Monday, May 31, 2010

An encounter with a tennis gigolo

I had heard about these guys. We all have. I’ve seen them in movies, putting the moves on bored wealthy housewives at country clubs. But the last thing I expected when I signed up for this weekend of tennis was to find myself on the receiving end of an offer from my very own tennis gigolo.

I remember years ago watching a movie called “Jagged Edge“ in which a tennis pro appropriately named “Bobby Slade”, has an affair with a wealthy woman who later turns up dead. At first we are not sure if the tennis pro had killed the woman because she had threatened to go back to her husband, or if the husband had killed his wife in a fit of jealousy for getting it on with the tennis pro. At the very end of the movie, when the murderer gets killed by his defense attorney, we’re still not sure whose face is unmasked.

This is all by way of saying that I really never saw myself as the kind of woman who would attract the amorous attentions of a Bobby Slade. Although to be fair this one would have been better off being named Bobby Jindal since he actually was from India. (No, I did not get solicited by the Republican governor of Louisiana, but the experience was just as unnerving.)

It all started quite innocently. I went to the pro shop to buy some stuff. Because I had paid for the weekend of tennis, I was entitled to a sweet discount. So there I was, minding my own business, picking out tops, skorts and other pretty but practical outfits (not made of black lace, ha ha), when an Indian instructor came in and asked one of the instructors I had worked with if she could give him a ride. My instructor replied that she wasn’t leaving for another couple of hours and asked if he could wait that long. He replied that he could not as he had agreed to meet someone at the other tennis location. I recognized the address as across the street from my hotel so I  joined their conversation to offer the Indian man a ride. He smilingly accepted, and waited somewhat impatiently as I finished my purchases. He carried the bag to the car for me.

He commented right away on the amount of money I had just spent at the pro shop. And to be honest I had treated myself to the new Head YouTek Three Star racket, along with sundry head and wrist bands resulting in a $200. tab. I guess when you’re a poor-assed tennis pro, a woman who spends $200. of her hard-earned money must look like she’s rich.

I can’t think of any other explanation for why he started putting the moves on me before he had even fastened his seat-belt. He wondered if I was staying by myself at the hotel or did I come with my husband. I told him that I was alone. He wondered what I was doing later. There was a nice bar near the waterfront where he liked to take his special friends. He wanted me to know that he was mature for his age. He could meet me for drinks or dinner. Which floor was my room located on?

Bobby Slade this man was not. Not with such inept moves. He lacked the grace of a skilled gigolo. And he certainly didn’t look the part. I mean I don’t want to stereotype as I am sure that there are gigolos in all races and cultures, but the last thing I expected of a putative gigolo was that he would turn out to be a short, somewhat stocky young man with a heavy Indian accent. Really, he was not the stuff of latent fantasies.

But what my Bobby (not his real name) lacked in skill he more than made up for in enthusiasm. At first I was taken aback and wondered for a few moments whether I had made a mistake in offering him a ride. After all, he was a complete stranger and I didn’t know him from Krishna.

But then I remembered that other people had seen and heard my offer. And besides, the place was so overrun with tourists that it would have been very difficult for him to abduct me in broad daylight without attracting much attention. But just to be safe I turned off the A/C and rolled down the windows. And then I decided to have some fun.

I told him that I was really good at making curries. He got so excited he practically came. He clapped his hands enthusiastically and shouted “Ho! Ho! Ho! Why didn’t I meet you before?” I continued playing with him like this all the way to the center. Then I dropped him off at his location and sped off. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Imitating the pros: Knowing what to copy

Pete Sampras had a characteristic series of movements and gestures that he engaged in as part of his serving repertoire. Some of his movements seemed to be a necessary part of his routine while others seemed occasional and accidental.

For example, Pete characteristically let his tongue hang out his mouth. As much as that disgusted me, I understood that this was part of an instinctive cooling method he relied on, given his reportedly genetic blood condition. I am confident that no players will ever deliberately copy this gesture. It had no relevance whatsoever to the mechanics of the Sampras serve.

But Pete also tended to lean backwards at the beginning of his serve, his left heel held downwards while his toes pointed to the sky (see photo). This was his stance regardless of where he placed the ball. As a result, it was often difficult if not impossible for his opponents to read or anticipate the placement of his serves. Hence the lethality of the American Beauty.

A number of pros have since copied Sampras’ serving motions including his unique opening stance. For example, Maria Sharapova starts her service motion with the exact same foot placement. It generally works for her.

But not everyone should start serving this way. Especially those who, like me, are inclined to be on the shorter end of the height spectrum. Think about it for a moment. Leaning backwards in this way, with the left heel placed downwards, is actually going to temporarily make you shorter. If your height hovers anywhere between 5 ‘ and 5’ 5”, you can’t afford to do anything that lowers your already low center of gravity. Certainly not in a sport that favors those who can see more clearly over the net.

Height of course is not the only dimension that one should use in determining whose game to copy. In fact, sometimes height is irrelevant to the particular shot. I copied my angled forehand return from Andy Murray. I copied my crosscourt forehand from Steffi Graf. Both of these players can eat off my head easily. But I can copy these shots because the players’ height has nothing to do with their ability to hit these particular shots.

Which brings me to the point of this article. One of the most wonderful aspects of a Slam is the tremendous opportunities that amateur tennis players get to study the games of the pros. We can all learn a lot about how to play tennis from watching those who exceed in the sport. But it’s important to know exactly what you are copying. And more importantly, you need to make sure what is right for your particular body frame and your particular kind of game.

For example, I learned a lot about how to rally effectively from watching Andre Agassi. No one could keep the ball in play like him. Indeed, keeping the ball in play was part of his strategy of wearing down his opponents. Andy Murray uses a similar strategy. It may not be accidental that he has also spent time in the former Agassi training camp.

But even Agassi was not always a reliable model of instruction. Back in the day I used to go to see him lose in the first round of the tournament formerly located at Stone Mountain GA. That Agassi was a completely different (and worse) player than the Agassi I saw every year at the US Open. It was amazing. I learned a lot about rallying from US Open Agassi. Stone Mountain Agassi didn’t have a damn thing to teach me. Some years I wondered if I had imagined his presence – he was outta there so fast.

When copying a particular shot from a pro, it’s important of course to look at the very best. But the best cannot always be determined by what is effective. Serena Williams has a perfectly effective drop shot. But Guillermo Coria’s drop shots were a far sight better in terms of quality, spin, placement, and disguise. I know that Coria has given up on tennis but his matches are worth watching when they come on the Tennis Channel. The man was a drop shot king.

But while Coria was a great model for the form of the drop shot, he was not the best model for showing when and how to use it. In fact, Coria sometimes had a tendency to go to the drop shot well a bit too often. So does Andy Murray. But Guga was excellent at timing his drop shots for moments when they are most lethal. In other words, it is important that you know what a player has to teach you. One size in tennis never fits all.

Which brings me back to Pete Sampras and his cocked feet. Pete could get away with this because he is a tall man. Both he and Maria Sharapova are over 6’ tall; they could both afford the slight dip in height caused by leaning backwards. Short players however need not apply.

 Former world number one Pete Sampras plays in an exhibition match at the SAP Open in San Jose

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Venus’ panties vs. the Catsuit

I did an informal poll among most of my male friends asking if the sight of Venus’ behind made them hot. To a man they answered, “No”. Some of them said this with a look close to disgust on their faces.

Most of my male friends immediately invoked a comparison with Serena; they said they find her sexy in a bootilicious kind of way. Others offered that they preferred the more seemingly delicate beauty of Ana Ivanovic. A good few said that they would sell their soul for an evening with Gisela Dulko, the Argentine beauty. But Venus? Meh.

And yet Venus has made a career of pushing the envelope when it comes to body-revealing fashion. If she isn‘t emphasizing her ta-tas, she’s showing us her back; if her back is covered up, she’s wearing lingerie. And this week in France she has elected to uncover all the bases.

Venus Williams seems to have a proclivity for exhibitionism on the tennis court. It’s a character feature that seems inconsistent with the otherwise conservative, buttoned-down, lips-sealed, Jehovah-praising demeanor for which she is characteristically known. Venus’ private life does not show up in the gossip magazines. She normally comes across as so close-lipped that her interviews can make for mind-numbingly uninformative reading.

But put her on a tennis court in a Slam and her inner exhibitionist will out. What are we to make of this? How to explain such a paradox?

Notice that I am putting aside the question of whether she even looks good. Beauty they say is in the eye of the beholder. And besides, Venus’ fans will defend her to the death, and will swear up and down that she is the most beautiful woman in tennis. And some might even mean it too.

Notice too that I am not addressing whether Venus’ gimmicks sell tennis clothes. I am confident that they do not. I do not believe that her lingerie get-up will be a big seller. Most of the female tennis players that I know tend to purchase tops that support their boobs and bottoms/skorts that can hold tennis balls. We don’t all have the privilege of playing in tournaments where ball boys and girls run down our balls and give us towels to wipe our faces in between holding large umbrellas over our heads. In the real world, tennis players do their own carrying and fetching, so impractical outfits like these will simply not sell, certainly not unless they are drastically altered. Ad trust me, Nike and every other brand is aware of this. Just check Tennis Warehouse or any other site that sells tennis clothes. It’s the pretty but practical outfits that fly off the rack.

So what exactly then is the point of Venus’ butt revelations? I have my own theory of course. My theory is that Venus is looking for her own Catsuit moment. I think that she won’t rest until she manages to upstage a Grand Slam the way Serena’s Catsuit obliterated all other events at the 2002 US Open.

Do you remember the Catsuit? Of course you do. I don’t know a man or woman who doesn’t. It became THE topic of conversation at the 2002 US Open. Ask anyone who played on the men’s side that year and they probably won’t have a clue. The Catsuit upstaged everything and everyone. It became THE topic of every talk show, every sports news report, every gossip site, every major magazine. People couldn’t get enough of it. Cartoonists made fun of it. My favorite photoshopped fakery involved Ice-Cube and Chris Tucker reeling back in pretend fright from the impressive sight of Serena’s ass in the Catsuit. Yes, 2002 will forever be known as the Year of the Catsuit.

Will 2010 be the Year of the Flesh-Colored Panties? Venus wore them in Australia and they attracted a rustling of attention. She’s worn them in France and the drum beat seems to be getting satisfyingly louder. I doubt that she will be allowed to wear them at Wimbledon, so their next unveiling should be at the US Open. She will not stop until we declare her the winner in her battle against the 2002 black faux-leather Catsuit. Or maybe I am making too much of the unconscious motives that sometimes fuel sibling rivalry?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kimiko vs. Dinara: Experience vs. "__________"

Fill in the blank. Here are some of your options:

1.  Head case
2.  Frightened ninny
3.  Beaten-down sapling
4.  Tentative robot
5.  Insert your own here

I know that name-calling isn’t right, and Safina stands to gain nothing from being told once again that she is a mental case. I’m sure that she is painfully aware of this. Some of her words in the post-match interview capture this painful awareness: “I got tight. I was more thinking about her than myself and what I have to do. I lost the momentum.” I couldn’t have said it better.

Indeed, for the longest time I used to criticize Safina’s former coach, Zeljko Krajan, for his tough approach to working with her. I felt that the last thing she needed was his brand of negativity. And yet here am I, no better than the Croat, unleashing my harshest invective for a player for whom I actually feel very deeply.

It’s not easy being a mental case. It’s even harder when you know that you’re a mental case and there doesn’t seem to be a damn thing you can do about it.

My frustration with Safina is not just because I think she has the talent and ability to do so much better, but more so because she seems utterly unaware of the solutions available to her. I’ve written about this before, in a series of articles on PST or performance skills training. I recommended then that Safina needed to sign up for a course of treatment, stat. Apparently no one told her about what Dr. TennisChick suggested.

It goes without saying that I am not at all trying to take anything away from Mrs. Date-Krumm, the experienced veteran. The media has gotten hold of her age 39 storyline and are playing that up for all it’s worth. I find that kind of ridiculous actually, and back-handedly offensive to the woman. I know that I am biased on this issue as I believe strongly that older players ought not to be pushed out of the sport but should leave when they are good and ready. As long as a player is willing to put in the work, then he or she has every right to remain on the tour.

At the same time, when the Roland Garros draw first came out, I must admit that I skipped over Kimiko Date-Krumm’s name to see which big players Safina would be meeting on her way to defending her points. It’s not that I dismissed Date-Krumm; it’s far worse - I completely overlooked her.

And I don’t want in any way to continue this trend by overlooking what she accomplished. Indeed, the match statistics tell the entire story. Date-Krumm committed 63 unforced errors to Safina’s 38. She hit 37 winners to Safina’s 12. She came into net 18 times and won 11 of those points. Safina came into net three times and lost all three points. In other words, Date-Krumm played the riskier, gutsier tennis and she won the match because of it. Safina on the other hand, became increasingly tentative, cautious, robotic.

But I don’t think Date-Krumm’s win should be overstated either. What happened in that much was as much about Safina melting down as it was about Date-Krumm stepping up to finish her off. The problem that I detected was that Safina seemed to have decided in the third set that she would simply wait for her opponent to lose. After all, there was Date-Krumm, her calf heavily bandaged, visibly limping and flinching after each rally. There was no way she could possibly win. Or could she?

I am always astounded when professional players miscalculate so astoundingly. I remember some years ago a match between Bhagdatis and Agassi. Bhagdatis was limping and clutching his calf and leg which were visibly cramping. Agassi, usually the punisher, assumed that running Bhagdatis side to side to help him cramp up some more was all he needed to do by way of strategy. Guess what? Bhagdatis won the match, cramps and all.

I assumed that a player with Safina’s talent would have used the time away to fix both her back and her head. Turns out she may have done the former but the latter is still completely messed up.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tweeting on Tennis...or not

This week comes news that the William sisters are back on top. They are the #’s 1 and 2 in the world of tennis. As it should be. With 8475 points after only 15 tournaments, Serena sits comfortably atop the world rankings, unthreatened by anyone in the top ten even if she does not defend her points in France. With 6386 points, Venus is a longshot for overtaking the top spot if she wins Roland Garros; in other words, she's a somewhat distant # 2, separated from the # 3 Caroline Wozniacki by some 750 points.

Mind you, Wozniacki had to play 25 tournaments to Venus’ 17 in order to claw her way to # 3. How truly pathetic is that? Is it any wonder that Wozniacki’s body is falling apart? How can any coach or trainer who truly cares about his player allow such a demandingly cruel schedule? And then of course they will be the first to turn around and complain that the tour is too long and that tennis needs an off-season. No what tennis needs are fewer rapacious coaches and trainers who push their players to the brink. But I digress.

Probably the best part of this development for the Williams sisters is that they will no longer appear on the same side of any draw. They will either get eliminated along the way, or, more than likely, will meet in the finals of any tournament they both enter.

Assuming of course that they are still interested in tennis. Without direct access to the Sisters to question them personally about their actual focus on tennis, I decided to do a quasi empirical study by looking at the amount of tennis content on the first two pages of their Twitter sites. Not too scientific, I concur, but a far sight better than just going on my own opinions. To the extent that Twitter captures at least some of the content of an individual’s mental activity, let’s see what the Sisters have been up to.

Let’s start with Venus. Venus’ twitter page currently features a lovely kente cloth background with a smiling photo of the tennis player and her gorgeous white Havanese toy dog named Harry. And of the 39 Twitter entries posted between May 9th @ 6:00am and May 19th @ 3:00pm, about nine make direct or indirect references to tennis.

My favorite tennis-related tweets from Venus involve her acknowledgment of the sacrifices demanded of a professional’s life; : “I'm the only dummy that wants to go to work instead of party!” and, “Going around Paris after practice and training, that always comes first of course!

Judging from this admittedly scant information, I concluded that Venus is still very focused on tennis. She continues as always to have other interests, but the dedication to tennis seems clear by her willingness to make emotional sacrifices on behalf of the sport. It may seem minor but it is very important for young fans and other tennis aspirants to know that a tennis player’s life does not only consist of eating in expensive French restaurants, but also of unpalatable carbo-loading to stock up for practice the following day. Venus’ tweets beautifully capture this balance.

Now to Serena. Of the sisters, she is by far the more prolific tweeter. She also wins any popularity contest hands down, with almost three times the followers to her sister Venus. But of the 40 tweets posted by Serena between May 16th @ 4:32pm and May 23rd @ 10:15am (my time), not a single one references tennis. She talks a lot about her spread for Harper’s Bazaar, about staying up to watch Smallville, and about her dog’s stinky poops. But tennis? It’s not there. You’d swear that the only reason she is in France is to shoot the spread for Harper’s Bazaar. Certainly the photographs on her site confirm that her watches, bangles, and handbags seem to really hold her interest.

I must admit that I find this to be a bit disheartening. Don’t get me wrong, I think that both Venus and Serena have every right to lead balanced lives with other interests. I do not begrudge them something I would want for myself. But the professional life of a tennis player is so brief that I have also always felt that it was worth it, when you have their level of talent, to make the necessary sacrifices.

I certainly applaud the assertiveness and maturity with which Venus in particular has embraced standing up for the rights of women tennis players. And clearly they have already broken down innumerable barriers for players of color. But as the # 1 player in the world, Serena could do so much more. If only she were interested. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Clay bunnies come out to play!

This is probably my favorite time of year. I’m hedging only because I am a woman inclined to throw herself into passions and I can already imagine myself making the same claim at the start of the US Open. And yet I am not being a dilettante or dishonest in this claim. I truly love this time of year.

April may be the cruelest month, but May brings sweet reprieve. The flowers are in bloom but the pollen count is a bit more manageable and some-time allergy sufferers like myself get a slight break. The weather is warm but not yet hot enough to force me to turn on the air conditioning. I can still get by with fans and open windows. And everyone is outdoors, running, skipping, playing.

I find that it’s generally easier to get a tennis match at this time of year. I don’t have to convince anyone that it’s really not that cold, and besides the snow already melted. I don’t have to rely on Spinn classes to keep me moving. At this time of year, there is no shortage of folks wanting to play tennis. In fact, the tournament season begins anew and when I’m not playing tennis, I’m watching it, not just on TV but in sundry districts across the state.

But most of all I love this time of year because it’s the culmination of the professional clay season. It’s time for my favorite Slam, the great equalizer, the one that makes boys of men. It’s time for Roland Garros. It’s when clay bunnies come out to play.

I joined a new tennis club this year, and and thus I have only played on clay, or at least what passes for clay in most parts of the US. The clay I play on is a dirty greenish brownish color. It‘s not even remotely related to the terre battue. It looks and feels more like sand than clay. I’ve never tried sliding on it. I’m not even sure if that is possible.

And yet I can feel the extra cushioning that this surface offers my joints. And I am enjoying the lengthier rallies that demand that I up my fitness game or step off. Playing on hard surfaces, I often get away with making big forehand returns. On this dingy-colored thing that passes for clay, my forehand is not guaranteed to zing. I have always to be ready for the ball possibly coming back. I have therefore to be fitter, to have better endurance. And I love it.

But there is a part of me that is going into Roland Garros with a touch of sadness as well. It’s the wistful sadness one feels in anticipation of a loss. How much longer will the William sisters play? Will this be Venus’ last year or will she keep challenging herself to keep going? Is Serena fit enough to defend her points? Will Roger protect his trophy or will Rafa snatch it back, humbling him in the process like he just did in Madrid?

And what of some of the newbies who seemed so promising this year? Will Ernests Gulbis deliver on the promise he has shown thus far or will he turn out to be a flash in the pan, just another player who had a moment, made some money, and started getting distracted by the hangers-on? Will Sam Stosur keep it going or is she, like Wozniacki, simply playing too much tennis and running herself ragged? Will Sharapova even care?

What of poor Safina? Is it time for me to remove her face from the masthead of this blog, time to accept that she will not live up to the sweet potential that some of us saw in her but which she herself perhaps never fully believed in?

I looked at the list of withdrawals today and was disheartened to see the name Sabine Lisicki. I think it’s time for me to give up on her, and that too make me sad. Her ankle remains injured. Already the images of Charleston last year are fading.

These are some of my sad thoughts. But mainly I have happy thoughts this time of year. This is Guga season. The season when an unknown clay bunny can stride atop the shoulders of giants and fell them all in succession. As much as I would love to see Roger defend his trophy, I would also welcome being introduced to another Guga, a smart tactician who eats, breathes, and sleeps clay tennis, a brilliant strategist who will come out of the blue and surprise us all.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Aravane Rezai: Big Babe potential?

Well something had to snap me out of my stupor. I’ve been having the hardest time finding inspiration in tennis. I never thought that would ever happen to me. After all, I am too obsessed with the sport, too addicted to the game. And then one by one the Big Babes started getting injured, or pregnant, or side-lined by interests other than tennis. And the next thing I knew, I had developed a kind of writer’s block. I couldn’t be inspired if you paid me to write this blog.

It didn’t help that I was forced to listen to commentators like what’s-her-face on the Tennis Channel gloating about a bunch of also-rans who wouldn’t have had any chance of winning anything if Serena was 100% fit and healthy. It was pathetic the way these commentators were slobbering all over a bunch of wussies.

And then along came Aravane Rezai. Chick woke me right up, slapped me out of my torpor the same way she slapped Justine Henin right out of Madrid, feeding her a bagel no less in the third.

Granted, my glee over the Henin loss was suspect. I have strongly ambivalent feelings towards Henin. On the one hand, as a petite woman myself, I admire her lack of fear, her ability to throw down on a tennis court and not get intimidated by the Amazons on the other side of the net. But there’s a part of me that is quietly angry with Henin. What business does she have retiring from tennis, saying goodbye, saying I’m done - only to turn around and just reappear?

Understand that if she had said that she was taking a break, I would be 100% understanding. Everyone needs a break. And perhaps I too needed a break from this blog, a period to rest my thoughts, to refuel my creativity, and then return. But I never told anyone goodbye. I never wrote a column saying that the Tennis Chick was dunzo. I just took a breather. So I would not have faulted JuJu for doing the same, had she had the decency to do that. But no, she said adieu. And then re-appeared as if she had never left! So there is a part of me that rejoiced when Rezai crushed her in the third.

My other moment of happiness came when Rezai took out Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic is the perfect example of the kind of non-player who has been resurgent during the period when the Big Babes were absent, or broken, or quitting. Don’t get me wrong, Jankovic has a superb defensive game. But at this stage of her career, I would have liked to be able to say more about her than that she has a superb defensive game. And for a while there she seemed to be putting in the work to transform herself into a Big Babe. But when results did not seem to come right away, when going from a size 0 to a size 2 seemed to produce a kind of panic, a regretting - she seemed to relapse. The period of experimentation was over. Jankovic is and will remain a superb defensive player.

So Arazane Rezai has been a breath of fresh air. Was Lucie Safarova really injured or did Rezai frighten her into retiring after the first set? We’ll never know. What I do know is that I pissed off a bunch of people in my tennis club when I predicted that Rezai would beat Venus in straights. I suspect that some of them might have never spoken to me again if I had turned out to be wrong.

In some ways Rezai reminds me of early Serena, complete with outfits that anyone with the slightest sense of fashion would know that they looked, as they say in the Caribbean, cosquel. Did you get a look at that gold and black number? She would fit right in on Carnival Day. It looked like a cheap mas costume. The only thing missing were a headpiece and some beads.

But unlike early Serena who sometimes seemed overawed by the prospect of her talent, Rezai is an opinionated chick who doesn’t hesitate to talk trash. She has made no bones about her lack of regard for Jankovic. She has freely shared her opinions on Henin and Serena (go here). She is bold both on and off the court. Come to think of it, she kind of reminds me of myself. Thank goodness some of the readers of this blog know who I am, because I can imagine some conspiracy types making a case that Rezai may actually be the Tennis Chick. Lol.

But mainly I liked Rezai’s big and fearless game. She is only 5’ 5”, but she plays tennis like a Big Babe. The last player whom I thought had Big Babe potential was Sabine Lisicki. She turned out to be an injury queen. I hope that Rezai stays healthy. I love her boldness and freshness. I think she might have some Big Babe potential.