Jon Wertheim always has the last word
Problems at the top
Jon Wertheim, SI.com
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday.
Despite a plethora of events, some stunning matches (in Washington, D.C., especially) and upsets galore, the past week was at best bittersweet, given the news that Serena Williams has undergone knee surgery and will miss the U.S. Open. The WTA Tour and USTA will get vertigo trying to spin this into something positive. But the loss of the defending champion (and, frankly, cynosure for the sport) is never good news, especially when the reigning men's winner isn't playing either. ... As for the matches: Tim Henman turned in his best result in more than a year by beating both Andy Roddick and Fernando Gonzalez to win the D.C. event. Henny even got off a zinger of a quote in the process. After outlasting Roddick in three sets, he asserted that he was "not unduly disappointed" after dropping the first set. ... In Sopot, Poland, the casa afire that is Guillermo Coria won his thi! rd! event in three weeks, beating David Ferrer in the final of the Idea Prokom Open. Last time a player won three events in 20 days? Thomas Muster in 1996. Slick Willie has now won 32 straight sets, losing only -- get this -- 62 games in 16 matches. Say this: If Coria can stay this hot over the next six weeks, men's tennis has another star on its hands. ... In the women's draw in Sopot, Anna Pistolesi routed Klara Koukalova for her first title of the year. ...
At the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles, Wayne Ferreira saved three match points to beat Lleyton Hewitt and win his first title in nearly three years. Hewitt and crisis of confidence are two terms you don't often see in the same sentence. But take a peek at Hewitt's last half-dozen or so events and you'll see a different player from the pillar of mental strength who finished the past two years at No. 1. ... Down the road in San Diego, despite the absence of her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, Justine Henin-Hardenne outlasted countrywoman Kim Clijsters in three sets to win the Acura Classic. Given Venus Williams' questionable physical condition and Clijsters' questionable mental state, you have to look seriously at JH-H as the new U.S. Open favorite. ...
The doubles winners: In Sopot, Polish wild cards Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski won their first title by beating top seeds Frantisek Cermak and Leos Frield in the final. (Note to self: If I ever start a band, give serious consideration to the name Polish Wild Cards.)...In the women's event, Tatiana Perebinyis and Silvija Talaja beat Maret Ani and Libuse Prusova. ... In San Diego, Clijsters and Ai Sugiyama won their sixth title of 2003, beating Lindsay Davenport and Lisa Raymond in the final. ... In L.A., the wild-card team of Jan-Michael Gambill and former Georgia standout Travis Parrott beat Sjeng Schalken and Josh Eagle in the final. ...
From the ATP newsletter: Robby Ginepri, Nicolas Kiefer and Wayne Ferreira took time away from the Mercedes-Benz Cup to visit the world-famous Playboy Mansion. The players were invited to tour the home of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner and were escorted around the premises by Playmate and actress Julie McCullough. "I can't believe this is somebody's house," said Kiefer. "[Hef] has 100 employees and eight girlfriends. Unbelievable." Perhaps best-known for her role on the show Growing Pains, McCullough twice was a cover girl for the popular men's magazine. The players toured Hefner's gardens, tested their skills on his signature pinball machines in the game room, and fed monkeys in his private, state-certified zoo. (Apparently, Ferreira then tried to get McCullough to pony up $1,500 and sign a document pledging her loyalty to the IMTA.) ...
Nicolas Escudé, the flashy Frenchman, is likely out for the rest of the year because of a hip injury that will require surgery. ... Max Mirnyi has announced his engagement to girlfriend Xenia, also from Belarus. They have yet to set a date for the wedding and will continue to split their time between Minsk (Belarus) and Florida. No word on whether Xenia will go by the name Mrs. Beast. ... As first reported by Matt Cronin on ********************, Anna Kournikova's career could be in jeopardy. Because of a debilitating back injury, Kournikova has competed sparingly this year. In what can only be described as a terrific bit of irony, the announcement came as the August issue of Maxim magazine was hitting newsstands. You can guess who graces the cover in a typically suggestive pose. ... There were a few late-arriving questions regarding Serena's injury that speculated whether she! t! imed the surgery so Venus could have a shot at winning a major, something Venus hasn't done since the 2001 U.S. Open. Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, but let's be realistic: No self-respecting athlete is going under the knife unless absolutely necessary.
The last two wild cards for Cincinnati have gone to Thomas Enqvist and Ginepri. Why? Enqvist is a former champ and Ginepri is a) a young American who's climbing the rankings, and b) a client of Octagon, which has a working relationship with the event. The tournament had already given main-draw wild cards to Michael Chang and Todd Martin. We'll say it again: If the Masters Series events are really of paramount importance, is it fair to award wild cards, which forces more deserving players to qualify? We say no. ... Anyone else surprised to see Marcelo Rios' name on the list of entrants in the Pan-Am Games? It's no secret that the guy is a shadow of his former self, but are there not two Masters Series events scheduled these next few weeks? ... A rare social invitation to pass along: Our friends at Holding Court, the cult New York TV show about women's tennis and the temperamental divas that make it ! fa! bulous, kicks off a new episode later this month. Bud Collins appears as a guest star. A party to celebrate the episode will be held Thursday, Aug. 21, at Manhattan's Remote Lounge (327 Bowery, between 2nd and 3rd Streets) from 8-10 p.m. The episode will be screened promptly at 8:30. As with last year's smash soirée, guests are strongly encouraged to sport their tennis whites -- or any other tennis clothing and accessories they may fancy.
On that note ...
"Taking advantage of a weaker field, Kim Clijsters beat ..." was the opening to your column last week. Again, I can't help but read into the choice of words that you believe Clijsters does not deserve her current No. 2 ranking (soon to be No. 1) or that you continue to portray her as the outsider. Is this right?
—Reinhart Papen, Katy, Texas
Despite its Tier II status, Stanford traditionally has been a strong tournament. This year the draw featured no Venus, no Serena, no Davenport, no Amélie Mauresmo, no Justine Henin-Hardenne. When only one of the top six players in the world deigns to show up, I think it's fair to say that the field is comparatively weaker.
To answer your other question, I have mixed feelings about Clijsters' current No. 2 ranking -- and what is now an almost-assured ascension to the top spot. Yes, the computer is utterly without bias. And cold, hard, rational numbers tell us that Clijsters has indisputably earned her points fair and square. So who are we to begrudge her a ranking? Add to this the fact that Clijsters is so darned nice and well-adjusted and self-possessed that you can't muster even a little personal animus against her.
At the same time, I think it's a bit, I don't know, icky that a player who has not won a major and, by her own admission, isn't the best in the business can achieve the top ranking. I know a bunch of you are going to write in saying something to the effect of "Rules are rules, and if the Williams sisters choose not to play enough events to be No. 1, it's their own damn fault." I agree to a point. But it leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth when the No. 1 ranking is only titular and most of us agree that, at this moment, three players are probably superior.
I noted that once again Todd Martin was omitted from the Andre Agassi/Michael Chang/Jim Courier/Pete Sampras generation by Agassi himself last week. Doesn't Martin deserve to be included, despite not winning a Grand Slam (I know he reached one final and one semifinal)? Can you speak to his career?
—Bruce Stanley, Raleigh, N.C.
Todd Martin is on the short list of the sport's genuine good guys, a bright, witty Midwesterner who is a great representative for tennis. But the fact is, at least in the court of public opinion, there is a huge divide between players who have won Grand Slam events and those who haven't. Martin has indeed made the finals of majors and played deep into several others (most notably -- perhaps for the wrong reasons -- 1996 Wimbledon). But his failure to win the brass ring (or even a Masters Series trophy) works against him.
Martin's timing also does him no favors. In a vacuum, the guy's career would be met with envy by maybe 95 percent of his peers. Martin has taken up residence in the top five, won a fair number of titles, played for 15 years, earned $8 million in prize money, spent a fun year at Northwestern, and enjoyed a successful presidency until he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. (Just kidding.) Seriously, Martin has had a hell of run, has a sterling reputation, and likely will have an impact on the game long after he retires. It's just that compared to his like-aged countrymen, his achievements pale and are writ small. Bottom line: You can't really fault Agassi for neglecting to mention Martin in the context of "The Greatest Generation." But if you divorce Martin from his contemporaries before making an assessment, you're left with an awfully accomplished player.
Can you provide any context for some of the changes planned on the 2004 ATP calendar -- e.g., Delray Beach moving to post-U.S. Open, the week of Aug. 9 absent of a North American hard-court event, L.A. taking place two weeks earlier, and the D.C. event up against the Olympics?
—J. Paul Johnson, Onalaska, Wis. (home of the Gully twins!)
You know, next year's calendar is awfully screwy because of the Olympics, so I wouldn't read too much into the August changes. (I also wouldn't necessarily expect all your favorite players to show up in Athens, but that's a matter for another time.) More significant, I think, is the fact that Indian Wells will be an expanded event despite the ITF iterating and reiterating the opinion that no ATP events should exceed a week. (What's that sound in the distance? Oh, yes, sabers rattling.) Speaking of schedules, as you read (or perhaps didn't) a ways back on this site, women's tennis is returning to the great Midwest as Cincinnati will hold a WTA Tier III event in August in conjunction with the men's Masters Series tournament.
I read that all but a few of the top players entered this year's U.S. Open. My question is, who wouldn't enter the U.S. Open? It's the last Grand Slam of the year! If you're not going to enter, why even bother being a pro?
—Bruce K., Houston
Not only is the U.S. Open the final Grand Slam of the year, but it also is the fattest payday. Your point is well taken, but the answer isn't very sexy. The handful of players taking a pass make for a hell of an all-star team, but each has his/her reasons. Among the men, the only eligible male who is not entered is Pete Sampras, the defending champ who has likely played his last match as a pro. Among the women, Serena Williams obviously has pulled out. The world's 101st-ranked player, a Swiss gal named Martina Hingis, hasn't played a pro event since last October (and very well may never play another.) Kournikova is out of the singles draw but may play doubles. Tatiana Panova is the only question mark. The diminutive Russian did not enter and WTA officials do not know why.
Just hoping you mention that Venus and Serena Williams are two of only three female athletes (the other being Dorothy Hamill) to make People/VH1's list of the 200 greatest pop-culture icons.
—Beck, Bronx, N.Y.
Odelay. (Bet if you had a dollar for everyone who made that joke to you, you'd be wealthier than your namesake.) That Venus and Serena rank highly as pop-culture icons is no surprise. Just look at their endorsement portfolios. On the other hand, I'm stunned that more than a handful of VH1 viewers know who Dorothy Hamill is.
Re: Boris Becker's place in history. I would agree that in terms of measurable results (titles), Becker is in the area in which you place him. However, thankfully there are other measurements, such as the excitement generated by his play, panache and bravado. In those categories, Becker ranks much higher than Ivan Lendl and even higher than Pete Sampras. He's at the top in that class with the likes of John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase, players who dominated the game not only in terms of results, but with artistry. Becker's artistry was suffused with more power, though.
—Marius Hancu, Montreal, Canada
Thanks, Marius. I agree with you in principle, but I'd be careful of according too much import to flair. What is panache and breathtaking brio to you and I is unsightliness to someone else. Some players -- Yannick Noah and Pat Rafter, to name two -- played tennis that was pretty darn near close to "objectively beautiful." But I know a lot of readers who would dispute the claim that Becker played with more vim, verve and vigor than did Sampras. Or even Lendl.
Does anyone else find Bud Collins' enthusiasm in calling Andy Roddick "Ramrod" somewhat disturbing?
—Richard, New York
In a word: yes.
What is the deal with Masters Cup matches being only best-of-three sets? With the amount of money and ranking points points available, and a top field, wouldn't it be best to play all matches best-of-five?
—William Evans, San Diego
The quick and easy answer is that it's all about television and scheduling. But here is some additional food for thought: Unlike a Grand Slam, in which players receive an off day between matches, the Masters Cup can be a match a day for six days. Best-of-five would be entirely too grueling on the players (especially after 11 months of play leading up), and I think you'd run the risk of either injuries and/or a severe drop in the quality of play.
What's up with the resurgence of Mary Pierce? She's beaten some decent top-20 players this summer. Has she finally past her injury woes or is there more to it? Depending on the draw, can we expect her to make a decent run at the U.S. Open?
—Shawn Malhotra, Saratoga, Calif.
Yeah, absolutely. Pierce isn't going to win her third career Slam in Queens. She's still nursing too many nagging injuries and is not in the kind of shape she needs to be. But, much as she did at Wimbledon, she may enjoy a nice run to the third or fourth round. As long as she still hits such a big ball, she can beat most of the players outside the top 30 or so.
Andy Roddick playing doubles with Brian Vahaly! And beating the Bryan brothers! Any ideas why Roddick is playing doubles?
—Tony Montana, Cuba
The cynic would point out that Roddick is a client of SFX, which owns and runs the D.C. tournament. Thus, he might have felt pressured/obliged to take the stage as often as possible. But the better answer, I think, is that Roddick has yet to become a jaded pro. Playing doubles with his buddy Vahaly was a fun, whimsical thing to do, so he said, "What the hell?" On paper, it probably didn't make much sense. (Just as it makes questionable sense to play Delray the week before Indian Wells and Miami.) But Roddick is not past having fun on the job at the expense of conventional wisdom.
If Chris Berman were to broadcast tennis, what would be some of his best nicknames?
—Michael Levin, New York
It's worth nothing that Michael had a few of his own to get the proverbial ball rolling, but they were not fit for reprinting on a Web site such as this that aspires to wholesome family programming. Off the top of my head, here are five from each tour (sorry, some of these are terribly lame). Prizes are in order for anyone who submits an entry that makes Mailbag HQ laugh out loud.
Guillermo (Seoul) Coria
Lleyton (Account of Traffic) Hewitt
Xavier (New) Malisse (on Life)
Luis Horna (Plenty)
Brian (Death) Vahaly
Iroda (This Song Myself) Tulyaganova
(Me, Myself and) Ai Sugiyama
Laura Granville (Waiters)
Mary Pierce (The Corporate Veil)
Monica Seles (Market)
Queen of WTAWORLD, Queen of Tennis.