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Tennis

Federer's time critique rings true, but solution isn't shot clock

There are few things more annoying in sports than a really lame delay. If a basketball coach comes out of a timeout and immediately calls his own timeout ("Uh-oh, doesn't like what he sees"), he should be fired on the spot. Certain hitters step out of the box after every pitch for no good reason, other than fiddling. At a time when every television viewer knows the outcome of a replay, NFL referees continue peering into a little box for minutes on end.

I can't remember ever once being annoyed by a slow tennis player.

Wait a minute, that's not quite true. Long ago, on a public court in San Francisco, this guy had a habit of bouncing the ball about 38 times before serving, at which point he'd look up, survey the scene, then bounce it several more times. He was a nuisance in general, always hogging the court beyond the limits of courtesy, and in one memorable episode, my hot-tempered doubles partner grabbed a fistful of shirt as he pinned him against the chain-link fence.

By the time the really talented players turn pro, they have learned a measure of decorum. At the elite level -- the stage at which most fans pay attention -- we've become accustomed to a wide spectrum of between-points strategy, from Alexandr Dolgopolov's rapid-fire pace to Rafael Nadal's quirky habits to Novak Djokovic's numerous methods of taking his own sweet time.

Is it bugging the other players? I wasn't aware of it until last week, when Roger Federer told reporters at Indian Wells, "I don't know how you can go through a four-hour match with Rafa and him never getting a time violation."

If you allow yourself to dwell upon such things, it becomes patently ridiculous that Nadal goes to the towel after virtually every point, simply because that's how he does it. We're all familiar with his nerdy routines, from the pre-match ritual to the lineup of the water bottles to that constant tugging at the shorts.

I just can't recall ever sitting at a big match and thinking to myself, "For heaven's sake, get on with it." There's a unique brand of drama between big points, a time for an exhortation or two, then analysis in a whisper. I think I'd rather watch a measured pace than two guys playing as if their last ride to the hotel is about to depart. (I mention the men because there don't seem to be many complaints about slow-playing women; they've got a death grip on the shrieking issue.)

I always think back to the astoundingly dramatic 2001 Wimbledon final between Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter, played on a "People's Monday" before a blue-collar crowd in a raw, festive atmosphere seldom witnessed at the hallowed All England Club. As things got excruciatingly tense, the chanting would go back and forth between the factions (Croatia vs. Australia) between points, all within the realm of good sportsmanship and a roaring good time. It became an otherworldly experience to hear the place fall deathly quiet, after all that madness, with the next service at hand. I just can't imagine the chair umpire with his eye on a clock that day, calling "Time" and curtailing all the fun.

There are times, as well, when a well-fought point ends with one or both players sprawled on the ground, perhaps cracking a smile or drawing laughs with a funny gesture. These are the times you remember, and it's a brand of sporting behavior that needs no clock. What if a player is battling through an injury, something we'd all rather see than those weak-minded "medical timeouts"? Can you imagine a clock on Andre Agassi and Marcos Baghdatis as they hobbled their way through that epic second-rounder at the 2006 U.S. Open?

I guess I can understand the outrage, limited as it is. Allow yourself to become obsessed with this issue, and you might as well come equipped with your own stopwatch. I just have great difficulty picturing a time-violation clock in action.

Dreadful shrieking excuse of the week

"I've done it since I was a little kid," said Victoria Azarenka. "I needed the extra power it gives."

Sorry, try again. Every ounce of power comes from the body. Zero from the throat.

The honesty award

Goes to Li Na, who grew up in China under a federation that wanted to control her practices, coaching and travel schedule with no regard to the Tour's essential priorities. "I just play for myself," she said. "After the French Open, everyone thinks, 'She should win every tournament,' but I am not a hero. I'm just myself. I'm not the hero for the country."

Imagine it: Li becomes the first really great player from China, with dozens of excellent results beyond that French Open, and somehow it's not good enough? What a hell of a burden.

Honesty runner-up

To Andy Roddick, who fought like a madman to get past Lukasz Kubot at Indian Wells and cashed in a net-cord winner for a key service break.

"That felt fantastic," he said, "and I wasn't sorry at all."

Roddick did make the obligatory gesture of apology, but no -- players shouldn't be sorry in the least. You can't aim for a net-cord winner, but it's the perfect shot. Unreturnable. No apologies, ever.

The German revolution

First Sabine Lisicki, then Andrea Petkovic, then Julia Goerges and Angelique Kerber, all of them now in the top 20, and Mona Barthels (who nearly upset Azarenka) on the rise. These are scintillating times for German women's tennis, in the great tradition of Steffi Graf, but step back for a moment to realize what these contemporary stars are up against in terms of a long-lasting impact on the sport.

So far, although they all show great promise, none of them has won a major. Graf won 22, going back-to-back (at least) at all four majors and winning the French-Wimbledon double four times, not to mention her Golden Slam (all four majors plus the Olympic singles title) in 1988. A formidable standard, indeed.

Just do it, for crying out loud

I'm not sure exactly why the respected Jim Curley stepped down as the U.S. Open tournament director in February, but perhaps it had something to do with CBS' oppressive stranglehold on the tournament. If the Open could act on its own accord, it surely would have changed its stifling format years ago, abandoning the horribly dated "Super Saturday" and conforming to the other majors, granting a day of rest to both the men and women between the semifinals and finals.

I was picturing a CBS executive hovering over Curley when he told the press, before his departure, "We've had Super Saturday at the U.S. Open for over 30 years, and our fans love it, our television viewers love it, broadcasters, sponsors, everyone loves it."

Actually, let's go with wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.

The fact is that everybody is out for fairness now, because the fed-up players have spoken. Instead, we hear from the U.S. Open that, yes, a change is hand, but "possibly not until next year," according to the official statement. "There are so many things that need to be worked through."

Not really. Just tell CBS to wake up. Problem solved.

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