Friday March 23rd, 2012

Fernando Gonzalez played the last match of his career on Wednesday, but there was no TV coverage for fans. (EPA)

This has been a very rare week. I haven't seen a lick of tennis and it's not by choice. So how does one write a tennis column with thoughts on the week when one hasn't seen anything? You're about to find out.

Coverage issues: My favorite comment from a fan this week came in the form of a tweet from an ardent Rafael Nadal fan, James Henry.!/olerafa/status/182613868332335104

James has a point. The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami can try to lay claim on the elusive (and ultimately irrelevant) title of "The Fifth Slam", revamping the grounds, adding seating, and putting Hawkeye on all courts. But if the two biggest Tour-level tournaments can't even get their early rounds televised then they'll always feel small.

Tennis fans who wanted to see Fernando Gonzalez's last match or Alisa Kleybanova's return from cancer were out of luck this week, where television coverage of Miami won't start until Saturday, which means four days of main draw play have gone by without a single stream. On one hand, you can't blame the tournament or networks. Nothing particularly notable happens in the first few days and you can understand how the cost/benefit analysis weighs heavily on the "cost" side early on.

But given the number of momentous matches that took place this week in Miami (the return of Kleybanova, Venus and Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and the farewell of Gonzo, the lack of coverage was particularly annoying. I keep thinking back to the Australian Open in January, when the tournament live-streamed its qualifying rounds on YouTube. The technology is there. Is it too much to ask that these tournaments that are making money hand over fist invest in it?

Always Be Closing: On Thursday night, Christina McHale was up 6-0, 4-0 on Petra Cetkovska. McHale would go on to win two more games. Unfortunately for her they weren't the next two. In a spectacular crumble, McHale would lose the match 0-6, 7-5, 6-1. This isn't the first time she's notched a bad collapse. She was up 4-1 in the third set over Angelique Kerber in Indian Wells and lost the match, squandering three match points on the way. There was also her loss to Sara Errani at Roland Garros last year, where she was up 5-0 in the third only to lose.

McHale isn't the only American with a closing problem. Sloane Stephens was up a set and 5-1, 40-15 against Kerber in Indian Wells and went on to lose the match, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4. On a sweltering Thursday afternoon in Miami, Stephens needed multiple opportunities to serve out the match over Errani. She finally did and reportedly hit the practice court immediately after the match, an odd move considering this was her fourth match in four days and the match lasted over two and a half hours. Besides, can you "practice" closing out a match? I'm not so sure. But that's the cruel thing about tennis. There's no clock to run out, which means no lead is safe. You're always as close to winning as you are to losing.

Welcome returns: Kleybanova's return in Miami ended on Friday with a hard-fought 7-6 (1), 6-3 loss to Maria Kirilenko, but she made a huge statement in her two matches. She came back from a set down to beat Johanna Larsson 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 on Tuesday and then stayed with Kirilenko for two and half hours in a match that would have been 50-50 even when she was at her peak.

As for Venus Williams, her return after six months off was a resounding success. By all accounts, Venus looked better than expected against Kimiko Date-Krumm, ratcheting up her aggression and keeping points as short as possible. That mindset is perfect for Venus, who has always been at her best when she knows she has to get to the net as quickly as possible (i.e., Wimbledon). She has a big test on Friday night against Petra Kvitova, but given Kvitova's inconsistency, you can't count Venus out, though we have yet to know how well she recovers between matches. As for Serena and Kim, all signs point to good, which will make the second week of Miami very exciting.

Conflicts of Interest: Jon Wertheim thoroughly addressed the ever-present issue of conflicts of interest in tennis and it's a must read. I think it's funny that we're all talking about this now because ESPN just couldn't help itself, cutting to Mirka Federer between points with Mary Joe Fernandez brazenly sitting right next to her. Count me in the camp that wouldn't go so far as to say Fernandez should never cover a Federer match or offer her insights on him or his game just because she might have a conflict of interest. Just because you have a conflict doesn't mean you automatically lose your ability to be objective and accurate in your observations. And as Jon points out, those relationships can help you do your job better.

I've honestly never noticed any bias or unfairness in the way Fernandez talks about Federer, so her relationship with the Federer camp has never bothered me. If anything, the situation gets much more problematic for me when Fernandez is discussing Serena or Venus. What exactly are you supposed to say when you're the U.S. Fed Cup captain?

I do find it interesting that everyone gets so up in arms about Fernandez's relationship with Federer, while other commentators, like Justin Gimelstob, Patrick McEnroe, or Darren Cahill don't get as much flak even though their conflicts are more direct. For example, Gimelstob makes it a point to show how friendly he is with the American men, particularly Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and Ryan Harrison, and it affects his ability to be objective in a very noticeable way. Those are his friends out there and his willingness to be critically honest undermines his ability to be a good commentator.

Am I not merciful: Good luck to the team that might draw John Isner's mixed doubles team at the Olympics. The big man seemed to really relish his repeated acing of Justin Henin at Hopman Cup in 2009. "It's fun to serve as hard as I can against the women sometimes," he said, laughing. "I remember I played in the finals I played against Justine Henin, and I aced her about 15 times.  She was on the deuce side and obviously she has unbelievable returns, but she's also kind of small.  I kept hitting the serve out wide. If I ever get the chance to play for Olympic gold, I'm not going to take it easy."

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