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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