Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Shameful Dismantling of Serena

Usually when one of my faves loses an important match, I feel badly for them. I felt badly for Nalbandian when he lost to the Frenchman Chardy, after being up two sets. I felt badly for Hewitt that his lack of weapons made him no match for the persistent Ferrer. I felt terrible for Mauresmo that no-one expected her to win, and once again she didn’t. I felt sad when my new favorite, the delightful Alize Cornet, lost in straight sets to Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland.

But when Serena lost to Katarina Srebotnik yesterday at Roland Garros, I did not feel badly. Instead I felt embarrassed. I found myself feeling ashamed for Serena.

I was ashamed by the ease with which Srebotnik had dismantled her. I could not believe that Serena seemed not to have anticipated this type of match and was simply never able to come up with effective responses. I found myself feeling ashamed for her as she galumphed heavily towards the net after yet another of Srebotnik’s lethal dropshots. I felt embarrassed for Serena as she screamed in frustration as her response to yet another of Srebotnik’s easy sliced backhands landed in the net. I sucked my teeth in anger as forehand after forehand went wide of its mark when Srebotnik moved into net. Really, Serena seemed so completely unprepared.

I am not accusing Serena of having been unprepared for Roland Garros. She came into Roland Garros with a 17-match winning streak that signaled that she was a force to be reckoned with. She seemed heavy but fit, muscled, and strong. She was widely touted as one of the favorites to win it all. So what went wrong?

I believe that the problem may be that Serena had prepared for Roland Garros in general. But she did not seem prepared for Katarina Srebotnik [photo on left] in particular. Her opponent however, made it absolutely clear that she had prepared specifically for Serena. In her post-match interview, Srebotnik disclosed that she and her coach had worked out a game plan. It was the same game plan that almost worked the last time she faced Serena in Charleston a few weeks ago. At that time, she took Serena to three sets but was not able to win. Srebotnik came into this rematch with the confidence that she had a winning strategy. All she needed to do was make it better, not change it. And that is precisely what she did.

Srebotnik broke Serena in the very first game of the match. Under different circumstances – particularly on the women’s side of the draw – this would not be a big deal. But what it signaled was Srebotnik’s readiness to win. This was no 18-year-old big hitter who was going to try to out-power Serena from the baseline. This was an experienced 27-year-old who had studied her opponent and knew precisely how to beat her – by mixing up her shots, now playing soft slices, next hitting some powerful forehands, now going after the weaker forehand, next hitting unexpectedly powerful shots to the backhand, continually changing up angles and speeds. Coaches everywhere should require their students to watch this match as a prototype for how to dismantle a powerbabe on clay.

In one of her early interviews at Roland Garros, Serena spoke very little about tennis. Instead she talked about her new apartment in Paris and even spoke a little French to prove that she was serious about her new love affair with this country. And in her immediate post-match interview, she seems dispirited and discouraged. But I don’t think she will remain depressed for long. After all, here is Serena [photo at right] crossing a street in France with her own Personal Umbrella Handler shielding her from the rain. This is not a woman who seems bothered by a loss. This is a diva in the mould of P. Diddy with her very own Farnsworth Bentley.

It is always interesting to listen to the commentary by other knowledgeable tennis players while a match is in progress. Navratilova, while commentating on this match, revealed that she has observed Serena’s match preparation and was surprised to note that Serena never moved while practicing volleys but simply hit ball after ball directly fed to her. This is not the kind of coaching one would expect to see on a public court – much less for a top professional preparing for a Grand Slam. Navratilova suggested that this may have hurt Serena in a match requiring movement to the ball. The inadequacy of the coaching offered by the Williams parents is one that has been rehashed on tennis boards everywhere. And yet Oracene Price continues to remain listed as Serena’s official coach.

I was hoping that Serena would have exploited the gap in women’s tennis created by Justine Henin’s peremptory departure from the sport. But so far it has been all Maria Sharapova, who has continued to find ways to win despite being continually challenged at every stage of this Grand Slam. It’s not that Maria’s game is better suited to clay than Serena’s – in fact it is not. Like Serena, Maria is a powerbabe who plays the same game regardless of surface. Like Serena she is wont to scream in frustration, and the decibel level of her screams increases as the match progresses. Like Serena, Maria sometimes presses too much and goes for shots when she should not, which contributes to her error count. But a win in France will go a long way towards making Sharapova seem like a legitimate Number 1 – as opposed to someone who just inherited the title because the real Number 1 abdicated her throne. I had hoped for a similar ascent by Serena.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

James Blake and the lack of a fighting spirit

I’ve lost track of the number of times James Blake has pissed me off with his tendency to just give up when the going gets rough. In fact this has happened so often that I now simply refuse to support him. There’s no point. I am stunned that he has never been fined for lack of effort. Some players continue to fight until the very last point in a match. James is not one of them.

Don’t get me wrong, if James is winning, he will keep trying, especially if the matchup is one that allows him to hit his flashy forehands that leave his audience oohing and aahing.

But the minute his opponent starts to get the upper hand, James often seems to just give up. He gets this shitty attitude on court and stops even trying to get to balls. To hell with the fans who have paid their hard-earned money to watch a real tennis match. He is through trying. And he simply and passively concedes defeat.

This is what happened today at Roland Garros in his match against a newcomer, a 19-year-old Latvian names Ernests Gulbis. Gulbis played like he was inspired by the song line “anything you can do I can do better…” Gulbis also seemed to have a much better grasp of when to go for winners [which James always does, regardless], and when to stay his hand and wait for the right moment. Gulbis was the more patient and his game was far more varied and thoughtful.

In the first set, Blake managed to finally break Gulbis, who broke him right back to go up 6-5. Blake held and they went to a tiebreak. Gulbis stepped up his game in the tiebreak, playing a droptastic dropshot to go up to 4-0. Then 5-0. Blake finally woke up and started fighting back but it was too late. He managed to score a total of 2 points in the tiebreak, but folded the minute his opponent moved into net and started applying the pressure. He had lost the first set.

Set 2, James won 6-3. But at 5-3 Gulbis [photo on right] gave him all he could handle and it seemed a fluke that they did not end up back on serve. There was a moment towards the end of the second set when I thought that James would give up. But then Gulbis hit a stray shot and gave James the set. That seemed to inspire some brief fight in James. But when he lost the third set 5-7, it was all over. By the end of the fourth set, he wasn’t even trying to get his racket on some of Gulbis’ serves. Gulbis closed out the match with an easy backhand down the line. James’ body was on the court but his spirit had already flown the coop.

It’s not that Blake lacks talent. He just never seems to win big tournaments. He seems comfortable in his quarterfinalist berth. For the longest while folks wondered if he would ever even win a five-set match. He just did not seem to have the fight in him to last that long. After 10 straight five-set losses, James finally won a five-setter at the 2007 US Open. His opponent was 34-year-old Fabrice Santoro whose body broke down in the final set after 3 hours and 25 minutes of play. By the end of that match, James himself was too exhausted to do more than raise his hand limply. But he had broken through. Phew. Or so I hoped.

Some commentators believe that James freezes up bigger tournaments, such as Grand Slams or Masters Series events. I disagree. Choking is what happens to the inexperienced. Blake is far from that. I believe that he just gives up when he thinks he’s going to lose.

I used to think that the problem was that he would run out of energy because of his go-for-broke style of playing. But after watching several of his matches closely, I realized that that is not it at all. Sure he takes a breather here and there in the middle of a match – I would too if I had to tote around an ass that huge on a daily basis. But taking a breather to recoup one’s energy after several tough exchanges or to recover from a series of sprints is not the same as completely flaming out.

What James seems not to realize – and I conclude this purely on the basis that he seems not to have tried to do a damn thing about it – is that the decision to flame out or not to flame out is entirely under his control. And the minute the going gets rough, he seems to choose Option A. This may be done passively but that does not make it any less of a choice. And it is one that I not only do not understand, but which has made it difficult for me to support him.

Oh James can fight, don’t get me wrong. But his version of fighting seems to consist only of hitting flashy forehands that produce oohs, aahs, and applause from the crowd. When that game plan stops working, he has no Plan B. He then adopts this crappy attitude and simply folds.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Donald Young: Finally living up to the hype?

I finally saw the tennis documentary, “Unstrung”, on ESPN this weekend. The filmmakers follow the tennis ambitions of seven teenaged American tennis players, their families, and their coaches, during the months leading up to the 2005 U.S. Junior Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Three of the teenagers happened to be African-American. One of them is named Donald Young Jr.

Around Donald, there has been hype aplenty, starting from age 14 when he won the Orange Bowl junior tournament. At age 15, he won the 2005 Junior Australian Open, becoming the youngest player ever to win a junior Grand Slam title. He closed out the year ranked as the Number 1 junior.

Under the guidance of his tennis-playing parents, Donald promptly turned pro. Many thought that he was too young, but there has been precedence in tennis of players going pro at his age. His parents signed on with IMG, a powerful sports-marketing firm, which provided Donald with his own agent. Contracts were penned with Head and Nike. And Donald’s parents did not miss an opportunity to tell the world how fantastic their son was and how bright his future. Really, tennis had been lost without this Donald, who was hailed as the next big thing, targeted to fill the void left by the retirement of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and the underachievement of Andy Roddick. Donald himself played along with the hype in media interviews, bigging himself up well beyond his 5 feet 9 inches stature. Some say that it was the hype that eventually crushed him.

As a result of his early successes, and assumably with some influence from IMG, Donald started receiving wild cards into ATP main events. Many became embittered on behalf of the players who were bumped out of tournaments to accommodate This Donald.

And then Donald came crashing down. He lost 10 straight ATP matches in 2005. His detractors felt vindicated. He became unwelcome in the locker room, a boy pretending that he was ready to be a man. With his baseball cap lodged permanently sideways, and sporting flashy diamond earrings, Donald looked like a hip-hop troll who had gotten off on the wrong stop. On tennis forums everywhere, posters gloated that he deserved every beat down that he received. Psychologically minded fans wondered about the effects of all this negative attention on the psyche of a 15-year-old. Some questioned the wisdom of his parents in allowing their son to be exposed to such scrutiny.

But like Richard Williams before him, Donald Young Sr. made his motivations crystal clear. In a New York Times interview in June 2007, he was quoted as stating, “If you had the opportunity to play in a pro event, make 5 or 10 thousand dollars, losing in the first round versus losing in a Future making $137…Your hotel is paid for, you’ve got a car to drive around in. Is there any comparison?” Apparently all Donald’s father could hear was the sound of the money piling up – $77,871. to be exact, kaching! – because even a loss at these tournaments would help offset the expenses associated with this sport.

And to be fair, tennis is an expensive sport. Despite his being their only child, it could not have been cheap for Donald’s parents to finance their son’s ambitions. Or their own, on his behalf. But to allow him to be placed in such a horrific situation could easily be characterized as a form of child abuse. The victim however defended his parents’ choices, insisting that he was gaining valuable experiences.

Finally, mercifully, the USTA stepped in to take some control of the situation. They established a partnership with the Young family and offered to lend Donald financial and coaching support under two conditions: They would be the ones controlling his schedule, and they would provide him a full-time USTA coach. They put an immediate stop to his acceptance of wildcards into main events. Donald was dispatched to playing Futures events – the types of tournaments that young players grind through in order to gradually improve their game and their ranking. With success, Donald would be rewarded the occasional wildcard.

Donald also returned to playing junior events, and won Junior Wimbledon two weeks before his 18th birthday. Some junior players felt cheated, noting that a player who had been allowed to gain ATP experience was suddenly being allowed to play with juniors again. They felt that it was unfair. Donald was being rejected on all sides.

Things started improving in 2007. Donald put together a string of solid Challenger results (34-14), including four finals and a title at Aptos. His biggest breakthrough however came at the US Open where he made it to the third round, winning his opening match against Chris Guccione, and then benefiting from a walkover against the injured Richard Mathieu. He eventually lost in four sets to Feliciano Lopez. His performance in 2007 allowed him to close out the year ranked 106. It also helped that he grew three inches. Donald had finally managed to silence some of his critics.

But he continues to struggle at big events. His better results continue to be at Challenger-level tournaments. He lost to Wayne Odesnik at San Jose in February 2008. This is the same Odesnik who beat Guillermo Canas at Roland Garros yesterday and succeeded in immediately making a name for himself. Donald Young is scheduled to face Robby Ginepri tomorrow. I expect him to lose.

Sam Querrey [photo on right] is another of the American teenagers featured in “Unstrung”. He has already won an ATP Singles Title (Las Vegas) and is currently ranked 40 to Donald’s 83. Sam lost today after playing a solid match against Roger Federer. In the movie, he comes across as an affable and easy-going teenager who likes to please others. His mother seems equally laidback and supportive.

Donald’s parents are quite another story. There is a moment at the end of “Unstrung” that made me wince. Donald's father is being interviewed about his son’s prospects. He announces that Donald will become the Number 1 player in the world and will win countless Grand Slams. It is an ouch-inducing moment.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Match-fixing allegations in tennis

The American Tennis Association (ATP) hired a posse of former Scotland Yard detectives to help them investigate match-fixing allegations in tennis. Their 66-page report concluded that while “professional tennis is neither institutionally nor systematically corrupt, it is potentially at a crossroads. There is sufficient cause for concern about the integrity of some players and those outside tennis who seek to corrupt them.”

In other words, Houston, we have a (gambling) problem.

It all started with a match between Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and Martín Vassallo Argüello of Argentina, at the Poland Open in August 2007. Betfair, an online betting exchange, noticed betting patterns so unusual that it decided to void $7.3m (£3.5m) of bets placed on that match.

What was unusual you ask? The match – not a particularly noteworthy one by any stretch of the imagination – had received 10 times the amount of bets that Betfair typically receives on any tennis game. Over 7 million dollars was wagered on a forgettable match between the world #4 and a nobody from Argentina. Not only that, but the bets continued to pour in, in favor of the nobody, even after Davydenko had crushed him in the first set. Clearly punters were favoring the nobody to win and Davydenko to lose. But that made no sense whatsoever.

The ATP also examined Davydenko’s performance during that match and concluded that it too was unusual. You see, Davydenko lost. He lost after taking extensive and extended injury time-outs. He lost after winning the first set 6-2. He went on to lose the second set, 3-6, and then retired in the third. His excuse was that he was suffering a foot injury. The problem is that even limping on one foot with one hand tied behind his back, he should have still won that match.

Two months later, Davydenko lost at the St. Petersburg Open to Marin Cilic, a Croatian qualifier then ranked 102 in the world.

Again Davydenko easily won the first set. And then he started committing innumerable errors and throwing in uncharacteristic double faults. Belgian umpire, Jean-Philippe Dercq, concluded that something was up and fined Davydenko over $7,000. for a lack of effort.

According to an ESPN report, the suspicious betting activities of a well-known gambler named Martin Fuhrer, suggested that he may have known the outcome of some matches in advance. Fuhrer had bet that another Russian player, Irakli Labadze, would lose every match he played in 2003. Fuhrer won 100 percent of his bets. In only one of these matches was Labadze fined for lack of effort.

People started talking about a Russian mafia controlling tennis. Davydenko was asked to release his telephone records during the weeks of the tournament in Sopot to prove conclusively that he was not involved in illegal betting. He refused, apparently on the advice of his attorney that the ATP had no jurisdiction in his private life. And he is right, of course. But the refusal added to the cloud of suspicion in which he remains enveloped.

Davydenko, his hair thinning by the day, has repeatedly claimed his innocence. His wife was apparently questioned by the FBI about her husband’s ability to withstand pain (given that he had retired with a foot injury and all). His brother was also questioned. None admitted culpability.

A report by the Guardian claimed that Davydenko has argued that the heavy betting on the match in Sopot, Poland, was caused by the fact that he had lost in the opening round of three preceding tournaments (Gstaad, Amersfoort and Umag), and could therefore have been predicted to lose.

I do not understand Davydenko’s need to prove why the heavy betting had occurred. If he is innocent, he is innocent. There is no need to find explanations for the evidence that makes him look guilty. His willingness to do so only adds to the doubts that surround him. It also does not help when professional gamblers, like Britain’s Mark Bell, have stated categorically that the match was clearly fixed.

Tennis players have started coming forth with revelations of bribery. Jan Hernych, a Czech player ranked 165, said he was offered bribes to throw two matches while playing in Russia. Gilles Elseneer of Belgium disclosed he was offered over $100,000 to lose a match against Potito Starace of Italy at Wimbledon in 2005. Five Italian players have since been fined and suspended for betting on tennis. But the most sinister claim was made by Germany’s Tommy Haas who believed that he had been deliberately poisoned during a Davis Cup semi-final tie in Russia in September of 2007.

The panel investigating match-fixing in tennis has concluded that there are 45 suspicious tennis matches that merit further investigation because of the same unusual betting patterns. The report noted that bettors often seemed privy to insider information, such as whether a player was injured. [Heck that is public information – Bob Larson’s tennis site runs a “Player Injury List”]. The panel recommended that any player caught cheating should be punished by a “lengthy suspension” for a first offense. Players may receive a life ban “if the circumstances merit it”. The panel urged umpires and other sports officials to be more alert to the practice of tanking or deliberate lack of effort. But it denied the existence of any mafia.

The organizers of Roland Garros tried but failed to prevent gambling on that Grand Slam. They sued three of the big European sports betting companies in a bid to ban gambling at this year’s tournament. Their efforts are commendable, but the gambling forces are clearly more powerful. Not that that makes them the mafia.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

If I can afford it, it’s not a problem

That was essentially the argument put forward by Charles Barclay after his unpaid gambling debts came to light as a result of a civil complaint filed by a casino in Las Vegas. Barclay ran up a debt of $400,000. while gambling at the Wynn Hotel and Casino in October 2007, after the casino fronted him four different $100,000 markers. Having waited eight months to get their money, the Wynn decided to file a civil complaint.

Barkley responded by promptly accepting responsibility for the debt. “My mistake”, he said, “I'm not broke, and I’m going to take care of it.” 

Why did he say that he wasn’t broke, I wondered? What a bizarre defensive statement. But I have to admit that I also kind of admired Barclay’s refusal to play the typical celebrity/Hollywood game. He did not seek public sympathy for his gambling problems. He did not immediately declare that he was going into rehab. He did not issue a statement via his agent saying that he was seeking help and wanted his privacy to be respected during this period. Instead he said that he wasn’t broke and that he was going to pay his debt. And he promptly did. 

Charles Barclay has always been a forthright individual who never hesitates to express a provocative opinion. When asked [in 2005] what he thought of Rafael Nadal, Barclay responded, “I like the young man but he can never be my favorite. A man cannot wear Capri pants!!” 

Barclay was similarly characteristically forthright when asked by an ESPN interviewer whether he has a gambling problem. He ended up both admitting and denying that he has a problem. Let me quote his exact words in all their contradictory glory: “Do I have a gambling problem? Yeah, I do have a gambling problem but I don’t consider it a problem because I can afford to gamble. It’s just a stupid habit that I’ve got to get under control, because it’s just not a good thing to be broke after all of these years.” 

OK then, so he is broke, I thought. Hmmm, now I’m getting confused. I could have sworn that he had said earlier that he was not broke. And he is also conceding a loss of control – one of the markers (no pun intended) of addiction. But in the next breath, he denies having a problem! And what is this business of not having a problem because he can afford to gamble? Since when is one’s ability to afford a “habit” proof that said habit has not become a serious problem? Amy Winehouse can afford to pay for crack. Does this mean she does not have a drug problem? Is Barclay trying to say that only poor people have problems while rich people just have habits? So if a poor man wastes his income on hookers, he may have a sex addiction, but the fact that Charlie Sheen still has a bank balance mean that he just has a sex habit? Is that how it works now?

That Barclay’s little habit has cost him $10. million dollars is apparently irrelevant. After all, he is wealthy and wealthy people who can afford their habits do not have problems. Is that denial or ignorance? 

What Barclay does not seem to comprehend is that what defines an addiction is not the amount of money one spends on it per se, but the difficulty controlling the behavior itself, even when it starts having serious negative consequences for the gambler and his family. It’s not the total sum of money wasted on the “habit” – after all, that is at least in part determined by one’s access to wealth – but the increasing loss of control, indicated both by the frequency with which one gambles and the steady increases in the amount wagered. In its late stages, a gambling addiction becomes a grim and joyless experience. 

Gamblers need professional psychological help.  Barclay, the man with the habit, relies instead on his agent. “My agent has really worked with me to try to get it where I can go and gamble and have fun,” he said. “That's easier said than done.” 

Don’t you just love how some people are honest in spite of themselves? And Barclay acknowledges this honesty later in the interview, “One problem I have is that I’m always trying to be honest…I understand that’s a lot of money, but it is my money. Nobody has the right to tell me what to do with my money. Like I said, I’m going to continue gambling, because I like it, but I realize I’ve got to gamble for less.” Barclay also reassures that he never bets on basketball but only goes to casinos.

Barclay has always been honest about not wanting to be a role model and not believing that sports figures should ever be. I can’t help but admire his clueless belief that his saying makes it so. Like it or not, he is a role model. This is not something that one chooses. It is a part of the packet that accompanies success and fame – in the same way that despair, loss of hope, and even imprisonment are part of the package deal that accompanies untreated compulsive, pathological gambling. I hope his agent remembered to tell him this as well.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The battle for second place

You’d think that the prize at stake between Nadal and Djokovic was the Number 1 spot. They battled for over three hours in Hamburg today. The result was by far one of the best tennis matches I have ever seen.

Both men came out fighting, each determined to conquer the other. That Nadal won had as much to do with luck and chance as it did with high-level aggressive tennis. I was enthralled.

At stake was the spot for the Number 2 in the world. If Djokovic had won, he would have replaced Nadal in that spot. Both men gave it their all. They knew that it did not matter who faced Federer in the finals the following day. Beating or losing to Federer would not change the price of coffee. But ascending to Number 2 just might.

In tennis, number 2 is a big deal. Just ask Maria Sharapova. After months of languishing in the Number 2 berth, overnight Maria found herself promoted to Number 1 after Justine Henin decided that she was through with fulfilling childish dreams of tennis success.

You can go to sleep as Number 2 but wake up as Number 1. Both Nadal and Djokovic seemed aware of this. The result was a spectacular tennis match that was truly deserving of any final. Anything produced against Federer in the actual final will be anticlimactic.

Nadal won the match 7-5 2-6 6-2. But the score does little to capture Djokovic’s fight and determination.

Djokovic came into this semi-finals with terrific confidence. He had won the Australian Open, and came into Hamburg with only 310 points separating him from Nadal. A win against Nadal would have erased that discrepancy. It was clear that Djokovic knew this. Problem was, so did Nadal, who finally managed to close out the match on his fifth match point. It was an amazing match that deserves to become an instant classic.

Nadal has been playing second fiddle to Federer for the past 147 weeks. He was clearly not about to be demoted to third place. He has also never lost to Djokovic on clay. There was a lot of pride at stake.

Djokovic on the other hand, made it clear that he is a serious threat to both Numbers 1 and 2. He is only marking time in the third berth. He is certainly no slouch on clay, but is a force to be reckoned with on all surfaces.

I have no idea who will win Roland Garros. I’d like to believe that it might be a toss-up between Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But I have to be honest. It seems to be a toss-up between Nadal and Djokovic.

Federer continues to seem as if he is fading fast. Sure he won today in 79 minutes against Seppi, but who the hell is Seppi? And even the unimpressive Seppi ended up having his moments against Federer.

Had Federer faced either Nadal or Djokovic in the semis, no way would he have been capable of producing the kind of scintillating tennis they managed to elicit from each other. No way would he have stood a chance in hell of winning.

As it is, Federer’s best bet is that Nadal and Djokovic exerted so much energy beating up on each other in their spectacular battle for Number 2 that he may have a chance of winning Hamburg tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, I want him to win. But I am not so deluded a fan that I cannot acknowledge that he has no excuse for losing. And if does end up losing to Nadal [ouch!], no way in hell does he have any chance of winning Roland Garros.

Which all goes to show that sometimes being Number 1 is not all it is cracked up to be. Just ask Justine. She quit the game at Number 1, but she has experienced some spectacular losses so far in 2008. Perhaps she saw the writing on the wall.

Federer is currently Number 1 in the world. But the real story on the men’s tour is the battle for Number 2. More and more, Number 1 is starting to seem like just a figurehead.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Knowing when not to quit

Justine Henin has gone through stages of struggling, but I never for a moment expected her to quit. Say what you will about Henin but she is not a quitter. Her decision to retire with immediate effect has caught me totally by surprise.

After all, we are talking here about a woman who had sacrificed everything for tennis. Years ago, she severed all ties with her family and replaced them with Argentine coach, Carlos Rodriguez, who encouraged her single-minded determination and focus. With his help, Justine succeeded in developing weapons that belied her slight frame and short stature. Her single-handed backhand is lethal. But she also developed a stinging forehand, powerful serve, and crackling volleys.

There was probably no bigger proof of Justine’s dedication than the brevity of her honeymoon with effete looking schoolteacher, Pierre-Yves Hardenne. I remember Mrs. Henin-Hardenne being back on the tennis courts about two days after her wedding, if that. Her reward was finishing the year [2002] ranked fifth in the world.

Justine’s single-minded hunger for tennis achievement quickly bore fruit. If I had to pick a defining moment that best captured her avarice for success, I would be hard-pressed to choose between the brevity of her honeymoon, and the “hand” incident against Serena Williams at the French Open a year later.

By the end of 2003, Justine was ranked Number 1. But some said that it came with a price – her health subsequently suffered. She struggled in 2004 against an unexpected virus that sapped her energy and left her practically unable to brush her teeth. She struggled again in 2005 as she rehabbed her way back from injury. But not for a second did she ever hint of quitting.

In 2006 alone, Justine earned over four million dollars in prize money. She was at the top of her game, revenging herself against Maria Sharapova at the year-end finals. Henin made history twice more in 2006. She became the first player since Martina Hingis to win the WTA Tour Championships and end the year as the top ranked player. She also became the first woman to win at least one Grand Slam singles title in four consecutive years since Steffi Graf did so between 1993 and 1996. All in all 2006 was a good year for Justine. Quitting seemed to be the last thing on her mind.

2007 started badly for Justine – she withdrew from the Australian Open. She later announced on her official website that she was then divorcing her husband. This, and a car accident involving her older brother, paved the way for reconciliation with her family. Later that year, her siblings were on hand as she claimed her third Roland Garros trophy.

Justine started 2008 as the Number 1 player in the world. Then she lost to Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, swallowing a bagel in the process. She lost in Dubai to the tenacious Italian Francisca Schiavone. She lost in Florida to Serena Williams, swallowing her second bagel of the year. She withdrew from South Carolina, and then lost in Germany to Dinara Safina, to whom she had previously never even lost a set.

But to be honest, I did not think too much of these losses. All players go through challenging phases. And besides Dinara seemed to be having an exceptionally good week, finally, possibly, coming out of the shadow of her famous older brother. Dinara had also snapped Serena’s 17-match streak and then went on to win the tournament after facing Elene Dementieva in the finals. This made Justine’s loss to her less humiliating, less of a cause for concern.

But she apparently did not think so. She subsequently withdrew from Rome – and then immediately announced her retirement, a week to the day after her countrywoman, Kim Clijsters, made the same decision a year ago. Just like that, Justine was through with tennis. “Everything became harder,” she said. “I felt, deep inside, something was getting out of my grasp.”

But I can't help but think that that is why breaks were invented.

I wish Justine had had the perspective to just take some time away from tennis. She would not have been the first player to leave tennis for a while, get restored and rejuvenated, and then return. Lindsay Davenport took time off, had her baby, and came back feeling fresh and enjoying the game again. Serena took time off, tried to become a Hollywood actress, and came roaring back. Jennifer Capriati took time off, got her head back on straight, and came back in spectacular form. There is no loss of honor in taking a time-out.

Instead Justine quit, describing her decision to retire as "the end of a child's dream". What a disparaging thing to say about an incredible career. She also said that she had reached her limits. And again I found myself thinking – but that is why breaks were invented. Burnout is real. The solution is to get away for a while, not quit altogether.

But this is not the first time that Justine appears to have made an important decision with her heart. Despite her tenacity and strong will, she seems to be a passionate woman who allows emotion to govern many of the important decisions of her life. She won Roland Garros to honor her mother. She cut off her family to honor her feelings for her lover. She reconnected with her family after cutting him off. There seems to be an either-or quality to her cognitive processes. She gives it her all or she gives nothing at all.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Masochistic Masseuse

So I decided to treat myself to a Mothers Day massage. It seemed like such a terrific idea, until I actually implemented it. 

Daughter had announced that she would not be able to visit, what with University duties and being broke and all. I understood. 

I started the day with two hours of tennis with a ball machine. I worked hard on my backhand and volleys. I detected some progress. Afterwards I played with several of the non-mothers for whom this was Sunday as usual. When they later surprised me with a mimosa toast, I was genuinely appreciative. One of them invited me to an afternoon knock but I declined. I told her that I had a date with a massage, naming the chain I had called the day before to book a 1.5 hour treatment. In hindsight, I should have known better than to go to a massage factory where productivity is probably valued over more ‘enviable’ customer satisfaction. 

I arrived early for my appointment and started completing the requisite paperwork. As I was writing, a male customer came out from an inner room, followed by his masseur, whom he thanked profusely. I hoped that his masseur was also mine. Alas, I had no such luck. Eventually, a short fat Hispanic woman called out a semblance of my name. My heart sank as I followed her inside. She waddled all the way to an inner room. 

Inside, she instructed me to remove my clothing with the exception of my underwear. She asked if I wanted the heating pad. I told her that I had no idea. She said that the clients before me had not wanted the blanket. I said OK, I’ll go with the heating pad then. After she left, I noticed the blanket sitting in a heap on the floor. Classy. 

I took off all my clothes except for my panties and slipped under the thin white sheets. I waited. And waited. Finally, ten minutes after my scheduled time, she knocked and asked if I was ready. Inwardly I sucked my teeth in irritation. Outwardly I said yes, come on in. 

She waddled inside. She started by announcing that she was diabetic and hoped if it was OK if she drank her water. She had taken her medication earlier but was still feeling thirsty. My heart plummeted. She wanted to know if I wanted the lights dimmed or would I prefer a towel over my eyes. I replied, whichever you prefer. She said, oh I see you are going to be easy to please, and dimmed the lights. 

She started on my right biceps, commenting that they seemed really toned. I play tennis, I said, that’s why I asked for a deep-tissue sports massage. Silence. She continued to stroke the muscles. It’s OK to go deeper I said. Her hand movements momentarily became more intense. Next she moved to my right thigh. You can go deeper, I said again. She tried, valiantly, but she was clearly not up to the task. It was as if she had used up all of her energy on my biceps. It’s OK to go harder, I insisted. Well, she said, I’m not really a deep-tissue massager. So why did they assign you to me when that is specifically what I requested, I asked. More silence. 

She probably tried her best, this almost 4-foot tall, obese, diabetic woman. In the end, all she succeeded in doing was irritate me. The most infuriating moment came when she whispered to me to turn over. Why is she whispering I wondered, can she not see that my eyes are wide open? After all, I am staring up at the f**king ceiling! 

I turned over. Her hands moved up and down my back. Up and down. And again, up and down. Not side to side. No bunching of the muscles. No kneading. No circular movements. Just up and down. Up and down. It was as if she had received her training at the very factory that had elected to employ her. 

I decided to tune her out. I tapped my fingers on the headrest, in time with the muzak. Maybe I was being passive-aggressive. I wanted her to know that she sucked. I wanted to telegraph that I was trying hard to ignore the feel of her now clammy hands as they moved over me. I knew that diabetes was not contagious, but who the hell knew what other germs she was busy sharing with me via her sweaty palms? So I continued to tap my fingers and suck my teeth. I just wanted this to be over. 

She ended 10 minutes early. I had paid for 1.5 hours but had received 10 minutes over an hour. That’s how they roll at these massage factories. She waited outside with a glass of water. I wondered if she had spit in it. That is the problem with being passive-aggressive – you end up wondering if others may be paying you back in kind. I thanked her and drank, following her as she waddled to the front desk. There was a long line of other Mothers Day victims. I paid and departed. I did not leave her a tip.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Diagnosing Federer

One of the pitfalls of being a shrink is that it is sometimes hard to resist the impulse to diagnose people we have not even met. Of course we are trained not to do this and formally we don’t, but informally we do this all the time. It is an occupational hazard, no different from the way an expert carpenter’s eye will scan the fit of the moldings of a home to which he is newly invited or a skilled seamstress would be the first to notice that you are missing a button on your shirt. It is an automatic process that happens so rapidly that the diagnostician may truly remain unaware that he or she has completed a full body scan and has arrived at a conclusion.

And so in response to meeting new people who say to me, “aha, I bet you figured me out already”, I honestly reply, “no I have not, you have to pay me to do that”. And I am, at these moments, telling the literal truth. And because, with experience, we learn how to train the analytic mind to turn off, in those moments I listen to and honor the person’s not fully verbalized request not to be analyzed. And I switch off.

I remember an incident that was at the time so painful that it has helped me learn to keep some control over the diagnosing beast within. A friend from school and I had decided to keep in touch by writing to each other periodically. When next I actually saw her, some three or so years later, she told me that she had enjoyed receiving my letters because “it cracked me up the way you would go on and on analyzing things”. Ouch. My letters had functioned as entertainment, not for their content but for their analytic tendencies. My hurt at her derision was the beginning of a growing awareness that analysis is what I do, it’s what I am good at – but I had better learn to control it (she says, as she proceeds to dissect and analyze).

Which is all by way of saying that I was in full analysis mode as I watched the Federer-Stepanek match last night. Rome is a difficult tournament and it would have been important for Federer to win it. And the fact that Nadal got thrown out early by the likes of Ferrero meant that Federer was actually favored to win.

Anticipating the match, I told myself that Federer would have to watch out for Stepanek’s drop shots. They can be lethal. Stepanek is the master of frustrating an opponent. He is also the unlikely suitor and repeat fiancé of some of the most beautiful female tennis players – so he does things right both on and off the court if you know what I mean.

Stepanek seemed skinnier to me as he danced around the baseline in preparation for the warm up. He seemed more sinewy, as if he has put on muscle in all the right places and lost what little fat he was carrying. And it was the raw and dominating power that he produced that seems to have caught Federer by surprise. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. Gone were the slicey serves and fluttery drop shots. Instead Radek was hitting some booming serves and setting up powerful one-two shots that left Federer flat-footed.

As always, Federer had moments of gain. There were moments when I would start breathing again, such as at the onset of the first tiebreak, and I would start thinking, ‘OK Roger, you got the break, now just hold on to it.’ And the next thing I knew, it was gone, erased by one of Stepanek’s Roddick-like forehands. I was stunned. So was Roger. At the start of the second set, again Federer got the lead. But this time I watched mute, afraid that it would just as easily be taken back. And it was. And I am gutted.

In his post-match interview, Federer acknowledged that Stepanek was hard to play because “he is always changing up his game”. I agree. But Stepanek did not change up his game during this match. He changed up his game before the match. He came to the encounter with a definite plan to beat Roger not with slicey serves and fluttery drop shots, but with sheer power and aggression. It is a formula that keeps working against Roger, and lately it has been working too well. This is Roger’s sixth loss for the year. And except for his loss to Nadal last week, all of his losses so far this year have been to players who never in their wildest dreams ever thought that they could beat him.

My diagnosis is a lack of confidence. This is not a physical problem. It is not a fitness problem. It is not due to glandular fever. It is purely mental. Roger no longer feels invincible. His opponents sense this and are circling around him like wolves, moving ever closer to the kill. And the more often he is beaten, the more his self-confidence drains away.

One of the reasons I am comfortable analyzing Federer is because he is so prone to analyze himself. He doesn’t give the media the defensive sarcastic witticisms that Roddick produces during his post-match interviews. Roger is all honest insight and awareness. So I was not surprised to hear him say after this match, “Usually when I have a lead I don’t let it go, so it’s quite disappointing. I played so poorly on the big points.”

Stepanek on the other hand has never been known for any analytic abilities. He is better known for being the somewhat unattractive man who gets beautiful women to say yes to his proposals of marriage. So he just cut to the chase in his post-match interview and told it like it was, “Everybody is hungry. Two players can’t win all the tournaments.”

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Faking vs. Keeping it Real

How can a relationship, any relationship, hold on to any kind of authenticity when both parties know that each is just dancing for the camera? 

This is the actual question that started me off on my Flava Flav rant. But I am so over that show. I have not seen any of the current season. Why waste my time on a show that harps on fakeness while having not a shred of authenticity? 

Unfortunately the 2007 writers strike unleashed on unsuspecting viewers a slew of ‘reality’ shows patterned after the Flavor of Love formula. Person ‘X’ is looking for true love. To do this, he/she moves into a house occupied by a number of potential candidates. One by one applicants are eliminated until the main character ends up with the man or woman of his or her dreams. Their ‘relationship’ usually does not even make it until the next season. And the search for love then starts anew. 

The formula is tiring and tiresome. The shows are stupid and increasingly unfunny. There is nothing real about their version of reality. In fact, I don’t quite understand why these are called reality shows. I understand that the occupants of these houses may not literally be given scripts with lines to memorize – and even that is debatable on some of the shows involving groups of ‘frenemies’ who hook up with and then back-stab each other. 

There is nothing realistic about these shows. Yet they continue to be consumed in such mass quantities that their enduring popularity tells us the viewers, something about the shows on the one hand, and about ourselves on the other. They speak to a lack of authenticity at both ends. 

Although this is not unique to them, these reality shows highlight the ease with which people lose their authenticity once a camera is repeatedly thrust in their face. One example of this involves the events subsequent to the 1992 imprisonment of 17-year-old Amy Fisher, the ‘Long Island Lolita’, who shot the wife of her 36-year-old lover, Joey Buttafuoco. 

Fisher was released after seven years, in part as a result of the wishes of the victim, Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Following the release, shooter and victim appeared in a number of reality shows talking about their mutual healing. But in a subsequent interview, Fisher disclosed that she actually felt no remorse as Mary Jo had profited handsomely from the criminal case. In 2006, Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco also reunited for the cameras, and in 2007, were reportedly pitching a show about moving in together.  

Media psychologists study the impact of television and other media on the way people behave. Of concern is the possibility that the lack of authenticity that we see patterned for us daily in these reality shows, will come to influence the way we see and treat with each other in real life. 

Take the strange case of Tricia Walsh-Smith, a 49-year-old New York socialite who is currently being divorced by her 71-year-old husband. How does Tricia respond to her legal circumstances? By making a video which she releases on Youtube. It is at once hilarious and pathetic. 

Video has become our new reality. So much for the privacy of pain. So much for divorcing with honor. When last I heard, they are thinking about casting Tricia as a character in a reality show about New York housewives. I kid you not. 

You would think that having a camera constantly monitoring their behavior would influence people to be more honest and authentic. For example, you would think that the almost constant media attention she receives would have prevented Hilary Clinton from repeatedly lying about facing enemy fire in Bosnia or retelling the untrue story about the sick woman who did not have medical insurance. But the opposite seems to be true. 

The fact of cameras seems to have a paradoxical effect on people’s behavior. On the one hand, people often exaggerate those aspects of themselves that they want to be remembered – whether it is their implanted boobs or Kardashian-sized butts. On the other hand, the authentic side of the self seems to go into hiding. With time, the camera attention becomes addictive, and the false presence, like a virus, increasingly takes over. 

There is no more pathetic example of this than Britney Spears. Recently, Ms. Spears was photographed wearing a towel at the gym. No, the cameras did not sneak into the bathroom. She was standing in the middle of gym, barefoot,  wearing nothing but a towel. Classy Ms. Spears had apparently been taking a sauna when she decided that she wanted some water. Apparently, at the Bally’s Fitness Center in LA, there are no water coolers other than the single one in the middle of the gym in front of the glass windows. So, wrapped in a towel, Ms. Spears came sauntering out to get some water. She must have known that the paparazzi lurking outside would catch every shot. In fact, that seems to have been the whole idea.

[Part 2 of 2; see Part 1 below]