27 Jan 2014

Every Monday I take some of the best questions and give some answers in hope of creating further discussion. If you would like to send in a question, Tweet me (@MindTheRacket) or e-mail me at brodie@mindtheracket.

A big thanks to everyone for all of the great questions this week, and apologies if I didn’t get to yours. Great questions, as always.

I have to be honest and say that Twitter and presumably most people’s reaction to the final was quite well measured, considering the freak outs that we often get in sports related #fauxoutrage. This was Stan’s title, but the effect the injury had on that specific match can’t be ignored. (It can also be noted that Wawrinka only played six matches after Pospisil withdrew.)

What Stan achieved was incredible, and simply put, no one can take that away from him now. In the long term, there won’t be any blight attached to this win – these things tend to fade over time. In the short term? It certainly needs to be acknowledged. Which brings me to…

It’s important to acknowledge Rafa’s injury, because Stan only really needed to win a set and a half against a fully functioning Rafa. He even managed to choke a set away – something he fully admitted to. This doesn’t really matter for the past, but the future. Wawrinka is far from the favourite to win Roland Garros suddenly. That said, if he sticks in the top 4 ranking spots until RG he could find himself with an incredibly friendly draw. In theory, he will still have to go through Nadal and Djokovic, the top two players in the world, but this wouldn’t be until the semis and final. This ups the chance of one of those players losing in the quarters or semis, and giving Stan a player to pick off in the next round. Stanimal the Manimal has always had great success on clay, too, as it gives him bonus time to really load up the backhand. The high ranking will see him seeded well in other tournaments as well. I’m not sure if Stan will win another slam, but he could be a threat to sneak a Masters title this year.
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25 Jan 2014

Roger Federer Australian Open Nadal

Tennis hasn’t always been played this way.

The history of the sport of tennis is typically divided into two eras with the dawn of “The Open Era”, a sort of Anno Domini that began when Roland Garros became the first tournament to open its doors to professionals in 1968. However, the game that was played in 1968 hardly resembles the game that is played today.

We all know that the change from wooden racquets to modern technology in the 1980s had an incredible impact on the sport – perhaps an impact leading to the most significant change of any widely played modern sport. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the ancient method of serving and volleying, a tactic that had brought so many so much success, was beginning to be viewed as an outdated strategy to win matches at the highest level of the sport.

This wasn’t just down to the new racquet technology. Yes, players were getting better at dismantling and expecting serving and volleying when returning, such as Marat Safin’s rout of Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final. But they were also starting to find more success by staying at the back of the court when serving. This has little to do with a purposeful tactical shift and everything to do with the increased strength, speed and stamina of players in the modern sporting age. Simply put, tennis players weren’t just great tennis players anymore – they were also elite athletes.

Perhaps the best example comes from Andre Agassi’s book “Open”, where he recounts his wild drop in ranking and success. Agassi wasn’t playing well, but above all else, wasn’t fit enough. His rise from the embers of the Challenger circuit were widely down to the success of his trainer Gil Reyes who had Agassi completing vigourous workouts specifically designed for tennis players, eating properly, and hydrating properly on court with something that Agassi affectionately called “Gil Juice”.

Today, the practices that Reyes employed are a given for all players (and still employed with the Adidas team). However, at the time, they were seen as progressive and even revolutionary. That was less than 20 years ago.

Today there can be no doubt that the top tennis players are among the upper tiers of the world’s best athletes.

In 2013, Roger Federer had his worst year since 2002. Was it the back? Was it the racquet? Could he find a way to play more aggressively? Could he improve his serve? People wanted answers. After his defeat of Andy Murray at this year’s 2014 Australian Open, the narrative was simple – the aggressive play we come to expect from Federer was back. Federer was back to his old self. Before his semifinal match against Nadal, commentator Nick Lester, while also stating Nadal’s blister and perceived lack of freshness, went as far to say “the way Federer has played here… I think he has a real shot here. If I was putting my money down, I’d be looking at Federer in 3 of 4 sets.” Federer was then dismissed with ease as Nadal won in straight sets.

We know that sports science has pushed the athletic heights of tennis into the stratosphere. Despite all of this, there has been little talk about perhaps the most obvious and least sexy topics when it comes to Federer: he’s getting older. So what can we learn from other major sports when it comes to aging and decline?
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20 Jan 2014

Every Monday I take some of the best questions and give some answers in hope of creating further discussion. If you would like to send in a question, Tweet me (@MindTheRacket) or e-mail me at brodie@mindtheracket. Thanks, everyone.

More and more, I’m starting to find the idea of “hype” an incredibly fascinating thing. It certainly pops up in all sports, but in an individual sport like tennis, it’s always an unavoidable topic when talking about young players, or groups of players.

What is “hype”, anyway? To start, our idea of how much a player has been hyped is our own personal experience – there is no master “Hype Truth” out there. So what is it?

1) The weight of other voices (or lack there of) telling us how good or bad a player is

2) Our idea of whether or not that hype is either warranted or over done according to our own ideas of a) how much any one player should be talked about and b) our own projection of how good their talent level is

3) Whether or not we believe the hype is describing the player’s current form, or their potential in the future

Sloane Stephens has become one of the most interesting cases of being fed through The Hype Machine. If you live in the United States or Canada and watch ESPN, you’ve had her talked about at you endlessly, yet you might not think the talent or the results quite match up. On the other hand, if you don’t watch ESPN (I don’t), and get most of your tennis commentary through individual matches, online articles, and your own personalized Twitter feed (I fall into this category), Sloane Stephens has barely been a topic of discussion. Maybe it’s because her break through came a year ago, maybe it’s because people would much rather debate the ceiling of Bouchard, I’m not sure. Personally, I view Stephens as nearly underrated in my own personal circle. She hasn’t put it all together, but 1) I don’t see a ton of people talking about her, 2) I certainly think she deserves to be talked about a great deal and 3) believe that she isn’t fantastic right now, but will be in the future.

If you follow the same checklist for Simona Halep, you will almost certainly come up with a different answer. I have even had Romanians say that they’re excited that she will make the top 10 in hopes that she will get more attention back home. To be honest, she hasn’t played that many big matches, either. And so while it frustrates me that people say “she hasn’t done anything in the slams”, they might just be saying “I haven’t really seen her play much.” So unless you follow only five people on Twitter and one of them is me, you almost certainly don’t think Halep has gotten much hype. (I’m here for you, girl.)

Winning solves all problems in sports, ultimately. I picked Halep to qualify for the YEC this year, and she has a solid shot at making the semifinals in Melbourne. She’ll finish out the week in the top 10. Outside of semifinal points in Rome, most of her points come post Wimbledon, and the points that she should rank up over the clay season and at Roland Garros should see her staying in the top 10 well into the summer. Eventually everyone will have to reckon with Simona, give it time.
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19 Jan 2014

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Brodie and Juan Jose discuss the stand outs of the opening week or so of the Australian Open, including Ivanovic, Muguruza, Dimitrov, Bautista-Agut and many more. They also introduce a brand new segment, and talk about some of the more interesting things players had to say this week.

Remember to subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher or use this feed to subscribe to us on an Android device or any other feed aggregator. If you like it, give us a rating and even a review and we will love you forever. Also, check out the always great The Changeover and all of its lovely members: @linzsports, @juanjo_sports and @AmyFetherolf .

18 Jan 2014

Federer Old

The ATP is currently enjoying a period of previously unforeseeable success. From the emergence of the greatest player in its history in Roger Federer, to one of the greatest rivalries in sport with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic’s incredible success and Andy Murray’s snapping of the British drought, things are looking pretty good for the ATP at the moment.

At the same time, those in the tennis community have pondered the lack of emergence of young talent to crack the top 30. This excellent piece from The Changeover looks at just how the average of the of the Top 50 has risen in recent years.

While we can discuss the lack of talent of younger players, we also need to discuss the age and continuity of the elite (using the top 16 and 32 as bench marks). It’s easy to note that the “Big 4″ have been around and winning for years, but names like Tsonga, Wawrinka, and Berdych have been around a considerable time as well, and aren’t getting younger. Eventually, the level of these players will drop, and they will retire – but someone is going to have to take their place. Is this simply a bias of recent memory, or is this continuity of elite players a surprising new trend in the history of the ATP? Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.

The following chart looks at the continuity of the top 16 and 32 ranked players on the ATP entering the Australian Open. (The same is true for the WTA’s version of the chart – these are the players that should have been seeded, not those who necessarily were, due to injuries/withdrawls.) In other words, how many players ranked in the top 16 and 32 in 2009 have found themselves ranked in a similar position 5 years down the line?
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13 Jan 2014

Every Monday I take some of the best questions and give some answers in hope of creating further discussion. If you would like to send in a question, Tweet me (@MindTheRacket) or e-mail me at brodie@mindtheracket. Thanks, everyone.

Which ATP & WTA player outside of the Top 10 would not surprise you if he/she won a major in 2014? Thanks, your website is great!
-Shola (@attheapollo)

An interesting question!

The ATP is certainly a very, very difficult guess – there’s literally zero evidence to suggest that this would happen this year. Quite honestly, there’s probably only two players outside of the top 10 with any chance of winning a slam (possibly with some help from injuries) – Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz at somewhere like the US Open and Wimbledon respectively. Both players are slowly but surely improving over large sample sizes, and if either good get a very, very good draw and get hot, they would be the most likely.

The WTA is clearly much more open. Who might pull a Marion Bartoli in 2014? Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon is the most obvious choice. Simona Halep isn’t a terrible bet for Roland Garros (if you win, you’re taking home some serious cash). And hey, one can never really count out Samantha Stosur. Outside of that – I don’t see a whole lot.

“Do you think Sorana Cirstea will break into the top 20 this year and what must she do to do so?”
- Aniek

Good question! Mwah. Quite honestly, if she’s playing well, she will cause Sorana all sorts of problems (assuming both of them get that far). If she does, she’ll get Jankovic in the fourth round and then Sharapova in the quarters. I certainly like her to make the fourth round, and that would be a good result for her. I’ll say she’ll make the quarters, though, as the push to qualify for the YEC begins.

Amazingly, Sorana Cirstea has never been a top 20 player. Ever. She was somewhere in the 25-30 range before Toronto last year, and a huge run to the final only managed to land her at 21. She’s jumped between 21 and 22 ever since. Ultimately, this is just a number, but players (and apparently fans like me) do care about these things, and it’s a nice feather for the hat.

One can only wonder with Sori. She certainly put in a ton of work with Gil Reyes and the Adidas team over the break once again, yet had two pretty shocking losses to start the year. I think there are several things powerful players on the outside looking in can do, and I’ll have a post on how power has changed in the WTA eventually. However, one thing that might make a huge difference for Sorana is almost too obvious – first serve percentage. Cirstea and players like her have no problem dominating and winning points in which they get ahead in a rally early, and first serve percentage can make all of the difference for her. She plays (and wins) a ton of three set matches, and in the matches she wins, her first serve percentage is almost always down in the set that she lost. She served at 60% or better for her entire Toronto run. That’s not an accident.

I am going to give a crappy answer to this question – it is certainly tough to tell. Years ago, Bouchard looked like a player who would eventually be overwhelmed by the big hitters of the WTA. Quite frankly, she looked all too Canadian. A good mover, solid, repetitive strokes, but struggling for a real punch.

Anyone who has watched Bouchard lately knows that this certainly isn’t a problem now. 17 and 18 year olds are taking more and more time (on both tours) to develop simply because the game has gotten so much better and requires incredible amounts of both strength and stamina – a good feel for the ball only gets you so far. In other words, the very young players that we’re beginning to see, Vekic, Konjuh, Barty etc. are likely to grow leaps and bounds over the coming years. It’s the easy choice, but Donna Vekic certainly is a player to watch out for. Being so tall and already naturally powerful, she won’t have to wildly adjust her game as she grows and gets stronger.

Probably not, no. I once tried to in this piece. I feel a bit bad for Petra. I’ve sat at tables with her during WTA All Access Hours (including her first ever), and she’s a sweet, positive girl who can’t help but grin at some of the littlest things. She has incredible power – we’ve all seen her hit Maria Sharapova off a tennis court like most of us swat away a fly. However, she struggles with asthma and extreme heat at times and is far from a natural mover. When she gets pushed around early in points, she can go off the boil very quickly (see the New Haven final loss to Halep last year). Those that can do that – take advantage of Petra’s second serve, serve big and push her early in a point (see Cirstea in Toronto last year) can find real success against Kvitova and force her into errors. It’s not about the points that Kvitova will win with her power, it’s about how the points she will lose do to her poor movement.

10 Jan 2014

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The whole crew plus Jeff Sackmann (@tennisabstract) do a quarter by quarter break down of the men’s side of the Australian Open, picking out potential good matches, who we think will deep, and who we think will ultimately win the whole thing. Delicious!
Remember to subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher or use this feed to subscribe to us on an Android device or any other feed aggregator. If you like it, give us a rating and even a review and we will love you forever. Also, check out the always great The Changeover and all of its lovely members: @linzsports, @juanjo_sports and @AmyFetherolf .

10 Jan 2014

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The whole crew plus Jeff Sackmann (@tennisabstract) do a quarter by quarter break down of the women’s side of the Australian Open, picking out potential good matches, who we think will deep, and who we think will ultimately win the whole thing. Do it up!

Remember to subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher or use this feed to subscribe to us on an Android device or any other feed aggregator. If you like it, give us a rating and even a review and we will love you forever. Also, check out the always great The Changeover and all of its lovely members: @linzsports, @juanjo_sports and @AmyFetherolf .

8 Jan 2014

The Championships - Wimbledon 2008 Day One

In team sports, the ultimate goal is to win games. We know this to be true. At the end of the season, your ranking in the standings or table is based solely on your number of wins or total points. In sports like basketball or baseball, there are no ties, and it is a simple win-loss record.

However, we know that the total number of wins or points a team accumulates over a period of time or entire season does not tell the tale of the whole season. Along with the rise of advanced player statistics, we have also seen a rise in advanced team statistics. Things such as corsi in hockey, total shots ratio in soccer, or advanced offensive and defensive statistics in basketball give us a better idea of what a team is good or bad at. There are even more basic measures such as goal differential or total runs scored and given up, and so on.

Ultimately, these statistics give us a better idea of how “good” or “bad” a team was over the course of an entire season. Let’s use basketball as an example. Obviously a team finishing the season with a +200 points total is likely to have many more wins than a team finishing the season with a -200 points total. However predictive or interesting these statistics might be, winning games remains the only thing that matters.

It does not matter if the Bulls beat the Lakers 2 by 90-89 or by 90-50, they still only receive a single win for the performance. We can use these advanced statistics to see if a team was largely unlucky or unlucky in accordance to their predictive statistics. (An excellent modern example would be the 2012 Baltimore Orioles who, despite not having the greatest overall numbers as a team, won an incredible amount of 1 run baseball games to essentially “cheat” the system and make the playoffs.)

Now, let’s talk tennis.

A similar bias exists in a single set of tennis. In our basketball example, the amount of points you score in a season does not matter – what matters is the amount of games you won, which are essentially subdivided events. A set of tennis works in the same way. It does not matter how many points you win in a set, but only that you win more games than your opponent. (It makes sense that they’re called games, no?)

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7 Jan 2014

Mattek-Sands Tweener Sydney

It was the type of interview that would cause most tennis fans to cringe, hit the mute button, change the channel, or throw the remote through the television. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her husband Justin Sands sat across from John Inverdale of the UK’s ITV network at Roland Garros. Fresh off her massive upset of Li Na and with a day off, Mattek-Sands was as relaxed and jovial as possible. The win and eventual fourth round finish at Roland Garros was one of the best upsets and weeks of Bethanie’s tennis career.

John Inverdale’s tennis knowledge is not exactly comprehensive, to put it mildly. It was likely that he knew little to nothing of Mattek-Sands before getting the chance to talk to her husband in Paris. What followed was a suited British man genuinely intrigued by an energetic American couple – one, a tennis player with wacky hair, another a burly American farm boy with a bright shirt and the phrase “@BMATTEK” written on it (Mattek-Sands’ Twitter handle).

Bethanie got a chance to share her story of realizing she was allergic to not just one, but up to 20 different types of foods, and how a changed diet had kept away sickness and kept her energy high. Her love of crazy hair and clothes came through in her overall positive outlook and interest in keeping things fresh while on tour. Her husband spoke honestly about his support and love for his wife, and the commitment he had made to not just her, but her tennis career.

To some, it might have been over the top. To me, it was quite endearing an honest. The American became a player I promised myself to keep an eye on.

An improved diet is an easy narrative to follow, particularly one involving the realization of food allergies. One would not only expect it to help professional athletes, but just about anyone. Djokovic switching to a gluten-free diet helped spark countless narratives, as did Mardy Fish’s past weight loss.

But what does this diet change mean for Mattek-Sands in particular, and how does it manifest itself in her on-court play?

The best players in the world inspire all sorts incredible hyperbole – often with good reason. Rafael Nadal has a myriad of nicknames and catch phrases associated with him. “The King of Clay”, his mental toughness, his ability to fight, “plays every point like it’s his last”.

Most of these fun phrases tend to dance around something Nadal does better than most humans to ever play the sport – move well, and move often. Nadal’s ability to take several small steps to adjust his body and angle allow him to create incredible angles, make fewer errors, hit with great depth, and ultimately make better decisions. His incredible fitness allows him to keep this up well into long matches.

Movement and small adjustments in footwork are important for any tennis player, but can make a world of difference for players at the very top of the game.

So, how has Mattek-Sands’ movement improved, and how has her approach changed?
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Mind The Racket Podcast:

Episode 3 – Australian Open Finals, Week 2 Wrap