Thursday January 20th, 2005

The Player of the Week Award goes to the Australian Davis Cup team members -- Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis, Wayne Arthurs and Todd Woodbridge -- who conspired to beat Spain in the final. After Hewitt outlasted Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya evened things by defeating Philippoussis on Friday, Woodbridge and Arthurs won the all-important doubles point Saturday, then Philippoussis overcame a shoulder injury to beat Ferrero in five sets and close out the competition.

Philippoussis was termed a "national hero" by Aussie team captain John Fitzgerald. But you have to hand it to Hewitt as well. His ranking may have taken a nosedive in 2003 but he made good on his long-stated objective of winning the Davis Cup.

If our math is right, J-C Ferrero has now lost six straight matches.

Stelio Savante of Queens, N.Y., has a write-in candidate for Player of the Week: "The player of the week award, should go to The Tennis Channel. I was so psyched to watch the Davis Cup final live. The winners here are not only The Tennis Channel, but also the fans, the game itself, and people like Andre Agassi who helped bring TTC to us. Not only will tennis become more popular in this country, but lesser-known, non-U.S. players will now be household names too."

The International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Tennis Federation announced that Australia's John Newcombe is the recipient of the 2003 Davis Cup Award of Excellence. The award was presented during the 2003 World Group Final between Australia and Spain on Nov. 30 in Melbourne, Australia. The purpose of this award is to recognize the importance of international team competition and the Davis Cup mission by honoring individuals who represent these ideals.

Speaking of Aussies, Pat Rafter will play an exhibition against Mats Wilander on Feb. 2 in Queensland.

Re: last week's burning question: Tim Mayotte is apparently a pro at the Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club on 43rd Street and 10th Avenue in New York.

Just a reminder: we'll distribute the annual Baggie Awards for 2003 in a few weeks. We're hoping the guy from JP Morgan Chase who called Justine Henin-Hardenne "Christine" at the U.S. Open will agree to serve as guest presenter.

New York-area readers are encouraged to check out the full-page ad in today's New York Times, page C7 (the Outlook section). This could be the makings of a spirited caption contest.

Onward ...

About the quotation you ran last week from Kim Clijsters on Kirsten Flipkens: Is Clijsters that inarticulate due to concentration problems, or is it because of a general jock lack of education? --Cris Senior, New York

In one form or another, we get this question every week. You see a player quoted and the syntax makes you cringe. True, Clijsters' response won't overtake William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech as a barometer of eloquence. But cut her some slack. She had just suffered a demoralizing loss in the U.S. Open final, was forced to dissect a lousy day at the office and was doing so in her second tongue. Then, out of nowhere, she gets a question about the professional prospects of Kirsten Flipkens. Forgive Clijsters if she's a little tongue-tied and her extemporaneous answer is a bit scattered. What's more, if you've ever been interviewed on television and then read a verbatim transcript, you've no doubt cringed at how many of your sentences are peppered with "you knows," "ums" and "sort ofs."

An aside: for those of us in the media, these post-match press conferences are absolutely essential, particularly since access in tennis is generally dreadful. (At least relative to other sports.) But there is a certain absurdity to the process. Not only have you just lost a match, but you now must also enter an interrogation room and elucidate the world about why you were so lousy. I'm still waiting for the day my editor has to go before a panel and explain his various unforced errors. "I noticed you changed 'Davis Cup tie' to 'Davis Cup match.' Then, in the second paragraph you didn't catch that typo. And you let Jon write that Paola Suarez comes from Spain. That seemed to be a turning point in a Mailbag that was pretty disappointing. Can you take us through that and explain what happened?"

And, by the way, what's your hardcourt schedule for the summer?

More on Clijsters....:

While one can make the argument that Kim Clijsters' refusal to wear Adidas clothing at the Olympics so as not to break contractual obligations to Fila is commendable in its show of loyalty, do you not see it as a case of misplaced loyalty? I would imagine that the Belgian tennis program has put quite a lot of time and money into her development and this refusal is essentially a slap in the face and a cash grab under the guise of "professional and contractual obligation"? --Roman Draut, Middletown, Ohio

Let's see. Since August, Clijsters has accused Henin-Hardenne of faking injury, failed to apologize when members of her camp lofted shabby allegations that JH-H was a drug cheat, compiled a Nixonian enemies list, not only declined to play Fed Cup but also maligned the competition. And now she has threatened not to play in the Olympics unless she can wear the Fila clothes she endorses rather than apparel from Adidas, which sponsors the Belgian team. Um, can the aliens who abducted the delightful Kim Clijsters a few months ago and replaced her with this sour simulacrum please return her to earth? (Or to the tennis world, anyway?)

This latest p.r. gaffe induced a blizzard of angry e-mail. As John Bayalis of Atlanta wrote: "I know corporate sponsorship and clothing in the Olympics is a big deal in sports (see the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team) but doesn't Kim Clijsters' refusal to represent her country in lieu of a contract with Fila seem utterly disrespectful? Am I crazy, or is this indeed a horrible precedent to be setting for fans and children alike?"

John, of course, is not crazy. While Clijsters is not the first athlete to make a similar demand it is a shame she, of all people, is playing this ridiculous game of chicken -- which, apart from being completely at odds with the Olympic ideal, reflects poorly on both Clijsters and her sponsor. You'd like to think that a player who competes so often and as successfully as Clijsters does would have the leverage (and courage) to negotiate an exception from her sponsor. You'd also like to think Fila would rather Clijsters played in the Olympics -- even if it meant outfitting her in rival apparel for a few days -- than not play at all. Basically, this is a lose-lose proposition. The Clijsters camp can get vertigo spinning this as "loyalty" but no one's buying. The gesture comes across as just another avaricious athlete making a petulant, me-me-me demand.

In this case, it is particularly puzzling. In addition to being a top-flight player, Clijsters is "one of the good ones." She's self-possessed and genuinely humble and immensely well-liked by all of tennis' special-interest groups. (Personal testimonial: I've never found her to be anything less than a pleasure to deal with.) She has accumulated a lot of good will through the years and it would be a real shame if it evaporated because of a few silly "controversies."

Given the easy victory of Todd Woodbridge and Wayne Arthurs over the Spanish duo in Saturday's doubles match, do you think Australia would have won the Davis Cup two years ago if they had played instead of Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt? --Peter, Manila

Geez, Peter. The Mates win the chalice with an impressive team effort and you have to bring up 2001? Monday Morning quarterbacking is one thing; this is Monday-morning-plus-two years-quarterbacking. But since you raised the issue (and since captain John Fitzgerald got full redemption last weekend), we'll bite. Fitzgerald was probably intoxicated with emotion in 2001 and, knowing it was Rafter's last, best chance to win the Cup, called his number when the prudent move would have been to play Woodbridge and anyone in doubles. On an extra day of rest, Rafter might have had one more singles match in him. If not, at least the Aussies would likely have been up 2-1 and not down 2-1. But hindsight, of course, is like Brad Gilbert's career record in tournament finals: 20-20.

Amanda Coetzer has been around for a while and she has beaten most of the top players in the world. She is one of the only players to have beaten Steffi Graff more than twice. Does she still have a chance to win a Grand Slam before she retires? --Muneeb Swain, Cape Town, South Africa

Frankly, no. She lacks the penetrating weapons to be a real threat. But she's still dangerous against the right opponent and is still one of the Chanda Rubinesque "pro's pros" who merits our admiration.

Are ballpeople supposed to be impartial? Certainly linesmen and chair umpires are. I ask this question after having watched in person the round robin match between Andre Agassi and Roger Federer at the Tennis Masters Cup in Houston. Certainly the crowd was heavily pro-Agassi, which is to be expected. But the ballboys, too? Throughout the match, numerous off-duty ballboys sat very close to the court waving Agassi signs, bowing to Agassi, running around the stadium carrying Agassi signs, etc. I'm a big fan of cheering for your favorite player, but it seems odd that the ballboys were doing this right along with (and in many ways, leading) the Agassi fans. If we saw a linesman or the chair umpire cheering for one of the players on the court, wouldn't it raise concerns of partiality? The ballpeople are a big and necessary part of any tennis tournament and that's why it seemed so weird. Maybe I'm just overreacting. -- JT, Dallas

This is an interesting question. My knee-jerk response was that they're just kids. And as long as they can't materially affect the outcome of matches, let them openly cheer for whomever they please. But this is definitely slippery-slope territory and. If only for the sake of appearance, I'm not sure how good it looks if any tournament staffer shows partiality to one player. Anyway, we threw this question to ATP Supervisor Gayle Bradshaw. Here's his response:

"It is normal at many of our events to see off-duty ballkids sitting in the stands cheering for their 'home' player, and we do not find anything wrong with this. Indeed, they often bring enthusiasm and passion to the matches. The ballkids cannot, and should not, be bound by the same professional conduct standards associated with the on-court officials (Chair Umpires/Linesmen). However, there is a line that can be crossed and when that happens it should be dealt with appropriately during the event."

Do we know yet if Marat Safin will return in 2004? --Matt Whitaker, New York

Count on Safin being back next year. He suffered a wrist injury at the Australian Open and never really recovered in 2003, finishing with a record of 12-11 and placing 66th in the Champions Race. But after some match play during the fall and some rest this offseason he should be ready to roll starting in Australia. Speaking of Safin ...

You wrote, "I defy you to find me a high-stakes tournament during the past five years that was so comprehensively dominated by one player as Wimbledon was in 2003 by Federer." My vote? Marat Safin, 2000 U.S. Open. In the final, Safin had the most lopsided victory over a former champion (Pete Sampras) in 25 years. --J. P. Gownder, Boston

Color me defied.

Federer's 2003 Wimbledon win, in my opinion, was not the most dominating of men's majors wins in the last five years. At least equal -- if not more convincing -- was Agassi's 2003 Australian Open victory. How soon we forget! One could argue that Agassi was more physically fit than others leading up to the Aussie Open, especially since this major takes place right after the break. But compared to Wimbledon this argument is invalid, considering the paucity of grass-court events preceding The Championships. --John Shacka, Birmingham, Ala.

Yeah, I probably got a little carried away with that Federer line. A number of people have pointed out that Agassi met few dangerous players when he won that title -- Wayne Ferreira in the semis and a nervous Rainer Schuettler in the final. But the fact is Agassi was hitting the ball so well (and was so supremely conditioned) that he would have rolled ver any opponent put before him.

You referred to the memorable speech that Federer gave after his Wimbledon triumph. For those of us who enjoy watching (and admire) Federer, is there a "link" somewhere that you know of that would give us a written version of his speech? --Micky Reger, Boulder, Colo.

I would just Google it. Mickey's question does, however, give us an opportunity to plug, the Web site for tennis' outstanding transcription service. If you ever have some time to kill, tool around this site and you can basically read a record of every significant tennis-related press conference given over the past decade or so.

For my tennis offseason reading list, can you tell us your favorite tennis-themed books? -- D.B., New York

As you no doubt know, we're big David Foster Wallace fans around here. But if you don't want to commit to the 1077-paged Infinite Jest (cover blurb: Not just a novel, it's an upper-body workout!) try the two essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Try Again. Also, our sleeper recommendation is Gordon Forbes' Pocketful of Summers, which, I believe, you can still get on

When will the U.S. again win the Davis Cup? --Roger Jung, Basel, Switzerland

When the Yanks can get through a year without playing a tie on clay.

Whatever happened to the "Lookalikes" feature? --Tony D'Alosio, Chicago

We've gotten this question a few times lately. (We also received a submission suggesting that Paradorn Srichaphan's dad was a dead ringer for Nelson Mandela!) I thought that the feature had "jumped the shark," to use an expression that has decidedly jumped the shark. But if you happen upon any good ones, pass 'em on and maybe we'll make it a periodic thing.

Have a great week, everybody!

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