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Mailbag: What to Expect From Venus and Federer in 2019, and the Charm of Different Slam Formats

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 12/12/2018 Jon Wertheim
Roger Federer hitting a ball with a racket: Venus Williams Roger Federer serve © Getty Images Venus Williams Roger Federer serve

Hey everyone, hope you’re enjoying the off-season…

HOUSKEEPING

• Our most recent podcast guest, Mike Bryan, is now reunited with his brother as he tries to win his third straight Slam.

• We’ll do one more pod before the year’s out.

• One of you suggested that it’s been a while since we did a contest. Well, last week I ran into a reader on the streets of New York who suggested a pitch for Netflix: “BAGGY & THE BIG CAT,” a lightly scripted reality series where Miloslav Mecir and Marcos Baghdatis drive a tricked-out Yugo up and down the Balkans in search of unsolved crimes and uncharmed locals.”     

Send in your best scripted idea for a Netflix tennis t.v. show. (They’re buying, we hear). We’ll send the winner some swag.

• Nadal fans in particular: here is a tremendous piece of tennis writing.

Onward…

MAILBAG 

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Jon,

I sure hope your defense of no coaching by saying it’s been disallowed is tongue-in-cheek.

Here are a few things folks might have said before the custom changed:

Women have always been prevented from voting.

U.S. citizens have always been allowed to own slaves.

Honorable men have always been allowed to end disputes with pistols.

Disabled folks have always had to fend for themselves.

Men have always been allowed to beat their wives.

The U.S. has always been part of the British Empire.

I'm sure all your readers can come up with their own lists, but you owe it to us to be a bit more thoughtful.

Elsie Misbourne, Washington, D.C.

• “Hey, we should change our approach to voting! Enough of these career politicians, these eggheads who are informed about issues and have legislative experience; we should elect a new kind of candidate. You know, more of an incurious, impatient, impulsive, humorless, fact-hostile, reality TV bully type.” 

“Let’s change our position on this stifling, regulation-heavy European Union and go at it alone. We’re British, dammit. What could go wrong?”

“Let’s change our menu to go beyond hamburgers and start, I don’t know, serving McRibs and filets of fish. And we’ll drop the “f” from “of” to seem even more progressive.”

“Let’s switch this Coke formula we’ve had for a century and introduce—wait for it— a New Coke.”

“I’m going to change my band and play these drums elsewhere, because you—Paul, John and George—are never going anywhere. Go ahead and replace me with a guy named Ringo, if you like.”

“Enough with this search engine. That’s getting old. I’m thinking we change our focus and offer Google glasses.”

Look, we can all cherry-pick examples of good change, bad change, overdue change and ill-conceived change. (The term “captain hindsight” exists for a reason.) The issue with on-court coaching: is it progress, like Elsie’s examples? Or is it an abdication and a contamination of the core product, a bit of change we’ll come to regret?

Jon: Serena Williams in 2019. Buy, sell or hold?

Peter, Long Island

• A) I just saw Maria Sharapova’s favorite comedian, Judah Friedlander last night. He wonders if the guy that gave Long Island its name was really all that good at measuring.

B) I just wrote about Serena. From the double-dipping, cutting/pasting department:

For as much as we talk about Serena Williams—the celestial being around whom all other figures in women’s tennis revolve, it sometimes seems—we sometimes overlook this fundamental point: she is still an extraordinary player, endowed with much power and more will. While she won no major titles in 2018, she did reach the finals of two of them, coming within one match of achieving her long-avowed goal of tying Margaret Court’s all-time record. 

Even playing an abbreviated schedule—stars in their late 30s are entitled, encouraged even, to take this license—she finished the year ranked in the top 20. Serena is in some ways rebounding from what was already a comeback season. Go ahead suggest that, at age 37, she is over the meridian of her prime. The response: boneyards are filled with the remains of those who have doubted her through the years.

Jon,

What is your take on the regression of Venus Williams and Roger Federer this year? For sure each is dealing with the impact of age on an athlete’s body. But I am left wondering if the 2017 absence of key rivals (Serena and Novak Djokovic), who had smothered them for a number of years, allowed them some headspace to step back into the spotlight. And, thus, the re-emergence of these two players in 2018 has taken up residence in their head and has pushed them back off center stage. What do you expect for Venus and Roger this coming year given the re-emergence of Serena and Novak? Thank you!

Prasant

• Oh, how we wish we could isolate variables in tennis. Was Federer’s regression in 2018, a function of age finally doing its dark tarantella dance? Or the ascent of Djokovic? (Yes, they only played twice in 2018.) Or the absence of rivals the previous year? Was Venus—who reportedly split with David Witt this week, by the way— finally dealing with 38 years on her odometer in 2018? Or was she catching bad draws and benefitting from the absence of a rival in 2017? For that matter, how much of Djokovic’s decline owed to injuries? Some of this hard to quantify; some is simply impossible to quantify.

A data-free thought: Venus and Federer both played marvelously in 2017. Success begat success. Confidence begat confidence. They would have won almost regardless of the opponent. In 2018, they both backslid. Both saw a sip in their quality. And it was more about their personal level dropping than who was or wasn’t in the draw.

What do we expect in 2019? Rationally and coldly, we know at some level that, inevitably, there has to be a decline. It’s as immutable as the laws of gravity. I wouldn’t be surprised if the declines continued. But by the same token, I’m not predicting it. Federer and Venus (and Serena and Nadal, too, for that matter) are wisely, doing everything to stave it off, to distort their ages. There are 1981 cars that have been driven Dukes of Hazard-style. There are 1981 cars that have been handled with care, had their oil changed regularly, and kept in climate-control garages. Both cars are 37 years old.

Jon,

With Wimbledon going to a final set tiebreak at 12-12 and the Australian Open considering a match tiebreak in the final set, why not use the U.S. Open model and play a tiebreak in all sets at 6-6?  If the tiebreak is good enough to decide the other sets, why not the deciding one?  What are your thoughts?

Andrew Krouse, Reading, Penn.

• I think most of us are in agreement that because the sport—all together now—“has never been more physical,” we need a finish line. That so many players support this ought to be the most ringing endorsement. I rather like 12-12, especially on grass. The message: “We’re giving you one additional overtime set, folks. If you can’t close it out, we gotta intervene and go home.”

And one of you pointed out that all four majors now have a different exit strategy in the decisive set.

Australian Open: 10-point tiebreak at 6-6.

French Open: Play it out. Win by two games.

Wimbledon: Conventional tiebreak at 12-12.

U.S. Open: Conventional tiebreak at 6-6.

I see this less as maddening inconsistency and more as charming differentiation. The four Slams are all different in their own way. Different surfaces, different times of year, different host cities, different vibes. I have zero problem with this twist. I also feel like we need to point to the data. Fewer than three percent of all main draw singles matches have gone to 6-6 in the decisive set. This is a fun issue to discuss. And it obviously has some extra resonance after the Anderson-Isner Wimbledon semifinal marathon. But let’s do acknowledge that it reflects a very small subset of all matches.

Hi Jon,

This is the time of the year when many countries have their annual sports awards. Netherlands is no exception. We have awards for male, female & paralympic athletes, teams and coaches. All five categories have a shortlist with three nominees. This year, there is a bit of an uproar because Raemon Sluiter is on the shortlist for coach but Kiki Bertens is not on the shortlist for female athlete. As Sluiter said in an interview, how can he possibly be this year’s most successful coach when his player was apparently not deemed to be as successful?! In his opinion, you can talk of teamwork and award a player and his/her entourage a prize. But at the end of the day, it’s the player who had to hit the balls in the right spot, not the coach (as you know, Raemon is not an advocate of on-court coaching). 

So, what’s your view on the coach’s role in a player’s achievements? And can a coach be more successful than his/her player? Yes I know, rum lot, those Dutch!

Regards,

Tineke van Buul, Amstelveen, Netherlands

Good on Raemon Sluiter. What a gracious response. With any athlete/team in any sport, the role of the coach varies. (This week in particular, Green Bay Packers fans like Pete Holtermann know what I’m talking about.) In many cases, tennis coaches are integral. In other cases, they are consultants, babysitters and even bystanders. In still other cases (Federer in some years; Kyrgios; currently Simona Halep) they are non-existent. So ascribing a role is difficult and case-by-case. But to the reader’s point, it’s counterintuitive—especially in an individual sport—to shortlist a coach but not an athlete. 

I’d add especially so in this case: It’s not like Kiki Bertens was always a natural talent who simply needed the right motivator to come alone. She orchestrated this mid-career elevation. And should be praised accordingly.

WERTHEIM: MailbagSimona Halep Goes Coachless, Justin Gimelstob Arrest and More

One of my favorites and what a class act he was from start to finish! Best retiring statement I've ever seen!

@JimBarber

• Jim was referring to Max Mirnyi, whose announcement means the Tennis Beast population is reduced.

And long as we’re here, it’s Marina Erakovic for the win.

And, beyond the super-awesome retirement announcement, let’s tip a cap to an underrated career.

SHOTS, MISCELLANY

• You want a tennis book to give as a holiday gift? Look no further than

The Circuit
by Rowan Ricardo Phillips:

• Here’s Louisa Thomas on Caroline Wozniacki and David Lee.

• The Volvo Car Open has added two new players to its field and now has seven of the world's top 25 players competing in its 2019 tournament.  2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and World No. 12 Elise Mertens are the newest additions. the Volvo Car Open for the first time next year.  

• Writer/philosopher Julian Baggini writes "Aristotle and Confucius, Federer and Nadal"

• Brazilian tennis player Diego Matos has been provisionally suspended from professional tennis by independent Anti-Corruption Hearing Officer Prof.Richard H McLaren. 

The suspension relates to an investigation by the Tennis Integrity Unit into alleged breaches of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program and applies with immediate effect.

This means that Mr. Matos is prohibited from competing in, or attending, any sanctioned event organized or recognized by the governing bodies of the sport for the duration of his suspension. The 30-year old is currently ranked 247 in doubles and 1270 in singles.  

• Last week Cam Bennett wrote about his desire to see every Grand Slam champ. This week he writes:

I missed the opportunity to see Thomas Muster during his career, so I found myself keen to see him late in an afternoon's tennis when he returned for the Legends Doubles in 2011. After seeing a good few other matches during the day, my mates and I headed to Court 2 to watch the old guy play and strike him from my list. We were giving up the opportunity to watch one different match in the then-ticketed Hisense, so we found a few friendly faces who were lining up to get into a court and offered them our seats inside so they could see as much tennis as possible for the remainder of their day. They happily accepted our offer, and then…went inside and saw the longest women's match in Grand Slam history, when Schiavone saved six match points before defeating Kuznetsova 16-14 in the third after four hours and 44 minutes! We laughed as we kept up with the scores, laughed as Muster and his mates goofed around while showing off their skills on Court 2, and still laugh about it today—talk about giving some random tennis fans a story! Cheers, Cam.

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