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Holding Out for a Hero

AP 2013 ESPY AWARDS SHOW A ENT S USA CA

The word hero, in all of its various forms, is thrown around quite often in sports. Professional athletes are placed on a pedestal, expected to walk the straight and narrow and act as role models for the youth of the world. In tennis, the word hero is often associated with the word gladiator. Matches are played out one-on-one in an enclosed arena. When players come through long and arduous matches, they are hailed as warriors and fighters. The WTA’s previous global ad campaign, entitled “Looking for a Hero?”, was one of its most successful.

http://youtu.be/cH7s5CI8GKM

An athlete isn’t a hero because he uses physical strength and endurance to win. That’s his job. An athlete isn’t a hero because she goes out and wins multiple championships. That’s her goal. Heroism isn’t playing through an injury and coming out with a victory, and heroism isn’t rolling through the field to win a grand slam.

Despite all that, the word hero has not lost its luster in sports.

The ESPYs, ESPN’s annual fan-driven award show to celebrate athletic achievement in the past calendar year, takes itself far more seriously than it should. Ironically, it is the only awards show in the history of awards shows that doesn’t actually signify achievement in anything. Actors and directors measure their careers based on Oscars and Golden Globes, while musicians covet Grammys. But athletes? Each individual sport has its championships and each individual organization has its awards, medals and accolades. From the outside, the ESPYs seem like a colossal waste of time; in fact, they might even represent everything that’s wrong with professional sports today: over-the-top pomp and circumstance, glossy hero-worship, excessive media hype and dollar signs.

However, for approximately 20 minutes each year, the ESPYs do give us one thing: the chance to be inspired by a true hero. The Arthur Ashe Award for Courage is one of the only awards of the night that is not decided by fan voting; it is completely independent of the popularity contest and media circus. The award is presented to someone who “reflects the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” While a sports-themed award, the recipient does not have to be an athlete or even a sports figure; nonetheless, its honorees have given us some of the most memorable moments in sports history. In the first year of the ESPYs, Jimmy V told us, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Last year, we backed Pat and she told us to “keep on keeping on.”

Last night, Robin Roberts received the 20th Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in the history of the ESPYs. Roberts, who has ties to the tennis family, is currently an anchor for ABC’s Good Morning America. A star athlete in her youth and record-holding basketball player at Southeastern Louisiana, she joined ESPN in 1990 and served with them for 15 years. Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she returned back to the airwaves. Last year, however, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease that developed as a side effect from her treatment. Roberts needed, and received, a bone marrow transplant that saved her life.

Roberts, who was a friend of Ashe and was presented the award by LeBron James, received a standing ovation from those present in the arena. “It’s not so much what we’ve accomplished that we remember,” Roberts said in her acceptance speech, “it’s what we overcome.”

Despite all of its flaws, the ESPYs, and by extension sport as a whole, provides viewers with a stage to have these stories told. Athletes and sports figures can be heroes, but not solely for athletic achievement; Jimmy V, Pat, Robin and others are figures that transcend sports. They’ve taken up a platform and embraced that stage for the greater good. That is the thing, and not the number of championships, golds medals, or slam trophies present in their cabinets, that is the most inspiring.

The Curious Case of Sloane Stephens

Sloane Stephens is third at odds to win Wimbledon, according to ESPN.

(June 29, 2013) Twelve. That’s how many times 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens has used the phrase “play hard” in her last two press conferences at Wimbledon this week.

After her turbulent season on the WTA Tour since debuting in the top 20 for the first time in January, that’s all Stephens can focus on – playing hard.

Now through to the fourth round after a rollercoaster of a match against qualifier Petra Cetkovska, Stephens is rebuilding the confidence she lost earlier in the year.

Combined with her fourth round appearance last month at Roland Garros, which she called “pretty good … after not having that many great results over the year,” Stephens said that run helped her “build a lot of confidence.” Now, she comes into Wimbledon “feeling (even) better.”

After becoming an instant celebrity with her surprise win over an injured Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Stephens is now third at odds, according to ESPN, to win Wimbledon behind Williams and 2011 titlist Petra Kvitova. That’s a pretty tall task for a player who has never been past the fourth round of Wimbledon and has yet to even reach a Slam final.

Stephens’ main draw debut at a Slam occurred in 2011 on her favorite surface, the red clay of Roland Garros. And since then, she has gone a respectable 21-8 during her young career. Despite her rather quick ascension up the Slam ranks, she jokes about still being a relative newcomer.

“Even though I played a lot slams, I feel like it’s all new,” Stephens said on Monday. “I came (to Wimbledon) and I … didn’t even know how to get to the locker room.”

Stephens’ young career on court has been an inspiring one, but her off-court presence has quickly outshone her well-crafted style. With many seeds now out from Wimbledon, it’s another opportunity for the young American to revert attention back to her game.

At age 17, Stephens finished 2010 ranked world No. 198, followed it up with a top 100 debut just nine months later and ended the year as the youngest player in the top 100. In July of 2012, she broke into the top 50 for the first time after reaching the third round at Wimbledon, then a left abdominal injury derailed her and she missed the last four months of the season.

Then, the tournament that made her a household name occurred.

Stephens came into the 2013 Australian Open already ranked a proper 25th in the world, but many had still never seen much from the budding 20-year-old. She was carefree, energetic and youthful, and was flying under the radar as she defeated then-world No. 3 Serena Williams on her way to the semifinals.

Then came the media downfall. Clouded by her own words and misrepresentations from some members of the press, Stephens had to combat against comments that she said her and Williams being “besties” and that the elder American was a “mentor.” Though the media blew Stephens’ comments out of proportion, she did little initially to put out the fire.

Another well-timed release of a two-month old interview for ESPN just last month caused an additional stir. In the article, Stephens blasted Williams for being cold to her after her Australian Open win, and Stephens quickly commented that the statements were taken out of context and that she had already sorted it out with Williams directly.

But gone was the lovable interviewee in her post-match press conferences, and her match play during much of this time suffered as well. She again came under heavy scrutiny and she admitted that all of the media attention became too overwhelming for her.

By the first week of May, Stephens’ win-to-loss record on the season outside of the Slams had dropped to 3-6, including five opening round losses.

But looking deeper into Stephens’ results, this statistic shouldn’t be that alarming. She has, for some reason, always performed better at Slams than at WTA-level events.

In 2011, Stephens’ best results came in Carlsbad where she reached the quarterfinals, and the US Open where she reached the third round. Outside of that, she failed to even qualify for seven other WTA events, and additionally lost in the first round of a lower-ranked ITF event to a player outside of the top 400.

In 2012, Stephens reached the third round or better in three of the four Slams, but failed once again to even qualify for three WTA events, though she did reach two semifinals in lower-ranked WTA events.

In 2013 so far, Stephens has reached the fourth round of a Slam twice and the semifinal once, but outside of that, her best showing was once again the semifinal of a lower-ranked WTA event.

All things considered, Stephens has yet to appear past a WTA Premier-level quarterfinal or International-level semifinal, and has only won one ITF title in 2011, yet she is making the fourth rounds of Slams without too much difficulty.

So the question begs to be asked: Why does Stephens perform considerably better at Slams than at WTA-level events?

Well, if you’re looking to Stephens to answer the puzzle, you’ll be disappointed.

“I don’t know,” says Stephens when asked about her Slam performance consistency compared to the rest of her WTA results. “Maybe it’s the food I eat. I’m not really sure.”

Analyzing Stephens’ Slam and Premier events statistics, particularly in three-set matches, from May 2011 to present day, as well as a breakdown of the last twelve months gives some interesting insights.

  1. When winning the first set in a three-set match at Slams, Stephens has won 85.7% of the time, or 6 out of 7 matches. Compare that to Premier events during the same timeframe where she only won 28.6% of the time, or 2 out of 7 matches.
  2. In three-set matches won over the last two years, Stephens holds a record of 8-2 at Slams, and 7-8 at Premier events. Over the last twelve months, her Slam record is 7-2 and 3-7 at Premier events.
  3. Over the last twelve months, the average ranking to which she lost to in three-sets at a Slam was 14, and at Premier events was 38.
  4. Over the past twelve months, Stephens holds a 15-4 win-to-loss record in all Slam matches, compared to an 11-13 record for all Premier event matches.
  5. In all Slam losses over the past twelve months, the average ranking of her opponent was 8. Compare that to a ranking of 35 at Premier events during the same time frame.

The statistics breakdown of her matches could continue, but the conclusion is clear: Stephens, whether consciously or not, exerts more into her Slam performances to secure those three-set wins, in particular. Stephens tends to win and lose straight set matches in rather similar ratios across Slam and Premier events – it’s only the three-set matches that show any marked difference.

This week in Wimbledon, after easily getting by her first round opponent Jamie Hampton in straight sets, Stephens was tested with back-to-back three set matches against first Andrea Petkovic then Petra Cetkovska. After winning both first sets in a tiebreak, she had uncharacteristically poor middle sets (6-2 and 6-0, respectively), before bouncing back and winning both nail-biting matches in the third.

Perhaps her confidence at Slams is still somewhat wavering given her results the past few months, but she would be wise to keep that elevated focus and translate it into the other WTA events, and not just at Slams. A few bad draws at a couple of Slams or another injury, and she could see her confidence and ranking faltering. She needs to find a way to win those three-set matches which are being played on smaller stages, and build a proper foundation.

In other words, she needs to take her own advice for every event she enters, and simply “play hard.”

Site Unseen: A Lament for the Untelevised Early Rounds at Indian Wells

The Indian Wells Outer Courts, scene of many unwitnessed classics.

The main draw matches at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells are scheduled to commence today, which is to say on Wednesday morning local time. Even as I write, the men’s qualifying draw – dense with fascinating matches – is slimming down to an even dozen. The women’s qualifying draw is already there.

Television coverage is due to begin on Friday, provided initially by the Tennis Channel. In the dreary parlance of marketing, we are informed that this is ‘one day earlier than the network’s traditional first-Saturday start’, ‘tradition’ in this case being employed capaciously to denote anything that previously happened for any length of time at all. For the arithmetically challenged, this radical new Friday start will occur fully two days after main draw play begins. I’m not the first person to note this discrepancy, and I won’t be the last. Nor would I be the first to suggest that the decision to delay coverage until the third day of play isn’t driven by money.

In any case, pointing it out is redundant, since no one, including the networks, is pretending otherwise. Instead we’re left to bask in the rapturous news that ‘the tournament will culminate with 12 live hours on ESPN networks’. One cannot elude the impression that the fans are supposed to be grateful. Any fans particularly overcome by gratitude are encouraged to call up the network and let them know.

However, it is debatable whether the main draw really begins today. Indian Wells, like Miami, doles out an extravagant selection of byes: all thirty-two seeds are granted safe passage to the second round, the point at which Andy Murray ‘traditionally’ loses. This is precisely one third of the main draw (which is 96 strong). The remaining 64 players – qualifiers, wildcards and those unwashed members of the top hundred whom Ernests Gulbis cannot pick out of a police line-up – are left to vie for the privilege of facing a seed. By this rationale, the Indian Wells first round is really just a supplementary or transitional qualifying round. In order for a seeded player to win the title, he or she must win six matches. A non-seeded direct entrant or wildcard must win seven matches. Qualifiers must win nine matches. It doesn’t seem fair, but, once again, I assume that’s the point.

The goal of seeding is to protect the best players from having to face each other early on, thus limiting the opportunity for upsets. A little over a decade ago the seeding in 96 (and 128) player draws was expanded from sixteen to thirty-two players, which provided added protection. The bye system provides even greater protection. Even without a bye it is eminently unlikely that, say, Victoria Azarenka would lose in the first round, but the bye removes any doubt whatsoever, thereby transforming a theoretical unlikelihood into a practical impossibility. For the general sports fan – who really just wants to see the most famous players facing off – this probably isn’t a bad thing.

More to the point, it isn’t a bad thing for ESPN. Those twelve hours of semifinals and finals coverage that we’re supposed to be grateful for didn’t come cheap. ESPN will do everything it can to guarantee the best return on its investment, and from their point of view the best return is to have Federer, Sharapova, Nadal, Williams, Djokovic and Azarenka present at the tournament’s conclusion. (Williams of course won’t be at Indian Wells, and you can be sure that the presiding television interests aren’t thrilled about that.) The only exceptions are if a local player makes a deep run. Last year’s men’s event was thus pure spun gold: Federer and Nadal in one semifinal, and Isner defeating Djokovic in the other. Each protagonist was recognisable to a general sports fan, and the narrative of local boy making good is always compelling.

And it’s those general fans that provide ESPN’s revenue, which has invested considerable time and effort grooming Chris Fowler in order that he can render the eldritch intricacies of the sport comprehensible for the layperson. In and of itself, there’s no inherent problem with having the best players contest the later rounds at every tournament. Some may (justifiably) contend that seeing the same few players fight for titles each week grows stale. On the other hand, the freshness gained by seeing a new face is often offset by the perfunctory thrashing they receive when they encounter an elite player. But it is a problem when the urge to see certain outcomes causes the sport to tilt results in that direction, which is more or less the tacit goal of the bye system (and, let’s be frank, the seeding system). The top players have an objectively easier time reaching the later rounds than their lower-ranked peers, notwithstanding that they’re already better players anyway.

Unlike ESPN, the Tennis Channel by definition caters to viewers with a specific interest in the sport itself, who’re willing to pay a premium to watch tennis theoretically whenever they want to (though in practice they’re often constrained by the superior purchasing power of rival networks). These are fans whose interest extends beyond Sharapova or Nadal, all the way to, say, Gasquet and Kuznetsova, and beyond. Although, apparently not far beyond. Not far enough that they’ll get to see the WTA’s first round, let alone any qualifying. Fans who are that hardcore will have to resort to alternative means, such as audio coverage through the website.

The combination of the 96 draw and a midweek start (rare in tennis) conspires to make the qualifying event feel more like a part of the tournament than is elsewhere the case. Qualifying began on Monday, which is the point at which tournaments traditionally begin – and here the term ‘tradition’ is warranted. Meanwhile having a weirdly inconsequential first round helps the qualifying tournament shade into the main one. In some ways, this would be a nice thing, if it wasn’t so effectively undone by the clear message of the television coverage, which is that the initial few days (and the men and women playing on those days) aren’t worth the effort. The three levels of fandom, it seems, neatly correlate with the three classes of players in the respective tours: the big names, the lesser names, and the unwatchables.

Sadly, the lack of early-round coverage hardly helps the lower ranked players, whose already anaemic aspirations might be starved by a lack of exposure. What Indian Wells really does is reinforce the multi-tiered system that seeding originally created, and that the expanded seeding arrangement later augmented. The television schedule then makes it clear for all the non-seeds that their necessary toils do not merit a wider audience.

The BNP Paribas Open likes to refer to itself as the unofficial fifth Slam. This is mostly a fairly meaningless marketing term, but it is only rendered more so by the consideration that the last Major we enjoyed – the Australian Open – had coverage not only from day one, but high-definition streams running through qualifying. Indian Wells certainly has the money – the prizemoney increase this year is to be heartily applauded – and the technological wherewithal. I can watch Thiemo de Bakker play Christian Garin at a Challenger in Santiago, but I couldn’t watch Gulbis play Christian Harrison in southern California. Is it too much to ask to have some cameras rolling from the outset?

 

The Fault of Untelevised Matches at the Australian Open

Viktor Troicki crashed out to Radek Stepanek on Day 1 of the Australian Open on an untelevised court

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

There was a lot of very good tennis scheduled and played on the first day of the Australian Open. Unlike other Slams, which split up the first round into three days, the Australian Open plays exactly half of the first-round singles matches on each of the first two days. That means 32 of each men’s and women’s matches on Day 1, with the same scheduled for Day 2. The problem with that, for myself and for every other fan not actually on the grounds in Melbourne, is that less than half of them are available to be viewed.

The tournament uses 16 courts on each of these first two days for singles play. Of those 16, only 7 of those have television cameras. If you want to watch a certain player or match, the first thing you have to do is check what court he or she is playing on. Unless you go to Melbourne, you can’t see the match if it’s not on one of those courts (Rod Laver Arena, Hisense Arena, Margaret Court Arena, and Courts 2, 3, 6, and 8).

Of course, it’s also not just about planning what matches you want to watch. Tennis is so unpredictable and amazing matches can come out of anywhere. We should have the availability of turning to those at any time should a compelling match come up. Three of the six 5-setters on Day 1 weren’t televised. Three matches went past 6-6 in the final set of Day 1 (two men’s and one women’s), two of which were on untelevised courts, including Radek Stepanek’s defeat of Viktor Troicki and Fabio Fognini’s loss to Roberto Bautista Agut. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I know that a match in a Slam is at 6-6 in the final set, I want to turn to it. People pay money for tennis packages so that they can watch every match. So why can’t the watch every match?

The real travesty in all of this, of course, is that the year is 2013. It’s so easy to have cameras on the courts. It doesn’t even have to be anything really special. Just put a camera there. This isn’t the 90s, where companies had only one channel and could only show one match at a time anyway. Cable could get you a second channel. This is the day of digital and satellite packages; with live streaming of every available court on the internet. Is it really so impossible to just put cameras on every court? No commentary is necessary; just have a camera at every match so fans can watch their favorite players or good developing matches.

The most disappointing thing of all is that it shows that the Slams refuse to learn from potential disasters. Can anyone imagine what would have happened if, in 2010, Isner/Mahut had been on untelevised Court 19 instead of Court 18? I’m sure there would have been some sort of mad scramble to get a camera crew and commentators to that court. But that’s not the point. It’s so easy nowadays to have everything televised. I just hope that it won’t have to take us fans missing out on a historic match before those in charge come to their senses.

Henin to return this weekend, Murray to continue with Corretja, Gilbert to Help Nishikori

Justine Henin

*Justine Henin is to return to action this weekend at the Hopman Cup in Australia having been kept out since Wimbledon with an elbow injury. The former world No. 1 hopes to be able to compete in the Australian Open but fears it may take her up to six months to regain full fitness. “There were concerns about the future of my career,” the 28-year-old Belgian said. “I hope I can build my condition by playing tournaments this year and hope to be really ready around June-July.” 2010 was the seven-time Grand Slam winner’s return from an 18-month retirement and she will hope to add that elusive Wimbledon title to her CV before giving up permanently.

*British No. 1 Andy Murray has confirmed that Spaniard Alex Corretja will remain as his coach for at least the first half of 2011. Corretja, a former world No. 2, took over the role after Murray split with Miles Maclagan back in July. “Andy has taken time out from his busy pre-season fitness training to confirm that the current coaching set-up, with both Alex Corretja and Dani Vallverdu, will continue into the first half of next year,” read a statement on Murray’s official website.

*Brad Gilbert has confirmed that he will work as a consultant to Japanese star Kei Nishikori at fifteen tournaments throughout 2011. Gilbert retired from the tour in 1994 and his since coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray on a permanent basis. “I have been working at the IMG Bollettieri Academy for a few years now, helping out Kei and other players,” Gilbert told ATPWorldTour.com.

“I decided to expand my role with Kei to 15 tournaments, but TV work with ESPN will remain my first priority.”

*World No. 8 Jelena Jankovic has begun working with former Romanian world No. 13 Andrei Pavel on a trial basis after lifting only one title in 2010 at Indian Wells. She was being handled by Ricardo Sanchez but they have now parted ways.

*American Wayne Odesnik has had his two-year doping ban overturned after 12 months. He is now free to return to competitive matches from December 29. Whilst entering Australia for last year’s Brisbane International he was stopped by customs and eight vials of the growth hormone HGH were found in his luggage, although Odesnik never tested positive for taking the substance. Whilst at one time being ranked as high as No. 77 in the world, Odesnik was ranked No. 111 when the incident occurred and has now slipped off the rankings altogether.

*Maria Sharapova has reserved a wildcard entry in to the Sydney tournament for if she falls early on in the previous week’s festivities at Auckland. The former world No. 1 is usually pretty lax in her preparations for Melbourne Park but has opted for a more strenuous approach after losing in the first round in 2010.

*Alona Bondarenko has announced she will miss the Australian Open after undergoing the second knee surgery of her career. 2010 semifinalist Jie Zheng will also miss the competition after failing to recover from the wrist surgery she underwent in September. In the men’s draw, Robby Ginepri is set to miss out after he set March as his benchmark to return to the tour after suffering a motorbike accident in November whilst swerving to avoid a squirrel.

*The GB Fed Cup team have announced that teen starlets Heather Watson and Laura Robson are set to compete in next month’s Europe/Africa Zone Group 1 tie in Israel. Watson, 18, was the 2009 US Open junior champion while Robson, 16, won the Wimbledon junior title in 2008 aged just 14. Watson said: “I’m absolutely thrilled to have been selected. It’s a dream come true as I’ve grown up watching the competition. I can’t wait to head out to Israel with the girls and give it our all.” Captain Nigel Sears added: “It is the right time for Heather and Laura to try and make it a successful week.”

*Teens the world over were celebrating early Christmas presents after receiving wildcards in to the 2011 Australian Open main draw. Australia’s No. 11 Olivia Rogowska was celebrating after defeating former world No. 4 Jelena Dokic 1-6, 7-6(3), 6-3 in the final of the Australian Open Wildcard Playoffs. Dokic, though, has since been handed a discretionary wildcard by the Aussie tennis authorities. Marinko Matosevic overcame Peter Luczak in five sets in the men’s final to earn his place and Luczak has also been handed an entry card. Tennis Australia have also handed discretionary wildcards to Matt Ebden and Alicia Molik. In the American equivalent, played at the Racquet Club of the South, Georgia, world No. 444 Lauren Davis, 17, upset No. 113 Coco Vandeweghe, 19, in their final 6-2, 6-2. Ryan Harrison won the male playoffs after overcoming Jack Sock. The French Tennis Federation have awarded their discretionary pass in to the main draw to Virginie Razzano.

*Latest Career Grand Slam achiever Rafa Nadal was voted the 2010 BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year. “For me it’s an honour, thank you very much to the BBC for giving me this award,” said the 24-year-old. “It’s just a dream being in the list of great champions to receive this award.” For reaction and to see the Spaniard collect the trophy visit the BBC Tennis website. Marca.com also named him ‘Spanish Athlete of the Decade’ while elpais.es readers voted him the ‘Spanish Athlete of the Year.’

*The ATP website has interviews with a host of top stars available to read at your leisure including how Andy Roddick and Marcos Baghdathis have prepared themselves for the 2011 season and whether Novak Djokovic can keep up his impressive end to 2010.

*You have until midnight on December 31 to cast your votes in the TennisReporters.net 2010 Tennis Awards so get over there now before it’s too late to have your say on who were the players of the year, which matches really set your fires alight and which stars provide the greatest eye candy.

ESPN’s “Unmatched” – Chris Evert & Martina Navratilova

ESPN’s “30 for 30” film series presents Unmatched, the story of women’s pro tennis champions Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Arguably the greatest sports rivals of all time, Chris and Martina were as much close friends as they were fierce competitors. Unmatched documents the first time the two women have sat together to discuss their long history of both jealousy and admiration, which began in 1973.

Unmatched premieres next Tuesday, September 14th at 8:00PM

Unmatched Synopsis:

Only a few hundred spectators saw the pert 18-year-old Evert beat the scrappy 16-year-old Czech in 1973. “I remember that she was fat,” Evert recalled. “She was very emotional on the court, whining if she didn’t feel she was playing well. But I remember thinking, if she loses weight, we’re all in trouble.” Said Navratilova, “My goal was for her to remember my name.” 80 matches later – amid the extraordinary growth of women’s tennis – Evert not only remembered, but became a tried and true friend and confidante, remarkable considering the two appeared to be polar opposites in upbringing, life styles and personal relationships.

Through a series of personal conversations, filmmakers Nancy Stern and Lisa Lax, along with producer Hannah Storm, tell the story of one of the greatest one-on-one sports rivalries and capture these two extraordinary athletes’ views on tennis and an ever-changing world. Unmatched was created by an all-female production crew (Directors, Producers, Director of Photography, Editor, Associate Producers).

http://30for30.espn.com/film/unmatched.html

ATP Tidbits: Djokovic’s Humor, Ryan Harrison as Role Model, and the ‘Worst Job in Sports’

Since coverage of the US Open has been quite extensive this year, I’ll stick to the lighter side of tennis for this week and bring you the fun off-court moments. I’ll take a look at Novak Djokovic’s humorous ways, talk about the ‘worst job in sports,’ bring you tennis’ newest role model teenager Ryan Harrison, and talk about my thoughts on what may be going on with Andy Murray in his recent third round exit at the US Open — and it’s not his lack of mental strength or coach. I’m citing a different culprit altogether.

Djokovic, the comedian, gaining American fans quickly

In what was one of the most hotly contested first-round matches, Novak Djokovic squeezed out a win against compatriot and good friend Viktor Troicki in five sets, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3. But the story wasn’t all in the tennis itself. As temperatures on-court soared to above 120-degrees and the humidity wreaked havoc, Djokovic’s respiratory problems were once again the center of attention. He could have lost in the fourth set, but as luck would have it, the shade came onto Arthur Ashe stadium and relieved Djokovic of some of his woes. He quickly took advantage of the slightly cooler temps and came out the winner.

Novak Djokovic. August 31, 2010

After the match, ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert asked Djokovic on-court: “How nice was it out here to get a little bit of shade?” As Djokovic searched for words, the first analogy that came to mind was that “it was like a ‘sleeping with my girlfriend’ kind of feeling.” The crowd roared in laughter and Gilbert became noticeably embarrassed. But whatever, Djokovic was relieved that he pulled out the win.

His press conference following his win was one for the books. The Serbian “Djoker” seems to be building his American audience base and is getting more confident in his humor once again. It’s nice to see Djokovic back at his lighter, more confident ways – both on and off the court.

If you have a chance, see the live video of his presser as his facial expressions and comedy are ten times better than on paper, you won’t be sorry! Starts at the 5:31 mark.

What is the ‘Worst Job in Sports?’

Ever read the Wall Street Journal to get your tennis fix for the day? Honestly, neither have I. But Tom Perrotta of Tennis.com fame wrote an interesting article in the WSJ a couple of days ago concerning the ‘worst job in sports.’ And guess what it was. Being a tennis coach.

Brad Gilbert, former coach to Andy Murray and current ESPN Commentator.

For all the glitz and glamour we think coaches have in traveling with their athlete(s) and staying at plush hotels in destinations we can only dream of going to, there is a down-side of being a tennis coach. If you’re lucky enough to be a wanted elite coach, then you could probably live comfortably on the money you make as everything else is paid for by the player. But what if your player is not winning or progressing? You’re either ‘out’ or your pay doesn’t change much. Players seem to change coaches every few years anyway, looking for a new outlook or support system.

I can’t even eat leftovers for two days in a row, how can I expect players to stay with the same coach for more than two YEARS in a row? It’s an interesting concept that is often overlooked by the casual sports fan. In other sports, where managers and executives pick their coaches, tennis is unique in that the actual athlete picks the coach. For further reading on this, check out Perrotta’s article as he talks to greats such as Larry Stefanki, Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert, Mats Wilander, Patrick Mouratoglou, and Bob Brett: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703946504575469961990822120.html

Ryan Harrison. Title? Role model

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this week, you’re familiar with the newest talent that has developed right under our eyes, Ryan Harrison. After coming through qualifying and taking out veteran Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, 18-year-old Harrison took Sergiy Stakhovsky to five sets in a match that lasted over four hours. In fact, Harrison held three match points in the fifth set tiebreaker before double-faulting on his last opportunity and allowing Stakhovsky to serve for the win, which he did.

Although Harrison lost, it doesn’t make his run any less fruitful or devoid of fans. The grace and calm which he exhibited after his defeat speak volumes to his character, and those around him agree. “He has wide open ears, always willing to learn, wanting to grow and develop,” said Tracy Austin, a former World #1. “I love his attitude, and his work ethic as well.”

Ryan Harrison. September 3,2010.

In his press conference, Harrison was quick to say that he has a lot to work on before becoming a “full-time tour player.” I’m just going to keep my head down, and work as hard as I can and listen to the people I trust and develop my game. I’ve got a lot of work to do. From the time I get back home until my next tournaments, my goal is going to be improving my game until I can be a consistent contender, and the ranking and all that stuff will take care of itself.” Parents, if you have any youth looking for a young capable role model, Ryan Harrison is it.

Could Andy Murray’s problem be …. mono?

You’ve all probably heard about Andy Murray’s surprising third-round exit to Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka by now. But I wonder if you’ve thought about precisely ‘Why?’ Forget about lack of desire, mental stability, or coach, Murray may have a different ailment altogether. During the match, he called the trainer twice, once for “tightness in my quad” and the second time because he felt “pins and needles around my right elbow.”

Andy Murray bent over two different times during his match against Stan Wawrinka. September 5, 2010.

At his press conference Murray stated plain and simple that “I lost to the better player, that’s all there is to say.” However, when questions were raised about his physical capabilities he couldn’t pinpoint the problem and this made me wonder. Murray is known for his physical strength and being able to outlast his opponents, so something has to be up.

Andy Muray: “I was disappointed that I was struggling physically. You know, I tried to find a way to come back. Didn’t quite do it. Yeah, I was disappointed that I’ve not been really in that position for a long time. I still feel like I’m super fit. I just didn’t feel great. You know, there was a lot of things that I was feeling on the court. But, yeah, I just haven’t felt that way for a few years now. So I’m going to have to go look at why that was the case and try and get better.”

Anyone know where I’m going with this? Well, if Andy Roddick’s recent tumble gives any hint, my speculation is that Murray may be suffering from a mild case of mononucleosis as well. I’m no doctor, but that fact that he can’t pinpoint his problem and was “struggling physically” remind me of Roddick’s statement earlier this year when he said he wasn’t feeling strong enough mentally or physically and couldn’t fathom why. These players are in constant contact and mono travels like the plague in locker rooms and lounges. To me, this would spells disaster on tour as we’ve already seen Roger Federer and John Isner openly talk about their stint with mono. Here’s to hoping the ‘popular trend’ ends, but it could only get worse before it gets better.

ATP BONUS:

I picked up on a strange statistic at this year’s US Open. Not only are all four remaining men in Rafael Nadal’s quarter Spaniards, but there are a total of six Spaniards in the fourth round — that’s almost 38%! Did the US Open’s blue courts somehow turn into clay this year?! For a country known for producing talented clay-specialists, Spain is quickly turning into a force on all surfaces.

Cahill Turns Down Murray, Lendl To Return And Bryan Bros. Make History

Ivan Lendl

*The Aussie former coach of Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, Darren Cahill, has ruled himself out of the running to become Andy Murray’s latest coach. The Scot had hoped to land the former US Open semifinalist following his recent split with Miles Maclagen but Cahill has intimated he would rather concentrate on his work with Adidas and ESPN. Todd Martin, Sven Groeneveld, Larry Stefanki and Tony Roche are other names linked with the position. “I think the world of Andy and I think he’s a major winner in the waiting,” said the Las Vegas-based Cahill. “But if I was going to go back to full-time coaching, I’d probably would have hung in there with Roger, seeing whether Roger offered me the job.”

*Ivan Lendl has confirmed that he intends to join the ATP Champions Tour having rarely picked up a racquet since his retirement in 1994. Paris is the chosen destination for his return, the site of his famous French Open victory of 1984 where he came from two sets down to beat American John McEnroe in the final. This gives McEnroe a shot at revenge. “Oh boy, l’m looking forward to it,” he said. “We had some great matches together but it’s been a long time and he hasn’t played for more than 15 years so I think we need to discuss a few things, both on and off the court. I know he’s been working most of the last year to get back into the type of shape he needs to be in, because it doesn’t get any easier as you get older. But we’ll be giving it our all, that’s for sure.” Yannick Noah will also make his return to the tour after a seven-year absence and Mats Wilander will also be present. The other two contestants of the October event are yet to be announced.

*They’ve done it, the Bryan brothers have finally become the most successful doubles team of all time following last week’s Farmers Classic in Los Angeles. Title number 62 came courtesy of a 6-7 (6), 6-2, 10-7 triumph over Eric Butorac and Jean-Julien Rojer. It was their 100th final together and was their sixth title in LA. “It’s sweet, feels awesome, hanging out with family and friends after the match,” said Mike. “It’s a cool feeling.” “Sixty two brings a smile to our face,” added Bob. “It’s been an emotional ride, talking about it every day for the past couple of months. To finally do it is incredible. There were definitely nerves out there and those guys were playing great. It was a very hard fought match. Our legs felt like jelly, arms spaghetti… It was a flood of emotion. I never thought we’d be this consistent, this healthy our whole career. We’ve never given up on each other.”

*Following on from that record-breaking win many of the world’s top doubles players have been paying homage to the feats of America’s doubles specialists. Arch rivals over recent years have been the Canadian Daniel Nestor and his long-time Serbian partner Nenad Zimonjic. Nestor was beaming with praise at the achievement: “They are the face of doubles. They’ve pretty much been the No. 1 team for 10 years. When people think of doubles they think of the Bryans. They are fun to watch. I don’t think any team in history has been as consistent as they have been. They rarely have bad losses and they’ve won a lot. 62 titles is an amazing achievement and they’ve got a lot of time to go. They could reach 80 or 90 titles easily.” To see what Zimonjic, Mark Knowles and James Blake, among others, also had to say visit the ATP website.

*The first signings for the 2011 Hopman Cup have been anounced. John Isner and Serena Williams have signed up to play for the United States. Justine Henin and Steve Darcis will play for Belgium while Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic will partner up for Serbia. Lleyton Hewitt has agreed to return for Australia and Gael Monfils will play for France alongside Kristina Mladenovic. Tournament director Paul McNamee said: “It’s a spectacular line-up. There is potential for some really great match-ups for both the men and the women, not to mention the mixed.” We are now just waiting on the name of Hewitt’s female partner.

*Tennis’ long-running ‘anti-grunt’ campaign has received fresh backing from French star Marion Bartoli who was shrieked off court by Victoria Azarenka on Vika’s route to lifting the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford last week. “It’s difficult to play against those kinds of players,” Bartoli said. “I think it’s fine to grunt sometimes when you make an effort, but sometimes it’s just so loud. It’s hard to focus on the other side of the net. But it’s not something I can get bothered by, because otherwise I would lose my concentration so much. I just need to forget about it, but it’s hard.” There were other grumbles too from the elder Bartoli. To see these and Azarenka’s defence, visit TennisReporter.net.

*Another grumbling tennis queen this week is teenage American sensation Melanie Oudin. The 18-year-old has, at times, struggled to hit the form which saw her dazzle the courts of New York in that incredible giant killing run of 2009. Pressure seems to be mounting, and she seems to increasingly lose her temper on-court. “It’s kind of annoying sometimes when people are like ‘Pull it together Melanie,’ and they yell at me kind of,” she said after her 6-1 6-3 defeat to Victoria Azarenka in the second round at Stanford last week. “Really, like you get down here and play. I know they mean it in a good way, like to say ‘C’mon’ Melanie,’ but you don’t have to say ‘Pull it together,’ like ‘Get your energy up’ That’s what some lady was telling me.” The full interview can also be seen at TennisReporter.net.

*Following the conflicting reports about Juan Martin Del Potro’s proposed injury return in last week’s column the reigning US Open champ has posted pics of his long-awaited return to the practice courts on his Twitter page. Serena Williams posted an interesting one this week. She claimed that she was charged $100 to watch the likes of Andy Murray at the Farmers Classic in LA despite the publicity work she had done for the event plus the fact that she is one of the greatest women’s players of all time. “Oh my God, the Farmers Classic tournament in LA is charging me $100 a ticket after I did publicity for them. (Laughs out loud) I’ll send them a bill for my publicity. Anyway, don’t go if you’re in LA. I would have paid $1,000 if I had not done publicity for them.”

*Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s win in Istanbul last week has seen her climb to a career high No. 24 in this week’s Sony Ericsson WTA rankings. In the doubles, Liezel Huber has regained the number 1 doubles ranking slot from the Williams sisters following her win in Stanford with returning mum Lindsay Davenport.

*Reuters have been reporting that Victoria Azarenka has pulled out of San Diego having won at Stanford.

*Spanish newspaper El Mundo has held its annual poll of the country’s favourite celebrity with Rafa Nadal coming out on top. He defeated Spanish footballer and World Cup winning hero Iker Casillas who came second.

WHEN DID SITTING ON CHANGE-OVERS START AT WIMBLEDON?

A great trivia question out there that one might not find too easily with a Google search, and was touched upon briefly on American television by Cliff Drysdale and Patrick McEnroe on ESPN and Mary Carillo, Ted Robinson and John McEnroe on NBC, is the following:

“What was the last year in which there was no sitting on changeovers at Wimbledon?”

The answer is 1973, with the men’s final that year being between Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia and Alex Metrevelli of the Soviet Union.

Writes Kodes his new coffee-table glossy book JAN KODES: A JOURNEY TO GLORY FROM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN (New Chapter Press, available for $36.46 on www.amazon.com), “In the course of the entire Wimbledon competition we were not allowed to sit down during change-overs; that got introduced only the following year. My final with Metreveli was thus the last match when players could not rest – there were no chairs. We had thirty seconds to drink, towel off and get back to the other side of the court. It was ok with me. The matches flowed, there was nothing disturbing the continuity. But what a difference a year later, when I played against Connors in the quarter-finals and he sat down at 2:1 in the first set and stayed there for a minute and a half! That made a real difference….”

Kodes won that 1973 Wimbledon, defeating Metrevelli 6-1, 9-8 (5), 6-3.

JAN KODES: A JOURNEY TO GLORY FROM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN was originally published in Czech and provides a narrative and illustrated history of Czech tennis through the eyes of Kodes and author Peter Kolar. The book, filled with hundreds of unique and personal photographs, documents the successful journey of Kodes from political turmoil of the Cold War to international tennis fame, detailing the early days of darkness and family persecution in communist Czechoslovakia and the complexities of becoming a professional tennis player under a totalitarian regime. Entertaining anecdotes featuring Czech tennis legends Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova are also featured as well as the stories behind Kodes’ victories at Wimbledon and the French Open and his two runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open. The book is available for $49.95 in bookstores and retail outlets across the United States and Canada. It is a deluxe glossy photo and text hard cover that fills 548 pages.

Kodes is considered the most under-rated tennis champion of the Open Era, reaching five major singles finals, winning the French Open in 1970 and 1971 and the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1973. He also reached the U.S. Open final in both 1971 and 1973, losing to Stan Smith and John Newcombe, respectively. Kodes played Davis Cup for Czechoslovakia for 15 years, leading his country to the final in 1975, where it lost to Sweden in Stockholm. His Davis Cup finale came in representing the team in 1980 when it won the championship over Italy in the final. Kodes has served as his country’s Davis Cup captain, president of the Czech Tennis Association, and tournament director of ATP Czech Open tournament.

THE ANA/JELENA FEUD, AMERICANS, MURRAY LOOKING AHEAD TO GRASS: TENNIS PEOPLE

* The Ana Ivanovic-Jelena Jankovic feud seems to have resurfaced following their encounter at Roland Garros. Following their second-round match at the Madrid Masters last month Jankovic appeared to mock Ivanovic’s famed fist-pump celebration which her Serbian Fed-Cup teammate took umbrage to. When questioned about it this week Ivanovic said: “You know what they say: ‘Sport doesn’t build character. It shows it’.” Jankovic, however, still stands by her action: “Every player has their way of motivating themselves and pumping themselves up,” Jankovic said at her press conference. “But I don’t think it’s nice to put the fist in their face. If I win a point or something, I don’t go like that in your face,” she added whilst holding up her fists to the media.  You can view the video of Jelena Jankovic mocking Ana Ivanovic’ fist pump here:

* Some updates from the large tennis presence on Twitter. Justin Gimelstob is predicting a big grass-court season for Americans following the performances of some of their lower ranked players in France. Kim Clijsters has announced she is back in training, albeit with her foot strapped up, while Brit pair Ken Skupski and Colin Fleming stated that: “our love for tennis could not be larger but we’re hurting bad” after their defeat in the French Open doubles.

*According to an ESPN.com poll, 77 per cent of viewers would not buy the controversial lace dress sported by Venus Williams at this year’s French Open.

* With the British media already (harshly) dissecting Andy Murray’s defeat to Tomas Berdych at Roland Garros, the big names in tennis have been offering their views on his fourth-round defeat. Murray’s former coach Mark Petchey still believes Murray will be a strong contender for this year’s Wimbledon despite recent performances. “Wimbledon presents a great opportunity, potentially his best, to win it,” he told BBC Sport. “I expect him to at least be in the semis. Once you get through to the semis, it’s game on for everyone. On reflection, the conditions didn’t help him too much against Berdych. You’ve got to give a lot of credit for the way Berdych went after the match and executed his shots. Andy puts a lot of pressure in his opponents’ minds because of his speed at the back of the court and he has a tendency to over-hit. But you could see Berdych had the power to get through the court and he served great. He had some big moments, and Andy just lacked a bit of fire.” Three-time French Open winner Mats Wilander, analyzing for Eurosport, also commented that “Murray’s attitude was his main problem,” before adding: “the most aggressive player wins the French Open.” Former Brit star Greg Rusedski looked to other reasons on his Twitter account: “I guess Murray ran out of gas,” he said. “Berdych was sensational and took it on.”

* Andy Murray and Andy Roddick have both spoken of their pleasure at the grass season almost being upon us. Speaking ahead of next week’s AEGON Championships at Queen’s Club, Murray said: “It’s obviously a great tournament, it’s got great history and to have won last year was awesome. I’ll just go back there and try and win again this year and give it my best shot.” Roddick gave us the low-down on why he loves playing on the grass: “I feel like my game automatically translates well to that surface,” he said in a press conference. “My chip stays down, my backhand goes through the court a little bit, obviously my serve gets a little bit better. My returns don’t get any worse on grass, and some people’s do. They take big swings and have to step back to hit it. That’s a real problem. But I don’t really do that too much, so, it’s just maybe a more comfortable feeling. With that comes a sense of confidence.”

* Further news for fans of grass tennis, this time looking ahead to Wimby. Fernando Gonzalez has unfortunately been forced to retire with tendinitis in his left knee while former finalist David Nalbandian has said he is “training double” in an attempt to make this year’s tournament. The mixed doubles is shaping up to be a goodun. Kim Clijsters has announced she will be doubling up with compatriot Xavier Malisse, while Britons Jamie Murray (former winner) and Laura Robson are also set to compete.

* Justine Henin’s defeat to Sam Stosur in the French Open fourth round was her first defeat at Roland Garros in six years (although she hasn’t played at the event since 2007). It ended a fantastic sequence of 24 matches unbeaten on the Paris clay.

* Rafa Nadal’s French Open fourth-round victory over Thomaz Bellucci was his 200th win on clay during his career. Roger Federer’s third-round win over German surprise package Julian Reister was his 700th tour-level win. He is only the tenth player in the Open Era to achieve this feat.

* Following the ending of his rotten run against Federer at Roland Garros, Bjorn Borg is predicting that compatriot Robin Soderling will soon reach the No. 1 slot in the world. Borg told Swedish newspaper Expressen that his rise will happen “sooner than we expect” on Wednesday.

* Nikolay Davydenko hopes to end his injury hiatus by playing Halle’s grass-court event next week. The diminutive Russian has been missing since Miami with a fractured wrist but he said in a pre-tournament press conference: “I’ve never trained as much as now and before when I’ve taken long breaks, I’ve always come back playing better.”

* By beating Liezel Huber and Anabel Medina Garrigues in the French Open women’s doubles semifinal the Williams sisters will realise their dream of reaching the top of the doubles rankings next week.

* British tennis prodigy Laura Robson upset a few of her peers by allegedly calling them “sluts” who “make a bad name for themselves by dating so many men.” The 16-year-old 2008 Wimbledon Junior Champion admits she prefers a quiet night in to a wild night on the town but allegedly claimed her rivals often don’t. “Some of the tennis girls, they’re sluts. They go with every guy and make such a bad name for themselves – and you don’t want to be known for stuff like that. You want to be more discreet.” She continued, in a report printed in a host of British newspapers, “My coach knows I’m sensible. I don’t like the taste of alcohol and I hate smoke. Some go to nightclubs, but I’m not interested. Yes there are moments when you speak to your old friends, and they’re all going out to parties every weekend, and I’m stuck in Paris boring my brains out.” But she did admit to loving life at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Paris where she lives and trains: “It’s so much fun (here). We all know each other so well. I’m known as the Gossip Queen, but I’m careful never to repeat a word.” However, on Sunday she responded on her Twitter account by saying: “shame some quotes were taken out of context today.”

* Former world No. 4 Sebastien Grosjean has announced his retirement this week at Roland Garros. The Frenchman has only played eight tour-level events after undergoing shoulder surgery in December 2008 and in a press conference he said: “My body is in such a condition that I don’t think I can continue.” He had hoped to make his farewell in the men’s doubles event in Paris but his partner Richard Gasquet, rather fittingly, was forced to withdraw with a back injury. In a double blow for the hosts, 28-year-old Camille Pin also announced her retirement from the sport after 12 years on the tour. “It’s a very special day for me, because it’s such a tough decision,” she said. “But I’m so happy, because when I think of the 12 years I was on the Tour, I had such a great time. It was my passion to travel and be an athlete, and my tennis career enabled me to have both. For sure I’m going to miss it, but I have no regrets.”

* The bad news is coming thick and fast for French tennis fans. The hip injury which forced Jo-Wilfried Tsonga out of his fourth-round French Open match with Mikhail Youzhny could rule him out of the 2010 grass-court season. Scans have confirmed a muscle lesion around his hip which could pose real problems for the former Aussie Open finalist.

* Matriarch of the Austin tennis family, Jeanne Austin, has died aged 84 of heart failure following a long battle with illness. Two-time US Open winner Tracy Austin was the most successful of her two daughters and two sons who all played professionally at some point.

* Liezel Huber has announced that Lindsay Davenport will return to the pro women’s tour as her doubles partner for this year’s events at Stanford and San Diego. Davenport is also considering Cincinnati but is not interested in contesting the US Open, Huber told Roland Garros radio. Huber also blamed the breakup with long-time partner Cara Black on the Zimbabwean. She claimed Black became too nervous during the big matches, among other problems, which began at last year’s US Open following their defeat to the Williams sisters. After further breakdowns in the relationship the pair parted ways at Miami and despite admitting they may return together one day Huber says Black now does not speak to her.

* Sabine Lisicki is delighted to announce her new website, sabinelisicki.com, has gone online following her new partnership with WebWeisend. The site will keep fans updated on her every move.

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