Monday, June 29, 2015


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."  The missing context is that he was clearly explaining how he had won his first tournament on grass without much preparation and without much of 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 (no matter who he is) 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 grass court tennis, 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 in 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.  As such, when sizing up a player's chances, or predicting the result of a particular match, the serves are 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 the serve of one to the return of the other. 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.  In his best chance (on paper anyway), in 1992 he lost to Andre Agassi, a player with a relatively weak serve but a relatively oustanding return (who happened to beat Boris Becker and John McEnroe along the way - not exactly slouches in the serve department).  Ivanisevic's other Wimbledon final losses were to another player with a great serve - Pete Sampras.  So what distinguished the two?

The return - Sampras' was a better (as well as the rest of his game - but I digress).

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.  But only the best of the best have the whole package, and as such, relatively few players have won Wimbledon as compared to say, the French Open, where a lot of players that did not have the full package, have won relatively more titles than have done so at a Wimbledon.

The logic and the stats on the universe of players who have won Wimbledon versus Roland Garros 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 Federer at 7 titles...not one of them could be said to have one of the biggest serves on tour, earning a lot of "cheap" points. Roddick had a huge serve, but consistently lost to players who returned better than him (after all, so few serve better than him they must have had better returns). 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 surface, therefore getting an edge over the field would necessarily come from being able to neutralize that phenomenon, 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 the point is that 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 Mahut 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's? 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 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 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 at Wimbledon.  But surprise, surprise, Malisse broke Rusedski 3 times to 2.

To be honest, I watched Roddick play tennis for 10 years, and 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 to 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 factor 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 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.

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


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 in Paris.

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 is 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 giving 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 also 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 a time 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 argued 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)?  Is 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 that 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 for it.  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 of 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 too, 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 simply applying this rule.

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


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.