Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rafa's blood and our right to know what's in it

The sporting world is currently fixated on Alex Rodriguez and
his admission to having taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs back
in the days when he was an innocent, confused, unthinking youngster of
27 or 28. When he and an equally young, innocent, unthinking, and
conveniently unnamed cousin jammed needles full of substances into each
other some 36 times, give or take a few jabs. And thanks to the scrutiny
of Alex, the spotlight has not been as focused on a similar issue
currently being discussed in the world of tennis.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has instituted a number of new rules in an
effort to reduce the likelihood of tennis players cheating their way
into victory and history. Players are now required to report their
whereabouts for at least one hour a day, seven days a week, to their
national anti-doping organization. Testers may or may not show up during
that hour. If they do, their arrival will be unannounced. And if a
player fails to meet with testers on three separate occasions within any
18-month period, they may be suspended from the sport.

I say "hurrah". It's about time. If baseball has taught us nothing else,
it has shown us the level of protection that cheaters have enjoyed from
their unions, owners, management, and yes, even from the media. Some of
these cheaters remained untouchable even as we watched them bulk up
faster than a force-fed chicken, and start looking ripped practically
overnight.

Surprise testing is the only way to go. It's a sad fact but as long as
there is big money on the line, there are some who will do anything to
get it. It's easy for those of us who are not wealthy to say that we
would never do certain things. But unless you've been placed in a
position where your values may be compromised for tremendous financial
gain, you have no idea of your capacity for resisting pernicious
influences. Forgive my cynicism for believing that few of us are immune
to temptation. We all have our inner Madoffs. One of the primary
purposes of religion is to give us the motivation to resist certain of
our baser human impulses. And where religion fails, the law is forced to
take over.

What keeps the majority of us honest is the fear of being caught. What
appears to have forced Alex Rodriguez' current verbal spillage is the
fact of having been caught. That and possibly the tell-all book about
him that will be coming out in a few months. I don't know if Mr.
Rodriguez is a reader but someone needs to introduce him to the legend
of Icarus and the dangers of flying too close to the sun.

But back to the world of tennis where Rafael Nadal, the #1 player in the
world and expected standard bearer, has denounced these new rules as a
form of "persecution" that make him "feel like a criminal". My response
to this is to tell Snr. Nadal that you can only feel like a criminal if
you are one. If you're innocent, you should be willing to piss in a cup
at a moment's notice. I would also remind him that no one becomes
successful without being highly organized. Even bottomfeeders can tell
you where they will be at 9 o'clock tomorrow. Having to organize your
schedule in advance is not too much of an imposition for keeping sports
clean. Earth to Nadal, it's our right to know if your blood is clean.

But Nadal is not alone in his protests. The recently bulked up Andy
Murray has also spoken out against the new rules, calling them
"draconian". And he's right. But you have to go draconian when people
insist on cheating. And if, as a player you do not cheat, then you would
want to welcome the rules even more. Not only do you not have a damn
thing to worry about, but you know that the Petr Kordas of the sport
will be caught long before they scissor-kick their way into unfairly
earned victories.

I used to have a coach who insisted that tennis was clean. He believed
that the endurance nature of the sport made it nonsensical to use
performance-enhancing drugs that favor sudden bursts of energy. In vain
I would argue that I was certain that there were labs that were already
working on concoctions that favored the slow and continuous energy
releases needed to play hours and hours of tennis. He would laugh at me
disparagingly. He had a degree in Sports Medicine. I was a lowly Ph.D.
psychologist. What the heck did I know? Of course he was the first
person I thought of calling when the Argentines started falling like
flies. Lucky for him I don't get off on saying "I told you so".

Tennis can take a page from the US military which has implemented many
efforts to reduce illegal drug use among service members. Command has
the right to ask a soldier to piss in a cup at a moment's notice. And there's
no secret pissing either - your penis has to be directly observed as it
takes aim. And that's just for being a soldier. Think of how much more
is at stake for professional sportspersons.

Just as likely as it is that many registrar offices in Beijing were
probably being purged to obfuscate the true ages of some of those
baby-faced gymnasts who wowed us at the most recent Olympics, so is it
likely that lab techs are secretly hard at work coming up with more and
more substances that can remain undetected by testing. Which is why I so
admire Roger Federer for being one of the few top tennis players to
endorse the need for these new regulations. I may rag on him but I do
adore him.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Change # 3: Less politics, more tennis

Sports and politics have always made for uncomfortable bedfellows. This was as true back in 1936 when Jesse Owens showed Hitler the lie of his assumption of Aryan superiority, as it was in January of this year when Croatian and Serbian fans went after each other with fists and chairs in Melbourne.

The latter occasion was the third-round match between defending champion Novak Djokovic, a proud and unabashed Serbian, and Amer Delic, an American citizen who happened to be born in Bosnia. It probably didn’t help that Delic dared to win a set off the arrogant Djokovic. That, plus the alcohol they were imbibing, may have played a part in the building tension between their fans. The resulting melee also claimed some innocent victims.

And this was not the only event that featured hostile acting out between fans from these two countries which share a history of brutal political tension that I will not pretend to comprehend. When you’ve spent time on a small island where if you spit you will hit a relative, such in-fighting seems both pointless and unfathomable.

And so I was just as mystified when, two days later, fans of Marin Cilic (of Croatia) tussled with fans of Janko Tipsarevic (of Serbia). That event attracted a lot less press attention because it happened at a bar in Melbourne and not on the hallowed grounds of the Slam itself. But its roots lay in the same conflict with the same bloody history.

It would be nice if we could rely on tennis players themselves to become part of the solution. This could be accomplished any number of ways. For example, other players could have boycotted the Indian Wells event in solidarity with the Williams’ sisters following their allegations of racism. Or a player from Israel say, could make a point of playing mixed doubles with a player from a Muslim country or with a player who practices Islam, thereby setting an example of universal brotherhood. Or, more recently, other WTA players could have boycotted the event in Dubai, thereby making a clear statement that the discrimination against Israeli Shahar Peer was unacceptable.

But I won’t hold my breath. As long as there are large purses on the line, principles will always play second fiddle to financial profit.

It also takes a level of emotional maturity to make such a stand, and that may be asking too much of some players. For example, having myself witnessed up close the passion of Djokovic’s supporters and his intense responsiveness to them, I do not believe that we can rely on him to be part of any ongoing solution. Sure he publicly says the right things, but his fans probably know his heart better than we do.

Which means that solutions will have to come from the WTA and the ATP. Which brings me to the third change I would like to see in tennis -- for its leadership to find ways to reduce the negative impact of politics.

But even as I write this, I know that I am asking for too much. That would be like asking Tina Fey to protect the integrity of “30 Rock” by reducing the number of product placements. Were you as disgusted as I was by the astonishing number of references to McDonald’s “McFlurry”, or close-ups of the iPhone in the latest episode? For a while there I wasn’t sure if I was watching a comedy show or a well-embedded advertisement. Once you've sold your soul to the corporate television monster, I'm afraid there's no turning back.

Which then brings me to us, the tennis fans. It’s clear to me that we are the ones who will have to step up and address this fiasco. It’s going to be up to us to prove that our love for tennis can transcend politics, regardless of whose hands are on the racket. Of course there is a time to root for one’s country -- and that is during Davis or Fed Cup, and, naturally, during the Olympics. The rest of the time, our focus could only be on the quality of the tennis being played, regardless of who is playing it.

Hey, I can dream can’t I?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Coming back from humiliation

I’ve speculated before that one of the differences between Nadal and Federer is that the former seems more comfortable in the world of men while Federer seems to envelop himself in a feminine cocoon controlled by his matronly girlfriend and his charity-loving mother. There’s nothing wrong with either of these choices, but Nadal’s may reflect an inherent advantage in the cutthroat world of professional tennis.

I concede that this may appear to be a somewhat sexist point. It is not. I believe that it is possible to validate gender equality while also acknowledging gender differences. And I believe that men who live in a world dominated by men are fundamentally very different from men who live in a more feminized world influenced primarily by the energies of women.

Certainly if I were choosing a life mate, I would want a man from the latter category. My favorite kind of man is one who plays with his hair and allows himself to be dressed by Anna Wintour. In my fantasy, Federer would make for a fantastic boyfriend, utterly selfless in bed, delaying his own gratification in favor of mine. We would get mani-pedis together and dye our hair to match.

That’s all well and good for a fantasy. In the real world, he is a professional tennis player who has risen to the top, which he dominated in his own fashion, until Nadal emerged.

Nadal is a different type of man. He is a man’s man. Some time ago I saw photos of him on vacation with his girlfriend. Together they seemed, well, content. But when his boys came into the ocean to play a game of water-football, Nadal came fully alive. He began to visibly enjoy himself. It’s not an accident that my nickname for him is “El Matador”. Nadal plays tennis with the same type of masculine ruthlessness that I admire in Serena. They both hate losing. And if they lose, watch out, because their revenge is always served cold.

I believe that there is no room for weakness at the top. And in this, I have been as critical of Vera Zvonareva's tears as I am now being of Federer's. But it was not until his display in Australia that I saw Federer’s tears as a handicap, a self-limiting quality that may prevent him from achieving his singular ambition of erasing Pete Sampras’ record.

Federer’s merciless double-bageling of poor Juan Del Potro, and his easy dismissal of Andy Roddick, both speak to his capacity for ruthless annihilation of certain opponents. But against Nadal, he became a sniveling little boy. Poor Nadal could barely enjoy his own victory. He had to stop his celebration in order to console the loser. That was a low moment for Federer, and I am not sure that he will recover. But I do know how he can.

For a start, he needs to hire the right coach. This business of doing it on his own is no longer working. Federer has long been credited with achieving his best results without any coaching assistance, a perspective that invalidates the tremendous foundation laid by his early mentors [the deceased Peter Carter and later with Pete Lundgren], or the invaluable contributions made by more recent ones [Tony Roche and yes, Jose Higueras.]

The right coach can assist Federer in developing and practicing a particular strategy for beating Nadal who remains the only opponent that he has not yet figured out how to beat consistently. Something seems to happen to him when he plays Nadal. It’s like Nadal has this kind of hypnotic power over him and the next thing you know, Federer has become sucked in to playing a particular kind of losing game. Under the guidance of the right coach he can break free of that.

But Federer also needs to hire the right sports psychologist. (You know I was going to go there.) A good psychologist also teaches a client how to win the mental game of tennis. I believe that Federer's problem is that he is almost too competitive. He has always been this way, and he learned early how to control the rage that accompanied his driving ambition to be the best. Now he needs to learn to harness the fear.

A good psychologist can help him learn how to channel his emotions and not become so focused on his goals that he loses sight of the process of getting there. And also how to recover, even from the experience of public humiliation. But I believe that to do this, Federer needs to grab hold of his cojones and declare his manhood. That’s how he is going to erase Sampras’ record. Enough of crying on Mirka’s ample bosom. Federer needs to rediscover his inner man.

(Part 2 of 2)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How do you recover from such a beat down?

No I am not referring to Chris-Hanna. I have been stunned into silence by the discovery that there are pockets of the world where people still think that it is OK for a man to beat on a woman depending on what it is she did to enrage him. Wow.

No, I have moved on. Or moved back, in a manner of speaking. I have been thinking of Roger Federer and the beat down he received on the final day in Melbourne. I can’t stop thinking about his ragged crying. In fact, I’ve been struggling to find an angle to write about my feelings about his tears.

Let me admit straight up that they disgusted me. I felt not an inch of sympathy for him. On the contrary, I felt something dangerously close to contempt. It was pathetic enough that he lost a match he had no business losing, but to turn around and start sobbing like a girl? It was just too much.

At first, I was going to write from this angle of a girl. I was going to use an incident that occurred when I was about ten. My older brother and I had gone to some event. Inseparable until then, I was his reliable playmate, and spent as much time playing with trucks and toy guns as I did with dolls. In fact, more so, as I was never much of a dolls person. It was so much more fun to climb trees and play sports. Growing up in my brother’s shadow, I was very much a tomboy.

Until that day, and that event. I don’t know what it was that attracted his attention but there was a boy at this party and he made it clear that he liked me. For some reason -- perhaps because he was very cute, perhaps because I liked him too -- there was something about his persistence that frightened me. So I started to cry. My brother came upon me sniveling in the corner and commented scathingly, “Why don’t you stop behaving like a girl!” My tears dried immediately.

Have you ever had an experience -- I’m sure you have -- where the words are on the tip of your tongue but they don’t come out, and then you spend days, weeks, replaying the scene in your mind, wishing that you could go back in time and come back with a leveling retort? That’s how I felt for a long time. I wanted to say, “But I am a girl!” But I never did. Instead the moment passed, and the beginning of a gender-based differentiation between myself and my brother set in. Irrevocably.

I find myself wondering, if by some magic Federer could go back, could replay the finals, would he find a way to win? And if he lost anyway, would he find a way to not crumble, to not break down crying? Would he find some inner resilience and command himself to man up? And my larger question is still unanswered: How does one recover from such a humiliating display?

Which is not to say that I see tears only as feminine and weak. On the contrary, up until he cried after Nadal spanked his ass, I used to welcome Federer’s tears. I cherished his access to his emotions, and I lauded the ease with which he expressed them. I felt the same way about Guga, who cried freely, openly, after each and every one of his Roland Garros wins. But those were a winner’s tears. I saw them as signs of strength.

It’s funny how the same behavior takes on an altered aspect when placed in a different context. The same uncontrolled sobbing by Federer now seemed pathetic, weak, evidence of a fundamental character flaw. I could not bring myself to write about it for fear that my contempt would rip through.

And then yesterday I got an email from a friend. He was updating me on his life. He has met a new woman and is happy. His last girlfriend came straight out of “Fatal Attraction”. If only she had stopped at boiling the rabbit. And here he was writing to tell me about his new love and his new happiness. In closing, he commented on Federer’s tears: “I felt really sorry for Federer when he cried after losing but I guess even champions have bad days too. I think after seeing him cry I liked him even more cause he showed a genuine side of himself. He appeared to be more human and I think I could empathize with him. He is my hero. I enjoy reading your blog.”

And just like that I find that I am forced to rethink my views on tears, and gender, and what makes for weakness and what exactly defines mental strength.

(Part 1 of 2)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Children of abuse

There is something that Chris Brown and Rihanna have in common. No, I am not referring to their talent although that too is something they share. Another is having been raised by dysfunctional parents.

I don’t know if any of her early life experiences inspired the “Breakin’ Dishes” song on Rihanna's “Good Girl Gone Bad” CD. It is a song that I have always found to be somewhat disturbing. It seems too close to some truth.

Rihanna has been open about the difficulties of her childhood as a result of her father’s alcohol and drug addiction. But unless you too have grown up on a small island, you may not understand the immediacy of the impact of a parent’s drug use on a child‘s self-esteem.

There is no hiding when you grow up on a small island. You know how in the US from time to time you see interviews of shocked neighbors saying that they had no idea that the man next door was hiding his daughter in his basement and getting her pregnant every two years? That’s not an option in the Caribbean.

In Barbados, everyone would have known that the big forehead fair-skinned girl’s father was a drug addict. And there may have been little compassion for her on an island that fancies itself to be little England and where people actually value keeping the stiff upper lip. A drug addict who neglects his family would have been perceived as a weak man. And his family would have become the object not of sympathy but of derision.

In the US, a parent’s drug addiction is often categorized as the physical abuse of a child. The argument is that a parent who remains under the influence of drugs may not be available to parent a child properly. The resulting negligence is perceived as abusive to that child. Children are often removed from the care of mothers who test positive for illegal substances upon delivery.

But Rihanna grew up on the small island of Barbados where such services are not routine. And it is because I understand how difficult her early life must have been that I applaud this young woman so. I love her talent and I want only the best for her. I want to see her fully break free of her negative legacy.

And what about her boyfriend, Chris Brown? Let me not give an opinion. Instead I will quote directly from an interview he gave to Giant in August 2007:

Like the day an 11-year-old Brown made a promise to his mother. He vowed that he would go to jail by age 15 for killing his abusive stepfather. "I just want you to know that I love you," he told her. "But I'm gonna take a baseball bat one day while you at work, and I'm gonna kill him." Brown's parents had separated when he was seven. When his mother remarried, she moved her son and his new stepfather to a trailer park. Then his stepfather shot himself in the head. The shot went straight through the eyes. He survived the suicide attempt but was permanently blinded.

"When you're blind, your senses are heightened, like your smell, hearing, your sense of touch," Brown explains. "You can move and maneuver around your sight. But he used to hit my mom….He made me terrified all the time, terrified like I had to pee on myself. I remember one night he made her nose bleed. I was crying and thinking, ‘I'm just gonna go crazy on him one day…' I hate him to this day."

So Chris Brown too is a child of abuse. And when two children of abuse fall in love, there is always the risk of implosion.

This is of course especially true if neither one has had the courage to seek the mental health help to help them transcend their negative childhood experiences and find healthier ways of relating. I have no idea what the outcome of the allegations against Chris Brown will be. I expect only that he will have the courage to face the consequences of any crime for which he may be found guilty. But mainly I wish that both he and Rihanna seek mental health help if they have not already done so. Their respective futures may depend on this.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Confusing form and fitness

Time and time again, match commentators repeat the statement that Serena Williams works her way into fitness during a Slam. In fact, during the Australian Open, Mary Carrillo and Chris Fowler played an old recording of two previous commentators making this same observation about Serena.

The idea is that Serena starts off a Slam completely out of shape, but almost two weeks later, nearing its end, she somehow transforms herself into a wonder of physical fitness and beats everybody coming and going.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

As much as I rag on women’s tennis, it would be profoundly unfair to imply that these professional tennis players are so unfit, and winning a Slam is so easy, that Serena Williams can literally roll out of bed with Common on a Sunday morning say, and show up in Melbourne the next day, not having even bent her knees or touched her toes in the past two months, and somehow miraculously become so fit just from playing in the Slam that she ends up winning.

Think for a moment how ludicrous an idea that has got to be.

I believe that the commentators are confusing form and fitness and are using these two words interchangeably although they are not equivalent at all. Form, in this context, refers to the mechanics of playing tennis. It is improved through frequent match play. If Serena only plays a handful of tournaments per year, and spends perhaps more time away from a tennis court than on it, then her form will suffer. Her strokes will become rusty. Her ability to construct winning points may be a step delayed. Her serving motion may become less than fluid. Her volleys may suck. This all has to do with form, with the manner and mechanics of playing tennis. It is not the equivalent of a player’s level of physical fitness.

Fitness refers to strength and endurance. One can be fit but have poor form. Or one can have good form but lack physical fitness. The ideal tennis player has both excellent form and fitness working in tandem to produce top-notch results.

Which brings me to the second and incorrect assumption that is frequently made about Serena Williams. It is incorrect to say or to imply that Serena is anything other than physically fit. Serena is a Black woman, with a Black woman’s hefty body. Neither of her parents are tiny people. She has inherited a large frame. And yes, she could probably stand to lose 20 pounds, but the fact that she is 20 pounds heavier than the average player on the WTA tour does not mean that she is unfit. There is no equation between fitness and being petite. Serena is a large and very fit woman who maintains her fitness between tournaments. What she loses is her form.

Injuries may result from either a lack of form or a lack of fitness. And, for example, when a player like Tsonga comes back from back surgery, he has to work on both form and fitness in order to start winning again. For most professional players, form is much more easily acquired. Once you know and have practiced for years how to hit a forehand, then hitting a forehand after a period of not hitting forehands will initially result in quite a few shanks -- and then the rhythm of the shot will quickly fall in place.

Fitness is a whole other dimension. I remember when Andre Agassi dropped to 144 in the world during the Brooke Shields period. He had lost both form and fitness. But his form came back first. Form is more easily reacquired. But it took Andre almost a year of brutally hard work, running hills in Las Vegas with trainer Gil Reyes to get himself back to a top level of physical fitness.

Whatever she gets up to between tournaments, it is clear, at least to me, that Serena Williams is never far from the gym, never far from training and maintaining a fitness regimen. But because she plays so little tennis, she starts off a tournament relatively out of form. But once you’ve had form, it is quickly and easily reacquired. Which is why it is more accurate to say that Serena Williams works her way into form during a Slam. Her fitness is always a given.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

2009 Aussie Open Wrap-Up

Number fourteen…DENIED!
Congrats to Rafa. Everyone seemed to have counted him out. All of the pundits predicted that there was no way he could come back from the brutal five-setter against his countryman and win the Aussie Open. They were all so very wrong. Even Brad Gilbert who, outside of his shameless promotion of his students past and present, can be a pretty level-headed prognosticator -- even he changed his mind after watching Rafa endure five heated hours against Verdasco -- and predicted that Roger would win.

I still can’t believe that anyone who has watched Rafael Nadal over the past year would dare to imagine that his heart and will to win would ever fail him, especially in a fifth set. The only chance Roger ever had of winning # 14 is the same chance he had when he won # 13: if someone else took out Rafa before the finals, then Federer would win. But if he faced Rafa in the finals, he could buckle. And once again he did, most painfully. Number fourteen summarily denied.

The ruthlessness of Serena
There was a moment in the match against Azarenka that stood out. Not during the first set, when Azarenka was giving Serena more than she could handle and it looked for several moments as if Serena’s run up to the # 1 spot would be blocked. No, the moment occurred in the second set, after Azarenka started looking as if she was about to keel over, not just from the heat or illness as the commentators would have us believe, but also from the intensity of the effort required to beat Serena Williams. The trainers had been called and a medical time-out given. Azarenka looked pale, tired, fragile. Any other opponent might have cut her some slack because it was clear that it was not going to require much effort to beat her from that point. Any other player but Serena Williams.

Serena deliberately started running Azarenka back and forth like a rag doll. Serena looked like a pit-bull who, having seized its victim by the throat, was not about to let go. She showed no mercy. Shortly thereafter Azarenka fled the court, in tears. The courtside interviewer asked Serena to share her thoughts, at which point, with a level of honesty that could only be inspired by the Jehovah she believes in, Serena admitted that having observed that Azarenka was failing, she had decided to run her ragged, because that is what competition is all about. It wasn’t personal -- it was only about winning. And of course she was right. It’s the same ruthlessness that makes Serena aim straight for the body of opposing players who dare to approach the net in a doubles match. Again, it’s not personal. It’s just tennis and the desire to win. True competitors have that killer instinct.

Cry-baby Federer could use an infusion of Serena brand ruthlessness right about now.

Back to the drawing-board for Dinara
Until she faced Serena in the finals, everyone kept saying that Dinara Safina had such a terrific game. How she is able to come from behind and win. And ever since Berlin, Dinara has indeed been on an impressive run. It’s funny how a single match can change all that.

All of a sudden the same pundits who were hailing her greatness have started dumping on Dinara. How her serve sucks. Her toss is way too high. She double-faults too much. Her movement lacks fluidity. She needs to learn how to get off to a quicker start. With a height like that why doesn’t she ever come in to net? And so on. Of course, if Dinara had beaten Serena, she would have become the # 1 player in the world. And I suspect that those same naysayers would all now be singing her praises. But Serena exposed the many qualities lacking in her opponent’s game. And suddenly Dinara is not so impressive after all.

The truth is that all of these observed weaknesses in Dinara's game have always been present. Dinara has improved her fitness and her confidence but she has not really added much to her basic repertoire. And until she faced Serena, she really did not need to. That she made it to the finals in spite of lacking serious weaponry says less about her and more about the state of women's tennis. Henin's departure has made it glaringly evident that the women's game lacks depth equal to the men's. I endorse Mary Carillo's plea that it is time for the women to step up

*****************

I have many other thoughts about this Aussie Open, which I will develop as separate articles over the next few weeks. The 2009 Aussie Open was honestly one of the most exciting ever. I wish it wasn't over yet. I am already hungry for more great tennis.