Wednesday November 9th, 2011

Petra Kvitova seems amazed at her success. She is such a modest, small-town girl that it is tough for her to realize how good she is. It could be a good sign -- she might realize that she can play a lot better than she does. According to her coach, she's highly introspective and knows all too well what her weaknesses are. The improvement over the last 10 months has been fantastic. Good luck to her. Go, Petra! -- Ash, Los Angeles

• After going into tennis' answer to the witness protection program during the U.S. hardcourt swing, Kvitova emerged as the WTA Alpha Female this fall. She was not only the star of the Istanbul year-ender but she also led the Czech Republic to Fed Cup glory (inasmuch as such a thing exists) last weekend. She is No. 2 in the rankings but is the new unofficial front-runner -- the Herman Cain of the WTA, as it were -- and she may well take over the points lead by the end of January.

I don't disagree with the "modest, small-town girl still somewhat in awe of her status" characterization. But this could be a disguised blessing. Yes, she might lack a certain marketing savvy and cultural currency. (She is not leaving guest passes for Anna Wintour. She was not at the Kardashian wedding. She does not date an NBA player or a PGA star. She is not killing it on Twitter.)

But neither is she burdened with expectation or apportioning her time between the practice court, the photo shoot and the sponsor event. She can simply play tennis, continue improving and keeping it simple. The WTA, the tennis tastemakers and the media (I don't exclude myself) might wish for a more dynamic, quotable, transcendent celebrity figure. But, finally, it's Kvitova's job to win tennis matches, not be glamorous.

I also don't buy the implied (and sometimes expressed) notion that coming from a small town blunts motivation and infuses a player with a just-happy-to-be-here complacency. Every athlete is wired differently. There are big-city sophisticates who are content to win now and then, make their money, penetrate the velvet ropes and live well -- and if they don't max out their potential, so be it. Then there are types like Rafael Nadal and Steffi Graf who come from modest towns, but are as driven as anyone.

I recently saw that Jimmy Connors is writing a book. I know Rafael Nadal wrote a book recently. So did James Blake, Monica Seles and Pete Sampras. And of course Andre Agassi. Are there others in the works? And what tennis player books would you like to read? -- Charlie, Miami

• Good question. Biographies ought to have a third act, which is why Nadal's book -- much like Andy Murray's -- wasn't altogether satisfying. It's hard to read a biography while the script is unfolding in real time. The flip side is that you can't wait too long. As a reader, you want the subject to have relevance. I was recently talking to a former Grand Slam champion who's interested in writing a tell-all. (Or, at least, a tell-some.) The problem is that he is many years removed from his glory days as a player. I told him that he may have a good book in him, but he'll have to do more than rehash details of long-forgotten matches.

Which brings us to the main point. Ultimately, the proverbial proof is in the proverbial pudding. People want to read interesting and authentic and substantive books. And, ultimately, it's up the subject how much he or she wants to reveal. Agassi's Open is the gold standard here. The book was so thoughtful and well-crafted that it mocked the "as-told-to athlete biography" genre. Other players from Bill Scanlon to Nathalie Tauziat have written compelling memoirs. Far more accomplished players have written clunkers. (David Foster Wallace has a terrific, scathing essay about this -- unfortunately, he picks on Tracy Austin and her collaborator, Christine Brennan, two of the nicer people in tennis.)

To your question, I would love to read Roger Federer's inevitable book. (I hear he has been dutifully taking notes for years now.) But that's working on the assumption that it will be filled with insight and candor and introspection and emotion and arc.

A dry, antiseptic career retrospective would be a disappointment. ("I was fortunate to survive, but in the next round I was to face Karlovic, whose serve is powerful and ..." Fuihnuhir3gbijp1mao -- sorry, my head just hit the keyboard just thinking about how boring this would be.) But, really, virtually ever player has an interesting story and, potentially, interesting observations and stories. It's a question of whether they feel comfortable revealing it all.

Yes, that's me!! Even though I grew up in a basketball family -- my father was a high school hoops coach for 35 years, three older brothers all played in college and I played for the Minnesota Gophers and professionally (NBA and Europe) -- I'm a HUGE tennis fan!! That's because my mom played and coached tennis when I was a kid - which got me playing, and then Mac and Borg (and Connors) were getting after it at Wimbledon in the early '80s. And I was hooked! When the Slams are on, I have a hard time pulling myself away from the TV.

Jon, I have another tennis question for you. This has bothered me for a while now. I love watching players with one-handed backhands, but not so much players who use two hands. And if you go back in time about 30 years, when McEnroe took the No. 1 spot from Borg, and go up until now, most of the men's players who have held the No. 1 spot for long periods of time have had one-handed backhands. Mac, Lendl, Becker, Edberg, Sampras, Federer. The two-handers at the top spot during that time period did not spend as much time there. Connors, Wilander, Agassi, Nadal and whoever else. Now look at today's game, maybe 80 or 90 percent of players (men's and women's) use a two-handed backhand. How can that be, when all these players are young and developing, and watching the greats play through the last two or three decades go to the two-handed backhand when many of the top, most successful, Slam-winning, glamorous players, were and are using a one-hander? Somebody explain this to me?!

In basketball terms, who didn't try to play like Michael Jordan? Look at Kobe Bryant: He plays, talks, acts and has the same mannerisms as Jordan. BTW, Jon -- I have a couple of tiny, semi-interesting encounters during my travels, such as running into Mark Philippoussis in Europe and seeing tennis fan and very busy man Wilt Chamberlain at the U.S. Open. -- Kevin Lynch, Eden Prairie, Minn.

• Context: A few weeks ago we got mail from "Kevin Lynch of Eden Prairie, Minn.," and wondered if it was the former NBA player. Turns out, it is. And, Kevin, we want the Wilt Chamberlain story immediately.

As for your question, I think there's a push-pull between wanting to emulate the great ones and wanting immediate success. Junior players -- risk averse to start with -- take to the easier and more conservative two-hander. It is the rare "tween" (or the rare coach) who is willing to invest in a one-hander, which pays dividends later on but may cause some losses in the short term.

Recently, I heard Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert say that Andre Agassi would match up very poorly with Novak Djokovic. Do you agree? If so, what specifically would give Novak the advantage? Or is this another case where the sports media oversells the current No. 1? -- Josh, Richmond, Va.

• I pity the fool who makes that claim. Sorry, had to get in one Mr. T line. Anyway, it's an interesting matchup, but, yeah, I have a hard time finding a way for Andre to penetrate Djokovic. Go stroke by stroke, asset by asset, and fitness notwithstanding, what does Agassi do better? Return? Debatable. Obviously, both Darren and Brad have done long stints as Agassi's coach. I'd be very interested to hear them discuss this further.

What do you make of Marat Safin entering politics in Russia? -- Mike T., Brooklyn, N.Y.

• This recalls the old line (I want to credit Churchill but Goggle fails me), "He is a leader of men; and a follower of women." Seriously, I don't know much about his platform but Safin has always been a bright and curious and charismatic figure. And bravo to him for seeking out a challenging Career 2.0 and not simply coasting along on his good looks, his wealth and what he achieved in his 20s. The more interesting story to me, though, is Anna Chakvetadze, a tragic tennis figure, who is running for a similar position. (More on her in a future column.)

Hola, Jon!! I have a simple (although debatable) question for you: Which tennis trophy is the most beautiful to you? And which one the contrary? Pro level, for both ladies and gentlemen. Best, C. -- Carlos Acosta, Torreon, Mexico

• Beauty is in the eye of the title holder. My vote goes to the old Diamond Proximus Trophy, basically a diamond-studded racket valued at something near $1.5 million. Amelie Mauresmo won it in 2007, so it was replaced in 2008 with a gold racket and ball adorned with 2,008 diamonds. Value: $2 million.

Also, check out this Basel trophy. That's some heavy hardware for a relatively lightweight event.

Why is the World Tour Finals marginalized in the both the year-end evaluations and GOAT talk? It pits only the best players against each other so you cannot get a lucky draw. Maestro Roger Federer has won the WTF five times. That seems to be quite an accomplishment given the competition, but he doesn't seem to get much credit for this. Any thoughts? -- Fernando, Valencia, Spain

• Yeah, we're obviously talking about degrees here. I wouldn't say the WTF is a non-factor. But clearly it doesn't carry as much heft as a Slam. I think you're right that it gets the short shrift. You're talking about a week of matches against the absolute best players.

I also think the placement in the season is relevant, coming as it does in late November. If you're still hitting the high notes and nailing it on your stringed instrument, 10 months into the worldwide concert tour, it says a lot about your stamina/professionalism/dedication. This is thinly veiled Federer praise. He makes a real statement when it's Thanksgiving weekend and he's still on his game.

The points against importing too much weight on the WTF: A round-robin event is so structurally different from a conventional tournament, much less a 128-player draw, best-of-five major. The indoor surface -- one that accommodates no majors -- resists serious treatment. You could say that the season is intolerably long, thus there's little gravitas winning so late in the year when the field is so physically beaten up and emotionally fatigued.

Regarding the Marcelo Rios book [mentioned last week]: If you are referring to the one by Scoop Molinowski, it just came out. -- Tom, Norwalk, Conn.

• Yes, indeed. Scoop sent me a preview and I laughed out loud at the back-cover blurbs:

Michael Chang: "Why are you writing a book about Marcelo Rios?"

Ilie Nastase: "He's the worst pr--k I ever met."

Roger Federer: "I was a big admirer of Marcelo."

I look forward to reading it.

What's the more annoying fan unforced error: fans who laugh when the ball gets stuck in the net off a serve; or fans who groan when a player faults after a first-serve let forgetting that it's not actually a double fault? -- Dan, Toronto

• Are you kidding me? That's friggin' hilarious. Almost as funny as when a pigeon flies near the court. Or when a player scrambles to retrieve an overhead and sends up a defensive lob that goes a mile in the air and -- wait for it -- lands in the court!

• The Tennis Hall of Fame voting is underway. As we've done in the past, you guys make your picks, I'll take them under advisement and cast my vote accordingly. This year's nominees: Jennifer Capriati, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Gustavo Kuerten. Send picks via Twitter: @jon_wertheim.

• Our intrepid unofficial Basel correspondent, Sally Duncan, writes: "There were important federal elections last week in Switzerland. It is possible for voters to enter names of anyone they want to elect onto their voting slip. Roger Federer's name appeared on Wollerau's voting slips 132 times. He knew nothing about this until a christening he attended last week. Apparently someone had suggested adding his name on Facebook and the suggestion was taken up 131 times."

• Andre Agassi dressing as Mr. T for Halloween was a non-story far as I was concerned, but here's a forceful defense of Agassi.

Steffi Graf's Halloween costume. Say this: The family sure didn't scrimp on body paint this year.

• Regarding last week's discussion about the best players in the press room, it's been called to my attention that, fine a player as Doug Robson is, the real media champion would likely be Belgian journalist Filip Dewulf, who, oh right, also reached the French Open semis in 1997.

• Paul of London was the first to note: "The extra money for Wozniacki will be from the WTA Bonus list given out if they meet their tournament commitments. Wozniacki is entitled to the most as world No. 1 but others will get extra money as well."

• Thanks to reader Carolyn Nichols of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., for alerting us that the USA Super Senior teams (age 60-80+) won gold medals (on red clay, no less) in 7 out of 10 Cups played in Antalya, Turkey, on Oct 15 and 16 and that Americans won individual gold medals the following weeks: two singles and 11 in doubles. Here's a link to an article on the USTA site.

• Vitaly of New York: "Not sure if you've already seen/posted this, but here's a catchy song with a tennis-themed music video and cameos by Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils."

• University of Virginia freshman Mitchell Frank won the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships.

• Anastasia Myskina was honored with the 2011 Fed Cup Award of Excellence.

• The USTA has agreed to a three-year contract to host its annual Australian Open wild card playoffs at the Racquet Club of the South in Atlanta. The playoffs, hosted there for the third consecutive year, are Dec. 16-18.

• Daron VonZotto of Santa Monica, Calif., with this week's long-lost siblings: Novak Djokovic and Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver.

Have a good week, everyone!

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