Wednesday November 2nd, 2011

In honor of the Tour that finished its season first, let's have Ladies Night and do an all-WTA Mailbag ...

I compare Petra Kvitova 2011 with Monica Seles 1990. I think this girl is going to dominate the next two to three years. -- Joel Castro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

• A few people said this after her surprise semifinal showing at Wimbledon, 2010. Kvitova could barely win a match the rest of the year. Many people -- myself included -- said this after her thoroughly dominating performance at Wimbledon, 2011. Ah, yes, we finally have our next star. Kvitova then all but disappeared from the rest of the summer, losing in the first round of the U.S. Open. After a successful fall, including a tear through the WTA Championships in Istanbul, Kvitova is back in favored nation category.

Kvitova definitely has the game. We've seen ample evidence of that. She pounds the ball off of both the port and starboard sides. She moves well. Her fitness is fine. Her game translates for various surfaces. As some of you convinced me, she has much more touch than you might initially think. She isn't cowed by the big stage (see: Wimbledon final, 2011). Go through the check list of "champion traits" and you're checking off most of the boxes.

The question -- and it's not unique to her -- is one of hunger. How badly does she want it? I had the good fortune of spending a day in Florida with the great Chris Evert last week and we talked about this a bit. To her, the WTA "vacuum" (her word) isn't about ability or injuries or technology. It's simply about players having the drive to win every time out, not simply here and there. "Look at the past champions," she said. "Start with Billie Jean, me, Martina, Steffi, Monica. What's the common thread? We wanted it and committed ourselves. And there's a desire and hunger. And you don't see that anymore."

Whereas Caroline Wozniacki is an overachiever who wrings what she can from her game, Kvitova is an example of a player endowed with more weapons and, ultimately, more promise. But it's up to her now. Is she satisfied with years like 2011, when she wins one Slam, loses in the first round of the next one and takes home a boatload of cash? By most accounts, it's a dream season. Or is she willing and able to say, "Dammit, ladies, I'm filling the vacuum. Sheriff Petra is in town and she's taking names. Which of you want the runner-up trophy?" OK, maybe not quite like that. But is she ready, truly, to assert herself? We shall see.

I saw that you wrote about it a bit on Monday but what should we read into the remarks of WTA CEO Stacey Allaster about grunting? Does she really think that it's going away? And does she really think that just because the players don't complain to her, it isn't a problem? -- Scott, New Rochelle, N.Y.

• I give Allaster a lot of credit. She hasn't exactly had a strong product to peddle these past few years, nor have these been flush economic times. And yet, to mix metaphors, she's still kept the ship afloat. In public, she projects nothing but unabashed optimism. From the year-end event in Istanbul to the ESPN deal announced last week (the network signed a six-year agreement with the WTA to carry live coverage of its events across multiple platforms), she has overseen some undeniable successes. Look at the state of other women's leagues, starting with the LPGA, and the WTA looks a lot better.

Which is why I am surprised she has handled the audio issue so clumsily. Personally, I think there are more urgent issues. But I also realize that so many of you are not merely annoyed by grunting/screeching, but it's diminishing your fondness for women's tennis. What's more, this is clearly metastasizing into a real problem, one that is catching on among the general public. (We linked to the unflattering Office clip on Monday.)

If you're running a business and your most loyal clientele are telling you -- ahem, loud and clear -- that they're dissatisfied with something, why strike a defiant tone and basically tell them, "Too bad"? For an executive adamant about staying on message, she is regrettably off on this one.

Perhaps someone could point out to Stacey Allaster that it is not the grunting that is the problem; it is the prolonged shrieking by some of the women that is causing all the consternation. -- Lilas Pratt, Marietta, Ga.

• Good point. I think the response, "The men do it, too" is pretty shabby. First, that's hardly a justification. ("Officer, everyone else was speeding, too!") Second, it's not true. Some male (and female) players make noise when they hit the ball, a byproduct of their exertion. There's clearly a difference between that and the keening, eardrum-splitting pierces that certain players emit during routine rallies -- you know, the ones that cause the fans in the stands to giggle -- and it insults fans to assert otherwise.

It's simply disingenuous to compare, say, Victoria Azarenka to Rafael Nadal. The implication that folks offended by WTA grunting are guilty of sexism is poor, as well.

Again, I'm more concerned about the length of the season, the distribution of revenues at Slams, the slipshod television coverage than I am the various sounds players make. But, clearly, grunting is an issue that (warning: pun incoming) echoes with so many of you. Why you would be so dismissive, I can't quite grasp. A leader of a sport serves many constituents and cannot spend hours trolling message boards or responding to every gripe. Still, you ignore the vox populi at your peril. Go on the Internet. Talk to fans. Talk to former players. Listen to a broadcast on television. Read the columnists. The sentiment against grunting -- and mid-match coaching -- is inescapable. Why not address it?

Stacey Allaster: Buy, sell or hold? -- Trent Miller, Indianapolis

• Wow. I think Allaster provoked more questions this week than Serena Williams and Wozniacki combined. I would say: "hold." And not simply because she signed a contract extension last week. Again, I think Allaster has played a weak hand fairly well. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the WTA when the product improves -- and it will -- and the global economy improves -- and it might.

Let me also say that a fundamental struggle of tennis entails balancing insiders and outsiders. The insiders know the sport and care about it. But too often they have allegiances, they've burned bridges, they get immersed in minutiae, they lack the ability to see tennis in a broader context. The outsiders often fail to understand the (fiercely) political nuances, the convoluted structure and the entrenched interests of the various fiefdoms. Then, when they do, too often they say, "This sport is so maddeningly, ridiculously backward and inbred and conflicted and generally contorted, I'm returning to the relative sanity of [insert league or sports marketing firm here]."

In the case of Allaster, she has a broad vision -- drinking game: Swig every time she says "global growth" -- but has a tennis background and a passion for the sport. Read this and you'll come away with an appreciation.

I know this topic has been beaten to death, but what's one more swing? During the U.S. Open, Serena was penalized for a "intentional hindrance" because she yelled "Come on" before Sam Stosur got to the ball. The umpire had the authority to enforce that call without a complaint from a player. If that is the case, then shouldn't the umpire be enforcing this rule on Azarenka? Her prolonged shrieks regularly continue while the opponent is returning the ball. Can the umpires pick and choose when they want to enforce this rule? -- Brian Thomas, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

• Agree. This would have been the perfect entry for the WTA to address all noises. Maybe it will still happen. Reader Matthew George of San Francisco even crafted some talking points.

He writes: "I think dismissing the fans' complaints this way is offensive and dangerously misses the point because without fans buying tickets and watching matches on TV, there is no WTA Tour. Disrespecting your customers this way is just bad business. Why not try to take a middle ground for now by issuing a statement along the lines of: 'We take seriously our fans enjoyment of matches and we've recently communicated to our players about the increasing number of fan complaints about grunting during the points. We've also reminded the players about the hindrance rule, which remains in effect and may be used by umpires to penalize players who violate it.' "

Every year at this time I write with the same question. How can it be worth the while of any city to host the eight top women? Why not go back to the top 16? It is basic marketing sense. The odds are better that the crowd pleasers will be there. Maid Marion, any of the young Germans, Hurricane 'Rena, Jelena -- all not there. My condolences to Turkey on the tragic earthquake and to a much lesser extent this disaster that is the WTA Championships. -- N. Thompson, Kingston, Jamaica

• I can't find the time stamp on your email but I hope this was sent in advance of the tournament. Far from a disaster, I think that the Istanbul event was a smashing success -- especially given the recent history of the event. (Who can forget the sound of silverware clanking as Anastasia Myskina played in a Staples Center that was so vacant the noise from the luxury suites carried onto the court?)

In Turkey's case, clearly some of the motivation for hosting the event was to show off its "sports bona fides" in advance of a 2020 Olympic bid. So what? As for the field, I think eight is about right. More than that and it loses its appeal as an elite event. You also lose the round robin, which I think is a nice touch for a year-ender. Finally, bless Marion Bartoli and her eccentricities, but I'm not sure her presence -- and that of the seven players ranked beneath her -- is the key to box office gold.

Looks like Kvitova trails Wozniacki by a mere 115 points in the year-end rankings. So what's to stop Kvitova from zipping off to play an ITF event in South America or Africa to scoop up enough points to take the top spot? -- Jay Lassiter, Chery Hill, N.J.

• There are rules -- though they are negotiable -- about which events top players are permitted to enter.

All that money spent in Istanbul for the year-end tournament, yet no one spent any money to make sure we could see the ball on TV? With all significant hardcourt tournaments now played on a blue surface, what made the folks in Istanbul think a lime-green color similar to the ball was a good idea? I'm a hardcore fan and watch almost anything on Tennis Channel, but I tuned in, and then out, several times because I simply couldn't see the ball! -- FLF, Cincinnati

• A few of you made the same complaint. After all those hosannas for the event, here's something to improve. Is there an Istanbul Groupon for interior decorating?

There used to be a WTA tournament right around now held in Philadelphia. I really enjoyed going, but it hasn't been around for a long time. I'm wondering: What happens to tournaments like this? -- Bill Tucker, Wilmington, Del.

• Good question. What happens to all those tournaments -- lamentably, many of them in the U.S.; the Scottsdales and the Hilton Heads and the Oklahoma Cities -- that are no longer on the calendar?

In some ways, they're like other global franchises. The owners sell the event to other buyers, often in other countries. In some cases, the event, like the converse of old soldiers, doesn't fade away but simply dies. In rare cases, the Tours buy the owners, the equivalent of a company that buys back its shares.

Peter Bodo had a typically great line the other day: Tennis lives off the fat of the land. So true. When Steffi Graf and Boris Becker are going gangbusters, you plant events in Germany. When they're through and interest in tennis wanes, you move on. (Say, whatever happened to the Filderstadt tournament?) When China is hot, you set up your circus tents in Beijing and Shanghai. When U.S. tennis is down, you move tournaments to more promising markets. It doesn't always do wonders for stability, but this pliability, this nimbleness, is ultimately to tennis' benefit.

I wonder why you did not mention the entertaining doubles matches from Istanbul? And did you not think the singles matches were competitive and entertaining, even without Serena, Venus and Kim Clijsters? Thanks to Tennis Channel for covering all the matches. -- Sandra, Seattle

• In reverse order: 1) Yes, thanks to Tennis Channel. Thanks to ESPN, too. 2) I thought the matches I saw were -- for the most part -- exciting. Some were better than others. Some involved the winner winning; others involved the loser losing. I do think the WTA vacuum was more apparent than ever. Here's a remarkable statistic: Heading into the event, the top four seeds -- Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva, Maria Sharapova and Azarenka -- had not merely failed to win a major this season; only one of them had even reached a final. That is just staggering.

Wozniacki channels her inner warrior, wearies of the annoying questions and seizes the top spot. Serena rebounds like Kris Humphries and reverts to world-beater form. Azarenka decides that she wants to be known for more than her larynx and takes the next step. Kvitova rides her Istanbul momentum into 2012. However it shakes down, the WTA desperately needs an authoritative champion.

3) Where were we? Oh, right. Doubles. Yes. Big props to Liezel Huber and our old pal Lisa Raymond. Their combined age may exceed 70, but their combined status is No. 1.

Max effort elicits grunts. Did you notice Azarenka's lack of grunts and effort vs. Bartoli? Vika did not even look interested for part of the match. I still prefer single elimination. -- Jerry White, The Villages, Fla.

• Man, do we get a lot of anti-Azarenka mail. Someone get her an image consultant, stat! I rather like round robin. But I kept thinking of Etienne DeVilliers last week, the former ATP head. Recalling our insider/outsider discussion, the poor guy came in from Disney with a mandate to "shake things up" and "challenge the system." When he had the audacity to undertake a round-robin experiment -- hardly radical on the continuum of innovation -- he was offed like a Texas inmate. (Ka-ching!)

Seriously, the ATP's round robin was ham-fisted in its execution. But the idea was there. Especially at smaller events, why not develop a format that ensures the top draws play more than once?

Have you or anyone else noticed that Caroline Wozniacki's year-to-date prize money on the latest money list on the WTA's website is inflated by $1 million? Her total should be $3,065,581, and not $4,065,581. This puts her at No. 5 for the year, and not No. 2. -- Richard Hanson, Charleston, W.V.

• Hmmmm ... The fluctuations of Danish currency? A prize to the person who can solve this mystery.

I'm curious: Among the press corps, who is the best player? I know that sometimes there are media tournaments. Who wins those? -- Anonymous

• There's some big-time talent in the media room. It just doesn't necessarily express itself on the court. The Roger of the writers, the Clijsters of the keyboard, the Serena of the scriveners, the Pistol Pete of the press room, the Maria of the micro-cassette, the Graf of the graph, the Djokovic of the qwerty is ... Doug Robson.

• Voting is underway for the ATPWorldTour.com Fans' Favorite Awards. Roger Federer has won the singles voting eight years running. Is his run finally over?

• South Floridians, the Chris Evert charity event is coming.

• Speaking of philanthropy, Andre Agassi held his annual event last week in Las Vegas. What more can you say about this guy?

• Look who's bidding for Agassi's story. Parlor game: Cast this movie. I'm taking Laura Dern as Steffi. After that?

• Moles tell us that there is a book on Marcelo Rios -- unauthorized, no surprise there -- coming out soon. Details to come.

• Moët & Chandon is being unveiled as the "Official Champagne of the ATP World Tour." If there's anything that threatens the integrity of tennis, it's an unofficial beverage.

• Happy to have learned that the excellent Louisa Thomas has a contract to write a series of tennis-themed pieces for Grantland. Watch for her work.

• A few of you asked for this so here's the JaMarcus Russell link.

• How did Agassi celebrate his 10th anniversary?

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: When the Garden Was Eden, by Harvey Araton.

• Congrats to Justin Gimelstob, who got engaged over the weekend.

• Arti of New York with a contribution to the doppelgangers series: Alexandr Dolgopolov and Owen Wilson

Have a good week, everyone!

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