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Amid media hype, Serena masterfully handles dynamic with Stephens

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

Serena Williams continues to praise Sloane Stephens, in a way placing pressure on the young player.

Taking some questions during a Labor Day rain delay at the U.S. Open:

What do you make of the relationship between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens? The media played it up quite a bit before their match on Sunday.
-- Thompson, Columbia, S.C.

• This whole dynamic is interesting on any number of levels. One of you recently wrote me a long and thoughtful email about how the treatment of Williams isn't predicated on race but on discomfort with strong and assertive women. I got another compelling missive recently noting that Stephens is the one player who's outwardly challenged Williams, and yet, Serena responded with uncommon kindness.

We can -- and likely will -- take all this up later. But let's go here for now. I love -- love -- how Williams has handled this whole inconvenience. For someone who's has had some p.r. missteps, this was a public relations clinic. She totally traversed the high road when it comes to Stephens. She's been gushing (to the point of absurdity) in her praise of Stephens, going so far as to insist that she wasn't the favorite in their match. ("She's playing great, even though I'm playing good, too.")

When they finally meet, Williams reveals herself to be the clearly superior player, winning clinically 6-4, 6-1 in the fourth round. No gloating. No talk of "revenge." Nothing personal, just business. Then she goes back to gushing about Stephens. "Sloane's a great player. ... I don't think she has to work on anything. I think she is at the next level." It's uncommonly gracious. She comes off looking exceptionally gracious. And it all has the effect -- intended or not -- of subtly transferring pressure to Stephens. Truly, masterfully well-played, literally and figuratively.

NGUYEN: Serena Williams played nearly flawlessly, overpowering Sloane Stephens

Can the media please stop using the words "stunned" and "shocked" to describe losses for any women outside of the top three (for example: Caroline Wozniaki, Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova)? It's getting old, and it is neither stunning nor a shock.
-- Bob Richter, Green Bay, Wis.

• Astonished? Yes, point taken. Can we be more than moderately surprised by any result that doesn't involve Serena or Azarenka losing? I think we discussed this a few years ago, but the word "stunned" always seems strange to me. Is seeing, say, Wozniacki lose really a sensation akin to being tasered?

You guys are quite quick to praise Americans for scoring an upset, such as Victoria Duval. What about a little well done to Dan Evans who, even I have to admit, has a great game, especially the way he plays off both sides? Some more maturity and experience, and I think he will become an up-and-coming player. U.S. Open ain't all about the Americans.
-- Liam Jordan, Belfast

• I'll bite on that. Big credit to Evans, who won two matches and had a real chance of beating Tommy Robredo in the third round. Evans isn't a big player but he has a lot of game. He played with poise, even though he had quite a reputation for his temper in the juniors. A first-week revelation, to be sure.

NGUYEN: Evans credits his stronger commitment for success at U.S. Open

Don't you think it would make a lot more sense for the U.S. Open to begin one week earlier than it currently does, so that the men's final could occur on Labor Day with no conflicts with the NFL, instead of its current format, where it conflicts with the opening of the NFL season? It seems that sort of schedule change would boost TV ratings. Why wouldn't the television networks push for this?
-- John M., Fort Worth, Texas

• But then it would cut a week off the U.S. summer hard-court circuit. The tennis calendar is an unsolvable riddle.

While I enjoy the Bryan brothers, I can't shake the feeling that any random pairing of top-20 players given a year to play together would defeat them more than they'd lose. Doubles is so marginalized today, so it's silly to compare their success to other eras. Seriously, a pairing of, say, Gilles Simon and Stan Wawrinka could win the calendar Slam just as easily as the Bryans.
-- Michelle Wu, Chicago

• My version of ungenerous: The players benefit so much from their unity. The rest of the field is filled with these ragtag teams and shotgun marriages. As for your assertion, I think you're probably right. On Sunday, for instance, by all accounts Vasek Pospisil (partnered with Daniel Nestor) was the best player on the court in a match against the Bryans. The rub, of course, is that top singles players seldom play doubles.

To follow up on the discussion of the ratio of players to referees/umpires, I think it was Jeff Tarango who hypothesized that the next phase of line-calling will just have Hawk-Eye call lines a la Cyclops. Then it would just be a chair umpire and no missed calls. Seems easy enough to implement. How has no one else thought of that yet?
-- Cam, Burlington, Vt.

• Our instincts are pro-human capital and anti-mechanization. But I wouldn't disagree with that. The technology is only going to get better and faster. If accuracy is the ultimate aim, wouldn't you want the system that ensures the greatest number of correct calls?

I'm surprised at your (and Frank Deford's) surprise in your last mailbag: "Frank Deford often brings up this point: Why are these people volunteering? You wouldn't volunteer to work at Goldman Sachs or the Post Office or the local hardware store. Why is a sporting event any different?" That's like asking why people volunteer to be extras on movie sets. For really hardcore tennis fans, volunteering at a tournament is heaven. Sure, it's hard work and it's probably always hot, but you also get to stand two feet from professional tennis players, get some autographs, maybe even have a conversation or two with them. And you don't even have to pay? It doesn't get much better than that.
-- Anonymous

Take it away, Frank.

With Petra Kvitova's recent slide, should we blame illness, her game or Radek Stepanek?
-- Andrew Miller, Chevy Chase, Md.

• We say it again, TMZ needs to open a bureau devoted solely to Czech tennis. As for Kvitova, she remains a mystery. When she won Wimbledon in 2011, there was a sense that she was the new dynamo. No Grand Slam titles have followed. No Slam finals have followed. What we get instead are mystifying results and a litany of ailments.

Some mystical force keeps pitting Denis Istomin and Andreas Seppi against each other in Grand Slams -- and I would venture to say that I'm the only person outside of their two camps who has noticed!
-- Mike K., Paris (originally Cincinnati)

• You are.

Why does the media treat Caroline Wozniacki with such contempt? While she isn't an aggressive player, she must have some skill to be in the top 10 for the last few years. Some of the media, particularly the second-tier announcers, act like she shouldn't be allowed near a tennis court. To be a professional athlete at the top levels should garner some respect or at least civility.
-- CJ , Roanoke, Va.

• Totally disagree. I think there's both respect and personal fondness for Wozniacki. I also think the media have a duty to commentate candidly, which sometimes means speaking unfavorably about players. When you're the sixth seed, the highest-ranked player in your quadrant, and you lose to a qualifier hitting 13 winners to her 46 ... well, that's hard to sugarcoat.

We may bemoan the disappointing state of the American men and any up-and-coming prospects, but maybe we could take a moment to observe that there is just one Swedish man in the singles top 500 -- ranked 444.
-- Sam Moen, Cambridge, Mass.

• But we envy their standard of living, commitment to social justice, active lifestyle and virtually nonexistent crime rate.

Tim Smyczek = next Frank Parker?
-- Benjamin Bittner, Wisconsin

• Yes! (Who the heck is Frank Parker?)

Shots, miscellany

• Ro'ee of Israel: "Somewhat ironic that Alison Riske's doubles partner was the great-American-hope girl of a few U.S. Opens back (Melanie Oudin)?" Apparently, they're also best friends.

• Duane Wright of Washington, D.C.: "Another U.S. Open rain delay and yet again it's Jimmy Connors vs. ... Bjorn Bjorg(!?) in U.S. Open Greatest Tiebreaks. Somewhere, Aaron Krickstein just crawled out from under his desk."

• Taylor Townsend is moving on from junior tennis.

Ana Ivanovic's biggest fan.

• Edward Sherwin of N.Y.: "The epigraph to Novak Djokovic's new book, Serve To Win, is the following quote attributed to Winston Churchill: 'We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.' But at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a stone marker in the Arthur Ashe Commemorative Garden includes the following quote attributed to Ashe: 'From what we get, we make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.' The similarity between the two quotations seems a little odd, not least of all with Djokovic (who used Churchill's quote, but plays in a stadium named for Ashe) serving as a bridge between two historic individuals with very little connection."

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