Sunday, September 1, 2013

Faux Faulkner, Horrible Hemingway Win Sports Writing Contest

Posted By on Sun, Sep 1, 2013 at 10:58 AM

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If I ruled the world there would be a squash court in every community center, squash would be in the Olympics, Rami Ashour would be Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, James Willstrop’s triple fake to win a point — one crummy point! — against Ashour would be shown every time some tennis announcer says “that's a squash shot” at the U.S. Open next week, and squash would have its rightful place in literature and journalism.

Ian McEwan wrote about it — well — in his novel “Saturday.” Woody Allen played it — badly — in his movie “Manhattan.” For the most part, however, squash — in contrast to baseball, boxing, and hunting and fishing — has been ignored by men and women of arts and letters. My winning entry of horrible Hemingway and worse Faulkner in The Black Knight Squash Short Story Contest offers a glimpse of the possibilities.

What if famous writers had made squash the focus of their passion, rage, and creative efforts? Might we have seen such works as these?

To read the unpublished squash chronicles of Hemingway, Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, Elmore Leonard, Lee Child and more
click here.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jimmy Connors Was a Memphis Favorite

Posted By on Wed, May 15, 2013 at 2:55 PM

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Jimmy Connors was grit and grind before grit and grind was cool in Memphis.

"For me there is only one way to play tennis," Connors says in his new memoir "The Outsider." "You put yourself on the line and fight to win, always. No questions asked. No compromise."

No one who saw Connors play at the Racquet Club in the 1980s would disagree. He was the biggest draw the tournament has ever had, and nobody got the crowd into the match more than Connors with his fist pumps, arguments with linesmen and umpires, and memorable leap of the net to assist fallen opponent Henri LeConte in one final.

"The fans made every broken bone, every knee operation, every wrist operation, every torn muscle, every aching back and all three hip operations worth it," he writes. "The fans won me more matches than I won myself. I fed off their energy and I never for a moment took them for granted."

He won the tournament in Memphis in 1979, 1983, and 1984. He retired due to an injury in the finals in 1987, but nobody's perfect.

Certainly not Connors, as he admits, and admits again ad nauseum even as he defends himself in this memoir. Not as a player, not as a husband, not as Chris Evert's boyfriend, and not as a public figure.

The first time I saw Connors play was in the national under-16s at Kalamazoo. He was from near East St. Louis, the wrong side of the river if not the tracks. No collared white shirt for him, like the country club kids he thrashed. He wore a plain old t-shirt.

My view of Jimmy Connors is influenced by an old friend, the late Memphis tennis pro Derrick Barton, who played at Wimbledon in the 1940s. Derrick was an old-school British gentleman and said simply that Connors and Ilie Nastase nearly ruined the sport with their antics. Other friends were linesmen for Connors matches at The Racquet Club. "Do you know what 'you suck' means?" he hissed to a woman linesman by way of disagreement with her call. Takes a hell of a man to insult a woman who can't talk back.

But we watched him, talked about him, wrote about him because he was Jimmy Connors. And if the alternative was Stefan Edberg or Pete Sampras or Kevin Curren, it was an easy call. Connors understood that sports fans not only don't care about personal foibles, they like a villain more than a Boy Scout. Readers of this book probably feel the same way, me included.

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Monday, April 1, 2013

Get College Basketball Out of Football Stadiums

Posted By on Mon, Apr 1, 2013 at 10:02 AM

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Talk about taking the crowd out of the game.

Did you see the empty seats at those NCAA Regional games over the weekend? What genius at the NCAA decided it would be a good idea to play basketball games in indoor football stadiums? The Michigan-Florida game looked like a preseason exhibition game, with entire sections of lower-deck seats nearly empty. That's what you get for playing in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. After fans of the losing teams go home, the winners can't muster nearly enough locals and out-of-town fans who can afford the tickets and travel costs to make a respectable crowd.

It was a similar story in Indianapolis, where Louisville played Duke at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL Colts.

Only the East and West regionals were played in basketball stadiums. The Final Four will be played this weekend at The Georgia Dome in Atlanta, home of the Falcons.

At one time, the move to football stadiums was a novelty that attracted upwards of 40,000 fans who could at least say "I was there" even if they couldn't see much. No more. By the time the regular season, conference tournaments, and early rounds of the NCAA Tournament are over, most fans have had enough. The noise and excitement of a packed 15,000-seat stadium or even a 8,000-seat stadium beats a spotty, apathetic crowd at a cavernous football stadium every time.

This is March Madness of another kind. A maize-out in Ann Arbor or a crowd of Cameron Crazies in Durham or a sea of Tiger blue in FedExForum looks better on television. The atmosphere is electric. The pressure is intense. The background for the players is different. There is plenty of speculation that elevated courts can cause hideous injuries, like Kevin Ware's. (Here's another piece that quotes Dr. Frederick Azar, head of the Campbell Clinic in Memphis.) Time to call a time-out for a video review of tournament sites and change the call.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

New Entry on The Sports "Amazing Meter"

Posted By on Mon, Mar 4, 2013 at 8:20 AM

James Willstrop
  • James Willstrop
If you have ever played or watched racquet sports, this clip is worth 30 seconds of your time, even if it comes from the obscure sport of squash which, unlike wildly popular rhythmic gymnastics, is not in the Olympics. I include it on this blog only because I saw it with my own eyes from about ten feet away.

The sports "Amazing Meter" is constantly being adjusted of course. We have seen so many between-the-legs shots, one-handed catches in the end zone, flip-over-the-tackler runs, and 360-degree-spin dunks that all the superlatives have become cliches. This one probably didn't even make ESPN's Plays of the Day.

For context, the shooter, James Willstrop, is the number-four player in the world and the guy who gets faked out, Rami Ashour, is the number-one player in the world. This is the semifinals of the Davenport North American Open last weekend in Richmond, Virginia, not an exhibition. I was sitting in the front row with three friends from Rhodes College, and none of us could quite believe it. And Willstrop lost the match 3-1. Amazing.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Tennis Pros Shortchanged Memphis Fans

Posted By on Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 11:02 AM

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There is no denying it. Memphis tennis fans were shortchanged last week by the ATP pros who bailed out with questionable injuries, and the tournament at the Racquet Club is in trouble due to high costs and fading interest.

John Isner lost his first match in straight sets and scratched from the doubles, pleading an injury. But he's in the draw today for the start of another ATP tournament in Delray Beach, Florida. In fact, he is top seed, and was interviewed yesterday by the local newspaper.

Tommy Haas forfeited his singles match, pleading injury. Haas is also in the draw in Delray Beach, where he is second seed.

Xavier Malisse and Marinko Matosevic retired (the formal tennis word for "quit") in the middle of their Memphis matches, but they are also still in the draw at Delray Beach. Nothing like a little Florida sunshine.

Mardy Fish and Fernando Verdasco were billed as main attractions in Memphis but never played a match. At least they have the decency to not be playing somewhere else this week. Verdasco was listed last week as playing in Acapulco this week but is not in the draw this morning.

Isner's not playing in doubles was a minor sin. He and his partner were replaced in the draw. So from a fan's perspective, no harm no foul. The damage is to his credibility, especially in light of his quick exit in singles. Haas, a three-time former Memphis champion, deserved better than the 11 p.m. starting time he faced before pulling out. That was an unfortunate result of earlier matches on the stadium court running long and starting late. But the show must go on, even if it had been midnight. That's the definition of professional. Malisse and Matosevic didn't sell any tickets on their name recognition, but the fans who bought tickets for those sessions did not get their money's worth. Of the two injuries, Matosevic's was the more convincing because it came after the first set of his semifinal match and he stood to earn $291,800 if he had won the tournament (which, by the way, was won by Kei Nishikori, who beat Feliciano Lopez in the finals).

Attendance was down this year. Blaming the weather, as some reporters did, is ridiculous. It rained a couple of nights last week, but this is an indoor event. The weather was perfect Saturday and Sunday.

The ATP's attempt to market this tournament as a "500 level" event rather than "250 level" event is not worth the trouble of explaining what that means. A tournament a week earlier in San Jose (which is apparently moving to Memphis next year) is a 250 event, as is Delray Beach. The fields are essentially the same at all three tournaments.

What makes Memphis stand out is the prize money — $1,212,750 versus $455,775 in Delray Beach, where first prize is $75,000. What in the world is Memphis paying so much for? If the tournament comes back, it won't offer that kind of money. And, apparently, that won't make much difference. The Big Four — Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray — aren't coming. And the pros behind them seem to be motivated by appearance money, convenience, scheduling, television exposure, and their own willingness to play through minor "injuries" as they are by prize money and rankings.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

No-Shows and Early Exits Plague U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championships

Posted By on Fri, Feb 22, 2013 at 4:07 PM

Marin Cilic
  • Marin Cilic
It's gotten predictable year after year: The players will hit harder, the serves will be faster, and several big names in the program either won't show up or will make an early exit, pleading injury.

John Isner, Tommy Haas, Mardy Fish, and Fernando Verdasco are among the missing this weekend. Fish pulled out before the tournament started, Verdasco came to Memphis long enough to pose for a few pre-tournament pictures, Isner bailed out of the doubles after losing in straight sets in singles in the first round, and Haas, a former champion, pulled out Thursday night before his second-round singles match, which would not have started until nearly 11 p.m. The field was touted as "the very best in history." On paper, maybe it was. Having "11 of the top 30 men in the world" doesn't mean much if half of them don't play or lose in the early rounds.

Also gone are former runner-up Milos Raonic and 2010 champion Sam Querrey, high seeds who lost on the court. Raonic looked unbeatable at times against young Jack Sock, serving four aces or near aces in one game, before hitting a double fault and three easy forehands into the net in his next service game and eventually losing in three sets. Sock, sliding along the baseline like Novak Djokovic and tearing the soles of his shoes apart in the process, came back Thursday night to beat his doubles partner James Blake, who looked at times like the Great American Tennis Hope he was ten years ago. Also living up to their billing were brothers Mike and Bob Bryan, who crushed Haas and his partner 6-1, 6-1 in the opening round and played music in the Racquet Club Pub the next night.

But a doubles team, even one as consistently good as the Bryans, can't carry an ATP tennis tournament in Memphis in February in a stadium with 4,000 seats and two side courts. Neither can the women's tournament, which is sponsorless this year and features semifinal match-ups that leave even hard-core fans scratching their heads even as they marvel at the caliber of play. Recognizable names are what sells, and, unfortunately, this tournament has been jinxed much too often. First prize for the men is $291,800, and for the women $40,000. If top-seed Marin Cilic is upset, as he nearly was this week when he faced several match points, the finals could be a "who's that?" event.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

U.S. Indoor Championships, Bryan Brothers, and Other Doubles Specialists

Posted By on Tue, Feb 12, 2013 at 8:39 PM

Bryan brothers
  • Bryan brothers
The U.S. National Indoor Championships starts next week at the Racquet Club of Memphis with four events — men, women, and doubles. Each event features a different style and skill set. How different? Consider this bit of tennis trivia.

I was watching the University of Memphis men's team practice this week at The Racquet Club with Coach Paul Goebel. I told him his players looked about as good as the pros did 25 years ago, and he agreed. The big servers hit 130 miles an hour, and some of them hit their ground strokes just as hard. I asked if he had any doubles specialists, and he said, no, not yet, but he's looking for one. And he mentioned the name Stephen Huss, who I had never heard of. But Huss's record is nothing short of amazing.

An Aussie, he went to Auburn before turning pro. In 2005, he and his partner Wesley Moodie won the Gentlemen's Doubles at Wimbledon, beating Bob and Mike Bryan in the finals. Huss had to play his way into the main doubles draw and was the first qualifier ever to win the championship. He and Moodie were not one-match wonders; they beat five seeded teams. What's just as surprising is that he also played the qualifying tournament in singles at Tunica National, a Challenger-level event in Mississippi for players trying to break into the ATP Tour. And he did not even make the main draw.

That's how different doubles and singles are in this era.

The Bryans, who have won 13 Grand Slam doubles championships, will be playing in Memphis next week. Huss, who has won one Slam, is coaching tennis at Virginia Tech. What a story he has to tell, and what an inspiration he is to doubles specialists everywhere.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Why I'm Glad I'm Not a Sportswriter

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2013 at 10:50 AM

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We don't call journalism the first rough draft of history for nothing.

The Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o and Chip Kelly stories are being analyzed by some brilliant columnists. See Rick Reilly on his 14-years covering Armstrong, Gail Collins on Armstrong, Rob Moseley on Kelly leaving Oregon for Philadelphia, and Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman on Te'o and the online girlfriend hoax. All I can say is, wow. And whew.

One of the toughest assignments in journalism is covering someone you know is not being completely truthful, while they fire back at you with angry denials, accusations, and hired lawyers and flacks. But their biggest weapon is silence. Sports columnists and reporters depend on regular access. I feel for the reporters with daily deadlines who get cut off by athletes and coaches for trying to do their job honestly. They can be placed at a competitive disadvantage when the stars favor other reporters who are more compliant. It's all about the "gets" — the exclusive interview, the one-on-one, the personal details in a profile. I think of former Memphis Tigers basketball coach John Calipari and the Derrick Rose college admissions test story or former Tiger basketball coach Dana Kirk, who went from toast of the town to convicted felon in the space of three years. Professional careers of journalists as well as basketball players were made and broken by both coaches.

I started this blog a year ago to write primarily about racquet sports and other minor sports from a fan's perspective. Among other things, I thought it would be a relief from the saturation coverage of football and basketball. I tried to develop a regular panel of insiders and former pros. But when I broached the subject of appearance fees or use of performance-enhancing drugs, my sources mostly took a pass. Not, I believe, because they had anything personally to hide but because those subjects are fraught with so much uncertainty, misinformation, wink-and-nod, and potential reprisals. No sport is pure. Better to not go there. Just focus on the events and scores.

But money, cheating, and melodrama keep shouldering their way into the sports report, and last week's Armstrong-Te'o-Kelly trifecta was a perfect example. I am fascinated by it as a fan and a reporter and columnist. It must be hard enough to cover grumpy Memphis Grizzlies when they're on a losing streak. But covering cover-ups, when you know they're staring you in the face, is harder. I'm glad I don't have to do it. For my money, Rick Reilly is still the greatest. My hat is off to Deadspin, too, but the job of the beat reporter is a lot different from that of the analyst.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympian Lessons: Tanking and Paying to Appeal

Posted By on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 at 11:49 AM

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Every Olympics produces a few oddities and this year there are two contenders for "Best of Show": the badminton players thrown out for throwing their matches and the Japanese gymnastics appeal complete with a handful of cash.

Badminton is a racquet sport so it's marginally within the boundaries of this blog. I only wish the offending teams had been playing in something closer to prime time. If anyone has video, I would love to see a link. Apparently the South Koreans, Chinese, and Indonesian doubles teams were so blatantly trying to lose that officials had no choice but to intervene.

In other words, they were not so much punished for not trying, which is impossible to prove, but for being incompetent at not trying, which raises the bar on underperformance, so to speak. The longest rally in one game lasted four shots. I once saw Andre Agassi lose to Luke Jensen in a pro tennis match, and while Agassi was widely thought to have tanked, you certainly could not prove it, and Jensen, one of my favorite players, rightly claimed a career win.

The badminton bunglers were losing to win later on against a weaker opponent. This was a result of the wimpy round-robin format instead of a straight loser-goes-home, winner-moves-on tournament. In other words, the Olympics has descended to the level of club tournaments and kiddie sports where participation for one and all is the guiding rule.

Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, the South Korean badminton team. One way to raise your profile.

The second special moment, this one captured on television in prime time for all to see, was the Japanese gymnastics coach handing over a wad of bills with his appeal to the governing body of the sport. A bribe? No, more like a performance bond. The appeal was successful.

Is there a lesson for other sports? I think so. Next time a pro football coach throws that appeal hankie, make it come with some cash, and give the opposing coach the right to match or up the offer — within a designated time limit, of course. The Houston Texans meet Texas Hold'Em. And when a team exhausts its appeals, let it buy an additional one for, say, $100,000, to be paid in cash on the spot. The drama would replace what is now just dead air every time we hear the dreaded "the previous play is under review."

The same rules could apply in tennis. Call it the "Hawk Eye" Pay Per View rule. And in baseball, where the angry manager kicking dust on the umpire has become a cliche. Big-time sports is flush with cash. Put it in play. User fees have become an accepted part of every facet of our lives. It could be one of the lasting lessons of London.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Sports Burnout: Why and When and How to Prevent It

Posted By on Fri, Jul 20, 2012 at 11:18 AM

Peter Lebedevs
  • Peter Lebedevs
Some remarkable athletes are competing in Memphis this week in the USTA Girls 18 National Clay Court Championships at the Racquet Club. As much as I marvel at the talented teens, I wonder about the potential for burnout in this super stressful sport.

The competitors are all type-A personalities with parents and coaches driven to succeed. They've been hitting balls under supervision since they were eight years old or younger. They're aiming not just at this championship but also at a college scholarship (the club is crawling with coaches this week) or a shot at the pro tour. Many of the best players are 14-16-year-olds "playing up" in the 18s to get better competition. The odds are long that the winner will be an 18-year-old, better that the champ will be a 16-year-old if form holds.

I have known an occasional competitor over the years, and they have been remarkably poised and well-adjusted girls. But I also know the potential for burnout as a player, parent, and student of the game. The tournament is played in hellishly hot and humid conditions. I call it the Burnout Fest.

"Burnout is an overused word for when players start to plateau in their performance," said Peter Lebedevs, tournament director of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis and a former standout junior player in Australia. "I have seen many players claim “burnout” when they start having expectations on their performance and don’t match up with the results.

"The burnout does happen when tennis players are not having a schedule of tournaments and training that is balanced. If they never reset goals or look beyond the next week that’s when they get burnout. It happens at all levels, juniors to pros. In juniors it does happen also when the parents want it more than the kids and they live through their kids. The kids quit because they don’t like the game as much as the parents, they say “burnout” but it’s really they never truly loved the game or the competition.

"The WTA instituted a longer off season to combat this a few years ago and last year the ATP created a longer off season as well. The professional level is addressing it."

Catherine Harrison
  • Catherine Harrison
Catherine Harrison, 18, is from Germantown, a suburb of Memphis, and competing in the Girls 18 this week and headed for UCLA for college. She recently returned from playing in the Juniors at Wimbledon and has been playing out-of-town tournaments since she was 10 years old.

"Honestly, some days I go out there and don't really want to play," she said. "When I was training in Florida four or five hours a day plus an hour of fitness work, there were some days when it was so difficult to go out there.

"I have been fortunate. Some of my friends in the 12s and 14s just quit because they got sick of it or decided to just play high school tennis. The longest layoff I have taken was this year. I got injured at the Easter Bowl in April and took a month off. By the middle of the second week I was going nuts."

John White is a former world number-one squash player, current coach at Drexel University, and parent of young athletes. (And a Memphis visitor earlier this year.)

"Burnout happens at all ages. Junior players are pushed too hard by their parents to be the best or to get into a better college. I have witnessed this for the past six years where kids are taken to all the junior tournaments during the season and made to take lessons three or four times a week. They get into college and just do not want to compete anymore. And when they leave college they do not play the game at all!

"Pro players get burned out because of all the travel that goes with playing. I have seen three top players burn out from overtraining and not letting the body recover well enough. These players ended up with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and had to stop playing the tour. Their bodies burned out and broke down so much that they could not do exercise for more than 20 minutes a day.

"I myself took four months off the game during my career because I was tired of all the travel and I was getting fed up with the game! I got a job and did not play squash at all but did do a little fitness away from the court. I got the bug back after the break and have not stopped since."

Former racquetball pro Steve "Bo" Keeley, author of "Executive Hobo: Riding the American Dream," says he had three ways of coping with burnout.

"I would cross-train in handball, squash, tennis or paddleball. Or I would leave the primary sport, in this case racquetball, for six days of the week exercising off courts in bicycling, weights, running and returning one day weekly to the primary sport. The third method was to play opposite handed five out of seven days of the week, and regular handed on two days spaced through the week."

An ordinary player in racquetball, tennis, and squash, I never trained intensively and always switched to a seasonal sport such as basketball or baseball when I was young. But I got tennis burnout when I was in my late 40s. Until then, I had been improving as an adult player, but I hit the wall, lost my confidence, and with it my enjoyment of the game. The game was beating me. I discovered squash, achieved a higher level of mediocrity, and now switch back and forth between tennis and squash when I get frustrated at one or the other.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Golden Sets, and Racquet Sports Perfection

Posted By on Sun, Jul 1, 2012 at 10:00 PM

Sara Errani
  • Sara Errani
At Wimbledon this weekend there was a "golden set," an extreme rarity in which one player wins 24 straight points in a set and the other player wins none. It was all the more unusual because the loser of the set, Sara Errani, was runner-up in the French Open.

Yaroslava Shvedova, according to the WTA, is the first woman in the open era of tennis to record a golden set. As The New York Times and other news outlets reported, Shvedova won 23 points in a row in a match in Memphis in 2006 against Amy Frazier but double-faulted on the 24th point. Just as incredibly, Frazier went on to win the match 1-6, 6-0, 6-0. The Memphis tournament was played indoors, where bad bounces are less likely than they are on grass or clay.

According to records, there was a golden set in men's tennis in the 1980s by Bill Scanlon.

Most of us hackers have been blanked without winning a game many times because we wind up in a mismatch somewhere along the line, especially before the advent of so many age divisions and skill levels. But when the players are reasonably matched, much less professionals, a golden set is about as rare as a perfect game in baseball.

Here's what a sampling of tennis, squash, and racquetball players had to say about the golden set in their respective sports. For non-players, in racquetball, the server stays "side in" until he or she loses a point, so a long run and an occasional shutout is not all that rare because you can only score when serving. In squash, the old rule was side-in, side-out and the games were to nine points, so the loser of a 9-0 game could win several rallies but no points. Under the new scoring system called Point A Rally (PAR), the game is to 11, and the receiver can break a run by scoring immediately on the return of serve because the serve is typically not an offensive shot as it is in tennis and racquetball.

Randy Stafford, former racquetball pro: "I have never heard of donuts given at the highest level of racquetball to win the match. Several decades ago I lost the third game tiebreaker 21-0 to Charlie Brumfield at the Top 16 Invitationals. He never let up and was taunting me during the tiebreaker and yelled "God's will" at the end of the match. Three years ago at the nationals I gave a donut to this guy in the quarters of the 50's. He was and still is a good friend mine. At the high level of a sport if you can beat someone zip zip go for it and don't look back. I did not yell at him after my match but I felt very satisfied with my play. In the finals two days later Ruben Gonzalez clocked me. I felt very fortunate he did not give ME a donut. There is always a better six-gun out there so take no prisoners when you can."

Al Wise, Memphis tennis player: "A friend told me 30 years ago that a golden set on clay was the ultimate versus other tennis surfaces, because of the unlucky bad bounce/tape bounce that happens on clay. My response at the time was that the grass surface, because of the slickness and bad bounce funkiness, was the ultimate, but now the grass surface is not so slick. A tennis golden set in my opinion, compared to other sport's golden games, is very difficult in that each player has the opportunity to hit a FREE SHOT, the tennis serve."

Peter Lebedevs, former tennis teaching pro and current tournament director of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships ATP tournament and WTA International Championship in Memphis: "There has been one on the ATP by Bill Scanlon, I believe it was in a tournament in Dallas. At the professional level you cannot try junk to win the point because it wouldn’t work. In men’s tennis with the serve as big as it is, that is a very tough thing that a player of similar level could not win one of 12 points. Winning 24 points straight is very tough. A perfect game in baseball is probably easier because hitting itself is very difficult. A hitter with a .300 batting average is great yet he fails 70% of the time. Good tennis players do not fail 70% of the time on a any day."

Speaking for myself, I have been bageled and double-bageled (6-0, 6-0) in tennis more times than I can remember but always won a few points each set. Before I'd give up a golden set I'd try every trick shot, trick knee, and just plain trick in the arsenal, including feigning an injury. In racquetball, Bill Tanner and I once teamed up two-on-one against Andy Roberts, the future World No. 1 player. We won the first two points, then Andy got half-serious and beat us 21-2 and won 21 in a row. In squash, I've lost games 11-0 and then won the next game 11-1 or 11-2, and vice versa.

Oh, and the name of the company that is majority owner of the Memphis Racquet Club? Golden Set Holdings.

UPDATED: For the math minded, this from Memphis tennis player and super math teacher at Memphis University School Nancy Gates:

"Given any tennis match where the players are even with each having a 50% chance of winning each point, the probability that one of the two players wins a golden set is ½^23 = 1/8,388,608 = 000000119… (Note that it doesn’t matter who wins the first point, but the next 23 point must be won by the same player, thus ½^23.) I have no idea how many professional matches are played per year, but let’s say there are 10,000 matches (I think that’s high.), then the probability of a golden set in any given year with an even match up on each point is .00119 and it should be expected that there would be one golden set won in a period of 840 years – pretty rare.

"But it is more likely that the probability of winning on a serve is greater than the probability of winning on a return. Let’s say each player has a 70% chance of winning on his serve and a 30% chance of winning on a return. Then the probability of a golden set in any given match is (.3)^12*(.7)^12 + (.3)^12*(.7)^12 = 2*(.3)^12*(.7)^12 =.0000000147…, which makes a golden set even less likely.

"Let’s make another assumption. Let’s suppose that every pairing is lopsided with one player having a 70% chance of winning on each of his serves and a 60% chance of winning on each return. This time, I want the probability that the better player will win a golden set, so that person must win the first point and all the other 23 points, giving him a probability of (.7)^12)*(.6)^12 = .00003… of winning a golden set. The probability that the weaker player would win a golden set is .0000000000089…, which is negligible. Let’s say all 10,000 of the yearly pairings are of that nature (of course, that’s not true), then there should be a probability of .3… of a golden set occurring in a year and we should expect a golden set every 3 years or so. In all likely, there are probably no more than say 500 such pairings, giving us the expectation that a golden set with that type of pairing would occur every 60 years or so.

"This is interesting to try to analyze, but I guess the point is that “it ain’t easy.”

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Monday, June 11, 2012

It's All About the Ball

Posted By on Mon, Jun 11, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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Imagine pitcher Matt Cain being allowed to spit on the baseball or scuff it up with sandpaper before throwing it. Or Eli Manning forced to throw a frozen football on the tundra in Green Bay. Or LeBron James handed a slick ball with a thin coat of oil.

Seemingly small changes in the ball matter a lot in sports, and I think it had something to do with Rafael Nadal's relatively quick close-out of Novak Djokovic this morning, just as it did with Sunday's Djokovic comeback before the rain ended the proceedings. Every tennis player has hit with "muffins" in hot and humid conditions that make the felt stand up so you can pinch it between your fingers. And everyone knows about balls that become as hard and heavy as rocks on hard courts that haven't been cleaned lately or Rubico courts that have not been watered.

Nadal hits the hardest, fastest-spinning ball ever. The rain and humidity slowed it down Sunday and gave Djokovic fresh life. Conditions were more normal Monday, and a revived Nadal was putting too much juice on the ball for anyone to beat him and he claimed his seventh French Open. That's to take nothing away from his accomplishment. But on clay he is unbeatable, and on hard surfaces, where the ball acts differently, he is not.

Forty years ago in Memphis, there was an interesting experiment. A great handball player, Paul Haber, took on a great racquetball player, Bud Muehleisen, in a "hands versus racquet" match at the University of Memphis. They played with a handball, which was much smaller, harder and faster than the racquetballs of the day. Haber won the match because he was an animal and because he got to choose the ball. A squash player might have had a better chance because the balls are more similar (and the racquet longer).

Here is a video clip of that match.

In every sport I have played in my life, there were subtle differences in the ball — Penn, Wilson, Dunlop, Tretorn (remember them?), Voit, Spalding, on and on. Certainly equipment made a big difference too, especially in racquet sports after the composite over-sized racquets came in 30 years ago. But what didn't get so much attention was the ball. And in a toss-up match, if one player got to choose his or her favorite ball, chances are that that player had an edge. As Nadal did today.

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Federer's French Flop is Top Ten Material

Posted By on Fri, Jun 8, 2012 at 2:47 PM

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It was painful watching Roger Federer lose in straight sets to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open on Friday. He was so off his game that, for the first time ever, ordinary tennis hackers could honestly say "I've done that" when watching one of the all-time greats.

The moment came in the third set when Federer came to the net and Djokovic hit a high, weak shot to Federer's forehand and Federer . . . let it go. The ball was in by a couple of feet. Djokovic looked like he couldn't believe it.

Federer made three times as many unforced errors as Djokovic in the two-hour match, which was barely a third as long as Djokovic's classic earlier this year in the Australian Open. Federer double-faulted several times and sprayed forehands, backhands, and service returns all over the place. As always, he was stoic and sporting, but it had to kill him.

The French Open is notoriously unpredictable, but Federer looks like he may have won his last major tournament. It is now the Big Two of Djokovic and Rafael Nadal instead of the Big Four of those two plus Andy Murray and Federer.

Watching Federer play so far below his best game was like seeing:

The boy or girl you dated in high school at a reunion 30 years later.

Willie Mays playing for the Mets.

Archie Manning riding the bench for the Vikings.

Brett Favre in his last game.

Joe Paterno in the booth.

Pete Maravich on the Celtics bench.

Gilbert Arenas on the Grizzlies.

John Daly imploding and missing another cut.

Michael Jordan playing minor-league baseball against the Memphis Chicks.

Painful. Wish I hadn't seen it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is Memphis a Fitness Friendly City?

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2012 at 2:20 PM

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Surveys of America's fittest and fattest and park-friendly cities are a dime a dozen, and I see about one a week. Here's one that came in today from the Trust for Public Land. I don't read most of them any more. But public sports facilities — that means anyplace you can use for free or by paying a fee — have played a big part in my life and they are part of our lifestyle and our personal and municipal budgets.

Most surveys lie. Fat cities are not fat due to a lack of public facilities. The problem is diet, personal motivation, and access. Ours is a disposable city, and the facilities and the people are not always in the same place. Here's my Memphis survey. It is personal, subjective, anecdotal, and uninformed in some categories, less so in others. But in most cases I have seen 'em and and used 'em, which is more than most of the surveys can claim.

Public parks: Oversupplied. Shelby Farms is four times bigger than Central Park. Overton Park is getting better year after year. There are riverfront parks from Mud Island to Tom Lee Park to Crump Park near the Ornamental Metals Museum, some of them rarely visited. Mud Island River Park is closed half the year. Greenbelt Park on Mud Island is the best of the lot. Tiger Lane at the Fairgrounds is for the football crowd. Kennedy, Willow Road, Bellevue, and Leftwich/Audubon serve multiple needs. There are probably too many parks for a disposable city to maintain adequately.

Walking trails and running: Adequate. Put your shoes on and take off. True story: a former colleague was so obsessed with training for a marathon that he ran hundreds of laps around his living room when it rained. There are oval tracks at the fairgrounds and many high schools. There is an organized race of some kind nearly every weekend.

Fitness machines and structured programs: Unbalanced. Suburbs oversupplied with clubs and community facilities, inner city Memphis is undersupplied. Kroc Center, Streets Ministries, Memphis Athletic Ministries, and Church Health Center are helping a lot.

Tennis: Oversupplied in both indoor and outdoor courts. High schools and colleges that emphasize tennis build to tournament capacity, which leaves a lot of courts unused at other times. The University of Memphis has moved its tennis operations to the Racquet Club, leaving several perfectly good courts on campus for everyday players. Memphis has more public indoor tennis centers than Chicago. There are unused and deteriorating but still playable courts at Frayser Tennis Center. There is no single public center to compare with the biggest public centers in Little Rock, Mobile, Murfreesboro, and Nashville but overall Memphis is still oversupplied.

Racquetball. Oversupplied. A dying sport that thrived in Memphis 30 years ago, but plenty of courts remain at University of Memphis, Racquet Club, downtown YMCA, and some of the fitness clubs and community centers.

Outdoor basketball: Adequate. The cheapest sport around, requiring only nets, backboards, level rims, and a ball.

Indoor basketball: Adequate. Schools, churches, and community centers meet the need.

Bicycle riding: Oversupplied. If you want to ride a bike, there's nothing stopping you, assuming you can afford one, and if you can't there are organizations that will help. The dedicated bike lanes, bike paths, and sharrows are nice but a city-wide grid is unnecessary. Memphis is mostly flat and the weather is more conducive to riding than in the Snow Belt.

Football: Oversupplied. Liberty Bowl Stadium is used nine times a year. Football defined the fairgrounds. Most high schools have a field, and some of them are putting in artificial surfaces.

Baseball and softball: Oversupplied. Baseball is a suburban game, and teams migrate to the suburban baseball fields for tournaments and leagues. An unkempt field and backstop is a typical scene at most Memphis parks and high schools, a relic of another day. Good fields like the ones at Rodney Baber are expensive to light and maintain and lightly used.

Soccer: Equals suburban, although some of the world's greats came out of poor Third World countries. Adequate to oversupplied, thanks to Mike Rose Fields.

Golf: Adequate. Memphis had to close public courses, which are magnets for wasteful spending and political squabbles on the City Council. Galloway serves the high end, and if you are willing to spend $40 you can play just about anywhere. Overton Park needs real greens.

Swimming: Undersupplied, but expensive, seasonal, and fraught with liability. The Kroc Center will help when it opens next year. Closing the Mason YMCA hurt. High marks for suburbs, downtown YMCA, University of Memphis, and Rhodes College which offers a summer membership.

Others: volleyball, skateboarding, squash, lacrosse, field hockey, rugby, bowling, Ultimate. You want to play it, you can find a place. It may require some effort and practice but that's the point. And it may require some cash and a car, but if you don't have those there are less expensive or free alternatives. It comes down to motivation and lifestyle. A new building or a new facility — or a survey — is usually not the answer.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What a Racquet: Prince is Bankrupt

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 2:57 PM

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To anyone who plays racquet sports, the news that Prince is bankrupt is like hearing that Wilson failed at footballs or McDonald's flopped at making burgers.

Prince may not have invented the oversized racquet, but for my money — a few thousand dollars in various racquets and other equipment over four decades — nobody tried harder or did it better. As a player, I appreciated the quality and durability of their products. As a fan, I am grateful for their sponsorships. And as a wordsmith, I marvel at their ability to make racquets that are virtually identical to other Prince racquets and other manufacturers' racquets seem exciting, cutting edge, different, performance-enhancing and, of course, new. Entire issues of tennis magazines are devoted to racquet hype.

The real advances in racquets in tennis, racquetball, and squash came when small wooden or metal racquets were replaced by ever-larger and ever-lighter composite racquets. Within eras, the racquets were more alike than different. The unenviable job of the Prince marketing and sales departments was to make each innovation of a few grams of weight, change in balance, a few inches more or less in head size, and different shapes seem as exciting as a new Corvette or the latest offering from Apple.

“After considering several business options, the board of directors and the senior management team firmly believe that the Chapter 11 filing is not only a necessary step but also the right thing to do to ensure a secure future for Prince,” said Gordon Boggis, president and CEO of Prince Sports Inc. “We have a long history, and are planning for an exciting future, focused on game-changing, product innovation, engineered to take players’ games to the next level. Securing this protection will help us to continue to focus on that vision.”

Now, about that vision. Can better equipment change your game or take your game to the next level?

Tennis coach Vic Braden, who is one part teaching pro and three parts psychologist, wit, and salesman, once said at a clinic in Memphis that "it's not the racquet, it's the turkey on the end of the handle." A killer marketing phrase, or rather a killer-of-marketing phrase, if there ever was one.

In his book "Open," Andre Agassi said the biggest change in the game in his final years was not bigger racquets or bigger players but the new elastic polyester string that imparts more spin on the ball.

Sarah Hatgas, tennis coach at Rhodes College, says "New tech in racquets makes it easier on the elbow! The game has developed into a power game from the baseline and volleying is becoming a lost art."

Senior player Nancy Gates says "I would in no way consider myself a racquet sports expert, but at my age my primary concern is about how badly my body gets destroyed by the sport, and how equipment may or may not exacerbate the pain. There are some racquets that are stiff and cause my elbow to hurt, so I stay away from those. Other than that, any racquet, once I get used to it, probably has no effect one way or the other on my game. I have one bad foot, so shoes are key for me. If I don't have the right shoes, I cannot play. In fact, I have given away two different pair of brand new shoes after only one wearing, because they weren't quite right - hundreds of dollars wasted."

Randy Stafford, a former racquetball pro, said that rule changes adopted by the sport in 1997 increased racquet size about 25 percent which resulted in 50 percent more hitting area for more power. "This change was made in racquetball due to the manufacturers' demands to increase sales and royalties. No question, the changes to the racquet size changed the game from a control and manageable power game, to one of excess speed that not only changed the original design and intent of the game, but increased the speed of the ball to a level that is quite unmanageable for the everyday player."

Ted Gross, former squash pro and editor of the Daily Squash Report, says, "Nothing to back this up but my opinion is racquets (assuming we are comparing only top-of-the-line models) make a difference in tennis but not in squash. Hitting a tennis ball well is substantially more complicated than hitting a squash ball well, and differences in frame stiffness and head balance and even grip shapes are therefore quite apparent. The grip over-wrap is the most important piece of equipment in squash, because before the invention of the Tournagrip you couldn't hold onto the racquet no matter what you tried."

I'm with Gross and Gates. The most underrated piece of equipment is a $2 roll of grip tape. I don't see how players did without it, especially tennis players in the hot and humid South back in the days of wooden racquets with slippery leather grips or gauzy overwraps. Second place is shoes with gum soles that are much lighter than those Goodyear-rubber soled clodhoppers you see on the tennis court. Gum-soled shoes are designed for indoor court sports but once you get used to them anything else is like putting on ankle weights.

To the extent that overgrips extend the life of racquets by making players less likely to discard them, Prince was doomed not by faulty marketing or Internet sales or all those fancy $200 racquets produced by its competitors but by a $2 piece of tape.

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