Monday, February 16, 2009

FROM MY SEAT: Starry Nights at The Racquet Club?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 16, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Buy low, sell high. It's the first, and maybe most important, rule of finance. And it would seem the new owners of The Racquet Club of Memphis -- and with it this week's twin events, the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships and the Cellular South Cup -- took the rule to heart. As ambitious as the new ownership -- California-based Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment and their local partners, Golden Set Holdings (led by ad execs Doug Carpenter and Brian Sullivan) -- may be, they clearly have taken on a once-proud event clinging to the fringe of interest beyond the loyal members of The Racquet Club and the local tennis community. In the same venue that has seen no fewer than nine men ranked year-end number-one in the world raise a championship trophy, this week's RMKC will boast only two players in the world's top 10: Andy Roddick (#6) and Juan Martin del Potro (#7).

The decline in Q rating for the Memphis tournament - first played in 1977, when Bjorn Borg was crowned champion -- is hardly for a lack of effort, particularly on the part of the club's previous owner, Mac Winker. The tournament has raised millions of dollars for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and included St. Jude in its title for 12 years (1993-2004). Just this year, the event gained status as one of ten "500-level" tournaments. (Top-ranked players are required to play in roughly half the 500-level events on the calendar.) Even better, presumably, in the eyes of the best players in the world, prize money in Memphis has increased more than 50 percent this year, to $1.1 million.

So where are the big boys? The greatest player of this generation, Switzerland's Roger Federer, has yet to make his Memphis debut. The same goes for Spain's Rafael Nadal, the current top-ranked player in the world. Perhaps their glaring absence over the years has more to do with geography than the declining status of our local tournament. (Crossing the Atlantic for Memphis in February has been a tough pitch for travel agents since before Federer and Nadal were born.) As the upper tier of the world's tennis rankings grows more and more international (Serbia's Novak Djokovic, England's Andy Murray, and Russia's Nikolay Davydenko round out the top five), the more challenging it becomes for the RMKC leadership to put the very best under the reflective light of The Racquet Club's center court.

Which brings us back to this year's event, where the tournament's marketing campaign was centered around Pete Sampras, the winner of more Grand Slam events (14) than any player in history . . . and a player retired from the ATP Tour for over six years now. When an exhibition match becomes the centerpiece for a week of tennis, reflection is in order. (It should be noted Sampras' exhibition match with Lleyton Hewitt will raise money for St. Jude. The tournament's heart is in the right place.)

It's not quite a rule of finance, though maybe it should be: sex sells. And no sport, over the generations, has been sexier at its heights than tennis. Whether it's Jimmy Connors grabbing his crotch between Wimbledon titles or Andre Agassi managing to make fans swoon first with locks below his shoulder blades then completely bald, the sport has demanded personality from its champions in ways that golf and motor sports, for instance, do not. (Three-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson sells hammers and nails for Lowe's, but you won't see him hosting Saturday Night Live anytime soon.) The sexy rule has been especially prevalent on the women's side. For evidence, just pick up a copy of this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. You'll see three WTA pros (no Grand Slam title among them), each wearing much less than a tennis skirt. Even a first-round exit by Russian beauty Maria Sharapova -- on the sidelines these days with an injury -- would do more for the Cellular South Cup than favorites Caroline Wozniacki or Victoria Azarenka could with a title run. Alas, there will be nary a top-10 women's player at The Racquet Club this week.

Tennis remains a gorgeous sport, sexy or otherwise. And the RMKC is merely symptomatic in a nationwide malaise when it comes to the game at its highest level. When last month's Australian Open announced its seeds, there were exactly three American men among the 32 highest-ranked players. Over the last 33 Grand Slam events, American men have won but four (and only one of those by a currently active player, Roddick). Perhaps American tennis needs its own Tiger Woods. Black or white, a transcendent star who will make the golf and NASCAR sets turn their attention back to tennis, even in mid-February.

Here's hoping he comes along in time to save the Memphis tournament.

Monday, February 9, 2009

FROM MY SEAT: The 2009 Memphis Tigers Thrive on Toughness

Posted By on Mon, Feb 9, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Things got a little testy between the Memphis Tigers and UAB Blazers on January 17th at FedExForum. Words and gestures (if not punches) were exchanged, and a total of four technical fouls were called before halftime. Shortly after the Tigers' 81-68 victory, Memphis coach John Calipari reflected on the extracurricular tension, and provided his own definition of toughness. "Instead of a chest bump," suggested the coach, "instead of talking, how about diving on the floor for a loose ball? How about stepping in and taking a charge? Be tough. Go in traffic, and bring down a rebound. You don't have to talk and bump. We have guys that, if a fight broke out, they would have run for doors."

Another measure of toughness, Calipari would certainly agree, is entering a hostile building to face a Top 20 team on national television . . . and not blinking. Saturday night, two time zones away, the 14th-ranked Tigers manhandled the 18th-ranked Bulldogs of Gonzaga, 68-50, in a game that was actually not as close as the final score. (Gonzaga's two best players -- Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin -- were firmly on the bench when their team made a 13-0 run in the second half.)

Playing with a bench thinned by the dismissal of Matt Simpkins, the Tigers relied on offense from Tyreke Evans (a game-high 22 points) and defense from Antonio Anderson (who held Bouldin to six points) to extend the U of M's winning streak to 14 games and end Gonzaga's at nine. When Robert Dozier drew an offensive foul shortly after making two free throws to give the Tigers a 35-20 lead late in the first half, you could all but hear a shout from the visitors bench in Spokane Arena: "THAT is tough!"

The 2008-09 Tigers are not going to escape the shadow of their predecessors. The memories of last season's 38-win ride to within seconds of a national championship run too deeply in a region devoted to a basketball team that spoils its legion of fans with seemingly annual 10-game winning streaks (some 20) and deep runs into the NCAA tournament. But this year's Tigers have set the table to, at the least, continue the memory-making well into March. And it has a lot to do with the team's toughness.

ESPN Gameday doesn't steer its cameras away from the ACC or Big East to your average barn for Saturday night basketball. Spokane Arena was packed for the interregional showdown between teams outside the "BCS" family of media favorites. (Why are the initials for college football's Bowl Championship Series used in describing the relative strength of conferences during basketball season?) But for a Tiger team with the likes of Anderson and Robert Dozier -- seniors who have played in no fewer than 14 NCAA tournament games -- an arena's atmosphere doesn't so much shape the way a game is played. It's merely extra color. That's toughness.

The Tigers (20-3) are now in a position where if they win the games they should -- and they'll be favored in all eight of their remaining regular-season games --they should enter the NCAA tournament with a seed no lower than three. Wednesday night at FedExForum they'll face perhaps their toughest test, when Tulsa comes to town. A buzzer-beating length-of-the-court drive and layup by Anderson saved Memphis from losing to the Golden Hurricane on January 13th in Tulsa. In the rematch, the Tigers will aim to extend their current 50-game winning streak in Conference USA play.

For the first time in its long history, the Tiger program has reeled off nine consecutive 20-win seasons. And a fourth straight 30-win campaign remains within reach. But there won't be many 18-point margins between now and the Final Four in early April. An injury (or foul trouble) that puts Evans on the bench emasculates this team's offense. A thin bench will rely on a pair of rookies -- Roburt Sallie and, once he returns from knee surgery, Wesley Witherspoon -- if it's to make a difference in the home stretch. The most consistent quality Calipari's ninth Memphis squad brings to the floor is the same quality that gives it a chance for another scintillating postseason run. It's toughness.

Monday, February 2, 2009

FROM MY SEAT: February -- the Month That Sports Forgot

Posted By on Mon, Feb 2, 2009 at 4:00 AM

It's a good thing February is the shortest month of the year, for it is certainly the coldest, most barren page on the sports calendar. The month that gave us both Washington and Lincoln is one of only two without any professional football or baseball (regular season or playoffs). Wait, you say, one of the best Super Bowls ever played was on the first of this frigid month. And that came merely hours after Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer played another epic tennis match for the Australian Open title. Both teasers, I say, that make the next four weeks even chillier for a sports fan.

Two of the biggest events of the month happen to be exhibition games. And there is nothing more over-inflated and less competitive -- less sporting, you might say - than the NFL Pro Bowl or the NBA All-Star Game. The last time there was a big hit in football's year-end luau, it was between agents elbowing one another for elevator space, that winter's top free agent merely a signature away. And as for defense in the NBA's midseason showcase, you may as well look for angel wings on Rod Blagojevich.

The NBA's regular season, of course, is in full flight this month, All-Star Weekend merely serving as an interruption to the 82-game trek for playoff position. Snowbirds will negotiate their cable dial for National Hockey League action, wondering if the Atlanta Thrashers will ever have the kind of cross-continent rivalry with the Calgary Flames (a franchise born in Atlanta more than 30 years ago) that might stir interest among sports fans south of the Mason Dixon. (Damn right that's a stretch, folks. Just like the viability of a 30-team NHL.)

The Daytona 500 is February's star child, and for millions of race fans, Super Bowl XLIII will merely be this month's second-most significant event. But I've always found NASCAR's signature day hopelessly misplaced, the equivalent of playing a Super Bowl on Labor Day weekend, then determining a "champion" by playing four months of football to all but erase the memory of the big opener. There was a time when NASCAR needed the kind of season-opening splash the Daytona 500 provided, to fund the rest of the overlooked race season. No more. Despite what it would do to frigid February, the Daytona 500 needs to be a fall event, NASCAR's climactic Chase for the Cup ending on the track where the sport's legends are made.

Now, here in Memphis, we have the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships and the Cellular South Cup, an all too rare week -- outside tennis' four Grand Slam events -- when men and women gather and play before the same fans, on the same courts. When Borg, McEnroe, Connors, and Agassi were winning championships, The Racquet Club of Memphis even drew some national attention during a month when it's hard for the entire nation to pay attention to anything beyond Groundhog Day. As splendidly as they'll play, the men at this year's Memphis event will be competing to merely be in the conversation about successors to the game's twin titans, Federer and Nadal.

The sports deck is simply stacked against the second month of the year. You won't see any NFL football or major-league baseball in March either, but the third month has an event so grand that it has actually adopted the month's name in its three-week mad dash to crown an NCAA basketball champion. Where's the February madness, people?

So cheer a little louder for the Tigers and Grizzlies this month. Among home games, I'd highlight the Tigers' tilt with longtime rival Southern Miss. Our NBA outfit actually plays an opponent it should beat: the Oklahoma City Thunder. Alas, February still can't win: these games are played on the same date, the last day of the month.

Perhaps the lesson for us all comes on February 14th, when we're reminded of what and who is really important, where our hearts need to be when they're not pounding through our chests with the game on the line. A box of chocolate and a rose can go a long way, even in the shortest of months.

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