US Open 2015 Men: Looking Ahead - UBITENNIS
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US Open 2015 Men: Looking Ahead

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Roger Federer (image via thesocre.com)

September 6th, 2015
By: MJ

 

The tournament has been in full swing since Qualifying Day on August 25, and we are on the verge of embarking on week 2 of the magnificent Grand Slam here in the Big Apple. Before we look ahead to the dramatic matches sure to come, let’s take a quick look back at all the exciting events that have led us up to this point.

One disappointment for the fans this year at the Open is the record number of first round retirements, which in turn has opened up the draw in unexpected ways. For those who aren’t keeping track, here is the rather long list. First there was Pablo Andujar who sent Gabashvili into the 2nd round. This was good news for the Russian, erasing all chance of an upset as happened to him in Washington D.C. weeks prior to Berankis, who takes the ball very early. Next was the veteran Stepanek, who is always a threat, but no longer this year. Sam Groth vs Dolgopolov would have been an interesting match up as well, but the Ukrainian succumbed to the New York heat next. A shame for the tournament as the amateur rapper’s quick serves and fast feet is always a pleasure to witness around the grounds, and he could have been a threat deeper in the draw. Another big shame is Monfils, who is always unpredictable in his play, but a guarantee in high entertainment value. Yen-Hsun Lu, who had a huge upset against Roddick at Wimbledon years ago, is yet another victim. Florian Mayer, whose ranking has dropped significantly now down to #216 did himself no favors when he bowed out early against Klizan. Finally, the vastly talented but inconsistent Gulbis retired in his match against Bedene.

As Day 7 gets underway in less than an hour local time, the road to the Quarterfinals and beyond is paved with numerous challenges for many. In the top half of the draw, Lopez is up against the Nadal slayer Fognini. The lefty Lopez has a big booming serve and very calm demeanor on court, plus a very low biting slice, but he hasn’t been truly tested this week so far, having had the pleasure of sending Mardy Fish to retirement, permanently. Foginini on the other hand is much more animated on court in his flashy red Adidas gear, and often plays with no fear. If he continues to rein in his nerves (as he did against Rafa), expect to see punishing groundstrokes unload off both sides going down the line for winners. I predict Fognini to move on.

Paire and Tsonga would normally be fairly boring, but the way the unseeded Frenchman have played this week, Tsonga would be wise to stay focused and play relaxed. Indeed, Tsonga is arguably among the best players in the world when he doesn’t play with nerves, even able to hit one hand backhands as he did to upset Federer at Wimbledon from 2 sets down no less! His serve is key. The author still favors the seeded Frenchman.

Cilic is up against another Frenchman in his next match, although Chardy is much less a threat than Tsonga. He had a tough match against Kukushikin, but mainly due to his own serves. To advance, he absolutely needs to keep them in check so he can swing through freely with more pace. The pressure and mental state is a crucial factor here. Nevertheless, I will put faith in the defending champ.

Wawrinka is quite lucky to be in the tournament still, as his match against the up and coming Korean Chung could easily have gone either way. Much like Cilic, he let nerves get the better of him for the majority of the match, hitting without conviction and playing even safer on serve returns. He must step it up this deep in the draw if he is to continue his campaign. On the other hand is the American Donald Young, who is having a break out year here on his home turf. Despite his constant switch of sponsors (he is with Boast now), his game has remained steady this week as he prevailed over and over again in marathon 5 set upsets. Can he refuel for yet another big upset against the French Open champ? Or will he run out of gas? The author is going for the big upset here! Or a complete blow out.

We find yet another Frenchman in the bottom half this time, as Gasquet takes on Tomas Berdych. This would be one of the closer matches I believe. Both players are very talented. Berdych tends to take the ball a little earlier than Gasquet, but Richard has a viscious backhand that rivals Stan’s, and his game lacks any glaring weaknesses. I think fitness is key here. Whoever takes the first set should prevail. Too close to call here. May the better player win today! Ok, the author hopes for Gasquet. Allez!

Other matches not mentioned here include Novak’s as he faces Agut. Should be an easy one here for the world #1. Murray is up against Anderson, which could be close, but expect Andy to continue into week 2. Perhaps a 5 setter here. Finally, we have Federer. How can we forget him? He faces the American Isner, who has been playing well this summer, including reaching the finals in D.C. To win, Federer must neutralize the big serve and stay aggressive, as John is known to play 5 set matches with tons of tiebreaks tossed in. Strike first, Roger! As for prediction, I have Roger capturing #18. You know what I am talking about!

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Stefanos Tsitsipas reaches his second consecutive semifinal in Dubai

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Last year’s finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas came back from one set down to beat Jan-Lennard Struff 4-6 6-4 6-4 reaching the semifinals at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships for the second consecutive year.

 

Struff earned three set points at 5-4 in the opening set. Tsitsipas recovered to 30-40, as Struff hit two forehands into the net. The German player converted his third break point chance to win the first set 6-4 after 45 minutes.

Tsitsipas earned an early break in the first game of the second set, as Struff hit a forehand long at 15-40. Tsitsipas rallied from 15-40 down, when he was serving for the second set at 5-4, and converted his second set point with a forehand down the line winner.

Struff fended off four break points in the first game of the decisive set. Tsitsipas earned the decisive break in the ninth game to take a 5-4 and sealed the win on his first match point. Tsitsipas will face Daniel Evans, who beat Andrey Rublev 6-2 7-6 (11-9).

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Daniel Evans upsets Andrey Rublev to move through to the semifinal in Dubai

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Daniel Evans beat Andrey Rublev 6-2 7-6 (11-9) after 2 hours and 11 minutes to reach the semifinals at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The British player took a re-match against Rublev, who won their previous head-to-head match in Adelaide last January.

 

Evans earned two breaks in the first and fifth games to open up a 4-1 lead. The British player saved five break points in a 12-minute service game before serving out the first set on his third set point after Rublev made a forehand error.

Rublev broke serve in the fourth game to take a 3-1 lead. Evans bounced back by winning four consecutive games and was the first to serve for the match at 5-4 in the second set. Rublev broke back in the 10th game with two forehands. Rublev rallied from 1-3 down in the tie-break. Evans fended off two set points at 5-6 and 8-9 and sealed the win on his third match point.

“I made a mess of some of the match points, especially my service game at 5-4 in the second set. I just stayed in there and knew and knew I’d get my chances. I am very happy with the way I played. Staying calm is the key, also getting the right balance and being aggressive with my feet. I am happy to come through and I will prepare for tomorrow”, said Evans.

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Topspin Rate: What The 2019 Stats Tell Us

Let’s take a look at the data collected during the season-ending events of last year, the NextGen and ATP Finals.

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Topspin groundstrokes are the ever-present feature of contemporary tennis. As it goes, the widening of racquets’ sweet spots (starting in the early 1980s) allowed for a greater net clearance, lowering the rate of baseline errors without losing girth on the shot, quite the opposite. In some kind of arms race, grips and swings have developed as well (as highlighted by this New York Times piece), increasing the role of topspin even more, to the point that “flat shot” is a mere figure of speech in today’s tennis, as almost every shot generates rotation, especially on the forehand side. 

 

At the same time, however, data needs to be relativized. While it’s true that all players put topspin on their shots, at the same time some put more than others, de facto flattening the less spinny ones in the perception of the opponent – a playing style is necessarily tied to the way a foe relates to it.

A compelling analysis can thus be to compare the numbers of each player, albeit in the limited setting of the Masters 1000 and the two Finals, the NextGen and the Master, which are the only events for which Tennis TV provides public information.

As a matter of fact, the latter two tournaments have been an object of study for the analyst (his handle is “Vestige du jour,” a likely nod to Kazuo Ishoguro, a fellow Japanese expatriate), a Twitter user who lives in Paris and who has collected the available topspin data for the 16 players who competed in the year-end bouts. Here’s the graphics, with the caveat that he used RPM, Round Per Minute, as a measure, instead of Tennis TV’s  RPS, Rounds Per Second, probably to emphasise the differences between the various samples:

Clearly, these are very limited samples, and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt (each player played a maximum of five matches), but a few inferences can be made, three of which appear to be more interesting than others.

HOMOLOGATION – The first, and most relevant, pertains the proportionality vis-à-vis the data on almost every player’s groundstrokes. it can be noticed that most rates are in the central lane of the diagram, with a ratio of about 60-65% between the rotation of the backhand and that of the forehand, barring unique styles like Tiafoe’s, whose forehand’s rate is over 3000 RPM, more than twice as much as his backhand (an even starker antinomy would emerge from the analysis of Britain’s Cameron Norrie), or single instances like Sinner’s route of Ymer (he went over 2800 with his backhand while flattening his forehand to 2200, but that match ended with a 4-0 4-2 4-1 score, far too lopsided to carry meaningful insights).

Specifically, most players have an average between 2700 and 3000 RPM on the forehand, and between 1800 and 2300 RPM on the backhand, respectively – this category features Djokovic, one Federer match, one Zverev match, Humbert, Kecmanovic, Sinner, Davidovich Fokina, and Ymer, pretty much half of the involved players, most of whom are youngsters, giving interesting indications as for the direction the game is moving towards.

This percentage of homologation is confirmed by another chart prepared by our numbers-crunching friend, which extends the study to six Masters 1000 events from the 2018 season (Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Roma, Canada, Cincinnati):

An interesting corollary emerges when looking at the low reported average of Alex De Minaur and Daniil Medvedev, two players with a few shared quirks, such as their eastern grip which leads them to hit the ball with no exaggerated pronation and supination of the forearm, inherently generating less spin. Their semi-flat style extends to the backhand too, though, and this combo has them labeled as counterpunchers, given their penchant for using their opponent’s speed to generate their their own on both sides.

What seems relevants with regards to the two of them (and the same can be said for Murray, Simon, Mannarino, Bautista Agut, and especially Kukushkin) is that their reputation and imagery as reactive players is a great example of how the classic dichotomies of our sport have shifted, particularly with the way we look at offensive and defensive players, creating a chasm between tennis’s signifiers and signifieds. Until 15-20 years ago, attacking players hit hard and flat on fast surfaces, while grinders overcharged with topspin on slower turfs, whereas now most aggressive players rely on condor-like backswings and therefore prefer the clay and slow hardcourts, as opposed to the aforementioned counterpunchers who find their natural habitat indoors (thanks to the clean shots they can get) and on quick ground – Medvedev’s performance at the ATP Finals notwithstanding, since he’d been out of gas for weeks. In our view, this is the most interesting subject in contemporary tennis, and even though there isn’t much room in this piece to elaborate on its etiology (from physical changes to new tools to different surfaces), which should definitely be tackled in future, and it’s very meaningful nonetheless to highlight how the numbers confirm this transfiguration.

EVOLUTION – The second point revolves around the admirable adaptation that clay-bred champions (e.g. Nadal and Thiem, it’d be insulting to call them specialists) have undergone in order find success on the indoor Green Set of the O2 Arena.

Their versatility emerges when looking at the second chart above. As can be noticed, their topspin rate is a lot higher on clay and outdoors. This is due to the fact that greater humidity lowers the bounce indoors, making tospin shots anodyne and punishing players who stand far from the baseline, inherently forcing them to go for flatter shots (or better, less spinny), more advanced stances (something that in turn forces them to shorten the backwings), and more vertical ball-placements – this datum is rendered even more apodictic by the second chart’s footnote, reporting a 5-7 %increase in tospin rates in the three slower events, Miami (tropical hardcourt, much more humid than Madrid’s MASL-caused rarefied air), Monte Carlo, and Rome.

The contrasti s particularly stark for the Austrian, and it’s a clear symtpom of his incredible technical strides under the aegis of Nicolas Massù, especially regarding his anticipated backhand down the line (a great net play aide) e more generally his on-court positioning, far more advanced than it used to be.

Flipping this line of reasoning, on the other hand, it can be inferred that players with similar rates who have disappointed in these two events (e.g. Ruud and Berrettini, who finished with one win and five losses between the two of them) still haven’t completed their game to the point of being able to skin-change in less friendly conditions. Ruud, in particular, spins mightily from both sides (something that’s helping him in South America), and is the only player who regularly clocks at over 2400 RPM with a two-handed backhand, excluding Sinner’s one-spin-wonder.

LIMITATION? – One more contemporary axiom-disproving stat, at least among fans, is the one pertaining the topspin rate of one-handed backhands, which are purportedly without a future in their being less assertive than their paired evolution. This is a false myth though, a straw-man argument: as can be seen, the three one-handed backhands featured at the ATP Finals (Federer, Tsitsipas, Thiem) have always hit above the 2100 mark, resulting heavier than almost all of their rivals’ ones, and the truth becomes undeniable when looking at the second chart, in which all backhands averaging over 2300 RPM (except for Jaziri’s and Nadal’s) are one-handers.

The bane of such shots doesn’t abide in its abrasiveness (a longer lever generates more spin and more speed as opposed to the closer-to-the-body contact point of a two-hander) as much as in its practical use: as a matter of fact, the same distance from the contact point makes it a lot more problematic on high balls (just think of the long years of strife that Federer has endured on the left side against Nadal). What’s more, the necessity to execute a wide backswing and to hit it in a closed stance limit the shot on fast surfaces, both in the rally and in returning – it could be said that its Achilles’ heel actually stems from its very firepower, which hinders versatility in its elaborateness, especially for those who don’t possess a good slice backhand.

Some might object: what about three out of four semi-finalists at the ATP Finals being one-handers, though, without considering the many others who have performed well during the 2019 indoor season, such as Shapovalov, Dimitrov, and Wawrinka. That is unquestionably true, but a few things need to be clarified: firstly, some of these players (Federer, Dimitrov, Shapo) possess such arm-speed that they can adapt easily to such conditions, actually thriving in them, due to the effectiveness of the slice backhand of Federer and of his epigone; secondly, Thiem and Tsitsipas have had to change their game a lot to accommodate the surface switch and to succeed, learning how to hit earlier and flatter in order not to lose ground – quick demonstration, consider how many more one-handers are doing better on clay than they are on grass, and that’s precisely because bouncy slowy clay allows to hit hard from afar, whereas SW19’s lawns are unpalatable for every one-hander whose name isn’t Roger, in another flip of long-held convictions.

We’d like to end on an idea, which is that analytics help us mediate between our own prejudices and the reality of phenomena, providing us with objective considerations that could seem counter-intuitive at first sight. The dyad involving semi-flat counterpunchers and one-handed backhands (especially in relation to the surfaces on which they perform best) is the perfect representation of such concept. While it’s true that the topspin rate is just one side of the coin, it’s also true that this is exactly the kind of number that could have an impact in the upbringing of new talents, especially in the wake of a game that is becoming more and more rooted in quick points (0-4 shots) and on powerful solutions, and this evolution might widen the gap between those punchers and counter-punchers. Is this the direction the game’s going towards?

 

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