A lack of consistency in the women’s game, learn from coaches from all over the world, and the GOAT debate gets more complicated

Ok, what now?

Take a walk down memory lane with me. Imagine it’s March of this year. Indian Wells has been canceled. The tours are grinding to a halt. Players and organizers are panicking. This new thing called the coronavirus is spreading throughout the world. Tournaments are canceling themselves left and right. We tennis fans are wondering what the hell is going to happen to the tennis calendar.

Now reflect on what we’ve just witnessed in the last couple of months: Cincinnati, the US Open, Rome, the French Open. And that’s not even mentioning the smaller tournaments which were scheduled alongside these tour staples. 

Watching Roland-Garros come to a successful—and safe—conclusion this past Sunday has left me feeling as if we’ve crossed some type of hump; as if some mad sprint to “restart” tennis has finally come to an end with one final effort in Paris. Have you felt the same?

But this is more of a marathon because tennis is still on. Though tournaments are still being canceled, the tours are quietly making their ways around the world. The men are competing this week in St. Petersburg (ATP 500), Cologne (ATP 250), and Sardinia (ATP 250). The end of the year is a little quieter for the women because their calendar is so heavily reliant on China and the Chinese government has strict restrictions on sporting events. But events will be taking place in the Czech Republic, Austria, and in South Korea.

From the start of the year when we thought that tennis was done for in 2020, it’s nice to think that there’s plenty of tennis left for us to enjoy.

Rafa: the GOAT?

One hundred/two. I’m sure you’ve heard that number a few times in the last week. That’s Rafael Nadal’s win/loss record at Roland-Garros. That number has been bandied about in the last few days but I think it’d help to really think about how amazing a feat that is. Most professional players—guys and girls whom we’d watch with awe if they were playing at our local courts and think “How do these players even lose games?”—don’t even have winning records at the highest levels of the tour. Yet we have someone who’s been so dominant on the clay that in 15 years of competing at one tournament, he’s only lost twice.

What. The. Heck. Imagine being a professional player and stepping onto court Phillipe-Chatrier against someone who has that record. What would you think? Are there any sporting achievements that come close to the magnitude of what Nadal’s been able to accomplish? Nothing comes close for me.

All of this leads us into the GOAT debate, which is an inevitable consequence of Nadal’s recent performance. One of my friends, a hardcore, die-hard Nadal fan said to me:

“Nadal is the GOAT. Everyone said he couldn’t do it. 13 French Opens. 100–2 record. He’s proven he can play on every surface: two Wimbledons, lost a million Aussie Open finals, won one, and has four US Opens. The fact of the matter is that none of the Big 3 have won two of every slam. Rafa has been the closest many times. Djokovic would have if he’d beaten Rafa this year. Federer was never getting two French Opens—he was lucky to get one.”

Nadal’s record at the French is impressive, and I agree with what Andy Murray has said: “I don’t think it’ll be repeated, I don’t think anyone will be close.” But I don’t think that necessarily makes him the GOAT. My friend is right that none of the Big 3 have won all the slams twice. Yet if Djokovic had won on Sunday, would that have separated him from the other two?

Also: while Nadal’s record is seriously absurd, the fact that he’s won 13 of his 20 on one surface will work against him when all the counting and measuring is finished in the years to come. My guess is that tennis pundits will hold it against him that he was so successful on one surface as opposed to it being a factor that works in his favor. Regardless, it was an amazing couple of weeks for Nadal (and his fans).

I also want to highlight what I mentioned a couple issues ago: that of the conditions favoring players who strike the ball a little flatter and that of Djokovic having a good chance of beating Nadal if they met in the finals. How wrong I was! So apparently was Goran Ivanisevic, who was even more stern in his predictions that Novak Djokovic would destroy Nadal.

Side-note: the music that plays at Roland-Garros after a player wins the title is pretty great. Just the right mixture of funky and epic.

Change of Ends with Dan Greenberg

Editor’s note: I’m excited to launch a new segment called Change of Ends. Every week, coaches from all over the world will share their expertise and knowledge with Tennis inbox subscribers by answering three questions from a predefined list. The segment should hopefully take around 90 seconds to consume. Have a question you’d like a coach to answer? Email hello@tennisinbox.com and I’ll consider adding it to our bank. We kick off Change of Ends with Dan Greenberg. He’s led a team to a national championship, so I’m sure tennis fans and aspiring collegiate players will find plenty to learn.

Dan Greenberg is the Head Men’s Tennis Coach at Williams College, the top-ranked liberal arts school in the United States and the 2013 NCAA DIII National Champion. He’s entering his twelfth year at Williams.

What part of their games do promising juniors most neglect to work on?

I think a lot of college coaches would say doubles and net play and transition games, and they’d be right, but I think more generally, juniors just don’t like working on what they’re not good at, so everyone has their own glaring weakness. Slow kids would rather rip forehands than run stairs; aggressive players have no idea how to hit an effective, topspin lob; pushers are scared to swing at the ball. These are all generalizations and random examples, but I think the best thing a junior can do is be honest with themselves about what they’re good and not good at and spend at least some time outside of their comfort zones; it’ll patch up their weaknesses and have the added bonus of making them mentally stronger.

What part of their games would you encourage promising juniors to spend less time working on?

Instagram and Snapchat. Honestly. If you go to a tournament or an academy, as soon as someone finishes his or her match or session, they go straight to their iPhones. And it’s not usually to take notes; it’s often to console themselves after a loss or post about a win to celebrate with more “likes.” College players and even pros (and coaches!) do this, too. But it’s most detrimental with juniors because they haven’t yet learned to navigate the ups and downs of the tennis journey, which, in my opinion, is the most valuable aspect of it all. How you’re left feeling after a match or practice is one of the most important motivators going forward, and that’s being drowned out by the instant gratification of social media. Sorry for sounding like a grandpa, but I know it’s true because I see it and can be as guilty of it as anyone.

Which professional player’s mindset do you admire and why? How do you try to teach this mindset to your students?

Like a lot of people, I’ve recently come to love Daniil Medvedev’s mindset, which always seems to be in survival mode: make one more shot, make it effective, by whatever means necessary. It’s not always pretty, but he embraces that fact and uses it to his advantage to stay alive and keep his opponent uncomfortable in every moment. I enjoy the style and variety of a lot of the French players, for example, but Medvedev’s variety never loses sight of his ultimate purpose of winning every point he can, especially the big ones. I often have my players watch him play, because you can really feel him digging deep for every shot, sometimes literally shoveling a backhand if that’s what it takes, which is a great example for anyone to see.

Swiatek is after consistency

Compared to men’s tennis, the women’s game has been bereft of consistent champions over the past decade or so. If we discount Serena Williams, there are no figures like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Roland-Garros champion Iga Swiatek is aware of this dynamic. As Matt Trollope writes on the Australian Open’s blog, “Given six of those previous eight first-time major winners have (so far) not since added to their Grand Slam trophy cabinets, [Iga Swiatek] recognizes the ingredient necessary to avoid a similar fate.”

On that necessary ingredient, Swiatek is quoted as saying:

“I think the biggest change for me is going to be to be consistent. I think this is what women’s tennis is struggling with. That’s why we have so many new Grand Slam winners because we are not, like, as consistent as Rafa, Roger, and Novak. That’s why my goal is going to be to be consistent. It’s going to be really hard to achieve that. I feel like I can do progress in, like, most of the things because I’m only 19. I know my game isn’t developed perfectly.”

How Swiatek will achieve that level of consistency will be interesting to observe—especially because her game seems to be built on dictating play. More consistent, solid players—take for example Caroline Wozniacki—have an easier chance of competing well every week compared to more aggressive players who often live and die by their own playing styles. Perhaps Swiatek can learn from former champions who tried to control play. We’ll have to wait and see.

From “We” to “I”

You might have noticed that this issue was written in the first person instead of the normal “we” that has normally been employed on Tennis inbox. You might be asking why (or even “who the heck is writing this?“). Here’s my thinking: I believe it’s easier for an audience to connect with a writer when that writer is a singular person as opposed to some amorphous entity that refers to itself as “we.”

I initially started writing as “we” because I was emulating the formats of other popular newsletters such as the Morning Brew and the Hustle. But I’ve realized that the more niche a newsletter is, the better it does with a distinctive, personal voice and a person who’s associated with it. That’s why I’ve decided to make the switch and just write each issue as myself. My aim with this transition is to try and connect better with you through each issue. Have thoughts on this? I’ll gladly hear them. Just reply to this email or leave a comment on the web version.

Image credit: Roland-Garros