Mailbag: Why Some Players Play Certain Tournaments, and the Drop-Off in Serve-and-Volley

Jon Wertheim
Sports Illustrated

Hey everyone…

Housekeeping

• The most recent podcast guest is 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, tennis’ Greek Freak who reached the semis in D.C.

• Next up is tennis impersonator Josh Berry, who was outstanding.

• We’re doing our annual U.S. Open tips week after next. If anyone has some additions, fire away.

A quick Midwest road trip dipsatch...

Mailbag

We’re going to lead with this today…

Last week we discussed Novak Djokovic and a persistent—if admittedly tired —tennis trope: why isn’t he more popular? The intent was simply to point out that ND’s achievements make him worthy of more affection than, collectively, he receives. Why is that? A lot of you wrote in with thoughts about why you do and don’t like him. Thoughtful, smart, empathetic defenses of positions on both sides.

Predictably, a not-insignificant subset of you also responded with vile and profane and creepily sociopathic responses.

And with that, here’s our periodic reminder: Choose your Big Four horse and back him with vigor. By definition, being a fan entails a measure of tribalism, of preferring Team/Player X to Team/Player Y. That said, you should be able to root for your choice player without turning his rivals into the most nefarious figures this side of Game of Thrones.

But it’s especially so here. Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray: four players from four countries with four distinct constitutions and approaches to the craft. But not a jerk in the bunch. And there’s a sense that all four recognize that there’s something almost sacred about this era. So much so that they each take pains not to discredit or dishonor the dynamic. When the diehard fans obliterate lines of civility, it’s not merely ugly; it’s wildly at variance with the players they purport to support.

Hi Jon,

When and why did the ages of ball kids jump so that they are now ball teens/adults. In my humble opinion ball "kids" should not have beards.
Taylor Witkin, New York City

• Cue Kramer.

This comes up from time to time. Three thoughts:

1. Perhaps preference should be given to kids, but keep in mind that in most states—New York certainly—there are laws against child labor. When matches go beyond midnight, you don’t want a 12-year-old on the clock.

2. Much more important: build those towel racks. The notion that anyone—children or adults—should be handling the effluvia-soiled linens of tennis players is absurd.

3. A few of you asked why the U.S. Open is doing away with the overhand throws and now insists the balls are rolled from one end to the other. Why, you ask? The answer: on average—and this is data, not sexism—girls have a harder time than boys making the baseline-to-baseline throw. In an admirable effort to ensure representation and diversity, the USTA is eliminating this criteria. (Why it won’t come out and simply say so is a mystery.) Take us out, John Branch.

Was the Atlanta Open the first tournament John Isner won without having to win a tiebreak?
—Kreits

• ATP stat wizard Greg Sharko writes:

This is correct. In Isner's 13 previous ATP World Tour titles, he won at least one tie-break during his run. Interestingly, he has an overall tiebreak record of 44-5 in tournaments that he has won.

Hi Jon,

I watched some baseball on TV recently. The speed of each pitch (along with its location, number of pitches, number of outs, etc., etc.) was shown. This reminded me that at one time service speeds were routinely and unobtrusively shown during tennis broadcasts. Then they were stopped. Why? They are prominently displayed on court; sometimes these displays are visible on TV (as at Wimbledon), but more often they’re not. Such information (slow second serves can often be more impactful than fast first serves) can sometimes be an important distinction between Player A and Player B, or significant information when there is a departure from (his/her) norm by any player. Of course, oftentimes such information will have little if any significance, but I just don’t see any downside in routinely sharing this information. Why do TV viewers have to wait for such information from commentators or go to the tournament website to find it?
—John Rossitter, Middletown, CT

• Totally with you. This is episode 4,498 of “Why Tennis Needs to Improve its Data Game.” Never mind speed of pitch. Baseball gives us exit velocity and launch angles.

In one of the most poignant posts, Serena posted on Instagram on how she suffers from post-partum depression and how she struggled last week, just like anyone else out there, in terms of having a newborn. Its a great post, if your readers want to take a gander.
Deepak, Seattle

• Absolutely. Here's our post on it from earlier in the week.

Can you tell me why tennis’ biggest servers don’t serve-and-volley? What am I missing?
Carl, Atlanta

I wouldn’t say they “don't” serve and volley. Depending on surface, most players will use it as a tactic, at least several times a match. (In the case of John Isner, he, curiously, serves and volleys on some of the biggest points of his matches.)

There are a lot of answers here. Compared to the days when servers dashed netward on each point, technology now favors the returner. But the real answer: remember that players need time to get to the net. McEnroe, Edberg, Rafter…they weren’t winning any speed contests. But their effectively placed serves, often kicking off the court, gave them time to move back-to-front. When Isner (we’ll pick on him again) hits a 132 mph blast, it’s coming too fast for him to advance much beyond the service line before the ball’s right back at his feet.

Can you please explain to me why Sloane Stephens, who’s from L.A., would play Washington D.C. and not San Jose?
Bruce, Toronto

I start by saying that I have no whether it’s the case here, but here’s a dirty tennis secret: when you’re wondering about scheduling decisions (and wild cards) consider whether the event is owned by a management company and whether the players in question are clients. San Jose is an IMG event. Note the field included IMG clients like Madison Keys, Maria Sharapova (who withdrew), Garbine Muguruza and Venus and Serena. Washington was, until recently, owned by Lagardere, which once counted Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki among clients.

I have heard of management companies reducing players’ representation fees on the condition they commit to an event owned by the management company. I have also heard of players earning appearance fees from the events owned by the same management companies that represent them. (Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.)

And this is to say nothing of the wild cards. We talked a few months ago about the wild cards at the IMG-owned Miami Open going only to IMG clients. Likewise, Octagon has a stake in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati; and it’s not a surprise the Octagon clients Frances Tiafoe and Jared Donaldson are among the early wild card recipients.

We can talk about the ethical grey area and whether this does or does not conform with our expectations of meritocracy. But it’s tennis realpolitik and there ought to be more transparency.

From the segue department….

Big names in small draws—I know Feliciano Lopez has fallen off a bit but it’s stunning to see him playing in a qualifying draw.
James, Portland, Ore.

This week’s version of “Rough sport, this tennis.”

Here’s the men’s qualifying draw for the Rogers Cup:

Note the names. Gulbis, Youzhny, Medvedev. The women’s qualies include Carla Suarez Navarro, Lucie Safarova, Samantha Stosur and Monica Puig. Note, too, the player who do not have first round byes in Cincy: Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Serena, Sharapova.

Any details about how [the Kevin Anderson – Novak Djokovic doubles team in Toronto] happened? So curious!
John Thrasher

• From Kelsey Anderson, who was a guest on the podcast: “Kev wanted to play doubles, and thought they would make a good team and it would be a fun opportunity to play together.”

Shots, Miscellany

• Here’s a nice profile on Sloane Stephens from American Airlines' American Way magazine

• Former NCAA champion Bradley Klahn (Stanford) clinched a main draw wild card entry into the US Open on Monday by beating David Ferrer in the first round at Rogers Cup in Toronto to win the US Open Wild Card Challenge.

• Justin Cerny has been appointed the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's new Championships Coordinator and Member Program Administrator. He began his duties with the ITA on July 9.

• The China Open, Asia’s premier combined men’s and women’s professional tennis tournament, announced the addition of world No. 3 Alexander Zverev to its field.

• Tennis players, and the tennis industry, can thank both the late Vic Braden and Jim Fromuth for helping to improve their games and grow this sport. Braden, whose tennis academies, books and videos brought tennis to the masses, and Fromuth, the founder of a tennis equipment distribution company, both have had a hand in millions of players enjoying the game over the last four decades. Both men will be inducted into the Tennis Industry Hall of Fame on Aug. 27, during the Tennis Industry Association (TIA) Tennis Forum at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. Visit TennisIndustry.org more information on the Tennis Forum, which is free to attend.

Long-lost sibling

Digging deep into the archives for this week's LLS, courtsey of Judy Bryant Vilwock: World No. 1 Simona Halep and silent-movie star Mary Miles Minter.

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