Friday, September 30, 2011

"Three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1"

That’s the caption that accompanies just about every article about Maria Sharapova these days. On the one hand the phrase may be testament to the fact that many tennis fans hope that this does not end up being the summary statement of Sharapova’s career. On the other hand, there is something about the frequency with which this phrase is trotted out that smacks a bit of desperation, of a kind of fear that this might as well be the encryption on her future tomb stone.

Truly I don’t mean to be morbid. My point mainly is to speculate on whether there might be some kind of psychological effect of being subjected to the same kind of description over and over. The optimistic part of Sharapova or her team may enjoy the reminder of her former glories. The pessimistic side – assuming of course that this exists – may wonder if this statement will end up summarizing her career. What do you think?

Mind you, I can think of a gazillion tennis players who would kill for such a statement to be the description of their career achievements. Vera Zvonareva, for example, has won 12 WTA titles. She has been a finalist at two Slam events but did not win either. She has made it to the Tokyo finals. I suspect that being described as a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” would probably thrill Vera to no end.

But for Maria Sharapova, the expectation has always been so much more. Being a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” just doesn’t cut it. That is not why Nike selected her as worthy of an extreme investment for which you and I are probably still paying. For Sharapova, the trend of expectation has not let down. Au contraire, when she decided to come back from shoulder surgery, folks seemed to expect so much more. You’d swear her name was Serena. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

For Sharapova, the pattern of expectation seems to flow as follows. On the days leading up to a tennis event, the media start hysterically (as in, with hysteria, not humor) predicting a Sharapova win. As she gets through the early rounds, the chorus becomes more and more frantic, more and more strident. Accompanying this deafening drum beat are constant reminders that she is a “three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1” – as if there is any chance that we might forget. And then it all goes quiet after she loses. 

It was no different this past week in Japan at the Toray Pan Pacific Open. Going into this event, Sharapova was strongly (desperately?) predicted to be the winner. All of the media coverage that I saw focused on her progress through this event. All of the early matches covered featured her playing. I did not see any other match on TV than the ones in which she appeared.

Never mind the fact that she lost to Kimiko Date this time last year. That ignominious defeat got white-washed in the river of expectation. Instead we were conveniently reminded that Sharapova was herself a former Toray champion (she won in 2009). She had earned the honor of expectation.

And then she lost to Kvitova. She twisted her ankle reaching for one of the lefty’s wide shots and crashed to the ground. And then she retired. Next day she announced that the MRI confirmed that the injury was not serious – she would be just fine come Istanbul. As if that wasn’t self-evident.

But for a moment she was given a temporary reprieve from the pressure to succeed. By twisting her ankle, she may have found a face-saving way to silence the drumbeat of reminders that she is... (you know, fill in the blank).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Apply the rules, don’t make judgment calls

I was going to call this entry “Where Serena Goes, Drama Follows”. Really, has there ever before been a tennis player for whom Drama seems to be her middle name? As much as I adore Serena – and folks you know that I do – even I am becoming a bit exhausted by the chaos and turmoil that her mere presence seems always to attract.

I am disappointed too because Serena seemed to have gone to so much trouble to find a core of peace and quiet that she reached to throughout her matches leading up to the US Open finals. Now her latest outburst will take on a life of its own, joining with the 2009 outburst to give an impression of a volatile and labile woman unable to manage her emotions under stress.

Whatever your position on that scream that Serena let out when she thought she had hit a winner against Sam Stosur, the fact is that it was disruptive. Should she however have been penalized with a game? I think not. I agree with Serena that this outburst should have been treated the same way that umpires treat with a hat falling off. The Chair should have called a let and the players should have replayed the point.

To punish Serena for interference is to imply that she deliberately and intentionally screamed at that moment in order to hinder Stosur from playing a return point. That is not what happened. Even Serena’s biggest detractors can hopefully acknowledge that.

What this incident highlights however is that decision-making in tennis is far too subjective. This is what pisses off so many of the pros. One Chair fines a player a penalty point for the same infraction for which another Chair would have called a let. And a third Chair would have done nothing at all – unless Stosur had complained, which she never did.

The process of decision-making in tennis seems to be far too dependent on the subjective interpretation of the rules by different umpires. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the handling of player challenges of line calls. Some Chairs respond to delayed appeals by the players. Other Chairs remain neutral and insist on the player using a challenge even when the Chair him or herself believes that the ball was out. Federer has been an outspoken critic of the tendency of umpires to stop doing the job for which they are paid and instead rely on the players’ use of the challenge system.

What we need in tennis is for decisions not to be reliant on personal judgment calls. There are objective rules in tennis and all umpires should be trained to interpret these rules in the same way across the board. So when Sharapova screams her glee at her effort resulting in a winning shot, she should be penalized in the same way that Serena was. There should not be rules for some that are not applied under the same circumstances, to others. It is the perception of unfairness that is particularly galling.

Understand that my point has nothing to do with the outcome of this match. I could not be happier for Sam Stosur. She is an amazing player who has grown into self-confidence. She has beaten Serena before and she came to the finals with a definite plan about how she was going to execute another win. I felt, going into this match, that it was unfair to count Stosur out. I truly believed that she could beat Serena.

But my coach disagreed with me. He also disagreed with my observation that Serena’s win last night over Wozniacki was not as easy as it looked. For the first time I noticed a level of aggressiveness in Caroline’s play that finally makes me comfortable agreeing that it is just a matter of time until she wins her first Slam. Has she ever been fiercer than when she came back in that match against Kuznetsova? There were moments in her match against Serena when I was stunned by how aggressive Serena HAD to be in order to shut Wozniacki out. It was not an easy win for Serena, by any means.

I also agreed with Mary Carillo that there was more pressure on Serena to win this event than on Stosur. Serena was touted as the odds-on favorite from the minute she bailed in Cincinnati and qualified for a seed. Stosur was seen as lucky to have survived the challenges posed by Petrova and Kerber. But in the end she won fair and square. That single game did not change the outcome of this match. But it did highlight the ongoing problem of inconsistent interpretation and application of the rules of tennis.

Is it OK if I blame Anna Wintour?

After all, it’s her damn fault that the covers of fashion magazines have been overtaken by so many Hollywood celebrities that the distinction between model and celeb wannabe has become disgustingly blurred. And what’s with her decision to give Sarah Jessica Horseface Parker so many damn Vogue covers? What part of that sadly unattractive woman is supposed to be inspiration to either dress like her or (God forbid) look like her?

So it is with some delight that I have come to the conclusion that it must be Anna Wintour’s damn fault that Federer lost that match yesterday to Djokovic. I know that my thinking in this matter is entirely irrational. Or is it? Am I the only one who’s noticed that, as she ages, Wintour has started looking increasingly like a witch? Have you seen that hooked nose? And doesn’t her severe bob look as if it could have been carved from a straw broom?

Really Wintour’s constant hovering in the Federer box can only be described as bad ju ju. And it seems to be hampering his tennis success. She seems to always be present for those matches when Federer starts off winning and then inexplicably loses. Indeed Federer has been wearing this Wintour millstone for some years. Apparently he finds it an honor that she has chosen to fly into and land in his private box. What do you think it’s gonna take for him to realize that the quality of his tennis may be affected by the contents of his entourage?

Of course Federer was much kinder than I am being in his post-match interview. He actually held himself accountable for this inexplicable loss to Djokovic. Let me let him speak for himself:

“It's awkward having to explain this loss because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference. But it’s what it is. It’s the obvious, really. He came back; he played well. I didn’t play so well at the very end. Sure, it’s disappointing, but I have only myself to blame. I set it all up perfect, but I couldn’t finish it.

“That’s why we all watch sports, isn’t it? Because we don’t know the outcome and everybody has a chance, and until the very moment it can still turn. That’s what we love about the sport, but it’s also very cruel and tough sometimes. It got me today. It hurts, but it’s fine. Could be worse. It could be a final.”

See, no mention of Anna Wintour. No mention of her blood-sucking presence that has taken up a permanent spot in his box. No mention of the negative karma sewn into the clothes she selects for and dresses him in. No talk at all about her witch-like energy and how it seems to cast a negative spell over Federer, always as he is about to win.

I know that I'm probably sounding ridiculous. But think for a moment about the impact of the Wintour presence. Has she ever been absent when Federer managed to wrench a tennis defeat out of the jaws of success? (I rest my case your honor.) Really it has become increasingly clear that if Federer has any serious intentions of winning another Slam, he has to have the courage to change the membership of his entourage – starting with canceling Anna Wintour’s season tickets.

Of course I am being entirely irrational. In truth, Federer has no excuse for yesterday’s loss to Novak Djokovic. Yes I have been the first to admit that Djokovic has gone from a good tennis player to a great champion. But Federer was the one to stop him at Roland Garros. Roger knows how to beat Novak. Roger was up two sets to none. All he had to do was win one more. And that turned out to be the impossible dream.

All I could do afterwards was tweet thanks that at least he didn’t cry. At least not for us to see. If Mirka had to comfort him on her ample bosom last night, that is between the two of them. Hopefully Anna Wintour had the decency to excuse herself and give them some privacy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

When greed wins out over practicality

Who knew that my decision to pass on this year’s US Open would turn out to be prescient? Allow me make this about myself for a moment – I actually feel relieved that I elected not to spend the $$$ to take myself on my annual pilgrimage to NYC. Think of the money I have saved!

But this is not about me but about the disaster that this year’s US Open has turned out to be for the players, for the organizers, and most of all for the fans. How ludicrous is it that a group of players had to band together and insist on not being made to play on dangerous wet courts? Heck, folks don’t even do that on free public courts much less at New York City’s signature sporting event!

And how petty was it when that USTA official made the snarky point about Roddick being up a break at the moment he was supposed to have been complaining about court conditions? What the heck did the score have to do with anything? Why should tennis players have to risk limb and safety all because the powers-that-be decided that money was better spent making a mini-stadium out of Court 17 than building a frigging roof?

For years we’ve all heard lots of reasons and opinions about why Wimbledon needed a roof and why the Brits would never buck tradition to get one. But guess what? The Brits did build a roof, so much so that this year, players were able to get their middle Sunday off and play continued uninterrupted into the second week.

And for years we heard about hot it was in Australia and why the dome needed a roof. Not only did the Aussies build a roof but they did so with such creativity that the very opening and closing of the thing has become its own event.

Yet here is the US Open, the USA’s biggest tennis event by far – with no ability to fend off the massive financial losses that will be incurred because no one elected to channel some of the past earnings into constructing a roof. Even newbie tourney Winston-Salem did a much better job of handling the impact of Hurricane Irene than the USTA has so far been able to manage the misty drizzle of New York. How embarrassing is this? Very.

I’m trying to wrap my mind around the quality of judgment that went behind the decision to dig a hole into Court 17 and create a mini-stadium that could hold a couple of thousand spectators. And certainly holders of grounds passes seem to be enjoying the opportunity that this new stadium has created to see some exciting matches.

I am grateful to Court 17 supporters who seemed to have aligned themselves behind Donald Young and pushed him to his best Slam achievement ever. It’s too bad that his re-match against Murray was re-located to the Grand Stand. But of course Murray was determined to make sure that everyone knew that that previous loss was just a fluke.

And thanks of course to those Court 17 spectators who helped John Isner take out Gilles Simon. This was their first meeting and I have to admit that I was worried. But I need not have – Court 17 was going to pull John through.

But I would demolish Court 17 in a heartbeat and use the money to break down and re-build Ashe stadium with a working roof. Building a roof over the existing Grand Stand would also have been the sensible choice. Developing Court 17 was the greedy one.

More than likely the decision to develop Court 17 was probably based on the prospect of selling hundreds and hundreds of additional grounds’ passes. In other words – greed. Razing Ashe stadium and building a roof over the new structure would however have been the common sense thing to do. How embarrassing is it that the USTA continues to lag behind the other Slam events in common sense.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Continuing to be defined by your mistakes

One of the great myths about America is that it is supposed to be the land of redemption. The story goes that this is a country in which the greatest sinners and miscreants can turn their lives around and receive a second chance at success. It is a country for example, where a woman who makes a sex tape for profit can end up getting married on a reality show and actually get hailed as America’s royalty, her wedding photos plastered on the front page of People magazine as if she is some kind of princess – albeit one with an ass way too massive to possibly feel the pea.

What America is not supposed to be is a country in which people continue to be defined by their past mistakes. But the truth is that the first version of America seems to happen largely to white folk. Casey Anthony may be being hounded by the media today, but give her a year or two and she too will be on the cover of People magazine. Certainly she is guaranteed to land there the next time she gets pregnant. It may be hard to see that possibility now because she is so widely despised, but there will come a day when she will be given the chance to redeem herself. That is how white America rolls.

But black people in this country know that their reality is that they continue to be defined by their mistakes. I’m not saying that no black folk ever get a chance at redemption, because they do. But alongside any grudging chances to prove that they have changed, runs an endless chatter about how messed up they used to be. And nowhere is this divide more sickening than in the world of tennis.

Take John McEnroe for example. He made a career out of being an asshole. He was such an asshole back in the day that when asked to comment on the assholish behavior of current tennis players, he invariably has the grace to say that he really should not be the one commenting. John once almost hit a kid with a full bottle of water during one of his legendary temper tantrums. His constant declarations of “You cannot be serious!” to the Chair ended up becoming his signature catchphrase and the title of his autobiography (which I still have not finished reading, it is so poorly written).

Today Johnny Mac is a respectable commentator for the Tennis Channel. In fact I will let the TC’s recent announcement serve as example of the incredible white-washing to which McEnroe has been subjected:  “As one of the most recognizable and credible television analysts in tennis today, McEnroe has captivated sports fans since bringing his fiery personality to the pro tennis scene in the late 1970s.” See how that works?

And then there is Donald Young. I don’t know about you but I am getting slightly sick of listening to tennis commentators rehash the story about how Donald Young’s parents messed up, about how Young’s father once brashly declared that his son was going to be a future #1 and would win many Grand Slams, and about how the great selfless USTA rescued Donald from this atrocious situation and helped him to a better career.

It’s not that none of these facts are true. In fact I myselfhave written before about the hype around Donald Young and what a disservice that was to him. But in 2011 Donald Young has been playing superb tennis. The benefits of his training regimen are being seen in wins over Andy Murray, Stanislas Wawrinka, and most recently Juan Ignacio Chela. Young has climbed into the top 100 in the singles rankings. Surely all of this is enough to consider changing the conversation about him? Surely he has hard-earned some redemption?

And then there is Serena Williams. Her outburst at the US Open two years ago clearly resulted in a mature decision to learn how to manage emotional stress. For this she has been criticized, and Mary Jo in particular has attracted my wrath on this issue. Now whenever Serena plays, the ESPN commentary team starts their introduction with a re-hashing of the 2009 incident. It has taken on a life of its own. Redemption is nowhere in sight.

In fact I don’t think that even winning the 2011 US Open will give Serena any kind of redemption. Unlike Johnny Mac who has enjoyed a multiplicity of redemptive chances, Serena has never been given a pass. I fear that her tennis career will continue to be defined by a singular mistake.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Should pre-match interviews be scrapped?

Tonight, as Maria Kirilenko was about to step onto Arthur Ashe stadium, Pam Shriver asked her how she felt knowing that the crowd was going to be against her. My daughter flinched in shock at the question. I heard myself saying “Ouch! That sucks!” But what really sucked was that Pam Shriver thought that this was a fair question to ask a non-American player as she was about to face the challenge of playing a young American on her home turf.

I have been ambivalent about pre-match interviews for a long time. I don’t think that they are inappropriate in certain sports like boxing or fake wrestling where the pugilist can seize the opportunity to call his opponent a ten-pound weakling. But I don’t believe that they really play any kind of necessary or even important role in tennis. Really tennis pre-match interviews serve no purpose that I can detect. Fans do not benefit from them and neither do the players. And when the questions are loaded with such negativity, they may even psychologically damage the player and throw her off her game.

I am confident that no tennis player enjoys being asked difficult questions in those final moments before entering the court. In an ideal world, those moments would be for the player to turn inwards and find the resources of mental strength needed to face an opponent in front of a hostile crowd of thousands. It is not a moment to be outward-focused, having to respond to a partial interviewer.

Of course it can be argued that if a player is such a mental weakling that he or she cannot handle a tough question, then they deserve to lose the damn match anyway. And one can also argue that all players should develop the Serena Williams ability to respond by repeating the same trite phrases over and over – she’s just going to go out and play her game, she’s just going to go out there and have fun, and similar inanities.

But not everyone has the mental fortitude of a Serena Williams. And for some players, being asked whether they are ready to face a crowd of people who will be rooting for their opponent may be enough to set them back psychologically. Of course some players have the ability to channel their annoyance at an inappropriate question into a winning performance. Could that be what Maria Kirilenko did tonight?

The stress on McHale could be seen from the giant-sized pimples that have broken out all over her face. I was relieved that Pam elected to ask her an easy question not designed to throw her off her game. It could have been much worse. Pam could have asked her what it was like to be only 19, and already being weighed down by the power of American expectations. Conversely she could have asked Maria: “You beat McHale at doubles yesterday, what did you learn from that experience that you are taking into this match?” Ha ha. Like that would never happen.

Players of course have no choice but to go along with the program. Some years ago Hewitt tried to buck the system and got fined a hefty penalty for refusing to do a pre-match interview at the Cincinnati Open. I am not aware of any other player who has since tried to get out of doing one of these interviews. Probably no one thinks it worth it to give up hundreds of thousands of dollars just to answer one of the Pam Shriver’s stupid-ass questions.

But I think it’s fair to query what exactly is the point of these silly interviews. Do we really expect a player to set out her game plan as she is about to step onto the court? Do we expect her to say that her knees are knocking in fear? Does the TV audience need to see the player answering these silly questions? Who really benefits from this charade?

I also find myself wondering if ESPN comes up with a list of questions to be posed or whether the interviewers just do their own thing. It’s hard to believe that the script is generated by ESPN when Darren Cahill always seems to find a way to pose non-threatening questions when placed in the same situation. Cahill’s questions are always gentle and respectful. Afterward he always wishes the players well. And he never goes in for the jugular, regardless of the nationality of the contestants.