Monday August 31st, 2009

NEW YORK -- Three thoughts from Day 1 before getting to your questions ...

1. How about that Kim Clijsters? Yes, there's only so much we can deduce from a first-round match against a player ranked outside the top 50. And yes, at age 26, Clijsters didn't exactly dust off her cane and monocle to commence her comeback. Still, she was most impressive Monday, beating Viktoriya Kutuzova 6-1, 6-1 in roughly the time it will take you to read this paragraph. Served well, returned well, moved well, even won eight of her 12 net approaches. In her third event back, she's a definite contender.

2. Easy on the schedule makers! Want to know one of the most thankless tasks? Pity the folks who determine the match schedules. Television has one agenda. The tournament often has another. The players (and their agents) have a third. Sure, it would be nice for the fans here if Roger Federer could play the night session Monday. But that would mean starting the match at 2 a.m. or so in Europe. Sure, the Williams sisters might like an early match so they could get out of here and enjoy a nice dinner in Manhattan. But when ESPN pays tens of millions in rights, is it not entitled to request the players that draw the best ratings? Just worth considering when you throw crockery at your television wondering why Player X is scheduled for Time Y.

3. Spare a thought for the little guys. While the stars with names like Federer, Williams and Roddick play in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the most gripping theater takes place on the outer courts. A first-round winner is guaranteed a store of ranking points and $31,000, which, in this brutal sport, means a great deal to a good player. So you'll see No. 82 Patricia Mayr crash into the side of the court chasing a ball, and No. 70 Jan Hernych wear a perma-smile after winning his match in five sets. A reminder that there's a whole "subspecies" of world-class players out there.

Shouldn't Andy Murray be required to win one of these before we install him as a favorite (over a five-time defending champ who gave him a thrashing just a week ago)? -- Cara Hawkins, San Francisco

• Fair question. A lot of you ripped me for picking Murray, noting that he was the favorite in Australia and lost to Fernando Verdasco -- that loss looks worse in retrospect -- and was then the toast of Wimbledon before losing to Andy Roddick. Should we really be touting him again? And what of Mats Wilander's contention that "you need to win a Slam before you can be favored to win a Slam?"

Let's be honest: Federer is the obvious favorite. He's won this event five years running, he beat Murray in Cincy, he's back to playing at a Federerian level and might well win his third Slam on three different surfaces since June. (Discuss: Would this make 2009 his best year yet?) Still, I'm sticking with Murray. Mostly because I tipped him in July and it seems dishonorable to abandon him now. But also because he's played awfully well on hard courts, he's beaten Federer more than he's lost to him and he is the No. 2 player in the world. (Not as though we're touting GM as our hot stock pick here.) Meanwhile, maybe we can find common ground here: It would be a sizable surprise if someone other than Murray or Fed won, no?

You really need to check your sexist bias. I just read your explanation about women not being able to play five sets, and it's laughably implausible. Men don't get many "cheap points" at Roland Garros, and cheap points or not, women's three-set matches are often shorter than men's three-set matches. Women most certainly can handle five sets, and should start with at least Slam finals. This discussion reminds me of the time you explained that the reason women use male coaches is because their coach needs to be a hitting partner, a statement that is just demonstrably false. No one ever sees Tony Roche knocking it up with Federer or Lleyton Hewitt. The reason for a lack of women coaches is rampant sexism, which you personally are clearly susceptible to. -- Evie, Chicago

• I still maintain that best-of-five would be a physical disaster on the women's tour. I don't think there's anything particularly sexist or radical about suggesting that the points in men's tennis are shorter and generally entail less ball striking, thus it is easier for them to play longer matches.

But leaving that aside ... who exactly is stopping the women from playing best-of-five? The WTA could certainly lobby the Slams to change the format. Clearly there's a reason it's not doing so. In the same vein, it's not as though a coterie of sexist men is preventing female players from hiring female coaches. Maria Sharapova? Serena Williams? Dinara Safina? They can hire any coach they please for whatever reason. They've chosen men and many, if not all, will tell you it's because they can get a better hit with a man.

As to what a player is looking for in choosing balls to serve, Wikipedia claims that a fluffier nap on the ball "increases wind resistance and control (through increased resistance when striking the players' rackets) while reducing bounce and speed. A compact nap causes the ball to skip upon hitting the court or a racket." -- Conover M., Bartlesville, Okla.

• Who are we to argue with Wikipedia?

Is it time for the U.S. Open to discard the Sat./Sun. format at the end of the men's tournament? This is probably the biggest reason why there hasn't been many great men's finals over the years. A day's rest allows a much better chance for both participants to be fresh and on top of their games. -- Bob, Palm Springs, Fla.

• File this under "TV calls the shots." Note, though, that the player assigned to the later "Super Saturday" match doesn't fare decidedly worse in the final.

Wouldn't allowing on-court coaching only between sets be a good and reasonable compromise? -- Randy Mayes , Bradford, Pa.

• I could live with that. Henry Clay would be proud.

I was at the Pilot Pen in New Haven, Conn., last week and watched a doubles match on an outer court. Sitting behind me was doubles specialist Eric Butorac, who happily conversed with fans throughout the match with plenty of interesting things to talk about. Regardless of the fact that he is no Federer, it was still pretty cool and I wanted to see if you could give him some recognition for it. -- Alex Ketaineck, Madison, N.J.

• What else do we expect from a.) a Midwesterner and b.) a D-III player?

Under the lights, in front of a raucous NYC crowd, who wins a semifinal matchup between 2009 Federer and Jimmy Connors in his prime? -- Mike Mutka, Apex, N.C.

• Federer. And he wins over the crowd by the end of the first set!

Why do the (otherwise excellent) commentators insist on referring to lunging "wristy" shots as "squash shots"? If I were to call them anything other than "nice get." I'd be inclined to call them racquetball shots. -- Rick, Albuquerque, N.M.

• I think slapping retrieving shots approximate the "high to low" stroke of squash quite well.

Very nice Fletch reference in last week's mailbag. If you had worked in the Underhill's or a water buffalo, I would have been really impressed. USO winners: Federer and Venus Williams. -- Jeff L., Ellsworth, Maine

• Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.

• Poor Laura Robson, up 4-0 in the third set, lost Sunday in the final round of qualifying.

• Great story on home schooling.

Will Ferrell was "channeling" James Blake's look on Saturday at Arthur Ashe Kids Day at the U.S. Open. Ferrell was the celebrity chair umpire for the exhibition match and walked out on the court with a shaved head and dressed identical to Blake in his new clothing line, Thomas Reynolds by Fila.

• From Jamal Sheikh of Hoover, Ala.: One of my favorite lines from any movie was when Gail Stanwyck's character asks Fletch his name: "John who?"

Fletch: "John Cock...toasten." There's a dish at Moe's Southwest Grill called the John Cocktoasten.

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