Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Rafael Nadal: Hypochondriac or Malingerer?

Of course one possible answer is “neither”. I do not intend by the title of this article to imply that being a hypochondriac or alternatively a malingerer are the only two options that can possibly explain Rafa’s dramatic injury flares. But these are the two options that are most troubling to me and as such I would very much like to rule them out.

I certainly expect that any of his fans reading this entry would seize the opportunity to come to his defense. The last time I queried Rafa’s decision to bail on a match that he was clearly about to lose, his fans attacked me en masse. How dare the TennisChick imply that Rafa would ever do something as scummy as refusing to swallow his bagel like a man? Surely he must really be injured? Sure, injured like a fox.

If I were a diagnostician given the task of coming up with some kind of conceptualization of Rafa’s history of interestingly-timed injury complaints, I would certainly want to rule out if he is just a drama queen when it comes to his physical health, or whether he is a big fat fake who has found a clever way to cheat the system. And again, I do not mean to be either-or about this. Perhaps there are a zillion other explanations that I am not considering. As his fans, please feel free to fill in my blanks.

But first, is Rafa a hypochondriac? To address this question we have to first identify what hypochondriasis is. Hypochondriacs are people who become excessively worried or preoccupied about their health. At the first hint of a symptom, they become overly alarmed and start seeking medical help. But medical help does not reassure them. Nothing reassures them. They remain convinced that there is something majorly wrong.

And to be fair, the onset of hypochondriasis may coincide with a genuine injury. The sufferer becomes so frightened from that experience that at the slightest twinge of pain he runs off to get an MRI. And certainly Rafa has had his share of knee scares. And everyone who is anyone has commented on the brutal style of tennis that he plays and how hard it must be on his body.

But why all the drama? Why all the public pronouncements of a possibly broken foot when said foot has not even been X-rayed much less diagnosed? Surely the expert physical therapists tending to his smelly foot courtside would have had a sense of whether the ankle was broken? Surely there was no way he would have been able to continue running like a fricking gazelle in the match against Del Potro if he had indeed broken a bone?

No, I think we need to look for another explanation. And I am sad that malingering even comes to mind. Malingering refers to a deliberate and intentional faking of a medical condition for the purpose of secondary gain. In other words, the person pretends to be injured because there is some benefit, some pay-off to the charade. In which case I have to ask, if Nadal is malingering, what might be the benefits of his dishonesty?

Well, to answer that question, you might want to take a look at some of those close matches between Rafa and Federer over the past few years. How often did they involve some kind of hobbling at a precarious moment of the match? And how often did the sight of Rafa grimacing in pain end up derailing Federer? Next thing you know the supposedly injured Rafa is running away with the match. Running like a fox.

If Rafa is faking – and understand that I am not saying that he is – he certainly would not be the first. I used to ask similar questions about Sampras back in the day. In fact, I will never forget the time – I believe it was also at Wimbledon – when Sampras made a similar public pronouncement about getting an MRI for his supposedly injured back. Injured like a fox. He came back to beat everybody and hoisted the trophy aloft, bad back be damned. Between the episodes of vomiting and back spasms, it was a wonder how Pete Sampras managed to keep on winning. But he did. Winning like a fox.

But in order to prove that someone is malingering, you have to first be able to find evidence of the secondary gain. What is the pay-off attached to their behavior? Is the player just trying to distract and derail his opponents with injury claims? Is he just finding a clever way to buy time to figure how to adjust his strategy against a formidable opponent? Or is it none of the above. Does he really just call injuries because he genuinely believes that he is injured? I would really like to know what you think.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Finally delivering on the promise

I envy anyone who was actually sitting in the stands today as Bernard Tomic finally took his place among tennis’ elite. Tomic’ promise has been shouted from the rooftops for a long, long time. In fact, for a while there it began to look as if he was going to be just another overrated Junior who lacked the cojones to take his place among the men. But I believe it is fair to say that today he finally delivered on the promise.

I am fascinated by Tomic’ game. He kind of reminds me of Martina Hingis. Like her, he has become skilled at the art of the junk ball, throwing in some whiffy shots with neither meat nor potatoes behind them. Like Hingis, Tomic is a master of deception. Just as his opponent seems to get lulled into comfort and confidence, Tomic the Tiger springs to the alert, and goes for the jugular. You never quite know what he is going to do next.

Not that I expect any of these deceptive tricks to work against his next opponent. I fully expect Djokovic to send him packing. But who knows? Tomic, with the element of cunning and surprise, may actually make a better showing than anyone expects. Certainly his career trajectory seems to be clearly pointed upward.

As I thought through this article today it occurred to me that Tomic is not the only one delivering on the promise at this 2011 Wimbledon. I could just as easily have said the same thing about Sabine Lisicki and Petra Kvitova. Heck, Navratilova has picked Kvitova to win it all, and who am I to dispute the great Navratilova?

I suppose that technically I should include Tsvetana Pironkova and Tamira Paszek on this list. But Pironkova seems, for some odd reason, to have her best results against Venus Williams. She actually now has a winning record against Venus. I’ve commented before on her unusual hacker style game. I believe that she wins because of her unique and unexpected style. But can I truly say that she is delivering on her promise? Umm, no. As for Tamira Paszek, I’ll be honest. I have no idea who she is. But if Azarenka ends up having yet another of her bizarre attacks of hysteria, I promise that I will make an effort to get to know Ms. Paszek.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the daring of Sabine Lisicki. I’m glad to see her healthy, fit, and confident. I love her big serves and her bigger forehand. Recently kind of upstaged by her countrywoman Julia Georges, Lisicki is, in my opinion, the true heir to the great Steffi Graf. And I would give her my unconditional support if only she did not have to face Bartoli in the next round.

As I mentioned a couple of articles ago, I can’t bear it when my faves collide. I couldn’t handle it when Lisicki had to face Na Li. And I can’t bear it that she will come up against Bartoli. If I was forced to choose, I guess I would hope for a Bartoli victory. Really, you don’t defeat Serena Williams only to turn around and fold. No, you deliver on the promise indicated by your Roland Garros semi-final and your Aegon win.

But if Lisicki were to win, I would be very happy about that too. I don’t mean to talk out of both sides of my mouth. But really I can’t lose, even if one woman must.
And then there is Petra Kvitova. So much talent in that six foot frame! I am thrilled that she has finally begun to lose some weight. For the longest time she did not look the part of a world class athlete, not with that belly hanging over her skirt waist. She is still physically not where I’d like to see her be but she is finally, clearly on her way there.

A fellow Piscean, Kvitova is a ferocious competitor who shows no mercy to her opponents. She made poor Wickmayer swallow a bagel today. Ouch. Kvitova may have the lefty advantage – if there is such an advantage. But she definitely needs to improve her movement. However her serve and groundstrokes are so lethal that once the ball is in play, she seems to have the edge. With four WTA titles under her belt, Kvitova has yet to win a Slam. How awesome would it be if Wimbledon turned out to be her first?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The calm before the storm

It’s Wimbledon Sunday. I can’t remember the last time there was such a lull in the proceedings. Thanks to the new roof and the new stadium on Court 3, all Week One matches were played. The protagonists going into Week Two have all been identified. If you attended Wimbledon, today may have been spent watching your faves practicing for the big week ahead. But if you’re like me, just watching it all on TV, today was a quiet lull. The calm before the storm.

I can’t remember any previous Wimbledon when Sunday was as quiet as today turned out to be. Always the rain seemed to make a mess of things. Always there was some unexpected piece of drama that unsettled the proceedings. Some of the commentators today recalled the year that Davide Nalbandian made it to the finals only for the powers that be to discover that he had literally never appeared on Centre Court before. Because of his unfamiliarity with the big stage, he was given some time to practice on it before the match started.

But this year there was no Sunday drama. It was a quite listless day really. I played tennis of course, and in between breaks tried to pick my coach’s brain about whom he saw going forward to next weekend. We are both Federer fans – it is a requirement of the person who coaches me that he must also think that Federer is the G.O.A.T. – so we reinforced each other’s hope for a Federer victory.

Once again Fed will have to get past a determined Djokovic. Once again, if he gets to that point, he will more than likely face his nemesis in the finals. Once again Britain will become hopeful about Murray’s chances of spoiling the party. I can’t say that I would mind. I prefer Federer’s chances against Murray than I do his chances against Nadal. My coach is confident of a Federer victory. He is always confident of a Federer victory.

And of course we talked about Serena. Perhaps because of my influence, my coach now also thinks she may have had breast reduction surgery. He told me that Chris Evert had a sister whose large breasts also interfered with the quality of her tennis back in the day. I tell him that I did not know this.

We both found it ironic that Serena faced Simona Halep in the second round, Halep having been forthcoming about her own breast reduction. And there is no question that her tennis has improved. As an endowed woman myself, I can relate to this surgical decision. Whenever my coach quarrels with me for not looking over my right shoulder as I prepare for the double-handed backhand, I want to yell at him that he has no idea what it’s like to have these two things getting in the way. But I digress.

Regardless, we both expressed happiness that Serena is healthy and doing well. Praise Jah. Today while practicing forehands, I found myself mentally scripting the inevitable Serena Williams movie that is surely going to appear on Lifetime one of these years. How will this period play out? What will be the outcome of her Wimbledon run? What else will she accomplish in her amazing career?

I have to admit that I do not feel any tension about Serena winning or losing at this event. After her year absence, and because she is coming back from the brink of death, by her own report, I find that I am just grateful that she is here at all. A loss to Bartoli or Lisicki would not upset me. After all, how many players can return from a year’s absence and illness and make it to the second week of Wimbledon? Heck Zvonareva seems to still be recovering from managing to beat Serena at her first tournament back.

Clearly Serena already is a winner. Anything that happens now is a sweet bonus. But my coach is confident that she will be holding the trophy next Saturday. He is always confident that she will be the one holding the trophy. Me, I am just enjoying the lull, before things begin to explode in Week Two.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Is being a lefty an advantage in tennis?

Rafael Nadal leads the way of course. It’s impossible to dispute the fact of his dominance of men’s tennis over the past few years. It’s almost as if he reinvented the game, creating new angles and shots that often leave us gasping. And there are many other lefty players who too are doing quite well – including his countryman Feliciano Lopez, who destroyed Roddick today in straight sets. Was Roddick’s loss at least in part because his opponent was a lefty?

The notion of the lefty dominance of certain sports is often credited to French neuroscientist, Guy Azémar, who famously concluded that lefties tended to excel in sports that require the dominance of the right eye (i.e., the opposite side of the body). Azémar believed that lefties have a built-in neurological advantage in certain sports such as fencing.

He noted that our brains have two halves – a left hemisphere that processes verbal information and a right hemisphere that decodes spatial data. The right-handed tennis player is at a disadvantage because the left side of their brain has to first transfer information about the location of the ball to the right side before the player can respond. But for the lefty, the right side of the brain both receives and processes this spatial information, giving him or her an immediate and distinct advantage.

And it is a fact that the list of lefty tennis players who have made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon this year is quite impressive. Apart from Nadal and Lopez, the list includes lesser knowns like Ksenia Pervak and Melinda Czink, older balls like Michael Llodra and Gilles Muller, and ones-to-watch like Petra Kvitova.

The list of lefties who have historically done well in tennis is also impressive. It includes such luminaries as Jimmy Connors, Guy Forget, Goran Ivanesivic, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Thomas Muster, Martina Navratilova, and Mark Woodford. Back in the day, lefty Greg Rusedski held the world’s record for the fastest serve ever (149mph at Indian Wells,1998). But then along came right-handed Andy Roddick who hit a 153mph serve at the Stella Artois. And just like that the world of handedness became confused.

British psychologists Charles Wood and John Aggleton disagree with Azémar’s brain-wiring theories. Instead they argue that the so-called lefty advantage is in fact an artifact of small sample sizes. In other words, given a large enough sample size, the lefty advantage largely disappears.

Wood and Aggleton concluded that lefties did not have any neurological advantage over right-handed players. Instead their advantage was both tactical and practical. Because most lefties grow up playing against righties, but not vice versa, lefties end up quite familiar with righty play but not vice versa. In other words, lefties end up with a technical advantage based on their relative unfamiliarity.

There is no rivalry in which this is better demonstrated than that of Nadal vs. Federer. It’s not that Federer has a bad backhand. On the contrary, he can do all kinds of amazingness on his backhand. But Rafa’s potent lefty forehand plays naturally crosscourt to the Federer backhand. And under its lethal pressure, Federer’s backhand can lapse into impotence. Lefties have this distinct tactical advantage in tennis.

This is probably one of the reasons why Martina Navratilova remains a popular practice partner to this day. She is a lefty player who can give her practice partners improved familiarity with lefty tactics. The right-handed Shuai Peng would do well to consider contracting Martina’s services if she has any doubts about her ability to get past lefty Melinda Czink. And maybe Petkovic should have spent a little less time coming up with silly new dances and a bit more practicing against a lefty opponent. Had she done so, she may have made it past the lefty Pervak.

But I am intrigued by the Nadal - Muller pairing. Both lefties, Nadal won the first set tie-break before rain sent them indoors. But Muller beat Nadal on this surface a couple of years ago. It’s lefty versus lefty. Do you suppose their brains are entirely confused?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Such tension when your faves collide

Tennis is a sport that seems to demand that you pick favorites. At least that’s how it has always seemed to me. Back in the day you were either a Navratilova fan or you preferred the frilliness of Chris Evert. You either liked the rebel Agassi or you went for the more sedate Pete Sampras. It was for a long time impossible to be a fan of both Seles and Graf. Hingis and Venus fans angrily squared off on message boards.

And for years I was fine with this dichotomy. Until along came a player named Rafael Nadal. He was so refreshingly different. The powerful topspin, the lethal lefty forehand, the swiftness of movement, and most of all the mental determination. Rafa played tennis like no one I ever remembered. It was easy to become a fan.

And my love for him would have remained unequivocal had he not happened to become the nemesis of my darling Federer. And just like that I found myself forced to choose between two favorites. How to choose when your heart wants both possible outcomes? How to resolve this emotional conflict?

This is how I felt when Na Li faced Sabine Lisicki today. I woke up this morning asking myself to be honest about which player I really wanted to win. On the one hand, I wanted Na Li to go deep in the draw, to prove that she has what it takes to have a year as impressive as Djokovic. On the other hand, having discovered Lisicki at Charleston two years ago, I never got over my crush. I like Big Babe tennis. I like players who go bold. I like big serves and bigger forehands. I like feisty and spunk. Lisicki has all these in spades.

But for Lisicki to win, my precious Na Li would have to lose. And that I was not emotionally ready for. Perhaps this is why tennis fans tend to pick a side and remain solidly there. It’s emotionally too exhausting to have to choose between favorites. We humans are not designed to handle such cognitive dissonance. We rejoice when our faves win. We are devastated when they lose. But both joy and devastation are clear feelings. Confusion is not.

Cognitive dissonance refers to the emotional confusion and discomfort we experience when we want two conflicting outcomes at the same time. It’s the feeling I feel when Rafa and Fed play each other – I want both men to win but neither to lose. Cognitive dissonance is the experience of wanting opposites when both options really matter.

I first mentioned cognitive dissonance on this blog a few weeks ago when writing about the reported end of the world on May 21st. When the world continued to lurch along, imperfectly, on May 22nd, this created cognitive dissonance for followers of aging preacher Harold Camping. Was their leader wrong? Or was the Rapture just delayed?

If you endorsed the latter notion, you found a way to resolve the dissonance. Because according to Leon Festinger, the psychologist who first noted this phenomenon, dissonance can only be resolved in one of three ways. We can change our beliefs. We can change our behavior. Or we can find a new way of thinking about the situation.

So when one of the ESPN talking heads picked Lisicki to win this morning, I first found myself grinning with happiness. And then I immediately remembered that for that to happen, Na Li would have to lose. My discomfort did not resolve for most of the match which was close, exciting, and wonderful. When Na Li finally went up 5-3, 40-15 in the third set, I thought that there was no way she would lose. And then Lisicki stormed back and so did my emotions. Back and forth I went, mentally justifying both outcomes.

When Lisicki finally emerged victorious, I consoled myself with the reminder of Na Li’s struggles after her Aussie finals. Clearly I wasn’t a fool for picking Lisicki because after all, Na Li did go on to a five-match losing streak after Australia, didn’t she? So surely this loss following the French was not entirely unexpected? Besides, Na Li probably needed the extra rest to prepare for winning the US Open. And really I wouldn’t mind seeing Wozniacki and Lisicki bounce each other again if they happened to meet in the quarters at Wimbledon. And just like that my cognitive dissonance was fully resolved.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Getting stuck in the same old same old

Some years ago when I lived on a small island, I used to play tennis on the public courts. There was a particular coach whose children were all super-talented players. But they all cheated. Despite being better than everyone else, they seemed unable to do anything other than cheat. They would call balls out that were clearly in, and would physically fight and beat up anyone who challenged their line calls. They were a scary family – but boy could they play tennis. Every single member had talent to burn.

Because of this I found myself reluctantly involved in helping one of the younger sons secure a scholarship to a tennis academy in Florida. To be honest I had my misgivings. But I also hoped that being transplanted to another environment with different mores and influences might help him to mature and blossom into a decent human being. After all, he was already a very talented tennis player.

But deep inside I kinda expected the worse. I knew as a psychologist that people do not really change unless they are truly motivated to do so. I believe that sometimes people get stuck and genuinely do not know how to go about creating change. Despite being miserable, they cling to the familiar and avoid taking the risks required to change.

In the end the junior was sent packing back to the island after less than a semester abroad. I never found out the official reason why because the father promptly moved his clan to another part of the island. But of course rumors abounded. The junior had beaten up the child of a US Senator. He had stolen properties belonging to other students. He was unruly and ungovernable. He had lied and cheated too much.

When I did run into the boy – it’s hard to avoid people on a small island – I was shocked to discover that he had become obese in such a short period of time. Other rumors later emerged that he had stolen so much junk food and had gotten so fat that they had kicked him out of the program. To this day I have no idea what really happened. But I believe that whatever went wrong must have involved his lying and stealing.

My point being that people don’t really change – unless they really really want to. Because change is hard. It requires much courage and introspection, qualities that I would not expect a young junior to have. If he lied and cheated on the island, of course he would lie and cheat off it.
And although Venus is not a young junior by any stretch, I found that I did not expect her to change following her return to tennis. I knew that the conversation at this year’s Wimbledon was going to be about her outfit, because Venus has had a long history of making sure that the tennis conversation is always about what she is wearing.

This year’s fashion choice, like all of the others that preceded it, is ghastly, cheap-looking, and poorly designed. That’s all I’m going to say. Find any of my previous columns ripping Venus’ fashion choices and just rinse and repeat. My point being that people do not change. Unless they really really want to.

And because so much of the conversation continues to revolve around Venus’ semi-exposed backside and the color of her panties – so what’s new – folks may have missed a far more important issue, which is that Venus almost got said backside handed to her on a platter today by the 40 year old Date-Krumm. That’s really what we should be talking about, isn’t it? 

Did you see Date-Krumm? At 40 she looks younger than 30, is fitter than 90% of the players on the WTA, actually looks like an athlete, and plays a flat but effective tennis game. It was wonderful to see her old-timey style of tennis being potent against a big hitter. Some of Date-Krumm’s returns of serve left me speechless.

But just as Venus seems to have become stuck in making sure that her clothing is always a topic of conversation, tennis commentators too seem to have become stuck in complying with said conversation. Rather than comment on the fact that Venus seems to be a step slower, her responses a tad delayed, her returns a bit less potent – once again commentators ignored all of this to focus on Venus’ knickers and her open back. Really? Was that the most important thing that happened today?

Monday, June 20, 2011

GUEST POST: Amanmuradova vs. the Banshees

Today I received the email below from a new reader. Other than his dastardly comments against my darling Mary Carillo, there's a lot in his rant that gave me pause. What do you think? Should players be fined for screeching? Vote in the poll below.


Dear The Tennis Chick,

I came across your page while searching for information on the rather large human Akgul with the equally large last name, after seeing her via ESPN3 this morning.  Its not often you see another female tennis player make Venus Williams look diminutive. 

When I happened to tune into the match a little late and first caught a rear-view glimpse of her serving to Venus, the possibility did indeed occur to me that Wimbledon must have put together a Riggs/King type exhibition, what with Akgul's long tennis shorts and masculine presence.  At that point, I couldn't see her face, although I'm not sure that would've helped confirm her gender.  Facially, she reminds me of Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks, and he's a pleasant enough looking fellow.   Honestly, I couldn't care less that she isn't a ravishing beauty, but I would've loved to see her whup Venus' yellow-bloomer-covered ass, and for one reason only:  Venus is another one of your banshees.  Screech-city.

The various noises have ruined my enjoyment of watching tennis, and sometimes, even playing it.  It's absurd.  It's rude.  It's annoying.  And unnecessary.  Sampras and Federer are proof positive that you don't have to yelp, screech, grunt, or moan to be a great player.  If I remember correctly, Evert, Navratilova, and Graf rarely if ever made these offensive noises either. 

Now please put me on record as saying that Monica Seles didn't deserve to get stabbed, because I don't want the next bit to sound like a lunatic's ramblings.  However, it's just barely possible that the crazed Graf fan/cretin who attacked Seles did so because he couldn't stand to listen to her anymore.

Sharapova is a cheater.  If you watch closely, when she's in a tight spot, she'll scream well after she has struck her own shot and instead just as her opponent is about to hit hers.  I've seen the other girl flinch many times in that situation and blow her shot.  Hell, people in another county probably flinch at that terrible sound.  The Williams sisters also use the same tactic.  It's cheating. 

In the tennis league I belong to, there's a rule:  if a grunter, screecher, or moaner shows up to play you and won't be quiet when asked, you can default him or her for unsportsmanlike conduct.  Plus, the accepted practice is try to drill them in the forehead with the biggest serve you can muster to shut them up.  Luckily, there isn't much of it going on, because the league doesn't tolerate it.

And that is exactly what the governing bodies of the men's and women's professional leagues should do:  Stop tolerating it.  Put some decorum back in the game.  Cut out the noises, the spitting, the one-nostril-nose-blowing (Agassi), the butt-picking-and-immediate-finger-sniffing (Nadal), and any other offensive behavior.  The inmates are running the tennis asylum, and they're ruining it. 

For years now I've been forced to watch televised tennis with the sound off and with my stereo on instead, which is okay with me because I'd generally rather listen to any kind of music than Mary Carillo.  Most of my friends do the same.  However, there are times when listening to commentary from one of the McEnroes or Cliff Drysdale would be nice.  But I can't do it!  You'd think the advertisers and sponsors would realize that a lot of viewers aren't hearing their commercials because the sound is turned down.  You'd think that they'd want to change that by exerting pressure on the ATP and WTA and whomever else to get a clue and make watching tennis an enjoyable experience again... 

All I can say is, there must be some really weak individuals running those organizations.   

Not surprisingly, the noises and unseemly behavior appear to be getting worse.  Probably just a sign of the further disintegration of society in general.

Oh well.  I guess I'll just start watching more Ultimate Fighting instead of tennis----at least when they grunt it's generally because their opponent just kicked the hell out of them or broke one of their limbs...

Thanks for the opportunity to rant.  Keep up the good work!

David Garner
Las Vegas 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mattek-Sands trying to be Tennis’ Lady Gaga?

There is no question that Lady Gaga (birth name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) is a talented entertainer. She composes catchy songs, even if they are sometimes a bit derivative. She plays the piano with scintillation. And she performs so provocatively that you find yourself looking at her just to see what she will get up to next. She surrounds herself with so much pomp and circumstance that it is easy to miss that there is real talent there.

This may be because most of the time when entertainers go to such lengths to be provocative, it is usually because they are using their flair to mask an absence of talent. Madonna is not a good singer; neither is Britney Spears. Both women use gaudy stage performances to mask this fact. People get so caught up in the spectacle that they may not even realize that the performer on stage cannot even carry a tune.

But Lady Gaga does not need to hide behind theatrics. Yet she does, which can only mean that the theatrics serve a purpose. I believe that they are a mask that she hides behind. It seems somewhat contradictory that someone would use such visible displays as a means of concealment, but that may be the purpose that such self-exhibitions serve. So what exactly is Lady Gaga hiding?

My personal opinion is that she is distracting everyone from her sheer lack of attractiveness. By walking around practically undressed, Lady Gaga accomplishes two things. She draws attention away from her unfortunate face. And she puts to rest those unfair and persistent rumors that she is a hermaphrodite. In one fell swoop she markets herself as a sexy woman while distracting us all from the fact that she actually is not – not with those pancake breasts and that clownish face. But mission accomplished, no?

I have often wondered what exactly Mattek-Sands may be similarly trying to conceal with her loud, provocative, age-inappropriate tennis fashion stylings. When Serena dressed like a member of the Cameroon football team some years ago, I had no problem with it. Serena was then just 20, an age when such fashion experimentation is to be expected. That was the same year of the cat-suit. But Serena has not worn either outfit since. And if she decided to wear the cat-suit as an almost 30 year old woman, I would be disappointed. I’m not saying that 30 year old women cannot or do not experiment with fashion. Of course they do. But the manner of  experimentation is expected to mature along with the individual.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, at 26, in my opinion is becoming a bit long in the tooth for some of her fashion stunts. I never really minded the basketball shoes, the crochet outfits, or the silly under eye black stripes. At 26 she is kind of pushing it but some will believe that she is still be within the window of acceptance for such experimentation and provocation.

But there is no excuse on earth for showing up at a formal pre-Wimbledon event wearing an ugly tennis dress. The dress, if such it can be called, is poorly designed, stupid in concept, ugly, misshapen, unattractive, and unfashionable. What exactly is she trying to prove? That she is a teenager at heart? That she can provoke the reserved All England tennis establishment? That she is a rebel with no fricking cause?

I don’t know what Mattek-Sands’ agenda is but I stand by my theory that, like Gaga and Madonna and the far more unfortunate Spears, Mattek-Sands may be trying to hide something about herself. All of this attention-seeking has as its sad underbelly the possibility of intentional concealment.

Is she unhappy in her marriage? Does she have poor self-esteem? Is she terrified of aging? Or is she truly buying into her own silly hype and believing that her fashion statements are funny or attractive? If so, I have news for you Bethanie. You need to get a couple of really good girlfriends – the kind that will tell you to your face to take that stupid dress off because you look like an ass.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Between Petzschner’s back and Fognini’s leg

A few years ago I read about a study that found no differences in the pain complaints of two groups of people – one with and the other without anatomical back injuries. The conclusion was that for many people the experience of pain is at least partly psychological. We now know that negative emotions such as anger and distress keep the pain gate wide open, allowing pain signals to make their way through the spinal cord to the brain centers that process pain. The result can be a worsening of pain experiences under conditions of excessive negative emotion.

It is possibly the recognition of this psychological component to the experience of pain that has lead one of the Army’s leading research hospitals to explore alternative ways of treating pain among combat survivors. I read today that Walter Reed has reduced from some 80% to around 12% the percentage of injured soldiers who are taking narcotics and other addictive medication for pain management. Instead soldiers are being offered such complementary and alternative treatments as hypnosis and biofeedback to manage their pain. This is a wonderful development in the world of pain treatment.

I found myself thinking about this issue –the psychology of the experience of physical pain – over this past weekend as I watched the aborted match between Germany’s Petzschner and Kohlschreiber. Among the ironies of this match is that both men are named Phillipp, and both played scintillating tennis for one set. The match was so tight that the first set came down to a nail-biting tiebreak that was too close to call all the way to the finish. Phillipp #1 delivered some blazing first serves which Phillipp #2 matched with equal fire. Really, for the first set, the players were interchangeable.

And then Petzschner requested and received treatment for his aching back. I thought nothing of it at first. After all, this was the same Petzschner who had taken out my newbie love, Milos Raonic (seeded # 8, huzzah!), as well as the formidable Tomas Berdych, to reach the final. There was no way he was going to lose this match! Then Petzschner got broken in his first serving game of the second set. And then he retired. And just like that a match that I was truly enjoying was unexpectedly over. I didn’t see it coming.

I found myself asking the TV if Petzschner would have retired if he had won the first set. Isn’t it amazing how increasingly likely it seems to be that players will retire from matches that they are clearly losing? If there is a chance in hell of winning, the same injured player will be seen hanging in there, playing for dear life, confident that if he keeps hitting out he can close the deal.

This I believe is what Fognini may have experienced in that insane match against Montanes at Roland Garros. With one leg cramping and barely able to keep his big-assed feet off the service line, Fognini started playing out of his mind. Buoyed by the positive emotions of his supporters in the crowd, Fognini just kept lashing out until poor Montanes just did not know what to do.

But I can’t help but wonder if Fognini’s pain suddenly became more unbearable the following morning when he started contemplating the fact that his next opponent was going to be Novak Djokovic. There’s probably nothing like the anxiety around facing a formidable opponent to inspire you to call in sick.

My point is that the experience of pain can be affected by the psychological circumstances facing the player. Once a set or two is lost and the player has to come from behind, he may find himself becoming aware of being in much too much pain to continue. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a psychological aspect to this – which is that the negative emotions of disappointment, fear, and frustration can in the moment augment the pain experience and make it intolerable. Could this be what happened to Petzschner? Why don’t I let him speak for himself?

“Both of us played solid tennis, we both served really well. And then out of the blue I’m serving and I notice that something is wrong. The more balls I hit the more obvious it became that I couldn’t finish the match like this. Not on a normal level anyway, I could have just stood in court, but that doesn’t make any sense. Maybe I would have really hurt myself then, or something really bad happens that costs me another eight or 10 weeks.” (emphasis mine)

Please understand that I am not accusing these players of consciously or deliberately cheating – although this may be very true in some cases. I believe that for many players, all they may become aware of in the moment is that their physical pain has out of the blue become unbearable. I can’t help but wonder if this is what (out of the blue) happened with Petzschner’s back after he lost that first set to his countryman. We may never know.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The tennis planets are once again aligned

The drought has been terrible. The people have suffered so. In the absence of the great ones, we have had to settle for a number of pipsqueaks. The pipsqueakiest of them all planted herself atop the rankings and ran down every two bit tournament from Charleston to Morocco just so she could remain at #1. But put her in a major event with serious contenders and she would fold like a wet paper bag. It has been a shameful display of lacking.

Of course in the absence of the luminaries, we got the chance to discover some other fresh talent. I discovered that I quite like the pluck of Georges, Wickmayer, Vesnina, and Peng Shuai. Na Li delivered on the promise shown when she challenged Serena at the 2010 Aussie Open, and made it to two Slam finals, winning one definitively. Kvitova made us smile and Petkovic made us dance. And the USTA tried its’ all to promote Sharapova as the resurgent White Hope who would fill the space left gaping by the absence of the great ones.

More than anything else, their absence gave many cause for such hope. Players could continue to stuff their bellies with éclairs and still win matches because being a top athlete was no longer a requirement for success. This is what happens when the great ones go away. Standards drop, and mediocrity rules. A 40-year-old mother returned to the tour after not playing for years – and actually won an event! There’s no shame in seizing an opportunity.

Of course some who struggled before the great ones went away continued to struggle in their absence. When your head is all messed up and your game is as confused as Safina’s has become, it really doesn’t matter if either Venus or Serena are on the tour. And Safina is not the only one battling her mental demons. Azarenka continues to confuse, screaming with blazing energy one minute and completely flaming out the next – in between bizarre fainting spells and other hysterics.

Clijsters’ body seems to be betraying her. And I hear that her husband has since found a coaching job so who knows how that will affect her hunger. And Ivanovic continues to try, really hard, for a set and a half. And then she seems to decide that it is all just too much bother, too much sweat, and she just deflates. The world of women’s tennis has been in a tailspin, as tornados rage and nuclear reactors slowly melt.

But the planets have now realigned. The world of women’s tennis has been righted. The tennis planets have been righted on their orbit. The luminaries are once again at center. The tennis conversation now revolves around the return of Venus and Serena to the women’s tour.

I’ve missed Serena’s intensity. I’ve missed the freeness of her smile when she is happy. Heck I’ve even missed seeing Venus’ raggy weave held together for dear life with bobby pins. It’s funny the things you notice when the great ones go away.

There is beauty in the coincidence of their returning to the same grass event – the Aegon Championships at Eastbourne – a significant warm-up event for Wimbledon. Venus’ has been rehabbing a hip which she injured at the Australian Open this year. Serena stepped on a piece of glass sometime after Wimbledon last year, and later suffered a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism. The great ones have been tested and have survived. Their return means that they are both feeling fit and healthy. They would not be here otherwise.

It is ironic that Venus will be facing Petkovic in her first match back. Petkovic is the last woman she played before withdrawing from Australia. Serena will face Tsvetana Pironkova, the Bulgarian with the unusual game who actually has two wins over Venus. Two solid opponents who should challenge the sisters. But of course I never count out either Venus or Serena. If tradition holds, they should be facing each other in the finals.

Friday, June 10, 2011

116 million Chinese watched a tennis match

Can you imagine? It’s mind-boggling isn’t it? And what’s even more compelling is that Na Li (Li Na?) was well aware of this and seemed to graciously accept her role as China’s leading tennis ambassador. It’s a weighty honor to be sure. It makes the pressure that Federer feels from Switzerland or Nadal from Spain frankly pale in comparison. 116 million Chinese watched a tennis match. Unbelievable.
If Na Li were American, that would translate into some massive endorsement deals. I don’t know how the Chinese have elected to honor her. But I do know that the influence of her Roland Garros win will resound into the next generation of tennis players.
Upon hearing of Na Li’s victory an American friend of mine commented that “the Chinese are taking over”. He went on to grouse about the Chinese domination of a number of sports and remained somewhat perturbed by my support of Na Li. My friend felt threatened. He anticipated that there will be no sport immune to Chinese dominance in the future. He was aghast that I was perfectly fine with this.
My perspective was that you don’t punish people for working hard. I told him that if Na Li ended up inspiring Chinese women to play tennis, I couldn’t fault her for that. I pointed out that other countries have had tennis stars who influenced others in the same way. No doubt Julie Georges was inspired by Steffi Graf. There are bucket loads of Russian women playing tennis because of Myskina and Kournikova. And there is no way to measure the widespread influence of Navratilova a generation before.
But I conceded that none of this had the scope of 116 million. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around that number, or around the notion of just how many little girls and boys have since asked their parents to buy tennis rackets. I can’t imagine the explosion that tennis is going to have on the Asian continent. All of this was imagined before and certainly explains the ATP and WTA forays into Shanghai and other Asian tournament locations. But none of that will probably have the reach of Na Li’s win.
I was actually too nervous to watch this match live. I am a nervous wreck when my faves are playing. Not just a nervous wreck but a delusional and irrational one as well. For example, when Federer went up 4-1 in the first set against Rafa, I was excited but fine. The minute Rafa equalized the match I turned off the TV and did not see another ball. I couldn’t bear it. Surely it was my watching the match in the first place that might be influencing the outcome? One of these days I will write an article on the irrationality of tennis fans and the delusions of power and influence that we give ourselves.
So for reasons related to my far-reaching power and influence as a fan, I also did not watch the Na Li match live. But I did watch the re-run on the Tennis Channel, because by then I knew the outcome and could watch it with pleasure but no pain. To be fair, Schiavone never brought the level of intensity seen in matches leading up to the finals. She seemed almost sad, muted, de-energized. I don’t know if her fight to get to the finals had sapped all of her energy. She was a shadow of herself in that match.
But Na Li had clearly come to that match with a clear and concise winning strategy. She did not play the corner to corner game that most players now do and which becomes so predictable. Instead she returned balls hard to Schiavone’s feet, trapping her at the baseline and often preventing her from coming into net. She also drove balls hard down the middle, taking away Schiavone’s angles. She stymied Schiavone’s creativity.
And above all, the Na Li forehand not only held up strongly but became the source of some of her best shots. The woman herself remained calm, confident, and in the end thrilled with her victory. 116 million Chinese and one tennischick are very proud of her.

Monday, June 6, 2011

When inflexibility borders on stupidity

I make no bones about the fact that I wanted Na Li to win Roland Garros. Indeed, I predicted that she would. To me everything started lining up in her favor the minute I saw her performance in the match against Sharapova. It wasn’t just that she beat Maria. It was that she beat her in straights despite not playing her best tennis. Li did so by adapting her game to her opponent as well as to the conditions on Court Chartrier.

Sharapova on the other hand, played the same way she always plays, whether she’s in Dubai, Flushing Meadows, Australia, London, or Rome. Sharapova has a singular style of playing tennis that she deploys regardless of opponent, surface, or circumstances – she plays in a manner that can only be characterized as fearless, gutsy, and loud.

This style of playing worked in her favor in Rome, allowing her to hoist the winner’s trophy. But Rome and Roland Garros are not identical. The surfaces may both be clay but they play very differently. In addition, the weather was different in both cities. In Rome, Sharapova did not have to contend with winds gusting at 20 mph. Nor did she have to play with lighter balls. You’d think she would then have made adjustments to the changed conditions in Paris. But she didn’t, and she lost.

A reader recently challenged me to defend my opinion that Maria Sharapova is a mentally strong player. How could Sharapova possibly be mentally strong when she needs a tennis-whisperer to tell her what to do? And it is indeed possible that if her new coach had been able to approach courtside and tell her what adjustments to make, she may have beaten Na Li. But he couldn’t, and she lost.

But this loss had nothing to do with a lack of mental strength IMO. On the contrary, Maria’s problem may be that she takes mental strength to a level that becomes a liability. She is strong to the point of being obtuse, inflexible, mindless. She is mentally determined to the point of stubbornness. She will do things in her own way, in her own style, using her own approach, regardless. She seems to be rigid to a level that is scary. (I suspect that this may be true for other aspects of her life as well, but that is Sasha’s problem – after all, he plans to spend his life with her).

In the match against Na Li, it quickly became clear that everything that is right about Sharapova’s game is also everything that is wrong with it. She is determined and fearless, yes. She goes for big power shots, yes. She plays Big Babe tennis, yes. But in France, against Na Li, none of these were going to help her win the match. And at no point did Sharapova make any adjustments or concessions to the prevailing conditions.

A simple example: Maria tends to toss the ball extremely high on her serves, and makes contact with it as it starts coming back down. Under dry windless conditions, that would be fine and would not be costly. But with winds swirling at 20 mph, a high toss was just not the smart option. You’d think it would once occur to Sharapova to make the adjustment. It never did. Instead she went for more and more screaming power. Na Li patiently allowed her self-implode.

I was amused by the politically correct commentary offered by ESPN’s Cliffy and Mary Jo as they watched this match. Mary Carillo would have called it like it was, which is the reason I adore her. But Cliffy and Mary Jo remained circumspect in their comments about Sharapova’s performance. Mary Jo commented on Maria’s determination to play her own game, but never once noted that this could also be a liability.

As with the commentary in the match against Petkovic, you’d swear that Maria was the only person on the court. The powers that be were clearly invested in Sharapova completing a Grand Slam. Alas, it was not to be, despite the advantage of currently being coached by Na Li’s former coach who seemed to have clearly advised her to pick on the Na Li relatively weaker forehand.

Na Li, on the other hand, is an intelligent and adaptable player. That she was able to get past Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova was nothing short of mind-boggling. But her adjustments to Schiavone’s game in the finals were simply brilliant. Her 7-0 win in the second set tiebreaker was gutsy. Congrats Na Li. Well done!