It has been two months since I looked at reader mail here—a few small things have happened in tennis during that time, I’d say. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at email@example.com. I’ll be back to the regular weekly schedule again until the U.S. Open.
I think you gave [Agnieszka] Radwanska too much of a pass in your Wimbledon grades with an A-. I know every handshake doesn’t need to come with a hug, but what she did to Sabine was rude and unsportsmanlike. Even if you’re her fan, like you are, you should have called her on it.—Betsy
It’s true, I am a fan of Aga’s, and I closed my Wimbledon grade for her by saying that I probably wouldn’t hold the handshake against her the next time I saw her play. But I also wrote that she owed Lisicki more than she gave her at the net at Wimbledon—hugs aren’t necessary, but I do want to see some degree of acknowledgement of the existence of the opponent, and the match just played.
In a more general way, Radwanska’s handshake is part of what may make her an interesting figure going forward. I like the Bad Aga. That's a relative term, of course; nobody who shows her rage on court by stamping her foot is going to turn into the next John McEnroe anytime soon. But I like that she didn’t apologize for posing nude in ESPN’s Body Issue. I like that she told my friend Matt Cronin in Stanford that if she can win Miami (which she did last year), there’s no reason she can’t win the U.S. Open. I like that she shows flashes of anger, as she did at the Israeli crowd in Davis Cup earlier this year and at her former friend Victoria Azarenka—even if her feud with Vika hasn't exactly helped her career.
With the Top 3 women going out early at Wimbledon, this was Radwanska’s first chance to consider herself the favorite to win a Grand Slam. It didn’t work out this time, but hopefully that taste of possible success at a major will fire her ambitions for more of it in the future. She has to believe that it’s at least possible for her to win one now.
I’m thinking back and wondering: Has there ever been a player like David Ferrer? Someone who was so good against almost everyone, but who never really threatened to win a Grand Slam, and had such a bad record against the players above him?—AA, New York
Good question. It’s hard to imagine another player being so successful yet never being seriously considered as a Slam threat. But in the 1970s and early 80s, Vitas Gerulaitis fit this profile to a degree. He was ranked No. 4 for a long period behind his three friends, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors. He reached the finals of the French and U.S. Opens and nearly Wimbledon, and he even won the Aussie Open during its wilderness years, when the top players had abandoned it. Yet it famously took him 17 tries to beat Connors; his “little brother” McEnroe passed him in time to steal the ’79 Open from him; and he never beat Borg. Vitas was the nice guy among them—all three of those men were pallbearers at his funeral—but like Ferrer, he also lacked a killer weapon. Gerulatis played serve and volley tennis much the way Ferru plays the baseline today: He was solid but not overwhelming. Against the very best opponents, neither of them could take the match into his own hands.
More recently I’d say Nikolay Davydenko also had a Ferrer-esque streak in him. He was a regular in the Top 5, he went deep at majors, he beat the people he was supposed to beat, but it took him years to record even one win over Federer. Like Ferrer, Davydenko is small and was something of a late-bloomer, and he could never upgrade his expectations for himself to include "Grand Slam champion" among them. Money has always been reward enough for Kolya.
For both of these players, lowered expectations have been a double-edged sword. Neither Ferrer nor Davydenko put the weight of the world on their shoulders; it has never been major-title-or-bust in their minds. This allowed them to play without undue pressure through early rounds. But in the latter stages, against the best players, it has also been easier for them to take a loss, shrug, and walk away thinking they made it as far as they could. Gerulaitis didn’t have that attitude. Buddies or not, he hated losing to the big guns.
Steve, what do you think of the latest steroid scandals in baseball and track and field? Pretty depressing, don’t you think? Nothing seems to stop these guys.—Tired
I feel like there’s bad news and some good news in this latest round of the doping wars. Like you said, positive tests for sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, and the Biogenesis case in baseball (as well as in other sports, including tennis, as we were reminded today) do show the persistence of the problem. Track and field has instituted a biological passport program, which tennis is planning, and that still hasn't been a sufficient deterrent. And even as the head sizes of baseball's sluggers have begun to shrink, the cases haven’t gone away. In smearing the tester who handled his positive sample, Ryan Braun has managed to set a new low for dishonorable dishonesty in sports. And there was widespread suspicion of the Tour de France winner last weekend, even after everything that has happened in cycling. (As I'm writing this, Viktor Troicki has been suspended for 18 months for failing to submit to a blood test in Monte Carlo in April. He says he felt unwell that day, and will appeal. I'm sure there will be a lot more to this story, and I'll have something on it on Friday.)
As far as track and baseball go, the fact that star athletes are testing positive isn’t all bad—it shows that they’re being tested with at least some degree of effectiveness, and that the sports are willing to make their names public. In baseball, there have been some signs that the league’s rank-and-file players are turning against the cheaters among them, and two recent positive tests from prominent Jamaican sprinters may eventually confirm the long-running suspicions of USADA's Travis Tygart (the man who brought down Lance Armstrong) about the quality of that country’s anti-doping controls.
The Lance investigation from earlier this year made me believe that, contrary to popular opinion, dopers can be caught, and I still believe that. Tennis needs to believe it, too.