Wednesday January 6th, 2010

Welcome back for another season...

Now that Justine Henin has won her first match against Nadia Petrova -- "no slouch of a player" as you would say -- how high would you say she can get? --Carl, New York

• "How high can she get?" and "how well will she do?" are two different questions. Given the trends and the ranking system in WTA-land, I think she'll have a hard time getting back to No. 1. Even in her best years, Henin did not play a crammed schedule. It's hard to envision her simply playing enough tournaments to rack up the requisite points. Not when, say, Caroline Wozniacki plays 91 matches in a year.

Can Henin return to winning Slams? Absolutely. First, Henin is still only 27. This isn't exactly Rodney Dangerfield returning to Grand Lakes University. (A Back to School reference for the kids in the audience.) Whereas Kimiko Date retired before Laura Robson was born, Henin was only out of action for 18 months, hardly enough time for her strokes to desert her.

But maybe most important, consider the landscape. Though still ranked No. 1 at the time of her retirement, Henin was starting to get blown off the court by bigger and younger players. Since then? Maria Sharapova hasn't fully convalesced from injury. Dinara Safina hasn't fully developed the self-belief. (Nor have Elena Dementieva or Svetlana Kuznetsova.) Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic have stagnated or regressed depending on how charitable you want to be. When Serena Williams is on her game, she will hit through Henin; but remember: for a while there Henin was getting the better of Serena at Slams. True, Kim Clijsters is in the mix; but Henin usually held a mental edge there. I don't think Henin is ready to get on the board right away in Australia. But her game + a fairly soft period for the WTA = plenty more success, perhaps as soon as Roland Garros.

Trying to get over the disappointment of Federer once again not getting Sportsman of the Year, then I realized that what he has done can't be locked into just one year. Federer for Sportsman of the Decade! Seriously, shouldn't SI do something like that for him. Look at his semifinals record alone, no one in any sport has ever done something like that. How can the greatest ever with such consistency over years not get some sort of recognition from the premier sports magazine? --Dale, Stafford, Atl.

• Especially given Tiger Woods' fate during the last month of the 2000s, I would have no problem giving "Athlete of the Decade" honors to Federer. (In fact, I did.) Fifteen majors. All four surfaces. The existence of a rival. Style. Grace. Unimpeachable sportsmanship. I think I can win that case. True, it's odd to give the "decade" award to an athlete who never once won Athlete of the Year, but I can live with that. Sometimes the winning decathlete didn't take first in any of the events but simply had the highest overall score.

Lots of holdover questions about Federer and the ritual Sportsman of the Year disappointment. Appreciate the awkwardness of my position here. I agree that Federer should have won in the past. But I had no problem with the 2009 choice of Derek Jeter. We can talk about provincial Americans and a disrespect for tennis but I do think, at the same time, this should as something as a wake-up call for tennis and the Federer camp in particular. When an athlete wins three of the four major titles in his sport, dominates the field, comports himself like a pro and still doesn't capture an annual "Sportsman" award -- fair or not -- we have a marketing challenge.

Jon, you left out what I consider the greatest comeback of the year: Novak Djokovic's public-relations comeback in New York. His shtick with Johnny Mac was so much fun and turned his image on its head for many people, myself included. --Woody, Calgary, Alberta

• Good one. Quite apart from his on-court results, Djokovic made real strides in the court of public opinion last year. People close to him insisted that he was a good kid whose humor didn't always translate and his perceived "arrogance" was more a Serbian cultural bravado thing. Especially after the 2008 contretemps with Roddick (which nearly came to blows) and the U.S. Open booing, he retreated. But you can only repress the irrepressible for so long. By the second half of the 2009 season, he had returned to outgoing self -- if a bit more circumspect -- and won back the majority of Tennis Nation. Plus there was this. This is the rare case where the image handler is due for a raise.

I really enjoyed reading Andre Agassi's book over Christmas. I never took him to be such a complex individual. How surprised were you by the various revelations? --Ike, London

• I'm not quite sure which revelations you're referencing. The crystal meth? I had no idea. Had I -- or any journalist -- even heard a whisper, you'd run through fire to try and substantiate or refute. The hairpiece? Obviously you don't go from a leonine mane to bald in months as Agassi appeared to do between the end of 1994 and the beginning of 1995. But had I heard that a defective weave played such a prominent role in a Grand Slam final? No. Mike Agassi as monomaniacal tennis dad? Yes. At some point when the statute of limitations lapses, I'll share a story. Agassi's insecurities? Sort of. His reverence for Gil Reyes? Absolutely. His outsized sense of compassion? Yes. Thinking about that book, we'll say it again: He's set a new standard for the athlete autobiography.

Speaking of Open, one of you raised this point: Had the Tiger Woods scandal broken a few weeks earlier, the Agassi book would have been consigned to the remainder bin. Who would have time to fret over a decade-old drug whitewash, when the most famous athlete on the planet is going through the tabloid ringer, a fall from grace on the order of John Edwards, Mark Sanford and Bill Clinton combined ... times a thousand?

Do you envision a Roddick-Serena/Venus gold medal in mixed doubles in 2012 Olympics? --Mike F., Peshtigo, Wisc.

• If I'm the Bryan Brothers, I'm going into full courtship mode with the Williams sisters. Flowers, chocolates, gondola rides. Whatever it takes. That's a heck of an opportunity for Olympic gold. Say this: The sideshow that is the mixed doubles draw suddenly gets a lot more interesting given that there are Olympic implications.

Early favourites for the mixed doubles gold in 2012? Maybe Roddick/Serena. How about Djokovic and either Jankovic or Ivanovic (how will he choose?). Any others off the top of your head? --Jennifer L., Scarborough, Ontario

• I still say Federer-Federer would be tremendous. More realistically, I like yours as well as a fan favorite pairing of Andy Murray and Laura Robson/Heather Watson.

Soooooooooo sad that you didn't include Akiko Morigami in your farewell list (a former top 50 player, who kept Japanese tennis going along with her fellow retiree, Ai Sugiyama, after Date's premature "retirement"). I think she deserves at least a short mention (and a proper good-bye) in your mailbag. --Susie Q, Orange County, Calif.

• Really, who are we to deprive Akiko Morigami of her props? (And only because you're from the O.C., we'll overlook the nine superfluous O's in "So.")

You wrote about Goran Ivanisevic: "Not the slick packaging agents would advise, but this eccentricity was the main reason he endeared himself to so many." If he had made equally offensive racist remarks as the homophobic remarks he so often made, I wonder if you would have made a point to single him as "endearing". My guess is no. Racists lose their careers, homophobes get cited -- charmingly -- in end-of-decade lists. For the record, I don't find much endearing about hate speech of any kind. --Joel Winer, New York

• Joel refers to this. I'm not sure one tasteless, indefensible remark nullifies an entire career. But his point is well-taken nonetheless.

I hope you will take this opportunity to pay tribute to Randy Snow. Randy was arguably the best wheelchair tennis player and athlete of all time. He won the gold medal in singles and doubles in Barcelona and won the U.S. Open 10 times. He also medaled in track and field and basketball in other Paralympics. More importantly, Randy was a great person. He touched the lives of many people and was influential in the Paralympic movement. Randyrecently passed away unexpectedly while putting on a wheelchair tennis clinic in El Salvador. I was lucky enough to meet Randy as a volunteer at a tennis camp a number of years ago. He amazed me not only with his tennis skills, but his friendliness and passion for the game. Thank you. --George Fulk, Norwood, N.Y.

• You got it.

Jon, could you guys change the tennis front page picture of Nadal by one of Federer's? I mean, the guy deserves it, right? Number 1, G.O.A.T. and all that. Cheers. --Mauricio Betti, Sao Paulo

• Duly noted.

In your top 10 women players of the decade, shouldn't Martina Hingis be on the list? --Tom Ling, Beijing

• Slams are the coin of the realm in tennis. Since Hingis failed to win a major in the "aughts," it's hard to include her. Her five titles in the '90s, however, make her a shoo-in (ill-fitting, Sergio Tacchini) for the previous decade.

• Just asking: Must WTATour.com post to a link to AskMen.com, whereby fans vote who's hotter, Ana or Maria?

Kav Vells of Chicago: Thought you would be interested in this Agassi-Graf piece.

• From Dave Seminara: Hi Jon, I just saw the Q&A regarding playing the '74 Davis Cup now. I addressed this question in the [original] article, but the Times edited it out. (Presumably to make room for a huge article on the Tiger Woods scandal!) I did briefly touch on the topic in this other version of the article I wrote for the Indian market. FYI: In April, the South Africa edition of Sports Illustrated will publish another version of the story focusing on the SA team. I'm going to address the idea of staging this match now in this piece as well. Bottom line: Most of the players are willing to do it. Cliff, Anand, Sashi Menon, Jas Singh, and Ray are all in.

• The WTA notes: Virginia Ruano Pascual has informed the Tour that she will indeed continue as a pro player in 2010 but in doubles only.

Louise Mansergh, London: Now that Fabrice Santoro has retired, he should pair up with Mansour Bahrami in the senior's doubles. They would be the best pair to watch and a nightmare for their opponents!

• B. of Virginia notes this irony: Patty Schnyder -- once partnered with a "guru" who believed drinking unholy amounts of orange juice was the key to success -- was asked on the WTA's website what the funniest trick that has been played on her is. Her response; "The problem is, I don't get scared at all. It's not easy to convince me of stupid things either, I know they're not true. I'm not a good victim."

• Thank Ken Schneck of Brattleboro, Vt., for this.

Blake Redabaugh of Denver has this week's LLS: David Andersen of the Rockets and Robin Soderling.

Have a great opening week, everyone!

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