Mac needs to cede some of spotlight
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
Random jottings ...
Boris Becker makes his return to the ATP this week in Cincinnati. He's playing doubles with Goran Ivanisevic, which is somehow fitting. ... Speaking of Ivanisevic, he went for the post-Wimbledon buzz cut. ... There's been a David Wheaton sighting. The former Wimbledon semifinalist reached the second of qualies in Cincinnati, knocking off Sebastien Lareau before falling to Stefan Koubek. ... Word on the street is that Jennifer Capriati's ranting against Monica Seles' "grunt work" did not go over well in the locker room. "If she has a problem, she should go to Monica directly," says one American. ... After the match, a phalanx of photographers jostled for position to shoot a triumphant Seles. Among them was a man clad in a photographer's vest whose daughter was playing later that night: Richard Williams. ... Don't look now, but Seles has beaten Capriati twice this season. ... For the second straight year, Venus Williams beat Seles in the La Costa final. ... Yevgeny Kafelnikov is now working with the well-traveled Joe Guiliano. ... Memo to Andrei Pavel: Justine Henin called. She wants her backhand back. ... Think there were any appearance fees disgorged at the L.A. event two weeks ago? The tournament billed itself as a "Million Dollar Event," yet prize money was only $400,000. ... Keep Corina Morariu in your thoughts this week. Seems she's back in the hospital with a fever and an infection.
I was looking over the questions recently and noticed how many times I saw John McEnroe's name (I realize by asking this question I am adding to that tally). He, along with many others, has complained about the lack of interest in the ATP Tour and the related lack of personality of its top stars. Is it possible he's part of the problem? The senior tour, while I'm sure worthwhile, would seem to draw fans away from other tournaments. Now he's playing Boris Becker at the U.S. Open. Does McEnroe's popularity hurt the current crop of potential ATP stars?
You're not the first to raise this concern. For better or worse, McEnroe has become tennis' irreverent and ubiquitous spokesman, a figure one associates with the men's game before every current player not named Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras. Mac is a tireless (and damn good) commentator, logging far more air time at events than any player. He plays the senior tour, he had an inglorious run as David Cup captain, he has a forthcoming autobiography and he still lands endorsements.
Is he promoting tennis? Or is he promoting John McEnroe at the expense of the game? There is a growing sentiment, particularly on the ATP, that it's the latter. He diverts attention (and endorsements) from current players and rips the tour far more often than he praises it. As an ATP veteran told me in Cincinnati the other day: "Yevgeny says that the players should get more money at the U.S. Open and you guys [in the media] skewer him. McEnroe spouts all sorts of nonsense -- contradicting himself, getting facts wrong, talking out his a__ about things he knows nothing about -- and he gets a free pass. Well, that's just John being John."
Mac would contend that he doesn't court the publicity; if he's still popular it's merely testament to the personality-bleached state of the men's game. But this rings hollow when he does things like challenge the Williams sisters during the height of the U.S. Open and play Becker in an exhibition the night of the women's final. (By the way, if I'm WTA Tour CEO Bart McGuire, I'm livid with the USTA for sanctioning this match, which threatens to overshadow the ladies.) On balance, I'll take Mac. He is an unparalleled commentator and his lapses and inconsistencies are a small price to pay for his candor. I don't begrudge him his endorsements. And if people still are willing to pay to watch him play, good for him. But it sure would be nice if surrendered a bit more of the stage to the current crop of stars.
A few years ago so-called experts were naming Xavier Malisse along with Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin as the most promising young players on the tour. While Safin and Hewitt have lived up to those expectations, Malisse hasn't because of a lack of interest and commitment. But now that he is taking tennis seriously, he's steadily climbing the rankings. How far do you think he's going to get? Is he a future top-20 or even top-10 player if he commits himself to the game, or were those experts (e.g., Nick Bollettieri) wrong and is he just not that talented?
Funny you should ask. I just got back from spending some time in Cincinnati with Malisse -- a Belgian contemporary of the great Olivier Rochus -- for a story in next week's Sports Illustrated. Until recently, he was better known for being Capriati's former flame than for his tennis prowess. While Capriati has done swimmingly since the split, so too has the breakup benefited the X-man ... or the ex-man, as it were. On the verge of quitting tennis altogether last year, he's played awfully well of late on a variety of surfaces. And he has started living up to the potential he showed when he launched his career three years ago. How good can he get? Top 20 is certainly realistic. The guy has a ton of talent, moves deceptively well, has an ideal tennis body and only turned 21 last month. Top 10 isn't out of the realm of possibility either. Malisse's problem was that he lacked discipline; never shied from a good time; and, as his coach, David Felgate, put it, "acted like a normal 20 year old" and not a tennis pro. Having matured and tasted some success, I think we're looking at a solid, solid player for a good many years.
Also, funny you should mention Bollettieri. At the start of Malisse's career, Bollettieri pumped him as the second coming of Agassi. As Malisse endured some rough patches, Bollettieri beat a hasty retreat. Now that Malisse is back on the map, he speculates it's only a matter of time before Slick Nick starts sitting in his box again.
I have two questions for you: Since the WTA is moving its headquarters to Saddle Brook, Fla., in the Tampa area, do you think Tampa might land a WTA tournament in the near future? Also, I have followed Jelena Dokic's career since her 1999 defeat of Martina Hingis at Wimbledon. Do you feel she will enter more tournaments now that she has reached her 18th birthday, and when will she win that big major to propel herself into the top 10?
The recent trend has been to move away from holding tournaments in the U.S., but Tampa would sure seem like a logical site. It's a reasonably big tennis community and players like Hingis, Dokic, Capriati and Ai Sugiyama could sleep in their own beds at night. In addition to Tampa, though, it sure would be nice if there were one decent-sized event in middle America. Are we really to believe that Sopot, Flanders and Bol can support tournaments, but Chicago cannot?
As for Dokic, I like her prospects a lot. She plays well on all surfaces -- note her title at the Italian Open and her play at Wimbledon -- cranks those groundstrokes and has the requisite competitive resolve. She, of course, needs a skycap to tote all of her baggage. But she seems to have a Steffi Graf -like ability to block out a welter of distractions -- most precipitated by her loathsome father -- once she gets on the court.
I was very surprised recently by Bud Collins' omission of Gustavo Kuerten from his list of the 10 "Men to Watch" during the hard-court season. Clay is obviously Kuerten's best surface, but he's also proven to be very formidable on hard courts. I certainly think he is one of the top contenders to win the U.S. Open. What do you think?
I'm not sure to what you're referring. But take a look at Guga's outdoor hard-court results over the past calendar year. I defy you to find me one high-quality win.
Your Mailbag is the most interesting reading I do each week. It seems to me that Pete Sampras' skills aren't sliding at all; it's his fitness that's the issue. In the first set against Andre Agassi at the Mercedes-Benz Cup. Sampras was completely solid, placing his backhand at will (a sure sign of good play for him) and dominating whenever he got a forehand. But the real truth seems always to be the same: He just can't compete for more than one tough set! I'm a huge fan, but it's hard to see him succeeding when he's fighting his fitness so often. And it's frustrating that he never admits it. What's your take on these observations?
Thanks for the compliment, but if the Mailbag is the most interesting reading you do all week, get thee to a Barnes & Noble posthaste. Anyway, time was, Sampras could pick and choose his events, allow his training to slide, and still bring the proverbial goods. Now, his fitness has caught up with him and it's made all the difference. Even if he were to find a Gil Reyes type to whip him into shape, he might never revert to his halcyon days. However, he wouldn't be roosting outside the top 20 in the Champions Race either.
Just wondering what you think of the purple surfaces used at the Masters Series Montreal. Does it really help players pick up the ball or is it just flashy? Is this something that will catch on?
Geez, I hope it doesn't catch on. What color is that anyway? Eggplant? It's the same tint as Ronald McDonald's running mate, Grimace. And it's not just in Montreal. Those hideous courts are at several Masters Series events. All in the good name of branding.
How in the world do you define charisma? Jelena Dokic has about as much charisma as a boiled potato. She always looks so sad, even in victory. Don't you think Kim Clijsters is a bit more interesting? She's engaging and a good sport.
Fair point. That was probably a sloppy choice of words. I meant "personality" rather than charisma or charm. I like that "boiled potato" line, though. As for Clijsters, I agree she is both engaging and a good sport. Whether that's enough to capture the public's imagination remains to be seen.
Speaking of, I think it will be interesting to see how the WTA Tour markets this next generation of top players. The tour had tremendous success in recent years promoting "backhands as well as backsides," as one tour operative famously put it. That Martina Hingis ("The Champ is a Vamp") and Anna Kournikova ("From Russia With Lust") made the cover of GQ says plenty. But one gets the distinct sense that Clijsters, Henin, Dokic, Elena Dementieva and Meghann Shaughnessy would sooner eat kitty litter than allow themselves to be portrayed as sexpots.
Regarding your list of the top five grunts in the game, I feel Elena Dementieva's "wooh-uh!" deserves a mention. Though not as loud as some others on the list, Dementieva's is unique in that the high-pitched "wooh" takes place during her backswing, significantly before she has even hit the ball.
Lord help us if Capriati has to play Dementieva anytime soon.
How big a factor (if at all) is doubles when it comes to Hall of Fame selection? I recall you saying that Mary Pierce and Jana Novotna would need another major or two to gain entrance. Didn't Novotna win a few doubles majors? Also, Pierce won the 2000 French Open doubles title. Does that help their chances at all? Yevgeny Kafelnikov also has two singles and three doubles Grand Slam titles.
As doubles becomes less important in the pro game, so too is it an increasingly less important factor in Hall of Fame determinations. As I see it, it's essentially like an extra-credit assignment: It can only help. A player like, say, Mats Wilander will hardly be punished for failing to distinguish himself alongside a partner. On the other hand, it can help a player like Novotna or Pat Rafter.
Having said that, I do think doubles is sufficiently important for players like the Woodies, Pam Shriver and even Gigi Fernandez, who ought to be considered for admission, even though their singles play is nowhere near Hall of Fame caliber.
Do you agree with Goran Ivanisevic's Wimbledon assertion that Drazen Petrovic was the best European basketball player ever to play in the NBA? I vaguely remember the Chicago Bulls holding back on Scottie Pippen a few years ago in order to go after Toni Kukoc, because Kukoc was "the best European basketball player ever."
Far be it from us to quibble with Goran's emotional dedication. But Dirk Nowitzki schools both Petrovic and Kukoc.
It struck me as a bit odd that right after you complained about Simon Larose getting a wild card in Montreal, you congratulated Taylor Dent, a wild card entry, for his play in Los Angeles. The system of wild cards works well, I say, because it allows tournaments to give spots to players who local spectators want to see, but who aren't ranked high enough for direct entry. If the Canadians want to see young Simon Larose battle for three sets against Lleyton Hewitt, which I imagine they did, then it makes good economic sense to allow Larose into the tournament. Incidentally, I don't remember you arguing against the wild cards that Andy Roddick, Dent and Mardy Fish have been given in the past.
While I don't agree with the principle of wild cards -- particularly when management groups own so many tournaments and use them as a way to lure client/players -- I see the rationale behind them. If the L.A. promoter wants to give Dent a spot in the draw because he wants to help out a local kid (and perhaps sell a few extra tickets in the process), so be it. But in Larose's case, his wild card came at a Maters Series event, which the ATP necessarily counts toward a player's ranking. If the ATP is going to load up these nine events with so much prestige and heft that players are penalized for not playing, it is wrong to make credible pros like Chris Woodruff, Cecil Mamiit and Byron Black try and qualify, while a guy outside the top 200 gets a free pass. (In fairness, I will admit that Larose gave a good accounting of himself, pushing Hewitt to three sets.) This also penalizes players from countries that don't host Masters Series events.
What is the status of Mark Philippoussis' and Richard Krajicek's respective injuries? It seems like forever since either of them has played, especially Krajicek, and I'm wondering if either will show up at the U.S. Open.
Krajicek, I believe, took a wild card in Cincinnati and will play this week. I hear mixed reports on Philippoussis. He's supposed to return next week in Washington, D.C., but my moles tell me that the knee is still iffy and his return may well be delayed yet again.
Jennifer Capriati was rightfully upset recently when a fan's cell phone rang in the middle of a point she was playing against Monica Seles. I know you've addressed this in the past, Jon, but come on! What will it take for so-called fans to stop being so selfish and self-important?
Here's my idea: Self-righteous and insensitive fans who allow their cells to ring during matches should be accosted by an usher and forced to make a $50 donation on the spot to the local grass-roots tennis program.
That reminds me of this semi-classic story: At the Citrix Championships in Delray Beach, Fla., a few years back, Mamiit and Sebastien Grosjean were playing an early-round match when a phone started chirping. They stopped the point and Mamiit then realized that the beeping phone was in his racket bag. He sheepishly walked to his chair, opened his bag and turned it off. The public-address announcer couldn't resist: "As a courtesy to the fans," he said, "could the players please keep their cell phones off during the match?"
FINALLY, for the ever-popular lookalikes segment of our show:
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