Wednesday January 12th, 2011

You predicted someone other than Roger or Rafa would win a Grand Slam this year. When does that happen? And is there anyone currently (or in the future) who could match Roger's five consecutive wins at two different events? Do you see anyone matching that ... or winning five consecutive at even one Grand Slam? --Marina, Dallas

• Now that Federer's streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances has been snapped, here's the most ridiculous tennis record going: Since February 2005, only two of the 23 majors have been won by players other than Federer and Nadal. So, basically, anyone ranked third and lower is a dark horse. But I have a sneaking feeling we're due for a new winner: Djokovic, Soderling, Murray, a rejuvenated Del Potro who has both his wrist and his head in working order. Stay tuned.

As for five consecutive wins at two different events, sure. At two different Slams? No. That's an amazing record -- thanks, Marina, for bring it up -- that, like so many of Federer's achievements, never got the publicity it deserved. He won the U.S. Open from 2004-08 and Wimbledon from 2003-07. All tennis tournaments are "win or go home." One twisted ankle, one bad seafood dish the night before, one lapse in focus, one day catching a hot server who dials in 40 aces ... and the streak is over. Apart from the sheer volume of Federer's titles, I'd add that the concentration makes them more impressive still.

Pete Sampras is an idiot for putting trophies in public storage. I'm not being gleeful because the loss is clearly tragic. Just saying that his cheap habit came back to haunt him. --Suresh Rastogi, San Francisco

• What about this: the trophies are simply "things" and he was motivated by something deeper. Hence he didn't feel the need to turn his den into a shrine to himself. There's a lot here we don't know. Drawing a natural inference that his trophies were stolen because he of his "cheap habit" -- as a surprising number of you have done -- is absurd. I'd add, too, that a time when athletes are selling their trophies to pay debts (see: Allen Iverson) there's something perversely refreshing about an athlete who simply finds an ancillary location for his hardware.

Having recently gotten married, I know why Pete Sampras' trophies were in storage. That's where my Fat Tire neon beer sign went too. Something about it not going with the furniture?! Or not being stylish? This is Fat Tire Beer we're talking about! It goes with anything! Denis Leary has a bit where he talks about wives redecorating and he says, "I've been over to Wayne Gretzky's house. The man won 5 MVPs. You know where his trophies are? In the garage!" --Chuck Partea, Boulder, Colo.

• The lovely Mrs. Partea could not be reached for comment. I'm surprised: usually neon beer signs are essential elements in feng shui.

Just wanted to say that I had the pleasure of meeting Venus Williams in Cayman recently while she was doing a book signing at our local Books & Books. Can I say that this is the first professional tennis player that I have ever met and for all that is said about the Williams sisters, meeting Venus has to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. She was gracious, funny, captivating, absolutely stunning, genteel and just a very warm and humble person. Everyone who went to the book signing had praises for how she interacted with the audience. I got a picture to show my grandkids later on in life when I can tell them that I met Queen Vee. Long may she continue to play tennis. And the book is great as well. I will most certainly be giving the younger members of my family a copy for Christmas. --Karen, Cayman Islands

• Queen Vee, indeed. I've been debating whether to retell this story because doing so sort of the corrupts the effect. But here goes. As some of you know, I'm teaching a non-fiction writing course at a nearby college. I wanted the students to experience interviewing a "celebrity" and put out some feelers. One the fastest and most enthusiastic responses came from Venus Williams. This was a mild surprise. I think we've always had a respectful relationship, but there are certainly subjects I'm closer to just as I'm sure there are media members with whom she has firmer ties. Also, it's not as though her free time is abundant. Regardless, she was not only happy to do it, but there were no conditions. No request for payment. No questions declared off limits. No expectation that I'd do what I'm doing now and write about it.

We did this via Skype and at the appointed time -- literally to the minute -- Venus pops up on my screen. She's at home in Florida, no handlers and moderators in sight. And she killed. She was thoughtful, she was charming, she answered every question thrown her way. Barring a short interval when her dog caused a commotion, she was totally present. Imagine being 19 years old, summoning the courage to ask a question to someone you've only seen on TV -- and having her validate your questions with a considered, eloquent response. By the end, I felt that I needed to tell the students, "Fair warning: sadly not every interview will quite this well." We've said this before, but it's easy to be endearing when there's a pre-arranged press conference and the bright lights are on. Doing so in a spontaneous way, when you have little to gain from the situation, is something else entirely.

While the thought of four more potential Roger-Rafa Grand Slam finals gets most tennis fans excited about 2011, for the life of me, I'm trying to figure what there is to really look forward to in the women's game this year. More unretirements (c'mon Steffi!)? Lest you think I'm sexist, I've got three daughters (no boys) and even they agree with me. What say you Jon? --Neil Grammer

• First, some context: in 2002, Jennifer Capriati ploughed through a field that included the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Anna Kournikova and defended her Australian Open crown. The first three male Grand Slam winners were: Thomas Johansson, Albert Costa and Lleyton Hewitt. Then, the deluge, a golden age for the men's game. Who's to say that Australia 2011 won't usher in the Victoria Azarenka era? Or an epic Clijsters-Henin final? Or the return of Ana Ivanovic? These things go in cycles. Right now we can relish a prospect of four potential Rafa-Roger finals; and remember this fondly when Dimitrov plays Cilic in the 2014 U.S. Open final. The women's game looks shaky now. That, too, will change.

I've seen some interesting "celebration" waves to the crowd by tennis players in my time, but the "smoking gun" routine by Germany's Andrea Petkovic takes the cake. Where did she get it? OK, maybe it's not as good as the one by Russian Mikhail Youzhny but it is unique, nonetheless. Any other stellar crowd waves out there that rate in your book? --Terry Sebastian, Louisville, Ky.

• You got me. We love Petkovic a/k/a Petkorazzi. She is not simply different but embraces her eccentricity. (Where does she find time to practice what with all those YouTube uploads?) But anyone else wondering how Petkovic is being perceived in the locker room these days? If I lose a match and my opponent then begins a smoking gun routine while doing the Cabbage Patch dance, I'm not sure how cool that is.

I love Linda Pierce's writing ... conveys essence so well with simple conversation-y pieces. How is she viewed in the hierarchy of the international media? Who are some of the other best writers/reporters we never get to hear about? --Anthony, Ridgefield

• Linda's the greatest. Bookmark her as the Aussie Open kicks off.

With regard to your comment about the tennis tours companies, I just want to point out that for most events, Wimbledon notwithstanding, you can easily buy tickets on the tournament's official website. You can book your own flights and hotels and typically save a ton in comparison. Some people want the ease and camaraderie of a tour, I understand that, but for a more experienced traveler who's serious about their tennis, DIY is the only way to go. --Vito, New York, N.Y.

• I can no longer see the letters "DIY" without thinking: man cave. Okay, fair enough. I've never done one of these, but I suspect part of the appeal is traveling with a bunch of other tennis fans. Come to think of it, maybe we'll do a Mailbag Tennis Tour one day.

Long distance running is exciting for those of us who're not ignorant of the tactics. Your ignorant, stubborn bashing of endurance-based endeavors is boring. --Rhea Sutherland, New York, N.Y.

• In the context of explaining why I thought the length of a sporting event does not, de facto, equate with quality I wrote the following: "There are short stories we love and 1,000-page epics that thrill us less. There are classic nine-inning baseball games; and 18-inning yawners. Torrid May-September affairs and decades-long loveless marriages. There are thrilling sprints and boring marathons." It doesn't mean that there AREN'T thrilling marathons, or endurance-based endeavors lack merit; it just means that duration is not dispositive.

This is probably a topic for another time, but I'm often impressed/depressed by quickly how quickly discussion degenerates into nastiness. Feel free to disagree, Rhea Sutherland. But here's a plea for civility.

Your comment about marathons being boring is disgraceful. First of all, it betrays your ignorance about long distance running. Secondly, it shows that you're obstinately sticking with a weak argument. Not to mention that you have no qualms absolute disparaging a sport while working for a sports news website. By the way, marathons are very interesting to a lot of folks. Moreover, marathons have inspired millions of folks around the world. Marathons raise millions for charitable causes. The last thing we need is clowns like you discouraging aspiring runners. Your comment is truly idiotic. --Jared McGurk, San Francisco

• Um...

Marathons are not boring. Thanks for betraying your ignorance. --Susan Reilly, Marlboro, N.J.

• OK, uncle. I don't want to get in an endurance battle with a bunch of marathoners. Again, no one disparaging marathons. They're great. One of my goals in life is to complete one. On foot. The point: in my opinion endurance does not, in itself, equal quality, whether it's five-set matches or long movie. That's all. Maybe we should agree to disagree and move along, pacing ourselves accordingly.

OK, not the best to never win a Slam, but Nikolay Davydenko has a strong case as the best to never make a Slam final. Four Slam semifinals, another six quarterfinals. The number of players to win the Tour Championships and never make a Slam final? One: Nikolay Davydenko. The number of players to win Miami and never make a Slam final? Two: Nikolay Davydenko and Tim Mayotte. How many players have head-to-head leads over Rafael Nadal with 10 matches played? I count one: Nikolay Davydenko. Perhaps the most surprising statistic? 20 tour titles, only six losses in finals. Those six losses? All against then-Top 10 opponents (four of them top-five), and only one against a player ranked below him. --Jesse, Portland, Ore.

• Amen. I think you have a few things going on here: for better or worse, Slams are the benchmarks. It's great to win tour events and even Masters events. But until you win a major there's a glass ceiling on your legacy. Second, personality/looks matters. Davydenko is much more accomplished than, say, James Blake or Fernando Verdasco. The true tennis fans -- see: Jesse of Portland -- make their own determinations based on the data. But to the casual fan, legacy is shaped in part by image. Third, right or wrong there is still some residual taint from the alleged match fixing that probably prevents Davydenko from getting his full due. But your larger point is a good one: focus on tennis and tennis only and Davydenko has achieved a great deal.

Thought you might get a kick out of the fact that a new band called Bunny Austin is making its debut at The Nick, a live club in Birmingham on Wednesday. Nice tennis reference. --Anonymous

• Nice. I think they opened for The Dodo Cheneys.

• From the shameless self-promotion department: My new book should hit stores/Amazon this week or next. Fair warning: there's not a ton of tennis in there. It's basically "Freakonomics for sports fans." I wrote it with a childhood friend -- and doubles partner in the Indiana junior circuit -- who's now an economist at the University of Chicago; if nothing else it was a lot of fun to work on.

Here's the link if you're so inclined.

• One of tennis' finer moments in recent came last year before the Australian Open when the top stars collaborated on "Hit for Haiti," an impromptu, no-ulterior-motive exhibition to raise funds for folks in needs. How about a reprise to benefit victims of the Australian floods?

• Everyone in the 2011 Aussie Open suicide pool.

Fernando Verdasco says: "It tingles -- that means it's working!"

• And to think, just a few years ago, Larry Scott was arguing over Maria Sharapova's photo shoot was optional or mandatory.

• The new USTA Board of Directors takes office and nothing says "business" quite like this image.

• Therese Haberle of Hampton, N.H.: "Hi Jon: Just wanted to give you the Christmas Saddlebrook update: Azarenka was there for 5-6 weeks, and busted her butt almost every day. She worked her tail off, and looks very good. Blake was in and out of the Brook, he looked like a man trying hard to get back, I've watched him close up over several years, this year he wasn't doing much of 2-on-1's, but his backhand was looking very good ... Alex Domijian, UVA standout, is coming back from a foot injury, he looked great, has gained a lot of weight and more height (6-foot-8), and was busting his butt. Needs to work on his forward movement more."

• Andrew of New York, N.Y.: "I highly recommend that those of your U.S. readers who have access to The Tennis Channel seek out Open All Hours: A Day in the Life of the Australian Open (will be re-aired several times between now and the start of the tournament). It's a really terrific look behind the scenes."

• In keeping with our ecumenical mission here, you guys know about Tennis Ministry International?

• Who knew that Federer switched tours?

• Remember those videos of Andre Agassi at age four?

• Jesse of Portland, Ore.: "Look-alike nominees: Iveta Benesova and singer/songwriter Judy Collins."

Have a good week, everyone!

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