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The rankings debate, Seles' place in history and more mail

I have to say that the treatment Dinara Safina is getting from the media is entirely unfair. It's very convenient to forget, but plenty of women held the No. 1 ranking in the last decade without holding a Grand Slam. Martina Hingis (2000) and Lindsay Davenport (2001, 2004, 2005) even finished the year at No. 1 without holding Slams (in Davenport's case, in 2004 she didn't even make a final and yet was No. 1). I realize that it isn't the ideal situation, but give the woman a break. No one works harder and wants it more, and someone who is overachieving just by being a contender deserves a little more respect.-- Dan, Tel Aviv, Israel

• Like it or not, the four majors are the tent-pole events of the sport. When the top-ranked player has yet to win one of these titles, it comes across as counterintuitive. Many fans are, understandably, uneasy that the top-ranked player has never won a top prize. Serena Williams is, understandably, uneasy that she has won three majors over the last 12 months and isn't ranked No. 1. Wouldn't the media be accused of collective incompetence if they didn't address this issue? (In the case of the other examples you gave, those players were former Slam winners, so at least they had proved their bona fides in the past, which probably reduced the backlash.)

Dan does raise a good point that Safina deserves more respect: It's not as though she achieved her top ranking by lottery. Playing by the existing rules, she amassed more ranking points than anyone else. That she committed herself to fitness and elevated her game after five years as a No. 10-15 ranked player makes her all the more admirable. Good for her. But I think it's perfectly reasonable to call into a question a system that rewards a player yet to break through on the biggest stage. In a perfect world, she wins a major and adds some gravitas to her ranking. Or in a perfect world, Williams gets her act together in smaller events and sees to it that her results in Toronto or Rome keep pace with her results in Melbourne or Wimbledon. Until then, I think there's a healthy discussion about the ranking system and the ongoing debate between rewarding the players for the biggest titles and imbuing the "garden variety" tour events with enough points to make them feel meaningful.

I saw Jeff Tarango won a qualifying match in Indianapolis. Is he making a comeback? Everyone remembers his match at Wimbledon and how he made Andre Agassi cry when they were 12-year-olds. Can you give us the inside scoop on Tarango?-- Sunil, Philadelphia

• From the source via e-mail: "No plans as yet ... just wanted to test my wares. ... if i got in a bit better shape I might be entertained by a try at it. ... haha. ... good to hear from you. ... p.s. these guys are good on this ATP WORLD TOUR thing!!!"

Speaking of comebacks, Michael Stich entered the doubles in Hamburg. He and Mischa Zverev lost in the first round.

Re: the Grand Slam winners in the Open era, how does the one-handed backhand stack up against their two-handed counterparts? I would guess the one-handers would have the advantage. -- Elad Lim, Manila, Philippines

• Before we get to Elad's question, just a quick demographic FYI for our friends at the ATP and WTA before it slips my mind: For what it's worth, I would guess that a full 10 percent of my mail comes from the Philippines. Lots of rabid and under-served tennis fans. If you're looking for another beach-head market in Asia, I suspect you could do worse than Manila.

If I understand your question right ... if we includePete Sampras and Gustavo Kuerten with Roger Federer, obviously the one-handers have fared well on the men's side in recent years. In the whole Open era, I bet it's close. Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander and Jim Courier are among those who rack up points for the two-handers. John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl go the other way.

What are the chances of Federer's wife, Mirka, making a comeback? After the baby is born, of course. She has been Roger's hitting partner for so long, maybe she is a much better player now. She should be able to get some wild cards, right?-- Goutham, Boston

• I would say the odds of this are roughly the same as the odds of Switzerland's going to war in the near future. She hasn't played for most of this decade and, of course, is a few weeks away from birthing a child. I suppose an enterprising tournament director might offer her a wild card but, again, you'd be better off offering it to Margaret Court.

A few if you have asked, "How good was Mirka?" I asked some Swiss journalists as well as a former WTA player and the consensus was that "her ranking was accurate." She was a fine 50-100 player, respectable but not likely to win majors. She is, however, the greatest tennis muse of all time.

So Wimbledon is over and we are primed to enter a big hard-court segment. What's with a bunch of clay tournaments thrown in? Is it so Oscar Hernandez, Juan Monaco and their ilk can maintain high rankings? I honestly don't get it.-- Rick Pittman, Toronto

• This is the old push-pull between diluting the product and providing opportunities. I agree with you that, at first blush, it seems odd that after Wimbledon and before the hard-court junket, there are these random clay events in Europe. On the other hand, if a promoter is willing to pony up the fees, sponsors are available and fans are buying tickets, why not give the Juan Monacos of the world a chance to earn some cash?

If Federer goes on to win the U.S. Open and subsequently the Australian Open in 2010, I think this should be considered a true Grand Slam. Why is Australian-French-Wimbledon-U.S. considered a greater achievement than French-Wimbledon-U.S.-Australian? Surely the order is arbitrary and unimportant.-- Stephen, Jerusalem

• We like the tidiness of a season. And this goes for sports in addition to tennis. A baseball pitcher who wins 15 games from mid-July until October and then wins another 15 between 2010 Opening Day and the All-Star break won't be hailed as 30-game winner. But your point is a good one. There's really only an artificial distinction between a 12-month Slam and a "true Slam."

Given the WTA's recurring problems with (a) fake mid-match injuries and (b) head cases, may I suggest that the tour explicitly authorize psychological timeouts? Imagine if, mid-match, we plop a player on a courtside couch, we bring out a shrink and he asks, "Dinara, why do you think you're unworthy of winning this Slam?" We do this, and Jelena Jankovic never needs to fake an injury again!-- Scott, New York, N.Y.

• "Nadia, that pressure you feel is a leaf. It's off the tree, wafting in the air and falling, falling ... the leaf falls into a cool river and now it's drifting downstream, away, away, until it's out of sight."

Nadal theory: As a clearly deep-feeling human being, Nadal felt so badly for what he had done to Federer after the Aussie meltdown that it sapped his ferocity. He had killed the king, and didn't really want the throne after all. As such, he has played with a bewildering lack of passion and killer instinct since then, and may never be the same. Legitimate theory or crackpot scenario?-- B.D., California

• Um ...

Golf isn't even a quasi-sport, as you referred to it last week. My gang here came up with some categories for athletic endeavors: sport, contest and exhibition. Sport requires offense and defense from the opponents -- what your opponent does immediately and physically affects your next play, shot, pass, whatever. Defense involving physical proximity or contact is optional. So sports include tennis, basketball, football, soccer, hockey, baseball, water polo, i.e. most of the usual suspects. Contests are determined by who is the best performer in an objectively measured event, like golf, track and field, swimming, ski racing, etc. There's ongoing debate here about the athleticism of golf (and of darts and NASCAR). Exhibitions are judged and include figure skating, gymnastics and half-pipe snow-boarding, i.e. athletic versions of American Idol or America's Got Talent. Non-athletic events get grouped into "games" and I suppose they could be sub-divided the same way if we had a bigger vocabulary.-- Dan Ohlsen, Longmont, Colo.

• That's an interesting designation. Someone once proposed to me that an activity can't be a "sport" if you and the opposition don't have to compete simultaneously. It's similar to your point about "defense." But don't we all agree that most races (sprints, marathons, the Tour de France), though objectively measured, still entail a measure of strategy/defense? As long as you brought up golf, what do we make of Tom Watson? Compelling story and all, but I'm not sure a 59-year-old challenging for a major -- and outlasting Tiger Woods --sends a great message. Could you imagine the beating tennis would take if, say, Roscoe Tanner, showed up at Wimbledon 2009 at age 57, and reached the final?

I realize the United States won Davis Cup a mere two years ago, but am I incorrect in asking the question: When is the last time a player not named Roddick/Bryan won an important Davis Cup match? I realize the U.S. played without its top-ranked competitor, but there is no reason it shouldn't have pulled out the tie against Croatia. There comes a point that players like James Blake and Mardy Fish need to step up and take some of the pressure off Roddick.-- Jon, Chicago

• Valid question. Though I was hoping more of you would ask this question: How can Davis Cup expect to remain a relevant event when the quarterfinal rounds are held a few days after Wimbledon? (In the case of the U.S. team: on the indoor clay!) Unquestionably, the U.S. team would benefit from a reliable second singles player. The captain's own brother expressed surprise that the struggling Blake got the call last week. (Fish was obviously summoned when Roddick withdrew.) Particularly if Sam Querrey can continue his strong play, I suspect we may see a lineup change before long.

In May, you wrote about Richard Gasquet: "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." Are you happy now?-- Doug, Chicago

• Yes. But here's what I don't get: The tribunal went to great lengths to exonerate Gasquet. In the kind of florid language usually reserved for college letters of recommendation, the panel practically gushed, "We have found the player to be a person who is shy and reserved, honest and truthful, and a man of integrity and good character. ... He is neither a cheat nor a user of drugs for recreational purposes." The implicit message: The testing system is flawed. Yet Gasquet faces a lifetime ban should he test positive a second time?

In light of her entry into the Hall of Fame, where does Monica Seles rank in the history of the women's game? How do you factor in the stabbing incident? Steffi Graf, arguably the best women's player ever, won 11 of her major titles after the incident, having lost three of four finals to Seles before that. In my book, she's right behind the Graf-Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert troika (yes, higher even than the Williams sisters).-- Khairi Akbar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

• I love this line one of you wrote to me lately: "The world's longest book is the Book of If." A lot of us feel torn about Seles. Obviously, had she sustained her trajectory, she was on course to become a candidate for greatest of all time. But it's hard to credit her for Slams she didn't win. As for Graf, we can account for history and consider that her rival was sadly absent for many of her Slam victories. But it's also like our discussion last week regarding Federer's winning in the absence of Nadal. He beat every opponent put before him. What more can you ask?

What DO people wear to a Home Depot in Alabama? Something different than everywhere else? Oh, well, we say here that we live in L.A., too. Lower Alabama.-- Barbara Thompson, Dothan, Ala.

• For the record, we had five readers noting that L.A. also stands for lower Alabama. And our friend Chloe Matus was kind enough to take me up on my facetious offer and draw the photo at right.

FEBravo writes: "Regarding last week's mailbag question about Grigor Dimitrov, I saw him take Nadal to three close sets in Rotterdam earlier this year, and judging by that performance, he seemed like the real deal. Also played without fear of Nadal, which is no small feat. Whether he can play consistently well amidst the grind of the professional tennis tour will be the key."

• Here's RealTennisNut from Ann Arbor, Mich.: "A bit more on Dimitrov. He played Gilles Simon twice, taking a set of him once and losing in two tiebreaks in another. He also beat Tomas Berdych at Rotterdam before falling to Nadal in three sets. Peter Lundgren did mention that at 18 Dimitrov has more talent than what Federer had at that age. It remains to be seen if he can translate that to the next stage.

• Go out and buy a can of Chunky. Campbell's has renewed as Newport event sponsor. And IBM has renewed as a U.S. Open sponsor.

Robert Webb of Dalton, Ga.: "Best player not to win Wimbledon? Gotta be Ken Rosewall. Four finals over a span of 20 years and many of his best years lost during the pre-Open era. I guess Pancho Gonzalez would be the runner-up in that list. Sad that the memory of some tennis fans extends to only the past decade. The sport's history is one of the aspects that make it so appealing."

Jon Becker of Decatur, Ga.: "Hypothetical situation: Roddick beats Federer in the U.S. Open final. What are the odds A-Rod dons a jacket during the trophy ceremony with an embroidered '2' on it? Knowing Roddick's pride and sarcasm, my guess is he already has Lacoste working on it."

• Another ATP lawsuit.

Vote for the best tennis town.

Robin Roberts, an anchor on ABC's Good Morning America, will emcee the 29th annual "Legends Ball" to benefit the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum on Sept. 11 in New York City. To learn more about the event, call 212-843-1740 or e-mail legendsball@hgnyc.com.

Denise Khoo of Tulsa, Okla., has this week's long-lost siblings:Jesse Levine and Royal Pains actor Mark Feuerstein.

• Last week's was weak so here's a make-up (thanks to Ivan H. of New York): Jennifer Capriati and Neve Campbell.

Have a great week, everyone!

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