Happy 2013, everyone. It's like we never left. A quick Mailbag to kick off the year ...
There has been a deluge of rumors swirling around the web about Rafael Nadal's absence, a silent doping ban and/or his imminent retirement. His stomach virus is directly preventing him from playing Doha, which means he wouldn't have had any warm-up for the Australian Open. Lack of match toughness, compounded by the uncertainty with the knees ("much better" does not mean "100 percent"), and it makes sense to wait for the clay. Does that sound about right?-- Robert B., Melbourne, Fla.
? HEY WELCOME BACK, TENNIS! Oh, and the first headline of the year: Rafael Nadal is out of the Australian Open.
So, let's start with Nadal. What a miserable six months or so it's been. He wins the French Open, beating Novak Djokovic in the final. He's back on top. He's solved the Djoker's riddle. Life is good. Then he loses in the second round of Wimbledon in perhaps the biggest upset in the Open Era. And he hasn't played a match since. He is ready to start 2013 fresh but contracts a stomach bug and promptly pulls out of the Australian Open.
Robert pretty much nails it. Yes, you are within your rights to wonder why Nadal would pull out of Australia two weeks in advance and why he wouldn't want to at least try and play through the stomach bug. But I think it's reasonable that Nadal would want to postpone his return. He will be rusty to begin with; he'll have no significant match play coming in; and at this stage of his career, he's not entering events he doesn't believe he can win.
Some of you wondered whether his parting from IMG factors into last week's decision. I don't think so. I couldn't even follow the reasoning of the conspiracy theorists. Some of you wondered if, all along, he didn't want to start his season on clay (which he now will, provided he keeps his commitment to play Acapulco.) Nah, I don't see it. Top players don't miss Slams so cavalierly.
"The deluge of rumors swirling around the web" swirled into my inbox. Usually this is the equivalent of a no-fly zone for me. Fans can speculate wildly. Us media types cannot. In this case, though, the insinuations were severe enough that the Nadal camp responded. Benito Barbadillo, Nadal's media manager, engaged in a live chat with readers on the UbiTennis site and said, "Nadal has been tested even four times in a week during these six months."
If there's a takeaway for me, it's this: there is no such thing as too much transparency or too much out-of-competition testing. Blame the media. Blame Lance Armstrong and the other cyclists. Blame spineless federations. Point fingers at any vector. But in the absence of full-bore OOC testing, every absence, retirement, withdrawal triggers ugly allegations. At this point, yes, it's about catching cheaters. But it's also about reassuring the fans (i.e. the customers), a very skeptical cohort these days.
Biological age may not be a factor, but miles matter. Take a 1990 car with 25,000 miles versus a 2005 with over 150,000. Nadal is 27 and has hunger, but he has miles under those legs and whole body that you can't deny. Contrast Andre Agassi. He aged, but due to his multiple long breaks from top-level tennis the miles were not that high. Together with his hunger, that allowed him to win so many slams late in his career. Where do you stand on this topic, especially with Nadal? Age vs. hunger?-- Subhadeep, Cincinnati
? I was riding shotgun with your car analogy. There no question the odometer and the tread on the tires are more important than the year the car rolled off the line. Then I was ejected from the passenger seat when talk turned to hunger.
At the top echelon of an individual sport, very few players have insufficient hunger. From Nadal to Venus Williams to Andy Roddick at this time last year, they all want to win -- no less so from when they were in their primes. The problem is physical, getting their bodies to cooperate.
The aging metrics are all too crass. "Chronological age" tells us little. Some players take longer to mature than others do; some -- like Agassi, miss chunks in their 20s and get those years on the back end. "Matches played" or even "sets played" tell us little. There's no accounting for surface or the nature of the match. Playing style needs to be considered, too. Had you watched five minutes of Nadal practicing and Federer practicing, you would know that one player is destined for a shorter career than the other. At some point we can come up with "blue book values" for players -- accounting for all the factors -- and mark the value chart of their careers.
With Nadal out of the Australian Open, is this an opportunity for RogerFederer?-- Tom, Philippines
? I say this neither to condemn nor condone, but it's amazing that -- even as their rivalry has slowed -- news about Nadal is still cast through the prism of Federer. And vice versa. As for Tom's question, sure it helps Federer that another top player (and the guy who beat him last year in Melbourne) is out of the draw. But I still think Federer is the third pick behind Djokovic, the two-time champ, and Murray, winner of the last major. More generally with Federer, is this the same player who won tennis matches at the same clip Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won elections? No. But he'll be a contender to win every match for the rest of his career.
Enjoyed your 2013 predictions but hoped Jerzy Janowicz would figure into them. Is he somebody to watch?-- Doug, Seattle
? And hear him, too. (It's since, ahem, disappeared, but there was a clip of him grunting that was making its way through the ATP locker room last year.) But, yes, big -- as in 6-8 -- props for Janowicz, who really emerged in 2012. The run to the Paris Masters final was, of course, his big breakthrough. Suddenly, he finds himself on the cusp of the top 25, sure to be seeded in Australia. Like Chris Rock's daughter, players in Australia will want to avoid the Pole.
***Apropos of nothing, stumbled upon a Chris Evert tweet about grunting:
Bummed to hear that Andrea Petkovic is injured ... again. But loved her post-injury tweets! The tour sure could use a few more personalities like hers.-- Helen, Philadelphia
? Agree. First, you feel for Petkovic, whose 2012 was wrecked on account of a knee injury. Now in her first event of 2013 -- technically, she didn't make it into January -- she's back on the shelf. Reports from the match were terrifically sad and poignant, she and her father crying courtside as they digested another setback.
And, yes, the "personality quotient" on the WTA nosedives when she is out. I think so many of us like Petkovic not only for her candor and intelligence and disposition, but also for what she represents: you can have fun at this endeavor, recognize your good fortune, take advantage of your platform, smile and joke and not take yourself too seriously ... and still succeed.
Serena Williams responded to the Caroline Wozniacki controversy, defending her and calling her a friend. She didn't have to do this, but I'm glad she did. -- CJ Watson, Williamsburg, Va.
? I feel like we should shelve this. But there was a fair amount of residual mail, so here goes again. 1) Serena high-roaded this, and it should be duly noted and filed away. 2) "Racist" is an awfully serious allegation to trot out. Here it's not appropriate. 3) Bad judgment, however, is an appropriate charge. Woznaicki has gone through the internet/social media spanking machine. She won't do it again. Let's move on.
I just waded through your associate Richard Deitsch's lengthy article on the Year in Sports Media. Amid all of the accolades for announcers (an A for alliteration) from the NBA, NFL, MLB, etc., it was nice that he gave a shoutout to Darren Cahill. I'm obviously biased but would argue that Cliff Drysdale and Patrick McEnroe make a pretty awesome combo that should not go unnoticed.-- Greg M. Charleston, S.C.
? We say it once, we say it again: for all of tennis' problematic issues, a shortage of capable commentators isn't one of them. We'll say this again, too: it's such a subjective business. A few commentators are unimpeachable. A few are irredeemably awful. Most are in the middle, endearing to some viewers and grating to others. (Which is a long way of saying: I like Chris Evert and Brad Gilbert, and don't try to convince me otherwise.)
"How will Djokovic deal with the pressure of single-handedly shouldering the "Awkwardly Placed 'J'" contingent?" Oh, he could call Jarmila Gajdosova or Michaella or Richard Krajicek for advice.-- Pat Finley, La Verne, Calif.
? Wjell played.
? Ken Schneck of Brattleboro, Vt., writes about the search for an out gay male pro.
? Just to clarify a throwaway line from last week: both the ATP and WTA CEO's are in the middle of long-term contracts.
? Emirates is now the official airline of the ATP Tour, as well as the new title sponsor of the ATP rankings, with a five-year deal.
? The ATP's new global promotional campaign uses the tagline "BEAT THIS."
? Erin Holzman, who some of you know from the U.S. Open, has a new book available on Amazon.
? Andre Agassi talks to Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement:
? Dan B., Baltimore: My friend Chris sent this to me ... it's the motherload of long-lost siblings. It crosses species, and it's about as close to identical twins as you can get without actually being identical twins. I present to you "Capybaras That Look Like Rafael Nadal."