Wednesday April 1st, 2009

I am about ready to give up on James Blake. He just can't seem to win much anymore. I even think Pat McEnroe might want to consider replacing Blake with Sam Querrey for the next Davis Cup. Can you convince me otherwise? -- Doug, San Diego, Calif.

• No question these are tough times for Blake, who lost at the Sony Ericsson the other night to Tomas Berdych, precisely the type of opponent he needs to be beating. It's been a while since he's turned in a result worthy of his ranking and he's not getting any younger. But if you went back and tracked Blake's career on a graph, you would see a lot of ups and downs. Even discounting his annus horribilis, he's always been a streaky player whose good results tend to come in bunches. It's funny too: For as thoughtful and personable and downright normal Blake is as a person, he's a bit eccentric as a player. A friend of his once described him as "neurotic." If his equipment isn't perfect -- he has a long history of racket issues -- or his strings feel funny or he has a nagging injury, it can really play with his head.

As for Davis Cup, I think you have to reward loyalty, even if Querrey is the hotter player coming in. Along with Andy Roddick, Blake has anchored the U.S. resurgence and deserves some equity for that.

Is it just me, or does Roger Federer seem to play with slightly less intensity in non-Slam tournaments? Personally, I think that at this stage in his career, Federer only cares about the Slams, because to many fans, passing Pete Sampras' mark of 14, regardless of the number of Masters titles won, would make him the GOAT. Think about it: Who even remembers how many Masters titles Sampras won? Who doesn't know how many Grand Slams he's won? Despite Federer's talk about how all matches are important, I truly think he purposely steps it up at the Majors. Your thoughts? -- Robert B., Melbourne, Fla.

• I'll go a step further. Given where he is at this stage of his career, if Federer had the same zeal for Cincinnati and Madrid that he had for Paris and Wimbledon, something would be seriously wrong. He's in the final few minutes of the supermarket shopping spree. Of course he's going for the steaks and lobsters and not the Campbell's Soups. (Worthy sponsor of the Newport events and college tennis though they might be.)

Can you explain why Taylor Dent had to work his way through the qualifying draw in Miami while lesser-known American talent and India's Yuki Bhambri were awarded wild cards? Hasn't Dent done enough in the past for American tennis and fought back from a potentially career-ending injury to deserve such a reward? -- Mike McIntyre, Guelph, Ontario

• Never mind merit or backstory. The critical inquiry: Is player X with IMG, the company that is running Key Biscayne? If not, he could be a former Wimbledon champ returning to tennis after injuries sustained in a burning orphanage rescue -- and he would have to go through the qualies.

Any stats on tennis coaches winning (through their pupils) the most number of Grand Slams? Is Uncle Toni on his way to becoming the greatest tennis coach of all time? -- Raj Sonak Sterling, Va.

• I thought only staring-contest champions are "winning through their pupils." Sorry. Never mind Uncle Toni (keep thinking of Michael Imperioli when I write that), how about Oracene Williams? Or, if we accept that he is "self-coached," isn't the John Wooden of tennis really Federer? Others surely on the list? Heinz Gunthardt for his tutelage of Steffi Graf. Paul Annacone, there for much of the Sampras Glory Years. Carlos Rodriguez for Justine Henin.

Michael Phelps gets a three-month ban while Martina Hingis gets two years. Am I missing something? -- Aaron R., Bloomington

• It's not a perfect comparison. Different drugs, different circumstances, different sports. Hingis "failed" -- if you want to call it that -- a doping test administered in competition. There was no analytical evidence implicating Phelps; just a "damning" photo.

But your larger point is well-taken. To use a highly technical term, Hingis' test result stinks -- I wish she'd hired me as her lawyer. The timing makes no sense, as she knew the test was coming. The drug in question is generally not considered performance-enhancing. It was a first offense. In what would seem to be a tacit admission of wrongdoing, in the wake of the Hingis decision administrators now have more discretion to reduce punishment when there are extenuating circumstances ...yet she was handed what amounted to a lifetime ban. Unless, of course, she wanted to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to an appeal. Athletes in other sports would barely get their knuckles rapped for an equivalent offense.

A few of you asked whether I thought Hingis, given her unfortunate exit from tennis, was still a lock for the Hall of Fame. I can speak only for myself but I would vote for her tomorrow without qualification. Five Grand Slams, a long stretch at No. 1, success in doubles. Never mind that it would be hypocritical to deny her, given that various other players enshrined in Newport, in addition to the past three U.S. presidents, have admitted to illicit drug use. I feel -- and you may have gotten this vibe by now -- that Hingis was really railroaded.

Donald Young appears to be in the tank. You will allow this story to develop, but I await your opinion. -- Jack Simons, Santa Clarita, Calif.

• I will allow this story to develop. Hard as this is to believe, the kid is still a teenager. I will also allow that, after making some real progress in late 2007 and early 2008, Young has been disappointing lately. It's an open secret that there's a "parental propinquity problem," as they say in polite circles. He also is a fiery, combustible sort, who can take himself out of matches with his self-defeating attitude. There's so much talent and athleticism there, you hope the emotional maturity -- "Love you mom, but I need to hire a coach who once played on the ATP tour" or "Everyone misses easy balls so I will not throw my racket this time" -- catches up to the physical gifts.

I'd like to belatedly defend Milwaukee. A few months back you mildly insulted both Milwaukee and Pittsburgh as being Rust Belt, boring cities. Come to Milwaukee in the summer. The festivals can't be beat! We have the world's largest music fest and every ethnic-themed festival you can imagine, in addition to the great bars and museums and whatnot. No offense taken, but come and see for yourself. It's not New York, but it's a good, fun place to be. -- Ben Bittner, Milwaukee, Wis.

• As a proud son of the Midwest, I can't imagine I would say anything disparaging about the great city of Milwaukee and its unbeatable festivals, Bratwurst mascots, Calatrava-designed museums and whatnot. Mocking a Rust Belt city isn't cool these days anyway. Winnipeg, on the other hand? You're dead to me.

After being thumped by seventh-seeded Gilles Simon, Lleyton Hewitt simply picked up his bags and walked off the court. I was standing in the back row of the bleachers and could see him leave. No press followed him, no one stopped him for an autograph, there was no escort assigned to him, not even a volunteer. He walked completely unnoticed through the crowd. Hmmm, what's the moral of this story? -- Jenna Ward, Miami Beach, Fla.

• Hmmm. Either a) karma is a bitch or b) Key Biscayne has substandard player services.

I opened the SI vault about Rafael Nadal (A Prince Beat A King -- June 13, 2005). Some interesting observations. Close to four years since then, it's fascinating how Rafa has lived up to the euphoria and hype and so has the rivalry with Federer. He certainly proved he was the real thing. On the women's side, Justine Henin, who ruled the women's game at that time, abruptly called it quits. The Williams sisters, whom you declared fading, are back and very much at the top of the game. Maria Sharapova is still struggling with injury, and Kim Clijsters, after having retired, is planning a comeback. My question is, with the longevity of the Williams sisters in the sport's top echelon despite their physical style of play, would you fault them for having interests other than tennis -- which they were heavily criticized for? -- Larry Dizon, Dubai

• As I think (hope?) I've written before, the tennis establishment should beat the rush and begin apologizing to the Williams sisters right now. Simply put, they were right. We (and I include myself) were wrong. A decade after they burst on the scene -- it was almost 10 years to the day that they played that historic and foreshadowing match in the Key Biscayne final -- they're still going strong. Case closed.

More of a comment but hope you like it. Barely three months into the season and Nadal has beaten every member of the current top 10. Has another player ever done this so early into the season?

2. Fed: Australian Open 3. Novak Djokovic: Davis Cup 4. Andy Murray: Indian Wells 5. Nikolay Davydenko: Abu Dhabi Exhibition 6. Roddick: Indian Wells 7. Juan Martin del Potro: Indian Wells 8. Simon: Australian Open 9. Fernando Verdasco: Australian Open 10. Gael Monfils: Rotterdam

Not to mention wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 11), Fernando Gonzalez (No. 13) and David Nalbandian (No. 15). I know Nadal gets a lot of attention, but I don't think people are appreciating the year he is having! -- Jeff, Milwaukee

• Nice point. And I can't say enough nice things about your exquisite hometown.

"Sadly, I think A-Rad is one of those players who was simply born a generation or two too late." I see you used my A-Rad nick. At least a mention. And while I'm at it, I call dibs on Roger Fatherer. -- William, Rosario

• Props to William for siring the nickname Roger Fatherer.

People have been speaking of Murray as a better version of Hewitt. If the world's No. 4 is really better than the guy who was No. 1 for many months, how good is the field right now? We have one and possibly two GOAT candidates and two guys who could be No. 1 had they been playing in 2001. -- Toni, Brazil

• Not sure I necessarily buy that comparison. Murray hits a bigger ball, plays more cerebrally, has a greater arsenal of shots and has yet to alienate the entire tennis community. Hewitt, in his prime, was probably a better pure athlete and competed more intensely. He also won two Majors and did a turn at No. 1, neither of which Murray has done. Without taking too much away from Hewitt, he also had some exquisite timing. He came along after Sampras and Andre Agassi were at their best and before the Federer-Nadal machine revved into high gear. At their peaks, I honestly think Murray might be the better player.

While Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish hardly played doubles together professionally, calling their team a "shotgun partnership" is not entirely true. You, of all people, do not need any reminders that these two virtually grew up playing tennis together. -- Bill Larracas, Brentwood, Calif.

• Shotgun in the sense that they haven't exactly been dating steady as a team.

• Good soldier that I am, I will remind you again about the tennis twitter feeds going on here.

• Can Ralph Lauren give this kid a contract already (thanks to Danielle of Baton Rouge, La.)?

• Random: If you're a fluent Greek speaker looking for some beer money, contact me.

Dick Enberg will receive the second Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Broadcasting from Fordham University's WFUV Public Radio at its spring gala on May 6 in New York City. Paul Simon and Jim Lehrer will also be honored at the event.

Andy of the Bronx: The solution to tennis' lack of TV coverage.

• Another tennis twitterer. Sign up here.

Rich of New York: Here's a late entry to the tennis marriage game: If Ivana Lisjak married Dominik Hrbaty, she'd be Ivana Hrbaty (I vant her body). Sorry.

Kristien Schoonjans of Antwerp: Brian Lynch (Kim Clijsters' husband) has the Belgian nationality since March 2008. He might play for Belgium.

• Dunlop announced a multiyear partnership with Austrian tennis star Jurgen Melzer. Under the terms of his new agreement, Melzer will be playing the new Dunlop Aerogel 4D 300 Tour racket and endorsing Dunlop tennis balls.

• What a run for Bjorn Phau at the Sony Ericsson. He loses in qualies, then gets into a seeded spot as lucky loser when Richard Gasquet pulls out. So he's straight into a second-round match. Then he advances when his opponent, Albert Montanes, retires!

Ivan H. of New York submits this week's long-lost siblings:

Robin Soderling & Andrei Arshavin.

Have a great week everyone!

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