Monday, September 28, 2009

A STAR IS (NOT QUITE YET) BORN

He had a lot of opportunities to pack it in on that Monday evening in Queens – down a break in the second and receiving to stay in the set, or up a break in the 4th and giving it back before serving to stay in the set.

But he didn’t.

Because Juan Martin del Potro is, if nothing else, tough as nails and supremely determined. The fact that he won two of his sets in tie-breaks is an indication that the mental resolve to stay in the moment and struggle for a result is reminiscent of the very pantheon of men he seeks to join and maybe even take for his own one day…maybe.

For all his technical prowess, hitting his strokes with massive power and direction on both sides, with consistency and steely resolve, one thing missing from his game that makes me wonder how long he’ll be able to continue generating the results he had in the 2009 US Open, is the plan B.

For some players a plan B is critical to any chance they have of winning on the ATP tour – Fabrice Santoro comes to mind. The man has about 100 different ways of winning a tennis match, and that’s because he has to – because his plan A isn’t quite good enough to take a majority of players on tour. There are others who demonstrate a plan B – Federer and Nadal are supremely adept at identifying what it is their opponents do worst and exploiting it mercilessly for the remainder of the match. It’s one of the (many) reasons both of them win so often.

But if you look at the final he played in Queens, I didn’t see much of a plan B from del Potro – in fact I saw more of plan A. That can come in handy at times – when the going got tough he doubled down and went for it, and it’s been a long time since anyone witnessed the level of power and direction on strokes in a grand slam final he displayed. Basically he knocked the cover off the ball when he had to, and it got him out of a lot of trouble, and put so much pressure on the great champion across the net, that he wilted in the 5th with the prospect of del Potro’s level staying where it was and his own Plan B not getting the job done.

But there have been other occasions where this strategy hasn’t worked very well for del Potro, and it is this element that appears to be missing from his game that makes me wonder how many more times we’ll see him bludgeoning his way to victory in a grand slam in the future. Injury questions aside, his rather disappointing failure to deliver a second point for Argentina in the Davis Cup Final of 2008 is an indication of what concerns me. There he wasn't playing his best tennis for the entire match, and while his injury certainly played a role, he did not appear to be in control of the match when it occurred and that failure probably cost Argentina the Cup. I have not doubt that Nalbandian would have taken care of business in a 5th rubber against Feliciano Lopez.

Often in tennis, longevity of success is mistaken for maintaining a very high level of play for a very long time – not so. The great ones don’t play well all the time, just often enough to win titles – in between moments of brilliance, the greats muddle their way through games and sets by doing whatever it takes to win – change the pace, come to net, find angles and serve their way out of trouble. Federer tried and failed, mostly because del Potro didn’t let him, but partly also because his serve lost his way in the sets that it counted. But you can probably count the number of times on one hand that's happened at that stage of a grand slam - usually by then Federer's plan B has taken the sting out of his opponents and eliminated any hope of their victory (Wimbledon 2007 and 2009 being the glaring exceptions).

Tennis is a game of individuals, and stars make the game what it is – so it’s normal that we should wonder aloud every time someone comes along and dethrones a great champion, if a star has just been born. But that is a question that cannot be answered until the end of next year. The case of Novak Djokovic is a good example of how the march towards greatness is fraught with changes of direction, pace and belief in the ultimate achievement of an objective.

By the final of the Australian Open in 2008, it looked like he had conquered the two men who had come to dominate the game so pervasively for the last 5 years. He won in Miami beating Nadal on the way in the quarterfinal, but in Montreal he beat them both, a feat that only Nalbandian and del Potro have able to repeat (the former did it twice in 2007 in Madrid and Paris, and the latter did it for the first time at a slam at the US Open - both Argentines I might add). His level was very high and he seemed to be playing consistently at a level that allowed him to challenge for all the grand slams.

But something happened to him along the way – the pressure he put on himself to perform, coupled with his own inability to consistently win when not playing well (as he did in defeating Federer in both Miami and Rome this year) cost him any chance of winning grand slams. He retired against a resurgent Roddick in Australia, and absolutely bagged it in Paris against a very good clay court player in Phillip Kohlschreiber. At Wimbledon he lost rather tamely to a Tommy Haas who was in the form of his life at the time and at the US Open, couldn’t muster up the twists and turns needed to derail Federer’s march to the final. Unable to hit him off the court like del Potro, Djokovic tried everything in his book to compete and did so far more impressively in 2009 than he had in 2008, despite actually winning a set last year. You never had the feeling that he could win that match, but in 2009 he had his chances and just couldn’t take them.

My concern for del Potro is that I don’t really see anything in his game beyond playing his socks off that would elicit a similar result in a slam, as long as two men named Federer and Nadal are still in form - and to me that is a recipe for a sophomore slump in the mold of Djokovic in 2009. That’s not to take anything away from his success, but I’ll need to see him find other ways to win matches, develop a plan B – because no matter how good his plan A is, there will always be days like his first round loss to Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon this year, where it’s not enough to get him through.

Unfortunately this does force me to reserve judgment on whether the game of men’s professional tennis has quite yet seen the birth of a new star or already witnessed the moment of his greatest brilliance.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BLAME IT ON STEFFI

There’s been a great deal of discussion at this year's US Open about the problems that top WTA players have had serving. Almost as curious is the paucity of good analysis as to the source of their problems.  If all of a sudden women on tour are having problems properly serving, and all at once, it makes sense to compare the serves of women say, 20 years ago, to modern players and analyze the difference.

I am a firm believer in the philosophy that all problems in tennis are essentially technical – even the ones that appear to be mental, and nothing has made that more apparent to me than the serving issue. In the past, wielding unforgiving 85 square inch 15 ounce wood racquets, a player couldn't get away with bad technique on the serve - today they have over sized composites to help them hide the fact that their technique is sorely lacking.

I had a soccer coach years ago who used to hammer us on technique – the way he did this was to get our fitness training in first. Running hills, sprints, push-ups, sit-ups, etc.; he really ran us through the wringer before we ever touched a ball. By the time we got around to ball work, our legs were like jelly and our lungs were on fire. The result: when you’re that tired, and wondering just what on your body is about to fail next, the only thing you have rely on, the only thing you have left, is your technique - it's the only thing that makes you kick straight.

I think it’s exactly the same with tennis.

Tennis is a game that demands constant adjustment to many factors to perform at a high level. There are a lot of factors that can affect your ability to hit the ball properly: your opponent's play, your level of fatigue, your movement – these are all physical factors. Ironically, of all the factors that can affect your play, pressure, whilst existing only in the mind of the player that allows it to, is the only one that is completely intangible. That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t have a physical impact. In fact the variation created by all the physical factors are mimicked by pressure. You hesitate slightly and the ball isn’t where you’re accustomed to hitting it. You’re tentative and you don’t move into the position you should. You try to just keep the ball in bounds, and you lose racquet head speed, even though that’s the fastest way to lose control of your strokes.

So while pressure is an intangible factor, it has a physical consequence, and as such, the only thing that will allow a player to manage pressure, and all its consequences, is the same thing that will allow a player to manage all the other actual physical variables that affect her ability to hit a proper stroke: that thing is technique.

The best serves in the history of tennis have one and only one characteristic in common: the point of contact is at the optimal point of racquet head velocity. That’s it. Everything else is imagined and totally overrated. In short, if you can hit the ball when your racquet head is moving the fastest, the speed, accuracy and consistency of your serve will improve. If you can improve racquet head acceleration it will improve your power and accuracy, but at the end of the day everyone has their limit and generally the limit of women is lower than the limit of men. The key is to hit your optimal point of contact every time, so the question is how to do this and the answer is as simple as it is obvious.

The toss.

Take a look at the worst serves on the women’s tour and they all have one common characteristic – the toss is awful - it's all over the place - and as such, it’s anyone’s guess how often (if ever) they’re going to reach their optimal point of contact. If the toss isn’t out in front, you don’t transfer your weight forward, and you lose racquet head acceleration and speed. The ball on the toss travels slowest just before and after the apex, so if the apex of the toss is beyond the point of contact, when it finally returns to the point of contact, it travels through it too quickly to consistently make the optimal point of contact. If the sun is in your eyes, the point of contact on a high toss is obscured even more, and if it’s windy out?

Fegheddabouddit…

So without naming any names, you’ll note that the most inconsistent and/or least powerful serves in the game (men’s or women’s) are always the ones with the highest ball toss. It sounds simple, and in truth it is, but the problem is that once a player gets into a comfort zone with all the mechanics of their serve, it is very difficult to tinker with the toss with immediate success – if the movement of the feet and the shoulder rotation all depend on the timing of a toss that soars 3-4 feet above the point of contact, you basically have to re-engineer the entire serve in order to accommodate the new toss – the very toss that’s causing all of their problems in the first place.

That’s a daunting task for a player who will undoubtedly watch their ranking plummet in the process, and because so much money is riding on the ranking, it’s almost impossible for a coach who is largely judged by a player’s ranking to be willing to say something like:

“We need to re-engineer your serve – you’re going to lose a lot of matches while we go through this process, and your ranking will fall. But a year from now you’ll have a better serve and all the points you’ve lost you’ll gain back and then some.” In fact, how do you tell that to someone who’s already in the top 10?

So who is to blame for all of this? Typically in tennis the prominence of one player who appears and dominates the game causes millions of players to try to emulate their game in the hopes of re-creating their success. In the case of women and their serves, that player is one Stefanie Marie Graf.

For all her qualities as a tennis player, there’s probably never been a player with more aberrations from sound fundamental technique, that’s had more success in the game. Although this article concerns the serve, as an appetizer I give the Graf forehand – powerful and dominant as it was, it was singularly the most consistent cause for the few losses she incurred. Rarely did Graf lose a match because her backhand went off the boil, and in the worst case scenario her slice and movement would win her 8 out of 10 matches and the forehand was the difference in the ninth and/or tenth.

Why?

Because the point of contact on Graf’s forehand was at a point of contact parallel to the baseline – in other words it was very late. It was so late, that the only way for her to keep the ball in the court was to have massive racquet head acceleration and it was that massive racquet head acceleration that gave her all that power. But if the timing on that stroke was slightly off, Graf suddenly became human - rarely, the timing was off because she wasn't feeling at her best, and certain players like Seles or Sabatini would find ways to disrupt that timing, hence their success against her. But generally speaking, if she got the timing right, the racquet head speed she had to generate on her forehand made it the most powerful stroke in women's tennis.

That condition was exactly the same for her serve.

Graf’s serve toss was, at the time, one of the highest in the game – with the apex of the toss consistently reaching 3-4 feet above the optimal point of contact. When the ball descended through her point of contact, she needed tremendous racquet head acceleration to meet the ball in the optimal point of contact range, and it was this racquet head speed that gave her all her power and direction on the serve.

Fast forward to 2009 – every idiot and her sister on the WTA mimics the toss on Graf’s serve, but none of the racquet head acceleration and speed, and as a result their point of contact is rarely in the optimal range and the result is the comedic tragedy of faults, double faults and just flat out terrible serves you see on the women’s tour.

So what was the difference with Graf? Why was she able to be so technically aberrant, but successful?

Well, let me tell you a couple things about Steffi Graf – if she hadn’t been a tennis player she could have been an Olympic decathalete, or volleyball player, or a champion in just about any other damn sport she wanted. Once clocked at a 23 second 200m dash, Graf was easily one of the most gifted natural athletes in the world, not just tennis, but she complemented her gifts with a tremendous focus and work ethic that allowed her to maximize her special abilities into her own brand of tennis technique. Her technique is so unique that some players may be able to emulate one or two things about it, but nobody can put together the whole package like she did.

Does anyone think Ana Ivanovic could run 200 meters in total, let alone 200 meters in 23 seconds? Not likely – and the paucity of physical gifts as compared to her idol doesn’t stop there – she also has terrible timing on the serve, but rather than recognizing and accepting this limitation and adjusting her ball toss on the serve, she, and oh-so-many other tennis players on the WTA have inherited much of Graf’s technique and unfortunately almost none of her physical gifts ability, and not surprisingly, almost none of her success.

Even Venus Williams, who once was caught smiling at her own meaningless 130mph serve, has one of the worst 2nd serve’s in women’s tennis, and her toss is just as inconsistent as the serve itself. When she has a serve in reserve (i.e. she's hitting a first serve), she has the freedom to go after that ridiculous toss and every once in a while serves huge. But put the pressure of a second serve on her mind, and suddenly the racquet travels just that little bit slower and the bad technique on her toss is revealed when the physical effects of pressure put stress on her very poor technique.

For all the time, money, and commitment that women on the WTA show their coaches, they have been shamelessly rooked in quality of coaching – in my opinion it’s nothing short of highway robbery. When they’re juniors and nobody can serve anyway, a stupid toss on the serve doesn’t reveal itself as a weakness until the bright lights come on and someone stands on the other side of the net that will have a Thanksgiving feast on the results of bad technique.

Well, in the big leagues, there’s nowhere to hide. So maybe, instead of showing-off during changeovers or grimmacing on camera every chance they get, these coaches should earn their money and teach their pupils how to properly toss the ball on the serve, and by doing so, end their woes.