Sunday, January 25, 2009

Yes Jelena, there are match-ups from hell

I have a good friend, a tall lefty player, whom I have never beaten in tennis. Sure we often trade breaks of serve, but I have never won a match against him. Because he loves me, he knows that I will become very pissed off if he ever offers me any pity wins, and so he routinely - and I might add, gleefully - spanks my ass off the court. I have concluded that the problem is that I have not figured out a way to master his nasty lefty spin.

The closest I ever came was one night when we played in 30-something-degree weather. Yes, we are both nuts. For tennis that is. That night, I came close. We ended up with a 6-6 score in the first set. But we never played the tie-break. It was almost as if neither of us wanted to risk messing with the equilibrium we have established. He suggested that we call it a night because the temperature had dipped and it was so damn cold. I graciously went along. But I will always wonder - would I have won? Could I have won?

Ever so often in the world of tennis, one runs across a match up between two players where the one is so completely
mismatched against the style of the other that repeated losses become the order of the day. Brad Gilbert, back when he was a player and not just a big mouth on TV, lost 16 straight times to Ivan Lendl. Jonas Bjorkman lost 11 straight times to Yevgeny Kavelnikov. Wayne Ferreira never beat Andre Agassi, in 11 tries. And Tommy Robredo has never beaten Andy Roddick, to name just a few.

There are times when it seems as if no matter how the one player improves her fitness, aligns her game, maintains her focus - frankly, no matter what she does - when facing a certain opponent with a certain style of play, her game simply folds. Her weapons become neutralized.

Such seems to be the situation between Jelena Jankovic and Marion Bartoli. From the minute that I saw that Jelena was going to face Marion in Australia, I started thinking that this might be the end of her run. And it was.

Kudos to Jelena who (at least during the immediate post-match interview), when baited by the press to come up with a bunch of excuses for her loss, simply refused to do so. Sure she was a bit graceless when she claimed that she had allowed Bartoli to win. But she also gave credit where it was due. Marion beat her. No she wasn’t tired, no she hadn’t overtrained, no she wasn’t ill. She had simply lost.

There is something about Marion’s two-handed-on-both-sides kind of game that seems to make it unpredictable for Jelena who thrives against opponents whose games she can predict, anticipate, and crush. Their respective styles of playing tennis seem to be fundamentally incompatible.

Of course there are times when the problem between two players is entirely mental. Such was the case for Patty Schnyder versus Anna Kournikova. The very sight of Anna would send Patty into such a fit of negative emotions that she became literally unable to play. When asked to explain their lop-sided 1-4 rivalry, the far more talented Schnyder once replied, “I hate playing her. And I don't play if I'm on the court against her. It's her person and everything around her.” The problem, as Patty herself recognized, was entirely mental.

But in some situations it is the styles of two players that seems to be so fundamentally incompatible that one player ends up genuinely disadvantaged against the other. Of course, what starts out as a stylistic incompatibility can easily become transformed into a mental roadblock. And there were moments when Jelena seemed frightened. I was shocked at her
inability to throw in a decisive second serve the minute Marion planted herself four feet into the court. Jelena seemed intimidated. The more she loses to Bartoli, the more she may become mentally unable to beat her and the issue of stylistic incompatibility will become moot.

But Jelena needs to not give up. With persistence, she may eventually have a breakthrough. All it takes is one win to upset the balance and start the process of believing.

When Andy Roddick finally won a match against Roger Federer in the summer of 2003, there was a hush heard around the tennis world. Up until that moment, Andy’s record against the Fed was 0-9. In their tenth match-up, Andy finally prevailed, beating Roger 6-4, 3-6, 7-6. Of course, ever since that win, Andy has gone right back to his losing ways. But he no longer has that deer-in-the-headlights look when facing Federer. He now seems to believe that he can win.

Yes Jelena, some match-ups are just match-ups from hell. There may be a fun
damental incompatibility between the styles of two players such that the one does not have a chance in hell of beating the other. Until she starts to believe that she can.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A little less modeling, perhaps?

Tennis is a jealous lover. It demands all of your attention and energies. Its spotlight will not be shared. It demands exclusivity. Sure you can flirt with it for a while, even engage in the occasional hook-up, but the minute you decide to go pro, tennis demands that you forsake all others and focus only on her.

The irony of this professional sport is that there are fewer distractions at the bottom rungs of the ascent. Ask any bottom feeder or players hanging out in the netherworld of rankings in the 900’s and you will discover that they rarely ever attract free gear. Most of their expenses either come of their pockets or from the pockets of wealthy benefactors who believe in their talent. And the latter is true only for the rare handful. Most bottom feeders grind out a lonely existence, persisting only because they love this sport and because they know that once they get that breakthrough, life can suddenly become very sweet.

But closer to the top of the rankings, distractions abound. It’s almost as if the sport needs to test your commitment to her, and the seriousness with which you are willing to engage her. And so players near the top suddenly find themselves attracting modeling contracts and opportunities to shill products for a variety of companies. Maria Sharapova has reportedly made far more money from product shilling than from tennis. Such lucrative opportunities are only available at the zenith. But so too are many tempting distractions.

And this is what appears to have happened to Ana Ivanovic. She has become distracted. For a start, Ana is very pretty girl. She photographs well. She has a sexy body. Put all this together with a # 1 ranking and the sky was suddenly the limit. Ana found herself striding the catwalk, doing photo shoots for calendars, sporting and fashion magazines, and shilling for her many sponsors, all in between make-out sessions with handsome new beau, Fernando Verdasco.

But tennis is a jealous lover. Not just jealous, but possessive as hell. She demands exclusivity. And the player who for a moment forgets this, finds herself on the losing end of the early round of a tournament she has every right to win. Winning the Australian Open would have propelled Ana back into the #1 slot she captured in Paris, France. Now she is out of Melbourne, sent packing by Russian teenager Alisa Kleybanova, ranked 29.

Tennis is a vengeful lover. She demands your undivided attention.

For many players near the top, it quite simply becomes difficult to serve two masters. Just ask Serena. Remember the phase when she felt that she could dedicate herself to acting and play a little tennis on the side? When last I checked, the bulk of her Imdb profile involved appearances as “herself”. And throughout that delusional phase, her tennis suffered and her ranking plummeted. Heck, for a moment there in Australia, it seriously looked as if she was going to lose to Gisela Dulko.

It might be easier if tennis wasn’t so damn demanding. But it is. Getting to the top requires a brutal level of commitment to a fitness regimen. Ask Andy Murray. He consulted with the best, picking the brains of scouts like Brad Gilbert and trainer-philosophers like Gil Reyes, as he dedicated himself single-mindedly to one goal -- becoming the very best. He has earned almost 1,000 points in a few short months. He has eclipsed Djokovic as the one to beat in Australia. And he could not have achieved all of this had he allowed himself to become distracted from his goal.

I think that it is too bad that Ana Ivanovic has allowed herself to become distracted. As one of the prettiest and most photogenic women on the tour, I can understand how hard it must be for her to resist the camera and focus on her tennis. Almost daily a new batch of photos of Ana emerges, posing in silken gowns or smiling with a new Rolex on her wrist. And part of me is happy for her that she is making money and striking while she remains a blazing hot commodity. But mostly I miss seeing her play.

Ivanovic is a very talented tennis player who deserves to be #1. She needs to seriously decide which of these two masters she is going to dedicate herself to -- tennis or modeling. Because, at the end of the day, tennis is a jealous lover. It doesn’t share.

(photos remain courtesy and FHM)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

When body language forcasts failure

Ole! What a match. I was actually fast asleep when my alarm went off this morning. I reached for the remote control under my pillow -- that’s where it sleeps during Grand Slam season. My eyes did not even have time to adjust to the TV screen before I heard the commentator saying that Venus Williams was facing match point. I bolted upright just as Carla Suarez-Navarro served for the winning point. I was stunned. Venus Williams was out of the Australian Open.

The last time I had paid any attention to Carla Suarez-Navarro, she was getting a lesson in how to lose from Svetlana Kuznetsova during a Fed Cup match back in September 2008. I remembered Ms. Suarez-Navarro as this odd-looking girl, all braces and a tomboyish unselfconsciousness.

But a different Carla showed up in Australia. Gone were the braces. Gone was the puppy fat from around her stomach and thighs. A leaner, meaner, and dare I say prettier budding young woman showed up down under.

I rushed home after work to watch the entire match, knowing that ESPN could not resist a repeat performance. This was a huge upset.

In the opening set, Ms. Suarez-Navarro seemed tentative, probing, almost as if she was not sure how to create chances. But the minute she broke Venus in the second set, everything changed. When she broke her a second time, Venus started to chew on the inside of her mouth -- never a good sign.

I was reading the other day an account of how successful gamblers read each other’s body language. They look for a tell, a giveaway sign that your opponent may not be as flushed with aces as he would like you to believe. Venus’ tell that she is losing confidence is when she starts chewing the inside of her mouth. And then she starts screaming in an increasingly desperate way. Sometimes, she can scream her way into a hard-fought victory. But if you win the second set against her, there is always a risk that she will deflate. This is what I have repeatedly observed. If I were Venus, I would hire a sports psychologist to help me learn how not to broadcast such obvious signs that I have become vulnerable. And how not to deflate emotionally.

I don’t know if Carla read the messages of Venus’ body language. What I do know is that she immediately turned up the pluck. She started throwing down some stinging backhands that left me in awe. Her serves were not that big but she managed often to jam Venus with some decisive blows to the body. And the next thing I knew, they were in a third set struggle.

Venus fought hard at the start of the third set. In fact she fought and pummeled her way to a 5-2 score. All she had to do was win one more game and the victory was hers. But at 5-2, Venus started to collapse against the unrelenting pluck of her 20-year-old opponent. By this point Ms. Suarez had morphed into a fearless pixie. She ran Venus around the court, making the 28-year-old look like an old lady. It didn’t help that Venus was running back and forth with this pile of fake hair hanging on for dear life to the back of her head, and which by this point must have weighed a ton because of the added sweat.

In the stands, Oracene in her best Johnny Depp style glasses, started rolling her eyes and making sotto voce comments to her companions. Even she had given up on her daughter. And that too is something that I would change if I were a sports psychologist hired by a top player. I would tell the parents that if they can’t be positive, then stay home. Because even all the way from the court, there is always a small chance that Venus may have been able to read her mother’s body language, may have sensed that her mother had given up on her. Not to mention the possibility of her seeing it all on tape later. Ouch.

The team of men supporting Ms. Suarez-Navarro never for a second became negative, not when she lost the first set, not when she faced match point. They clearly believed in her. And if for a moment they may have doubted, may have clenched their stomachs in a moment of panic, they were careful not to show this to the camera. Or to wear sunglasses so that we were none the wiser.

Video courtesy Star Sports [start of 3rd set]
Video courtesy Star Sports [third set excitement!]
Video courtesy Star Sports [end of the match!!]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I really don’t mean to piss on the parade

Of course I went to Washington this weekend. So did millions of other Americans who descended like flies onto the Mall and areas surrounding the Lincoln Memorial. Years from now, if anyone asks me where I was at the start of the 2009 Australian Open, I can honestly say that I was watching what $150. million misspent dollars looks like. Because honestly, I think it’s all an unseemly and distasteful waste.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am as proud of Barack Obama as the next person. Perhaps even more so. And I am all for us having a national party to celebrate our tremendous achievement. Because really, this is not about Barack Obama but about us, and about how far we have come even if we still have even further to go. Mr. Obama is merely a symbol of our hope and trust and
desire for change. We the people have invested that in him, having had our collective hearts broken many times over during the past eight years. We are hungry for the healing. Barack is the new boyfriend who will wipe our tears away and persuade us to believe in love and truth and the fundamental goodness of people again.

And when he was busy spending a gazillion dollars to romance us, I did not mind, because the money had been donated to him by his many lovers and it was his to do with as he wished. But once elected, any money that he spends is now mine. And I would have liked to see that his first message to America, his diverse harem of many hues, was that this is a time to conserve.

Of course many economists will disagree with me and argue correctly that it is in part our current desire to be thrifty that has contributed to us remaining in this economic stalemate. Americans have been ref
using to spend. Credit markets have remained frozen because banks no longer trust us with our money. Glaciers of bad debt will continue to float under the surface for years to come. So perhaps this is Mr. Obama’s way of kick starting the economy -- by throwing himself a grand fete.

And yes I am glad that I was in the thick of it. I forgot my camera home so I can’t show you pictures of the millions of us shouting and jumping and laughing in front of the Lincoln Memorial as creaky old Pete Seeger called out the lines to “This Land is My Land”, encouraging us to sing along. It was a sweet touching moment, as he continued to call and we proceeded to answer, all of us giddy with love and hope.

I turned to a friend of mine and asked her if the singers and other presenters had donated their services. She didn’t know. But in this crowd of friendly happy people, another woman overheard my question and replied that no, they had all been paid, and that she had heard that Queen Beyon
ce was the most expensive of all. No she did not call her a Queen; that’s just my irritation piercing through. I can barely contain it.

Because you see, Barack Obama has decided to re-position Martin Luther King’s holiday and make it a day of service. I am down with that. I think it’s a terrific idea. I never understood why Sarah Palin thought she could help McCain win an election by making sneering comments about community organizers. What a stupid woman and what a low moment in her repeated demonstrations of her stupidity. I am all for infusing a spirit of community into how we live our lives. I went to a new Church a few weeks ago and when it came time to give each other the sign of peace, all these strangers around me had no choice b
ut to shake my hand. But I felt no more a part of that Church after the experience. I was still an outsider, a newcomer who did not know a single person there. Yes, I am all for us trying to find new ways to break down barriers and get truly connected with each other.

And what better way for Mr. Obama to have sent that message than to persuade all of these highfalutin’ stars that donating their time and talent to his inaugural events would send the message to America that even they too were willing to serve for the greater cause. Sure the resulting show may have been a giant, choppy, disorganized mess. Half of the performers may not even have shown up, Queen Beyonce included. I would have lived with the resulting mess. And when it eventually came out publicly who had elected not to participate because of not being paid, I would have had a better idea of whose CDs I would be buying in the future or whose movies I would be supporting.

So after the stranger in the crowd -- my new best friend, it was that kind of weekend -- told me that she had heard that all of the performers had been paid, my mood soured. For this I missed the opening rounds of the Australian Open? For this I missed seeing my sweetheart Fabrice Santoro spank the ass off Juan Carlos Ferrero? For this I missed seeing Drama Queen, healthy as a fricking horse, flogging the crap out of some unknown Austrian? For this I missed an apparently epic struggle between Gilles Muller and Feliciano Lopez, with Muller finally prevailing 16-14 in the fifth set? That’s a match I would have liked to see.

Instead I was busy jumping and waving with the best of them as Bono dared to call for the recognition of both Israel and Palestine as independent nation states, Bono as always choosing the wrong moment to make the right statement. I was busy dancing along as Usher and Stevie Wonder sang the hell out of one of Stevie’s classics. I got frightened for a moment as Stevie sprang up and started dancing too. It always scares me when Stevie does things that few blind people dare to do.

I am sure that some of the performers probably needed help making it to Washington. I’m certain that some needed help paying their hotel bills and affording food. But Queen Beyonce is not one of them. The woman is rich as dirt. And I almost wish I had not known that she had been compensated. I was already somewhat irritated with her that she had announced gloatingly that she was going to be singing the first song at the inaugural ball. Her proclivity for egomaniacal self-promotion borders on the disgusting. But to find out that she got paid on top of all that is just too much. The whole thing left such a sour taste in my mouth that when she closed the show with an admittedly beautiful rendition of “My Country 'Tis of Thee”, I found myself thinking that it was too bad that Whitney Houston became a crackhead because really, this should have been her moment.

I am however pleased to hear that Mr. Obama will be keeping his Blackberry and his website. I need to log on and send him a message reminding him of what community service is supposed to look like because apparently he's already forgotten. It is the very opposite of messianic self-indulgence. It is the antithesis of wasteful spending of my hard-earned dollars. It is anathema to hanging out with overpaid jack-and-jill-asses trying to become part of the new in crowd. Apparently I need to remind him of that.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rafa vs. Fed: Whither this rivalry?

A couple of nights ago I watched the beginning of a match on the Tennis Channel featuring Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. It was a current match, not something from back in the day when they were serious rivals. I considered watching the whole thing but I got promptly turned off by John’s shtick when he jumped over the net to half-heartedly protest a call. I just wasn’t in the mood for his antics that night. And actually it was kind of sad to watch the way, at his age, he had to studiedly gauge the height and distance of the net, his feet speeding up just so, as he was about to jump over. I held my breath for a moment, fearful that he would fall. There was nothing fluid about his movements. There was nothing spontaneous in his behavior. I swear I could almost hear echoes of Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon", groaning to himself: “I’m getting too old for this shit.

Borg looked on patiently as John continued with his sad little act. I switched the channel. And I found myself reflecting on the lifespan of sport rivalries. There was a time -- between 1978 and 1981 to be exact -- when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe defined what a true sporting rivalry looked like. They met 14 times during this period winning seven matches each. McEnroe came close to denying Borg a fifth Wimbledon trophy, after winning a fourth set 20 minute tie-break, and saving five match points. But Borg prevailed in the fifth set with a score of 8-6. It was a very close match. It was the stuff of legend. Months later, McEnroe would get his revenge when he bested Borg in five sets at the US Open. Their rivalry became the prototype against which all subsequent match-ups have been measured.

I understand that the sport of tennis needs exciting rivalries but I have always felt that this should be marketed much more to the casual fan than to the diehard followers of the sport. There are some fans who only watch tennis a handful of times a year - usually at Wimbledon and at the US Open. The rest of the year they could give a crap. My daughter is one of those fans. But because she loves me, she has endured much more. And I did give her some bragging rights after I persuaded her to go to the US open with me last year. It’s for fans like her that rivalries ought to be marketed. They get to pick a side - Nadal, because he’s cute and sexy - and that’s it as far as their tennis interest goes.

But I do not mean to minimize or dismiss the importance of the casual fan. It is clear that tennis as a sport cannot survive based on the passion of a few thousand diehards. We need the indifferent masses to care enough to support ESPN during Slam season. And this is probably best done through clever marketing of sweet rivalries.

And I am not at all intending to suggest that I have never bought into any of these rivalries either. I adored Andre Agassi. I hurt deep inside whenever he lost yet again to Sampras the Android with no personality. I cringed whenever I saw Sampras’ heavy tongue hanging out one side of his mouth as he tried to cool his Mediterranean blood. I turned up my nose whenever Sampras would wipe the sweat off his forehead with one finger. Sure his serve was the American Beauty to which all others should aspire, but did he have to be such a bore? And did he have to spank my darling Agassi on such a regular basis?

Rivalries can be hard when you support the losing side. Rivalries are sweet when your boy is having a good day and faces down the dreaded demon on the other side of the court and wins. Will I ever recover from that 2002 US Open finals that Andre should have won, could have won, had he not given in to that whole deer-in-the-headlights thing he did whenever Sampras was on the other side of the net? I don’t know who was pacing more, me at home or Steffi in the stands.

Which all brings me to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Nadal leads their overall head-to-head 12 to 6. Some have argued that this makes it a blowout, not a rivalry. I disagree. Federer and Nadal have met 14 times in the finals of tournaments. That's a rivalry. They have shared the #s 1 and 2 spots since July 2005. If Nadal is taken out before the final, there is a very good chance that Federer will win it, and vice versa.

But I concede that there is also a lopsided aspect to their rivalry. Initially, it was all Federer. And then it became all Nadal. Currently Nadal is the #1 player in the world, and Federer has been demoted to # 2. But theirs is a rivalry that is in many ways unlike any other.

Log on to any tennis discussion forum and you will note that most fans have clearly taken a side. The rivalry has been extended to comparisons of their girlfriends, with Nadal’s being judged as the younger and sexier while poor Mirka is noted to be growing more matronly by the day. Nadal’s confidence has skyrocketed where Federer’s has seemed to decline. I say “seemed” because I really don’t think it has. I think that it just seems that way when compared with that of his apparent nemesis.

Because listen to any interview of either man and you will never hear a disrespectful word uttered against the other. Their mutual regard seems heartfelt and true. Each one brings their A-game when facing the other. Their match-ups are electrifying regardless of the outcome. Two of their matches - the Hamburg and Wimbledon finals - were voted among the top three best matches of 2008 by viewers of the Tennis Channel.

But both Rafa and Fed have already been spanked in 2009. Nadal lost first in straight sets to Gael Monfils, a wild card entry into the Qatar Open. Gael’s hair seemed as excited as the rest of him by the result. And then Federer lost in three tight sets to Andy Murray. More and more Murray seems to be signaling that he may be the real # 3, not Djokovic who struggled throughout 2008 to penetrate the Rafa-Fed barrier.

Whither this rivalry in 2009? I think it all depends. It depends on how recovered Rafa’s knee really is following his struggles with tendinitis. It depends on how many other players have figured out how to master his lefty spin. It depends on how hungry Federer is to erase Sampras’ record. It depends on whether Federer has managed to add anything new to a repertoire that his opponents have by now thoroughly deconstructed. Look I’m not hedging here. I honestly don’t have a clue what’s going to happen in 2009. I suck at predictions so I’m not even going to try.

What I know for certain is that the Nadal - Federer rivalry is great for tennis. Instead of marketing silly ideas like attaching microphones to coaches so that audiences can listen in to them telling their players, “hit the ball deep into her backhand!”, I’d like to see the sport develop more interesting rivalries. Diehard fans are going to love and appreciate both Federer and Nadal. But for fair-weather fans like my daughter, the sport needs rivalries that they can sink their teeth into.

Which brings me to the second change I would like to see in tennis. For both singles and doubles, for both the men and the women, I would like to see the cultivation of more meaningful and interesting rivalries.

(Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer help launch the 2009 ATP World Tour with a unique game of tennis aboard a traditional Arabian Dhow in Doha Bay, Qatar. Photos courtesy EQ Images / ATP World Tour.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Drama Queen says she’s ill - do you believe her?

Sometimes I wonder if tennis stars are just playing us when they claim to be ill. I’m not accusing them all of being a bunch of liars and fakers but you have to wonder sometimes about some of these injuries. How real are they? Are they just ploys, attempts at playing possum - you know, getting your opponents to believe that you’re down and out so that they might relax in their preparations to face you. How to determine the fakers from the truth-tellers? Where’s Flava Flav when I need him?

These were my thoughts when I read reports that Jelena Jankovic is now claiming illness. After a couple of weeks of training like a monster in Mexico, Ms. Jankovic showed up in Hong Kong looking lackluster and playing as if her heart was not in it. It was just a team exhibition match for which, as the #1 player, she would have been exceedingly well paid, regardless of outcome. So it mattered little that she lost 6-2 6-2 to Venus.

After rolling over and playing dead against Venus, Ms. Jankovic was expected to face China’s Zheng Jie in a match between losing semifinalists.
Instead she showed up on court in a track suit and announced to the crowd that she was not feeling well and that she had taken medication. In the subsequent press interview - which is required even if one is at death’s door - she told interviewers that Hong Kong is a long way away and that the trip itself was hard on her weakened system. Let me quote her: “My immune system is down as well because I’ve been training very, very hard. I reached my limit. It’s easy to get sick, especially being surrounded by many people and a change of climate, change of time zone and everything.”

So why don’t I believe her? Am I just a heartless bitch for saying that this sounds to me like a load of BS and that she will show up as healthy as a horse to the Australian Open and proceed to make a valiant attempt to win her first Slam? After all, it is kind of embarrassing to be the Slamless # 1 player in the world. She needs to correct that, stat.

News reports coming out of far-flung Hong Kong describe Jankovic as appearing sluggish, and note that her serves lacked pace and her ground strokes seemed erratic. I call that a dramatic performance of the highest order. Give the woman a Critic’s Choice Award.

And just in case someone in the press corps had missed the very obvious messages of her desultory body language, Ms. Jankovic offered to the press the following overstatement of her current condition: “It’s obvious I feel slow and I have no reactions” OK Jelena, we get it. You’re not feeling well. Message received, we s

Now let me be fair to Ms. Jankovic. It is definitely possible for a sports person to over train their bodies to the point of illness. There is no better example of this than Justine Henin who got so caught up in her training regimen that she cut short her honeymoon to return to the gym. I think that poor Mr. Hardenne got to hold her in his arms for all of two days, if that. I wonder if she regrets that now?

Certainly she came to regret the stress that she put on her petite body as she tried to bulk and muscle up to face Kuznetsova, Mauresmo, the Williams Sisters, Sharapova, and other on-court behemoths. In the end, Henin apparently overdid it. She ran her body down to the ground and ended up acquiring a mysterious virus that it took her months to shake.

In other words, I am not at all intending
to minimize the effects of overtraining. Dr. Michael Kellman, a German sports performance specialist, notes that the physical effects of overtraining include impaired performance, vulnerability to injuries, loss of appetite, weight loss, disturbed sleep, an increased susceptibility to illness, an elevated resting heart rate and possibly hormonal changes. And Dr. Declan Connolly, director of the University of Vermont's Human Performance Laboratory, observes that as a result of overtraining, instead of just wanting to slow down or take a few days off, a sports player may feel like they want to quit altogether. Henin is living proof of the accuracy of these observations.

But training for a couple of weeks in Mexico does not compare with the brutal and prolonged regimen to which Justine Henin submitted her diminutive body. Certainly the few weeks she spent in Mexico did not stop Jelena from getting her party groove on with new boyfriend Mladjan Janović over New Year’s Eve.

So for now I’m not holding my breath. I think that Drama Queen will be just fine. I don’t for a second believe reports that she is going into the Aussie Open without match preparation. That’s what private tennis courts and paid practice partners are for. And in a week, she will show up in Melbourne, eyelashes loaded with mascara, smiling from ear to ear as she slides and splits her way into some serious wins. Feel free to call me out if I’m wrong.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The first change I would like to see in tennis

I used to live on a small island where I belonged to a volunteer organization that supported music programs for children. I was invited to join by a founding member whom I met in the supermarket. (Many of the stellar moments of my life seem to have started in supermarkets -- but that‘s for another column.) Thanks to joining this group, I got an eye-opening view of the process and politics behind small organizations that dream of doing big things. Now whenever I attend a concert or any musical program, I find myself wondering at the core group of individuals who work tirelessly, and often without pay, to make sure that the show goes on.

But there was a downside to this experience, and it came from the notion of the ownership of this group that had been in existence for umpteen years. Some of the founding members had since died. Many volunteers had come and gone. As a newbie, I was encouraged to give my ideas and suggestions, but most of these were ignored. Things continued to be done the way core members felt they should be done. And after a while it became easier to just go along with the existing plan than to experiment with something new that just might bomb.

I don’t know what caused the last founding member to quit the group. It may have been because we did not vote her back in as president and elected to go instead with someone new. It may have been the new concert master who had his own ideas about how the music programs should be run and did not alw
ays seek her approval of changes he wanted to make. Or perhaps it was the time I decided to ditch the customary folded sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper and seek sponsors to cover the cost of designing and printing up lovely programs that the children and their parents would want to keep as mementos. Or perhaps it was all of the above.

In any event, not only did this founding member quit the organization but she thereafter refused to speak with any of us and never again attended another music program. At the time, I found this to be a saddening and frustrating experience. In hindsight, I wish we could have found a way to honor her tremendous contributions while allowing new blood to flow. History is important, but so too is innovation, and sometimes they make for uncomfortable bedfellows.

I have since remained ambivalent about any single individual who manages to place themselves in such key positions in organizations that one fears that the house of cards would crumble were they to pack up and move on. Or at least, that seems to be what they come to believe -- that they are the organization and that the organization is them, and that it cannot function without their input and control.

This is kind of how I feel about Billie Jean King and h
er centrality with respect to decision-making for the WTA tour. On the one hand, I very much appreciate Ms. King's many contributions to tennis. I am especially happy for her that late in her career as both a professional tennis player and a tennis decision-maker, she has managed to make the kind of income that was denied her years ago at the inception of the tour. I admire her as a feminist figure not just in the world of tennis but in the wider spheres of influence over the minds and hearts of young women who need images other than the insipid types promoted by the Hollywood machine for them to look up to and admire.

I have long respected Ms. King’s truthfulness about her discovery of her sexual orientation and her struggles against the forces of homophobia that threatened to destroy her career and take the WTA tour down with it. I admire that despite being forced unceremoniously out of the closet, she not only survived the severe backlash by corporate sponsors, but continued to contribute her energies into growing the sport that I love, where others may have just turned their backs completely on it. And most of all I admire that, at a stage of life when most people choose to retire and start planting gardens, Billie Jean has chosen to remain active, with creativity and energy to burn. She deserves every honor and accolade her life work has attracted.

But the word ambivalence implies that there are other feelings that co-exist alongside these positive ones. And yes, I am concerned that Billie Jean King, founder of the WTA tour, seems to have maintained a stranglehold on women’s tennis that will probably abate only with her death. Which brings me to the topic of this entry. I intend throughout this year to compose a series of articles on the top ten changes I would like to see in tennis. And the first change I would like to see is for tennis to become less linked to specific personalities in positions of power. I would like to see a better marriage between history and innovation.

It makes me uncomfortable when any one person becomes the be-all and end-all of any organization. That kind of power is not good for human nature. It is too hard for us to resist abusing it. We humans don’t seem wired to be able to manage power well. History is littered with examples of people whose personality and behavior ended up indelibly changed once they achieved and were allowed to remain in positions of power. Human nature seems to thrive healthily on checks and balances that prevent power from becoming a corrupting influence. And this is true regardless of the institution in which this power is being expressed.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have no evidence that Ms. King has abused or is abusing the centrality of her position as founder of the WTA, nor am I intending to imply that she has done so or will do so. Think of this only as a life lesson learned and shared by a blogger who is so chuck full of opinions that she has to unleash them somewhere -- here, to the tune of 100 opinions per year. (I’d give you more but not for free).

Ms. King has, in interviews, taken justifiable credit for many of the innovations that have been introduced to the WTA tour. But my biggest concern with most of these innovations is that they seem to have been taken exclusively with the TV camera in mind. Ms. King’s relationship with the TV camera is probably best defined by the widely-promoted “Battle of the Sexes” against then 55-year-old showman and hustler, Bobby Riggs. Her view of what’s good for tennis seems to have remained indelibly affected by the impact of TV. My concern for women’s tennis is that it seems to have become irrevocably tied to the opinions of Billie Jean King. I love me some BJK, don’t get me wrong. But the first change I would like to see in tennis is for its development to become less tied to any single personality. And trust me, I would say the same thing if Tennis Australia became tied irrevocably to Evonne Goolagong or Margaret Court, or if Tennis Germany started being dictated by the views of Steffi Graf. And these are all women for whom I would take a figurative bullet.

In my view, Tennis USA has become overly tied to the small screen. TV seems to have been the biggest factor into why the rules governing the tie-break were changed. Players stopped sitting down after the first game but sit after the third, in keeping with the expected cutaway to a TV commercial. World Team Tennis has been foisted upon our TV viewing options, with Ms. King’s partner, Ilana Kloss, as leader, (not that I am making accusations of nepotism or anything).

And now the latest tinkering -- on-court coaching. Never mind that the ATP experimented with and discarded this stupid idea ten years ago. Here we go again. But this time, the coaches will be mic’ed up so that the TV audience can listen in as coaches tell their charges what the players apparently are unable to figure out for themselves. Many of the top players have spoken out against this silly idea. But of course most will probably eventually succumb. Even Federer can’t resist challenging calls after speaking out against the idea initially.

On-site coaching will be a tremendous boon for those strategy-limited players who can hit the ball hard but can’t think their way out of a paper bag. And excellent scouts like Brad Gilbert can theoretically make a killing from this new rule. But what happens if the person at the other side of the net has the same coach? And how are we to avoid situations like what happened to Andre Agassi who faced Andy Roddick a few years ago at Stella Artois and lost to him shortly after Andre’s coach -- the said same Brad Gilbert -- started coaching Roddick? I guess that ethics don’t matter, as long as we have good TV ratings.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Defending Mrs. Davenport

I fell in pity with Lindsay Davenport in the 90’s when she was a fat chick playing tennis. She was a chunky girl with a big game - a helluva serve and a formidable forehand. Hit the ball to her striking zone and watch out because it would come back blazing. But the trick to beating her was to get her to move. Even having to run down a drop shot or two would have her so winded that she would frequently give up on points altogether.

Back then Lindsay sometimes had a tendency to walk around with her head hanging down, as if trying to will herself into a height that belied her strapping 6 feet 2.5 inch stature. I remember when Pat Cash uncharitably commented that she had the physique to be a shot putter, not a tennis player. And she was quite possibly one of the 80% of WTA players that Richard Krajicek once dismissed as “fat lazy pigs”. Ouch.

I felt for Lindsay back then. She reminded me of every awkward teenager who had not yet grown out of the ugly duckling stage. She reminded me of a beagle, all jowly and hound-dog looking, moping and loping around the court, her head hanging low. Watching her play back then, my friends and I would comment that if only she could find some self-confidence, she would be an unstoppable winner.

But at the same time, Lindsay would periodically conduct these interviews that demonstrated her capacity for assertiveness and a willingness to speak out in the face of injustice that was not only admirable but also suggested that her problem was not a lack of confidence at all. Her problem was quite simply that she was a fat chick who needed to lose weight and improve her fitness. And she did.

This past summer I got another perspective on the newly skinny and confident Mrs. Davenport after her bodyguard commanded me to get out of the way as she and Hantukova breezed by, their heads held high after losing a doubles match that they did not seem to care about one way or another. I was not impressed with this new Lindsay. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad she’s lost the weight and managed to attract the marital attentions of the better-looking of the Leach brothers -- but there is a point at which confidence can start crossing over into arrogance and the new and improved Lindsay needs to make sure she doesn’t go there.

At the same time, I was disappointed recently upon reading two sets of criticism of Lindsay Davenport on various tennis blogs and I found myself feeling moved to defend her. First, she was criticized for choosing to enter the Australian Open. Then she was criticized for withdrawing. I’d like to defend her on both counts.

First, the decision to enter. Lindsay Davenport is 32-years-old. When did 32 become the age at which players should “hang their rackets up” to quote one detractor? Over the past year, Lindsay appears to have talked often about retirement. But I am yet to see an interview or a press conference in which she was the one who initiated the topic. It was always someone from the media asking her if she was about to quit. And in response to the repeated questions, she would reply with variations of the word “perhaps”. And by appearing to be hinting at retirement, she helped to attract more criticism. It was not long before some bloggers started calling her out and asking her to quit already.

There is something disrespectful about that. There is something distasteful about telling a 32-year-old woman that now that she is having babies, that should signal the end of her career. Why? Why can’t a woman have a baby, get back in shape, and start playing her sport again? Why must pregnancy mean the end of a woman’s career?

When Lindsay announced that she was going to enter the Australian Open this year, my personal view was that if she felt fit enough to do so, that was all that mattered. And unless her investor husband handed all of her money over to Bernie Madoff, Lindsay is certainly wealthy enough to afford all of the care that her son will need while his mother is practicing and playing tennis.

In addition, I don’t know that players can just willy nilly decide whether or not they are participating in tournaments. It is my impression that players are contractually obligated to play, and that there are fines levied when players do not fulfill their contracts.

And then Lindsay apparently discovered that she was pregnant, and announced her withdrawal from the Australian Open. I guess if you’ve never been pregnant you cannot imagine that it could be possible to not be pregnant in November and then discover that you are pregnant a month later. But this can happen, I swear. It is also possible for a woman to be pregnant and not know it right away. It’s not as if the embryo starts kicking from Day 1, announcing her presence just in time for mom not to embarrass herself by entering a tennis tournament.

I wish Mrs. Davenport all the best during her second pregnancy. Like most healthy women, she will probably be able to continue exercising throughout her pregnancy - that is good for her as well as for the baby. And after the second child is born, it is the mother’s choice to return to her profession or not. If I were she, I would probably choose the option of buying a yacht and hanging out in St. Bart’s with other celebrities. But that’s just me. Mrs. Davenport should feel empowered to make the choices that are right for her and for her family. And tennis lovers can sit back and appreciate her skills for as long as she chooses to demonstrate them.