Here's What I Don't Get. . .

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 /by

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by Pete Bodo

One Sore Ankle: We're still a few weeks away from the Indian Wells tournament, but the news is that Kim Clijsters has withdrawn with a left ankle injury. Clijsters, whose ranking is down to No. 30, hasn't played a competitive match since she lost to 6-3-in-the-third to Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

Boy, this must be one sore ankle.

Here's what I don't get. Clijsters apparently sprained her ankle earlier in that Australian Open, yet she went on to save four match points and overcome French Open champ Li Na, and she toppled No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki (see my Thumbs Down post yesterday for more on that) in the quarterfinals. I didn't trust my memory, so I went back and unearthed the original Associated Press match report on that high quality, three-set battle between the defending champ and Azarenka, and found nary a mention of Clijsters' injury. In fact, another story (Richard Pagliaro's Racquet Reaction) extolled the sheer, physical intensity of the two-hour and 12-minute clash.

So it appears that Clijsters played three great matches on that bad ankle and left Melbourne a beaten semifinalist, yet her ankle still will not be ready for the Indian Wells tournament two months later? I suppose it's possible, though unlikely, that her ankle was shredded in Oz. Maybe she loaded up on the pain-killers and exacerbated the injury in a futile attempt to leave Australia for good with a bang. Perhaps nothing short of an unusually long rest will find her fit again.

There is, of course, another possibility—and it's often the dirty little secret behind the mysterious or seemingly irrational or mysterious decisions some players make (like loading up on non-mandatory tournaments only to complain bitterly that the tour asks them to play too much). And that gets into the financial agreements players have with sponsors as well as insurance companies.

Contracts are loaded with language designed to protect the player—and sponsor—from being taken to the cleaners. You sign a big, three-year deal with a clothing company or financial services firm and decide six months in that you want to play just six events, or quit and have a baby, you give back a lot or all of the money. Conversely, you sustain an injury while making a legitimate effort to compete, you still get your checks even if you don't swing a racquet for months.

We've seen speculation on this front a few times. Two of the more notable were when Ivan lendl retired from tennis with a bad back and went years without hefting a stick, and when Martina Hingis originally retired following foot surgery (the scuttlebutt was that Hingis was going after her shoe sponsor, and thus had to demonstrate that she couldn't play).

Players often complain that few people understand the pressures and responsibilities they bear, and in that they are right. We don't like to think of tennis as big business, but at one level or in certain dimensions in every pro's life, that's exactly what it is.

Hear No Evil: Chris Evert, who's frank and realistic but rarely given to broadcasting unsolicited opinions, has no use for shrieking. And she put a potentially enormous controversy into stark terms when she told the Times of London: "If a player shows up, plays one point and says (of her opponent's shrieking), 'Can I have the referee because it is a hindrance,' it would stop."

Okay, maybe not quite so fast, but.  . . how could shriekers (by now, the word "grunt" is a misnomer in too many cases) deny that a scream is not a hindrance—especially when Serena Williams was controversially punished under the "hindrance" rule in the last U.S. Open final for exclaiming in a way that was certainly no more voluble nor distracting than the noise with which Maria Shriekapova or Victoria Screamarenka punctuates almost every shot? 

Here's what I don't get. Why isn't the WTA taking a more active role in putting the genie back into the bottle, especially when legions of people also ridicule the shriekfests and/or claim they make tennis too annoying to watch? Does some tough-minded, fearless individual (Marion Bartoli comes to mind as an ideal candidate) have to come forward and do exactly what Evert predicts?

The game's newest star, Petra Kvitova, has already defiantly proclaimed her shrill, brief scream a necessary part of her game (it's the sound you expect a woman to make as she sees a mouse and leaps up on the nearest chair). It's not like shrieking is a passing fad. It's becoming a nearly obligatory affectation.

And there is already simmering discontent on this matter. At the Australian Open, Agnieszka Radwanska—a good friend of Screamarenka—said Shriekapova's ululations were “pretty annoying” and “just too loud.” Radwanska refrained from criticizing Azarenka, to whom she lost and who went on to win the event, but she added: “Of course everybody can make some noise. This is tennis. But I think it’s just too loud. I don’t think it’s very necessary to scream that loud."

Evert recalled how at the beginning of her career, Billie Jean King invoked the hindrance rule against her. It was over Evert's childhood habit of making a first serve and then tossing the extra ball behind her, in order to get ready for a two-handed backhand. King claimed the ball rolling toward the back fence distracted her and her objection was upheld. Evert immediately began tucking the ball away. 

It would be hard for a veteran to suddenly make a federal case out of this, but if and when a sufficiently hard-nosed prodigy comes along. . . watch out.

PicForever Young: Donald Young had the best run of his pro career a few months ago, beginning with his first-ever appearance in the fourth round of a major at the U.S. Open. Young, who's just 22 but has been amongst us as a renowned if unfulfilled prodigy for the better part of a decade, then went off to Asia, under the wing of USTA coach Mike Sell (who has worked with, among others, Monica Seles). 

In Thailand, Young upset Gael Monfils and achieved his first ever ATP tour final (l. to Andy Murray). He also punched through the qualifying for Shanghai and made the second round there (l. to Stanislas Wawrinka). By the end of the year, he hit his career-high ranking of No. 43. After which Young broke off relations with the USTA, again, and declared that going forward he would be coached, again, by his mother, Ilona.

Here's what I don't get. Having been through this scenario in the past, and enduring a fair amount of controversy over it, what purpose could it possibly have served to come out and declare that Ilona Young was once again Donald's official coach?

Ilona customarily travels with Donald (she was there during the entire Asian swing, but more as parent than coach), and that's natural—although less so now that Donald is no longer 16 or 17. Why didn't Donald just say he was going to try it on his own, instead of inviting everyone and anyone to scrutinize and analyze his increasingly bizarre situation? Who knows—or cares—if the chief bottle and sock-washer is also the coach? Or not?

If this was some kind of attempt by Ilona to boost her credibility by piggy-backing on her son's sudden—and welcome—leap to another level as a player, it's backfired. Young has won exactly one match this year: At the Australian Open, he defeated qualifier and world No. 248 Peter Gojowczyk of Poland in a bitter, five-set battle. Yesterday, he lost in San Jose, to journeyman Michael Russell, who's No. 104 and 33 years old.

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