I’m reluctant to start with the Shamil Tarpischev controversy, as it’s already diverted precious pixels, air time and column inches from the WTA Finals and what might go down as one of the more important months in the career of Roger Federer (more on this later.) But it’s been the popular conversation topic, so here goes.
I think we owe the Russian Federation a debt of thanks. No, not for his “joke” at the expense of the Williams sisters -- a bit of unenlightened nonsense that was as offensive as it was aggressively juvenile. No, it wasn’t for the speed and heartfelt depth of his apology either. He did us a service. He revealed in public the sentiment that a number of tennis administrators (and sporto-crats in general) still harbor behind closed doors. He opened a window to the sexism (and subtle racism) women athletes -- starting with the Williams sisters -- have to contend with. He reminded us that dinosaurs might be dwindling but they're not yet extinct.
Maybe most important, he helped empower the WTA. For all the murky, cloying MBA-speak we too often get from the leaders of women’s tennis, here was a chance to speak with conviction and clarity. And the WTA seized the opportunity, unequivocally blasting Tarpishev and then slapping him with a fine and suspension.
Public sentiment is overwhelmingly against Tarpischev, as it should be. The few free speech absolutists who maintain that he “should be free to voice an opinion” miss the point. He is free to voice an opinion, and he took advantage of this freedom. And now the rest of us are free to condemn and ostracize him accordingly.
A few of you took issue with Elena Dementieva, standing by idly when Tarpishev made his remarks that were not only offensive on the surface but also denigrated women’s tennis. I have a hard time summoning much outrage here. Sure, in retrospect you wish Dementieva had been more outspoken. But context is important. You're on live television. You’re the guest on a popular show. You're sitting next to the most powerful figure in Russian tennis. It’s easy to see how she might freeze and smile uncomfortably -- as she did -- rather than channel her inner Gloria Steinem
Overall, it was not a shining moment for the sport. But, in a low-grade Donald Sterling moment, Tarpishev gave a glimpse of the thinking that can persist in the oak-paneled back rooms. Inadvertent as it might have been, he did us a service.
I just woke up to see that Simona Halep beat Serena Williams 6-0, 6-2. WHAT?! I’m not going to ask you what happened. But I am going to ask this: what do you make of Halep? Is she the Next Big Thing in women’s tennis?
-- Jeff S., New York
• WHAT?! Is pretty good sentiment. We knew Serena was in compromised health and that was particularly vulnerable to a superior mover. But, circumstances be damned, it’s jarring to see her getting bageled. Your question, though, is a good one. What are we to make of Halep? Is she an opportunistic player who upped her played during a time of turmoil and churn on the women’s side? Or is she a legitimate candidate to fill the void left by an injured Victoria Azarenka, a retired Li Na and an inconsistent Maria Sharapova? This has generated some spirited debate.
One Hall of Fame player holds up Halep’s ascent as evidence that a solid player with native athleticism and fighting instincts can surpass the heavy hitters. Another believes Halep is an inferior player to Anke Huber -- a serviceable top ten player from about 18 years ago -- and is evidence of the shaky state of the women’s game.
As I see it, 2015 will tell us all we need to know. Halep got her promotion to the C-suite, as it were, this year. Next year we’ll see if she can make that last push. On the one hand, she’ll enter the year with a ranking perhaps as high as No. 2; on the other had, she’ll be “hunted” rather than the “hunter.” She reached a major final -- can she now win seven matches? She’ll have aura, and she’ll also have attendant pressures that come with being a star. Overall, it was a smashing year -- but will she build on it?
• Quick housekeeping: we’re obviously midway through the WTA Finals in Singapore. At the risk of being overtaken by results, we’ll talk more women next week. For daily coverage and analysis, check out Courtney’s work from Singapore on SI.com/tennis.
After being disappointed at the U.S. Open, what should I expect from Roger Federer these next few weeks. Should I get my hopes up?
-- Julie, London
• We’re officially out of the prognostication business. But say this now for: for a guy who is 33-years-old and has won but one major in the past half-decade, Roger Federer sure has played himself into the position to have a significant, meaningful month. Since his birthday on August 8, Federer is 17-1 and can end the year as the ATP match win leader. He has played himself into contention for the No. 1 ranking. He has a chance to pilot the Swiss team to the Davis Cup title -- one of the few achievements to elude him. The mere fact that it is late October and this season still holds so much relevance from him says plenty about how strong a year this has been.
Rafael Nadal's overwhelming one-sided head to head advantage over Federer (23-10) in the GOAT debate is often mentioned as close to dispositive of the issue. But look at their respective head to heads with Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko's head to head with Nadal is 6-5 in favor of Davydenko. Federer's head to head with Davydenko is an astounding 19-2 in favor of Federer. This is strong evidence that at the elite level, style match-ups may play a substantive role in who wins a tennis match. The entire body of work of Federer and Nadal must be viewed to reach a true assessment of the issue. What is your view?
• Yes, a lot of tennis is about the match-up. We often see these statistical quirks -- if that’s the right phrase. Pete Sampras was 20-14 versus Andre Agassi. He was only 7-6 against Wayne Ferreira. Agassi’s record against Wayne Ferreira? 11-0.
Which ATP Finals year had the strongest field? Of recent years, 2009?
• Here are some year-end top tens, so you can extrapolate the field accordingly. I began looking for a Federer/Nadal/Agassi combo but then was reminded that Djokovic stacks up awfully well next to Agassi. So, yeah, I’d say 2009 is as good a bet as any.
He's understandably not on the comeback player ballot, but the post-suspension Victor Troicki deserves some props for his incredible rise in less than three months from oblivion (No. 847 as of July 21) to the cusp of the top 100 (No. 106 as of October 20) and going up after his run in Vienna this past week. Don't know if Greg Sharko keeps tabs on such things but this must be something close to a record for the quickest rankings leap. With zero points to defend until late next year, Troicki has a reasonable shot at the top ten, and an opportunity to create an reputation other than Davis Cup player and the one who choked at the 2010 U.S. Open helped to help give birth to the modern Djokovic.
-- Leif Wellington Haase
• Totally agree. Troicki was No. 847 when he entered Gstaad* in July. He is currently closing in on the top 100, with his recent results. I feel a bit about Troicki the way I feel about Marin Cilic. The circumstances were murky -- aren’t they always? -- but in a world of strict liability, the athlete is on the hook for a positive result. (Or, in this case, declining to submit to testing.) Troicki did the time, a penalty that may end up amounting 10 percent of his career. (Comparing this to other sports for a first offense, it certainly ends up on the harsh side.) Though he did not retain his ranking, the player was allowed to re-enter tennis and, in essence, earn his job back. And Troicki, now 28, has done just that, playing himself back into form in short order.
This was an intensely unpleasant and regrettable situation. But seems to me that -- on every dimension -- this is as good an outcome as you could hope for.
(Having nothing to do with Troicki, does this hold for anyone else? It’s hard for me to see reference to Gstaad and not think of Bo Didley and Dan Ackroyd here.)
Anytime you can make reference to a somewhat obscure Alphaville tune, you get props. In the spirit of those one hit wonders, perhaps the theme song for players like Serena or Rafa could be "Take on Me" by the 1980s band A-ha.
-- Neil Grammer
• For Nadal -- he of the lengthy summer absence and appendicitis -- I’m thinking this:
• Credit Carl Bialik for leading the rubbernecking…but check out David Goffin’s results since Wimbledon -- a run that’s seen him whittle his ranking from outside the top 100 to No. 28. Note that last week, for his sixth title (second ATP World Tour title) since July, Goffin beat Steve Darcis in the final of Mons.
• The ITF announced that the 2015 BNP Paribas World Team Cup, its flagship wheelchair tennis team event, will be held in Antalya, Turkey.
• Press releasing: When the $18 million renovation of the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center (SETLC) is completed, the 48,000 square foot six-tennis court indoor arena in Washington, DC's Ward 8 will be given a world-class name to match a world-class facility. The Venus and Serena Williams Tennis Arena will be officially unveiled on Friday, November 7.
• A few of you asked, so here’s the Homeless Athletes piece.
• LLS comes from Sam of San Diego: I have thought that Rafael Nadal and Lou "La Bamba" Diamond Phillips were Long Lost Siblings ever since I watched Nadal play in the French Open 2005.