A clear favorite in Paris, speeding up second serves and more mail

Wednesday May 20th, 2009

And suddenly Paris just got a lot more interesting, no?-- Randy Vague, Whistler, B.C.

• I can only assume aptly named Randy Vague is making an oblique reference to the ascent of Dinara Safina, who has been equal to her top ranking. Will she win her first major in Paris? To be determined. But she sure is looking like the leader in the proverbial clubhouse (what proverb you ask? Good question). Very interesting, indeed.

Oh, wait. What's that? Maybe Randy meant that the result of the Madrid final -- Roger Federer d. Rafael Nadal -- infuses the men's draw with the drama? In that case, I agree. The plot certainly thickened. Nadal not only enters Roland Garros on a losing streak but he also came within a point of losing to Novak Djokovic. I would caution reading too much into the Madrid results. Never mind Nadal's contention that the surface bears little resemblance to Paris. We're talking about one sloppy match here. Nadal's not suddenly "vulnerable" because he goes off the boil on a Sunday afternoon (see: Hamburg, 2007). Just to repeat: His next loss at the French Open will be his first. That is simply remarkable. And, in a perverse way, it may even help him to enter a major fresh off a stinging loss.

Nevertheless, surely Federer and, to a lesser extent, Djokovic picked up considerable momentum. Who'da thunk Federer's first title of 2009 would come against Nadal on clay. When he says, "I can beat this guy," it's now acquired some force. And while Federer played solidly, he didn't even have to summon much magic at Caja Majica. He served well, didn't make too many errors, caught Nadal on a decidedly sluggish day and ... that was that. (Sure Federer was thinking, Why couldn't I have caught him in that state one of those previous Sundays in Paris?)

Put it this way: Nadal still remains the clear favorite to win still another French Open, but we should be more inclined to bet the field (the other 127 entrants). Players at least have some material evidence that he's vulnerable. And let's a take a step back: Aren't these unexpected, lurching plot twists like this precisely why we love both tennis specifically and sports generically?

On tennisguru.net, it listed the winners of the Madrid Open with their cash prizes. How come Dinara Safina got more at 620,000 euros than Roger Federer's 585,000 euros? Is this fair?-- Aldwin, Philippines

• Good catch. It was Ladies' Night at the currency exchange booth and they got a 10 percent discount and free drinks until midnight. Seriously, here's the official word from ATP HQ: "ATP players have agreed to implement a wider distribution across rounds of the record $83 million of prize money on the 2009 ATP World Tour. To achieve this fairer spread, it was agreed that more would be allocated to earlier rounds at all ATP events. At three combined events -- Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid -- where an equal amount of total prize money is awarded to both Tour's players, the WTA Tour has decided to allocate monies differently with a greater proportion being paid in later rounds, particularly the final."

So Rafa gets the deuce? Holy cow, the guy wins three titles in three weeks, and makes the final of his third Masters event in a row, and he gets a deuce. "Carolina," as Rafa calls her, gets an Ad-In, Novak (whom Rafa has beaten three times in a row) gets an Ad-In, and Rafa gets ... well, you see the pattern here. Careful, Jon, your unbiased Fedophilia is showing :) The teacher in me says, "Come on, dude. Grade the curve!"-- Sharon Robert, Houston

• New rule: Make me laugh out loud and your odds of getting a question published go up. In this case, the term "Fedophilia" did the trick. I hear there's a National Registry for that. A few of you knocked me for grading Nadal so harshly. At some level, you're right. It's like knocking Federer for "only" winning a major and reaching two Grand Slam finals in 2008. But the Madrid result was shocking nonetheless. The King of Clay sees his string snapped, albeit to a rival, albeit in his home country. Ask Nadal what grade he thought he deserved last week and I suspect "A" would not be his answer.

Speaking of grade grubbing (apropos of nothing, really), I came across a syllabus for a law school course (name of institution withheld) and was gob-smacked by this clause about a "Grade Review Process:"

(1) The student requesting a final course grade review must meet with the instructor, and must present evidence of prejudice or error. The instructor may change the grade, if deemed appropriate, or reaffirm the original grade.

(2) If the student wishes to pursue an additional review, a written request with all supporting evidence may be submitted to the Dean of the College of Hospitality Management. The Dean will review the evidence and may support the instructor's decision or return the evidence to the instructor for a change of the grade. If agreement cannot be reached, the Dean and the instructor may consult with the Academic Dean before rendering a decision.

Has it really come to this?

I've always found the "break points converted" stat to be very misleading. Let me explain: Let's say Nadal is 4-of-10 in break points converted. This means he won four out of the 10 break points he earned. But it doesn't tell me how effective he was in gaining a break in the games he had the opportunity in. The 4-for-10 could mean that he had break chances in anywhere from four to 10 games. A better stat in my opinion would be break games converted, so instead of 4-for-10, Nadal could be 4-for-4 (assuming he had break chances in four games, he could still have had 10 break points). This has the same effect (i.e., he earned four service game breaks) and is more indicative of how effective he was in taking advantage of his break opportunities. -- Sameer Mithal, New York

• Totally agree and you're not the first person to bring this up. Worse, the commentators seem to misread this stat. How many times has a broadcaster forlornly noted, "Serena is only 2-for-9 in break points," while neglecting to mention a) her 6-3, 4-2 lead owes to those conversions and b) had she been 2-for-2, the score might well be identical. Can we push to make this change official? Sharko? IBM? Anyone?

Italian player Alessio Di Mauro gambles on ATP matches and receives a nine-month suspension. Richard Gasquet does a little blow and he gets two years. Unbelievable. The first allegation could severely cripple the sport if this problem is not completely stamped out. What is a lower-ranked player's incentive? Make $30,000 toiling for nine months or make a quick $100,000 fixing a few matches. This should be a lifetime ban. Gasquet's actions pale in comparison and do little to damage the sport. I guess life is not always fair.-- Jeffery Nielsen, Denver

• I'm not sure the comparison is a perfect one. We're talking about two agencies and two codes that operate independently. But I agree on principle. An admission of gambling -- which, we should point out, is different from match fixing -- gets you a nine-month suspension. A contested positive test for cocaine and, under the strict liability standard, you're staring at a two-year ban.

I've had some back-and-forths with a few of you about L'Affaire Gasquet. One of you made the valid point that tennis signed off on the WADA code because it wanted to be an Olympic sport. You can't have it both ways, several of you note. If you wanted more liberal testing and a move away from the WADA code, don't insist on being an Olympic sport. I say, not so fast: What prevents tennis from submitting to WADA during the Olympics and a less rigorous protocol during the other years? Also, there are other sports -- consider basketball -- that manage to be Olympic sports without submitting to WADA.

Watching clay-court tennis and these players (like Nadal) who stand 12 to 15 feet behind the baseline to return serve begs the question: Why can't servers dink the ball over the net on their first serve even if they have to do it underhand? I realize it's a tough shot for us hackers, but I would imagine the pros could do it rather easily. Even someone as fast as Nadal would have trouble catching up to a well-placed short serve with a lot of backspin or side spin when he's so far behind the baseline to begin with. Is it considered poor sportsmanship? Or am I just being naive in thinking that it could work?-- Danny, New York

• I think that's like watching football and asking, "Why doesn't he just run to the outside?" Sure, the pros are better at executing dink serves than you and I. They're also a hell of a lot faster. Hit a slow-matter serve against one and no matter how far behind the baseline he's positioned, odds are good that he will arrive with plenty of time and then smack a shot that will make you wish you'd gone into another line of work.

I know everyone goes on and on about how incredible the three-set match was between Djokovic and Nadal in the Madrid semis, but really, four hours for a three-set match is ridiculous. They take way too long between points and should both be penalized for it. Rules are rules, aren't they? It would actually alter the match -- to enforce the rules and go beyond warnings to giving point penalties.-- Allie, Toronto

• Agree, agree, agree. The major sports here in the U.S. are doing everything possible to speed up play. Meanwhile, you could watch The Ten Commandments, listen to the extended dance version of Stairway to Heaven and still have time to update your Facebook status in between Djokovic's first and second serves.

In regard to Serena's record in and out of majors, it was only seven years ago that Jennifer Capriati had similar numbers. Going into the 2002 Italian Open, Capriati was 24-2 in the majors. On the WTA Tour, she was only 26-12 with no titles.-- Glenn, Nashville, Tenn.

• Very good, thanks.

In response to your analysis of the GOAT question posed last week: To say that not winning on clay is not a prerequisite for being a GOAT in tennis is like saying you don't have to win a World Series in baseball to be considered the best team ever. The point of the game is to win the big one, or in golf or tennis, the big ones. In golf, the lack of one major clearly sets golfers apart in this analysis and it should be in tennis, too. Total titles combined with multiple or all surfaces is the criteria for GOAT. You can argue about who it is, but to absolve players of having to win on all three, and particularly clay, is a disgraceful, lazy standard.-- Jim Reilley, Sacramento, Calif.

• World Series? If the French Open were the only major event held each year, you might have a point. But so long as Pete Sampras is winning three of the four majors (while hoarding the No. 1 ranking for more than a decade and setting the all-time record for career Slams), I wouldn't be so cavalier. And didn't the Marlins win the World Series? Twice?

In response to the reader who said that Sampras has "no record on clay:" His record is 90-54, with three titles, including the Italian Open in the mid-'90s. Not overwhelming, but that's a winning record.-- Alice Eaton, Easthampton, Mass.

• Absolutely. Clearly his worst surface and clearly the scratch on his escutcheon (yes, we're running low on analogies/cliches here), but should this really disqualify him from GOAT discussion? Not in my book.

When the same women were appearing in most semis, it was described as due to a lack of depth. I've noticed that five men appeared in the quarters of the last four mandated Masters: Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Verdasco. Andy Murray and Andy Roddick appeared in three of the last four: Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid. Does this mean a lack of depth on the men's tour?-- Jerry White, Mineral, Va.

• Um, er ... Jerry's point is a good one. When a few select players dominate the women's game, the field lacks depth and the results are predictable. When the men's game serves up half-dozen players who can be counted on to reach the latter rounds of events, it's a golden age. Hmmm.

I was watching the Madrid tournament the other day, Mardy Fish vs. Tommy Robredo. There was an issue with the balls and I swear I heard the announcer say that the women are using a smaller ball. Could this be correct? If so, how often does it occur? I was very surprised to hear the comment.-- John Allen, Baltimore

• Yes, at some "joint" events, the women and men use different balls, though as I understand it, the balls are not smaller but lighter. From time to time, men mention this when they play mixed doubles.

Federer's fortune swing seems to have an eerie resemblance with that of the economy. They both seem to have hit rock bottom earlier this year and now are showing some remote signs of stabilizing. Is that a good enough reason for me to root for my favorite to get back on top or am I being too wishful?-- Vijay Kalpathi, Houston

• Good observation. (And you're right, the timing is eerie: Didn't the fall of Lehman Brothers, which started this miserable crash, occur the week after the U.S. Open, Federer's last Slam?) If for no other reason than the sake of our 401(k)s, let's hope Federer wins Wimbledon.

• Everyone in the French Open suicide pool.

Carlos of Easton (presumably Pa.) had me laughing with this: "A heads up before you make the same mistake everyone else is making: The new stadium in Spain, Caja Magica, the proper translation is 'Magical Box' and not 'Magic Box.' For it to be the Magic Box, the name in Spanish would have to be 'Caja de Magia.' Magia = Magic and Majica is Magical. When you post your article on Wednesday, distinguish yourself from the other barbarians in your field and show your international readers how worldly you really are."

• Congrats to Doug Spreen for hitting a million miles on Delta.

Alex Ketaineck of Madison, N.J.: "With his win over Nadal in Madrid, Federer became only the second player to notch multiple wins over Nadal on clay. The other? Gaston Gaudio, with three wins."

• InsideOut Sports & Entertainment announced the full field of players who will join Andre Agassi at the 2009 Cancer Treatment Centers of America Tennis Championships in Surprise, Ariz., to be played Oct. 8-11. The rest of the eight-player field will be Jim Courier, Mats Wilander, Mark Philippoussis, Wayne Ferreira, Mikael Pernfors, Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias.

• Check out longtime mailbag reader Stelio Savante.

• This year's ITA national award winners are:


Wilson/ITA National Coach of the Year: Ty Tucker, Ohio State

ITA/Farnsworth National Senior Player of the Year: Arnau Brugues, Tulsa

ITA National Rookie of the Year: Bradley Klahn, Stanford

ITA National Player to Watch: Oleksandr Nedovyesov, Oklahoma State

ITA/John Van Nostrand Memorial Award: Conor Pollock, Texas A&M


Wilson/ITA National Coach of the Year: Jeff Wallace, Georgia

ITA National Senior Player of the Year: Kelcy Teft, Notre Dame

ITA National Rookie of the Year: Chlesey Gullickson, Georgia

ITA National Player to Watch: Kristy Frilling, Notre Dame

Helen of Seattle has this week's long-lost siblings:

Stan Wawrinka and Ryan Philippe.

Have a great week everyone!

To order a copy of Jon Wertheim's' new book, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, click here.

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