A decorated former player remarked that the Mailbag was skewing "too negative" lately, what with Michael Llodra and broadcaster conflicts-of-interest discussions and the interminable grunting debate. Duly noted. Let's balance with a Mailbag Full o' Sunshine this week. (Sent from the Pacific Northwest where sunshine is a rumor.)
What does it say about the world's highest-paid female athlete (Maria Sharapova) that she happens to be a tennis player who's not won a major in over four years and got her clock cleaned in the last few big finals she's reached? We hear talk about equal pay in tennis; where's the outrage when the more dominating champs score lower endorsements deals?
-- Vijay Mukherjee, New York
? A good question on this, the 40th anniversary of Title IX and the reunion of the WTA suffragettes.
Someone else mentioned this recently. I can't say I'm bothered. "Highest paid" doesn't pertain to prize money. It pertains to endorsements, which are inherently subjective and inequitable. This isn't about gender; it's about marketing. Jeremy Lin will earn more in off-court income than superior players, even on the order of Derrick Rose, the reigning NBA MVP. Derek Jeter will make more in endorsement income than Albert Pujols. For that matter, Lady Gaga will sell many more records than Norah Jones; The Rock will make far more for a movie than, say, John Malkovich, a better actor by anyone's estimation. The reductio ad absurdum, Snookie, will make more money "acting" than, say, Laura Linney will.
We're talking about moving products and appealing to consumers and raising brand awareness and penetrating markets. Whether it's Jeter's likability or Sharapova's looks and global popularity or Lin's heritage, there are factors -- relevant to brands -- that go beyond sports performance and competitive merit.
I think we could be critical of the WTA if more marketable players were given a competitive advantage or somehow paid extra. A decade ago, the WTA had a gold exempt list and that paid bonuses to various players. Originally based on straight ranking, the list was amended to include less quantifiable factors, enabling Anna Kournikova to gain gold status. When she was eligible for bonus money at the expense of higher-ranked players, it raised some eyebrows. (It raised mine, anyway.)
But overall, I think the WTA has it right. The players are eligible for the same purses. If Sharapova had won Miami, she would have received the same $712,000 paid to less-popular Aga Radwanska. Not a penny more; not a penny less. If Sharapova can leverage assets in supplemental off-court income, she is free to do so.
Handicapping the percentage chance of the following players winning at least one Grand Slam title in his or her career: Andy Murray: 72 percent; Caroline Wozniacki: 53 percent; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: 42 percent; Milos Raonic: 38 percent; John Isner: 11 percent. Sound about right?
-- Stephen B., Toronto
? I can't tell if this is based on analytics of any kind or if it's just intuition. I'd say Murray might be a bit high. Same for Wozniacki. (Remember, since she became a top five player, she hasn't even made a Grand Slam final.) Tsonga is probably high, too, though he's precisely the kind of player with the high-octane game to rip off seven straight matches. Raonic is about right, given his young age and how many opportunities await.
Sorry Jon, but your continued crusade against women's grunting will not prevail regardless of the number of emails you put up as testimony from like-minded readers and the "bully pulpit" of your column to try to promote your viewpoint. It will not succeed for one simple reason: men's grunting. There was plenty at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, and to continue the idea that it's perfectly fine for men to grunt, but not women, is sexist. Plain and simple. The only thing that will matter in the end is women who play fiercely and competitively. And I believe Victoria Azarenka will be the new trend of an intense and ruthless women's pro tennis player.
-- Matt Valdez, Fort Collins, Colo.
? I don't necessarily disagree. But it's not men versus wome; it's a noise of exertion versus a noise of gamesmanship. Most of us think we know "grunting" when we hear it. When Rafael Nadal is forced off the court in the 15th stroke of a rally and jacks a running, two-fisted, spin-drizzled backhand, we understand why he makes a sound. When Azarenka hits a mid-court forehand and screeches like rusty train brakes, we're less forgiving. But who among us wants to make that determination? We can't tell all players to be silent. We can't scrutinize every sound and decide whether it's unintentional or tactical.
Again, I think the play here is the soft approach. You call Sharapova and Azarenka into a room -- making sure the snack bowl is filled with their favorite candy -- and simply say: "Look, you're making life tough for us here. Other players are complaining. Broadcasters are complaining. Fans -- remember them? The people who pay the bills? -- are complaining in droves. You know and I know that any sort of formal policy is going to be tough to enact. So I'm appealing to you informally. Can you take one for the team here and try to tone it down?
"I know, you've been making noise your whole career. I know, sometimes you're smacking the felt out of the ball -- an act of power and effort -- and sometimes it will be attended by a noise. But I'm just asking you to try to modulate. It will make life easier for all of us. Can you help a sister out, here? Thanks so much."
I adore France. Is it a paradox that my vote goes for the Wimbledon poster? Classic and cubist at the same time. I love it. What were the French thinking? Are you keeping a tally to later let us know the Wertheim readers' poll results?
-- L. Pereira, Burnaby, British Columbia
? In case you missed it, here's the French Open design this year. And here's the Wimbledon poster.
Feel free to vote.
Gaudi, gaudy or just plain ghastly. What were they thinking? Who could possibly be attracted to an event by a poster that portrays spectators as monocular large-lipped blobs and writes the event's name in green goo? Even the tennis ball appears to be trying to escape ...
-- MSN, England
? Tastes vary. You and I might feel similarly here. But how cool is it that the French Open A) has an artistic theme that changes each year and B) gives the appointed artist the latitude to be this -- what's the word? -- outré.
If this were American sports, the logo would get focused-grouped to death and end up being boring in the extreme.
I have to defend Serena Williams and her reaction after her loss to Caroline Wozniacki in Miami. While her hyperbole may have been over the top -- "I only played at 20 percent" and, "She played the match of the year" -- is there any question that what she said is true? Against Sam Stosur, Serena's first serve was on fire and her movement was aggressive, but against Wozniacki she was flat and her serve was not nearly the weapon it should have been. Conversely, while Wozniacki didn't play the match of the year, she played well. So what exactly is wrong with what Serena said?
-- Eric, Philadelphia
? I don't want to belabor this, especially days after Serena played (and acted) so brilliantly in her run to the Family Circle Cup title.
Proving again that no one does polarizing quite like Serena, I got a lot of feedback here, all over the map, including my first death threat. I want to make one quick point: I don't dislike Serena. Not at all. There is so much to admire, starting with her tennis record but hardly ending there. She is smart; she can be charming; her family has challenged the establishment in obvious and less obvious ways; her longevity will redefine how players approach their scheduling. I still maintain that the Williams Family Story remains the most underrated narrative in sport, one that will get its due from history.
My criticism comes from a place of frustration and disappointment, not anger or dislike. Again, Serena's done the heavy lifting. Her tennis record is incontrovertible. Her story is beyond compelling. She has shown the capacity for grace. My question: Why undermine yourself with such sloppy behavior? Why become polarizing when a little more self-control and humility and tact (see: Williams, Venus) would go such a long way toward imbuing you with the respect and popularity you deserve?
One of you wrote that I am the definition of insane here. That is, observing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. "I am a Serena fan and I want to bang my head against the wall sometimes," says Michael L., of New York. "But then I accept who she is." Another wrote that at least Serena doesn't just spout the clichés we all hate, that at least she is indifferent to convention. Maybe you're right on both counts. If nothing else, we can probably agree on this: With Serena around, it's never boring. And love her or hate her (or join me in admiration and frustration), there's value in that.
In response to your answer regarding Serena's reaction to her recent loss at Key Biscayne: Is it possible that to Serena, other people's opinions of her are none of her business?
-- Regan, Chicago
? I'm not sure I'm understanding you. But if you're saying Serena Williams simply doesn't care how she is perceived -- and several of you have made this point through the years -- I have a hard time buying that. At some level, you can't please everyone and you have to be true to yourself. But who among us is truly indifferent to the opinion of other people, including our colleagues?
Can we admit that Hawk-Eye has opened a Pandora's box of problems that were not envisioned when it was introduced? Jo-Wilfried Tsonga complains the umpires defer too much to Hawk-Eye, and one day later Caroline Wozniacki rips the ump for making an overrule, stating that he should have deferred to Hawk-Eye. Add that to uncertainty about how much time a player has to make a challenge, Bernard Tomic's "ghost challenge" at the Australian Open. Can we agree that Roger Federer maybe had a point when he said he didn't like Hawk-Eye?
-- Robert, Hong Kong
? Or a box of pandoras, as it were ...
Yes and no. Are there ancillary issues? Yes. Have there been unintended consequences? Sure. Should we discuss whether to stop with the "challenges remaining" and still aspire to 100 percent accuracy? Sure.
But on balance, I don't see any universe in which you can be totally against Hawk-Eye. What it has also done is lay bare just how fallible the human can be. Not only are linespeople shown to be incorrect, but so are players. One wonders: Before Hawk-Eye, how many points (and, by extension, matches) were won unfairly? Having a replay system that dramatically reduces error and injustice has to be seen as an overall force of good, doesn't it?
You're probably not going to touch this with a 10-foot pole... err racket, but if the women are earning and have fought so long for equal prize money, why don't they have to play equal amounts of tennis in the Grand Slams?
-- Jack LaFata, Jersey City, N.J.
? Because sets played doesn't equal value.
The Lindt Lindor chocolate commercial featuring Federer has been airing far too long now for me to continue to hold my breath. Since when is sexual harassment a joke? Perhaps Lindt is thinking that it's "cute" for female agents to harass a male, but to me it's still stomach-turning.
-- Connie M., Palm Springs, Calif.
? I'm glad someone brought this up. OK, here comes this week's negative answer:
I've probably "seen" this commercial 100 times. By "seen" I mean that I've forwarded through it -- digression: I'd love to see data on how many commercials today are actually viewed in full -- on DVR. I've played with one iToy or another while the commercial plays. I've changed channels during the changeover. I've watched but my mind has been elsewhere.
I saw this commercial recently, actually processing it, and nearly spat out my generic sport drink. It's just so inappropriate, so tone deaf, so wildly "off" on so many levels. For one, um, isn't airport security off limits after 9/11? Woe to the actual traveler or the TSA agent who makes a comparable joke.
Second, at a time when there are controversial Supreme Court cases on the legality of strip searches, and multiple TSA agents have been fired for acts of sexual harassment masquerading as a security pat-down, do you really want to be making jokes about this?
Maybe most important, the whole conceit is so awkwardly at odds with Federer's image. The Rolex regal thing? That we get. The Mercedes guy? Got it. Credit Suisse? Dignity, elegance, high finance, we're with you. The philanthropy spots? Love them.
The married father smuggling chocolate through security and then becoming the ogled subject of slobbering ladies who joke (hah-ha, get it?) about subjecting him to a strip search? Who signs off on this stuff? Is it too late to play a let and let the Lindt creative team take another shot here?
Now that Venus has returned to the tour, how might this affect Lisa Raymond's chances to go to the Olympics? If the Williams sisters decide to play doubles, is that it?
-- Christina Hobbs, St. Augustine, Fla.
? Program your DVR. Pull up a chair. Order your tickets now. This one could get ugly. Among Venus, Vania King, Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber, the forecast calls for lawsuits with a chance of boycotts.
Your analogy comparing doubles specialists to Marc Maron was one of the best pop culture references I have ever come across in a sports column and made me laugh out loud. Being a huge fan of both doubles tennis and WTF (a cross sectional demographic coveted by advertisers who think Roger Sterling is the best pitchman to sell me a Lincoln), I thought the comparison was thoughtful, dead-on accurate and a welcome relief from the types of repetitive, smug and hacky pop culture references you may find in other sports mailbags.
Flattery aside, I smell a "Shots, miscellany" parlor game where we can challenge your brilliant readers to extend the analogy of comedians to tennis players with specific players. Some examples: Novak (Louis CK: en fuego and hitting on all cylinders), Rafa (Larry David: unscripted brilliance and occasionally cranky), and Federer (Chris Rock: past his prime but can still bring it when necessary). This game is fun even if you extend it to retired players like Bjorn Borg (Greg Giraldo: unmatched brilliance taken from us at the top of his game) or Jack Kramer (Don Rickles: insulting but very smart and endearing at the same time). Last but not least, I'd match Wayne Odesnik with Carlos Mencia with their clear violations of the proper "rules" of the game and dishonesty.
-- Brian U., New York
? Thanks. Long as we're blowing kisses, Wayne Odesnik as Carlos Mencia is an LOL moment. (Though I think Odesnik is probably the funnier of the two. Even when he steals jokes, Mencia never does it for me.)
I like the contest idea, especially since no one won the Roland Garros Swatch contest we held. But let's expand beyond comedy. Pick any four players and then any pop culture quartet, whether it's comedians, the women of Downton Abbey, the Beatles or Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Price. Make the case for the analogy.
I appreciate your book suggestions very much. Are they listed/archived in one convenient place?
-- Michael Chacon, Pueblo de San Ildefonso
? Thanks. Not that I know of. And long as we're here, from the shameless-yet-unsolicited plugging of a friend's books department, here's a link to Jon Haidt's The Righteous Mind.
? It's self-promo o'clock: Here's my video report on the redemption of ex-NHL player Mike Danton, which was nominated for a Webby Award.
? Want to enter a tennis tournament with your favorite (or against your least-favorite) family member? Check out the National Family Tennis Championships.
? Chris, of Tampa, Fla.: "Jon, one of your questions from last week's mailbag and from an article I read this week both did the same thing by incorrectly citing the number of Masters titles Andy Murray has won by two. He has eight Masters titles, not six (Cincinnati x2, Madrid, Miami, Montreal, Toronto and Shanghai x2). Thanks!"
? Jim F., of Los Altos Hills, Calif.: "You asked for a case for Gustavo Kuerten, so here it is: Guga is 6-foot-3 and loved cracking high backhands. One reason Sampras had so much trouble with Kuerten (on courts hard and clay) is that he could aggressively hit returns on both wings of Sampras' kick serve, which was far heavier than Rafa's forehand. Take away Rafa's Plan A, and he has trouble because his Plan B is simply more of A."
? Patrick Preston, of Chicago: "As long as we're passing along tips to certain commentators ... One of my pet peeves is when a certain former player pronounces the word 'forward,' as 'foe-ward,' at least 20 times during every match on which he commentates."
? Kelyn, of Silver Spring, Md.: "I've always been curious about the transition from traditional handshake to what we see nowadays in tennis. I found an article by The Wall Street Journal that briefly talks about it. But do you have any idea when this originated or who started it? I don't know why, but it fascinates me. When I play league tennis or with my friends, I still typically use the traditional handshake."
? Shawn Frost, of New York, has this week's split personality look-alikes: "Carlos Berlocq is a hulk, and I can prove it."
Have a good week, everyone!