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Weird Tennis Weekend

It is a bizarre time for tennis.

A few weeks ago, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced a new strategy to reduce the total number of professional tour players. I’m not sure if any sport is as Byzantine as tennis, but essentially there are the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) which runs the elite men’s tour, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) which runs the elite women’s tour and the ITF, which runs a lot of things, like the Davis Cup, Federation Cup, Hopman Cup, Olympic tennis and circuits of smaller professional, junior, senior, wheelchair and even beach tennis tournaments. The ITF “partners” with the ATP and WTA, and “sanctions” each of the four majors – which are otherwise run independently – and manages the ranking system.

The ITF now plans to reduce the number of professional players from around 14,000 to 1,500 – 750 men and 750 women. Their research indicates that half of the current players don’t actually earn any prize money on the tour, and that many more don’t actually earn a living, relying on parental or sponsor support. They also claim that all these journeymen players make it difficult for talented juniors to advance to the elite tours.

I watched one set of the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo last weekend. I usually prefer WTA matches, but TennisTV can’t broadcast those anymore. The semifinal match between Rafael Nadal and David Goffin seemed promising. Goffin was having the best week of his career, bumping off Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. But Nadal is a god on clay, and had already won Monte Carlo nine times. They had never played each other before.

Goffin broke early. He was playing well and was holding serve fairly easily until he served at 3-2. Nadal finally seemed to put some return pressure on Goffin, and in a long game, earned but lost a break point. Then it appeared that Nadal had hit wide on a Goffin game point. Nadal began walking to the service line, but the chair umpire climbed down, circled a mark in the clay and signaled that the point should be replayed. Looking at a replay, the announcers were certain the ball was out by, “a mile.” Goffin held his head in disbelief, but to no avail. The game went back and forth for fifteen minutes with each player holding and losing game points until Goffin hit a ball into the net. 3-All.

Nadal held easily for 4-3, then Goffin rather meekly lost serve again, and with Nadal leading 5-3 I decided to watch something else. I read that Nadal won 6-3, 6-1. Nadal could certainly have come back to win without that bad call, but the match had changed from compelling to a cakewalk.

In Federation Cup action, Great Britain was visiting Romania, whose captain is the talented but tasteless Ilie Nastase:

At a news conference on Saturday to preview the matches in Constanta, Romania’s captain was heard to say of [Serena] Williams’ baby, due in the fall: “Let’s see what color it has. Chocolate with milk?”

On the first day, a win by Simona Halep had Romania 1-0 against Great Britain. In the second match, Brit Johanna Konta, who has been hot lately, was leading Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 1-2. But when captain Anne Keothavong complained about Nastase’s audible comments, he began verbally abusing the chair umpire, Keothavong and Konta from the sideline. Nastase was escorted out, but Konta was rattled and lost the next game. She asked for a time out, then ran out the next five games to tie the rubber at 1-1.

ESPN reported that Nastase had been creepy before the matches:

The 70-year-old, who had a reputation as a playboy during and after his playing career, had previously made Keothavong feel uncomfortable with a number of inappropriate remarks earlier in the week.

Having asked for her room number during the event’s official dinner on Thursday, Nastase then repeated the request when the captains posed together for photographs following Friday’s draw, and he put his arm tightly around Keothavong’s shoulder. When both teams were called back together, Nastase said to Keothavong, who is married and 18 weeks pregnant with her second child: “We keep being attracted.”

Romania went on to win both subsequent singles matches, but Nastase is now suspended by the ITF. Cirstea called Konta weak for needing the time out, and Halep claimed that Nastase is always joking, but a Romanian official took the cake by noting that Nastase wasn’t a racist because he is friends with Yannick Noah.

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The US as JP McEnroe

As other tennis fans discuss whether Rafa Nadal can catch and surpass Roger Federer, Pacific Standard offered a look at a player now long past his prime:  John McEnroe and the Sadness of Greatness. I both loved and loathed McEnroe. I wished I could play his attacking style – and tried to for years – but I found his on-court antics embarrassing. He supposedly earned his famous nickname for being precocious, but it quickly became clear that he was as much a brat as a super player.

… thus marked a year during which McEnroe would gradually sense what perhaps only exceptional athletes can sense: the moment of his own demise. …

Blood was spilled all over in 1984. … McEnroe won 78 of his 80 matches that year. It was an astounding accomplishment. For all intents and purposes, a player couldn’t imagine having a better year. Yet, for all his success, the tour was sustained by forces horrible and dark. McEnroe, winning match after match, spent the year getting angrier and angrier, cursing judges, mocking fans, and pacing the court as if it were the common room of an asylum. This anxiety culminated at the Swedish Open … and it came in the form of an upper-shelf outburst that would mark his inevitable decline in tennis greatness at the professionally precarious age of 25.

While McEnroe was great, no one would actually stand up to him. Once he started slipping, though, officials began to find a little backbone.

When I read Simon Johnson’s article, The Loss of U.S. Pre-eminence, in the NY Times Economix blog, I couldn’t help but compare our nation-state, pushed to a shutdown by a petulant, whining Tea Party, with the SuperBrat:

The United States became a superpower in the 1940s and, 70 years later, stands on the brink of losing that status. It rose to global pre-eminence at short notice, and its decline can occur just as abruptly. This week’s partial government shutdown both reminds us that the United States has reached such a precarious position and shows us exactly how things can now unravel as it approaches the really big confrontation over the debt ceiling.

… The United States won its global predominance in a short period, but based on a long haul of industrial development, productivity gain and fiscal prudence. Now the groundwork has been laid for its decline with political polarization, a longstanding tax revolt and a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the federal government.

Italiacom Open Final on TennisTV

Yesterday I watched Sara Errani vs Roberta Vinci – a dream all Italian final at the Italiacom Open WTA in Palermo. I had watched Vinci beat a very swarthy Spaniard, Estrella Cabeza Candela, Spain, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 the day before. Errani had defeated Czech Republic’s Klara Zakopalova  6-4, 6-4, but I didn’t watch that one.

Both women wore the same dark blue skirts and blue horizontal-striped singlets over powder blue sportsbras. Even their shoes were the same. Being doubles partners and both sponsored by Nike, it probably never occurred to them that television viewers might have trouble telling them apart. I noticed that Errani wore a bun at the back while Vinci wore a ponytail, but the real giveaway was Vinci’s slice backhand vs Errani’s two-hander.

Errani broke to open, but Vinci pulled even at 2-all. The key to the match was probably the big fight for the seventh game. Vinci couldn’t seem to get a bh dropshot over the net, but saved 5 break points and held for 4-3. Vinci was almost always able to tee off on Errani’s second serve, but in long rallies, was pushed ever deeper by Errani’s steadier strokes. Nevertheless, Vinci won her 6th break point in the eight game, and served out the set at 6-3. The commenters told us that it was the first set she had won against Errani in oh-so-many years.

Errani seemed more error-prone than usual, but focused more, got an early break and won the second set 6-3. Vinci led the third set 4-0, but Errani broke back to get on serve at 3-4. Then Vinci broke and held to 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, ending a run of five defeats to the younger woman, and pleasing fans from her local region.

I watched the match on TennisTV, mostly because it was the only current tournament that wasn’t blocked out in my area. That has been a disappointment. I knew I would not get the majors, but there have been a lot of smaller tournaments that aren’t covered by TTV. I still like the format, but it would be great if I could merge TTV’s delivery and commentary with The Tennis Channel and ESPN’s reach.

Late in the second set the TTV signal dropped a few times, and in the middle of the third set I had to start over and advance to where I had been. Such hiccups are not critical to me, but I could see them flummoxing less experienced users.

Serena on Steubenville

Towards the end of a routine Rolling Stone interview, Serena Williams: The Great One, appeared to sympathize more with the Steubenville rapists than the victim:

We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV … Serena just shakes her head. “Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”

To answer her question, Yes I think the rapists got what they deserved (thanks in part to Anonymous). But at the same time I agree that women should be careful of drinking too much at parties. I am aware of the ideal belief that women should be safe no matter what, but I tell my own children that ideal isn’t all that practical in the real world. If Serena had said only that she might have raised fewer eyebrows. And I don’t agree that she – the victim – was all that lucky.

After a great deal of blowback, Serena spoke to the victim and her family and released a statement in which she hinted that she didn’t really say it the way it was printed:

“I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article,” the statement said. “What was written — what I supposedly said — is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.”

But she did say that.

One Backhand to rule them all

Tommy Haas and Philipp Kohlschreiber won quarterfinal matches at the BMW Open in Munich today. Both men use a one-handed backhand, which practically makes them dinosaurs. Certain religious sects teach that man once lived at the same time as the dinosaur, and that he developed a two-handed backhand to rise to the top of the food chain. According to, The Disappearing One-Handed Backhand, in the NY Times’ Straight Sets blog:

When it comes to winning titles, the age of current crop of one-handers is perhaps the biggest red flag. With the exception of Dimitrov, a Bulgarian who will turn 22 in May, every player in the top 30 on the ATP World Tour who relies primarily on a one-hander is at least 26 years old — middle age for a touring pro.

And, yes, the story is similar on the WTA Tour. Henin’s early retirement eliminated the only dominant woman with a one-hander. She and Francesca Schiavone of Italy are the only women with one-handers in the last six years to win a Grand Slam. Only one woman ranked in the Top 20, 30-year-old Roberta Vinci of Italy, has a one-hander.

Juniors, tomorrow’s champions, see far more two-handers than ever before and are reluctant to trade in their own for a one-hander  — no matter how many winners they’ve seen Federer hit with the shot. …

The falling number of champions with one-handed backhands is reminiscent of what happened so quickly to serve-and-volley champions: there were many, then there were a few, and suddenly there were absolutely none.

Two weeks before the Straight Sets post, a very statistically-minded tennis blogger at Heavy Topspin noted that players with one-handed backhands were not yet extinct, but were getting older. In, The State of the One-Handed Backhand, we read:

Don’t write the eulogy just yet. The one-handed backhand isn’t the common sight that it used to be, but there are still plenty of them out there. When the current generation retires, however, we might have an endangered species on our hands. Here’s a quick look at the prevalence of the one-hander in today’s men’s game. …

I think the Heavy Topspin post is more balanced, but neither article got into the reasons for the decline of the stroke. I’ve read elsewhere that it has to do with players learning the game when very young (and very short) on high-bouncing bituminous and clay courts. If you’ve ever flailed at the occasional high-bouncing ball to your backhand, imagine getting a steady stream of shots that were too high to hit with any power while your insane tennis parent, who just drove you four hundred miles to play in some tournament, is watching and having a fit.

So if the two-hander makes it easier for five-year olds to add some power when returning that shot, they’re going to use it, just as they tend towards extreme Western grips to handle high-bouncing balls to the forehand – rather than stick with the one-hander and lose their junior matches. Unlike Pete Sampras, most of them will keep their hard-learned strokes into adulthood.

Update 20130505: Haas beat Kohlschreiber in the final of the BMW Open. Stan Wawrinka, who also hits a one-handed backhand, beat two-hander David Ferrer in the final of the Portugal Open. So it was a good week for the one-hander.

Antisocial Media

Four days ago, The NY times reported that 20 year-old tennis player Rebecca Marino had overcome cyber-bullying and online harassment to return to professional tennis, making the WTA final in Memphis.

She acknowledged that it was often her own searching of online comments that hurt her. But what bothered her most were messages to her Twitter account sent by people who had lost money betting on her matches.

“They’ll say, ‘You gave that match away, you cost me such-and-such amount of money, you should go burn in hell,’ or ‘You should go die,’ ” Marino said. “And oh, my gosh, that is really scary.”

Today, she’s quitting again: Weary Marino Bids Farewell to WTA and Cyber-Bullies

Although she refused to call her decision a retirement, Marino’s tone and words indicated there was little chance of a return.

Marino also doubted she would ever return to social media after shutting down her Twitter and Facebook accounts on Tuesday before making her announcement.

“At this point I can’t really see myself going back onto social media but who knows,” said Marino. “I don’t really find it something I really need in my life at this moment.

“In a way I wish I hadn’t joined social media because of the criticism I received but I can’t really go about regretting what I’ve done.”

Having spent a lot of time on rec.sport.tennis, I know that even without the impetus of gambling, tennis fans develop outrageous likes and dislikes for players they barely know at all.

After Pete Sampras appeared very dehydrated, even threw up, then aced Albert Corretja in a US Open match, some fans accused him of playacting the “dying dog” and cheered his losses for years afterwards. Steffi Graf was admired for her forehand and her legs, but heckled over avoiding Catholic tithes. After Andre Agassi heckled an opponent’s errant ball toss in a windy match, he became the ugly American – until he won the French Open and the career slam. Martina Hingis was both admired and scorned for her prolific love life and comments she later denied about lesbian player Amelie Mauresmo being, “ein halber Mann.” But probably no one endured as much outright hatred as the Williams sisters and their father, who were black, poor, bucked both junior and professional tennis, but were successful anyway.

Having spent time online, I know that admitting that cyber-bullying bothers you is only asking for even more of it.

Update: More on Marino’s depression as a factor in her leaving tennis in the Straight Sets blog.

What Has Andy Murray Done For Us Lately?

Afters years of having to look back to Fred Perry, Scotsman Andy Murray finally gave the UK a major titleholder by winning the 2012 US Open. Then he had to go and lose the Australian Open. AP sports correspondent John Leicester seems prepared to write Murray’s tennis obituary.

Andy Murray Risks Becoming One-Hit Wonder

A victory for Murray on Sunday to go with his U.S. Open crown and his Olympic gold won at home last August would have looked like a power shift at the top of men’s tennis, especially since Murray beat Federer for the first time in four attempts at a major to reach Sunday’s final.

Instead, the loss to Djokovic made Murray’s 2012 wins look more like exceptions than the possible beginnings of a new rule. …

The Australian final showed that physically, Djokovic and Murray are evenly matched, powerful on both the backhand and forehand sides, with delicate control, supreme fitness and rubber-ball quickness around the court.

But until Murray can consistently go toe-to-toe with Djokovic’s mental toughness, their rivalry won’t feel as titanic as clashes between Djokovic and Nadal or Federer and Nadal when they are at their best.

Shouldn’t that be blistered toe-to-healthy toe? Murray looked very good for two sets, winning one and losing the next in tiebreaks, then it seemed that his wheels fell off as he was treated for blisters on his feet. Be patient, Brits. Murray has the sort of game to win on any surface, but his feet have to toughen up a bit.