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 with the racquet head 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 precisely 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, and not surprisingly, almost none of her success.

Even Venus Williams, who once was caught grinning 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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

THE PRIVILEGE OF PRESSURE

Billie Jean King once said that, "Pressure is a privilege."

Aside from reading like catchy reverse psychology, intended to make players embrace pressure, rather than wilt under it, there may actually be a whole lot more truth to this.  In light of the fact that Roger Federer has, in the span of two weeks, accomplished everything in 2009 that seemed so far from his grasp in 2008, the question becomes two: will he play the remainder of his career without pressure, and more importantly, is that necessarily a good thing?

When he won his maiden French Open, Federer was quoted as saying that he could play the remainder of his career pressure free because nobody would be able to say that he never won the French Open. I had my doubts – I thought he could play the French Open pressure free…maybe...but until he reached that magical number 15, the one that ends his obligation to anyone who was withholding his place in tennis history, I felt there would always be huge pressure on him to go 7 and 0 over a fortnight just one more time. The plot thickened when his nemesis exited stage left before the curtain was raised – after all, if Darth Federer couldn’t dominate the tennis galaxy when his personal Luke Skywalker was off in the Dagova system, then when would he?  

Pressure indeed.

But what happens to a great champion when the pressure is off?  What happens when the peaks have been scaled, the quiet questions answered loudly, and his face on Mt. Rush-the-net-More has been sculpted? On this question, history is a murky water way of let downs.

When Pete Sampras won his 13th major at Wimbledon in 2000, he appeared to collapse emotionally under the weight of expectations and the knowledge of the struggle and sacrifice his success required.  For the first time that I can remember until then, Sampras cried at the victory ceremony.  And for a man who scarcely showed his emotions (and when he did, seemed to do so begrudgingly) it seemed the last finger in the dyke could no longer resist, and when it broke there was no turning back.  It would be another 2 years before Sampras won his 14th – along the way he showed some flashes of his former self – that 2001 US Open quarterfinal with Agassi comes to mind, only to then lose rather tamely to Lleyton Hewitt in the final. When he finally got to number 14, there had been questions for 2 years of whether he still had the game, but more tellingly, it had to be asked whether he still had the heart. He had both, apparently, because he won – so what was the difference?

That damn record, that’s what.

With his white whale slaughtered, his inner Ahab died right along with it. Sampras made no secret of his love of the history of the game, and never shied away from number 13. Having achieved it, he seemed less than enthusiastic about the daily slog that is the ATP tour, and with a wife and baby on the way, who could blame him. But most importantly – every question had been answered, and but for one moment of defiance when the press began to target his wife with their cynicism, Sampras had little to prove, and very little pressure...and his results showed it.  

Interestingly, 2002 was the first year that the US Open went to 32 seeds, and as a result the 17th ranked player in the world (which happened to be Pete Sampras) received a seeding at the US Open for the first time. Had seeds been capped at their traditional 16, he may have faced Lleyton Hewitt in the first round, rather than Albert Portas. Maybe he would have won anyway, but it's interesting to ponder.

In 1984 John McEnroe went 74-2. He reached 3 grand slam finals, including his only final in Paris, obliterated Connors at Wimbledon, and then ran through the field at the US Open.  With the exception of a late night semi-final, also against Connors, that ended Sunday morning, his path to the final was fraught with the potential for a Herculean collapse. In the end, he returned and promptly dispatched Ivan Lendl in the final, the only player who had beaten him that year, who himself had struggled to a 5-set win over Pat Cash on the last truly Super Saturday, and was in worse shape than McEnroe.  

He held the #1 ranking for another year until he lost the US Open final in 1985 (also to Lendl, starting a string of 3 victories out of 8 finals in a row at Flushing) but tellingly that would be McEnroe's last grand slam final – afterwards family put the pressure of a tennis match in its proper perspective and lo and behold, McEnroe was never the same.  He didn't turn 30 until 1989, and his run in the Australian Open in 1990 made it clear that he was still capable of brilliance, but when the pressure of expectation disappeared, so too did his best results.

Mats Wilander reached the #1 ranking in 1988 by winning 3 out of 4 slams that year – the only jewel missing from his crown was Wimbledon – an irony probably not lost on him given that he won 2 Australian Opens on grass. But after reaching the end of the rainbow that year, with his beacon obscured by the haze of success, his accomplishments did more than dwindle – he never won another tournament, let alone a slam, and only briefly ever moonlighted again in the top 10 after amassing a hefty tally of seven majors in the first 6 years of his professional career.

There is a huge psychological component to tennis – and players talk a lot about dealing with the pressure.  It’s fascinating because of all the factors involved in a tennis match, pressure is the only one that is totally intangible, and as such, only exists in the mind if the player allows it.  What’s even more fascinating is that pressure appears to be an essential element to keeping a player sufficiently sharp and motivated to succeed, and yet, it is most often cited as a reason a player fails.

In the Wimbledon final this year, it was clear that in a couple of key moments in the match Andy Roddick succumbed to the pressure – namely that backhand volley that floated wide at set point in the 2nd set tie-break. Both players would have been forgiven for feeling the pressure at the moment, and apparently Federer handled it better. It would seem to follow logically that a player playing without pressure would play more freely and presumably achieve more success.

But ask yourself this – when you’re playing tennis are you sharper and more accurate when you’re just hitting, or when you start keeping score? Sure you'll hit a couple of bombs that you wouldn't hit in a match, but you're probably just that little bit more precise when it counts - and it only counts in your head unless you're a pro, so imagine what they're feeling.

I certainly hope that Federer will prove me wrong – perhaps he will prove the anomaly that the absence of pressure makes a great champion even greater, but somehow it doesn’t seem intuitive to me. Now that he has his 15th grand slam, he will be without the privilege of pressure, but will he succeed?

It seems BJK, in this and many other ways, is onto something.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

WHY IS EVERYONE SO AFRAID OF GOATS?

It seems to me there’s been a awful lot of fear of the GOAT debate running around, and for the life of me, I can't understand why. After all, this is sports, and we do keep records: who won a match, who won a tournament and who won a slam. All of these elements are important to fans because it is this very context that gives meaning to sports that separates it from the arts. I may love dancing as much as the man standing next to me, but aside from a few technical arguments on the proper form of this step or that, we really have no context for discussing which particular dancer is better than another.

But that’s not the case with sports.

In sports, and in particular in tennis, it is precisely the context of determining who is the better player in a point, game, set, match, tournament, year and era, that makes it compelling for those who follow the game. After all, you can prefer the tenacity of Nadal over the artistry of Federer, over the pure power of Djokovic; but at the end of the day all those elements are merely means to an end of determining who is the better player by something that is indisputable – results.

Yet somehow results have become the least important element in the GOAT debate, and it appears to have become fashionable to invent new and improved ways to look past the obvious (i.e. results) to something else that is the truest measure of greatness. But in my opinion, and as they say in the south, this is a bit like reaching around your ass to scratch your elbow. Today, the GOAT debate, and more importantly, the fear thereof, has been rekindled by the exploits of one Roger Federer.

As often as the fearful argue against the concept of the GOAT, detractors today typically argue more specifically against Federer as the GOAT. Mostly, they don’t debate his results, although some try to (rather convolutedly I might add), but rather offer variations on the problems with the GOAT argument itself. There are so many variations on arguments against his results as the truest measure of greatness that it is difficult to address them all in a single post, but here are some of the more common ones that are currently a la mode.

THE GAME HAS CHANGED

The argument goes like this: tennis is played very differently in 2009 than it was in say 1929 or 1959 or even 1989, and as such it is not reasonable to compare a player in 2009 to a player from 1929 to determine who was the better player. I suppose if you’re asking if say, Bill Tilden went into a time warp and played Rafa Nadal today, who would win, I think the answer is obviously Nadal. After all, Tilden couldn’t hit 100+ mph winners from behind the baseline, or 140mph serves up the T. Enveloped in this argument is that equipment has changed the game fundamentally – and this is very true. Tilden’s shots probably spun, at the most, 500 times a minute, whereas Nadal’s do so at 3200 rpm on average, and peaks at 5000 rpm. And these changes certainly would make it difficult for Tilden to beat Nadal.

But what about the alternate argument: what if Nadal were transported to 1929 without his modern equipment? I would argue that Rafa would at the very least have to completely regenerate his game to play in full pants on grass (almost all the time) with a racquet half the size, twice as heavy and with strings that impart almost no unnatural spin on the ball at all. I'm sure in time he would figure out a way to beat Tilden...or would he? What about Tilden? If you transported him from say, 1925, and gave him modern equipment, nutrition and accoutrements for 5 years, I'm sure he'd still never figure out a way to beat Nadal...or would he?

The point - this is what makes this argument entirely moot - because who would beat whom is not the question the GOAT debate is trying to answer.

The GOAT debate is trying to determine, given their circumstances who more often emerged as the best player at the most important competitions in their respective careers. In that context, if (God forbid) Rafa’s career ended tomorrow you could hardly say his was better than Tilden’s – after all, the pinnacle of both their eras was winning slams and 10 slams is more the 6. But then again, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow and for all we know we have either already witnessed Rafa’s last slam, or the 6th of 20 to come, which in either case, the case would be closed.

So what matters is not whether Rafa could use a slice forehand effectively, or if Tilden ever came over his backhand. It doesn’t matter that Rafa takes 35 seconds between points, but Tilden only played 50 times a year. What matters is that when it mattered the most (namely at the slams) Tilden emerged the best player more often than Rafa, although I am pretty confident that in 5 years, that will no longer be the case. It is, in fact, a macrocosm of determining a tournament champion – we don’t care that my first round was easier than yours, or that I played with wind on one day while you played under the roof. What we care about is who won – and we would no sooner name Ivo Karlovic the Wimbledon champion because he hit more aces than Nadal, than we would consider Rafa the greater champion because he hits harder than Tilden.

At the end of the day, what the players do either in technique or in tactics, is a means to an end - to win as many of the most coveted titles they can, and it is that measure that makes different careers perfectly comparable by this measure, regardless of the fact that the manner in which they achieved that aim has changed.

WEAK COMPETITION

This one is most often cited when comparing Sampras to Federer – the argument is that Sampras' era was full of grand slam winners, and as such, he had more of them to overcome than Federer did, and as such, while they have the same number of slams, Sampras’ slams were harder (due to the competition), and thus he was the greater champion. On the face of it, this seems to be the most damning argument against Federer. After all, very few of his contemporaries have won slams so it seems to make sense that his era was weaker – of course there is a very big problem with this logic.

First, the measure you’re using is not abstract – tennis is a zero sum game – someone wins and someone loses every single unit of competition in the game – there are absolutely no ties in tennis. And when it comes to the measure that we use the most to evaluate players and their place in history, the number of slams won, it is even moreso a zero sum game (if that's logically possible) – because in this case one person wins a slam, and 127 other players who contended lose - hundreds more who didn't don't even show up on the books. And of course there are only 4 slams a year, so if you win 3 of them, your competition necessarily appears weaker because you’ve won more of them.  But does this really speak to the quality of the contemporaries or that of the one who won more often?

Is Federer less of a champion because he won more?

His competitors necessarily won less often and by this logic qualify only as weaker competition?  I would ask you this – which do you think Sampras would have preferred – to win 3 slams a year 3 times or 2 slams a year 4 times – I’m quite certain he’d prefer the former. Why? Not to sound condescending, but because in sports more winning is better. In the latter he'd have 8 slams, whereas in the former he'd have 9 - but his competition would be considered stronger in the latter because he, in fact, won less often.

That just doesn't add up.

There’s also another problem – using slams to measure the competition of a dominant player, but setting aside that same measure when evaluating the dominant player himself, creates two separate systems of valuation that are inconsistent, not to mention contrary to the idea of sports and competition. Furthermore, it assigns more value to a player for something that he didn’t do – in other words Sampras gets credit for Agassi winning more slams when he was a contemporary of Sampras. But isn’t there something Sampras could have done that he didn’t, (that Federer did) that would have made this argument moot?  Of course there is; Sampras could have won the very slams that Agassi did; then he’d have more slams overall and Federer wouldn’t even be in the conversation.

At the end of the day, the competition is as strong as you let it be – never mind that Sampras never beat Edberg in a slam or Davis Cup, Edberg is still used to prop up the strength of Sampras’ competition. Another variation of this argument is that although Federer beat Agassi in slams, Agassi was older and weaker when Federer beat him than when Sampras beat him. So by this logic, was Edberg in 1995 better than Edberg in 1992 or 1990 for that matter? Was Becker in his prime in 1995 or in 1989? So why does Sampras’ competition get better, as they age, than Federer’s? For that you’ll have to ask those who support this argument - because I have no idea...well, I have an idea.

There are all kinds of variables on the competition even within a tournament – the Soderling that beat Nadal at Roland Garros was obviously not the same as the one who lost to Federer – but I give two arguments to the contrary – did Federer have anything to do with the quality of Soderling’s play in the final? Of course he did. And can anyone tell me honestly they think Acasuso, Haas or del Potro could have done in their first grand slam final what they did in the 3rd round, quarterfinal and semi-final? Probably not.

Wrapped up in this weak era argument is a microcosm thereof – Federer’s draws have been easier than his contemporaries. Because Federer always seems to wind up playing someone he’s beaten 10 times, you start to think that his draws are easy. But the rebuttal of this is so obvious that it’s easy to miss – if Federer’s draw is easy because he’s playing someone he’s beaten 10 times, doesn’t that speak to Federer’s greatness because he’s beaten so many players 10 times? 

Is it a sensical criticism that you win too often to be considered that good? 


It's more logical to say his draw is easy because he’s made it look easy, by beating his opponents over and over again in the past, and getting through the current one.  At the end of the day, the draw is as easy as you make it look. Nobody thought Soderling would put up much of a defense against Nadal in Paris this year because Nadal had just beaten him in Rome 6-1, 6-0, and had lost to him 3 times. But suddenly his draw was harder in Paris – why? Because he lost. So in the aggregate, by winning more, your draw looks easier, and thus you’re not as good as you appear? But does that make sense?


Doesn't winning more often make you a better player?

The range of variation from stroke to stroke versus from era to era is immeasurable. What remains the same is this – whoever Sampras played in his grand slam final victories, whether it was Andre Agassi or Cedric Pioline, they won 6 matches in a row, but couldn’t win the 7th. And whoever Federer played in his grand slam finals, whether it was Marcos Baghdatis or Rafael Nadal, they won 6 matches in a row, but couldn’t win the 7th. After all, isn’t 7 wins in a row what everyone was trying to do all along? Does the rest of it really matter?

THE #1 RANK

There is no doubt that earning the #1 ranking is a measure of consistency over the period of time the rankings are calculated. Therefore, how many years you’ve finished #1 seems to be a good measure of greatness. I wouldn't entirely disagree with that and would use that as a tie breaker between two players on equal terms in majors won.  But give any great player a choice between being #1 or winning slams and they’ll all choose slams. That’s because there are so many variations from one tournament to the next, in terms of effort, tours, commitment, etc., that the #1 ranking has a lot of holes in it in determining greatness. Slams, on the other hand, are the only pure competitive pursuits in the game of tennis - everyone covets them equally, and everyone comes to play. But there are other problems with the #1 ranking as compared to slams.

First off all, you can be ranked #1 without winning a slam – the list of players who have been ranked #1 without winning a slam is short, but damning nonetheless - Ivan Lendl in 1983, Carlos Moya in 1997, Marcelo Rios in 1998. Lendl and Moya eventually justified their ranking, but have the rankings always reflected accurately the relative value placed on various titles? If so, then how could the non-slam winning #1 be possible? At best, even though it often convenes with winning slams, the #1 ranking is a calculated reflection that has only existed since 1973, and has always been heavily weighted in favor of ATP events - even to this day (you could win the calendar slam, but if another player wins 6 Masters 1000s and 4 500s, by the ATP ranking you're on equal terms - that doesn't make sense). 

Before the ATP rankings, rankings were arbitrarily determined by various individuals based on a myriad of considerations that included foremost the number of the most important tournaments won but also included factors that changed as the game changed - namely before the game was unified under the single umbrella of the ATP organized tour in 1990.


Even so, there have been cases of players who have won fewer slams than their nearest rival, but still somehow finished the year ranked #1: Jimmy Connors in 1978 won the US Open – it was his only slam that year – Bjorn Borg, on the other hand won Wimbledon and the French Open – guess who finished the year ranked #1.

And on January 3rd, 1983 John McEnroe, who hadn’t won any slams for more than 12 months, somehow usurped Jimmy Connors to the #1 ranking despite Connors having won Wimbledon and the US Open in the previous year. Nobody considers the anomalies as problematic because the second best player at the time and since retained considerable gravitas – but the rankings made little sense then and as such, are not a reliable measure of greatness in the aggregate, because the ranking system has been so clearly flawed and more importantly inconsistent.  The same cannot be said of the majors.

HEAD TO HEAD AGAINST HIS GREATEST RIVALS

This one goes like this: at the end of his career, Sampras had winning records against all of his major contemporaries, whereas Federer appears to have a losing record to many of his major contemporaries – so how can you be the greatest of all time when you’re not even the greatest of your own era?

To this I give two names – Richard Krajicek and Michael Stich. Both players had winning records against Sampras over the course of their careers, and both played him often enough for those records to “matter” in the abstract (10 and 7 times respectively). So who was the better player Sampras or Krajicek? Sampras or Stich? Nobody in their right mind would argue the latter in either case and the reason is because they both won 13 fewer slams than Sampras did. In other words, when it comes to Krajicek and Stick, although their head to heads against Sampras were considerably better, clearly the measure of greatness was slams. But when it comes to Federer, somehow the measure of greatness turns to head to head versus Nadal, and Murray (of all people). So why use slam totals to propel Sampras past those whom he lost to more often than he beat, and not do the same for Federer?

In the case of Murray there is no good explanation. In the case of Nadal there are only two good ones – first Nadal has 6 majors himself, and thus is considered an all-time great.  But Federer has 8 more majors than Nadal, and if he were the better player in this era, shouldn't he have more majors?  That brings us to the other argument:  that Nadal will eventually surpass Federer. Well, then when Nadal surpasses Federer, he will necessarily be the GOAT – until then SPECIFICALLY AS COMPARED TO THE CAREER OF FEDERER he’s just like Krajicek and Stich to Sampras - he just happens to have a few more slams to his name.

The funny thing is, the one player who loses out in this discussion despite years of dominance that exceeds just about any other player in history, is Pancho Gonzales – whereas slam totals is the basis for Sampras’ and Federer’s GOAT candidacy, it is entirely head to head competition that is the basis of Pancho Gonzales’. But that doesn’t do anything for Sampras, who is most often cited as a more worthy claimant to being the GOAT than Gonzales. In fact you won’t get any argument from me if you suggest that Gonzales was greater than Federer – but you will if you say Sampras was – for now they are even, and if Federer gets #15, that’s one more than Sampras and in my view that makes him greater...by 1 slam.

NOT EVERYBODY PLAYED ALL THE SLAMS

It is historically ironic that the championship of the country that has produced more great champions in the history of the game than probably any other (with the exception of the United States) was for so long considered the red-headed step-sister of the slams. There are a lot of reasons for this that are not germane to the GOAT question, so I'll leave that to another post. What is germane is whether this matters to the GOAT argument.

Basically it goes like this - if all the greats always played the Australian Open, they would have won more slams and thus would look better historically.  Ironically, one of the other legitimate GOAT candidates, Laver, played every Australian Open he could, so that argument is not necessarily applicable to him (more on that later). But what about Connors, Borg and McEnroe - since they won so many slams on grass, they would surely have won the Australian Open more often, right?

Well, if that's the case, then Sampras and Federer should have won 5 Australian Opens, since they've both won 5 US Opens - oops...they've only won 2 and 3 respectively. In fact, Connors won 3 slams in 1974, and then proceeded to reach the final in 1975 of each slam he won in 1974 - the result - he lost all 3 finals all to players that he had easily beaten the year before, and generaly bettered in his career.

The point? There are no guarantees in tennis, so you can't argue that a player who won Wimbledon 5 times would have won the Australian 5 times, just because the surface was the same - why did Laver go 4, 3 and 2 in Wimbledons, Aussie's and US Opens? They were all on the same surface when he played, so he should have gone 4, 4 and 4 for that argument to hold.

There's another side to this argument - all the slams that were not available to professionals would have added to their career totals.  This is mostly an argument to pad the accomplishments of those that suffered the most during the schism between amateur and professional tennis before the open era began.  The most common example given is usually Laver, who finished his career with 11 slams, but supposedly would have had a lot more if he had been able to play as a professional. But there's a problem with this argument - if Laver had been able to play majors after turning professional, so too would Hoad, Rosewall, Gonzales, Trabert, etc. Thus they would all have been in a position to add to their totals as well, and more importantly prevent Laver from winning more. At the very least, we must discount Laver's total of 11 by the 6 he won as an amateur and start from there in this hypothetical slam total. He may very well have won 10 more majors, but it would have to be added to the 5 he won as a professional, rather than the 11 people normally use as the jumping point to arrive at his hypothetical total of 20+.

In fact even if he won half the majors from which he was banned from 1963 to 1967 he goes from 5 to 15. Speaking of which, Laver won 9 out of 15 of the 3 biggest professional tournaments he entered during that period (those tournaments considered the professional slams), which takes his total from 5 to 14.


So by this analysis, the best you could extrapolate from Laver's banishment is a total of 14 majors. Remember that the first US Open was in 1968 and the final was contested by 2 amateurs (Arthur Ashe and Tom Okker), even though professionals played that tournament (Laver lost in the round of 16), so there's no guarantee of how many he "would" have won had professionals played. But the best you can assume is that he is on par with Federer...for now.
CONCLUSION

We measure who is the best player on a surface by how often they win the biggest titles on that surface. Vilas may have a better record on clay, but few consider him greater than Borg because of their starkly contrasting records at the French Open. We measure who is the best player in a year by how often they win the biggest titles in a year – Connors may have amassed more arbitrarily assigned points in 1978 than Borg, but would anyone say he was the better player that year? No. Why? Because of Borg’s results in slams – 2 wins and a final, versus 1 win and 1 final for Connors. We measure who is the best player in an era by how often they’ve won the biggest tournaments in the game – so nobody considers Connors a better player than Borg even though he won 30 more titles – why? Because many of those were rinky-dink titles contested by rinky-dink opponents. But when everyone equally pursued the same title, Borg won more – namely 3 more.

So the question is – why are so many afraid to anoint the player who wins the most slams ever as the greatest player ever? One thing is for certain – it has nothing to do with results. And isn’t that more than mildly ironic when it comes to sports?

Monday, February 16, 2009

TO (NOT) PRESERVE THE UNION

A lot's been said about the UAE denying Shahar Pe'er a visa to play in the WTA event in Dubai, and more importantly, the inaction, acquiescence and disunity exhibited by the WTA and its players. I would love to see the "leaders" of the WTA (and by leaders, I mean its most prominent players) boycott the event. If they were really a player's association (of course it isn't) they would, but it isn't, so they won't, and what a shame that is. Long lost are the days when this was viewed as a players union.

When was the last time anyone in tennis took a stand in support of a player who'd been screwed? Guillermo Vilas was suspended for 12 months for taking an appearance fee in March of 1983 at the Rotterdam tournament - the very same tournament that Andy Murray just won this weekend. While many spoke out in support of him, not a single player on tour protested by boycotting anything in support of Vilas, even though they were all doing the same thing.

This is right about the time when money in tennis began to explode, with players easily eclipsing six-digits in prize money for the most lucrative titles.

The last time anybody on the ATP put up a fight on anyone's behalf was 1973 when Niki Pilic (former German Davis Cup captain and an early coach of Novak Djokovic) was banned from Wimbledon after refusing to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia. 81 of the top 128 players in the world boycotted Wimbledon that year, including the defending champion Stan Smith, who's probably about the nicest guy ever to play tennis (maybe him and Barry MacKay) and who probably cost himself a second Wimbledon title. Some pretty good players joined him, including Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Roy Emerson just to name a few. It could be argued that they did it for selfish reasons as well - I mean if Yugoslavia could do it to Pilic, who's to say Tennis Australia or the USLTA couldn't have done it to them as well? But somehow, after all those years playing professionally, or playing for daily allowances, I doubt their reasons were entirely ego-centric - not 81 players anyway.

Now that was a union.

And there were some ignominious absentees from the band of brothers who apparently didn't see it the way the aforementioned stalwarts did. Ilie Nastase, who probably needed the money for current or future alimony, an 18-year old Bjorn Borg who probably didn't give a hoot, and a 21-year Jimmy Connors, who definitely didn't give a hoot, all played that year - and perhaps poetically all lost. In any case, aside from Emerson, there's probably never been a player who has been so lowly regarded for winning Wimbledon as Jan KodeŇ°. A good player who never won another Slam in his career, Kodes, it's worth pointing out, probably couldn't have boycotted if he wanted, just 5 years removed from Russian tanks rolling through Prague and an oppressive regime tapping his phone lines and harassing him for his prize-money (and by harassing, I mean threatening him - furtively or otherwise).

Irony of ironies: Vijay Armitraj, one of the most successful Indian tennis players in history, played Wimbledon that year. He was just 20 years old, was an up-and-coming player, and lost in the quarterfinal to the eventual champion KodeŇ°, who was seeded 2nd - his highest ever seeding.

A year later, in 1974, as India was on the verge of its second Davis Cup final, their tennis federation forfeited the final against South Africa, in protest against apartheid. It remains the only time in the history of the cup that the final has been forfeited.

Armitraj was so upset with the federation that he threatened to quit Davis Cup altogether - he didn't, but had to wait another 13 years until 1987 before he participated in another final. By then, long past his prime, he lost 1 live rubber to Anders Jarryd and one dead rubber to Mats Wilander. Karma? Who knows...

By then Armitraj had refused several opportunities to play exhibitions in South Africa for political reasons, so it just goes to show you that sometimes, even a man with every reason to take a stand, who has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do so, can eventually come around. So while it may be stupefyingly naive of me to wish that tennis millionaires today would be willing to do the right thing and boycott Dubai, it is not without precedent.

Apparently the wealthy athletes of today, like many wealthy people in society, have no interest in preserving any union.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

NEW MONEY, SAME OLD PROBLEM

Recently Jelena Jankovic hit back at stinging criticism from Roger Federer on the state of rankings at the WTA. In essence, he repeated what most have said about Jankovic’s stint as the #1 player in the world – that it made no sense.

Jankovic was none too pleased, but a quick look at the distribution of points across categories of tournaments on both the WTA and the ATP tours demonstrates some very strange possibilities. Federer would do well to consider this the next time he chats with the ATP President, as he himself could wind up in the unenviable position of looking a bit silly for his ranking as well.

There are nine 1000 Series events, excluding the year end championships, on the ATP Tour, each of which is worth 1000 points to the winner. Each grand slam is worth 2000 points – 9000 vs. 8000 points – which means that a player could win the calendar slam, another could win every 1000 series event, and the winner of the calendar slam would have to find another 1000 points (all other things equal) to obtain the #1 ranking?

Huh?

That’s right – a guy could win 28 grand slam matches in a row, and still come out the wrong end of the rankings. What a nightmare that would be. Fair enough, the 1000 series sweep is an altogether less likely scenario than the calendar slam, but it reveals that the rankings are weighted towards the events that the ATP controls, and as such if the stars so aligned, we could see such a ridiculous scenario played out. You could argue that a player who wins all 9 MS events deserves to be #1, but would you feel that way if another player won the calendar slam?

Well, that's an unlikely scenario, so let's take it piece by piece – imagine a player wins two slams – 4000 points looks pretty good – but to overcome that (again all other things equal) you'd just have to win 3 1000 series titles (one more than did Djokovic and Murray last year) and two 500 series events (say Rotterdam and Indianapolis) and you'd have the exact same number of points as a winner of Wimbledon AND the US Open in the same year.

Now which record would you want for your favorite player?

You see, the tennis gods look favorably on the calendar slam – even half of it. Why? Because there’s continuity of purpose in the slams, and as such, you can gauge a player against the greats of the game a hell of a lot easier with slam results than a mish-mash of tournaments, the collection of which seems to change with the each year. The top 8 players don’t even play the same number of matches as the rest of the field in 1000 or 500 series tournaments, and although you’ve got more time to rest in between matches at slams, anyone who’s played a 5 set match will tell you that it’s always harder to come back from that than your average 3-setter.

Consider this other possibility – a player winning four 500 series tournaments (say, Rotterdam, Doha, Indianapolis and Barcelona) is adjudged the equal of the champion at Wimbledon – in ATP points that is. Any player with his head not on backwards would choose Wimbledon over the other events, so why don't the rankings reflect that.

Now let’s look at the women’s side.

The Wimbledon champion on the women’s side would earn fewer points than another player winning 3 non-mandatory Premier 5 tournaments (2000 vs. 2400 points) say, Beijing, Stuttgart and Moscow. So you don’t even have to win any tournaments where all the best players are required to participate, and you can earn the same number of points as one of the Williams sisters.

This is probably the area where Federer has a good point. It is altogether unlikely that a player who is capable of winning more than three 1000 series shields in a season doesn’t win at least on slam, but win 2 of them, and you’re on par with the US Open champion. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it has only happened because the slam winners tend to win 1000 series tournaments along the way. That’s a convenient coincidence, but a glaring anomaly in the making nonetheless.

Ivan Lendl was ranked #1 in 1983; he only reached two grand slam finals but racked up enough victories in tennis hotbeds like North Conway, New Hampshire and Naples, Italy to hold the top spot come Christmas. In his favor that year was that 4 different men won grand slams (Noah at the French, McEnroe at Wimbledon, Connors at the US Open and Wilander at the Australian). So the argument then with Lendl was the same as it is today with Jankovic; how can a guy/gal who can’t win a slam to save his/her life, be considered the best player in the world? It didn’t help that in 1983 he lost 4 out of 5 to McEnroe, 2 out of 4 to Wilander, 2 out of 4 to Connors and his one and only match to Noah - a collective 5 of 14 against the slam champions.

Fast forward, nip and tuck to the women's side, and we have our example in Jelena (Lendlova) Jankovic – last year she won Rome, Beijing, Stuttgart and Moscow (sound familiar?), had consistently (barely) above average results everywhere else, and so was ranked #1. But nobody – not even Jankovic, I suspect – sincerely believed she was the best player in the world – maybe the most consistent, but certainly not the best. Well, thankfully Serena has put that question off for a bit.

Jankovic won more points for any 3 of those tournaments than Sharapova did for winning in Melbourne, Ivanovic did for conquering Paris, Venus did for winning her fifth at the All England Club, and Serena Williams did for exorcising her small town blues at Flushing. Jankovic lost her only match to "I'm So Pretty", went 1-2 against Verdasco's ex-girlfriend, split 1-1 with the Fly Trap, and 1-2 to Serena, for a whopping 3 for 8 against the slam winners - ironically she lost in 3 of the 4 slams to the eventual champion, but still topped the table at the end of the season - this after losing in the semi-final of the year end championships.

The point distributions do not represent the historical or even current significance of tournaments. In order to encourage high profile players to play events that are essentially money-makers for the tour, they have to put a point value on them that will draw marquee players. But as soon as they do this the advantage goes to those who play more often, but not necessarily better, and that’s when the rankings begin to make little to no sense at all. So why do they want to draw players to these events? – I told you, that’s where the money is; new sponsors, new venues and a whole lot of NEW MONEY (in Beijing and Moscow, anyway).

The only solution is for the ATP and the WTA to admit that tradition counts in tennis and the only thing that everyone cares about equally is the slams. They could eat into the gravitas of the slams by keeping a more consistent year to year schedule and attaching some historical value to smaller events, but as long as money changes hands globally, new venues have cash to burn, and players have entourages to support, there’s little hope for a calendar or ranking system that make sense on both sides of the aisle any time soon.

Well, at least Jelena can always take Roger for a ride in the Porsche she won in Stuttgart – you can’t drive a ranking anyway.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

There can no longer be any doubt - he is the best player in the world today, he has been for the last 12 months, and it's likely that he will remain the best player in the world for the remainder of 2009. With his maiden victory at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal has shown that he may very well be chasing history of his own this year, with a calendar year Grand Slam - and it is likely to overshadaow that which has now become something of a distraction to that, which is Federer's pursuit of Pete Sampras' record 14 grand slams. For my money, it's now time to put aside the scrutiny and speculation on that.

In winning the Australian Open for the first time in his career, Nadal has now won 3 out of 4 slams, with only the US Open lacking in his cabinet. He also happens to have won 3 out of the last 4 grand slams, and bettered his initial results from 2009 by one better than his likely closest competitor. In the past, this part of the season for Nadal has focused on preparation for the clay court season, and a defense of (seemingly eternal) French Open crown, with a brief interlude for the two events at Indian Wells and Miami, which make absolutely no sense at all, but to which all players are obliged to make an appearance. Recall that last year he nearly won Miami, losing a strangely lobsided final against Davydenko, while the week previous lost a semi-final to Djokovic, who curiously is the only man to have beaten Nadal twice in 2008 (he did it again in Cincinnati before losing the final the Andy Murray).

This year, he'll be the favorite in those tournaments because of his results in Melbourne, but frankly, Nadal seems to have built the right to be considered the favorite in every match he plays because there are no longer any weaknesses or any holes in his game that anyone can find. What strikes the most about his victory in Australia is the manner in which it was won. Initially, he appeared to be having his way with a sub-par level of opponents, right up until the quarterfinal with Gonzalez, but even when facing the best losing performance of the tournament - a 95-winner slamfest from compatriot Verdasco, Nadal showed that his indominatable spirit would not be denied, as he put in a superior performance and most importantly with fewer errors and fewer aces to pad his numbers.

The final appeared to only be as close as it was because of the fatigue he must have felt from the 5-hour epic in the previous round. Even as his legs became wobbly, Nadal simply dug deeper than anyone else in the world could have, and went for broke. The fact is that when he had the chance to mentally check out, with a ready made excuse for losing, he chose to pull his socks up and go for broke over and over again. Whereas Federer, with ample opportunities to close out the first set, and the third, wilted under the pressure in a way we're more accustomed to seeing his opponents do against him.

But this is no ordinary opponent.

In the end, it was the most correct result possible, for if Nadal had lost the final, there would be an asterisk next to the loss due to the incredibly disproportionate scheduling that saw him play 24 hours after a 5 hour match. Thankfully that didn't happen, and clearly the best man won.

Although he will evade the question until the US Open, as he has craftily avoided the question of favorites and scheduling and everything else that could have derailed him today, it is not too early to begin to ask ourselves if this is the year that Nadal wins the calendar year Grand Slam. Defending his title in France will not be easy, but the unusually long break between the Australian Open and the French gives him plenty of time to rest and prepare for that one month between June and July that will determine if he enters the US Open with the chance to become the first man in 40 years and only third man in history to win this coveted prize.

Based on his performance today, and indeed over the last 12 months, only a fool would bet against him. And if he wins the calendar year grand slam and adds 3 more slams to his career total of 6, he'd be at 9 - one shy of Bill Tilden, 2 shy of Laver and Borg, and 3 shy of Emerson, 4 of Federer and 5 short of the great Pete Sampras.

A year ago, a blogger on another site posed the question of whether in Nadal, in 2008, we were were witnessing the birth of the GOAT, and many, including this author, scoffed at the notion. But based on his technique, his physical power, his tactical acumen and his sheer dominance of will, I won't be making that mistake again. It is entirely possible, and at this point appears likely that Rafael Nadal will become the greatest player in the history of the game. He will win the US Open eventually, he will win more French Opens, and Wimbledons and since he's only 22, with absolutely no sign of satisfying his appetite, it appears is well on his way to eclipsing Sampras within the next 3-4 years.

I wonder if the bookies have odds on that?