Posted: Wed May 15, 2013 12:00PM; Updated: Wed May 15, 2013 11:58AM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Serena vs. Maria, Federer's struggles and more

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Serena Williams
Serena Williams hasn't lost to Maria Sharapova since 2004, holding a 13-2 head-to-head record.
Ivan Arlandis/Icon SMI

Why doesn't Maria Sharapova go to almost all kick serves against Serena Williams? Serena has trouble with the high bounce, and it gives Sharapova more time to deal with Serena's return.
-- Robert, Kansas City

• At this point, their matches (of which Sharapova has dropped 12 in a row after losing the Madrid Open final last week) are so much more about self-belief (or lack thereof) than X's and O's. But, yes, especially on clay, the way to beat Serena is to grub up the match. Kick serves out wide. Lots of spin. Take your time. Rally-prolonging retrieving. That approach doesn't play to Sharapova's strengths, though she obviously has enjoyed a lot of success on clay over the last year against the rest of the field.

As long as we're here:

Bless Serena, but tennis etiquette mandates that the loser shakes the chair umpire's hand first. Serena doesn't abide by this, sometimes to comical effect (fast-forward to the 12-minute mark of this video from Williams' match against Sharapova at the Sony Open).

Serena discusses her career, pop culture and more

You can't pretend that nothing's wrong with the WTA when the second-ranked player stands no chance against the top-ranked player ... not even close on any surface. That has never happened in the men's game (maybe with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer on grass or Rafael Nadal on clay, but never on all surfaces.) It's not a matchup issue, and it's not a rankings-points issue. It illustrates a dramatic drop in class between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and the rest of field; plenty of daylight between the two. Amazing that Serena can still stay motivated to play when it's clearly not even challenging for her, right?
-- Seema Malik, San Francisco

• Nothing is wrong with the WTA. There isn't much of a rivalry between Serena and Sharapova. SI.com's Bruce Jenkins lays it out very nicely here. But since when is the absence of parity between the top two players a referendum on an entire tour?

Here's how you can prove you're not a pathetic fan of Serena who will stop at nothing to praise her: For just one week, stop writing about her. Come on. I dare you!
-- Charles T., Brooklyn, N.Y.

• Right, of course, because she is irrelevant right now. My mailbox is flooded -- clogged, really -- with questions and convictions and strong opinions about Gilles Simon and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But, "pathetic fan" that I am, I rifle through those in order to give Serena some undeserved exposure. Busted!

Stephens blames reporter for spat with Serena

You were right talking about ESPN hoarding even more of the Slams, with news about the U.S. Open. Who would have thought in the days of NBC tape-delaying the women's final and the annual issues with the men's semifinals that the French Open would be the last remaining Slam on broadcast television? And I assume that will end after the current contract. Just two words to ESPN when they get to that last weekend of the U.S. Open: No ticker!
-- Marc Nichol, Youngstown, Ohio

• A few questions about the Sports Business Journal report that the U.S. Open could move exclusively to ESPN starting in 2015. On balance, I think this is good news. We can quibble about the almost comical conflicts of interests and the absence of tennis coverage on the highlight shows. But overall, ESPN does right by the sport. As a viewer, I am happy about this. (And in 2013, what, really, is the distinction between traditional network and cable?)

Following up on your comment about the age of sponsorship and global television and digital rights and streaming video, why haven't the tennis tournament directors done more to reach out to local fans (or even non-fans) to give tickets away to fill the seats? Clearly, the events don't need that revenue.
-- Jerry Woodbury, Minnesota

• Totally agree. I understand the pricing model and the reluctance to give away what you're asking others to pay for. But who wins when an event is played before vast oceans of empty seats? The atmosphere is lousy. So is the message you're communicating to the public. Also, if we're flipping channels and see an empty arena, do we think to ourselves: "Why would I want to watch on television -- or stream on my iPad -- what fans aren't willing to watch live?"

A dispiriting number of events (all over the world) are playing out in front of scant crowds. (Or, as the inimitable Bud Collins once put it, Fans dressed as empty seats.) If I'm the promoter, I paper the town with tickets. I make every afternoon "Kids Day." I put seats on Groupon. Anything to avoid the unfortunate sight of vacancies. Looks sadder than a beach town in the offseason.

Have you seen this video of Anabel Medina Garrigues tampering with the new balls during a changeover against Serena Williams? I thought the chair umps were more vigilant. If so, how was she allowed to get away with this obviously egregious behavior? This is gamesmanship at its absolute worst. In fact, it is all-out cheating.
-- Donald, Memphis

• Lots of you asked about this. But Donald is the only person to refer to me as "mate," so he gets the Google hit. I confess, there's part of me that loves the creative gamesmanship and the blithe disregard for the camera that is inches away and clearly capturing this bit of chicanery. But you're right: It's pretty egregious. How the chair umpire -- or, subsequent to irrefutable video evidence, the WTA -- let her get away with it is pretty startling.

What is the difference between scuffing balls on your racket and wetting them with your sweat, which I've seen multiple players do? They're not hitting the balls illegally or using a foreign substance/object. In baseball, while it is illegal to use a foreign substance, it is perfectly legal for a pitcher to "rub" a new baseball in his hands so he can get a little better traction for the release. I would view this action in the same category.
-- Arthur Folse, New Orleans

• A pitcher can rub a new baseball. He can't manipulate the shape and change the ball's physical dimensions so that it travels through the air differently. I've heard about the sweat trick. What Medina Garrigues (translation from the Catalan: Kenny Rogers) did clearly crossed the line. No Hawk-Eye challenge needed.

Well, it's the year we knew would come sooner or later, when the GOAT becomes just very good. Losses to Julien Benneteau and now Kei Nishikori, and only Stan Wawrinka's mental block in Indian Wells let Roger Federer hobble to his unceremonious whipping by Rafael Nadal. It finally comes a decade after his first Wimbledon. But it has come with a vengeance.
-- Tracy Collins, Phoenix

• Tennis is rough. You can hide an aging slugger by transitioning him to DH or letting him face only certain pitchers. You can take an aging NBA player and run plays and create matchups that mask his deficiencies. Just hypothetically, of course, you could take an undefeated 36-year-old boxer and let him fight against only nonthreatening opponents. In tennis, there's no hiding. Let's revisit after Wimbledon.

Watch Federer face pesky opponent in new commercial

Two questions come to mind after Victoria Azarenka's outburst at the chair umpire in Madrid. First, how is Mariana Alves refereeing tennis matches after the 2004 U.S. Open debacle? And second, do players really keep up with who is umpiring their matches? Azarenka's comments show she was aware of who was in the chair and her history. I always believed the players saw the umpire as more of a faceless arbitrator, but maybe that is not the case.
-- Paul Haskins, Wilmington, N.C.

• Alves had a brutal night on a big stage at the U.S. Open nine years ago. I do not think that means she should be drummed out of the profession. In fact, let's take a moment to recognize that she has recovered and become a reliable chair umpire. (Let's also take a second moment to note that the Serena-Jennifer Capriati match in New York triggered replay technology, so it was a net positive for the sport.)

As for Azarenka, I'm also amazed by the "memory continuum." Some players remember everything. Federer and Martina Hingis spring to mind. (Maybe it's a Swiss thing.) "Oh, right, we played in Filderstadt in 2002, and I broke late in both sets, once on a backhand that clipped the tape." Other players are almost amnesic. Ask them about a match from March and they can't recall whom they beat.

What happened to the open call for tennis sniglets? Don't leave us hanging for yet another week ...
-- Billy G. Philadelphia

• We'll do these for a Tennis Channel segment during the French Open. (I'm still happy to dispense prizes to the winners.) So far the best: Arantxaphobia: fear of prolonged clay-court rallies.

Which do you think is the greatest meltdown in a Grand Slam final, Guillermo Coria (2004) or Martina Hingis (1999)? Both at Roland Garros. Or can you come up with something worse in any Slam venue?
-- Igor Wright, Brasilia, Brazil

• Assuming we're limiting this to finals, I can't do much better. Maybe Jana Novotna against Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final, which always had a Dewey-beats-Truman ring to it. Something about the French fans makes players crack ...

Grigor Dimitrov seems like a carbon copy of Roger Federer in terms of his style and swing. Fascinating because there is only a 10-year age gap between them. So when Federer emerged as a great champion at the age of 23, Dimitrov would have already been 13, which would have been too late for him to say, "Wow, I really like how this Fed dude plays. I'm going to remodel my whole game around his." And yet, they play so alike you could chop their heads off and interchange.
-- Phil A., Bahamas

• Let's not go overboard. One of them has won 17 majors. The other is currently ranked a career-high No. 26 and is 66-64, including that victory against Novak Djokovic at last week's Madrid Open.

But, to Phil's point, there were a couple of Federer-Dimitrov GIFs going around last week that suggested a remarkable similarity in their backhands in particular. And it is interesting to note that Dimitrov is young enough to have patterned his entire game after Federer. That said, if he was already hitting a one-handed backhand (which he was), it's not unreasonable that he would have made some adjustments to resemble the No.1 player in the world. (Also, remember that both worked with Peter Lundgren.)

I think the question for Dimitrov is: Now what? He has resurrected a career that really seemed imperiled not long ago. (This was only 30 months ago.)

His talent his undeniable. He has proven that, on a given day, he can beat the best. Now what?

I disagree regarding your criticism of the Madrid trophy. I think instead of undermining the tournament's credibility, it actually emphasizes the tournament's character (whatever it is). It has become part of the brand, no? You see it, and you know it's Madrid, just like you see that bird and you know it's Doha. There are too many vases in tennis already.
-- Russianista, Bloomington, Ind.

• Decorum prevents me from going too far here. Let's just say that this has "caption contest" written all over it.

Shots, Miscellany

Here's our podcast with Jimmy Connors. On account of the guest, this is a good one.

• More podcast love. Here's Slate's Hang Up and Listen, which includes a discussion of the movie Venus and Serena.

• John R., Middletown Conn., chimes in on tennis-inspired songs: "No mention of The Ballad of Bjorn Borg, by the Pernice Brothers? Admittedly, the relevance of the lyrics to Bjorn is not apparent to me, but perhaps other readers would know."

• Tennis Channel will air a special program to commemorate its 10-year anniversary.

• An anonymous reader rightfully wonders what Andre Agassi's return to Nike does for the Adidas training camp in Las Vegas.

• Bob and Mike Bryan will play the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., in July, an event owned and operated by their agent's parent company.

• Received a message from a colleague who will go nameless asserting that Serena Williams had signed a multiyear deal with NASCAR.

"What? Really?"

"No, wait. It was Sherwin-Williams."

• Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska have committed to the Southern California Open in July.

• Anonymous has long-lost siblings: Novak Djokovic and actor Justin Bartha.

Serena Q&A: One match she wants to have back

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