Slant Pattern’s Tennis Mailbag

It's time again for the Slant Pattern mailbag. As always, we do not receive letters at Slant Pattern, so we will instead poach other sportswriters' reader mails. In this edition, we will focus on tennis.

Let's start with Jon Wertheim's tennis mailbag in Sports Illustrated.

Prasant asks, "What is your take on the regression of Venus Williams and Roger Federer this year? For sure each is dealing with the impact of age on an athlete's body. But I am left wondering if the 2017 absence of key rivals (Serena and Novak Djokovic), who had smothered them for a number of years, allowed them some headspace to step back into the spotlight. And, thus, the re-emergence of these two players in 2018 has taken up residence in their head and has pushed them back off center stage. What do you expect for Venus and Roger this coming year given the re-emergence of Serena and Novak?"

I'm more bullish on Venus than Roger. In Roger's case, I think Prasant is dead to rights: Roger's reemergence owed a lot to Novak's absence. This seems arguable enough inasmuch as Roger hasn't won a slam since Novak's return to form last year and Novak won both their head-to-head meetings last year. What Fed has done is absolutely incredible at his age, and I think he is still capable of winning ATP tournaments, but yeah, he has to show his age sometime soon-ish. He's not going to be challenging for ATP Tour titles at 45.

Venus is a little different. On one hand, I don't think she benefitted much from Serena being out of service; as great as Venus was during Serena's pregnancy, she didn't close the deal on any titles, and also Venus actually beat Serena last year (albeit in Serena's first tournament back, in Indian Wells). Secondly, by all accounts Serena and Venus are very close, and I just don't think this is the same kind of rivalry on the psychological front that Roger vs. Novak is, or Tiger vs. Phil, or Speed Racer vs. Racer X.

But whether Venus will regress this year, irrespective of Serena, is harder to say. I would be slightly less surprised if Venus had an awesome year than if Roger did. It seems it's more common for women to compete at a high level in more advanced years (see Kimiko Date).

Andrew Krause asks, "With Wimbledon going to a final set tiebreak at 12-12 and the Australian Open considering a match tiebreak in the final set, why not use the U.S. Open model and play a tiebreak in all sets at 6-6? If the tiebreak is good enough to decide the other sets, why not the deciding one? What are your thoughts?"

THAAAAAANK GOD! Now the French Open is the only holdout. Listen, I'm most assuredly not one of those people clamoring for baseball games to move faster, football games to move faster, and so on. I'm in the minority with that. I also don't like the speed-up-the-game-rules (well, most of them) observed at Next Gen tournaments.

But tennis without tiebreakers is truly ridiculous. Look at some of these scores from 1969 Wimbledon. I'm honestly surprised tennis survived a time when you didn't know if a match would last two hours or eight.

I don't hate the tiebreaker going into effect only after 12-12, but yes, I do agree with good sir Krause that just enforcing it at 6-all, with a tiebreaker to 7, in the deciding set is for the best, just as the US Open does and all non-slams do.

Finally, over at Tennis Takes, an anonymous reader asks, "Jack Sock finished 2017 as the No. 8 player in the world. If he doesn't have a good tournament in Paris, he will finish well outside the top 100. Why has he had such a dismal 2018?"

Sock didn't have a good tournament in Paris, and did indeed fall out of the top 100. Which seems crazy. Can you imagine Jack Sock playing Challenger events at this stage of his career? You probably won't have to imagine it in 2019.

I make a point not to read the answer of the original recipient in crafting these responses, but I cheated a little here. The recipient is recent tour pro Brian Baker, who knows what he is talking about, but more to the point, I have no idea why Sock's 2018 was so bad so I wanted some suggestions.

Baker points to two things. The first is discipline, which Baker has much to say about, but ultimately it's just a theory in Sock's case; we have no idea whether or not he stopped working as hard as he used to or as hard as his peers. I'm pretty sure he'd deny it.

The second, and more relevant factor is that Sock was pretty damn unlucky last year. His statistics weren't that far off from year's past, Baker points out, except his results. Most interesting: Sock is 51-47 in his career in deciding sets, but only 1-12 in 2018.

That level of badness in someone who gets to deciding sets is not sustainable. I don't know how high Sock will rise in the future, and he may have already achieved his career-best ranking, but I do believe he will return to tour regular status who can get into the main draw of any tournament at the very least. In terms of consistency or lack thereof, I do not believe we are looking at Donald Young II.

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