By Jon Wertheim
April 20, 2011

Again, you mention Federer shanking balls with his "small-framed" racket. He's been playing with basically the same head size for all of these years. Do you and other critics really think that changing to a larger size racket right now is going to drastically improve things for him? I think it's like Derek Jeter changing up his swing during the offseason this year. I remember reading a great article from your colleague Joe Posnanski saying that Jeter changing his swing this late may improve his game a little, but the inevitable is coming. And by the way, Jeter isn't doing so hot so far. I think the same goes for Federer; his best days are behind him. What's your rationale for saying that Fed needs to switch to a larger frame, and do you really think it will make that much of a difference?

-- Kobi Sonoyama, Sacramento, CA

Someone asked me recently, "What are the big stories in tennis these days?" I led with the emergence of Djokovic. Sadly, my second topic was the decline of Federer. He is, of course, being held to the absurd standards he himself set. But by now only those in serious denial must acknowledge that Federer is not the player he once was. Last week's loss to Jurgen Melzer was only the latest indignity. While we recently offered a glass-half-full stat and pointed out that Federer was 53-1 against players outside the top five, we now come with a glass-half-empty stat: in 2011 he has yet to beat a top-10 opponent. I still think it's entirely within the range of possibility that he wins another Major. But time is finally doing its cruel dance.

The question becomes: how does Federer confront this opponent? He is well within his rights to concede to nature, as Kobi implies, and go gracefully into that good night. But, the same way we buy dentures or color our hair or get an artificial hip, why not fight back a little and try to reverse the aging process? If Federer chooses this option, realistically what he can do? He's not going to emulate Jeter and tinker much with the mechanics at this point. He can make a few personnel moves and rely on his team, as his hometown paper seems to suggest. (Thanks, unofficial Basel correspondent Sally D.)

But, ultimately, he takes the court alone.

Or he can change his equipment. Like many of you, I'll note that Pete Sampras claims he could have won a few more Majors had he been less stubborn and switched to a larger racket later in his career. But in Federer's case it seems particularly apt. He's not only shanking balls at an alarming clip -- another missing tennis stat -- but players are now pushing him around the court taking big cuts like never before. If Federer can switch to a frame that would give him a bigger sweet spot and give him a cushion even when he doesn't strike it perfectly, it would help him immensely. As it stands now, when Federer hits the ball cleanly, he's as good as ever. But when he's off, there's no margin for error. And when you're losing a match and knowing that you'll pay dearly for a miss, the racket -- as reader Eric Walsh put it -- "senses your fear and spins out on you."

Federer could quit tomorrow and go down as the GOAT, as far as I'm concerned. But as long as he's still around, as long as he's still supremely talented, why wouldn't he give himself the best chance possible to make one more run?

Can you please tell us why the tennis media (including you) and the ATP have brushed the Wayne Odesnik story under the carpet? Wasn't he supposed to be cooperating and informing on his fellow juice champs? What came out of that so-called "cooperation"?

-- Trish Planck, San Jose, CA

First let's be clear: the ITF is cutting the deals here, not the ATP. And the "plea agreement" was purposefully vague. Odesnik agreed to "cooperate" in exchange for a reduced sentence following his HGH bust. This could mean anything from selling out other players to explaining the supply chain. I agree that if the ITF is in the business of chopping suspensions in half, it would be nice if we had more transparency and more concrete proof that Odesnik upheld his part of the bargain. But that's not realistic. It's easy to envision a scenario in which information provided would be rendered useless -- or, at a minimum compromised -- if it were publicized.

Odesnik spoke withUSA Today last week and, well, let's just say I'm not sure I'd want him on my team at the Logic Bowl. But draw your own conclusions:

Do the results from Indian Wells and Key Biscayne count toward the U.S. Open Series. If so, hasn't Novak Djokovic pretty much wrapped up that bonus?

-- Michael L., New York

Remember in high school, there were those "awards" and "honors" that were essentially available to anyone shameless enough to purchase them. "Who's who in America" and whatnot. They were meaningless but they looked good on paper and, who knows, maybe you could pull a fast one by the admissions office. Or better yet, you know those Best Plastic Surgeon "award" or Best Steakhouses in America "award" you see in airline magazines? It's not like the Continental Airlines editorial staff is doing exhaustively researched polling. No, folks are just paying a fee and hoping gullible consumers believe this "award" really has clout.

Anyway, the U.S. Open Series is tennis' answer to this. I know, I'm obsessed with this. But we haven't touched on this in a while so here goes. The U.S. Open Series is the biggest waste of money since Y2K insurance. It does nothing to induce top players to change their schedule -- which is the main goal. It does nothing to promote tournaments. It has zero cache among players. It simply rewards players from doing well in MANDATORY events. Last year, Kim Clijsters won a $500,000 bonus from the USTA because she won the Cincinnati event. Then she reached the quarters of Montreal (mandatory) before losing in part because of an injury. Then she. Oh, wait, that's it. One tournament win and one quarterfinal -- and both events will be mandatory next year -- and she takes home $500,000?

A few years ago, a USTA executive spun a yarn to The New York Times about how Nicolas Kiefer inquired about his U.S. Open Series ranking. Skeptical, I asked Kiefer about this. He not only had no recollection of the conversation but was unclear about the how the Series even worked.

Sorry for the rant. Neither Indian Wells nor Key Biscayne count toward the U.S. Open Series.

This talk about the slipping standards of tennis Hall of Fame is getting a little silly. In the other sports, it is really being one of the best players for an extended period of time. Bert Blyleven certainly never came close to the equivalent of winning a major. Guys like Fernando Gonzalez and David Ferrer had better careers in tennis than Bert did in baseball -- maybe Tennis should open its Hall of Fame wider like other sports.

-- Mike, New York

It's funny, I never really gave much thought to the Hall of Fame. But every week we get multiple questions on this topic. So we grudgingly continue the discussion. Bert Blyleven never came close to winning a Major? Dude won 287 games. Only 26 other pitchers -- over the course of more than a century -- have ever done that. David Ferrer made a Grand Slam semifinal and Fernando Gonzalez made a final. Know how many other tennis players have done that?

This is what I wrote last June: "Isner beats Mahut 70-68 in the 5th! Not what tennis was meant to be -- one break of serve in 138 games, three in 183. Oversized players with oversized rackets on a fast court..." And this is what Bruce Jenkins just wrote: "Hey, a big-serving titanic between John Isner and Ivo Karlovic in Houston! Awful! Couldn't be worse!" Where do you stand on these matches from the tennis rather than human interest perspective?

-- Dan Goldman, Boston, MA

This was the 30-inning baseball game or the MMA fight that ended with a simultaneous knockout.

It was a fun novelty, not an enduring sporting event.

Can you please explain why Nadal is playing Barcelona since he is not defending points and should also not force his body like he did in 2009?

-- Yamil, Santo Domingo, Dom. Rep.

If Nadal breaks down we will likely point to this (and his doubles play) as questionable scheduling decisions. Balance the risk with the reward of a) a hefty appearance fee, b) an additional event in his home country sure to please the domestic sponsors and c) a likely title and the points that come with it. At some level, you make like Pac Man and gobble up what you can, while you can. But yes, given Nadal's physical concerns -- and complaints about the length of the season -- you're in your rights to question his decision to play this optional event.

From Lilas Pratt of Marietta, GA: In response to Willie in Montreal about rules against grunting: both the ITF and USTA have rules on intentional hinderences. The ITF rules would hinge on whether or not the grunting is intentional. The USTA rules specifically mention grunting (and talking). Personally, I don't understand why ITF and the USTA don't use these rules to force the WTA to crack down on the grunting. Below are the specific sections on hindrances:

From ITF Rules of Tennis:


If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.

However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player's own control (not including a permanent fixture).

From 2011 Friend at Court (The USTA Handbook of Tennis rules and Regulations):


35. Grunting. A player should avoid grunting and making other loud noises. Grunting and other loud noises may bother not only opponents but also players on adjacent courts. In an extreme case, an opponent or a player on an adjacent court may seek the assistance of the Referee or a Roving Umpire. The Referee or the Roving Umpire may treat grunting and the making of loud noises as hindrances. Depending upon the circumstance, this could result in a let or loss of point.

Thanks, now all we need is for the rules to be enforced. Speaking of regulations:

I googled around for the answer to this question, but came up empty. Are there any USTA rules that address maximum allowable wind speed? The other day we were playing (or trying to play) in some ridiculously windy conditions -- it was comical. Any element of fundamental tennis was thrown out the window. Has there ever been a pro match where the chair umpire finally says, "You know what, let's call it a day -- it's too windy out here."?

-- Shayne, Louisville

Good question. Anyone?

Even the best pros are stronger at hitting either forehands or backhands. Does Sharko have any stats on which pros are able to hit the highest percentage of shots on their preferred wing? How do these percentages correlate with winning percentage?

-- Richard, New York

Here, again, tennis stats fail us. Players with a preferred wing tend to run around their "un-preferred" wing and often have many more attempts on their preferred side; yet this isn't reflected in the stats. I bet a player like Roddick hits 100 forehands for every 50 backhands. If he has 15 forehand errors and 10 backhand errors, are we to believe that the backhand is his stronger side?

I'll say it again: the first players to use real analytics, will confer on themselves a significant advantage. If you had the data, for instance, that facing break point, Serena Williams serves up the middle XX percent of the time, you could really benefit.

On your bit about generalists writing about tennis and the sometimes awkward results, here are a couple of my favorite recent examples, Davis Cup edition. Bylines have been deleted to protect the guilty:

1) U.S. No. 2 ace, Jim Courier has expressed his hopes that American No.1 player, Andy Roddick gets better in time for the tournament in Chile.

2) Belgium's team includes 51st-ranked Xavier Mattisse and 115th-ranked Olivier Rochus.

-- Ian Katz, Herndon, VA

You don't recall the great Fauve tennis player, Xavier Matisse? Very artistic in his shotmaking. (Presumably his mixed doubles partner is Roberta da Vinci.) It's not just the final product. The generalists will attend news conferences and ask questions such as "Are you tired after having so many long volleys out there today?"

Watching the Miami women finals made me think WTHIGOW with the swiftly named Michelle Larcher De Brito these days?

-- Michel, Beirut

Good question. If Azarenka and Sharapova sounded as if they were being waterbaorded, De Brito might be shriller still. Sadly, her career appears to have trailed off a bit. She's now piercing decibels at challenger-level events and in qualifying draws.

You're on court playing your BEST friend. You're winning 6-0, 5-0. Do you "lighten up" for a game to save your friend embarrassment or do you go for the double bagel?

-- Eric Kessler, Richmond, VA

We've heard from players of all levels. The consensus seems to be that it's more humiliating to gift a game than to serve a double-bagel. "I don't need your charity!"

There's only one thing I'm more obsessed with than tennis: U2. So, you can imagine the squeals of delight in my house when I saw U2's Bono (and his wife) watching my favorite player win my favorite tournament this week (sometimes I still think I'm a teenager in 1985 when Bono is anywhere in sight). So, do you know if he's a regular fan or is this tourney just the cool place to be in Monte Carlo?

-- Alice Edwards, Overland Park, KS

One man came in the name of love. For all the musicians who have a tennis jones -- from Tony Bennett to Ronnie Woods to Gavin Rossdale -- I can't say I'd heard Bono's name mentioned much in the context of tennis. Anyone know more?

• Anna Chakvetadze has retired from three straight events now; yesterday she retired in Stuttgart with dizzy spells. We went through a version of this with Azarenka at the 2010 U.S. Open. Discuss: Can the WTA Tour can impose the equivalent of a unilateral medical suspension?

• Some David Foster Wallace recollections (thanks Andrew Miller, Cambridge MA)

• Per this report, Steffi Graf is in Hamburg overseeing the construction of a new hospital block by her foundation at the University hospital campus.

• Thomas Dzomba, Missoula, MT: The next column you write please consider giving a shout out to two Missoula teens who just set a record for the longest tennis match (they played for around 60 consecutive hours), and in the process raised over $7000 for a local charity. It's a really great story:

• Ryan Crinnigan, Chicago, IL: A notable grunting story .. .I was once waiting for a friend to arrive on court, so I slapped a few balls against a backboard installed on the fence. A few minutes later a very young girl, 8 or 9 years old, started hitting against the backboard next to me, as her father played on a nearby court. She had very good groundstrokes for her age, so I offered to hit with her for a moment. I walked back to the baseline and fed a ball to her forehand. She took her racquet back and hit a nice, deep, but soft forehand -- accompanied by an outrageous "HUHHH-NYUHHHHHHHHH!" A "grunt" totally disjointed from her stroke. My heart sank. A few more rallies and a lot more screaming later, I asked her who her favorite player was. You can take a wild guess at her answer.

• Six-time U.S. Open champion Chris Evert and ESPN's Mike Greenberg came up short in their bid for a wild card into the 2011 U.S. Open today, losing their mixed doubles second round match at the U.S. Open National Playoffs USTA Eastern Sectional Qualifying Tournament at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. Evert and Greenberg lost to a pair of local teaching pros, Bea Bielik, the 2002 NCAA singles champion, and Darrin Cohen, a former standout at the University of Virginia, 6-1, 6-4. Bielik made her return to the site of the US Open, where she reached the third round in 2002 and lost to Justine Henin.

• This week's featured news release: "Tennis legend Jimmy Connors is back in business and is reaching tennis fans in a whole new way. The 'Tennis 109 with Jimmy Connors' App for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch has hit the App Store with a bang and tennis fans young and old are learning the game with just the touch of a button."

• Here's a curious USTA lawsuit. A riveting read. Provided you like parliamentary procedure:

• Three Californians won singles titles on the final day of the 44th annual Easter Bowl USTA Junior Spring National Championships on Sunday.

• UCLA-bound Marcos Giron, who comes from the same Southern California city as one of America's top pros, Sam Querrey, won his 18th consecutive match to capture the ITF boys' 18s title in a 6-1, 7-5 straight-set win over Alabama's Mac Styslinger at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort.

Coincidentally, Thousand Oaks' Giron became the first boy since Querrey to win both the Carson International Spring Championships and Easter Bowl titles, a feat accomplished by Querrey in 2005.

"That would be unbelievable to have the same career as Sam," Giron said. "To be No. 20 in the world wouldn't be so bad. Let's see how this summer goes and then at UCLA. But I'm ready to start playing some challengers right now. I couldn't be more confident."

• Jason of Leander, TX: Have you seen Martina Hingis' kid brother, Alexandr Dolgopolov?

• Brian of Pasadena, CA: What's is the obsession among tennis players with the movies Braveheart and Gladiator? See this video, and for one more example, here.

Have a great week, everyone!

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