Davis Cup format needs changes; more Azarenka dissection

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Is Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka the most polarizing player on the WTA Tour?

Is Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka the most polarizing player on the WTA Tour?

We were going to address the topic of doping this week, given the incessant chatter and the disturbing tennis ties both the Operation Puerto trial and Miami New Times investigation.

But we'll postpone that a week, since we got a surprise audience with Victoria Azarenka for a quick Q&A, beginning with a question about winning the Australian Open despite the kerfuffle over her medical timeout in the semifinals against Sloane Stephens.

Q: Did you know you had this in you? Or did you surprise yourself with how you came through?

A: In a way, yes. In another way, I was just being me, not thinking, "What do I have to do to prove myself?" I was just being myself. ... Everything in life teaches you a lesson. It's not ironic, "What doesn't kill makes you stronger." You know the song? I always try with everything bad to take the positive out of it. At that moment it might be, "What looks positive about this?" But after a while you realize, you convince yourself it's the right thing to do. I just try to stay positive and I guess I'm pretty tough.

Q: When match point ended, you kissed your crucifix before you went to the net. What role does faith play in your career?

A: Well, I'm Orthodox. Everyone has their own religion, their own faith on certain levels. I believe in God. I believe God makes you stronger. But I also believe in being a good person, making everyone happy.

Q: What does popularity mean to you?

A: A lot of work. It takes a lot of work. I never think of myself as a popular person. I just think of myself as a regular person, a fan of music and movies. I saw Robert De Niro and was shaking. I don't think, "Oh, I'm also a little bit popular." I just enjoy those moments on the spotlight and seeing people react. It's a privilege and I can never take it for granted.

Q: Do you feel hurt that public perception might be -- that you're not the person people might be reading about or seeing on TV?

A: I think it was a little unfair. But I always give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe nobody gave me that. ... I think it's my job also to show my personality.

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"Distressingly sparse crowd in Jacksonville" [for the Americans' Davis Cup tie against Brazil on Sunday] ... There was a little game in New Orleans on Sunday. Do you think schedulers could see whether the biggest sporting event in the U.S. was occurring before putting a Davis Cup match on the same weekend? -- Mark Branaman, Indianapolis

• The organizers will respond that the Davis Cup is a global event and the U.S. -- and its Super Bowl -- is just one market. While the arena in Jacksonville was all crickets and tumbleweeds, the Davis Cup drew tens of thousands of passionate supporters elsewhere in the world. I would respond that A) the U.S. is still a key market. You overlook it at your peril. B) The format and various, unevenly spaced rounds make it hard for the biggest cities to launch credible bids, commit marketing resources and block out an entire week. C) The TV proposition can't be overlooked, either.

Canada just beat Spain in Davis Cup! I didn't think this day would come.-- Natasha, Toronto

• Congrats. And don't listen to the trolls who complain that it was Spain's junior varsity.

I'm a Roger Federer fan who is critical of him for skipping Davis Cup and leaving the heavy lifting to Stan Wawrinka. -- Eliza, London

• I think the ITF's intransigence and inaction in the face of decline absolves any and all players when they opt out.

In this era of globalization and technology, so many other sports are trying to create international events (see: World Baseball Classic, for starters.) Tennis already had one and, thanks to its impractical format -- and "leaders'" unwillingness to address obvious deficiencies -- it loses relevance with each passing year.

Here's what will happen: Eventually an investor/entrepreneur will realize the potential value here. He (or she) will line up sponsors and a media strategy and devise a Davis Cup cognate. One week, one site. Could be Ryder Cup -- Europe against the world. Could include women as well. Once the money smells right, the ATP will bless it with a sanction (and negotiate equity).

I hate to take anything away from what Federer has accomplished, but if there's one knock on his career it'd be his five-set record. Overall he's 21-17, but when you restrict it to players in the top 10 his record is 7-12. If Djokovic or Rafael Nadal gets to, say, 15 Grand Slams, then this has to be looked at in the GOAT discussions, agreed?-- Blake Redabaugh, Denver

• Yeesh, I don't know. The obvious response? "Sorry, I was too good. If I had tanked a few sets and then come back to win in five, would that have been preferable?"

To some extent, I see your point. For all of Federer's virtues, I wouldn't put "street fighter" at the top of the list. If it's 4-4 in the fifth, I'm not sure he's my top pick. (Her previous match notwithstanding, I'll take Serena Williams, thanks, over any guy!) But a five-set record can be misleading.

Regarding Milos Raonic/Monte Carlo: Nearly every player who moves to Monte Carlo does it for tax reasons. What does this move say about Canadian tax levels? Have we ever seen a North American player set up a foreign base for tax reasons?-- John, Greenville, S.C.

• Good question. We should add that it's not just Monte Carlo. Most of the Frenchies live in Switzerland. (Hey, Gerard Depardieu even moved to Russia.) Lleyton Hewitt lives in the Bahamas. But I can't think of an American who gave up U.S. residency for tax reasons.

I hope you're done kissing Victoria Azarenka's behind. But something tells me that you're not. After reading a few of your columns, I can't help but think that you're on her payroll as a major butt-kisser. And here I was, along with the majority of fans and commentators (I don't mean Azarenka's fans), thinking that what she did was one of the most terrible lapses of judgment a player has committed in a very, very long time, when you come along and top it by complimenting her on a job well done. You are a piece of work. So, following your line of thinking, you might as well compliment Jeffrey Dahmer for his people skills. I mean, after all, it does take a great amount of skills to lure victims into his apartment such as he did. You, sir, are a disgrace. You should go and get yourself checked. Have a good day.-- Jerry, West Texas

• Azarenka blowback continues. That was con. Here's pro:

It's more like Azarenka-hate than -gate. I was happy to see the Mailbag's headline, In Defense Of Azarenka. Those exact words have been going through my head for a week. Largely, everyone's reaction to the medical timeout reflects their feelings toward Azarenka before it happened. (To wit: How often are those people outraged by the scads of other poorly timed medical timeouts and bathroom breaks we've seen?) I don't think it's completely naive to think Azarenka was suffering some physical problem; the physical and mental states are hardly independent. If the rules allow, players must prioritize their health because no one else during a match can do it for them. We've now sent the message to players that they aren't allowed to suffer an injury at a critical stage of a match. At least Azarenka isn't.-- Megan F., Indianapolis

I finally made it down to Melbourne this year. It's a fantastic place, and the atmosphere around the grounds was happy and fun. My only complaint is about the organizers' insistence on featuring local players on Rod Laver Arena. I was there for the second night, and while Bernard Tomic is an up-and-comer who had a great winter, Jarmila Gajdosova had no business being on a show court. Now that I've attended the Australian Open, I'm only one event away from completing the career Grand Slam as a fan. Next stop, Flushing Meadows!-- Judy Adams, Los Angeles

• I don't disagree. Provided you can play hooky from work or school, a day session grounds pass is preferable to a night session.

Scheduling is always an imperfect science. And, especially in the U.S. and Australia, there is a pressure to promote homegrown talent. (Guarantee: Sloane Stephens plays a night session at the U.S. Open.) But, yes, Yanina Wickmayer and Gajdosova -- the match to which Judy refers -- is not fit for prime time.

The Carla Suarez Navarro backhand -- such a thing of beauty! Wow.-- Helen, Philadelphia

• Thanks. And you give us an excuse to link.

Are you still working with SI? I'm really disappointed with this new Bleacher Report on CNN.com.-- Bill Shanks, Tulsa, Okla.

• Still here. Again, there seems to be some confusion, but just come through SI.com and we'll be here waiting for you.

I'm a longtime reader and enjoy the 'Bag. This isn't a question but a shameless plug for a tennis-related short story I wrote that appears on Stymie: "A Journal of Sports and Literature." -- Vince, San Francisco

• Consider yourself plugged.

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Shots, Miscellany

• Serena Williams will defender her Family Circle Cup title in Charleston, S.C., from March 30-April 7.

• An illustrated visual that covers tips and tricks used by the Big Four.

• Elsie Misbourne of Washington, D.C.: "Has anyone else noted that the U.S.-Brazil Hawk-Eye threw up some confounding decisions? With HDTV and frame-by-frame replay, we couch potatoes have our own technology. In a couple of cases the players had all headed for the bench and the announcers had not treated 'desperation' challenges seriously, only to find the on-court decisions reversed and the losing participants incensed."

• Journalists, students, historians: The Tennis Hall of Fame has a tremendous information research center.

• The WTA has partnered with Xerox.

• Joanna of Seoul: "I've written a blog post called, 'Five things we've learned from the Lance Armstrong scandal,' which addresses the lessons that tennis fans should take away from the Armstrong scandal. I was hoping you might share the link, as it raises a few valid and interesting points about the anti-doping program in tennis."

• RZ of Los Angeles: "Just when it looked like Andy Murray could play in a Grand Slam (except Wimbledon) without an enormous weight on his shoulders to win it, this column was published."

• Justin DePietropaolo of Chester Springs, Pa., has a Super Bowl edition of long-lost siblings. Not only do they look alike but they also throw similar tantrums: Andy Roddick and Jim Harbaugh.