Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Shanghai Masters: Stage Is Set for the Clash Between the Players and the ATP/ITF

I've wanted to write about the present "hectic tennis calendar" issue that's been the talk of the town among the tennis crowd, especially since the past few months where it has taken a new light.

It all started with the US Open when a lot of matches were being haphazardly rearranged due to rain delays. A few players were forced to play matches on consecutive days with no rest, and in some cases, on wet unplayable conditions. As expected, the victimized players responded forcefully by going on an attack against the authorities concerned, in this case, the ITF.

Since then, this issue has caught fire and is now making major news across the tennis world.

A lot of players, most famously Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick have led the charge against the ATP and the ITF, demanding a players' union that could have a say on the ongoing matters. Even Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and a few others have gone on to make negative comments against tournament scheduling, especially the US Open.

Very recently, Andy Murray talked about a strike that could possibly happen if a few changes weren't being implemented. According to his statement, the top players are being overworked all around the year with an extremely short offseason and the players are now demanding a reduced tennis load, by decreasing the number of mandatory tournaments needed to play in a calendar year.

There have been a few events the ITF manages that seem out-of-sorts in terms of scheduling. A few places where changes could be made include:

Making a few more tournaments mandatory for players, especially the Masters series by having a certain set of rules or conditions, which when satisfied by a player could allow them to skip a tournament or two. Those rules could be anything from accumulating a certain number of points, or winning a certain number of Masters series matches, etc. There are a lot of possibilities.

Shifting the Davis Cup event at least a week after the US Open finishes. It certainly makes little sense to have a Davis Cup event the same week the US Open ends, which has unfortunately turned out to be Mondays for the past few years.

Fixing the US Open right. As mentioned before, it's not the first time that the final has been held on a Monday at New York. The Super-Saturday concept has to go, as suggested by many players. That's the only way out.

To be fair, all this talk about players having a say into the matters does seem to make sense. Its true that the ATP/ITF has given a lot of players opportunities to be champions and make a mark for themselves. There's no discounting that. If not for them, the players would be nowhere. But a few small changes could help out a lot of these top guys, without affecting the lower-ranked journeymen who'd want to play more tournaments to try and do well, and in the process, earn a decent living.

On the other hand, there's also this feeling of "win-at-any-cost" attitude among a lot of top players, pushing them to squeeze the last drop of their energy-levels to win a point. Winning at all costs forces any player to go beyond their capabilities, in turn harming the physical body in the long run. And with the way the game has changed over the years, injuries are bound to happen. The only way to prevent them from happening is to mitigate the intensity level at which they play. But again, that would mean putting in less than a best-effort performance, which goes against the conscience.

Now with a meeting that's supposedly in the cards between the players and the concerned authorities at the Masters tournament in Shanghai, a lot of reporters are contemplating as to whether the demands the players are making seem feasible.

Many feel that if the players in the past were able to handle the load playing both doubles and singles at the same time, then why can't the players today deal with just one format of the game? They believe that if the current crop cannot deal with it, then it's their fitness to be blamed.

In the past though, the ATP did help by implementing several changes in the system, such as by giving byes to seeded players and cutting down the final to three sets in the Masters 1000 tournaments.

People also feel that with increased charity and exhibition games sponsored by a few popular companies/organizations, players are taking time off from time-off to participate in them. Players are obliged to take part in sponsor-based events and there seems to be no escape from that.

A lot of compromises need to be made by both parties in conflict.

Coming back to the meeting, we've got news that Federer has already withdrawn from the tournament in Shanghai and we might very well see Djokovic do that too, assuming he doesn't risk injury.

With just two of the top four players showing up, will the meeting convince the authorities of bringing in new changes? Or, in hindsight, could the withdrawals compel the authorities to make changes and make a few players happy?

Whatever the plan of action is, it would be interesting to see the sequence of events that follow in the upcoming days.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Novak Djokovic & the Numbers Game: Comparing 2010 with 2011

"A remarkable year."

"The best season ever."

"One of the greats of the game."

"Who can stop him?"

These are lines we've all been reading and re-reading constantly since Novak Djokovic won the US Open.

Yet, I just can't stop myself from trying to understand and analyze what has changed in his game that has made him so dominant and resilient. 

Yes. There are a lot of reasons mentioned. The gluten-free diet. The belief in himself. The fitness levels have improved.
True. All are valid.

But, I wanted to see some numbers comparing his 2010 season with the current one. Surely, numbers reveal a lot. So, I went across to the ATP site and fetched some details on Novak's stats from 2010 and 2011.

Here are the few differences I could note:
Stat 2010 2011
Aces  304  297
Double Faults  282  114
1st Serve %    64    66
1st Serve Points Won %    71    74
2nd Serve Points Won %    52    56
Serve Games Won %    82    87
Break Points Saved %    67    67
Return 1st Serve Points Won %    34    37
Return 2nd Serve Points Won %    54    58
Break Points Won %    45    48
Return Games Won %    32    41

Clearly, the numbers show that Novak's serve has made the biggest impact here. I can't believe he had 282 double faults last year. It's less than half that number so far this year. The serve percentages have been marginally better too, which has probably led to more winners than in the previous year. He has been winning more of his service games by improving these numbers from 2010.

Another huge plus for him has been the fact that he has won 10 percent more return games than last year. This shows that his mentality and belief has jumped a notch up and it's making a huge impact on his confidence levels too. This means, he's converting more break chances and getting more winners off his return.

One more thing noticeable is the fact that nothing in these stats show any decline in any part of his game whatsoever. Everything has been on the rise. Truly remarkable!

Sadly, ATP does not provide stats on a player's forehand/backhand performance. I'm pretty sure the percentages have been higher than last year.

With these statistics in hand, I can very confidently point out that his mental game combined with his improved serve has made what Djokovic is today. It's not the end of the year yet, so the numbers are bound to change.

But this has been somewhat of an amazing improvement in terms of the numbers we see here. Can he do better than this? Only time will tell....

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tennis As a Sport - Five Years Down the Line

I've been thinking a lot about what tennis will look like many more years down the line.

Ever since 2003, right after Roger Federer won his first Wimbledon, I've been watching tennis very actively and I have seen a lot of changes in both the technical and mental aspects of the game portrayed through a wide range of playing styles.

There have been tremendous changes in the physical aspect of the game too, and it's all been positive.

Players these days can generate power from their racquets when compared to the ones 10 years ago. Physically, it's a very demanding sport. Gone are the days where you'd hammer a huge serve and instantly run to the net and swat away the incoming return for a clinical winner. You can rarely see points that are finished within 10 seconds.

Some of the best players these days seem to be able to hit passing shots from a wide range of angles, completely astounding some of the few remaining serve-volley players of today—if any actually remain. The defensive game has been nothing short of unbelievable. An unquestionable winning serve in the early 2000's can now be challenged and sent back as a hot shot in return today.

All in all, the quality of tennis has been getting better by the day.

So, having seen how the game has transformed over the past decade, I'd like to contemplate what the game will look like five years from now, or even 10 years into the future.

To be clear, each of the following predictions are hypothetical and based on personal opinion.

Tennis will still be a power base-liner's game, and it will get even more physical in the years to come. I don't see any single person dominating the sport for years together. Rather, I believe we will see a lot of players who will win 1-3 slams, and probably none to match 6-7 slams.

Racquet technology is going to advance, and so will the ball strike technique. I can also see drop-shots being played more often than what we see today. To be honest, drop-shots could be the only way to end a point faster, and also the only time an opponent would probably get to the net. A good first serve would become extremely crucial since no second serve is going to be spared, and the one-handed backhand might be a rarity, or in fact an oddity.

The defensive capabilities will get unbelievably crazy, and matches could very well take 3-5 hours, on an average. I can also see tennis careers getting finished by the time players have had 5-6 years of match play, and injuries could make things even worse. It's probably the No. 1 reason I don't see any one player holding their place at the top of the rankings for a long time.

So, considering what the game will look like in 2015 and beyond, a question that's begging to be asked is this:

What's the ideal player that might withstand this onslaught and be able to win 5-6 slams or more in order to make a legacy for himself?

The only player that could come out on top convincingly and show even a hint of domination would be one with a mixture of styles from different eras. He would need to have the serve of a Sampras, the mental toughness/physicality of a Nadal, the volley of a McEnroe, the backhand of a Djokovic and the forehand of a Federer. In order to maintain the longevity of him game, him would need to play freely and effortlessly with a natural flow, emulating Federer.

Unfortunately, I don't see anyone, either now or in the distant future, that could pack in those qualities. Although Djokovic seems to be having quite a run this year, it will be interesting to see how long he can carry on with his magic.

All in all, I believe tennis is going to get more one-dimensional, and probably a little monotonous too. With almost all players having similar styles of play, I don't see any more records being broken, at least not for another 10 years.
And most of all, I just cannot imagine the state of the game without Federer and Rafa in the mix.

14 Reasons I Love Tennis

Tennis is a sport that I've been passionate about for 7 years now. It all started when Roger Federer won Wimbledon in 2003. A seed of new passion for the game was sown. I've been watching this game and its beauty all through these 7 years and have come to realize a few particularly strong reasons/events that have kept me glued to this sport. Here they go, in order of a progressing timeline:
  1. Roger Federer, the spark that ignited the passion - 2004
  2. The one-handed backhand, a special trait of Federer's - 2004
  3. Federer's dominance, something that can only be felt - 2004 to 2007
  4. Federer/Roddick rivalry, if you call it a rivalry  - 2004 to 2007
  5. The emergence of Rafa Nadal, a Federer killer - 2006
  6. Federer/Nadal rivalry, a real rivalry of epic proportions - 2006 to present
  7. Wimbledon 2008 final, an epic match, Nadal towers Federer - 2008
  8. The trivalry(Federer/Nadal/Djokovic), a new kid in the block - 2008
  9. Make it 4-valry, Andy Murray adds a new dimension - 2008
  10. French Open 2009, finally Federer wins the elusive slam - 2009
  11. Wimbledon 2009, Federer becomes the GOAT, fetches slam no. 15 - 2009
  12. The outsiders(Tsonga, Berdych, Soderling, Del Potro), Roger no longer feared - 2009
  13. Nadal threatens Federer's slam record, winning 3 slams - 2010
  14. Federer/Djokovic, French Open S/F, the GOAT is not dead yet - 2011
The common thread that holds the addiction to this sport is Roger Federer. If not for the genius that he is, I wouldn't have probably cared to watch tennis whatsoever.

All I can say is, I'm thankful to him for bringing me closer to this sport and making me a proud tennis fan!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Rafael Nadal Can Do to Regain the No.1 Ranking from Novak Djokovic

Barring the French Open and the Monte Carlo Masters titles this year, it hasn't been a positively eventful year for Rafael Nadal.

It's certainly not what we'd come to expect after having seen him blast through to the US Open championship last year.

And now that we're closing on another one starting on Monday, things have not been going smoothly of late for the defending champion.

Novak Djokovic, his prime rival these days, has been inflicting a series of heart breaks on him. Nadal has lost five times to him this year, and in the process, has also conceded his No.1 ranking.

So, what could he possibly do to dethrone Djokovic and make his ascend to the top again?
Let's take a look at several options.

End Points Faster
When Nadal launches into a point, he bears the mentality of a guy who wants to get into a long rally. He gets himself settled into the point and looks for an opening, after which he goes for the attack.
This is not at all an inadequate approach. In fact, he's won 10 slams with this strategy.
But, if he wants to usurp Djokovic from the top, he's got to pull back on the incessant rallying and  instead take a few calculated risks to try and finish the point as early as possible.

Flatten the Balls
Nadal's game is based on a great deal of moon balling, and he seems to use this approach to get players out of their natural balance.
It works against almost everyone at the moment, but not Djokovic. Against Djokovic, this ball will be smacked back onto Rafa's court with further added pace. To add fuel to the fire, Djokovic's ability to take a high ball on the rise further reduces the effectiveness of this strategy.
A better approach for Nadal would be to flatten the ball and, in the process, generate more pace.

Moon Ball with Depth
But alas, Nadal cannot strike every ball just barely above the net.
So what could he do to generate a more effective moon ball?
The solution is to send it deeper inside the court.
By pushing Djokovic, or any other player for that matter, further behind the baseline, Nadal could not only get more time but could also expect a moderately weaker reply to negotiate the next shot.

Improve the Return of Serve
A very neglected aspect in Nadal's game has to be his return of service. It's probably one of his weakest links in the chain, but one that's mostly unnoticed.
He does not seem to put any effort whatsoever on executing a winning return off either of the serves from the opponent.
As alluded to in a previous slide, he begins to calibrate himself to a "let's get the rally going" mode.
An improvement here could give him more chances to take the initiative to attack a little earlier than he would like.

Hit More Inside-out Forehands
The inside-out forehand.
It's a shot that Nadal executes perfectly, but one that he doesn't use that often.
If he can try to position himself to deliver this perfect killer shot on many more points, he could end them faster and also force the opponent to try other options.

Improve the Second Serve
In all of the matches between Djokovic and Nadal this year, one stat that has clearly had Rafa at a disadvantage has been the return points won.
There's no doubt that it has cost him lots of opportunities. Djokovic seems to win, on average, almost seven out of 10 points on Nadal's second serve.
If Nadal could generate a more formidable second serve, it could help his cause a great deal.

Play Fewer Tournaments
Here's a typical pattern that Nadal's mid-season always falls into.
He heads into the French Open playing pretty much all of the tournaments he can on clay. He wins them all, including the French Open, and carries the momentum forward to Wimbledon, where he performs fantastically. Then it all goes downhill from there.
Play less and preserve energy for the second half of the season.

Hang Around Until Djokovic Begins to Decline
If none of the previous options seem to work, the only alternative Nadal's got is to wait for Djokovic to renounce his super-human powers.

Things are not going to change any time soon, and Nadal will certainly look to change certain tactics and strategies, especially to counter Djokovic.

We will probably not see any changes this season, but it sure will be interesting to see what improvements Nadal makes as he heads into 2012.

All we've got to do is to wait and watch.

At the same time, I don't believe that Nadal's going to fade away any time soon, at least not without giving a resilient fight to Djokovic.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Roger Federer: What He Needs to Do to Get Tennis' No. 1 Ranking Back

After losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Cincinnati Quarterfinals, Roger Federer was asked during his press conference what he would need to do to get back to the No. 1 ranking.

This was his response:

"Yeah, I mean, I know what I need to work on. Definitely comes with winning big tournaments and getting some momentum going and having big confidence. That will definitely help. But in the game itself I know what I need to work on, and that's what I'm going to try to do coming up now, and then sort of after the US Open."

Analyzing what he has said, one can see that he has not yet given up on that top spot. He wants to continue improving, which I think is a positive sign for Federer fans.
After he said that he knows what he needs to work on in his game, I've been trying to figure out where he could probably step it up from here.

First, here are a few telling signs:

Federer hasn't won a slam since the Australian Open 2010.

If we look at all of his losses since then, especially in the Grand Slams, most of them have come against big hitters. He has been overpowered when he played guys like Tsonga and Tomas Berdych. He no longer moves quickly, and he seems to have lost quite a bit of power in his shots.

His tie-break record has been extremely poor this season. Just three out of 11 won in total. Surely, that has hurt him a lot.

And, of course, he's 30 now.

I am writing this article mostly as a brainstorming piece of work trying to figure out what he needs to do to get back to winning Grand Slams and reaching that No. 1 spot that he has owned the past seven or eight years.

I could think of a few things:

Getting to the net more often
He has done that pretty consistently this year, but it isn't helping him win matches by itself, although he still needs to keep this strategy around.

Improving his backhand
This is an area where he could still improve. A stronger, more powerful backhand would not only allow him to hit winners or at least force a weaker response from the opponent, but also enables him to finish points faster which is very important at his age. At this moment, his backhand is more of a shot to keep the ball in play, which could be put to a much more effective purpose.

Using the slice more
I think he has stopped using this weapon for quite some time now. He was using it consistently four or five years back, but it has slowly gone down and has been replaced by the drop shot. I believe he needs to use the slice a lot more. This would certainly help him against the big hitters and give him more time to adjust to his next shot.

Getting more first serves in
He needs to make at least 60 percent first serves in. This would help his cause a great deal in getting some free points.

Converting break point opportunities
One of the main reasons why Federer has not been able to win against Rafael Nadal many more times is his break points conversion rate, which had been pathetic last year.  It seems to have gotten better this year, but he needs to consistently convert break chances to win those big matches.

Stop being stubborn
I think another big issue Federer needs to fix is to adapt his playing style against these big hitters. He seems happy to battle them head on. Back in the days, he used to thrive against big hitters, hitting winners day in and day out, but he's not the same anymore, and he needs to change or at least stop being stubborn.

I think consistently getting better in all of these areas could help him get back the top spot.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Rafael Nadal Versus Novak Djokovic 2011: An Analysis of the Rivalry

I've been watching tennis for a very long time and I can't help but to note an important turn of events that I've observed this year. It's something that would help make clear as to what has been happening to Nadal as the season has gone by.

Novak Djokovic!! 
What an amazing year he is having. Probably the best ever by any player in the open era, of course only up until now. He's still got a lot more to do until he can come close to the standard set in 2006 by the legendary Roger Federer. Starting with the Australian Open, this guy has been dominating the game like none other, bar Federer. He's won two Grand Slams and a total of nine ATP titles.

One common thread in almost all of his titles here has been Rafael Nadal.

They first played in the final in the Masters at Indian Wells. Needless to say, Djokovic won. Sure, nothing surprising there, as he had already won the Australian Open. And then, they met again, this time at the finals in Miami. Once again, Djokovic came out on top. I believe this result occurred when Nadal began having doubts about his game against Djokovic. It started the slide for Nadal. Djokovic was slowly getting into his head.

Now, enter clay season. Nadal's beloved time of the year. Surely, no one would be able to take him here, even Djokovic, is what people might have felt at this point. Djokovic did not play in Monte Carlo, and Nadal most likely breathed a sigh of relief at this point, and sure enough went on to claim this title for the 7th consecutive time. In came Novak. After a comfortable title at home in Belgrade, he returned as a bigger threat than ever on clay.

In the finals of Madrid, he comfortably beat Nadal in straight sets. Sure, by now Nadal had a bigger problem. He had lost three times in a row now. He just had to get back somehow, and there was no better place than at Rome, which had a much more slower surface than Madrid. Additionally, Nadal was a five time champion here. But, the script unfolded in pretty much the same fashion. Nadal lost again. On Clay twice!!

I believe this was the turning point for Nadal this year. He completely lost belief in himself when playing Djokovic, who by this time had gotten into his head completely. In the French Open, Nadal escaped. Had Federer not beaten Djokovic in the semi-final, Djokovic would have been the holder of Roland Garros by now, and Nadal would've been destroyed had he lost playing Djokovic. In the final, Nadal happily took apart Federer, like he almost always does.

But, we all knew, Djokovic was not going to run away.

It was Wimbledon time and the legendary 16 time Grand Slam champion lost in the QFs. We all knew, Djokovic versus Nadal was sure to happen. Not only did it happen, Djokovic even beat him and picked up another Grand Slam. Nadal was beaten five times in a row, by the same man. Never before had that happened to him.

I guess we all can now see that Nadal has been on a downslide ever since, as was the case in Montreal and at Cincinnati, losing pretty convincingly. All of this comes down to him losing self-belief and I don't see him defending his US Open title either.

Watching all five of those matches, I must say that Nadal did not even try changing his tactics in any of them. He kept moon balling the way he does against everyone else, but it just does not work against Djokovic. He's too good a player, especially on the backhand side, probably the best in the game at the moment. He's quick, returns great and has an excellent forehand too and is mentally the toughest player at the moment. Nadal does not have many effective weapons to hit him with.

There has to be a change of tactics, maybe a stronger serve or a different variety, or else the same depressing script would continue for him. I just hope we don't see Nadal fade away very soon.