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A near death penalty for Gasquet, Serena's attitude and more mail

Can you please explain the ITF's drug policy to me? I understand why it tests for performance-enhancing substances -- the sport's governing body has a responsibility to the fans and players to maintain a level playing field. But why are they even testing for other drugs, let alone banning players for two years for using cocaine? Yes, recreational drug use is illegal, not to mention pretty stupid and self-destructive for an athlete, but did Richard Gasquet's brush with nose candy give him an unfair advantage at Delray Beach? Did Martina Hingis' (disputed, fleeting) snort have any ill effect on her colleagues or the millions of tennis fans enjoying her lingering presence on the tour?-- Bobby, New York

• We look at other sports and mock their anti-doping protocol -- the loopholes, the tip-offs and the toothless deterrents. Just last week, after all baseball has been through, Manny Ramirez tests positive for a banned substance and receives... a 50-game suspension. Sounds severe, given the laughably light penalties from the previous era, but it's still barely a quarter of the season. Yet tennis represents the other end of the spectrum: an anti-doping protocol that is so draconian and intrusive and inflexible that it, too, undermines the sport. Two days after Ramirez's embarrassment, Gasquet tests positive for cocaine. Leaving aside his guilt or innocence -- he claims the latter -- it's a first offense and it's for a recreational drug, not one considered to enhance performance or distort competition. Gasquet's punishment? Two years, which in tennis terms is damn near close to a death penalty.

Few of us, of course, have an inside track on whether Gasquet did or didn't dabble in Bolivian marching powder. Like many, I find it wildly out of character. But, really, who knows? What we do know is this: In the absence of a real union, tennis players are getting hammered on the issue of anti-doping. The "penal code" is way out of whack with reality or fairness. The appeals process is convoluted and prohibitively expensive. The thresholds are brutally harsh. The banned substance list is exhaustive -- until recently, it included anti-hair-loss drugs. (And while no one condones cocaine, haven't the last three U.S. presidents admitted to illicit drug use?)

In the bizarre case of Hingis, we witnessed a player whose sample contained such a trace amount of the cocaine metabolite, she would have passed the drug testing administered by the U.S. military. And it appears this is a repeat. Gasquet already claims that a hair test -- which many analysts consider the most reliable test for cocaine -- will exonerate him. Let the lawsuits begin. (At least, unlike so many players, Gasquet, can presumably afford it.)

Some of the blame here lies with the players. For all their vocal indignation about blue clay courts and mandatory video shoots and a dozen other petty annoyances, where's the outrage over a drug policy that triggers a two-year penalty for recreational drugs? And I blame the tours, too. They essentially signed off on the WADA code and delegated testing to the ITF for economic reasons -- Wait, you'll pick up the tab? Sweet! -- without giving full consideration to the effects.

As this plays out, I worry about Gasquet. As flashy and artistic as his game could be, he always struck me as painfully shy and emotionally immature, someone particularly ill-suited for living in the public eye. Even when he was embedded in the top 10, he never projected self-belief or comfort in his own skin. Tellingly (and poignantly), the goal of his charitable foundation is "to help adolescents who struggle to find their place in society and who suffer from a lack of confidence." Here's hoping he has the strength to fight this. And here's hoping we see him back much sooner than two years from now.

Regarding your answer last week to the e-mailer's question about Serena Williams, I really don't understand why she gets a pass from the media when it comes to her lack of sportsmanship. Other players, male and female, get called out over this kind of stuff, but when it comes to Serena, the media collectively shrug and say she's right. While that may be the case, there is a No. 1-ranked player in the world, and it is not her. Given her sense of entitlement, I'm glad that it is so.-- Alex, Mission Viejo, Calif.

• Compare, for instance, her remarks with Rafael Nadal's when he was second behind Roger Federer. In the 2008 French Open final, Nadal tuned Federer, including the bagel in the third set. After the match I asked Nadal whether, deep down, he felt like he was No. 1. "No, no, no. I feel like No. 2 now," he said, oblivious, of course, to the double entendre. "I am No. 2 and closer to No. 3 than the No. 1."

But here's my point: So many of you were outraged over her "lack of class" and "gracelessness," and that's fine. But where's the outrage over players who are afraid of the moment, who buckle under pressure, who fail upward, who can't summon their best when it matters most, the real test of an athlete? Ana Ivanovic wins the French and has scarcely been heard from since. An almost unwatchably nervous Dinara Safina wins three games in the last Grand Slam final. Time and again Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova fail to deliver in the big matches. Jelena Jankovic has regressed in 2008. OK, the two aren't mutually exclusive, but I'd rather have an impolitic athlete with Serena's track record than a pleasant one who can't win.

Here's a stat for you: Serena's record in the last four Grand Slams is 22-2. Her regular tour record in the past 12 months? It's 20-10 after her Madrid loss, with no titles. Have you ever seen a disparity like this?-- Brian, Vancouver, B.C.

• Wow. And, no, can't say I've ever seen that kind of disparity. I guess you go one of two ways here: Serena brings the good at the majors, or she really goes at something other than full speed the rest of the year. Let me throw this out: Physical durability is not a strong suit here. Perhaps more than any player, she benefits from the extra day between matches that the Slams provide.

Speaking of players somehow not being ranked No. 1, how in the world was Guillermo Vilas not top-ranked in 1977? He hardly lost a match after June (excepting Wimbledon).-- Jim Bartle, Huaraz, Peru

• Unbelievable.

If you need a city to bash you can pick (your feet in) Poughkeepsie. We're used to it!-- Brian Thomas, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

• Then it's no fun. It's like The Office picking on Scranton, the civic equivalent of some low-hanging fruit.

Please answer this question as it has bugged me for YEARS! Pete Sampras is widely regarded as GOAT because of the 14 major titles. Please tell me how someone can be considered GOAT when there was a major (and a surface) he couldn't win on. Not even a French Open final on Sampras' résumé and it wasn't like he had a clay god like Nadal keeping him from the crown in Paris. I am not writing this to say Federer should be GOAT over Sampras but to simply say I appreciate someone like an Andre Agassi or Nadal who either win on all surfaces or at least make multiple major finals on all surfaces. It just seems to be that a GOAT player should be able to win a major on grass, hard AND clay, regardless of how many titles they rack up elsewhere. -- Matt Waters, St. Petersburg, Fla.

• I think the logic goes like this: While the lack of a French Open title (or, unlike Federer, proficiency on clay) is obviously the glaring omission on Sampras' résumé, it doesn't disqualify him from GOAT consideration. It would be nice to have won the "career Slam," but it's not a prerequisite.

In addition to making tennis history by winning, the Williams sisters have also changed tennis by losing. Two of their more sensational losses resulted in two of the biggest changes in the game in recent years. The first sensational game-changing loss was Venus' loss to the unseeded Barbara Schett, then ranked No. 25, in the first round at Roland Garros in 2001, which resulted in the seeding of 32 players at big events. The second was Serena's loss, amid a slew of atrocious line calls that went against her, to Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open in 2004, which resulted in the use of Hawkeye.-- Kathy, Michigan

• Good point. You could also add that Venus' loss to Karolina Sprem at Wimbledon in 2004 led to creation of the electronic scoreboard.

What do you think about the tennis-wide tendency to use adjectives instead of adverbs when describing play? Examples: "We both played aggressive," Venus Williams said.

"He played phenomenal." (That's not a specific quote, just Brad Gilbert in general).-- Henry, Queens, N.Y.

• I think they're talking crazy.

You say you don't think many predicted the dramatic nature of Fed's decline. In fact, I wrote to you a year ago and noted that Fed was at the age -- 26 and counting -- at which tennis greats always decline. I noted the careers of Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, etc. all declined significantly at this age. To paraphrase the Clinton campaign slogan -- "It's the age, stupid." I don't understand why this obvious fact is not recognized. If you spend a few moments you will see that absent some exceptions that prove the rule (Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi), by 27 a tennis great's best years are behind him.-- David Danon, Wayne, Pa.

• Again, it's a matter of degrees. Most of us realize that the ride has to end eventually, the pace of winning three Majors a year is ridiculous, and, yes, a tennis player in his mid-20s is well into his sunset years. Speaking for myself, what I didn't predict was that the once-mighty Federer would go seven months (and counting) without a title of any size, that his best shots would fail him in big matches, that he would cede so much ground to Nadal so quickly.

Even discounting Agassi, plenty of players -- particularly those whose games were not of the grinding, speed-based variety a la Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Lleyton Hewitt -- have some sporadic success in their late 20s and even early 30s. I stand by my prediction that Federer hasn't won his last Slam. But, again, it's surprising how little traction he's picked up thus far in 2009.

What is it with Juan Martin del Potro and the legs of his shorts? One of them keeps having a strange sort of upward movement of one of the legs.-- Don Engel, Rohnert Park, Calif.

• Better that than Iveta Benesova's problem.

You gave props to Guillermo Coria on his retirement. How about props to Gaston Gaudio, the winning finalist in their Roland Garros tussle, who picked up the Challenger title in Tunisia last week? Kudos to him for putting in the effort and playing the minors to resurrect his injury-marred career.-- Robert Webb, Dalton, Ga.

• Props, it is.

• From the shameless self-promotion department: We're still a few weeks away from the official publication but the Federer/Nadal book is already in stores, I'm told.

Richard Jordan of Providence, R.I.: "Just in case someone cares, the 'run out of time' quote [mentioned in last week's mailbag] came previously from Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packer teams. If Jimmy Connors used it, he borrowed it. No problem, though -- he surely felt that was the case."

John Sellers of Royal Oak, Mich., begs to differ: "Actually, it was the '50s Detroit Lion quarterback Bobby Layne who originally said, 'I never lost a game. I just ran out of time.' "

Alex Parkhurst, Denver: "That quote made by Jimmy Connors was borrowed from Vince Lombardi. Don't know if he borrowed it from somebody."

• Great quote. Regardless.

Kenneth Milstein of San Francisco kicks us this fantastic Lindsay Davenportspoof.

• The Mississippi men and Texas A&M women finished the 2009 season atop the second annual ITA Attendance Race standings for regular-season home matches. Ole Miss drew 5,550 fans this season at the Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center and Gillom Tennis Center. The Rebels had a strong finish, fighting off the 2008 Attendance Race champs, Virginia and Georgia, each of which drew more than 5,000. For the second year in a row, the Texas A&M women led the race from start to finish, packing in 4,583 at the George P. Mitchell Tennis Center. The total was more than 2,000 more than runner-up Alabama.

• Props to Alex Kwee of Singapore for noticing: In the second round of Madrid, Zheng Jie of China played the winner of a match between Amelie Mauresmo of France and Ai Sugiyama of Japan. All were born on July 5. (Mauresmo beat Zheng on Tuesday.)

Sundar of Laurel, Md.: "From the 1982 U.S Open to the 1991 Open, Ivan Lendl made the semifinals in 27 of the 34 Grand Slam tournaments he participated in. How about that as far as consistency? And what's noteworthy is during this period the top five players more or less were John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, all of whom won multiple Slams. When people talk about competition being so close these days, the fact of the matter is it's only three or four players who routinely win Slams and show up in the semis, namely Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick. So Lendl's consistency is even more amazing and he has always been shortchanged in the greatness department."

• One of you noticed that James Blake has now lost his last three finals after claiming the opening set. Those opponents? Albert Montanes, Marcel Granollers and Kei Nishikori.

Danny of New York: "Belated comment on Fed Cup regarding the commentary. The U.S. team was down early and big in the first set when Corina Moriaru said that they needed to focus on staying close because both members of the Czech team had a propensity for getting tight in close situations. That's exactly what happened when the Czechs served for it in the second set. Before the third, Corina said that if the U.S. could get up early, they could run away with the match. Again, exactly what happened. Let's give this underrated commentator her props ...and a shot at the big time!"

• Interesting look at sports sponsorship.

Here's a long-lost brothers entry, from Don Engel of Rohnert Park, Calif.: Gilles Simon and Christopher Walken.

And sisters, from Rich of White Plains, N.Y.: Daniela Hantuchova and Emily Deschanel.

Have a great week, everyone!

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