Feeling sorry for Azarenka, more post-Aussie mail
A lot of questions in our first post-Australian Open mailbag pertain to "Azarenka-gate." (Any chance we can come up with a new rubric for a scandal rather than simply and lazily adding the suffix "gate" to a name?) But this is an accurate reflection of the proportionality of the mail. It's important for the tennis powers that be (oxymoron?) to realize just how severely this issue came to dominate the conversation. For what it's worth, Victoria Azarenka generated 10 times as many questions as Novak Djokovic this week.
I've seen multiple post-final postings of you praising Azarenka for her mental toughness. She had an absolute mental meltdown in the semis, and in the final neither woman could hold serve (16 of 29 games were breaks). I get that she had to deal with a hostile crowd, but I don't see how the take-home message from all this is her mental toughness is phenomenal.
-- Keegan Greenier, Macon, Ga.
• Got a lot of these: How can she be mentally strong when she was gagging in the semis against Sloane Stephens? Azarenka wins her semifinal match but is absolutely drilled for her behavior. The media and fans call into question her reputation and honor. It's on the front page of The New York Times. The ESPN crew lays into her. Her Facebook page is a province for trolls.
If this were me, I'd have a hard time getting out of bed the next morning. And when I did, I'd assume an alias and reinvent myself as a B&B owner in Vermont. Not Azarenka. Instead of devoting a day to preparation, she is in damage control. She then returns to the scene of the crime, knowing that 15,000 fans will be rooting against her. In the next match -- again, a Grand Slam final -- her endearing opponent, Li Na, wins the first set. Then Li gets injured -- twice. And, oh right, a fireworks display interrupts the match. Azarenka holds it together and defends her title.
I don't think I've ever been more proud of Roger Federer than in his Australian Open semifinal loss to Andy Murray. He had a nightmare draw (no one ranked outside the top 50) while Murray had a cupcake by comparison. In the semis, Federer was nowhere near his best, and Murray was playing extremely well. Murray should have won in straights, but he didn't.
-- Colleen, Texas
• It's amazing to me how widely views of Federer vary, depending, I think in large part, on level of fandom. One person's "Fed's in irreversible decline" is another person's "I've never been more proud." Me? It's hard to argue with the assertion that two players have passed him. (Rafael Nadal is a wild card at the moment.) It's also hard to argue that he occupies a position at the top of sport. Can he catch breaks from the draw (as Murray did in Melbourne?), retain his health and fitness and channel his best tennis when the situation calls for it (e.g. the 2012 Wimbledon final)? Who knows? But who wouldn't want to find out?
The scheduling at the Aussie Open clearly creates an imbalance and gives an edge to one men's finalist over the other. In a brutally physical sport, how is it fair if one finalist is given an extra day of rest?
-- Gayle Kuttner, San Leandro, Calif.
• Balance it, though, with creating a maximum number of entertaining -- and, yes, profitable -- sessions. I would feel more strongly if one of the semifinalists had to play on consecutive days. Two days off versus three days off is less of a concern. Also, look at history: Before this year, the "Friday" semifinalist had actually beaten the "Thursday" semifinalist in four of the last five finals.
What was the best match of the tournament? I pick Djokovic-David Ferrer. Sure, it looked easy, but Djokovic looked like another species playing a different game.
• Again, tastes vary. I thought that was simply a blowout -- and didn't reflect particularly well on the men's game that the No. 4 player had no weapons whatsoever to damage the No. 1. Best match? If you like controversy, Azarenka-Stephens. If you like drama and excitement, enter any Gael Monfils match. Quality? Federer-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Federer-Murray. Me? I like Djokovic-Stanislas Wawrinka. For 90 minutes, Wawrinka wasn't beating Djokovic; he was educating him. Then, of course, the tides reversed, but Wawrinka still managed to force a 22-game fifth set.
We talk a lot about underachievers (players who ought to have done better with their talent, best players who never won a Grand Slam, etc.). But who are some overachievers?
-- Susan An, Sydney
• Ferrer -- Spain's top-ranked player! -- tops the list. Again, this guy was considering a career as a construction worker not long ago. Then he decided to wring everything he could from tennis. Angelique Kerber is on her way to becoming the WTA's answer to Ferrer.
I'd add Janko Tipsarevic. Maybe Agnieszka Radwanska even. I think there a lot of overachievers in the 30-50 range who don't come heavily armed but simply find ways to win.
Here's an unconventional answer: Stephens. She is hardly a physical presence. You wouldn't say she's a dazzling natural talent. Watch her practice and you don't walk away saying, "That's a future No. 1." However, she is fast around the court, deceptively powerful, defends well (sometimes to a fault) and has a nice transition game.
My imaginary Sloane Stephens transcript:
Q: What was going through your head when Azarenka took that injury timeout?
Stephens: She's the No. 1 player in the world. She has great groundstrokes and mental toughness -- that's why she's No. 1. So why does she have to cheat? If I'm better able to handle the heat, that's on her. She shouldn't get to fake two injuries so she can spend 20 minutes in the air conditioning. It's not fair.
Also: shrieking. Totally not necessary to hit the ball that hard.
-- MWU, Austin, Texas
• A few of you were disappointed that Stephens wasn't more critical of Azarenka. (I suggested that Azarenka owes Stephens a closet full of Jimmy Choo's. Had a 19-year-old crowd darling joined the chorus -- or even parroted the disgust of her coach, David Nainkin -- Azarenka would be in even more trouble.)
But I don't fault Stephens here. There's a certain unwritten rule that says you don't blame defeat on external events. What's more, it shouldn't be incumbent on one player to call out another, especially not a 19-year-old railing on the No. 1 -- with whom she shares management representation. Look, the adults are the ones who have tacitly condoned this. They need to be held accountable.
I don't envy the WTA here. Not unlike grunting, it has the Hobson's choice: condemn its own players -- the same players it allegedly represents and needs to coax into sponsor visits and posing for promotional campaigns -- or let bad behavior persist and then watch as its star is ripped internationally.
Likewise, a few of you complained that the WTA did not even reference the medical timeout in its website write-up of the Azarenka-Stephens match. (Wrote Sharon Newell of Houston: "You would have thought Azarenka had a little hiccup and went on her merry way to win the match.") Again, I feel badly for the WTA. It is not a union, but half its function entails representing the players. What is it supposed to do? Call attention to the ethical controversy surrounding its top-ranked member?
What is a player allowed to do while their opponent is taking an extended medical timeout? Do they have to just sit on the bench and wait? Can they get up and hit some serves to keep loose? Or better yet, can they hand one of their rackets to a ball kid and rally to stay loose? What a PR opportunity that would be.
-- Scott, College Station, Texas
• Unicycle. Watch Season Three of Breaking Bad. Play around on YouTube. You name it. No, seriously, it's certainly within both the rules and bounds of good taste to hit around with the ball kids, for instance. (Remember Maria Sharapova once took practice serves while her opponent was still down on the court.) Hindsight being 20/20, I suspect Stephens wouldn't simply have sat still during the 10-minute break.
Since the WTA clearly lacks the resolve to curb grunting (really, shrieking), can we get a campaign going that all the non-shriekers who play against the offenders yell "shut up" upon returning the ball. ... Do Azaranka's handlers not see the potential drop in her sponsorship revenue with all of her fan-alienating behavior? I can't imagine anyone outside of the GMA (Greater Minsk Area) rooting for her.
-- Neil Grammer, Toronto
• But says this about GMA: It keeps making gains in the ratings.
To your point, I think the "tennis market" worked well here. The WTA may sit silently, but the fans (perhaps with a small nudge from the media) have made their feelings known, thus playing the role of judge, jury and executioner.
Do you think the WTA's (rather sexist) on-court coaching rule is at least indirectly to blame for what Azarenka did during her match against Stephens? By suddenly taking away that "brain break" crutch that's available at all tournaments but the majors, Azarenka was left searching for something, anything she could do to right the ship.
-- Joseph B., New York City
• Interesting. You're right, if this were a run-of-the-mill tour event, she would have had an option: Call her coach -- an older male, as most are -- to the court to calm her nerves and bolster her spirits. Ick. Have I ever mentioned how much I despise on-court coaching and the message of disempowerment it sends? I have, haven't I?
Regarding your take on Azarenka's grunting defining her to casual fans. It's not just defining her, it's all of tennis. I'm a middle school gym teacher. When people think tennis, they think of the ridiculous grunting by the women. It turns off a lot of young kids.
-- Anthony Kaiser, Muncie, Ind.
• If I'm a grunter and/or the WTA, you know who I really resent right now? Djokovic. Why? Because he used to take enough time between serves and points to grow a beard and write a masterpiece. He could have used the grunters' logic and said, "This is my habit. Too bad if you don't like it, too late for me to change. I'm grandfathered in." Instead, he responded to the complaints by adjusting his behavior. In Australia, he played conspicuously faster and reduced his bouncing. One of you noted that in the final, he took less time than Murray did.
Besides Azarenka's questionable timeout at the end of the match, I noticed this: When her serve hits the net, the shriek immediately stops. How does the exertion resulting from the serve change based on what happens after it?
-- Brian Highland, San Diego
• I'm at the point of feeling sorry for Azarenka. She could say, "Six times six equals 36," and many would fault her for not giving her answer as an improper fraction or a decimal.
Of all the athletes throwing stones at Lance Armstrong, I did not expect Andre Agassi to be in that crowd. Considering he, too, used drugs (albeit non-PEDs) and had ATP cover for him, he should have kept his "anger" to himself.
-- Allan Cruz, West Chester, Pa.
• Totally disagree. Among all his other sins, Armstrong did a huge disservice to athletes. Bravo for Djokovic and Azarenka, among others, for calling him out. And while we can debate whether crystal meth is a PED, I think Agassi -- who acknowledged his own incident in the course of his answer -- is within his rights to have an opinion as well.
Who's the designer of the yellow/pink/GAK Easter parade collection the men are wearing at the Australian Open? Crockett & Tubbs?
-- Martin Burkey, Huntsville, Ala.
• Nice reference.
Why is carpet no longer used on the tour?
-- Chris Brown, San Rafael, Calif.
• It's being cleaned at the moment. Seriously, I think that it's difficult to have an event on a surface that isn't used for a Slam. Indoor can get away with it, thanks to the retractable roofs at the majors. But carpet is a big ask. Unless it's shag. That, I would pay to see.
One more, courtesy of the ATP Tour: Nicolas Almagro and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.