Tuesday, October 25, 2016

This week with TWA: Serena, Rafa and Sveta on fumes

Last week, the other shoe fell for Rafa Nadal. I guess we all knew there would be consequences from his decision to make an Olympic run, which turned out to be incredible for fans and Spain. Now he's shutting his season down due to injury. Again. I hate to be that guy -- the one who's ready to set the retirement clock for Rafa. But when was the last time he was able to complete a season without missing at least one major? Although it was nice to see the opening of his new academy in Spain last week, attended by the biggest rival of his career -- the Fed. But ... is that some sort of sign? That he's trying to move on? He doesn't have permission to move on! No one approved this! OK, deep breathing. *clicking my heels* Rafa will come back. Rafa will come back. Rafa will come back ...
*clicking faster*
I'm not as worried about Serena Williams, who also pulled her own card on the season last week. That means she won't be around for the year-end championships, which led to some things happening that we'll get to in a second. Chris Evert gave her annual obit on Serena's career this weekend, citing her broken-down body and the aura of invincibility being gone. I can't imagine that's true. Evert has more access to players, so it's hard to dispute, but really? Players no longer fear Serena? Hm. I don't dispute the injury build-up -- that would actually be impossible. It seems that Serena's problem lately is more in the head, though. And some time off might straighten out those issues as well as the shoulder. We've just been here too often with her -- thinking she's gonna call it a day, that she's not interested anymore, blah blah blah. Then she busts out four majors and we shove the obit back to Evert for revisions. Rinse, repeat.
Which brings us to the WTA Tour finals in Singapore. (OK, that didn't bring us here, but this is where I want to go next, so ...) The field of eight singles players included Johanna Konta ... until the day before matches started. Svetlana Kuznetsova was able to qualify by winning in Moscow at the 25th hour. Now I've got no issue with Sveta, but more with the WTA on this one. I hate to keep dumping on the WTA on account of the lecture a couple weeks about the CEO who is under the belief that the best way to draw tennis fans is to have players play as little tennis as possible. So I will keep this rant short. What's hard about setting a cutoff date date for qualifying for the tour finals? I guess I had assumed there was such a thing, and yes, I know what happens when you assume. But now I also know what happens when you can qualify for the finals until the day before the thing starts. A complete mess. I figured that with Sveta on fumes, Konta might get her shot on court anyway, but that appears to be quite inaccurate, considering that she's already beaten Agz Radwanska.
This is the part in therapy when the counselor would say: "Now, say something nice about the WTA." OK. Despite the absence of anyone except one person in the singles draw who has won a Slam this year, it is an impressive lineup and at least the matches will be competitive. Exhibit A: Angelique Kerber v. Dominica Cibulkova. The tennis so far has really been high quality. It'll get a complete wrap-up in next week's post.

Quick hits:
Juan Martin del Potro won a tournament, everybody! With his win at the Stockholm Open, he's back into the top 50, where no one will be happy to see him, especially if they like winning. Jack Sock had a good tournament, too, but he was left flailing after half of del Potro's groundstrokes.
Maria Sharapova has been removed from the WTA rankings because of her drug ban, which has been upheld but shortened. Just until she returns next April and has played three tournaments. No matter. I'd imagine she'll enroll at MIT next to whittle away the time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Therapy with TWA: Nick Kyrgios

OK. You might have heard a little bit about Nick Kyrgios' performance at last week's tournament in Shanghai. If you haven't, here's a video highlighting his "level" of "play."
At first, those in the tennis know felt that the $16,500 fine first levied on him was a bit weak, but then yesterday, the ATP brought the hammer down. It fined him an additional $25,000 ... and ended his season. Kind of. Kyrgios was banned from the sport for eight weeks. He will be allowed to return one day before the Australian Open. This is the ATP saying to Nick:

Even more merciful still, the ATP has offered to reduce the ban to three weeks if he would submit to psychiatric care. Nick's statement is like, "See y'all in 2017," so I guess that's a no.
So it's time for us to talk about Nick. In a profile the New York Times did about Kyrgios, he tells the writer that he doesn't know his racquet head size, and it appears he knows little about the strings he uses. The best tennis players in the world are almost always students of the game and its history. Roger Federer. Rafa Nadal. Serena Williams (and she wasn't always). But if you want to do something well, you learn about how to do it, and who before you has done it.
Kyrgios has said he doesn't like tennis, that he'd rather be playing basketball. Why doesn't he just play basketball? Seriously, I'm asking. I have no idea.
The temper doesn't bother me so much. First, it sort of flies in the face of the idea he doesn't care. Also, we loved John McEnroe for being a jerk on the court. It gave tennis an extra dimension. For some reason, tennis has this reputation of being a "gentleman's" sport. We wave off our accidental winning shots. We shake hands when it's over. But most people I know don't feel very gentlemanly about tennis when they're playing. They are trying to win. And unless you're dealing with a complete jerk, it's almost universally understood that any anger displayed is meant inwardly, not at your opponent. (Unless you think Novak Djokovic was really mad at Roberto Bautista Agut over the weekend in Shanghai.) Yelling at fans is wrong, though, and inexcusable. They literally have paid to sit there and listen to you yell at them.
The larger sin for most, including me, is this nonsense about not giving it a good effort during a match. There are two things that irritate the hell out of me when I see it on a tennis court I am occupying. 1. Cheating. Because just don't even bother if you're going to cheat. 2. Showing a lack of effort, or showing that you're just not interested in our match. Then leave. I've got other things to do, you've got other things to do, and I think I'm decent enough that you could stop looking at your cell phone for a second. On the pro level, this sentiment must be emphasized by a thousand. People are paying good money to watch you play. Your opponent wants to play well and likely is trying to improve his lot in the rankings. This is not a situation where your laziness/lack of concern/whatever your problem is is affecting only yourself.
Kyrgios is uneducated about his sport. He's rude. He bails out of matches and says terrible things to people. All of that is true. Here's why I'm willing to give him a few minutes to settle down: He's a kid. He's 21. And he's a male, so it's a given that mentally, he's really, like, 15. For some reason, we expect our athletes, even the young ones, to be fully formed when they emerge onto the scene. This is probably because they are physically strong and most likely able to do things that we can't do and that's something we can see plainly. So when they show an incomplete or malformed personality, we just can't believe it. But they are undergoing a maturation process, like any other human. Among the things he needs to assess -- the main thing really -- is whether he wants to play tennis. If the answer is no, well then, That probably would solve about 100 percent of his problems.
There's hope for Nick. Back in the day (like seven years ago), there was this player. Let's call him Novak Djokovic, because that is who I am talking about. He was tagged by top analysts of the game as an up-and-comer, with a megaton of talent. There was one problem, though: He bailed out of matches faster than I dodge mowing the lawn, even after he won a major. He was known for showing little effort, or just quitting, claiming some niggling injury. A lot of people wondered if it was going to be his lack of effort that kept him from realizing his full potential. We know the answer to that question now.
Ultimately, this suspension will be good for everyone. Tennis fans want to see blood for Kyrgios' behavior and Kyrgios needs to do some thinking. I'm genuinely curious to see what a couple months off will do for him.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This Week with WTA: The rage edition, Vol. II, starring Maria Sharapova

Honestly, I didn't expect to go off as much as I did on Steve Simon in the last post, but he had it coming. But I have more to rage about. One more small development this past week in tennis was the final verdict on the Maria Sharapova suspension. Now, if you want to talk about special snowflakes, let's talk about Sharapova.
Her drug ban was shortened by the ITF to 15 months, down from two years. I have to confess that the response to this was not nearly what I would have expected. Sharapova's rock-of-ages sponsor Head released a statement that included the word "congratulations." To their player. For a drug ban that she is serving out. Confused yet? No? Let's continue. This way please.
Sharapova also reacted as though this was a victory and is now pushing back at the ITF, threatening legal action. About a drug ban that she is serving. For taking a banned drug that she definitely took. OK.
We could go there for sure about meldonium, and what it really did for Sharapova. If this drug was taken because she has concerns about heart disease that runs through her family, as she initially said, then what is she going to take now? Surely not a Bayer aspirin like other humans.
It's confounding to me that one would not only celebrate the shortening -- not the elimination, now -- of a drug ban of which you are guilty, but then get aggressive and threaten the tennis ruling parties that be. I am assuming that she and her team are operating under the assumption that few people are actually going to bother to read these findings. So I decided to read the ITF's ruling myself, instead of relying on news stories about it. It can be found here, and the parts that are in English are very, very interesting. It's also very long. But here are some takeaways that blew my mind. I took some screen caps and highlighted the salient points because I care about you and your time:

Oh, yes. Cause for celebration. Sure!

That's right. Put the sound speakers right over in that corner.

Do we have enough balloons?

We're gonna need alcohol, too! Yay to all of this!!

Hey, girl! We met at Harvard this summer, right? Save a seat for the lawyers! And the Head sponsors! Party. Is. Over. Here.

Woot! ...?

I sort of understand the reason the ban was shortened. If Sharapova had known that meldonium or mildronate was a banned substance, she would have stopped taking it. I do believe that, because she would have been stupid not to.
But the fact that she took it and never really told anyone about it is suspicious. OK, so she never told any of her doctors since 2013-ish that she was taking this drug because no one asked?!! Raise your hand if you've ever been to the doctor and filled out those arduous forms. Have any of those forms ever not asked you what drugs you are taking? If none of her doctors ever asked her what drugs she was taking, then her doctors are worse than any doctor I have ever visited. I have trouble believing this could be true.
You can deduce a lot from this document, can read between the lines one way or another. What you can't dispute is the part of this document that is agreed upon by all involved. Maria Sharapova was taking this drug long after it was prescribed her, and she didn't tell anyone, except two people, that she was taking it. If you have a heart or diabetes problem and you are an athlete, and you have a team, that team should know and understand your physical limitations -- and any medication necessary to curb it, along with side effects. I would be similarly find it odd if Venus Williams took meds for Sjogren's Syndrome and told none of her people about it.
We will never know for sure why, of the battery of 30 drugs she started out taking with her doctor in Russia, she chose to continue taking three, one of which was meldonium -- even after she ditched the doctor. We will also never know why, once she made that call, she chose to keep it to herself, especially if she was taking it for its prescribed purpose. (For the record, I don't think she was taking it for its prescribed purpose.)
You can draw conclusions, though, such as the idea that this is really Sharapova's fault. It's not on her team or her manager. It's on her. She chose not to tell anyone.
Having read that document actually makes me more confused. Why is Sharapova celebrating and wanting to fight this? And why on earth would you threaten to keep this going? Because if I were her, I would really not want people pursuing this any further. It is not a cause for celebration. Well, there is one thing to celebrate if you really wanted to draw one thing out.
Yay, technicalities!?

This Week with TWA: The rage edition, Vol. I, starring WTA CEO Steve Simon

I've been wondering lately if I'm actually becoming a curmudgeon. Is this what happens to people when they get old? Do they get more conservative about subjects they used to think they were flexible about? When they see change coming down the street, do they yell, "Get off my lawn!" when two years ago, they might have just jumped up and joined in? Maybe.
I'm just throwing that out there as a possibility, but I really think that if I had heard some of the talk I'm hearing from tennis officials five years ago, I'd have the same reaction. The first problem I have that needs to be addressed: What the hell, Steve Simon? What the actual hell.
This guy is the new CEO of the WTA and he doesn't appear to like tennis. That is a deduction I think I can back up, so hold on.
The WTA already irritates me with this coach-on-court thing that the men don't do. I've railed on this already, so I won't dwell again. Now the man running women's tennis is talking about no-ad scoring and other ways to shorten the match, like super tiebreakers. The average women's match is already, like, an hour. Simon's thought process is that people have short attention spans, and tennis needs to accommodate that.
This is so ridiculous and unreasonable that I just can't even. It locks up my brain when I try to even with this. When I read these comments from a person running a professional tennis organization, I have to wonder if he is just not that smart, or if he doesn't like tennis.
Because there is one small detail that this man is missing, and that is that not everyone will like tennis. I hate baseball. If you made baseball last just an hour, I would still turn on tennis. So why on earth would you try to change the bones of your sport to attract people who don't care about your sport? That would be like me going out and getting plastic surgery so I could look like Beyonce in the hopes that it would draw the eye of Jay-Z. Jay-Z couldn't give a crap about me, and I'm OK with that. Why is tennis, as a sport, so insecure?
It is also similar to having a test group with non-tennis fans about what might make them like tennis. It would go something like this with Simon at the helm:

Simon: So what would it take for you to like tennis?
Test group person: Well, the court is a nice size. But maybe if it were, I don't know, a wood surface?
Simon: OK, OK, go on.
Test group person: And what if the net in the middle became two nets -- one on each side of the court, and also on a pole.
Simon: I like it. Keep going!
Test group person: And then you could make the ball bigger, and more orange and take off the fuzz
Simon: OK. We've got a good foundation here!

At least tennis players have enough sense to think this is stupid. Rafael Nadal nailed it perfectly when he said that matches that are shorter are not as memorable. Can you imagine that Venus Williams/Karolina Pliskova match at the U.S. Open going to a super tiebreaker?! "Yes, ladies, great tennis, but come on, can you wrap it up, please? We've got Andy Murray waiting to come out." Are you kidding me?
Apparently, no. Peter Bodo over at Tennis magazine wrote another interesting story that highlights this very issue. Apparently tennis officials all over the place are freaking out about millennials. You know what? Seriously, screw millennials and screw changing a truly excellent sport to please them. I want to know why everyone is trying to figure out millennials. A good chunk of millennials are literally still living with their parents and I don't care what an entire generation of maybe 30-somethings have to say about anything yet.
Tennis should not hate itself as much as it does. Simon should realize what he's inherited with the WTA. Right now, you have who is going to turn out to be the best women's tennis player in the world and SHE'S PLAYING RIGHT NOW. You have young talent from several continents who are shaping up to form some great rivalries and there are still veterans (Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Agz Radwanska just off the top of my head) still competing at high levels. One of them is currently No. 1 in the world. Simon has a winning deck and he doesn't know how to play his cards. He's looking ahead at people who don't know he exists instead of looking at the tools he has to build the future. If he thinks the future of women's tennis is a damn super-tiebreaker, he's either not very smart or he hates tennis. He is trying to get the attention of a potential fan base at the risk of alienating what he has.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Off court: Serena, Colin and the right time

Because I am an editor by profession, my very first response to Serena Williams' note on Facebook regarding police violence was one of surprise that her grammar game was not as on point as her serve. But that was fleeting, especially when you consider that the lack of gloss on this statement reflects the emotion with which it was written.
Serena's concerns about her nephew and the police is coming from the mouth (phone) of a woman who has represented the United States five times at the Olympics and numerous Fed Cup ties. But she's an athlete and we like our athletes to keep their noses out of social commentary and into their profession. This is why people are losing their damn mind over Colin Kaepernick, and they will grumble about Serena as well, should she keep her promise: "I won't be silent."
Here's the thing about the Kaepernick situation that just gets under my skin (pun kind of intended). Kaepernick goes to a football game and kneels during the national anthem. Many people ask him why, and he tells them. And instead of talking about the thing that's bothering him, they talk about respecting the flag, and the anthem.
The flag is a symbol. It is multicolored fabric. It doesn't have feelings. When a quarterback doesn't salute the flag, the flag doesn't start crying. So let's not worry about the flag so much.
The national anthem is a beautiful song. A lot of people think it's too complicated and the range ridiculous, but I like it. I wish I could sing it better. The anthem is full of words that bring to mind vivid imagery of war and the reward for being the last one standing. The national anthem, which is called “The Star-Spangled Banner” and is derived from a poem written by Francis Scott Key, actually has four verses. Here is the third verse:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Not so pretty anymore. So I'm not really worried about the feelings of the national anthem, either.
A lot of people are saying, essentially, “OK, sure, I guess you have a point, but this is not the time or the place.” This is another way of saying, “Athlete, shut up.” Because if anyone really thinks that this country is going to set a time to talk about what's happening in this country, well, they'd be waiting a long time.
The fact is that athletes are held in high regard in this country, rightly or wrongly. We make exceptions for them all through their academic careers so they can keep their eyes on the (Heisman) prize. Last year, on a college campus, a student activist went on a hunger strike to protest perceived racism, and he barely registered on the life radar. The football team on that same campus told the administration they would not take the field until these concerns were addressed and heads rolled immediately. That's how important we make our athletes.

But when they have something to say, and they're aggressive about it, we've got big problems, don't we? All of a sudden Kaepernick is weak and ineffectual AND he's a jerk. He's saying the right thing at the wrong time. But there will never be a right time. I hate going to the dentist. But if I don't go, my teeth will rot right out of my mouth. For me, there is no right time to go to the dentist. There will never be a right time for the hard work our country has to do. But athletes, though? They roll out of bed at 5 a.m., and they probably hate every second of it. They work hard and often to be the best athletes they can be. Five o'clock in the morning is not the right time for them to get to work, I would imagine. But they do it.
In that way, the likes of Serena Williams and Colin Kaepernick are more prepared to start this conversation than we are.