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Tennis

Sony Open reveals concrete's physical toll and Serena's dominance

Photo: Virginie Bouyer/Icon SMI

Richard Gasquet is one of several players coping with nagging injuries from playing on concrete.

Can we agree that in the Sony Open men's final, third set, both players propping themselves up on their rackets while they awaited a Hawk-Eye decision, is a poster for some other surface than concrete? Mary Carillo said it, too: "This is the only major sport played on cement." It's barely April, and look at the injured list. Those who played the South American circuit on clay all seem to be OK.-- Margaret, Philadelphia

? We've been saying for years that the "debate" over equal prize money is silly and self-defeating. Instead of squabbling over nickels and 50-50 split versus a 47-53 split, the players would do better consolidating their powers and going after more revenues at the majors. Last month, of course, the U.S. Open agreed to double prize money to $50 million by 2017. The other Slams will follow suit. This was not only a huge win for labor but it also ought to prove to the players that, if the political will is there, they have real power to bring about change.

Galvanized by this victory, the players should go after "health and safety issues" next. The sport has gotten entirely too dangerous, and -- tennis conflicts being what they are -- the adults have no incentive to change the status quo. The tours want more competition, not less. As we discussed the other day, the tone-deaf marketing of the WTA's "mandatory" events says it all. And is the ATP, sponsored as it is by Luxilon, really going to investigate the physical effects of polyester strings or emerging technology?

The hard-court tournaments pay the tours hefty sanctioning fees. Are the tours really going to fight these partners and demand that their concrete courts be changed to clay? What about the management agencies? Oh, wait, most of them own events as well -- including Miami -- and don't want to see player commitments reduced or invest in resurfacing acres of courts.

The players need to act here. The injured list is intolerable. So is the list of players who have quit the sport entirely. I ran into Tatiana Golovin in New York a few weeks back. She's well into her retirement. And she's 25. That's not acceptable.

There are no guaranteed contracts in tennis. The costs -- the opportunity costs and the out-of-pocket costs -- of missing time are huge. If I'm a player, this is my big issue.

I think we can strike "TV coverage of the length of five-set matches" from the list of reasons to cut down best-of-five at the Slams now, no? I'm a purist, but changing the game to suit the TV executives seems extreme, given what happened at CBS with the Sony Open.-- Jesse Small, Santa Barbara, Calif.

? Yes, we got a ton of email about CBS cutting out before the conclusion of the Miami final in order to get to the NCAA tournament. Sadly, it's another case of TV disrespecting the sport. And it's another reminder of who has the leverage.

In a perfect world, the tournaments don't sign contracts without guarantees that the TV "partners" carry the match to a conclusion. But when the suitor doesn't agree -- "Here's your window. We have a basketball tournament to televise. Take it or leave it" -- what is your choice? As several of you note, if you look at the schedule next year, there's a chance the same issues arises.

This falls into the "vicious cycle" category. How is the sport supposed to grow and deliver strong ratings when it's treated so shabbily by so many networks? And as long as the ratings aren't strong, what's the incentive for networks to improve their treatment?

In X years, we will look back at this laugh. We will watch sports on demand and on devices of our choosing and the notion of "broadcast windows" will be as laughably obsolete as tape delays. For now, though, it's a great annoyance.

"If this match goes to a tiebreak, coverage will continue on Tennis Channel." Yes siree, Bob, it takes some serious dedication to be a tennis fan. -- Helen, Philadelphia

? We are sports' answer to the re-gifted fruitcake.

I agree with you that Roger Federer's record against Rafael Nadal should not diminish Federer's achievements. One thing that bothers me is thatpeople don't account for the age difference. I don't think they had the prime of their careers at the same time. A significant number of Nadal's wins came in the last few years, when Federer was gently leaving the prime of his career. Would a 29-year-old Nadal beat a 24-year-old Federer? The same question arises when considering Federer's record against Novak Djokovic. Alex Corretja has a 4-0 record against Jim Courier, who is four years older.-- Daniel Nguyen, Lausanne, Switzerland

? First, I think you may have misstated my position a bit. I think Federer's head-to-head record against Nadal does diminish his achievements. Just as: If he were 19-10 instead of 10-19 against his chief rival, it would augment his achievements. But it's a question of degree. Is this a huge knock on Federer, especially given the inequality of surfaces? No. Should it disqualify him from GOAT status? Not in the slightest.

PHOTOS: Federer-Nadal over the years

I see your point about age. But doesn't this cut both ways? When the two met for the first time in 2004, Federer was the defending Wimbledon champion, had won the Australian Open and was ranked No.1; Nadal was 17. Overall, I think your point is a good one. For as much attention as we devote to "surface," we should also consider "age gap" when assessing a rivalry. But here, the rivalry has spanned nearly a decade and, for most if it, both players were near their primes.

As long as we're in the neighborhood ....

Serena Williams 12, Maria Sharapova 2.Serena Williams 12, Victoria Azarenka 2.Serena Williams 5, Agnieszka Radwanska 0.

That is Serena's record against the next three players below her in the WTA rankings. Have you ever seen such domination by a No. 1 versus the three closest competitors, men's or women's? Isn't that a huge factor in the GOAT debate? Serena will never play Martina Navratilova in her prime, and Roger Federer can't play Rod Laver in his prime. But is the ability to dominate your competition in your era the best indicator of your standing in the all-time rankings?-- Vasu K. Princeton, N.J.

? You know where I stand here. But, yes, this is still another point that cuts in her favor.

With respect to Kirsten Flipkens being a late bloomer: She won 2003 junior titles at Wimbledon (defeating Anna Chakvetadze) and the U.S. Open (defeating Michaella Krajicek).So she is not without early success.-- Jeff, Montpelier, Vt.

? Good call. I remember watching her then. And I remember Kim Clijsters' assessment of the next Belgian prospect in 2003. Read the very end. Clijsters' answer was dead on.

So, Maria Sharapova just won her first set off Serena Williams in five years! Right before she ate a bagel. And you claim that she's in Serena's class?-- Hanna Schultz, San Francisco

? The same way Andy Murray (one major) is in the same class as Federer (17 majors). No one is saying that Sharapova has equaled Serena's career achievements or has a favorable head-to-head record. But are there three players on the WTA who have clearly distanced themselves from the field, and is she one of them? Yes.

I get that we all have players we like and dislike. And I get that there is a lot of subtext to the Sharapova-Serena "rivalry," such as it. (I'll beat you to the punch and agree that grass has a comparable "rivalry" with a lawnmower.) But, sheesh, she has won four majors, each of them once. A little respect, no?

NGUYEN: Sharapova at her best couldn't solve Serena

Your induction of Sharapova into the WTA's elite triumvirate is like the grade inflation in Ivy League schools. The hype is good for business, but it doesn't reflect reality.-- Vicky Ng, San Jose, Calif.

? But her class participation was outstanding this semester. Several of the points she raised in seminar triggered profound and passionate discussion. Besides, Sharapova has shown tremendous personal growth and consistently makes contributions -- both on campus and in the greater Ithaca community -- that can't be captured with mere test scores.

Which was more toasted after the Miami final: Sharapova or the bagel that Serena served her? -- Greg Clarke, New York

? Kaboom!

Is it true that after the Miami final, Serena gave Sharapova a cup of cream cheese in the locker room? Is that a common tradition among members of a "triumvirate"?-- Ryan Massey, Las Vegas

? I'd change the word "cup" to "schmear" or somesuch. But then your joke kills.

Did you know that after the second set of the Miami final, one of the fans informed Serena that you've been beating the hype drums and claiming that Sharapova belongs in the same class as Serena ("triumverate")? That bagel ought to go down well with the Sugarpova candy.-- Bharat Bhatter, New Delhi

? Uncle!

Do you think it's time to begin challenging the conventional wisdom that cramps during a match are simply due to "issues of conditioning"? This has always been a critique of a player's willingness to put in the time and work off the court, but if someone like David Ferrer (one of the fittest players ever) can cramp, doesn't it really call into question how we truly regard a "fit" player? Sometimes, the tank just runs out of gas.-- Kerry Kaster, Delaware, Ohio

? Until we can administer truth serum, there will never be a way to distinguish legitimate injuries from illegitimate injuries. And, yes, while we've seen the cramping rule abused, we have also seen instances when cramping is legit. (Playing a sport for multiple hours on concrete will do that to even the most well-conditioned bodies.) It's going to be tough to legislate here.

When a court is equipped, why is Hawk-Eye not used for every shot? Why bother with the challenge system when an objective measure is readily available to confirm the legitimacy of each call?-- Kenneth Preski, Chicago

? This is Carillo's gripe. If the technology exists to get every call right, why use it selectively? And why make it incumbent on the players to use "challenges" judiciously?

The first answer is efficiency. Administrators were reluctant to slow the matches by potentially challenging every close call. Not sure I buy this. Watch a match, and you'll note that entire sets can elapse without players issuing a challenge. There are not as many close calls as you might think.

The other answer: The administrators like what Carillo calls "the game-show aspect" of this. It adds entertainment when the participants have to decide whether to issue their challenges. The problem here is that erroneous calls and non-calls are allowed to stand.

Tiger Woods will likely surpass Sam Snead for most career PGA Tour wins (Tiger has 77, Snead had 82). However, I would not say it is so likely that he will surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors (Tiger has 14). Still, some will argue that once Tiger passes Snead's record, he becomes the de facto GOAT. By the same logic, couldn't an argument be made for Jimmy Connors as the tennis GOAT? Remember, he has 33 more ATP tournament victories than Federer.-- Michael, Halifax

? It's a bit of apples and oranges. Different eras, different level of competition, different physical and -- I know I'm obsessed with this -- different logistical demands. Those of us who travel a lot know how it debilitating it can be. Connors was based, of course, in the United States. Here's his tour schedule in 1978: Miami; Philadelphia; Denver; Memphis; Las Vegas; Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Las Vegas, Birmingham, England; Wimbledon; Washington, D.C.; Indianapolis; Vermont; U.S. Open; Sydney; Tokyo; and New York.

All that said, Connors' 109 titles are amazing. ("You're gonna need a bigger mantle.") His 268 weeks at No. 1 is nothing to sneeze at, either. Nor are his 1,243 career match wins. Or his winning the U.S. Open on three different surfaces.

So why isn't Connors front and center in the GOAT discussions? For one, he never won the French Open and won "only" eight Slams. Wait, you say, Australia wasn't held in high regard. Fair point. But Slams are the prime criteria.

Also, I would argue that Connors' legacy suffers from his pugnacious nature and his low profile in retirement. If he'd had John McEnroe's presence/ubiquity for the last 20 years, I suspect that history may have treated him kinder. I don't think it's anything sinister, and I don't think McEnroe is commentating because it improves his legacy as a player. But we like familiarity, and the players/athletes who stay in the picture tend to get it better than those who leave.

Maybe this will change with Connors' new book (plug alert), out May 14.

I've been enjoying a YouTube series from Tecnifibre called On The Road. In the videos, Janko Tipsarevic meets up with a junior at a tour stop, practices with him and offers advice. The idea is to expose talented juniors to a top professional so they can see how much effort and dedication goes into being an elite player. -- John Dugan, Memphis, Tenn.

? For those who missed it.

This might be a totally dumb question, but how do they actually do the signatures on cameras after a match? Is it a piece of glass they're signing?-- John Y., San Francisco

? As I understand it, they sign the glass. And woe unto the court attendant who inadvertently supplies the player with a permanent marker.

NGUYEN: Sharapova's cryptic camera signatures

I know this is ridiculous, but it kind of made me laugh out loud to myself. Consider if Vera Dushevina teamed up with Marcos Baghdatis for mixed doubles. Best scoreboard ever!-- LT, Toronto

? As a wise man once said: "Yep, these are my readers."

Shots, Miscellany

? Steffi Graf will write a book.

? We'll reprise our trivia question from the other night: Name three ways tennis has intersected lately with the NHL's Buffalo Sabres.

? Here's the trailer for the documentary Venus and Serena, which hits iTunes on Thursday and theaters on May 10.

? Tennis Channel will show an encore of the Sony Open men's final on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET.

* That Steffi Graf book was an April Fool's joke.

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