How did that happen? Well, it was following his marathon 70-68 fifth set triumph vs Mahut of all matches.
• Good one. Thanks.
The big winner at the Miami Open: Uniqlo.
• Why? Naomi Osaka lost early…