By Jon Wertheim
January 19, 2012

Say this about actors, musicians, writers and other artists: They can age gracefully. Often they perform just fine deep into middle age. And when they can no longer hit the high notes or remember their lines, they can retreat slowly and privately.

Athletes aren't afforded this luxury. Their skills irretrievably desert them. Their bodies betray them. Their motivation fades. And when it happens, they are exposed.

We talk about the most obvious cases -- Michael Jordan antagonizing his teammates on the Wizards; Muhammad Ali getting pasted by Larry Holmes -- but really it's so seldom that it ends gracefully for anyone in sports. And in tennis, it's particularly unseemly. There is no designated hitter position, no "veteran leader" role to ease the transition once you hit 30. It's you out there alone and you win or you lose.

We got a vivid example of this Thursday in the second round of the Australian Open. Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt -- two former No. 1 players, one more than eight years removed from winning his last Grand Slam title, the other almost 10 -- battled on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. It wasn't the Seniors Tour. But neither was it two guys in their prime with realistic chances of winning the tournament. It was the featured match because of the past, not because of the present, much less the future. Left unsaid, it could be the 30-year-old Hewitt's final Aussie Open.

In a sadly fitting way, the match ended prematurely when the 29-year-old Roddick injured his hamstring tendon and retired after the third set. The body that had rebelled against him in 2011 was at it again.

"It's a miserable, terrible thing being out there compromised like that," he told reporters after failing to reach the third round of the Australian Open for only the second time in 11 appearances. "It really sucks."

Roddick added: "It's frustrating. It's discouraging. You know, your sensible mind says to have a sense of perspective. You still have it pretty good. The competitor in you feels terrible and wants to break stuff. I can't really complain. I had 10 years pretty much of a clean slate. That's a lot more than most people get. The last two years have been pretty tough."

Roddick will rehab yet again, miss the Feb. 10-12 Davis Cup tie against Switzerland that he said he was probably not going to play anyway, and try to return for the San Jose event next month. Hewitt lives on to fight another day. Literally.

I found the letter in Wednesday's mailbag about 6-0 and 6-1 sets interesting because it pointed out to me how perceptions can differ. I noticed the same trend and thought to myself, It's about time the top players are coming to a major tournament prepared and focused rather than hoping to "play their way into the tournament."-- P Squared, San Diego

• Yours is a fitting question on a day when Maria Sharapova takes the court and wins 6-0, 6-1 -- thereby losing two games in four sets en route to reaching the third round; Novak Djokovic barely breaks a sweat yet again, beating Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 6-2, 6-1; and Serena Williams, Andy Murray Jo-Wilfried Tsonga cruise in straight sets.

Like you, I see this not as an indictment but as a virtue. In the early rounds of majors, the stars often show off their games and bona fides and blow out the lesser lights. Why is Murray ranked No. 4? Oh, yes, now I see why. He has turned the poor bloke on the other side of the net into his own marionette, pulling strings and directing him as he pleases. (If they're sometimes challenged -- Petra Kvitova dropped a set Thursday against Carla Suarez Navarro -- well, that's a Skinner Box moment, a demonstration that anything can happen.) Meanwhile, on the back courts, you routinely see more competitive matches. So fans can choose between a display and a contest. What's not to like?

Tennis is filled with these "alterative truths." Your "WTA vacuum" and "merry-go-round" of Grand Slam champions is someone else's "depth" and "suspense." Their "reliable Big Three" is your "numbing predictability." Top players win an early match 6-4 in the third set and gloat: "I need a match like this to win a Slam; it was a great battle." That same player wins that same match 6-0, 6-1 and it's: "I'm happy to take care of business and conserve energy I'll need in later rounds." He's a dominant player; no, wait, he had no competition. She has outside interests that have kept her fresh; if she had suppressed distraction, she could have achieved so much more.

So it goes ...

The John Isner/David Nalbandian match had me reeling. That line call overrule near the end of the match was a travesty. Am I the only person who thinks that Isner should have said something about his own serve being out? Whatever happened to doing the right thing no matter what? And do you know of any other player other than Andy Roddick who actually admitted his or her own ball was out even though the bad call was at a major juncture in a match?-- Joe, Allentown, Pa.

• Let's take a moment and acknowledge that Nalbandian got jobbed. I also agree with some of you who suggested that if Nalbandian were a) American, b) a more fluent English speaker and c) a more likable player, this would have generated more attention and backlash. Gilbert Benoit noted: "Had the situation been reversed [and Isner gotten the raw deal], ESPN would still bring it up three years from now. Based on past incidents where American players were 'victimized.' "

Did Isner have a moral obligation to intervene? No. Players have an unwritten rule that you play the calls, you spare the chair embarrassment and that it all evens out. I once asked Roddick about that point concession at the Rome Masters in 2005 -- a spasm of sportsmanship we remember "years from now," something players might want to consider. He was sheepish. He basically explained that the mark in the clay was obvious, a reversed call was inevitable, so all he was doing was sparing the chair umpire a trip down his ladder and onto the court.

I think we've reached a point where serious questions have to be asked about the often surly/rude behavior of American players. Mardy Fish came across as unapologetically obnoxious in his second-round loss. Unfortunately, it seems like this is almost expected/condoned from American players. The list of culprits includes most of the top ballers: Serena Williams, Andy Roddick, Sam Querrey, Fish, Donald Young, etc. While it's never good to generalize and I'm sure there are many American players who exude sparkling sportsmanship, shouldn't this trend be alarming? If I'm a new tennis fan, my impression of American tennis players would not be very good.-- Jonathan, Toronto

• I'm of two minds here. You generalize at your peril. You could just as easily point to exemplary Americans. Venus Williams is dignity personified. Bob and Mike Bryan are the most accessible and fan-friendly athletes you'll ever come across. Same for John Isner. Young players could do a lot worse than following the example set by Lisa Raymond. I defy you to follow Sloane Stephens on Twitter and not find her endearing.

I have, though, seen a spike in complaints about the attitude and conduct of the American players -- Roddick, Fish and Serena in particular. I saw that Brad Gilbert fielded tweets on this topic as well. It probably wouldn't hurt Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe or Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez to send a mass e-mail around saying something to the effect of, "I know different players have different dispositions on the court. But, especially in this Olympic year, especially at a time when tennis isn't exactly rocking the U.S. popularity charts, try to keep in mind that, at some level, you are representing your country out there."

What happened to the Indo-Pak Express (doubles team of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi)? They aren't playing together. Is this an "Olympic year" phenomenon, where teams are pairing by country to qualify for the Olympics, or is there "more to the story"?-- Jackson, Seattle

• Let me poke around and get back to you. All I'm hearing right now is that Bopanna thought his best chances for qualifying and playing well at the Olympics would come with playing alongside a countryman. So this year he teamed with Mahesh Bhupathi.

Prediction: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga wins a major before Andy Murray does! Comments?-- Raj Sonak, Potomac Falls, Va.

• We could have a healthy debate here. I tend to think you're right. From a technical standpoint, I prefer Murray's game. He obviously has the higher career ranking, the better overall results and more appearances in the "business end" of majors.

But I think Tsonga's game and athleticism are more conducive to a seven-match winning streak. I can see Tsonga getting hot, finding the range on his serve and blowing through 21 sets (as he nearly did in Melbourne in 2008). For Murray, more has to go right.

Could you please un-count me from the "countless fans" who, you claim, would be interested in exhibition matches? Nothing bores me quicker than a tennis match that doesn't, er, count. It's not like there's a dearth of real tournaments or anything!-- Paul R., Boston

• But there is a dearth of opportunities to see your favorite pro in many markets. Especially in this Olympic year, the top ATP stars may play only three events in the United States this entire year. (Think about this for a second. Think tennis is a) global and b) has moved its nerve center offshore?) So when Roger Federer plays Roddick in Madison Square Garden, you can bet tennis fans will be there. In a perfect world, they may prefer to see the two play at a "real" event with "real" stakes. But this isn't a bad alternative.

Can anyone cut to the chase like the great Frank Deford? Here is his take on Serena's apparent disinclination for tennis and on athletes who quit while on top. Mandatory reading. -- Nitin, Hyderabad, India

• Frank Deford is without peer on many accounts. (Read this piece.)

Congratulations! You got the upset prediction right: Fish and Stosur out! Never would have thought this.-- Randy Del Valle, London

• I wasn't going to say anything. But since you brought it up and all ...

• Tennis Channel writer James LaRosa echoes my sentiments -- can you hear the echo? -- in saying: "With all the heartbreaking photos we've endured of a defeated Nicolas Mahut, we ALL deserve this one. Allez!"

• Today's random encounter with a pro:

Frank Veltri, Clearwater, Fla.: "I had a very pleasant encounter with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario when she first was becoming a champion tennis player. It was in Miami in 1992, a few days before the start of what was then called the Lipton tournament. I was staying with a couple in their condo down off Brickell. My tennis buddy and I went to the condo's courts to play. A guard was stationed at the courts gates. He allowed us in to play only if we took the far court away from the pro practicing at that time. We were told not to bother them.

"As we walked on, I recognized Arantxa and we said a polite hello to her. During the course of our match, Arantxa would stop and watch us play points, clapping her hand to her racket and giving us nice compliments. When we finished, she came over to the water fountain as we were drinking and congratulated us on our play. I had a camera in my tennis bag and got a nice picture with her. I mentioned that Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were in town playing the Miami Heat that night and she should go see him. I told her not having a ticket was not a problem because her agent could secure her one. She said she would try but was doubtful.

"That night, as my buddy and I stood in the concession line for a beer, who did we hear and see come running up to us but Arantxa with a big smile on her face. She had floor seats for the game. She gave us both a big hug and thanked us for the advice. That day and night was such a cool experience for us two tennis fans. And Arantxa went on to win the tournament, which made it that much sweeter!"

• Carlos Acosta of Torreon, Mexico, posed a trivia question the other day about the greatest women's player from Hong Kong. The correct answer: Paulette Moreno. Carlos writes: "Thanks to reader Nathaniel Boni Aserios. He has won -- along with you, Jon -- a delicious Mexican dinner with me, anytime you can come to my land. Congrats for your wonderful column, from a loyal reader." (Glenn Stein of Nashville, Tenn., and Roh Krishnan of Minneapolis were among the other readers to get it right.)

Steffi Graf's take on Rafael Nadal: "Will be interested in following Nadal's season, which will depend a lot on his health and fitness. With the addition of the Olympics to an already tight schedule, all the players will test their endurance but Nadal, who has had some health issues the past couple of years, will need to be especially careful to pace himself appropriately."

• John McEnroe takes one on the chin here.

• Justin, Chester Springs, Pa.: "Speaking of tennis in the mainstream [noted in Wednesday's mailbag with a mention of Novak Djokovic's cameo in Expendables 2), how about this?"

• The USTA has named D.A. Abrams chief diversity and inclusion officer.

• JWS, Royal Oak, Mich., with long-lost siblings: "Mission Impossible forEdouard Roger-Vasselin against Andy Murray."

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