Wednesday April 28th, 2010

I enjoyed watching Mary Joe Fernandez as a player, I enjoy listening to her as a commentator, and I've enjoyed the success she's had as Fed Cup captain. What I would enjoy even more, however, is for her to say to the Williams sisters, "It's obvious you don't care enough about this competition to play, and that's your prerogative. But I, at least, am going to stop this silly and transparent charade about you wanting to and saying that you will, so you can appear patriotic, and then pulling out at the last minute. From this point on, Fed Cup is a Williams-free Zone." The team has done very well without the Williamses, and they are a joy to watch, because they all want to be there and enjoy being on the team together. --Chris F., Otsego, Minn.

• Before we get to the question, let's take a step back and applaud the Fed Cup, both the effort of the U.S. women and the competition more generally. Thanks to the Tennis Channel -- which we should all be getting -- I was able to enjoy an exceptionally fun and compelling sporting event last Sunday night. Good stuff, as they say.

To Chris' point: I should probably be more worked up about this than I am. Yes, if this were an After School Special, Mary Joe Fernandez would do the right thing and "stick with who brought her to the dance." Declaring the Fed Cup a "Williams-free Zone" is unnecessarily hostile. But saying, "You're either in from the start or you're out," doesn't merely sound reasonable; it sounds exceedingly fair. If the sisters didn't play the preliminary events, should they be entitled to parachute and get the glory in the finals? Especially given the way this plotline has unfolded -- feisty, diverse underdog team unites to defend superior competition -- the Williamses cannot, in good conscience, by added to the team now.

The reality is much different. The captain is tasked with fielding the best team possible. In this case, it's hard to argue that the best chance for the U.S. to win the Cup -- at home, against a beatable Italian team -- is to summon either, or better yet both, Venus and Serena. While their alibis have been flimsy at times* one could argue that, technically, they have made themselves available. Venus, for instance, allegedly would have played last weekend had she been healthy. From the Williams perspective, they've represented the country in the past and -- and this is not insignificant -- they need to avail themselves to Fed Cup if they want to be eligible for the London Olympics.

Again, I sympathize with the current principals -- Liezel Huber, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Melanie Oudin -- who were uncommonly outspoken about the Williams sisters' intermittent commitment to the team. But I've been told by multiple sources close to the team that if the Williams want to play in the finals, they will play in the finals.

*Their late alibi last time for missing Fed Cup -- they needed attend mandatory NFL owners meetings -- was a classic. I'm imagining Serena banging her first on the conference table: "If we're adjusting gross revenue, then we need to amortize our luxury suites! And over my dead body are we drafting a cornerback who will be outsized against the nickel package!

While I'm grateful for Liezel Huber's sense of patriotic duty at Fed Cup, her snarky comments about Venus and Senera and the Olympics are out of line. Venus and Serena are our best shot for gold in London. End of story. It's almost like Huber is forgetting her station in this (tennis) life. --Jay Lassiter, Cherry Hill, N.J.

• Disagree. For those who missed it, Huber essentially said that the players loyal to the team should have priority over Venus and Serena, who show up when it's convenient. First, I think she has a valid point (see above). Second, regardless of her ranking or her place in the tennis hierarchy relative to the sisters, she's entitled to voice an opinion. Baseball fans might draw an analogy to this recent incident.

Not that long ago you wrote that you were "officially concerned" regarding Nadal. After yet another early loss to a player he should have beaten, is it time to place Federer in that category? Or can we chalk this up to yet another non-Slam Federer performance? --Mike K., Carlsbad, Calif.

• I was officially concerned about Nadal because, to quote Andre Agassi, he was writing checks his body couldn't cash. In Federer's case, yes, it's disappointing that he's struggled mightily in run-of-the-mill ATP events over the past few years. But -- not unlike Serena -- I think you almost to see him as two different players: the one who competes in best-of-five Slams and the one who competes in the other Tour events. This is not to accuse him of tanking or anything like that. But the numbers speak for themselves. He is simply a different player when the biggest prizes are up for grabs. At this stage, he's earned that right.

Plain and simple: Will Maria Sharapova ever win another Grand Slam? --Harlan Cutshall, Falmouth, Maine

• Plain and simple: Um ... you hate to write anyone off, especially a three-time Grand Slam champ who, when fully healthy, can be an insuperable player. And the usual caveat about winning a Slam: This isn't exactly a labor of Hercules. We're only talking about winning seven matches here. But vis-à-vis Sharapova, you can put me squarely in the "worried" camp. There are a lot of injuries for which a tennis player can compensate. A shoulder injury is not among them.

On the plus side, Joe of Dallas notes that numerology is in Maria's favor:

"In '04, we had Wimbledon. '06 saw the USO. And in '08, she won the ASO. It's a little out there ... but my prediction for 2010 Roland Garros champion is Maria Sharapova."

Love Sam Stosur and the writer from this week defending her ... but it was Vera Zvonareva who was dominating Caroline Wozniacki at the time of the injury, not the Aussie. If your writers are gonna rant, get the facts straight. --Scott, Kansas City

• The questioner whiffed on that one. But the answerer (i.e. me) did, too. [Ed. An the editor makes three.] As many of you, unemcumbered by my brain cramps, noted: Stosur neither beat nor played Wozniacki last week in Charleston. That was Zvonareva.

Federer is on track to reach another major Sampras record: 286 weeks as World No. 1. He will get there the week after the French Open at the earliest and he can get there even without defending his crown. How ironic would it be that after years of hearthache in Paris, two successive years could bring him two of his greatest achievements (the other, of course, being 14 Grand Slams). --Jay, Decatur, Ill.

• Very nice. One of you also noted that if Federer wins Roland Garros, he will become the first player since Steffi Graf not only to win all four majors, but to defend them at least once.

Who do you think is more likely to win a second major: Ana Ivanovic or Anastasia Myskina? --Michelle, Boston

• You're talking crazy! Myskina retired and had a child. No woman could return from childbirth and win a major! We jest. Ivanovic is in desperate need of a sports shrink. This has become a brutal situation, albeit in a can't-avert-your-eyes kind of way. But she still wins this contest.

I attended my first-ever NBA playoff game last night and saw LeBron James in person for the first time. If the comparison to Federer has been made on this forum, I've missed it. The elegance, style, smoothness, etc., with which LeBron moves around the basketball court is very similar to the way Roger moves around the tennis court. They can both put their games into overdrive when they feel necessary and neither ever seem particularly winded no matter how arduous the situation. I'm a tennis player and fan by nature, but watching LeBron last night was a real treat. --Jonathan, Chicago

• Thanks for sharing. (And we should all be so lucky to attend our first NBA game and get to watch LeBron James in the postseason. As someone who sat through a Nets-Sixers game recently, trust me: they ain't all like that.) I think the comparison is a good one. Both Federer and James perform with a certain smoothness and certainty, seeing plays unfold in advance of everyone else. The one striking difference to me is the physique. Whereas Federer's body is rather ordinary-muscled but in a wiry way and unremarkable in terms of height and definition, LeBron has one of those Mt. Olympus physiques. This was always the case, even when he was in high school. In this respect, he is more like Nadal.

Jon, you linked to Serena Williams at a Green Day concert in your last session. I have but one question to ask about that video: Couldn't Serena Williams, with her requisite fame and wealth, have procured some better seats for the show? Rather baffling, no? --J.R., New York City

• She's a woman of the people. Or a woman of the luxury suite.

• Mad props to mad pops Kevin Fischer at the WTA for coming up with some tennis we can all use. Stay tuned here.

• More book recommendations: Jimmy Connors Saved My Life by Joel Drucker, A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher and 500 Anni Di Tennis by Gianni Clerici. Joshua of Portland notes: This isn't quite an "inside the locker room" book, but I recently read Lawn Tennis For Ladies by "Mrs. Lambert Chambers" (i.e. Dorothea Douglass Lambert Chambers, who won Wimbledon seven times between 1903 and '14 and lost a brutal 10-8, 4-6, 9-7 final to Lenglen in 1919) and it's worth a read if only for it's combination of very progressive and very dated attitudes about female athletes, particularly as regards the "propriety" or women playing sports.

• Look for Melanie Oudin to switch to a new model of Wilson racket.

Interesting comments by Annabel Croft.

• The politics from Tennis Australia don't stop.

• Some dispute into the origin of USTA wild card tournament (a smashing success, by the way). An anonymous reader writes: "In 1994, a young and innovative [and dashingly handsome] tournament director running the AT&T Challenge in Atlanta created the first "Wild Card" Challenge where local tennis players competed to play in the Main Draw of this ATP --- and win chance at a million dollars. It took months of prodding and please to the ATP board to get it approved. The rest is history."

• Speaking of the USTA playoff, just to extinguish the notion that the qualifying wild card will go to some ringer -- some pipe-fitter from Dubuque who picked up tennis last fall -- the Eastern winner was Nikita Kryvonos, once a Top 400 player.

Chris Groer of Knoxville, Tenn., writes: "I believe the Legg-Mason tennis classic in D.C. was really the first modern tournament to offer a wild card tournament. For many years leading up to 2004 (I think), they had an extremely popular tournament open only to local players where the singles and doubles winners got main draw wild cards (popular as in 200-plus players in singles, more than 50 teams in doubles). To toot my own horn, in 2003, I was lucky enough to win the doubles there (with Andrew Carlson). We won our first-round match in the main draw 7-6 in the third and then lost to Roddick-Vahaly 4 and 4 in front of a wildly partisan crowd on grandstand. They stopped the tournament in 2005 as such wild cards became more valuable for the SFX's and IMG's of the world and as "non-locals" tried to enter the event. While it seems trendy to praise the USTA for this "innovation," I wonder why it has taken them so long to implement something like this. You also might want to consider looking into the "American Tennis Association." They used to have a tournament where the winner got a qualie WC into the U.S. Open but I don't know if this still the case. See:"

• Anonymous writes: "Just browsing the web and came across this news item and so browsed through Agassi Foundation website. The whole website has been revamped and the video "Inspiring Hopes" with the kids and staff is pretty impressive along with music. Watching the kids in the video made me realize that 10 years down the road (or even now), none of the kids or the staff or hundreds of people employed will care whether Agassi hated tennis or used crystal meth or called Pete Sampras a cheapskate. They will be forever grateful that they had education which made their lives and their kids' life better and remember that there lives were changed by a person named Andre Agassi who happened to be a tennis player.

Asif Khan, M.D., of Canfield, Ohio, was kind enough to work this around his newborn's feeding schedule: "Regarding the arm size: First quick point about the difference in men's forearms not found in women's can be attributed by the fact that 'they just ain't built the same.' Men's muscles, generally larger in surface area, mass, density etc., than women's, when stressed, e.g. hitting a 140 mph serve and 90 mph groundstrokes, will invariably become larger after years of pounding away. This applies because of the differences in both practice and tournament stress levels between men and women.

"Federer's forearms look like they should belong on two separate bodies, as they should since his left arm is essentially not unlike a wee little rudder in the wind or water, basically keeping him balanced. Nadal's forearm difference, while present, is much less noticeable than Fed's, owing to the two-handed backhand. The reason why Nadal's left forearm is bigger than his right, however, while hitting two-handed backhands is most likely secondary to the fact that, 1) the left hand is holding the racket, light as it is, a weight nonethless and 2) rotational torque owing to the split-second changes in grips of the dominant arm and wrist, a force that stresses the fingertips all the way to the deltoid every time he smacks a tennis ball.

"Men generally play harder anyways. Women are generally taught to emphasize the 'turn at the hips' routine much more, since this hip rotation helps generates much more racket speed hence power. The hip will assume much of impact forces at contact, alleviating stresses on the arms and shoulders. Men, being macho as they are, learn the wrong way first, using all arms until they eventually incorporate that God-given forearm into the context of a 'turn.' By this time, they look like half of Popeye walking down the street, muscle memory sets in, and bam, Boris Becker to this day has one forearm bigger than the other. Check it out."

• One the same topic, Gary Chimes of Pittsburgh, Pa., kindly chimed in: "Friends of mine insisted that I respond, in part because my research is on body shape in female athletes, and in part because of my last name. I think the supposition is false -- women often have very asymmetric forearms. In lectures, I often use pictures of Amelie Mauresmo and Sam Stosur to make the point. One reason the forearm size in male players may be more salient is that men are more muscular in general, so there is more a "gee-whiz" factor when you see the massiveness of a man's forearm, whereas this may not be as evident in the smaller women. But even in a less muscular woman like Justine Henin, you can see that her dominant forearm is much bigger than her non-dominant forearm, even if the massiveness of her forearm doesn't reach Mauresmo/Stosur like levels.

Jorge of Torreon, Mexico: "From the article regarding the Bryans, the following sentence made me think how unappreciated John McEnroe's record as both singles and doubles players is: 'As of Sunday they had won not only 609 matches but also 59 tournaments, two more than John McEnroe and Peter Fleming.' Here is one of the best doubles couples in history, and yet they are only two tournaments ahead of what McEnroe achieved, and he was mostly a singles player!"

• Helen of Philadelphia has long, lost siblings: Coldplay's Chris Martin and Ernests Gulbis.

Have a great week, everyone!

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