Mailbag: Halep Goes Coach-Less, the Gimelstob Arrest and More

Jon Wertheim
Sports Illustrated
Mailbag: Halep Goes Coach-Less, the Gimelstob Arrest and More
Mailbag: Halep Goes Coach-Less, the Gimelstob Arrest and More

Hello everyone,

Time for a jetlagged mailbag. But first…

HOUSEKEEPING

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• The most recent SI/Tennis Channel podcast features Mary Carillo. She was terrific. Of course she was.

• Next up: Current world No. 1 doubles player Mike Bryan, who at 40 is the oldest man to top the world rankings.

• We praised Naomi Osaka last week. Next week we’ll come with our MVP Award (spoiler: it’s Djokovic) and players/themes to watch in 2019.

• Because we stop at nothing to promote Torben Ulrich, the coolest man on the planet, note that he was awarded the Dan Turèll Medal, named after a popular Danish writer who himself was inspired by…Ulrich. We also hear that Torben has been nominated to receive the Danish Culture Ministry's Sports Prize, which goes to "an exceptional achievement or work within all areas of sport." His new book is here.

Onward…

MAILBAG

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

I see that Simona Halep is no longer working with coach Darren Cahill. And not only that, but she is also starting the year without a coach. Is that really a good idea for a No. 1 player? Does this make any sense to you?
Sam, San Francisco

• I was surprised this didn’t get more play. But, yes, Halep and Cahill—or SimDar, as no one ever called them—are consciously uncoupling. And, as Sam notes, the world No. 1 is going to try and fly solo. Is this wise? I pass no judgment. Top players are delicate creatures, sensitive instruments. If they are not comfortable, you could put Steve Kerr, Pat Summit, Pep Guardiola, Tony Robbins, and Ivan Lendl in their box…and they would lose. If they are comfortable, they could be coached by Carrot Top, Fat Amy and the lead singer of Creed…and get the W.

I trust a 27-year-old woman—self-possessed; mature; ranked No. 1 in the world for a reason—to make this decision. And it’s hardly irreversible. If it doesn’t work, she’ll have to beat off the suitors with a fiberglass/graphite stick.

As long as we’re here, five other coaching changes to start 2019 in no order:

—Andre Agassi joining the Grigor Dimitrov team.

—Angelique Kerber parting with Wim Fissette for Rainer Schuettler.

—Victoria Azarenka now working with Wim Fissette

—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (who has dropped to world no. 258) taking on Sergi Bruguera

Madison Keys working with Jim Madrigal

As long as we’re here, Part II…I had the good fortune of spending some time with former Ravens coach Brian Billick today. I’m totally serious: a bold player will consider taking on someone like him as an aide-de-camp, even if it’s for a tournament or two. At this level it’s as much about motivation, messaging and mindset as it is X’s and O’s. For the right player, a Super Bowl-winning coach—who knows his tennis—would be a better fit than a recycled tennis insider.

Hi Jon,

Other one-on-one sports, like boxing and MMA, have coaching between rounds. Is coaching during tennis changeovers any different? As a fan, I'm intrigued by the mid-match coaching sessions. It gives insight into the player and their support team.

Does the player respond to tactical advice, or do they prefer emotional reminders or motivational discussions? How does the interaction differ when the player is doing well compared to when they're struggling? How does the coach's advice compare with what a commentator like McEnroe says?

Couldn't on-court coaching lead to smarter play from the athlete? It seems that on-court coaching could provide the player with information or support that would lead to better matches?

You say that coaching is inconsistent with self-reliance, independence and strategy. I suppose. But doesn't everyone—from presidents to CEOs to athletes—rely on the advice and input of advisers, boards of directors and coaches? I don't see why tennis should be any different.

Thanks,
Kevin Kane

• Fair points all. The difference is that boxing (and MMA) have always had coaching during competition. Tennis has not. It has held self-reliance and self-sufficiency and self-correction up as virtues. Amending this makes for a radical change.

Just to be clear: I am opposed to mid-match coaching but I keep an open mind. If a majority of players and fans and—hold your nose as I use what has quickly hurtled into cliché­—“stakeholders” are for it, then so be it. But simply tacking on-court coaching onto a list of “innovations” (another cliché­) like pork tacked onto a congressional bill, is dishonest and irresponsible.

PODCAST: Taylor Fritz on Mid-Match Coaching

I just wanted to suggest that the powers that be (read: television) behind the drive for weird "innovations" in the sport might want to be careful when it comes to their disdain/ambivalence about tennis’ nature. If they change things too much, they could find themselves suffering potential backlash if too many people simply abandon the sport (as I know I would) because they feel it's no longer, well, tennis, and those interests ironically end up not producing all their anticipated revenue.
Sean White, San Diego

• This is a dilemma for every industry, no? If you are not growing, you are, by definition, shrinking. Innovate or die. Merge or dirge. At the same time, move too far from the core product or dilute the brand too much and you, too, are toast. We see this all the time. The restaurant that veers too far updating its menu. The clothing brand that tries to become something it’s not. Adam Sandler taking on serious roles.

So, yes, I am with Sean. “Innovate,” but don’t alienate the base.

Hey Jon,

Since 1991, one of the things I've tried to do at tennis tournaments is see as many Grand Slam winners as I can. As it stands, I've only missed six winners from these past 28 years... I'm still desperately hanging out for the long-awaited Legends Mixed Doubles matchup in which Gaston Gaudio and Anastasia Myskina team up against Albert Costa and Flavia Panetta so I can bring my list down to two!

Now, I have a hypothetical for you. I'm off to the Sydney tournament this January. There are a bunch of highly ranked players or highly regarded youngsters playing who I haven't seen before. I'm sure there are likely to be moments when some of these players are on court simultaneously and I'll have to make a decision on whom to watch. And I'll be making that decision in part depending on how likely I think a Slam win might be in their future. So, here's the question: how would you rank the following 10 players in order of "Most to least likely to win a Slam in the future"? Aryna Sabalenka, Anastasija Sevastova, Elise Mertens, Kiki Bertens, Anett Kontaveit, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Kyle Edmund, Alex de Minaur, Frances Tiafoe.

These are the important issues we tennis fans think about!
Cam Bennett, Canberra, Australia

• Interesting. Unsolicited, I’m not sure how I feel about your plan. I love the idea seeing each of the major winners. But I’d hate to think that you’re doing so at the expense of other entertaining, creative, ascending players. I shudder to think you’re spending a day chasing, say, Jelena Ostapenko, when you could be watching, say, Sabalenka, Keys, Daria Kasatkina or Elina Svitolina.

As for your list, maybe it’s just coincidence, but I think you pretty much nailed it in how you listed them. Maybe I’d put, say, Kontaveit ahead of Sevastova, if only because she’s younger and thus has more bullets in the chamber. And Kyle Edmund is a fine player but, lacking the competitive will of ADM or the sheer athleticism of Tiafoe, maybe adjust accordingly. But your list seems to be in good order already.

WERTHEIM: Is Alexander Zverev Ready to Win the Australian Open?

As long as we’re here, can we spend a moment to address the symmetry between Sabalenka and Tsitsipas? Both age 20. She is ranked No. 13; he is 15. Both caught fire on the summer hardcourts and continued into the fall, she winning Wuhan, he taking Milan. Both obscured a bit by a peer, she by Osaka and he by Zverev. Both players to watch in 2019.

Dear Jon,

Djokovic's two-year swoon does little to dampen his GOAT candidacy. For one thing, he was already a top-five all-time player before the swoon. But more to the point, other candidates (Federer, Nadal and the ever-fading Sampras) had swoons that were arguably worse than Novak's, at least going by the majors:

Sampras: 2000 Wimbledon-2002 US Open: eight majors played, zero wins, two finals, six losses before quarterfinals.

Federer: 2012 Wimbledon-2017 Australian: 15 majors, zero wins, three finals, four losses before QF, two absent.

Nadal: 2014 French Open-2017 French Open: nine majors, zero wins, one final, six losses before QF, two absent.

Djokovic: 2016 RG-2018 Wimbledon: seven majors, zero wins, one final, three losses before QF, one absent.

Notable greats without such droughts include Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. But Laver, with his part-amateur, part-pro, part-Open career, is hard to compare to modern players. And Borg promptly retired when McEnroe beat him twice in a row.
Jesse, Wisconsin

• I tend to agree. Nadal went two years without winning a Slam (French 201416) and Federer went nearly five (Wimbledon 2012- Australian 2017). But neither of them had a swoon like Djokovic, losing to player after player outside the top 50. Overall, though, this is a blip. Djokovic wins 20 major and we’re not dwelling on back-to-back losses to Taro Daniel and Benoit Paire.

It’s like tennis...Does anyone in MLB find it weird that the man who negotiated that contract for Cano just traded for him?
James, Portland

• Make an agent a general manager? That’s conflicts-of-interest for amateurs. Tennis is to compromised relationships what Wimbledon is to tradition.

Jon,

I am sure I am not the only one to have sent you this link on Justin Gimelstob's arrest on suspsicion of felony battery.

The silence from you and your ilk astounds, but doesn’t shock, me. He is one of your good ol’ boys, so of course your silence on this matter more than a week and counting speaks volumes to your complicit attitude about assault. Solely to due the fact that you know him on a personal and professional level. To even not report the story is shocking.
Suvany Cowie

• A lot of you wrote in with similar questions/assertions and I’ll weigh in here. There’s no question that the disturbing arrest of a powerful and well-known figure within tennis meets the “newsworthy” threshold, and that journalists—most notably Simon Briggs of the Telegraph—are in their rights for pursuing and advancing the story. I also can’t disagree that it’s been unusually quiet—“crickets,” as disappointed reader David Thorpe put it— from the tennis chattering class, a cohort usually free-swinging in their opinions.

I speak only for myself here. I am uncomfortable with this situation. I am uncomfortable with this silence. But, ultimately— at least at this stage—I am more uncomfortable failing to extend presumptions. Perhaps it’s especially so given that Justin is a longtime friend and colleague; weeks after the death of Justin’s father; given what I know about the broader context of this incident and others; above all, when we’re still in the allegations phase.

I am not fearful of jeopardizing employment or burning sources, or running afoul of the tennis power structure, or violating a code other than my own. But for now anyway, I have chosen to reserve judgment.

I realize the perception that, per Suvany’s phrasing, this is the protection of good ol’ boys. I realize that, as often as we rail against the conflicts of inflicts that corrode tennis’ soul, this might be another unfortunate illustration.

But I’d encourage a more charitable view of this. Justin is on leave from Tennis Channel. The ATP is discussing his fate as we speak. There’s no whitewashing here, no Claude Rains nothing-to-see-here. There is, rather, a willingness to consider the possibility of a defense; the possibility for nuance; a respect for due process. In this cultural moment, when the Internet demands swift justice, insta-outrage and immediate “takes,” maybe tennis is exercising some compassion and caution. We can—and do—denounce violence and homophobia and bullying and entitlement. We can all agree that the allegations in the arrest documents—pointedly, not the charging documents—are disturbing. And if proven, there will, and should, be profound consequences. But until then, we can also wait and take a breath before calling for someone to lose livelihood and reputation.

Hi @jon_wertheim and @Tennis Channel. I heard that you block Novak fans for not agreeing on some of your views (gee, I wonder why...) Blocking Novak fans is unprofessional. I hope you keep an open mind and try to understand where others come from.
@djoker4life1

• Might want to fact-check that one. I seldom block anyone, only the trolliest of the trolls, the most flagrant violators of the social compact. In the words of the prophets: dissent is welcome; psychopathy, less so.

As long as we’re here….here’s a wish for 2019, fanciful as it might be. What if fans of Federer/Djokovic/Nadal/whomever emulated the player they support so passionately, and conducted themselves with a comparable level of decorum?

SHOTS, MISCELLANY

• From Mark Flannery of Fullerton, Calif.:

The New Yorker republished this article the other day. It has several references to the tennis courts at San Simeon, including this: Mr. Hearst would have white deer brought up from the zoo and quartered on the tennis courts.

• FILA announced today that it has extended its partnership with world No. 8 and global tennis star Karolina Pliskova. FILA’s endorsement of Pliskova began in 2016, and over the last two years she has won five singles titles, reached the finals of the US Open in 2016, and rose to the world no. 1 ranking in 2017.

• Tennis Channel has promoted Lawrence Randall to vice president, content programming, effective immediately. Randall, executive director of programming since joining the network in 2015, will continue to report to John MacDonald, senior vice president, content programming. He will remain based in Tennis Channel's Los Angeles headquarters.

• The Junior Orange Bowl International Tennis Championship announced today that Ashleigh Barty will be the 2018 honorary chair. The young Australian tennis star is currently ranked world No. 15 in singles and world No. 7 in doubles. The FILA sponsored star had an outstanding 2018 season, which included two singles titles in Nottingham and Zuhai, and four doubles titles including at Miami, Rome, Montreal and the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam title of her career. Barty also had the distinct honor of receiving the 2018 U.S. Open Sportsmanship Award.

• From Patrice Marrero:

I wrote to you in October regarding Christina Flach’s mission to spread the word about sepsis, the disease that took Ken Flach’s life. Ken was a healthy Olympic Gold Medalist and Grand Slam Champion. Christina has partnered with Sepsis Alliance’s Sepsis Hero 2018, Jill Kogan Blake, to create a billboard campaign throughout the San Francisco public transport systems. You can learn more in this press release.

• Pepperdine junior Ashley Lahey (Hawthorne, Calif.) and Florida sophomore Oliver Crawford (Spartanburg, S.C.) each won three singles matches over three days, and the U.S. defeated Great Britain, 4-1, on Sunday to win its eighth title in the last 10 years at the Master’U by BNP Paribas international collegiate team competition in Grenoble, France. Lahey, Crawford and USC junior Brandon Holt (Rolling Hills, Calif.) won in singles vs. 2017 champions Great Britain on Sunday, then Duke freshman Maria Mateas (Chapel Hill, N.C.) and UCLA junior Jada Hart (Colton, Calif.) clinched the title for the U.S. with a victory in doubles.

• JTCC welcomes Eric Joseph as the new co-chairman of the JTCC Advisory Board alongside John Spirtos. Joseph replaces Graeme Bush who has served with distinction as chairman/co-chairman for 10 years. Bush will remain on the board and JTCC is most appreciative for all his efforts in driving the organization forward over the course of the last decade.

• Bill Richards, the head men's tennis coach at Ball State University, has been selected as the 2018 recipient of the ITA Meritorious Service Award, presented by Conant Leadership. Richards will be presented with the award on Saturday, December 15th, during the 2018 ITA Coaches Convention Awards Luncheon at the Naples Grande Beach Resort in Naples, Florida.

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