Archive for November, 2012

19 Nov 2012

In the beginning, they were scrawny. With the induction of the open era in tennis, when professionals were “open” to play previously all amateur tournaments, tennis was ruled by the Aussies, Americans, and Bjorn Borg. For a relatively young professional sport, it grew and evolved quickly. For all that John McEnroe did to change the sport’s reputation as a quiet, gentleman’s sport, Ivan Lendl may have done to change its reputation as a game played by scrawny boys from the West. Becoming the world number 1 in 1983 and defeating McEnroe in one of Roland Garros’ most infamous finals in 1984, he went on to hold the number 1 spot for a total of 270 weeks, longer than anyone until that time.

18 years beyond Lendl’s retirement and Eastern Europe’s fascination and prowess at the sport continues on. Tomas Berdych made the Wimbledon final in 2010, and a year later his countrywoman went a step further and won the whole thing. Nay, dominated.

2012 has been a year to remember for the Czechs, first laying claim to Fed Cup (over another absurdly talented Eastern European power: Serbia) and then taking the Davis Cup from the Spanish juggernaut.

Even after Berdych’s less than impressive effort against Ferrer, you always knew Stepanek would come in with a shot against Almagro. I think it is often understated how many of these older doubles specialists (Llodra, Mirnyi when he was still playing singles) are still incredible athletes and tennis players, but fail to get up for singles matches on the tour. Who could blame them? Many are past the age of 30 and would probably do well to conserve some energy to win at the thing they are now very good at.

But there are still those moments were these types of players give it a go, and it is usually in front of the home fans. To say that Stepanek has paid his dues for his country would be an understatement. The Czechs seem a constant name in the World Group, and to see Stepanek grinding away isn’t a surprise, it’s a constant. His victory against Croatian Ivo Karlovic will forever stay in my mind. Nearly six hours and a pre-Isner/Mahut stat line that was comical. Of 494 points, 96 of them were aces. 1 in 5. I got more joy watching the live score than the actual match.

Yesterday, Stepanek gave one last hurrah for the serve and volley. The man still moves incredibly, particularly front to back, and has some of the best hands on the tour. Both his net rushing tactics and the crowd practically screamed “come at me, bro” at Almagro and the Spaniard cracked. While the turn of the century saw players such as Marat Safin pick apart the serve and volley, not everyone is a top 20 tennis player in the world, and there is still a raw relevance to trying to play aggressively and get to net, even if it isn’t after every serve.

The Davis Cup has its problems, and it doesn’t always live up to the hype. But yesterday, we once again saw why this tournament creates some of the best drama this sport has to offer. Go ride off into the sunset, Radek. You’ve earned it.

15 Nov 2012

Novak Djokovic wasn’t always this good. Much has been made about his switch to his gluten-free diet, which in return has seemingly helped all physical parts of his game; endurance, breathing, agility and power. In turn it has boosted his confidence and concentration as well as his self belief, turning him into a super being in 2011 and finding continued success in 2012.

While all of these things are true, they have also helped boost his shot making. His backhand has turned into the best in the game. In turn, this has set up certain patterns of play that Djokovic likes to use to get ahead in points. Here is a short breakdown of a strategy that Djokovic consistently uses against Federer. It was on full display in their match at the London World Tour Finals.

It is no secret that Federer’s backhand side is a vulnerable wing. Djokovic targeted this wing heavily, and has in many other matches in the past. However, simply hitting to Federer’s backhand is not enoug to defeat him, and the following style and pattern of play is how Djokovic often takes advantage of Federer and other opponents’ backhands.

As seen, let’s first assume that Djokovic and Federer are caught in a cross court, backhand to backhand rally. This might not necessarily be from the beginning of the rally (though it often was with Djokovic serving), but at any point. Djokovic’s cross court backhand may be his best shot, he makes few errors off of it and consistently hits it deep, pinning his opponent into the corner of the court.

If Djokovic hits a decently well placed cross court backhand, Federer essentially has one of three options. He can a) run around the forehand and try to hit it down the line b) hit a cross court backhand (or forehand) back to Djokovic,, or c) hit a backhand down the line.

Choice a) is a rarity, as Djokovic tends to do well to pin the ball into the corner, and doesn’t serve the purpose of this exercise, so we’ll forget about that for now. If Fed hits a backhand cross court to Djokovic, presumably the first image will continue on. In this match, and in many matches against Federer, Djokovic is incredibly patient. He simply rips the ball back at Federer’s backhand, hoping it will break down and force an error, or a weak response.

However, at the same time, Djokovic is simply daring Federer to hit his backhand down the line, or into a more central area. Fed’s backhand isn’t quite what it used to be, and he’s not exactly closing the shoulder and ripping Wawrinka or Haasesque backhand winners down the line with tons of pace. Regardless, Federer often realized that he was trapped on the backhand wing in a style of rally seen above, and instead of hitting it to Djokovic’s backhand repeatedly, knew he was going to have to try to hit it down the line and make something happen in the stalemate (as seen below).

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15 Nov 2012

It’s that time again, where I answer Wertheim’s mailbag without reading his answers! You can find the original here. As usual, this is nothing against Wertheim, and he always does excellent work. Cheers to @AndrewStoeten for the idea from his always excellent baseball Drunk Jays Fans blog. His beard is almost as legendary as his blog. Let’s do this.

It does not matter what surface the World Tour Finals is played on, what time of year, the significance of the tournament in the pecking order or the amount of American TV coverage. The fact that Maestro Federer has played a round robin against the seven other best players in the world and has been in the finals eight times and won the tournament six times is absolutely remarkable. He should be saluted and given much more credit for this achievement than is generally given.
— Fernando, Valencia

Oh, Fernando. I suppose you have a point. Yes, that is pretty damn impressive. I think there’s a couple of problems here, and we saw it again this year. Presumably this would be the fifth hardest tournament to win all year, after the slams. You need to play the other top guys, and there’s no way around it. However, the level of tennis this year was really subpar considering what you would get out of these guys playing late in slams or maybe even Masters. They’re tired, and they can only care so much. It’s hard to blame them.

Yes, Federer’s six titles at the tournament are pretty impressive, but there are so many other more impressive stats from the guy. Not to mention he was clearly the lesser player against Djokovic, who had another fantastic year and finished it off in style. Let’s focus on the guy who won it, not the guy who has won it a bunch of times before.

The scoring system for doubles at the ATP Finals has quickened the game considerably. First to four points to win a game and a tiebreaker after two sets had the commentators marveling that a match had gone beyond two hours. The doubles has been good to watch, and the format of a singles and doubles match in each session seems to work, but the matches are pretty quick. Is there any feeling that no third set AND no games longer than seven points might be a step too far?
— Elsie Misbourne, Washington, D.C.

This is a very good question. This goes two ways. On one hand, you’re shortening matches in order to make them more entertaining and accessible. On the other hand, you’re shortening them in the name of fitting in singles matches and diminishing it to a bit of a sideshow, clearly lesser to singles.

While I sympathize with doubles players who feel the latter, it’s hard not to think that this has been a good thing for doubles. I didn’t see any of the doubles this past week, but I heard that the matches were consistently entertaining and engaging. Doubles matches at tournaments are a ton of fun for fans and players. There’s just a different, more relaxing, more entertaining feel to it. At the same time, it never feels like an exhibition, or something that isn’t serious. It’s just different, and it’s intriguing to people.

Let’s be honest, doubles is never going to be close to where singles is, and anything that makes it more engaging without sacrificing its integrity, I’m all for it.

Do you think Serena Williams has any chance of being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year?
— Pete, New Jersey

Hard to disagree. Her comeback story sure is inspiring and emotional, and a gold medal and back to back Wimbledon and US Open slams. Not to mention, she’s an American (this is SI we’re talking about) and Wimby and USO are the two slams Americans tune into the most. To boot, she’s never looked as ridiculously dominant or confident doing it. Get in there, Serena.

What do you think of the habit of focusing the camera on the linesman during a challenge or just after a controversial line call? I don’t like it. Unlike the chair, those calling the lines are not all professionals who signed up for that kind of public focus. They’re just doing a thankless job where mistakes should be expected. This past weekend, the cameras repeatedly focused on these people after close calls. It’s a “gotcha moment.” Any facial expression other than blank is often embarrassing to the linesman, especially if the chair overruled them. And any smile when they’re right makes them seem too invested in their calls, rather than maintaining the ideal neutrality. To their credit, the line judges usually maintain a blank expression. But I wonder whether visual focus on them increases the chances of some of the ugliness directed at them by players during the past few years. I doubt the cameras can be formally controlled, but maybe some moral suasion from you will have a groundswell effect if you and others feel similarly?
— Glenn, Arlington, Va.

Heh. Funny question. I have heard second hand accounts of many line judges who prefer not to look at the challenge on the screen, so if they’re wrong, they’re not sure by how much. Another practical reason may be that they simply don’t know they’re on camera, so there’s not much reason to be reacting in the first place. I do always enjoy those who do look, especially if they’re just right and have a bit of a “damn straight” look on their face.

That being said, I’m all for the cameras looking at them. Not too sure what else you would rather look at. And let’s be honest, they’re right more than the players on challenges, why not give them a bit of credit for it.

So what’s the deal with Word TeamTennis? I read again and again that participating in it essentially cost Jimmy Connors the Grand Slam in 1974. The Williams sisters, perpetual no-shows for regular tour events, are regular participants. Martina Hingis is the MVP. What’s the appeal? Is it all attributable to Billie Jean King? Are there appearance fees we don’t hear about?
— Dave S., Toronto

World Team Tennis sure is odd. I do know that it was started by BJK with a sort of “all family fun” idea in mind. That’s why the rules were different, the courts weird colours. It also attempts to play into the team fandom element tennis doesn’t have.

At the same time, it does consistently feel like one big goofy exhibition. Teams change every year and keeping up with it seems pointless. It has been a long running joke with several tennis people I know.

Personally, I think it’s a fun idea in need of some major tweaks. To start, having players stay on the same teams year to year would be a hell of a lot of fun. It would be able to give it some much needed seriousness. You would also need more matches and regularity to get it into people’s consciousness. Obviously this would have to exist outside of the top players, so you’re either looking at getting 1) retired players, 2) very low ranked players or 3) amateur, very young players.

Would four players per team in four to six American cities be that difficult to pull off? Hard to know. But how cool would it be, for example, a Sacramento Capitals fan knowing that Andre Agassi is on your team from year to year?

It’s hard to know if this could fly, but we need to keep in mind that tennis players careers are often done at 30, and having an alternative, legitimate league for players once they are finished may be enticing to players are who are non-big names. Suddenly, the team would carry a weight of it’s own. That’s your team and you want them to win, possibly a little bit more interesting than the seniors tour or an exhibition where you’re attempting to relive the glory days of your favourite player. Thoughts?

Yeah! Tammy vs. Kimiko! That’s my all-time favorite match! And it’s happening in Pune. Is that the oldest professional women’s match of all time?
Oliver, Cologne, Germany

Isn’t the WTA season over?! Lord. But seriously, that probably is. Any athlete being relevant into their 40s is pretty incredible. In tennis, especially considering the changes the game has gone through? Astonishing. I don’t know about Tammy, but I do know first hand that Kimiko is incredibly kind and basically the awesomest, so that doesn’t hurt either.

If the lyrics of Abracadabra harken bad memories, I can imagine your reaction when you hear Take the Money and Run. You know that brilliant second verse that goes like this: “Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas. You know he knows just exactly what the facts is.” It doesn’t get more “Classic” than that.
— Thomas Alonzo, Columbia, S.C.

Don’t do drugs, kids.

You HAVE to stop the worst songs write-ups. My partner reads your column and has been singing We Built This City for two weeks around the house. You are ruining my life! Thanks!
— Charlie G, Washington, D.C.

FLASH… dun dun dun… AHH AHH! SAVIOUR OF THE UNIVERSE! Don’t encourage me. (I have no idea what this is all about.)

I’m looking for a documentary that was produced back in the ’90s about the Challenger Tour. I think it followed a few players around from tournament to tournament and gave a revealing look at the tough life (no sponsors, calling their own lines, etc). Do you recall such a documentary, and what the name of it might be?
— Ray, Torrance, Calif.

Jon, dude, really? You’re answering questions for people who do not know how to use Google? That would be “The Journeymen”.

The Rulebreaker

Posted by Brodie under: Ferru, London

7 Nov 2012

Modern men’s tennis is a ruthless game. Men’s tennis has featured many styles over its years; serve and volley, the power game, the clay rat. Players were easy to pigeon hole into specific styles, and you knew what you were going to get. Even players as late as Roddick and Hewitt had specific styles and shots they were likely to play, but also with some very distinct weaknesses.

Existing at the top today requires being the full package. All of the top four serve well, dictate play, play great defense, run for days and make incredible shots off both wings. Players such as Tsonga, Berdych and the much missed Soderling could simply over power their opponents by hitting right through them.

David Ferrer, aged 30 and listed at 5’9 and 160lbs (rounded up?) is enjoying what is the best year of his career. He can’t make Federer wonder shots, he doesn’t possess Nadal’s strength or spin, nor Djokovic’s agility. He doesn’t have nearly the power of any of the seven players listed above. How then, does he do it?

David Ferrer is both a champion of extreme fitness and extreme concentration. Due to his build, Ferrer is almost immediately behind most of the players in the top 20. Truly, it can’t be underlined enough. The man is 30 years old. Thirty. And he hasn’t missed massive amounts of time due to injury either.

The energy Ferrer brings to the court is astonishing. Yes, he’s speedy. But quick means very little if your footwork and endurance is not at peak physical ability. First off, let’s break down exactly what we’re talking about with “footwork”. It’s a nice buzz term to use, but how does it work?

Footwork doesn’t necessarily refer to how quick a player can move, but how quickly a player can move their feet to adjust to a shot. This means a few things. To start, a player is likely to commit fewer errors, that’s pretty obvious. Secondly, a player is going to have an easier time placing the ball where they want; they can adjust their body to get a more acute angle, and so on. Thirdly, it means a player can accelerate quicker and play much better defense. If a ball is tricky to reach, the player is more likely to be able to get something on the ball to get it over the net in some sort of decent position. Ferrer does this exceptionally well on the backhand wing.

There’s also something Ferrer does exceptionally well that is not often mentioned. He gets the ball deep. If Ferrer simply ran and got the ball back over the net, he would be destroyed. Even when not pushing Del Potro around last night, he pinned him back with excellent depth of shot. Del Potro, trying to find a way to take advantage of a short ball from Ferrer was left with little hope and instead was forced to simply respond to what the Spaniard would fire at him next.

Finally, Ferrer’s concentration is absolutely superb. I truly believe that concentration and fitness go hand in hand. So much is made of a player’s mental strength, and so much narrative wrapped around it. In shorter matches, I often find this incredibly overplayed, but it is difficult to understate in long matches. If you have been playing tennis for four hours, you’re not only going to be physically tired, you’re going to be mentally exhausted. One way to keep from being mentally exhausted is to be physically fit.

I’m not sure you could make a case for anyone being more physically fit than Ferrer. Not only is he 30, the way he must play, run, and hit the ball deep requires a ton more mileage and effort than players like Federer or Djokovic. That a player can win Paris on a Sunday, fly to London, and then dismantle Del Potro in three sets on a Tuesday night is truly remarkable.

While the players in the top 4 are incredible tennis players, and should be celebrated as such, Ferrer is truly one of the greatest athletes this sport has seen, and a real victory for the everyman (AKA us small guys!).

Enjoy Ferrer not just for his size, but for the rules that he breaks week in and week out. Run, “little man”, run.

The Tsonga Coaching Paradox

Posted by Brodie under: Jo

6 Nov 2012

Wimbledon 2011. Tsonga vs. Federer. Federer up one set to love, and cruising on serve in the second. 4-5, 15-0, and out of nowhere, a crazy point emerges (the one above). After several defense returns, Tsonga attempts to neutralize Federer by firing one back over, albeit straight at the Swiss. No luck. The next shot? A slice to the right. Federer unfazed. Inside out slice to the left. Even with an improvised one handed backhand, a lucky net cord, and a dive, Tsonga still can’t find a way to win the point.

It was a perfect metaphor for the way the match was going. Hold serve all you like, but on Federer’s serve, he plays by his rules, and come crunch time, he will crush you. Indeed, he did, going up 5-0 in the tiebreak and winning it 7-3, going up two sets to love.

The video above is a typical point against Federer. The opponent, pushed out of position, attempts to not only get back into the point, but get on top of the point by throwing the kitchen sink at their masterful opponent, only to be calmly undone in the end. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a great player in his own right, had thrown the kitchen sink, but was on his way out with a whimper.

Or had he?

Suddenly, Jo not only threw caution to the wind, he set it on fire. He played more aggressively, yes, but he began to hammer the ball. Absolutely crush it. Forehands mid-height were jumped and ripped into. Backhands were pummeled. And the forehand was sent to the corners with reckless abandon, both corners. When he knew he was on top, he come foreward appropriately and finish it.

While the highlights tend to show the longer points for interest, lost are the points where Tsonga was simply unplayable. He was raking in free points behind massive first serves and punishing inside out forehands. On the return, he was constantly looking to get forward. That doesn’t mean mindless net rushing, it means hitting a good ball, and following it up by punishing a short ball after. Sometimes it resulted in net play, other times it simply resulted in Jo hitting an outright winner.

Jo went on to win the match in five sets in what is the most impressive five set turn around I have ever seen. Tsonga did not play badly in the first two sets, and Federer did not play badly in the final three sets. Tsonga simply chose to destroy the ball and look to play aggressively. It gave Federer less time on the ball and forced him into a defensive position, and not even his great knack for incredible shots could save him.

Here is the great problem with Jo. At the time, he was without a coach. He attributed some of his success to this factor. His random one handed backhands (he normally uses two) would drive a coach crazy. But his sudden ability to say “meh, screw it” down two sets and begin to rip the cover off the ball could easily be attributed to this. There was no coach in the stands to yell at. No “why is this happening?!” responded to with blank stares. Jo was on his own, and his only response was to go out in a blaze of glory. Weirdly, he won.

Jo started 2012 as he left 2011; without a coach. Without going results heavy, the start of the season had mixed results. Motivation returned in Paris, where the Frenchman held multiple match points against Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and should have won. How did he do it? Think Robin Soderling with movement. Jo was largely crushing the ball yet again. While clay is a slow service, big hitters can find success on the stuff if the ball is bouncing at a good height and they are persistent (Soderling, Del Potro, Stosur). A Wimbledon semifinal. Then downhill from here with a weak loss to Klizan at the US Open.

Tsonga looked a shadow of his big hitting self against a less than inspired Djokovic in London. Very recently, Tsonga has hired on Roger Rasheed, former Hewitt and Monfils coach, stating that he had become lonely on the tour, and that it was difficult to stay motivated. Fair point. It’s hard to run out on court and crush the ball if you kind of don’t care.

Coaches. Can’t win with ’em. Can’t win without ’em. There is definitely a case to be made that coaches in the past may have held Tsonga back, whether it is overloading him with information, breaking his confidence, we can only assume. While going without a coach is fine, it can only last so long for a player like Tsonga. Not even Federer could last without a coach.

The moral of the story? Rasheed does not need to fill Tsonga’s head with deep tactical analysis, or even deep analysis of his shots. There is nothing wrong with that. Rasheed needs to get Tsonga practicing more, get his energy and motivation levels up, which in turn will raise his game to a more aggressive state. And lastly? He needs to tell Jo to crush it.

Hit the damn ball, Jo. Hit the damn ball.

Mind The Racket Podcast:

Episode 7 – US Open Week 2 Wrap-Up