Monday, March 10, 2014

PLEASE STEP ASIDE MISS SHARAPOVA

Since he won the reinvented ATP 500 event in Acapulco just a couple weeks ago, there's been a lot of talk about Grigor Dimitrov and whether he is in pole position to usurp the four horsemen of the tennis world.  And while there is a lot to like about this kid with seemingly unlimited potential, the next match of his beloved Maria Sharapova may elicit an altogether a more interesting question:  what does the future hold in the game on the other side of the gender gap?  The stark contrast between the stroke production of the ambassador of "Big Babe" tennis, and that of her precocious and spindly opponent in the third round of the BNP Parisbas at Indian Wells, brings that question into relief.

I first saw Camila Giorgi play two years ago at Wimbledon 2012, as she confronted another proponent of the ball bashing brigade, Nadia Petrova.  And while Petrova stood 2-4 inches taller than her (the gentleman in me will not reveal their weight difference), it was this sinewy little Argentine Italian Giorgi who bludgeoned her way not only to victory, but to the beginning of a voyage that has brought her to the cusp of a regular seat at the table of the privileged.  She fell at the subsequent hurdle against the wily Aga Radwanska, on her way to the final, but for me it was Giorgi who really impressed.

And this has been the pattern in Giorgi's career since.  Later that summer, after justifying her wildcard into Cincinnati by defeating her aging compatriot, Francesca Schiavone in two blistering sets, she succumbed to Sloane Stephens in the next round.  The next year, after muscling her way through the qualifying draw at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina, and handling the Mandy Minella in straight sets, she lost tamely to Serena Williams. She then stunned the tennis world with a straight sets, first round victory over Marion Bartoli at Strasbourg, just two months before the French courtesan's victory at Wimbledon, before losing desperately in straight sets to Genie Bouchard.  And that loss included a bagel in the second set!  At Wimbledon, after blowing out the 22nd seeded Sorana Cirstea (another little babe with a big game, and inversely proportional tactics) she fell to Bartoli at Wimbledon in the 4th round.

But her career seemed to take a turn for the better at the US Open.  There she defeated Caroline Wozniacki in three brutal, bone-crushing sets under the lights in Arthur Ashe, endearing herself to the commentators and fans alike with the win.  In this match Wozniacki's exceptional defense allowed Giorgi to display the full force of her modern forehand, with technique which distinguishes her from the vast majority of women in the WTA.  She showed a compact and explosive forehand where you can always see her racquet head, a refusal to conceded the baseline, and the refreshing willingness to come forward, despite a shaky net game.  With footwork reminiscent of Steffi Graf, and a forehand punch more penetrating than Justine Henin v2.0, Giorgi appeared to have found her sweet spot technically and tactically at just the right time.

Then it all came apart at the first sign of "difficoltà".  

In the next round she faced another wily compatriot, Roberta Vinci, who exposed her limited tactical acumen by feeding her a steady diet of short slice backhands and deep topspin forehands pushing her forwards, backwards, left and right, and straight into a humiliating straight sets loss. The variation was enough to disrupt the momentum she had gained in the previous round.  Two steps forward, one step back, was the order for her still burgeoning career.  

But something happened in the Fed Cup this year.  Once again facing a clone from the big babe mold, Madison Keys, she befuddled her with a steady diet of flat power and wrong-footing, hitting aggressively to conservatives spot for an hour.  The result:  she so comprehensively overwhelmed her more celebrated (for all the wrong reasons) adversary, that Captain Mary Jo Fernandez removed Keys from the line-up the next day, in a desperate attempt to salvage the tie.  In this match Giorgi demonstrated the same relentless first strike tennis that poses the biggest threat to the hegemony of the bodacious bruisers of women's tennis.  It's a style of play that may turned the women's game into an uninspiring monotony of essentially pared down version of the Williams sisters, and Giorgi may just have the tonic.

In Dubai she dismantled Marta Domachowska (the not-so-curious recipient of a wild card) in the first round of qualifying, then demolished Andrea "Petkorazzi" Petkovic in the first of two victories this year over her popular German opponent.  The second came here at Indian Wells - this one a determined come back from a set down.  But the interesting thing about this match up is that it pits two players who've broken through the phalanx of brainless ball bashing, with modern technique and aggressive point control from the baseline.  That's a style more reminiscent of the men's game and diametrically opposed to the cast-iron replicas of...well, everyone else.  And as long as they're still around, nobody will never do that better than the Williams sisters.

Foremost of that mold is Maria Sharapova - a less mobile, less powerful, less resourceful version of the Queens of tennis.  And her steady diet of flat pace should be the perfect pilot light to ignite the full throttle, first strike repertoire that is the not so obvious answer to doldrums of the big game.  Sharapova's record against Serena Williams over the last 10 years, and the entirely invented rivalry the media have been begging for, demonstrates the fallacy of fighting of fire with fire.

If ever there were a time for Camila Giorgi to make a move in her career and possibly shake up the women's game, it's today against Miss Sharapova.  If she does, she (and not one of these other big babe clones) may accidentally become the new "it" girl for which the WTA is always on the lookout.

Friday, March 7, 2014

SERENA AND INDIAN WELLS

There was talk that she might play this year, 13 long years after her traumatic victory here over Kim Clijsters in 2001, and the ugly incident that has forever divided the tennis community at this time of year.  But once again it wasn't meant to be.  And despite Larry Ellison's very public determination to see this tournament take its place next to the majors in the halls of tennis heaven, neither she, nor her sister have come back.  One can have an opinion about the veracity of Richard Williams claims of racial abuse, the tournament's shoddy treatment of the Williams sisters, or whether any player's responsibility to the game supersedes their right to ply their trade when and where they choose.  But one thing is certain:

Tennis has never really dealt with this.

And the monument to that unresolved issue, the eyesore that never fades, is the ignominious absence of Venus and Serena Williams from Indian Wells.  If it weren't for the obvious social chasm between the picturesque surroundings of this tournament, and the bleak and desperate origins of those two immense figures in women's tennis, one might consider it ironic that they have eschewed what should be their annual homecoming. But if you know the history of their last journey to what most call tennis paradise, it may very well be that the chasm is a natural consequence of many factors that continues to make tennis the sport least likely to produce black champions.

There have been, and continue to be both, great black players in the making, and others who have just barely missed the mark.  But when one considers what blacks have been able to achieve in other sports, one has to wonder why so few have followed in the footsteps of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah, and the Williams sisters.  When will another scale that Mount Rush(the net)more of so many great champions that look down their noses at those supplicants who gape to be their heir?  There are a lot of theories of why it hasn't happened. Everything from the cost of the game where blacks have so many more readily accessible options, to the unseen grey faces that rule the game, grim with disdain, making incidents like 2001 possible, even in this day and age.

But nobody's truly answered the question of why?  I certainly haven't.  But I suspect that until another black champion comes to Indian Wells, is received as a people's champion and goes on to win a major, it won't be.  Such is the stain that intolerance, self-absorption, collective martyrdom and entitlement can leave on a game that so many love. 

It's easy to lay the blame at the feet of Venus and Serena.  But maybe not if you can relate to the abject isolation, the ironic rejection and their resentment of the entitlement that those who would have them return so readily display when discussing the subject.  Likewise, it's easy to lay the blame at the feet of Charlie Pasarell, and the tournament administrators, who did nothing to dispel the suspicion that led to the abusive crowd and their unseemly behavior.  But then again, you could be convinced that (1) they might have actually inflamed the enmity expressed (borne of something deeper than being gypped), and (2) it really wasn't their responsibility to do so.  

It's probably easiest to blame the faceless, collective tennisocracy of Indian Wells - those entitled few who can afford to look down their noses at one of the world's greatest athletes with impunity.  It's an unattractive reminder of those privileged Romans who felt they deserved a better display when a Christian lasted just a few minutes at the Coliseum.  But is it reasonable to hold them responsible for the false impression they were left with by the likes of Stefano Capriati, Jim Pearce, and so many tennis parents before Richard Williams.  After all, his predecessors were men that few would deny could do anything to prostitute not only their beloved children, but the game itself, in order to manufacture a result that was to their liking alone?

Would they have reacted any differently if they knew that Richard Williams could scarcely compel either of his children to manufacture results.  After all, when he kept his daughters from competing in the same tournaments as children (precisely to avoid the appearance of impropriety) he was foiled by the insolence of Serena who would enter herself in those very tournaments under pseudonyms.  If they knew that Richard was no more able to quell the competitiveness of his daughters as children, would they harbor suspicions that he could so at that stage in their careers?  This after both had already won majors and other tournament finals, against one another?  

And what if the crowd had simply expressed their displeasure, absent of the contributions of the lunatic fringe that chose to include their racial antipathy?  Would the Williams sisters be able to forgive them their trespasses?  I would guess, they would, because after all, Serena returned to Roland Garros after the abuse she took in 2003.  

Is it realistic to be convinced that there was no undercurrent of racial ingratitude towards the sisters (as in, "We let you in here, and this is the thanks we get?") among the less fringe, but no less displeased, spectators who felt they deserved more?  I would that is unlikely.

I suspect the real answer lies somewhere in between.  Serena has done more than enough on her own to elicit the very lack of universal enthusiasm that she bemoans.  All too often she allows the focus of this backlash to languish in the unmerited realms of the racism, misogyny, or the ubiquitous "haters", or whosoever else conveniently draws attention away from herself and her own actions, and places it on those who react to her personally, and not what she "represents".  

And I also suspect that, though we hate to admit it, there is a part of the tennis going public - not the laymen, but the entitled engine of the social elite who, to this day, drive this game to and fro.  And I suspect they are still just a little salty at the prospect that after all this time, Serena doesn't seem to appreciate how far they've come in welcoming her into the game.  I think they still bristle at her convenient allusions to the fact that there is still probably some overhead of their disapproval that allows Maria Sharapova (and more frustratingly, not her) to be the highest paid female athlete on the planet.

The truth is that Venus and Serena's refusal to return to Indian Wells is their god-given right. No professional, in any field of endeavor, ought to be forced to enslave themselves to a responsibility heaped on them by those that seek only to enrich themselves from their labor.  Nobody should expect them to, in any way, give up their individual right to do whatever the hell they damn well please.  It is their right to hold a grudge, and it is only they themselves that suffer the presumed self-inflicted consequences.  

And what of Richard Williams?  Born into the most desperate of poverty, right in the white underbelly of the Jim Crow South, literally the son of a Shreveport, Lousiana sharecropper.  He clawed his way out of that obscurity to the highest echelons of a game neither he, nor his gifted daughters, were ever meant to play, only to be laced with the most heinous racial epithets and the most undeserved vitriol at the very moment when he should have been most proud?  Can anyone blame him for not wanting to return, when so many other places would receive him in a manner befitting his, and his daughter's, achievements?

Of course Serena has done herself no favors.  Her's is a long history of self-absorption and missteps, the very picture of the kind of ego-centrism that has that special ability to make those with the best intentions and the worst, line up on the same side of the argument "against" her, as it is so wrongly and so often portrayed in the media.  Venus was no angel either, but her nature has, over the years, revealed itself to be less confrontational, more responsible. Coupled with her sisters dominance both her and the game, and her own well documented physical struggles, the tennis world seems to have tempered its collective finger-wagging at her.  Unlike Serena, who continues to rankle, Venus' role in the Indian Wells incident, her incident with Irlina Spirlea, her theatrical outrage at Wimbledon 1998 against Jana Novotna are faded memories that merit only 240p on youtube, such is the extent to which they have been forgotten. 

She's grown up, and in a way, somehow so have all of us, and those are now bygones.

Unlike sister Venus, I have never been a fan of Serena Williams - I find her to be too hypocritical, too self-absorbed, too contrived, and too petty.  Of course, I'm sure that this is only a facet of her personality, a facet that many of us have, and would it were also on display for the world to see, her's might not be so grating.  But she is who she is, and I simply cannot bring myself to revel in her success.  It doesn't help that she plays a style of tennis that has diminished the quality of the women's game.  While I have admiration for her accomplishments, part of me is uneasy at the prospect that despite my love of tennis' version of "Jogo Bonito", it may turn out that her career will ultimately meet my own standards of the greatest of all time.  Despite my aesthetic distaste for her game.

When she insulted Martina Hingis for a lack of formal education, I found it more than mildly ironic for someone who has a degree in nothing. When she made that hullabaloo over "The Hand", I sided with Henin, because I thought if Serena saw the hand up, she shouldn't have served, and therefore she got what she deserved:  a second serve. When, after having an overhead smash rightfully directed at her feet, she glared at Maria Sharapova in their Australian Open final of 2007 and muttered "bitch", unlike the Rod Laver audience, I didn't think it was funny. When she threatened to shove a ball down a lines woman's throat at the 2009 US Open semi-final with Kim Clijsters and was defaulted only for a third code of conduct violation, I thought she got off easy.  She should have been immediately defaulted from the tournament including the doubles final, which she played and won with Venus.

I also thought it was an act of pandering when the USTA chose to give her only a suspended fine and suspension, which actually didn't expire until the week after her 2011 US Open final, where she was again cited for code of conduct violations.  The "sentence" still wasn't enforced, and I wasn't surprised that she didn't cite being black, or a woman, or the player to beat, for that bit of leniency, even though I suspect all of those contributed to it.  I thought it was absurd that she had the audacity to do to Jelena Jankovic's the exact same thing Justine did to her, both at the Family Circle Cup in 2013, and again in Dubai this year.  It was just another in a long list of examples of entitlement that she has "earned".

But despite all of these things, despite the fact that I am not her biggest fan, I 100% support her decision not to play Indian Wells in 2002 or any year since then, including 2014.  In fact, part of me would prefer it if neither she nor Venus ever played it again.  Not because I don't want to see them compete.  But if they're protesting, I think they should do just that.  Along the way, if the game's sense of entitlement should be slapped in the face again and again, so that ugly incidents like what she had to suffer, will never, ever happen again in tennis...

Well, there's no harm in that, is there?

Monday, February 24, 2014

THE HINDRANCE RULE PREQUEL: ROLAND GARROS 2003

The hindrance rule is almost always controversial for many reasons.  First, most people don't know the letter of the law, and as a result, interpretations of the rule by players and commentators alike are often based in ignorance.  Second, while the letter of the law is not generally known, the objective of fairness is well known, thus when the proper application of the law is misinterpreted, an unfair result is incorrectly assumed.  And finally, when one is ignorant of the rule, unaware that it has been applied properly, and left with only the assumption of having been aggrieved, this tends to linger.

And like an unwelcome guest, controversy loves nothing more than to hang around...sometimes for years.

But these controversies are all based in the same underlying problem - ignorance of the rule.  And ignorance has definitely caused the controversy over the case when Serena Williams versus Justine Henin in the 2003 Roland Garros semi-final to linger.

In this match, Serena Williams was up a break 4-2 in the third, serving to put herself one game from the final.  Though there had been a lot of noise from the crowd in between points, Serena started her serve motion anyway, however Henin put her hand up to indicate that she wasn't ready.  After dumping the serve in the net, Serena then asked the umpire for a first serve because Henin had put her hand up.  

Oblivious to what Serena and millions of television viewers had plainly seen, the umpire (Stefan Fransson) meekly didn't even ask Henin if she had put her hand up, and with nothing offered from her, he called for a second serve.  Thus the narrative was that Henin cheated by not admitting she had put her hand up, and in doing so had so disheveled Serena so badly that she proceed to lose 5 out of the next six games, the set, the match and her shot at immortality.

But doesn't the hindrance rule apply here?  Well yes and no, because the issue is fairness - namely, would it have been fair to award a first serve, or by the letter of the law, the point directly, to Serena in this case?

For an explanation of the hindrance rule itself, I posted this three years ago.  The important thing to remember is that there are two parts of the rule:  (1) whether there was a hindrance in the first place (which is a subjective matter of opinion) and (2) whether to replay the point or award it to the hindered player (the other a matter of fact).  In this case, the real question is whether a hindrance occurred before we get to the question of the remedy.

The only way Henin's hand up could have hindered Serena was if she saw it before she hit her serve, otherwise how could it been a hindrance if she didn't even see it until after the serve? We can speculate as to whether she would have admitted to having seen the hand go up if she had burned one up the T for an ace. But if, as would have to be the case for any remedy, she saw Henin's hand up before she served, she should have stopped before the point began - namely she shouldn't have served.  But she did serve, therefore either she didn't see the hand up, or she saw it up, but served anyway!  Not exactly sporting of Serena, and in either case, falling short of a hindrance.

So actually Serena has got it wrong on multiple fronts:  first, she can't claim she saw the hand up before the serve, because if she did, she shouldn't have served.  Second, she can't claim she saw it after the serve, but it somehow hindered her before the serve - that's just illogical.  And finally, although it could be argued that it was a hindrance if Henin's hand went up after Serena started serving (in which case it's during the point and is a hindrance) but the redress Serena should have been asking for was to be awarded the point directly, for an intentional hindrance, and not a let for an unintentional hindrance.

So even if Henin had admitted to raising her hand, in all likelihood the umpire would have incorrectly ruled the point be replayed, even though she intentionally put her hand up during the point - in which she should have lost the point.  And, although Serena still would have been aggrieved by such a ruling, I guarantee nobody would have said boo, even though it's a clear error of law.  Then all of the bitterness and resentment Serena has since professed would have been silenced even though she would still have been rooked on the call.

So in the end, I believe:

  1. Henin raised her hand after the serve started, however
  2. Serena didn't see it, therefore there was no hindrance, and 
  3. The umpire, not having seen the "non-hindrance" himself was correct in ordering a second serve, and
  4. Henin, despite not admitting to raising her hand, ultimately got the right decision.
But that doesn't stop Mary Carillo (and John McEnroe for that matter) for continually getting the call wrong from the commentator's box, when they really should know better.


Friday, February 21, 2014

THE CURIOUS CASE OF NICO ALMAGRO

It's not between the ears - it never has been, and it never will be.  In fact, anyone you're paying good money to teach you or coach you in this game, that tries to convince you that it is between the ears, is wasting your money...big time. 

Of course, you need to concentrate - that's essential in any endeavor - but at the end of the day, tennis is not chess:  the ball, the court, the racquet, and the other guy, all impact how you play the game, and the results you get. And while those of us who follow tennis intently (or otherwise) are inclined to focus our evaluations on the big 4, one need only take the curious case of Nico Almagro to see how a player, that had so much going for him, has technically stagnated for 3 years, and as a result, his window of opportunity to make a major impact in the game just may have closed.

Not locked, but definitely closed for now.

Six years ago I extolled the virtues of this swashbuckling, bomb throwing, preening man from Murcia, after watching him bull fight his way to two titles in succession in Costa Do Sauipe and Acapulco. And while any number of players have gone on a hot streak at some point in their careers, there was something about the way he won those titles that made me think we could have been looking at one of the next stars of the game.  He didn't just have a good serve, he had one of the best serves on tour. He didn't just have a good forehand, it had variety with the ability to dynamically inject pace into the rally at almost any moment.  And that backhand...man, is that ever a beautiful backhand.

And he seemed to have the one element that the pundits place greater value in than any other - balls.  Big, elephant balls to go with a big game. When the moment called for a howitzer serve, he delivered.  A backhand down the line?  No problemo.  Not always, of course - he missed those shots as often as he made them, but that in and of itself is better than the vast majority of tennis players, and can be the difference when it is needed to pull out matches that seem out of reach:  the ability to put the point, the game, the set and the match on your racquet.

But since then, there's been something missing from his game.

Take a look at the career progression of some of his contemporaries - Wawrinka beefed up his forehand, and improved his volleys, and won the Australian Open this year.  Berdych developed a passable (not even good, just passable) net game, also beefed up his serve and suddenly he's more often getting results when he should, than he did in the past, and is a perennial top-10 player. Gasquet has improved his fitness, hits his forehand with a little more purpose, and even though he regularly stands 8-12 feet behind the baseline, still finds his way to the net from time to time, and he too is in the top 10. Tsonga's fitness, always a question mark for the first half of his career, is no longer a serious issue, and he is now more capable of bringing to bear the full suite of skills he is blessed with, resulting in him consistently justifying his seeding and winning the odd title here and there.  Even David Ferrer, known essentially as a grinder, has beefed up his serve, plays closer to the baseline, and reached his first major final at Roland Garros last year...and Almagro has one more clay title in his treasure chest than he does.

But what improvements has Almagro truly made in the last 3 years?  

His serve is still a howitzer, and he often finds himself near the top of the ATP leader board in aces, but somehow his serve game win percentage is rarely in the top 10.  One could point to any number of factors for this, but I think the most telling is the fact that aside from pace, there's very little to his first serve. In order for it to be effective, he's got to hit it like a ton of bricks...all the time...and that usually results in a low first percentage.  Combined with his generally erratic play, he is unable to muster the consistency needed to compensate for the tactical frailty of his serve, and his return games suffer from the burden.

His backhand his still beautiful to behold - along with Wawrinka and Gasquet, it's one of the best on tour when he comes over it.  But the slice is an atrocity - soft, slow, and with way too much net clearance, he doesn't use it enough to give his opponents the problem of dealing with variety, it doesn't have the bite to keep his opponents from attacking it, and he never uses it to come forward...never.

Speaking of which, the only thing worse than his slice backhand is his net game.  A weak and inconsistent overhead causes him to set up too far away from the net to consistently finish points there.  His poor volleying technique (from the grip to his point of contact) and the lack of familiarity with covering the angles, means that he is more likely to lose the point when he comes forward than win it.  That's a tactical paradox, and a recipe for playing further and further behind the baseline, which is never good.

Speaking of which, his court positioning may work on a clay court, but the moment he plays someone who defends better than he does (which isn't saying much, because he's not the quickest guy on tour, nor does he have particularly efficient footwork) or someone who stands on top of the baseline and dictates, he's lost the plot.  Modern tennis is such that even the best movers on tour can't survive conceding the baseline for long, and Almagro has never been known for his movement.

Finally, that forehand - he used to hit it flatter from time to time, when the situation called for it tactically. These days, his forehand is just a tool to keep him in the point, rarely hit for winners or pressure, and often landing short in the court, with a good deal of spin, but not nearly enough to keep the pressure off of himself.  This just isn't going to get it done.  Murray used to spin the forehand in for the most part, but one of the key components of his game that has improved over the last 3 years is the power and direction of his forehand, and his ability to dictate with it. 

No such improvements with Almagro.

If ever there were a case of a player who has stagnated technically, and whose career has stagnated as a result, it's Almagro.  And while the pill-pushing charlatans of the tennis punditry will have you believe that his problem is between the ears, I would argue that the symptom is between the ears, but the cause is what he does, or more accurately doesn't do when he practices.

Namely, improve his game.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

LOOKING FOR THE LAST CHAMPION

We do it in all sports, but especially in tennis.  We're always looking for the last champion - a reboot of the last generation's greatest, just in a younger, better-looking package.  And we do this without taking into account changes in the game, and the very real prospect that the way to beat the best at one style of play, is to employ a different style of play.  

Those who have enjoyed Federer's reign as the greatest player in history, have pinned the latest hopes on Grigor Dimitrov, who reminds them of, and seeks to be, what they so loved about his predecessor, and what we all assumed would be the way forward.  And who among us have not assumed that because Serena Williams, when she is dominant, is so dominant that the only solution to her oppressive regime is to find a younger, stronger, faster version of herself (cue the clip of Sloane Stevens, Madison Keys et. al).  And not dissimilar to great military powers that are always fighting the last war, it is not uncommon for parents, coaches, players and pundits alike to be looking for Serena 2.0.

But has that ever been the case in the history of tennis?  Have the great champions been usurped by younger version of themselves?  Is Federer the modern version Sampras?  Aside from sharing a one-handed backhand, Federer couldn't have been more different than Sampras. Sure when Federer first came on tour he served and volleyed his way to his first Wimbledon, but never really since, and while Sampras' game was as much about raw athleticism and power, as it was about technique, Federer's game is about precision and ball control, and setting up winners with guile, rather than executing them with power.  

The courts got slower, the balls got fluffier, and suddenly the prospect of another dominant server and volleyer went the way of the do-do, and the name of the game was spin, transition from defense to offense, athleticism and stamina. Federer may have mastered this art first, but the development of the top 3 players of today, in Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, who have collectively passed him by, shows that the recipe for a successful coup is not in out-doing the best at his best, but rather to attack his technical flanks, and make the key to success something that you do better than him.

After all, did McEnroe bludgeon monotonously from the baseline to beat Borg, or did he kill him with a thousand cuts - a wide serve here, a drop volley there, and everything in between? Because Borg was so adept at moving from side to side and positioning himself so far behind the baseline, McEnroe's solution had the added advantage of using Borg's strengths against him.  When Borg ran out of solutions, he also ran out of the game. Coincidence?  Maybe.

Come to think of it, did Borg and Connors serve and volley their way past the archetypal big games of Stan Smith, John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe? Hardly.  In fact they exposed the big game for the untenable reliance on immediate domination and control of the points - so when it came time for them to build the points slowly but surely, they were hardly up to the standards of those disrespectful upstarts who simply refused to rush the net until they were good and ready.

Now, in watching the Fed Cup matches between Italy and the US this past weekend, I was surprised (but not really surprised) at how easily Madison Keys was beaten by the Argentinian (masquerading as an Italian) Camila Giorgi.  You've certainly heard of Madison Keys, tipped by many as the next best thing.  In fact Brad Gilbert went so far last year at the Australian Open as to say that she, more than any of the others, had #1 potential.  His reasoning?
  1. A big first serve
  2. A big forehand
  3. An athletic presence
  4. A steely focus
Sound familiar?  In fact, if you close your eyes and say that list three times, Serena Williams will pop into your mind like the Wicked Witch of the West.  But isn't that just fighting the last war? After all, in the last 10 years, which players have successfully challenged Serena?  Those who gape to be her heir, in every way possible, and in many ways impossible?  Or those who would attack her technical flanks and offer a different solution to the problem that so many of her paltry-by-comparison clones would present?

Justine Henin didn't attack the Williams sisters head on.  When pushed wide, she hit deep slice.  When served hard and heavy, she stepped in and took it on the rise, before the full force of their most potent stroke could do their damage.  And whereas they sought to beat her into oblivion from the baseline, she took anything short and attacked, forcing them to hit deeper, and subsequently either make more errors, or take something off of their most potent strokes, giving her just the opening she needed to put them under - again and again.

And lo and behold, we discovered that from time to time, the defense of Serena (and Venus) is not nearly as effective as their offense - good but, not great.  Of course it didn't always work - she may have lost as often as she won...maybe even more, but she managed to win 7 majors at a time when these two were seen as the two-headed dragons of tennis that would never be felled.

Now I'm not saying Camila Giorgi is necessarily the next Justine Henin - in fact Henin had far superior hand-eye coordination, more athletic ability, and greater tactical acumen than anything Giorgi has shown in her career.  But this spindly, sinewy little woman, surprisingly taller than she seems and fully adept at taking the ball early and belting the living daylights out of it, showed something this weekend that Keys has not yet in her young career.  Her sense of court positioning, whether innate (or as I suspect in her case) learned, shows us that one need not kamikaze one's way into yet another ass-whuppin' like so many of Serena's contemporaries do when faced with the quintessential big babe. There are tactical flanks to attack, without exposing one's own weaknesses.

In short, there is another way.

And this way, which I suspect is the way of the future, also exposed Madison Keys for the one thing that she currently lacks, which the Williams sisters have rarely had to, or been able to, fall back on:  a plan "B".  You see, it's all well and good to hit the ball like a ton of bricks, and as long as the only question being asked is, "How hard can you hit it", if the answer is, "harder" and harder works, you're gold.

But Keys didn't have the answer - not this weekend.  Keys is all about the power and depth of shot, and the fact that she was spinning first serve in was merely an alternate execution to the tactical directive to put her opponent under from the off.  Only Giorgi, by stepping in and taking the mickey out of the serve before it could take it out of her, asked a different question:  "What are you going to do when you can't over power me from the get-go?" Unfortunately Key's answer was to try to hit harder, and it didn't work. In fact it failed miserably. Some may put it down to a bad day - but bad days have a way of coalescing around players that challenge you technically.

Now lest you think that another player who defends better, would have easily handled Giorgi's oppressive aggression, I would remind you that she did nearly the same thing to a one-dimensional Caroline Wozniacki at the US Open last year.  Only Wozniacki's one dimension is not applying, but rather absorbing, pressure.  Her modus operandus is not to overpower you, but to let you overpower yourself, and in doing so, she also exposed the unanimity of so many big babe aspirants to the crown of biggest babe of all.  Lest we forget, with a tame first serve, and very little independent power, Wozniacki did manage to reach a major final and the #1 ranking - not too shabby. 

And do you know who happened to beat Giorgi in the next round? That's right, Roberta Vinci. Not some big babe ball bashing bafoon, but a real crafty veteran who, like Ken Rosewall, never saw a backhand she didn't want to slice, and a forehand that relies more on spin and placement than brute force. With guile, and movement, and tactics and a brain, she did to Giorgi what her younger more one-dimensional (albeit more talented) Danish forerunner could not.

Now, I don't want to get carried away, because it's just one match, and Keys presumably has a lot of miles left in the tank to get the balance right, but she does need balance.  And being one dimensional is hardly a solution when your one-dimension is the same one-dimension as every other girl on tour. It may have worked for Venus and Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka to some extent.  But if you're Madison Keys and your way forward is to be a technical and tactical clone of the Queens of this Comedy, you may also wind up joining the rest of us in looking for the next champion.

Instead of being it.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

WHAT KILLED THE ONE-HANDED BACKHAND?

Stan the Man showed us all that the 1-handed backhand still can...beat a 2-hander that is. Every time somebody new with a one-handed backhand succeeds in the modern game, it always seems to inspire a rush of questions about just what killed the 1-handed backhand anyway.  To this day, the history of tennis is replete with players with one-handed backhands who have won far more majors than players with 2-handed backhands. As a matter of fact, even if you restrict your research to major winners since the first great 2-handed champions emerged from the primordial ooze of modern professional tennis (Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in 1974) one could argue that the two-handed backhand is nothing more than an historical anomaly that will be blown apart and scattered to the winds of history, when the game gets its collective head out of its collective arse.

Let the record show that of the four majors, 2-handers have won more than 1-handers only at Roland Garros.  This is a little ironic since the place you tend to see the most 1-handed backhands is on slow red clay, where even the smallest and weakest of tennis ingenues can hone this stroke through the imposed patience of the rustic surface.  At 26 to 14 titles, 2-handed backhands have had considerably more success in the last 40 years than 1-handers in Paris, but in Australia, the trend is reversed at 23 to 18, 24 to 16 at the US Open, and the trend is most lopsided at Wimbledon where the record is 27 to 13.  In total, 1-handers have it over 2-handers at the majors 88 to 73.

And just taking a look at the draw for Rotterdam next week I was curious to see how many of the 32 players in a rich field of players, for this 40 year old ATP 500, had let go of the second hand and, despite the presumed death sentence to their careers, have managed to make it in the game.  Of the 32 players in the draw, fully 11 or almost 1/3rd of the draw play with a 1-handed backhand.  Of course, 40 years ago, you'd expect the reverse, but not so today, and this begs the question:  why?

Well, in truth, we all start out with a 2-handed backhand, particularly those of us who got an early start in the game, and the biggest problem a child faces on the tennis court, besides seeing over the net, is the challenge of maintaining racquet head stability.  In the abstract, any good tennis pro will tell you that no matter how weak/strong you are, the best solution to this problem is the quality of your technique - if you do everything right technically before, during and after your stroke, you'll never need that second arm on either side.  But there's the rub: you can't make any mistakes technically - not in your footwork, court positioning, your stroke production or your follow through, because if you do it's nearly impossible to hit a 1-handed backhand properly.  The same cannot be said for the 2-hander.

The second hand gives the added racquet head stability you need when you haven't quite hit your mark in court positioning or footwork.  It allows for that smooth delivery of strings to ball that is essential for a shot even rarer in tennis than the 1-handed  backhand - a flat ground stroke. Freed from the need to sacrifice power for control, a 2-handed backhand is more likely to be delivered flat and straight as an arrow - just the sort of thing a modern player approaching the net could take advantage of, but hardly anyone consistently rushes the net anyway, so this advantage is lost on this generation.

So what killed the 1-handed backhand anyway?  Was it Bjorn Borg and his Viking-God flowing blonde locks and purple and green pin stripes?  Was it Andre Agassi and his rock and roll, gut-busting, gate-crashing brand of Bollitieri bash-ball?  Perhaps Jimmy Connors and his crotch grabbing, every-cuss-in-the-book uttering, "this is what they want" extolling, histrionics laden game?  No, it was none of these things.

It was the money.

Because there's so much money in the game, and so much of it is committed earlier and earlier in a player's career, the puppeteers have less patience with their marionettes developing the necessary technique to master a stroke as precise, and potentially fruitful, as the 1-handed backhand.  If the money's there, just do the minimum technically with a 2-handed backhand, and you'll be up and running in no time. Why bother taking the time (and eschewing the money) to develop a 1-hander?

As such, typically that stroke is reserved for only the most talented of tennis players who are able to make up for what they lack in technique, with pure god-given hand/eye coordination, until that technique is where it needs to be to cease being a liability.  That's not to say that the only talented tennis players are those with 1-handed backhands - to the contrary some of the nicest 1-handed backhands I've ever seen have come from players who hit a 2-hander by trade, either in training or in between points, or on the rare occasion where it is technically preferable to do so.

But when entire families hang on every result, and armies of masseuses, and physios, and cooks, and coaches, and fathers and WAGS (and whoever else can successfully impose themselves on the career of a promising young professional) amplify the risk of missing out on the big early paycheck, the future begins to look dark as dusk if you can fight above your weight class. Thus the 1-handed backhand goes the way of the stick-shift:  impressive when you see it, aesthetically far more enjoyable if you can do it, but an unnecessary risk when it's so much easier and safer to simply put it in gear and press "go".

But I have a feeling that this may not be a permanent thing. I think the future of tennis will not change nearly as much as we think.  There certainly seems to be a lot of gentle giants out there, that we all predicted would dominate the game, but ironically the optimal size for a tennis champion has remained for the better part of 100 years between 5'11" and 6'3" with very rare exception.  

Why?  

Because the court is still 27 x 78 feet, you still have to break serve to win sets, and you can't play the game from inside your head or the sofa in your living room.  And because of all of these things, I don't think conditions will persist such that a premium on racquet head stability from a very early age forces the game to continue to evolve towards the 2-handed backhand. And when everyone is doing the same thing and hoping for a different result, something's gotta give.

If the ball goes faster and with more spin on it, then the quality of the athlete will have to improve, and as that happens, the physical side of tennis will require tennis players to be in it for the long-haul, rather than the quick buck (because whether they play with one or two hands, no 17-year old in the world will have what it takes physically to win in what is increasingly becoming a man's game). Therefore results at at 13 and 14 should become less important than results at 18 and 19, and by then physically most will have had enough time to develop their ultimate game, rather than the most expedient one.

One way or another, I believe the game will once again belong to the ancient masters of the 1-handed backhand.

Friday, February 7, 2014

FEDERER'S HIGH ONE-HANDED BACKHAND PROBLEM

This is the story of two Swiss players - each with a 1-handed backhand who played the same player at the same tournament with two very different results.  Considering their all-time pedigree, a casual (and ill-informed) initial assessment would assume that Federer's backhand ought to have less trouble than Wawrinka, with the high bouncing, left pulling, heavy spinning forehand of Rafael Nadal.

In fact, the opposite is the case.

While Federer continues to have problems dictating points because of this idiosyncrasy, Wawrinka seems not to have the same, and this is not merely manifested by the results of the 2014 Australian Open.  Despite never previously taking a set off of Nadal, Wawrinka has really never had a backhand problem with Nadal - he has other problems, and one could argue that so does Federer...but it's useful to analyze the backhand, as this is clearly problematic for Federer, by comparing his backhand to Wawrinka's.

Now, I should point out that as often as the high 1-handed backhand problem is cited as a problem for Federer, the two-handed backhand is proposed as the solution in the game, and as a result, the assumption is made that because Federer is the foremost exponent of the 1-handed backhand in the history of the game, its future is as dead as his recent record against Nadal.  After all, who would want to expose themselves to this seemingly insurmountable obstacle?  

So an analysis of the fundamentals of a backhands would do much to identify why Wawrinka's backhand is superior to Federer's and may very well be the best backhand in the world.  First the fundamentals - a good backhand starts with:
  1. A closed shoulder on take back
  2. A point of contact in front and at waist level
  3. A strong but controlled step into the court upon contact
  4. A smooth and controlled shoulder turn through the point of contact
  5. A racquet head that starts below the ball, but flows through it on contact
  6. A finish out in front, where the body weight is balanced neither leaning too far forward or back (and just like after a good serve, the player should be able to immediately address the next shot).
Now if you have a 2-handed backhand, items #1, #3, #4 and #6 are taken care of without much extra required - it's almost impossible to not to close the shoulders on take back, and because your reach is shorter it's rare that you don't step into the stroke.  The shoulder turn is controlled because both shoulders are necessarily involved in the stroke production and with two hands the finish is almost never above the head.

And you can get away with being a little fuzzy with your point of contact because that primarily goes to racquet head stability, which is the whole point of the second hand on the racquet.  Most 2-handed backhands are flatter (think David Ferrer and Andy Murray) because the second hand allows you to stabilize the racquet head and still hit through the ball, so you don't have to sacrifice any pace for spin by brushing up against the back of the ball.

Now, as far as the fundamentals are concerned, the 1-handed backhand has little to no margin.  Both Federer and Wawrinka turn the shoulders well on the take back; most professionals do.  You see this more with club players who reach across their chest on the take back. The exception is when a 1-handed player is stretched, they often switch to a slice or are forced to flick the racquet head through the point of contact. With the flick, because everything is accelerated, the hand-eye coordination required to get the timing right is typically reserved for the most talented players.  Think Federer and Dimitrov flicking running backhands down the line.  It as beautiful to behold as it is rare.

But the first place Federer and Wawrinka differ is making their point of contact at waist level - primarily with a higher looping shot that moves through their strike zone.  With Nadal's forehand, for example, as the ball arrives, rather than being at the apex of its arch in the strike zone (thus in a kind of mid-air suspension, like the top of the serve toss) it is, in fact, still moving in two dimensions - (1) up into your chest, (2) towards you.  

We have already discussed how the timing has to be very precise on the 1-hander because your racquet head stability is limited to what you can create with one hand, but with movement in two dimensions, the premium on timing is almost insurmountable. Taller players like Dimitrov or Daniel Brands, whose waists are considerably higher than even slightly shorter players (because most of one's height is in the legs) struggle less because the ball stays closer to their optimal strike zone.  Also, most players concede the baseline and play yards behind it, unlike Federer tried to do, and Wawrinka successfully did, against Nadal.

So average height, aggressive players like Federer and Wawrinka must adjust, and they basically have three options in how to handle this corkscrew of a shot.

The first alternative is just try to hit the backhand at shoulder height.  This forces them to finish the stroke above the head, which is a problem when you need spin to control that shot (and Federer really does).  Spin is generated by going from low to high before and after the point of contact, and it's easy to get low on a high backhand, but very hard to finish high. Furthermore, if you finish too high, you lose forward momentum, pace and control. Often the player looks like he's performing a pantomime of a backhand, with the finish high above and even behind his head.  And doesn't that sound exactly like what Federer's backhand looks like against Nadal?

But what about Wawrinka? 

His natural backhand finishes further out in front of him than Federer's does, so if he takes the backhand high, whereas Federer's naturally high finish is hard to duplicate, Wawrinka's backhand can finish going through the point of contact even on a high backhand.  This is why he is able to generate more pace than his more illustrious countryman, because his fundamentals are better - I know, it's hard to believe that a backhand as aesthetically appealing as Federer's is fundamentally flawed, but in this particular regard, it is.

The second alternative to handle the high backhand is to step back and wait for the ball to fall into the strike zone, but this is problematic for 3 reasons:

First, by moving back you concede the forecourt which makes it more difficult to control and finish the point with subsequent shots.  This is a problem Federer has particularly on clay, compounded by his own looping backhand, which lacks the flat trajectory of Wawrinka's and by the time his ball reaches Nadal it now has even less power because it was hit from further behind the baseline.

Second, to be able to come forward through the stroke you have to move back beyond the point of contact, and step into it. This is easier if you set up a little further behind the baseline, like Wawrinka, or even further for most clay court specialists with one-handed backhands (e.g. Carlos Berlocq).  They often set up shop 8-10 feet beyond the baseline as their default court positioning.  But with this approach, you'll have defend better...much better...like "Nadal" better.  

Good luck with that.

If you don't like to conceded the baseline you'll typically move only as far back as the point of contact, but then all your momentum is moving backwards when you hit the ball, and this is a problem Federer has on all surfaces against Nadal, but particularly on hard courts, where he is even more reticent to conceded the baseline.

And third, waiting for the ball to drop into the strike zone does nothing to mitigate the problem of the ball moving in two dimensions - only this time the ball is moving down and towards you rather than up and towards you. Most good 1-handed backhanders would prefer this to the ball coming up, towards them, but it's still harder than a ball that apexes right in the strike zone and stays there just waiting to get belted.  1-handers just love that.

The third alternative to handling the high 1-hander is the most effective solution, it is ironically technically the easiest to do, but by far it is the most difficult tactically.  To hit your most natural 1-handed backhand on a heavy spinning ball you can step into the court and catch it on the rise.  Doing so will keep the ball in your strike zone, thereby maximizing your racquet head stability - after all, just try keeping the racquet above your shoulder or at your waist for 3 minutes straight and you'll see which is easiest.

The second advantage to taking it on the rise is that, with very little effort, you use the pace of the ball coming to you most efficiently when it has the most energy on the way up - like a drop kick in football - and thus you can keep your shot deep with spin, without much risk.  

Of course the risk increases  exponentially the harder you try to hit the ball, because everything is accelerated, and the timing has to be just right - so typically only the most talented of players, with the best hand-eye coordination, can do this consistently.  But technically it is easier to do this than hit the shot at shoulder height, or move back and wait for it.  Also, because you're already moving forward to take it on the rise, you're already moving forward through the stroke, which is always good for power and direction.

Now Federer is extremely talented - moreso than Wawrinka - and he has very consistent technique - he rarely improvises if he doesn't have to, and when he does he makes it look easy.  And because tactically he doesn't like to concede the baseline/forecourt, this would seem to be his optimal solution - we've all marveled at how easy they make it look.

So why the bloody hell doesn't he do this all the time?  Well, in the words of Hamlet, "...there's the rub."

Nadal's ball is different than anyone else's ball in tennis. Nadal employs the reverse forehand more often, and puts more spin on his shots on average, than any player in the history of tennis.  Measured  years ago when he was still using natural gut strings (he has since switched to one of the "poly-est" of polyester strings) his RPM averaged 3200 (vs 2400 for Federer and 1800 for the rest of the field) and maxed out at a whopping 5400 - I mean that's just absurd.

Because of this, Nadal is not only able to hit harder, but he is also able to hit shorter in the court, and as a result, to take the ball on the rise, you'd have to be literally 2-3 feet inside the baseline to make this work on every backhand you hit.  And it follows that'd you have to be 2-3 feet inside the baseline on the forehand as well, because moving back, forward, left and right between every shot is impossible even for a player who moves as efficiently as Federer, and especially against Nadal.

But Wawrinka has options that Federer does not.  If he takes the backhand on the rise, because his natural stroke is flatter and more relaxed, he is better able to handle the pace and coincidentally hit with more pace and depth himself.  As a result, the ball coming to Nadal pushes him further and further back, reducing his ability to impose his will on his next shot, causing his next shots to land shorter and shorter.  Then Wawrinka's next backhand is more likely to be in his optimal strike zone and he can really belt it - either safely cross court, or tactically more risky (but because he's into the court and moving forward technically less risky) backhand up the line.

That too is a thing of beauty if you've ever seen his.

This forces Nadal to hit deeper, which ironically makes it easier for Wawrinka to half-volley it safely back - in fact this is, in some ways, an easier shot. It's only on clay that you'll ever see Wawrinka consistently back up to hit his backhand, and obviously his results against Nadal, while generally very bad, are even worse on clay because of this (this despite winning Roland Garros Juniors in 2003, BTW).  Furthermore, Nadal has always had problems with hard flat shots into his forehand - this is probably due to being a natural right hander, is manifested in his (over)use of the reverse forehand, and only exacerbated by the hardest flattest shots into that side. Cue the Wawrinka backhand, but as for Federer's...fuhgedabouddit!

So if he doesn't have this high 1-handed backhand problem, why has Wawrinka had so much trouble against Nadal in the past?  Aside from the obvious - that he's no Roger Federer - there are some other changes he's made which has helped him more now than in the past.

First, he changed racquets, facilitating improvements in his forehand, which always suffered from an imbalance of power and spin - in the past, too much spin. These days, his forehand is almost as good as his backhand. Second, he's fitter which facilitates his movement, allowing him to position himself better on all shots. Third, his volleys, while they've never been good, are better now than they have been - and this allows him to take fewer cuts at his (still at times) shaky forehand. Now he can come forward to the net more and finish his points earlier.

But Federer's backhand doesn't allow him to impact Nadal the way Wawrinka's does, and thus in this particular match up, it is more difficult for him to get into position to control, set up and kill points...and remind us of just how good he really is.  In fact, against Nadal, the closer he gets to 20 strokes in the rally, and the more often he does so, the worse it is for him. Not necessarily the case with Djokovic and Murray who defend better than Federer, and can more easily take the backhand on the rise, with that second hand.

Now I'm not saying that Wawrinka is all of a sudden going to dominate Nadal - to the contrary, I don't think that will happen at all, because there's a lot more to Nadal than just a high looping forehand.  But if you're looking for a solution to Federer's high 1-handed backhand problem against Nadal, he need look no further than his Davis Cup teammate. 

Whether he can or will, at this point in his career, make the necessary adjustments, is an altogether different proposition.