Wednesday April 16th, 2008

True or False: Women's tennis is like men's tennis, only slower, with less variety and more errors. Seriously, give me a reason or two that a rational person would want to watch women's tennis that has nothing to do with sex appeal. -- Wafo Rodriguez, San Antonio

True. I also believe that college sports -- to saying nothing of youth sports -- are worthless because the pros run faster and hit harder and jump higher.

Seriously, I think your comparison is artificial. Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova might make more errors and hit slower (though debatable) than their male counterparts, but they're engaged in honest, compelling competition. It's still a contest of wills and for most of us, that's plenty.

Also, sports are as much about drama than athletic excellence. There's a "reality TV component" that encompasses personality and history and culture and plot. For me, a match between Serena and Sharapova, for instance, is infinitely more compelling than a garden variety men's match. Even if the men are technically superior.

It seems like there are four players who could compete a career Grand Slam this year (Roger Federer, Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport need the French and Justine Henin needs Wimbledon). How do you rate their chances? With Sharapova winning her first clay tournament last week and getting to the semis of the French last year despite being somewhat out-of-form, I think she's got a better-than-decent chance this year. -- Nick Einhorn, Greenwich, Conn.

I think Davenport could certainly challenge for a Slam but not one played on the clay. (That said, she could reach the second week on ball-striking alone; so why not show up, stay at the George V, take the kid to Luxembourg Gardens and enjoy yourself in Paris?)

Sharapova's movement -- or lack thereof -- tends to get exposed on clay; but she's the '08 MVP of the WTA so far, and she won on clay last week. I'd say she has a real shot, especially if Henin is still nursing assorted injuries as well as a bruised psyche.

Speaking of Henin, it's surprising that with her well-rounded game, she hasn't won Wimbledon. In a vacuum, she's a good bet to win, but not given the current state of her game. Same for Federer. He's a two-time finalist at Roland Garros and has beaten Rafael Nadal on clay. But he needs to get his game out of the breakdown lane before we start talking about his taking the lone Slam that still eludes him.

I consider myself a very knowledgeable fan, but I don't know the answer to this one. The next Davis Cup match for the U.S. is against Spain, and will be played in Spain! If the U.S. just won the 2007 Davis Cup and is the defending champion, then how does Spain get home-court advantage? What more does the U.S. need to do to get home court for all four '08 ties? -- Rich, New York City

Knowledgeable fan? Hah! You must be a parochial, Ugly American! Everyone can follow the exceedingly logical Davis Cup format, except for the Tennis Philistines in the U.S.!

Typical American entitlement: You win the competition and expect to hold some sort of home-court advantage -- or get a first-round bye -- the following year! You probably also wonder why the April quarterfinals wrap up and the next round is held in the last weekend in September!

When it doesn't meet your simpleton standards, you complain about "inefficiency" and a "lack of continuity" and a format "that makes want to jab your eyeballs with forks it's so exasperatingly convoluted." You and your nation of botox and silicone, always looking for the quick cosmetic fix!

Tell the full house in Moldova and vast crowds in Slovenia that Davis Cup is in need of an upgrade! Go back to your logical "Electoral College" and your simplified "tax code."

I have to keep re-reading that Mailbag thing about Serena to be sure I am reading what I am reading -- that P-Squared guy wrote that Jelena Jankovic had "nothing" to do with the outcome of the Miami final [last week's Mailbag]. Did he mean besides the 43 unforced errors Jelena made? And how could you fail to notice that a counter-puncher like Jelena ... or Björn Borg or Henin or Chris Evert, often and intentionally do not dictate the offensive outcome of matches -- instead deliberately capitalizing on the erratic self-destruction of players like Serena ? This is like some football writer opining that ground-based offenses that protect the ball are better than high-scoring but turnover-plagued ones. -- Chris Bennett, Springfield, Va.

I'm with P-squared on this. For much of that match, Jankovic was essentially irrelevant. That wasn't tactical counterpunching; that was simply a player put on the defensive by a bigger slugger on the other side of the net. But don't take our word.

Here's Jankovic: "I felt like that at a certain point when I was playing against Serena, I was just like there's no way I can play with this girl. She's just too strong for me.... I would say, oh, my God. Just hit a winner, but away from me. I don't want to see that ball near my body or anywhere else!... I felt, to be honest, it's like heavyweight champion and I'm a [featherweight] champion, you know? That's how I felt. I cannot match up against her. Just too much power for me to handle, especially on a good day where she's playing well."

Can't some of Federer's and Nadal's lack of results be also attributed to the move away from five-set matches outside of Slams and Davis Cup? Presumably, the longer the matches, the more likely, statistically, the better player will prevail. How many times have we seen young players come out, guns a-blazing, to win the first set, but are unable to hold through three sets at that level? If the match can be won in two sets, this player would need just a few extra points in the next set to take all. -- Barbara Katzenberg, Lexington, Mass.

I'd think one could just easily make the opposite case: When players compete in best-of-five matches, they're more prone to injury and physical fatigue. Also, there's the possibility that they can win the match and then be so tired at the next tournament. In the old days, anyway, it was easy to imagine a player winning a best-of-five final in, say, Monte Carlo and then having nothing left in the proverbial tank the next week in Rome.

Three peripheral points though: 1) It's truly remarkable that neither of the top two players in the world has won an event in '08. 2) The ATP has indeed scrapped best-of-five matches across the board. Good for them. Make players stay out their for five sets and you're begging for injury and withdrawals.

3) I think the real "statistical crap shoot" comes with the super tie-break in doubles. Note the rash of upsets in doubles and most of them come after the teams have split sets. When you play a super tie-break to decide a match, you leave an awful lot to chance. One weak service point and you could be toast.

I've recently been trying to find places to donate old tennis racquets. Many of my friends and I don't know what to do with them. An online search yields practically nothing. Any advice? -- Michele, Huntington Station, N.Y.

I have vague recollections of someone from Chanda Rubin's foundation writing in a few years back requesting old rackets. If anyone else has thoughts, fire away, please.

It's too bad no one on a national level "covered" Esther Vergeer's 315-match win streak, winning the Florida Open International Wheelchair Championships. -- Sid Pachter, Boca Raton, Fla.

With Federer reeling, we can say unequivocally that Vergeer is the most dominating figure in tennis. Let's drive some traffic to her Web site.

Why hasn't the tall, lanky, free-swinging, big-serving lefty Lucie Safarova had greater success on the women's tour yet? Content to look pretty out there and lose, a la boyfriend Tomas? Head case? Game is still developing? What? She ought to be a threat and yet ... she isn't. I like her and want to see more of her on TV! -- Kathy, Michigan

You know how dogs and owners tend to look alike after a while? Maybe there's some sort of analog with tennis pros and their significant others. I think there are a lot of similarities between Safarova and her beau, Tomas Berdych: a pair of big-time ball-strikers who can beat anyone and then lose their next match to a qualifier.

Last year, Safarova beat Francesca Schiavone and Amélie Mauresmo to reach the Aussie Open quarters. She also beat Nicole Vaidisova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Henin (!), Anna Chakvetadze, Schiavone and Mauresmo again. And she still managed to finish outside the top 20!

Jon, don't you think you should back off a bit from your portrayal of Andy Roddick from a few weeks ago? The guy stops and waits for his teammates before starting to run with the flag after clinching the Davis Cup quarterfinal tie, shrugs off his unbelievable 10-0 clinching record by putting all the credit on his teammates for putting him up 2-1, and is shown on TV, at least four times, signing countless autographs all around the court and as he was leaving. Has he really changed as much as you suggested a few weeks ago? -- Jill, Los Angeles

I hope this point didn't get lost a few weeks ago: One of the reasons I found some of Roddick's recent behavior particularly disappointing was because so often he does do the right thing and comport himself like a pro. You cited two recent examples.

I called attention to his charitable foundation -- if you're ever bored, go to and take a look at the public filings and compare it to the financials of other athletes' philanthropy. Some athletes are jerks and egomaniacs and Cincinnati Bengals and that's that. Roddick is none of those, which is why I thought he was discrediting himself with some unpleasant conduct.

Loved watching Roddick and the rest of the Davis Cup team play last weekend (even though Versus cut out of the James Blake five-setter in the fifth set -- thank God for the Tennis Channel), but what the heck is up with Andy's hair? Did he lose a bet or something? -- Pam, Overland Park, Kan.

In fact, he did lose a bet. I gather Roddick's fiancée outperformed him in the NCAA Tournament pool and this was his punishment.

I saw that Irakli Labadze (Georgia) defeated Lukas Lacko (Slovakia) 4-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 19-17 on red clay in their Davis Cup Group I zone tie. Do you know how long the match lasted? I couldn't find out. -- Alex Ketaineck, Madison, N.J.

I couldn't find the time of the match on the (otherwise excellent) Web site Anyone else have some info here?

I would like to know what kind of remuneration is paid to coaches. Is it based on the earnings of the players or a fixed salary? What about parents who coach their children? -- Adityan, Chennai, India

The baseline rule of thumb: Coaches are paid what they would otherwise earn giving private lessons at the club (I'd say minimum $1,500 a week) plus expenses and rankings/results bonuses. As the players become more prominent, the coaching salaries and clauses improve accordingly.

I'd say the average coach of a top-10 player makes well into six figures. In some extreme cases -- Brad Gilbert coaching Andy Murray, subsidized by the LTA -- a coach can earn silly money.

As for parents, all bets are off. Remember that in the Williams breach of contract suit, it was revealed that Richard was paid more than $1 million by Venus alone for "management fees." My strong suspicion is that other parents are less generously compensated.

I am pretty sure that the "fifth Slam" idea came from a blurb in Tennis magazine by Gilbert -- but he said that Indian Wells and Miami together (the back-to-back thingy) were as hard to win as a Slam. -- Denise, Tulsa, Okla.

I still say it's because Miami comes closest to approximating the Grand Slam vibe. But let's use your question as an opportunity to say how much we miss Gilbert. Just one those guys who makes the tennis firmament that much richer. Gilbert is something of an acquired taste, we'll grant you that. (Andy Murray + relentless Golden State Warriors analogies = short-term employment arrangement.)

But I have to believe there are dozens of players -- male and female -- who could benefit from BG's services. Imagine what Gilbert, for instance, could do with Richard Gasquet. Here's hoping we see him back, in a coaching box or on television, in the near future.

• I don't want to belabor this point. OK, I do. But we need some sort of an emergency summit to discuss the tennis television situation in the U.S. (I'll volunteer my apartment and order the burritos, if need be.)

Blake and Paul-Henri Mathieu are deep in the fifth set of their Davis Cup match. And, at least in New York, the Versus network switches over to the NHL playoffs. Not ideal, but I figure that a) Versus has branded itself as the hockey network. b) The matches went longer than expected. c) Versus had the good sense to hire Ted Robinson, so that's worth some goodwill right there. d) The match coverage is being continued on the Tennis Channel. Again, not ideal. But not tragic either.

Yet when I switch to Tennis Channel, they're in the middle of a commercial. Odd, but I stick with it. Then at 4-5 in the fifth, Tennis Channel airs a "Bag Check" segment with Rennae Stubbs. You love Rennae Stubbs, I love Rennae Stubbs. We all love Rennae Stubbs. And her bag. But how in the world does this segment pre-empt the critical games in the fifth set of a Davis Cup match?

Just when I'm done throwing crockery at my television, coverage returns to Davis Cup and Justin Gimelstob is interviewing a triumphant Blake, who, I'm left to assume, broke serve to win the match while I was watching Stubbs discuss the importance of sun block and extra socks.

Coming as this does on the heels of the Fox Sports Net debacle in Indian Wells and Miami, the sport has a real problem. For all the breathless press releases about record crowds and surging ball sales, if Joe Fan can't follow the sport on TV -- especially inexcusable in this era of DirecTV and specialized tiers and streaming Web casts -- we're in a world of hurt.

• It's only Wednesday and already some intriguing results from the agate type. For one, Alexandra Stevenson (remember her?) qualified in Charleston, S.C., and, as of this writing, is in the second round. That's the epitome of perseverance. Good for her.

• Meanwhile, in Houston, 15-year-old Ryan Harrison blitzed through the qualifiers and won his first match. He's just the 10th player in the Open Era to win a match before his 16th birthday and the last since Nadal in Mallorca in '02. Much as you hate to saddle a high-school sophomore with undue pressure, that's an encouraging result.

• Sachia Vickery, a 12-year-old who was the youngest player in the draw, won the girls Easter Bowl in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Steve Pratt sends this dispatch from the Easter Bowl:

"If anybody had ever seen Serena Williams play a junior tennis tournament at age 12, they would probably say Sachia Vickery played a lot like her. The unseeded, 12-year-old Vickery calls Williams -- who never played junior tennis -- her favorite player, and for good reason. At the age of 8, she was coached by Williams' father, Richard, for one year and has met Serena several times.

"'I like [Novak] Djokovic and Jankovic because she's always smiling, but Serena's my favorite,'" said Vickery.

"Vickery is from Miramar, Fla., outside Miami, but for the last two months has been training at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla. She beat No. 3 seed Julie Vrabel from Centreville, Va., 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-2, to advance to the final."

• New radio show by the new ATP doubles duo of Eric Butorac and Ashley Fisher. They were to play the whole year together but a knee injury to Fisher delayed their start. On the plus side, they've already got up and running, and from that site you can link to their weekly 30-minute Internet radio show (last week's guest was Benjamin Becker).

• Carolyn Brown of Conway, Ark.: "Please remind your readers that the 'squeaky wheel gets the grease.' When Fox Sports cut away from the Roddick/Federer match, I immediately e-mailed the network about my displeasure. A few years ago, a local affiliate decided to cut away from an Andre Agassi match at the U.S. Open to present a half-hour local midday news broadcast. I called them right away -- the switchboard operator said they were inundated with calls. To my knowledge, they have never preempted such a broadcast again. (And don't forget to contact networks when they get it right!)"

• The WNBA's New York Liberty are playing the Indiana Fever on July 19 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

• Here's one more reason to like YouTube: Stars can no longer get away with making commercials overseas (see: Lost in Translation) that go unseen at home.

• Speaking of Johnny Mac.

• Ben of Toronto notes: "The Williams sisters' saga may be a tantalizing one, but it certainly doesn't feature a storyline in which former doubles partners who openly despise each other must play together at the Olympics

(If I picked your entry, send me your address and I'll stick a prize in the mail.)

• Anony Baroukh of East Meadow, N.Y.: "Inflatable sockem bopem Mikhail Youzhny. Get out all of your frustrations -- punch him, kick him, whack him in the head with a tennis racquet. He'll fall back and bounce right back up. "

• Scott G., Atascadero, Calif.: "There Will Be Blood. Now out on DVD."

• Charles of Miami Beach: "Youzhny coulda had a V-8."

• Doyle Srader of Eugene, Ore.: Metallica's next album: "It'll make you head-bang 'til you draw blood!"

• Daniel Witthaus, Melbourne, Australia: "What about a deal with a string firm? 'Not happy with your bloody strings?'"

Keith J. of Minneapolis writes: "I just wanted to add my contribution to 'long-lost siblings' -- try Roddick and actor John Brotherton of One Life to Live, the ABC soap opera."

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.