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Professional tennis' place in the quest for a better life; more mail

I have a theory related to your Milos Raonic discussion in the mailbag last week. How many top pros developed in the U.S. (and other nations, for that matter) in the last 20-30 years come from first-generation immigrant families? I give you Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras, for starters, and would argue Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova as well since they immigrated for tennis. Raonic is also one, I believe. How about Mary Pierce and Bernard Tomic? (Come to think of it, James Blake qualifies as well with his British mother.) The reason I think looking in the last 30 years is important is because of professional tennis and the life-changing money involved since then for top pros.

There is absolutely something to the "desire for a better life" energy that immigrant families bring to the table that translates into success in all endeavors, including tennis. They left home seeking a better life. Logic would dictate that they would pass that desire along to their kids. Come to think of it, that makes me, Lindsay Davenport, Andy Roddick and Todd Martin, among others, the outliers. Just a theory but one your readers may want to discuss among themselves. -- Jim Courier, New York

? That's really interesting. And we could keep coming up with more examples. In some sense, aren't Venus and Serena Williams -- whose father was raised in the Jim Crow South -- first-generation Americans too? The knee-jerk response is that this bodes ill for American tennis, at the least for finding the next star at the country club. The more considered response is: "Great. If I'm tasked with identifying talent, I have a bit of data here and I might now consider targeting -- or endowing -- first-generation kids. And at least taking this under consideration."

We could take this discussion in all sorts of directions but I was struck by how counterintuitive this seems. If I were a first-generation parent, I'd be inclined to push my kid into team sports for reasons of socialization and assimilation. Even if I were a rational actor and had a "desire for a better" life and motivations rooted in life-altering wealth, I would chose sports that A) offered the best odds of a scholarship and B) had guaranteed contracts for the pros, not tennis' eat-what-you-kill system. If you were already part of the establishment, isn't that when you would push (gently) your kid into a high-risk, high-reward individual sport?

Jim and I had a bit of back of forth here and I expressed one of my concerns with so many tennis discussions: the consistently small sample sizes. One player can radically change the reputation and perception of an entire country. One fluke injury can take down an entire country's junior philosophy. Two contemporary players from the same country happen to emerge and suddenly a boom is afoot. Also, my strong suspicion is that in most sports, the best players are the ones motivated by a desire to escape endemic poverty. (College basketball coaches joke that they don't recruit kids who come from three-car-garage homes.) But overall I think Jim makes a very convincing case here. Be interested to hear your thoughts ...

Regarding Milos Raonic being North American: to defend you, when I lived in Argentina in the early '80s, my Argentine friends didn't like when my co-workers and I from the U.S. referred to ourselves as Americans. They pointed out, correctly, that they were Americans as well. When I asked what would be acceptable, they responded with Norte Americanos, which I pointed out would include Canadians and Mexicans. So they then offered up Yankees (which they pronounced as Zhankies). Obviously, they had never met anyone from the southeastern part of the U.S. -- Matt Kauffman, Olney, Md.

? Thanks, Matt. But I feel like that joke (such as it was) has played out. Let's be unequivocally (and redundantly) clear. Raonic is Canada's prize. Hands off its Milos. I did though, get a kick our of loyal reader Ole Harder, who identified himself as being from Toronto, America* and then, after his question, noted: "Technically speaking, Toronto is in North America (Canada, if you want to get specific). But given the dearth of truly great American cities these days, you have to take what you can get."

Well played, sir.

I couldn't disagree more about the criticism over Manuel Orantes' Hall of Fame installment. His accomplishments put him among the top 10 players of the entire 1970s. Compare that to baseball. More than 10 players who played in the 1970s are in the Hall of Fame. Or, if you're going to be so strict in your requirements in tennis, maybe we could do the same with baseball. Maybe Eddie Murray doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. I mean, nice player and all, but hardly Babe Ruth or Willie Mays or Albert Pujols caliber. -- David, Clearwater, Fla.

? Let me lighten a healthy debate by quoting the reader who asked whether the Hall of Fame "suffers from electile dysfunction."

OK, back to this matter at hand. First, I would say that it's hard, if not impossible, to compare sports here. We have a hard enough time equating pitchers and hitters (does 300 wins equal 500 home runs?). If we look at pure percentages, consider that even in the '70s, there were 26 major-league teams with 40-man rosters each season. So as a percent of the labor force, far fewer baseball players are enshrined and baseball is, in fact, much stricter.

Maybe we also need to ask: Why must all sports Hall of Fames have the same standards? If tennis is more inclusive, so what? Does it cheapen the achievements of the A-listers? Pete Sampras shouldn't have to share wall space with an accomplished doubles player or a one-Slam winner? Maybe. Again, this is an easy fix: You have A room and B room. I want Michael Chang acknowledged and honored. I just don't want his bust alongside Steffi Graf's and Roger Federer's. We should be able to accommodate that, no?

It IS abuse of the system, pure and simple. Marko Djokovic has done nothing to justify that wild card in Dubai, and, were he elegant in the least, he would not have accepted it. -- Doug Messenger, Los Angeles

? I'm not sure I get the word "elegant" here. And I'm not sure I begrudge Djokovic the Younger the desire to play in the main draw, even if his ranking suggests that it's ill-deserved. But I do wonder what effect this will have on him. I know for a fact that some other players were displeased by the wild card. Marko Djokovic is already a marked man (no pun intended) because of his surname. Now all the more so because he's shown a willingness to trade on nepotism. Other players sure have a lot of motivation to beat him.

Lighter note: One of you asked whether Marko Djokovic learned to play tennis in a kiddie pool. Ba-da-bump.

It's the tournament's prerogative to give the wild card to anyone. What they didn't count on is the blowback for this -- and it seems they got the better part of the deal since many seem to be putting the blame on Novak and his family more than anyone else. People are up in arms over this but what's your take on appearance fees? Isn't that some sort of bribery -- I give you this much, and you go to my tourney -- and shouldn't people be more concerned that this is expected (and systemic)? -- Glenn, Manila

? If you're a top player creating all sorts of value for a tournament -- well in excess of any prize you can win -- don't you deserve to be compensated? If you're a tournament that has paid a sanctioning fee and operating on thin margins, don't you A) deserve a means of shuffling high-value players into the draw even if their rankings don't merit automatic inclusion? (Again, I use the example of Venus Williams in Miami.) B) And don't you deserve to open your wallet to lure high-value players? (Federer in Rotterdam and Dubai.)

I suppose there are fairness concerns. If, say, Dubai has clearly indicated that Federer is a preferred player who provides value, might rules be bent to ensure that he remains in the draw? I don't know. He might get a preferential match time but it's not as though line calls are being manipulated in his favor. Overall, I think appearance fees work well, an efficient market that rewards value -- and forces buyers, in this case the events, to pay for it!

Not that I have anything against wild cards, but I remember when a certain player was No. 141 and probably could have gotten into any tournament he wanted to. But he decided to play the lower tier of the Tour such as the Challengers (probably for confidence) and did so despite the fact that as Andre Agassi anyone would give him a wild card into their tournament just to have him there. -- Gerry Koppe, Newington, Conn.

? Of course Andre Agassi could afford to miss the main-draw money, often a consideration for other players. But, yes, sometimes reconstructing your ranking away from the spotlight can be beneficial.

I'm from Portland, Ore., but writing from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Hope mentioning that gets me into the 'bag. Federer's comment about Sampras' record for weeks at No. 1 is dead on. All he was saying is that he could have changed his schedule to try to rack up more points (remember, Sampras himself did that for the year-end ranking), but he did not choose to do that. He plays his schedule, plays his best, and lets the ranking fall where it will. No need to shoot the man for arrogance when he was simply speaking the truth. -- David, Portland, Ore.

? Portland ties, even by proxy, get you special dispensation.

Tons of mail both maligning and defending Federer. Let's answer this and then put this to rest. I'm basically with David. A) Let's assume he meant that he didn't chose to pursue the record, not break it. (I didn't choose to enter the Oregon Powerball Jackpot. That doesn't mean I'm boasting that I didn't chose to win it.) B) Other players have manipulated and adjusted their schedules to attain/maintain rankings positions. One of you wrote: "Remember Pete playing Basel, Vienna, Lyon, Stuttgart, Paris and Stockholm in '98 to beat Marcelo Rios to the line?" So perhaps Federer could have made some changes like this to pursue the top spot. He chose not to.

Takeaway: The statement is up for interpretation. You can be as charitable or exacting as you like. But let's move on. Deal?

Actually, check that: Let's linger for a beat. SI.com's Richard Deitsch and I were just marveling about this scene from Monday night's exhibition in New York. Federer loses to Andy Roddick and 15 or so minutes after the match, all players head to a press conference. Federer arrives first and sits down. He smiles, jokes with some familiar faces. A patch of time elapses -- maybe a few minutes -- and none of the other players arrived. There's no whiff of exasperation. No WTF look on his face.

Eventually, Roddick, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki walk in and the press conference begins. Small vignette. And, yes, "waiting patiently after a $1 million exhibition" doesn't qualify you for canonization. But it was telling. Imagine other similarly situated celebrities -- we begin with Tiger Woods -- being made to wait for a midnight press conference and passing the time pleasantly. Again, you witness countless little-but-telling moments like this and it makes it hard to summon much outrage when Federer makes a borderline arrogant comment.

David Ferrer SMOKED?? Are you kidding me? I still have a clip from last year's French Open on my DVR; a locker room scene where Djokovic took a pack of cigarettes out of Mikhail Youzhny's hands, and made an appropriate comment regarding the dangers of smoking. Seriously -- how many top-level Tour players smoke? -- Helen, Philadelphia

? Story: The first time I went to the Cincinnati tournament, maybe 10 years ago, I pull into the hotel parking lot and stumble past a guy smoking. I assume it's Carl the Maintenance Guy on his break and I think to myself, How ironic: There's a tennis tournament going and this guy sucking down a Marlboro is a dead ringer for Sebastien Grosjean. No, wait. It IS Sebastien Grosjean. But, wait, he's smoking. Isn't that, like, a violation of the ATP's protocol? And through the years I've seen other players -- on both Tours; vast majority of them European or Russian -- breaking out the cancer sticks.

What can you say here? Is smoking conducive to being a top-flight athlete? No. But neither is Pringles, drinking beer, driving without a seat belt or 100 other inadvisable activities that players, exercising their prerogative, choose to undertake.

Regarding the GRUNT ISSUE. Isn't this just another thing the girls are using to get over competition nerves? The WTA is not doing anything about it, as it wants the girls to be competitive and improve. Just look at the new coaching rule between points. Obviously, the powers that be want to improve the game and grunting is just another crutch the players are using to be more competitive. I think the elite division of women's tennis is so flaky, and there are so many head cases, that it is not worth following anymore. The "ova's" are so boring and machine-like while the others are not consistent. Turn off the women, watch the guys. The threesome of FED/NAD/DJOK will keep us entertained for a few years more. -- Patrick Kramer, Oslo, Norway

? I disagree with a lot of Patrick's sentiments. For starters, I don't mind the prevalence of head cases. It makes for great entertainment -- if, in a slightly guilty rubber-necky kind of way. And when players can surmount their nerves (see: Stosur, Sam), it adds a real layer of texture to the victory. And I think you could just as easily spin this as Girl Power feminist manifesto.

It's like an auditory tattoo. Victoria Azarenka and the gang are saying, "I defy your confessions, your politesse, your patriarchal rules, your inhibitions and your outdated opinions about what is socially acceptable. We're here. You hear? So deal with it."

I'm heading with some buddies to Key Biscayne, Fla., for the last four days of the upcoming Sony Ericsson Open. Can you suggest both some tournament tips and some must-visit restaurants? -- Aaron D., Charleston, S.C.

? As for tournament tips, a friend of mine once told me that he brought a swimsuit and went to the beach to watch sunset between the afternoon and evening sessions. My best Miami dining tip is this -- and it comes with Cliff Drysdale's seal of approval as well.

I haven't seen Robin Soderling in a while. I presume he is injured. Any updates? -- Eric Bukzin, Manorville, N.Y.

? The readers take over. Marcus of Stockholm: "An interview with Soderling in a Swedish newspaper just revealed that he can "barely get off the couch" on some days and that although he does not want to consider the possibility of not recovering he realizes that "it could be three years until [he] is well, and by then it would be too late." A shame for us Swedes, since we don't have too many other players to be cheering about for the foreseeable future."

I wonder why Federer's Davis Cup woes would have any bearing on his G.O.A.T. status? He has been a one-man team for most of his career, having had to win either at least two if not three matches every time. Before the debacle against the U.S., he had been talking to Swiss reporters about the burden of having to carry the success mainly by himself. OK, another one for the Federer-is-arrogant brigade. But he does not play on a strong team like the Spaniards or the team the U.S. used to have when it won, etc. You surely need more than one reliable, strong player to win these contests. So even if I was very disappointed with his seeming disinterest this time, I guess it's also understandable and I cannot see how this would affect the G.O.A.T. debate. -- Helle Hansen, Zurich

? Davis Cup success is obviously a missing element on the Federer résumé one that other players -- Nadal, Djokovic, even Sampras -- have, sometimes in abundance. Inasmuch as this could be offset with success in Olympics singles, that hasn't occurred. And while Switzerland is no tennis powerhouse, you could argue that Stan Wawrinka is a decent wingman. (Is he any worse than Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic?) So in that sense, it has SOME effect and bearing on Fed's status. Overall, though, I agree with you. Given that Federer does not anchor a strong team and given that he has succeeded where he has prioritized, I don't think middling Davis Cup results do all that much to undercut his G.O.A.T. status. Maybe we can revisit after the London Games.

Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino: If she becomes a big star, she will really need a nickname. -- Caitlin, Milwaukee, Wis.

? La Vec? Too French bistro-sounding?

I am a starving poet. Well, not starving but definitely poor. I keep waiting for your next limerick contest. Any idea when that's going to be? Thanks. -- Jenn, Massachusetts

? As a wise man once said: There's no money in poetry. And there's no poetry in money. But, sure, let's commence another limerick contest. I'm sure the good folks at one of the major racket manufacturers will be happy to kick in a prize.

Shots, miscellany

? For those who missed it, here's our wrap from the BNP Paribas Showdown event at Madison Square Garden.

? A good piece on Rohan Bopanna.

? Want some cool Williams sisters swag?

? Nice piece on Larry Ellison and Indian Wells.

? Lisa Sandberg of Columbus, Ohio: "I know you've discussed the shrieking of Azarenka et al. to death, but I thought I would just add this. A couple of years ago I was down in Cincy at the Women's Open and Azarenka was playing on one of the side courts (Court 3). I couldn't take the noise after a while, so I headed over to the stadium court to watch the match there. For anyone who's been there, the stadium court is pretty big, and I was sitting along the side, up high, underneath the awning. I could still hear Azarenka shrieking all the way over on Court 3. 'Nuff said."

? A pair of unsolicited book recommendations by friends (since we haven't done this in a while): 1) Deadweather and Sunriseby Geoff Rodkey. 2) The Shphas by Douglas Stark.

? Madison of New Jersey has long-lost twins: Mikhail Youzhny and Harry Potter.

Have a good week, everyone!

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