Monday, April 11, 2016

Theater of the absurd: Gail Falkenberg, John McEnroe, and finding the fun in tennis

The tennis Twitterverse was a-tweet today with the highly unusual story of Gail Falkenberg, the 69-year-old woman who faced Taylor Townsend in the 2nd round of qualifying at the $25K ITF tournament in Pelham, Alabama. The fact that she was even out there competing was remarkable enough, but that it was a second round match -- that she had already won a match! -- made her story that much more compelling.

The Wall Street Journal's Tom Perrotta had a wonderful article that gave background and context to the remarkable scenes on Court 8 of the Pelham Racquet Club today. To no one's surprise, Falkenberg lost 6-0 6-0, but simply by playing she became something of a folk hero. (A lesser blogger would have called her a "falk hero." Be glad I am not a lesser blogger.)

Falkenberg's amazing adventure got me thinking back to Friday, and another example of an older tennis player who commands attention by his mere presence.

John McEnroe was the undisputed star of the PowerShares qqq Challenge, the first tournament of the 2016 PowerShares Series of "senior tennis" events, which took place in Chicago at the UIC Pavilion -- the site of his last ATP tournament title (and, amazingly, the same site at which a planned but aborted Donald Trump rally led to mayhem last month, but I don't want to go there in this post). From what I could tell, the crowd mostly consisted of weekend hackers, definitely fans of some version of the pro sport; while plenty of kids were there, the audience generally skewed a bit older me, the most vocal of whom were men who I'd wager grew up absolutely idolizing "Johnny Mac."

McEnroe knows his role on the senior circuit: give it his all, yes, but also  ham it up ... play to the crowd ... provide them their money's worth. He didn't need to utter his trademark phrase (I won't repeat it for you, although at least one person in the crowd did; it starts with "You" and ends with "serious" -- a word that most definitely did not describe the mood of the fans), or even get too mad at calls (a casualty of unlimited Hawkeye challenges). But even so, he made the event his own, on two occasions successfully challenging his own serve that his opponents, Mardy Fish and James Blake, failed to call out. He also took time to shake Mayor Rahm Emanuel's hand, and was increasingly dramatic with every out call he made.

(Who knows how much stock to put in the match results. Mardy Fish, who eight months ago gave up just four games to current Top 25 player Viktor Troicki, somehow couldn't win the set against a guy 23 years his senior. His backhand -- one of the most effortless strokes of any player who's come up in the past couple of decades -- was iffy and found the bottom of the net on a crucial point late in the contest? Okay, sure. Why not.)

Mark Knowles interviews John McEnroe
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise Blog
Blake ended up winning the whole thing, showing off some sweet groundies in his first match against Andre Agassi, a player who, while very successful and very popular and very charismatic, doesn't in 2016 quite grab the public's imagination as completely as McEnroe. Perhaps once Agassi graduated from the "rebel"/"Image is Everything" world, he no longer had a shtick that the general public -- and thus marketers -- could hold on to. Whereas McEnroe always has had a shtick. And boy has it worked for him.

Now it's age itself, more than surliness, that is the central element of McEnroe's shtick. He hobbled around the court seemingly more exaggeratedly than even his 57 years warrant. He complained pointedly in his interview after his first one-set match that he was already "running on fumes" prior to the final. But still he was out there, competing like mad, inspiring even the most jaded of us to believe that diminished skills in some areas don't mean you have to hang up your Nikes completely.

Which brings me back to Gail Falkenberg.

Falkenberg is a full 12 years older than McEnroe. She had already reached the "tennis retirement age" of 30 when McEnroe was exploding onto the scene as tennis' 18-year-old enfant terrible in 1977. She was never a highly ranked pro and she's not playing a senior circuit for money or attention. She's just plugging along, enjoying her time on the courts, playing this peculiar game. (Both she and McEnroe employ plenty of underspin on their shots, a tactic that nearly all of us who play will recognize as something of an equalizer that prevents younger players from overpowering older players.)

Falkenberg's own explosion into the public's imagination over the past 24 hours provided plenty of opportunity for snark (Tweeter's highest art form), for condescension over the state of women's tennis or her opponent's career struggles, for empty platitudes about age and dreams and not having limits and never giving up and yadda yadda yadda.

But mostly, it provided a welcome dose of absurdity to tennis.

We live in an absurd world. A world in which spectacle gets more eyeballs substance every time, in which it pays to be preposterous (see: West, Kanye), in which Donald Trump is the leading Republican candidate for president (oh look, I did go there). So ... absurdity can be bad. But it can also be good! I mean, absurdist humor has given us gems like 30 Rock and Steven Wright. Either way, to be absurd is to be fascinating -- and both Falkenberg's doomed match against Townsend and McEnroe's on-court antics (and still-remarkable shotmaking) fit that bill.

It's easy for tennis folk to get weighed down by the seriousness of it all. We root like hell for our favorites and are despondent when they lose. We fervently, and rightly, dissect the broader social issues involved with the sport. We see gambling and doping and other threats to professional tennis as threats to our ideals, to the very essence of right and wrong. It can all get a little heavy.

How nice is it then, whether in person on a snowy night in Chicago or virtually on a sunny afternoon in Alabama, to be able to share in the joy that is supposed to be at the heart of the sport, to remind each other not to take tennis -- or ourselves -- too seriously? To revel in the ridiculous, to applaud audacity, to marvel at the miraculous? To find the fun in the absurdity of it all.

Because let's face it: nothing in the world is more absurd than watching other people hit a ball over a net.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Team USA Olympics doubles race

Now that we're about 3/4 of the way through the Race to Rio, I thought I'd try to tackle the chances for various Americans to make the team via doubles. Wish me luck here, because it's complicated.

The USA Olympic Tennis Team will be made up of anywhere between 8 and 12 players. Four men and four women will play singles. Each country can also have up to two men's and two women's doubles teams, along with up to two mixed doubles teams. The doubles teams could include some of the singles players and/or other players. The mixed doubles players can only be drawn from players already on the team in singles or doubles.

The ITF formula for the 32-draw men's and women's doubles tournaments is on page 4 of this memo. Up to 10 teams will get automatic entry based on the Top 10 ATP and WTA doubles players as of the rankings cut-off date of June 6. Those players can pair with *any* countrymate in the rankings.

Beyond that, "A further 14 teams will gain Direct Acceptance based on their combined world rankings (using the players’ singles or doubles rankings, whichever is better)." And then they'll go with teams made of players already in the singles draws.

So where does this leave Team USA? Things are a bit unclear.

I've compiled the Top 30 ATP and WTA players as of the April 4 rankings, along with the points they have to defend through the French Open. ATP doubles rankings use best 17 results, while WTA uses only the best 11 results for doubles. My numbers are approximate, because there are vagaries concerning mandatory tournaments -- I tried to incorporate them but can't guarantee I did so perfectly. Please let me know if you see any errors!

Men's Doubles

The Bryan Brothers are defending Olympic gold medalists and were the #1 players for almost the entire time between then and the end of last year. However, with a rough start to 2016 they've dropped to #7 and #8, and are outside the Top 10 in the Race to Rio. However, even if they fall to, say, #20 & #21, as far as I can tell, there aren't 14 teams that can be made up of two players from the same country with combined rankings better than 41. So if I'm not mistaken, they're safe ... unless someone like Rajeev Ram or Eric Butorac makes a huge jump past them. But with Ram 1200 points behind, that's a very tall order.

The question then becomes, which 2 out of the 4 singles players will make up the second US men's doubles team? Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey have the best results lately as a team, but the best combined ranking would likely go to Jack Sock and John Isner (who are 0-2 as a team). I'm not certain what the criteria the captain will use. (Also it should be noted that the singles players are still undetermined -- Kudla, Fritz, Ram and Young are all fewer than 400 points behind Querrey for a spot.)

Women's Doubles

One would think the Williams Sisters will be one of the teams. They are the two-time defending gold medal winning team, after all. But if by chance they don't feel up to it, it's pretty certain Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys would be up for giving it a shot.

The other team will likely feature Bethanie Mattek-Sands. BMS started the month with only 2235 points, which would have put her around #25 in the Race to Rio. But titles in Indian Wells and Miami meant that she vaulted up to #6 in the Race, nearly 1000 points ahead of 11th-place Carla Suarez Navarro. Things are looking good for her to get automatic entry.

Being in the Top 10 would allow BMS to have any other American as a partner, as long as the coach consents to it. One would think she'd go with CoCo Vandeweghe, given their success in Indian Wells, their great chemistry, and Vandeweghe's Olympic heritage. But there's also a small chance CoCo could make the team on her own merit: she's only 500 spots behind Elena Vesnina for the 10th spot in the race. Abigail Spears and Raquel Atawo are also only 500 points behind -- something to keep an eye on.

Mixed Doubles

I honestly have no idea how this will play out. On the one hand, you have to think the Bryans would want these spots, like in 2012 (Mike won the bronze with Lisa Raymond). Mike would do well to pair with Bethanie Mattek-Sands -- after all, they won the 2015 French Open together. Then again, Mattek-Sands and Querrey teamed up at the 2015 US Open last year and made the final. Then again again, Mattek-Sands and Bob Bryan just played the 2016 Australian Open, reaching the quarters. Then again again again, Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock might be the best chance at a gold medal, especially if Sock doesn't play men's doubles.

And don't forget CoCo, who in only her second-ever Mixed Doubles event reached the Australian Open final ... teaming with Horia Tecau to take out BMS/Bob Bryan in the quarters! Keys is also a tempting pick, given her fun personality and deadly weapons.

And as hard as it is to imagine the Williams Sisters wanting to play, who knows? It's quite likely their last Olympics, after all. Maybe one of them could complete the gold medal set! And if not, who will pick the non-BMS mixed team, and how? Will Bob Bryan even want to play both events, given that he hasn't made a final in the discipline since 2010? And again, if Sock manages to vault past the brothers and into the Top 10 of the rankings, he'd have first dibs to play.

The team captains will have some tough choices ahead, that's for certain.

What mixed doubles teams would you most like to see at the Olympics? Vote for 2 in the poll below!

What 2 pairs are your Olympic Dream Teams?

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Schneids of March

"Who says March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb? That's a lot of bull. All it's done this March is rain. I'm sick of it." - Then Again, Maybe I Won't, Judy Blume

March 2016 was ... not a great month for American tennis. In fact, it stunk. It was a real poo-burger. A depressing amalgam of increasingly gut-wrenching losses in winnable matches for some of our best players.

It was a month that tried fans' patience.

March started out okay, truth be told. In Monterrey, qualifier Nicole Gibbs reached her first WTA quarterfinal (thanks in part to a retirement win over countrywoman Christina McHale) and that weekend John Isner and the Bryan Brothers powered the USA Davis Cup to a first-round win against host Australia. Super!

Then the tours moved to the USA. Home turf. A chance for Team America to shine at two of the biggest tournaments on the tennis calendar. And we did ... not so well.

American women went 16-16 in the Indian Wells main draw and 14-14 in Miami. That's 30 match wins, down from 36 in 2015. American men, meanwhile, went 10-16 in the desert and 7-14 on the beach -- 17 match wins compared to 21 last year.

The word "schneid" is short for "Schneider," a term that I just learned is used in gin, referring to losing all the hands. By no means did American pros lose all their matches in March -- hell, 47 match wins beats the 34 they got just 3 years ago at the same events -- but at times it felt like we were definitely on that darn schneid.

For the women, most disturbing was the number of upsets suffered by top women:

  •  Serena losing to Azarenka in Indian Wells and to Kuznetsova in Miami. 
  • Venus losing to Nara in Indian Wells and to Vesnina in Miami.  
  • Sloane losing to Bouchard in Indian Wells and to Watson in Miami. 
  • And while Madison Keys (who lost to Gibbs in Indian Wells) got a nice win in Miami against Roberta Vinci, she then really kind of flopped against Kerber. (Keys also began and ended a coaching relationship with Mats Wilander during March.)

This isn't from 2016 but is exactly how I felt most of March.
On the men's side, few of the losses were upsets. Outside of Sam Querrey giving up against Adrian Mannarino in Miami, there's no match you can look at and say a clear American favorite lost to a non-American underdog. Hard court losses to Berdych, Nishikori, Djokovic and Raonic are nothing to be too upset about. And while Isner's loss to Smyczek in a third set tiebreaker was remarkable, and likely led to his parting ways with his coach Justin Gimelstob, it had the flip effect of being a great win for Smee! But given that it was our courts, having only 1 man reach the 4th round at either event is dispiriting.

And for those who pay attention to such things, there were some disappointing performances in the Challengers and ITFs, with only a couple of bright spots: Michael Mmoh and Peter Kobelt each grabbed Futures titles, a couple of guys made Challenger semifinals, and Madison Brengle made a top-seeded run to win the Osprey $50K, a tournament that finished in April.

The one saving grace was that wonderful world of doubles. The best performance by far was from Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who became just the third player in history, after Natasha Zverev and Martina Hingis, to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back with different partners. One of those partners was CoCo Vandeweghe, who moved into the Top 20 this week. Vania King also had a great run, teaming with Alla Kudryavtseva to upset world #1s Hingis/Mirza in California and reach the quarters in both tournaments. And Maria Sanchez teamed with Petra Martic to reach her second career WTA final, in Monterrey.

On the men's side, Jack Sock got to the Indian Wells doubles final with Vasek Pospisil, and Rajeev Ram did the same in Miami with Raven Klaasen. (Both teams lost to Mahut/Herbert.) So that was nice.

Now comes April, and the notoriously difficult clay. Great. Already this past weekend, 6 of the 7 American women playing Charleston qualifying lost to Europeans in third sets, while the seventh, Samantha Crawford, had to withdraw with a broken hand. Ugh. Today, Christina McHale had a rough loss to Dominguez Lino to start the Charleston main draw, as did Irina Falconi (to 2009 champion Lisicki) and Shelby Rogers (to Laura Arruabarrena).

Further west, all four American men in the final round of Houston qualies lost, including Jared Donaldson in a third-set tiebreaker. Tough to get more depressing than that.

It's important to take the big picture with such stretches. American tennis is manifestly better than it was even two years ago. USA is still overall the best tennis nation. Wins will come - there's enough talent and I'm pretty sure the hunger is there. As I was finishing this article, Denis Kudla notched a rare third-set tiebreaker win for USA (and, you know, for himself) in the first round of Houston. That sets up a match against Isner and guarantees an American quarterfinalist.

A light shines.

Still ... the number of times I've thrown my phone in frustration with a final score over the past several weeks has been startlingly high. That's the problem when you dare invest anything emotionally in things that are completely outside your control. And I know this! I can't really be mad at the players -- their job is to play tennis, not make me feel better about my life choices. While a repeat of last year's three-finalist week between Charleston and Houston would be nice, I will cope even if the week turns out to be a disaster for America on both sites. I'm a survivor.

Maybe it's time for me to get a new hobby, something less intense, guaranteed to make me smile at the end. I heard there's an election this year....