Wednesday March 30th, 2011

While waiting out another Key Biscayne rain delay ... build that roof!

With his win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Miami, his doubles win at Indian Wells combined with his nice win in the Australian Open over Robin Soderling, can we claim that Alexandr Dolgopolov is now running with the big "Dolgs"? I really like his game. Not sure why, but it seems fun and fluid. Maybe it's just the hair. --Michael White, Irving, Texas

• The majority of the questions this week seemed to be downers. Andy Murray has lost nine sets in a row now! Andy Roddick is getting expelled from the top 10! Caroline Wozniacki, again done in by her absence of firepower, gets bounced in Key Biscayne!

Thanks, Michael, for giving us a chance to go positive and discuss Alex Dolgopolov, who's playing at an absurdly high level these days. The story of the men's game so far in 2011 has been Novak Djokovic -- his winning streak, his likeability, his continued residence (rent-free!) in Federer's head. But one of the stronger secondary plots has been the emergence of Dolgopolov, who beat Tsonga on Monday and -- don't look now -- could be a top 10 player before long. He may lack an "E" but he plays exceptional "D," scrambling to balls and prolonging points with his quickness and anticipation. But for a guy whose physique remind me of Lleyton Hewitt (he's generously listed at 5-11, 157 pounds), he sure doesn't get overhit much. Apart from the results, it's nice to see a young player enjoying himself, clearly savoring his rise. The other day we discussed Andy Murray's putrid demeanor. Dolgopolov is the opposite. You see how passionate and genial he is and you have to believe that has a salutary effect when he plays.

This is your official reminder to tell us the story about a top player that's been an open secret for years! --Carolyn Koo, Somers, N.Y.

• So as I mentioned a few weeks ago, there's an open secret in tennis: some players are older than their listed age. Why? Because sponsors are looking for the "next big thing" and, in the eyes of marketers, a 17-year-old prospect is more appealing than a 20-year-old prospect. It's tough for players from some countries, including the U.S., to fudge their age. It's easier for players from other countries. (What's more, in some countries, birth certificates are not part of the public record so it's hard to confirm.)

In any event, a former WTA Tour player told me this story (names are being protected):

"My friend was a strong junior player in the Northeast. One spring, she was visiting a prestigious Florida academy where a hotshot junior had arrived from overseas. 'I want you to play with Jane Doe,' the head of the academy announced. 'She's only 11.' My friend, then 13 or so, was surprised to see that the 11-year-old was a towering presence who blistered the ball. She pasted my friend.

"A year or so later, my friend had returned for a few weeks at the academy. One day, the instructor walked up to her court. 'I want you to play with this amazing girl I have here. Her name is Jane Doe. She's only 11.' Of course, it was the same player, now taller and a stronger player. Still 11. Again, she pasted my friend.

"The following year, my friend was at a different Florida academy. One day the owner of the academy comes to her court. 'This afternoon, a girl is stopping by. Going to be a star one day. Amazing player. Her name is Jane Doe.'

"'Let me guess,' my friend said. 'She's only 11.'

"'Maybe she just turned 11,' responded the academy head. 'But I think she's ten.'"

Jane Doe went on to have a successful WTA career.

Here's an irony: When the WTA established the Age Eligibility Rules, there might have been a temptation for an up-and-coming player to adjust her age upward in order to play. Who knew that some players would (allegedly) adjust their ages downward? If the top echelon -- devoid as it is of teenagers -- appears old now, imagine how old it would be if everyone gave their correct age. Bone density scans for everyone!

I am disappointed with the comments that Clijsters made about Japan. Particularly since Clijsters is known to be such a crafty PR machine, it was shocking to hear her talk selfishly about not wanting to play in Japan later in the year. I don't fault her for her decision but now's not the time to spook people further. She could have waited until later to talk about her plans. Nice to hear Roddick and Federer (among others) give polite, measured responses and state that they'll play it by ear. Is Clijsters' PR person on vacation? --Rachel Suarez, Los Angeles, Calif.

• Yeah, I'm not sure I got that either. Her sentiments were understandable, especially given how much travel she does avec enfant. But why you would announce that now is a mystery to me. I realize this is a case of "damned either way." You're bland and elusive and give "polite measured responses" and you get praised. You answer directly and you get hammered. Still, the timing is puzzling. Why not wait until the situation is a bit calmer before those pronouncements?

Speaking of statistics, Caroline Wozniacki won the first set in her semifinal against Maria Sharapova by hitting one winner and about 10 unforced errors. The commentators called it "solid" play. She won it easily, but what does it say about the state of women's tennis that a 1:10 winner-to-error ratio is considered "solid" tennis. --Jess Hahn, Columbia, S.C.

• Devil's advocacy (pro bono!): What does it say about the value of the stat when the player winning the set has such an abysmal ratio? Honestly, I see your point and don't disagree. You wish the top player in the world had more power. And her lack of weapons bit her again in Key Biscayne.

Why is the Davis Cup sinking into irrelevance? I'm sure the last few champions don't view it that way. Oh, I get it ... Another "America-first" viewpoint. --B. Prelosnjak, Hamburg, N.Y.

• This is from Sunday night:

Q. Are you one of those guys that think that they should find a different format for Davis Cup, or are you pleased about how it works?

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, look, it's a really difficult discussion about that, because it's been this format has been active in tennis for a long time. It is a special competition for all of us and we love representing our countries, but there are things that could be changed. I definitely agree with that.

Sometimes it really doesn't fit in our schedule. It's of course pleasure to play for your country, but, you know, for your individual career sometimes it really gets in the way, you know. And after a very long, for example, summer season on clay, on grass, you know, three very exhausting months, and then you have to play a Davis Cup tie, which is really important, so maybe the scheduling of it would be you know, scheduling change would be needed.

Maybe a different format, as well, you know. Why not? You know. I'm always open for better options for something to change. If it's more suitable for players, why not? Yeah, I definitely agree with that.

I was at the Sony Ericsson Open today. It's a great time -- so fun! But I was surprised when I saw a doubles player ask for a towel and spit into it! Gross! Remind me: why would anyone want to be a ballboy? --John, Fort Lauderdale

• And you thought Flemish was Kim Clijsters' native tongue.

What does it say about the doubles game when a pair who has never played together before decides to pair up 15 minutes before the deadline and ends up beating the reigning Olympic champions and the all-time winningest pair? Was that a fluke? Is doubles that unpredictable? --Jerry D., Brownsville, Texas

• I thought you were going to ask: What does it say for the doubles game when the singles guys decide to enter and beat up on the rank and file? Sure, doubles is something of a crapshoot -- all the more so given the "super tiebreak." Literally, one lapse and it's over. But I'm not sure this is a bad thing. The top players have an incentive to enter. The "fluke" factor is an inducement. There's some "time certainty" with the respect to the duration of matches. We all snickered when the ATP tried to masquerade cost-cutting measures as "doubles enhancement." But overall, maybe they weren't so bad.

Obviously they wouldn't play this year, but do you know if Larry Ellison has reached out to the Williams sisters to come back to Indian Wells? Maybe new ownership would change their minds about playing there. --S.A., Dallas

• A few of you mentioned this. Again, I think we have to respect the sisters' decision and move on. Ain't happening. Next topic.

I went to Indian Wells for a few days and saw Xavier Malisse play doubles. His shotmaking ability is amazing ... unbelievable at times. I'm wondering what has kept him from being consistently ranked in the top 10? The only thing I noticed is that he seemed a bit less than fit, so perhaps his fitness comes into play. --Ray, Redondo Beach, Calif.

• Malisse's talent has never been in doubt. Neither has his shotmaking. For a good decade now -- remember he was a few games from reaching the 2002 Wimbledon final! -- he's been one of the more naturally gifted players in the sport. The questions have always been about his temperament and his mental ability. This video was a classic a few years back. Given his abundant talent, I think there's a temptation to view Malisse as an underachiever. But I give him credit for tenacity. His ranking has been all over the place, but he's hung in there, whether that's entailed playing Challengers or groveling in the qualies. Here is he today, in his early 30s, still playing top 50 ball and winning the odd doubles title.

Federer's 300 ranking points for Dubai are not being counted towards his ranking. Do you know why? He has a bunch of zeroes in the ATP 500 list, why not replace one of those zero scores? --Jim Knepper, Melbourne, Fla.

• Says Sharko: 500 zero-pointers stay in the ranking for 12 months. As soon as one of those come off, Dubai will go in its place and 300 points will be added ... Top 30 commitment players are required to play four 500 events in a calendar year, of which one is to be played after the U.S. Open.

Roger Federer only played one 500 event last year and therefore received three "zero-pointers" (i.e. ranking penalties). These zero-pointers will stay on his ranking for 52 weeks. He therefore can only count one 500 event until these zero pointers start dropping. This is why Federer currently has three zeroes listed in his points breakdown and 2010 Basel (500 points) which is better than the 300 points he received from 2011 Dubai .

As soon as 2010 Hamburg drops, 2011 Dubai will take its place.

For the past few weeks, I've been wondering about the Hall of Fame. Of the active men, who's in and who's out if they retire right now? Fed and Rafa are no-brainers. Hewitt -- "only" two majors, but youngest No. 1 player and 80 weeks at the top. It's hard to argue against that. But what about Roddick, Ferrero and Djokovic? The first two have been No. 1 (briefly) but just one major each. Djokovic now has two but has never ascended to the top ranking. One must also consider his role as a pioneer for Serbian tennis. Thoughts? Who else might be a HOF contender? --Dawn Rhodes, Denver, Colo.

• Before we get to Dawn's question, spearheaded by the excellent Tennis Channel documentary, there's a movement afoot to get Vitas Gerulaitis inducted into the HOF. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Given the precedent, I think Dawn's list is too short. If time stopped today who's in? Federer and Nadal are no brainers. Djokovic gets the nod by virtue of his two Slams, his various wins against "Federal," his Davis Cup heroics and camp's daring fashion statements. Roddick would get my vote. One Slam is shaky but it's offset by the lengthy top 10 tenancy, the Wimbledon success and the Davis Cup loyalty. Hewitt gets my (admittedly grudging) vote due to his on-court contributions. JMDP isn't there yet, but he's on his way. Others? The Bryans in the doubles wing. Maybe Nestor too. Maybe next week we'll do the women.

Serena Williams tells us her mental age is still 15.., Marion Bartoli announces her IQ is 175. Have the Williams become humble? Did the French become smug? Do we blame this on the "supermoon," or what is going on? --D.P., London

• I'm thinking maybe Bartoli's figures underwent some sort of Eurozone conversion rate. My favorite part was the set-up:

"I did a test when I was younger, but I'm not really someone that is really telling everyone, 'Oh, I'm so smart.' I'm kind of hiding it."

And she's still not as smart as this dude from -- you guessed it -- Indiana.

• Lauren of Chicago, Ill.: "In regard to the question a couple of weeks ago about top 10 players competing in Challenger events: Andy Roddick, then No. 3, played doubles with Ginepri at the 2007 Surbiton Challenger. I only remember because they lost in the first round and Roddick was fined for not for doing an interview. Are there any other more recent examples of top 10 players competing in challenger doubles draws?"

• Helen of Philadelphia: "Was I hallucinating, or was that really Jo-Wilfried Tsonga wearing a visor??!!?"

• Shayne of Louisville: "Like Leonard from Burlington, I am also fascinated by the small details of tennis. To follow up on his letter about players shaking hands with the umpire, I always found it awkward when they lean so far forward from so high up. Honestly, it's got to be difficult to execute a firm handshake from that position anyway? I'm waiting for one of them to actually fall out on to the court (are there seat belts in those chairs?) My thought: the cordial thing to do would be for the umpire to step down from the perch right after match point, stand by the net, offer a handshake while looking eye to eye with the players."

• When tennis and music meet.

• When tennis and art meet.

• Wow.... RT @ivokarlovic: Omg. Hide yo kids, hide yo wife and hide yo husband RT @serenawilliams I'm hungry

• Continuing our stats discussion: Check out this site (and iPhone app).

• Non-Spanish or Serbian readers: You think YOUR country has tennis issues: Roger Draper must go! Mike Dickson kills the LTA.

• J. Charles of Pennsylvania kicking analytics: "I just had to run the numbers on this streak by Djokovic. We all know he is up to 20 matches in a row, but I needed to know just how hot he is right now. I just could not remember another player handing out this many bagels, and so I decided to put my actuarial expertise to work and crunch some numbers. I remember Federer was red-hot going into the year-end championships in 2005: 35-match win streak sandwiched between a loss in the French Open final to Nadal, and a loss in the year-end championships final to Nalbandian. So I decided this would be a good benchmark to use. I got all my information off the ATP website, and all I had to do was some simple addition and division. My initial instinct was confirmed: Novak has handed out seven bagels over the course of 20 matches, and in 2005 Roger had 3 in 35 matches. In 2005 Federer was giving up, on average, 4.3 games per set (that means many sets were 6-4 and 7-5) but was winning 88.2% of all set played. Novak is winning slightly fewer sets, at 87.2%, but is only dropping 2.9 games per set, about 2/3 Federer's number. This is a statistically significant difference, and means that Novak is breezing through the average match 6-3, 6-3. Don't know that I have the time or numbers to compare ND to some other streaks of earlier eras, but I am guessing it matches up pretty well."

• Ivan H. of New York has "a jolly and hairy long-lost pair of siblings" for us: Mark Rosset and Paul Giamatti.

Have a great week everyone!

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