Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: September 24

Monday, September 24, 2012 /by

Li Na, Zheng Jie, and Peng Shuai are all playing this week in Tokyo despite a growing political conflict between their native China and Japan. The bone of contention is the Japanese government’s decision to nationalize some uninhabited islands also claimed by China.

I don’t buy into the “sports and politics don’t and shouldn’t mix” theory. It’s a nice, romantic idea, and I’m as happy as anyone when sports transcends or even improves the state of the world. But everything in life is to some extent political, and I don’t believe sports is so special and singular a human activity that it somehow escapes, or can be sheltered from, that sometimes grim reality. Sports is a tool for all different kinds of enterprises.

In this specific case, we’re not looking at some big, human rights-type issue. But by refusing to boycott Japan, Li and company are doing their small bit to keep the conflict from ramping up. They also seem to be asserting the fact that even an authoritarian nation like China can’t count on using its players as political pawns (for all we really know, though, the Chinese government may be secretly pleased for reasons of its own that the players are in Tokyo).

What we do know is that the Chinese women could have skipped the Japan Open, just to keep some of their more strident, nationalistic countrymen happy. It would have been the easy way to resolve their quandary, but at the cost of making themselves appear partisan on this issue. I don’t think playing in Japan qualifies these women for canonization (there is self-interest involved, after all), but on the surface it looks like a brave decision and a small assertion of independence and freedom.

It appears that Juan Martin del Potro might not be the savior of Argentina’s Davis Cup effort after all. The news out of Buenos Aires last week suggested that the personal bickering and infighting that has traditionally plagued the nation has not been laid to rest now that David Nalbandian is reluctantly passing the torch to del Potro—with all the “fresh start” implications.

The generally supportive Argentine press raked del Potro over the coals after the team lost at home to the Czech Republic two weekends ago in the Davis Cup semifinals. Del Potro allegedly shunned the team until mid-week (usually the teams convene on Sunday or Monday before a tie begins on Friday), and even when he did show up he worked out only with his hitting partner, Diego Schwartzman, rather than team members. The newspaper La Nacion alsoreported that del Potro told Argentina Davis Cup captain Martin Jaite and coach Mariano Zabaleta that if he played despite having a sore left wrist and got hurt it would be “their fault.”

Del Potro did play on Friday (he defeated Radek Stepanek in the opening match), but with Argentina down 1-2 he pulled out of the fourth rubber; Tomas Berdych then beat substitute Carlos Berlocq in straight sets to clinch for the Czechs.

Del Potro’s wrist injury is real. If the only issue here were his decision not to play the second match, fine. But clearly there was a lot more going on behind the curtain. Ultimately, this was a great opportunity for del Potro to take control and make the squad his team. He clearly failed to do that. It was, to say the least, surprising.

Martin Klizan of Slovakia backed up his debut as a second-week player at the U.S. Open (where he upset Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) with a noteworthy tournament win in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Klizan was seeded No. 3, but was on the home turf of top seed Mikhail Youzhny. The two men met in an epic, three-hour-and-49-minute semifinal on Saturday, won by Klizan, 6-7 (11), 6-4, 7-6 (3). That Kilzan was able to bounce back the next day to handle fourth-seeded Fabio Fognini for the title (6-2, 6-3) was an impressive feat.

Klizan, you may remember, was touted as the second coming of Miloslav Mecir. He has the same kind of easy, leisurely game in which timing and anticipation play such commanding roles. Now 23, Klizan was the junior Roland Garros champion in 2006. But not long thereafter he suffered a serious wrist injury that set back his development significantly.

Klizan appears to be back on track—with a vengeance. In seven months, he’s moved up from No. 121 to his present, career-high ranking of No. 33.

The All India Tennis Association’s Anil Khanna is now threatening to take legal action against one of India’s most successful players ever, Mahesh Bhupathi.

This, in response to Bhupathi’s earlier threat to sue the AITA, and some inflammatory remarks he made about Khanna. The entire mess started when Bhupathi and his countryman Rohan Bopanna both refused to partner Leander Paes, their highly successful but controversial countryman, at the London Olympics. Bhupathi and Bopanna were suspended from Davis Cup play for two years by the AITA for their action (or inaction), to which Bhupathi responded by threatening legal action. Bhupathi also made some highly critical remarks about Khanna in the wake of that decision.

Now Khanna has taken his turn to make legal threats.

This entire thing is remarkably silly, and nobody looks worse than the AITA—and Khanna. The situation with Paes regarding the Olympics was sad, but what are you going to do, force people who genuinely dislike each other to play together? The federation ought to have made the best of the situation, not get embroiled in flame wars waged on the Internet and in the newspapers, using the clout of officialdom to menace or browbeat independent individuals.

The personal politics here are both murky and toxic, which is exactly why the AITA and Khanna shouldn’t have lost control and let this story run away from them. Nobody really wants or needs to hear this stuff, and nobody likes it when an organization appears to try to cow or bully an individual. The Olympics are long gone. Can we just move on?

Justine Henin recently announced that she’s expecting her first child (due in March) with partner Benoit Bertuzzo. That ought to put to rest any further rumors about yet another comeback by the seven-time Grand Slam champion, but it certainly does have implications for a potential multi-generational rivalry and a continued battle for the heart of Belgium.

You may remember that when Henin originally retired, she was following in the footsteps of her far less successful but much loved Belgian frenemy, Kim Clijsters. And just like Clijsters, Henin soon un-retired—the major difference being that Clijsters had a child during her off-time, while Henin was remembered mostly for making a ghastly appearance singing on a variety show.

There’s no word yet on the gender of Henin’s child. It’s probably better for everyone that the age difference between Clijsters’ daughter, Jada, and Henin’s coming child will be great enough to ensure that they play junior tennis in different age groups.

Hsieh Su-Wei of Chinese Taipei won her second WTA title of the year, this time in Guangzhou, China. The win lifted Hsieh’s ranking inside the Top 40 (No. 39).

Hsieh’s name is a tough one for westerners, and being from Taipei, a political and cultural rival of communist (mainland) China, she isn’t part of the ongoing international lovefest for former French Open champion Li, or her compatriots Zheng or Peng. Were it not for the geopolitics, Hsieh would already be the No. 3 player from China, right behind Zheng. But I ask you, is there a less under-the-radar player than Hsieh?

Regardless, Hsieh isn’t about to let her singles success go to her head, or cause her to forget her family. She’s also been playing doubles, mostly with her sister, Shu-Ying.

“I'm very happy to play so well in singles this season,” Hsieh told the WTA. “But even though I've done well in singles, I’m going to keep playing doubles too, even more actually—my sister, who is 19 years old, is young and needs my help, so I'm bringing her to WTA tournaments with me. She's improving fast.”

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