Sunday, July 6, 2008

"He's a lover but not a fighter. But he's also a fighter, so don't get any ideas..."

Wimbledon Thoughts: Usual drill. Off we go...

Thumbs Up: to Canadians. From Frank Dancevic upsetting the incredibly erratic David Nalbandian in Round One, to Stephanie Dubois's near-miss against Chakvedtadze (more on this in a sec), to Alexandra Wozniak winning a match, to Nestor winning the doubles title (completing the career doubles slam). This is what passes for a major success in Canadian tennis in 2008 (that fact is probably worthy of its own "thumbs down," but we'll set that matter aside for the time being).

Thumbs Down:
to a spate of first-round retirements in the men's draw (seven--Nishikori, Volandri, Llodra, H-T Lee, Stakhovsky, Odesnik, and Lapentti--by my count...and this doesn't even include Monfils, who went through proper channels and withdrew before the tournament started, though only just). While I can't, in good conscience, advocate, as Brad Gilbert and others have championed, getting rid of prize money for first round losers (see the precedent setting decision in Baby v. Bathwater), (I think) I'm all for stricter (or, possibly, any at all) medical evaluations in the lead up to the tournament. This would result in legitimately injured players being replaced by lucky losers from the qualifying draw.

Thumbs Up: to Fabrice Santoro (the Magician!) finally getting to play on Centre Court (though I'm bemused that he had to ask to get this perk). Sure he lost in straight sets, but still: good times.

Thumbs Down:
while this will almost assuredly send Taylor into a fit of rage, I have to talk about this: the fact that the challenge system is available to some (but not all) players competing in the same event is grossly unfair. Case in point: on Monday, the aforementioned Carolyn Dubois missed a forehand winner on match point by--from all accounts--a fraction of an inch, yet had no recourse (i.e. could not challenge), because...she wasn't playing on a court (i.e. not Centre Court or the Grandstand) that was set-up to handle video replay. Now, on Tuesday, I happened to catch Jelena Jankovic successfully challenge a call early in the second set. In that case, her shot, which was initially ruled out, was, on appeal, called in. Now, what you need to know about this decision is that the ball didn't so much catch the line as be so close to the line that there appeared to be no gap between the line and the ball (again, we'll table my beef that a ball that's 99.5% out really should not be called in under any circumstances--especially if you take into account the margin of error)--a very narrow distinction, but a distinction nonetheless. Anyway, the point is, Dubois shot could very well have been in and the fact that she wasn't afforded the opportunity to question this was determined solely on the basis of her lowly ranking (hence, she was banished to an outer court). In other words, the system punishes those that can least afford to be punished. (And, yes, I'll concede that she could very well have been on the receiving end of a favorable call and thus made more money, but I find resorting to the whole law of averages thing weirdly unsatisfying here.) May not seem like a big deal, but, ultimately, Dubois missed out on 6,750 pounds (the difference between the prize money from losing in the second round and the first)--or about $13,500 CDN, which is a rather big deal when you've only make $80,000 all year.


Thumbs Up:
to Jon Wertheim, who is everything a tennis writer should be: funny, smart, willing to question the sport in order to improve it, and not hopelessly entrenched.

Thumbs Down:
to Bill Simmons, my one-time sportswriting hero, who is, unequivocally, not a tennis writer, but, apparently, fancies himself the savior of the sport, resulting in the single worst (also: most indefensible) piece of sportswriting I've ever seen. I can't decide what's more annoying:

(a) that he'll probably never mention the article again.

(b) that, if he does, he'll say something to the effect of "guys, I was totally joking. Why so serious?"

(c) that his suggested "improvements" seem to have been pulled at random from a hat ("um...what of...two sets? Yeah!"; a point for hitting someone with the fucking ball? Really, Bill??).

(d) that, two years from now, he'll hop on the tennis bandwagon and open that column with something ridiculous like "two years ago, everyone thought tennis was dead, but it's back, baby!"

(e) that, if he comments at all on the response to this piece, he'll almost assuredly characterize the tennis fans' reaction as "hysterical."

(f) that this piece is nearly (but not quite) as irresponsible as Gregg Easterbrook's seemingly vendetta-fuelled rants against Bill Belichick, but will never be addressed by's Ombudswoman.

(g) that of his last fifteen articles, a whopping ten have been about the Celtics, with the remainder consisting of the aforementioned tennis piece (HATE!), a not-very-funny "ramblings" column, a draft preview where he bickered (when he wasn't gloating) endlessly with Chad Ford, a so-so draft diary, and one insufferable piece where he talks about boring it is when all your teams have won championships. Well, fuck you very much, Bill. (It's got to be saying something that the best Bill Simmons article I've read in the last six months was an unpublished article of his from twelve years ago about high school basketball in Boston.)

(h) all of the above.

Thumbs Up: to the endlessly amusing Daily Telegraph beat reporters. From last Tuesday:

With a big white plaster on her right knee and a clinging white dress which looked as if it had shrunk in the wash, she looked something of a battered campaigner, and the style police should certainly advise against tucking the spare ball up her skirt so it bulges like some ugly white growth out of her right hip.

She looked, in boxing terms, like the perfect punch bag. But while Federer had been glorious, it is in no way misogynous to say that Ivanovic was so pale by comparison that her match was a challenge to the now accepted wisdom that it was worth the same money.

True, there were wonderful glimpses of what she could do as she manoeuvred the increasingly static Rossana into no woman's land and stroked home easy winners. But there was also too much hesitancy in her serve and in her movement around the court.

Back in the interview room such thoughts seemed ungallant to the point of traitorous. Fresh out of the shower, Serbia's most beautiful gift to the sporting world was all smiling, bright-eyed intelligence as she said how pleased she was with her game, and talked about "Number One" being a privilege as well as a pressure.
(What obsessive--some might even say "hysterical"--attention to detail!) I mean, that's just great (not to mention: hilarious) writing, as was an article that referred to Federer "murdering" Mario Ancic in the quarters and a headline bluntly stating "Nadal Puts Murray out of his Misery" (and, two days later, the wry "Marat Safin suffers as does the furniture after semi-final defeat to Roger Federer"). Note to the National Post: don't ever stop subscribing to this service during Wimbledon.

Thumbs Down: to all major Canadian newspapers (well: the Post, Star, and Globe & Mail, at least) for only listing the showcourt matches on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, making it incredibly difficult for Taylor, Dad, and I to make our suicide pool picks. Attention Sports Editors: why would I only want to know about 5 of the 8 upcoming quarterfinals? You wouldn't do that for baseball, would you?

Thumbs Up: to the Williams sisters. Now, I won't pretend that I'm a fan, or that I even like them (I don't, largely because they are two of the sorest losers in sports history), but I'd like to think I'm the kind of person who gives credit where credit is due, and these two deserve it. Say what you want about their interest level (and "flagging" or "inconsistent") is perhaps the most charitable way to describe it), but when these two are on their game, there's no one physically or mentally tougher. Going back ten years (to 1999) one of them has one at least one major every year except two (2004 and 2006). And they won the doubles title at Wimbledon, too--handily, I might add. Someone stop me, because I'm afraid I'm starting to respect these two.

While we're here, and it's only Friday as I write this, Thumbs Down to another brutally boring Grand Slam final between the two? The horror! Here's a tip: next time, tell both of them that the winner never has to speak to their father again. I guarantee you they'd bust their asses then.

[Note: Sunday now, during the (first) Federer-Nadal rain delay. OK, the final wasn't nearly as bad as I'd anticipated, though the two looked someone-just-smothered-our-puppy dour throughout the match. I won't go as far as John McEnroe, who described it as a "borderline classic" (pretty sure it has to go three sets for that label to apply), but it was relatively compelling. Two comments about the color commentary from Mary Carillo--whom I'm usually a big fan:

1. I get it. You're a big doubles fan. Please stop saying that their participation in the doubles tournament is why they made it to the finals of the singles draw. They only went to the net 33 times combined out of 157 points played (roughly 20%). Let's not go crazy.

2. Also, was it absolutely necessary to breathlessly mention (after nearly every point!) how hard both girls were working? I believe you--they're trying hard.
Elena Dementieva aside, no one seriously believes these Williams vs. Williams matches to be choreographed at this stage.]

(But here's where I make the previous paragraph look like a backhanded compliment...)

Thumbs Down:
to the rest of the women's field for, yet again, totally rolling over. Ivanovic, Sharapova, Jankovic...go on. Does it have something to do with poor scheduling decisions (note what's missing here and here between the end of the French and the start of Wimbledon)? Absolutely, but being mentally soft plays a big role too. For Ivanovic, Sharapova, and Jankovic (the top three seeds on the women's side) to not even eek out a set between them in their losses (combined, the three won a mere a sixteen games in defeat) against three players ranked outside the WTA Top 50 (and two outside the Top 100) is embarrassing.

A while back, someone wrote in to Wetheim (though damned if I can find the link at the moment) lamenting the fact that when an unranked player upsets a top five seed on the men's side, the ATP is heralded as incredibly deep, whereas, when this happens on the women's tour, it's a sign that the top seeds are weak. Essentially, the argument went that the women's tour is screwed either way--Sharapova wins and it's because her draw was soft until the quarterfinals; Sharapova loses early and she's unfocused. Now, though I'm partial to the men's side, I find this line of thinking fairly persuasive...but also, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, irritating. I've actually given this a bit of thought and I think my answer is this: while I can't back it up empirically (always a great concession to make during an argument), upsets on the women's side seem to be more of the flash-in-the-pan ilk (see: Alla Kudryavtseva over Sharapova and Tamarine Tanasugarn over Jankovic) who fizzle out quickly, while upstarts on the men's side are usually quality players that that have the ability to go deep into the tournament (see, for instance, Mario Ancic knocking off Ferrer and going to the quarters, and Tipsarevic, who won only one more match after knocking off Roddick, but is a proven talent who pushed Federer to the brink in this year's Australian Open.

Now, to be sure, there are outliers (for instance, Rainer Schuettler advanced to the semis last week despite plainly being terrible, while Zheng Jie rolled to the semis after beating Ivanovic in Round 3, though I remain unconvinced that she's actually any good--ask me again around Labor Day). I dunno about all of this actually...I may need to re-think it. If anyone else would like to weigh in, by all means.

Thumbs Up: to ESPN's coverage. Really, really good job of taking the viewer to the most exciting match of the moment (more on that here), even if it--gasp!--features non-Americans. Now that's progress.

Thumbs Down:
to ESPN's running score ticker across the top of the screen. Ten days in still confuses me. If I see 3-5, it will always mean "3 serving 5," so why risk the confusion of it being the opposite? More to the point, why would you get rid of the old box score in the top left corner? To save one-one thousandth of the screen's total area? Silly.

Thumbs Up: to the hilarious mispronunciations in this clip, but Thumbs Down to...virtually everything else. I'm pretty sure it's OK to prefer men's tennis to women's, but do you have to be so ill-informed (and the best kind of ill-informed viewer, too, i.e. the one who loudly and frequently declares himself to be extremely well-informed) and cover-your-eyes misogynistic? Ugh.

My two favorite parts are when he: (a) claims that Ivanovic has done nothing of note (then what was that big trophy presentation in Paris all about four weeks ago?); and (b) mentions that Safin is playing some "Swiss nobody" (actually, Stanislas Wawrinka, presently ranked 9th--remember: tennis expert!--in the world...and, one presumes, rising, since he lost in the first round last year at Wimbledon, but made it to the 4th round this time), but that the match is likely to go five sets. Huh?

Thumbs Down: to Andy Roddick, who is, as much as like him, D-U-N. Done. I don't know if there's ever been a top five player in the world who has been so thoroughly lacking in ingenuity. Watching Roddick play used to be loads of fun, since he has that monster serve and plays with such enthusiasm. Now? It's an exercise in frustration, as he simply refuses to change or, worse (but, to my mind, increasingly likely) it never even occurs to him to change up his game. I called my dad as Roddick was tanking against Janko Tipsarevic (a very good player--see above--who, nevertheless, serves--and this is being charitable--like a nine-year old girl) in the 2nd round and asked him why Roddick wasn't stepping well inside the baseline to return serve (he's renowned for being particularly weak in the department) and his response was "I dunno. It's like watching someone run into a brick wall over and over again." This was followed by a five minute rant about how no one serves and volleys anymore. I know, dad. I know.

Thumbs Up: Andy Roddick, for his always entertaining (and occasionally gut-wrenchingly honest) press conferences. Here's the transcript from the Q&A after the Tipsarevic loss. And, since I'd feel like a hypocrite if I didn't mention this, I'll ask: why are we so quick to shit all over the Williams sisters after they refuse to praise their opponents after a loss, but praise Andy for doing essentially the same thing? Racism. I've actually given this a lot of thought and I think it's because Andy is so self-deprecating. The mere fact that he mentions (repeatedly, in fact) that he choked is very humanizing, to the point where you feel bad for him (except for Rob, who continues to hate his guts for reasons beyond comprehension), whereas the typical Serena comment is along the lines of "well, I was so profoundly awful today that anyone could have beaten me," which endears her to precisely no one.

Thumbs Up: to Roger Federer, who, regardless what happens Sunday, is the single greatest washed up player in tennis history. 65 straight grass court wins! ( I can't stress this enough: that's incredible. The last time Federer lost on grass, Bush was still a popular president.) 17 straight majors where he's made it to at least the semis! He's amazing...and the clear GOAT in my mind. Like Mad Men's Don Draper, Federer, in his element, is absolutely fearless. And it's fucking beautiful.

[Note from Sunday afternoon, 7 p.m: ...but he's human, too.

While I'm incredibly disappointed Federer lost, full credit goes to Nadal, who has worked tirelessly to adapt his clay court game to grass, including beefing up his serve. A lesser player would've caved after watching two championship points fall just out of a reach in the fourth set, but he kept his head and, let's be honest, outplayed Roger in his own backyard. He is, in every way, a worthy champion. So, too, should it be noted that this is the best match I've
ever seen.

Now, did anyone of this stop from me taking an angry nap from 4:45 to 6:00? Well, no. Nevertheless...

Neither here nor there: have you ever seen Federer lob? Isn't this strange??

Thumbs Down: to the just-broken story that Andrea Jaeger--now a Dominican nun (honest!)--allegedly "threw" the 1983 Wimbledon final against Martina Navratilova. So the story goes, Jaeger, then eighteen, had a fight with her dad the night before her final, and--somewhat inexplicably--decided to seek out Navratilova's counsel. In doing so, she broke Navratilova's much-vaunted pre-match routine, and, feeling guilty, "let" her win. I suppose you can see where I'm going with this, but, given that Navratilova lost precisely all of one match during the entire year (in the 4th round of the French, finishing the year an unprecedented 86-1--believed by many to be the most dominant tennis season in history), won, not only the Wimbledon in question, but the U.S. Open and the Australian (then the last major of year, unlike now, when it's chronologically first), followed by next year's French, Wimbledon, and U.S. (yes, you read that right, six majors in a row), and that Jaeger had a lifetime 4-11 record against Martina (including Navratilova's 7-6, 6-1 beatdown in the '82 French final), is it not reasonable to conclude that Navratilova was, you know, probably going to win the '83 Wimbledon title anyway? Nun or not: how about this, Andrea? Shut up.

(Bonus) Thumbs Down: to tennis skeptics, including (as mentioned) Simmons and Misha (whom I respect immensely, but couldn't disagree more with here). Your silence after Sunday's final is deafening. Now, do I wish the ratings were better? Well, sure. But it bears mentioning (despite being egregiously obvious) that the sport has a worldwide following (witness the ten million--the actual number; I'm not being hyperbolic--Brits that watched Murray outlast Gasquet) and that perhaps we shouldn't read too much into ESPN's, admittedly "rather too close to zero than one is typically comfortable with" ratings. The game (if maybe not the industry) is just fine, thanks...and in extremely capable hands.


Mark P said...

As a casual tennis fan, even I found Simmons' article offensive. Just an atrocious piece, undoubtedly one of his 10 worst columns ever. I'd like to know what Bill considers to be 'compelling,' since if the Federer/Nadal rivalry isn't the definition of compelling, I don't know what is. Oh wait, apparently it's fucking Allen Iverson. Give me a break.

Tennis is supposed to change its rules because Bill would prefer to watch Tia Tequila? Why not just get Vince McMahon involved and call it the XTA?

Ole H said...

I'm not so sure that ESPN's coverage deserves such a big thumbs up. I actually set my alarm so that I could get my ass out of bed early enough to watch the Federer-Safin semifinal live. I know that it was the 4th of July and that neither one of them was American, but really....was it necessary to televise the Williams sisters playing doubs and then show an old Venus match from earlier in the tournament on tape instead? The 5-time defending champ plays a former no. 1 in a semi-final that they could show LIVE and they don't!?! I was so bored that I was channel flipping waiting for the match, and so of course I eventually read the scoreline on a sports ticker on another channel! And then they wonder why ratings are low? How about actually showing live tennis !?!

Kyle Wasko said...

Shuk: I sent Simmons the link to the article that said the ratings were the highest since 2000, but of course he's on vacation, er, I mean finishing his book for the next ten weeks. I lost a lot of respect for him after that piece.

Glad you watched (and were clearly entertained) this weekend. I won't pretend the sport is without its flaws, but, at its purest (like it was on Sunday) it's utterly riveting.

Ole: I thought your beef with ESPN was going to be that Brad Gilbert often acts as if he's clinically insane (did you catch him use the expression "rip cord"--his term for people pulling out early in the match--approximately 18 times in a two minute stretch? Actually, that was oddly compelling...)

I, too, did the same thing on Friday morning (and, let me assure you, getting up at 7 a.m. for me is like a regular person getting up at, say, 4 a.m.), only to be let down, briefly angry, and then quickly fall back asleep. That said, the blame actually lies with NBC. From Wertheim's Friday afternoon mailbag:

Hi Jon, do you know the real story behind ESPN2's (or NBC's) decision to not show the men's first semifinal between Federer and Marat Safin? It's just ridiculous! Networks complain about tennis ratings but they keep screwing us over and over again!
-- Guil M., San Juan

I've been overwhelmed this morning with mail on this topic. Here's how I understand it: As part of the broadcast arrangement, NBC has first dibs on the matches. The problem is that the Today Show is sacrosanct. The network can't justify bumping those ratings for live tennis. So NBC chooses Federer-Safin, but airs it on tape-delay after Matt Lauer, et al. sign off. ESPN is left with the Williams-Williams doubles match (which, ironically, probably did well in the ratings). I realize this is small consolation for hard-core tennis fans watching Wimbledon semis on tape delay, but at least two networks are interested in the sport.

Kyle, again: I'll add: ...because the Today Show is a real Algonquin Group, too. I usually have it on in the morning when I'm getting ready for work/sleeping in when I should be getting ready, and, roughly 85% of the time, it consists of all the hosts talking (shouting, really) and laughing over each other. It's like The View, except it lasts for four hours.

Anyway, that really sucked (doubly for you since you were spoiled by the ticker), but you're blaming the wrong network.

Other thoughts? Come on! I even included an anti-German slur for you! If I set 'em up, you have to spike 'em home.

Taylor said...

Yes, this comment is about a week and a half late, but the subject of your upcoming post, which you've called "State of the Blog II" for the time being, scares me. So I figured I should write something. Here goes.

I'm not convinced that you truly believe this "if it's only barely in, then shouldn't it be out?" philosophy. I think you're playing devil's advocate here, something you routinely accuse me of doing. But, if you actually believe that a ball barely in should be called out, well then that's just plain stupid. It's the rule! And it's always been the rule. I'm not even sure I want to play you anymore. In a close match, would you all of a sudden switch your attitude from "if I can't tell that it's definitely out, then I won't call it out" to "yeah, it hit the line, but only a little, so it's out."

And I disagree with your argument that it's unfair that the top players routinely have access to the challenge system since they get to play on centre court, while lower ranked players do not. Well what's the alternative? It would be too expensive to implement the challenge system on all courts, so that's out. So you're not seriously suggesting that if they can't give everyone access to it, then they should get rid of it entirely, are you!? I must say that I'm a little amazed at how much you're ripping into the challenge system when I know that you happen to like it and you enjoy oohing and awing with the rest of the crowd when a call is challenged. It's not unfair that the players on the lesser courts can't challenge because that's the way it was up until a few years ago for everybody. Plus, since neither player has access to the challenge system, they're on an equal playing field. Even on match point, you can't say that it's unfair that she doesn't get to challenge. It's unfortunate, but it's certainly not unfair. And seriously, let's not forget that this is the way everybody used to play. And while John McEnroe might still be bitching about line calls that could have completely changed a match, most players can get over it because it's just part of the game. You could argue that an unseeded player has a disadvantage if he/she makes it far in a tournament and has to play a top seed on centre court, who knows when to and when not to challenge, but again, there is no remedy to this potential problem.

Now, being an act. sci. and stats major, I feel I must tackle your margin of error point. Margin of error works both ways. So, let's say that there is a 95% chance that the ball actually landed within a tenth of an inch (something small enough that it is likely insignificant to the end result if it moves within this range) on either side of where the graphic showed. That means there is a 5% margin of error (if it landed more than a tenth of an inch from this spot). So if the video replay showed the ball as just catching a sliver of the line, the ball might be out, might be even more in, or it could be pretty much bang on (or close enough to bang on). So the spot the video replay shows is the BEST estimate. What else can you ask for?

Thoughts on the actual tournament: very exciting overall. On the women's side, I lost a lot of interest after the Serbians lost early, which was surprsing, but was glad to see Sharapova go out early since that meant not having to put up with her ridiculous screams every time she hits the ball (seriously: how does she not get more warnings for this? The chair umpires are just afraid of taking a point or game away from her, which is lame because she should not be allowed to be that loud.). And I was upset that Safina lost in the 3rd round. Can Safin and Safina both not do well at the same tournament? Safina makes it to the French final, but Safin loses in round 2. At Wimbledon, almost the exact opposite happens.

On the men's side, obviously, it was one of the most exciting tournaments ever. Safin's early-round upset over Djokovic was a great start to the tournament, although it sucks for any top seed to play someone like that in an early round, since he always has the potential to upset. Lots of early-round upsets: Roddick's (he's not done, by the way - I still maintain that as long as it's not on clay, he has a chance against any player other than Federer in any match. He'll make it to a few more semis before he retires, which as much as he wouldn't like to admit it, is a great result for him.) loss to Tipsarevic, who isn't exactly a nobody. Blake's loss to Schuettler, who is the worst player ever to have made it to a GS final before. Davydenko (not that surprising, though). Nalbandian. I'm sure I'm forgetting more.

And what a final! I'm sure if I wasn't so nervous about Federer winning it, I would have enjoyed it more, but I remember thinking in the 3rd set that he at least needs to prove that he's got some fight and prove Rob wrong by not rolling over to Nadal in straight sets after winning 5-straight titles at Wimbledon. The 3rd and 4th set tiebreaks were incredible. Man, there were some great shots in that 4th set tiebreak. Federer really came through whenever he was championship point down (until, you know, he lost in the 5th set on a ball he dumped into the net). I was pretty surprised that he didn't come back to win the whole thing after reeling off two sets in a row. But Nadal played great. I'm much happier that he lost to him as opposed to Djokovic, who is kind of a punk.

And now that Federer has been dethroned as the king of grass, while I hope this isn't true, you've got to think that GS titles are going to be much less frequent to the point that he might not break 14 at all. Also, I think all "greatest player of all time" discussions should be halted for the time being. They should only start up if a) he wins at Roland Garros to complete the career slam, or b) he gets the GS titles record. As much as I love him, there's no way you could call him the greatest player of all time if he's not even currently the greatest in the world. Nadal is flat out better than him. So until he wins a Slam by going through Nadal, we shouldn't talk about it anymore.

As I was writing this, you posted something new. Hmmm. Well, better late than never, I suppose.