I'm back from a week off. One of my new Twitter buddies noticed that I had attended the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., last week, not as a journalist but as a fan. He asked me what the experience was like, and it was a good question. I can't recall the last time I'd attended a tennis event armed not with a notebook but with a bag of popcorn, concerned not about a deadline but about my daughter's sunblock status. Here are five impressions:
• Attending a pro tennis event -- at least midweek -- has to be the best value in sports. The sessions last eight hours or so, you're entitled to move around and, most important, you get a full slate of matches. When the Knicks or Dodgers mail it in, you're out of luck and no amount of dance routines or T-shirt giveaways can mask that. In tennis, if you get a dog of a match, sit tight. The next one will be better.
• The practice courts remain the sport's unkept secret. If a band or a Broadway show opened rehearsal (at no extra charge!), fans would fall over themselves to attend. Funny how Elena Dementieva warms up right near the food court and the same folks who paid $50 to watch her compete aren't much interested in her hitting session.
• There's a reason why companies sponsor tennis events. Even at a modestly sized event, even in the throes of a recession, it was hard not to notice the makes of cars in the parking lot. It was like an S class showroom. Tennis is wise to market itself as accessible. The sport is not, contrary, to perception, expensive to play. But let's not fool ourselves: There are a lot of wealthy people in the stands.
• Sell the foreigners. I was impressed with Melanie Oudin -- can anyone lend her three or four inches? -- and Alexa Glatch has been playing well of late. But let's not fool ourselves: The days of five Americans inhabiting the top 10 are long gone and never coming back. For events like Charleston to thrive, it's really imperative to educate fans. I overheard some variation of this exchange way too frequently:
"Who's up next?"
"Don't know. Two girls whose names I can't pronounce!"
• Venus Williams = grace. I saw Venus lose to Sabine Lisicki and my enduring impression was not Lisicki's vast potential but of Venus' dignity. For as many times as I've seen her play, I was so struck by her dignified comportment. She walks around with her head high, her expression unchanged whether she hits an ace or double faults. No looks to her box pained or otherwise; no fist pumps; no antics of any kind, even now that Roger Federer has made racket-smashing hip. She didn't project indifference, just pride.
Quick and simple: How in the world does Dinara Safina get to be No. 1? I would not be surprised if she goes on to never even win a Grand Slam title!-- Timothy, Philadelphia
• Quick and simple: Tennis needs a ranking system that, yes, rewards merit, but also one that incentivizes frequent appearances. The top players -- Venus and Serena Williams but also Justine Henin and even Maria Sharapova --tend(ed) to play when they felt like it. Plus, injuries skewed the math. Hence, when players such as Jelena Jankovic and Safina entered early and often and sometimes even won titles, they were able to leapfrog superior players. Even Safina herself seems to admit that her top spot isn't necessarily deserved. On the other hand, the math doesn't lie.
I heard Rafael Nadal refers to the Fed as Roger Fodderer. Thirteen and done?-- Anandam Mamidipudi, Chelmsford, Mass.
• I'll see your "Fodderer" and raise you "Wed-erer." We'll say it once, we'll say it again: Federer is clearly in a state of decline at the moment. But how do you write off such an accomplished player so cavalierly? His days of winning three Slams each calendar year are no longer; on the other hand, it's not hard to envision him catching a few lucky breaks and bagging another few Slams.
What's with the random Winnipeg bashing asides in your last two mailbags? Besides, I'll have you know that we hosted an exhibition match in 2002 featuring no less than Monica Seles and ... Anna Kournikova. Hmm. But my point remains valid: We've got plenty of tennis players and tennis lovers up here, so show a little love for your northern neighbor! --Dave, Winnipeg
• We kid the Paris of Manitoba, the Athens of the Canadian prairie, the Rome of the convergence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. After we were told to lay off Milwaukee, Dubai and Rotterdam, well, we needed a new city to pick on. We'll find a new target. Wichita: It's on.
If Svetlana Kuznetsova and Amelie Mauresmo pair up for any of the remaining majors this year, do you think they could win? I would love to see them play Wimbledon together.-- Scott Humphrey, Pflugerville, Texas
• I submit that if these two (KuzMo? Svetelie?) played together consistently, they could easily be the best doubles team going. With the athleticism, hard serving, all-surface play and volleys, there's little reason they couldn't replicate their success in Miami.
I will always do as asked but why do I root for Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter?-- Jim, Rochester, N.Y.
• Dude was going absolutely nuts when Andy Roddick played Federer a few weeks ago in Miami. Nice to see a "big four" athlete care so much about tennis.
Regarding the discussion about the WTA: Your analogy using the Lakers being irrelevant after Magic Johnson retired is not exactly accurate. A better analogy is whether the NBA is as relevant since Michael Jordan retired. I like your reader's take, because women's tennis was clearly better in the '90s, and the NBA has clearly taken a backseat to the NFL since its halcyon days of the late 20th century. --Jay Zavislak, Phoenix
• I still say the WTA will be fine in the long run. These things go in cycles and in a few years we'll see some newly minted stars. Let's just hope there's a bit more on-court variety. I think the problem is less personality than robotic, "power baseline" bashing.
When was the last time the current (as in, at the time) male world No. 1 won Roland Garros? Should we ask the audience on this one? Either way, it looks like Nadal has another shot at the history books very shortly!-- Blake, Perth, Western Australia
• Is it me, or is reacting favorably to "GDay" as reflexive as turning the dial when Celine Dion comes on the radio? Anyway, our Aussie friend raises a good point and better question. A prize to the first correct answerer.
Why aren't U.S. commentators as interesting to listen to as the Brits or Aussies? I was watching Federer go down to Stan Wawrinka on Tennis Channel at the Monte Carlo tournament and one of the guys commented on Federer's new wife yawning a lot. The other guy asks, "Do you think Roger has been keeping the missus up late? They are on their honeymoon after all." I LOVE IT! Completely not politically correct, not an overused cliche, but rather something that an average person might say to another while watching a match. But those guys also follow up with Grade-A tennis analysis. I appreciate the candor and the humor. Those blokes aren't worried about "offending" tennis stars or glossing over them so they can become their next possible coach.-- Jackie, San Mateo, Calif.
• Fair point. And you're right that -- for better or worse -- that's precisely the kind of line Fan A would utter to Fan B watching at home. Problem is, we have this pesky FCC as well as a standard that announcers rise above the decorum level of Joe Six Pack. If an American commentator had made that remark, he'd have been suspended in less time than it would take you to read this sentence. (Insert Roger Millions joke here.)
At a time when many athletes in many sports act in a way that makes people wonder if they understand how fortunate they are to be in the circumstances they enjoy, I salute your choice of Monica Seles as a fill-in on last week's mailbag. She has a legitimate reason to bemoan her fate but doesn't! A class act.-- Don Swenson, Merrimack, N.H.
• As they say on The Wire, "True, that."
How about some props for my man Nikolay Davydenko? He comes back from two months off and promptly beats both Ivo Karlovic and David Nalbandian before losing to Andy Murray in two close sets. Not bad at all.-- Brett Davis, Los Angeles
• You want props? You got props. Davydenko is definitely one of the odder ducks in the tennis tribe. But the man can strike a clean ball. Beating Karlovic on clay is one thing, but the win against Nalbandian is of the "quality" variety.
First, Caroline Wozniacki played a final against someone whose last name starts with "Woznia." Then, she played a final against someone whose last name ends with "cki." She may be the only tennis player for whom such a feat is (will ever be?) possible.-- Mike, Champaign, Ill.
• I'd be willing to bet this has happened before, particularly with all those "-ovas," "-evas" and "-inas." But if someone wants to come confirm, I'm happy to send on a prize.
• Our new favorite tennis player.
• This week's unsolicited book recommendation, my colleague Scott Price's Heart of the Game.
• A new book by Richard Kent: Inside The U.S. Open.
• Henry Su of Mountain View, Calif., writes:
"A tale of two cities. Basel, Switzerland: 'Mirka, I know we are supposed to go on our honeymoon after the wedding but I've decided to accept a wild card for Monte Carlo in order to get more match play on clay this season. You know how important the Roland Garros crown is to me.'
"Austin, Texas: 'Brooklyn, didn't we pick a great date for the wedding? My best buddies, James [Blake] and Mardy [Fish], are here because the top American players hardly ever go to Monte Carlo. For a tune-up, there's always Rome at the end of the month."
• The United States Professional Tennis Association announced the launch of tennis-health.com, a Web site supporting the "Tennis -- for the health of it!" initiative.
• Scott Broks of New York City: "Please listen up, USTA: For the first night of this year's U.S. Open, how about a 25th-anniversary recognition of the 1984 day-turned-night-turned-Super Saturday? Line up Ivan Lendl, Pat Cash, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and let the tapes roll!
• Sharapova is out as a Pepsi endorser.
• Remember the group samprasfanz, trying to get a statue of its man erected at the U.S. Open? We get this report from Joy Parker: "Well, I wanted to let you know that we have an appointment with [the USTA] on May 12 to present our ideas and request for this statue.
"We have also found a great sculptor, Zenos Frudakis. If we get permission from USTA for our project and if Pete likes this sculptor, we will be going forward with this. Lots of ifs at the moment, but we've made positive progress so far and I wanted to let you know."
• Major props to former Los Angeles Times tennis writer Julie Cart.
• Monica Seles is returning to SIRIUS XM Radio to host a five-week series on which she will share her personal experiences through May 13.
• Anthony of La Jolla, Calif.: Nice little piece on life out of the spotlight. (How good is Linda Pearce?)
• With the first event of the year set to start in Barcelona on Thursday, the ATP Champions Tour has launched its new Web site.
• Liliana Karl of Cordoba, Argentina: Just for fun.
• David of Long Beach, Calif., has this week's long-lost siblings: Gil Reyes and Carlos Santana, especially when they're wearing the black hat & black shirt combo.
• Here's a bonus, from J.T. Continental of Seattle: Separated at birth ...Carla Suarez Navarro and Kristin Wiig as Gilly?
Have a great week, everyone!