Wednesday May 11th, 2011

Assuming that Novak Djokovic is not doping, what else would explain his meteoric rise (yes, even from No. 3 to No. 2 is a huge bump up)? -- Seth Aaronson, New York

• First, a paragraph about Djokovic: In the past few years, we've been lucky enough to witness the dominance of Roger Federer and the dominance of Rafael Nadal. And we thought that was an embarrassment of riches. How is it possible that we're now witnessing a THIRD player who turns in a stretch of sustained excellence? We're now approaching six months of tennis without a defeat. And beyond the raw footage, there's the issue of quality. Djokovic is winning indoors and outdoors, on hard courts and now on clay, winning handily and winning with guts. He's strumming his backhand and returning better than anyone perhaps since Andre Agassi. He has a sort of "error anorexia," going games and games without missing a ball. But what might be most impressive is that his game is thoroughly free of weakness. How do you beat this guy? You can't trade sorties from the baseline. You're not likely to serve him off the court. His fitness, so shaky in the past, hasn't betrayed him. A lot of questions will be answered in Paris, but right now, he is playing at a level that must scare the rest of the field.

What explains his meteoric rise? He'll say nutrition and confidence. Others will point to his fitness. He's comfortable with his gear (see below). Clearly, he grew emotionally. As sports fans we tend to be uncomfortable with randomness. We love explanations and analysis. But maybe it was simply his time.

Predictably, many of you hinted (or worse) at doping. Just as you did when Nadal amped up his serve and won the U.S. Open. Or when Serena Williams muscled her way to a Wimbledon title. Or when Francesca Schiavone won the French Open in the sunset years of her career. Sadly, this is the state of sports. Having been burned in the past, many are unwilling to accept the idea of sheer excellence or natural improvement. And the athletes blaming cynical fans and cynical media for this environment would do better to direct their outrage at Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, the countless Tour de France riders, the Greek power lifter, Chael Sonnen, etc., who have breached our trust. This is their legacy.

All athletes have a choice of cheating or not cheating. But it seems to me sports fans have a choice to make, too. How skeptical do you want to be? Do you look askance at every achievement, every surge, anyone with a sculpted physique? Or do you give athletes the benefit of the doubt and accept the careers can progress naturally? Your call.

Consider this a segue to ...

It's a rare occurrence, but you wrote something that I strongly disagree with, and I think it's worth presenting the other side. I don't think players are upset about Wayne Odesnik giving up names, etc., to get his sentence reduced as you indicated when you said, "the players, not surprisingly, consider this a breach of loyalty." The players have been lined up against the guy from the second news of his arrest broke last spring. To me it's fascinating to see the relative blind eye of the other players to doping situations in football and baseball. In tennis, the dopers are treated almost as lepers. Guys are not bashful about it, either. Wayne's a different guy and has never fit in among the American players, so I'm not sure the bile would be free flowing if this crime was committed by "one of the guys."

But it's been pretty much across the board anti-Wayne from the second this news broke. Same for other players over the years who were nailed for performance-enhancing doping issues (remember, Richard Gasquet wasn't a performance-enhancing issue, but all Argentine players, on the other hand, went for a number of years with a shadow over them in the locker room due to the actions of a few of their countrymen). I don't think players wanted Wayne to get off with a reduced sentence because they view his crime as very offensive to their group as a whole. To a certain extent, the strong anti-doping response from the rank and file in this instance is something that should give tennis fans cause to believe their sport is prideful of being clean. Excuse me while I step off my soap box ... -- Anonymous

• Very interesting. This pertains to Monday's Best of Five. The reader has asked to be anonymous, but, suffice to say, he is impeccably positioned to make these claims. As I understand it, his point is essentially this: Odesnik was a pariah once he was busted, not once he accepted a reduced sentence in exchange for "ratting" out colleagues*.

I think there's no question that there's less solidarity among tennis players on this issue. A baseball player is accused of using steroids and teammates AND opponents rush to his defense or, at a minimum, remain silent. It's the code. Manny Ramirez -- who failed MULTIPLE tests AFTER the 2006 reforms! -- could walk in any clubhouse tomorrow and still get a warm reception. Same in other sports. NFL players such as Shawne Merriman or Brian Cushing -- both of whom failed tests -- are not, far as I know, being vilified openly by other players.

In tennis, as the anonymous reader notes, most dopers are "lepers." And others in their orbit sometimes face guilt by association. Why is this? I think the dynamic is different in an individual sport. Sure, the juiced-up home-run hitters "stole" from the clean pitchers and veterans on HGH took roster spots from clean rookies. But it was less direct. In the mano-a-mano arena of tennis, a doper is really perceived to be taking food off the table of an honest opponent.

You could say, as an institution, tennis takes pride in being clean and thus doesn't take well to athletes who sully the sport and compete dishonestly. And I think this is generally the case. (True, the cynic could just as easily argue that tennis is dirty, and when an Odesnik is sloppy enough to get caught, he imperils many.)

In talking to other players, though, I know Odesnik's plea deal did not go over well. The notion of saving your skin in exchange for selling out others may occur daily in the criminal justice system. But it's no way to endear yourself to colleagues.

Whatever the case, this is clear: Odesnik might be back in the sport. But he's a long way from clearing his name.

*I'm getting this secondhand obviously, but I'm told that Odesnik's deal was not to name names, so much as it was to explain channels of distribution and how interested players would go about obtaining banned substances like HGH if they were so inclined.

The WTA must do something about the women's grunting/screaming/screeching. As a person who wears hearing aids, I literally had to leave a Victoria Azarenka match at Key Biscayne---the volunteers tried to stop me at the gate, saying my leaving was disrupting the players. As I told them then, the disruption was all coming from a young woman who has crossed a line that Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova never did.

We are driving people away from tennis with this type of behavior. Whose job is it to stand up and say "enough?" I, an ardent fan, won't even watch women's matches. Can't someone find a difference between Nole or Rafa or Serena expressing effort in the third set of a well-fought match and what's happening with this young woman from Belarus? -- John Gilliam, Miami Beach, Fla.

• Stacey Allaster, please pick up the nearest red courtesy phone. The volume (pardon the pun) of your mail continues to overwhelm. It's probably time for the WTA to take a page out of the NBA's book and come out with a statement one way or the other. "Though we respect and appreciate our fans' opinions, we have deemed this to be unenforceable and part of the sport, a byproduct of the players' exertion." Or, "We respect and appreciate our fans' opinions and will be encouraging players to suppress their inner banshees, and we will begin penalizing players accordingly for infractions." Something to acknowledge this issue is resonating and echoing (again, with the puns) so unhappily with so many of the customers.

This isn't really a question but just a response to the grunting issue. I don't think that grunting is unsportsmanlike rather that it is just annoying for fans to watch. I can't stand watching grunting and as attractive a person as someone like Maria Sharapova is, I still change the channel because I can't bear to watch. It's not exclusive to the WTA either. Is there any chance that grunting could be banned from the sport? I mean, if the best player of all time (possibly) in Roger Federer doesn't make a peep then how necessary is it? -- Chris, Vancouver

• This, of course, is the great mystery of grunting. Somehow Andy Roddick can hit a 145-mph serve without much auditory enhancement. Roger Federer soundlessly can work his magic. Yet a middle-of-the-court backhand, and Azarenka approximates the sound of someone giving birth while being waterboarded.

My daughter plays a lot of junior tournaments, and now I'm starting to notice a new form of grunting on the boys and girls side. The player is making a sound that sounds like "oww" so now you are left to wonder whether the call is indeed "out" or just a grunt "oww." I tell my daughter just keep playing the point until they confirm the "out" call. -- Manorville, N.Y.

• Yuck. The problem with a lot of regrettable behavior in sports is that it floats both upstream and downstream. In some cases, the pros do it, so the kids watching at home emulate their heroes and heroines. In other cases, the anti-social behavior -- baseball players spitting, trash talk, chop blocks -- start young, so when the athletes evolve into pros, the behavior has hardened into habit.

Re: the grunting issue in the WTA -- imagine this situation -- a non-grunter or a low-volume grunter, say Kim Clijsters, is comfortably in the lead against a shrieker like Azarenka. Clijsters is teeing up for a shot and Azarenka is yelling her head off already. Clijsters suddenly stops mid-point and calls her out on it -- at the risk of losing the point. Does this a couple of times in the match. Do you think such borderline humiliation might work? -- Nitin, Hyderabad, India

• Love that idea. Let's see if anyone has the stones/ovaries to try it.

I know a LOT (more emphasis needed than my keyboard can provide) would have to go right, and she would have to up her game significantly in the next two weeks, but do you think Maria Sharapova is at home thinking this might be the only real chance she has to win the French Open? -- Psquared, San Diego, Calif.

• No question, the field is a gaping, yawning chasm right now, if you will (and I know you will). But I am really struggling to imagine a scenario in which Sharapova wins seven straight matches on clay. Wimbledon? That's another story.

That some people would even consider playing taps for Federer's career is patently absurd. Taps for him dominating the tour maybe. People stated that Federer hadn't beaten a top-10 player this year, even though he hadn't played a top-10 player outside Nadal and Djokovic until Madrid -- where he beat Robin Soderling, who is No. 5 quite handily. You say that Federer in his prime wouldn't have found himself match point down against someone like Feliciano Lopez, yet in his "prime" he lost two straight times to Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells and Miami. Both Masters 1000 events. Did you forget that?

And in the year Federer finally won the French Open, he was down two sets to one against Tommy Haas, an excellent but not great player, when a courageous inside-out forehand saved the day. He was also down two sets to one in that tournament against Juan Martin del Potro, who wasn't what he is now. Why do you have such selective memory when it comes to Federer? -- Bill, New York

• Selective memory? Dude, I'm on your side here. We've been saying for months that the death knell on Federer's career is both disrespectful and, more importantly, way premature. There's still some magic left in the wand, as the first set of the Madrid semifinal indicated. Sure, a lot would have to go right for Federer to win another major. But a lot CAN go right. (As long as we're picking nits, I would hardly call the spring of 2008 Federer's "prime." He lost to Djokovic in Australia, twice to Canas, got blown out by Nadal in Paris and lost the classic at Wimbledon. Of course, he then rallied to win the U.S. Open.)

At Roland Garros last year, I called my friends over to watch Djokovic practicing on an outer court. Eventually we realized it wasn't Djokovic (in our defense, we weren't very close to the court and he had just finished hitting). After returning home, I figured out it was actually Thomaz Bellucci. So my friends and I now call him "FauxDjo." Fun to see him give the real Djo a run for his money this weekend, and on TV at least, it wasn't always easy to tell who was who. -- Helen, Philadelphia

• Nice. As you note, a year later FauxDjo has some MoDjo. If Bellucci is the fourth semifinalist -- assuming cooperation from the draw gods -- it wouldn't be a surprise.

Faithful mailbag reader here, and I have a question that may not be a true mailbag question. I want to search the mailbag archives but can't seem to find a link. I'm attending the French Open for the first time this year, and I seem to remember you doing a piece on French Open tickets (buy online or stand in line?), local restaurants, etc., but can't remember when it appeared -- please help. -- T. Evans, Warrenton, N.C.

• Embarrassed to say I can't recall that column. Only this:

I've wisely waited until the week of Roland Garros to ask this (it's a work thing -- I work for Citi; we waited until November 2007 to get out of the subprime market): Any suggestions on food at or near the grounds? Eating in Paris in general is pretty easy, but I've never been to the hallowed grounds or its environs. -- J.T., Dusseldorf, Germany

Thanks. That was a good laugh on the subprime line. Finding a good meal in Paris is a bit like asking where one gets a card game in Vegas. But the actual on-site concessions always struck me as disappointing. I would recommend buying some food to go at any of the cute shops and restaurants near the Porte d'Auteuil Metro station. After the matches, I sometimes go to Chez Clement, which I suspect is the Parisian equivalent to Applebee's, but it always works for me. If you're willing to venture off the grounds, here's a good spot. Bonus: one often waits in line alongside players.

Basically, you can't go wrong, but offhand, I would say:

1) Take the Metro or rent a bike; don't bother with cabs. 2) As always, scout out the practice courts. 3) Spend a half-hour just walking the grounds. 4) Marvel at a sporting event with on-site newsstands, an Al-Jazeera sponsor tent and a row of orange trees all within a few meters. 5) Remember how far north you are and that the sun may not set until well after 9 p.m.

Hey Jon: I'm a Federer fan (who isn't?) and would love to see him extend his Slam record, so if changing racket size can help then I'm all for it. However I seem to recall that Djokovic's game suffered badly for a year or two when he switched to Head, and I wondered whether this was a common problem. I'd also be interested to see a breakdown of say the top 50 ATP players' racket sizes, and string tensions for that matter. -- Bart, Johannesburg, South Africa

• This is a great untold story. Djokovic wins the 2008 Australian Open and appears poised for world domination. It takes him a full three years to return to the winner's circle. Part of this is testament to Nadal and Federer. Part of this owed to niggling injuries, the kind that don't keep you from playing but deprive you of that essential 10 percent. But part of it was the gear. Djokovic switched rackets and shoes during that interim and had problems with both. If you sign with brand X, you can't then malign the product. But word got out. So your point is well-taken. I would contend, though, that switching BRANDS (as Djokovic did) is different from switching models within the same brand. It's easier to make the switch, and there aren't the same commercial pressures.

It seems that there is major crowding of the biggest events. Indian Wells and Miami are back to back, Madrid and Rome are back to back. Wouldn't it make more sense to spread these events apart more? If they really want the top players to show up to each mandatory tournament and play well, shouldn't they not hold them in consecutive weeks? Or do the players prefer it this way? -- Lucas DeForest, North Attleboro, Mass.

• Agree there's crowding, but I think it works pretty well. You have these surges and these buildups to the majors. I think the real problem with the calendar -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of tennis, a never-ending conundrum -- is what happens after the U.S. Open. There are a full two months of dreary indoor events that don't really build to much.

• In case you missed it, here's the Shot of the Year.

Note book No. 7.

• Brandom Moglen writes: Ever wonder how your sad, middle-aged abilities would stack up against a truly world class athlete? Here I find out during my second quest for the U.S. Open.

• Question: Did Dunlop pay for this product placement?

• For the fifth time in six years, readers of the leading online tennis travel website has named Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort as the No. 1 tennis resort in the world and ranked it No. 1 in instruction and programs.

• Congrats to Cliff Drysdale, who opened a tennis school at Red Ledges, a four-season recreational community located just minutes from Park City, Utah.

• Before getting carried away with Djoko-mania, the great Bud Collins was quick to point out that 34 wins is well and good. But Bill Tilden once strung together 98.

• To get you in the spirit for the French.

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: Steve Tignor's "High Strung."

• Nice to see Sekou Bangoura Jr. reaching the doubles final in Savannah. Spent a day with him when he was 14 or so. (If you read this, note the reference to "video iPods." Cringe. Next thing you know, the kids will be taking photos on their phones!)

• Bob and Mike Bryan won the Madrid doubles championships for the fourth time Sunday as they defeated sixth seeds Michael Llodra of France and Serbian Nenad Zimonjic.

• Anonymous reader: A very lengthy transcript but lots of good Q&As: Jim Courier and Agassi taking questions for the champions tour and many other issues as well (seems like Agassi is all ready to open another school in Philly).

• The U.S. quad wheelchair tennis team of Nick Taylor, 31, of Wichita, Kan., David Wagner, 37, of Hillsboro, Ore., and Bryan Barten, 37, of Tucson, Ariz., led the U.S. to the 2011 World Team Cup title, defeating Israel 2-1 in the final. The U.S. quad team defeated Israel in the World Team Cup final for the second consecutive year. It was also the team's seventh World Team Cup crown. The nation's top wheelchair tennis players competed against participants from around the globe, April 25-May 1, on the hard courts of the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

• Good to see Milos Raonic committing to play the Atlanta ATP event.

• The USTA announced the four coaches chosen to lead the 2011 USTA Men's and Women's Collegiate Teams, an elite training program for the top American collegiate tennis players that began in 1996 and is funded by the USTA. The program is designed to provide players with valuable exposure to the USTA Pro Circuit in a team-oriented environment during the year. Audra Cohen of the University of Wisconsin will join returning coach Jamea Jackson of Oklahoma State University to coach the women's team, while the University of Alabama's Bo Hodge, who also coached last year's team, will be joined by Notre Dame's Ryan Sachire in leading the men's team.

• The USTA announced that the U.S. Junior Fed Cup (16 and under) team and both the boys' and girls' World Junior Tennis teams (14 and under) won the North/Central America & Caribbean Regional Championships this past weekend to qualify for the 2011 World Finals. The Regional Championships were held in Merida, Mexico. All three teams went undefeated en route to win their qualifying pools, while the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team finished as the runner-up to Canada.

• Moles say: Keep an eye out for a young Aussie named Mark Verryth. Huge serve and forehand -- 6-foot-7, too.

• Eric Butorac of Rochester, Minn.: "Really Jon??? I look like Beck? You know I read your mailbags religiously too! Just kidding, always appreciate the shout-out."

• Dan Hagen of Houston has look alikes: Julia Goerges and Angie Harmon.

• So does Kevin of San Francisco: On the heels of his performance last week, I'd like to nominate Thomaz Bellucci and Milo Ventimiglia as long-lost siblings.

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