Wednesday, September 22, 2010

So sick of hearing of Fish’s weight loss!

Mardy Fish of the U.S. (R) is congratulated by his coach Patrick McEnroe after winning against Colombia's Alejandro Falla during the Davis Cup World Group playoffs tennis match in Bogota September 17, 2010. USA leads 1-0. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez (COLOMBIA - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

I would be the first to admit that I tend to become quite incensed when it comes to the objectification of female tennis players. In fact I’ve written quite a few entries on this blog in defense of women tennis players being treated as mere sex objects. (Of course I do not in this category include those players who seem to participate, nay revel, in their own objectification.) But my bottom-line has always been that there is so much more to women’s tennis than horny vag-trollers can ever appreciate.

So when a male tennis player ends up being reduced to his physical appearance, it’s only fair that I step up and become equally incensed on his behalf. I’m thinking specifically of Mardy Fish and the constant reminders that he has lost 30 pounds. Instead of this being the summer of Mardy’s improved game – which it is, thanks to his tremendous achievements at a variety of recent tournaments – we have had to endure comments ad nauseam about his 30 pound weight loss. There’s something very wrong with that.

If Mardy were a woman, I would be the first to take offence at the constant chatter about his physical appearance. I would be the first to jump on a soap-box and demand to know whether all he accomplished this summer of greatness was to lose weight. I mean really, how insulting is that?

I suspect that my attitude probably stems from the fact that I grew up in the era of players like Conchita Martínez. Remember her? I can still recall always being pissed off at the comments about her physical appearance. Despite the fact that she won Wimbledon and was a finalist at both the Aussie Open and the French Open, Conchita spent most of her career being the butt of comments about her physical appearance. Let’s just say that she was probably never considered for the cover of Deuce Magazine.

Conchita was never one of the cute, skinny, blonde bombshells. She never fit into the stereotype of how women tennis players were supposed to look. And indeed, I never minded it when she was called the Moon-ball Queen because at least that nickname still referenced her tennis. But when she got dismissed as just another fat chick that Rios et al could disparage, well I always came out in her defense.

And so it is that I find myself challenged to do the same for Mardy Fish. The US Davis Cup team, under the guidance of outgoing Captain Pat McEnroe, went down to the relative safety of Argentina to confront a team of persistent Columbians. Truth be told, it was Mardy Fish who practically single-handedly ended up keeping us in the World Group. A relentless and indefatigable Santiago Giraldo – whom I admit I had never heard of ‘til this past weekend – went to lengths to try to block Fish’s stellar efforts. But Mardy swam above the fray and emerged victorious. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the bad pun).

I even give Fish full credit for the doubles win with irrelevant partner John Isner. There were moments when Isner got too caught up in looking at Fish instead of supporting him. Isner didn’t even seem to know that he was supposed to switch to the other side of the court if Fish came over to his side. Isner was practically useless and their partnership never fully gelled. But Mardy won in spite of the inadequacies of the player with whom he found himself saddled.

To say that Mardy Fish was awesome this past weekend does not fully capture just how outstanding his performance was. So let me try to put it in perspective. The last time an American won three decisive points at a Davis Cup tournament was Pete Sampras in 1995 in Moscow. Mardy Fish erased that record.

So you’d think that these would be the kind of observations that commentators would have been making over the weekend. Think again. They were too busy mentioning Mardy’s weight loss. And this didn’t only happen at Davis Cup. It’s been going on all summer. When Mardy dismissed The Boor at the 2010 Cincinnati Open, all I could hear was that he had lost 30 pounds. When he made it to the 4th round of the 2010 US Open, (where he lost to an eventual finalist, dammit), all I heard about was his 30-pound weight loss. Mardy Fish is playing the best tennis of his career, but all commentators can think of pointing out is that he lost 30 pounds. And this past weekend I found that I had finally had enough. I found myself thinking, surely there’s been more to Mardy Fish lately than his loss of 30 freaking pounds?

For a start, weight loss does not automatically translate into an improved game. If it did, Daniela Hantuchova would be the #1 player on the WTA tour. Mardy Fish did more than just lose weight. What he did was improve his fitness. Mardy has always had game. Now he has the improved fitness to deliver on that potential. His weight loss is a by-product of his improved fitness. It’s unfortunate that a series of unimaginative writers and commentators have not been able to appreciate this.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Did Johnny Mac cost his brother a job?

Andy Roddick of the U.S. reacts to a call in the fourth set of his match against Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia during the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT TENNIS)During the US Open 2010 second round match between Andy Roddick and Janko Tipsarevic [the match that Roddick lost 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (4)], John McEnroe became lethal in his criticism of Roddick. Throughout the match Johnny Mac kept up the negative comments on Roddick’s crappy shot selection, defensive baseline play, and unintelligent court positioning. And at the lowest moment he noted that Roddick was playing like a 14-and-under player. Every single word of criticism was accurate and precise. In fact, Johnny Mac’s observations helped prepare the viewing audience for the fact that Roddick was about to lose the match. And he did.

Sitting next to Johnny Mac in the ESPN commentator booth were two men with conflicting interests. The first was Pat McEnroe, John’s brother and the Captain of the Davis Cup Team of which Roddick has been a reliable and dependable member for many years. Indeed, Roddick helped the US Davis Cup earn a Championship in 2007.

Which is probably why Pat seemed so uncomfortable and frozen, caught in the middle of an alliance to his player and the reality of the accuracy of his brother’s pin-point comments. It’s not that Pat was being baited into making negative comments himself. Johnny Mac was running his own show, telling the truth as he saw it. But Pat may have felt in a conflicted position. Nothing else explained why he tried to make such a big deal out of Roddick getting called out for three foot-faults. It’s like Pat was looking for a redemptive moment and grabbed on to it like a man drowning.

In the meantime, Johnny Mac kept up with the lethal commentary on Roddick’s sucky play and bratty behavior. And Johnny Mac should know. He wrote the book on Bratty-ism.
The other man in the ESPN booth was Brad Gilbert, Roddick’s former coach. Ever since they parted ways, Brad has seemed to go to lengths to be circumspect in his comments about Roddick. He doesn’t blast him. On the contrary he often recalls their glory days – and they were. Gilbert is the only reason Roddick has a Slam win under his belt. Knowing this may be a factor in why Brad always tries to find good things to say about Roddick’s play.

But I have long had the impression that Andy Roddick is the elephant in the room that you’re not allowed to talk badly about if you work for ESPN. He has been America’s great tennis hope. He attracts huge corporate endorsements, the type that allowed him to pick his wife out of a Sports Illustrated catalog. He is a powerhouse in American tennis.

But in my opinion, The Boor is an abusive bully who repeatedly disrespects and sarcastically insults umpires (“Call 1-800-ref”) and gets away with it. He seems to get linespersons changed at will – the poor woman who called the correct foot-fault but named the wrong foot was soon sent summarily packing. (If only a woman tennis player had that power!) Roddick is in my opinion an undisciplined arse-hole whom coaches seem to soon find unmanageable. No wonder he’s been through a string of them.

But we’re not allowed to say any of this about darling Andy. We’re supposed to talk about how charitable he is (never mind the negative whispers), and about how beautiful his wife is, and about how great and exciting he is for American tennis.
So when John McEnroe decided to blast through the bullshit and speak the truth about the horridness of tennis he was observing – when he pointed out that all Roddick did was grind the ball endlessly back and forth, had no tactics or shot variation, remained planted well behind the baseline from, and took no chances (you know, the way 14 and under players tend to do) – well John seemed to have broken a cardinal rule about tennis commentary when The Boor is on the court. And my theory is that this is what cost Pat McEnroe his job.

I am not saying that Pat McEnroe got fired as Davis Cup Captain. He gave as his reasons for resigning that he wants to focus on his family and on his job as head of player development for the United States Tennis Association.

But I find it interesting that he announced his resignation a mere four days after the Roddick-Tipsarevic commentary drama. And I also find it interesting that he announced his resignation before completing the mission to Columbia where Querrey – another player who also plays Roddick-style, 14-and-under tennis – has already taken a drubbing against some nobody named Santiago Giraldo.

And to round out my conspiratorial thinking, isn’t it interesting that Andy Roddick has also withdrawn from the Davis Cup Team? He says his knee has a boo-boo. But I can’t help but wonder if he may have felt betrayed by the brothers McEnroe and may have demanded Pat’s head on a platter.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Princeton women’s tennis vs. Reggie Bush

25th June 1934: Sports mistress Betty Green giving some tennis training to young school girls at Northwood College, Middlesex. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)I believe that the vast majority of people have lied, stolen, and/or cheated at some point in their lives. And in this group I also include members of the Tea Party, folks who are against gay marriage, Christian fundamentalists, and Muslims of all sub-types. Lying, cheating and stealing are parts of human nature, cutting through and across all categories, races, and socioeconomic classes of people.

Some people steal so routinely that they no longer categorize their behavior as stealing. They simply shop at the office without checking out or paying. In this I include the taking home of whiteout, paperclips, envelopes, pens and pencils purchased by the company you work for. Taking home printer paper is stealing – even if you convince yourself that it is OK because the company has reams of them.

I also believe that twin psychological motives explain the commonness of these less honorable aspects of human nature. First, most people lie, steal, and cheat because they feel narcissistically entitled to what they want to have. And second, because they do not expect to get caught.

But ever so often someone gets caught lying, cheating or stealing and we hang them out to dry. We do our own version of parading them in the public square. Except that the square is now our television sets and the sub-world of the internet which we all sometimes visit and where too many of us spend hours living – arguing with other faceless, nameless avatars about the lying, cheating and stealing of a caught member of the species, and perhaps even temporarily convincing ourselves that we are better than them. But we’re not. We’re all imperfectly human. Most of us just try to do our best.

Sometimes there is disparity in the way we choose collectively to punish a member of the species who has been caught. I say member of the species because there is something animalistic about collective stoning behavior. There is an adrenaline-driven aspect to the mass hysteria with which we deliver our 99 lashes – although thankfully ours are not as literal as found in some parts of the world. Sticks and stones.

Speaking of disparity, there is a woman tennis player who attends Princeton University and who received some $33,000. for tuition and books over the course of three semesters between 2007-2008. The money was paid to the varsity player and her parents by an alumnus who is a family friend. The acceptance of these financial gifts – this academic grifting as it were – is against the rules of the NCAA.

From where I sit, this is no different from what happened with Reggie Bush. He and his family accepted financial gifts from donors, including reportedly a house for his parents. The only difference that I can detect lies in the value of the gifts. But cheating is not defined on the basis of the value of the item obtained illicitly. The child who steals a chocolate bar from Wal-Mart may be punished differently from the adult who tries to sneak out in a new bra, but both acts are recognized as theft. One therefore expects NCAA rules to be applied consistently.

But besides a handful of newspaper reports, I have not seen much discussion of the situation involving the Princeton tennis player. But everyone has been losing their s**t over Reggie Bush. I myself am no fan of Mr. Bush. I find that there is something mulish and foolish and shallow about him. For a supposedly educated man, he seems barely able to string together an intelligent sentence. And when, in spite of all of your sporting achievements, your biggest claim to fame turns out to be that you used to bed Kim Kardashian, well then you’ve got a major problem. Maybe you’re lacking self-esteem.

Princeton has decided not to let Petra pay for Paulina. It will not punish the entire tennis team for the inappropriate actions of a single player. After all, it was the alumnus himself who reported his actions, kind of like Reggie Bush giving back the trophy he had clearly and indisputably earned in 2005.

Here’s Princeton President Shirley Tilghman explaining the decision-making in this situation: “We looked closely at the circumstances surrounding this isolated and inadvertent infraction and at the relationship between the alumnus and the student's family, and we are convinced that even though the alumnus is a long-time supporter of tennis at Princeton, he was acting only with the interest of helping a family friend pursue an educational opportunity for which her parents were not willing to provide financial support…We do not believe that this should have been characterized as a major violation, but we certainly regret the infraction and remain firmly committed to complying with all NCAA rules.”

It was a mistake. NCAA is overreacting. It was no biggie. But yeah, we’re sorry. And just like that the issue is closed. The student’s punishment will include vacation of her individual records for the three semesters in question. But the team’s Ivy League titles to which she contributed will stand. She will also face public reprimand and censure. Except I still don’t even know her name. I can’t find it anywhere.

Not that I need to. I have no desire to stone the woman. But I am getting kind of sick of the hysteria around Reggie Bush. And when he gave back the Heisman – that seemed to infuriate the masses even more. He was supposed to wait until it was snatched back from his cheating hands. He was supposed to be publicly humiliated. People will settle for nothing less as they sit there planning what else they will be sneaking home from the latest batch of office supplies.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Two steps forward, ten steps backward

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 09: Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova prepare to play against Pat Cash and Mats Wilander during day eleven of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 9, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)BOOP! OK I tried, I really did. I tried to tell myself that it was no big deal, just a bit of fun, that I really should just lighten to eff up and not make such a big deal of it. And while that is generally good advice that I generally take, I find that I am still galled by the spectacle of Pat Cash and Mats Wilander playing patty-cake tennis against Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova. What was up with that? What was I supposed to take away from this experience? Aren’t we all well past this kind of sexist nonsense?

Apparently not. And the frank enjoyment of the crowd watching this piece of ass-foolery told me that I am very much in the minority. And perhaps many of you reading this column will side with them and will think that the Tennis Chick is making an issue of nothing. Because after all no harm was done. Just two women and two men playing a silly game of entertaining doubles at the US Open. Is that all it was?

For me it wasn’t. For me it was a throwback to the days when women were expected to be seen and not heard, when women provided entertainment but did not need to be taken seriously. I thought that we were past the stage where women had to be condescended to, when women were willing to short-change or make spectacles of themselves all for the sake of entertainment. But apparently I am deeply wrong.

I was most hurt that Martina Hingis allowed herself to be a part of this travesty. I expect nothing more or less from Pornikova. She was always irrelevant to serious tennis. She always represented fluff. She was the sex object that teens and grown men lusted after. When she played tennis she filled stadiums not because of her game but because of her beauty. So her decision to participate in this piece of nonsense neither surprised nor bothered me.

As for the two men, well I figured maybe they needed the pay check. And if they were doing it for free, I really didn’t care because men have achieved enough in the world to be able to make asses of themselves whenever they choose to. It’s their world after all. We women are just trying to carve out our own space in it.

But Hingis? My heart ached. I could have cried. I felt so deeply sad for her. Gone was the athletic young woman who could scamper after a drop shot like no one else. In its place was an unfamiliar woman grinning foolishly for the cameras and trying desperately to fit into the world of fluff. My Hingis would never be caught dead reducing herself to fluff. Fluff is what caused her and Anna to break up in the first place, remember? My Hingis was all business, wanting always to win, coming to resent all of the fluff attention that their combined winning brought to the blonde bombshell. Gosh I miss that Hingis!

I miss the Hingis who always meant serious business. I miss the Smiling Assassin who once asked an opponent if she wanted to get broken or did she want Hingis to serve first. My Hingis was a talented, versatile player whom everyone either feared or respected. Not a nervously grinning woman unsure of what the hell she was doing out there under the lights at Flushing Meadows playing at tennis.

Hingis was banned from tennis for two years. My problem has always been less with this decision per se and more with the unfairness of Gasquet being allowed to get away scotch free for committing the same crime. Then again, I can’t fault Gasquet for successfully fighting to save his career. I cannot fathom why Hingis has not been able to do the same. I cannot understand why she is not beating down every possible legal door to be allowed once again to play legitimate tennis. Heck I’d even settle for her becoming a full-time commentator; the few times I’ve heard her commentate, she’s been terrific.

But instead Hingis seems willing to settle for being part of a ridiculous perversion of Riggs vs. Billie Jean King. When Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs back in 1973, it was a tremendous moment for women in sport (not just in the world of tennis). Sure Riggs was an aging boozer and the match also served the purpose of televised entertainment. But the outcome was not scripted. Real tennis was played that day, best three of five which Billie Jean won 6-4 6-3 6-3. 30,492 people watched the match at the Houston Astrodome. Millions of others watched on TV. No other tennis match has ever attracted such an audience. BJK’s victory was a real victory, a leap forward for womankind. The Hingis/Kournikova nonsense was a step backward.

And once again just thinking about that non-event is making my blood boil. Watching these two men made a pretence of playing against the two women irked every cell in my body. I would have preferred to see them play real mixed doubles, Cash and Hingis vs. Wilander and Kournikova, or vice versa. But the stupid men vs. women format with no serious tennis was an insult to all attempts at intelligent progress. I hope that BJK had nothing to do with this travesty. It was an insult that sullied her amazing record of accomplishment on behalf of women.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why all the crapping on Wawrinka?

Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland returns the ball to Sam Querrey of the USA during fourth-round action at the U.S. Open held at the National Tennis Center on September 7, 2010 in New York. UPI /Monika Graff Photo via Newscom
I couldn’t believe the amount of crap Stanislas Wawrinka got just for taking a bathroom-break (bad pun intended). Even experienced commentators started talking about his “gamesmanship” for taking a bathroom break in the middle of the tense fifth set. I almost expected one of them to run out onto the court and threaten to ram a ball down his throat. So much hate for one of the most non-drama guys you could find on the tour. What gives?

What gives is that the only American man left in the draw was about to get his ass kicked. In fact, he should have gotten his ass spanked in straight sets. Wawrinka should get properly chewed out by his new coach (Peter Lundgren, Federer’s old coach) for having to play five sets. After all, this is the same Wawrinka who just finished beating the far more talented Andy Murray. So why did he struggle so much to put Querrey away?

Under different circumstances I would factor in the partisan crowd. But the truth is that the crowd was not much of a deciding factor today. For the most part, they did not seem to realize until it was too late that this was the last American man standing. Maybe it’s because Querrey doesn’t have the kind of sparkle that makes crowds get excited. He is no Gael Monfils who seduces the audience and has them screaming for him. Querrey is more introverted, a strong and amiable team player whose best results have come under Patrick McEnroe’s tutelage as Davis Cup captain.

But I believe that a major factor in Wawrinka’s difficulties today was that he was not fully recovered from the grueling four-hour match against Andy Murray, which he came away from with a thigh injury. Between this and spending over eight hours on court for his last two matches, Wawrinka goes into the next round at a decided disadvantage against Mikhail Youzhny. The Russian is no Sam Querrey.

Because the simple truth is that Querrey’s lack of variety was seriously exposed in the fifth set. The wind was blowing so hard that neither player could rely on getting aces or baseline winners which is all that Querrey seems to know how to do. And then, his tension apparently increasing in the fifth set, Querrey started pushing the ball – the kind of pushing that you see among geriatric players at a country club. And then he started rushing his strokes so much so that the balls became confused and didn’t know if to just collapse wearily into the net or go flying off the court. Querrey committed a ton of errors going for shots that didn’t have a chance in heck of connecting.

The deficits in Querrey’s game were sadly exposed. He cannot volley. His down-the-line backhand needs work, as do his service returns. He doesn’t how to play defensively when this is required. (Defensive play consists of more than just endless rallying, Sam). And like Roddick, he has a tendency to become clumsy and fall over his feet. Watching him (and John Isner), two tall and fit men, choosing to battle it out from the baseline, I can’t help but feel totally depressed for the future of American men’s tennis.

Because sadly, this is what American men’s tennis has been reduced to. I’ve criticized this version of Big Babe tennis as played by Maria Sharapova. The criticism applies even more so for the American men. Roddick has been as much a victim of this as has every other American man on the tour. It’s like no one is teaching junior players how to do anything other than how to develop a big serve and bang away from the baseline. Every girl wants to be Sharapova and every boy wants to be Roddick. How sad.

Wawrinka in the meantime was a much better tactician. Because it was really windy, both men played it safe. But Wawrinka moved in to net to attack the short balls while Querrey was content to just keep on rallying from the baseline. This is why he lost the match today. Not because his opponent took an ill-timed bathroom break.

This is not to say that Wawrinka didn’t have his own share of problems. He clearly seemed to choke in the fourth set, probably becoming too aware of the hugeness of the moment, his first serious Slam breakthrough. But he collected himself and started playing good old-fashioned tennis. A one-handed backhand. Chipping and charging. Soft angled volleys. The topspin forehand giant on the other side of the court didn’t have a clue what to do.

At the end of the day, Wawrinka did not engage in any kind of gamesmanship today. In fact, he had asked the Chair to use the bathroom earlier in the set and was told that he had to wait until the change of service break just before it was his turn to serve. That’s the rule. So with his bladder full after more than four hours on court, Wawrinka sucked it up until the rules allowed him to take a bathroom break. And then he did. That’s all that happened. There was no drama, no gamesmanship, and no cheap tactics.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The selling of sex as tennis fashion

U S Open 2010 D6 04/09/10 Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) wins third round match Photo Anne Parker Fotosports International Photo via NewscomToday’s tennis fashion offers a myriad of choices, ranging from inexperienced but earnest tennis pros seduced by the glamor implied in having their names attached to a clothing line, to established professionals who actually know what they are doing. The result is a particularly confusing market.

But the one thing that the tennis fashion market seems to agree on is that sex sells. Women tennis pros no longer walk around in the dowdy-looking outfits worn by the likes of Hingis and Graf. Now it’s all sex all the time. And within this niche of the tennis fashion market, you also have a dizzying array of options.

On the one hand, you have your choice of top designers such as Stella McCartney who has been dressing Caroline Wozniacki for some time. And Caroline has never looked more beautiful or sexy. In fact I never thought of those words to describe her until I saw her in the gorgeous white and gold dress she wore at the Pilot Pen. And then she topped that with a skin tight opaque green/black and yellow number at the US Open, both designed by Stella McCartney for adidas. Not only does Caro succeed in looking hot, but I can also see a lot of teens and young women wearing versions of these outfits to play tennis. They are the perfect combination of performance and style. And they are also very sexy, an important selling point.

And then there are the do-it-yourselfers like Venus Williams who seems to be motivated mainly by becoming the premier topic of conversation – not at all unlike your Lindsay Lohans and Kim Kasdashians who seem to go to lengths to remain on paparazzi radar. Except that in Venus’ case, her route to feeding an apparent addiction to public attention seems to be via always managing to get everyone talking about her spectacularly awful fashion choices.

Because make no bones about it, Venus looks ridiculous. The sparkling number that she has to pull down after every single rally, after every single ball exchange, after every single serve – well that is just not a practical choice for tennis, is it? Worse, it is an ugly dress, the kind of cheap-looking number that you might wear to go clubbing on a Saturday night. The butt-hugging fabric would be right at home when dancing to the latest beats by Drake and Jay-Z and hoping that you would get picked up around 3am when most men would be drunk enough to find you attractive. Venus’ goal may be to be found sexy and attractive. What she actually achieves is a pathetic level of absurdity.

No doubt it is a difficult challenge to find the right balance between practicality, sex, and fashion. Going too much in any one direction over the other may result in products that remain on the shelf. I felt this way about Sharapova’s triple-layered apron-type outfit at the Australian Open earlier this year. It was not only an impractical choice for the weather, but the outfit seemed to be too fussy for playing tennis. Since then Sharapova seems to have learned a thing or two about fashion. Or maybe she’s been sensible enough to recognize her limitations and has hired a proper designer.

The resulting navy and teal number she chose for this year’s US Open is very chic. I like the dark buttons across the V-chest line, and the contrasting collar and ruffle. I also like the navy and black number with the piping along the hip line. Gorgeous for night tennis or for playing in the fall. Both dresses are pretty, sexy, and practical, the right combination of options that makes for the best-selling sport clothing lines.

Other players seem to aim so much for sex appeal that you wonder why they didn’t just show up to play in a sports bra and a pantie. Victoria Azarenka’s skirt slit is so high she might as well not be wearing the damn skirt. Not surprisingly, she apparently also aspires to be a model.

But it is possible for an outfit to be outright sexy and not lose its performance edge. In this category I would include the burgundy and fuchsia dress that adidas developed for Ivanovic. It is a supportively boobtastic number with a simple figure-flattering A-line design, and an interesting color combination that would be attractive to ordinary players.

And then there are those tennis players who seem to wear primarily what seems practical and who do not seem to be motivated by sex appeal. These are the women who do not appear to participate in their own objectification. They end up looking good not because the outfit is particularly sexy, but because the choice and combination of colors and practicality happen to look good on them. A good example is Kim Clijsters’ blue and white outfit by Fila. It’s the kind of simple and cute but practical outfit that most tennis players would actually buy and wear.

For what it’s worth, here is my advice for would-be designers – and that seems increasingly to be anyone with a smattering of success on the tennis court. I think it’s important to understand that the last thing a woman needs to be doing on a tennis court is re-arranging herself in any way. When you have to constantly be pulling and tugging and adjusting, well then there is something wrong with the design because it is clearly distracting. So maybe it’s time you realized that by putting out and/or wearing these crappy outfits, you’ve succeeded in surrounding yourself with a bunch of “Yes” folks who may feel powerless to be honest with you. This may be why no one is telling you that you are looking like a cheap ho.

(Part 2 of 2)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Some thoughts on women’s tennis fashion

Fashion seems to be becoming more and more of a forefront issue in tennis. Back in the day, your choices were to look as feminine and girlish as Chrissy Evert, or as laid-back and comfortable as Martina Navratilova in her short pants. I’ve admitted before that I have always been a Navratilova type of dresser. Indeed, the outfit worn last night by Alexandra Dulgheru – the white top and black shorts – is for me standard tennis issue.

But this is not to say that I have no interest in fashion. On the contrary, I am quite the fashion addict, and have been known to acknowledge my powerlessness to shopaholism. My recent disappointment with the items from Venus Williams’ “Eleven” line featured by the Gilt Groupe was because I logged on with every intention of making a purchase. I found however that there was nothing that I wanted to buy.

Despite this setback, as a would-be fashionista I find that I have been developing a growing appreciation of good tennis fashion. For me the best tennis outfits are put out by designers who understand how to combine form with function, who are talented enough to fuse performance with style, who are creative enough to produce designs that facilitate movement while also providing adequate boob support, and who also use fabrics that are breathable while making use of eye-popping color. Yes this is certainly asking a lot. That is probably why so many product lines fail.

Some designers reach for cuteness at the expense of practicality. My cutest tennis outfit by far is the pink bubble dress put out by Serena and Nike a couple of years ago. But the dress is hugely impractical. After the first rally, it starts riding up my butt, and I find myself becoming acutely aware of the band of elastic – the one responsible for the bubble effect – that is slowly moving up my ass. The effect is one of both discomfort and distraction.

So when I am playing serious tennis, I do not wear Serena’s dress. It’s a great dress for women who just wish to be seen posing with a tennis racket or who perhaps come to a tennis court hoping to attract male amorous attentions. But it’s not so useful for playing tennis in.

When you’re serious about tennis, it’s not enough to just look cute in your outfit – although also looking attractive may be a very reasonable goal. As a serious tennis player, you want to wear an outfit that, in addition to being pretty, also makes practical sense. An outfit that will not distract you from your focus on returning the ball.

As a result, the location of the pockets is an important concern in tennis, regardless of how attractive the dress may be. I remember some time ago when Jennifer Hudson got criticized for wearing an Andre Leon Talley-approved brown dress with deep plunging pockets and a silver micro bolero jacket to the Oscars. All I could think at the time was that I could see a modified version of it being perfect for tennis.

But I totally concede that some of these concerns may be less true for the pros, and that what separates them from me is their ability to remain focused and productive despite the feeling of a band of elastic riding up their asses. On the other hand, when a pro wears a tennis outfit, the goal of the manufacturer is to sell thousands of copies to people like me. So that concerns about practicality and usefulness have also to be infused into the attractiveness of any fashion line.

The tennis fashion market is clearly a growing one. It must also be hugely financially lucrative because nothing else explains why more and more tennis players seem to be signing on to attach their names to tennis fashion lines. Manufacturers are clearly cognizant of the fact that fans of a player will naturally consider buying whatever she is selling. And quite frankly, this is the only reason I own Serena's silly pink bubble dress. It was purchased in a moment of unthinking fan-dom as I perused the Tennis Warehouse website. In hindsight I still sometimes ask myself what the heck was I thinking.

Because it is painfully clear that not all professional players have a good understanding of tennis fashion, not even ones that claim to have gone to online fashion school. The result is an inconsistent market with a confusing array of choices for the consumer, as established designers find themselves having to compete for space with young upstarts with no experience in either design or the business of fashion.

(Part 1 of 2)

NEW HAVEN, CT - AUGUST 28: Top seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark challenges a call while playing Nadia Petrova of Russia during the final of the Pilot Pen tennis tournament at the Connecticut Tennis Center on August 28, 2010 in New Haven, Connecticut. Wozniacki beat Petrova 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Daughters of Sampras, sons of Hingis

I arranged my entire day so that I could watch the match-up between Dustin Brown and Andy Murray. It’s not that I thought that Dustin had a chance in heck of winning this match, but I wanted to see how my Caribbean rasta was going to go about preventing himself from swallowing three consecutive bagels.

I assumed that, as he stepped onto Arthur Ashe court, not swallowing three consecutive bagels would at least be a part of Dustin Brown’s mission. Of course I assume that his primary aim would have been to try to win the match. But I figured that a reasonable back-up plan would be to lose as respectfully as possible. Or to put it in Caribbean-speak, to not completely shame himself in front of all these people.

I also wanted to see what was suddenly so special about Dustin’s game that England – a country apparently so desperate for tennis stars that they might be willing to offer citizenship to a hacker with a big serve – might be willing to consider this particular hacker’s possible petition. Because the truth is that Dustin Brown is a hacker. And I have avoided admitting this truth to myself for a long time.

It was easier to avoid doing so when the only people I ever saw him play came from either other Caribbean islands, or from countries at the bottommost level of Davis Cup play. Against such a lack of talent, Dustin Brown both looks and plays quite well. And yes, maybe I was distracted by the looks, I can admit that. I mean, that is one fine-looking rasta. And I love the way ESPN kept giving us the crotch shots.

But against other lesser-abled, Dustin looked so good that I was able to miss the fact that he has very little but hack shots to back up his big serve. He can’t even hit a decent forehand down-the-line. Heck, there were moments today when I wanted to grab the racket out of his hand to show him how it’s done. Against lesser-level opponents barely able to return his big serves, Dustin doesn’t look too bad. But facing the talented Andy Murray, Dustin looked like a hack who was trying only to prevent swallowing three bagels. And you know what? His mission was accomplished – he swallowed only one.

You know what was intriguing about this match? The first was how completely unbothered Andy Murray was by his opponent. The New York crowd did its best to rattle Murray and encourage Dustin. In fact, if I was there, I would have the one leading the vuvuzela posse. But Murray remained unfazed by it all. It didn’t even seem to bother him when the rain briefly halted play. He didn’t care when he lost serve in the second set after being up 5-0. He seemed to be in some kind of a zen mental space where nothing and no-one could penetrate. I can’t remember even seeing him look up at his box. By the third set, he was so completely in the zone that nothing that the dreadlocks hacker threw at him was going to stick.

I’m not saying that said hacker is completely without talent, but you have to admit that it’s amazing what crowd support can do. Heck, the crowd at Armstrong almost lifted Ryan Harrison to victory over Sergiy Stakhovsky. Like Murray, Sergiy also refused to get rattled. At times he seemed bemused by the madness of the people screaming at him and applauding loudly when he fell.

And maybe if said crowd hadn’t gotten wind that an American in the Armstrong stadium needed their support, more of them might have stuck around to carry Dustin through that third set and may have helped him accomplish the mission of not swallowing three bagels. But the crowd, getting wind of Harrison’s closeness in the fifth set, abandoned poor Dustin so fast you’d swear they were giving away free beers in honor of Louis. Big thanks to those who stuck around and supported Dustin through the final set agony. If I had gone to New York this year, I would have been one of them.

But the second intriguing thing I noticed today was the interesting similarities between the way Harrison and Stakhovsky played, and the style of tennis also played between Murray and Brown. All four of these men engaged in a cat-and-mouse type of game that I have not seen the likes of since cocaine sent Martina Hingis out of tennis. It was all angles and spins, touch and drop shots, wrong-footing and sneaky forays into court, placement and finesse. Sure there were the big serves. But once the ball was in play, it was like I watching four versions of Martina Hingis. Because at her best, Martina Hingis could also play like a hack, throwing up junk balls to put her opponents off their game. It’s amazing what good hacking can do.

I am intrigued by the fact that in the WTA, women seem to be reaching for more and more muscle and power, while here were these men who understood that it was also possible to win by also using deft touches and sweet angles. This is the tennis that Michael Llodra is playing, that also helped him win today against Hanescu. What an ironic changing of the roles. Who could predict that it is the women who would all aspire to be daughters of Sampras – all big serves and baseline-hitting, mind-numbingly boring, side-to-side tennis – and that it would be the men who inherited Hingis’ remarkable legacy?

Flushing Meadows New York US Open Tennis 2010 03/09/10 Dustin Brown (JAM) second round match. Photo Roger Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The giant-felling has started

It’s like Tipsy read my manual, didn’t he? Honestly there were moments during his match against Roddick last night when I literally laughed out loud. The combination of the sight of Tipsarevic in that ridiculous red and black outfit, with his pretentious Japanese tattoos, and bizarre prescription glasses, plus Roddick falling clumsily all over his feet while his poor wife looked as if she would start crying any minute – it all made for unintentional humor. Call me a heartless biyatch but I’m still getting the giggles when I replay certain moments in my mind.

And of course Roddick’s defenders have rushed to claim that he is suffering from “a bit” of mononucleosis. I’m not sure how much mono it takes for it to be just “a bit”, but this is the same Roddick who seemed fit and healthy enough when he lost last week to Mardy Fish in Cincinnati. I’m not saying that he isn’t sick. I’m just saying that I’m not convinced that illness explains his unintelligent performance against Tipsy yesterday. No, what happened is that Roddick got himself a good old-fashioned beat down. Frankly, I am beginning to wonder why Stefanki keeps wasting his time.

One of the more exciting aspects of a Grand Slam is the frisson of excitement one feels in anticipation of which giant will be among the first to fall. I mean they can’t all make it to the finals, no matter how great they are. Come Sunday – if hurricane Earl and his pals don’t completely deviate plans – there will only be two men standing on Arthur Ashe court at Flushing Meadows. Which means that between now and then, some giants are going to topple. And yes, I do find that to be kind of exciting.

Of course if the giant happens to be a player whom I adore, well then there’s always going to be some sadness. But as long as my player goes down in an exciting blaze of glorious tennis, well then I will just have to be consoled by that.

But I was not at all consoled when the giant Davydenko went down today to Richard Gasquet. It wasn’t the fact that Davydenko got felled that bothered me. No, I take that back. The fact that he got beaten bothered me greatly, but not for the loss in and of itself, but more so because I have been on a gender kick lately and I wanted to be able to say that his wife-coach was obviously doing a damn fine job. As it is, Davydenko got beaten easily by a player who combined the standard corner-to-corner baseline strategy with sweet drop shots. I guess all the cocaine he kissed off that woman’s lips have finally worked its way out of his system and Gasquet is playing focused tennis again.

One of the things that I find totally annoying is watching a giant get felled by some upstart who then folds up like a wet blanket in the subsequent match. I mean, if you’re going to be man (or woman) enough to slay a giant, well then have the cojones (or its female equivalent) to back it up by at least winning the next match. That’s not asking too much. There’s no point in taking out a giant if you’re going to just turn around and cave easily. You might as well have left him in the damn draw, right?

This is my fear for Tipsarevic. Tipsy can slay any giant on any given day. But I’m not convinced that he can back it up. And that to me is a huge waste of giant-slaying talent.

Next up Tipsarevic faces Gael Monfils. I not so long ago criticized Gael for being a French clown who squanders his damn talent prancing and jumping around on the court. Except I’m sure that my words were way harsher than that. But to be honest, lately Gael has seemed a bit more mature, more grounded. I have been impressed by the absence of pointless theatrics during his matches. I won’t mind at all if he sends Tipsarevic packing.

I don’t know that Marin Cilic can be considered a giant in tennis but he certainly has giant potential. So I did not at all expect him to go out to Kei Nishikori. I first noticed Nishikori in 2008 when he beat James Blake at Delray Beach. But I haven’t heard a peep from him since then. Indeed, for a while there, that win against Blake started looking like a fluke. But if he can take out the 13th seed, maybe it’s time to consider his application for the Tennis Chick Club of Giant-Killers.

Among the women, the giants are all still standing tall. In fact Wozniacki fed her opponent a double-bagel. I’m not a fan of her baseline bashing but I am a fan of her heartlessness. Her performance against Taipei’s Kai-Chen Chang was brutal. She crushed her with no mercy. Smells like true giant spirit.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Delusions of gender on the tennis court

I’ve been perplexed by the scathing criticism that John McEnroe has received for stating that the women’s tennis season is too long. To be fair, what he allegedly said was, “There should be less events for women. You need an actual meltdown on court or someone to quit the game altogether before they realize you need to change the schedule.” And for that he has had to face a barrage of feminist claws.

What troubled me is the fact that women tennis players themselves have been complaining for years that their tennis season is too long. And they were not alone – many men on the ATP side of the fence have complained long and hard that tennis needs a longer off-season, that the injury rate is as high as it is because tennis pros play tennis non-stop, and that having to play practically non-stop across four different surfaces is too hard on their bodies.

So when Johnny Mac uttered the words that women have since been trying to ram down his throat, I personally became confused. By arguing for less tournaments for women, wasn’t he supporting what many women themselves have been asking for all along? Or was the problem that he was saying it only for women? By pointing out that the women’s season was too long but omitting to mention that of the men, was Johnny Mac just being a sexist pig? Apparently so, to judge from the reaction of many women.

Mind you, these are many of the same women who don’t have a problem with the fact that women play best of three sets at the majors while men play best of five. These are the same women who have no problem with the fact that theoretically a male tennis player could have played anywhere from nine to fifteen sets of tennis by the third round, compared to six to nine sets for a woman, but who would have earned the same paycheck. It’s OK for things to be equal as long as they aren’t really. Or conveniently.

It’s also unfortunate that Johnny Mac’s critics conveniently neglected to note his comment that it is time to make it the best of five for women at the majors. No, let’s just focus on his statement that women shouldn’t be pushed to play more than they are playing. That’s the statement that apparently pissed some women off. But not a single one of these angry feminists ratified his suggestion for equaling the playing field at the majors.

For the record, I am no fan of John McEnroe. His “you cannot be serious” shtick is so overplayed that I have not been able to even bring myself to read his biography of the same title. It’s been sitting in my to-read bin for years. I may never read it. The man annoys me. And I still haven’t forgiven him for accidentally hitting that kid with the water bottle. But I won’t hang him up by the balls for saying something that women tennis players themselves say in moments of both private and public grousing.

My impression has always been that these same women tennis players want to be able to play less but earn more points. They’re willing to chase down a gazillion tournaments to earn the points to help elevate their ranking. But having arrived there and having to play the same number of tournaments to protect their ranking, they suddenly find this to be too much of an ordeal. You can’t have it both ways sisters. And besides, as I’ve mentioned before, these are the same women that sign on for big-paying exhibition matches during the off-season. The same off-season that supposedly doesn’t exist. Hypocrisy and selfishness can be cleverly masked as reasonable complaints, no?

Ironically, I actually agree with many of the statements made by those women who criticized John McEnroe. I agree with Mary Carillo, for example, who countered with, “I hate the idea that we have to judge women on a curve and say, ‘It’s too much for them’. I've seen too many great women champions for too long.” I could not have said it better.

But I mainly agree with writers like Cordelia Fine who point out that there are many myths floating around regarding what women can and cannot do. In her book from which I stole the title of this column, Fine writes that women’s brains are not hard-wired for multi-tasking, empathy, or playing with dolls. Nor are we hard-wired to be bad at math. These are all societal constructs about which we have all – men and women – become thoroughly conditioned. But perhaps at least in the world of tennis, some women and men are courageous enough to engage in gender-bending.

And this is really all just a lead-in for me to mention how incredibly proud I am of the fact that Michael Llodra not only hired Amelie Mauresmo (a woman!) as his professional coach, but that she has coached him to a number of significant victories this year, including his win against Tomas Berdych today at the US Open. This is the same Berdych who was being touted as the next big thing after he beat Federer at Wimbledon.

Llodra spanked him in straights [7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 6-4], by playing a complete game. He did not rely on baseline bashing and pulling his opponent wide – the kind of one-note crap I’ve been criticizing on this blog for weeks. He mixed it up, coming in to net a total of 75 times, using sweetly timed drop-shots, combining pace and placement to produce an all-court game the likes of which Berdych clearly did not expect. And it took a woman to coach Llodra to this significant victory. Now that’s the kind of gender bending I can get behind.

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