Wednesday March 9th, 2011

Programming note: we have the oxymoronic "guest host" at the Mailbag week after next. Send questions for Caroline Wozniacki.

I was planning on writing a long piece this week about Serena, definitely the hot topic last week in Mailbagistan. About how it's hard to conceive an athlete who could be more polarizing if she tried. About how in so many ways she epitomizes the athlete ideal. About how she blends physical and mental strength. About how she has a real taste for battle, something so many of her peers lack. About how she is incredibly complex and contradictory. About how she owes no one transparency or even sincerity. About how that makes it hard for many to know her. About how she is not only entitled to do things "her way"; but how "her way" has been validated by the fact that, a dozen years after her first Major title, she is still very much in the conversation. About how being a public figure doesn't mean you can't have a private life. About how, on the other hand, her public relations team is either sensationally inept or sensationally indifferent to perception. About how the WTA still hasn't quite figured out how to handle her. About how stories like this make some salient points, but ignore context, i.e. how many times the public has been "played" by Serena and her handlers. About how the thorny underbrush of race is seldom far from the surface of any discussion of Serena. About how it sometimes can be hard to suspend cynicism when no many have been burned in the past.

But this all seems so distasteful. She had a pulmonary embolism and a hematoma last month. For now anyway, does it really matter if it were tied to her foot injury, if it's strange that no doctor treating her has commented, if she was appearing at a corporate function in Vegas when the news broke? We all can dissect the facts later if we're so inclined. We can speculate, consider flowery career retrospectives and hypotheticals (where does she rank if she never plays again?), and resuming stake out territory on both sides of the dividing line. For now, though, let's simply wish her a speedy return, not necessarily to tennis, but to full health.

Anybody remember Nadal? You know, the guy who won three straight Grand Slams (beating Djoker rather handily in the finals) and made the final of the WTF on an indoor hard court? He will be rested and presumably healthy and very motivated to win on hard courts to continue to build his legacy. Still the favorite in my book at Indian Wells. -- Lauren, Atlanta, Ga.

• Hmmm. The name rings a faint bell. Pirate pants and muscle shirts and a mystical uncle? Wait: you mean this guy?

A few years ago The New York Times magazine ran an insightful profile of him titled: "Ripped? (Or torn up?)

I know a lot of you resent this explanation but just as "the flickering light" is the new reality for Federer, I think we need to accept that Nadal's body will prevent him from being relevant 12 months a year, regardless or his ranking or recent track record. He's won three of the last four Majors. He's also been decidedly less than 100 percent over the past several months. I don't disagree that, rested and healthy, he may well be the favorite at Indian Wells. But it's easy to see why he hasn't been "top of mind" (to use a voguish phrase that I am coming to despise) lately.

Is it really good for tennis -- a game which is all about movement -- to televise matches of old players who can't move much (Agassi, Lendl) and who don't have much of a chance against their former rivals who have managed to stay in shape (Sampras, McEnroe)? It's tough listening to our regular commentators trying to make a story out of these lopsided matches. I got more pleasure watching the Michelle Obama fitness commercials. -- Barbara Katzenberg, Lexington, MA

• During that match a friend -- and tennis hater � texted me: "Amazing match. Can't wait to see Reggie Jackson try to hit Steve Carlton ... shouldn't you guys be promoting the CURRENT players no one knows?" I don't totally disagree. One of tennis' blessings is also one of its curses. We are not much interested in seeing Scottie Pippen play basketball or Bobby Orr play hockey these days. There is a new generation. With tennis, we have a harder time making the transition, especially when the current players aren't American. McEnroe, in particular, is still very much a big name in tennis. Ask yourself: if there's an exhibition in your town, which sells more seats: McEnroe and, say, Todd Martin? Or, say, Djokovic--Sodelring, two current top five players?

The flip side is that yesterday's NBA stars or batting champs see a quick deterioration of their skills. (Who saw Mitch Richmond during All-Star Weekend?) In tennis -- sport of a lifetime and all -- you can still play at a reasonably high level decades after your prime. Before McEnroe's ankle injury was unbearable, he was thoroughly entertaining. Yes it would be nice if more attention were paid to the current stars. And, yes, it was unfortunate that McEnroe was injured and Agassi is clearly still hampered by back trouble. But my bottom line: tennis drew a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden in late February. How can this be a bad thing?

I have a question for you, Jon that always hits me at the start of a tennis match ... How do the players decide on which chair/bench/seat (depending on the tournament) they would use when they walk out. Are there players who are particular about this? Should be fun to see what happens if an opponent picks the side that Rafa is superstitious about? Any insight into the inner workings behind the scenes!!! -- Mahesh, Frisco, TX

• Former ATP pro and ESPN commentator Darren Cahill says: most times the first player will walk to the side where they have eye contact with their camp, so it works out for both. Cahill added that at the Australian Open and US Open, the player boxes are set up on opposite sides of the court and the lower-ranked player will sit right of the chair since their box is located on that side and the seeded or higher ranked player will get the left side. At Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it's different and both camps are located in the same area just a row or two apart. In other tournaments, most of the time players know where their camps are seated and that will help them determine their bench on court. (Thanks to Darren via Sharko.)

JW: I think you have overlooked a major part of Nole's rise and fall and rise. It was the Andy Roddick quarterfinal match at the US Open in 2008. When he shook his fist at the pro-Roddick crowd after a tough win, he was booed by the same New York fans who had fallen in love with him in 2007. He was definitely passive against Federer in the next round, and since then seems to have been unsure of where to place himself on the aggressiveness/passivity spectrum. He seemed happy to make semis and make the occasional final at the slams, with his ever-diminishing serve reflecting his confusion. Somehow the Davis Cup win for Serbia (one of the most nationalistic of nations) seemed to change him. He's not muttering, his body language is great; he's overcoming adversity with the style of a champion. He didn't writhe on the ground (as Federer and Nadal annoyingly do) after his Aussie Win, and he suddenly has the demeanor of a champion. Have you been too hard on him over the past few years, and could you see him win another slam this year if Rafa isn't 100% in Paris and London, and if he plays in New York like he did in Melbourne? -- John Gilliam, Miami Beach, FL

• What you're saying is that he's evolved. This is what we love about sports generically and tennis specifically, right? Kim Clijsters is a choker -- then she becomes a steely competitrix. Andre Agassi is a self-absorbed jerk, profligate with his talents -- then he becomes the epitome of a professional. Jennifer Capriati is a Tennis Burnout Patient Zero -- then she wins three Majors. Characters aren't scripted. Rather they, and their games, evolve. I think you're probably giving too much import to one unfortunate incident. But overall I agree with your thesis. Djokovic is now more secure with who he is and how he is perceived and this has benefitted his tennis. Again, I think Nadal is always the favorite in Paris. And "Federal" is the favorite in Paris, having won every title since 2002. But can Djokovic sneak in a win in Paris or take the trophy in New York? Absolutely.

Two quick points about "writhing on the ground" after a title, a point that gets brought up fairly frequently by you guys. One, I think the players are in a no-win situation. Either they emote and are called hams by the critics. Or they react modestly and are said to lack charisma, which is, of course, a damning insult, in the sports lexicon. Two, I think the rhythm of the final has a lot to do with the reaction. You're winning 6-3, 6-3, 5-3 and you're probably unlikely to drop to your knees on match point. Mentally -- and chemically -- you're at a very different place than when you win deep in the fifth set.

Can you expound upon what you mean by if not for eating disorders the top 20 women would look different. Are they weak from not eating? Are they eating too much and out of shape? Not to nag, but you often hint at stories without telling them. -- Brandon, Chicago

• Go ahead and nag. A few of you called me out for this, including Matthew George of San Francisco who remarked: "I'm not trying to question your cred, I'm just trying to understand what your code of ethics for these matters is so we, as your readers, know where your interests lie, and why you insist on teasing us with half-facts of seemingly newsworthy information." I think there's an interesting discussion here, both narrow and broad, about media ethics. Why I don't lay out the facts, tell you my thinking, and I'm genuinely curious if you agree or disagree.

A few months ago, I had lunch with a former WTA player. It was social. Nothing on the record or anything like that. She told me that eating disorders are quite common on the WTA Tour and often are the reason why some players -- seemingly inexplicably -- drop in the rankings. She had firsthand knowledge and cited examples. Some are eating too much; most are eating too little. Her claim was that, were it not for eating disorders, the personnel of the top 20 would be markedly different. She wasn't, understandably, willing to be quoted or lend her name. I didn't contact the players she named nor, frankly, would I, given the personal nature of this and the fact that their identity isn't really relevant to the broader point.

We talk about "media ethics," but there are really very few hard, fast rules outside "be right" and "be fair". Mostly there are judgment calls. So here's what I'm looking at: I have one source. But she doesn't want her name used. Not ideal sourcing by any stretch. On the other hand, I deem her to be credible, she has firsthand knowledge, there's "nutritional value" (forgive the pun) to bringing up this issue that is seldom discussed. And, in my judgment, "naming names" isn't essential. On balance, I think value of the information outweighs the regrettable "blind item" tone.

Hi Jon; I was wondering about the Davis Cup: 1) Do the players receive monetary compensation, appearance fees, etc. 2) Where will the next round in the United States be played, how is the site chosen? -- Eric Bukzin, Manorville, NY

• Yes, players are compensated. As, I think, they should be. It's easy to say, "You should do this for your country." But as long as there's revenue being generated, it flies in the face of fundamental fairness to deprive the athletes of their share. (Unless of course you could argue that it would sully your "student-athlete" ideal and that four years of tuition, room and board is a fair trade-off for millions in revenue. But now we're getting sidetracked.)

As for your second question, you have -- perhaps unwittingly -- illustrated the inherent and deep flaw of Davis Cup. Here we have a tennis fan, sufficiently interested that he's writing to me about player compensation. Yet he is unclear about the next round. ("I love these NFL playoffs! Say, when and where is the Super Bowl, anyway?") If Eric is (quite understandably) confused, what hope is there for Joe Sports Fan? As it turns out, the next rounds can't be determined in advance because a) it's not clear which country will win and thus will or won't host and b) it's hard to book a venue on a conditional basis. ("Hey, Providence, we might need your Civic Center for a week. But if Nicolas Massu and the gang can spring the upset, and Chile beats the U.S., well, forget it.")

Trivia Q about a player with the middle name Kirk, a reference to Kerkorian: Andre Kirk Agassi (aka AKA) -- AJ Chabria, Dallas, Texas

• Love a/k/a AKA.

Don't you think it's time you started referring to Stefanie Graf by her preferred name? Like most people in tennis, you seem stuck on calling her Steffi. -- Todd, Los Angeles

• Agree. If we can condition ourselves to call a grown man named "Chad" by the new handle "Ocho Cinco," well, we should be able to handle Steffi to Stefanie.

Regarding on-court coaching. I was watching Alize Cornet's match at the Monterrey Open yesterday. She calls her coach after losing the 2nd set, and he says to her in French "Reste dedans. Reste positive. T'as perdu le'me set mais tu peux gagner le'me. Reste dedans." (Stay in it. Stay positive. You lost the 2nd set but you can win the 3rd. Stay in it.) Could you please remind me what on-court coaching brings to the players or the spectators? -- Oli, Montreal

• Beats me. Though the WTA brain trust will tell you that on-court coaching is the most captivating television this side of Charlie Sheen. If you get Tennis Magazine, read Mary Carrilo's blistering critique of this "innovation."

Jon, regarding David from Clearwater, Florida's question about winning the next major after winning your first, I think the answer on the women's side (I know, he did not ask that), would be Jennifer Capriati. -- Shlomo Kreitman, Passaic, NJ

• Very good. And Venus Williams (2000 Wimbledon and U.S. Open) before that.

I've never sent an e-mail to a sports writer and probably never will again but.....the question about wingman in a bar fight, I feel I must comment because there were two obvious choices to me. #1 choice -- Verdasco, a physical specimen that will scare anyone within 12 feet of him, #2 choice, Nadal, who redefined competitiveness in our tennis generation and who you know that if there's a fight, he will NEVER EVER EVER give up. These are the important qualities in a bar fight. Thanks for listening. -- David Lee, Santa Fe, NM

• Appreciate the correspondence. If I had the good fortune of living in Santa Fe, I wouldn't be wasting time writing to sports writers either. I didn't realize what a hot topic this was. I'm not sure I agree with David, though. Nadal fights like heck on a tennis court. In all other contexts he despises confrontation.

In a bar fight, I'll take Leander Paes. -- Mary Bellamy, Vienna, VA

• I'll stick with Robert Kendrick. Here's why:

• In a rematch from last year's ITA National Division III Women's Team Indoor Championship, the 2011 title would ultimately be decided by a showdown at No. 6 singles. Behind the racket of Emory's Laura Cavalla, who had not previously taken court until the two teams were knotted up 4-4 on the final day, with everything on the line and everyone watching intently, top-seeded Emory prevailed, capturing their second straight title, once again knocking off conference rivals, University of Chicago.

Tweet By Petkorazzi: Had the honor to practise with my countrywoman Steffi Graf yesterday ... what a woman and idol for everybody! #starstruck

And you thought Yani was a Greek musician ...

• Speaking of the Dallas Challenger, Dirk Nowitzki -- a terrific tennis player in his own right -- stopped by to watch the semis. Marc Stein told us, so we know it's true.

• And we thought these guys were clinging to tradition ...the Wimbledon semis and finals will be shown, live, in 3-D theaters around the world.

• Age 40 and Kimiko Date Krumm can still pound! (Actually we should note, that it's alcohol free) ...

• Can't afford a trip to Vegas: just call Mats for tennis players only.

• Kenneth Quek of Kuala Lumpur: Hi Jon, Found a candid and insightful interview with Sven Groeneveld in three parts. Here, here andhere.

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: "Choke" by Sian Beilock:

• Dot Shields of Marshfield, WI has LLOS: Watching Paul Capdeville best John Isner, I had a long opportunity to decide who (else) PC reminds me of ... Ray Romano (aka, Ray Barrone, star of Everybody Loves Raymond). I offer you these two images for comparison: Here and here.

Have a great week everyone!

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