Both over Twitter and email, the responses came fast and furious. @chalk_flew_up wrote: "Team sport and individual sport. Comparison begins and ends there." @DTMBartemus wrote: "makes sense. Brady and federer the best all time, but strangely cant beat manning and nadal." @lizmcosker wrote: "ewww don't EVER compare manning to Rafa. That's just disgusting. Manning is a mediocre qb who gets lucky. Rafa is a god." There were other mentions of personal lives (yes, Federer did not leave a pregnant girlfriend to move in with a supermodel), and Federer does not have Wes Welker to blame.
And on it went.
Obviously, comparing a team-sport athlete to an individual-sport athlete is fraught. And Federer and Nadal have faced each other so many more times than Brady and Manning. And, still, my feelings Sunday night felt so familiar. Older, more accomplished and objectively more skilled champion is beaten by younger upstart who simply seems to have his number. Older great player shows streaks of brilliance during the contest and offers reminder of why he has accomplished so much. But the fates seem to be on the other side and, in the end, the pluckier, less conventional rival wins out. Older player still has a fine record, but this losing record against a rival calls his legacy into question. Sound familiar?
One of you noted that Brady-Manning (Patriots-Giants) is more about a matchup problem, whereas Federer-Nadal is about a mental problem. I disagree here; the two aren't mutually exclusive. Federer-Nadal was initially about a bad matchup. Righty versus lefty; high-bouncing topspin to a one-handed backhand; an adept volleyer getting discouraged by passing shots whistling by. But matchup problems morph into something mental. Knowing that the opponent can neutralize your strengths and exploit your weakness -- whether it's attacking a secondary or taking away your backhand up the lines -- those are seeds of doubt. Don't believe it? Wait until the next time Nadal faces Aaron Rodgers, er, Novak Djokovic.
Regarding the Liezel Huber double-bounce video: Overall, pretty sad that she claims innocence on something that she would no doubt KNOW. Begs the question of where the umpire's eyes or mind was at the time. I don't think he will be umpiring any top-flight matches anytime soon. -- Jef Costello, Sydney
• Let's leave Huber out of this for the moment. I'm even inclined to do what her opponents didn't and give her the benefit of the doubt. When most of us play tennis, we have a good sense of whether the ball bounced twice. But, hey, few of us play at that level, and I'm inclined to reserve judgment before calling someone a dishonorable sports(wo)man, which is about as severe an allegation as you can make.
Here's my beef: Clear and decisive evidence existed that, yes, this was a double bounce, and the point rightfully belonged to Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina. Any fan watching the live streaming was given access to the replay. So folks at home knew what had occurred, but the four players most affected had no clarity. That can't be right, can it?
So does the Nadal-Djokovic final in the Australian Open make you reconsider your stance against best-of-five matches? How many classics do there have to be before you admit you are wrong?!?-- Susan, London
• I just want to be clear: I'm not opposed to five-setters because I would rather be watching CSI reruns or playing World of Warcraft. This is strictly out of concern for the players' health and welfare. I just can't square reality with tradition. The game has never been more violent and demanding. The game has never exacted a steeper physical price -- a conspiracy implicating the equipment, the strings, the level of training, the travel -- on the players. There is scarcely a player whose career hasn't been interrupted by injury. Every major tournament sees a good many withdrawals and mid-match retirements.
Why, then, do we insist on making the men play best-of-five? Often on concrete. Often in heat. Often when there's no demand from either television or the fans. Why? Because it's always been that way? They used to play football in leather helmets, too. Then common sense prevailed and trumped tradition.
What about the notion that we lose the gravitas of the Grand Slam if matches are the customary best-of-three? From the quarterfinals on, you move to best-of-five. You still get Nadal and Djokovic in the final playing into the infomercial hours. But you go easier on the players' bodies during the first week. You miss Isner-Mahut. That's a small price to pay as far as I'm concerned.
Broader point: For better or worse, tennis has evolved rapidly and morphed into something totally different from what it was even a few decades ago. We need to acknowledge that and free ourselves from the yoke of, yes, tradition, but more generally outdated standards. During the ESPN broadcasts, I gather a commentator questioned the stamina of players and their gripes of fatigue. (I'm getting this hearsay so I'm reluctant to identify the commentator.) The "logic" was apparently: "Djokovic played only 80 or so matches in 2011. That's less than two a week. What's he complaining about?" Yes, if this were 1970s tennis, that would be a valid point. Today? Playing 80 matches a year is brutal.
You are doing a great job with the mail, Jon! Love your musings. Sorry you have to field such negative comments. I guess it's nice to have the growing passion for the game, however.-- Mark, Chico, Calif.
• Thanks, Mark. I really appreciate that. But negative comments? I'm not sure what you mean by that.
You don't know the first f%$&*@! thing about tennis. Stop writing about it, you moron! People like you make me sick.-- Michael Scarpitti
• Here's what I never get: There are television shows that don't appeal to me. So I don't watch them. When a song comes on the radio that disagrees with me, I change the station. Never in a million years would I think to write a letter -- sweetened with profanity -- to the show's creator or the artist. But if I did, I'd think a specific point of disagreement -- as opposed to the generic, You suck -- would not only bolster my credibility but also help me rationalize such an anti-social act. Michael Scarpitti, I'm giving you the equivalent of a "let" here, pal. Is there a specific grievance you'd like to express?
I liked what you said about how Nadal-Federer matches are fundamentally different if they are best-of-five or best-of-three, but the fact is that Nadal has a winning record over Federer in best-of-five matches AND in best-of-three matches. I also think it's worth mentioning that in their two most famous matches ('08 Wimbledon, '09 Australian), it was Nadal who got off to the early lead and Federer had to make a comeback. The only edge you can find for Federer anywhere in their head-to-head is 2-1 on grass. I still think Federer's overall career has been more impressive, but there's just no denying at this point that Nadal has his number.-- Tobin, Boston
• I'm handing this over to Dave of Des Plaines, Ill. And if anyone wants to run a regression, we'd be much obliged. (By the way, if I run a regression, does that count as a workout?). Here's Dave:
"Your recent comments concerning the Federer-Nadal Australian Open semifinal point disparity and best-of-three vs. best-of-five format performance inspired me to crunch the numbers for this rivalry. After 27 meetings, Nadal holds the total points edge 2,851 to 2,779 (or 50.6 to 49.4 percent). Considering these guys have won about 55 percent of total points over their careers, this is quite a narrow margin. Nadal has leveraged this point advantage into a win rate of 52 percent in games and 57 percent in sets. Interestingly, on three occasions (Dubai 2006, Rome 2006, and Melbourne 2009), Nadal has won matches despite winning fewer points than Federer, whereas Federer has never beaten Nadal while winning fewer total points. Imagine how much different the rivalry would be perceived at 15-12 Nadal rather than 18-9!
"Also, you were on the mark with your comments concerning the effect of match length. In best-of-three matches, Nadal wins points/games/sets at a 49.6/50/48 percent clip. In best-of-five matches, Nadal's splits are 51.2/53/62. Similar splits can be used to study surfaces, time frames, etc. I'm too lazy to do this, but I bet some statistician at SI could perform a regression analysis to prove which, if any, of these factors are really significant in explaining the results of this rivalry."
We are told that the 2012 Australian Open final was the longest final in history. It would be interesting to see the point totals and the average length of points to get a better perspective, since these are two of the slowest playing players on the Tour. Not counting the lengthy time between points, how does this match compare with other finals?-- Bill Wall, Anniston, Ala.
• I had two people look into this. The consensus is that this match is about four hours, 30 minutes if we remove the break to open the roof and if we remove 10 seconds from the 369 points that were played. DE of Baltimore came at it a bit differently:
"Novak served 166 points, Rafa 203. The actual figures for slow play are 33 seconds for Rafa (or some say 35) and 31 seconds for Novak in the second set. The rule says 20 seconds only. We can average it to 12 seconds over the time limit for the whole match for Rafa and ~10 seconds for Novak. Assuming toweling off time between first and second serves is included and averaged out.
"166x10 = 1,660 seconds. 203x12 = 2,436 seconds. Total seconds over limit = 4,096 seconds, i.e. 68 minutes. This is approximate, of course. But I think that ~ 60 minutes of time was wasted (and against the rules)."
Apart from the math, It's pretty interesting that Nadal served 37 more points than Djokovic, no? It tells you that one guy held his serve a lot easier than the other.
During the Aussie Open women's final, I heard Chris Evert refer to Victoria Azarenka as a "tomboy." Was I the only one to hear that, and why is Evert getting a free pass for saying it?-- Mike, Savannah
• I'm not offended so much as I'm baffled. Apart from the (homo)sexual implications, I take "tomboy" to mean a rugged, sports-minded female who's low-maintenance -- if not altogether indifferent -- about appearance. Jo Polniaczek is a tomboy. (Kids, look that one up.) Victoria Azarenka? Not so much.
Who is Mikhail Youzhny, and why does he keep winning titles?-- Juan Bertos, San Diego
• Another Russian hothead who can't get out of his own way.
Doesn't tennis do itself a disservice by starting the year off with an incredible event and then all but disappearing for a month or two?-- Brandon, Chicago
• You're talking crazy, Brandon. We have Fed Cup fever. Why, there must have been at least dozens of fans watching that showdown in Worcester, Mass., on Super Bowl Sunday. We have Davis Cup. We have events in Sud de France and San Jose and Amsterdam or Rotterdam or, well, one of those dams. Oh, and Memphis. Don't forget Memphis. The cynic would say that, yes, tennis does itself a disservice holding a Grand Slam event two weeks into the year and then taking on a lower profile for the next several months. I prefer to think of tennis as the Academy Awards show. You come with a big-ticket prize early to rope in the audience (Natalie Portman wins Best Actress for her role in Black Swan!), drag for a while and then close with the biggies. It's like the Skinner Box approach to entertainment sequencing.
If Venus or Serena Williams were to celebrate like Djokovic did (not taking their shirts off, of course, but really celebrating like Novak), there would be major controversy over it and how it's "bad for the game." The hypocrisy is irritating.-- Keith J., Minneapolis
• We all hate hypocrisy, but I'm not sure this is our strongest example. First, there is a history of a woman removing her top after celebrating a significant, hard-fought victory, and it became a seminal moment in women's sports. Also, if Venus or Serena -- or Sharapova and Azarenka or Justine Henin or whomever -- celebrated exuberantly after beating Jill Craybas in round one, there would be fallout. If they celebrated with histrionics after winning a six-hour ground war, we would likely be more forgiving.
Do you think there are similarities between the close-but-not-quite career of Elena Dementieva and that of post-op Maria Sharapova?-- Zac, Spokane, Wash.
• If I'm reading you right: Both Russians could bang with anyone from the baseline, but over the course of a 128-draw tournament, both were highly susceptible to at least one match of yippy serving. And once the serve starts to go, the whole foundation of the game starts to erode. That's about the only similarity I can see. The two are temperamentally different; they have different games (Dementieva was a great athlete and shaky fighter; Sharapova is the opposite); and, of course, Sharapova takes the court every time knowing that, for whatever else might occur, she has three majors on the books!
What is the point of starting the men's Australian Open final at 7:30 p.m.?!? On a Sunday? It's not like people will have to miss it because they're at work if you started at, say, 4:30 or 5:30 p.m. It's a hardship on the players to have to wait all day, and then to have to play until 1:30 a.m. Ditto the fans, linespeople, ball kids, stadium staff, etc.-- Helen, Philadelphia
• I have a two-letter answer, in no particular order: "V.T." Seriously, television calls the shots, as is the case at so many sporting events. You pay a big rights fee, you get a lot of say as to when matches are held. Australia's Channel 7 clearly thought that a prime-time final would draw superior ratings to a Sunday-afternoon final. So it was changed accordingly. Obviously one of the drawbacks is that the staff was forced to stay until well past midnight. My guess is that if this is the trade-off for an insta-classic final that turned in boffo ratings and was water-cooler talk worldwide, so be it.
• Quick Ricky Williams tennis story to appease @ravicnn. So in the summer of 2004, I was working on a piece for Sports Illustrated and spent some time with Ricky Williams, the NFL player (and excellent 30 for 30 subject) who retired Tuesday after 11 seasons. This was before his sabbatical from football, his "tent phase" and most of his marijuana-related suspensions. In what was less an interview than a conversation, we spoke about all sorts of topics. He went on about his passion for photography. When he found out I wrote about tennis, he asked what I thought of Venus and Serena. At one point he told me he had recently gotten interested in Australia and wanted to travel there, perhaps after the NFL season.
I recall telling him to marry the two and time his vacation to the Australian Open. Fast-forward six or so months. In January, I get a call from someone in the Australian Open media credential center. They had been contacted by an American photographer requesting a credential. They were unfamiliar with his work, but apparently he had used my name as a reference. Could I vouch for a photographer, Ricky Williams? I didn't attend the Australian Open that year, but from what I gather, Ricky Williams worked the photo pit -- the other snappers unaware that the large black man alongside them was a starting NFL running back and former Heisman Trophy winner.
• A clap of the racket to Mark Miles, the former ATP CEO who ran the point on Indianapolis' successful Super Bowl hosting.
• No way does this guy let Djokovic beat him seven times.
• Here's a novel take on WTA deci-belles (and note the second letter, too).
• Someone show this to Tomas Berdych. Take a hit and keep playing!
• Reader from Montreal: "I would like to suggest a new feature for your column: stories of encounters with grunters in club tennis. I offer mine from last week:
I was playing on a court. There was a male grunter on the adjacent court. Every time he hit the ball, he grunted rather loudly. Sometimes this would happen in the middle of a shot me or my partner was making (it was loud enough for both of us to hear it clearly). We asked him to tone down the noise, and he said he would try. But after two or three shots, the decibel level increased again. We stopped and asked him to tone it down again, and he now responded that that is tennis, that is what you have to put up with if you were in a tournament, etc. So I started grunting when I hit a shot, way louder than him, and my partner made exaggerated noises, too, when he hit his shot. Some women players two courts over started yelling at us to stop, and we did. We then noticed that the original grunter from our adjacent court stopped grunting altogether most of the time. We were happy.
"So, perhaps what Aggie Radwanska should do next time she plays Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova is to do exaggerated grunts or shrieks when she hits a shot to disrupt her opponent's concentration. Then maybe the umpire can draw the line and tell both players to stop making those sounds. I, for one, do not want to watch women's tennis anymore when Shriekapova and Shriekarenka are playing!"
• Let the record reflect: On Jan. 13, James Blake picked the Giants to win the Super Bowl.
• Here's some required reading on Djokovic.
• "Baseball is an individual sport disguised as a team sport" -- Andre Agassi.
• Nick of New York was the first to note this account of Serena's taking stroll in Paris with ...
• Andy Pasternak of Reno, Nev.: "Movies with tennis? My favorite involves this future Oscar winner playing tennis with his future father-in-law: Tom Hanks in Bachelor Party (He also plays paddle tennis against a wall in Big, from what I remember)."
• Brian Highland of San Diego: "Regarding grunting vs. screaming: Yes, it's the pitch! Gender only comes up because guys can't scream. It should be noted that most of the women don't either -- it's only a few who are so loud it hurts. I actually ignored this topic until I watched a Sharapova match. I thought I would eventually get used to it, but ended up muting the points and unmuting between points to try to catch the commentary."
• Adicecream of Baltimore: "May I add one name to those who were missed in Australia: Dick Enberg."
• Tricia Callender of New York sort of has long-lost siblings: "I remain unconvinced that Victoria Azarenka and Ann Coulter are not twins or at least closely related. Despite that unfortunate verisimilitude, I still am a Vika fan. The other one ... not so much."
• Jason of Honolulu: "So I can't find the right pictures, but when watching the first round of the Australian Open, I could've sworn Victoria Azarenka was beating Naya Rivera from Glee." (Azarenka beat Great Britain's Heather Watson.)