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Ten thoughts on tennis and doping, Serena player of year, more mail

Jon, I don't know whether you get to hear this or not, but I'm tired of hearing muttered breaths that [a player] isn't actually injured but is instead serving a silent ban for testing positive for drugs. -- Arti P., New York

→ In the wake of the Lance Armstrong report, there were, predictably, various questions about doping in tennis. I tried to lay out some of the issues last year, and my colleague, Courtney Nguyen, did the same in the wake of the Lance Armstrong "Reasoned Decision." Here are ten random thoughts on the issue:

1) The more athletes in other sports keep getting caught, and the more I learn about tennis' paucity of out-of-competition tests, the more cynical I get.

2) The Andre Agassi whitewash, detailed in "Open" heightens my cynicism. Yes, it was 15 years ago, another era. Yes, the circumstances were unique. Yes, it was the ATP handling doping internally, which is no longer the case. Yes, it was -- purportedly -- recreational drugs rather than performance-enhancing drugs at issue. But it showed that tennis administrators have the capacity to break with protocol and cover up an adverse test result.

3) Tennis clearly needs to increase funding to its anti-doping program.

4) If I'm a tennis player, I now avoid the hypoxic chambers at all costs.

5) That said, parallels between tennis and cycling quickly fall apart. Reading the Armstrong report, the key was the systematic doping within a team and the code of Omerta. Tennis doesn't do Omerta. It's an individual sport. Coaches and trainers bounce among players. Doubles teams break up and reform. Gossip is like manna falling from the sky. If a player dopes, (s)he had better be doing it alone.

6) Consider incentives. The incentive to dope is obvious. (And the ability to recover quickly is a big incentive; adding muscle mass is not.) But consider the disincentives, too. There is no real union in tennis. There are no guaranteed contracts. An established top player will make ten times their prize money in endorsements. One positive test and we're not talking about risking the forfeiture of some salary as, say, Melky Cabrera did. We're talking about risking the forfeiture of the vast majority of your income.

7) I am still amazed that so many athletes are infuriated by the public's cynicism and the media's interest in the topic; but they are remarkably quiet about their doping colleagues. Guys, it's Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds and Marion Jones that are causing your sprint time, your home run total, and your absence from competing to come under scrutiny. Spare at least some of your venom for them.

8) On and off, I have covered doping in different sports. The Wayne Odesnik situation might be the single strangest set of circumstances and aftermath I have yet to come across. You're commuting a sentence for "cooperation" -- problematic in itself -- and then Odesnik adamantly denies cooperating? Something just doesn't add up.

9) No one is being naive here. There is doping in sports and there is no rational reason to believe tennis is somehow exempt. But this is the single most damning allegation you can level against an athlete.

10) As for the role of journalists, I stand by this cut-and-paste from the last column: "Journalists should investigate. But what does this mean? Investigate what? Time and resources are finite. And we're talking about a confidential process and an inherently secretive act. How much attention to do you want to devote to this? That's a choice each journalist has to make. Having spent a lot of time and effort chasing rumors that turned out to be bogus, I try to be judicious here. If I catch wind of something or have a source suggesting I poke around, it's one thing. If the "evidence" is a photo showing a prominent vein, or a player winning back-to-back three-setters, I'm less inclined to investigate. This I can assure you: This is not about managing relationships or covering for sources or self-preservation. That's the journalism equivalent of using PEDs."

Jon, if we shouldn't criticize commentators because their jobs are hard and we couldn't do as well as they do, then really we shouldn't criticize anyone, right→ Don't like Andy Roddick's treatment of linespeople→ Well try carrying American tennis for 10 years and being constantly dissected in the press. Not happy with how Roger Goodell handled the referee strike→ Well you try being NFL commissioner and then get back to me. You didn't care for George W. Bush→ Well you try being president after 9/11. And on and on. We do this all the time. The standard for a TV commentator shouldn't be that as long as they are better than Joe Schmo sitting on a couch somewhere that they are insulated from criticism. -- John, Chicago

→ I disagree. First, we can criticize Andy Roddick's on-court comportment or the commissionership of Roger Goodell or the quality of Billy Crystal's performance as Oscar's host or the chef's tuna tartare preparation at a new restaurant. But I don't think there's expectation that we could be doing it better. We're just being critical. It's a silly statement to say, "Not only did Federer choke, but I would have displayed poised!" or "Not only does Sofia Vergara overact so much that she reminds me of Charo on the Love Boat; but I could have pulled it off better!" There's no way to simulate you, Joe Schmo, playing in the Olympic tennis final or Jane Schmo, acting in a popular sitcom.

With the sports commentators, you can come really close to replicating the experience. Sit with a friend in front of the TV, arm yourself with an iPad so you can quickly look up facts -- and, in the case of one esteemed tennis broadcaster, SAT vocabulary words. Record your session and then listen to yourself. My overwhelmingly strong suspicion: you walk away with a heightened respect for the folks in the booth.

What is your reaction to the strong finish of Caroline Wozniacki's season→ -- James, Denmark

→ Well, clearly you've fallen behind on your reading. (That was supposed to be a joke.)

Short answer: it's encouraging that Wozniacki salvaged at least some of a disappointing season. Hopefully this fires her up with self-belief heading into 2013. Less optimistically, how does a player with such little firepower -- horses and bayonets in the age of drones! -- return to the top? Even with her defense, her returning, her propensity to play early and often, I just don't see it.

I know the topic of Grand Slam final set tiebreaks versus playing the set out has been debated and most fans have a preference. I feel that each side has a reasonable argument (tiebreakers give matches a definitive and exciting end; playing the set out is traditional and has provided memorable moments like Isner's 70-68 set at Wimbledon). Why not compromise and allow the final set to play out longer, maybe to 12-all or 15-all, and then play a tiebreak→ It would allow for matches to be extended but rules out anything exorbitantly long. -- James Duncan, Mesa, Ariz.

? Works for me. At 10-10 we play a tiebreak and just end the thing already? I think most reasonable people sign on to that. These "epic sets" are complete fools gold. They make for cute headlines and jokes but the matches are quickly forgotten. The loser is gutted and the winner is inevitably so spent physically that he can't recover for his next match. (In Federer's autobiography, you can be sure that he will write about how his tank was empty in the Olympic gold medal match, after he had to play a 19-17 set in the previous round.) The schedule backs up. The television partners are left to scramble.

And here's the dirty secret: the matches aren't even that entertaining for the fans. We all like a tight match. We all like to see which player has the physical and mental reserves come "closing time." But by the time you get to 15-15 in a third set -- to say nothing of 68-68 -- you just want the damn thing to end.

I am surprised never to have seen one of my pet peeves mentioned in the Mailbag. Why do people find it so funny when players trade backhand slices during a rally. Every single time this happens, after more than three shots, the crowd starts snickering. I could never figure it out... Grow up, people!! -- Gilbert B., Ottawa, Ontario

? Trading backhands? That's like Louis C.K. and John Oliver and Tig Notaro all rolled in one! Brushing the ball instead of driving through the ball? Stop it, man, you're killing me. Going crosscourt rather than down-the-line? Wait, let me take a breath -- my sides are hurting just from thinking about it. Three or more times in a row? Now I'm laughing so hard, I'm risking incontinence.

(Yes. You're correct.)

New rule: Any year you win two Slams and two Olympic gold medals while going 6-0 against the other two Slam winners (and dropping only 1 set in six matches), you are the Player of the Year. -- Andrew McLaren, Winnipeg, Canada

? Agree. Done.

Are you serious→ Serena for the most part simply destroyed her opposition this year whenever she and with just a bit of patience should have got past the first match and gone on to win the French open, look who won Sharapova someone who has not been able to hold a candle to her for how long. I think Serena when she wants to is the most dominating force in the history of women's tennis. Certainly the Player of the Year in 2012. -- Ken Seon, Toronto

→ What am I missing here→ Here's what I wrote last week: "If you define Player of the Year in less quantitative and more qualitative terms (as I do), well, then it's Serena. Win two Slams and Olympic gold -- beating and sometimes mauling the top players in most matches that matter -- you get my vote."

Stop hating on Serena! She doesn't get enough credit. She just needed to be blue-eyed and blonde. Give her her do. Without her, what or who else would you be writing about and getting paid! -- TWaters, New York

? I give up. You win.

If Serena wins Istanbul without losing a match, how would her 58-4 record compare with the all time best years→ I remember Navratilova almost going without a loss at her peak, but only four losses seems an amazing achievement given Serena has played a fullish year (for Serena, anyway). -- Ian Rashid, London

? I tend to stay away from hypotheticals, but sure, let's bite here. It's been a strange year for Serena. Through May, it looked like the empire had crumbled. From the French Open until press time (Wed., Oct. 24) she has been close to untouchable.

How does her year rank? It's obviously not Steffi Graf's 1988 -- in which she won all four majors and an Olympic gold. Or Martina Navratilova's 1982-84, an interval in which she lost six matches. Total.

But look at Serena's year. Her four defeats came to Ekaterina (it's like the digital version of Katarina) Makarova at the Australian Open, Wozniacki in Miami then, of course, Virginie Razzano in France and her last loss was to Angelique Kerber in Cincinnati. Person A might say: how could you possibly even discuss this as a standout yeah when she won twice at majors and four times to players ranked outside the top five. I, er, rather Person B might say: that Serena's losses came not at the hands of her rivals but to lesser lights only bolsters her season. She crushed her rivals. It was only those few matches when she wasn't there mentally or physically that she defeated.

Re; Worst song ever I think you can lump KC and The Sunshine Band's (worst band name ever→) Shake, Shake, Shake,with I'm Your Boogie Man (worst song title ever→) and That's the Way, I Like It into one mash-up of a bad song since they're all essentially the same song. And after hearing those at numerous Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings in the 80's, you'd even yearn for a return to staples like Those Were the Days My Friend and the Alley Cat... As non- sequiturs from tennis go, this category is great. -- Neil, Toronto

? Yeah, I don't know what it says about us or about tennis (or tennis in the fall?) that Worst Songs generated more passion than any sports-related topic this week. Long as we're in this neighborhood... here's my Oxymoron of the Week: "Steve Miller Greatest Hit." I was working in a coffee shop the other day and they played some sort of compendium. One song was worse than the next. I'm envisioning Steve in 1981 or whatever, sitting on the back of the tour bus, looking pensive and pained as he tries to write. Suddenly he beams. "Eureka! I got it! I know what rhymes with Abracadabra! I wanna reach out and grab ya! Mystery solved!"

How could you leave out two dreadful songs with the word 'red' in it -- Red Red Wine by UB40 and The Lady in Red by Chris de Burgh - truly hideous stuff. -- Bart, Johannesburg

→ I'll see your Chris de Burgh and raise you anything by Peter Cetera post-Chicago.

Shots, miscellany

? Juan Carlos Ferrero played his final singles match at the Valencia Open, losing to Nicolas Almagro. While he's still in the doubles there, let's take a moment to give a clap of the racket to one of the game's good guys. Like a claycourt Andy Roddick, he won his lone Slam in 2003 and then was eclipsed by Federer/Nadal/Djokovic. Also like Roddick, he made the most of his talents, a guy who should be viewed as an overachiever. Again, a good guy who helped christen the Spanish Armada. He will be missed.

→ Lawrence Summers writes about his fondness for Harold Solomon. Emily Bazelon on Renee Richards. Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson writing about Marty Reisman. David Reminick on Howard Cosell. (Full disclosure: yours truly on a PGA golfer.) It's all in Jewish Jocks, out this week from Twelve Books. Makes a great Kwanzaa gift.

? Charith of Bangalore, India: "Hey Jon, since a lot was being discussed about the 'pasta' comment made by one famous analyst, I couldn't resist and had to write in. The experts do a great job, and they don't need me to validate that. But every now and again, there is that one statement/opinion that comes off as condescending/disrespectful toward players, very often the result of an American behind the microphone (usually). I am sure that is never the intent, but as a professional, is it not his/her duty to be extra-careful and play extra-safe, especially in matters that need little or no commentating upon. And I am not just talking about lengthy, difficult, foreign names being put down. Case in point, Azarenka gets into an altercation with the chair umpire and ends up using these words -- "it's ludicrous." The guy in the booth is obviously very amused by her choice of word, and unfortunately does little to hide the same. Understandably, he has to do his monologue about the chances of "someone from Belarus" having ever used that word -- which in itself is ludicrous, if I may say so -- and the poor chap was left wondering, out loud of course, about how a word such as that ever "got into her vocabulary" (God forbid). Ludicrous, again. I am not being anti-American here, but I do want to point this out. We drink YOUR Coca-Colas, listen to YOUR music on YOUR Apple iPods, watch YOUR movies on YOUR imax screens, and snuggle into bed tuning into YOUR David Letterman. And yet, the only ones surprised are Americans. A little awareness wouldn't hurt. Sure, we don't speak English at home; but we did learn Shakespeare in school. And BTW, I totally agree with you on the pasta issue (non-issue,rather)."

? Joseph Goins of Chicago, Ill: "I was curious, so I looked it up: Did you know it's been 14 years since we had eight different major winners in one year, 1998 to 2012? That's a long stretch."

→ Chris Oddo of San Francisco: "For those not acquainted with the ongoing debate/ dialogue regarding USTA's recent changes to junior tennis, this piece could be a good starting point."

→ Extend (or stop) Roger Federer's nine-year streak and vote here for ATPWorldTour.com Fans' Favorite Awards.

→ It's a Monica Seles sighting.

→ And another! She's writing a book: "Inspired by the elite sports academy Seles attended as a teen, The Academy is the start of a new series that follows a young tennis star and her fellow athletes at a school where there are only two ways in -- amazing talent, or deep pockets. Think Gossip Girl with Gatorade sponsorships."

? Bob and Mike Bryan have clinched the year-end No. 1 ATP Doubles Team Ranking for a record eighth time and for the fourth consecutive season.

→ Who knew: gushing over Roger Federer could have won you a prize.

→ Erik Gudris of Asheville, N.C: "This isn't really a question but more an FYI. In this election season, a local newspaper columnist produced a post a mock campaign ad to get votes "as your local columnist". The video includes him promoting himself as a tennis player and a "tennis hunter" that involves a new form of skeet shooting with a tennis ball. Here's a link to take a look.

→ Twitter dude @js_kay writes: "B TOMIC turned 20 on Oct 21, so Brazil's GUILHERME CLEZAR (214) is now top ranked male teen."

→ John Gordon of Toronto Canada has this week's separated at birth: Anastasia Myskina and Cher.

Have a good week everyone!

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