Monthly Archives: August 2005

Analyzing Amelie

Lately my co-writer, Nina Rota, and I have been discussing the career of Amelie Mauresmo, both her playing style and her persona as a female sports personality. She is an interesting player to examine, because she has a ton of talent, and yet we feel she can’t consistently put it out there enough to start winning the big tournaments. Something seems to tie her up. We want to explore that now in this column.

We are both struck by the rather obvious dichotomy in Amelie’s personality: at times she is all strength and power on the court, and then suddenly it all melts away. Her shots become tepid. The creampuff interior takes over the girl with the strong, almost masculine body. It’s as if her body gets handcuffed by its own mind.

I think Amelie is at war with her body. Her mind wants to do one thing with the racquet, her body another. She’s got to decide who’s in charge here. Her body is, has been, developed to be capable of bringing a complete game to the tour. She can really do it all. She is big, she is fast, she has a good strong serve, she can crush you with the forehand, yet her backhand slice shot can be rather delicate and she has a wonderful one-hand topspin backhand as well. One-handers are especially lovely in my book anyway, hers is really nice. She can play net, but she seems happy staying in the backcourt.

So, what’s her problem? Why hasn’t she won the French twice now, and maybe the Aussie at least once? I keep waiting along with the rest of us, I keep hoping things will change for her, that we can rub the magic lamp and out will come finally a wonderfully successful genie of a tennis player, who can show us what it’s like when a really talented female player puts it all together.

Dammit, I want my payoff with this woman. Capriati finally delivered, ditto Davenport. Venus is starting to deliver again. Probably more women players too than I can think of now.

It’s Amelie’s turn. Step up to the plate, as we say in American baseball.

“I need to play with more…aggressivity.” So said Amelie in a TV interview I heard during one of her matches. I remember being charmed by her quaint inventiveness with the English language. And she was certainly defining her difficulty very well. But looking at it now, this comment oddly enough shows her real attitude exactly. She’s speaking with the heart of a Frenchwoman here, swept up as always by the drama of the intellect, the idea of ideas.

She hadn’t a clue what real aggression is. It’s just an idea to her. Instead of wooing me with a lovely turn of phrase, why not come out with, “I’m going to attack her backhand, I’m going to get the returns in play….I’m basically going to rip her a new one with my serve and volley, which I am going to do a lot of in this match.”

Pete Sampras once said, on his upcoming match with Jaime Fillol, that he “was going to go out there and kick his little butt.” I was surprised they let it pass the censor, although Pete did say it with a funny hint of the sarcasm I had heard about but don’t hear often enough.

Now, I pose a question here to the readers: who is more likely to win the match? The guy who kicks butt, or the one who speaks of “aggressivity.”

Who would you put your money on?

That’s the problem with her game. Amelie can’t really go in for the kill. She can’t even say she’d kick a little butt or two. Well, then why are you here? What are you doing on the tennis court?

Peter O’Toole once said that an actor who “can’t go onstage feeling he’s king and fully in charge shouldn’t be out there.”

She lets down in big moments because she is not fully committed to the idea of taking victory yet.

If she’s not careful, Amelie is going to be known as the biggest choker in the game, women’s and men’s tours.

I feel Amelie’s lesbianism may factor into this discussion. In Camille Paglia’s book of essays, Vamps and Tramps, there is a passage discussing Martina Navratilova and her rivalry with Chris Evert. Paglia describes the contradiction between the two, and the reversal of expected roles. Navratilova is the swashbuckling, aggressive dyke tennis player, and Evert is the ice queen, heterosexual groundstroker. Yet Navratilova was the one who broke down in tears if she lost a slam final. Evert was the one who hung tougher emotionally. I recall an early match from her career, when Chris was down match point and 2-5. She pulled herself back and won the match.

My take on Amelie is that, from early childhood, she was perceived as being athletically talented and encouraged to pursue sports. It was ok for her to develop musculature. But the more the muscles developed, perhaps it made it more difficult to reach that female inner part, it somehow got a bit lost in the excitement of a physical life. I imagine the French tolerated her rather masculine appearance. They are more willing to accept male energy when it appears in women, as if often does, than Americans.

Some part of Amelie may want to get off that fast-moving train. Amelie was taught how to be strong and muscular, but not how to deal with the fact she is also a woman. And a lesbian as well. How to incorporate that in such a physical life? It’s difficult, and when the burden is too great, she loses. She lets herself lose it, she chooses to screw things up as it were. There is pressure and more responsibility when you win. Just ask Kuznetsova, who has had a terrible season since winning the U.S. Open last year. This week she lost in the first round of the Open. Amelie views it with trepidation.

She’s got to get over this hurdle. It’s a mental thing. This is my take on it.

If I were coaching Amelie, what would I tell her? This past week I’ve heard Brad Gilbert covering a number of the men’s and women’s matches from the east coast, and I thought he would be a perfect man to ask about Amelie. Lo and behold, he volunteered his own opinion when Amelie played at the Pilot Pen last week.

Brad said he would work on her serve, which he thinks is not nearly as powerful as it could be. He would juice up the first serve, and try to get her to do more with her rather weak second serve. Basically, it sounds like Brad wants to tweak her game a bit, he thinks they are small adjustments but crucial when it comes to deciding who wins a Slam and who doesn’t.

I would take the critique a few steps further. The lack of power Amelie shows in her serving game sometimes is also reflected by her other “loopy” style of hitting the ball. Everything seems to have a ton of topsin on it, including her serve. Now topspin can be a wonderful thing, so they tell me. Having grown up in the era of the serve and volley game, I found the arrival of Mr. Borg both fascinating and rather perplexing. No one really uttered the word “topspin” before he came along. The main reason you want topspin is to give yourself a margin of error. But how much margin does Amelie need before she starts sacrificing power for control?

Amelie needs to reclaim her power. This would be more than just a little “tweaking” of her game. She may need to rework her swing, which is very elongated. I would try to work with her on getting more flatness on her forehand shot. Go for more power in other words. I noticed in her play the last few weeks that, when she encounters a rival equal to her like Henin-Hardenne, she has a tendency to hit topspin forehands which may confound nine out of ten of the other women on tour. But when she hits the other big girls in the draw, that loopiness won’t work. Her shots tend to sit up, and Henin-Hardenne was able to really drive them back for winners.

Some coach needs to come into Amelie’s life who can tell her, day after day, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight, flat line. Draw her a picture if you need to. In an ideal world, she should be coached by someone like Jimmy Connors, who knew all about flat, driven shots and how to crush his opponents. The fact he went out and totally decimated a wonderful player and a gentleman like Ken Rosewall suggests to me he’s the perfect guy for a player like Amelie. He had no qualms at all. Amelie has qualms up her wazoo, I would guess.

She needs to get over that. Get her off the baseline. A little man in a red cape with a triton should run along the baseline and prod her in the butt each time she’s inclined to retreat behind the baseline.

Make her come to net more. She so dominates the lesser players in the early rounds of tournaments, that I am surprised she does not try and work on her game more during those matches. They are learning opportunities. She should practice serving and volleying on them. As a female player, you can still do that in the early rounds. It’s not like the men’s field, which is now solid just about from top to bottom of an average tournament. Any guy can almost beat any guy. You have to play for real, no practicing allowed.

Topspin doesn’t have to be floating loopiness. Look at Nadal’s game, he hits a ton of topspin too, but it has tremendous bite on it. I don’t want to change his game to make him hit more flat drives. I would be terrified if Nadal learns how to hit a flat drive. The ball may end up travelling at the speed of sound. God help us. Ditto Fernando Gonzalez’s forehand. Topspin for sure, but it is the scariest looking shot, as McEnroe said once, in tennis today.

I would work with her on her attitude. Against a match last week with Medina-Garrigues of Spain, commentator Mary Jo Hernandez observed that Amelie never really went for her shots. She kept getting the ball in play, hoping her opponent would miss. Amelie should be imposing her game. Even when she had break points, Amelie was not being aggressive enough.

Just for the hell of it I focused on watching only her legs move. This was against the big newcomer Groenefeld, whom Amelie should have been pushing around from the start. But she wasn’t. Her tendency is to want to hug the baseline. And not even the baseline: often she drifts several feet in back of it. She would advance a step or two as she hits the ball, but then she retreats behind the baseline.

The problem with Amelie is not in her body, it’s in her mind. But how do you change that without leaving the woman a complete basket case? Does her being gay factor in here at all? Does loving women mean you can’t go on there on a court and crush them good?

If I sound exasperated with Amelie Mauresmo, it’s because I am. If she were like Amanda Coetzer in build, small in stature without any “power” shots, I wouldn’t care as much about her game. But she’s 5’9″, strong as a rock, she should really be wailing on the ball, and eager to rush the net every chance she gets.

Everything about this woman’s game says, “I am going to be in your face!” Power everywhere you look.

But the attitude keeps her from achieving that.

Why she hasn’t reconciled this is one of the greatest mysteries in women’s tennis today.

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A Top Ten Quip List For Johnny Mac

Some years ago I was slogging my way back down the Pacific Coast Highway on my bike, munching my banana and minding my own busines. When I passed a row of art galleries in Santa Monica, CA, I happened to spot a curly-headed guy coming out of one of the galleries. He still looked pretty trim, although the hairline was starting to recede a bit even back then.

Could that be John McEnroe? I asked myself. Sure looks like him. But what the hell would Johnny Mac be doing in an art gallery, for God’s sake? If he didn’t have a racquet in his hand, he would more likely be holding an electric guitar anyway, or exiting a nightclub. Nah, that can’t be Mac. He was carrying a couple of paintings, which he rather casually plopped in the back seat of his sports car.

A few weeks later, my boyfriend points out a New York Times article on McEnroe, and his fascination and growing knowledge of the art world. Really interesting stuff. Turns out Mac had started his own art gallery on Greene Street. Damn, I said. So that guy WAS John McEnroe.

And I missed my chance to nail his ass! How many times have we said to ourselves, “Boy, would I like to utter a great quip to HIM.” One of the leading MotorMouths of our time.

I thought we should take a stab at rectifying that situation, don’t you? So with this column, I propose a Top Ten Quip List to bedevil the wily shotmaker himself. It might go something like this…


10. “Hey, what d’ya mean, chalk flew up you moron!”

9. “You and that Swedish guy, come on now, you were really queer for each other, weren’t you?”

8. “So John, what were you thinking of with that cable show?”

7. “Great second serve, John….no, not the racket, your WIFE, babyface.”

6. “Oh my God, he IS serious!”

5. “Hey, at least Tatum didn’t have to hunt you down in Europe for child support.”

4. “Whatever you do, John, don’t let your kids grow up to be two-handed backhanders. Umpiring is a noble line of work, right?”

3. “Oh my God, it’s….it’s….BOHDAN ULIHRACH!”

For the truly creative among you, I have saved the last two spots on the team for you, Dear Readers, to add your own insults to the heap.



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US Open 2005: the many faces of Amelie

Amelie Mauresmo is one of the few top women players who’s not injured or recovering from an injury going into the US Open. Maria Sharapova is recovering from a strained pectoral muscle. Mary Pierce strained her right thigh winning the title at the Acura Classic and hasn’t played since. Last year’s champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, strained her back and is already out of the Open having lost in the first round, the first time that has ever happened. Venus Williams has had the flu and Serena, well, who knows what the problem is this time.

Lindsay Davenport also had a sore back but she won last week at the Pilot Pen so her back must be okay. Davenport does not seem to have the steam to finish the championship match at a slam, though. She ran out of gas in the final at the Australian and lost to Venus in a brilliant final at Wimbledon after winning the first set. Katrina the mighty storm could make it’s way up to New York and dump some rain on this event causing delays which might force players to finish one match and play another on the same day. Not a good scenario for Davenport.

Davenport doesn’t meet anyone tough in her Open draw until Mauresmo in the semifinals but first Mauresmo has to get past Justine Henin-Hardenne and even if she does, she’s not likely to beat Davenport. Mauresmo was the loser in the Pilot Pen final and a look at that match goes a long way in explaining why Mauresmo is part of that unfortunate group of players who get asked the same question in every interview, “You’re a very good player who’s never won a slam. Could this be your year to win one?”

Davenport pushed Mauresmo all over the court. She hit a winner on the very first point of the match. Mauresmo couldn’t serve and volley all the time because the court is slow enough for Davenport to run balls down but she should have gone for winners whenever possible, snuck in to the net and approached off the return of serve if she wanted to beat Davenport for the first time in five years. She finally approached off the return in the sixth game but she kept looping shots and hitting backhand slices instead of going for winners. She had a chance to win the first set but by the second set, Davenport was on a roll. She ended up with 40 winners versus 17 for Mauresmo and she also came to the net more often winning 85% of her points there.

It’s tough enough to have broad shoulders and a muscly body even without Martina Hingis calling you “half a man.” If you are also a lesbian, we have an additional set of roles for you to fill. You are no doubt butch and you probably like to be on top.

Mauresmo is an interesting case. She has all the talent in the world, she’s big and strong, she can run balls down and she hits every stroke in the book, but she may suffer from our expectations of her.

Competitive sports values a strong physical build combined with an aggressive manner. You can have an aggressive manner without a strong physical build – look at Lleyton Hewitt – but if you have a strong physical build without the aggressive manner, we will be disappointed in you. We expect one to follow from the other.

It’s tough enough to have broad shoulders and a muscly body even without Martina Hingis calling you “half a man.” If you are also a lesbian, we have an additional set of roles for you to fill. You are no doubt butch and you probably like to be on top.

In the gay and lesbian community, we know better. When we grew up watching the man pursue the woman in a romantic movie, we might have identified with him or we might have dressed up in lace and fishnet stockings. As we sometimes say, “butch on the streets, femme in the sheets.”

Identity is a complex issue. Our goals might be at odds with our personality. Mauresmo clearly wants to win a slam but she might not have enough aggressiveness to beat the top one or two players in the game. So be it. She probably has a hard enough time with her own expectations without us adding additional expectations to the mix.

Kim Clijsters is another of the players in the Open who is injury free and also a member of “top player who doesn’t have a slam victory yet” club. This might be her year.

no more heroes – Palmeiro and Armstrong

Lance Armstrong’s seven straight Tour de France victories and Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak sit on top of the pile when it comes to incredible feats in sports.

The year after Babe Ruth was released by the Yankees, Joe DiMaggio arrived in New York and led the Yankees to a championship as a rookie. He served in the army during World War II and later married Marilyn Monroe. More than enough reasons to make him an American hero. Lance Armstrong is a hero because he survived a lethal bout with cancer and recovered well enough to not only ride again and win a Tour de France, but to keep on riding until he’d won more than any other man in history.

The last time a French rider won the Tour de France was 1985. An American rider has now won ten of the last twenty Tours – Greg LeMond won in 1986 and 1989-90. France was already pissed off at the US before their riders started taking over France’s premier sports event so it’s not surprising that the French newspaper L’Equipe reported that a B sample of Armstrong’s blood taken during his first Tour win showed the presence of EPO, a form of blood doping. It helps that French libel laws force the libeled person to prove that the newspaper’s report is false. L’Equipe journalists are well aware that this is a tough standard to satisfy.

When French resident Roman Polanski sued Vanity Fair for reporting a story that he tried to seduce a young actress on the way to the funeral for his slain wife, Sharon Tate, he tried his case in England and not France because England’s libel laws require the publisher to prove that their information is true. Polanski won the case.

It’s more surprising to read the response of Tour de France director, Jean-Marie Leblanc: “… these are no longer rumors or insinuations, these are proven scientific facts.” Without an A sample of Armstrong’s blood and lab verification that the sample belongs to Armstrong ( the French anti-doping lab has refused to do this), the testing standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency have not been upheld and the result is not scientifically proven.

More than surprising, and even shocking, is the comment by Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (and an American). He’s not sure an A sample is necessary. “You can count on the fingers of one hand the times a B sample has not confirmed the result of the A sample,” Pound said.

He may be expressing the cynicism Americans now feel after ten years of lies about steroid use by professional and amateur athletes. Year after year, baseball players blew up till they looked like the Michelin man and attributed their new body to dietary changes or working out with their wife’s trainer. The Balco scandal opened our eyes but still left questions – who was doing what and when? Jose Canseco’s book, Juiced, answered our questions but how much of it could we believe? Then came Rafael Palmeiro’s positive test for steroids and that was it. We thought baseball players might have been cheatin’ and lyin’ but we weren’t sure and we didn’t want to believe it. Now we had no choice.

Palmeiro’s positive test result was like finding out that your lover is cheating on you. You’re not only deeply wounded but you’re ashamed that you didn’t see it and you don’t believe it when your lover says that it was just a fling.

Palmeiro and his brethren wanted to protect their careers until after the Hall of Fame ballots were cast. Palmeiro is one of only twenty-six players in the history of baseball to hit over five hundred home runs and get three thousand hits. Admitting to steroid use would have been the same as erasing his numbers over night.

Baseball players may have been reflecting America’s attitude towards winning at all costs or they might have been shaping it when they testified in front of congress that they never used steroids. Either way, Palmeiro’s positive test result was like finding out that your lover is cheating on you. You’re not only deeply wounded but you’re ashamed that you didn’t see it and you don’t believe it when your lover says that it was just a fling. We want to believe in our sports heroes but we’re not sure we can.

We’re not sure it’s possible for a man to recover from an aggressive form of cancer then go out and ride up and down impossibly steep mountains faster than any other cyclist on the planet without using illegal performance enhancing substances. And that’s very sad.

[Correction: Dick Pound is a Canadian, for some reason I was confusing him with Dick Button the former Olympic skater and television analyst. There are a few similarities, they were both Olympic athletes and they both have law degrees, but that’s about it.]

abusive parents and cash cows in women’s tennis

Another female tennis player has been abused by her father/manager. The Los Angeles Times reports that Semen Linetskiy, the father of Evgenia Linetskaya, 18, was arrested on August 5 during the Acura Classic Tournament on suspicion of battery. Linetskaya is a Russian player currently ranked number forty-four on the WTA Tour.

Linetskaya suffered a cut on the back of her head that required stitches and bruises on her mouth. A cut on the back of her head. How do you get that unless someone hits you with a weapon or at least an object used as a weapon? If you get pushed backwards and fall, usually you get a bad bump. If you were pushed hard enough, then your head might split open. This was not a quick, regrettable slap to the face, this was a beating.

We’ve been here before. The fathers of Mary Pierce and Jelena Dokic have been banned from tournaments for abusive behavior towards their daughters.

The women’s tour is different than the men’s tour. Men and women start playing junior tournaments at the same age but women mature on the pro tour earlier. The youngest female player to reach number one was Martina Hingis at age sixteen. Lleyton Hewitt was the youngest male at age twenty.

Tracy Austin was only fourteen years old when she won her first tour event. Amazingly enough, she didn’t even play the French Open when she was ranked number one because she had to go to class in the public school she attended. The idea of a top ranked tour player going to a public school today is preposterous let alone skipping a grand slam. No chance. Never happen. Players are dragged from their homelands to Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy or Rick Macci’s academy in Florida and their lives are structured around tennis, not a public school schedule, from that day forward.

The transition from teenager to adult is difficult enough even if you are not a touring professional paying most of your family’s bills.

The families of these players dedicate their lives to developing champion tennis players who also happen to be lucrative sources of income. There are teenage WTA players who are the main financial providers for their families.

If you’ve ever gone through a divorce or sat through the reading of a will, you know how explosive the issue of family and money can be. A loving relationship of many years can harden into a financial dispute when an ex-wife or husband is faced with the prospect of diminished income. We may have said goodbye to the love but saying goodbye to the money can sometimes be harder. The police report on the arrest of Linetskaya’s father says that the argument between father and daughter started with the subject of tournament prize money.

The WTA has a responsibility to protect and educate these young players. NBA rookies are required to attend seminars covering everything from avoiding gold diggers to money management. The WTA should hold required seminars at least once or twice a year for new tour members that should include counseling and resources to deal with abuse.

The transition from teenager to adult is difficult enough even if you are not a touring professional paying most of your family’s bills. The tour needs to structure a level of separation between player and parent to make this transition easier and protect younger players. One way to do this is to put the player’s earnings into a trust administered by a third party until the player comes of age and can administer it herself. Money for expenses and training and a set percentage for the parent/manager can be taken out of the trust. The administrator of the trust could act as a very valuable outside buffer to protect young players from overly controlling and sometimes abusive parents.

The parents are not the only ones profiting from these underage cash cows. These players are the income generating product of the WTA. Ten of the top sixty players are eighteen or younger. The WTA needs to take steps to protect them else they risk looking like accomplices to the abusive parents they ban from tournaments.