Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: “Strokes of Genius”

I want Jon Wertheim’s job. I say this unabashedly. Outside of being a psychologist (which I value highly), I can think of fewer careers that would be more satisfying than being able to watch tennis day and night and then turn around and get paid for giving my opinions about what I just saw. Dude has the best gig going.

Ever so often Wertheim puts out a book. Sometimes the subject is tennis. Some years ago it was “Venus Envy”, which amazon.com described as a “candid tell-all account of a year spent following the superstars and also-rans on the WTA Tour, from the 2000 Australian Open to the 2000 U.S. Open.”

I purchased “Venus Envy” shortly after its release. It read like stale gossip. You know like when you find an old version of “In Touch” magazine at the hairdresser with the cover title screaming “Brangelina’s first pregnancy!” Six kids later, that is stale news. “Venus Envy” read like light fluff with a past due shelf life. 

Wertheim doesn’t only write about tennis. He has written about basketball, gambling, and mixed martial arts. Really, it’s almost fair to call him a sports writing slut. I don’t particularly admire this only because tennis has my single-minded writing interest and I would have preferred it to have also been his. In my opinion, there are so many fascinating tennis stories worth writing about that I do not understand his dilettante-like dabbling.

Perhaps unfairly therefore, I decided that I was not going to pay for “Strokes of Genius” but would wait for it to show up on the shelves of my favorite library. After all, I had already contributed to Wertheim‘s bank balance with my purchase of “Venus Envy”. This time I would wait.

Strokes of Genius” opens with a reference to pigeon shit. Apparently pigeons used to shit all over Centre Court at Wimbledon. So in 2008, the All England Club enlisted the services of a hawk to slaughter the pigeons and thereby get rid of the pooping problem. Wertheim introduces this as an analogy to the match between Rafa and Rogi. I assumed that Rafa was the hawk and Rogi the shitting pigeon. I took immediate offense.

Jon Wertheim loves his metaphors. A zit on Federer’s face is interpreted as analogous to his pock-marked season. Rogi and Fed are compared to magnets on opposite sides of the draw, destined to converge (which magnets don’t always do -- they can just as easily repel each other, but I am being picky). Nadal’s contingent of supporters are compared to whack-a-moles. The sight of grounds men handling a rain delay is compared to a Kabuki ritual. The versatility of Federer’s forehand is likened to the Eskimo’s nineteen different words for snow. After losing the match, Federer walks off the court with his head bowed like a man caught in the rain without an umbrella. You get the picture.

Wertheim gives us a set by set breakdown of the match. This is an expected format. But one of the problems with the book is the constant cutaways from the match itself. So as Nadal prepares to serve in the fourth game of the first set, we are treated to a cutaway on his tendency to pick his ass. As Federer prepares to follow serve, Wertheim notes that he has not yet served and volleyed, which leads to a cutaway about this typical grass court technique, which leads to a cutaway about the nature of the grass at Wimbledon, and, I swear, a comment on the impact of global warming.

I get that Wertheim needed to do this because there is no way you can fill 200 plus pages by writing only about the match itself. But the cutaways are not always smooth. In fact, too often you can see the setup coming from a mile away. I don’t know who his editor was but I can’t say that I was impressed with their work. Also missing is a sense of closeness to either of his subjects. There is no intimate access. This book could just as easily have been written by your average blogger jumping to clichéd conclusions.

From time to time we are also treated to discourses from Wertheim the shrink. In set two, he forages into Federer’s childhood and does his best to emphasize the normalness of it. How this same Federer turned into the dandy dressed by Anna Wintour and controlled by Mirka is not made clear. Wertheim delves into Nadal’s equally normal childhood in set four, where he also throws in a mention or two about the whispers regarding Nadal’s alleged drug use, and also tosses in quotes about Marion Jones’ blatant lies. More cutaways. More fillers. After all, it’s a book about a five-set match that ended in darkness. There’s only so many pages one can fill with just the tennis.

Do I recommend this book? Yes I do, for shut-ins who don’t watch any tennis on TV. If you’re like me and addicted to the sport, there’s nothing that the book has to say that is particularly original or earth-shattering. There’s certainly no unique insight that readers cannot arrive at for themselves just from watching the match. What I recommend instead is for viewers to look for the repeats of this match on the Tennis Channel. It is worth watching a second or third time.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Playing with men

I showed up an hour early. In my excitement about playing tennis, I misread the announcement and thought that we were meeting at 6pm. In fact, the meet-up was posted for 7pm. The sun was still brutally hot. The public courts were filling up fast. I stood there for a while wondering where everyone was.

Most of the courts were occupied by men. There was a smattering of women. A woman and a young girl who seemed to be her daughter struggled to hit the ball, the mother’s returns going sky-high and landing everywhere but in the court. The daughter’s balls were not a whole lot better. Another geriatric pair sat down after every single exchange of curvy slicing. If I was going to play tennis that day, it was going to be with one of the men. Except that I was a newcomer, a visitor to this city, responding to an internet announcement about a meet-up on the public courts. I knew no-one.

I asked some men if they were part of the group I was expecting to meet. They looked at me as if I was talking a foreign language. I looked around for a pro shop. It was sealed up tight, the windows heavily barred, because this was after all a public court and anything could be stolen and sold. Or so I assumed.

A man approached me smiling. I beamed back hopefully, my smile willing him to be a member of the group. As he got closer his face changed. “I thought I knew you”, he explained, and walked away. He joined a two-some that were warming up. I could have made a fourth. We could have played doubles. I don’t know why I did not ask. Maybe it was because they did not invite me. But within minutes I was glad that I did not because their fourth arrived and they continued to play.

But they all kept looking at me. And looking at me. It was clear that they all knew each other and knew that I was new. No one spoke to me. No one invited me in. And to be fair, they couldn’t , what with being solidly paired up and all.

Around 6:20pm, another guy arrived. He was wearing a t-shirt with the name of the club whose members I had expected to meet. I introduced myself. “Where’s everyone?” I asked. It was only 6:20pm, he replied. They were coming for 7pm as planned. “Oh”, I offered, sheepishly. “I guess I was too excited to get here!” I asked him how come he had arrived so early. He said that he had hoped to pick up an early game.

He had no choice but to play with me. His body language screamed his reluctance. He assumed that I was going to suck. After all, I was just a woman. And no, I am not exaggerating or overreacting. But you’d be forgiven for thinking that I am.

We started warming up. He played me some soft balls, the kind of patty-cake crap the geriatrics were slicing against each other in between lengthy bouts of sitting down. I took offense. And even as he played he kept looking around. He seemed to be hoping that another man would come to the court and rescue him from the misery. I took further offense. I asked him if he wanted to practice some serves before we started. He told me to go ahead. I walloped some balls down the line. He missed all the returns, and seemed to go into a kind of shock.

“Yes moron, I know how to play” I said in my mind, as I smashed a serve straight into his body. Out loud I asked, “Are you ready?” My tone was snippy.

He said he was ready. I held serve easily. It wasn’t that I was better than he was, but that I had the advantage of knowing that I did not suck, that I have been playing racket games against men for all of my life, and that I was not going to let this man diminish me. I did not break his serve but I took him to deuce ten times. With each deuce he seemed to get more frustrated. It was probably the longest game I ever played. I held serve again, this time mixing up some soft serves that seemed to catch him off guard. And so we continued until the members of his club finally started to trickle in. I introduced myself. I said that I was a woman who enjoyed playing with men. And I am.

Children Arguing on Tennis Court

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Courtside coaching, or an exercise in public humiliation?

I watched yesterday and today as Maria Sharapova’s coach, Michael Joyce, tried ably to help her win matches against fellow Russians, newcomer Alisa Kleybanova and the veteran Elena Dementieva, at the 2009 Roger's Open. I must admit that I was particularly interested in looking at Maria because I have been following her comeback fairly closely. I wanted to gauge how motivated she really was to return from injury, surgery, and rehab, to dominate women’s tennis once again.

I did not look at her matches with the intent of writing a piece about courtside coaching. Au contraire, I was going to write something about the psychology of coming back from injury. I was going to say that although a player may know that her shoulder is completely healed because her medical providers have told her so, it can be very difficult mentally to push past the impulse to guard and instinctively protect that part of the body that has experienced severe pain. I was going to write about this psychology of pain and on the mental strength required to believe in one’s full recovery.

But instead I found myself derailed by the bizarre view of courtside coaching in which the coach is attached to a microphone so that the TV audience can hear his every word. And what I saw in Maria Sharapova was a player who seemed utterly humiliated by the experience.

The humiliation started yesterday in the match against Kleybanova. The coach mentioned to Maria that he knew that her arm was tired but that he wanted her to hit more slice serves down the line. She interrupted him snappily to retort, “I’m not tired!” Except that she did not seem to be talking to him so much as to me. It looked for all the world as if Maria was upset not at being told the truth – I know this because she promptly went out and executed every single aspect of her coach’s suggested game plan – but by the idea of being publicly overheard in the process.

And then today, the coach seemed to lose his patience as he tried once again to guide Sharapova to a win. She however seemed to be too aware that their conversation was not private. Again he commented on the fatigue of her arm. And again she became defensive, this time telling him that he was talking too loud. He retorted that she was talking louder than he was. He then tried to focus on what she could do against Dementieva. Finally in frustration he walked off telling her: “Everybody knows that you're tired. Either give in to yourself and get out of here or play hard.”

And he was right. There was nothing that he was saying to her that needed absolute privacy. He was simply commenting on the obvious. But to me, Maria seemed embarrassed by it all.

I know that this clip will eventually end up on YouTube and I promise to update this entry when it does. I think that it is an important exchange that highlighted how uncomfortable Sharapova was with the experience of courtside coaching. And again my impression is that her discomfort was not with being coached per se – she clearly needed the help what with being a power player who does not seem especially given to analysis – but with us the viewers looking on and overhearing as her coach literally told her what to do.

It is kind of ironic that Sharapova of all people would seem so uncomfortable with everyone knowing that she can’t think her way out of a paper bag. After all, this is a player who in 2005 was fined for receiving illegal coaching, and who in 2006 was accused of continuing to engage in this practice.

The introduction of courtside coaching was intended to improve the audience’s participation in tennis. It was supposed to add excitement to the game by enhancing TV viewership. I’ve commented before that all of the recent innovations in tennis seem to be done with the TV camera in mind. I suspect that this is one innovation that Sharapova could live without.

UPDATE: Here's the clip. Thanks Onur!

Rogers Cup

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is Sampras the Brett Favre of tennis?

When Pete Sampras retired in 2002, after spanking Agassi for the umpteenth time, he gave the impression that he was done with tennis. In interviews he indicated that his career was over. He was going to turn into a homebody, taking care of his wife and helping her to pop out some kids. As evidence that he was done for good, his training team packed up and found other jobs, most famously Paul Annacone who found a lead job with the Lawn Tennis Association.

I can’t honestly say that I ever missed Pete Sampras. While I always appreciated his talent, it was Agassi’s lively personality and sexy ass that were always more my style. Pete with his grandfather pants and his heavy tongue hanging out of his mouth as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with an index finger -- just didn’t stir me in the nether region. But I always appreciated his spectacular tennis. And always I admired his serve. The American Beauty.

So when he popped up in 2006 to play an exhibition match against Robby bore-me-to-tears-why-don’t-ya Ginepri, I didn’t half mind. I figured that between the two of them they would create half a personality and one-third of an exciting match. When Robby sent Pete packing 6–3, 7–6, I figured that that would be the last I would see of Sampras. Surely he would return to his baby-making.

Then he upped and announced that he was going to play World Team Tennis. I don’t know if Anna Kournikova talked him out of it but I never saw him on the multi-colored courts. Which was fine with me because I don’t watch WTT anyway. It’s too foolishly contrived for my taste. Although the less churlish side of me can of course appreciate whatever breaks some of those no-name players hopefully manage to attract.

2007 came around and there was Mr. Retiree challenging the world’s #1 player to a series of exhibition matches. I sucked my teeth and wondered if losing to Robby I-am-so-boring-I-put-myself-to-sleep Ginepri hadn’t done the trick. And when Sampras won the last of the initial three exos, I thought, oh Lord, here we go. Sampras is about to become the Brett Favre of tennis. As in a player who keeps retiring and then coming back. And then retiring some more and then coming back. And then crying long-assed tears as he takes his absolutely final curtain call, and then coming back to play some more.

I would give anything to have Brett Favre on my couch. Yes I have a couch. I have found that it makes for more genuine and emotionally honest self-disclosure. Except that, to be fair to Favre, he really seems to mean it each time he quits. And then he really seems to mean it when he starts new contract negotiations. So I don’t want him on my couch just for the honesty, but because I would love to get a chance to see up close what a thoroughly confused (or manipulative, or narcissistic, or simply tormented) mind looks like. Frankly I would pay him for the experience of a close-up view. It would be educational.

So when Sampras announced recently that at his prime he could have taken Roger on grass, I flinched inside. Not because I have forgotten the images of Federer spanking him hard back in the day, but because I started dreading a serious comeback. Not of the excruciatingly arranged exhibition matches kind. Not the Geriatric Tour where he can continue to beat old nemeses like Todd Martin, Patrick Rafter, and Jim Courier. No, I began to fear that he would try to return to the ATP. Here we go, I thought, it’s tennis’ Brett Favre. He’s not going to be satisfied until he fully comes back and tries to win back his record. And I do think that if Sampras believed that he had any chance of enduring seven consecutive matches to win another Slam or two, he would be back tomorrow. But he must know that he cannot. He cannot be so lacking in Favrian insight as to delude himself that he can.

And to be fair, I can’t imagine Sampras ever dissing the surface where he accrued his best wins. I can’t imagine him suddenly extolling the virtues of the dirt and implying that Wimbledon was suddenly less than. Or that true fans would support him if he elected to roll around in the clay of Roland Garros instead of inhaling the grass of Wimbledon. To be fair, Sampras would never be that disloyal. Nor do I believe that he would ever seriously try to come back. Because at the end of the day, talk is cheap.

LA Tennis Open Day 1

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Obsessing about the US Open

Apologies for not writing. I have been in obsessive mode. I’ve spent the last two weeks obsessing about everything to do with the US Open. It’s my annual torment. Although to be honest it also gives me pleasure, so much so that I have concluded that there is a part of me that simply loves to obsess. I must get off on dithering.

First I looked into purchasing a mini-plan. You know, one of those Labor Day weekend deals that include tickets and hotel. The lowest priced I found cost almost $3,000. Who can afford that? I guess now I understand why Bernie Madoff managed to screw so many affluent New Yorkers out of their easily-earned/inherited wages. There are folks out there with serious money. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. So I guess it will be my annual New Jersey commute. Not complaining. I love me some New Jersey.

And then there was the business of the camera. There’s a reason I never posted photos after going to the USO last year. And it’s not just because I was too lazy to download the photos from my point-and-shoot. I finally got around to downloading them sometime during Roland Garros, but concluded that they were not worth publishing anywhere, least of all on my site. There’s just no substitution for inadequate tennis photos captured by an inadequate camera.

So this year I have been obsessing about purchasing a new camera. I used to own a Nikon SLR. I used to take wonderful photos with it. And then, some years ago I discovered point-and-shoots. And got derailed. But at the back of my mind I always promised myself that one of these days I would haul out the old SLR and make fine use of it. This is because I thought (stupidly) that I still owned it. Unfortunately, I have not opened the bag containing that camera since I fled the islands after bandits made it clear that I could only stay at my own peril. So some days ago I finally opened the bag, only to discover a bunch of trash that I would never use. Whoever helped me pack and flee apparently also decided to help themselves to my camera.

Hence my new obsession. Should I buy another SLR, a DSLR, or a mega zoom? How many pixels should my poor camera try to squeeze into a frame? And if (when) I end up in the bleachers, is a 10x megazoom enough or should I spring for 20x? Heck, why not go for 26x as one of the new Olympus cameras boasts? I am so confused.

I’ve also spent the last two weeks trying to find tickets. I checked the US Open website and got re-directed to Ticketmaster. But every time I tried to purchase tickets through this company, my selected seats were not available and I was redirected to Ticketsnow. If you’re an obsessive like me, the little camera-thingy showing you your selected view is simply addictive. I’ve lost track of how many seats I selected only to find myself unsure. Are they close enough to the court? And what does it mean that tickets may cost more or less than their face value? Would the $125. seats in the bleachers actually cost only $75. at the Box Office? To buy or not to buy? Perchance to wait.

In desperation I called the Box Office one Sunday. I asked the person answering the phone to help me with a tickets question. She said that it was Sunday and I should call back in the morning. Instead, I moved on to another obsession.

I started checking eBay. There I discovered that people sell their parking spots at the US Open. Who owns a parking spot at the US open? And why do sellers not always make it clear that what you are bidding on is a chance to park your car, not a chance to attend the tournament for $30.? After a series of fruitless bids, I logged off.

So has my obsessing accomplished anything? Well, I did find a new hat. My face will not be polka-dotted this year. And I was distracted from dealing with some painful losses. Like Federer losing to Tsonga. And Del Potro losing to Murray. Not to mention Safina just not seeming to get it together lately. Although I did make time to cherish Pennetta’s sweet win. And I did note that Roddick’s attitude does not seem as recovered as his hip.

But if I am truly honest I will admit that all of this is secondary for now. I need to log back on to eBay. Maybe there is a $30. ticket being sold by a kindly old lady who has decided to take pity on a tennischick. I can dream can’t I?

Rogers Cup

Monday, August 3, 2009

Marion and Dr. Bartoli

Lately I’ve been thinking about coaches and their students, and about how come some partnerships are so ideal while others seem to flounder for a while before the player moves on to another mentor. And as part of this current preoccupation, I want to introduce the fifth change that I would like to see in tennis [in keeping with the series I announced at the start of this year -- no I have not forgotten!] I would like to see a better introduction to the people hired to keep our favorite players in top form.

For example, the Tennis Channel could run in-depth profiles of coaches like Larry Stefanki (King-maker extraordinaire). Or Paul Annacone, who used to coach Sampras and Henman and is now the head coach at the LTA. And I would like to see a profile on Dr. Walter Bartoli, coach of his daughter, Marion Bartoli.

I was stunned by the way the commentators were crying down Dr. Bartoli yesterday. Not because I disagreed with what they were saying -- au contraire -- but because one so rarely expects such a high level of honesty from ESPN-hired commentators covering a match.

But those commentators held nothing back. One described her horror at watching Dr. Bartoli put his daughter through the paces of warming up for a match. It sounded almost as if Marion burns up so much energy in the bizarre preparation ritual that by the time she gets to the court, there is often little left. And they subtly blamed Dr. Bartoli for Marion’s repeated physical injuries. One said that she only lasts a few matches and then she has to call in sick. Another commented on the amount of fines she will now have to pay for her frequent time-outs for medical attention. And so on.

So the fifth change I would like to see in tennis is to get to know some of these coaches better. I’d like to know why we should trust them. I’d like to know what qualifies them to be the coaches of the top tennis players in the world. And I would very much like to know how coaches like Dr. Walter Bartoli balance the roles of coach and father. Not to mention coach, father, and trainer. Not to mention coach, father, trainer and travel companion. And did I mention chief photographer? The man seems to play it all.

But in spite of the criticism of the team of commentators yesterday, Marion finally pulled it out against Venus Williams at Stanford. It was an amazing final. As the crowd roared its approval of Venus winning the second set, I grabbed a bag of Ann’s House snacks (no more popcorn for me, I’m trying to keep in the Zone), and sat down to munch and flinch. And I have to tell you that in spite of the negative concerns of the commentators, I saw a young woman who was taking it to Venus Williams with everything she had, granted in between moments of nervous tension.

Sure Marion starts hopping around like a jack rabbit when she is receiving serve. And speaking of serve, have you ever seen such a jittery wind-up? And she has always been a bit on the chunky side. But the girl can play. She matched Venus backhand for backhand throughout the match. In fact the only chance Venus had of winning was to keep coming into net and taking those massive swinging volleys out of the air. Which she did a lot of the time, but not enough of the time. And wasn’t it sweet that one of Marion’s few ventures to net ended up being the point of the day? I loved it. Then again, I have admitted before that I love Marion Bartoli. My head picked Venus to win this yesterday but my heart was all Marion’s. And my heart is happy.

But my concerns about Dr. Bartoli as his daughter’s trainer and coach remain. The gist of the criticism yesterday seemed to be that he does not distinguish adequately between these two roles, and that he does things as a trainer that would leave a coach speechless with horror, and vice versa. As possible proof of this criticism, Marion called in sick today to the tournament in LA. Maybe it’s time to do an empirical study to examine whether she is more frequently injured or takes more medical time-outs than other players. It seems to me that Dr. Bartoli’s methods can and should only be challenged with solid empirical data of the kind that, as a trained professional himself, he could fully comprehend.

Bank of the West Classic Day 7

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Magnus and Robin: A winning partnership

I remember that match against Guga at the 2000 French Open. From where I was sitting, it seemed to me that the man in black (Magnus Norman) had won the fourth set tie-breaker and the match should have gone on to a fifth. This was in the era before hawk eye, so complaining about calls was pointless. And besides, the advantage to clay is that you’re able to find the mark in the dirt. Of course, late into a match, there are a lot of marks to choose from and, from my point of view, the umpire chose the wrong mark. Norman lost the fourth set and the match to Guga.

But Magnus Norman was never one to complain. On the contrary he once lost a match by correcting a call against himself on match point. You can’t get more sportsmanlike than that.

At his prime, Norman had wins against some of the best tennis players. During his career, he spanked such stellar players as Alex Corretja, Marcelo Rios, Thomas Enqvist, and of course Gustavo Kuerten whom he had beaten in Rome earlier in 2000, only to lose to him questionably [in my opinion] in Paris later that same year.

For a while Norman became more famous for dating Martina Hingis than for being a tremendous tennis player who was once made it to #2 in the world. The injuries that eventually took him out of the sport were touted as evidence of the Hingis so-called 'Black Widow' curse. It was purported that every man she dated ended up being ruined one way or another. One of these days I will write a piece on the negative power some men ascribe to women!

Now Norman is back, as quiet and unassuming as ever. He has retired from playing tennis and is now coaching fellow-countryman, Robin Söderling. Together they seem to have created a winning partnership.

Yesterday the Tennis Channel featured the finals match between Söderling and Juan Monaco of Argentina at the Catella Swedish Open in Båstad. I expected there to be some hiccups for Söderling, not because I don’t have confidence in his game but because no matter how good you are, it’s always tough to play in front of your own people. But there were no glitches, no hesitation. In the second set it looked for a moment as if Monaco had finally figured out to break the Söderling serve. But his run did not last long as they faced each other down in a deciding tie-breaker which Söderling won.

More than anything I was impressed with the solidity, consistency and quality of Söderling’s tennis. There is no question regarding the improved quality of Söderling’s tennis since he started working with Norman. He has been having a wonderful year. In fact, I am about to pay him the highest compliment that I can think of giving to any tennis player: Söderling plays intelligent tennis. As did Magnus Norman, back in the day. Perhaps this is why their partnership works. And by winning the 2009 Swedish Open, Söderling has brought the circle fully closed. This was a title that Norman himself won during that magical year in 2000 when he was at the top of his form.

TENNIS: MAY 29 French Open