Posted: Wed May 23, 2012 3:17PM; Updated: Wed May 23, 2012 3:17PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Sharapova making strides on clay, but not French Open favorite, mail

Story Highlights

There's one thing preventing Maria Sharapova from French Open favorite: Serena

Grand Slam tuneups boast strong fields, but the real goal often isn't to win there

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer have very passionate fans on both sides of the net

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Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova admits clay is her worst surface, yet has two titles on the surface this year.
CLAUDIO ONORATI/EPA

Quick housekeeping -- check back later in the week for 2012 French Open seed reports. Also, I'll be tweeting from Roland Garros starting Monday from @jon_Wertheim and doing daily baguettes....

A few questions before Major deux...

Just when I was ready to write off Maria Sharapova, she wins two titles on European clay. Can you give me one reason she cannot win the French Open?
-- Cyrus, London

• What a strange year it's been for Maria Sharapova. She returned to No.2 in the WTA rankings -- a real achievement -- but it felt a bit hollow given that she lost in the finals of the Australian Open, the BNP Paribas Indian Wells event and the Sony Miami event. Then on clay, admittedly her worst surface, she has been gangbusters. She beat the three most recent Grand Slam champion in succession to take the Stuttgart title. Last week in Rome, Sharapova played authoritative tennis, beating the likes of Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams and the ascending Angelique Kerber to reach the finals. Then, she simply outbattled Li Na, staving off a match point and winning 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5).

To answer your question. Cyrus, I have a one word answer: Serena. Whether it's mental or simply a matchup issue, Serena owns Sharapova. The surface doesn't much matter. (Serena is the lone player to beat her on clay this year.) All credit to Sharapova for her results lately and -- after a few disappointing years -- putting herself back in a position to win majors. But winning the French, the lone major she has never won? I have a hard time seeing that so long as Serena is in the draw.

Hi Jon, the rumors of tennis' death have been greatly exaggerated! I have channeled my inner Greg Sharko and come up with this: No fewer than five tennis players have been included in the Forbes Celebrity 100 List. Roger Federer comes in first (of tennis players) with a ranking of 37 and earnings of $52 million. He is fourth on the list of athletes, behind Tiger, LeBron and Kobe. Second is Rafa at No. 47 and earnings of $33M. As expected, the first female tennis player and third total is Sharapova at No. 71 and $26M. I'm sure she's not happy, but Serena comes in after Sharapova as the fourth tennis player, ranked No. 77 and half of Sharapova's earnings at $13M. Finally and maybe most surprisingly is Li Na (Na Li) coming in fifth at No. 87 and $18M. Even more surprising though, is Djokovic's absence from the top 100 (although he is one of Times Magazine 100 most influential people for 2012). The Celebrity 100 is based on entertainment-related earnings plus media visibility (exposure in print, television, radio and online). Can we deduce from the list that the top four (let's exclude Li Na) are the real anchor (attractions) of tennis?
-- Max of Johannesburg, South Africa

• In a word, yes. These lists are notoriously inaccurate. (There's nothing about investment income or tax implications or currency implications or in-kind income, etc.) But they tell us a lot about tennis' virtue and challenges.

1) This is a relentlessly global sport, and while even Federer may not be a household name in some markets, his composite global profile is monstrously large. (Aside: A sports marketer friend tells me that after Tiger Woods' debacle, both Federer and Nadal -- and curiously, Kobe Bryant -- are now bigger in China.)

2) The stars make multiples of their prize money income in endorsements. (Federer made roughly $6 million last year in playing income and, bear in mind, much of that is from the four Slams.) This has all sorts of implications. Assuming is he a rational actor, how worked up can Federer get about purses when he makes ten times his prize money in off-court income?

3) Much as we sometimes hate to see tennis events leave markets and move elsewhere, it's imperative the sport venture into new markets and be nimble in terms of expansion and contraction.

4) As Max notes, we can lament the state of the sport in one market or cringe at dismal television ratings or the empty seats at an event or the absence of tennis chatter at the water cooler. (Discuss: Has the Poland Spring bulk pack at Costco made the water cooler obsolete?) But on a global basis, tennis is doing just fine.

I was just watching the Rome Men's final and heard the commentator say something I've heard about 6,129 times, "Rafa's really right-handed, but Uncle Toni thought he would be better off playing as a lefty." Now that quite a few of the tried and true "beat a dead horse" comments have finally been retired by the tennis commentators (see: Serbians, tennis, empty swimming pool), what are your predictions for the next round of comments sure to be heard thousands of times at Roland Garros?
-- Andy, Vail, Colo.

• I'm thinking we might hear about the unlikely comeback of Brian Baker. In fact I'm fearful that this endearing story will be ground like bricks into red clay. Did you hear that both Andy Roddick and John Isner are eager to play mixed doubles in the Olympics with Serena Williams? Speaking of the Olympics, Marion Bartoli has a dispute cooking with the French Federation.

Maria Sharapova once described her claycourt play as a "cow on ice" but now she's playing well! Ivan Lendl has been coaching Andy Murray; so far the results have been mixed! With Mardy Fish home with mono and Andy Roddick in decline, John Isner represents the best American hope on clay!

Now that it's French Open time, there's one question that I've never had an answer to so I turn my lonely eyes to you. Why do the French dislike Nadal? He reveres their tournament, he gives 100% every time he's out there, and he's an honorable champion. Is it because they favor style over substance, or they don't like the Spanish, or what? It's not exactly like he's kept a group of French superstars from hoisting the trophy, so what gives?
-- Craig Berry, Park Forest, Ill.

• Clearly there's been an absence of warmth, if not an outright chill, especially for a player who had more success in Paris than Gertrude Stein. A teeny bit of this probably stems from Nadal's "banana match" against French player Paul Henri Mathieu in (gulp) 2006. A teeny bit probably stems from a few remarks Uncle Toni made with regards to Nadal not getting enough respect. But mostly, the French crowds A) like being part of the spectacle and will use any opportunity to get involved and B) side squarely with the underdog. (One example among many: They didn't dislike Hingis in 1998, so much as they sided with a thirty-something Steffi Graf to beat the successful top-seeded teenager.) Whatever the case, I doubt Nadal is losing sleep over it.

After the very questionable withdrawal of No. 1 Azarenka, the Italian Open women's field was weakened. Then following a simple 4-0 win of Serena Williams over local favorite Flavia Panetta (retired with wrist problem), Serena withdraws from a semifinal due to a lower back problem. As a customer who paid to see quality tennis, I certainly feel cheated. Why support the WTA and equal pay when the players convey so little respect for fans? Otherwise, had a great time in Rome seeing all the top men actually playing.
-- Ken, Austin, Ohio (yes, there is another Austin in the US, not just Texas).

• Austin is to city names what Madison is to girl names.

"I understand your frustration," as the customer service rep would put it. But I think you're cherry picking. The tune-up events are double-edged swords. The field tends to be flush, because the top players want to gain match play, especially on the relevant surface. But there are pullouts and retirements galore, because the top players are wary of aggravating an injury prior to the Big Show. Note the track record of the women's Canadian Open prior to the U.S. Open, for example.

Here's a question: As the tour agitates for a greater revenue slice with the four majors, will it not accelerate the issue Ken raises? If the majors augment their prize money, does it dilute the other events and give players all the more pause before they enter Rome or Cincinnati or Madrid? Why risk injury in the tune-up fight if it jeopardizes your pay in the title fights?

What the heck is going on with Jelena Jankovic?
-- Charlie G, Washington, D.C.

• There are a number of WTA players -- Francesca Schiavone, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Vera Zvonareva, to a lesser extent Petra Kvitova -- trending in the wrong direction. But not quite as (melo)dramatically as Jankovic. Every match she plays has a narrative arc, one often resulting in tragedy. If my math is right, four times this year already, she has lost after holding match points. Selfishly, I think she's great to have around. She's wonderfully candid and the theatrics are first-rate. But the combination of a fragile psyche, a tendency to self-flagellate and a defensive movement-based game is not a recipe for success. Jankovic achieved the top spot several years ago. She got a sniff at a major reaching the 2008 U.S. Open final and playing admirably against Serena Williams. The window closed and she hasn't been the same player since.

Talk about bellyaching!!!!! Who are you! No one seems to back a girl or guy who speaks the truth and stands up. We have enough sheep! Start calling them out! I applaud Nadal for taking risks both in his game and in politics! Baaaa Baaaa to you!
-- Sally, Los Angeles

• Dear Rafa: You likely knew this already. But you have many loyal and passionate fans scattered throughout the globe. And a good many of them have contacted me in the past few days on your behalf.

Jon, Can you stop writing about Rafa forever please? You ginormous Fedtard.
-- Badri, Vancouver

• In a follow-up e-mail -- because this one was, you know, so subtle -- Badri further noted that Nadal is "not just the greatest player in the history of Spain, he's one of the greatest of all time. Have some respect, moron. Fedtard. ginormous tool."

Tennis has moved off of blue clay and we will too. But not before a quick story: I had a fun exchange with the Nadal camp last week. This is a cut-and-paste from a text: "Your criticism is always welcome. Sometimes we could disagree but that's good and healthy. Otherwise boring!" (This, incidentally, is -- virtually word-for-word -- the same reaction the Federer camp had several years ago when we offered a few unflattering opinions about that No. 15 Wimbledon jacket.)

Again, I understand rooting exuberantly for Federer and for Nadal. Both are worthy of your passion and emotional investment. I get the urge to celebrate their successes and to defend them when you feel they've been treated or perceived unfairly. But I can't understand the ugliness and crassness triggered by even the mildest criticism -- especially in the face of immeasurable praise over the years. When both Federer and Nadal are so thoroughly reasonable and measured, don't you dishonor them when you get so discourteous and vulgar? Or at a minimum, feel a little silly?

Hey Jon, discerning Canadians want to know: Can Milos Raonic do well at Wimbledon? Sure, he's got possibly the best serve in tennis which should bode well for grass, but he's also a big guy with awkward movement. He may not be able to get down low enough to those skimming ground strokes. Your thoughts?
-- Michael, Halifax

• Thanks. I decided to throw this one to the well-regarded Canadian tennis scribe Tom Tebbutt, who has seen a lot of more Raonic than anyone in the media. Here's his assessment:

"Of course Milos Raonic can do well at Wimbledon - and by well you have to mean at least reaching the quarterfinals. A year ago, he won two rounds on grass at Halle before losing a close one to Philipp Petzschner. At Wimbledon he outplayed Marc Gicquel and I remember afterward how impressed the 34-year-old Frenchman was by Raonic's big game.

Against Gilles Muller in the second round, he was already up a break at 3-2 in the first set when he had to retire with that fateful hip injury. I think he'll be a lot better this year - he's a quick study about everything on the tour. Of course getting down to low balls isn't as easy for him as it would be for Albert Montanes (5-foot-9), but then the Spaniard could never have nearly as devastating a serve as someone like the 6-foot-5 Raonic.

The Canadian moves fine for a big guy and there's no doubt he'll be dangerous on grass in Halle, at Wimbledon and in Newport, where he plans to play the week after Wimbledon. Ask anyone who follows the game closely about whether Raonic could do well or even win Wimbledon this year and, outside the Big Four, they might only pick Tsonga and Berdych before Raonic's name is mentioned. He's definitely among the top 10 favorites."

Shots, miscellany

• French Open suicide pool, enter here.

• Good news to pass along: Chris Wallace rejoins tennis as the WTA's new VP of Communications.

• Press releasing: "The USTA announced that Deborah Slaner Larkin, Executive Director of USTA Serves, has been presented with a 2012 Women of Distinction honor sponsored by the New York State Senate. The Women of Distinction honor showcases outstanding women living and working in New York State and whose contributions have greatly enriched the quality of life in their communities and beyond."

• A shriek coach.

• The International Tennis Hall of Fame has dropped its investigation of Bob Hewitt.

• Thanks, Skip Schwarzman for alerting us. R.I.P. Marilyn Fernberger.

• Note who was in the front row watching Donna Summer perform.

• Bridget R. Montreal: "I agree entirely with the points you made in favor of playing a serve that hits the net, but I think you left out the most important reason (or at least the one that annoys me the most). A serve that hits the net and goes out is a fault, so why does a serve that hits the net and falls in bounds have to be a let? That's always really bothered me."

• The USTA announced today that Nintendo has signed on as an Official Sponsor of the SmashZone Mobile Tour, the interactive tennis fan attraction which introduces children to tennis in a fun and engaging way.

• The ITA has announced its 2012 national award winners for NCAA Division I tennis:

2012 Men's Award Winners
• ITA National Assistant Coach of the Year - George Husack, USC • ITA/Farnsworth National Senior Player of the Year - Steve Johnson, USC • ITA National Rookie of the Year - Mitchell Frank, University of Virginia • ITA National Player to Watch - Sebastian Fanselow, Pepperdine University • ITA/Arthur Ashe Jr. Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship - Ryan Thacher, Stanford University • ITA/Rafael Osuna Sportsmanship Award - Daniel Nguyen, USC and Eric Quigley, University of Kentucky

2012 Women's Award Winners

• Wilson/ITA National Coach of the Year - Stella Sampras Webster, UCLA
• ITA National Assistant Coach of the Year - Rance Brown, UCLA
• ITA National Senior Player of the Year - Jana Juricova, University of California
• ITA National Co-Rookie of the Year - Robin Anderson, UCLA and Beatrice Capra, Duke University
• ITA National Player to Watch - Zoe Scandalis, USC
• ITA/Arthur Ashe Jr. Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship - Caroline Newman, College of Charleston
• ITA/Cissie Leary Award for Sportsmanship - Aeriel Ellis, University of Texas

• Press releasin': "The Tennis Industry Association (TIA) is set to release its second annual "State of the Industry" report, which compiles key research from the trade association's dozens of in-depth annual research studies and surveys into a top-line document that helps to "narrate the story of the tennis industry" for the past year. ... Among the findings is the overall value of the total tennis economy in 2011, estimated to be $5.4 billion, down slightly from $5.6 billion in 2010. Components that help make up the total tennis economy figure include player participation data, equipment sales, facility revenue, lesson revenue, media revenue and TV coverage, and pro tour sponsor and spectator revenue."

• Lucio, of Santa Fe, got out the tub at 10,000 Waves long enough to note: "Long lost siblings: Andy Murray and Chronicle's Alex Russell.

Have a great week everyone!

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