Wednesday November 17th, 2010

What do you make of Roger Federer losing yet another match after holding multiple match points? I'm sure questions about his mental toughness that have plagued him on and off throughout his career will be in full force again. --Aidan Encarnacion, Fremont, Calif.

• One of the great misconceptions of tennis is that experienced players are more mentally fit. That may be true in other sports. But in this corner, it's often the opposite. The young bucks, with "nothing to lose," with no real context, with no conflicting thoughts taking up residence in the catacombs of their brains, can swing away. It's the veterans -- fully cognizant of what's at stake -- who often stumble.

In Federer's case, it's certainly jarring seeing such a decorated athlete fail to make like Brian Wilson and close the deal. Yet, in some ways, it stands to reason. Even at the height of his powers, I would argue that Federer was known more for his physical gifts than for mental impregnability. (I've often said that for all the imagery he conjures, "assassin" or "rock" or "killer" or "sniper" or "cold-blooded" have never been in the lexicon.) Especially as he might feel his grip sliding a little, it stands to reason that he would experience some difficulty when matches become freighted with maximum pressure.

As usual, the extremists have attempted to hijack the issue. Federer is toast! No, wait. Federer is as good as ever and the haters are hating! In truth, it's hard to ignore that four of his losses in 2010 came after Federer held match points. It takes a contortionist to spin that as anything other than disappointing. That said, who among us can't envision him winning the London title 10 days hence?

Regarding last week's question about injuries on the court ... err ... Monica Seles comes to mind ... --Brent Diaz, Toronto, Ontario

• A few of you noted that. I assumed we were limiting this to fatalities, but obviously there have been several injuries. James Blake almost eviscerating himself on the Rome net post would make the list. Victoria Azarenka at this year's U.S. Open, too. If you're in a depressed mood already, skip the next question.

On the tennis players dying: I'd guess the rate is at least one to two deaths per year in the U.S., which means probably a dozen or more per year worldwide. At a glance, the fatalities appear to be mostly middle-aged or older men having heart attacks, but there are folks falling, cases of heat stroke, etc. Support for the thesis? The following names, gleaned in about 10 minutes at Google News Archives, using the really basic search pattern of <"tennis match" died>.

*** Tulare student dies after collapsing; Visalia Times; Apr. 1, 2009; The 17-year-old Ali, who died Monday after collapsing during warm-ups for a tennis match, wanted to be a teacher. Students squeezed tennis balls into holes ...

*** GP died after hitting head at tennis; Worthing Today; Mar. 6, 2009; A POPULAR Worthing GP died after falling and hitting his head during a tennis match, an inquest was told. Dr. Edwin Cameron (61) who worked at the Lime Tree ...

*** Fig Garden designer Lombardo dies at 76; Fresno Bee; May 6, 2005; Mr. Lombardo, 76, suffered a heart attack during a tennis match at Carmel Valley Ranch near his home. ...

*** Tributes flow for Taree mayor; Local News; General...

*** Macleay Argus; Oct. 28, 2003; Tuck collapsed of a suspected massive heart attack during a charity tennis match in Forster on Saturday afternoon. According to Kempsey Shire Mayor ...

*** Wacky French Open Ends With Unknown Kuerten The Winner; Kingman Daily Miner; Jun. 9, 1997; ... champions on his way to becoming die lowest-ranked player to win the French Open. ... who died of a heart attack soon after umpiring a tennis match when ...

*** Second Death At Games; New Straits Times; Oct. 4, 1994; A 63-year-old Brisbane man died yesterday while competing in a tennis match at the World Masters Games, the second death in three days at the ...

*** Greensboro News & Record; WAKE SOCCER COACH DIES SUDDENLY; Sept. 3, 1994; coach Walt Chyzowych, a former player and coach with the U.S. national team, collapsed during a tennis match Friday and died of an apparent heart attack. ...

*** Chicago Sun-Times; Apr 16, 1993; Beyer died Thursday, a day after his 48th birthday. Federation spokesman Eberhard Vollmer said Beyer suffered a fatal heart attack after a tennis match in ... --Joseph Svinth, Tumwater, Wash.

• For those who don't know Joe, he's an expert in the field of sports fatalities. He knows his stuff, morbid as it may be.

I know there's been a 'Bag discussion to stop using the word "shock" in headlines. Can we extend that to "stun" too? Gael Monfils beating Roger Federer in a third-set tiebreak is a mild surprise but certainly not a stunner nor a shock! RZ, Los Angeles

• With "shock," it's like the Milgram Experiment comes to tennis. With "stun," it's like head injuries come to tennis.

Jon, in your "hit only first serves" example [also from last week], if your first-serve-in percentage was higher than 47 percent, then statistically it would seem that you'd be better off playing first serves only (47 percent times 85 percent winning percentage is greater than the 40 percent second-serve winning percentage). As you said, if that would work on match point, it should work on every point and therefore players with these kind of statistics should only ever hit first serves. I guess the challenge might be that when you hit a first serve on your second serve, you get a bit more anxious, as you know you actually have a reasonable chance of immediately losing the point outright. Therefore your first-serve percentage (on your second serve) might drop, sabotaging the strategy. (Uhhh ... is this still somewhat clear?) Again, if it works for one point, it should work for every point. It makes no sense to change your tactics on match point only. --Jolmer, Amsterdam

• This exchange is sponsored by Excedrin. Seriously, thanks. You're right that the variable is the element of surprise. If my opponent knew that every serve I hit would be a "first serve," surely he would adjust tactics accordingly. (Imagine a basketball team that shot better from three-point range than from two-point range. If they played a game taking only three-point attempts, the defense would doubtless change tactics.) Still, I'm surprised that no player has said: "I'm grooving my first serves; I'm getting crushed on my second serves. To heck with convention, I'm going for aces on every ball, come of it what may."

I am amazed at your urge to canonize Elena Dementieva and all the hype that you're firing up. Seems like you feel sorry for a loser (relatively speaking, since she never won a Slam). At the end of the day, I prefer to watch professional athletes focused on winning rather than on P.R. stuff and popularity contests. Perhaps that was her problem -- too focused on being the "nice person" and not channeling her focus toward winning the Slams. --Tina Waitz, New York, N.Y.

• I disagree but I don't think Tina's point is totally without merit. It's similar to my defense of Serena Williams. Objectionable as her behavior might sometimes be, as disingenuously as she can sometimes act, ultimately, she wins, which is the objective of sports. Some clarifications are, however, in order here: Dementieva may never have won a Big Prize, but she did win plenty of matches and titles. And Dementieva didn't "focus" on niceness, much less P.R. It was more organic than that. Which, I suspect, is a big reason her retirement has moved so many.

I can't be the only one scratching my head over this. How did Jurgen Melzer and Philipp Petzschner qualify for the year-end doubles finals well before five other teams that are ranked higher? --Stephanie Cirillo-Gorden, New Orleans

• From the ATP's Greg Sharko: Melzer-Petzschner qualified since they were the highest-ranked team in the top 20 to win a Grand Slam during the season. Since the other Slam winners (Bob/Mike Bryan and Daniel Nestor/Nenad Zimonjic) were among the top eight already, Melzer-Petzschner qualified in the eighth spot.

I love Rafael Nadal and agree with 95 percent of what you wrote about him in your Sportsman argument, especially the mentally tough piece (although I may have put him on par with Tiger Woods), but I struggle with one glaring omission. How can he be considered the Sportsman if there are those in the tennis circles who believe he openly cheats? Not being able to communicate/get help from your box at a tournament is a stupid rule but nonetheless a rule. I've seen him do it and so have you. I think this precludes him from the Sportsman discussion. --Dave, Windsor

• If I'm in the Nadal camp, I'm crafting a P.R. strategy here. (And strongly encouraging my player to change his ways.) So many of you are still deeply upset by this. Again: a plea for perspective. The same way double parking is not armed robbery, there are different levels of tennis "crimes." Receiving mid-match coaching is a violation of the rules and is nothing to condone. But it's not exactly bribing officials of genetic doping either. Is it a mark against Nadal's "Sportsman" status? Yes. Should it disqualify him from consideration? No. Let's agree to disagree and move on, shall we?

Regarding last week's point on volunteers to keep stats/code data: Are there any tournaments that recruit volunteers for this? I would love to get involved. I serve as a Web analyst for one of the largest ad agencies in the South. I feel my expertise could help some tournaments. How to I get started? The possibilities are really endless with tennis data. And there are metrics that are clearly missing: break-point percentage (both for server and returner), forced errors (which seem to be a better metric than unforced errors in certain matches), etc. I basically just want to get involved on some level. --Clark Castle, New Orleans

• I have half a mind to coordinate this myself. Contact the Memphis or Atlanta or Houston tournament directors and tell them I sent you. Part of the problem is standardization. If you run a certain set of stats in, say, Memphis, it's only really valid if the data is available for other events. The tours may not be flush with cash these days, but they are in dire need of a CIO. Both Greg Sharko (ATP) and Kevin Fischer (WTA) do great work here. But they need some support!

One more example, as long as you brought it up. In what I thought were pretty shabby doping allegations*, Christophe Rochus recently alleged: "I remember a match against a guy whose name I will not say. I won the first set 6-1, very easily. He went to the bathroom and came back metamorphosised. He led 5-3 in the second set and when I came back to 5-5 ... his nose began bleeding. I told myself it was all very strange." Those who were curious -- myself included -- tried to reverse-engineer these clues and finger the suspect. We can find all the matches Rochus played in which he won the first set 6-1. But can you believe that there is no available data whereby we can figure out sets in which he led 5-3? Again, compare this to the analytics available in other sports.

Let's save a discussion of Rochus for another week.

But, man, they must have curious libel/defamation laws in Belgium. (Otherwise, if I'm Justine Henin, I'm lawyering up.) The last thing you want to do is chill workplace whistle-blowing. But I take issue with Rochus' approach. Either name names and come with concrete evidence, or keep quiet. But turning these serious allegations into a "guessing game" -- one that necessarily implicates innocent players, is really poor form, reckless even. Leaving aside the absurd logic of the above statement (a player's nose is bleeding; ergo he's doping?), if we follow his "clues," we're left with 11 different suspects. Ten -- if not all 11 -- are being unfairly tarnished.

Do the doubles specialists get grumpy when singles players enter their draw? I thought I saw some resentment at Indian Wells last spring from Leander Paes/Lukas Dlouhy when they played Rafael Nadal/Marc Lopez, and Nestor seemed particularly cranky during the final against the same pair. Or is it all in my head? --Donna, NorCal

• I think it's in your head. My understanding is that the top doubles players welcome the singles stars. It gives the draw more credibility and heft when the likes of Nadal are entered. It also gives them a chance to match skills with the real stars.

I am planning a celebration for reaching a certain age in 2013 by attending Wimbledon. Who do you predict I would see in the men's final? --M. Ng, Vancouver

• Grigor Dmitrov vs. Thomas Muster.

• A tip of the cap to Carlos Moya, who will officially call it a career.

• She may lack Justin Gimelstob's talent for promotion, but hats off to Martina Navratilova, who, just three weeks to go before her Mount Kilimanjaro challenge in Tanzania, climbed to the top of the Bank of America Tower in New York to complete her training for her fundraising climb.

• Karin of Hampton, Va.: "Here's a nice slide show of the charity event in D.C. -- first three are nondescript, but the last seven include a couple of great ones of Elton John (including one lovely one with Billie Jean King). He was enjoying himself!"

• Timothy Ryun of New York: "I read George W. Bush's book, Decision Points, and one of my favorite parts has got to be W.'s admission that he was boozing it up with John Newcombe the day he got his infamous DUI. Apparently, Newcombe taught him to drink beer the Aussie way -- hands-free. Go Dubya!"

• J. Diersing, San Diego: "How could anyone NOT be a Frachesca Schiavone fan after seeing this picture? BTW: Saw part of the Fed Cup live. She is a delight to watch in person (even sitting on the bench when she wasn't playing)."

National Signing Day for top high school players.

• Kris of San Francisco.: "This shot by Mary Pierce beats any tweener by Roger." Of course there's this classic, too.

• Steve of Hamilton, Ontario: "Since you often post examples of the convergence of tennis and popular culture, I thought you might be interested in hearing that the sport of tennis -- in particular, Federer's defeat of [Robon] Soderling in the 2009 French Open final -- plays a central role in the newest John le Carre novel. (If you don't want to read the whole novel, just skip ahead to chapter 12.) Check out 'Tennis For The Win,' an iPhone tennis application that covers just about every international level tournament there is, in all categories."

• Who needs a new tennis racket?

• Noah Baerman, Middletown, Conn.: "I suspect I'm not the only one who will make this point, but with regards to the mainstream popularity of 'our sport,' you were perhaps even more on-target than you realized with the analogy of the under-the-radar band. In both music and tennis, the all-stars will make their money pretty much regardless of the broader climate, but the incredibly skilled practitioners who are a tier or two below (the 'successful indie' band or the tennis player ranked 65 in doubles) are the ones who feel the sting if the overall health of their 'business' is suffering.

"You have written before about the often tricky financial circumstances surrounding tennis players ranked just outside of the top 100 and the same is true for musicians -- it's likely that the indie band I'm into is having to get very creative in order to bankroll the dream and continue making the music I love to hear. I don't know the solution, but I do know that while being one of relatively few fans of something has its benefits, there are big-picture financial consequences."

• Never mind Sampras. Agassi's real rival is Randi Weingarten.

• Saqib Ali of Lowell, Mass.: "This week's LLS: Andy Roddick and Rahul Bhatt (Indian TV actor/fitness guru)."

Have a great week, everyone!

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