Archive for July, 2012

6 Jul 2012

[5:57] Very good from Tsonga. Third set. Did well to earn the break and serving well. Got hit by an Andy shot in a rather unfortunate place… dude is doign well to be standing.

[5:14] Tsonga isn’t moving well and really having trouble hitting his big shots. First serve percentage is up but it’s not always effective. Only one error from Murray, absolutely focused.

[5:06] Simply too good from Murray. Hasn’t taken his time out of the gate and is seeing the ball and moving wonderfully. Jo not getting the first serve. Curious if there’s some back issues. Doesn’t much matter. This is over soon.

[4:37] Great patterns of play from both. Interested in playing their games and dictating on serve, which they are. Early bonehead break from Jo means he tosses away the first set. Can’t afford one of those. Far from over.

[4:13] These are the types of matches where not having a coach may cost Jo. Has come out swinging in his earlier matches, but Murray will keep the ball low and likely keep Jo from unleashing some of his bigger shots. Looks like he’s interested in coming to net to keep points short, which is good. Has found success there in this tournament. Already down a break. Needs to get out of first gear. 0-3 to Murray.

[4:03] Tough match to call. Kamakshi Tandon was right on when she said that Federer played at a B+ level while Novak played at a B-. Movement sub par from Novak and couldn’t quite get the footing on some shots. Looked a bit like me out there at times, if I’m honest (that is not a compliment). Still, Fed very rarely needed to up his game into top gear and when he did, he often found success. Tough to know how good he will be for Sunday, but regardless of the second semifinal, we will have a match on our hands.

[3:10] Commentators not trying to get ahead of themselves, but I think you can. Fed serving well, and in a fast rhythm. Up 1-4, needs two more holds. Don’t want to say it’s in the bag, but pretty damn close.

[3:00] Some terrible, terrible misses from Djokovic, it has to be said. Federer in complete control and not by his own doing, but he’ll take it. 4 holds away from another final.

[2:57] It seemed like vintage Federer there. Not the shot making, but that his opponent cracked under the pressure, and the momentum was all his. A terribly missed overhead, and a straight forward break. Two sets to one.

[2:45] Federer digs out of trouble. My oh my. Quality of returning has gone up, both players obviously realize how crucial of a point in the match this is. Djokovic to serve, 4-5.

[2:35] IT. IS. ALIVE. Real urgency, incredible points. Djokovic really showing his movement here. It’s helped. Both guys looking to go for it a little bit more on the return as well.

[2:21] Sorry about that. Had to take care of something. Set all, 2 all. Nice and juicy.

[1:33] Well that was fast. Insanely fast, in fact. 6-3. Comfortable, and very little energy spent by either. 24 minutes.

[1:27] Is it the court? The roof? Djokovic looks focused but not quite… settled. Making some strange decisions to come to net and his footing has not been fantastic so far. Crowd will get behind Federer quickly here. Up a break, 4-2.

[1:20] 2-2. First serve percentage is going to be key, particularly for Federer. Djokovic will start to pounce if he can get a few second serves, and his return looks on. Djokovic noted that he felt returning was easier under the roof as well.

[1:13] Ceremonial holds from both, then.

[1:09] Hi! Let’s do it.

6 Jul 2012

I always hated Martina Hingis. As a fan of the women’s game, I didn’t quite understand her. And it bugged me. I was still young (very, very young) and the word “fan” might not properly describe what was my Anna Kournikova love. A small girl, Hingis seemed able to win points she had no business being in, and beating opponents she had no business beating.

Recently, she has said that she much prefers being compared to Radwanska instead of Wozniacki, and I have to agree.

I have written in the past couple of weeks that power is never to be underestimated in women’s tennis. This is still true. Much like big servers tended to be the scissors to the returners rock in men’s 1990s tennis, the power in the women’s game is the rock to the defender’s scissors. It doesn’t matter how sharp you are on the ball, you will eventually be overpowered.

Slowly but surely, Radwanska has been turning heads. Since the beginning of 2011, every major winner has been a big hitter: Serena, Li Na, Kvitova, Stosur, Azarenka, Sharapova. Radwanska has been a constant of the top 10 for some time, and fans have often joked about her as the “ninja”. It’s not hard to get why.

Despite seemingly having no “weapons”, long going without a clothing sponsor and playing a controlled, often emotionless game, she tends not to make a lot of noise in the draw. Yet she always seems to be in the mix, and it wasn’t until this year’s Miami win that she finally looked like a player capable of taking a serious scalp.

To start, Radwanska isn’t a counterpuncher. At least in my eye (there’s no true definition of the word). To me, a counterpuncher is a player who counters power by returning it with interest. They’re someone who can test big hitting players because pace of shot can actually become an asset to them. Think Andy Murray or Zheng Jie for example.

Undoubtedly, Radwanska is what we might think of as a defensive player. She is not a big hitter or a big server and doesn’t win points by overwhelming players. However, this does not mean she is similar to a player like Wozniacki. Aga does push the ball, but sensibly, and is interested in constructing points, where as Wozniacki tends to play things as safe as possible (though, hopefully, signs point towards this changing).

Above all else, Radwanska has absolutely incredible hands. She very rarely makes unforced errors, something common in table tennis players, but not regular tennis players. Of any sex or from any planet.

It’s easy to chuckle at her squatting shots from seemingly centimeters from the earth. I would argue that they are one of her secret weapons. They are made possible by her incredibly strong and flexible legs, but also her hands, as she is able to adjust quickly to ensure the ball makes it over the net. The ability to do this means that she is able to stand in closer to the baseline, and the depth of shot on a fast surface does little to no damage against her. Even if the ball is quick and bounces low on the grass, it can quickly be dug out and neutralized by the SquatShot(TM).

Grass is a fast surface, but also a low bouncing surface, and Aga uses this to her advantage. She keeps shots low, not only with slices and drop shots but regular shots off both wings, and her ability to get balls back is incredible. Lastly, she is able to win long rallies because she is able to make the necessary point winning shot, in the vein of Federer. Wozniacki will often out last players to the point that they make an error or she has a wide open court to hit into. Radwanska is perfectly fine with waiting for a sliver of daylight and pouncing.

Simply put, unless players can hit hard and create their own pace against Radwanska, the options are slim. Radwanska is fine for players to hang in long rallies, in which they will most likely make the first error. She is also fine with them opening up the court, as she can play sublime defense as well as take advantage of steep angles and drag opponents off course when necessary.

What Radwanska will have trouble with, as did Hingis, is a player that can create their own pace of shot and punish the ball from nothing. This means Serena Williams. Regardless, she will return better than Azarenka did and she will think her way through the match. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, Radwanska is a victory for traditional tennis and those who can think their way through matches instead of bash their way to victory.

5 Jul 2012

Two years ago in Toronto, something strange happened. It’s not often that the top men play doubles, and rarely, if ever, do they actually play together. Regardless, they could be taken seriously. Rafa Nadal had won top doubles titles with his Spanish partner Marc Lopez, and while hardly being a doubles specialist, Novak Djokovic’s fantastic returning and flexibility were to combine to make quite the team.

There’s something about Canadians on home soil, it has to be said.

The team of virtual unknowns, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil would entertain the crowd under the lights of the Rexall Centre and take them out in a super tiebreak.

When recalling the win, Raonic chuckled. “After that when I did start doing well. I think people have a sense of intimidation which helps in sports.”

Since then he has risen into the top 30 of the world, including several ATP 250 titles to his name. With a return to Wimbledon after an injury last year, the big serving Canadian didn’t quite find the result he would have liked, falling to another tall, big server in American Sam Querrey.

“I was frustrated I didn’t play my best. [But] I think my game is in a very good position. Its not only a question of getting a good draw anymore. I feel I can put myself in a position to win.”

With the injury last year, Raonic missed the entire summer hard court swing, including the US Open. With a major gap in points to take advantage of this year, Raonic will head to Newport and then the much anticipated Olympics, held on the grass courts of Wimbledon, five or six days before the opening ceremonies.

I think its very different. A lot of things can change in 3 weeks. … They play well one day. They play poorly the next. I’ve taken a lot of big steps these first 6 months. Not only with my tennis but my ability to handle pressure and those sorts of things.

Raonic couldn’t hide his excitement for the Olympic opportunity. “I always would have enjoyed that opportunity as a kid. We get very stuck on the grand slams as a kid. I think the whole excitement of the Olympics is that … it’s great athletes in every sport. It’s really an amazing time. To be surrounded by great athletes in different sports and your own sport is truly an amazing thing.”

However, for Raonic, and all of Canada, the highlight of the season will be the Rogers Cup held in Toronto. Raonic is a Toronto native and will have a chance to make a massive impact in front of the home crowds. For Milos, the people and facilities are incredibly familiar.

“Not only going to watch the tournament but training there. When I am home I do spend a lot of time training there. I do have a lot of familiarity. It’s a very easy tournament for me, per se. I know where I want to eat and all of these things. The whole sense of being here in Toronto and being home, there’s an ease to it and an excitement to do well. To hope for my best tennis and my best level during that week. Its a big opportunity that I really look forward to. If here is really where I can make the difference… for tennis and the public eye, just outside of one of the grand slams.”

Promoting the sport with Tennis Canada has been on the agenda, and with a super star in the making, people are taking notice. “There’s a lot more people excited for the sport. I don’t know how much people are watching tennis but I know that I watched the Euro Cup on Sunday downtown and after went to see how the celebrations were like on College and Bathurst. A lot of people were recognizing me there. A lot of people that weren’t tennis bred and grown up and tennis. A lot of regular people. When you do get these people involved in it, they get their kids in the sport. Its not only that you see it in Canada, but you see it in the business stand point. A lot of companies making big commitments to televise outside of the Rogers Cup and the grand slams. ”

However, Raonic hasn’t let the pressure get to him. “There’s more responsibility off the court. When I step on the court I don’t think so. This sport I play, this sport I enjoy and the desire to win is for myself. I don’t want anything more than to succeed… what I want is since I was a little kid, not because people want me to win.”

Regardless, the entire country will be cheering on Milos on his home courts in Toronto, starting on August 6th.

Side note: I’ll be in Toronto the entire week once again, covering it for @TennisNewsTPN as well as my account @MindTheRacket. Can’t wait.

4 Jul 2012

Hi everyone! I’ve done this game several times in the past, and it’s quite fun and very easy. The day of both semifinals is one of the most fun days of the calendar, in my opinion (in any slam) so why not try and predict who will making it into the final.

The rules are easy, predict who will win each semifinal and in how many sets. That’s it! You have a 1 in 36 chance of being right, by the way. You can leave your guess in the comments, or as always, tweet me at @MindTheRacket. The winner gets a special shoutout, probably a follow, and to look like a total freaking genius. Hit me! (Updates will come to the post sporadically.)

Djokovic in 3, Murray in 3: @arcticpandas
Djokovic in 4, Murray in 3: @Hampden69
Djokovic in 5, Murray in 3:

Djokovic in 3, Murray in 4: @VladVanVuy, @Philip_Porter
Djokovic in 4, Murray in 4: @scottastic, @RacquetRequired, @rosso_neri, @NolePH, @suboticjelena
Djokovic in 5, Murray in 4: @stephd89, @hankandlucysdad

Djokovic in 3, Murray in 5:
Djokovic in 4, Murray in 5: @mzemek, @anna_tennisfan, ccmac, @CJStephenson
Djokovic in 5, Murray in 5:

Djokovic in 3, Tsonga in 3:
Djokovic in 4, Tsonga in 3:
Djokovic in 5, Tsonga in 3:

Djokovic in 3, Tsonga in 4: @eaglestds
Djokovic in 4, Tsonga in 4: @MindTheRacket, @Chalk_Flew_Up, @ChristinaNcl
Djokovic in 5, Tsonga in 4: @northernsooner

Djokovic in 3, Tsonga in 5: @deucejunkie, @rosiejaggs
Djokovic in 4, Tsonga in 5: @osbornekojak, @EMBuddy, @SouthernTeach, @elliejackson1, @AdvantageAlex
Djokovic in 5, Tsonga in 5:

Federer in 3, Murray in 3:
Federer in 4, Murray in 3:
Federer in 5, Murray in 3:

Federer in 3, Murray in 4:
Federer in 4, Murray in 4: @4AllSurfaces, @salish3
Federer in 5, Murray in 4: @nidssserz, @ITakeTheeTennis, @raindelaysplay, @StephintheUS, @Curtos07, @Fatimahhh, @anticold

Federer in 3, Murray in 5:
Federer in 4, Murray in 5: @Ales_Alessandra
Federer in 5, Murray in 5: @AnaTennisGirl

Federer in 3, Tsonga in 3:
Federer in 4, Tsonga in 3:
Federer in 5, Tsonga in 3:

Federer in 3, Tsonga in 4:
Federer in 4, Tsonga in 4: @jouljet
Federer in 5, Tsonga in 4: @4TheTennis

Federer in 3, Tsonga in 5:
Federer in 4, Tsonga in 5: @betol, @MaryLangstrump, @Mixonario
Federer in 5, Tsonga in 5:

3 Jul 2012

[7:12] A terrible third set on so many levels. I don’t even know how Kerber won that, but she did. The Kerber/Azarenka final is still on! Lord. That’s it for me for today, I need to shower (off the idiocy of that third set) and get on with the day or something. Post or two later, and back tomorrow, of course. Enjoy Azarenka/Paszek!

[7:01] What a third set. Again, negative from Kerber who double faults to break herself, then hits some fantastic shots to get the break back. No tiebreaks. If she holds here, it will be 5-5. Jeebs.

[6:43] Have to say, good chance Kiri/Aga don’t finish today. Covers on. Hard to know but tight for time now, with light also an issue.

[6:41] Battle of who really wants it now. Traded breaks, traded holds. Kerber has such terrible body language but the intensity of Lisicki is gone and she’s back to making a lot of errors. Similar problems for both. Kerber needs to just crank a couple of big shots in a return game and get pumped up again.

[6:37] Very negative tennis from Kerber. Looks pretty terrible, really. Big hold needed here.

[6:31] So inconsistent from Sabine, but she can turn it up when she needs to, and it tends to work. Kerber incredibly negative despite being up a break, and Sabine breaks back. Funny old sport. Short cross court forehand working incredibly well for Kerber, when she hits it clean.

[6:01] Kiri and Aga are so close. Kiri starting to take the chances she gets. Good hold from her too. Bloody hell the scream is out of control though. On serve, Aga 2-3.

[5:47] Amazing stuff from Radwanska. So creative, so steady. Can be overpowered, but you need to be patient enough and deadly in your shot making. If not, the ninja will punish you, and she’s doing just that.

[5:31] Lisicki is hanging in, but by her finger nails. Still down a break. Not much hope. Raining on court 1 the second I turn it on. Of course.

[5:14] Trainer for Sabine, little hand problem. Dropped the first set without much trouble. The wild, looping swings are back and the timing is off. Again, footwork not really getting her into the right position so the ball ends up with a life of its own.

[5:08] Much better from Sabine. More energy and more control because of it. Kerber having more trouble going down the line and the court is opening up. Not terrible for Sabine who is always willing to punish when she has the chance.

[4:54] Virginia Wade is always this bad, isn’t she? Not a lot of concentration or energy from Sabine. It takes a lot to play the type of game she does. There needs to be a lot of adjusting, in the feet, grip, swing etc. in order to consistently get on top. Not quite happening.

[4:49] Oh dear. Sabine totally lacking in intensity, not moving nearly as well, particularly in her footwork, getting down to lower balls. Really needs to hack her way through these next few games to try and get something going.

[4:40] Woops! Forgot to hit the update button. Great match-up for Serena, through in straights. Moving better and with supreme confidence. Off we go with Lisicki/Kerber.

[4:07] Good stuff from Petra. At times, footwork that resembles mine and not a top tennis player, but she is fighting hard which is great to see. Serena cracked under pressure a bit. 4-5 then.

[4:02] This is what you hoped to see when you signed up. Some close games but some determined hitting when it matters, and all on serve in the second. Very good chance this could come down to a tiebreak. Hard to call.

[3:41] First set to Serena and still looking dangerous. It’s one of the things that often puts her apart from other big hitters. She almost barely ever fades in the second set. Still, Petra has come out swinging in this second set. As she should. 1-2.

[3:17] All Serena. Kvitova forgetting to move her feet at times. Was afraid this could happen to her. She hasn’t quite been the same since last year’s win. This match-up is perfect for Serena as well.

[3:02] Flipped to the slugfest of Petra/Serena. Duh. Power meets power.

[2:51] Kiri playing incredibly well but blowing some big time chances here. Should have had a break. If she can keep hitting this hard and well she can win, but if she can’t, she’ll have other things to think about.

[2:46] Rain. Still rain. Misty by the looks. Still makes things wet. Sam Smith makes a great point. An ump can’t feel how the grass feels with her hand, it’s about the feel on the shoe. Indeed. Play about to start back up again.

[2:37] Ladies quarterfinals, then! Kiri/Aga under way.

2 Jul 2012

- Has Rosol destroyed our supreme jadedness over upsets? I think we’re pretty wise as a tennis community, but it is safe to say that we often underestimate players we know little about. When you have superhuman energy levels, you can pull off the unthinkable. Dodig did the same thing last year in Montreal.

- As I briefly alluded to in my tactics post, Andy Murray can have a heck of a time sorting it out against lesser opponents, and those that give him little pace on the ball. While he can serve big, he desperately needs to improve the punch of his shots, and particularly go for the backhand if he ever wants to win this tournament. Hit the ball, Andy.

- I haven’t seen much of his play, but Juan Martin del Potro may just be sorting it out on grass. The surface will never be kind to him in the bounce category, but he has the power in his forehand to back up the serve. He also has underrated defense, especially with his block backhand that will allow him to be in more return games than an Isner, Querrey or Raonic. A match against a barely mentioned Ferrer is a tough test on Tuesday, but there is a legitimate chance that he could improve his already impressive run.

- How soon we forget. Azarenka spent a total of 3 hours and 22 minutes in her first three matches and has now blown out Ivanovic, dropping only one game. While focus has largely been around the new number 1 Sharapova, Serena and defending champ Kvitova, it was only weeks ago that Azarenka was number one and coming off of her first major title. Like any massive hitter her game translates well, and her willingness to go for big shots is paying off in spades.

- Last year at Wimbledon, Kerber lost in the first round to one Laura Robson. (Thanks @BenRothenberg.) Since then she made the semis of the US Open, drastically improved her fitness, found success on clay, and has now destroyed Kim Clijsters to make the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Her massive lefty game can at times remind of Kvitova, and I went as far as saying that she would take advantage of the draw and make the final. At this stage, that is not an impossible ask.

- I must say, I underestimated Kvitova. She hasn’t done a whole lot since her Wimbledon win last year, but she is proving that grass court specialists can exist. With Serena struggling to dominate, that match is nearly impossible to call. Still, I’d take Azarenka as the favourite to make the final.

Boom, Boom Goes The Dynamite

Posted by Brodie under: Ms. Licky, SW19

2 Jul 2012

Sabine Lisicki can smack the crap out of a tennis ball. Ever since she broke on to the scene in 2009 winning the Charleston title without dropping a set, she has been a player to watch. I went as far to say that she had the talent to one day win a major title.

Since then, it has been a series of ups and downs that have fragmented her career into bits and pieces of hope and disaster. However, last year Sabine hinted at her ability on the grass, as she knocked out Li Na after saving match points and made the semifinals as a wildcard. More injuries and losses, and we come to this tournament.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Lisicki coming in. With a tricky draw, I was pretty hesitant that she would be able to get anything going. Firstly she moved through Martic rather easily. Her second and third rounders where very different tests. First, she dropped the first set to the big forehanded Serb Bojana “Bojangles” Jovanovski, and needed to grind out an 8-6 third set win. After that was young power player Sloane Stephens, who she took out 6-2 in the third.

While I love players who can figure out a plan B, Lisicki is a player who should only resort to that in extreme circumstances. She is one of the biggest hitting players under 6 feet that we have seen for years, and must play an offensive game, especially on a fast surface like grass. Any other style of play reaped few rewards and she was forced to sort it out on court against two different like minded players. Sort it out, or you’re out of the tournament.

It is perhaps no surprise that she was ready for the Sharapova test in the fourth round. As noted, she beat Li Na last year on grass and after playing two other big hitters, the attitude was clearly to go for it. “From the first point I felt I was the better player and I was going to take it home. And that’s what I did.”

Truly, Sabine routined Sharapova the way Sharapova typically breezes through players unable to deal with her pace. Sabine’s ability to anticipate shots, get low to the ground and then unleash hell on both wings was truly extraordinary, and she beat Sharapova at her own game. Her serving was above average and her returning was truly spectacular. Above all else, grass forces her to shorten her swings at time, and slowly the big, loopy errors are finding their way out of Beanie’s game.

Developing into a true power player is not easy in the women’s game, particularly without the height and reach advantage other players have. However, Sabine is confident and controlled, the perfect combination to continue blowing out opponents on grass and summer hard courts.

2 Jul 2012

Stuck at work? Without Twitter? Need a place to follow along? Catching up? I’ve got you covered! I’ll be on Twitter as well, but this will be my place for catching up with all of the days action. Tell a friend! Comments welcome.

[4:55] Rain. Good news for Tsonga. Maybe he can find his first serve in the locker room. Roof will have to close on centre. Also good news for Ivanovic. Could use the coach help more than anything.

[4:53] Ivanovic seems like she’s been on a walk about since the match started. Overwhelmed by Azarenka’s power. Not returning or serving well. Azarenka is hitting a lot of balls deep, but Ivanovic has no interest in trying to get on top of some of the shorter ones. Not a good sign. Tsonga living very dangerously as well, largely due to his first serve disappearing.

[4:50] Flipping Ivanovic off. Would really need Azarenka to drop her level and I don’t see that happening. Again, Tsonga struggling to find his serve. Very well may be his undoing.

[4:40] When serving and volleying works, boy does it work. First set to Mardy Fis who is just ripping the cover off the ball and leaving Tsonga with zero options.

[4:38] Back. Tsonga and Ivanovic. Let’s do this.

[3:08] When you can hit this big and command the court this well, it doesn’t much matter who is on the other side of the net. Truly. Absolutely mesmerizing stuff from the powerful German.

[3:01] Set and a break to Lisicki, 0-3. Sharapova really against the wall now.

[2:56] Lisicki looks like she never stopped moving. Sharapova a total mess. Two double faults.

[2:53] Sharapova and Lisicki back on.

[2:10] Most play stopped for the rain. Shvedova/Serena carry on. 30-30 now.

[1:58] Double fault, return forehand winner, error. Sharapova was at 40-30 to go 5-all, suddenly it’s the first set for Lisicki. Needs to keep the intensity up if she wants a shot.

[1:45] Kvitova hanging in the second set with Fran. Serena in the third set with Slava. Lord.

[1:43] Sharapova dropped the first set against Sabine in Australia this year, but Sabine’s level and intensity dropped significantly after. Not sure if it will after this set. She’s spent a lot less energy on grass too. Sharapova, 2-5. Federer’s movement apparently not what it normally is.

[1:38] Medical timeout to Fed. That… never happens. Like actually. It doesn’t happen. Too many matches going on right now. Lisicki at 4-2.

[1:35] Second tournament in a row I have picked one player to win the ladies title and taken another in tennis pool. Last time I took Sharapova to win it, didn’t pick her in pool. Took her in pool, didn’t pick her to win it. Right. Lisicki looks like she has a legitimate chance at the upset. Still early, and Sharapova’s mental strength will test the German. Might hit it so hard it won’t matter.

[1:27] Not sure this “Lisicki’s confidence is low” thing really works. She lost four straight matches, but loves grass and always has the right idea. Good service game from her. 102.

[1:24] Break right back to Lisicki. Like the idea. Looks interested in moving Sharapova forward when possible. Forehand looks on.

[1:21] A little late getting going here, but what can you do. Sharapova/Lisicki and whatever else I can keep an eye on. Crazy day. Opening break to Sharapova, commentators already writing off Lisicki. Right then.

2 Jul 2012

I’ve always liked strategy. Whether it was growing up playing the turn based Heroes of Might and Magic, the real time strategy Age of Empires, or running from the dinner table at age 10 to watch curling or baseball, it intrigued me. How could a player or team make the correct decisions and maximize the position they were in to ensure victory?

In the past few years, I have found myself further drawn to soccer, or as hereafter referred to, football (since you actually use your feet). Strategy, formations, and the combination of which generally referred to as tactics has continued to draw my interest as I have learned of its effect on the game. It has even brought me to purchase and read the wonderful history of tactics by Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid. As I have worked my way through his book, I have come to realize some of the similarities in philosophies of football and tennis tactics.

To start, let me start by saying that football and tennis, as well as their tactics, are in no way similar and never will be. Instead, I would argue that the fluidity and strategy of both sports are similar, and the way the human condition manifests itself within them has evolved in a similar way.

Those familiar with football can skip this paragraph. Those who need a quick catch up, this is for you. In football, a formation is the way a team plans to organize itself on the field of play. When written out, these formations always disregard the goalkeeper but instead list all “outfield” players. The first number stands for the players furthest back, and the last number stands for the players furthest forward. As seen below, a 4-3-3 would be four defenders, 3 midfielders, and 3 forwards. Something more complex such as a 4-1-2-1-2 would mean four defenders, a defending midfielder, two midfielders, an attacking midfielder and two strikers. Below are examples of each:

In theory, football is a simple sport. There are two nets, and you need to score more goals than your opponent to win. Much like we often ask the question “so, how do I win?” when learning a new game, in the beginning, the emphasis in football was on the goal scoring. Formations reflected this attitude. Formations were a standard 2-3-5 shape and eventually 3-2-2-3 (also known as the W-M). These were incredibly offense driven and the sole purpose of them was to achieve the perceived name of the game: scoring goals.

Football have history on their side. Tactics as we know them today, are approximately 90 years old and are studied across the globe. The modern tennis game (considering racquet technology) may only be 30 or at most 40 years old. Much like tactics are different for every team, tactics must be different for every tennis player. At the same time, our understanding of how tennis strategy works, particularly on average as community, is largely misunderstood or unknown.

Due to technology and various other reasons, the outlook of tennis was not and is still not entirely different. The emphasis tends to fall on what to do when having the ball (serving) as opposed to what to do without it (returning). In reality, holding serve is technically no more important than breaking serve; a game is a game. But human nature is to manipulate what is under our immediate control, and so the focus was on the strategy of serve and volleying. As far back as is known all the way into the Sampras domination of the 90′s, and on rare occasion still today, the strategy was used. Simply put, hit a big first serve and rush to the net with reckless abandon to punish returns and cut off angles to end points quickly. Before modern racquet technology it was an incredibly effective tactic.

For years, powerful tennis players thought in the same way those of the early football players planned. The name of the game was to score more goals, and this meant doing the best job of what was in your control (offense and goal scoring). Tennis players thought the same way. “So, how do I win?” Early racquet technology meant it was essentially impossible to put top spin on the ball and create extreme angles, so serving and volleying made the most sense, but the tactic hardly belonged to a single generation.

While Borg, McEnroe, Lendl and others in the open era enjoyed the strategy, so did successful players of the 1990s. Pete Sampras was the best player of a generation, and on the back of modern racquet technology, served bomb after bomb to dominate opponents and claim a then record fourteen major titles. It was the 2-3-5 of tennis. As long as you could hold serve, your chances in the tiebreak were much higher, and tennis is about winning sets, not just points. Likewise, a 2-3-5 formation emphasizes offense and forwards, and assumes that the team with the best forwards will win. On serve, it functioned without regard of your opponent and intended to maximize the amount of control a player could have over a point from the beginning.

However, the signs were always there that this tactic may not survive forever. Players tended to be lumped into “serve and volleyers” or “baseliners”. By this time, serving and volleying had already become a less successful strategy on slower clay courts, but players had begun to do find success on faster surfaces without serving and volleying, and even on grass. For Andre Agassi, it might not have been out of strategy, but necessity. Without a big serve, holding serve was never a given, so return games became even more important. “Back then the big servers had an advantage, but if a player could execute a first return you were able to take control of the point,” says Agassi. “For me, it was very hard without a big serve, so I had to take my chances.”

In 1992, Agassi took his chances and won his only Wimbledon title. It was a victory for the baseliners and those who didn’t have a big serve. Holding serve was always important, but breaking serve, particularly for Agassi, was just if not more important.

However, in 2000, no one was able to truly grasp the significance of Marat Safin’s upset of Sampras in the US Open final. Perhaps we still fail to. Though I remember watching the match as a youngster, I have since watched it. It is a ceremonial victory for the returner. While Sampras had lost to great returners such as Agassi before and was hardly in the prime of his career during this match, he was the heavy favourite. Safin was simply ruthless on the return. He was able to return the pace with interest as well as take advantage of the angles that Sampras himself was creating by rushing to net. Net rushing always created risk, and was never a flawless tactic, but it seemed nearly suicidal against a player able to take advantage of so many openings with devastating power.

Of course, Sampras was still a fantastic player and was successful in most service games. But the ability to return some of Sampras’ serves with interest, even today, is truly staggering. On a fast service, tennis will always be about going for your shots. But with serve and volleying slowly exiting the game and the increase of baseline rallies, the culture of the game was shifting.

In a nutshell, starting with some of the earliest variations of the 2-3-5, teams also realized that football was not simply a one sided sport. In other words, while scoring goals was important for success, preventing the opposing team from scoring could also help your team achieve that almighty goal of finishing the match with more goals (changes to the rules also helped this mentality). Eventually, two of the forwards would begin to drop back, to create somewhat of a 2-3-2-3, and then another “midfielder” would drop back in order to mark (or defend) one of the three forwards, to create the 3-2-2-3. Much like in tennis, the “serve and volley” of formations, 2-3-5, died off as teams were able to adapt and defeat it tactically. Suddenly, the obvious advantage of rushing five forwards up against two defenders did not reap the obvious advantages, and teams were forced to adapt. In the modern game, formations tend to be far more balanced and far less offensively minded, with three, typically four defenders at the back.

In football, with 22 players on the field, everyone is constantly playing defense and offense at the same time. With the ball, positioning is key in order to try to advance down the field to create scoring chances, or prevent a counter in case the ball is lost. Likewise, on defense, positioning is key to obviously prevent a goal, but likewise in what speed and fashion to reclaiming the ball from the opponent. For example, an advanced midfielder may serve a creative influence for the forwards, but also be expected to mark an opposing player (see Xavi and Pirlo in the Euro final, for example). Clearly, with 20 outfield players continuously impacting the forward and backward movement of the opposite team, every movement is influential.

At first glance, tennis appears more like a sport such as baseball or American football. It is a continuous stop and start, there is no clock, and there could be a perceived switch from offense (serving) and defense (returning). In truth, this is an oversimplification. In the early days of serve and volleying, and still today, the name of the game is trying to find a way to pass the opponent at the net. With the pattern of play already dictated the second the server rushes the net, the role of both players is significantly different. While serving is an obvious advantage and effects how a point is started, in a baseline rally, it matters little who served once the ball is put into play as both players are positioned evenly. Suddenly, where to place the ball and how to hit it become less obvious as both players jockey to get on top in the point. The effect a player has on a point is constantly both offensive and defensive. It will determine where the opponent will move, but it will also induce a set of likely returns from the opponent and dictate how the defense of that ball should be played and on the cycle goes.

I would argue in football and tennis, the constant struggle to find the correct balance of focusing on scoring goals (going for shots) versus preventing them (playing defensively) is larger and more pronounced than other sports. In football, a focus on going forward also means more players up the pitch, increasing the likelihood of conceding a counter attack or a goal. Opposite of that, a defensive strategy focuses on putting players “behind the ball” (defensively) which is less likely to yield goals, often focusing on countering the opponent by quickly getting players forward after gaining possession. The skills of the players, where to position them and the possible formation and skill of the opposing side must all be taken into account.

In an individual sport such as tennis, the factors should be based on the strength of the player and the opponent as well as the surface.

Enter the counter puncher. Let’s focus on Andy Murray, specifically. For those that understand the analogy, he is nearly the 4-5-1 of tennis. Andy finds incredible success on hard courts. He has little problem dealing with the pace of shot of opposing players as well as being a good returner. He often waits for the opponent to make the offensive move either resulting in an error, or to create angles, and then springs his trap. Of course, the technical ability, creativity, and excellent movement are all necessary to play this type of game. On the surface, Murray appears as a defensive player who moves well, but I would argue he is an example of one of the truest counter punchers we have ever seen.

Until recently, his game did not translate well to clay. A defensive strategy is not necessarily terrible on a slower surface with longer points. However, Andy often did little to try to push his opponent around and often found himself on the defense and without a way of turning it into offense (by turning pace back on the opponent, for example). On grass, his ability to deal with pace helps him. However, he largely puts the onus on the opponent to create pace, and thus can get trapped in slicing rallies where he is unsure of himself and unwilling to go for his shots (this was often the case in his third round match against Baghdatis when he began to struggle).

In football, teams that prefer counter attacking tend to sit deeper on the pitch but use their pace to exploit the openings the opponent has given them after reclaiming the ball. It is not a stretch to say that at times, teams like this can struggle when faced with a similarly defensive minded opponent, and have difficulty creating chances when the onus is on them. A modern day example might be Aston Villa, who flourished away from home as teams would send greater numbers forward and they were comfortable exploiting that space. Likewise to Murray, they struggled at home when teams would employ the previously mentioned tactic against them, and the onus was on them to create chances.

The antithesis of this style, as an example, would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. In my opinion, Tsonga is the complete player in a traditional view of the game. He has a huge serve and a massive forehand, with a plus backhand. He moves incredibly well, particularly from back to front, and is incredibly athletic. More than anything, Jo thrives when he plays extremely offensively. Grass is his favourite surface, and it makes sense with how he intends to play. While it can leave him open to be countered by a player such as Murray, for example, on grass he is often hitting so well that the points are over before the opponent has a chance to have a say. The ball is in the back of the net, if you will.

Until recently, Jo has had the exact opposite problem as Murray on clay, yet his game has not translated over on the surface. He is often torn between going for it and sitting back. When going for it doesn’t work, as the surface is slow and neutralizes some of his power, or he begins to make errors, he retreats into a similarly uninventive, passive style. Neither player are able to construct points when their particular preferred tactic does not work.

For this reason, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are true anomalies both through the history of tennis and the modern game. All three players make adjustments to their games according to the surface but few find such success with differing tactics. I would argue that Federer is unlike the other two in that he makes few adjustments to his game depending on the surface, but in fact is so technically gifted and creative that he is able to construct points in his own way that the surface and opponent tend not to matter. Not to stretch things too far, but similar to Barcelona, if you will. Still, even Federer has weaknesses to be exploited.

The adjustments Nadal and Djokovic have made to their games allow them to find success on any surface against any opponent. They can create their own pace, return well, counter well, switch defense to offense and perhaps most importantly, exploit the differences in the surfaces. Truly, the Nadal that won the 2010 US Open had little to do with the Nadal that won the 2010 Roland Garros title. While varying to a lesser degree, the way Djokovic uses his flexibility and pace to create angles is different on hard courts to grass.

Those who study tactics in football argue that matches are won and lost in the tactical setup, fluidity, and discipline of a side. Of course, individual skill, set pieces and other goal scoring opportunities can arise, but largely this influences how chances are created to reach the ultimate aim: scoring more goals.

I would argue that, while not a tennis coach or expert, tactics in tennis tend to be largely underrated and misunderstood. Despite the fact that many say grass is far slower than it used to be, it remains to be an incredibly different surface to hard courts. Often not enough is done to take advantage of a surface according to the strengths of a players game. Likewise, not enough is done to combat another players strengths. Even some of the top players have difficulty adjusting across surfaces or when their original game plan failed to work against an opponent. Obviously, physical ability, technique, mental strength and other factors all come in to the deciding of a match. However, those who are able to think one step ahead of their opponent may find the most success in a sport that continues to evolve and ask more of players than ever before.

The Changeover Podcast:

Episode #56 – Indian Wells Wrap