Wednesday December 2nd, 2009

Let's start with more reaction to the surprising results from the ATP Tour finals.

A year ago an all-Nikolay Davydenko mailbag seemed a statistical obligation; now I think the requirements go much deeper. Top 6 in the world for 5 straight years? Back-to-back ATP tour finals? Finally breaks through to win it, beating all three of the year's Grand Slam winners in the process? Spectacular. This from the Rodney Dangerfield of men's tennis. No fan base, no sponsorship, no press. Even if he (his wife and his brother) leads a monastic existence, that lifestyle choice itself -- in the face of his achievements -- is now news. Show the man some journalistic love (please). -- Andrew, New York

• An all-Davydenko Mailbag is pushing. But I agree wholeheartedly the guy is due for a round of applause. "Journalistic love," even. Andrew rightly notes that beating Nadal, Federer and del Potro in a single tournament is one of the niftier feats of the year. Davydenko's level of play in London was superb, especially given how many of his matches ended at unholy hours. (Man, is he light on his feet.) And, in a macro sense, his powers of recovery are admirable as well. Given what Davydenko's been through the past 18 months, it's a real tribute to his resilience that he's back to playing the best tennis of his career.

I don't want to get too carried away declaring a new era of parity, but given Federer's (justifiably) blunted motivation and Nadal's troubles, the field is opening up a bit. No reason that Davydenko, even at 28, can't position himself as one of the men to challenge for a Slam.

I'm just as astounded as anyone to find out how much Arlen Kantarian made, and I work for a USTA state office. Here in our office we take home salaries on the low end of the non-profit scale (my equivalent job at the local Girl Scouts chapter would increase my salary by 30%, a job with the state would increase it by 50%). On the local level the USTA is almost entirely volunteers, so I find it very disheartening to find out that while budgets are being cut in State and District offices, we're paying out so much on the upper level. If you print this in your mailbag, please don't use my name or town as I'm not comfortable with my boss, or the bigwigs in N.Y. reading my comments.

• Lots of questions and rants about the USTA salaries that were publicized last week. This is a complex issue that goes beyond "Tennis is struggling to stay relevant, while the fat cats in White Plains are paying themselves millions." Still, it's a public relations challenge and it's clearly incensed a lot of you.

I think a lot of the problem stems from the way the USTA chooses to define and market itself. Most of the USTA's funds come from, of course, the U.S. Open, a wildly successful sporting event that generates hundreds of millions in revenue. USTA executives have been sensitive to questions about compensation. As they've seen it, they are negotiating television contracts and major sponsorships, overseeing an international brand.

Kantarian, for instance, transformed the Open into a wildly profitable brand -- a brand, as we saw this year, that is largely recession proof. USTA revenues have increased nearly $100 million, or 57 percent, from 2000. (Of course, if you and I had been given a new $300 million stadium, flush with suites and improved seating, we could probably boost revenues pretty significantly too.) Why shouldn't he be paid accordingly? No one, after all, complains about the millions David Stern or Bud Selig earn; why is Kantarian any different?

The problem is that, unlike other sports leagues, the USTA positions itself as a not-for-profit. We're constantly told that its mission is "to grow and promote tennis." Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and themes of diversity and altruism and community are constantly invoked.

The NFL isn't tasked with developing junior football players; Major League Baseball doesn't run Little League or hire youth coaches. The USTA, however, is an all-encompassing organization for the sport. It seems to me you can't have it both ways. If you insist on paying private sector compensation, it's disingenuous to play up the "good of the game" function. If you're serious and sincere about being a not-for-profit, you can't, in good conscience, have this kind of payroll. (Play around on guidestar.com and check out the salaries at comparable 501(c) executives.)

Maybe the USTA could have avoided this unpleasantness by drawing sharper divisions between the business arm and the non-for-profit arm. For years, it tried to have it both ways. No more. It will be interesting to see what sort of fallout this creates. For one, the top players are constantly agitating for more prize money at the Grand Slams. If I'm Federer or Serena Williams (i.e. the ATP and WTA) and I know that the USTA has the capacity to pay a single employee in excess of $9 million for one year, I'm rethinking my leverage.

But, judging from your mail, the real soreness is coming from grassroots folks. A few months ago I spoke with some avid players in Knoxville, Tenn. The local courts at West Hills Tennis Center were filled with cracks and crevices. Players would retrieve a ball in the corner and risk impaling their arms on loose, rusty tongs of fencing. League play was cancelled on account of dangerous conditions.

Players formed a group, the "West Hills Tennis Center Rescue Project." One member owned a gravel company and offered to provide supplies below cost. A tennis-playing architect volunteered a rendering of the project. They held a benefit tournament and applied for grants with the state and eventually raised $400,000. "We're just regular folks who just wanted a nice place to play tennis," a member told me.

At last check, they were working to fund Phase II at the facility, constructing a clubhouse, a meeting room and four extra courts. It's a great story, a testament to the power of a passionate and organized group of ordinary citizens. Knoxville's mayor now tells other groups to study the West Hills Rescue Project as a model for forming a public-private partnership.

I couldn't help thinking of these guys last week. Wonder how they felt knowing the leader of the national organization "to grow and promote tennis" could have personally underwritten their entire campaign with a few weeks of his salary?

What did you think of Serena's penalty? And why didn't it get more attention? -- Bill, San Jose

• I think the ITF did a masterful job handling a situation that had the potential for real ugliness. Much as we like our justice served swiftly, by letting nearly three months lapse between the incident and judgment, the ITF allowed hot emotion to cool.

The announcement did not, as feared, trump either tour's year-end championship event. The punishment rightly considered Serena's (generally sterling) history. The actual decision -- a fat fine of $82,500, probation, but no suspension -- strikes me as just and reasonable. We can quibble over whether this punishment was too harsh or too lenient, but I don't hear anyone outraged that this was a) a spineless whitewash or b) draconian. Overall, Bill Babcock and his team did an exceptional job diffusing this. Good timing played a role, too. What with Tiger Woods enduring his p.r. crisis, Notre Dame firing its coach, the Patriots-Saints playing on Monday night etc., the Serena announcement got lost a bit.

You've written about the burnout players suffer at the end of a long year, which I think you clearly see in the play at the London tournament. How much of this do you think is due to the tennis itself, and how much to the incessant travel? -- Jim Bartle, Huaraz, Peru

• Great point. I think this is a hugely underrated component of the "fatigue discussion." The season is not just long; it's far and wide! I was looking at Nadal's itinerary the other day and thought, No wonder the guy is breaking down!

He returns to the tour in late summer and plays in Montreal, Cincinnati and New York. He does a stint in Beijing and Shanghai, then back to Paris and London. And now Davis Cup. Four weeks from now he leaves for the Middle East (yes, his questionable choice) and then Australia. And keep in mind, he's based on a small Mediterranean island, surely making connections whenever he flies commercially.

As anyone who flies for business knows, travel exacts a mean price on the body. Your diet changes, you fight jet lag, your rhythms are interrupted, your immune system breaks down. I suspect that if players entered the same number of events but weren't forced to span the globe to get there, we wouldn't have nearly as many injuries, withdrawals and complaints.

Is it justifiable to hate Agassi now because his past crimes have negatively affected Hingis' future HOF induction? -- Peter vincent Quetulio; Quezon City, Philippines

• Hate him if you must. But again, I think that if anything, his situation boosts Hingis' chances. On paper -- five Slams, the top ranking, doubles excellence, etc. --she's in. And as the number of inductees who readily admit to illicit drug use grows yet again, how do you keep Hingis out on the grounds that she once failed a test (a dubious one at that) for cocaine?

If I recall correctly, you did a poll at the end of last year asking which player outside of the top 10 could win a major in 2009. I was wondering if any particularly prescient reader picked Kim Clijsters! -- Nick Einhorn, Brooklyn, N.Y.

• Not that I can recall. Remember that a year ago, she was still firmly retired. With Clijsters and Justine Henin back on the scene, Serena still going strong and Maria Sharapova back in full health (maybe?), I have a very hard time seeing any first time winners in 2010. Safina, Jankovic and Dementieva are your leading candidates, but they are spoilers, rather than legitimate contenders, I fear.

Your Alan Chalmers book link is broken. -- Roger Long, Enterprise, Ore.

• For some reason, that sounds vaguely louche. Here's a new link.

• This is the last week to send me your votes for the Hall of Fame inductees for 2010. The candidates: Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva (as a team), Mark Woodforde and former Isleworth resident Todd Woodbridge (as a team), and Anders Jarryd.

• Careful what you wish for. We keep hearing that ATP is trying to buy Indianapolis' sanction and simply shutter the event (rather than move it to Atlanta) in an effort to declog the calendar a bit. Stay tuned.

• Anyone curious how Thanksgiving played out at the Agassi household? "Pops, if I apologized for depicting you as the devil incarnate to an international audience, would you pass the yams?"

• Think you're having a busy month? Nick Bollettieri is in Ethiopia adopting a baby. He's coming back for a few days and then heading to Iraq and Afghanistan on a USO Tour, accompanied by.... Anna Kournikova and Billy Ray Cyrus.

• To pre-empt the question: yes, I am prepared to go through the rest of my life knowing I will never write a more random item.

Lindsay Davenport joins the world's No. 1 doubles team, Bob and Mike Bryan, and U.S. Open giant killers Melanie Oudin and John Isner for the BCF Tennis Challenge presented by The Baltimore Sun Media Group at the 1st Mariner on Wednesday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets for the BCF Tennis Challenge are on sale through all Ticketmaster outlets, including the 1st Mariner Arena Box Office, or by calling Ticketmaster Phonecharge at 410-547-SEAT (7328). Sponsorship and ticket information can be obtained by calling the Tournament Office at 410-296-2929 or via the web at tennischallenge.org.

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: Jesse Katz's The Opposite Field.

• Serena does the Beeb:

• Grace of Texas: Interview with Graf and Agassi in the new December Vogue. Supposedly on the book, but nothing at all from her on the key issues. (Although she does describe being a top pro as "excruciating" - a la Becker confirmation on a different issue for those various people who can't believe Agassi really hated it for so long.) I guess she's never going to make any comment on them. Very romantic photo though -- no comment but strong stand-by-your-man visual indicator.

• With bonus points for the seasonal tie-in, Christian of Stockholm, Sweden has our lookalikes: Daniel Stern in Home Alone and Juan Martin del Potro with his mutton chops.

Have a great week, everyone!

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.