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Mailbag: There's still time for Donald Young to fulfill promise

Recovering from a few days in Iceland. And now feeling like I don't need to visit the moon ...

Jon, you've been a big supporter of Donald Young's though the years, while never pulling any punches as to why he hasn't broken through to the top tier of players -- or the middle tier, for that matter. So, I need to know: What do you say about the latest drama coming from Young?--Phil O'Donoghue, Florence, Mass.

• It was shaping up as a quiet week in Tennis Land and then Donald Young hit the "compose" button on his Twitter account. He ripped up the USTA and, well, let's just say the content would merit a point penalty. The USTA tends to shake off the most bracing criticism. But Pat McEnroe saw fit to hold a conference call during which he defended his troops and did what was probably superfluous, enumerating the help the USTA has given Young and outlining just how misguided Young is/was in his sentiments. This feud had been building for years. It just erupted in an ugly public way last week.

A few thoughts here: Ordinarily an outspoken individual fighting the big, bad institution would be a case study in good and evil. Add in the element of race -- and only the most naïve among us don't think that race is bubbling just below the surface here -- and sentiment slides still further to the underdog. But in this case, Young is in the wrong and the USTA is in the right. He has been given every possible advantage, short of a bye to the U.S. Open final, starting when he was barely a teenager. Money, coaching, wild cards, gear, hype ... you name it. The USTA has openly pulled for this kid. And why wouldn't they? He was precisely the type of player American tennis could dine out on for years. A crafty lefty with borderline world-class speed? A junior Wimbledon champ? A kid with a look and sensibilities that, if we're being honest here, could have exposed the sport to an entirely new demographic.

While "bust" is too harsh, for a variety of reasons, Young has not panned out. As Bruce Jenkins pointed out yesterday, his win-loss percentage is abysmal. Physically, he did not grow as hoped, leaving him susceptible to heavy hitters. He relies on footspeed rather than footwork. He caught a few bad breaks with injuries.

But most of all, he's self-sabotaged. He feasted on wild cards even when he would've been better served playing qualies. He declined to replace his parents with more experienced coaches. His attitude on the court often left plenty to be desired. He burned through agents. His native talent outstripped his professionalism. In 2009, Young spent a few days with a highly regarded coach. There was great hope this figure turn around Young's career and convince him that his parents, while admirably supportive and understandably protective, were not the right people to guide his career and elevate his tennis game. After a few days, the coach shook his head, telling intermediaries, "I can't be with someone who has no idea how to work."

This recent temper tantrum says it all about what is, at best, delusions of grandeur ("irrational confidence" as Bill Simmons calls it), and what is at worst a terrible sense of entitlement. You're a former junior champion who's struggled with the transition to the Big Boys' game. You've been given more speculative wild cards than any player in recent memory. Management companies gave you six-figure advances. Nike signed on early. For all those advantages, your ranking is insufficiently high to merit main draw eligibility to the French Open. Somehow when officials ask to you to earn your spot -- and you fail to do so, losing to player ranked No. 179 -- the USTA is "screwing" you?

Is there a race component to this? Absolutely. Did the USTA help create this situation, lavishing too much on the kid? Perhaps. Will Young turn around in 10 years and betray some bitterness toward his parents? Probably. Are his parents well within their rights to be wary of the USTA and the motives of Nike, IMG, and the rest of the "victims" here? Yes.

Lost in the discussion: the kid is 21. Young is young. His career has not gone as planned. But he's not washed up either. Part of what makes this particularly unfortunate -- and surely part of Young's frustration -- stems from the fact that there were recent signs of progress. Without a handout, he qualified on his own for Australian Open, blazing through the draw. He knocked off Andy Murray at Indian Wells, the biggest win of his career. He had won a Challenger. Now this.

He still has top-50 talent. This doesn't have to have to be a cautionary tale. But it's now clear that if Young fulfills some of his promise, it will be on his own. And if he fails it will be on his own. The sooner he takes some ownership of his career, the better. And if he never reactivates is Twitter account, well, that would OK, too.

To sum up The Mighty Federer of 2011: "As someone who has loved many, many athletes, and watched them get old and never imagining another would come along ... I'm so touched by the joys and sadness of the passing of time."--Sahana, Bangalore, India

• Yet again, the decline of Federer was the hot topic this week. And the poor guy didn't even play a match. I'm not sure what more we add here, but I encourage those in mourning to try and enjoy the present a bit more. His level has dropped, no question. But this merely puts him in the "mortal" category. If the beer isn't flowing as it once did, neither is the keg totally tapped. His screen may not blaze, but neither has he powered down. OK, we'll stop now. Point is: Federer set an unsustainable standard that -- predictably -- he is failing to sustain.

I have to say that I'm really struck by how profoundly many of you are taking this decline. "Roger Federer as Religious Experience" wasn't, perhaps, such a fanciful title after all ...

While it's not Willie Mays in center field for the Mets, seeing Federer's decline is a little bit hard to watch. His confidence in himself seems to be his undoing as he has never been willing to change his backhand to counter Nadal nor his racket to keep pace with younger competitors. But lest we think unwillingness to change is a hallmark of the truly elite, we can look at Tiger Woods who has always been willing to change his swing to try and improve. Ironically, his critics claim he is changing too much and now he seems desperate. Can we just agree that all athletes in all sports invariably reach a peak and then trend downwards. Are we looking too hard here for a specific diagnosis?--Neil Grammer, Toronto

• Feel free to disagree with me here, but I think a golf-tennis comparison fails us here. For one, it's a lot easier to remodel your game when there isn't a head-to-head opponent. If Federer were simply taking target practice, he could experiment with a two-handed backhand or an extreme western grip. When he must counter specific opponents -- such as one capable of generating absurd lefty spins that bounce nose-high on the backhand side -- it's a rather different exercise. This is about so much more than technique and confidence and no three-putting.

So Wozniacki is No. 1, and to be fair, she seems the best around these days. But forgetting about advances in fitness, diet, training, rackets, etc., who on their normal day would beat her, playing exactly their game as they did in their day. I'm putting Graf, Seles, Capriati, Henin, Venus, Serena, Navratilova, Hingis, Pierce, Sharapova (pre shoulder op), Davenport. Am I being overly harsh, or is the WTA really so far behind where it was. Seriously, would Graf circa 1989 beat the best of today's current bunch?--Ian Turner, Hamilton, Bermuda

• I'm slowly trying to divest myself from the business of comparing eras. It's fun barstool conversation but, almost necessarily, it diminishes certain eras and certain players. I don't think Wozniacki does particularly well in the mythical tournament you have set up. But I do credit her for industriousness, commitment and an ability to withstand a daily barrage of criticism. One of you raised a good point: Instead of bagging on Wozniacki (and the ranking system) why is there no outrage for the other players who are letting this happen. If Wozniacki is such a defensive blah, shouldn't so many players be thumping her?

I'd like to say a word in favor of the U.S. Open Series. I admit that it is a big fail as it concerns the draw of top 10 talent. As a fan, it succeeds in giving me regularly scheduled matches that actually appear on channels I can watch. I can get my tennis on and get into a groove. I am grateful for that. I don't really care who wins the money -- I just want to be able to see the tennis.--Rodney, New York

• Agree. I have no issue with the U.S. Open Series, for the television packaging alone. My issue is with the bonus money. The USTA has done a fine job in recent years showing that it's not a clueless country club after all, that there is some fiscal sanity and some loyalty to its non-profit aims. For the life of me, I can't figure out why it continues to dispense this bonus money that comes with zero discernible return on investment.

I don't suppose tennis would ever institute an "excessive celebration" rule like we have in football and other sports? Not really talking about things like the Petko-dance, I'm more concerned about the come ons and allezs that litter matches even after seemingly insignificant points. Don't even get me started on that certain player who can't go a point without adje.--Robert Kelso, Los Angeles, Calif.

• I could see the WTA taking a stand against excessive grunting. (Actually, I can't, really. Because that might mean confronting the top players and their agents. But at least it's in the realm of possibility as public opinion continues to rate so poorly.) But cracking down on "excessive celebration" would be "excessive legislation." Never mind the enforcement hassles. It would just be tough to tough to determine what's organic self-exhorting and what's gloating. Other points: 1) I don't altogether mind the fist pumps and "Adje chorus" as it reinforces that tennis is hard work (not a leisurely pursuit), that these are engaged and invested athletes (not country club dweebs and dweebettes); 2) The dancing and ululations add color and enable players to express personality, which is seldom a bad thing; 3) Unlike grunting, these displays are occurring when the ball is no longer in play. Part of what makes Azarenka and Sharapova's noise so distasteful -- apart from the leaf-blower volume levels -- is the fact that it's going on during the point!

I understand that Petkovic means well with her dance moves but does she realize that her on-court victory celebration dance might have created an added motivation for her rivals to dig deep to avoid the unintended rub in the face? If I'm an opponent, I'd YouTube her dance moves the night before and pump myself up to work my hardest to avoid the agony of defeat.--Ryan Garrity, Boston, Mass.

• Again, it comes from a place of joy and even self-deprecation. But, yes, if I've just lost a match and my opponent is doing this Running Man cognate, I'm not thinking it's all that cool. I was under the impression that the dance routine was officially kaput as of Miami.

Living in Austin, I have the opportunity to attend lots of high-level collegiate tennis. Hook 'Em Horns! During the course of this season, I've noticed a dramatic increase in players yelling "come on!" after every point they win. There have been some matches in which it becomes quite clear each player is attempting to out "come on!" their opponent. I find this just as annoying as all the shrieking in the Sony Ericsson women's final. Do we have Nadal and Sharapova to thank for this?--Will, Austin, Texas

• I'm thinking we should extend this to all other pursuits in life. Successfully program the DVR? "Ah-jay!" Get the upgrade on Continental? Why not do a little dance, you know, the one your coached dared you to do? Find a seat on the subway while others stand? It will endear you to yell, "This is my house!"

Read and enjoyed Scorecasting. All the football stuff was fascinating but I was trying to find tennis parallels. Apart from the somewhat obvious serve strategy -- Should for example John Isner always only hit first serves, given my somewhat uncharitable view that his ground strokes are quite unremarkable? -- but I couldn't come up with anything obvious. Did you and Professor Moskowitz have any that almost made the cut?--Dushyant, Sunnyvale, Calif.

• Thanks a lot. "Professor Moskowitz" was my doubles partner in Indiana in juniors and he loves the sport as well. We wanted desperately to write about tennis. But the data, sadly, just wasn't there. Even a question so basic as: Is it wiser to chose to return on surface X versus surface Y wasn't "gettable." (My hunch: especially for women on clay, if you win the pre-match coin flip, you're better returning than serving.)

I like your question. As we discussed a few months ago, if you win a sufficiently high percent of your first serve points (and get your first serve in at a sufficiently high rate) you might be better off hitting all "first" serves. You might want to try and control for the lack of surprise factor -- and the attendant damage to your serving arm! -- but, sure, a player the likes of Isner might be better off trying to hit 145 m.p.h. bombs every time!

There are a number of studies contending that women are more risk-averse in competitive situations, be it on game shows or financial investing. Given that tennis is one of the few sports in men and women compete under analagous circumstances, I'd be interested to know if this holds up in match play. It wouldn't be perfect, but I'd like to look at data and see if points played at 4-4 in the third on the ATP differ dramatically from points at the same juncture on the WTA. How close to players come to hitting the lines on average? How dramatically does this change based on the score? But of course none of this data can be mined.

In a Hopman Cup where each country can use its best male and female player at his/her peak from anytime in the Open Era, who would win? (And with which players?)--Patrick, Washington, D.C.

• Good question. Surface obviously plays a role. Assuming I'm reading your question right, you could make a case for several countries. Becker and Graf on the German team. Nadal and Sanchez Vicario. Federer and Hingis. Kinda sorta Laver and Court. But without being too much of a homer, isn't it hard to pick against the U.S. with Sampras and Serena? Connors and Navratilova? Agassi and Evert? Lord knows U.S. tennis isn't at a high-water mark right now. At least let us gloat in the past for a few seconds ...

I saw that Juan Carlos Ferrero is back on the court and made it to the quarterfinals in Barcelona. Do you see the former French Open champion doing any damage during the clay court season?--Aaron, Illinois

• If JCF is going to make some noise, do some damage or even rattle some cages -- whoa, sorry, I just morphed into Brad Gilbert; must be the jetlag -- it will be on clay. But realistically, his best days on behind him and if he makes the second week of the French Open, it will be an achievement. There are a number of players in this category. You're too good -- and, presumably, still enjoy your craft too much -- to quit. Yet your skills have gone into a state of irretrievable decline. (Throw Lleyton Hewitt in here, too, by the way.) In other sports, you adapt to a lesser role and hope your team can win a championship. Countless of examples here, but think about a Cody Ross or a Mike Bibby or a Charles Woodson. It's so much tougher in an individual sport. We'll say it once, we'll say it again: rough line of work, this tennis.

Lots of responses re: last week's question about wind:

Ruffin Graham of Pepper Pike, Ohio: "In response to Shayne from Louisville: in March or April 1974, a semifinal match betweeen Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe in a WCT tournament in California (perhaps Indian Wells) was called because of excessively windy conditions. The story is recounted in Ashe's Portrait in Motion with co-author Frank Deford. Ashe recalled, "It was so windy that literally neither Laver nor I could throw up the ball to serve." Laver won the match which was resumed the following day. And don't forget the 2004 U.S. Open mean's quarterfinal between Agassi and Federer. Although the match was not called, Agassi (a good wind player) said after the match the wind was so bad that "I didn't care if I hit the ball to Roger's forehand" [i.e. he was happy just to find the court].

Matt of Victoria, B.C.: "In this week's Mailbag, Shayne from Louisville asked a question about maximum allowable wind speed. I've got nothing for you about rules or regulations, but the question brought to mind one of David Foster Wallace's tennis essays, "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes," which could be an amusing read for any of your readers who have soldiered on through blustery conditions. For the relevant bits, they could skip forward to the section on the third page that begins with "Unless you're just a mutant ..." (Those of a prudish bent should be forewarned: the online article has the original Harper's ads, some of which have partial nudity or are otherwise a little suggestive!)

Rick of Albuquerque: "In response to Shayne's question about wind conditions: here in Albuquerque (VERY windy in the spring), USTA regs say that if there are sustained winds of 30 m.p.h., a match may be suspended. I think 40 m.p.h. is a mandatory cancellation. That said, it is sometimes fun for us to play in the wind against visiting teams. Our own version of the Green Monster."

• Readers in the Stanford community, I'll be kicking off the SIEPR Sports, Economics and Policy forum this Friday. Feel free to stop by.

• Consider this another mandate to read Matt Cronin's Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.

• Liam Broady, who turned 17 in January, won his first title of the year at the Open International Juniors Beaulieu sur Mer in France by defeating Maciej Smola of Poland, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4. Broady, the fourth seed in the ITF G1 event, is currently ranked No. 26 on the ITF Junior World Rankings and is one of the youngest in the top 50. He is also the youngest player in the top 800 on the ATP Tour, where he is currently ranked No. 749.

• Irina Falconi of Atlanta and Tim (Don't call me Dan) Smyczek of Milwaukee won the 2011 USTA French Open Wild Card Playoffs on Friday at the Boca West Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla., to earn main draw wild cards into the 2011 French Open. Falconi, 20, beat Julia Boserup of Newport Beach, Calif., 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-3, while Smyczek, 23, a new Dunlop endorsor, beat Donald Young of Atlanta, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-3, ­­­6-2, in a best-of-five set final. The USTA and the French Tennis Federation have a reciprocal agreement in which men's and women's singles main draw wild cards into the 2011 French Open and the 2011 U.S. Open are exchanged.

• University of Illinois senior Annie McCarthy and Carlos Hernandez of the University of Texas have been selected as the 2011 Wilson/Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Promoter of the Year Award winners, the ITA announced.

• The good folks at Dunlop noted this: How to photograph tennis.

• Reader Paul Hage-Chahine notes: "I was present at the Atlantis (Bahamas) for the Sharapova-Dulko's event on April 16. There was a kids' clinic in the morning, and an exhibition match on the afternoon on green clay, won by Maria, 6-3, 6-1. Maybe could you propose those links below to your Mailbag's readers: the match and the clinic."

• Just to be clear, last week's lawsuit pertained to the USPTA, not the USTA. The USTA legal department has its hands full with the Davis Cup court selection dispute.

• We thank Helen of Philly for this link: "Interesting article, especially the mention of tennis falling into disrepute due to 'gambling and cheating.' Note the date."

• Ivan H. of New York, N.Y. offers up Long Lost Siblings: Eric Butorac and musician Beck.

Have a great week, everyone!

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