It's all about grass
Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
Two weeks removed from coming within a point of beating Gustavo Kuerten in Paris, Michael Russell lost in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying to Italian veteran Christiano Caratti. ... Three Americans qualified for the big dance: Taylor Dent, Bob Bryan and Cecil Mamiit. ... Speaking of qualifying, was this a typo or did Todd Woodbridge -- the world's best doubles player -- really win his final Roehampton match, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0? ... Two other doubles virtuosi, Leander Paes and Daniel (The Insomniac) Nestor, qualified as well. ... On the women's side, Maureen (aka Mo Majik) Drake, a top-50 player not all that long ago, made the main draw. Not as fortunate was Wichita's Tara Snyder, once a top-35 player, who fell in the second round. ... Lindsay Davenport is the lone player among the top five women's seeds to have played a grass court tuneup. ... Amelie Mauresmo pulled out of Eastbourne citing "fatigue." Question: Why is player who has played but one match in the past six weeks -- a straight-set loss to the formidable Jana Kandarr -- fatigued? ...
A smattering of tennis headlines from this week: " [Marcelo] Rios to miss 2-3 months after tearing ligaments," "Injured [Magnus] Norman, [Nicolas] Lapentti and [Karol] Kucera pull out of Wimbledon," " [Jennifer] Capriati pulls out of tuneup," " [Alex] Corretja latest Wimbledon withdrawal," "World No. 1 Kuerten makes it official: No Wimbledon," " [Monica] Seles, [Anna] Kournikova pull out of Wimbledon." Of course, the absences of Mary Pierce and Mark Philippoussis were last week's news. Since when did playing tennis become more physically hazardous than a Jackass stunt? ... It's just a guess, but I'm inclined to think that the British tabloids might be curious about Martina Hingis' romance with one of the prosecutors from her stalking trial. ... To clear up a technical glitch from last week, I'm picking Pete Sampras -- not Lleyton Hewitt -- to win Wimbledon. The prevailing wisdom is that Sampras' run is going to end this year. He is, after all, married. But how do you pick against a guy who has lost one match at the Championships since George H.W. Bush was president? ... The Ivy League men's tennis trophy has been named in honor of Albie Collins, a standout for Dartmouth in the '50s who remains an ambassador for the Ancient Eight. ... Tennis fans scratched their heads (and headed for the atlas) when it was announced that the next U.S. Davis Cup tie, against India, would be held in Winston-Salem, N.C. Yet we hear that ticket sales and sponsorship buys have been brisk for the September match.
Over and out ...
Now that we've reached the magical fortnight, we are obviously going to hear about how Pete Sampras has won seven titles and will probably win his eighth. With all his success at Wimbledon (and his other six Slam wins) has come great admiration and the arguable moniker "best player of all time." Which leads me to my question: If there was a player who had won a particularly high number of French Opens, one or two U.S. or Aussie Opens, and no Wimbledons, would he garner the respect that Sampras has? In a greater sense, does a player who excels on grass get more respect than one who excels on clay?
It's no secret that Sampras' sustained futility on clay is the glaring deficiency on his résumé. But before we consider your hypothetical, let's get our facts straight. He has won not "one or two U.S. Opens" but four. And he's been the runner-up twice. He has won in Australia twice. For an entire decade, he never strayed from the top six and finished at No. 1 for six straight years. He also won 50 titles at events other than Slams and singlehandedly won the Davis Cup for his country. If a player had those sterling credentials and seven French Opens to his name, yet had failed to Wimbledon, would he have Sampras' exalted status? Close to it.
Here's how I'd answer your second question: A player who excels on clay gets more respect (and rankings points) than one who excels on grass. But a player who excels at Wimbledon gets more respect than one who excels at the French Open. Yes, it is completely counterintuitive that tennis' "magical fortnight," as you put it, its most esteemed event, is played on the most anomalous and rare surface. But that's the way it goes: Wimbledon is the Rose Bowl of tennis. In practical terms, it might not be as important as the FedEx Orange Bowl, but it has the most prestige. If you're going to win one Slam seven times, Wimbledon is the one to choose.
I think you and a number of other tennis columnists have been too quick to write off Lindsay Davenport's chances at Wimbledon. Now that she won Eastbourne, do you want to reconsider?
Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis? Sorry, couldn't resist. Your question is a good one. Davenport had done nada since winning Scottsdale way back when. Since March, she's had injuries, endured a humiliating match in Indian Wells against Serena Williams, seen one of her close friends battle leukemia, and eavesdropped as the tennis world spoke of her pending extinction. Suddenly, Davenport reappears from the abyss to win Eastbourne, quietly reminding us that she still hits the ball immaculately, moves sufficiently well when healthy, and won Wimbledon only two years ago. I still think she could run into trouble with both Jelena Dokic or Kim Clijsters in her quadrant. But I agree with you insofar as her chances look a whole lot better than they did a week ago.
Do you expect the women's Wimbledon champion to come from the top five, or should we get ready to savor Nathalie Tauziat's first Grand Slam singles title? I mean, what are the odds that the winner can be a player ranked outside the top five?
For all the talk about depth in women's tennis, the dirty little secret is that there's a huge gap between the top players and the rest of the field. It's Mickey Mantle -rookie-card rare that a player other than a top-five seed wins a major. Capriati, of course, took the big prize in Australia when she was seeded 12th, but that's really an exception. Tauziat is an accomplished grass courter but, at age 33, she ain't winning Wimbledon. I wouldn't be completely stupefied if, say, a Clijsters or a Dokic held the Rosewater plate aloft. But smart money says that no player seeded lower than Serena will take the title.
Have you ever played tennis on grass? How difficult is it compared to hard courts or clay? Is there anywhere in the U.S. that even has a lawn court?
I've played on grass a few times. It's a lot of fun, but you definitely empathize with the pros when they complain (or quietly gloat) that tennis on grass is a sport unto itself. The ball skids, not unlike your playing on a gym floor. There is also a distinct -- almost magnetic -- pull, driving you netward. Your footing is never secure.
There are a number of grass courts scattered throughout the country. The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., the Longwood (Mass.) Cricket Club and the Merion Cricket Club outside Philly spring immediately to mind. Don't know of any in the great state of Minnesota.
What is it with Tim Henman? He always seems to double-fault or miss overheads during tiebreaks.
The biggest knock against Henman is that he has all the tools and a beautiful game, but he is too bloody nice, so to speak. Tennis isn't a life-or-death proposition to him, so he lacks the fight-to-the-death mentality of a Hewitt or even a Sampras. Henman would make a great neighbor and, were he not already married -- another knock against him, come to think of it -- a great husband for your daughter. But he's not, to use a horrible sports cliché, the first guy you'd want alongside you in a foxhole.
To be honest, I haven't noticed his shortcomings in tiebreakers, but here's another symptom of the same syndrome: his match record in 19 career finals is 7-12. Lots of folks are convinced that this is the year the Brits will finally get to toast "Our Tim," that he'll beat a sluggish Sampras in the quarterfinals and then, backed by a partisan crowd, ride the momentum for two more rounds, à la Virginia Wade in 1977. Personally, I have a hard time seeing it.
Martina Hingis decided to take a couple of weeks off going into Wimbledon, reasoning that she can't do much to prepare for grass. I tend to agree with her. What's your opinion on that?
Hingis isn't alone. Capriati, Mauresmo and -- are you sitting down? -- the Williams sisters also bailed on the tuneups. I agree and I disagree with the strategy. On the one hand, grass is such an aberrant surface and the "season" is so short that traditional preparation is probably overrated, if not altogether futile. On the other hand, I think it's dangerous to go into a Slam on a new surface with so little recent match play.
It's been a while since we've had a really fun question, so here goes: If you could couple any man with any woman in tennis, who would make a good couple and why? My choice would be Lindsay Davenport and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. I think it would be a clear case of opposites attracting, plus maybe she could get him to be a little less grumpy.
"Been a while since we've had a really fun question"?!? Where have you been hanging out? You must have missed our protracted discussion on the Wimbledon seedings conundrum, the perplexing fall of Silvija Talaja, and the whereabouts of Daniel Vacek. Just for that, you get a lame answer: Kim Clijsters and Lleyton Hewitt.
Is the International Tennis Hall of Fame worth visiting? What is there to see?
Newport is absolutely worth a visit, especially in the summer. It's right up there with Fort Wayne, Evansville and Terre Haute on the short list of America's civic treasures. The Hall of Fame is a must-see for tennis fans, too. At the risk of sounding like I'm writing a brochure, it's one of those places where you play time traveler and visit another era. (I remember a "hard rackets" court, recreated from centuries ago, as being particularly cool.) The exhibits have no doubt changed since I was last there in 1994 or so, but check out its Web site: http://www.tennisfame.org. Also, the Newport ATP tournament, July 9-15, is one of the great sleeper events on the men's calendar. You won't find many big names in the draw, but the grass-court tennis and overall ambiance more than makes up for it.
Am I the only person who thinks Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf should be forced to procreate, thereby spawning a generation of tennis machines? Has tennis ever had so perfect an opportunity to better itself?
First, that's Stefanie Graf to you. Second, if there's a divine being and he/she has any sense of irony, the spawn of Graf and Agassi will never take to tennis but will become a world-renowned glockenspiel player.
As one of the few products of your alma mater's Portuguese department, I feel qualified to write that a better pronunciation of Gustavo Kuerten's last name is KEER-tay. (And if you want to get picky, the second syllable should be said quite nasally.) If Kuerten himself says KEER-ten, I think it's likely a concession to an English-speaking audience.
Thanks, John. But I didn't know Bloomington (Ind.) North even had a Portuguese department.
Why can't the men bother to shave when they take the court? The women all look their best, while most of the men look like slobs. Whatever happened to the dress code?
I don't care if these guys -- or women, for that matter -- have five o'clock shadows and look like Alice in Chains roadies. It's bad enough tennis players are asked to wear collared shirts and predominantly white outfits. These are elite athletes playing a grueling, merciless, sweaty, smelly sport. Why should they groom themselves as if there's a post-match job interview? The elegance of tennis is in the game itself, not the players' appearances.
Just wondering ... I've noticed a few questions in your Mailbag from Filipino users. So for all those Filipino tennis fanatics out there, are there any Filipino pros on either the women's or men's tour?
Tennis, as I understand it, is quite popular in the Philippines. Alas, this has yet to translate into a significant presence on either tour. Your best bet is to root for Cecil Mamiit, who was born in L.A. but whose parents are both Filipino -- and he's fiercely proud of his heritage. (Now it's my turn for a Just Wondering: Why is the country the Philippines, but the nationality is Filipino with an f?)
Why are most barns painted red?
Sorry, Don, the Architecture Mailbag is a few doors down. I have to admit that your question, while having nothing to do with tennis, was perplexing to me. So I broke from Mailbag tradition and actually did some research (read: I couldn't think of a snarky response). Here's the honest-to-goodness answer: Time was, farmers wanted to paint their barns a color other than white, but they didn't want to pony up for expensive paint. So they mixed the iron oxide -- rust, basically -- from their tools with their whitewash. As the years went by, the tradition grew. Today barns are painted red mainly for aesthetic reasons.
If you could switch coaches for two top female players, whom would you flop? I think, for example, Martina Hingis might benefit from a calming influence like Robert Van't Hof, though I'm not sure Lindsay Davenport and Melanie Molitor are a good match.
Your question is posed as a hypothetical, but be patient and you'll get your answer. Most players change coaches as frequently and with as little thought as you and I change socks. Alexandra Stevenson, a favorite Mailbag piñata, has gone through something like nine coaches in the past two years. (First one to name all nine gets a free ... never mind.) Molitor is way too intense for Davenport. Also, Davenport -- who has done swimmingly well with Van't Hof, I hasten to add -- needs a motivator and a fitness trainer; Molitor's strength is tactical. Though I'm guessing both parties would sooner eat lint than agree to the arrangement, Molitor and Venus Williams would be an interesting pairing.
Regarding nicknames on the men's tour, I've heard Andre Agassi being called "The Punisher" by Cliff Drysdale. How good is that?
Thanks, Dan. A highly placed tour source claims the following sobriquets have been dispensed within the friendly confines of the locker room:
Pat (Sorry Mate) Rafter
Also, it's worth pointing out that the wonderfully wry Mary Carillo is credited with christening Martina Hingis "Chucky," since she brutalizes opponents with that silly, vaguely sadistic smile.
Sooner or later you had to receive a question from Belgium. In an interview with Belgian channel VRT after the French Open, Chris Evert described Belgian women's tennis (read: Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin) as not ready for the top and not athletic enough. What is your opinion?
America. Glad to have Belgium representing in the virtual house. And I won't waffle on the question. Ba-da-bum. If, in fact, Evert made those comments, I wholeheartedly disagree. Clijsters and Henin may not be quite ready for the top. But both are certainly elite players who can challenge for Grand Slams and beat any other player on a given day. The notion that neither is athletic enough is absurd. Clijsters has the legs of Barry Sanders, a brawny upper body, comes from an athletic family and hits the stuffing out of the ball. Does she have Venus Williams' court coverage or Serena's Popeye muscles? No. But who does? As for Henin, she's obviously somewhat slight in stature, but she moves well, hits plenty hard and holds up fine physically (it's the mental aspect that tends to fall into disrepair). If Davenport and Hingis are sufficiently athletic to be top players, surely Clijsters and Henin are, too.
What is it with Pete Sampras' draw at Wimbledon? He is slated to face more clay-courters than he would have had he survived all of Roland Garros! How do all the dangerous floaters end up in Marat Safin's section of the draw?
No kidding. Sampras must have pictures of All England club members performing incriminating acts with their Pimms Cups. Last year his draw also was Downy soft. No one begrudges him his title in 2000, but you know someone's looking down on you when you don't face a top-20 player until the finals. This year he doesn't face a credible player until the quarters. For Sampras, in particular, this is crucial. It usually takes him a few matches to find his groove in a Slam. But once he gets rolling, he can be a real "bugger," as Rafter would put it.
Every year we hear about how the slow clay at Roland Garros favors one type of player and the fast grass at Wimbledon favors another. Why don't we split the difference, have a tournament with one side of the court in red clay and the other side of the court in grass, and then we can finally see who is the best all-court player?
Never mind playing tennis on grass. What about writing Mailbag inquiries on grass? This sounds like one of those, ahem, half-baked ideas spawned in the parking lot of a Phish concert.
Enjoy the first week of Wimbledon, everyone!
Click here to send a question or comment to Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag.