Mailbag: Praise For the Players in the Shadow of the All-Time Greats

Mailbag: Praise For the Players in the Shadow of the All-Time Greats

Plus thoughts on player decision-making in the COVID-19 era, tennis in Texas and more in this week’s Mailbag.

Hope everyone is well—and making their way through the drawsheet to vaccination.

• Our most recent podcast guest: ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, talking about his vision for the sport, tennis’ pain points and all that potential.

• We stop at nothing to plug Chris Evert who—like, and often with, Martina—is a national treasure. Here’s are some conversations she’s graciously conducted for

• An unsolicited shout-out to the WTA for how professionally they’ve handled their media relations during COVID-19.

• RIP, Tennis lover, Walter Mondale (h/t Leif Haase)

• Anyone else watching this European Super League drama through the lens of tennis? (And realizing, yet again, how every sport struggles with the pie-division in its own way.)



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

Any particular reason Madison Keys didn’t stay in Charleston to play in the 250 tournament? She’s played six matches in 2021 (and lost four of them by the way). Surely she isn’t tired and could use the match play?…..I’m really scratching my head at how many top players aren’t playing. I get that the prize money isn’t there, but don’t they care about ranking points and match toughness for when the money is there? It’s very bizarre to me.
Mr. Nolan

• I don’t know about Madison Keys specifically. But you know how we often talk about tennis’s great virtue to accommodate a variety of physical sizes, from Diego Schwartzman to Reilly Opelka, from those lacking body fat to the barrel-chested Wawrinka. (I always loved the statistic that Federer and Nadal are, to the pound, the same weight. But note how differently they carry it.)

Anyway, the pandemic had laid bare that tennis also accommodates a wide range of psyches. Some players want to resume playing. Others don’t. Some find motivation simply hitting the ball; other are struggling in the absence of the crowd. Some see COVID-19 as an existential threat causing them to question the point of it all. Benoit Paire (who ought to be playing—but that’s another issue) is like a player competing with a broken leg. That is, deeply compromised and taking the court with no shot of winning.

Others—Ons Jabeur to pick a name—seem to be making the most if it. There is not a right/wrong response. (Actually, Paire needs to be sidelined.) Players seems to get this. Here’s Djokovic, just today, on Dominic Thiem: “He is a star, a great person, a Grand Slam champion. Most of the players are experiencing mental and motivational issues because of the bubbles and playing behind closed doors. We have to accept the situation.”

But I think we need to offer wide berths here. You want to play back-to-back weeks in Charleston? Great. Lovely town. Lovely setting. Lots of opportunity to play matches. What’s that? You’d rather go home and not stay for a third week in a town where you know no one, playing for a fraction of the money to which you’re accustomed? That’s cool, too.

What do you make of Djokovic’s father taking shots at Federer again?
Jill, New York

• For those who missed it, the question presumably pertains to this—though there are so many other instances from which to choose, who knows? The bad news: this is a bad look all around; and it puts additional and unnecessary strain on his son. The good news: Big Baller Brand is looking for a salesman fluent in Serbo-Croatian.

I’m torn here. This is hardly the first time a tennis parent has put their kid in a tight spot. Usually we take a don’t-visit-the-sins-of-the-father approach. (Also, for as often as we complain about milquetoast figures offering milquetoast quotes, you have to say this: the man ain’t milquetoast.)

The flip side can be condensed to a word: why? This rivalry is predicated on a certain mutual respect, and not even the grudging variety. Why taint that? Your son has long suggested, not wrongly, that his popularity does not keep pace with his achievements. Why give the hater crowd ammo? Your son is trying to stay No. 1 in the world. Why give his rivals extra ammunition? Social media takes anything remotely controversial—see “obsession”—and amplifies that. Why feed the beast?

As a decades-long tennis fan, I want to offer my warmest “Thank You,” a tip of the hat and a heartfelt standing ovation to the players of similar age who had to compete against Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and, to a lesser extent, Murray and Wawrinka.

It is hard to live in a shadow of all-time greats, not only in competition, but also in media coverage, fan adulation and commercial endorsements. For those reasons, I would like to express my sincere appreciation and gratitude to the likes of Roddick, Nalbandian, Ferrer, Davydenko, Berdych, Del Potro, Monfils, Verdasco, Tsonga, Soderling, Cilic, Gasquet, Raonic and Dimitrov, among others.

I have no doubt that at a different time, most of them would have won majors. (I included the ones who managed to take one major, but who couldn’t win more, usually stopped by one of the five greats mentioned above.) To the players who appeared in several major semifinals or finals but couldn’t win: we admire your effort and have tremendous respect for trying again…and again…and again. Thank you for your fighting spirit, for your talent, for your athleticism, for your work ethic and for the memories. You won’t be forgotten, and your pursuit for success—against the odds, if I may—is an inspiration for millions around the world.
Raul Dario A., a fan in Evanston, Ill.

• What? Have you not been on social media? The Grand Slam draws have been three kings and 125 pawns. Three sequoias in a forest of saplings. You are describing “Generation Suck,” these guys are irredeemable losers who lack the coordination to tie their shoes, the work ethic to get out of bed, and the intestinal fortitude to avoid soiling their shorts in big moments.

We joke, of course. In all seriousness, Raul’s email is not just lovely in its generous acknowledgement, but it is long overdue. The Big Three are extraordinary and astonishing and incredible and we have all exhausted adjectives trying to characterize their singular greatness. But that doesn’t invalidate or render irrelevant their contemporaries who, by accident of timing, happened to have their careers coincide with three players one level better. This, of course, is not unique to tennis. Or sports. Timing is, if not everything, a lot.

Question for your tennis history friends: How many players have won the Monte Carlo masters without dropping a set and has any of them not won Roland Garros? Or stated differently: has anyone not named Nadal ever won Monte Carlo without dropping a set? If yes, did they go on to win in Paris? Despite Tsitsipas’s performance, I cannot imagine anyone other than Rafa being the favorite for Roland Garros!
Anna, Springfield, Mass.

• While Sharko helps us with the trivia, let’s go to Anna’s other point. Tsitsipas won Monte Carlo without dropping a set, all the while declaring clay his favorite surface. Nadal not only lost to Rublev but looked downright awful for much of the match. Are we so sure the latter remains the favorite at Roland Garros? My answer: yes. He could show up with a walker and require a nap on the changeovers and still be considered a contender. As long as he is, say, under 40 and relatively healthy, he is the favorite. First, you know the old tennis adage: “Come to a major as the 13-time champ, seeking to win your fifth straight title….and you’re the favorite.”

But—sounding a favorite theme in these parts—too often we gloss over the difference between best-of-three and best-of-five. They may be called “The Big Three” because they form a troika. But Federer, Nadal and Djokovic should also be the “Big Three” because they master matches in which that many sets are required to win. They know how to ration their reserves. They know how to ride out their opponents’ hot stretches. They bring their superior fitness to bear. They know tennis regresses to the mean…So often we see this, a player falter in tune-ups—Schwartzman beats Nadal in Rome last October is a recent example—and visions of upsets flash. We should resist that.

We know of all the great players from California, starting with Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters. We know the great players from Florida (the Williams sisters again, Chris Evert, Jim Courier, Capriati—all the players that train at Nick Bollettieri’s.) What’s up with Texas? It has the weather and the space for courts. Why not more players from the Lone Star State?
Peter, Brooklyn

• Ah, Texas. Boots, beer, barbecue, and bolos. Site of this central contradiction between super-patriotism and independence. Want a good book to read? God Saves Texas by Lawrence Wright.

I’m not sure I buy the thesis. Andy Roddick did some time in Texas. Martina lived in Dallas. When I was a kid there were a number of players: Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil. Steve Denton. Bill Scanlon. Steve Bryan. There’s strong college tennis in Texas. My all-time favorite John Lucas settled in Texas. You have the Newcombe Ranch in New Braunfels. It isn’t its usual superlative. It ain’t the biggest. It ain’t Florida or California. But I’d say Texas is acquitting itself pretty well overall.

Johan Kriek was a great player who never reached No. 1. Two Aussie Open victories, good on all surfaces, and always a threat. He was lightning fast around the court. He participated in one of the stranger matches I’ve viewed. Lost to Borg in the 1980 U.S. Open semis after being up two sets, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. He played unbelievably to win the first two sets and then Borg swatted him away in the blink of an eye in sets three thru five. Regarding the question of popular player with Kyrgios’ type results: Although she did reach one Wimbledon semifinal, I’d submit Anna Kournikova as a player whose popularity far exceeded her result.
Bill in NJ

• Good call on Kriek, a multiple Major champ (A.O. 1981 and 1982) who also reached the semis in New York and Paris and never got to No. 1. And Kournikova inevitably comes up on any list of players whose hype exceeded their achievements. But I still say that’s unfair.

Rublev wears more man jewelry than Mr. T.
That is all, P.

• Zverev wears more jewelry than Rublev.

Shots, Miscellany

• Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America. It’s easy to learn, fun to play—The perfect sport for the Summer of 2021. That’s why the team at Coventry recently put together this list of the best cities for pickleball in the country.

Here’s the top 10 best cities for pickleball:

1. Riverside, CA
2. Phoenix, AZ
3. Las Vegas, NV
4. Salt Lake City, UT
5. St. Louis, MO
6. Richmond, VA
7. Sacramento, CA
8. Minneapolis, MN
9. Portland, OR
10.Birmingham, AL

You can check out the full list and a map graphic here.

• Leif Wellington Haase, take us out:

It’s not unheard of for a player like Aslan Karatsev to spend considerable time as a journeyman and then to ascend rapidly to the upper echelon of men’s tennis, as he seems poised to do.

He belongs to one of the many categories of late bloomers:

Princes-in-Waiting: Lendl, Murray, Thiem, for example: or even the legendary Bill Tilden, who was 27 before he won his first Slam;

One-Hit Wonders: Those who make one glorious run in a Slam and then return to obscurity: Edmundson, Lewis, Verkerk, Gaudio, Volkov, for example.

Big Men Mature Late: Isner and Kevin Anderson come to mind. But now that much of the men’s field resembles oversized professional cyclists or skinny NBA forwards, aren’t they all big men? (The average height of top male players has risen by fully six inches since 1977.)

The Last Hurrah: A lifetime Challenger-level player who catches lighting in a bottle, gets a run of good draws, and makes a single late-career run deep into the ATP rankings before retiring. Alex Bogomolov Jr. is their patron saint.

Second Careers: Like Malek Jaziri and Victor Estrella Burgos, these players combine longevity and perseverance: they combine a long apprenticeship in Challengers with a solid later career at the ATP marked by early-round wins in Slams wins, but not deep runs, along with success at the 250 level.

Rise and Shine: Like Karatsev, assuming he stays at least around the top twenty, these players suddenly gain elite status and keep it. To extend the cycling metaphor, they are perennial domestiques who suddenly become sought-after team leaders.

The best parallels are Stan Wawrinka, Feliciano Lopez, Jurgen Melzer, and Janko Tipsarevic.

Wawrinka first entered the rankings in 2001, won only four minor titles in his first ten years on tour, and didn’t reach a Slam semi-final until the age of twenty-eight, when at the time he was widely (and wrongly) considered a one-hit wonder.

Lopez, remarkably, started to ply his trade in 1997 and reached the cusp of the top ten after years of steady play in the shadow of higher-ranked Spaniards, although without a particular Slam breakthrough.

It took Melzer four or five years to escape the Challenger orbit and though he became a regular Tour presence he made his first Slam semi-final at the French Open in 2010, having never before escaped the third round, and using this result to catapult briefly into the top 10 and to remain a contender for several more seasons.

Tipsarevic most closely fits the Karatsev mold: a former world number one junior, the Serbian took seven years to crack the top 50 and earned a reputation as an underachiever, but back-to-back U.S. Open quarterfinal performances in 2011 and 2012, plus a string of other strong results in his late twenties, vaulted him quickly into the top 10 for the first time. 

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