Serena's poor form off the court; Hawk-Eye challenge; more mail

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? In the mood for a little story? Good. I was flying last week to a speaking engagement and I took a peek at the in-flight magazine. There's a terrific piece about sportsmanship and one of the examples cited is Andy Roddick conceding a point to Fernando Verdasco. It's this one that the great Frank Deford chronicled the week it happened.

I've talked about this with Roddick before and he's laughed and shrugged. To hear him tell it, the ball was clearly out. The match was on clay and mark was unambiguous. By conceding the point, his only noble act was sparing the umpire a trip down off his throne, as the reversal of the call was inevitable. Still, Roddick was hailed for his magnanimity. So much so that seven years later -- long after anyone recalls any other particulars of the match -- he is still getting credit for it in general sports articles in airline magazines.

If you were a player, wouldn't you look at examples like this -- and wouldn't you see how much mileage Roger Federer gets out of his presidential demeanor, wouldn't you consider that Andre Agassi is adored and revered less because of his tennis accomplishments than because of what he did with his platform -- and think: "Gee, the public really seems to value acts of sportsmanship and dignity and social responsibility? Small investments in acts and remarks can pay off for years. They can have a tremendous bearing on how I am perceived. There is great incentive -- social, but probably financial, too -- to comport myself with grace. And you know what? Maybe the converse is true, too. When I don't act in a sporting manner, that can really undermine my on-court achievements."

Which brings us to Serena. She's done the hard part. She's won relentlessly; she has competed admirably for more than a decade; she will make anyone's short list of Greatest Players Ever; she has a compelling backstory. Let's leave aside the hypothetical: to what extent would she be deified if she had Agassi's philanthropic sensibilities or Federer's savoir faire? If she simply acted decently, can you imagine her perception, her popularity level?

Instead it's almost as though she's determined to undercut her image by an inability to get out of her own way. Consider last week's example. She loses to Caroline Wozniacki -- an allegedly close friend of hers -- and, well, Russ provides her remarks. Just for fun, first let's do the math. If you lose 6-4, 6-4 -- winning eight of 20 games -- and play at the 20 percent capacity, the implication is that under normal circumstances, you would win 40 games out of 20.

Look at this from Wozniacki's point of view. She has beaten Serena at Serena's self-described "home event." Especially given Wozniacki's shortcomings at big tournaments -- a recurrent theme that Serena must surely be aware of -- this marks one of the signature wins of her entire career. Your opponent then douses it by stating that A) she was at 20 percent and B) you played the match of the year.

When Serena is on her game, she is unrivaled. But too often, her comportment has not been worthy of her tennis. And these errors -- unforced to be sure -- exact a price on both her likability and marketability. You lose a close match to a recent No. 1 and assess yourself at 20 percent while implying she played the match of her life? As someone once said: "There's no reason for that. You're older and you shouldn't do that. There's no excuse. You've just got to stop that. It's silly.''

Care to explain this: Novak Djokovic won $660,000 for winning the men's title in Miami; Agnieszka Radwanska won $712,000. Is it because of the different tours and sponsors? -- Julie Kahn, Watertown, Mass.

? Very good question. Each tour makes its own breakdown on prize money distribution. So the women paid less to the early- and mid-round loser and "back-ended" the payout, whereas the men had more parity. The irony, of course: you have a far heavier concentration of players -- i.e. four -- driving men's tennis, yet the ATP draw had a more narrow distribution. The women, have more parity but a less even distribution of prize money. Check it out.

If Masters events are harder to win than Slams, then why does Andy Murray have 6 Masters titles but no Slams? Didn't Roger Federer tank a lot of Masters events when he was racking up Slams, he tended to treat them more like warm-up events for the Slams. -- Robert, Hong Kong

? Fair point, but I'd be inclined to go glass-half-full here. Murray's success at TMS events suggests that he will win a major.

What is the story with Bernard Tomic? Is he another spoiled, talented teenager? Or is he merely reacting to his overbearing father-coach? -- Zander Storm, Las Vegas

? You hear the same thing again and again from a diverse swath of people. "Nice kid. Nice tennis physique. Precocious feel for the game. And the extent of his success will be determined in large part by how well he manages a highly combustible father who is -- at a bare minimum -- a distraction."

I got asked about this from a radio station in Dublin, so I'm guessing this went viral. It certainly suggests that the kid understands what he's dealing with here. Note the 1:40 mark.

I wrote a "long-term" question to my most knowledgeable tennis buddy, "Who will win a major first, Wozniacki or Radwanska?" He went off the board any chose "C" (neither). So I followed up with "Andy Murray or John Isner?" Thoughts? -- Tim, Glenford, N.Y.

? We all love Isner. And between his serve and his fighting instincts, the notion of him ripping off seven straight matches isn't unreasonable. But, come on. Murray has been to three major finals and has made the semis at all four Slams. He's beaten the Big Three multiple times and on multiple surfaces. That's a different league from Isner, who's made the second week of a major a grand total of once.

I also would debate your women's answer. Who do you like to beat Radwanska at the French Open?

Regarding the WTA meeting on grunting, reports, "However, the WTA's two top players and loudest grunters, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, have strongly come out against any measures that would attempt to change their behavior." Um, of course they did. But when did players start defining the rules? Shame on you, WTA, to allow this to even enter the discussion! What are Azarenka and Sharapova going to do if you start enforcing a rule? Stop playing? -- GS, Calif.

? Here's the problem. The WTA isn't a league. It's not a union. It's the mish-mash of players and tournaments. So when we scold the WTA for not taking on grunters, remember that the players have a seat at the table. That said, there are ways to exert pressure if you feel sufficiently strong about an issue.

How do you think a Gustavo Kuerten in his prime would match up against Rafael Nadal on clay? -- Aaron, Bloomington, Ind.

? Nice one. (And I'm not just saying that because Aaron is from my hometown.) First here's an interesting stat: Nadal and Kuerten never played. Not on clay. Not ever. Kuerten retired in 2008 but you forget how little he played those last four years.

Anyway, I should probably be more diplomatic, but I have to go Nadal here. The problem with these discussions is that, inevitably, they have the effect of diminishing a stellar player. But I don't think Kuerten competed quite as well as Nadal. I don't think he was as fast. And I think Nadal's lefty funk presents a challenge to every player not named Novak Djokovic. Here's the first clause of the account of their hypothetical match: "Using his lefty hook to pick on his opponent's one-handed backhand..."

If anyone wants to make a case for Kuerten, I'm happy to hear it.

After Wozniacki's run in with Kader Nouni, I'd like to re-suggest my alteration of the Hawk-Eye rules: Every overrule gets an automatic challenge (charged to neither player). Seems obvious, I'm not sure why it's not done. -- Matthew Neiger, Fort Salonga, N.Y.

? Makes sense to me. Or -- a nod to Mary Carillo -- we simply do away with the "game show" aspect and, instead of making players issue challenges judiciously, we simply get the call the right. For those who missed it, Wozniacki was livid late during her semifinal match because the chair overruled a call in favor of Sharapova. Having exhausted her challenges, Wozniacki had no recourse. While it turns out the chair was correct, Wozniacki was so upset she declined to shake the hand of chair umpire Kader Nouni.*

Had Wozniacki been given a challenge by dint of the overrule -- or had replay simply been consulted because it, you know, exists -- the controversy would have been averted.

I suspect that when replay was introduced in the mid-aughts, there was a concern that if challenges were unlimited, players might appeal every call. To which I say, good. A) Players would express themselves and we'd get a glimpse of the sinners and saints, the babies and the adults. If, say, Nicolas Kiefer challenges a dozen times a set, it would be part of his reputation. B) As long as the tools exist, why not go for maximum accuracy. C) Justice is swift and decisive in tennis, and the fans love it. If Hawk-eye were used twice as often as it is currently, what's the downside? D) Watch enough tennis and you realize that entire sets can elapse without a close call. (Note how often players still have unused challenges in their quiver when the match is over.) Even if EVERY close call were subject to review, it's not that big a deal.

I resist picking on Wozniacki here because I find her to be one of the more personable and less diva-esque players out there. Let's just chalk this up to an unfortunate lapse, the kind we're all prone to. But you can't decline to shake an official's hands after a match. Just. Can't. Do. It. You were paid a princely sum for competing while another human being -- paid far less -- spent the same amount of time essentially working for you. You have a complaint? No problem. There are all sorts of channels for expressing your dissatisfaction. But don't humiliate another person like that in public.

Is it wrong that when Wozniacki was No. 1 and not really backing it up, I wasn't much of a fan (I wasn't necessarily rooting for her to lose, but...), and now that she's No. 6, I am rooting for her? -- Chris Horton, Chicago

? Not wrong at all. She's clearly a credible player. She's just was not a particularly credible No.1. My guess is that a lot of people share your view. The unease with Woznaicki wasn't personal; it was a reluctance to embrace a player who didn't even reach a Slam final while ranked so exaltedly. Now that she's been booted from the top spot -- and is no longer the WTA figurehead -- people are more comfortable with her.

It's been noted in your recent column that three-set matches can lead to more upsets. Do you think this is a contributing factor in how "chaotic" the WTA was viewed last year, and can be viewed at points this year? -- Cat, St. Neots

? I think there are a host of other factors, too. But sure. It's all about sample size. In one set, anything can happen. In a best-of-three, one player can get in a groove to prevail. In a best-of-five you have more likelihood of regressing to the mean. Think about the NCAA tournament. In one game, anything can happen. So Lehigh will catch lighting in a recyclable bottle and upset Duke. If they played best-of-five, there's no way Duke loses three times.

And thanks to Joseph A. Ciccolini of Clearwater, FL for noting:

"I researched Masters events going back to 1990 -- the birth of the current format. The winners of these 198 tournaments included 33 men (accounting for 55 titles) who have never won a Grand Slam, including 18 who never reached a Grand Slam final. This includes top players like Andy Murray (8 titles) who will probably win a Grand Slam one day, and journeymen like Roberto Carratero (1996 Hamburg). Conversely, only four men with Grand Slam trophies (Andres Gomez, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Gaston Gaudio, and Juan Martin del Potro) have failed to win a Masters series event -- and Gomez was at the tail end of his career and had already won a Grand Prix event in 1984."

I've been observing the ritual of players signing balls and hitting them into the stands several years now since the U.S. Open instituted the practice. But I've been curious why they only give the player three balls? It would make much more sense to have them hit four into the stands -- that way the player doesn't have to make a decision on which side to ignore and the fans are happy because everyone gets a fair chance at receiving a souvenir. -- Sameer, New York, N.Y.

? You have touched on the third rail of tennis controversies, the single biggest issue facing the sport. Okay, maybe not. But truth be told, I've sometimes wondered the same. Why not just give the player one ball for each quadrant. A topic for the next high-level board meeting.

I read this in a recent AP article: "Many players contend that since the advent of the Hawk-Eye replay review system, which allows players to challenge, umpires are less inclined to overrule linesmen." Umpires less likely to become involved in a match -- isn't that a GOOD thing? -- Jason, Austin, Texas

? This is human nature, isn't it? I'm sure a social psychologist out there can help direct us to a relevant study. If you have an appeal process, why insinuate yourself and risk being wrong?

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did not lose the match because the umpire gave Nadal preferential treatment. He lost the match because he has poor feel for the game and a low tennis IQ. He looked like JaVale McGee out there last night. And yes, of course he needs a coach. -- J., Portland

? That, friends, is a tremendous cross-sports reference.

To J's point, Tsonga is such a talented and likable player, but one who seems to devote so little attention to strategy. Watch him and you want to grab him by the shoulders an ask, "Do you have any plan whatsoever? Or are you just playing on pure instinct?" The great irony, of course: Tsonga is playing without a coach right now.

Here's what's more troubling. Check out Tsonga's post-match remarks. Even working on the assumption that some nuance got lost in translation, these are some awfully damning allegations.

Q. At the end of the match when you were talking to the chair umpire, you were like complaining or something?

TSONGA: "Yeah, I was complaining because all the match, you know, I have to challenge, and I was right, you know, many, many times. So never take how you say? (Through translation.) He never take, you know, initiative when it's against Rafa. And you know now it's all the time like this. All the time. So, you know, I have to be, you know, really focused, you know, on the ball, because if the ball is out, it would never, if it's really close, he would never say out against Rafa. Always to say against me. If Rafa don't like him anymore, I mean, he would not be in the chair many times on final and semifinal. That's it. So sometimes, I mean, it's not fair. Because I have to take decision, you know, all the time. And he never take decision. He just say the score. That's why, you know, sometimes I'm upset about it."

We're all for candor. But, boy, if you're going to impugn someone's credibility like that, you'd better be prepared to defend yourself. And be prepared to pay a fine. NBA players and coaches have cut some fat fine checks for much less overt accusations.

GOAT time! What's your take on Tennis Channel's Top 100 list? I like the names in the top 30 but I have a hard time ranking Nadal higher than Evert ... or Agassi higher than Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Seles, Emerson and Tilden. -- Allan Cruz, West Chester, Pa.

? At some level, these lists exist not to be authoritative, but to provoke debate and discussion. Which this did. It's a challenge to compare contemporaries. (Who's better? Venus or Henin? Well, pull up a chair and make your case.) It's hard to compare players between eras. It's damn near impossible to compare different genders in different generations. (Who's better: Serena Williams or Bill Tilden is like asking if rare seared tuna is superior to The White Stripes.)

I have been reading your mailbag for more than two years now... I noticed one of your hidden talents and would appreciate any input. I am trying to teach my four-year old daughter how to ride a bicycle :). -- Gaurav Kumar, Little Rock, Ark.

? First, these kids balance bikes are magic.

But when you take your four-year-old out for a ride, hold the bike from behind and stay out of their field of view. For the first lap, grab the back of the seat with your hand, so your daughter knows you're there. After she's comfortable apply two fingers. She'll wobble and panic; you'll steady her and she'll relax. After she's comfortable, you'll let go entirely.

Shots, miscellany

? Tug Coker, the actor who plays Larry Bird in the upcoming Broadway play Bird Magic and an avid tennis fan, was the latest guest on the Inside Tennis Podcast. Owing to the guest, it's worth the half hour.

? As some of you requested it, here's the "Tennis Titanic" story that ran in last week's SI.

? U.S. vs. France Davis Cup: Tsonga and Simon and Isner and Harrison.

? Donald Young has accepted a wildcard into the main draw of the 2012 Savannah Challenger, scheduled for April 21-29. James Blake will play there, too.

? Houston readers: Note that the qualies of the clay event are free and open to the public.

? Lleyton Hewitt will play the Newport event this summer. Others include the tournament's defending champion John Isner, the Bryan Brothers; and Milos Raonic. Tickets for the tournament are on sale now.

? Wilson's Win a Tennis Date Facebook contest with Petra Kvitova and Feli Lopez began Tuesday.

? Two German stars.

? Some questions are better left unasked.

? Press releasin': "The U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship and the USTA are teaming up during next week's tournament to support members of the United States military through an Adopt-A-Unit program for 402nd Army Field Support Brigade (AFSB). The Adopt-A-Unit effort coincides with the tournament's first-ever Armed Forces Appreciation Night on Wednesday, April 11. That evening will include a wheelchair tennis demonstration featuring Wounded Warriors as well as a special tribute to all military personnel."

? Dino Balzano of Los Angeles, Calif.: "In reference to past conversations in the Mailbag about a commentator who keeps making a mistake in word choice, could you PLEASE let [a certain broadcaster] know that when a player during a match makes the decision as to what shot they are about to make, it is a "last-second" decision, NOT a "last-minute" decision. If they had "minutes" to make up their minds, it wouldn't be a very interesting match. And when a player doesn't concern themselves about a given issue, they "couldn't care less," NOT "could care less." Thank you. That drives me crazy."

? Press releasin': "40-Love. This score represents a commanding lead in tennis, and for the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, (HJTEP) "40-Love" represents the celebration of its 40th Anniversary in 2012. HJTEP's goal is to continue to score a commanding lead in life for its program participants. HJTEP's year-long celebration kicks off with a Celebrity Pro Am on Monday, May 7 at the prestigious USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. Matches begin at 2 PM with tennis champions John McEnroe, Patrick McEnroe, Jim Courier, James Blake, Justin Gimelstob, Gigi Fernandez, Mary Joe Fernandez, Zina Garrison, Chanda Rubin and others, pairing with amateur participants. The finals will be played on Arthur Ashe Stadium."

? Tennis Channel will air two encore showings of its debate-generating countdown series 100 Greatest of all Time on Saturday, April 7. The five-episode special, which ranked the 100 best tennis players of all time, male or female, will run in its entirety from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. ET and again from 7 p.m.-midnight.

? A warm round of applause to Amy Binder who, sadly, is taking her talents elsewhere. For a decade she was one of those behind-the-scenes types who enriched the traveling tennis circus while helping WTA players more than they will ever know.

? Fun player interviews, of Wozniacki, Marion Bartoli, Janko Tipsarevic, Sabine Lisicki, Sam Stosur, Milos Raonic, Maria Kirilenko, Flavia Pennetta, Yanina Wickmayer, Robin Haase and Vania King.

? The Mighty Helen of Philadelphia: "Learn something new every day -- the Monte Carlo Country Club isn't in Monte Carlo, or in Monaco, it's in France. I had wondered why France would be hosting a Davis Cup tie in another country. Now I wonder why the players bow to Prince Albert."

? Quinn Sutherland of Greenwich, Conn.: "I have another lookalike/Separated at Birth for you. (Personas aren't too different either) Doris Day and Wozniacki. Hello, Sunshines!

Have a great weekend, everyone!