Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Olympics, vs. Fed and Davis Cup

Some time ago I started a series on some of the changes I would like to see in tennis. Some would say that my ideas were fueled more by idealism than by practicality. And even I have to admit that today’s suggestion certainly falls more within the realm of dreamland. In a nutshell, the seventh change that I would like to see in tennis is for there to be a better distinction between the Olympics, and Fed Cup/Davis Cup, with the latter being reserved strictly for amateurs. Let me explain.

To me, the Olympics should be exclusively for the crème de la crème. It is a chance for a country’s best to compete on a level playing field in that the event is hosted by one country, but that fact ought not to give the host country an advantage. Tennis, for example, is typically played on a DecoTurf surface, a type of cushioned hard court similar to that used at the US Open. This is true regardless of which country is hosting the games.

For Fed Cup and Davis Cup, the host country is allowed to determine the surface on which contending matches are played. I have no quarrel with this. And so in the era of Gustavo Kuerten for example, Brazil usually selected clay courts when hosting the Davis Cup, not just because this gave Guga an advantage, but also because their opponents – say Australia – were assumed to then be at a distinct disadvantage. This plan famously backfired in 2001 when the Aussies spanked Brazil on clay in Guga’s hometown of Florianopolis.

Other than being able to select the surface on which matches are contended, there are a few other elements that separate the Olympics from Fed/Davis Cup. For a start, while players earn distinguished medals at the Olympics, there is no direct financial gain attached to winning. Of course some countries reward their medalists handsomely, and some endorsement deals can pay out big bucks for wins, but no financial reward is doled out by the Olympics committee. This to me is as it should be.

But the celebration of a country’s win at Davis or Fed Cup suggests that the honor may be perceived as almost equal to an Olympic medal. In addition, Fed Cup and Davis Cup yield handsome remunerations that are divided among players and coaches.

But if it were up to me, there would be much more separating the Olympics from Fed Cup and Davis Cup. For a start, only professional players should be allowed to compete at Olympic events. After all, the Olympics should always feature a country’s best. But Fed Cup and Davis Cup I believe should not. These events should be reserved strictly for amateurs.

I have always felt that Fed Cup and Davis Cup should only feature a country’s up-and-coming players, its lesser-ranked. Furthermore, all players should be required to play Davis or Fed Cup as a rite of passage, a chance to cut their teeth as it were against other players who are similarly ranked. Fed Cup and Davis Cup would become the tennis equivalent of some countries’ mandatory military duty. You pay your dues to your country early in your career, and then graduate to making the big bucks among the other pros. And some day, if you’re lucky, you might even aspire to winning an Olympic medal.

Of course this is easy to recommend when you are from a country that boasts tremendous tennis resources in terms of players from whom to choose. But since this is true for all of those at the top, it is an easy recommendation to implement at the level of the World Group. I recognize that it would not be as simple when you start looking down the hierarchy. And by the time you get to countries like Syria and Barbados, the 99th and 100th in the world rankings in Fed Cup, it might be downright impossible.

But if I had my way, countries like the USA and Italy (for Fed Cup), and Spain and France (for Davis Cup), would not be permitted to send the likes of Venus and Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal and Jo Wilfred Tsonga to compete against each other. Fed Cup would indeed feature the team which Mary Jo Fernandez has currently to tackle the Russians in addition to the unexpected winds of Alabama – Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Sloane Stephens as a practice partner. This is excellent exposure for younger players. It gives them a chance to compete on a world stage, and to learn, with guidance, what it really takes to win. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hooking up and splitting up, in doubles

A doubles partnership is very much like a marriage. Some people enter it at a whim, not really expecting anything to come from it. In such cases, usually nothing does. The players involved may enjoy a win or three, but once they get past the infatuation phase, they discover that they really don’t have what it takes to last. And they split.

Other players are doubles flirts. They play first with this one, and then with that one, never settling down, never committing to any of their hook-ups. Some such players often don’t even decide on a doubles partner until they get tossed out in singles, and then grab at the first chance that happens across their path. For them doubles is just a convenience, a way to keep in shape and to make some extra money.

Some partnerships should never have happened in the first place. This is especially the case when one member of the team is in it only for him or herself and could really give a crap about the other. When John McEnroe teamed up some years ago with Steffi Graf, only to have her withdraw from the tournament, he churlishly griped all the way to the sports pages. Never mind the fact that Steffi was a pro who would not have canceled for frivolous reasons. Never mind the fact that she was seriously injured.

Other partnerships, like some marriages, are so full of drama that you wonder why both players even bother. It wasn’t until the Bondarenko sisters, Alona, 25, and Kateryna, 23, figured out a way to stop bickering with each other on court that they finally started winning tournaments. Alona acknowledged this in an interview after they won the 2008 Australian Open doubles championship: “Last year we played not very good doubles because sometimes we fought on the court. But now we start to listen to each other and understand, and maybe that’s the key.”

Listening and understanding are certainly key ingredients of any lasting partnership. So too is having a good work ethic. And being both complimentary of and complementary with each other. A good doubles partnership is like a marriage in which each half completes the other, and yet both individuals remain their unique distinct selves.

This is how I have always felt about Cara Black and Liezel Huber. Black is the diminutive one from Zimbabwe, one of the few Africans on the tour. She has won some 70 titles, and is one of only three women to complete the Grand Slam in mixed doubles. Liezel Huber is the tall one, originally from South Africa, but who fast-tracked her way to American citizenship in 2008 in order to compete for the US at the Beijing Olympics. And ever since they won Melbourne in January 2007, Black has played doubles with no other partner than Huber. Their partnership has thus far lasted a solid five years.

And now some are now saying that they’re heading towards a split. The basis of the rumor seems to be first that Huber showed up in Charleston without Black, and proceeded to win this event with Nadia Petrova. As a result of this win, Huber has now edged Black out as the higher-ranked in their # 1 ranking. Thanks to her win at the Family Circle Cup event, Huber now has 9135 points to Black’s 9015. And just like that rumors of a divorce between the # 1 ranked players started to swirl.

Honestly, it feels like when one of those gossip rags start insinuating that a Hollywood couple must be breaking up just because one was seen at an event without the other. Just because people are married doesn’t mean that they have to be joined at the hip at every moment. And just because one member of a doubles team doesn’t play an event doesn’t mean that the other should stay home and twiddle her thumbs. I am going to wait until Black and Huber make a formal announcement. Until then I will choose to believe that they are two mature women who enjoy playing with each other but are perfectly capable of spending healthy time apart.

To be fair, Huber’s words in the post-tournament conference were ambiguous enough to allow speculation to shine through. “My situation is kind of up in the air,” Huber announced in the interview. But she also said, “Cara and I are a team”. Some see these words as both contradictory and ambiguous. I think that folks may be creating competition between two women where there was none. It’s like we’re not happy unless we can turn every female partnership into a version of “Mean Girls”.

Monday, April 19, 2010

El rey del principado de Mónaco

Of all the places for El Matador to remember the skill of not letting himself be distracted by his thoughts and focusing only on the here and now, it turned out to be in the arms of la bella columbiana. Of course nothing happened between himself and Shakira. It was all smoke and mirrors. But she had unintentionally reminded him of a lesson he had learned years ago.

At first he had frustrated her with his timidez, his shyness and his over awareness of her presence and her beauty, his tentative responses to her confident sexuality. It took her upbraiding at him in her own dulcet manner for him to finally get it. In this moment he wasn’t supposed to be Nadal, a pretend amante. In this moment only, during this shoot, he was her lover, the man with whom she was consumed. Falling into the role, se encontró, he found himself.

How to explain even to Tío Toni how his parents’ divorce had shattered him, how his injuries had started to make him feel broken, how his mounting losses had introduced elements of doubt, and how Federer winning Roland Garros had caused him to think dark thoughts of failure? And then Shakira, off-offhandedly, gently, scolding him, “!Eres tan consciente todo el tiempo! Tienes que aprender a perderte amigo mío.”

He got it on the next take. To find himself he had to lose himself.

And just like that he started remembering one of his earliest tennis lessons with Tío Toni. They were working on his backhand and Tío Toni had one of those training devices with a ball attached. He was trying to teach Rafa how to brush up on the back of the ball to create spin. Tío Toni said that he wanted him to feel as if he was hitting a forehand on both sides, regardless of which hand was holding the racket.

At first Rafael struggled to understand. Tío Toni made him practice the movements over and over, not letting him look back to see where the racket was in preparation. “Tienes que sentirlo, no verlo”, Tío Toni insisted gently. Feel the ball. Don’t look back, just feel. And then finally, Rafa got it, and started producing the right shots. After a series of perfect returns, he shouted gleefully, “!Ahora lo entiendo! Voy a tratar de recordar.”

No! No! No! Don’t remember it, feel it! Take your brain out of it Rafa. Don’t think, feel. Don’t remember, just feel. That is how you will be the best.

When did he start to forget that lesson? When had tennis started to become so cerebral? Was it the interviews asking him to analyze his game or his opponents? Was it the constant demands to explain, to clarify, to elucidate? Words he barely understood in Spanish much less in all of the different languages flung at him throughout the year. The path to winning was not by thinking. Thinking too much had made him become too self-aware, vulnerable, beatable. He needed to go back to feeling.

He came to Mónaco feeling that he would be the king. He felt it from the moment his plane landed. He confirmed it with the 6-0 6-1 match against the Dutch player, de Bakker. He felt it again when he earned the same score against the German, Berrer. Those numbers had become magic. He felt them as he crushed Verdasco with the same score. He was so completely in the zone that it never mattered who was on the other side of the court.

It was only after he won that El Matador allowed himself to start thinking of what he had just done. For a start, he had closed the gap with Federer for the most Masters event wins. Second, he had redeemed himself in the face of criticism that he had not won a title in almost a year. Third, he had erased los dolorosos recuerdos of the loss in Roland Garros that allowed Federer to win the Grand Slam. And finally, he had made history. The first man to ever win the same Masters event six times. No one else had ever declared such a dominance over any Masters event. He was el Rey, the King of the principality.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

How will smaller tournaments survive?

I bailed on Family Circle Cup this weekend. I just wasn’t in the mood to drive that distance to watch the lesser members of the WTA Tour. Ouch that was harsh. But the truth is that the minute the Big Babes started calling in injured, I canceled my days off and decided to go to work as usual. To be honest, I have no regrets.

A tennis friend made the trip down with her husband yesterday. She came back with the news that Jelena Jankovic is prettier in person than she looks on TV, and that Daniela Hantuchova is pencil-thin without an ounce of fat on her body. Not a word on the tennis itself. I also didn’t bother to ask.

Watching on TV today, I saw nothing worth selling the farm over. Wozniacki vs.  Zvonareva was the typical boring display of baseline defending, until Wozniacki gave up, injured. Zvonareva was well on her way to winning that match if you ask me. This was followed by Hantuchova vs. Stosur. I am happy for Samantha that she is having such a terrific run in singles. But I’d sooner travel to Melbourne to see her play there than make the trip to Charleston, SC. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

This inspired me to wonder about the fate of tournaments like Family Circle. How will these smaller events survive in a collapsed financial market?

I asked my coach. He said that the problem quite simply is that the Big Babes help to move merchandise while these smaller fish just do not. He said that last year, after the tournament was over, he was surprised by how much merchandise was still on display, unsold. He said that if either Venus or Serena had been there, merchandise would have gone skipping off the shelves. When the Big Babes bail, it hurts not just the fans of the sport but also the financial bottom line. Merchandise and tickets sell when the Big Babes show up.

This is because tennis fans go to tournaments to see players like the Williams Sisters, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, and Maria Sharapova. This is why tennis suffered so much when Henin and Clijsters departed. This is why their return has been hailed with an almost embarrassing level of acclaim. This is why, despite a bum shoulder, Nike elected to invest heavily in Maria Sharapova. Quite simply, she sells product.

As a result, some tournaments pay hefty appearance fees to guarantee that top players will enter their events. But when Serena Williams announced belatedly that she wasn’t going to Charleston because of her bum knee, and Sabine Lisicki announced that she wasn’t going to be defending her trophy because of a sore left ankle, you knew that this little tournament was in trouble.

Eleanor Adams, Family Circle Cup Tournament Manager, tried to put a brave face on it, saying, “Serena and Sabine are great champions, and it’s unfortunate they had to withdraw due to injuries. We wish them the best of luck in making a quick return to the Tour.” What else could she say? Did you expect her to start bemoaning the tons of merchandise that will have to be packed up and sold at other events held in the Family Circle Tennis Center throughout the year?

At least both Serena and Sabine had the decency to make their announcements at the last minute. Hopefully by then some fans would already have committed their money. I however was not one of those fans. I elected to bail.

And let me be the first to admit that attitudes like mine are part of the reason why the fate of these smaller events are now in question. I am addicted to Big Babe tennis and have always been. I have a hard time appreciating the defensive wimps that clutter up the rest of the WTA tour. And because this is a downright shitty attitude (yes, I can admit that), I recognize that since I am not part of the solution, I am therefore a part of the problem.