Wednesday December 1st, 2010

On the road this week, but back next week with our annual Baggie Awards.

Admit it. You know why Federer beat Nadal in London and you just don't want to say. --Will, New York

• Right. I admit it. You know why Federer won? Because Nadal was hurt and is too honorable to say so. No wait, because Nadal was tired. And it was an indoor surface. You know why Federer won? Because Nadal can't touch him outside of clay. Because Federer's mono skews their head-to-head record. Because ...

For all the conspiracy theories and the curious "negativity" (as they say in the NBA) that seems to be swirling in Twitterville and Blogtown and Commentsectionistan, how about we zig where too many are zagging and reflect more charitably on last week's festivities in London? We had a week of sold-out crowds in a big-time city, in a big-time venue, in Europe -- the sport's unmistakable nerve center. There were no injuries, no embarrassing cases of an alternate filling in. The tennis was first rate. The top four players made the semis. The top two made the finals. We closed the year with another installment of Nadal-Federer. If the match wasn't quite a classic, it went three sets and some of the shotmaking was breathtaking. The result was a terrific plot twist. Just when it looked like Nadal was consolidating his supremacy, Federer upends him. It adds intrigue to Australia and Nadal's quest to do what Federer never did: win four straight majors. Look at this objectively: it's great stuff, everything we could want, both in a rivalry and, more generally, in a sport. Feel free to pick a side and root accordingly. But don't let your partisanship prevent you from appreciating the show!

Ever since Roger Federer hired Paul Annacone, of the eight tournaments he's entered, he has four titles, two finals and two semis. He has won 35 of 39 matches. Is he the favorite for the Australian Open? --Ricardo Luis Alvarez, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

• Yes, let's note that Paul Annacone has -- quietly -- become a candidate for Coach of the Year. Is Federer the favorite in Melbourne? I still think you have to consider the guy the favorite who's won the last three majors. But can I weasel and put Federer as 1A?

Speaking (obliquely) of Annacone, here's a point a savvy reader called to my attention. Pete Sampras retired as the all-time leader in Slams won for men's tennis, once thought to be an unbreakable record. Within a few years, he might well be third on the list.

My wife and I will be traveling to Doha this January, and wouldn't you know it, our travel plans just happen to coincide with the last three days of the Qatar ExxonMobil tournament. Do you have any tips for us? Let's all pray to the tennis gods that we'll have consecutive Federer vs. Nadal finals. --Sung J. Woo, Washington, N.J.

• Tips? I was going to say, "Pray you get another Federer-Nadal showdown" but you seem to have done so already. I've never been to that event. But if anyone has thoughts here, I'm happy to play middleman.

Bigots? ... The issue is not which organization brings in more money. If Indian Wells brings in more money than Shanghai (in Shanghai, the scalpers were UNDERcutting the box office, it was so poorly sold), should the players make more in one tournament than the other based on financial success of the event? It's about services rendered. The only reason you might call people who are against equal prize money for genders bigots is because of the politically correct stance of the "underdogs."

Can we reverse it for a moment? What if the women always earned more than the men? What if the women were better players? What if the women played best of five sets and the men three? What if the women consistently generated more interest, revenues and ticket sales?

And what if the powers that be, turned to them and said- we understand you're better, you work more and you are more profitable, but the men need to be paid as much as you because they're men. So we're lowering your money to their level? What sort of outrage would this incur amongst the same people that are outraged when the men earned more in today's scenario? Who would be accused of being bigots then?

The umbrella? Tent? What about the wheelchair players? They also generate less money, are not as good and play less and are at the same events. Are we bigots against them? They excel despite their physical limitations -- sorry, but speed and power are relevant in tennis and if a woman can claim she doesn't have the gifts to be a top player because of her gender, why can't a handicapped player? Why can't a junior player that's smaller than an adult, playing at the same umbrella event or a senior player that's slower than a 20-something playing in under the same umbrella event ... or a top doubles player -- at their prime, playing under the same umbrella/tent, whatever at an event claim the same thing?

Probably for the same reason that the women golfers or women anything in almost all sports don't even dare ask for the same money without delivering the same goods ... the fear of being called bigots ... correctly! --Andrew Simon, Hong Kong

• I (re)enter the "equal prize money debate" with some trepidation because a) it's a bit stale, b) it undercuts one of the great virtues of tennis, the (relative) equality between genders and c) the bigotry gets ugly in a hurry. Yet, I think it's interesting as a matter of economics. Strip away the "best of five versus best of three" nonsense. (Since when is length a relative metric for quality?) Ignore the "logic" that "Serena would lose to the 500th-ranked man." (Auburn University would lose a football game to the Jacksonville Jaguars; which team would you rather pay to watch?) And when the tournaments pay women a teensy, arbitrary bit less -- who remembers when Mauresmo won Wimbledon and made, like, 96 percent of Federer's purse? -- is comes across as petty and mean, any potential cost savings stripped away by the bad P.R.

But as I looked at the ATP and WTA financials, I couldn't get over the disparity. Imagine this scenario: R.E.M. tours with, say, Weezer. Both reputable bands. Surely some fans prefer one to the other, but there's huge overlap. They spend a comparable time on stage. Yet they don't share the gate equally. Why? Because, one band can demonstrably show that, touring independently, it would outearn the other. Both bands would negotiate accordingly. This isn't about bias or preference; it's just the market.

I do want to give equal time here. Please consider this thoughtful note from Katie Baker of Scottsdale: "You keep saying that women's tennis should be valued by the amount of the sponsorship dollars it receives or the amount of income it generates. You advocate unequal prize money because of these figures. But can't you recognize that those two figures may be impacted by gender bias? You keep telling people that women's tennis is less valuable than men's tennis, and perhaps the sponsors hold that bias, too. Additionally, maybe men refuse to go watch women's tournaments because of gender bias, whereas women will watch both genders play. Thus, ticket sales are impacted by this male bias. Moreover, women's sports have a much shorter history of big money sponsors than men's sports. Why do you keep harping on this subject when many of the major events have already recognized the need for equal prize money? I find a women's match that does not last interminably to be a better entertainment value. I do not care to have to devote four or more hours to an event. Moreover, as a female player, I value women's matches over men's, because I identify with the players and enjoy watching my own gender play. I think you need to evaluate your own attitudes and determine whether you may hold a discriminatory bias, which you disseminate through your postings."

I know this is like beating a dead horse since you've called no more talksies on Uncle Toni's coaching, but really this needs to be called to attention! Nadal wins the sportsmanship award? In the famous words of another "sportsman" John McEnroe: "YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!!??!" --Matt, Toronto

• Nadal's peers voted him the 2010 Stefan Edberg sportsmanship winner. Far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty forceful rejoinder to the "he's a cheater" chorus. At least for the rest of the year, let's call no more talksies on this topic, "Federer is so arrogant," Nadal-Federer head-to-head is/isn't misleading, and Caroline Wozniacki's bona fides. Christmas spirit and all.

In your recent mailbag, you chose Kim Clijsters as your pick for WTA player of the year. First of all, this is not a popularity contest. Here's a simple question. If you asked any WTA (or ATP) player on whose 2010 achievements would they rather have, Serena's or Kim's, what do you think the answer would be? You're totally nuts to think that the majority would pick U.S. Open/Cincinnati over Aussie Open/Wimbledon. --Madhu B., Dallas, Texas

• Six events. You guys know how highly I regard Serena. But I just can't do it here. Six events. Can't do it.

What is up with all of the old-school rock being played during the ATP finals? "Start Me Up" was an old song when Microsoft used it to launch Windows 95. (In fact, it was released a week after Roger Federer was born.) And "Gimme Shelter"? That came out the same year Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam. Gimme a break! Does the ATP think using this music will make them into the NFL? --Helen, Philadelphia

• First, it's the arena "game operations" folks, not the ATP folks. Second, there's an element of congruity here. When Federer takes the court they're supposed to play ... what? "Bottoms Up" or "Evacuate the Dancefloor" or "Let's Go All the Way Tonight" or some other top 40 shlock my kids, inexplicably, find appealing? Lil Wayne for Tom Berdych? Ke$ha for Robin Soderling? I don't think so. Stick with "London Calling" and the Stones and even that Moby (Agassi lookalike) song from The Bourne Identity that they kept playing last week. (Either that or hire the U.S. Open deejay who not picks wisely but has a wicked sense of humor.)

Some things I thought you would have mentioned about the Doha WTA tour championship.

-- For the first time in (how many?) years the No. 9 alternate did not take the courts.

-- There was no bandage to be seen in the final.

-- We got a competitive final.

Maybe the shortened season and altered calendar did actually work? --D.P., London

• The cynic would question how well it works when players representing more than 30 Grand Slam titles were on the sidelines with injury. I do think, for all the troubling aspects and steps backwards this year, the WTA gets credit for the shortened season. But the flaws of the WTA's year-end strategy were laid bare last week. I don't think you can fault Larry Scott for essentially auctioning the event to the highest bidder, especially when the WTA was so strapped for cash. But the difference between a week of sold-out crowds in London versus a shabbily attended event in Doha was pretty glaring. We're talking "Ted Conference" versus high school Model U.N. here. Here's hoping Constantinople (that was a joke) delivers next year. It's too late now, but if the ATP and WTA had had the good sense (and modest egos) to have joined forces in London and stage both events simultaneously at the O2, we'd really be cooking with gas. Or petrol.

Who do you think will be most fired up from seeing Maradona in the stands -- Nadal, Fed or the Djoker? --Cara Yang, New York, N.Y.

• Federer: "I think he was almost more excited to meet me than I was to meet him."

Found this link to articles about Edberg which contains two versions of your story. --Siva, Highland Park, N.J.

• Thanks, I was trying to link that Edberg piece a few weeks back.

Regarding Esther Vergeer: on the regular tour, players generally start to physically diminish around age 30. Any idea whether that holds true for wheelchair tennis, or might 29-year-old Esther keep her streak going another 10 years? --Rich, New York, N.Y.

• In the spirit of full candor, my first instinct was: there's some a little distasteful about this line of inquiry. But on second thought, I think it's a real victory/sign of progress that fans are thinking of wheelchair athletes in these terms. That said, I don't know the answer. Can anyone out there help? And all you aspiring filmmakers/NYU film students/Final Cut Pro wizards/Tennis Channel development team employees ... there's a killer documentary waiting to be done here.

How is the schedule set for the tennis finals in London? Seems odd that they would schedule Federer-Murray, Nadal-Djokovic in the second match round robin as opposed to the last. --Duane Wright, Washington D.C.

• TV calls the shots in the U.K., too. The BBC aired matches in the day but not night, hence Federer-Murray went off at 3 p.m. last week and Ferrer-Soderling played the night match.

I miss Rafa's capris. --Connie M., Palm Springs, Calif.

• They'll return. Fashion always does.

How about some "props" for Jimmy Arias, the commentator for the Tennis Channel. No histrionics or sensationalism, just insightful analysis that really enhances the broadcast. --Scott, N.Y.

• Props -- and no malaprops -- to Arias. He doesn't draw attention to himself. He doesn't have shtick. He doesn't start every sentence with "When I was playing" as too many former players, even of modest achievement, tend to do. He's not conflicted. Just a sort of professional and informed minimalism.

• Several of you appear to have signed off this so I'll play middleman: "Since you know people at the Tennis Channel, please pass this info to them. I am watching the Barclays tournament. This channel uses a ticker that scrolls at the bottom of the screen. The problem is that this ticker takes about five percent of the screen and the information being displayed in the ticker is of no value. It's not breaking news or anything like that. It's not real-time data like that of a stock market. It also compresses the height by five percent and it makes the tennis courts look wider and messes up the viewing pleasure. It is being displayed only during the telecast of tennis matches and not during other times. We (the real tennis fans -- who wake up at 4 a.m. to watch tennis) would really appreciate if you could pass this to the Tennis Channel."

• Greg Couch giving the big-city columnist treatment to Adam Helfant and the ATP Board.

• Long as we're here, the questions keep coming about this gambling incident. I don't think it's nearly as severe as Greg does -- or some Nadal fans clearly hoping to see Federer humiliated by this. Look, Forstmann's judgment here was poor. Galactically poor. But especially since these wagers occurred before the creation of the Integrity Unit, I'm not sure the story has much in the way of "legs" beyond that. Greg is right, however, that, once again, tennis is getting burned badly by flagrant conflicts of interest. It's hard to rise above "niche status" when the decision-making is so incestuous and self-serving. Other reputable businesses -- including sports leagues -- understand the value of independent arbiters and investigators and special masters. You beg for scandal and rule-breaking when your organization's structure is so tainted by conflicts and cronyism.

• The USTA announced details of its "Give the Gift of Tennis" holiday campaign. The campaign includes the USTA's first-ever promotional sweepstakes on Facebook where fans can win free equipment and the chance to play tennis with new U.S. Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier. The campaign begins Dec. 1 and continues through the holiday season.

• The USTA and ITA announced today that Brigham Young University men's tennis head coach Brad Pearce has been named the national winner of the USTA/ITA Campus and Community Outreach Award. Derrick Racine, the men's and women's tennis head coach at the University of West Florida is the national winner of the USTA/ITA Campus QuickStart Provider of the Year Award. Both coaches will be honored by the ITA and the USTA on Dec.18 at the ITA Coaches Convention.

• Future star Richard Berankis (you'll note the Americanization of Ricardas -- thanks, IMG!) offers the following public service announcement.

• Ken Schneck of Bratleboro, Vt.: "Long-lost siblings: Novak and actor Jean-Luc Bilodeau."

• Nick DeToustain, Montclair, N.J.: "I know you must be sick of me suggesting this and perhaps you don't agree with the similarity and that's OK, but in light of Llodra's back-to-back wins vs. Djokovic and Davydenko, would you consider A Very Special LLS Michael Llodra Edition, please? His doppelgänger is none other than Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) of Entourage. Sincere thank you for your consideration. Rock on!"

Rock on, indeed. And have a great week, everyone!

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