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Li exits, but WTA unpredictability ain't all that bad; more mail

As we make the turn, a second Monday baguette ...

This afternoon in Paris, the winds swirled, making Roland Garros feel like Lambeau Field. It's not often you see tennis fans huddled under blankets, drinking coffee, less for the caffeine than for the warmth. On Court Suzanne Lenglen, Li Na, the defending champion, was making fast work of Yaroslava Shvedova, who had braved the qualifying draw just to get here. After Li won the first set, 6-3, a former player watching in the television compound quipped, "It's over. Shvedova has her right where she wants her."

This, of course, was a reference to the current state of women's tennis. The seedings can seem almost decorative. The top ranking seem only vaguely to reflect merit. Here in Paris, barely halfway through the event, the top seed (Victoria Azarenka) is out. The third seed (Aga Radwanska) is out. The popular favorite (Serena Williams) didn't even survive her first match. The eighth seed and local favorite (Marion Bartoli) lost early. Same for No. 9 (Caroline Wozniacki) who began the year as the top-ranked player.

Oh, and the seventh seed went out, too. On cue, Shvedova began dialing in her shots and bringing her athleticism to bear. Meanwhile Li began to retreat and self-destruct. Barely an hour after winning the first set, Li was dispatched by a qualifier ranked No. 142, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0.

The parity and chaos has made life rough for the WTA. It's been hard for the casual fan to back a star when it's hard to define a star. It's also hard to rally behind a Slam winner when it's not unlikely she'll lose in the first or second match of the next Slam -- something that's happened four times in the past year. Further, it means that "upsets" really aren't upsets at all.

This is all thrown into especially sharp relief given the narrative on the men's side, one of relentless consistency. Among Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, one of the Big Three has won every major except for one since 2005. It almost goes without saying: all three are alive in Paris. Seven of the top nine seeds are, in fact.

Instead of ridiculing the women, today, let's make like a conscientious tennis player and add a different spin. Perhaps there's something appealing, righteous even, about all this uncertainty. One of the great virtues of sports: it is unscripted. We don't know in advance who's going to win, who's going to play well, who's going to play poorly. (Italian soccer notwithstanding.) Every match, every game is pregnant with possibility. If we want plotted and directed drama, we go the theater; if we want choreography, we go watch a dance recital. If we want unpredictability, we watch sports.

Thus, should we not celebrate a draw that could, realistically, offer a chance to any of the remaining players? Shouldn't we be rapt with anticipation for unexpected twist comes next? Isn't the apparent randomness of it all part of the fun? We'll see Saturday when [x] meets [y] in the women's final.

Mail call

Why are matches resumed after darkness generally the second ones onto a given court? Wouldn't the players prefer a guaranteed start time over the extra hour or two of recovery from the night before? -- Robert Briggs, NY

? Robert is no doubt referring to Juan Martin del Potro vs. Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Stan Wawrinka, both of whom were sent home Sunday night on account of darkness and were on the second match today (the latter on Chatrier, former on Lenglen).

When they returned today, Tsonga and del Potro won with businesslike performances. I've heard two reasons: For a suspended match, the participants aren't getting to bed until late. After they leave the court, they need to shower, hydrate, eat, get a massage etc. Get off the court at 9:30 p.m. and no way you're getting to bed before midnight. The other more obscure reason I've heard: Organizers like it when the playing conditions on the second day approximate the conditions on the first day. Especially at Wimbledon there is a big difference between playing on "worn" grass and "new" grass.

If you can say a star was born at this year's French Open, who would you say that star is and why? -- Joe Johnson, Easton, Pa.

? Three names spring to mind. 1) David Goffin. Is he destined for the top ten? Who knows? But what poise and what fun, clever, economical tennis. And, again, how much did Federer help this kid's image and confidence by remaining on court with him. 2) Sloane Stephens. Shhhh. 3) Petra Martic. Very impressed watching her. She's the antithesis of a baseline basher. (At one point in her loss to Kerber, she serve-and-volleyed on a second serve.) I assume "born stars" must be relatively new. Otherwise I would add Lepchenko, Shvedova and Kerber.

Is it really fair of Venus Williams to try to make the Olympic team? Even if she qualifies she can not promise that she will be healthy enough when it comes time to play. It strikes me as a bit selfish; especially since she has already been twice before. Any chance Mary Jo will ask her to step aside? As a side note, I'm loving how the Olympics is a priority for so many players now that it is being held in London and not China. -- Pam, Amherst, N.Y.

? It now looks like it should be pretty clear from the rankings: Serena, Christina McHale, Venus and Lepchenko make the team, as well as Raymond/Huber for doubles. Vania King and Sloane Stephens, sadly, do not. I do not envy poor Mary Joe Fernandez here. From the start, we knew the selection process was going to be ugly. I don't see a scenario in which -- at a minimum -- feelings aren't bruised. And we're not done, either. Who do you chose for the mixed doubles roster? Serena, the star and ratings driver? Or Raymond, a far more accomplished doubles player? (A contact of mine at the IOC already sent me relevant passages about the forums for resolving disputes.)

As for Venus, I know a lot of you will disagree with me, but I think she had to be on the team, regardless of rankings. Usually we're all for meritocracy and the denial of special, unequal treatment. But between/among Venus' contributions to the sport, her Olympic track record, and her record on grass... well, put it this way: I would be less uneasy about tweaking the rules to get her on the team than I would be uneasy about leaving her off the team.

Maybe you are right that Sloane Stephens will not be the next Serena, but the bitterness and acrimony you put in your article show clearly your position regarding her race. Disgusting and disturbing. Hope you find another job. You don't deserve this one. -- Maurizio, Miami

? Oy. Clearly the satire got lost among a few of you.

For the record, this was meant to praise Sloane Stephens who is thoroughly charming and, more important, appears to have a bright future. But don't tell anyone.

Jon, your article about Miss Sloane was the most biased and racist one I have ever read! Hmmm, isn't Wertheim a German name? I suggest you find another career! -- Joe Cool, San Antonio, Texas

? Oh, boy.

I dig seeing you on Tennis Channel! I remember that during the Australian Open you used satire to write about Federer and Nadal and got an earful from readers who didn't see the humor. I'm dying to know how many didn't see the humor in your piece the other day on Sloane Stephens -- who I agree is great! -- Bill T., Calif.

? People not seeing the humor? What ever could you be referring to.

I just finished watching the Sloane Stephens match and listening to the commentators...At first I listened in puzzlement, then consternation as I heard the mostly negative critique of this young player. She was given very little credit, and if I hadn't seen the score, I would have thought she was losing. I was delighted to read your column. -- Deb Williams, Chicago

? Ah, much better. Thanks.

Jon, I think you either need to do away with giving out "midterm grades" or do a complete overhaul of the system you use. My final exam in high school geometry was just as painful to watch as Andy Roddick's opening round loss, and believe me, I didn't get a C for it. And like John Isner in his match against Mathieu, I too showed a strong fighting spirit by staying after school for extra help all year long, and I didn't get a B for it. You're giving athletes grades they don't deserve, which is what was happening at the University of Minnesota back in the 1990s, a story you might be familiar with. -- Alex Ketaineck, Madison, NJ

? Actually Clem Haskins, Jim Harrick's son, and an unnamed Auburn booster are on our grading committee.

Segue alert: read this piece by Brad Wolverton.

I was reading a piece on Bryce Harper and came across this sentence: "Bryce Harper had yearned to establish Las Vegas as a place that could sprout its own sports stars, too."-- Mary Bellamy, Vienna, Va.

? Surely Mary is referring to Asia Muhammad and her brother, Shabazz.

I definitely remember Tom Gorman defaulting when he had match point in the semis at a tournament in the early 70s, against Stan Smith, I think. He knew he was too hurt to play the next day. Of course there was nowhere near the money at stake back then. (By the way, I enjoy watching Kuznetsova so much more after listening to your podcast. What an enjoyable person.) -- JIm Bartle, Huaraz, Peru

? Very good. Tom Gorman had match point in the semis of the 1972 Barcelona Masters, but knew he wouldn't physically be able to play in the final. So he retired and let his opponent (Stan Smith) play Ilie Nastase. Amazing how this act of sportsmanship was 40 years ago, yet this vignette still has legs. There's a moral in there somewhere.

In the discussion about biggest upsets, you neglected to mention No. 281 Doug Flach's upset of Andre Agassi in the first round of 1996 Wimbledon. That one was huge. A defending semifinalist (and U.S. Open finalist), Agassi had won Miami and would go on to win the Olympics and Cincinnati later that summer. -- Jeff Rosenberg, Yardley, Pa.

? Good one, Jeff. We were a few games away from Seppi d. Djokovic, which given the context, would have ranked up there as well. (Of course we've been a couple of games away from a lot of different results.)

This topic has generated a lot of chatter. Here are a few for the discussion, and we'll revisit after the event.

? Ingo, London: "How about Henri Leconte beating Pete Sampras in the 1991 Davis Cup Final? Leconte had played very little that year due to a back injury but was at his mercurial best in beating Sampras."

? Someone from St. Paul, Minn. wrote: "Alexander Volkov took out Stefan Edberg in the first round of the U.S. Open in 1990 (which may be a bit before your tennis-watching time, to be fair). At the time, Edberg was No. 1, had won Wimbledon, and was on a 21-match winning streak. He was far-and-away the favorite to win the Open that year."

? Badri, Mountain View, Calif.: "Slightly late joining the conversation, but anyway... Rating, or even considering, Razzano def. Serena as the greatest upset ever just goes to show that all of us increasingly say "ever" when we mean "last week". You don't need to be a great tennis junkie to know Razzano. Roland Garros is Serena's least favorite major. Razzano is from France. I don't see how this is even comparable to Bastl (never heard of, before or later) defeating Sampras at his favorite island hangout area."

Shots, Miscellany

? Three tennis storylines from this: Williams, Sloane, Goffin.

? Andy, Sunnyvale, Calif.: "Your reader Greg wrote in about the chance of Djokovic and Federer being in the same half of the draw 12 out of 14 times. The chance of that (assuming equal odds) is about 0.6 precent, so unlikely but hardly impossible."

? But wait, anonymous notes: "Regarding the probability that 12 of the last 14 random draws place Nole and Fed in the same half: the probability is 0.55 percent....or about 55 times in 10,000 chances. Which is quite small. However, this is a bit misleading. The probability is only true for the long run. In the short run, how many times have you flipped a coin and had a seemingly impossible succession of heads? It has probably happened more times than you'd think is likely."

? Wait, anonymous is back: "Oh... just thought about this. To the best of my memory, Roger and Novak were in the same half of the draw in five of the last six Slams. From Australia 2011 to France 2012. (IE: the only slams where Novak was NOVAK) The probability of this happening is just over 9 percent. Still small, but much more reasonable."

? And upon further inspection in the SI.com math labs, the chances of them being drawn into the same half 12 of 14 times is 0.555419921875 percent.

? Meredith of Newport, RI notes: "I was cataloging a book with Nicola Pietrangeli on the cover and noticed that he looks a lot like Michael Gladis (Paul Kinsey) from Mad Men."

? Hare Krishna. Hare, hare. And have a good day!

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