Monday March 14th, 2005

Let's give a "his" and "hers" Player of the Week award. The "his" goes to Roger Federer, not for winning a match but for hosting the ATP All-Star Rally for Relief in Indian Wells, Calif., which raised $18,282.76 for UNICEF. The "hers" goes to Kim Clijsters, who looked awfully sharp in her first few matches in the desert. Tennis is better off when she is playing.

With no real events this past weekend, let's jump to the questions. ...

Due to the meltdown in Carson City, Calif., last weekend, is it time for Patrick McEnroe to step down as captain of the Davis Cup team? It's obvious the U.S. has the talent to win, but overall match preparation and motivation seems to be lacking. Who takes the fall? -- Patrick Purcell, Cambridge, Mass.

A lot of you unsheathed the knives with respect to the captain. Which, I suppose, is to be expected after such a deflating loss. Personally, I don't see how you hold him responsible. On the heels of taking the U.S. team to the final, he successfully recruits Andre Agassi for the team. The U.S. then loses to the Croatian underdogs, but how do you fault the captain? He played the right line-up. He let the players' personal coaches attend the sessions. He didn't mismanage his time-outs, make lousy play calls or get a technical foul for arguing calls.

My take on last weekend: This was a tough matchup. The Croatians play well on the same surfaces the Americans prefer, so there was little advantage there. The USTA insisted on holding the event in that Carson white elephant so the crowd support was not exactly overwhelming. Then the U.S. ran into a hot player in Ivan Ljubicic, who is finally putting together his manifold gifts. You have to tip your hat to him. I don't think the U.S. was insufficiently "prepared" or "motivated." They lost to a guy playing lights-out tennis.

To me the most surprising match was the doubles. On paper, Mike and Bob Bryan shouldn't be losing to a patchwork team. Especially not when their opponents had played singles the previous day. Especially not when they won the first set. Especially not in front of a partisan crowd. That loss changed the complexion for Sunday. Still, before last week, the twins hadn't dropped a set in Davis Cup play. And they proved long ago that they are a better option than the "shotgun marriage" approach favored by previous captains. You have to chalk this up to a dispiriting loss, hope you can keep Agassi in the fold and look toward winning the relegation tie.

Can this be right? Wayne Arthurs wins the Scottsdale tournament and has to qualify at Indian Wells? Meanwhile, IMG clients Alex Kuznetsov, Donald Young and Mark Philippoussis -- who have won a total of one match on the ATP tour this year -- get wild cards into the main draw. Care to comment? -- Colette Lewis, Kalamazoo, Mich.

This question offers a window into what people mean when they say, "Structurally, tennis is screwed up." The IMG up-and-comers get wild cards while the veteran who has worked his way up, won hundreds of matches and recently claimed a title is forced to qualify. On the other hand, you can see this from IMG's standpoint: "If this company is going to make an investment (and take a financial beating, in this case) in the tournament, the least the ATP can do is throw a little wild card love toward our players." The obvious solution is to create a conflict-of-interest rule that prevents management groups from also owning tournaments. Here's the problem: It's not as though other firms are lining up to run tournaments. So as long as the IMG's and Octagons can guarantee players, create television packaging and leverage sponsors, aren't they uniquely well-suited to run events, inherent conflicts notwithstanding?

Mary Joe Fernandez recently said Amelie Mauresmo is the best player to have never won a Grand Slam title. Who is the best player to have never won a second Major? -- Joe Johnson, Allentown, Pa.

Good question. Assuming you mean women, you have to go with Maria Sharapova. The list of one-timers is surprisingly short, though. Among the men, you gotta go with either Andy Roddick or Juan Carlos Ferrero.

I am glad to see Ljubicic get the Player of the Week award. Aside from his great record this year, I suspect he could become a fan favorite with a little more exposure. I met him briefly in Indianapolis last year where he took time to pose for photos with kids and pseudo-adults like myself. Dominik Hrbaty and Nicolas Kiefer, on the other hand, avoided fans and even took alternative routes to and from the stadium. As a U.S. tennis fan, I wish we would have had a better Davis Cup draw, but kudos to Ljubicic for beating two former No. 1's. -- Bill Edwards, Tampa

Thanks for your account. You certainly learn a lot about players by observing how they act when the cameras aren't rolling.

Why is tennis such a neglected sport in the U.S. in terms of television time? There is a Davis Cup match being played at home, and I couldn't find live coverage of it on any channel. In India, the draw ceremony for the Asia group tie between India and China takes place at the Prime Minister's residence. The number of players in the top 150 for India and China is zero, whereas the U.S.-Croatia tie included Agassi, Roddick, Ljubicic and Mario Ancic. -- Vikram Kewalramani, Columbus, Ohio

The problem with televised sports is they are self-perpetuating cycles. You relegate tennis to the ESPN Classic Network (channel 83 on my system), and naturally the ratings will flag. On the other hand, jam golf down everyone's throats during prime Sunday afternoon spots, and it only stands to reason ratings will be solid. Love that note about the India-China draw ceremony. And given those two countries have a combined population about 10 times greater than the U.S. and Croatia, you have to be optimistic about tennis' global prospects.

Not to beat the question to death, but in the Feb. 21 Mailbag, you asked the WTA to explain its protected-ranking rule as you have on numerous other occasions. So, now here we are with another tournament where Clijsters is No. 100-something and unseeded. Could you repeat the request for the WTA to explain the rule? -- David, Wisc.

Request lodged.

You basically refuse to mention Anna Kournikova in your weekly Mailbag, but could you possibly update us on her status and any plans to return to competitive tennis? -- Mike Drake, Meredith, N.H.

I'm happy to talk about Kournikova in a tennis context. I think it would be hypocritical to lament her marketing and style-over-substance impact on tennis and then devote space to discussing her marital status, her looks, her latest publicity stunts. As it stands, she has asked to be delisted from the rankings, and my guess is she has played her last match on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.

Please tell me you didn't have anything to do with this story: "Young seeks first ATP title at Indian Wells." -- Madhu B., Dallas

That's hilarious. And I seek my first Pulitzer with this week's Mailbag. Donald Young lost his first match in straight sets to Arnaud Clement.

During the Cyril Saulnier and Jurgen Melzer match in February at the SAP Open in San Jose, a ballkid hit Melzer's face (presumably) accidentally with a ball while the players were switching sides. Can the player ask the umpire to remove that ballkid? -- Bo Peng, Palo Alto, Calif.

If players can have certain linespeople removed, lord knows they can also request that ballkids pack it in for the day, especially when they are pelted in the face by wayward tosses. Your question implies Melzer did not request the removal of the offending ballkid. What a nice guy.

Davis Cup final: Russia vs. Argentina. ... Agree? -- Josh, Syracuse, N.Y.

I'm willing to risk ridicule and make Grand Slam predictions four times a year, but Davis Cup totally confounds me. Russia vs. Argentina sounds OK to me, but a hot Lleyton Hewitt in front of a home crowd could singlehandedly lift Australia. And after what Ljubicic did last weekend, I wouldn't count out Croatia.

Has anyone in the history of Davis Cup, ever beaten two higher ranked top-10 players and won the doubles while playing away from home? Surely this is one for the record books. -- Nicholas Brandes, Washington, D.C.

I'd agree with that. Ljubicic a) beat two top players, b) on the road, c) playing brilliant tactical tennis, d) garnishing the singles triumphs with a doubles win over a top team, e) having played in Dubai the previous weekend. ... It's hard to imagine a more impressive performance. As Marisa Maclennan of Los Angeles noted, the U.S. got tuned with a Ljub job.

How about a brief tutorial for the casual fan? What constitutes a "grass-roots tournament" like Memphis, and what are some other examples? Are there officially different levels of events, or is it unofficial? Memphis gets some of the big names, it's good tennis, and unfortunately, it's almost the only place in the South to see professional tennis. -- Martin Burkey, Huntsville, Ala.

I once used the phrase "grass-roots" to describe the Cincinnati event and was chastised for it. It's certainly not meant in any pejorative way. We'll say it once, we'll say it again: We love the Mid-South region here at 'Bag HQ. It's just the Memphis event -- held in an indoor racket club, festooned with billboards from local sponsors, so close in proximity to Corky's -- has a much different feel from the bigger events that have a more global (and sterile) feel.

When dudes come to net, tennis is more exciting. So, who should I be watching? -- Tim Vassar, Garden Grove, Calif.

Top five volleying dudes in no particular order: Taylor Dent, Federer, Tim Henman, Ljubicic (give it up for the recency effect) and any doubles match.

In response to your column and the question from Scott Kurtis, Clearwater, Fla.: USTA Rule 25b states, "It is a good return if after the ball in play has hit the ground within the correct court and has spun or been blown back over the net, the player reaches over the net and plays the ball into the correct court." -- Bob Booth, Vice Chair, Officials Committee, USTA Florida Section, Jacksonville

Thanks, Bob. And the rest of you who referred to the same rule.

Finally, a downright frightening number of you shared my pain with respect to children's board games. "Sadly you still have Puppy Racers and Mouse Trap to live through," wrote Susan Anderson of North Branch, Minn. "Be strong."

At the risk of getting all Oprah on you, I was touched by this sentiment from Susan of Rockford, Ill.: "Awwww, Chutes and Ladders ... My oldest son is graduating from college in May. He would like airfare to China. I wish I could make him sit in his room and play Candyland instead. It goes so fast."

Enjoy Indian Wells, everyone!

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