Wednesday March 2nd, 2011

The dominant theme you guys address this week: "What's up with Federer?" Before we discuss that, let's pause and acknowledge Novak Djokovic, who's been living the dream these past few months. He's beaten Federer multiple times, led his country to Davis Cup glory, won a major (after a three-year drought) and looks like the next Great One. Bravo.

I was thinking a lot about Federer watching Pete Sampras trounce Andre Agassi at Madison Square Garden the other night. On some points, Sampras looked indistinguishable from 1996 incarnation, as he clipped lines with his second serve, zinged forehands and made the most difficult volleys look effortless. I thought to myself: "One set on a hardcourt, and I'd still pick this guy to beat all but five people in the entire world." Then the next point, Sampras would drive a routine backhand into the courtside signage or get totally wrong-footed and I winced watching a player once so graceful look like the middle-aged father he is.

I think this is Federer writ small. It's both a source of hope and cruelty that the light doesn't extinguish suddenly; rather it flickers. Some days Federer will look like the Federer we've come to know and love. Other times he will look like a man deep into back nine, who is older and less hungry than he once was. That's just reality. I suspect that, frustrated as he must be with some of his recent results, he's also charged up by this latest challenge: trying to access the magic that's no longer automatic but hasn't entirely vanished either.

I read your comments about the potential for a match-fixing scandal in tennis. This seems like a really big deal to me. Are there any "official" tennis associations looking into this, or is it not being treated seriously? Thanks. --Patrick Norman, Grass Valley, Calif.

• The Tennis Integrity Unit, formed two years ago in the wake of Davydenko-gate, is on the case. But so far -- despite some pretty damning empirical/forensic evidence -- they have not landed a big fish so to speak. They've chased off some "courtsiders": the dirtbags who sit in the stands with a laptop, gamble point-by-point and attempt to profit off a slight time delay. They've interviewed plenty of players about suspicious results. They've warned coaches and agents and the odd LBO billionaire about gambling. But no takedowns.

Someone asked me if this is a problem in the women's game, too. On it's face, there's little reason to think that taint of fixing would affect one tour and not the other. So they long as there's online gambling on WTA matches, why not? And, ironically, the one player suspended for breaching a "duty to report" is a woman.

But, for whatever reasons, I have heard few allegations vis-a-vis WTA players and seen no examples of irregular gambling patterns vis-a-vis WTA players.

A bigger issue is on the women's side: I predict one day a player will get caught for fudging her age, pretending to be younger than she is. This is common practice -- remind me to tell you a hilarious story about a top player that's been an open secret for years. In order to lure sponsors and maximize their "window," players routinely shave a few years off their age. (How is this done? A coach at a prominent academy tells me that in certain countries, proffering a small simple bribe is enough to get a birth certificate changed.) We talk about how, since, the advent of the "Capriati Rules," the average age of the WTA has increased dramatically. Imagine how high this number would be if all players were truthful!

As long as we're on dark topic: Also, a recently retired player was telling me that she's observed a rash of eating disorders among her colleagues. "If I see a player's results suddenly fall, the first thing I assume is that she either has an eating disorder or a complicated relationship with her coach." She says that if it weren't for eating disorders, the top 20 would look very different.

Silly question time, but do you think that Betsy Nagelsen (presuming she did inherit Mark McCormack's share of IMG) is the woman who made the most money out of tennis? Maybe Lisa Bonder made more out of the divorce. --Kevin James, London

• That's such a tacky and distasteful question, I couldn't possibly ... oh, who are we fooling? This is guilty fun. I would definitely put Lisa Bonder up there.

(Tennis trivia: Which player has a middle name of "Kirk" in homage to Mr. Kerkorian?)

Amanda Coetzer married Arnon Milchan. I'm blanking on the identity, but wasn't there an American from the late '70s or early '80s who's now a managing director at Goldman? I'm guessing she doesn't need to redeems Groupons to afford her spinning classes. My guess: Serena Williams' wealth plus capable financial advisors equals nine-figure net worth.

Thought you might appreciate a recent "brush with greatness" my son and I had. After my 11-year-old boy completed his first-round match in a local tennis tournament, we decided to celebrate his 9-8 victory (brutal to watch as a parent I might add!) with a burger at a local joint called "Fatburger's." After placing our order and taking a seat, I did a double take when I noticed a familiar figure sitting alone at a table who was waiting for his food. I looked again and then asked my son if he recognized that person sitting alone. He immediately said, "Hey Dad, that's Pete Sampras!" Scanning the restaurant I noticed that it appeared that no one else recognized Pete as we were the only ones gawking at him. I quickly ran out to my car, grabbed a tennis ball and a pen and went back inside. I told my son, "Let's ask him to sign the ball, what do you say?" My son J.J. hesitated, all of the sudden getting shy. He said, "Let's eat lunch first and then ask him." Right at that moment, Pete's name was called and he went up to the counter and picked up two bags of take-out food and turned to leave. The moment had come. We stood up and he immediately saw us (my son and I were both dressed in tennis duds), and he walked over. I apologized, told him we were huge fans and asked him if he wouldn't mind signing the ball for my son. He said, "No problem at all," set his food down, and signed the ball. At this point, I could have easily "detained" Pete by asking for a picture, mentioning that we play at the same club that he played at as a junior, name-dropping people that I play with that played with him as a junior, etc. Instead I chose to go the "get in, get out and be grateful" route. We thanked him again for the autograph and I said, "Enjoy the Fatty's (great burgers by the way!)," and he responded, "Picking up food for the family", and he was out the door and gone. It was a great way to end the day with my boy winning a nail-biter of a tennis match, grabbing an awesome burger, and spending a random moment with one of our tennis heroes! --TJH, Redondo Beach, Calif.

• Thanks, TJH. I love these stories. And I applaud your decision-king. Sampras is a celebrity. Here's there alone. He's not with his kids, he's not eating, he's not on the phone, I think you're within your rights to humbly and gracefully request a few seconds of his time. He has a right to decline. But under the circumstances, you have a right to ask. I applaud your restraint, though. You cross the line when you play the name game and reminisce. It's the asymmetry of celebrity but I'm struck by how a few seconds of an athlete time yield these powerful and lasting and dense moments for fans. I'm also struck both by how intrusive some fans can be and by the volume of requests some athlete must negotiate. If Federer or Nadal or even Andy Roddick accommodated everyone, they'd never make it to the court!

WTHIGOW Victoria Azarenka? --Charlie G., Washington, D.C.

• We gave her a bit of a pass after her head injury at the U.S. Open. But, yeah, her results of late have been pretty dismal. (And we hope she is treating ballkids with more respect.) The other 2011 WTHIGOW candidate, is, of course, Sam Querrey. But now we know: he's suffering from a shoulder injury and is about to go on the DL.

Hypothetically, if you were in a barfight and needed backup, which top-20 men's player would you want as your wingman? Myself, I'd go with Roddick. --Nick, Redlands, Calif.

• So quick story: I was putting together a Sports Illustrated story on Nadal a few months ago and was trying to advance my thesis that, pathologically combative as he is on the court, is commensurately passive of it. This is someone who will battle to the death for five sets. Yet in every other context, he despises all manner of confrontation. I asked him if he could recall the last time he was in a fight.

"A fight? Oh, never."

"Never? Not even as a kid?"

"Never!"

"Really? Never?"

"I get very scared."

As for wingmen, yeah, Roddick is a good call. Live arm. Nasty streak when the adrenaline is pumping. He also has the benefit of having lived in Texas. David Ferrer might not be a tough guy, but the cardio is off the charts. Federer might go all Swiss and try to mediate and play the Swiss neutrality card; but if ever he got sufficiently mad, I wouldn't mind a back-up with his wingspan. If we can dip out of the top 20, you know who has reputation for being bad-ass? Robert Kendrick. Of course, the best wingman might be doubles player Thiago Alves.

Speaking of barfights ...

Jon, isn't it fair to say that Clijsters today is a better hard-court player than even Serena was in her prime a few years ago? Also, Clijsters went through Serena when she won at Flushing in 2009. --Kyle Reilly, Chicago

• Good one. I'm leaning toward Serena, as I usually tend to do. But I could be convinced otherwise.

Your very insightful response to a recent question about tennis agents got me re-pondering a subject that has long bothered me. You'd indicated that amongst the few-and-far between glamour moments of being an agent are plenty of humbling ones. At what point did tennis turn from a sport of the independent individual player to that of a coterie of handlers? I find this particularly jarring in between points at any tournament: players motion to ballkids to fetch and catch their dirty, sweaty, and -- let's face it -- disgusting towels. I daresay ballkids spend more time towel-fetching than they do ball-handling. I remember not too long ago players actually getting their own cold drinks (gasp) during change-overs. Now they have umbrella holders, drink-servers, towel valets, and, with increasing frequency, masseuses! While I'm not suggesting we return to the pre-1970s era of no chairs for the players, I think the prima donna way in which players are treated has entered the absurd. Do you see this as a trend that's only going to get worse? Can you offer a different perspective to lighten my cynical position? --Bob Fuller, Bloomfield Township, Mich.

• A few years ago I heard Billie Jean King lamenting the absence of sisterhood and solidarity on the WTA Tour. "In our day, we shared a ride on the way to the courts." I got her point, but I also wanted to scream: "You can't have it both ways!" This "coterie of handlers" -- problematic though it might be -- is a function of growth and progress. Precisely because of Billie Jean King and her generation, today's top players can afford their own staffs and handlers and obstructionists. Sure, it would be nice if the players had more congeniality and a stronger sense of collective consciousness. But there would be something profoundly wrong if Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin were all piling in the same van on the way to the tournament. "You've all left public housing and moved into mansions with lots of land; the sense of neighborhood is lacking!"

While I agree that it's disgusting to see ballkids handle the sweaty snot-rags of players, again, less cynically is it not an earmark of the big time? The Little League team I coach has no bat boy. The Yankees do. At McDonald's, I bus my own tray. At a fancy restaurant, you leave your table to go to the restroom and when you return, someone has folded your napkin. The anchor at the local TV station does her own hair and make-up. Katie Couric does not.

Actually, as far as sports go, I would submit that tennis players are still relatively UN-pampered. They carry their own gear, regrip their rackets, usually receive no counsel during changeovers. After the top 20 or so, they're even making their own travel arrangements. (Compare this to the NBA, where some teams have an employee whose job it is to warm up the players car after the games, heaven forbid, they have to adjust the dashboard knobs themselves.)

You know you're an all-time great when ... you're a milestone for other players' careers. I found this excerpt from the AP's release about Ancic's retirement amusing: "Ancic first came to prominence in 2002 when he defeated seventh-seeded Roger Federer in the opening round of Wimbledon on his Grand Slam debut. Federer didn't lose again at Wimbledon for six years. He was beaten in the 2008 final by Rafael Nadal." Imagine being so awesome at your job that when someone else retires, they list your stats. I'm sure Ancic loves seeing the summation of his career include Federer and Nadal dominating Wimbledon. --Dan, Baltimore

• Good point. Dan's note, though, gives us an opportunity to acknowledge Ancic, who announced his retirement last week. He was one of the good guys, a thoughtful, reticent type who never quite lived up to his Baby Goran promise, but was a force of good and, more important, has a bright future post-tennis as an attorney.

Jon, I was hoping either you or Greg Sharko could help me out with a trivia question. I'm trying to figure out the last time a man followed up his first Grand Slam singles title by winning the very next Grand Slam that was played. According to my research, it has never happened in the Open Era. Thanks in advance! --David, Clearwater, Fla.

• Says the Solon of Ponte Vedra: "Yes, that is correct, no one in the Open Era won first and second Grand Slam titles in back-to-back tournaments.

Since I know you are an MMA buff as well as SI's tennis guy, here's an idea for you. The U.S. Open is a fantastic event, but for even more live excitement, get Bruce Buffer to do the player intros for the finals. I can imagine his intro for a Rafa-Roger final, and it would be absurdly awesome. "Standing at 6-foot-1 tall, weighing in at 190 pounds, playing out of Manacor, Majorca, Spain, the reigning, defending, U.S. Open champion: Rafaaaaaaaaaa Nadaaaaaaaaaallll." --Andrew, New York, N.Y.

• Lot of fighting questions this week. Glad you said Bruce Buffer, not Michael. The guy at the WTF in London was ring-announcer-rific. Also why not go all out? Entrance music, laser lights, costumery, bro-hugs with the camp before taking the court, Uncle Toni applying Vaseline. It really ramps up the drama and sense of combat.

• Again, I've been asked to publicize this, so I shall: I'll be doing a Varsity Letters reading in Manhattan tomorrow (Thursday). Details here.

• More icky self-promotion: If anyone of you are headed to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics this weekend, on Friday I'll be discussing officiating analytics with Mark Cuban, Bill Simmons, et al.:

• Just got a DVD of the Vitas Gerulaitis documentary. Just fantastic. Could have been a "30 for 30." Tennis Channel needs to commission a dozen more of these. Lord knows, tennis can provide the characters!

• "Fiery" Fred Stolle, was presented a commemorative ring from the International Tennis Hall of Fame in a center court ceremony at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships on Friday.

• Helen of Philadelphia: "Re: Johnny Mac and his tantrums -- Did you not see that Q&A call-in during a rain delay at the U.S. Open some years back? Mats Wilander and Johnny Mac were both in the booth. A fan called in and asked John if he meant it every time he went ballistic during a match, or was he sometimes just putting on a show. Mats said, 'Oh, he meant it!' John's answer was (roughly paraphrased, going from memory here): 'Before I had kids, I meant it 100% of the time. After kids ... eh, maybe 75-80% of the time.'"

• Maria Sharapova's shoulder might hurt but ...

• Michele Drohan of New York sends this link and adds, "It's an outrage for any sports or music fan."

• The All England Club, home of the Wimbledon Championships, today announced the appointment of Neil Stubley as its Head Groundsman Designate effective April 4. The position forms a key part of its long-term succession planning for both the Club and Wimbledon Championships and has arisen from the intended retirement of current Head Groundsman Eddie Seaward in 2012.

• The Sony Ericsson Open announced that ESPN2 will join Tennis Channel and CBS this year in broadcasting an event-record 77 hours of domestic coverage of the 2011 tournament. Broadcast coverage begins March 26 on Tennis Channel and moves over to ESPN2 beginning March 30; both the women's and men's final will broadcast live on CBS April 2 and April 3, respectively.

• Nick De Toustain of Montclair, N.J.: "Hi Jon, what do you think of these long lost siblings: Milos Raonic and Andrew Cuomo?"

• And another pair from Tara of Columbia, Md.: "After watching the Delray Doubles tonight, Scott Lipsky and Ben Stiller!"

Have a great week everyone!

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.