ESPN tennis analysts Chrissie Evert and Brad Gilbert spoke with media Wednesday about a wide range of current tennis topics, focusing on the two big events this month with extensive ESPN coverage — the BNP Paribas Open from Indian Wells, Calif., and the Miami Open. Highlights of the call, followed by the full transcript:
On: The Women’s Field at Both Events, Without Serena.
- “Serena not being here and Kerber all of a sudden not playing at what the level she played at last year, one word jumps out: Opportunity. You know, there’s opportunity for every player. All of a sudden every player thinks about, you know what, I can make a deep run.” – Gilbert
- “And if you let nerves and everything affect you, it’s going to hold you back. I think this prospect of the opportunity tightens up a lot of players, so who is going to be the one or two emerging players that get through this successfully. I think it’s all about the mental part, how are they going to handle the nerves.” – Evert
On: The Men’s Top Stars Fending Off the Next Generation.
- “As long as I’ve been in the game of tennis, it is the most exciting time. You’ve got icons, the greatest players ever at the top who will go down in history, then you’ve got some very consistent players that have been in the top ten like Raonic and like Berdych and Nishikori and Cilic, and then you have the young guns that are so exciting like Zverev and Dimitrov and Nick Kyrgios. It’s not only a high level of tennis but it’s different generations, and it’s different styles, and it’s all different personalities. It just is so exciting right now. I’ve always sort of been a spokesperson for the women’s game, but I’ve got to say, I’m probably a little more excited about the men’s right now.” – Evert
On: The Prospects of Madison Keys
- “But right now, it’s just great to see her back being healthy after a wrist operation. I still think she’s definitely going to win a Grand Slam, whether it’s this year or next year. I think it’s in the cards for her, and we all know the potential is there.” – Evert
- “I think the talent is there. I think her big thing to – for the next 12 to 18 months – is just to be healthy….So I think once she can get that worked out… I think that she’s incredibly underranked because with her talent level, she should be top five.” — Gilbert
On: Maria Sharapova Receiving Wild Cards for Upcoming Events
- “Maria has served her term, and she — this decision of playing is really within the rules as far as the wild card entry…You can’t blame the tournament really for wanting to be successful and wanting to enhance their tournament by having a big draw like Maria Sharapova. I think we’re making a big deal about it.” – Evert
- “(W)ild cards are for the tournament directors to give to whoever they want…it’s completely within the rules and fair of the tournaments to reward whoever they want.” – Gilbert
Q- For the men’s, what do you make of Novak Djokovic’s year so far? Two seasons ago we were saying he had one of the best seasons of all time, and right now he’s kind of playing inconsistently. Do you think it’s more of a mental thing? What does he need to do to kind of get back to where he was before even though he’s not playing poorly but up to the standards? And what did you see in Madison Keys’ return from surgery, and I guess what is her potential?
GILBERT: Well, I mean, the greatest thing about tennis and any sport is when you’re winning these matches, that’s a way of winning more, and that gets you three zero out of the game, and Djokovic dominated for so long, so many players just dreaded playing him, and then all of a sudden, since Wimbledon last year, you know, he hasn’t played to the same level that we’ve seen from him, and that changes the attitude of the players going out playing against him. So the only way to get that back, you know, is go out there and dominate again. It’s not that his game has come down that dramatically, but it’s come down a little bit. He’s had some tougher draws. He’s had some injuries. So there’s definitely some reasons. He played well last night and has got a rough act today against Kyrgios. But he’s 29, going to be 30 in May. He’s still got time. But like I said, the only way to get back to where he was is by winning these matches and then winning becomes contagious, and then that puts that element in the thought of the opponents like, damn, he’s not beatable?
Q. So has his domination peaked do you think?
GILBERT: Well, for the most it certainly has, but I’m not going to say that at 29 about to be 30 that he couldn’t all of a sudden get it back. 10 years ago or 15 years ago you say once a player starts turning 30, it’s very difficult that maybe you’re going to see another great chapter, but that doesn’t exist anymore. So many players are playing great into their 30s. You know, it’s entirely possible that he could get it back and have another run again. I mean, he’s got all the physical capabilities. He’s got the tools. It’s just a matter of being able to get it done. I certainly don’t think that that couldn’t happen again.
EVERT: I’m going to just add on to that. I think if there’s anybody in the past, any champion in the past you’d consider like machinelike, it’s been Novak, and I think to be No. 1 you have to be 100 percent focused physically, mentally and emotionally, and sometimes life gets in the way, and there are distractions. I think I agree with Brad; it has nothing to do with the physical game. The game is there, and I think that this is a guy who — I think the mental and emotional aspects, there have been some distractions. I don’t know what they are, but I think that probably has affected him more so than the physical. But the game is there, and there have been signs this week that he still wants it, he’s still going for it. But you know, the competition is only going to get better, and at some point he’s got to really jump up to that extra level of focus again, the focus that he had really the last five years. Just it hasn’t been there for whatever reason. So once he gets that worked out, and that could be just life intervening for a moment, once he gets that worked out, I think he’s going to go back to being the Novak that we’ve seen the past few years.
As far as Madison Keys is concerned, I think there, again, there were definite signs, especially in our match against Naomi Osaka that she played pretty flawless tennis, and last night against Caroline Wozniacki, I think you saw the rustiness a little bit more. But I think that being back with Lindsay is a good thing. I think Lindsay has a similar style and a similar game to Madison, and I think where Lindsay can help her is just to be more patient and more consistent with her power, and I think she definitely can help her in these areas. But right now, it’s just great to see her back being healthy after a wrist operation. I still think she’s definitely going to win a Grand Slam, whether it’s this year or next year. I think it’s in the cards for her, and we all know the potential is there. But it’s really up to her, when the time is right for her.
GILBERT: I’ll just add one thing on Madison. I think the talent is there. I think her big thing to — for the next 12 to 18 months – is just to be healthy. She just has been dinged up a lot, and obviously this was a major one, but that seems to be kind of her sticking point a lot of times in majors is getting hurt. So I think once she can get that worked out…I think that she’s incredibly underranked because with her talent level, she should be top five.
Q. I was hoping you could each weigh in on the ongoing debate about dopers getting an automatic entry into tournaments, and of course I’m referring to Maria getting the wildcard after her return to Germany in April. I’m wondering if you could weigh in on that.
EVERT: I’ve been reading a lot about that, too. I mean, Maria has served her term, and she — this decision of playing is really within the rules as far as the wild card entry. I remember many weeks I started out on a Wednesday playing a match, so it’s not like — first rounds aren’t on Wednesday. You can’t blame the tournament really for wanting to be successful and wanting to enhance their tournament by having a big draw like Maria Sharapova. I think we’re making a big deal about it, but the fact of the matter is she’s doing everything within the rules, and she has fulfilled her obligation of 15 months. I’m one to say I’m not critical of that decision that the tournament made whatsoever.
GILBERT: I mean, wild cards are for the tournament directors to give to whoever they want. I get asked this all the time on Twitter and everybody’s opinion. It’s not really what my opinion is. I like to see some of the players positively and negatively are saying about Maria, and I think that’s for them to voice their opinion about what they think is fair. But it’s completely within the rules and fair of the tournaments to reward whoever they want. It will be interesting to see what the Slams do because they do a little more business with the ITF, and so will they — especially the federations, will they give her a wild card? Wimbledon is a club, so that’s different, but the tennis federations, the USTA, the Aussies, will the federations give her a wild card. But I like to see the players voice their opinion, and like I said, I think it’s completely up to the tournaments to do, the director, what’s best for his tournament.
Q. I would like each of you to comment on why we are having so much trouble getting a WTA player who can really consistently come up and challenge and establish herself as a legitimate threat. Now that Serena is not playing, of course, for the foreseeable future and Kerber is out again at Indian Wells, what are you seeing and what theories do you have about why it’s been so hard to get players who can play and consistently establish themselves a solid No. 2 or 3 or even a 1?
EVERT: Gosh, that’s a good question. I think a lot of the problem has been Serena Williams. I honestly think, as I look, especially the past five years, I think Serena has played at such a high level, and no one has been able to match her power and match her athleticism, and I think she’s at such a high level that the other players are two levels below. We see slowly there’s been a catching up. I mean, Madison Keys is really the only one that I could see, Muguruza maybe but she’s been inconsistent, that even has any sort of power comparable to Serena. I mean, Naomi Osaka coming up has that power, but she’s very young and inconsistent.
I mean, it’s all about — so far it has been all about the power game, and even though Kerber — like I said, Kerber had a couple of really good matches against Serena, or one for sure, Wimbledon was good, too, but you’re right, she hasn’t been able to maintain that top form of playing relaxed and playing loose. You know, so it’s the physical power, but I also think the fact that you said consistently, you’re right, you don’t see a player mentally so tough and so hungry match in and match out that really — I mean, the last player I saw that was Victoria Azarenka, and she’s been out of the game. Maria is and was one of the mentally toughest, but she’s been out of the game. I just think it’s the superb superiority of Serena more than anything.
GILBERT: It’s a tricky thing. You know, obviously the women have had long history of somebody dominating the game. That doesn’t mean it always has to happen. When the Williams sisters at some point — heck, maybe they go until their early 40s, but at some point — at this moment, I can’t tell you a player who’s ready to step forward and is going to win five or ten Slams. That’s not to say that it can’t happen, but it’s becoming much more difficult, especially on the men’s and even more so on the women’s, that you’re seeing young players be able to do the things that they’ve been able to do in the past.
And I think the game has gotten more physically demanding, and I also think that especially the women’s side of the game has gotten deeper, and the word that you heard Chrissie say a lot is consistency, and that’s what you need to dominate is consistency, and you can’t have two or three good weeks, two or three bad weeks. Kerber had an amazing year last year out of nowhere, and now the expectation is can she do that again and then maybe she’s feeling that a little bit.
But I certainly don’t see anybody capable at the moment of being that next dominant player, but like I said, that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen or it won’t happen. It’s not like it’s just a given that that’s going to happen. We could easily have some period where you have six or eight Slams, six or eight different winners after the Williamses go. That’s just I think the way we’re headed now with the depth, and I’m just not ready to say somebody is ready to dominate.
EVERT: I also see, just thinking about it, I also see that the game is so different. I mean, the only — I feel that when you look at Simona Halep or you look at Radwanska, even if you look at Kerber to a certain extent, those players don’t have the power to blow people off the court. So I think it’s going to be tough — I think it’s going to be tough for Kerber even to keep the No. 1 ranking with how power is taking over the sport, but with power comes high risk. That’s the thing. It’s high risk. Serena plays high risk. She’s had so much experience, and she’s been able to really now come to an age where she can be thoughtful on the court and she can really know how to handle, know how to harness that power well. But these other players that have the big power games, like I mentioned, Madison Keys or any of these players with the big power, Pliskova, they still are up and down because it is high risk, and they haven’t had the experience that Serena has had, and you can’t keep that up week in and week out.
I’ve said the last few years, I’m disappointed — it’s disappointing that somebody hasn’t stepped up to the plate, but we saw Azarenka step up last year. She really did. She won this tournament, she won Miami. She really started to show signs that she may be able to compete with Serena, and then she — fortunately for her has a baby, got pregnant and has a baby, so it’s all good, but she got out of the game. Like Brad said, it’s tougher and tougher. There’s so many more distractions with money and endorsements and lifestyle, and it’s maybe taken away a lit bit of the hunger from these players, also.
Q. The last time we had one of these calls I think before the Australian Open, we were talking about how don’t count out Roger and Rafa, but we don’t really expect them to be lifting a trophy anytime soon. I went back and looked at the transcript. Patrick specifically said, Roger, he doesn’t see him winning any more majors.
EVERT: Well, you know what? That’s why Patrick is not on the call today!
Q. That’s right. That’s right. We don’t need his comments. We’ve got Brad now. I just want to know what Roger did down there, and Rafa making the final, what does that say about those two, and what does it add to the story line of men’s tennis that those two guys made it that far, and on the women’s side, following up on what we were just talking about, with Serena out and Azarenka out, Maria not back yet, what do you see from the women’s side coming into the Miami Open? Who do you see in the conditions here knowing about the swirling winds and everything that Miami has, who might be some of the contenders on the women’s side here?
GILBERT: Well, I’ll just say obviously about the Australian Open, with Djokovic going out early and then Murray going out in the top half of the draw, Roger just did what he had to do. He got better every match. It started with the first couple of matches, and then amazingly he pulled a rabbit out of his hat, and I was sitting courtside, from 3-1 down in the fifth set, I think that was the best five games of his entire career, and I think it was the most important win of his career. It was just so great for the men’s game to have that final. I know that I was already talking about it in the third and fourth round, and ESPN were getting all mad at me, don’t talk about it; it’s like talking about a perfect game. I’m like, I’m that guy like if I was on the same team as the guy pitching the perfect game, I’d be sitting next to him and saying, isn’t it a fun moment. I wouldn’t be getting away from the guy. But I just think it was a great breath of fresh air.
And with Fed, he’s a young 35. Look at Tom Brady is 39. I mean, I think the one thing that we’re seeing is that athletes are figuring out what they can do in their training and technology and diet and they’re pushing the envelope. Derek Jeter had a fan base — these guys’ fan base, and Rafa, these guys are like the biggest global tennis icons I’ve ever seen and conduct themselves with the utmost class, and it’s just great to see for our sport. I think that obviously the story lines now are massively changed for 2017 because obviously Murray and Djoker haven’t played like they’ve done, and Fed fans and Rafa fans are starting to get excited that their guys — who knows, maybe they’ll push the envelope back to the top spot.
EVERT: Yeah, I think my doubt with Roger has always been in Grand Slams three-out-of-five sets, putting together three or four big matches in a row, which is what you need to do to win a Grand Slam, and I think like Brad said, there was a little bit of an opening there without Murray. He didn’t have to beat Murray, he didn’t have to beat Djokovic, and the draw favored him. It opened up a little bit. But if you put your money on Roger Federer for one or two key matches, he still can win those key matches, but it’s just the accumulation of three-out-of-five-set matches leading up to a final. That’s always been my concern at his — with Roger Federer.
But again, everything worked out for him very well. Nadal is playing so good. Nadal looks like he’s so good now, he’s got to be favored for the French Open, the way that Andy and Djokovic so far have played, unless Djokovic certainly as defending champion has a great shot and is going to be a favor, but you’d have to say Nadal has got a really good shot to win now 10 French Opens. He’s still there. You can’t count Roger out knowing how well he’s playing for Wimbledon. It’s just amazing how things can turn on a dime.
I just think Andy Murray played so much the last two years, and maybe that’s starting to have a little wear and tear on his body. Maybe he’s feeling it on his shoulders being ranked No. 1 very much like Kerber. I think the fact that her in this tournament, she showed none of the fearlessness and aggressiveness she did when she won the Australian or won the US Open. That No. 1 on your back always is a question mark. Anyway, that’s my answer for that. And the women’s, what was your question about the women?
Q. Yeah, who do you see emerging for the Miami Open with Serena out and —
EVERT: Yeah. You know, we’re Wednesday of this tournament so it’s hard to predict how — I’m looking at Wozniacki and Mladenovic are the two left in this tournament that have had the easiest road, and they’ve looked so good. I mean, they’ve looked pretty relaxed, and they’re playing some aggressive, consistent tennis. I don’t know how you can — they started out the year well with good results, so I think that confidence is building with both these players. Muguruza is getting stronger and stronger. She really looked shaky against Kayla Day, who by the way looked fantastic this tournament, the 17 year old. That was really the first match, big match I’ve seen her play, and I was very impressed with her power and her game. But Muguruza is looking better and better. I think Madison is only going to get better. But I think probably Wozniacki and Mladenovic, if I’m going to predict this tournament, I’m curious to see how well they do because they are on form here.
GILBERT: I’ll just say this: First of all, Venus…being that she’s got as much tape on her as I’ve ever seen and still winning matches…but Serena not being here and Kerber all of a sudden not playing at what the level she played at last year, one word jumps out: Opportunity. You know, there’s opportunity for every player. All of a sudden every player thinks about, you know what, I can make a deep run, and that one word that we’ve heard a lot is a lot of players have one good week and not, so there doesn’t have to be a consistency, so that leads to opportunity.
EVERT: Well, and how much do they want it.
GILBERT: I think if the consistency isn’t — I think they all want it badly. I think it’s a consistency issue, and now that Serena is not here, a lot of players feel like they can win this.
EVERT: Yeah, but Brad, if you want it, I mean — I remember being in this position. If you really want it, you put yourself — you make it happen. You really have a better chance of making things happen. And if you let nerves and everything affect you, it’s going to hold you back. I think this prospect of the opportunity tightens up a lot of players, so who is going to be the one or two emerging players that get through this successfully. I think it’s all about the mental part, how are they going to handle the nerves.
Q. We mentioned Keys and how her potential is really high but she’s injured a lot. A similar situation on the men’s side, with Milos Raonic being up close to No. 1. If he’s not going to be one of the new guys to win a Grand Slam, then who will?
GILBERT: You know what, unfortunately that word, injury, it’s happening more. I mean, Nishikori is another young guy that’s had to battle a lot, so that’s obviously his $64,000 question is being able to stay healthy. You can’t answer the questions for him what he can do until he has a whole season being healthy. So he’s a big guy. He’s probably 6’5″, 220 pounds, but that definitely is the No. 1 question for him is staying healthy.
So I can’t answer whether or not he will win or where he’s going to go or who’s going to be the next young person to do it because, you know, the big four, and then throw in Stan, have been incredibly stingy. Nobody born in the ’90s has been able to win a Slam. So it’s not like, you know, it’s happening. Everybody wants to know that, but it’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen, and then for — and then we’re going to have some of these guys that are much younger like Kyrgios and some other younger guys that maybe are going to have an opportunity maybe before Nishikori and Raonic. But you just don’t know. But definitely he needs health, and that’s his No. 1 thing he’s got to be able to figure out.
EVERT: Yeah, I think I look at Kyrgios, and he’s very capable, and I look at Zverev, those two to me would be the next in line that might not happen until next year or the year after. But you know, I agree; it’s all about being fit. These three-out-of-five-set matches on a hard court just — your body is just being slammed every time, year after year after year, and it’s really becoming more and more important to stay in shape and heal your body and take those rests and rehab what’s sore and what’s injured. That part of the game is almost like 75 percent of the game now, and actually going out and playing is like 25 percent because it’s all about being injured now and being healthy with these long matches. But I mean, when I look at the way Kyrgios has played this week, and I’ve always liked Zverev — well, in the last year I’ve liked him, so I predict one of those two is going to be the next one to win a Grand Slam.
Q. On the men’s side of who’s next in line, as far as the golden era of men’s tennis, I don’t know if it’s ever been better. Obviously the top five aren’t going anywhere, and then we’ve got DelPo and Nick and Ramos and Dimitrov and Zverev and even Jack Sock, who has surprised me lately. Talk about the golden era right now, what we’re experiencing in men’s tennis, the depth and quality, and then give me something — like Chrissie, add on to what you said about Nick and maybe Jack Stock about potential future winners.
GILBERT: I think it’s an amazing time for men’s tennis with the reemergence this year of Rafa and Fed, and we’ve got young faces, we’ve got older faces. The quality of tennis and the level — I think it’s off the charts. But I guess everybody is just curious when somebody can break through and go all the way. But as a tennis fan right now, I think this is as good as it’s ever been, but I’m one of those people that feel like the sport is like a treadmill. I think maybe five or ten years from now, we’ll be saying, God, I can’t believe how good these guys are. Sports is getting better. Competition is getting better. And I just think it’s a really exciting time in the sport except if you’re born in the ’90s and you’ve wanted to win Slams already.
EVERT: I agree with Brad. It is, as long as I’ve been in the game of tennis, it is the most exciting time. You’ve got icons, the greatest players ever at the top who will go down in history, then you’ve got some very consistent players that have been in the top ten like Raonic and like Berdych and Nishikori and Cilic, and then you have the young guns that are so exciting like Zverev and Dimitrov and Nick Kyrgios. It’s not only a high level of tennis but it’s different generations, and it’s different styles, and it’s all different personalities. It just is so exciting right now. I’ve always sort of been a spokesperson for the women’s game, but I’ve got to say, I’m probably a little more excited about the men’s right now, I have to admit. I’m looking at these match-ups, and I just can’t believe that there are this many great players that are still around and that there are this many great players that are just starting out, and then you’re not even looking at — look at the Americans, Donald Young, look at when he’s doing, look at Jack Sock, look at Taylor Fritz. There’s even younger guns waiting in the wings to really explode into the mix. I just have a big smile on my face when I talk about the men’s game right now.
Q. I’ve got one quick follow-up on Jack Sock. I saw him in Del Rey. I think he beefed up his weaknesses and fortified his strengths. I’m firmly a Jack Sock believer for the first time in years. Can he make a breakthrough this week or in the nearby future?
GILBERT: I think last night was maybe one of the best wins that I’ve seen from him. He came back from 4-1 in the third. He’s got a great draw, played Jaziri, so he’s got a great opportunity to make the quarters, and he’s making progress. He’s up to 18 in the world, and I think a big goal for him is to maybe finish the year in the top 12. I think he’s got one of the biggest forehands in the world. He moves tremendous. Yeah, so he’s making progress, a lot, in the last 12 months, and the big thing is can he make a deep run in a Slam. Can he make a quarters or semis this year, and can he make a semis of a Masters Series because that’s what you’ve got to do to make the top eight in the world and make London. I do think those are realistic goals, and I think he right now is clearly the best American player.
EVERT: Well, and when I watched that match last night, I honestly could not believe how well he moves and how well he sprints to the ball. I don’t know anybody that I could say is quicker that I’ve seen is quicker than him as far as his movement, and I do think he has the best weapon in that forehand. He has the best forehand in the game I feel. He reminds me of a male Madison Keys in the way he plays. I mean, Madison, same thing with her forehand. I mean, she rivals it, and so does Jack. Again, it’s all about maturity and it’s all about managing himself and his emotions on the court, and with all this experience and with some success, I think it’s going to come to him, and I would say the same thing with Kyrgios. You see he’s got every shot in the book, also, and as he gets older and more comfortable in his role and in his lifestyle and with fame, I think it’s all about the intangibles that he’s got to become a little bit more comfortable with, and I think that’s starting to happen now with him, and wouldn’t it be great to see. He’s at another level when he’s playing.
Q. I had a two-part question, first on Roger and Rafa and their great starts. Do you see anything technically that they’re doing differently? I know Federer is serving really well and Nadal leads the tour in second serve points, and then secondly, to follow up on all the stuff you’ve already said about Kyrgios, do you think in the way that Donald Trump was the chaos candidate, Kyrgios is like the chaos player, that he just thrives on chaotic craziness around him, or do you think that getting a coach would be dramatically better for him? He said this week that he’s not really thinking about hiring anyone.
EVERT: You know, Nick is a different kind of guy. He’s got a different approach to the game. I mean, I first remember a couple years ago or maybe he’s even saying it now, he said he doesn’t like to play tennis. He doesn’t even like the game. He’s been quoted as saying that. And I think that, again, I really deep down think that he does like the game, but he doesn’t especially like the attention or what goes on around it. I mean, I think he’s basically a shy guy, believe it or not, and I’ve spent a little time with him down in BOCA, where he practices with — it’s so funny, he practices with our boys at the academy, and it’s like, I can’t believe that he’s practicing with 18-year-old kids as preparation for his Grand Slams. But he loves it. He loves practicing with the kids, and he has fun. Maybe so far that’s what he’s done.
As far as getting a coach, you know what, if he’s not in the right mindset, as it seems he’s not in the right mindset to get a coach, he shouldn’t get a coach. I think he’s got to — it’s got to be on his terms. He’s got to be ready. He’s got to make the commitment. He’s got to take responsibility for winning and losing, and he’s not probably at that point yet. I’m like, give the guy time. Give him his space. Give him time. And I think it will happen because I do think he does love the game. What was the first question?
Q. On Federer and Nadal and anything different you’re seeing.
GILBERT: I’ll piggy-back on Nick a little bit. I watched the performance last night against Zverev and what you’ll see tonight against Djokovic, this guy gears up for big matches, and he’s got a level and intangible that — I call it almost uncoachable in that he doesn’t feel like — you know, when he’s playing these unbelievable opponents, I actually think he’s more relaxed. I think that he sometimes struggles when he’s on the outside course and playing lesser opponents. All of a sudden you’ll see him tonight against Djokovic unbelievably focused and determined.
I do think there is nobody, anybody close to his talent level physically, and he is a closer. I mean, you give him an early break and he’s a closer for 25 and under. But the maturity and match in, match out, that’s something that he’s searching for, and I do think that at some point when he does want to add a coach, I think it could only help him. But he’s got to want to do that. But I just sit there and like I said, last night, watch him and just marvel and his athleticism. I can’t believe for his size how well he can move, how explosive. He ticks all the boxes for me game-wise. But just there’s sometimes more to winning Slams and being great than just that.
I think about Fed and Rafa, the most amazing thing is both of them are still unbelievably motivated after all the time they’ve played to continue to play at this level. They both are playing healthy so far in 2017, and I also think that maybe, maybe they’re both starting to feel a little bit better about their games and where they’re at because the guys from the ’90s haven’t broken through, and for the first time, Murray has had a little bit of indifferent results the last couple months, and same with Djoker, so maybe that’s giving them more faith that all of a sudden there’s still more of a window for them.
EVERT: I’m going to piggy back, too. When you hear Roger Federer say my dream is to play another five years, you know that he wants to play, because it’s when they say, well, I’m thinking maybe another year, that’s when they’re thinking retirement, and that’s when they’re thinking maybe they’re losing what it takes. But when he says I’d like to play another five years, you know that he’s motivated and he’s ready to go.
And Nadal, I mean, that guy, you can still see it in his eyes. He still wants it. He’s still intense. He still wants that tenth French Open. The only other thing I can say about Kyrgios is remember he does have mentors like Lleyton Hewitt who’s advising him. He does have his manager, he does have his mom. It’s not a full-time coach, but he is getting advice, but at the same time, he is playing to his own tune, and when he gets in a point, he has that natural instinct as far as how to play a point. Like he’s not going to listen to anybody say go cross court, cross court, cross court, and then go down the line. He knows the ebbs and flows of a point, and he has that natural ability.
Q. Earlier we touched on Kerber. Can you just go back to that and talk a little bit about what she has to do mentally just to deal with the pressure of returning to world No. 1, especially when she’s heading to Miami now as the No. 1 and top seed and last year she struggled with the pressure of initially having the ranking, so now that she’s going back to the top, what does she have to do mentally to adjust?
EVERT: You know, for me it’s nothing really to do with the physicalities of her game. It’s not that the game is not there, the same game that she won the Australian Open with and the US Open with. I think it’s all in her head, and it is a big adjustment to have that No. 1 sort of bull’s eye on your back and to continue to play with the fearlessness and — the fearlessness, really, that it took for her to get there. And that’s what I saw. She went out of the box in big matches that she won last year, and by out of the box, what I mean is she took more chances. She played more fearless tennis. She went for more shots. She went for bigger serves. She went for bigger second serves. She really to me this year has gone back into the type of tennis she played two years ago when she was top five in the world but not No. 1.
She has to get back that aggressive mentality, and she’s got to really force it on herself because she’s not going to be No. 1 until she plays like she did at the US Open and like she did in Australia. So the tennis is there, but she’s got to get back into that frame of mind, and she’s got to work on that. Only she can do it. You can listen to a thousand people or the best coaches in the world, but only she has to come to terms with that.
GILBERT: I feel like her game is a lot about grit, determination, focus, competing, and she’s playing, Chrissie brings this up a lot about stress and feeling the pressure. All that matters is your opponent on the other side of the net, and what’s happening is opponents are playing against her freer because obviously she’s not dominating, and the one thing that I have noticed a little bit from her this year is she’s been flat starting matches. Like last night she was flat starting against Vesnina. I don’t care who you are, if you’re getting down consistently to start matches, it makes them tougher situations to come back, and the only way you get it back, her game. She’s not going to just go through everybody. But she has an unbelievable level of fighting, competing, of counterpunching and doing some fabulous things out there, and all those things for her to play at her level, she has to tick all the boxes to make that happen.
EVERT: I think she has — all those come naturally to her, and I don’t think she has to work on that as much as — she has to do with Wozniacki is trying to do now and that’s taking a few more risks and being a little more aggressive. Those two, I see their games similar as far as they’re unbelievable defense and counterpunchers, and it goes against their nature to really wind up and to attack right from the start. But they’ve got to learn to do that a little bit more.
Q. Brad, I wanted to ask you about Dominic Thiem, a guy maybe not with a top of personality but really a gorgeous game, kind of flying under the radar here, will be playing Monfils tonight, and Chris, wanted to ask you about rivalries which of course you know a thing or two about with Martina and just what really kind of makes that Rafa-Roger rivalry so special, sort of transcending the sport in a lot of ways.
GILBERT: I like “Home Team” a lot. I think nobody hits the ball bigger than he does. His forehand is massive, and for a guy who’s not that big, he can serve in the low 140s. He’s got an impressive game. I think the biggest thing for him is to figure out his schedule sometimes. He seems like a few of these majors he’s played a little too much coming in, and he hasn’t been as sharp, and he said that he’s not going to change his schedule from last year to this year, so that’s something that — the big thing is learning how, for these young guys, to be able to peak for the majors. Obviously these great players know how to do it, and so that’s the biggest thing is learning that for these young players. But game-wise, I think he is the most explosive offensive player, but I do think the one part of his game that he can improve is his defense. He can go through you, but you know, not everybody can always just go through you. So I’d like to see him add a little more willingness to play defense. It’s great on offense, but you’ve got to be able to do a little better when you’re on defense, and he’s got to learn to schedule a little better.
EVERT: As far as rivalries, the No. 1 word that comes to my mind is contrast, and I think that Martina and I had it in every way, shape and form, and I think Rafa and Roger have it, also. When you look at their style of play, you couldn’t have two more different players. You’ve got the flashy magician against the warrior, the player that’s going to grind it out. As far as personalities, they’re very different. As far as where they came from and how they were brought up, very different. So it’s such a contrast that they each bring their own set of fans to the plate, and that is just great for tennis. I mean, it’s almost — I don’t know, it just expands the whole tennis horizon even more because they draw people that aren’t even tennis fans. They draw people that are sports fans, or they just draw curious bystanders because they’re so special, those two.
And also I think they’re both gentlemen and they’re both great for the game, and they’re both great sports. People like to see that and people like to see either of them win. I mean, there’s not a bad guy versus a good guy. They’re both good, great guys, but their style of play and their personalities just are so interesting because they play into one another. And also the fact that there’s always that who’s going to win, because nobody — they don’t dominate each other. One of them doesn’t dominate the other one. It’s always like an interesting sort of question mark, who’s going to bring their A game to this match and who’s going to win this match. It’s all about the contrast.
GILBERT: To me, they’re everything that’s right in sports. I mean, they’re just two incredible competitors, classy guys. Don’t make excuses. And they have two of the most loyal fan bases I’ve ever seen globally. Their styles make you want to watch them play. I mean, one guy plays like a maestro, and the other guys you feel his heart and passion. So I just think that it’s must-see TV, and people that aren’t even really tennis fans want to see it.
I think the great thing about when they play, you’ll see so many athletes from other sports, geez, I’ve got to see Rafa courtside, I’ve got to see Roger courtside, and the feeling that people have when they have seen those guys play for the first time courtside, it’s just absolutely a treat, and like I said, these two guys conduct themselves with the utmost class that all tennis players should aspire to.
Q. Brad, how alarmed should Andy Murray’s fans be about his start to 2017? Or is it not surprising, given how much he played last year?
GILBERT: You know, everybody asks those questions any time that — all of a sudden you come down a little bit, and I can’t answer the question for him. The results answer the question. I think that he had an amazing run, and I’m not going to say that he overplayed or underplayed. He’s lost a couple of matches that — to Pospisil and to Zverev, and at the Aussies you never expect him to lose. But also that reminds you the great thing about tennis and sports. That’s why you lace up the sneakers. Every once in a while the underdog can come up with this incredible win, and it gives everybody hope. It’s so early in the year, and I felt like last year he played his best tennis by far on the clay court season, and I think that sets everything up for him, so I do think that the clay court season once again will be a really important time for him to really set the time frame. If all is said and if things don’t go well during the clay court season, then maybe we’ll reconvene, but I’m not ready to all of a sudden say that, okay, he’s not going to win a major this year and he’s going to really drop off. But I need to see the clay season, and I’m not worried, but a couple results that definitely have surprised you.
EVERT: I don’t think the fans should worry. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, Murray fans. You know, it’s all part of the game. You just can’t keep up a certain level forever, and very much like Djokovic has gone through, we saw Nadal go through it, also, and I think Andy — it’s not only last year, but look at how much he played last year with the Olympics, but look at the year before, he played a lot, and I think he has to work so hard, like Nadal, he has to work so hard, he doesn’t get very many free points, so he’s putting in extra work in his matches. It doesn’t surprise me that maybe he’s a little weary at this point. It doesn’t surprise me at all. Any of us who have been through that grind and who have been No. 1 and who have played a lot understand that there are going to be times when you’re weary, times when you have letdowns, and it’s the mark of a champion that you get it back. It’ll be a nice challenge for him.