Keeping Tabs, Melbourne: Jan. 16

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 /by

MELBOURNE—There’s shock and sadness around the tennis world today, after the announcement that ATP chief Brad Drewett, 54, has ALS (known as Lou Gehrig’s or Charles Mingus’s disease to Americans) and will be leaving his job. It’s doubly sad because Drewett had been on the job for only a year, and he was in the process of making positive changes for his players. With the top men standing beside him, the last 12 months had felt like the start of a new era of level-headed transformation for the tour. The news hangs heavily over the tournament at the moment. Drewett is an Australian who played his first Open at Kooyong in 1975, when he was 17. 

Elsewhere...

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Paper Gladiator

I’ve already said that Australia specializes in sports columnists. One whom I look forward to reading each year while I’m here is Patrick Smith of The Australian. Yesterday, in his piece on Sam Stosur, Smith showed again how a smart piece of observation can open a new window on how you view a player.

“Stosur enters the court in the manner a gladiator might arrive at a colosseum," he writes. "She is fiercely built, shoulders that look broad and big enough to hold up a nation. You could break rocks on her stomach and not leave an indentation. Her emotions are masked by a face that does not move, up or down, right or left. Not even a twitch. A cap and sunglasses complete the shield. She looks invincible and intimidating. The lions won’t sleep tonight.

“But this is a mirage. Misdirection. Back under cover in the changing rooms is another Sam Stosur who makes a separate entry. She doubts herself, thinks slowly, fears losing, frets what might be coming her way. She cannot regularly control her rocket power. She overhits, she drags balls into the net. Her feet flounder as though the calf muscles have turned to marble.”

Not bad, eh? As a lover of well-turned last lines, I also appreciated Smith’s in this one:

“The secret is that Stosur cannot remain a gladiator of two parts. Her muscle must extend to her brain.”

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Getting Muzzled Up

Speaking of muscle, that’s all anyone can talk about when it comes to Andy Murray at the moment. The man he beat yesterday, Robin Haase, had this to say about Muzz: “He has changed really well, and he has worked hard for that, to get stronger in the legs. Look at him and you can see he’s strong...” Haase also said that no matter how hard he worked out, he couldn’t build muscle the Murray does.

Herald Sun columnist Ron Reed thinks it isn't just the legs that have bulked up. “Murray also looked to be filling out his shirt more.” 

Muzz himself was defensive on the subject. “Most of the weight I put on is in my legs, but the T-shirt I’m wearing is tighter,” he said yesterday. “It’s not that I’m any bigger in the upper body.”

Why would Murray insist that what we see is just an optical illusion? Shouldn’t he be happy to look fit? I can only imagine that it’s the specter of steroids that hangs over every athlete. Which is too bad. By all accounts, Murray has always, even at 15 years old, been dedicated to his job and everything that comes with it.

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Bulat, Not Borat

I’ve mostly concentrated on the local papers this week, but fellow American Doug Robson of USA Today has been doing good work as well (and as usual). In this piece, he looks at a new, and unlikely, would-be tennis power, Kazakhstan.

“Five years ago,” Robson writes, “the former Soviet territory with little tennis tradition and a population smaller than Florida counted zero players in the Top 120. Today, five women with Kazakh passports rank in the Top 125, more than traditional tennis powers such as Australia and Spain."

How has the country pulled this odd trick off? As Robson writes, the strategy has been, “Lure castoffs and underappreciated diamonds in the rough with cash, coaching, and travel stipends...At the Australian Open, none of the Kazakhstan players in the main draw were born [there].” These include Russians Mikhail Kukushkin, Galina Vosoboeva, Yaroslava Shvedova, and Bulgarian Sesil Karatantcheva.

“The Billy Beane, or George Steinbrenner, behind this sudden success is mega-rich businessman and tennis nut Bulat Utemuratov,” the head of the county’s tennis federation. He, along with Kazakhstan’s natural gas reserves, have helped build gleaming new training facilities around the country.

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Key to Keys?

Robson also profiles 17-year-old American Madison Keys. I can remember interviewing Keys, and liking her game, as far back as when she was 13 and a star-in-the-making at the Evert Academy in Florida. She faded into the shadows for a couple of years, and I wondered if she would be another sure shot who didn’t turn out to be so sure. Now she’s in the second round today at the Australian Open.

One reason for her low profile was the limited number of WTA events she was allowed to play at a young age. At first glance you might think that this slowed Keys’ development and hurt her—that’s been a criticism of the so-called “Capriati Rule” in the past. But Chris Evert, for one, has a different opinion.

“With young players such as Melanie Oudin, Christina McHale, and Sloane Stephens getting more attention in recent years,” Robson writes, “Keys has been able to work on improving her game away from the spotlight.”

“I think quietly she’s realized,” Evert says, “that this is what she wants to do with the desire and discipline, but I think it took her a little while maturity-wise.”

Keys plays Tamira Paszek today.

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Quote of the Day

Yesterday Wu Di became the first man from mainland China to compete in a Grand Slam, losing in four sets to Ivan Dodig. He was asked afterward if his countrywoman Li Na had any advice for him. She did, he said, and it was characteristically blunt.

“Last night,” Wu said, “before I go to bed I get a text message from her. She told me, Don’t be nervous. Don’t think about tennis. Just go to bed.”

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