Lucie Safarova won the best women’s quarterfinal of the day taking down Tsvetana Pironkova in three sets 6-3, 0-6, 6-4 to seal the last semifinal spot at the Aegon Open in Nottingham.
The fifth seed was far the better player in the opening set and broke the Bulgarian’s serve twice to make the perfect start. It was a complete role reversal in the second set and at the beginning of the decider as Pironkova took eight games in a row to go favourite to win the match. Safarova showed her class and fought back brilliantly to take a 4-2 lead in the final set and resisted a comeback from her opponent in the latter stages to advance to the last four.
Heading into the match Safarova led their head to head 4-1, with their last meeting coming on the clay courts of Madrid in 2015. This was to be the first meeting on grass and both players had differing routes to reach this stage. Pironkova came through her first two matches without dropping a set but Safarova had to come through two tough three setters, including a final set tiebreak against Hsieh Su-Wei in the last round where she saved two match points.
Pironkova had the first opportunities to break in the fourth game Of the match but Safarova played both points confidently striking a backhand winner followed by a forehand winner to level at two games all. The Bulgarian then squandered a couple of chances to hold, allowing the fifth seed to take her chance and move up a break herself.
The world number 126 faced even more trouble as she faced three more break points in her following service game. Pironkova saved the first with an overhead smash, the next with a second serve ace and the third with an unreturned serve before holding to keep herself in the first set.
Safarova staved off two break points in the following game and put her opponent under pressure at 5-3, with Pironkova buckling under the pressure, double faulting to go down 0-40. The Czech then forced her opponent to go wide with the backhand on the stretch to seal the opening set 6-3 after 42 minutes.
The former semifinalist at Wimbledon had the perfect reprieve in the second set as she broke in the opening game as she started her attempt to comeback in the match. The fifth seed’s level completely dropped off and she was a shadow of a player of the one in the first set. As a result Pironkova seized the moment and secured a double break and moved even further in front at 5-0. The Bulgarian comfortably served out the set to seal the bagel and force a decider.
The final set was a real rollercoaster as Pironkova made it eight games in a row to lead 2-0. Safarova then hit back to win four games in a row and close in on a semifinal place. Having looked frustrated with her game the world number 126 regrouped and reeled off eight points in a row to level at four games all.
In the final moments it was Safarova who stepped up and held her nerve to take the final two games to seal victory in one hour and 49 minutes and book a semifinal matchup with 20-year-old Donna Vekic.
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.
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 禮 (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?
Forgive Us, Roger, We Took One More Piece Of You
(Abstract) We’ve written a letter to Roger Federer, who’s been forced to take a break, and who’ll be forced to come back.
Roger Federer, you’ve given yourself away long ago. This is hardly news, it’s what happens to many, if not to every public figure. This is what’s happened to you more than to others, and it usually goes down this way.
Generally, you begin by giving away your liberties, your privacy – and in so doing you lose your first piece of yourself. You can’t hide anymore, nor can you pretend that it’s not happening. You can’t fall in love nor mourn privately, nor can you do it in the company of just your loved ones. There is a whole army of aspiring VIPs who flood social media with their entire being. For you Instagram comes as a package deal, even though you can’t switch on a laptop. You could wear a wig in public, like Boris Becker did a few years back, but they’ll track you down anyway. Your intimacy is gone – you were born in silence, but ended up on Love Island.
After that, you give away your image. You suddenly give it up and let the world dissect it in a kaleidoscope of shiny shafts. Wholly fragmented, it appears where you’d have least expected to. Your face is everywhere, your name is everywhere. You give away your image to endorse a pair of sneakers, and a graphite racquet. You give it away for a Swiss bank, and live with the criticism, and for an Italian brand of pasta. You grow to be inextricably tied to these things: you were born free and your image is theirs. You didn’t have to, the mortgage was fine. It’s just that there’s never existed someone who didn’t do it.
On the other hand, you also give yourself away for millions of kids in tennis clubs at every latitude, kids who who try to imitate your serve motion, or try to hit a forehand in the hope that their hair may fall on their forehead like it does for you. They never succeed, God forbid, but if they manage to come up with something that remotely resembles your style, they just cry out a single “Roger!”, and feel some elctricity down their spine for the very first time. Your image is with them when they play, when they trail off in school, when the door to their room and don’t need a video game or a poster hanging on the wall to own it. All they need is the space to conjure you. We could almost say that they take away your soul, if only a kid knew how to do it.
Then other things were given away, things that you didn’t expect, and that perhaps we took without your consent. We took our tears – in Paris, in London. In Australia, we had tears for both elation and despair, in the years 2006 and 2009, respectively. No-one was able to bottle them and brew a talent elixir. They fell on Rod Laver’s blazer, on Rafa’s tracksuit. They mingled with the rain and the clay at Porte d’Auteuil, while in London they wetted the grass at your seat’s feet. How many among us have wept in front of millions of people? How many would be okay with it?
Finally, we took a few worthless items, mere mementos. We picked your brains on stuff you wouldn’t have wanted to discuss: politics, the environment, psychoanalysis. We picked your brains on Freud, and on things you don’t know, so you learned to reply walking on the thin line between what we wanted and what you didn’t. Someone even stole a fragment of your voice, undetected yet harmless, after having asked you a question in a press conference. He recorded it as it was, glued to his own inquiring tone. He listened back just once, to check if he’d actually recorded it, and then treasured it in a box.
When we got tired of immaterial things, those we can’t touch, we became morbid, and we began to demand pieces of your body. We took your bout of mononucleosis in 2008, so short-lived and yet so fierce. At regular intervals, we got some small pieces of your back. Since 2008, your body has been on a lease, as we were reminded during the serendipitous run at the 2012 Championships, when you were forced to wear a top under your Nike outfit.
We wanted you on court no matter what. We’ve showered you in obsequious praise for being the only one who’s never retired during a match, talking you into wearing yourself out for us. We exploited you a month ago too, for four hours straight against Sandgren, while your groin strained and ached, and for two more hours against Nole, well aware that you couldn’t win. Now we’ve taken one of your knees. We were quite content with the other one, which we took four years ago, feeding on its cartilage while tenderly recalling our generosity. That time, you told us an incredible story of nemeses and comebacks, gifting us with the most re-watched fifth set in tennis history.
Now you’ve given us the other knee. We’re still unsure as to which altar it was immolated on: perhaps on that of too many exhibition matches, the Cape Town altar, where it was crunched by 52,000 South Africans, cannibalistic like in Livingstone’s short stories. Maybe the altar is that of one more crazed run for another Wimbledon title, or better for one more crazed run to flee from Nadal and Djokovic, who’ve been chasing you down, their breath on their prey’s neck who can’t do anything if not run with no more caution. We’ve taken your knee because we need to live through the wait for your comeback. We hold it at ransom: do you want it back? Surprise us, because the game has been the same for ten years and we need some romance. This is why we’re booking a place for one more comeback. The 2020 Championships just like Australia back in ’17. That day, there will be no room for any pain in your arm, or your heart. C’mon Roger, entertain us, even if you’re sad.
There’s no complex explanation for such sadism. For this crave to have on court a man who, at 38, has every right but no wish whatsoever to give up – it’s just a crave, and love. Because we want you. We’re like husbands who abuse their wives and say they they do it out of love. If that’s the way it is, then it isn’t love, nor admiration. We’re getting confused too. When we get exhalted for a volley and we, too, cry out your name, all we’re doing is actually crying out our own. We’ve taken your whole being, you and your victories, piece after piece. You’re necessary to us who know nothing of winning what we want.
This is why I’d like to give something back to you in return, even if just in small part. I’d like to give back to you some time to make a choice, because we ended up taking that too. I’m not saying it panned out badly for you, not in the slightest. But your years have also been chomped by newspapers that would sell a lot less without you, they have been belittled by octogenarian ladies who beg you to hold on, unimpressed by your age- you’ve become a finger food for them. Enzo Ferrari used to say that a racer loses one full second on the track for every child he begets. Of course we’re talking about a second per lap, the comparison doesn’t really hold. And yet, even I know that out of the races that second dilates beyond every reasonable time and beyond every reasonable engagement – and I would only drop a second. You have four children, and still it looks like you don’t get a right to drop your four seconds.
Thus, I’m now offering them to you, and the same do all those who wish for your knee to be okay in no time, but we do it without demanding the impossible to become possible at all costs, once again. We offer them to you the only way we know how to. Count them down with us, exhaling at every number. One. Two. Three. And four. In four seconds you can say everything that is remotely important: I’m leaving, you’re a father, I’ll wait for you, I’m coming back. And if you wish, you can say goodbye as well.
Note: This article was originally published in Italian on ubitennis.com by Agostino Nigro and translated into english by Tommaso Villa.
Queen’s Organizers Optimistic Over Andy Murray’s Return As Two Top 10 Players Join Entry List
The first four names set to play in the ATP 500 event has been announced.
The director of the Fever-Tree Championships has said he is ‘hopeful’ that Andy Murray will play in the tournament later this year after he was included in the first group of names on the official entry list.
The three-time grand slam champion hasn’t played a competitive match since the Davis Cup last November due to a pelvic injury. Murray has already delayed his return to the tour on numerous occasions as he continues his rehabilitation process. It is the latest setback for the injury-stricken 32-year-old, who also underwent career saving hip resurfacing surgery last year.
“Andy is our greatest champion. We know Andy is still working his way back to fitness, but we also know that he wants to play, so fingers crossed that he will be able to.” Stephen Farrow said in a press release on Tuesday.
Murray, who is currently ranked 130th in the world, is the most decorated player in the history of the Queen’s event. He has won the trophy five times between 2009-2016 and has won 30 out of 37 matches played there. Last year he also won the doubles title alongside Feliciano Lopez in what was his comeback tournament following his hip surgery.
Tuesday’s announcement of Murray playing at The Queen’s Club comes as no surprise. He has a lifetime contract to play there for the rest of his career unless he is ill or injured. Similar to what Roger Federer has with the Halle event, which takes place during the same week as Queen’s.
Other names to play in London this year include ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas, who lost to Felix Auger-Aliassime in the quarter-finals last year. The Greek is yet to contest an ATP final on the grass, but did win the Wimbledon boys’ doubles title back in 2016.
“London will always be a special place for me after winning the ATP Finals last year and I am looking forward to coming back in June.” Said Tsitsipas. “The crowd at the O2 touched my heart in a very special way and I am excited to play at Queen’s again this June. It is a big tournament and important to play in the lead up to Wimbledon.”
World No.5 Daniil Medvedev is another top name set to play in what will be his fourth appearance at Queen’s. In 2019 he produced his best ever run at the tournament by reaching the semi-finals before falling in three sets to France’s Gilles Simon.
“The last 6 months have been incredible for me, a real breakthrough, and now I want to try to do the same on grass.” The US Open finalist stated. “The Fever-Tree Championships at The Queen’s Club is a great event with perfect grass courts, and I am looking forward to playing there ahead of Wimbledon.”
Completing the quartet of confirmed names is 38-year-old two-time champion Lopez, who won the singles title last year, as well as the doubles with Murray. He is one of only two Spanish men to have ever won the event in the Open Era. There other was Rafael Nadal back in 2008.
“I thought when I won the title in 2017 that it was the best moment of my career. I was wrong. It was last year! Winning singles and doubles was something incredible, more than I could ever have dreamed when Stephen (Farrow) gave me the wild card.” Lopez reflected.
“That final day is one that I will never forget, Queen’s is always going to be one of the most special places of my career, and I am already looking forward to coming back to the Fever-Tree Championships in June to defend my title.”
The ATP 500 event will get underway on June 15th.
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