Mailbag: The moment that seemed to revive Grigor Dimitrov’s career

Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov reacts during the final tenis match of the ATP Garanti Koza Sofia Open tenis tournament in Sofia, on February 12, 2017. / AFP / NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV        (Photo credit should read NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Quick Mailbag this week while sending condolences to the McEnroe family on the passing of John, Sr. He was one of those people you always stopped to speak to; and never came away disappointed.

Gunter glieben glauchen globen…..

Hey Jon, what has gotten into Grigor Dimitrov? My wife and I wrote him off last year, I’m embarrassed to say, as a guy with all the talent in the world who couldn’t bring it together. Fast forward to 2017 and he keeps winning and winning. Great to see players figure it out before it’s too late. How did he do it?
Charles, Charleston

• Here’s a story: First round of Canada last year. Dimitrov is in the throes of a miserable year. We all saw the Istanbul final meltdown but it had only gotten worse since then. In the previous event he lost his first match in D.C. to Dan Evans. Here he is in Toronto on some Podunk court, playing Yuichi Sugita, a Japanese qualifier. Dimitrov looks listless and angry and loses the first set 7-5. The second set goes to a tiebreaker and Sugita leads 5-4. A loss here and Dimitrov falls out of the top 40, likely doesn’t get seeded at the U.S. Open. Two points from victory, Sugita has an overhead that a decent club player makes eight times out of ten. Burdened by the weight of the occasion, Sugita blows it.

Dimitrov takes the tiebreaker and then the match and then it gets better. He catches a break and draws Denis Shapovalov next. A nervous teenager in the biggest match of his life, Shapovalov hangs for an hour, but Dimitrov wins. Next he catches Ivo Karlovic on a subpar serving day and wins again. In the quarters he falls to Kei Nishikori but wins a set and departs with some confidence (and $100,000.) He builds on that in Cincy, reaching the semis (another $200k). A seed at the U.S. Open, he reaches the fourth round ($270k.) Now he’s rolling, beating Nadal and Pouille in Beijing en route to reaching the finals ($300k) and finishing the year inside the top 20.

Of course, he stays hotter than a Samsung Note 7 in 2017, currently 16-2 on the year with a pair of titles and a ranking of No. 13.

I don’t want to dramatize it too much. It’s an oversimplification to say that the Renaissance of Grigor Dimitrov started with a Yuicihi Sugita botched overhead. But it goes to show how quickly arcs can change and how little it often takes to halt and catalyze momentum.

Apart from that, what happened to Dimitrov? His gifts—which we’ve all known about for years—have coalesced. He’s making better decisions during points, choosing an option and sticking with it. Temperamentally, he has kept it together. He seems to have a strong working relationship with Dani Valerdu, his coach. I suspect most of you share my sentiment that he comes across as a good, agreeable guy, who gets it.

Love your column and insight on Tennis Channel. Just wondering, did this announcement by the Nadal camp about Uncle Toni stepping away actually happen? To me, this is a seismic shift in tennis given the loyalty to Uncle Toni that Rafa has always shown. However, I saw this story briefly on ESPN, although they failed to mention that this would take effect AFTER the 2017 season. I checked the calendar and it is NOT April Fools Day yet so what gives? Did this actually happen?
Ken from Sarasota, Fla.

• This was a murky “announcement,” that seemed to catch even other members of Nadal’s camp by surprise.  The New York Times “clarey-fied,” as it were.

Toni let word out that this will be his last year coaching his nephew. It's jarring in the sense one of the all-time great partnerships is ending; but seems like a fairly natural transition. You’re 57 years old. You’ve been coaching your nephew since he was four. (Hell, I love my nephew as much as anyone; but spending 25+ years with the guy seems excessive.) You are leaving said nephew in capable hands with co-coach in Carlos Moya, a former Grand Slam champ. It’s not like soccer/football where you are or are not the manager; Toni can get always slip back in the box if desired. All in all, it makes a lot of sense, no? 

Ivo seeded No. 1 in Memphis at 37 years old? He's the oldest top seed at a tournament since?
James

• As we—which is to say: Greg Sharko—looks into this, let’s pause and give some credit to Ivo Karlovic. Closer to 40 than he is to 30, he is still going strong, winning lots of matches, playing top 20 ball, and generally adding to the ATP culture. When we talk about “the aging of the field” Karlovic is sometimes omitted unintentionally. Perhaps this is because his game is so predicated on his serve, we overlook that he clearly keeps his body in excellent shape.

I’ve meant to write about this for a while and this question is like a reminder tickler. Karlovic is one of the best tennis follows on Twitter. He is funny. He is self-deprecating. He has great observational humor. Sometimes he breaches the lines of decorum, but so be it. This has always struck me as especially poignant. On account of his speech impediment, he never quite became “knowable” in the interview room or in the TV studio. His Twitter account serves this compensatory role whereby he can express himself and become heard without speaking. Long may he serve; long may he tweet.

Whatever happened to the Black sisters, Tornado and Hurricane? Tornado last played 2015 U.S. Open and is listed as an inactive player by the ITF. Hurricane last played Feb. 2016. Have they both retired? Or injured?
Eric from Atlanta

• Take it away, Colette Lewis, whom you all should be following on Twitter:

“I spoke to Alicia (Tornado) in December. She is coming back from hip surgery, hopes to return by April at the earliest. A brief synopsis of our conversation is here.

Hurricane is playing regularly on the ITF junior circuit. The 15-year-old last played last month’s Australian Open Juniors, losing in the opening round. She is currently in the ITF junior top 100 and has been for the past six months.”

Jon: There may be a Zen-like answer for the men's GOAT question (though, yes, careers are not yet completed, so disclaimers all around). The following statement, when understood as irreducible to a simpler conclusion, may be the answer: “Roger Federer is the greatest of all time and Rafael Nadal is the player who has a winning record against the greatest of all time.” Like the famous picture that can be seen as either a vase or two faces (one cannot conclude, say, “therefore it is a vase”) we must embrace the totality of the statement and marvel at how these two competitors managed to share a spot atop a sport that doesn't like draws….or something like that.

John H. Campbell, Portland, Ore.

• It's Sigmund Freud! No, wait, it’s a naked lady. Interesting point and one that I’ll throw out to the tennis vox populi. Have at it, folks….

Are you going to write an article on David Goffin’s rise to the ATP top 10? I think Goffin rise incredible due to his size.
@OrvilleLloyd

• Sure. He’s not THAT small. But he’s an excellent, efficient, cerebral player. I’m not sure “Belgian David Ferrer” gets us there. How about the male Radwanska?

Quirk from the Rotterdam boxscores:

Qualifying: (6) Aljaz Bedene d. (2) Denis Istomin 76 63

R1: (LL) Denis Istomin d. (Q) Aljaz Bedene 63 76

Does this happen often?
Cheers, Chris

• Thanks Chris. Good catch. I wish I had taken more stats and probability classes in college. There ought to be a way to calculate how often this ought to happen, that N=32 draw and X is the probability of injury enabling a lucky loser to enter…. and now my head hurts. Jeff Sackman, or another of the math inclined fans, help a brother out.

Let’s also note: a few weeks after taking Novak Djokovic in a Grand Slam best-of-five match, Denis Istomin is playing the Rotterdam qualies? (Rotter) Damn, this is a rough sport.

Why is tennis media leaving Adler for dead? Does nobody think he could have said guerilla? Spineless IMO. Your thoughts Jon?
@tuffimitten

• We discussed this a few weeks ago. I don’t think it’s a case of invertebracy; so much as it’s an inability to read minds. Ultimately this comes down to whether you believe that he used the word “guerilla” not “gorilla.” If you believe Adler—and his termination suit—it’s a deeply unfortunate situation and he probably warrants reinstatement. If you don’t believe him, you likely think that his firing was warranted. Candidly, I don't know Adler, his work or his track record particularly well. I err on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt, but I say that without much context here.

I don’t see how you can chide the ESPN commentators for their silence or their failing to rush to his defense. Especially now that there’s litigation pending. I also disagree strongly with a few of you who criticized Venus Williams for not taking a public stand. a) the burden shouldn’t fall on her. (If I’m her, I’m saying myself, (“I was just minding my business and playing my match; don’t rope me into mess!”)  b) it’s entirely possible to say something objectively offensive, even if the intended party didn’t take offense. And it’s entirely possible to say something objectively inoffensive, even if a party found it incendiary.

Interested in knowing how you feel about the Shapovalov incident now that it's come out that the umpire had to have surgery to repair a fractured eye socket after getting smashed in the face. By all accounts, Shapovalov is a good kid, but this kind of behavior in tennis has got to stop. And people need to stop calling it an “accident”. If I deliberately drive my car onto the sidewalk and someone happens to be there, it's not an “accident.” If playing a match at my local tennis club and an opponent violently blasts a ball against the fence in anger, that person is seen as an out-of-control jerk. We need to stop defending players who deliberately cause harm to others, whether they mean to or not. A $7,000 fine is a joke. My questions:

1) Would the ITF encourage the umpire not to sue to civil damages? Or pay him something directly to keep him from doing so? Has there ever been a case of an official suing a player?

2) Is there any chance of revisiting the fine (or other punishment) now that the severity of the injury has come to light?

Sending people to “anger management” classes or assessing paltry fines does not seem like any sort of deterrent. Players even seem to get miffed at the media (I'm looking at you, Novak) for even asking about possible consequences of them hitting someone in an angry outburst, showing that they're not contrite, no-lessons-learned unless/until someone gets hurt.

For the record, I think it would've been entirely appropriate to award the linesman who got injured by David Nalbandian his share of the prize money.
James Pham, Saigon, Vietnam

• I am so torn on this. If you missed it—and consider this a warning: have a sufficiently strong stomach—here’s what James is addressing:

Stating the obvious, this was an awful, deeply regrettable situation and the player was 100% in the wrong. Blast a ball and, as I see it, something akin to strict liability kicks in. Intent doesn’t matter. You have undertaken a bad act. Whatever the consequences, it’s on you. It’s like firing a gun in the air. You may not intend for the bullet to strike anyone, but if it does, you’re on the hook. Do I think Shapovalov meant to strike the chair umpire in the eye? No. Does that matter. No. Or at least not much.

What do we do here? Well, we fine him. But here is a seventeen year old who just turned pro. You call $7,000 “a joke” but that represents more than 10% of his career earnings. Suspend him? I don’t think too many people would object to that either. As a legal matter, I don’t think you can revisit the fine once you learn the proximate injury was more severe than first believed. (You can, though, consider if there’s civil liability.)

Our deepest sympathy should go to Arnaud Gabas. But I don’t think it’s an either/or. There is part of me that harbors some sympathy for Shapovalov, too. Here’s a 17-year-old who committed a galactically stupid act—as 17-year-olds are wont to do. Short of winning Wimbledon, this will define him for quite some time. He began crying afterward, suggesting that a) he was genuinely upset and remorseful and b) he perhaps doesn’t quite yet have the emotional equipment to deal with this.

Trite as I realize this sounds: if any good comes of this, players old and young will think twice about these fits of pique, this ugly episode serving as a vivid demonstration that actions do indeed have consequences.

The barstool speculations of “best player to have never won a Slam” are common.  But with Gilles Muller winning his first ATP title in Sydney, I'm wondering who you might place at the top of the list of “best player to have never won a title.” (Frankly, I’m shocked to find out this is Muller's first big win. He's a solid player whom I've watched for years and would have assumed he's won some titles here and there.)
Shayne Hull, Louisville, Ky.

• Funny you should ask. Had I come across this question a few days prior, I might have been inclined to include Ryan Harrison, who’s been inside the top 50—and been out here, with various levels of success, for a decade—and never found himself on the far right side of a draw sheet.  Otherwise…Paolo Lorenzi, age 35, won his first in 2016. Benoit Paire and Lucas Pouille—one a veteran, the other a top 15 player young as he may be—have each won only one.

We had some Twitter back and forth over this. Julien Benneteau was the winner, so to speak. Really, he should have been the runner-up. (He’s 0-10 in ATP Tour finals.) Others getting votes: Donald Young, Borna Coric, Steve Johnson and Mischa Zverev. One of you said Taylor Fritz, but I think teenagers—with only 25 starts—are disqualified. On the same grounds, Thanasi Kokkinakis, with only 27 events entered, can’t really be considered yet.

On the women’s side, I really struggle. If my math is right, Daria Kasatkina is the highest-ranked player never to have won. But jeez, she’s only 19. The winsome Ali Riske probably makes the list. Maybe Naomi Osaka, though, like other teenagers this is more a statement about her potential and high regard and less about her disappointments.

Speaking of Zverev, good catch by @philip_farrell: If Roger Federer had faced Andy Murray (not Mischa Zverev) in the QF of Australia, he might have beaten FIVE top 10 players en route to winning the title.

Note to Riske’s fiancée: consider yourself warned.

My Facebook Tennis page sends me weekly updates on where the women and men play, and what first round matches to watch. I guess the irony is lost on Facebook for the moment that nobody can watch the women's matches at any stage. What gives? I know you mentioned it a few weeks ago, can you expand?
Jon B., Seattle, Wash.

• I have volunteered to play middle-man and help the WTA clarify this situation. The offer still stands. Given the critical importance of media and distribution and on-demand availability in today’s media landscape, I can’t imagine this being an issue for much longer.

As a long-term tennis and Tennis Channel fan, I would like to see some women's matches. Currently the overwhelming majority of matches I'm seeing on the Tennis Channel are men's matches, many of them repetitively (e.g. Rotterdam and Memphis tournaments). 

Do you know why there are currently so few women's matches being shown on Tennis Channel? Seems to me a better plan would be to show an equal mix of women's and men's matches. 
Regards, Connie Connor

• You only show that to which you have rights.

 Shots, Miscellany

• The most recent Sports Illustrated/Tennis Channel podcast guest: the mighty Stan Smith, he of the shoes your are perhaps currently wearing.

• Next up: Ryan Harrison

• Everyone likes Robbie Koenig.

• If you missed it, nice to see Dell Technologies sign on as a multi-tiered sponsor of both the Newport ATP event and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

• Tennis Channel's new program, My Tennis Life, is the network's first multiplatform series and follows tour veteran Sam Groth and rising American star Nicole Gibbs as they navigate the 2017 season. The show will appear both on-air and online, supported by various digital and social media activity from the two players.

• A loyal has designed what she call the Federer GTOAT, the Great Tee of all Time.

• Likewise, nice to see Dubai Duty Free extend its long term commitment to women’s tennis.

• Congrats to Greg Couch, now the head women's and men's tennis coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

• USTA Player Development will host the inaugural USTA All-American College Combine—the first-ever national collegiate scouting event for American juniors—and USTA/ITA Collegiate Coaches Workshop June 14-16 at the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando.

• Press releasing: Coming off her recent Grand Slam singles final appearance, her 15th, Venus Williams and her active wear line, EleVen by Venus Williams, along with Men’s Sportswear Division of Fashion Brand, Vince Camuto, are partnering with the BNP Paribas Showdown to outfit event personnel at Madison Square Garden. The 10th Anniversary edition of the annual tennis event will take place at The Garden on Monday, March 6th, and coincides with World Tennis Day activities.

• Rohit Sudarshan has LLS: Nikoloz Basilashvili and a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal.

• This week's reader riff comes from a Hawaiian fan who shares impressions of the U.S./Germany Fed Cup tie and requests anonymity:

I hope this finds you and yours well in 2017. I was in Lahaina for the Fed Cup match against Germany, and I'm writing to share some impressions. Feel free to print without using my name (sorry, I tried to finish this before last week's 'bag), and I hope you can forward it to the appropriate USTA representatives as there are many teachable moments.

Like so many attendees who flew in for the event, we were excited for world-class tennis and an international sporting event. The crowd was a mix of Hawaii residents and visitors (some who winter in the islands). Locals are, overall, polite and relatively quiet. During the singing of the German national anthem on the first day, many of us noticed that the German national team and the group cheering them on were singing something else, but most of us did not know the reason. It was not until the announcer apologized for the wrong version of the anthem and stated that the correct one would be played on the second day that we understood. My impression (I took a short video) was that both the German team and their supporters were gracious about what was happening in the moment. 

During the first match between Riske and Petkovic, there were times when the latter looked like she like she had been crying during changeovers—she was obviously trying to keep it together. Little did we know that her grounding had been pulled out from under her. Petkovic is such a thoughtful, smart, well-read, eloquent and honest person (based on what we see of her via media), and it is heart-breaking to have seen her being hurt play out live. I certainly hope that the singing of an inappropriate version of the national anthem was a mistake, and I do not know anything more. Many of us appreciate that the media has not identified the singer, who is a local teacher. In Hawaii, we are only separated by two degrees, and this was a good decision that the media made—if this was an honest (yet complex) mistake, people attacking the singer does not help anything.

But you know all of the above. The additional observations all come from what happened afterwards and, as you wrote, “acts perceived as being inhospitable (or blithely careless) towards people from other counties will be magnified.” Please note that this is not a knock on Vandeweghe. These are, hopefully, insights that can be shared with the whole team, who play on the international stage and represent our country (literally) during times of importance. [Note how Federer changed the culture of men's tennis and how civil and inclusive leadership—in any organization or body—fosters the same. (I have often wondered how Djokovic would be if he didn't “grow up” during a time during which Fed and Nadal set the standard for behavior and respect.) That hasn't happened for women's tennis, but it can happen for U.S. tennis.]

1. Vandeweghe's interactions with and treatment of the ballkids did not go unnoticed, especially with a crowd filled with locals. Our local culture is based on diversity, respect for others, unsaid and subtle East Asian politeness, and aloha (the real aloha spirit). Many were cringing at what came across as an entitled American.

2. When Vandeweghe won match point, she immediately dropped to her knees (winning after battling cramps or dehydration or whatever it was that necessitated the medical timeout was huge after digging down deep) to celebrate. Her teammates, Riske and Rogers, rushed the court, and they took turns hugging her. Concurrently, Petkovic crossed over and extended her hand. No one noticed and no one tapped Vandeweghe on the shoulder to remind her to shake hands. Again, this did not go unnoticed and made many of us feel embarrassed that we are Americans…after all that had already happened. Petkovic shrugged and walked back to her chair. At some point, Vandeweghe went over and shook her hand. 

3. Soon after that, the announcer got the crowd going by asking for a hand for Vandeweghe and Captain Rinaldi. Everyone cheered, and then I waited. I was actually yelling for him to recognize Petkovic and Rittner, and I think they might've been waiting for that as well. When nothing happened, they started walking off the court. It was only when Petkovic was already up the stairs, under the lanai (patio) and almost into the “clubhouse” that her name was announced. Again, we are the ugly Americans. 

We saw the German team going to the presser afterwards, and they did not make eye contact with anyone. And why should they? We had not shown them usual hospitality or respect, and it's like we rubbed salt in a very unexpected and personal wound. They left Hawaii with two injured players and, I read, much later than planned due to a cancelled flight.

Please pass on to the USTA that the organization and the players it sponsors and supports are representatives of our country. As such, they have the responsibility to be civil, respectful, and inclusive. We support and cheer our hearts out for our players, who play on the world stage, where very few have the opportunity to compete. Captain Rinaldi was very gracious to stop and sign my 10-year-old friend's hat.  

I hope that she can impart this same graciousness to her players and everyone associated with this great sport in the USTA and beyond.

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