Friday, April 10, 2020

To Hall of Fame, or Not to Hall of Fame... that is the question

After a few weeks of sifting through all the potential (or not) Hall of Fame contenders, both past and present vintage on the women's side of the sport, it's time to shift gears and gaze across the picket fence at the men's tour and the possible nominees in the proverbial Newport horse race over there.

Obviously, a few are pretty much already staking out what could be a separate wing of their own (maybe they'll even pay for an entire new building). Unlike the women's side, though, the very biggest titles over the past two decades have been hoarded by just a small group of elites, producing yet another generation of ATP players in which "no-question" Hall of Famers -- at least in singles -- are few and far between.

For the record...

GREEN - active player
ORANGE - retired 5-10 years (eligible for HOF)
RED - retired less than 5 years (not yet eligible in '20)
BLUE - more than 10 years past retirement
PURPLE - group entry/special class

...all of these should be first-ballot Hall of Famers when the time eventually arrives when they're finally eligible for enshrinement

Roger Federer - whether or not he's the legendary "G.O.A.T.," Federer's 20 majors (the first now having been claimed 17 years ago) leads the all-time list. For now, at least. At any rate, he's won the "hearts and minds" battle, or at the very least "settled for a draw" vs. Rafa Nadal, even if the numbers discussion eventually drop him to second or third behind the Spaniard *and* Novak Djokovic.

Rafael Nadal - the greatest men's claycourter ever, Rafa is one behind Federer with 19 *overall* slam wins. If Roland Garros is played somewhere on the '20 schedule, a 13th win in Paris could still tie for the #1 spot by the end of the year (while Federer lost his best chance for #21 with Wimbledon's cancellation).

Novak Djokovic - still the most likely to win the long-term "numbers game," as he's already got 17 majors and very likely (though it'll be a bit longer now due to the rankings freeze) he'll soon have the most weeks at #1 (he's 28 weeks behind Federer), too, and currently has a winning head-to-head record vs. both Federer *and* Nadal. An Olympic Gold would be a nice addition to his "G.O.A.T." discussion resume.

Bob & Mike Bryan - the most successful duo in tour history with an ATP-best 119 titles as a pair, including 16 majors, the most by a team (Mike has an additional two, an Open era record), and the 2012 Olympic Gold. Bob also has seven MX slams, and Mike four. They're one of two duos (w/ Woodbridge/Woodforde) in tennis history to have won all four majors, the year-end championships and Olympic Gold.

Andy Murray - considered one of the most thoughtful and open-minded personalities in the sport, the Scot slogged his way to becoming the British tennis champ the U.K. has long been seeking since Virginia Wade's last Wimbledon title in 1977. After claiming his first of back-to-back Olympic singles Golds in '12 (on the AELTC grass in London), Murray won his first slam crown at the U.S. Open later that summer. He followed up with an additional two major wins at Wimbledon (2013/16, the event's first home men's champ since Fred Perry in 1936) while also reaching six other slam finals (5 AO between 2010-16, and once at RG in '16). He reached #1 in 2016, led Great Britain to a Davis Cup title in '15 (the first in 79 years) and won Olympic Silver (w/ Laura Robson) in MX in '12. Murray's career was slowed by back and hip surgeries, and his playing days were felt to quite possibly be over before he staged a crowd-pleasing comeback and in '19 won his first singles title in two years (#46 overall).

Leander Paes - India's greatest player ever, he's won 18 doubles majors (8 MD/10 MX, with a Career Slam in both), 55 ATP doubles titles and a *singles* Bronze at the '96 Olympics. The second Indian player to become the doubles #1 (a few months after playing partner Mahesh Bhupathi), Paes has the most doubles wins in Davis Cup history, and led six World Team Tennis title-winning Washington Kastles teams alongside MX mate Martina Hingis, with whom he won a Career Mixed Slam as a pair by claiming each major once from 2015-16. Paes, still playing at age 46, announced earlier this year that he planned to retire during the 2020 season.

...though often playing in the shadow of other "greater" greats, it's hard to argue against any of this group having nonetheless had a "Hall of Fame career"

Lleyton Hewitt - the fiery Aussie scratched and clawed his way to the top of men's tennis in the pre-Federer/Nadal/Djokovic era of the early 2000's, holding the #1 ranking for 80 weeks and winning a pair of majors ('01 US/'02 Wi) while reaching two other slam finals. Hewitt was the youngest-ever men's #1 when he reached the top spot at a little over 20 years, 8 months in '01. A slam doubles champ ('00 US) who had a lead role on two Davis Cup-winning teams for Australia (he holds essentially every major AUS record in the competition in his two-decade career), he claimed 30 tour singles titles before retiring from singles in 2016. He has since returned in a doubles capacity, both on tour (playing at age 39 in '20) and in Davis Cup (as a playing captain).

Stan Wawrinka - a major title winning late bloomer, "Stan the Man' won his first major just two months shy of his 30th birthday and has gone on -- in a feat similar to Hana Mandlikova's in the Navratilova/Evert era on the women's tour -- to complete three-quarters of a Career Slam with title runs at the Australian (2014), Roland Garros (2015) and U.S. (2016). He defeated the #1 ranked player in the world (2-Djokovic, 1-Nadal) in each final. Wawrinka has played his career in the shadow of countryman Federer, but the two teamed to win Olympic doubles Gold in '08 and as members of Switzerland's Davis Cup championship squad in '14. John McEnroe once said that he had "the best one-handed backhand in the game."

Daniel Nestor (retired 2018) - one of five men in history (Bryans and "Woodies") to win all four doubles majors, the tour championships and Olympic Gold ('00), and the only to do so with more than a single partner. In all, the Canadian won eight MD slams and four in MX. Reaching #1 in '02, Nestor's 91 titles are third time in Open era history on the men's tour. He was the first ATP doubles player to win 1000 doubles matches in a career, and spent 1134 consecutive weeks (1994-2018) in the Top 100. He was the first player in doubles tennis history to win every slam and Masters Series event, the tour championships and Olympic Gold at least once in his career (the Bryans later joined him).

Mahesh Bhupathi (retired 2016) - the first Indian to be ranked #1, Bhupathi won four MD slams and eight more in MX (including a Career MX Slam), becoming the first player from his country to be crowned a slam champion when he won the Roland Garros MX crown in 1997. Bhupathi was close to completing a Career MD Slam, as well, reaching three finals in Melbourne (the AO is the only slam he hasn't won), as well as going 0-5 tour championship finals. He won 52 tour doubles titles.

...while the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are shoo-ins for Newport, it's worth noting that Manuel Orantes was inducted in 2012, twenty-nine years after he retired, while sporting "modest" numbers (1 slam win, a second major final, 30+ titles and a #2 ranking). Currently, there are two multi-slam singles winners from the Open era (Sergei Bruguera and Johan Kriek) still not enshrined.

Sergi Bruguera (retired 2002) - one of a pair of two-time Open era (non-active) slam champions (Kriek) not enshrined in Newport, Bruguera was a finalist for the 2020 class but came up short of the necessary votes. The Spaniard was the men's tour's dominant claycourter in the early 1990's, winning back-to-back Roland Garros titles (1993-94) and reaching another final (1997) while climbing as high as #3 in the rankings. He won Olympic Silver in '96 (losing a three-set final to Andre Agassi), and is one of two men with winning records vs. both Roger Federer (handing him a 1 & 1 loss -- the worst in his career -- in Barcelona in '00) and Pete Sampras (3-2). Bruguera recorded 33 Top 10 wins (4 vs. #1) in his career, with 24 coming on clay courts. He was named Spain's Davis Cup captain in 2018.

Thomas Muster (retired 1999, 2011) - the Austrian replaced Bruguera as the top claycourter on the men's tour in the mid-1990s, and was dubbed "The King of Clay" before, you know, that guy from Mallorca came along and forever claimed the crown. Muster won Roland Garros in 1995 (his best at the other majors was a pair of semis in Australia), and reached #1 (1996). His 40-match clay streak is the fourth longest ever on tour, and his 40 clay singles titles (of 44) is third in history behind Rafael Nadal and Guillermo Vilas. He won Masters Series crowns on clay, hardcourt and indoors. Muster failed to reach the Hall in the first 11 years after his retirement, then had a brief comeback in the early 2010's before retiring a second time in 2011 at age 44. He last reached the final HoF balloting stage in '19.

Jonas Bjorkman (retired 2008) - a Top 5 singles player who reached two slam semis and recorded 22 Top 10 victories, the Swede made his mark in doubles. He reached #1, won 54 titles and claimed nine MD slams (completing a Career Slam while reaching fifteen major finals, plus two more in MX) and twice winning the season-ending tour championships. In his post-playing days, Bjorkman has had a successful coaching career, joining up with slam winners Andy Murray and Marin Cilic. Bjorkman, like Bruguera, reached the final '20 HoF ballot but failed to garner the necessary votes for enshrinement.

Max Mirnyi (retired 2018) - a doubles #1, the Belarusian won eleven slam titles, six in doubles (in ten finals) and five more in mixed (eight finals). In all, Mirnyi won 52 tour MD titles, including 16 Masters Series events and two year-end championships. In 2012, he won Olympic Gold in MX with countrywoman Victoria Azarenka.

...their overall career accomplishments may not match up to some of their HoF-bound contemporaries, but some past enshrinees have equal or lesser numbers. Meanwhile, the recent changes in the HoF nomination rules makes it even *more* difficult for wheelchair stars to reach the Hall (they can only be included in classes every four years -- with the next coming in '23 -- and with no more than two enshrinees at one time). With the 2010's growth of both the men's and women's WC competitions, it means that *many* worthy contenders on the two tours will be in for very long (and unfair) wait.

Pierre-Hugues Herbert/Nicolas Mahut - the French duo completed their Career Doubles Slam as a pair when they won the Australian Open in 2019, compiling their collection while claiming sixteen tour titles together since 2015. Mahut reached doubles #1, while Herbert has been as high as #2. Both were part of the 2017 Davis Cup winning French squad, while Mahut is most famous for having lost the longest match in tennis history at Wimbledon in 2010. In the 1st Round, he fell to John Isner in a match that lasted 11:05 and 183 total games, with Isner claiming a 70-68 5th set.

Juan Martin del Potro - competing in the "Big 3" (+Murray/Wawrinka) era, with his thunderous groundstrokes making him maybe best equipped to compete against the trio of all-time greats, Del Potro defeated Federer in the '09 U.S. Open final at just age 22, only to then see his big-time career prospects thwarted by a series of wrist and knee injuries and surgeries over the past decade. He still managed to win two Olympic medals ('12 Bronze, defeating Djokovic after having lost a 19-17 3rd set in the SF vs. Federer; and '16 Silver, losing to Murray in five in the final after def. Nadal in the SF), and reached another slam final (2018 US) while posting four additional major semis at three of the four slam events. One of the most admired and well-liked players in the sport, Delpo (recovering from his latest surgery in '20) has won 22 titles and defeated 53 Top 10 players (10 #1's), with seventeen of those victories coming against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Robin Ammerlaan (retired 2012) - the Dutch player was one of the top players in the early years of WC "slam" competition in the early 2000's, winning an Australian Open and two U.S. Open titles, as well as six season-ending Wheelchair Masters crowns while topping the sport's rankings. Ammerlaan also claimed eleven slam doubles wins, and Paralympic Gold in both singles (2004) and doubles (2000).

Shingo Kunieda and Gustavo Fernandez - while there are several contempories (Gordon Reid, Alfie Hewett, Stefan Olsson, Joachim Gerard, Stephane Houdet and others) with a nice (and still growing) list of accomplishments, these two current players (they faced off in the 2019 Wimbledon final) either are or could go down as the most accomplished in men's wheelchair history. Japan's Kunieda has claimed 23 slam singles and 21 doubles crowns, the most all-time for a man, as well as four Masters (3s/1d) and three Paralympic Golds (2s/1d). He needs only a Wimbledon singles title to join Diede de Groot as the only WC players to win all eight slam titles. Argentina's Fernandez also has a good chance to join de Groot as the only men's or women's players to win all four singles slams. He currently has "only" five singles majors (+2 doubles), but needs just the U.S. Open to complete a Career Slam.

Juan Carlos Ferrero (retired 2012, 2017) - the 2003 Roland Garros champ, JCF (aka "The Mosquito" due to his speed and thin build) reached two other slams finals ('02 RG/03 US), was ranked #1 in '03, and won three Davis Cups titles with the rest of the Spanish team. In all, Ferrero won sixteen tour singles titles. After retiring in 2012, he made a brief doubles comeback in '17.

...memorable and unique, their presence in the sport's history is secure. Even if you may have to lift up a few rocks to find it.

Pat Cash (retired 1997) - to me, when I think of the highest-level of serve-and-volley tennis in the last great era of the style, right alongside the likes of Sampras, Becker and Edberg, I think of Cash. His aggressive serve-and-volley style was a powerful one, but wasn't without its brilliant touch, as well.

When healthy, the Aussie was great, especially on grass. He reached the Australian Open final in 1987, the last played there on grass, and only lost after a five-set battle vs. Edberg. Later that summer, his incredible run at Wimbledon produced his one slam singles crown, but also left us with a slew of other significant moments. Cash's checkered headband became (and still is) his signature look, and one year earlier he started what now is the regular practice of players throwing their headbands and wristbands to fans in the stands after the match. After he defeated Ivan Lendl to win the men's title on Centre Court, he was the first player to climb through the stands to celebrate with his friends, family and coaches. It quickly became commonplace, and now it's done by pretty much every singles champion at every major event when the final has been completed. The AELTC even eventually went so far as to change Centre Court because of the practice, installing a door leading from the court to the Players Box after years of gritted teeth and the hope that no new champ would fall and break a leg while on a perilous architectural climb.

But he wasn't just a grass court monster. In 1988, Cash also reached the first hard court Australian Open final, losing that one in another five-set, four and a half hour marathon to Mats Wilander.

A top junior, Cash won both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open boys titles in 1982. Two years later, at 17, he reached the Wimbledon and U.S. Open semis. Cash eventually reached #4 in the rankings in 1988. But, ultimately, his body let him down. Maybe one of if not the best athlete of his tennis generation, he was felled by an emergency appendectomy (1986, though he reached the Wimbledon QF soon afterward, and a year later won the title), an Achilles (1989, and lingering thereafter), back and knee injuries.

Cash made his slam debut at the AO in 1981 at age 16, and played his last at Wimbledon in 1997 at 32. During the stretch of 61 majors between those two tournaments, he played in 32 slam main draws, but missed 29. His best consecutive run of appearances came in 1983-84, when he played in all four slams in both seasons, the only back-to-back seasons he ever did it (in fact, he only played in the MD of all four in one other year -- 1987, naturally). From 1984-88, Cash managed to play in 14 of 18 majors, posting eight QF+ results including three finals and his win at the All-England Club. He retired in 1997.

For four years in the 2000's, Cash's bio was "scandalously" (I think) left out of the yearly ATP Media Guide's section honoring Open era slam champs. After his section finally returned, two years later the section was cut to include only *multiple* slam winners/#1-ranked players, so he was "erased from the history books" once again.

In recent years, Cash became the coach of CoCo Vandeweghe in 2017, not long before an ankle injury and surgery set back the '17 U.S. Open semifinalist's career, setting her down a comeback path that she's still trying to traverse.

Johan Kriek (retired 1994) - one of the two retired multi-slam winning men in the Open era not enshrined in Newport, he won back-to-back Australian Open titles in 1981-82, but the runs came in an era when hardly any of the sport's top names played in the event. The South African born Kriek, who became a U.S. citizen late in '82, also reached semis at RG ('86) and the U.S. Open ('80). He posted wins over the likes of Agassi, Connors, McEnroe, Vilas, Edberg, Chang and Borg during his career, during which he won 14 titles and reached #7 in the world.

Marcelo Rios (retired 2004) - if there was a Hall of Fame for Boorish Behavior, Rios would have been a unanimous inductee in the charter class. Sports Illustrated went so far as to call the Chilean “The Most Hated Man In Tennis," and Ilie Nastase (Ilie Nastase!) described him as “the worst prick I ever met.” (Again... ILIE NASTASE said that about HIM! Think about THAT.)

For a time, the super-talented Rios looked ready to become the first truly villainous player to rule over the sport. He turned out to be the only #1-ranked man in the Open era to never win a major title. Also a junior #1, Rios won the '93 U.S. Open boys title. By 1997, he was the only player that season to reach the Round of 16 at all four majors. Then came 1998. That season, Rios reached the Australian Open final (losing to Petr Korda), won the "Sunshine Double" (sweeping Indian Wells/Miami, def. Andre Agassi in the latter final), the Italian Open and the Grand Slam Cup (again def. Agassi) and became the first Chilean, South American and Spanish speaking player to become the ATP #1. His rise to the top spot dethroned Pete Sampras, who'd finished as the season-ending #1 the previous five years (and would again in '98). He held the spot for a total of six weeks during the season, then in '99 began to be slowed by a series of injuries that would eventually end his career. He retired in 2004, at age 28, with a back injury, ending a pro career that lasted just ten years and saw him win 18 titles. After hinting at a comeback in '18, such a thing never materialized after he played an exhibition match.

But it's *everything else* that made Rios famous -- err, notorious -- outside of Chile, where he was a sporting legend. Rightly perceived as arrogant and trouble waiting to happen, he fired coach Larry Stefanki shortly after he became #1. About Guillermo Vilas, probably the *best* South American men's player ever, he said, "I've been compared to Vilas for a while now. I do not know him. All I know is that he was #2 and I'm #1." He had run-ins with umpires, ran over his (soon-to-be-ex) trainer's foot with a Jeep, was arrested in '01 for a fight with taxi driver and arresting police officers, was charged with urinating on men in a bathroom in Ecuador in '03 prior to a Davis Cup tie and was later thrown out of his hotel, and was also involved in a bar brawl that same year. A persistent critic of the women's game, he called it "a joke" and said "winning a grand slam is easy for girls." He infamously told Monica Seles to "get your fat ass out of my way" in the Wimbledon dining hall.

It all didn't stop with Rios' retirement, either. In 2005 he was accused of throwing his wife out of a car. In 2016, he claimed to have been twice diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. In 2018, while working as a Davis Cup assistant for Chile, he failed to follow protocol by granting press interviews and responded to criticism by saying, "As my personal friend Diego Maradona says, 'I never speak to reporters as you can all suck it.'"

Umm... but did you hear that he was the first South American #1?

...not conventional, nor likely eventual Hall of Famers, they left an footprint that nonetheless would seem to qualify them for *something*.

Petr Pala - like his father Frantisek (ATP 1968-79), Petr was a somewhat notable pro player (reached the doubles Top 10 and played in the '01 RG doubles final). But Pala has become a legend from a position on the sidelines.

Unlike the Italian Fed Cup team (which won four titles with a consistent group of just four players), the Czech women's FC roster over the past decade has been varied and deep (though Petra Kvitova has been the unquestioned #1 star). Pala, though, has been the one constant. Captain since 2008, he oversaw a record (for a captain) six title runs (and counting). The team's dominance from 2009-18 was striking: 6 titles, 10 consecutive semis, 11 straight home tie victories, and a 7-1 mark in deciding doubles matches.

Honoring Pala one day -- flanked once again by the likes of Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Lucie Safarova, Barbora Strycova and others -- would be a way to also honor the dominant Czech dynasty in the event.

Ivo Karlovic's serve - while the now 41-year old Croat has only been a mildly successful star on tour over the course of his long career -- reaching #14, winning 8 titles and posting one slam QF results -- Karlovic's serve is the "black swan" of men's tennis.

With his six-foot-eleven (tied for the tallest in tour history) height, Ivo's from-the-clouds shot (timed out at its peak at a one-time record 156 mph) makes the fierce and impossibly angled stroke a once-in-a-lifetime weapon that has enabled him to construct an entire career on its effectiveness. Unlike the mind-numbingly boring game of a similarly height-aided John Isner, Karlovic's style -- though often choppy -- is usually fun to watch. How can a nearly seven-foot tall, surprisingly-deft volleying giant making his way into the net *not* be entertaining? Thing is, while his height "made" him as a player, Karlovic is skilled enough with the racket that he may have been quite good had he been about six or seven inches shorter, as his height made his movement a sometimes debilitating liability.

"Dr. Ivo" broke 2020 Hall of Famer Goran Ivanisevic's career ace mark in 2015, and as of February '20 was closing in on 14,000. His 78 aces in a 2009 Davis Cup match was the tour record, and the number has only been topped by both Isner and Nicolas Mahut in their obscene 11-hour, 183-game contest at Wimbledon in '10. Karlovic holds five of the top nine marks for aces in a single match in tour history. Karlovic now has longevity working for him. In 2019, he became the the oldest ATP singles finalist (39y, 10m) since 1977, and the first 40+ year old to win a match on tour since 1995.'s hard to pick someone out of the current crop of young potential slam winners on the men's tour, as they're still being bested by the Big 3. There doesn't really seem to be a "Graf" type who'll eventually take over, or even an "Austin" who'll soar to the top of the sport at a young age before being slowed by injuries.

Jamie Murray - brother of future Hall of Fame Andy, Jamie *does* have some arrows of his own to fire. He reached doubles #1 in 2016, joined his sibling in helping Great Britain to the '15 Davis Cup title, and has won seven slam crowns: two in men's doubles and five more in mixed. At 34, and coming off a MX final in Melbourne in '20, he might have a shot at a Career MX Slam (he's missing AO/RG), with an outside shot at one in MD (RG/WI needed).

Dominic Thiem - eventually, *someone* will (probably) inherit the ATP earth. And while the Austrian doesn't have a slam title to his credit, he *has* reached three major finals (2018-19 RG, '20 AO), ranked as high as #3, and has already won 16 titles and posted 27 Top 10 wins (4 over #1). He's a respectable 14-18 against the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic combo. Of course, that doesn't mean Thiem (surprisingly already 26) will be cast in the Steffi Graf (who challenged and finally ended the "Navratilova/Evert era") role in men's tennis. Heck, Nadal and Djokovic could spend the next five years collecting more majors (Thiem would be 31) and they and Federer will eventually be topped by a *new* twentysomething would-be champ we aren't even taking much notice of night now, leaving yet another ATP generation of stars (Thiem, Zverev and Tsisitpas, most notably, with Medvedev added last to the mix in '19) either slam-lite or slam-less because of the ongoing stranglehold on the majors by the Big 3.

Mate Pavic - at 26, Pavic still has much time to work on a doubles career in which a Career Slam in both MD and MX are possible. Already a former #1 (in 2018, he was the youngest MD #1 since '96, and the first from Croatia), the Croat has won an AO crown (2018) and reached finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He's won a pair of MX titles (AO/US), as well, and reached two RG finals. He was part of Croatia's 2018 Davis Cup title team. usual, there are some who seem to come up just short.

Carlos Moya (retired 2010) - a former #1-ranked player (1999), the Spaniard won Roland Garros in '98 and reached the '97 Australian Open final. A member of Spain's Davis Cup title team in '04, Moya retired in '10 and succeeded Toni Nadal as Rafael Nadal's coach in recent years.

David Ferrer (retired 2019) - a winner of 27 tour titles, Ferrer reached #3, won three Davis Cup titles with Spain and played in the 2013 Roland Garros final (and five other slam semis). But even with his 54 Top 10 wins (5 #1), he was lost in the shadows of the Big 3, especially countryman Rafa Nadal, against whom he was 6-26 (along w/ marks of 0-17 vs. Federer, and 5-16 vs. Djokovic). Ferrer has the most match wins in ATP history without a slam title: 734, tied with Pete Sampras for fourth all-time (and breaking what had been a 32-year old record). Even with his lack of a major title, Ferrer's well-respected ability to battle could give him an outside shot at enshrinement, especially coming from a period in which so few of his contemporaries actually *did* win slams.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - as with so many of his French contemporaries (Gasquet, Monfils, etc.), Tsonga's talent flies well above his actual career accomplishments. He reached just one slam final ('08 AO) and never ranked above #5, though he did help France win the Davis Cup in '17 and won a doubles Silver in the '12 Olympics in London.

David Nalbandian (retired 2013) - a Wimbledon finalist in '02, Nalbandian reached four other major semis at the other four slam events (the only Argentinian male to reach the semis at each event), and helped Argentina reach three Davis Cup finals. He won the ATP's tour championships title in '05 for his biggest career crown, and ranked at a career-high of #3 in 2006.

...likely not under consideration for Newport, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Marin Cilic - the Croat was the only player outside the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray/Wawrinka subset to win a major in the entire decade of the 2010's, taking the U.S. Open in 2014. He also reached major finals at Wimbledon (2017) and the Australian Open (2018). He climbed to #3 in '18, and helped Croatia win a Davis Cup title that season.

Thomas Johansson (retired 2009) - the last Swede to win a slam singles titles, Johansson claimed the Australian Open in 2002. Also a member of Sweden's '98 Davis Cup winning team, he won Olympic Silver in doubles in '08 (w/ Simon Aspelin, losing to Federer/Wawrinka). He posted just one other SF-plus result in a major ('05 WI) outside of his Melbourne win. Since his '09 retirement, Johansson has gone on to be a successful coach of both WTA and ATP players.

Nenad Zimonjic - though he's now well below where he was at the height of his career, the now 43-year old Zimonjic is still kicking around the sport after collecting eight major titles in his career, winning three doubles slams and five in MX. He remains one big win away from a major accomplishment, needing only a U.S. Open title for a Career MX Slam, after having reached the '05 final in New York. Zimonjic also claimed two season-ending ATP World Finals titles in the discipline, and was part of the 2010 Davis Cup champion team for Serbia.

...close to the contention *discussion*, at least. But nope.

Kei Nishikori in Japan's Tennis Hall of Fame, but not the *actual* one. A U.S. Open finalist in '14 (the first Asian men's slam finalist), and '16 Olympic Bronze winner (def. Nadal for JPN's first tennis medal in 96 years).

Ivan Dodig - the Croat won the '15 RG doubles, and has three MX majors

Juan Sebastian Cabal/Robert Farah - both age 33, and both having been ranked doubles #1, they won a pair of slams in '19 and have claimed 16 titles together in 34 finals since 2013. A late career push for a Career Slam to come?

Marcelo Melo - 34 doubles titles, a #1 ranking and two slams

Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco - part of the current horde of aging Spanish players, but never close to being atop the heap. Verdasco reached the '09 Australian Open semis, the best slam singles result by either. He was part of three Davis Cup champions for Spain, while Lopez was on five (and won the only slam title between them, the '16 RG doubles). Lopez ranks second all-time behind Federer (79) in men's slam main draw appearances with 73, while Verdasco is fifth (67). They're the top two when it comes to consecutive slam MD, with Lopez with 72 and Verdasco with 67 (both streaks are still active).

*NON-HoF SINGLES MEN'S SLAM CHAMPS IN OPEN ERA (since 1968 RG), listed by first major title*
1976 AO: Mark Edmondson, AUS (retired 1987)
1976 RG: Adriano Panatta, ITA (1983)
1977 AO (Jan): Roscoe Tanner, USA (1985)
1977 AO (Dec): Vitus Gerulaitis, USA (1986)
1980 AO: Brian Teacher, USA (1986)
1981 AO: Johan Kriek, RSA (1994)
1987 WI: Pat Cash, AUS (1997)
1990 RG: Andres Gomez, ECU (1995)
1993 RG: Sergi Bruguera, ESP (2002)
1995 RG: Thomas Muster, AUT (2011)
1996 WI: Richard Krajicek, NED (2003)
1998 AO: Petr Korda, CZE (1999)
1998 RG: Carlos Moya, ESP (2010)
2002 AO: Thomas Johansson, SWE (2009)
2002 RG: Albert Costa, ESP (2006)
2003 RG: Juan Carlos Ferrero, ESP (2017)
2004 RG: Gaston Gaudio, ARG (2011)
2001 US: Lleyton Hewitt, AUS
2003 WI: Roger Federer, SUI
2005 RG: Rafael Nadal, ESP
2008 AO: Novak Djokovic, SRB
2009 US: Juan Martin del Potro, ARG
2012 US: Andy Murray, GBR
2014 AO: Stan Wawrinka, SUI
2014 US: Marin Cilic, CRO

Be safe.
All for now.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Who's Next To Go?

Hello, Backspin readers. Galileo here.

Occasionally we like to throw out some features. In this Olympic year retirements are surely going to be par for the course.

As we usually do on these features, I’ll offer up some names that could see Tokyo as their swan song. Age, injuries and motivation are all factors. Some players could also retire because they have time left to come back. I'll go in order of most likely down to least, starting with our top seeds and working our way down. Anything goes here on Backspin, as we look at the names we won’t be seeing in 2021.

I’m discounting Sam Stosur because she will switch back to doubles at some point, but her singles career is over. I don’t count Andy Murray, either, because I just don’t know what he’s doing.

A few who aren't included because of their recent announcements to retire after 2020...

CARLA SUAREZ NAVARRO: If only talent meant something in tennis. When you’re young it seems so important but as you get older you realize hard work is more important. Look at David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet. Look at Sara Errani and CSN. Now 34, the Spaniard always felt like a player from another era, perhaps one who stepped into the Tardis and appeared in 2008 by accident. Now, with the way Barty, Tsitsipas and Pliskova play it feels like a different era from the baseline bashing one we’ve just had. Can you imagine having to reply to a thousand Barty slices? This Backspinner has never seen a player he likes more who he would want to play less. CSN has a gorgeous game that can survive winds, light rain and heavy clay. She is the nightmare all players have when it comes to the draw.

THE BRYAN TWINS: Every era you have a great doubles pairing. They may be great because they're iconic like McNamara/McNamee or because they're great. Look at the Woodies. Fleming/McEnroe was a great partnership, as were the early trailblazers Newcombe/Roche. The behemoths, however, are the Bryans. They saved the game of doubles. There were plans to make doubles an annex, a game apart from singles. They wanted to relegate it to second class citizenship. When Bob and Mike retire at the end of the year thousands of articles will be written about their greatness and rightly so. In 2005 they sued the ATP to keep men's doubles as it was. They fought for their sport. Doubles is more legitimate than the XFL or synchronized swimming. It's more international than baseball, cricket or, heck, rugby. It needed to be saved and they did it. Whatever you may think of them they deserve our credit for that. They've won everything from Gold medals to Wimbledon titles and even Roland Garros. I really believe the RG trophy is the hardest to earn on the tour because it's so different. The crowds are tough, the surface plays tricks on you and hard court/grass court experts struggle. The Bryans won it twice!!

1. They must have at least five titles and have been in the top 15 at some point.
2. Four nominees each from the ATP and WTA tour.

WHY: So many injuries. She’s 40. Never winning Wimbledon again. Her last final was in 2017 and her last title came four years ago.

Venus won gold in Sydney in 2000. Twenty years ago. Steffi Graf had just retired. There may be no better run this century than Venus’ 2000 summer. Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Olympic crowns were complimented by three other titles. She is a four-time Gold medalist (3 WD, 1 WS) and one time Silver winner in 2016 (MD). It’s not an exact science but when you search injury on her Wikipedia page you will find that word appears 34 times. The woman she beat for her Gold medal, Elena Dementieva, has her own page and on it you will see injury just thrice. In her last match in Acapulco (vs. Kaja Juvan), Venus looked old. She looked bloated and her serve was totally off. She doesn’t pass the eye test or the titles test. Her last three tournaments where she won at least two matches in a row were Cincy, Birmingham and Rome. Some of her wins were walkovers. Right now she’s just accompanying her sister on the tour and playing part time. She should have retired in 2017 when she was a top five player.

TODD SPIKER: Certainly a possibly, especially if she doesn't begin to post a few wins. Although she *has* remained competitive, falling in back-to-back three-setters in recent weeks (holding 7 MP in one loss). I don't like to *predict* retirements, but I'd say to at least keep on eye on the Germans. Anna-Lena Groenefeld recently stepped away, and the futures of the other three major personalities from her generation surely bear watching. Julia Goerges is past her career peak, Angelique Kerber has been bothered by injuries more and more over the past two seasons as she's slid down the rankings, and Andrea Petkovic's growing opportunities off the court (in TV and writing) might soon end up causing her to decide the time is right to make a move to address her post-tour career full-time.
WHY: Injuries. Chances to retire at your home Olympics don’t come around every year. He’s 30. Won 1 title in four years.

Nishikori made three slam quarterfinals last year. He has been a Top 10 mainstay despite the word "injuries" cropping up on his Wikipedia page 29 times. He struggles to convert quarterfinal and semifinal appearances into silverware. He is ranked 31 in the world and last won back to back matches at the U.S. Open. His season ended with elbow surgery last year, but it’s the latest, not the last. He won the Bronze medal four years ago, in an epic match against Nadal. Eventually he will need to make a decision: play for another three years and retire with a broken body or call it quits at a home Olympics in a city where he has won two titles. If he does retire he can come back in a couple of years and throw everything at it.
WHY: To spend time with her newborn and husband Shaoib Malik. Injuries. The missing piece?

Mirza is one of India’s great sporting figures. She reached a Top 30 ranking in singles and number one in doubles. This Backspinner saw her and Martina Hingis play live at Wimbledon. It was a terrifying sight. The way they played doubles was just outright better, like peak Patriots or Blackhawks, than anyone else could play. If Mirza wins the Wimbledon mixed title and the Roland Garros women’s doubles she will have two Career Grand Slams. If she gets the Olympic Gold what else is she playing for? She’s won Miami, Indian Wells, Rome and Beijing. She’s won Cincy, Wuhan and Tokyo. Can you imagine a player sticking around just to win Madrid, the Rogers Cup, Dubai and Doha? Will Mirza, who has won just about everything, with her bad knees, her new baby and a faithful husband she loves stay on? She had surgery before her pregnancy but did win a title this year. So she *is* back. But for how long?

TS: Mirza has been notoriously hard to read when it's come to things like this, but she worked hard to get back on tour after being out for two years so I wonder (barring a major injury, or a continual string of small ones) if she'd exit without at least playing through *next* season. On the other hand, I've never felt that Kim Clijsters' latest comeback would be even a moderately "long term" thing. She's looked fairly good so far after over seven years (!) away, but if injuries start to keep her out of tournaments (one in training delayed the *start* of her comeback) as the season so goes on, I wonder if she'll figure the effort to stick around isn't worth it. She's already proved she could make it back, and I'm not sure her goals are really *too* much more extensive than just being competitive over the course of this season.
WHY: He’s old. The back and knees are going. He only needs the Olympic Gold medal. He has a big family and might want to spend more time them.

We’ve watched Federer grow up. He has defined a sport (along with Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal) for the last twenty years. At what point does the man who has won everything, except a couple of clay Masters titles, put his rackets in the cupboard and step into the booth? Or begin to coach? Or do a Bjorn Borg and disappear? Regardless, nursing a dodgy knee and bad back, Federer is in the twilight of the twilight of his career. In 2015 we thought he was done! That was five years ago. That was so long ago, the KC Royals were good then. Federer has managed to do a Tom Brady and evade Father Time’s clutches for a while now, but he turns 39 this year. Federer is still behind Jimmy Connors in semi-finals, finals and titles. He is second to Connors in matches played and won, too. Is that worth playing on for? I think what he will do is get into some form in London and then try to peak at the Olympics in August.

TS: Well, eventually this one's going to be right, eh? He's been written off before, and will surely be again with his recently-announced knee surgery. But it shouldn't be forgotten that he had two MP to win Wimbledon just last year, as he surely hasn't let it slip *his* mind. It shows that, assuming he's physically sound when he returns this summer, he likely believes he *can* win another major and at least *try* to get some additional distance between himself and Nadal and/or Djokovic on the slam title list for a little while longer, as futile as the long-term prospects of *staying* on top may ultimately be.
WHY: She will always be going for the next record. She isn’t as fit as she was even two years ago. A young family How will she go without her sister?

It may be unfair but it feels as if Venus is just following her sister around as part of her team and she occasionally plays tennis. If she pulls the plug, however, what will that do to sister Serena? Serena has two records she could feasibly track down. Win every major four times (Steffi Graf) and win 24 majors. Serena is such a perfectionist, however, that she will always find some new record she doesn’t have. Titles, finals or years played. She will find something. She is now 39 and you just wonder how many more slams she can be relevant at. Williams is in the Top 10 but she needs a favourable draw and even that is no guarantee anymore. What if in the next slam she has to play Halep, Kenin and Barty back to back to back? So why not win her umpteenth Gold medal and call it quits? Why not end on a high, like Justin Henin? Actually perhaps she might not want to do anything Henin does after the hand incident.

TS: While #24 is still out there and attainable (which it still is, though it's now hardly a given she'll get there), I can't see Serena stepping away quite yet. I've been saying that, as the next generation of players continues to come on strong, her opportunities to win *seven* straight matches gets tougher and tougher, and if she doesn't get it by the end of 2020 I'd lean toward her maybe *never* getting doing so. If she *does* get to 24, though, I'd imagine she'd at least go another year or so to try to break the tie with Margaret Court. It's really the last important record left on the table.
WHY: This has been on the cards for a while. Mounting injuries. Dr. Ivo is so old he has been married for 15 years.

This is an interesting one. You could make a case for John Isner or Dr. Ivo here. He made a minor final last year, losing to Kevin Anderson in three breakers. If he goes on another run at Wimbledon and then gets a wild card into the Olympics would he be happy then? He is the oldest man to win a match at the Master level, one of the oldest finalists out there and played in an all time old final in 2017, too. Gilles Muller and Ivo had a combined age of 72 when they played in the Ricoh Open on the grass. In 2007 he won titles on grass, clay and hard. It’s been an entertaining, ace-tastic career.
After originally having CSN here, let me take a swing with Strycova.

A walking play in four acts. She creates drama, doesn't appear to be well liked and is not fun to watch on TV, but she has presence. She has guts. I've watched matches where she has lost the first set 6-1 and I have known she'll still be there three hours later, at 5-5 in the third. She has been 6 in the world in singles and 1 in the world in doubles, with a Wimbledon title alongside Hsieh Su-Wei. Can you imagine a more frustrating, irritating, balling up fists team to play against? The grinder and the slicer. They're 1-1 in slam finals. Strycova is in top form at the moment, having reached last year's Wimbledon semi-finals in the singles, too. She has a Bronze in the dubs, playing with Lucie Safarova. She beat four seeds at Wimbledon last year so it wasn't like a Marion Bartoli type run. She is in peak form. But if she loses all those points in singles and drops out of the Top 50, and gets a Gold in Tokyo... would she be tempted to call it right then?

TS: Strycova (who I would say is fun to watch once you commit to "the ride") has *said* she'll retire soon, but I'm wondering if her current run with Hsieh might cause her to rethink things and ride it out for a year or two beyond whatever her original plans were. She's had the best results of her entire career over the last year and a half. A Tokyo Gold (assuming that *is* an Olympics to contest this summer) *would* be an enticing exclamation point at the end of a career, though.

I'll throw out a few more names for consideration... Timea Bacsinszky's sure feels like it's on a ticking clock, and Victoria Azarenka's future was in doubt coming into *this* season. She's back playing, but if she can't make a huge breakthrough by the end of the summer I wonder if she'll see the use is trying again in '21. As for a Hail Mary possibility that would likely shock some (but not all, when you think about it)... hmmm, maybe Sloane Stephens?
WHY: A combined age of 70 odd is the big reason. Many, many injuries. Enough wasted potential to build a whole Monfils.

Oh, France. Gael Monfils, Gasquet and Tsonga should all have a slam. We saw Monfils choke against Novak Djokovic again recently and this now feels incredibly fitting. Gasquet has a Bronze and Tsonga a Silver, but that was in doubles, in 2012. That was on grass in London. Gasquet, like Grigor Dimitrov, has had a good career but has suffered from the early comparisons to Fed and people now fail to recognize he’s had a magnificent and entertaining career. Tsonga is so big and powerful he was bound to become injured at some point. His 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 demolition of Rafa Nadal in 2008 in Melbourne remains one of my favourite matches ever. It was magnificent. He could serve and volley, hit dropshots and he managed to be mentally tough too. He never went away in matches or faded.

TS: I suppose it says something about Nadal's resilience that you didn't include Rafa on your list, as you've written him off in the past with his knees injuries.

I'm not really keyed in on the ATP players to consider here, but... Feliciano Lopez is 38, Marin Cilic isn't likely going to challenge for another slam and, unfortunately, Juan Martin del Potro's injuries are going to lead to an end at some point. In fact, we *may* have already seen the last of him, as far as we know.

Thanks all.

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