WHAT’S NEXT, A PHD IN NUCLEAR PHYSICS?: Roger Federer has torched the record books. He plays the game with singular grace, has the looks of a metro stud, is the doting parent of twin girls and has a (give-back-to-kids) foundation. And, oh yeah, he speaks four languages fluently. But now he says he wants to learn a bit of Mandarin. The Swiss concedes, “It’s not an easy language.” Then he adds, “I like languages in general and I thought Mandarin might be fun.”
CONFESSION OF THE MONTH: Lindsay Davenport confided, “I finished 2004 and 2005 ranking No. 1 and I didn’t feel I was the best player.”
JUST WONDERING: How much better now is the increasingly calm and seemingly fulfilled Kim Clijsters than she was before she became a mom?…How soon will Caroline Wozniacki win a Slam and, unlike so many others, does the 20-year-old have the mental toughness to remain at the top?
KIM CLIJSTERS — ONE PISTOL PACKING MAMA: At first glance, there’s a basic sameness to them. Clijsters and Wozniacki are both soft spoken, clear-headed, highly athletic, Northern Euro blonde baseliners with fabulous backhands who both emerged from incredibly athletic families who excelled at soccer and were in the Olympics. But then again, while Wozniacki has won more tournaments (six) than any other player this year and is ranked No. 1, she just turned 20 and her young still Slamless career clearly is still taking shape. In contrast, Clijsters (27) is a mature, more-relaxed-and-poised-than-ever player who is seemingly at the peak of her career. In Doha for the first time to play the season-ending WTA Championships, the Belgian, who was traveling without her family, survived a frightening car crash en route to the stadium and prevailed in matches against Elena Dementieva, Francesca Schiavone and Vera Zvonareva. Then, in the final, she used her superior aggression, penetrating forehand, savvy court-sense and been-there-done-that experience to turn around Wozniacki’s second-set comeback to post a 6-3, 5-7,6-3 win and claim the third WTA Championships title of her career. Only the second player in a decade to win both the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships in the same season, Clijsters, who banked $3.7 million in prize money for her two wins, appears poised to have a strong ’11, unless she decides to stay home and be a full-time mom who drives daughter Jada to preschool and playdates. BTW: Clijsters said she’ll play for just two more years.
IMG BETTING: Ted Forstmann, the head of marketing giant IMG, revealed that in ’07, after speaking to Federer, he bet $40,000 on his Swiss client to win the French Open over Rafa Nadal, also an IMG client. The Spaniard won. Reports of the wager emerged after James Agate — Forstmann’s former tennis and golfing companion and business associate — brought a suit against the IMG leader that claimed that Agate placed millions of dollars of offshore bets for Forstmann, who, according to Forbes.com, has a net worth of $900 million and is the 384th wealthiest American. IMG officials, Forstmann and others dismissed Agate, who owns a problematic L.A. printing company, as a “whack job,” a stalker, shakedown artist and “scumbag lowlife” who owes over $1 million to the IRS. Agate filed a similar suit against Forstmann in ’08 that was dismissed. Agate then apologized for attacking Forstmann’s character. No one has accused Federer — long a beacon of sportsmanship and ethical behavior — of wrongdoing. On the surface, it appears that prior to a big match, Federer spoke to his friend and the man who heads the group that represents him. Forstmann told The Daily Beast, “I might have called Roger before the match in 2007, but Roger is a buddy of mine and all I would be doing is wishing him luck. How is that insider information?” Forstmann, who has a friendship with Nelson Mandela, has a long history of charity work from Bosnia to the cancer-relief project of former tennis player Andrea Jaeger and the very private Huggy Bear tennis gathering in Southampton N.Y., which raises significant sums and, according to SI.com, entails private, six-figure betting. Forstmann conceded he has a habit of sports gambling. He reportedly has wagered on March Madness, as well as on his client and friend, golfer Vijay Singh, to win the Masters. Singh did not prevail. Forstmann told The Daily Beast, “Can you imagine that, I bet a few bucks on sports?” IMG, which has significant dealings in entertainment and in many sports, is often seen as the most important force in tennis. The group represents A-list players (Federer, Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova), owns academies (Bolletieri) and tournaments, sells TV rights, is a part owner of The Tennis Channel and works with Wimbledon and the USTA.
IS FEDERER PLAYING IN THE WEAKEST ERA?: When IT asked Mats Wilander if Federer was the best player of all time, the former No. 1 said, “Roger is the best, on paper, of all time, but you have to say that the era when he played was the worst of all time. That’s why he was winning so much. Suddenly, Nadal and these guys came up and they’re better than him. But his era had the worst Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 we’ve had – the Nalbandians, Roddicks, Hewitts. That’s one of the reasons why Roger dominated so much. He’s not worse (now). He’s still fighting hard and he’s not winning. That’s the only way I see it. How can you be that dominant in this day and age? It’s impossible. But that doesn’t matter. It’s all statistics. So Roger is the greatest.” As for Nadal, Wilander said, “If he physically stays healthy, he has a real good chance of breaking the [all-time Slam] record. Staying healthy is part of greatness. You have to say that Roger is the greatest because he’s been healthy. He’s gone through bad draws, tough matches. He’s had good luck, he’s had no health issues. That’s why you have to say he’s the greatest.” When asked if Nadal will retain his focus and inner fire, Wilander replied, “I think he can. But then again, there are a lot of us who had the focus that Nadal has who couldn’t last mentally. Bjorn Borg, for example, or me. Nadal is more like Jimmy Connors, who lasted forever. Nobody was stopping him.
NOT SO GREAT DANES: You gotta love Denmark and its benign culture. On occasion, Danes do make noise on the international scene in soccer, the Olympics or chess. But Wozniacki has to be the first Danish No. 1 in any major sport. The last great Danish tennis player was Kenneth Carlsen, whose best ATP ranking was No. 41.
GO FIGURE: Serena Williams has played just six tournaments this year. Still, many still consider her the best player in the world. BTW: What would happen if tennis had a ranking system, like college football, that was based both on computers and humans…If Serbia beats France in December, it will be their first ever Davis Cup title…Andy Murray strained a tendon in his hand while playing a Playstation video game…Jon Wertheim referred to the notion of having a boom mic near the players box (in order to monitor coaches like Toni Nadal, who push the limits of on court coaching) — as “rig-a-toni.”
WITHER RUSSIAN DOMINANCE?: In ’06, five of the eight players in the year-end WTA Championships were Russians. Now there is just one active Russian in the top 14 — Vera Zvonereva.
LITTLE MISS AVIS: After finishing second at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Zvonareva finished the year at a career-best No. 2.
KOURNIKOVA COMES ‘OVA’: Moscow-born Anna Kournikova, who’s lived in Florida since she was 10, has become a U.S. citizen.
MUSINGS ON MARRIAGE: Bob Bryan’s announcement that he’s engaged, and Maria Sharapova’s revelation that she will wed Laker guard Sasha Vujacic brought to mind many a commentary about the subject:
• When, during an on-court interview, red-headed Courier asked Sharapova what kind of a guy she wanted to marry, Maria said “anyone but a redhead.”
• Kournikova said, “Weddings and marriage …[are] not something very important to me. I believe in people being together and just having fun.”
• As for the impact of marriage on on-court performance, Todd Martin claimed, “It is absolutely inane, insane and asinine to think that somebody could be adversely affected by a decision to make themselves more complete.”
• Reflecting on Aranxta Sanchez Vicario’s brief marriage, Pam Shriver quipped, “Some of her rallies lasted longer than her marriage.”
• At the U.S. Open, a reporter asked Robin Soderling, “I know you’re recently married. Can you talk about how that has helped you?” Soderling, responded, “I’m not married.”
• Five thousand people attended Sania Mirza’s recent wedding, which stretched over six days.
PAYBACK: Tennis after the U.S. Open has an after-the-fact, lame-duck sensibility. It’s a time for wannabes to notch some big wins and for players to score payback wins. Nikolay Davydenko won the ATP Championships last year. Sam Stosur beat Francesca Schiavone to avenge her painful loss in the French final. Federer beat Djokovic to get even for the Serb’s win at the U.S. Open, Murray beat Federer as payback for his loss in the Aussie final, and Wozniacki thumped Zvonereva to reverse her defeat in New York.
WIDESPREAD CHEATING?: Petr Korda and the Argentines (Chela, Coria, Canas, Puerta and Hood) aside, tennis, with its IOC-endorsed testing standards, has generally been considered among the cleanest of pro sports. Elite players regularly speak of random, spur-of-the-moment in-home invasions, where, all but unannounced, they must produce a urine sample at a moment’s notice, and how they must report there whereabouts at all times. Despite all that, Christophe Rochus claims that widespread doping exists on the tours. The Belgian told La Derniere Heure, “There’s a lot of cheating. Simply, people don’t like to talk about it. I simply would like to stop the pretending. This hypocrisy is exasperating.” While Rochus has been tested up to 15 times a year for the past 10 years under the anti-doping program, he asserted that players are skirting the system.
CONTROVERSY MAGNET: No one in tennis these days stirs controversy like Lleyton Hewitt. Max Bania was unsparing, claiming the Aussie was “like a fat kid at a buffet bar…[He] just can’t resist the temptation to smear egg all over his face at any opportunity.” After all, as an emerging teen, Lleyton so peeved his hometown Adelaide crowd that they all turned on him. In France, he called a ref a spastic. He said women didn’t have the fitness to go five sets, was fined at Wimbledon, got into serial squabbles with Aussie Open and Davis Cup officials, became entwined in a messy legal battle with the ATP after he refused to do an interview, battled with former agents Octagon, etc. When he celebrated his opponents errors one time too many in Argentina, Guillermo Coria said, “You really feel like killing him. I would rather not win a single tournament in my life than be like him.” His latest controversy was charging fans $2 apiece for access to a website to find out the name of his third child. The newborn child, Ava Sydney, has a beautiful name. But what a way to enter the world.
KIMIKO’S ‘DATE’ WITH DESTINY: Kimiko Date Krumm almost became the oldest player to win a WTA title. But the 40-year-old lost in the Tokyo final to Tamarine Tanaugaran. Still she said, “I would consider this a miracle.” In related news, former No. 1 Tomas Muster returned to the ATP for the first time in 11 years. But the 43-year-old lost in the first round in Vienna.
A MASTER OF DIVERSION: Few in sports are more adept at diverting pressure than Nadal. When the low-key Spaniard was recently asked about the possibility of his winning a calendar-year Grand Slam, he said, “For me, that is impossible. I will try to keep playing well, but the Grand Slam is not the case. That’s, for sure, impossible, I think.”
WHAT A YEAR FOR K.C. TENNIS: This year, the Kansas City Explorers won their first World TeamTennis title in the 18 years of their existence. Kansas City teen Jack Scott won the U.S. Open junior title, and “K.C.” (that would be Kim Clijsters) won both the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships.
YESTERDAY’S BAD BOY, TODAY’S SAGE: Onetime badboy Jeff Tarango is joining the USTA Board of Directors. Chicagoan Jon Vegosen will replace outgoing USTA President Lucy Garvin. BTW: Are board members Katrina Adams and Dale Caldwell (both of the New York area) on the fasttrack to become the first-ever African-American presidents of the USTA?
FEAR THE BEARD: The slogan for the San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson brings to mind the question of who was the best tennis player to regularly play with a beard. Answer: Borg. (Most distinctive beard? Torben Urlich.
STEFFI’S PRICEY KISS: Agassi’s annual charity gala raised $8.5 million. Auction items included a kiss from Steffi ($25,000) and swimming lessons from Michael Phelps ($60,000).
MOST POIGNANT MOMENT: Dementieva’s retirement ceremony in Doha brought tears to many of the WTA players who gathered on-court to say goodbye, after 13-years, to the popular Russian.
MOVING FORWARD FROM DISASTER: Chilean Fernando Gonzalez earlier this year raised $125,000 for earthquake victims. Then, when Chile suffered a mine collapse that trapped 33, Gonzalez followed developments closely. He noted, “I know people who’ve worked in mines in the past…With all the bad that’s come to Chile, the good we can take is that the country is sticking closer together than ever and is ready to move forward.” Led by Jim Courier, the U.S. will go to Chile for a Davis Cup match in February.
“The past couple of days in practice I’ve been moving like an elephant.” — Andy Roddick after retiring in Shanghai
“In tennis, it’s nearly impossible to burp without everyone in the game hearing it. The sport is a happy, incestuous family. Everything is way too interconnected.” —Greg Couch
“People from the [Indian] subcontinent just can’t be built up like Americans and Europeans.” — Pakistani Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi
“The line between an expression of vulnerability and a devouring stare of slightly sour competitiveness can be fuzzy.” — Michael Kimmelman on Justine Henin
“It’s so emotional. It’s so hard to say goodbye.” — The retiring Elena Dementieva