Thursday, April 7, 2016

YOU KNOW THE TENNIS WORLD HAS LOST ITS MIND WHEN...

...Henri Leconte is the bearer of advice and counsel on professionalism, among other kibbles and bits of wisdom.  This is apropos of nothing, but in case you missed it, in this clip, Leconte appears to put the squeeze on the current crop of underachieving French tennis professionals in their quest to right the wrongs of 2014 and win the Davis Cup that they seemed poised to do against the Swiss...on clay...in France.




Ironically, he was somewhat goaded into doing so by Gasquet (one of the said fruits of French tennis' labor) who tells Leconte, who was at first reticent to name names, to do just that.  I think it was an attempt to get him to shut up, but instead, Leconte being Leconte, he wound up goading him into calling out Monfils!  I mean with friends like that, who needs enemies?

This is also ironic on another level - Leconte was also considered to be way too talented not to win a major in his day, and wasn't exactly the fittest or most committed player in history.  Nobody got more out of their talent in the history of tennis than Leconte, because it sure serbert didn't come from time spent running the Swiss hills (where it seems so many french tennis players choose to live, but I digress).  But his insane performance in Lyon in 1991, defeating Sampras, then winning the doubles with Forget (giving France a 2-1 lead) has essentially washed away his "sins" at Roland Garros.



Of course, for some fans of his (myself included), there was Henri and...well everyone else....




He was even given a heroe's sending off at Roland Garros after  having sustained one of the most humiliating losses of his career in the final there in 1988, where he famously hoped the French public now "understand, a bit, my game," which of course they did not and excoriated him (immediately) for entreating them to.  The tennis world, like the world in it's entirety, is round, and it seems we've come all the way around to treating Leconte like a wiseman, rather than the "genius from the elbow down" he used to be.


  

So now he espouses the value of hard work and commitment in the Davis Cup context, when he himself was no gym rat.  Let's face it - in his best physical form, he still had saggy breasts pecs and legs that looked more like they belonged under an accountant's desk, than on a court.  




Well, I mean, I shouldn't judge...bean counters play tennis too!  It's a mad mad world indeed...

Monday, March 28, 2016

CAN THE DJOKER CARRY TENNIS?

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.", 

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare (Act III, Scene I)

First, it was the big story that wasn't - Serena Williams, poised to win her record tying 22nd major and the calendar slam, suffered a collosal case of nerves and lost a match that nobody thought she could.  ESPN did their best to turn the 2015 US Open into the Serena Show, but somebody forgot to tell Roberta Vinci, and instead of her coronation, we got a whole lot very disappointed celebrities.

Then the Australian Open came with an attachment:  a story on BuzzFeed about the continuing problem of match-fixing and the (intentionally) dormant effort on the part of tennis authorities to address it.  There was no specific evidence, other than ill-defined, poorly explained statistical analysis that points to the likelihood of match-fixing, or compromised betting patterns, but the stain is not easily removed, and in many ways, we're all still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Next Serena Williams lost the Australian Open final, and the Indian Wells finals - two tournaments that you probably couldn't have placed a bet on her losing if you wanted to.  One title lost to Angelique Kerber, who has since collapsed under the weight of expectation, and the other to Victoria Azarenka, who seems to have shed some of the excess baggage she'd picked up since winning the Australian Open in 2013.  Suddenly Serena doesn't seem so invincible, and the running story that isn't a story, makes another appearance at Roland Garros before genuine questions will start to be asked, which at the moment, everyone is too afraid to ask:  what's wrong with Serena?

Then Maria Sharapova, the most marketable female athlete in the world, a woman who is reviled and admired the world over, in equal measures, for looking like a prom queen who happens to play tennis, failed a drugs test?  There had been, for years, unjustified suspicion of Serena Williams, because...well..she looks like Serena Williams.  After all, it was Andy Roddick who joked that she was benching small dump trucks at age 11, so it shouldn't really come as any surprise that she looks like this today.  That's why it was all the more shocking that of these two racquet toting divas, the one snared in a drugs fiasco was her Siberianess.  What the penalty will be for her failed drugs test, which she has neither disputed, or really satisfactorally explained to any and all, is as yet unknown.  But that has been a story that is just waiting in the wings to come back and haunt the game.  

Mark this space...

Rafa Nadal continues to struggle, despite making some progress in Indian Wells before losing tamely to his nemesis.  He has no titles in 2016, his last title was on clay in Hamburg after Wimbledon, and his spring clay court career victory lap around South America has elicited no silverware to bite, and little confidence on the part of his admirers around the world.  Most assume that his best bet to win his last another major will be at Roland Garros this year, but few would count on that given that somebody out there appears to be the best player in the world on the surface, and incredibly he is not from Spain.  If you're holding your breath for Nadal to add to his tally of 14 of the crowned jewels in the kingdom of tennis heaven, I would suggest you grab a canister of oxygen until you can find someone else to support.

Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, two time major winners at the two majors that the other has not won (together they make an "other slam"...as in someone other than the real big 3).  But neither of them has exactly been burning down the house lately.  To be fair to Wawrinka, he is still the holder of the title at Roland Garros, but we see how heavy was the crown in Australia last year when the third installment of his Aussie trilogy went the way of the God's chosen one.  Does anyone get the feeling the Wawrinka's best chance to win a major is to surprise everyone - not the least of whom, himself - lest he crumble under the immeasurable pressure prove himself anew to the history of the game?  Don't look now, but Murray hasn't won a major in almost 3 years - it doesn't sound like much, until you remember that the likes of John McEnroe, Mats Wilander didn't win any majors after the calendar ticked off it's 365th day from their last.  Lendl and Edberg, by far greater champions than his Irascibleness, didn't go more than 2 years before adding to their major tallies, once they'd figured out how to win a big one...any big one.

Finally, after doing his best Serbian disappearing act 4 times on the trot, Roger Federer, who hasn't won a major in 4 years (that's four years), just had...wait for it...surgery on his knee (cue the melodramatic gasp and clutching of the chest).  Now that doesn't seem like much to shake a stick at, but I can tell you that one of the reasons the tennis world has continued to delude itself into believing that what passes itself off as a rivalry still walks like a duck, is that we are yet to be convinced that what we're witnessing is anything other than the dominance of one at the expense of the other.  We've done so because the unique combination of Federer's athletic prowess appears to persistbut for one glaring exception.  Not so much following a surgery that for a younger man would be difficult to recover from - let alone a man old enough to be his drunk uncle who just doesn't know when to quit.

When Ray Moore fell on his sword (in more ways than one) I was of the opinion that his comment was not directed to women playing professional tennis, so much as it was a diatribe against the leadership (or the lack thereof) of the WTA.  And when he said that the women ought to be down on their knees thanking God that "Fedal" are still making a nuisance of themselves, I tended to agree with him, or at least accept the proposition as a disconcerting one.  But something just occurred to me that ought to be way more disconcerting for the whole game of tennis, let alone the WTA:  exactly who will be minding the store when the Roger & Rafa show take a permanent hiatus?

That's where the really scary question comes:  can Novak Djokovic carry tennis?  

It's not a scary proposition because of anything he has done...well, not exactly.  But it's not as if the man isn't playing tennis at the highest level it's ever been played.  He has, after all he has contested 5 major finals in a row, won 4 of them - actually he has gone around the world and basically won everything he's entered since January of 2015.  He still makes jokes, he's still the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet, the kind of guy that would help you change a tire in the snow...literally.  He'll do any talk show you can think of, in any language you can imagine, including a couple that you can't.  He's a young, handsome 28 year old newlywed father, his parents (with fleeting exceptions) have largely removed the target from his back, his coach has shockingly done a job that I didn't think he had in him, and there are even jokes being made about the inevitability of his victories on that bloody 36 by 72 foot rectangle with the funny lines?

So why can't he carry tennis?

Is it a conspiracy against him?  Are the grey men of tennis looking down their noses at him, like the jury on Krypton, passing judgment on General Zod?  Has the (not yet) dominant PR machine of Roger Federer, Tony Godsick and Team8 laid the groundwork for his denial from the kingdom of Mount Rush(the net)more?  Does his messianic father still get under people's skin with one idiotic proclamation after another - causing even his own son to distance himself from the craziest of the crazy things he says?  Does he himself put his foot in his mouth, when a more nuanced, more diplomatic, more neutral and...dare I say...more Swiss approach would serve him better? 

My theory is this:  no single star can carry tennis.  It has never been the case that one single player can carry the game of tennis to greater heights, nor bear the weight of the tennis world on his shoulders like a racquet wielding Atlas.  

Big Bill Tilden had little Bill Johnston, Budge had von Cramm, Gonzales had Hoad, Laver had Rosewall, Billie Jean had Margaret Court, Chrissie had Martina, Connors had Borg, Borg had McEnroe, Becker had Edberg, Agassi had Sampras, Federer had Nadal.

But who gapes for the crown of Novak Djokovic?  Competitively, he has in the past been the chaser, and he has had rivalries that are currently diluted where an unjust escape and one competitive set in two played constitutes a good week, but can he alone carry the sport as it appears he may have to?  There is a myth out there that pencil pushers, marketing mavens and sporting bureaucrats can steward the game to success.  That there's some magic formula out there of sex, jokes, celebrity friends and fireworks that can make the game something that it isn't in spite of what it is.  But I have my doubts...I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't a little like the way the real star of the Star Trek franchise isn't James T. Kirk, or Jean-Luc Picard, or Kathryn Janeway...the real star is the Starship Enterprise.  

It survived years of going where no man has gone before, several captains, battles with Klingons and the Borg, and everything in between, and even in another space/time continuum, it survives.  And the guys Ray Moore and the rest of us are looking for to steer the ship are a bit like the passengers on the Enterprise - they may know where all the buttons are, but their fate is really in her hands.

Well, the rivalries, not the players, are the enterprise.  Try as we may to heap all the credit and responsibility on those at the head of the table, it's the ones at the foot of the table that make the ship sail.  And as it stands today, Novak Djokovic is alone at the top of the pyramid competitively, and may also find himself alone figuratively as well.  The throne is an enchantress for the boy who would be king, but as the saying goes:  be careful what you wish for.  There is an old Czech joke about an old man chasing a beautiful and seductive young woman being like a dog chasing a mail truck - even if he catches it, he doesn't have the first damn clue how to drive.  

And with Djokovic's missteps at Indian Wells taking over the news cycle, and subsequent apology and brief PR campaign tour to make up for it, there have to be more than a few people in the halls of tennis' bureaucracy that are wondering if Ray Moore's comments about the WTA could just as well apply to the ATP.  The truth is, they are no more responsible for the success of the game than he is, but the welcome perception, and indeed the unjust expectation that Novak Djokovic will be, now that he is by far the best player on the planet (male or female), could prove a crown to heavy for his head.

Monday, March 21, 2016

INDIAN WELLS: "ISMS" AND "SCHISMS"

What exactly is sexism?  Is it like art, where you know it when you see it, or does it require a fixed definition?  I'm a firm believer in the idea that words matter and definitions matter; the one without the other creates a murky waterway of innuendo and obligations, driving people to their battle stations, without any sense at all of what it is they're fighting for.  Political polarization has never been greater in this country:  whether your red, blue, purple or green, the telltale sign of your political orientation is the camp to which you report any time an issue comes up that brings it into relief.  The same could be said of the blogosphere when it comes to tennis.  The minute somebody says the word, "women", one is required to declare their position on their place in the game, as if that is something to be determined thereby.

But what happens when definitions are ill-defined?

Indian Wells CEO Ray Moore made the following comments, universally derided as sexist, prior to the final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka:

"I think the WTA - you know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men.  "They don't make any decisions and they are lucky.  They are very, very lucky.  If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.  They really have."

Cue dramatic gasp, and clutching of the chest.  The words themselves could be interpreted offensively on a number of fronts:  from the reference to women getting down on their knees, to thanking God that two men were born that have been carrying the sport, to the very idea that the sport suffers from a disproportionate emphasis on the men even at joint events.  Of course, Serena was asked about his remarks and had this to say, right on cue:

"I don't think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that...I think Venus, myself, a number of players - if I could tell you every day how many people say they don't watch tennis unless they're watching myself or my sister - I couldn't even bring up that number...So I don't think that is a very accurate statement.  I there are a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch.  I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch.  I think it definitely goes both ways."

Curiously absent from this response, given almost entirely by rote, is the central complaint of Ray Moore:  it's not the women he's complaining about, it's the WTA, which at the moment is run by a man.  And the question of whether they are doing everything they can to add to the interest in the women's game, is an entirely separate question of whether the women are playing the wretched supplicants to the men.  That's because it is only viewed through the prism of an ill-defined notion of sexism, and incredibly gives a pass to an organization which must continually evaluate itself and the role it plays in promoting the game.  

Let us suppose for a minute that, in fact, the women's game were not entirely healthy, and the men's game did in fact bear some responsibility to uphold their sisters on the other side of the schedule?  What then would you make of Moore's comments?  Would he still simply be a sexist trying to denigrate the women's game, or someone concerned with the health of the WTA, because of the important role they play at the tournament of which he is CEO, and the paucity of promotion and proper management under which their great athletes toil?  You see, if your first and only reaction is to go to your battle stations and decry the messenger as a sexist, you won't even get to the more salient question of which you should truly be concerned if your concern is for the health of women's tennis.

When people decry the lack of racial diversity in tennis, does anyone interpret that as, in and of itself, the ravings of an out of touch racist, or someone who wants to deepen the pool of athletes and fans of the game?  When one decries the paucity of American stars in the game, the current crop of young yankees notwithstanding, is this seen as an anti-American bigot, looking to dismiss Americans from the game, or the very real concern that the traditionally most lucrative market for sports in general, and tennis in particular, may be lost to an entire generation of the sport?

Why then do we fall to our knees and pray to the Gods of political correctness that we might be delivered from the sexism of the grey old men of tennis, looking down on the world's center courts like the faces of the Kryptonian judges in "Superman"?  Is there an expectation that the WTA can and must raise the profile of the game with equal effectiveness as the ATP, or isn't there?  And if not, why not?  

That's the real sexism:  the assumption that by merely criticizing women, or more accurately those charged with the stewardship of their game, they are being denigrated as a whole.  In fact the opposite is true, the low expectations of sexism compels us to attack any genuine commentary on the direction of the game, with the WTA at the helm, rather than hold their feet to the fire and demand that they produce a product that is the equal of the men.  There are cases where the women's game outshines the men's, and to her credit Serena did point out the fact that the women's final of the US Open in 2015 was sold out before she lost her semi-final to Roberta Vinci, and more significantly, before the men's.  That's saying a lot given that the two finalists are two of the greatest players ever to whack fuzz off the ball in the history of fuzz whacking.  

But it was so obviously an anomaly that it has to be pointed out as a point of refutation.  How many times has that happened in the history of the US Open, or any of the majors, or any of the joint WTA/ATP events?  Serena has played her part, and for this she is duly compensated:  aside from her PR challenged blonde nemesis from Siberia, she is the highest paid female athlete in the world.  Most of the credit for this belongs to the two headed beast that forms her imaginary rivalry with Yuri Sharapov's daughter, and more importantly, not the WTA.

If you can find your way out of the camp, and if you care about women's tennis, there are a lot of questions about the decision making of the WTA over the last few years that can and should be asked.  Good questions that would inform the ill-formed, but no less pertinent comments of Mr. Moore, for which there are as yet few good answers:

  • Why does the WTA continue to treat their Year End Championships (whatever the hell it's called these days) like a traveling circus?
  • Where the hell was the WTA when Shahar Peer was being treated like a political tennis ball and denied entry to one of their premiere tournaments?
  • Why do they distribute ranking points in a convoluted and irrational system, leading to majorless #1's that aren't worth the paper they're written on?
  • Why do they persist with this obscene experiment with on-court coaching, when the coaching is clearly doing more damage than good?
  • Why does the WTA continue to sell sex and get away with it, then decry sexism when they're called on it?
  • Why is the blogosphere obsessed with men's tennis, if measured by its collective commentary, by comparison to the women's game?
You see, I care about women's tennis.  I grew up wanting to play like Martina Navratilova, I modeled my serve after Hana Mandlikova, and I still watch youtube clips of Justine Henin's matches where ever I can find them.  I'm not a sexist, and because I'm not a sexist, I don't falsely praise the quality of women's tennis out of a tacit and imminently sexist presumption that this is as good as it gets.  My expectation of women playing tennis is that they will be as athletic and skilled as the men, because that's what I grew up with, and that's what I've always enjoyed, and I know that's what they're capable of.

So please spare me the self-serving righteous indignation over sexist comments - the sexist comment that was implied, but unjustly ignored, is the assumption that the WTA has less of a responsibility to women's tennis, and by association tennis in general, than the ATP.  Nobody says boo when the same question is asked of the men, and the reason is more telling than the fact:  because everyone expects the men to carry their own weight.  When they don't, they get called out on it, and nobody runs to their battle stations to decry the sexism of criticizing men's tennis.  No, the only way to hold the WTA to the same standards as the ATP is to...well, hold them to the same standards.  

That isn't accomplished by hiding from an intellectual discourse on the state of women's tennis, and the role of the WTA, behind "isms" and "schisms" that are as facile as as they are useless.

Friday, March 18, 2016

HEY JO: WHERE YOU GONNA RUN TO NOW?

Wasn't there a time when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had Djokovic's number?  Does anybody remember that?  I sure as hell do.  In fact, because he appeared to freeze in the headlights in Australia in 2008, the subsequent ease with which he dispensed with his two years' junior rival in 5 of the next 6 encounters over the next two years, left me with the sneaking suspicion that the result in Melbourne had in fact been a fluke.  That may sound absurd given the extent of Djokovic's lead in development, performance, fitness and results since 2011, and particularly during his ascent to the pinnacle of the game in 2015, but not so between 2008 and 2010.  Brad Gilbert proclaimed, prior to their encounter at the Australian Open in 2010, that Tsonga had Djokovic's number - and Djokovic did little to dispel that.

Most assumed that his victory in Bangkok was a form of muted revenge:  that Djokovic capitulated in straight sets, suggested that neither his heart nor the rest of his body were really committed to a victory that by all rights should have been his.  His victory in Paris could be set aside because of the overwhelming support from the audience that surely propelled the prodigal son's return to sit upon his throne at Bercy.  But it was the feckless capitulation of his Serbian rival in Shanghai that really brought to mind the possibility that Tsonga could be a player to challenge for major titles - at least if he had to play Djokovic for them.  Djokovic had already qualified for the semi-finals by virtue of his victories over del Potro and Davydenko, while Tsonga, having lost to those same two opponents, had no chance to progress.  Effectively this match was his final, his only chance to save face, in the very Chinese sense, and in Djokovic he faced his most daunting opponent.  

Yet, despite the cards he was dealt, Tsonga turned in a performance superior to those who sought the title that was lost to him.  Djokovic having started quickly, Tsonga dug deep and won 7-5 in the second, only to then obliterate his rival with the same score in the 3rd, that he had lost with in the first.  And it wasn't just the victory, but the beauty with which it was achieved - that languid gate, the deceptively easy racquet head acceleration, a glorious overhead that never seems to have to be hit twice, and a howitzer of a serve...man what a serve he has.  Up to then, Andy Roddick was the only man that didn't darken the room when he stood up from his chair, capable of producing that kind of accurate and consistent power in the serve.

To this day, there aren't too many players on tour who can produce 135 motherf---ers more than once a game, so you kind of wonder how he hasn't done more with it when it counts.  But as the great Pancho Gonzales always said, "Your serve is only as good as your second serve," and therein lies the rub.  Tsonga doesn't so much hit the second serve with his racquet as he does with his ass...if you'll indulge me.  

Because his toss on the second serve is frequently too far to the left and behind his head, he lands heavily on his left leg and as a result, to maintain his balance and keep his momentum going forward, he adjusts by shifting his body weight (and by body weight, I mean his butt) so far to his right, that when serving to the ad court he often finishes the stroke landing both feet, in recovery in the deuce court.  It's ungainly, hit with excessive spin, and frequently lands short, in the net, or so softly, I could come over it with my backhand.

So, despite having a much better all around game than most of the players with comparable serves, like his similarly second serve challenged Spanish rival, Nico Almagro, Tsonga doesn't so much rely on his first serve, as abuse it.  Hit with the kind of ferocity that would make a novice flinch, there's little left in the tank when he has to go to the second serve...psychologically that is.  Yes, yes, I know...I don't believe in belief in tennis...but this is different.  When you miss your first serve too often, you can't afford miss your second at all, and when you can't miss your second at all, like the smart kids on prom night, you tend to pull out a little early.  In fact, the two of them, with their suffering second serves together, is quite a sight...you'll never see two players with bigger deltas in quality between the first and second serves than these two, and the results are as exhilarating as they are unpredictable.


And something else happened to Tsonga over the next 13 matches with the Djoker - aside from losing 12 of them.  Like Andy Roddick famously panned in 2005, he seemed to lose that "je ne sais quoi" from his game, his allure...his twinkle, if you will...

Tsonga lost his mojo.

He's gotten some good results here and there, but only ever made it as far as the semi-finals 5 times in the last 32 majors since his maiden final.  He's won 2 masters shields in his career:  the aforementioned emotional victory in Paris in 2008 and a curiously gritty victory over Federer in Toronto two years ago (one of five over the Swiss GOAT).  Now all of this would be considered a good career for a slightly above average player, but Tsonga...Tsonga deigned to be so much more.  With a personality as big as his serve, he had all the tools for not just super stardom in the tennis, but probably the world of sports in general.  And being the doppelganger of a young Cassius Clay wouldn't have hurt at all, would it?




Well, it didn't help him.  His career bobbed and weaved, but never really landed a good punch.  Yes, he's one of only 3 players to have beaten all of the so-called "big 4" at least once at a major (Murray & Nadal AO2008, Djokovic AO2010, Federer Wimby 2011), he's never beaten more than one of them at once (with the exception of his maiden final in 2008, long before there was a big four, where he beat Andy Murray in the first round, and famously obliterated Nadal in the semi-final, and lost to the Djoker in the final).  And in this era of this rather tight-fisted quartet, if you want to win a major, chances are you're going to have to go through at least two, maybe three of them...unless of course, you're one of them!

Meanwhile the armies of his supporters around the world, who don't seem to mind the profligacy of this enormously talented and enormously popular player, persists.  This includes the famously fickle French who have forgiven him his Parisian trespasses (at Roland Garros, anyway), unlike his equally talented, and higher highest ranked compatriot Henri Leconte (whom the french mercilessly derided "a genius from the elbow down", according the late Great Bud Collins) whom they never seemed to forgive for simply losing at Roland Garros to the "wrong" guy.

My view on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is that he is the biggest disappointment of my adult tennis watching life.  I love his game, I love his athleticism (he's one of the few players in tennis I'm quite certain would be world class in at least one other sport), and I really wish he had won a major at some point in his career.  Everything in his game is well above average, but everything seems to be missing just that little something.  The forehand, powerful as it can be, is produced rather convolutedly, and in my opinion breaks down when it absolutely can't.  His first serve, flamethrower that it is, usually only leaves enough left in the tank for the second serve to light a cigarette...or a joint.  And his backhand, varied and beautiful as it can be, has to be hit so far behind the baseline, because of his forehand, it is too easily isolated and picked on, like the one kid on the sandlot baseball team that you just know has to play right field.  Why?  Because.

And ultimately, Tsonga's biggest problem is that he's just too damn...well, how can I say this...French!  Not that there's anything inherently wrong with being French - my new favorite player is french, my old favorite player (the aforementioned Henri Leconte) is French, my favorite female player was French Belgian, my favorite backhand in tennis is Swiss French and my inspiration in tennis is French.

Hell, I even speak French.

But there's something our Gallic cousins across the pond have that produces as many good players as it destroys:

A love of beauty.

Take the Australians <please!>: they love sports, and as such they love Australians who are good at sports.  I mean these guys are going to run out of stadiums to name after their great tennis players if the real Bernard Tomic, or Nick "the Prick" ever get their collective heads out of their collective arses.  But I guarantee nobody on the other side of the planet will give a rat's if the next best's game is only as aesthetically appealing as an anus protruding from a forehead.  That's because all is forgiven...and I mean all is forgiven...in Australia, when you win, including very, very bad taste.

But above all, the French love beauty, and it is because they love beauty that they love tennis.  They don't like players who take themselves too seriously, but despite this they absolutely loved watching John McEnroe precisely because his game was so beautiful to behold.  I mean who else would make or watch a documentary about his most beautiful loss to Ivan "the Terrible" Lendl, in the 4th round in 1988 at Roland Garros?  They don't want to see some lumbering behemoth bludgeon his way from one indistinct victory after another (or 63 of them, for that matter).

They want to see something so beautiful that they're inspired.  They want the jeu de paumes to be a game of hands again.  They love Roger Federer because he's not Nadal - he is, in fact, the antithesis of Nadal.  His game isn't beautifully effective: it's effective because it's beautiful.  And isn't that, after all, the point?  Nobody goes to a bullfight to see who will win - they go to see the bloody, gory spectacle of courage and skill.  In this way, the French too, want to be entertained, and exhilarated, and the truth is that they don't care who does it, as long as they do it beautifully...preferably with a beautiful smile along the way.  But to the french, the words of Keats' "Ode On a Grecian Urn" are as true in tennis, as they are in life:


'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

Well, I have the feeling that Tsonga's concept of the game is just a little too beautiful.  He floats and stings, but neither can overwhelm the more pedantic, and imminently more effective games of his contemporaries, or the Swiss Mister to whom he would be supplicant.  In one point, his backhand volley drops lovingly 24 inches into his opponent's court, and in the next, it lands 24 inches short of his own net.  The exuberance with which we celebrate the former is followed by the exasperation with which we decry the latter: such is the metaphor of his game.  How else can you explain the inexplicable experiment with the occasional one-handed backhand, other than the undeniable aesthetic appeal of that particular shot?  And I've always been left with the impression that Tsonga hasn't honed in one or two ways to reliably slog through all of the matches he should win.  Not because he cannot learn or acquire the skills to do so, but because he doesn't have the sensibility for it.

There is something impressive about someone who won't sacrifice the beauty in their chosen field of endeavor at the altar of efficacy, but there is also something tragic.  A little bit like a Hollywood starlet, well past her due date, that won't go out of the house without her make-up.  Admirable...but also a little pathetic.  I have to admit that I have a lot of sympathy for Tsonga, and a lot of patience for all the little things he does to entertain, but no more time for the all the more things he doesn't do to fulfill his capacity.

He should have been a contender, he should have been the next savior of French tennis.  Maybe he'll make the French fall in love with him all over again by winning the Davis Cup this year, with that other French hero as captain.  But I don't think Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will ever win a major.  No matter how beautiful his game or his smile, it just isn't good enough.  That may indeed say more about the game than his, but it is often the most beautifully sad paintings that truly speak to us.

The truth, when unsheathed like a bare bodkin, cuts like one too.


Tsonga and his little doppelganger...MMT Jr.

ADDENDUM: The following is a clip from Tsonga's match with Nishikori at the Australian Open this week - I swear I didn't watch this before writing this post, but much of what I discuss in this blog can be seen in this court level view.

Nishikori vs Tsonga Oz Open 2016 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

MARIA SHARAPOVA'S DOPING GAFFE: THE LOW HANGING FRUIT?

The timing of Maria Sharapova's positive drug test couldn't be worse.  In the midst of a maelstorm concerning match fixing allegations (which as yet have not been bolstered by any evidence) the authorities in the game are now faced with another challenge not only to the integrity of the sport, but more specifically their commitment to administer it in the best sporting interests.  I don't envy their predicament:  on the one hand, a decision to ban Maria Sharapova for breaking the rules for 25 days would send a message to the sponsors that have become predominant in the game, that the sporting integrity is in tact, and tennis has a zero tolerance policy on anything that calls into question the authenticity of its results.  On the other hand, the absence of one of the biggest stars of the game, who has been a boon to the financial participation of sponsors in the game, would be of benefit to almost nobody involved.

I think it's important to start with the purpose of anti-doping controls:  is it to catch people who don’t follow the rules, or people who are trying to cheat? I think it’s obviously the latter, and I think it’s just as obvious that Sharapova does not fall in that category.  After all, if she knew it was banned and was trying to cheat, would she admit to taking it for 10 years?  That's hardly a defense for someone who’s implied that she wasn’t cheating.
But there is a brewing temptation in the blogosphere, and I suspect/fear in the the halls of tennis authority, to ignore rational analysis and jump on this as an opportunity to insist that anti-doping in tennis is “working”. In fact, this proves the exact opposite: far from catching cheaters who are intentionally taking substances they know are illegal to gain a competitive advantage, this is at its core a technicality.  That’s not an excuse to escape a sanction or citation, but to me anyone insisting that she should be banned for a lengthy period is falling for an illusion about anti-doping in tennis hook, line and sinker.
I've never been convinced that tennis is serious about anti-doping, and based on this case, I think it should continue to be maligned.  It is extraordinarily inefficient at catching cheaters, but fantastically adept at catching people who simply fall-foul of the regulations.   Unfortunately for anyone who appreciates the difference between the letter of the law and the intent, those two are not mutually inclusive.  And this Sharapova farce, and others like it, are a perfect opportunity for tennis authorities to give the false impression that tennis is tough on doping and there is no actual doping going on in tennis. 
Baying for their pound of flesh, there are some who have deluded themselves into believing that they are taking the principled view:  but only if the principle is that the letter of the rules are more important than the intent. That’s a principle, but not one that makes the sport cleaner or makes a lot of sense.  The doping controls are not in place to catch people failing to comply with the controls, they are in place to catch cheaters. 
If Sharapova is not a cheat in the same sense that Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, or Marion Jones were then her punishment should reflect that.  This would be the case even if Sharapova were taking this substance for a performance enhancement prior to January 1st of this year.  After all, prior to this year, she was within her rights to do so, and was breaking no rules, so again, whether she sought a performance enhancement during that period is irrelevant to the question of whether she was cheating.
The thing that concerns me about this is the speed with which her sponsors have abandoned her.  Nike is clearly hoping that the whole thing will be forgotten soon enough for her brand to continue to be a cash machine for them by only suspending their sponsorship, which could be said of Porsche's position on the matter.  Only TAG Heuer have taken the, in my opinion, rash decision to cut ties with her altogether.  But the way they're hurriedly backing away from the table, leads one to believe that tennis authorities, the IOC (who have bent over backwards in the past to get her into the Olympics), may have to calculate the cost of their retreat as the nascent rumblings of a stampede of money away from the game.  
I hope tennis bites the bullet, makes the right decision here and suspends Sharapova for 6 months.  There will be the Jennifer Capriati's of the world who will come up with some easy and equally illogical reason why an unfair exception has been made, but that would have no bearing on the facts of the case, which call for a reduced penalty.  But the tea leaves of tennis are shaped like dollar bills, and I fear that if you follow the money away from tennis, Sharapova could wind up with her hands and feet nailed to a racquet shaped cross.

Monday, March 7, 2016

BUD COLLINS - ONE OF A KIND

They don't make 'em like Bud Collins anymore...they really don't.  I like to say, and often tell myself, that I love the game.  And then I think about Collins and the integral role he played in brining the US Open to television, the multiple and essential books on tennis history that he penned, and the thousands of hours he spent on television, over the last 50 years, putting the "color" in color commentary.

And he kind of makes me feel like I don't know what the meaning of love is.

I don't want to bore you with an obituary - the idea of attempting to sum up the life of a man, so varied, so mercurial, in so many words is as intimidating as it is useless.  That doesn't tell you who the man was.  I my opinion, the devil is in the details.  The way he spoke, the way he wrote, the way he pondered before asking questions of some of the greatest players in the history of the game, a history with which he was so intimately familiar.

To me that's what I remember and have always loved about Bud Collins.

I grew up with "Breakfast at Wimbledon" on NBC - the tradition of the tournament mirrored by the inviting familiarity of the format - the magisterial intro and the somber yet celebratory close - and I can honestly say that I enjoyed the idea of Collins interviewing first the runner-up, then the champion, every year as a perfect bookend to the overall experience of the tournament.  The reason I enjoyed his interviews was not for what he did, but for what he didn't do.

He didn't presume the answers in the question.

He didn't presume himself in the question.

He didn't patronize the runner-up.

He didn't gush over the champion (...well maybe just a little...).

The master interviewer is often confused with asking obvious question, but the question is only obvious if you presume the answer.  And Bud Collins never did.  Most interviewers (myself included)  are insecure, and feel compelled to justify their presence before a great player, and it is precisely that desire the elicits the worst questions and the most boring answers.

"How did you find the reserves of character and the mental strength to overcome losing such a close set?"

"How good does it feel to prove the naysayers wrong that said you couldn't win the big one?"

"We talk about all the things that make you who you are, but really, it's what's between the ears that makes a champion, right?"

"How great was the crowd support tonight?  Did you use their energy to spur you on to victory?"

These are all exactly the wrong ways of asking questions.  But notice the subtle and brilliant charm, the genuine humility and obvious admiration for, and love of, the players that make the game what it is, in this selection of interviews of Wimbledon champions and runners-up over the years.

Borg v McEnroe 1980

This interview is brilliant.  Following their titanic final in 1980, he got both McEnroe and Borg to admit that they were each certain that Borg would lose the 5th set.  And in so doing, revealed and buried the absurdity of the notion that one must believe they're going to win in order to win.

Note the simplicity of the question he asks Borg after he admitted he thought he would lose the match.  "Why did you win?"  Isn't that the question that should always be asked of the victor?  How often do you hear that asked, couched with qualifiers and presumptions, rather than stated plainly?  And Borg's answer revealed itself to be both elucidating and educational - for that matter McEnroe's as well.  In fact, McEnroe's answer, cathartically rational as it was, must have done much to help him deal with the pain of the loss.  After all, how can you win an advantage set without any break points - obviously Borg won because he shut the door with his serve, and McEnroe opened his.

Evert v Mandlikova 1981

In this interview with the women in 1981, he demonstrates his candor and his compassion in the simplest of questions to Hana Mandlikova, who clearly wasn't at her best on the day, and closed the interview just as soon as he realized she just couldn't take it anymore.  And as she parted, as was his way, Collins said goodbye to her in probably the worst Czech accent in the history of Czech accents, but I guarantee she didn't mind.

And while some (like Billie Jean King) cringed at his question to Evert about her becoming the first 4-time consecutive runner-up in history, her response demonstrated her grace and perspective, so effortlessly you almost forget the question.  King, on the other hand, as a tennis player and analyst, insisted on imposing her view of Chris' movement in her question, which was almost immediately dispelled.  And Collins' closer, "What did you do best today?" drew out the obvious, "I didn't choke." as well as the analytical, "...she's so unpredictable that I was determined to win in 2 sets, because if it had gone to a 3rd set, it would have been out of my control."

Navratilova v Evert 1982

Now this one I really love - I don't know whose idea it was to have them interviewed simultaneously, but, note the prescience of Navratilova insisting that Bud interview Evert first, and his gentlemanly acquiescence.  Hey, nobody's perfect, but he didn't shy away from asking a couple of doozies, nor did Evert shy away from answering them.  The look in her eye, when she refuted the notion that Navratilova lost the second set due to an attack of nerves, was all you need to know about her as a competitor.  "No, I didn't - you know I think I played exceptionally well in the second set and won it fair and square."  But his follow up allowed her to go into tactical details that gives insight into her state of mind - she came in more often, approaching on her backhand, because that's her weaker side, and the difference came when she lost her serve - from there she couldn't recover.

He started the interview with Martina by addressing the assumption that she would choke, after she lost 5 games in a row, and entreated an analysis and explanation from her of how she turned it around.  And Navratilova admitted that she tried to play it safe and it nearly cost her the match...in fact, she was choking by playing it safe, and it wasn't until she returned to the mind set that the match still had to be won that she returned to the form that delivered the victory.  Finally, knowing the woman as well as the player, he insisted on reminding her, and everyone watching, that this was her first title as a American, which would have been so important to her, and certainly was to him.

Connors v McEnroe 1982

Now, McEnroe was ungracious in escaping the obligatory interview, which isn't obligatory at all.  It should be pointed out that Borg did the exact same thing the year before, when he lost to McEnroe, but Collins handled it graciously on both occasions and moved on to the champion.  Here, Collins inserts the qualifier that Connors nearly lost the match serving double faults up to the fourth set, and Connors responded by pointing to his concentration on the toss as his solution.  Collins returned to the assumption that Connors was too stubborn to change to compete with McEnroe (where have we heard that before?) and Connors returned to the changes on his serve, and the previously rarely seen serve and volley, to refute that.  Finally, the simplest question, was my favorite, "What do you think is the single biggest reason you're here as champion?"

McEnroe v Connors 1984

Here it was Connors turn to eschew the scrutiny of the runner-up interview, but Collins really hit it out of the park on this one.  First, with a simple statement, he allowed McEnroe to expound on the the key to the match, which was the quality of his serve, where he accurately guessed that he had served 70-75% first serves in the match.  Collins then revealed to him that he had only made 2 unforced errors, in the entire match, which surprised him, and led him to analyze that Connors, on the other hand, was not feeling as comfortable and nimble as he was.  Collins returned to the ignominy of McEnroe's defeat at Roland Garros, from 2 sets down, simply asking what the loss did do him, rather than imposing the assumption that it was a crushing defeat that he had to overcome.  McEnroe proceeded to reveal that he didn't let things bother him along the way, and Collins followed up by asking if the calm demeanor he displayed on the day helps his tennis, which McEnroe dispelled - deciding not to allow things to bother you is more important than not expressing one's emotions:  the chicken before the egg.

Navratiolva v Evert 1985

The technical analysis from both players in this one is so complete that Collins has to interrupt them with follow-ups, but they are perfectly appropriate.  First to correct Evert's recollection of a point he thought was pivotal, but once he realized she didn't think enough of the point to even remember it, he didn't belabor it.  As for Navratilova, he let her know that she had come in on nearly every point of the match, which Navratilova noted was how the men do it, so why should she do it any differently (good point).  After Navratilova mentioned that Evert had been favored by many to win the match, Collins wanted to know if it surprised her, Navratilova explained that although she was playing well, every match is it's own self-contained entity, and Evert hadn't faced anyone like her.  He closed with a little history and a compliment to the champion.  What a gentleman.

Becker v Curren 1985

Here Collins interview of the vanquished really says something:  first he asks the simple question, "Not an easy afternoon for you, what will you remember about it?"  The next question really zeroes in on Curren's biggest issue, the failure of his serve, and Curren explains the difference between McEnroe and Connors return and Becker's - the topspin kept the ball down and compromised his first volley.  And the hilarity of Collins obsession with Becker's scuffed up knees is classic Collins.  Becker, for his part, is very analytical for a 17-year old, and his gracious showing of Becker's parent's reaction was so different, and so good.

Agassi v Ivanisevic 1992

Ivanisevic's interview consisted of two questions in 60 seconds - the first, the most obvious, what was the difference in the match, to which Ivanisevic proceed to give the keys to each set individually.  Collins interrupted once, for his second question of what happened at 4-5 in the 5th, where Agassi broke to win the title, and in his simplicity, Ivanisevic revealed that the wind kicked up, he was nervous and he choked, essentially.  But imagine if he had been asked if he had choked?  Brilliant.


Sampras v Courier 1993

Here Collins reveals some multi-tasking:  in the middle of his interview with Courier, he hears Sampras say that he was tired, which may have informed his question to Courier of whether he thought a fifth would favor him.  Sampras then reveals that his fatigue was due, in part, to feeling sorry for himself, from which he quickly recovered.  With his simple question about the difference in the match, Sampras revealed it was his second serve return.  He then revealed that he had seen the semi-final with Edberg where Courier was teeing off on his second serve returns, so he mixed up the second serves.  That also happened to be Courier's assessment:  that Sampras was hitting two first serves, while he was hitting only one.

Isn't it amazing how, with simple questions, both interviewees basically confirm each others' analyses?

Final Thoughts

In 2009, Andy Roddick lost a 6-hour, five set Wimbledon final to Roger Federer - his third final, all loses to the same player, but this one painfully ended with only his second break of serve throughout the grueling encounter, 14-16 in the final set.  Reporters packed the room to ask innumerable questions and Roddick, while gracious with his time (if not always his behavior on court) did what men do under the circumstances and answered every question honestly, analytically and completely.  By the end of the press conference it seemed he was more fatigued from talking about it that from the match.  Although he had suffered a debilitating hip injury during the match (which he never mentioned), Bud Collins had to know that he was hurting physically and in his heart, and that by the end, he he needed nothing more than for it to end.


The human in him insisted that his "question" be that last, in his own inimitable way, when he interrupted yet another question with this suggestion:

"Bud Collins:  Liberate this man.  Well done, Andy
Andy Roddick: Thank you."

I have a feeling that Roddick's "thank you" was directed at Collins for doing just that.

Speaking of the human in him, my father met Bud Collins once years ago at a book signing, where Collins addressed him as "Citoyen" which is the french word for Citizen.  Why would he do that?  Because Bud Collins was a man first, and a journalist second, and he knew that people from the Republic of Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of Congo was known then) addressed each other formally, as "Citizen".  He knew this, of course, because he had been to Congo to cover the Muhammad Ali heavyweight title fight in Kinshasa against George Foreman in 1974, and he would have known to say this to my father because...well, he asked him where he was from.

Book signings are a way to sell books for the author - nothing gets buyers in the store like a chance to breath the same air, so to speak.  But even though it may have cost him a minute and a dollar, he spent it finding out one simple thing about him before obliging him with an autograph.  And in that brief moment, he gave my father, a man who picked up the game of tennis at 30, and still plays it 3 times a week at age 74, a thrill that he still talks about today.

And I suspect that the reason Bud Collins was so good at what he did, at least in part, was because of how good of person he was.  I doubt anyone who had the pleasure of meeting or knowing him would disagree.

And there's nothing better you can say about a man on the occasion of his passing.

Monday, February 1, 2016

THE EVOLUTION OF THE DJOKOVIC SERVE

The single most important stroke in tennis by far is the serve:  it is the only time you have a chance to hit a ball in hand.  There's nothing in the rules saying you have to give yourself an overhead smash on your serve - you could legally hit it underhand, but as it were, the evolution of the game means that the serve is taken when the body can generate the most racquet head speed, imparting the most power, the most spin and the most acute angles.  
But what about one serve in particular, that of Novak Djokovic, has made it so good after it was so bad for so long?  Years ago, back when he used to lose to the top players more often than he beat them, Djokovic's serve was his albatross.  It wasn't the only problem in his game, but it was by far the most glaring.  After all, how could a player with such great hand-eye coordination (as evidenced by the second most important shot in the game - the return of serve) be so bad at hitting a ball in hand?
Well, the secret to his success is no secret at all.  Like Rafael Nadal, Djokovic hired a coach that worked on his serve and turned it from a liability to an asset.  Today, the tactical acumen of the serve, imparted by (who I must begrudgingly admit has done wonders for that stroke and his game in general) none other than Das Wunderkind Boris "Boom Boom" Becker, is as impressive as any other aspect of his game.  That's saying a lot, given how good he is as so many other things.
But in order to use the serve effectively from a tactical perspective, it's got to go in - and that's something that he had trouble with back in the day.  There are those who bemoan the "lost" year that Novak Djokovic spent with Todd Martin in 2010 as a colossal waste of time.  Martin, for his part, has not returned to coaching ATP players, and Djokovic has gone from strength to strength.  As such it's easy to dismiss any possible positive impact Martin had on the Djoker's game.  
But video doesn't lie.
First, some background:  when Marian Vajda was stopped by veteran tennis journalist Ubaldo Scanagatta, in what appears to be an airport lounge in 2011, he dispensed with the stupidity and inadequacy of the "belief" gibberish that Djokovic had been spouting all year about his game, and insisted on a technical explanation for his renewed success, after 2 years of profligacy in the majors.  Scanagatta (himself a former University tennis champion in Italy) didn't allow Vajda to perpetuate the ruse, or at least was unsatisfied with it and went shot by shot to discover how Vajda (a mediocre player, but an outstanding coach) transformed his game.  In this video, he explained how Djokovic wasn't that far off technically, but among the many issues to be addressed, the serve was chief among them.
Jump to this analysis, which explains how the serve has improved:
Again, few are prepared to give Martin any credit for Djokovic’s serve in 2011, but they worked on that serve for almost a year before it improved. Before Martin, his serve was a disaster (again, not my words, Vajda’s).  Don't believe me, or don't remember?  Here is the monstrosity that is was in 2009 with the stiff arm, the over-rotation, and a reluctance for his body weight to carry him into the court:
Now there weren't too many people who were able to explain what was wrong with his serve, but it's worth noting that Djokovic didn't address it until he took on Martin as a coach.  In this clip, from Indian Wells in 2010, he’s making Djokovic hold two racquets to compel the arm to come straight up to trophy position – without the straight arm:
That solved the problem of the racquet head taking too long to arrive at the point of contact, requiring him to over-rotate.  Among the many problems with over-rotation, it typically results in a player not actually watching the ball hit his strings as he serves, as well as putting the momentum of his body straight into the ground following the serve, rather than into the court.  Doing so both diminishes the power into the serve and eliminates any reasonable possibility of serving and volleying.
Here, also in 2010 at Indian wells, Martin has Djokovic serve from his knees to compel wrist pronation:
Because he's serving from his knees, he cannot finish with the racquet down at his feet - he'd break it every time.  Instead, by shortening the distance to the ground, he compels Djokovic to pronate the wrist after the point of contact, maintaining racquet head speed through the point of contact and allowing him to hit down on the ball.  This also alleviates the likelihood of over-rotating, since doing so would land the serve in the ground in front of the net.  The wrist pronation not only eliminates any unwitting deceleration prior to the point of contact, it also compels forward momentum into the court.
And finally here is what the serve looked like in 2011 – the stiff arm is almost gone and the racquet head comes almost straight up to trophy position:
As far as the stroke production is concerned, Djokovic’s serve became solid in 2011, just after his parting with Todd Martin.  The motion remains largely unchanged, but tactically, he establishes the wide serve in both the deuce and ad courts more now than he did in 2011.  He has also incorporated a slice serve "up the T" in the ad court preventing right handed players from sitting on the wide serve and allowing him to shorten the distance past his opponent's point of contact with less risk because he's slicing the serve rather than hitting it flat.
So make no mistake about it - Novak Djokovic didn't suddenly believe in himself, and translate belief into a better serve.  With practice and the courage to re-engineer it despite being the 3rd best player in the world at the time, he did it the old fashioned way...
He earned it.