WTA soap opera continues
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
We have a special treat this week. His free-association, USA Today column may have been cancelled last month, but Larry King has taken a break from a busy past eight weeks to, once again, offer some random ruminations for the Tennis Mailbag. Without further ado, the King of All Media:
Not that I miss him, but did Damir Dokic fall off the planet or what? I think he's hanging out with Coolio, Scud Stud Arthur Kent and Mary Pierce at Club Where Are They Now? ... Can't decide who I'd less like to perform my next heart surgery: Jana Novotna or Byung-Hyun Kim. ... The WTA Tour has postponed moving its headquarters to Saddlebrook for at least a year. Yes, it sounds suspicious to me, too. ... Just when you thought the WTA Tour's rankings couldn't get less intuitive: Lindsay Davenport, who failed to so much as reach a Grand Slam final this year, finishes the year with the top ranking. ... Semper ubi, sub ubi. Never have truer words been written. ... If refills are free at Taco Bell, someone tell me why you'd order a size other than small? ... The quest for sponsors is going so poorly, I hear that the ATP Tour will soon be launching an NPR-style pledge drive. "For $100 you can get signage at a Masters Series event and your choice of a Sjeng Schalken coffee mug or a Car Talk tote bag. We rely on your support. All gifts are tax deductible." ... For all the blathering about improved depth on the WTA Tour: Serena Williams goes more than a year without an indoor match and hasn't played since the U.S. Open, yet she wins her first match in Munich 6-0, 6-2 in 40-some minutes. ... Snap peas are making a mean comeback. You read it here first. ... Confidential to Dr. Richard Ferber: You, sir, are a hero. ... Gustavo Kuerten heads to Sydney having lost six of his last seven matches. ... I would write more, but I've been suffering from wrist irritation of late.
Tons of questions this week. Sorry I can't get to all of them.
Assuming her remarks were quoted fairly, I wonder whether you were as disappointed as I in Lindsay Davenport's rather flippant dismissal of Venus Williams' late-hour withdrawal from the Sanex Championships and the announced investigation thereof. While acknowledging that Venus should have given more notice to tournament organizers and sponsors, Davenport's conclusion that professional tennis players are "self-employed" and "don't have to play if they don't want to" was surprisingly bush-league for a player of her usual thoughtfulness and intelligence. Does her attitude represent that of most of the top players on the WTA Tour?
Before I answer ...
Consider this message a preemptive "calm down" to my fellow 'Bag readers who are enraged at some of Lindsay Davenport's recent comments. Consider what she has said the last few weeks or so:
1. Venus Williams, in Davenport's mind, is the No. 1 player in the world right now.
Well, duh. Davenport lost to Williams the three times they've played this year, and both Davenport and Williams have beaten Jennifer Capriati in two straight matches (in fact, Williams is 4-0 lifetime vs. Capriati). This wasn't an attack on Capriati's credibility; Davenport has since said that Capriati deserves the top spot (over herself) because of Capriati's Grand Slam results.
2. The way Williams pulled out of the Sanex Championships was not handled well.
Again, duh. This is not an attack on Williams, it's just a logical observation. Plus, Davenport generally defended Williams' decision, saying it's her prerogative to play whatever events she wants. Davenport just questioned the way the withdrawal was handled, which has since caused so much resentment.
I hope that fans of Capriati and the Williams sisters will see these comments as just observations and not bitter, jealous and/or racist remarks. I just can't accept any of those adjectives as a description of Davenport. Your thoughts?
Even by women's tennis' impossibly high standards for absurdity, it was a bizarre week on the WTA Tour. To recap: Venus Williams pulled out of Munich with "wrist irritation," which sounds like the injury equivalent of "the dog ate my homework." The tour announced an investigation but claimed it was not singling out Venus, that this was standard operating procedure whenever any player withdraws from the year-end championships. (Yeah, right. Why am I skeptical that a blue-ribbon panel was convened to investigate the legitimacy of injuries to players Kimiko Date, Brenda Schultz McCarthy and Barbara Paulus when they pulled out a few years back?) In so many choice words, Davenport says what she (and pretty much the rest of the tour) has been thinking for years: namely, that the Williams sisters' nonsense has gone on far too long. The defending champ, Martina Hingis, is out with an injury. Capriati loses her No. 1 ranking to Davenport when J-Cap suffers a sore throat. Then a knee injury forces Davenport to withdraw before her final showdown against Serena. Say this: For all its foibles, women's tennis has one tremendous sense of irony.
What do I think? Everyone should go home, take two aspirin and come back in eight weeks with healthier spirits and bodies.
Seriously, in short strokes:
a) The tour desperately needs to revamp its rankings system.
b) The players are, at some level, "independent contractors," but they play under the aegis of the WTA Tour and owe the circuit some level of professionalism. After he rejiggers the rankings, the new CEO needs to make the players feel a greater sense of obligation and loyalty to the tour itself. (Of course, the management agencies, which always have the interest of the game at heart, will help these values.)
c) Essentially, I'm with Kevin from Toledo. Davenport may have been more blunt than she needed to be. But she readily admitted that, on merit, she wasn't the best player -- nor should she have to apologize for finishing first. And her remarks about Venus and Capriati were unobjectionable.
How do the other players feel about Goran Ivanisevic being allowed to play in Sydney even though he ranks outside the top 10? There is no way that Ivanisevic can be considered one of the eight best players this year, despite his miraculous run at Wimbledon. You talked about problems with the wild-card system before -- isn't this the worst possible abuse?
While it's not the worst possible abuse, you raise a good point. Namely, it smells mildly fishy when a player who's nowhere near the top eight in the Champions Race makes the year-end blowout. Lots of you, including Dallia Abdel-Moniem of Khartoum, Sudan, inquired about the confusing Masters Cup format. As I understand it, the top seven in the Champions Race qualify. The last spot goes to the highest-ranked Slam winner between 8 and 20. Ivanisevic clinched when it was determined that none of the other three Slam winners ( Andre Agassi, Guga and L'il Lleyton Hewitt ) could fall out of the top seven. If no Slam winners exist between 8 and 20 then the No. 8 guy in the race goes. Got that? Someone who might be described as a "well-placed source" claims that this "Slam Winner" codicil exists so that if a marketable player (read: Pete Sampras or Agassi) were to win a major but fail to finish among the top eight, he would still, to the promoters' delight, make the draw.
Having been criticized for being rude to the media, not always being in top shape and tanking on several occasions, what do you think of the "new" Marcelo Rios? Since hooking up with a new coach in August and coming back from an ankle injury, he has beaten several top players -- Sebastien Grosjean (twice), Marat Safin and Andrei Pavel, to name a few. After not making the main draw in Paris, the guy goes down to South Africa to play in a challenger. What do you make of his renewed interest in the game, and do you see him possibly getting back to the top 10 and maybe still winning a Grandie?
We're all about giving credit where it's due here at the 'Bag. And though he has been a favorite piñata in the past, Rios does indeed qualify for props of late. Actually, he went to his native South America (Santiago, Chile, to be precise) and not South Africa and won the challenger event last week. But what's a few frequent-flier miles between friends? Though it will preclude him from winning a "Grandie," Rios' recent marriage and fatherhood seem to have changed him (his little lapse into a guest appearance on Cops Rome notwithstanding). Of course, he's also been healthy for the first time in years. He recently said that his goal is the top 10; while I wouldn't bet on it, he has so much natural talent that it's not preposterous.
A research question for you. A lot has been made of Anna Kournikova failing to win a title, despite a top-10 ranking, exorbitant sponsorship deals and a huge following among (mostly male) fans. Have there been any other top-10 players, either male or female, who have also failed to win a title?
You should know by now questions that entail expending some actual effort rather than merely pontificating are frowned upon. Elena Dementieva, of course, has yet to win a title. Other than that, I know of no other top-10 players who failed to win a title.
Has there ever been discussion of penalizing players with point deductions rather than monetary fines? Five-, even six-figure fines mean little to someone like Venus Williams.
Interesting. There is, in effect, an inherent point deduction for a player bailing on an event. Venus, for instance, earned a goose-egg for Munich, which will hurt her well into next year (though because she failed to play the 2000 year-end championships, she was defending bubkas). The WTA Tour should realize that fining a player a portion of her "bonus money" is both moronic and oxymoronic. Withholding a bonus (i.e., money a player has yet to earn) is not a fine. The least the tour could do in the face of a dubious injury is to fine a player cold cash that she has already earned. (Of course, as you note, when you're making seven mil a year -- guaranteed -- from Reebok, is a $100,000 penalty really a deterrent?)
Here's the scenario: The WTA has three players, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and Iroda Tulyaganova, ranked in the top 20 who are all shorter than 5-foot-7, and they play each other on clay, grass and hard courts as well as indoors. 1) Who has the best chance against the Big Babes (please rank them)? 2) How far can Tulyaganova climb in the rankings?
First, for the record, there are other top-20 shorties you failed to mention like Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario and Amanda Coetzer. Of the triumvirate you've mentioned, I think Henin has the best chance against the Big Babe Brigade. She generates the most power and, right now, anyway, her confidence level is the highest. Lately, Hingis appears a beaten woman before she even sets foot on the court. She's proven that she can play splendid tennis, but I fear her best days are behind her and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Henin surpasses her in the rankings by this time next year. As for Tulyagonova, I confess that I haven't been impressed. She's had some great results at various Tier IIIs. But when I've seen her play at Slams, she looks like a player who lacks the weapons to get much higher than her current ranking.
What's your take on Brendan Evans? I saw him play at Kalamazoo and was impressed but not that impressed. Who else that played at the USTA Boys' Championships is considered a player?
I admit to be being partial to Rajeev Ram, if only because he's from Indiana. Everyone else is gaga over Brian Baker.
Last year around this time, we saw two 19-year-old Russians, Anna Kournikova and Elena Dementieva, make it to the semifinals of the year-end championships. This year the new power country appears to Belgium, with Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. Personally, though, I still feel Kournikova and Dementieva are better players who just had bad luck this year. Do you see them both finishing in the top 10 ahead of Clijsters and Henin next year? And which one of these four players do you think will be the first to win a Grand Slam?
Right now, I think Clijsters is head and shoulders above the others. Having already come within two points of winning a Slam at the 2001 French, she will be the first to achieve the brass ring. Dementieva had something of a sophomore slump, but she is a fine player. Henin is on short list of entertaining players, but I fear she is too slight to take the proverbial next step. Anyone who saw her match in Munich against Serena Williams knows what I'm talking about. Kournikova, of course, is the great wild card. She has the game to be a top-10 player. One of the sport's burning questions: Can she overcome her injuries and insecurity and finally make her mark on the court?
I've been a huge fan of tennis over the last six years, which brings me to my question: What's your favorite Monty Python film?
This being Non-Sequitur Monday and all, I feel obliged to respond: Life of Brian.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim, author of Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tennis Tour, is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com. Click here to send him a question or comment.