Wednesday August 17th, 2011

Don't forget: Andrea Petkovic is answering your questions this week, too.

Do you see fans (outside of Serbs) falling in love with Novak Djokovic the way they do with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal? Does Novak inspire the sense of a personal connection as much as the other two? -- Brandon, Chicago

• I think it's coming. He has charisma to burn and is comfortable with the "extra-tennis" duties/opportunities that come with being the sport's alpha figure. How many of you caught this appearance on Jay Leno's show?

Djokovic is having a killer year, but let's not forget that Federer won his first Grand Slam title in 2003 and has since won double-digit majors. Nadal broke in two years later and has also won double figures. Djokovic has three. Let's revisit in a year or so.

I agree with your criticism about how low-ranked players received wild cards at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. Shouldn't you expand your thoughts to include doing away with wild cards at the Grand Slams? I know some of the wild cards may go to a "quality" player who has been injured, semi-retired, on a final tour before retiring, etc., but some go to young players like the USTA boys' and girls' 18 winners. Why not put these people in the qualies and save the real spots for the pros who make a living from the tour? -- Jon Fischer, Ann Arbor, Mich.

• Agree. I get that tournaments need a device for departing from the rankings. The Copenhagen event, for instance, needs to get Caroline Wozniacki in the draw even if her ranking is insufficient. The Winston Salem event needs to get Andy Roddick in the draw even if he enters after the deadline. But, especially for Slams and high-stakes Masters Series events, it seems patently unfair to make authentic top-60 players qualify while local products with deep-triple-digit rankings get a free pass. How's this for a compromise: No wild cards can be given to players whose ranking is more than double the main-draw cutoff? Or: All Wild cards must be approved by an independent body?

A few of you knocked me for "blaming Canada," but let's be clear: This is an issue throughout tennis. Check out some of the Americans who get into the U.S. Open. Or note the IMG clients who get into the IMG-owned Key Biscayne event. This just flies in the face of fundamental fairness, especially for the players hailing from countries that are not fortunate enough to hold big-time events.

I understand your point regarding wild cards for host nations, and I know that you have made it before. But I'm not sure if you've ever dedicated so much space to it before. In the spirit of North American neighbo(u)rly respect, can you lay off Canada a bit? Why not focus this much attention to the issue at one of the majors in a nation with a similar dearth of talent, like England or Australia? Or at one of the dozens of American tournaments that hand out wild cards to the likes of Donald Young? This is the ONE week in the tennis calendar when Canada has a top-tier tournament. Cut us some slack to gift a few wild cards to some struggling players who won't get any favours the 51 other weeks during the year. -- Dave Seevaratnam, Toronto

• I brought it up last week mostly because the Canadian tournament director, to his credit, essentially said "enough is enough" and gave a spot to Ernests Gulbis over a hometown favorite ranked about 300 spots lower. We should note that the LTA did likewise and made several British prospects qualify for Wimbledon whereas in past years they would have been given main-draw wild cards. Again, apart from the national bias, you have management agency bias, too.

One of you wrote: "Why not do away with wild cards entirely?" I don't agree here. If Andre Agassi "unretired tomorrow" (hypothetically!), you need a way to get him in the draw. But the abuse needs to stop. The U.S., French and Australian Opens even have a "reciprocity policy" whereby one player from each nation gets in their Slams in exchange for a slot in the others. Not fair.

Pun as you like about Mardy Fish. Watching someone formerly known as "the rest of the field" train hard, play hard and otherwise raise his game to the limits of his talent demands a lot of respect. Fantasy maybe, but what a great headline "Fish lands the big one" would be here in a few weeks if he were to win the U.S. Open. -- Martin Burkey, Huntsville, Ala.

• Good point. Fish is still looking for that breakthrough -- and he admits as much -- be it a Masters title or a semifinal showing in a major. But total credit to a player who spent most of his career as an also-ran, a backup singer in the Andy Roddick Band, and then finally, in his late 20s, made some changes and broke out on his own. If I'm the coach of a struggling mid-career player, I point to Mardy Fish and say, "This is a guy to emulate."

Why are the two summer Masters Series events (Rogers Cup and Western & Southern Open) played back-to-back? I realize it might be tough to move a Grand Slam, but the summer hardcourt season lasts nearly two months. Surely there must be some play in the schedule. Just switch the Rogers Cup and the Legg Mason events. Presto! -- Tim, New York

• Not bad. The problem, I suppose, is the women. You're going to have them play in California, fly to Canada and then fly back to San Diego. But I like your idea. And much as we like mixed events, history tells us that back-to-back Masters events -- especially predating a Slam -- is a bad idea. I'm a bit surprised Djokovic is even playing this week. You just won in Canada, but had to work fairly hard. You're healthy, you got in some work on hardcourts. The fourth Slam, the bookend to your year, is a few weeks away. What, really, do you have to gain this week?

ESPN commentators Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver are obsessed with fist pumps. They whine and moan over their absence and exult in their abundance. They have attached an absurd amount of significance to what is basically an empty and meaningless gesture; a flicker of "in your face" and a flare of ego. For years, great players competed with passion, heart and soul without more than an occasional moment of theatricality, as opposed to the modern players who pump between heartbeats. At the Rogers Cup, Mary-Pam used the absence of fist pumps and shrieks as evidence of Serena Williams' flagging competitive spirit. Personally, I welcome this "new" Serena like money from home. Where do you stand on this? -- Bill Eaton, New York

• When I see a player fist-pump, I pump my own fist. Seriously, I didn't hear the discussion specific to Serena, but I have heard commentators make similar claims. What is an absence of demonstrable passion may also be a display of cool and poise. Conversely, what is a spasm of exuberance may also be a fugue of hotheadedness. No one will deny Roddick's passion the other night in Mason, Ohio, yet his outburst essentially cost him the first-round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber. To each their own. For all that ails tennis, the absence of gesticulating doesn't rank too high.

How, exactly, is American tennis dead with Mardy Fish, Serena Williams and the Bryan brothers all in their respective Rogers Cup finals? -- Deb, Milwaukee

• As they say here in the American heartland: Touche.

What's the deal with Tommy Haas' nationality? I know he basically grew up in the U.S. and recently became a U.S. citizen. However, he still seems to be listed as German whenever he plays. What are the rules regarding country representation? -- John, Boston

• I asked Patrick McEnroe about this at Wimbledon. He smiled and said (I paraphrase but not by much), "Let me know when you find out." We'll try to get an answer at the U.S. Open, but yes, for whatever reason, it appears as though he is back to playing for the German flag. Since this comes up often -- and will again at the U.S. Open -- I'll repeat my take: Players are, of course, free to play for whichever nation they choose. But it demonstrates how silly it is to spend too much time dwelling on players' nationalities. Let's say Maria Sharapova woke up tomorrow and said, "You know what? I've lived in the U.S. for almost three-fourths of my life. I have homes here. I speak the language. I've benefited immensely from the opportunities here. I feel guilty that I don't pay more in taxes given how much I've benefited from being here. I think I'm going to become a citizen." It would be totally valid. And, in an instant, the American-tennis-is-in-the-doldrums trope would end.

• Doyle Srader of Eugene, Ore.: "My offering for the anti-grunting tirade of the week is a quote from an old L.M. Boyd column: 'Gray wolves mate for life and fight to the death and make no noise at all during either activity.' "

• ESPN's Outside the Lines has an intriguing piece questioning the randomness of the U.S. Open draw. Lots of you asked about this and it seems to me that this fails a simple risk-reward analysis for tournament organizers. (You're risking credibility for ... what exactly?) But the USTA -- like all Slams -- has considerably more incentive to manipulate the draws to make life easier for homegrown talent.

Here's a challenge for the statistically inclined, and I'll provide prizes and gratitude for anyone willing to undertake it: Look back over the past X-number of draws and determine whether, with any statistical significance, the American players have had easier or harder draws than the average player, controlling for rank, etc. If the answer is "no," it seems to me that the USTA has a defense it should have used when presented with the ESPN data. "So let me get this straight: We're going to risk our reputation making sure Roger Federer draws a qualifier, but we're not going to do anything to benefit American players, on which our reputation hinges? That makes no sense." On the other hand, if American players are given a demonstrable advantage -- lower-ranked opponents, favorable sections of draws, not concentrated to ensure maximum odds of survival -- then we really have something to discuss.

• Here's Colette Lewis on the USTA National Boys 18s Championships.

• HBO's Real Sports had a recent segment on the state of U.S. tennis. Here is a clip.

• Stephen Males of Toronto: "On the back of an exciting week attending the Rogers Cup, I'd like to applaud Victoria Azarenka. Despite the disappointment of a lopsided semifinal loss to Serena on Saturday, she returned to the court only an hour later -- at 9 p.m. on a cold evening -- to play doubles in front of an initially sparse crowd. It proved to be an exciting match, and those who stuck around to watch it were treated to some thrilling tennis. While I acknowledge that she and Maria Kirilenko ultimately withdrew from the doubles final through injury, I felt that Azarenka's efforts were noteworthy, particularly as she tends to receive more knocks than praise in the press these days."

Roger Federer unplugged. Or partially plugged.

• Subhadeep of Greenville, S.C.: "Another bad example of American tennis journalism: On SportsCenter, the word "VOLLEY" was used multiple times to describe highlights of the Tsonga-Djokovic match, but there was not a single volley in the clips shown! If the leading sports journalists of this country don't know the difference between VOLLEY and a GROUNDSTROKE ..."

• Derek Johns of Hartford, Conn., weighs in on the debate about the best player never to win a major: "Hard to define, perhaps, but it would seem that the sympathy vote belongs to Helena Sukova. Nobody else in contention had to beat a GOAT short-lister in a major semi only to lose to another one in the final multiple times. Add that she ended Martina Navratilova's year-and-a-half winning streak in 1984 and was only the singles final away from a U.S. Open triple in 1993, and there's a case." (For those who missed it, here's SI.com's gallery on the topic.)

• Mark White of Surrey notes the worst tennis dad ever.

• Noah Baerman of Middletown, Conn.: "After seeing Ivan Dodig's unexpected triumph over Rafael Nadal at the Rogers Cup, I thought I'd second one of your annual pieces of advice about U.S. Open viewing and put in an unsolicited plug for the qualifying tournament next week. Last year I caught Dodig there against Blake Strode (the near folk hero who'd won the U.S. Open national playoffs) and was blown away that someone who played that solidly was still in the qualifying draw. Now he's comfortably in the top 100 (36), along with numerous others I saw that day like Milos Raonic (28), Alex Bogomolov Jr. (50), and Ryan Harrison (78). Aside from being really fun (and free), the slogan about seeing tomorrow's stars is not just lip service, at least if your definition of 'stars' is a little bit loose. Seeing some of the still-hanging-on stalwarts of years past was pretty fascinating as well."

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