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Posted: Wednesday October 22, 2008 1:48PM; Updated: Wednesday October 22, 2008 1:48PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >
TENNIS MAILBAG

Thinking about headcases, and is the tennis season over yet?

Story Highlights

On headcases: I give extra weight to the players whose talent was sabotaged

it's hard to see anyone making real inroads until the Federer-Nadal axis breaks

We're pretty much playing out the string here, appeasing the sponsors

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Marat Safin has been known to lose his cool and kick a ball here and there.
Marat Safin has been known to lose his cool and kick a ball here and there.
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So, somewhat inebriated conversation with a friend: "Top 5 All Time On-Court Headcases (Men), Sans McEnroe." In no particular order, and somewhat relegated to our generational recollection: Nastase, Youzhny, Slobodan Zivojinovic, Ivanisevic, Safin (others in consideration --Gasquet, Noah). Is it just us, or is there really an European slant to this? Who'd we miss?
-- Anirban Mukherjee, Durham, N.C.

• That's my kind of inebriated conversation. None of this "why do bad things happen to good people" cant. It sounds as though you were limiting this to men, so I think your list is good. If I were rating headcases, I'd give extra weight to the players whose talent was sabotaged by their mental shortcomings. Marat Safin, Richard Gasquet et al. (Actually, now that I write his name and consider his career, I think Gasquet might take the prize.) A player like Gaston Gaudio might have been a known head case, but it's not as if the shaky internal wiring was preventing him from greatness. I suppose there's a European slant to this. And someone who wanted to make enemies could come up with a half-baked theory. But couldn't you just as easily add, say, Jeff Tarango or Paradorn Srichaphan or even Donald Young? Also James Blake, among others, has raised this point and I think there's some validity: you have to have a good deal of mental fortitude simply to get to an elite level of sport. Aren't the true headcases the talents and junior champs who never get out of the challenger level?

Best male player not to win a slam? David Nalbandian!
-- Ming Tran, Des Moines

• Fair enough. But can we agree that Andy Murray is a close second?

Now that we are talking about tennis generations...how do you see the one that's just breaking through: Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Gasquet, Tsonga, Baghdatis, Berdych, Del Potro and so on. There seems to be a lot of potential. Do you think they will live up to it or is it just a "three men show" from now till 2012 (assuming Federer retires that year)?
-- Omar Tovar Bogota, Colombia

• Yeah, I think you answered your own question. Lots of talent in this generation. But the benchmark is Slams titles and given the current balance of powers, it's hard to see anyone making real inroads until the Federer-Nadal axis is brought down. If we work on the assumption that the French, U.S. Open and Wimbledon are spoken for -- events no one other than those two have won since 2004, an amazing stat -- it doesn't leave much. The variables are a) injury and b) emergence. Remember that at this time five years ago, we were still wondering whether Federer would get his act together and fulfill his generous potential. Maybe, say, del Potro wins the French Open and suddenly the "greatness spigot" is tapped.

Who has a better chance of winning all four grand slams, Federer or Nadal? I think you can make a case for each of them, but right now I think I would put my money on Nadal, he is younger and just approaching his prime as a professional, but if Nadal is ever injured during the French Open I think that I would change sides.
-- Jeff, Puyallup, Wash.

• I say Nadal, but not for the reasons you might think. While Nadal has won on clay and grass, he's never even reached the final of a hard-court Slam. Federer, however, only has clay remaining and he is, of course, a three-time finalist at Roland Garros. I think the key, though, is time: Nadal is 22. Federer is 27.

OUCH. Djokovic just joined that elite club that Roger Federer also belongs to -- guys who have lost matches to Ivo Karlovic without ever having their serve broken. This seems to be a Karlovic specialty. I wonder how many others belong to the club?
-- Helen, Seattle

• From the Sharko-rator:

The King of TB (30-30 in '08) has six wins over players who didn't lose their serve -- Mischa Zverev (Hamburg), Sam Querrey (Nottingham), Federer and Philipp Kohlschreiber (Cincinnati) and last week Robin Soderling and Djokovic (Madrid). Five of the six (except Federer) were two tie-breaks in the match.

Good lord, are we still playing tennis? Is anyone following the sport right now? Why can't the season just end with the U.S. Open and go out with a bang?
-- Josh, New York, N.Y.

• Um, tennis? Rings a bell. That's a court game, right? Popular in Moscow and Vienna and parts of Zurich this time of year? It's coming back to me now....I think Josh is being a bit harsh, but there's some merit to it. After the U.S. Open, the tennis fan can feel a bit like a Kansas City Royals fan in September. We're pretty much playing out the string here, appeasing the sponsors and all. But we're already focused on the next season. It's not exactly hold-the-presses news that the tennis calendar is flawed. Here's another example. Andy Roddick raised a good point recently when he suggested that tennis benefits when fans miss it. That is, expanding the off-season actually helps the sport, because it builds anticipation. As it stands, the circuit slogs through the fall, shuts its doors for six weeks when everyone is in holiday mode and then starts up again the first of the year.

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