Howdy, folks. I hope you all check out our latest Tennis.com podcast (or just click on the icon on the Tennis home page). The sound quality is much better than in the past, because golden-throated Andy Nelson (who does the canned intro to each weekly broadcast) sprang for a few first-class microphones for us.
Ever see a broadcast of a radio show, and how the talent (does that word apply to us, too?) always have their face and lips right up against a mike suspended in a cage dangling from a boom? We've got that whole deal going now, and I think it improves the product. I'll be curious to hear your opinion about the quality, as well as the content of this latest effort.
We tackled two subjects in the podcast: the Henin vs. Clijsters final in Brisbane, and the Davis Cup story I broke, about Andy Roddick and James Blake taking a pass on the U.S. ties for 2010. Let me elaborate on a few of the comments I made on both subjects of the podcast (I've already made some comments on the Clijsters-Henin issue in a post on ESPN's site).
You know, I'd rather have seen either of those women win this match, 7-5, 6-4, just to avoid the inevitable question that now must dominate the discussion: Are we just going to return to the same-old, same-old, (with mental basket-case Kimmy battling self-dramatizing Justine, she of the beautiful game?) in matches that may be unpredictable (but not in a good way) and exciting (in the same way that a six-car crash is "exciting")?
Sure, it was good drama, in only a Battle of Antietam way (there was so much smoke, fire, panic and agony that after a while you couldn't even tell who was who). Frankly, it made me long for a far less spectacular kind of match - one in which the players split 6-4 sets, and one of them manages to come back from 2-4 down in the third to win with a service hold.
Of course, when we mention the "H" world, we're veering sharply from the WTA game, but nevertheless. . . I'm still holding out hope (another "H" word) that someone not named Williams is going to be able to go out there and serve like she gets paid for it. I am, after all, an optimist - as well as an accused contrarian.
One of the funny things about these chaotic shootouts that are so indiscriminately billed as great matches is that they show how conditioned we are to entertainment value. A tennis match featuring a gazillion service breaks and double-faults galore addresses our appetite for sensation, which the purveyors of media have been feeding and increasing in what amounts to an escalating cycle for a long time now. I sometimes wonder, does anyone still want to see a good, old-fashioned, tight, well-played tennis match featuring excellent shotmaking, a lack of conspicuous emotional stress, and maybe two or three critical service breaks?
Why don't we just hit the fast-forward button on this issue and leap right to a future in which a tennis has a best-of-seven tiebreakers format, one instead of two serves, and a playing surface slow enough to ensure that we'll have wild rallies that don't just level the playing field, but turn it into a giant-sized craps table?
I just keep thinking, a player who leads a best-of-three match by a set and two breaks should only lose if she breaks a leg, or the other player truly gets into the zone and unloads a stream of unanswerable winners. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not Justine did that in Brisbane.
On the Davis Cup issue, I must say I'm puzzled by Roger Federer's pattern of showing up to play relegation ties, and then abandoning the team - ensuring that Switzerland will have no chance whatsoever in the World Group, and will face another relegation ("playoff," in Davis Cup parlance) tie come September. Why the hail does he bother? Just so Stan Wawrinka and company can go and get their fannies tanned in the first or second round yet again?
But maybe it makes sense, in a warped kind of way. Roger can say that he commits to Davis Cup every year - just don't read the fine print. I'm too lazy to check, but the Greatest Player of All Time may have found his way into the record books through the back door, while rivals like Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal enter through the front. Roger may wind up as the best playoff-round performer in Davis Cup history.
A less bizarre but more interesting - and sad - issue is the seeming decline of Davis Cup in nations that, unlike the USA in the Roddick-Blake years, have enthusiastically embraced the competition. Nadal is lucky; Spain is strong enough as a nation to fire up its fans win without him. Great Britain is unlucky, in that the kingdom is too weak to win, even with Andy Murray. And the Swiss tread water, ever hopeful that Federer will turn his attention to the Davis Cup. Didn't it used to be the USA that looked like the Davis Cup deadbeat, consistently failing to produce dedicated Davis Cup workhorses to follow the trail blazed by the likes of Arthur Ashe and John McEnroe?
All of us know the problems inherent in the Davis Cup format; regrettably, those "flaws" are also the sources of its considerable charms and legitimacy as a truly competitive event (the chief among them, of course, is the host-visitor format that gives the top players insufficient advance warning of where they're expected to play next, and on what surface).
Most of the "solutions" put forth would destroy Davis Cup as we know it. I'm especially nonplussed by the idea that, somehow, playing it every two years would solve the competition's problems. Let me get this right: You want to take the world's biggest and best annual international team competition and turn it into. . . Ryder Cup?
Is Roger Federer going to be more inclined to sacrifice (or believe he's sacrificing) chances to win majors every other year, just because it's marginally more appealing than taking the hit every year? Major titles don't come so easily for anyone, including Roger, for him to be able to halve his career opportunities. If the guy thinks he can't win majors and play Davis Cup, it's an open and shut case. More - or less - power to him.
U.S. Davis Cup captain Pat McEnroe has thought plenty about this issue. The potential solution he favors is playing the first two rounds under the present format, then bringing the four semifinalists together at a neutral or rotating site to battle it out for the championship. That would cut back the time commitment (although not by that much), and create something like a fifth Grand Slam in the late fall. It would undoubtedly have loads of star power, and an all-star cast- something not every final can claim. But I'm not sure that approach would be more appealing to the Federers and Murrays of this world.
In any event, I'm really disappointed that Federer won't be available when Spain opens its title defense at home against Switzerland. Slotted for the first week in March, the first-round of Cup play won't have any repercussions whatsoever for a player hoping to do well in the majors this year. It may have a negative impact on those hoping to do well at Indian Wells and Miami, but that seems a small price to pay.
A Federer vs. Nadal Davis Cup showdown, in any round, would add a chapter to the already rich history of their rivalry, and a Federer win would go a long way toward recapturing some of the thunder Nadal stole from him. What could be better, for those who worship at the altar of Federer, than to see him lead the Swiss into Plaza de Toros in Lagrono in March, and leave that historic bullring with a win? Does anyone think so little of Roger's game that they think that couldn't happen?
Which brings up my final point. Unlike the UK, Switzerland with its top star in harness would be a major contender for the Davis Cup championship. And doesn't that beat being the best team every to dominate the playoffs?