american sports

The Curse of the Stars and Stripes

It’s no secret that tennis is considered a niche sport in the United States. Mainstream American sports media does little to cater to the tennis fan base unless it has to or they have a narrative to sell. Therefore, the presence and popularity of tennis in the United States will always be dictated by the presence and popularity of its American stars. With Andy Roddick already retired and the Williams sisters approaching their mid-thirties, American tennis will soon be missing many of its dynamic, larger than life personalities. As a result, the mainstream media are desperate for the next star to promote the sport’s life and longevity in the United States; they look to embrace an emerging talent before he or she is ready to embrace them. Spoiler alert: it rarely ends well. The same mistakes continue to be made, yet little is being done to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.

It began with Melanie Oudin.

We all know the Oudin story. “Giant-killer” this, “giant-killer” that were the prevailing narratives during Oudin’s run to the US Open quarterfinals in 2009, where she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. All of a sudden, Oudin from Marietta, Georgia, a city with a population of about 57,000, was thrust into the spotlight in arguably the most famous city in the world.

We also know what happened next.

It’s not uncommon for a young player to have a breakthrough at a slam and then fail to produce the same results soon after. It’s only the special exceptions, the Sharapovas or Hingises, who adapt to the pressure and completely handle it at an early age. Couple that with Oudin’s grinding, counterpunching game, a game that a zoning opponent could competently dismantle, and she was bound for failure. After peaking at No. 31 in 2010, Oudin languished around in the lower echelons of the top 200 before returning to a double-digit ranking last year.

Next, Sloane Stephens arrived. Nobody seemed to learn. Stephens was different, they said. She can take matches into her own hands, they said. She had power, athleticism, the natural physical gifts that Oudin doesn’t. En route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, Simona Halep was Stephens’ highest-ranked opponent; the Romanian was ranked 45 when she fell in the first round. A solid run turned into a stunning one as Stephens defeated a hobbled Serena Williams, the prohibitive title favorite, in the quarterfinals. As quickly as Oudin’s star flamed out, Stephens’ supernova was born.

As the youngest player in the top 20, it appears that no one’s clued Stephens into the fact that it only gets harder the higher you rise. She’s become the hunted, rather than the hunter. If anything, she needs to work harder to stay ahead of the pack. After losing the last 10 games in a 6-4, 2-6, 0-6 defeat to Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, Stephens displayed a somewhat complacent attitude. “I’m 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be top 30. I’m not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think.” Statements like this show that Stephens is already feeling the pressure to produce week in, week out.

Not only is she struggling to beat the elite (that win over Williams is her only top 10 win), but she’s struggling in matches she the favorite to win. She let huge leads slip against Klara Zakopalova and Sorana Cirstea in Doha and Dubai; these are not terrible losses, but no one seems to want to write about that. The story of another post-slam breakthrough slump is far more attractive.

Stephens was in tears following her 6-2, 6-0 loss to fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second round in Charleston; the one-sided scoreline was incredibly unexpected if only for the reason that Mattek-Sands played nearly four hours in defeating Anastasia Rodionova the day before. Surprisingly, the “Mattek-Sands triumphs on the comeback trail from injury” narrative was non-existent; instead, “What’s wrong with Sloane?” dominates the headlines.

If you think this is only a WTA problem, you should ask John Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison how they’re doing lately. You might even run into Donald Young along the way. One successful run does not make a superstar. Superstars are made over an entire career.

There are currently nine women not named Williams in the top 100 on the WTA rankings and a handful just on the outside. Let them share the spotlight. Are some of them more likely to win slams than others? Maybe. If they do, they’ll do so when they’re ready, not when a media narrative thinks they are. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging young talent but too much encouragement, too much “hype,” is a clear hindrance to their development. Young players can’t be expected to win a marathon before they can run an eight-minute mile.

Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal at the Sony Ericsson Open: Who has the better song?

With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal renewing their epic rivalry Friday night in the semifinal of the Sony Ericsson Open, the question has to be asked – who has the better song?

Rafa may be better than Rog on the clay and Rog may best Rafa on the grass, but which player inspired the best lyrics and musical accompaniment? Binge, the cult pop-rock band from Hoboken, N.J., called by American sports and entertainment personality Pat O’Brien as “America’s favorite garage band,” have a song entitled “Grand Slam Man” which is about Federer and another song entitled “Vamos Rafa” which is about Nadal. Both songs are now newly-available for sale on ITUNES here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/tennis-tunes-ep/id423340011?ls=1

According to ITUNES, since the songs have been made available for sale three weeks ago, Roger holds a slim lead in downloads at 3,790 vs. 3,698 for Rafa. Which fan base – Roger or Rafa’s – will lead their hero to victory on the music charts?

The lyrics to both songs are below.

Vamos Rafa Music
by John Macom

Lyrics by John Macom/Joseph Titone
Performed by Binge
© 2006 John Macom (BMI)/ Joseph Titone (BMI)

Vamos Rafa, vamos Rafa
El Toreador
Vamos Rafa, vamos Rafa
It’s you they adore

The girls go wild when you hit one down the line
You play with such gusto, mucho gusto all the time

Vamos Rafa, vamos Rafa
You’ve got them on the run
Vamos Rafa, vamos Rafa
You should show them your guns

You make King Juan Carlos happy when you win
You’ve got a nasty drop shot and serious, serious topspin

When you leave Mallorca
And get to New Yorka
You will find they adore you too
And your fancy tennis shoes
And your Uncle Tony too

Vamos Rafa, vamos Rafa
Can I borrow your shoes?
Vamos Rafa, vamos Rafa
With them I’ll never lose

Adios amigos see you next time on the courts
In the meantime, por favor, could you do something about those shorts?

Grand Slam Man
(c)(p) 2005 John Macom (BMI) performed by Binge

Roger Federer, you’re getting better-er
Every time I see you play
Roger Federer, that’s what I said-er-er
(You’re) gonna win it any way

He’s your Grand Slam Man
He’s your Grand Slam Man

He’s from Switzerland, he’s a wunderkind
But don’t get in his way
You know he’s hopin’ to win the Open
He’s got the opportunity

Roger Federer, you’re a predator
He’ll attack you from the start
Roger Federer, you’re a shreader-er
He will tear you right apart

He’s your Grand Slam Man
He’s your Grand Slam Man
This one’s for the fans

Roger Federer, you’re getting better-er
I know you always steal the show
Roger Federer, put on your sweater-er
C’mon it’s time to go

He’s your Grand Slam Man
He’s your Grand Slam Man
He’s not just working on his tan…

He’s your Grand Slam Man
He’s your Grand Slam Man
He’s not just working on his tan

He’s even won in Rotterdam…
And they like him in Japan…
He’s your Grand Slam Man

Andy Roddick: A Sporting Gesture

Andy Roddick may have performed his best act when he married Sports Illustrated model Brooklyn Decker last month, but his act of sportsmanship at the 2005 Italian Open would rank high as well. The following excerpt from the May 5 chapter of the book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.tennishistorybook.com) details what happened.

May 5

2005 – Andy Roddick performs one of the greatest gestures of sportsmanship on a tennis court when he overturns an apparent double-fault – that would have given him the match – and eventually loses to Spain’s Fernando Verdasco 6-7 (1), 7-6 (3), 6-4 in the round of 16 of the Italian Open in Rome.  Roddick is leading 5-3 in the second set and has triple match point with Verdasco serving. Verdasco’s serve appears to land just wide and is called out by the linesperson. Roddick, however, says the ball was in after checking the mark on the clay court and concedes the second serve ace to Verdasco. “I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary,” says Roddick. “The umpire would have done the same thing if he came down and looked. I just saved him the trip.”  Famed American sports journalist Frank Deford say on National Public Radio of the gesture, “In one moment with victory his for the taking – no, not for the taking – is given, is assumed, Andy Roddick went against the way of the world and simply instinctively did what he thought was right. Once upon time we called such foolish innocents sportsmen.”

1981 – New Yorkers John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis are eliminated from the WCT Tournament of Champions at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. McEnroe is defeated by Brazil’s Carlos Kirmayr 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-2 in a second-round match, while Gerualitis is defeated by fellow American Fritz Buehning 7-5, 7-5. McEnroe holds a match point in the second-set tie-break but is unable to convert, while Gerulaitis loses the last six games of the match after taking a 5-1 lead in the second set. ”Inexcusable,” says McEnroe of the loss. ”He ran me around like a yo-yo and he deserved to win.”