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Dubai showcases problematic nature of wild cards, more mail

I realize that I know the answer to this question already, but how does Marko Djokovic get a wild card into the main draw of Dubai? From what I see, he has played two ATP matches in his career, and lost them both. I wonder how the other players on the Tour feel about spots going to a "celebrity brother." I think this looks bad for both Marko and Novak. -- Stephen Russell, Hamilton, Ontario

We talked about this a bit the other day, but, again, two schools of thought here. 1) If you've got leverage, use it. Some players are lured to events by money or use of the Rain Man suite or a Wednesday start.

Others are more creative. A WTA player once asked for -- and, I'm told, received -- a pony for playing an event. Others have requested wild cards for siblings. So let's be clear up front: Djokovic is hardly the first here. Kim Clijsters, Lleyton Hewitt and even Jan-Michael Gambill are among those who have used their cache to land wild cards for family members. Andre Agassi was even known to request/extort wild cards for his friends, namely Sargis Sargsian, as a condition for his entering an event. Hey, you negotiate what you can.

The other school is that you corrupt the process when players, undeserving on the basis of ranking, are allowed to leapfrog others and enter the main draw. Is there not something icky and potentially dangerous about asking for perks to mess with the integrity of the tennis? (What's next? The star player saying, "Hey, Mr. Dubai promoter, I'll come to your event but I want three serves and a lower net"?) This is not a victimless crime, either.

As we've discussed in the past, wild cards in general are problematic.

I stand by what I wrote then and it applies here too. I get that tournaments need a way to shuffle stars into the field, to leave a spot for late-entering drawing cards, local attractions, or popular players with rankings insufficiently low for automatic. When Venus Williams doesn't make the Key Biscayne cut-off, the promoters need a means of allowing her into the field? Fine. I'm all for that.

But allowing a player ranked outside the top 800 into the field? This seems pretty close to abuse of the system. Too many good players are passed over. My suggestion: wild cards can only be given for players one or two standard deviations removed from the cutoff. Squeeze in a few close calls such as Venus or David Nalbandian; but no way does it enable Marko Djokovic, ranked in the 800s -- a first round loser yesterday, though not under embarrassing circumstances -- to get in.

Next on the agenda: should the family of a current ATP player -- or players, it now seems -- be allowed to run an ATP event? Discuss.

With the injuries (Sharapova, Kvitova, Bartoli, Zvonareva, Petkovic) and headcases (Stosur, Li Na, Wozniacki) in the WTA top 10, I really want Agnieszka Radwanska to step up and challenge Victoria Azarenka. But it seems like Azarenka owns her (and everyone else). What does Aggie have to do to make my dreams come true? -- Charlie G., Washington, D.C.

What does she have to do to make your dreams come true? My rates are $200 -- you'll find that Jungians tend to charge a bit more -- but I do take Blue Cross/ Blue Shield, as well as United Healthcare.

As for whether Radwanska can take that final step, well then there's no need to sit on my office couch. I think she's pretty darn close. She's ranked No. 5, just won a big title in Dubai, and has lost only three matches in 2012 -- all to Azarenka, two of them tough three-setters. After a coaching change that saw her split from her father, Robert, she seems to be in a good "head space," as they say.

I spent some time with Radwanska in Australia and, apart from being impressed by her height -- she's 5-foot-8, not a giantess by any means, but not exactly Verne Troyer either -- she had a real sense of self. She knows that she can either have a fine, lucrative top ten career. Or she can try to make a few adjustments, add some wattage to her serve, take more risks on her returns, and give herself a real chance to win a Slam.

She'll always be somewhat susceptible to power and will lose the occasional match on a day when the right opponent just hits through her. But at a time when so few players know to construct a point and can get rattled by change of pace in a rally, I think Radwanska has a real chance to get on the big board.

Regarding the mistranslation of Fed's comments on Stan, the day before the tie began a headline on read, "Federer: I don't care about this Davis Cup tie." Then you read the story, and he was saying "I don't care where this tie is played. I'm enjoying playing with my friends." Methinks the shift manager at AP that weekend had it in for Sire Jacket... -- Ro'ee Orland, Israel

Oh, that tendentious Associated Press, at it again.

"Pete is a good friend and was an amazing champion for our game. I don't need to break every record he has. I came so close and I could have chased it if I had wanted to. I didn't choose to."

I'm a Nadal fan but don't consider myself a Federer "hater." I have to admit though that I couldn't believe Federer's comment that he CHOSE not to beat that record. Give me a break! Is he really that arrogant? I've questioned some of his comments in the past, but this one takes the cake. -- Kris, Norwalk, Conn.

\n A few of you noted this. OK, more than a few. So many, in fact, I feel like I ought to address this even though we just did this line of inquiry...

I try to give Federer the benefit of doubt. Yes, because I have way too many instances of good-guydom to bash him. Yes, because he is not speaking in his first language and nuances can sometimes get lost. Yes, because he is called to the podium every time he plays. In the course of hundreds of interviews each year, he's bound to make a few regrettable statements.

But mostly because he is often in a no-win situation. You're either modest, immodest or falsely modest. You wax an opponent 6-2, 6-2 with some superhuman shotmaking, a low error-to-winner ratio, and well-played break points. The commentators are gushing. The opponent does the we're-not-worthy-genuflecting. What are you supposed to say? When you shrug, "It was a tougher match than the score indicated and I'm fortunate to advance," it smacks of inauthenticity. When Federer instead says, "Yeah, I played unbelievable tennis today," he gets hammered for arrogance.

I too, confess to cringing when I read the above statement. "I didn't choose to" beat the record? Oy. He didn't chose to invent cold fusion or the perpetual motion machine, either. (Ironically, I'm convinced that Federer intended this to sound humble.) But, again, I play the "balance" card. There's just too much countervailing good. Your kid is a straight-A student, a model citizen and an Eagle Scout. He gets one citation for tardiness. How worked up do you get.

What's that? You want still more rationalizing? OK, fine. Consider Federer's analogues in other sports: Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez. Consider their various high-profile reported crimes and misdemeanors. Now consider those against the charge of "makes occasionally self-impressed remarks."

Jon, first of all, let's note this line from your last mailbag: "If Azarenka can continue to play at this level, I'm willing to take a little bit of auditory unpleasantness." So just because she's good means she can be... loud?

Be careful about dismissing folks like me who are genuinely put off by the current high-decibel ladies brigade. It's not fun to watch TV on mute. And with Azarenka playing a more prominent part on the Tour, this just means more TV-muting. How long before we just don't tune in? (In my case it's already happened. I haven't watched the last two Slam finals. How many Babolat ads did I miss?) The upshot of this has been a renewed appreciation for the men's game. It's a really big upshot. It's not a bad time to be driven into the arms of the ATP Tour, huh? -- Jay Lassiter, Cherry Hill, N.J.

A few points. 1) You really needed Cacoph-a-renka to trigger your attention to the men's game?

2) Yes, it's a slippery slope. But I feel a bit about Azarenka the way I do about Serena. There are some personality traits that are unfortunate and disagreeable. But at the end of the proverbial day, you're there to win matches. Give me a champion, rough edges and all, over the "really nice girl" who is unable to win when it matters.

If you're Kim Clijsters or Pat Rafter, and it's not an either/or, that's great. But lapses in etiquette and common courtesy -- grunting, in this case -- become a bit easier for me to accept when they're accompanied by titles. It's unfair and inconsistent but we do this all the time, right? If someone is good at their job, we're more likely to tolerate bad behavior.

3) After seeing this clip, can we safely say that grunting isn't solely at WTA issue? A shout out (and then some) to Jerzy Janowicz!

Say what you will, I just can't get too upset about grunting/shrieking in women's tennis. Sure I notice it, and I make fun of it. (It's fun to scream like Sharapova when making a sandwich, for example). But I wouldn't turn off a match because of it. To pick just one example, watching baseball players spit in HD is WAY worse than shrieking. -- Paul, Boston

Fair enough. Initially, I was in your camp. Grunting was annoying and unpleasant but hardly the biggest challenge confronting tennis. It gave people something to talk about and the obvious sexual overtones (no pun intended) infused this whole "issue" (non-issue?) with a certain creepiness/sexism.

But A) I've become convinced that players are using this tactically, dialing up the volume on bigger points and practicing in silence. B) A number of other players are starting to complain about it. C) The WTA's almost sneering disregard regarding the complaints from the fans -- i.e. the core consumer -- was so enraging and self-defeating that now I want to see the problem addressed.

Just a follow-up on the Federer-Nadal point from a recent mailbag: Tobin of Boston said "The only edge you can find for Federer anywhere in their head-to-head is 2-1 on grass." Not quite true. Fed also has a 4-0 edge over Rafa on indoors (all of their meetings came from the year-end ATP championships). -- Alvin, The Philippines

True. For a variety of reasons -- the speed of the court, the absence of discomforting elements, the placement of the events late in the season -- Federer fares much better indoors. (You might that say Nadal is the consummate outdoorsman.) But until there is a major title played indoors, the surface lacks a certain gravitas.

Jon, I know Hall of Fame selection is a constant source of consternation (not bad near alliteration), but Manuel Orantes? I doubt even most Spaniards would agree with this selection. He won one grand slam. Yes he was very classy and graceful but I didn't realize HoF selection gave points for perfect telemark landings. If a sport is going to have a HoF that truly distinguishes it's all-time greats, there has to be some more stringent criteria applied. Hey kids, lets load up the truck and go to Newport so we can see the new Andres Gomez wing. All right, maybe too snarky but you get the point. -- Neil, Toronto

I'll bite here. Much as there is to like about the Hall of Fame -- and I strongly encourage you to visit; I popped in last week and had a great day -- the established precedent for admission is problematic. You enshrine one-Slam winners on the order of Michael Chang and Gabby Sabatini and suddenly you need turnstiles to stem the tide. Svetlana Kuznetsova? Marat Safin? Andy Roddick? They are shoo-ins, given the current standards. Whereas Harvard or Teach for America or Delta Platinum status can raise and lower the admission standards accordingly each year, a Hall of Fame has a harder time reversing course.

No disrespect to Orantes. But last week's press release announcing his admission came with this description: "A Spanish tennis star of the 1970s and 1980s, who defeated top top-seeded Jimmy Connors to capture the 1975 U.S. Open title and played an instrumental role in Spain's Davis Cup efforts for many years." I admit that my first thought was: If this guy is really Hall of Fame worthy, shouldn't we already know his accomplishments? (Michael Jordan, a high-flying shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls in the 80s and 90s and six-time NBA champion... The so-called Internet, a series of interconnected hyperlinks...)

Bear this in mind: the annual enshrinement ceremony corresponds with the Campbell's ATP event in July. It would be more than a little awkward to have no ceremony. "Sorry guys, no one was worthy this year." So the need for a ceremony probably impacts the standards. Bear in mind, too, that there is, understandably, a push to honor international champions and pre-empt charges of a pro-American bias. Also, as a rule in life -- whether we're considering the invite list to the kids' birthday parties or the Little League roster -- shouldn't we be inclined to err on the side of (over)inclusion?

Maybe the solution is to set up a tiered system going forward. You have one class for the heavyweights -- Laver, Sampras Graf, Evert, Martina, et al. Say, five singles Slams minimum. Then you have another wing for the "very good," who deserve to be recognized, deserve to stand at the rostrum and give a speech, deserve immortality. The doubles players, the Pam Shriver "good for the game" types, the Manuel Orantes of the world. Everyone gets recognized but it's a true Hall of Fame and not a Hall of Quite Good.

Oh sure, when Frank Dancevic goes nowhere he's Canadian, but when Milos Raonic defends at San Jose all of a sudden he's American? Is Daniel Nestor next? We gave you Brett Hull, hands off Milos. (Unless you're from Montenegro.) -- Cameron, Ottawa, Ontario

"Hands off Milos"? Thanks, Cameron, for giving me the name of my next band. (And you can have Hull back if you want him. Take the Phoenix Coyotes, too.) After enraging so many Canadians -- which takes real effort -- we'll stop with the (now tired) joke that Raonic is North American and is really a public trust for entire continent. He's Canadian, of course.

Turning serious: what, if anything, can the USTA learn from Raonic? I'm worried that the takeaway is this: stuff happens. You can spend millions on training centers and talent evaluators and coaches and green clay that plays differently from red clay. But maybe the best players simply surface on their own, often from unlikely places and circumstances. It's the middle-class kid in Basel. The pudgy lefty with the driven uncle in Mallorca. The lanky Canadian with the hyper-educated parents.

Would a talent evaluator have spotted Raonic at age 10 and pegged him for greatness? Would $500K in coaching and travel and made a difference? I don't know. As sports fans, we tend to hate randomness. We're comforted by explanations. But I look at Raonic and can't help: either a guy like that comes along or he doesn't. No system or institution is going to create that player.

Hey Wertheim, Milos is Canadian. NOT AMERICAN!! -- Andrew Palm, Toronto, Ontario

What if I can get Gary Bettman to say otherwise

Can we have a moratorium on the GOAT discussion for both men's (out of control) and women's (before it gets that way)? It used to be that players' careers were evaluated after they'd retired, and context of history and a seasoned sense of perspective made such appraisals meaningful. I mean, Djokovic strings three Grand Slam titles together in a row and instantly he's a "contender for GOAT." Now, there's a discussion of Kvitova vs. Azarenka as to who of these single major winners will be "the greatest of their era." Why the need for hyperbole? Can't we calm down? -- Mark A . Sydney

Oh, I don't know. I see your point. But isn't part of being a sports fan trying to put contemporary players in some historical context -- and vice versa? Hey where does Lionel Messi rank among the all-time greats? Seems a reasonable discussion, even while his career is in the present tense.

\n Just had this cross my mind and it hit me funny -- can you imagine "2012 Australian Open Women's Final: The Opera?" -- Doyle Srader, Eugene, Ore.

I prefer The Artist.

Shots, miscellany

\n If you missed it, here's the latest SI Tennis Podcast. John Isner talks BBQ, beach football, and a bit of tennis. And check out the rest of the podcasts.

New York readers: I gather a few sets are still available for Monday's Federer-Roddick, Sharapova-Wozniacki match at Madison Square Garden.

Remember Romika Shoes? A reader rightly wonders: Has the lawyer for Romika shoes seen Mitt Romney's logo?

N.W. Smith, Pittsburgh: "Speaking of Maria Sharapova, wasn't that her with Edna Mode from The Incredibles at Fashion Week in New York -- the size difference, if nothing else?

Erin of Natick, Mass: "I'm a big Serena supporter, so this tidbit does not come unbiased. I've read the horror stories about people meeting her and having her blow them off etc. I went to both days of the Fed Cup. On Sunday I waited behind the team bench as she was closing out her match. She won, it secured the win over Belarus, and she walked right over and signed every last thing she could for the fans. She signed my picture of her neatly and cleanly. I won't forget that. Just wanted to chime in with a positive Serena story!"

\n Press releasin': "We know Manuel Orantes will be inducted to the International Tennis Hall of Fame this year. It was previously announced that tennis administrator and promoter Mike Davies has been elected in the Contributor Category and that Randy Snow has been elected in the Recent Player Category for his great achievements as a wheelchair tennis player. Additional members of the Class of 2012 will be announced within the month ahead. The Induction Ceremony will be hosted on July 14 at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in Newport, R.I."

After whacking me (good-naturedly) for referring to Raonic as North American, EB of New York, NY writes: "For your players encounters file, New Haven during the Pilot Pen in 2006: saw Greg Rusedski strolling down the main drag in town, by himself. My younger brother was a top Canadian junior and many of the tournaments he played in had trophies that bore Rusedski's name as a past winner. I introduced myself and told him so, and how cool it was to meet him in person. He was polite, but didn't seem too happy to be reminded of those earlier Canadian days. Relatedly, my dad recently ran into Raonic's parents in Vancouver, and they recognized him from ferrying their son to the same tournaments as my brother all those years ago! Go, Milos!"

Josh Forsythe, Mankato, Minn.: "I'm sure I'm not the first overly proud Minnesotan to write to you about your mailbag comment, but there actually ARE two very popular hip-hop collectives based in Minnesota with pretty strong nationwide reach. One, Rhymesayers Collective, is probably most famous for a group called Atmosphere that sells out shows in large cities and will be playing the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver this winter; the other, Doomtree, is kind of the younger, DIY sibling. Doomtree just released a very well-received group album within the last few months. I know it's sort of like damning with faint praise, but the groups are huge in indie-rap circles. Know that I'm sure you didn't mean any offense, but I figured you're, in general, a pretty inquisitive guy, and would want to know the history of hip-hop collectives in Minnesota."

\n Press releasin': "After a one-year absence, pro tennis is making its return to Calabasas as the Calabasas Tennis & Swim Center presents the 2012 USTA Men's Pro Tennis Championships of Calabasas... Qualifying for the $15,000 event begins on Saturday, March 10-12 with main draw matches beginning Monday, March 12."

Here's an interesting Facebook poll you might enjoy.

Going to London? Check out Kevin James' Eating Guide to Soho (London).

Congrats to the Emory Eagles, who claimed the 2012 ITA Division III National Men's Team Indoor Championship title behind commanding doubles play. Emory swept through doubles play against Kenyon, winning by an overall score of 7-2. It's the fifth title for the Eagles, the most of any team in the nation.

Brian of Pasadena has Lookalikes. David Ferrer and Bono.

Have a great week everyone!