last call for USA

If only we could get CBS to step aside…

As great a tournament the Open has been this year, when considering the event in its entirety, you’ve got to start with the coverage (the face of the event, after all). I don’t know if it’s because of the conventions, but I’ve been more conscious of how the tournament has been delivered to me this year than ever before.

In case you haven’t heard, this is USA Network’s last year covering the Open. With its bevy of weaknesses aside — I’ll get to a few in a sec — can we just say thank god for USA’s day and weeknight coverage? CBS’ work might not be different from years past, but the grating horn section of their intro and outro, the overexposed light, Mary Joe’s pre- and post-match interviews, Dick Enberg — how much of it can one take?

Thanks for the relief, USA, but here are a few things your replacement can improve upon:

– When Mueller and Davydenko were 9-10 in the fourth set tiebreak, the producer switched over to the start of the Andreev/Federer first set tiebreak, despite McEnroe’s request to stay put. (They did show the end of the tiebreak on tape, but the piss had been taken.)

– The night-match guests invited to join Ted Robinson and John in the booth really tested our patience and sanity: the Ryder Cup captain left me yawning and Boris Becker’s visit felt bloated.

– McEnroe and Jim Courier both have good and bad: Mac offers great insight and passion until he eventually devolves into his usual self-aggrandizement, occasionally revisiting earlier top form. Courier gets major points for his latest insights, my favorite being pointing out that guys ranked in the 80s in the world could be starters on an NBA team (a sentiment I’ve been aware of for a while). On the other hand, he’s still Mr. Smug.

By the way, I’m really intrigued by all the personal bits that Courier alludes to in his commentary, so I’m asking my readers for the latest info on this man: is his Manhattan apartment a duplex? penthouse? both? What kind of art does he collect? What Rosetta Stone tape is he currently working on?

Hope you enjoyed USA’s last night of coverage, and that CBS doesn’t give you too much of a hangover.

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

On lucky net cords, and more than you ever wanted to know about [Derrick] Rostagno

Before being summarily dismissed by China’s Jie Zheng in the 3rd round of this year’s Wimbledon, soon-to-be-former-but-still-current No. 1 Ana Ivanovic’s claim to fame was the miraculous netcord that saved her while match point down against Natalie Dechy in the prior round.

Several ESPN pundits were all over the potentially perfect reference: the 2nd round of the 1989 US Open, when Boris Becker was down match point to Hollywood’s own Derrick Rostagno.

Up a match point in the fourth-set tiebreaker (the first of two match points), Rostagno served and volleyed; Becker’s passing shot — which Rostagno was well in place to knock off — hit the net cord and took a severely angled bounce well over Rostagno’s head. Becker went on to win the tiebreak, the match, and marched all the way to the championship over Lendl. Becker was 21 at the time, so we could give Ivanovic, at just 20, a bit longer to come into her own.

And what about Mr. Rostagno? He rode his VW bus around to tournaments in the West (an RV in the East), and wore puka-shell necklaces. Often referred to as a “free spirit,” he was perhaps lucky in that there wasn’t anywhere near as much dug up on players as there is today. But there is some additional lore with Rostagno that has lingered: in 1986, he was in Mexico City on a flight layover before returning back to the States. At the last minute, he decided to stay in Mexico and play in a satellite tournament there. The MEX to LAX leg of the flight crashed in Cerritos, Calif., killing everyone on board and then some.

Another recollection features Michael Joyce — now famed as Maria Sharapova’s coach — back when he was struggling to move up through the challenger circuit. Joyce had just taken the players’ bus to the event where he was entered, when who should pull up than none other than Mr. Rostagno, driving a Porsche no less; here’s a fellow American who’s made it, drawing Joyce’s admiration and envy.

Rostagno has since gone on to get an MBA, work in leveraged buyouts, gone to law school, and passed the California bar. The latest report mentions him following his father into litigation. No one said life after tennis is pretty.

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

who wears the cranky pants in the atp family?

(Editor: Michael wrote this before unseeded Gael Monfils defeated fifth seed David Ferrer in the quarters.)

Nole, in adidas, defeats Latvian Ernest Gulbis in the French Open quarterfinals 7-5, 7-6 (3), 7-5.

We’re halfway through the quarters and, alas, there are no major surprise survivors left. So that tends to leave us to focus on the known quantities and how they’re shaking down, or out, or something along those lines.

Novak Djokovic (that’s JOCK-ovich, thankyouverymuch), along with showing off his solid and semi-dominant play, has also been demonstrating a fair portion of on-court arrogance: you’ve got the looks of frustration, of disbelief, and of downright annoyance that the lesser opponent across the net has actually won the point, one that was so rightfully his. You may have noticed that Tennis Channel has introduced a new feature in their coverage this year: the slow-motion reaction shot. I don’t believe ESPN2’s got it. We get to see any emotional/competitive bent that’s emanating from a given player after they’ve just won or (mostly) lost a point — every smirk, every scowl, every eye roll. And Djokovic seems to have the full arsenal, as wide a variety as his game itself.

Look, I too fell in love with the Jocker (the nickname still works!), both through his personality and his brilliant imitations; loved those verite shots of him hamming it up for a player in the locker room at the U.S. Open. But his on-court persona has gotten a long, long way from the off-the-court guy. (That said, if you happened to catch Bill Macatee’s interview with him, you might have seen a bit more cockiness than you would have liked.) Maybe with his rapid ascension, it’s just a matter of the maturity catching up. In any case, you may be able to guess who I’ll be rooting for come semifinal #1.

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

Roland Garros: enjoy the ride

Having skipped coverage of the clay court season leading up to the French, I’ve come to the table with an empty stomach. As some of you may recall from last summer’s U.S. Open, it is possible to overdose on watching tennis.

And now, with the recent news and results of the circuit having faded from our consciousness and as RG gets under way, a parade of unheralded players burst out of the woodwork and onto the stage: Eysseric of France, who just turned 18; Eduardo Schwank of Argentina, taking down Moya; the welcome-but-sadly-brief return of Guillermo Coria; and many more names that have never passed our ears. You have to get up pretty early in the morning, troll a number of obscure tennis resources, and generally do a lot of homework to keep up with everyone. (The commentators certainly don’t do it, so I don’t feel too bad not having done it myself.)

I smell some late-round surprise survivors for this year, a la Filip Dewulf (’97 semifinalist) or Martin Verkerk (finalist ’03). And along with that some big-time upsets. But watching the first round matches play out with a sense of inevitability, a few early exits excepted, we’d be deluding ourselves to think that anyone but Rafael Nadal will be biting the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 8th. So it’s all about enjoying the ride.

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

What happened to the "us" in USA?

Does anyone else feel shut out of tennis’ most nationalistic event?

I’m no expert on Portland, but I’ve read, and heard, that it’s a great place to live: beautiful surroundings; un-congested and easily commutable; and a down-to-earth and eco-conscious vibe. But it doesn’t come cheap. And the job market is apparently quite small and cramped.

If you were to read economist-cum-socialist Michael D. Yates‘ account of Portland in his recent travel memoir, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate, you would likely be discouraged from moving to Portland without a good job in hand. Particularly challenging, says Yates, is the world of high-end restaurant work, in which talented workers were making $7 an hour in ’04, and where it “wasn’t uncommon for restaurants to replace sous chefs when their pay got into the upper $20,000s.” (Read more on a Portland from an excerpt on Yates’ blog).

It’s not surprising, nor inappropriate, in this light, that the U.S. is hosting this weekend’s Davis Cup tie final in Portland. Three-day passes ranged from $90-$600 in price, so the event will be filled with wealthy locals, even wealthier out-of-towners jetting in on “tennis tours,” plus a couple dozen nouveau riche Russians who are even wealthier still.

Isn’t it at least somewhat ironic, in a country where tennis has gradually, in fits and starts, become less of an elitist sport, that when it comes to its nationalist forum — the Davis Cup — its spectators will be made up mostly of retired and semi-retired WASPs (Patrick McEnroe, who’s Irish Catholic, excepted)?

When it comes to media coverage, meanwhile, tennis is clearly on the downswing: Not only is ESPN — in the past a standby for U.S. Davis Cup action — out of the picture, even Tennis Channel has been relegated to carrying the Tie only in its delayed form. To watch it live, you’ll have to have a thick cable/dish package that contains the scrappy little sports channel known as VERSUS, which would require an additional order to my current dish package.

I guess this fine little bottleneck for us devoted fans is due to the “waning interest in tennis for many Americans” that NPR’s Tom Goldman cites on today’s Morning Edition. Okay, American media conglomerate, I’ll take your hint. I’ve had my fill for now, and I’m fine with resting up for a good six weeks until the Aussie Open gets going, anyway.

As far as the Tie itself, thanks to the doubles lineup, you have to give the Americans the edge. As much as I respect Blake and would feel bad if he takes another tough Tie loss, Youzhny is my favorite player, and has a lot of Cup confidence, so sorry James, but you’re going down.

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here. And TSF’s Davis Cup coverage is here.

the perils of round robin

Humility at the top

For as many perks allowed by reaching the year-end top eight of men’s tennis — the glory, the attention, the serious cash, not to mention those crazy year-ending suits — participating in the Tennis Masters Cup (Shanghai) also has a potential downside: losing multiple matches in a week.

In fact, the round-robin draw makes it so a few players have to lose two matches in the week. There’s even a chance that at least one formerly-confident fellow will take an ego beat-down and lose three. I recall Juan Carlos Ferrero in 2003 walking off the court humbled and frustrated after losing his third (and final) match. More recently, Guillermo Coria racked up consecutive 0-3 TMC records — in ’04 and ’05.

This year, thanks to Kolya squeaking out a round-robin win over the spent Gonzo, the 0-fer honor went to Nole Djokovic. If it weren’t for the signs of burnout that Novak had coming into the Masters Cup, he’s about the last player of the octet you’d expect to get served a big slice of that humbling pie.

Novak put up a good fight in each performance — and he had his overzealous stage parents cheering him on — so I’m pretty sure the showman and athlete we got to know this year hasn’t disappeared. Something tells us that after some rest in a place “far, far away from everybody”, he’ll come out alright in ’08.


Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the
Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

the masters cup without its gaucho

Let there not be any doubt that the real story (and prologue) of this year’s Tennis Masters Cup is David Nalbandian’s absence, a matter well-noted by NYT’s Chris Clarey.

I, for one, can forgive him for not making the schlep from Argentina to Shanghai — a trip which would have demanded a minimum of 32 hours travel time from Buenos Aires, one way — to be the first alternate. True, he won the Cup as an alternate in ’05, but he’s just won two Masters Series events in less than 3 weeks; why risk jet lag if all he’s going to do is keep the bench warm (Tommy Robredo is doing a mighty fine job of doing so, by the way)? This way, Nalbandian gets to end his 2007 season on a high note.

This year’s eight-man draw seems to be missing an ingredient -– a sauce, or perhaps some spices -– to make things interesting. Despite the close contest between Roddick and Davydenko, I slogged through it impatiently. Maybe there’s more to be said for style — both in fashion and play -– than some (at least those not familiar with this blog) may think. Without a stylist to counter their respectively stiff presences, there’s little flavor to find here.

The exception, of course, was the match between Roger Federer and Fernando Gonzalez, a battle so moist, it needed extra bread to soak up all the sauce. Once the inevitable (Federer taking his 11th straight win over Fernando) turned into the impossible (Gonzo upsetting in three sets), the whole Cup has taken on a vastly different tone. It hasn’t hurt that the ATP’s latest darling, Nole Djokovic, has also stumbled.

There’s no sheriff in town now. Let’s see who can find their gun.

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

davis cup: who's paying attention?

Who watches Davis Cup these days, anyway? Not many serious tennis fans, I imagine (especially ones who don’t subscribe to The Tennis Channel — no more ESPN freebies, I’m sad to say). Sure, you’ll check in on the results throughout the weekend, but watching actual games, let alone a set? Maybe if you’re killing time.

I’m not suggesting this weekend’s tie between the U.S. and Sweden is totally inconsequential (it actually does get old seeing Roddick and his mates get humiliated at some point on their way to the Cup). It’s just that Davis Cup has been skating on a sheet of half-assedness and mediocrity for some years now: top players (Federer, Nadal) play, then don’t play; they’re injured (Sweden’s Soderling for this tie, among many others on other national squads); the latest powerhouse team (Russia) isn’t made up entirely of “Russians” (Tursunov has lived in California for well over a decade; he actually tried to get a U.S. green card, and when it didn’t happen, he said: “OK, I’m playing for Russia.”)

Outside of doubles — which, other than the Bryans, has a low Q rating -– tennis is an individual sport: we as fans like that about it. You’re out there on your own. Davis Cup, so we surmise, is a team sport, even if there’s singles play. Guys sit on the sideline and cheer their teammates on, which is either really cool, or just a tad creepy, depending on your sensibility.

Speaking of creepy, the (Swedish — or do all teams do this??) ritual of exchanging gifts with their opponents on the eve of a tie takes quite a bit of the piss out of the competitive element: it finally and completely destroys the façade of battling warriors duking it out in the Coliseum.

Not to mention their fraternizing with each other as if the Davis Cup were an ongoing international rush…

Lastly, let’s not forget that the Davis Cup tie between Britain and Croatia will feature Tim Henman’s last professional match. One more time, then, and with feeling:

“Come on, Tim!”

(photos via Davis Cup)

Michael Shaw writes about tennis and other subjects for the Los Angeles Times, and is also an artist. He can be reached at michaelshaw_sar AT yahoo DOT com. Read his previous posts for TSF here.

it's time for ladies to go the distance

As my girlfriend sat and endured yet another hour of U.S. Open coverage earlier this week alongside me, one of the commentators mentioned, in passing, how the women still only play best-of-three sets in the majors. This pricked up her ears, and she looked up from her laptop.

“Why don’t the women play best of five, too?”, she wondered aloud. “They’re just as fit as men, aren’t they? They’re even biologically built for endurance!”

“Well, because the depth of men’s…”, I started to mutter. I tried again. “Well, in some finals they used to…” Nope, that reason didn’t work either. I was stumped. I had been blindly accepting this state of things without taking a second to think it through. It caught up with me a day later while I was walking my dog. “Yeah,why the hell not?”

When long-time sports commentator Diana Nyad devoted her weekly radio post, The Score, to how the women need to earn it at the slams by also going best-of-five, I could do nothing but agree with her. (Take a listen.)

And while (Christian) conservatives, not surprisingly, say women don’t deserve equal money, period, the ones who are fine with the recent trend in leveling pay want the ladies to work:

This guy, despite expounding his views on iFeminists.com, says ladies better go five to earn their keep — otherwise they’re taking from the men’s pockets. And Random Ratiocination suggests it’s a non-issue, but its readers lean towards five sets.

Among the discussion boards, posters seem to agree. At Talk Tennis, MaximRecoil suggests that women getting equal prize money isn’t what the market bears, but rather what political correctness bears.

OK, ladies: let’s go five. What do you think? Tell us!

Michael Shaw is currently following the Open from his couch on the West Coast.

thank god for usa network

Thank god for USA Network. In their decades of covering the U.S. Open, they’ve settled into a style that’s worlds better than CBS‘ (such a relief!). They also keep it consistent and simple: no unnecessary graphics; minimal “comeback kid” or “on the rise” profiles; ample servings of quality matches not involving Americans; a nice sampling of play (i.e., they’ll cover those outer court, low-Q-rating matches in the first week); and they take air breaks of very reasonable length — essentially just enough to cover the changeovers.

The Commentators:

  • Jim Courier — Wow. Where does one begin? With Mr. Courier, it seems we have a perfect balance of pros (brilliance) and cons (hubris, arrogance). Let’s start with the pros: here’s a guy who can back up the goods. Not unlike Johnny Mac, he also has tremendous access to the players and makes good use of it. He’s smart guy, surprisingly articulate, and occasionally makes insightful cultural references.But the true bonus with Jim is his tendency to deconstruct tennis broadcasting: “I’ve just been told I can’t say ‘hot chicks’ anymore,” he said the other day in reference to a comment about Safin’s former box-sitters. Or “I’m being told I need to wrap it up,” he’ll say, I’m sure to the great chagrin of his producers. Novice? Yes. Novel? Definitely.

    Another example: the other night, after a long post-match analysis from Jim, host Al Trautwig asked if he wanted to keep going, upon which Jim said, “Okay. Can I read your prompter?” This brashness with which Courier tears down the fourth wall is quite a breath of fresh air.

    He even got into it with Tracy Austin, insisting that Radwanska, who upset defending champion Maria Sharapova, used gamesmanship and broke the locker room code of ethics in attacking Masha’s second serve. Austin countered that this brashness is just the way players are today. Courier’s apparent anger, verging on hostility, brought a little verité into the USA Network booth.

    All that said, Courier is far from perfect: quite often he is the epitome of smug. “Let me tell you how much I know about this; and let me also tell you how much I know about that,” he seems to be saying. He’s passionate — which of course is important — but when he continues to expound deep into a game without stopping, he’s cut off his nose to spite his (and our) face(s). One wonders whether Courier has spent any time reviewing tapes of his broadcasts; if he does, one hopes that he’ll notice his tendency to ramble. Once he corrects this, we may have a truly great player-cum-commentator on our hands.

  • Tracy Austin — All designer business suits (bright blue ones, no less) and mind-numbing, somewhat grating patter, Austin has milked her playing days into a commentary career like a character on The Surreal Life. (Racqonteur gives her a C-.)
  • Al Trautwig — Nice deep pipes and always solidly on-the-ball, Trautwig is the best studio host USA has had. His transitions are impeccable and I’ve never seen him falter in improv mode. A weakness: in his one-on-ones, he doesn’t allow the interviewee much time to respond. But at least he keeps things moving.
  • Michael Barkann — This long-time roving reporter is great at what he does, and far too often it’s a relatively thankless task: I wouldn’t want to be interviewing players who clearly don’t want to be interviewed (which seems to be the case before every Ashe stadium match), but he does it (though I’m fairly sure it wasn’t his idea). He’s also accomplished at the mostly heinous celebrity-in-the-crowd interviews, an equally unenviable task that he manages to get done (thankfully there have been few of them thus far in ’07, though we were horrified to see him sit down for a long exchange with Donny Trump during the Ferrer-Nadal match). He’s at his best doing the roving reporter thing, perhaps throwing in a quick exchange with a fan or two.
  • Ted Robinson — Almost no complaints; there is nothing about Ted that’s not to like. He has a great memory for past matches and players; he keeps things moving but doesn’t ever seem to talk too much; he throws out some relevant anecdotes when things on the court are a little slow; and he knows how to keep it brief at crucial periods in a match. His one downside, which has been minimal at this Open, is his tendency to set McEnroe up for patting himself on the back, which he (Mac) clearly doesn’t need any help with. Still, overall Robinson is a key fixture for USA’s coverage. (add Ted’s blog to your reading list.)
  • Bill Macatee — he’s substantially better here than on CBS. He’s a nice, dry, straight man with an ample smidgeon of personality. Easy enough to tune out, or in, as is appropriate.
  • John McEnroe — Hey Mac: keep the focus on the match and the players and off yourself, and we’re all good. Has the way that Mac has been doing a little biographical digging, and age comparing (is Hyung-Taik Lee the oldest player left, or is Moya?) shown signs of maturing? Heaven forbid.

(photo of Courier by mugley)

Michael Shaw is currently following the Open from his couch on the West Coast.

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