Mailbag: Petra Kvitova Is the Best Story in Tennis Right Now, and Maybe in All of Sports

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• Noah Rubin, winner of the USTA’s Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge, is our most recent guest on the Beyond the Baseline podcast. Good conversation about what it’s like to try and gain traction, to face Federer and to resist the siren call of Wall Street…

• Next up: the great journalist Glenn Greenwald, who will be talking about his upcoming tennis-themed film and the impact Martina Navratilova had on his childhood.

• Let the record reflect: after winning in Madrid, Sascha Zverev now holds 33 % of the Masters 1000 titles. When he’s seeded No. 2 in Paris, you’ll know why.

• A final brava to Roberta Vinci, who calls it a career after her Italian Open appearance. The 35-year-old Italian played 10 years on tour, reached No. 7 in singles and won the career slam in doubles.


Is there a better story in sports right now than Petra Kvitova? A year ago we didn’t know if she would play again. Today she is the hottest player in women’s tennis.
Christian, Los Angeles

• A busy week, but let’s start here. Yes, I’m struggling to think of a more heartwarming story, at least in tennis. As Christian notes, 17 months ago Kvitova suffered a serious hand in injury in a harrowing (and still unsolved) home invasion. In addition to the physical wound on her playing hand, there was—and is —a serious psychological component. Kvitova has overcome both, and here she is, winning Madrid, hoovering up titles, embedded in the top 10 (she’s No. 8 currently) and emerging as a serious threat to win her third Major.

Larger point: we all are nervous about tennis’ near-term future. Who knows when/if we’ll see the great Serena Williams at full strength again? Who knows when/if we see Maria Sharapova at full strength again? And on the men’s side, the Big Four monolith is breaking apart like Pangea. 

But the sport will survive. And perhaps even thrive. So long as they are holding tournaments and playing matches, there will be winners and losers, players authoring stories and themes to follow.  Kvitova is a pleasant reminder of this. 

How do you reconcile the fact that Roger Federer is nearly five years older than Rafael Nadal but has won fewer Masters 1000 titles? Especially given that six of the nine events are played on hard court? Two of the nine are even played on indoor hard court, which is arguably Federer’s best surface. If Nadal finishes with an edge over Federer in head-to-head play, a close number of Slams, and 5-10 more Masters 1000 titles, it seems impossible not to dub Nadal the GOAT over Federer. All of which seems extremely plausible, if not likely, at this point… 
Andrew Prochnow, Hong Kong

Again, part of what makes this GOAT debate fun: the absence of rules, weighting requirements and points that militate for and against one candidate. Unquestionably, Nadal’s superior head-to-head as well as his great haul of Masters titles are points in his column. Federer’s longevity, his superior haul of total Majors and his distribution of titles swing the scales the other way. 

Can we agree on this: as of today—with the great epic still in progress—Federer is the GOAT and Nadal is the clay GOAT and we are fan GOATs, fortunate as we are to live in this era?

Thanks for a great column—I find it much more enjoyable than articles about actual tennis matches, to tell you the truth! So, mid-match coaching: why not try a compromise? No contact during or between games, but between sets the coach joins his or her player—on both tours—on the bench for a short chat. Don’t need any advice? Great, talk about the weather for two minutes, or don’t talk at all, but make the coach’s visit mandatory so it doesn’t become such a visible weakness for one player only. After all, coaches in most sports do get a chance to talk to their players during breaks/halftime, and from what I gather the main arguments against mid-match coaching in tennis are that 1) it shows weakness/vulnerability if only one player asks for it, and 2) it’s only allowed for female players. Between-sets chats would allow for some input from the coach, but limit it to a maximum of two brief sessions in a best-of-three match (and thus four in a best-of-five match). And if it’s mandatory, you lose the whole it-shows-vulnerability problem.
Marcus, Sweden 

• Let me dwell on your first remark. Thank you kindly for the compliment, but this really goes to the nature of tennis. Actual matches can be electrifying but they can also be quite routine. There are only two players (or four) on the court. There are only a handful of different strokes. The statistics, as we often discuss, are often “dirty” or misleading. Descriptions only get us so far. (“Nadal showed the pugnacity of Ma Anand Sheela and continued retrieving from deep in the court until he was able to pounce on a short ball and deliver a line-licking winner.”) 

I’ve always thought that the richness of tennis—both journalistically and for the fans—resides in the personal. Who are these athletes? What’s in their soul? How do they respond to competition? 

When someone says, for instance, “I like Maria Sharapova,” it often doesn’t mean they admire her tennis or her two-handed backhand so much as they admire what she represents and projects. There are only so many conversations to be had about backhands and forehands and grip changes. But the character studies and sociology of the players and tours and the cultural issues…it all makes for a bottomlessly deep reservoir.

Anyway, your suggestion is a good one, but I don’t like anything mandatory. What if I don’t have a coach? What if I benefit from sending my opponent the message, “I got this. You have your little pow-wow. Me? I’m good. I know where this train is heading.” But I am up for a compromise. 

And the same yours arrived, from the other side of the world, we got this riff on the same topic: 

Longtime fan, and I appreciate your consistent effort both to have and present a balanced viewpoint on a variety of topics. One place that you have a strong bias, however, is about on-court coaching. I understand your viewpoint somewhat because the way it has been implemented is kind of ridiculous for most of the reasons that you usually mention (the dissonance of the interaction makes everyone look bad, it allows a player who is losing momentum to try to stop it, etc.). 

But I have long thought that tennis should allow mid-match coaching much in the way it is done in other racquet sports and other one-on-one sports. In professional squash, for example, between each game (the tennis equivalent of a set) there is a defined time break (two minutes) and the player can do anything during that time (get a drink, go to the bathroom, change a shirt) including talk to a coach or a friend. 

Badminton and table tennis are the same (though they are both dealing with coaching between points via hand signals and whether to just allow it or not). Boxing, too, has a strict time limit between rounds, but allows coaching (as well as, obviously, injury maintenance). Most combat sports allow coaching at particular intervals. There is virtually no complaint that this somehow lessens the problem-solving nature of the sport or the individuality. Tennis would do well to follow this model. Two minutes between sets, where a coach can talk to a player. Should be private. This would be no big deal, wouldn’t ruin the flow, wouldn’t be by request and wouldn’t ruin any problem-solving aspect. 
Will Carlin, Brooklyn

• I’ll expose Will by noting that he was the No.1-ranked U.S. squash player from 1990-1995 so he speaks with authority.

It was Andre Agassi who called tennis “solitary confinement,” and he meant it in the best possible way. It’s you—and only you—out there in this, the ultimate individual sport. I am really reluctant to pervert this dynamic and taint this ferocious one-on-oneness. But I do think that Will’s alternative makes the most sense. Allow a break between sets where players and coaches can consult. Yes, players will emerge from this “timeout” and make adjustments. But then the opponent will have to counter these adjustments; so the self-sufficiency and problem solving still exists.

Will’s suggestion that these sessions “should be private,” is interesting. I am in complete agreement. But one of the great rationalizations for this perversion was the “entertainment value.” (Hey, it might fundamentally alter the sport but our television partners tell us that they love it!”) 

It will be interesting to follow this story over the summer. Wimbledon pointedly rejected the idea of mid-match coaching. The USTA is sticking by it, grafting it on to changes like reduced warm-up time and a shot clock, under the rubric of “enhancement.” Stay tuned….            

Regarding reciprocal wild cards in Slams: My proposal is to abolish the wild card in Slams altogether. I understand why it is needed for 250- or 500-level tournaments, but slams don’t need them. Instead, the number of qualifiers should be increased.
Name misplaced

It’s worth considering. One of tennis’ great virtues lies in its meritocracy. Win matches and your ranking goes up. You don’t have to impress a coach or rely on teammates or worry about a salary slot. Wild cards fly in the face of merit. Almost by definition, slots are being given to players who do not qualify based on ranking.

In some cases they are warranted. We can all tick off examples (players returning from injury, etc.). It’s also fair that tournaments that have made an investment have a device for attracting stars. Fine. But when management companies that both own tournaments and represent players dangle wild cards as an inducement to sign players, it’s a moral failure. And when majors use wild cards to prop up homegrown talent, it’s also unfair. The majority of pros—by accident of birth—do not hail from countries that host a major. Why should they be cut off from this benefit?

I was glad to see I’m not the only one who is puzzled by Mary Pierce’s omission from the Hall of Fame. She played her last match well over 10 years ago—at this rate she’ll be eligible as a legacy player! I understand that she’s been on the ballot numerous times, and given the skimpy credentials of some of the other Hall of Famers, I would have thought she’d have made the cut by now. Is she just not well-liked in the tennis world? For sure she could be a bit of a diva, on and off the court. Is this what’s keeping her out? Who in Newport has she upset? Justice for Mary!
Greg, UK

• Justice for Mary! I think we need a special referendum here.

Here’s a thought exercise for you guys: it’s seldom that a day goes by without a Hall of Fame question. Or opinion. Or search for the great injustice that is the double standard. This is great. It’s in keeping with the raging debates in other sports. And it’s an acknowledgement that Hall of Fame voting is really something deeper, a kind of career certification. So with all this debate and discussion, how can the actual Hall of Fame capitalize on this? Play McKinsey consultant here. How can the folks in Newport benefit, materially, from all this chatter?

Hi Jon,

Just finished listening to the podcast with Stubbs. Nice. This is about the reference your co-worker made to Federer as a silent assassin. I immediately recalled the Dominik Hrbaty match at Wimbledon 2008. It was quite a sight. Hrbaty and Federer conversed during the match at a change over sitting next to each other on the same bench. Federer was seen tapping Hrbaty’s thigh like a good friend. It looked more like two buddies hanging out in a bar than a serious match at the most prestigious tournament in tennis. I was amazed at how Federer could casually chat one moment and employ the kill switch the next.  The final score: 6-3 6-2 6-2, and that was Federer’s first win against Hrbaty. 
Venky C, Ann Arbor, Michigan

• An extraordinary moment

Tournament acceptance is based on ranking 6 weeks out, correct? What ranking is seeding based on?

• You’re right about tournament acceptance. Seedings for Paris are based on the ATP Rankings after Rome, which wraps up on May 21. This came out of a discussion we had on Twitter noting that if Djokovic had not won his first match in Rome, it was possible that he would have been unseeded for the French Open, the event he won in 2016.

Shots, Miscellany

• This week’s unsolicited book rec, Mike Pesca’s editing “Upon Further Review: The Greatest What Ifs in Sports History

• Reigning Roland Garros Junior champion and rising WTA star Whitney Osuigwe took part in a USTA kids’ clinic for 425 New Haven Third Graders at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale as the tournament hosted its community-focused “Free Tennis Lesson.” 

• Today, opendorse, the athlete marketing platform that helps the biggest brands in sports share content on social, announced their partnership with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), to help build the brands of Women’s Tennis most elite athletes. The partnership will make opendorse the first centralized social media exchange platform to be used in women’s professional tennis.

• If it hasn’t appeared in your column it’s worth noting that Chris Thile —master of the mandolin, MacArthur Fellow and host of the radio show Live From Here (successor to Prairie Home Companion)—frequently professes his undying admiration for Roger Federer on Live From Here broadcasts, and in interviews with print publications. 
Clint Swett, Sacramento

• Our old friend Helen from Philly has this:

LLS of a different sort — Stan Wawrinka and Dusan Lajovic!

Linebacker physique? Check. One-handed backhand? Check. I watched Lajovic muscle past Gasquet in Madrid, and he followed that up by taking out Delpo.

Reader Rant

There are not many sports with a great female presence, and women around sport have swallowed this all their lives.  Sergey Bubka was a dominant world-record breaking male pole vaulter, cleverly raising the record 1cm a time to pick up a bonus.  Female pole vault record-holder Yelena Isinbayeva apparently simply never had any competition, her similar desire to pick up bonuses for every 1 cm was viewed as greedy and unfair.

Notice that the two great(est) female players that you name are a black woman (Serena Williams) and a gay woman (Martina Navratilova), neither of whom have shown much concern about what the wider world thinks of their appearance, conformity etc. 

Many female sports fans can tell you exactly when that “dissonance” you talk about is magically not there, or when it is OK (even desirable) for a female athlete to be dominant, at least in the West: When the female athlete is a tall long-legged white heterosexual, ideally blonde.

The mainly male media swooning over Nadal’s dominance would have behaved similarly if we saw the same from Maria Sharapova.  Except the fawning would have been much more breathless, perhaps with sexual undertones. 

You might also wonder if such a performance by a black male tennis player would been seen as positively as Nadal’s.  Black male athletes are also subject to persistent attempts to diminish and demean their achievements as somehow “unfair” or unearned—it’s genetic advantage, they must be cheating (doping) etc.   I sometimes wonder about how a dominant non-white male tennis player would be perceived.
Victoria Bainbridge, Darmstadt, Germany

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