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Tennis

A solution to late withdrawals, Serena's Miami achievements, more mail

Photo: David Santiago/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic both advanced to the Sony Open final when their opponents withdrew.

As we ponder Serena Williams' mystifying loss to No. 78 Jana Cepelova at the Family Circle Cup on Tuesday night, let's linger on the Sony Open in Miami, particularly a question that came up multiple times last weekend ...

In the wake of the double withdrawals in the men's semifinals of the Sony Open last week, Sebastian Holterhoff made this suggestion on the ATP website: "How about a new rule? Similar to the lucky-loser rule. If you withdraw before the match, let the person you defeated last play for you. That way no matches would be canceled anymore and the spectators would get something in return for their money." What do you think about that? -- KS, USA

• Last weekend we got a glimpse of tennis at its best. We had Novak Djokovic beating Rafael Nadal in the Miami final, still another installment in their rivalry. Djokovic made an emphatic statement on the hard courts and set up intrigue for the clay swing. We saw Kei Nishikori secure a signature win over David Ferrer and then a John Hancock win over Roger Federer. We had Serena Williams in form, beating Li Na -- No. 1 versus No. 2; two 32-year-olds -- to win her seventh Sony Open. We had Bob and Mike Bryan romping in doubles, per usual. And Martina Hingis got back in the winner's circle, teamed with Sabine Lisicki. Great stuff.

We also saw tennis at its worst. The Federer-Nishikori quarterfinal -- perhaps the match of the tournament -- wasn't televised because of typical complications and in-fighting and conflicts that stunt the sport's growth. One day, we will be watching sports streaming on our devices. But we're not there yet and meanwhile, this is another example of tennis shooting itself in its orthotics, testing the fans' collective patience.

That match notwithstanding, the women got the short end of the TV stick. (This is no fault of the writer, but read this dispatch and it tells you plenty about how unnecessarily convoluted and bureaucratic this sport can be.)

The coup de grace: On Friday, we had BOTH men's semis go unplayed, as Nishikori and Tomas Berdych pulled out, the latest in the weekly roundup of injuries and ailments that doesn't seem to concern many in power. Imagine, for a moment, the Final Four becoming the Final Two because, say, Wisconsin and UConn were unable to participate -- and there was no backup plan. That's what men's tennis had at one of its biggest events.

I received a ton of mail during the Federer-Nishikori match -- including a former Grand Slam champ who, unable to find the match on any of her 700 channels, rightfully wondered what hope tennis had for casual fans when Hall of Fame players couldn't find the programming they sought. More mail came Friday with the withdrawals; many were wondering, like KS, whether there shouldn't be a lucky-loser provision.

So could tennis have a "lucky loser" in the semis, to obviate this situation and ensure "spectators would get something in return for their money?" Short answer: yes. Longer answer: It would take some negotiating.

Logistically, you would be asking losing quarterfinalists to stick around an extra day and wait to make sure they weren't needed as a backup. (Presumably, this would come at a price.) You would have strange circumstances of a player -- in a single-elimination tournament -- losing in the round of eight and then returning to the main draw to play on. You would have to figure out a way disburse points equitably. Also, it could be seen as unfair to the other winner. Using Friday's example, both Federer and Nishikori knew that they'd playing Djokovic and could prepare accordingly. On the other hand, Djokovic would have to adjust to a last-minute fill-in.

Overall, though, I like this idea. Pay the losing quarterfinalists a fee -- an "alternate fee," as they do at the year-end events -- for their time. Reimburse them for any travel inconveniences. Figure out the points breakdown if a lucky loser gets back in the draw. But do something/anything to avoid a situation like the one we had Friday, prime sessions of a prime events getting wiped out, disappointing fans and sponsors at home and on TV. As injuries continue to mount and the sports gets (all together now) increasingly physical, this unfortunate scenario will replicate itself again before long.

NGUYEN: Djokovic, Serena in prime form at Sony Open

Last year, after Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur withdrew from their quarterfinals in Indian Wells, I remember some TV commentators using the incident to reflect on the state of women's tennis (because every disappointing incident that occurs on the WTA seems to inspire discussion about "the state of women's tennis"). Curious how there didn't seem to be similar comments leveled at the ATP when the withdrawals of Nishikori and Berdych wiped out the Sony Open men's semifinals. No question here -- just a wish that (mostly male) commentators would be more aware of the double standards they unwittingly apply. -- Jessie, Richmond, Va.

• From the sack-cloth-and-ashes department: As several of you noted, I was, regrettably, part of that chorus. One tweet I would take back, if given the chance. This violates the cardinal rule: You'd better have some real evidence before you challenge the legitimacy of an athlete's injury.

The point last year: With Larry Ellison cutting (unnecessarily) large checks, providing equal prize money and Serena absent from the field, the women were already at a disadvantage. When there were pull-outs of several stars while Federer, clearly compromised, was hobbling through a defeat rather than disappointing fans, the optics weren't great. But the optics were lousy for the men when BOTH Miami semis were walkovers. Could Nishikori or Berdych have played despite his injury/illness? Who knows. But if they determined they couldn't, we ought to take that at face value, just as we should the women in Indian Wells last year.

Do you think Serena just gets so tight nowadays because she's chasing history? Watching her during these last few finals, it seems like she's actually playing herself, trying to overcome her own (mental?) stuff. But once she beats back the inner demons she's unstoppable, regardless of who she's playing. -- Jackie, San Mateo, Calif.

• Someone mentioned that on the telecast, too. Serena doesn't have that many more tennis sunrises left -- and she's aware of this -- so she might feel extra pressure to maximize her results. Maybe. Sometimes. But, jeez, watch the game she played at 4-5 in the first set of the Sony Open final against Li. Li was serving and Serena didn't exactly play tentative points. In fact, she swung with such abandon that her training partner tweeted this:

And the rest was history.

I'm beginning to think that Serena's achievements in Miami (which are impressive) deserve a little bit of an asterisk, given that for the past 13 years, she hasn't played the Indian Wells-Miami double. Those are essentially two six-round events played over a three-and-a-half-week period (a mean feat for any mortal), and thus she takes to the court in Florida fresh as a daisy, in comparison to the other women -- particularly those who went deep in California? Your thoughts?
-- James D., Melbourne, Australia

• Interesting theory and there's probably some validity to that. It's not simply that she was spared the grueling hard-court matches the week before; she also didn't have to deal with the travel to Miami and the relocation. The change in time zones. The change in climate. The change in surroundings.

But I think you could just as easily make the opposite case. Unlike other players, she doesn't come into Miami with much match play. (More macro: She skips one of the biggest of events on the calendar. Does this not make her ranking and haul of career titles and prize money all the more impressive?)

Call me a dreamer, but I hold out hope that this will be a moot discussion in 2015. Serena, you recall, put herself on the Indian Wells entry list (unlike Venus) before pulling out. Given the extreme sensitivity here, I can't imagine she would have done that -- nor that the tournament would have leaked this information -- were it simply a clerical error or oversight.

How do we feel about Sabine Lisicki withdrawing from the Sony Open singles tournament with the "flu" and following it up by winning the doubles tournament? She obviously couldn't have been THAT sick! -- Austin F. Potomac, Md.

• Putting the "sick" in Lisicki. Look at it this way: She was sufficiently ill that it cut short her run in the singles draw. Why not applaud her for recovering to play well enough to win the doubles titles? Speaking of the folly of second-guessing athlete injuries ...

It seems like Dominika Cibulkova and Kei Nishikori are the breakout stars of 2014 so far. Can you tell us more about them, and what is fueling their early success this year? -- Christopher Gomez, Denver, Colo.

• I would add a few others, starting with Grigor Dimitrov and Alexandr Dolgopolov. What do all four have in common? In one of the more pleasant and encouraging developmentsr, none is a bionic ball-basher; all construct points, conjure creative angles and don't rely on mere brute strength to succeed. So that's a win.

In the cases of Cibulkova and Dolgopolov, both have made changes to new rackets. I'm not sure how my colleagues feel, but I always feel like this is dangerous terrain. Not a week goes by when I don't get some p.r. pitch about a "revolutionary" or "innovative" product with a futuristic and potent-sounding name -- BioMaxThonFlexTurboBlast -- that renders the competitors candle-dippers in the age of electricity.

My skepticism surfaces. So does a reflexive desire to avoid feeling like I'm parroting a press release or offering an unpaid infomercial. At the same time, equipment is a vital part of the sport. When players change rackets or strings (or even shoes) and there is corresponding surge or decline in their play, at what point does the product warrant mention?

I've been struggling lately with what I think of Grigor Dimitrov. My opinion soared when I saw him help the ball girl affected by the heat at the Sony Open. My friends and I quickly started playing a game: What would other pros do in the same situation? Some would help just as Dimitrov would. Others would not. My opening bid in the game: Nadal would tell the umpire to deal with her. Then he would petulantly go to the other ball kid to get his towel. After all, his between-point routine would be interrupted! -- A.C. Miller, Santa Ana, Calif.

• Dimitrov was particularly solicitous -- I wonder if his lifeguard training didn't inform his reaction -- but I contend that most pros would have acted similarly. And I would put Nadal squarely in that category.

A.C. mentions Nadal's "routines" -- as many of you do, both here and on Twitter. To me, this always suggests that he is far more complex -- and that there's a lot more going on there -- than we're led to believe. Nadal won't really address it (which, of course, is his prerogative) beyond surface references to the comfort of routines. At some point, perhaps when his career is over, one hopes that he will give a fascinating explanation of it all.

In tournaments like Indian Wells and Miami with 96-player singles draws, I am puzzled as to why the doubles draw is only 32 teams. Hmm, my imagination or is this just another way of phasing the game of doubles out? Just wonderin'. Thoughts? -- John Gordon, Toronto

• I think 32 is about right. Doubles isn't being phased out. But the attention and prize money have to bear some proportion to value proposition.

Does Martina Hingis winning the doubles title at the Sony Open at her age and with her lack of match play say something about the quality of women's tennis today? -- Craig Dobson, Ottawa, Canada

• Not at all. Had she won the singles title, more than half a decade since her last title, it would have been one thing. But this is different. She's been playing WTA events -- sporadically -- for nearly a year now. This was doubles, which means that she covered only half a court. She has always been terrific alongside a partner. And she is only 33, a year older than both women's finalists. It's not like they had to park her walker on the side of the court and she played with a LifeAlert™ necklace.

For Hingis to win the doubles in Miami is simply testament to her skills. And it was a nice shot in the arm for an event that needed all the help it could get.

I floated the idea of a 50 parting shots after the Indian Wells event and you said you're on board for 2015. Maybe it might be better to do a combined 50 after tennis' version of March Madness, though. The events obviously transition so quickly from Indian Wells to Miami that a post-March summary would better represent where the players are heading to clay. -- Dean, Austin

• Done! You're cutting down on my workload. I like that. Here are a few, had we done it this year:

1. Watch out for 20-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem. And what we would give for an American prospect with that much upside. Consult StubHub and perhaps you, too, can get a seat on the bandwagon.

2. You feel for the Key Biscayne event, held, as it is, the week after Larry Ellison's annual housewarming party in Indian Wells. ("Oh, I love what you've done with the place!") Holding Miami the week after Indian Wells is a bit like owning a McMansion catty-corner from the Palace of Versailles.

3. Athletes are, of course, entitled to stop and start their careers on their terms. But it would be a shame if we've seen the last of Mardy Fish, especially after his late-career surge.

4. Players go up and players go down. But what a woeful 2014 for No. 16 Roberta Vinci. She is 1-8 in 2014.

5. Idea that floated to me: Why doesn't the ATP offer a board seat to either Larry Scott or Larry Ellison?

Shots, miscellany

• Housekeeping: Heading off on Spring Break the week after next. We'll send around another reminder, but we're lucky to have the oxymoronic guest host, Milos Raonic. You have questions for Milos, send 'em in.

• Where are the "personalities" in pro tennis?

• If you haven't seen the Fabio Fognini movie ...

• Good for you, Judy Murray (and, for that matter, Simon Cambers). As the kids say, keep doing your thing.

• Marcos Baghdatis has received a wild card for the US Men's Clay Court Championship in Houston next week.

• Adam of Wisconsin (bonus for the Final Four team): "How impressive is the dominance of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic since last spring? They hold all nine Masters 1000 titles. Nadal won two Grand Slams and each man was a finalist in one of the two Slams he doesn't hold. Each has more points than No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka and No. 4 Roger Federer combined. Nadal would still beat the total if we added No. 9 John Isner's points. We have seen one person lap the field before. Sampras did it, Federer did it. It's interesting to watch two different players do it together, often at the expense of the other. It's likely to end soon, so let's tip our hats."

• Veteran tennis journalist Mark Hodgkinson has a new book on Andy Murray.

• Wendy Edelstein of Berkeley, Calif.: "Maybe this one is a stretch but how about this for a separated at birth: Lleyton Hewitt and Matthew McConaughey?

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