Saturday, February 26, 2011

Will the real cheat and liar please stand up?

I’ve never really understood why there have been so many whispers and innuendo about the nature of the foot injury Serena endured eight months ago. What I read in newspaper reports was that a few days after her Wimbledon victory Serena was in a Munich restaurant where she accidentally stepped on a broken beer bottle. The exact nature and severity of the injury was never disclosed, but the fact of it was confirmed through sightings of Serena wearing a protective boot. Nevertheless, this incident has been invariably referred to as her ‘mysterious’ injury, with a heavy dose of nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

To be honest, I’ve never really understood what was being implied. Are folks saying that Serena wasn’t really injured? Or do folks believe that she was injured but not under the circumstances indicated? I also never understood what people believe would be Serena’s motive for lying. Is it that folks believe that she just wanted some time to sell clothing on HSN or to attend Hollywood parties? Because in truth, outside of surgeries and physical therapy, that seems to be the bulk of what she has done since that last Wimbledon win.

But surely Serena would have to be seriously sick in the head if she put herself through an eight month ordeal of wearing a foot brace for no reason whatsoever. I mean, this is not a woman trying to defraud an agency in order to receive worker’s compensation. This is a super-wealthy tennis player who was at the top of her game when she was injured. What possible motive could she have to lie about this?

Say what you will about Serena Williams, but she has never acquired a reputation as a liar. Unlike Venus who is famously guarded and non-self-disclosing, Serena is known for being gregarious. She has formed genuine friendships with many women on the tour. She tweets openly about her many activities and can be refreshingly honest in interviews. One famous incident of her honesty was her version of that infamous Indian Wells event. Even after her father made allegations of racism, Serena went to lengths to insist that she never heard any racist comments from the crowd. Now that’s what I call honesty.

Contrast this with Justine Henin who has decided at this belated stage to admit to two incidents of flagrant dishonesty – the Hand incident against Serena at the 2003 French Open and her baiting the Chair to call a Clijsters ball out when she knew that it was in, at the 2004 Australian Open. Both of these incidents resulted in unfair Slam wins for Justine. Now that she has admitted to having lied, will those wimps at the WTA step up and remove two titles from her total of seven? Of course they won’t. The WTA has never been known for having the guts to stand up for what matters.

None of us needed Justine’s belated admission because the evidence was clear that she had lied. And these were only the two most well-known incidents of her unfairly benefiting from dishonesty. But what about those incidents in which she stopped playing and claimed injury when she was getting her ass beaten? Surely if she’s going to go there with admitting the truth, why not admit all of the truth?

For those uninformed (and I know that I have some readers who do not follow tennis as closely as I do), Justine cheated against Serena at the 2003 Roland Garros. Serena was serving up 5-2 in the third. Justine put up her hand indicating that she was not ready to receive serve. So Serena started serving again, only to have the Chair say that it was her second serve. Serena tried protesting and invited Justine to speak up but Justine remained mute. She knew that the Chair had had his back to her and had not seen her hand motion. She got away with cheating, and even managed to get the partial French crowd to boo the protesting Serena.

Justine cheated again less than a year later against her own countrywoman. Clijsters had returned a winner that was clearly in, but Justine, who could not get to the ball, immediately signaled that it was out. Kim then turned to the Chair and asked her if the ball was out, and the Chair, trusting Justine, confirmed that it was out. Mind you, the lines-person whose job it was to make the call had remained silent. Kim lost the point and the match.

Now that she has once again retired from tennis, Justine has decided that it’s time to admit to these two lies. I’m sorry but I cannot respect her for this. The time to admit the truth was during those matches, not more than seven years later when it no longer matters. What is she trying to accomplish now?

I don’t know why Justine is making these disclosures now. Is she dying of some fatal disease and wants to make her conscience clear before she meets  her maker? Or is she an alcoholic going through the steps of AA and needing to make amends? I mean really, what gives?

My theory is that she just wanted to make herself the focus of attention. Maybe she'd rather be hated than forgotten. Because you know that true attention whores don’t mind it if you’re pissed off with them. They just want to remain the topic of conversation.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sania Mirza and the curse of over-rewarding

Writing recently about Somdev Devvarman got me to thinking about the more famous tennis player from India, Sania Mirza. I don’t know if she has changed her name since her 2010 marriage to Pakistani cricketer, Shoaib Malik. As with just about every other decision taken by Ms. Mirza, her marriage was clouded in scandal when her betrothed initially denied but was then forced to publicly acknowledge a prior marriage after his first wife’s family produced proof to the media. I hoped only that he had been more honest with wife #2 whom he reportedly purchased for a dowry of US$137,500.

And just as I found myself thinking about Mirza, there she was accepting wildcards into the 2011 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and the Qatar Ladies Open. After a series of silly controversies that no doubt left her feeling kind of bitter towards her fellow Indian Muslims, Sania publicly declared that she will no longer play tennis in India and that she will make Dubai her home. Hence those wildcards.

In Dubai, she unforgivably beat my darling Akgul Amanmuradova, but then lost to Japan’s Ayumi Morita whom I had honestly never even heard of before. In Doha this week, Sania survived Serbia’s Bojana Jovanovski – whom I know at least as well as I know Morita – but then was sent packing by Jankovic with a humiliating 6-1 6-0 score. Ouch.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same Sania who in 2004 was awarded India’s Arjuna award for outstanding achievement in national sports. Then 18, Sania had amassed a total of eight (8) ITF doubles wins and six (6) ITF singles wins. She had yet to achieve any WTA trophies. But India celebrated her tremendous Junior accomplishments in style. Indeed, she is the last tennis player to be honored with the Arjuna. (Devvarman thus far has received zip. Zilch. Nada. Despite his NCAA wins, a Commonwealth gold medal, and two gold medals from the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. What gives?)

I first took notice of Mirza during the 2005 Australian Open where she made it to the third round, losing to eventual champ, Serena Williams. A month later Sania won her first and only WTA singles title at Hyderabad, India, becoming the first Indian woman to ever win a WTA event. Needless to say, most of India went crazy with excitement. The WTA awarded Sania Newcomer of the Year for her accomplishments in 2005.

That turned out to be the second of several accolades. From that point on, in my opinion, Mirza started receiving a level of reward and recognition that seemed way out of proportion with her actual achievements. I wonder if this kind of excessive and premature rewarding has served only to destroy her promise and motivation.

After all, as far back as the 1960’s, psychologists have used equity theory to demonstrate and explain why over-rewarding can result in a loss of motivation to perform. You’d think that by now folks would have incorporated this information into some of their decision-making. It’s important to hold on to the hunger. When that hunger is excessively satisfied, one can become emotionally lazy and unmotivated.

In 2006 Sania won two silver medals (singles and team) at the Doha Asian Games, and gold in the mixed doubles with Leander Paes. For this she was honored with the Padma Shri, India's fourth highest honor, historically similar to a Lifetime Achievement award, and typically reserved for honoring a body of work over an entire lifetime of performance. For instance, the names of many aged Bollywood actors and directors appear among the list of recipients. It’s rare to find someone thus honored for a single season or two of sporting achievement. At the time I wondered about the possible negative impact on Sania’s motivation to play tennis having received what seemed to me to be an excessive level of recognition.

To be fair, initially there seemed to be no negative effect on her performance. Perhaps there might have even been a positive impact. In 2007 she made it to the third round of the US Open and won four doubles tournaments during that US Open summer. She started 2008 by getting to the third round of the Australian Open, losing in two close sets to Venus Williams. As with many opponents who come close to challenging Venus, Sania walked away with an injury – in her case a left adductor strain. This was the first of many injuries that would block her out of tennis for the rest of that year.

Despite this, in 2008 Sania was accorded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the MGR Educational and Research Institute of the University of Chennai. I’m not sure which award was least deserving – outstanding sporting achievement at age 18, a version of lifetime achievement at age 19, or the equivalent of a Ph.D. at age 22. And all of these awards came before she finally won the 2009 Australian Open mixed doubles with fellow Indian Mahesh Bhupathi. I suppose that by that point India had run out of awards to give her.

I can’t help but wonder if all of this over-the-top awarding may have conspired to destroy Sania’s motivation to continue constructing a serious tennis career. Or to put in the serious fitness preparation required to do so. From a psychological perspective, the effects of over-rewarding can be damaging. What else is there to work for when one has been accorded the very best? Why toil and slave in the hot sun when you can rest on your laurels, knowing that with your sundry ITF wins, one WTA singles, and nine largely lower-level doubles titles, you have, as they say, put your country on the map?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why hasn’t Wozniacki won a Slam?

I’m not dissing her. This is not an attack article but a genuinely questioning one. And while most times I am content to simply express my own opinions, this time I admit to some uncertainty. So I am truly inviting your comments and insights into why Wozniacki has not yet won a Slam. I truly don’t get it, especially after watching the way she destroyed both Jelena Jankovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova back to back in the desert. If she can do that in Dubai and 12 other tournament settings, why can she not translate her winning ways into a Slam victory?

There are players who came close to winning Slams and I understood clearly why they did not. Dinara Safina, Rainer Schüttler, and Elena Dementieva come immediately to mind. These are players who made it to the finals of Slam events but who could not close the deal, for varying reasons. I genuinely do not understand why Caroline Wozniacki is still on this list.

I thought I understood. I used to say that Caro was too passive, too defensive, too contented to just keep getting the ball back, a strategy that is effective against most players on the tour but one that seems inadequate in the final throes of a Slam. It is a strategy that has won Caroline 13 WTA titles. That is no small feat. Compare this with Mara Santangelo, the talented but injury-hampered Italian who just retired from tennis with a single title to her name. Wozniacki, at 20, has accomplished far more than the majority of her cohorts. But she is yet to win a Slam. What exactly is the problem?

When I looked at the way Wozniacki destroyed Kuznetsova today in Dubai, my thoughts were that she should be considered the clear favorite going into any tournament this year. Wozniacki didn’t just win this match. She shut Kuznetsova almost completely out of the first set which she won easily 6-1. Kuznetsova seemed lethargic, subdued, sluggish. She made a number of unforced errors that were frankly embarrassing to watch. It’s one thing to miss a shot. It’s quite another to miss the lines by over six feet!

Finally Sveta came to life in the second set, showing some of the form that led her to two Slam wins. But nothing she did could prevent her from being broken by a determined and feisty Wozniacki who closed out the second set 6-3. It wasn’t so much a great match as it was a good beating. Gone was the passive, defensive Wozniacki relying only on her speed and corner-to-corner return pattern – although this being the basis of her game, this strategy was very present. But in addition she was able to construct some incredible points to break Sveta seven times.

Caroline Wozniacki has returned to the #1 position, after briefly losing it to Kim Clijsters for a minute. There are many – including myself – who believe that Kim Clijsters was a more deserving #1 because she has the Slam wins to back it up. This is a sensitive issue and I am not waffling when I say that I see both sides. On the one hand, I believe that you can’t fault players for being effective at amassing enough points to game the WTA’s faulty point system. On the other hand, there’s nothing like a Slam win to cement one’s arrival at the top.

So count me amount those who believe that Caroline Wozniacki needs to win a Slam. And in the next breath I will also say that Caro is a most deserving # 1 because she has the talent and points to be there, even without a Slam win. And yes, I am talking out of both sides of my mouth because I truly feel both ways. I was probably among the loudest voices defending Safina’s position at # 1 under similar circumstances. I felt that it was unfair of folks to ride her for not having a Slam win. Which is why my intent today is not to criticize Wozniacki but only to ask the question. Why hasn’t she won a Slam?

My own theory is that the reasons vary with the bridesmaid. For Safina it was all about her back and her head. Under the pressure of being close to the pinnacle, she seemed to choke. For Rainer Schuttler against a re-born Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open, Rainer seemed to develop a case of disbelief, as if he really had no business being there. So, for the most part, he really wasn’t. For Dementieva, her infamous serving problems would show up whenever the pressure was on.

I believe that part of the problem with Wozniacki may be that she has what it takes to play great tennis for one full week. She excels at week-long events. She seems able to sustain her energy and focus during a seven day period. But give her a two-week event like a Slam and something seems to go off the rails. Next thing you know she's rambling on and on about kangaroos.

But at 20 Caro is young enough to still learn and grow, talented enough to become a more aggressive player, and fit enough mentally and physically to win a Slam. Is it then just a matter of time? Or will Caroline Wozniacki remain on the list of players who are ever the bridesmaids but never the brides?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Was Vera emotional or mentally tough?

I was a little surprised to read Vera Zvonareva’s reprise of an interview she gave to Reuters in January during the 2011 Australian Open. At the time Vera was quoted as saying: “I’m not Serena Williams who can hit a serve 200 miles per hour. I’m not Maria Sharapova who can hit a winner on one ball, I don’t think I’m Rafael Nadal, who is physically unbelievable…If I’m not mentally strong, then how am I number two in the world?

Minus the exaggeration of Serena's serving abilities, it was a very fair question. My personal response was that Vera was a largely unnoticed #2 because of her consistency. Same for Wozniacki, then #1. But mainly I focused on Vera's claims of mental strength.

At the time I thought that Vera was referring to her current mental condition which has clearly improved over the last two years. I have privately wondered if she did seek some professional help to get her beyond her former proclivity for mental breakdowns and labile scream-fests when things did not go her way on the tennis court. I certainly always felt that she should.

And now comes another interview out of Dubai in which Vera more than makes it clear that she is not admitting to any history of mental challenges. No, Vera would have us believe that our eyes have in the past deceived us, and that what we interpreted as mental breakdowns were simply a tennis player expressing healthy emotions.

Look, I am all for the healthy expression of emotions. I agree with Vera that emotions are a part of any sport. I agree with much of the following statement offered by the newly emotionally confident Zvonareva: “I am much more experienced and much more mature now. I think people talk a lot about it just because you have a couple of emotions on the court, then and there. I am an emotional person and it is part of the game. Any sport you take is an emotional sport. You can see fans and there is no sport without emotions because if there is no emotion then it's not interesting any more”. I concur.

Vera initially seems to be acknowledging that she was not always “experienced” and “mature”. And this is the simple truth. She used to be an emotional basket-case. A woman who once collapsed onto a tennis court and started slapping at her bandaged knees for betraying her inability to run down balls. A woman who sobbed so hard under her towels that she could have won an Academy Award for best dramatic performance. And I am all for letting go of that past and validating that today’s Vera seems to be an emotionally more resilient person than she used to be. But I will not concede that she has always been this way.

In this updated interview, Vera no longer compares herself to Rafael Nadal (Mr. Mental Toughness bar none). Instead she only invokes Sharapova and Serena. And she no longer credits Serena with out-sized serves. But see if you can find the moment when Vera seems to be re-interpreting her history of mental weakness: “I am not like Serena Williams as I can't serve aces. I am not like Maria Sharapova as I can't hit a winner on every single ball. I don't have all these things and I am still among the top three players out there…So if you think I am not mentally tough or something, well how can I win the tennis matches then? There is a big difference between being mentally tough and being emotional. It's a huge difference”.

Yes Vera, there is a huge difference between being mentally tough and being emotional. And the truth is that back in the day, you were neither. When I think of “mental toughness”, players like Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, the sisters Williams, and Maria Sharapova come to mind. These are players who are tough as nails. They fight to the bitter end, digging deep to find the emotional resources to see them through to their goal of winning every game, every match, every tournament.

When I think of “emotional”, I also do not think of the former Vera Zvonareva. Vera was not emotional; she was labile. There is a huge difference between these two as well. But the distinction seems lost on Vera in her dedication to re-interpret her own history and invite us to whitewash it along with her.

Emotional lability refers to the inability to control one’s emotions. And it’s not at all a sign of mental toughness. Vera has had many moments of complete loss of emotional control on the tennis court. I am not going to embarrass her or her fans by recounting them all. Suffice it to say that I am happy that these moments now seem to be behind her. I adore the new emotionally more controlled and mentally strong Vera. But I can do so without lying to myself about how she used to be.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Newbies nipping at their heels

This past week of tennis saw the confirmation that a current group of newbies on both sides of the tour are continuing to make their presence felt. And I for one am totally excited about this. I am thoroughly enjoying watching some of the Medium-to-Old Farts get slapped around and off the court. But it is disappointing when said Medium-to-Old Farts don’t have the grace to take their beating like champs.

In truth, I am speaking only of Fernando Verdasco and his thoroughly disgusting response to getting his ass kicked by the 20-year-old Milos Raonic. During the second set tiebreak, Verdasco seemed to be feeling the pressure. And he showed everyone how much he was feeling the pressure. When the score went up to 5-3 in favor of Raonic, Verdasco started muttering to himself and yelling at his box. On Raonic’s serve, he challenged a return that had gone so far out that he didn’t even bother to look up at the screen to see the results of his desperate ploy.

Verdasco became a man possessed by negative emotions. He stalked the baseline, and worked himself up into more and more anger. When Raonic served at 6-5 for the set, pounding a confident kick-serve into the pocket, Verdasco looked as if he could commit murder. He seemed furious. He was so angry that he shook Raonic’s hand dismissively at the net and waved down the Chair with his racket, never actually approaching to shake his hand. Apparently it was the Chair’s fault that he had lost the match.

I can’t begin to describe how disappointed I was in Verdasco. Look I get that it is painful to lose, especially to a newbie. I get that it must hurt like hell to have an audience that was solidly in your back pocket for the entire tournament, suddenly change favorites and adopt the curly-headed Canadian on the other side of the court. But Verdasco is a seasoned professional. It is his job to represent the sport, to show newbies how to both win and lose gracefully. I know that everybody can’t be Federer but I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect an experienced player with five titles to act like a good sport no matter the outcome. Instead he demonstrated a kind of inchoate rage that frankly I found off-putting.

And yes I get that it must truly suck to have to be interviewed right after a loss, and have to remember to thank sponsors and ball-kids when all you want to do is go back to the hotel and smash something. But Verdasco makes in a week what most people would be thrilled to make in a whole year. For this alone he owes it to his fans to find ways to dig deep and act with grace when the going gets tough.

That’s what Clijsters did, around the same time actually. In fact her loss to 20-year-old Petra Kvitova at the Open GDF SUEZ was even more pitiful. At least Verdasco made it to two tie-breaks. Kvitova cruised to victory in two sets, 6-4 6-3. The match lasted barely an hour.

Kvitova had had the much more difficult time of it at this tournament. She came into the finals after surviving a 3.5 hour match against Strycova in the second round, followed by another tough three-setter in the quarter finals. But no one doubted that Clijsters would beat her. I certainly didn’t. In fact the anticipated victory was expected to cement Clijsters’ return to the #1 position in the rankings.

Except that no one told Kvitova.  Damn she plays beautiful tennis. And she plays with a calm and controlled intelligence that is a refreshing change from the Sharapovesque era of desperate uncontrolled screaming. Kvitova out-played Clijsters on every score. In fact, to add insult to complete injury, she broke Clijsters in the last game, to win her third title. Damn that must have hurt.

But Kim took her spanking with class. I would not expect anything less from her as an experienced tennis champion. And we all know that Clijsters can bring her bitch-game if you cross her. Just ask that Woodie whom she humiliated in front of his entire country for daring to ask someone if she was pregnant because she was looking so frumpy. Girlfriend took him down with a smile firmly planted on her face.

But in her post-match interview in Paris, in response to a question about her loss to Kvitova, Clijsters simply replied: “Petra just did everything better than me today. She was serving extremely well, being really aggressive from the return, and yeah she deserved to win. She was the better player”. I also read another news report that Kim refused to blame a neck injury for the loss (although I couldn’t help but wonder why she even mentioned it).

It is interesting that both Verdasco and Clijsters are 27, not old by any means but certainly far more experienced than their 20-year-old opponents. But there is no doubting the raw talent of these newbies. With three titles under her belt, Kvitova has well-earned the #14 berth on the WTA tour. And Raonic has leaped almost 100 places to #59. He deserves to be there. If you had reservations in Australia, and if these got reinforced when he lost after qualifying for Johannesburg, well it’s time to stop doubting. Because baby boy with the curly hair who clearly loves his mommy and sister is frankly a joy to watch.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

South Africa’s tall drink of promise

While most of the US watched the Super Bowl over this past weekend, my attention alternated between Fed Cup and tennis in South Africa. Sure I tuned in to the Super Bowl from time to time. But despite Pittsburgh being a city that is close to my heart, I find that I have remained so ambivalent about the man now non-affectionately known as ‘Ben Rapistburger’, that I really did not mind it when the Packers sent them packing. No offense to any Steeler fans.

After the American women got spanked – with Oudin being forced to eat a bagel, ouch – I gave up on Fed Cup altogether and switched over to tennis in South Africa. That’s when I discovered the promise represented by the 6’ 8” tall Kevin Anderson.

To be honest, I was rooting for Somdev. Outside of the big guns (Federer, Nadal, Serena, Clijsters), I tend to support the underdog. In fact, if one of my faves is going to lose, I find that I mind it less when the loss is to an underdog who happens to be having a particularly good day. I think that it’s good for the big guns to sometimes get that kind of humbling wake-up call. Like Söderling in Australia. (I have a theory that he may have focused so much on his eventual meeting with Federer that he may have ignored some of the lesser players he would encounter along the way.) I like it when lower-ranked players take the piss out of those higher-ranked players who forget to pay them nuff respect.

So I favored Somdev, in part because he was the lower-ranked of the two in the finals. I also have fond memories of Somdev from his NCAA days when he played for the University of Virginia. I remember him seemingly coming out of nowhere, surrounded by a sea of white as he defeated John Isner at the finals in 2007, and then defended his title against Australia’s J. P. Smith the next year, with a 44-1 win streak that made history. Isner has since gone on to achieve much more. I don’t have a clue what became of Smith. And Somdev gave up on Sociology and decided to go pro. So when I saw that he had made it to his second ATP finals – Chennai being his first two years ago – I have to say that I hoped he would win.

And he certainly had his chances. With the top seeds all dropping like flies in the first round – almost as if they had only come to South Africa to grab some appearance money and run – I found myself having to re-align my expectations. Who was going to seize this opportunity? Would it be the talented lefty Frenchman with the Italian name (Mannarino) who probably produces the fastest racket head speed on the backhand of any player on the tour? Or would Dustin Brown get off his lazy drop-shotting ass and make an effort? (Ha!)

In the end it came down to the 25-year-old Indian and the 24-year-old South African, surrounded by scores of his compatriots rooting for him to win. Although I have to admit that the South African crowd was fair. They were fairer than I was at the US Open two years ago during Oudin’s dream run when I joined throngs of Americans to support her so vocally that her opponents didn’t stand a chance. Sure the South Africans raucously supported their guy, but there was much kindness for Somdev as well. And I have to tell you that as spoiled as I am living in the land of privilege, I really enjoyed watching those cheap cardboard signs with words that could easily be re-cycled for a cricket match: Ace! Pow! Score!

Somdev certainly had his chances. He won the first set without sweating too much. He seemed to be in a nice groove. In the second set he seemed to tighten up and Anderson started to dominate. Anderson then pulled it out in the third.

But Anderson sometimes tends to play squandering tennis. He has guts, which is great, but sometimes he gets sucked into playing long pointless baseline rallies. And then he would go for broke at the most inopportune times. When he nailed it, the crowd became ecstatic. But I don’t enjoy watching tennis tinged with desperation. I will also never understand why men with his gift of height, continue to plant themselves at the baseline. And surely at 6’ 8” he should be getting many more freebies on his serve?

That said, I am thrilled for South Africa that they have a man in the Top 40’s. I think that if he learns how to tighten up his game, Anderson will climb even higher. And there is nothing sweeter than winning in front of your homies, which is what Somdev came close to doing in Chennai two years ago. I hope Somdev brushes off this second loss and goes back to the drawing board. More than anything I think that he needs to learn to get out of his head and play tennis more instinctively. At times he seems to become too cerebral, too analytic, too tied up in knots of pointless cognition.

Finally, I was impressed with Anderson for generously dedicating $5,000. of his prize money to help save the rhinos. Classy guy. Classy moment. Awesome first title win.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Was Chanda a victim of the Tiger?

I have a friend who makes all of her decisions based on Chinese astrology. When she travels, when she takes a vacation, when she moves to a new home, when she married her husband – every last decision is calculated down to the ideal moment, taking into account double months and double moons – before she takes any action. This is because my friend was born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents who could not speak a word of English when they migrated to Canada, and so she was raised with a deep appreciation of her cultural roots.

Last year February 14th coincided with the Chinese New Year. I emailed to ask her if she and her husband were going to Vegas that year. (Her gambling too is deeply calculated to enhance the likelihood of winning). She responded horrified at the thought. No, they would be spending the day with as many friends and family as possible, eating large meals and being festive. But more importantly, they would be spending the days before Valentine’s Day preparing for the Year of the Tiger. Had I not started preparing as yet?

Her preparations had nothing to do with hearts and roses. It was all about cleaning and then more cleaning. The cleaning had to be intense she explained, because you could not clean the house for three days after the New Year. The cleaning included everything from dumping everything from the fridge to washing her hair. You cannot take last year’s used items into the New Year, she explained. Not in the Year of the Tiger when destructive forces were going to be unleashed. She hoped I was getting ready.

Since then, whenever a calamity occurs, she texts me two simple words, “You see?” Actually I do. This past year has been destructive for many. I don’t know anyone who did not have it rough this past year. Car accidents, job losses, deaths at war, floods, hurricanes, blizzards. 2010 was a year of upheavals and tumult, just as my friend predicted. That is how the tiger behaves, she explained. And therefore you have to extra careful, extra cautious when going through this year.

So when Chanda Rubin’s house burned down last December, the first person I called was my friend. I didn’t understand her convoluted explanation about timing and blessings, but the gist of it was that Chanda must not have had a Chinese friend to guide her through the process of building and preparing her new home. It’s not just a question of Feng Shui, she explained. You Westerners think that placing a mirror in the right spot is enough to balance your home. No, it takes more than that. You have to do everything at the right time. And you have to get a lucky charm that is specially blessed in a Chinese temple just for you.

Not having been raised in her culture, I have walked a fine line between outright skepticism and a prickly kind of inner discomfort. I can’t wrap my mind around the notion that a house getting burned to the ground could be prevented by consulting astrology guides regarding every aspect of its construction, and then by further guarding its safety by wearing a lucky charm. But I couldn’t help but wonder about my friend’s perspicacity with regard to the impact of the Tiger.

News reports say the house burned during an intense thunderstorm in a part of Louisiana known for getting an average of 62 inches of rainfall per year. Lightning has been speculated to be the likely cause. One news report said that Chanda’s home did not come equipped with expensive lightning rods that may have prevented the disaster. I have no idea if this is correct or not.

What I do know from her interviews is that Chanda was at home at the time. Thankfully, she got out safely after fire alarms alerted her to a problem. News reports said that it took 4.5 hours to put out the fire, at which point the entire top floor and attic of the house had been gutted, and the ground floor severely water damaged. Most of her tennis trophies were reportedly spared as they were in her parents’ possession.

It’s clichéd to say that her life was more important than any material possessions. But it seems to be part of human nature to be acquisitive, to buy and own nice things, and we experience true pain when we are separated from certain beloved possessions. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a multi-million dollar house and its cherished possessions. I felt deeply for her.

Chanda Rubin was always a class act on the WTA, a solid player who never attracted drama. Her tennis reflected the combination of hard work and talent. She seemed to generally be liked. Sadly, her career ended up being date-stamped by injury. I wish for her a calmer and more fortuitous 2011.

My friend explained that the good news is that it is now the Year of the Rabbit, a much more docile creature compared to the fierce tiger. But rabbits are also vulnerable so you have to be cautious in a different kind of way. Like protecting your health. And not allowing yourself to get forced into doing things that you don’t want to do. And watch your tongue in this Year of the Rabbit, because your words can have disastrous consequences. This is a year to hunker down, to stay safe, to conserve your energies. Make smart choices today that you will profit from later. Be patient and think of the future.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Safina’s search for the right coach

There seemed to be a quality of co-dependency to the relationship between Dinara Safina and former coach, Zeljko Krajan that always made me uncomfortable. During their three year partnership, one often got the impression of an insecure daughter trying always to please a grumpy, borderline abusive father figure, and being at her most ecstatic when she finally succeeded in doing so.

When Krajan was happy with her, the smile that would cross Safina’s face could light up the world. But when he was displeased, when he grumbled and insulted, when he looked on at her performances with distaste, when he threatened abandonment — then she would often become even harder on herself, even more desperate to please. It was a relationship dynamic that was often uncomfortable to watch.

So when they decided to part ways after three years, I have to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief. I’m all for tough love when it is indicated. But there is such a plethora of psychological research showing that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar that I can’t ever get behind coaches who think that they need to abuse their students in order to bring out the best in them. Mind you, many of these abused charges will be the first to tell you that that is exactly what they needed. But I suspect that this is because there was also the right balance between discipline and positive encouragement, between scolding and building up the student’s self-confidence and self-esteem.

For reasons that she has never discussed, Safina and Krajan parted ways on the eve of Roland Garros 2010. And while most reports indicate that it was Safina who terminated the relationship, I’ve often wondered if this is accurate. In keeping with my theory of their unhealthy co-dependency, I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t the apparently labile Krajan who told her to go to hell, to go ahead and try to make it without him. Abandonment, long threatened, had seemingly finally occurred.

To be fair to Zeljko Krajan, it was under his tutelage that Safina produced her best tennis. Reportedly at the recommendation of Ivan Ljubicic, Safina and Krajan began their partnership in October 2007. At that point she was in a psychological slump, ranked # 17 and close to giving up altogether on tennis. There is no question that Krajan helped to re-inspire her career. But her best results also came after she hired retired Croatian Olympic sprinter, Dejan Vojnovic, as her fitness coach. It was with this team solidly in place that Safina became an Olympic silver medalist, and climbed to # 1 in the world.

Between 2008 and 2009, she made it to the semi-finals and finals of several Grand Slam events where she would repeatedly break my heart by losing. But this is not about my heart. I’m sure that Safina’s suffered far more than mine ever could. Always too honest in her press interviews, Safina would continue the spiral of putting herself down, calling herself a coward and other choice words. It was painful enough to watch her lose but I often found it far more painful to watch her talk about it. And then I would imagine the subsequent conversation about the loss with her coach. Shudder.

So yes, I did not mind the separation from Krajan. I wanted for Safina a less volatile and more respectful coaching relationship. But the timing of it spoke to a possibly momentous break-up, some psychologically destructive parting of the ways that could not possibly be healthy for Safina.

She then picked up with Gaston Etlis, an Argentinean best known for his doubles prowess. The partnership made no sense. It was not to last.

Now talk is that she has signed on with Davide Sanguinetti. I remember Sanguinetti as a talented Italian player who spanked both Federer and Roddick in 2002. He was at the time a pretty spunky player with a determined attitude. He has since transferred to coaching Vince Spadea and a Japanese challenger player named Go Saeda. (Love that name!  With a name like that, dude shoulda been a movie star).

Look I don’t mean to knock Sanguinetti but I don’t know how one goes from coaching Vince Spadea to coaching Dinara Safina. So I started asking myself whether the problem may be money. Although Safina has earned some $10. million thus far in her career, when you have to cover the expenses of full-time personal traveling coaches and fitness trainers, that money can disappear fast. It makes you wonder about those periods when Federer has elected to go coachless – and he surely has the endorsement money to cover these expenses. What does Safina have outside of her earnings? When it comes to endorsements, she is no Maria Sharapova. My hypothesis is that this may be part of the low budget choice of coaches lately.

Regardless, I wish them well. I hope that Sanguinetti recognizes the opportunity he has been given and becomes inspired to bring out the best in Safina. But I also hope that she has enough pennies left in the bank to also afford a good sports psychologist. But I’ve told you this before haven’t I?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Askmen: Sharapova in, Ivanovic out

Gosh I can’t stand these lists, with their ratings of women’s physical appearances. It’s such a sexist pack of crap. So then you ask, why am I writing about it? Well the Australian Open is over and I am finally catching up on topics that have nothing to do with my heart-broken state over both Roger and Rafa getting thrown out in straight sets.  Ouch. I also wanted to respond to a reader’s recent request to give my views on Ana Ivanovic. The ratings poll seemed as good an entry as any.

I don’t know if Ana Ivanovic made it on Askmen’s Top 100 women prior to 2010, but last year she was rated as the 72nd hottest woman in the world. Of course I disagree. Ana was way hotter than that. And since the top-rated woman of 2010 (Emmanuelle who?) doesn’t even seem to have made it onto the list in 2011, it just goes to show how unreliable this whole stupid rating thing is.

If you ask me, it’s all about Hollyweird publicists trying to promote their bobble-headed clients. So that when a sportswoman gets the nod, it’s either because she happens to be superhot, or because her publicist may be working an angle for a certain kind of marketing. The kind that involves modeling outfits that are less about tennis and more about sex. But you’ve heard me gripe about this before.

In Ana’s case, she happens to be superhot. And she also has crossed over from tennis into modeling. I find it fascinating that not a single one of the scrolling photos on the front page of her website have anything to do with tennis. It’s all about Ana the hot model. In fact, in one of the first entries I ever wrote about her, I queried which of these two activities – tennis or modeling – was her priority. My recommendation was for a little less modeling perhaps. Like Ana gives a crap about my point-of-view.

In my opinion, Ana only uses tennis. I believe that she may at one time have been sincerely interested in a tennis career, but now has become a leech who rides on tennis’ back to keep herself in the glare of the camera’s lusty attention. I don’t think she is interested any longer in cracking a sweat or working hard. I think she may be one of those women who may believe that she gave tennis its’ due and may be more interested in cashing in. Notice her front-and-center presence at Djokovic’s finals match, the cameras transfixed by her flashy earrings. Was that only about supporting a fellow-countryman? Was it the least she could do for forfeiting the 2011 Hopman Cup? Or was it just all about her?

Of course I may be wrong. Maybe Ana is really interested in playing tennis. Maybe when she puts down her racket and goes scampering off the court at the slightest muscle twinge, it is because she is really injured and not because she could not be bothered to push through, to dig deep and make a proper committed effort. Or maybe she has lost her motivation.

Part of me gets that everyone doesn’t have the same level of motivation to play tennis. Some people, like Justine Henin, seem to be genuinely confused over how motivated they really are. Some players like Kim Clijsters and Kimiko Date have to take time off, go off and live a different life, and then re-discover the motivation to achieve. We are clearly not all created equal in this regard.

So my problem is not with the fact that Ivanovic seems completely unmotivated. My problem is with her bullshit pretending that she actually gives a damn when it seems to me that she does not. Not at all. Not even slightly. Not when there’s a chance of the cameras catching her sweating or grimacing or looking anything other than stunning.

So I wonder how Ana feels about the fact that Askmen have thrown her off its list of the Top 100 babes? After all that preening and posing, you’d think that Askmen would have the decency to keep her on the list, to even promote her from 72 to a higher level. After all, Beyonce and Angelina Jolie have made it onto the damn list for the full ten years of its publication. So why not the beautiful Ana?

And I also wonder which for her might be more unbearable – getting tossed off the list or being replaced by Maria Sharapova? Because Askmen have now rated Sharapova as the 80th sexiest woman in the world.

For me, Sharapova’s motivation to return from injury and play tennis is far more admirable and important than her sex appeal. Say what you will about her but whenever Maria gets on the court, she gives nothing but her best, grimacing and screaming in an all-out effort to win, cameras be damned. And yes Maria has been honest about the fact that she will not be motivated to play tennis for the next ten years, that she wants to become a wife and mother. In the meantime, visit her official website and it is clear that this is the website of a serious tennis player, one whom Askmen describes as “a female firecracker who lights up the tennis court with her fast moves and sleek, sexy body”. No offense men, but I'm really only interested in her tennis.