Getting the Joke

by: Steve Tignor | October 10, 2006

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Thejoker_1Luxembourg, Seoul, Gangzhou, Palermo, Mumbai, Tashkent, Stuttgart, Bangkok, Tokyo, Metz, Moscow, Vienna, Stockholm, Bangkok again. While it may sound like a verse from that old post-disco non-classic “Pop Muzik” (worst song ever?), it's actually a list of the sites visited by pro tennis players in just the last three weeks. Even with all that action, the sport has still managed to disappear from American radar screens since the U.S. Open.

I promised not to complain this time around, so I won’t. I’ll just be happy there’s tennis to talk about, if not watch. Here’s one week’s worth of noteworthy occurrences.

Novak Djokovic wins second title, in Metz
Lots of questions about this guy: Is his unspectacular, no-weakness game the best of the new crop? Is he a whiner or an honorable kid? Is he a big-match guy, or a paycheck player?

What’s most interesting about the 19-year-old Serb is that we, or at least I, don’t know the answers yet. The first time I saw him play was at the U.S. Open last year against Gael Monfils. I was extremely impressed by his game, which looked much more mature and well-rounded than his opponent’s. But I wasn't quite as impressed by the 10-minute timeout he took late in the match due, as far as anyone could tell, to his being tired. Djokovic has since had surgery for a breathing problem, but he’s continued to complain about various physical ailments, to the point where he’s starting to seem like a full-fledged hypochondriac.

My next live encounter with the Djoker came at the French Open this year, when he retired against Rafael Nadal after two sets. After the match, he claimed, erroneously, that he had been “in control.” This came on the heels of his announcement that he wanted to play Davis Cup for England despite having no connection to the country. The two statements combined to make him seem at best opportunistic, at worst a little crazy. At the same time, in the match against Nadal he had reversed a call in his opponent’s favor at a crucial point, with no prodding from anyone. It was the most honorable act I saw in my 10 days at the tournament.

This year at the U.S. Open I came out to his match with Lleyton Hewitt anticipating some high-class stuff. But Djokovic barely showed, going down with a smirk in straight sets. It reminded me of the way that Ivan Ljubicic had gone out earlier in the tournament. I wondered if we had another Ljuby on our hands—a guy who’s very good at winning matches and picking up paychecks week in, week out, but who doesn’t have a major-tournament mind-set (other than Davis Cup).

I think Djokovic will continue to be a pain in the ass, and he'll aways be an unpredictable competitor. But he’s going to come on strong at the Slams sooner rather than later. Murray has more creativity and variety, and Tursunov and Monfils more athleticism; but Djokovic, as our editor Kamakshi Tandon says, is “ruthless.” That’s the positive side to being a pain in the ass, and a trait that’s every bit as important as talent.

Roger Federer survives nightmare and fends off writer's block to triumph in Tokyo
Fed’s diary was the highlight of the week. He showed off the kind of matter-of-fact pride in his job that will serve him well at No. 1 for years to come. The only element that struck me as odd or forced were his claims that he's interested in "fashion,” “interior designing,” and the "preparation work" of the photographers he meets. On one hand I applaud Fed’s curiosity, which is rare for a jock; on the other I wonder whether he’s trying too hard to be all things to all people right now.

Tian-Tian Sun d. Iroda Tulyganova in the Tashkent final
This is a tale of tennis’ worldwide growth, for better and maybe for worse. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan, a country where tennis has been made the national sport by its dictator, Islam Karimov, who by most accounts is a tyrant and a tennis nut wrapped up in one. He’s built hundreds of courts around his desert country as a way to win the hearts and minds of young people. Tulyaganova is Uzbekistan’s top product, but her Cinderella run in front of the home folks was ended by Sun, who became the latest Chinese woman to win her first WTA title in 2006.

Nadia Petrova d. Tatiana Golovin in the Stuttgart finall
After a rash of pullouts, Stuttgart got a worthy final between two of the more crowd-pleasing women on tour. I missed this one in favor of my Philadelphia Eagles, but one of our fellow posters, chloe02, caught it. Here’s her critique:

It was a high quality game which isn't always the case in womens' tour finals. Petrova is back to the form which got her such good results at the beginning of the year. She served very well and had great movement about the court. Golovin played maturely, recovered breaks and wasn't overawed by the occasion. She took Petrova to a tiebreak in the second set.

Petrova looked the fitter player and recovered well from some very long rallies. I saw an interview with Petrova before the match and she was very honest about the difficulty she had getting back to form after her injury in Paris. She described it as having to start back learning how to hit shots and then get confidence in her game.

Golovin is a very attractive asset to the game - she is playing better and better and is excellent at PR. Eurosport did a feature with her showing the camera around the players restaurant (an important place for a French national!) and she was charming and funny. She's got quite a lot going for her and she's only 18 yrs old.

Petrova now deserves to mix it up with the top players. She reminds a bit of a female Ljubicic (OK not as bald!) - she's got a great serve, good groundstrokes and a solid competitor. The histrionics of past events seemed a long way away.

Thanks, Chloe (can I leave off the “02”?). I agree that Golovin is a nice asset to the game, with her touch and mixed pace. I wonder how consistent she’ll be, without the big weapons that the other girls have (though her serve has gotten stronger). Next year, Petrova should challenge for a major—which means, of course, that she’ll fade away for a year like some other Russians of the recent past. Hope not. I like the wallop she puts on the ball.

Andy Roddick goes to Vegas
“You don’t bring sand to the beach,” he told People. In other words, Maria wasn’t joining him. But Paris Hilton was. I don’t know: Does that quote sound like Andy to you?

Andy Roddick goes to Vienna
And the paper Oberösterreichischen Nachrichten says he got $150,000 just to make the trip. Not a bad life, after all.

Pat McEnroe signs up for two more years as U.S. Davis Cup captain
Despite zero titles to his name, he has gotten the top Americans to show (other than the untouchable Agassi). He's also smart and well-liked. Is there someone better who I’m not thinking of?

Australian Open to have instant replay challenges
Wimbledon is testing it as well, leaving the French Open as the likely holdout. I think it should be installed there, too, for two reasons. (1) For cases where there is no clear mark on the clay; and (2) With ball marks, one player can unduly influence the chair umpire by pointing to a certain spot. The downside would be mass confusion when HawkEye and the mark disagree.

John McEnroe to play doubles in Stockholm this week with Jonas Bjorkman
The 47-year-old Mac is a unique athlete—who would have thought that his scrawny body would be the one to hold up for all these years, and Ivan Lendl would be relegated to watching his daughters play golf from a chair? McEnroe also knows how to pick a partner.

Marat Safin is blogging this week from Moscow
One prediction: Fewer instances of “incredible” than we saw last week in Federer’s blog.

Walt Landers, R.I.P.
From what I've pieced together, Landers died of a brain tumor in Las Vegas this weekend. He was the trainer with the wild hair who appeared in just about every player’s friends box over the last 15 years or so. You probably remember him from Safin’s. He looked like a character, that's about all I know, and he was a frequent topic of conversation among tennis journalists. Anyone know more?

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