Hawk-Eye gender divide, Serena's place in history, more mail

Wednesday October 2nd, 2013

Li Na paid the price for not challenging a call on set point in her loss at the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

While pondering the best player never to win a Grand Slam tournament on the occasion of David Nalbandian's retirement ...

Regarding challenge rates between men and women: Because the ball moves faster for men, I'd think their error rate would be higher and they'd challenge more.
-- Bob Smith, Philadelphia

• Let me start with this: Our discussion about the gender differences when it comes to challenging line calls was meant to be just that. A discussion. And to a large extent, it's been a success. A lot of you have written in with insightful and clever (and sometimes fanciful) theories and explanations. Amanda Hess wrote a fine piece for Slate that I encourage you to read.

Just to reset: We looked into Hawk-Eye challenges and found that WTA players challenged far less often than ATP players. And both genders were correct at almost eerily comparable rates. So why the distinction? Martina Navratilova and I speculate that this might be an expression of Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling book, Leaning In, in which she argues that women are less comfortable with confrontation and, well, challenge. (Digression: Remember how Li Na declined to challenge a call that would have gone her way on set point in her quarterfinal loss to Agnieszka Radwanska at Wimbledon?)

But we assert nothing here with certitude. It's just intended as a thought exercise. If you have more theories or more ways to refine this, feel free to chime in.

As for Bob's point, if men and women have a similar success rate, it suggests that the speed of the ball is not the cause here.

Do you consider that there may be men (such as Andy Murray) who admit they will sometimes challenge after a long point just to get some extra rest? Murray often knows he is wrong on challenges, but uses the challenge for a different purpose.
-- John, Greenville, S.C.

• Right. We've mentioned this with respect to Roger Federer, too. Since the advent of Hawk-Eye, there have been times when he simply challenges to blow off steam. He knows he's not going to prevail -- so much so, that he already lines up in the ad court or the deuce court. How do we account for this?

And here's another factor militating against "clean data": Given that Hawk-Eye is used only on the show courts and that the men have this concentration of stars, one suspects that the Big Four -- and their traits with regard to Hawk-Eye -- are overrepresented in a way that the top women are not.

I love watching Alexandr Dolgopolov play, and he seems like a great guy, but will he ever put the pedal to the metal and win a significant tournament?
-- Margaret, Philadelphia

• I agree that Dolgopolov sometimes betrays a lack of urgency. But I think a lot of issues are simply size-related, the same problem that Kei Nishikori faces. Even if we believe Dolgopolov's generous (philanthropic, really) listing of 5-11, 157 pounds, he is almost always punching above his weight.

Bit of a tangent, but a veteran coach recently told me his theory on smaller players. They're at a disadvantage serving, but they can compensate with returning. They seldom dictate play in rallies, but they can compensate with defense and speed. The real difference comes when they are less than 100 percent physically. With a tweak or a slight strain, big guys can still summon the power and don't pay a huge price. When players such as David Ferrer or Radwanska are hampered in the slightest, they can really go off the boil. I'm not sure how you would quantify this -- you might start by looking at post-U.S. Open results when many players are dinged up from the long season -- but it certainly makes sense intuitively.

What do you make of players playing while ill/injured and acting like they are on Broadway? Victoria Azarenka's display against Venus Williams in Tokyo was unprofessional and, frankly, childish. Venus has been playing ill for several tournaments now and always gives credits to opponents. When you step on the court, all is fair game. Otherwise, don't show up.
-- Ope, Chicago

• Like the Aussies say: If you're fit, you play; if you play, you're fit.

Only accounting for accomplishments, why do you consider Serena Williams better than Margaret Court? Court is discounted from the greatest-of-all-time discussions because of a lack of competition in many of the 11 Australian Opens she won. But what decent competition has Serena really had the last six years, when she has won nine of her Slams? Justine Henin retired in '08, came back and still took Serena to three sets in her second tournament into her comeback, at the 2010 Australian Open. Venus is the only great player (excluding Henin in her comeback) she beat to win one of those nine.
-- Harvey, Sydney

• Beyond the numbers, here's the outline of my case for Serena:

-- She has won every Grand Slam tournament at least twice.

-- She won her first major in the 1990s. She is the best player in the world in 2013.

-- She is winning at a time when the majors are not just stocked with the top players but the entire season is based on these four events.

-- Head-to-head, with neutral equipment and surfaces, I firmly believe she beats any other player in history. She is serving in the high 120s. She has a physical advantage against Navratilova, the player who revolutionized the sport with her musculature and fitness. This is not to malign the previous generation. It's just progress. But Serena versus Margaret Court is LeBron James versus Dolph Schayes.

-- Bonus points for doubles.

PHOTOS: Serena, Nadal, more at China Open player party

What do you think Julien Benneteau needs to do to win his first title? I really feel for the man. He is now 0-9 in finals after last week's loss to Joao Sousa at the Malaysian Open. He's got the game, but it seems the stars are lined up against him. Your thoughts?
-- Donald H., Memphis

• Perhaps he should attend chapel the morning of his next final.

How does a protected ranking work?
-- John Gordon, Toronto

• I would try to paraphrase, but my head would hurt so much that I would require a protected ranking. Read this instead.

In defense of Roger Federer, I am trying to get Dan Brown to write a thriller about the biggest hoax in the history of tennis: Rafael Nadal's knees. He is either superhuman to play with the condition of his knees or something is fishy here, no?
-- Rosalinda Reyes, Freeport

• I'm telling you, those knees play such an outsized role in the discussion of contemporary tennis. After last week's mailbag, there was a fair amount of opinion and speculation. And some of the speculation went to an ugly place quickly. Here's the reality of sports today: Exceptional achievements are, almost necessarily, seen through a prism of skepticism. The day after Nadal won the U.S. Open, Christopher Clarey had this line in his New York Times story: "Nadal's astonishing resurgence comes in an era when great achievement in sports routinely generates doubts and in an era when tennis's anti-doping efforts have generated external criticism for not being as aggressive or exhaustive as in other sports."

Athletes and their handlers are quick to blame the media and fans and trolls and haters for this kind of cynicism. But the real blame rests with the litany of athletes -- from Lance Armstrong to Ryan Braun to Marion Jones -- who have betrayed and wrecked the public trust. How many athletes have to burn the public before exceptional feats trigger a collectively raised eyebrow? It's a pity if you're Nadal. Or Chris Davis. Or Adrian Peterson. Or the various and sundry other athletes who achieve great feats only to have some cast doubt on the legitimacy. But, sadly, this is a balancing act we're all forced to undertake. We all have different thresholds for skepticism on a continuum that runs from innocent-until-proven-guilty to guilty-until-proven-innocent.

Sampras: Federer the greatest but Nadal making case

I have never heard or read any complaints about the politically correct naming of venues and courts at the U.S. Open. Why is there not a court named after John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors or Chris Evert? Considering that McEnroe is a hometown boy, what is it with this Louis Armstrong stuff? All American society seems to have gone down this path. I would like to ask one of those people what they think about this.
-- Craig Dobson, Ottawa

• Political correctness strikes again! Damn that Satchmo!

The USTA has done a nice job paying homage to various figures through the years. The U.S. Open's No. 2 court is dedicated to Armstrong, a Queens native. I rather like that the U.S. Open showed a willingness to look beyond tennis. We all like McEnroe, but do we really need to name a facility in his honor? There would be something distasteful about renaming a facility.

Why do so many speak of the impending demise of the great Swiss champion? He upset Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray, then took Novak Djokovic to five sets in the U.S. Open semifinals. What more do people want from Stanislas Wawrinka?
-- Russell Greenidge, Yuma, Ariz.

• Nice.

Why do we always remember to omit our own, our Melanie Oudin, who was given a "LIFETIME CONTRACT." Be fair and honest with your criticisms. Now continue with your b---s---.
-- Rick, Newport R.I.

• I'm not averse to hate mail. You don't even have to keep it clean. But please consider this a humble request to keep it coherent. Lifetime Contract? What?

Anyway, as long a Rick brought it up, take a bow, Melanie Oudin, who won the ITF Pro Circuit's Party Rock Open last week.

Shots, miscellany

• From the icky self-promotion department: New Yorkers, I'll be appearing with broadcaster Soledad O'Brien, classical pianist Misha Dichter, jazz bassist Jay Leonhart and other locals from the arts community Monday night at Symphony Space. Feel free to come by.

• Steffi Graf is bullish about Serena's chances of breaking the record for Grand Slam titles.

• The WTA Tour looks back at Graf's 1988 season, when she won all four majors and Olympic gold.

• Scoop Malinowski has a new book, Facing Federer.

Nice result for Ryan Sweeting.

• James Pham of Vietnam chronicled the Thailand Open for The Changeover.

• Courtney Nguyen interviewed the WTA's new highest-ranked teenager.

TENNIS magazine is looking for racket testers.

• Helen of Philadelphia has long-lost siblings: Mikhail Youzhny and Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul.

• Jim Marolt of Lino Lakes, Minn., submits Youzhny and actor Chris O'Donnell.

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