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?
Alexander Zverev Confident ATP Finals Will Be Safe To Attend
The US Open finalist speaks out about travelling to the British capital during the pandemic.
Germany’s Alexander Zverev believes the ATP Finals will be one of the safest places to be amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world No.7 will head to London next month to play in the season-ending event which features the eight best players in the world of men’s tennis. London has recently been moved from level one to level two on the British Government’s COVID-19 tier system following a rise in cases of the virus towards 100 per 100,000. People from different households are now no longer allowed to mix inside under the new rules. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, recently said that the number of infection cases is doubling every 10 days.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Zverev says he is confident that the event will be safe to attend. For the first time this year it is taking place behind closed doors in accordance with government rules. In 2019 242,883 fans attended the tournament over an eight-day period.
“We will stay in a hotel next to the stadium, which will be bolted. I think this will be the last place, where people are vulnerable to the coronavirus disease,” Zverev told reporters on Sunday.
US Open runner-up Zverev is hoping for a strong end to what has been a testing season for the sport which was halted for five months due to the pandemic. On Sunday he added to his title collection by defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets to win the bett1HULKS Indoors in Cologne. The tournament was also held without fans due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Although we didn’t have any fans inside the arena, I felt the support from home. I had the feeling playing on home soil and I hope that many fans watched the final on TV,” Zverev commented.
“It is different and more difficult this year, as we played less tournaments than usual. I hope that I can keep it up like this.” He added.
At present six players have already qualified for the ATP Finals. Besides Zverev, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev are all set to play. World No.4 Roger Federer has also qualified but will not be playing after deciding to pull the plug on his season due to a knee injury.
The O2 Arena has been home to The ATP Finals since 2009 and has welcomed more than 2.8 million fans to the event over that period. However, the event will be moved to Italy from next year.
Andy Murray Outlines Next Steps Following Cologne Defeat
The Brit says he has lost his way on the court following another early exit in a tournament.
Former world No.1 Andy Murry has admitted he is losing his way on the court following his first round exit from the Bett1HULKS Indoors event in Cologne on Tuesday.
The three-time Grand Slam champion was knocked out 6-4, 6-4, by Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco in a late-night encounter that took exactly 100 minutes. Making it the second tournament in a row he has lost his opening match following the French Open. Against Verdasco, Murray struggled with his first serve throughout as he could only win 37% of points and failed to convert nine out of his 11 break point opportunities.
“I need to get back to playing my game on the court, I’ve kind of gone away from that a little bit,” Murray told reporters after.
“I’m maybe making a few more mistakes than usual because of that.”
Currently ranked outside the top 100, Murray is still on the comeback from injury. In January 2019 he underwent hip resurfacing surgery which involved inserting a metal rod into his joint. In a recent interview the Brit said the procedure would take his body an estimated 18 months to get used to. On top of that issue, at the start of this season he was sidelined with pelvic bruising.
Injury woes aside, Murray admits that there are ‘a lot of things’ he still needs to improve on as he describes his performance as only a marginal improvement on what he produced at Roland Garros. On that occasion he could only win six matches against Stan Wawrinka before crashing out.
“I need to practice, I need to play matches and physically I need to get better,” he said.
“Some things I did a little bit better but overall it was not that much better than that match (against Wawrinka in Paris).
“It’s a surface that I’m a little bit more comfortable on, so that probably helped me. But in terms of my game, it was not much better.”
Cologne is Murray’s fourth tournament of the season due to the five-month break related to COVID-19 and his injury setback. His win-loss record currently stands at 3-4 with his best run being to the third round of the Western and Southern Open. It was at that event where he defeated Alexander Zverev whom he would have played again this week if he had defeated Verdasco.
Organisers of the Bett1HULKS Indoors have confirmed that from Wednesday no spectators will be allowed to attend the event amid a rise of COVID-19 cases in the region. Tennis Net has reported that the 250 fans are still allowed to attend under local regulations but tournament director Edwin Weindorfer has decided for it to be held behind closed doors.
Andy Murray Eyeing Revival In Form Following French Open Misery
The injury-stricken Brit outlines his goals for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Former world No.1 Andy Murray is hoping to get back on track over the coming weeks as he targets a rise to the world rankings before the season concludes.
The three-time Grand Slam winner is returning to action this week at the Bett1Hulks Indoors in what will be his first match since his one-sided defeat at the French Open. In Paris Murray could only win six games in his first round match against Stan Wawrinka as he recorded just 36% of his first serves in. The performance drew criticism from former tennis player Mats Wilander who questioned if it was right to hand the Brit a wildcard to play in the Grand Slam to begin with. A view that was branded as ‘pathetic’ by Murray’s former training partner Daniel Vallverdú.
With the Paris disappointment behind him, Murray is eager to make up for his loss on the European indoor circuit. He has been handed a tough draw in Germany this week where he will start against Spain’s Fernando Verdasco. The winner of that clash will then take on top seed Alexander Zverev. A player who Murray has already beaten this year.
“It will be good to get a few matches in over these next few weeks – I hope to perform better than I did in Paris,” said Murray.
“I want to win tournaments and move up the rankings.
“Physically, my body tends to feel better the more I play.
“Hopefully, I will play a lot over the next two weeks, perform well and see how it goes after that.”
Murray is currently ranked 115th on the ATP Tour and has only managed to play six matches this year. At the start of the season he was sidelined from action due to pelvic bruising. He is seeking a return back inside the world’s top 100 for the first time since May 2018.
In recent years Murray’s progression on the Tour has been hindered by various injury setbacks with the most serious concerning his hip. The 33-year-old has already undergone two hip surgeries with the last taking place in January 2019.
“It has gone well at times and sometimes been a struggle,” Murray reflected.
“I was told it would be an 18-month process for my body to get used to it.
“It changes the way your pelvis moves and your body needs to adjust.
“Hopefully with a few matches this autumn and some good training, next year will be a good one.”
Murray will start his campaign at the Bett1Hulks Indoors against Verdasco on Tuesday afternoon.
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