Sports fans tend to be dog lovers. That is, passionate, devoted, reflexive fans of underdogs. It's Dayton during March Madness and thoroughbreds purchased for $10,000 and knuckleball pitchers and no-name golfers on the back nine at Augusta on Sunday afternoon. The metaphors are unending. They are Little Engines that Could. They are Cinderellas at the ball. They are plucky startups enterprises competing with the well-funded blue chips
In tennis, though, our relationship with underdogs is complex. It's not that we don't like and respect the ambitious outsiders, or that we don't like a dash of the unpredictable. Taylor Townsend -- who plays, looks and thinks like no one else -- upsetting Alize Cornet? Garbine Muguruza beating Serena Williams? Guillermo Garcia Lopez taking out Stan
islas Wawrinka? Those players (little ingénues that could?) were highlights of the early rounds. What was it Wilt Chamberlain said? Oh, right. Nobody roots for Goliath.
Except in tennis, a sport driven by stars. Ultimately, fans come to see Nadal at the peak of his powers. And they want Roger Federer last for as long as possible -- both in tournaments and in his career. And they root for Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova and players in form like Ana Ivanovic. Tiger Woods can blow up on Thursday and still make the cut. But tennis is one-and-done, win or go home. Once Serena loses, she's done for the tournament.
So, every now and then, we don't mind some bracket busting. But we like the stars to advance, which we got today. After the chaos of the first the four days, order was restored on Day Five. Rafael Nadal breezed by Dominic Thiem of Austria -- suddenly one of the brightest ATP prospects -- with a brilliant performance. David Ferrer won in straight sets. So did Andy Murray. And Petra Kvitova.
If they split sets and matches are compelling, so much the better. But we don't mind that the tennis Goliaths use their slingshots to generate more pace and accuracy than the Davids across the net. Today, anyway, they did.
Jon, I can't help but wonder yet again, was Serena prepared to lose her second-round match in order to avoid the potential third-round matchup against her sister Venus?
-- Nick W., Lexington, Ky.
• I wouldn't go that far. but I think you're onto to something. When Venus was up a set and a break against Schmiedlova and then lost eight of nine games, was it because she realized a potential date with Serena awaited? Not unreasonable. And when Serena -- who played second -- is preparing for her match with one eye on Venus' third set, is it a distraction? Not unreasonable.
Let's be clear: this is not a condemnation. But for fifteen years now, they have been dealing with a dynamic that no other players have.
One of the Japanese reporters covering the French Open tweeted speculating that Nishikori's decision to compete at the French Open despite his physical state could be sponsor related. Am I too naive to think that's nonsense? Does similar happen often with other players?
-- Sunny, Georgia
•That's depends how far you want to take the term "sponsor-related." Most endorsement contracts have bonus clauses for strong performance at Majors, which creates incentive to play despite injury. It's easy to see how this could cloud, or at least complicate, a decision. But do I think Kei Nishikori played in a clearly compromised state either to appease a sponsor looking or, worse yet, because of a threat? Not at all.
I think what's much more common is for lesser ranked players to realize that even a first round loss means a significant check. It seems that especially in recent years, we've seen players in no shape to play, take for the court for a few games, pocket their $30,000 and hightail it home. It doesn't exactly dignify competition, but it's hard to generate much outrage.
This 32-seeds system has got to go. Nowadays, any unseeded player is penciled in for a date with a seed by the second round at the latest. With top players praising more progressive pay distribution, you'd think this lessening of breakthrough opportunities would come up on occasion.
-- Ro'ee, Israel
• The system is rough on the players ranked below No. 33. The flip side is that it rewards the top players, ensuring that they don't play an opponent in the top 32 until the third round (by which point they have already ensured themselves close to $100,000). It's rough on the fans, who can see a lot of blowouts in the first week. Then again, it's a boon to fans because it helps ensure the top seeds will reach the second week. Tiger Woods can play a lousy round and can still make the cut. In tennis, it's one-and-done. Stan Wawrinka plays a lousy match and he's done. It's easy to see why tennis would like to make life easy on the drawing cards. But on balance, I'm with Ro'ee. Sixteen seeds is plenty.
Do you expect Andy Murray to come out of retirement this year? Or maybe early next year?
-- Tina Sachs, Los Angeles
• Oh, behave. Three points on Murray:
1. He hasn't made a final since winning Wimbledon in 2013. And that was not unpredictable. You finally achieve this career (existential?) holy grail. Easy to see how a letdown might follow.
2. Murray has looked reasonably sharp in his first two matches. Today he absolutely pummeled Marinko Matosevic of Australia. And looking at his draw, it's easy to seem him reaching week two and getting his back in a grove before Wimbledon.
3. After his gushing tweets about Taylor Townsend yesterday, Murray's "good guy stock" is soaring.
Do you think Rod Laver and Steffi Graf each open up a bottle of champagne when the calendar slam is lost for the year, a la the 1972 Miami Dolphins?
-- Justin DePietropaolo, Downingtown, Penn.
• Well played, sir.
• Today's edition of press releasing... The Bryans' V-Grid Tennis Fest will be held July 19 at Spanish Hills Country Club.
• The International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum in Newport, R.I. has broken ground on an improvement project.