Wednesday November 18th, 2009

WTHIGOW Melanie Oudin? -- Tom, Riverwoods, Ill.

• For those new to the show, WTHIGOW is short for What The Heck Is Going On With. Oudin had a terrific U.S. Open. That's beyond debate. She competed fiercely. She beat a host of top players. And she handled an unexpected onslaught of pressure and scrutiny with aplomb and grace. The machine, however, went into overdrive. Suddenly, she was being hailed as the savioress of American tennis, the second coming of Justine Henin. One of you suggested she be granted a wild card at the WTA year-end championship.

There's plenty of reason to support Oudin. But right now she is what she is: a feisty and fierce player, with a strong will to compete, better-than-average strokes, a below-average serve and a pleasant off-court disposition. Games aren't stagnant and she could well get to the next level. But the expectation that she would replicate her U.S. Open success, especially at the end of a long season, just isn't realistic.

While I don't condone Andre Agassi's drug use and lying, I find the tennis pros' outrage and condemnation hypocritical and sanctimonious. If the reporting is correct, tanking matches is fairly common and taking appearance fees and losing in the first round is common -- all of which is dishonest. Serena Williams practically admits she doesn't try very hard in regular tour events even though promoters sell tickets using her name. Where is the outrage over practices that seem far more harmful to the tour than Andre's admissions? Appreciate your thoughts on this. -- Sharon Newell, Houston • As I said on my podcast, some of the player responses should be considered in context. Rafael Nadal gets asked about Agassi on the first day of the media blitz. He hasn't read the book and doesn't know the details. I suspect Nadal was blindsided. (Best-case scenario: A few seconds before the press conference, an aide or ATP operative tells him, "Hey, Agassi has a new book and admits to drug use. You might get asked about it.") He can either side with Agassi and condone drug use -- headline: Nadal says crystal meth no big deal! -- or he can say something similar to what he said.

In other cases, the outrage does indeed sound sanctimonious. Marcelo Rios is taking shots at Agassi? Really? Marat Safin is suggesting Agassi make a contribution to the ATP? For real? Ilie Nastase is now popping off? I'm surprised that there hasn't been more of a code, more solidarity here. But this tells you plenty about how fiercely gladiatorial a sport tennis is. There's no omerta here. The prevailing sentiment seems to be: Agassi lied and played when he should have been banned. He took food off my table!

But this absence of honor among thieves goes both ways, too. Whether it was Michael Chang's piety or Pete Sampras' essential dullness or Boris Becker's preening, Agassi sure let fly. Say this: What happened in the ATP's inner sanctum sure didn't stay in Vegas.

About a month ago, I picked up Sampras' autobiography and re-read it, not knowing Open was soon to hit the shelves. Sampras has battled the "too boring" charge his entire life, but it seems to me that when you read his autobiography next to Agassi's, it puts any defense out of reach. And I'm not talking about Agassi's bombshell revelations, or the family dynamic he was born into. Agassi simply seems to have noticed more and done more thinking about it. Your thoughts? -- Doyle Srader, Eugene, Ore.

• You know how in other sports, the fans of the winning team will yell, Scoreboard! to quell any protests or antics by the losing opposition? At some level, this ought to be Sampras' defense to all this. As much as I've defended Agassi in recent weeks, I thought his treatment of Sampras was pretty shabby. Sampras did not return my e-mail seeking comment, and I don't entirely blame him -- not sure what there is to be gained. But I wonder if he isn't thinking: Did we come here to be deep thinkers and make interesting observations and amass dramatic stories? Or did we come here to win tennis matches? Assuming it's the latter, I stand by my record. Scoreboard, dude.

All well and good that Agassi can position himself as more self-actualized, more dharma-prone. Sampras won more majors and I suspect that's good enough for him.

I was wondering if your interview with Andre while he was in New York will appear in Sports Illustrated or on the Web. Thanks. -- Gerry Koppe, Newington, Conn.

Here you go.

What do you make of Novak Djokovic playing almost 100 matches in 2009? You often talk about the schedule being too long. But it doesn't seem too long for some players. -- Charles, Virginia

• The other players must feel like John Lovitz chastising Josh Baksin/Tom Hanks in the movie Big. "Psssst. You're working too hard. Pace yourself. You're making the rest of us look bad!" I give Djokovic a lot of credit. Especially for a guy who hasn't always been the model of durability, good for him for playing so well this late in the season. That said, this is the rule rather than exception. Just survey the field: Roger Federer is wearying. Nadal still doesn't look 100 percent. Andy Roddick is out for the rest of the year. Andy Murray is playing through wrist pain. The players are asked to play a schedule that is simply not physically sustainable over the long haul.

Have you noticed a big change in Rafael Nadal's personality over the past year? Before, he was a humble, quiet kid. Now, it seems as if he is speaking out on a lot of issues, and giving pretty strong opinions (e.g. tour schedule, Agassi, etc.). Is this because he has accepted his role as a leader of the men's tour? -- Jason, Toronto

• Sure. Though I wonder if this isn't simply a function of a) aging; b) taking on responsibility commensurate with your ranking; c) improved confidence in English; and d) growing comfort with the media, as opposed to a concerted strategy. In other words, one would hope that Nadal would be more outspoken than he was as an 18-year-old. No?

Let's talk another angle for a minute. When is a high ranked men's player going to come out of the closet? Is the world that close-minded that one can admit to illegal drug use, but being openly gay in an individual sport is still going to ruin one's career? Why can't a gay dude be "out" in the top 20? -- Todd Bird, Louisville, Ky.

• Given how many other topics got the open kimono treatment, I was surprised there wasn't more talk of sexuality in Agassi's book. We've discussed this in the past, but like you, I still say that tennis is ripe for an active player to come out. It's an individual sport, so athletes need not worry about homophobic teammates freezing them out of the offense or razzing them on bus rides. The top players, from whom the rest of the field takes a cue, are non-cavemen. (Do you think, for instance, that Roddick, who invites Elton John to his wedding, is really homophobic?) There's already a sizable gay contingent on the tennis caravan -- coaches/officials/tour employees/journalists/hangers-on. Any smattering of disapproval or ugliness would be offset by support.

As we discussed a while back, Amelie Mauresmo is a good case study. She won countless fans. She lost no endorsement. And after the initial few days of chatter, her sexuality was a non-issue.

Here, incidentally, is an interesting read.

Andy Roddick has 60 matches, 15 tournaments and one win (in Tennessee) in 2009. Serena has 54 matches, 15 tournaments and three wins (we all know which three) in 2009. I know that Serena's strong finish quieted a lot of her detractors, but even without it, she was as present as our most present American man for the year. And no one seems to have a problem with Roddick's record. -- Andy, NYC

• It's a bit of apples of oranges. Serena has won double-digit Slams for her career. Roddick has won one. The expectations aren't quite the same. But, empirically anyway, we ought to stop for a second and think about whether Serena is really such an underachiever after all.

• You want good news, we got good news. Tennis participation in the United States eclipsed 30 million this year, the highest mark in decades. We can debate where to apportion credit. USTA programs? The Tennis Industry of America? Roger Federer? Tennis Channel? Changing demographics? An economy that makes a $100 round of golf unappealing at best and unaffordable at worst, especially when compared to a $150 racket and $3 can of balls? Whatever, it's a good omen.

• Thanks to everyone who stopped by the Indianapolis event. Programming note for New York readers: Will Leitch and I will be doing a Sports Literature reading/panel on Nov. 30 at Housing Works, 126 Crosby Street, NYC.

• Last week reader Carlos Acosta wrote about how he was injured in an auto accident and asked for help finding a Donnay racket. The responses were overwhelming: tips, links, phone numbers and multiple offers to send Carlos rackets gratis. Thanks to everyone who wrote in. Not to get all Oprah on you, but that was a nice collective show of humanity, everyone.

• More scouting on Brian Lynch, husband of Kim Clijsters. I spoke with one of Lynch's former Villanova teammates, the Denver Nuggets' Malik Allen, who might be new my favorite NBA player. "Brian came in as a Mike Dunleavy type player, sort of a slasher," Allen said. "By his last two seasons, he was mostly a shooter. Great shooter, though. Great guy, too. I bet I know why you're asking. Because he married Kim Clijsters."

• Speaking of the NBA, Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic may be buried in Phil Jackson's rotation, but nice to see he's upholding his reputation.

• Thank M. Ng of Vancouver for an interview with Pierre Paganini, former musician who is now Federer's trainer.

• Agassi answering the Proust questionnaire at Vanity Fair. (Thanks to Roshan Revankar of Los Angeles for the link.)

Blake Redabaugh of Denver, Colo.: "Federer and Roddick both finished in the top 10 for the eighth consecutive year, joining Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Guillermo Vilas, Agassi, Becker, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as the only other players to do so since the ATP began keeping rankings in 1973. Although it's a little too early to call, I would be willing to bet that Nadal (four years in a row), Djokovic (three), Murray (two) and Juan Martin del Potro (two) will be joining them on that list."

Nice take on the need for quiet, courtesy of Anthony of Ridgefield, Conn.

• Bryan Park of Philadelphia has long-lost siblings: Melanie Oudin and actress Elisabeth Moss.

Have a great week, everyone!

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