Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wawrinka, Federer, and the psychology of hunger

A reader tweets the following request: “Can you pls write an article about how Wawrinka choked vs. Federer. What kind of a psychology is that and what's behind it?” Great question. I could take it in so many directions.

I could perhaps re-visit the opportunity to clarify the psychological difference between choking and panicking – the former happening to players who know exactly what they want to do but can’t get past their heads in order to do it, and the latter occurring to inexperienced beginners who become overwhelmed by the situation. Clearly Wawrinka did not panic. He is much too talented and experienced for that. But I personally don’t think he choked either.

What happened I believe is that Federer came flying out of the blocks, so that by the time his countryman figured out what had hit him, it was already too late. I believe that Wawrinka’s loss was in part because of Federer’s brilliant and aggressive performance during that match. Sure this new aggressive Federer is going to shank some balls into the air. But guess what. So too did the former passive and patient Federer who tended at times to simply wait for his opponents to implode. That Federer is hopefully no more.

But this loss was not entirely about Federer’s aggressive play. It may also have been about Wawrinka’s mismanagement of his psychological hunger for greatness. And to explain this fully, I have to digress and talk about the possible influence of a single coach, common to both Federer and Wawrinka, at a remarkably similar stage of their development. I’m referring of course to the hunger stage.

The hunger stage is a purely psychological phase in which a player realizes that he or she is yearning for greatness and glory. Remember when Justine Henin took like one day off to get married and attend her honeymoon? Before you could say Carlos Rodriguez, Justine was out of her marital bed and back on the tennis court. That is the hunger stage. It is a stage of single-minded devotion to tennis. (Justine thought that she still had the hunger but, seven months after her return, she has given up for a second time.)

Which is not to deny Federer’s current hunger because it is still there.  But Federer’s 29-year-old hunger is very different from the avaricious ambition that drove him at age 19 to part ways with his beloved coach, Peter Carter, and sign on with fellow Swiss, Pete Lundgren. Having decided to commit himself seriously to a pro career, Federer astutely realized that the coach who had shaped his game in his formative years would not be the same coach to take him to further tennis glory. In came Lundgren.

It is my impression that above all, Lundgren’s strength seems to lie in his ability to take players at this moment of early hunger – of peak tennis lust if you will – and take them to higher heights. It may of course be that Lundgren is simply exploitative, that he simply capitalizes on signs that a player may be on the brink of greatness. As antisocial as this may be, it still speaks to a kind of incredible discernment.

First there was Marcelo Rios whom Lundgren coached to the top ten before they parted ways. (About their split Lundgren would comment that Rios “needed a psychologist more than a coach”.) Lundgren then picked up with Federer, whom he coached from 2000-2003, helping Federer to the top ten and his first Wimbledon win. Next Lundgren worked with the mercurial Marat Safin whom he coached into beating Federer at the 2005 Australian Open. But Safin would lose to Roger at Wimbledon that same year. In 2008, Lundgren then signed on with Marcos Bhagdatis. Was Bhagdatis ever more hungry than when he beat Safin at the Australian Open before losing to Hewitt in that amazing 4.5 hour match?

After parting with Bhagdatis, Lundgren then signed on with the then junior, Grigor Dimitrov, after the latter made a good showing at the 2009 ABN AMRO in Rotterdam. About Dimitrov, Lundgren would reportedly say, “he is better than Federer was at his age”.( It’s kind of sad that Lundgren’s definition of greatness remains the one that got away.) Unfortunately Dimitrov has since accomplished nothing to show this conviction to be true. He and Lundgren have since parted ways.

Now Lundgren has committed himself to working with Stanislas Wawrinka. There is no doubt that Wawrinka is hungry for tennis achievement. He said as much when he reportedly abandoned his wife and barely one-year-old daughter to pursue tennis glory. In December 2009, Wawrinka married Ilham Vuilloud, a Swiss television presenter and former fashion model; in their wedding photos she is heavily pregnant. Their daughter was born in February 2010. Less than a year later, Wawrinka has apparently decided that, at age 25, he only has five good years left in which to play tennis. So he split.

His choices reflect his searing hunger. And once again a coach named Pete Lundgren has signed on with a player at the very moment that he is experiencing this lust – never mind the cost to his wife and child. Which brings me to my final observations about that match. No, I do not believe that Wawrinka choked. Unless by choking you mean that he became overwhelmed by his hunger for tennis success. Because the problem with hunger is that you have to know how to regulate and control it. Giving in to it wildly, unquestioningly, as if there are never any consequences, is probably always going to be a mistake.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The problem with mind games (I)

In 2005, NPR ran an episode of the wonderful series ‘This American Life’ titled “Mind Games”. In the stories narrated by Ira Glass, characters play simple mind games on others, or on themselves, only to find them blow up in their faces. Some end up way over their heads in situations over which they feel they have little control. If you did not hear this episode at the time, it’s totally worth it to listen to the podcast.

I remembered this episode today as I started putting thought to writing some articles about the kind of mind games that tennis pros sometimes play, often with interesting and unexpected effects. Let me say in advance that this is a topic I intend to re-visit because it has so much meat attached to its bones.

Let’s start with Caroline Wozniacki who seems to have been hurt by media criticism that she is a boring interviewee. And indeed, she is. But that has always been OK with me because how interesting would the average 20-year-old be if she has done nothing but play tennis and travel with her parents since age 14?

In a normal (American) world Wozniacki would long have rebelled and dyed her hair blue. Instead she seems to have been utterly conforming. The one and only time she found herself fined for abusing an umpire (in 2006), she quickly took to her blog to deny that this is what occurred, claiming that she had only said that the linesman should take off his glasses. Snooze. Boring. And perfectly OK under the circumstances.

Until Caro decided that it would be a good idea to have the media revisit their impression of her. She decided to play a little mind game. I wonder if she may have gone too far.

First she did an interview in which she answered all of the media’s questions in advance, essentially saying that her interviews were boring because they asked the same lame-assed boring questions all the time. Of course her version was more sanitized than that. And because she kept that wide smile perfectly planted on her face while rattling off her spiel of unquestioned responses, the entire experience was silly in a frantic but non-lethal kind of way.

Next up, having invited the media to view her as more interesting, Wozniacki is asked to back this up with proof of having done something exciting. She responds with a story about being attacked in a local zoo by an injured kangaroo. She answers a series of questions about the supposed event. At no point does she indicate that she is making it all up. At no point does she hint that it is intended as a joke. At no point does she retract. Here's an excerpt of the interview:

Q. What is the most exciting thing you've ever done? If it's illegal, we promise not to tell anyone [...]
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: [...] Well, the other day I went to the park and I saw this kangaroo lying there. If you've seen, I'm playing with the thing on my shin here. It was lying there. So I wanted to go over and help it out. As I went over to it, it just started to be aggressive and it actually cut me. So I think that's pretty exciting. But I learned my lesson and I just started running away. [...]
Q. It was a baby?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: It wasn't big. It was a baby. I just wanted to help it out. I found out that I shouldn't do that.
Q. Scratch you pretty good?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: Yeah, it scratched me pretty well. That's why I'm playing with this tape on my shin.
Q. Did you go to the doctor?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: Yeah, I went to the doctor. They cleaned it and everything. They wanted to do a few stitches. I said, there's no way you're going to do stitches. I just told them to glue it together. I'm playing with the Steri Strips. It's looking fine. So everyone is happy.
Q. You've done a lot of boxing. Did you think about boxing the kangaroo as it took a swing at you?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: I'm sure that was ready for some boxing. I like boxing. It looked so cute. But once it started scratching me, I was a coward and I run away.
Q. It wasn't a park near your hotel in the city?
CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: No, it was just a little bit outside of the city. We were just outside with some friends because we have a lot of friends here. They wanted to show me around the park. There was a kangaroo that didn't want to be nice to me.

The problem with trying to be funny when you’re rather quite boring is that the little mind game can blow up in your face. Now this 20-year-old has gone from being simply boring to seeming slightly mentally unhinged. Personally I prefer boring. It’s more authentic.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Schiavo and Sveta and Isner and Mahut

A Jamaican friend woke me up this morning to complain again about my portrayal of the Isner-Mahut match as 11 hours of pointlessness. He has taken great offence to this characterization and my articles on the subject have strained our friendship.

For my friend, Isner-Mahut was the most exciting tennis event ever. He could not understand how I could write so dismissively about it. And because he is my friend I have avoided saying what I really think of that Isner-Mahut match – which is that it was a long and boring serve-fest between a beginner and a bottomfeeder. For the sake of my friendship, I toned it down to ‘pointless’.

But my friend had another agenda in waking me up at 0730 on a Sunday morning. “So,” he demanded to know, “I guess now you goin’ to say that de women can be just as long and boring and pintless?”

Pintless? Oh, pointless. No actually I’m not. I would not stay up past 3am to watch a match that was pointless. I would however stay up past 3am to watch two experienced Slam winners take to each other in a gutsy contention, the outcome of which did not become obvious until the very last game.

There is in my mind absolutely no comparison between the Sveta-Schiavo match and that piece of crap put down by Isner and Mahut. Frankly it’s downright insulting to even think of comparing them. For a start, these two women played all-court, crafty, quality tennis.

They didn’t just serve and serve and serve. It was four hours and 44 minutes of high-quality tennis that often left me gasping. (As an aside, I enjoyed the couple of minutes with Roger Federer as commentator, and his frank enjoyment of this women’s match.) And the more fatigued the women became, the higher the quality of the tennis both put out. They actually seemed to inspire each other.

As John McEnroe famously noted about the fifth set for the men, it’s really not about tennis. It’s about mental fortitude. In the end, it was Schiavone who demonstrated the better mental fitness. She saved six match points. Kuznetsova had so many chances that it literally broke my heart when she found herself blocked by the determined Schiavone again and again. And their hug at the net when it was all over put the meaning to that catchphrase from ‘Entourage’. That is how you hug it out bitch.

Anyone who finds a comparison between these two matches must be someone who did not actually see these women play. Which is what I ended up saying to my friend. “I’m shocked to hear that Jamaican TV showed this entire match. That’s incredible!”

Well actually, they didn’t, at least not where he lives. Actually he only saw the match highlights on the sports coverage this morning. Actually he knew little more than how long the match lasted, which was enough for him to wake up the tennischick to give me grief because I dared to trash that piece of crap match on the men’s side. Some people just invite a good cussout yes. Luckily for him it was Sunday morning and I try to restrict my cussouts to weekdays.

The only comparison that I will allow between these two events is that the benefactor will be the person who faces the winner next in the draw. I think the world of Francesca Schiavone, and under normal circumstances I would like her chances against Caroline Wozniacki, who plays side to side to side boring baseline tennis with little variation or craft. Yes I know she is the #1 player in the world but it is easy to become #1 when most everyone else is also playing the same defensive side to side baseline crap and you happen to do it better than most.

But I don’t see how a fatigued Schiavone will be able to either do the amount of running it will take to beat Wozniacki, or to generate the amount of power it will require to dominate her. So Wozniacki may benefit from this prolonged event. Of course I still hope that the far more talented and experienced Schiavone finds a way to dig deep and deny her.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Getting to know some talented newbies

Much more so than last year, this year’s Australian Open has been marked by the emergence of some new faces whose games I am looking forward to getting to know. And this naturally means that some of my darling Old Farts may be on the decline. So there is a bitter-sweetness to my emotions, as I watch some of my faves struggle to close out matches, while at the same time finding myself becoming excited by the brand new talent pushing them this way and that from the other side of the court.

I won’t pretend at this belated stage that I am much of a fan of Venus Williams. Her apparent fondness for contributing to the dumbing down of the conversation about women’s tennis (by reducing it to one of clothing and fashion) has always disconcerted me. How can this be the same woman who has fought so hard for equal treatment for WTA players? Clearly I just don’t get her.

But despite my ambivalence towards Venus, part of me was saddened to see her hobble off the court after one game against the relative newbie, Andrea Petkovic. Having fought so hard to beat Sandra Zahlavova, one had hoped for a miracle recovery. Instead it has become a point of concern whether the adrenaline-fueled victory may have come at the expense of a worsening of that groin injury.

(As an aside, I want to express my surprise over hearing one of the female ESPN commentators’ repeated observations that Venus is overweight and that the injury would have been preventable if Venus was several pounds lighter. Venus did not look even remotely overweight to me. I suspect that the injury may have had far more to do with her lack of match fitness.)

On the other side of the court against Venus was the dancing Andrea Petkovic, whom I wrote about in my very first column for 2011. This newbie really impressed me in Brisbane. Her next opponent is Maria Sharapova. Given how hard Maria had to fight to beat the talented German newbie, Julia Görges, I really like Petkovic’s chances. But she cannot afford to let down her guard for a moment against Sharapova who has made it clear that she has no plans to spend the next ten years chasing a tennis ball but wants a husband and some babies. Which probably only increases her determination to win this Slam.

And then there is Rafa who clearly struggled to close out his match against the talented Bernard Tomic. I was very impressed by this youngster. Tomic has been part of the conversation of tennis for some years. He has been slammed by the Aussie media for being a bit of a brat. Well all of that seemed kissed and made up in his match against Nadal. What most impressed me was how Tomic managed to force Nadal to change up his game. I liked the youngster’s patience. I like that he strategized on the court, baiting Rafa with long slow rallies. I liked many things about Tomic’s game, but I was particularly struck by the intelligence of it. He is definitely one to watch.

Which is not at all intending to imply that Rafa is on the decline. On the contrary. But I found it interesting that he felt compelled to come up with excuses for his performance against Tomic. He said that he was not fully recovered from a recent bout of illness. He said that he had lost five pounds. He said that he sweat too much. Excuses excuses. I expect that all of his coming opponents will study that Tomic match closely. It’s a template for how to come close to beating the great Rafael Nadal.

And then there was the talented Ukrainian newbie, Alexandr Dolgopolov, who took out Jo-Willy Tsonga in five sets. I fully expect Dolgopolov to be dispatched in the next round by Robin Söderling, but I won’t be surprised if he challenges Söderling in the process. Dolgopolov’s form has improved significantly over the past year. At a solid six feet tall, he has a remarkably complete game and is a joy to watch.

Some other newbies who had their moment in Australia include the Dutchman, Robin Haase, who gave Andy Roddick a good scare. Perhaps this will teach Andy to shut up about talking about his wife’s movies and focus on his tennis.

And there’s 22-year-old Ekaterina Makarova who showed no fear of her 28-year-old compatriot, Nadia Petrova. And Petra Kvitová who was also so impressive in Brisbane, and who proceeded to break every Australian’s heart when she spanked home girl Sam Stosur. Both Makarova and Kvitová are still in the draw. So many newbies. A whole year in which to get to know them.

Finally there is the Canadian by way of Yugoslavia, 20-year-old Milos Raonic. This talented newbie has already made history by being the first Canadian in ten years to make it to the third round of a Slam. Raonic has taken out the far more experienced Michael Llodra and Mikhail Youzhny, so clearly his performance is no fluke. However, he is in Rafa’s part of the draw, so I’m not going to get too attached.

(photo Bernard Tomic)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Should Tipsarevic be fined for lack of effort?

Isn't it interesting how within a few hours of each other, several matches will line up to demonstrate the incredible mental and emotional strength of a particular group of players, among them Venus Williams and Gilles Simon. And then right smack in the middle of all this unbelievable greatness you will see evidence of the other extreme of human dysfunction, as represented by Janko Tipsarevic and his churlish, childish, and spectacularly embarrassing performance against Fernando Verdasco.

But first let me comment on the players who for me demonstrated what I consider to be incredible psychological fortitude. First, there was Venus Williams, who was clearly injured in the first set. As she reached upward for an overhead, she let out a cry of pain that made everyone expect her to hobble to the Chair and announce that she was retiring. Except that we’re talking about Venus Williams. This is a woman who has never ever retired against another player.

So with one groin massively bandaged, and a look of fierce determination on her face, Venus proceeded to dig deep and withdraw from within her psyche the kind of mental will that made her poor opponent become first flustered and then aghast. Venus won the second set 6-0. It was an incredible performance. But she did not stop there. She seemed astutely to decide not to go for another 6-0 third set. Instead she seemed to calculate that all she needed to do was break Zahlavova once and keep holding her own serve. And she did. And she won.

And then there was Gilles Simon. I am always intrigued by this player. I’ve compared him to a rat in the past. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way but simply as an acknowledgement that he is the sneakiest player on the tour. To tell you the truth, I don’t have a clue how this man wins the matches that he does. His winning shots always come out of the blue, unexpectedly, a triumph of sneakiness and deception.

But what I wanted to comment on was his mental strength. He was down two sets to love against Federer. All Federer had to do was win that third set and he was home free. But Simon clearly decided that that was not going to happen. He stormed back in the next two sets, breaking Federer to even the score. And then in the third set, he denied Federer five break/match points on his (Simon’s) own serve. I don’t think Simon got in a first serve at 2-5 in the third. And yet he never stopped fighting, forcing Federer to serve it out, and coming painfully close to denying him even that. Simon’s mental will and focus were palpable. And while losses are never desired, this is one loss of which he should be proud.

And then there was Janko Tipsarevic. I don’t know how to begin to express my anger at the shameful performance he put down in Melbourne. Really, Tipsarevic should be ashamed to ever show his face in any part of Australia ever again. His behavior was embarrassing. And if the ATP does not fine him, I will lose respect for the folks who claim to govern men’s tennis.

For those who did not see the match – and really if you didn’t, don’t watch it because you’ll end up just as angry as I – Tipsarevic was playing lively tennis for the first two sets. He just threw everything including the kitchen sink at Verdasco who remained flat-footed, as if he had eaten too many lobsters or something. And then the tide started turning a bit in the third, but Tipsarevic handled the third set loss with grace. He seemed confident that the win was still within reach. And in truth, it truly seemed to be.

But in the fourth set, Tipsarevic squandered a number of chances. Indeed, at one point Verdasco seemed to stumble over his feet and started grimacing. It looked as if he might have re-injured his ankle. I honestly thought the match was over. But like Venus, Verdasco too decided to dig deep.

My disgust with Tipsarevic started when Verdasco managed to equalize that fourth set at 6-6 to force a tie-break. It seemed to me as if Tipsarevic got so angry that he simply stopped playing from that point on. It was as if his ego became wounded, his arrogance deflated. His body language seemed to scream “how dare you” at the persistence of Verdasco, almost as if Verdasco was betraying some kind of agreement that he supposed to lose. For Tipsarevic, the injury to his narcissism seemed deep, as if Verdasco had no business, no right, to come back and even the match.

So from 6-all in the fourth set, Tipsarevic simply stopped playing. To my eyes, he did not even pretend to try to win another game. He lost the tie-break 0-7. The crowd screamed its support of Verdasco – further puncturing the fragile narcissism of the tattooed one. His petulant performance persisted throughout the fifth set which he lost 0-6.

To my eyes, he seemed to be throwing a passive-aggressive temper tantrum, in the manner of a child who may start acting out, and at some point may become aware that he’s gone too far but by then is so far gone that it’s too late to turn back. And for being a childish, churlish embarrassment to men’s tennis, this man-child deserves to be punished. I hope the ATP has the guts to do this.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How do you solve a problem like Safina?

How do you solve a problem like Dinara?
How to get inside her head and build her up?
What are the words today that mean Safina?
An insecure player? An embarrassment? A flop?

The last time I wrote about Dinara Safina, another blogger commented that Safina was having a hard enough time and that comments like mine – that essentially amounted to suggestions for fixing her head – did not help. I’ve taken this feedback to heart and since then have not commented on Safina or her game.

Of course at the time I hoped out loud that whatever treatment program she was involved in for healing her back would also include a component of psychological skills training (PST) so that she could repair her head. Because the truth is that that is what she still needs. My problem is finding a way to say this without seeming to be further destructive of this young woman’s psyche.
Indeed, that is the problem that psychologists face every day. How to tell someone that they’re f**ked in the head without coming across as if you’re saying that the person is f**ked in the head. How to tell someone that they need to fix their mental game without coming across as if you’re telling the person that they’re kinda f**ked in the head.
Part of the problem may be that we persist in putting mental health in a different and special category. The solution, I believe, comes not from me finding an alternative way of making this point, but from all of us collectively changing our perspective and seeing mental health interventions as no different or special from physical health recommendations.
So that when a tennis player who was a former #1, ends up getting herself blown off the court 6-0 6-0 by a woman who went off and had a baby before returning to the tour, it should be very easy and OK to say to that player that maybe it’s time she went off and fixed her head. Because my problem today is not with the fact that Safina lost. It’s with how badly she lost. And when you end up with your opponent expressing pity over how badly she beat you, seriously, it’s time to introspect.
But my problem with Safina’s version of introspecting is that all she does is put herself down. She said that her performance was embarrassing. While this is true, it was not for her to say. I read a lovely piece in the New York Times today on the problem with insight and introspection. For people who are naturally self-downing, insight becomes simply another way of beating themselves up. What they need to learn how to do is to make effective changes, to include changes in these negative and harmful cognitions.
My point is this: If Safina had the talent to get to #1 in the world, then she should not need much technical help to improve her tennis. And to the criticism that the Big Babes were either injured or absent at the time, my response is that you don’t get to # 1 if you lack the talent to get there. And yes, Safina clearly needs to get fitter and stronger, improve her serve, reduce unforced errors, and play better strategically. But perhaps she also needs to become aware of any negative internal chatter that may be interfering with her ability to re-connect with whatever talent she used to have.
As a psychologist, I would ask Safina such questions as: What were your thoughts when you found out that you were playing Kim Clijsters in the first round? Did you think that you had no chance against her? How did you prepare mentally for that game? Is it possible that you simply went through the motions of preparing but really had given up before you even stepped onto the court? What were your thoughts when you first got broken? Did you collapse inside, convinced that that was the beginning of the end?
These are important questions for Safina to answer, to herself, with brutal honesty. And then she will have to learn how to change these thoughts and gain and hold on to self-confidence no matter who her opponent may be. But you can’t fix anything unless you first acknowledge that it is broken. And you can’t repair something if you perceive it as occupying a special and different and sensitive category of injury, such that everyone is expected to just tiptoe around it but never directly call it what it is.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

So, Venus did not help sell Tide?

There was a time when the industry assumption was that signing on a celebrity was an automatic no-brainer for selling a product. Indeed, a September 2010 article by ‘Advertising Age’ states clearly that celebrity endorsements still push product. But a new study has compiled data refuting this notion. Turns out that tennis celebrities like Venus Williams may not be as effective at selling us products as advertisers are led to believe.

Early in 2010, Tide launched a partnership with Venus Williams to help sell its stain and odor-eliminating products, with the tag-line: “Style is an Option. Clean is Not”. Display ads appeared in several popular women’s health magazines. Playing on the whole notion of Venus as sports clothing designer, visitors to were encouraged to design an outfit for Venus, or could look at videos of Venus talking fashion. Venus in turn was expected to use her Facebook and Twitter to sell Tide products. (And I for one am pleased that this whole business of tweeting for profit is finally getting some legal scrutiny).

So how effective do you think all of this was? Well, it turns out that Venus’ ads were among the one-fifth of celebrity ads that actually hurt advertising effectiveness. In a must-read document titled “Celebrity Advertisements: Exposing A Myth Of Advertising Effectiveness”, the company analyzed 2,600 ads, and concluded that their compilation of data showed that “contrary to popular wisdom, celebrity ads do not perform any better than non-celebrity ads, and in some cases they perform much worse.”

For the average consumer, it seems to matter little whether a celebrity or an ordinary Jill or Joe is endorsing a product of interest. Indeed, very few celebrity ads managed to push a product above industry averages. Tide, with Venus’ help, was not one of those products. In fact, Venus’ input may have been costly to Tide.

The only reason I’m focusing on Venus is because hers was the only tennis name in the lengthy list of celebrities associated with product damage. But Venus was not by far the worst celebrity whose name negatively impacted product.

That dishonor was reserved for Tiger Woods followed very closely by Lance Armstrong. Surely the parade of whores during the implosion of Tiger’s personal life must have played a part in his disrepute. And with that Danish journalist making increasingly bold statements that Lance Armstrong cheated during his Tour De France rides, well maybe Armstrong’s days as a media darling are numbered as well.

But it turns out that even seemingly harmless folks like Drew Barrymore were also ineffective. (Really I could have told Cover Girl this. Who uses a twisted-face ordinary-looking woman to sell make-up when the cameras can’t even spend more than a second on a close-up of her bizarre face?) And Julia Roberts also sucked at selling Lancôme. (Of course she did, girlfriend is well past her shelf-life). Diddy did not manage to persuade anyone to switch to drinking Ciroc. (How could he when the ads seemed more like vanity pieces showing off his lavish lifestyle than any attempt to inform you of the product?)

So Venus really should not feel badly for not helping to push Tide. Turns out Snookie also sucked at selling pistachios despite also being plump, round, and dressed in green.

There were three reasons suggested as to why so many celebrities were ineffective at selling products. First, it wasn’t always clear what product the celebrity was endorsing. (Um, Venus was clearly selling Tide. And perhaps also her fashion line). Second, the ad itself was perceived as boring. (Yes, they were). Finally, the celebrity was just disliked. (Hard to call Venus has both fans and haters).

I’d like to propose a fourth reason. In an era when the label ‘celebrity’ can be equally applied to Drew Barrymore, Venus Williams, and Snookie, I think that this word has become meaningless. No wonder its impact appears to be equally so. The good news is that companies can stop shelling out large sums to celebrities, so that the price of many products will become more affordable to the average person.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Only the victims bleed

I have no idea if Meghann Shaughnessy has ever perceived herself as a victim. If I had to guess I would assume that she probably did not. And this itself is not unusual. Many of the girls and teenagers who end up in romantic relationships with their tennis coaches do not run crying victimhood to their parents or to authorities. On the contrary, many become the staunchest defenders of these men, sacrificing friends and family for what they perceive as true love.

Sadly, in many of these situations, it’s the student herself who ends up being punished for having become involved in a relationship with the coach. With Shaughnessy the punishment came in the form of being cut off from USTA funding. At the time, Lynne Rolley, then director of player development for the USTA, was reported as saying, “we have to align ourselves with the interests of the parents.” Being aligned with the parents translated into an unintentional punishment and isolation of the child.

The problem with punishing a victim is that it almost guarantees her entrapment in a predatory relationship. Furthermore, the experience of being punished may end up playing into teenage Romeo and Juliet fantasies, the two of them against the big bad world that doesn’t understand their love.

I am not privy to the inner workings of her situation so I am not intending to imply that is what happened for Shaughnessy. But in researching this entry, I could find no evidence that the coach was ever debarred from working as a coach. Indeed, he continued to function as her coach-lover until their break-up in 2005. Since late 2006 they have reunited as coach and student.

And to be fair to Font De Mora, he did guide Shaughnessy to a #4 spot in the singles rankings. But all but one of her six WTA titles has come from lower level Tier IV and V events. The sole exception was her win over Iva Majoli (remember her?) at a Tier III tourny in Quebec City in 2001. Shaughnessy has never really been a threat at Slam events, and has also enjoyed far more success as a doubles player. Her current claim to fame is that she plays for World Team Tennis, the place where journeymen go for a paycheck.

While Shaughnessy has in many ways become the poster child for coach-student romantic involvements, in truth there have been many other victims (my word, my perspective). Let’s look at a handful of the tawdry cases that have popped up during 2010 alone.
  • February 2010: Robert Kurek, a 30-year-old Chicago tennis instructor is arrested and charged with the criminal sexual assault of his 16-year-old female student. Their first sexual encounter happened in a hotel, but after that he made do with his car parked in a CVS parking lot.
  • February 2010: Nathan Ryan McLain, 30, of New Jersey, is charged with carrying on a 1.5 year sexual affair with an under-aged female student.
  • May 2010: Christopher Rijken, 26, is arrested on charges that he took nude pictures of an underage student near an Oregon zoo.
  • June 2010: Barry Fields, 44, of Wichita, pleads no contest and is sentenced to five years behind bars on three counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a 15-year-old female student.
  • December 2010: Texan tennis coach, David Mercurio, is busted in an online sting operation after he is caught soliciting sexual favors from what he was led to believe was a 13-year-old girl.
I could go on. I won’t. Just do a Google search on “tennis coach sleeping with student” and you will find page after page of these sordid events. My question is:  What are the folks in charge of tennis going to do about it? Of course I have some suggestions of my own.
  • For a start, I believe that the business of training and licensing tennis coaches must be strictly controlled.
  • No one should be allowed to work as a tennis coach without a professional license.
  • As with any other professional license, the privilege of coaching tennis should be renewable, preferably on an annual basis.
  • Furthermore, in order to both obtain and renew their licenses, coaches should be required to complete and pass a course in professional ethics.
  • Coaches should not be allowed to make private arrangements in which tuition is suspended against future earnings. This only creates situations in which boundaries can be crossed.
  • Coaches should be required to define a sphere of responsibility not just to the student but to her parents as well.
  • Coaches who violate these conditions and engage in inappropriate sexual contact with an under-aged student should forever be required to wear a GPS tracking device, lose their license to coach anyone under 18, and become registered publicly as sexual offenders.
  • And above all, students must never ever be isolated and punished for any kind of romantic involvement with a coach.
 (Part 3 of 3)

(May 2005: Members Of Congress Call For Changes In Sex Offender Registration Laws)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Was Meghann Shaughnessy a victim?

While it seems clear that the perpetrators in these situations seem to have the ability to lie to themselves and remain in denial, what to make of the behavior of the victims? Because it is clear that in many of these situations, the victim does not make an immediate outcry. In fact, some victims take these horrific experiences to the grave, living lives that are forever scarred by having endured the overwhelming experience of an adult person’s expressions of their sexual desire.

Yet other victims seem not to interpret the situation as one of victimization at all. They convince themselves that they have fallen in love, and may remain for years in a psychologically unhealthy relationship with their coach-lovers. At least this is the view that many have of WTA player Meghann Shaughnessy.

But before getting to Shaughnessy, let me finish the account of another 15-year-old girl whom I personally witnessed getting drawn into the coils of a relationship with a serpentine predator. I don’t know what became of that 15-year-old girl from my tennis group. Her parents packed up and moved quickly, their shame becoming a more unifying force than possibly either had expected. The coach also never faced legal charges but he was fired by the country club where we trained. He continued teaching at the public courts and he married an adult woman mere months later. I never took another lesson from him.

Looking back I believe that at the time the girl was vulnerable to his attentions because her parents had forgotten that they once loved each other and spent all of their energies focused on doing each other the most harm possible. This could have easily created a situation in which the girl could misconstrue the experience of loving and being loved by a trusted male coach. But these are all guesses. I was a child myself at the time and the unspoken message to us all was that the incident was not to be spoken of ever again.

But ever since then I’ve wondered how other parents handle the decision to send their children to sleep-away camps and other experiences in which you have to trust that adults will fulfill their professional obligation to take care of your child without crossing any kind of inappropriate  boundaries. I myself have sent my daughter to sleep-away camp. In fact just this week we were both trying to remember the name of one camp that did not know what to make of her hair and sent her home after two weeks with a pile of knots at the top of her head. But she had had a great time and was otherwise well-cared for.

But what about parents like Bill and Joy Shaughnessy who sent their then 14-year-old daughter Meghann to train with then 25-year-old Rafael Font de Mora who ran a reputable tennis academy in Phoenix, Arizona? At the time, Meghann’s parents lived in Virginia Beach, a distance of almost 2,400 miles. I am not criticizing these parents for their decision. Their daughter must very much have wanted this training experience, and they must very much have trusted Font De Mora as a professional.

And to be fair, Font De Mora remains well-respected as a tennis coach. Up until 2006, he was working with Anna-Lena Grönefeld and guided her through an impressive breakthrough in 2005. But this not about Font De Mora the coach, but about the intensity of the dynamic between coach and student, and the question of when is it ever appropriate to cross the line into sexual involvement.

According to a Sports Illustrated article dated September 2001 (Passion Plays), Font de Mora became so impressed with Shaughnessy's potential that he offered her parents free tuition in exchange for a cut of her future earnings as a pro. A year after she started training with him, Meghann reportedly quit school and moved into Font de Mora's house. This caused a frisson of scandal in the tennis world and rumors soon swirled that the relationship was inappropriate. Against parental wishes, Shaughnessy refused to leave Font De Mora’s home; she become estranged from her parents.

Shaughnessy and Font De Mora later disclosed that they had become romantically involved. They both maintained that the romantic relationship did not start until she had turned 18. But does that make a difference? Because surely neither would expect anyone to believe that feelings may not have been nurtured some time before? And how does an adult male, holding the power advantage in this kind of situation, not check himself and decide to do what is in the student’s best interests? Or do perpetrators have the ability to delude themselves that they are never acting out of blatant self-regard and utter selfishness?

(Part 2 of 3)

Coaches, players, and the problem of sex

I teach an ethics class in psychology. I always start off by saying that every student of psychology knows right from wrong and that if you ask a graduate student if he or she could ever imagine sleeping with a patient, the answer would be a resounding “No”. And yet check any psychology licensing board listing of reprimands and censures and you will see a running list of therapists whose licenses got compromised by their inability to keep their penises out of their patients’ vaginas or other orifices. And of course vice versa – though with less frequency (with women as the perpetrators).

So clearly the problem of intelligent adults crossing the line and engaging in sexual activity with patients or tennis students is far more complicated than we may be willing to acknowledge. When I was a teenager, I remember watching the growing relationship between my then tennis coach and one of the students in our group. We had all assumed he was gay so we had to first get over the shock of discovering his apparent heterosexuality. And then there was the additional shock of watching what seemed then to be clearly mutual feelings develop between this 35-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl.

I remember (I will never forget) that he would leave us doing some kind of drill – this was in the summer when one could play hours and hours of tennis – and the two of them would leave in his car, always with some excuse of going to purchase balls or water. Of course they invariably returned with neither.

I remember that the girl was pretty in a boyish kind of way. In hindsight I think that we were right about his sexuality and that her androgyny probably had as much to do with his attraction, as her parents’ conflictual divorce had to do with hers. It all came out when enough of us went home and whispered our observations to our siblings who then told our parents.

It turned out that the coach and the student would drive up to an isolated hill beyond a residential area and spend time in his car doing who knows what. I never found out the specifics of what they actually did together but I’d like to believe that the situation was caught early enough that the physical aspect of their relationship may not have advanced too far. But the emotional damage would have been extensive regardless.

I go back to this event whenever I read about yet another tennis coach getting busted for messing with yet another female student. I say female not because male victims do not exist but because they are less likely to make outcries. And when a male victim has the courage to make an outcry – like the rapper Raz-B who has opened up about his reported sexual abuse at the hands of a manager – he then has to deal with the likes of that mega-douche and girlfriend-beater, Chris Brown, who then uses the information to attack the victim for “getting butplugged”. No wonder male victims are more likely to remain silent. Who wants to be blamed and publicly humiliated for their own victimization?

Clearly this entry was inspired by my reading about yet another tennis coach who has been accused of crossing the sexual boundary with his student. According to a newspaper report, “Carlos Luis Ortega, 45, a former Spanish teacher and tennis coach at the private college preparatory boarding school, pleaded guilty in Montgomery County Court on Monday to charges of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor and indecent assault in connection with incidents that occurred between January and February of 2010.” The girl, who was under 18 at the time, told a friend that Ortega had made sexual advances towards her and had sent her emails expressing his sexual fantasies. The friend told a faculty member and Ortega was fired.

This story is as old as the sport and as complicated as any other issue involving human relationships. No doubt Ortega likely knew what the right thing was and that what he was embarking on was possibly wrong. In fact one of his emails to the teenager seems to indicate this: “I find myself in a situation that I have not been before. I don’t know how I got there, but it is as if I am too involved and I can’t help myself fantasizing about you…”

The right thing is that adult coaches should never cross the line and seduce their under-aged students. I don’t know if Ortega has daughters and if any of them are under 18, but I can imagine that if his say 17 year-old-daughter were to tell him that she was messing with a 45-year-old married man with two children, he would likely be appalled. So the ability to cross these sexual boundaries clearly requires a tremendous capacity for self-deception, and an even greater well-spring of denial from which the perpetrator can continue to draw. (To be continued)

(Part 1 of 3)

(In photo, Samantha Geimer, Roman Polanski’s victim when she was 13 years old.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Drunken Prediction # 4: WRONG!!

Back in December I imbibed some tequila and started doing some outlandish prognosticating. I mentioned at the time that I was inspired by Jon Wertheim’s lame-assed predictions for tennis in 2011. I forgot to mention that Mathew McConaughey also played a part.

What happened is this. I was watching the Food Channel (yes, I am as obsessed with food as any other tennis player), when McConaughey appeared on Guy Fieri’s show. I’m not much of a fan of Mr. Fieri. His surfer-dude style of talking is annoying and he doesn’t seem to know how to cook anything that doesn’t contain meat. I would have switched the channel if the other surfer-dude (McConaughey) hadn’t started doing a demo of his version of the margarita. He combined anejo tequila, lime juice, orangina, club soda and ice. The drink looked so tasty that I had to run out to buy some tequila so that I could try it. A dash of angostura bitters and the result, as you saw, was wildly inspirational.

Well it’s been barely into the New Year and already one of my predictions has turned out to be as accurate as Courtney Love’s use of the English language while tweeting. You see I had predicted for Lindsay Davenport an embarrassing and humiliating return to tennis followed by her impregnation for face-serving purposes. Boy was I wrong.

I got a press release today from the Tennis Channel (yes, we are tight like that) informing me that Davenport had just signed a multiyear contract with them to continue commentating on tennis. According to the media release: "She [Davenport] will significantly broaden her duties with the channel under her new agreement, appearing during coverage of all four Grand Slams, the Olympus US Open Series, Fed Cup and other competitions.  The former No. 1-ranked singles and doubles player will have an on-air presence throughout the year while lending her expertise online through blogs and Q&A's on the network's Web site,, and through other digital and social media platforms."

Talk about egg on my face. How can Lindsay return to playing tennis when she will be tied up behind the booth?

All kidding aside, I am pleased about this development. Although I sometimes get irritated by what I perceive as Lindsay’s new-found air of superiority since getting married – you know how some women get all uppity just because they have a ring on their finger and have popped out a child or two. Despite this I think that she is a tremendously positive addition to the Tennis Channel line-up. Certainly she is a huge improvement over her pal, Corina Moriaru, who must have the most irritating voice in the business. At least Lindsay’s comments are usually relevant. She knows tennis and she knows these players. And her voice neither grates nor irritates.

Tennis Channel also renewed contracts with Bill Macatee and Martina Navratilova. My problem with Macatee is that I do not get the sense that tennis is his passion. Clearly he loves sports but he seems to slut himself out to comment on everything under the sun. I’m selfish. I like my tennis commentators to be as single-minded and as tunnel-visioned as I am about tennis. But really Macatee is not awful, as long as he is paying attention. As for Leif Shiras and Justin Gimelstob, neither takes away nor adds value to the line-up.

In truth, not a single one of these men can come close to the quality of John Barrett. Do you remember him? He used to work for the BBC. His voice was as smooth as butter, and he treated tennis like opera and would allow the rally to finish before chiming in with a comment. He also respected the intelligence of his viewing audience and didn’t prattle on with non-sequiturs when silence would do just fine. I wish some of these current commentators would dig up his old tapes and study them.

As for Navratilova, she has improved with time. Thank God. I remember some years ago when she completely ruined Wimbledon for me because she WOULD NOT SHUT UP! I was forced to watch matches on MUTE because Martina kept talking over every point. She probably ran her mouth right through the commercials. It was horrible. Since then she is not as bad but she still sometimes talks too much. And she has clear favorites and is unable to hide her preferences. True professionals know how to suppress their emotions when their faves are playing. It should never be so obvious when the commentator is rooting for a particular player - say Svetlana Kutzetnova.

That said, few people can dissect players’ games like Navratilova. Her eyes are like laser beams, and she reads body language like a shrink. And it’s clear that she follows men’s tennis as closely as she does women’s, which is awesome in these gender-backward times when, over on ESPN, women commentators often seem to get relegated to commenting on women’s tennis and the brothers McEnroe are trotted out as if they are the only ones who know how to assess the men’s game. As if having a penis has anything to do with anything.

But back to my drunken prognostications. Right now the score is one down, nine more to go. I’m still holding out hope for those whores in Federer’s attic.

Tweet what you eat

Am I the only one who has the impression that tennis players are completely obsessed with food? That’s the only conclusion I could come to after a perusal of a random set of tweets by some of the current players on both the ATP and WTA tour. They tweet about what they had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’ve never seen more food-focused people than tennis pros. What gives? Why all the emphasis on food?

Before giving my opinion, let me share a few of the random tweets I ran across in preparing this entry:

From Janko Tipsarevic on January 10th: “Sake rocks!” Complete with picture. Now I can really call him Tipsy for short.

From Dusan Vemic, on September 24th: Midnight in Zurich.. I'm bored outta my mind.. If nothing, just the thought of home cooked food tomorrow is keeping me alive!!! Beograd… Also from Vemic on January 10th: Best soup in the world! (paradajz čorba sa valjušcima) Specialty from North Serbia( Vojvodina). Pic included.  Again, Vemic obsesses: And never enough of filet mignon! Hehe IDEMOOOOO!!!!! Like we say: "MLJAC, MLJAC" ;) Complete with pic.

From Ross Hutchins, January 8th: Fridge is full..should have taken into account how far away supermarket was before i bought food for the week!! The walk tested the lungs. And again on the 10th: Walked in the door full up from a sensational meal at Nobu..the rock shrimp is possibly the best dish served in restaurants! Pro-evo time now.

And it’s not just the journeymen who obsess about food. The top players seem to be just as enthralled:

From Gael Monfils, January 5th: Sushiiii tonighttt.

From Robin Soderling, January 8th: Me, Jenni, er Pantera, Brad & Horia preparing for tomorrows finals in Brisbane by eating japanese food. Complete with pic. Is there a relationship between Japanese food and tennis success? Hmm...

Verdasco deserves a special mention. I have found no end of amusement from his tweet pics with his entourage before, during, and after meals during the US Open. Verdasco has been known to tweet his exact location at the point at which he is digesting his meals. He even shares photos of himself shopping for food. And he does all of this in both Spanish and English. What a talented guy.

Just in case you think that I’m picking on the men, here are a few foodie tweet samples from the WTA:

From Victoria Azarenka, January 6th: Just got back from dinner! We went to a thai restaurant. Surprising menu but great quality. What r u guys up to? No pic included. Too bad, I adore Thai food.

Not be outdone, here’s Venus Williams on December 9th: Wow Serena made pineapple with black pepper salmon with soy brussels sprouts! Amazing! That's just the appetizer! And then the following day:Well all that food Serena made is gone and in hungry again. Back to the drawing board!

When not eating, players like Dinara Safina (January 7th) spend time watching the Food Channel: watching on TV Jamie Oliver cooking!!he is amazing!!!!!i wish i could cook like him!!!! just by watching my stomach is making noice!!! :-)

All kidding aside, I think that there are many reasons why tennis players come across as food-obsessed. First, for the pros, nutrition is a critical issue in the pursuit of tennis success. Tennis pros expend so much energy on the tennis court, that the timing, quantity and quality of their meals become seriously important issues.

Second, for many tennis players, one of the pleasures of traveling the world is the opportunity to get introduced to cuisines that may not exist in their countries of origin. Certainly it helps that with some added dollars in their pockets, many can now afford to eat at the best restaurants. I don’t think it’s boastful of Hutchins to mention that he ate at Nobu. Who wouldn’t if they could afford it?

I also think that there’s something celebratory about this kind of eating. It’s the perfect reward for hard work. But eating may also be a natural response to the continuous deprivation and sacrifices that professional players have to endure. Given the loneliness of the tour, food may become a constant and comforting companion for many. For Vemic, the 34 year old doubles journeyman with not a title to his name, returning for some home-cooked food may also be an emotional consolation prize.

Only $4,000. to see Steffi nude?

Really if I was Steffi I would be more pissed at the price than at the fact that my husband showed a complete stranger a picture of me in the buff. When he got home I would probably beat him senseless for accepting anything under $100,000. for showing pictures of me in the raw. I would yell at him, “$4,000??? Sorry but that price is just too damn cheap!!!”

After all, let’s be honest, Steffi Graf has always had a hot tight bod. I saw some recent pictures of her vacationing with her children in Italy and it’s clear that she has reached MILF status. Some men would probably pay top dollar for the privilege of seeing up close what Andre gets to appreciate every day – although his access might have been markedly reduced since this incident.

For Agassi’s sake, I hope that Steffi has a sense of humor. It’s not the first time that I’ve read about him doing something outlandish that would potentially piss off any wife. I remember him recounting the story of how Steffi left him to babysit and came home to find their son’s head shaved completely bald.

It must be difficult to be married to such a man-child. I like the playfulness but when it comes with an element of recklessness, no doubt this must at times be very trying. At least it would be for me.

The nudie event went down at an auction in Taiwan. In a way I’m grateful that it happened outside of the US. And the expression on the winning bidder’s face is priceless. It’s like he could not believe that Agassi was crazy enough to go through with the offer.

The only clip I could find of the event was in Mandarin (I assume) so I could not understand a word of it. In the video clip, Andre can be seen holding up an autographed plate, and then telling bidders: "If you bid more than $4,000 on this, I will show you a picture of my wife on my phone, naked." The audience can be heard breaking into hearty applause and cheers of appreciation.

A friend of mine hearing of this incident wondered out loud if Andre was back using meth. I told him that I found his comment to be uncharitable. I think that Andre was just trying to liven things up. The auction must have been quite a dud if he had to go to such extreme measures!

Several of the media reports of this incident also invoked comparisons to Brett Favre who reportedly sexted photos of his liver-spotted erect penis to a female massage therapist. I say liver-spotted because I actually saw the photos and the penis seemed covered in liver spots to me. I’ve never actually seen a liver-spotted penis up close so maybe they were freckles. Either way the thing was gross.

But I don’t think that it is fair to make an equation between what Andre definitely did and what Brett Favre allegedly did. Yes both incidents involve a violation, but Favre’s alleged behavior would have been motivated by lust (not to mention complete disrespect for the female recipient of that liver-spotted horror), while Andre’s intent was more honorable and altruistic. Both incidents however would have thoroughly pissed off the average wife.

In defense of Agassi, I adore the sincerity of his commitment to doing charitable work. He has invested millions of his own money into his school in Las Vegas. Steffi too has a longstanding commitment to various children’s charities. Unlike Andre who has done the bulk of his charity work since retiring from tennis, Steffi’s commitment was expressed even while she was still playing on the WTA tour. I plan to attend a conference in Las Vegas this year and one of my dreams is to be able to visit their school and perhaps offer some charity services of my own.

The larger problem for me is that Andre has announced to the world that he carries around naked pictures of his wife on his cell phone. I can imagine a lot of paparazzi who are probably currently scheming and plotting to steal that damn phone. Think of the price those pictures would carry.