Monday, August 10, 2015

CITI OPEN: LAST (BUT NOT LEAST) THOUGHTS

So what did we learn from the 2015 Citi Open?  A hell of a lot.  With one of the strongest fields in the history of the tournament, including two players ranked in the top 5 for the first time since 1987, and one of the best performance from the collective American entrants, there's much to ponder about the world of tennis in general, and specifically preparations for the US Open in September.  Here are some of the thoughts that I came away with.

TOO BIG TO FAIL SUCCEED

There were so many players standing taller than 6'3 in the tournament this year, Mr. Dell may need to consider raising the doorways.  At 6'10", the tallest man in the draw did everything he could to finally break his duck at the ATP 500 level, and had it not been for the mercurial resistance of one of the shortest players in the draw, John Isner may very well have done just that.  But he wasn't alone breathing "the air up there", with 6'9" "Dr." Ivo Karlovic, 6'8" Kevin Anderson, 6'6" Nicolas Jarry, Marin Cilic, Sam Query and the precocious big man, Alexander "Sasha" Zverev, all raining down a plague of monster serves, and (almost) irresistible leverage on their ground strokes.  One wouldn't be unreasonable to wonder if the game reached a tipping point.  

Despite the fact that only two men above 6'3 have ever won majors in tennis (both at the US Open in Juan Martin del Potro in 2009 and said Croatian Marin Cilic in 2014) it seemed the height of champions at the Citi Open, like the height of tennis players in general, was once again on the way up.  And last year's Canadian finalists, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil seem like scramblers compared to the line up of spindly, rangy, praying mantises of men that littered the field in 2015.  But each and every one of them was felled by the sword of a man at least 6 inches shorter than them, so while the median athleticism of the game continues into the realm of other sports, there continues to be a place in the game for those sufficiently fleet of foot and hands, to stake their claim to this little throne, and potentially the big one at Flushing Meadows.

Kei Nishikori continues to show the world that there is no substitute for technique in tennis.  Neither the raw athleticism of the 6'4" Aussie Rules football moonlighting Sam Groth, nor the tobacco row basketball wannabe John Isner, nor the volleyball obliterating, bump-set-spiking physique of the Marin Cilic, were able to disrupt his path to the head of the table.  In fact, in many ways, the player that gave Nishikori the most trouble was another vertically challenged player, James Duckworth, who took the champion to 3 sets in his first match in DC.  (For a little perspective, James Duckworth, who looks up at most of his opponents these days, is the exact same height at Pete Sampras).  So it seems the fastest hands in tennis, are still able to slice and dice their way through a field of giants who's imposing physical presence reminds us of two maxims of sports we should never forget:  nobody can cover more ground than the ball, and if you do nothing else, be sure to hit it where they ain't.

AND YOUNG AFFECTION GAPES TO BE HIS HEIR

He did graduate from the University of Georgia in 2007 and has been playing on the ATP for 8 years since, but you may be still surprised to discover that John Isner joined the over 30 club in 2015.  That club includes a number of players that are also on the wrong side of that milestone, but still seem to ply their trade with all the vim and vigor of their more (naturally, but) heavily hormoned contemporaries:

John Isner - 30
Lleyton Hewitt - 34
Feliciano Lopez - 32
Ivo Karlovic - 36
Tommy Haas - 37
Victor Estrella Bourgos - 35
Marinko Matosevic - 30
Ivan Dodig - 30
Teymuraz Gabashvili - 30
Benjamin Becker - 34
Lu Yen-Hsun (Randy) - 31
Malek Jaziri - 31
Gilles Muller - 32
Go Soeda - 30
Dudi Sela - 30

By my count, 15 of the 48 players in the main draw were on the wrong side of 30 - or who's to say it is the wrong side?  One of them made the final, and although none of them made the quarterfinal, this was an unexpected results, as many of the biggest names in the field were felled by some very disrespectful brethren who will need to continue to kick, scratch and claw their way into the hallowed ground of appearance fees and lucrative endorsements.  This begs the question:  with the average age of the top players inching closer to that magic number, should more junior players eschew the early (if not easy) money of turning pro before they're ready, and try their hand at collegiate tennis?  

After all, with no less than 4 NCAA champions in the tournament this year (2 who made/played the main draw) and John Isner, a stalwart of the NCAA team champion University of Georgia in 2007, it seems there may be more to learn about the game, and the game of life, in the virtual classroom of the tennis court and the real classroom (you know, with books and stuff) of a college education?  When I asked him about it in his press conference after the final, John Isner said he had expected this would be more and more the case given the density of players over 30 in the top 100, but that a new crop of young players making their way directly into professional tennis may delay that.  But ultimately he feels that what he and Steve Johnson, and other players who've come the way of the NCAA's, have learned from that experience something that is as often in short supply, as it is valuable to a professional tennis player - the art of competing.


OTSUKARE SAMA DESHITA

Translated from Japanese, literally this means, "After a long day, we are very tired," and is used to congratulate someone coming through a very long hard road to success.  If anyone deserves to hear that at the end of the 2015 Citi Open, it's Kei Nishikori.  Man, did he ever do it the hard way.  Not only did he play 3 players at least 6 inches taller than him, he also played 3 out of 4 matches that went to 3 sets, coming back from a set down in each.  The fascinating thing about his victories, aside from the herculean depths of resilience he displayed, was the way he used his best weapon to his advantage - his ability to analyze and adjust.  I am of the belief that this underrated skill is second only to technique in the world of tennis, because no matter how hard you hit the ball, there's always someone out there who hits harder, therefore the players who have something in the tool kit to counteract the monolithic ball-bashing that takes place in the modern game, always have the advantage when the going gets tough - and boy did it get tough for King Kei.

Against spirited resistance from James Duckworth, at first glance he appeared to be the better player - there was just one problem, his second serve points were problematic, particularly when under duress.  As an adjustment he took speed off the first serve in the second set, and Duckworth's natural instinct to play conservative returns on the first serve (frequently in spite of the fact that they're eminently attackable) resulted in Nishikori winning 100% of his first serve points, but more importantly (since they were less frequent) 65% of his second serve points, as opposed to just 50% in the first.  In doing so he didn't face a single break point the entire set, and the pressure that put on Duckworth's serve was more telling - he went from winning 47% of his second serve points to just 25% in the second.  

Against Cilic, the serve was again the key factor, not for Nishikori, but for Cilic.  Nothing puts pressure on a serve like a returner who can burn one by your feet before you've finished your stroke, and watching his hands come through the point of contact in a blur over and over again had an irresistible effect on Cilic.  The most interesting part of the match was the extent to which Cilic's second serve speed diminished from the first set (which he won) with several coming in at 100mph+ (two at 116mph matching Nishikori's top first serve speed), versus the second, with none breaking triple digits and a couple clocked in the high 80's.  What was the difference? Nishikori got a beat on the first serve, and put several past Cilic with aplomb, and this caused him to be more conservative, which had the ironic effect of letting Nishikori have his way even moreso on the return.  The obvious solution would have been for Cilic to go bigger on the second serve, but that is far easier said than done, and going big on the second delivery is the domain of only greatest serves in the history of the game (think Pancho Gonzales or Pete Sampras).  As well as he can serve, Cilic will not finish his career in that category.

Finally, against Isner, Nishikori was able to make the adjustment in his court positioning to take away the wide serve in the deuce court, which Isner uses to set up his post potent delivery up the T.  As well as he serves, even Isner cannot rely on blowing the ball past his opponent up the middle on every occasion - eventually a rational professional moves to the middle, and when forced to serve out wide, the margins seem to shrink for him, making both serves less effective.  That's why it's so important for Isner to establish the wide serve first - which Nishikori didn't allow in the second set.  Although Isner maintained triple digit speeds on the second serve, the placement was not nearly as good in the second as it was in the first, and Nishikori, having resisted Isner's bid to break in the first game of the second set, gained the inroads he required to force Isner's overall game to carry the weight of his (only slightly) lacking serve.  That is not his recipe for success, and the result was as telling as Nishikori's cerebral approach to cutting down his opponents, bit by bit, until they're no taller than a stump in the ground.

Nishikori's hands are also useful at net, and against Duckworth, who approached at every opportunity available to him, he made a concerted effort to engage in sneak attacks off of 1-2 combinations, as well as a deceptively effective slice backhand approach that stays low and forces his taller opponents to hit up on the pass.  Nishikori, on the other hand, doesn't have as much of that challenge as they do, and nobody in tennis passes better than him.  If he can combine his already excellent passing shots, with an ability to take the net away altogether, it will help him conserve his energy at the US Open, and possibly get over the hurdle to win it all this time around.

A TWO SIDED COIN WITH SLOANE STEPHENS' FACE ON IT

As to what one can interpret from Sloan Stephens victory at the Citi Open..well there are two sides to every story, and depending on whether you want to believe she's turned a corner or dispassionately reserve your judgment, here are a few reasons for each, starting with the latter:

Reserving My Judgment
  1. The strength of the field on the women's side was not the equal of the men this year.  Although there were two major champions in the field, Svetlana Kuznetsova (who's last came at Roland Garros in 2009) withdrew due to injury, and Sam Stosur (who won her one and only major at the US Open in 2011), whom Stephens beat (semi) convincingly in the semi-final, were both ranked outside the top 20 before the start of the tournament.  In fact the only player in the field ranked in the top 20 was Ekaterina Makarova at #12, and she was the #1 seed.  The work only gets harder from here in Canada, Cincinnati and New York.
  2. Her serve needs work...like, a lot of work.  Although not nearly as critical in the women's game as the men's, Stephens' serve fails to impress, particularly her second delivery, which rarely breaks the 85mph mark, and frequently costs her breaks of serve.  In fact, of all the strokes in her game, specifically (and ironically) the worst is her serve, this despite having the leg and shoulder strength that most (reasonably competitive) female tennis athletes would die for. A ball in hand is better than two coming over the net, yet Stephens seems to prefer receiving to taking.  But she's going to have to take it to win the bigger titles, because 'dem big babes at the top sure as hell won't give it to her.
  3. The privilege of pressure does not suit her.  When asked in a press conference whether she experiences more or less pressure facing an up and coming young American (like Louisa Chirico) she claimed that it was the same as any other player.  Bullshit like that may fool a player from American Samoa - who will never face a countryman on tour, but for an American who has just raised her head above the swelling tide of Americans coming through the door of the WTA tour, to claim that there is no difference, smacks of denial.  And just like the river in Egypt that it "ain't", it doesn't bode well for her ability to embrace what Billie Jean King coined "the Privilege of Pressure", which is the most common trait amongst true champions.
  4. There isn't a single thing she does better than everyone else in the world.  Her forehand can be monstrous, but not moreso than about 5 women who's names end in "ova", let alone the entire WTA.  Her backhand can penetrate, but she is that rare combination of technically asymmetry, but with almost no tactical adjustment to account for it.  For the most part she plays as if her backhand were as good as her forehand, and as a result, it's easier for the better players to force it to be.  It isn't and that makes it harder to deliver against the best of the best.  Her defensive skills are deceptively counterproductive - she's quick, but she uses that to stay further behind the baseline than her immense power potential can fully take advantage of.  Somewhere down the road, like Dimitrov on the men's side, she'll have to adopt a generic strategic objective and design a tactical plan around meeting it - so far she dips her toes in the shallow waters of both - neither well enough to win big.
Wanting To Believe

If you're American, and you want to believe that Sloan Stephens is the next best thing, this week was just the tonic for you, and here are the best reasons why:


  1. The only thing worse than a weak field, is losing to it, so, for those of you who would castigate her for winning under those conditions:  what else is she to do, reserve her maiden WTA victory for the US Open?  And the fact of the matter is that if she wants to do just that, for at least 3 rounds, she'll have to beat the same field of players that she beat this week in DC, which has not been a sure thing over the last couple of years.  It bodes well that this week, she has found her way through the land mines players that have no business beating her (and a couple that do) - if she had a virtual mine sniffing dog with her this week, she should feed it only Orijen Regional Red Grain until the second Monday in September.
  2. She came to her senses and returned to Nick Saviano, who has the honesty and background with her to know when she's full of shit with her effort, and when she's really giving it her best.  Time and again he talks to her about putting in the full effort, and not trying to guarantee a result by not losing, and it seems to have helped.  Where Nick needs to improve (as well as Sloan) is in giving her the tools, both tactical and technical, to implement physically, what he's convinced her to do mentally.  It's one thing to talk about committing to grinding out every point, but doing it is another.
  3. She's still the most athletic of all the young Americans that are making a bid to join the other big babes at the adult table.  Madison Keys lacks the grace and Navratilova-like pitter patter of her feet when ghosting about the court.  Jamie Hampton lacks the fitness (she's been out the whole year after double-hip surgery) and Christina McHale lacks any discernible athletic prowess - not that she doesn't have any, she just not going to win a broad jump or 100 dash any time soon.  There are other Americans worth mentioning, but none more ready physically to compete against the best in the world, and the women's game is fast becoming a battle of physical, rather than technical, prowess.
The Ruling:  A Suspended Sentence

I don't think her time is yet, but that's not the end of the world for a 21-year old who's just won her first tournament on the WTA tour.  The cons currently outweigh the pros, but things always do and will change - the hope is that this week in DC signals a change for the better.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

I can't say enough about some of the people I met while working the Citi Open - the PR folks from Sheena Pegarido to Molly Flores to Gabo Lemons to Lindsey Foster to Cindy Wilsbach to everyone I'm forgetting, they made it so easy to cover the tournament, and the avalanche of posts on the Citi Open I shoved down the mountain this year is all down to the infrastructure they have in place, and the support they've provided.  And the press conference moderators, whose names escape me, painstakingly spread the wealth and never once made me feel unwelcome (including when I asked a question that got as big a laugh from the press corp as it did a roll of the eyes from the interviewee).  I had a great first experience, I hope to do more, but if I never do it again, I will always be thankful to them for making this one the best it could be.

I also met quite a few fellow residents of the blogosphere, including Mehrban Iranshad of Tennis Files and Steve Fogleman of Tennis Atlantic, two colleagues who gave me great information about where to go and what to do, who share a passion for this marvelous game of ours, but most importantly demonstrated the patience of Job all week.  Either one of them will tell you that, if you let me, I'll talk your ear off about tennis, and boy did they let me - when they were waiting for a press conference, eating, watching a match...doesn't matter, I talked to them and they never once told me (which was their right) to shut the hell up!  It was a lot of fun guys, and you represented the blogosphere well.  I encourage you to check out their websites - I certainly will.

Well, thanks again, and until next year...check that, until the Rogers Cup...oh shit - that's starts today, doesn't it? 

Off to write that post...
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