What to make of Federer's slide; doping stories grab headlines
Should I start sitting shiva for Roger Federer's career? This is from someone who firmly believes the man is the greatest to ever pick up a tennis racket.
-- C. Fernandes, Chicago
• Here's where I am on Federer:
-- Cut him slack for the adjustment to a bigger racket. Players in their primes take months to adjust to new equipment. He's doing his tinkering as he's about to turn 32.
-- This current slide -- three summer losses to players outside the top 50 -- is a shock to the senses and unpleasant to witness.
-- The days of his winning regularly -- much less winning Grand Slam tournaments regularly -- may well be a thing of a past.
-- Though it made me laugh, the notion of sitting shiva, or sounding the death knell, or administering last rites to a glorious career is still premature. It's like serve-and-volley tennis at Wimbledon. Or Jerry Seinfeld as a comedian. It's not what it once was. The reliability and consistency are gone. But it's not dead. At times, it's capable of making a stirring comeback.
-- To me, here's what will be interesting: What is Federer's threshold for decline? He is nothing if not a realist. He is too rational (too Swiss, if I may) to delude himself. How many more early exits and losses to journeymen and fiddling -- be it his schedule, his equipment or his personnel -- is he willing to endure? How long can he manage in the ATP marshlands?
I've abandoned all pretense of objectivity here and hope to hell he sticks around a few more years. He doesn't need to win majors. Just conjure the magic a few times a year, stay in the top 10, win a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics and everyone gets what they want.
There was a lot of chatter about doping this week, given the news involving ATP players Viktor Troicki and Marin Cilic. I'm not sure where to begin and I'm not sure we'll accomplish much in one session, but I'll try to summarize three main frequently asked questions.
1. Was Troicki treated unfairly?
For those who missed it, Troicki declined to provide a blood sample at the Monte Carlo Masters in April because he didn't feel well. After a hearing, he was issued an 18-month ban that he is appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. You can read the independent tribunal's decision here. The gist: The tribunal didn't accept Troicki's argument that the doping control officer had assured him that he could skip the test without being sanctioned if he wrote a letter of explanation to the International Tennis Federation.
As I read the ruling, I felt alternately sympathetic toward Troicki and sympathetic toward the authorities. From the facts, it seems like there was some level of misunderstanding here. From the facts, an 18-month suspension seems brutally harsh. On the other hand, if you want a credible anti-doping program, you can't allow players to delay their testing and set their own schedules. It's a mystery why Troicki, in the era of iPhones, didn't somehow memorialize this exchange with the testing agent, which he had to know was potentially problematic.
2. What was up with Cilic reportedly failing a drug test and then lying about why he withdrew from Wimbledon?
Again, this anti-doping is messy business, filled with damned-either-way scenarios. After reportedly learning at Wimbledon that he had tested positive in April, Cilic allegedly accepted a provisional suspension, meaning he essentially sidelined himself until his matter was resolved. (The 24-year-old Croat attributed the failed test to an over-the-counter supplement, according to his former coach and reports in the Croatian media.)
The pros: In the case of exoneration, theoretically anyway, no one would have found out about his failed test. In the case of guilt/fault, he is already accruing time served. Also, it avoids the Wayne Odesnik situation, where a player is continuing to compete while he fights a charge.
The cons: You're forfeiting points and money you could have won. (If, say, Cilic is exonerated -- especially if there's potential negligence -- does he not seek to claim any of the prize money he left on the table?) Also, you are necessarily lying about your absence and the ITF is complicit in this ruse. Here's a transcript of Cilic's Wimbledon news conference after he withdrew from his second-round match because of what he said was a knee injury. We now know that this appears to be fraudulent.
3. Shouldn't we now be skeptical of every player's absence?
Yes and no. An absence could well be a provisional suspension. But I don't think that while Player X is off allegedly nursing an injury, he or she is really serving a doping suspension that has been suppressed. This is where I disembark the Conspiracy Train.
For a positive test to get buried, here's who would have to be complicit: the player, the ITF, the testing lab, the player's national anti-doping agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency. This isn't 1997, when Andre Agassi and the ATP could be in cahoots. The notion of WADA's covering up a positive test -- i.e., risking complete loss of credibility -- to protect a tennis player is just not believable.
Can players beat tests? Absolutely. And the infrequency and various holes in tennis' system all but encourage it. But the notion of a player's testing positive and then quietly "disappearing" until a secret suspension is served? I don't see it. As one source -- with no agenda -- put it to me, "If anything, this is a system that sees cases that have less merit taken forward to satisfy political purposes."
Other sports have great databases, like profootballreference.com. Anyplace to find Jim Courier's complete match history?
-- David Herson
• As we've said (and said and said -- apologies for the broken record), tennis is lagging woefully behind other sports in the data department. Try to find empirical answers to the most basic questions and, short of abusing an intern and asking him or her to compile the results by hand (not that anyone would be so sadistic), the answers are impossible to come by. As for your question, you can indeed find Courier's results by toggling with the "Player Activity" option on his player page at the ATP's website.
Let's stop the crap about how Marion Bartoli's Wimbledon championship deserves an asterisk. She has beaten Wimbledon champs in the past, so she has proved that she can beat top competition. There is no reason to think that she couldn't have beaten Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova this year.
-- Rahul, Brooklyn, N.Y.
• Yes, let's bid a collective adieu to this topic. The mail -- surprisingly divided -- keeps coming. But let's move on. They're not replaying the event. Bartoli's name isn't getting removed from the historical record. Maybe we'll get a more conventional and expected winner at the next big event. Maybe we won't. That's sports.
What's with the era-ism, the assumption that players from a previous era couldn't hang with today's players? You've knocked comparisons between Serena Williams and Margaret Court and Roger Federer and Rod Laver, but come on! Put a wood racket in Serena's hands, and I think we've got ourselves a match! Rafael Nadal vs. Bjorn Borg with wood rackets at Wimbledon, and my money's on Borg. What do you think?
-- Claudia Denton, Texas
• I'll cop to this bias. To me, it's Commodore 64 versus the iPad, Alta Vista versus Google, original Gatorade crystal mix in the industrial tub versus Cool Blue Gatorade in the disposable bottle. We advance, we evolve and what set the standard in one era wouldn't cut it in the next.
While human accomplishment isn't the same thing as technology (or a delicious sports beverage), I often get hung up on the fact that athletes -- as a species -- tend to improve over time. Roger Bannister was a heroic and historical figure. But how could you say he was the best of all time when his sub-four-minute mile -- again, historic at the time -- wouldn't even qualify him for the NCAA record today?
Margaret Court is a figure worthy of our respect, at least as a tennis player. But go and watch some clips of her playing -- look at her movement, her serve, where her strokes land in the court -- and there is NO WAY she touches Serena Williams or Steffi Graf. Not if they both use wood, not if they both use space-age polyester strings, not if they both use spatulas.
There are no road rules here, no ratios and weighted averages that need to be applied. It's a personal definition, which makes it fun and maddening at the same time. But when I consider a "greatest of all time" I tend to weight the present, fairly confident that today's player would (wo)manhandle a predecessor in a head-to-head match. But that's just me. I could be wrong.
Recently, I read a story about Mario Ancic's going to Columbia law school. It seemed like an odd choice for life after tennis. Are there any other career choices by former tennis players that might seem odd but striking? Is Dinara Safina a psychotherapist? Is Justine Henin an air traffic controller?
-- Sjohnna, Cincinnati
• Even while he was playing, Ancic was interested in the law, attending school in Croatia and appearing at legal conferences. I don't think it's an odd choice at all. You wish there were more players who could transition to life after tennis as gracefully. In one of those weird out-of-context moments, I ran into Ancic and former WTA pro Tatiana Golovin (who retired at 24) at a Nets game recently and he seems to be doing well as a law school plebe. Wish him well.
I do, though, like your idea of envisioning former players in odd lines of work. We start with Andy Murray and his Costco Auto Program internship. Mark Flannery of Fullerton, Calif., gets credit here.
What bugs me most about World TeamTennis is the cheerleaders. When there are perfectly good-looking and athletic women (and men) playing outstanding tennis, the scantily clad cheerleaders look like a sexist gimmick. I also don't like the single-digit intragame scoring (1-3 instead of 15-40), but maybe I am just old-fashioned. Thoughts?
-- Rob, South Riding, Va.
• Funny, a few of you mentioned the cheerleaders. Not exactly the spirit of Billie Jean King. But, as usual, I credit the league for going outside the service box. As for the scoring, I'm fine with simple and accessible counting.
Loved the shot from Sam Groth, but this return of serve by Marcelo Rios is still the most amazing thing I've seen. It's everything about Rios in one shot. It's attitude, condescension and genius all rolled up in one!
-- Brett Davis, Los Angeles
• Love it. It's so ... Rios
• All hail the Washington Kastles, your 2013 World TeamTennis champs.
• Racket clap to former British No. 1 Anne Keothavong, who announced her retirement at age 29.
• Potential to be the coolest series of tennis commercials.
• Shelby Rogers earned the USTA's main-draw wild card for the U.S. Open, just as she did for the French Open.
• Tom Barbash's excellent book of short stories, Stay Up With Me, includes a fictitious tale about Pete Sampras as a tennis coach.
• Mark Hodgkinson has a book on Andy Murray coming soon.
• ESPN's next batch of 30 for 30 films includes What They Want, a review of Jimmy Connors' 1991 U.S. Open run. Look for it in late October.