A tale of tennis' bard
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
In the past few months, the Mailbag has come to you from the some of the world's most exotic locales: The media room of the Portland Trail Blazers' practice facility. The Charlotte Hilton. The Midwest Express Lounge in the Milwaukee Airport. The Troy, Mich., Marriott. This week, the trend continues, as I write this from the jury room of criminal court in Lower Manhattan, known colloquially as the third ring of Hades.
Yes, my number came due a few weeks ago and now, in the name of civic duty, I sit in the jurisprudential equivalent of a Greyhound bus terminal with 100 or so fellow citizens. I have nothing, per se, against serving on a jury. As Ed Bradley told me earlier this morning in an introductory video, "a jury is one of the cornerstones of the democratic process." It's just that, to quote Tom Petty (Petty theft, so to speak), "The waiting is the hardest part." For seven hours now, my fellow potential panelists and I have been sitting idly in this light-free, oxygen-free, cell-reception-free romper room, waiting to be assigned to a case. While one of my coffee-breath-afflicted neighbors sleeps and another whiles away the hours telling anyone who will listen -- and even some who won't -- about her theory regarding the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman split, I will fulfill a real civic duty and try to reach a verdict on some of your questions.
For whatever reason, there were a lot of questions this week about the venerable Bud Collins. Mike Lewis of New York City wrote the most obsequious note, so we'll put his name in bold face. First, just to clarify: It's Bud Collins' Tennis Encyclopedia that ought to be part of your tennis library. I mistakenly alluded to it as an anthology last week.
As for your curiosities about what Collins is really like, I'll recount the following story: The 1998 Acura Classic in L.A. was one of my first tennis assignments as a writer for Sports Illustrated. I was in the press tent for all of 10 minutes before Collins came over to my workspace, introduced himself presuming I had no idea who he was, and told me that if I had any questions, I shouldn't hesitate to contact him. Ten minutes later, the night session started. The "press box" at the stadium consisted of a row of metal bleachers at nosebleed level. Collins easily could have big-timed his way into better seats. But with no complaints, he grabbed a notepad and scaled the steps.
Seated near us were a group of vendors who worked the corporate tents during the day and were using their grounds passes to watch the night matches. When Collins overheard one say to his friend that he never been to a match before, he turned around and asked if they wanted a primer. He spent the next half-hour explaining the scoring and peculiarities to utter strangers, who had no idea this outgoing man in the floral pattern was the Edward R. Murrow of tennis. By the end of the match, Collins was swapping high-fives with them.
Three days later, Collins was on the court to make some sort of presentation before the final. The vendors were back in the seats above press row. When Collins, wearing his trademark Don Ho clearance rack outfit and straw hat walked out on the court, the vendors were dumbfounded. "Holy s---," one said to the other. "That's the guy who taught us you don't serve from the service line."
On to your questions ...
Without resorting to verbally attacking Marcelo Rios' alleged sourness, can you offer an explanation as to why he is seemingly dogged by injury? And do you believe, as I do, that his talent will see him through to become a regular top-10 player again?
A verbal attack on the sedulous Marcelo Rios? What do you take me for? Now a written attack, on the other hand ... just kidding. Marcelo Rios is recently married -- with child on the way, I hear -- so we all know what that means: Challenger circuit, here I come. Seriously, Rios is monstrously talented, as you mentioned. The problem is that his body has given him fits these last few years. On talent alone, he is a surefire top-10 player. It's just a question of whether his back, groin, knee, etc., can be rescued from disrepair.
I follow the ATP throughout the season, and to a lesser degree the WTA. I have a fair understanding of how Davis Cup competition is conducted. Nonetheless, I am clueless about World TeamTennis (WTT). Any explanation you can offer?
Let me get this straight: You call yourself a tennis fan and yet you're a little shaky on the vagaries of World TeamTennis? That's a fairly gaping lacuna, I'd say. I'm kidding, of course. Your question underscores the fundamental problem with WTT. It's still an unknown quantity to most fans. The season is short; the rosters are forever changing; the teams are in random markets like Schenectady, N.Y., Idaho, and the Hamptons; and the television coverage is minimal. It's a shame because the league is actually worth supporting. It's inexpensive, mixed-sex, family-oriented tennis that features some fan-friendly "innovations" like team scoring, on-court coaching, mid-match subbing and constant noise. What's more, thanks to some behind-the-scenes deal-making, the league has been able to recruit cynosures like Serena Williams, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce and, most recently, Anna Kournikova. If you get a chance this summer, I'd encourage you to make it to a match.
I know you answered all those questions about Gustavo Kuerten a few weeks back. But what is his deal? He's been practically unbeatable on clay this year, but then he's just ordinary on hard courts. Is the difference between surfaces that significant?
This question obviously came in before Sunday, when Lleyton Hewitt beat Guga in Davis Cup play, eliminating the host Brazilians. Still, your question is a valid one. If my math is right, prior to last weekend, Kuerten was 12-0 on clay and 4-3 on all other surfaces. Kuerten is too well-rounded to be labeled a "specialist," but his surface of choice is clear. One of his problems on hard courts is his positioning for service returns. At both Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, he stood so far behind the baseline that he practically needed a sherpa to guide him to the court. This tactic might work on clay, but on hard courts even an inexperienced player like Taylor Dent was able to take advantage and open up the court. Until Guga stands closer to the action, it's hard to see him succeeding on concrete -- much less grass.
Do you have any experience or opinions regarding overnight tennis camps? We've registered our 11-year-old daughter for a week this summer, but she is basically a complete novice, having been on a court maybe two or three times. I'm assuming the camp addresses all skill levels and will emphasize things like developing a love of the game, basic skills and sportsmanship (as opposed to, say, hyper-competitiveness, match tactics, strength conditioning and sponsorship contracts). The camp, of course, tells me exactly what I want to hear.
This is straying outside the realm of the Mailbag and into Dear Abby territory. But I'm on jury duty, dammit. If boredom were top spin, I'd be Conchita Martinez. If idle time were ripped abs, I'd be Jan-Michael Gambill. So here goes: If your 11-year-old is a complete novice, I question how much she'll enjoy a tennis-only camp. That's a lot of immersion, even for a week. Have you considered a general sports camp where she could concentrate on tennis, but also go boating, play Steal the Bacon, compete in Color Wars and generally replicate the Meatballs experience?
Personally, I went to John Newcombe's Tennis Ranch (outside San Antonio) for three weeks when I was 14. It was a swell time. My game improved dramatically and I picked up some dirty Australian expressions. I wasn't at the strength-conditioning/sponsorship-contracts level, but I was a pretty serious player by that point. I can't imagine it would have been nearly as much fun had I been a novice.
Aside from Andy Roddick, are there any other young, up-and-coming Americans? I have heard that Rajeev Ram of Indiana is a bright prospect. Do you know if he is turning pro or going to college?
Lots of folks are agog about 17-year-old Ytai Abougzir, an American-born Israeli who is among the world's top-ranked juniors. I've never seen him play, but apparently he's a Hewitt type who is slight in stature but can retrieve anything and who plays with fire. Among Harel Levy, Justin Gimelstob, Paul Goldstein and Abougzir, the ATP can almost field a minyan here pretty soon. Carmel, Indiana's own Rajeev Ram has had some impressive results, but they've come mostly in doubles. The jury's still out, as we say while awaiting our voir dire call.
I see you also write extensively about the NBA. Since both sports are purported to be on the downslide (at least the men's games) because they are populated with self-absorbed, overpaid crybabies who don't put out a full effort each time, I wanted your opinion: Which sport has the bigger jerks? I'd ask which sport has the nicer guys, but I prefer the dirt.
In all honesty, each sport gets a bad rap in this sense. In both cases, the overwhelming majority of the athletes are professional, courteous and a pleasure to work with. For every "self-absorbed crybaby" in tennis there are nine Pat Rafter, Lindsay Davenport and Alex Corretja types. For every Rasheed Wallace in the NBA, there are far more players like Kevin Garnett, Antonio Davis and Steve Francis who play with passion and are affable off the court.
The big difference: The 10 percent of tennis players who can make life difficult are merely self-absorbed pains. I don't want to name names, but a player I'll call Anna K. -- wait, that's too obvious; let's say A. Kournikova -- might be surly and solipsistic, and generally regard everyone from tour administrators to her opponents to the media as several castes beneath her, unworthy of her time and attention. But it ends there. The bottom 10 percent of the NBA players are genuinely bad dudes.
With all the talk about Tiger Woods' golf Grand Slam, here's a tennis Grand Slam question for you. Only one active player, male or female, owns the career Grand Slam. Who do you think is most likely to be the next player in this elite club? Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras need the French to complete the set; Monica Seles needs Wimbledon. Or will Venus Williams take the French and Australian first? I say smart money has to be on Hingis.
I wouldn't gainsay your observation. Davenport simply lacks the -- how to say it? -- derring-do to win seven matches on clay. Venus is an underrated clay-courter and has a reasonable shot to win the French. But she's never started the year strong and has shown little aptitude in Australia. Seles isn't going to win Wimbledon. And Shaquille O'Neal (the grandee of Jerry Buss' Lakers) will lead the NBA in free-throw shooting before Sampras wins the French.
The irony about Hingis is that clay might well be her best surface. She is the youngest player ever to have won the girls' draw at Roland Garros and a good many of her dozens of titles are on terre battue. If she never wins the French, she'll cringe when she reflects on her career. To date: In 1997 she had a bum knee but still should have beaten Iva Majoli in the final. The next year she lost an emotional match to Seles. Then came her final fiasco against Graf. Last year she breezed through to the semis but then ran into a torrid Pierce.
I'm impressed! Last week's column had me running to the dictionary more than usual. Bilious. Screed. Celerity. A veritable wordsmith, you are! I appreciate very much your attempts to improve our collective vocabulary. Who needs to spend $29.95 for audiotapes when we can just read your columns?
My challenge? Use as many of these words as you can in your upcoming Mailbag. Tenses can and should change, but the words must be used in the proper context. The 10, in no particular order:
Did I mention I was bored out of my skull on jury duty?
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