Wednesday September 21st, 2011

For those tired of discussing Serena Williams -- and you're well within your rights to be -- skip this section. There was so much residual email, I didn't want to ignore it entirely, but I feel like we could all stand to move on.

Here are a few points trying to sum up as many Serena-related issues as possible.

• As any criminal lawyer will tell you, the past is relevant. Part of what made this episode so ugly for me was the context. At her previous U.S. Open, Serena had an ugly meltdown with an official and was put on probation. She's never been particularly remorseful. Given every chance to apologize or express regret (again, using a criminal court analogy, that's the first thing judges like to see from defendants), Serena either jokes, calls the 2009 debacle "awesome" or claims it's ancient history. During the final, on 9/11 no less, she feels victimized and again loses her cool with an official. Also, she references an earlier incident (in yelling to chair umpire Eva Asderaki, "Aren't you the one who screwed me over last time here?"). So she can invoke the past, but no one else can? And again, there's little in the way of self-realization.

Bigger picture: I was just talking about this on a radio show, but I hate that Serena has become this polarizing figure who -- judging from your mail -- is losing fans in droves. Tennis WANTS to like her. She is a 13-time Grand Slam champion. She is smart. She can be charming. She is independent. I look at the reception Venus currently enjoys and shows the capacity of most fans to warm to a player. Serena has done the hard part: winning titles in bunches and playing at extraordinary (unprecedented?) levels. It's a shame she can't get out of her own way sometimes.

• A lot of you brought up Mike Bryan's $10,000 fine for making contact with an official and wondered where the outrage was. Valid point, but I think you could argue the following: A) Track record matters and both players were affected by past acts. B) An episode that takes place on court during the women's final (with video available) is going to get more publicity than an act during a back-court doubles match. C) An episode involving a star and 13-time Grand Slam champ is going to get more attention than one involving a doubles player. (A really extreme example, but imagine if this were Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?)

• Predictably, a theme of race seeped into a lot of questions. Again, sometimes an antisocial act is an antisocial act and you should be able to criticize Serena without being cited for bias. The flip side: We should think about where our outrage was when Jimmy Connors called an official "an abortion," Andy Roddick referenced "1-800-rent-a-ref" or even Mardy Fish declared to the umpire at the U.S. Open, "I don't speak French, dumbass." (By the way, didn't he write the Three Musketeers?)

• I don't think there's much validity to the "heat of battle" argument. Plenty of us -- and plenty of other players -- have been in pressurized situations and kept our emotions in check. One of you wrote that if your child threw her peas and said, "But Mom, I am so intense," you wouldn't waive punishment.

• Asderaki sure likes herself some hindrance rule.

• Why wasn't a let called? Good question, but think about how this could play out. You sting a forehand to the corner. I barely get there and throw up a weak defensive lob. As you're about to drill an overhead, I yell, "Come on," and we simply replay the point.

• Now that the hindrance rule is hindered no more, it must be invoked against the grunters. The WTA ignores this problem at its peril. It alienates fans (and I can show you hundreds of emails confirming that) and it's officially become an issue. Why is "Come on" any different from the exhalations?

• What about Serena's generous remarks in defeat? I think this is a mitigating factor to some extent. My read is that she realized she had gone too far, that her outburst could dwarf the story of Sam Stosur winning and, admirably, she tried to steer the discussion to the winner. Other emailers make the point that Serena's ability to show a "good" side makes her lapses all the more upsetting.

• Many of us probably got a bit too passionate here. Serena's outburst was regrettable. But it does bear mention that she didn't swear, didn't make contact and didn't attack anyone. And regardless of what answer we ultimately reach, it couldn't hurt to ask ourselves: Would we feel this way if the athlete in question weren't African-American? Common ground (no pun intended): With Serena in the mix, it's never boring. On this surely we can all agree. Now let's move on. At least until the next time.

Isn't it a little premature to be calling Novak Djokovic's season the best ever? In 2006, Roger Federer won three Slams and made the final of another. He won the year-end championship and 12 titles. Djokovic is close. Three slam wins, and a SF, slight edge to Federer. He has 10 titles to Federer's 12. He has five Masters 1000 wins, one more than Roger. Roger went 92-5 in 2006. Djokovic is 28 wins shy of that right now. It may turn out to be the best season ever, but he's not yet earned it. -- Mark Bradbury

• Djokovic could, of course, fail to win another match the rest of the year. But barring the supernatural, I think this has to go down as the greatest year ever. At least among men in the Open era. He's won on every surface, all over the world, under every circumstance. He's done this when the sport has never been more physical. He's done this when the sport has never been more global -- we've spoken about the rigors of travel and immune system and jetlag. Most important, he's done this in the era of Federer and Rafael Nadal. What was the one knock on Federer circa 2006? The competition might be considered shaky. (To wit: Marcos Baghdatis to the final in Australia?) Can't say that here.

What do we make of his "defeat" last weekend at Davis Cup, his third loss of the year, the same number John McEnroe had in 1984 when he went 82-3? At some level, a loss is a loss is a loss and players retiring shouldn't be gifted an asterisk. (What's the Aussie adage? Oh, right. "If you're fit, you play. If you play, you're fit.") But I can't help cut Dokovic a break here. He wins the U.S. Open with one of the most purely physical matches I've ever witnessed. This was the ultimate tennis knock-down-drag-out. Then he flies across an ocean and, less than a week later, is asked to play a Davis Cup best-of-five match against a high-caliber opponent in Juan Martin del Potro. Had he begged off, he would have been thoroughly justified and his record would be intact. Seems a shame to dock him for this.

Why did Djokovic get a pass on the post-match sophomoric chest beating and gauche gyrations? Can you imagine Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, Pete Sampras or, for that matter, Roger Federer or Juan Martin del Potro carrying on in such a fashion? -- Russell Greenidge, Yuma, Ariz.

• Different people, different personalities, different means and modes of expression. You win a Grand Slam and you can do what you like. Let me take this opportunity to stress a point I don't think has been made forcefully enough: Djokovic has really acquitted himself admirably as the No. 1. He's been charming and funny and outgoing and accessible. He's won. He's played to the crowd, letting it "in." No blunders, no fits of pique. (Consider this a dual legacy of Federer and Nadal, too. They've set the standard for how a No. 1 comports himself.) Some players have found tennis' equivalent of the green jacket to be uncomfortable and confining. Sure seems to fit Djokovic fine, doesn't it?

What's the point of being No. 1 if you're in the same half of the draw as the No. 3 seed? If the seeds are set up so that No. 1 plays 3 and No. 2 plays 4 in the semis, doesn't that make being No. 2 preferable to being No. 1? -- Daryn, Troy, N.Y.

• Great question. My friend and colleague Joe Posnanski -- whom you should be following at @JPosnanski -- encourages us to discuss the seeding. Specifically, "Why doesn't tennis follow traditional seeding whereby a No. 1 plays No. 16 in the fourth round, No. 8 in the quarters, No. 4 in the semis; but instead places Nos. 1 and 2 on different halves but then randomly puts No. 3 and 4 in the two remaining quadrants, etc.?"

The answer is that if the rankings/seedings don't budge, the random seed placement helps with variety and helps ensure that, say, No. 1 (Djokovic) wouldn't play No. 4 (Murray) in every single Grand Slam semifinal. The great irony, of course, is that randomness has backfired, and a system designed for variety has bred very little of it. If this were coin-flipping, we'd be on a hell of a run. Federer and Djokovic (now No. 3 and No. 1) face each other time and again. Same for Murray (No. 4) and Nadal (No. 2). The big winner here is Nadal, I suppose, who should be drawing the third seed but always seems to draw the fourth seed.

No business has ever become more profitable after unionization. Tennis is not exactly thriving, compared to the top sports. Adding a union to the mix would be a recipe for failure. Twenty years after a union's work, expect the USTA to be burdened with massive debt and high ticket prices. No thanks -- please don't advocate for a union in tennis. -- Victor Valencia, Berkeley, Calif.

• Many writers -- mysteriously, never with an email address attached -- have been chastising me about "lefty" talk of a union. (Presumably they don't mean a separate trade association for Nadal, Fernando Verdasco, Thomaz Belluci et al.) If someone wants to include their email address, maybe we could have a discussion about this.

What is the protocol for the loser as for autographs? Are they expected to just leave? Or is it up to the player whether or not to sign? -- Brandon, Chicago

• I say we give players a wide berth here. Different matches end different ways under different circumstances on different courts. Sometimes you want to leave the court, get the hell into the locker room, or vacate a show court so the winner can conduct an on-court interview undistracted. Other times, you're willing to stick around. I couldn't help noticing that after the trophy presentation ceremony at the U.S. Open men's final, Nadal -- the runner-up -- still had the grace to stick around and sign for fans.

I feel for players on this front. A few years ago, I saw Andy Roddick sign autographs in Cincinnati for the fans who lined the back gate. He signed dozens and dozens of times, before finally raising a hand -- enough -- and walking inside the players' lounge. One woman stamped her foot, groaned and said, "He blew me off again! I'm going to write about this on my blog!" Appease 99 fans and the 100th will write a blog post about what a jerk you are.

Circa 2001, Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kurten, Goran Ivanisevic and Lleyton Hewitt were the GS winners. In 2011, we have Kim Clijsters, Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Sam Stosur as GS winners. Back in 2001 we were celebrating the depth of men's tennis, while we are saying there is no consistency in women's tennis today. Why the double standard? -- Raj, Bridgewater, N.J.

• I feel like the double-standard police is clocking in overtime. But let's get our facts right. When the men's game was in turmoil B.F. (before Federer) and the likes of Al Costa and Thomas Johansson were winning majors, the storyline wasn't depth. It was how the women were offering a more appealing and marketable product. Here, for instance, is the Sports Illustrated wrap-up from the 1999 Australian Open.

It's about 95-5 women and, if you don't want to read the whole piece, here's the men's section: "Pity the poor men's Tour. On Sunday afternoon it trotted out Thomas Enqvist and Yevgeny Kafelnikov for a final between good players who are duller than oatmeal." A few months later I covered the Key Biscayne event in which Venus and Serena played in the final and I don't even think the men's winner (Richard Krajicek maybe?) even made the story.

Do you think the overhyping of some young Americans, and making such a huge deal about them winning a round or two -- putting Christina McHale on Ashe at night, for example -- does more harm than good? -- Anand Ramaswamy, Brooklyn, N.Y.

• Obviously there's a balance here. I see the USTA's motivation for putting McHale on the big court for her third-round match. You want to give her the experience of playing in this environment. You want to show off your product a bit. If a player is riding a nice wave and generating attention (consider Donald Young), you can ride the wave a bit. But you also don't want to overfeed the hype machine. After Madison Keys lost her match, a figure close to her told me that she breathed a massive sigh of relief. The morning shows would have come calling. A prime-time slot on Ashe would have awaited. "No good can come from lavishing that kind of attention on a 16-year-old." Good point.

Venus often talks about doing everything together with Serena. Do you see them retiring together? -- Joe Johnson, Allentown, Pa.

• I don't. If one retired tomorrow, I don't think the other necessarily would. They have a different relationship with tennis.

I'm amazed at all you sportswriters who keep saying, "Is there anybody who can stop Djokovic?" Federer did it in Paris and almost did it again in New York. He is the only player who cannot be bullied by Djokovic and when he's able to keep his focus, like in Paris and in the first, second and early in the fifth set in N.Y., Djokovic ends up on the losing end. Even at 30, he makes the Serb fret! Just a little reminder. -- Rohan, Pondicherry

• Come on, that's authentic frontier gibberish. The guy is 10-1 against Federer and Nadal. He is 52-2 against everyone else. And those were both on account of injury retirement. He's won three majors, more than $10 million. If you didn't ponder who could stop this guy, you'd be cited for incompetence.

Do you wish you could be in the chair for the Andy Roddick-Serena Williams mixed doubles match? -- Pete, New York

• Does Mardy Fish speak French?

• "Whistleblower" of Ann Arbor, Mich.: "I had the strangest tennis-related experience today. I am a new hire at Chase, and I'm taking numerous online training courses on all of Chase's policies and banking-related issues. In a course on mortgage fraud, there was a sample fraudulent pay stub. What was the fake employee's name? Rafael Nadal. It cracked me up, especially because of Chase's involvement in tennis. In the example, it was Nadal who was trying to defraud the bank. There must be a Federer fan deep in the heart of Chase bank."

• Eric Y., of Sunnyvale, Calif.: "Regarding Jack Sock being told not to look at Roddick's wife. If Roddick places Brooklyn in the line of sight of his opponent, can the opponent charge Roddick with intentional hindrance?"

• Today's anti-grunting email comes from Jay Gosselin of South Bend, Ind.: "I have been playing and watching tennis for about 35 years and until the Maria Sharapova/Victoria Azarenka 'era,' I have enjoyed watching both the ATP and WTA Tours. If I tune into a tennis match and either Sharapova or Azarenka is playing (God forbid they're playing each other!), I change the channel immediately. Until WTA CEO Stacey Allaster finally realizes that their unnecessary shrieking is hurting the WTA financially and puts a muzzle on them, I will not watch another WTA match.

"In exhibitions and practice, both players have demonstrated that they can play tennis without shrieking at 100-plus decibels. It's time to enforce the rules and warn and penalize the players for their audible hindrance. Once they start losing points and games due to their shrieking, they will quickly find a way to lose their bad habit. Until then, I will stick to watching the ATP."

• Note David Letterman's question to Rafael Nadal at 1:40 mark.

• Rafael Nadal, labor leader?

• Mark Flannery of Fullerton, Calif., was among those linking the Slate piece: An Aural History, Victoria Heinicke, the sport's first grunter.

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness, by Toure.

• Stan Smith has succeeded Tony Trabert as president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

• Random thought: "Champagne Super-Novak" ... Surely someone has come up that nickname, yes?

• Bess Jacobson of Des Moines, Iowa, wraps up the U.S. Open.

• Andrew of New York: "You mentioned that you're 'not sure mixed doubles is much more than a well-paying novelty.' Further, to that tension: Late on the first Thursday of the Open, my dad and I were hanging out at the now-empty Court 4. Lo and behold, suddenly activity commenced and soon Bob Bryan/Liezel Huber and Anastasia Rodionova/Christopher Kas appeared before us, their match having been unexpectedly moved. Pretty cool. Play started and, inevitably, we started scrutinizing and discussing whether he or he was serving full speed to she or she. Everyone seemed pretty serious. At one point, Bob even vocally disputed a service line call (of course, there's no Chase Review on Court 4). But, mid-match, the players exchanged some across-the-net banter and chuckling. And later, after a good shot, Bob and Liezel chest-bumped to great applause from the small, but enthusiastic, crowd.

"Then, as the match neared its conclusion, Bob, again, found fault with a call by the same linesperson working the service line. He proceeded to lampoon the linesperson's eyesight, then waved his arms and engaged the crowd in a game-show style 'How many people vote out? How many people vote in?' call-and-response. Of course, the call stood, but Bryan/Huber prevailed in the match. My dad (septuagenarian, Midwestern, casual tennis fan), thought it all great theater. Me? Conflicted. From moment to moment, I'm not even sure the players were certain of their roles."

• Me: "I just saw Mario Batali on the street."

My son: "Is she the one who runs in place when she returns serves?"

• A reader named Terry with a separated-at-birth submission: Ivan lendl and this guy.

Have a great week, everyone!

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