Recognizing Guga, scolding Capriati
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
Next time the topic of the fittest players in men's tennis comes up, remember Gustavo Kuerten playing a set and half against Tim Henman on Sunday and then returning 20 minutes later to beat Pat Rafter. On hard court. On a scorching-hot day. ... Speaking of fitness, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Monica Seles' inspiring mini-comeback: She played 11 sets in 72 hours and hardly looked the worse for it. ... If anything good came out of Boris Becker's lackluster return, it was that it allowed the unparalleled doubles skills of Todd Woodbridge to play to a national audience. ... Marat Safin is 2-7 in Masters Series events this year. ... Most of us would agree that the Grand Slams ought to award equal prize money to the women. But what are we to make of the fact that Cincinnati runner-up Rafter won more than twice as much money as Lindsay Davenport took home for winning L.A.?
Some recurring themes from this week's Bag o' Letters:
Not so. Capriati got it pretty good for Gruntgate. As well she should have. Her complaints about "Moan-ic-Ugh," as a British tabloid called her in the early '90s, were in epic bad form. Besides, picking a fight with Seles is a surefire way to lose a p.r. battle. The highlight was when a reporter asked Capriati whether Seles had been any louder when they played in Oklahoma City. JCap's response: "It's not like I was measuring the decimals." While we're at it, we appreciate her fighting spirit, but she could stand to modulate her liberal use of the f-word while on the court, too.
As Alexandre Pereira of São Paulo, Brazil, wrote in one of the few printable missives: "I think you cannot call Kuerten out of any top-10 list, on any surface. It is amazing how you dislike the best clay-courters."
Last week when I answered that question -- and Bud Collins apparently made the list referred to -- Guga had yet to win a hard-court event in 2001 and had won a solitary match at the two previous hard-court Slams. He, of course, had had successful results on cement in the past, but this year his record was 9-5. Not terrible, but not what you'd expect from the world's top player and nowhere near his dominating 35-2 mark on clay. Of course, after blitzing through a slew of quality opponents in Cincinnati and destroying Rafter in the final, Guga made a mockery of his doubters. My guess is that if Bud had to redo his list today, Kuerten would suddenly jump to the head of the class.
My pal Chris in Atlanta informs me that it's Geggy Tah. What can I say? You ask, I answer.
Westward ho ...
I heard a rumor that Jennifer Capriati and John McEnroe were going to play mixed doubles at the U.S. Open. Jennifer's mum suggested it at a party after Jen won the French Open, and they both agreed (but they might have been really drunk at the time). Do you know, sir, if it's going to happen?
Ma'am, I had heard the same rumor and asked Capriati about it recently. She reports that her first choice is to play alongside her brother, Steven. As I understand it, he has been working all summer to contain his grunting.
Why is it that some Masters Series finals (like Monte Carlo) are best-of-five sets while others (like Toronto) are best-of-three? It seems that the goal of the Masters Series was to unify major tournaments in format and prestige, so wouldn't it make sense to pick one as the standard format?
Like the Mailbag's version of Name That Tune, I can answer that question in two letters: TV. European networks are much more agreeable to telecasting five sets than their North American counterparts, so the ATP lets the tournaments decide.
I'm not a big fan of best-of-five tennis. Particularly in that heat, were fans really deprived last weekend watching "only" two hours of Rafter and Guga? But I agree that if the ATP is so intent on packaging and branding the Masters Series as separate -- to the point that venues have the same hideously colored courts -- you'd think something as fundamental as the format for the final would be consistent.
I just saw Juan Carlos Ferrero defeat Wayne Arthurs in Cincinnati, and I was very impressed. Ferrero moves unbelievably well and hits with amazing accuracy while off-balance. Does he have multiple-Grand Slam potential? If so, can he win the U.S. or Australian, or just the French? Also, does the ATP have a Commitment List like the WTA Tour? I think it's a great idea. This rewards the players who show their personalities and interact with the fans -- who, after all, are their customers.
Tom Fink, Tipp City, Ohio
A few of you wrote in asking about JC Ferrero this week. The Mosquito will never win Wimbledon, but otherwise the cielo is the limit. Though he's only 5-foot-9 (perilously close to Olivier Rochus territory) he plays much bigger than his height. Like Agassi, Ferrero takes groundstrokes early and often plays inside the baseline. And, as you note, he moves exceptionally well and has a good deal of fight in him.
As Safin reminds us with each desultory defeat, top players are bestowed a bonus for competing in all nine Masters Series events. But the big difference between men's and women's tennis is that the ATP permits appearance fees. The Commitment List exists largely as an inducement for players like Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters to play a lot of events. With the top men, if a promoter wants Andre Agassi in his draw, he need only pay the going rate (roughly $200,000, I'm told) for Agassi's services.
This is in reference to your comment that Dirk Nowitzki is the best European basketball player. While it may be true that he is better than Drazen Petrovic or Toni Kukoc, there is no doubt that Arvydas Sabonis is the greatest player from Europe. Anybody who knows the game would tell you that. At 36 Sabonis is still a quality player; think about how good he was when he was young and athletic -- he would have been like Shaq with the vision of a point guard. So just stick to current tennis, please.
A proud former editor of Rip City, the Portland Trail Blazers' fan magazine, I don't feel like I'm out of my depth here. I'm with you that in his prime -- i.e., before he came to the NBA, before his creaky knees left him with the mobility of Mt. Hood -- Sabonis was unbelievable. As Brad Greenberg, the former Blazers G.M. who helped bring Sabonis to the NBA, once said: "Sabonis was simply playing a different game than everyone else on the court." But let's be honest here, A.J. Sabonis was working his magic against a bunch of smelly chain-smokers named Sergei, Sasha and Uwe. Dirk Diggler just got done putting up 22 points and nine boards against the Western Conference's best forwards.
Remind me again what this has to do with tennis?
Having not seen either play for months, I wonder what is up with Mary Pierce and Marcelo Rios. I know both were injured, but are they planning on playing the U.S. Open -- or ever again, for that matter? What's the status of their injuries?
In addition to struggling to recover from a full palette of injuries, Rios is married and just had a child. He's slated to play in D.C. this week, so we'll see how it goes. As for Pierce, currently ranked a putrid No. 87, the increasingly audible murmurs are that her career is in real danger. She pulled out of Toronto last week and is doubtful for the Open. If she doesn't show at Flushing Meadows, it will mean that 14 months from winning a Grand Slam, she'll be out of the top 100.
Obviously, the top players have unlimited means to travel to tournaments, hire good coaches, and pay for trainers and nutritionists. But how do players who have not yet broken through -- say, those ranked 100, 200 or 500 -- survive? Also, do the various federations support juniors players in their competitions? It would seem to me that federations of countries with many players, like the United States, would not provide funding for everyone.
The rule of thumb is that it costs a minimum of $30,000-$40,000 to play a full tour schedule. That's chicken feed for a top-20 player, but it can consume a huge percentage of winnings from a player ranked outside the top 100. In many cases, the federations subsidize players when they're starting out. That includes the USTA. Management agencies have started to give promising players money up front. Other players have been known to hook up with a "sponsor," essentially a venture capitalist who will bankroll their expenses in exchange for a piece of future earnings. Of course, there are those who can rely on Mom and Dad's largesse. ("Hey, just think of how much you're saving by my not going to college.") The rest simply grind it out, sleeping in hostels, mooching meals and entering more events than they ought to, in order to eke out a living.
I read a transcript from an interview with Pat Rafter after Montreal's quarterfinals, and some discussion involved the tournament's party. For some obscure reason (surely unrelated to envy), the idea of groupies came to mind. Is there a tennis analogy to the NBA/NFL groupies phenomenon? Are some of the players better known for groupie attraction/addiction? Do you sportswriters have groupies, too?
The groupie culture exists in tennis -- men's tennis, anyway. In fact, Cincinnati is a notoriously, uh, fruitful event for many players. (What else are you going to do at a Marriott in the Cincinnati suburbs on a Wednesday night?) But overall, the scene is much tamer than in the NBA, for instance, where, as one little-known reserve for a mediocre team once boasted to me: "On the road, I can play gynecologist any night I want."
Why is the scene tamer in tennis? Insert your dime-store sociological explanation here: Tennis players, on average, aren't as wealthy; they're not as identifiable; most of the recognizable players travel -- like Rafter -- with significant others in tow; tennis players have more discriminating taste. Whatever.
I really shouldn't be divulging these professional secrets, but the sportswriter-groupie scene not only exists, it's fast careening out of control. I recently saw a fellow scribe approach a woman in a bar and she didn't even walk away disgusted when he tried to make small talk.
When will the women -- who, in my opinion, have marketed themselves with a lot more savvy than the men -- adopt the points race? I have to admit that I was in the same group of people who originally decried the idea on the men's side; lately I think it has at least been good fodder for conversation and debate as to who is on top of the ATP. The women are doing just great as far as fan interest goes but, honestly, Venus Williams ranked fourth? Martina Hingis still No. 1? Anna Kournikova still in the top 20?
The ranking systems are like the tax code: They're byzantine; they're nearly impossible for casual fans to follow; they yield incongruous results; they seem to reward a select few and punish others. Hingis hasn't won a Grand Slam since Lottie Dodd was playing, but she resides in the penthouse apartment. Venus Williams has won three of five Slams but is currently fourth -- and could slip even lower if she doesn't defend her U.S. Open title. While an admirably outside-the-box concept, the Champions Race is flawed, too. As long as tournaments require seedings and draw cutoffs, there always will be a need for dual 52-week rankings. What's more, tennis fans are accustomed to speaking about a player ranked X. It's simply too unwieldy to explain: " Pete Sampras is now in 26th place in the Champions Race, but he'll still get seeded at the U.S. Open because he's currently 12th in the Entry System."
Yet just as few ever approach the IRS with a more efficient way of collecting taxes, it's hard to conceive of an easy-to-follow ranking system that achieves all of its (often conflicting) objectives. So here's my challenge to you: Conceive a better mousetrap. Devise a ranking system that accurately reflects merit; encourages consistent playing, but not Yevgeny Kafelnikov- ian overplaying; doesn't leave common fans scratching their heads or heading for the slide rules; distinguishes between big-ticket events and podunk tournaments; improves upon the two existing methods out there. What the heck? I'm feeling generous: A free CNNSI.com T-shirt to anyone who can build a better rankings mousetrap.
Any chance that Pat Rafter also suffers from Tim Henman's Nice Guy syndrome, and that's what has kept him from having won more majors? This question is coming from a guy who will travel 400 miles just to watch Rafter play.
Nah. Rafter is the fairest bloke* you'd ever want to meet and he has been a losing finalist in three straight events. But no one with that many siblings can have nice-guy syndrome. Never mind the two Grand Slam titles. Take a look at Rafter's career record in five-set matches -- at one point he had won something like 13 straight --and you'll have your answer.
*Any of you catch his post-match tête-à-tête with James Blake after their third-round meeting in Cincinnati? Rafter must have counseled the young American for a full minute at the net before they shook the chair umpire's hand.
If hard courts are the most democratic surface, where seedings need not deviate much from the entry rankings, why is it that the seeds just keep tumbling out in Cincinnati, as they did in Montreal?
1) Because men's tennis is mired in parity.
2) Because some players are much healthier than others.
3) Because, particularly in these stifling conditions, some players are in vastly superior shape than others.
Assuming Pat Rafter wins this year's U.S. Open (or not), who had a better career and who was the better player, Rafter or Stefan Edberg? They seem to have such similar games.
They're very similar in a lot of ways; not least, they share exquisite serve-and-volley games propelled not by a bionic serve but by a nasty kicker that allows them another split second to move netward. If Rafter wins a third U.S. Open -- not a bad bet, by the way -- it will certainly elevate him to another tier. But Edberg's six Slams, 41 titles and final appearances in all four Slams put him in another category. Sorry, mate.
ADMIT IT. You scrolled down just to get to the lookalikes section.
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