Mailbag: Wrapping Up a Cracking 2019 U.S. Open

Hey everyone,

Let’s clearn out the ‘Bag after a crackling 2019 U.S. Open. We’ll call this the Pittsburgh Airport edition….

HOUSEKEEPING

• On the latest Sports Illustrated tennis podcast, young Daniel Rapaport and I recap the U.S. Open.

• ICYMI, here are 50 Parting Thoughts recapping the tournament. 

• Buy this book by my friend and colleague Albert Chen. A fascinating look into the early days of the Daily Fantasy world, told through the prism of the race between Fan Duel and Draft Kings.

Onward…

MAILBAG

There are so many choices. Power. Athleticism. Strategy. Toughness. Winner’s mentality. My question is: What impresses you most about Andreescu?
Nathan, Montreal

• I resist choosing one, because there’s interplay between all the things you just mentioned. But I remain dumbfounded by the way the final played out. Truth serum: when Andreescu failed to convert that match point at 6-2, 5-1 and suddenly the score was 6-2, 5-5—with the Mighty Serena Williams awoken; a crowd of 24,000 squarely partial to the veteran player; a transformative moment seeming to have passed—I had existential concerns.  My thought process: “Serena is going to win the match now, and tie the record. The crowd will go wild and this will be an incredible, indelible moment, a fitting coda to Serena’s career.

But if Andreescu had lost, say 6-3, 6-3? Everyone would have congratulated her on reaching the finals and talk of the inevitability of future Slams. Now, I thought, she will be devastated and instead of leaving with buoyed spirits, she will be crushed. How long will it take her to recover from holding match point and failing to close?”

While I was pondering this, Andreescu effectively said, “Nah, I got this.” She reeled off the next two games and won 6-2, 7-5. Crisis averted. Catastrophe squelched. Game, set, match. For all the shot-making and durability and drop shots and strategic brilliance….that fearlessness is what impressed me most.

That was like AngleFest—hitting balls at every possible angle to score. Math geeks should’ve been watching!
@Danehall798

• I read this the first time as Angel-fest, and I’m thinking, “Wait, Medvedev was cast as the devil during the middle weekend.”

Anyway, yes, you’re right. We’ve all seen five-setters before. We’ve all seen players hanging on for dear life. We’ve all seen matches where momentum has swayed, as if someone is stepping on a balloon. A lot of us are trying to figure what, precisely, made that match so extraordinary. And I agree with you: the geometry. These guys used every bit of real estate, found every nook and cranny. More than 100 points were won at the net (50 by Medvedev and, fittingly, 51 by Nadal.) There were drop shots—in part to counter deep court positioning. There was serving-and-volleying. There was deft use of lobs and slices. I tweeted that this match was a counter to the shabby claim that “tennis is boring.” Maybe more importantly, it was a counter to the idea that tennis is all baseline bashing.

You made a good point on Twitter regarding how pivotal the Rome final was in the men's season, with Nadal winning his first title of the year by defeating Djokovic. But I would add the ridiculous wind in the French Open semifinals may have been just as pivotal. If the weather wasn't so nasty that day, perhaps Djokovic defeats Thiem. And if Djokovic then defeats Nadal in the final (a rather big "if," but not entirely unlikely), 2019 looks a lot different.  That's not to say Thiem's victory wasn't well-deserved, as he thoroughly earned it.  It's only to say a nasty day of weather may have been just as pivotal a plot point in the men's season.  It's wild how one day, one victory, or one loss can drastically impact the entire season, and the major title race.
Matt Marolf, Long Island City, N.Y.

• Nadal goes to Rome with no titles for 2019, the usual physical injury concerns and the psychological injury of the Australia beatdown. Djokovic comes into the finals a bit fatigued (thanks, Argentinian WWE tag team of Schwartzman and Delpo) and Rafa beats him. Confidence bolstered, Nadal has lost one match since. “Windy French Open” is a counterfactual stacked on a counterfactual. But I do like the overall points: these “plot point moments” come suddenly. And these sliding doors scenarios have real impact.

As usual, I loved geeking out with you on your 50 parting thought of the US Open. 

I particularly like how you provide links to other tennis articles. It is sometimes hard to find well-written stories on our sport. 

Quick question for you. Can you help me decipher what the shorthand h/t means? As in "h/t producer Deirdre Cohen" and "h/t Nicholas Kristof"
Victor A., Cranbury, N.J.

• Thanks. I’d quibble with your first point. I have great regard for tennis writing out there. The Brits do a great job. (Nice to see Marina Hyde leave Boris Johnson to luxuriate in the sport last week.) The New York Times does a great job. Bodo, Louisa Thomas, Courtney. I’ll stop before I make unforced errors of omission, but lots of smart voices. And, of course, I’m only reading the English press. I’d assert that in the category or prose, tennis overachieves. H/t = hat tip, a nod of acknowledgement/ gratitude.

Thoughts on 25-second serve clock? 

As a TV viewer, I found it distracting. Here’s why.

1. The clock was frequently stopped for crowd noise.

2. At four hours and 50 minutes (the third longest U.S. Open final) how much time did it really save? Was it worth it for players feeling rushed?
@talravivmd

• I like the clock in theory. But it still comes with a subjective component —when to start it? What is sufficient crowd noise to pause the clock? And it needs to be posted behind the court so the television sees it. In a Richard Thaler “Nudge” kind of way, I suspect the mere existence encourages players to speed up.

Two points that struck me during the final. 1. Again, “time of match” is a bogus stat. If one player dallies and goes to the towel and goes through an elaborate series of rituals, he could win 6-0, 6-0 and the match could go 90 minutes. Conversely, players like Federer and Kyrgios—who simply step to the line and play—might play a really tight match in 90 minutes. 2. Nadal’s record speaks for itself. So bear htat in mind. But with a tired opponent across the net, his leisurely pace worked to his detriment. After every point, Medveev had 20 (or 30) seconds to recover. Why not push the pace when the other guy is sucking wind?

Congratulations to my favorite sportswriter! Despite your regular reminders of the perils of predictions, you picked all four men's major winners this year. Sure, they are the No. 1 and 2 players in the world, but that doesn't mean it's easy. More critics favored Federer at Wimbledon and Djoker at the Open. How fortunate we are to live in this Golden Age. Keep up the great work! 
Wisconsin

• Hey thanks. I also picked Madison Keys at the U.S. Open and Serena to win Wimbledon. Another “reminder of the peril.” Picks are fun. They are part of the fan experience. Part of covering any industry is attempting to see around corners. But it is, by definition, uncertain. (Niels Bohr has an all-time classic line about thi: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”) And incorrect predictions should not trigger calls for expulsion.

I know you will have plenty of material from the U.S. Open for the next Mailbag so let me look ahead to the Laver Cup on September 20-22, which you've talked about in the past. I agree with all the positive things that have been said about this event and applaud the ATP for putting the event on its calendar, but I worry about the timing, being so close to the conclusion of a Grand SLam. Also, looking at the preliminary rosters, Team World looks like it's in a "world of hurt”—both Anderson and Raonic skipped their annual sojourn to Flushing Meadows due to injuries, and so their status seems uncertain for this event too. (Coach McEnroe, might I suggest Nishikori, Schwartzman, or FAA?) And by the way, would Khachanov and Medvedev be part of Team Europe or Team World (since Russia is part of both Europe and Asia)? If the former, then the cards are even more stacked against Team World these days.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of Senor Diego, I found the "Masterclass" feature here where he demonstrates returns of serve to be quite charming. This seems like a promising vehicle for lesser-known players—and a few well-known players (ahem, Nole)—to get some more love from the fans. 
Henry S. Bethesda, Md.

• Yes, I wonder if we can do anything about the player distribution for Laver Cup. I know golf’s Ryder Cup is the model. But in golf you don’t have players from one continent—get this—winning every major played over the last decade. Like, 40 of the last 40. (Yes, Delpo’s 2009 upset of Federer was the last time a non-European triumphed at a men’s Slam. And—another get this—Gaudio’s unexpected 2004 French Open was the time before that.) 

As it stands, you have…expecting father John Isner, injured Kevin Anderson and Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov (who was unseeded at the Open) and Nick Kyrgios, whom the eponym of the event just suggested be banned.

I love Laver Cup. You love Laver Cup. We all love Laver Cup. But is there a way to switch up the teams, without risking the charge of exhibition? Discuss. 

I enjoy watching no-ad in doubles and think it enhances the game.  What would be the reaction to its usage in singles?  I don't see a downside.
—Glenn Egelko, Ventura, Calif.

• Here’s the downsides with all these innovations (no-lets on serves, no-ad scoring, four-game sets). They introduce an element of luck and reduce sample size. This might be great for fans and TV, but it’s anathema to the best players. This is the old probability exercise. Pit the person on the street against Stephen Curry in a half-court shooting contest. The fan might make his first shot and Curry could miss. Give them 100 half-court shots, though, and no way Curry loses. Point: eventually we revert to the mean.

At this point in his career, every non Roland Garros slam Nadal wins is equivalent to winning two French Open titles.
—J.B.

• Obviously this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek (I assume). But, yes, the wider the distribution, the stronger Nadal’s GOAT candidacy. Stop to consider: 1. He’s won only one fewer U.S. Open than Federer and one more than Djokovic. 2. He’s won as many Grand Slams OFF clay as McEnroe won total.

What is your take on the synergy that the tennis couples have brought to this US Open? Monfils/Svitolina, Wawrinka/Vekic....and to lesser extent, Thiem/Mladenovic? Power of love?
Nguyen, Hanoi, Vietnam

• I’m not sure all of those examples are current. But, point taken. We speculate about “synergy” and the cameras inevitable finds one partner rooting for the other. Ultimately, these are workplace romances that come with the usual upsides and perils. It can be great to have a partner who understands the challenges and rhythms and culture of the job. It can also be a challenge to have a partner in the same line of work. Some couples work; others don’t. Unsolicited tip: go in with some exit strategy. “Let’s give this thing a whirl. But if this doesn’t work, let’s agree it will be on civil terms. Since we share an office and both want to succeed in our careers, let’s minimize awkwardness.”

First Grand Slam final I saw live, and what a privilege it was!  Obviously several post-match thoughts, but how about this: Medvedev might just be the second coming of Robin Soderling in terms of personality. We thought he was a villain, but then it turned out he is quite charming in defeat. He pays homage to the legends while still playing like he expects to beat them. A confident and not overly emotional demeanor—you never get the sense that he’s getting overexcited by the mini-victories in a match.  And of course, he’s not afraid to stand up to Nadal for perceived violations of the rules.  Let’s just hope his career doesn’t end the same way as Soderling’s!
Robert

• Quick observations… 1. I’ve never seen a player remake an image in less time. 2. Medvedev’s post-match speech—when he must have been running on absolute fumes—was an all-timer. 3. My sense is that deep down, tennis fans (and the New York crowd in particular) respected a guy willing to mix it up and troll the crowd. Big tournament winner, this Medvedev.

The Russian semi and the Spanish-Italian semi. West vs. east. Romance vs. realpolitik. Vino vs. vodka. This means…okay, so it's meaningless. But still, the Swiss guy is on the sidelines and the guy from the Balkans saw his quarter swallowed up by a Russian. 
Doyle Srader, Eugene, OR

• As long as there is no follow-up…yes.

Have a great week everyone!

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