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Stylistic changes have alienated fans as much as marketing woes


You raised some interesting points last week in your column about fixing some of tennis' marketing problems. But I'm surprised you didn't address the problem of style. Too many players just smack the ball without thinking. Hard, flat strokes. No volleys. No strategy. Two-handed backhand. Big forehand. No variety. Just bashing. I'm not sure what can be done about this, but to me that's a bigger turnoff than anything.--Doug, Texas

• Interesting point. I was recently speaking to a group at a tennis club and kept hearing the same refrain: "I used to be a huge fan of the pro game but then the sport kind of lost me." Sure, much of this surely traces to the absence of Americans. Here in the U.S., we're a long way from the Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang generation. But these folks liked and followed Borg and Becker and Edberg and Graf and Arantxa Sanchez. Why have they been unable to warm to Soderling and Jankovic and Azarenka?

There are a whole host of reasons -- not least the diminishing number of American tournaments -- but I suspect that the stylistic differences has a lot do with it. Edberg hardly played the same sport as, say, Agassi. Sanchez was nothing like Graf. It was easier to form bonds and allegiances when there was such variety. Players' styles reflected their personalities. They had signature shots. There were clashes of styles. Today it's obviously tougher.

The question then becomes: What can be done? The answer, very little. It's largely up to change our standards. The same way fans who root only by country will invariably be disappointed, fans who keep waiting for the second coming of Edberg or Rafter of Henin do so at their own peril. Given technology, fitness, and evolution, the days of clever counterpunching and serve-and-volleying and chipping and charging have gone by way of the set shot in basketball or the wishbone offense in the NFL. Players don't choose their games based on style; they chose it based on effectiveness. Barring a curbing of technology, the flat baseline ripping is the most effective technique. (Maria Sharapova, for instance, surely must think: "I'd love to play like Maria Bueno, too. But my job is to win matches!")

As fans, I think the better play is to admire players' fitness levels, their play under pressure, their personalities, even their attire. I fear that holding out for the next Fabrice Santoro while lamenting "boring bashing," is akin to cursing the fad that is the Internet.

Whoever won the men's Rogers Cup title would have been champion at a mere two events in the past 52 weeks. Who the heck is winning titles on the ATP tour, if not the players ranked third and fourth!?--Daniel, Toronto

• In a sense you're right. Djokovic has done little winning. Before last week, Murray had done little winning. Roddick won Miami and little else. Federer is winless since Australia. Soderling has been quiet. Davydenko has been injured. But there's this guy named Nadal. He swept the clay-court season and won Wimbledon, rocking 34 of 35 matches at one point. That doesn't leave much for the other guys. This is a bit like the red herring: "How can Federer be considered the greatest when so few of his contemporaries won majors?" There is a finite number of titles. If one player gets particularly acquisitive, it only leaves table scraps for everyone else!

As a physician who has not examined Djokovic, my impression is that his illness has to be something that is not very serious. I am sure that over the years, expert physicians have ruled out serious heart and lung problems that can cause breathing difficulties. So maybe he has asthma, which can be triggered by both exercise as well as bad air quality and maybe other allergens like pollen. (I am not implying that asthma is not serious, but less so than some other conditions). Asthma can be controlled on medications, but it can flare up now and then. As far as his back pain, leg pain, SARS, swine flu is concerned, I have no explanation.--Anita, St. Louis

• A lot of lay opinions on Djokovic's breathing issues. First, I'm a bit ambivalent on this as an ethical/bioethical issue. None of us has examined the guy and medical issues are personal. On the other hand, he's an athlete in the public domain whose performance is clearly hindered, so it's relevant to performance. The same way we can speculate about Jason Bay's concussion or Blake Griffin's knee, I think we're OK here. The opinions ranged from "asthma" (most common) to "dust from the NATO bombings of Serbia."

Paul Smith of Edgewood, Ky.: "As to Djokovic, I had a friend with had asthma and whenever we played a sport that involved a lot of running (basketball or tennis) he would wheeze, have to stop often and generally would look like he was not physically fit even though he was quite athletic. My guess is his "handlers" have had him diagnosed and he has an asthmatic condition that will not get worse if he plays but it will always hamper him most under warm, humid conditions. He will have to simply live with it ..."

Sai Partha of Tucson, Ariz.: "In response to Carol Kelly's concern regarding Novak's respiratory problems ... as a pulmonologist I can state that it is most certainly not chronic obstructive pulmonary disease which afflicts older smokers. Not having evaluated him in person, my educated guess is asthma with some drama as well. (The asthma seems worse when he is losing!) I hope he is on a good combination of inhaled steroids and long-acting bronchodilators, avoids known triggers (allergens) and keeps well hydrated ... So there is a doctor in the house, but the question to you Jon is how much would I make if I collected $1 consultation fee from every one of your readers? Hmmm!?"

During the Rogers Cup tournament, they announced there would be mics in the players' boxes during the U.S. Open. My opinion, is this is a terrible idea. Do the coaches and players families have no privacy any more? The coaches and players are at a tournament to do their best to win it, not to entertain the fans or generate ratings. What's coming next, player interviews during changeovers? What is your opinion?--John, Lakeland, Fla.

• This is the trend in all sports. Keep adding bells and whistles so the fans feel closer than ever. Apart from being able to discern/confirm which coaches skirt the rules and shout instructions, I'm skeptical of the value. What are we going to hear? Mirka texting? Uncle Toni muttering, "Vamos Rafa." Oracene Williams dozing off? At least, unlike the unmitigated fiasco that is on-court coaching, this gimmick doesn't change the sport organically. Personally, I'd be happy to settle for boom mics, no wired players' boxes, no tunnel interviews ... just live coverage.

Has anyone ever beaten Nadal and Federer on consecutive days before?--Mark B., Eureka, Calif.

• Djokovic, of course, had that tremendous week in Canada three years back, beating Roddick, Nadal and Federer in succession.

I just finished and really liked Andre Agassi's autobiography Open. What would you rate as the best tennis biographies?--Dennis Airey, Mission Viejo, Calif.

• I enjoyed Pete Sampras' book, Arthur Ashe's Days of Grace, the John McEnroe book. And if Frank Deford wrote lines on the blackboard, I'd take time to read it.

This gives me an opportunity to plug Gordon Forbes' Handful of Summers, not an autobiography, per se, but close enough.

The real question: After Agassi elevated the sports biography, how can another athlete -- tennis player in particular -- write self-serving pablum? Read a literary and candid book like that and how do you stomach: "I knew I was going to have to serve well to beat Bjorkman, a dangerous Swede, in the Round of 16"? (Speaking of Open, it took first place in the first annual Book Contest conducted by the United States Tennis Writers' Association).

I certainly think Berdych's win over Fed at Wimby was a fluke, post Toronto loss. Your comments?--Sahana Rao, Bangalore, India

• Berdych beats Federer soundly at Wimbledon. Then Federer beats Berdych 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(5) in Toronto. And it nullifies the Wimbledon result? Not sure I get that.

If you had to pick the best male player not to win a Slam (over the past seven years, since Federer first broke through with a Slam win), wouldn't you agree that Nalbandian is ahead of Murray?--Ryan Whitman, New York City

• Nah. Murray has been to more major finals, played better against the top guns, been healthier, and, frankly, is a better player.

Today's ballboy/ballgirl question got me thinking: You're always saying that tennis could use more publicity and TV exposure, so how about a Tennis Channel reality show based on a bunch of people trying out to be U.S. Open ballboys or ballgirls? I could see John McEnroe as the Simon Cowell-ish lead judge.--Jim Savage, Richmond, Va.

• When Tennis Channel wants an original program, there's a killer idea. Surely there's a cost-benefit analysis here and producing original programming -- even a reality show -- is more expensive than re-airing the Memphis semifinals. But isn't this the way an upstart expands its footprint? I barely knew I received AMC until Mad Men.

For the past two years, "Murray is a favorite for [insert hard court major here]" has been tennis' equivalent of "the economy is showing signs of rebounding." Any reason to believe otherwise this time around? Nothing against Murray but this is all too familiar, no?--Vijay Kalpathi, Houston

• How are those "green shoots" working out for you? Do I think Murray is the favorite? No. Do I think Murray is a favorite? Sure. You beat Nadal and Federer in succession on the same surface and you've earned that billing. It has indeed gotten familiar. At the same time, he's putting up the results. Looking at this objectively: Federer has slipped a peg since Australia. Djokovic is still Djokovic. Even if Del Potro plays, he won't be 100 percent. Nadal hasn't been to the final in New York. None of this is to say that Murray will hoist a trophy in three weeks. But, after a dismal spring and early summer, there's plenty of reason for optimism right now.

Defending Berdych: He wants to be the best he can. It's not whining when he upset about a clear disadvantage. If he didn't care, people would rip him for wasting talent. As for being "entitled," Berdych is busting his butt to be the best in the world at what he does. How many other people have to do their job better than everyone else in the world?--Brandon, Chicago

• Fair enough. But starting in the juniors, scheduling conflicts are, almost necessarily, part of playing in a tennis tournament. Go ahead and complain. Go ahead and campaign for a more accommodating start time. But when you're Tomas Berdych -- who, for all his talents, ain't exactly making the turnstiles click -- and you announce you're boycotting the event in the future after you don't get your way, you demean yourself.

Jack Williams of Arlington, Va., adds: "I think where [Berdych] did have a real point was being the number one seed and being put on the third largest court -- not stadium, not grandstand. So what if he's not a big draw? If he's the top seed, he deserves respect enough not to be made to play one of the smallest useable courts.

Doesn't watching this whole Dustin Johnson debacle make you appreciate tennis more? In tennis, all the calls are made right on the spot ... should an official suggest to you that your foot might have gone over the line on your serve, you can engage in jovial banter immediately about whether your foot did indeed traverse that line and whether a human throat can indeed accommodate a tennis ball.--Andrew Semegram, West Brattleboro, Vt.

• "Nice match, Radwanska! Well played. You really had it today! Relax, take your argyle socks off! Can I fix you a dry martini! No? Maybe a cordial? Oh, one thing -- and this is a bit indelicate, so forgive me -- but at 3-4 in the third set, you inadvertently touched your left shoulder while receiving a toss from a ballkid of Armenian extraction, a violation of Rule 6.3(J)XI(a)(iii)(super-subset beta). Sorry but we're going to have to invalidate everything you've done since February. Now if you'll just hand the trophy back to member Davenport. What's that? It had no material effect on the outcome? Doesn't matter. Sorry, what's that? You were unaware of the infraction? Well, we handed out a supplemental rule book on Tuesday. Should have been slipped under your door. Better luck next time!"

I thought asking Nadal about God played into racial stereotypes. Non-whites have always been perceived as being more "spiritual" and are often characterized as such in film, TV and other popular media. I thought the question was disrespectful. While Federer has a "stately" image, it seems the media is not shy about asking Rafa anything. I think if a reporter asked Federer a question about God the reporter would quickly be scolded and blackballed by Fed's team at IMG.--Robert, Singapore

• Though I suppose I shouldn't be, I'm surprised by how much play this continues to get. I agree that the context was odd -- this question was posed maybe an hour after Nadal had won Wimbledon. But, again, I think it's completely legit to ask a public figure something to the effect of: "What role, if any, does faith play in your life?" It's equally legit for them to respond, "That's personal. Next question." I disagree with your premise, too. Since when is being spiritual a) pejorative and b) at odds with being stately?

Long as you brought it up, Federer doesn't need his team to do his bidding for him. A friend of mine noted this exchange last week in Canada: "In the news conference, a reporter wondered where Federer would rank this quarterfinal victory in the Rogers Cup. Federer, long a master of these situations, looked amused. His goal has always been Grand Slams, and the United States Open looms later in the month. That goal did not change with birthday No. 29, or ranking No. 3.

"Look, I've played 800 matches," he said. "It's sort of hard to put a number on it."

After the laughter subsided, he continued, "Definitely in the top 100. But don't forget, I've played some amazing matches throughout my career."

My wonderful wife got me a ticket for the men's quarterfinals (day) at the U.S. Open as a birthday present. I was wondering if I get there when the gates open (10 a.m.), will I be able to see any players on the practice courts before the 11 a.m. match starts. I was thinking the guys in the night matches might be up early for a hit. Let me know.--Bob Diepold, Charlotte

• Yeah, you should find some players practicing. Junior, doubles players, wheelchair players (whom I urge you to support), the legends, and, as you note, likely the night sessions principals.

• Mano Mendes of Sao Paulo, Brazil: "An example for tennis these days. I was watching the dramatic PGA major final round live by Internet. Amazing images, just amazing final round, and what is my point comparing with tennis is: for free, live, players very close to the spectators, new faces leading a major, exciting. Meantime the ATP confuse and slow website today I wanted to see the live "scores" in Toronto and the system sent me to Cincy qualifying. Well, I am in 2010, when tennis is after all? I ask you. My personal comment: Please, Providers of tennis around the world, stop treat tennis like a sport to astronauts, making players unreachable, untouchable, more and more? And please, make this wonderful sport easier to follow. Thank you."

• Venus Williams has joined forces with Polo Ralph Lauren and will unofficially kick-off the US Open in New York next Thursday, August 26 with a global live virtual tennis clinic that fans and tennis players from around the world can participate in real-time from their own computer.

• A prize to the first person who can state with certainty whether this Federer video is real or not.

• This is a good video, too.

• ESPN will be carrying the U.S. Open draw show live. Check local listings.

• Who wants a job in tennis? (And doesn't mind living in Austin, Texas, which should be most of us ... you can even hire mailbag reader Roger Huerta as security detail.)

• And another job in Scottsdale (also not the worst place to set up shop).

• Brian Hirst of Harpswell, Maine: "I second Michelle's comment (Aug. 11 column) about the Legg Mason being a great venue. I had seats in the top deck and could see very well. The real enjoyment for tennis fans are the three side courts. On at least one you can sit with your feet on the court. On the middle one there are only about 10 bleacher rows on each side of the court. Up close, I watched Nalbandian practice, Stapanek and Berdych take on Zimonjic and Nestor, and Simon dismantle Kunitsyn. Later, I noticed the Bryan brothers practicing and people filling the seats to watch them. Up close like this is where you really get to see how good the top players are, what separates them from players ranked 40 or so places behind them and how good you have to be to make it as a Top 100 player. I spent seven hours watching tennis for a $45 ticket. Great stuff."

• John of Chicago: "In regards to lack of live tennis in Chicago, there is actually a very well-run men's Challenger tennis tournament in Winnetka, a northern suburb of Chicago. It occurs around early July and has featured many players who have gone to Top 30 status, including Querrey and Isner."

• Tennis Canada has announced a C$13M upgrade to the National Training Centre and Uniprix Stadium, which will feature four indoor clay courts.

• Kevin of Toronto, Ontario: "This is in response to Kyle Fields from Jacksonville, Fla., and all the other tennis/Rafa fans who seem determined to make a HUGE deal about Rafa's winning record against Roger. Ivan Lendl has a decided head-to-head edge (22 wins vs. 13 losses) versus Jimmy Connors and Boris Becker's head-to-head with Stefan Edberg (25 wins vs. 10 losses) is so skewed in his favor that you would be led to believe that both Lendl and Becker were head and shoulders better than Connors and Edberg. But anyone who has watched tennis in any meaningful way knows this isn't true. We know that a whole host of factors influence those numbers. I, like you Jon, am exhausted by this debate. Just a few weeks back, didn't someone write in asking you if Rafa's French and Wimbledon victories should count as victories over Roger since he beat the players who had beaten Roger. Using that logic, off the top of my head I can count two Slam victories for Roger that would count as wins over Rafa. I understand that everyone has their favorite players and wants to prop up their boy. But much of this debate is childish at best, idiotic at worst."

• Michael of Phoenix: "You've said it before, but there is nothing like avoiding the stadium court and going to the side courts. I went to my first pro tournament last week in Carlsbad (San Diego) and watched multiple Top 20 players from 10 feet away. I also sat right behind Nadia Petrova and Flavia Panetta's coaches in separate matches. I saw/heard encouragement and ... beyond. When is calling out three sentences in, say, Russian, considered coaching and not coaching and who is responsible for calling these guys out on it? It's not even necessary at a tournament like this when they get coaching time-outs!"

• Keep an eye on Jelena Dokic, who's won three straight ITF events.

• And Michael from Halifax, Nova Scotia, offers up long lost siblings: Ernests Gulbis and singer James Blunt.

Have a great week, everyone!