Monday, May 11, 2015

Weighty Issues

by Savannah

Does the WTA have a weight problem?

Ever since Patrick McEnroe and the USTA refused to fund Taylor Townsend's US Open appearance a few years ago causing the likes of Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport to lead the backlash against his picking on a then 17 year old girl no one has wanted to discuss the issues of fitness in the WTA. Yet very, very quietly the top women players have whittled themselves down to atheltic fitness. Gone are the paunches, love handles and flabby butts that used to be associated with the WTA. Instead you have the athletically fit like Caroline Wozniacki, or the thin and fit like Serena Williams. I can hear the screams from the bleachers going "Serena Williams is thin and fit?!"
I will argue yes she is, for her body type. She will never be whippet thin like Maria Sharapova and she could do herself serious harm if she tried to emulate the Russian's body type. But Serena is fit, make no mistake about it, and her play at her age shows that.

So what made me decide to be the one to tackle this issue today? Two players really: Petra Kvitova and Taylor Townsend. What does a two time Wimbledon champion have in common with a player ranked around 130 in the world and heading in the wrong direction at the moment? Sadly it seems to be an aversion to the hard work necessary to be a top tennis player in 2015.

Let's be frank. If Martina Navratilova were starting out today in the same physical shape she was in when she began main tour play she'd be run off the court. Lindsay Davenport was the butt of many snide remarks by male tennis players (many of whom were not in any better shape than she was by the way) and held up as all that was wrong with women's tennis. Why was Marion Bartoli's Wimbledon win so widely ridiculted? Her fitness, or lack thereof was what was cited by those who were honest enough to say so.

Some will say I'm fatshaming these women but that is not my intention. Women have a right to look however they want and deal with the consequences. Women claiming to be professional athletes are rightly held to a different standard. So let's talk about fitness and women's tennis.

I'll start with Kvitova, the higher ranked of the two players under discussion. She's been in the top 10 for a few years now. She's won two Wimbledon titles, all with a catalog of physical ills including asthma. But the main problem for Kvitova has been her lack of fitness.

You don't have to look back too far to find pictures of her with a gut. Sorry but that's what it was. She could hit the snot out of the ball but get her moving and she was soon out of breath and out of the tournament. When she won her second Wimbledon the talk about her fitness quieted down and when she hired the fitness trainer who whipped Li Na into shape, Alex Stober, she showed up in Australia the fittest she's ever been. She also crashed out of the AO early after winning Sydney.

Then the weird stuff started. Petra declared herself "exhausted" from all the physical training and promptly went on a sabbatical from tennis not to return until Fed Cup. During her sabbatical there were comments attributed to her saying that the new regimen was too hard for her. Many of her fans began talking about her inherent laziness. Others began to talk about the lack of a world class team around her saying that the team did nothing to encourage her to see that getting more fit would extend and improve her play outside of majors.

Whatever was going on today her team confirmed that Stober was not longer working with Kvitova, the implication being that he was not the right person to oversee Kvitova's health regimen. It was odd because he was there with her in Stuttgart but failed to show in Madrid, where she won. Why was a world class fitness coach deemed wrong for Kvitova? I have no inside knowledge and can only go by what those who follow her closely say. It all comes down, in their opinion, to lack of professionalism by the player and the team she wants around her. It could be. Is she, like Simona Halep, more comfortable with her homies than with outsiders? Again, I don't know. She showed up during Fed Cup and in her recent tournaments appearing to be in fairly decent shape. The love handles were back but the gut is still that of a professional athlete. Time will tell if dismissing Stober was a good decision or not.

The situation with Taylor Townsend is a little more complex. Was Patrick McEnroe wrong to demand Townsend work on her fitness? Was her family wrong to take the matter public and cause PMac to be vilified and let Taylor off the hook regarding her fitness? With hindsight I'm going to say PMac was right and the Townsend family did their talented child no favors by shaming McEnroe.

The favorite line of Townsend defenders is "look at Serena". Serena was never as heavy as Townsend is. She's been heavier than she is now but she was never to the point where the "f" word was being used. People are now openly using that word to describe Taylor.

A better comparison for Townsend would be Kaia Kanepi. After suffering from many injuries that could be ascribed to her being overweight for an athlete she is now in shape but it's late in her career and while she has had some good results she's never played up to her potential. I'm not sure we will ever be able to say that about Townsend.

I was very disappointed to learn that Zina Garrison was no longer working with Taylor and that she was now working withi Donald Young Sr. I see no upside in this collaboration. I see Taylor thinking she can keep doing what she's been doing and not having to have pressure put on her about getting in shape. A nineteen year old should not be lugging around a gut. A nineteen year old athlete is delusional if she thinks that all that extra weight doesn't affect her play. Watching Taylor play last week it seems to me she's regressed play wise and weight wise and it made me sad.

One of the best comments I read was by a fan calling himself "HowardH". I'm not going to paraphrase. Here is his comment that I've edited for brevity and specificity.

Actually, becoming fitter will definitely make someone a better player. That's why there are almost no unfit male pros left. The level became too high and the players who didn't work on their fitness got left behind. Gone are the days of just getting by on your natural talent like 30 years ago. You have to work hard or you lose.

(...)

The problem is that when you are unfit and you train hard, for the first few months you are really exhausted. But after some months you start to really reap the benefits. Your body is finally adjusted to the new training, you aren't tired anymore, it's so easy to run fast. But you have to get through that initial period. Once you have experienced what it's like to be super fit you never want to go back, and you know for a fact that everything is easier when you are super fit. Petra hasn't experienced that yet so she doesn't know what she's missing out on.

Truer words were never written. It would do both Petra and Taylor good to read them, to let them sink in, to stop bullshitting themselves. Both women are very talented. It would be a shame to let something they have control over stop them from being the best they can be.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

From Sunshine to Caroline Wozniacki

by Savannah

Woz vs Halep Stuttgart 2015 photo 131a92d6-d7db-4177-8bbd-cd7ec73a3808_zps8an7kyho.jpg
via Getty Images

She started out in tennis as the third Designated Blonde for the WTA. The template of course was Anna Kournikova who got plenty of hype but never managed to win the big one at the pro level. Since she was Russian the next
Designated Blonde was Maria Sharapova. Groomed by the US tennis mills in Florida to be the answer (read antidote) to Venus Williams who could never be a DB she's managed to continue to be a presence thanks to a very good PR team and pretty good draws.

But neither Sharapova or Kournikova had an official nick name given to them by the CEO of the WTA. It was young Caroline Wozniacki (Karolina to her father and I presume her family) who was nick named "Sunshine". She was soon a slamless number one, unable to generate much offense and quickly earned the ire of dyed in the wool fans of almost every fan grouping.

But then something happened. "Sunshine" fell in love. It became more important to be with her beloved than to win matches. Besides she was getting married and would soon be living another life. Or so she thought. Never underestimate the power of a professional association and Caroline was in the PGA's crosshairs. She was not a proper "golf wife" who knew her place. She was out there in tennis outfits being competitive and getting sweaty. Not what they want a golf wife to be.

I've read a lot of theories about what happened to her engagement, not all of them favorable to Caroline, but it's all rumor and conjecture so in the end what difference does it make? The engagement was broken in a particularly ugly way and Caroline found herself the object of sympathy in her world and smug triumph in his.

Many people, male or female, would have curled into the fetal position and hidden in a dark room for a long time. Instead after a brief time out of the public eye Wozniacki reappeared. She was suddenly being more aggressive, no longer content to be known as a "pusher", the ultimate pejorative aimed at a tennis player. It seemed that after a revolving door of coaches she realized the most important voice in her world was that of her father. Things were going well in Wozniacki world it seemed. Then all of a sudden she went public admitting that she was working with Spanish great Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. ASV had been in the news for all the wrong reason recently and after the obvious jokes about money were made the ultimate question was what could ASV do for Caroline? I think after this weekend we know exactly what she helped Wozniacki with.

The first, and biggest thing, is that Caroline now knows how to slide properly. By that I mean sliding INTO the shot not after the shot. Sliding properly means you can walk and chew gum at the same time, that you can launch yourself into a slide and control the shot you want to make, something James Blake who wanted to be the man controlling the fate of up and coming US players labelled "unnatural".

If you haven't watched the match between Wozniacki and Simona Halep, find a way to watch it. It's an historic match for Wozniacki, a match where she put "Pushniacki" and "Sunshine" to bed and introduced us to Caroline. Good for her.

I was never really a fan of Wozniacki and I admit it had a lot to do with the WTA fawning over her. They should really stop that. You know who else has been playing very, very well this spring? Carla Suarez Navarro, a woman wo is definitely not a DB. Many were surprised to see Halep take the court with lighter hair and a pontail instead of her usual bun. Halep will never be a DB either and I'm sad to see her try. If you're talking about great tennis players of 2015 however there is no avoiding Halep or CSN as she's known to tennisheads.

I'm not going to say I'm a huge fan of Wozniacki now but I will say I applaud her quest to be herself, that she's not afraid of becoming something other than a cute face in a designer tennis kit. That takes a lot of guts. And Ms Wozniacki clearly has them.

Fed Cup

I was trying to avoid talking about the recent round of Fed Cup because it would make me have to discuss someone I don't want to waste cyber ink on. In an effort to put that task off a bit longer let's talk about Barbara Rittner's team that took the court for her country, Germany. Instead of doing the obvious Rittner fielded Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges. I have no idea why she did that but the results were inevitable with both women losing their singles rubbers although Lisicki put up a bit more of a fight. It was left to Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic to force the tie into a deciding doubles match. Petkovic was paired with Lisicki and they lost in straight sets.

Even more puzzling is why Maria Jose Fernandez chose a team made up of Serena Williams and no one else of consequence. A bit harsh you say? Is it? The story bruited about was that Venus Williams withdrew at the last minute and that both Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens declined to play. I call bullshit. The story that Venus withdrew at the last minute harkens back to the days where the WTA would sell tickets using the Williams name knowing full well neither woman was going to play and let the blame fall on the sisters for being "unreliable". I think even John McEnroe knows about Venus health issues and Maria Jose is too smart to not have had a Plan B.

When the last minute story didn't float that well we heard that Madison Keys had been exempted from play because she was going to be in intense training with her coaching team. I guess that field trip to Coachella was part of the plan. As for Stephens, who was originally said to be doing "charity work" I have no idea what she was really doing. At least Madison allowed herself to be photographed at Coachella and released the pictures herself. If she needed a break and wanted to go, fine. I haven't seen any pictures of Sloane's charity work anywhere. There was also talk that Maria Jose doesn't like Sloane's work ethic, or lack thereof.

Be that as it may it was all on Serena's shoulders to win the tie and she fell short. Totally understandable. As usual the now PR savvy World #1 put a good spin on the result and said that she needed to work towards being ready for clay season. That was very nice of her.

As for the women who did go I guess they picked Lauren Davis because she's small like Sara Errani. Surely that would count for something? It didn't and it shows how brain dead the US tennis establishment is. I am no fan of Errani but even with her shit game and non existant serve on real (read red) clay she wasn't going to lose to Davis. Christina McHale has been having a rough go of it lately and being in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Fed Cup wasn't going to help her.

It's not as if Maria Jose didn't have other choices you know. Madison Brengle has been playing very well of late and on red clay in Stuttgart made it to the semifinals. Bethanie Mattek Sands has been playing doubles with Lucie Safarova and they're doing quite well for themselves. I'm not sure why they weren't considered. Politics like in Germany I guess.

Of course the biggest story out of Fed Cup was HandshakeGate. Is Eugenie Bouchard a spoiled, entitled brat? Yes. Does she care what others think of her? Not one bit. The only person she cares about is the one running the WTA and as long as she's behind her she could care less what anyone else thinks. I will end with this YouTube video of her post match interview, one that didn't get as much play as the fake out handshake. You draw your own conclusiions. To say this woman is a PR nightmare is an understatemnt.



Aga and Martina Navratilova Part Ways

When the Radwanska camp announced that Martina Navratilova was going to become part of the retinue the almost universal response was "it'll never work". This week it appears Navratilova bowed to the inevitable and submitted her resignation. Aga's fans and her father have been howling for her coach Tomasz Wiktorowski to resign not only as her coach but as Fed Cup captain. There are strong rumors he's done the latter but it seems that he's still Aga's coach. Why do they want him out? It's said that Aga's support team has become more of a party team. Her boyfriend is her hitting partner and the physio isn't working her the way she needs to be. All of that from her estranged father Robert. Here's the story from a Polish press source .

Watch this space for the continuing saga "As The Tennis Ball Spins".





Friday, April 10, 2015

Not So Idle Chit Chat

by Savannah

It's been a long time since I've done an Idle Chit Chat post. What does that mean?
Well there will be a lot of, well chit chat but unlike blind items on gossip sites the miscreants will be named. Not that all of them are miscreants. Some are simply playing the hand they've been dealt. But all of them are dealing with the results of actions they've taken. Where do we start?

Let's start with one M. Gilles Simon. Gilles is now on the Players Council and sat down for an interview to discuss the long simmering argument about better pay for those men who are not in the Top 100. It's interesting to find out that while Challenger level players have representation on the Council their position is akin to that of a nation with auditor status at the United Nations. At least that's how it comes across in this interview translated by Mark Nixon whose blog translates pressers and interviews given in languages other than English. Simon looks at the situation in strictly business terms. Here are some excerpts from the L'Equipe interview by Vincent Cognet.

Does the pro tour have different tiers?

“I’d say it has three tiers: there are those who make a lot, those who make enough to live on, and those who are still investing. It doesn’t shock me that there are three tiers. The question is: at which tier do we want to point fingers? Everyone agrees that the ATP number 1000 shouldn’t make a living.”

Why not?

Because it’s not professional. Every player will give you a different number: one will say the top 200 deserve to earn a living, another the top 300. The only certainty is that there’ll always be a three-tiered tour.

Unless it’s changed in a way that everyone can make a living!

There are more than 2000 guys on the ATP tour. That would be difficult. Of course, I’m in favour of the maximum number of players being able to make a living. But what I find more shocking is that there’s too big a gap between players at the same category of tournament.

Which means?

The best in the world travel with their coach [sometimes two], their stringer, their doctor, sometimes their hitting partner. On the other hand, you have number 80 in the world who gets there without being able to afford a coach. Those two types of players face each other in the first round of a Grand Slam. To me that shouldn’t be possible. That’s what I was teasing Roger [Federer] with: “Under these conditions, isn’t it a little easier to win?” It’s even worse on the women’s circuit. By not offering enough money, they don’t have a chance to train and improve. So, obviously, the best, who are already stronger, will stay the strongest! They changed that by getting more prize money for the first rounds of a Grand Slam. To clarify, that pays for your coach.

What have you done for the “second tier”, meaning the qualie players?

We haven’t forgotten those who are ranked between 100 and 300. Everyone says that we should increase the Challenger prize money. OK, but how do you do that? In ten years, from 2007 to 2017, their funding has already doubled. The paradox is that we can demand that the Grand Slams double their prize money (which is already huge), but can’t do anything about a Challenger.

Why?

Because a Grand Slam generates enormous revenue and a Challenger generates none. Because the players ranked between 100 and 300 generate none. So, logically, the same thing applies to them that applies to a world number 80: how to train and improve. We’ve increased the qualie prize money for Slams 120% in four years. In four years, you’ll make the same for the last round of qualifications as you did for the first round of the draw.
(...)

Why doesn’t the system change at the Futures level?

Guys competing there aren’t considered professionals. They’re considered to be players who are investing in their futures. Most importantly, we, the ATP, can’t do anything – it’s run by the ITF. We have zero hold, zero power with Futures. I love my sport, I want there to be competition, I fight for that, but I see how difficult it is.

(...)

OK, lets ask the question in a different way: are the top 100 players ready to give up some of their prize money to subsidise the lesser tours?

I may be wrong, but I’d say no. I know this will cause some screaming, but the players reckon that the Masters 1000’s make too much money compared to what they give us. The Slams were reproached for the same reason, though to a lesser extent. Everyone is interested in how much money the players make. No one talks about who’s pocketing the money at the end. Because no-one knows who that is. So, if you have to find money, the players will tell you that’s who should give to the Challengers.

There’s always a worry there …

I sometimes have a problem with players who ask for more money than they generate. Is it in our tour’s interests, seen as a whole, that those guys make more money? I’m pointing out that I use the same reasoning for the women’s tour and for doubles. It’s more of a general reflection than simply a question of money for the rich and the poor.

(...)

So you’re not the Players’ Council, you’re the Top 100 Council. And you only look at the problems that concern you.

-We’re the council for the Top 100 because we’re the council for the tour. Because, today, the tour is the ATP 250’s, the ATP 500’s and the Masters 1000. In fact, there is a Challengers section. I went there. We talked for two hours about that. Me, I say: instead of talking about prize money which, in any case, isn’t generated, let’s talk more about the expenses.That might move things along a bit.

...A pro structure costs a fortune. It cost me 250,000 Euros last year.

I've always thought of Challenger players like Triple A players in Major Leage Baseball here in the States. Players move back and forth between the Majors and Minors due to injury, burn out or what have you. I guess I was wrong. Was the Players Council always like this? Was it always only concerned about the Top 100 or was it at one time concerned with all players? I don't know. If it's only concern is the Top 100 maybe the name should be changed? Again I don't know. The issues Simon raises are legitimate but the solutions he's endorsing seem a bit cold hearted to me.

The Co Opting of a Legend

Someone has to explain the purpose of this piece to me. It was obviously dictated by Max Eisenbud. I guess they wanted it to appear that Billie Jean King wrote this herself? Uh huh. I was born at night but not last night.

One member of Tennis Twitter said the piece was PR'y. Hell it's a press release with a legend of the game's name attached. Why would she allow herself to be used in this manner? I could speculate but all of it would be ugly and imply a need for money by Ms King. I have a lot of respect for Ms King and what she's done almost single handedly for women's tennis so I will leave it at that.

The Strange Case of Petra Kvitova

So Petra Kvitova showed up in Australia fitter than she's ever been and promptly declared she was too tired to play when she left the country after a solo win at one of the warmup events. Too tired? She's 24 years old. According to an article in the Czech press she used the word "empty" to describe how she felt after her one win down under. She also admits to having seen a psychologist, I would assume a sports psychologist, to deal with her feelings or lack of feeling about playing the sport that has made her rich. Her coach confirmed that she will pick and choose where and when and how often she plays going forward, and that fitness isn't really part of her overall plan.

If you remember when Petra first came on the scene and won Wimbledon I was among some who said she seemed very uncomfortable with the business side of tennis. Her lack of fitness was talked about as much as her power game. It looked as if a new dominating star had arrived and that if she would get fit she'd challenge for the top ranking of women's tennis.

It now seems that Petra isn't interested in reaching the top level of tennis. Her coach has indicated fitness will not be a big part of her match prep going forward.

I'm summarizing because all of the links are in Czech. Czech fans are calling her a lazy bum. I don't think it's wise to go against what seems to be their consensus.

This and That

US fans were excited about Taylor Townsend working with Zina Garrison and a team out of Chicago. Taylor seemed to be improving her court sense and combined with her movement that is good despite not being in the best of shape it looked as if she might live up to some of the potential she exhibited as a Junior.

During Miami I heard a commentator mention in passing that Zina Garrison was working somewhere that was not Chicago now and I wondered what that meant for her work with Taylor. It turns out that Taylor will now be working with Donald Young, Sr. I'm struggling to find something positive to say about this new arrangement. She's had how many coaches now? And none of them have addressed her biggest problems and I'm not just talking about her weight. Like most young US players she's got all the shots but she doesn't have a coherent strategy when she steps on court. Her attitude seems to be I can hit through my opponent and get to most of what they send my way. All well and good. But what about a player who relies on off speed stuff? Who sees what you've got and counters it?

This is not just a Taylor Townsend problem it's a US tennis problem and I'm not getting into that again. Not this post anyway.

Amélie Mauresmo Is Pregnant

Miami 2015 via Art Seitz photo 0f03f799-39ce-4202-9678-8d4b6f0d89b6_zpsvocx3nqr.jpg
Photo Via Art Seitz

With a low key announcement via Facebook and Twitter Amelie Mauresmo announced that she will become a mother sometime in August this year. Most responses I saw were positive and the negatives were so full of ignorant speculation I was rendered almost speechless. I'll get to that in a few minutes.

For the serious fan a lot of things fell into place, especially Andy Murray, Amélie's charge, adding an assistant coach to his team. If Amélie is carrying the child she is about five months pregnant and in about three months travel will be difficult for her. Murray's new assistant coach will be up on how he does things and the transition will be seamless.

As for the idiocy. It's one thing to suspect that most of the "fans" posting on the two huge sites for the ATP and WTA are twelve. It's another thing to have questions like "How could this happen if she's gay?" and speculation that the whole reason Murray chose her was to donate sperm for her child. Let's not get into the fanfics that have already been proposed. The sadder thing is that when the adults call these children out for the nonsense they're spouting they say they're just trolling and that is supposed to explain everything.

There is nothing more beautiful than a child who is wanted and loved. I say congratulations to Amélie and her partner and hope a safe birth and a healthy child are in their future.

As for those "fan" sites the moderators have to decide between inflated hit counts and a readable, enjoyable place for the young and old to discuss tennis. Just my very humble opinion.



Monday, April 6, 2015

USTA Names New Head of Player Development

by Savannah

A few things jumped out at me reading the article by Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal on the appointment of Martin Blackman as head of Player Development for the USTA.

First of course is his background in USTA politics and his past as Senior Director of Talent Identification for that organization.

Second is the endorsement by Nick Bollettieri who raves about Blackman bringing "stability".

Mr. Blackman is moving his family to the new USTA training facility in Lake Nona, Florida, something that was high on the must do list of the USTA.

Then there is this:

Blackman said he would try to strengthen partnerships with private coaches and ask current and former American champions for advice. He mentioned Agassi, Courier, Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick, and Blake.

“I’m really going to listen to what they have to say about what has worked,” Blackman said.

American tennis champions have traditionally trained with private coaches. But as the country’s performance in pro tennis, particularly men’s tennis, plummeted in the late 2000s, the USTA decided to spend more on development and hired McEnroe in 2008.

And this:

In the years since, McEnroe endured criticism over the program’s structure, player turnover, and sometimes strained relationships with private coaches, players, and parents, who felt that the USTA would only support players enrolled in the program, rather than those who sought partial help but wanted to keep private coaches.

In 2013, McEnroe adopted a new strategy: fewer full-time students and more time devoted to outside players and coaches who could visit and train.

Though American men’s tennis continues to struggle, the U.S. has a promising crop of junior boys, including 13 ranked in the top 100 of the International Tennis Federation’s 18-and-under rankings and three in the top 10. Women’s tennis is strong, with the Williams sisters and young pros like Madison Keys, 20, and Sloane Stephens, 22.

I'm wondering what insight Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi can give though. As far as can be determined Sampras was as clean cut as he appeared. We all know Agassi used illegal drugs while playing and was never called out or sanctioned for his behavior. Today Sampras would be called a servebot and Agassi would be famous as a scalp in the WADA Anti Drug plan. Jim Courier, because of Davis Cup, is more familiar with the men's game and the strategies behind it than either of those former players.

Both Andy Roddick and James Blake played until relatively recently but towards the end, with the men's game becoming more strategic and based on skills US players don't have their play could best be described as anachronistic. With the hiring of Mr. Blackman I don't see the level of US tennis changing much if at all.

In the end however it seems to be that the most important thing for US men's tennis is the Benjamins. The US system seems to demand that players have their own coaches who are free to take money from the USTA, use its facilities, and duck all the blame for the current state of men's tennis.

There is going to be a drop in the level of tennis after 2016 and it still seems to me that the USTA and it's coaches are preparing for that drop. Their fervent hope would appear to be that the "hit hard and harder" approach, "Serve Bot Tennis" if you will, will be on the ascendancy again and US men will be able to compete on an international level once more.
That to me is what is most important to the tennis establishment in the United States. They care the most about the men's game and don't really care about women's tennis although it's nice that they're including Lindsay Davenport in the discussion. It should be noted that current women's number one Serena Williams is not being coached by an American and has changed her approach to the game. Her new hitting partner, Robbye Poole is American though.

It seems to me that Mr. Blackman is the establishment choice. They know him. He's not going to upset the apple cart. The money will keep flowing to private coaches and all will be right with the world. Will this improve the state of tennis in the United States? It depends a lot on what players like Francis Tiafoe achieve going forward. I don't think you'll see results from players like him for another five years or so. Meanwhile the Europeans keep coming and rising up the rankings with the ability to construct points, superior court knowledge and mental abilities and overall better games even in their late teens. We already know about Chung Hyeon, Borna Ćorić, Elias Ymer and Alexander Zverev. They're making waves while US prospects like Ryan Harrison are just getting past the stage where superior play from an opponent results in tantrums.

Somehow I get the feeling that as long as Mr. Blackman keeps the old ways in place he'll be fine. After all, it is always "all about the Benjamins baby".

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Martin Blackman New Head of USTA Player Development

Martin Blackman to Head USTA Player Development

The former pro says he will ask current and former American champions for advice

SENNAIT BLACKMAN photo 595d8a29-dd81-4dda-9bcc-12cf2e93aae2_zpsmth5nfmt.jpg
photo by Sennait Blackman

By TOM PERROTTA
Updated April 5, 2015 7:21 p.m. ET

After a seven-month search, the U.S. Tennis Association on Monday will name a successor to Patrick McEnroe as general manager of player development: Martin Blackman, who worked for the USTA under McEnroe for two years before leaving to start his own tennis academy.

Blackman, 45, was a top junior who trained alongside Andre Agassi and Jim Courier at Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy. At Stanford, he was Patrick McEnroe’s doubles partner. After six years on the pro tour, he became a college coach, and helped build the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland.

At the USTA from 2009 to 2011, Blackman was senior director of talent identification and established the USTA’s regional training partnerships with private academies throughout the country. Since 2012, he has run his own academy in Boca Raton, Fla.

“He’s got a lot of credibility, more credibility than I do, in the coaching and development world,” McEnroe said in an interview this weekend. “He’s taken a good, long road, and people will appreciate him for all he has done.”

Blackman was born in New York City, before moving to Barbados when he was 2 years old. For two summers, Blackman’s family lived on the Upper West Side and he trained at the Port Washington Tennis Academy. When Blackman was 13, Bollettieri offered him a scholarship.

Bollettieri, now 83, said his former student is someone “who listens but will not be bullied.” “Martin brings education, he brings stability and he is a no-nonsense person,” Bollettieri said.

Blackman will work part time until June as he turns his academy over to another coach (McEnroe will stay on to help the transition). In 2016, Blackman and his family—he is married with four children—will move to Lake Nona, a planned community in Orlando where the USTA is building a $60 million tennis center with training facilities, housing for visiting players and their coaches, and more than 100 courts, including both green and red clay. The USTA will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the facility on Wednesday.

Since McEnroe announced that he would leave player development at last year’s U.S. Open, many people have been rumored as potential successors, including James Blake, who expressed interest in the job; Courier, a former No. 1 player and the current Davis Cup captain; Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer; and former pro Todd Martin, who is now the CEO of the Tennis Hall of Fame.

But USTA officials signaled that they were less interested in star power than a candidate with a development background who would commit to the USTA full time and move to Orlando. McEnroe, who is also an ESPN commentator and lives in New York, was unwilling to move.

Blackman isn't expected to shake up player development’s staff or strategy. Katrina Adams, the USTA’s chairman and chief executive, and Gordon Smith, the USTA’s executive director and chief operating officer, said that they were happy with the program’s current direction and hired Blackman to build on it.

“He has played every level of the game—he understands what it takes to be a champion and he understands what it takes to be a collegiate player,” Adams said.

Blackman said he would try to strengthen partnerships with private coaches and ask current and former American champions for advice. He mentioned Agassi, Courier, Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick, and Blake.

“I’m really going to listen to what they have to say about what has worked,” Blackman said.

American tennis champions have traditionally trained with private coaches. But as the country’s performance in pro tennis, particularly men’s tennis, plummeted in the late 2000s, the USTA decided to spend more on development and hired McEnroe in 2008.


In the years since, McEnroe endured criticism over the program’s structure, player turnover, and sometimes strained relationships with private coaches, players, and parents, who felt that the USTA would only support players enrolled in the program, rather than those who sought partial help but wanted to keep private coaches.
In 2013, McEnroe adopted a new strategy: fewer full-time students and more time devoted to outside players and coaches who could visit and train.

Though American men’s tennis continues to struggle, the U.S. has a promising crop of junior boys, including 13 ranked in the top 100 of the International Tennis Federation’s 18-and-under rankings and three in the top 10. Women’s tennis is strong, with the Williams sisters and young pros like Madison Keys, 20, and Sloane Stephens, 22.

Still, Blackman will be first in line to take criticism if American players, particularly the men, don’t have better results in the near future.

“I’m up for it,” Blackman said. “If you understand that it takes teams to make players, and if you understand where our coaches’ sweet spots are, we can do some damage.”

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Weight of Expectations: The Kids Part 2

by Savannah

"Who the hell is this CiCi Bellis?" I kept asking myself. Everywhere I looked I saw her name and age, 15, and the words prodigy and future star somewhere in the next sentence or two. So this morning I decided to look her up and see just what recommends her to tennis stardom in the near future.

The closest I found was this glowing article by someone named Ashlee Vance from August of last year for Bloomberg Business.

Silicon Valley is hardly wanting for prodigies, but until Tuesday it hadn’t produced one on the tennis court. Enter Catherine “CiCi” Bellis, who beat 12-seeded Dominika Cibulkova at the U.S. Open. The win was remarkable because Bellis is only 15 years old and was playing in her first Grand Slam match. The most recent 15-year-old to pull off such a feat was Anna Kournikova—back in 1996, three years before Bellis was born.

In some respects, Bellis’s success shouldn’t be all that surprising. Where the Williams sisters defied the odds by rising up from the mean streets of Compton, Calif., to become superstars, Bellis comes from a privileged background far more conducive to tennis development. She grew up in Atherton, Calif.— the elite among elite suburbs in Silicon Valley. Gordon Bellis, the youngster’s dad, made enough as an investment manager to supply his daughter with a backyard tennis court while wife Lori home-schooled CiCi.

Even by tennis’s hoity-toity standards, these were luxe surroundings. The only comparable situation would be the case of Ernests Gulbis, the mercurial Latvian player on the men’s tour and son of Ainārs Gulbis, a super-rich investment banker.

(...)

Given the track record of other out-of-nowhere Valley startups, it would be unwise to bet against her.

Notice the tennis names Mr Vance mentions. If those don't set off warning bells for Vance they do for hard core tennis fans. Neither Kournikova or Gulbis lived up to their potentials. But of course this girl - she is a girl - is going to be a success because SILICON VALLEY!!!

Yeah.

via usatis photo 939b21b7-b932-412c-b052-fc407e9cd2ac_zpspzobxnaj.jpg
via USATIS

Well young Ms Bellis got her ass handed to her yesterday by the world #1 Serena Williams. Can I say that Serena let the girl win two games? The 6-1, 6-1 score is deceiving. It really wasn't that close.

I wonder though what sport other than tennis would allow a fifteen year old girl face the best player of this generation? In what sport would the hype machine try to spin it that the kid had a chance. I mean would it have been fair to let a college freshman go one on one with Michael Jordan back in the day? No you say? Then why build this girl up as the second coming because she beat Dominika Cibulkova and has had a decent ITF career so far. No offense meant to Dominika but Serena is several levels above Cibulkova and in my opinion it does more harm than good to expose someone this young to the juggernaut that is Serena Williams. As I said earlier this year exposing young players, male or female, to the rigors of the main tour before they're physically and mentally ready is not a good thing. It can lead to regression and self doubt. Tell me how many players have made the successful jump from the Juniors to the main tour? Look at the kid I'm following this year, Alexander Zverev. Poor guy is not doing well at all at the moment although he is playing Qualies something I think is a good thing.

Jeong via ITFtennis.com photo 9ac11f41-4b69-4d5e-965a-7f6133de6911_zpszqkih5cs.png
via ITFtennis.com

Why isn't the hype machine talking about Chung Hyeon from South Korea? At 6' tall he doesn't have to worry about a height disadvantage. He's very mobile and very fast and can make shots from anywhere on the court. The hype machine may not be on his case but the tennis cognoscenti are. I mean when you hear the likes of Robbie Koenig and Jason Goodall falling over themselves to describe the potential of this young man you know that away from the ever vigilant (sarcasm alert) tennis "press" the people who matter are already paying attention to him. Oh but wait. He's from South Korea. His team is composed of Koreans. His English is very limited something we know drives the US tennis establishment up the wall. So he can't be publicized because he's too foreign. Better young Bellis who comes from a background the US tennis establishment understands and who can communicate with them without an interpreter.
I've been told by @Tonicate that the correct Romanization of the young Korean's name is "Jeong" but that the pronunciation sounds more like "Chung". Since he's using "Chung" I'll use it too. However it's spelled keep your eyes on him. I think he's going to be a good one.

Ćorić via his Twitter Profile photo 8deddd11-4e1e-49a2-9a49-3b3fc79e3398_zpsi7by6crb.jpg
via his Twitter profile

Borna Ćorić is another youngster with an outsize personality, a cockiness if you will, that Australian, British and US tennis people like. He's had to dial back his "best of his generation" quote and seems to be progressing, building a career. To my knowledge his English is limited too but with his buzz cut and personal charm I guess he's more approachable for the Westerners who have just stopped their pronouncements about Eastern Europeans dragging themselves out of their hovels to play tennis. Just stopped.

So Madison Keys. If you saw her complete breakdown towards the end of her match against Sloane Stephens you saw a player unable to handle the pressures she's under. After her run in Australia everyone was saying she was the next big thing, the American poised to succeed Serena, the one who should obliterate anyone across the net from her when she played. I think it was a mistake for her not to play anywhere until the IW/Miami swing. You have to learn to win and lose before you step on the big stages of tennis. Yes they said she was injured but did she play either of the warm up tournaments in Mexico at least? No.

This focus on the Slams and since we're talking WTA Premier Mandatory events is wrong and puts more pressure on young players no matter where they come from. You build a tennis career just like you construct a point. Everything can't be an "ace". You can't "servebot" your way through life and you can't do it with a tennis career. Make these young people play. Let them learn that taking the court, win or lose, is how you deal with life.

I have to mention that for many African American tennis fans Keys unfortunate comments about not identifying as African American have made her someone to root against. Keys is what 19? She's from a wealthy background and as many mixed race people do she's struggling with her identity. Should her parents have done more to tell how how the world sees her? It's easy for people hiding behind computers to say "yes they should have" but not being part of that family and it's dynamic the only thing outsiders can do is "don't judge". She may always struggle with her identity. We're all on this plane to learn so I say leave her alone about that for now. It was a mistake by her handlers to let that statement go in that interview but I'm betting they're unaware, and to be honest really don't care what people of color think or feel when they hear statements like that.

The way Keys was sobbing, bawling if you will, on the sidelines in the second set all of these issues are getting to her. I like the way Jonathan Leach handled the awkward situation. Men confronted with crying women usually lose it. He whispered directly into her ear so that the mic wouldn't pick up what he was saying. That was a good move on his part and Madison did settle down after that and win a couple of games to avoid being fed a bakery product. I still think she should play some International level events. Let her construct her career. With tennis careers extending into what used to be considered the golden years of tennis she's got enough time to get it together.

As for the woman who defeated Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, I think she realizes that Nick Saviano is her last chance to be relevant in tennis. At least I hope she does. I think she's afraid of him, and that's a good thing for someone with her personality. She had more to prove versus Madison and she played like it. She's still playing. Unseeded. Let's see how she handles herself.

I haven't mentioned much about US young men. There's not much to say. Too short. Lousy games. Unable to think their way through a point let alone a match. Yes Donald Young is playing better tennis but he's hardly a newbie. Ryan Harrison is also trying now. No temper tantrums so far. But neither of them are new jacks. The true new jacks like Francis Tiafoe are doing the right thing and playing Challengers. Some folks out there get it.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Rear View Mirror: Indian Wells 2015

by Savannah

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports Halep photo 1738e5e3-8584-442b-8f79-1b08decdde91_zpscrp0l0em.jpg
via Jayne Kamin-Oncea USA Today Sports

I think people forget that draws are guidelines. They're what whoever controls the computer(s) that spit out the draw hopes will come to pass. They're not oracles, they're not set in concrete. What they are is best categorized as wishful thinking.

I thought about this as I looked over some of the reactions to the just completed tournament at Indian Wells in the California desert. Boring. Dull. Uneventful for the most part. Really? I saw a tennis tournament where as usual once play begins anything can happen.

So what were people most upset about? I should say who. Lesia Tsurenko must have put WTA chief Stacey Allaster on a psych watch after the carefully crafted draft geared to continuer her "great record" of reaching Quarters or Semi's at majors collapsed and instead of the mentally tough, highly competitive player we're told about Eugenie Bouchard crumbled into tears and an injury that didn't seem to affect her much in the third quarter when she was hitting the snot out of the ball in a way that would've aggravated an ab strain. Yes, every player has an off day since they're not robots but it's interesting that this happened to the player the WTA promotes as the bestest ever in the whole wide world!

Yes I'm being facetious but hard core fans know this is the truth. It's also why it's better to promote players who are or have done well on the court not on magazine covers. As I've said ad nauseam Steffi Graf would not be given the type of coverage her tennis would deserve if she were a top player these days. Meanwhile the WTA is losing a chance, a big chance of promoting the sport of women's tennis. Then again with great foresight Allaster has been shutting down tournaments in Europe and moving them to Asia. This while the majority of the top players are from Eastern Europe and the Asian players rarely cross the date line to play in Europe and the Americas and remain mostly unknown. There was the Chinese player Zhu Lin who saw her shot double bounce when playing Francesca Schiavone and when asked if it did said "I don't remember". She's known in the West but I doubt that's the kind of thing Asian players want to be known for.

While on the WTA let's talk about that shitfest of a Final between Simona Halep and Jelena Jankovic. I was talking about what a mess the match was and she said "But it was exciting right?" I told her it was exciting in the sense that someone was going to win. It was just a matter of who would lose their ish first. As anyone who was watching saw it was Jelena who said she was losing it and indeed did. Halep was reeling and looked about to give in to pressure the way she has in most of the major final's I've seen her play but then JJ started hitting the ball to San Diego. Shots she was easily making in the first set and a half were now landing in San Francisco and she was unable to recover the poise that saw her serving for the match at 5-4. Instead of a professional we saw a little girl who was begging her coach, in English, to help her, something he seemed totally unable to do. I'm sure those who promote on court coaching were cringing at the horror show between Jelena and Chip Brooks, her older, better connected US based coach during breaks. I don't know why she didn't have her brother work with her as he has been. Then again I understand Brooks worked with JJ when she was little. Maybe that's why she reverted to infantile behavior when dealing with him.

Meanwhile Halep had been mopey, erratic, and seemingly resigned to losing. Her hand picked Romanian coaching team led by Victor Ionita, looked on seemingly unable to do anything to lift their player's competitive level. I've said before that I didn't think they were ready for prime time. I don't think it as an accident that Darren Cahill, who works with Adidas, was in Halep's box most of the tournament. When Jankovic began to crumble someone had to give Halep a sound strategy and in my opinion Ionita may have been talking to Halep in Romanian but the words came from Cahill. Just my opinion. And don't forget that Halep had an extra day of rest after Serena Williams, due to injury, gave her a walkover in the semifinal. Marion Bartoli, working as a commentator for TennisTV, said that sometimes it is hard to prepare for a match and it doesn't happen. She's the former pro so I'll accept her statement as a fact. It's just that after the WTA had really had the more competitive matches and generated most of the excitement during the tournament it's a shame that such a sub par match chose the Champion. It was Halep's biggest win so far and maybe she's got that big match monkey off her back. She's playing Miami too. It'll be interesting to see how things shake out there.

As for the ATP, well, did anyone expect anything different? Some of the current world #1's fans bristle when there's talk of cakewalk draws but why do they get upset? Anyone who wants to can see that he's had some very nice draws. Does that sound better? What can't be made to sound or look better is that stunt he pulled in Australia vs Andy Murray. His supporters wonder why he doesn't have more fans. They know why.

If the issue of soft draws isn't an issue this statement to the BBC shows it does rankle the #1 men's player.

"Nothing has been handed to me. I had to earn this, to fight for it with all the commitment to my everyday routine with my team. Hopefully I can use this confidence for the rest of the season. It's a great start."

Ahem. Anyway Roger Federer made the Final after a straight set win over Canadian (cheater) Milos Raonic. To be fair I didn't watch the ATP semifinals or final. There was no need to. I was rooting for someone but he lost to the eventual champion.

What did stun me was the way Tomas Berdych lost to Federer. He'd been having a pretty decent year and shown signs that he was ready to challenge the ATP Big Four. Instead he went back to playing brain dead tennis and was easily defeated (over awed?) by Federer.

The people who get paid to look at the draw and tell the feeble brained fans who is going to win were beside themselves with hope the Big Four would all make it to the semifinals. One didn't. So of course the tournament was dull and boring. All analysis seemed to stop and attention quickly turned to Miami.

One of the problems of being a fangirl (me) is that once your fave(s) is/are out you quickly lose interest in the tournament. I do this for free so I don't have to watch matches I'm not interested in. It's ironic that despite Serena's withdrawal there was a reason to watch both the semifinals and final on the WTA side. Would Halep cruise? Would she falter again? Did JJ still have it in her to win a major? For me there was no such anticipation on the ATP side. Once Raonic won the results were as easy to predict as the sun rising in the East.

Was the men's draw more successful than the women's? In some respects, yes. With three of the four top players and one "up and comer" in the running it should've been "Must See TV". With all the big names gone on the WTA side due to injury or defeat why then was the women's tennis more must than the ATP, at least for this fan? Let's not forget that the WTA players are making their own narratives independent of their Association so what they've done to make their sport interesting is remarkable. Serena Williams is a legend and a phenomenon not only in tennis but in sport. In a different way so is Maria Sharapova who did get a lot more support from the WTA than Serena did. But neither of them played in the semi finals and yet I wouldn't miss the semi's and the final for anything.

I'm working on my attitude for Miami. I think this tournament has suffered coming after Indian Wells, especially since Larry Ellison has put his money where his mouth is and upgraded the tournament and succeeded in getting Serena Williams to come back and play there. I know, I know, it was the former TD and Stacey Allaster who persuaded her to return. Serena hasn't said anything about that point so I won't either. She came back, she won without lifting that heavy trophy, and that was the big story at Indian Wells this year. As for her injury don't forget that picture I posted of that heavy wrap on her left knee in Los Angeles. Sometimes if one limb hurts you overcompensate with the other one. Serena said if she'd had two days to rest instead of one she would've played. I believe her.

End Note

Remember the WTA's "Strong is Beautiful" campaign? WTA players posed for heavily Photoshopped glamour shots to try and show that these athletic women were also beautiful. I don't know if the campaign drew many new fans to women's tennis but I thought it was a missed opportunity for the WTA. Give a make up artist and a photographer free range to recreat a woman's image and what you get will be different, if not totally representative of the woman they're supposed to be showing the world.

There are many tennis fans who only learned about Anna Wintour because she's a fan of Roger Federer and is often seen sitting with his family at big tournaments. Some enlightened souls may knew her from the movie "The Devil Wears Prada" a thinly veiled swipe at her management style at the magazine she's run for years, "Vogue", US Vogue to be precise.

But Wintour is a tennis fan and it's ironic that it was her magazine, a publication that has been under attack by the fashion industry recently, who showed the world that strong is indeed beautiful. Vogue has the pull to bring in Annie Leibovitz who's portraits are world renowned and with just three images she's put all the WTA fluffery to shame.

Let's start with the cover of the latest edition. It features one Serena Williams as many have never seen her before. We've seen her in full battle mode on the court but have we ever "seen" her when she's off court? When she's just being Serena? If you've seen the cover of this month's US Vogue you have.

Serena by Annie Leibovitz photo 49ac98eb-6d0a-494b-89f2-9ff876fb31c3_zpstb8xivoc.jpg
photo Vogue USA by Annie Leibovitz

All of the competitiveness, the ferocity, the intelligence and yes the woman, are visible here. No soft around the edges overly made up pretend mannequin here. Leibovitz presents us with a female athlete at the height of her power. For black women what is even more amazing is that there is no photoshopping, no skin lightening, no shading of her real nose, no heavily lined eyes. In fact because of the simplicity of the (very expensive) dress she's wearing nothing distracts you from those eyes. No ear rings, no jewelry. Just one Serena Williams in all her, dare I say it, glory.

Woz by Annie Leibovitz photo 320b0581-e558-4286-acc0-58fa329180a4_zpskbrztk40.jpg
Vogue USA by Annie Leibovitz

Then there is this startling, somewhat shocking picture of Caroline Wozniacki. We've never been allowed to see Caroline as an athlete. We've been sold a pretty blonde with an angelic face, nice body, and a pretty smile. Here she is presented as "athlete". I don't think the nick name she was given, Sunshine, would cross your mind after seeing this portrait. She is a fighter, a competitor, a woman proud of what she's made her body into. People say "Oh she's run a marathon" without understanding what it takes to run a full marathon. The woman in this photograph ran a marathon and finished it. Of that there is no doubt.

Annie Leibovitz photo serena-williams-april-2015-vogue annie leibovitz_zpsxobkrhjz.jpg
Vogue USA Annie Leibovitz

There isn't much to say about this picture. When I was growing up you always heard talk about that "woman in a red dress". Well here she is. No wonder other women envied her and men wanted her.

Yes strong is beautiful. It just took clear eyed vision to bring that point home.


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