Thoughts on a Slow Day

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

This is one of those seam weeks during which the pro establishment takes a nice dip between calendar segments. So while there’s action in Casablanca, Katowice, and Houston (quite the trifecta of cities), it’s of the milder variety. It’s a good week to think about the kinds of things that fall between the cracks of a journalist’s notebook.

Let’s start with this concept of the “seam” or transition week. It’s yet another reality that undermines the steady if not always overpowering drumbeat for a shorter tennis season. I think tennis ought to address the length of its season when it actually has one. Right now it has segments. It’s not a seasonal sport, but an “interval” one.

It isn’t just guys like 31-year-old Roger Federer who disappear for weeks on end while their clock-punching peers soldier on. Andy Murray, flush with success and at the peak of his powers, has played exactly five of the 13 weeks so far this year (as a seeded player, his obligation at the Indian Wells and Miami Masters events was basically a week at each). In fact, he’s played just five weeks of tennis since the middle of last November. Nice work if you can get it.

Murray was off, or at least out of competition, for a month and a half before the Australian Open segment, and another six weeks afterward. I’m not criticizing Murray for that, just pointing out that in no other sport I can think of does a player get to disappear for five, six, or more weeks at a time. And while the game certainly is more demanding physically these days, the other day John McEnroe told me that in 1979, his third year on the tour and the first year he won a Grand Slam (the U.S. Open), he won 27 titles (the ATP officially has him at 26).

Okay, there’s a catch. Sixteen of those were doubles titles. But 10 singles titles? That’s a pretty good year’s work. Just to put it into perspective, that’s the same number of singles titles Novak Djokovic earned in his (so far) career year of 2011—and 16 doubles titles to boot, triumphs that kept him on site at tournaments where he may have lost earlier in singles, robbing him of rest and travel time.

The performance didn’t even earn McEnroe the No. 1 ranking; he didn’t achieve that until March of the following year. And after he won the U.S. Open in ‘79, McEnroe immediately played two back-to-back hard-court events (Los Angeles and San Francisco) before he finally took a four-week break. That year, by the way, bizarrely extended halfway through January of 1980 because the Masters (forerunner of the ATP World Tour Finals) was played at the start of the new year.

I think the players are lucky that their game evolved the way it did. Does anyone think it would be better for them if more conventional, tighter scheduling provided them with three months off after the U.S. Open—but made it impossible for them to take more than a week or two off at a time between January and the end of September?

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When are we going to see the next player with two forehands, meaning that he or she switches the racquet from hand-to-hand to hit a left- and right-handed version? This theme has come up now and then, but it’s never been more relevant than now, what with the forehand cannon, married to the open stance and inside-out targeting, having emerged as the weapon (and strategy) of choice.

We’ve seen a number of players with two forehands (let’s call them “switch handers”) over the years. Italian Giorgio de Stefani, who was one of them, beat Fred Perry at Roland Garros in 1934. The most recent example was Evgenia Koulikovskaya, a former WTA Top 100 player from Russia. She’s off the tour now, but in 2003 she told Chris Clarey of the New York Times, “I feel like a horse in the circus: people are running and looking at you do stuff.”

Luke Jensen, who’s now coaching at Syracuse University, was an ambidextrous player who could hit two forehands but preferred to hit a conventional two-handed backhand. At times, though, he served right-handed from the deuce court and lefty from the ad side, to best exploit the angles.

The biggest obstacle to the switch-hander is hand positioning on the racquet, or more accurately the time required to get the needed hand into the right place on the butt of the stick—something a conventional player with a two-handed backhand doesn’t have to worry about because he or she keeps his dominant hand lower on the handle all the time. But somewhere out there is an ambidextrous kid who’s quick enough to switch hands without losing control or power. Watch out!

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Maria Sharapova grew a little testy in the press conference following her loss to Serena Williams at the recent Sony Open in Miami, following a confusing question about the on-court coaching she received from Thomas Hogstedt—which the journalist by his own admission heard on the television.

Tired of the fellow’s vague ramblings, she resorted to her familiar, well-developed sarcastic streak:

“Why are you asking me (what Hogstedt said) if you saw it? Why are you asking me if you heard it yourself? I mean, I can’t remember exactly what he said. I mean, there’s a tape. Maybe I can get you a copy. (That drew laughs from the crowd). I’m sure we’ll find it.”

The little incident was an apt comment on the absurdity of the WTA’s on-court coaching rules. An increasing number of people, including many of the most respected members of the commentariat, find the policy hokey at best, painfully dull in an emperor’s-new-clothes kind of way at worst. Bruce Jenkins, another pundit, recently weighed in with an excellent column on the subject at Sports Illustrated.

The great takeaway is that the very reason the WTA adopted this transparent gimmick was to make for a greater, more informed viewing experience. But it hasn’t done that at all, not unless you think watching some kid’s father yelling in her face and exhorting her to “come on!” or “stay focused” or “keep your feet moving” is must-see TV.

More than anything, on-court coaching in the overwhelming number of cases shows how awkward the player-coach relationship is when you actually allow contact and communication mid-match. After that verbal blast from Hogstedt, Sharapova failed to win another game and lost six in a row to surrender the title to Williams. Please, WTA, trash this grotesque experiment!

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When Tommy Haas upset top-seeded Novak Djokovic in Miami, it triggered a frenzied search through the record books to see who was the oldest player to beat a No. 1 ranked player—an exercise that really only works if you start counting the year the ATP rankings were created, 1973.

On deadline, the closest anyone—including the inestimably valuable Greg Sharko of the ATP—could come up with was a 30-year-old, which became the stat everyone (including me) went with for their daily report. After a little further research under less pressing circumstances, Sharko unearthed a more precise statistic. It turns out that Haas became just the third oldest player in ATP history to beat the top-ranked man. Can you guess the other two? (The oldest is easy, the second oldest, not so much.)

I am going to write a nonsense paragraph now just so you don’t cheat: blah-blah-blah is anyone going to blue clay the shrieking of Sharapova and what if Andy’s dogs really were you get the point I just don’t want you to look until now. Okay.

Ken Rosewall, as the more astute (or is it aged?) among you might have easily guessed, was the oldest player to topple a No. 1. “Muscles” (the nickname was originally meant ironically) was just four months short of his 40th birthday when he upset his top-ranked Australian countryman John Newcombe. Let no one question the circumstances under which the upset happened: It was a quarterfinal match at Wimbledon; Rosewall advanced to the final, where he was crushed by young Jimmy Connors.

The second oldest was Gianluca Pozza of Italy, who was 34 years, 11 months, and 28 days old when he upset Andre Agassi in the third round at the Wimbledon tune-up at Queen’s Club. If you’re wondering why that age is so precise, it’s because Pozza was just five days older than Haas when he whacked Agassi. However, there’s an asterisk attached to that one: Agassi never finished the match with Pozza. He retired after losing the first set 4-6, but forging ahead in the second, 3-2. The injury wasn’t severe enough to keep Agassi out of Wimbledon, where he lost in five scintillating sets in the semifinals to Pat Rafter.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about on an otherwise slow day during a seam week in tennis.

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