Final thoughts to put 2012 French Open to bed, plus mail
When the ATP's Big Three are involved, it's important regardless of the results
Credit Maria Sharapova's resurgence on clay and amazing feat of career Slam
Enjoy Legends events for the spectacle, encounters with a pro, more mail
Lots of residual questions from the 2012 French Open. We'll take a few in speed-round mode, but some themes keep creeping up repeatedly so here are broader thoughts:
• Bless this era of men's tennis. No what matter happens, it's relevant, it's meaningful, it fits into the broader Big Three narrative. All credit to Rafael Nadal for winning the French Open. Who among us can even imagine a scenario in which he doesn't go down as the best clay-court player ever? That third set of the final was proof that Novak Djokovic gets to him in a way no other player does. But Nadal showed his mental strength, too, returning Monday to close the deal. Not easy given the bad vibes when he left Sunday. The question now: can he build on this momentum on grass? Stay tuned.
• As I wrote Monday, I think Djokovic has to leave Paris somewhat content. He reached his first final in Paris. He staved off match points against Tsonga. He handled Roger Federer. When he wasn't lumberjacking that courtside bench with his racket, he was sporting and honorable, even conceding a point in the final. If he wasn't going to win the event -- and thus the Nole Slam -- this was the next-best scenario. And, as a few of you wrote, this felt like Nadal at Wimbledon circa 2007. He's getting closer.
• Maria Sharapova boosted her stock not simply with the title but with the overall narrative. Particularly given the state of affairs, it's nice to see someone so unashamedly ambitious. "I love competing," she told a small group of us on Saturday. "There's nothing in the world that gives me that adrenaline feel. Just being in the moment of a match, nothing else I've done in my life has given me that. It's pressure and excitement and nerve, but that feeling and getting through that and winning, and beating an opponent? It's a different feeling [than you get] in other careers."
• Sharapova's Career Slam is exceptional and it elevates her significantly. But this achievement does not, de facto, enable her to eclipse those did not win the Career Slam. I still put Monica Seles, Venus Williams, Justine Henin, and Martina Hingis above Sharapova.
• In other pro sports, teams need years to rebuild, franchises get relegated. In tennis? Seven matches and you're back on top. From Pete Sampras in 2002 to Goran Ivanisevic in 2001 to Serena (any of a number of times) we've seen players catch fire and win a major. Thus it is nuts to retire players prematurely. Federer and Serena, in particular, took a step back on clay. This hardly dooms them for next month. As our intrepid unofficial Swiss correspondent, Sally, notes, "Green is the color of hope" is the catchphrase in Switzerland these days.
• Lots of fans in the U.S. were unhappy about the weekend television coverage. Yes, just because it is not a new issue doesn't make it less frustrating. All I say: ESPN and Tennis Channel will be on the scene at Wimbledon and I can say safely that there won't be issues viewing late round matches live.
There is something a little odd about saying that a professional tennis player who just completed a career Grand Slam is not a natural athlete. Not being a team game, tennis doesn't really allow a player to be, say, a three-point shooting specialist in basketball, or placekicker in football. Is it just me?
-- Ben, Los Angelos
• A few of you took issue with that line. At some level we're talking semantics, but I stand by the sentiment. This is not to discredit Sharapova. If anything, it's a compliment. That she is able to overcome modest innate athleticism and become a Hall of Fame player is a testament to her work ethic, her discipline, her competitive instincts. But she isn't naturally fast or quick or graceful or strong and I strongly suspect she would admit that. (We're talking about the self-described "cow on ice.")
Did you really agree with the fan who wrote in and suggested a match between an ATP or WTA player and Esther Vergeer, the nonpareil wheelchair champion? Wheelchair bound persons by definition spend all of their awake time in a wheelchair. Over time, they develop a facility for maneuvering the machine. Can you really assess how much time it would take an ambulatory person to develop equal or near equal maneuverability in a wheelchair? The contest this person proposed would not be about tennis, per se. It would be about whether a person who can walk and run on two legs could become as skilled in operating a wheelchair as a person who lives in one. I doubt they could.
-- Al Fergsen, Tampa, Fla.
• I feel like I was damned either way on this. Here's what I envisioned: Federer or Nadal or Djokovic or another top star join Esther Vergeer to play an exhibition. It raises money and awareness for wheelchair tennis. It raises money and awareness for a charity. Obviously the top player lacks a facility to maneuver in a wheelchair. Obviously, we don't expect Vergeer to beat Maria Sharapova in a conventional match. The exhibition highlights the skill and courage and dedication of the wheelchair players.
What is the deal/point of these "Legend" events? Is it just to get the old guys on the grounds and out for a hit? Is it competitive? Are they playing for money or anything? It just seems like they are filling courts to me when I check out the schedule of play, I'm not event sure if the fans on-site are watching?
-- Stephen B., Toronto
• These events are as competitive as the players want them to be. When the McEnroe brothers played Wilander and Michael Pernfors, it was entertainingly intense. When Henri Leconte and Mansour Bahrami play, it's the Harlem Globetrotters come to tennis.
The players are usually paid an appearance fee, not conventional prize money. If we're being honest, part of the function of the "legends" matches is to pad the schedule the second week of an event. But so what? It's often quite entertaining -- definitely would encourage fans on site to go. What's more, these guys are still unbelievable players and strategists. You can learn a lot watching them play.
Current day Sharapova vs. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in her prime in a French Open final, slow and heavy conditions. Who wins?
-- Rod, Toronto
• Oh, the inter-generational question that you guys love, but I do not love. Whose equipment are we using? Whose training techniques? Whose strings? I usually lean heavily toward the contemporary. For all of ASV's cagey defense and clay court know-how, I see Sharapova simply hitting through her, starting with the serve. I remember ASV sometimes sending second serves over the net that traveled slower than freeway traffic. We're talking low 60s here. Can you imagine what Sharapova would do with those?
Hi, Jon. In the 50 thoughts column, you mentioned that Varvara Lepchenko, a Christian, moved to the United States because she felt persecuted in an Islamic country, Uzbekistan. You then added a link to her interview posted on the WTA website. She didn't talk about that in the interview so I was wondering if you could point me to the relevant sources? What I found on the Internet was that as an ethnic Russian, she felt persecuted in an ethnically Uzbek country. If her claim of political asylum was because of ethnic persecution, that's very different from religious persecution. I would hate to see you be jingoistic against Muslims here. And yes, there are Russian Muslims, so Russian and Christian aren't equitable (and if there's any sources saying something about her profession of religiosity, I haven't read it).
-- Yuen-Gen Liang, Boston
• If I had to do it over again, I might simply have said that Lepchenko left Uzbekistan seeking political asylum. But please know this is an assertion she has made many times in interviews. From Bonnie Ford, an excellent reporter: "The family applied for political asylum, citing prejudice against Christians in the largely Muslim country."
Noticed on ATP website that a recent Uncovered Show had a story on host/producer/board member Justin Gimelstob and his wedding. Congrats to he and his wife, but while it's not sitting in a players box, it sure does seem to be the result of the incredibly conflicted tennis world. Am I wrong to find this cringe-worthy?
-- Alex A. Birmingham
• I decided to go right to the source on this one since with full disclosure -- that is the theme here -- I am a friend and Tennis Channel colleague of Justin's. Here's Justin's reply: "Alex A. I appreciate the points you make but I see it from a different, albeit biased perspective. I certainly understand why conflict in tennis is such a polarizing topic. I also realize and feel fortunate that I am in the middle of numerous things in the sport I love and respect so deeply. The reality is and I have this conversation with Jon and others numerous times, is that if conflict is allowed in our sport and it is, the examples are literally endless, it is more an issue of disclosure and integrity in managing the numerous entities you are involved in and represent. I take great pride in my numerous roles, and feel like they are all handled with full disclosure, often times literally legally documented. I've always taken the most pride in my work ethic and in my attempt to build a second career after my playing days, I have used the synergies afforded me to learn the business of tennis, sports, and broadcasting the best I can. I would also make the point that I believe each one of my various roles helps with the other roles. Tennis is an incestuous, conflicted sport. If you are going to allow that, you can't blame someone for taking advantage of it the best he can. Thank you for your note, I hope you enjoyed the wedding footage. My main goal with the segment was to show an event that many people in the inner tennis family came together to celebrate something outside of the normal tennis arena. Sincerely, Justin Gimelstob"
You are such a Roger Federer apologist. Novak crushed him in straight sets. Nadal and Novak are superior to him right now. Novak did something Roger could not to do. He has beaten Nadal on a consistent basis. I know Roger does not like Novak but he could learn something from him: mental toughness.
-- Jake Will, Columbus, Ohio
Do you get off on putting Federer down? I think that Djokovic is the most obnoxious player in the history of tennis. So, it's disgusting to have someone like him win. So, your article makes me sick. Why would you write such a disgusting article?
-- Jenena Hansson, San Francisco
• These two communiqués came to me the exact same minute. You know if only someone accused me of hating Nadal, I would be, like, a Triple Crown winner. I'll have another...
Jon, you should be embarrassed. Talk about damning with faint praise. Your antipathy toward Rafa is disgraceful. The guy set records that will likely never be beaten, winning eight Monte Carlos, seven Barcelonas, six Romes, and now seven French Opens and he gets a milquetoast blurb that pretty much says he was lucky. Losers Djokovic and Federer got way more praise and positivity. And you wonder why Nadal fans get so upset with you. Pfffft.
-- Shelley, Seattle
• Yes! Just a logistical note about the "50 observations" column: when the events end, I'm often writing a longer piece for Sports Illustrated. Thus the "Top 50" tend to go light on the winners' achievements. If you read my French Open story in Sports Illustrated magazine this week, I think the admiration for Nadal/Sharapova (and Djokovic as well) and what they achieved should be apparent.
Jon: In your French Open wrap up, you say, "Djokovic didn't get his Career Slam or his Nole Slam." Why not just call it a "Consecutive" Slam -- the other two types of slams start with C also (Career or Calendar) so it should be easy to remember this one as well, but instead sport commentators are committed to naming possible Consecutive slams after the player (e.g. Roger, Rafa, Serena, or Tiger from that other sport). Why this convention?
-- John Campbell, Portland, Ore.
• I like your idea a lot. Also, to the casual fan it makes instant sense.
Jon, baffled to see a number of native English speaking Tennis fans could not spot your rather clear satire on Sloane Stephens. BTW, What's up with "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna"? Where did that come from? :-)
-- Srini, Tirunelveli, South India
• Thanks. For the Mad Men crowd, it was a reference to this.
• Oh, yes, Ms. Wade? Virginia Wade? I have a Stacey Allaster on the line. Are you available?
• Kartik, Chennai: "While reading about Razzano defeating Serena and some of the greatest upsets ever, I suddenly remembered Mats Wilander losing to Ramesh Krishnan in straight sets in the second round of the Australian in 1989. Wilander came into 1989 as the world's top ranked player after having won the Australian, French and US Open in 1988. His career plummeted after that second round loss and didn't have any significant results. Equally shocking was the second round defeat of two time defending champion Boris Becker at Wimbledon 1987 to Peter Doohan."
• Mike Roetzel of Little Rock, AR: "I remember some time ago you were running a series of letters of fans recounting their interactions with tennis stars. This seems a good occasion to remember my one meeting with Sharapova. It was in Memphis a few years back, and after the day's matches, where Maria absolutely trounced the competition, 6-2, 6-1 (even that score actually doesn't reflect just how dominant she was that day), we went to our hotel to check in, and who should be checking herself in, right in front of us, in an otherwise almost empty lobby, but Ms. Sharapova? To say we were pleasantly surprised would be a colossal understatement. We could see that she was, if anything, taller than her listed 6'2", bone tired, and, of course, stunningly beautiful. We didn't want to be a bother to the already exhausted champion, or to embarrass ourselves by letting on just how much we were geeking out right then, so I thought hard for something appropriate to say and came up with "Congratulations on your tournament." (It was, at that time, a big win for her.) She took a second and looked at us -- not a big age gap, we were informally dressed, relaxed -- and came up with perfect response, a silently-mouthed "thank you" that was echoed in her eyes. It was not rote or contrived or automatic, all which one might expect after a long day of platitudes and expressions of gratitude to well-wishers, but a genuine response, an appreciation of being appreciated. Classy. Another group of fans had arrived behind us by then, and asked her to take pictures with them. To my surprise, she looked so tired, she accepted and posed with their group before finally heading off."
• The Davis Cup World Group semifinal between the U.S. and Spain will be held on an outdoor red clay court at the Parque Hermanos Castro in Gijon, Spain. The semifinal tie will be held September 14-16.
• Sushku of Chennai: "Jon. You should paste these quotes from Sharapova - what a champion and what an attitude. Truly inspirational. In a WTA world full of head-cases, she stands out outright, and perhaps as an inspiration for all the young girls who want to do well in this sport or any other:"
"I proved that no matter how many punches I took in my career, I've always gotten back up," Sharapova said. "I never made excuses for me, not to myself, not to people. I have a tremendous amount of belief and pride in what I do. I love my work.
"I could have said, 'I don't need this. I have money; I have fame; I have victories; I have Grand Slams.' But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it's freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn't there from the outside world, and you seem so small.
"But you can achieve great things when you don't listen to all those things."
• Danny Duncan of Bangor, Maine: "As the summer passes, I think Federer is hoping to fulfill the lines of that Toby Keith song..."I ain't as good as I once was. But I'm as good once as I ever was..." Oh, and how about this for LLS: David Ferrer and MacGruber.
Have a good week everyone!