September 25, 2013

Rafael Nadal is 61-3 since returning from a seven-month absence because of a knee injury.
Bob Martin/SI

Is it possible to call a timeout on the issue of Rafael Nadal's knees and their betraying their owner. Isn't Nadal, with his style of play, more the culprit than the victim when it comes to his distressed knees?
-- Andrew Miller, Chevy Chase, Md.

• Someone, inevitably, came up with the Twitter handle @rafasknees. As long as we're giving voice to inanimate objects, I wish we could interview the knees. They behave curiously and incongruously. They flare up and heal with little predictability. Sometimes they are adorned with bands; other times not. For all their worrisome behavior in the past, they were remarkably durable this summer -- on hard courts, no less. These masses of cartilage and bone that, together, might not even weigh 10 pounds play a vital role both in the current tennis narrative and potentially tennis history. Yet we barely know them, and are left to speculate and scratch our heads.

As for Nadal as the culprit/victim, I think it's a false distinction. Yes, if he had a less martial playing style, it would be more conducive to his long-term health. On the other hand, if he were light on his feet or played less resilient defense or ran slower, he wouldn't be Nadal. As he (and his uncle) have said, sure, it would be great to play like Roger Federer. But he has to maximize the game -- and the body -- he has.

Calling him a "culprit" is like blaming KISS' Paul Stanley for his throat surgery. Sure, it traces to the the way he performs. But if he were a barbershop crooner, he wouldn't be who he is.

Care to comment on Fabio Fognini's multiple losses attributed to lack of effort? What are the chances of a suspension handed for his offenses? Aren't they as egregious as doing PEDs? I think it is time for the ATP to step in to address the situation.
-- Rahul Deshmukh, Brooklyn, N.Y.

• It's been a rough few weeks for Fognini, much of it his own doing. Many of us have already seen his disgraceful loss in Cincinnati. But comparing a doping offense to a "lack of effort" offense is a bit of a strange comparison. In one case, you're obviously taking extreme -- "extra-legal," as Hank Schrader would put it -- measures to succeed. In the other case, you're going to exceptional lengths to fail.

Though Fognini was the No. 16 seed at the U.S. Open, he lost his first-round match to Rajeev Ram 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. (I like Rajeev Ram, pride of Indiana, as much as anyone, but again Fognini's effort was questionable.) Last week in St. Petersburg, Fognini retired down 3-6, 3-5.

My take: It's a brutal, Darwinistic tour out there. If you don't have the hunger or dignity to compete at full strength, that's punishment in itself. Provided the match isn't being thrown for betting purposes, and it's simply a case of guy stinting on effort, governing bodies need to tread carefully. Assessing effort is inherently subjective. There's a difference between someone having a bad day at the office or a player (famously temperamental to begin with in Fognini's case) losing his cool or an injured player unable to fight through some pain and flat-out tanking. Fognini has already conceded ranking points and prize money and is out of the tournament. He has embarrassed himself. Is it really worth further sanction?

Speaking of "come on," Does Lleyton Hewitt get a residual payment every time a player yells "COME ON!"?
-- J., Portland

1) J of Portland is referencing this piece by John Koblin.

2) Mention "Hewitt" and "residuals" at your peril, pal.

3) Anyone else notice that immediately AFTER she won the U.S. Open, Serena Williams yelled, "Come on!" What or where could she have possibly be exhorting herself? Come on, and give a kick-ass trophy presentation speech? Come on, and win your 18th Grand Slam?

How about we leave the GOAT debate for now with this: Roger Federer is the best player of all time. But Rafael Nadal is better than Federer.
-- Toph, Manila

• We're all for Occam's Razor simplicity here, but this doesn't get us far. Roger Federer is the best player of all time. But Roger Federer -- particularly once beyond the prime of his career -- had an abysmal head-to-head record against Rafael Nadal. More Federer defense ...

As much as people dislike the term GOAT, I dislike the term "Big Four" too. Sixteen majors have been completed this decade. Nadal has played in 10 finals and won seven. Djokovic has also played 10 finals and won five. Murray has played six finals and won two. Federer has played three finals and won two. Isn't it time to say Big Three again? The numbers don't lie.
-- Adam, Wisconsin

• The numbers don't lie, but your cutoff is a bit arbitrary. Back this up to, say, 2008 (all four were active) and the numbers tell a much different story.

Should I be worried that Lindsay Davenport won't be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, no questions asked? When I saw this year's slate, I did a double take. Who knows what the WTA will be like when Venus and Serena step aside?
-- Peter, Norwalk, Conn.

• I'm not sure what Venus and Serena have to do with it, but Davenport is a shoo-in. Three major singles titles, assorted major finals, Olympic gold, doubles skills, a No. 1 ranking and impeccable interpersonal skills. Next!

Taylor Townsend won the Wimbledon doubles juniors -- not the singles. That was not made clear in your last mailbag.
-- Fiona Lamb, Niagara

• She was the Wimbledon singles runner-up in a thoroughly entertaining match that featured more net play than any match -- male or female, adult or juniors, singles or doubles -- you'll ever see these days.

I just read your article about two athletes' quest to compete in the Beijing Paralympics for perhaps the fourth time since 2009. Thank you so very much for bringing this wonderful story of strength and love to me and to all of Sports Illustrated's readers. Excellent work.
-- Bradley Fuller, Naperville, Ill.

• Thanks, Bradley. Usually I don't do this, but this piece comes up every few months and -- acknowledging the immodesty -- here's the link. The subjects -- not the writer -- should be glorified and praised here.

Shots, miscellany

• Correction from last week: We stated that Nadal could begin his 2014 season at the Rio Open in February. He may well open his clay season there after committing to the inaugural event in Rio de Janeiro, but obviously a healthy Nadal's January would feature the Australian Open.

• International Tennis Hall of Fame CEO Mark L. Stenning will step down in September 2014.

• Matt of Anaheim: "Chris Cabanski raises an astute point in your last mailbag about the difference in men's and women's challenge rates. Suppose, hypothetically, there are an average of two 'challenge-worthy' out calls per men's set and one per women's set, with 'challenge-worthy' defined as having some plausible chance of being overturned. Suppose the average overturn rate for these calls (if they are actually challenged) for each gender is 30 percent. Now even if ALL players challenge ALL of the challenge-worthy calls (as long as they have challenges remaining), you get the pattern we observe in real life -- men challenge more often (roughly twice as often in this hypothetical example), and both genders have the same success rate."

• Dane of Cambridge, Mass., also weighs in on this topic: "In a related aside, I would like to push back a little on one of the fundamental assumptions behind this whole discussion (an assumption that often goes unexamined in a lot of gender-related discussions, Lean In included) that Susan Pinker has called 'the vanilla gender assumption.' There is a tendency to view males as the archetypical human and statistical deviations from the male 'baseline' as aberrational. In this case, we assume that males are somehow using the challenge system better than females and then look for explanations for why women are falling behind. Even with the observed data, however, it is totally plausible that women are actually better at using the challenge system.

"If men are challenging more and at the same success rate, then they are also making many more incorrect challenges and must therefore be more likely to run out of challenges before a set is finished. If a set turns close and pushes into the 4-4, 5-4, 5-5, 6-5 territory, it's unclear whether a general strategy of challenging-more-even-at-the-same-success-rate is optimal. Additionally, the cost of losing a set because of an unchallengeable bad call is much higher in a best-of-three match than in a best-of-five match. This is all speculative, of course, but this is a question that must be answered before we can begin to draw prescriptive conclusions."

• Kudos to Novak Djokovic, who celebrates 100 weeks at No. 1.

• Kudos to Novak Djokovic, who is engaged.

• "Advantage, Trongcharoenchaikul" triggers first-ever time violation on the chair.

• Adam Cox of Colchester, UK: "Not sure if you saw the Malcolm Gladwell video where he talks about topspin forehands. I found it problematic because I know of plenty of times when top tennis pros can accurately describe in minute detail what is happening technically. I think this is just one of those cases where what the body feels and what is actually happening are just different, partly because we're talking about something taking place in milliseconds. Anyway, wondering if anyone knows about the video analysis that Gladwell refers to and where it can be seen."

• Jan of Leipzig, Germany, has this week's long-lost siblings: Julia Goerges and Amanda Knox.

• OK, we'll do some more: Mike from Cheesehead land -- Greendale, Wis. -- suggests Ivan Ljubicic and the UEFA Champions League draw guy.

• Fine, here's another: Ted Ying of Laurel, Md.: Jelena Jankovic and Glee's Naya Rivera.

Have a good week, everyone!

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