RG: All Day Dirt

Wednesday, May 27, 2009 /by

Ps My guess is that you like tennis. That's good, because you need to this week. With two channels firing away 12 hours a day, I’m starting to feel surrounded by it myself, like the sport is watching me. I get up in the morning and see Andy Murray struggle in HD. I go to work and hear Maria Sharapova shriek from the computer in the next office. I come home in the evening and catch all the various names and personalities—the Tsongas, the Wozniackis, the Roddicks, the Serenas, the Kendricks, the Safins, the Monfilses, the no-names and the never-weres—that I missed over the course of the day. I’m going to start hearing Barry MacKay’s voice in my sleep soon—“Oh, that's a bad miss,” he’ll say, and I’ll try not to be rude and ask him what constitutes a good miss.

But having to go to work during all of this dirtball means that my exposure to the first four days of the French has been sporadic, hit and miss. I’ve had time to observe, but not to formulate. With that in mind, I’ll begin with that staple of the homebound tennis reporter, or at least this homebound tennis reporter, the Notebook.

—Johnny Mac and an expanded roster of commentators have helped the Tennis Channel gain on ESPN as far as quality and production value—at times I forget which channel I’m watching. The TC did the smart thing and split up the mismatched booth team of Bill Macatee and Martina Navratilova, which nearly sunk their Aussie Open coverage. I like Ian Eagle and Corina Morariu, Navratilova knows the nitty-gritty of the sport as well as anyone, and McEnroe is a calmly authoritative presence—the best thing about him is that he doesn’t try too hard.

—The same can’t be said for Justin Gimelstob, who is always proving himself. But while that means he talks too much for my taste—pretty much every U.S. commentator talks too much for my taste—and his overzealousness can result in an unfortunate or wonky choice of words—“tender vittles”; “accelerate through the hitting zone”—Gimel has insight into the sport and its current players. He’s particularly good with second-tier guys, who he knows from his own days on tour, and he understands the sport as it’s actually played today, not as he wishes it were played. Watching Spanish player Pablo Andujar rip forehands past Robby Ginepri in the first round, Gimel commented that “you have to be able to finish points on clay.” Counterintuitive, perhaps, but exactly right.

—The tradition continues: A racquet company that doesn’t sign the game’s most marketable player signs a similar looking player to basically impersonate said star. Alona Bondarenko sprawls on the ground looking like Anna someone in a KSwiss ad; Barbara Schett’s blonde hair is styled not unlike Maria what’s-her-name in a Wilson ad; and now, in another Wilson commercial currently making the rounds on the Tennis Channel, an unnamed Feliciano Lopez has his hair styled not unlike a certain other, higher-ranked Spanish tennis star who plays with Babolat.

—Why are the ball kids so infinitely better at the Slams than they are at Masters events? I can see that there would be a step up for a Slam, but the difference is ridiculous. It’s fun just to watch the kids do their jobs at the French, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open.

—Mary Joe Fernandez: better hair. Mary Carillo: is she growing younger before our eyes?

—Do you know any tennis players? Nervous types, wouldn’t you say? You want to know why? Because even when you’re well ahead in the score, every lost point feels like the beginning of a drastic and disastrous change in momentum. John McEnroe says this was one reason he was always on edge: He always suspected, when he missed any shot, that it would come back to haunt him.

Most of the time, these fears are unwarranted. When a player has a significant lead, he or she usually wins. Comebacks make the news, but they’re relatively rare. The problem is, occasionally a player’s worst fears are realized, which only makes the rest of us more nervous in the future—we realize we were right to worry all along.

In her first-round match against Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Dushevina was up a set and a break, and she had another break point to put the match virtually out of reach. But she shanked a makeable forehand return wide. No big deal, she may have tried to tell herself, but it was. Woz held and, given second life, turned everything around and won in three sets.

In his second-round match today, Potito Starace and Andy Murray were tied at a set apiece, and Starace was up 5-1 in the third, with a set point on Murray’s serve that would have put him in the proverbial driver’s seat. Like Dushevina, he shanked a makeable return long. Like Dushevina, he may have tried to tell himself that everything was going to be OK, that it didn’t matter, that he was too far ahead to blow it, that Murray was in full mope mode and ready to move on to the fourth. As a tennis player, Starace should have known better. He lost the set.

—I know as a sportswriter I’m supposed to be outraged most of the time and have all kinds of suggestions for how to do things better. I usually don’t have them. But how about this: We start using final-set tiebreakers at all the Slams, except in the final rounds. I maintain that the compressed format of the tiebreaker is more exciting than waiting for someone to break serve—or, in the case of some women’s matches, hold serve. After five sets of a men’s match, do we need all that much more tennis?

—Should Dinara Safina have eased up on, or even given a game to, Anne Keovathong in the first round? No. I wanted to see the Brit get one—I’ve been double-bageled in tournaments and in team matches and it's flat-out humiliating. But the sole purpose of everything you do on a tennis court is to win a match. If Safina loses a game, she's putting that at risk. You often hear a losing college football team complain that the winners “ran up the score” on them, as if a blow-out breaks some kind of unspoken code of non-humiliation. This argument is bogus and designed to deflect attention from the team's own incompetence. It’s the loser’s job to get better, not the winner’s job to get worse.

—Early in his loss to Josselin Ouanna today, Marat Safin appeared to be on the verge of self-parody, something I've been preparing to see for years. He gave his antics a crooked smile, as if to say, “Look at me, playing the fool again.” Then, perhaps spurred by the supercilious French crowd, Safin got serious, made a stirring and completely unforeseen comeback, and still lost 10-8 in third. This one seemed more tragic than ever, because he obviously wanted it. Marat even pumped his fist a few times near the end. But each time he'd show some a sign of hope, he’d proceed to lose the next three points. That’ll teach him to be positive.

—Now, in the era of 32 seeds, is when we begin to get the quality matches: Safina-Pavlyuchenkova, Nadal-Hewitt, Azarenka-Suarez Navarro, Almagro-Verdasco, and one I’m hoping to see, Mathieu versus the aforementioned point-finishing Andujar. Plus, a very good second-rounder between Tsonga and Monaco.

A question: Has the 32-seed system, which spares top players from facing anyone all that dangerous until the third round, contributed to the general lack of upsets in the men’s game. All the big names get a chance to settle in. Another question: Is this a Good Thing?

—Favorite album to listen to this week when tennis commentary gets to be too much: The River, By Bruce Springsteen. An eclectic Reagan-era monster that fits today's hard times, it's not as despairing as Nebraska—it's more realistic, and a lot more fun. I still love the cheesy summer anthem, "Sherry Darling," where Bruce can't get to the beach because he has to drive his girlfriend's loudmouthed, big-footed mother to the unemployment agency. I still love the way he sings, "Now the rooms are all empty down at Frankie's Joint/And the highway she's deserted clear down to breaker's point" in "Independence Day." (I once went to see Bruce and he couldn't remember those lines.)

—Pink: I like it.

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