Monthly Archives: February 2006

Fran Tarkenton to Vince Young – resistance to change

There is a report from the NFL combine that Vince Young, the University of Texas quarterback, scored six out of a possible fifty on the Wonderlic, a test that measures intelligence and speed of thought. The combine officials say that the score is not accurate, the results are supposed to be confidential, but Young’s agent said that Young retook the test and scored a sixteen.

Amid the confusion – who took it upon themselves to release this information to the media and why did Young have to retake the Wonderlic if the reported score was wrong – is the not so subtly racist idea that black quarterbacks are not smart enough to run an NFL team.

There is also a bigger issue being played out. The stages of resistance to change. Stage 1 is stubborn resistance, stage 2 is plain old resistance, and stage 3 is begrudging acceptance. We’re currently in stage 2.

There is a new breed of quarterback coming out of college – the athletic quarterback. He may run an option offense or a pro offense but he’s a good passer who’s been given the green light to run whenever he wants. Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young might take exception to this characterization. What were they if they weren’t athletic? Tarkenton spun out of trouble and darted around lunging linebackers to get into the open field. Young was a bigger, stronger player who ran forward and slid for first downs when his receivers were covered.

They were scramblers. They were pass first and run second quarterbacks. The difference between Tarkenton and Vick is that Vick is likely to take off for open spaces sooner than Tarkenton did. Vick is a legitimate running threat, not your prototypical pocket passer, and gets a lot of grief because of it despite the fact that his winning percentage is fifth among active quarterbacks.

Kordell Stewart was among the first of the black athletic quarterbacks to come to the NFL. He played quarterback, lined up at wide receiver and even punted a few times. He started two NFC championship games and was a pro bowl quarterback but he was benched three times in his eight-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and fans always groused because they thought he should have run around less and played quarterback more.

This is how it goes. The first person to break the mold is under immense pressure because there is such resistance to doing something different. Add the fact that only a small percentage of players become stars in the NFL and you have a virtually no-win situation.

You could compare this to a gay man coming out of the closet in a major sport. It will probably start with a high school player who is a star and gets a college scholarship. Homophobia and the odds against making it to the NFL will probably sink him. The second out gay man might make it to the NFL but then make a mistake. Maybe he’ll get embroiled in an affair with a teammate or get caught at a local drag queen show and that will be the end of his career. I’m joking here but the player will be under such a microscope that it would be hard to avoid getting into trouble of some sort.

Eventually the issue of athletic black quarterbacks will be a non-issue, you’re either an effective quarterback or your not, but you can see why no one wants to be among the first few people to do something different. The pressure is immense and, in the case of black quarterbacks, you have to deal with racism

There is hope. Last year we had the reverse situation. A white quarterback, Matt Jones, ran such a fast 40 in the combine that he was drafted as a receiver.

Young might be the player to take us into stage 3, he had an excellent pass completion percentage in college but then so did Vick and you can see the pressure Young is under already and he’s not even in the NFL yet. Hopefully Young can handle the pressure with the same skills he used to pass around and run through all of those blitzes opposing teams threw at him while he was winning the national championship at Texas.

From Dubai to Memphis

If you’re like me, you know next to nothing about Dubai and would know even less if the women’s and men’s tennis tour did not stop there each year. Given the current political climate and especially since a company controlled by the Dubai government is seeking to take over management of terminals at six U.S. ports, it’s a good idea to familiarize our selves with this Arab emirate.

Dubai is one of seven emirates that constitute the United Arab Emirates. Dubai is not an independent state itself. Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah are the other six. It’s no suprise that Dubai has oil but it contributes only 20% of the their income. Tourism is now a large part of the economy.

Dubai is closer to Las Vegas than Saudi Arabia. David Beckham owns a beach here and Rod Stewart owns an island.

Though four-fifths of the emirate is desert, it does rain about twelve inches a year. Not that Dubaians are prepared for it. Police reported five hundred accidents after early morning showers last Wednesday morning. The rain also created problems at the Dubai Duty Free WTA Tennis Tournament. The doubles finalists finally took the court at midnight for their Saturday night match and some singles players had to play two matches in one day.

There were a lot of Russians and Belgians in the stands – Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin-Hardenne played the final – but very few Arab spectators except for members of the royal family who filed onto the court for the trophy presentation in their caftans and kifayas (headband and scarf). Svetlana Kuznetsova, a doubles finalist, turned up at the medals ceremony in a tight t-shirt and jeans. Not that unusual really. Dubai is closer to Las Vegas than Saudi Arabia. David Beckham owns a beach here and Rod Stewart owns an island.

Sharapova recovered from her 6-3, 6-1 loss to Martina Hingis earlier this year to beat Hingis 6-3, 6-4 in the quarterfinals, then beat Lindsay Davenport in three sets to get to the final. Sharapova came within two points of winning the first set in the final then sank as Henin-Hardenne attacked and ran away with the second set and the title, 7-5, 6-2.

Memphis is the Greek translation of Mennufer, the good place. Memphis was founded around 3100 BC and was the city of Menes, the king who united upper and lower Egypt. It was a huge city in its day but all that is left of Memphis now are a few ruins. We are not interested in the Memphis of old Egypt, however, we are leaving the Middle East and heading to Memphis, Tennessee, to see the final of the Cellular South Cup.

Instead of watching the top players in the world, we’re going to watch the players one level below. This tournament is a WTA Tier III event. Players here are either just below the ranking needed to play in a Tier II event or, like our two finalists today, Sofia Arvidsson and Marta Domachowska (pronounced Domahoska), could have played in Dubai but stood a much better chance of picking up points here. Arvidsson is ranked number 47 and Domachowska number 51.

Of the top ten ranked women, only one, Nadia Petrova, got into the top thirty after they were 20 years old.

You can tell right away that these players have never gone very far in a grand slam or pocketed a whole lot of appearance fees. The match moves too quickly. No need for the ballgirl or ballboy to toss up three balls so the player can carry out a detailed inspection of each ball before throwing one back. No toweling off after every point. And no bathroom timeouts. Just tennis.

There’s also an air of desperation. Domachowska and Arvdisson are not teenagers. Domachowska is 20 years old and Arvidsson 22. Of the top ten ranked women, only one, Nadia Petrova, got into the top thirty after they were 20 years old. If it doesn’t happen soon, it might not happen at all and if you get to a final, you’d better take advantage of it.

Arvidsson looks like a shorter version of Lindsay Davenport: she’s solidly built and moves well enough side to side but not so well forward and back. It’s Domachowska, however, who hits like Davenport. She slams flat, hard shots. Always. The only time I saw a slice was on drop shots or desperate stabs at the ball.

Arvidsson is a bit more strategically minded; sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s not. After attacking Domachowska and letting her hit for the lines and mostly miss in the first set, Arvidsson was content to just keep the ball in play at the beginning of the second set. After all, she already had one set and could let Domachowska continue to beat herself.

There are two problems with this approach. First of all, you can lose your focus if you pull back. In Arvidsson’s case, she started to miss her first serve. Second, if you stop attacking, that gives your opponent an easier ball to hit. Domachowska’s shots that were missing by inches in the first set were now winners. Admittedly, Arvidsson was also getting tired from chasing Domachowska’s relentless barrage of hard shots.

Domachowska may have a big game but she doesn’t play smart tennis. After losing her serve in the first game of the third set, she tried to hit service return winners four times in one game and succeeded exactly once. You want to run down to the court and scream at her, “Stop doing that! Can’t you count?” Of course it goes both ways. Domachowska managed to get back on serve with the same daring approach, but it ended up hurting her in the end.

She gave the break right back with an ill-advised attempt at a backhand winner then gave Arvidsson two match points on overly aggressive forehands. On the fourth match point, Arvidsson pulled Domachowska wide with a backhand then hit a forehand approach to the other side of the court to win the match, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3.

If asking Domachowska to be a bit more intelligent about choosing when to blast the ball doesn’t work, how about feeding her valerian before a match to calm her down? At the very least, make her promise that she will only go for big returns on second serves. That would be a good place to start.

And she should start soon because time is running out.

spaghetti straps at Senor Froggys

Heard on The Herd earlier this week in response to a survey showing that Washington D.C. is the best place to find single women in the U.S.

“There’s a reason that Condoleeza Rice is single and Maureen Down can’t get a date.”

“A little intelligence is nice, it’s necessary. But if she looks good in Tempe on Friday night, I’ll take that.”

“You can have the policy wonks, I’ll take the spaghetti straps at Senor Froggys.”

Mr. Cowherd also said that he would be less than happy to come home to his girlfriend at night and find that she wants to discuss, say, foreign policy. Faced with that totally unsexy scenario, his response would be something like: “Alrighty then cupcake, I guess it’s back to the internet for porn.”

Maybe he should go to the internet. How about a virtual girlfriend, a computer avatar who could be programmed to limit discussion to acceptable subjects and be her sexy self a good 100% of the time? Failing that, phone sex would be acceptable. Not too much danger of running into the press secretary for the Department of the Interior there.

The Andys

Andy Murray is a long, gangly eighteen-year old. He looks like a hangdog teenager whose mother just told him, “You have two choices young man, you can take the garbage out and be happy about it or you can take the garbage out with a chip on your shoulder. Either way, take the garbage out, now!”

Andy Roddick is five years older than Murray. On the ATP tour, that’s a lifetime. In five years Roddick has gone from being the great U.S. hope to a grand slam winner to the edge of being a disappointment. It’s ridiculous to mention the word disappointment considering that he’s the number three player in the world, but he doesn’t look like a real threat to get to number one and that is a disappointment.

When a player has more than one or two shots in their repertoire, it’s a good indication that they are skilled in crafting a point.

Murray will not avoid the same expectations. The young man from Scotland jumped from the 400’s to the 60’s in ranking last year. You hope he doesn’t go too far too fast, meaning that his tennis skills might outrun his emotional maturity. Media training sessions for tennis prodigies are inadequate for dealing with the British press. You need something more like a masters degree in serpentology.

Let’s see how their games match up by looking at their semifinal match at the 2006 SAP Open. Murray managed to beat Roddick for his first victory over a top ten player, 7-5, 7-5.

Roddick’s biggest weapon is his serve. Most of his winners, by far, come from aces and service winners. If he’s feeling good, he can regularly serve over 130 mph and sometimes in the 140’s. If his life depended on it, he could serve over 150 mph. Murray serves in the 120’s but, and you’ll hear this a lot, changes speeds well and hits spots. In this match, Murray piled up more service winners than Roddick.

Roddick’s next big weapon is his inside out forehand. Which brings up Murray’s slice backhand. When Murray is pulled wide by Roddick’s inverted forehand, his slice backhand is a very good defensive shot that, to some degree, neutralizes Roddick’s best shot.

Murray has a diverse game. While more than half of Roddick’s ground stroke winner came off the inside out forehand, Murray had four forehand winners and four backhand winners from the baseline, four winners off approach shots, four passing shots and four winning volleys. That’s diversity

When a player has more than one or two shots in their repertoire, it’s a good indication that they are skilled in crafting a point. Serving at 3-4 in the second set, Murray hit four straight balls to Roddick’s backhand – two crosscourt and two down the line. On the next shot he hit a sharp crosscourt forehand to pull Roddick out of the court then hit a backhand winner to the open court. That’s called crafting a point.

After pulling off the shot of the match, a running backhand passing shot that was inches off the ground, Roddick stopped and raised his hand as if he was a conductor motioning to the crowd that they should now express appreciation.

Roddick, on the other hand, does not craft points particularly well and does not always take advantage of his strengths. Even at three games each in the first set, Roddick hit a good first serve and Murray floated the return. Roddick hit a hard inside out forehand but didn’t follow it to the net. After a second inside out forehand, Roddick managed to pressure Murray into an error but there are his two best shots and he didn’t take advantage of either one. He didn’t serve and volley on a strong first serve and he didn’t come to the net after running his opponent wide.

Murray is patient. He’ll keep the ball in play until the opportunity presents itself. He looks like he’s just getting the ball back in play until he sees a patch of open court and hits the ball as hard as he can to get it there. But he’s still young. After winning the first set 7-5 then breaking Roddick to go up 3-2 in the second set, Murray evidently thought he should put the match away because he started to force shots. He forced a forehand approach, came to the net on a weak shot and went for a big forehand winner off a weak return to give the break right back.

Murray is prone to nervousness. After breaking Roddick again in the second set, Murray served for the match. After Roddick hit a net cord return that dropped for a winner, that’s enough to unnerve anyone, Murray served up two double faults, the second one on match point. He put a backhand into the net before gathering himself together to make a good first serve and get his second match point. Roddick hit the ball wide and Murray finally had his victory.

Roddick is an expressive hothead. Not in the mode of John McEnroe or Nicolas Kiefer, but he will mock the chair umpire and express a fair amount of sarcasm if he thinks he’s been wronged. It makes his matches entertaining because he’s emotional and he plays to the crowd. After pulling off the shot of the match, a running backhand passing shot that was inches off the ground, Roddick stopped and raised his hand as if he was a conductor motioning to the crowd that they should now express appreciation.

Murray is a quiet, low-key person. When a reporter asked him how he felt about beating Roddick and knocking off his first top ten player, he said it was “a dream come true.” With Murray, however, it was hard to know if it was a dream come true or he was ordering breakfast with that quiet monotone voice of his.

That’s o.k., the British public is not all that keen about showboating. They’d be happy enough if Murray can become an elite player and over the moon if he can bring home a slam or two. If not, we’ll be right here to compare him to the next great young player who comes along and knocks him off.

That’s just the way it is.

“That is so disgraceful!” – McEnroe is back

“That is so disgraceful!”
“You’re a chicken ‘cause you claim you didn’t see it.”
“Thirty years of the same thing!”
“Where’s your cojones?”

Long after tennis umpires around the world thought it was safe to sit in the chair, here comes John McEnroe again. Yep, it’s just like 1989 and McEnroe is on a tear. His doubles partner at the SAP – if your wondering what that is, it’s the world’s largest business software company – Open in San Jose, Jonas Bjorkman, had just hit a beautiful backhand volley that landed on the baseline. Except that the linesperson called it out and, much to McEnroe’s disgust, the chair umpire did not overrule.

That was a big deal because McEnroe and Bjorkman had gotten a break of serve in the previous game and Bjorkman’s “error” gave the break of serve back to their opponents, Ashley Fisher and Tripp Phillips, and evened the second set at 4-4. McEnroe and Bjorkman had won the first set 6-1 and most certainly did not want to go to a third set super tiebreak – the current version of a third set in the ATP world of doubles.

Get this: McEnroe was the only player in the match who did not lose his serve.

As you can see, forty-seven-year old McEnroe is doing just fine. If it was a publicity stunt, it’s not any more. McEnroe and Bjorkman are in the semifinals. Their opponents haven’t been chopped liver either. In the first round they played Wayne Arthurs and Stephen Huss. Huss teamed with Wesley Moodie to beat the Bryan brothers and take the 2005 Wimbledon title. Mac’s hands are more than fast enough to pick off hard shots down the middle, his serve is more than deep enough and twisty enough to hold serve against today’s players. Get this: McEnroe was the only player in the match who did not lose his serve.

Why is McEnroe doing this: “There’s been an ongoing debate about what to do about doubles in the future. Hopefully by me playing this tournament, that will raise the debate and we’ll get some decisions made about where the future of doubles is ‘cause it was great to me. So hopefully there’ll be a place for it in the future.”

Tournament directors could be weaning the public – and the players – off doubles by reducing it until it’s not there at all.

What he means is that the current format of doubles tennis had been decided: no-ad scoring – sudden death at 40-40, super tiebreak instead of a third set – first to ten points win by two, and shorter, fan-friendly matches. But the current, abbreviated version of doubles could be one step towards the extinct version. Tournament directors could be weaning the public – and the players – off doubles by reducing it until it’s not there at all.

You have to appreciate McEnroe’s passion but he might not have much effect on the fate of doubles. He was the exception, a top five singles player who always played doubles. Rafael Nadal plays some doubles but he’s likely to cut back now that he’s had persistent injury problems. Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer each played in the doubles draw three times last year.

McEnroe and Bjorkman broke Fisher and Phillips again to go up 6-5 despite some great shotmaking and brilliant returns by Fisher and won the second set 7-5 on a McEnroe backhand volley winner followed by a Bjorkman service winner. They will play Jaroslav Levinsky and Robert Lindstedt in the semis.

Some things change and some things remain the same. McEnroe is still a very good doubles player but electronic line calling (Hawkeye) is still missing in action. I know it’s here somewhere, but I’ve been watching all year and I’ve seen it used once. If McEnroe’s return does anything, it should encourage chair umpires to scream and scream again until Hawkeye is in every stadium. Then again, McEnroe would probably whack the thing with his racket if he had the chance.