Mark Winters and Cheryl Jones
In 2009, the game discovered Sloane Stephens. It was during the US Open, and it was under dreadful circumstances. Who could know that by the end of that tournament Stephens would be recognized not just for her tennis prowess, but for the mature way the 16-year-old dealt with the unexpected death of her father?
Eight years ago, on September 9th, Stephens wasn’t at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The Junior Girls’ No. 4 seed was in Louisiana attending her father’s funeral. John Stephens, an American football star with the New England Patriots, had been killed when his truck crashed as he was driving on a country road near Shreveport, Louisiana near where he had grown up.
Losing a family member is devastating, but for the junior standout the situation was even more perplexing. A first-round draft choice in 1988, her father was the 1989 National Football League Offensive Rookie of the Year. That same year, he met Sybil Smith, an All-American swimmer at Boston University. They married and Sloane was born March 20, 1993.
Her parents divorced when she was young, so she knew very little about her father. When he learned that he had a degenerative bone disease and was dying, John began a telephone relationship with his daughter, who had become one of the top junior tennis players in the world. Over a short period of time, their chats led to a solid friendship with the promise of more to come. His death added another dimension to Stephens’ tennis career. She was forced to decide if she should remain in the tournament or withdraw so she could attend his memorial service.
After defeating Polina Leykina of Russia, 6-4, 6-2 in the first-round, a poised Stephens admitted that she had been nervous during the match because of all she had been dealing with. She noted, “The last three days have been very interesting. I’ve been trying to focus on tennis, but when I come off the court I’ve missed 15 telephone calls. My mom, along with my uncles and aunts, have been helping me deal with things.”
“I was thinking about going to the funeral, hoping that I would not have to withdraw. Brian de Villiers (Melanie Oudin’s coach) told my mom that 15 or 20 years ago his father died and he didn’t go to the funeral. He said he still regrets not going. When my mom told me what he said, there was no way I wasn’t going. I’m ready, emotionally I’m prepared.”
(Thanks to special scheduling by US Open officials, she was able to attend the family gathering without having to pull out of the tournament.)
She added, “It was definitely worth having the relationship with him when we had it.”
“I want to make sure that I save my emotional energy and try to stay calm. I know it will be difficult, but it helps that I play tennis and can run around and do things on the court. I will be focused on what I need to do.”
Prior to the spring of 2009, tennis insiders considered Stephens to be extremely athletic and talented, but her results were not really all that memorable. That changed after she won the International Spring Championships at the USTA Training Facility-West in Carson, California. She followed up the success by becoming the first American to win the prestigious Italian Open Bonfiglio Championship in Milan since Gretchen Rush, the 1982 World Junior Champion, triumphed there.
Entering the US Open Junior Championships, she had only lost two singles matches that year. Both were to Kristina Mladenovic of France. The first was at Roland Garros (where she was a qualifier), in the semifinals and again in the quarterfinals of The Girls’ Singles Championship at Wimbledon.
Returning to New York after the ceremony for her father, she dropped a third-round decision to Jana Cepelova of Slovakia 4-6, 6-1, 6-0. After the contest, a weary Stephens explained, “I started out playing pretty well, then I just couldn’t get it together, I became frustrated. Yesterday (the funeral) was tough. It’s the end of the week and everything caught up with me. It’s just overwhelming me. I need to work on the mental side of things and get back to being me.”
Stephens put tennis on notice with a performance that was as dramatic on-court as it was off it. She was so personable that it magnified her presence, as did her ever-ready toothpaste commercial worthy smile. She was literally captivating. She seemed poised to be the future of US women’s tennis.
As it turned out, her ranking progress was steady, but not spectacular. She broke into the Top 100 finishing No. 97 at the end of 2011. By 2013, she was No. 12, having upset Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. But, between 2014 and ‘16, she stalled earning Top 30 rankings while winning four tournaments. She claimed her first, Washington in 2015 and three – Acapulco, Auckland and Charleston the next year.
Then in 2016, at the Rio Olympics, she injured her left foot, which necessitated surgery. The rehab kept her from competition for eleven months. She made her return at this year’s Wimbledon, losing in the first round. She did the same at Washington, but righted the ship with semifinal appearances at the Rogers Cup and the Western & Southern Open.
It could be seen as ironic that Stephens eight years earlier was unable to play on September 9th. This year, she played and, in a measured and consistent and persuasive performance, defeated her good friend, (who she said she loves to death), Madison Keys, 6-3, 6-0 in the US Open final. The match was historic because it marked the 60th Anniversary of Althea Gibson’s Forest Hills singles’ victory. It was also the first involving two African-American players, in Arthur Ashe Stadium, who were not named Williams.
With her first Grand Slam tournament title, Stephens will again be in the spotlight. Following the contest, she was delightfully expressive providing “notable quotes” for all.
When told, following the match, that she was thorough and had committed only six unforced errors, she grinned and said, “Shut the front door. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Oh, my God. That’s a stat.”
Keys’ didn’t play her best, and Stephens addressed the fact during their exchange at the net after the last shot, “I told her I wish there could have been a draw. If it was the other way around, I’m sure she would have done the same thing.”
At No. 83, the winner became the lowest ranked player to ever win a major. The reality caused her to point out, “I had surgery on January 23rd, and if someone told me then I would win the US Open, it would be (seem) impossible.”
Learning that she earned $3.7 million for the victory, Stephens, as usual, grinned hugely admitting, “That’s a lot of money, my God.”
Concluding, she said, “I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than ‘amazing’ for me and Maddie.” And, amazing may be the best superlative adjectives to use to describe what is ahead for her. She’s courageous, and tenacious, and she’s only twenty-four.
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?
Maria Sharapova Announces Retirement From Tennis
Maria Sharapova has announced the end of her 18 year long tennis career.
Five time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova has announced her retirement from tennis after a career lasting 18 years.
The Russian burst on the scene in 2004, when she won her first grand slam title at Wimbledon beating Serena Williams at the age of 17.
What followed after that was 36 WTA titles, four more grand slam titles which included winning the career grand slam and becoming world number one at the age of 18.
Off the court, Sharapova became a commercial phenomenon and a pioneer for sponsorship deals and clothing deals in the women’s game.
However the latter stages of her career where tarnished by being caught positive with Meldonium, which was handled with atrocity by her management team.
In an essay written in Vanity Fair, Sharapova says it’s time to say goodbye to the game she has played since she was four years old, “I’m new to this, so please forgive me. Tennis—I’m saying goodbye,” Sharapova said in her long piece.
“In giving my life to tennis, tennis gave me a life. I’ll miss it everyday. I’ll miss the training and my daily routine: Waking up at dawn, lacing my left shoe before my right, and closing the court’s gate before I hit my first ball of the day. I’ll miss my team, my coaches. I’ll miss the moments sitting with my father on the practice court bench. The handshakes—win or lose—and the athletes, whether they knew it or not, who pushed me to be my best.”
In the announcement, Sharapova also revealed that it was at the US Open last year before her match against Serena Williams that she first had thoughts of retirement, “Listening to this voice so intimately, anticipating its every ebb and flow, is also how I accepted those final signals when they came,” Sharapova explained.
“One of them came last August at the U.S. Open. Behind closed doors, thirty minutes before taking the court, I had a procedure to numb my shoulder to get through the match. Shoulder injuries are nothing new for me—over time my tendons have frayed like a string.
“I’ve had multiple surgeries—once in 2008; another procedure last year—and spent countless months in physical therapy. Just stepping onto the court that day felt like a final victory, when of course it should have been merely the first step toward victory. I share this not to garner pity, but to paint my new reality: My body had become a distraction.”
Maria Sharapova had lived out her dream to be a champion, in a career lasting nearly two decades, but her chances of being a tennis icon and legend were tarnished by her reputation by taking a performance enhancing drug.
Although tennis will miss Maria Sharapova and Maria Sharapova will miss tennis, the divorce between the two will be not acknowledged by many tennis stars as Tennis continues to evolve and live without the Russian.
Alexander Bublik reaches his third career semifinal with win over Denis Shapovalov in Marseille
Alexander Bublik reached the third ATP Tour semifinal of his career after beating Canadian Canadian Next Gen player Denis Shapovalov 7-5 4-6 6-3 after 2 hours and 18 minutes at the Open 13 Provence in Marseille.
Bublik fended off a total of four break points in the first set, including three chances from 0-40, got the break in the 12th game to close out the first set 7-5, when Shapovalov hit a forehand volley wide at 30-40 after 45 minutes.
Both players traded breaks at the start of the second set. Bublik did not convert three break points at 3-2, when he hit a forehand into the net on his first break point chance. Shapovalov broke serve in the seventh game to take a 4-3 lead with a drop shot and wrapped up the second set with his third ace.
Bublik opened up a 2-0 lead with a break in the second game of the third set. Shapovalov broke straight back in the third game. Bublik got another break lead in the eighth lead at 15, when Shapovalov hit a forehand wide. Bublik sealed the win with a hold at love.
“He is a great player and serve. It was our first match, but I have known him for a very long time. I was happy to break in the first set, then in the second set he was better, and I had my chances in the third and I held on. So I am very happy”,said Bublik.
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