ESPN / Tennis Conference Call with Chrissie Evert, Brad Gilbert & Pam Shriver
ESPN tennis analysts Chrissie Evert, Brad Gilbert and Pam Shriver spoke with media Wednesday about the upcoming French Open and a wide range of current tennis topics. Highlights of the call, followed by the full transcript:
On: The Djokovic-Agassi Partnership
- “I think what he can bring to Novak…Andre played his best tennis from 29 on. Djokovic just turned 30. Today’s 30 is like 25 used to be. Brings an incredible amount of knowledge, wisdom, passion… Djokovic, when he’s playing at his best, nobody plays closer to the style that Andre played. He hits the ball big.” – Gilbert
- “I think the addition of Agassi…they both are known for their laser-like focus. They’re both very Zen-like in the way they play, their returns. I think it’s a perfect choice for him at this time. But I think it’s going to be, again, more of their deep talks rather than strategy that’s going to get him out of this slump that he’s in.” – Evert
On: The Really, Really Wide Open Women’s Field
- “(A)ny one of 15 possibilities are in the works. I’ve never seen a time like this…I think there would be quite a few young players that would go in feeling they have a chance…There’s probably a couple of younger ones that maybe are even off the radar screen, if they have the right draw, hit their stride, find their confidence, knowing it’s an ‘opportunity open,’ could break through.” — Shriver
- “(Y)ou also don’t have Serena, Azarenka, Kvitova, Sharapova. You have a Kerber who is not confident, a Muguruza who is not confident…Right now at the French Open, there’s a big, big hole. Anybody can come through that hole. It’s a big opportunity for somebody to just grab it and take it.” – Evert
On: The Resurgence of Rafael Nadal, Seeking a 10th French Open Title
- “(H)e’s serving a lot better this year….He’s serving better on big points. He’s got more variety in his serve this year, not just serving the backhand. I think his forehand looks as good as it has in the last two or three years…He’s hitting a lot more aggressive, hitting with a lot more confidence.” – Gilbert
- “(When) they started to enforce the time rule, coincided when he got more anxious, particularly on the forehand, maybe a little bit with the serve not being as effective. I feel like this is a guy who has as many rituals for preparing for each point as anybody who has ever played. I think he’s kind of redone and settled back into a little quicker tempo between points. I think that’s helped him. He’s now comfortable with quicker between points. I think Carlos Moya is playing a really important role.” – Shriver
- Brad, what do you make of the Agassi-Djokovic partnership? You know Andre very well. What qualities do you think will make him somebody who is helpful to Novak? What might make things difficult?
BRAD GILBERT: First of all, I think it’s really exciting that Andre is going to coach for the first time. A lot of players have approached him before. He’s been very busy with his school. Just opened up another school in San Antonio over the weekend. His son Jaden is a five (indiscernible) player in baseball, has a good chance to be a first-round draft pick in 2020. Been heavily involved in that.
I think what he can bring to Novak…Andre played his best tennis from 29 on. Djokovic just turned 30. Today’s 30 is like 25 used to be. Brings an incredible amount of knowledge, wisdom, passion. I think more importantly at the start it’s just getting to know each other, feeling each other out. Then it will be up to Andre to try to figure out how many weeks he can allocate because he has been pretty busy. I think the potential is for an exciting partnership.
Q. Pam and Chrissie, with the big names missing in the women’s draw this year, do you think Venus has a genuine title shot this time?
PAM SHRIVER: I think on the women’s side, any one of 15 possibilities are in the works. I’ve never seen a time like this. I thought I’d seen some draws in the last 10 years that were wide open on the women’s side, but I’ve never seen a situation like this. And Venus, with coming off what she did at the Australian Open, getting to her first major final since she knew she had the autoimmune disorder, and for many years, knowing her sister is not in the draw, why not? She’s actually more of a capable clay court player than what most people think about. When you consider the big hitters in the women’s game that have won, Sharapova twice in the last four or five years, Muguruza last year, Venus is one of the possibilities.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Yeah, I agree with Pam. I’ve never, ever witnessed a time in women’s tennis where it’s been this open. You have four top players not playing, with Kvitova, Sharapova and Serena. Kerber is No. 1 now, right?
BRAD GILBERT: Yeah, she’s No. 1.
CHRISSIE EVERT: The current No. 1 player just really hasn’t found her form. There’s five big players, four of the five aren’t in contention, and Kerber has yet to find her game. The whole field is open for anybody to slip through. Venus has won (Majors) before. Like Pam says, she may look like a great grass court player, but she’s a very capable clay court player. Again, it’s going to be the mental part of the game that is going to be very important this year for the women at the French.
Q. You said there’s 10 or 15 players on the women’s side that could win the title. Right now, who do you think are some of the favorites? Are there any kind of young players, men or women, because the draw is so wide open, that might be able to sneak through or make a statement?
CHRISSIE EVERT: Halep is really interesting. She on form was my first choice as far as my first pick winning the French, until recently. I don’t know how the ankle is. I kind of suspect she’s got enough time, another week, at least six days, I’m hoping she’ll be healthy. I think a healthy Halep has to be the favorite. Mladenovic, I’m going to be very interested in seeing how she does. She really has had a good clay court season. I don’t think she’s going to be intimidated playing in Paris at all. I think she’s going to revel in it. I’m liking the way she’s going. Reached a couple finals, had a great match against Halep in Madrid. Svitolina is consistent. Can she sort of capitalize on her last tournament? In saying that, I think the outsiders, you can’t count out Madison Keys and you can’t count out Venus Williams.
Q. Are there any younger players that would have a chance to break through in this tournament?
PAM SHRIVER: I think there would be quite a few young players that would go in feeling they have a chance. Chrissie mentioned Svitolina. She’s been pretty impressive. There’s probably a couple of younger ones that maybe are even off the radar screen, if they have the right draw, hit their stride, find their confidence, knowing it’s an ‘opportunity open,’ could break through. On the U.S. side, I think about young players, players who haven’t yet been to a major final, these big hitters, I keep thinking of the pattern on the women’s side of the big hitters doing well recently at the French. I wonder if Madison Keys is in top shape. Davenport, while she didn’t get to the final of the French, she got to a semi. She knows her way being a big U.S. clubber of the ball how to help Madison Keys at the French, even though it wasn’t Lindsay’s best surface. Again, it’s just hard to know where to put your money. You want to say Halep, but then the mystery ankle, so…
BRAD GILBERT: You know where you put your money?
PAM SHRIVER: No. Where?
BRAD GILBERT: I would put my money on the field.
PAM SHRIVER: There you go.
BRAD GILBERT: I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me 17 days from now somebody unseeded, somebody out of nowhere. I think Muguruza is really struggling. Kerber is really struggling. Keys is really struggling. People that you think would have an opportunity to take advantage, I don’t see at the moment. If you just told me out of nowhere, somebody like Siegemund won in Stuttgart, I would not be shocked if you had an older player out of nowhere, a younger player out of nowhere. I feel like a lot of women are going to feel, like, opportunity, maybe never a better chance. I’ve noticed almost every week we have a different winner. It’s almost a matter of if the weather is warm or the weather is cool, who is going to get hot.
PAM SHRIVER: One quick thing about the recent history at the French. When you think about when Schiavone came out of nowhere to beat Stosur in the final, I think that was 2011, it kind of started this era of once or twice a year, a total surprise is winning a major. I think we all think that’s quite possible again.
Q. Do you feel like this is as strong as Nadal has been in maybe two years or so, and what aspects of his game are doing the best for him? I also want to ask about Djokovic, what you see as the weakness there. I don’t know if you see it as a lack of training or confidence mostly.
BRAD GILBERT: I’ll say with Nadal, two things that jump out to me right away is he’s serving a lot better this year. He’s hitting his spots, especially out wide in the ad court. He doesn’t have a massive serve, but his serve really sets up his game. He’s serving better on big points. He’s got more variety in his serve this year, not just serving the backhand. I think his forehand looks as good as it has in the last two or three years. I thought last year the forehand wasn’t nearly as good, then sometimes got spinny and short. He’s hitting a lot more aggressive, hitting with a lot more confidence. Those are two aspects of his game that really can lift him. He’s playing at an elite level again.
Novak, there’s no doubt that last year coming into this tournament, I mean, he was on another level than everybody else. He was just a couple weeks removed from holding all of the slams. I think a lot of times in tennis you build up this equity when you win a lot. That’s what Djoker had done. All of a sudden when you take a few knocks, whether or not it’s motivation, there’s issues, you take a couple of losses, the locker room takes on a different complexion in their feeling in playing that person. Instead of dreading playing that person, all of a sudden there’s some opportunity. Is he a little bit down? I think that he made an unbelievably bold move getting rid of his entire team. I think this could be potentially very exciting bringing on Andre. He’s looking for some motivation. He’s still a young 30, so I think there’s a lot of opportunity. I think that Rafa and Fed playing the way they have will inspire him. They were both injured and down last year, and now they’re back. I think that will inspire him.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I think Nadal is in a very commanding position right now. Yes, it’s the best we’ve seen him play in a few years. He’s ironed out all the problems he’s had with his confidence and his movement. Like Brad said, he’s got a little more strength to all his shots, not only the serve, but his groundies. He’s just timed this perfectly well. I think he was worn out last week, and that’s when he lost. Obviously he’s getting away from the game. I think for the first time he really believes — not for the first time, but for the first time in a couple years he really has the confidence and he knows that he can win the French. I think that’s really a big, important factor.
As far as Djokovic is concerned, he looked great against Thiem, bad against Zverev. He’s still having that seesaw kind of spread in his game. I think the addition of Agassi…they both are known for their laser-like focus. They’re both very Zen-like in the way they play, their returns. I think it’s a perfect choice for him at this time. But I think it’s going to be, again, more of their deep talks rather than strategy that’s going to get him out of this slump that he’s in.
PAM SHRIVER: A couple of different theories I have about each. One on Nadal. I feel like for a while, when the game kind of sped him up, they started to enforce the time rule, coincided when he got more anxious, particularly on the forehand, maybe a little bit with the serve not being as effective. I feel like this is a guy who has as many rituals for preparing for each point as anybody who has ever played. I think he’s kind of redone and settled back into a little quicker tempo between points. I think that’s helped him. He’s now comfortable with quicker between points. I think Carlos Moya is playing a really important role, just to have a different voice in there, not just Uncle Toni.
When I think about Novak, when he was not at his best, it was always his serve, especially his second serve, and his forehand that you felt was not always — he was never as confident as, say, Federer was, even Nadal. I felt like he overachieved on those two shots. Even though they’re great shots, I don’t think they’re as solid as the backhand. I feel like when he’s not confident, I look at those two shots. They’re the barometer. I don’t think they are anywhere near as good in recent months or the last 11 months as they were when he dominated.
Q. Super good answer about Nadal going a little bit faster. I don’t know if you know numbers offhand, but that’s an interesting point.
BRAD GILBERT: Moya has had a huge influence, as Pam said. It would help him a lot, what they’re doing with the shot clock, if we get that on the court, help them play a little quicker. I definitely think the biggest thing what Pam said is about Carlos Moya, having a new voice, somebody he’s really comfortable with.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I think, Pam, that was a great point. Maybe even going one step further, I feel like the game changed also as far as the game got a little faster, whether it was the balls or courts, for Rafa. You see him now, he’s accelerating more, he’s not afraid to play closer to the baseline, not afraid to come into the net and volley. He’s made those adjustments to the quickness of the game now. I think that might be he feels more comfortable. He’s not only a defensive player, not only a counter-puncher, but he can win points being aggressive, too.
Q. You mentioned Thiem before. He’s been playing really well on clay, seems to be a guy that could maybe pull off a surprise. Do you think he has a chance, or do you think Nadal is such a huge favorite they may as well hand him the trophy?
BRAD GILBERT: Nobody ever gets handed the trophy. But first we got to see where the draw is, where he’s going to be in it. I think of the guys 24 and under, I put him as the third most talented. I still put Kyrgios as the most talented, maybe not on clay, but he has the best skill set for any of the young players. Then Zverev, then Thiem. Thiem plays a little bit like Stan, but nobody hits the ball harder than him. I actually think that slower conditions for him maybe are better. Like when we had the heavy conditions last year, he can hit through the court. A lot will depend on where the draw is. I think he’s most comfortable on the clay. If he has a good draw, he could easily make a deep run.
PAM SHRIVER: I have a quick comment about Thiem. I was courtside for a match he played in Indian Wells. I was really surprised how emotionally turbulent he was from courtside. I’m not sure whether it’s something you pick up because you’re there, you’re just yards away from him. But I feel like whether he’s more comfortable on the clay or he just went through a bad mood stretch at Indian Wells, he seems to be playing the clay court season just very levelheaded and not as emotional. I mean, every young player goes through their ups and downs as they settle in emotionally. But that will be really important over 15 days of the French Open and seven matches, just remaining on an even keel, the way the greats that have come before him, Nadal, Federer, Djokovic.
Q. Everyone seems to agree that Federer made the right move to skip the French, focus on grass and hard court, sort of not even waste his time on the clay this year considering where he is right now.
BRAD GILBERT: Let’s say Roger Federer has built up an incredible amount of equity to know what’s the best thing for him. Considering he had a long layoff and had an incredible stretch to start the year at 19-1, I actually thought, because he told me courtside in Miami that he was going to play the French, I wouldn’t be surprised if he played it and was able to make a good run. He probably knows that he didn’t want to risk, wasn’t comfortable in his movement, something could get affected. He didn’t want to possibly have something affect him on the grass. I’m sure that’s a decision he came to with his team, you know, that for the good of the grass, it’s probably better to take a pass. Like I said, nobody knows their body better than him and his team, so… I’m sure it was a tough call, but obviously he knows what’s best for him.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I think it was a 100% right decision for him. I mean, the most intense months ahead of him are going to be the grass court season through the hard court season, culminating at the US Open. I just don’t know with his body, with the mental part of just continuing to be so focused for that amount of time, I just don’t think he could have done that. I mean, it’s 100%. He’s earned the right, just like Serena has earned the right. You get to 35, 36, you’re leading in all Grand Slams, you’ve earned the right to pick and choose what you want to do. Unless he 100% felt he could have won the French Open, I don’t think he needed to play it.
PAM SHRIVER: I think the decision is also made a lot easier because of 2009, the fact that he won it once. He has the career slam. Even though there’s an extra week now between the French and Wimbledon, if you put everything into the French, you’re there towards the end, quarters, semis, finals, you’re pretty much wiped out the next week, you’re recovering. That takes one week away getting used to the biggest transition you have during the year. Agree with Brad and Chrissie 110% right plan for Federer.
Q. First on Garbine Muguruza, what are your expectations? Do you think the struggles have been more the pressure, the psychological aspect, or do you think it’s her game is inherently risky because she plays flat and big? Then on Andre and Novak, how much do you think Novak is looking for perspective, sort of a life coach, and how much of it is technical, tactical and practical advice? Brad, I was thinking about the book when Andre said you told him, You don’t have to be the best in the world every match, you just have to be better than the other guy. How much is it that kind of thing Novak is looking for? How much is technical, tactical, X’s and O’s?
PAM SHRIVER: A couple things on Muguruza. I think even though she won the French, she’s still a little unproven as far as her day in, day out grinding it out as a competitor. Nobody questions her when she’s on, her ball striking. I thought about when Azarenka won back-to-back Australians, because I tried to get a feeling for what might happen with Muguruza. I remember when Azarenka went back, and she did repeat, but she did so in much tougher fashion. It was difficult. It’s possible she could go back to the great glory of last year and have great feelings, find the groove again, it’s possible. But she’s shown us nothing this year that would make us feel comfortable with that pick.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I think it’s a very mental and emotional issue with Muguruza more than the game. She’s got the game. We’ve seen it. I think I’ve seen it when her coach has come out on the court. When you’re zeroing in on her with TV, you can see the self-doubt, you can see the insecurity, the frustration that she’s having in matches. Her relationship with Sam, the back and forth, back and forth, it’s very much like Simona and Darren in the last year, too, until recently. I think she’s just really nervous and tense, not really comfortable with being at the top of the game, not comfortable with success, as Pam says, day in and day out.
It’s almost like nobody stepped up. She would have been the one person who you thought had a great chance of stepping up after her big win. But I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s fear of winning, fear of carrying on that responsibility and having that target on your back, having all the attention on you. I don’t know what it is. Kerber is going through the same thing. Both of them I think are going through the same thing mentally and emotionally right now.
BRAD GILBERT: On Djokovic, when you’re just jumping onboard with somebody, it’s definitely not going to be technical the week before the French. You’re getting to know somebody. I think for Andre, it will be incredibly important spending some dinners together, getting quality time, understanding. Then it becomes a lot more about tactical at the beginning, looking for patterns and things that you can talk about, breaking down matches. Really important for Djokovic to get back to what you brought up. In tennis, a lot of times you only got to win 52, 53% of the points. It’s not like winning 60 or 65. You got to be a little bit better than your opponent, and you win a huge amount of times. I think that’s something that is attainable. Trying to be too good sometimes can get you into trouble. I do think Djoker at 30, a young 30, obviously seeing that Federer is going to be 36 in a couple of months, I think it’s just getting back to that confidence of winning week in and week out, building up that equity. Plays a great match against Thiem, then has a down match against Zverev. I think that was a good sign. I think he’s trending up in the right direction heading into the most important two months of the season for me.
PAM SHRIVER: If I can chip in quickly with a thought. I think Djokovic is sort of telling us also by bringing Andre onboard how Djokovic really feels he should be playing, which is standing toe-to-toe on the baseline, driving the ball off both sides. When you close your eyes and think about his great matches in the last four or five years, he was just relentless. Even though he plays as good of defense as anybody, his offense was also unbelievable. His movement is superior, almost second to none. I think Djokovic is telling us that he wants to be able to play that kind of aggressive baseline attacking relentless tennis the way Agassi played.
BRAD GILBERT: You heard me say this many times. A lot of times when I’m watching Djokovic, when he’s playing at his best, nobody plays closer to the style that Andre played. He hits the ball big, I call it big safe margins in the court. A lot of times when Djoker is playing his best tennis, doesn’t hit a lot of winners, but very few unforced errors.
CHRISSIE EVERT: (Indiscernible) slumps behind him. I keep going back to, I don’t want to use the word ‘spiritual’, but there’s something about the both of them, they always seem to be trying to be more evolved, be more focused. It’s like they’re deep thinkers. I think he’s picked somebody in Andre who he aspires to be like. They have a lot in common in that way. Hopefully it will do the trick.
Q. Pam, kind of a tough question. We recently saw a very tough situation with Ilie Nastase in Romania. Then you reported when you were just a teenager, he really crossed the line 30 times or so and asked you an inappropriate question. How did that all make you feel? Do you generally feel there still is a not of sexism in the game? Secondly, after all that happened, Nastase was honored by Tiriac in Madrid. Boris Becker and Yannick Noah came out in support of him. Your thoughts about that? Is there still kind of a good old boys network in the game?
PAM SHRIVER: Thanks, I love this question (laughter). Remember, 1978 was when I made my debut. Sort of gender politics was at a very different time. I will say the thing that he said to me over and over again, in his mind, was a joke and joking. I never felt threatened. I never felt unsafe. I knew he was joking. But it was totally inappropriate. I was 15, 16, 17 years old. What you would expect for somebody is that they move along with the times, that they’re accepting of a different era, and that their behavior towards women and what they say should change and evolve. Obviously with Nastase, it hasn’t. He’s still kind of a jokester at heart, will always be. To expect anything different is probably unlikely. We should just stop expecting him to be anything different.
Having said that, he should not be put in a position to be the leader of a female tennis team like the Romanian Fed Cup team. What he did on the court against Great Britain, what he did in the press conference, what he said, was typical of him. But he shouldn’t be put in that position. He should be appreciated for being a talented champion of an era past, and he should not be put into a position of leadership. What Tiriac did… Tiriac is an entrepreneur and a rebel. They’ve been great friends for decades. To have him to the tournament is one thing, but it was like he was snubbing the whole — it was like Tiriac was not respecting the situation, not respecting the WTA by having him on the court.
Obviously Halep being Romanian, respecting both the tennis history of Ilie Nastase, it could have been a nice moment, but it should never have happened because of what happened in the Fed Cup tie. So Tiriac wants to march to his own beat. But when you’re in a sport that’s like a league and you have rules that the tour sets, you have the ITF, you can’t cross, you can’t be just your own person, like you have a personal business, run it the way you want to run it. You have to follow boundaries, guidelines, and expectations. Tiriac did the wrong thing by having Nastase on the court in Madrid.
CHRISSIE EVERT: About Nastase, because I knew him pretty well. He was my coach at World TeamTennis. He was Jimmy’s best friend. I spent a lot of time with him. I think, Pam, what you said, the boundaries were a lot different back in the day. I mean, they were so different. Now they’re much more clear. The word ‘inappropriate’ wasn’t a word back then. Ilie Nastase was funny and irreverent. Yes, he was inappropriate. But in those days, the boundaries weren’t there. Nobody really gave it a second thought. But nowadays, it’s a different time. It’s a different era. He should be careful and he should have more respect. He’s got to change with the times.
Q. Brad, the Warriors in California are making so much news. Steph Curry obviously is an incredible talent. Sometimes he’s compared with Federer how he makes a difficult sport seem easy. Draymond, like Serena, was born in Saginaw, such a physical presence. Can you come up with other comparisons with tennis and the Warriors?
DAVE NAGLE: Brad is a special correspondent on SportsCenter with respect to Golden State basketball.
BRAD GILBERT: These last three years have been the biggest joy of my sports life, watching them play. They play such unbelievable team basketball. They play the right way. It’s just been nothing but sheer joy.
Q. Especially in light of what Brad said earlier on about Andre doing damage late in his career. Rafa is now 30. He’s got 14 Grand Slam titles, playing very much like the Rafa of old. What do you see for him in the next few years? What chance do you see that he might actually give Federer a run for his money in the titles race?
BRAD GILBERT: We might talking about it a lot differently had he won Australia because instead of being four away, he’d be two away. I think seeing what Roger is doing at 35, almost 30, I’m sure has given Rafa, Okay, there’s a lot left in the tank. I think a lot of this for me, the age, it used to be you turned 30, you were completely on the downside of your career. A lot of these guys can remember Andre making a deep run at 2005 at 35 years old. I think that was the turning point in belief, that guys could play a lot longer. You’re seeing Tom Brady be the best quarterback in all of football maybe ever, and he’s approaching 40, which is dinosaur for a quarterback, but not any more. Athletes are pushing the envelope all year round. There’s no off-season. Off-season is for more training, diet, technology. I think it’s a great thing. You’re seeing a lot of players that are improving their game as they get older. It’s not like all of a sudden status quo. They’re making changes. Look at what Roger has done with his backhand at 35 years old. You’re seeing players push the envelope to improve their game. It’s exciting to see it. And the belief that you can do things after 30, it gives you that thought that I can still get better, I can still win titles. I think it’s very exciting.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I think two things with Rafa. How hungry is he going to be the next few years and how healthy is he going to be, the two Hs, health and hunger. His body, with his style of play, is pretty beaten up. The way he’s beaten up his body, I think rest is going to be very important for him, how he trains, how he addresses his schedule. I think that will help him physically. This is a guy that used a lot of mental energy over the past 12, 15 years when he plays. We’ve seen the intensity in his face. How hungry can he still be in the next couple years? That’s going to be, I think, the key motivation for him. If he can be hungry and feel fresh when he plays his matches, he’s definitely got another three good years, I think, in his career.
PAM SHRIVER: Couple of things on Nadal. I think he’ll be hungry until the day he’s no longer on this planet. He just has such a great desire. He also has an anxiety. I think a lot is going to depend on if he can dial back, as Chrissie alluded to, his training sessions. As you get older, you just can’t possibly train the way you did in your early to mid 20s. Can Rafa feel as confident and secure with less hours on the court? He’s going to have to do more visualization, more make the most of an hour and a half to two hours more times than these four- or five- or six-hour training days he used to do in his prime. Federer has been able to ease into a slightly different training, and he’s still very comfortable with what he’s able to do in his mid 30s. Can Rafa do that? I don’t know. Such different personality and competitive personality.
CHRISSIE EVERT: And styles.
Q. You talked about how wide open the women’s field is for this event, how some people are having trouble seizing their moment. Is it fair for fans, maybe more so for casual fans, to view this whole spring and summer as a preview of the post Serena era, waiting for who might take that mantel in the next five years?
PAM SHRIVER: First off, usually in women’s tennis, say since I started in the ’70s, most years it’s been fairly apparent who the next champion would be. I’ll just say when I started Chrissie was at the top, Martina and Chrissie shared it, until Graf took the lead in the late ’80s, then Seles. Then you had Hingis a couple of years. We knew about her. Right now, honestly, there is no heir apparent. There’s nobody that is sort of that great talked-about teenager who seems to have it all. If there is somebody, they’re a little bit younger. Everybody is maturing so much later, nobody is sure of it. I for one don’t think we’re going to have a dominant player like Serena for a while. I think we’re going to have an era, when she’s retired, it’s going to be like a jump ball until that great next champion comes forward. Unless Chrissie can shed light on somebody, I don’t know who that is.
CHRISSIE EVERT: It’s definitely a transitional period right now in the women’s game. I think what this shows to me also, we talked a lot about the gap, nobody stepped up, but it shows to me also how great Serena Williams has been for the game, how she’s really carried the torch for so many years. People around the world tuned in to watch Serena Williams on TV. Serena Williams was worthy of front-page coverage. Her presence was enough that she carried the game for so long. You know what, she’s not around right now. She may come back, but right now it’s time to rebuild, it’s time to get some stars. We need some stars in the women’s game, where consistently they’re winning week in and week out. We want to turn on the TV, read about them, we want to hear their interviews. We want to be really enthusiastic and be fans of theirs. Right now, I mean, a lot of the top players don’t look like they’re comfortable with pressure and comfortable with success. I said this for two years, I can’t believe nobody stepped up to the plate and at least challenged Serena.
But in saying that, this tournament is wide open, but you also don’t have Serena, Azarenka, Kvitova, Sharapova. You have a Kerber who is not confident, a Muguruza who is not confident. You have all the makings of some great women’s tennis. I think further on down the summer, when we get Kvitova back, we get Azarenka back, we get Sharapova back, we get the players healthier, I think it will be a different picture. Right now at the French Open, there’s a big, big hole. Anybody can come through that hole. It’s a big opportunity for somebody to just grab it and take it.
Q. A general question about the event. Roland Garros feels like it fell behind the other slams for a while. Now they have permission to build a roof, get it going again. How important was that and how far do you think it did fall behind in development from the other three?
BRAD GILBERT: I think it’s a charming place, it’s a great event, but it’s been too small for the fans, the players and everybody for the last 20 years. I mean, if you try to walk from the locker room to the backcourts, on the side courts, it’s just too small. They need to expand. They’ve just been unlucky they haven’t been able to do that. I mean, forgetting about what all the others have done, just for their own sake they have to get bigger. It’s way too small. To me, it just needs to get modern. It needs to be upgraded and it needs to be a lot bigger facility. The place deserves it. The fans deserve it. The players deserve it. Hopefully it will get done.
PAM SHRIVER: They got to look to the other majors, like Wimbledon is such a great example. They’ve been able to hang on to their tradition, the flavor of Wimbledon, but been able to innovate and put the roof on Centre Court. 10, 15 years ago, Do you think they’ll ever put a roof on Centre Court? We probably would have said, Not a chance in the world. They have to figure out how to innovate. If you think there’s a situation in the Bois de Boulogne, if you think it’s tied up with government stuff, they can’t expand, you think they would be able to figure this out, to be able to get the space needed, to modernize their major, but still hang onto that quaint, nice feeling.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I was just going to think of the word ‘modern’ when you said it. It’s the least modern definitely of all the Grand Slams, but it does have charm. It feels very European. When you walk in, the ambiance, the language. At the same time they don’t want to lose that European flavor, that traditional flavor, but as Pam said, Wimbledon added to it. They didn’t lose it, but they added onto it. It enhanced the tournament. The roof, I think they can make some improvements having a bigger facility, creating a roof. I think it could become even more charming and even more, I don’t know, for the spectators as well as for the players.
Q. A question about Murray. What do you think has gone wrong this year? Seems to have been really struggling. How do you think he can improve?
BRAD GILBERT: Well, I just read an article today, I mean, I didn’t realize — Henman said his shingles were a lot worse than people thought. I never had shingles, but I know that can be a problem. I’ll give you a couple numbers I know about Murray. I think the struggles this whole year are on his serve. Last year he held at a career-high 85% of the time. This year 78%. That’s 7% less, which is huge. He was winning 54% of his second-serve points last year, 50% this year. Maybe the biggest one was he was saving 66% of his breakpoints last year, 55% this year. Serve numbers are way down. Lendl will be onboard this week, the practice week. Obviously needs to get some momentum. I think of all these slams as two parts: the first part is get through the first week, then all of a sudden get through the first week and maybe you can get back and make a deep run. He was dictating play a lot more last year on clay, especially with the forehand, playing more offensive minded. He is definitely playing a little more defensive minded. Having that balance between offense and defense, that has been an issue. Obviously he hasn’t played his normal standard in the big tournaments. He hasn’t made a quarterfinals yet of any 1000 or Australia. Just like I said about equity when you win the matches, the belief now in the locker room for the first time is that Murray owned a lot of guys, you start losing a little bit, guys feel like they have some belief. I still think at 30, he’s a young 30. He has plenty of time to turn it around. I never saw this bit of a bad patch coming. If you would have told me at the start of the year he would finish the year any lower than 2, I would have been surprised. Here we are coming to the French, he comes in struggling. Now is as good of a time as any to turn your game around.
CHRISSIE EVERT: The only thing I’m going to add is I think having Lendl day in and day out is going to help him. Brad, he hasn’t really been with him day in and day out, has he?
BRAD GILBERT: No. Ivan is just kind of coming to the slams and the week before, I believe.
CHRISSIE EVERT: He’s coming in and out. I think Andy’s best years, he really had Lendl at his fingertips, a little bit more consistently. I feel like once Lendl is with him and settles in with him, is with him in Europe, is with him before Wimbledon, he’ll get more into a better place. I see him struggling emotionally on the court. That’s been his biggest issue, is himself, struggling with himself. He’s going back to fighting with himself a little bit more. There’s nobody better to sort of tweak that or transform that than Lendl, because he’s done such a great job with him in the past. I think he’s got to get the emotions under wrap a little bit, just take a deep breath, calm down, listen to his coach, listen to Lendl. Nobody did it better than him as far as just focusing and being unemotional off on the court. That’s why they’re such a good team. I agree with Brad, I think it’s a little hiccup here, and I think he’s going to get his game back.
PAM SHRIVER: A thought on the shingles and what it means. It says he’s feeling a lot of stress. Whether that’s stress to maintain the incredible run of late last year, second half of last year. I love Brad reminding us about his service numbers. What are Andy Murray’s true colors on serve. I was talking about Novak, kind of overachieved a little bit. He’s reached his maximum on how he could serve his second serves when he was on that great run last year. This is probably more realistic of what that second serve is. Can he kind of stretch his mind again and be that aggressive gambler on the second serve, can he step up and have the confidence to be not so much the counter-puncher but the aggressive player we saw when he was at his best in the second half of last year. As Chrissie said, Lendl is the one that can bring it out of him. Let’s face it, going to Wimbledon, a place where he’s had a couple of successes now, we will find out there if he can get the confidence back.
Q. You mentioned Lendl. Do you think that can work long-term going forward, the situation of Lendl dropping in and out?
BRAD GILBERT: It worked last year. I’m sure that Andy knows what the arrangement is. It’s not like he’s surprised by it. I think when he came back, I think he came back to work for the majors, you know, to get ready for the majors. I think it’s something that they both knew what the arrangement was. Ivan is still working a little bit for the USTA with some of their young players. Maybe he didn’t want to travel, like, 30 weeks. Jamie Delgado, who is a good man, is with Andy all the time. I think this arrangement is exactly what they knew it was going to be.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I agree with Brad, they knew it was going to be. It’s not that it’s a surprise. But I do think in the previous years when Lendl has been with him, there’s been more continuity, there’s been more security there. Like, everybody likes that routine. I think what Lendl did was get 110% out of Andy Murray. I remember thinking last year, God, Andy Murray is playing a lot of tournaments. I think it was during the US Open Series. He was just playing so much. This might be the aftermath, the first part of this year might be the aftermath of just playing a lot of tennis last year. Maybe not only a little letdown, but maybe it took the wind out of his sails for a little bit.
PAM SHRIVER: Remember Davis Cup and Olympics, too.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Oh, my God, he played so much. It doesn’t take a week or two to get over something like that. Sometimes it takes six months to get over something like that. Maybe he’s still a little weary from last year. Whatever happens, he’s a champion. He’ll get it back. If he wants it, he’ll get it back.
Q. Can you talk about the difficulties of staying No. 1, when you climb that mountain to get there, all of a sudden is it possibly about motivation, the strain Andy has. Do you think that’s a difficult thing psychologically to adjust to it once you got to No. 1, staying there is a completely different mindset?
BRAD GILBERT: Knowing Andy as well as I do, I know one thing. He’s not a satisfied guy. He’s not materialistic. He loves the fight. He’s not about the show and the bling. He loves the guts and working hard. Whether or not the shingles had a little more effect than people thought, a little bit of dip in form, tired. One thing I really have noticed, if you look at all of his serve stats, they’re way down. They haven’t been this low since 2006. The serve stats are lower. That’s definitely a bit of an issue. But I do think with the resurgence of Federer and Rafa, I think that will only inspire Novak and Andy. Okay, these guys are older than me. They’re back in the mix like it was 2006, ‘8, all the way through ’12, ’13, Djoker and Murray were chasing them. Now it’s back to those guys chasing them again. I think this will inspire Andy to put a little fuel to the fire.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I was thinking about trying to personalize it when I became No. 1, that feeling of being No. 1. You’re right, it really is a different feeling than trying to achieve No. 1 when you have no pressure, no expectation. You’re playing loose out there. You’re trying to beat Billie Jean King, Margaret Court. They’re feeling all the pressure. You’re No. 1, you start beating them, and it is a different feeling. You always at No. 1 want to stay one step ahead of everybody. You want to carry that momentum with confidence because it can go one of two ways: confidence or pressure. You can rise to the occasion and really ride on that momentum with confidence, or you can start to second guess, doubt yourself, feel the pressure, then your game’s going to go down.
The other thing, you can’t underestimate the field. The men’s game is really getting better, has really come a long way. There’s some tough players now, more depth. Andy Murray, again, was playing at 110% last year. In order for him to keep up the winning, 90, 95% is not going to do it. That’s why it’s so tough week in and week out to be a champion like a Steffi or like a Martina or like Djokovic has been the last couple years. At some point you’re going to have your ebbs and your flows. You’re human. You know what the fun part and challenging part of tennis is, and a lot of reasons why I think lot of the players are playing 30, 35, 38 years old, is because things can change on a dime, and you can change things around, you can make the adjustments. It’s a challenge to get your game back to where it was. That’s the beauty of tennis. You always have that chance.
PAM SHRIVER: One quick thing on having great intimidating weapons in this sport really helps, whether it’s Federer’s forehand, now his backhand is becoming the weapon. When you think about Rafa and his forehand, what kind of intimidating weapon that is. When you think about Murray, his two-handed backhand is out of this world, his movement is out of this world. As far as that intimidating weapon, he comes up a little bit short. I think that adds stress to the rest of the game to keep it all up at the highest of standards in order to do what he did the end of last year.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Pam, you’re right on the dime there. That’s the problem with Kerber. She doesn’t have that one big shot to get her back. Remember when Serena played, even when she wasn’t playing at her best, she could still get out of trouble with that serve. Murray is the same. You’re absolutely right with that.
Q. A couple things about Milos Raonic. How do you think he’s looked so far this season? What in his game does he need to improve on to consistently break through against the big names and potentially win a major?
BRAD GILBERT: I thought he had a great year last year, finished the year No. 3. Obviously the guys that finished above him haven’t had great years either, in Murray and Djokovic. I actually thought if you would have told me at the start of the year, for sure he would have another year in the top 5, possibly in the top 3. His biggest issue, and it’s been now for the last two or three years, staying healthy. He just can’t stay healthy week in and week out. He gets something going, boom, he gets dinged up. He’s had a lot of different leg injuries. I think that’s the biggest thing that is stopping his momentum and his consistency. I think most importantly for him moving forward, and he’s a big guy, he’s 6’5″, probably 220 pounds, but figuring out keeping him on the track, being healthy, peaking for these big tournaments. It’s hard to be at your best level if half the time you’re either on the shelf or you’re playing nowhere near healthy. So that’s first and foremost. It comes down to when you watch him play in a big match, you think about — actually one of the best matches I’ve seen him play was London, where he lost to Murray. It was maybe one of the best matches of 2016. The one part of his game that you worry about a little bit is his return game. If he’s in the quarters or semis or finals, he can find some breaks. You’re very confident with his serve and his forehand, his serve game, but that’s the one part of his game that you look at and you wonder if that can get better and where will that go. But health and return of serve.
PAM SHRIVER: I also think he’s got to learn to be a little more relaxed overall. He may not be able to do that. He may just have this intensity about him, about his workouts, about his non-stop quest for winning a major. He may never be able to just dial back the intensity. If you’re that tense, maybe ‘anxious’ isn’t the word, that’s how a lot of injuries come about because you’re not in your natural flow, which we’ve seen Federer be in his natural flow for the last, like, 18 years. That’s why he’s had so few injuries. When you get as tense and intense and carry it to the workouts, you carry to every part of your life, you get injured.
BRAD GILBERT: He’s the first tennis player I’ve seen that wears like the mouthguard on the court.
PAM SHRIVER: Pennetta wore it when she won the US Open.
CHRISSIE EVERT: This is a guy who last year, I mean, he’s got all the signs of a great player. He’s so disciplined, committed, intelligent. He understands the game. But I agree with Brad as far as the training, the injuries. He hasn’t been able to train as hard. I think a lot of his game relies also on movement. I think that’s one of the things that he needs to work on more than most players. I think when he’s moving well for him, his whole game picks up. I think that also shows in the return of serve, because the serves are so hard and so well-placed now, players have to be really quick getting off the mark. I think that’s one of the reasons why his return of serve isn’t great. When he has the freedom to work on the movement, when he starts to get off the mark a little bit quicker, I think he’s going to improve.