Wednesday June 9th, 2010

An interesting intellectual exercise for you and your readers. Transfer the name and results of Rafael Nadal over the past 365 days to Dinara Safina, and then do likewise with Roger Federer and Serena Williams. Who is now your true world No. 1? Safina (Nadal) doesn't even play Wimbledon (the computer doesn't care that its due to injury), doesn't even win a title of any kind, large or small, for an entire year! Then she hits the clay courts of Europe, wins three warm-up tournaments and then the French, and is catapulted to the top of the tennis world. Serena (Federer), her No. 2 challenger meanwhile, is defending Wimbledon AND Australian Open champion, U.S. Open finalist and French Open quarterfinalist, her worst slam result of the past year. Add other major tournament titles like Cincinnati, and she looks to be your true No. 1. Of course, Nadal has quickly produced a resume that has G.O.A.T. potential, while Safina falls far short, but the computer only reflects the results of the last calendar year. Is the ATP tour rewarding Grand Slam success and consistent results on all surfaces enough? Thoughts? --Ole Harder, Toronto, Ontario

• We have some basic rules here. Anyone named Ole Harder, with echoes of a Latin snuff film, gets his question answered. And anyone presenting interesting hypotheticals also gets special dispensation. This one lost me a little but I think I get the point: Just as we don't think twice to consider Serena superior to Safina (and mock the computer that tells us otherwise) why are we so quick to anoint Nadal as the new No. 1 when Federer's overall results have been superior. Leaving aside a few obvious differences between real life and the hypos -- Safina never won the French, as Nadal did last week; Safina did not win her last head-to-head match against Serena -- I think Ole makes a good point.

Here's my answer: This has little to do with points and titles and lots to do with context. Nadal has a track record. He has beaten Federer many times head-to-head. He's already a legend, a lock for the Hall of Fame. He has won three of the four majors over the past two years. He's already been No. 1. For this reason, we are not offended when he regains the throne, even though, as Ole points out, his bona fides appear somewhat flimsy compared to Federer's. In the case of Safina, there was no context. She had (and to this day has) no Slams to her name. She was never previously No. 1. She reached the finals in Paris and laid an egg (for the second straight year) and was then tuned at Wimbledon. There was no heft, no sense that, intuitively, this was so right. So many questioned the system in a way no one is doing with respect to Nadal.

My wife and I did our traditional second Monday at Roland Garros this week so we could watch the juniors. I must say that we were really enthused to see the progress of the American girls, Beatrice Capra and Sloane Stephens, both of whom we had seen last year. (We would have loved to see Lauren Davis as well.) But our big question is who is Andrea Collarini, an American who we watched destroy a (seemingly) 10-foot-tall Swede? Can you tell me a little about him? --DG, Paris (by way of Vermont)

• Nice to see the USTA getting aggressive and doing a little, ahem, recruiting-cum-poaching. Collarini, the junior finalist, was born in New York but came of age in Argentina. Lured by more support -- ah, yes, the American way, taking advantage of countries with soft economics -- he recently relocated to the USTA Training Center in Boca. He reached the junior final in Paris and suddenly becomes a very exciting U.S. prospect -- an "American Nadal" he's already being called.

Regarding James Blake and endorsements, he'd better get them while he can since he's about to fall out of the top 100. Is it safe to say that he's done? --Seth, Denver

• I think I'm getting soft as I get older but I can't be so cavalier about administering last rites to someone's career. Blake's recent results are obviously troubling but "done" is too harsh. Is he likely to re-enter the Top 10? No. Might he convalesce his body, pick up a few wild cards and use his forehand and wheels to play competitive tennis for another few years? Sure. Francesca Schiavone is a Grand Slam champion. Tennis makes a charming habit out of resisting conventional thinking.

Hate to see my favorite Mailbag degenerate into discussions on fashion missteps (Roddick's underpants, really?) even if the Mailbag's parent has a Swimsuit issue that features Roddick's uber-attractive spouse. While I admit this is entertaining, can we talk more tennis please?! --Anonymous

• I hear you. But I also try and have the discussion reflect your email. If the tennis vox populi is talking about Venus' clothes (or Agassi's book or Wayne Odesnik) we try to do likewise.

Jon, I resent your use of the word "fluke" in your description of Soderling's win over Rafa last season. He has played magnificently in the last two French Opens, taking out two defending champs in early rounds, and losing in the finals to Federer and Nadal after getting visibly nervous and mentally running himself out of options. We could draw some parallels between his final losses to those of Murray, or is Murray a fluke too? --Vijay Kalpathi, Houston, Texas

• That's a fair point. Should have made a better word choice. But I still think Nadal's comprehensive defeat of Soderling in 2010 takes a bit of the shine off the '09 upset. In that Federer-had-mono-in-early-2008 kind of way, you wonder how much Nadal's iffy knees had to do with that loss. But that's just me. And Gavin...

With all the questions along the lines of, "What was different this year to last year, Robin?" -- why isnt anyone stating the obvious? If Nadal was suffering badly enough to pull out of Wimbledon just three weeks later, then he surely already had tendonitis at the French (and maybe even in Madrid against Federer). That, it seems to me, is why he lost last year. It is highly unlikely (master of understatement that I am) that a 100-percent-fit Nadal, playing on clay, is going to get beat by the likes of Robin Sodlerling, good though he be. It's pretty much as simple as that, isnt it? --Gavin Spencer, NYC

• At some level, we believe in the Aussie tennis shibboleth: "If you're fit, you play. If you play, you're fit." (i.e. once you set foot on the court, you forfeit the right to blame defeat on injury.) But I'm with Gavin here. Props to Soderling for winning that match last year and taking down the beast. But if we're being honest with ourselves, it's hard to overlook Nadal's condition at the time.

What the hell happened to Robin Soderling? Wasn't it just two years ago that he displayed some incredibly bad and inexcusable behavior by openly mocking Nadal's famous tics during their Wimbledon match, was quoted as saying some thing to the effect of, "Why should I apologize for a net cord ball when it scores me a point?" and reportedly being rather disliked and shunned if not detested by the rest of the locker room? This Robin Soderling is a completely different person. What the hell happened? --KC, Kailua, Hawaii

• Now it's time for some Soder-love. Three years ago at Wimbledon, he mocked Nadal and they had a few choice words. I would hardly call this "some incredibly bad and inexcusable behavior." A) You're locked in combat and, B) your opponent is taking too long. This is not to condone Soderling but a little perspective please. Since then, the guy has done nothing but win matches -- lots of them -- with a turbo-powered all-purpose game. Far as I can tell, his sportsmanship has been unimpeachable.

Just curious on your thoughts of Canada's greatest player, Daniel Nestor, how he is regarded by his peers and his Hall of Fame chances. (I always marvel at how easily he can go from one partner to the next and still win and at such an advanced age). Again, your thoughts. Thanks. --Steve O'Hara, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

• New rule. Anyone from the Northwest Territories with an interest in tennis automatically gets their question answered. What do we think about Nestor? Given the inductees this year -- The Woodies and Gigi Fernandez/Natasha Zvereva -- there seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that there's a de facto doubles wing. That being the case, Nestor is in on the first ballot. Doubles is tricky. There's a sense that it's a sub-sport, the preserve of guys who couldn't cut it as singles players. These are the middle relievers or designated hitters or long-snappers of tennis. And every time the Williams sisters cream the top team or Nadal and a random partner win an event, its prestige takes a hit. But there's respect for the very top teams -- the Bryans, Nestor-Zimonjic, until recently Black and Huber.

Has Federer now got a coach? He mentioned it in his press conference that he spoke with his coach during the rain delay. When did that happen? --John, Edinburgh

• This reminds me of a couple dating in high school:

"I need to know where I stand. Are we allowed to see other people? You're confusing me. I was going to burn you a mix expressing my feeling but let's talk instead."

"Let's take things slow; I have a reputation to uphold. But I won't see anyone else."

[Several months later]

"I need to know where I stand! When I introduced you to my cousin I didn't even know what to call you!"

[Sigh] "Okay, you can tell people I'm your girlfriend."

Federer had been working with Severin Luthi, the Swiss Davis Cup captain, for several years now. Luthi was in the Federer box, for instance, for Wimbledon of 2008. But only within the past several months has Federer openly referred to him as "my coach."

I thought your pre-tournament predictions were insane, but congrats on being the only tennis writer to pick Stosur-Schiavone in the final! --Christina Davis, Boston

• Thanks. But really, who didn't see this one coming?

Pardon my ignorance, but what was Federer's reaction in the 2009 Australian Open. --Dan, Mount Gambier, South Australia

• He was a bit distraught.

Is Chelsey Gullickson any relation to Tim or Tom G.? --Ashok, Pune, India

• No, but Chelsey is the spawn of Bill Gullickson, former pitcher for the former Montreal Expos. Tom and Tim are Gullikson.

What is up with the French Open crowd doing "the wave" as Rafa is about to serve for the championship? Are these people ignorant or what? It seems rather obtrusive and ridiculous to me. --Jim, Fort Worth, Texas

• Heaven help us when they discover the Kiss-Cam.

Gautam R. Mehta of San Francisco tells us how to prounce Berdych.

Jim of Williamsville, N.Y.: "Jon, During the streak, Roger was 117-0 in the first four rounds of majors. It just shows how amazing this streak is."

• Francesca Schiavone commits to play Pilot Pen in New Haven. Look for her on Wooster Square.

Agassi beats Kournikova.

Gilbert Benoit of Ottawa, Ontario: "Like you, I believe that Roger Federer's semi-final streak was underappreciated. But I am even more impressed with the other streak that ended yesterday: For the first time in six years, someone won a major without having to beat Federer along the way."

• Remember the Federer/Nadal, half-grass, half-clay exhibition? Sorry it had to end like this.

• Nice to know Florida football coach Urban Meyer does tennis.

• The Farmers Classic will come to a rocking close the day after the 2010 champions are crowned when the L.A. Tennis Center plays host to "KLOS Rocking the Net Starring Bret Michaels" to benefit the Southern California Tennis Association (SCTA) on Monday, August 2. Michaels was the front man for the legendary rock band Poison, and sold 25 million records and scored 15 Top 40 singles with that band. Recently, he starred in Rock of Love, one of the most successful programs in VH1 history, and he was the winner of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice this past season.

Stefan Koubek was disqualified for this outburst. The odd thing: it's Daniel Koellerer who's allegedly the bad boy.

• Erik of San Francisco: "I appreciate your point about sports as 'in-the-moment viewing." As a minister, I have to work on Sunday mornings, which means I have to specifically go to the four die-hard tennis fans in our congregation and say, "If you tell me who won, you won't go to heaven." Tennis is a rough sport for those of us in the trenches on Sunday morning. So, church workers and bus drivers.

Brandon of Chicago has long lost siblings: Sam Stosur and Marcia Brady.

Have a great week everyone!

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