Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: “Rafa” (in brief, it’s inauthentic)

From time to time I take time out from writing about tennis to review books on tennis that have been recently published. (And I swear once again that one of these days I will get around to finishing John McEnroe’s “You cannot be serious”. Man that book sucks.) But once again I put poor John aside to read the book reportedly co-written by Rafael Nadal and a journalist-writer named John Carlin. The book is called “Rafa”.

And Rafa, the writer, gets top billing. Carlin is listed as co-author. If they had reversed the order of credit, I might have had less problems with this book. I would still find it pretentious and stupid, but the voice would have seemed less inauthentic. Let me explain.

Mr. Carlin holds a Masters degree in English Language and Literature from Oxford University. And the problem with “Rafa”, allegedly co-written by Rafael Nadal, the barely educated tennis player whom we all know and love, and this dude Carlin, is that the resulting book has the register of an Oxford graduate. Nowhere in this book could I detect the authentic voice of Rafael Nadal. He’s nowhere to be found.

And it’s not as if the structure of this book didn’t give us a chance to hear Rafa directly. The book is written in color-coded chapters that alternate between the first and third persons. In other words, the reader is led to believe that the white chapters represent the voice of Rafael Nadal himself, while the gray chapters reported in the third person are written, one assumes, by Mr Carlin.

The problem with this book is that the language of the Rafa chapters is hopelessly inauthentic and unbelievable. Rafa’s voice is just not there. I don’t know who this person is who is speaking in the first person on his behalf, but he sounds nothing like Rafa. The real Rafa should sue him because he is fraud.

Let me give you just one of easily a hundred examples. Here is Rafa supposedly describing his preparations for the 2008 Wimbledon final against Federer:  “My preparations had worked well. The emotions that would assail and overwhelm me if I hadn’t performed my ritual, if I hadn’t systematically willed myself into shedding the stage fright the Centre Court would ordinarily induce, were under control, if not altogether gone.”

¿QuĂ©? Even when I mentally translate this piece of highfalutin’ crap into Spanish, it still sounds nothing like Rafa. The mark of a good writer is his ability to adopt the voice of the character he is portraying. The problem with this book is that while it is supposed to be Rafa’s story -- and the details of his upbringing in Mallorca, the harsh training regimen by Uncle Toni, and the simplicity of his mother’s love all certainly seem to ring true -- the problem is that Rafa’s own voice is simply not present.

As much as he seems to enjoy writing about sports, Mr. Carlin is clearly no sports historian. The language is too aloof, too sterile, too remote, too affected, too clinical, too lacking in passion -- to read like a sports tome. Yes he is a senior international journalist at El Pais. And yes he is also credited with writing another sports book with the long-assed title “White angels: Beckham, Real Madrid, and the new football”. But Mr. Carlin’s biggest claim to fame was his writing of another book with another long-assed title (“Playing the enemy: Nelson Mandela and the game that changed the nation”) that became the film “Invictus” starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman and directed by Clint Eastwood.

In contrast, the title “Rafa” is pleasingly short. Unfortunately most of the first 172 pages -- more than half of the book -- is dedicated to a rehashing of Rafa’s Wimbledon win against Federer. Except that Jon Wertheim has already been there and did that, didn't he? In the end, it seems as if Rafa just needed to gloat, to stick it to Federer one more time. He comes across as obsessed with Federer, his wins against the Fed are presented as the marquee moments of his career, which I suppose they are. I think he should be relieved that he wrote this book in 2010. Because 2011 was a whole other story wasn’t it?

Monday, February 27, 2012

On being the second fiddle

My heart went out to Marko Djokovic this morning. As a  younger sister myself, I have a sense of what it feels like to be the one that comes behind. In my case, I got lucky and ended up being the most successful sister. But to be fair, I did not have to face the challenge of being preceded by siblings who had blazed a path before me. My sisters were more into being married than in having successful careers. Observing their early misery, I chose career, and have never regretted it.
And yet in many respects I could relate to Marko, or at least to what I assume his emotional experience might be like. It must, in many respects, seriously suck to be a younger Djokovic - especially when your latest attempt to succeed comes shortly after your brother manages to spectacularly change the face of the very sport that you both play.

This middle Djokovic brother turned pro in 2007. He has thus far won a single junior title (Montengro Open), but has no ATP titles. His biggest success to date remains a doubles win against Nestor and Zimonjic (then ranked world # 2) at the 2009 Serbian Open. His partner was a fellow wildcard holder named Darko Madjarovski. As far as I am aware, no one screamed fraud when Darko and Marko pulled off a most unlikely upset on home soil. Maybe nobody noticed.

This issue of one tennis sibling outstripping another is not unique to the Djokovics. Tennis as a sport has seen more than its share of sibling rivalries. Or sibling contenders at least. There was Marat Safin and his younger sister, Dinara. And Richard Kracijek and his younger sister Michaela. Then there was Arantza Sanchez-Vicario and her brothers. And Cara Black and her brothers. Not to mention the Radwanska sisters. And the Rochus brothers. To name just a few.

The list of tennis siblings is long. And in most cases, there seems to be a distinct pattern of a dominant sibling who accomplishes a whole lot, and an also ran sibling who just does not live up to the same expectations. My point being that Marko should feel no shame about his loss today. He is in good company. There are a whole lot of tennis siblings who play second fiddle to the larger-than-life success of an older sibling.

Agnieska Radwanska's success has decidedly outstripped her sister, Ursul's. Watching her beat Julia Georges over the weekend was an unexpected joy as I was actually rooting for the german. But she made too many wild mistakes. And Aggie was too crafty, too intelligent, too determined, too stubborn.

Yet I felt Aggie's pain as she complained recently about always having to face her sister in the draw. It was a complaint not based on any kind of logic but more than likely coming from the emotional discomfort of facing your sister in a pro match. It's only so many times you want to face someone to whom you are related -- especially when that person happens to have little chance of beating you.

Which is really why the William sisters were so unique. Their ability to compartmentalize was formidable. At least Serena's ability to do so. I always got the sense that their contests were emotionally more challenging for Venus. Richard had long predicted that Serena would be the more ruthless of the two, and he turned out in this and so many other matters to be absolutely right.

But once the match was over, the sisters promptly went back to being sisters. You could see them giggling as they awaited the trophies that would define the winner and the loser. There were no hard feelings. It was not personal. It was just a tennis match and they were over it. They have never once complained about having to face each other. They could teach Aggie a thing or two about sibling rivalry and success.

Some siblings resolve the issue by succeeding in different spaces. John and Pat McEnroe, for example, initially contested the same spaces both on the tennis court and as Davis Cup captains. But where John succeeded in singles domination, Pat turned out to have a more deft and diplomatic touch with the team sport. Where John was abrasive, Pat seemed to thrive more on being a people pleaser. In the end, they did not contest the same spaces after all.

Then there are the Bryan twins whose coach father allegedly resolved any likelihood of sibling rivalry by guiding them into doubles tennis. Rumor has it that one of the twins desperately wanted, and for a while pursued, a singles career. But reportedly Dad was having none of that.

And to be fair, their doubles partnership remains one of the more successful in tennis. If there is a second fiddle in the Bryan alliance -- and I personally believe that there is -- they have gone to lengths to keep that concealed. It's a secret that we can only guess at because Papa ain't preaching.

Some siblings are not so lucky. The Bondarenko sisters (Alona and Kateryna) often seemed to forget that they are not in their private living-rooms but on a public tennis court with cameras catching their every angry exchange. Their on-court quarrels would be hilarious if they weren't so embarrassing. One would shout while the other fumed. I can't remember if big sister Valeria fared any better when she played with Alona.

Which is all by way of saying that Marko should accept the inevitability of the comparisons with his older and incredibly successful brother. Sometimes being the younger sibling means accepting that you have been eclipsed. This does not however, have to mean giving up altogether. If you're going to try to succeed in a contested space, you have to have the stomach to lose.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Choosing individual success over honor for country

I enjoyed watching Federer spank the ass off off Del Potro this morning. My only regret was that he didn’t bagel him in the first set. I had a moment of panic when DelPo threatened to come back in the second. But when Federer kept sweetly arcing those short cross-court forehands, I let myself breathe again. Such divine tennis. It was grace vs. the sledgehammer. And grace won.

But I don’t think Federer has a chance in heck of winning many more tournaments like these had he also to fulfill Davis Cup obligations for the rest of this year. If Federer had managed to help Switzerland beat the US at Davis Cup, he would have found himself stuck with a schedule that practically guaranteed that he would have ended up like Djokovic did by the end of 2011 when he simply had no juice left. Certainly not in an Olympic year. Something had to give and what gave was Davis Cup. Switzerland lost every single match. Did anyone see that coming?

Well actually, my coach did. He predicted it. He didn’t predict the complete Switzerland shut-out, but he predicted that Federer would lose every single match he played. I was like “What you talking ‘bout Coachy?”, and he was like, “Just wait and see. There is no way Federer is adding Davis Cup to his schedule this year. Not when there’s a chance of him making it back to #1”.

I watched those Davis Cup matches closely. I still can’t figure out how Isner managed to beat Federer. I still don’t understand how Federer and Wawrinka -- a winning Olympics combination -- managed to lose to the freshly cobbled together team of a Bryan brother and Mardy Fish. The results were stunning. I could practically hear my coach shouting “I told you so!”

Of course I have no proof that he is right. And because he is an even bigger Federer apologist than I am, my coach had no problem with what he perceived as Roger’s decision to make his individual success more important than his country’s honor. As far as my coach was concerned, Federer more than did his part by making sure the host country earned some revenue during the event. He owed the sport or Switzerland nothing more.

For me, it is not so simple. I can’t make it a black or white issue. There are shades of gray here that need to be painted. Because it IS an honor to play for one’s country. It is an honor to become so great at your sport that you bring glory to your nation. And when said nation is called Serbia, with its sometimes inglorious past and murky history, well then the honor becomes even more important, even more meaningful.

Djokovic may currently live in the tax haven of Monaco, but there is no question that his heart and soul belong to Serbia. So when Serbian president, Boris Tadic, recently announced that Djokovic will be granted the Karadjordjeva Star Medal -- the highest honor in this Balkan country -- well only a hater would argue that Djokovic wasn’t deserving. Not only does he deserve it, he played his ass off for it during his years of Davis Cup support.

But because I am also at heart a cynical chick, part of me wondered if Tadic was up for re-election or something. Because you and I both know that this decision was also a political one. At heart politicians are a manipulative bunch. To this day I chose not to forgive Bill Clinton for his narcissistic decision to enter Roland Garros after Agassi’s match had started -- the better to make sure he was the absolute center of attention I suppose. Poor Agassi was blind-sided into failure. Sometimes the politician’s agenda is not always in the best interest of the tennis player.

And to be fair to Tadic whom I do not know and will never meet, this honor should be perceived as coming from the entire country, not from an individual politician. But I hope that Djokovic does not let this honor make him feel obligated to continue playing at every Davis Cup event. I also hope that he has learned some lessons from the way he closed out 2011, barely able to raise his racket at the year end championships, utterly depleted by the toll of prolonged success.

Certainly one of the lessons I hope Djokovic has learned is that he cannot remain #1 without making sacrifices. Among those sacrifices may be the decision not to play Davis Cup. Which is why I was fine with his absence from the contest last week. Besides, I’ve always felt that Davis Cup should be a competition for younger players, a chance for newbies to develop team spirit while honoring their countries. Leave Davis Cup for the Donald Youngs and the Juan Monacos, I say. Let the top players call in sick. Or lose deliberately. Whichever they can live with ethically.

Perhaps we’ve even arrived at the point when it’s become time to consider removing Davis Cup from the schedule altogether during an Olympics year. It’s only so many times players should be required to play for their countries in any given year. Who can blame them for feeling a tad burdened? Or maybe I just think that Djokovic has earned the right to be selfish. As has Federer.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

So is everyone on the Djokovic diet now?

One of the things I meant to mention during the Aussie Open was how skinny tennis players seem suddenly to have become. Have you noticed this too or is it just me? At the time I found myself wondering if tennis players everywhere had suddenly gone gluten-free. Nothing else could explain the mass emaciation. And of course like most of my ideas, it vanished when I did not find the time to get around to writing it right away.

But the idea resurfaced during the Open Gaz de France over the weekend when I realized that Marion Bartoli seemed to have gone back to her natural chunky. Because really nothing else explained her loss to the German newbie, Angelique Kerber, who in turn inspired another thought about whether parents were going to do like Uncle Toni and make sure their charges grew up to be left-handed so that they could dominate tennis. But I’ve written about that before haven’t I?

So there I am looking at this chunk-a-lunk losing to a newbie playing for her first WTA title, and I found myself wondering if Bartoli had fallen off the gluten-free train. I mean the Aussie Open wasn’t that long ago. How could one player go from svelte to chunk with such rapidity?

And it’s not that I am without sympathy. I’ve been forthcoming about my own struggles with the chunk in the past. So don’t go accusing me of being a skinny-minny (which I am now thank you very much) with no sympathy for the chunk-a-holics. Trust me, I feel their pain. But when said chunk-a-holics seem to re-gain the chunk with such haste, well then I have a right to comment, right?

Because just last month Marion was looking sleek and lean and fit and mean. And she wasn’t alone. The list of skinny-minnies in Australia was impressive. First there was Kvitova. Do I need to remind you of how she used to look? And sure she still has a very slight pudge, but in every other respect she looks like the #1 athlete that she truly is.

And the newly demoted Wozniacki also looked like she had given up the gluten. Because for a minute there -- do let’s be honest -- Caro had started chunking out. Nothing too major -- we’re not talking Rezai territory here, but close. But Aussie Caro looked trim and fit, as befitting a #1 with a desperate desire to remain there.

And I don’t mean to focus on the women because truth be told there seemed to be a ton of men newly inspired by Djokovic (or so I choose to assume). Take Wawrinka for instance. Do you remember when he used to have child-bearing hips? I do. And then there was Tsonga who also used to have hips that would give Wawrinka’s a run for their money. Not no more. Dudes were looking sleek and fit down under.

Even Gasquet seemed less hippy to me in Australia, never mind his precociously receding hairline. And well of course everyone knows that Verdasco has been seriously training to become fitter. Too bad that none of his efforts have translated into meaningful wins. But dude looks like a true athlete these days doesn’t he?

Really I think they all owe Djoko for inspiring this new craze of slender fitness. Gone seem to be the days when tennis players would be an embarrassment on the court because of their physical appearance.

Some years ago British commentator David Mercer caught serious flak for saying that Laura Robson needed to lose some puppy fat. He was right. But most people felt he had no right -- as a portly man himself -- to comment on the physical appearance of a young tennis player.

And I get that it must sting to be so closely observed and critiqued. So go ahead and slam me if you want to for writing an entry about physical appearance. But while you’re at it, send a donation to your favorite charity in the name of Novak Djokovic for inspiring a new generation of tennis players to become lean and mean fighting machines.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Does tennis have its own Gisele Bundchen?

If I had ever liked her I would be feeling kinda sorry for Gisele Bundchen right about now. But truth is that I have always found her insufferable so it’s hard for me to work up any pity. To be fair, her cussing out of those Giant fans was clearly provoked. I mean they were taunting her so who could blame her for firing back?
Problem was that instead of calling out the fans for the a--holes they were being, she chose the moment to attack her husband’s teammates instead. Bad move Chica. You’re not the one who has to return to that locker-room. You’re not the one whose teammates may defensively blame him for the failure.
Don’t get me wrong, I get the whole bit about a woman defending her man. But only a dolt like Tom Brady could end up with a woman whose attempts to help seem continually to do him more harm than good.
Take for example her recent heavily publicized imploration for us to pray for him. What the hell was that about? By asking us to pray for her husband, did Gisele not realize that she was sending said husband the meta-message that failure was such a distinct possibility that he would need divine intervention to prevent it? Who needs a spouse who either doesn’t have confidence in you, or who, upon sensing your unspoken insecurity, broadcasts it for everyone to see?
And what’s with the alleged hair plugs? Why can’t she just let the man go bald in peace? And what was that dotish dancing at the Brazil carnival? Is there no end to the public humiliation to which this man-child will be subjected by his insufferable wife? Is this the price of hooking up with a supposedly beautiful model? (I personally don’t see it – there are far more beautiful women walking down the streets of Sao Paolo on any given day). Will the real man in this relationship please stand up? I would laugh if it wasn’t all so very sad for him.
But this entry is not about him. It’s really about her. And my question of whether tennis has any spouses who, in their bid to protect their partner, end up doing him (or her) more harm than good.

The closest to a Gisele Bundchen I could think of was the wife of Greg Rusedski. Remember her? She could be as overbearing court-side as her husband could be uncouth on the court. They were often compared to the Henmans who in contrast evoked posh and breeding. But really, Rusedski was the more insufferable one in that relationship, with all of his fake-Brit pretensions.
And then there was Jeff Tarango’s bad-ass wife who once famously slapped umpire Bruno Rebeuh across the face. Tarango had stormed off the court after accusing the umpire of being corrupt. It became the slap heard around the world, a delicious scandal that momentarily rocked tennis. But Tarango’s career was not negatively affected by this because he was never really that good. And like all of those who aren’t that good, Tarango has turned out to be a terrific teacher. I always look forward to seeing his tennis tips on the Tennis Channel.
But neither of these women comes close to the arrogance and insufferability (that should be a word!) of a Gisele Bundchen. Really that woman is in a class by herself. Maybe Tom Brady doesn’t have the cojones to tell her to just stfu and let him sort out his career issues by himself. Her job is to console her spouse, not to broadcast his failings or attack his teammates. 
Come to think of it, in tennis we seem to save the 'insufferability' for those helicopter parents hovering obsessively over their children’s careers. Remember Alex Stevenson’s mother? Or Jelena Dokic’s father? On second thought, the 'insufferability' of some tennis parents deserves its own separate entry. Feel free to make suggestions.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

And in the next corner seethed Dr. Drakken

I don’t at all want to give the impression that the murderous instincts in this match were entirely one-sided. They were not. But a good friend of mine disagrees with me. She called today to scold me. She said that the Eagle was fueled only by all that was good and godly. She loved his incessant kissing of his crucifix. She loved it when he prayed out loud. She swooned when he bellowed to the heavens to help him destroy the dark angel on the other side of the net.

And it’s hard to argue that Dr. Drakken – tell me that you see the comparison – did not seem to have a dark side. Of the two, I agree that he seemed to be even more motivated by negative, determined, hate-filled emotions. And truly I can’t remember another match in which a player simply refused to lose. Me I can’t find it within me to compete even close to that level. If someone wants to beat me that badly, they’re welcome. I just want to have fun on the damn tennis court.

But Dr. Drakken was clearly not going to be the first tennis player to lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals. And he was not going to lose to Sam the Eagle again. And he was not going to lose for a seventh time to the man who stole his #1 ranking and who seems determined to keep it. So he dug deep and fought.

That’s what you call negative motivation. Not everyone can produce it. Not everyone can keep generating it. But Dr. Drakken can, with frightening ease. Indeed, he seemed willing to destroy his knee – heck he seemed oblivious to any kind of pain or discomfort – just as long as he could win-this-match. He was hell-bent on winning – with an emphasis on hell. The match dragged on because Dr. Drakken refused to give an inch. His mental will to win was formidable, ferocious.

And don’t get me wrong. The result was a brilliant match. I recorded it and will keep it forever. It is a manual on superb strategy and tactics. It is a five-hour lesson worthy of any tennis academy. It was tennis being played at its lethal best.

But it bothered me that neither man seemed capable of stopping to consider the longevity of his career against the momentary destructiveness to his body. It bothered me that neither man seemed capable of considering the potential damage to his psyche in his desire, will, and brutal intent to win this match.

The only person who seemed to care really was the Eagle’s longtime coach. His face reflected concern as the match went on and on. His face continued to reflect concern even as he happily celebrated the win. I loved the way he loved the Eagle. I preferred his brand of caring to the girlfriend’s who, yes, kept screaming her support – but did so in between glances to confirm that the camera was planted on her and her suspiciously large breasts.

But it was no different among the Drakken posse, was it? They egged him on. They shouted and pushed him. They fanned the fuel of his hateful determination. And the crowd screamed their support, wanting as crowds do a real match that went the distance. And boy did they get it. And man, did they deliver.

But at what price such brilliance? Isner has admitted that it took him months to recover from that stupid, pointless, dragged out match against Mahut. The latter is still missing in action.

Neither man could stand during the post-match ceremony. Drakken’s grimace was painful to watch, as he slumped against the net, gritting his teeth to possibly prevent himself from crying out as the lactic acid backed up in his overtaxed system. Eagle was no better off. It was a match to the death and both men died a little that day.

And I find myself reminded of why I never enjoyed the Sampras-Agassi rivalry. It wasn’t just the fact that I tend to favor the underdog in these exchanges. It was more so that I do not enjoy matches with a complete absence of positive emotions. I need such moments as Raonic’s smile or Kvitova’s shy grin. I need those small positive moments that balance out the negativity of the competition. That remind me that I am not watching two serial killers after all.

(Part 2 of 2)