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The Toss: Should the French Open alter its seeding for Rafael Nadal?

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Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal hasn’t lost at the French Open since his upset to Robin Soderling in 2009. (Simon Bruty/SI)

Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times is The Toss’ guest this week to discuss a question that will be asked over and over again during the clay-court season:

Today’s Toss: Should the French Open adopt Wimbledon’s policy to allow for subjective seeding to boost Rafael Nadal’s seed?

Courtney Nguyen: Despite titles in Sao Paulo, Acapulco and Indian Wells, Nadal is still ranked No. 5. He’s 685 points behind No. 4 David Ferrer as we head into the clay season, where Nadal is defending titles in Monte Carlo, Rome and Barcelona. So barring a shocking turn of events over the next two months — Nadal would effectively have to win every lead-up tournament he plays and hope Ferrer (who pulled out of Monte Carlo with a thigh injury) suffers some early losses — the seven-time French Open champion will go into Roland Garros ranked outside the top four for the first time since his 2005 debut at age 19.

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  • Published On Apr 11, 2013
  • The Toss: Best ATP player without a title

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    Julien Benneteau

    Julien Benneteau is 0-8 in ATP finals, including a loss last week in Rotterdam. (Peter Dejong/AP)

    Who is the best active ATP player never to win a singles title? Ricky Dimon of and Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover and author of Titanic: The Tennis Story join Courtney to discuss the topic.

    Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me this week, Ricky and Lindsay. The distinction of being the best player without an ATP title used 
to fall squarely on the tattooed shoulders of Janko Tipsarevic, who
 worked his way into the top 20 without a tournament victory before breaking through at the Malaysian Open in October 2011. 
There’s no such egregious example right now, as every top-25 player has at least one title. Which is a good thing, 
given how up in arms people seem to get about Slam-less/title-less
 labels and whatnot.

    Ricky Dimon: The best player without a title is also the one whose trials, tribulations and heartbreak have been the most well-documented. It is, of course, none other than Julien Benneteau. The Frenchman has climbed as high as No. 26 and, at 31 years old, he is still playing some of the best tennis of his career, earning him a solid No 31 in this week’s rankings. Despite a consistent 11-year career that features more than 200 singles victories, eight singles finals (including one last week, at Rotterdam, the Netherlands) and six doubles titles, Benneteau hasn’t bagged a singles title. And no, that is not a misprint. Eight singles finals. Zero titles. I’d like to think it’s the curse of the squirrel that ran across his court at the U.S. Open (a la the Chicago Cubs and the black cat), but Benneteau had already lost six of his final appearances before last summer. Who knows what it is, because this guy is way too good — and way too deserving — to retire without a winner’s trophy.

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  • Published On Feb 21, 2013
  • The Toss: Tennis players as fictional TV characters

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    Mindy Kaling

    Which tennis player best personifies Mindy Kaling’s character in The Mindy Project? (Getty Images)

    With the holidays upon us, we take a break from reviewing 2012/previewing 2013 for a more offbeat topic. Lindsay Gibbs, co-founder of The Changeover and author of Titanic: The Tennis Story, joins The Toss to talk about one of the reasons for family gathering this time of year — TV.

    [Man behind The Office plans tennis comedy]

    Today’s Toss: Which fictional TV characters remind you of tennis players?

    Courtney Nguyen: Lindsay, I hope the spirit of the season is alive and well wherever you are. I don’t know what’s been keeping you busy during this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tennis offseason, but I’ve been working tirelessly to catch up on all the TV that I’ve missed during 10 months of traveling. I wish I could say I had more interesting ways to spend this offseason, but hey, I’m secure enough in myself to admit that I really do just love a good TV show. Girls? Check. Homeland? Check. Two and a Half Men? I’ll bite my tongue because I don’t want to be rude.

    Somewhere along my extended Hulu marathon I began to wonder (and I’m sorry if this already sounds like a incomprehensibly horrible Sex and the City voiceover): Are there any fictional TV characters that remind you of tennis players? I know you’re as much of a pop-culture fiend as I am, Lindsay, so I’m sure you must have some thoughts. We both love tennis as much for the vibrant and sometimes kooky personalities as groundstrokes and technique, so let’s have at it. Is there a Saul Berenson of the ATP Tour? How about a Barney Stinson? There has to be a Liz Lemon somewhere in the WTA ranks.

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  • Published On Dec 20, 2012
  • The Toss: Will Del Potro make top 4?

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    Juan Martin del Potro

    Juan Martin del Potro reached his highest ranking — No. 4 — in 2010. (Gabriel Rossi/Getty Images)

    The end of the year and the start of the new season is approaching. Ricky Dimon of joins as we continue to look at the key storylines, questions and predictions for 2013.

    Today’s Toss: Will Juan Martin del Potro crack into the top four in 2013?

    2013 Preview: Rankings risers, sliders | Players under pressure

    Courtney Nguyen: Today we talk about the one guy on the ATP Tour that everyone — players, fans and pundits — seems to like. I mean, are there Delpo haters? I’ve honestly never come across one. From his powerful game to his soft-spoken demeanor, Del Potro inspires a lot of love. He’s still the last player outside of the top four to win a Grand Slam, and he finished the 2012 season on a solid roll, beating Roger Federer twice on indoor hard courts and finishing at No. 7.

    So the question is whether the Del Potro comeback from a wrist injury is complete. The big guy cracked the top four at the beginning of 2010 but struggled with a wrist injury that took him off the tour for a few months, and he’s been slowly working his way back into form. So is 2013 the year we see Del Potro back in the top four?

    Ricky Dimon, Writer/Blogger, Del Potro will break up the top 4 and not only make an appearance that high in the rankings, but also finish the season in such a prestigious spot. David Ferrer will almost certainly make an appearance at No. 4 early in the season due to both his own play and Rafael Nadal’s rust, as he stands just just 485 points back of his fellow Spaniard. But as good as Ferrer is and as scorching hot as he was at the end of 2012, I don’t think he will stay there.

    If Del Potro stays healthy, he will no doubt have sustained success from start to finish because he can get the job done on all surfaces. Grass is by far his worst, but he will play two tournaments at most on the slick stuff — good news for the gentle giant. Del Potro is a U.S. Open champion (on a fast hard court), a French Open semifinalist (clay), a two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist (slow hard court), and in 2012 he had his best-ever showing at Wimbledon (fourth round). There is nothing this guy can’t do.

    Another encouraging sign for Delpo fans (of which there are many, as Courtney pointed out), is that he finally understands what his body can and can’t do. In 2010, he foolishly played in Melbourne despite a bad wrist, and it cost him the rest of the season. After losing a five-setter in the fourth round, he did not play another match until late September and he didn’t win another match until 2011. By contrast, Del Potro played it smarter in 2012. Even though a Davis Cup title may be what he wants above all else, he did not suit up for what would have been a crucial reverse singles match against Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinal clash between Argentina and the Czech Republic. As a result, the Czechs won and went on to win the Cup. At the same time, however, Del Potro remained in one piece, finished the year strong, and is peaking for 2013.

    Nguyen: Del Potro does seem to be peaking at the right time. The key has been to remain injury free, which he was at the end of the year. But to back him to crack the top four means you’re backing him to win a Grand Slam next year, and I’m not sure I’m ready to buy into that. Let’s be clear, Del Potro had an incredibly solid season that was easily overlooked. He played 20 tournaments this year and lost to a player ranked outside of the top five a mere five times. That’s an incredible level of consistency that saw him win four titles and Olympic bronze. And yet, despite the year that he had, wherein he compiled a 65-17 record, he barely finished inside the top eight.

    In order to crack the top four he’s going to have to pass Berdych (No. 6), Ferrer (No. 5) and either Nadal (No. 4) or Andy Murray (No. 3), and he’ll need to do it at the larger tournaments, i.e., the Masters 1000s and Slams, to make the semifinals or better. Though Berdych may not be a threat — Del Potro only lost to him once this year and that was on Madrid’s Smurf clay — Del Potro got pasted by Ferrer this year. In three matches, the Argentine didn’t take one set off Ferrer, including a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 loss at Wimbledon. And though they haven’t played since 2009, Del Potro doesn’t match up well against Murray, trailing the head-to-head 5-1. As for Nadal, that’s going to be a surface-specific matchup, and it’ll turn in large part on Nadal’s fitness and form. Throw Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic into the mix, and that’s a whole lot of talent that Del Potro may need to get the better of on the biggest stages in order to rack up the points.

    I’ve never questioned Del Potro’s talent, but sometimes his personality gets the better of him. He truly seems humbled to be playing alongside some of the greatest ever and has the tendency to mentally concede matches against them when the pressure is on. All four of his Grand Slams ended at the hands of a top-five player, and three of them were straight-set losses. So the question is whether he can play these big matches with full belief and expectation that he can win. We saw glimpses of this edge toward the end of the season with his two wins over Federer. But until I get a glimpse of him in Australia the jury is still out.

    The thing is, Del Potro really hasn’t had to play under huge amounts of pressure and expectation in his career. When he won the U.S. Open in 2009 he did so as a massive underdog. In 2010, the year he would have faced the most pressure to perform, he had that season-ending wrist injury. Since,, Del Potro has had the luxury of playing under very little pressure. Wins were great, losses were understandable. That all changes next year, when he’ll be expected to win, to make deep runs at Slams and contend for major titles. I’m just not convinced (yet) he can handle that spotlight.

    Dimon: That’s some impressive number-crunching there, Courtney. While the playing styles of Del Potro and Ferrer are nothing alike, their results are strikingly similar. Ferrer lost six matches in 2012 to people not named Djokovic, Federer, Murray or Nadal. He was 0-3 against Djokovic, 0-3 against Nadal, 0-2 against Federer and 1-1 against Murray (that’s 1-9 total versus the big four). Still, by beating up on the rest of the competition (a ridiculous 75-6 against everyone else), he was easily good enough to finish No. 5 with room to spare and reach the brink of No. 4. Del Potro will never play as many matches as Ferrer, nor should he, but he has made and can continue to make similar mincemeat out of non-big four opponents. If he does, it will be enough to compensate for failures against Djokovic, Federer, Murray, and Nadal.

    That being said, I expect better results from Del Potro than his 3-9 mark against the big four in 2012 (1-3 vs. Djokovic, 2-6 vs. Federer, and he did not face Murray or Nadal). The fact that he won two in a row against Federer to end the season, including one in Federer’s backyard at an event the Swiss had won five times, inspires confidence. In four matches against Djokovic, the first resulted in a Del Potro victory, the second was a blowout loss due almost entirely to wrist issues, the third featured what was widely considered to be the best set of tennis of the entire year (second set of their U.S. Open quarterfinal), and the most recent was an entertaining, three-set battle at the World Tour Finals. As for how he measures up against Nadal, Del Potro has left no doubt. The 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 drubbing at the 2009 U.S. Open is without question the biggest injury-free beatdown Nadal has ever received. In 2011, Del Potro lost two thrillers to Nadal on grass and clay, the surfaces that are least favorable to the Argentine in that matchup.

    As for the question about a Grand Slam title, I will — for now — back Del Potro to win one. I believe we will enjoy another season of parity with four different winners, one being Del Potro. However, I also believe he can crack the big four code even without one. With Nadal bringing more questions than answers into the season and with Federer cutting back on his schedule at 31, one major final plus an additional semifinal may be enough for the affable Argentine.

  • Published On Dec 13, 2012
  • The Toss: American tennis in 2012

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    John Isner

    John Isner reached a career-high ranking of No. 9 in 2012. (Kin Cheung/AP)

    The BTB Awards are our look back at the best — and worst — of the tennis season.

    2012 IN REVIEW: Report Card | Surprises | Meltdowns | Shots | Best Slam? | Quotes | Photos | Videos | Fashion | Breakthroughs | Feuds | Under-the-radar stories

    Today’s Toss: Looking back at 2012, what’s the state of American tennis?

    Courtney Nguyen: In going through the best and the worst of 2012 for BTB’s year in review posts, it occurred to me that on the whole, the Americans weren’t heavily featured. Outside of Serena Williams’ tremendous second half of the season, there weren’t many superlatives, nor was there anything particularly horrible. The high marks — Serena, the rise of Brian Baker and John Isner’s strong first quarter — must be weighed against Mardy Fish’s health issues, Donald Young’s 17-match losing streak (we’ll spare DY further scrutiny below, given how well-documented his struggles have been) and Andy Roddick’s riding into the sunset.

    So let’s start this discussion broadly: What’s your overall take on this year in American tennis?

    Ricky Dimon, Writer/Blogger, This is a question that has to be separated into two parts, one for each tour. On the women’s side, it was outstanding: Serena won basically every title in the second half, including not one, but two gold medals. Venus, despite long odds against her, also put on a good show, winning gold in doubles with Serena and playing a memorable match against Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open. As for the younger generation, Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens are both on the brink of being seeded for the 2013 Australian Open.

    On the men’s side, all you can say is: not good. This is tough to say, but the Roddick-Fish-James Blake era is over. Roddick is officially gone, who knows what the real story with Fish is and Blake is no longer a factor in any big tournaments. Baker and Isner delivered brief highlights, but neither one sustained any real success. Bob and Mike Bryan were dominant as always, but domination in doubles is never going to change anything about the overall state of American tennis (unless it leads directly to a Davis Cup title, which it did not in 2012).

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  • Published On Dec 06, 2012
  • The Toss: Ranking the 2012 majors

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    Roger Federer

    Roger Federer won his 17th career Grand Slam title by beating Andy Murray at Wimbledon. (Erick W. Rasco/SI)

    After the ATP Finals, we debated the best matches of 2012. Now, The Toss returns this week with another look back at the season as New York Times tennis blogger Ben Rothenberg joins the discussion.

    [2012 IN REVIEW: Report Card | Surprises | Meltdowns | Shots]

    Today’s Toss: Relative to each other, how did the four Grand Slam tournaments rank this year, taking into consideration the overall experience of each and the the storylines they generated?

    Courtney Nguyen: If you’ve been reading BTB this week, you know that we are in full year-end review mode. I have quite enjoyed the offseason — you know, that blink of an offseason — to get out of the weeds and take a more holistic look at the year that was. What the heck happened over the last 11 months, Ben?

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  • Published On Nov 29, 2012
  • The Toss: Best matches of 2012

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    Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal

    Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in a near six-hour Australian Open final, but some say it was an overrated match. (Getty Images)

    With the ATP World Tour Finals in the books, we can finally close down the 2012 season. Looking back, it was certainly a year of memorable matches, from the near six-hour epic between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, to Victoria Azarenka’s near-upset of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, to Andy Murray’s breakthrough at the U.S. Open. In between the drama on the biggest stages, we had some wild matches week in and week out that produced some quality tennis, even if the sport’s biggest titles weren’t on the line.

    This week’s Toss features a panel of tennis writers who spent the last 10½ months watching every kind of match — good, bad and ugly — to try to answer a seemingly simple question.

    Today’s Toss: Which matches stood out as the best of the year?

    Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining this week’s discussion, everyone. As the ATP and WTA seasons have officially wrapped up — yes, there’s the Davis Cup final this weekend, but seriously, at some point we must draw a line — the offseason has finally arrived and with it an ever-so-brief respite for those of us who have spent virtually every day of the last 11 months watching tennis. So we should obviously use this break to keep talking about tennis, right?  Right.

    This week I wanted to get your wise input on some of the best matches of the year. I’m not sure there’s a match that stands out as being the obvious or unanimous choice this year. We’ve had long matches, we’ve had historic matches and we’ve had memorable matches. But what exactly do we mean when we say one single match was great or even the best?

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  • Published On Nov 15, 2012
  • The Toss: Andy Murray finally cracked into ATP’s ‘Big Three’?

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    Andy Murray

    Andy Murray has consistently been in the top four and has had a breakthrough summer. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

    We’re on a roll here in The Toss command center. Last week we rounded out the field for the ATP World Tour Finals. This week, Ben Rothenberg joins as we stay on the same side of the aisle and dive into the top of the men’s game.

    Today’s Toss: Has Andy Murray officially transformed “Big Three” into “Big Four”?

    Courtney Nguyen: I know, I know. Of course Murray, after finally winning his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open last month, has pried open the doors of the Triumphant Three’s clubhouse to earn his spot in what is now the Fearsome Foursome.

    But has he really? I’m not trying to play contrarian here or stir up controversy for controversy’s sake. But the topic got me thinking: What exactly did “Big Three” mean in the first place? Was it just about being one of the guys who could win a Slam? If that’s the case, then Juan Martin del Potro has the right to enjoy club membership. Was it overall consistency and dominance over the rest of the field? If so, has Murray earned that spot given his propensity to lose to players outside of the top 10 like Milos Raonic, Jeremy Chardy and Nicolas Mahut? While Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can have that air of invincibility that leads to a mental edge over their opponents, I’m not quite sure our Andy has earned the same level of intimidation.

    All that got me to thinking: Despite Murray’s Slam success, aren’t we still talking about a Big Three + Murray? What do you think, Ben? What did it ever mean to be one of the Big Three anyway?

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  • Published On Oct 18, 2012
  • The Toss: Rounding out ATP Finals field

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    Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

    Jo-Wilfried Tsonga holds the eighth spot in the Race to London rankings. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

    It’s October, which means playoff baseball is heating up, presidential campaigns are in full swing and the tennis season is barreling on toward the year-end finals. The ATP’s Big Four have each already officially qualified for the World Tour Finals, set to start on Nov. 5, in London, which leaves half the spots still up for grabs.

    This week, tennis writer Lindsay Gibbs joins The Toss discuss the year-end jamboree and the players who deserve a spot on the dance floor.

    Today’s Toss: How would you like to see the final spots filled for the World Tour finals?

    Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me for this week’s Toss, Lindsay. I hope you’re surviving the vampiric sleep schedule that’s been forced upon tennis fans during this part of the season. I can’t say I’m thriving. Heck, I’m not even sure I’m surviving.

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  • Published On Oct 11, 2012
  • The Toss: ATP on the right path with new rule changes?

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    Novak Djokovic

    Noavk Djokovic is often criticized for bouncing the ball many times during his lengthy service routine. (AP)

    Another Thursday, another Toss. Last week we gathered a panel of experts to compare Caroline Wozniacki to the trends of recent WTA No. 1s. The readers spoke in the poll, and very few were willing to write off Wozniacki just yet.

    This week, Toss regular Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times joins for a discussion across the aisle with the ATP.

    Today’s Toss: Is the ATP on the right path with its proposed rule changes on no-let serving and new time-violation penalties?

    Courtney Nguyen: The ATP has been grabbing its share of post-U.S. Open headlines but, with all due respect to the Richard Gasquets and Martin Klizans of the world, those headlines have been more about some interesting behind-the-scenes decisions rather than on-court play. Two weeks ago the ATP announced two rule changes of note. Let’s start with the first one, which allows the play of net-cord serves on a trial basis on the ATP Challenger level only. So, no, we won’t be seeing Rafael Nadal scramble forward to return any net-cord serves anytime soon. Bummer, I know.

    What do you make of this, Ben?

    Ben Rothenberg: I’ve seen no-let play in action in a couple of formats: World TeamTennis and NCAA men’s tennis. As an interesting aside, it’s only a rule in college for men, not women. College tennis guru Colette Lewis explains that the men (who call their own lines) used to say “let” after they got aced, which was never a female practice.

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  • Published On Oct 04, 2012