Davis Cup fallout, Nadal's French Open seed and more
Programming note: I was planning to discuss Venus and Serena this week and riff on the movie's themes. But then one of you, quite reasonably, pointed out that I ought to wait a few weeks so more folks can see the film, which is on iTunes and available elsewhere (it hits theaters on May 10). Get it now. To quote Oracene Williams' advice to former husband Richard's new wife: "Run. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 dollars."
What is going on with the U.S. Davis Cup team? I believe it is time to fire Jim Courier as captain. We need to shake up this squad and let them know that no one's position is safe.
-- Mike, Philadelphia
• What's going on with the Davis Cup team? It's 2013, not 1983. That's what's going on. There is one American in the top 20 (Sam Querrey), and he's ranked No. 20. There are a lot of forces and factors at play here. But blaming the captain for the lagging results is like blaming Jay Leno for the declining ratings of late-night TV in the age of the DVR. OK, bad example. But you get my drift.
I think Courier is a real asset. He brings a certain dignity to the affair. The players respect him (as they should, given their relative success levels). There is an element of noblesse oblige here. He has plenty else going on in his life and is not using the job to catapult himself up the tennis org chart or pay his mortgage.
No, the problem here is that tennis is fully global and, without a wellspring of talent, the U.S. is no more likely to rule the Davis Cup than the Carthaginians are to rule Rome.
Where's the love for your northern neighbours -- aka Canada's performance in the recent Davis Cup? I know you directed your readers to the Davis Cup website for results, but I was hoping you would highlight the fact that Canada advanced to the semifinals for the first time! Milos Raonic has catapulted Canada and Canadian tennis, but it was truly a team effort. It was great to see our renowned doubles specialist, veteran Daniel Nestor, showcase his talent and to see his doubles partner, the apprentice Vasek Pospisil, play lights out. The Vancouver stadium was abuzz, with some in the audience brandishing large cutouts of the player's faces. You had to be there!
An interesting scenario is that Canada will face Serbia in the semifinals. The Canadian players do have a Serbian/Eastern European connection of sorts: Nestor is a Serbian-born Canadian. Raonic is a Canadian of Montenegrin origin. Both of Pospisil's parents are of Czech descent. The father of Frank Dancevic, who won a singles rubber against Spain in the first round, is of Croatian descent. Also of note: Nestor is likely to face his former doubles partner Nenad Zimonjic.
-- Winnie K., Toronto, Canada
• Thanks, Winnie. Great write-up on Canada. Great win for King Nestor, Milos and Vasek. All jokes aside, I should have written more about our neighbours (go away, spell check, eh?) to the north.
But you also highlight one of the ... I don't want to say "flaws," but "problematic aspects" of Davis Cup in the year 2013 A.D. Tennis is a sport of ethnic mutts. In keeping with the global economy, players move and switch countries and come from mixed stock. The Canadian team exemplifies this. They are born in Country X, reside in country Y and work in country Z. This is ultimately a virtue. But does it not undercut the significance of an international competition?
Serena Williams may be head and shoulders above all the existing players on the tour. But remember she is only 8-6 against Justine Henin. And Henin beat her in three consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. So Serena, while one of the best, is certainly not invincible -- she wins and loses like the other greats!
-- Nikhil, Toronto
• Sure. But right now, well into her 30s, she is dominating her potential rivals. And though her record against top players from other eras (Henin, Jennifer Capriati) is more modest, Williams should be given credit for longevity here. Serena is No. 1 today. Henin, Clijsters and Martina Hingis have retired six times among them.
Thanks for raising a much-needed discussion about hard courts and injuries. I can see both sides of the issue. But when you ask for players to "go after health and safety issues" and that they "need to act here," I'm reminded that a certain lefty Spaniard has been (for years) trying to do so. In fact, he has tried to come up with solutions, some practical and not. What has been consistent from the media and a vocal group of fans (mostly of his famed rival), however, has been a steady drum beat of criticism that Rafael Nadal's input has been whining, griping and self-serving. To the point where the guy, usually a cussed competitor, cried Uncle and just gave up. Isn't it a bit strange to suddenly ask for the players to start using their clout when they clearly get huge blowback for doing so?
-- Badri, Vancouver
• Fair point. I think most people commend Nadal -- any player, for that matter -- for taking on the establishment. As I wrote last year, I think he may have undercut himself a bit with some positions -- the two-year ranking system, the advocacy of Richard Krajicek for ATP CEO -- that were less than practical and rooted more in self-interest than social justice.
Andy Murray is ranked No. 2. David Ferrer is ranked No. 4. Rafael Nadal is ranked No. 5. The French Open is about six weeks away. What *should* the seeding committee at Roland Garros do? What *will* the seeding committee at Roland Garros do?
-- John T., Seattle
• It's the same answer to both questions. You have to follow the rankings, especially after you've sped up your surface so it's become less of an outlier. Otherwise, it's a Pandora's box. "Hey, why didn't you seed subjectively when Serena Williams -- a former champion and playing well going in -- was ranked No. 28?"
Yes, this is an extreme example. Not just because Nadal dominates at Roland Garros, where he's 52-1, but also because he is playing so well since his return. But overall, I think you have to respect the rankings and work on the assumption you might get a Big Four match a round earlier than anticipated. Not a big deal in the grand scheme.
I didn't watch the Serena Williams/Jelena Jankovic final at the Family Circle Cup, but I read about the "discussion" between the players regarding Jankovic's having to wait on her serve for Serena to be ready. I've been complaining about this for years. Isn't the rule you play at the server's pace? Then why isn't the opposing player given a warning for not being ready? I see this as a form of gamesmanship. And this is by no means isolated to Serena; a lot of the top players do it. Can you please clarify the rule on this and whether you see any changes/more enforcement of it in the future?
-- Kris, Norwalk, Conn.
• Right. The rule is to play at the server's "reasonable" pace. But the unwritten rule is that both players should be ready. The server shouldn't quick-serve. The returner shouldn't stall. The server often waits that split second before beginning her motion to make sure the returner is ready.
You have lamented that Maria Sharapova often lacks a plan B in defeat. Halfway through the second set against Serena Williams in the Sony Open final, her plan of attacking the forehand stopped working. Yet, when she called for her coach between sets 2 and 3, it sounded like he was telling her to stick with attacking the forehand. So, who's really at fault for not having a plan B? Sharapova or her coach?
-- Jon, Philadelphia
• First, your question gives me occasion to say that Bruce Jenkins nails it on on-court coaching (and I didn't need to consult with an older male to make that determination).
I feel this way about tennis in general, but this matchup in particular: It's so mental, so much more about self-belief and confidence than X's and O's. Sure, Sharapova could stand to dirty up the matches a bit more -- to hit deep and to the middle of the court, Lindsay Davenport's strategy against the sisters (use pace but don't let Serena bring her superior foot speed to bear), and to go for broke on second serves. But just as Federer/Nadal is more about disposition than high-bouncing forehands to one-handed backhands, this is really a mental battle more than a tactical battle.
I can't be alone in wishing tennis had a tool for measuring and comparing court speed objectively, right? We talk a lot about hard courts playing more slowly than in years past or certain courts being faster/slower than the previous year, but such conversations always ring hollow to me without concrete data. To your knowledge, has anyone ever created a systematic way of calculating this important metric (basically, the tennis equivalent of golf's Stimpmeter)? Or is this just one more example of the statistical gap plaguing tennis analysis?
-- John Dugan, Memphis, Tenn.
• Sorry, for a second there, I thought you used the word "systematic" in the context of tennis. They have that sliding scale for Davis Cup. But, yes, a bit more standardization would be helpful. And not just from event to event. How often have we heard that certain courts at the same events play at appreciably different speeds?
How the heck did Carla Suarez Navarro get into the top 20??? How many bonus points did she get for her backhand? Seriously, I cannot remember any significant victories.
-- Oliver, Trier, Germany
• She got all those WTA bonus-style points for that Henin-esque backhand, the WTA's stealth attempt to combat homogeneity? No? They don't do that?
You can see her activity for yourself here. There's a third-round showing in Australia. A run to the finals in Acapulco. She has points from the Estoril final in 2012, a few other decent runs here and there. But the moral: If you can get to the tour level and win just half your matches, you can do quite well for yourself.
So when Serena plays Sharapova, do you sit there watching while eating breadsticks or bagels?
-- Doug, Montreal
• Dude: You. Are. Unstoppable.
• For the late-arriving crowd, here's my podcast with Tommy Haas. All credit to the guest, but this is a good listen.
• The USTA might be open to replacing parkland it would use for its planned expansion.
• Pete Thomason of Glasgow, UK: "Just a quick observation brought about by your piece on the recent Davis Cup matches. Ilija Bozoljac, he of the Serbian doubles pair, gave Federer a tough match in the second round of Wimbledon in 2010 (admittedly Federer was not at his best in that tournament). Bozoljac seemed then to have so much talent. His inability to break through must be just one example -- out of thousands -- of the difference between talent and achievement. Also helps put in perspective those top 10, top 50, top 100 players even who do achieve so consistently."
• Stephanie of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, has a dispatch from Davis Cup: "I attended the Davis Cup in Boise and had a great time. The atmosphere in the arena, especially during the fifth set of Saturday's doubles match, was electric. I am glad I got a chance to experience this type of event. Many of my friends and relatives from Boise would have loved to have gone, but the tickets, even the cheapest ones, were too expensive. I think that the USTA should look at the demographics of the area and price the tickets accordingly so that locals can afford to attend with their families. They should also offer a discount to USTA members for some of the seats, like is done for Indian Wells. This would help sell out every Davis Cup and Fed Cup event and promote the growth of tennis in the U.S.."
• Should Shahar Peer have played on Holocaust Remembrance Day? Interesting column.
• Tip of the cap to Haresh Ramchandani for this piece on tennis' subcutaneous level. Who knew that Arantxa Rus -- who once beat Kim Clijsters at the French Open -- was on a 13-match losing streak? Or that Spain's Pablo Carreno-Busta had won 38 consecutive matches?
• Mardy Fish received a wild card for the Tallahassee Tennis Challenger, which begins April 27.
• Woody of Calgary, Alberta: "I learned at Indian Wells how the players sign the camera. There is a slide of glass inserted over the actual lens. The glass is removed and used for various charity auctions."
• To our trivia question about the overlapping Venn diagrams between tennis and the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, Elizabeth of Buffalo writes:
"1) Terry Pegula is the new owner of the team -- his daughter is an up-and-coming WTA player.
"2) Maxim Afinogenov (who was on the team for about a decade) recently married Elena Dementieva.
"3) The previous owner of the team, Tom Golisano, is dating Monica Seles (though he is decades older than she is!!)."
• Richard Wolf has another connection: "Olga Khmylev of the Boston College women's tennis team is the daughter of Yuri Khmylev, who played for the Sabres."
• Work on the assumption that you'll be hearing a lot more from Jessica Pegula, a promising American who looks increasingly like the real deal. Therefore, work on the assumption you'll be hearing more about her father. Fascinating guy. Here's the Wikipedia primer.
• John Burke of Stilwell, Kan., has long-lost siblings: "I'm not sure anyone has sent this in before, but on the chance they haven't: Sporting Kansas City and U.S. national team midfielder Graham Zusi and Roger Federer."