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Belgians show that Williams' cherry picking is harder than it appears

On the eve of the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne...

For many years, the knock on the Williams sisters was they were part-time players and did not dedicate themselves to the sport. They were also maligned because this part-time approach was deemed unfair, because it allowed them to be fit and fresh for the big tournaments. I believe the term used was "cherry picking." Now with the return of the Belgians and them opting for a similar schedule, this part-time approach is not seen as a bad thing. I for one don't think the Belgians will be successful with the part-time approach and, if they continue with it, there will be lots of upsets. Do you think the Belgians should continue with this approach, or should they go back to what made them successful in the first place? Remember though, it was the daily grind that prompted their retirements in the first place. I think with this part-time approach, a lot of people are going to begin to see the genius that is the sisters. Cherry picking is not as easy as it looks.--Randy, Nashville

• Cherry picking is not as easy as it looks: That's a really good point. Some players need the rhythm and structure that comes with a full slate of events. For them, rationing their events, going weeks (months, even) without match play and then getting back in the winning business, isn't easy. Both Clijsters and Henin looked like regressed between Australia and Indian Wells, and you wonder if they didn't pay the price for playing so sparingly in between. This, of course, has seldom been a problem for Venus and Serena.

More generally, the entire way the Williams sisters have approached their scheduling needs to be reconsidered. When they burst on the scene and played only when they felt like it -- withdrawing often, retiring often, resisting the WTA's pressure to amp up their commitments -- they drew ire. As they began winning consistently, the attitude shifted, grudgingly, to, "It's unfortunate they're so unreliable, but whatever works for them."

Then, as other, younger players retired, unretired, burnt out, injured themselves and came back too soon, the Williams Method (circa 1998) has proven to be the most sensible philosophy. You don't burn out, You put your interest ahead of promoters' interest. You don't play hurt, lest you turn a tweak into a serious injury. You don't worry about rankings and points and bonuses. At a combined age that's nearing 60, they're still around. Case closed.

Wow, Jon, why don't you tell us how you really feel about the Davis Cup?--Remi, Montreal

• Just to be clear, we intended to tweak the stubbornness of the organizers, not question the writer.

Neil wrote: "Thanks for making me see the errors of my ways regarding Davis Cup. Once I looked at the evidence like TV ratings (42.0 rating in Albania), the list of sponsors (Earl's Transmission and Lube) and, the ritualistic place on the calendar (oh, sometime between January and December), I realized what an ornary crank I've been. Must be the hangover from winning the hockey gold in the Olympics. Good thing Canada never does anything in Davis Cup or jerks like me would end up in the stands. Cheers"

Has the women's game ever been this deep or are the top players really just that beat up? I'm beginning to think a girl like Radwanska, who has plenty of game to match her lack of power, might actually have a shot at say, Roland Garros? Henin is clearly focusing on Wimbledon and Clijsters is a day-to-day wildcard. Who knows what we'll get from Serena and Safina. All this melee has got to give Martina Hingis some anxiety about one last shot at the game. While I won't hold my breath, here's hoping that Radwanska gives her something to think about.--James Frew, Corpus Christi

• Amen. An unabashed A-Rad fan here. She's like the Hingis for this era. She's not going to blast too many opponents off the court. But she does these weird things that are really effective. One is playing strategic tennis, leaving the mindless baseline bashing to the others. The other thing she does: She goes games and games without missing a ball.

Ironic and a bit disturbing that BNP Paribas would choose a TV ad campaign that shows fans jumping onto a tennis court and taking over a match. I bet Monica and Roger aren't amused.--Dave Huddleston, Cleveland, Ohio

• Totally, totally agree. I made the same point to my wife the first time I saw that ad. Love BNP's commitment to tennis. But why on earth -- given both recent and not-so-recent history -- would you make an advertisement glorifying an interloper running onto the court?

I'm baffled here.

1) Natasha Zvereva is in the HOF, and you're balking at JCF? I'd say, a Grand Glam title, a Davis Cup win and the No. 1 ranking get him in. 2) Regarding Nicole Vaidisova, I think the note to agents should be, "Don't let Radek Stepanek anywhere near your player."--Helen, Philadelphia

• Zvereva is in the de facto doubles corridor. (The same way I'd be willing to bet on the Bryans getting in over Roddick or Safin or even Lleyton Hewitt.) As for Vaidisova, apart from being burdened with "babe pressures" before she won much of anything, there were the familiar, familial coaching issues.

My buddies and recently contested whether or not professional tennis players are fantastic athletes. I contend that, yes, they are unbelievable athletes. My two friends, however, hold firm that tennis players aren't that great, and that returning a serve is not that impressive, considering the bounce slows the speed of the serve. Would you be kind enough to weigh in here?--Jay Zavislak, Phoenix

• You win. Today's players are exceptional athletes, no matter how we define that term. Even a cursory glance ought to confirm that.

I don't know why but I am still a fan of Ana Ivanovic and I am absolutely stunned at how far she's dropped since winning the French. What is up with her? She used to be so mentally tough; now she's about as mentally tough as Anna Kournikova! I really should give up on Ana, but I really hope she can get her act together. I'm almost wishing she hadn't won the French!--Keith Jacobson, Minneapolis, Minn.

• This has gone from a downturn, to an injury-triggered slump, to something entirely more disconcerting. You can only change coaches and tinker with both equipment and motion so many times before you have to ask yourself some hard questions. Remember that before Ivanovic won the French, she'd been firmly embedded in the top 10, she had already reached the final of a major and won plenty of matches. But lately she's lucky to win matches. I think the "babe trope" is wrong. Sharapova had immeasurably more marketing pressure and continued winning majors. The takeaways: 1) The serve is the foundation of a player's game. When that goes, the machinery goes. 2) Confidence perpetuates in both directions. Players with momentum can will themselves to win. Players with doubt lose before they step on the court. 3) Some players win majors and their hunger intensifies. "Now I've broken through, it's time to get greedy." Other players win majors and their hunger is sated.

I'd never encourage you to give up on a player. But (maybe Iva Majoli notwithstanding) I can't recall a player so young and full of promise win a major, and struggle so mightily.

In your March 17 mailbag column, you said, "Two disappointing results, especially at an event where the women's draw is depleted to begin with" in reference to Henin and Clisters' early exit. Since only three players from the WTA's Top 20 were absent (Serena, Venus, Safina), what do you mean by "depleted"?--Linda, Suffolk, Va.

• The self-proclaimed "biggest event outside the majors" minus Venus and Serena equals depleted.

Couldn't you have picked some HOF candidates that are known worldwide and not just in the U.S. when making your point about ineligibility of Juan Carlos Ferrero? Peter Zha is from Melbourne, Australia -- not Melbourne, Florida. I'm not 100 percent certain he knows who is Ken Stabler, Dwight Gooden or Pete Rose.--Sumangala A., Dallas, Texas

• Help me out here. Assuming there's an Aussie Rules Football Hall of Fame (like Serena, I'm too lazy to Google ... which, come to think of it, is a very funny phrase ... like being too lowbrow to eat deep-fried Oreos), imagine a player who was a lesser god. Or how about this: Little River Band, Midnight Oil and Crowded House, but not AC/DC.

Can we talk about Rafa's English? Or lack of? Perhaps Rafa's inability to understand English is a conscious decision on his part. His love for family and home is well established. Perhaps he has chosen not to work harder at English, so as to remain closer to home. And on the broader topic of languages, wouldn't it have made sense, once the decision was made to go pro, that any athlete would want to become more fluent in the most common language used throughout the world. Didn't the LPGA establish a rule that all players must be able to converse in English?--Tessa, Ray, Mich.

• Right on! How dare Nadal speak a foreign language? Doesn't he know that we don't speak perfect Spanish. It's bad enough when we have to travel to places where we can't understand anything. The least people can do is talk English when they come here! Seriously, though, the LPGA did indeed try and mandate that all players learn English. Not only was this suggestion widely criticized, but when the commissioner was essentially fired, it was cited as one of the chief exhibits.

Regarding Juan Carlos Ferrero and the hall of fame. I tend to agree and, based on your criteria, I guess we should also forget about inviting in another player whose "lone major came during a soft spot in the men's game" and has the same number of Masters titles (four) as ... Andy Roddick.--Ken Kelly, Oviedo, Spain

• I bet a dozen of you made the same point. I respectfully disagree. Ferrero and Roddick have won the same number of majors and TMS events, achieved the top ranking (briefly) and helped their country to Davis Cup glory. But there are differences, too. Roddick has won twice (twice!) as many titles. He's reached three Wimbledon finals and four Aussie Open semis. (Only once has Ferrero reached a major final held outside Paris, and ironically he lost to Roddick.) He's spent the majority of the past decade in the top 10, if not the top five. (Ferrero, thanks in part to injuries, has finished the last five season at No. 18, 23, 24, 55 and 23.) Roddick has won roughly 50 percent more prize money, a strong indication of a better career. We'll stop here.

Let me reiterate: I hate that Ferrero is our whipping boy here. He was/is a great, great tennis player. (And I also can't stress enough how pleasant I've found him to be over the years.) But, like grade inflation at Harvard, I think that at some point in time, arbitrary as it might be, you need to reconfigure the standards for Hall of Fame admission.

I think Alisa Kleybanova is more of a "fine" player as you put it. I'm going one step further and say she wins maybe one Grand Slam this year. You can call me out later. Also, I think she looks like John Isner ... no?--Richard, NYC

• You get credit for the Isner line. In terms of tennis, one of you also made a good comparison to a young Lindsay Davenport -- a clean ball striker who will be even better once she gets in better shape. As things stand now, it's hard to see her winning a Slam. But let's revisit in a year.

As baffling as it is when someone becomes a No. 1 tennis player without winning a Grand Slam, isn't it just as baffling (if not more, even) that Caroline Wozniacki is No. 2 without ever winning a Tier I event?--Kody Leonard, Portland, Ore.

• Again the purpose of the rankings is really two-pronged: 1) to reflect merit/reward achievement and 2) to incent players to enter a lot of events. Wozniacki plays a lot of tennis al over the globe and is rewarded accordingly. She also -- let's not forget -- reached the final of a major (and the final of big-ticket Indian Wells) all at a time when the women's field picture is clouded by injuries, retirements, unretirements and general inconsistency. Wozniacki is not the second-best female in the world. But she could be one day.

Unfortunately, Scorsese has only one award ("The Departed") from six nominations so it would appear that Scorsese is not a great example either (unless you intentionally put that in there for a bit of a lark!). Maybe a better example would be Walt Disney, with 22 wins out of 59 nominations.--Ajay, College Park, Md.

• I was joking about Scorsese. But that's a great stat about Walt Disney.

• Thanks to the good folks of South Florida who stopped by and said hello at the Literary Feast Last Weekend. Nice meeting you. What a great event.

• Thanks to W. Wienbaum for passing on this potential good news for New York tennis players.

Glen Janney of Miami: "To Rohan Seth of Nottingham: Ease up on the pity for Meryl Streep. Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars, but 35 years elapsed between her first in 1932 and her second, for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, in 1967. Streep has already one two, and it's been 'only' 28 years since her second and she's still younger now than Hepburn was when she won her second."

• A hearty congrats to new dad Kevin Fischer of the WTA. If you thought that late-night doubles match caused sleep deprivation, just you wait...

Virginia Wade will work with up-and-coming 11-year-old Sabrina Xiong, who is already nationally ranked, on March 27 from 9 to 10 a.m. at the Flushing Meadows Tennis Center. Virginia is also an advocate for our Seniors Fitness program, which like the free youth programs, offers free instruction to New Yorkers over 60. More information at www.CityParksFoundation.org.

Betty Blake of Fairfield, Conn.: "This is not a question -- just an observation, and a thank you for the thoughtful piece on my son, James. I've often thought that playing with less pressure than those youngsters who pursue a tennis career after spending most of their childhood at a tennis academy played a huge part in James's success. He could always go back, so could blithely swing a racket and let the chips fall where they may. He was never expected to do what he did. Most of today's hopefuls don't enjoy that same scenario."

Anu of Pasadena, Calif.: "Watching Alisa Kleybanova live at Indian wells, it wasn't her fitness that concerned me, but the Linda Blair head movement that was scary."

Helen of Philadelphia: "I'm personally taking credit for Ljubicic's win -- since I asked the question (in 2006; and published by you) if anyone played more tiebreaks -- and lost more tiebreaks -- than Ivan Ljubicic. He took that to heart and obviously focused on WINNING those tiebreaks! Three cheers for the 'old' guy!"

Scott Graham of Oakland, Calif.: "Jon, you've written before about Jewish and Muslim players rising above politics to play tennis together. These pairings may not be brand new, but I noticed at Indian Wells that you also have a Serb (Dusan Vemic) and a Croat (Ivo Karlovic) playing doubles together, as well as a Chinese (Jie Zheng) and a Taiwanese (Yung-jan Chan). Seems like one of the great things about tennis."

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: "This Book is Overdue" by the great Marilyn Johnson.

• In addition to having a supercool name, Maggie Maggio of Brooklyn, N.Y., serves us: Ernests Gulbis and Rocco DiSpirito.

Have a great week everyone!

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