(Mostly Bad) News of the Day
It's funny how the news in tennis just doesn't stop flowing, even at this ebb time of the year. Anyone who advocates for a longer off-season ought to bear that in mind, because in these days of ever accelerating news cycles and social media, falling off the radar of the general public can do significant damage to the profile of the sport. You don't want John Q. Public to endure radio silence for two or three months, only to ask in January, "Who's that Roger Federer dude again?" So let's take a look at just some of the significant newsmakers and stories of the past few days.
How about Jurgen Melzer, successfully defending his Vienna title with a bitterly fought three-set win over countryman Andreas Haider-Maurer? I've always felt that if you're anyone but a solid Top 10 player, winning a tournament in your homeland, no matter how small (and the Bank Austria Trophy tournament is by no means a minor event) is an excruciatingly difficult and tension-filled challenge. If I were a player, I'd almost rather play a Grand Slam than an ATP 500 or 250 tournament when it comes to the bragging rights at home, because there's no real pressure on the rank-and-file players at a major.
But at a tournament like Vienna, much is expected of whomever is the highest ranked "local" player, and the player himself is apt to burn to perform well for his countrymen. Okay, so Melzer climbed that mountain last year in Vienna. Fair enough. But no less an authority than Pete Sampras has said that defending a title (granted, he was talking about majors, but it's all relative, right?) is a tougher assignment than winning one. And I think that also holds true for these smaller events in nations that don't have a legitimate Grand Slam contender on the roster.
Plus, in facing Haider-Maurer, Melzer, ranked No. 12, was looking at a lose-lose scenario. Haider-Maurer had come into Vienna through the back door, earning a lucky-loser spot when Ernests Gulbis pulled out of the main draw. He was playing with house money, swinging the racket like a guy with nothing to lose. Haider-Maurer clearly got the wind behind his back and slashed his way to the final. In the end—and it took some time to get to the point, the scores being 6-7 (10), 7-6 (4), 6-4—it was the fear of winning that undid Maurer. As Melzer said, "I just hoped Andy would start thinking about winning and get nervous and that's exactly what happened."
Ouch! It would have been nicer to hear that analysis come from the lips of the loser, but the Austrians have a rich tradition of speaking their minds, which is one reason they haven't exactly been beloved, as a group, among their peers. And a a good reason to appreciate the Austrians. The truth isn't always pretty.
Let's also give credit to Gael Monfils, for the same reasons. Winning at home, at a tournament that hasn't been conceded to Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer (which means sub-Grand Slam and Masters 1000 tournaments) is always a fine accomplishment, if less so for the more highly ranked of players. But Monfils (to call him "erratic" is an understatement) pulled it together to win the Open Sud de France event last weekend.
You have to feel for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He may be the most snakebit of the top ATP pros, and now he's had to withdraw from Valencia with knee problems he first experienced during his semifinal match with Monfils at the aforementioned Montpelier tournament. You'll remember that Tsonga had to take a pass on Wimbledon for the same reason, which was just the latest of a seemingly endless string of injuries.
I hope this withdrawal was precautionary, but we won't know until the results of his MRI are made public. Tsonga said his main goal is to be ready for the Davis Cup final, which is a refreshing attitude and a notable antidote to the criticism, most voluble in the U.S., that the Davis Cup is irrelevant. It certainly doesn't sound irrelevant to Tsonga, or, for that matter Novak Djokovic, who will lead his Serbian squad against France in the final in Belgrade in a few weeks time.
Continuing in the tradition of Jelena Jankovic and now Caroline Wozniacki, Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta have earned the year-end No. 1 ranking without having won a Grand Slam event. In their case, it's the top ranking in doubles. Dulko and Pennetta didn't win a major this year, but their six titles and impressive 17-match win streak (which earned them titles in Miami, Stuttgart and Rome, and a final in Madrid) was good enough to get the job done. Is it insufferably sexist to say that Dulko and Penetta may be the all-time eye-candy WTA doubles team as well?
It seems like just yesterday that Taylor Dent was telling me, down at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, that he honestly and soberly expected to surpass his career-high singles ranking (No. 21) this year. At the time, he was expecting his first child (his wife is former touring pro Jenny Hopkins), and he must have been at least partially driven by the renewed sense of responsibilty that visits new parents. Declan Dent is now nine months old, and Taylor, who's 29, is spinning his wheels. He's been unable to crack the Top 70, and is presently ranked No. 89. It may be time to focus on changing diapers, not ends.
Give Dent credit for being realistic about his situation, and remember that he came all the way back from major back surgery to take one more shot at the big show. If he does retire soon, he can certainly feel like he did everything possible to maximize his career.
Also contemplating retirement is seemingly ageless Rennae Stubbs, the 39-year-old Aussie doubles workhorse. She'll call it quits after the next Australian Open and the green-and-gold's Fed Cup tie vs. Italy—unless the Aussies find a way to win that battle. Think Fed Cup is irrelevant? "If we win the Fed Cup tie and are in the semis, there's a small possibility that I'd still like to be part of that journey, having been on that train for so long."
Enjoy the ride, try to remember the scenery, Stubbsie. Or call Kimiko Date Krumm, who might be willing to give you a career-renewing pep talk. You are, after all, a doubles player—your longevity is supposed to be greater than that of a singles player.
That's all for today. I was going to go into Christophe Rochus's incredibly frank—and, frankly, irresponsible—comments regarding doping on the ATP Tour, but I think I'll save that for tomorrow. Staye tuned on this one.