Sunday, April 26, 2009

"¿En la mayoría son feas, no?"

I was on my way to Charleston, channel-surfing for some interesting music because I had packed my Ipod and did not wish to waste time pulling over to find it. I ran across a Spanish-language station (98.9 I believe) and quickly realized that they were discussing tennis. One man was updating the scores and the other provided the entertainment, which consisted of him asking his colleague why the majority of woman tennis players were so ugly.

To be fair, the reporter valiantly continued to try to focus on giving match updates. But the man he was speaking with would have none of it. The laughter accompanying his verbal antics seemed canned. It would chime in every time he changed the conversation to commenting on the ugliness of the women tennis players. The reporter then switched to giving basketball updates. No comments on the looks of the men. No canned laughter. Just a straight sports report. I sucked my teeth and changed the channel.

It always irks me when anyone suggests that we are living in a post-feminist era in which we have accomplished so much and have leveled the playing field so completely that we can stop talking about women’s issues. No we can’t. No we haven’t. In the same way that the election of a Black president does not mean that our problems of racism are over, the ascendance of the Kardashian sisters does not mean that women are free to be all that they wish to be. No, as women we continue to be overly defined by external beauty.

And this is as true in the world of tennis as it is on Vh-1. Ana Ivanovic sells magazine covers not because she is a brilliant tennis player (which she is) but because she happens to be a pretty one. Anna Kournikova would have been jettisoned completely out of the world of tennis were she an unattractive woman; her pointless presence is tolerated because she happens to be beautiful. A more subtle example -- just before her ascent to the #1 spot, the homepage on Dinara Safina’s website was re-done; her updated image is of a stylized beauty. And Monica Seles (photo at left, from her website) recently admitted in a network interview that she felt out of place in the new tennis world because she wasn’t pretty enough. Post-feminism my ass.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that men do not get judged by their looks, because they do. This is why the current cover of Spanish Elle features photos of the bare-chested Spanish armada looking their hottest. But the achievements of these men in the world of tennis remain independent of how good-looking they happen to be. But for women, achievement does not count if it is not accompanied by good looks. For the women, appearance is everything.

No where is this better captured than in the recent response to Britain’s Susan Boyle. Before she opened her mouth and a nightingale popped out, the cameras cut to young women and men rolling their eyes in disgust at this frumpy-looking woman who dared to enter a talent contest. And then she sang and the world got bowled over. But alongside the conversation about the beauty of her voice ran a parallel discourse about her physical unattractiveness. News anchors wondered in grim seriousness whether she would get a beauty make-over. Would she get a breast-lift? And lipo? Maybe some Botox under the chin like Madonna (allegedly). When Ms. Boyle finally did pluck her eyebrows and dye her hair, it made international news. Apparently we cannot have a sensationally talented woman winning a talent contest. She must be pretty too.

Thank goodness for Simon Cowell. He recently warned Ms. Boyle not to get carried away by her new found fame and concentrate on winning the competition, not her looks. He commented that her new hairdo and improved wardrobe are the product of the public scrutiny of her appearance, and warned her not to get carried away with worrying about her looks. He reminded her that she needs to focus on winning the talent show that brought her to fame. Imagine that -- it took a man to tell Ms. Boyle to get a grip. Or maybe he was talking to us all.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Snap Judgments: Family Circle Cup

The April Charleston sun doesn't bake you; it gently cooks
Certainly it is no way as fierce as the August New York sun. It also helped that the tournament sponsor, Garnier Nutritioniste, was pretty generous with the sun block samples. I still have a slew of samples of Skin Renew for my eyes. I expect any day now that my eyes will start looking luminous. And no, Garnier did not pay me to say that. It's the least I could do given all the free stuff I pocketed.

I've never been to a tournament with one court before
I'm used to multiple matches happening at the same time and having to choose whom to see and whom to miss. It was kind of cool to be able to see it all because it was all happening back to back on the same court. But if a match sucked - like say some of the doubles matches - well too bad, there was nowhere else to go. And then of course there is always the mistake of assuming that you know how a match will turn out so you decide that it's OK to leave. Which I did in the doubles match between Yan and Peng vs. Schnyder and Dekmeijere. General Peng, despite being ranked lower, was clearly the leader. She did a brilliant job of giving orders to Yan who did a decent job of executing exactly what she had been instructed. Against such an organized mini-militia, I did not think that Schnyder and Co. had a chance. And then I found out next day that the Asians had retired. I was shocked. Now I regret that I did not stick around to see what had gone down.

I love Big Babe Tennis. Lisicki plays BBT style. Therefore I love Lisicki.
Here's how BBT tennis works. First, only a woman can do it. (Sorry guys, but it's just not the same when you do it. Moving on.) Second, you have to be a Big Babe to play BBT, duh. Short chicks don't count. I don't care how hard Bartoli tries to hit the ball, she can never play BBT style. But Serena can. So does Lindsay Davenport. So does (did?) Sharapova. Here's how BBT tennis works. You hit every serve big. You hit second serves almost as big as the first. It's OK if the first serve goes into the net because there is a big second serve right behind it. You crush returns of serve, especially second serves which you dismiss with panache. Your opponent must stand there looking like she doesn't know which Mac truck just rolled out and slammed her. Big Babes go for their shots - even if this means racking up high numbers of unforced errors. That's a price they're willing to pay for big wins. The Chair sometimes has to call for new balls before the sixth game - that's how destroyed they become. Big Babes play big powerful beautiful fearless gutsy tennis. And they play with utter confidence. Only weaklings like Wozniaki keep calling for their coaches in the middle of the match. Big Babes don't need that shit. They know what to do and they know exactly how to do it. Lisicki made Wozniaki look like a Junior. And I loved every moment of it.

Watching Cliff and Mary Jo phone it in
They set up a booth just inside the entrance. Cliff and Mary Jo sat behind it and a small crowd gathered around them. Probably folks looking for their 15 minutes - I don't blame them, that's our culture. Cliff praised Lisicki using his best earnest face. Mary Jo chimed in smoothly. Their partnership seemed easy and comfortable, if a tad lifeless and desultory. They looked like an old couple that has gone past the sex and moved into the sweats and Vicks vaporub. They made a few kind noises about the doubles. Mary Jo commented on Mattek-Sands' game. If Mary Carrillo was there she might also have commented on Mattek-Sands' silly outfit which consisted of an overlong white vest over a gray tube top over a red bra with a black skort. Still aiming for the sexy vibe but I suppose now that she is married, slutting it down a bit. She looked stupid. Cliff and Mary Jo were too polite to say that. Tennis needs a Chelsea Handler.

It kinda sucks to be the designated driver at a tennis tournament
I was able to get freely liquored up at the US Open because I was taking the subway home. But this time the car was mine and I was the designated driver. No booze for me. There's nothing crueler than having to watch Wozniaki defeat Dementieva over three long boring ass hours with not a drop of liquor in your body. Cruel and unusual punishment, yes.

There are a lot of trees in Charleston, but few flowers
There are also no bill boards. And few gas stations. I almost ran out of gas one night. What happened is that I took the wrong turn to get back to my hotel and by the time the GPS got me back on track, the engine light was on, saying "Feed me Seymour". Not that my name is Seymour but cars have no way of knowing. So then I started hunting for a gas station. The GPS took me back to the Family Circle Cup area and then announced proudly "You have arrived!" I looked left and right but could not see a damn gas station. So then I drove back towards the hotel because I remembered that I had seen a Wal-Mart nearby. Got to Wal-Mart around 10pm. It was closed. Drove back to the hotel on fumes. No partying for me that night.

But Charleston does have a fancy ass bridge,
The Ravenel Bridge looks like a pair of ship sails. I wish I could have stopped at the top and taken a photo. But that would have been illegal.

And mules that can find their own way home,
Charleston has held on to its history like few other cities. But I can't stand it when tour guides give you the sanitized version of said history. Little mention of the slave trade and only to say that slaves were free to sell their products in the market because that's the kind of forward-thinking town that Charleston has always been. In which fricking lifetime, I wanted to ask. Maybe I'll just sic PETA on them instead for beating their mules with steel-tipped whips.

In a town that clearly loves tennis.
Thanks to the organizers. I know a lot of work went into this tournament. Don't let my potshots
distract you from my genuine appreciation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Packing...and unpacking for the Family Circle Cup

I bought a new piece of luggage yesterday. It was my day off from the Crossfit training regimen which demands a commitment of 3-days-on and 1-day-off. I really earned my day off this week – this cycle has been challenging. I have never done so many pull-ups in my life.

So I decided to spend my free day stimulating the economy. I wish I had more disposable stimulants to work with but hey, some money was better than none. And besides, I have a tennis tournament to pack for. I am going to the Family Circle Cup.

I’ve never been to the Family Circle Cup. Indeed, I used to think that I’ve even been to South Carolina until my daughter reminded me of a long weekend we once spent at Myrtle Beach soaking up sand and surf. It‘s funny how you can visit a place but not quite register where the place is. So it is more accurate to say that I am going back to South Carolina, but this time my focus is only on tennis.

Indeed, I started trying to buy my tickets and hotel package back in December. In hindsight I realize that the woman taking my numerous calls had no idea what to make of my insistence that I had to get tickets early because I wanted to make sure I would see Serena defending her title. After my umpteenth call, she finally left me a message saying that folks generally don’t start buying tickets until February or March. I was honestly stunned. I’ve always assumed that most tennis fans are as intense as I am.

One of the advantages of having moved back to the East coast, is the number of decent medium-sized and more affordable tennis tournaments now available to me. And of course the Grande Dame of them all remains the US Open which I will again attend later this year. Maybe I’ll even get around to downloading the pictures so you will see proof that I actually went and that I’m not one of these internet freaks pretending at things and twitting as if my life depended on it.

Back when I first started making plans to attend the Family Cup event, Serena Williams’ face was plastered all over their website. Of course, this was well before the commitment list had been finalized. Her face is no longer there. She is not coming. She withdrew due to injury. Bummer. I read that she plans to be in Charleston anyway supporting the tournament. And this helps me how? I have no interest in Serena outside of watching her play tennis. Who gives a crap if she is hanging around signing souvenirs? I bought these tickets to see her play. My disappointment is real.

And I have as a result become a bit confused about how to pack. My Serena mask will have to stay behind. There’s no point to taking my Serena towel or my Serena blanket. Should I even bother to wear my Serena hat, tote my Serena fan, or pack my Serena umbrella?

Of course I am kidding -- I own none of these things. I’m just trying to make the point that I made the commitment to support the Family Circle Cup under the assumption that Serena would be in a position to make a commitment to playing. I didn’t count on her thigh injury. Or on the spicy Victoria Azarenka. What a beating in Key Biscayne. Of course it’s hard to tell what might have happened if Serena was healthy. But before she succumbed to the heat of Australia, Azarenka showed us that she is damn serious about coming out on top. Unfortunately for me, she is also not going to be in Charleston. Apparently she injured her shoulder, probably because of the herculean effort needed to beat Serena.

Is anybody worth watching even coming? Well Venus is still in the draw but that does nothing for me. I love me some Marion Bartoli (photo left) so hopefully she will still be alive by the time I get there. And yes, it would be nice to see how Vera has improved. But the rest of the draw consists of a bunch of unknowns whose names I dare not try to pronounce. And to my shock and surprise, I noticed the name Alexandra Stevenson lying at the bottom of the heap. Where the heck did she come from? I guess it’s time I wrote that other article I keep meaning to write on promise mismanaged.

Let's face it, the Family Circle Cup tourney has been reduced, marked down like the cheap suitcase I eventually found at T J Maxx. The prize monies and points have been modified (a nice way of saying marked down like a cheap whore in these tightened economic times). Some of the prestige has been lost. I'm not sure that it even has the same administrative staff. Most of the players who entered Family Circle last year have elected to go to Spain this year -- there's more money and more points in that trip.

Which all brings me to the fourth change I would like to see in tennis. It’s a tough one and I’m not sure how it would work or even if it could work. Here’s my thought: It would be nice if there was some kind of collaboration between tournaments, such that if I buy tickets for one on the assumption that the defending champ will show up and she doesn’t, I would be able to use my tickets instead for one where she does. You know, open tickets that can be traded in for any tournament depending on seat availability. That way if I miss Serena in Charleston, I could say fly to France to see her at the Gaz instead. Heck I’d even be willing to volunteer on a committee to try to find a way to make this work. Now back to reality -- I have a suitcase to pack.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mr. and Mrs. Federer...what does it mean for tennis?

So Roger got married today. Congratulations to him. He and Mirka are already expecting their first child. Congratulations to them. Here is his message to his fans:

"Earlier today, in my hometown, surrounded by a small group of close friends and family, Mirka and I got married. It was a beautiful spring day and an incredibly joyous occasion. Mr. and Mrs. Roger Federer wish all of you a Happy Easter weekend. Love, Roger."

Thanks Roger. Congratulations. Now is this the wrong time to ask what does it all mean for his tennis? Is this the end of an era. Have you given up the tennis ghost?

Roger says not. He says that he is as committed as ever. But my personal view is that something got permanently broken at Wimbledon last year. Oh we saw the symptoms in Australia this year but that was just a re-opening of a deep wound, a permanent scar to the psyche. It's one thing to lose to Rafa on clay, or on any other surface for that matter. But not on grass. That was the last straw. That is the wound that will never heal.

Roger will go into the pages of history as having accomplished so much, having come so close, having given his all to the sport. But my deepest fear is that it won't be enough. Sampras' record will stand.

I would love to be wrong. I would give anything to be wrong. And on this supposedly the happiest day of his life, I'm sounding as if I am attending a wake. It is, in a fashion. A wake for a career that seems to be sputtering to a close.

Two moments have recently cemented this impression. No, it was not Roger flinging a racket into the stands in Miami. That was just a symptom of something broken. And I ain't referring to the racket.

No, the first moment was when Darren Cahill publicly declined the offer to become his coach. The second was when John McEnroe offered his services. The first brought me close to tears. The second had me in stitches. What the heck does John McEnroe have to offer Roger Federer at this stage of the game? John couldn't even produce a winning Davis Cup team. His far more disciplined brother has done a fantastic job of spearheading Team USA. John is better off focusing his attention on how to get back the money he recently lost investing in a Ponzi art scheme. He is so not worth the paycheck, although he apparently needs it. [And I am the only one who was spooked by how much he resembles his ex-wife's drug-addled half-brother?]

If Roger is happy, then I am happy for him. And my congratulations are sincere.

But I do not wish to be toyed with. If he is not serious about tennis, if he is choosing to take his life in a different direction, more power to him. But he has no right to lead me on with airy promises of commitment to the sport.

I've written before about the disappearance of Lleyton Hewitt from the sport after he got his trophy wife and two children. Well, I don't mean to diss her but Mirka ain't no trophy. And while she seems to have adequately managed and supported her man, I have always wondered whether it was in Roger's best interests to be enveloped in such a mammary cocoon.

But at the end of the day, Roger is far closer to the end of his career than he is to the beginning of it. If he can stay hungry enough to pull off a Slam or two more, I would fly to Switzerland to thank him in person. If he does not, he can still look back on a career that has seen its share of stunning accomplishments and for which I am humbly impressed. Roger has much of which to be proud, and that includes a loyal wife and a baby on the way. And those are both good things. And for those, I congratulate him as well.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The tainted legacy of Shuzo Matsuoka

The year was 1995. His opponent was Petr Korda who subsequently became known for cheating, not by faking cramps as appears to be so common today, but because of using an illegal substance. But back in 1995, Korda was a former top ten player trying to make his way back to the top of the game. To do that, he needed to get past the 64th ranked Japanese player, Shuzo Matsuoka, whom he faced in the first round of the US Open. He would do so in a most unexpected way.

On that brutally hot New York day, Matsuoka and Korda found themselves locked in a series of tight tiebreakers. The score was 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (10-8), 5-5 in favor of Matsuoka when the cramps set in. He fell to the ground and began to writhe and grimace in agony. This went on for several brutal minutes as everyone looked on helplessly. There was nothing anyone could do. It looked like a psychology experiment gone bad.

Back in the 1970s, a young murder victim named Kitty Genovese had unintentionally led psychologists along the path of studying bystander apathy and the phenomenon that came to be called diffusion of responsibility. Psychologists discovered that if you were being harmed on a New York day (or night), you had a better chance of being helped if just one or two individuals happened to observe the incident, than if you had an audience of say 25. The problem being that each of the 25 may assume that the other must have already done something -- called the police, called 911, called for an ambulance and the like -- and so everyone continues to observe but no one may actually do anything.

But back in New York in 1995, the reason that nothing was done to help Matsuoka had no relation to the legacy of Kitty Genovese. It had to do with the rules. The rules of tennis in 1995 stated clearly that a player requesting or receiving medical attention would automatically forfeit the match. The thinking was that cramping represented a loss of condition and since it was the player’s job to be in condition, any request for assistance meant that the match was forfeited.

But what ultimately transpired was neither that simple nor clear cut. Because Matsuoka did not forfeit the match because of requesting medical attention. He forfeited the match because he never got back up and started playing tennis. In the time he spent writhing on the ground, enough minutes had passed to earn him a penalty for time violation. So he basically defaulted the match by delaying it.

That single event changed the rules of tennis forever. Now players are allowed to receive medical attention during matches, without penalty and without automatic default. This is the legacy of Shuzo Matsuoka. Because of his suffering, because of the heartlessness of the incident, because of the cruelty of the fact that no one could help him -- because of all of this, today players are guaranteed that not only can they receive medical attention, but they are also allowed sufficient time for trainers to diagnose the problem without the clock ticking.

What Shuzo Matsuoka suffered would never occur today. In these times, a player calls for the trainer at the first hint of distress. In fact distress does not even have to be that close for a trainer to get called. It could be on its way in a rickshaw from a neighboring county. It could just be in the wind, a mere suspicion, a hint that a muscle might be contemplating being pulled -- and the trainer gets called. My point being that the legacy of a little known Japanese (at least in our neck of the woods; back home he went on to marry a famous TV announcer and proceeded to have three children), has been irreparably sullied by cheaters seeking any means to win.

I thought of this as I watched the match last night between Andy Murray and Juan del Potro in Miami. Both men fought brutally hard, and, until nearing the end of the match, both seemed to be playing fair. Until Murray got a break point to go up 5-2 in the third. Then suddenly, seemingly almost capriciously, Juan Del Potro requested and received a medical time-out. He had done the same thing the night before in the match against Nadal. It had worked the night before in the match against Nadal. It did not work against Murray. Which is the good news.

The bad news is the capriciousness with which this rule is violated across the board. It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. Something needs to be done about this continued abuse of the use of medical timeouts. The honor of Shuzo Matsuoka demands it.