Mailbag: What Should We Make of Serena's Recent Struggles in Finals?
• Our most recent guest on the podcast was Chris Eubanks, a former Georgia Tech star who is trying to make it on tour. He was terrific.
• Next up: Vince Van Patten, surely the only person to have a win against John McEnroe and a recurring role in Baywatch.
• In advance of the new Davis Cup, David Haggerty will remain ITF president.
• Tennis treasure Colette Lewis has Junior Fed Cup and Junior Davis Cup coverage.
Legendary champions bring their A-games to finals. That's how they become legends and win Grand Slam titles. Win or lose, Fed, Nadal, Djokovic always bring their A-games to Grand Sla finals. Serena hasn't brought her A-game to the last four Grand Slam finals she's been in, while her four opponents did—which is why they ended up champions. Serena is known for being the ultimate competitor, and fighter, and yet recently Serena has not shown up when it counted. She's very fit and moving better than she has in years, and yet once again she wilted and played well below her capabilities in the U.S. Open final. Contrast that with the way that Nadal met and vanquished the challenge of the supremely talented Medvedev, who also brought his A-game to the final.
It's obvious that Serena is not handling the pressure of trying to win a 24th major very well. Is Serena no longer a great competitor able to meet the competitive challenge under pressure? Is she choking? What other conclusion can we draw?
• It’s a fair question, and it’s one Serena is asking herself as well. One line struck me from her U.S. Open postmortem: “I honestly don't think Serena showed up. I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals.”
I will give you the cold take first: Serena is 38 years old. She has reached the finals of the four of the last six majors, sometimes playing as well as she’s ever played. In her U.S. Open quarterfinal match, she blitzed a top-20 opponent 6-1, 6-0 in roughly the time it will take you to read this sentence. In her semifinal, she beat a top five player 6-3, 6-1. In those two majors in which she failed to reach the semis? In one, she was rolling over a top-three foe—and declined to blame the loss on injury. In the other, she was playing on clay, her least choice surface. Let’s keep in mind that, overall, she ain’t exactly embarrassing herself. Anything but.
Yet, she is a victim of her own success and her own aura. In the past, she’s gotten better as the tournament progresses. We’re accustomed to seeing her in the finals, discharging her duties with the cold-blooded poise of Villanelle. Seeing her lose four straight Slam finals—against four different opponents and failing to win one set—has been jarring.
Has she choked? Depends on your definition. She’s definitely projected tightness she didn’t in the previous six rounds. She’s played differently, that’s for sure, surrendering early breaks of serve and seeing a decline in her stats. (Then again, credit where it’s due: the player on the other side has been no slouch.)
Some of this owes to the point we frequently make about pressure. Often, it doesn’t befall the new and naïve. It drops instead on the veterans who know just how much weight the occasion carries and how seldom the opportunities come around. Bianca Andreescu, age 19, can—and did—swing freely in a match no one expected her to win. Serena, twice her age, bore the burden.
Beyond that, for her entire career, Serena—by accident or design—brushed aside expectation like lint on a lapel. She didn’t care about tennis history. She didn’t care about records or milestones. She had no rivals. She was concerned “with my side of the net.” What was it she said over and over, not wrongly? “Every match is on my racket.”
Suddenly, and sort of bizarrely, she spoke openly about pursuing Margaret Court’s record for all-time major single titles. It seemed off-brand and out of character. Here was a player forever minimizing concrete goals. And suddenly she is declaring open season on this apples-and-oranges “record.” She pooh-poohed the notion of rivalry. Suddenly she was declaring her rival a woman in her 70s in western Australia?
I think many of us shared the same reaction. You sure seem to be putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself with this pronouncement. You could retire tomorrow and you would still be the GOAT. Margaret Court’s various majors came in another era and bore no more relation to Serena’s majors than an abacus does to an iPhone 11….But hey if that’s a source of motivation, more power to you.
Now, though, I wonder if this hasn’t backfired. By putting herself out there and declaring, unambiguously, “I. Really. Want. This,” Serena is in a new position. And perhaps a new position of vulnerability.
I’m also a huge fan of women’s tennis, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to mess with the current success of the Laver Cup. If it starts faltering, then maybe try something new.
• One of my favorite features of this column: you guys form a terrific focus group of knowledgeable, global fans who often provide a clear sense of consensus opinion. You like Player X, you dislike Broadcaster Y. You’re open to a proposed innovation, you reject another. As for my suggestion that women be added to Laver Cup, it did not find great favor.
This was quickly dismissed as political correctness and social engineering and social justice warrioring. I do think, as a rule, that men’s tennis should show more, not less, solidarity with the WTA. And rather than have a copycat event in a different city with a different promoter and more confusion for the casual fan, it would be nice if Laver Cup could grow organically. And why not toast Martina and Chrissy and/or Billie Jean King alongside Rod Laver?
But my real motivation here is fixing the competitive balance. Europeans—again: this blows me away—have won the last 40 (!) singles majors on the men’s side. The one-two punch of Federer and Nadal bring 38 Slams to the dance. Even the rest of the bench is rock solid. The “Rest of the World” accounts for zero majors (provided DelPo isn’t there). And in Geneva, the World Team had no player—get this— ranked inside the top 15.
Again: one team—the one that, despite numerous close calls has yet to win Laver Cup—had zero members in the top 15 and no majors. The other had Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
If the great underpinning of this event is honest competition—all together now: It’s not an exhibition—don’t you need more balance? An obvious source: add women. Three of the four women’s majors in 2019 went to non-Europeans (Osaka, Barty, and Andreescu). Serena Williams is not European. Neither is Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens or Team8-managed Coco Gauff. If you have both genders, the Europe/Other Six Continents distinction becomes much easier to swallow.
Loved the Laver Cup, thought it was wonderfully competitive and a very close battle (right down to the last match). You have mentioned a couple of times that they should reconsider the format of Europe against the World. Several questions about that occurred to me while I was watching this weekend:
1. If Brexit succeeds, will Great Britain be part of Europe or the World? And doesn't that become an interesting discussion once Andy Murray makes it back to tour-level competition?
2. Do the World captains need to be encouraged to look beyond the U.S., Canada, and Australia for their roster? There are several non-European countries with very good players in the top 20 right now: Russia (Medvedev, Khachanov), Japan (Nishikori), Argentina (Schwartzman), South Africa (Anderson). I realize that schedules and other considerations are necessary, but it seems like the World could surely put together a team better equipped beat Europe.
—Lilas Pratt, Marietta, GA
• 1. Let’s be clear: the U.K.—with or without Northern Ireland?—might leave the European Union. But it’s not leaving Europe. Then again, you might be onto something. Serbia is not an EU nation either. Maybe the solution is EU versus the World, not Europe?
2. I am not entirely comfortable with the USTA and Tennis Australia having equity stakes in the Laver Cup. (Question: if I am a female player from the U.S. or Australia, how do I feel about my federation investing in a men’s only event?) But I would submit the world teams have been fairly representative. Look at the roster of the three Laver Cups and many of the players you mentioned have gotten the call. As for the Russians, bear in mind that Laver Cup coincides with the St. Petersburg Open.
Will Simona Halep escape the curse of beating a Williams in a Wimbledon final? Her early results don’t augur well…
—Christian, Los Angeles
• Or, she has achieved this career pinnacle—certainly this 2019 pinnacle—and a letdown is natural. Long as you brought up Halep, yes, her results have stagnated a bit. (Falling this week in straights sets to Ekaterina Alexandrova is a rough loss.) But she’s such a thoroughly likable player. A few weeks ago, one of you asked about her Hall of Fame chances. Given the current standards—the mandatory cut-and-paste clause for this discussion—she is not only in, but in without much debate. Top ranking, multiple Slams, finalist at multiple others. Maxes out the “good for the sport” column. No-brainer. Speaking of….
As for the “Serena Curse,” I wouldn’t read too much into that. Bear in mind that Naomi Osaka beat Serena to win the 2018 U.S. Open and won the very next major.
Given the endless debate of a player’s worthiness for HOF induction, I propose a separate HOF for the “holy trinity.” It doesn’t feel right that they have to share the same space with the likes of dubious inductees like Michael Stich, Michael Chang, Yannick Noah, Gabriela Sabatini and Jana Novotna (all one-time Grand Slam winners). At the very least they should get their own wing, and attendees should be charged a slight premium for visiting (or given a discount for checking out the lesser lights). This comes from a Torontonian who has visited the hockey HOF numerous times and questions the merits of many of its inductees. Clearly tongue in cheek suggestions but I’d love to see a meritocracy in how these HOF’s are curated.
—Neil Grammer, Toronto
• I love the Hall of Fame. If fondness for the Hall of Fame were chilling evil, I would be Lisa Bloom.
But I don’t envy the Hall of Fame. You have these two missions, and they operate completely at cross-purposes. On the one hand, you want to celebrate excellence—male and female, foreign and domestic, singles and doubles—and you want to hold a ceremony each year, in coordination with the ATP event. You also see that precedent hardens quickly. When one-Slam winners—and even no-Slam winners—are inducted, how do you turn down the next eligible applicant?
At the same time, you want some heft and valence. The whole enterprise collapses like an Ikea headboard if it becomes a Hall of the Very Good.* We talk jokingly about the Groucho Marx line: “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." But imagine Federer or Nadal getting inducted alongside some one-Slam winner. Having Federer, Nadal and Djokovic share wall space with a bunch of one-hit wonders is like having Picasso, Monet and Matisse hung up alongside Peter Max. It’s like putting Bill Gates in that fraudulent Who’s Who in America book right next to the better-than-average pharma sales guy from Toledo. It’s like inducting the Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside the Steve Miller Band. You get the point. “Holy trinity” might not be the answer. But there must be a way to come up with Diamond/Platinum/Gold/Silver levels of membership.
* This is what mystifies me: we all seem to agree that the current standards, such as they are, invite a host of problematic issues. And we all seem to agree that “we have no worthy candidates this year” is not an option. Wouldn’t the obvious solution be to induct MORE non-players? Especially in a sport with such outsized characters? Coaches, pioneers, journalists, promoters. The Original Nine. Philippe Bouin of L’Equipe. Howard Head. Oracene Williams. John McPhee. Instead, the “contributor” category has been reduced.
As the tennis season moves steadily through the final quarter of the year, it was startling to see empty stands on TV for the semifinals of the women's event in Tashkent and the men's tournament in Chengdu. I applaud the players for putting their best effort forward as the events were televised nonetheless, thus avoiding comparisons with trees falling in forests. What do we make of this? We can't blame players chasing points, making a living, and signing as many tennis balls as they can. The empty matches made for a sad statement, and to paraphrase Field of Dreams, it seems if someone builds it (a tournament, an event, etc.) but not a fan base, maybe people won't come.
—Andrew Miller, Silver Spring, Md.
• Have you seen the world track and field championships? I’ve seen bigger crowds at Chick-Fil-A on Sundays.
One the one hand, empty seats at sporting events make for a horrible look. On the other hand, well, lean in and we’ll let you in on one of sports’ dirty secrets….Events are less and less about the fans with tickets—the “in-venue” experience, in sports-speak—and more and more about the media and sponsorship play. The media rights deals and title sponsorship dollars matter much more than the presence of fans. If fans can watch worldwide, events can make money, sponsors can attach themselves to a global events, and players can get paid (to wit: the $14 million purse in Shenzhen), maybe the vast oceans of empty seats don’t ultimately matter, at least in the short term.
Specifically to tennis, we lament the vacant fat cat seats and suites at the majors. But at least there, there are fans—thousands of them—populating the bleachers. There were matches last week that, literally, seemed to feature as many people on the court—ballkids, umpires, linesfolk—as in the stands. (If you want to point out the irony that so many of these unpeopled venues are in China, the world’s most populous nation, I won’t stop you.)
Then again, as the week progressed, the stands filled. Maybe this is just a part of a process. Give these events a few years to grow and spread the gospel of tennis.
Sabine Lisicki's article with WTA Insider recently came out regarding her mononucleosis diagnosis. Similarly, Heather Watson talked about her own diagnosis on behindtheracquet just a couple days ago. A few other players have dealt with it: Kvitova, Federer…
Why does it seem so common in tennis players, and should this be something people should pay more attention to considering the virus lives with you for the rest of your life?
• I’d like to invite to anyone with expertise to weigh in here. But—reminder, this coming grom a layman—I think you’re on to something. From Federer to Reilly Opelka, I can think of many more players who have mono and similar infectious illnesses. And this would stand to reason. Jetlag. Circulated plane air. Different foods. Easy to see how tennis’s travel demands impact players’ immune systems. There are a lot of benefits to a global circuit. But I wonder if this isn’t a drawback we ought to discuss more…..
I just watched Grigor Dimitrov lose a match to Alexander Bublik in China where match point was decided by a net cord, and of course no replay of point. The service let replay rule makes no sense if matches can still be won and lost on net cords at the top levels of the game. I officiated Division I tennis for 15 years where there are no service lets, as you know, for the men and I never saw a match or a set for that matter decided by a service let (sure, it probably happened somewhere, but not enough to make it an issue). I think the no service let rule has no downside—why is there no serious push to change the rule to eliminate service lets entirely at all levels? There are still false lets with the equipment used on ATP tour.
—Anthony A., Idaho
• I feel like there’s some mission creep here. But I am with you. If we play net cords during points, we ought to do so on serves as well. I’d like to see some data confirming or refuting, but intuitively, I suspect there’s not much of a material advantage. Sure, sometimes the ball will meekly dribble over the net and the server will win a cheap point. Other times, a blasted serve will clip the tape and suddenly transform into a sitter, benefitting the returner.
And another point shouldn’t be glossed over: doing away with lets obviates the still-existing technological glitches.
Now that the serve clock is a regular feature on both tours, there's some interesting data to potentially now be had, such as: average service prep time by a player, which also would be interesting to break down by player against specific opponent, and whether there were any subtle tactics at play.
Als, it would be interesting to see if there was any kind of correlation between time taken to prepare for a serve, and success in landing a first serve.
Any way to get access to this data?
• Tennis? Data? Access? Now you’re talking crazy. I don’t know how this data is coded and stored but, in theory, it exists. I would be cautious about reading too much into it. Is it a hot day? Are the fans raucous? Where are the returners positioning themselves? Is the chair “quick on the trigger” or more inclined to let players pace themselves? There are so many variables that have the potential to distort.
Karl of Vancouver, Wash. takes us home:
So a shout out for one of the tour's great good guys, Tim Smyczek, who we recently found out has hung 'em up (maybe a future podcast guest? I think he'd have some terrific insights on the tour). And we think it's a shame, in this all-access era, we had to dig for that info. Maybe that's the way TS wanted it, and good for him if so. It'd be worth it to remind readers of his classy move deep in the fifth set against Nadal at the Australian Open a few years ago. As well, in '16 at Indian Wells we got to see a couple of TS's qualifying matches and then play a spirited first rounder against Delpo. While we didn't have any personal contact with TS, it was apparent what a great competitor and sportsman he is/was, and an example of the amount of fight it takes and how truly difficult it is to contend in this sport that eats players alive with its grueling schedules and depth of talent. It's truly an advertisement, as you often say, to get to a tour-level tournament early during the qualies, when the crowds are thin and you can get closer to the players and really get a chance to see what pro tennis on the ground entails… So hurrah for Tim, and all the best for his future endeavors.