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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Jon Wertheim

What Chance Does Serena Williams Have at Wimbledon?

This week’s column comes:

  • While relieved that the U.S. Open will enforce no Russian ban. 
  • While I hope, for Novak Djokovic’s sake, that, the tournament drops its policy demand vaccination for entry.
  • While smiling at the story of Tim Van Rijthoven
  • While convinced there will be no tennis in China in 2022.
  • While wondering when the Saudis will fix their gaze on tennis.



Do you think Wimbledon will adjust the seeding for Serena, as they almost always do do with the men? When they reluctantly seeded Serena after she returned from maternity leave I thought it was an arbitrary placement. Putting a 7x champ behind Sharapova was nuts.

• We got a lot of late mail Tuesday when the news broke that Serena —after virtually a one-year absence from playing—is planning on taking a wild card to Wimbledon. First, to the question of seeding…she will not be seeded. A) Wimbledon defers to the tour’s rankings and plays in straight. B) even when there was departure, it was based on a formula, part ranking and part recent grass court track record. Because of Serena’s ranking—currently 1208—there was no way her grass court track record was going to offset. C) the days of subjective seeding is way behind us. Tennis is fractured enough as it is without individual events making judgments based on intuition and preference.

As for Serena…. speculation here falls into three camps. 1) She is sufficiently confident that—age 40 and with little match play—she still can be competitive. 2) This might double as her farewell. She has won seven times, enjoyed assorted highlights here (Olympic gold; doubles titles with Venus) here—shorn of the fraught history she shares with the U.S. Open. 3) Cynically, she needs to play big events to fulfill various endorsements. Me? Who, ultimately, cares about motivation. If she has decided she wants to play, bless her. Fans get to see her again. Selifshly, media gets an additional story and ratings gooser. Wimbledon—which can use all the stars and good press it can get this year—must be gratified that she ain’t done. Who’s the worse for it?

I’ll tell you one cohort. It’s the rest of the field. Is Serena going to win her 24thMajor? Unlikely. For years (decades) we’ve trotted out the lines “underrate her at your peril.”….”boneyards are filled with people who have ignored her.”….”She has a history of playing her best with little warning.” But let’s be realistic: she’s crowding 41….older than Iga PLUS Coco. She is coming off an injury and a long lay-off. The idea of her winning seven consecutive matches is hard to imagine.

Yet, can you imagine being a player and drawing her early? Seeded, unseeded. Pick a name here, any name. Imagine looking at draw sheet and seeing that you’re playing an early match against a 23-time Major champ, a sentimental favorite, on Centre Court. You can psych yourself but saying it’s the opportunity to score a Wimbledon win against an immortal. But more realistically, it’s a lot of drama and dissonance and not a lot of upside. If I’m anyone from Iga Swiatek to the 100th-ranked player lucky to get an automatic entry, I want Serena nowhere near me in the draw. If I’m anyone else, I’m thrilled she’s in it.

A penny for your thoughts on the ATP's recent "OneVision" strategic plan announcement. What stands out to you about this? I was pleased to see the expansion of the Masters events in Madrid, Rome, Shanghai, Canada, and Cincinnati expand to 12-day, 96-draw events, similar to Indian Wells and Miami. Events like that seem to be a bigger deal all around (in addition to generating more revenue), and should add even more prestige to Masters 1000 events. I'm curious, too, about your thoughts on the tournament media rights changes...does this make it more likely that tennis fans will be able to find streaming digital content much more easily than in the current hodgepodge situation?
—Paul in Chicago

The ATP is a partnership between labor and management, the players and the tournaments. The players (reasonably) want more money. The tournaments (reasonably) want to control costs. You see this in countless business relationships, inside and outside of sports. The difference is that in most employer-employee relationships, they don’t sit on the same side of the table and haven’t come together as an association.

Anyway, what can the ATP do about this fundamental tension? Well, it can—and to some extent does—grow the pie for all constituents. But it can also find a common enemy. In this case it is the Majors, that make a ton of money and are not ATP events. The tournaments don’t mind this—“Instead of squeezing us, squeeze the biggest guys.” (It’s adjacent to college athletic departments telling athletes, “Instead of siphoning our revenues and screwing up our balance sheets with a request for a salary, we’ll help you get NIL’s from third parties.”)

So the players have gone after more prize money from the four tentpole events. With success. Everything else about Justin Gimelstob aside (remember Justin Gimelstob?), he was an effective advocate for the players at the Majors in his role on the ATP player council. In 2012, the U.S. Open prize money was $25.5 million. By 2019 (pre-pandemic) it was $57 million. The Majors did not do this voluntarily. They did it because pressure was brought to bear.

There’s one problem there: in the long term, it weakens the ATP and strengths the Majors. If players can make as much money for losing in the second round of a Major as they can from winning most ATP events, it doesn’t help the Tour. If players make so much of their money playing Majors and thus cannot miss out on playing them, it emboldens Majors to make unilateral policy, like, say, banning Russians. (Surely, when Wimbledon weighed the consequences, it figured prominently that the players, no matter their outrage level, would not boycott.) As the Majors become ever more vital—note how little ATP metrics figure on the GOAT conversation—it has the effect of weakening the other events on the calendar.

Which brings us to ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi’s plan. Part of this is about media rights and presentation and driving the sport in the future. There are more options than ever to consume sports. There is more competition than ever for the entertainment dollar and for consumers’ attentions and affections. Tennis has to adapt and adjust to the global, mobile marketplace. Gaudenzi, I believe, is quite strong here.

But part of this plan is about strengthening the ATP and, in particular, narrowing the gap between the ATP events and the Majors. Extending the biggest events to 14 days; streamlining the calendar; even cracking down on conflicts of interests. It’s all in service of a stronger tour... And not making it feel as though tennis has eight weeks of Super Bowls and 44 weeks of sandwich filling.

I was stunned by Amelie Mauresmo’s comments concerning putting women’s matches in prime time slots. The correlation between lack of promotion and lack of interest has been shown in multiple sports, not just tennis, so I was really surprised to hear the tournament director at a slam promoting such bias. Is there anything here I am missing? Wouldn’t Świątek vs anyone be worthy of play under the lights? It’s hard to believe that Cornet vs Ostapenko was the only match considered interesting enough to make the cut.
—Paul Haskins, Wilmington, NC

Here’s the dark secret I heard….At first, WTA players were upset by the night scheduling. Then they realized how the night sessions played out. The 9:00 p.m. start time. The weird vibe. The iffy TV coverage. The players realized they ought not protest too loudly. As one veteran put it to me, “No one wants to play at night.”

What happens behind the scenes when a doubles team withdraws from a tournament because one of the players is having success in singles? Does the partner get upset, get excited for the other player's success, get compensated? Seems like there could be a range of outcomes.
—Tom in CT

• In some cases, it’s discussed beforehand. (“Look, if I get far in singles, I might have to bail.”) In most situations it’s case-by-case, determined as much by scheduling and injuries. I have never heard of any sort of compensation, but, as rational actors, I’m sure that happens.

We often pile on praise for players sticking around both draws. I am as guilty of this as anyone. “Yay, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula for playing deep into both draws and honoring their commitment.” But often the doubles complements the singles. Coco Gauff is about to play in her first Major final, the biggest match of her young career. What is better? Trying to stave off nerves, hanging around the hotel, playing board games with her team and watching Netflix? Or playing a doubles match—in mild conditions; barely lasting 90 minutes; resulting in a. good vibes victory—the day before?

Overshadowed by Zverev’s awful injury at the French Open is the fact that Zverev broke Nadal’s serve four times in the second set. Four times in one set! I’ll bet that’s never happened to Nadal before. (And Rafa broke four times, as well.)

Then I started thinking about it. The best you can possibly do is to win a set 6-0, which means you have broken serve only three times. Perversely, breaking serve more than three times is not as good. There are not enough games in the set, so if you break four or more times then you must have had your own serve broken along the way. So imagine the coaches of both players having to say, “great job breaking four times, but you could do better, let’s work on that.”
—Rich, New York City

• And it was four consecutive breaks. History will gloss this over and recall the tournament for Nadal’s 14th French Open and 22nd Major. History will recall the match for Zverev’s gruesome injury. But Rich is right. Just bizarre. They didn’t even complete two sets. And each player was broken five (!) times. Both had more errors than winners. And the match time was 3:13 …for one completed set! Here are the stats.

If this had gone five sets, we could have been looking at a seven-hour match. If stats held, each would have double-digit breaks. We had a discussion about this on the air. Man, was Nadal fortunate that Zverev was unable to continue.

Great 50 parting shots, as always. However, re: your observation, "Let’s hope [Netflix] make(s) judicious choices and recognize(s) that Matteo Berrettini’s post-match full-body massage in Australia in ’22 will have limited entertainment [value] in April ’23":

Um, I beg to differ. As a gay man, I must ask you to turn in your ally card forthwith! You overestimate us, counselor. And this is a gross misread of the libidinous population generally. Do you know how many people I've spent time with who can't tell tennis from pickleball if their life depended on it, and yet who somehow find themselves glued to the TV to watch Matteo's, er, tennis kit during Wimbledon? A lot.
—Bob, NYC

Maybe that was a bad example.

My point: choosing what to and not to include will be critically important. There’s always a balance—and this is a fundamental tennis challenge—between nourishing the tennis nerds and appealing to the casual fans.

No Roger at Wimbledon?? He wouldn’t even make the second round if he played. :)

New rule: win an event eight times, you automatically get mentioned as a contender. (He reached Week Two with an injury that has sidelined him for a year.)

I was surprised you made no mention of the doubles winners during your 50 parting shots from the French Opens. Our own Marcelo Arévalo from El Salvador became the first Central American man to win a grand slam final. Although, little known fact, the first Central American grand slam champion was Rosie Casals, born to Salvadoran parents, who left her mark in the 70s.
—Pedro E., San Salvador, El Salvador

For the record, we did mention him—and the happy experience of seeing ESA as a country code. But we’re happy to dwell on this story, which you lay out nicely. He is 31, ranked No. 14, and has made almost as much money this year as he has since turning pro in 2012. It’s a reminder that tennis is absolutely thronged with rich stories, diverse personalities, different points of entry.

While we’re here, I was also chided (gently) for failing to mention that Arevalo’s winning partner, John Julien Roger, is a former UCLA Bruin

In the last nine Wimbledon finals that went five sets, the player that won the fourth set ended up losing the match. This means the last time a player came back from a 2 sets to 1 deficit, was Jimmy Connors in 1982. Strange, right?
—Rohit Sudarshan, Washington, DC

That took me a second, but right you are.

Shots, Miscellany

RIP Gianni Clerici

• Coming soon, Dick Gould’s “Anatomy of a Champion: Building and Sustaining Success in Sport, Business and Life”

Another reason to like Madison Keys

Betty Scott of San Francisco, CA take us out:

Hi Jon:

Below is Rafa's speech to this year's graduating class of RNA. How amazing is it that these kids are not only being taught to be world class tennis players, but also respectful adults. (Two strike rule for smashing racquets there --first time warning, next time dismissal.)

Not to get into the overdone and tedious GOAT debate, but IMHO anyone draped with the Greatest of all Time mantle should be a real role model and have made a beneficial contribution to the sport as a whole. I agree with the Rolex ad -- it's about more than numbers. Rafael Nadal is inspirational.

“I know that the fashion now is immediacy and that patience is not a greatly valued virtue. When we want something, all we have to do is pick up our mobiles and make a purchase, read an article or get the information we need.

“But today I would like to remind you that the great goals in life are not achieved from one day to the next. They are achieved by fighting, struggling and learning when you fall down. I’m convinced that all of you will be great professionals and good people, which is the most important thing.

“But I can also tell you, through experience, that along the way you will have unexpected moments and disappointments that will make you question everything. In those moments, you must rely on your family, your loved ones and the people you trust, who will remind you what your dreams and goals were so you can dream them again.”

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