Sunday, October 31, 2010

Overworked vs. Well-Rested

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dementieva decides to pack it in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 29, 2010

Appreciating Bud Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Is Hewitt really whoring out his baby?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 22, 2010

Defending Sharapova (for real)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What’s in the future for Mrs. Vujacic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When celebrities endorse crap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In search of a good ball machine

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

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tiger’s stench creeping towards Federer

Roger Federer of Switzerland attends a pre-game news conference at the Shanghai Masters tennis tournament in Shanghai on October 11, 2010. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA - Tags: SPORT TENNIS HEADSHOT)

It was just a matter of time, I suppose. I’ve had my fingers crossed and kept hoping for the best, but deep inside I couldn’t help feeling that there was no way Tiger Woods and Roger Federer could be represented by the same company and some of Tiger’s stench not end up rubbing off on Federer.

My grandmother used to say “show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are”. I always had mixed feelings about that statement because it implied that if I hung around losers, or hos, or thieves, or any other element of humanity she did not approve of, it meant that she could accuse me of being the same even sans evidence. I also always felt that there was a judgmental aspect to her position that made me uncomfortable. Did she not trust my ability to use my own judgment, to not succumb to negative influences?

And yet I’ve also felt that there is some truth to the notion of guilt by association. And I hope that this will be Federer’s defense – that he is the innocent bystander, that he is just passing in the rush, and that he is guilty only of knowing the man whose name has become mud, both in and outside the world of golf. More than anything I do not want him to be found guilty of some of these distasteful allegations.

At issue is a massive lawsuit filed today against IMG, arguably the biggest sports management firm in the world. IMG is supposedly owned by a man named Theodore Forstmann. And Forstmann is being sued by a printing company named Agate Printing, Inc, which claims that it served as a go-between for IMG and placed millions of dollars of bets on Forstmann’s behalf. Agate is alleging that Forstmann breached an agreement to give the company printing business, and left them responsible for millions of dollars in tax liabilities as a result of his gambling losses.

What does any of this have to do with Roger Federer? I wish that none of it did. I wish that all of the allegations had remained focused on Tiger Woods and Forstmann’s apparent hatred for the golfer, so much so that he allegedly placed bets against him despite representing him. Sadly, Agate has also named Federer in its lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, filed today in the L.A. County Superior Court, Agate claims that Federer gave Forstmann inside information on the 2006 French Open final he played against Rafael Nadal. The suit claims that as a result of the information provided by Federer, Forstmann raised his bet from $10,000. to $40,000. Federer lost that match.

I have no idea if Forstmann gained or lost from the transaction, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that he probably lost money on that match. Agate is claiming that it has become stuck with this among other bad debts.

This is not the first time that Agate has sued Forstmann. They filed a similar suit in 2008 which was apparently dismissed. At least this is the version of events put out by Michael Sitrick, Mr. Forstmann’s representative. Sitrick claims that Agate sees Forstmann as the lottery. He claims that Agate is only spreading lies and falsehoods.

The only reason I even care about any of this is because Roger Federer’s name is being included in the new and revised version of Agate’s lawsuit. I’m not going to pretend that I even understand all of the ins and outs of the wealthy and how they legally attack each other. I’m not even going to defend Roger against the slurs against his name because at this time, he has not made a statement and I don’t know his version of events.

What I do know is that my heart is sick with the worry about how this will all play out. And I do know that the stench of this scandal is one that Roger Federer can’t afford. His reputation has been too carefully manicured, his position as the Player’s representative too assiduously courted, his achievements in tennis too daintily accomplished, his manner of dealing with the press too graciously elegant, to allow this kind of gutter slime-balling.

Because no bones about it, someone seems to be slinging mud. This is not just a lawsuit. It’s a nasty, gutter smear campaign. I just hope that Roger comes out of it smelling like roses.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How much tennis do pros actually play?

Wimbledon Championships Day 04 2010 24/06/10 John Isner's historic match against Nicolas Mahut (FRA) as the longest match in history. 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 Photo Susan Mullane Fotosports International UK Only Photo via Newscom

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal caused a minor furor with their publication of some in-house research indicating that football players spent a mere 11 minutes playing actual football during a match. (I am of course referring to the American game, not soccer.) The folks at WSJ sat down with their stop-watches and calculators and figured out that a typical football game ran for approximately 185 minutes – or three-plus hours of television broadcasting. But if football players spent a mere 11 minutes on average of this time period actually engaged in play, where did the rest of this time go?

To no one’s surprise, commercials easily ate up one hour of the remaining 174 minutes. About seven percent of the time was spent ogling the cheerleaders. And the bulk of the remaining time was spent capturing shots of the players as they postured, huddled, or just milled around pointlessly. So players like Tom Brady end up securing multi-million dollar contracts for mere minutes of play per game. What a sweet racket.

At the time I thought of making a similar dissection of tennis. Back then, one of the longest matches was the almost five-plus Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. I’m sure you remember that match. The one when Andy Roddick’s serve was broken only once – in the 77th game of a 77-game match, and that turned out to be all she wrote. The one that Sampras turned up to watch and looked increasingly as if someone was shoving a hot potato up his ass. The one when Roddick tearfully apologized to Sampras for losing the match – as if keeping Sampras’ record intact was going to earn him some extra million corporate dollars or something. The one where Federer took Sampras’ record and pissed on it with flair. Yes I’m sure you remember now.

So I’m wondering at the time, how much of that more than say 4.5 hours did these two men actually spend hitting the ball. I bet you it was more than 11 minutes per set, much less 11 minutes for the entire match. It occurred to me then that pound for pound, tennis players put out a whole lot more effort to earn their millions than football players seem to do. 

Mind you, I would be the first to admit that football is a far more dangerous sport. And if I had a son, I would definitely have been more biased in favor of him playing such non-huddling sports as tennis or golf. But the amount of time that tennis players spend in activity – meaning actually playing tennis during a match – seems to far exceed the activity level of most other sports. In my opinion.

So I flirted with the idea of writing this article back in January. And then one thing led to another and it ended up on the pile of other ideas I have for other entries that still have not seen the light of day. And it may have remained that way had the WSJ not published yet another telling analysis of time spent playing another sport. This time they took on baseball.

And again using such fancy technology as stop-watches and calculators, they concluded that the average baseball player spends 14 minutes per game actually engaged in play. Some of the rest of the broadcast time was spent on replays and tuning into to the reactions of coaches. But the bulk of the remaining time – some 68.6%, was spent capturing the players as they simply stood around.

Which naturally brings me to the 11-hour match between Isner and Mahut this summer. Remember that match? I’d rather not. While everyone hailed it as the most exciting thing to happen in tennis since Serena wore the catsuit, I was busy griping and complaining about these two foolish men who actually let a match last that long. Whenever I think about that match I get angry all over again. I recently tried watching the Tennis Channel’s program on John Isner, and the minute they brought up that stupid match I switched the channel and started looking for something else to watch.

I find it shameful that John Isner’s entire tennis career risks being defined by a long drawn-out pointless embarrassing 11-hour match against the French qualifier, 28-year-old Nicolas Mahut ,who apart from once beating Nadal on grass in 2007, has accomplished next to nothing in his tennis career. At the time Isner lamented that “it stinks that someone had to lose”. I shouted to the TV, “No John, it stinks because it stinks”. Because really, who cared who lost that damn match. At the end of the day – or rather three – both men lost because neither had a leg to stand on when it was all over.

See, I’m getting so worked up that I’m already losing control of my main point. My main point is this. How much of those 11 hours did these two idiots actually spend with racket in hand hitting the tennis ball? Let’s see now. In tennis, players are allowed a two-minute break between odd-games as well as between sets. But the number of breaks depends very much on the score. Players are also expected to begin serve within 30 seconds after the end of the previous point. But some players routinely violate this while other players, like Kim Clijsters, play so speedily between and during points that their matches seem to fly by. Really I’m just going to have to guess because there’s no way I’m sitting down with a stop-watch and going through all 11 of those mind-numbing hours just to make my point.

So until the obsessives at WSJ decide to help me out by whipping out their stop-watches during next year Wimbledon, I’m going to go out on a limb and take a guess that Mahut and Isner probably spent anywhere between six to eight hours actually engaged in playing tennis. That’s a shitload of tennis. And to think that they’re both still making less money than Tom Brady who gets time to just stand around looking pretty.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ester Vergeer goes naked for ESPN

I wrote about it when Serena took off her clothes for ESPN, so it’s only fair that I drag myself out of my sick bed to give Ester Vergeer equal treatment. Achoo! Cough, cough, sniff. Apologies for the silence. I feel like crap. Only a naked Ester Vergeer could force me to find the wherewithal to write.

At first glance I thought I was looking at a photo of Claire Danes. I know that she’s been busy trying to sell me that concoction that is supposed to make your eyelashes grow, and which in ten years we might end up finding out is implicated in everything from night blindness to optic cancer. I respect my eyes too much to wear anything other than kohl which has stood the varied tests of time. But I digress.

So at first glance I’m wondering what the heck Claire Danes is doing in a wheelchair. And then when I saw the tennis racket, for another brief moment, I flashed on an image of Elena Dementieva. It wasn’t until I read the caption that I realized that I was looking at a photo of Ester Vergeer. I did not recognize her behind the nudity and the make-up and the awkwardly-situated tennis racket and the bizarre folding of the arms across her chest, all of which combined to make her look, well…not at all like herself really.

 ESPN swears up and down that it’s Body Issue “is a celebration and exploration of the athletic form, honoring athletes of diverse shapes, sizes, colors, genders and race.” But why do these women have to appear buck naked for me to honor them? Do I need to see tits and asses, however nicely obscured, in order to appreciate the diversity of athleticism to be found in women’s sports? I personally don’t think so. Then again, I’m probably not the demographic to which ESPN is marketing this bogus product.

Just call me a party-pooper, but another troubling issue for me is the insistence on nudity as part of the aesthetic of so-called “athleticism”. How exactly are we the consumers supposed to draw the line between “athleticism” and frank sex appeal? Or is it OK if we conflate the two?

Because make no bones about it, the picture of the women’s polo team standing ass-cheek to vag is a pretty sexy shoot. I can see it getting pride of place on the wall of the average horny teenager. Is said teenager going to receive the message that ESPN insists that it is selling? If that is the case, can I expect any day now that in my mailbox will appear an ESPN cover shoot of the Spanish World Cup team standing ass-cheek to penis in all of their fine nude español glory? What about any of the athletic fellas on the NBA? Ryder Cup? Team Galaxy? I’m not fussy. Just egalitarian.

 Let me say that I at least appreciate that ESPN remained true to its goal of diversity by the inclusion of Vergeer. Arguably one of the most accomplished wheel-chair bound athletes, Vergeer certainly deserves to be lauded for her tremendous accomplishments in tennis. She has won 16 Slams and has broken every record within the domain of her sport. She has been the top-ranked player in wheelchair singles and doubles since 1999. Vergeer initially mastered the sport of wheelchair basketball before switching to tennis. I am thankful for that. And at age 29, this Dutch woman has a whole lot of tennis left in her.

But looking at the photo of Vergeer literally strapped into her wheelchair, I thought of none of this. Mainly I thought that she seemed hugely uncomfortable, her head awkwardly positioned, her toes jammed into and falling out of the stirrups. I wanted to cry. What a tremendous opportunity for ESPN to celebrate the determination of a woman inspired to achieve despite physical limitations. I didn’t need her to be strapped and packaged as a sex object.

No wait, I forgot. This is not about sexuality. It’s about athleticism.

In that case, it’s time for ESPN to start putting some hot naked studs on their magazine covers. Federer and Rafa appearing shirtless don’t cut it for me anymore. I want the full Monty, artfully trussed up and displayed like these women. And I’m not fussy. I will even settle for Lance Armstrong and his single ball standing ass-cheek to penis in a shoot of the cluster-f**k of riders at the Tour de France. OK maybe just the top 20. And maybe minus Lance.

Come to think of it, just about any cluster of male athletes wearing nothing, as they stand there, ass-cheek to penis, in awkward poses will do just fine. And I will look at that picture and think, what tremendous athleticism! Thank you ESPN!