Wednesday September 23rd, 2009

I welcome Justine Henin back to tennis. I missed her variety. Let's hope she improved her sportsmanship. With Kim Clijsters also back in the fold, what do you think is the better approach to playing tennis? Should a young player selectively play and preserve her body (a la Serena Williams) or should she copy the Belgians who overplayed and burned out but who are now rested and ready to play again? -- Brian, Zurich, Germany

• Lots of questions about Henin's return to tennis. (And if you think it's a coincidence the announcement came barely a week after Clijsters won the U.S. Open, I have a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium to sell you.) First, I see no reason she can't resume her winning, especially given the state of affairs on the WTA Tour. She's 27. We hear she's stayed in shape. She "retired" only 16 months ago. Like you, we hope it's a warmer, kindler, gentler Henin who returns. But frankly, we're just happy to be able to resume ogling her backhand and complete game. Welcome back.

Many of you noted that the concept of "retirement" has become a euphemism for "hiatus" in women's tennis. Alicia Molik will almost assuredly be back. Mary Pierce is plotting a return. Why wasn't Jennifer Capriati on the current Hall of Fame ballot? Because she hasn't officially retired either. (Justin Gimelstob was kind enough to share his interesting thoughts about why athletes have such a hard time walking away and staying away; I've included his comments at the end of the Mailbag.)

And since Brian brought it up, we ought to reconsider the Williams sisters in this context. Disturbing as this is, it's become clear that -- thanks to the Scylla and Charybdis of the physical toll and the emotional grind -- a conventional career just isn't sustainable in contemporary women's tennis. The Williamses' strategy of playing a limited schedule and rationing their energy looks wiser with each passing year -- and each "retirement."

One last U.S. Open observation from a Roger Federer fan. Fed has to be kicking himself over losing this one. He has not one but two golden opportunities to win this match easily. One, serving for the two-set lead when he got super casual at 30-0 and let Juan Martin del Potro get back to 30-30 and break with those two passes. And again, up two sets to one when he had ample break points in the first game of the fourth set. It looked to me like he handled DP so easily the first two sets that he didn't have a game face for five sets. Why is no one remarking how this was less of an upset and more of a giveaway? Not to take anything away from DP, who fought harder than Fed the last two sets, but clearly Fed thought this match was going to be over in straights or four at most and played like it at the end. Thoughts? -- Matt Waters, St. Petersburg, Fla.

• "Giveaway" is too strong and doesn't give del Potro enough credit. But, overall, I agree that this was a strangely vacant performance and for a variety of reasons -- Serena's l'affaire du pied, Federer's audible obscenity, the botched trophy presentation, del Potro's forehand -- has not been discussed much. In addition to the junctures you cite, what about the macro picture: Who would have bet against Federer losing a 2-1 sets lead or getting so comprehensively thrashed in the fifth? I'd like to go back and watch the match again and see where it went wrong. Federer is, of course, entitled to a bad day. He's also entitled to have lost a bit of motivation after his record-breaking summer. But this was a weird result. And the first time he had lost to a player other than Rafael Nadal in a Grand Slam final!

Why do you and so many of the broadcasters doubt the validity of the lineswoman's call on Serena's foot fault? Is there a conclusive video or photograph that casts this doubt on her decision? -- Naomi Bharath, Laguna Niguel, Calif.

• Even playing around on YouTube, I have yet to see conclusive proof one way or the other. As I see it, an ambiguous call equals a blown call, especially given the timing. As we said last week, it sets a dangerous precedent to "swallow the whistle" and refrain from making calls late in the match. But the flip side is that you are going to call a foot fault with the defending champion two points from defeat in the semifinal, it ought to be flagrant. And this wasn't. That, of course, in no way excuses Serena's outburst. Still, this was not the high-water mark of tennis officiating.

It would be nice if you could admit how wrong you were with the Andy Murray pick at the U.S. Open. I hate how everyone jumps on bandwagons, like picking Murray to win even if he hadn't won a major all year while Federer had won two and won their most recent match. Will you fess up? -- Sam Brown, Los Angeles

• I will fess up. Again, I like Mats Wilander's rule: You have to win a Grand Slam before you can be picked to win a Grand Slam. (One exception I can think of: Nadal at the 2005 French Open.)

Tell me exact dates when John McEnroe was suspended and fined ... -- Mary Lou Morissette, Peace Dale, R.I.

• For starters. Then there was the 1990 Australian Open. And he was even defaulted from a SENIORS' event in Newport, R.I., last year. Again, everyone wants an honorary badge from the double-standards police force. But I don't think there's much doing here.

How would Serena be within her rights to cry "selective enforcement" (as you wrote) if she were to be suspended? Please remind me of the last event this egregious and what the penalty was. Last I remember was Jeff Tarango, who was suspended for less. -- Bruce Linde, Oakland, Calif.

• This would be my Exhibit A. We all love Andre Agassi but ... well, read paragraphs three and four and tell me how you suspend Serena when his transgressions -- also in a Grand Slam semifinal -- went unpunished. He had already received a warning and then "[a]t the end he launched a ball into the back stop, nearly hitting the line judge who had made the tough call." Wow.

In case you needed any confirmation of how bad the trophy ceremony was (and I'm sure you don't), Dick Enberg was mocked on The Colbert Report and they showed the clip of JMDP asking to speak in Spanish and being rebuffed in favor of the Lexus spokeswoman. Nice going! -- Ted Koehner, New York City

• Enberg has been getting hammered but who knows what instructions he was following. ("Keep it snappy. We gotta plug the sponsors and then get right to Neil Patrick Harris. Who wants to hear that Argentine JFK Jr. look-alike babble in Spanish when Barney is bringing home a new date on How I Met Your Mother?") I am, however, surprised at how much traction the snub of JMDP has gotten outside of tennis.

Also, a few of us were joking about how wooden and prepackaged the speeches are, clearly written in advance, with the presenter simply filling in the appropriate names. Just for fun, imagine if the Clijsters/Serena semifinal had in fact been the final, and had ended as it did. There would have been wild scrambling and frantic rewriting behind the scenes. Or else we would have been treated to something like this: "Congratulations to you, Serena, on competing so valiantly. While you weren't able to defend your title, your calm demeanor and sunny disposition have won you many fans here. Your decorum in victory and defeat is truly inspiring. We look forward to seeing you next year!"

Is Melanie Oudin the next Justine Henin or the next Alexandra Stevenson? -- Michael, New York

• You make "the lady or the tiger" look like a narrow range. You're either a seven-time Grand Slam champ ... or one of the all-time great tennis flameouts.

It would be irrational to peg any player as a multiple Grand Slam winner. But I do think Oudin is no flash in the skillet. It wasn't just that she reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open but it was the players she beat, and how she beat them. She handled the pressure and scrutiny well. And she is arriving at a time in women's tennis when "not being a head case" is an indispensable asset. Also, while the U.S. Open was her breakthrough, let's not forget it comes on the heels of a strong Wimbledon. And before that, she was a highly regarded junior player.

I know the media doesn't want to say anything positive about Serena at the moment, but with her 10th major title in doubles at the Open, she joins Roy Emerson, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova as the only players in history (not just Open era) to have won at least majors in both singles and doubles. I find this pretty amazing, considering top singles players rarely play doubles these days. -- Kevin, Los Angeles

• Fair enough. But easy on the media. Check out the vox populi.

Can we retire the term "feel-good"? -- Connie M., Palm Springs, Calif.

• Agree (and I plead guilty here). It's receiving a pension as far as I'm concerned. Someone else suggested we retire the word "retire," since it's become synonymous with "take a break for a year or so and then return."

You may have already addressed this earlier, but when a player is fined at a tournament, what happens to those funds? Is it profit for the tournament? Does it go to charity? -- Matt Hiester, Washington, D.C.

• The money goes to the Grand Slam Development Fund, helping to train the Federers of tomorrow.

I'd like to nominate Tom Tebbutt of Toronto's Globe and Mail and Oracene Williams to sit on the committee that reviews the foot-fault rule and the fines or other penalties that can be assessed to players in similar circumstances. Their views on the incident are pretty consistent with my own. -- Andrew McLaren, Winnipeg, Canada

• Any submission that manages to use "Tom Tebbutt" and "Oracene Williams" in the same sentence merits publication.

• Princeton, N.J., readers: One of my son's friends is new to the area and she is a massively talented 8-year-old. If anyone can recommend a junior program, fire away.

• First Monica Seles, now this?

Eric Stevenson of New York: "I found this rather disturbing. What was the result of the semifinal in the women's doubles wheelchair division? Korie Homan and Esther Vergeer won by WALKOVER. Shouldn't they call it something else? Talk about insensitive!"

Jako Garos of Dallas on appearance fees and exhibitions.

• Here's must-read tennis fiction, courtesy of Huan Hsu. The story starts on page 82.

• Doubles fan Jerry White of Mineral, Va., notes that 23 percent of Venus Williams' winnings this year is from doubles.

• Oudin bringing the heat.

• Props to Thiemo De Bakker. He just beat Gael Monfils in the Davis Cup and managed to win four Challenger events in the last two months.

Neil Grammer of Toronto: "Mazel tov to Shahar Peer for winning a tournament [last] weekend. I don't anticipate her getting any congratulatory calls from Sandy Koufax what with her playing on Rosh Hashanah."

Dai Tran of Washington, D.C., comes up big with long-lost siblings: Oudin and Anna Farris (they even talk alike).

Justine Henin's comeback shouldn't catch anyone by surprise. Athletes who retire prematurely often realize quickly that nothing they can do in the next phase of their lives can fill the void. Thus they do the only thing they know, which is to come back in an attempt to recapture what they had tried and probably subconsciously hoped they could leave behind.

Elite athletes are almost programmed from a young age to achieve. Every minute of their day is, in some way, connected to them squeezing every ounce of potential out of their bodies. Once they decide that the work outweighs the reward, they run toward normalcy. However, it usually doesn't take long for them to realize that what made them great in the first place was enjoying the effort and sacrifice aligned with high achievement. When you also factor in the adrenaline of competing and the void of no longer having that, all roads point right back to the field or court that gives you the best chance to recapture that "fix."

Athletes have the cruelty of life's greatest resource after their careers end: time. For most that is a luxury, but when you are struggling to find meaning in your life, as most do, it is torturous. It is an aberration for athletes to find peace after their playing careers, and those who do have most often been able to put their learned skill set and passion into another endeavor. Look at two of the biggest symbols of not being able to let go. Brett Favre has tarnished his legacy with these emotionally charged retirement events that eventually segue into comical comebacks. Michael Jordan, perhaps the best basketball player in history, is so lost he spent most of his Hall of Fame induction speech mocking his former adversaries and dropping hints about a possible return at 50.

It seems like some sort of undiagnosed disease afflicts athletes -- call it comebackitis. Even the most successful second-career athletes, such as Magic Johnson or Oscar De La Hoya, would most likely trade everything in just to be able to restart the cycle of competing.

I don't know Henin too well -- and it is unfair to draw conclusions when you don't have all the information -- but hearing that she's coming back, especially after her compatriot Kim Clijsters just returned so triumphantly, is hardly surprising. What would be unique is if she actually walked away from the game and never looked back.

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