Friday, August 27, 2010

Reviewing Venus Williams’ “EleVen”

As a member of the Gilt Groupe, I will, from time to time, find myself tempted to buy a featured item. Of course purchases have to meet certain conditions before I consider them, such as that the final cost plus shipping must be significantly less than the same items at T J Maxx or Marshall’s. But thanks to Gilt, I have been introduced to some fabulous new designers and products that turned out to be worth the risk. So when I received notice some days ago that Gilt was about to feature clothing from Venus Williams’ EleVen line, I couldn’t wait to see what was going to be on offer.

Let me admit from the start that reviewing clothing is best done up close. There is no way, for example, that I could review a Jil Sander suit without being able to talk about the exquisiteness of the stitching. And to do that, I would need to see it up close. I would need to hold and touch it, feel the fabric between my fingers, examine the quality of the zippers and buttons, and the many other characteristics that separate the top tier items of clothing from your K-Mart bargain bin. So without having handled Venus’ choices for her latest EleVen season, there is no way I can comment on the quality of the craftsmanship. The most I give are my visual impressions.

But then again, this is all I have to go by whenever I purchase anything from Gilt. Thus far, relying on face validity has stood me well. Let’s see then what my eyes perceive in Venus’ EleVen line-up. Of course I am not assuming that the eight items ranging in price from $29. to $99. represent the full complement of Venus’ creativity. These are simply the items appearing at, with the following accompanying blurb:

“Aces! For the first time ever, Gilt is serving up exclusive looks from tennis superstar Venus Williams’ athletic brand EleVen, a line of tennis wear based on the famous outfits she wore in her most-watched matches. These chic tennis dresses, available only on Gilt, are rendered in both bright hues and solid whites, with cool twists on traditional necklines. Following the motto "Look like a ten, feel like an EleVen," Williams’ line, the name of which is inspired by her childhood address, earns a top-seeded spot in Gilt’s August 27 sales lineup.” All of the items are listed with accompanying photos of Venus appearing in these outfits at various tennis tournaments.

But the first thing that struck me was that none of the items were on sale. I go to Gilt for their marked down prices. I am your ultimate bargain shopper. I think that it is foolish to pay full price for anything. I know from having associates in retail professions that all items get marked up, sometimes at twice their value. Buying something on sale means only that the merchant agrees to accept a smaller (but still often still quite large) profit margin. Unfortunately, none of the items in the EleVen line featured sale prices. Well, that was the end of my decision to buy. Now I was only browsing.

The only $99. dress is a tie-dye version of the one Venus wore at the Madrid Open and at Roland Garros this year (see photo below). The dress is listed as being made of 100% polyester knit, which is not my definition of a cool material. It features a built-in bra, and black trim details on the bust, shoulder straps, and ruffled hem. The model’s bust size was listed as 32 inches and it does indeed seem to be a nice dress for small-breasted women like Venus. This dress is not for women with melons. Pass.

The Goddess dress, at $79., is a paired down version of the white ruffly number Venus wore at Wimbledon this year. Again the material is 100% polyester, and the twist-tie front is perfect for women who think that their boobs need no support while running up and down on a tennis court. Same for the $79. Double Cross Back dress which features dual crisscross panels going across the back. Cute pink dress but I can’t imagine playing tennis in it. Not with my sized boobs. But the flat-chested – and I don’t mean the small-boobed, but the literally flat-chested – would probably be thrilled to own it.

The $89. Tie Halter dress gathers at the neckline at both front and back and features a ruffle skirt. The version featuring Venus is a more interesting color than the pink number being sold on Gilt. Again, this dress doesn’t feature much boob support but is better in this regard than the previously mentioned.

The yellow $89. Slit Front dress is the black dress that Venus wore at the Italia Open this year. Of all the dresses, it seems to be the most tennis practical. The two front slits should allow for ease of movement. The front and back panels with built-in bra seem adequate to support any sized boobs. And the design is simple and cute. Unfortunately, it’s also made of 100% polyester. What’s with all the polyester?

The remaining three items are the infamous panties, in pink, white, and black. Except Venus calls them “Boy Shorts”. They look like the tight spandex pants we wore to aerobics classes back in the day. The only thing missing are the leg warmers. And we know from Venus’ own performance that these things ride up into the crotch the minute you hit your first forehand, never mind thinking of reaching for an overhead. I don’t get why they are called “Boy Shorts” when they easily feature every facet of a woman’s camel toe.

But I am all for supporting my tennis sisters. So if you want to purchase any of these items, send me an email and I will send you a Gilt membership invite. (You have to be a member in order to shop.) And who knows, maybe wearing Venus’ fashion may actually inspire you to play just like her.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 15: Venus Williams of the USA concentrates on her serve in her semi-final match against Shahar Peer of Israel during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 15, 2010 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Already deeply regretting my decision

I can’t believe I’m not going to the US Open this year. What was I thinking? Why did I allow my secretary to book me solid with patients on September 7th, which is normally the day I reserve for recovery and recuperation from a Labor Day weekend of tennis? Can I really, truly make it through the year without going to Flushing Meadows? I mean I am all for being a Serena fan but this is really taking it too far. Is it too late to change my mind?

These are the thoughts that assailed me on the way home today. It all started when my boss found out this morning that I planned to be in the office on September 3rd and 7th, and proceeded to look at me as if I had lost completely my mind. She is not used to me being in the office between late August and early September. This is my usual time away. She didn’t say it in so many words – it’s not exactly the thing you say to a shrink – but her non-verbals were asking if I had lost my marbles.

No I haven’t. But I must admit that already I admit regret. Here is the list of things that I will miss at Flushing Meadows this year:

• Hanging out with gay men who are pretending to be straight as they sit in the stands lusting after Roddick’s butt.
• Getting free beer paid for by gay men who pretend to be attracted to me while they secretly lust after the male tennis players.
• Pretending that I don’t know that I am being picked up by said gay men.
• Buying seats in the only cool section of the stadium, a secret I will not reveal on this blog no matter how much you pretend to be a gay man willing to buy me beer.
• Buying curry at the US Open. I mean, what other Slam offers a curry option? Maybe Wimbledon, but ours is better.
• Buying the over-priced program and protecting it more than I protect my Psychology text books – after all, you gotta have your priorities.
• Taking pictures with the new camera I bought last year.
• Using the US Open as an excuse to update my camera.
• Running into the Labor-Day-in-Brooklyn crowd in the subway and wondering why it is that I once again chose tennis over attending a Caribbean street festival.
• Running into the guy who could be a stand-in for Roger Federer. I take his picture every year.
• The hilarious people you meet when standing in line for tickets.
• Watching the juniors and trying to spot the next-big-talent.
• The atmosphere of Arthur Ashe stadium and the awesomeness of the tennis his name keeps inspiring.
• Free American Express headset/radios.
• Watching the way a non-tennis fan like my daughter can get transformed by the magic of Flushing Meadows. Full disclosure: This is really the top reason.

But of course there are things I will not miss. And they too deserve their own list:

• Standing in line for tickets.
• Getting baked in the hot sun as I stand in line for tickets.
• The constant lies announced by the folks in the ticket office even as folks stand there baking in line just for the privilege of watching tennis.
• Free sunscreen samples.
• Come to think of it, free samples period.
• The dismissiveness of players like Hantukova and Davenport as they walk past tennis fans who stood in line for hours to get tickets to watch them play doubles.
• The price of curry at the US Open.
• The price of anything at the US Open.
• The sneaky people who steal your seats the minute you get up to use the bathroom, because after all, these are the coolest seats in the house.

No kidding. I am already regretting my decision. It’s only going to get worse by Labor Day.

May 11, 2010 - Madrid, C. A. Madrid, Spain - MADRID, 11/05/2010.- Italian tennis player Flavia Pennetta regrets after missing a point against German Andrea Petkovic during their Madrid Masters 1000 tournament's second round match played at the Magic Box Tennis Center in Madrid, central Spain, 11 May 2010. Petkovic won 7-6 (7/3) and 6-4.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Big Babe Tennis vs. Hitting the Ball Hard

A friend writes to ask why I do not like Maria Sharapova. She writes that all I do is criticize Maria and points out that I have never had anything good to say about the woman who may very well end up winning the US Open this year. My friend does not believe that anyone else in the draw has the fire power to stop Maria from winning another Slam. So why is the Tennis Chick not jumping on the bandwagon?

To be honest, I kind of ignored this entire section of her email. Even while reading it I found myself sucking my teeth as I recalled ESPN’s recent replay of the 2009 Roger’s Cup finals between Sharapova and Dementieva. Maria played the stupidest and most ill-timed drop shot I have ever seen, and lost the match. As I read my friend’s email, I found myself muttering to myself, “Well, if she could only think her way out of a paper bag, I might come to respect her”.

But I took the email more seriously when I got to the end. My friend closed by pointing out an apparent inconsistency in my position. How come, she wrote, you say that you’re a fan of Big Babe Tennis and yet you have so little good to say about one of the biggest babes around?

Well that is a very fair question, no? And it is true. I am a huge fan of Big Babe Tennis (BBT). I have always been. And I know that it is popular to credit the William sisters with introducing BBT, but I think that a fairer statement is that they perfected it. There is no doubt in my mind that Monica Seles played BBT. So did Steffi Graf, her nemesis. So did Lindsay Davenport. What the Williams sisters did, in my opinion, was add a layer of muscle and fitness that did not exist to that extent before. They introduced to tennis what Tiger Woods did to golf, and both sports have forever been changed.

Which is not to say that women tennis players were not generally fit during the pre-Williams era. But you would be hard-pressed to find a current male tennis player who would dare disparage the women in the way that Marcelo Rios and Richard Krajicek once notoriously did their female cohorts. And it is for that that I credit the William sisters. They took BBT to a whole new level, and the rest of the field is still playing catch-up.

Does Maria Sharapova play Big Babe Tennis? Well, to the extent that she is very fit and tries always, on almost every shot, to hit the ball very hard, yes she does. But is that all there is to Big Babe Tennis? Does it require only that a player be spectacularly muscled and that she hit the ball with all her might?

Clearly for many the answer is yes. Today’s New York Times features an article titled “Women Who Hit Hard”, which unfortunately reinforces this notion that Big Babe Tennis consists of nothing more than hitting the ball hard. No wonder the injury rate has sky-rocketed in women’s tennis. This type of baseline bashing BBT comes at a serious cost.

The article also includes an interesting quote from an interview with Vanderbilt University coach, Geoff MacDonald, who points out that it is cheaper and easier to produce an aggressive baseline basher than it is to develop a player with a complete tennis game: “The challenge is that an all-around game — learning not just to hit aggressive ground strokes but to serve and volley and have the whole package — takes longer to develop, and lots of people on tour calculate that it doesn’t pay to spend an extra three or four years grooming a player when she is already winning and maybe already being marketed by the tour. I’m sure someone will come along, the way Federer did on the men’s side, who’s faster, plays an all-around game, who knows how to play defensively and not just rip at every ball.”

But until that person shows up on the women’s tour – and yes, I’ve been obsessing about this issue lately, long before this New York Times writer found himself inspired along similar lines – we seem to be stuck with a slew of women tennis players for whom Big Babe Tennis means only hitting the ball very hard. And my most consistent criticism of Maria Sharapova has been that her game seems to be defined by this limited definition of what it means to play Big Babe Tennis. She is all brawn and no brain. And to be fair, she is not alone. This is indeed the new BBT.

But isn't it intriguing that some of the same people who have embraced Sharapova’s style of Big Babe Tennis were the very ones who used to criticize the Williams sisters for being nothing but power? Alanis Morrisette might have called this ironic.

For the sake of clarity (and fewer annoying emails from friends), the kind of BBT to which I am partial is a lot more creative and intelligent than merely muscling the ball. Playing Big Babe Tennis does not mean that one stops strategizing. It does not mean relying on a single technique – pull her wide and the point is over. It does not mean planting oneself at the baseline, moving in only when that becomes inevitable, and running back to the baseline as soon as possible. And the reason I don’t include Jankovic on the list of BBT players whose style I admire is because for me true BBT tennis is neither purely defensive nor timid, no matter how hard you hit the damn ball.

And in this I’d like to believe that I am not in the minority. For new fans of tennis who may not understand the intricacies of the sport, it may seem from the outside that all that the better players are doing is hitting the ball harder. I beg to differ. Serena Williams, as the prototype of what I mean by Big Babe Tennis, does a whole lot more than just muscle the ball. Serena also studies her opponent and figures out a winning game plan against that particular individual. Her computer of a brain crunches the numbers, calculating vulnerabilities and coming up with a plan to exploit them. And yes, she does try to overpower her opponent when executing her game plan. But never doubt the mindfulness and intelligence that have gone into her craft, or the completeness of the game she proceeds to execute.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Federer, the Fish, and the Boor

What an exciting weekend of tennis this was! I wish I had decided months ago that I was not going to Flushing Meadows this year because then I would have gone to Cincinnati instead. I am making the commitment from now that next year is going to find me at the new and improved Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio. Sure I’ve been scared off in the past by the thought of being baked by the sweltering sun. But is there another tournament that is more perfectly timed as the last significant warm-up event leading into the US Open?

First up I need to give big props to Mardy Fish for an amazing week of tennis. Back to back victories against Verdasco, Gasquet, and Andy Murray are nothing to sneeze at. But I have to admit that I kinda got sick of hearing the commentators repeat that Mardy has lost 30 pounds since September 2009. Really people, it takes more than weight loss to make such a significant improvement in form. Mardy has done way more than lose 30 pounds. He has also lost his diffidence, his fear, his lack of focus, and the lack of confidence in himself that made him remain for years an also-ran in the shadows of the more dominant Roddick.

Indeed, it makes more sense to talk about what Fish has gained than about what he has lost. He has gained a complete repertoire. He plays tennis with the kind of versatility that makes me smile. This is no baseline basher hoping that pulling his opponents wide will do the trick. Mardy serves big, which is a given for any top player. But he backs it up with a skillful and varied repertoire of volleys, popping backhands, and lethal running crosscourt forehands. His shot selection is excellent. Dude is playing intelligent tennis.

But what to say of Andy Roddick and his continued boorish behavior? Ever since Roddick picked up with Larry Stefanki, I have been hoping for great things from him. After all, Stefanki has a reputation of being a king-maker, having over the years brought a succession of tennis players to # 1. And indeed, I credited him with Roddick’s incredible performance against Federer at Wimbledon two years ago. Under Stefanki’s guidance, I figured that Roddick would mature, would improve his ability to handle stress, and would grow some class.

How wrong was I? Let me count the ways. First there was his boorish behavior during the quarterfinals match against Robin Söderling. OK granted that the Chair had no business overturning a line call in the far court. Fair enough. But that’s why the challenge system now exists. So when Roddick proceeded to belabor the point, and when he got angry in a second incident in which he was clearly wrong and demanded that the Chair explain to him in detail how long it should take for someone to challenge a call, I wanted to reach through the TV screen and slap him across the face. If I could, I would have told him, “Stop behaving like a f**king baby!” Instead I kept saying, “What a complete jackass!”

But nothing prepared me for Roddick’s behavior during the third set of his match against Mardy Fish yesterday. Any other player putting on such a dismal performance would have been fined for lack of effort. I found myself feeling ashamed for Roddick as well as for poor Stefanki who had to sit there and look on at this churlish, childish jackass as he publicly melted down. I don’t mean to take anything away from Mardy Fish who played great tennis to destroy Roddick, almost feeding him a bagel in the third. But Roddick had also clearly stopped making his best effort from the minute Mardy won that second set.

Which brings me to Federer and my thrill over his victory today. Of course I am happy that he has gained 1000 ranking points which brings him closer to Nadal’s astonishing lead. And don’t doubt for a minute that Federer is aware of this. It’s amazing the ease with which he can spout his own statistics during an interview. For instance, after Federer dismissed Bhagdatis, one of the commentators asked him about his preparations for playing Madry Fish. Federer proceeded to rattle off statistics from a match some years ago in which he had made Fish swallow a bagel. I loved it. I love the way the Fed plays head games with his opponents. He seems to have such an intuitive understanding of the psychology of the sport.

After Roger made it to the finals of the Tennis Masters in Toronto last week, I ran across a tweet by Feliciano Lopez. It said, simply, “I guess Rogelio is back”. At the time I thought of using these words as a title for the entry I knew I would inevitably be writing about Federer and his return to top form.

And then today Lopez happened once again to capture perfectly how I was feeling. He tweeted: “Federer vuleve a recuperar la confianza cuando algunos le daban x muerto. lleva final y campeon, apuesto x el en el Open”. Yes indeed, Federer seems to have regained his confidence when others had given him up for dead. 17 Masters titles. 63 ATP titles. And perhaps another Slam win at US Open. How many times must we learn never to count him out?

Mardy Fish of the U.S. reacts after defeating compatriot Andy Roddick in the third set of their semi-final round match at the Cincinnati Masters tennis tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio August 21, 2010. REUTERS/John Sommers II (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Well there’s just no point in going now

I’ve decided that I am not going to the US Open this year. A myriad of factors played a part in this decision, not the least of which is the thought of going through last year’s hassle to get tickets. But when I heard that Serena had withdrawn, well that just nailed it. I’ll pass on this year.

Mind you I’ve already taken the time off work. So I guess Labor Day weekend will find me glued to the TV as I watch the rest of the field breathing sighs of relief because the main weapon, the Alpha Bitch as it were, has decided to pass in favor of allowing her foot to heal.

But even if Serena were 100% healthy, I would totally understand any decision on her part to forego Flushing Meadows this year. Already, last year’s debacle is all that tennis commentators can talk about. They’ve spent the entire summer warming up their vocal chords so that they can properly trash Serena when the time comes. I am already sick of hearing about her blow-up against the lineswoman. I can only imagine that she must feel worse than I do. Or maybe she doesn’t give a crap and thinks that the commentators can all piss off. And I wouldn’t blame her a bit if that was her attitude. It kind of is mine.

What is particularly disgusting about the warm up to trash Serena is that it seems to be spearheaded by American commentators. Whenever I read references to last year’s debacle, they are invariably written by American writers. It’s her own people who seem to be spearheading the movement to drag Serena down. The incident has morphed into a microcosmic representation of everything that is right and also wrong with American tennis. The best player in the world is a woman that her own people have difficulty embracing. How pathetic is that.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect folks to behave as if nothing happened last year. But as I am watching Nadal vs. Bhagdatis last evening – a thrilling match in which Bhagdatis exposed and exploited every vulnerability inherent in the Nadal hard court game – the last thing I expected to hear was a comment about Serena’s behavior last year. But I did. And when I am watching Vera Zvonareva bravely coming from behind to trash Kim Clijsters at the Rogers Cup, I do not expect to have to listen to cutaway comments about Serena’s behavior last year. But I did. It’s all everyone can talk about.

And if I were Serena Williams, I too would take the decision that it’s just not worth it. Let them eat fluff. Let fans settle for the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Shahar Peer. Let them spend hundreds of dollars to see if Melanie Oudin can make another run. After all, with both Serena and Justine Henin absent, the field is suddenly wide open. You know Sharapova is already chomping at the bit.

Understand that my support of Serena’s decision to withdraw is not intended in any way to question the genuineness of her injury. Serena herself has posted twitter photos of herself dancing the hula hoop while wearing her foot brace. Stepping on glass can do serious damage. I hope she fully recovers.

My support of her decision to withdraw is based more on an instinctive concern for her safety. I do not want to see Serena’s relationship with the US Open begin to sour. Or to make my point more clearly, I do not want Flushing Meadows to become the next Indian Wells for Serena. That would be deeply unfortunate. But there is a risk, at least this year, that it could. There is a chance that some fans, egged on by all these months of trash talk, primed by this negative build-up, may treat this like a Jugaloo event and treat Serena the way they did Tila Tequila. Sorry, but my fave deserves better than that.

Understand clearly that I am not condoning Serena’s loss of control last year. I didn’t at the time and I am not doing so now. At the time, I let her have it. Having done so, I let it go, as everyone should. But listening to these commentators, you’d swear that the way to sell tickets to the US Open is by trash-talking Serena. It’s like they’re priming people for another explosion. Who needs that crap?

And you know what else is unfair? You’d think that by now someone would have put out a Hawk Eye video proving that Serena had actually foot-faulted. After all, we’ve seen replays of the moment when she lost control and accosted the diminutive lineswoman. It’s one of the first videos to pop up on YouTube if you do a search for Grand Slams. So how come there are no replays of her foot actually touching the line as she served that crucial point? How come no one has thought to bring forth proof that the lineswoman was correct in her call? Possibly because there is no damn proof?

One of the things I like most about Serena Williams is her relentless fighting spirit. Serena has never been like the more introverted Venus who seems to suck up unfair treatment and chews the inside of her mouth instead of expressing her views. With Serena you know exactly where you stand. Serena can be sweet but she can also be a fighter. And when you know that the entire tennis establishment seems to be gunning for you, and that the movement against you is actually led by your own people, well then it’s time to paraphrase Tyra and tell them all to kiss your big black behind.

Pretty in pink, the injured Serena Williams dines with a friend at Trousdale in West Hollywood, Ca on August 10, 2010 Fame Pictures, Inc

Friday, August 20, 2010

From “Take racket back” to “Turn shoulders”

I used to have a coach whom I drove crazy. Well not literally, thankfully. But what drove him semi-nuts was my insistence that he use precise words to describe to me what it is he wanted me to do. I tried explaining to him that I was (am) a verbal and cerebral learner and that I needed things spelled out precisely and clearly if he wanted me to follow his guidance.

We were a mismatch in many respects because verbal this man was not. He could beautifully show me what he wanted me to do, but telling me was not his strong suit. Indeed, one of his biggest criticisms of me was that I kept trying to figure out tennis. He insisted that tennis could not be figured out, could not be analyzed like psychology. He said that I simply needed to do what he was showing me how to do, and then repeat that movement or series of movements over and over until they entered muscle memory.

And so we limped along for a couple of years, him showing, me trying to follow by translating his actions into the best language fit I could get him to wrap his tongue around. And despite this mismatch of learning styles, he actually helped improve my game. In hindsight I think he stretched me by forcing me to use my eyes to learn, while I stretched him by challenging him to explain things in language that I could process.

I thought of him a few days ago when I happened across a brief clip of Nick Bolletieri explaining the set-up for the backhand. The show was one of those Tennis Academy series on the Tennis Channel. Nick looked as tan and grizzled as ever. And in the clip – which lasted for probably less than a minute – he said that he used to tell his students to take the racket back but that he came to realize that that language was wrong and that what he should have been telling them was to turn their hips and shoulders.

A light bulb immediately went off in my head. I suddenly realized why all those years ago being told to take my racket back early simply made no sense to me. Back where, I would ask. And back when?

My coach would reply that the racket should be going back from the minute the ball left his racket. And I would try. I even got a rotator cuff strain to prove it. Taking the racket back soon became one of the many little things he would shout at me from across the court. In addition to taking the racket back he was also constantly yelling at me to “Keep your eyes on the ball!”, and “Don’t forget to split-step!”, and “Go from low to high!”, and “Finish the swing!” Valuable lessons all. They are among the phrases that have left indelible memory traces in my brain.

But sometimes I wonder how many of them became part of my muscle memory. For example, I finish the swing easily on the forehand because that is my natural weapon. I don’t even have to think about it. My muscles know exactly what to do.

But on the backhand? Well, the problem with the backhand is that I never found anyone who could use the right language to explain to me the mechanics of a backhand in the first place. And to make matters worse, with each change of coach – I’ve moved around a lot – I’ve had to find a way to accommodate new and sometimes contrary information.

So at one point I used to have a one-handed backhand because that coach felt that my shoulders were strong enough to handle it. Besides if Justine Henin could do it, so could I, since we were practically the same height. And then some time later another coach switched me to placing both hands on the racket, insisting that this was the new tennis and that pretty soon no one would be using the one-handed backhand, never mind Federer. And in between, I tried slicing like Steffi.

To this day my backhand is confused because my head is confused. I can spend hours with my current coach or with the ball machine hitting a couple hundred double-handed backhands. And the minute I start playing a match, it completely disappears and out comes the defensive slice. On a bad day, it looks more like a chop. My opponents pick on it mercilessly.

But listening to Nick a few days ago, I realized that the problem is not entirely me. The problem is at least in part the language that coaches use to explain what it is they want their students to do. And the new lexicon to explain the mechanics of both the forehand and the backhand is to tell the student to turn the shoulder and hips. If you turn your hips and shoulder, the racket will automatically go back. Such a simple statement. I wish someone had told me it years ago.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Which wife of a tennis pro may be cheating?

I didn’t start the rumor. I’m only repeating it. I read it today on which copied it from a gossip blog called “Crazy Days and Nights” that specializes in sending out vaguely-worded clues about celebrity hook-ups. A recent entry speculates about the wife of a tennis pro who is apparently cheating with an Academy Award actor. The clue reads as follows:

“This married Academy Award winner/nominee for Best Actor is sleeping with this A list pro tennis player's wife. Guess all the visits to watch him were so he could sit next to the wife in the box.”

I am not going to engage in idle speculation. Whoever this couple is, I wish them all the best. Marriage is hard enough without having to fend off unwanted intruders. I not only wish that this couple finds a way to sort out their differences, but I hope that any fallout does not unduly damage the tennis player, whoever he is. And of course this may be an entirely false rumor with no basis in reality at all.

But reading about it provided for me a launching-pad to write about how difficult it must be to be married to a tennis pro. As much as I adore tennis, I cannot imagine being married to someone whose career would require him to spend months away from me. Of course it could be worse – like being married to a Special Forces soldier whose first wife would really be the military. Under such circumstances, I too might struggle to avoid flirting with guys at the gym just to get some male attention.

This is not by way of condoning any of the actions of the allegedly cheating spouse, but more to acknowledge how difficult fidelity must be for many parties who spend so much time geographically separated. It’s the curse of any two professionals who are independently dedicated to their careers and must therefore spend time apart in separate pursuit of their individual ambitions.

There was a time when this was not an option for many women. Women in my mother’s generation stayed home and took care of their husbands and children. They were called “housewives” for a reason. Which is not to say that many of these women – my mother included – did not aspire to be more than wives of the house. But back in the day many women would squelch their own ambitions in support of that of their men.

 And I’m not saying that this is necessarily what Mirka did – after all, she left tennis because of her own injuries not because of hooking up with Federer – but certainly her availability to be his supportive mate has made all the difference in Federer’s ability to achieve his dreams. Of course he may have achieved his ambitions without her support, but it’s hard to imagine that her direct management of his schedule and the other demands on his attention did not play a critical role in his success. Certainly he has always credited her and always seems deeply appreciative. And she too seems comfortable in her role.

From the outside, their partnership seems to resemble the traditional model in which the woman subsumes her own ambitions or thirst for glory under that of the man’s. Women have been standing by their men ever since Eve got punished for rebelling.

Other women find that maintaining a marital relationship alongside a career may be more of a struggle than either spouse can handle. I am not privy to the circumstances of Justine Henin’s divorce but I have always wondered how much her husband’s discomfort with his wife’s gritty ambition may have compromised their marriage. Notice that I am not blaming either the woman or her ambition.

But the simple truth is that not every man has the inner self-confidence to support an ambitious woman who is motivated to achieve her unique glories. Some men come to resent having to play what they perceive as second fiddle to their spouse’s career. In such cases the demise of the marriage may be a reflection of both the man’s insecurity and the woman’s ambition. Of course understand that I am not claiming that this is what happened in the Henin-Hardenne coupling. I’ve just always wondered, you know?

Some women get around this by marrying after their first career is over. Andre and Steffi’s relationship seems to be the perfect example of such a compromise. Again I am not privy to Steffi’s thinking, and she may very well have been willing to marry the race car driver for all I know. But can you imagine how much more difficult it would have been for her to build a relationship with Andre if she had not happened to retire before him? When tennis players date each other, at best they can hope to meet a few times a year at the major Slam events. They would often to be lucky to be in the same country, much less the same city at the same time.

It must therefore be that much more difficult for tennis pros who marry outside the faith. (Yes, I think that tennis is a religion; all that talk of Eve has left me feeling sacrilegious). How on earth is an actress/ accountant/ school-teacher/ model/ [insert profession here]/ supposed to accommodate fulfilling her own ambitions while being married to a successful tennis player? It must be difficult. But there must also be better ways of communicating this difficulty than by sleeping with another man. Especially one whom your husband trusts to invite into his player's box. Assuming of course that there is any truth to this sordid rumor.

Fresh on the heels of her soon to be ex-husband, the Dream's infidelity scandal, Christina Milian goes out for a ladies only night in West Hollywood, CA on July 26, 2010 with friend Serena Williams where the young singer and new mom looked like the extra dramatic baggage hasn't worn her down at all, or the weight of her wedding ring which was noticeably absent. Fame Pictures, Inc

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pull her wide and the point is over

This article is a follow-up to the one I wrote yesterday. I realized after the fact that I was really writing about two different issues and that I combined them in such a way that neither point may have been clear. Apologies for that. Here’s the second go-round.

The first issue that I was addressing was my own difficulty with transitioning from the current crop of dominant players. Although I know that there is a lotta tennis left in all of my faves, I also enjoy mentally lining up the players who will replace them in my heart. I enjoy identifying the players who seem talented enough to carry me through the transition from one generation of tennis players to the next. But the current abundance and awesome diversity of talent on the tour has been making this a more difficult prospect than I have hitherto experienced. That was my first point.

The second point was that I am also frustrated with the lack of variety of playing styles among the newcomers to the tour. All of the newbies seem to be nothing but baseline bashers, particularly on the women’s side of the tour. It’s hard to pick a potential favorite when all of the options seem to be carbon copies of each other. This was my second point.

This latter point unfortunately became conflated with the first, such that the issue of transition was not addressed separately and apart from the problem of the dominance of baseline bashing as the premier mode of playing tennis at this point in time. Again, I apologize for any lack of clarity.

And it occurred to me after the fact as well that I never addressed why baseline bashing has become the dominant mode of playing tennis. I mentioned the fact of it but not the why. Why do you think that so many of the current crop of tennis players are all baseline bashers? Why is it that if you attend any junior tennis academy, the majority of the training time is now spent at the baseline, hitting hundreds and hundreds of balls? Whatever happened to serve-and-volley tennis?

Indeed, given that Pete Sampras was the dominant player for so many years in the US, why is that there are no upcoming serve-and-volley players in this country? Where are the French girls who were inspired by Amelie Mauresmo’s playing style? What happened to the Aussies who grew up watching Patrick Rafter or the Brits who were influenced by Tim Henman? What exactly has led to the almost complete phasing out of serve-and-volley tennis?

It’s kind of sad that so many of even the best players don’t have a clue how to volley. They plant themselves at the baseline, only venture in to net in response to a short ball, and immediately retreat back to the baseline instead of continuing to move in. Even many doubles players often plant themselves at the baseline and play the trams. What has caused this complete evolution in the way we play tennis?

The simple answer is technology. Rackets have gotten better and more powerful, and strings have gotten faster. Back in the day, the time it took for Sampras to hit the ball and for the ball to start coming back to him was more than enough for him to get to the net and play the volley return. But today’s tennis is a whole lot faster. Any player who ventures to net risks facing a return while she or he is still in no-man’s-land. This is never a good place to be in tennis. Of course there is always the option of going in to net behind a slower ball, but that presents its own risks because the returner will have better control of the play. Hence, the majority of players stay back. It’s not that folks are necessarily afraid of the net (although I believe that some are). It’s that serve-and-volley tennis has become riskier. And if you’re playing doubles, there’s always the risk of getting hit in the face by a ball coming at you at warp speed.

But there is nothing original in the above observation. Others before me have pointed out the impact of technology on the speed of the game. But I believe that despite the speed, it is always possible to mix things up with the judicious use of the serve-and-volley tactic. It keeps your opponent on her toes, unsure as to what you may do next. But if every time you go in after a short ball your first instinct is to run back to the safety zone behind the baseline, that too sends a signal. And, particularly on the women’s side of the fence, the message sent is that the way to beat you is to pull you wide.

Watch almost any women’s match – and also many of the men's – and you will notice a single baseline strategy that wins the point over and over and over. Pull a player wide to the forehand or backhand and the point is practically over. The majority of players who get to these shots end up playing a weak defensive return – if they get to the ball at all. And when a single strategy remains so effective against 99.9% of players on the tour, there is no need to become anything other than a baseline basher. This I believe is the second reason why so many junior players now spend hours practicing how to nail the lines from one side of the court to the other, and practice running drills going from side to side. That is the new tennis.

I watched the match yesterday between Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova. Other than big-serving, this was the single strategy each woman deployed against the other. Pull her wide and the point was over. Wide to the forehand and then wide to the backhand. Over and over. Rinse and repeat. And it worked. First Maria did it to Kim with fantastic results. But all that running back-and-forth took a toll and Maria started fading. Then Clijsters took over. Pull Maria wide and the point was over. Maria started going for more frantic power. Pull her wide and the point was over. And then Kim won.

Of course there is one outstanding exception to this often exciting but essentially monotonous strategy. Her name is Serena Williams. Pull her wide and the point has only just begun. And her response is never predictable. She can play every kind of shot, including the occasional serve-and-volley. Which is why I can’t wait to meet the player who has the guts to pattern her game after Serena’s. That’s the transition person I am looking for.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Please, not another baseline-banshee

I’m a little inconsistent with regard to how, when and why I first take notice of a new player. In fact I have come to the conclusion that there is no rhyme or reason to my likes and dislikes. I think that I am one of those fans who are going through a transition from one generation of tennis players to another, and so I randomly glom on to the flavor of the moment only to abandon her for chocolate. I think that my problem may be that I am going through anticipatory grief for the end of the current generation of tennis players, but I haven’t quite figured out who is going to keep my attention in the next.

And so one minute I am talking about Sloane Stephens whom I glowed about some time ago even though she hasn’t really done anything yet on the tour. And then there was Aravane Rezai who charmed me with her Big Babe attitude and cosquel carnival costume. And Alize Cornet who grabbed my attention with her patrician nose and confident attitude that seemed to promise so much, but whose inconsistent performance has resulted in a downward slide. And so on.

I went through this before when I was transitioning from Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis. But that transition was eased by the quick and clear ascendance of the William sisters, or I should say Serena because I’ve never particularly been a fan of Venus. Similarly I had transitioned easily to Steffi and Hingis from the highly imperfect Navratilova whom I preferred over Evert whose game I only belatedly came to appreciate. My point is that my transitions have hitherto been smooth and drama-free.

I could say the same for my transitions on the ATP tour. I remember when I used to adore the Argentinian Franco Squillari. I studied his forehand closely because I thought it was the best ever. But then along came Guillermo Coria and the Chilean, Marcelo Rios, whom I adored beyond reason. Now I can’t remember the last time I even thought about Squillari. I can’t even tell you what he’s been up to.

My point is that I have never struggled like this with transitions before. I think that factor may be the improved amount of depth on both sides of the tour. It’s become exceedingly hard to pick clear leaders and dominators. Sharapova could just as easily have been beaten by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova last evening as she could have beaten her. The outcome of that match was not clear until the last few games. And I’m not exactly indicating that I am transitioning to the plucky Pavlyuchenkova, but I certainly think that she is one to watch.

Pavlyuchenkova is only 19 and therefore has a lot of years left to grow into top form. I hope that her coach, (who may or may not still be Patrick Mouratoglou), manages to persuade her to add more variety to her game. After all, we have enough baseline bashers on the tour. With the advantage of her height (listed as 5 feet, 9.5 inches), her tremendous movement, and her gutsy persistence, Pavlyuchenkova has the potential to be much more than just another baseline basher.

But she does not seem to fully know this as yet. I believe that one of the reasons she lost to Sharapova last evening was that she got sucked into playing Sharapova’s kind of game. Power for power, bash for bash, big serve for big serve, corner to corner, in a mind-numbing lack of variation. (At least I was spared Pavlyuchenkova also matching her scream for scream.)

In my opinion, Maria Sharapova has become the poster child for baseline-banshee bashing. (Try saying that three times!) For every point, in every game, Sharapova’s single strategy seems to be to hit the ball hard, and when that doesn’t work, hit it even harder. I look at Michael Joyce’s face as he is watching her play and I want to ask him if this is all they talk about in their training sessions. I know that it is not because on the few occasions that I was able to listen to their courtside consultations, I have never heard him to tell her to just hit the ball hard. Never, not once. On the contrary, he makes intelligent comments about what she seemed to have missed about her opponents’ weaknesses and then makes strategic suggestions for how she can exploit this. And to Maria’s credit, she always seems to follow her coach’s excellent advice.

But when left to fend for herself, Sharapova seems to go inward. It doesn’t seem to matter who is on the other side of the court. What matters is that she hits the ball hard and if that doesn’t work, then she hits it harder, screaming louder and louder to obtain maximum muscle output. I can’t bear to watch her play.

I worry that the upcoming generation of young tennis players may be watching this kind of crap and aspiring to play this type of body-bruising, career-foreshortening, baseline-banshee type of tennis. And as the premier and most financially successful Russian export, I worry about Sharapova’s impact on the sport in general and on her countrywomen in particular. Which brings me to the second reason why I may be singing the transition blues. I worry that, as a fan, in the future I will have nothing else to choose from but an unvaried assortment of baseline banshees.

CINCINNATI - AUGUST 13: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia serves during her quarter final match with Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium on day five of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open on August 13, 2010 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Well that was a quick hello goodbye

I try not to get excited about Ana Ivanovic. It’s not that I don’t enjoy watching her play, because I do. It’s just that I don’t like investing myself emotionally in players about whom I am uncertain of their level of commitment to tennis. Consequently I have avoided becoming emotionally invested in Ana Ivanovic.

In fact she doesn’t know this but I broke up with her around January last year because I felt that I started hearing more about Ana the model than about Ana the tennis player. And I decided that since I had signed on only for the tennis, well, we would just have to go our separate ways.

When Ivanovic lost in the first round of the 2009 US Open, I literally stopped thinking about her. She had not too long announced the termination of her coaching relationship with Craig Kardon, and had signed on as a star pupil in the adidas Player Development Program. With coaching powerhouses like Sven Groeneveld, Darren Cahill, and Mats Merkel on her team, and Gil Reyes as her fitness trainer, I felt that it was reasonable to expect that Ivanovic would go past the first round of the US Open. Or at least that she would not lose to the likes of Kateryna Bondarenko. So that was it. Ana was a non-person to me.

And I literally did not give Ivanovic another moment’s thought again until I happened across her match against Shenay Perry at the Australian Open at the start of this year. Shenay Perry is a lower-ranked player who has spent most of her career playing Challenger doubles tournaments. She had to qualify to enter the Aussie Open. She has none of Ivanovic’s natural talent. And yet Ivanovic struggled to put her away.

I remember thinking at the time that I could not believe that I was watching a former #1 player. I predicted the loss to Dulko in the second round. I concluded that I had been right about Ivanovic after all. She was so not worth my emotional investment. And just like that, she dropped completely out of my mind.

And then came Cincinnati. A seemingly fit, healthy, and of course beautiful Ana Ivanovic showed up to play. I only knew this because I had been following Amanmuradova who lost to Ivanovic, having run out of steam.

In spite of myself, I started catching up on all things Ana. One commentator informed the listening audience that Ivanovic had abandoned the Adidas Player Development Program and was now working with Heinz Gunthardt who is famous for having coached Steffi Graf to mind-boggling success. I knew that Gunthardt has a reputation for being a hard taskmaster who brings out the best in his students so to me, this was good news. Not that I have anything against the adidas program, but Safina is also one of their products, right?

Another commentator mentioned that Ivanovic has undergone many changes – coaches, rackets, endorsement contracts – but felt that these were good things as Ivanovic was clearly motivated to try to find what was right for her. Someone disagreed, saying that she did not understand Ivanovic’s decision to change rackets in the middle of the season. Someone else commented on her non-verbal exchanges with Gunthardt who seemed fully supportive and proud of his student as she nicely put away my new best friend Amanmuradova. Me I had no comment. I was too busy willing poor Amanmuradova to get some life in them failing legs.

But I have to admit that despite myself, I found myself feeling happy to see Ivanovic back on the court. It was great hearing her post-point screams of confidence and watching her characteristic fist pumps when she knew she had done something just right. Her strategy for playing Amanmuradova was spot on. So when she made it to the semi-finals and would be facing Kim Clijsters, I decided that I would watch the match. I wasn’t ready to promise her my heart as yet, but I was intrigued to see how she would handle Clijsters and her speedy corner-to-corner groundstrokes.

The match got off to a decent start. Ivanovic held, serving confidently and controlling the points with her strong forehand. Clijsters also held, playing her typical speedy corner-to-corner-to-corner game. Her game is predictable but still highly effective because she can change direction on a dime. So when she broke Ivanovic in the next game, I was not surprised. And then Ivanovic stopped playing. She had injured a foot.

I honestly feel for her. Having been unable myself to play tennis for over a month because of a left foot stress fracture, I personally know what it feels like to get derailed by injury. I mentioned this to my coach this morning on my first day back. He threw his head back and laughed heartily, and then replied, “There was nothing wrong with Ana Ivanovic. She just got scared is all. She knew that she was not going to win that match and she decided not to try”. Harsh words, yes. But part of me can’t help but wonder if he's right.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Do you know Akgul Amanmuradova?

I read about Akgul Amanmuradova before I ever saw her play. Of course that says more about me than it does about her. I make no apologies for not knowing every single member of the WTA or ATP tour. It’s not my fault that Sports Illustrated still has not offered me Jon Wertheim’s job.

I am totally impressed with (and have recently written about) the level of diversity that currently exists on the WTA tour. Of course this makes for some embarrassing moments of tennis commentary as ESPN talking heads struggle to pronounce some players’ names and often only know as much about them as can be found on their Wiki page. And Amanmuradova perfectly represents this new diversity, what with being the dark-skinned daughter of Turkistani parents, 6 feet 3 inches tall, and hailing from Uzbekistan.

I first read about Amanmuradova in March 2008 when she took part in the Bangalore Open. In an interview with a local newspaper, she commented on the difficulties she had experienced in her bid to become a professional tennis player at the time when her country was still under Soviet rule. She also griped about the hassles she had endured during that solo trip to Bangladore to include losing a bag of strings and discovering that complaining to the police made no difference, and landing in Bangladore to find that the person who had agreed to put her up was staying with someone else, leaving the tennis player to find her own hotel. She then lost the keys to the hotel. And despite all of these setbacks, she beat the defending champ and made it to the quarterfinals of that tournament.

I remember at the time thinking that she sounded like the average Caribbean player who could gripe similarly about the lack of availability of resources for tennis players. And I remember thinking that sometimes players from more developed countries don’t even realize how good they have it. With each complaint they make – like Serena’s recently about not being able to eat food in the locker-room – I feel like saying ‘why don’t you just shut up already, other people have it so much harder than you’.

Then again, I grew up hearing about the starving children in Bangladesh. I’ve always had instilled within me a sense that no matter how badly I thought I had it, there were people in the world who had it so much worse. Hence my disdain for the complaints of the narcissistically entitled. But I digress.

For the first time this week I actually saw Amanmuradova play. To be honest, when I first walked into my TV room yesterday and noticed a tall, dark-skinned person beating the crap out of Jelena Jankovic, I have to admit that my first thought was that I was watching mixed doubles. After all, why else was a guy serving to Jankovic? And then I looked again and realized that it was not mixed doubles at all. I was watching a woman play.

Now I could have suppressed all of this and been all politically correct and pretended that I did not notice that Amanmuradova has a distinctly masculine presence. Or I could be the Tennis Chick. And one of things I admire most about this player is that not only is she well aware of how she looks, she actually chooses to look this way and could give a crap how you feel about it. From the same interview in India:

Shunning the fashionable skirts and A-line dresses, the Uzbek hits the courts in shorts and loose T-shirts. The short-hair is tied behind and hidden under a cap. In the only “glamour gam” for women, Amanmuradova, with a booming serve and a booming voice, tries to be as unglamorous as possible. “I am not really interested in it,” shrugs the 23-year-old. “You saw, I didn't even participate in the fashion show [at the Bangalore Open] that took place. It’s not for everybody; you need to know what you like. The girls who were walking on the ramp were enjoying wearing the sarees and everything. I don’t; I am not comfortable, I will always wear shorts and T-shirts, no skirts for me.”

And before Tennis Ace starts sobbing again, let me go on record as saying that I am the only woman in my tennis group who almost always plays tennis in shorts and a t-shirt. I prefer shorts because I move so much more freely in them. It’s not that I can’t move in a skort or a dress, but with the former I find that I am always pulling down the panties that have ridden up into my crotch, and with the latter, I simply don’t get enough boob support. So, like Amanmuradova, I am a shorts and t-shirt kind of player.

And, at the risk of sounding defensive, you should also know that whoever edited her page at Wiki also assumed that she was a man. In fact, “Amanmuradova is a man” is one of the top trending searches on google for her name. And you know what? I’m glad that she has the self-esteem to not give a shit. I’m glad that her non-conventional appearance is itself an aspect of the diversity of the women’s tour. Let Serena paint her nails and pretend to be all girly. I like women who embrace their masculine side.

Amanmuradova says that she patterned her game after Sampras and Federer and it shows. She has a booming first serve, a big forehand, and a defensive slice backhand. She ventures into net without fear. But her conditioning is not the best and her movement needs improvment. Indeed, the match against Jankovic took so much out of her that she had nothing left against Ivanovic today. That’s too bad. I would have liked to see her go further in Cincinnati.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can Davydenko be coached by his wife?

Let me go on record as saying that I adore the Davydenkos as a couple. Nicolai and Irina give the impression of a couple who are truly bonded and soul-connected.

I’ve read some criticism of the remarks he has made about her and which have been interpreted by some as sexist. I personally think that some of his humor gets misunderstood and that his jokes really reflect a dry kind of humor that does not translate well into English which he also does not speak particularly well. I suspect that the same jokes in his mother tongue would come across better.

From all appearances, Davydenko seems to be truly into his wife and seems to have deep regard and respect for her. But these are my impressions as an outsider. I am not privy to their exchanges off-camera.

But on camera I see a couple who seem to be genuinely focused on and supportive of each other. In fact Irina often seems downright uncomfortable when cameras stray in her direction. In this she reminds me of Steffi Graf who never sought to hog the limelight when her husband was on court.

Contrast this with so many of the trophy actresses and models who seem to marry tennis players mainly for the opportunities to revel in the camera attention. It soon becomes all about them. They arrive in the stands made up to the gills, posing hard to make sure that they are always photographed from the best angles possible. When their husbands win, they smile proudly of course, and make a big show of caring. But when he fails, some of them look so pissed off you can tell they don’t even want to be there, to be caught on camera hanging out with such a loser. And you all know who I am talking about.

But my main point if that any tennis player married to a camera-hogging model or actress wife happened to announce that he was taking her on as coach, I would be the first to say that he had lost his flipping mind. And really, he should probably be psychiatrically committed for not understanding the difference between tennis trophies and trophy wives.

But there are some women – and Irina Davydenko is among them – for whom their entire focus, all of their energies, seem to be on giving their spouses the level of support they need. It’s not about her, it’s about him. I wish I could think of many male spouses who were equally supportive of their female partners. Although to be fair Kim Clijsters’ husband seems to fit this mold. But for every Clijsters’ spouse, I can think of a ten other women whose lives seem to revolve around that of their tennis-playing husband. Mirka has of course broken the mold.

So when I read recently that Davydenko’s wife had taken on the role of coach, it made a kind of sense to me. After all, is there anyone who knows him better or who has studied him more closely? In fact, back in January 2010 at the Australian Open, Davydenko commented on this in a post-match interview. He was talking about his readiness to become a dad while his wife was pushing for more tennis victories: “Really, I would like have kids now, like Federer already (has) two, or Hewitt. But my wife don’t want to, you know, stay at home. She travel with me now. Now I'm top 10. She scared about if I start to, with kids, lose tennis and go down, stray. That’s was because I start to miss and I want to go home, (not) want to practice. That’s what is different…She think always I can win everything. She analyse because she’s travelled with me already six years. Because in sitting with my brother, and brother always talking about what I did. She can coaching me already.”

OK his English is not the best, as I’ve said before. But back in January he noted that his wife knew his game as well as his coach brother did. So when said brother apparently decided to give up the job to focus on his own 17-year-old son, Davydenko apparently decided to consider relying on his wife.

Some have wondered what exactly qualifies her for this role. My response is that in the same way that I suspect that Richard and Oracene learned a thing or two from their years of paying others to coach their daughters, then perhaps Mrs. Davydenko feels that she has soaked up enough information from the years she spent side by side with her husband and his brother (who has coached him since he was a Junior). And why should she not to be able to help her husband even if it turns out to be just for an interim period until he replaces his brother? After all, it’s not like he’s planning to change up his game.

Besides, Davydenko himself acknowledges that his best tennis wins came after 2003 when Irina first started accompanying him on tour. Their joint success started in Estoril where he succeeded in winning his second ATP World Tour title: “It was the first time she had come to a tournament with me. I was feeling good because I was with my favorite woman. I saw that I could win tournaments and thought ‘why not’? She can travel with me to every tournament! …She just tries to relax my mind mostly. She helps me to enjoy myself outside of tennis and tells me to forget tennis because you cannot think about tennis 24 hours a day; you start to be tired. We don’t speak about tennis and do something different.”

DOHA, QATAR - JANUARY 09: Nikolay Davydenko of Russia kisses his wife Irina Davydenko following his victory over Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Final match of the ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on January 9, 2010 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

As yet, no shame or scandal in tennis

Like many others, I was following the scandalized outpourings regarding the allegations against Lance Armstrong and some of his team-mates, when it occurred to me that we seem to be going through a spate of shame and scandal involving a number of well-known athletes across a wide swath of sports. At which point I found myself thinking that as a sport, tennis has not done so badly after all.

The cycling world has been reeling from a slew of allegations regarding years of colluded and systematic doping. Was L’Equipe right after all? They wrote about this matter years ago, at a time when no one wanted to see the ball-less wonder as anything but a great American hero. Now he and some other cohorts have allegedly brought shame and scandal to their sport.

Baseball has had to contend with the likes of Alex Rodriguez who admitted to doping up during the three years he spent in Texas. His 600th win came and went and only pizza-faced Cameron Diaz (to quote and Gwyneth "GOOP" Paltrow seemed to care enough to celebrate.

Then there is Tiger Woods and the world of golf. I’ve been looking for an angle to write an article about some comments Tiger recently made during his losing tournament. This is not an exact quote but he said something to the effect of having to be there for the children, not that he minded this of course because naturally the kids came first. For a moment I wondered if he was actually blaming the children for his poor form. Or maybe he just didn’t realize how good he had it when he had a wife who was willing to shoulder all of the responsibilities of parenting while he ran around collecting medals and hos.

And then there's basketball which has had to contend with the (I believe) unintentional fiasco of LeBron James’ departure from Cleveland. Somebody somewhere advised that young man very badly. And even if no one told him to make such a spectacle of himself, clearly he missed the pulse of public opinion and did not know when to curtail his narcissism and aim for humility. Even his recent loud declaration of thanks to the city of Akron was diminished by the perceived passive-aggressive component of spitefulness towards poor Cleveland. I mean what did that poor city do to deserve such hostility?

I could go on with the string of athletes who have brought (or are alleged to have brought) shame and scandal upon their sport. So I got to wondering whether tennis has ever been similarly embarrassed by one of its athletes.

And before I develop this further, let me also acknowledge that this emphasis on shame and embarrassment probably reflects my Caribbean cultural influence. When you grow up on an island, the opinions of others matter very much because anonymity is simply not an option. When Caribbean sportsmen and women act the fool on an international stage, this is invariably interpreted as bringing shame to the respective island. For example, I don’t think Tobago ever recovered from the Dwight Yorke-Jordan/Katie Price affair. The shame, the horror.

Yet I don’t think for a moment that any of these athletes spend a sliver of a moment feeling embarrassed about their actions. When you get used to be being considered larger than life, the size of your id and ego may expand, leaving no room at all for the superego. Hence no shame, no guilt, no true learning. Just PR-infused protestations to the contrary.

But back to tennis and our own history of scandal and shame. The most recent incident I could think of was the one involving Nicolai Davydenko who was alleged to have bet on a match in which he lost to a lesser-ranked player. But Davydenko’s name has since been cleared, and his consequent work ethic did not at all suggest a man who was looking for easy winnings.

Martina Navratilova was also good for a scandal or two back in the day, but I never enjoy categorizing any events involving people’s sexual orientation as scandalous. Of course getting a married woman to leave her husband does have an air of illicit activity. But that scandal did not mar tennis. For a while it damaged only the player herself. Not only has she bounced back, but now she seems to have found a way to even profit from a cancer diagnosis. I always dislike it when these “celebrities” develop reality shows designed to demonstrate how brave and courageous they are in the face of unexpected adversity. If the average cancer survivor had their millions they would look brave and courageous too.

For a while people pretended to be scandalized by Hingis and her many boyfriends, but that was silly. She was a young woman exploring the world. Although granted, the incident with the lawyer was kind of bizarre. Closer to the existing crop of athletic scandals was her alleged use of cocaine. And she is not alone. Back in 1995, Mats Wilander and Karel Novacek were suspended for three months for cocaine use. Other tennis players have tested positive for dubious substances. And Richard Gasquet kissed a girl.

Finally, there’s good old Jenny Cap who has been good for a scandal or two in her time. But there’s no fun in self-destructive behavior. Indeed, so many of tennis’ quasi-scandals seem to involve people who become self-destructive and make stupid decisions. Even Agassi’s admission of drug use falls into this category. There have been of course a handful of scandalous tennis parents, but I’ve never believed in holding children responsible for the stupidity of their parents. Maybe tennis just doesn’t produce the kind of athletes who embarrass themselves and their sport at the level of a Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong, allegedly. Or maybe we’re just a sneaky bunch and know better how to hide the bodies.

PAILIN, CAMBODIA - JULY 23: Cambodian Inspectors examine suspected medicine in a crowded market along Thai-Cambodian border during an inspection July 23, 2010 in Pailin province, Cambodia. According to World Health Organization (WHO), around 200,000 of the deaths caused by malaria could be prevented if all the drugs were genuine. In many cases, counterfeit drugs are mislabeled and their quality is unpredictable since their ingredients are not guaranteed; given that the source is illegal, further medical issues can arise when some medicines have no active ingredient or contain incorrect amounts. There has also been counterfeit Artemisinin that has surfaced, which is the most effective ingredient vital to all anti-malarial drugs used throughout the world, especially in fighting the more lethal Falciparum malaria. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sex and diversity in women’s doubles

Zheng Jie and Maria Kirilenko were probably among the prettiest entrants in the doubles draw in San Diego last week. Not that this has anything to do with the awesomeness of their tennis talent, but I would have expected that the sports media would at least have picked up on the sex appeal angle and exploited the hell out of both women.

Between Zheng’s boobs and thighs and Kirilenko’s abs and toned arms – not to mention both of their pretty faces –I had truly expected that some media outlet somewhere would have noticed that they won. That they beat the powerhouse of Raymond and Stubbs, one of the best women’s tennis doubles teams ever.

But alas, not even Zhenlenko’s sex appeal did the trick. Indeed, as I am writing this, even the WTA, the official body of women’s pro tennis, has yet to update its official website to reflect the fact that China’s Zheng Jie and Russia’s Maria Kirilenko (aka, Zhenlenko), combined their awesome form to dominate doubles tennis yesterday in San Diego.

And while their combined beauty happens to be stunning, by acknowledging their sex appeal, I don’t at all mean to diminish in any way the combined capabilities of Zheng Jie and Maria Kirilenko. It’s just that I like to face facts, and the fact is that pretty women help sell tennis. There’s no other reason why we are still being force-fed an unwelcome diet of Maria Sharapova, despite being able to ask her, bluntly, what exactly have you done for me lately? Not that she would dare answer.

So when two of the prettiest women in tennis also get almost completely ignored, I have to wonder if at least a part of the problem is the current excess of diversity on the women’s tour that is probably challenging the heck out of some media houses to re-define their notions of beauty. Not that one half of this doubles team wasn’t reminiscent of Sharapova – complete with a modeling dossier and a father conveniently named Yuri. But the other half is a gorgeous but married Chinese woman who does not fit the tall, skinny, blonde stereotype that is the current overpaid and overhyped demographic.

What the heck are the sports media to do when faced with such a challenge? Why, completely ignore them both of course. Duh.

I personally love the level of diversity that currently exists in women’s tennis. All that’s missing is for a couple of women (and, of course, men) to come out of the closet, declaring their queerness with a level of confidence that would make Billy Jean reel – and the picture would be quasi-perfect.

I say ‘quasi’ because as yet there is no African-American man to step up and make his presence felt in the upper echelons of the ATP tour. Indeed, as we speak, American men period are falling out of the top ten faster than you can say, ‘will Barack Obama get re-elected’?

But what others see as a crisis, I see as a celebration of diversity. For every American man who fails to deliver, ascends an international player for whom English is a second language. Why is that a bad thing? After all, pro tennis is an international sport, played on courts all over the world. Why not celebrate the existence of diversity? Indeed, if I were a tennis coach, I would use the current state of affairs to motivate American boys to focus less on aspiring to marry tall skinny blonde models and more on ascending once again to the ranks of dominance where they belong. We belong in the ranks of top-tiered tennis.

The current women’s singles top ten also celebrates women from all over the world. Unlike the men, this also includes the USA. Indeed, the same goes for women’s doubles where Serena and Venus remain # 2. American women are still a part of the picture of diversity on the pro women’s tour.

This is nowhere better reflected than in the last-minute partnership of a Russian and a Chinese. That they beat the formerly great Raymond and Stubbs may even reflect a changing of the guard. I can’t remember any other time when Raymond and Stubbs got passed so frequently down the line, prepared as they clearly were for the kind of crap baseline doubles played by the likes of Sharar Peer and Victoria Azarenka. I can’t remember Stubbs and Raymond being upstaged in their return game. And when last did you see Raymond and Stubbs staying back, avoiding the net at all cost?

I am unashamedly in love with Zhenlenko. I hope they play together again. I think that they have the making of a beautiful partnership. Pun intended.

CARLSBAD, CA - AUGUST 08: Maria Kirilenko of Russia (L) and Jie Zheng of China celebrate after winning a point against Lisa Raymond of the USA and Renae Stubbs of Australia during the doubles championship match in the Mercury Insurance Open at La Costa Resort and Spa on August 8, 2010 in Carlsbad, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)