Wednesday February 9th, 2011

Do you think the Agassi-Williams-Clijsters career plan would work for Rafael Nadal? Take a year or so off from the tour and save yourself some wear and tear on the body. What would the pros and cons be? Steve, Kirksville, Mo.

• Sadly, Steve raises a valid question. If we've learned anything about Nadal, it's this:

A) He is an exceptional tennis player.

B) His style of play -- and medical history -- is not exactly consonant with physical health and thus, a long career. The pros of following the Agassi-Williams-Clijsters blueprint and slashing his schedule are, in theory, immense. It's really all about the Majors at this point. If he can arrive healthy and rested four times a year, giving himself an optimal chance to win the big prizes, that's a small price to pay for missing Doha, Rome, et al.

The drawbacks, though, are manifold. It's hard for most players (not named Serena Williams) to helicopter into big events and arrive in match shape. Note than on the occasions Nadal has come in cold, he hasn't always done so well. Related to that (and, again, invoking Serena) a player's fitness level drops with sparse match play. Especially since he's always competed so consistently, Nadal's legacy will take a bit of a hit if he takes a long hiatus and gives his playing schedule a dramatic haircut. There are commercial consequences as well. While he's not particularly motivated by money, I can't imagine his management team would lustily embrace a decision to cut those exhibitions, those appearance fee events and risk losing bonuses tied to endorsements. The ATP, of course, would be devastated if Nadal adopted the Serena Williams schedule.

If it were another player, I would be more enthusiastic. But Nadal is, at his core, a jock. He'll play if he can. I don't think it's in his nature to tinker and manipulate his schedule. I think we just need to gird ourselves accordingly. Nadal will treat us to spectacular tennis. And once or twice a year, he will scare us when he contracts an injury.

Now that Justine Henin has finally called it a career, what is your vote for the best match of her career? Personally, I would pick her victory over Jennifer Capriati in the 2003 U.S. Open semifinals, 7-6 in the third after battling a partisan New York crowd and painful cramps; the heroics and drama made for enthralling entertainment. Oh, and now that Henin is gone, what is the epitaph for her career as a body of work? Sheahan, Chicago

• Agree on the best match. And note that she returned the next day and won the final, beating Kim Clijsters. That, kids, is heart. Here's an obit I wrote the first time she retired, I think it still holds pretty well:

The inimitable Bud Collins once christened Justine Henin the Little Backhand That Could. As nicknames go, it was perfect. Standing 5-foot-5, Henin often spotted opponents six or eight inches in height. But zinging a gorgeous backhand, deploying a diversified portfolio of shots and, most important, possessing unmatched reserves of determination, the Belgian came to rule women's tennis. In this decade, no player has won more major titles than Henin (Serena has since surpassed her); no player has held the top ranking longer. But, suddenly, the Little Backhand That Could, couldn't. ... Henin's retirement underscores an irony the WTA now faces. The women's game has elevated itself to an excruciating sport being played by truly elite athletes. But a by-product is that the level of play exacts a hell of a price on the competitors. So much so that when the top-ranked player feels she can't commit fully, she figures she may as well quit. For most players there is no longer such a thing as cruise control. The Pollyannas are already predicting that Henin will follow the path of Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport and unretire before long. But the more telling comment came from new No. 1 Maria Sharapova. Told of Henin's retirement, Sharapova, empathized: "If I'm 25 and I'd won [seven] Grand Slams, I'd call it quits, too."

Should Caroline Wozniacki really bother playing Fed Cup? We all love her Danish teammates Karen Barbat (ranked 543), Mai Grage (ranked 899) and Cecilie Lundgaard Melsted (no ranking), but Caroline cannot win a team event by herself. She already has an overbooked schedule, shouldn't she rather work on building a weapon that will land her more wins at Grand Slams? Oli, Montreal

• We'll say it once, and we'll say it again: you overlook Cecilie Lundgaard Melsted at your own peril. You know what really disturbs me about the Danish team? None of the players have that ø in their name. It gives me such pleasure typing that character, testing the outer bounds of the option key. And I'm officially coining the nickname for Karen Barbat -- "Mitzvah." Where were we? Oh, right. Wozniacki. Look, she is damned either way. She sits it out and her patriotism is called into question. Or she commits to this event and risks overplaying. And she has to deal with this.

To bolster your point about not coronating Novak Djokovic just yet: Note that since 1997, Roger Federer (who did it three times) is the only male player who finished with the No. 1 ranking the same year he won the Australian Open. Ian, Herndon, Va.

• This isn't meant to denigrate Djokovic. But Nadal is a huge favorite in Paris. No man other than Federer or Nadal has won Wimbledon since -- get this -- 2002. Djokovic is a real threat in New York. Again you hate to douse the fire, but Djokovic has a long way to go before his takedown is complete. After the Australian Open, the inevitable question becomes: can the winner pull off the Grand Slam? Trivia: when was the last time the Aussie Open winner even got halfway, taking the French?

I read the excerpt of Scorecasting in SI about home-field advantage. I commend you for what looks like an exhaustive (and exhausting) study of game statistics. I have two questions about the summary section that you wrote. When you talk about how the fans' influence on the refs decreased, thus decreasing home-field advantage, when the crowd size was smaller, you cite the statistic to be a decrease in the home team's winning percentage. Couldn't this also be explained by the common occurrence that home teams with smaller crowds are most likely bad teams, and so their win percentage would be less anyways? Conversely, any home team with a big crowd is more likely to be one of the better teams in its respective league. Judd Stricker, Pittsburgh

• I should do a Scorecasting Mailbag. Thanks for note -- and to everyone who's written in. Seems like people are having fun with the book, which, I suppose, was ultimately the goal. As to Judd's question, first, we controlled for quality of opponent. Second, the smallest crowds occur when bad teams play bad teams -- i.e. there's much differential. Yes, the good teams tend to have the biggest crowds. But when good teams play bad teams (when, say, the Lakers visit Minnesota or the Yankees go to Arizona), the crowds swell.

About the HBO 24/7 idea, Bill Simmons mentioned on a recent podcast how cool it would be to have one featuring Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon -- so maybe ESPN could get on board for a documentary. Anyways, when are you doing another stint on the B.S. Report? Loved the one you guys did. Eric, Chicago

• Hey, thanks. This is exactly what tennis needs. I still say that if you can't get Federer-Nadal to commit, go down a tier. You could still have fun with another player. Roll tape (or the digital equivalent) on Alex Dolgopolov -- everything from his hydration routine to his strategy sessions with a coach to his Skyping with his girlfriend. Spending last week in Dallas -- seeing the NFL's marketing machine in high gear -- was a chilling reminder of just how much work tennis has to do on this front.

Is there any particular reason why the tennis media at large (namely you and others who write for the international press) completely ignored Oracene's ugly Clijsters-bashing via Twitter? I'm sure if the Williams family wasn't black you guys would've been all over that rude and nasty comment like flies on elephant dung, but I'm guessing that once again political correctness rears its ugly, double-standard head. Just Wondering, New York

• Yes, another APB from the double-standard police. With the "reverse racism" charge thrown in for good measure. I do like the flies on elephant dung imagery. We did note this sentiment from @oracene that Clijsters was "Madusa" (sic -- she's no Tyler Perry fan, apparently) and calling her "dubious." We retweeted it the day it happened. The Mighty Chris Chase was on it, too. Two sources have told me that they think Oracene confused Clijsters and Henin. If it were any other parent -- or coach! -- you'd laugh. With Oracene it's not beyond the realm of credulity. If it's true, it's terrifically telling.

There is no such verb "to coronate" -- the verb should be "to crown." Margaret de Lisle, New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

• I hereby crown you grammar champion. Good catch.

Jon, you ask about Roger Federer: "Is he done winning Slams?" It might have to do with the "15" jacket at Wimbledon in 2009. Up to that point, Roger was a ridiculous 15 out of 25 in Grand Slams, starting at Wimbledon in 2003. After "the jacket:" one out of six. I'm just saying ... Erik Seifert, Norcross, Ga.

• I'm thinking there are better metrics. Age being one of them. Just to be clear I DO think Federer has another Slam in him.

Eric Butorac beat Nadal? At Indian Wells? In 2007? I think you need to check your facts. Nadal won the tournament that year! Richard, Dallas

• A few of you noted that. I thought it was obvious that Eric was talking about doubles. Indeed he and Jamie Murray beat Nadal and Feliciano Lopez.

With all the talk about players taking too long between points, I believe I have a simple solution to solve the problem. Have the baseline linesperson on the receiver's side have a stop watch that counts down the allotted number of seconds between points. (I have chosen this linesperson since they are not involved with judging serve legality). The linesperson starts the stopwatch as soon as the chair umpire announces the score. When the stop watch gets to 0, if a serve has not been put in play, the linesperson calls out time. The chair umpire determines if the server or receiver is the cause of the delay (i.e. not ready for play) and that player loses the point. This applies for both first and second serves (on a second serve, the stop watch starts as soon as fault is called). There is no need for a time violation or anything else. Just keep it simple -- be ready -- or lose the point. Giri, Allen, Texas

• Makes sense to me. Better idea still: why not add the equivalent of a "shot clock" which would a) enable fans to watch the countdown and b) enable the player to keep an eye on time. I fear that otherwise, it's too arbitrary.

Guess how many South American women are in the top 100 right now? (Hint: it's the loneliest number.) What the heck happened? Phil, Long Island, N.Y.

• Funny you should ask. John may have the answer ...

Given the global appeal of tennis right now, don't you think the WTA should be publicizing that this week's top 10 ranked players come from 10 different countries? John O'Leary, Houston

• Absolutely. Tennis publicity types have this conversion chart. If one player dominates (a la Federer or Steffi Graf) you trump the singularly accomplishments and rush to declare this star the greatest player ever to draw breath. If you have two clear-cut stars, you play up the rivalry. If you have the WTA's current situation, you sell the parity and the wonderful suspense that comes when any of a dozen players can win. If players are concentrated from one country you talk up the "Russian Revolution" or ask "What did they put in that Serbian drinking water?" If the players come from all over, cite this an earmark of globalization and the sport's international appeal.

So, yes, put out that "10 for 10" news release. Just as long as no one asks you pointed questions about Serena's injury status.

• We have some swag piling up, including gear from Fetch Sport. Let's do a haiku contest via Twitter.

• Nice to see the ATP rename its headquarters after Jim McManus. I've lost count of how many people have spoken fondly of him since his passing last month.

• Gil Reyes needs to get this guy in shape.

• Ro'ee Orland of Israel: Regarding the Sergi Bruguera-Thierry Champion triple-bagel match, during one point Bruguera broke a string, stayed on the baseline and won an extended rally.

• Mark Parry, Sydney: A little tribute to the great Goran Ivanisevic -- impossible to dislike as a person and even more impossible to pronounce as a name. This video proves both.

• Betty Blake, Fairfield, Conn.: This is not a question just a thank you for your reply to Allan Cruz of Pennsylvania. So many people seem to write James Blake off as an underachiever. In truth, he did so much more than we ever expected of him. With severe scoliosis, his doctors marvel at his level of success. When he left Harvard it was by way of an experiment to see what would happen. He knew he could, and probably would, go back if the experiment failed. If you're at all interested you can read all about it in my book "Mix it Up, Make it Nice." Thank you for setting the record straight.

• Hardcover Business Best Sellers New York Times No. 1: "The Investment Answer," by Daniel C. Goldie and Gordon S. Murray. (Business Plus, $18.) Five questions every investor should ask.

Interesting piece on UVA tennis.

• Cam Bennett, Geelong, Australia: So who are the best 50 players of the past decade? How about these guys?

How not to play mixed doubles.

Very nice and balanced interview by James Blake. He is honest and to put in your words, agreed to disagree with Sampras' comments on Fed/Rafa's accomplishments in a respectful way.

This video has been tweeted by Janko Tipsarevic and retweeted by Andrea Petkovic. Young Novak.

• Rodrigo Sanchez of New York has an entry for the separated at birth/look-alike department ... Chris Fowler and Patrick McEnroe = Fred and Barney.

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