Friday, May 31, 2013

How to maintain the course

The third phase in the process of change involves preparation. You have to prepare for change. Impose change without preparation and it can be a shock to the system. It’s kind of like transplanting a seedling from the safety of its plastic pot into unfamiliar garden soil. The pot may have become confining but it is nonetheless familiar. Transplant the seedling under the wrong conditions and it can go into shock and die.

This is why change is something for which you first prepare. Part of that preparation, in tennis, involves finding the right coach. Who would you best click with? Who is the person who can best manage the murky dynamics of being both teacher and employee at the same time? The preparation stage involves doing the right research.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Li Na and the difficulties with change

There is no question that Li Na’s game has already changed under the guidance of Carlos Rodriguez. Already she has added way more spin to both her forehand and backhand. Already her fitness and movement are visibly improved. Already her forehand is no longer a liability but has become a weapon. Already she has cut out the business of losing focus in the middle of a match while she looks up to the stands to cuss out her long-suffering husband.

Clearly Li Na’s tactical game has improved. The remaining problems are all mental.

Change is hard, Li Na can tell you. In her cheerfully blunt fashion, she has been open about the difficulties of enduring the painful boot camp that Rodriguez put her through. Henin is probably the only person who can empathize with her pain. Carlos uniquely seems to understand how to take a woman of small stature and turn her into a force to be reckoned with. He did so with Henin, not just physically but also mentally.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Peng Shuai and the limits of defensive opportunism

Peng Shuai has now been in six or so WTA finals. And she has lost them all. Her official record boasts wins against many former and current top players. The list includes: Safina, Mauresmo, Hingis, Jankovic, Sharapova, Ivanovic, Aggie Radwanska, Li Na, Kuznetsova, Petrova, and Schiavone. But Peng has never won a singles title. 

On a good day, Peng can beat almost anyone. Heck, I would never want to play against anyone who plays her brand of tennis. I can just imagine how frustrated I would become after all of those dropshots, junk balls, lobs, shots going behind me, and all of the other sneaky and defensive maneuvers that Peng brings to a typical match.

Her opportunistic style can frustrate almost anyone. Peng’s problem is that by the time she gets to the finals -- the few times she has made it that far -- she is depleted from the amount of energy and stamina required to keep up that level of manipulation. So she loses, often with embarrassing ease.

Peng has managed to win some eight doubles titles, but she has never won a WTA singles event. She has made it to the 4th round of every Slam, but she has no Slam wins. To date, her biggest accomplishment remains her gold medal in the 2010 Asian Games. Most of the Western world probably has no idea what that even means.

Which leads me to wonder – is Peng’s problem one of mechanics or psychology? Is her game limited by a lack of development of strategy? Or is she mentally incapable of taking her tennis to the next level? Or possibly a combination of both?

I studied Peng closely over this past weekend. I watched intently as she beat Oprandi in three frustrating sets at the semi-finals of the Brussels Open. And then she lost, once again, in the finals, to Kanepi who was able to anticipate Peng's every move.

I decided that, as a player, Peng can best be described as a sneaky, defensive opportunist. And it’s hard to win tournaments when that is what your entire game consists of.

Peng is no Fabrice Santoro, the French magician. (Did you see him chatting up Serena after she destroyed poor Tatishvili at Roland Garros today?) Peng is no Radek Stepanek, capable of frustrating anyone on any given day – and also of winning titles. She is no Hingis, the junk ball queen, with sundry Slams and titles to her name.

The problem for Peng is that her game remains woefully under-developed. It has stalled out. Peng rarely ever dominates. Her shtick is to react, swiftly and unexpectedly, yes, but always to react and defend. Occasionally she will demonstrate a moment of power but that is never sustained. She reacts to, but rarely creates. She is an opportunist who seizes the moment and tries to make it hers. She is a sneak. You do not see her coming. She can catch you by surprise.

But sneaky opportunism has its limits. For a start, it becomes predictable in its unpredictability. If Peng serves out wide, 19 times out of 20 she will return to that same corner. She is sneaky but predictable. Furthermore, her game is limited by a lack of development. She is no Na Li. There is nothing new in her repertoire. Yes, Peng works very hard on the court and is known for her stamina. But she still has zero weapons and no titles to show for all her effort. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Should Venus retire?

I found the question to be offensive and told my friend so. We began to argue. She believes that Venus is ruining her legacy by continuing to hang around the game. She wants that the last memories of Venus Williams not be ones in which she is being beaten by the likes of Laura Robson in the first round of the Italian Open.

I think that that position is completely unfair. In fact it’s unfair to both Venus and Laura. It implies that Laura Robson is so talentless that she ought not to beat a player like Venus Williams. This is the same Laura Robson who won Olympics silver with Andy Murray, and took out Kvitova in Australia earlier this year. Laura can play decent tennis. And as a lefty, she can challenge the best on a good day. And although Serena then beat her in straights, she had her moments of challenging Serena.

But the question in my title is particularly offensive to Venus Williams herself. Don’t get me wrong, I kind of understand why some folks are asking it. The well-wishers are probably concerned about Venus’ health. But surely Venus and her doctors know her limits better than we do? Surely the specialists she can afford have blessed off on her decision to remain active?

Furthermore, from a psychological point of view, Venus may be healthier because she is continuing to do something she loves. Her motivation to stay healthy will increase if she remains actively engaged in doing things she enjoys. What should she retire and do? How could staying home and twiddling her thumbs possibly be the healthier path for her?

Retirement is a huge and depressing step for a lot of people. They have to give up their self-identity as workers and doers and find another way to extract meaning from life. And if Venus does not feel ready to make that step, no one should force her to do it.

I've written before about how much I really dislike it when people start calling for any player to retire. Already the drumbeat is also starting for Roger Federer. His latest loss to Nadal tells me only that he still has a mental block when it comes to playing Nadal – not that he should hang up his tennis shoes any time soon.

If Tommy Haas had listened to the naysayers, he would never have made it back from injury and his parents’ crisis to play great tennis. If Agassi had listened to the detractors, he would not have had the courage to go back to the challengers and re-find his form. If Kimiko Date-Krumm hadn't dusted off the cobwebs, she would not now be ranked  34th in the world at the sweet young age of 43. 

I believe that people should retire from playing a sport when they want to, and on their own terms. No one should be forced out of the game by a bunch of fans who want the reflection of all of the glory when the player is on top, but none of the pain as the player begins to struggle.

So to answer my own question, no Venus should not retire. She should continue playing tennis for as long as she wants to and feels healthy enough to do so. She is currently ranked 41st in the world. Ranked just below her are Daniela Hantuchova and Francesca Schiavone. Are we saying that these women should retire too?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Did Sloane Stephens fail media training?

One of the plusses of being a top male tennis player is the requirement that you submit to media training. The ATP has been pretty open about the fact that they train tennis stars on how to handle the media and themselves appropriately.

I’ve always assumed that the WTA offers a similar service for the women. But after reading the fiasco that was Sloane Stephens’ latest ESPN interview, I have to wonder if the problem is that the WTA does not offer this service, or whether Sloane was just a dunce in media class. There are no other explanations for her abject stupidity.

For a start, let’s get real. Sloane Stephens beat an INJURED Serena in Australia earlier this year. Serena was hobbled by a twisted ankle and severe back spasms. She posted a picture of the swollen ankle lest there be any doubts as to why she lost to Sloane. You would think that this would have tempered Stephens’ celebration of her win.

Instead, Sloane revealed herself to be a kind of hypocrite. Mere weeks earlier, after losing to Serena in Brisbane, Sloane had this to say about her opponent: “She's so sweet…I love her. Obviously she's been a really great influence in my tennis career...Obviously I always was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I love her to death. She's amazing, whatever. Now she's like an actual person and I'm like, 'Oh, hi. How is it going?' She's not like a hero anymore. She's just a friend.”

As it should be. Because for every up-and-coming player of color, Serena and her sister Venus will forever be the ones that paved the way. Thank goodness they had each other in the locker room because no one spoke to them. Thank goodness for parents who loved and protected them because no one else did. And with their pain and sacrifice, they paved the way for the likes of Sloane.

But instead of graciously acknowledging this, Sloane chose to tell ESPN about a grudge she has held against the Sisters since she was 12. She and her family had waited all day for the Williams sisters to sign their posters but never got the desired autographs. A clearly delusional and narcissistic Sloane then proceeds to bash the Sisters, while apparently ignoring her mother's attempts at restraint:

‘“Yes! The people need to know! I waited all day. They walked by three times and never signed our posters…I hung it up for a while. I was, like, devastated because they didn't sign it, whatever, and then after that I was over it. I found a new player to like because I didn't like them anymore.” The new player? Kim Clijsters.

Wow. I don’t know where to begin with this ungrateful biyatch.
Sloane has since seemed to come to some modicum of awareness. She offered a retraction via Twitter:  “Guilty of being naive. Much respect 4 ‪@serenawilliams , a champ & the GOAT. We spoke, we're good. ONWARD! ‪#lifelessons”. Not bad from a dunce.

But here is Serena’s simply brilliant response to ESPN’s revelations:  “I don’t really know. I don’t have many thoughts. I’m a big Sloane Stephens fan and always have been. I’ve always said that I think she can be the best in the world. I’ll always continue to think that and always be rooting for her.”

See Sloane? That’s how it’s done. When you’re the best, you don’t have to engage with ungrateful immature fools. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

So Sharapova is a cougar now?

I love good tennis gossip. Or maybe I just love celebrity gossip period. I’m not into real-people-that-I-know gossip. That would involve betraying confidences, which is just not cool. But give me some good celebrity gossip any day. And celebrity tennis gossip is the best!

I decided years ago that this was going to be the counterbalance for my oh-so-serious professional life. Like just yesterday I was in stitches after Miley Cyrus announced to the world that she had made it to the top of the Maxim 100 list. She couldn’t wait for Maxim to tell us, she had to say it first. She was so proud of this non-achievement! I would have felt embarrassed for her if I wasn’t so busy laughing at the pathetic-ness of it all.

Not everyone appreciates my fondness for celebrity gossip. I remember an ex who, early in the relationship, told me that it drove him crazy that his ex-girlfriend, a brain surgeon, would come home everyday and turn on the TV to watch game shows. The more mind numbing, the better. Well did he make a mistake in deciding to date me after her!

To his horror, he quickly found out that I had my own version of crap-addiction – I read online gossip rags. Like his ex, I suspect that it is a way of washing my head out after a day of being totally embedded in the serious and painful lives of my patients.

When I get home, I just want to wash my brain clean. And nothing does the trick like reading what that preggo Kartrashian is wearing lately as she continues to stifle that poor fetus within layers of Spanx, as Kanye continues to seem horrified by the reality of the life he has procured. If you can’t laugh at the ridiculousness of celebrity lives, what can you laugh at?

So yes, I did laugh like a loon as I read about Maria Sharapova’s latest photo shoot. She is wearing a nude-colored bathing suit. It is all the rage, I know. But some women should never wear nude and Maria is unfortunately one of them. The color just washes her out. It highlights all of her imperfections. And it is beyond ridiculous that she did this for the Latin American version of Esquire. Hola Maria? Are you serious? Which Latino man is gonna get it up for this?

But the real gossip of Maria’s life is the persistent rumor that, following the end of her engagement to Sasha, the basketball player who ended up in Turkey, she has been secretly dating the 21 YO Federer-wannabe, Grigor Dimitrov. So Maria is a Cougar now? LOL!

And that’s not all! :eek: Rumor has it that Dimitrov dated Serena for a hot minute after she and Common broke up last year. So Maria is apparently chomping on Serena’s sloppy seconds?? ¡Qué escándalo!

¡Y hay más! Apparently Maria gave Grigor the blue Porche she won in Stuttgart just weeks ago!! I wonder what Serena ever gave him?

There! My brain, all washed and clean. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

In defense of the mental health time-out

This entry was inspired by a reader’s (Madame Lisa’s) comment. She said, “I wanted to hear your take on Azarenka’s behavior at the SF of the AO this year …the panic attack”. Thanks Lisa. You probably realize that I am a big ole nerd who loves doing homework assignments. And I am going to take a stance in defense of Victoria Azarenka.

Shocking, I’m sure. If Azarenka were an effigy, she would have been burned in Australia after she took a 9-minute time-out to gather her nerves during the semi-final match against Sloane Stephens. People felt that she was being given special privilege because she was (at the time) the top player of the WTA.

Me, I watch stunned as Sloane sat there passively, not complaining, not saying a word. I was speechless with anger – at Sloane. I could not believe her apathy. I could not handle her forbearance. I found myself thinking that if it was Serena who had taken the prolonged time-out, Sloane would have been shouting disrespect from on top of the dome of the stadium. But perhaps because her opponent was a White bitch – as opposed to a Black one – Sloane sat there like a loser as her muscles went cold and the match slipped away from her hands.

And yes, I do also understand the rage against Azarenka. The lengthy break was suspiciously timed. It went on for far too long. It had the tone of gamesmanship from a player well known for her manipulativeness during tennis matches. The way she holds up her hand just as the server is preparing to serve. The way she often seems belatedly not ready to receive. The way she seems intentionally to throw the server off her rhythm. The way her high-pitched screams continue well past her contact with the ball, all the way into its return to her. Yes, in my opinion, Azarenka is a manipulative bitch.

And yet I will defend her right to take a mental health time-out in the middle of a match. Do you know why? It’s because if she had had a hamstring injury, she would have been allowed time to have it diagnosed and treated. I don’t see the difference between the need for diagnosis and treatment of emotional distress. And I think that players should be allowed time out for treatment of mental distress as long as the rules continue to allow for treatment of physical injury. In a just world, the latter would not be favored over the former.

Rules have to be consistent. There was a time when the injury rule did not exist. But thanks to one Shuzo Matsuoka, the rules were changed in 1995, allowing players to receive medical treatment during a match instead of having to forfeit. 

This new rule has, of course, been abused like no other in tennis. Well-intentioned in its motive, it opened a floodgate of one-upmanship as players pretend to be injured only to run like gazelles toward the winning trophy. But as long as this rule continues to exist – and chances are it’s not going anywhere anytime soon – then it must be implemented.

My position is that if we allow players time out to treat heatstroke and pulled groins, then we must also allow them time to gain control of their emotions during an anxiety attack, if said anxiety is limiting their ability to perform. (I wasn’t there but I find it hard to believe Azarenka had a true 'panic attack'. People tend to mislabel anxiety as panic all the time).

Will the rule continue to be exploited? Of course it will, in much the same way that the medical time-out has been abused by cheaters with eyes only on the dollar prize. Heck, Azarenka has been known to be taken off court on a full stretcher when everybody and his sister felt that she was just being a frigging drama queen.

So yes, I will concede that her prolonged anxiety attack smells of the same level of veracity as sundry of her physical injuries. But she did not invent the rules. And once you let the horse out of the barn, it’s too damn late to wonder how you’re going to go about reining it back in.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Watching the men watch the women play tennis

I find it refreshing that Martina Martina Hingis has found new footing as a professional tennis coach. As a long-time Hingis apologist, I am always pleased when she does well. I have always believed that Hingis has more talent in her little finger than most people have in their entire bodies. And her coaching Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova into finals success at the 2013 Portugal Open made my cynical heart very happy.

But what especially made me feel good was the fact that Pavlyuchenkova’s success came at the hands of a woman. Hingis has become one of the few women coaching at the professional level in tennis. I’m sure that the USTA and other professional bodies hire scores of women to coach juniors. But the minute women go pro, the list of options seems to become gender biased in favor of men. And that is so not cool.

Indeed, I’ve taken to watching the men as they watch the women playing tennis. And I don’t just mean the male coaches. I am referring to the entire entourage – the physiotherapists, the agents, the hitting partners, the fathers, and of course, the lovers. For the most part, the entourage surrounding most of the top women’s tennis players seems to consist exclusively of men.

Take Maria Sharapova for example. If there is a vagina other than hers in her entourage, I must have missed it. And she is not unique in this so don’t think I am picking on her. Look at most of the top female tennis players and all you can see is a bunch of men ravenously looking on as the player strives for success on the court. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Check for yourself.

Watching these men as they watch the women playing tennis can be a distinctly unsettling experience. The hunger in their eyes, the greed, the silent willing, the unspoken pushing – it’s all there, and it’s all rather disturbing. How do we know that these women are safe? How do we know that they aren’t being subjected to all kinds of abuse after losing matches? Who patrols the entourage?

There is something unsettling to me about this masculine dominance of the tennis woman’s entourage. Surely these women can do like Serena and benefit from the presence of an Oracene or a female physiotherapist? Surely they can understand why Azarenka has blossomed from the inclusion of Meilen Tu in her support group? Surely most women appreciate the presence of other women, as supporters, confidantes, sisters, believers, boosters, whatever?

In 2013, I find kind of unnerving to see how men continue to control this sport. Where are the women? Why aren’t they also coaching both men and women’s tennis? Amelie Mauresmo should not be the exception, she should be the rule.

And yes you can rebut that it is no different among male players where men are also in control. But such a lame rebuttal misses my point entirely doesn’t it?