The Regions Morgan Keegan Championships and the Memphis International Women's Tournament come to a close this weekend. Once again, there are several no-names in the finals and several big names who got several thousands of dollars in appearance money were beaten and are long gone, including men's 2nd seed Andy Roddick and women's top seed Nadia Petrova. Both lost in straight sets in the first round.
Take the money and run.
They ought to call it disappearance money.
Here are the names and faces that appeared in the ads and billboards promoting the tournament: Roddick, Petrova, Cilic, Blake, Raonic, Hewitt, Querrey, Isner, Monfils, McEnroe.
John McEnroe played an exhibition doubles match Monday night that filled the stadium court to what looked like about three-quarters capacity. At $40 a ticket, that's over $100,000. He also did media interviews before and after the match. He played hard and well, and kept his temper in check.
Milos Raonic is in Sunday's finals. No problem there. The winner gets $277,915. And Isner and Querrey each won a round or two in singles and in doubles. Cilic, Hewitt, and Monfils withdrew a few days before the tournament due to injuries. James Blake got wiped out in the first round. Roddick lost to Xavier Malisse, but it was close and Roddick had been off the court for several weeks due to injuries. He's a gamer, and offered no excuses. But, sorry, he didn't earn his fee.
Petrova lost to a qualifier. Good grief. The sponsorless women's tournament is lucky to be here, with prize money of $220,000 in singles and $220,000 in doubles. The only woman who was a proven draw in Memphis was Venus Williams. Otherwise, the women's final in recent years has barely filled half the house. Last night was no exception. The doubles, by the way, was won by the drop-dead gorgeous Andrea Hlavackova and her partner Lucie Hradecka, aka the Scrabble board sisters. The photo with this post suggests the WTA and local promoters should perhaps try a different tack.
I love tennis, love the tournament, and wish it the best. But the players need to act for the good of the game and recognize the limited appeal that tennis has in Memphis, and the responsibility that comes with appearance money. On Sunday, the skies are blue in Memphis and the temperature is pushing 60. It's a great day for tennis. I think I'll go outside and hit some.
The man known to the current generation of tennis pros as a television commentator showed he can still play doubles with the best as he and 19-year-old partner Jack Sock beat Sam Querrey and James Blake 7-6, 6-4 in an exhibition match. He was especially sharp in rapid-fire volleying exchanges at the net.
"I play hard," he said. "This hit-and-giggle stuff is boring. I have more fun going 100 percent."
Call it hit-and-grin, as Blake and Querrey were obviously holding back. But McEnroe aced Blake several times and served out the match at love, just missing an ace on match point and registering 120 once on the radar gun.
"I think that was the (radar) gun on steroids," he said doubtfully, claiming his hardest serve ever was 125, and that was decades ago.
What mattered, of course, was that McEnroe filled the stadium on a Monday night when there were no big names playing in the main draw of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championship or the women's tournament. They came to see a guy who used to make regular appearances on the cover of Sports Illustrated for both his play and his antics. He threw his racquet a couple of times for laughs, threw his shirts into the crowd, and threw compliments to Sock, one of latest crop of young Americans trying to restore the sizzle and glory of tennis in the USA. And a couple of times he urged the crowd, which seemed star struck at first, to make some noise.
McEnroe said he has no interest in reviving his career as a doubles specialist in ATP tournaments after winning so many Grand Slams including the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He is at an age when he can make more money and have more fun playing singles and doubles exhibitions before crowds that have aged along with him.
In sports as in publishing, nobody promises you a long life. You adapt, play smart, and get some breaks or you die. The Regions Morgan Keegan Championships — there’s two companies that won’t have such a presence in Memphis a year from now — will soon be 40 years old. Elvis was still alive when this tournament got started. Without Cellular South, the women's tournament is already title sponsorless.
Why watch, and what to watch if you do? A few suggestions.
The seats: The worst seat in the 4600-seat Stadium Court where the finals are played is comparable to the best seats at a football or basketball game. And in the early rounds three courts are in use. On a weekday before 5 p.m., you can easily get a seat in the front row at one of them.
The women: This is one of the few tournaments other than the four Grand Slams with both men’s and women’s draws. Watch Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a free spirit, creative dresser, and hell of a player who might be the best athlete in the women’s field. And, if this picture is any indication, she might have an interesting wardrobe malfunction or get jumped by a ball boy.
John McEnroe: I have mixed feelings about this one. He will play in a doubles exhibition Monday evening against Sam Querrey and James Blake. Exhibitions can be tedious, but McEnroe takes everything seriously, maybe too seriously. He made an ass of himself a few years ago in an exhibition here. But at 53 he is still competitive. When McEnroe was in his prime, doubles specialist Tim Gullikson once said the best doubles team in the world was “McEnroe and anyone else.”
Names don’t matter. Sure it would be nice to have Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and French phantom Gael Monfils, but the men coming to Memphis are just a few shots a set from being in the Top Ten. Andy Roddick would probably have won four or five Grand Slams by now if he were not in such tough company.
Roddick’s Dive: The guy didn’t have to dive on match point in last year’s final. He was up a game and an ad. If he misses the shot it’s deuce. If he loses the next two points he goes into a tiebreaker. If he loses the match he goes home with a nice paycheck and a standing ovation. But he took a dive and made an incredible shot, and that says something about his heart as well as his skills.
Women’s doubles: They usually play one up at the net and one slugging crosscourts from the baseline. The only matches that bear any semblance whatsoever to the game played by club players.
The big serve is overrated. Hitting a 125-mile-an-hour serve is like dunking a basketball. Any pro can do it. Watch and see who hits a first serve on the line when the set score is 6-5 and it’s game point. That separates the winners from the losers.
The service return is underrated. Especially in doubles. The server is probably a giant. Or else the net man is probably a giant who moves like a cat and is waiting to jump on the return. They each know where the ball is going. The returner doesn’t, and has to pick a spot and hit it with velocity. Pretty tough.
The qualifying rounds: Best sports bargain in Memphis. Pros playing for their professional lives to get into the main draw.
Hawk Eye: The line cameras have been installed on the Stadium Court for all matches for the first time so players can challenge calls and spectators can see where the ball landed.
It's February. March Madness is a month away. The NBA Playoffs are two months away. And that big Memphis-UT-Martin football game that has everyone talking is six months away. This is better.
For the second year in a row Monfils, the flamboyant French tennis star with dreadlocks and sleeveless shirts, has dropped out due to an injury. What a headache it must be for tournament director Peter Lebedevs, with the qualifying rounds starting tomorrow and Monfils scheduled to play next Tuesday.
The good news is that American hottie Ryan Harrison now gets a pass into the main draw. Harrison won a Davis Cup match against Switzerland last week and is a rising star who grew up in Louisiana.
The reason given for Monfils' withdrawal was an injury to his right knee. His feature match on Tuesday, February 21 at 7 p.m. will now be replaced by American John Isner's first-round match.
Additionally, Croatian Marin Cilic has been forced to withdraw with a "knee injury." He's a highly ranked player but not as well known as Monfils and not part of the pre-tournament publicity. Also withdrawing is Australian Lleyton Hewitt, winner of the U.S. Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002.
Andy Roddick, who is recovering from a hamstring injury, is still coming as of today. If you're a tennis fan, cross your fingers. Roddick is playing in a tournament in San Jose this week and won his match yesterday in three sets to reach the quarterfinals despite rolling a heavily taped ankle. He had not played since quitting his second-round match at last month's Australian Open.
John Isner beat Roger Federer in a Davis Cup match last week but he won't be top seed in the Regions Morgan Keegan Championship at the Racquet Club February 17-26th.
Isner beat Federer 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 on an indoor clay court in Switzerland, Federer's home. If anything the Racquet Club courts are more of an advantage for the 6'-9" Isner, who was runner-up in the tournament in 2010. Tournament director Peter Lebedevs said Isner will be seeded second or third based on his ranking this week. According to The New York Times, Isner is seen as a possible world top-ranked player in the near future.
Another rising American star, Isner's Davis Cup teammate Ryan Harrison, is also coming to Memphis, but the 19-year-old from Shreveport will have to fight his way through the qualifying tournament to earn one of four spots in the main draw. Harrison won his match 7-6, 7-6, helping the Americans to a 5-0 sweep.
Does this matter as far as putting fans in the seats? Maybe not, even though the worst seat at The Racquet Club is as close to the court as a $100 seat for a basketball game at FedEx Forum. The fact is there's SportsCenter material and there's everything else. Without Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic — or Venus or Serena Williams on the women's side — Memphis has a hard time expanding the tennis appeal.
Racquet Notes: Good story on Kane Waselenchuk in the Times this week. Waselenchuk is the top-ranked pro racquetball player, and played several times in Memphis. He had a streak of 137 wins broken due to an injury recently. Previously, the longest streak was 54 matches.
Big East Conference Commissioner John Marinatto told reporters in a teleconference Wednesday that Memphis is "very well positioned for success" in football, which is the driving force in television contracts. Marinatto secretly visited the campus and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium last week to eyeball them before sealing the deal. Memphis Athletic Director R. C. Johnson said the visit was code named "Elvis."
Marinatto touted the strong record of the Memphis men's basketball team as an important factor in the invitation to join what he called the best men's and women's basketball conference in the country. Other factors he listed were location, facilities, location, personnel, and location. The conference wanted a school in the Central Time Zone to complement its East Coast and West Coast members.
He said lobbying on behalf of Memphis by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino "wasn't the driving force." Just to make sure, he said it again a few minutes later.
Marinatto did not say whether the pending departure of Memphis Athletic Director R. C. Johnson was a factor one way or the other, leaving fans a juicy topic for ongoing discussion.
Johnson and University of Memphis President Shirley Raines held a press conference at noon Wednesday. Johnson, much criticized for everything from his hair to the Derrick Rose sanctions to the failure to get into a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conference before this, stole the show with humor and emotion. His last day is June 29th.
"What criticism? Me?" he said in response to a question.
"By golly we did it," he said, pounding the podium in joy to a standing ovation. He gave special thanks to FedEx CEO Fred Smith, booster Mike Rose, and FedEx CFO Alan Graf who were in on the secret talks for their help.
Johnson said Big East all-sports schools got $8.6 million apiece in shared revenue compared to $2 million apiece for Conference USA schools. Memphis must pay an exit fee of $500,000 and $2.5 million to join the Big East, which Johnson said will come out of television revenue.
Johnson got another big round of applause when he said the new football coaching staff will get a recruiting boost. "They (rival coaches) can no longer say you're not in a BCS conference."
Within three years the Big East plans to have 12 football schools and 17 basketball schools, with a league championship game in each sport. Marinatto said "it is just a question of execution."
And one more thing. Arkansas State, minus head coach Hugh Freeze, is back on the Tigers 2012 schedule.
"As a surgeon, I saw Justin five times, and finally took his kneecap out. He probably had diabetes too. Whit I only saw a couple of times. He got his knee wiped out playing for the Detroit Lions. He was never the same either. Those guys loved to play sports even after pro football. When they couldn't play they started putting on weight. I have thought over the years about football players like that. If they don't keep working out and keep lifting they just turn to fat. We see that over and over. When their career is over they don't have much.
"What are you gonna do in life when you get through? Nobody needs a pass blocker at 40. The worst injury is early neck arthritis. Studies show almost every lineman has significant traumatic arthritis of the neck vertebra at an early age. (UM trainer) Eddie Cantler and I looked up the injury rate among football players and got it published. Nobody wanted to talk about it much The probability of major injury was 111 percent if you played four years of college football."
He remembers a Memphis lineman named Tory Epps who went on to play pro ball.
"We were playing down at Mississippi State and he said,'doc, my hand is numb.' At the end of the game he said his hand was paralyzed. I started feeling for a pulse and could not feel it in the hand. I told the coach I had to get this guy to Memphis, I think it's an emergency. I took him in my own car. About 20 miles out I told the ICU to get everything set. Epps flipped a clot down into his arm and was getting ready to lose his hand. It resolved and turned out OK, but the hematologist told him his football career was over. Epps said 'if I don't play pro football I'm gonna be pumping gas or something."
Epps played middle guard in the NFL. He died at the age of 38 from a blood clot.
"The hot stuff now is concussions, like they're talking about. No pro or college athlete wants you to know they have been injured. And their agent will tell them, 'hey, cool it. If you get traded to another team tell them you are fine or else your stock goes down.' It's like buying a horse with a bad leg. It trickles down to college. The only difference in the pros is the agent. If the agent is worth a nickel, he will shovel you to (surgeon) Jimmy Andrews in Birmingham or the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles.
"Andrews and I are on the same orthopedic foundation. He saw Drew Brees. He asked Brees if he would back the foundation with endorsements and interviews. Brees said, 'yeah I was playing for New Orleans and my career was over. Andrews operated on me. I got well, led the Saints to the Super Bowl, and turned the city around after Katrina. So we owe it all to Dr. Andrews.'
"In my day as a player it wasn’t that big a deal. We just knew some guys were not gonna play. They were not interviewed by newspapers or anything like that. I wouldn’t say we hid injuries but we did our best to get them out on the field with cortisone or long-lasting analgesic so they could play the game without pain. That doesn't happen now. Agents won't let you touch 'em. That is their meal ticket."
You don't. Andy Roddick still says his layout last February was the best shot he has ever hit under the circumstances. Roddick, who is rehabilitating a hamstring injury but is scheduled to play in the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis later this month, talked with Memphis reporters by conference call Thursday.
"Listen, there's probably about 10% skill and 90% luck on that one," he said. "I used all 90% of that luck. But it was a shot I certainly couldn't believe at the time."
It was voted the second best tennis shot of 2011, behind a Novak Djokovic forehand on match point against Roger Federer in the U.S. Open.
"If that's not the number one shot for the year, I'll never get it," Roddick said.
He has played Memphis 12 years in a row, but this year is a little dicey.
"I haven't hit a ball since Australia. We've just been working on different types of treatments trying to get it right. The MRI came back probably not as good as we were hoping. But I'm hoping to be hitting balls for the first time next Monday."
Roddick said he didn't watch all of the nearly six-hour Australian Open final last week but was as amazed as any fan by the quality of the tennis between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
"It almost looked like kind of the tennis you see when you play XBOX, where the guys really don't get tired and they just hit whatever shot they want."
In a separate call, John McEnroe talked about his upcoming exhibition doubles match in Memphis on February 20th. He's over 50 but said that's not that much older than the 30-somethings who dominate the men's doubles tour.
McEnroe plays for keeps, as anyone who saw his angry outbursts during an exhibition at the Racquet Club a few years ago knows.
"People love tennis in Memphis. There is something about it that's nice when you're real close to people where you literally can everything, I mean, as long as they're not hurling insults at you like I would get — not, of course, from the people of Memphis. Of course not. But they can really hear what I'm saying or what players are saying, and it's sort of nice to have that sometimes, you know, for some of the players when they're playing with some of these huge courts. I think Roddick's only tournament win was there last year. I bet you some of it had to do with the rush from having the crowd close and them appreciating that he's playing there."
Playing, yes. Cursing and cutting up, no. Big difference.
Romney's big win over Gingrich has been covered enough. But there can never be enough coverage of Burmese pythons and anacondas moving north, especially when they are accompanied by really cool pictures like the one in this story in The Washington Post.
The chilling news: what doesn't kill the snakes makes them stronger, just like Newt Gingrich.
Pythons are being captured in the Glades and relocated, but where?
Tennessee winters are probably too cold, but what of the future Bass Pro Pyramid, with its indoor climate-controlled swamp? Imagine a python wrapped around a gator under the boardwalk, or snagging in mid-air a flying Asian carp, another proliferating import. The Post ran an A.P. picture of a 20-footer. That's a tourist attraction waiting to happen.