Posted: Wednesday December 7, 2011 1:10PM ; Updated: Wednesday December 7, 2011 5:35PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Bogomolov Jr. justified to play for Russia, Nadal's longevity, mail

Story Highlights

Alex Bogomolov Jr. has every right to play for Russia instead of the U.S.

Don't put too much importance on Rafael Nadal's usual late-season struggles

Juan Martin del Potro still has a big game, but mental strength isn't there

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Alex Bogomolov Jr.
Alex Bogomolov Jr. was ranked No. 167 at the Australian Open, his first tournament of the year, but climbed up to No. 34 by year's end.
Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

I am a huge American tennis fan. Alex Bogomolov is up to No. 34 in the world, but according to the ATP website, he is now Russian. What country is he playing for, and do I root for him?
-- Matt, Syracuse, N.Y.

• First, let's credit Bogomolov for his comeback. Two years ago, he was living with his girlfriends' parents in New Jersey, taking a two-hour train ride to "work" and giving private tennis lessons to make a few bucks. He decides to give his pro career one last shot, bankrolls his training and travel on a credit card, recovers from a wrist injury and is now in the top 40, having banked in excess of $500,000 in 2011. Great story.

Then, the narrative takes an interesting turn. For years, Bogomolov was considered American. He accepted USTA coaching and training and money and wild cards. Last month, however, on the heels of his career-high ranking, he decamped to Russia. I know this did not go over well with the USTA. Jim Courier mentioned last week the idea that the services Bogomolov received from the USTA "probably should be rectified prior to him playing for another nation."

Justin Gimelstob recently congratulated Bogomolov on his breakthrough 2011 but questioned the loyalty of his decision to repatriate. (Bogomolov apparently expressed appreciation that Gimelstob had the guts and decency to confront him face-to-face.) I see where the USTA is chapped. But I have a hard time condemning Bogomolov.

This is a brutal, individual sport. The players are independent operators. There are no guaranteed contracts. One wrist injury and you're in debt to your credit card. How do you begrudge Bogomolov -- especially at this point in his career -- from following the money, playing for the country with the best chance of putting him on a Davis Cup team and an Olympic delegation? Would it be nice if he had shown a bit more loyalty? Sure. But why? He has no chance of representing the U.S. in international competition and the USTA probably has limited upside for a 29-year-old grinder, however endearing his backstory. Put crassly: Both parties would seem to be of limited use to each other right now.

If anything, his change of heart emphasizes and further underscores just how silly nationalities can be in tennis. We can look at the rankings and lament, "There are only X Americans in the top 100." But when Maria Sharapova can spend three-fourths of her life here -- including her formative years -- and Alex Bogomolov can renounce his U.S. country code at the drop of a (fur) hat, it shows how flimsy the whole concept of tennis citizenship can be.

We talk about these lean years for American tennis. But note how many players come here to train (Victoria Azarenka, Jelena Jankovic, Sabine Lisicki) or could just as easily make a claim to be American (Kim Clijsters, Sharapova), and suddenly it doesn't look quite as grim.

Hi Jon! Just finished reading your mailbag and wanted to comment on your line about the irony of Milos Raonic's Newcomer of the Year award being sponsored by an alcoholic beverage. I'd like to point out that up here in Canada the drinking age is mostly 19, with a couple of provinces even at 18. So at 20 he is of legal drinking age and therefore there is no irony at all!
-- Aly, Toronto

• Bottoms up, Milos. Several of you -- and by "several" I mean half the population of Ontario -- noted this. One of you suggested I listen to the music of another Canadian, Alanis Morissette, and re-evaluate my definition of the word irony. You know what I always thought was ironic about the song "Ironic?" The predicaments described aren't particularly ironic. They're just bummers.

Rain on your wedding day? Unfortunate? Yes. Ironic? Not really. Good advice that you just didn't take? Regrettable? Sure. But where's the irony? Let's move on ...

I was so happy for Donald Young's progress in 2011. Now I just saw on Tennis Channel that he is still being coached by his mom. What's the deal here?
-- Charles, Maryland

• Young's emergence and maturation was one of my favorite stories of 2011. But clearly there's still some tension with his filial loyalties and his loyalties to the USTA (such as they exist). I think it's hard for us tell players who they can and can't hire for coaches.

As we've discussed before, Young is a particularly delicate case. But the USTA is -- almost like a venture capitalist -- understandably wary of cutting checks without getting some equity and some control in exchange. It's easy for us to question the wisdom of hiring a family member as a coach. But among the Williams sisters, Uncle Toni, Pops Wozniacki et al., in recent years, the family members have done just as well as the "conventional" coaches.

Two random asides:

A) You know what would be fun? A rule mandating that family members are eligible to coach players, but they must be distributed randomly among the eligible pool. Ilona Young would spend a match guiding Caroline Wozniacki; Oracene Price would take a nap, while sitting next to Maymo the Trainer and Benito and the Nike guy with the cool glasses in Rafael Nadal's box; Uncle Toni would work with Agnieszka Radwanska, forcing her to tie her own shoes the "proper way" and fetch her own water.

B) This is a true quirk of tennis. Name me another industry in which a handsome 21-year-old male not only doesn't mind being seen in public with his parents, but also insists that his mommy come to work with him every day and accompany him on his (potentially, um, convivial) international business trips. I'm in the middle of watching the Cameron Crowe Pearl Jam documentary (highly recommend) and laughing thinking about Eddie Vedder, in his early 20s, telling the bandmates that his mom will be joining them on tour and running the sound check. Yet Donald Young is basically choosing his folks over Jose Higueras and the boys. Is that Ironic? Don't ya think?

It appears to me that Rafa Nadal is moving a drop slower than he did a couple of years ago. It reminds me of Boris Becker. He was more nimble, and frankly better, at 17-21 years old than after that. The maturation and muscle buildup seems to have slowed his movement a little. Same with Nadal, though they are obviously very different players in all respects. Any thoughts?
-- Ben, Queens, N.Y.

• First, I agree with your premise. When players whose games are predicated on movement and speed -- Michael Chang, Lleyton Hewitt* and Juan Carlos Ferrero are three names that come quickly to mind -- lose a step of quickness, the next chapter ain't pretty.

We've all known for years that Nadal's playing style and his sensibilities don't lend themselves to a long career. But have we already reached the point of decline? The skeptics will say that Nadal hasn't won a hardcourt title in more than a year. (They will also note that, while not indicative of a loss of speed, his serve has lost about 20 percent of its punch since the 2010 U.S. Open.)

On the other hand, it is in keeping with the patterns of his career that he struggles and comes back strong. We also forget that he remains the king of clay. If he has, say, three more seasons like last year where he wins the French and gobbles enough points on the dirt to sustain his ranking for the rest of the year, he still ends up with a top-five-of-the-Open-Era career.

* Australian Open wild card, Lleyton Hewitt.

Jon, two points for you: 1) To everyone in the "best player never to make No. 1" discussion. I suggest you go to Wikipedia and search for "Mandlikova, Hana." After reading the bio you surely will find your dispute settled. 2) Three or four months ago you argued in a mailbag that it is actually Juan Martin del Potro, not Andy Murray, who's the real world No. 4. Though I found your arguments kind of weak at that time, it still startles me that this time around JMDP didn't even get a passing mention in your "who can break into the top 4" answer.
-- Mikhail Tamm, Moscow, Russia

• I will help this quest and present you with the link.

And I think Mikhail is absolutely right. We have a winner, such as it is. Mandlikova won four Grand Slams, and topped out at No. 3. That's amazing. (What's more, Wozniacki -- she of the dazzling impersonations but zero majors -- nearly made as much coin in 2011 as Mandlikova made for her entire career.)

As for point two, part of what makes tennis so enthralling is the pace at which -- all together now -- the plots change. Had you suggested six weeks ago that Roger Federer could be considered a leading contender in Australia, you would have been ignored or ridiculed. Suddenly, he's riding a 17-match win streak into 2012. In the spring, Murray had lost four straight matches, including back-to-back defeats in Masters events to Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov (Indian Wells and Miami, respectively). By Roland Garros, he'd found his game again.

To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of Del Potro. He played dazzling tennis in the first half the year and, had he not been hamstrung by his modest rankings, his draws would have been better. (To wit: His third-round encounter with Novak Djokovic in Paris could have been a semifinal under different circumstances.)

By the hardcourt season, JMDP was sucking wind and, after bowing out of the U.S. Open, he lost to James Blake in Stockholm and missed the Masters events. He acquitted himself well, though, in the Davis Cup final and, despite losing both matches, looked like a potential top five player again. My jury of one is still out. The game is obviously there, especially that elephant gun masquerading as a forehand. Mentally, I think there are still issues in need of resolution.

I know you write for a U.S. magazine, but to be more consistent with all the talk about globalization in tennis, you should consider referring to months instead of seasons (e.g. fall, spring), especially when players themselves play in both hemispheres. It's a bit difficult for me to read "Come early fall, Nadal is a shard of the player he was during the first half of the year" when, from this latitude, "early fall" is still the first half of the year and is usually the best time for Nadal (clay season). Obviously, this might be just a purist's rant, but I thought you should notice.
-- Janoma, Santiago, Chile

• Thanks. I've tried to be conscious about "pounds" versus "kilograms" and toning down the Gilbertian references to American sports. But, honestly, before your note, I had never considered that "my" summer might not be "your" summer. Fair point. Duly noted. This is always a balance, of course. Far as I can tell, the audience seems to be about 40 percent American, 60 international, but I'd love more precise data.

I love checking the player rankings. Today I see that Nole has an otherworldly 13675 points to defend going into 2012. As a diehard Fed fan, I have to know: What is FedEx's highest ever point total, Rafa's, the best all time, and maybe for comparison a spread of the all-time greats?
-- Dwayne B., San Juan, Trinidad

Sayeth Sharko the Great:

"It was a lesser point scale before 2008 and the other high totals are: Nadal (12,450) in 2010 and Federer (10,550) in 2009. Hope this helps." As long we're here, I hope the ATP players realize how much Sharko does to help their cause. He clearly has a cult following among you in fanland; I just hope the ATP royalty knows how valuable he is to their Tour.

 
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