Nadal-Djokovic rivalry takes center stage as Paris looms, more mail

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A quick grunt-free (and grunt-question-free) Mailbag. Look for French Open seed reports later this week.

Let's keep this simple. One Slam vs. three? Now who should be No. 1 in a 52-week system?--Christian, Los Angeles

• Presumably you mean that Nadal has won three majors over the last 52 weeks and Djokovic has won one. Ergo, regardless of what had happened over the past eight weeks, Nadal still ought to be No. 1. Which, of course, he is.

We're all for simplification. Especially when it comes to rankings. But I think you've gone too far here. If the Slams are the bread of the tennis season, there's an awful lot of sandwich filling in there. Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome. That's real crab, not bread-crumb filler (to continue with this horrible analogy). Djokovic has been unbeatable -- literally! -- this year. And even his record sells him short. He's winning with speed and power. With forehands and backhands. Returning and serving. On hard courts and on clay. He's often tuning journeymen and outlasting the stars. And, of course, his sudden hostile takeover of Nadal, Inc., is nothing to take lightly.

When Nadal was working over Federer a few years ago, the cries were: "What can the champ do beat this beast?" and "Does he need to retool his game?" and "How can he be the G.O.A.T. when the player below him has his number?" It's remarkable to me how these same questions are coming up in the context of Nadal-Nole. Djokovic has done what many thought impossible and made Nadal look vulnerable, casting him in the role of on-court bull-ee, not bully, so to speak. The Rafaelites, of course, will note that their man spent years beating Djokovic. One hot stretch doesn't mean the King has been toppled.

If nothing else, it seems as though we have our new rivalry. And regardless of how this breaks, it makes for great theater. Bring on Paris!

I thought the way you brought up PEDs last week was pretty diplomatic. I feel, like many of your readers, that you are lagging behind on the topic of doping. And I am trying to figure out what the reason for that is, since it seems more than reasonable to be suspicious, both because of specific individuals and because of the reality that PEDs are encroaching on nearly every major sport. Those of us in the general public can do nothing more than speculate. But journalists can and should investigate, and that includes actively investigating this, asking uncomfortable questions, and risking some relationships.

I'm curious, do you feel it's the case that your position compromises you on this story? It seems to me that it really leaves you with little incentive to do journalistic due diligence. Tennis is already at an all-time low in popularity in the U.S. Why would you undermine it further by exploring this? What's more, you have many sources and ties among players, why would you go after them? Especially if the problem is widespread rather than just a few bad apples. I'm not accusing you of a conspiracy, just of an understandable tendency to try to wish this away. Curious to hear your thoughts on this.--Tobin, Boston, Mass.

• First, just to be clear from last week: I am accusing no one of doping. I am making no insinuations. Personally, I am inclined to believe that tennis is, while not entirely clean, overwhelming clean. (More on this below.) But, sadly, an offshoot of the last decade in sports is that virtually every achievement in sports -- whether it's winning tennis matches or winning a UFC fight; hitting home runs or hitting a golf ball -- triggers skepticism in some quarters. It's stinks. It's unfair. But this is consequence of Marion Jones and Floyd Landis and the rest of the bunch. They are the Shoe Bombers and today's athletes are the ones getting groped in the security line. Reader Iliya Pavlovich, Ph.D., of Miami angrily wrote me: "I don't remember anybody asking such questions regarding Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi." That's my point exactly. In another era, fans freely celebrated (or at least acknowledged) excellence. It was accepted that athletes can develop muscles from eating right and lifting weights. That stamina can improve with extra cardio sessions. That, statistically, home run totals or sprint times or tennis rankings can improve organically.

So I know that a lot of you think I'm too soft on the issue of doping in tennis. Not a week goes by when I don't get an email informing me that my head is in the sand. (Or somewhere else comparatively less pleasant.) We could go on for hours about this, but maybe it's easiest if I just outline where I stand: I think tennis is neither clean nor dirty, neither drug-free nor a cesspool. It's foolish to try and quantify doping, but I think the vast majority of players are clean. Some of this is based on anecdote. Some of this is informed opinion. Some of this is logistical. (It's harder to cheat when you're on the road so much.) Some of this is the incentive structure. (My strong suspicion is that the bulk of the cheaters are players ranked, say, 200 trying to get to 80; less the players ranked in the top 15 trying to become top three.) Some of this is because the testing procedure -- while imperfect and not without loopholes -- is still more rigorous than in other sports. Some of this is because, in the absence of a credible union, cheating players know that, if caught, they have a hell of a fight on their hands.

Apart from the legal implications, I think that speculating about specific players is wrong. Is there a more damning allegation you can level against an athlete than saying they don't play fair? They corrupt competition? Their gains were ill-gotten? If you're going to toss around specific charges, you need to be right.

To Tobin's point, journalists should investigate. But what does this mean? Investigate what? Time and resources are finite. And we're talking about a confidential process and an inherently secretive act. How much attention to do you want to devote to this? That's a choice each journalist has to make. Having spent a lot of time and effort chasing rumors that turned out to be bogus, I try to be judicious here. If I catch wind of something or have a source suggesting I poke around, it's one thing. If the "evidence" is a photo showing a prominent vein, or a player winning back-to-back three-setters, I'm less inclined to investigate.

This I can assure you: This is not about managing relationships or covering for sources or self-preservation. That's the journalism equivalent of using PEDs.

Your take on Betthanie Mattek-Sands' latest fashionista statement (the clown makeup under the eyes)? Makes Bonnie Gadusek's leopard print statements of the 1980s seem as scandalous as Gussy Moran's bloomers from decades of yore. My take on Mattek-Sands' latest statement? In a narcissistic, self-absorbed world, Americans will still always come on top when doing anything for attention.--Brian, Athens, Ga.

• Speak softly and carry a big shtick. I have absolutely no problem with Mattek-Sands as fashionsita. She's harming no one. She's expressing color -- even if the color is occasionally blinding. If nothing else, it gives everyone some additional conversation fodder. Tennis is one of the few sports that doesn't have uniforms, that enables players to dress as they please. Why wouldn't you use the opportunity to be a little daring? Good for her.

What's all that fuss about retiring Petko-dance for the reasons of etiquette and about it's been distasteful to opponents? It seems completely equivalent to forbidding opening champagne after Formula 1 race since, lo and behold, some losers might get offended. Is there a limit to excessive political correctness? If Andrea won, it means that she was better and deserves to celebrate exactly as she sees fit -- even without mentioning the Petko-dance being adorable. Losers do not have a smallest bit of right to dictate or even set preference for the way of celebrating by the winners (of course, unless it is insulting, which here eminently is not the case). If anybody doesn't like Andrea's dance -- that anybody should have won the match. We fans love it, and so seemingly do the media. So what really is the issue here?--Zemun, Milan

• I tend to agree with you. But why so harsh? "Losers do not have a smallest bit of right to dictate or even set preference for the way of celebrating by the winners." It's not a question of dictating, it's a question of respect and compassion. Particularly in an individual sport -- where the burden of defeat falls squarely on one person -- why not be sensitive to the reality that someone is feeling despair proportional to your joy. Again, in Petko's case, we love the dance. It's color, it's fun, in her case, it's good-natured and ironic, meant neither to self-glorify nor gloat. But if I'm her, I'm careful to keep it that way.

Odesnik did wrong, got punished, and cooperated to make sure that stuff is weeded out of tennis. That's all I ask of him as long as he's learned his lesson. Ryan Harrison's behavior and name calling on court during the match certainly doesn't give him the high moral ground. I don't consider that moxie. Rather it sounds like sour grapes that he was getting beat by Odesnik. Legally, I might add.--Ehrich, Los Angeles

• I would amend that to say that Odesnik did wrong, got punished, and then had punishment reduced when he agreed to flip and cooperate with the prosecution under the vaguest terms imaginable.

In a perverse way, I feel for the ITF here. You want a clean and honorable sport. You have a player caught with a pharmacy in his bag. He's known in the U.S., but is really a foot soldier, barely on the right side of the top 100. He's staring at a sentence that would sound the death knell on his career. Why not cut him a deal: you'll reduce his sentence in exchange for the vague "cooperation." You pump him for info and go after the really big fish? And so long as the ATP had abdicated any responsibilities here, you can be as vague and broad as possible. Pump him for info not just on drugs but on gambling or match fixing? Sounds reasonable. Again, is this not precisely how the Feds break up organized crime syndicates or insider trading rings?

Yet, there is something not quite right here. Other players, rightfully, question the ethics of this, especially when other busted players in the past weren't given this opportunity. The vague "cooperation" is problematic. (If Odesnik is serving up info on a gambling scandal, is that a fair trade-off when his suspension was drug-related?) And whereas mobsters in Odesnik's position would be placed in a witness protection program, he's back out there, competing against the same folks he might be ratting out. It makes for an interesting dynamic (and a good criminal procedure hypothetical exam question) but in practice, it's a mess!

Perhaps not a "call out" as you like to put it, but someone should tell Andy Roddick ... complaining about getting semifinal prize money after he and Fish pulled out of the doubles final at the last minute, giving the tournament organisers and the fans, not to mention their opponents, the shaft, is not a good look. This is the ATP (i.e. your playing brethren) policy, Andy -- not management trying to stick it to labour -- and the policy is a sound one. Sure, Roddick's willingness to speak his mind is refreshing, it's just a shame that his opinions so often reveal him to be a jerk.--Rob, Sydney

• I don't always agree with Roddick, especially for on his on-court outbursts. But off-court, I am usually in his corner. First of all, I say we give him a pass for this gem: "The ATP stands for Association of Tennis Professionals; it should be the Association of Tie People." (Presumably, that's a dig at the ATP's flawed board structure?). Second, for all the apathetic athletes living in the Me Bubble, how do you knock an athlete for having and expressing informed opinions? Finally, on this particular issue, I'm not so sure he's in the wrong here.

Umm, Jon, it's not "adje" but "ajde." And it's not pronounced "Ah-jay!" but "I-deh." Think of the "j" as a "y." Hope that helps.--George Willes, Boston

• Thanks. Though right now Ivanovic elicits more "oy-vehs" than "Aj-des."

Lookalikes: Thomaz Bellucci and a Picasso painting.--Marty, Ossining, N.Y.

• What about Bellucci and Picasso himself?

Here is a question. Assume you are a betting man and I offer you a $500 bet. If Federer wins another major you win the $500. If he doesn't win another major, you owe me the money. Would you take this bet?--Patrick, Washington, D.C.

• I have signed a blood oath that I won't wager on tennis. But if the question is: "Gun to your head, will Federer win another Slam?" I try desperately to get another question from my captor, as I could see this going either way. When the captor demands an answer and cocks the trigger, and I say "Yes," knowing that if it happens, vintage Federer tennis will have to be accompanied by a sizable ration of luck, whether that's an injury to "Djokodal," a preceding upset or another act of G-d.

In your Monday column, you mentioned that Goerges transitioned from "sleeper" to "dark horse". How do you define sleeper, dark horse, etc.? Something like this?

Sleeper -- 64:1 (may make it past the first round of a Slam)Dark Horse -- 32:1 (two rounds in)Contender -- 8:1 (quarterfinals, baby!)Favorite -- 2:1 (likely finalist)

--Art Wong, Torrance, Calif

• I don't gamble! But I think those numbers smell about right. In the case of "dark horses" and "sleepers" I think it's almost less about winning than wreaking some havoc in the draw.

A fun question for Sharko. As you stated in Monday's column, if Sharapova wins the French, she would complete the career Slam. It is interesting to note that, were she to do it, it would mean her career Slam was amassed in her first four Grand Slam titles. Roger needed over a dozen and Nadal needed nine to get there. Anyone else done it in their first four wins? Has anyone else accomplished a feat like that?--JT, Seattle

• Before we get to the answer, consider this an early #FollowFriday. You all should be following @sharkotennis.

Quoth, the ATP wise man: "It appears the Great Don Budge won his first four Grand Slam titles in four different tournaments: 1937 Wimbledon, 1937 U.S. Championships, 1938 Australian Championships and 1938 Roland Garros."

Isn't it great that for the past 40 years the price of a three-ball can of balls has not increased to any great degree. Obviously, money has been saved changing from steel to plastic, but rackets did the same thing and the price of those has exploded. Any thoughts?--Jim, Mason, Ohio

• I suspect ball manufacturers might have a different take. But, yes, the stagnancy of ball prices is a boon to us recreational players. (Now if only Wilson and Penn were brands of gasoline.) I don't know much about the business model here, but it's one reason I'm skeptical of using tennis ball sales as an indicator of tennis' growth. If the price of balls goes down relative to real dollars, wouldn't we expect quantity to go up?

• This week's Shot of the Year: Lower stakes, but this tweener might trump Nadal's! (Thanks to Janoma of Chile.)

• HBO Sports documentary McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice to premiere Saturday, June 11 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.

• Everybody in ... French Open suicide pool enter here. I'll supply prizes to the winners.

• Long as we're in this space, consider this another reminder to buy either Matt Cronin's Epic, Steve Tignor's High Strung or -- better still -- buy both and compare.

• The ITA has announced its 2011 national award winners for NCAA Division II men's and women's tennis, headlined by the ITA Player of the Year: Philip Pakebusch of Valdosta State University.

• Several questions about Cara Black have drifted in. Maybe this will help clarify.

• A tip of the sombrero to Benito Perez Barbadillo, who finished his stint of Novak Djokovic's long-time publicist and image consultant. Think about Djokovic's image then; think about Djokovic's image now. Enough said.

• England's loss is a bonus for Australia, a British-born young girl who has Indian roots as well. Nice read.

• Loyal reader Helen of Philly offers these nuggets on Roland Garros ticketing:

-- Here's the cheapest route; there were still some second-week grounds passes available last week."

-- Official Roland Garros ticket resales: you pay face value plus a stiff mark-up, but you get a real ticket directly from RG.

-- If you're already in Paris, check the day before; lots of tickets popped up last year at the last minute.

-- I think RG also does "late day" sales on site -- re-selling tickets of people who have left the grounds for the day -- although I've never done it myself. Think that's for 6 p.m. and after.

-- Don't buy from scalpers.

• For the second straight year, Farmers Insurance Group of Companies will serve as the title sponsor for the annual Olympus U.S. Open Series and ATP World Tour 250 professional tennis tournament in Los Angeles. The 2011 Farmers Classic, presented by Mercedes-Benz, will be held July 25-31 at the Los Angeles Tennis Center on the campus of UCLA.

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation is Daphne Uviller's Hotel No Tell. Buy it here.

• Chris Groer of Knoxville, Tenn., writes: "Regarding wind speed, the ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association) has a rule that was recently enforced in an Ole Miss-Tennessee men's match: 'The ITA/SEC rule states that if you have 20 m.p.h. sustained winds or greater forecasted for two of the four hours the match is scheduled (1-5) then the match is moved indoors.'"

• Honk if you, too, like the WTA's Strong is Beautiful campaign. A radical improvement from the "Looking for a Hero" campaign -- which should have been heroine, for starters.

• You know who's having really rough season? Gluten.

• File this away come U.S. Open time. Sick of the seven train or the L.I.E. traffic?

• New York readers, here's a new club just south of Yankee Stadium.

• Steffi Graf, adventuress.

• In honor of The Streak ...

-- Scott V. of Normal, Ill.: "Surely someone has already pointed out the uncanny similarities between Djokovic and Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine? It's scary how much they look alike!"

-- Gordon Truckee of California: "How about Djokovic and Mike D of the Beastie Boys? Beasties even drop the name of Novak's sponsor, Sergio Tacchini, on the song 'Long Burn the Fire' from their new album."