Friday, December 31, 2010

Ten drunken New Year predictions

As promised, here are the rest of my tequila-infused predictions for tennis in the New Year. If even one of these turn out to be right, I will consider making it an annual event on this blog. Come to think of it, I might do that anyway. Just for a laugh of course.
  1. Mirka will discover that Federer has been secretly hiding three whores up in the attic. Turns out the women have been living up there for most of the past year. The whores will make the talk show rounds and will weep and cry and claim that Federer said that he loved them and promised to make their relationship permanent. Mirka will do better than Erin in the divorce.
  2. After learning of Kiefer’s retirement, Dustin Brown will give up his bid to be adopted by Britain and will instead offer himself to Germany, reminding them that he was actually born there. The Germans will have a good belly laugh.
  3. Kei Nishikori will fire Brad Gilbert half way through 2011. He will get fed up of hearing Gilbert drone on and on about nothing. Unfortunately for him, long after going their separate ways, he will continue to hear Brad’s voice ringing in his ears. This will cause him to have a brief nervous breakdown. The Taiwanese animation folks will capture the whole thing on video.
  4. Inspired by Kimiko Date and Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport will make a well-publicized return to tennis. Unfortunately she will get beaten in the first round of every tournament. She will get pregnant again as a face-saving maneuver and retire permanently.
  5. Brooke Shield’s tell-all about Andre Agassi will reveal many claims that we always suspected – that he went through a phase of bi-sexuality, that he was blackmailed for years by a former coach who had pictures, and that he had a secret love child with Barbara Streisand. Unfortunately for Brooke no one will believe a word of it and the book will tank.
  6. An angry transvestite will sue Serena Williams for a ghastly nail infection she/he acquired at one of Serena’s nail salons. The person will go on TV and claim trauma and stress from the manicure-from-hell experience. Serena will settle out of court for $100. and free pedicures for life.
  7. Tennis Channel will give Jennifer Capriati a job as a commentator. Unfortunately no one will understand a word she says half the time. I have no idea why.
  8. Venus Williams will start a new fashion collection called TwelVe that will focus on sexy tennis clothing for tweens, kids, and toddlers in tiaras. Unfortunately for Venus, that collection will sell about as well as EleVen.
  9. Martina Hingis will marry a rich Argentine gaucho. After moving to Patagonia she will discover that she is only one of many sister wives in his secret harem. In a daring escape, she and two of the Sister Wives flee Patagonia and escape to Europe. Their story is featured in a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law and Order LA. Everyone will end up feeling so sorry for Hingis that the tennis world will finally give her a second chance. She will stun everyone by winning the French Open.
  10. Sports Illustrated will contact the tennischick and offer her Jon Wertheim’s job.
Happy New Year everyone. All jokes about drinking aside, be safe and stay sober. We want you around in the New Year, resolving to stay positive, enjoy a good laugh from time to time, and continuing to play sweet sweet tennis.

(Part 3 of 3)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 31:  People toast their wine glasses as the annual New Year's Eve fireworks display illuminates the sky over Sydney Harbour on December 31, 2009 in Sydney, Australia. The 2009 into 2010 theme is 'Awaken The Spirit' with over 1.5 million people expected to gather around the harbour to watch the 12 minute show.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The fine art of predicting

Mystics, shamans, psychics and mediums tend to be very popular among the celebrity set. I’ve often wondered if there are any celebrity tennis players who hire psychics to help them forecast what’s going to happen in the future. I suspect that most psychics would turn out to be as accurate as Daphne on the Frasier show. Remember how she always claimed to be a little bit psychic?

In fact one of my favorite Frasier episodes was the one in which she and Niles finally got together and agreed to hire a scientific investigator from UCLA to determine if Daphne had any real psychic ability. The investigator showed her a number of cards and asked Daphne to predict what they were.

Afterward, almost offhandedly, he starts questioning her about how she first knew that she was psychic. She shares that she was the only girl growing up with a pack of brothers, when a relative told her that she had a special gift that only the Moon women inherited. Overhearing this, the astute Niles realizes the significance of this disclosure. He promptly puts an end to the experiment and insists to Daphne that they get to know each other without scientific interference.

I recount this as a way of saying that I do not believe in anyone’s ability to predict the future. And I say this as someone gifted with a kind of prescience that often tells me when the people I love are in danger or hurting in some unique way. But I have often found that in the moment I tend to dismiss these feelings. It’s only afterward, when it’s all over, that I recall a particular dream, or a moment of raised pores, and recognize the soupcon of possible significance. But that is not prediction, it’s empathy.

I truly do not believe that anyone in their sane mind could ever predict what would happen in tennis. To predict things with any kind of accuracy would require that you have some means of controlling all of the variables involved. Which is why Jon Wertheim’s so-called predictions are actually quite safe, based as they are largely on events that have already occurred. His are not really predictions in any true sense of the word. They’re safe bets, not based on any kind of risk but on a fair scrutiny of events that have occurred in tennis over the past year or so.

For example, it’s pretty safe to “predict” that an Old Fart will return to play excellent tennis. After all, Kimiko Date already did it and Muster has been making threatening noises. And then there’s Kim Clijsters who came back from motherhood to not only win the US Open but to defend it as well. And there’s Federer, no longer a spring chicken, but showing others how to protect the body, live a balanced life, and enjoy a long career. Let the younger Nadal wear out his knees with his style of play. Federer seems cognizant of the bigger picture. Old Farts rule.

Others of Wertheim’s predictions are equally embarrassingly safe. For example, while the allegations against Davydenko were the most publicized, there have actually been countless other investigations into possible match-fixing in tennis over the past few years. Some lesser known players have been fined and banned for corrupt behavior. So to predict a match-fixing scandal in tennis is also to play the odds. Statistically, this is a pretty safe prediction, empirically based on events that have already occurred. Even Psych 101 students know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

This is no really different from those so-called psychics who make a business of predicting what celebrities will get up to over the upcoming year. I mean how safe is it to predict that Lindsay Lohan will struggle with substance issues, that Rihanna will color her hair blue, or that Jennifer Aniston won’t keep a man? Safe crap.

True predicting involves risk. And true risk ideally involves a fair amount of alcohol. Because it is very unlikely that any of the following will ever occur, here are my no-holds barred drunken predictions for tennis in 2011. If any of these events ever end up happening, I will be as shocked as you.

Prediction #1: Serena Williams will spend her own money to finance a movie in which she appears as an action hero. She will persuade her ex, Common (with his fiiine self), to appear as the love interest that she disses and spurns. Unfortunately “Girl of Steel” will bomb at the box office, costing Serena millions. She will have no choice but to return to tennis. And then she will win another Serena Slam.

Now that is what I call a prediction. Hold on a sec while I squeeze some lime into my tequila. There’s more where that came from.

(Part 2 of 3)

392233 11: Gilia Chazan receives a healing treatment from Carol Francis during Fancis'' workshop on shamanism at the International Hypnosis Federation''s Mind, Body, Spirit, Fun Conference, July 20, 2001 in Long Beach, CA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Wertheim’s lame predictions

I’ve said before that I want Jon Wertheim’s job. It’s not the first time I’ve told a man that I wanted his job. The last time I said it the man’s jaw dropped in shock. I wasn’t being rude; I was just expressing my feelings. After making the statement, I moved on and started building my own successful practice. But perhaps because of the shock of my frank honesty, when he needed to go on sabbatical a year later, he contacted me and offered me the post. I ended up doing such a great job that the university found a way to keep me on after he returned. And he and I worked beautifully together.

This is by way of saying that yes, I am a competitive biyatch. But I am not underhanded. I did nothing deceitful in my dealings with this man. I told him honestly that I wanted his job but I never ever did a thing to try to get it. In the end he respected me enough not only to offer me the post temporarily but to welcome me as a partner upon his return. Now that’s what you call a secure man.

So about my wanting Jon Wertheim’s job. I would welcome the opportunity to tell him this to his face. I think that Sports Illustrated is way too white and too male. And in all the years he has written for them, Wertheim has not done enough to garner the level of respect that tennis deserves. We need some women up in there, preferably women of color, equipped with clout and mouth.

Perhaps I’m being hard on Jon Wertheim. And probably ungrateful because he is clearly a true fan of tennis. For that I apologize. But I still want his job. I remembered this as I read his recent bullshit column with predictions for Tennis 2011. What a list of safe, lame, non-threatening crap, I thought. Yes, I get that SI don’t want a lawsuit on their hands by any outlandish predictions. But really did he have to be such a wimp? After reading his lame-assed list I wanted to call him up and say, “Dude, go brave or go home”. (Of course truth be told if I had his number I would probably only say “Dude, I want your job”).Here is a summary of Wertheim’s insipid predictions for Tennis 2011:
  1. Someone other than Fed and Rafa will win a Slam. Duh.
  2. Tennis will be rocked by a match-fixing scandal. Er…tennis has already faced match-fixing allegations.
  3. The Williams will continue winning despite injuries and no interest in tennis. Duh, already happened. 
  4. Another Old Fart (like Kimiko Date) will return to dominate. Say something original.
  5.  Other Old Farts (like Kim Clijsters) will win matches. See above.
  6. Tennis Channel should hire Mary Carillo. Say that they WILL and it becomes a prediction.
  7. Slams will have electric mid-week matches and dull finals. Was he not watching tennis in 2010?
  8. Russia will continue to decline. Er…that is not news.
  9. Tennis will have to do something about illegal mid-match coaching. Agreed, but that is like saying that the US Open will get a roof.
  10. Tennis will continue to expand in non-US markets. Already happening dude, including in China and Asia. If SI was less white and male you might know this.
  11.  No matches will last as long as the pointless one between Isner and Mahut. (OK, 'pointless' is my word not his).
No offense to Wertheim but that is one lame set of predictions. Or maybe he doesn’t understand what a prediction is. A prediction is when you boldly state what is going to happen, with such definitiveness and certitude that folks look at you bug-eyed. Like that bizarre psychic woman inhaling the electric cigarette on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Did you watch that insane crapisode of utter dinner hell a couple of weeks ago? If you didn’t, let me fill you in.

Camille Grammer, soon to be the former plastic wife of Kelsey Grammer – most famous for playing the role of Frasier, a neurotic psychiatrist on my favorite show of all time – said Camille Grammer got into an insane fight with another housewife named Kyle, who is married to a gorgeous hunk of a man named Mauricio who apparently is the Grammers’ real estate agent. Camille felt that Kyle had snubbed her for being a nobody who only got a name for herself after marrying Frasier. I mean Kelsey. So Camille invited some friends, to include a psychic, over for dinner. Things soon spiraled into a passive-aggressive showdown with Kyle.

While smoking furiously on her electric cigarette and drinking like booze was going out of style, the psychic – or was she a medium? – started making some bold predictions. She said that she knew when Kyle would die and what would happen to her family. Kyle’s husband would never fulfill her and her marriage would fall apart after the kids grew up.

Now that is what I call a prediction. And since Wertheim did not have the courage to really predict anything, I thought that I would fill in for him. Hang on a sec while I pour a shot of tequila. True predicting is a drunken art.

(Part 1 of 3)

Woman holding crystal ball

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A ball machine for Xmas

I gave myself a ball machine for Xmas. I’ve been lusting after one for years but never really needed to own one before because I mainly happened to live in places where tennis could be played all year round. But now that I inhabit the tundra and folks seem to run indoors the minute the temperature drops under 65, I decided that the only way I could maintain my tennis form and my sanity was through buying myself a constant partner. Its name is the Silent Partner Star.

I brought it home a few days before Xmas. Well I didn’t actually bring it home; UPS delivered it. The UPS guy commented on the size of the box and asked if I was getting something extra special for Xmas. He has been flirting with me for most of the year and I usually look forward to our exchanges as he is rather cute. The glow of his attention usually lasts me until his next delivery. But this time the poor man was non-existent, his dimples irrelevant. My eyes locked on the Silent Partner logo on the side of the box and would not let go. I got so excited I started signing my name upside down.

I made the purchase through eBay – the place where large companies seem to outnumber everyday people trying to off-load merchandise that an economy ago they would have gladly re-gifted. But in guava season, every penny counts. And so instead of looking for a new machine, I decided to find one that was hopefully gently used.

I researched this carefully, snooping around in tennis forums like Tennis Warehouse for chatter on the pros and cons of this or that ball machine. Over at Amazon the entry model for the Lobster came with such a scathingly negative review that I decided that there was no way I was going that route.

The Prince Half-Volley seemed by all reports to be a very decent and manageable machine, but when I contacted the dealership they told me that I had to buy one through their distributors. Coincidentally, at the time I called, the distributors were all in a meeting at headquarters. A woman helpfully put me on the phone with the distributor living closest to me. He told me that he did not ever have used models; I would have to buy new.

In the end, the folks chatting at Tennis Warehouse seemed convincing that my best choices would be between the Tennis Tutor (the square black box) and the Silent Partner models. I promptly started bidding on eBay on both. If the response from bidding is any indication, Tennis Tutor ball machines re-sell rapidly. In fact they sold so quickly that I never managed to win any of the better-looking models I pursued. I even figured out a way to secretly bid while at work, but that made no difference.

At the same time I was also bidding on Silent Partner models. I came close to a couple of wins but never managed to close the deal. Finally I got lucky. The company posted some six or seven options. (Really, ordinary folk re-selling their machines don't stand a chance). I bid on the Star. Despite it being a bit more expensive than the entry models, I picked it because it came with a remote control. No one was happier than I when I won. I don’t think Silent Partner has ever been paid as fast.

The machine arrived four days before Xmas. That’s the day usually reserved for eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree. Me I got a tennis ball machine and a case of Penn tennis balls.

Unpacking it was a breeze. It came fully assembled. All I had to do was plug it in and charge it up. Because it was a gently used machine, it was fully charged in less than an hour. In the meantime, I emptied my hopper of the old balls that I had no further use for, and loaded it with 72 brand new Penn championships. I was ready to play!

And then I looked out the window. It was clearly freezing cold. Snow was predicted in a few days but the smell of it was already in the air. I had two choices. I could delay gratification like most sane people, or I could put on five layers of clothing and hit the courts. I started dressing.

I was the only person playing tennis that day. It took me a while to figure out how to pin down the basket at the back and get the machine to work properly. It would have helped if I had read the manual before leaving home but excitement got in the way. My nose watered, my eyes ran, my lips started turning blue. But eventually I figured out that I had to push down really really really hard on the back of the blue plastic basket and pin it down with the steel rod enclosed. And then it worked like a charm.

I only played one basket. Really it was too damn cold. And besides the people living nearby the courts had started looking out of their windows to see what the racket was all about. Because let me tell you something, I don’t care what this machine is called, the last thing you can call it is 'silent'. It is loud. The sound of the balls popping out is loud. It’s a sound almost like a modified gunshot. I don’t know if it was the noise, the cold, or my eventual self-consciousness that finally drove me to pack it in. But I was happy that I had tried it out.

The ball machine is now sitting in my garage waiting for warm weather. Every single time I drive in, I can almost hear it asking when did I become such a wuss.

Tennis courts are seen after a sever winter storm dumped 20-30 inches on the Washington metro area, in Washington on February 6, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Monday, December 27, 2010

“Schiavo Nothing Impossible”

It is time for reflection. The 2010 tennis year is coming to a close. Already we are gearing up for the start of the 2011 tennis season. But I can’t move forward without first looking back. And having gone silent for some weeks back there, there is much that I neglected to comment on at the time. So here’s my chance to reflect, to look back on some of my favorite moments in tennis, to give my own belated perspective.

The first match I want to reflect on is the tremendous win by Francesca Schiavone at the 2010 French Open. I’ve taken to calling Schiavone ‘the Italian queen’. There’s something regal about her. Not the cold, stiff upper-lip, distant and unapproachable kind of royalty that we think of traditionally, but a more human, passionate, heart-on-her-sleeve kind of majesty that we all hope Kate Middleton will come to represent. (How’s that for a tie-in, lol).

Schiavone won her first Slam at Roland Garros 18 days before her 30th birthday. This was her third ever tournament win. Prior to this she won in Moscow three years ago, and fittingly in Barcelona earlier this year. But regardless of what happens from here on in, winning Roland Garros will remain the pinnacle of her career. At a lot of levels it was a most significant achievement.

It was significant because she has been a pro tennis player for some ten years. She could very easily have closed out her career as the female version of Potito Starace, a decent enough player with no career titles behind his name. Instead, she is the Italian queen. And when she lustily started singing the words of her national anthem during the presentation ceremony, you knew that we were looking at a player who understood the larger national significance of her win.

This win was also significant because of her age. For a moment there it started looking as if tennis was becoming a young person’s game to which old farts need not apply. When Jennifer Capriati became the youngest player to go pro, that moment hall-marked the start of a new trend in tennis, one in which older players found themselves increasingly ignored, eclipsed by the arrival of your Laura Robsons and your Donald Youngs. Even the ATP seemed to endorse this trend some years ago with its offensively titled “New Balls Please” campaign.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for welcoming the young ones, but this need not be at the expense of experienced players determined to still offer their best. Some people are simply late bloomers. They offer their best as they age. They peak when others begin to decline. Schiavone peaked in August 2010. Good for her. Her win was great encouragement to the Kimiko Dates of this tennis world, other seasoned players who think that they still have something to say with their rackets.

The title of this article was taken from the words written in white capital letters on the black t-shirts worn by a group of Schiavone’s supporters at Roland Garros. Their numbers did not even approximate that of a typical J-Block showing at the US Open. But what they lacked in numbers they more than made up for in belief and passion.

At the time I was struck by the use of the double negatives. Nothing Impossible. In the English language, two negatives produce a positive. So in essence the message of the t-shirts was that anything was possible. (Let’s be honest, if Schiavo were American, her people probably would not be caught dead wearing a t-shirt featuring any kind of negative language – we just don’t roll that way.)

Kudos to Schiavone for her gutsy performance. Despite Samantha Stosur’s very hard work, despite her frankly labored performance, she turned out to have no answers in the second set tie-break. And Stosur had worked much harder to get to the finals. She beat Justine Henin, Serena Williams, and Jelena Jankovic to get there. Unfortunately for her, she faced an opponent who believed deeply that nothing was impossible.

PARIS - JUNE 05: Francesca Schiavone of Italy celebrates with the trophy after winning the women's singles final match between Francesca Schiavone of Italy and Samantha Stosur of Australia on day fourteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 5, 2010 in Paris, France. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Is Rafa more popular than Fed?

Over on, they’re running a poll asking “who’d you rather, Rafael or Roger”? As of this writing over 14,500 entries have been calculated. Mine was among the 32% that voted for Roger. No doubt my daughter’s is among the 68% favoring Rafael. She thinks he’s hot, hot, hot! That’s a quote. I love me some Rafa and wish I did not have to pick. But if ever I am forced to choose between these two men – and it seems that we so frequently are – I will always toss my garters in the Federer pile.

But I have become intrigued by the question of what determines popularity. There is no doubt that there are some people who become and remain exceedingly popular while others seem to struggle to muster up a friend or two. What determines this? And is popularity a fixed state or does it change with circumstances? I’ll answer this latter question first as it is the easiest of the two.
Popularity changes. It waxes and wanes with time and circumstances. It ebbs and flows from one setting to another. Federer will always be more popular in Switzerland. Nadal will always be popular in Spain. In front of their homies, both will always be treated like royalty. In other settings, both men will lose out in a popularity contest against a lowly-ranked home grown talent. Akgul Amanmuradova is hugely popular in her home country of Uzbekistan. But I had no idea who she was the first time I saw her on TV.

Popularity is also affected by age. America is a youth-driven culture for the most part. A younger player will always attract an insane amount of attention and popularity – remember the summer of Oudin? – long before they deserve it. Fickle fans get tired of older players. Their attitude queries a version of ‘why are you still here, shouldn’t you be retired already?”

Faced with this fickleness, Federer has no chance of ever winning a popularity poll against Nadal. And Nadal will one day also find himself usurped by a come-upper, say the cute Japanese Kei Nishikori who has now committed to working with Brad Gilbert.

Research shows that physical attractiveness is a huge component of popularity. But so too is personality. There are many massively popular people who would never win beauty contests, but whose attractiveness lies in their mastery of wit or having a sense of humor that simply makes them likable.

Take any of the guys in the “Hangover”. Or Seth Rogan for example. Not a good-looking man. But even during his more obese phase, he probably got more action than most men his age. The same is true for tennis popularity. Better looking players are guaranteed to appear on the cover of tennis magazines.

But I believe that talent trumps all of the above. No matter how good-looking a tennis player is, no matter how witty and likable, if she or he can’t play and win matches, they will not rise to the top of the ranking. And thank goodness for that. Because if ascendancy in the ranks was based on popularity alone, the Williams sisters would never have achieved the stellar amounts that that have achieved. No, the top of the rankings would be reserved for the likes of Melanie Oudin and Anna Kournikova.

And then there are those cases where talent and good looks seem to coincide. And yet they do not seem to be accompanied by widespread popularity. As good-looking as she is and as much as she has worked hard to achieve, the world still does not seem to know Caroline Wozniacki. I’m not saying that she is completely lacking in popularity, but outside of her native Denmark, her fame has not spread in waves.

Kim Clijsters is far more well-known and widely beloved. And it’s not because of her beauty but because of an intangible quality that probably cannot be quantified. And interestingly, it’s a quality that both Nadal and Federer have in spades. I wish folks would stop asking me to choose between them, or that tmz had included an option for “both”.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Seasons Greetings

Apologies for my silence. Real life intruded and I was forced to spend some time away from the blog. Things are finally beginning to fall into place so that I can once again start giving tennis some focus. The cold weather has not helped at all. I miss living in the west and being able to play tennis all year. This east coast cold weather is seriously trying. It's supposed to snow tonight. Bummer.

Apologies for not having met the assigned quota of 100 articles per year. I have had more than 100 ideas, but not even 100 minutes to write them. I suppose I could go on a mad writing spree and try to meet the assigned quota. But this blog has always been more about quality than quantity so do just forgive.

The good news. Roger Federer has closed out the year in style. It was fitting that he faced Rafael Nadal in the finals of the year-end championships. It was fitting that he beat him, convincingly. I can't begin to capture how happy I am that Roger ended the season on this high note. And then for both men to turn around and join in support of each other's charities.

I hope that the next generation of tennis players are watching and learning. The Sampras-Agassi era ended with the ignominy of a tasteless exchange during a charitable match for Haiti. Roger and Rafa represent the best of tennis rivalries, where competition is paramount but the rivalry is not fueled by hate. What a sweet message for this season that is supposed to be about love and peace.

Merry Xmas to those who celebrate it. Season's greetings for those who don't. Peace and love to everyone. And may the New Year bring you all of what you need and most of what you want.


LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Roger Federer of Switzerland poses with the trophy after defeating Rafael Nadal of Spain in their men's final match during the ATP World Tour Finals at O2 Arena on November 28, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Overworked vs. Well-Rested

Kim Clijsters of Belgium celebrates match point against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during their WTA Championships final tennis match in Doha October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad (QATAR - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

I suppose I could have titled this Desire vs. Experience, or Ms. Sexily-dressed vs. Mrs. Practical, or perhaps even Youth vs. Maturity. But at the end of the day I think that the real difference between Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki in the finals of the year-end championships in Doha was a combination of all of the above plus Kim’s coming into this championship emotionally well-rested and focused, while Caroline has been traveling the globe playing tennis as if her life (or ranking, ha!) depended on it.

I’ve commented before on the fact that Wozniacki has played some 22 events thus far in 2010. That is a lot of tennis. Indeed, it is to her credit that, despite this brutal schedule, she has remained largely injury-free for most of the year. What injuries she did incur did not seem to slow her down or cause her to play any less. That is certainly part of the blessing of youth in combination with her physical fitness. I’ve always assumed that this punishing work schedule was drawn up with a view to achieving the #1 ranking. And no doubt she and her supporters believe that it has been worth it.

But Wozniacki’s loss today in Doha is the best argument I can make against maintaining such a demanding schedule. That is the kind of schedule that, in my opinion, may lead to burnout (both physical and emotional), rebellion, and even a possible hatred of the sport. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself trapped in a profession that you have ceased to enjoy but lacking the skills to do anything else.

I’m not saying that Wozniacki seemed in any way physically deflated during this match. Not at all. Indeed, when she went down 1-4 in the second set, I thought for sure that it was all over. But no, Caro dug deep, fought like a tigress, and won the second set 7-5. But her efforts not to lose in straights meant that she had little left in her emotional tank by the third set. And when the score went to 5-2, Caro certainly gave her best effort, not just to not lose a single point to get to 3-5, but also to give Clijsters all she could handle as Kim tried to close it out.

But that kind of last minute desperate fighting is actually more emotionally draining than a sustained and evenly-paced effort throughout a match. But in order to make such a consistent effort, you have to first be emotionally well-rested. Being young and physically fit is not enough.

To adapt John MacEnroe’s famous phrase about the men’s fifth set, the third set for women is not about tennis. It’s about guts, focus, will, and sheer mental determination. It’s about who wants it more.

Wozniacki is a fighter, no doubt about that. But overuse is a helluva thing. Overuse means that everyone has seen you play, time after time, and they can predict your shots. Everyone knows that Wozniacki’s backhand is solid and that her forehand can be broken down. Everyone knows that she prefers to serve wide and set up one-two winners. Everyone knows that she relies on the single technique of pull-her-wide-and-the point-is-over. Wozniacki has completely lost any element of surprise by playing so much damn tennis.

Kim Clijsters on the other hand, has played only 13 events thus far in 2010. In addition to the complete break she took from tennis from 2007 to mid-way through 2009, she came into Doha not having played any tennis since the US Open. And to be fair, this could have hurt her. It would have hurt a lesser being.

But being away from tennis tournaments does not mean that Clijsters has been completely away from tennis. It is clear that she is physically fit, that she has been training, that she has been off addressing her weaknesses and improving both her mental and physical game.

She has also been living her life away from the tennis court. Kim is married to a man she seems to adore. She has a baby who has twice charmed Flushing Meadows center stage. In fact, watching Clijsters play, you get the sense that she wants to hurry up and get the match over with so that she can go back to her real life, the one that matters, the one in which tennis is her job, albeit an enjoyable one. But her lack of being consumed by tennis means that she came into Doha better rested both physically and mentally.

I have to admit that I did not look at any of the early rounds of this tournament. I decided early on that in the absence of Serena Williams, I really didn’t care to know whether Azarenka would do her typical early-fight-and-then-flame-out routine, or whether Jankovic would continue running defensively from corner to corner. I could not be bothered. I was willing to wait until the semi-finals because it was crystal clear who was going to be there: Kim Clijsters, Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva and Samantha Stosur. And from this group of four, I predicted that we were going to see a replay of the US Open finals, with the identical outcome.

The difference between both women today, in my opinion, came from the amount of juice left in the emotional battery. And yes, Kim’s experience with winning at big events probably did not hurt. I went to the kitchen for a drink of water while Caroline was making the requisite thank you speech. I may be wrong, but I thought I heard sadness in her voice, and disappointment. Both completely understandable – she has worked extremely hard in 2010. Winning the year-end championships would have been a sweet reward. But fortune this time favored the more sensible and the emotionally better-rested player.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dementieva decides to pack it in

TOKYO - OCTOBER 01: Elena Dementieva of Russia plays a forehand in the Women's Singles semi final match against Francesca Schiavone of Italy on day six of the Toray Pan Pacific Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 1, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

I’m not surprised by the way Elena Dementieva announced her retirement. She has always seemed like a low-key, private, non-drama type of individual. And in her typical self-effacing style, she said goodbye with no hoopla, no fuss, no bother. I will certainly miss her.

I have always felt as if I was among the few tennis fans who was able to appreciate Elena Dementieva. Most tennis fans I hang around with tend to dismiss her. If she is in the draw, they look to see who her opponent will be facing next because they were certain that Dementieva was about to lose. She commanded not so much disrespect as dismissal.

But I always had a soft spot for her. I think that part of the reason is because as a player, I kind of identify with some of her struggles. I too am a very good player but sometimes I can’t win for losing. I too have a very good serve but I go through periods of being a double-faulting queen. And like Dementieva I sometimes become embarrassed by how many times I’ve tossed the damn ball into the air as my opponent impatiently stands there. And then I become desperate and hit a side-swipe which my opponent then muscles down the line and it’s all over for the tennischick. Or at least this is my impression of what sometimes happens for Dementieva. I guess I’ve always felt her pain.

Some time ago I was watching a match between Elena and Serena and I tried to write a piece about why between them both, I felt that they offered a free clinic on how to play intelligent tennis. If I had a daughter who was even remotely interested in tennis (I have a daughter and her one concession to tennis is allowing me to drag her to the US Open every year, and only because it’s the closest thing she can find to a Trini Carnival…but I digress) – if I had a daughter who was even slightly interested in playing tennis, I would have her sit for hours and watch matches between Elena and Serena.

This is because I believe that between their joint skills, they conduct a clinic on how to play excellent tennis. What the one creates, the other defends against. The strengths of the one are perfectly matched against the strengths of the other. The weaknesses of the one can be exploited intelligently by the other. Between Serena’s serve and Elena’s return of serve, Serena’s volleys and Elena’s sweet lobs, Serena’s fast movement and Elena’s gutsy changes of ball direction – between these two women you can see clearly how great tennis is created.

I don’t think I did a good job of writing that article because all it attracted were comments from friends about why was I even mentioning Elena in the same breath as Serena. And this is typical of the way that Dementieva has been treated for most of her career. She was part of the first wave of Russian blondes that invaded and took over tennis. But whereas Kournikova went on to fame and fortune for being sexy, and Anastasia Myskina (remember her?) became the first Russian to win a Grand Slam (French Open 2004, where she beat Dementieva in the finals, ouch), and then Sharapova won Wimbledon – Elena remained the also-ran. She made it to sundry Slam finals but was ever the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Even as a child, Dementieva was rejected by two Russian sports clubs that did not think she had what it took to succeed in tennis. Both rejections happened before she was age seven. She was finally accepted as a student by the mother of Marat Safin and Dinara Safina, with whom she worked for three years. At age 11 she was finally accepted into the Central Red Army Club where she was coached by Sergei Pashkov. More recently she has elected to work with her mother and older brother, a decision that no doubt signaled a change in her view of her future prospects.

At almost six feet tall, Elena has always been a fit and strong player, an athletic woman who relied on powerful offensive groundstrokes, a lethal running forehand, and an all-court, all-surface type of game. But she has always lacked a singular weapon. And although she did belatedly improve her serve, in a sport in which a big serve is now a requirement for success, hers just never became a reliable weapon.

And yet I remain probably among the few who believe that Dementieva has had a very successful tennis career. She has won 16 career singles titles and six doubles titles. She won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and silver in Sydney (2000). She has earned over $14-million in prize money. And she is bowing out with a ranking of #9. That’s what you call going out on top. With homes in Monaco, Moscow and Boca Raton, Florida, hobbies that include snowboarding, reading and traveling, and future plans to study journalism, I suspect that Dementieva will be just fine.

I first took notice of Elena when she beat Venus at the 1991 Fed Cup, coming back from a 1-4 deficit to help Russia trounce the USA in the finals. At the time Venus was still playing roughly, making too many errors, her forehand a clear weakness. Elena too was rather tentative at times, pensive in a sport that requires quick reflexes, smiling even when she lost points she should have won, good-humored but not gloating in victory. You saw in that match the clear differences in the potential and future of both women. I wonder if Dementieva feels that she has fulfilled hers?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Appreciating Bud Collins

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: Rafael Nadal (R) of Spain presents Bud Collins, journalist and television broadcaster, with the Ron Bookman Media Excellence award for his long-standing contribution to the game of tennis during Day 8 of the 2008 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 1, 2008 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

I was raised in a culture in which old people are not necessarily venerated, but certainly are treated with a tremendous amount of respect. As a child, whenever I passed Mr. or Mrs. Geriatric in the street, it was expected that I would pipe up clearly and wish them a “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon”. Passing them straight and going about my business was considered a sign of rudeness. So too was waiting for them to acknowledge me first. The general thinking was that simply by having survived to old age, these individuals had earned the right to be treated with a certain level of courtesy and regard.

So when in 2007, after 35 years of serving as a premier tennis sportscaster for NBC, Bud Collins announced that the media giant had decided not to renew his contract, I found myself going “Ouch”. The decision smacked of disrespect. It felt as if NBC was saying that it had had enough of the aging Bud Collins, that he had seen better days, and that it was time to put him out to pasture.

Bud Collins is 81 years old. By most indices, he has had a lengthy and successful career as a tennis commentator and journalist. Most people in this country retire well before his age. But it must hurt like hell not to be able to do so on your own terms after so many years of dedicated service. It must be galling to be told that you have to leave before you’re fully ready to go, to have to pretend to bow out gracefully even as the Young Turks start stamping their feet impatiently, raising dust in your face as they practically shove you off. Yes I’m probably being a bit dramatic. But I felt for the guy.

But if I am honest I will admit that I was never a fan of Bud Collins the tennis commentator. I found his lengthy wind-ups rather annoying. I always felt impatient that he took so long getting to the point. I didn’t mind the wacky clothing, but it always irked me that he seemed to put more energy into coming up with the stupidest nicknames for tennis players than into making intelligent tennis commentary.

Bud Collins the nickname generator is in a class all by himself. Whereas most tennis fans go for a simple shortening of the players’ names – such as Fed, Rafa, Djoko, Vee, Caro, and the like, Bud would come up with these cumbersome, multi-syllabic nicknames that made sense only to him. For example, his nicknames for Federer were, “Lord of the Swings”, “Basel Dazzle”, and “The Swiss Who Can’t Miss”. I mean, what the hell?

Other players suffered similarly under Bud’s overly wordy mouthfuls. Gael Monfils became known as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. The only way that made any sense to me is that he probably mistook Gael for Whoopi Goldberg in the movie of that name. He called Justine Henin, “The Paper Tiger”. I’m not even going to put the energy into figuring out what the heck he was talking about. Sharapova was “The Siberian Siren”. “Siren” I get, although I would personally prefer “Banshee”. But she is not from Siberia. And Marat Safin was inexplicably dubbed “The Headless Horseman”. No really, it’s too much. I give up.

But I didn’t mean to write this entry to diss Bud. After all, I mentioned before that I was raised in a culture that tried to venerate its older folks – (in between episodes of robbing and raping them, but I digress).

My real appreciation for Bud Collins stems from the fact that he is the only person I know who has made an attempt to comprehensively document the history of tennis, to include vivid portraitures of its players. For this alone he deserves an honorable doctorate. Not that he will ever be allowed to use it by calling himself Dr. Bud Collins. (Hear that Ms. Maya Angelou? Getting an honorary doctorate does not make you a doctor. And I mean this with no disrespect to you as a member of the geriatric posse. And once again I digress).

I own the third edition of Bud Collins “Tennis Encyclopedia”. It is a massive book with almost 700 pages. From time to time, I open random pages and read about people of yore who played this sport that I love without reason. Like Henri Cochet who won Wimbledon in 1927. There is a 1923 photograph of Helen Wills defeating Kity McKane in the inaugural match at the new stadium in Forest Hills. And there is Helen Wills Moody sobbing as she defaults to Helen Jacobs at her last appearance at this tournament in 1933. Not to mention the late Althea Gibson, eyes on the ball, serving like a champ despite the racism of 1957.

History comes alive in this book. Bud has compiled lists of all the winners of all tennis events long before the Open era. The only thing marring the book is his relentless penchant for nicknames and silly turns of phrases. But I find it easier to ignore these as I let myself be transported back into tennis’ past. And I can’t help but wonder who will follow Bud’s lead and embrace the challenge of documenting its future.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Is Hewitt really whoring out his baby?

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 16: Australian actress Bec Cartwright (R) and Lleyton Hewitt of Australia watch their son Cruz Hewitt during a practice session ahead of the 2010 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Lleyton Hewitt is not a poor man. Not by any stretch of the imagination. According to his Wiki page, he has earned more than $18-million in prize money. That does not include the gazillions he gets paid to endorse products that his fans are enticed to purchase. For instance, not long after the start of his pro career, Hewitt reportedly signed a five-year, $30-million contract with sports giant, Nike. He also has lucrative endorsements deals with Yonex.

Away from his tennis-related deals, Hewitt has also been known to promote Valiant Furniture and a brand of toilet paper named Sorbent. It was the toilet paper deal that first had me wondering if there was nothing this man would not do for money. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with promoting toilet-paper per se. But in general, the folks that you see squeezing the Charmin’ tend to be has-been TV stars happy for the paycheck. As far as I am aware, Hewitt has not at any point in his career been desperate for money. So you had to scratch your head and ask why he was selling toilet-paper.

The decision was incomprehensible in part because Hewitt is married to a woman named Bec Cartwright who herself has earned a pretty decent income as a TV soap-star. Between them both, they are probably set financially for life – barring some grotesque mismanagement of their funds. In fact, Hewitt is so rich he can more than likely afford to take care of you, me, and every member of his family.

You want to know how wealthy Lleyton Hewitt is? He’s so wealthy that he apparently once paid $3.2 million for a waterfront property in his home town of Adelaide. Before that, he supposedly paid $8.325 million for a penthouse apartment in one of the most expensive buildings in Melbourne. He also owns property in Nassau, Bahamas, where he resides for a portion of the year. Let me re-state my point – Lleyton Hewitt is apparently not hurting for money.

So if someone had told me that Hewitt was capable of sinking to an even lower low than shilling for a toilet-paper company, I would have said that they were out of their minds. I know that Hewitt has a reputation as an ass-wipe, but surely promoting said ass-wiping is as low as he could get? Surely this man has, as a result of the butt-picking criticism, managed to consider trying to retain what little dignity he has left? Apparently I was wrong.

Lleyton and his brittle-blonde wife gave birth to a daughter this past weekend. This was their third child. Lleyton apparently proposed to Bec in March 2005 after a brief six-week courtship right on the heels of his break-up with Kim Clijsters. Bec gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Mia Rebecca, in November 2005. (You do the math.) Bec delivered their second child, a son named Cruz Lleyton, in December 2008. And this past weekend she sent forth their third child, another girl, into the world.

Bec and Lleyton seemed to experience no difficulty naming their first two children. But they decided to team up with a service called “Text A Star” to charge fans $2 a message for the privilege of finding out the name of the Hewitt’s third baby. Bec and Hewitt plan to publicly announce the baby’s name later this week – via multiple texts sent out to their fans everywhere. For $2, you too can be part of the in-group, the first to know the baby’s name. And if say even one million people sign up for this jackassery, Hewitt and Bec would have pocketed some easy money.

Except that some fans are up in the arms over the audacity of this man to charge them for information that will soon be in the public domain. I mean really, what could be so special about a baby’s name that anyone would be willing to pay to find it out? Besides, this lame strategy smacks of two things, both of which are completely distasteful. The first of course is the frank whoring out of an innocent baby. Who puts that kind of karma on a baby’s head days after she enters the world? The second is the disgusting exploitation of trusting fans. Really, selling them toilet-paper is so much more honest in hindsight.

Hewitt and his wife have responded to this criticism by posting the following statement on his website: “Some sections of the media have as usual found it opportune to place some spin on reality by suggesting we have taken this approach just to make money. Certain media people believe that are the only ones who should have an exclusive. In this instance we made a decision that my fans deserve to know first, and the general public second. That's what we have done and just look at how many of the media have reported it. I've always assured my fans that they'd be the 1st to know on Text a Star and that's why I am part of such a great program, as I can send it straight from my mobile directly to theirs.”

Earth to greedy Hewitt and to your equally stupid wife: If you want your fans to know first, send them a free text with the information. You pay the cost. After all, you can definitely afford it. But as a fan of tennis, I see no benefit to anyone finding out the name of your baby minutes before the rest of the world does. This is nothing but financial exploitation using the lowest form of ass-wipery imaginable.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Defending Sharapova (for real)

File photos of Los Angeles Lakers Sasha Vujacic in San Antonio dated May 27, 2008 and Maria Sharapova during the U.S Open tennis tournament in New York dated August 31, 2010. Vujacic is engaged to marry Sharapova after the Slovenian told reporters before an exhibition game on October 21 that the Russian former tennis world number one had accepted his proposal. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi/Shannon Stapleton/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT TENNIS BASKETBALL SOCIETY)

Tennis Ace’s criticism of my last article was very fair. She pointed out that in my bid to make a case for the potentially negative effect of imminent marriage on Sharapova’s motivation to keep playing tennis, I completely missed the fact that Sharapova may already no longer be invested in tennis. In order to lose focus and interest, you have to have them in the first place. And Tennis Ace believes that Sharapova lost interest in tennis a long time ago – at least, ever since Yuri stopped being a presence in her box.

It’s a very fair point. In fact, re-reading my article in the light of these comments, I realized that I offered better clarity on how Caroline Wozniacki became tennis’ top player. I may not have been as clear on what I think may be going on with Sharapova. Let me try to clarify my thinking.

The main point of yesterday’s entry was on how some of us (including myself) sometimes come to benefit from the lack of focus of those better than us. This is the story of Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams. It is not the story of Maria Sharapova. Serena’s apparent loss of interest in tennis has clearly benefitted Wozniacki. Which is not to say that Caroline isn’t hard-working and intrinsically motivated. On the contrary, girlfriend worked her butt off to get to # 1. But Serena’s apparent lack of focus also helped open the door. That really was my main point – using the analogy of Linda the love-struck.

And I agree that none of this explains what is currently going on for Sharapova. I don’t however agree that Sharapova has stopped investing in tennis. I don’t know what is in her heart, but Sharapova signed a contract with Nike that she has no choice but to honor. So even if in her heart she could give a crap about tennis right now, none of this can be evident once she hits the court. In fact, it has been cute to see her playing tennis with her sweetie. She actually seems to be enjoying herself. And in her matches, she is still playing her aggressive game. She is still screaming like a banshee. She is still using her tactic of pull-her-wide-and-the-point-is-over. She seems to be making her best effort to always to win.

While it is true that some lesser players may have benefitted by Sharapova’s 2007-2008 disappearance from tennis due to injury, at this time her presence or absence from a tournament is no longer an outcome changer. Returning from injury and rehab, she lost in the first round of the 2010 Australian Open to Maria Kirilenko and in the first round of the Madrid Open to Lucie Safarova. She won on clay in Luxembourg and made it to the finals of the Aegon grass tournament. But her performance during the summer remained uneven. And no one will be surprised if she fails to defend in Tokyo.

But the fact that Sharapova has become beatable, that her game is predictable, that her opponents know exactly what she is going to do, and that she is not the tennis threat that she used to be – while all of these statements are true, none of this is the same as saying that she has lost motivation or that she is no longer invested. I think that many of the folks currently deriding Sharapova are conflating the issue of motivation with the issue of threat. They are not the same.

I think too that Sharapova’s critics are making the mistake of assuming that motivation must always be internal and intrinsic, flowing from a personal passion and a genuine heartfelt interest. I disagree. Sometimes motivation is purely external. Some people show up to work and do a great job not because they love their jobs but because they are professionals who are motivated to get a paycheck. I agree that intrinsic motivation is probably always more satisfying. It certainly is for me. But that does not mean that there aren’t people who work just as hard, even harder, for the sole motive of external gain.

I think therefore that it is unfair to say that Sharapova has stopped making an effort to win at tennis. Outcome and effort are not the same issues. I played my heart out in a mixed-doubles match last night, but my partner and I lost 2-6 3-6. Our efforts to win cannot be determined by the score line. So too Sharapova’s string of relative failures do not mean that she simply goes out there and tanks.

But I do think that it is fair to say that Sharapova’s best tennis is in the past. I believe that the Sharapova era of tennis is over. I don’t think she will ever dominate again. I don’t think she will any more Slams. But that is not the same as saying that she has lost motivation. That Nike made a misguided investment that Sharapova will have to honor seems crystal clear to me. My criticism of that deal has always focused on the idiocy of Nike and the lack of deserving of Sharapova.

Do I think that Sharapova is professional enough to honor her agreement? Yes I do. Obviously, so does Nike, or they would have made the deal in the first place. Yet I do wonder whether marriage and possibly babies may kill of whatever little intrinsic motivation she still has. I do wonder if she might find it increasingly difficult to keep honoring the terms and conditions of a multi-million dollar deal that requires her to be out there on the tennis court when she’d rather be at home making love to her sweetheart and changing poopy diapers. That too was part of the point of my article yesterday.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What’s in the future for Mrs. Vujacic?

Feb 16, 2010; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic (18) during the game against the Golden State Warriors at the Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Warriors 104-94. Photo via Newscom

So Sasha Vujacic has quietly put a ring on it, one short year after courting the gazillionaire. I hear that the diamond is ginormous. I read that he recently suffered a concussion when someone struck him accidentally with an elbow, so I certainly hope that he was of sound mind when he asked Maria Sharapova to become his wife. But my real interest in this is what it will mean for tennis. Will Sharapova be able to remain single-mindedly focused on her sport? Or will love and marriage become major distractions?

I'm not knocking Maria. I have personally benefitted from such a distraction. I can’t tell you her name of course, but there once was a girl in my high school who was so naturally bright, so insanely gifted and talented and brilliant that she left the rest of us in the shade. Whenever we did French dictées for example, Linda (not her real name) would produce effortless translations while the rest of us slaved over dictionaries and sweated bullets to come up with the turns of phrase that would make Mam'selle Benet satisfied.

We were all distant seconds to the brilliance that was Linda. Heck we were not even in the same orbit. And she was such a naturally sweet and shy girl that none of us resented her. On the contrary, we were collectively proud of our class brain. She was the person we could count on to come up with the answers when we were in a pinch.

And then, a few weeks into our senior year, Linda fell in love. Did I mention that she was of Chinese descent, her parents hard-working immigrants who ran a restaurant so that they could send their daughter to the best school? Where the rest of us enjoyed some freedom to date, to flirt, and to socialize, at least on weekends, Linda had to help out in the restaurant or keep her nose in a book. She literally never came out to play. The result was that while most of us had already had a heartbreak or two by our senior year and were ready to refocus on getting into the best colleges possible, Linda was in the throes of first love.

The boy in question was of East Indian descent. I remember him being a tall gawky teenager. I remember their public pretenses of not knowing each other, no doubt because her strict parents would not have allowed the relationship. Of course such secret love is intoxicating. In class Linda started spending her time doodling her name intertwined with his in the columns of her French translations. She still produced good work, but it wasn’t the same. She wasn’t focused. She was instead blissfully in love.

In time she started cutting classes, missing school to be with her love. We would run into them hiding in the oddest of places in town. She started looking as if she was no longer living on the same planet as the rest of us. She became secretive, cunning, full of guile. Her school work floundered. And then she quit school altogether. To this day, I have no idea what became of her. A rumor started that her parents had sent her back to China after they got wind of her secret romance. I never found out if this was true.

What I do know is that I personally benefitted from Linda’s lack of focus. I ended up winning all of the competitive merit-based scholarships that she would have won. I am not selling myself short here. I’m simply acknowledging the truth that sometimes when the best cannot perform, others benefit.

Take Caroline Wozniacki, for example. She is currently the #1 player in the world because Serena has quit playing tennis. Mind you, Serena is # 2 after earning 6855 points playing only 13 tournaments, while Caroline is #1 with 7675 points after playing 23 events. It is crystal clear who the better player is. But since the better player has lost focus and is frankly more interested in cleaning people’s feet, the also-ran has ascended to the top.

So the point of this article is not to knock Maria Sharapova for being in love. On the contrary, I am happy for her that she has found a sweetheart with whom she plans to tie the knot. And Vujacic, at age 26, is a decent shooting guard for the LA Lakers. Born in Slovenia of Serbian parentage, like Sharapova, he has known some sporting success since his junior days. His career earnings don’t come close to Sharapova’s of course, but at 6 feet 7 inches, he more than matches her in height. And while he’s not the most handsome baller out there, he seems cute enough that their children shouldn’t frighten people.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, I have no evidence that Maria plans to quit playing tennis so that she can pop out some babies. And I certainly hope that Nike thought to include a No Baby clause in that disastrous (in my opinion) deal that they co-signed, making her the highest paid mostly injured player in tennis. Because between you, me, and the net, I suspect that they haven’t half begun to recoup their losses. Which is why, if I were Nike, I would be a bit worried about whether Maria will really be able to remain focused on tennis. It’s not as if love gives you advanced notice.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When celebrities endorse crap

Some time ago I went away for a weekend of tennis. It was one of those adult camps with hours and hours of instruction and a lot of fun, drunken socializing after hours. You know the drill. That was the weekend I had the encounter with the tennis gigolo and wrote about it. Another thing that happened that weekend is that I bought a racket because Steffi Graf endorsed it. The racket turned out to be complete crap.

Like most of my adventures, this one also started innocently. We had some down time between sessions and I elected to take a private lesson with one of the pros. She was playing with a Head Three Star and kept urging me to try it as well. I followed her advice and ended up buying the worst piece of crap racket I have ever wasted my money on.

Let me digress by saying that I think that being a psychologist in private practice can make one quite gullible. Not that you can sell me the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m not that foolish. But having spent years taking people’s hard-earned money and trying sincerely to help them in return, I have lost some of the immediate ability to detect lies. Or maybe it’s not that I’ve lost it so much as I don’t go looking for it.

I have friends who work at VA centers and they tell me that they spend half their days playing detective. Does this patient really have PTSD or is he just malingering? Did this patient really get injured by an IED or is she trying to feign a mild traumatic brain injury for assumed financial benefit? I have, for most of my career, had the luxury of not having to worry about such things. Surely an individual handing over her hard-earned cash would have better things to do than turn around and tell me a pack of lies.

As a result, I find that I tend for the most part to see the good in people. Or maybe I’m just a trusting fool. So when a professional coach tells me that the racket she is playing with is the best thing brought out by Head in years, my inclination is to believe her. And when I then find out that no less than my adored Steffi Graf had lent her name to this product, well the word ‘sucker” probably appeared as stigmata on my forehead.

My next error was the decision to demo both the Head Three Star as well as the Five Star within the same session. Big mistake. If you’re going to test a racket, you need to dedicate more than a portion of an hour to trying it out. It takes at least an entire weekend of playing tennis to be able to try out every single one of your shots, do some serving, and actually play some games. In fact, ideally, you should focus your attention on only one racket for a significant period of time, before moving on to trying another. It was stupid of me to demo two new rackets within the space of an hour. And it was silly of me to allow a brand new coach who knew nothing about my game to influence my decision-making.

I realize in hindsight that part of the problem is that I am accustomed to people coming to me for my expertise. I foolishly assume that the world is full of professionals like me – people who are genuinely well-intentioned and tailor make their interventions to suit the specific client. The truth is that the world is also filled with liars and cheats, and people who work at Adult Tennis Camps and whose job it is to promote product lines – never mind if such products happen to be utter crap.

But I don’t want to blame the poor coach too much. She was probably as much a victim of manipulation as I was. Mainly I blame Steffi Graf. How could she endorse such a piece of crap? How could she lend her name to such an unworthy product?

Like I said, I was genuinely confused about which of these two rackets to buy and went back and forth between the Five Star and the Three Star. I flipped back and forth for the entire lesson. And then I asked the coach to tell me what she thought. And this is how I came to own a Head Three Star.

It is a piece of crap. It’s like playing tennis with a trampoline. The ball goes flying off the racket at the slightest touch. I’ve never hit balls more wildly. The racket is so bad that I wouldn’t even donate it to Goodwill for some impoverished kid to play with. It needs to be tossed into the nearest landfill.

Mind you, I have always purchased Head rackets, starting with an old odd-shaped graphite number. Do you remember when the faces of Head rackets were shaped like pears? That’s how long I have supported this brand. I am a die-hard Head supporter. Sure I’ve bought the odd Wilson (Hammer). And I tried a Yonex for a minute because of Hingis. I hated it and went happily back to Head.

So I guess I’ve long been susceptible to trying out the rackets favored by the players whose games I want to emulate. I figure that if they can do the things they do with the same product, well then maybe I have a shot at emulating their game. But the stark truth is that no pro player actually plays with the identical racket that you and I find at the store. It may have the same brand name but it is not the same racket. Most successful pros get rackets that are specially customized for their game. Andre Agassi admits in his memoir that he once played with a racket that was deliberately painted to look like the brand he was supposed to be promoting. It’s all a giant con and we the unsuspecting consumers are the victims. And Steffi girl, you owe me big.
Jun 30, 2010 - Hamburg, Germany - Tennis legend STEFFI GRAF attends the REXONA Charity-Tennis Tournament held at Unilever Haus in Hamburg. Donations begin to ''Children For Tomorrow'' to property a charitable organisation founded by Steffi Graf which is involved in children in crisis areas and, above all, war zones.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In search of a good ball machine

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Fans take cover from the rain under umbrellas on day fourteen of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

It’s so hard to find a good tennis partner. I swear it’s easier to find a life-mate than it is to find the right person with whom to play tennis. Of course it’s easy to find one-off partners, brief hook-ups that you can have a kind of tennis fling with as you keep searching for the one. But hook-ups are never satisfying. You have to compromise too much and you can’t totally be yourself because after all, you may want to impress this person enough that he (or she) will return for more. Tennis.
What led up to this you ask? Well, I’ve just been having the most frustrating experiences lately. It all started when I missed the deadline for signing up for league tennis. Part of the reason was because I was really ambivalent about signing on for weekly competition. I’ve heard too many horror stories. Like the one a friend told me recently about playing a mixed doubles match and forgetting to write the score down on the opponents’ sheet of paper. The next day the male member of the other team called to say that they were going to register the match as forfeited because the lack of registered score meant that the match did not happen. And just like that, a match that my friend and his partner had won was considered non-existent.
I don’t have the patience for that kind of nonsense. I don’t understand the relentless cheating that goes on in league tennis. I don’t understand why people register for 3.0 teams when they are really 4.0 players, and then proceed to beat up on everybody on the court. I don’t get the brazen bad calls, frankoment foot-faulting, and downright lack of sportsmanship that characterize so much of league tennis. All of which played a part in my conveniently forgetting the deadline and deciding to pass.
Part of the problem stemmed from some of the negative experiences I have had with the assortment of women in my league. Like the one who starts blaming her partner the minute a shot is missed. And the other whose husband calls her every five minutes and we have to stand there, being bitten by mosquitos, as she reassures him sotto voce. And no doubt I myself am an irritant to many because of my screaming and cussing and countless other annoying habits that my tennis partners are forced to suffer.
But the result of my personal bowing-out is that I now find myself with a dearth of people with whom to play tennis. I decided to start looking outside of the town I live in to see if there were other folks who had decided to forego competing and were interested in just playing. So this past weekend, I drove over an hour to attend a Meet-Up that I found online. Ten of us had registered. Four of us showed up.
The leader decided that we would play singles and the third person would challenge the winner of the first match. So first up I played against the only guy who had showed up. I held my own until 4-4. That I was matching him play for play seemed to irk him. I’ve been here before. I’ve written previously about the challenges of being a good female player who poses a challenge to some men. He then started drop-shotting me. I was impressed. It was nice to see a man using a clay tactic on a hard court. I did not see it coming. He broke me easily and the served for the set.
Next up it was him, as the winner, against the other woman. The tough guy whom I had just played completely disappeared. Instead he started fumbling. I realized that he could handle my pace but her soft moonballs left him flummoxed. Next thing I knew he had lost to her 6-3. I was stunned. So was he, clearly. He announced that he had to leave. He had another engagement. He drove off, tires screeching.
The woman and I played on. When I went up 5-1, she stopped playing. Sure I was blasting the returns of serve but she didn’t even try to get to the ball. She wasn’t enjoying losing to me. I won the set 6-1. I asked if she wanted to keep playing. She said OK, and started trying again. Until I went up 4-0. Then again, she just stopped playing. She was disgusted at losing. She let me feed her a bagel. And then she said that she had to leave.
I felt badly for beating her. I found myself missing my league partners. I even missed the damn cheating opponents. At least they show up and play real tennis. At least they keep trying to win until the very last point. Sure we would have some heated moments on the court and would argue constantly about the score. But really, what’s so wrong with that? I started realizing that it was all good. Playing against real players was much better than settling for strangers who didn’t know me and would probably never call me to play again.
Maybe, I thought, the solution is to find a good ball machine in the meantime. I’m too cheap to pay full price for one but right about now I could handle the thought of buying a good used machine. I could set it to feed me the kind of balls that I need to practice. Sure the balls would always be perfectly placed and no doubt it would not be good for me to always be able to predict where the ball was going to land. But until league season starts again and I can sign on for the drama, I find myself cringing at the thought of answering another ad, and showing up in a random town to end up pissing off a bunch of strangers.