Posted: Wed May 16, 2012 1:10PM; Updated: Wed May 16, 2012 1:10PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Increasingly outspoken Nadal must learn to pick battles; more mailbag

Story Highlights

Rafael Nadal is speaking his mind, but has picked odd targets, like blue clay

Sam Groth's jump in the serves record speak to a problem of non-standardization

Victoria Azarenka is the latest No. 1 to learn just having the ranking isn't enough

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Said Rafael Nadal of the blue clay at the Madrid Open:
Said Rafael Nadal of the blue clay at the Madrid Open: "This surface destabilizes the game. It is a completely different game and I don't want to take risks."
Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

Is it possible that the biggest complainer on the men's tour is also its toughest competitor ever? I've watched tennis for almost 30 years now and I've never seen a player compete as hard as Rafael Nadal and never heard a player complain as frequently as Nadal. What gives? Is it the curse that comes with the gift? I hate to justify the tantrums but I suppose that it reasons that a person who's undisputedly the greatest competitor would logically attribute his/her defeats to factors other than the lack of preparation, ability or effort.
-- Jim Boyd, Sacramento, Calif.

• Nadal came in for a beating last week. Before we pile on, let's first consider this from his vantage point. He's the best player in the history of Spain. The Madrid Masters Series event is the closest thing his country has to a major. This should be the Rafa Open, a celebration of All Things Nadal. But, wait. Here comes the Romanian billionaire and his goon squad. They run things their way and are indifferent to Nadal's preferences.

Worse, the event comes during clay season, the time of year Nadal hoards points and prepares for the French Open, the major he wins as a matter of ritual. What do these savvy and sly marketers do? They change the court's color and, more important, the texture, interrupting Nadal's preparation, disadvantaging him, and perhaps creating conditions that endanger his body -- a body that has taken a pounding over the years. Where is the ATP, the alleged representative body that Nadal has served (and enriched) for the last eight or so years? Largely silent, clearly cowed by the wealthy Romanian overlord.

Take a step back. For generations, top players didn't take ownership of their tour and didn't dirty their hands with politics. Not Nadal. As he has matured from the likable kid with the biceps and pirate pants into something of an elder statesman, Nadal has been increasingly candid and vocal in expressing his opinion and speaking out against perceived injustice. Ask me a question; I give you an honest answer, no?

So far, so good.

The problem, though, is one of both quality and quantity. This year alone, Nadal has griped about Roger Federer's sidestepping controversy and letting others take bullets. Nadal lobbied for a candidate to be the ATP's CEO, based largely on the candidate's willingness to endorse a loco two-year ranking system. Nadal resigned from the ATP players' council. He's thrown out numerous digs about the ATP's scheduling and commitment mandates. And, of course, Nadal was vocal in his objection to the Madrid surface. Six-pack or not, that's a lot of bellyaching.

What's more, you have to pick your battles and ration your political capital. And Nadal's choices have been curious. There are fundamental issues in tennis that need addressing: the rash of injuries, the runaway technology, the paltry percent of gross revenue the prosperous Grand Slams offer as player purses. Take your bullets out of the chamber for those issues; not for blue clay! Plus, when you support a two-year ranking system that is counterintuitive at best and self-serving at worst, you undercut your ability to oppose future changes. ("What, you were willing to endorse a wacky 104-week ranking system, but suddenly you've turned purist when it comes to surfaces?"). And be consistent. When you want a two-year ranking system but then assert, contradictorily, that you don't care about the rankings, only the 52-week race, you undermine your credibility. When you play the health-and-safety card that's fine, but where was the outrage two weeks prior in Monte Carlo, when players dropped like the local marginal tax rate?

Oh, and one more thing: Own your statements. If you think Federer is a company man who plays politics, stand by it! Don't say it and then back away, claiming it was a media-generated controversy.

Sadly for Nadal, there is also a correlation between on-court results and the perception of his complaints. That is, you have more capital to throw around when you're winning. You're No. 1 and you're voicing objection? Hey, you are a heroic leader, Che Guevara with a Babolat. When you're No. 3, struggling to win events off of clay, and voicing objection? It can come across as whiny. (Or "weenie," to hear Serena Williams tell it.)

This was all writ small last week. If Nadal wins the Madrid title, he is hailed for overcoming his discomfort, and speaking out while succeeding. (Take that, Tiriac.) When he loses -- and Federer, largely mum on the topic, wins that hideous trophy, no batteries required -- it's spun, predictably, as something biblical. Federer, the great champion, adapts. Nadal, the persnickety and intransigent baby, takes his toy and goes home.

Tennis players, like the rest of us, are evolving, fluid creatures. They go through stages and phases. Their priorities change. Their identities change. The first time I interviewed Venus Williams, she was a giggly teenager who insisted on speaking while wearing a rubber pig nose and occasionally accentuating her remarks with oinks. Suffice to say, she would not do that today. Andy Roddick of 2012 is a thoroughly different person from the Andy Roddick who won the 2003 U.S. Open. At age 25, Nadal is not the easygoing, muscle-bound kid who won the French Open in 2005. Don't like the I'm-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-gonna-take-it-anymore Rafa? Give it a few months. Says here: Much like the waterbottles, soon the worm will turn...

Jon, is it really possible that Sam Groth topped the previous record for fastest serve by 5.9 mph? That seems like a huge jump in speed. What do you know about the authenticity of radar guns?
-- Alex Ketaineck, Madison, N.J.

• Given what we know about statistical distribution and given what we know about incremental progress in sports, Sam Groth's new serving record is highly dubious. (Usain Bolt's time in the 100 of 9.58 seconds may be eclipsed one day; but the first man to do, won't reset the record by almost four percent.)

No disrespect to Groth and his achievement, but the guess here is that the radar gun was simply off.

This leads to a bigger issue, one that implicates the blue clay of Madrid. One of tennis' great virtues is the diversity of its events. This week's shindig in Rome (played under Umbrian pines at a grand, marbled venue built as testament to the might of Mussolini) is nothing like the event in Cincinnati (played at a venue built across the Interstate from King's Island Amusement Park, which features not one but two upside-down roller coasters and Soak City Waterpark.)

Tournaments have a lot of discretion to differentiate themselves, to innovate and experiment. Want to hire models as ball girls? Go for it. Pay a $1 million guarantee to a top player? Nothing is stopping you. Hold a men's event in Montreal and simultaneous women's event in Toronto? Fire away. Give wild cards to local players represented by the same management company that owns the event? Sure. Carve your own TV deal? Absolutely. Usually it works fine. The local promoters know the relevant market -- what works, what doesn't -- better than the folks at the tour headquarters.

The problem is that a unified sports circuit needs some standardization. Otherwise it's anarchy. And tennis sometimes veers too far in this direction. Tournament A and tournament B hire different data companies whose systems are incompatible. One tournament's website is great; the next tournament's website is dreck. Some events hire stenographer services for interviews and post the transcripts online. Others don't.

This latitude can lead to unfortunate consequences, be it questionable reading on a non-standardized radar gun or a promoter who lays down blue clay the same month as Roland Garros.

Seriously Jon? Victoria Azarenka loses one final to Serena Williams and her No. 1 ranking now has to be questioned after winning the Australian and some other big titles this year? Come on, that is just ridiculous. When Caroline Wozniacki was No. 1 the legitimacy question revolved around her not having a Grand Slam title, Azarenka has already done that.
-- Rami, London

• Seriously. A lot of this owes to context more than it owes to Azarenka specifically. But over the last four years, four WTA players holding the No.1 ranking -- Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, and Dinara Safina -- have combined to win one Slam among them. We have seen a parade of other WTA players win a major and then vanish. The burden is now on the No.1 player to prove that she is no paper tigress.

Azarenka was dynamite for the first 100 or so days of the year. But she stumbled in Miami, stumbled in Stuttgart and then, in her biggest match post-Melbourne, was positively smashed by Serena in Madrid. She won four games in 59 minutes. The No.1 player can lose; she cannot lose like this and expect the world not to wonder about her bona fides.

This doesn't mean Azarenka is a counterfeit No.1 or a fraud. It doesn't mean she won't revert to her earlier form and win in Paris as convincingly as she won in Melbourne. But people are within their rights to wonder if she is legit, to withhold buying her stock and taking a position until there are a few more quarters of results.

Vera Zvonareva reached a career-high No. 2 ranking in late 2010, but has since cooled off.
Vera Zvonareva reached a career-high No. 2 ranking in late 2010, but has since cooled off.
Reuters

Hi, Jon. I remember this Russian player who seemed to have pulled herself together mentally and physically and was ready to vie for Grand Slams and the No. 1 ranking. Vera Zvonareva -- what happened there? Was Zvonareva perhaps just another beneficiary, like Ivanovic and Safina (to an extent), of the vacuum left when Justine Henin retired the first time, Maria Sharapova struggled with shoulder issues, and the Williams sisters played an even more abbreviated schedule than usual? Or, is there perhaps more going on there in the background?
-- Shaun R., Boston, Mass.

• I'm privy to no information supporting choice B. So I'll go with A. These have been tough times for Vera Zvonareva. A player who reached two major finals in 2010, she has struggled simply to win matches in 2012. Take a deep breath, hold your nose and then check out these results.

A lot was made of her success in overcoming her self-destructive tendencies and her emotional outbursts ("The Hostess with the Lachyromose-test"). And viewed as a whole, her career is a true success. She took a set off of Serena at the 2002 French Open; a decade and $13 million later, we're still discussing her.

But we're talking about a fairly limited player. Not a lot of power off either wing. A serve that's adequate but won't win her many free points. For a player capable of excellent defense, Zvonareva isn't an A-grade mover. She's undersized but not blessed with Agnieszka Radwanska's sixth sense for tactics and pace changes. Zvonareva deserves heaps of credit for getting as far as she did. She should be held up as a model, not just for every modestly-proportioned grinder but for every player who's not maxing out their talents.

But would it sound unduly harsh to assert that, damn the rankings, she was never considered a threat to win majors and her current position, in that 11-20 range, is far more reflective of her reality than her career-high ranking of No.2? Hope not.

You say, apropos the Madrid clay (blue or not): "Let's make sure no one gets hurt." But that is just the point, isn't it? Because the players are afraid to get hurt on this slippery, unpredictable surface, then they have not and cannot play their game. Your nonchalance is utterly criminal.
-- Tony, Rome

• While I grapple with the concept of "criminal nonchalance," I encourage you to look at the welter of injuries that beset players both in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. And, for that matter, on hard courts. We all want maximum safety and minimum injury. But if you had listened to players, you would have thought that playing on red clay had the danger factor of knitting a quilt while playing on blue clay was akin to walking around Juarez after midnight.

Talking about the lack of cool nicknames today, I beg to disagree. When your top two players can be a Djoker and a Bull (Nadal) then there certainly isn't lack of nicknames. Tennis is not Rusty anymore, is it?
-- Rajat Jain, Mountain View, Calif.

• This nickname riff generated a surprising amount of chatter and disagreement. We had calls for Brad Gilbert to generate fewer silly plays on players' names and more bona-fide nicknames. We had pleas for Bud Collins to do his thing and coin this generation's "Fraulein Forehand" and "Barcelona Bumblebee." One of you suggested that "nicknames are stupid" and just as we would never call our doctor "Lefty" or our accountant "Smokin' Joe," we shouldn't trivialize and infantilize tennis players with second names. (To which I say: "Ligthten up, Buster.")

Regarding "graceful", I couldn't help but notice that all of the players you noted, with the exception of Maria Kirilenko, had/have one-handed backhands. I don't think that's coincidence. With the exception of Djokovic, I cannot recall a two-handed backhand I'd describe as graceful. This begs the question, what specifically typifies 'grace' on a tennis court? I'd say that beyond gorgeous backhands, the thread that ties this group together is: easy movement (Miloslav Mecir), ability to hit the "specialty shots" (volleys, slices, kick serve), improvisational skills (tweeners, Federer's "reverse thrust" (RIP David Foster Wallace) against Andre Agassi in 2005 U.S. Open Final), and no histrionics on the court. Am I missing anything?
-- Dale Stafford, Atlanta

• Good question. To most of us, a flowing brush stroke of a one-handed backhand gets more style points than a labored and conventional two-hander. But not always. Take Marat Safin or Djokovic or Bjorn Borg or David Nalbandian or Marcelo Rios.

What else impacts assessments of grace? Easy movement is a prerequisite and I would argue that players are more elegant going forward than going side-to-side. Thus a Stefan Edberg or a Jana Novotna or Pat Rafter are likely to fare well here, while a David Ferrer, for instance, is not. Specialty shots that demonstrate feel and touch but also an artist's sense of creativity and imagination help. So does body size. Bernard Tomic hits a beautiful slice but take one look at his physique and it doesn't comport with our notion of graceful.

I'm interested in your point about temperament, and, truthfully, had never really considered it. But it's interesting to note that the graceful players tend to be quiet and dignified types, at best peerless sportsmen (Edberg) and worst unthreatening and unobjectionable (Richard Gasquet.) You could make the case John McEnroe and Rios were graceful, too, but overall I think Dale is on to something here....

If you had to pick right now, before the last three Grand Slams of the year... Who, male and female, will end 2012 with the No. 1 ranking and will any player win multiple slams this year?
-- Joel, Austin, Texas

As opposed to Austin, OKLAHOMA? I still think Djokovic finishes No.1 but I'm predicting three different winners for the next three majors. As for the women, Azarenka is your best bet to finish No.1. A month ago, I would have pegged her to win multiple majors. Today, I'm less confident.

Hey Jon, do you think the "net" serve will ever be allowed to be played by the receiver? I used to play a lot of volleyball, and as you know, if the serve hits the net, it's still in play. Seems to me it would make the game more fun to play the net serve.
-- Jeff Johnson, Fort Worth

• We just had a promoter change the color of clay from red to blue. This ignited protests worthy of the WTO opponents, widespread complaints and threats never to return to the event. This as a backdrop, what hope is there for real change?

I suspect the players would hate your suggestion, mostly because A) it would take time to get used to and B) it would result in cheap points. Personally, I'm all for it. It would add an element of luck. It would enliven matches. It would speed up play. The fans would like it. We already play "nets" during points, so we're not asking for changes in behavior. I also suspect it would (dis)advantage both the server and returner in relatively equal measure. Sure, a few times, a serve would tick the net, dribble softly over for an unplayable ace and infuriate the returner. But other times, a server would uncork a 140 mph bomb that would tick the net and morph from a potential ace into a sitter. Put this on the same congressional bill that contains the shot clock!

At one point you felt that Roger winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open each five consecutive years was a pretty significant accomplishment. With that as the "bar," where do you put Rafa's seven-in-a-row twice?
-- Marina, Easton, Pa.

• Winning any event seven straight years is magnificent. But like so much in tennis, you have to make a distinction between Slams and other events.

If the idea of changing the color of the court to blue was to make it easier to see the ball on TV, wouldn't it have been simpler to just change the color of the balls?
-- Paul Duffy, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

• Psst. Don't tell Tiriac.

Shots, Miscellany

• J. Johnson, Easton, Pa., points out: "Serena has now won 13 straight matches on three different colors of clay: on green Har-Tru at Charleston, on red clay in Ukraine during Fed Cup and on blue clay in Madrid."

• Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the women's doubles last weekend in Madrid. The Fair Poles, Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski won the men's event.

• A nice write up on Mona Barthel (and a date with Babblefish or Google translate).

• David Hawkins of St. Davids, Pa: "I hope that you will make a big deal in your writings about how Serena won WITHOUT destroying our ears. I have never been a big Serena fan -- her lack of respect for her opponents is a big turnoff; but I actually found myself rooting for her against Azarenka. Serena played very impressive tennis and without all of the shrieking. I will pull against Azarenka and Sharapova every chance I get as this screaming stuff has just gotta stop. Serena shows that it is possible to materially lower the decibel level and still play great tennis. Hello WTA -- are you listening?"

• Captain Bruce Lipka led his re-energized Mid-Atlantic squad to a dramatic 5-4 victory over the Middle States region in the 27th annual Talbert Cup, the legendary men's over-35 USTA competition played between the Eastern, Middle States, Mid-Atlantic and New England regions.

• The ITA has announced its 2012 national award winners for Junior and Community College men's and women's tennis. Here are the national winners: 2012 Men's Award Winners

• Wilson/ITA Coach of the Year: Josh Cobble, Cowley College

• ITA Assistant Coach of the Year: Chris Tissot, Glendale Community College

• ITA Sophomore of the Year: Jair Assuncao, Laredo Community College

• ITA Rookie Player of the Year: Kamil Oliver Snaider, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College

• ITA Player to Watch: Tassilo Schmid, Tyler Junior College

• TA/Arthur Ashe Jr. Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship: Simon Bardell, Meridian Community College

2012 Women's Award Winners

• Wilson/ITA Coach of the Year: Wanda McPhail, Meridian Community College

• ITA Assistant Coach of the Year: Michael Woods, Foothill College

• ITA Sophomore of the Year: Barbora Bozkova, Laredo Community College

• ITA Rookie Player of the Year: Kerrie Cartwright, Tyler Junior College

• ITA Player to Watch: Nelo Phiri, Tyler Junior College

• ITA/Arthur Ashe Jr. Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship: Gienna Gonnella, Santa Rosa Junior College

• Press releasing: "Two heartfelt tributes to each other by Hall of Famer Pam Shriver and former nine-term Congresswoman Jane Harman were the high point of the GEICO Champions Celebration attended by 300 people at the residence of the Swedish Ambassador on May 10 in Washington, DC. The day of activities, which started with junior and adult clinics given by Shriver and former world No.1 Mats Wilander and ended with an outdoor barbecue at the residence, raised more than $150,000 for the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, MD."

• Testify! To Azhar Khan of Toronto: "So glad this guy is back writing about tennis."

• Tip of the cap to Charlie Pasarell, who, after 30 years as managing partner of the BNP Paribas Open (1981-2010), is leaving the tournament.

• From L. Pereira of Burnaby, British Columbia: "Hi, Jon. I was watching the Juan Martin del Potro-Tomas Berdych semifinal although I had already read Berdych had won. I could not help myself but sing the song below. Feel free to share with anyone."

Blue Court Lyrics

Blue court
Del Potro wears also blue
I cannot see that darn ball
They promised surely I could.

Blue court
Aren't you really a Strumpf?
Djoker will look very good
In wig white dress and white shoes.

Blue court
Ad banners in baby blue
Give white leggings to Nadal
He might be back just for you.

• The Madrid trophy (here and here) looks like it should be illegal in 26 states.

• Darlene A. Hebert of Toronto: "I appreciated your comment about Spanish unemployment and whining about blue clay. Here's an article about protests on the day of the Mutua Madrid final."

• Steven Zynszajn of New York: "I was also going to mention how this clay was actually the real "terre battue", since it was truly "beaten" black and blue by everybody, but I didn't. Even though I am doing so now."

• Betty Vander Ark of Leawood, Kan.: "I have a story! This past fall Sara Goodwin of Mission Hills won the Kansas State Championship for tennis.(1A-3A) Just a few days ago her freshman brother won the state title as well. I have to think it has been a long time in any division since a brother and sister were both reigning state champions. Both students play for Kansas City Christian School. They both train at Elite Squad Tennis where Jack Sock plays as well."

• Will, Clifton, Ohio: "If you think the feud between the Fed and Rafa fans is rough, check out the comments section of this otherwise glowing story of golf's news Hall of Famer."

• Michael White of Irving, Texas: "How do you stop the Azarenka screeching? Play first strike tennis like the beat down yesterday. I rather enjoyed it."

• JWS of Royal Oak, Mich.: "Time for a change of pace from twins; here's a father and son combo."

• And for the more traditional: Sinead Cremins of Bronx, N.Y.: "I'm a huge Richard Gasquet fan, but he looks like nothing like Channing Tatum. If you said Jeremy Sumpter, then I would agree with you. Here is a photo of Richard when he was young. The resemblance is uncanny!"

Have a great week, everyone!

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