Wednesday January 11th, 2012

Check back later this week for an Australian Open preview ...

Can you educate me a little about Petra Kvitova? I've seen her enough to know why she's good, but I'm a little fuzzy on what sends her off the rails. People have been high on her even before her Wimbledon win, but it never really seemed like she had the results to warrant it. After her disappearing act between Wimby and the Tour Finals, it still seems like her consistency is suspect, at least enough to question why everyone and their brother is anointing her as the next big thing. -- John, Philadelphia

• I think you pretty much nailed it. On talent alone, she could have her own lane on the WTA highway for many years to come. It's a question of whether she's mentally prepared to handle success and all the attendant pressures.

One of you likened Kvitova to Steffi Graf, a pleasant, introverted European from a small town, who didn't have celebrity ambitions, didn't crave (or even like) publicity, didn't have interest in doing much more than winning tennis matches. Now more than ever, that's not realistic. When you're winning and ranked No. 1 (as Kvitova may well be in a matter of days) you have, ex officio, a level of power, authority and responsibility.

If I'm day-trading, I'm loading up on Kvitova stock right now. After her summer swoon, she now has a better sense of what she needs to do to sustain success. She is gradually getting more comfortable with her public profile. Her game is not only unsurpassed but also still improving. And with Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters far closer to the omega of their career than the alpha, almost by default Kvitova is the leading candidate to take the wheel.

I see Dinara Safina's name in your "So long, farewell" list, but her website says, "Hey everybody. I just want to inform you that I AM NOT retiring at this time. I will continue to use therapy to try to treat my back injury and hope to return to competition eventually." Is it that you don't think she'll make it back? -- Jim, Columbia, S.C.

• Thanks, a few of you mentioned that. Let's be clear, Safina is not officially retired. (Though her own brother is among those saying she likely has played her last match.)

For all sorts of reasons, I'd love little more than for Safina to return. She was so conspicuously vulnerable -- so withering in her self-assessment, so brutally honest, so unwilling/unable to suppress emotion and thoughts -- that she left herself exposed. She "let us in," as they say. There was something almost voyeuristic about watching her matches and following the drama that often ensued. Safina is, unfortunately, probably best known a) for being Marat's sister, b) for failing to win a major despite achieving the top ranking and c) her viral appearance on Russia's answer to Wipeout.

But let's not forget: She was (and still can be?) a top-tier tennis player. She reached three major finals, won various other events and deployed a game that relied on pace, yes, but also relentless depth.

Should tournaments take a leaf out of the UFC's book and award bonus money for best match of the tourney/day, or a combativity award like they have at the Tour de France? I wouldn't award a submission-of-the-night bonus, since Daniel Koellerer's been banned and Stefan Koubek's retired. -- Ro'ee, Israel

• I can't tell if you're being serious but I love that idea. For each UFC fight card, fighters are paid a wage (often appallingly low) to show up and then it usually doubles if they win their fight. But they are also eligible for significant bonuses (like, $75,000 significant) for fight of the night, submission of the night, etc.

The financial structure of a tennis event is obviously different, but why not borrow this idea and award a modest cash prize for the best match, best performance and even best shot at events? The cash need not be a lot, $500 or so. But if, say, Memphis or Sydney offered a "shot of the day bonus," you can bet thousands of us would click on the tournament website to see the winner. (And if would create easy good morale with the players.) If the first few rounds offered a "match of the day" prize, you can bet fans would be interested in that, too. Put that on our tab.

As long as we're talking tennis marketing, here's another idea. (If there are any venture capitalists or angels in the studio audience, please see me after the show). There are dozens, if not hundreds, of tennis exhibitions held annually. Andy Roddick and the Bryans recently played in Oklahoma City. Pete Sampras is playing Todd Martin in Indianapolis the week before the Super Bowl. Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Gonzalez just played a match in Chile. Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki barnstormed Belgium last month.

Countless fans would be interested in these unsanctioned matches. They would pay for live streaming. They would pay for merchandise, a T-shirt from the Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic match in Dubai, for instance. They might even build a small vacation around the event. Problem is, unless you're in the relevant market, it's damn near impossible to find out about these exos.

So the idea is simple: You build an aggregator site -- or whatever -- publicizing these events worldwide and offering a playing schedule. Sell tickets and merchandise through the site and get a cut of the revenue. Presto. Now, who wants to give me start-up money in exchange for equity?

Thanks to the many of you who wrote in with tips for enjoying the Australian Open (redundant?) and Australia in general. Here are some more:

Cam Bennett of Geelong, Australia: "(From a guy who lives an hour's drive away from RLA, so I go every year): Wear sunscreen even when you're sitting in the shade. The number of people who leave a day's tennis exhausted and with a horridly burnt face thanks to the glare coming off the court is incredible!"

Brendan of Sydney: "As a U.S. expat living in Sydney for three years, I've had the great fortune to visit Melbourne multiple times, and love every waking moment.

"1) Coffee -- They love the coffee in Melbourne. As a novice coffee drinker, you can't go wrong with a flat white (espresso plus milk), but I recommend you take on a cappuccino or two.

"2) Day Tours -- Phillips Island to see the Blue Penguins, or the 12 Apostles/Great Ocean Road tour to see a great natural site along the Great Ocean Road and you'll probably see koalas and wombats. Or out to any number of vineyards found in Victoria.

"3) Laneways (or what we might call Alleys) -- During the day there's no better place to get stuck than the alleys filled with cafes and coffee shops.

"4) Queen Victoria Markets -- Cool stalls and lively atmosphere.

"5) Federation Square/Flinders Station Area -- So alive, and the square usually has something going on (arts, music, etc.).

"6) Walk along the Yarra River and pop in and out of restaurants, shops and the one casino in town.

"7) Skydeck 88 -- Highest viewing platform in the Southern Hemisphere. Standing on clear glass that high up is a blast!

"8) Asian food -- Thai/Vietnamese/Malaysian, etc. It's everywhere and it's good!

"9) Hidden treasure -- The Melbourne Supper Club. 161 Spring St. Great little spot next to The European. Great view indoors of the Parliament House and a great roof deck."

Just yesterday I was watching Del Potro play Gonzalez in the final of an exo tournament (Nokia Summer Cup), and while I looked for footage of it for you, let me say this: DelPo may have a monster forehand, but Gonzo's is bigger. -- Lucio, Rosario

• If you saw them head-to-head last week, you're in a better position to judge than I am. I still say we need to consider this difference: Gonzalez is Nuke LaLoosh, delivering with overwhelming force. Del Potro is bludgeoning the ball, but looks to be doing so at about 80 percent capacity.

Just to cap the recent question on "Grand Slams," it's actually easy. It's either a "Grand Slam" (winning all four tournaments in a calendar year) or a "Grand Slam event" (one of the four). Like the original questioner, I've often wondered why broadcasters can't get out that one extra word. -- Garner, Jacksonville, Fla.

• Fair enough. I still say "the" Grand Slam" versus "a" Grand Slam" solves the problem.

What are the chances that Federer will be paired against Djokovic and Nadal against Murray in the 2012 Aussie Open semifinals? -- Sasha, London

• What was the probability that the Knicks weren't going to get the top pick in the 1985 NBA Draft?

After reading your anti-Christian comments regarding Margaret Court, I am done reading your columns. -- Kevin, North Brunswick, N.J.

• Don't let the escape key hit you on the way out.

I'm probably just a little crazy, but can you as a journalist (and seemingly good with the English language) tell me why when a tennis player retires in a match it is usually referred to as "forced to retire"? Forced? Really? Did someone come on court and physically stop them from playing? Retiring is a choice, not a compelled event. The player "decided" to retire. A recent article regarding Flavia Pennetta in Auckland said she was "forced to retire" as well as "forced" to take three medical timeouts. Who forced her to do that? Does using "forced" make it sound better? Sorry for the rant, it just really annoys me. -- Daniel, Cleveland, Ohio

• Oh, Daniel. You must follow tennis in the Southern Hemisphere more closely. When players are injured, they are compelled to retire -- sometimes at the tip of a rifle. Those who try to resist compulsory retirement? Let's just say it's not pretty. (Your point is well-taken. Players choose to retire.)

Stick to writing only about tennis, please, and leave music factoids out of it. You say Ke$ha's Greatest Hits would be an oxymoron, but you prove only that you're a music moron, Jon. The girl, in her brand-new career, with one album and one basically EP, has released six songs, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF WHICH has been a hit. Write about what you know. Don't they still teach that in journalism school? Idiot, you. -- Jordan Kyle, France

• On account of your intemperate letter, I wish you the following: May your otherwise cherubic 8-year-old daughter sit in the backseat of your car, enthusiastically singing: "Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack/ Cause when I leave for the night, I ain't coming back."

Caroline Wozniacki was born and raised in Denmark. She now resides in Monaco, as many other sports stars do. She would never have played for any other country than the one she was born in, which is the only one she was ever a citizen of. -- Michel Briand de Crevecoeur, Basel, Switzerland

• You know what would be fun? If Monte Carlo had Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams for residents. On this same issue, Sammy of Toronto has a good point: "Yeah, Milos Raonic and Daniel Nestor were not born in Canada, and if their family didn't bring them here (as toddlers), Canadian men's tennis wouldn't have had whatever little bragging rights it currently does. But why stop there? By the same token, If the Sampras and Agassi families didn't immigrate to the USA from Greece and Iran, respectively, the landscape of American men's tennis in the 1990s would've been drastically different and we would've been talking about America's 20-year Slam drought as opposed to the current 10."


As for the best tennis town. ...

Doug of Southern California: "Year-round tennis: Southern California. No hurricanes, no tornadoes, no humidity to speak of. Not as windy as the East Coast either."

Claire of Albuquerque, N.M.: "Albuquerque is a fabulous tennis town. We have all four seasons but the highs in the summer rarely reach above 100, there is no humidity to speak of, and although it does get down to the 30s in the winter, it rarely snows (or, if it does, melts before noon), and there are always several weeks of 50-degree, definite tennis-playable weather. We play outdoors basically year-round here, unlike family in Phoenix (too hot!), Utah (too cold!) or Houston (too hot and humid!). There are plenty of public and private courts. It's like the hidden mecca of tennis awesomeness."

A.J. of Ridgefield: "Carlsbad/San Diego. Hit La Costa on a Tuesday and you may see Rod Laver playing his weekly doubles."

• Check back Friday for the debut of the Tennis Podcast. James Blake joins the show to talk about his knee injury, the Australian Open and more.

• This week's encounters with a pro:

Ben S of Scarsdale, N.Y.: "It was the 2009 U.S. Open. I was eating at a sushi place in midtown Manhattan with a friend from out of town visiting for the tournament when Gilles Simon walks in the door. I give him a good look as he walks by, and say to my friend, 'That's Gilles Simon!' When he walked by again (he got food to go), I said, 'Excuse me, Gilles?' and he was completely stunned. Obviously a non-flashy top 20 player from France is not often recognized in New York, and he couldn't believe someone actually knew who he was. He was a very nice guy and took the time to take a picture with us and talk for a quick minute. It's funny how this quick encounter that he probably doesn't even remember has made me a fan for life."

Alice Edwards of Overland Park, Kan.: "In 1988 or early 1989, I was a senior in high school and Andre Agassi was tapped to replace Boris Becker to play in an exhibition in Kansas City with Ivan Lendl. I loved Agassi and my beautiful best friend, Sarah, and I were going to go to the match. After school before the match, we heard on the radio that Agassi was having a press conference at a local mall. We rushed over there, watched the conference and then took our 'secret' way out of the mall. We ran smack into Agassi and his entourage. Now, my friend was a fan, but I was the one with his posters plastered all over my walls alongside those of Simon LeBon and Bono (only in the '80s ... OK, still have Agassi- and Bono-autographed pics alongside pics of my hubby and child in my office ...).

"Anyway, Agassi heads straight to my friend, the beautiful Sarah. He was very much flirting with her and his entourage had to pull him away from her. You'd think I would've been jealous, but instead I was in awe. She always attracted the cutest boys. Later that night, we saw Lendl and Agassi play and were pleased to watch Agassi torment a nasty classmate of mine who was acting as a ball boy. We had the time of our lives. Sarah sadly passed away a few months later but I always smile when I see Agassi and Steffi together. I wonder, 'What would have happened if Andre's entourage hadn't pulled him away from Sarah?' "

Robert of New York: "From sixth to ninth grade, I was a ball boy for the Virginia Slims tournament in Akron, Ohio. Weirdly, it was voted the favorite tournament of the women several years running. I think Akron kind of went out of its way to make them comfortable and I know the crowds were huge. We're talking Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court, Rosie Casals, Virginia Wade and some fun lesser-known players like Nancy Richey, Pam Teeguarden and Julie Heldman. The ball kids were around all day long all week and really got a sense of the personalities on and off the court. Billie Jean was hyper, outgoing, fun. Chris was self-contained but gracious. You were very still and at attention around her. Wade was one of the few players who wouldn't give you an autograph before a match -- completely focused. (She was also very attractive.) Martina, at that time, was overweight and nervous.

"And then there was Evonne Goolagong. The final year, the tournament was moved to the Richfield Coliseum, and Evonne played and every ball boy had a crush on her. The Coliseum was (naturally) colossal, and one afternoon a friend and I were taking an elevator from the main-stage show court up to one of the smaller courts, sharing a big bucket of popcorn. Elevator stops, doors open and Evonne gets on. Immediately she looks over at us and smiles a really amazing smile. As we head upstairs, she says, 'That smells really good.' I hold out the bucket: 'Do you want some?' She digs her hand in, eats a big mouthful of popcorn, smiles again and gets off the elevator to go play her match. I suppose it goes without saying that she went on to win the tournament over Ms. Virginia Wade."

• Another Australian Open tip: Michael Costa, former Illinois tennis player, will be performing at the Comics Lounge in Melbourne from Jan. 16-24.

• Nice interview with Agassi, courtesy of Victor Chi.

• A tennis poem from loyal reader Ivan H. of New York, regarding the subjectivity of much tennis debate.

Best tennis shot you will see this week.

• New York readers, here's an event to check out, a live broadcast of Slate's "Hang Up and Listen." Details here. And the organizers promise me it will end in time for Aussie Open coverage.

• Nice to see Arnaud Clement stealing a cameo.

• Hey, Djokovic: Venus and Serena will see your gluten free-dom and raise you this.

• The other side of the story regarding the Sacha Jones dispute, via Catalina of Taupo, New Zealand: "[The reader who wrote in to last week's mailbag] bemoans the fact that Sacha Jones has been denied and deprived by NZ Tennis' blinkered 'parochialism' in her quest to realize her full potential. Hardly the case, when she's been the principle beneficiary of NZ Tennis' largesse."

• More Sacha Jones, from Tracy Collins of Phoenix: "It was with great interest that I read the mailbag entry about Sacha Jones. I had the chance to watch two of her matches in Phoenix in 2009 during her impressive 24-match winning streak on the ITF Tour. She was great to talk to after one of her matches, and with her ranking climbing close enough to make the 128-player field for Melbourne -- then two months away -- I asked her if she thought she might get a wild card. She was frank: There was no way Australian tennis was going to give a wild card to someone from New Zealand, regardless of her heritage. ('How many Canadians get wild cards into the U.S. Open?' she asked.) I didn't think much of it, because she looked like a can't-miss prospect.

"Six weeks later, she was sidelined by severe injury and, like so many players, 'can't-miss' was derailed by physical problems. It's hard to blame her, at 21, for trying to use a parent's birthright to try to regain some momentum, especially when the marquee 'Aussie' players are mostly of Eastern European heritage. It's unfortunate that she should take such criticism. She's a delightful young woman who stayed true to New Zealand at her best times. She deserves every break she has a right to in her quest to play on the WTA Tour. Thanks so much for sharing the story from NZ!"

• We've been slacking on our anti-grunting mail lately. John R. Grace of Aberdeen, Md.: "I've come to accept that the women's game is full of grunting and will not change anytime soon. Yes, I've accepted it ... but sadly, I've also stopped watching women's tennis. Regardless of how compelling the matchup may be or, frankly, how attractive one or both of the contestants may be, I can no longer take the shrill shrieking with every swing of the racket. I'm done until the WTA solves the problem."

• Milos Raonic has committed to play the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in July. And, turnabout being fair play, various Hall of Famers -- Agassi, Jim Courier and Martina Navratilova -- will appear at the Rogers Cup in August. Click here for more information and tickets.

• Australian Open suicide pool. Enter here. I'll throw in prizes to the winners, and try to keep some updates on Twitter during the tournament.

• Inevitably, we have the Facebook group "Rainbow Flags Over Margaret Court Arena."

• Kris of Norwalk, Conn., has long-lost siblings: Ben Flajnik of the Bachelor and Rafael Nadal.

Have a great week, everyone!

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