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Posted: Wednesday September 24, 2008 2:54PM; Updated: Wednesday September 24, 2008 3:01PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >

Improving the Davis Cup, Davydenko's pain and ballboys

Story Highlights
  • The Davis Cup is slinking into irrelevance in the U.S., but thriving elsewhere
  • There's a part of me that feels for Nikolay Davydenko
  • On ballboys: Have we really gotten so soft as a society
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While the Davis Cup did not register with American fans, Rafael Nadal and his Spain team enjoyed the love from home.
While the Davis Cup did not register with American fans, Rafael Nadal and his Spain team enjoyed the love from home.
Jon Wertheim's Mailbag
Jon Wertheim will answer questions from users in his mailbag every Wednesday.

I don't know, Jon. You've repeatedly said (including in this week's Ad-In, Ad-Out) that Davis Cup is dying. But Juan Martin del Potro's semifinal victory gets front-page coverage in Argentine papers, as does Spain's victory in Spanish papers.

The crowd in Argentina this weekend is reported as being "boisterous and intimidating." And we all remember the size and enthusiasm of the crowd at the Spain-U.S. final in Seville in 2004. So to proclaim Davis Cup is dead when clearly there is a huge international following seems like an example of North American-centrism, no?
-- Sarah, Philadelphia

• Clearly, you're right on some level. Just because Davis Cup is slinking into irrelevance in the U.S. doesn't mean it's dying everywhere. But I would submit that the U.S. is a pretty darn important market. And I'm telling you, there was radio silence here. The American team -- the defending champs, mind you -- was taking on Spain and the world's top player. And it was crickets chirping. Barely a mention in newspapers. Barely a word on ESPN, which televised the ties up until a few years ago. Nothing on the various crawls. This, to me, is problematic.

I suppose the ITF can continue on, saying essentially, "They may ignore Davis Cup in the U.S. but they love it in Madrid, Belgrade and Buenos Aires." And maybe that's enough. But I would hope that organizers saw the attention, coverage and, crassly, money the Ryder Cup attracted and think, Surely, we can improve.

Is there some compensation the ATP hands out to Davydenko for putting him through a year of psychological turmoil. Or is it just tough luck, wrong place, wrong time?
-- Dave, Hong Kong

• The latter. And, besides, I'm not sure he'd have much of a case. People are exonerated and unsuccessfully tried all the time. Doesn't mean there was negligence or liability on the part of the investigators.

I think that fairness demands that we acknowledge that Davydenko was cleared in the betting probe. Yet still... there's something that doesn't sit quite right about this whole unseemly affair. Again: a top five player is an UNDERDOG against a journeyman barely in the top 100. Tens more money than normal is wagered, most of it concentrated among a few accounts. The journeyman loses the first set, but, counter to all rational thinking, more bets pour in on his behalf. He then wins the match when the top five player retires. Citing the irregularities, the betting company takes the unprecedented step of voiding all bets. And yet none of the "winners," who are presumably owed millions, make a stink.

Then, Davydenko proclaims innocence but declines to cooperate with the investigation by handing over the phone records of his wife and brother. By the time he is ordered to do so, the records were either destroyed by the phone company or were no longer retrievable, depending on whom you ask. Maybe this is the lapsed lawyer in me, but the official statement last week -- "The ATP has now exhausted all avenues of inquiry open to it, and the investigation is now concluded" -- does not exactly inspire much satisfaction either.

There's a part of me that feels for Davydenko. Here's a guy who never wanted publicity or notoriety, and he not only gets it, but also gets it under the worst terms. And if, in fact, he's completely innocent, it's a real tragedy. (We've discussed in the past, how easy it is for bad bets to be laid on a tennis match without a player's complicity.) But there are still so many unanswered questions and odd twists to this episode, I find it hard to dismiss this out of hand and pretend it never happened, just because a panel deems the investigation "concluded."

About the Kramer-like ball boys, when a Rafa match (for example) goes on and on until past 2 a.m., you can't use kids because it's against U.S. child labor laws. So at least for night sessions, it makes no sense to use kids. So the ball men are necessary!
-- Ro'ee, Israel

• Those darn child labor laws! That's so F.D.R. We're talking about giving Radek Stepanek a towel, not working the graveyard shift at the bakery. Have we really gotten so soft as a society. ...No, you're right. I presume that's the reason many of the ballkids need their food cut into bite-size pieces and had to curtail their shuffleboarding in order to work the matches.

I am sure that you have noticed this too, but I was really bewildered with the strategy that Murray used against Nadal in the U.S. Open semifinals -- standing so far back when taking Nadal's serve. It seems counterintuitive at first, and yet as I know from my own game, if someone serves with so much spin, it is better to stay a bit more behind the baseline, let the ball fall and then really pounce back at it (i.e. less risky than taking the ball in the upswing stage).

Do you think that this could be a strategy that Federer should use against Nadal, especially on clay? I mean, it seems to me that Federer has the physical strength to go all the way with Nadal: why then, just for once, not try to hang in there and go for less risky shots? I have a feeling that Federer is particularly afraid of this strategy and I cannot see exactly why? Your thoughts?
-- Ivo Plsek., Bzenec, Czech Republic

• Murray was very up front about his tactics. Here's a recap.

Q. You mentioned the importance of returns today. Nadal is not necessarily known for having a huge serve, but you stayed back. Could you describe your thinking on the return and game plan?

ANDY MURRAY: "Well, with his serve, he doesn't have a big serve, but he puts so much spin on the serve that if you stand close up to the baseline, for me, you know, he can get it into your body. It's quite tough to read because he moves the racquet very fast, you know, just as he's about to make contact.

"It's a tough serve to read, even though it's not particularly big. I gave myself a lot of time and didn't get aced -- I probably got aced once, twice today. But I was getting myself into a lot of the points, and that's what you need to do against someone like that, you know, who normally has to work pretty hard for his points. If you're giving a lot of cheap ones from his serve, he's going dominate you."

Ivo, you've raised an interesting point and it's a question I'd like to ask Federer. An old coach once told me that standing back was akin to pitching from second base. "Why make the court bigger for your opponent?" But how many times have we seen Federer handcuffed by those high-bouncing Nadal serves that force him to him a backhand at neck level? If your goal is to attack Nadal (e.g. Roddick's failed but noble strategy in Davis Cup), you don't want to start the point 10 feet behind the baseline. But consider Murray's success and I think you have to look seriously at this tactic.

OK, Jon, I've had to listen to the fact that even though the tickets on the men-only days at Wimbledon are the most expensive, that the men play more sets is irrelevant and that err... they're better? And no other sport in a similar situation chooses to not reward the men for this is a great thing for tennis. Can you please now explain why you said having women umpires for men's matches is.....good for tennis? Do you think it's less likely that women umpires will be called abortions or yelled at and will that be a good or bad thing, necessarily?
-- Andrew Simon, Hong Kong

• We can save a deeper discussion of equal prize money for another time. My general take is this:

A) sets played is a red herring. Just look at the men's versus women's finals from the U.S. Open to see what an artificial metric this is.

B) The public relations hit that events take -- tennis, in general -- when, say, Wimbledon used to pay the women 95 cents on the dollar, isn't worth the tiny financial savings.

C) I'm still a bit troubled that the WTA has yet to articulate/demonstrate why women deserve equal prize money when the open market suggests otherwise. (Just compare the purses at ATP Masters Series events versus WTA Tier One events.)

D) On balance, I say take the high road, pay equally and move onto more substantive issues. Anyway...

Having a female chair umpire for a men's match isn't "good" per se. What is good: that this can happen without the celebratory look-how-progressive-we-are fanfare. I mean, what are the qualifications for being an umpire? Professionalism, good judgment and good eyesight. Why does that have to be gender specific? And now that I think about it, I suppose Hawkeye helps the overall mood of civility.

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