Thursday July 30th, 2009

Programming note: I'll be on vacation next week. Our oxymoronic "guest host" will be Sam Querrey, who will be taking questions from the Farmers Insurance L.A. Tennis event.

Remember Donald Young? -- Steve, Kirksville, Mo.

Vaguely. If we're talking about the same guy, he turned 20 last week. Recently lost at the Aptos Challenger, the same event he won two years ago. Hasn't played an ATP main draw in many months. Played some schmoozy Hollywood "shotgun" exhibition on Sunday afternoon, the day before playing in the last round of the L.A. qualifiers -- and then, apparently exhausted, lost the qualifying match, 6-3, 6-0. That guy?

Look up Young's Wikipedia entry and the first line under "career" reads: "Young is coached by his father, Donald Young Sr., and mother, Illona, who are both tennis teaching professionals." Therein lies the problem. Look, I don't envy the Youngs at all. You have an abundantly talented son who is your only child. The tennis roadside is littered with prodigies who took wrong turns and never made it to the desired destination. You've seen the Williams family do it "their way" with smashing results. It's understandable that you might be skeptical of the many coaches or gurus and advisors who would like to work with your kid.

Still, at some point you have to recognize your limitations, accept the reality, and cut the proverbial cord. And if you're Donald Young, you need to mass the courage to say, "Mom and Pop: this doesn't diminish my love for you at all. I appreciate all the sacrifices you made. I'll always be your son. But I need some space here. I'm stagnating, if not regressing, and it's time to make a change."

Young, sadly, is now well outside the top 100. Players with far less innate talent have passed him by. He's worked with some top-level coaches but -- often because of the parental propinquity issue -- none have stuck around. And from USTA funding to rafts of wild cards to practice sessions with John McEnroe, he's been given every advantage. If he doesn't make it, the tennis "establishment" won't be to blame.

The good news? He's still "only" 20, still left handed, and still full of talent. Plenty of Grand Slam winners -- see, Rafter, Pat -- were no better off at this point in their careers. He has enough cachet that he still has endorsement deals with Nike and Head. There are well-regarded coaches interested in working with him. Ultimately, though, it's up to him to author a happier story here.

Regarding the ranking debate (Safina vs. Serena), how about this simple fix: You can't be ranked No. 1 unless you have won at least one major in your career. As you said, the majors are the "tent-pole events" of the sport. It's counterintuitive to see someone ranked No. 1 who has never won on the biggest stage, even if they have done exceptionally well at lower tier events. In the current situation, Serena would be ranked No. 1 because of her stellar play at the Majors and despite her pedestrian showing at other events. And Safina would be a very respectable No. 2 due to her excellent record at the lower-tier events and because of her solid showing at Majors (up until the finals that is). -- Mark Smith, Chapel Hill, N.C.

A few of you floated similar suggestions. I don't think it's realistic. So if Safina had won a Major in 2006, you'd be okay with her 2009 ranking? That seems unfair to me. And again, front-loading all the Slams with the rankings points has the unfortunate consequence (intended or unintended) of diminishing the value of regular WTA events. If 90 percent of your grade were based on the midterm, would you bother coming to class after that?

The WTA is taking a lot of heat for the "counterintuitive" rankings, but I suspect there are folks who feel the rankings are working perfectly. Your support of the tour is shaky? You skip Indian Wells and don't do well in Rome and Madrid? Guess what? Even if you rock the Majors, you still won't be No. 1. In some ways, maybe Serena's No. 2 ranking isn't an indictment at all. As someone put it to me recently: "The ranking system should be evaluated objectively, not through the lens of Serena Williams's career. I realize that it looks odd for Serena not to be ranked No. 1, but she's a close second, and all that can be expected for someone who is basically a world-class player on a part-time basis."

I've watched some old tennis matches on TV recently and realized how much more time players take between points today. I recommend that they eliminate the annoying habit of allowing players to go for their towel between every single point. It's ridiculous! They should only be allowed to get their towel between games. What do you think? -- Xavier Arambula, Los Angeles

Rules are rules. If the players aren't violating the time allotment, they can do as they please. Also, some players -- including Federer -- waste little time between points. My pet peeve is the time spent between serves. Towel off after a rally? Okay. But why the lengthy routines between first and second serves?

Can we get a moratorium on the Safina vs. Serena No. 1 debate? Sure, it looks bad when a No. 1 player only wins one game against anyone. It would also look bad for a No. 1 player to lose three straight matches to middling opponents on clay. The system isn't perfect, but neither are the players. -- Daniel, Toronto

Amen. Moratorium granted after today. But two points 1) I think there is a perfectly healthy debate to be had about the ranking system, the virtue of consistency versus the merits of excellence at the biggest moments. 2) Probably because no one picks on a woman holding three Majors, the discussion has mostly impugned Safina. But consider this note from a source close to the situation, wishing to remain anonymous: "Between Miami and Roland Garros, Serena played three matches (spanning four tournaments if you include Charleston that she withdrew from) earning seven ranking points compared to Safina, who played 15 matches, reaching the finals at Stuttgart and winning back-to-back titles at Rome and Madrid -- and earned 2120 ranking points."

Steffi Graf/Monica Seles and Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal -- there is something categorically different about why Seles and Nadal were unable to compete for Slams. Rafa was out of commission as a direct function of his playing style, and thus we can legitimately attribute Federer winning to his unprecedented durability and consistency (especially since he was probably dealing with the residua of mono when he fell behind Rafa for one year).

But Seles is different -- she was removed from competition because she was too dominant. Thus, her inability to win Slams does not reflect some weakness in her game (unlike Rafa physically breaking down), but is rather a testament to her ability.

Seems categorically different to me. It's the difference between Don Mattingly missing seasons for a bad back versus Monte Irvin missing prime seasons because he was black or Ted Williams missing seasons because of World War II and Korea -- their missing time was outside of their control, and there is every reason to think all of these athletes were dominant during the time that they missed.

I don't disagree and I should have done a better job distinguishing the material differences. But my point is that -- no matter how poignant the circumstances -- I have a hard time crediting athletes for achievements they didn't attain. Was Seles on pace to become the best ever? Absolutely. But how do we put her in that Graf-Evert-Navratilova division when -- though caused by a horrible act and through no fault of her own -- she won fewer than half as many Slams? And, conversely, it's hard for me to completely diminish the achievements if someone else -- in this case, Graf -- on the grounds that they didn't beat their rival or fortune played a role in their success.

You mention that Safina is benefiting from a "system that rewards a player." Just what are the rewards? Seedings? Big deal. It seems people are concerned that the rankings are not an accurate "predictor" of who would win a head-to-head match. Or who would win a head-to-head match in a major. It's all sounding very BCS-ish to me and I could care less what the rankings are for tennis. I look at power rankings and not polls when I care about who would win a football or basketball contest. Money lists and points earned don't always say who is better, but do have their place for year-end tournament qualifications and do provide some incentive for playing more. People should get over the fact they are not predictors. -- Douglas Stewart, Miami

I'm not sure I agree with that. True, rankings are not always the best predictors. But there are plenty of practical effects of having a high ranking. For one, there's qualification for the year-end events. Many players have contracts that come with huge rankings bonuses. (No. 5 is worth more than No. 6. ) Seeding matters, especially at the smaller events, when a top seed can get a bye. Beyond that, I think there's basic value to having a system -- imperfect as it may be -- that identifies the top performers.

How come I don't read anyone getting to the real problem with the Safina/Williams debate? I think this can be the reason why Safina does well on regular WTA but not at Slams: the coaching. On Slams: no coaching; on WTA: coaching allowed. I've seen myself how Safina has been coached -- but really, I never have seen Serena or Venus having any coach to their side. Couldn't that explain why it has come to this. Stop the coaching on all tournaments, please. -- Kalevi, Taeby, Sweden

I don't agree that Safina's problem stems from on-court coaching. But this letter is still another example of why this "experiment" is so awful. It creates the perception that the players are helpless damsels in distress. On-court coaching not only runs counter to tennis fundamental values, but also is completely at odds with the feminist message the WTA tries to convey. Stacey Allaster, please. Accept this bit of coaching from the sidelines and do the right thing here.

And as long as you brought it up, this is still another point in the Williams' sisters favor. They are self-sufficient, rarely if ever turning to their aides-de-camp during matches. They'll figure out the situation for themselves, thank you.

I have always cheered for the players who seem to think of themselves as no better than the fans. Too many players seem to think that they're entitled to be paid exorbitant amounts to play a game. I have rooted for Steffi, Pete Sampras, Roger, Bjorn Borg, Justine Henin and Lindsay Davenport, to name a few. Despite their successes, each seemed as if you could meet them in the street and not know that they were able to hit a little fuzzy ball harder or more accurately than the average Joe or Josephine. With that in mind, can you come up with a top ten most-down-to-earth players list? -- Ron Croswell, Maple Ridge, British Columbia

I like your thinking -- and I suspect most fans do as well. Athletes are afforded opportunities that don't come to most of us. They are often wealthy to the point of abstraction. They get to pursue their passion for a living. I sense that most fans don't begrudge them that livelihood or their salary. (Personally, so long as the market is creating enormous opportunity for wealth, I'll side with labor over management nine times out of 10. Id rather the players make the cash than rich ownership group.)

By the same token, I think we like it when a) athletes show a realization that they are lucky. b) the fans/consumers are paying their salaries. c) their status hasn't corrupted their sense of self.

Not sure I have a top ten list, but I would contest that tennis fares very (under-ratedly) well in this respect. From Andy Murray playing in his Scottish club championships (even paying for his sandwich lunch) to Nadal and Uncle Toni flying coach because the expense is impossible to justify, I think tennis players "seem to think of themselves as no better than the fans."

Which was more heartbreaking for the American country club sports fan in the United Kingdom this summer: Andy Roddick's loss to Federer in Wimbledon final or Tom Watson's late collapse at Turnberry? -- Greg Johnson, Kansas City, Mo.

• What's a country club?

• Overlooking the error that Djokovic and Ivo are "countrymen," this has to be the oddest story o' the week.

Cristina of Manila, Philippines: Thanks for your shout-out for tennis fans from the Philippines. We've been quite lucky that ESPN Star Sports has been showering us with lots of tennis coverage over the years, especially of the majors (although they could make us even happier if they consistently showed all four, but thank you ESPN!). I guess that's why the fan community here has been steadily growing. Hope NBC gets the message -- I could only empathize with the U.S. fans over their delayed telecasts.

• Let the record reflect that Skip Schwarzman of Philly floated the phrase: "The world's longest book is the Book of If."

Lester of Baltimore: Just once when there's a discussion of whether a true Grand Slam has to be accomplished in a calendar year, can we get some props for Martina Navratilova? In '83-84 she won the maximum possible number of consecutive majors without sweeping a calendar year -- the last three in '83 and the first three in '84. No one, but no one, credits her with a Grand Slam nowadays (strange how it never came up when Tiger Woods was trying to claim his 'Tiger slam' was a Grand Slam). For all Federer's modern sustained dominance, Martina, in the early-mid '80s, set the standard, if you ask me.

• Federer shoes?

• Our friend Karl Miller from Phoenixville, Pa., with a Kim Clijsters update: Got to see Kim play Wednesday night at her WTT match in King of Prussia. The fitness was supreme, she was running as well as ever. The forehand was blistering and looked as good as before she left the Tour. The one concern seems to be the serve, good number of doubles, and she still insists on rushing her second serve. But she is not too far off her top form, and I think she's got to put a scare in almost any player not named Williams heading into the USO. Here's some photos from Wednesday. BTW, the legendary graciousness was also in full effect.

• Several of you noted the new photos on Does this look like Marion Ancic? Or something his agent over at William Morris sent the casting director?

• The USTA announced that it is partnering with T&S Events to host its 2010 Australian Open wild card playoffs during the 2009 Infinite Energy Atlanta Challenge held at the Racquet Club of the South in Norcross, Ga., Dec. 4-7. The event will feature an exhibition match on Dec. 4, with the wild card playoffs commencing the next day.

From James of Toronto: I realize he's probably not a high-profile enough player to make your mailbag's separated at birth feature, but if you wanted to throw us Canadian tennis fans a bone, take a look at the increasingly pirate-looking Frank Dancevic and Orlando Bloom.

Have a good week everyone!

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