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Posted: Wednesday July 22, 2009 1:11PM; Updated: Wednesday July 22, 2009 1:11PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >
TENNIS MAILBAG

The rankings debate, Seles' place in history and more mail

Story Highlights

Dinara Safina's No. 1 ranking seems counterintuitive without a Slam title

Don't look for Roger Federer's wife, Mirka, to ever make a comeback as a player

How would tennis be viewed if Roscoe Tanner, 57, reached the Wimbledon final?

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Dinara Safina's status as the world's No. 1 calls into question the ranking system.
Julian Finney/Getty Images
Jon Wertheim's Mailbag
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I have to say that the treatment Dinara Safina is getting from the media is entirely unfair. It's very convenient to forget, but plenty of women held the No. 1 ranking in the last decade without holding a Grand Slam. Martina Hingis (2000) and Lindsay Davenport (2001, 2004, 2005) even finished the year at No. 1 without holding Slams (in Davenport's case, in 2004 she didn't even make a final and yet was No. 1). I realize that it isn't the ideal situation, but give the woman a break. No one works harder and wants it more, and someone who is overachieving just by being a contender deserves a little more respect.
-- Dan, Tel Aviv, Israel

• Like it or not, the four majors are the tent-pole events of the sport. When the top-ranked player has yet to win one of these titles, it comes across as counterintuitive. Many fans are, understandably, uneasy that the top-ranked player has never won a top prize. Serena Williams is, understandably, uneasy that she has won three majors over the last 12 months and isn't ranked No. 1. Wouldn't the media be accused of collective incompetence if they didn't address this issue? (In the case of the other examples you gave, those players were former Slam winners, so at least they had proved their bona fides in the past, which probably reduced the backlash.)

Dan does raise a good point that Safina deserves more respect: It's not as though she achieved her top ranking by lottery. Playing by the existing rules, she amassed more ranking points than anyone else. That she committed herself to fitness and elevated her game after five years as a No. 10-15 ranked player makes her all the more admirable. Good for her. But I think it's perfectly reasonable to call into a question a system that rewards a player yet to break through on the biggest stage. In a perfect world, she wins a major and adds some gravitas to her ranking. Or in a perfect world, Williams gets her act together in smaller events and sees to it that her results in Toronto or Rome keep pace with her results in Melbourne or Wimbledon. Until then, I think there's a healthy discussion about the ranking system and the ongoing debate between rewarding the players for the biggest titles and imbuing the "garden variety" tour events with enough points to make them feel meaningful.

I saw Jeff Tarango won a qualifying match in Indianapolis. Is he making a comeback? Everyone remembers his match at Wimbledon and how he made Andre Agassi cry when they were 12-year-olds. Can you give us the inside scoop on Tarango?
-- Sunil, Philadelphia

• From the source via e-mail: "No plans as yet ... just wanted to test my wares. ... if i got in a bit better shape I might be entertained by a try at it. ... haha. ... good to hear from you. ... p.s. these guys are good on this ATP WORLD TOUR thing!!!"

Speaking of comebacks, Michael Stich entered the doubles in Hamburg. He and Mischa Zverev lost in the first round.

Re: the Grand Slam winners in the Open era, how does the one-handed backhand stack up against their two-handed counterparts? I would guess the one-handers would have the advantage.
-- Elad Lim, Manila, Philippines

• Before we get to Elad's question, just a quick demographic FYI for our friends at the ATP and WTA before it slips my mind: For what it's worth, I would guess that a full 10 percent of my mail comes from the Philippines. Lots of rabid and under-served tennis fans. If you're looking for another beach-head market in Asia, I suspect you could do worse than Manila.

If I understand your question right ... if we include Pete Sampras and Gustavo Kuerten with Roger Federer, obviously the one-handers have fared well on the men's side in recent years. In the whole Open era, I bet it's close. Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander and Jim Courier are among those who rack up points for the two-handers. John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl go the other way.

What are the chances of Federer's wife, Mirka, making a comeback? After the baby is born, of course. She has been Roger's hitting partner for so long, maybe she is a much better player now. She should be able to get some wild cards, right?
-- Goutham, Boston

• I would say the odds of this are roughly the same as the odds of Switzerland's going to war in the near future. She hasn't played for most of this decade and, of course, is a few weeks away from birthing a child. I suppose an enterprising tournament director might offer her a wild card but, again, you'd be better off offering it to Margaret Court.

A few if you have asked, "How good was Mirka?" I asked some Swiss journalists as well as a former WTA player and the consensus was that "her ranking was accurate." She was a fine 50-100 player, respectable but not likely to win majors. She is, however, the greatest tennis muse of all time.

So Wimbledon is over and we are primed to enter a big hard-court segment. What's with a bunch of clay tournaments thrown in? Is it so Oscar Hernandez, Juan Monaco and their ilk can maintain high rankings? I honestly don't get it.
-- Rick Pittman, Toronto

• This is the old push-pull between diluting the product and providing opportunities. I agree with you that, at first blush, it seems odd that after Wimbledon and before the hard-court junket, there are these random clay events in Europe. On the other hand, if a promoter is willing to pony up the fees, sponsors are available and fans are buying tickets, why not give the Juan Monacos of the world a chance to earn some cash?

If Federer goes on to win the U.S. Open and subsequently the Australian Open in 2010, I think this should be considered a true Grand Slam. Why is Australian-French-Wimbledon-U.S. considered a greater achievement than French-Wimbledon-U.S.-Australian? Surely the order is arbitrary and unimportant.
-- Stephen, Jerusalem

• We like the tidiness of a season. And this goes for sports in addition to tennis. A baseball pitcher who wins 15 games from mid-July until October and then wins another 15 between 2010 Opening Day and the All-Star break won't be hailed as 30-game winner. But your point is a good one. There's really only an artificial distinction between a 12-month Slam and a "true Slam."

Given the WTA's recurring problems with (a) fake mid-match injuries and (b) head cases, may I suggest that the tour explicitly authorize psychological timeouts? Imagine if, mid-match, we plop a player on a courtside couch, we bring out a shrink and he asks, "Dinara, why do you think you're unworthy of winning this Slam?" We do this, and Jelena Jankovic never needs to fake an injury again!
-- Scott, New York, N.Y.

• "Nadia, that pressure you feel is a leaf. It's off the tree, wafting in the air and falling, falling ... the leaf falls into a cool river and now it's drifting downstream, away, away, until it's out of sight."

Nadal theory: As a clearly deep-feeling human being, Nadal felt so badly for what he had done to Federer after the Aussie meltdown that it sapped his ferocity. He had killed the king, and didn't really want the throne after all. As such, he has played with a bewildering lack of passion and killer instinct since then, and may never be the same. Legitimate theory or crackpot scenario?
-- B.D., California

• Um ...

Golf isn't even a quasi-sport, as you referred to it last week. My gang here came up with some categories for athletic endeavors: sport, contest and exhibition. Sport requires offense and defense from the opponents -- what your opponent does immediately and physically affects your next play, shot, pass, whatever. Defense involving physical proximity or contact is optional. So sports include tennis, basketball, football, soccer, hockey, baseball, water polo, i.e. most of the usual suspects. Contests are determined by who is the best performer in an objectively measured event, like golf, track and field, swimming, ski racing, etc. There's ongoing debate here about the athleticism of golf (and of darts and NASCAR). Exhibitions are judged and include figure skating, gymnastics and half-pipe snow-boarding, i.e. athletic versions of American Idol or America's Got Talent. Non-athletic events get grouped into "games" and I suppose they could be sub-divided the same way if we had a bigger vocabulary.
-- Dan Ohlsen, Longmont, Colo.

• That's an interesting designation. Someone once proposed to me that an activity can't be a "sport" if you and the opposition don't have to compete simultaneously. It's similar to your point about "defense." But don't we all agree that most races (sprints, marathons, the Tour de France), though objectively measured, still entail a measure of strategy/defense? As long as you brought up golf, what do we make of Tom Watson? Compelling story and all, but I'm not sure a 59-year-old challenging for a major -- and outlasting Tiger Woods --sends a great message. Could you imagine the beating tennis would take if, say, Roscoe Tanner, showed up at Wimbledon 2009 at age 57, and reached the final?

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