Monthly Archives: December 2006

Tennis Tidbits: Lindsay, Bjorn, Guga

Lindsay Davenport’s retirement announcement came about a day after the news that she was pregnant. It seemed a little odd to me that she chose to do it that way. Why not just announce them both at the same time? Why break it up like that? Because after all, when the one thing happens, the other is definitely going to happen too.

There’s no way a woman player could be pregnant and play on the tour as it exists today. Maybe in any era for that matter. In a way, this is a lucky thing for Lindsay, or for any woman player in this position. Because being pregnant will entirely negate any latent desires you may harbor about wanting to play on. Your body is completely indisposed to the game because now it’s preparing for a greater game, the game of giving life to something new and all that will entail.

This is a good moment for Lindsay to retire on. It felt like it had been in the cards most of this year. Home life had plainly been calling to her since her marriage and the WTA did not ease her dilemma by making it difficult for her to gain entry into tournaments. Injuries took her out for longer periods of time. She and Andre Agassi were both likely to be gone from the game before this year was out. And such has been the case. A clean cut and she’s gone. No prolonged farewells, no victory tours. Lindsay always was a very efficient striker of the ball.

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Bjorn Borg’s name found its way on two occasions into the news recently, the first time with the announcement of a new line of signature sporting apparel, the second with his endorsement of Andy Murray as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Or should we say, scones?

Now Bjorn, you know I love you, and I really love your hair the most, but when it comes to wagering, or picking picks in general, I will probably take your advice with generous helpings of the salty stuff. After all, Borg tempted fate by trying to come back with a wooden racquet and his earlier forays into business ventures and predictions have also headed south. He had an earlier line of clothing that fared disastrously and, as far as picking players, he praised Robin Soderling several years ago in terms that Soderling had not quite lived up to at that point in time.

Fortunately now for Borg, both those situations seem to have turned themselves around. The new clothing line seems positioned to get off the ground and Robin Soderling has started to make a dent now in draws.

But Andy Murray was an odd choice. I am still out on Murray. He did beat Federer after all, but he caught Roger on an off-week when he was pretty burned out with fatigue. By late in the year Murray had slipped back to playing erratically and his on-court attitude sounded terrible. Brad Gilbert is going to have to not only put some muscle on this boy, but lay down some new stem cells in his spinal region. He needs more mental backbone.

Borg had more mental backbone than anybody who ever played the game. So maybe he picks up something about Murray that will make him “stick” as a champion over time. He has the physical skills on a court to do that but I am questioning how his mental outlook jells, and on that he is shaky. Borg was quoted as saying he feels Murray has a complete game with which to dominate the game, perhaps in a few more years, and take the crown away from Federer.

I am also wondering how Borg feels about Murray’s fitness level. That was another area in which Borg was an absolute master. Those thirty four beats per minute of his resting pulse still turn me green with envy. Ultra marathoners hit those low marks, not tennis players. And certainly not Murray. Somehow I don’t see Murray going out and running ten miles or so, as Borg often did after winning matches.

Said Sweden’s elder tennis statesman, “Murray has done brilliantly. He has the motivation so I think he can get to the top and become the world number one.” It’s a good thing to want to encourage the younger players coming up; I am just uncertain if such unstinting praise should go out to Murray at this time.

Why not shoot some praise to two other guys waiting in the wings, namely Berdych and Gasquet? Berdych especially seems situated to deliver the goods this coming year. I think he will be better faster than Murray. He’s bigger, stronger, faster, and his body seems to have come together sooner. Sorry Brad. At least Murray has Gilbert on his team now. If he’s ever to reach the level that Borg considers he can reach, then having a Brad Gilbert is an essential thing.

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Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten played in his first tournament in nine months in November, and even though it was a challenger and he lost in straight sets in the opening round, he claims it gave him enough confidence that he can play on without the hip bothering him. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news about Guga is that he probably won’t be granted a wild card into the Australian Open in January. The officials are saving them for their own guys, as they probably should.

Is there any point to that, I wonder? Or is retirement close at hand? If he is going to re-emerge as a shadow of his former self, better not to push it and retire sooner rather than later.

Kuerten sounded off recently on the GOAT question (greatest of all time), namely Federer vs. Sampras. Guga went 1 and 2 against Sampras, and he was 2 and 1 in his meetings with Federer. So he has a bit of a say in how this rivalry works. But Kuerten sounded almost disparaging of Federer, and Carlos Moya echoed his sentiments when he said recently that Sampras had much stiffer competition than does Roger Federer today.

Now Guga, we love you dearly, and we all want to see you come back, and I really really love your hair too, but it’s a bit much for you to suggest that Federer is merely number one in the world because Sampras retired. If you had shown up at Wimbledon between 2000 and 2003, instead of staying at home for whatever reason, you might have caught Federer beating Sampras in the only match they ever played (in 2001). On that day he beat Sampras with a larger, more elegant repertoire than what Sampras had.

Maybe you should have asked Sampras his opinion after that match. I kind of got the impression he thought Roger had a future in the game. I believe he still holds that opinion.

Memento 2006: transcendent moments in tennis part II

Here are some moments, and notable trends, from the 2006 version of professional tennis, part II.

Maybe we should start calling Connors Dr. Frankenstein.

  • Brain transplant. As Jimmy Connors and Andy Roddick sat next to each other at the media session announcing their partnership in July, I sat in the second row envisioning a tube coming out of the top of Connors’ head and going into the top of Roddick’s brain. The brain transplant image might have been a bit extreme but it reflected the biggest question of their partnership: could Connors somehow implant his aggressive attitude into Roddick? It’s easy enough to teach someone how to hit a forehand and backhand, but how do you teach attitude? Especially to a player whose confidence had dropped so far that it looked like desperation led him to call Connors and ask for help. Connors moved Roddick forward to the baseline on service return and told him to get to the net as often as possible. It worked well enough to propel Roddick from a number 11 ranking to the final 8 in Shanghai where he narrowed the huge gap between his game and Roger Federer’s by getting three match points in their round-robin meeting before finally losing in the third set. Maybe we should start calling Connors Dr. Frankenstein.
  • 14,000 tennis fans can’t be wrong. Fantasy tennis has arrived. Yes, over 14,000 tennis fans around the world repeatedly interrupted their workdays to log onto the ATP website and check the daily match results to see if their fantasy team players were winning. They spent a few more hours jawing with the Talk Tennis Forum fantasy fanatics about everything from the Federer-Nadal rivalry to Guillermo Coria’s case of the yips. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fantasy player called up Roger Federer’s management to find out if he really was going to play the Paris Masters event because they had one more Federer left and only needed a few more points to move up and take the championship of their fantasy tennis subleague. If they’d bothered to read my fantasy tennis column each Sunday they’d have known that Federer hasn’t played the Paris Masters since 2003. You might view this kind of behavior as obsessive and even a bit silly, but once you’ve played fantasy tennis, any other kind of fandom is boring. And before you dismiss it, consider that today’s fans require interactivity and if fantasy tennis follows the same arc as fantasy baseball and fantasy football, at the very least it’ll help improve the popularity of tennis and that’s a good thing.
  • Tell it to the National Labor Relations Board. Too many tournaments and too little down time. If an ATP player makes it to the year-end championship in Shanghai, or even better, the Davis Cup final, their off-season will last just over 3 weeks. If you’re an Asian player, it could be even shorter. Sania Mirza, Leandro Paes, and Mahesh Bhupati just finished competing in the Asian Games so they’re down to 2 weeks for an off-season and it’s not like they played a few friendly matches either. Sania played through to the finals of the singles, mixed doubles, and women’s doubles. True, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played in only 19 tournaments for a total of 25 weeks action and that’s only half a year, but the season still starts in January and ends 11 months later and any labor union worth its salt looks out for the little guys too. Lower ranked players enter as many tournaments as their body can manage so they can rack up enough points to get into the main draw and avoid qualifying. Speaking of those bodies, injury withdrawals by top 10 WTA players more than doubled this season. The WTA has announced plans to cut back on their schedule, some tournaments will already be gone by 2008, and the ATP is cutting back too, but the ATP has also extended tournaments to 8 days to get more TV coverage and they’re changing some of the tournaments to round-robin format which means that top players will play more often. The season may end up being a few weeks shorter but the top players will end up playing more so how does that change anything?

See also:
Memento 2006: Transcendent Moments In Tennis Part I
The Jimmy And Andy Show

Memento 2006: transcendent moments in tennis part I

Okay I’ll do it. I’m not even sure I like the idea but I just can’t resist. Everyone else has a “best of the year” or “worst of the year” or “most notable of the year” and that means I have to do it too. Here are some moments, and notable trends, from the 2006 version of professional tennis.

Maria Sharapova waltzed into the media session after beating Henin-Hardenne … and expected a coronation.

  • Three match string of superlative over the top magnificence. First round: Andre Agassi versus Andrei Pavel. A four set first round throw down at the U.S. Open following the emotional and beautiful dedication ceremony of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. After three tiebreakers – one of them to 10 points – America’s retiring hero finally won the match. We might have been surprised by Pavel’s showing unless we’d forgotten that he has a Masters Title to his name and was once the thirteenth ranked player in the world. Round two: Agassi versus Marcos Baghdatis. Agassi came back from two sets down to win a close five setter as the younger Baghdatis fought cramps for what seemed like forever. Somehow, the old man’s cortisone shot outlasted the young man’s endurance. This was Baghdatis’ coming out party on the biggest US tennis stage and the New York crowd fell in love with him as only they could. They heaped boos and cheers onto Baghdatis until the evening finally ended and the two performers took their final bows. It was a late night raucous and loud lovefest. Round three: Agassi versus Benjamin Becker. Time finally ran out on Agassi. He looked like me when I get out of bed in the morning: stiff and bent over. But Becker was having his own problems. He got into the draw through qualifying so this was his sixth match of the event and cramps were threatening. Becker is one of those rare players who went to college for four years before turning pro and it paid off. He’s a smart cookie. Up two sets to one, he focused on holding his serve and barely played in Agassi’s service games until the score was 5-5. Becker then ramped up his game, broke Agassi, held his serve and that was that. Agassi’s transcendent twenty-one year career was over.
  • Billie Jean King at the center of the tennis universe. The National Tennis Center became the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on opening night at the U.S. Open. All of my favorite players were there: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, and my biggest favorite of all: Billie Jean. What is more appropriate than naming this huge public park after the tennis player who’s done the most to bring the game to the people? Big props to the USTA. They could have raked in millions by selling the naming rights but they didn’t. And they could have caved into conservatives who complained about Billie Jean’s sexual preference by alluding to “lifestyle” issues. Instead, they did the right thing and Billie Jean was right where she belonged: at the center of the tennis universe.
  • Pulling out too soon (or not soon enough): Henin-Hardenne ended the Australian Open final by retiring due to an upset stomach and the Fed Cup final by retiring after aggravating a long-standing knee injury. We could scream at her because she messed up the ending of two signature tennis events or we could applaud her for making it to the final of all four grand slams – winning one of them, the French Open – and ending the year at number one by winning the year-end championship. More likely, we’ll forever be on the fence about her because she’ll always push her fragile body to its limit and she’ll always be on the edge of failure. Maybe H-H’s dilemma is a reflection of the modern athlete’s drive for perfection. Too much training and too much playing and too much desire for one body to manage. She reminds me of a marathon runner who gets to the finish line but has to crawl over it. It’s gut wrenching and you admire the bravery but you wonder if it’s really worth it.
  • The crowning of a Queen: Maria Sharapova waltzed into the media session after beating Henin-Hardenne in the US Open final this summer and expected a coronation. Fair enough. She’s been the most consistent performer in the last few years and plays with a mental toughness that never left us wondering if she’d win another slam. We knew Maria would win another slam; it was just a matter of when. Instead of a coronation, though, a few brave reporters dared to ask her about the “Bedtime for Bonzo Banana Incident.” Her practice partner (and part time valet, does he dress her sometimes too?) Michael Joyce sat in her box and held up a banana and gave her hand signals such as holding up four fingers. He was reminding her to eat her banana and, presumably, signaling that she should attack her opponent’s forehand in full view of television cameras despite the rule against on court coaching. A few brave reporters persisted with their questions despite Sharapova’s haughty attitude. How’s this for attitude: “I just won a Grand Slam. The last thing I’m gonna talk about is some fingers or a banana, all right? I hope you got that one, thanks.” Finally, a not so brave reporter bailed her out with a softy question and the moment passed. The WTA bailed her out too. They’ve made on court coaching legal thereby bestowing upon Maria her rightful crown.

See also:
My Squeaker With Andre (And Andrei)
Billie Jean King We Love You
For Shame: The Women’s Final
2006 US Open Final: One Banana, Two Banana

Can Coria Come Back?

You know you are in the off-season of tennis when odd ideas start seeping into the brain. Maybe it’s just my own withdrawal symptoms kicking in, but lately I have found myself thinking of Guillermo Coria, of all people. In fact this column could easily be called, “Whatever Happened To….”

Coria has suffered through one of the more disastrous free-falls in recent tennis memory this year, spurred in large part by a shoulder injury that seems reluctant to heal. In particular this has affected his serving motion, leading to what people term “The Yips.”

This is a player I was not especially fond of, for starters. I have to admit that upfront. He had too much of that testy little guy mentality for my tastes, right up there with that other pit bull on the tour, Lleyton Hewitt. In fact you could call Coria kind of a Hewitt Junior. No surprise they played one of the more contentious Davis Cup matches in recent time when they duked it out in 2005’s series before Hewitt prevailed in four sets.

So why is it I find myself vaguely missing the little creep? With that wiry, ultra mobile body of his, and that small ferret face with those high cheekbones, Coria seems like an alien from another planet. He should have hooked up with Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, one of the women’s new good young players on tour, whose exotic features have led some to call her the Alien. Think of the offspring these two could crank out. I find them rather beautiful in their oddity. But Coria is married to Carla, a stunning brunette from Croatia, who has been a rock of security for him in this downward spiral in his career.

Mind you, the Argentines have generally seemed to me like they are from another planet. There is alienation even among themselves. Nalbandian is referred to as the Armenian, and with his blond hair and blue eyes he certainly looks an anomaly among his countrymen. Gaudio is more their mainstream guy, he is good-looking and popular and more “one of us.” But lately his career has been all over the place too. At least Gaudio and Nalbandian have not been caught with their hands in the cookie jar of illegal substances. That’s the other thing about the Argentines, they appear blithely indifferent to the things they put into their systems. Canas and Puerta are coming back on tour in the new year after serving out their drug suspensions apparently none the worse for wear.

The 24-year-old Coria, nicknamed “Guille” (pronounced gee-jay), had a suspension too a few years back, but right now his main problems are keeping his shoulder healthy and hoping his mentality doesn’t sink too low in terms of confidence. He’s had several operations on the shoulder, and may have tried coming back too early.

We could view his career as a cautionary tale of how a player can become obsolete in a very short period of time in today’s power game. You cannot simply endure out there on court, you need a few weapons to fight back with. I’m scratching my head to describe a weapon Coria has; there really aren’t any. Yet he made it to Number 3 in the world in 2004 with 7 titles on clay, his best surface, and 9 wins overall.

He’s not just a clay courter, though, as evidenced by this interesting statistic. In 2004 Coria was one of only three players, besides Roger Federer and Andy Roddick to win titles on all three surfaces. And in ’05 he was one of a bare handful (Federer and Nalbandian) who made it at least to the Round of 16 in all four Slams.

His game relies on speed, movement and compact strokes, and, in particular, mental tenacity. He seemed to float effortlessly about the court, retrieving everything in sight, and his technique always appeared pretty good. But as the game kept getting bigger, and as someone as fierce on clay as Nadal came along, Coria realized he had to up the ante. His strokes needed more pop, he tried to play above and beyond what his body perhaps was ready to take on. An injury was probably ready to happen.

It turned out to be the shoulder, spreading down to tendinitis in the elbow. His results started to head south in 2004, highlighted especially at Roland Garros, where he was up two sets on countryman Gaudio in the final when cramps set in, Gaudio got a second wind, and Coria ended up the one left in the dust. It was a meltdown of nuclear proportions, and I would be very surprised if Coria managed to put it entirely behind him.

Coria began 2006 ranked #8 in the world; now he’s down to #116. He could manage to put together three wins in a row only once this year. Here is a sampling of how it went: He beat Youzhny in straight sets in the opening round of Monte Carlo, then came back from 6-1, 5-1 down to beat Mathieu in the next round. Then he beat another tricky player, Nicholas Kiefer, in a three-set war of who could double-fault the least. How do you say “rollercoaster ride” in Spanish?

Never one to take a loss lying down, Kiefer bad-mouthed Coria in the post match press conference, saying he “never saw a player making so many double faults except Kournikova in the women’s game.” I think he really meant to say Dementieva but we’ll let that pass for now. Never one to let an insult go unpunished, Coria retorted with, “But I won the match, I broke his serve more than he broke mine.”

Not too long ago we were so afraid of tennis being dominated by power servers that we may forget what awaits on the opposite end of the spectrum, namely a match where the least double faults wins it. Just for laughs I went to Coria’s stats. He had 287 double faults this year. I nearly fainted. That’s spread over only 25 matches played all year. That’s about 11.4 something double faults per match. Major Yips.

Coria’s high point were those three wins in Monte Carlo, but then he got blasted 2 and 1 by Mr. Nadal on his way to victory. Coria then went out in the first rounds of Munich, Rome and Hamburg this year, losing to Gremelmayer on clay in Munich. Seventeen double faults attended that match, followed by 23 more in Monte Carlo.

“What goes through your mind when you’re serving?” inquired a reporter at one of Coria’s press conferences. Coria explains it thusly: “What happens to me is that I forget the movement. So what I have to do is remain calm….what is important is to keep concentrating.”

To his credit I have to say Coria still keeps his feisty outlook even in these troublesome times. He doesn’t like speaking English in his press conferences so he mostly talks to the Spanish speakers. He has no hesitation about defending someone like Canas during his drug suspension trouble. “Canas is not a criminal,” Coria said in an interview, “He didn’t kill anyone. I know him very well and he would never take anything to give himself an advantage. It was an accident…The ATP and ITF must look at things more on a personal level and less in black and white.” Irascible still, and proud of it we suppose.

As for psychological counseling, Coria shoots that down just as quickly. “I am not working with a psychologist,” he says. “I tried it for two weeks and I didn’t like it at all.” So much for those snotty mental health professionals. Blowing off Kiefer is one thing; blowing off your therapist is another. I’d never have the nerve in a million years to do that. Maybe this is why I have grown fonder of the little squeak.

Coria is also good at blowing off coaches, too. He’s been through four of them this year. The latest quit just recently, saying Coria wasn’t motivated enough to make a return. A coach I thought would last a bit longer, Jose Higueras, told Coria his basic technique was sound and he needed to keep focusing on his movement. Coria has been one of the top three most sparkling movers on a tennis court so that sounded like good advice. Concentrate on what you do well and try and make that your engine to pull the serve along.

Fellow Argentine Hernan Gumy has entered the coaching fray just recently. Let’s hope he can restore some order to the troubled house of Coria. Coria had a smallish operation recently of undisclosed origin that sidelined him for a week, but he claims he has rested his body for a good six week period and he is working now with both a fitness trainer and a new coach to prepare for ’07.

Mostly it’s up to the brain of Coria to decide if he really wants it enough to dig out of this hole. Some people in chat rooms are wondering if he still feels the passion to compete. Does the beautiful Carla occupy too much of his time? Are there personal problems? Have his success and fame and money gutted his competitive zeal? Have the injuries sapped his confidence? Or has the game simply abandoned him, as newer and bigger players come on tour and the ante gets upped for little guys?

Now we’re at the heart of the matter. What I like about Coria is that there’s still a lot of fight in this little dog, as the folks in Texas like to say. I want to see him get back in the mix. Tennis needs the Wee People. For every Safin, Roddick or Berdych, we need a few more Corias, or the Hewitts, or the Rochus brothers, or someone like Justine Henin-Hardenne on the women’s side. They are figures closer to our reality, they are not bigger than life, they have to work harder for their success. We can relate to that. I can relate to that at least.

Coria is part of the infinite variety that our sport needs to maintain its growth. Let’s hope he finds that gear which can bring him back to his former level.

Andrea Jaeger – the newest sister act

It may not say much about me but one of the great pleasures of my life is reading Sports Illustrated as soon as it arrives at my door. In this week’s issue I saw a quote from a Mongolian beach volleyball player (there are no beaches in Mongolia) then a picture of the World Elephant Polo Association’s championship tournament in Nepal (for some extremely odd reason, Scotland won the championship. Are there elephants in Scotland that I’m unaware of? Evidently there are because earlier this year a scientist theorized that the Loch Ness monster was actually an elephant from a traveling circus taking a swim in the loch. I suppose the Sean Connery character in the The Man Who Would Be King could have taken a few elephants back from Afghanistan after he escaped. Wait a minute, the Afghanis killed the Sean Connery character didn’t they? And Connery is Scottish but his character was British. Actually, I think Rudyard Kipling was inspired by an American adventurer when he wrote that story. Never mind.).

This was not a reluctant child-athlete fulfilling her father’s dream; she was well suited to the task. At least that’s how it looked on the surface.

After that I read the annual Sportsman of the Year article (basketball player Dwyane Wade. I know he had a very difficult life and I know he married his childhood sweetheart when she got pregnant, that alone should nominate him for sainthood in the NBA Father’s Hall of Fame, but Shaquille O’Neal never won the award and Kobe Bryant never won it. And, hello, one championship does not a legend make. Instead, how about winning three out of four grand slams, how about reaching six straight grand slam finals, how about winning more than ninety matches, how about winning twelve titles, and how about winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open for the third straight year? If you got here because you were googling elephants or Afghanistan and don’t know who I’m talking about, it’s Mr. Roger Federer. Oh, I forgot, Roger is a foreigner. I found 4 foreigners in 53 years of handing out the S.I. Sportsman/woman of the year award. Doesn’t Sports Illustrated cover the world of sports? I’ll get back to that issue in a future post. It begs for more comment.)

And then I saw something that looked like a spoof but, I think, is not, though it’s so odd that I understand why I thought it was: former tennis phenomenon Andrea Jaeger dressed as a nun complete with wimple and white collar.

In case you don’t remember her, she was the original young tennis terror with a pushy father who turned pro at the age of fourteen (in 1980) long before Martina Hingis, Mary Pierce, Jennifer Capriati and their pushy parent did the same thing. A picture of Jaeger in her playing days shows her long blonde hair and headband. At first I thought it was Steffi Graf and now I was concerned that she had converted too but I don’t think convents take children.

If you’d known Jaeger at age 14, you’d never guess that she would end up in a habit. She was a rough and tumble player with a solid competitive streak who reached two grand slam finals. Instead of going to her seat on the game break, she’d “march to the baseline and stand there, one hand on her hip, tapping her foot, glaring at the umpire as if to say, ‘If this chump can’t come out for the next round, why don’t you just stop the fight.?’” (1) This was not a reluctant child-athlete fulfilling her father’s dream; she was well suited to the task. At least that’s how it looked on the surface.

But on the inside, she knew at age 14 that she would end up doing God’s work and this is where the short interview get’s interesting. She didn’t tell anyone because “how many people wanted to hear that? Sponsors didn’t. Management groups didn’t.” So here she was a teenager trying to maneuver everything from puberty to management groups all the while knowing that tennis was not her purpose in life.

This is the main argument against the pushy tennis parent. A child, and they are children, agrees to undergo the tortuous regimen required to become a professional tennis player. The child has more talent and desire than 96 or 97% of the rest of the population but is tennis what they really want to do? How does a 9 or 10 year-old know what they really want to do?

Andrea Jaeger knew but she couldn’t extract herself from tennis until she was 19 years old when she suffered a debilitating shoulder injury. The injury was so bad that she had 6 different operations and still had difficulty lifting objects five years later. Subconsciously she may have been praying for the injury. How else could she get out of tennis because she actually says in the interview: “I would never have left on my own, because of sponsors and family.” Wow, I’ve never read a comment that so perfectly expresses the dependent position of young athletes.

She went on to create a foundation for children dealing with serious illness and now has taken the ultimate step towards service by becoming a nun. But life could have been much easier for her. It shouldn’t have been necessary to suffer a debilitating injury just so she could maneuver an exit from something she didn’t want to do.

(1) Peter Bodo, Courts of Babylon, 1995 (get it, one of the best books on tennis ever written. I don’t like his characterization of the lesbian community – and that begs for a future post too – but the psychological insight is invaluable. Everything from Bjorn Borg’s sad ending to the incongruity of Stefan Edberg’s psychedelic tennis clothing)