Wednesday February 24th, 2010

We'll start with some good news and raise a glass of Corona Extra to the ATP in honor of their new sponsor.

Is there any athlete in sports (male or female) that shows more heart and mental toughness than Serena? Forget tennis, I'd love to hear opinions on other athletes with similar resolve. I'll prime the pump in a Winter Olympic year and say Eric Heiden. --Neil Grammer, Toronto

• I think you have to distinguish between team sports and individual sport athletes. A baseball player might be known as a clutch hitter or a cold-blooded closer. But they're still dependent on others. Kobe Bryant can enter "refuse to lose" mode as well as anyone. But if Lamar Odom doesn't play defense, it's all for naught.

That Heiden -- a speedskater during the Carter administration -- is the first name you generate, says plenty about Serena's stature here. Tiger Woods is obviously up there. A fully healthy Rafael Nadal (remember that guy?), of course. Michael Phelps? Usain Bolt? The "recency effect" brings us Apolo Ono. I'm sure there are others I'm missing. But, to your larger point, Serena's ability to play her best when she needs to is just uncanny. Pick your cliché: she's a money player. She's clutch. She finds a way to win. She has the heart of a champion. To me, this is what puts her in another class from her contemporaries.

Margaret Court's honoring at the Australian Open wasn't just a "tennis" thing, it was an Australian thing. She's the greatest Australian champion in history, man or woman, singles, doubles, or mixed. That fact isn't changed by the fact that she holds views some people find offensive. Court isn't suggesting we start burning homosexuals at the stake; she just gave her (solicited, by the way) opinion on whether sexuality is a choice. It may surprise everyone in New York, but hers isn't an uncommon belief around the world. There are people who think homosexuality is an affront to their Christian values; do we start barring Hall of Fame lesbians from awarding trophies just because lesbianism upsets some viewers? It's a slippery slope. --Jesse, Portland, Ore.

• This week the pendulum oscillated in the other direction, and Court's defenders came full force with allegations of "political correctness," and "thought police," and "love the sinner, hate the sin." To Jesse's point: It is indeed a slippery slope. Which is why I was initially inclined to tread lightly. Anyone with strong beliefs and a willingness to share them -- see: Navratilova, Martina -- will inevitably offend some in the room. Heaven help us if we start padlocking the door every time someone expresses a thought at odds with our sensibilities.

But again, I urge you reread some of Court's statements. To my mind, calling an entire group of people an "abomination" (Webster: something causing extreme disgust and hatred) is really beyond the pale. Court and her defenders may contend that her intentions are good and pure -- and let's concede this to be the case. That doesn't change the fact that it has the effect of hurting and demeaning a great many people, from some of her former colleagues to fans she's never met. Shouldn't there be consequences for that?

Again, search and replace "gay" with another discreet minority group. There's no way the person holding the view that blacks or Catholics or Asians are an "abomination," would be welcome in the President's Box. Margaret Court is, of course, free to hold views and express them as she sees fit. The tennis community is similarly free to find someone more tolerant to pass out trophies.

Has our man in Amsterdam James Blake entered into the Lanny Poffo zone? Likeable, flashes of brilliance, enough to get your hopes up, but inevitably destined to lose? At this rate, there will be one less wild card up for grabs in Flushing. --Jon Rapkin, North Caldwell, N.J.

• Nice reference. But is Blake really in a slump? I think it's easier to make the case that he was/is a late-blooming overachiever than a talent-squandering underachiever. He's 30. He's losing close matches. He'll win some matches here and there, especially on faster courts. He'll need to fall out of the top 100 to require a wild card at the U.S. Open, which I don't see happening. On the other hand, clearly the torch has been passed and "Quiznner" (they toast the bread!), the Sam Querrey/John Isner cyborg, is the next-best American male after Andy Roddick.

I am offended by so many tennis writers who want to put an asterisk next to Federer's achievement at the French Open. It's not at all warranted by any stretch of the imagination, given that Nadal was in the tournament. What is your take on this? --Adityan, Chennai

• This still comes up every few weeks. No asterisk. He beat the seven guys they put in front of him. Can't ask for more than that. (Plus at least he beat the guy who beat Nadal.)

Hi, Jon. Was noticing that Sofia Arvidsson was having yet another good run in Memphis -- she seems to perform disproportionately well there despite the absence of any real link to the city (not her hometown by far, etc.). This seems to happen from time to time -- players wind up performing disproportionately well at some random tournament year after year. Any insight into the psychology or circumstances that produce these seemingly random and puzzlingly consistent results? --Shaun R., Boston, Mass.

• In this case, I attributed it to the BBQ chicken nachos at Corky's. It's like the food equivalent of UFC: simultaneously indefensible and irresistible. But I digress. Shaun raises an interesting point: we sometimes see players turn in consistently strong results at particular events, with little rhyme or reason. We could talk about surface (in this case, a Scandinavian playing well at an indoor event iS probably not surprising) and we could talk about comfort levels and we could talk about confidence. But I throw this out there: maybe it's pure chance. You have hundreds of players and dozens of events. The same way you could flip a coin 100 times and 10 straight "tails," statistically speaking these "blips" really aren't so aberrant.

I'm not sure where you stand on Maria Sharapova but I find it strange how you (and other members of the media) continually question her Russian-ness (I'm going to pretend like that works). Both her parents are Russian. She was born in Russia. She's Russian. I was born in Newfoundland and moved to Vancouver when I was young but I'm still a proud Newfie. Anyway, I just don't think it's up to you or the media to decide where her loyalties should lie. --Jill, St. John's, New Foundland

• I have no opinion on Sharapova's "Russian-ness." For all I know, in her heart of hearts, she considers herself an Uraguayian. And she is certainly entitled to whichever loyalties she wants. My point is simply this: tennis has become so global and the players are so itinerant* that an international competition pitting nation versus nation loses some of its gravitas. There was a time when the Davis Cup -- and Olympics for that matter -- had these classical elements: how do our warriors stack up against their warriors? It became a sort of referendum on the country, the culture, the national character. That loses something when a player is born in Country A, emigrates to Country B for her formative years, travels the globe for her job and has a base in Country C, often prompted by its taxation policy.

*Jelena Jankovic now calls Dubai home?

I don't usually speculate on the psychological makeup of players I don't know personally, but the lack of fight in Djokovic that was much-discussed in your mailbag got me thinking about how much was made of his and Ivanovic's emergence from the war-torn Balkans (the whole empty pool practices, etc.). All people were talking about a couple years back was how strong they both were mentally after having lived such a hard life. And yet a short time later neither has lived anywhere near up to their potential, and Ivanovic in particular has fallen off the face of the Earth. I am starting to wonder whether their upbringing is now having a negative effect. As young up-and-comers, their experiences with war made the grind of training easier to tolerate than for most players. But now that they have tasted success and are living comfortably, I wonder if unconsciously they figure they have gotten out of their old lives and are living pretty darn well by comparison, and maybe they feel on some level that they have already done enough and are content to be where they are? --Bill Yellis, Danvers, Mass.

• Generally speaking, I think you're onto something. We hear this narrative countless times in sports: athletes who come from hardship or endemic poverty are imbued with toughness and motivation that expresses itself when they perform. Growing up with a single parent taught self-sufficience and independence. A lot of siblings and little food bred survival instincts. Witnessing guns and drugs and violence raised the threshold for awe. As recently as the Australian Open, Venus Williams made reference to her Compton roots.

But, like Bill, I suspect there is a less allegorical flip side: When you come from humble beginnings and suddenly have wealth and comfort and security, it's easy see how motivation can be hard to come by. "Hey, I've already won, here. How can I get worked up over my results in Cincinnati and my declining scoring average?" I'm not saying this is the case for the Serbs, all three of whom come from quite different circumstances. But it's easy to see how it could be.

Now that they've added mixed doubles to the 2012 Olympics, I think Roger Federer and Patty Schnyder should consider pairing up. Another gold to add to Federer's collection. What do you think? --Fox Brasil, Ventura, Calif.

• Consider this another plea for the Federer-Federer (née Vavrinec) pairing. Both keep have mentioned that they are excited by the prospect of their daughters watching their father play in person. Well, here's the chance for double duty. (Babysitting joke here.) We'd settle for Federer-Hingis as a consolation prize. Long as you brought up Schnyder, her brother was once a junior rival and friend and Federer before giving up tennis for hockey.

So the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington has hosted soccer, basketball and football of course. It's even getting a shot at motorcross and boxing! What do we have to do to get a tennis tournament over here?! --Joe, Dallas

Mark Cuban, are you reading this week?

• South Florida readers: I'll be appearing at the Broward Public Library Foundation's Literary Feast, Saturday, Mar. 20. Feel free to stop by and say hi. All for a good cause. Click here for more info.

Jonathan Scott of Indianapolis: Let's stop stoking the fires of Margaret Court's anti-gay statements (this too shall pass) and consider this hopeful new venture.

• The USTA announced that Birmingham, Ala., has been selected as the site for the 2010 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas semifinal tie between the United States and Russia, April 24-25. The matches will be played at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena, which will be hosting a Fed Cup event for the first time. The venue also was the site for the 2009 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas first round tie between the United States and Switzerland.

Bill Jenkins of Dallas: I saw a new ad on TV last night and emailed my boyfriend, "Venus is now a spokeswoman for Tide Febreeze Freshness Sport laundry detergent." He replied, "Perfect. Serena can borrow some to wash out her mouth the next time she swears at a linesperson."

Jim Bartle of Huaraz, Peru: This is obviously not current or of great interest now, but I really like this interview of Marcos Baghdatis. Shows what an athletic competitor should be, how he fights to win, but also recognizes the value of fighting in defeat. Just great stuff, especially the last minute.

• New York readers: a shout-out to the good folks at Tavern on Jane (corner of Jane and Eighth Ave.) Note the photography on the wall.

Stephanie Cirillo-Gorden of New Orleans: Regarding sweaty, snotty towels on court -- as a volunteer ballperson at dozens of Challenger events, I can tell you that many times if the chair umpire notices a player spitting or blowing his nose into the towel, he will direct the player to handle his/her own towel for the rest of the match. Also, I cannot see how a towel rack would work. There is barely time to throw the towel to the ground while you are trying to get the balls to the players, let alone hang it neatly on a rack.

• The All England Club, home of the Wimbledon Championships, announced today the appointment of Mick Desmond as its new Commercial Director effective Apr. 6.

Bode Miller's participation in the USTA's U.S. Open play-in tournament is a lot cooler today than it was last month.

Peg Duthie of Nashville, Tenn., had LLS: Kolya Davydenko and Colm Feore -- resemblance?

Have a great week everyone!

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