Monthly Archives: September 2008

Should the WTA and ATP Combine? Davydenko Is Cleared, More or Less

Is it time for the WTA and ATP to become one? Nikolay Davydenko has been cleared on gambling charges but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a fixed match.

The WTA + the ATP = WWT?

There are tennis matches this week despite my phase out last Sunday when I forgot to post fantasy tennis picks for the ATP tournament in Bucharest. Sorry about that. And I’m even more sheepish now because I’d picked Gilles Simon for the US Open so he rolled over to my fantasy team. That means I earned $90,000 when he defended his title in Bucharest today by beating Carlos Moya in straight sets. Anyway, I thought Davis Cup was this weekend but it’s not, instead we have the Federation Cup final between Russia and Spain.

Russia had won three of the last four Fed Cup titles and today makes it four out of five as Svetlana Kuznetsova beat Anabel Medina Garrigues. Kuznetsova and Russia’s other singles player Vera Zvonareva are, incredibly, the fourth and fifth best Russian players and they’re both in the top ten. You might be tempted to think that Russia chose Kuznetsova and Zvonareva because they’re better clay court players than higher ranked Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina, but Dementieva is 14-4 on clay this year and Safina is even better at 14-3. At that rate, it’ll be 2015 before Russia loses a Fed Cup tie.

Davis Cup is next weekend and I don’t see why Fed Cup isn’t scheduled at the same time. Players need more than five days off after a slam and this brings up a bigger conversation: should the ATP and the WTA combine to become one organization? First of all, what would we call it? The Professional Tennis Association (PTA)? That’s a no if you live in the US because there’s a PTA in every school. It stands for Parent Teacher Association. Hmm, how about World Wide Tennis Association (WWTA)? Is that too close to World Wide Wrestling? Maybe, but what’s wrong with that? Let’s drop the A and go with World Wide Tennis (WWT)? If you’ve got a better suggestion, and I hope you do, leave it and I’ll post the best one.

The issue came up because Etienne de Villiers is out as the ATP CEO at the end of the year and some have suggested that Larry Scott, the CEO of the WTA, would be a good choice to take his place. I bet you can guess the first issue that popped into most players’ minds: prize money. When someone asked Ivan Ljubicic – who was recently voted onto the ATP Board of Directors as a player representative – what he thought about the possibility of the ATP and the WTA combining, he said, “Maybe, but there couldn’t be equal prize money.” When someone asked Jelena Jankovic the same question she said, “Maybe, but there would have to be equal prize money.”

By next year, prize money will be equal at ten events which are either combined events or events played in the same venue. For instance, men and women both play in Dubai but on different dates. Both organizations already have required minimum prize money for tournaments at the same level – the slams are at one level, Masters events at the next level, etc. If the combined organization – what did I call it, the WWT – required the same minimum prize money for men and women’s events at the same level, that would be a good start.

If there were fewer women’s events at that level or some of the women’s events didn’t pay as much as the most lucrative men’s events at the same level, I think the WTA should still combine with the ATP. The trend towards equal prize money is only going to continue and it’ll be more likely to continue with a combined organization because women will have equal power in that new organization.

And that, of course, is the problem. The men don’t want to give up their power or financial advantage. But both tours attract similar enough sponsors and combined events increase popularity in a sport that needs some help. It’s time for the first combined men’s and women’s professional organization among the big sports.

Davydenko Can Breathe Easy

The ATP has cleared Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo-Arguello of fixing a match they played in Sopot, Poland, in August 2007. It was a big deal because the irregular betting pattern in that match caused, an online betting site, to void all bets on the match and that kicked off huge changes in the ATP’s handling of gambling issues. They now have an anti-fraud unit and several players have been suspended for gambling on matches.

But it doesn’t mean that the match wasn’t fixed. It means that the ATP couldn’t prove the match was fixed. The ATP couldn’t get access to the phone records of Davydenko’s brother or wife. Those records – from a German cellphone carrier – have now been destroyed, the New York Times reported today, in accordance with Germany’s data protection laws.

Without the phone records, the ATP can’t connect Davydenko or his camp to the gamblers on Befair who would have benefited from Davydenko losing the match. Those phone records may not have proven anything either but no one has come up with a better explanation for the highly irregular betting pattern on the match. Davydenko suggested that Russian speakers at the tournament may have overheard him talking about his injured toe to his wife or brother on court, but that doesn’t explain why his opponent already had enough money bet on him to make him the prohibitive favorite before the match had even started. And it’s extremely unlikely that two account holders would bet a combined $6 million dollars on Davydenko’s opponent because someone overheard a comment at the match. If that were the case, there’s be a whole lot of irregular betting patterns.

Davydenko wasn’t the only player to be exonerated, kind of. Last month, Roscoe Tanner had grand theft charges against him dropped after paying restitution for bouncing checks to buy two Toyota Highlanders from a dealership in Knoxville, Tennessee. This is the same guy that bounced a check for over $35,000 then spent two years in jail for failing to pay restitution payments thus violating probation. Tanner bought those cars for the daughters of his third wife and he has now added two more children to the his world of disappointment. Three other daughters are already too familiar with unpaid child support and courtroom visits with their father. By bouncing a check then paying court costs and the depreciation due to driving the cars off the lot, Tanner has avoided further legal problems.

I think both men got off easily.

The Return of Two Very Different Champions

Roger Federer and Serena Williams are US Open champions and two very different people.

I’m not really sure how he did it. Roger Federer lost to Gilles Simon, Ivo Karlovic, and James Blake in consecutive hard court events and yet here he is, US Open champion for the fifth straight year.

I know how Serena Williams did it. She won her US Open title with superior will. Roger and Serena are an interesting study in contrast. Federer depends on settling into his fluid game so he can just forget about it and focus on a strategy to beat the other guy. Serena has been known to take notes onto the court with reminders for her game. When it comes to strategy, she relies on overpowering her opponent as much as outthinking them.

And Roger did outthink Andy Murray. The most he’d say about his strategy was the following:

I realized coming in against him, chip and charging in the third set was going to be a good solution.

I’m pretty sure Murray has never seen that many slices in his entire life. The poor guy didn’t seem to know whether he was coming or going. To the net, that is. Though he didn’t elaborate beyond that when it came to strategy, Roger was outright sharing when it came to his state of mind:

You know, I lost quite a few matches I should have never lost, and they hurt.

And then there was this:

I actually beat some really good players in tough conditions, and the relief was enormous as I was progressing in the tournament.

and this:

Those are the reasons I had to four times show a lot of emotion at the very end [of his semifinal with Djokovic]. But it’s true that I am trying to push myself, you know, not to be actually more emotional, but to try to play well.

which clarifies the situation. I think. He’s not pushing himself to be more emotional, he’s using emotion to get himself to play better. By which, I take it, he means that he was so dominant in past years and his game was so automatic that he didn’t need to do anything but stay relaxed enough to hit his strokes well and carry out his game strategy.

And that brings up emotional contrasts between Roger and Serena. Roger depends on an easygoing existence with little or no controversy. I think he once called out Novak Djokovic for injury timeouts and he suffered through the death of his mentor Peter Carter early in his career, but no one on tour has a bad thing to say about him and life has been a bowl of cherries for the past five years except for a bout of mononucleosis and some unexpected losses this year. Those don’t qualify as controversy as much as physical hardship and, to some degree, the result of playing a high level of tennis for a long time.

Serena has had dealt with more controversy than any other current player I can think of except maybe her sister Venus. Their father Richard often makes absurd comments about race but the sisters have heard racist taunts from spectators. Serena was mercilessly booed when Venus pulled out a semifinal match against Serena at the last minute in the 2001 Indian Wells tournament. Two years later, her older sister Yetunde was shot and killed about a mile away from the courts in Compton where Serena and Venus played growing up.

The Williams family may have been complicit in what happened in Indian Wells but the other stuff is indicative of life as a black family in the US. You can only outrun your neighborhood so far in this country. And for all the stability of life in Switzerland that Roger works hard to maintain in his own life, Serena hasn’t even been able to limit herself to the life of a tennis player. Life is nothing if not complex for her. By the way, how’d you like to have to go through your sister to win your championship? Most people probably don’t even know that Roger has a sister.

Both Serena and Venus have their own lines of clothing though they studied at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, not at the feet of Vogue editor Anna Wintour – friend of Roger. I’m not being catty here as much as pointing out that the celebrity thing is also complex. Oscar de la Renta came to Roger’s final but the sisters actually have their own lines of clothing.

Roger seems perfectly comfortable in the limelight as a famous tennis player but Serena actively pursues celebrity beyond the world of tennis. She’s appeared in movie and television roles and dated a Hollywood director for which she received endless grief from people like Chris Evert because, we keep telling her, tennis is a demanding parent. You can’t hope to be one of the best of all time without slavish devotion to the task. But that wasn’t the task she was devoted to and she doesn’t plan to change that as she explained last week:

There are some things I’m doing outside with ANERES [her clothing line] and I have meetings right after this tournament with ANERES. Those are going to be long and tedious, but that’s what I have to do. It’s the time of year I start looking at scripts again.

Roger and Serena are two very different personalities from different cultures and their careers have mirrored that difference. At this moment, though, they’re both in the same position at the top of the tennis world. Welcome back, both of you.

Murray Wears Nadal Out to Gets to the US Open Final

Andy Murray fooled around a bit too much but managed to beat Rafael Nadal in four sets to reach his first slam final.

The US Open semifinal match between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal was interrupted by tropical storm Hannah on Saturday afternoon and resumed on Sunday afternoon after the early US football games ended. Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic will play their final Sunday evening and the men will play their final on Monday.

This has me so screwed up that I missed my fantasy picks. I didn’t realize there was a tournament next week in Bucharest until I got a very angry email. Whoops. Well, let’s see if I can at least do this right.

Rafael Nadal lives off consistency and conditioning and we were wondering when he’d lose one of those after a French Open/Wimbledon double and an Olympic gold medal on the other side of the world. He limped into this tournament last year with blisters and it was only a matter of time before someone beat him.

There were no blisters this year and Nadal lost only two sets coming into his semifinal but he looked tired. He was hitting balls short and giving up the court to Murray. For all of Murray’s new found conditioning, he also got tired at the beginning of the third set on Saturday after winning the first two sets in pretty strong fashion and, remember, he lost in the first round in Beijing so he had plenty of time to prepare.

Nadal was up a break at 3-2 in the third set when the rains came on Saturday and he managed to close out the third set on Sunday but he didn’t look strong enough to win three straight sets and he wasn’t. He fought off seven break points in his first service game in the third set with an assortment of aces and clutch winners. It lifted his game but it took something out of him too.

Murray was so disappointed at not getting the break that he coughed up his serve at love in the next game and then he started playing cute tennis as if to say, like some cartoon character, “Now I got you where I want you.” I squirmed in my seat waiting for those hard flat shots but they weren’t coming. You could tell Nadal wasn’t feeling great because Murray didn’t have to pay for it.

Murray broke back to get to 3-3 and in the next game, he hit another one of those dumb drop shots and this one was really dumb, it popped up into the air with a sign on it saying “hit me, hit me.” Nadal sprinted in and hit the ball hard down the line but Murray stuck out a one-handed backhand and bunted it back into the open court to stay on serve.

If he plays like that against Federer he’ll be sorry but there’s a fine line between playing cute and playing smart tactical tennis and Murray finally figured it out. He wasn’t quite as sharp with his flat winners as he had been the day before so he hit inside out slices that bounced away from Nadal’s backhand to open up Nadal’s forehand side and give himself a bit more room to play to play with. And with Nadal serving to stay in the match at 4-5, Murray played a masterful point.

Murray looped shots back and forth with Nadal until he got him out of position then hit six straight shots to opposite corners of the court and progressively wore Rafa down before hitting one last sweet volley to the open court. Murray now had match point and Rafa was leaning over sucking air. It had been a long hot summer and Rafa had finally given out. He was just too exhausted to go. Instead of getting run ragged in another long rally, Rafa hit a drop shot early in the next point and watched as Murray hit it past him.

Murray won’t be lucky enough to get a night’s sleep between the third and fourth set in the final and he’ll face another master strategist in Roger Federer who looks plenty rested. If Murray can pressure Federer and serve well, he has a good shot at winning his first slam. If he fools around too much, the match will go on too long and Federer will get his fifth straight US Open title.

Super Saturday Interruptus at the US Open

Roger Federer dusted off Novak Djokovic before I was barely conscious and Andy Murray blasted to a two set lead over Rafael Nadal before tropical storm Hannah interrupted.

I drove an hour and a half for a dinner date last night and got home late, and by the time I rolled out of bed this morning, the first semifinal at the US Open was already in the fourth set. Not only that but, curiously, the second semifinal was already a set old. Wha’ happened?

Tropical storm Hannah was on her way and the storm switched everything up. And now I’m in trouble on two accounts because of her. Our writer Lexa Lee made it back to her New Orleans home but the cable is out again today and I missed the Roger FedererNovak Djokovic match which I was supposed to record. I’m in deep do do over that I can tell you.

The semifinal between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal was also messed up. The organizers switched the match from the main Arthur Ashe Stadium to the secondary Louis Armstrong Stadium and it seemed to bother Rafa the most. Maybe it was the incessant drone of airplanes Hannah rerouted or the early start time, but Rafa was out of sorts. Things were already strange because Federer actually beat Djokovic in four sets and no doubt that unsettled Rafa as much as it surprised everyone else.

Everything wasn’t messed up. The top four players were in the semifinals. Murray wasn’t a top four seed but he’s now the fourth ranked player on tour due to his semifinal run and he was playing like it. He hit aces and controlled the match from behind the baseline while Rafa was misfiring.

Murray was taking advantage of the situation with his full complement of court smarts. Rafa was down a break at 2-4 in the first set and Murray was playing peek-a-boo. He rolled a shot deep then unloaded a flat downhill backhand winner to the same side of the court where Rafa was standing. Don’t underestimate the advantage of height for a shot like that. How often do you see Rafa hit anything downhill? Murray then rolled a soft return deep and Rafa set up on the deuce side of the court to run around his backhand if the opportunity arose. But it didn’t. Murray immediately hit a flat winner down the line and he had break point.

When you hit a wide serve, most people return it cross court to give themselves time to get back into the point. Murray didn’t do that. On the break point, he returned a wide serve by curling it into the sideline corner of the service box on his side of the court, a very tough shot. Rafa volleyed it crosscourt but that left Murray with an open court if he got to the ball and he did. He now had his second break in the set to go up 5-2 and served it out to go up a set.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Murray. I’ve read Brad Gilbert’s books about working with Andre Agassi and listened to Agassi talk about his opponents and he missed nothing. But his game was simple. He did his best to get his opponent moving while he set up in the middle of the court and directed traffic. Murray doesn’t have Agassi’s power and isn’t quite as good a returner – who is? – but he’s got much more game. He can dictate with his serve, come to the net, out-defend most opponents, and play deep or short.

Murray also has more hitting options. He can loop the ball or flatten it out. He reminds me of the baseball pitcher Greg Maddux, a sure Hall of Famer who’s known for his combination of hard, soft, and in between pitch speeds combined with intimate knowledge of his opponents hitting tendencies.

We’ve seen Rafa start off slowly before then progressively tighten his grip. If he wins the second set and gets a break in the third, we’re off to get a snack or return an important phone call because the match is over. And he did wake up in the beginning of the second set, but Murray looped another ball to Rafa’s backhand and followed it up with another flat winner down the line for two break points in the third game of the set.

Rafa held on but Murray got two more break point on Nadal’s next service game. You knew Murray was thinking out there because he wasn’t hitting those dumb drop shots and when he did hit one on the second break point, he paid for it. Rafa held again but Murray was dictating and that defense! Rafa served wide at 4-4 then hit to the opposite corner and came in behind it. Murray not only got to the ball but he whipped a passing shot crosscourt and just beyond Rafa’s reach.

By the time they arrived at the second set tiebreaker, Rafa had fought off a few more break points and Murray was hitting more errors. Rafa was up 5-4 in the tiebreaker and it looked like he was about to turn the tide. But he returned a Murray serve and the ball ticked the top of the net and fell back on his side of the court. There were two interesting things about this. We already saw that Murray was playing deep behind the baseline and now he had tried to outkick Rafa. That serve Rafa muffed kicked so high that Rafa couldn’t get it back over the net. Many times players are egotistical enough to try and beat an opponent at their own game and they fail miserably. Pete Sampras – the ultimate serve and vollyer – tried it at the French Open. He tried to beat clay court players from the baseline. How’s that for making life unnecessarily difficult? But Murray was succeeding. As for the second interesting thing, it’s usually Rafa who wins that kind of critical point then goes on to run out the match for a victory, Murray has been known to be suspect in such situations.

Murray won the last two points of the tiebreaker and now he was up two sets to none and I wasn’t sure what to think. Did I want a Federer-Murray final or a five set barnburner? Whichever it was I wanted it to be a high level of play but Murray fell apart in the first game of the third set and Rafa broke him. Murray pulled himself together to win the next two service games but some of the airplane sounds weren’t airplanes, they were gathering thunderstorms. Hannah finally hit land and tennis was finished for the day.

Who benefits most from the break? Could go either way. Murray looked like he was getting tired – he was starting to rush his shots – so he could probably use a rest. But he was also cracking serves and ground strokes and who knows if he’ll have those when they resume. And now Nadal’s team knows Murray’s strategy. Nadal gets another day of rest and gets to start over but his momentum was just picking up and now it’s been interrupted.

I’m guessing Rafa can’t take three straight sets from Murray and we won’t have the Grapple in the Apple, we’ll have the Donnybrook in the Borough. What do you think?

Don’t be like me, check your local listing from here on. The men’s semifinal will continue on Sunday afternoon, the women’s final is on Sunday night, and the men’s final gets pushed to Monday.

By the way, while you’re twiddling your thumbs as we wait for tennis to resume, take a shot at this from tennis Addictionary.

The Williams Sisters Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

Serena and Venus Williams met up with each other at yet another slam but this time it wasn’t a US Open final on Saturday night prime time TV, it was a quarterfinal match on a cable channel.

(By the way, hang in there with us. Our write Lexa Lee is holed up in her partially damaged house without power in New Orleans so we’re trying to cover and bring you as much tennis as we can.)

As soon as Serena Williams had beaten her sister Venus to move into the semifinals at the US Open on Wednesday evening, the questions started:

…do you think the two best players on the women’s side were identified in this match tonight?
After working that hard did you feel like your work here at the Open should be done?
Is it a little disappointing to have a match of this caliber not yield a trophy?

Those questions were asked at the post-match media session and no doubt Serena wouldn’t have heard them if this hadn’t been her home court slam, but the inquisitors had short memories. Neither Serena nor Venus has reached a final here since they met each other in the 2002 final which Serena won. And Venus is the seventh seed here while Serena is the fourth seed.

The USA Network broadcast yielded a similar thought:

To the public, this is the championship match.

It depends on which public you mean. If someone in, say, Russia or Serbia watched the match, I seriously doubt they’d agree with that statement. Elena Dementieva beat Serena in Beijing at the Olympics, Dinara Safina beat Serena in Berlin this year, and Jelena Jankovic beat Serena at the Australian open in January. And those three players are still around. We also wouldn’t have heard these comments if Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova were here, I’m just saying that it’s disrespectful to international competitors who are having excellent seasons and a very good tournament.

Having said that, we saw a fantastic match. Serena called it the sisters’ second best match after the 2003 Australian Open final which Serena also won.

Venus broke Serena early in the first set then tried to serve out at 5-4 and that’s when the fun began. Serena knew Venus would be nervous so she got her butt to the net on the very first point and put the ball away. Sometimes it helps to play your sister. You know her game, yes, but you definitely read her emotions much better than any other player on tour.

And Serena’s intensity was just that much greater. She was doing that thing she does: she gets to the ball with plenty of time then completely unloads on it. Serena creeped in and creamed a second serve on break point and now she was even with Venus at 5-5. She just took it to Venus in that game.

In the tiebreaker, Serena put two balls into the net and Venus hit a good running passing shot to go up 5-3. I’m tellin’ ya, Venus was outplaying Serena. Serena faced two set points at 6-4 and this is where she summoned up her bad loser and this is the difference between the sisters. Venus has the better game and if they both played their best level, Venus wins. She has a bigger serve and better footwork. But Serena is meaner. She talked about it after the match:

Venus is a great sport. I think the best sport in all of tennis. I’m probably one of the worst sports, so she always has a great attitude. …like I’m not a good loser. I mean, I like to win and not just in tennis, just in life.

When faced with set points, as Serena said, “at that point you have to focus or you have to go home, so…” So, you find a way to win.

Venus slipped on the first set point – for some reason, if she slipped, I can picture Serena taking a whack at the ball and putting it away even if she had to stand on her head to do it – and Serena hit an ace on the second. One more good point by Serena and an error by Venus at the first set was over.

Venus broke Serena again in the second set and tried to serve it out at 5-3. She was up 40-0 with three set points when the comparison kicked in again. Venus coughed up one of the set points with an error but Serena saved the other two by forcing Venus into errors. Venus added two more errors and she’d given away her set.

Venus got another set point with Serena serving at 5-6 and I cringed at the thought of what could possibly happen this time and there it was again, another Venus error and you could see Serena pumping herself up. I don’t think Serena minds beating her sister anywhere near as much as Venus does and you could see it in her play. A few points later Venus smacked a ball to the corner then followed it to the net and smacked it to the other corner. Serena hit the second ball at Venus’ belly button and into the net the ball went.

After five deuces, Serena finally sent the match into a second set tiebreaker but it wasn’t over yet. They were both just hammering the ball and, again, Venus was doing most of the hammering. Serena was down 2-4 in tiebreaker when Venus ran her wide and got to the net. It took Venus an overhead and three volleys – all to opposite corners – to put Serena away and it deservedly ended with a standing ovation from the adoring crowd and by now, that included me.

One point later, Venus had three more set points. She hit two backhands late – and I couldn’t believe it –she missed an overhead. By this time we were all feeling for Venus. She got her eighth break point on a challenge then Serena made like John McEnroe with a volley and now I had to agree with everyone – this was the match of the tournament for the women’s side.

One more Venus error and Serena had match point and I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to waste it and she didn’t. Venus hit the ball long and the two sisters met at the net. With a match that was this hard, there was no hug at the net, just a lot of heartbreak on one side of the net and exhausted relief mixed in with some sympathy on the other.

Even though I’m part of the adoring crowd, I’ve watched many a magnificent quarterfinal match and never once thought it should have been the final. I just appreciate the match. And that includes this one.