SI.com Home
Get SI's Duke Championship Package Free  Subscribe to SI Give the Gift of SI
Posted: Wednesday October 21, 2009 1:30PM; Updated: Wednesday October 28, 2009 3:00PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >
TENNIS MAILBAG

Exhibitions a problem of perception

Story Highlights

Players complain about the long season ... and commit to lucrative exhibitions

Amelie Mauresmo is as thoughtful a player as the WTA has had this generation

Serena isn't "dominating" the WTA -- she doesn't win regular tour events

Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
rafael-nadal.jpg
Rafael Nadal ripped the ATP Tour over the long season around the same time he committed to play a Dec. 31 exhibition.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Jon Wertheim's Mailbag
Jon Wertheim will answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag every Wednesday.
Name:
Email:
Hometown:
Question:

Are you really equating a couple of sets of exhibition tennis to the demands of a long tour season?
-- Henry Brito, Atlanta

• Henry is referring to a popular message-board topic: How can these players bemoan the onerous schedule in one breath, and then commit to exhibitions in another? And Henry is right, at least to a point. In terms of the physical grind, a one-night-only exhibition, in which a player isn't particularly invested in the outcome, isn't the same as a tournament. If you've ever been to one, you know that the coinage "hit and giggle" is accurate. They're enjoyable, to be sure, but definitely skew more entertainment than sport.

Still, the perception -- the "optics," in the au courant biz-speak -- is lousy when you gripe about the tour's schedule the day before you announce you're playing an exhibition in the Middle East on Dec. 31 (as Rafael Nadal did recently)!

Since a lot of you asked, I assure you that while the "winner-take-all" purse for this Nadal-Roger Federer match is reportedly $25,000, neither player is crossing the street to earn that. If they each get seven figures, it shouldn't surprise us.

I have noticed over the last few years that when talking about great pitchers, Sandy Koufax is rarely mentioned on ESPN. I heard that years ago he refused to give the network an interview, so in essence he is being ignored. How much of this is true?
-- Maurice, Clovis, Calif.

• I don't know how this ended up in my mail pile. And while Koufax has been famously private and inaccessible for decades now, I don't know much about his relationship with ESPN or other media outlets. But I think the larger issue Maurice raises is well worth addressing.

There's no question that an athlete's relationship with the public affects the way he's perceived as a performer. In tennis, Ivan Lendl's career achievements certainly rival those of John McEnroe. But I sense that the casual fan would never guess that. Why? Because McEnroe is omnipresent and -- this is no knock -- willing to bare his soul. Lendl, whose relationship with the media was always frosty, surfaces only periodically.

Margaret Court is seldom mentioned in the Martina Navratilova/Chris Evert/Steffi Graf conversation despite having won more. Could it be because she, too, is not part of the tennis firmament in retirement? Perhaps in a perfect world, we would recall athletes simply for their achievements during their playing days. But in the real world, it's colored at least in part by what they did in retirement.

Amelie Mauresmo is considering retirement. Do you think that we have taken her for granted more than any other great player?
-- J.J. Johnson, Allentown, Pa.

• I wouldn't say that at all. (As mentioned above, Margaret Court, for starters, ranks higher in the "taken-for-granted" department.) You could contend that she should have won more than the two majors she did. But at least she got on the board. She got to No. 1. She played a stylish brand of tennis that will be missed. She's as thoughtful a player as the WTA has served up this generation. It was hard to hype her too much, given some of her mental toughness issues. On the other the hand, she'll get my vote for induction when she appears on a Hall of Fame ballot.

I also think she's provided us with an enlightening case for what can happen when an athlete comes out. She was 19 (19!) when she summoned the media and basically said, "Just so you know, I'm a lesbian." There were a few days of whispers and unfortunate remarks. And then ... silence. No protests, no sponsors asking for a refund, no ostracism, no nothing.

What is the point of organizing exhibition matches in cities that already have tournaments? New York and Los Angeles have the U.S. Open and Indian Wells (L.A.-ish). Will the Pacific Northwest ever see any love?
-- Valarie, Portland, Ore.

• I suppose it's what the market will bear. But I agree it would be nice to see some tennis in the Pacific Northwest. The folks in Portland, starting with doubles player Travis Parrott's dad, did a fine job bringing the Davis Cup to town in the winter of 2007. You'd think they could partner with Nike (or Microsoft up the road) and put together a night or two of indoor tennis.

Speaking of "The 206," if anyone has two hours to spare, this is a tremendous documentary about the SuperSonics at www.sonicsgate.org. All the elements of a classical tale: money, culture, sports, politics, hubris. With some classic Gary Payton quotes thrown in for good measure.

After the Swiss-Italy Davis Cup tie, Roger Federer gave an interview to an Italian journalist. He was finally asked about his reaction to David Foster Wallace's death. Here is part of the translated Q&A:

Q: Foster Wallace wrote: To watch Federer play is a religious experience

Federer: I did a half-hour interview with him at Wimbledon, one of the strangest that I've ever done. As I was going, I was still asking myself what we had said. I was very shocked by his suicide.

Q: Did you have any idea?

Federer: I wish, I'm sure that it wasn't because of me -- artists like him have ideals of a very high level that often don't hold up, unfortunately, in comparison with life. He wrote a wonderful essay on me. Even thanks to him, the world is, for me, a better place.

Why did Roger have to say, "I'm sure it wasn't because of me"? At Federer's Web site, someone posted this link in an attempt to answer that question. It says Roger's disastrous 2008 had something to do with Wallace's death. Outrageous? Or plausible? Have you or any other tennis journalist reached out to Wallace's wife to see to what extent his depression was tennis-related?
-- Mariel, San Francisco

• I got a similar question a few weeks ago. Just to put this rest, I'm sure Federer was right: He did not trigger Wallace's suicide. For one, Wallace killed himself days after Federer won the 2008 U.S. Open so the timing would be off. More significant, Wallace was clearly suffering from some profound mental health illness, so much so that he underwent electroshock treatment. I know I've sent some of you this link, but here it is again.

John Isner says no ATP player in the top 800 would lose to the WTA No. 1. Do you agree? I think Serena could certainly beat a Gaston Gaudio these days ...
-- Ruthie, Charlottesville, Va.

• We haven't had this question in a while. Melanie Oudin's boyfriend, a good but hardly dominating junior player, can supposedly beat her handily. So that cuts in favor of the men. On the other hand, I don't want to impugn Gaudio here, but like you, I think Serena has a chance against a male outside, say, the top 200.

Go to the practice courts at a mixed tournament -- it's pretty obvious that the men and women are playing at different levels. Some of this is physical. Just as B.J. Penn can't beat Brock Lesnar (a UFC reference for the kids in the audience), Oudin, at 125 pounds, isn't going to beat Isner. Some of this is about spin as well as power. Serena may serve with as much pace as Nadal, but she clearly doesn't replicate his action. Some of this is psychodynamics. I think the ATP and WTA realize that there is nothing to be gained from a 2009 version of "Battle of the Sexes."

Why are you, and so many others out there, saying there isn't a dominant player on the WTA Tour right now? If Justine Henin or Kim Clijsters or Amelie Mauresmo or Lindsay Davenport or any other player happened to be a reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and a semifinalist in the last two other Grand Slam tournaments, you would say she is having a superb year and dominating women's tennis. Why do you all always try to discredit Serena and why do you all hate her so much? It's sad and pathetic.
-- Azizon Ahmad, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

• This week's honorary badge for the double-standard police force goes to Azizon. No one begrudges Serena her Grand Slam excellence. But the fact is, she hasn't won a solitary WTA event in 2009! Sorry, that creates a vacuum. Sorry, that undercuts any claims of dominance. As Serena herself might say, "It is what it is."

If you take all team-sport athletes, who is the best tennis player?
-- Mike D., San Francisco

• Does that count World TeamTennis? If not, maybe Steve Nash?

In your studied opinion, who is the hottest player on the WTA Tour?
-- Steve, Berlin

• Whichever player is currently nursing a fever.

Shots, miscellany

• Two players (non-Swedish) were picked up in Stockholm on suspicion of soliciting prostitution. Let the inevitable parlor game commence.

• Unconfirmed rumor of the week: Fabrice Santoro is rethinking his retirement. Great news for us voyeurs. But, jeez, these guys don't even "unretire" these days. They just fail to pull the trigger.

• How not to play Wii tennis.

Rebecca S. of New York City writes: "Regarding your answer to the Louis Armstrong question [about how a U.S. Open court is named after the jazz great because of his Queens, N.Y., ties], you are correct but leave something out. It wasn't called that by the USTA or have anything to do with tennis. In fact, it was renamed that in 1972 (Armstrong died in 1971) and the National Tennis Center inherited it and didn't change the name. So the fact that a tennis stadium is named after a jazz great is more because it was converted from a previous usage. Before tennis it was a concert stadium (the Singer Bowl, an original structure from the 1964 World's Fair, and the scene of an infamous show by The Doors playing on a double bill with The Who) and was repurposed when the U.S. Open moved to Flushing Meadows. See here for more."

• Serena Williams will play World TeamTennis in Baton Rouge, La., on Dec. 8.

• Even if you share my skepticism for golf, admit this is good.

Venus Williams was spotted in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., shooting the cover for her forthcoming book.

• Speaking of books, can this be right? Knopf will need Andre Agassi to sell 500,000 copies of his book to break even?

Ed Tseng is opening a new performance academy.

• Long-lost siblings: Actor Carlos Ponce (yoga instructor in Couples Retreat) and Juan Martin del Potro.

Have a great week, everyone!

ADVERTISEMENT
SI.com
Hot Topics: NBA Playoffs NHL Playoffs Golden State Warriors Bryce Harper Paul Pierce Masai Ujiri
TM & © 2013 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved. Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint