After my Oscars party last night (did you see the Wii tennis game break out in the middle of the Oscars broadcast by the way?) I was pretty exhausted so I sat bleary eyed flipping back and forth between ESPN News and ESPN SportsCenter. Pathetic I know but I’m a sports junkie. Anyway, ESPN was using bracketology to determine the most dominant athlete during ESPN’s era (1979 to the present) and they’d whittled the field down to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. At that point, one of the sportscasters dismissed Roger Federer because Woods has to play the entire field.
This always pisses me off. It’s clearly not as important as the Serbia-Kosovo question but I get mad that non-tennis educated sportscasters bring up this tired and unsupportable argument for dismissing Roger.
Most golf tournaments use medal play which means that the lowest score wins and those who survive the cut are still standing on the last day of the tournament. Therefore, the argument goes, Tiger is playing against the entire field. Tennis tournaments are single elimination so only two players are left standing on the last day and the champion only has to win his way through his part of the draw.
In response to the argument, I offer you the following question:
If the four golf majors were match play (single elimination) instead of medal play, would Tiger have reached the final day in ten straight majors?
That’s how many consecutive slam finals Federer reached and I’m pretty confident the answer is no, Tiger would not have reached the final day in ten straight majors. One day of bad putts and errant drives and he’d be done.
Both of these unbelievable athletes will likely surpass the record holder in their sport for major wins by the time their careers have ended. I’ll give Woods the slight edge because he’s won all four majors and Roger has yet to win the French Open though Tiger doesn’t have to skate around on clay and he doesn’t have 150mph (240kmh) serves whizzing past his ear. And if Tiger wins all four majors in the same year, he clearly gets the “most dominant” designation because it doesn’t look like Federer will pull that off.
Just don’t give me this “Woods has to play the entire field” crap, okay?
Nick Bollettieri has trained a lot of tennis champions. More and more, those champions are non-U.S. players. Is he hurting U.S. tennis?
Kei Nishikori, a Japanese tennis player, had just evened the match and taken the second set from U.S. player James Blake in the final of the ATP event in Delray Beach last Sunday. Here was a perfect opportunity for the home crowd to stomp and yell and lift Blake’s spirits in preparation for the decisive third set.
Nishikori faltered a bit at the beginning of the third set giving the crowd another opportunity to get behind their man but they wouldn’t do it. There is no nicer guy than James Blake. He’s good looking, well-educated, well-read and he has a terrific story – he suffered through a broken neck and the death of his father from cancer to return to the tour and make it into the top ten. What more could you ask for?
The crowd must have been fans of The Prince of Tennis (see above), an animated television show in Japan about a high school tennis team. Think of that, Japan can support an animation series about a high school tennis team despite the fact that Nishikori’s title was the first singles title for a male Japanese player in 16 years and the U.S. can’t even cheer for one of its top ten players. Jeez!
Nishikori is 18 years old. He has trained at The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy for the past three years and he’s not alone. Players from over 70 countries have trained at Bollettieri’s place and that includes Maria Sharapova, Tommy Haas, Xavier Malisse, Jelena Jankovic, and Nicole Vaidisova.
All this has our reader Sakhi asking the following questions: Can we blame Bollettieri’s Global Village for some of the xenophobic comments she hears on the local tennis courts in the U.S.? Can we blame Bollettieri for the diminishing popularity of tennis in the U.S.?
The answer to both questions is that Bollettieri gets a bit of the blame but not most of it.
The parade of Eastern European women players has decreased my interest in the WTA. There were 14 Eastern European players in the 32 player draw at the Pattaya Open two weeks ago and six of those were Russian. I recognized about half of them.
Anna Kournikova started it all and, yes, she moved from Russia to Bollettieri’s as a child as did Sharapova. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, times were hard in Eastern Europe as the socialist state fell and left everyone to fend for themselves. Kournikova moved to the U.S., made millions of dollars, and became a huge star all without ever winning one lousy singles title. On top of that, she now lives with Enrique Iglesias. How much better could it get?
You don’t think Yuri Sharapov was following in Kournikova’s footsteps when he traveled from Siberia to Florida with little Maria when she was 7 years old? Absolutely he was.
I do have a stereotype or two in my head for Eastern European players: tall, blond Siberian ice maidens who’ll do anything to win except travel to the net – implying artlessness. But that’s part James Bond (From Russia with Love) mixed with a bit of Sharapova and a touch of Cold War propaganda thrown in. I remember watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news then going to bed sure that I would never see another day because the U.S.S.R. was going to drop the bomb in the middle of the night. That was before I knew what propaganda was.
I know my stereotypes are stupid and I don’t pay them much mind. They are not a major source of any xenophobia I might have. My xenophobia comes from becoming a minority less than one generation after immigrating to the U.S. myself. My family came here to find a better life and we found it. I now live in California. As of the year 2000, Caucasians made up less than 50% of California’s population. By the year 2050, projections put the Hispanic population at twice that of the Caucasian population.
I’m Caucasian and I’m afraid of becoming a minority. This is how it plays out in the immigration world. I see it where I live in Los Angeles all the time. Older immigrants complain that newer immigrants put them out of work by offering services at lower prices. We all want to freeze the country when we get here forgetting that every generation of immigrants before us had to go through the same cycle of fighting to stay ahead. That’s a pretty good definition of capitalism.
Bollettieri is only doing what everyone else does. Look at college tennis. Five of the last six years, the men’s NCAA champion was a foreign player. The sixth player was an immigrant. The U.S. is the only country in the world that gives athletes a college education for playing on a tennis team.
There have been some NCAA rule changes to help out U.S. players. The NCAA created a maximum age for accepting a scholarship because foreign players were turning pro for a few years then taking scholarships at an advanced age. Twenty-four year old foreign sophomores were beating up on 19 year old U.S. sophomores and that wasn’t fair.
But it’s not like the U.S. to close its borders. It’s the land of opportunity.
This week the ATP event in San Jose has Andy Roddick, James Blake and a bunch of scrubs. The tournament in Rotterdam has five top ten players and five more in the top twenty. Last year the U.S. lost the Tier I WTA tournament in San Diego. The U.S. is losing tournaments and audience. Is Bolletterie to blame?
Except for Roddick and Blake and what’s left of the Williams Sisters and Lindsay Davenport, it doesn’t look good for U.S. tennis stars. Bollettieri will train anyone. That’s not his fault.
First of all, there’s too much competition for tennis players. Professional football, baseball and basketball have always been more popular and now we have the X Games. Any athlete can find an X Game to match their skills whether it’s flipping a motorcycle or doing a 360 on a skateboard or getting big air on a snowmobile. If that doesn’t get the attention of a U.S. youngster, I’m sure there are more than a few video games lying around the house.
Baseball and basketball have a lot of foreign players yet it hasn’t affected their popularity. A Chinese basketball player, however, was trained in China, and a Dominican baseball player learned the game in the Dominican Republic. That’s often not true for a tennis player.
Sharapova may have been born in Russia but she played Fed Cup for Russia for the first time this year and only then so she can qualify for the Olympics. And she didn’t play a match in Russia until 2005. On top of that, she is quintessentially American. She is now pitching story ideas to television producers and she doesn’t just have endorsement deals; in her Sony Ericsson deal, she is also a “consultant with the company’s design team”.
It’s not like Russians aren’t entrepreneurial but design consultation and pitches to television producers and an apartment in Los Angeles? Come on, she’s an American.
Except that she’s not. She’s a global tennis player from Bollettieri’s Global Tennis Village. We don’t know whether to cheer for her or not. And for that, we can blame Bollettieri.
We haven’t been paying enough attention to tournament play lately so I’m going to start in picking tournaments this week. The spring indoor hard court season is well underway as is the South American clay court season. Let’s see what’s happening.
San Jose (indoor hard court)
Kei Nishikori has a special exemption into this tournament because he shocked James Blake by beating him in the Delray Beach final last week. Nishikori is an 18 year old Bollettieri-trained player from Japan who qualified into the tournament. I believe he has now equaled the record for ATP singles titles won by Japanese male players: 1.
Nishikoro should be careful though. Jiro Sato reached slam semifinals five times in the 1930’s, but the pressure of representing his country got to him and he committed suicide at age 26. He threw himself into the Strait of Malacca during a Davis Cup trip.
Nishikori is in Andy Roddick’s quarter and even though Nishikori has more game than Blake and, possibly Roddick, I’m going to say that it’ll take him a bit more time to mature. The other strong player in that quarter is Sam Querrey. Roddick beat him here last year and I think he’ll do it again. If Nishikori does take Roddick out, watch out because he beat Querrey last week too.
Tommy Haas is returning after more shoulder problems but he doesn’t have much competition in his quarter. Ditto for Radek Stepanek in his quarter.
James Blake hasn’t done well at this tournament since 2003 and his possible second round opponent, Jesse Levine, has an excellent indoor record at indoor challengers. I’m picking Kristof Vliegen to come out of Blake’s quarter.
Semifinals: Roddick, Haas, Stepanek, Vliegen.
Final: Roddick, Stepanek
Winner: Roddick because Andy Murray isn’t here to torture him.
Rotterdam (indoor hard court)
Murray is here instead. For some reason he’s defending the points he won with his 2007 San Jose title by playing in Rotterdam. I’m willing to bet Rotterdam has a lot more appearance money than San Jose judging by the comparative fields of these two tournaments. Rotterdam has five top ten players while San Jose has one.
Murray is in the bottom quarter with Nikolay Davydenko and he’s beaten him the last three times they’ve met and he won Marseille last week so he’s my guy.
Just above him lie David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych. Berdych is an average indoor player and might not be able to get by Ivo Karlovic so I’m choosing Ferrer in that quarter.
The next quarter up is all mixed up. Juan Carlos Ferrero and Mikhail Youzhny both lost their first round matches. Tommy Robredo is there but he’s having a terrible year so I’m going with Nicolas Mahut.
Rafael Nadal is in the top quarter and he has Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis for company, poor guy. Even if Baghdatis gets past Robin Soderling, he’s 0-5 against Nadal. Hewitt is 4-3 over Nadal lifetime and has never lost to him on a fast court, but most of those wins came before 2006 and Nadal retired during the last match they played on grass, so I think Nadal can survive the quarter.
Semifinals: Nadal, Mahut, Ferrer, Murray
Final: Nadal, Murray
Winner: Nadal because he beat Murray indoors in Madrid last year.
Buenos Aires (clay)
There’s no one dangerous in David Nalbandian’s quarter. He can probably beat Potito Starace who is just returning from his petty gambling suspension. By the way, a fourth Italian player, Giorgio Galimberti, was suspended today for gambling on tennis matches though not his own. Galimberti got a $35,000 fine and a 100 day suspension.
Nicolas Almagro is in the next quarter and he won the tournament in Brazil last week but his possible second round opponent, Oscar Hernandez, beat him twice in Futures and Challenger tournaments and Almagro is notoriously inconsistent. Juan Ignacio Chela reached the quarterfinals here last year so I’m going with him.
Carlos Moya can probably come through his quarter. He’s won this tournament three times and he got to the final in Brazil last week.
Juan Monaco injured his ankle three weeks ago at Vina del Mar and that was unfortunate because he had to forfeit his place in the final. If his ankle is healed he should be okay because he won this tournament last year.
As Monica Seles retires, a look back at how her career might have gone.
Martina Hingis returned to the WTA tour in 2006 after a three year layoff due to foot problems. She managed to work her way up to a year end ranking of number seven and played in the year end championships – very respectable considering her layoff.
At Wimbledon this year, Hingis tested positive for cocaine. In November she announced her retirement for good. I thought about her when Monica Seles announced her retirement this week.
Hingis lost something in the time between her first retirement and her return to the tour. She had the same skills that gave her the nickname “cerebral assassin” but she’d lost the drive that allows an athlete to block out distractions and give up everything except practice, travel, and play. The positive cocaine test was an indirect – and somewhat embarrassing – confirmation of this. It’s as if some part of her admitted that she didn’t want to go through the grind anymore and forced her to finally retire.
Seles left the tour for two years after a deranged fan of Steffi Graf stabbed her in the back during a tournament in Hamburg in 1993. When Seles returned to the tour in 1995, she’d lost her fierceness and that was a huge part of her game. Her two-handed off both sides strokes were ugly, she didn’t have much of a serve, and her net game wasn’t really a net game – she hit the ball as if she were still standing at the baseline. But she killed you off the ground with ferocious power.
She still had enough left to get to four slam finals when she returned to the tour, but she only took home one slam title. Before the stabbing, she was 8-1 in slam finals. She didn’t lose all of her fierceness but it was enough.
I understand it. A man threatened me with a hunting knife in the early 1980’s and would have raped me if I hadn’t pretended to have an epileptic fit. I was sure I was going to die. In the months after the attack, I had to leave the room when there was a story on television showing coercion, which is much of prime time programming, and I couldn’t sit through a violent movie. I moved out of my house because my roommate – a very close friend – refused to lock the back door. He just didn’t get it.
The next summer I visited Rome. I was up on a hill at a popular tourist site that looks out over the city when a random man walked up behind me and scared me so badly that I relived the attack all over again. Seles’ assailant attacked her in the open air on a tennis court. Before she returned to playing – which must have been bad enough, she attended a few tournaments but it was an unsettling experience because she kept looking around to make sure no one was lunging at her with a knife.
Before the stabbing, Seles dominated the tour in Federer-like fashion. She won three slams in both 1991 and 1992 leaving only Wimbledon for Graf to win. Before Seles was stabbed, Graf had eleven slam titles and she’d won a grand slam – all four slams – in 1988. She went on to win 22 slams in her career.
Would Graf have won eleven more slams if Seles hadn’t been stabbed? If not, how many?
Seles got to the final of Wimbledon in 1992 and lost to Graf but it was the only time Seles went past the quarterfinals. Graf would have kept her three Wimbledon titles. For sure, Seles would have eaten up two or three more French Opens and a U.S. Open or two. Throw in an Australian Open and Graf’s total would be down to about six slams at most.
That would bring Graf’s slam total to 17 which is also my guess for how many slams Seles could have won without the interruption in her career. That’s one less than Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, a rivalry that Seles and Graf could have duplicated if things had gone differently.
Seles faced Graf in two more slam finals after the stabbing, both times in the U.S. Open and both times she lost. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for both players.
Sania Mirza is in trouble again. Why does this keep happening to her?
The Bangalore Open will start on March 3 but Sania Mirza won’t be there and that’s a big deal because Sania is a huge star in India. Why isn’t she going? As she puts it:
Every time I play in India there is a problem. Considering all that, I thought it would be better not to play in Bangalore. In fact, I feel it would be better if I didn’t play in the country for some time.
What problems? Well, first there was tennis wear. Muslims complained about her indecent short skirts and sleeveless tops and called them “un-Islamic.” Sania is Muslim by the way.
Then there was safe sex. In 2005 she made comments at a leadership summit in Delhi about safe sex that were interpreted as endorsing pre-marital sex.
Next, trespassing. Late last year she shot a commercial on the premises of a 17th century mosque in her home town of Hyderabad. She faced charges of trespassing and had to apologize for the incident.
And now, flag desecration. While Sania was playing Hopman Cup in January, she rested her bare feet on a table that was several feet from an Indian flag. A private citizen filed a case against her under the Prevention of Insult to the National Honor Act. She had to appear in a Bhopal court to answer to the charges.
When I read about these troubles, first I shook my head and muttered something about religious intolerance. Next, I wondered if the male tennis players in India get as much grief as Sania does. Do they get taken to court all the time? Then I thought, it’s not so simple, the male players probably aren’t Muslim.
Luckily, our reader Sakhi came to my rescue. I mentioned I was going to write about Sania and she pointed me to an article in the Hindustan Times titled Disadvantage Sania. Sakhi is, I believe, a professor of Women’s Studies and of Indian heritage so she knows what she’s talking about.
I, on the other hand, took one class in social theory at The New School and spent a total of three weeks in India so I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m very happy for any help I can get.
Interestingly, the author of the article, Barkha Dutt, doesn’t mention the word Muslim. She does refer to “fundamentalist fatwas” but she thinks that India has a love-hate relationship with Sania because she’s “the only female sports icon India has ever known.”
Dutt is an icon herself. She was the first Indian woman journalist to broadcast live from the front line of an armed conflict and she is the director of India’s premiere satellite television network. Her mother was also a pioneer. She sent news dispatches from the front during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.
Clearly Dutt knows what she’s talking about too and she blames the media for some of Sania’s troubles. If you’re an icon, you’ll be covered 24/7. That’s just how it is. But again, it’s not so simple. Sania signed endorsement deals that plaster her face all over India. I remember driving through Kerala on the southwest coast of India and seeing Sania’s face on telephone company ads in the tiniest villages.
She is also one hot young woman. She definitely qualifies as a tennis babe. I like that, don’t get me wrong, but being sexy is a choice and if you make that choice in India, a modest country, be prepared for being an icon and everything that comes with it.
When Sakhi directed me to this article, she also brought up the issue of class. Sania was raised in an upper middle class family. I’m pretty sure she didn’t depend on support from the Indian tennis association to develop her game so she doesn’t have to worry about offending Indian tennis officials. She also a number of members that live in the U.S. so living elsewhere is an option. It’s a lot easier to be brash and outspoken when you have options.
Dutt does mention a brash male athlete who is often at the center of controversy: cricket player Sourav Ganguly. He had a long public feud with the coach of India’s national team and was stripped of his captaincy and kicked off the team at one point. He also had the nerve to tear off his shirt in a victory celebration. I looked it up: he grew up in an affluent family too.
Here’s the question: Should Sania make India mad and stop playing tournaments in India?
Dutt thinks Sania should stick around and finish what she started and you can understand that. Dutt comes from a family of pioneers. But I disagree.
Sania’s job is to play tennis. She’s a very emotional player and she’s only 22 years old. I was at the WTA event in Los Angeles last year when the chair umpire made a bad overrule on a critical point in a match that Sania lost. Sania was furious. Normally players have a time limit for appearing at post match interviews but the WTA media person was in no hurry to drag Sania out of the locker room after that match.
Sania should do whatever puts her in the best emotional state to play tennis. She should work her way up the rankings, win a few big tournaments, make her way into the top ten, and then return triumphant to the Bangalore Open.