Wednesday October 7th, 2009

While wondering whether Serena Williams' new, shiny No. 1 ranking will have any subconscious bearing on the pending ITF decision ...

Who are some of the top athletes who just walked away (into retirement) and never looked back? No comebacks, no TV jobs, no coaching jobs, nothing whatsoever in relation to their sport. I can only think of John Stockton of the NBA's Utah Jazz. -- Mario, Saudi Arabia

• There was this German player, name isn't coming to me right now, but she retired in 1999 and never looked back. No coaching, no broadcasting no "tournament director" job that would have paid her tons and only entailed shaking a few sponsors' hands. She did marry a tennis player -- and will get dragged to his Hall of Fame induction and so forth. But otherwise, she's had virtually no presence after hanging up her rackets.

Seriously, apart from Steffi Graf, plenty of athletes retire and stay out of the public consciousness. Barry Sanders, who retired in his prime and never came back to the NFL, comes immediately to mind. Some, like Jack Lambert of the Steel Curtain Pittsburgh Steelers teams, take it to extremes.

Obviously, in recent years we've seen the "unretirement" come into vogue, whether it's been Michael Jordan, Brett Favre or Justine Henin. To me, it makes a lot of sense. The financial incentives for athletes have never been higher: One additional season could mean eight figures of income. Hard to face that reality and say, "Nah, it might tarnish my legacy." But I really feel a lot of these decisions are rooted in something deeper than money. The curse of being an athlete is realizing that your life might have peaked at age 28, that you may (likely) never be an elite practitioner at something ever again. In the face of that, it's totally understandable you'd want to resist expulsion from the kingdom as long as possible.

Given Justin Gimelstob's and your opinion about "retirements," should I hang on to my hope to see Marat Safin unretire at the age of 31? -- Asel, New York

• My sense is that this is one guy who will NOT make a comeback. But it was a year ago the Belgian media was saying the same thing about Kim Clijsters and Henin.

I'm curious: How good a basketball player was Clijsters' husband, Brian Lynch? -- Tal, Paris

• I'm not sure about his play in the Belgian league. But Lynch played collegiately at Villanova, a top American program that even reached the Final Four in 2009. Weirdly enough, the Villanova basketball gym was formerly the site of the WTA's Philadelphia event. I wonder if Lynch and Clijsters didn't cross paths by happenstance in the late '90s.

Ana Ivanovic versus Kimiko Date Krumm. Who wins? -- Jay Lassiter, Cherry Hill N.J.

• Imagine if Jay had asked that question a year ago -- a woman in her late 30s who hadn't played since the mid-'90s, or a recent Grand Slam champ? Today? I still give the edge to Ivanovic. But not by much. (More on her below.) And, like many, my capacity to be shocked by a WTA result these days is virtually nonexistent. It's not necessarily a bad thing: These erratic, inexplicable Skinner-box results are one of the great joys of being a sports fan. But, man, is the WTA in a weird place right now.

What's the over/under on how long it takes Henin to get back to No. 1? The Monday after the French? I can't see a scenario where either the Williams sisters play enough or Dinara Safina toughens up enough to keep Henin from just waltzing right back to the center of the dance floor as soon as she plays enough tourneys. -- Craig Berry, Park Forest, Ill.

• Again, it's remarkable that a player "unretires" and the question is not, "Can she regain her mojo?" but rather, "How long before she becomes No. 1?" Let's at least see Henin play a few matches before we assume she'll get back to the top. Craig's question is interesting, though. My sense is that her rivalry with Clijsters has the potential to be really intriguing -- in a way it wasn't when they were in their early 20s and Henin's superior competitive resolve was enough to win her most matches.

I have revisited the John McEnroe-getting-paid-for-his-tantrums issue several times with you now and this will be my final attempt. I can only conclude that for reasons that I cannot comprehend, there is a deliberate attempt to hide what is probably a harmless disclosure. Here is the link again to the Fox Sports video with McEnroe on audio only. -- RealTennisNut, Ann Arbor, Mich.

• Pseudonyms are discouraged, let's say that up front. But if I'm interpreting correctly, RealTennisNut makes an interesting point. Tennis Nation professes outrage for Serena's eruption, yet it appears from this video clip that McEnroe is contractually obligated to go ballistic at seniors events.

In last week's Mailbag you wrote, "I'm a decent [pool] shotmaker but never figured out positioning, which, as any decent player knows, is the real trick to the sport." Pool? A sport? I sure hope that was a typo. -- Matt Woods, Sydney, Australia

• Maybe I'll plea bargain that down to "table sport."

Do Venus and Serena make a strong case for doubles team of the year? -- Keith, Jackson, Tenn.

• They sure get my vote. It's another variation of the singles argument: They don't play nearly as often as other teams, but they're the best when they do.

What's up with Kei Nishikori? He had a great 2008 but disappeared in 2009. -- Chee, Houston

• Direct from agent Olivier VanLindonk: "Kei had a minor arthroscopic surgery to fix a small bone spur that was causing the stress fracture in his arm. This was done in Tokyo last month and he is close to starting to hit again. The pain is completely gone. He will come back in 2010 with a protected ranking of 106."

Is Kittipong Wachiramanowong, a first-round loser in Bangkok last week, the greatest commentators' nightmare ever? -- Mulans, Riga

• How long before he becomes K-Wach?

• Lloyd! L.A. readers, the William Morris Endeavor Tennis Classic Entertainment Benefiting The Bogart Pediatric Cancer Research Program will be held Oct. 18 at Riviera Tennis Club. Check here for more information.

James Blake will host a tennis exhibition with Andy Roddick on Dec. 1 in New York City. All proceeds will benefit the charity named after Blake's father, Thomas, who died of cancer in 2004.

Aaron White of San Marcos, Calif. suggests: "Keep the word 'retire' but use it if the player is over 30. If the player is under 30, use what they use in the NFL: 'Favre.' "

Linda Zipp of Albuquerque: "Not a question, just a correction of reader Neil Grammer's comment regarding Shahar Peer's playing on Rosh Hashanah. Sandy Koufax (and Hank Greenberg) played on Rosh Hashanah; it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, that they sat out."

• This week's unsolicited non-tennis book recommendation.

Ryan Harrison won the $10,000 futures event in Laguna Niguel, Calif., last weekend.

• After getting a clean bill of health from doctors at Harvard, look for Mario Ancic to return early next year.

• Quite a lengthy and candid statement from the struggling Ivanovic after she pulled out of the China Open. Here are the highlights:

"It's especially disappointing because I was hoping to be able to see some improvements before the season ended. I have gone through a lot of training and physical changes over the past few months, which have mostly remained private until now. ... My body is quite fragile at the moment, because I overtrained during the first part of the year. This was, I think, what caused me to have many small injuries this season. Instead of being patient and accepting that my best form was almost impossible due to physical limitations, I was always overthinking things, and I never dealt with it very well.

"I also found it very tough to switch off and have a proper break over the past year or so, partly because of these physical problems. Actually, I don't think I can remember the last time I had a proper holiday: I was always doing some kind of fitness or recovery work during my holidays, and that meant that I wasn't able to switch off from tennis. I guess I just want it so badly. As you may have noticed, I completely changed my serve after Wimbledon. This was because of my shoulder: If I continued serving and training the way I was, I would have almost certainly picked up a serious injury. My team and I are confident that I will be able to go back to my old service motion when I start practicing again in November.

"On the positive side, I am still No. 11 in the world. I have no clue how I am ranked so highly, but to look on the bright side, I can't play any worse than I did this year and I'm still in the top 20! I've learned so much this year. It's a little bit like a few years ago, when I was ranked around No. 14 for almost an entire year, and many people were asking me, 'When are you going to reach the top 10?' Within a year I was there, and within two years I was No. 1. Sometimes you have to go through these experiences in order to become a better player. Despite my disappointments there is not a single doubt in my mind that I will reach the top again and win Grand Slams.

"I have appointed a new fitness coach, whom I will tell you more about later. Over the next month or so I can have a great break. I can rest without thinking about any future tournaments, then train and practice hard for the new season.

"P.S. I'd like to thank my loyal supporters for their encouragement this year. The journey is never easy!"

• Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman on Alexander Ovechkin: "He is the Rafael Nadal of hockey, and [Sidney] Crosby is [Roger] Federer."

Will, Brooklyn, N.Y.: "I know everyone's fawning over the Federer between-the-legs shot, and it is obviously amazing, but I still think this Mary Pierce one has it beat."

• A must-read for The Wire fans. Dominic West is Jimmy McNulty.

Bill Larracas of Brentwood, Calif. submits that Caroline Wozniacki is a young Charlize Theron.

Have a great week, everyone!

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