Want Fewer Injuries? Speed Up The Courts (Or the Balls)

The injury debate, which never really went anywhere, is getting even more attention after Nadal’s retirement from his quarterfinal against Marin Cilic and his post-match comments basically blaming tennis’ Powers That Be for the legions of (barely) walking wounded.

Some in the tennis community are proposing shortening matches from best-of-five to best-of-three, or using no-add scoring, or abbreviating the pro tennis schedule. In sum: I have mixed feelings about going to best-of-three. I see the benefits, but fear unintended consequences (e.g., upsets producing too many anonymous quarterfinalists or semifinalists). But I get it and could live with best-of-three. I’m not a fan of no-add scoring. I’d love to see a longer off season, but I don’t see it happening because you can’t prevent someone from putting on a tournament, and players will participate if the money is good enough.

But rather than debate any of those ideas at length, I’d like to raise what I think is a more important issue: Court and ball speed.

Put simply, long rallies on hard courts are brutal on players’ bodies. I just finished watching Chung vs. Sandgren. If you saw the way they covered the entire court, sprinting from side to side and throwing their bodies into every ball (except on that peculiar slicefest rally in the last game), you can see why so many players get injured. The wear and tear on their bodies is obvious. And that was just one match. Multiply that by dozens and wonder how they can walk at all.

Though both Chung and Sandgren were successful coming into the net, they didn’t shorten points nearly as often as they would have on a faster court. The Australian Open surface is considered quick, but it’s slow enough that players can retrieve repeatedly, forcing the offensive player to hit five or six shots that look like winners.

Those 16- to 25-hit rallies are causing the injuries. Keep in mind that players aren’t doing this only during matches. To play like that they have to practice like that. So these guys (and women) are out there between tournaments and in the off season pounding their bodies on slow hard courts. Twenty-shot rallies in practice to prepare for 20-shot rallies in the matches. I’m no doctor or smart person, but it’s pretty obvious that the cumulative stress on joints and muscles from all those practices and matches is a perfect recipe for injury.

We need to speed up the courts or balls a bit so that it doesn’t take so many full-body groundstrokes to complete a point. Not a lot faster, but somewhat. If you take a 16-shot rally and turn it into a 12-shot rally, that might not seem like a big difference, but over time it is. Make the courts fast enough that players feel they are rewarded for coming into the net and finishing off points sooner.

Contrarians will remember a short period in the 1990s, when it seemed courts were too fast and matches were getting boring. Sampras, Ivanisevic and Krajicek were taking advantage of speedy courts, and the points were too short. But that was mainly at Wimbledon and indoor tournaments. It wasn’t the case at the U.S. Open, where Sampras and Agassi played a terrific final in 1995 on a court that rewarded both net and baseline play. The iconic point of that match was indeed on the long side. But it was an outlier. As amazing as that point was, we don’t need them all to be that long.

Tennis Biases: Beat Reporting, Needing Access and Regulatory Capture

As I mention in a previous entry, Tennis Biases: Me and Monica Seles, tennis fans and journalists have their biases. It’s unavoidable, though the best commentators do a good job of hiding their biases. If you follow tennis you will have a bias toward certain players over others. Some commentators prefer stylists to grinders. Some prefer net rushers to baseline huggers. Others like players who fly off the handle, while some like those who take a professional approach.

For example, some commentators love Nick Kyrgios because they view him as interesting, different, and someone who could help grow the game’s popularity. Others dislike him for his behavior and the fact that he hasn’t always given his best effort. Whatever the case, we all have leanings, consciously or not.

Perhaps the most contentious topic in tennis is the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry — which shows just how little real conflict there is in the sport today. Fans are drawn to one or the other for various reasons. I will explain my Fedal bias in a future entry.

The commentators and journalists who cover tennis can have biases that stem from personal interaction with the players. That’s perfectly reasonable. They might like players who give good interviews or seem thoughtful, characteristics that journalists appreciate.

But some biases, or at least the expression of a bias, can stem from the need for access. Let’s say you’re an Argentine tennis journalist. You basically need Juan Martin Del Potro. You probably need him to talk to you. You also might need him to do well in tournaments, because it’s possible that your employer will send you home as soon as he loses. Same is true for Swiss journalists covering Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

Those journalists can be objective, but it’s not easy. The need for access is a deterrent to honest criticism. It’s probably a wiser career move for the Argentine journalist to say Del Potro lost because of a nagging injury instead of saying he choked — even if he choked. (This is a hypothetical example, not a criticism of any Argentine tennis journalist or a reference to any real incident.)

For at least some TV commentators, there must be a tendency to soften their words about certain players they want access to, whether it’s Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Federer or Nadal. I’m not saying no one is telling it like it is, but there are powerful reasons not to. It’s not easy to call out Kyrgios’ lackluster effort in a summer tournament if you think you’d like to do an interview with him ahead of the U.S. Open.

Access and proximity can impact coverage in significant ways. In all kinds of journalism, some beat reporters desperately need access to the people they cover. If you report on the White House, or the Treasury Department (as I used to), or the local city council, it can be very difficult to do your job if top officials at those places won’t talk to you. Some journalists will say “Screw it,” and develop other sources, including lower-level officials. Often those journalists break the biggest news.

Beat reporters who attend all the briefings and are on-site every day often resent the columnists and analysts who occasionally parachute in with an opinion piece or scoop. Totally understandable. The beat reporters will say the columnists don’t really get what’s going on because they’re not around the place every day. Often they’re right. But the columnists have an advantage in that they don’t have to worry as much about pissing off the officials they’re writing about. Their job doesn’t depend on access to those people.

Similarly, there’s historically a lot of tension in sportswriting between beat reporters and columnists. A reporter who covers a baseball team and travels with it most of the season can’t stomach a columnist who — from the comforts of an office or living room — writes an opinion piece proclaiming that the manager stinks.

The columnists will argue that the beat reporters are too close to the team, too chummy with the players and manager. Often they’re right, too. It can be hard for a baseball beat reporter to write a piece vigorously pointing out a bunch of strategic errors by the manager if that reporter has to see the manager the next day. Some reporters can do it.

It reminds me of an ongoing debate in my field on so-called regulatory capture. Traditionally, some  bank examiners at regulators such as the Federal Reserve have desks on-site at the banks whose books they scrutinize. This raises the question of whether those examiners develop a variant of Stockholm Syndrome and develop sympathy for the bankers. For example, maybe the examiners become friendly with bank employees after running into them in the break room or lobby. Perhaps some of the regulators would actually like to get a job at that bank at some point in the future. The key question is whether the regulators get “captured.”

But you could also make a strong case that being on-site allows the examiners more access and information than they could get through occasional visits. If the examiners are honest and properly trained, proximity shouldn’t be a problem.

Right?

Injuries, Tennis Journalists, Excuses and More Injuries

The ongoing spate of injuries affecting the Australian Open raises a lot of questions about issues including the tennis schedule, the strings, the rackets and even the way players hit the ball. (Mary Carillo recently made a strong point about the impact of the open-stance hitting position during an episode of Jon Wertheim’s Beyond the Baseline podcast.)

But let’s not get into the causes of injuries in this piece. I want to explore how tennis commentators and journalists address injuries in their reporting of specific matches. (To start, I should note that I think the vast majority of the tennis journalism community does excellent work. The TV commentary, in my opinion, is better and more intelligent than it was a decade or two ago. Therefore the criticism that follows is, I admit, very nitpicky.)

My minor complaint is that commentators and journalists often seem reluctant to write/talk about whether an injury might have affected a match. That’s understandable. First of all, it’s speculative. We usually don’t know how much Federer’s back, Nadal’s knee or Madison Keys’ thigh is hampering their play. Even if we agree that the player is injured, we can’t know whether it’s worth a set, a few games, a couple points, the entire match, or what. Second, it’s not classy, as it clearly takes credit away from the other player. It makes sense that commentators don’t want to take part in that.

Sadly, the mere suggestion of injury these days gets wrapped up in partisan fandom, especially when it concerns Federer and Nadal. If you suggest that Nadal is hurting, to many it’s because you’re a Rafa fan making excuses for your man. If you say Federer isn’t moving well to his forehand side since his back is bothering him, the suspicion is that you’re in the tank for Roger. There’s also the reality, which many commentators reasonably cite, that most players are suffering from some niggling injury pretty much all the time. How do you distinguish between injuries if everyone is hurting? Why even bother trying? As the old Aussies used to say, “If you play, it means you’re fit. No excuses.” (Or something like that.)

But it feels like commentators go too far in avoiding making excuses for players. Injuries determine the outcome of matches far more often than we’d like to admit, and when we don’t recognize that, it can lead to flawed analysis and expectations. A few examples: Let’s start with Sam Querrey. I’m sorry to pick on Sam, who deserves credit for getting better with age, but he’s been the beneficiary lately of some hobbled opponents. At Wimbledon 2017, Andy Murray was a shadow of himself for much of that quarterfinal match. Murray winning only two games in the last two sets to Querrey is obviously a freakish event. On grass, at Wimbledon, Murray basically can’t hold serve against Sam Querrey, and we’re supposed to chalk that up to Querrey’s awesome return game? Seriously? To be fair, commentators mentioned Murray’s hip issues, but they were a tad generous regarding Querrey’s play. Murray not being able to move well demotes him from being the No. 1 player to basically a top 350 player. The guy Querrey beat 6-1, 6-1 in the last two sets could have been No. 337. Murray’s injury changed everything in that match. As it turns out, he hasn’t played since.

Therefore, the optimism we heard after the match that Querrey might then beat Marin Cilic in the semis was based on a false narrative — that he played well to beat Murray. But he didn’t beat the real Andy Murray. He beat someone like, say, Raymond Sarmiento. (Apologies to Raymond, who was an All-American at the University of Southern California and probably a fine human being — even if there’s not an ATP bio for him.)

Querrey also got too much credit when he beat Novak Djokovic a year earlier at Wimbledon, even though Djokovic admitted that he wasn’t 100 percent healthy.

Again, when Querrey destroyed Mischa Zverev at the 2017 U.S. Open, it spawned talk that Querrey was the favorite to win two more matches and advance to the final. The narrative was that Querrey had played out of his mind, losing only five games to Zverev. But it was evident that Mischa was suffering from a shoulder injury. Yes, it looked like Querrey was playing fine tennis, and he was. But Zverev was giving him a much easier ball to hit than a healthy Zverev would have. And sure enough, when Querrey came up against Kevin Anderson in the quarters, it was a different story. Anderson’s weight of shot was far more difficult to handle than anything the hampered Zverev had thrown at Querrey. If you discount a losing player’s injury, you are probably overstating how well the winner is playing.

Easy as it is to say now, it was always obvious that Federer wasn’t in shape to win the 2017 U.S. Open. What absolutely cemented it in my mind was a post-match interview during the tournament when he was asked about his now-famous practice session in Central Park. Federer mentioned that he was looking to hit somewhere close enough to where he was staying so that he wouldn’t have to sit in the car for long — because of his back. Federer detractors can say he was making excuses. But it’s highly unlikely he made up that story, especially after a victory. Someone who can’t sit comfortably in a car long enough to get to Flushing Meadows isn’t someone who’s going to win the U.S. Open. Not even Roger Federer. That comment by Federer should have led to more questions for him and more skepticism about his ability to play well enough to win the tournament. If there had been more scrutiny of Federer’s remark, the loss to Del Potro wouldn’t have seemed such a surprise.

The point is, these injuries matter. They determine the outcome of matches, and failure to adequately discuss them leads to unreasonable expectations about future matches. Commentators should try to get over their understandable reluctance, and address the topic head-on.

 

For Men’s Tennis, 2018 = 1998 (And Why Federer Won’t Win the Australian Open)

Making tennis predictions is almost always a lose-lose proposition. If you ask at the start of the tournament whether so-and-so will win the Australian Open (or finish the year No. 1), the best answer is always no. The chances are far greater that one of the other 127 players will.

Prognosticating when it’s down to the last 16 or eight is a bit more sensible, because you have a better idea of the matchups. And matchups matter a lot in tennis. But at the beginning of the tourney, bet the field against any one player. Despite what Serena Williams and Roger Federer might make you think, these things are really hard to win.

That will become increasingly evident in men’s tennis (it already is in the women’s game) over the next couple of years. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka may all continue to be top players, but common sense and the laws of aging mean they won’t be as piggish with the big titles. We’ll see the occasional Slam title by one of them, surrounded by far more frequent “surprises.” But they shouldn’t be surprises. It’s historically abnormal for the top players to take so many of the majors.

For the men’s game, think 1998. That year, Petr Korda, the No. 6 seed, won the Australian Open, beating ninth-seeded Marcelo Rios in the final. Carlos Moya, the No. 12 seed, won the French Open, beating 14th-seeded Alex Corretja. Top-seeded Pete Sampras won Wimbledon against 14th-seeded Goran Ivanisevic. No. 3 Pat Rafter won the U.S. Open, beating unseeded Mark Philippoussis in the final. The women’s game was more top-heavy at the majors, which were won by the No. 1, 4, 3 and 2 seeds respectively.

Mark down 2017 as the last year for a long time that the top men’s players will hog the majors. I’ll venture that there’s less than a 20 percent chance that any male player wins multiple Slams this year, and that the Big 5 will combine for only one. The women’s game will be similar. Any number of players could win Slams, but it’s hard to see any of them winning more than one.

Federer appears to be the runaway favorite among both bettors and commentators to win the Australian. On the Tennis Channel this weekend, all three prognosticators queried in a draw- breakdown show predicted a Federer-Kyrgios final, with two choosing Federer to win. I don’t see it happening. Here’s why:

Federer won last year largely because he was loose, free from expectation or self-imposed pressure. That allowed him to swing from the hips on his backhand. He was attacking and short-hopping that shot without giving it much thought. That kind of looseness, which resembled how Federer played back in 2004, can’t be forced. Once you think about playing loosely, you’re not loose anymore.

There are plenty of reasons why I could turn out to be wrong. Other than Nadal, who appears to be sharp in practice (and frankly, should be getting more love from the oddsmakers), many of the usual top contenders (Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic) are either out with injuries or in questionable health. The court is presumed to be fast, which favors Federer over pretty much everyone. And of course, more than anyone else, he knows how to win majors. During a tight moment, he has no doubt that he can do what’s needed. Can the same be said for Dominic Thiem, Sascha Zverev, Kyrgios, or many others?

But the best guess here is that Federer will fall short. It’s not that I don’t want him to win (I do), and it’s not because he’s not the best player on that surface (he is, assuming Djokovic isn’t fully healthy). It’s because he won’t be able to play quite as freely as he did last year. And it only takes one subpar match, or really just a subpar 30-45 minutes, to lose a major. Again, it’s really hard to win these things. I’m taking the field.

An Apology to Stan Smith

cropped-161020145601-spc-open-court-stan-smith-00011217-full-1691.jpgSeveral years ago — around 2010 but I’m not sure precisely which year — Stan Smith was making an appearance at the USTA bookstore on the U.S. Open grounds. (It used to be where I believe there’s now a Polo Ralph Lauren shop.)

I was there as a fan and wandered in with my son when Smith was wrapping up. I approached and told him I admired him, or something along those lines, which was certainly true. Then I asked him a question, which I’ve regretted ever since. First, some background on why I asked what I asked, so that if you think I’m an asshole you’ll at least know the backstory.

I’m a career journalist, most of it covering finance and economics (though a couple of years ago I shifted to something of an offshoot — Washington policy analysis). Non-professionally, I’m a tennis fanatic, and have been so since the early 1970s. (I was born in 1963.)

I’ve always been drawn to what I think of as turning-point matches, moments that change a player’s career. It seems there are fewer of them than there used to be, which is probably worthy of an essay itself. Players have more lives nowadays. So when Djokovic hits that slapshot forehand return and comes back to beat Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, you have to think that’s it for Fed. He’ll never win another Slam. But he wins Wimbledon the next year. And then he suffers a few more heartbreaking losses to Djokovic in Slam finals in 2014 and 2015, but defies logic and returns to win two Slams in 2017.

One match that fascinates me, in part because it seems to have been forgotten by the tennis cognoscenti, is the 1993 French Open final between Jim Courier and Sergi Bruguera. If you’re not old enough to remember or weren’t a tennis fan at the time, it’s hard to describe just how surprising Bruguera’s victory was. Courier had won the previous two French Opens. (Before Nadal, that was a pretty big deal.) He was playing with an aura back then. Though Pete Sampras had taken over the No. 1 ranking, at the time most people considered that a head-scratching technical glitch. Courier had won that year’s Australian Open, his second in a row, and was considered virtually unbeatable on clay. More important, he was far and away the best big-match player in men’s tennis. Super clutch.

It wasn’t just that Courier lost that final to Bruguera. He lost in five sets, after having won the fourth. You could maybe get your head around Courier losing if he had a miserable day and got wiped off the court in straights. But the notion of him losing a close match after regaining the momentum seemed implausible. On fumes, Courier reached the final of Wimbledon a few weeks later, losing to Sampras. Courier was 22 at the time. Though he had a very nice career for several more years, including as a Davis Cup stalwart, he never made another Slam final. He was never again the great player he was before the Bruguera match. I don’t know what happened. I can’t get into Courier’s head. But it was a hugely consequential match that may have changed the course of men’s tennis for the rest of the 1990s. If Courier wins that match, maybe he wins Wimbledon. Maybe he stays atop the men’s game. Maybe Sampras and Andre Agassi don’t hog as many of the big trophies of the mid- to late 1990s. Maybe Courier wins a couple more French Opens.

My interest in matches like that helps explain why, when I saw Stan Smith that day, I made the mistake of asking him about a match that probably marked the end of him as a great player.

I’ve long been intrigued by two matches Smith played. One is his victory against Ion Tiriac in the 1972 Davis Cup final in Bucharest. It was marred by a hostile crowd and blatant cheating by local linespeople. Smith showed amazing poise while all hell was breaking loose around him. I don’t recall the match; I’ve only read about it.

The other was Smith’s 1974 Wimbledon semifinal loss to Ken Rosewall. I was 10 at the time. I remember reading about it later in my local paper, The Washington Post. (My recollection is that back then the Wimbledon semifinals weren’t even on television in the U.S.) Smith was the quasi-defending champ that year. He had won Wimbledon in 1972. In 1973, most of the top players, including Smith, boycotted Wimbledon.

Against Rosewall in 1974, Smith was up two sets to love and 5-3 in the third. He served for it at 5-4, and then had a match point in the tiebreak (which was played at 8-8 in those days). Smith lost that tiebreak, and the following two sets.

Rosewall ended up getting waxed by Jimmy Connors in the final. The same thing might have happened to Smith if he had managed to beat Rosewall. Or maybe not; we’ll never know. Smith was 27, not ancient for tennis but not young. He continued as a regular on the circuit for about another decade. But aside from making the quarters of the U.S. Open a couple of months later, he never again got farther than the round of 16 of any Slam. Put simply, he had a great career (later overshadowed by his shoe fame). However, he was never the same player after that match.

Knowing all that, when I saw Smith I went into hard-hitting journalist mode and asked him about the Rosewall loss. I don’t recall exactly what I said. I might have just asked what happened. I could see his face fall, and after a few vague remarks he said, “You just ruined my day.” I felt terrible, as I should have.

Let me be clear: It was a total shithead move on my part. I wasn’t intending to make Smith feel bad; I just hadn’t thought it through. The question could be appropriate if I were on the job as a journalist and writing a big profile on Smith. In that case, if he had agreed to an actual interview and I was doing a story on his life, pretty much anything could be fair game. But I wasn’t there as a journalist. I was a fan, sucker-punching him with a question about what might have been the most painful loss of his career.

I’m sorry, Stan Smith. I didn’t mean harm. If I ever meet you again, I won’t repeat my apology, because I don’t want to even bring up the topic. But I’d love to ask you about that Tiriac match.

Tennis Biases: Me and Monica Seles

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The first time I saw Monica Seles she wasn’t playing tennis.

It was March 1988, and 14-year-old Seles, wearing a high school letter jacket, was sitting in the stands of the stadium court of the Key Biscayne tournament (then called the Lipton International Players Championships) watching a late-night battle between Andre Agassi and Aaron Krickstein.

Earlier in the tournament Seles had lost a second-rounder to No. 3 seed Gabriela Sabatini, 7-6, 6-3, creating a buzz on the grounds about how well this unknown girl had played in only her second pro tournament against an established star (Sabatini herself was only 17 at the time). For Agassi-Krickstein, Seles was watching with some friends on a chilly evening as her Bollettieri academy pal Agassi blew a two-sets-to-love lead and a match point in the fourth before retiring after one game of the fifth set. (Yes, they played best-of-five at that tournament for all rounds in those days.)

Two years later — she didn’t play the tournament in 1989 — I was sitting courtside (I had a press credential and the press seats were damn good back then) when 16-year-old Seles won the tournament with a devastating display in the final over the since-forgotten Austrian Judith Wiesner. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say the collective mouth of the press corps was wide open in astonishment for most of the match. No one had ever seen a woman crush the ball off of both sides the way Seles did. People looked at each other with a recognition that what we were watching was a fundamentally different sport, at least for the women’s game, than what we had seen before. It was so cool. There was the distinct feeling we were watching something big as it was just getting started. Think the Beatles playing a Liverpool club in 1961.

When Seles played the tournament you sometimes saw her parents around the grounds. I never met them, but they would go to her matches and applaud the opponent’s shots. Not merely to be polite. You could see the excitement on their faces, like: Wow, did you see that shot Wiesner just hit? Their thinking seemed to be that a really cool thing about being Monica Seles’ parents was that you get credentials to watch great tennis up close. They were so genuine.

Why am I explaining this? Partly as a lead-in to a few upcoming essays on biases in tennis. All fans and journalists have their biases. Not political or ideological, but personal biases. They’re usually innocent enough. For journalists, the biases can come from personal interaction with the players, both negative and positive. My Seles bias stems from watching her in person when she was breaking through, and from viewing her parents as the antithesis of the stereotypical tennis parents. From then on I always rooted for her. Steffi Graf was an all-time great, and best I can tell, an exemplary person. But I always wanted Seles to win.

Even taking my bias into account, I feel comfortable asserting that no event changed the course of tennis history more than Seles’ stabbing on April 30, 1993. This topic should be a separate essay, but the numbers around Seles’ career up to that point are mind-boggling. She was 19 at the time, No. 1 in the world, and had already won eight Slams. She had just won the Australian Open — for the third consecutive year — and she was about to go for her fourth straight French Open. Those are some crazy stats.

After her comeback, she won one more Slam. Obviously, we can’t know how many more she would have won if she hadn’t been stabbed, traumatized and missed two-plus years. Maybe she would’ve gotten bored and trailed off. But certainly there’s no indication that would have happened. Mary Carillo recently described Seles as the player she would choose if she had to pick one woman to play a match for her life. It’s certainly not unreasonable to think that if it weren’t for the stabbing, Serena Williams today would be chasing after Seles’ Slam record, not Margaret Court’s. Even if you take into account only what Seles accomplished as a teen-ager, she’s probably one of the six or so greatest women players of all time. I might be biased, but that’s fair.