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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Sep 16, 2009

9/16/2009 12:00:00 AM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

Sep 16, 2009

L. Jon Wertheim is a man of many accomplishments. For years he's been Sports Illustrated's go to guy for all things tennis, proud papa of's Mailbag (also known to tennis geeks as Wednesday Church) and author of a whole buncha books, most recently the up-close-and-personal smash Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played. And though he refuses to acknowledge it publicly, he also had a hand in discovering me. In my attempt to All About Eve the guy (or Single White Female? I haven't decided if he lives or dies yet), I sat down with El Jon to bask in his awesomeness. And hopefully steal some of it for myself.

Separated at Birth?

Now, I got started when Tennis Channel and L. Jon Wertheim plucked me out of a literary cornfield. What's your origin story?

When I was in college I worked for the New Haven tournament. That was my first real exposure to [professional] tennis. I was the locker room attendant one year, I got promoted to the ball kid coordinator the next. I think the first thing I wrote was something in the program. Tennis is a great sport to write about. It's men, it's women, it's global, everyone is crazy.

Who was your first interview?

It was my first story for Sports Illustrated. John Lucas got fired as a coach of the Philadelphia 76ers and his next job was coaching Lori McNeil. I was 20-whatever years old. (oh lookie, google works: John Lucas is an all-time great guy. Great quote, charismatic, accessible. They're not all like that.

That was a pretty positive piece. What about when your job calls for some criticism? Ever hear from players who don’t appreciate what you've written about them?

I wrote something unflattering about Roddick last year, an online piece, and he called me out. He sought me out, he wasn't happy. But I totally respected him for that. Kobe Bryant says something you don't like, he says F.U. and that's it, you're banished from the kingdom. And Andy, he and I had, it wasn't the most cordial discussion, but he expressed his concerns, and I expressed mine, and after a while we shook hands. I think it says a lot. He didn't have to do that. I think it's always weak when people I know go through their intermediaries to express their disappointment. I've got enough friends, you're not writing to please people, you're not writing to be buddies with the athletes. [But] it's cool, people aren't going to like everything.

Fans love your Mailbag. They flock every Wednesday to read your responses to questions about current events and controversies, get tipped off to cool sites and have a laugh over a Separated at Birth or two. When did that all come about?

That's depressing. It was literally my first year on the job. I was 26, 27 years old. I was doing some tennis for S.I. and it was the dawn of the internet. They were starting this web site. I wish I had the memo, how the terms are all outdated. "On the information superhighway, consumers want interactivity…" (laughs) So I said I would try it. And it was fun. The technical questions got boring in a hurry. The ball is coming, racquet back early. But then there was the more fun stuff, like, who wore the most ridiculous dress..?

Welcome to my world.

But that's what people want to know. God bless forehand grips, but people want to know what these people are like.

There's a lot of that in your book Strokes of Genius. You convey The Greatest Match of All Time in such glorious detail. Which is why I'm just going to tell people to go out and get it and instead ask you this: What's the Worst Match of All Time? And by that I mean, what could fill a whole book because it was just, like, woof.

If it's just missing balls it's no fun. But if it's choking and head casing and self-flagellation… Jankovic/Dementieva in Cincinnati was just fascinating because of the two characters involved, the dramatics and the lack of self-confidence.

What's the most overreported story in tennis? Like, if I have to read about this one more time I'm going to shoot myself in the face?

It's more the throwaways. Did you know Rafael Nadal is really right handed? (laughs) Did you hear Ana Ivanovic hit balls in the swimming pool during the NATO bombings? James Blake broke his back on the net post? What else. Roger Federer used to have a temper as a kid but now he's gotten it under wraps? Serena beat Andy Roddick once? That's what happens when you have a traveling road show. What you heard in Cincinnati you might not have heard in Toronto.

How about the most underreported story? Something that's getting so little attention it's a shame?

These injuries. If you walk around the halls here [at the U.S. Open], the amount of players you see with ice, on crutches, hobbling, stretching out… People say it's sports, injuries happen, but boy not at this rate. There's no top ten player who hasn't missed a chunk of time because of injury. Can Serena win all four majors? Yeah she can, but if she's not healthy she can't.

Is that more of a recent phenomenon?

I think it is. Look at the big stories: Is Maria's shoulder healthy? What's with Venus's knee? How's Nadal going to come back? Taylor Dent and his back surgery, Roger's getting over his mono, James Blake has a broken toe…

Since you started covering the sport, what player did you think would break big and just didn't?

That's a good question. In my first tournament, someone told me, keep an eye on Henrieta Nagyova. Some of it is the WTA pushing the blondies. "Magdalena Grzybowska. She's going to be great!" It was clearly just a sex kitten push, her looks overshadowed her tennis. I thought Hantuchova would be better than she was. Nicolas Kiefer. Again, injuries. If you said three years ago Nicole Vaidisova wouldn't be in the top 100 and would lose in the first round of US Open qualifying… That's a good question, though. Tennis hasn't had any really big Kwame Brown-style flameouts.

How about a player you felt, wow, I never saw them coming? Someone who made the absolute most of their abilities?

I don't think anyone saw Andy Murray. Nice player, but he plays too defensive, he doesn’t have a big enough game, he gets tired too easily. I don't think people saw him as the No 2 in the world, at least in this era. I saw James Blake play ten years ago and thought, oh this'll be a nice top 50 player. I don't think anyone saw him crack the top five.

I thought you were going to go with Safina.

That's a good one actually. A player that spends five years in that 15-25 zone and then becomes No 1, that's rare.

Are there players you miss who were just a fountain of story? Like, it's never a slow news day with such and such on tour?

You miss some players like Henin aesthetically. I was a Fabrice Santoro addict. You'd see him in Indianapolis and you'd schedule your day around watching him play. But he wasn't a great source. Justin [Gimelstob] was always good to talk to. Nicole Pratt. Very smart, had a lot of opinions. Her perspective was not Anna Kournikova's perspective.

Did Anna Kournikova have a perspective?

Capitalist. Whatever made her the most money and entailed the least amount of time. I did a story on Anna maybe a year ago, a where are they now. She was fantastic. Anyone can stick to their talking points for 20 minutes but after an hour and half of delightful company, I kept thinking, God, maybe people really do change.

How about Hingis? Never a dull moment.

Hingis was great. There was no filter. I think initially it was just being naïve. And then it was, life's too short, I'm going direct and honest. If you asked a question, you got an answer. No BS.

And no BS from El Jon. Unfortunately for me, I can tell he's going to be around for awhile, so I'm going to have to come up with a Plan B for this All About Eve thing. My hair does curl naturally. So watch your back Gimelstob. "Strokes of Genius" is in bookstores now. No publishing date for Strokes of Madness: Jankovic, Dementieva, and the Worst Match Ever Played.