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On tennis players and drugs, thin line between gullible and wrong

How come you hardly ever talk about or investigate tennis players and doping? We only hear about positive tests when [the ITF] publicize the results. But you hardly ever comment on players that are suddenly looking different, suddenly hitting the ball harder, etc. This is talked about [on one website in particular] but journalists should investigate this!--Ben P., New York

• A variation of this question has been posed at least a dozen times since the U.S. Open. This is an issue that vexes journalists and media types all the time. We make a lot of the same observations that you do. We share some of the skepticism. We receive tips -- often vague and anonymous, but tips nonetheless -- about suspicious behavior. The question, however, becomes "then what?" It's easy to speculate or to traffic in rumor. It's hard to accumulate the proof that meets any sort of journalistic threshold. Testing is usually confidential. Few with knowledge have a motivation to speak. If you're willing to cheat by doping, you're willing to lie when asked directly. (Especially when there's no subpoena power.)

I recently watched The Tenth Inning, the latest installment of the Ken Burns baseball documentary. It pertained largely to the "steroid era," that 1994-2000 period when records were obliterated and "Chicks dig the long ball" was the prevailing ethos. There was a collective sense of, "We should have suspected something wasn't right." Truth is, many did suspect just that. But short of evidence, it's hard to start fingering suspects. Ironically, the case was "cracked" not by a positive test but when Mark McGwire left Andro in plain view in his clubhouse stall. Think about the subsequent "busts." The BALCO scandal entailed some terrific reporting, but was essential a fluke, resting as it did on leaked grand jury testimony. The Mitchell Report rested largely on "non-analytic" evidence. There was evidence that athletes received drugs via online pharmacies and clubhouse attendants, but the actual positive test results were few and far between. The Capitol Hill debacle came about mostly because there was a perjury penalty hovering.

None of this is to give the media a pass, nor to suggest that there aren't creative ways to investigate and advance the story. But the difference between suspicion and a provable, printable allegation isn't a gap; it's a canyon.

As for tennis, I stand by the standby. Is the sport 100 percent clean? No way. Just this week an Iranian player was banned for Clenbuterol.

But neither do I think "tennis has a steroid problem" as one seditious site suggests. Again, it's tough: we've burned my Marion Jones and McGwire and a seemingly unending list of cyclists and track stars. We're well within our right to be suspicious and skeptical. We know the warning signs, such as the mediocre journeyman who makes a sudden mid-career surge. You don't want to be gullible. But you sure don't want to be wrong, either. These are career-wrecking, legacy-staining allegations. You damn well better be right.

With the recent debates around whether Wozniacki, Safina and Jankovic should have reached No. 1 without a major I'll ask about the other side of the game. Have any men ever reached No. 1 without winning a major?--Ravi D, Briarwood, N.Y.

• I'm giving Sharko his Columbus Day off and stating my belief that only Marcelo Rios gets the honor, such as it is. This is neither to condone nor condemn but it seems to me that the, um, singular playing schedule of Serena Williams is really at the root of the issue. If she played a halfway conventional schedule -- backing up her Slam success with a modicum of smaller titles -- we wouldn't be having this discussion. (Of course, the flip side: How can the rest of the field allow someone who only plays six events all year to reside in the rankings penthouse!)

What do you think of Nadal's chances of winning the "Serena Slam"? And if he wins the Australian Open, how about his chances at the "Navratilova Slam"? I know, I know, I'm getting a little ahead of myself and, of course, Nadal needs to remain healthy in order to accomplish any of the above, but could this be more than wishful thinking? I don't see Delpo pulling a Clijsters and winning the first Grand Slam he enters after his layoff, and I think when it comes to the Slams, Nadal edges Djoko and Fed. (Murray who?)--Travis, Washington, D.C.

• Given Nadal's play at the previous hardcourt event -- the 2010 U.S. Open -- it's hard, if not insane, to pick against him in Australia. The guy lost one set in seven matches! He's won in Melbourne before. He's among the players least likely to be bothered by extreme heat, a factor that makes it hard to back Djokovic. Anything obviously can happen -- one of the core reasons we love sports -- but Nadal's looking like a heavy favorite to win, and thus pull off the "Serena Slam." Who, this side of Jonas Bjorkman (see below), wouldn't make Rafa the favorite?

You mention Del Potro and, sadly, you're right: it doesn't look like he'll "pull a Clijsters." Given his results since returning last month, he has his work cut out for him.

Allowing for the fact that some people use "I'd have fired you..." as a figure of speech to express simple disapproval, I have to respectfully disagree with the idea that it's distasteful to call for someone's firing just because the unemployment rate in the U.S. is high. Yes, getting fired can have a ruinous effect, but that can be said of all times in all cultures, not just the current situation you and I live in. Furthermore, there's the fact that there will always be bad employees who's jobs could be filled by unemployed, hard-working people who also have families to take care of. Sometimes more good can be achieved from firing someone than from not.

P.S. Unlike Jerry, I don't think you should be fired even though I do think you are too soft on Nadal. Amid the coaching, let's not forget his abuse of the clock. Maybe the coaching is beneath Nadal, or maybe it's not beneath him at all. I'm not sure we'll know if and until Nadal fires Uncle Toni.--Nitin, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

• I suspect that Uncle Toni is the Jerry Sloan/Bobby Cox of tennis coaches. Lots of job security and when he leaves it will be on his terms. Digression: but I wonder how this guy feels -- he has his identity, his life, his name -- and suddenly he's been defined to the world by his nephew, known to all as "Uncle Toni."

100% spot-on. Calling for someone's firing over a difference of opinion about a game -- no matter how beautiful that game may be -- is hyperbolic. To do so now, when millions are out of work and unable to find jobs, is rank insensitivity. Thank you for saying so. Count me as a Rafa fan who wishes he'd cut it out. I don't get caught up in GOAT arguments, but I do think it slightly diminishes Rafa's claim on the title -- or enhances Roger's, if you prefer.--WI_Dilettante, Rome

• That's an interesting component I hadn't much thought of. But you really think this undercuts his GOAT credentials? This "controversy" is minor in the grand scheme of things. Nadal's brain trust would really do some effective coaching if they simply said, "Don't look at us during the match."

Now Wozniacki has become a No. 1 player in the world. She climbed up because she "is very consistent, quick and smart on the court, plays great defense even though not as big and powerful as some of her top competitions." What makes me wonder is this very statement is also used to describe Agnieszka Radwanska who has been, though most player would kill to have her career, "stuck" around No. 10 for a while. What really separates these two players? Maybe Wozniacki has tad more power, is a better fighter? What gives?--Aki, Seattle

• Interesting question. It's a bit of apples and oranges. Radwanska (who's hurt right now and not beating anyone in the immediate future) is slighter in physical stature and doesn't hit quite as big a ball as Wozniacki does. But your point is well-taken: If a glorified counterpuncher (and we mean that in the most flattering sense) can ascend to the top ranking, it ought to imbue a good many similar players -- starting with A-Rad -- with some confidence.

I have to agree with Greg Couch on the Nadal issue. You blatantly condone the foul play when you state that you're "having trouble locating outrage because he's otherwise a hell of a good sport". Imagine our local DA announcing that a rapist need not be treated like a criminal because he's otherwise an awesome person, when he's not out committing rape. As for a young teenage kid reading your column, the message is clear -- flout the rules and get away with it as long as you maintain the perception of an otherwise clean image, like a slick politician.--Marcus Phelps, New York, N.Y.

• A rapist? Dude, come on. That's almost as bad as Steve Schwarzman likening Obama's tax increases on private equity to Hitler invading Poland.

I like reasoning by analogy as much as anyone. But you're really likening the receiving of illegal coaching to perhaps the most vile, heinous felony on the books? How about this: You're speeding on the highway. The officer pulls you over and runs your plates. He sees that you have an otherwise impeccable record, you're not driving drunk, you're not an Amber Alert, you're not fugitive of justice. It's just a regrettable brain cramp. So he scolds you but lets you off with a warning. (Speaking of which, thank you Officer [redacted] of the Princeton Police Force. I have since stopped using my phone while I drive in your town.)

I feel I have to send you my opinion on "sideline coaching" again. One of the things that makes tennis a beautiful sport is the fact that players are supposed to make split-second decisions on the fly, including what side to serve, if an approach shot is good enough to charge the net and if going after Federer's forehand is a good idea. The mental part of the game is crucial and what, in most cases separates the good from the great. Borg, Wilander, Chang, Gilbert all won important matches thanks to their superior mental skills. On the flip side, McEnroe, Becker, Leconte had superior physical talents that were sometimes not matched by their decisions between points. In my book, a player that receives sideline coaching is a good ball striker, but hardly a good tennis player. Most players can hit with consistency and power these days, and champions not only chase every ball, but adjust strategy on the fly as needed to earn points in crucial stages of a tournament.--Raul Amezquita, Evanston, Ill.

• You're preaching to the choir, Raul. I agree wholeheartedly. This is why "on-court coaching" is such a blight on the sport. Subtle as it may be, one of the sport's real charms entails watching a player make mid-match tactical adjustments, solving the riddle on their own.

It finally happened ... in Tokyo, Roddick served to Monfils, assumed the serve was out and didn't play Monfils's return, which whizzed by Roddick for a winner. Roddick challenged the "in" call for his own serve, won the challenge and received a second serve instead of losing the point.--Christopher M. Jones, West Chester, Pa.

• Okay, now I'm waiting for this. Player A hits a serve (or standard shot) he thinks is out. Player B makes an earnest attempt at the ball and misses. No call is forthcoming. Dissatisfied by having won a point he feels he didn't rightfully earn, Player A challenges against his best interest, preferring to replay the point rather than take his ill-gotten gain. (I know, I know. A snowy day in hell and Serena Williams playing 18 events in a season will follow shortly thereafter.)

I'm not sure if this is still a hot subject or not, but I started to watch the Chris and Martina "30 for 30" documentary [Unmatched] and got so bored, I had to turn it off halfway through. They're interviewing each other the whole time and the questions sound so forced. Most of the other 30 for 30's are brilliant (the one on the Miami Hurricanes was amazing and I'm a Penn State fan!) and they have one tennis special and it's this! They should have used Pancho Gonzalez: The Latino Legend of Tennis. I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it.--Justin DePietropaolo, Chester Springs, Pa.

• I'm surprised by how many of you weren't satisfied with that documentary. It was no Winning Time, but I thought it was thoroughly watchable.

Anyway, for aspiring documentarians out there, tennis is incredibly fertile ground. The Indo-Pak Express. Choking. Esther Vergeer. Anna Chakvetadze. The Black family. On the road with Dustin Brown. The fraught relationship between coaches and players. Lou Noritz. Andrea Jaeger. The former top 10 player who's now severely mentally ill. Gil Reyes. Budget willing, Tennis Channel could do its own 30 for 30 tomorrow...

I was curious to see if it is possible for Serena to have a tied or even losing record against any player, current or past? So far I found that Jankovic is 4-4 with Serena, everyone else in the top 15 and past champions like Davenport and Hingis have a losing record against her.--Asel, NYC

• Kevin Fischer, bring the noise. Please.

Why must you address every single question about grammar and other insignificant wording in your mailbag? This is supposed to be about tennis not whether there are plural events in Tokyo, or whether "command performance" is technically the correct phrase to use. We all understood what you meant the first time, why must people get so hung up on the small details which, in my opinion, don't even classify as necessary conformation of good journalism. I am far more interested in your opinions on tennis than your rebuttals of the alarmingly large numbers of inane reader comments about grammar. On the subject of tennis, who do you pick as the year-end number ones?--Hamish, London, UK

• Wozniacki and Nadal. Blame me for choosing to reprint the grammar questions, not the folks who wrote in. For variety's sake as much as anything, I figure sometimes we can take a break from rankings, and forehands and Uncle Tonis -- even in the singular version.

Thank you for your article on depression and suicide in sports. I am a mental health professional who works with many depressed and suicidal clients. I also do trainings on suicide intervention to prevent these tragedies. Often, we find that suicidal clients are the forgotten among us, as it is often a taboo topic. It takes a high-profile suicide to push it into the forefront many times. In general, our society is scared of suicide and we feel helpless in the face of it. This is often what keeps people from talking about it. None of us wants to feel helpless. The irony is that every one of us can save a life if we push through the fear and just reach out and listen. I would like to offer a couple of suggestions in general and then specifically. Please feel free to share this is you find it helpful. 1. If a friend or acquaintance's behavior or demeanor has changed, ask them what is up. If things feel a little off (we have a gut instinct for a reason) and they are not talking, ask if they have thought or are thinking about suicide. Sounds really scary, but it will produce one of two results: they say "no" and you know something else is going on, they say "yes" and you can listen and help. There is a training designed for the general public on suicide intervention called ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training). Here are a couple of helpful things to have: 1-800-273-TALK National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-784-2433 (SUICIDE) another national hotline. Also, www.livingworks.net is the company that developed the suicide intervention training. One can search for upcoming trainings in their area. In St. Louis, there are several providers who can be helpful, and here I will make a shameless plug for myself, www.lifeworkstl.com. We provide counseling and education for many mental health concerns, specializing in those who are suicidal. We also have two certified trainers for the ASIST program. I hope this is helpful for you and/or readers, colleagues, etc.--Jeff Brenneman, St. Louis

[The only reason not to print a letter like this is space constraints. Which don't much exist in Digital Land.]

• The great Colette Lewis notes that our pick for the NCAA men's singles title is off to a good start.

John Rizzo of Clifton, N.J.: "I belong to a local tennis league with about 50 members in N.J. Our No. 2 ranked player, Gail-Ann Hamilton unexpectedly passed away at the age of 39. She was not in the league for a long time but loved playing and attended the U.S. Open in our group outing. Can you print this in her memory?"

• Nice piece by Liz Clarke on Philadelphia Freedom.

• Want proof the WTA Roadmap isn't quite the smashing success the WTA would have you believe? ("The Roadmap, featuring the most sweeping reforms in Tour history, has delivered to fans and sponsors a more fan-friendly and healthier structure that to date has more consistently delivered stars to top events and significantly reduced player withdrawals.") The players who have competed in the fewest events this year? Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, and Venus Williams: all in the WTA Top 20. If this is a roadmap, maybe we need GPS.

• A quick tennis-themed laugh.

• Remember Don Johnson, not of Crockett and Tubbs, but the fine doubles player? He's walking to cure diabetes.

Ashwin of Washington, D.C.: "Thought your readers might like to see this interview of Andre Agassi in 1997 talking about the awkwardness of drug testing:"

• More from the Andre Agassi gala.

Annette of Oakland, Calif.: "In the Oct. 7 edition of the SanFrancisco Chronicle, staff writer Sophie Brickman compared Rene Redzepi, chef/owner of the No. 1 ranked restaurant in the world, Noma in Copenhagen, to Federer. She wrote, 'He is the Roger Federer of the culinary world -- articulate even when speaking in a foreign tongue, classy, impeccably dressed and seemingly effortlessly skilled.'"

• Thinking Jonas Bjorkman didn't endear his event to the Nadal camp with this interview.

• I know we have a significant gay and lesbian readership. To whom it may concern, reassure me you've seen these YouTube videos.

• The lovely, the talented Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Jessica Luther of Austin, Texas, has look-a-likes: John McEnroe and Jason Wade, the lead singer of the band Lifehouse. (I'm not sure if these pics show it the best, but when I saw the latest Lifehouse video, the ONLY thing I could think was that Wade looked like McEnroe.)

Jonathan Scott of Indianapolis also has "the ultimate (intra-tour) look-a-likes? Or at least a wannabe?"

Have a great week everyone!