If there’s a downside to the Masters events, it’s that they take a while to get going. It's true again this week in Monte Carlo, where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal make their debuts on Wednesday, and Novak Djokovic graced us with his presence for just 45 minutes on court in his winning effort today. So for now, here’s a little a little waiting-room reading, in the form of a mailbag.
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There’s a debate online about why Agnieszka Radwanska hasn’t won a Grand Slam yet. Some people say she has to work so hard winning multiple three-set matches that by the time she reaches the semifinals she’s exhausted. Other people say the second serve is her problem; it is too slow. I am worried Aga might end up like Jelena Jankovic or Caroline Wozniacki, two talented players who never broke through.—Orville Lloyd Douglas
No matter what all-around skills a player has, winning a Grand Slam is always going to be an uphill battle with a second serve that clocks in around the 70-M.P.H. mark. Power is the name of the game when it comes to the majors on the women’s side. Serena, Vika, Maria, Li: They’ve divvied up most of the Slams in recent years, and they all dictate play rather than retrieve, the way Aga does. Beyond that, if you look at the players that Radwanska has lost to in 2014—Cornet, Cibulkova twice, Pennetta twice, Halep, Mattek-Sands—it’s obvious that, despite the fact that she’s No. 3, she’s vulnerable to a lower-ranked opponent who’s having a good day.
Still, if Marion Bartoli can win Wimbledon, Radwanska can win a Slam. I don’t buy into the idea that Aga, who turned 25 last month, is too frail to make it all the way through a big event—in 2012, she won in Miami, and was one set from winning Wimbledon. In her last two semifinal appearances at Slams, Radwanska has claimed that she was tired from having to play too many three-setters at Wimbledon last year, and that she wasn’t ready to play two straight days in Australia this year. Those are fair complaints to a degree, but they're also issues that everyone who wins majors, or tries to win majors, must learn to deal with.
I thought both of those losses were due as much to the mental side of her game as they were the physical. Each time, Aga played her semifinal knowing that Serena was out of the tournament, and thus she had a rare opportunity for a breakthrough. Each time, she played someone ranked well below her. Each time, she came out with less than her best. It’s not a stretch to believe that the pressure of the situation had something to do with that.
You mention Wozniacki and Jankovic, both of whom spent time at No. 1 but have failed to win a Grand Slam. Radwanska is more skilled than they are, but she shares one important trait with them: The tendency to play too many events. Radwanska doesn’t build her schedule to peak for the majors, the way Serena and Maria and the top men do. I think this is partly because, until she joined the Top 5 two years ago, Radwanska didn’t believe a Grand Slam was within her reach. She should have more self-belief now, and her schedule should reflect it.
Steve, don’t you think Nadal’s Monte Carlo record inflates his number of Masters titles? It’s not an official Masters event anymore.—Otto
Nadal is the current all-time leader in Masters titles, with 26. Federer has 21, and Djokovic has 18, though Nole, who has won the last four, is gaining on both of them at the moment.
You’re right that Monte Carlo, when it comes to the Masters Series, no longer goes the full monte. In 2009, looking to ease some of the burden on the top players, as well as the American men who don’t like spending two months in Europe, the ATP restructured the series. It dropped Hamburg to a 500, moved Madrid from fall to spring to replace it, and left Monte Carlo perched nebulously in between. The tournament retained its 1000 ranking-point status, but it was no longer mandatory.
The latter change, as you suggest, makes the draw less likely to be loaded. Federer has skipped the event three of the last four years, and Andy Murray isn’t there this time. A case could be made that this keeps Monte Carlo from living up to the “Masters” ideal, which is that you must beat the best in the game to win the title.
Still, with the ranking points intact, the draws in the Principality have remained deep, and Nadal has generally had to face his biggest rivals there. In the mandatory days, he beat Federer in the final three times; in the non-mandatory era, he has beaten Djokovic in the final twice and lost to him once. And it’s not as if any win by Nadal on clay is a fluke.
You obviously can’t demote Nadal's four wins there from 2005 to 2008, when Monte Carlo was a mandatory tournament. I also don’t think you can demote the next four, either, because he and his opponents believed they were playing for a title that would go down on their records as a Masters victory. As for the future, it’s probably too late to suddenly decide that Monte Carlo isn't up to snuff; it wouldn't make the event or the players happy. I'd say you could downsize Rafa's 2010 title, when he lost one game to Fernando Verdasco in the final, except that Nadal played some of the best tennis of his career that week.
But you have a point. Or, like Monte Carlo’s status in the game, half of one.