Wednesday, October 31, 2007

You can do better than that, Nikolay!

There might have been a time in his career when Nikolay Davydenko wished that he were as well known as his contemporaries. If he did, the Russian likely had never heard that American saying about being careful what you ask for.
Davydenko's been very popular lately, but clearly not for the best reasons. There's the suspicious betting patterns reported on a match he played in Poland this year. He's still under the magnifying glass for that one, and so far, has not discussed the incident with the game's top officials. Last week, during a loss in St. Petersburg against Marin Cilic, he was warned by the umpire for not trying hard enough. The next day, he was fined $2,000.
Let's stop right there. Of course, the natural inclination is to watch Davydenko very closely now. It's going to be hard for him to explain the whole Poland thing (...whenever the tennis honchos make room in their schedule for him. Honestly, what's taking them so long? Is this not an important issue that should be squared away?) but is he really dumb enough to throw another match right now? Probably not.
So why would an umpire think Davydenko isn't trying hard? Hmm. Could he be, by any chance, tired?
Guess how many tournaments he's played this year.
Twenty-six. That's 79 matches since January.
Let's check in on a few other schedules. Rafael Nadal: 18 tournaments, 76 matches. Roger Federer: 15 tournaments, 70 matches. Justine Henin: 13 tournaments, 62 matches. Last, and definitely "least": Serena Williams, weighing in with 11 tournaments and 44 matches. No, that number wouldn't be much higher even if she were healthy all year.
So, by far, Davydenko plays far more tournaments, but edges Federer and Nadal in matches played. That would be because those two win most everything they play. Davydenko doesn't.
Anyway, Davydenko basically plays every other week. When he's not playing, he's traveling. When he's not traveling, he's probably practicing. Essentially, he's no slouch. So, the question is: Is he physically capable of playing at his best throughout almost 30 tournaments a year? Even if Davydenko thinks he can, he can't. If he's guilty of anything, it's not using discretion when planning his schedule. Look at Federer's schedule again. He does this crazy thing sometimes between tournaments. It's called "not playing in a tournament just because they're having one and will pay you an obscene amount of money to come." It's crazy, sure, but he's number one in the world. Maybe there's something to it.
In a way, maybe money will talk in this case. The $2,000 fine might finally convince Davydenko to tone down that schedule. I wouldn't bet on it, though. (Sorry. I couldn't resist.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The right way to celebrate

OK. Fine. You’re happy.
Roger Federer should be, darn it. Last month, he won his twelfth Grand Slam at the U.S. Open. Winning a Grand Slam is probably quite mind-consuming. The fact that it’s over with is a relief for anyone playing under that kind of pressure.
It’s got to stop, though. The dropping-to-your-knees celebration. The crying game. Come on, you’re Roger Federer, for crikey’s sake. If you want to dramatically kiss the grass after your first Wimbledon, that’s understandable. But winning is sort of a fact of life for guys like you. When you reach double-digit major titles, it’s time to suck it up.
Unfortunately, since Fed’s the No. 1 player in the world, the other guys in the locker room insist on copying him.
Like Andy Roddick. He can’t beat Federer on the court, so he’ll join him in the lame post-match celebration antics. After locking up the Davis Cup final against Sweden a couple weeks ago, he collapsed on his side to the ground, like a ballerina. I’m shaking my head in disapproval right now.
This is an issue that needs to be addressed. It’s right up there with fixed tennis matches and doping. Some very stringent, very definite big-match celebration models are needed, and everyone (Roger Federer) — everyone (… Roger …) — will need to follow them.
For example:
The skyward fist: Simple, strong, confident. It says, “I won. Duh. What’d you expect?”
The four-cornered wave and kiss: Andre Agassi popularized this form of celebration in his later years on tour. It’s very good for someone who knew the sands were running through the hourglass on his career. This celebration, though, is approaching overuse by such players as Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, who are just a touch younger, and who do it after every single match.
Applauding the crowd: “Hey, spectators, thanks for not a whole lot. I did the running, the hitting, the acing. But at least someone was here to watch me lay down the butt-whupping.”
Tossing the racquet: It’s a celebration that reflects a moment of unbridled emotion, so it’s acceptable and fun. A note of caution: Those without a racquet deal might want to restrain themselves.
Jumping the net to shake opponent’s hand: Besides the obvious risk you could end up looking like Jonny Fairplay after a reverse horsey-back ride from Danny Bonaduce, it might look like you just can’t wait to rub the opponent’s face in it. And that’s a long way to walk for a cold-fish handshake.
Showing off other talents: Gustavo Kuerten endeared thousands of fans by drawing a huge heart in the clay at Roland Garros and collapsing in its center. Novak Djokovic did dead-on imitations of other tennis players, including Sharapova and Rafael Nadal. (If you’re near a computer and need a laugh, check out Djokovic singing “I Will Survive” on YouTube.) Nothing says “show-off” like a jack-of-all-trades, though. And the victor should try not to imitate the player they’ve just beaten.

All about Serena: Just the way she'd want it

If being number one were all about heart and relentless determination to win, there'd be no contest.
If it were about being the most imposing-looking person on the court, it'd be hands-down.
If it came down to being the queen of not the backhand, but of back-handed compliments, the top women's tennis player, for all time, would be Serena
Williams has all of the above, but, alas, is missing one small thing right now: The ability to beat all comers.
At the start of the Moscow tournament, Williams put the tennis world on notice that she was ready to be number one again.
"I definitely think I'm ready for it," she said. "I'm ready to dedicate myself. I'm excited by the fact that I have so much motivation."
There's that heart and determination, but something was missing during the final of the Kremlin Cup against Elena Dementieva. Williams sprayed her shots everywhere through the match, losing 7-5, 1-6, 1-6.
"She played really unbelievable. She should try to play like that more often," Serena said after her beatdown. See what I mean about back-handed compliments? Of course, one of her best potshots would be when she was whipped by Justine Henin at the U.S. Open. "She hit some lucky shots." That after a 7-6, 6-1 drubbing. Those, Serena, are a lot of lucky shots.
The knock on Williams, beside her knack for knowing exactly the right thing to say after she loses, is that she's too much of a part-time player to be number one again. One day, she's an actress, and on another, she's a model. The next day, she's a fashion designer.
Some people hate that Serena isn't chained to tennis, but she can wake up and decide that today, she'll be a tennis champion. And then, she goes ahead and wins the Australian Open. But then, she'll lose the Moscow tournament, getting her doors blown off by someone who's never managed a set off of her before.
So Williams can't expect to be consistent playing whenever she feels like it. Why is that a problem for her critics? Does anyone fault Lindsay Davenport for deciding to start a family while pursuing a pro tennis career? Is motherhood a nobler cause than making sure you have no regrets in life?
There are worse things than being a Jane of all trades. Like, such as, being so dumb that you have probably no idea where your country is on a map, let alone the Iraq and you personally believe that you'll have to rely on your looks for the rest of your life because there are, like, no books in your house.
(Maps, dictionaries and mirrors are all sold at the dollar store.) There's the possibility of growing up under a microscope and under pressure as a tennis
prodigy, and ending up in a Florida jail cell like a teenaged Jennifer Capriati did.
If it's important for Serena Williams to be a well-rounded human being with limitless options for her life, then she's well on her way. If it's equally
important for her to be the best tennis player she can be, well, she's not on her way. She'll have to show the commitment of the Justine Henins, Dementievas and
Jelena Jankovics to beat them, and all the other comers. Williams can talk the talk, easily. Those words are empty if she can't win, or stay fit, consistently.
The ball, as they say, is in her court.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Wanna bet?

Apparently, tennis has increased in popularity in certain circles.
Two Belgian players have come out of the woodwork to admit that they had been offered money to affect the outcome of their matches, and other services. Well, not out of the woodwork. There's a big investigation going on after some betting irregularities were discovered in a Nikolay Davydenko match this summer. Davydenko, so far, has not yet had to sit down and explain to officials how betting against him spiked after he won the opening set. He ultimately retired from the match with an injury.
Gilles Elseneer (claim to fame: world ranking of 99 in July 2004, and working his way back now at 798 in the world) said that he was offered $114,000 to let his first-round opponent roll over him at Wimbledon in 2005.
"They said I should take my time and give them my reply the next day, but I only needed a couple of minutes to realize it was impossible for me to contemplate," Elseneer said. Good for him, because he made only about $30,000 by winning the match. Considering that this is a guy who's made only $473,978 in his ten years on tour, Elseneer ought to be commended. As a point of reference, Roger Federer has made about $36 million in nine years.
Dick Norman says he was offered about $15,000 to offer inside information on player injuries, and he turned it down. Now that's got to make a guy feel good about himself. These guys had decided Norman wasn't even good enough to bet on, but good enough to be a spy. And for only $15,000? You know you have to bring a lot of cash to people who get paid to play a game for a living, and usually pretty handsomely.
Of course, they brought the hard, cold cash for world No. 3 Novak Djokovic, back when he was just Novak Djokovic. "They" offered $255,000 to lose at a small tournament in Russia.
How long will it take to discover who "they" are, by the way? Didn't anyone get a description, or a business card? Oh, right, probably not a lot of business cards. And once "they" get tracked down, what then? "Most Wanted Gamblers" posters in locker rooms? (Now, offering money to turn these guys in, there's an idea.) The fact is that there is a darker side to tennis, and players, especially the journeymen who are barely making enough to get by, will be exposed to it. The question is, how do you make it worth their while to say no? ATP chairman and president Etienne de Villiers thinks a $100,000 fine with the possibility of a lifetime ban is enough. Not. "They" obviously have enough money to cover inconveniences like getting caught. One more zero on that penalty, Mr. de Villiers, and we might be talking. Money talks. Both ways. Give a tennis player a choice between playing it straight, and working as a Wal-Mart greeter for the rest of his life, and that might clean things up a bit.
This all goes to show that when it comes to sniffing out opportunity, tennis seems to be the answer for a lot of people. And it's not just for those from third-world nations hoping the sport will offer them opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. The folks languishing outside your friendly OTB joint had it figured out a while ago. Why bet on baseball, or football, or any team sport, when you can increase your odds by betting on an individual sport?
(If you're low enough to bet on doubles, heaven help you. You have what we like to call a gambling problem.)

Davis Cup: Part duh!

Mark those calendars: Nov. 30-Dec.2.
The American and Russian teams played their way into
the Davis Cup final to set up an appealing match-up
that likely will include three of the top 10 players
in the world. So don't forget. Nov. 30.
And how could you forget? It's only two months away.
How's that for a momentum killer?
Seriously, this Davis Cup format is ridiculous. It's
like being at the Summer Olympics and completing the
qualifying round for hurdles, and finishing it off in
September. The tennis powers-that-be will probably
take their sweet time in even considering a different
format for the Cup.
It's unfortunate, too, because there are a lot of
interesting story lines in play for this final.
Russia, which just snagged the Fed Cup last weekend,
has a legitimate shot at bringing home the men's
equivalent. Both teams have the same captain, Shamil
Tarpishchev. Both of his teams will have to win on
American soil to take home the Cup. (His Fed Cup trip
to Vermont was a bit bumpy, since he had a little
trouble getting a visa for reasons that remain
unknown.) He's won either competition for the last
five years, but never both in the same year. Another
interesting development will involve Marat Safin,
Russia's former number one. Now, he's ranked 27 in the
world, and guess where he was last weekend during the
Germany match? That's right, contemplating the
sixth-highest mountain in the world instead of an
on-court opponent.
Really. Mountain climbing.
Safin is nursing a wrist injury, though, and even
though he's nowhere near the top of his game these
days, he is key to the Davis Cup team. He's 9-2 in the
world competition, which could come in handy against
the Americans because his teammate Nikolay Davydenko
is 0-10 against James Blake and Andy Roddick.
The American team will almost definitely include
Roddick and Blake at singles and the top-ranked Bryan
brothers in doubles. They also will have the
home-court advantage, which plays a major role. The
last couple times the Americans met defeat in Davis
Cup, it was on clay. Let's just say that this time, it
won't be. For players like Roddick, with his monster
serve, the faster the surface, the better.
The U.S. team will also be bidding for its own spot in
history. Although America has won the Davis Cup more
than any other country, it hasn't brought home the cup
since 1995, when it defeated Russia. Captain Patrick
McEnroe has never won the title, and neither has any
member of his team. Together, they all have been in
the shadows of American Davis Cup heroes, like
McEnroe's brother, John, Andre Agassi and Pete
Sampras. They'll be in a good position to join the
Whenever they get around to playing. Honestly, what's
next? Starting the World Series in October and
finishing during All-Star weekend in April?

Brrr ....

Maria Sharapova went to Russia to angle for
a chance to play in the Olympics. What she got was a
different understanding of the term "cold war."
The world's fourth best player tagged along for her
team's Fed Cup victory over Italy. Citing a shoulder
injury, she dressed for the team as a "practice
partner." Let's just say she generated a bit more
attention than your average hitting partner.
"To be honest, I don't know why she came. What's the
point of coming here all the way from America if you
can't play? She said she wanted to help our
preparation and be our practice partner but, to me, if
you can't play how then can you practice? It just
doesn't make sense." That was Svetlana Kuznetsova,
talking to the Russian media, and looking at the glass
half-empty. Had she even asked herself, "Hey, who's
going to pick up all these balls?"
Anna Chakvetadze was also not a huge fan of
Sharapova's last-minute trip. "If you haven't played
Fed Cup all year, it wouldn't be fair just to show up
for the final," she said in a press conference. "It's
not fair to all the other girls who committed
themselves to the team's cause."
Meow. I guess no one took Sharapova up on that
standing offer to practice.
A lot of the Russian girls bristle when the name of
their countrywoman comes up, especially around Fed Cup
time. Fellow Russian, and former hot-stuff Grand Slam
winner Anastasia Myskina vowed not to play on the same
team with Sharapova in 2004 because of the conduct of
her father. You know, the guy who practically fell out
of the stands at the 2006 U.S. Open trying to signal
to Sharapova to eat a banana. Yeah, he's a little
Maybe there's a bit of envy over Sharapova's universal
popularity. There's also the idea of Sharapova making
off with one of the country's Olympic slots, having
never played for Russia.
Sharapova's status as a member of the team is a bit
suspicious, and tenuous. In order to get a spot with
her country's Olympic team, she must participate in
Fed Cup. Each time a tie has been played, Sharapova
has claimed various injuries. This is the only time
she's actually made the trip with the team, obviously
hoping to gain favor with the International Tennis
Federation's powers-that-be. It'll probably work, but
it really shouldn't. Sharapova has never before been
motivated to play for her country in Fed Cup, and
she's been a top-level player since she won Wimbledon
in 2004.
The fact she's been skittish on playing Fed Cup, for
her country, and excited about playing the Olympics,
for her country, seems to say one thing. It's not love
of country that's motivating Sharapova. It's the idea
of getting a gold medal, and what that gold medal is
really worth -- about a thousand times worth its
weight in endorsement money.
Think about it. You'll never see the Russian Fed Cup
team on any Wheaties boxes.