• 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 ...
• Very interesting. This pertains to
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.
• 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, 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.
• 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.
• Love that idea. Let's see if anyone has the stones/ovaries to try it.
• 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.
• 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.)
• 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.
• Embarrassed to say I can't recall that column. Only this:
Basically, you can't go wrong, but offhand, I would say:
1) Take the Metro or rent a bike; don't bother with cabs.
• 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.
• 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
• Brandom Moglen writes: Ever wonder how your sad, middle-aged abilities would stack up against a truly world class athlete?
• Question: Did Dunlop pay for
• For the fifth time in six years, readers of the leading online tennis travel website TennisResortsOnline.com 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
• 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
• This week's unsolicited book recommendation:
• Nice to see Sekou Bangoura Jr. reaching the doubles final in Savannah.
• 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:
• 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:
• So does Kevin of San Francisco: On the heels of his performance last week, I'd like to nominate