Say this about actors, musicians, writers and other artists: They can age gracefully. Often they perform just fine deep into middle age. And when they can no longer hit the high notes or remember their lines, they can retreat slowly and privately.
Athletes aren't afforded this luxury. Their skills irretrievably desert them. Their bodies betray them. Their motivation fades. And when it happens, they are exposed.
We talk about the most obvious cases -- Michael Jordan antagonizing his teammates on the Wizards; Muhammad Ali getting pasted by Larry Holmes -- but really it's so seldom that it ends gracefully for anyone in sports. And in tennis, it's particularly unseemly. There is no designated hitter position, no "veteran leader" role to ease the transition once you hit 30. It's you out there alone and you win or you lose.
We got a vivid example of this Thursday in the second round of the Australian Open. Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt -- two former No. 1 players, one more than eight years removed from winning his last Grand Slam title, the other almost 10 -- battled on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. It wasn't the Seniors Tour. But neither was it two guys in their prime with realistic chances of winning the tournament. It was the featured match because of the past, not because of the present, much less the future. Left unsaid, it could be the 30-year-old Hewitt's final Aussie Open.
In a sadly fitting way, the match ended prematurely when the 29-year-old Roddick injured his hamstring tendon and retired after the third set. The body that had rebelled against him in 2011 was at it again.
"It's a miserable, terrible thing being out there compromised like that," he told reporters after failing to reach the third round of the Australian Open for only the second time in 11 appearances. "It really sucks."
Roddick added: "It's frustrating. It's discouraging. You know, your sensible mind says to have a sense of perspective. You still have it pretty good. The competitor in you feels terrible and wants to break stuff. I can't really complain. I had 10 years pretty much of a clean slate. That's a lot more than most people get. The last two years have been pretty tough."
Roddick will rehab yet again, miss the Feb. 10-12 Davis Cup tie against Switzerland that he said he was probably not going to play anyway, and try to return for the San Jose event next month. Hewitt lives on to fight another day. Literally.
• Yours is a fitting question on a day when Maria Sharapova takes the court and wins 6-0, 6-1 -- thereby losing two games in four sets en route to reaching the third round; Novak Djokovic barely breaks a sweat yet again, beating Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 6-2, 6-1; and Serena Williams, Andy Murray Jo-Wilfried Tsonga cruise in straight sets.
Like you, I see this not as an indictment but as a virtue. In the early rounds of majors, the stars often show off their games and bona fides and blow out the lesser lights.
Tennis is filled with these "alterative truths." Your "WTA vacuum" and "merry-go-round" of Grand Slam champions is someone else's "depth" and "suspense." Their "reliable Big Three" is your "numbing predictability." Top players win an early match 6-4 in the third set and gloat: "I need a match like this to win a Slam; it was a great battle." That same player wins that same match 6-0, 6-1 and it's: "I'm happy to take care of business and conserve energy I'll need in later rounds." He's a dominant player; no, wait, he had no competition. She has outside interests that have kept her fresh; if she had suppressed distraction, she could have achieved so much more.
So it goes ...
• Let's take a moment and acknowledge that Nalbandian got jobbed. I also agree with some of you who suggested that if Nalbandian were a) American, b) a more fluent English speaker and c) a more likable player, this would have generated more attention and backlash. Gilbert Benoit noted: "Had the situation been reversed [and Isner gotten the raw deal], ESPN would still bring it up three years from now. Based on past incidents where American players were 'victimized.' "
Did Isner have a moral obligation to intervene? No. Players have an unwritten rule that you play the calls, you spare the chair embarrassment and that it all evens out. I once asked Roddick about
• I'm of two minds here. You generalize at your peril. You could just as easily point to exemplary Americans. Venus Williams is dignity personified. Bob and Mike Bryan are the most accessible and fan-friendly athletes you'll ever come across. Same for John Isner. Young players could do a lot worse than following
I have, though, seen a spike in complaints about the attitude and conduct of the American players -- Roddick, Fish and Serena in particular. I saw that Brad Gilbert fielded tweets on this topic as well. It probably wouldn't hurt Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe or Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez to send a mass e-mail around saying something to the effect of, "I know different players have different dispositions on the court. But, especially in this Olympic year, especially at a time when tennis isn't exactly rocking the U.S. popularity charts, try to keep in mind that, at some level, you are representing your country out there."
• Let me poke around and get back to you. All I'm hearing right now is that Bopanna thought his best chances for qualifying and playing well at the Olympics would come with playing alongside a countryman. So this year he teamed with Mahesh Bhupathi.
• We could have a healthy debate here. I tend to think you're right. From a technical standpoint, I prefer Murray's game. He obviously has the higher career ranking, the better overall results and more appearances in the "business end" of majors.
But I think Tsonga's game and athleticism are more conducive to a seven-match winning streak. I can see Tsonga getting hot, finding the range on his serve and blowing through 21 sets (as he nearly did in Melbourne in 2008). For Murray, more has to go right.
• But there is a dearth of opportunities to see your favorite pro in many markets. Especially in this Olympic year, the top ATP stars may play only three events in the United States this entire year. (Think about this for a second. Think tennis is a) global and b) has moved its nerve center offshore?) So when Roger Federer plays Roddick in Madison Square Garden, you can bet tennis fans will be there. In a perfect world, they may prefer to see the two play at a "real" event with "real" stakes. But this isn't a bad alternative.
• Frank Deford is without peer on many accounts. (Read this piece.)
• I wasn't going to say anything. But since you brought it up and all ...
• Tennis Channel writer James LaRosa echoes my sentiments -- can you hear the echo? -- in saying: "With all the heartbreaking photos we've endured of a defeated Nicolas Mahut, we ALL deserve
• Today's random encounter with a pro:
"As we walked on, I recognized Arantxa and we said a polite hello to her. During the course of our match, Arantxa would stop and watch us play points, clapping her hand to her racket and giving us nice compliments. When we finished, she came over to the water fountain as we were drinking and congratulated us on our play. I had a camera in my tennis bag and got a nice picture with her. I mentioned that Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were in town playing the Miami Heat that night and she should go see him. I told her not having a ticket was not a problem because her agent could secure her one. She said she would try but was doubtful.
"That night, as my buddy and I stood in the concession line for a beer, who did we hear and see come running up to us but Arantxa with a big smile on her face. She had floor seats for the game. She gave us both a big hug and thanked us for the advice. That day and night was such a cool experience for us two tennis fans. And Arantxa went on to win the tournament, which made it that much sweeter!"
• Carlos Acosta of Torreon, Mexico, posed a trivia question the other day about the greatest women's player from Hong Kong. The correct answer: Paulette Moreno. Carlos writes: "Thanks to reader Nathaniel Boni Aserios. He has won -- along with you, Jon -- a delicious Mexican dinner with me, anytime you can come to my land. Congrats for your wonderful column, from a loyal reader." (Glenn Stein of Nashville, Tenn., and Roh Krishnan of Minneapolis were among the other readers to get it right.)
• John McEnroe takes one on the chin
• Justin, Chester Springs, Pa.: "Speaking of tennis in the mainstream [noted in Wednesday's mailbag with a mention of
• The USTA has named D.A. Abrams
• JWS, Royal Oak, Mich., with long-lost siblings: "