Wednesday October 26th, 2011

I just read the mailbag that included a question from Phil of Philadelphia about players from a Slam's host nation being unable to win their home Slam. He claimed they had too much pressure on them. You claimed the non-Slam nations gave their players more determination and less coddling. But let's be clear here -- this is total coincidence. If these otherwise great players were crumbling under the pressure of being the hometown favorite, then Andy Murray would have won the U.S. Open, Andy Roddick the Aussie Open, etc., majors where they don't share the nationality of the host nation. This is simply a case of a fairly huge gap between the top three guys and the rest of the pack, and nothing more. If being from Spain or Serbia makes a player so determined to succeed, why hasn't a Spaniard (Mallorcan?) other than Rafael Nadal, or a Swiss other than Roger Federer, won a major in recent memory? Winning majors is just plain hard. France hosts a major and has a lot of guys in the top 50. The fact that none of these guys has won the French has little to do with them being coddled by the nanny state (as you sort of put it -- sarcastically, I assume) and more to do with the fact that the same three guys (plus Juan Martin del Potro) are winning ALL the majors. No way to prove this, but my gut (very reliable in the realm of consequence-free speculation) tells me that if Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic were from anywhere, they'd still be winning ALL the majors. -- Paul R., Boston

• I was with you at first. And I agree coincidence is a big factor. As a rule, we hate randomness and luck. "S--- happens" may play to the Zen crowd, but the rational humanists want explanations that make sense. Yet maybe champion tennis just ... happens.

One look at Federer's parents and you don't peg them to spawn a one-in-a-billion sports prodigy. "Nurture" hardly solves the riddle. His parents encouraged him to play less tennis growing up and to explore other interests. His training was just adequate until his teen years, playing at a local club, riding his bike to the courts. Not exactly a hothouse flower.

Several years later, another prodigy -- equally unlikely -- comes of age in Mallorca, an island that is truly insular. Genetics favor him a bit more. He has a hard-charging, ambitious, eccentric uncle. But, again, who could have seen this coming? As far as a blueprint for developing a champion goes, the warning label would read: Don't try this at home. A well-heeled tennis nation could invest unlimited funds in unlimited prospects -- and not replicate these two results.

But I still say we ought to examine why the four wealthiest tennis countries are having such a hard time minting champions. It's not simply that they have immense financial advantage that other countries (not fortunate to host a Slam) cannot access. There's the attention and focus that comes with hosting an international event for two weeks every year. That these countries haven't been able to alchemize that (while smaller countries such as Serbia have been so successful) is worth exploring. That's all.

In response to Ramkumar's point about Nadal never defending a major outside of the French: Well, yes that is true, whereas Federer has defended three of the four majors. But I think the bigger point is that Nadal has never defended ANY title off clay in his career. That, to me, is a very surprising stat. -- Michelle, Los Angeles

• Wow. Thanks. I don't believe I'd ever heard that. I suppose we could say he put together a 20-match winning streak at Wimbledon. (He won in 2008, didn't play in 2009, won in 2010 and reached the final in 2011.)

Does anyone deny the fact that the 2008 Wimbledon men's final was allowed to continue too long after darkness had fallen? Don't you agree with this in your own book? -- Patrick Preston, Chicago, Ill.

• I agree that it was exceedingly dark; the darkest conditions I've ever seen for a professional match. But I don't think there was much of an alternative. What were they going to do, suspend play at 7-7, with tension (and television viewership) at its highest, and tell everyone -- the players, the fans, the parking lot attendants -- to return the following day for what could be 15 minutes of play?

Before Nadal served at 8-7, both players were told that it would be the final game. For symbolic (and literary) purposes, there was something fitting about the greatest match ever ending as the last flecks of light left the sky. But, more important, I think an inconvenience that affects both players simultaneously can be distinguished from an inconvenience (say, a slick spot on end of the court) that affects the players by turns.

The AP reported that Nadal's opting not to play at Queen's Club in 2012 because he could lose money from the country's stringent tax laws on prize money, appearance fees and worldwide endorsement earnings. He's played there five out of the past six years. Are these laws new? Did Nadal's net worth skyrocket recently that would make that tax unbearable? -- Dawn, Chicago

• Do we have a tax law expert in Britain who could help us? Love to hear a policy defense. I know that, ironically, it was Andre Agassi who fought this battle several years ago and lost. Check out the headline on this piece.

And if you're interested, here's a decision in the Agassi case.

I was wondering what the latest injury status is on Paul Henri Mathieu. I know he had a knee injury and was hoping to find out when he might return. I liked watching his power baseline game and had hoped that if (or when) he returned he might finally get past his underachieving. -- Rick Atkins, Mission Viejo, Calif.

• Several of you have asked about PHM (new rule, thanks to Dominique Strauss Kahn, every three-named Frenchmen now faces initializing). The Mighty Greg Sharko (MGS, as it were) turned us on to this Q&A, translated from French. Here are some highlights:

Q: How are you and when can we expect you back on court? A: I'm better than a few months ago. I still feel some pain, but that's normal after the surgery. I don't have an idea about when I will be back. Hopefully next season. But I haven't been told anything. Some weeks are ok. Others not that much. I haven't set a goal about when I will return. If I can play club matches with TC Paris I will do it. But I think it's a bit early.

Q: What's your state of mind right now? A: This is a second career. The first one is completely behind me. I will be happy to be back on court without pain and wirhout a specific goal.

Q: Did you think about quitting tennis during this break? A: Yes of course. That's human. You ask yourself the question before the surgery and afterwards too. Will you be strong enough to restart from zero? To face the pain?

Q: Today you are ranked 393. Is that scaring? A: The ranking is really secondary. I will end up without one anyway. Basle was my last event and I won't play again before that. I will get a protected ranking around 90. When that finishes I will ask for wild cards. I think that I will reach a good level.

Robin Soderling pulled out of two Asian tournaments with mono. Is it just me, or do tennis players have the worst luck with mono? -- Landon, Chapel Hill, N.C.

• More fodder for completely unscientific theory that the rash of ailments is attributable, yes, to an unprecedented level of on-court "grueling" but also to unprecedented travel requirements that weaken immune systems.

I know you called a cease-fire on Serena Williams, but here's an entertaining, casual and yet true video on how many casual viewers looked at the U.S. Open incident. Funny, critical and spot on. She brings life to a boring sport that can't get over itself sometimes. Gotta love Serena! -- Zech, Lawrence, Kan.

• A warning that this contains some adult language. (Another warning: I didn't find this particularly funny.) And, sorry, I think the "any publicity is good publicity" mentality is flawed. Sometimes you choose dignity over popularity.

I'm glad Zech sent this but it illustrates precisely what I find so maddening about Serena. By all rights, she should be revered as a towering figure, someone of historical significance, an athlete beyond reproach. Instead, too often, on account of her conduct, she is reduced to a punchline. I can't tell you how often I'm asked about her and the questions pertain to her temper or her viral videos or her attitude -- not her dozens of titles or decade-long reign.

I watch that YouTube clip and I'm thinking, "How dare you mock one of the great players our sport has ever produced." Then you watch Serena's tirade (and, worse, her disingenuous response) and you think, "Yeah, I could see how 'casual viewers' don't take her seriously."

Isn't Andy Murray the Caroline Wozniacki of the men's Tour? Dominates when the top guns are not deployed, teasing his fans into believing that he's ready to end the British drought with a Slam victory. -- Jason Carrick, Bronx, N.Y.

As I've noted before, there are similarities, but the comparison is a bit simplistic. They both can tend to be excessively defensive players. For all their success at Masters Series and Tier 1 events, neither (obviously) has won a Slam. Oh, and they both wear Adidas.

Murray is trying to break through during one of the best generations ever, behind a triumvirate that has won all but one major since February 2005. In Wozniacki's case, she is Slam-less in a much softer era, yet still holds the top ranking. Much different dynamic.

To address an item from last week's mailbag regarding John Nissim from Philadelphia asking about players successfully recovering from Achilles tendon tears: I believe back in 1988 or 1989, Australia's Pat Cash suffered one on court. He did return to the sport successfully and was competitive. -- Jef Costello, Sydney, Australia

• Thanks. Larry Larson of Alexandria, Va. wrote, "Not a ruptured Achilles, but any question like that has to make you think of Thomas Muster." This is as good a time as any to toast Muster, who officially retired at the age of 44.

So your perpetually playoff-contending football team loses the greatest quarterback of this generation for a season due to an injury, and suddenly we're supposed to look at is as the poster child for Indiana's "cursed" sports programs? Peyton Manning will be back next year, and you may luck out and get Andrew Luck in the process. Sorry, not feeling one bit sorry for you. -- Scott Smith, San Dimas, Calif.

• That would be the epitome of Luck.

Did you research any other regions before writing this? If not, let me submit Minnesota for your consideration; Vikings, Twins, Timberwolves, Wild and Gophers football and basketball are all disasters. You might find that Indiana has it good. -- Scott Rassbach, St. Peter, Minn.

• The Lynx just won the WNBA title, no?

• Zolbol of Durban, South Africa: "Please share this amazing feat of Cara Black when she was just 16 years old. A challenge to your readers: Try to do the same, that is, 100 alternate forehand/backhand volleys in 39 seconds but, to cut you some slack, do it without the ball. Makes one appreciate the talent of a professional tennis player!"

Bucket list of a tennis fan.

• Luke of Fort Worth, Texas: "I found an interesting book at my club's mini-library, Tennis: Myth and Method, by Ellsworth Vines, 1978. Most of the book is dedicated to ranking his 'First Ten' players of all time (our GOAT). He puts [Rod] Laver fourth, even after his two Slams, behind [Don] Budge, [Jack] Kramer and [Pancho] Gonzalez. Within his book, he also mentions Bobby Riggs' 'First Ten' from his book, Court Hustler, putting Laver at No. 7. Both of these guys go into detail regarding their choices, based on wins/losses, whether they revolutionized the game, their weaknesses, etc.

"I think the biggest takeaway for me was that Laver was essentially way down the list in the GOAT debate at that time, but today ... Gonzalez and Kramer are not even in the mix! It will be interesting to see where Federer is in the debate 30-plus years from now. And by the way, if you want to know how several of history's players played the game, this is a pretty fun book to read."

Who else misses Elena Dementieva?

Take a look at this if you get a chance.

• Christopher M. Jones of West Chester, Pa.: "Did you see this ridiculous pickup by Gael Monfils? I've never seen one like this."

From the BNP Paribas Open: The 2011 BNP Paribas Open held at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden this past March, generated an estimated total gross economic impact on the Coachella Valley regional economy of $289,287,532, it was announced by Steve Simon, tournament director. This represents an increase of $69,487,629 since 2006 when the last BNP Paribas Open economic impact study was conducted and the estimated total gross economic impact was $219,799,903. The first study was conducted in 2001, and over the past ten years there has been an increase of more than $188 million.

From Atlantis.com: The Mark Knowles Celebrity Tennis Invitational will be hosted at the Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas, on Dec. 1-4. The event is celebrating its landmark 10th year with host Mark Knowles and special guest players Andy Roddick, Xavier Malisse and Sabine Lisicki.

• Reader Kendra Baisinger reviews Rafa.

From the USTA: The USTA announced the two men and two women nominated to represent the United States in wheelchair tennis at the 2011 Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, Nov. 14-18. The 2011 U.S. Open wild card Emmy Kaiser and 2007 Parapan Am gold medallist Kaitlyn Verfuerth will play on the women's team. Four-time Paralympic medalist Steve Welch and 2007 Parapan Am gold medalist Jon Rydberg will play on the men's team. The players will compete in men's and women's singles, as well as men's and women's doubles.

From Lakewood Ranch: The 2011 Dick Vitale Intercollegiate Clay Court Classic will return to the Lakewood Ranch Golf & Country Club from Nov. 11-13, 2011. This is the only clay court college tournament in the nation and the only event of its kind that brings men's and women's teams in for one event. New this year, ESPN sportscaster and Lakewood Ranch resident Dick Vitale is adding his name to the tournament. "This event is going to feature some of the greatest players on the collegiate level," Vitale said. "Lakewood Ranch is blessed to have teams like these, all coming here. I would encourage anyone who wants to get involved to sponsor the tournament with a banner that will hang at all the weekend events -- including the party at my house. I'll be here to introduce the players and it's gonna be awesome baby with a capital A!"

• The WTA Board of Directors voted unanimously to extend the contract CEO Stacey Allaster through 2017.

• Ubaldo Scangatta with the best South Americans of all time.

From Champions Series: By winning five of the seven events he competed in, Pete Sampras claimed the top spot in the 2011 Champions Series and took home the first place winner's share of $500,000. Jim Courier came from behind to win two of the final three events and vaulted himself into second place to capture $350,000, while Andre Agassi -- who won twice in seven starts overall -- finished third and earned $150,000.

• Regarding our discussion on the Shanghai crowds, reader Mark of California notes:

"I saw your comments on the turnout in Shanghai and, based on the fact that I've been going since 2005 (first as the Tennis Masters Cup and the last three years as the Masters 1000 event), I thought I'd give you a little more info. You mentioned that the venue is an hour from the center of the city with no traffic, but it's worse than that. Most people don't drive; they take a combination of subway, shuttle buses and taxis -- each with its own issues. The subway system shuts down incredibly early for a major city (the official reason is for maintenance -- but the locals say it is to give the taxi drivers a captive audience). The published last train leaves at 10:30 p.m., and on more than one occasion we fans have been stuck when for one reason or another it shuts down even earlier. And that's assuming you get to the station -- the shuttle buses are filled beyond capacity and move really slowly (and on Saturday night I almost missed the last train because the bus was involved in a minor fender bender with a taxi and the drivers stood yelling at each other for 45 minutes).

"The taxi option isn't much better. While a taxi to the venue isn't too bad, at night the drivers refuse to turn on their meters and are asking for two or three times the normal amount for the trip back to the city. I would have loved to watch the Fish-Tomic match and other late matches but had to bail to make sure I didn't get stranded. The Chinese sports TV station doesn't help by forcing the last match to start at 8 p.m.

"The Chinese people are very status-driven, so when you have both Federer and Djokovic absent, it's no surprise that the fans don't show up or stay for the last match. Apologies to Andy Murray, but until he wins a major, he's not going to be a draw. And on that point, I think you'd agree we've seen poor turnouts at Roland Garros in the lower section when Fed and Rafa aren't playing. I also went to Barcelona this year. The first semifinal was Almagro-Ferrer, and barely 50 percent of the seats were filled; they only filled up for the second semi with Rafa.

"I also think the Chinese people are beginning to realize that players dropping out -- Juan Martin del Potro, John Isner, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Robin Soderling weren't there either -- are going to be a reality. They aren't suckers and realize they aren't getting the same product as Indian Wells, Miami and the earlier 1000 Series events. You should come next year to see for yourself. Even with all the craziness and frustrations, I plan on going for my eighth straight year next October. Bring your racket -- my hotel has 11 courts."

• Ivan H. of New York with double long-lost siblings:

Viktor Troicki and former Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante and ...

Robin Soderling and actor Sam Rockwell.

Have a good week, everyone!

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