Monday, September 24, 2012

If Rafa could take Djoko behind the school and get him pregnant...

The result would be the amazingness of Martin Klizan. Truly Klizan's game is the perfect distillation of Rafa's lefty forehand ferocity and Djokovic's bend-gumbiness (aka his flexibility). Klizan also favors Djoko in his litheness and deceptive underlying strength. He even looks like him a little, don't you agree? And while his butt no where approximates that of Spain's finest, it is not non-existent either.

And if you don't get the joke in the title, I wouldn't blame you. No one at the 2012 Emmy's seemed to know what to make of the big-bellied buffoon and his nunchuks. You'd have to be a serious fan of “30 Rock” to get what Kimmel was trying to do with Tracy Jordan last night. But, removed from the lunacy of his show, Tracy simply looked like a bloated fool. In the context of the well-dressed White people, not even his frequently uttered “take it out behind the school and get it pregnant” joke would have worked. But I so like it for my discovery of Martin Klizan. His is the ultimate fusion of Djoko and Rafa's tennis games.

I first saw Klizan at the US Open this year and I was impressed by his spanking of Alejandro Falla. It was a decisive three-set win over the man who seriously threatened Federer at the Olympics. But flashes-in-the-pan come and go and I wasn't going to get all worked up over a single result. So I dismissed him from my thoughts, convinced that Tsonga would put him away in the second round.

And then he spanked Tsonga in four. I was stunned. But I quickly started making excuses for Tsonga who had been so utterly charming at the Winston-Salem Open, posing for photos with myself and a friend. No I am not sharing them, you'll just have to take my word for it. But anyone so deliciously sweet to his fans was surely deserving of a pass? After all perhaps his tank was just half-empty from playing so much Big Man Tennis against Isner. (Nope, still can't let it go.)

It didn't fully register when Klizan beat Jeremy Chardy because I saw nothing of that match. Neither man makes enough of an impression in the USA to get any TV coverage. And then he went out to Cilic who bageled him in the third set, and I concluded that he was just another upstart who had run out of steam.

I changed my mind when I saw Klizan playing at the St. Petersburg Open. Yes he won that tournament, and gained his first ATP title, which was impressive. But it was really the semi-final match against Youzhny that convinced me that here was a new talent and he was here to stay. Indeed, if the ATP is fair, Klizan should receive their Newbie of the Year Award. He has been that impressive in 2012.

There was nothing that Youzhny didn't do to try to win that match. His coach/putative father looked on forlornly as Youzhny found himself stretched this way and that by the 23-year-old, less experienced clearly, but more gutsy, more creative in his play, more lacerating with his forehand blows. It was three hours and fifty minutes of scintillating tennis. I did not miss a ball.

Klizan's game is still a work in progress. He too predictably serves down the line when in a hole. He favors his forehand but can mis-time shots on the backhand. He goes for the dropshot a little too predictably at times. He needs to get fitter and improve his endurance. Toward the end of the match against Youzhny, Klizan seemed to be cramping, although that did not prevent him from winning.

Despite the fact that he was last to finish on court – having gone on to play doubles after the almost four-hour semi-final match – Klizan was nevertheless favored to win the finals against Fabio Fognini. With a game that is the perfect blend of the best of Rafa and Djoko, Klizan easily spanked the Italian who irritated me with his lackadaisical attitude even as he amused me with his loud self-muttering, silly racket-throwing, and occasional looks of consternation at the man across the net. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Guest Column Part 2: The End of the Myth

According to the reports of many of his teammates, Lance Armstrong used various methods to cheat his way into victory. One tactic was to simply buy the race. There are reports that in 1993, at merely age 21, Armstrong bought a race for $50,000.00. It was a three-segment race in West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Armstrong apparently won the first two legs legitimately, but negotiated with other competitors not to contend the third leg and to allow him to win, in return for $50,000.00. Besides the prize for each segment, there was a million-dollar prize for the rider who won all three legs. Steven Swart testified under oath to being on the receiving end of this deal.Who knows what other backhand deals Armstrong may have employed in other subsequent races if he felt threatened for the win?

Many believe that Armstrong never tested positive for illegal performance-enhancement substances because he simply owned Hein Verbruggen, the President of the UCI. Evidence for this ironically lies in Armstrong's cancer diagnosis in 1996. That same year, he competed for 10 solid months, either winning races or making the podium in Europe and the USA. Because he placed so high in the standings, he would have been tested multiple times throughout that year. Yet by the time his testicular cancer was diagnosed, it was already at an advanced stage. Had he been properly tested in the first place, his condition might have been discovered sooner. His boasts about never testing positive may be based on the confidence of his ownership of the individual responsible for having him tested in the first place!

Do you recall the Radio Shack commercials that featured Armstrong and a personal assistant named Alphonse? You won’t find them anymore on the Internet as Radio Shack has had them removed. The ads captured a domineering Armstrong who would repeatedly terrify the cowering assistant. I believe that that was the real Armstrong. He has since been described by those who had close interactions with him as a domineering, bullying, threatening man who used those same qualities to secure himself seven illegal wins.

I'd like to believe that tennis is a clean sport, but James Blake recently made waves with his statements implying that tennis may have its own Lance Armstrongs. After his first round loss at the 2012 US Open, Blake reportedly stated: “I'm sure there are guys who are doing it, getting away with it, and getting ahead of the testers. With this much money involved, $1.9 million for the winner of the US Open, people will try to find a way to get ahead. It's unfortunate, but I hope tennis is doing the best job of trying to catch those guys trying to beat the system.”

If Blake is correct, then tennis needs to take a page from the USADA and have the guts to go after any suspected cheaters. No more catching the small fry using cocaine. It's time to go after the big guns with big-monied corporations in their back pockets – if they exist. And ex-lovers should always be questioned. You know, hell hath no fury and all that. Indeed, anyone whose dominance seems suspect should be subjected to even more rigid and unexpected evaluations. If they are not cheating, they would have no gripes about these efforts to keep their sport clean.

Details of the 1999-2005 Armstrong-dominated era are flooding the Internet every day and USADA says that they will be revealing their evidence in due course. Kudos to Travis Tygart for standing up to this menace who, up till now, was accustomed to making life miserable for anyone who dared to question his record. When life started unraveling for Armstrong in 2010, he came 23rd in the Tour de France. That’s more like it. That’s exactly the kind of athlete he is—a good one, and one whose best effort lands him in 20-something place and no higher. Dominance should always be achieved honestly, with sweat and tears but without illegal blood.
(Part 2 of 2 submitted by Velopen)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Guest Post: Does Tennis have its own Lance Armstrong?

Fiiiiinally, something’s been done about Lance Armstrong’s 7-year-long money-making, wool-pulling, public-duping fa├žade. And finally, good riddance to a huge menace to clean, wholesome competition.

Many say that although Armstrong cheated his way to the top, he was nevertheless a great athlete because others were also doping at the same he reportedly was. But perhaps there never was a level playing field in the first place, due to the possibility that he may have employed more than just illegal substances to make sure he won. I believe that Lance is (was) a good athlete, but he was never exceptional.

Armstrong reportedly began working with an Italian doctor named Ferrari who was one of the most advanced and skilled doctors in the science of the use and masking science of performance enhancing substances. Dr. Ferrari’s services reportedly became exclusively contracted to the US Postal team, making him inaccessible to rival teams. One of Lance’s former teammates, Tyler Hamilton (whose book with all its gory details was recently published) says about this doctor that his knowledge was two years ahead of everyone else’s. He was a genius at what he did.

Despite the clear advantages of doping, Armstrong has been accused of deploying other manipulations to increase the likelihood of his winning. One tactic was to have other competitors caught for doping. That way, he could control the peloton and the outcome of the race.

In 2004 Armstrong allegedly sent an email to the organization that owns the Tour de France (the ASO), the World Anti Doping Agency, and the world governing body of cycling (the UCI), about a specific substance that rivals were using (synthetic haemoglobin derived from cows’ blood). In that same year’s Tour, Iban Mayo—a serious contender for the overall win—dropped off the radar at Stage 15 and Armstrong won his sixth title. Mayo later was implicated in doping and was banned for two years.

Armstrong’s team seemed to have enjoyed a “protected” status. None of his US Postal teammates ever tested positive, until they left his team for another. Tyler Hamilton says that after he left the USPS, he organized his own system of doping with his new team; he was caught and suspended twice. Floyd Landis was caught when he was riding with Phonak and was stripped of his Tour de France title (in 2006 after Lance retired). Some others never tested positive although they have admitted to using drugs to help them win while they were riding with Lance.

Which brings me to Lance’s worn-out old line that he “never tested positive”, which that he holds up as proof that he never doped. Frankie, George, and Jonathan (and others) never tested positive either, yet they admitted their use. (George hasn't publicly admitted but he has talked to investigators and Landis and Tyler have said that the entire team engaged in systematic doping.) Do you believe that tennis has a similar problem?

(Part 1 of 2 by Velopen)

Monday, September 3, 2012

So...Isner lost after playing “Big Man Tennis”?

No, I'm sorry but I can't let this go. As long as that misogynistic dweeb, Justin Gimmelstob, keeps promoting this piece of plagiaristic crap, I will insist on commenting on it. So there is John Isner about to enter Ashe Stadium to face Phillip Kohlscreiber at the 2012 US Open, and what does Gimmelstob ask him? He asks him about playing Big Man Tennis. Yes, he actually went there.

Here is a literal translation: GIMMEL-STOP: “I often hear from you about Big Man Tennis, from you and your coach, what exactly is it?” And Isner dutifully replies, “I see it to play aggressively and or lose a point on my terms. If I can do that, er...whether I win or lose the match, I walk off the court pretty content”.

So let's deconstruct this. Now Gimmelstob seems to be claiming no ownership of this plagiaristic piece of crap. That is actually a good thing because I would like to believe that the Tennis Channel would not persist in having an ignoramus on their payroll. And look I get that the economy sucks and I would not wish job loss on anyone at this time, not even a misogynistic jackass. So it was great to hear Gimmelstob crediting the notion of “Big Man Tennis” to Isner and his coach. If only he would have the intelligence to stop promoting this non-starter of a concept.

So I decided to do an Internet search to see if I could find a statement from either Isner or his coach claiming that Isner plays Big Man Tennis. I found nothing. This is not to say that neither Isner nor his coach have made this claim, but only that I could Google no evidence of it. Maybe when Isner and his coach look in the mirror at the 6 foot 9 inches lanky player with his ill-fitting shirts, maybe they both gasp and exclaim in delight that he is such A! Big! Man! Who knows?!

Instead of statements from Isner and his coach making claims for the Big Man-ness of his game, I found a You Tube video titled “Big Man Tennis”, created in 2010 as a video tribute to Isner for winning the longest tennis match in history. The video is so impressive that (at the point that I am writing this article), it has attracted a total of THREE comments. Yes you read right, just THREE. (Of course Gimmel-Crap et al can feel free to prove me a liar by developing a special bot to add two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-seven more comments as proof of the Bigness of the Man named John Isner.)

But the reason why there are so few comments I believe, is because there is no one on this planet who believes that that match between Isner and Mahut was anything other than a prolonged crapfest. It was a long pointless piece of tata match of which both men should be thoroughly ashamed. I have never regarded it as anything that tennis should be proud to include in its history. No offense to the tennis fan who put together this spectacularly bad video. But the absence of comments is elucidating.

OK so back to the Gimmel-Please-Stop pre-match interview in which he attributed the label of Big Man Tennis to Isner and his coach. And Isner, surprisingly, seemed to own this. And he proceeded to define Big Man's Tennis as “playing aggressively” regardless of outcome.

Did I miss something? That's all it takes to play Big Man Tennis? To play aggressively? To win or lose on your own terms? Well in that case, I know a whole lot of women who play Big Man Tennis. Come to think of it, I often play it myself! In fact I was playing it just this morning! You should have seen me, penis-less of course, but aggressive as all get out. And I lost on my own terms too. I told the 75-year old woman who beat me that I was not surprised by a single point that she won against me. Had I known that this was all it took to play Big Man Tennis, I would have slapped my chest in pride every single time she aced my ass down the line. Woo Hoo, I would have shouted. I am losing on my own terms! I am content! I am playing Big Man Tennis!

The problem for Isner, I believe, is that he is finally paying the price for his inability to close out a frigging match. He may want to believe otherwise but he is no marathon man. Even the match against Mahut was distributed over three days. But this year alone he has lost in four sets to Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open, in a record-setting long-assed five-setter to Paul Henri Mathieu at the French Open, and in a fith set lost to Alejandro Falla in the first round of Wimbledon. Add to that today's humiliating loss in five sets to Kohlscreiber and we are beginning to see a pointless pattern. If this is Big Man Tennis, he's welcome to keep it. But if he keeps playing it, his career will be over soon, never mind his top American ranking.

Add to that the childish temper displays evidenced during the match against Kohlscreiber today and we are seeing a player who is neither Big nor a Man. After double-faulting to give the fourth set to the German, Isner was penalized for a foot fault in the fifth set. I was so proud of Jim Courier for noting in his live commentary that foot fault calls at these tournaments are never wrong. In fact Courier suggested that foot faults are often not called and that players tend to get away with sneaking their feet across the line.

But Isner went beserk by the call. He yelled at the Chair. He smashed his racket to smithereens after sitting down. He received a point penalty. He was having not just a temper tantrum, but a major meltdown from which he never recovered. If there was a Big Man on the court I'm sorry but I would need Gimmelstob's help in finding him.

Should Mardy Fish consider checking his feet?

I'm serious. A friend of mine recently developed heart palpitations. He went to a cardiologist who had him submit to a series of expensive tests at the end of which they could find nothing wrong with my friend's heart. It was strong, it pumped his blood smoothly, and the arteries extending from it were clear and unblocked. Naturally the cardiologist suggested that my friend might consider talking to a shrink. Perhaps there were things in his life causing him to feel stress and anxiety?

Because my friend is notoriously cheap, he elected to call me up rather than pay to sit on anyone's couch. I told him that I could not treat him, of course, but could only respond as a friend. I suggested that he could start by examining his life to note if there were any significant changes or new developments that may be at the root of his anxiety.

Like the cardiologist, I assumed that because no organic cause could be found for his symptoms, the heart palpitations must indeed be due to stress and/or anxiety. And truly, walk into any emergency department of any hospital and you will find a slew of people who swear to God they are having a heart attack and are about to die, but for whom the eventual (and dare I say, life-saving) diagnosis will be an anxiety or panic attack. After submitting to a gazillion expensive tests, such patients are then told that they should consider seeking psychological treatment. This of course after having already forked over a fortune on EEGs and other tricks of the cardiologic trade.

My friend duly noted experiencing some job stressors related to a competitive co-worker whom he felt was always trying to show him up. This in addition to the stress of dating a seriously crazy woman to whom he appears to be hopelessly addicted.

Because he is my friend, I know better than to do anything other than suggest that maybe he should be patient, maybe he may have misunderstood her, maybe he can do better but if this is where he's at right now, I'm fully supportive. And so on. You know the drill. We've all been there.

So I strongly urged my friend to set aside his cheapness and find the money to spring for a psychologist, one who was not his friend and could therefore confront him honestly on his history of messed-up relationship choices that clearly indicated serious commitment issues that he sorely needed to address. Not that I said any of that. I'm too much his friend to be that honest.

What I said instead was that he should stop being such a cheap-assed Scrooge and dip into his damn pocket and spend some of his fricking money on a real shrink instead of trying to get me to advise him on my off-time when I would rather be watching the 2012 US Open, pissed as I am over not actually being there, thank you very much much. You know, like a true friend.

Thank goodness he had the sense to completely ignore me. Instead he talked to his mother. She, being a woman grounded in common sense, suggested that it did not make any sense that he was having heart palpitations just like that out of the blue. She pointed out that if it was anxiety, then why hadn't he had heart palpitations when his brother died five years ago? And why didn't he have heart palpitations when she finally worked up the courage to leave his father after years of abuse? Surely there must be another explanation? Was he by any chance taking any new medications?

The answer was yes. The only recent change was that he had decided finally to take medication for the foot fungus that had haunted him since his NCAA days.

This being the age of Google, mom instantly got on the internet and did a search on heart palpitations and foot fungal treatment. And guess what? It turned out that they were an uncommon but possible side effect of the drug he was using to treat his foot fungus. My friend immediately stopped taking the medication. The palpitations started becoming less and less frequent as the drug gradually dissipated from his body. A month later, his heart has completely settled down. No more palpitations. Problem solved.

So, after hearing that Fish had withdrawn from the US Open on the advice of his doctor, my friend calls me tonight to ask if I have any suggestions about how he might get in touch with Mardy Fish. My friend believes that as a professional tennis player, Mardy must be dealing with his own foot fungus issues. Heck didn't Brad Gilbert admit (in “Winning Ugly”) that he had an entire toenail removed in response to its constant reinfection?

Surely Mardy needed to quit it with the ablations and other invasive procedures on his poor heart? Surely there was a way for him to tell Mardy that there was nothing wrong with his heart that stopping (assumed) foot fungal treatment would not cure? Did I have any suggestions on how he might get in touch with Fish? Or with that fine-looking wife of his? Either would be fine but preferably the wife.

I told my friend that maybe Fish just panicked when he thought about facing my darling Federer who has been playing tennis with the energy of a spring chicken. Maybe his problem was anxiety after all. Or a deep fear over facing my Fed. My friend called me a cynical biyatch and hung up the phone.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Winston-Salem Open: A very intimate tournament

There are many wonderful things I can say about the Winston-Salem Open in a bid to convince you all to go next year. This was my first year of attending this event that inaugurated just last year on the ATP schedule. I plan to make it an annual event. I only made it this year for the semi-finals and finals. Next year I think I will spend most of the week there. It is so worth it.

It was clear that the event was still having some teething pains. Ushers weren't always sure where people were supposed to sit. The section with the TV cameras wasn't cordoned off, causing a poor volunteer to act like a Femi-Nazi as she ushered people away from the camera-man. The woman making the slushy-margaritas dumped a pile of salt inside the margarita instead of just lining the lid of the glass. Tiny mistakes, all very natural at a brand new event, facilitated by brand new people at a brand new stadium. I overlooked them all in favor of enjoying this event.
Like I said, I only made it to the semi-finals and finals. So apart from the doubles teams, I can only speak about Jo Wilfred Tsonga, Sam Querrey, Tomas Berdych and the eventual winner, John Isner.

So this is what local support looks like, I thought, as the crowd geared up en masse to help Isner ride the wave of Berdych challenges to final victory. I have never seen a crowd as happy. Not even the folks at the US Open who seem to be trying their best to give Roddick a proper send-off, come close to the folks in North Carolina, proud as peacocks about their local hero, vocal and unrestrained in their joy.

And John basked in their love. Children and parents formed a long line of well-wishers and he patiently signed autographs. One young boy called out to him to remind him that they had met before and Isner dutifully responded, “Hey, how are you doing buddy?” My friend got in on the act and asked him to sign her fan. I looked at the scrawl afterward wondering where in there I could find either John or Isner. Truly it seemed random. But I know that it was not. Isner is too heartfelt, much too desiring to please.

But Winston-Salem as an event, needs to outgrow him. It has to attract the top men in the sport who can see the benefit of playing an event so closely scheduled to the US Open. And that remains its only possible detraction – that it is scheduled the week before the US Open. Thus far this has hurt neither Isner nor Berdych. But both Tsonga and Querrey are already out of the US Open. I can't say that I blame this on Winston-Salem because both men also lost there.

What I especially liked about the Winston-Salem Open was the intimacy of the event. The stadium is small. No seats can really be considered nosebleeds because you are never that far from the action. Always I was close, so close that it felt like I could talk to the players and give them pointers if I dared. I did not dare. I was too busy being in awe. But up close I realized that the speed of their strokes is not as fast as it seems on TV. And their getting to some of these returns is not as amazing as it seems when you're watching from a distance.

At the same time, I could get a closer look at the intelligence that goes into the crafting of a point. And I could see clearly those moments on which the outcome of a match can turn – like when Berdych went for an aggressive backhand volley on match point and ended up dumping it into the net, when a simple easy, soft play would have won him the match. That's the kind of perspective you get when you go to an event that truly gives you a close-up view of tennis. And that's why I am going back next year.
In the meantime, here are some of my favorite photos. Who knew Berdych had such a fine-looking butt?

all photos remain copyrighted by the tennis chick and may only be used with my permission

Sunday, August 26, 2012

What is this B.S. about Big Man Tennis?

Justin Gimmelstob seems to the forerunner in the promotion of this notion. Him and Brad Gilbert keep flapping their gums about some fellas on the ATP who are supposedly playing "Big Man Tennis". As opposed to what - Little Man Tennis? Small Boy Tennis? Tiny Toddler Tennis? What the heck is this supposed to mean and how does it add any meaningful value to the viewer's understanding of the sport?

Of course the entire thing is nothing but a rip-off of the concept of "Big Babe Tennis", credited to Mary Carrillo, who made this observation about the era of women's tennis dominated by the big games of tall powerful players like Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters. The term became widely adopted and promulgated and has been applied to such current players as Maria Sharapova and lately Petra Kvitova.

The term "Big Babe Tennis" (BBT) is now used by all and sundry, to include those plagiaristic male commentators who would have us believe that there is an equation on the men's side of the tour. I say there Isn't. I call bulls**t.

For a start, BBT implied that there was a distinct difference between the way these women played versus their counterparts. As a result, it became possible to acknowledge those smaller women who actually played a BBT-style of game. Justine Henin comes to mind. Justine would not in any context be described as a Big Babe. But put her on some clay -- and set aside any demands for truthfulness and honesty -- and Justine could produce some of the most fearless, dominant, scintillating tennis that would make your head spin. She wasn't a Big Babe but there were moments when she could play like one.

Second, Carillo never referred to these women as playing Big Woman Tennis. That would have been pejorative to the other women on the tour, because it would have implied that they were mere girls (although, to be fair, many of them actually are). I've always assumed that Carrillo meant Big Babe Tennis as a tongue-in-cheek, affectionate reference to gender without actually getting hung up on this. At issue was less their gender and more so a particular style of play -- a special kind of hitting out, a fearlessness, a dominance. So if there were such a thing -- and I personally don't believe there is -- the male equivalent would be "Big Dude Tennis" I suppose?

But even then, what the hell is that? And why are men so threatened by the notion of BBT that they had to run off and make up (cough, copy) their own stupid repetition? To explain what? To capture what phenomenon? To explain what period of distinctiveness?

These were my thoughts on Saturday as I sat courtside and watched John Isner beat Jo Wilfred Tsonga at the Winston-Salem Open. And I found myself having the same thoughts that evening as I watched Tomas Berdych take out Sam Querrey. Were these the Big Men that Gilbert has been chattering on about? Were they playing Big Man Tennis? Certainly there were some fearsome rallies. Definitely the balls flew. Clearly there were huge serves landing above 130mph. And yes they crushed the balls so hard that I wondered if the ATP would ever consider exchanging the balls after every three games instead of after every six.

But I also found that there was nothing distinctive about any of these mens' games. Mens' tennis, with few exceptions, looks very much alike to me. It's the era of the big serve, big baseline rallies, big double-handed backhands that can go cross-court or down-the-line with similar ease, and the rinse-and-repeat strategy of moving your opponent from side to side to mind-numbing side. Does mastering that mean that one is playing BMT? (Freud would have a field day with those two letters).

And how does the notion of BMT accommodate the fact that lately men appear to have rediscovered the dropshot? Do Big Men only play the hardcore, baseline, hard-driving, albeit repetitive formula?

Nadal stood out because his game was a refreshing change. Federer stands as as one of the few players with a single-handed backhand, a phenomenal slice, and a willingness to move into the net. But the majority of players on the ATP play exactly the way Tsonga and Querrey and Berdych and Isner were playing on Saturday. Some, like Djokovic, do it better than others. But the formula essentially remains the same.

So you can understand why I find myself wondering why Gimmelstob and his ilk keep trying to make "Big Man Tennis" happen. It's almost as if these men are threatened by the Big Babes of the WTA. If I didn't know better I'd say they were suffering vagina envy.

(photo copyright tennischick)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Maybe our reactions are part of the problem?

Just take the way so much of the media reacted when Gabby Douglas dared to follow up her two gold medals by making a mistake that cost her in her next event. Just like that her successes seemed suddenly erased. It was like she had gone to London and wasted our damn time. All of the headlines bleated about her failure, that she had “fallen short”.

In fact, even when Douglas was busy succeeding, people spent more time prattling about her damn hair than about her incredible accomplishments, and at such a young age. The public outcry over her natural roots was so discouraging that it led her mother to fume: “How ignorant is it of people to comment on her hair and she still has more competitions to go? Are you TRYING to ruin her self confidence?” It's hard not to conclude that this may be part of an ugly agenda. It's sad not to notice that it seems to be working.

Maybe players feel like failures for coming second because they anticipate that this is the way much of the world will view them. Coming second makes you a loser, because you didn't come first. The pressure of expectation can be crushing. Coming in third may, in contrast, end up being interpreted as not quite failing altogether. At least you're not like that sad person in fourth place. The one who seems to have lost his sting.

Victoria Azarenka had the twin joys of winning both bronze in singles and gold in mixed doubles. If the original researchers are correct, her happiness should therefore be reflected two-fold. There should be no trace of negativity in her language. And I actually could find none in her post-tournament interviews:

Victoria Azarenka (BLR)
On how the Olympics compare to other achievements, like reaching the world No. 1 rankings and winning the Australian Open title...
AZARENKA: It's definitely very different emotions and very different accomplishment. The feeling I had yesterday on the court, just also winning a bronze, it was absolutely amazing. It's been a dream come true for me to achieve gold because I think every athlete in the world is dreaming about this prize to get. You don't get so many chances. In the Grand Slams, you kind of have a few more, but definitely I'm really proud of all of those achievements. This is definitely something special.

Compare this with Maria Sharapova, who when asked what it was like to be the silver medalist, responded as follows:

MARIA SHARAPOVA: Well, it means a lot. This is my first Olympic experience. I mean, this is probably one of the toughest events, playing six matches in the span of eight days against tough competition. It's such a unique experience for all of us. For me to be a first Olympian and to leave with a silver is an amazing accomplishment. Obviously it's always disappointing to lose in the finals, but it's great to get a medal, that's for sure.

Notice always the mention of disappointment. I'm not judging it. I'm just saying that maybe there is something to this notion of counterfactual thinking after all. But then along comes Roger Federer whose response throws the entire theory out on its ear:

Roger Federer (SUI)
On whether he's happy to win a silver, or disappointed not to win a gold...
FEDERER: No, no, I'm very happy. I am satisfied. I think this is as good as I could do during these championships. Andy was much better than I was today in many aspects of the game. For me, it's been a great month. I won Wimbledon, became world No. 1 again, and I got silver. Don't feel too bad for me. I am very, very proud honestly to have won a silver. Had a very emotional tournament from start to finish. I could have lost in the first round against Falla. Same thing obviously with Del Potro. I felt like I won my silver, I didn't lose it, so I feel very, very happy.

Do you think Roger is speaking the truth or is he just media savvy and knows better than to give the public the opportunity to cut him down?
(Part 2 of 2)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

So right now Del Potro is way happier than Federer?

And Victoria Azarenka may be in a more celebratory mood than Maria Sharapova? That's what some research based on photographic evidence from the 90s would have us believe. That winning a bronze medal at the Olympics makes you happier than gaining silver. That landing in third place is a far more thrilling experience than coming second. Sounds counterintuitive doesn't it?

But back in 1992, a trio of psychological researchers named Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich, studied photographs of the faces of medal winners at that year's Barcelona Olympics. They examined the faces at two points: At the conclusion of their events, and again as they stood on the podium to receive their Olympic medals.

And they found that bronze medalists had happier faces than athletes who had won silver. Gold medal winners were understandably the happiest of the lot. (And was there a better example of beaming this year than Serena mimicking her friend in the players box and doing the Crip Dance? LOL!). 

But why would bronze medalists seem to be more joyous than the individuals who won silver? Why would coming in third be more thrilling than coming second?

The why is easy enough to explain. The researchers believe that medalists engage in 'counterfactual thinking'. Their emotional responses to the outcome of their efforts are overly influenced by thoughts of 'what might have been'. For silver medalists, the counterfactual thought may be that they could or should have won the gold. For bronze medalists, the counterfactual thought is that they could have finished without a medal. As a result, bronze medalists end up feeling happier. Perhaps relief translates into joy.

In other words, silver medalists compare themselves to the individuals who won gold and end up feeling like they didn't measure up. Bronze medalists on the other hand, compare themselves to the fourth place winner, or to players who did not get a medal at all. They end up utterly thrilled to have won a medal at all. 

My next question was whether this finding from the 90s still holds today. To answer this question I decided to conduct my own non-empirical twist on this study. Instead of looking at photographs of the facial expressions of tennis medalists, I decided to examine their post-match interviews. If the researchers are correct, the interviews of the third place holders should all reflect language of joy and happiness, while second place winners would talk of feelings of disappointment. In other words, I would expect bronze medal holders to be generally more positive in their language, and silver medalists to be more negative in tone. That was my working hypothesis.

So I decided to take a look at some of the post-event interviews posted at the International Tennis Federation site, to see if this theory still holds up. I decided to start with the youngest player to win an Olympics silver medal – Britain's Laura Robson. My thinking was that this 18-year-old hasn't yet been so media-managed that her words will end up being a bunch of fluff signifying nothing. I counted on the teenager to tell the truth of her feelings. And she did:

Laura Robson (GBR)
On winning the mixed doubles silver medal in her hometown...
ROBSON: I don't really know at the moment because we were so close to the gold medal. So for the moment I'm just a bit disappointed, but it's been a really, really good week. Just to be playing in the Olympics, I was really happy with that. At the start of last week, I just thought I was playing doubles. So to be a silver medalist is pretty cool. I'm looking forward to seeing my medal.

Compare this with Juan Del Potro who took the bronze in singles for Argentina:

Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)
On winning a bronze medal after the disappointment of losing in the semifinals...
DEL POTRO: I think I'm the most happy of the world at this moment. After a really sad day two days ago, it's not easy to recovery and to play these kind of matches, but I had energy into my body, into my heart, and that's help me to play this big challenge for me.

(Part 1 of 2)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Facing (down) the next generation

Watching Jennifer Capriati and Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten becoming recently and tearfully inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, I found myself thinking about the whole business of generational transition. I am referring of course to the inevitable movement of tennis time from one generation of players to the next generation of younger upstarts nipping at their heels. We all age; we all get supplanted. It is the natural order of things, both within and outside of the world of tennis.

It is her hell-bent defiance of this that makes us cringe at the ghastly sight of Madonna unveiling her almost 54-year-old stank nipples on stage, or pretending to shoot a gun at her audience even as the rest of us remain wracked in consternation and grief over the senseless actions of a Colorado killer. Age is supposed to bring with it the twin gifts of wisdom and grace. The refusal to accept the reality of aging, of transition, only makes one look pathetic.

Watching Capriati at the ceremony, all grown up and crinkly round the eyes, it was poignant to recall the days when she represented tennis youth and potential. Today she is a woman, but apparently one still struggling to find self-definition away from a sport that she wasn't ready to relinquish. Sometimes we are forced into accepting the reality of finitude long before we are psychologically ready to do so. Guga seems to have adapted better to also being forced out of the sport by injury – not that you can ever really tell what Guga really feels. His easy-going nature has always functioned like a mask.

But several recent matches also got me thinking about the psychological aspects of generational transition. The first was the match between Serena and Coco Vandeweghe at the Bank of the West tournament a week ago. Another has been the delightful experience of seeing a resurgent 34-year-old Tommy Haas give both Cilic and then Monaco more than they ever expected to handle in Germany. And then there was the finals between Tipsarevic and Bellucci at Gstaad.

And it would be fair to point out that there is a larger age gap between the 30-year-old Serena and the twenty-year-old Coco, than between 28-year-old Janko and 24-year-old Thomaz. It would even be fair to dispute whether Bellucci is from a different generation of tennis than Tipsarevic, given their relative proximity in ages. But I believe he is. Bellucci turned pro in 2005. Tipsy has been a pro since 2002. That's a lot of years in the world of tennis. At 24 Bellucci can still safely be categorized among the next generation of promise. In their finals, Tipsy looked like an Old Fart who had no idea what hit him.

At one point during that match, as Tipsarevic was about to serve, someone in the audience made a loud noise. Instead of stopping the movement and starting over, Tipsarevic continued to serve, calmly. When he lost the point however, he then decided that it was the audience member's fault and sent a tennis ball flying into the crowd. It was a dangerous and stupid thing to do. Given his years of experience on the tour, he should have known better. But like I said, age doesn't always bring grace or wisdom.

Sometimes age brings only the painful awareness of decrepitude, the knowledge (and sometimes, resentment) that the person on the other side of the net is fresher, younger, fitter. Tipsarevic seemed always to be keenly aware of the younger Bellucci. When the latter finally missed a deep forehand, Tipsy held up an index finger to his box, apparently signaling that that was the first time that his opponent had missed that particular shot. Perhaps he was also pointing to an implicit explanation for his pending straight sets loss. If I were his coach I would have told him to be less focused on his opponent, pay more attention to his own game, and let his opponent keep track of his own damn points.

Between Serena and Coco, I noted no such hypersensitivity in Serena's body language. In Coco's non-verbals, I detected only that she was thrilled to be there, in her first tour final, motivated to do her best. But the commentators were having a field day celebrating Coco's amazing achievement. You'd think that a 20-year-old making it to her very first tour final was a bigger deal than Serena winning her fifth Wimbledon, her 43rd singles title, and cementing her status as World #1. The way the commentators were carrying on about Coco, it seemed as if they were desperately hoping for an unseating, a declaration of transition, a movement from one generation of women's tennis to the other.

And don't get me wrong, I am as proud of Coco as the next person. This Lucky Loser who made it all the way to the finals of Stanford and the 69th ranking in the world, deserved much accolade. But it was a little too soon to pass the torch. That was a little premature. Serena isn't going anywhere just yet.

Sometimes transitions just need to wait a few moments longer. Both Federer and Serena, now in the prime of their 30's, seem to still have some dominating to do. And Haas, at 34, has resurrected his career phenomenally. Dude is just not yet ready to go into that dark night. And really, sometimes the next generation just needs to chill for a few moments more. Their time will come, guaranteed. Serena, Haas, and Federer can't play tennis forever. They will one day be replaced by the Cocos and the Monacos.

But instead of always looking so eagerly to the future, sometimes we just need to just pause for a moment and appreciate the awesomeness of the present while it is still here, while it is still with us, vibrant, lively, age-defiant. Because, too soon, this present, late-blooming, will become the past, celebrated forever at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Andy Murray's 17 Shades of Negativity

I'm not referring to the tears. Tears are just fine. They suggest you care, deeply, and that you wanted it so bad that you could taste it. In the same way, I didn't mind those Federer tears after a painful loss to Nadal, or Serena's tears signaling her happiness to be back on court after her health challenges, or her tears of frustration over losing so early in a tournament that everyone expected her to win. Those kind of tears I get, I understand, and sincerely appreciate. Those tears make me admire a player more.

Indeed, Andy's post-match tears touched me so deeply that were he playing against any other opponent, I might have rooted for him. And when his mother started sobbing, I just about lost it. She loves her son, and he is clearly a mama's boy. And I am down with both as long as neither interferes with the player bringing it when he needs to bring it.

And the bringing of it is a distinctly masculine affair. It speaks of confidence and potency, of deliberateness and intentionality, the kind of masculine qualities that the very best male AND female players boast. There's testosterone coursing through all of our blood, regardless of gender. And when a player needs to, he or she must know how to access that masculine space and simply bring it.

Andy didn't. He simply never did. He was so damn negative. It was especially bothersome to observe the negativity of his body language after he lost that second set. In response to that loss, and even more so the loss of the third set against Federer, Andy Murray became all hang-doggy, his head listless, his shoulders drooping, his manner self-critical and self-berating.

And understand that I am not calling these qualities feminine because they are not. They are simply negative. And there is no room in professional tennis for the seventeen shades of negativity I detected in Murray's body language. Trust me, I counted.

In addition to the hang-doggy manner, and the drooping shoulders, and the listless head, and the self-critical manner, and the self-berating, I also noted the following: looking up to the heavens in dismay; looking down to the ground as if hoping a hole would open up and swallow him; squinting in emotional pain; trudging his feet and almost falling over them (when he wasn't literally falling over them); clutching his back; grabbing his thighs; grimacing; groaning; shouting in disbelief; rolling his head; shaking his head from side to side; and looking miserable, bleak and lost. Actually, come to think of, I'm pretty sure there were far more than 17 shades of negativity in Murray's body language during that Wimbledon finals. I'll just stop counting at seventeen, for obvious reasons.

As a psychologist friend of mine afterward observed, any player truly caught up in the excitement and focus of playing a match, would not have noticed pain. Just ask Youzhny who once whacked himself in the forehead, drawing blood, and continued to play the match until the Chair made him stop. But Andy never stopped clutching at this back, his leg, his groin. And I found myself wanting to shout to the TV that if he was that hurt, why didn't he just give Tsonga the damn chance to win his first Slam?

I've tried my hand before at analyzing what's wrong with Andy Murray. Around this time last year, I summarized my opinion of him as follows: “ order to achieve his self-stated goal of getting to the next level, Murray will need more than improvements in his tennis technique. His primary problem seems to lie between his ears. He needs to work on becoming mentally stronger. His slump-fests after losing in majors are nothing short of embarrassing. The great ones are resilient; they bounce back. They don’t go off and lick their wounds for months on end. And most of all, they don't blame others for their losses. They man up and take responsibility.

A year later, I stand by that assessment. There is no room on a tennis court for a petulant slump-fest, neither during a match nor after it. But that was all I could see in Murray's body language. Almost every single time he made a mistake, instead of shoring himself for the next point, he would start becoming all hang-doggy and slumping. And after he lost the third set I knew that he would lose the match because his body language forecasted it.

Let me be fair to Murray. At least he didn't stop playing to curse out Lendl in the box. At least he didn't blame the coach for this loss. And surely if there is one thing that Lendl can teach Murray it's how to persevere in spite of loss, how to dig deep and become even more determined to win, how not to go into a slump-fest and start licking your wounds when the damn match isn't even over!

To be fair to Murray, I personally gave him no chance against Federer. Sure he had a winning head-to-head against my Fed, but that only counted if you included lesser, non-Slam events where Federer was still tooling his game. In a Grand Slam, when it matters, against Murray, Federer brings his A-game. He has beaten him twice before. I went into this third Slam final confident of a Federer victory.

Already I had taken my RF “FIFTEEN” T-shirt which I had bought some years ago, and had crossed out the letters “FIF”, replacing them with the letters “SEVEN”. The red sharpie scrawl was not too artistic but hey this was not about art but about certainty. Yes I was that confident. You can't be a proper Federer fan without some of his arrogance rubbing off on you. It's a fandom hazard, and truly I relish it.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Serena vs. Aga: Brawn vs. Brain?

Already I can hear the comments, can't you? I'm anticipating the pre-match prattle which I fully expect to feature themes of how large and powerful and aggressive Serena Williams is, and how slender and lithe and frail Radwanska is, so that the only reason why Serena will crush her in the finals is because of Serena's brute force. The commentators – several of them American – will say that with her big serve and huge groundstrokes, Serena will dominate the more finesse-driven game of the Pole. It's the Hingis era all over again, isn't it?

Already the New York Times has chimed in with pithy comments about the “precision” and deft “touch” of Radwanska's game, as opposed to the way that the “muscular” Serena prefers to “bludgeon” the ball. The underlying message seems to be that Serena just hits wildly, going for broke with no accuracy or precision, blasting the ball with abandon. While Radwanska of course is the “tidy” and precise player who uses “subtlety” as she constructs points, all while being “shrewd” and “practical”.

You get the picture. It's Jill vs. the Beanstalk all over again. And really, it pisses me off, because underlying these comments is a deeply racist tone that you may have to be Black and/or have minority blood coursing through your veins, to appreciate. History is littered with the corpses of Black athletes whose success was reduced to a matter of brawn. When a Black athlete happens to be intelligent as well as big and strong, it is assumed that she wins not because she is the more strategic of the two players, but because of the sinews and muscles in her body. And that assumption is deeply offensive.

There is NO tennis player currently on either side of the tour who wins tournaments entirely because of brute force. If that was the case, Roddick would have won a gazillion Slams by now. Really I can think of no better example of a player whose game was based on brute force with little underlying intelligence in his shot selections. And Roddick, when last I checked, was not only White but also still looking for his Mojo. His big serve and bigger forehand have yielded decreasingly few results on the tour. If he wasn't already rich as dirt, he'd probably be playing Challenger events this time next year.

My point being that brute force does not a top player make. The best players in the world have the ability to combine physical force with brilliant intelligence. It is the combination of brawn and brain that causes players to rise to the top. That is as true for Radwanska as it is true for Azarenka. Fact.

Wozniacki is a (relative) failure because she lacks both. Lindsey Davenport became successful after she dedicated herself to become physically fitter and stronger – the tennis intelligence had always been there. And Aga Radwanska is in the finals tomorrow not only because of the intelligence of her tennis, but because she dedicated herself to becoming fitter and stronger. Her serve may still be pathetic when compared to Serena's, but it is on average only 12mph slower. And her groundstrokes can be lethal and penetrative in their intensity. She has made it to the top tier of tennis because of her combination of intuitive precision and unexpected explosions of power. It is insulting to her to suggest otherwise.

But come Saturday morning, I anticipate that commentators will start drawing lines in the sand. They will start spouting nonsense about Serena's brute strength. They will offer plaudits to Radwanska's intelligence and finesse. And they will piss me off.

So maybe I'm writing this entry in part to purge myself of the anger that this will induce in me so that I can settle back and watch the match, which I expect to be thrilling because both women seem to be at the top of their game. And may the best woman win.

And if I have managed to make you thoroughly uncomfortable by this point – and talk of race invariably provokes this response – somewhere deep within your gut is the awareness that the Brain-Brawn divide rarely enters the picture when two White women face each other. No-one compared Steffi and Monica in terms of Brain vs. Brawn. No-one did it when Davenport faced Capriati. Nor was this dichotomy a conversation point during the Navratilova vs. Evert era. At least not until Martina hooked up with that man's wife and the world discovered that she was gay, at which point he Brain-Brawn comparisons were calculated to marginalize her for being gay and fo daring to spank the ultra-prissy Chrissy Evert.

But when Aga spanked the ass off a most athletic Kerber, no-one mentioned strength vs. finesse. The subject never came up as she dominated Vesnina and Kirilenko in earlier rounds. But put her up against Serena Williams and all people will talk about is how Aga will need to use her craft and finesse in order to beat Serena.

And really, this is also offensive to Radwanska. She is at the brink of becoming #1 not because she is some kind of frail wall-flower cowering in fear of an American monster, but because of her discovery that simply keeping the ball in play is her best line of defense. And, yes I admit that Serena hits the ball really really hard. But she does not do so mindlessly. Her returns are intentional, focused, and yes, precise. Or does she need to start relying on drop-shots to convince you otherwise?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Managing those pesky emotions

Poor Nalbandian. The best player to never win a Slam is now going to be known worldwide as that guy who accidentally injured a linesman in a moment of frustration, costing him the match, his winnings, and no doubt the trophy. It was his chance to win his 12th singles title. He lost out because of his inability to control his emotions, specifically his anger.

Serena was not fined for bursting into tears in the middle of her match against Razzano at the 2012 French Open. But her emotional loss of control cost her that Slam as well. I honestly believe that an emotionally grounded Serena would have sent Sharapova packing. My point being that Serena's problem was no different from Davide Nalbandian's. By breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably into her towel, Serena once again showed us that she has not yet matured into adult emotional self-control. In moments of intensity she becomes emotionally vulnerable. And it has cost her dearly, more than once. 

It's tempting to blame the Chair in Serena's situation, but I believe that that is unfair. Until someone proves to me that this particular Chair ONLY calls interference during Serena matches, I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt. What needs to change is that Serena Williams needs to learn once and for all that when you're being tested, it's important to know how to keep it together. I don't believe that that is asking too much when your salary for a final win is going to be over a million dollars. 

The problem for players like Serena and Davide may be that no one taught them how to manage their emotions in a competitive situations from the start. And this is as true for the pros as it is for the country-club or public court players. In fact, as you are reading this, if you have taken tennis lessons, I want you to stop and reflect on how many times your coach has bothered to talk to you about how to become mentally fit. Then compare that to the number of times you were told what you were doing wrong on the forehand or backhand. Get my point?

When coaches teach tennis today, they often focus on building a massive serve, a huge forehand, and a reliable double-handed backhand that will not break down under pressure. Some coaches also teach their students how to volley but such coaches are increasingly disappearing from the current era of baseline bashing. Look at how many pros dump their overheads into the net just like you and me. What they can all do is run like mad from side to side. Tennis is now for the fast of feet. And this is all very important instruction.

But many coaches do not also teach the mental side of the game. Sure most coaches tell their students to think positively and visualize, don't get me wrong. But how many tell their students about the importance of emotional self-control? How many teach their students to breathe diaphragmatically, to relax their muscles after the point, to ground themselves and become centered because the next point is always there, because it is not over, there is no crisis, there is no need to catastrophize, and so on. 

How many are qualified to speak about the limbic system where all emotions are produced, and about that pesky amygdala which has a way of interpreting danger where none exists and gets you all tense and ready to fight or flee? How many talk about the regulatory functions of the frontal lobe, and how you need to keep talking to yourself, and talking to yourself, and talking to yourself some more because more nerve messages are sent from the amygdala than to it? What do you think Sharapova is doing every single time she turns her back to the court, walks to the back fence, her eyes focused only on her strings? She is making positive internal self-statements, I would bet my house on it.

And how many coaches teach their students that thought always precedes emotion and that for an emotion to be expressed it must first be triggered by a particularly negative catastrophic thought? And so, in order to gain emotional self-control one must first gain cognitive self-control. In other words, banish the catastrophic thoughts and you will be better able to manage the negative emotions they trigger. And so on. 

Judging from the way many of the pros behave, it is clear that they never learned many of the concepts that you dear readers are getting free from this blog. My bill is in the mail. 

My point is that the Nalbandian situation is not unique in professional tennis. What makes Nalbandian stand out is that he caused someone to bleed. And if I were Nalbandian, my defense would include the fact that the damn sign should have been better attached to the wall. Not that I am defending his behavior by any means. But really he is being punished not for what he did but for its terrible consequences. And yes he deserves to be punished. But he is not alone among the long list of tennis players who also need to dedicate themselves to learning how to manage their emotions before, during, and after play.

And I don't mean in this treatise to focus only on managing anger and frustration although these twin emotions probably cause tennis players the most in fines. Just ask John McEnroe. But when Roger burst into tears after losing to Nadal at an Australian Open some years ago, I had the same thought back then. Roger needs to learn how to manage his emotions. My problem was not with his tears but with the fact that they should have been shed privately into Mirka's ample bosom, not on full public display.

Clearly I believe that all tennis players should include a sports psychologist in their retinue. And it is sadly obvious that most of them do not. Andy Murray seems like a player who can benefit from hiring a shrink to help him climb out of that hole of negativity in which he has been living for far too long. Lendl is not going to be able to do that for him. (No offense Ivan my man, I swear I'm thrilled that you have a job.) 

And Wozniacki's decision to hire Thomas Johansson is, I believe, an utter waste of time. Not that I am begrudging Thomas his new gig, but without a shrink by his side, he is not going to help Caroline be anything more than the passive, defensive hack she has remained for far too long. And maybe had Nalbandian sought the help of the right psychologist years ago, he may not close out his career as the super-talented Argie who is yet to win a Slam, a.k.a that guy who injured a line judge in a fit of anger.