Posted: Wed April 18, 2012 3:34PM; Updated: Wed April 18, 2012 3:34PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

WTA enjoys spike in quality, mail

Story Highlights

Grunting critiques aside, the WTA has produced some quality tennis of late

After a promising 2nd half of 2011, Donald Young is giving reason for concern

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Victoria Azarenka
The WTA was criticized for its revolving door atop the rankings, but Victoria Azarenka has been dominant in 2012.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I've been watching some great women's tennis recently on TV. They are incredible athletes. I am curious as to your opinion about how good the top women are relative to the men. Where would the top women rank on the men's tour?
-- Bill Gale, Washington, D.C.

• Instead of comparing the women to the men -- it never gets us anywhere; the No. 1,000 male would defeat the No. 1 female and who cares? -- let's dwell on Bill's larger point. Putting aside the annoyance of grunting and the complaint about the unreliability of the top players (that's, like, so 2011), I think the WTA has put forth a strong product lately. And more should be made of this.

You have a No. 1 player who's lost once all year. Serena appears to be back in form. Venus has returned. Aga Radwanska has a swell new nickname and, more important, has been a nice antidote to mindless bashing. Marion Bartoli gives us a quirk quotient. Sharapova may not be winning titles, but credit her for competing and being a professional when her personal balance sheets suggest she doesn't need to be spending her Tuesday afternoons drilling on a back court. Many of you share my optimism about Petra Kvitova's long-term prospects. From Serena's dominance in Charleston to the contrasting styles of the Miami final, recent matches have been thoroughly entertaining as well.

Pitted -- as it inevitably is -- against the ATP's Big Four, the WTA is a tough sell. And when the top players come and go so erratically, it can be tough to satisfy the hard-core fans and lure the casual ones. But I get the sense the women's game has turned a corner these past 100 days. Bring on Paris.

Dude, here's a very brief valuation primer that you skipped out on at law school (why didn't you take a valuation class at Wharton while you were at Penn?). More sets played = More TV time = More viewers glued to the TV longer = Greater value for sponsors. Let's be honest and admit that a two-set, 82-minute beat down of Sharapova in the Australian Open final unlocked less value than the 353-minute long marathon between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. In fact, that's among the reasons why Rafa and Djokovic are allowed to get away with delay tactics.
--
Karam Vir Singh, Los Angeles

• Dude, given that valuation primer, I would pay more for three-hour movies than the 98-minute Horrible Bosses, more for overtime games than regulation games, more for 10-round fights than electrifying early knockouts, more for every song a band played during a concert encore. How many sports (golf, track, cycling) are predicated on performing in the least amount of time? Especially in entertainment, duration does not equal value or quality.

If you want to talk about valuations, you could note that, by every conceivable metric -- from TV ratings to sponsorship to attendance to the value of standalone events -- the ATP is worth more than the WTA on the open market. If you want to use that as a basis to dispute equal prize money, we can have that debate. But basing this on best-of-three versus best-of-five is not going to win the argument.

I'm a fan of Radwanska, but she's just OK for her career on clay and has never done much at the French. However, I quite like her chances at Wimbledon.
--
Nick Einhorn, Brooklyn, N.Y.

• I think we're often too crass in prognosticating success based on a certain surface. "John Isner has a big serve and iffy movement, ergo he's a threat on grass and a non-factor on clay." Well, not necessarily. "Martina Hingis' clever, brains-over-brawn tennis is perfect for clay." Well, the French was the only major to elude her.

Still, look at the way Radwanska works the court and neutralizes power and has recently used fitness as a weapon. Provided she doesn't overplay this spring, I see her doing well in Paris. Whether she can overcome a more powerful player in the latter rounds -- Serena? Kvitova? Her nemesis Azarenka? -- remains to be seen.

As for grass, I remember Martina Navratilova made this point on the air last year: We often overlook how much time a player requires to unload their shots and whether grass helps or hinders that. (I believe Martina said this in the context of Sam Stosur, whose athleticism and volleying skills should serve her well at Wimbledon, but her big backswing is her undoing.) Just something to keep in mind, with respect to Radwanska and more generally.

How concerned are you about Donald Young right now?
--
Bill M., St. Louis

• Concerned. Six months ago, Young was a top 40 player, fresh from a second week performance at the U.S. Open, "in a good head space" as they say. In 2012, he has been a nonentity. See for yourself.

And this doesn't include his losing 6-0, 6-1 to Paul-Henri Mathieu on Monday in Monte Carlo. Again, there are questions about his competitive resolve. Again -- after all these years and all this drama -- his coaching situation is still problematic at best.

The fallback on Young was once just that: his youth. "Hey there's still time." Suddenly he is 22, an age at which most players have already made their move. If you're looking for silver lining it goes like this: He was in a worse place last year and got it together. Still, it wasn't supposed to break like this in 2012.

Jon, regarding Charleston: other than Serena and Stosur, who was really there? No Azarenka, no Aga, no Petra, no Kim. Kudos to Serena for winning, but it wasn't under the toughest of competitors.
--
Kevin, Brooklyn

• No one was beating Serena the way she played in Charleston. It's one event. It does not mean she wins the French Open. But those last four sets she played were scary.

Regarding your article about Serena not behaving nicely to poor Caroline, I keep wondering whether writers like you can see and acknowledge their biases or whether they are clueless about them. Would a journalist EVER say of a male athlete that he is great, but he is not nice enough? How would that go exactly? Yeah, sure Michael Jordan has all of those championships, but he's just not nice enough. I don't think so. What kills me about this is that you seem to be totally aware of the biases inherent in such thinking. You know that a woman can be powerful and good but she has to be pretty, demure, nice and self-deprecating. The idea that someone should act a certain way for mercenary reasons is disappointing coming from you. The point is that no matter what Serena does, even if she went along with everyone's plan or script, there would be people out there who hate her anyway -- get it? In the end she should be herself. That might mean that she is not going to be Madison Avenue's next all around top selling star, but it might mean she walks away with her self one day.
--
Laura, Acworth, Ga.

• I couldn't disagree more here. Serena is being held to "dude standards." In Australia, Federer was ripped in some corners for losing to Nadal and then remarking, "I always think he plays a bit better against me than against other players." Imagine the fallout had Federer then assessed his play as being "20 percent." He would have been torn to shreds.

You ask: how exactly does it play out when male athletes are great but are deemed insufficiently nice? Ask Kobe Bryant or Jay Cutler or Roger Clemens or any of a number of other athletes who are routinely knocked for lacking grace. Note the treatment LeBron James received -- and is still receiving almost two years later -- for handling an off-court situation with an absence of tact. In the UFC, there is an unprintable epithet given to fighters who blame defeat on injury or give stingy credit to the opponent in defeat.

You ask about Michael Jordan? Google the terms "Michael Jordan jerk" and even here there is a wealth of reference material. This isn't about "pretty and demure and self-deprecating." It's the rules of engagement.

If anything, I see the treatment and expectations of Serena as a triumph for women's tennis. There aren't gender distinctions being drawn. I feel about this much as I did when Wozniacki was ranked No. 1, failed to distinguished herself in the big events and was called on it. Good! That's what's supposed to happen. Their hearts were in the right place, but when her defenders pleaded: "Leave her alone; she's trying her best and is a sweet girl!", that's when I cringe.

Before you fine Jo-Wilfried Tsgona for his accusations of favoritism, shouldn't we consider that he might have been correct? I didn't see the match, but I haven't seen anyone disprove his accusation. Is it true that the umpire refused to overrule numerous bad calls against Tsonga but did overrule bad calls against Nadal? For my part I think we should hold off on punishment until we answer that question and consider the implication if the answer is yes.
--
Clark, Millersville, Pa.

• Hacker of Honolulu made this point, too: "Before berating him it might be worth checking out if he has a point. He seems like a nice guy and is way more sporting than the average tennis pro ... I just have a feeling he may have a point here."

New rule: if you throw around an accusation questioning the honesty and integrity of the competition, the burden is on you to prove it, not the sport to disprove it. If Tsonga is correct, great. He's blown the whistle on a serious issue. Speculation like that ought not be baseless.

Enough already with Nadal biting trophies! This was tired three years ago. It's been done. Let's move on.
--
Phil Connolly, Houston

• I haven't seen him do that in, like, 10 months now.

I have asked this a number of times, and I do not think we are finished with the debate. I sincerely believe Nadal would win fewer matches if the rules regarding maximum time between points were enforced (25 seconds in regular tournaments and 20 seconds at slams). He simply could not maintain his high intensity play if this were the case. Do you agree and do you know if the debate is over?
--
Ulrik Trolle, Copenhagen

• Funny, I would argue the opposite. Nadal is a supremely conditioned athlete and plays tennis that exerts a physical price on the opponent. "Delivering body blows," as Andre Agassi would say. When Nadal plays at such a leisurely pace and gives his opponent an extra ten or so seconds to recover, he recalls the boxer who had an opponent on the ropes and then relented.

Given Michael Russell's performance this past week, any thoughts about putting him on the U.S. Davis Cup team to play singles along with John Isner? The tie will be on clay in Spain and Russell has made the round of 16 at the French.
--
Mike, Seattle

• Think you gotta dance with who brung ya. Isner is a lock. Mardy Fish is the logical number two. The Bryans are your doubles team. If Andy Roddick is willing and able to play, you honor his past commitment and at least assess him as a possibility. Ryan Harrison is on the bench. That's it.

All credit to Russell, now in his early 30s, both for his play last week in Houston and his career more generically. A lot of players blessed with twice his gifts haven't achieved half as much. But I don't think Davis Cup is in the cards.

For all the times we've heard in the past about how American men's tennis is in a slump compared to the "Golden Era" we had in the 90s, how about a little recognition now that -- while we may not be winning majors -- we are still among the top countries in the world? Two guys in the top 10 with Isner and Fish and seven in the top 100. We could be doing a lot worse, couldn't we?
--
Jason, Surprise, Ariz.

• If the basis of comparison for the state of American tennis is 1971 or 1981 or 1991, yes, it's a slump. If the basis of comparison is the more relevant, meaningful and accurate, "It's 2012; the world is flatter than a board game; they play this sport everywhere, often in countries where talented young athletes aren't lured by multimillion dollar guaranteed contracts in other leagues" ... Then, yes, the U.S. is doing fine.

Jon, I find myself agreeing with you on most of these good judgment/bad judgment calls, but on the Federer commercial, methinks you're overthinking it. The ad isn't asking to be taken seriously. The biggest problem is it's not very funny. The second-biggest problem is that Federer is not the, uh, Roger Federer of acting.
Ian, Herndon, Va.

• Thanks. As I've said in the past, you guys form a terrific -- and helpful -- focus group and I always try to be honest reporting on the vox populi. On this one, we're trending at about 80/20 pro-Lindt ad. I'm squarely in the minority here. Ian was kind. Most of you roasted me for being "overly sensitive," "politically correct on steroids," and "lame and uptight."

A representative love letter comes from Dave, of New York: "Wow I couldn't disagree more about your thoughts on Federer's Lindt commercial. You're overthinking and politicizing this way too much. I actually laughed at it when I saw it the first time, it was funny to see Federer doing it. Some people just can't take a joke I guess. Yes, I'm a man, and no, I don't think that's some "stomach- turning" harassment. He agreed to do it, didn't he? This is television, not reality, remember? I was more upset at the fact that we're supposed to think that these girls can't differentiate the size between tennis balls from chocolates."

Added Colleen, of Texas: "Are you kidding me? It's funny! I'm a female and I'm not offended at all! The idea of strip-searching Federer AND a bag of Lindor truffles??? Perfect dream, I say! You know, I'm so sick of the politically correct world we live in now that we can't joke about anything."

Sally, of Switzerland raised an interesting point that maybe this traced broader differences between Europe an the U.S.: "I doubt it had ever occurred to Roger that the Lindt commercial might have been seen as sexual harassment. Certainly it didn't to me, even as a female. Would he have known, indeed would Lindt have known, about the Supreme Court cases about the legality of strip-searches? I imagine not. Here in Europe these things are not seen with the seriousness which you in America view them. This doesn't necessarily mean one of us is right or wrong, it just means we are different and Roger for all of his international appeal is definitely a European."

I still say A) In no universe is that ad funny or clever. B) It veers awfully close to trivializing sexual harassment and inter-gender strip-searches. C) Federer was done a disservice, positioned, in an undignified way.

But, again, the Lindt creative team probably ought to know that TennisWorld was OK with it.

You wrote: "Maybe most important, the whole conceit is so awkwardly at odds with Federer's image. The Rolex regal thing? That we get. The Mercedes guy? Got it. Credit Suisse? Dignity, elegance, high finance, we're with you. The philanthropy spots? Love them. The married father smuggling chocolate through security and then becoming the ogled subject of slobbering ladies..." And then slobbered over by you and most other journalists. Pretty ironic. You just couldn't help yourself, could you? You had to find some obscure reason to get some Roger adoration into your weekly column. Pretty pathetic and oh so tedious.
--
Shelley, Seattle

• This stood in marked contrast to the many accusations of anti-Federer bias. "Does Rafa's Armaani ad make you spit your coffee??just wondering u know" wrote @sillysexisuni. @Wimby88 added: "Yes yet again having a go at Fed over nothing...Seriously get a funny bone!" Arlene, of California asked: "I hope you are on the Nadal payroll, the way you overlook everything he does."

Predictably, some of the more -- how to put this? -- passionate readers, managed to turn a criticism about a chocolate commercial into another vicious spasm of Federer-Nadal warfare.

This is a good time to issue a gentle reminder: Nadal. Federer. Federer. Nadal. Pick your side. (Or pick both. Or even neither.) You prefer Nadal to Federer? Great. We get that. You prefer Federer to Nadal? Great. We get that, too. All part of taking sides in a rivalry.

But when you can muster violent hatred and manufacturer bile for either -- both of them honorable champions and forces of good; their flaws almost comically minor in the grand scheme of things -- it might be time to look in the mirror.

Shots, miscellany

• Winner of the Roland Garros Swatch in the "Tennis Big Four Analogy" contest is Danielle, of Orange County, Calif.

"1) Novak Djokovic as Jon Jones -- Dominant, athletic, tactical, and flashy, they look to dominate the field for the foreseeable future. They have made successful defenses of their titles, and their display of talent and mental fortitude will continue to carry them to greatness.
2) Rafael Nadal as Rashad Evans -- Tough, suffocating game, powerful, emotional. They have had trouble with injury, but are in form, and ready to mount a credible challenge to the in-form champ. These are champions that have the heart and game to get back to the top.
3) Roger Federer as Lyoto Machida -- Sixteen is a lucky number here. Graceful, skillful, with unsurpassed footwork, speed, and precision. They have stumbled lately, but sheer talent, smarts, and the ability to adjust make them dangerous, and beautiful to watch.
4) Andy Murray as Alexander Gustafsson -- The talent is there. The quirkiness in style, the movement, the craft ... But will it happen? Will they capture the titles that they crave? Stay tuned."

• We know that Caroline Wozniacki -- still without a title in 2012 -- fell in the final of the Copenhagen event to Angelique Kerber. But who noticed in the doubles, forty-something Kimiko Date-Krumm teamed with Rika Fujiwara to take the title?

• SM, of Bangkok: "More on the tips for commentators thread; with the French Open coming up, would somebody PLEASE tell [an international broadcaster] that it's JO-Wilfried Tsonga, not YO-Wilfried Tsonga. I know it's a personal problem but it's like nails on a chalkboard to me."

• Anonymous: "The Agassis and the Beckers were in Miami (separately)."

• Wimbledon announced that its new Chief Executive will be Richard Lewis, former British Davis Cup player and currently the Chairman of the Rugby Football League (RFL) and Chair of Sport England. He starts May 1, 2012.

Turnberry Isle Miami announced a partnership with the Guillermo Cañas Tennis Academy.

• Joel Drucker is at it again. Read this. Keep Kleenex handy.

• This week's unsolicited book recommendation: Zak Pelaccio's Eat With Your Hands.

• Nick deToustain notes that Alexandra Dulgheru cuts a mean rug!

• Here's a piece on top collegiate tennis player Mitchell Frank, of UVa.

• Aaron White, of San Marcos, Calif.: "Re: Gaurav Kumar's question about teaching his daughter to ride a bike... My suggestion would be for him to buy his daughter a Razor scooter. Once my daughters learned to ride/balance on their Razor scooters, it transferred pretty quickly and easily to bicycles."

• Mitch, of N.Y.: "Saw this on the WSJ website and wondered why Tipsarevic was in the news."

• The French Open raised prize money by seven percent overall for the 2012 event, and first-round losers will receive a near 20 percent raise, from $19,700 to $23,670. But if the ATP is serious about getting a chunk of gross revenue commensurate what the other non-Slams provide, it's going to demand a lot more than that. The ATP's statement:

"It's encouraging to see an increase for this year, however the ATP and players remain focused on discussions with each of the Grand Slams about 2013 and beyond as a top priority."

• Press releasin': "Taylor Townsend of Stockbridge, Ga., captured the girls' 18s singles title at the 2012 Easter Bowl ITF Tennis Championships on Saturday, and Mackenzie McDonald of Piedmont, Calif., won the boys' 18s title on Sunday. Both Townsend (16) and McDonald (17) celebrate birthdays [Monday], and will receive wild cards into a USTA Pro Circuit event as well as to the U.S. Open Junior Championships (if needed). Many of the nation's top junior tennis players competed in the Easter Bowl and six other USTA Spring National Championships, the first major national junior championships of 2012, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and Delray Beach, Fla., last week."

• Note to selves: Next week we can discuss Jennifer Capriati's admission to the Hall of Fame. And Yevgeny Kafelnikov's apparent rejection.

• As for the brewing controversy about the U.S. women's Olympic team, here are the guidelines.

• Note to the reader who will be going to Vancouver for his Honeymoon. The bad news: I don't have your email. The good news:

A) You're getting married. Congrats.
B) You're going to Vancouver. Congrats.
C) I'm remembering to send you to The Flying Pig (order the beef short rib and tell me it's not an all-time great dish), Vij's for Indian food and la casa gelato for ice cream.

• Ali Houshmand, Austin, Texas: This will put the grunting issue to rest.

• Woody, of London has Doppelganger action this week: "Patrick McEnroe and Tim Robbins - are they related?"

Have a good week, everyone!

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