We start with a quick word about Serena Williams, who won the WTA Finals yet again, a final garnish on her year that cemented her top ranking. At age 33, she is the 2015 MVP of women’s tennis and remains that player-to-beat-until-proven-otherwise.
Several of you wondered how, in Singapore, Serena could lose to a player (Simona Halep) 6-0, 6-2, and then return a few days later -- with the title on the line -- and beat the same player by almost the reverse score. Were this any other athlete, you'd say this was counterintuitive. But with Serena’s career, you might have predicted that result. Add this to the litany of her virtues: you will not find an athlete -- never mind, tennis player -- less susceptible to traditional rules about momentum. For as much we talk about “wiping the slate clean” and “getting over losses,” here is a player with…well what exactly? The emotional armor? The unshakable self-belief?...that enables her to instantly reverse defeat.
She heads into 2015 looking to build on her haul of majors and what has become her unassailable spot in tennis history. And, after her strong fall, she’ll enter the year with momentum on her side. As if that matters…
In her last match in the WTA Finals group plays, Halep could have eliminated Serena by losing to Ana Ivanovic in two sets, thus give herself a more than fair chance to win her first ever WTA Finals and $1.6 million prize money, plus a shot at winning a major in 2015. My questions:
1) Had Halep lost to Ana Ivanovic in two sets to eliminate Serena, would the tennis journalistic society, especially the American journalistic society, forever brand her as less ethical throughout her career? Remember Justine Henin never shook off the stigma from that “hand incident” against Serena.
2) Fans pay a high ticket price from their own pocket expecting to see a high level and earnest competition. By watching a match that one side is trying to lose, they would feel deprived. If you were to play the role of Halep’s official conscience Jiminy Cricket, would you advise her that her ultimate responsibility is to herself, or to the fans and the sport? In the 2012 London Olympics, eight badminton players were ejected from the games because they engaged in battles to lose in group plays.
-- Sam, San Diego, Calif.
• You achieved two ends with one question. First, you have pinpointed one of the flaws of round robin and group format. Given the vagaries of the structure, it can give rise to situations that encourage tanking. You mention the Olympic badminton situation (on Twitter, someone mention the 2014 World Cup; I mentioned the sumo wrestlers in Freakonomics), but we’ve seen in tennis as well. Here’s a 1975 -- ! -- piece from Sports Illustrated by Curry Kirkpatrick:
“Before the tournament, WCT Blue Group regulars were amused by the entire charade. Bets were placed on what round Connors and/or Newcombe would either default or dump—in tennis, they call this a tank—to avoid facing each other. "It's probably worth 12 thou to them to play a couple of matches, then go home," said Vitas Gerulaitis.
Second, you have highlighted Halep’s honor, which didn't get enough attention and praise. She dumps that match to Ivanovic and she may well have won the while event. We should make a mental note to remember this. Surely she was made aware of this quirk and good for her but avoiding any temptation.
Maybe it's a generational thing, but I was kind of offended by Tommy Robredo's "handshake" at the end of the match. I get that he was frustrated, and this might have been funny if done in the privacy of the locker room afterwards. But it just seemed rude and disrespectful -- to Murray, to the crowd and to the sport -- when done at the net, in front of the cameras, at the end of what had been a completely amazing match.
-- Reader name misplaced by careless writer.
• ICYMI, as the kids say, “Reader name misplaced by careless writer” refers, to this: after failing to convert a quintet of match points, Robredo met Murray at the net and -- could it be? Yes, it is! -- double barreled one fingered salutes! Why, it’s like Galileo at Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence.
This is a great example of the importance of context. In a vacuum, yes, the prospect of one player flipping off his opponent at the net is execrable sportsmanship, worthy of fines and suspensions. Yet, watch this unfold and -- apart from seeing no ill intent whatsoever -- it almost comes across as charming. “Got me again, you *&^$#@!,” Robredo resignedly implies. We say, no-harm, no-foul.
Given her unrecognizable, brilliant play during the WTA Finals and stellar form throughout the summer, what do you think we can expect from Caroline Wozniacki in 2015? Are we finally looking at a legitimate slam contender? To what extent has her blossoming BFF status with Serena helped with her recent trajectory (if at all)?
-- LT, Toronto
• You could -- and we shall -- make the case that Wozniacki played the best tennis of her life over the last four months or so. It sounds so trite and surface, but this is one of those cases when “she’s playing with swollen confidence” is actually as good an explanation as any. She’s comfortable with the racket, comfortable with her fitness and comfortable with her game -- and it expresses itself on court. We’re seeing backboard tennis and more opportunistic offense, along with better serving.
At the risk of sounding like an ogre, is anyone else ambivalent about the marathon Wozniacki is schedule to run this weekend? You applaud the whimsy and the philanthropy and carpe-ing of the diem. You question the wisdom of an athlete in the prime of their career running 26.2 miles without a whole heck of a lot of training.
Gilles Simon stated that the French fans should not cheer so much for Roger Federer at the Davis Cup finals match in France and there was an uproar. Why is that the least bit controversial? Simon is right. All he is asking for is enthusiastic support from his countrymen. The Federer worship is getting out of hand.
-- Roberta from Delray Beach
• Actually, rooting against Federer has been criminalized worldwide, punishable by up to a year of watching golf. As so often happens in sports, the issue -- such as it is -- is one of framing. Reasonable sentiment could have been expressed more sensibly. If Simon has simply said, “Cheer like hell for the French,” it would have achieved the same without expressly encouraging people to cheer less intensely for the opponent. Of course he also could said, “Treat Federer that way you treat Nadal at Roland Garros,” and the same ends would have been achieved.
• I include this, neither to call out the writer nor to defend myself. But rather as another exhibit to illustrate an age-old theme here: discussing issues pertaining to the Williams sisters can be a fraught and freighted exercise. The same column can lead to a vast array of interpretations and, in turn, reactions. The patina of race is seldom far from the surface. Many -- from all points on the spectrum -- come to see remarks about the Williams sisters as a proxy for broader social issues.
Just to be clear: I intended last week’s column as an expression support for the Williams sisters and the WTA; and a strong condemnation of Tarpischev and others in his dinosaur kingdom. Clearly, not everyone read it that way.
I'd like to know which of the masters events people think are the best in terms of getting to watch the players close up on practice courts and things. My mom loves tennis and is pressing for a tennis vacation sometime next year. Some 500 level events would work too if they're known to be cool. Probable Djokovic attendance would be a bonus but is not a requirement.
-- Christian Jackson
• First full disclosure: I’ve never been to the Paris Indoor event nor to the Shanghai event. Among the others, candidly, you cannot go wrong. The practice courts are no longer well-kept secret, but they remain one of the great values in sports. (The MBA types will call this an “undermonetized asset.” The rest of us will simply call this a “charming benefit.”) Imagine if you could watch your favorite bands rehearse or read the rough drafts of your favorite authors. In tennis, you get the equivalent.
Anyway, if I’m you, I take Mom to Miami or Indian Wells. Great setting and great practice court access, and Djokovic is the defending champ so he’s likely to return full force. If the 2014 season is any indication, the summer hardcourt events are a riskier proposition. If money is no object, spending a week in Rome, Monte Carlo and Madrid beats a roundhouse kick to the head. The problem with the indoor events: courts are a sparser commodity, so practice times can be erratic or held off-site at venues that are sometimes closed to the public.
Long as we’re here, I suspect I am violating some protocol, but what the heck. At Wimbledon, especially when the weather turns dodgy -- which is to say: at Wimbledon -- you can often catch players practicing at the indoor facility across the street from the Club’s main entrance. Just don’t tell anyone I mentioned that.
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• Thanks, David. I’ll get right back to you. Sounds like an urgent financial matter. Perhaps my social security number and bank account information would be helpful as well?
Ah, Mailbag spam folder, you’ve been in a slump lately. But here’s a free suggestion—which is to say, it requires no offshore wiring of funds: there’s great project to be done trying to perform the anatomy on of these scams. Who are these people? Where are they from? What is their story? Do they try to justify this morally? What is the success rate? In the last act, you unite scammer and scammee. Boom. You’re in the film festival.
• This week’s edition of Shameless (but expected and sadly necessary) Self-Promotion: The Al Michaels book is out next week. Pre-order here.
• Good to see the Australian Open get in on the Emirates sports sponsorship splurge.
• Speaker, radio host, commentator, and former Wimbledon semifinalist David Wheaton has a new book.
• Congrats to Dan Rayl, continuing in the tradition of Rick Witsken, Rajeev Ram and Ronnie Schneider and dominating Indiana tennis this fall.
• Regular Long Lost Siblings comes from Eric Bukzin of Manorville, New York: David Goffin and figure skater Paul Wylie
• Aural long lost siblings comes from Helen of Philly: Jason Goodall and John Oliver: