WIMBLEDON: Retaliation for Crip Walk? Lisicki Gets Honors over Serena Williams

Sabine Lisicki reached the Wimbledon final last year. Officially, that’s why she was selected to play the opening women’s singles match Tuesday at the All England Club.

I wish I believed that’s the main reason they chose her. It’s only suspicion, based on years of anecdotal evidence, that tells me Lisicki was picked partly because of last year, but partly because she is blonde. She is white. She is pretty.

And also because of this: She did not do the Crip Walk on Centre Court.

Is this payback against Serena Williams for her celebratory dance after crushing Maria Sharapova for the Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon in 2012? After all these years, Wimbledon and the Williams sisters still are not a comfortable fit. Even if this snub is just accidental, Wimbledon officials are proving yet again to be too stubborn to move up a few generations and too oblivious to note how it looks. And how it hurts tennis.

Whatever it is, Williams hasn’t complained. The first match at Wimbledon traditionally goes to the defending champ. It’s just an honorary thing, but the little things still carry big messages. The problem is, last year’s champ, Marion Bartoli, has retired. So officials just had to pick someone, like the previous year’s winner (Williams), the No. 1 ranked player (also Williams) or, yes, the loser from last year’s final (Lisicki).

DownloadedFile

Sabine Lisicki

They could have put anyone in that match, really. The inspired choice would have been Venus Williams. She is the queen of Wimbledon, but she’s getting old and has physical issues and isn’t going to win another title. What a great chance to honor her one more time. And if not Venus, then Serena, who also has meant so much to the place and the sport. Frankly, it would have sent a good message about Wimbledon, too.

Instead, they picked the young, blonde and white.

Race is always the undeniable undercurrent with the Williams sisters and tennis. It feels as if sexism is involved, too, as blonde gets too much emphasis. A few years ago, Gisela Dulko and Maria Kirilenko were inexplicably put on Centre Court one7 day. Eventually, TV rights holder BBC explained it, saying that appearance on TV is a factor in these decisions.

But with this latest decision, it feels more like continued bickering between Williams and Wimbledon.

“I can’t figure it out yet,” Williams said. “Maybe one day I’ll figure it out.”

No, she didn’t say that on Friday, when Lisicki was given the match. She said it in 2011, after she and Venus were both moved to an outer court, Court 2, on the same day. A year earlier, the Queen of England was coming to Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years. Williams was excited, and talked openly and publicly about how bad her curtsy was. She said she’d been practicing it, and she demonstrated. She wanted to play in front of the Queen. Next thing you knew, on the day of the Queen’s appearance, Serena was put out on Court 2. Centre Court had Brit Andy Murray, No. 1 Rafael Nadal, and also, Caroline Wozniacki, who was. . . Young, blonde and white.

That still seems to be what Wimbledon thinks tennis looks like. It is the most beautiful tennis venue, and feels as if it’s a tennis museum. They still prefer players to wear all white. And while Wimbledon doggedly preserves the old time feeling of tennis, it doesn’t seem to grasp that without taking action, that also preserves an ugly underbelly of the sport’s history. Continue reading


FRENCH OPEN: Old Lady Sharapova, Erases Generation, Becomes Queen of Clay

imgres-3

In the end, this French Open will be remembered for the Old Lady, I guess. If that’s what we can call Maria Sharapova. She’s just 27, but she single-handedly wiped out a moment that was all about the emergence of Generation Next.

When Serena Williams and Li Na lost early, the tournament was suddenly defined by Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza and Sloane Stephens. It wasn’t the best moment for marketers and TV networks, but women’s tennis needs a refresh. And all four of those young women are compelling and thrilling.

They feel like the right ones. It turned out, Stephens wasn’t ready, isn’t at that level. And then, the marketing dream, Sharapova, wrecked the whole thing, beating Serena-killer Muguruza in the quarters, then Bouchard in the semis, and then Halep 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-4 in the final.

There were just too many backward things going on. Sharapova cannot exactly wreck a moment in a sport with so few faces the general sports public wants to see. She cannot possibly be seen as fearless at the same time that she’s afraid to hit her serve. And more importantly: Sharapova, who once described herself on clay as a cow on ice, is now. . .

The best claycourt player on tour. That’s two French Open titles in the past three years for her, and three finals in a row.

We can celebrate Sharapova’s incredible stick-to-itiveness, as always. But she won this match, this tournament because of her years of experience. That was her advantage.

You can see it as veteran street knowledge, so to speak, or possibly just as gamesmanship. Either way, the woman who has been here a million times knew how to get through this match, and the one here for the first time – first of many – did not.

Sharapova was in an all-out stall. Halep likes to rush, and Sharapova knew how to throw her off. Setting and re-setting before her first serve, and then doing it all again before the second. And all those tosses on her serve that she caught and said, “Sorry’’ as if they were just bad tosses?

I’m not buying. It’s true she has struggled with her toss over the years, but so many of those seemed intentional. Toss and catch. . .and. . .toss. . .again. That was more stalling to get Halep out of her rhythm and give her a whole lot of time to think about what it was she was trying to do. If that was enough time for nervousness to creep into a newcomer’s brain, which has never had to deal with these thoughts before?

Well, so be it.

Halep will be back. We’ve seen some pretend stars emerge, or place-setters the past year or two while Williams starts to lose a little more often. Not sure what happened to Sabine Lisicki. Marion Bartoli was never going to be the real deal, even after she won Wimbledon.

Halep is the next longterm star for tennis. Bouchard is right behind her. Muguruza is not as sure of a thing, but odds are with her. Stephens is going to have to learn to fight, and determine whether there is the needed killer inside of her.

The amazing thing about Sharapova is that she’s doing it on clay. We figured when she emerged as a teenager at Wimbledon, crushing the ball, that the fast courts would be best for her. Now, Roland Garros is her place.

A learning curve? That would be a nice thing to point to. Really, she just seems to be moving better and holding her nerve.

Except on her serve. It’s amazing how she can just blank out flaws, just partition them out of her brain while she keeps fighting. Can’t serve? OK, I’ll be ruthless at all non-serving moments.

She was nervous against Bouchard. You could see it. Bouchard is tall, ruthless, powerful and blonde, and it was almost as if she was a replacement.

Yet despite nerves, despite seeing your replacement, despite a bad serve and iffy moves, Sharapova somehow found a way to be mentally relentless.

The only mental block she hasn’t overcome is Williams. So Sharapova, with five majors, will not go down as the best player ever. I don’t think she’s going to figure that one out.

But if a cow on ice can figure out how to become the Queen of Clay, I wouldn’t bet against her, either.


FRENCH OPEN: Federer Modernizes Racquet, Not Game. Needs New Math to Become Roger WhyNot

images-2

Roger Federer Loses to Ernests Gulbis

 

It took years to talk Roger Federer into switching to a modern racquet, even though the need for it was so obvious. Now, it’s apparently going to take a while to talk him into modernizing his game.

Even though the need is so obvious.

Federer lost to Ernests Gulbis 6-7 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 Saturday in the fourth round of the French Open, ending a run of nine straight years advancing at least to the quarters. Let’s start with this up front: I predicted that Federer would win this match, go on to beat Novak Djokovic and then lose to Rafael Nadal in the final.

In other words. . .way off.

But that pick was based on Federer finally – finally! – dropping the stubbornness and using the new, powerful racquet. He also had been using it to play more aggressively, attacking more. You do less of that on the red clay at Roland Garros, with the ball moving slower. But that doesn’t mean Federer needed to try to drop back five years.

He just can’t keep painting by numbers. Federer still cannot talk himself into taking a low-percentage shot. What is the smart play here? What is the most efficient move?

Look, guys such as Gulbis, younger, strong and talented, are going to take big-time chances. Think of it this way: Without the power that comes from the technology of the past four or five years, Gulbis would lose easily to Federer. So with the power? Why not go for big shots and see what happens?

Gulbis, always known as a super-talented flake, was great for most of the match. Sometimes, you just can’t do anything about it. But at least you can try. And all Federer did was drop back to 2009 and hope Gulbis would fall apart.

Heaven forbid, Federer is going to have to take high-risk, big-time chances, too sometimes.

The truth is, in the modern game, more modern than Federer, the math has changed. It might not even exist. But if it does, Federer’s math is wrong.

He finally has the racquet in his hand to do it, rather than the smaller, more-flexible, weaker stick he’d been carrying around for years. He was so talented that he was still good enough to use it to beat almost everyone, other than Nadal and the big, powerful flat-hitters who used the technology against him.

Watching the match on Tennis Channel Saturday, you got a great look into Federer’s stubbornness.

Jim Courier, an excellent analyst, was doing the match with Federer’s former coach, Paul Annacone.

“How difficult is it to get Roger to play something. . .away from his standard game?’’ Courier asked.

“One of the thing he told me at the beginning when we started working together,’’ Annacone said, “he goes, `When I was a kid, they used to call me Roger Why?’ Because every time you’d tell him to do something, (he’d) always want to know why. So if you tell him why and he’s pretty objective, generally he is, then he’ll do it. But you better be able to prove your point.’’

Next game, late in the fifth set with Federer in trouble, Tennis Channel had a graphic that showed Federer standing in the same place for 85% of his returns of serve. Courier said Federer needed to change things up, move to a different spot, give Gulbis a different target and get him out of his rhythm.

Annacone said he agreed, but, “Roger really likes to be stable on return of serve.’’

During the tournament in Rome two weeks ago, Annacone said, “One of the bigger challenges I feel – not singling Roger out, but just every great player — is they are comfortable doing certain things, and one certain way so often that its very difficult to make major adjustments or significant adjustments.’’

After the fourth set, Federer got way too conservative, relying far too much on the percentages of five years ago. He hit nearly every ball to Gulbis’ backhand and didn’t go for winners. It allowed Gulbis to know what was coming and get even more aggressive than he had been.

It allowed Gulbis to take control.

Federer’s new racquet can do so much more. His body can, too. His mind just won’t have it.

I don’t think Federer, at 32, is too old. He’s not as fast as he was, but he still moves better than nearly everyone on tour. He has plenty of power if he’s willing to use it. And he’s still more talented than almost everyone, too. He can still win majors.

But he’s just going to have to take dumb chances at times, even if the laws of probability say not to. He has to become Roger WhyNot?

 


FRENCH OPEN Ten Years of Donald Young. Time for Another Look?

images-1

Donald Young celebrates during French Open win over Feliciano Lopez

 

If we have learned anything from Donald Young over the years, it’s that the time to talk about his emergence is now. Today. As in, before his next match at the French Open, when everything could be ruined.

This month marked 10 years since Young’s first professional tennis match. He was 14. Of course, in his case, we knew about him even before that, when John McEnroe, playing a senior event in Chicago, walked past a court and saw Young, a ballboy, hitting groundstrokes. McEnroe was so taken by what he saw that he started hitting with Young, then ran and called his agent to tell him about this amazing kid.

That whole story was a fake, by the way. It was a publicity stunt set up by agents, and it worked to build a myth. The myth worked against Young, told a lie that everyone bought into, including Young and his parents, because U.S. tennis is so desperate for the next big thing.

But since then, Young’s career has had far too much reality, anyway. The losses. The highs followed by crushing lows. The moping. The giving up. And the contentious relationship with the USTA, which once led Young to tweet “FU—USTA!’’

The thing is, when he beat Feliciano Lopez in the second round of the French Open, Young, finally became a feelgood story again, guaranteed to last until his next match, anyway.

It’s time to take another look at Donald Young.

And maybe the USTA, too. Young has told stories of how he was childhood friends with fellow Chicagoan Taylor Townsend, who had her breakthrough at this French Open. The USTA threatened to cut funding on Townsend two years ago, saying she wasn’t fit. It was a dangerous threat, using a code word to call a teenage girl fat.

That story isn’t going to go away. CNN asked Townsend about it on Thursday, and she said that when she got the news from the USTA, she went home and cried.

So two black kids from Chicago, two prospects who were the No. 1 junior players in the world, had major fallouts with the organization charged with developing them. That said, the USTA did help Continue reading


FRENCH OPEN Dominance Done: Serena Williams Loses More than a Match

images

 

This one mattered. You try not to make too much out of one tennis match, but Serena Williams’ blowout loss to Garbine Muguruza in the second round of the French Open really seemed to have a lasting meaning.

To me, it meant this: Williams is never going to dominate women’s tennis again.

You expect your champions to be at their best in the biggest moments when they can be. That’s what Williams had done for years, playing great in majors and trying only intermittently the rest of the time.

But Wednesday’s blowout loss was something new. In the big moment, Williams won just four games, the fewest she had ever won in a major.

A 20-year old top prospect is still supposed to be intimidated by Williams, by the moment, the surroundings, the power. Instead, Muguruza, who is ranked No. 35, won 6-2, 6-2, while hitting the ball harder than Williams. She also never showed any fear or intimidation. At the Australian Open in January, it was Ana Ivanovic – who I believe will win this French Open – outhitting Williams. Ivanovic, who had gone a few years without having shown one bit of mental fortitude, never showed fear at facing Williams.

Is there anyone left who is still scared of Serena Williams, other than Maria Sharapova?

Williams is still the best player in the world, and still has the highest ceiling on any given day. She will win more majors. But I don’t see her winning five more to catch Steffi Graf.

Other players are hitting it just as hard as Williams now, and they aren’t scared. And in this match, Williams wasn’t moving fast enough to plant her feet or get in position. Muguruza won by throwing the bigger punches, and by hitting right at Williams, who wasn’t quick enough or agile enough to get out of the way.

You see something similar on the men’s tour, too, where mid level players are figuring out that the way to beat Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer is to grip it and rip it. It forces both of them to play at their best or lose.

And after the match Wednesday reporters kept trying to get Williams to explain what had happened, and she just said “I don’t know.’’

“I don’t know.’’

The talk was about the historical aspects of both Williams sisters losing on the same day early in the tournament. It’s true, that rarely happens. But a little honesty here: That’s only because Serena rarely loses early in a major.

Venus, who lost to another prospect, actually cannot be upset anymore. At 34, she can lose to anyone. She still can beat anyone on a good day, too. But with her Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that steals her energy, her body just doesn’t do what she wants it to do anymore. Maybe age is playing in now, too. And when she can’t count on her body, that beats up on her mind.

What’s newly evident at this French Open is with Serena. She isn’t invincible anymore.

“I’m going to go home and work five times as hard,’’ she said, “to make sure I never lose again.’’

Not long ago, that would have been enough.

There’s a case to be made that I’m wrong. The slow clay at Roland Garros has always been Serena’s worst surface. On Wednesday, with the sun gone, the clay played even slower. That took away some of Williams’ power.

And she lost easily and early in 2012, too, and then won four of the next six majors. So what makes me think that won’t happen again?

It’s possible. But she has lost her bully-factor. She said her loss was “just one of those days.’’ It’s true that sometimes, especially as you get older, your body just might not feel right one day here or there. But there have been too many of “those days’’ for Williams lately – including last year when Sabine Lisicki outmuscled her at Wimbledon – to count this as fluke.

It seems strange to say this, but the bully-factor matters just as much in tennis as it does in, say, boxing. Maybe even more in some ways. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. The only place Williams might still have it will be on the grass at Wimbledon. We’ll see.

From here, it’ll still be impossible to go into majors other than the French without predicting a Serena victory. On any given day, she’ll still be the favorite. But there will be fewer and fewer freebies for her, when an opponent lies down before the first point. That means more work, more grinding for Williams, who’s 32. It means fewer wins when you’re having “one of those days.’’

Well, she says she’s going to work five times as hard. That surely sounded scary to Sharapova, anyway.

 


FRENCH OPEN: Massive Reporting Blunder Dominates…Uh, Little Mistake Goes Viral

 

This was embarrassing. The big early story at the French Open, the thing that had gotten attention in the U.S. more than Venus or Serena or Rafa or Roger or Novak, was this:

“Reporter makes absolute worst mistake ever.’’

Wow. That was the headline that rotated on the main billboards at AOL on Tuesday. I could only imagine. I had to click on it. It came with a video of that mistake, and another video of someone analyzing the video of the mistake. That’s a lot of clicks.

And here’s what it was all about: Nicolas Mahut lost to Mikhail Kukushkin in four sets in the first round. Longtime U.S. tennis reporter Bill Simons, in an interview room, started talking to Mahut by saying – get ready for this and believe it or not — “Congratulations.’’

“Congratulations?’’ Mahut said. “I lost.’’

“You lost?’’ the reporter said. “Oh, OK.’’

That was it. Absolute worst mistake ever? It went viral, not just on AOL, but also on other sites. It surely embarrassed Simons, who became a bigger story than the people he was there to write about. So let’s look at it.

Yes, it was a reflection of media today, but not of Simons. The coverage of the story was far more embarrassing than the story itself.

Look, this wasn’t about a mistake. It was about something done on purpose. A reporter made one of those little embarrassing mistakes that anyone can make. It was dumb. Fine. Also, it was irrelevant.

This tiny thing was just barely enough, with video, to produce a massively overblown headline that was unquestionably untrue in nature and in fact.

Is that really what we’re about? The worst mistake in American journalism history was that a writer did not write that Mahut had won, did not publish it. He asked a question, found out, embarrassingly, that the premise of his story was wrong and apologized.

Worst mistake ever.

Worse than “Dewey defeats Truman.’’ I once covered a college basketball game and wrote that it was thrilling for the final 3 minutes, but boring for the first 57.

College games last only 40 minutes. Worst mathematical mistake ever!

On the video that ran with the AOL story, in Huffington Post, the analyst pointed out that Mahut was the same guy who played the marathon match a few years ago at Wimbledon against John Isner. Only, he said it this way:

“Eye-sner.’’

Sorry, but it’s Is-ner.

And that was the worst fumbled pronunciation of all time, after John Travolta trying to introduce Idina Menzel at the Oscars, of course.

I am not in Paris this year, but I have a pretty good guess as to what happened. I can guarantee you that Simons was not writing a column about a match as irrelevant as Nicolas Mahut vs. Mikhail Kukushkin.

The winner was scheduled to play Isner next. That was the peg. Best guess is that French Open officials announced that Mahut was in the interview room. The reporter asked someone if Mahut had won. He was told that yes, he had won. And Simons then ran to get some comments about how the Isner marathon affected Mahut’s life.

When he found out that Mahut had lost, he still had the floor, but didn’t have anything to ask or write.

Yes, he should have looked it up somewhere first. Big deal. But other media outlets jumped all over him. One called it a “particular brand of stunning laziness.’’

If you want to put up that video because it’s funny, then fine. It is kind of a funny little slip-up. But at least be honest.

I am as much of a sucker for these click-magnet things, too. (No cat videos, though). At the Australian Open a few years ago, I wrote a quick thing after player Donald Young told me his match had been delayed when a ballboy peed on the court. The kid ran off and they had to bring out blowers to dry the court.

Just silly. It was not the biggest accident in history.

I should point out one more thing: For nearly two years, I wrote for AOL. It was a great job, actually. In fact, it was the greatest job in the history of the world!

 


Tennis Finally Wakes up, Accepts Gate-Crasher Bollettieri into Party

Nick Bollettieri and Andre Agassi in the early days

Nick Bollettieri and Andre Agassi in the early days

At Wimbledon last year, I met with Nick Bollettieri and we talked about his two favorite subjects: tennis and, well, Nick Bollettieri. I told him that I’d done what a lot of journalists do in advance with famous people: I’d already written his obituary.

It should be an unsettling thing for a man in his 80s to hear, but Bollettieri just shook my hand and said, “Thanks. You’re going to need to write it again.’’

I love that. He wasn’t done yet.

Bollettieri has always been part-huckster, part-builder of tennis champions, and the first part of that turned off enough people that they didn’t notice the second part, or just didn’t want to. Despite developing the greatest generation of tennis champions, and defining a model the world would copy, he somehow managed to be seen as tennis’ gate-crasher.

He couldn’t even get into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Until he was voted in this week.

Whatever you think of Bollettieri’s methods or his carnival-barker mentality, it is just such an ugly reflection on tennis that it took so long for him to be honored. By now, you’d think this sport would have learned, would have welcomed people who don’t look like they belonged in tennis’ past. Or sound like it. Or act like it. Or worse: have the pedigree for it.

Shame on tennis for taking so long with Bollettieri.

The trend today is to sign with a coach who has won majors as a player. The more majors, the better. Andy Murray finally won his majors after signing Ivan Lendl, and next thing you knew, Roger Federer signed Stefan Edberg, Novak Djokovic had Boris Becker. Even Kei Nishikori had Michael Chang and Marin Cilic had Goran Ivanisevic.

Here’s one thing to remember: The best player in the world, Rafael Nadal, is coached by. . .

Uncle Toni.

This trend to ex-champs as coaches isn’t going to produce the results players are expecting.

Bollettieri was not a great player. He was not a tour player. To be honest, I don’t really even think he was much of a player at all, though he did play briefly in college.

It’s pure snobbery that it took so long to recognize Bollettieri, who developed Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and others who reached No. 1.

Bollettieri with Anna Kournikova

Bollettieri with Anna Kournikova

Being honest, I think he changed things, too, when he went so crazy with Anna Kournikova. She is criticized unfairly, by the way, despite her incredible work ethic making her a top 10 player in a tough era. The problem is, she made a lot of people a lot of money without ever having won a tournament. And now, the premium is on good-looking young girls who can be groomed into top, marketable, players.

That’s sort of sickening, actually.

But back to Bollettieri. Take a look at who makes the best baseball managers. It’s not usually the best former players, but instead the ones who studied the game, who had to truly understand it. It’s the ones who had to find every last angle to make it to the top, or close to it.

I’ll take a career backup catcher as a manager any day. Of course, Bollettieri never even reached that height on the court.

Who cares? It was his vision that found a way to get to the sport’s mountaintop. Again and again.

He founded the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla. in 1978, and his idea was to take the top prospects, put them all together and have them fight each other on the court all day, all night. He is no strategic genius, but did push a new attacking style, from inside the baseline with a massive forehand.

He eventually sold the Academy to IMG, and it has grown into something massive, as shown here in this recent piece by Christopher Clarey in The New York Times. The story also points out that it took a big lobbying effort to get Bollettieri into the Hall this time, from Agassi, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Chris Evert, who all wrote letters to the election panel pushing for him.

He started his first tennis camp with the help of Vince Lombardi. Bollettieri was a tennis instructor at a hotel in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and 70s, and Lombardi would come there to play golf. He stopped by the tennis courts one day and told Bollettieri that he was good working with kids, and should do more of it.

Later, when Bollettieri’s career wasn’t going well, he called Lombardi, who helped him to set up a tennis camp in Beaver Dam, Wis.

His Academy was tennis’ first tennis factory, and that led to plenty of criticism. Agassi and Courier, among others, would have a falling out with Bollettieri over his militaristic style. Eventually, they came back into the fold.

So he certainly wasn’t without controversy. But 82 years old, and his plan has led to double-digit players reaching No. 1 in the world. He’s looking to develop another one, too, so he can alter his obituary yet again.

I’ll already have to change one part in his now: The gate-crasher has finally been accepted.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers