Monday, December 28, 2009

Memorable Tennis Moments of the Aughts

It is the end of the year and this is my 200th column. As promised, I kept my resolution of writing 100 entries per year. Non-tennis spillover can now be found on my other blog. Yes I did cheat and made some last minute transfers. I am after all a wordy, opinionated chick.

This being my last entry for 2009, let me ask you in advance to please forgive its length. Instead of focusing only on the events of 2009, I thought that I would take a shot at summarizing the aughts (00's). The decade of the aughts is coming to an end and there seems to be a kind of reckoning taking place. There is a sense that things are not quite in balance, and that somewhere the Gods may be having a chuckle over our puerile humanity.

For instance, the best golfer ever is elected Athlete of the Decade even while his personal life continues to unravel with one whorish embarrassment after another. But Roger Federer is declared a distant third, behind Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. I listened to the MP3’s (the Pitt brothers) give their chatty opinions about this on NPR. They dismissed poor Roger completely, treating him almost as if he had no business even being part of the conversation about greatness in sport. Sometimes tennis gets so little respect.

Some are still debating whether Serena deserved to be called the greatest female tennis player of the year, because she behaved so badly at the 2009 US Open. As far as I am concerned, she has been the best female tennis player of the decade, period. The NY incident highlighted the importance of picking the right people to be Chairs and line judges. A good umpire gets a feel of a match and uses the right tone to control players’ emotions. Mohamed Lahyani is widely respected as one of the best tennis umpires for exactly this reason. But a bad line call at the wrong time can completely ruin a match. Ent?

When Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi faced each other for the very last time at the 2001 US Open, it was declared the end of an era. But my most memorable tennis moment involving Sampras was watching him squirm at the 2009 Wimbledon as Federer erased his record. I also enjoyed Roddick’s desperate all-out efforts to keep history on American soil. Who knew Andy was capable of almost greatness?

I have enjoyed Agassi’s candid interviews as he takes responsibility for his life, admitting to past errors and transgressions. But the decade of the aughts has been characterized by few such admissions. Some were busted for using drugs. All claimed innocence. Hingis queried how could she possibly have done coke and gone out and played tennis. Gasquet said he kissed a girl with coke on her lips. Hingis has retired and is now riding horses (see photo). Meanwhile, Gasquet plays on.

The aughts saw the decline and rise of Davydenko. If anyone had predicted that a balding dude facing serious allegations of match-fixing would end up closing out the decade with one of tennis’ biggest accomplishments, I would have called them a wishful thinker. But that is exactly what Nicolay has done. I hope there’s more great tennis left in that skinny body. I’d like to see him be a serious Slam contender in 2010.

We said goodbye to some awesome tennis players during the 00’s. Amelie Mauresmo said that she had lost the fire. Marat Safin has other businesses he’d like to pursue. Anastasia Myskina climbed as high as #2, and then disappeared, but not before scandalizing all of Russia with topless photos and a fatherless baby boy. Jennifer Capriati came back from drug use, and then disappeared without saying a word. Monica Seles finally acknowledged that she was through long after this was clear to everyone. Tim Henman gave it his best but never made it past Wimbledon semis. Like many other players, he has found a new career as a tennis commentator. But Henman Hill has proven so far to be no Murray’s Mound.

Other players said 'goodbye' when they really meant to say 'hasta la vista'. Certainly there was no other return as triumphant as that of Kim Clijsters or as heart-warming as that of Kimiko Date-Krumm. Meanwhile Esther Vergeer continues to quietly make herstory.

On the men’s tour, the decade of the aughts (00’s) belonged principally to Nadal and Federer. Among the women, there is no question that the William sisters were dominant. And while Nadal and Federer carved out a rivalry from the get-go, the sisters initially struggled when facing each other. Serena has since decisively won the mental game against her sister. But it was Venus who stepped up bravely for equality of pay for men and women. Few even noticed or commented.

We saw three Olympics events during the aughts: 2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens, and 2008 Beijing. Yevgeny Kafelnikov won men’s gold in Sydney. Venus Williams not only won singles gold but teamed up with her sister to win doubles. Nicolas Massu surprised everyone with his 2004 win over Mardy Fish. And Nadal and Dementieva became the king and queen of Beijing, while Federer unexpectedly won in doubles.

In the world of Davis Cup, Albert Costa and his Spanish Armada have become the force to be reckoned with. But the decade of the 00’s also saw charges of racism made by former USA Fed Cup leader, Zina Garrison. The worst part of this for me is that, despite this, the same people still seem to be in charge of tennis USA. Like Barack Obama seems finally, belatedly, to be appreciating, putting an African-American in a position of leadership is one thing. Supporting their efforts to do the job is quite another.

Happy New Year to all of my readers. I hope that 2010 brings you many things that you want and everything that you need. Thanks as ever for reading. My New Year resolution is to play more tennis and to remain just as opinionated. What's yours?Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Karen disagrees with the TennisChick

One of my readers, Karen, submitted the following comments to my criticism of Serena's 92K mission. It was so well-written that I decided to give it pride of place as it's own entry. I think that Karen makes some excellent points, particularly about the tennis establishment's lack of appreciation of Serena. Here's the sentence that I most agree with: "I strongly believe everyone should move on. It happened. She apologized and she is trying to find the platinum lining within the dark clouds. We should all do that." I agree. And I wish that Serena herself had been guided by Karen's excellent advice and just paid the damn fine and let it go. 



TC, you know I love your blog, but I disagree with your take on this. She is mad, yes, but self pity. No. She has, as we say in Jamaica, reached the end of the rope and she is making sure everyone knows it.

I know where she is coming from as it does seem as if she has been the target of some really unjust line calls. Up to today I was watching a youtube match of her A005 semis with Sharapova, and there were a few really bad line calls. I also watched youtube clips of her match against Clijsters at the AO03 and she was booed by sections of the crowd after coming back from 5-1 down in the third set. This girl has suffered a lot and has usually kept her cool. I can see why she went ballistic at the Open.

Sometimes I too wonder whether there is a plot afoot to get her out of the game (I know that comes to my mind like 5 seconds and then disappears), but you have to see her point. I think of any player in this sport Serena has been the most castigated in terms of how her career has been viewed.

She has knee surgery in 2003, her sister is killed and she basically abandons tennis and when she returns fat and out of shape, all you hear is people in the commentary booth and in the blogosphere and so called journalists who call her out of her name and write and speak disparaging things about her. Compare that to Sharapova who just had shoulder surgery and all you hear is sympathy.

Henin decides to retire, as does Kim, and all you hear is sympathy about how tough this sport is and how you need everything and everyone commisserates and talks about how much the Tour needs them, yet Serena gets called out worldwide for trying to make it as an actress and designer of clothes, something that Sharapova seems to get a pass on. They laugh about Henin finding herself and how Kim has found herself as a result of getting married and having a child and coming back to beat both William sisters (WS).

Unless you are a diehard fan of Serena or do not read the nonsense being spouted by all and sundry about the demise of this girl's career, you have to wonder about the intentions behind some of the commentary. I strongly believe everyone should move on. It happened. She apologised and she is trying to find the platinum lining within the dark clouds. We should all do that.

The tennis establishment, and that usually includes media personnel, have never been big fans of the WS. One would have thought that with American tennis in the doldrums, American media would at least try to rally behind the WS. However, in reviewing the year end standings of the Top 10 women, this is what Abigail Lorge wrote about Azarenka: "The Belarusian's play in the first half of the year announced her as a starlet in the making, and the poise she showed in defeating Serena Williams in the Key Biscayne final seemed to clinch her status as the "next big thing" in the women's game: She's athletic and powerful, blond and bubbly.

I have no idea what blonde and bubbly have to do with playing tennis (and frankly speaking Azarenka is certainly not bubbly), but this is only one of many articles that are written, playing up not the attributes of players who have beaten Serena, but pointing out that said person is blonde, bubbly etc. You hardly see anything that mentions that Serena was basically hobbling around on one leg and yet Azarenka was beating herself up still trying to win the match. In addition, everyone states that had Azarenka not fallen ill in Australia she would have won that match. Hmm. I guess that is why they play the matches because we all saw what happened at Wimbledon later in the year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Serena’s 92K mission: Charity or passive-aggro?

Serena has just announced on her blog the launch of her new 92K mission. The figure refers to the actual amount she was just fined by the ITF (having already paid $10,000., only 82K was reported in the media). Serena says that she plans to match her fine by raising another $92,000. towards her Africa school project. She plans to auction off personal clothing items to include some of the outfits she has worn at Slam events. I wonder if that will include the cat suit? I know some men who would pay for that.

You would be forgiven if you missed the anger underlying Serena‘s statements of generosity. This is an angry woman. She seems to be seething actually. But it is all couched in such passive-aggression that I would not at all blame you for mistaking her charitable fronting for real compassion. Serena seems to be settling a score.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out where she is quoted as making a more honest and direct statement. She claims that she faced “the biggest fine EVER in tennis” for an incident that was “dubbed” an “outburst” during which she was accused of “getting mad and using the F-bomb at a line Judge“.

OK you know I love me some Serena but let’s clear some things up. First of all, what happened in New York wasn’t dubbed an outburst. It was called a complete loss of control. Second, Serena wasn’t accused of merely getting mad and dropping the F-bomb. She was alleged to have threatened to ram the ball down the diminutive line judge’s f**king throat and of wanting to kill her. Look up the clip yourself on you tube.

But even if we go with the unsanitized version of what went down in New York, does this justify Serena being charged a historic fine? Is she the victim of sexism? She seems to believe this as she proceeds to compare her situation to that of two men who behaved badly but were fined less than she was.

First there is the HE who was fined less than half of what she was after “someone in his camp” attacked an official. She is of course referring to Jeff Tarango whose wife once famously slapped a chair umpire. Serena fails to mention that this happened in 1995. Fourteen years ago, Tarango’s fine for his wife’s behavior was considered historic.

Then there is the HE who made arguing with officials “cool”, which can only be a reference to John McEnroe. Except that as far as I can recall, Johnny Mac has paid out countless fines in his career despite never having threatened to kill anyone. Yes he did once accidentally hit a kid with a water bottle which is the moment for which I will personally never forgive him. But Serena doesn’t mention this.

Instead she lapses into self-pity. She had me until she lapsed into self-pity. Serena proceeds to recount the countless unfair experiences she has suffered in tennis to include being robbed of a US Open trophy because of bad line calls, and being unfairly booed by the Indian Wells crowd. Serena then becomes enthralled in her self-pity. She goes from being the strong warrior female making her case of unfairness, to being a sniveling, histrionic victim. She encourages the reader to imagine what it must be like to work day in and day out for 20 years only to see yourself denied a much deserved promotion, which she imagines would drive anyone to their “boiling point”.

She then concludes:  “Well this is what happened to me, and to be honest I believe I reached my boiling point. After yet ANOTHER wrong call I began to wonder- Was I being ‘overlooked’ or wrongly judged on purpose!??? Is this being done to keep me from achieving my best? Why does this keep happening at the same place?”

Serena says she doesn’t mind being fined, that “if” she did wrong she is willing to "accept the repercussions", and all she asks for "is to be treated equal". Earth to Serena: You did wrong, you were fined, and being charged a hefty fee is actually a marker of equality. Deal with it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why don’t players offer free exhibition matches?

It always cracks me up when tennis players gripe and moan about the length of the season, only to turn around and play exhibition matches the minute the season comes to an end. Players that you think would be resting up and healing their supposedly sore muscles suddenly find the energy to fly to all kinds of places to put on matches for the natives, for beaucoup money of course. I don’t mean to begrudge anyone their easily-earned millions, but the stank of greed sometimes gets to me.

When I started writing this year, I initiated a series of articles on the top ten changes I would like to see in tennis, starting with getting rid of some of the old farts who have been controlling tennis since time began, and allowing some new blood and energy to infuse the administration of the game. Somewhere along the way I not only lost track of my series but, like Tiger Woods’ mistresses, I also lost count.

I think that I got up to change # 5. Which means that the year is coming to a close and I have not met my quota of suggested changes. Apologies to any readers who have been keeping track. I promise to complete the series in the New Year. Feel free to remind me.

So here is the sixth change I would like to see in tennis. I’d like for players to stop whining about the length of the season and start appreciating the opportunities with which their lives have been blessed. I’d like for some of them to become a tad more grateful, not just for their blessedness but also for their amazing fans. And if they’re going to put on exhibition matches, I’d like for some of these pros from time to time to consider doing some free exos that their fans can attend at no cost. Now that we are heading full swing into the season of giving, I’d like some of these pros to start giving back. To say thank you to their fans and mean it.

And yes I know that there are a lot of tennis players who help support some wonderful charities. Federer has been doing some awesome work in South Africa. Agassi generously funds a school in Las Vegas. Roddick’s charity helps out programs for neglected and needy children. Serena Williams contributes to a number of charities including one that funds schools in Africa. Lindsay Davenport was very giving following hurricane Katrina and did not seek publicity for it. My intent is not to discredit any of these acts of generosity. But I think that tennis pros can and should give more, specifically to their fans, especially during their time-off.

And while I mentioned that I would have expected some of these players to be resting and healing, the truth is that unless you sat on and broke a glass table like Sam Querrey, it’s probably best for your game that you remain physically active. So instead of Serena Williams flying down to Barbados to play an exhibition match against Caroline Wozniacki for pay, I would have liked to see her do the same thing for free. It would have been great to see Serena and Caroline giving generously of their time and talent to encourage Caribbean girls and boys to play tennis. I can dream can’t I?

The same goes for Justine Henin who just played an exhibition match against Flavia Pennetta. I get that Juju needs the practice. But she didn’t need the money; neither did Flavia. They could have put on two exhibition matches, one in Belgium to inspire Justine’s young fans, and one in Italy for Flavia’s young homies. Are two free exhibition matches too much to ask for?

Apparently so. Because now comes word that Sampras will be hauling his creaky ass out of retirement to play an exhibition match against Verdasco, who recently was inspired to help his country win the Davis Cup. Kudos to Verdasco, to his team, and to the great Albert Costa who inspired them all. But how great would it be if Verdasco and Sampras did the whole thing for free. It’s not like either of them needs the money. The sixth change I’d like to see in tennis is for the pros to learn how to redefine generosity, particularly to their fans.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Mauresmo has lost the fire in her belly

I used to own a book titled “A kick in the seat of the pants”. It was written in the 1980’s by a guy named Roger Von Oech. In this book Von Oech outlines a model of creativity. He believes that there are four aspects of our personality that must work in tandem if we are to be truly creative and achieve our fullest potential.

First we have to unleash the Explorer. That is the side of you that is curious and that remains open to new experiences. Then there is the Artist which is the side of your personality that takes the information gathered by the Explorer and generates new ideas and ways of working. Then there is the Judge whose role it is to determine if an idea is feasible, if the timing is right, or if modifications need to first be made before the idea can be implemented. And then there is the Warrior whose job it is to take action. Von Oech’s first instruction to the Warrior is to put a fire in your belly. The other facets prepare the groundwork, but it is the Warrior who gets the job done.

I have used this model when doing personal achievement training. I love helping people be all that they can be. I believe that many of us are capable of greatness and that we hold ourselves back with disbelief and self-doubt. Sometimes all we need is a kick in the seat of our pants to get going again.

But sometimes the fire in your belly just goes out. I don’t think that this is ever something that accidentally happens to people. I believe that the decision to quench the fire is always a choice, sometimes made unconsciously, sometimes with full awareness. In Amelie Mauresmo’s case, she seems to be fully aware that she no longer feels the urge to stoke the tennis fire in her belly. She has decided to extinguish her inner Tennis Warrior. She is hanging up her racquet.

In the interview explaining her decision to retire, Mauresmo stated: “I don’t want to train anymore. I had to make a decision, which became evident in the last few months and weeks. When you grew older, it’s more difficult to stay at the top…If I were able to enter the court, play and shine, of course I could continue. But to achieve this you need to put in such hard work. And I’m not capable of that.”

How can you not love her honesty? I admire the straightforwardness of her admission. The fire has gone out. She’s not feeling it anymore. And she is ready to move on. Tennis is not always known for such honest or graceful exits. Hingis anyone?

At age four, Mauresmo was inspired to play tennis when her countryman, Yannick Noah, won the French Open. Unfortunately for Mauresmo, this is one of the tournaments that eluded her. She has won the Australian Open as well as Wimbledon, both in 2006. In fact, she spent much of that year as the #1 ranked woman in the world, thanks to an awesome serve, precise volleys, and a sweet sweet backhand.

But her attempts to win matches in front of her homies often resulted in embarrassing mental collapses. She was disparaged for her mental fragility, particularly when playing in high stakes matches. But paradoxically, Mauresmo was also known for her courage. She continued to play tennis despite a series of serious physical injuries and setbacks. She played Fed Cup for over ten years, leading her team to victory in 2003. And she never hid her sexual orientation, not even after reportedly facing disparaging comments from the likes of Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport. Mauresmo was always a class act. And she always wore the cutest outfits on the tennis court!

Mauresmo has won 24 singles titles. She is one of a small handful of players who won the Proximus Diamond Games in Antwerp three times within a five-year period, for which she was gifted a highly coveted diamond-encrusted tennis racquet. She won a silver medal in singles at the 2004 Olympics, and in 2007, was granted the French Legion of Honor award. And she collects fine wine. How’s that for balance!

It is somehow fitting that Mauresmo’s last title should come in Paris. In February 2009, she won the Open Gaz de France, playing on indoor hard courts in front of her homies. A month later, she won the prestigious Sony Ericsson Open doubles with her partner Svetlana Kuznetsova. In celebration of the impressive career of this French Warrior, let’s all have a glass of fine merlot.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A man is only as faithful as his options

A friend said this to me. She said that it wasn’t original and that she had no idea who said it first but that the person was right. At the time we were talking about Alicia Keys and the drama behind her relationship with Swizz Beatz. My friend’s point was that Swizz Beatz may have been perfectly happy with his wife Mashonda until the option to date Alicia Keys fell into his lap. At which point it was bye bye Mashonda and hello Alicia.

The drama apparently came to a head because of Twitter. Alicia Keys twitted, “I don’t pretend 2 no wht luv is 4 every1, I can tell u wht it is for me”, which triggered an outpouring of venom from Mrs. Swizz Beatz who thought that it was in poor taste for Alicia to be tweeting about love when she was nothing but a home wrecker. Mashonada’s tirade went on and on. Girlfriend had a lot to get off her chest.

But thereafter the drama seems to have cooled. Mashonda had her say and then moved on to raising her children with the dignity she claimed to have. Alicia has been busy performing with Jay-Z. Everyone has gone back to behaving civilized. Time will tell if Alicia and Swizz Beatz will work out. Or if he will leave her for Lady Gaga or some other performer with more talent. Right about now, Tiger Woods would probably pay any amount of money to have his situation be so easily resolved.

Every so often the American public becomes fascinated with the destruction of a life. We pull up seats and take in the spectacle. For a while there it was Jon and Kate Gosselin who clearly got more than they had bargained for when they pimped out their children for fame and money. The latest spectacle is Tiger Woods and his apparent mistresses. Each day a new mistress emerges. This story will not die any time soon.

When black celebrities face scandals, it is not uncommon for them to retreat to the loving and forgiving embrace of the black community. For example, even though Michael Jackson looked more and more like a white woman as he aged, when he got accused of molesting young boys, he quickly remembered that he was a black man. And sure enough there were the expected representatives of black voices coming to his defense. Al Sharpton attended every day of the trial. Jesse Jackson made clear his support. Michael was a brother and black folk were not going to turn their back on him even though he had acted the fool.

Tiger will enjoy no such embrace. And this is because despite the blackness of his skin, and despite the fact that it was to his African-American father that he owes his very ability to play his sport, Tiger has for all of his career gone to lengths to make it clear that he does not consider himself a black man. Is the Asian community going to come to his defense? I don’t think so. Will the white community? The European? Or is Tiger all on his own? Time will tell.

In the meantime, his personal unraveling has become a good lesson for sports men everywhere. I hope that some of our tennis stars have sat up and taken notice. This could so easily, so frighteningly, be their story.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Tiger scandal. For a start, one lesson seems to be that whores will sell you out for a quick buck and 15 minutes of fame, so if you’re going to sleep around, make sure and pay your whores so well that no amount of money from US Weekly will tempt them.

Another lesson seems to be that if you’re gonna cheat, don’t be cheap. Spend the money to get private cell phones that your wife doesn’t know that you have. Or let your bodyguards run interference for you so that no whore can ever contact you directly.

But of course the best lesson is quite simply not to cheat on your wife. And that if you are not ready for marriage or not mature enough to embrace the emotional obligations of family -- if in other words you still want to be a player -- then for goodness sakes don’t get married. Put it off until you’re good and ready. No one will  fault you for this. Sleep with as many whores as you need to in the interim, but the minute you elect to marry and bring children into the world, it’s time to fricking grow up. I hope that some professional tennis players are taking note.

Friday, November 27, 2009

My New Year wish of healing for Nadal

If Nadal lived in the US, his parents’ divorce would have been plastered across the front page of gossip magazines everywhere. Speculations about the real cause of the divorce would have been rife, and lovers would have been invented for both parties, with quotes being attributed to unnamed ‘close personal friends’ and ‘insiders’, to avoid lawsuits.

Nadal is Spanish and even though I am bilingual, I’d be lying if I said that I make a habit of reading ‘El Mundo’. So I honestly have no idea how his parents’ separation was reported in his home country. But I do remember speculation starting up after he lost at Roland Garros. In June 2009, tennis writer, Peter Bodo wrote in his blog at that, “the rumors that Nadal’s parents are about to divorce keep popping up in the gutter press and in my inbox via emails from acquaintances and sources.”

So I gathered that the Spanish gossip rags were preying on this family drama in much the same way they would have in the US. And it seemed that Nadal’s lackluster performance starting in the middle of this year might have been at least in part due to being profoundly affected by the news of his parents’ disharmony.

It is hard to imagine a dominant sports player in the US being so affected by parental divorce that their performance declines. Within the context of a culture that is highly individualistic, we have long lost any notion of marriage as representing a union of two families. The Williams sisters, for example, seemed more torn up by their sister’s death than by the parting of Richard and Oracene. In fact, Oracene has never looked better.

At the risk of stereotyping, I believe that this is because the typical American marriage is between two individuals, which in part may explain the over 50% divorce rate. It is not uncommon for an American child to go through two or three stepparents before reaching age 18. When a couple elects to uncouple, there may be some impact on the family but only in so far as people deciding whose side they are going to take. I have friends who are divorced and who never again ever saw, spoke to, or in any way kept in touch with former-in-laws. It’s like a phase of their lives had ended and they just moved on.

Not so in Mallorca, where Rafa was a boy and is still growing into manhood. Not so on any small island where everyone knows everyone and where it is not at all uncommon for adult children to continue living with their parents, not because the economy is bad and they have no choice, but because the sense of ‘la familia’ is so deep. In interdependent cultures, the ties to family can be so strong that divorce is almost like a kind of death.

I understand island culture. I have been shaped by island culture. My values run deep in Caribbean soil. I understand why the rate of divorce was only 10% in the Caribbean in 1997, (according to the UN’s “World Women, Trend and Statistics), and why although this percentage has increased since then, it is nowhere near the rate in the US.

I was also unsurprised to discover that a similar rate of divorce exists in Spain. It is one of the lowest in Europe. And I think that this has everything to do with the cultural centrality of the family. In cultures where marriage is literally a partnership between two families, the notion of uncoupling can be very difficult. In the Caribbean it can at times be downright impossible because powerful forces will collude to keep a family intact.

So I completely understand the emotional impact of his parents’ divorce on a player like Nadal. Around the middle of this year, he started giving clues as to the nature of his private distress. Following a loss to Del Potro at the Sony Ericcson in Miami, Nadal was quoted as saying “Always is a reason because you are not playing at your level during the tournament…Always is a reason, but it’s personal.”

Recently Rafa has been more forthcoming about how his parents’ divorce has affected him. In an interview quoted by the Guardian, Nadal reveals that his loss at Roland Garros and his decision not to defend his trophy at Wimbledon both reflected the impact of his inner emotional turmoil:  “My parents’ divorce made an important change in my life. It affected me. After that, when I can’t play Wimbledon, it was tough. For one month I was outside the world. I am OK now, but you need time to accept. And it’s more difficult to accept when you are outside home and don’t know what’s happening.”

Nadal has ended 2009 on a desultory note. My New Year wish for him is that 2010 brings him healing, not just from the many bodily injuries including the tendinitis that have plagued him this year, but also for his emotional pain. A strong and confident Nadal will make 2010 very exciting for us all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Right now, men’s tennis is all kinds of awesome

I have been on such a high. My high started with the released photo of the group of men finalists all dressed in suits. Some of them looked as if they had never put on a suit before and couldn’t wait to wrench it off their bodies and go back to being sweaty. Others looked as if they were born to be dressed by Anna Wintour. Either way, they all looked all kinds of awesome, a group of men dressed in their Sunday best, representing the cream of the tennis crop.

I have previously expressed my disappointment in a similar photo of the women. But photos are superficial and do not necessarily represent the quality of the person underneath the veneer of make-up. Except that it turned out that this time, they did. The women looked a group of broken-down depressed floozies. The women proceeded to play tennis like a group of broken-down depressed floozies. What happened in Doha was shameful. What is happening in London is exhilarating, redemptive.

Is it unfair of me to compare? Perhaps. But one can’t help but get the impression that despite all of the background drama and all of the hustling for overpriced paychecks, men’s tennis continues to seem so much better managed. Of course I am not privy to the background shenanigans and the men may in fact be as miserable as the women clearly seemed to be. But if that is the case, it has not at all been affecting their tennis.

In a sense, I do not understand why the women seemed like such a group of broken-down depressives. And yes I know all of the arguments that the season is too long and that the women were exhausted by the time they got to Doha. I think that that argument is complete BS. I think that the same women who are complaining about the length of the tour will turn around and sign on for exhibition matches in all kinds of far-flung places so that they can earn their money at easier cost.

Furthermore, the notion that a group of women will inevitably show up in Doha looking all kinds of broken-down is not at all supported by the research. Research has consistently shown that not only can women endure more stress than men, but when it comes to physical stress, we are not too shabby either. Men may win marathons at faster speeds than women, but it is women who win super marathons. We are built not for speed but for endurance. Not that there was any evidence of that in Doha.

And in hindsight, I think that the problem in Doha was that some of the women who qualified had no business qualifying. Oh sure their ranking qualified them, but mentally there was no readiness to perform on that kind of stage. And then there were the women who were not there but whose presence would have made a scintillating difference. I am thrilled that Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin are back. I look forward to Sharapova being completely healed. I wish Sabine Lisicki could remain injury-free for more than two tournaments in a row. These are some of the women who would have helped to make Doha the event it was meant to be.

In the meantime, it’s been a thrill a minute with the men. I was worried that after six weeks off, Federer would show up looking all kinds of creaky and rusty. And to an extent this has been true, but only in the first set. That’s his warm-up set. That’s the set in which those synapses start firing as he is figuring out his opponent and creating his master plan for domination. It’s been wonderful to watch the execution.

Del Potro’s close win against Verdasco surprised me. I had expected him to dispose of his opponent in straight sets. But DelPo seems to be a player who gains confidence as the tournament proceeds, so I am not at all counting him out. And I have developed such a crush on Robin Soderling. There is something so sweet about his persistence. He just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would break Nadal in exactly the same way, twice -- in the last game to close out the set and then the match -- but that is precisely what he did. Soderling plays an unnerving kind of tennis that must piss his opponents off royally.

And what can I say about the doubles? It’s been wonderful to see the level of quality. The level is so high that the chest-bumping Bryans saw their gesture not only get co-opted by the likes of Knowles and Bhupati, but also found themselves on the losing end in straight sets. It’s been glorious tennis all around. I have been enjoying every minute of it. It’s been an awesome season of men’s tennis. I wish it didn’t have to end. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The London draw, in haiku

Group A

(1) Roger Federer

Twin motives remind
The king, that win, draw, or lose,
Love still waits at home.

(4) Andy Murray

Irked by the sense
Of being discounted, eclipsed
London is his chance.

(5) Juan Martin del Potro

Full of Argie pride
He’s eager to show the world
That he is the best.

(7) Fernando Verdasco

At times dilettante
Next moment focused, in charge.
Which one will show up?

Group B

(2) Rafael Nadal

Uncle Toni frets.
Is it because of Xisca
Or is he fading?

(3) Novak Djokovic

To close out the year
With that final awesome win,
Would be redemptive.

(6) Nikolay Davydenko

His wife’s sweet kisses
Are inspiration enough
To give of his best.

(8) Robin Söderling

Thanks for small mercies
Federer’s not in his draw.
How long can luck hold?

Withdrawn: Andy Roddick

Is it cowardice
That he’d much rather play
With his wife’s mammaries?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Serena vs. Andre: A tale of dueling memoirs

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not keen on reading Serena’s memoir, which was ghost-written by the prolific Daniel Paisner. My concern was in part based on my perception that Serena does not exactly come across as a self-reflective or introspective individual. A memoir is best written by one gifted in the art of navel-gazing, not navel-baring.

Furthermore, I was concerned that the characteristic Williams’ reticence would win out in the end and that we would not be privy to anything that we don’t already know. And most of the reviews that I have read seem to concur with this prediction.

For instance, one Amazon Vine reviewer notes: “I was hoping for more in-depth knowledge about how Serena thinks, her loves, future hopes...even some juicy stuff. But none of that is in the book. Even when she talks about the events of 9/11 when she and her family were all flying that day, it reads like a dry gulch rather than the tear gusher that it should be. She refers to past loves as ‘so and so’, there’s just not enough details about the private Serena to make this a worthwhile biography. It’s all the stuff about the public Serena and then a few tidbits of stuff thrown in where she calls Venus a nerd. But even that doesn’t seem like sincere banter. OK, very light reading, perhaps read while sitting in an airport terminal somewhere and then leave for the next person to pickup and read.” Ouch.

Let’s be honest, whatever chance Serena had of selling more copies of this book was damaged by her outburst at the US Open. In fact, Serena’s initial attempts to apologize for the outburst were roundly criticized because she seemed to be more focused on plugging her book than on saying that she was sorry. Then came her nude cover on ESPN magazine which seems to have drained away some of the attention from the memoir instead of adding to it as I assume was the intent.

But the death knell seems to have been the publication of Andre Agassi’s “Open”. Andre’s memoir leapt out of the blocks and has been selling like hotcakes. Already we have been privy to a few of its eye-popping and highly controversial revelations.

Like Serena, Andre has been doing the rounds promoting this book. Like Serena he has been hopping from one continent to another, submitting to interviews and fan-filled book signings. Except that unlike Serena, Andre is a thoughtful and self-revelatory interview subject. Here is a report written by Elaine “Lainey” Lui, a Special Correspondent for Canadian TV who interviewed Andre in Toronto yesterday:

“Agassi is very intense and it was early morning so maybe he was more intense than usual, having stayed up the night before for an appearance at a book store with 800 fans. I almost withered under the eye contact. He never breaks. I wouldn’t say he’s super warm, not the friendliest individual, rather guarded in fact, even though he lays it all out in the book. But Agassi is honest and articulate and he is his own person. Did not arrive surrounded by sycophants and an entourage of handlers. He takes care of himself, he doesn’t need to be coddled or protected from the tough questions, and is willingly shouldering his beats – about the meth use, about his hair weave, about his fragile ego, all of it totally Open, his aptly titled autobiography that I powered through this weekend.”

I have not seen a single negative review of “Open”. By all reports it is a stunning book and extremely well-written. Of course I intend to form my own opinions after I read the book. In the meantime, here is Lainey’s assessment of Andre’s memoir:  

“It’s good. Really good. It’s the best sports memoir I’ve ever read and not only because of the scandalous details, but because of who helped him write it. LOVE J.R. Moehringer. “The Tender Bar” is one of my favorite books of all time. And this is what elevates Agassi’s “Open” above the others. The stories are there, sure. But J.R. Moehringer frames them so beautifully, it reads like something entirely different. If you follow tennis, you’ll love the tennis details: the match play, the locker room dynamic, the training, even how he strings his racket – all fascinating. And yes, the gossip too. I’ll never feel the same way about Pete Sampras again. Dude, he’s CHEAP.”

Go here for an excerpt from Andre’s “Open” and here for an excerpt from Serena’s “On the Line”. Each book will probably appeal to an entirely different kind of tennis fan. But at the end of the day, the dueling memoirs are going to be great for tennis.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Super-Sebian versus the French Clown

I can’t wait for the Paris Masters finals tomorrow. Djokovic versus Monfils, the former totally expected given the awesome run of form he is currently enjoying, the latter my heart’s delight, but I fully expect Djokovic to crush him.

The upsets started early in Bercy, with Federer going out in the first round to Julien Benneteau. There is nothing like playing in front of your homies to bring out your best. We saw that the week before when Federer once again made it to the finals of the Swiss Davidoff. I felt badly for him that he lost in the finals in front of his home crowd and his mother. That must sting. But Benneteau (which my spellcheck keeps changing to ‘bonehead’ much to my delight), seemed to have been equally inspired.

Of course he came back down to earth in the next round in the match against Monfils. And this is as good a point as any to talk about how much Monfils frustrates me. Monfils is a puzzling character. On the one hand, he wastes a lot of energy clowning around on the tennis court. I wish he could learn how to control and channel his energy into winning points. On the other hand, he has this completely passive, lackadaisical style of playing tennis that absolutely drives me nuts. I find myself wanting to reach through the TV screen and shake him.

Monfils has a horrible habit of dragging out points. In the match against David Guez for example, whom any self-respecting top-20 player would have sent packing 6-0 6-1 (and the breadstick only because you don’t completely humiliate a man in front of his home crowd or his mother), Monfils eventually won 6-4 6-3. Most of the time he seemed to be returning the ball just to return the ball. He wasn’t creating anything, he wasn’t setting up anything, he wasn’t constructing anything. He seemed to have no game plan other than simply out-waiting Guez. And that irritated me. As much as I love him, it is very hard for me to watch Monfils play. He ends up irking the crap out of me.

Monfils’ passive and lame-brained approach to tennis will not work against Djokovic tomorrow. In fact, I did not expect it to work today against Stepanek. I am still stunned that it did. Indeed, after watching Djokovic blow Nadal off the court, I left home and went to play tennis myself, confident that I would come home to the news of a Djokovic vs. Stepanek finals. I have no idea what Monfils did to win that match. I can only imagine how mind-numbing it was, one ball-poker playing another. I guess youth may have been on Monfils’ side.

Well youth won’t make a crap of difference tomorrow. Djokovic is playing divine tennis. Always one of the more intelligent players on the court, Djokovic seems to have found his second wind late in the season. In fact, if he keeps up the form we saw last week in Basle and this week in Bercy, I will go out on a limb and say that he will be the one to beat in London.

I have previously credited Davydenko for playing smarter tennis than Nadal at the 2009 Shanghai Masters. Today Djokovic went at least 15 IQ points higher. He played Nadal’s backhand like a violin. He drove lethal winners into the Nadal forehand. His serve was on point, especially the serve out wide to the sideline. His placement was awesome, his movement spare and breathtaking, his nerves of pure steel, his body language relaxed and confident.

Djokovic not only had a definite plan but he went out and decisively implemented it. Nadal didn’t seem to know what hit him. When was the last time you saw Nadal completely give up on points? He seemed to know that he was being completely outplayed and that he had no answers for Djokovic’s game. Nadal’s words of congratulations at the net seemed sincere.

I don’t think I am over-reaching when I say that Djokovic is currently playing his best tennis ever. The Djokovic who showed up in Basle and Bercy will make mincemeat of Monfils tomorrow. If I were Monfils I would think twice about inviting my mother.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Can Philippoussis find happiness with a Cougar?

Let me admit straight up that I despise the word “cougar” to refer to older women involved in relationships with younger men. The term invokes the image of a predatory female stalking and feasting on a naïve young lover who is somehow assumed to be incapable of making the choice to date an older women with eyes wide open.

Maybe I’m being a bit defensive. Truth be told, I have never fallen in love with an older man. I’ve dated people my age or younger, but more wrinkled than me? Forget it.

The closest I ever came to dating an older man happened during my internship year. I was in a strange town and did not know anyone there. So of course I took myself to the local gym and tennis courts. At the gym, this older guy kept standing behind me in aerobics class. I ain’t no J lo but I knew that it was the ass that had him hooked. When it turned out that he could not only play tennis but that he was as keen on it as I was, well a friendship was immediately struck up.

For most of that spring, we went everywhere and did a lot of things together. But I was not sexually attracted to him so I kept him at arms length. Of course I asked the standard questions one asks a man who is of the age to have a wife and children. He admitted to having one of the former and two of the latter but insisted that he was legally separated and working on his divorce.

Did I believe him? It didn’t matter. I wasn’t turned on and there was no chance in heck that he was ever getting into my pants. So when a wife mysteriously showed up at the start of the summer, I was neither surprised nor devastated. Turns out the poor woman had only stayed behind while her children finished school. But my would-be lover blamed me. He said that because I seemed frigid, he had no choice but to go back to his wife. Can you believe the boldfacedness of that grizzled-up old fart? I had to laugh. To this day it’s a memory that still cracks me up when I think about it.

But enough about me. This article is supposed to be about the Scud Muffin and his latest betrothal.

When Mark Philippoussis embarrassed himself and all of tennis by appearing on a reality show looking for a woman, I could barely watch for shame. He had the choice of “Cougars” or “Kittens”. Most of the women had that sheen of desperation one comes to expect of women who go on reality shows to find fame, I mean a mate. Mark seemed wooden, lost, vapid. Even Flava Flav with his oversized clocks and horrible gold teeth ended up attracting more lust and created more of a feeding frenzy than poor Mark.

In the end Mark picked a Kitten. I forget her name. He picked her over a middle-aged Cougar. I forget her name too. (I could look it up on wiki but I couldn’t be  bothered.) The show was a disaster, more ludicrous than my memories of being courted by an elderly fart during my internship year. But hopefully at least Mark got himself laid. In the end HIS relationship with the Kitten didn’t last. I don’t believe anyone was surprised.

Now comes word that Philippoussis is again betrothed. He’s been betrothed before, not to the Age of Love contestant but to a previous Kitten. That relationship didn’t work either. Now he has apparently decided to go Cougar. His new beloved is the actress Jennifer Esposito who has starred in nothing that I remember. Her claim to fame is a brief four-month marriage to the actor, Bradley Cooper. Ms. Esposito is 36 to Mark’s 32. Not quite geriatric territory but closer to Cougar than Kitten. I wish them well. I also hope that Ms. Esposito is a generous woman with a huge bank balance because when last I heard Philippoussis was getting the crap sued out of him.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Who does Oudin mean by “some people”?

The US just lost the Fed Cup title to Italy. The US would more than likely have won the Fed Cup title if either of the Williams sisters had played. The US would definitely have won the Fed Cup title if both of the sisters had played. The US needs the Williams sisters. That is the plain truth.

But said truth is not at all simple. And while I would really prefer to treat with the relationship between Serena Williams and the country she happens to represent in international tournaments, I have no choice but to include her sister in the discourse because in all things tennis, they are treated as part of a package deal, the one punished for the errors of the other, the one booed for the non-performance of the other, the one included in a veiled reference to “some people” even though the other made it completely clear from the start that she was not going to play Fed Cup.

From the beginning something went horrifically wrong in the relationship between the tennis establishment and these two African-American sisters. And it’s not entirely the fault of the tennis establishment. From the start the sisters seemed kind of stand-offish, a bit removed, members of a closed society of family who depended on and supported each other but were open to very few outsiders. Richard’s refusal to allow his daughters to play Junior tennis irked more than a few. His refusal to properly acknowledge the role of coaches like Rick Macci to the development of his daughters’ games remains unpardonable for some.

But Tennis USA also made its share of mistakes. It embraced the blond Sharapova so completely you’d swear she wasn’t Russian and playing against the USA for Fed Cup. Sharapova remained a media and corporate darling even after being fined for cheating and illegal coaching. She remained the “It” girl of tennis even after it was clear that her coach was not her father as listed, but Michael Joyce who only recently had the honor of being properly credited for his years of hard labor.

Despite this, I believe that the Williams legacy will be tremendous in the world of tennis. And I believe that they will be lasting inspirations to girls everywhere, not just girls of a darker shade of pale.

I took part in a new tennis clinic yesterday and one of the participants was a talented blonde junior who was there to beat up on the rest of us. During a break I overheard a white woman asking her who her tennis inspirations were. Without missing a beat she replied, “Venus and Serena. Although I kinda prefer Venus because she is tall like me”.

And so I was disappointed to read Oudin’s interview after the US lost at Fed Cup to Italy. In her post-match interview, Oudin was quoted as saying, “For me, this is what I wanted. I wanted to come here. I wanted to play for my country. I don't know, other people choose different things. Some people, I guess, didn't want to play as badly as I did. But I think that the team that we had here really wanted to be here. I think that was what should have happened. I mean, you don't want people here that don't want to be here. Next year we're gonna have people that want to be here again. That's what you want. You don't want people that don't want to be here or play for their country. Even if you lose, if you give it everything you have, then that's the best you can do.”

The “some people” in that extract could only be the Williams sisters. These are the same sisters that Oudin previously credited for inspiring her as a child. How soon we forget.

Oudin is too young in her career to be making these kinds of comments. I get her disappointment. I get that it sucks that while she should be playing tennis for her country, Serena was busy pushing her book in London and talking again about wanting to have an acting career as an action figure. I also get that Oudin is young and not yet practiced in the skills of politics. I get that she may not be privy to the bigger picture, the darker machinations of people who seem motivated only by the desire to once and for all humble Serena Williams. But I really wish Oudin had not said this.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tennis and mental illness

I recently attended a talk given by Herschel Walker, the former NFL running back and Heisman Trophy winner. He shared some of the horrific events of his childhood that probably played a part in the later splintering of his fragile psyche, such as living in terror of being attacked by members of the Klu Klux Klan, and being the chubby kid who was constantly bullied.

Walker also opened up about some of the early glimpses of his mental illness. He first shared his concern with a pastor who then made it the topic of that Sunday’s sermon. Walker even endured an exorcism, before finally obtaining professional help.

As I listened to him share about his diagnosis and eventual treatment for Dissociative Identity Disorder, I found myself wondering if any professional tennis players had ever opened up like this about being mentally ill. I don’t remember ever reading about mentally ill tennis players. Have you?

But surely some must exist? Mental illness is not incompatible with playing professional tennis. It certainly did not interfere with Walker’s tremendous accomplishments as a pro football player.

Most tennis players are probably more comfortable talking about their physical injuries than acknowledging mental illness, which may be unfairly perceived as a sign of weakness. As the general population continues to struggle with the unfair stigma attached to mental illness, think of how much more difficult it may be for the professional athlete.

One of the few references I could find to mental illness in professional tennis involved a player named Edwin P. Fischer. He played for the West Side Tennis Club and won the New York Metropolitan Singles Championships in 1896, 1898 and 1899. He won the US Open mixed doubles in 1894, 1895, and 1896 with the same partner, a Ms. Juliette P. Atkinson. He was ranked #9 in the US in 1901. Yes, I had to go that far back.

According to the December 2, 1920 New York Times, Fischer was admitted to Bellevue Hospital after his sister reported that he has been annoying relatives with his dire predictions. On September 11th, 1920 (I kid you not), Fischer sent a number of postcards from Canada, warning friends to get out of New York because Wall Street was going to explode.

The fact that he had accurately predicted the Wall Street explosion was later determined to be  purely coincidental and not evidence of his psychic abilities as he had claimed. Fischer was arrested in front of a crush of paparazzi upon his arrival in New York. In explanation of his bulky clothing, he revealed that he was wearing two business suits for warmth and his tennis clothes underneath in case an opportunity to play presented itself.

Howard Schoenfield is still listed as an inactive player on the ATP tour.  He won most of the tournaments he entered in 1975, including the 18-and-under championship. Later that year he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was admitted to a mental hospital for several months. He attempted to recoup his career the following year but was never again successful. He lives today in a halfway home.

In 1982, Sports Illustrated writer, Barry McDermott, wrote an in-depth piece on mental illness among junior tennis players. Though somewhat dated and containing notions of mental illness that we now know to be inaccurate, the piece is a detailed treatise on the mental decline of a number of Junior tennis players whose emotional unraveling was at the time linked to the pressures of competition and achievement.

The pressure has only grown since then. Does tennis have a Herschel Walker who will step up and courageously admit to his or her struggles?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

What’s behind Serena’s Fed Cup withdrawal?

Barely a week ago, The International Tennis Federation (ITF) confirmed Serena as part of the team representing the US in the upcoming Federation Cup finals match. I was more than a bit surprised because Serena has not played Fed Cup all year. But the decision seemed in keeping with her thrust to close out 2009 in a spectacular fashion. (She must still be pissed over losing at doubles in Doha.) Serena herself confirmed her intent to be on the team come November 7-8 in Reggio Calabria. She called out Melanie Oudin and Alexa Glatch as part of “a great team”.

Venus on the other hand stated from the start that she was not playing, citing exhaustion as well as acknowledging her year-long absence from Fed Cup: “I'm just unable to play more tennis after this. The team got to the finals without me. So they can definitely win without me.” That she is hurting was evident in the final match today.

In fact both women look kind of banged up. In fact all of the women look kind of banged up. So had Serena done like Venus and stated from the outset that she was not available, no one would have surprised. Few would have held it against her.

But she said she would play. And less than a week later, she has announced a change of mind. Now she anticipates that she is “…just going to be wiped out by the end of this. I’m literally just giving everything I have.” Did she not know this a few days before?

It is a fact that Serena gave Doha her all. She won every single one of her matches, dropping only one set in an early round to her sister Venus. There is no doubt that she is battered and exhausted. When Tracy Austin asked Serena how come the weather in Doha did not seem to be affecting her, Serena looked at her as if she had lost her mind. It was a stupid question. Just because she didn’t burst into tears like Wozniacki doesn’t mean that Serena is not hurting. She just copes with typical Williams stoicism.

But I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of back story to her decision to withdraw from Fed Cup. Surely a week should be enough for her to recover? Unless her decision to enter was simply part of a ploy to repair her currently damaged reputation, and her withdrawal an indicator that said ploy was not going to work.

Rumor has it that Serena might be banned from entering the Australian Open as a result of her mad-woman breakdown at the US Open. Did she decide that there was therefore no point in playing nice and supporting Mary Jo and her Fed Cup?

The question of how Serena should be punished has become a sensitive one, discussed in sotto voce with no clear pronouncements by anyone in a leadership position in the USTA. Tennis commentators like Mary Carillo and Pam Shriver came down harsh on Serena at the time. Both advocated a punishment of not being able to enter a Slam.

I too agree that Serena has to face some kind of punishment. While I empathized with her frustration over the foot fault call, it would have been great if she had found some way to control herself. She needs to practice self-talk that can help her to deescalate.

But what about the lineswoman? Is she going to be punished as well? After all, it was a critical moment in the match and that call was horrific. And am I the only one who has observed how often the Williams sisters have had foot faults called against them ever since? If any other player got a foot fault call in any tournament since the US Open, I must have missed it. But Venus and Serena? It’s like they suddenly don’t know where to place their feet when serving. Or am just being a conspiracy theorist?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Did anyone predict a Sister-Sister final in Doha?

If they did, I sure as heck missed it. I too did not predict it. Of course I’ve admitted before that I can’t prognosticate for crap, so no where in my thinking did I figure that Venus had a chance in heck of making it to the finals.

Serena I took entirely for granted. I have always believed that she would close out the year as the # 1 player in the world. She has been saying this for months and I have never for a moment doubted her.

But Venus? I have to admit that I totally discounted her. For a start, she was initially the second lowest ranking woman coming to Doha. In the world of professional tennis, at age 29, Venus is not ancient exactly but she is certainly not a spring chicken. I did not for a second even think of contemplating the possibility that she might be a force to be reckoned with in Doha. As far as I was concerned, she was lucky to even qualify.

This is because thus far in 2009, Venus has only won two relatively minor singles tournaments. In February, she won the  Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships against Virginia Razzano.  One week later, she beat Flavia Pennetta in the finals of the Abierto Mexicano Telcel. Since then, she has done relatively squat in singles.

In fact, here are the players who have beaten Venus Williams since February 2009:
Sabine Lisicki

Dinara Safina

Alisa Kleybanova

Agnes Szavay

Elena Dementieva

Kateryna Bondarenko

Kim Clijsters

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

I have no idea who the latter player is but she has had the honor of beating Venus twice this year. Only Serena has beaten Venus more times than Pavlyuchenkova.

So I did not anticipate Venus making it to the finals, not with those dodgy knees. Then again, is there any player in this draw who isn’t injured? Safina quit first because of her back. Serena’s left thigh has been strapped throughout the tournament. Wozniacki suffered massive cramps in her match against Zvonareva, and has also complained of an abdomen injury. Azarenka was up 6-4, 5-2 when she retired against Radwanska because of a damaged right thigh plus a back injury. Zvonareva has a messed up ankle. Really, we should just rename this tournament The Banged up Women Finals.

So it was no surprise that Wozniacki retired against Serena today. A healthy Wozniacki would have challenged Serena. A banged-up Wozniacki, playing under the horrifically humid conditions of Qatar, had neither a chance nor a prayer. Yet I have been very impressed with this young woman. I love her fighting spirit, her self-confidence and her positivity. Wozniacki may be our new Smiling Assassin. I can think of no other player who is more deserving of being in the Championship finals.

But Venus clawed her way there after beating Jankovic in three sets. When Venus’ forehand return clipped the net and dropped onto Jankovic’s side of the court, I concluded that the fates were simply aligning themselves for the most befitting finals match. Sister versus Sister. Venus vs. Serena. Singles opponents and doubles partners, time after time.

They lost today in doubles. In singles, I favor a Serena win. But regardless of the outcome, Serena’s position as the # 1 player in 2009 has already been codified. And that is absolutely fine with me.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

So Safina bailed on her beat down

Well, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. Were you? You knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Serena has made it perfectly clear that she was out for blood. If Safina had somehow made it to the finals in Doha, the beat down was not going to be pretty. In fact, it was going to be downright ugly. All blood and gore.

But no more. Safina has bailed on the entire event. She flew to Doha, posed for pictures (wearing some of the most garish makeup and the most god-awful black dress I have ever seen), went out on court, posed with Jankovic, warmed up, played two games, and then bailed. She said that her back was hurting. To quote her, “My body just gave up, and I couldn't handle the pain anymore”. To quote me, no sweetie, you just bailed on your ass-whopping.

Part of me is struggling to remain sympathetic towards Safina. She would not be one of the women in the banner above my blog if I did not truly appreciate her. I think that she has worked very hard to get to the top. Forget about the fact that she has not won any Slams; she has been a finalist more than once, and has won her share of top tier tournaments. I truly believe in her talent.

But I can’t help but wonder if at least a part of her motive for bailing on Doha was possibly to avoid further damage to her psyche. Had Safina submitted to the beat-down by Serena (assuming of course that she even made it past Wozniacki, Azarenka, or Jankovic), that experience may have done more harm to her already fragile psyche.

Because we all know that Serena would have made a point of crushing her. Of course Serena herself would have had to get past a much more difficult draw consisting of her arch rival Dementieva, the very talented Kuznetsova, and her own sister Venus. Had she survived her half of the round-robin tournament and ended up facing Safina in the finals, Serena would have risen to the challenge of destroying her opponent. And to be honest, that would have been fine with me. After all, as I’ve said before, professional tennis is not a garden party. If you don’t have the stomach for it, get off the court.

And apparently Safina has. She played two games, grabbed her back, packed her bags, and fled. Can women’s tennis get any more shameful?

But is it possible that Safina may have done more damage to herself psychologically by quitting? Could she have benefited from toughing it out, by believing herself to be bold, brave, and not afraid of anyone?

Understand that this argument is premised on the assumption that there is a whole lot of emotion tied up in that complaint of back pain. Pain that suddenly appeared on a tennis court in Doha, and that was evidently so unbearable that she could not even complete one set. I am fascinated by the psychology of pain. I am intrigued by the growing body of evidence indicating that pain may be far more of a psychological experience than a physiological one. Treat the emotions behind the pain and quite often the pain subsides.

Of course Safina needs to consult with orthopedists, physiotherapists, neurologists, chiropractors, and any or all of the host of medical specialists who can assist her with addressing the physiological aspects of her back pain. But perhaps she may also want to consider attending to the mix of emotions that may be tied up in her physical pain. Emotions such as fear, and anxiety, and (ouch) cowardice. I don’t mean to be harsh. I’ve argued before that I believe that PST can help her. I believe this even more now.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Well at least Andre didn’t sleep with his mother

Mackenzie Phillips has probably forever raised the bar on celebrity-penned autobiographies with her disclosure of a ten-year long sexual affair with her father. Any celebrity hoping to get a book published is going to have to go one further. Except that the bar is now just too high. What possible other means of self-abasement can any celebrity ever come up with as a means of earning money?

I wasn’t surprised that Serena Williams tried her hand at a memoir. If a Williams sister was going to go there, it was going to be Serena. After all, she has already posed nude on more than one occasion. And she has been fighting down the Hollywood scene ever since her first Slam victory.

Can you remember the horrific Williams Sisters “For Real” reality show? Will anyone ever get over the bizarre scene in which Serena seemed to have broken up with Brett Ratner in the season finale? Did you too get the sense that he seemed to just be playing along, in the manner of a man who has already moved on but who is willing to give a persistent famewhore her dramatic moment in front of the cameras? Ouch.

I have not read Serena’s memoir. I would be willing to review it in exchange for a free copy, but I am decidedly uninterested in buying it. My reason? The Williams sisters have never been big on self-disclosure. Of the two, Serena has always been the more forthcoming. But what on earth could she have been up to that we don’t already know? Once you take your clothes off and put on a reality show, unless you’re going to admit something utterly far-fetched and unexpected -- like that you seduced Venus’ boyfriend and bore his secret lovechild who now lives in Germany -- well, the rest is just tame stuff.

Because this is how it works in the world of the celebrity memoir. You have to be willing to go there. You have to expose yourself naked and then some. Oprah’s disclosures of a teenage pregnancy went a long way towards making her a household name. Her admission of cocaine use pushed her over the edge into ultimate celebrity-hood.

I don’t care how many times Serena takes her clothes off, one gets the sense that the fundamental Williams reticence will always prevail. Of course I may be wrong and she may leave us jaw-dropped with some revelation in her follow up part deux. She can feel free to use my idea above, no charge.

Now comes word that Andre Agassi is about to share his deepest darkest with us all. In keeping with the way celebrity memoirs are peddled, Andre has admitted to using crystal meth during the period in 1997 when his career sank in the toilet.

Note to Serena: This is how you sell a memoir, Hollywood style. Andre clearly did not spend years promoting the notion that appearance is everything, for nothing.

Andre’s memoir is titled “Open”, a brilliant play-on-words, at once capturing his tennis past as well as a decision to share his secrets. And as an aperitif intended to leave us salivating for more, he has revealed that he used crystal meth during the period he was married to Brooke Shields.

Well it could be worse. At least he did not claim to have had sex with his mother.

When asked if he was concerned about how his fans would feel about him being a meth-head at one point in the 90s, Andre responded, “I was worried for a moment, but not for long...I wore my heart on my sleeve and my emotions were always written on my face. I was actually excited about telling the world the whole story.” 

Given their prolonged rivalry, I wonder what Pete Sampras will come up with to top Andre? I actually have a few ideas, all involving Pete Fischer. Remember him?