Monday September 22nd, 2003

Rather than rehash this week's Davis Cup intrigue -- Lleyton Hewitt's heroics, Andy Roddick's redemption, Carlos Moya's marauding -- we encourage you to check out the results, interviews, etc. at www.daviscup.org, a terrific site set up by our folks at the ITF. Just overlook their putting the likeness of James Blake (DNP-CD) on the home page. ... As for the women, Elena Dementieva continued her swell play of late, beating Chanda Rubin in two tournament finals within eight days. First, Dementieva downed Rubin at the Wismialk International in Bali, Indoneisa and then again at the Polo Open in Shanghai. Dementieva may serve at a post-office slow pace and has never really fulfilled the promise she showed three years ago when she reached the U.S. Open semis. But credit her for taking advantage of a depleted field and quietly returning to the Top 10. ... Emilie Loit and Nicole Pratt beat Ai Sugiyama and Tamarine Tanasugarn in the doubles in Shanghai. ... The Sports Business Journal released a list of the top 10 female athletes in terms of marketability. Three tennis players made the list: Serena Williams at No.1, Venus at No. 4 and Anna Kournikova at No. 6. ...

Last week's Bucharest results: David Sanchez of Espana beat Nicolas Massu in the singles. In the doubles, everyone's favorite chain-smoking, begoggled (mid)thirtysomething German, Karsten Braasch, teamed with Sargis Sargsian to beat Luke Arnold and Mariano Hood. ... Roddick and Blake will play in Pam Shriver's charity event (aka the Mercantile Tennis Challenge) Dec. 4 in Baltimore. ... Andre Agassi confirmed that he will play in the Superset Tennis event Nov. 22 in Portland. A number of other top players (Blake, Tommy Haas, Hewitt) have committed as well. But if all of the aforementioned players show up, my name is Vera Katz. ... Speaking of Portland, if anyone else has read Chuck Palahniuk's new novel, Diary, and can explain it to me, I'd be much obliged. ... Apparently Mark Miles met with USTA reps to discuss the much-ballyhoed "summer circuit."... Hewitt has moved away from home. He recently bought a new pad in Melbourne, Australia. ... Finally, just an FYI: Lots of you asked about the Williams family tragedy this week. Our thoughts are with the family, but at least right now, it seems inappropriate to speculate about their schedule for the rest of the year, etc. For those of you who asked where to send condolences, my advice would be to write to the family c/o IMG, 1360 E. 9th St, Cleveland, OH 44114.

Do you seriously feel that Andy Roddick's game is good for tennis? Four hard, unanswerable serves per game is just boring. The reason women's tennis is so popular, (aside from Anna Kournikova) is because people can relate to that level of play. The rallies are wonderful to watch. The Roddick-Juan Carlos Ferrero U.S. Open Final was boring, boring, boring. --Barbara Eastwood, Mountainville, N.Y.

Agree and disagree. The Roddick-Ferrero final was an eyesore of a match. Not only was there little inherent drama or tension, the tennis was coyote ugly. Very few rallies. Little apparent courtcraft. Lots of unreturnable serves. I kept thinking that the hundreds of thousands of football fans who casually flipped over from the NFL probably weren't won over to our flock.

On the other hand, this match was the exception and not the rule, both for the tournament and Roddick specifically. His previous matches -- all six of them -- had a much different complexion and were easier on the eyes. His match prior to the Open, the Cincy final against Mardy Fish, was a borderline classic that had an abundance of real rallies, nifty volleys and shotmaking. Roddick lacks the smoothness of Pete Sampras and the baseline brilliance of Agassi. His tennis is more of an acquired taste. But don't base your review on one meal.

I read a report regarding the USTA's status as a nonprofit organization and how no one really knows what happens to all of the money they make off the U.S. Open. What do you think about this? Supposedly multiple USTA executives make more than the President of the United States, yet it's supposed to be a private nonprofit organization? Do the players rumble about this? What are your thoughts? --T. Mills, London, Ky.

For those of you who missed it, Selena Roberts wrote an excellent column on the USTA in last week's New York Times. She didn't really tackle the issue of profligacy because -- despite being a nonprofit organization, required by both spirit and law to show some transparency -- the USTA's financial records are better concealed than Iraq's WMDs. It's not exactly stop-the-presses news that, as an institution, USTA does a pretty convincing Enron impression. And, anecdotally anyway, we've known for years that if corporate fat were corporal fat, White Plains would be a sumo wrestling hotbed. But when a nonprofit won't readily furnish its 990s (an IRS form) to the newspaper of record, red flags really start flapping.

As for your question, multiple executives do indeed make more than President Bush does. That is, mid-six- and -- reliable sources tell us -- even seven-figure salaries. This is beyond ludicrous. If you have some time on your hands, go to guidestar.org and check out what other nonprofits pay their executives. If most of the country's largest nonprofits can find capable CEOs who will deign to work for less than $400,000 annually, you'd think the USTA could do likewise. You'd also like to think that a responsible board of directors would put an end to the madness. Again the operative phrase: nonprofit.

Do the players rumble? They sure ought to. The U.S. Open is paying the players less than 10 percent of U.S. Open gross revenue (as opposed to roughly 40 percent for most events). If it is because the remaining 90 percent is going to growing the game -- to inner-city tennis, to wheelchair tennis leagues, to training centers -- that would be one thing. But when millions are going to pay exorbitant salaries and dues at Westchester's finest country clubs, it's quite another.

In any case, Selena's column confirmed that something is rotten in White Plains. What will it take to change the culture?

Speaking of large, amorphous bodies ...

Last week when you talked about Jennifer Capriati's physical appearance, why didn't you mention that Taylor Dent is fat? -- Richard Hicks, New York

Taylor Dent is not fat. And neither is Capriati. They just both need to lose a few pounds to be in optimal condition. That's all.

This reminds me of an old Simpsons line.

Marge: Homer, you need to get in shape.

Homer: (patting belly): I'm round. Last time I checked, round is a shape.

Rather than downplaying Serena and her amazing talents, you should talk about the fact that she was amazingly forgiving of Justine Henin-Hardenne's lack of candor and honesty at the French Open. It's amazing that the incident between the two players was hardly discussed here. It is extremely important and revealing. -- J .Macalino, Boston

Your letter is sure to provoke a chuckle from the dozens of readers who accuse this writer of being ceaselessly pro-Williams. Because this topic comes up on a weekly basis, indulge me a quick riff on L'Affaire Justine, i.e. the Belgian's behavior in Paris against Serena. You won't get any argument that Henin-Hardenne's declining to let Serena play a first ball after Williams elevated her hand was terminally uncool. Even unsportsmanlike. But can we please stop with this, "she cheated to beat Serena" nonsense? It was one friggin' serve. Serena lost five of the last six games.

Given the rarity of grass courts in the world, one could almost think of Wimbledon as a novelty event. How about having one relatively prominent event (a Masters series) per year being played with wooden rackets? It would be great to see an Andy Roddick play without the howitzer serve. Your thoughts? -- Neil Grammer, Toronto

It is, at once, utterly impractical and a great idea. Quite apart from being a terrific media event (every outlet under the sun would cover it), it would lay bare the facts and fictions about racket technology. If Mark Philippoussis or Roddick were to win, it would shut up the Greek chorus grousing that technology imbues big servers with an undue advantage. On the other hand, if Fabrice Santoro or our man Oli Rochus (it wouldn't be a Mailbag without a Rochus reference) were to win in entertaining fashion by out-rallying the competition, it would amplify calls to curb technology.

Re: your reader who asked how Roger Federer can be considered a great player when he can't beat David Nalbandian. Nalbandian is a top 10 player. He's one of the most underrated shotmakers on tour. And some guys just have great success against certain players. Agassi never wanted to see Karol Kucera in his draw, Sebastien Grosjean never wants to see Arnaud Clement, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov could do without facing Dominik Hrbaty. -- Jon Rapkin, Forest Hills, N.Y.

Here's another "got your number" example that makes even less sense: Wayne Ferreira beat Sampras on a half-dozen occasions, including five of the last eight times they played. Anyway, I agree that a) Nalbandian can play, and b) his game matches up well with Federer's. Still, it's reasonable to ask how a future No.1 and the defending Wimbledon champ can look utterly clueless against an opponent. You'd think Federer should able to beat anyone once in five matches.

By the way, there are serious Nalbandian look-alikes on Andy Roddick's favorite Web site, mulletsgalore.com. Check it out.

I keep hearing the media say that Andre Agassi will never win a major again and that he probably will be out of the game in a year or two. I find this hard to believe. He won 19 Grand Slam matches this year. The guys who beat him in the majors this season played great tennis. Agassi is still my favorite for the Australian Open. What do you think? -- Gregg Patterson, Toms River, N.J.

I'm with you. As reader M. Singh of suburban Jacksonville recently pointed out, Agassi's pattern has been pretty consistent the past few years. He trains like a madman in the offseason, when everyone else is either poolside or getting fat. (Well, not fat, but not at optimal fighting weight.) He comes to Australia in top form, stays hot through Miami and then gradually peters out. On history alone, he has to be the favorite heading into Australia. If my math holds, he has a 21-match winning streak on the rubber of Melbourne.

When I was reading about Agassi, Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, I remembered another rising junior: Martin Black. What happened to him, and where is he now? --Phil O'Donoghue, Florence, Mass.

It was Martin Blackman. I think he might be coaching collegiately somewhere. But because I am entirely too lazy to look it up or even google the name, I will offer a prize to the first person to furnish us with at least a semi-veracious answer.

You've cited Younes El Aynaoui's command of languages. I've heard Guga speak English and French, and surely the Brazillian is fluent in Portugese. Given his heritage, I wouldn't be surprised if he spoke German as well. To your knowledge, who is the most linguistically adept player on the Tour? --Martin Brick, Oshkosh, Wisc.

I've heard that Anne Kremer of Luxembourg speaks in many tongues. Martina Hingis was fluent in, I believe, four languages. As was (and likely still is) Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. But the winner still has to be El Aynaoui. Six languages makes him the cunningest of linguists.

In mentioning Michael Chang's retirment ceremony, you commented on Iva Majoli, Tommy Johannson and Conchita Martinez. I would say that Conchita is just as worthy a player as Chang. She wasn't as good as Steffi Graf, Monica Seles or Sanchez-Vicario, but she won a Grand Slam title, made the Finals of two others and was a top-10 fixture for a decade. Shouldn't Martinez be given the same respect as Chang? -- Bob Richter, Green Bay, Wisc.

I think we once made the point that Chang's career parallels Sanchez-Vicario's fairly closely. Both broke through in Paris in 1989 with a game that relied on counterpuching, speed and attention to detail. They enjoyed outsized success (ASV obviously won more Majors but five fewer titles) but fell steadily once they lost a step and powers hitters arrived on the scene.

Still, your comparison between Chang and Martinez might be even more apposite. We took a sloppy, lazy dig in this space a few months ago and a few of you rightfully suggested we look more closely at her record. While she (like Chang) never built on a Slam title won early in her career, she has won a whopping 32 titles, a mess of doubles titles, reached No. 2 and is still going strong at 31. So to your answer your question, yes, Martinez merits a send-off similar to Chang's. Even if she's not American.

During the U.S. Open, it seemed as though every women's match began with the phrase, "Whoever wins this year's Open will have an asterisk by her name because the Williams sisters didn't play." Yet no one takes anything away from the ladies who won titles while Monica Seles -- who was dominating the game at the time she was stabbed -- was out for most of the mid-'90s. What do you think of that? --Michael Brooklyn, N.Y.

Fair point. I would add that by the time Henin-Hardenne outlasted Capriati in as riveting a match (male or female) as I've ever seen, and then came back the next day to beat the world's No.1 player in the Final, the asterisk had evaporated into the ether.

Aren't we all tired of hearing about the underperforming, overexposed Ashley Harkleroad? She wins one match and gets a headline. Is tennis this desperate for talent? --Wilson Atud, Chicago

No, tennis is not that desperate. I've made a mental note to stop picking on Harkleroad but sometimes ... I ... can' t... control ... my....

(exhale)

Harkleroad's handlers have done a bang-up job of seeing to it that her hype outpaces her results. Nike may take the bait and pay her to wear outfits that have to be aerosoled onto her body. The USTA scheduling magic might put her on the show courts. A December exhibition might lavish her with a paycheck and bill her match with Maria Sharapova as a battle of "Future Legends." But you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Given the dimension of Anna backlash (and at least she was once a top-10 player and Wimbledon semifinalist), heaven help Harkleroad if her results don't pick up. It's a shame her proverbial "peeps" have created this undue pressure for her.

In your last column, you gave your list of the five most undervalued achievements in tennis. How do you rate Martina Navratilova making it to the top eight in the women's doubles rankings at age 48? --Mike, Sydney, Australia

Good question. I guess I have two quibbles: First, I would hardly call it undervalued, giving the warm (justifiably so) reception that greets Navratilova wherever she plays. Awe-inspiring achievement? Absolutely. Should she be commended not just for having the physical stamina but the commitment and focus to spend her days on practice courts and in hotel rooms when she would be well within in her rights to luxuriate in Aspen. You bet. But underrated? Not really.

Also, if we were inclined to play the role of ogre, we would quietly point out that, with increasing frequency, the doubles draws on the WTA Tour are deprived of the top players. If Navratilova were winning matches against Williams-Williams, or Hingis-Kournikova, her comeback would carry even more weight.

I think Agassi's 16 Masters Series titles is the most underrated and overlooked achievement in tennis. Masters Series tournaments require five rounds, mostly on consecutive days, against top competition, on a variety of surfaces. I don't see anybody in the current ranks of players winning 16 tournaments anytime soon. --Scott Urista, New York City

Yeah, that's a good one. I would also add that the The Masters Series titles Agassi has won span more than a decade.

Here's another underrated achievement -- Martina Navratilova winning five Grand Slams in a row and going 86-1 during that span of time. Also have you noticed how Martina's protege, Svetlana Kuznetsova, has been improving? More needs to be said about her -- she's only 18 and highly underrated. -- Anandam Mamidipudi, Boxboro, Mass.

I'd agree you on both counts. An 86-1 record is preposterous. And yes, keep an eye on Kuznetsova.

Your most underrated achievement list is good, but how about these two by Chris Evert: 1) She reached the semifinals or better in 52 of 57 Grand Slams played; and 2) She was a top-four player for 18 years in a row. --Tim Howard, Chicago

Thanks, Tim. Those are good. Here's another Evert achievement we ought to trumpet: She won at least one Grand Slam in 13 straight years.

Your list of the Top 5 underrated tennis achievements of all time included two references to Ivan Lendl and it made me think that the man's entire legacy is underrated, as well. As your list proved, he was amazing in his prime, but his name rarely comes up when commentators discuss past champions. -- Carolyn Koo, Somers, N.Y.

I would, without hesitation, agree that Lendl's career was underrated. A few factors work against him: Until the 1984 French Open final, he was known as a choker who couldn't seize the moment when the stakes were highest. Though he went on to become a pillar of mental strength, he had a hard time changing perceptions. Second, Lendl's perceived lack of charisma and his disappearing act post-tennis have, at least subconsciously, probably diminished his legacy a bit in the eyes of the general public. Most fans who follow the game closely are aware that Lendl's career stacks up favorably against John McEnroe's. But given Mac's love-him-or-hate-him notoriety and his ubiquitous presence these days, I think the casual fan likely thinks of him as one of the top three or four players of all time.

What's up with John McEnroe wearing white socks with a suit? --Ken, Pittsburgh

We can only assume that he never got the memo that the hit-and-giggle with Boris Becker preceding the women's Final was, mercifully, cancelled.

Why isn't there an edict for tennis players to dress tastefully when appearing on national television? Did you see Andy Roddick's ugly, torn blue jeans when he was on David Letterman's show? He looked disgraceful. --Snooker Hamilton, Chester, Vt.

You know you're underdressed when people from Vermont are complaining about your excessively casual look. Then again, Snooker, at least he didn't wear white socks with a suit.

Have a good week, everyone.

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