Wednesday April 8th, 2009

Has there been a more fun time in men's tennis than now? Rafael Nadal is definitively on top, Roger Federer is still in the mix with a will to regain his form, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have officially arrived, Juan Martin del Potro is continuing to make strides, and Andy Roddick seems to be right on the verge this season. With variations for surface, there seem to be six players in the mix to some extent for any major tournament right now. Let's hope they all stay healthy. -- Dan, Atlanta

• You know we've been going a little dark lately -- the lousy domestic TV coverage, what's up with Federer, the whole global meltdown thing -- I figured we'd start on an up note. As Dan suggests, we all ought to take a step back and consider our good fortune these days. Lots of storylines, not least the simultaneous existence of Federer and Nadal, two of the better players in the sport's history. Lots of weekly drama. Lots of top players -- a top four and then a next cluster of Roddick, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, del Potro -- who can be counted on to reach the latter rounds week in and week out. There's also a variety of styles. Murray, for instance, may be challenging Federer and Nadal, but he plays nothing like either. Amen to your hope they all stay healthy.

I grew up and came to love women's tennis in what I call the glory days: the 1990s. Chris Evert was gone and Martina Navratilova was slowing down, but women's tennis was very exciting. There was the Steffi Graf/Moncia Seles rivalry, the emergence of Jennifer Capriati, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario overachieving, the Jana Novotna drama, the Martina Hingis swagger, Mary Pierce having the occasional huge two weeks, and Linsday Davenport making the most of her potential. Now, it seems, the magic is gone. We have Venus, Serena and then it's an endless parade of Eastern European head cases with no staying power whatsoever. What will save the WTA from irrelevance? -- Chad Silvey, Akron, Ohio

• Remember those same 1990s and early 2000s? Pete Sampras was slowing down. Andre Agassi was unreliable. Thomas Enqvist playing Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Grand Slams finals? Thomas Johansson, anyone? Albert Costa? Prospects like Mark Philippoussis and Tommy Haas flaming out? It was thrown into particularly sharp relief by all the drama and intrigue and color in the women's game.

My point: It's cyclical. Yes, at least stylistically, the women's game has seen better days. But that will change. A fiercely determined Belgian with a one-handed backhand will come along to thwart the monolithic baseline bashing. A pair of African-American sisters will emerge from Compton. A trash-talking phenom or a thoughtful avowed lesbian will come along. Victoria Azarenka will win Majors. Courtney Paris will take up tennis. Whatever. Are the Lakers irrelevant after the Magic Johnson years? No. They spend a few years regrouping and then acquire Shaq and Kobe. Same thing here. Have some faith.

With Kim Clijsters-Lynch returning to the Tour, is she a future top 10 player or a top 10 player immediately? Has the women's game changed during her absence to the point that she will have to spend more time in maybe the low 30s before she gets another shot at the top? -- Christian Rola, Luxembourg

• I think Clijsters is a top 10 player tomorrow. I'm not as down on the women's game as so many of you, but I would argue that, qualitatively, the WTA is worse now than when Clijsters left. Take away Justine Henin and Davenport and factor in an injured Maria Sharapova, and her stocks goes up further. Clijsters always had a solid game, she moved well and played a nice blend of offense-defense. Her perceived weakness was a lacking fighting spirit, but I think she's as mentally tough as anyone else in the top 10 not named Williams. I think she has a real chance here.

How would the rankings change if everyone were forced to play with the same Bjorn Borg-era wooden racket? I imagine Federer would be No. 1, followed by Nadal and perhaps Djokovic. Do Gael Monfils and Tsonga move up at the expense of Roddick, del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko? -- Alberto, Delray Beach, Fla.

• When it comes to matters of equipment, I'm at the point of throwing my hands in the air. Every racket company heralds the new line as "revolutionary" and "innovative." Yet when John McEnroe et al. complain about runaway technology, the response is that rackets haven't changed much in 20 years and the real culprit is the polyester-based string. You call the string companies and try to acquire testing data and you never hear back. Ask one expert about the new strings and you're told, "It's like mini-suction cups that hold the ball on the string, adding pace and power." No, wait, another expert claims that they propel the ball and "snap right back," an analysis completely at odds with the "suction cup" explanation.

To Alberto's question: What about this -- the top 10 would look a lot like it does now. Federer and Nadal are superior players whether armed with the latest, greatest hydroponic, aeronautic, surgically enhanced micro-fiber-carbon-titanium-thunder-aero-nouveau-series-factor or armed with a frying pan. Asserting otherwise trivializes the players and their skills. Discuss.

My wife and I have a disagreement and we would appreciate it if you would break the tie for us. What was more obnoxious and disturbing to the fans during the Miami tournament: (a) Djokovic's "blue suede" shoes (my vote), (b) Federer's protruding gut showing through his ill-fitting shirt (her vote), or a new choice of (c) Fernando Verdasco's quasi-Mohawk? -- Paul, Sacramento

• We stop at nothing to solve a domestic dispute. (I should send this to my wife, the divorce mediator.) Assuming I can't cast a write-in vote for the FSM coverage, Djokovic's leisurely pace or Azarenka's quote that she could blow her $600,000 winner's check in one day given her fondness for shopping and Mercedes .... I'll go with Djokovic's shoes. Cut Federer some slack. (Hey, at least he isn't wearing the belt he had on at Wimbledon.) And Verdasco's Mohawk is fine by me.

WTHIGOW Sebastien Grosjean? -- Jimmy, Irvine, Calif.

• Funny, I saw Grosjean in the Key Biscayne lounge with his son, cutting the figure of a retired player enjoying life in repose. We're told, however, that he is rehabbing the right shoulder that underwent surgery in December and plans on returning. Good for him. Especially since he'll be 31 next month.

Is there a conscious effort to not use pictures of Serena on this Web site? Kim C. returns, picture. Maria S. comes back from injury, picture. Serena W. voted player of the year, no picture. Often times I look at this site for news of Serena and there is no picture. I recall when Justine H. retired, picture for days, and even when Serena won something days after -- no picture. Then there is the coverage in general of women's tennis versus men's tennis. Nadal wins, picture for days. Serena wins, picture a day late and for a few days. Keep track of it yourself if you don't believe me. -- Aneer, Bowie, Md.

• Just to douse the conspiracy theory ...

Are you looking for a record that is virtually guaranteed to fall soon? Nadal will pass Agassi as the all-time leader in Super 9/Masters Series/ATP 1000 titles by the end of next year's clay court season, if not sooner. -- Alex Ketaineck, Madison, N.J.

• Alex is right. Again, I think Nadal has really "reframed" himself lately. Two years ago he was "the Spanish boy/king who dominates clay and sure seems to have Federer's number." Last year he truly established himself as "a worthy rival to Federer on all surfaces." Of late it's: "Wait a second: he's putting up these numbers at that age? Maybe we have a new GOAT candidate."

Why do you suggest that Kim Clijsters might want to compete for the U.S. simply because she is married to an American? Don't Americans realize that people of other nationalities feel every bit as proud of their country as Americans do? You might say the U.S. is the best country in the world, but Canadians tend to think the same of Canada, the Danes think the same of Denmark and the Belgians think the same of Belgium. Come on, it's not like Clijsters hails from a dictatorship with a history of human rights violations. Jeez! -- J. Butt, St. John's, Newfoundland

• Jeez, neighbor. Just throwing out the possibility. At a time when the U.S. tennis cupboard is awfully bare -- the Williams sisters don't do Fed Cup -- a former No. 1 player with an American husband is returning to the fold. Don't think it's so crazy to toss out the possibility that she might be eligible. That's all.

Azarenka: Sharapova or Daniela Hantuchova? Discuss. -- Robert, Washington, D.C.

• Is there no in-between? You're giving me a choice between a three-time Grand Slam champ and a first-team head case. I tend to think somewhere closer to Sharapova. The ascent has been rapid, the groundies are rock-solid, the physical growth doesn't seem to stop and, most important, Azarenka plays with some courage. Easy to be bullish on a player after she wins a big tournament, but I think, objectively, she's the goods, as they say. Interestingly, a tip of the cap to the Bryan Brothers, Bob and Mike. Two or three years ago they played World Team Tennis and came back raving about "this girl Azarenka who will be in the top 10, no doubt."

Has a comment intended as a compliment ever made you wince more than Svetlana Kuznetsova's words directed at Amelie Mauresmo (unwittingly reminiscent of a decade-old Hingis slur) after they won the Sony Ericsson doubles title last weekend? "We want to become doubles stars, specialists. And mixed too. Somebody will become a man and we will play mixed, because we don't want to play with other partners. We have too much fun." -- Bob K., Washington, D.C.

• A few of you mentioned this remark. I will link the transcript and then gingerly back away ...

Honestly, it was an unfortunate remark, but cut Kuznetsova a break. She's pleasantly giddy to begin with; she's speaking in a foreign tongue; and she clearly likes Mauresmo as a partner. Besides, we should simply be grateful that two accomplished singles players are joining forces and spicing up the draw. I vote: free pass.

Was Tsonga/Muhammad Ali a Long Lost Siblings Pair before or after the commentators mentioned the resemblance the first time? Or the time after that? Or the time after that ... or the time after that ... I think you get my point. -- Robert B., Melbourne, Fla.

• Agree. This belongs in the "Ivanovic practiced in a drained pool!" file. ça suffit, as they say in French.

You write articles for a number of different sports. Just curious, is tennis your first love? -- Kobi Sonoyama, Sacramento

• My first love is X-treme jai alai. But tennis is up there. For any of 100 reasons -- the global cast, the mixed genders, the mano-a-mano nature, the absence of events in Winnipeg -- it's a terrific sport from the standpoint of a journalist. And I contend that, between the lines, it's the most beautiful sport, such a rich balance of brain and brawn, strategy and execution, power and accuracy. All of which is why I find it so sad/frustrating when the sport has this serial inability to get out of its own way. I'd be happy to keep pontificating but I'm about to get preempted for the Islanders' pregame show on Fox Sports Net.

Vladislav Luskin of Oakland: On the discussion of coaches who have overseen the most Grand Slam victories: Lennart Bergelin, Bjorn Borg's coach, hands down the GOAT.

• Congrats to Ashley Harkleroad.

• Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf both signed with Creative Artists Agency.

• In case you missed it.

• Our man Ivan H. sends this odd Hawyeke link.

• A few of you passed on this terrific Michelle Kaufman piece.

• This week's long-lost siblings, from Kathy Azada of San Francisco: Paul Henri Mathieu looks like actor Michael Biehn (of Terminator fame).

• Housekeeping: I'm on vacation next week but we have an able substitute next week: Monica Seles.

Have a great week everyone!

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