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No Shirt, No Shoes, No Serve 11/12/2008 - 5:41 PM

By Pete Bodo

Once again, the Tennis Masters Cup promised to deliver high drama (who can forget those Terracota Warrior sculptures!) and yet again it descended to low comedy (rumor has it that Salvador Dali has been commissioned to do melting tennis players for 2009).

Radek But nothing in recent memory seems quite as bizarre as the way Radek Stepanek showed up in Shanghai, with no socks, rackets, or contact lenses, and made a pretty decent run at Roger Federer. Should Stepanek have won that match (and he very easily might have, given that a stomach bug laid The Mighty Fed low for the entire day before their match), he still would have been able to qualify for the knock-out round. And were he to survive to win the final - which is by no means an implausible scenario - the champion of the official year-end championships featuring the ATP's notional creme de la creme would have been the player ranked no. 27 in the world.

Clearly, the ATP never bothered to ask itself:  Gee, what's the worst thing that can happen?

Some of you may wonder how Stepanek (instead of, say, Tommy Robredo, or Mikhail Youzhny) ended up high-steppin' around the Qi Zhong arena in Shanghai, wearing Andy Murray's socks and swinging Novak Djokovic's racket, and my inquiries came up with a simple answer: When Andy Roddick served notice that he might not be able to compete, the ATP went down the rankings list (in descending order) to discover who might be willing or able to play. The roulette wheel finally stopped on no. 27, Stepanek, who happened to be vacationing in Thailand. Just think, if they'd gone a little deeper, Marat Safin could be in the YEC!

Why did Stepanek say "yes" when so many more qualified men had said "no"? I assume Stepanek's reasoning went something like this: Man, I'm lovin' life on the beach, but I've got a chance to win the fifth most important tournament of the year (without even having to fill out the entry form, or practice!), burn my way into the history books, and earn enough cash to raise even Martina Hingis's eyebrows, so it might be a good idea to set aside the flip-flops and catch the first plane out.

An alternate automatically gets a $50,000 appearance fee, half of the $100,000 guarantee that the eight qualifiers get in the form of a "participation fee." Then, each match win in the round robin is worth another 100k. I don't know what the loser in a round robin gets, but according to the Associated Press, the worst case scenario for Stepanek would be mailing in two losses and still walking away with a $70,000 payday. That will get you quite a few tropical drinks in Thailand, even those expensive ones with hunks of fruit hanging off the edge of the glass and a parasol stuck into the middle.

Of course, it isn't about the money, and we don't like to talk about the money. But talking about the title seems even more, well, absurd, under these circumstances, no matter how much any of us would like to see Radek introduce the Chinese to "the worm" in the post-final trophy presentation ceremony. We now know that it won't happen, but it does raise a legitimate question: should an alternate who begins play after the man he's replacing has played a match, or part of a match, be eligible to win the whole shootin' match?

I could answer "yes" to that if this were a regular tournament; after all, one day a Lucky Loser may win Wimbledon. But the YEC is reserved for the top players in an annual points race; if you didn't earn enough points to get in, should you be entitled to play at the high stakes table?

The way this has played out raises serious doubts in my mind, by maybe I should just chill and resist the opportunity to jump up on a high horse. Strange things happen, and we all know that perfect is the enemy of the good - although it's always tempting to fling out your chest and criticize the good.  And if you think about the round robin system, you can see why the ATP and the tournament promoters use alternates to more-or-less operate as a tag team in group play. In a round robin play, losing a guy from either of the two groups can take all the air out of the competition.

But introducing alternates raises other, thorny qualification issues: should a win by a contender over an alternate who has no chance to advance to the semifinals count for the same in the standings as a result produced by two men who had qualified? Is an alternate really playing on a level-playing field when he has only two chances (or matches) by which to advance? It's worth noting that an alternate doesn't inherit a scratched competitor's record. Imagine if he did, and Andy Roddick had won his first match, banking one in the win column for Stepanek. It could be really ugly, instead of semi-ugly.

With all that in mind, I have a theory about how Stepanek ended up in Shanghai sans half his clothes (his own exhibitionism aside) and all of his gear: The ATP higher-ups contacted the Chinese government and said, When that guy's stuff comes off the plane, I want y'all to hold it - and remember, he's blind as bat so make sure you hold the contact lenses! But Stepanek was able to get new lenses in time for his match. As he told reporters, "Otherwise, I wouldn't see you now."

Hmmmmm. . .

Now here's the funny part. Stepanek's next match is meaningless as far as his own chances to advance go. He can't qualify. But he can sure screw things up for the guy he's playing, Gilles Simon - another guy who came in as an alternate (replacing Rafael Nadal), after making a heroic effort to qualify in the late stages of the season. Simon can, theoretically, still nudge Federer out of the no. 2 slot in the Red Group (in which only Andy Murray is undefeated, and likely to emerge as a top seed in a semi), but he'll have no chance if he loses to Stepanek. You can expect Stepanek to come out swinging from the heels, partly because, it seems to me, he has a special talent for ruining someone else's day. I feel a little guilty putting it that way, though, because the official version from his own lips was: “I’m going to every match to win. . . I'm enjoying my time a lot here. You know, for me it was always a dream to play in the Masters Cup because you’re in the elite eight best players in the world."

Tmf Well, sort of. . . But then, it's not as if any of these byzantine narratives in what ought to be a pretty straightforward clash of titans is a novelty. Some of you will remember 2005, when Nadal, Andre Agassi, Marat Safin (Hang on Marat, maybe Jo Willy will pull out next!) and Lleyton Hewitt withdrew from the event, and Roddick lurched out with a bad back - all of which left Roger Federer as the only Top 5 player to finish the tournament.

So there's a good chance that Federer will be the last man standing, although he may be doubled over - you know, those stomach cramps are a bear. It's ironic, to say the least, given how TMF started the year feeling the effects of mononucleosis, spent the summer battling a bad case of Nadalitis, and forgot to bring his Tums to Shanghai.

But TMF, you know, is TMF, and he has this funny way of being in the mix even when he's not - or shouldn't be. Like yesterday, when he limped into battle only to find that his opponent has misplaced his own weapons. I can imagine that Cheshire cat grin on TMF's face as he told the press,  “And then Radek is not playing with his own rackets, so that made it a little bit more lucky again. I hope with a day of recovery, I’ll make a miracle happen here and get through into the semis."

Miracle, schmiracle. If you ask me, this is business as usual for a guy who's not only a superb competitor but blessed with survival skills that even God's dog, the coyote, would envy. Was it a slip of the tongue, or a malapropism that rings with truth that transcends logic when Stepanek said of Federer. "I know he lost more matches (this year) than he usually does, but that doesn't mean that he's beatable."

I don't want to sound morbid here, but I can see that being engraved, one day in the distant future, on Federer's headstone.

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Posted by sokol 11/13/2008 at 01:19 PM

I'm so confused with this RR. I'll just wait until later tomorrow when it will be official who the last semifinalist is.

Posted by sokol 11/13/2008 at 01:21 PM

it's a good thing that RR format is used only once a year

Posted by Pete 11/13/2008 at 02:31 PM

Thanks, crazyone, but I never discount TMF once he sets foot on a court, and while I might have to pick Murray if I were forced to make a choice, I took the Fed thing and ran with it for the purposes of the story and the overall themes etc., rather than in some attempt to make a prediction. I hate making predictions, while I enjoy indulging in "wouldn't it be just like so-so to go out and. . ." Another way to put this is that I'm more interested in informing and entertaining the reader than I am in showing my "expertise" (or lack thereof) in the analysis department - except when the analysis is post-facto, which I find enjoyable and challenging (as evidenced by the howls of outrage at my post following the US Open final). Besides, I have you and a stable of other astute KADs to handicap the matches, right? ;-)

Posted by Jenn 11/13/2008 at 03:01 PM

I will admit to suffering my own end of season burnout prior to this tourney, particularly after Rafa withdrew, but this unanticipated craziness and drama has really kept my interest.

This kind of reminds me of that old adage that 90% of life is showing up... not sure if I really buy into that, but it seems like the last-man-standing, survival of the fittest element is certainly magnified in these last few tourneys of the year.

Anyway, thanks for the explanation, Pete.

Posted by Andrew 11/13/2008 at 03:46 PM

Yes you do, Pete. For the first time, I'm handicapping against Federer for a HC match: I will be very pleasantly surprised if he wins. This is a very situational pick (based on fitness issues), but I have Murray at 65% for the match.

BTW, thanks to Gloria above. Your servant, ma'am.

Posted by alibaby 11/13/2008 at 11:57 PM

Go Roger GO!

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