An easy offseason
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.
The Davis Cup finals will be available on pay-per-view. Call your local cable operator. ... A week after Lindsay Davenport achieved the top ranking, leaving even the most passionate fans scratching their heads, the WTA Tour reconfigured its system. In 2002, Grand Slams will be accorded more weight, as will events that pay more than the minimum for their tier. Bart McGuire and friends are to be commended for taking action so swiftly. ... In one of the weirder chapters in WTA Tour history, a panel of medical experts and a law school dean excused Venus Williams for missing the year-end championships with a wrist injury. ... A week after Ericsson ended the call, Tyco stepped up as the new sponsor for Key Biscayne. ... In spite of an arm injury, Pat Rafter will play Davis Cup for Australia next week. ... Anna Kournikova has quietly committed to the Auckland event the first week of the season. Of course, her entering such an obscure Tier IV has nothing to do with her never having won a title. Still, it's hard not to notice that the top seed will be Angeles Montolio. ... James Blake garnished a terrific fall by winning a USTA Challenger in Tennessee. ...
Finally, a tip of the cap to Lleyton Hewitt. You love him. You hate him. You think he's the second coming of Andre Agassi. You think he's a punk who needs an image consultant. Regardless of the range of opinions Hewitt provokes, some irreducible truths were laid bare last week in Sydney. First, his top ranking is utterly well-deserved. Here's a player who beat Gustavo Kuerten on clay, Pete Sampras on grass, everyone on hard courts and won the year-end indoor blowout. Second, he is one of the best competitors the sport has ever known. Reader Jon Rapkin of New York put it nicely: "I don't think I've ever seen an athlete hungrier to win in any sport. More so than ever in pro sports, I feel as if athletes can more easily live with losing. Here's a guy who can't stomach it." Whether he could stand to tone down his on-court antics is up for debate. But if every player on tour could summon half of Hewitt's passion and will, men's tennis would be much better off. ... Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Besides evening out their farmer's tans, what do you expect some of 2001's top players to work on in the offseason? How likely is it that next year Martina Hingis will debut a better second serve or Venus Williams will come to net more? And do seasoned pros like Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras even bother to tweak their games at this point in their careers?
Only someone from Indiana would pose a question that involved farmer's tans. A lot of players will simply rest over the next eight weeks and let their bodies recover. Name me a top-10 pro on either tour and chances are good s/he is nursing some injury or other. Some train harder than others. Jennifer Capriati, you'll remember, used November and December of 2000 to transform her body into that of a linebacker. Others, like Monica Seles, make some extra cake playing exhibitions. Still others simply luxuriate poolside.
It would be swell if Hingis returned with a beefed-up second serve, Venus with a commitment to charging the net, Sampras with an improved fitness level and Andy Roddick with better volleys. But realistically, players usually don't look much different when they rejoin the tour in the Antipodes.
I don't understand why you did not mention Gustavo Kuerten's injury as the major cause of his slump. It was obvious that the reason he lost in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open was because he had a groin injury. That same injury was the cause of all his losses since. Kuerten was just too much of a gentleman to blame his leg. We all know he is an excellent indoor player, from his brilliant performance in winning the Masters Cup last year, and this reputation ought to be well recognized by the media. In short, the criticisms of Kuerten are unfair, and his injury should be emphasized as the cause of his recent poor results to protect the integrity of this great champion.
A few of you raised a similar point. No question, Guga wasn't in optimal health this fall. But it's November, Michael. Who isn't banged up? Kuerten didn't merely run out of steam, he crashed spectacularly, going 1-9 over his last 10 matches. Some were acceptable losses. But no way should the Champions Race leader be losing to marginalia the likes of Flavio Saretta and Julian Boutter. As for the groin injury, the Australians have a credo: If you're injured, don't play. If you go on the court, it's bad form to blame the loss on injury or ailment.
As the most widely respected pontificator in the game of tennis, what is your evaluation of Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs as a doubles combo? They've had a blinder of a year in 2001 but have been together for some time. Do you see them getting better and staying on top?
Overshadowed by the usual soap-opera antics in the singles draw, Raymond and Stubbs did indeed rule the doubles scene, particularly in the latter half of the year. The knock on them was that they were a fine team who slipped on a banana peel in big matches. Heading into 2001, they had won more 15 career titles together but only one Grand Slam. This year they won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and followed up by winning the year-end championships. While they're not quite at the Natasha Zvereva-Gigi Fernandez level of hegemony, Raymond and Stubbs are far and away the best in the biz these days. They're also great fun to watch. If you ever have the chance to see them live, do so.
Will they stay on top? Likely, at least for a while. A committed partnership since the mid-'90s -- an eternity in the fickle world of doubles -- it's not likely that they'll split up anytime soon. At 30, Stubbs is in the autumn years of her career, but the fact that she no longer plays singles will help her longevity. It also benefits Raymond and Stubbs that most of the top singles players have decided against playing doubles these days.
In the spirit of diversions for the period between the Masters Cup and the Australian Open, could you name your top five most difficult shots to execute well? Here are mine:
It depends how specific you want to get. A crosscourt forehand volley isn't a particularly difficult shot. A Samprasian, low, crosscourt forehand volley that clips the net and dies is far tougher. Of the basics, I'd say:
1. Backhand overhead.
As a UCLA alumnus, I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on the Bruins' freshman phenom, Megan Bradley. I have yet to see her play, but I've read that she's extremely athletic and has Big Babe potential. Does she have the goods to dominate the collegiate tennis scene the way Marissa Irvin and Laura Granville of Stanford did these last few years?
After faring well in the U.S. Open girls' draw, Bradley headed to UCLA this fall. The daughter of former Seattle Mariners outfielder Phil Bradley (who was a starting quarterback at the University of Missouri, too), Megan comes from good stock. As you point out, she has Big Babe physique (5-foot-9, 149 pounds) and clocks her first serve. Asking her to replicate the college records of Irvin and, particularly, Granville is asking a lot. But, unquestionably, she will be a player to watch this year.
Can you elaborate on which events The Tennis Channel has purchased the rights to? Are they the bigger tournaments like early rounds of Miami, Cincinnati, etc. (which have been shown on ESPN or other networks in the past) or are they lesser events that have not previously been aired on TV?
As I understand it, the network bought the rights to 1,000-plus hours of early matches of "lesser events," most of them American (i.e., Manhattan Beach, Scottsdale, San Jose, etc.), not the Masters Series tournaments you mention. Scheduled to launch as early as this spring, the network will consist of 40 percent instruction, 40 percent matches and 20 percent "personality"-driven shows.
I am fascinated that so many short (i.e., vertically challenged) counterpunchers dominate on the men's side of the tour (Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi, Sebastien Grosjean, to name just a few) while the Big Babes rule on the WTA. What do you make of this contrast?
That Hewitt is shorter and slighter of build than his belle, Kim Clijsters, is somehow symbolic. A good number of the top men -- Hewitt, Grosjean, Arnaud Clement, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Mariano Puerta and, of course, Agassi -- look like they represent the Lollipop Guild and wish to welcome us to Munchkinland. On the other hand, on the WTA Tour height and muscle has almost become a pre-req for success. I lay a lot of the blame/credit at the hands of technology. Rackets are such that little guys on the men's tour can hold their own, despite often giving up so much physically. Hewitt can serve aces, Ferrero can hang with anyone from the baseline. Meanwhile, they have superior athleticism and quickness. I've paraphrased this before, but Agassi claims that if you gave, say, Mark Philippoussis a wooden racket, he would still be able to serve bombs. Yet if Agassi were forced to play with wood (insert Beavis joke here) he wouldn't be nearly as effective a player.
On the women's side, technology plays a big role, too, but with the opposite effect. Armed with a lightweight thunderstick, a player like Venus Williams can smoke the ball from the baseline and is able to hit her serve with twice the velocity of slighter players.
An alternative answer: On the ATP, the little guys aren't that little and the big guys aren't that big. Hewitt, for instance, seldom gives up more than five or six inches and 20-30 pounds to most players. On the other hand, a Big Babe like Davenport, the Williamses or Capriati can tower over their opponents by 8-10 inches and outweigh them by 30-40 percent.
Check out this On the Court from the Australian Open for more.
I recently watched the Wimbledon anniversary videos and was reminded of the frequent custom of jumping over the net at the end of a match. The last match where it occurred was a Bjorn Borg-Jimmy Connors match from the 1970s. Clearly, this classy custom has gone the way of so many other old-school traditions in the era of big-time Open tennis. While I know you disdain questions that involve research, do you -- or, perhaps, studied readers of the 'Bag -- know the when, why and how this custom was formally retired?
I don't feel like getting up off the couch. But if any of you knows the answer, send me an e-mail.
I really enjoy reading your stuff and generally think you hit most nails on the head, but your recent omission of Manhattan from the top five Woody Allen movies seriously shook my confidence. Please help me and restore a bit of my faith by listing your top five Jack Nicholson movies.
I like Manhattan but I always find distracting the bars on the top and bottom of the screen. Lots of you wrote in suggesting Love and Death, too. As for Jack, notice none of these is less than a decade old.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Pitching vs. serving
Finally, regarding last week's question about why the velocity of tennis players' serves often stays steady as the match progresses, there were a good many responses. Thanks to all who wrote in. Let me first say that I stand by my pronouncement that tennis players are superior athletes to pitchers. Tennis players are generally in superb shape, have negligible amounts of body fat and play upwards of 75 matches a year worldwide. Most pitchers are overpaid slobs who look like that kid Jared before he discovered Subway subs. Plus, they sit on the bench for half the game and usually leave early. Seriously, it's a silly comparison. But strictly as athletes, I do think, on the whole, that tennis players are superior.
A sampling of your responses ...
As a longtime baseball player and coach, I'd like to offer some feedback on Jeff Tripp's question regarding the "arm recovery time" for baseball pitchers and tennis servers. Baseball players throw a multitude of pitch types. While most recovery centers around the shoulder and rotator-cuff area, curveballs, sliders, etc., also induce significant added stress to the elbow and wrist. While I agree that you often see tennis players occasionally "bomb a big serve" late in a match, isn't this more the exception than the rule? For that matter, didn't we just see Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling occasionally reach 97-98 mph in the late innings of the World Series? The two biggest differences in my mind are that a serve comprises only about 20-30 percent of total arm "contacts" during a match (the rest being forehands, backhands and the occasional overhead return). Baseball pitches, on the other hand, probably comprise 95-99 percent of total arm contacts during the course of a nine-inning game. Lastly, let's talk about the age issue. Most baseball players reach prime pitching age (late 20s/early 30s) before they become a valued and regular contributor in the pitching rotation. A significant majority of tennis players reach their prime in their late teens/early 20s. How many professional tennis players are retired (or are considering same) by the time they reach age 30?
I wish you would think about it before knocking the toughness of pitchers. From one baseline to the back of the opposite service box is (I believe) 60 feet. So a serve could be anywhere from, say, 40 feet (just over the net) to 60 feet. A baseball has to be thrown no less than 60 feet, six inches. A tennis ball weighs between 2 and 2.0625 ounces. A baseball weighs between 5 and 5.25 ounces So a pitcher has to throw a ball more than twice as heavy at least the same distance using nothing but his arm to generate power. Pitching is extremely hard on the shoulder and arm as evidenced by the number of rotator-cuff, elbow, etc., injuries. A baseball also needs more energy to remain level (i.e., not hit the ground) than a tennis ball, which is directed toward the earth and which benefits from gravity. Certainly, playing tennis is no cakewalk on the body, but comparing pitching to serving and declaring tennis players tougher fails to accurately portray the real physical test required to throw a baseball.
I'm not a sports-med type, but I dated one once. I actually asked her the baseball pitcher question. The answer is all in the follow-through. In the tennis serve, the impact is directly above the shoulder, whereas for a pitch, the release point is straight in front. This means the tennis player's arm has more room to slow down and stop (the ball contact also slows you). The pitcher's arm ends up rotating further and stretching (tearing) the shoulder muscles. In addition, the pitcher has a more violent straightening of the arm, which causes inflammation at the elbow. As for why a tennis player can serve a bomb in the fifth set, I would guess s/he only exerts about 70-80 percent power on any average serve (to keep percentages up). I can serve 100 mph all day and never get tired, but I could probably hit 115 and tire myself out in a hurry. How does Goran Ivanisevic do it? I wish I knew.
I was reading your response about the fatigue factor for baseball and tennis players. The rest period for starting pitchers isn't because of lack of toughness; it's simple mechanics. Consider: A pitcher tosses a 5 oz. baseball out of his hand around 100 times per game. Not only that, but with curveballs and split-fingered fastballs, more stress is translated to his shoulder and elbow. When the ball is released that stress suddenly is gone, causing muscles, ligaments and tendons to stretch out. A tennis racket also has weight to it, and you hit in different ways to add spin to the ball. However, you aren't releasing it after you swing. The follow-through gives your muscles a smoother return to a relaxed posture. Finally, the tennis ball you are propelling doesn't weigh nearly as much as a baseball. If I tried serving a baseball, you bet I'd feel it.
My two cents on maintaining serving velocity late into a long match: Powerful serving (and powerful strokes, generally) are much more about timing than muscle, so that a well-constructed, relaxed service motion (when coupled with sufficient mental and overall physical stamina late into a match) should hold up indefinitely. A bigger body helps, of course, but mainly for the added mass it puts behind the shot, and not muscular power per se. But I'm a lawyer, so what the hell do I know?
I'm not a PhD. in physics or bioengineering, but in my experience throwing is like driving a car -- it's not the start that gets you but how you stop. What I mean is, in serving not only are you hitting a forgiving, cushy ball with a strung racket that dampens a lot of the shock, but also the arm is allowed to go through a full range of motion. In throwing a baseball, or anything else for that matter, when you release the object your whole arm comes to a sudden stop. Rotator-cuff problems, anyone? The stresses from stopping appear to me to be tremendous and would fatigue the strongest of arms, not to mention tendons and ligaments which only have a certain amount of strength. So I agree with you: Apples and oranges are the same shape but very different.
Whoa. Tennis players are unquestionably tougher than baseball players? I don't much like ranking athletes across sports, because the different sports require different skills and attributes, but I think this is a bad blanket statement. In some ways it's true: A tennis player puts a lot more effort into a two-hour match than your ordinary outfielder, who may spend several innings standing still. But how many tennis players could stand up to the demands of pitching or catching? The crouch is not easy to maintain for a nine-inning game. As for differences between the pitching and serving motions, there is one huge one you didn't mention: The pitcher takes a large step forward and imparts much of that momentum to his arm and, ultimately, the ball. This places far more stress on the shoulder than a tennis player's serve. Not to mention, the baseball is heavier and much more difficult to accelerate than a tennis ball, and the tennis player has the added leverage of the racket to increase the ball's speed. The motions may be similar in general principle, but they're far from the same.
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.