Wednesday February 1st, 2012

Tons of mail after Australia, so let's go speed round..... AUUUUHHHHH-EEEEEEE

What was your reaction to Novak Djokovic's shirtless flexing after he beat Rafael Nadal? In our household we went from thinking "classy, instant classic" to "what a self-centered tool." Was there any ripple in the media? This guy is funny at times. Is he also tone deaf?

-- Rodney Holaday, Columbus, Ohio

? Win a six-hour Grand Slam final and you get some latitude. Do we want junior players emulating this? Probably not. But this was a pretty extraordinary circumstance.

"Epic" and "best ever" seem to be the most overused words these days. My Facebook friends eat "epic" pancakes, have the "best boyfriend ever" (they broke up two months later), etc. etc. This overuse seems to really take away from what they are trying to describe. We've also overused the terms in describing professional tennis matches. I'm wondering which matches in the last, say, three years do you think have truly been "epic"?

-- Erin M. La Jolla, Calif.

? Erin, you want it all. But you can't have it. It's in your face. But you can't grab it.

As for "epics," I'll put Sunday's six-hour cagefight up there. The 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Roger Federer. And I feel like we need to throw in a women's match. Maybe the Venus Williams-Lindsay Davenport 2005 Wimbledon final. Steve Flink, help!

You guys know my pet peeve word?

As a born-and-bred Melbournian, just wanted to ask how you enjoyed Melbourne this year? What do you think of Lleyton Hewitt's commentary? l think he was brilliant -- didn't know he and Rafa were sometimes golfing buddies!

-- Felicity, Melbourne, Australia

? Melbourne is just fantastic. Such a warm and hospitable place and it sure seems like you're managing your growth well. Again, I was astounded by the crowd for the tournament overall (nearly 700,000) and the men's final in particular. It was 1:30 a.m. on a Monday and there wasn't an empty seat in the house.

Hewitt really distinguished himself with his commentary. Keep in mind, he PLAYED in the tournament. It wasn't like he took weeks to study notes and prepare. Then he goes to the commentary booth and was perceptive, well-spoken and personable. Total candor: I thought there was something bittersweet about it all. Where was this guy when he was No.1 in the world? Why would someone with so much to say be so opaque -- and outright difficult sometimes? Like the saying goes, "They finally learn to say 'hello' once it's time to say 'goodbye.'"

I love your tennis columns. I have two quick comments. First, I listened carefully to the noises made by the men and women in the finals. I conclude they're the same, just different octaves. We need to let the women grunt or tell both the men and women to stop. Second, I hated the color commentary on ESPN. We need John McEnroe, not Pat, making the calls. They were LOVING Novak and disrespecting Rafa most of the time.

-- Jeff Davis, Louisville, Ky.

? Funny, on Slate's Hang up and Listen podcast, the guys claimed P-Mac and Chris Fowler were "in the bag" for Nadal.

No disrespect to either woman, but it is a joke that Victoria Azarenka received double the prize money, and Maria Sharapova an equal amount, compared to Rafael Nadal. And it has nothing to do with best of five vs. best of three. These athletes are paid for the entertainment they provide, and the relative levels are just not comparable. If men and women had their own Slams at different times, there is no way the women's Tour could raise enough money through ticket sales or TV to pay as much as the men's Tour does.

-- Vasu K., New York

? My instinct is not to go near this with a 10-foot pole. Or even with a shorter Pole, like Aggie ("Isn't she back in Poland?") Radwanska. But I'm, you know, a warrior. So here's where I stand:

A) The best-of-five argument is a nonstarter. We don't measure value in sports and entertainment by duration. Total red herring. Equal pay for equal work? Not in sports. Hell, look at golf, where the one who works the least gets the most coin. We don't pay extra if a game goes to overtime. When cricket went to the abbreviated format (slowly, I'm learning), the salaries didn't get halved.

B) We also don't get very far on the quality argument. Would Nadal beat Sharapova? Yes. So what. Would the Jacksonville Jaguars beat Alabama in football? Yes. But who would you rather pay to watch?

C) It's unfair simply to focus on the latter rounds. What about the early rounds? Is Philipp Petzschner really more deserving of higher prize money than, say, Vania King, who advanced further of the two?

D) Ten years ago, the Aussie Open winner was Thomas Johansson, followed by Al Costa at the French and Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon. Meanwhile, Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters were running roughshod -- and delivering superior ratings. You could make the case that the equal pay is a hedge.

E) Here's where my libertarian instincts kick in and I start to retreat. The WTA's inability to show that its product has equal value in the marketplace is deeply troubling. If my shares are worth $20 and yours are worth $35 when we merge, I don't expect parity. If the men and the Slams had to do it over, they should have simply said, "One question: Can you demonstrate that your product has value? Do your tournaments pay comparable purses? Are your TV ratings comparable? Can you show commensurate sponsorship deals? If so, great, let's go 50-50. If not, we'll just prorate accordingly."

F) Right now, there is equality at the biggest events. Tennis appears to be a progressive sport. The men are probably leaving some money on the table, but the "optics" are good. If there were rollbacks of some sort, it would be terrible from a public relations standpoint. The WTA would trot out the usual cast of characters to rail against the sexism. It would create tension among the players. Fans might boycott or demonstrate. For what? A few million bucks per Slam, mostly going to players who are already preposterously wealthy? If I ran the ATP, I'd think of equal prize money as a "loss leader" and work on growing the pie rather than shake this hornets' nest over a few million bucks.

Why do we keep hearing about the "Big Four"? Since Australia 2005, only three players have mattered -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. A fourth (Juan Martin del Potro) did manage to win a major in fantastic style, but injury has realistically kept him out of the discussion. Andy Murray certainly has talent, but this is no longer 2009, when Djokovic just had one major. To me, there is a difference between being one of the best as opposed to the best of the rest.

-- Michael, New York

? Check out Murray's semifinal streak. He's four for a reason. Murray has beaten each of the three guys ahead of him. He came tantalizingly close to beating Djokovic in Australia. He's won Masters Series titles like no one's business. OK, his Slam ledger is blank. But I'm comfortable with making him the Ringo of the band.

Nice AO wrap-up, but I think Leander Paes could use some more love, after completing the career Slam by taking over the men's final starting in the first-set tiebreaker, making perhaps the greatest doubles team ever (Mike and Bob Bryan) look quite ordinary.

-- Matthew Neiger, Fort Salonga, N.Y.

? True that. CAREER SLAM in compensatory all caps. People forget, too, that this is a guy who once beat Pete Sampras in singles. And if you have time to kill, read his transcripts on the Australian Open website. If we're being honest, Paes is somewhat of a polarizing figure in tennis and the doubles sub-genre. Some love him (note Martina Navratilova was in his box for the final). Others find him somewhat Machiavellian. But his achievements and career longevity are Hall of Fame-worthy by my reckoning.

Should be 51 Open thoughts: While in Australia, Jim Courier announces that the top two ranked Americans will play singles vs. Switzerland in Davis Cup and that would be Mardy Fish and John Isner.

-- John, Greenville, S.C.

? True. Look for Uncle Mike Bryan to play doubles alongside Fish, given that his usual partner will be home with his newborn. If the U.S. wins this tie, it will be one of the great upsets in Davis Cup history.

Do you think the U.S. team can pull the upset and beat Switzerland next week?

-- Don, Frankfurt, Germany

? Was Schopenhauer an optimist?

Good column as usual, but two pages of fifty thoughts and only two sentences totaling thirty words on men's and ladies doubles. How short is that? I just wrote thirty two words.

-- Steve O'Hara, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

? Touché. In the women's event, nice to see two former top five players -- Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva -- salvage their tournament after unfashionably early exits from the singles draw. (Kuznetsova joined us on the Podcast this week.) And Radek Stepanek and Paes, a shotgun pair, upset the Bryans. The fans (and local TV) in Australia are great about supporting all the matches. But doubles doesn't get its due -- and Steve implies I have blood on my hands here.

If, however, you ever think it's an afterthought for the participants themselves, watch their celebrations when they win.

Just a quick question about fines. You mentioned that 22 players were fined during the recent Aussie Open. And I am wondering what happens to that money? In the NHL (where players are unionized), player fines are put into the Players Emergency Assistance Fund. The fines ultimately help players in need. But do the ITF's fines just come right back into the coffers? I find this interesting to know considering the state of labor strife in tennis right now, especially the dispute over the percentage of money paid out to players at the Grand Slams.

-- Seth, Ottawa, Ontario

? Good question. The money goes to the ITF Grand Slam development fund and is used for its development initiatives. So when Marcos Baghdatis is smashing rackets or Donald Young is using profanities, they are really showing off their altruistic sides.

I agree with you when you wrote about Federer: "The head-to-head record against his rival is, indisputably, a scratch on his escutcheon, a blot on his record. But it does not disqualify him." Of course it doesn't. Sampras is an all-time great and he never made the finals of RG -- his blot. Every great champion has some blot on his record, something that he didn't do or could have done better." No one player is ever going to have all the stats and records.

-- Betty, Calif.

? Right. And from the unintentional consequences department: Does Nadal's current block against Djokovic reframe the Federer issue? I think it shows us that some matchups work for some players, others don't.

Add this from Krishan of Houston: "So Federer loses five matches in a row to Nadal and is considered mentally fragile and in need of a sports psychologist. Nadal loses seven (!!) in a row to Djokovic on every surface possible but it's OK because he's so mentally strong and will find a way because he's Rafa. Huh? Just goes to show you that mental strength in tennis is not based just on H2H."

Amazing men's final and a great time for men's tennis. My question: Should we lobby to rename the classic game "Rock-Paper-Scissors" to "Nadal-Djokovic-Federer"? If nothing else, this would help make tennis more mainstream.

-- Michael B., Ottawa, Canada

? Love it.

Check out the ranking points won post-U.S. Open: 1) Federer, 3810; 2) Murray, 2900; 3) Djokovic, 2560; 4) Nadal, 1880. I think we might be in for a very tight leaderboard later this year. I've been wondering whether Federer will get the two weeks at No. 1 he needs to pass Sampras' record of 286. What do you think of his chances?

-- David Arnold, Amherst, Mass.

? I think this is one record Federer has a hard time establishing.

I don't agree with your statement that Adidas is a major player in tennis because of Andre Agassi. Adidas is a major brand in Europe and so it is an important player in many sports, especially those that are popular in Europe.

-- K.Schoonjans, Antwerp, Belgium

? My point was only that when Nike divorced Agassi 10 or so years ago, it created a bit of a monster, at least within tennis.

After a gladiatorial marathon performance by both Novak and Nadal at the AO final, combined with the semis matches, it's safe to say Nadal, Murray and Djokovic will not end their careers as a rose!!

-- Raj, Bridgewater, N.J.

? True. And is it time to rethink the playing surface? Competing for five or six hours in any sport is brutal. Doing so on concrete is borderline sadistic.

Is there no video of the controversial Liezel Huber double bouncer?

-- Jerry, Woodbury, Minn.

? Not that our YouTube connoisseurs have been able to find. Anyone? Here's a bit more from Simon Cambers.

I know the debate on grunting in women's tennis has been discussed to death. But it occurred to me watching the Nadal-Djokovic final that the men do their fair share of grunting as well. Why do you think that's not an equal issue? Is it just the pitch of a female tennis player grunting that makes it more noticeable and/or annoying? Normally I wouldn't want to play the sexism card, but I doubt many people would joke about Nadal's or Djokovic's grunting as being somehow sexual as is sometimes mentioned with the women. What is your take on this?

-- Trevor, Toronto

? Lots of you asked this. I think (cue: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography) there's a difference between a noise that's the auditory by-product of exertion, and a blaring siren on a mid-rally ball. One of you scolded me for writing "grunting," contending that grunting is OK but it's the shrieking that's offensive. But Trevor's letter underscores why it will be hard to legislate here.

Shots, miscellany

? Here's the latest SI Tennis Podcast with the irrepressible Svetlana Kuznetsova.

? Connecticut readers, who wants to have dinner on Leap Year Night, and benefit a great organization in New Haven at the same time?

? As briefly mentioned above, a hearty congratulations to Bob and Michelle Bryan, who welcomed Micaela Bryan into the world Tuesday night.

? Lots of mail these past few weeks. While I can answer only a small fraction, please know all correspondences are carefully read and considered. But while we're here, let's go over some ground rules:

A) Let's keep it civil. I like tennis. You like tennis. We all like tennis. No reason to dirty your opinions with ad hominem attacks on anyone, someone's country, etc.

B) We try to discuss a wide range of topics, but here are a few to be avoided: baseless speculation about a player's doping; who's hot and who's not; whose spouses and significant others are hot; who is gay or straight; Ke$ha.

C) Leave the profanity out. It just makes my job tougher.

D) Criticism and disagreement are welcome -- and often helpful. But have the courtesy, conviction and courage to use your name.

? If you missed it, here's a must-watch from Jason Gay.

? The Bryan brothers will play the Newport event after Wimbledon and before the Olympics.

? Carl Bialik's take on the Dkjoker getting away.

? New York folks, mark March 5 in the calendar.

? Not sure I agree with the Nadal thesis, but you sure can't fault the writing.

? Something to look for at the next major: Since 2004, Lleyton Hewitt has now lost to the eventual champion 13 of 28 times in the Grand Slams he's played in.

? LGL of Rosario: "Here are my Urban Dictionary entries:

1. Nadawn (Nadal+PAWN), (verb): to submit a foe -even to tears- by constantly frustrating him and playing to his weak spot. Usage: "Gingrich nadawned Romney in South Carolina after playing the income tax card."

2. Lleytonize (verb): to antagonize, generally in a rude matter. Usage: "Billy, don't lleytonize your sister!"

3. Mirk (verb): to go about banal activity in an unconcerned and light manner in the midst of important events that would demand more attention. Usage: "She was mirking with her cell in the middle of her exam."

4. Heninigan (noun): the act of using the rules in obscure ways as to win or foil complete victory of your opponent. Usage: "There goes Jankovic again with her heninigans, she just called for the trainer."

? Alex Rochester, N.Y.: "Jon, figured that everyone would appreciate this. Tennis players getting their due!"

? TJH, of Redondo Beach: "In light of the 'Almagro rightfully drilling Berdych' episode, I had to share a story that happened to me one week prior. So I'm playing a friendly doubles match (friendly but hyper-competitive) with my buddies (5.0 tennis) and during a point my partner and I are squaring off at the net against our opponents who are also at the net in the classic doubles 'confrontation'. My partner mis-hits a volley down the line that fools our opponents which forces one of them to awkwardly lunge to his right and make a FULL SWINGING FOREHAND VOLLEY that he luckily connects perfectly in the center of his racket and, you guessed it, launches it cross court right at my head! He hit this ball so hard that if I had been able to get out of the way, the ball would have hit the fence behind me on the rise. But instead the ball caught me squarely in the face. My first reaction was to double over, put my hands up to my face and feel which part of my face was missing.

"Amazingly, my hat was still on, and my prescription sunglasses were still firmly attached to my noggin. It turns out the ball caught me squarely on my cheek bone just below my right eye. Once the buzzing in my head subsided, we finished our match and yes, we did shake hands!! I have been playing tennis for over 35 years and I have never been hit so hard by a tennis ball. I'm shocked that Berdych reacted the way he did, especially when he only got tagged on the arm. Give me a break!"

? Charlie of Charlottesville, Va.: "Since reader Alex Walker brought up the movie Wimbledon with Paul Bettany, did you know that Bettany's tennis double was played by UVA's Dominic Inglot, the 2009 NCAA doubles champ (partnering Michael Shabaz)? It's mentioned in his bio."

? Althea of Yonkers, N.Y.: "One question: Where is your empathy and intellectual honesty? Any consideration to Serena's possibly life-threatening illness a year and half ago? You and Pam Shriver find all possible positive reasons for all white players who play less than optimal -- ex. Federer, Sharapova's meltdown against the 2012 Australian Open champion -- but with Serana, benefit of the doubt is never or rarely given. Go listen to Shriver's coverage of Serena against Ekaterina Makarova and Sharapova against Azarenka. Maria' shoulder surgery four years ago was the excuse. Give Serena the benefit of the doubt and respect this African-American deserves. Put this comment in the mailbag. Jon, it will tell us about your intellectual honesty."

Have a great week, everyone!

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