Wednesday August 3rd, 2011

While tipping a cap to Paul and Bruce Flory...

I can't believe you defended Robert Kendrick. An athlete who makes his money playing tennis knows that anything in his body that shouldn't be there could keep him from earning a living. This guy is getting on a plane and thinks, "Well, I might get jetlag, so I think I'll pop a pill that I know nothing about." REALLY?? I can think of more likely scenarios. But come on. You can't bend the rules because the alleged perp comes up with a lame excuse. -- Steven Perry, Santa Rosa, Calif.

• For those who missed it, American veteran Kendrick was suspended for a doping violation last week. The banned substance in question, methylhexaneamine, a stimulant, was contained in an anti-jetlag capsule. Kendrick denied any intent to enhance his performance as a result of taking this substance. And, not insignificantly, the ITF does not dispute this. Nevertheless, he was suspended for a year and is currently appealing. (Read the decision here.)

To Steven's point, I am not "defending" Kendrick. There is a strict liability standard here. If the banned substance is in your system, you're on the hook. Those are the rules, however draconian they may be. At a minimum, Kendrick was incredibly careless. Given the harshness of the code, why even gamble with a capsule? If I'm told that running a red light will result in a 90-day jail sentence, I may think it's a ludicrous punishment, grossly unfair, way out of proportion with the severity of the infraction. But until the rule is changed, I'm going to be damn sure not to cross the intersection when the light is yellow.

Here's the product in question. You really want to roll the dice here?

But here's where I defend -- or at least sympathize strongly -- with Kendrick. The whole purpose of anti-doping is to ensure a level playing field and punish the cheaters. Not only does Kendrick assert that he was not trying to enhance performance; that doesn't even appear to be in dispute. (Nor was it for Martina Hingis, Graydon Oliver, Richard Gasquet and many others who, as Hingis memorably put it, were caught in the anti-doping "machinery.") Yet there is no real distinction here. Wayne Odesnik gets caught with multiple vials of human growth hormone -- the epitome of performance enhancement -- and is suspended for one year. Kendrick sloppily takes a jetlag capsule and gets the same punishment. (Which at his age of 31, is the equivalent of forced retirement.) That, simply, flies in the face of both reason and fairness.

This anti-doping is a tricky business. A policy filled with loopholes and exceptions (and therapeutic use exemptions, which have become farcical by the way) lacks credibility. But a policy that can't/won't distinguish between the cheating and sloppiness, essentially treating all failed tests the same, lacks credibility, too. Kendrick will now take his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, for an expedited appeal, seeking some mercy. We'll follow this closely.

Serena Williams winning the Stanford title only shows the lack of depth and talent in WTA, notwithstanding your usual Serena Serenade. -- Sri Sambamurthy, Short Hills, N.J.

• I like "Serena Serenade." I defy you to watch Serena's matches at Stanford and then tell me the storyline is the weakness of the WTA field, not the strength of one player competing at an unmatched level. Serena served well, returned well, moved pretty well, competed well. Her winners-to-errors ratio was as high as 8:1 in some sets. Give her some credit.

Sri wasn't the only one sounding this theme. Some of you went so far as to suggest that's Serena's play last week was, perversely, an indictment, because it shows how much she would have achieved if she had been committed.

I get the objections to Serena. You might take issue with her level of professionalism. You might question whether she has surrounded herself with the best people, particularly on the PR side. You might wish she hadn't threatened to choke an official with tennis balls in the most obscene terms possible. You might wish she reported injuries more transparently, that she didn't take big money to play World TeamTennis and then -- as several of you reported -- spend most of the time on the bench, staring at her phone. But the bottom line is that she is an athlete and her job is to win. That being the case, I'll gladly take her results and competitive will over the shaky play and nerves of more decorous colleagues.

Speaking of gamesmanship, when was the last time Roger Federer lost (or was losing) a match and called for a trainer during the match? -- Mark Llacuna, San Jose, Calif.

• Here's another point. I was speaking with a golf writer recently about Tiger Woods' physical breakdown. The writer asked, "How did Federer deal with his injuries?"

Me: "What injuries?"

Writer: "I just assumed, being a top athlete for so long, there was a point when his body let him down and he had to miss a chunk of the season."

Me: "That holds true for just about every player, male or female. Save one. Federer."

We don't talk about this much, but here's another big point in Federer's favor, as if he needs more. Name an elite athlete who's been so reliably healthy. OK, some of this is good genes. Some of this is a low-impact style that comes from playing -- like Sandburg's Chicago Fog! -- on little cat feet. Some of this is simply luck. But I think there's a huge element of professionalism here, too.

Which will disappear first: a male tennis player under 6 feet ranked in the top 100, or the one-handed backhand? -- Henry, McLean, Va.

• Nice question. Both are slowly perishing. A few years ago it seemed like the trend had reversed a bit. Led by Lleyton Hewitt -- but also including Juan Carlos Ferrero, Sebastien Grosjean, Guillermo Coria and Arnaud Clement -- the little guys had a nice surge earlier in this millennium. But now we're back to what Mary Carillo might call Big Dude Tennis. Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic, Ernests Gulbis, Grigor Dimitrov (who's played like the contents of the Hudson River since Wimbledon) all have height.

Meanwhile, as long as Federer was atop the charts, the one-handed backhand seemed to be doing just fine. But now that, too, has come under fire. Martina Navratilova recently predicted that if Federer had used a two-hander, he would have multiple French Open titles by now.

If there's an elephant in the room, introduce it. We can sugarcoat it all we want, but the reason Federer doesn't want to watch Grand Slam finals he isn't in is because he's too darn proud to watch a match he could've/should've been a part of. But this is precisely why he is who he is -- you don't become a great champion if you don't have some sort of jealous desire to be a part of a Grand Slam final in which your rivals are playing without you. -- Robert B., Melbourne, Fla.

• We would sooner mix a metaphor than sugarcoat an elephant in the room! I think Robert nailed it. Federer is not a fan eager to see who will win. He is not even a player ranked No. 50 who may have a passing curiosity. He's the odd man out of this three-man rivalry that includes Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. It would almost be weird if he DID watch. I also don't think this is unique to Federer. I'm guessing Serena did not pull up a chair and watch the Maria Sharapova-Petra Kvitova Wimbledon final either. For that matter, I doubt Kobe Bryant watched the 2011 NBA Finals, nor did Tiger Woods watch the last round of the British Open.

I, for, one do not see the problem with the ATP taking a strong stance against match fixing while taking money from gambling websites. The ATP isn't trying to stop all gambling, just match fixing. -- Anonymous

• In all candor, I don't have a big issue with online sport gambling. (I'm still trying to figure out why the U.S. won't just regulate and legalize sports gambling and tap into this huge revenue stream.) My issue with the ATP is taking an exceptionally harsh stance against gamblers, Internet gamblers in particular -- going so far as to suspend players for making $5 bets on the grounds that the integrity of the sport could be eroded -- and then turning around and accepting a sponsorship from a gambling site. Go ahead and take a stand against obesity. But it's a smidge hypocritical when banners for Popeye's Fried Chicken then coat the back walls of your venues.

You think Caroline Wozniacki is the best player to never have won a major when she's been to only one Grand Slam final? Wake up, Jon. She just knows how to beat the system. And she proves it when she plays small tournaments the week before and after Wimbledon! -- Peter B., New York

• Boy, it would be nice if Wozniacki could win a Slam and we could put this to rest. Here's this week's analogy: Remember in school there were a few kids who were plenty bright but whose class rank seemed to be artificially enhanced because they took easy classes? Wozniacki is in the running for valedictorian but there's a nagging sense it's more because she rocks home ec and woodworking and less because she's setting the curve in calculus. Then, when it's gently hinted she should bulk up her schedule with an AP class (i.e. win a Slam), she enrolls in keyboarding (Stockholm) and food preparation (New Haven) instead.

Will you republish your "tips for attending the U.S. Open"? The only ones I remember are "go to the practice courts" and "DON'T dress like a player (wannabe)" Thanks. -- Mark, Boulder, Colo.

• Yeah, in a few weeks. I need to update them, anyway. Note to self:

1) Look into the water taxi situation.

2) Encourage fans staying in Midtown to eat at the street trucks, which are comparable to most restaurants. If you see Taim or Mexicue, in particular, load up.

3) Especially if you're in Midtown East, take the Long Island Railroad over the No. 7 train. Never drive.

4) Cheer on the players most in need of a boost such as Anna Chakvetadze. Especially on the outer courts. It makes a difference.

5) Wear sunscreen.

Is it possible all the grunting is true tennis strategy and not a mere epidemic of poor sportsmanship? An elite player can often tell the spin of the ball by the sound of your opponent's racket hitting the ball. Knowing the spin allows the player to adjust his/her point of impact. Could it be possible that coaches are teaching elite players to grunt loudly in order to disguise the sound of the ball strike? -- Dave C., Philadelphia

• I think that's absolutely a possibility. But that's not "strategy." That IS an epidemic of poor sportsmanship.

• We'll have the oxymoronic guest host for the Mailbag here in a few weeks, Andrea Petkovic. Send your questions.

• This week's anti-grunting rant: Marlene Sherlock of Glen Allen, Va., come on down! "Like so many of your commentators, I'm completely turned off by the grunting of the WTA. Don't watch it at all anymore. What's beginning to disturb me even more, though, is the grunting on the men's side. Last night, I watched a replay of the Marcel Granollers/Mikhail Youzhny match and the contrast was, well, striking. Granollers made some kind of obnoxious sound with darn near every strike of the ball. Youzhny was silent. Despite the split sets, I just couldn't stand to watch -- no, listen -- to another set and turned the TV off. Tennis powers that be: Wake up and get them to shut up!"

• Thanks to twitter follower VanOberst for this journal article alleging that tennis players have asymmetrical butts.

• Michael Chang is perplexed by Andre Agassi.

• This is a repeat but consider this another chance to spare a thought for Alisa Kleybanova, who has Stage II Hodgkin's lymphoma and is undergoing treatment.

• Dan B. of Baltimore: "In response to the quote referenced by fellow reader Mark S. of Los Angeles, 'Federer plays the game we wish we could play; Rafa plays the game we should try to play,' I've heard a similar anecdote. I don't remember it exactly, but it's something along the lines of 'If Federer makes an art of shot-making, then Nadal makes an art of winning matches.' "

• Heading to the Cincinnati tournament, mixed for the first time, this year? James Gold of Orlando, Fla., kindly passes this on.

• Roger Jones of Waterbury Center, Vt.: "I'm looking forward to my annual trip to Montreal for the Rogers tournament. I usually go up on the opening weekend when main draw play hasn't begun yet but there are qualifying matches and practice sessions to watch. It's a great venue with a couple of very nice show courts and practice courts where you can get close to the players (once I actually had Amelie Mauresmo, then ranked No. 1, turn to me and ask in French, "C'etait faux?" about a lob she'd thrown up that her coach, with whom she was playing a practice set, had called out). The atmosphere at the tournament is very European. Montreal, of course, is a lovely city and the crowd seems to be predominantly French speaking. I love the relaxed atmosphere of the opening weekend. Relaxed, that is, for everyone except the qualifiers who are playing life-and-death matches to get into the tournament, the difference between a payday and going home empty-handed. You'll never see more intensity on court than in some of those qualifying matches, which is peculiarly at odds with the laid-back weekend crowd watching them."

• Here's Kiran Gollakota on World TeamTennis.

From the USTA: Rafael Nadal, Kim Clijsters, Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick and reigning U.S. Open wheelchair champion David Wagner will team up with actor Bradley Cooper, the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony and pop star Cody Simpson at Arthur Ashe Kids' Day on Aug. 27 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. The event will kick off the 2011 U.S. Open, which runs from Aug. 29 to Sept. 11.

• A Kimiko Date Krumm interview.

• Chris of Prince Frederick, Md.: "Put a pair of black rimmed glasses on Rafa and you have the '4th' Hanson brother."

Have a great week, everyone!

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