Monday, June 29, 2015

THE KEY TO WIMBLEDON? NEWSFLASH: IT'S NOT THE SERVE

Is there a key success factor on grass, and if so, what is it?  I say everyone's serve is better on grass, so that's not the key success factor - that's a myth.

It's the return.

Recently Rafael Nadal opined that "If your serve is good, you can win on grass even without playing your best."  That was clearly an opinion explaining how he had won his first tournament on grass without much preparation and without much a good run of form to speak of leading into the tournament.  But not surprisingly it kicked off an extended debate in the blogosphere about the validity of results on grass, because of the influence of the serve.

I think what Nadal implied (without really meaning to) is that you can lose a match - any match - on grass to a player who serves exceptionally well on the day, and he's right. That's one of the reasons why Wimbledon is so hard to win, because you can so easily lose any single match if you have a bad day and your opponent serves his socks off.  But unlike what was immediately interpreted as a dig at grass court tennis (something that Nadal, who has always professed his love of Wimbledon and tennis on grass, would never do), you really can't win Wimbledon with just a big serve.  That is just a myth.

The universe of players who have won Wimbledon is much smaller than other majors, and it does not necessarily reflect players with the biggest serve. Serving well (and not necessarily big) like Federer and Sampras helps a great deal, but you have to serve well, not just big.  In fact, I think the reason why Federer and Sampras have won so many Wimbledons, and why the universe of champions at Wimbledon is smaller than the other majors, is precisely because the serve is not the deciding factor whether you can win it.  Take the following statistics:

# of different FO champions in the open era = 26
# of different Wimbledon champions in the open era = 20

# of different FO champions in the last 20 years = 12
# of different Wimbledon champions in the last 20 years = 8

I don't mean to denigrate Roland Garros, but just as the universe of players who have won 250's is greater than those who have won 500's which is greater than those who have won 1000's which is greater than those who have won majors, the derived conclusion is that the harder it is to win the tournament, the smaller the universe of players who actually do it.  So, by this logic, that the universe of players who have won the FO is greater than the universe of players who have won Wimbledon would suggest that Wimbledon is harder to win.  If you doubt this conclusion, you must accept the opposite:  that the 250's are the hardest to win, and that just doesn't fly.

The reason the 500s are harder than 250s is that the field is typically stronger, because there are more points at stake, and they are more coveted. That is precisely the point of the comparison, and transitively the comparison carries through to each level of more and more coveted titles, including comparing the majors.  Again, no denigration of the the tournaments that lose out in the comparison, but merely a logical conclusion from the evidence of the universe of players who've won the title.

Now, because Federer and Sampras have such great serves, the assumption is that the better your serve, the more likely you are to win Wimbledon, and such, when sizing up a players chances, or predicting the result of a particular match, frequently compared to determine who has the advantage.  But I am of the opinion that comparing serves is actually off the mark.  You are mixing and matching two things - one doesn't compare serves - that is irrelevant because only one player at a time serves. One compares serves to returns. A player with a big serve can escape losses to other players with big serves if they return well. It is rare that players with really big serves return well, and also why players with just big serves (and little else to their game) rarely win Wimbledon.

Goran Ivanisevic is a perfect example - that man had the biggest and best serve in the history of tennis, but he won Wimbledon exactly once almost by accident. His best chance, 1992 he lost Andre Agassi, a player with a relatively weak serve but a relative great return (who happened to beat Boris Becker and John McEnroe along the way - no slouches in the serve department).  Ivanisevic's other Wimbledon fianl losses were to another player with a great serve - Pete Sampras.  What distinguished them? The return - Sampras' was a better (as well as the rest of his game).

So a big serve gets you a chance to win a match or two here or there - but if you want to win Wimbledon, you need more than a big serve. You need the whole package including a good serve - and only the best of the best have the whole package, and as such, relatively few players have won Wimbledon as compared to the French Open, where a lot of players that did not have the full package, have won relatively more titles than at a Wimbledon.

The logic and the stats on the universe of players who have won Wimbledon vs the FO is very underrated, but it is not a matter of opinion. As for the effect of the serve on grass, it is inversely overrated - Nadal has 2 Wimbledons, Djokovic 2, Murray 1...even with Federer at 7 titles - none of them could be said to have the biggest serves on tour, earning a lot of "cheap" points. Roddick had a huge serve, but consistently lost to players who return better than him (after all, so few serve better than him). Ivanisevic had the biggest serve ever and he won once, each time he lost to a player, not with a better serve, but a better return.

To win at Wimbledon you need a good serve among many things, but it is not the deciding factor - the return is.  Of course, even a good return (alone) isn't enough - you need the full package. You have to be able to attack and defend, you need decent volleys, but most importantly you need a good serve, because everybody gets a little help on the serve on grass. That the serve is the deciding factor to winning Wimbledon is a myth of grass court tennis that has persisted for years since the late 40's when serve and volley tennis became a full time tactical approach. There have been a lot of players with great serves who have not won Wimbledon, but almost none with bad returns, and certainly no multiple champions with a poor return of serve.

An example of this is Ivan Lendl - his biggest problem on grass wasn't his serve (which was excellent) it was his return, which he was never able to master on grass, despite years of trying. Lendl just wasn't that talented, and as a result he needed time and a certain bounce to return well, which he would get on clay or hard courts, and won many majors on those surfaces - what foiled him on grass was the return.  Lendl's talent limited his return against the best players with the best serves - this is not an on/off proposition as in "either you're talented enough or not" - it does depend on the guy across the net. He had as good a serve as the players he lost to, with perhaps the exception of Becker, but he lost to a lot more players than Becker, his problem against those players he lost to was that he couldn't make any headway in his returns. His own serve was excellent. Just because your return isn't good enough against Edberg, Becker and Pat Cash, doesn't mean it won't be good enough against Jeff Tarango or Brad Gilbert.

Go down the list of players with the biggest serves on tour over the last 40 years and remove those players with good returns (Colin Dibley, Ivan Ljubicic, Steven Denton, Mark Phillipousis, Kevin Curren, Bobo Zivojinovic, Greg Rusedski, Ivo Karlovic, Roscoe Tanner, Andy Roddick) and you'll have a very long list of players with big serves who have never won Wimbledon.  Now, do the reverse - list the players with the best returns in the game, remove those with great serves and you'll still have a list of players who have won Wimbledon  (Agassi, Borg, Connors, Nadal, Murray, Djokovic, etc.).  That's just good analysis that dispels the myth that the deciding factor in winning Wimbledon is the serve.  Remember that on grass everybody's serve is a little more effective because of the reasons you pointed out, therefore getting an edge over the field would necessarily come from being able to neurtralize that phenomonen, not from benefitting from it, which everyone does and which does not give you an edge.

Whether the return is harder to master or acquire is not relevant - it is whether having an outstanding return or an outstanding serve is the deciding factor in whether you will win Wimbledon.  Nadal, Murray, Djokovic, even Federer to some extent, rarely lead the ATP in aces, 1st percentage won or even service games won - and if they do, it isn't because they get a lot of free points on the serves like the Karlovic's, Isners, Lopez's, Tsonga's, Almagro's and Raonics of the world. They may use their serve better than this lot, but that's because they're better tennis players that are able to do more with less (on the serve). What they all do better than that lot is return of serve, and they've all won Wimbledon in the last 10 years - 3 of them more than once.

Counter-intuitive, I know, but true.

In fact, I'll go you one better - I don't even think it's even critical to have a great serve, to win Wimbledon, because there a lot of players who had just good serves and still won - therefore the serve cannot be the deciding factor in whether you will win Wimbledon.  What Nadal referred to with the big serves is really a reference to the risk a great player runs of being dumped out of the tournament by a guy serving his socks off for one day, but without much of an overall game. That kind of player can be a spoiler, and there are a lot of spoilers at Wimbledon, and from that I conclude (along with the universe of players argument) that that's one big reason why Wimbledon is harder to win than the other majors.  Particularly on grass, where everyone's serve is helped by the surface, there is a greater risk that a spoiler that can serve you off the court in one match.

That doesn't happen as often on other surfaces because the serve doesn't have as big effect - and that is the reason why at Wimbledon a great return is more important than a great serve.  Because if you can't efficiently take advantage of the few opportunities you get to break serve (attack second serves, attack poorly placed first serves, or just get your racquet on the ball a lot), you will eventually run into someone who serves you off the court. The truly great players (among other things) have great returns, so they survive the serving mine field that is grass court tennis better than the other (numerous) players with great serves, but a minimal/weak return game - hence the cream really rises to the top at Wimbledon.

Sampras rarely served above 125mph, even at his best - there were always players on tour with bigger serves, but none with better serves - he used his to great effect. And it helps to use a great serve to great effect if you have the game to back it up, which Rusedski, Roddick, Ljubicic, Phillipousis, Ivanisevic and oh so many other big serving contemporaries did not have - and a big part of that overall game to back up whatever serve you may possess (good to great) is the return of serve. Federer also rarely serves big (130+), but his placement is outstanding, and nobody uses the serve to set up their game better than Federer - of course it helps that his game is outstanding, but it's not all down to the serve.

Riddle me this - why is it that Federer was so frequently able to out ace Roddick at Wimbledon when they played? Because his return was better, not because his serve was. And if I'm not mistaken, McEnroe never hit a serve over 120mph in his career, not so of the Roscoe Tanners and Kevin Curren's of his era - their serves were huge even by modern standards. But his overall game (including the return) was superior to both of those players, and as such he had more success at Wimbledon.

In fact, two of the biggest modern servers gave us an example in 2010 that put this distinction in relief:  that absurd farce of a match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahout where the 5th set had 138 games in it, where it took Isner 69 games to break Mahut's serves.

Does anyone think that any of the players who've won Wimbledon in the last 10 years would take 69 games to break anyone's serve, let alone Nicolas Mahut? Neither Isner nor Mahut have much of a return game to speak of, and not coincidentally neither has ever done anything significant at Wimbledon other than that match. They may win matches and/or smaller tournaments with depleted fields, but when the best of the best are all there, they just can't serve their way to glory - eventually their inability to return serve well catches up to them. That's not the case with the best players in the world. That's why only the best players in history win Wimbledon. And that's why Wimbledon is the hardest tournament to win.

And what of poor old Andy Roddick - the argument is that had it not been for Federer, he would have won 4 Wimbledons, right?  I'm not so sure about that - after all, he lost to a lot more players at Wimbledon than just Roger Federer, and that Federer is a better player is a general statement which provides no insight - the better player doesn't always win (if that were the case, the trophy could be handed out at the draw).  On grass, Federer bested Roddick as frequently as he did because he neutralized his serve with a great return of serve, which Roddick could never do.  That was the deciding factor between them, not either of their serves which were both outstanding.


That's not to say that Federer's serve isn't really good - just not the equal of Roddick's - better game, obviously (especially the return) - but not the serve. But let's set that debatable example aside...can the serve possibly explain his losses to Murray (2006), Gasquet (2007), Randy Lu (2010), Tipsarevic (2008), Lopez (2011), Ferrer (2012)? Maybe Ivanisevic (2001), but that entire tournament was the outlier - he also lost to Rusedski in 2002, but in both matches to equally dominant serving players, the telling factor was the return - Rusedski broke Roddick 3 times 2002 and Ivanisevic twice in 2001...but he never broke either of them. And equally telling of Rusedski - he lost in the very next round, not to Xavier Malisse. Now I can tell you that there were about 25 things Malisse did better than Rusedski, but the serve wasn't one of them - and if there were every a place where Rusedski should have put his serve to use against Malisse (if it were key) it would have been Wimbledon. But surprise, surprise, Malisse broke Rusedski 3 times to 2.

To be honest, I watched Roddick play tennis for 10 years, and honestly, I can't ever remember him serving poorly - he may have, but it would have been exceedingly rare. It was the one part of his game that never broke down. But I have seen a lot of guys get a beat on his serve in one game and the rest of his game fell apart. He himself rarely broke serve on grass, precisely because it is so hard to do.

I should also point out something that is a logical extension of the "it's the return, stupid" argument:  the better players have better returns of serve precisely because it requires more talent consistently respond well to the easiest shot in the game to produce - i.e. the serve. For a good return you need particularly good hand-eye coordination, anticipation, consistent strike zone, balance, quickness, footwork, etc.). So a relative donkey, like Lukas Rosol can beat a great player from his serve, here and there, but win the tournament, no chance - not without a great return. There are a lot more players out there with great serves than players with great returns of serve - and it's no coincidence that they tend to do most of the winning. That's because it's harder to do than serve well, and as such it is a more telling facto in who wins the tournament - particularly on grass where the serve is helped so much by the surface, and everyone looks like a world beater with their serve - by the same token, only the best of the best appear to have even decent returns of serve on grass.

My point here is that I'm trying to dispel the myth that the serve is the key/critical/deciding success factor on grass - it's not at all, it's the return. Some would limit their agreement if (and only if ) the serves are equal, but the serves are rarely equal and frequently the player with the better serve loses to the player with the better return. Therefore, it's pretty clear that the return is the key success factor and not the serve - of course your return has to be pretty good to beat a player with a great serve, especially on grass...but that's more to my point of why so few players have what it takes to win Wimbledon.

We've all fallen prey to the blurring of the lines defining the quality of the serve - if there is such a thing as a good serve, there must logically be great serves and below average serves - let's not lump everyone into sufficient/good/great serving category, cite Wimbledon champions (none of whom have a poor serve) and then claim that the key factor is something that they share in common with 90% of professional tennis players.

But a key success factor is something that distinguishes players who've had success from those who have not. To point to the serve, which a large portion of players who have not won Wimbledon, and likely will never win, isn't informative. The return, however, is very probative. I happen to think that while the serve is the easiest stroke in tennis, because it's ball in hand, the return might be the hardest (because you must use a broad range of skills to respond to the easiest stroke in the game to hit at you), and by this logic, I am of the belief that the return, particularly at Wimbledon, where even the worst serves in tennis get a lot of help, is the most important stroke to winning the tournament.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

RAFA NADAL or CARLITO MORENO

It's been a rough treble of weeks for Rafa Nadal - actually, it's been a rough treble of months.  First, he lost 6 times on clay in one season for the first time in 10 years, and he also dropped to his lowest ranking in 10 years.  Aside from one shining moment in Buenos Aires, his season has, to say the least, been less than spectacular.  He lost twice in a row to Fabio Fognini, once to Andy Murray, and for the third time this year at Roland Garros to Djokovic, who then proceeded to do him the indignity of losing the final to some Swiss guy.  To be fair, he hasn't been himself this year, and one has impression that, as unthinkable as this was for a decade, this year the Djoker wasn't the only one who would have taken care of the King of Clay at Roland Garros.

But something else is happening to him...something off the court.  Quietly, but persistently, there seems to be a distinct questioning of something that heretofore was entirely off-limits:  Rafa's sportsmanship.  For a guy who always rubs out the mark, and always speaks glowingly of any player (that smiles at him in the locker room) there seems to have been this year, more than a few rumblings about some things which up to now the tennis world has simply accepted as the fleas that come with the dog.  So lately, I'm not sure if Rafa Nadal would be better referred to as Carlito Moreno...or Charlie Brown in Spanish.


In his match with Jack Sock in the 4th round, a new statistic was revealed that I'd never seen before:  they indicated he had gone over the time limit on 100% of his serves, as opposed to 2/3rds of the time for the American.  There has also been a lot of concern about his very public request not to have Carlos Bernardes umpire any more of his matches - a request that reared it's ugly head (for no apparent reason) at Roland Garros this year, despite having been made in Brazil over 2 and 1/2 months earlier.  It's hard to imagine that his dwindling fortunes this year did not contribute to a new found interest in things that would certainly have been swept under the rug in years past.


Now, I have always felt that Nadal does indeed gain a competitive advantage by taking so much time in between points, and this no innocuous infringement, despite the humor of all the idiosyncrasies he he manages to cram into 30 seconds.  After all, it must be very difficult to physically recover entirely after the long drawn out points he frequently plays, which is a key to his success over aggressive ball-striking opponents in particular.  And I have always found it to be incredibly self-serving of him to react angrily to umpires correctly applying the rules and given him time violation warnings.  


In Madrid last year, he complained that it wasn't good for the show if they properly applied the rules - implying that his brand of tennis is more entertaining and as a result an exception should be made when he's played a particularly entertaining point.  But this does nothing to assuage the concern for how frequently he goes over the limit after serving an ace, a service winner, or hitting an effective 1-2 combination.  As such, I think it's perfectly appropriate for him to be cited more frequently for these clear violations.  But this year, something ugly has happened, which I not only think is incredibly inappropriate.


In Brazil, after accidentally putting his shorts on backwards, he served (and won) the first game of the set, then quickly ran to the sidelines to change his shorts back round the right way.  It was a moment of levity, or so we thought, until Carlos Bernardes noticed that his opponent was ready to serve, and Nadal, having chosen the short changeover after the first game to correct his livery, wound up interrupting the server's pace, which is against the laws of the game, and he was promptly (and correctly) cited for the violation.  Nadal, incensed, complained intensely to no avail, and then publicly requested that Bernardes not do any more of his matches.  It is at this point that I must draw the line, and say that Nadal has let himself and the game down with this request.


I understand that some players just don't get along with some umpires - it happens, and is perfectly normal - but the minute you start allowing players to determine which umpire will and won't do their matches, that for me is beyond the pale.  Nadal shouldn't be picking and choosing umpires - I disagree with that entirely. That's not fair to the other players or the umpire. Also, he should have to publicly articulate his problem with an umpire so that it can be determined whether his problem is a reasonable one. A reasonable problem is that the umpire frequently makes overrules that are overturned by hawkeye. An unreasonable problem he might have, is simply that the umpire applies the rules properly. Bernardes isn't doing these matches because he's a chump, and as far as I can tell, Nadal's only problem is that Bernardes doesn't bow to the pressure to accommodate all his idiosyncracies - that is Nadal's problem, not the umpire's.


Some have argues that this sort of request shouldn't be made public - I disagree entirely with this as well.  The last place these things should be addressed is behind closed doors because that compromises the integrity of the officiating. What else is being said behind closed doors that may favor one player (who takes forever between points and gets illegal coaching and take dubious injury time-outs and argues when he is wrong on the application of the rules). Are there to be a separate set of rules just for him that we don't know about? I think that's not on.

There will always be a problem when a player takes himself to be more important than the laws of the game he plays - when that happens, it becomes a competition tilted in his favor, which is particularly tragic when if he just shaped up and played within the rules, he might still be be just as successful. But when Nadal chooses to make a different set of rules for himself (and anyone who agrees with him) that's not fair to the game or his opponents, nor ultimately the viewers.


Now in response to this controversy, Jon Wertheim posted the following letter from an anonymous umpire, who attempted to play down the ghastliness of all of this:

"I found it interesting that it has gotten so much attention as this situation is relatively common through all levels of tennis. All chair umpires, from college through the futures, challengers and ATP/WTA have a “no list” of players whose matches they don’t want to officiate, generally due to an issue that arose in a recent match. Most of the time umpires will only put a player on the list for a few weeks to give tensions time to defuse—in rare circumstances, perhaps after repeated issues, it might be permanent. This happens all the time, and most of the time the player doesn’t even know about it. 

A player making the request, like Nadal did, is much less common, but is usually honored just like if the umpire had made the request. So much of being an effective chair umpire depends on having the confidence and respect of the players, and if a recent incident is in the back of a player’s mind, it can cause there to be a lack of confidence in the official before the match even starts. Our goal as officials is to give players a fair match without unnecessarily becoming part of the match, and you never want something from a past match to affect a future one—from either the player's or official's side. There are many qualified officials at all of these tournaments, so keeping one player away from a specific official, doesn't burden the officiating assignments too much and generally makes for a smoother match for all involved."


That's an email from an (anonymous) umpire expressing an opinion that because this goes on all the time from umpires, it should elicit no concern when a player does the same.  My opinion is that this is illogical, and that he has compared two unlike things - if an umpire doesn't want to do a match, he loses the match.  If a player doesn't want an umpire to do his match he too should lose the match. That is logically consistent. If an umpire said "find me another player" we would say it is ridiculous, and we should say the same about a player saying, "find me another umpire".

I also find it disconcerting that if this kind of illogical and unjust request is accepted behind closed doors, it begs the question, what else is accepted behind closed doors?  More importantly, if Nadal or any other player who wants to exclude certain officials from their matches, is truly justified, they 
should make the request publicly. In this I applaud Nadal's openness, just not his specific request, which is, in my opinion, completely unjust.

You can't have your cake and eat it too - you can't publicly make an (unjust) request and then not expect to be publicly called to task on that.  By the same token, you can't admit that private agreements are made to affect the assignment of officials based on anything other than their quality as an official, and then insist on your indignation when the logical question of "what else is decided (in private) that is not based on merit, but rather on convenience, that we don't know about" is asked. I mean, you can, but it'd be ridiculous to do so.

As a paying fan, I would like to be in a position to determine for myself whether this constitutes a reason to doubt the integrity of the officiating.  If Bernardes applies the rules properly (as far as I or anyone else watching tennis can tell - and this would include his colleagues and the tournament referees who assign umpires) then what gives Nadal the right to exclude him from his matches?  And if the only reason is because he does his job properly, that's a damning commentary on Nadal, not Bernardes.

In Brazil Nadal made it clear that he feels Bernardes puts more pressure on him than any other umpire. But Bernardes has not been cited for any faulty judgment or application of the rules. It could be argued (which I believe is the case) that Bernardes applies the rules more stringently to Nadal than other umpires do, but should he be excluded for applying the rules - is this what passes for a good reason to exclude the umpire.  Finally, what is entirely absent is the any citation of a rule that any player can refuse any umpire. That it happens (and I'm sure it does) is neither proof that it is legal or fair.

I have enormous respect for Rafael Nadal and what he's done in the game tennis, but it has to be said that what he has achieved, he has achieved with some under the radar, but persistent cheating.  It's always been perceived as an innocuous kind of cheating, but the more you look at what he's done in the past, not only is the criticism of him to be expected, so to, in my opinion should the slight diminution in respect for him that has resulted from all of this.  After all, he has received illegal coaching all his career, and neither he nor his Uncle even try to hide or deny it.  That is, in my opinion, not on.  He has frequently taken inexplicable injury time-outs in the past, when things weren't going his way, and last year that caught up to him in Australian Open final.  And finally, he persistently and knowingly has taken well more than the allotted time limit between points (which is cheating) and has argued vociferously against it, to the extent that he has now banned an umpire for it.

He'll probably get out of this rut one way or another, because he's too great a player to be on the outside looking in for too long...but at least the "real" Charlie Brown's disrespect was entirely undeserved.

I am no longer convinced that this is the case with Carlito Moreno.

Monday, June 8, 2015

STAN WAWRINKA HAS LIBERATED US

There's something liberating about the destruction of myths in tennis - the blogosphere is replete with them, and to a person who plays as often as I do, it can be disheartening to read what others just take as the gospel, even if it makes absolutely no sense at all.  That's why I felt a sense of liberation from Stan Wawrinka's victory over Novak Djokovic in the French Open final yesterday.  Not that I was imprisoned by being his fan - I'm not - nor that I relished in the interruption of what everyone seemed to agree was Novak's procession to the only major he's never won.

The John McEnroe's of the world so personally identify with the pressures of being #1,  that he frequently seems to forget that there are two players involved in a match with the top dog.  To hear him commentate, the match (and his attention) are entirely dependent on the guy who's supposed to win.  And I just can't get over the obvious prepared side-bars (and often incoherent ramblings) of Mary Carillo who has replaced Dick Enberg as the greatest producer of broadcast cheese in the tennis world.  She's never short of a story of some grandmother or teacher in 3rd grade or friend who spent time in a Turkish prison - there's always some damn thing.  So it's all the more disappointing that a former player, who did actually win a mixed doubles major (with John McEnroe, no less) provides so little in the way of technical or tactical analysis.

But they are the purveyors of tennis mythology - it is their inane and endlessly narcissistic pseudo-analysis that drones on and on about any number of mythological hurdles to navigate, that convinces the tennis world that that the myths are fact.  The more they say it, the more it's repeated, and the more it's taken as truth.  They begin to suffocate us with their dogma, leaving no room for the possibility that something unexpected could happen...until, of course, it happens.

That's why Stan's victory at Roland Garros should liberate us all - particularly those who play tennis, but as well those who watch it.  Too often we've heard these myths, and if you listen to them often enough, it's hard to come to any conclusion other than the game of tennis (and all of it's many myths) decides for you what can and cannot be done, rather you determining for yourself, your own destiny.

So here, for the record, and for which we should all be very grateful, are some of the myths from which Stan has liberated us all:

The Insurmountable Head to Head Match Up

It is the most common statistic shown in tennis - the head to head matchup.  It appears to give you some insight into the match that's about to occur, and is as often cited as a hurdle that has to be overcome as anything technical.  But there's something very wrong with using the head-to-head match up as a harbinger:  first, the matches often go back many more years than is relevant to the match at hand.  For two players like say, Federer and Haas, that history could go back 14 years.  To me, that's as insightful as looking at results in the juniors. If you think about it, the head-to-head match up is only as informative as the overall games of the players involved have not evolved...and how exactly are you going to measure that?  Well, that requires technical analysis, and there's just no time for that on television, so it's much easier to cite the head-to-head record - because nothing else says so little, while appearing to say so much.  After all, a player could (theoretically) change his game in a month in such a way that the previous ten years of results are completely irrelevant.

Even so, the head-to-head record begins to take on such an undeserved importance that people no longer view it as a historical coincidence or happenstance, but rather as a hurdle that must be overcome in order to win the upcoming match. But the truth is that what happened 10 years ago has no more impact on the next match than what happened 10 minutes ago - the past is not prologue unless the conditions characterizing the past are the same.  And that being the case, the only thing you have to do to nullify years of futility in a head-to-head match up is...change.  Something, anything, sometimes it almost doesn't matter what, but change - and not something mental, because in the best case scenario, a mental change elicits a technical change, and as such, mental changes are really reaching around your ass to scratch your elbow.  You're much better off making technical changes, and the mental changes (by now irrelevant) will follow.

The One-Handed Backhand Disadvantage

This is the myth that the one-handed backhand is dead as a viable technique in modern tennis - the game has changed so much that no player with a one-handed backhanded could possibly ever beat [enter player here] or win [enter tournament here], under any circumstances.  Once again, leave it to John McEnroe, a player with a one-handed backhand, to self-inflicted this wound to his own legacy, who proclaimed confidently this year at the Italian Open (that's what I'm calling it, I don't care what it's actually called) that, "No player with a one-handed backhand will ever beat Rafael Nadal on clay".  And the tennis gods promptly melted the wax in his wings when Stan the Man canned Rafa in Rome in straight sets.  I guess McEnroe forgot that Nico Almagro, during one of the least productive seasons of his career, did the same in Barcelona the year before.  So how did he come to this conclusion in the first place?

Well, there is an underlying myth out there concerning the technical omnipotence of professional tennis players - the line goes like this:  these guys are the best players in the world, and as such, they must have every shot in the book at their disposal, therefore, if they can't find a solution to a problem, the problem must be mental, not technical, because they're technically omnipotent.  If you read carefully, and know anything about logic, you can see that you simply cannot use the same point in your premise as your conclusion - that's circular, and proves nothing.  But that's precisely what this theory does.  And worse than that, despite evidence to the contrary, that these players are not technically omnipotent, because some players are so technically superior to others - they use that in defense of the circular logic by the following:  Roger Federer is the most talented and complete player in tennis, so if he can't do something technical, nobody can - so if he can't beat Nadal on clay because of his one-handed backhand, nobody on earth could possibly have a better one that could.

Bloody dead wrong.

The truth is that Roger may indeed be more talented and resourceful than Stan, but Stan hits the ball harder than Roger - a lot harder - and that gives him opportunities against players that Roger does not have.  In fact, one could argue that Roger's game, which has evolved to compel him to stay on top of the baseline, puts him at a disadvantage because it is more difficult to hit with pace, which is the only way to consistently pressure Djokovic and Nadal, who defend exceptionally well.  Because Stan can hit so hard, he doesn't have to stand on top of the baseline to take his opponent's time away - he can do it from 6 feet further back.  And six feet further behind the baseline means Stan can more frequently hit the backhand in optimal comfort zone, making him even more likely to push his opponent back on clay, in a way that Roger cannot.

Of course the difference yesterday was not Stan's backhand (which has always been a fantastic shot) but his forehand, which suddenly is as powerful as any shot in tennis, but that's not to ignore the obvious - Stan's backhand is better than Roger's therefore Roger is not technically omnipotent, and most importantly Roger's technical limitations do not apply to everyone on earth who plays a similar game.

Myth blown.

The Tennis Career Archetype

If you don't win a major by your 23rd birthday, you never will.  That's the theory because all the major champions in the open era, won their first before their 23rd birthday.  So, try as they may, the Tomas Berdych's and David Ferrer's and Feliciano Lopez's of the world should really just retire, because their window has come and gone.

But hang on a minute - wasn't Stan 28 when he won the Oz Open last year and almost 30 when he won Roland Garros just now?  Are there other major champions that old?  Of course Federer and Nadal come to mind, and even Agassi and Sampras won majors long after their "best" years had gone by, but they had already won one, so they already had the "belief" right?  Well, let's put aside the stupidity of the "belief" argument for a second, and examine whether other first time major winners have been this old...ever?

Jan Kodes and Ivan Lendl were both 24 when they won their first majors.  Marin Cilic was 25...hmm those are well within the margin of credulity, since the vast majority of other major champions have done it long before then, like all the 80's major champions.  But what about Cilic's coach, Goran Ivanisevic?  Well, he was 30 when he won Wimbledon - but I think everyone in tennis viewed that as a fluke, ironically since he should have won it 2-3 other times he found himself in the final.  But how about Andy Murray?  He was 25 when he won the US Open, and 26 when he finally won Wimbledon.  No, this is looking more like the exception.

But here Stan Wawrinka - who in terms of professional tennis, may as well be a septuagenarian, winning, not one, but two majors since his 28th birthday.  How has he bucked the trend?  Well basically he did it the old fashioned way - he lost weight, changed racquets and improved his forehand.  It doesn't sound like much, but that was enough for him, which tells you how close he was all along.  Of course the results weren't there, they suggested nothing of the kind from him, and if you look at his 2011 victory in the Australian Open of Andy Roddick, that looked like an upset, when now, in retrospect, looks like the right result.  But clearly he was better than we thought back then...

...and so are a lot of guys floating around right now.

Somewhere out there is a guy who is about to turn 30 with all the tools in his kit to force his way into the conversation.  But if your myopia is restricted to the players that should win (as is always the case with say...John McEnroe, who couldn't resist alluding to Federer during his interview with Wawrinka)  you will miss those who gape to be their heirs.  So who are the diamonds in the rough?  Well that's for another post.

The point of this post is to say that there are a lot of myths about professional tennis that make us think we know what to expect, and seeps its way into every aspect of our experience with tennis, including the matches that we play.  But nothing could be more damaging to the game of an aspiring professional, or an aspiring weekend hacker (like me), than to insist on remaining chained to these pillars of absolute nothingness and meaninglessness that masquerades as tennis dogma that is in fact about as insightful and informative as the Iliad.

Let us all take a moment and thank Stan Wawrinka for liberating us from the shackles of our misguided, unproven and utterly useless tennis dogma.

Friday, April 10, 2015

ADRIAN WHO?

Mannarino.  That's right - even though I'm a grown-ass man, and I just can't bring myself to worship anyone (that ship sailed about 20 years ago), if I did have a favorite player on the ATP tour, it would be none other than Adrian Mannarino.

Now if you don't follow tennis (even if you do), you'll probably have to google him - and when you do you'll discover that there's almost nothing distinctive about his bio.  He appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a player who's only distinction from the monotony of baseline hugging, two-handed backhand hitting, 1980s-born supplicants to the four corners of the tennis kingdom known as "the big four", is a very strange haircut.  And when you look up his highlights on youtube, you would be hard pressed to put your finger on exactly what it is that he does that has brought him to the hallowed ground of the seeded players locker room (as he most certainly will obtain by the time Wimbledon rolls around).  He's not that tall, rail thin, walks like he's wearing thin socks on a very cold basement floor, and appears to have developed only one-half of the stroke production required to hit a decent groundstroke.


But I urge you to take a look at this guy again, and ask yourself this:  if you can start your forehand from your hip and still finish across the shoulder and hit winners...why the hell is everyone else's strokes so much more elaborate?  Why introduce all the risk associated with a big wind-up, and leaping into the stroke, and groaning like the pard, when any one of those extraneous elements, if mistimed or malformed, puts your strokes at risks of missing the mark and being more bark than bite?


Put it another way, given that he doesn't seem to do anything that isn't absolutely necessary when hitting a ball, what does this guy know that everyone else slept through the day they taught groundstrokes in Groundstrokes_101?

You see, there are people out there who watch tennis and just don't get it - they don't understand how important it is to have good technique.  Some of them play, but play so poorly that they wouldn't know good technique if drilled them right between the eyes on a good poach in a doubles.  Some of them play with so much talent, that they can't comprehend how anyone would find it difficult to do what they do, so they assume there must be something else to this racket (pun intended).  Some don't play, have never played, and don't understand how the game is played, and desperately want success in the game to be attributed to something they can plainly see (like speed, strength, stamina and athleticism) or something they can't see and therefore can attribute almost anything to it (the mental game, confidence, belief - just take your pick of any metaphysical machination espoused today).


But watching Adrian Mannarino play, and more importantly play successfully, against some of the best players in the world, some of the biggest strongest, fastest, hardest hitting jocks the game has to offer, forces even the most keen observer of our beautiful game to wonder:  how the hell does he do it?  I mean the guys is maybe a buck-45 if he's wearing his shoes and a track suit, and most of the time it does look like he's more massaging the ball left and right than hitting it.  But every once in a while, when he has to inject pace into his shots, he can and does, and when he does so, the stroke's production is almost indistinct from his neutral strokes, and the results are all the more effective because of the element of surprise.


The reason is that he is the most technically efficient player in the world.  Nobody on the planet plays at that level with so little outward effort, and the reason for that is because there isn't a single wasted movement in his stroke production, nor is there a stone left un-turned in the eternal pursuit of easy power.  His serve for example is a marvel of modern physics.  Taking two steps into the delivery, he's already moving 10 miles per hour when hits it, so everything else he generates in the way of pace is on top of that base.  And because he's 6 inches off the ground when he hits it, it is essentially as if he is six inches taller than he actually is, when the ball makes contact with his strings; this explains why he's able to generate so much pace, spin and angle from his narrow and sinewy frame.  Furthermore, because his point of contact is in front and to the left, he puts more side-winding action on that stroke than 99 out 100 opponents he'll face, and more importantly more action than 99 out of 100 opponents his opponents will face.  They've never seen anything like it because there is nothing like it.  It's totally unexpected, and there's so much movement on the ball by the time they see it, it's already some where else.


Add to that the fact that's it's left-handed, and it's really not fair - and that's just the serve.


Both the forehand and backhand have almost no backswing, which is almost the opposite of what most teaching professionals will tell you about how to hit a tennis ball.  In fact, I'm guessing that the first thing you heard, the first time you were taught to hit a tennis ball was, "Get your racquet back".  And here, a frizzy haired nymph from France is taking that most basic element of every ground stroke in professional tennis and throwing it out the window.


Now what happens when you eliminate the back swing?  First and foremost the stroke doesn't take as long to produce, so you don't show your hand to your opponent until the very last minute of where you're going to hit the ball.  Furthermore, because there are fewer moving parts, presumably there are fewer things to screw up, and like the rotary engine of ground strokes, Mannarino's rarely go terribly awry.  Additionally, it's very hard to take time away from him, so no matter how hard you hit it, in all likelihood he's going to have a shot at getting it back.  And certainly you can't rush him anywhere within 12 feet of either side of the center of the court, which means, while his error rate is low, yours will increase just by virtue of where you have to put it to disrupt him.


But the most valuable distinction of Adrian Mannarino's strokes is that because they are technically efficient, his footwork has to be right, and because of that, there's almost no shot in the game that he can't hit.  You have to get to the point of contact with your full stroke production at the ready on any shot you hit - that's why footwork is the holy grail of tennis.  With the exception of Serena Williams, if you look down the line at every great player in the history of the game, the only thing that every single one of them have in common is good footwork.  Flat shots cross court or up the line, neutral or aggressive loopers, short slice, deep slice, short angle - the game is really an open book for him because for him to play at all, everything aside from hitting the ball has to be just right...and as a result, it usually is and he is free to do almost anything he wants with the ball.


And it is that broad technical omnipotence that makes him such a pleasure to watch.  


Don't be mistaken, I'm not saying Adrian Mannarino is the best player in the world, or that he's going to win a major.  This is sports, an athletic endeavor, and at the end of the day, all things equal, the jock wins most of the time - particularly in the modern game, where the technical side of the game is so monolithic, and the physical attributes rise to the level of decisive in most match ups. But there is something irritating about commentators and pundits who over emphasize the physical:  it's almost as if they'd prefer to eschew the technical for other more palatable attributes that certainly factor into the result, but aren't necessarily the deciding factor.  You've got to get to the ball, and if you hit it hard enough that the other guy can't, then you'll probably win the point...and if you do that enough, the match.


But the beauty of Adrian Mannarino's game is how it pierces the premise that precedes every conversation about the athletic and mental aspects of the game - that all things are equal.  Mannarino proves they couldn't possibly because while other players have more elaborate strokes, are bigger and stronger and faster, and appear to more emotional and committed, all this little Frenchman does is hit the ball just hard enough, with just enough spin, to get it where it needs to go...and from that he is as technical and competitive as someone with all his physical attributes has to be, and could hope to be.  


We should all be so technical.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER, ANA

By all accounts, Ana Ivanovic is having something of a revival this year - she won Aukland, defeating Venus Williams (for just the second time in her career) in the final.  She made the quarterfinal in Melbourne, losing to Genie Bouchard in a tough 3-set match.  After some mixed results in the premier spring hard court events of Indian Wells and Miami, she won Monterrey with a semi-final victory over Caroline Wozniacki.  She followed this up with arguably her best performance of the year at Stuttgart, despite losing the final.

It was the first time in 5 years that she made consecutive finals - not too shabby.  Along the way, she defeated Julia Goerges (meh...) Svetlana Kuznetsova (2-time major winner and winner at the Citi Open last week) and her personal nemesis Jelena Jankovic, who always puts up a good fight - particularly against her.  In the end, she succumbed to the best clay-courter on the WTA tour, Maria Sharapova (7 of her last 8 titles have been on clay, BTW) in the final.  She capped off the highlights of this season so far with an impressive victory at the Aegon classic at Birmingham, where she never lost more than 5 games in a match and won the only grass court title of her career.

But a strange thing happened after that - she lost a match in the 3rd round at Wimbledon over Sabine Liscki after winning the first set on Saturday, and appearing to have the match in hand before the match was suspended due to poor light.  Because Wimbledon doesn't play the middle Sunday, the match didn't resume until Monday, but she was still up a break in the second at 5-2, when the match was suspended again due to rain. This proved to be a tipping point, because upon resumption she proceed to lose 7 of the next 9 games, and the match, showing once again that in tennis it is just as easy to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Following that capitulation, in the context of the previous 7 months that saw her most successful season since 2008, she took the curious decision of splitting with the coach whose tenure coincided with those results, Serbian Nemanja Kontic.  In and of itself, that is not unusual - players split with coaches for a variety of reasons and often do it when they appear to be really well and/or making great progress. At the end of the day, the player is the employer and they have the prerogative to make changes whenever they like.

What's strange is the reasons she gave for the change:

"You want someone who's going to be there to support you no matter what...to make you motivated, to make you hungry for success.  I really wanted to get higher in the rankings...I definitely look for someone in that manner rather than someone who's going to be technical."

That's my emphasis precisely because I can't believe what I'm reading.

First, she emphasizes that she really wanted to move up in the rankings, and ironically, that is precisely what she did in 2014.  In fact, she not only moved into the top 10 for the first time since 2008, but she also won 3 titles (where she had no titles the previous two years).  You could hardly blame Kontic for scratching his head on this one, if winning titles and moving up in the rankings was truly the objective - in that case he did his job quite well.

She then goes out of her way to imply that Kontic wasn't giving her "unconditional love" so to speak, didn't motivate her, or keep her hungry for success.  Now this is pretty damning for any coach hoping to get a job with the multitude of female professionals who seek a coach that will provide these exact same things for them.  In that regard, Miss Ivanovic did him no favors here - in fact, if I didn't know any better, that really comes across as the last throes of a woman scorned.

But I digress.

The real question is, why in the world does she need someone else to motivate her?  Isn't that something that is really her responsibility to herself?  If she isn't self-motivated, isn't that problem hers and hers alone?  Maybe she should look at the reasons she isn't motivated - too much money, too many matches, too many people around her putting pressure on her to earn their living?  None of those have to do with the coach, because at the end of the day she is the final arbiter of her career decisions, including all of the above.

But the most incredible sentence is the last - that she's less interested in the technical than the motivational and psychological - I just can't believe or understand that.  I mean, after all, this is a sport - a physical activity.  Striking a tennis ball is not like moving pieces on a chess board - it does matter how you do what you do, so it behooves anyone who wants to do what they do better, to find someone who can help with that pesky "doing" bit..i.e. the technical.  Furthermore, even if you work off the assumption that the body follows the mind (despite ample evidence to the contrary) the body still has to follow - in other words, even a mental edge has to translate into a technical edge, so why not cut out the middle man and work on the technical?

The mental game is by far the most overrated aspect of tennis - for a variety of reasons people attribute way too much importance to it, and because this attribution is so pervasive, a lot of people who should know better lap it up like a stray cat over a saucer of milk.

But Ana Ivanovic, you really should know better.

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 (moonlighting as an 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 Luxembourg's 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 spots for one incredible 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 has turned the women's game into an uninspiring monotony of essentially pared down versions of the Williams sisters...but Giorgi's style may just be 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 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 Peter Graf, Stefano Capriati, Jim Pearce, and so many overbearing tennis parents before Richard Williams.  After all, his predecessors were men that, few would deny, would 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 each 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 say 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 failings, 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 - that 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 sister's dominance of 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 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, in her view, "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?