Love him or hate him, Connors was authentic; more mail

Wednesday November 6th, 2013

Jimmy Connors famously -- and stunningly -- made the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals as a 39-year-old.
Manny Millan/SI

We'll talk ATP World Tour Finals next week. This week -- live from the Atlanta airport -- it's a random smattering of questions and answers.

We'll start with a quick riff on Jimmy Connors. Readers submitted a lot of questions about him after the premiere of the excellent 30 for 30 documentary about his career and run to the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals. (I encourage all of you to watch the film; check local listings for repeat showings.) Most of the questions could be distilled to a few succinct points: "Why was he such an #$%7*@! ?" "How could anyone have liked that %&#*#*?" "Why didn't anyone ever punch that ^&&#()$* in the mouth?"

I confess to some ambivalence here. Some (much?) of what Connors did and said and attempted was indefensible. That he never spoke to his one-time friend Aaron Krickstein after their memorable fourth-round match at the Open strikes me as borderline pathological. If I were in the market for a player to emulate, he would not be my first choice. If I were going to encourage my kids to root for a player, he would not my first choice. If I were compiling a list of players who won the respect and affection of their peers, he would not be my first choice.

PHOTOS: Jimmy Connors through the years

To many, Connors made a Faustian deal. To many, the trade-off wouldn't be worth it. At what price do we want success? It's a good freshman-dorm discussion: Would you rather be a well-regarded journeyman or a reviled champion?

But to me, Connors claws back some sympathy by taking ownership of his personality, however repugnant it sometimes was. There's no pretense of sainthood, no claims of being misunderstood, nothing fraudulent. It was Arthur Ashe who put it best when he essentially said: "He might be an $*!*&^, but he's our $(*@!>." The doc captured this masterfully.

Let's move on to some other topics:

There seems to be two basic anti-doping rules: (1) The player (and not the entourage) is 100 percent responsible for everything that is ingested. (2) The player must be available for testing and provide samples when requested. I don't find these rules difficult to follow or burdensome on the players, yet we keep seeing cases with assorted punishments seemingly based on the level of sob story players can concoct for why they couldn't follow these two simple rules. How do we reconcile this when players state that they want increased testing and more anti-doping controls but anytime someone is actually busted they rally around the player and cry foul at the system?
-- Matt George, San Francisco

• Right on. It's like Americans and government. We all hate the bums in Washington and the do-nothing Congress. But when given the chance to initiate change, we re-elect our senators and representatives at alarming rates. (In theory, I want change. But MY politician is the exception.)

Athletes allegedly hate cheaters, who cut corners, undermine competition and take money and glory from others. Yet so often when there is a positive test, athletes close ranks and, instead of bemoaning the athlete who got caught -- by error of commission or omission -- they rally behind their colleague and blame the flawed system.

In men's tennis, two fairly high-profile players -- Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki -- were handed anti-doping suspensions recently. In both cases, there was ambiguity, a lack of clear indication of intent and sympathy and empathy for the players. But you can't have it both ways. If you want tougher testing, you cannot lose the strict liability standard and permit players to reschedule tests. You have to abide random testing and "whereabouts" notifications, no matter how annoying or inconvenient. Something has to give here.

For those who missed it, the Court of Arbitration ruled this week on Troicki's case, reducing his suspension for missing a blood test at the Monte Carlo Masters from 18 months to 12 months. Click here for the decision, which prompted a lengthy response from his countryman Novak Djokovic.

Here's part of Troicki's statement:

"[I] hoped that the most difficult period of my career and of my life would be over, and I really trusted the judges I met in Lausanne. I had the feeling that they were really looking for the truth and that they had found it during the hearing. Now this decision puts an end to my dreams of being a top player, of reaching the ATP Finals and fighting against the best in the world. I worked my entire life for it, and it has been taken away from me in one afternoon by a doctor I didn't know.

"I have no idea about what to do now or where to go. I hope somehow I will be able to fight back."

This is unfortunate all the way around. Clearly there was a communication breakdown. You had two parties, neither of them speaking in their first tongue. You had calls to intermediaries. You had an under-the-weather player with a longstanding fear of needles. A lot of clutter here.

But, ultimately, anti-doping is strict liability and it's on the player to abide by the rules. While it's hard not to sympathize with Troicki at some level, you want to say to him, "Pal, if players were able to postpone their testing to more convenient times -- even a few hours later, which is time for a good many banned substances to leave the body -- the anti-doping rules would be a farce. For a tester to grant a postponement is so out of the ordinary, did you not think to get some sort of written confirmation? Whip out your iPhone and take a photo or make a voice memo. Something."

As it stands, it's a shame that a player who did not fail a test is being treated so severely. I don't think Troicki is being perceived as a cheater, certainly not by his colleagues. That said, what choice did the authorities have? An athlete who can defer a test makes a mockery of the system and creates the slipperiest of slopes.

David Ferrer has played every week since Kuala Lumpur in late September. The ATP Finals will mark his seventh consecutive event. Has any top-five player ever played seven weeks in a row?
-- John, Greenville, S.C.

• Red courtesy phone for Greg Sharko.

How many players do you consider to be your friends?
-- Steve, Kansas City, Mo.

• That's an easy one. Zero. As a journalist, you'd like to have relationships with subjects and sources that are cordial and professional -- friendly, even. But an outright friendship is a bad idea. Too much potential for a conflict, too much potential to be in compromising positions.

To some degree, this is cultural. I've seen journalists from other countries ask for souvenirs from players, sit in coaching boxes and applaud winners as they leave the court. Different countries and different media mores. But I often wonder, What do you do when that player you've beseeched for an autograph has done something that warrants criticism?

Looking ahead to January, it's interesting to note that the ranking difference from No. 11 Simona Halep (3,335 points) to No. 25 Elena Vesnina (2,005), is about the same as from No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki (3,520) to No. 6 Petra Kvitova (4,775). With No. 12 Sloane Stephens (3,185) defending over a third of her points in the first four weeks of the year, there can be a lot of movement in that second tier, just outside the top 10.
-- Stan, Astoria, Ore.

• Right. But this is one reason players tend to pooh-pooh the rankings. They realize that points often cluster and the rankings don't always reflect merit. (Hell, Marion Bartoli is still at No. 13.) And speaking of Halep ...

Simona Halep, who "collects titles the way the University of Chicago economists collect Nobel Prizes" collected the WTA Tournament of Champions trophy last week after beating Ana Ivanovic and Samantha Stosur. She is up to No. 11. Wasn't it just two years ago she was No. 144? Within the next two years, I believe she will collect a Slam.
-- Randy Mayes, Prescott, Ariz.

• Easy on the Slam prediction. But, yes, Randy called us out two weeks ago for short-shrifting Halep. Then she went out and won still another tournament. What a year.

We're always fearful of Patty Schnyder Syndrome. When she wasn't making headlines worthy of the Swiss TMZ, Schnyder won 11 titles and spent time in the top 10. But she advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament only once in 59 tries. So let's see if Halep -- who has reached the fourth round of a Slam once in 14 attempts, at the 2013 U.S. Open -- can replicate her results at a major. Still, she should take a bow for winning six titles this year and finishing with a 53-17 record.

For more on Halep's breakout year, click here.

Can anyone beat Bob and Mike Bryan in 2014?
-- Steve, New York

• Consistently? As in "wrest away the top ranking"? Unlikely. Then again, the Bryan brothers did lose their most recent Grand Slam match. (And the round before that, they should have lost to Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil.) Speaking of Nestor, he is teaming up with Nenad Zimonjic for 2014. (Cue: Peaches and Herb.)

Shots, miscellany

• The International Tennis Hall of Fame and ITF honored longtime Italian Fed Cup captain Corrado Barazzutti.

Tickets are on sale for the BNP Paribas Showdown at New York's Madison Square Garden on March 3. The exhibition will feature matches between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and the Bryan brothers and John and Patrick McEnroe.

Also on March 3 (aka World Tennis Day): Andre Agassi will play Pete Sampras and Pat Cash will face Ivan Lendl in London.

• Murray's new book will be released Thursday.

• Congrats to Tennis Channel on the new set. Looks great.

• I learned about Roberta Alison while in SEC country. This has ‪Tennis Channel documentary written all over it.

• Victoria Duval, the 17-year-old American who upset Stosur in the first round of the U.S. Open, won a $50K ITF Pro Circuit event in Toronto last week.

• In case you missed the news about Juan Marin del Potro's being robbed.

Here's an interesting new site.

Tunisia was suspended from Davis Cup for one year after ordering Malek Jaziri to withdraw from a match against Israel's Amir Weintraub at an ATP Challenger tournament.

• Megan of Indiana has long-lost siblings: "Roger Federer and Breaking Bad's RJ Mitte. The cheekbones!"

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