Many readers took exception to my recent comment that Anna Kournikova, whose agent announced recently that she may have to retire because of back problems, "has never won a tournament in seven years as a pro." I also asked, "Is there another sports star who ever parlayed so little athletic success into so much fame and fortune?"
"You heard a phrase somewhere and like every media figure you simply repeat untrue info," writes Jackson Chapman, echoing several others. "Anna K. has won 16 doubles titles including two Australian Opens. She has held the No. 1 ranking in doubles. Does this make her mediocre?"
"All of [Kournikova's] success has come playing doubles, a brand of tennis that requires very different skills but is no less challenging or meaningful than singles play," chimes in Thomas Schmidt. "I am continually surprised by sportswriters and broadcasters who continue to assume Kournikova is a low-talent hacker when she's been very successful athletically as well as aesthetically."
What's funny is that the day the column ran, I ended up defending Kournikova on a national radio show, "Newsbeat with Blanquita Collum," when Collum wanted me to join her in trashing our Russian friend.
I essentially made Schmidt's point, that history is going to remember Kournikova as a worse player than she has been -- she reached No. 8 in the world in singles, and the eighth-best anything in the world is very, very good. It's the way tennis is organized that makes No. 8 mediocre. The same people play all of the major tournaments, so if you're No. 8, you're only getting to the quarters, barring upsets. If tennis were a team sport, she'd have been an All-Star, roughly equivalent to Jason Giambi, at least for a brief period.
But it's not our fault -- yours, mine, the media's, whoever we're talking about -- that tennis is organized that way. It is what it is, and in the context in which she worked, Kournikova was at her best a mid-level type player, nothing special. And so, yes, I would call that mediocre.
Do you know who the No. 8 female player in the world is right now? It's Daniela Hantuchova, who like a few others has been touted in some circles as "the next Anna" because of her blond good looks, but who has yet to make any sort of splash outside tennis. Rainer Schuettler is the eighth-ranked man. He's cute too! But neither is exactly making the sports world forget about Andre Agassi or the Williams sisters. They're field horses, players who fill up tournament brackets, mostly unheard of by non-hardcore tennis fans.
While it's true that Kournikova has won those doubles titles, I'll stand by my statement that she "has never won a tournament." Being part of a doubles team that wins a tournament does not make you the champion of that tournament. When someone talks about a tennis player winning, everyone who isn't looking for something to disagree with understands that to mean winning the singles title. And her partner when she was winning 11 of those 16 doubles titles was a pretty good player, Martina Hingis. Who do you think was more responsible for the team's success?
"To say she has had little athletic success because she doesn't have a singles title is a little like saying Karl Malone has had little athletic success just because he doesn't have a championship ring," writes reader Brendan Baybrook. Maybe it is. But I could turn that statement around: Saying Kournikova is a great tennis player because she has 16 doubles titles is a little like saying Luc Longley is a great basketball player because he has three championship rings.
Winning doubles titles is a little like hitting home runs at Triple-A, to use another intersport simile that isn't quite perfect. It's nice, but nobody really cares. It ain't the big leagues. Tennis greatness is measured in singles competition. That's kind of a shame because doubles is endlessly more entertaining, but that's the way it is, and it's probably the fairest way to measure an individual player's level. The No. 1 women's doubles player in the world right now is Ai Sugiyama. Seen her in any "Got Milk" ads lately?
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More letters: Tigers tickets and silent athletes [PERMALINK]
Reader Catherine Bracy, who admits to being a Tigers fan, writes that she likes my suggestion that the woeful club should give away all remaining unsold seats this year as a goodwill gesture to fans. "But would anyone buy tickets anymore if they knew the leftover seats would be free?"
Well, not this year, but in the future, I think so. The Tigers would have to play it just right. They'd have to make it clear that this was a one-time-only deal. Detroit is in the midst of a historically awful season, and here near the end of it, management would be saying, essentially, desperate times call for desperate measures. Let's fill up the ballpark, create some excitement, maybe goose the team to a few extra wins, avoid that historic 120th loss, and then focus on next year.
The club might also have to do something nice for season-ticket holders so they don't feel like suckers for having ponied up already. Maybe cut the price of next year's season plan a bit. But I don't think cranky season-ticket holders would be a real problem. Do you get mad when you buy a pair of pants somewhere and then a few months later the store has a clearance sale?
Tigers fan Robert Caplis has a suggestion of his own: "As a broken city of long-suffering Tiger fans, the entire metro Detroit area should be canonized for the hell [Tigers owner] Mike Illitch has put us through."
Jon Simmons has an interesting point in response to Tuesday's item about athletes talking to the press: "You are dead right when you say most athletes are dull -- it is the curse/job of sportswriters everywhere to spin gold out of flax when it comes to giving the fans an 'inside look' at their heroes. I think it is instructive that our most iconic superstars are also the most elusive when it comes to having an off-field personality. Joe DiMaggio, Michael Jordan and David Beckham are excellent examples -- each with inarguable talent, a clutch player at moments of high drama, and playing style that redefined their sport's generation. But outside the lines: a personal cipher, and a public icon."
But it's a delicate balancing act. The athlete has to say just enough, and make it just bland enough, to avoid being labeled surly. As Matthew Greber points out, "Not talking to the press often results in some pretty negative media spin."
"It's easy to see athletes that, like Mark McGwire, Jeff Kent and others -- who do talk to the press and put on a fake happy face for them -- get shown as 'good guys' when in fact all they are is amiable with reporters," Greber writes. "Going back a while, it's my understanding that Roger Maris' reluctance to talk to the press resulted in the New York press making him out to be a bad guy, largely out of their hurt at being spurned."
George Hendrick, who was hired last week as the Dodgers' interim hitting coach, was widely thought of as an attitude case in his playing days because he refused to talk to reporters. He still won't talk. But I watched him interact with his teammates on several occasions when he played for the Angels late in his career, and he seemed like a playful, popular guy. And one of his players at Triple-A Las Vegas, where he had been the hitting coach before his promotion, called him "very positive." He just never cared about playing the media game.
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