Thursday May 28th, 2009

When are people going to start criticizing James Blake as one of the largest underachievers in men's tennis? His performance against Leonardo Mayer at the French Open was abysmal. Not only did he play a terrible tactical match, but he also showed no effort or intensity. Blake consistently chokes away golden opportunities to advance at majors, and yet he is never criticized by the media (most likely because he's a nice guy and a great interview). Look at ESPN's coverage of the match. Patrick McEnroe and Darren Cahill soft-pedal James' terrible strategies because they are too close to him. ESPN then goes to Mary Carillo and she rightly crucifies James' strategy and effort. The media love to criticize Andy Roddick, but Roddick's competitiveness, willingness to adapt and tennis intelligence are far superior to Blake's. Thoughts? -- Steven, San Jose, Calif.

• Where to begin? I don't disagree with your premise. At least relative to other players, Blake doesn't field much criticism for his shortcomings, particularly in majors. I can only speak for myself, but I can confirm Steven's suspicion: You see that someone is a fundamentally decent guy, an accessible subject who makes your job easier, takes his off-court obligations seriously ... and you're not particularly inclined to criticize him. You know, of course, that personal sentiment shouldn't cloud objective commentary. But you're human. Someone treats you with respect and you resist "crucifying" him.

What is up with Blake? For one, his tactics are unworthy of someone who is otherwise thoughtful and bright. Too much go-for-broke whacking, too much impatience. I also think he psyches himself out. His postmatch remarks about clay suggest that he never believed in himself on the surface. He is known to be thrown off by the slightest dissatisfaction with his equipment. A confidant says he's immensely sensitive -- to subpar conditions, to perceived slights, to media criticism. Blake turns 30 this winter and surely knows the engine won't purr forever. Be nice to see him make one more run. Be nice to see a good guy do well.

Ivo Karlovic serves 55 aces and loses to Lleyton Hewitt in five sets. Joachim "Pim Pim" Johansson served 51 aces against Andre Agassi four years before in Australia and lost in four. What does that tell us about the servers, and more important, the returners like Hewitt and Agassi? -- Deepak, Ann Arbor, Mich.

• Isn't this a great validation for tennis? It isn't power uber alles. Dudes can set records for aces and still lose matches! Let's be clear that we're talking very extreme cases here. I think of Karlovic as a solid college player with a world-class serve. When the gun is firing, he can beat Roger Federer. When it's not, he can lose to anyone in the top 1,000. So his loss to Hewitt -- on clay, no less -- is really not surprising, his ace tally notwithstanding. (Theory: Karlovic's ground game is so suspect, it forces him to take even greater risks on his serve, so his ace quotient is particularly misleading.)

In the case of Agassi, we're talking about arguably the greatest returner ever, especially when it comes to hard servers. (Agassi could return Thor's thunderbolts as if they were propped on a tee, but was less effective a returner when pushed out wide a la Patrick Rafter. Agree?)

Why do reporters transcribe Rafael Nadal's rhetorical "no" at the end of every sentence? If you hear him speak, his "no" is barely audible. It's more like an "um," but I don't see many reporters transcribing "um" when other athletes speak. -- Nadal Pet Peeve, Singapore

• Um, that's a good question, no? I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy -- jingoist journalists clean up the syntax of Americans but leave the Spanish hanging out to dry! But my strong suspicion is that the transcribers (who are amazing) record every word but not every guttural utterance.

Am I the only one who is not excited about Kim Clijsters rejoining the WTA Tour? I don't think she's the answer to all that's ailing the WTA (rankings especially). But more important, it's hard to root for someone who left the game we love with no respect to the fans or the sport on her way out. -- Allan Cruz, Exton, Pa.

• I say cut her some slack. True, hers was not the most graceful of exits and she probably made one too many comments about her leaving the Dickensian conditions of the WTA Tour. But particularly given her family situation, the desire for a break was understandable. And you always had a sense this was less a retirement than an extended break. The WTA could use her back in the cast and I'm not so sure she isn't a Slam contender.

I personally don't care if you use "proverbial" every week just so long as you don't start using "phenom." -- Phil, Sydney

• Long as we're dressing up as the grammar/syntax/word choice police, could someone explain the concept of "literal" to certain TV commentators? Unless there's smoke coming out of his ears, Nadal is not "literally on fire." Nor is Serena Williams "literally in nirvana." Nor did Roddick "literally go for broke." I suspect, had he missed the shot, he would still have been able to afford his flight home.

Speaking of Serena, here are two vastly different perspectives on her:

In the red corner, Jason Englisbe of Mauldin, S.C.: "Serena claims her knee injury is because she has played in too many events. What is the deal with her? Why can't she play more than five events in a year without getting injured? She has played eight events so far this year, and she lost early in three of them. She hasn't won a match since March [before the French Open]. That is too hard of a schedule? She has pulled out of two events this year! She doesn't deserve No. 1. As a comparison, Elena Dementieva is on her 10th event (won two of them) and played a Fed Cup event. Jelena Jankovic is on her ninth event and played two Fed Cup rounds. Dinara Safina is on her eighth event and only lost early twice. How come none of them have had to pull out of two events this year?"

And in the opposing corner, here's Jon of St. Cloud, Minn.: "You answered the question about Serena in majors better in your previous answer: The others choke under majors pressure, and Serena comes alive. It's not lack of effort, but it's a different attitude on her behalf. In the non-majors, she's working her game into shape for the majors, while the others are in it for the money and the opportunity when all of the very best aren't there.

"Serena wins when it matters, and if majors are all history remembers -- and they are -- then she has it exactly right in her approach, and exactly right that she is, in the tournaments that truly matter, overwhelmingly No. 1 indeed."

You mention a lot of other sports in your column. How about a little love for table tennis? The similarities with big tennis are countless: Both surfaces are called courts, both require a similar skill set, very mental, fun to watch and play, the word "tennis" is of course there for both and table tennis, just like its big brother, is also full of questionable characters, if only of a different income level. All that's missing is the level of attention. -- Alex Gorbounov, Cary, N.C.

• I'm not sure whose interests are served when all racket sports are conflated. When Tennis Channel used to air platform tennis matches, I thought it carried a whiff of amateur hour. (It's like when Comedy Central aired Carlos Mencia -- technically he's a comedian but it felt awkward and grafted on.) Again, no disrespect to table tennis, which I happen to enjoy playing and, in small doses, watching. But I'm a little reluctant to assume that all tennis fans feel likewise.

• From Scott Graham of Oakland, Calif.: "Can you give a shout-out to [umpire] Mohammed Layhani for his handling of the Nadal-Djokovic match [in Madrid]? He seemed to strike the right balance between letting the Nadal partisans have their fun but preventing them from intruding into the match."

• Reader Doug Pacht was recently selected to participate in the Maccabiah Games. He writes: "In order to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime event, I am relying on contributions to help support my portion of the fund raising for this event. I have set an individual goal of raising $8,000 from the generous community. I am asking for you to share my outreach with others in your personal network so that they can learn and contribute to this great cause. All levels of contribution are appreciated and are tax-deductible. If you have any questions, e-mail me at"

Zolbol of Durban, South Africa sends this sweet YouTube clip.

Bob and Mike Bryan are featured in the Men's Fitness June/July summer issue on newsstands now.

To order a copy of Jon Wertheim's' new book, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, click here.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.