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Full of smarts and charisma

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Posted: Monday July 30, 2001 1:36 PM

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

A few scattered thoughts: Anna Kournikova (remember her?) makes her return to action this week in San Diego. ... If the ATP is going to imbue Masters Series events with so much prestige, it is simply wrong to award wild cards. Chris Woodruff and Ivan Ljubicic had to qualify for the Canadian Open while Simon Larose -- a Canuck ranked somewhere south of Patagonia -- made the main. Without putting too fine a point on it, that stinks. ... Nice win for Taylor Dent, beating Carlos Moya in L.A. From the Letdown Dept.: Having missed the cutoff for Montreal, Dent is now headed to Lexington, Ky., to play a challenger. ... After beating Venus Williams, Meghann Shaughnessy ran out of steam at the Bank of the West Classic on Stanford's campus. Still, is there any doubt she's ready for her closeup? Speaking of, Shaughnessy will play doubles with Justine Henin at the U.S. Open. Somewhere, Magui Serna is smiling. ... A new low for the Why? Man: Yevgeny Kafelnikov fell 6-1, 6-1 to lucky loser Hugo Armando and then decried how the ATP's top guns don't capture the fans' attention. Isn't there some adage about a pot, a kettle and the color black? ... Marat Safin's career fluctuations make the NASDAQ look like a bellwether of stability. ... Keep an eye on this David Nalbandian character, who reached his second straight semifinal last weekend. ... Iroda Tulyaganova didn't even win a tournament last week.

Between you guys and a number of my David Letterman -wannabe coworkers at Sports Illustrated, there were plenty more suggestions for World's Shortest Tennis Book. The five best:

1) The Finer Points of the Slam Dunk Overhead by Olivier Rochus*

2) Coping With Fame by David Rikl

3) Credible Statements I Have Made by Richard Williams

4) My Enemies List by Pat Rafter

5) Profit Opportunities I have Let Slip Through My Fingers by Nick Bollettieri

*In the interest of full disclosure: The Mailbag will stop at nothing to get Olivier Rochus' name into boldface type.

And the winner of our Where in the World is Derrick Rostagno? contest is Jay File of San Diego, who went to source himself. Thanks to the many of you who played.

Jay writes:

If this doesn't get me the shirt, nothing can. This is straight from Derrick Rostagno himself, hunted down by my good friend Samantha, who went to business school with him at UCLA:

"What AM I doing now anyway? Well, the following tidbit should be accurate enough to win the T-shirt: 'Derrick is working in real estate, taking rock-climbing road trips almost every weekend, and preparing to attend law school in August. He lives in Brentwood, Calif.' If that is not enough, let me know ... they may also want you to mention that I played the Wimbledon 35 invitational doubles this year with Claudio Panatta, and that I worked in leveraged buyouts after getting my MBA (Class of 1999, baby!!!!!). I hope all is well! Be in touch ... DR"

On to your questions ...

Now that Anke Huber has announced her retirement, I wanted to hear your assessment of her career. She started out so well early on but was dogged by constant comparisons to Steffi Graf. Do you think those expectations ultimately derailed her career, which included just one Grand Slam final?
—Brent Baker, New York

The announcement of Huber's retirement didn't send the folks at the Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., scrambling to clear wall space. She'll retire Slam-less, the winner of "only" a dozen career titles and with a high ranking of No. 4. All in all, though, Huber had a perfectly respectable career. She burst onto the scene under immense pressure; any German female with some semblance of talent will always face the impossible benchmark of Graf. Huber didn't help squelch Das Hype by cracking the top 10 and reaching the Australian Open final in 1996. Her career stagnated from that point: She battled a string of injuries; never added a weapon to a solid but unimposing game; and was batted aside by the Big Babe Brigade. Still, she sprung the occasional upset, played some good doubles with Barbara Schett and made some $5 million in cash.

It's also worth pointing out that, in my experience, Huber was unfailingly pleasant to deal with. (I should also admit to a guilty pleasure watching that Dan Quisenberry -esque sidearm forehand of hers.) Rest assured the women's game will survive in her absence; but she'll be missed nonetheless.

Any word on Yevgeny Kafelnikov's reaction to Tim Henman hiring Larry Stefanki away from him? Kafelnikov has been talking about retirement lately, hasn't he? Also, recalling Patty Schnyder's dramatic dip in the rankings after the orange-juice deprogramming and Amanda Coetzer's loss of steam after Monica Seles hired Gavin Hopper away from her, I wonder if there are examples of male players suffering similar fates after separation from a particular coach.
—Kathy, Livonia, Mich.

Coaching relationships tend to last as long as your average summer-camp romance. There are a few tried-and-trues: Gustavo Kuerten and Larri Passos, Lindsay Davenport and Robert Van't Hof, Andre Agassi and Brad Gilbert. For the most part, enduring monogamy is hard to come by. In the case Kafelnikov, there was no adultery, no Stefanki-panky going on: They split before Stefanki hooked up with Henman. Sure, certain players' results tail off after they part ways with a coach. But most pros would rather play a best-of-five match naked than suggest that a departed coach was the key to his/her success.

I was wondering whether you had seen Dinara Safina play. I thought her run to the Wimbledon girls' final as a 15-year-old was great. From what I have read, she is also an excellent doubles player, and her mother has been quoted as saying that she will be better than her brother Marat. Even he said, "In two or three years, people won't be calling her Marat's sister, but they'll be calling me Dinara's brother." What do you see for her future, if it's not too early to predict?
—Christi Brizendine, Dallas

I saw her play at the 2000 French Open and wasn't wildly impressed. But that was a year ago, which is a lifetime in junior tennis. I didn't see a whole lot of similarities between her game and her brother's. Dinara's strokes were consistent but not especially potent, her serve was unremarkable and she betrayed little emotion even as she went down in straight sets. (Not a single smashed racket, so far as I could tell.) I think it's too early to predict her future, particularly in the era of age-eligibility rules. But one has to be encouraged by her Wimbledon results.

Who are the smartest players? I don't mean tennis-wise, but in general. Or are they, as David Foster Wallace believes, too focused on tennis to have been able to develop any interests outside it or to have become more rounded personalities?
—Jennifer, Cincinnati

First, as long as you're from the Queen City, a quick lapse into political editorializing: The Mailbag gives its Cincinnati city council endorsement to David Pepper.

As for your question, in his otherwise compelling book Ladies of the Court, Mike Mewshaw writes that, with the exception of boxers, tennis players are the least-educated athletes on the planet. I couldn't disagree more. Sure, most have never set foot on a college campus. But their travel experiences, upbringing and, I would even argue, the cerebral nature of tennis compensate. Compared to an NBA locker room or a baseball clubhouse, a tennis players' lounge is like a University of Chicago faculty meeting.

Who are the smartest players? I haven't administered IQ tests, but I give a preliminary nod to those -- Safin, Martina Hingis, Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario -- who speak three, four and five languages. Put it this way: Name your measurement -- the SAT, a Mensa test, a game of Jeopardy -- and, collectively, I'll put tennis players up against most any other sports' athletes.

Torrey Gambill once again crashed out in the first round of qualifying for an ATP event (this time in Los Angeles). I've seen 3-5 of his qualifying results, and he never manages to win more than one or two games. What gives? Does being Jan-Michael's brother count for that much? Or is there actually some promise in his game that has yet to make an appearance?
—J. Cunniff, Simsbury, Conn.

The apocalypse is truly nigh when the Mailbag receives multiple Torrey Gambill questions, as was the case this week. I've never seen the younger Gambill play, but even watching him warm up with Jan-Michael, it's pretty clear he's not -- how to put this -- in line for a Jaguar endorsement deal anytime soon. And as you point out, his early results on tour have been pretty dismal. On the other hand, he's only 19 and need only look at his brother for proof that a relatively unsung junior can come from nowhere and make it on tour.

I've been barred from a response to this request before (perhaps deservedly so), but my curiosity is still getting the better of me, so here goes: How's about a top five of the best grunts to grace the game?
—Mark Parry, Sydney, Australia

How's about it? It sounds like the back room at the Gold Club when these five play:

1) Monica Seles
2) Thomas Muster
3) Serena Williams
4) Andrew Ilie
5) Tatiana Panova

The newspaper here in Indy reports that the directors of the RCA Championships hope the tournament will someday be a Masters Series event. How likely do think this is, given the fact that Cincinnati takes place only weeks before and a few miles away? Also, do you think there's any difference in the level of play between these two events? The prize money at Cincinnati is more than three times the amount offered at Indianapolis.
—Robert Rebein, Indianapolis

First, much as I'd like to see it, I can't imagine Indianapolis would get upgraded to a Masters Series event. First, as you point out, there are already two Masters Series events preceding Indy on back-to-back weeks. Second, there are already four MS events in North America -- Indian Wells, Ericsson, the Canadian Open and Cincy. Third, I have special feelings for the charming main stadium, where I saw my first live pro tennis match -- Andrea Jaeger against Chris Evert, on clay no less -- a depressingly long time ago. But no way is that venue up to Masters Series standards. Finally, at some level it's a chicken-and-egg situation (more prize money = more top players = more revenues), but I don't see how Indianapolis, even with RCA's backing, can support an event that disgorges nearly $3 million in prize money. Attendance has been lagging lately and I'm not sure there are enough tennis fans in the great Hoosier State to make an upgrade realistic. All that said, Indianapolis is a great gold-level event, adored by the players and well worth attending.

Is there a different "level of play" between an event like Indy and a Masters Series? Depends. Kuerten edged Safin 7-6 in the third set of last year's final, so one can't ask for more than that. On the other hand, the overall field is weaker than a Masters Series since there are other events that week (paying appearance $$ for big names) and Indy is not freighted with as many rankings points.

I don't know if you've covered this before (not that I can remember), but I was wondering if you could explain more about the process cities go through to get Davis Cup ties. Are local bid committees formed who compete for the prize, do the USTA Davis Cup people just make a list of cities they like and think are viable, etc.?
—Kathryn Owen, Spokane, Wash.

One of the problems with Davis Cup -- I think it's particularly pronounced in the U.S. -- is that the ties are so closely bunched together that promotion and scheduling become difficult. It would be great if every event were held in big-time arenas and the USTA had a year to drum up hype. But with only 90 days between events, it's not as though the USTA can book Madison Square Garden or the Staples Center. Cities and arenas that can be booked with so little advance time make their bids and the USTA plays mix and match. Sometimes the results are disastrous, e.g., the 1998 U.S.-Italy tie in Milwaukee played in front of a few Major Goolsby's spillovers. Other times, the Yanks get lucky, e.g., the U.S.-Czech Republic tie at the Great Western Forum last year. From what I've heard, sales for the September tie against India in Winston-Salem, N.C., have been brisk.

Given Yevgeny Kafelnikov's comment that "lack of charisma is killing tennis," who are your top five most charismatic players -- ATP and WTA -- who will be on the tours for the next few years?
—Fernando Lemos, Brasilia, Brazil

Ironically, your countryman Kuerten has loads of potential here but seems to have as much use for publicity as my wife does for The Man Show. Part of the problem here is that charisma needs to be coupled with results. Justin Gimelstob is as charismatic as they come, but it's tough to leverage a guy who has to qualify for Masters Series events. To a lesser extent, same goes for the slumping Ilie. Tennis is also hampered by its status as an international sport. Nicolas Lapentti, to pick a name at random, doesn't strike me as the essence of charisma; but for all I know, when he speaks Spanish, he is the second coming of Don Rickles. Among the younger generation (with significant game) on both tours I'd book the following five for open-mike night:

1) Andy Roddick
2) Elena Bovina
3) Jelena Dokic
4) Xavier Malisse
5) Safin

Your column is great, but you've been kind of critical of Taylor Dent recently when I don't really see a reason to be.
—Josephine, San Francisco

Dent has all sorts of potential, especially on grass. He's young, he hits the felt off the ball, and he came within a few games of knocking Lleyton Hewitt out of Wimbledon. His wins over Moya and hard-serving Max Mirnyi last week in L.A. augur well, too. The one criticism I recall leveling is that his game appears to have few gears. But if anyone can introduce him to nuance and patience, it's his new coach, Eliot Teltscher. Second to Roddick, Dent is America's best hope for the future.

FINALLY, this week's lookalikes:

Here are two pairs of Long Lost Siblings: Venus Williams and Brandy; Taylor Dent and Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
—Kevin, Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.

Venus Williams

Taylor Dent
Ivan Rodriguez

A reader from California a few weeks ago also fingered Dent and I-Rod. Personally, I don't see it. But what do I know? Here you go:

Although this reveals the shameful depths of my pop-culture knowledge, Denisa Chladkova could double as Joey Lawrence when his E! True Hollywood Story is made.
—Megan, Indianapolis

Denisa Chladkova
Joey Lawrence

Whoa, Blossom! I think you're on to something.

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