Wednesday August 15th, 2007

What comes first: Rafael Nadal becoming No. 1 or Novak Djokovic becoming No. 2? -- Charles, St. Louis

Lots of questions this week about Djokovic's rapid ascent. First, to answer your question: Simply as a matter of math, Nadal is much more likely to unseat Roger Federer at No. 1 than Djokovic is to unseat Nadal. In fact, a strong push this fall by Nadal and it's certainly within the realm of possibility that he will finish 2007 ranked No. 1.

But it's hard not to get swept up in the wave of Djoko-hype. If it weren't already clear that he's the world's third best player, he cemented this in Montreal. Should he do well in Cincinnati, you have to consider him the next favorite to win the Open after Federer.

Djokovic is a nice compromise between Federer and Nadal, he hits plenty hard but there is a fluidity to his game. He's rock-solid off the ground but can come up with some nifty shot-making too. Perhaps most important, he suffers no shortage of self-belief. He's an outgoing, personable kid but he still manages to project a sense of: I deserve to be here.

Still, I think we ought to tread a little cautiously here. A few months ago, Federer lost four straight events and too many in the tennis salon were ready to declare that the balance of powers had shifted. In retrospect, that was silly.

Likewise, it's premature to anoint Djokovic as the New King on the basis of a fine summer and a smashing Montreal event. (The guy did lose to someone named Viktor Troicki last month.) There's a sense -- even in the locker room -- that this is a future champion. But let's hold off before saying he's cracked the Federer-Nadal axis.

In this week's 'Bag you said, "Anyway, are the Williams sisters 'talented' per se? Not in the conventional way we perceive tennis talent. But they're two of the best competitors and big-match players the sport has known, and that will compensate for mechanical flaws and wavering commitment levels."

I am going to give you an opportunity to recant. When Serena was a youngster, nearly beating Monica Seles at the Virginia Slims in Chicago (yeah, that long ago), every commentator in the world exulted her serve, movement, backhand, etc. Most still say her serve is the best in the game and among the three best of all time. Her backhand and movement are among the greatest as well. Jon, buddy, what gives? Lindsay Davenport's a great player, but she falls behind both sisters on the GOAT list. Clearly. -- Dart, Atlanta

I think we need to settle on a better definition of "talent," perhaps. In the context of tennis, I think of talent as a raw skill for hitting the ball. It incorporates touch and feel and playing as though the racket were an extension of your arm. The Beethoven stuff. John McEnroe had infinitely more talent than Ivan Lendl; he wasn't necessarily a better player. By my definition, Richard Gasquet has more talent than, say, Nadal; though Nadal is obviously the superior overall player.

This wasn't meant as a put-down of the Williams sisters. They have tremendous athletic talents. They're strong. They're fast. They employ more strategy than they're usually given credit for. Above all, both Serena and Venus are perhaps the best sheer competitors tennis has known. Ever. (And while I'm not sure how you got on the subject of GOAT, there can really be no reasonable argument: Serena and Venus both rank ahead of Davenport in any "best ever" discussion.)

I was thrilled to see Davenport is returning to singles play in September. Does one of the nicest pro players of all time have a shot at one more major in '08? -- Chad Silvey, Akron, Ohio

The conventional wisdom is that if she couldn't win in her mid- and late-20s, when she was a full-time player, it's fanciful to think she could do it in her 30s. But this is too simplistic. As plenty of players have shown -- Venus Williams most recently -- it's entirely possible to start a tournament off the radar, play yourself into form, gain momentum, and reel off seven straight matches.

Do I think Davenport can demonstrate the schedule commitment, health and sustained excellence to return to No. 1? No. Do I think she can get hot on a hard court and reel off seven straight matches? I wouldn't bet against it.

I noticed with dismay at Wimbledon that this premier tournament also suffers from a decided lack of spectators at some of the matches (especially after a rain delay). I still think the directors should devise a plan to get the true fans to buy "discounted" tickets to sit in these prime seats, and if the true ticket owner arrives you are asked to go to another, unused seat or to stand. This seems a lot better than showing your sport's premier event on TV and have it display gaping expanses of empty seats. Any chance a plan like this might happen in the near future? -- Paul Smith, Edgewood, Ky.

While they're busy figuring out ways to add Sunday sessions, could the four Slams please address this issue? Surely there is a way to ensure that there aren't massive pastures of empty seats. Particularly when the grounds are crawling with enthusiastic fans who would kill for those ducats. It looks awful on television and sends a message that even tennis' crown jewels are struggling. (Read Federer's interview after his French Open semifinal and it's clear the players are concerned by this as well.)

We all realize that the USTA makes buckets of money by selling those luxury and premium court-side boxes. When the monied types fail to show up and the prime spectator real estate goes unoccupied, it doesn't do much for the sport.

As of his second-round loss at Sopot, Poland, Nikolay Davydenko has a record of 21-18 in non-Grand Slam events this year, a winning percentage of approximately 54 percent. Meanwhile, his record in Grand Slams this year is 12-3, a winning percentage of 80 percent. Based on his Grand Slam performances, shouldn't he have more than zero titles since winning the Paris Masters late last year? -- Alex Ketaineck, Madison, N.J.

Wow, in light of recent events, this fairly stunning disparity is all the more interesting. The optimist will look at this vis-à-vis L'Affaire Sopot and remark, "See, there's nothing here; the guy often plays for &%#$ at low-level events!" The pessimist might view these numbers quite differently.

Anyway, yes, you would think that a guy who's been pretty reliable about reaching the latter round of Slams -- surface be damned -- over the past few years, should bag a few lesser titles along the way.

Yes, it is as bad as it sounds. Come on! There were $7 million in bets on the match! Of course this is serious, and obviously more than just someone overhearing something about Davydenko's foot! -- Gilbert Benoit, Ottawa

No question, it stinks. Clearly something not kosher was going on. My point was simply that there are scenarios considerably less dark than the conventional wisdom that "Russian mobsters got their tentacles on Davydenko." And I also wanted to emphasize just how dumb you have to be to bet on tennis, particularly if you're a continent away from the action and not armed with any inside dope.

What's the story with these U.S. Open Series TV commercials? It's obvious why Nadal would choose to play Stuttgart over L.A., but should he really be promoting the Series (and getting compensated for it) when the only two events he's choosing to play are Masters that he is required by the ATP to play anyways? Same for Roger, but at least he isn't playing in rival tournaments. I hope the USTA is not shelling out too much money for them. -- Dan, Baltimore

I have to believe that the players taped those commercials gratis. But your point is well-taken. Federer and Nadal are playing two Masters Series events that are mandatory under ATP rules. It's somewhere between disingenuous and dishonest to suggest they're wholeheartedly supporting the U.S. Open Series. On the other hand, I give the USTA credit for selling the top players and not simply the Americans.

Just to set the record straight: Andy Roddick did get a warning for ball abuse during the Indy semifinal against Frank Dancevic -- I was at the match. However, the warning from the chair was quite delayed, so it might not have been seen on TV. Not all cracks at Roddick are deserved. -- Christine, St. Louis

Thanks. (This was in reference to a discussion a few weeks ago about subjectively punishing players.)

As much as I enjoyed ESPN2's thrilling coverage of the Rogers Cup, I have to make one objection. Do the camera guys (and it's pretty obvious they're guys) really have to consistently focus on attractive women during lulls in the action? I wouldn't be as annoyed if not for the fact that they don't focus on cute men. Now that the Grand Slams are offering equal prize money, isn't it time that viewers get treated to equal numbers of male and female hotties? -- Meredith, Ithaca, N.Y.

A few of you mentioned this. I see those shots and I keep waiting for some sort of explanation. "That woman, Barbara Jablonski, is Radek Stepanek's pedicurist." Inevitably, though, there's silence, and it becomes clear this is simply a random hottie who happened to attract the camera's attention. This is unique to neither ESPN nor to tennis. (The WGN Chicago Cubs broadcasts were notorious for this.) If you insist on doing this, why not throw in some cut-aways of hunky guys as well and keep the female viewers happy?

Is there a Web site that tells which Masters Series events are best-of-five finals and which are best-of-three? I'm keeping track of the score of Djokovic vs. Federer online, and Novak is up a break in the third and I have no idea if the match will end after this set or not. -- Ben, Rochester Hills, Mich.

I'm reprinting this with hopes the tennis administrators see this and realize the practical effect of some of their decisions. As for your question, all Masters Series finals are best-of-three, except for the year-end Masters Cup.

Are there two Pete Samprases? I keep hearing how he would be competitive at Wimbledon (once they changed the grass, he lost early) and then see, 1) where a Sampras loses sometimes on the senior tour and, 2) while not at the bottom of the list in MS in WTT as he was last year, Sampras still was below .500 in games won. Where is this Sampras that could be competitive with Nadal? -- Jerry White, Virginia

Yeah, I'm with Jerry here. If Sampras didn't douse the comeback flames with his words, his play in recent events did it for him. Yes, it's "only" World TeamTennis and not a sanctioned ATP event; but some of the score lines were worthy of a wince (losing to Sam Warburg, for instance.) While Federer is obviously on the precipice, as things stand today, Sampras remains, in my eyes, the GOAT. But I think it's safe to refer to his career in the past tense.

I'm hoping that some of your Los Angeles readers can help me out. Are there any L.A.-area sports bars or restaurants that tend to show the primetime U.S. Open matches? -- R.Z., Los Angeles

If anyone can help, fire away. ...

• We'll say it again: it's always endearingly jarring to see the ATP sophisticates pass through suburban Cincy. It's called the Western and Southern Financial Group Open, but it ought to be named "The Guts of America Open." You haven't lived until you've seen Guillermo Vilas drive his Chevy Malibu rental car out of the Marriott lot.

• Three former NCAA champs were in the draw here: Amer Delic, Benjamin Becker and John Isner. All lost the first day.

• Re: our reference to Thomas Johansson playing the Binghamton Challenger, Alison Dura writes: "I was fortunate to watch Johansson play all five of his matches here. Many were very close, but his experience and steady play (and serve) helped him through them all. He told the press and public here that he wanted to use our challenger as a way to get some good matches in. Otherwise, he'd just be practicing. Interestingly, his 'coach' these days is none other than Magnus Norman! Binghamton was happy to have Thomas here, that's for sure."

• Michael Waterston (presumably of Montreal) writes: "Someone asked you about Dr. Lou Noritz in your Mailbag this week. I saw him at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, but he wasn't doing his usual shouting out to the players during matches or waving flags. Maybe someone on the tour asked him to tone it down. By the way, have you seen the new No. 2 court at Jarry Park in Montreal? It's great -- Montreal now has two excellent show courts."

• Nicole Vaidisova doesn't generally exude much personality. But between this and the clean drinking-water campaign, she sure seems to have a conscience.

• Nikki of Minneapolis writes: "Keeping the 'serving records' theme from a previous comment regarding Sam Querrey's consecutive aces, could the first-serve percentages from the 18-and-under girls final at the Rogers Cup be a record? Gabriela Dabrowski and Juliana Motyl had first-serve percentages of 100 and 98 percent, respectively, with the lone second-serve in the entire match being won by the opponent."

• Thanks to Brian of Vancouver for his factoid: "Jelena Jankovic's unused rankings points would be sufficient to earn her a top-40 ranking!"

• Minneapolis readers, you guys been here? One of the better meals I've had in recent memory.

• Randy of Dayton, Ohio, writes: "Given the recent investigation into betting and tennis, I found this interesting article in Time Magazine."

• Jay Schweid, once the Federer of racket-stringing, is involved with a new Manhattan club, Gin Lane. The address: 355 W. 14th St. (just off of 9th Avenue).

• Alistair W. of Toronto writes: "There was a downside to seven of the top 10 men playing doubles in Montreal. On Thursday, when Lleyton Hewitt-Nadal forfeited their second-round match, and then Dancevic and his partner also did (all three after exhausting singles matches just an hour or two earlier), it left a couple of dozen doubles aficionados having waited for two hours for nothing. The stars were to play, respectively, Erlich-Ram and Damm-Paes, which meant those seeded teams didn't compete in the tournament until Friday."

• Justin Keyes of Yorktown, Va., sends this week's Separated at Birth: Lendl and Crowded House's Nick Seymour.

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