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Rafa Nadal and the G Word

The GOAT debate rages, with lots of you continuing to make compelling cases for and against Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. In the span of five minutes last week, I got one email from Paul in Long Beach reading, "Your piece on Serena Williams as the GOAT was the fairest and most unbiased assessment of Ms. Williams I have ever read ... no rational fan can deny that she is not the GOAT," and another from Samuel of Miami reading, "I've lost all respect for you with this championing of Serena as the GOAT ... I can no longer read your column." So there. As a wise man once said: "Opinions are like Facebook pages: Everyone has one."

I'm glad this provoked so much discussion about tennis, especially during a soft spot in the schedule. But with the U.S. Open Series starting up, I think we should table it with the option of revisiting in the fall.

Onward we go...

Where do you get off asking Rafa if he believes in God? How is that newsworthy? You're not on 60 Minutes or the nightly news or anything. It's really none of your business. Lots of players don't cross themselves. That's a pretty weak lead-in to a weak question. By the way, I do believe in God and I enjoy your writing. But geez, stick to the tennis.--J., Chapel Hill, N.C.

• I was surprised at how many of you took issue with that question from the Nadal Q&A. For the record, I WAS NOT the reporter who asked it, but I thought that it was fair. The reporter had a right to ask; Nadal had a right to decline. (Like many of you, I thought his answer was quite revealing.) I think there's an interesting risk-reward ratio in these interviews. The safe questions -- "How does it feel?" ... "Did you ever imagine this?" ... "How do you assess your performance?" -- tend to yield the safe answers. The more obscure questions either yield the "no comments" (or worse), or trigger some of the most insightful responses.

And since when do any of us "stick to the tennis"? Part of the appeal of tennis specifically and sports more generally lies in the depth and dimension and personalities of the athletes. Their images are about so much more than forehand and backhands (or excellence while on the court for the Cleveland Cavaliers or Real Madrid or the back nine at Augusta). Rafael Nadal makes millions in endorsements, yes, because he wins tennis matches but also because of his narrative. Again, he is well within his rights to decline to talk about his faith. But I think it's a fair line of inquiry.

On the subject of religion, I once asked Uncle Toni about what role of faith plays in life. His response: "I don't believe. I studied history in university. Religion comes from ignorance in people. Tribal societies, when they see a flash of lightning or something unusual, they say it come from the Magician. But when society move forward, and technology discover more, religion goes in the back. For me, is very important to be moral -- to be good person. But not religion."

Watching a recap of matches during the first week of Wimbledon, I noticed that Svetlana Kuznetsova did not shake hands with Anastasia Rodionova after their second-round match (which Sveta lost). That's a pretty big "diss" in tennis -- especially at Wimbledon. Do you know why Kuznetsova refused to shake hands? ESPN didn't offer any clues and I'm dying with curiosity!--Ken, Wheaton, Ill.

• This was a weird one. Rodionova, a Russian playing out of Australia, is a notorious hothead who is not on the short list of the WTA Miss Congeniality nominees. And Kuznetsova is famously laid-back and accommodating. But I'm told by a neutral observer that Rodionova did little to deserve such a diss. (If you think about it, even sworn enemies tend to shake hands after the match.) There was apparently a dubious injury timeout by Rodionova. But that neutral observer -- I wasn't at the match -- told me that it was nothing that serious. Apparently the following day Rodionova's boyfriend, a Melbourne deejay, called her and asked about her getting left hanging.

"Come to think of it, she didn't shake my hand," said Rodionova. "How'd you know?"

"It's all over the Internet!"

Do you think Federer is hurting himself by using a Wilson tennis racket that has a very narrow sweet spot? Even though he has won 16 Grand Slams with the current one, should he not consider moving to a better racket as he gets old?--Venkat, Chennai, India

• It's not quite as big a no-no as telling players that they should retire. But it's hard for me to go too hard on a player for equipment. It's a deeply personal choice. The same way I might prefer my trusty Blackberry to an iPhone -- despite all conventional wisdom telling to me to do otherwise -- players have to use the tools with which they're most comfortable. Two other points: a) Federer is deeply involved with his equipment, so I strongly suspect he's made an informed choice and voluntarily gives up some of the power for some of the control you get with smaller stick, and b) given how many careers have stalled on account of players making hasty racket switches -- see: Blake, James -- we should be particularly cautious here.

In reading the mailbag regarding Williams as the GOAT, I was struck by [how] dominant female athletes are almost always referred to by their first name, with males their last. It has always seemed a bit demeaning to the females to do this, as society has always accorded using the last name as more respectful.--Tom Young,Youngsville, N.C.

• Mixed on this, though I see your point. In the case of Venus and Serena, I think it's done mostly to distinguish one Williams from the other. I also think it's the nature of the names to some extent. Mention "Andy" and it could be "Roddick," "Murray," "Ram" -- or for that matter "Dick," "Gibb," or "Warhol." Mention "Andre" or "Rafa" or even "Roger" and it lends itself to first name appellation. Likewise "Arantxa" or "Steffi" or "Dinara," or "Venus," or "Monica" works. If it were Sue, Jennifer, Mary and Svetlana, it might be different. What's more, the WTA tends to stress this. One of Larry Scott's great talking points: "People worldwide know our athletes on a first-name basis." Hard to get too worked up about demeaning sexism when the tour uses this a selling point. Maybe we should simply make tennis like Brazilian soccer and refer to all players simply by one name.

Why not have every top seed play on Court 2 -- for just the reason Serena mentioned: allowing other than the "ticketed few" to see the best. At the U.S. Open, if you don't have tickets for Arthur Ashe Stadium, the only way you get to see Roger and Venus, et al., is on television. Same at Wimbledon. Why not share the wealth with a much larger live audience.--Marina, Dallas

• Television calls the shots. And the suiteholders are a close second. Where else but Wimbledon -- a tournament that passes up untold millions in fees by declining to broadcast during the middle Sunday -- could you get away with putting a marquee player on a back court? I suspect the players' agents would fight it, too. One reason they land endorsements is for sponsor exposure.

I find it a little disturbing that Monica Seles' name rarely comes up in the list of all-time greats and meanwhile people like your colleagues are so quick to anoint Steffi. If that incident had not happened to Monica, Steffi would never have surpassed Martina/Chris in total majors. I do see your point about Serena, but I can't see the case for Steffi. Monica exploited that slice backhand the same way Rafa does to Roger. You can't be GOAT if you can't beat your main rival while both of you are in your primes.--Rey C., Sammamish, Wash.

• This issue came up a few times. Again, I think having a losing record against your rival undercuts your candidacy, but does not disqualify you from consideration. And Seles' is a sad case, but I think it's hard to do this as a counterfactual exercise. If Seles had never been savagely assaulted, might she have won 24 majors? Sure. Unfortunately, we have to use the facts in evidence.

Been a loyal reader for years but emailing you for the first time. I do not have a question so much as a cry for help. I am an avid tennis player and used to play 2-3 times a week while I was in Columbia, Md., on a tennis ladder. Now that I have moved to Fairfax, Va., I am craving such a structure. So in trying to bring up such a structure in Fairfax, I am setting up a ladder. (Here it is.) Given your readership, if you can post the link, I bet it would increase interest in the ladder significantly. And then, again, I would be able to play 2-3 times a week ... competitively!--Parth, Fairfax, VA

• Who can help our friend Parth?

Anyone else getting the feeling that the French Open final between Schiavone and Stosur could become the female version of the 2004 men's French Open final? Schiavone hasn't won a match since, and Stosur had a disappointing Wimbledon and seemed similarly depressed.--Sam Tibro, Grand Rapids, Mich.

• Let's hope not. Schiavone -- like Gaston Gaudio in 2004 -- clearly had a career tournament, a lighting-in-a-bottle two weeks she's unlikely ever to replicate. Fine. The real concern would be Stosur. Around Memorial Day, she looked like a candidate to become the world's No. 1 player, an athletic, complete product with a cracking serve and a newfound confidence. Obviously that doesn't describe her today. You hope she's done some mental rehab work after her Wimbledon defeat and is back to playing top five tennis this summer on the hard courts.

Any word on how Delpo is healing? It would be great for tennis if he makes a full recovery.--Fernando, N.Y.

• From his agent, Ugo Colombini:

Jon, JM is doing better, we hope shortly he will be able to come back on tour, but we still don't know when. Ciao.

Wimbledon roof = a million-dollar white elephant? They barely got an ROI for this yet.--Roger Dulay, Manila, Philippines

• A million? Try 400 times that! We could (and do) joke about the roof that gets no use. But if you're into karma and all that, you might be inclined to note that it's warded away the bad weather spirits and enabled unfettered play. Which was ultimately the objective in the first place!

I know you write for SI and all, but there is a long history of being on the cover of SI as being a jinx to teams and players for upcoming sports events, i.e. championships have been lost and attributed to being on the cover of SI. This is the second time Serena's been on the cover the magazine. The first time, it was right before she was about to defend her RG title in Paris. That year in 2003, she lost in the semifinal to Justine Henin with the hand controversy when she was up a set in the match. This time, she cut her foot right after being featured on the cover and now she may not be able to play the U.S. Open after being hailed by you and a few others including John McEnroe as the GOAT in the women's game. Your thoughts?--Denise, San Antonio

• If one of my friends in the analytics/behavioral economist community cares to investigate, I'll happily publish the results (and throw in some swag). I agree that, anecdotally, the cover jinx can seem uncanny. But I suspect that if you calculated the athletes on the cover and controlled for the potential for loss/injury/death/dogfighting arrest you'd find nothing disproportional. When Lebron James blows out his knee in the preseason I will retract that statement.

Doubles got the short shrift on the Tennis Channel telecast of the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. The edited program showed only the acceptance speeches and not the introductions which are many times the most interesting parts of the ceremony. Can you at least provide us with any of the good stories by those who introduced the Hall of Famers? Thanks.--Russ, Los Angeles

• Oh, man. You missed it? Classics, I tell ya. There was this amazing story about Mark Woodforde, a tank filled with whipped cream, a Scandinavian supermodel, a chainsaw, and this...

• From the London Daily Mail (and we couldn't agree more): "With all the rubbish and nonsense that goes on at the LTA, another poor decision should not come as a surprise.

Eleanor Preston leaves her role in the media department at the end of this month after the LTA decided to create the position of junior communications manager and not give it to her. The craziness in this decision lies in the fact that Preston has a brilliant relationship with the likes of Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong, Melanie South and Katie O'Brien -- and her friendship and guidance will be a big loss to them. She sorts out their media, is incredibly efficient and respected and is exactly the kind of person the organisation should be holding on to -- not forcing out."

• Note to the LTA: When you let someone as exceedingly capable and well-regarded walk out the door, it speaks volumes to the depths of your screwed-up-ness.

• Helen of Philly: "OMG, Jon you missed the real reason that Serena is absolutely, undeniably THE GOAT -- because she plays with THESE! I rest my case."

• The Evert-Norman saga is getting uglier.

• Nelly of Tucson: "FYI. Rafa inspires Spanish footballers/sportsmen."

John McEnroe has chosen seven girls from an open tryout Monday among 7-18-year-olds for scholarships to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy. The seven were selected from more than 150 who came to the day-long event at SPORTIME on Randall's Island, Manhattan, where the Academy will formally open in September. Sabrina Xiong, 12, of Fresh Meadows, Queens, is the full scholarship winner, while Gabriela Price, 7, New York; Brianna Williams, 11, Brooklyn; Ifeoma Kuchler, 13, New York; Karen Serina, 13, E. Islip, N.Y.; Ariana Rodriguez, 14, Bronx, N.Y.; and Loren Haukova, 11, Elmsford, N.Y., will attend the Academy this fall with substantial grant assistance.

• Speaking of World TeamTennis, I attended the New York Sportimes-New York Buzz throwdown. You hate to pressure the kid but I will be shocked if Alex Domijan, a UVA freshman, er, first year, doesn't win the NCAA title. Really impressed by his proto-Isner game.

• Skip, Philly: Following in the footsteps of the Dan Aykroyd/Jane Curtin Point/Counterpoint, in a perverse moment I envisioned the doubles team of Nicholas Mahut and John Isner making the ATP rounds. (Can't you hear Irv Zinkoff making the intro?)

Jan of West Chester, Pa.: "Here's another Federer tidbit for you. On the Saturday prior to the start of Wimbledon, a friend of mine in London took her one-month old to the pediatrician and lo and behold encountered Mirka with one of the twins who happened to be sick. During the Falla match I couldn't help but think Roger was a bit under the weather or at the minimum a sleep deprived parent of a sick child.

• Pay tribute to Warren Bosworth, stringer to the stars, and read this piece.

• Martina Navratilova will be recognized with the Eugene L. Scott Award by the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, at the 30th annual Legends Ball on Friday, September 10, 2010 at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City.

• Serena Williams does Vogue.

• Romana C. of Washington, D.C., with Long Lost Siblings: "Not sure if anyone has sent it in, but found an Ernests Gulbis look-a-like. Completely spot on. James Morrison and Gulbis.

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