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Richard Evans Leaves No Stone Unturned In His Book “The History Of Tennis”

With impeccable research, Evans covers it all, from Tilden to Federer, Lenglen to Serena Williams in his latest book.

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Bill Tilden

Esteemed British tennis historian Richard Evans has been the author of no fewer than 22 books across his remarkable lifetime. He is one of the deans of tennis journalism, as well as an unimpeachable authority on the evolution of tennis and all of the great players who have most vividly captured the imagination of the public. Evans has been an outstanding journalist over the course of more than six decades, writing for newspapers and magazines in both Great Britain and the United States, authoring his books. Moreover, he even served a couple of stints inside the corridors of political power working for the ATP at different junctures in the 1970’s and 1990’s.

 

In many ways, through so many eras in an abundance of capacities, Evans has been synonymous with tennis, living it and breathing it from his youth into his eighties, witnessing all of the sea changes, writing about the game with both exuberance and sagacity. Evans has traveled as widely as anyone in his profession and, with urbanity and sophistication, has played a role in boosting the popularity of the game with his astute reporting and unbridled enthusiasm for where he believes tennis fits into the fabric of society.

Considering his stature as a reporter, it is fitting that Evans has released a new book entitled “The History of Tennis”. This must be considered his most important work yet. To be sure, there have been other authors who have written voluminously on essentially the same topic and contributed mightily to the literature of tennis. The lyrical Italian Gianni Clerici put out a highly regarded and perhaps definitive book on tennis history in the 1970’s. Bud Collins wrote his first encyclopedia more than forty years ago and later put out several versions of “The Bud Collins History of Tennis”. The last edition came out after Collins passed away in 2016. Others have thrown their hats into the ring of tennis history with similar pieces of scholarly work.

Evans does a fine job in his book of combining statistical analysis of the game with a lofty overview of the most prominent champions and personalities, along with isolating landmark developments in the shaping of the sport including the quest for Open Tennis in 1968, the crucial 1970 formation of the “Original Nine” in women’s tennis, the men’s ATP boycott of Wimbledon in 1973, and a number of other things.

It is in clarifying some of the overarching issues in tennis that Evans is at his best. Having covered some U.S. Presidential campaigns and conventions in the 1960’s and seventies, he has always had an agile mind, a sharp eye and quite a good ear for politics in both the world at large and the universe of tennis.

This journey through the heart of tennis history is thoroughly encompassing. Evans wisely elects to devote a limited amount of space to the evolution of tennis in its embryonic stages. Nevertheless, his grasp of what matters is unassailable. Evans crystallizes the origins of the game, tracing the sport from the 16th Century all the way up to 1874 and the official birth of the game invented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield.

Wingfield may have had different motives in his quest for recognition, but, as Evans writes, “There is no question that Wingfield was in this for profit—the family having fallen upon hard times—and he was anxious to get the patent for his invention, which he finally received in February 1874, despite some people coming forward to claim they had been playing something similar for years.”

Evans moves on in his manuscript to the formation of the game in England and the United States, as Wimbledon commenced competition in 1877 with a 22 player men’s field, followed by the U.S. Championships four years later. He also masterfully describes the start of the Davis Cup in 1900 and how the prestigious international team competition got off the ground, enhanced the tennis landscape and widened the lanes of interest worldwide.

But it took some time. Describing the first Davis Cup tie between the British Isles and the United States at the Longwood Cricket Club in Massachusetts which commenced on August 7, 1900, Evans writes, “All things considered, it was not an auspicious start. Conflicts in South Africa, where the Boer War was at its height, and Cuba, where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had been fully engaged, depleted both teams. The two top Americans, William Larned and Robert Wrenn, had both been in Cuba while Britain’s Dr. W. V. Eves was involved with the Boer War. And although the British brothers Reggie and Laurie Doherty were not in the army, both found an excuse to decline the [Davis Cup] invitation.”

Dwight Davis and the trophy cup that bears his name, 1924

The story of an incomparable sport keeps unfolding spectacularly through the eyes of Evans in this overarching view of tennis history. The way he structured the book made it easy for the reader to follow and not difficult to comprehend. After he comprehensively examines the game’s infancy and ensuing decades, Evans devotes chapters to the period following World War 1 and the 1920’s; The Thirties; The Forties and Fifties; the Sixties; the Seventies; The Eighties; The Nineties; and the 21st Century.

Determined to put the women on the same platform as the men, he devotes a chapter to the birth of the women’s tour and the WTA. This kind of compartmentalizing is a highly successful formula for sweeping seamlessly through the decades and making it all enjoyable to digest. He leaves no stone unturned. Doubles is featured. The Olympics is covered. Snappy sidebars enhance the book. It’s all there.

Through it all, Evans knows his priorities well. Writing on the post-World War 1 period that was so critical in the evolution of tennis in establishing enduring superstars who transformed the world of sports, Evans points out, “The decade following the First World War was dominated by seven extraordinary champions, five of whom were French. Bill Tilden, who was known for his towering personality as much as his brilliant game, was the American exception among the men, and Helen Wills, a beauty as well as a great tennis player, was among the women. Two of the seven players became the game’s first truly global stars: Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen, who swept all before her with a balletic style of tennis that proved invincible. The elegant, poker-faced Wills was the only player worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Lenglen.”

Evans brings in the “Four Musketeers” (Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques “Toto” Brugnon) as the “remaining quartet” in that scintillating cast of seven players he has singled out in capturing that critical era, perceptively putting them all in perspective. Shifting to the 1930’s and the importance of Don Budge (the first player ever to secure a Grand Slam in 1938), Fred Perry (the best British player of all time), Wills ( the winner of 19 majors in singles), Helen Jacobs (a four-time victor at the U.S. Championships) and the sometimes mysterious Alice Marble ( a five time major singles champion),  Evans is thoroughly immersed in the telling of the story.

As he writes about Marble in the late 1930’s, “By then, Marble’s lift had taken many a twist. She was always welcome at William Randolph Hearst’s California mansion, where she became good friends with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Soon she was taking lovers of both sexes. Drama was never far from her life. As they would say in Hollywood, Alice Marble was quite a gal.”

On we go. In his chapter on the forties and fifties, Evans brings to the forefront the likes of Jack Kramer and Lew Hoad. The author has long been in the camp of erudite observers who revere Hoad unabashedly. Evans recounts Hoad nearly winning the Grand Slam in 1956 before bowing against his buddy Ken Rosewall in the final of Forest Hills. Evans writes of the Hoad-Rosewall US Championships final, “Hoad seemed well on his way to the Grand Slam when he won the first set 6-4. Had Lew not relaxed or let his concentration slip a little, his name would have been forever etched in the pantheon of the game as one of the three greatest players of all time.”

Ken Rosewall

Evans does not clarify who would have joined Hoad in that elite territory if Hoad had indeed secured the Grand Slam, but one suspects Rod Laver and Roger Federer might be his choices. Be that as it may, as Evans recalls the 1960’s he weighs in on a narrowly failed attempt at the ITF General Meeting to usher in Open Tennis at the start of that decade rather than in 1968 when it officially came about at last.

The vote at that meeting failed because three delegates did not vote to ensure the necessary two-thirds majority. Evans writes, “The three culprits may have paid better attention had they realized that, in holding back this move toward progress for eight long years, they deprived Pancho Gonzalez and Ken Rosewall of their best chances of ever winning Wimbledon, which neither did. One can only surmise how many more Grand Slam titles Lew Hoad and Rod Laver would have won, but one thing is clear: the game’s record books are distorted as a result of carelessness and stupidity.”

Examining the 1970’s, Evans points to the rise of superstars Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, and astutely analyzes the centerpiece match of the decade between the defending champion Connors and Arthur Ashe on the fabled Centre Court of Wimbledon in the 1975 final. Ashe toppled his heavily favored countryman 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6–4 in a career defining moment.

Evans writes of that Ashe tactical masterpiece, “It was a triumph that spread happiness and satisfaction throughout the sporting world, because it had been a triumph in which intellect and character had called the shots. Ashe had become the first black man to win Wimbledon. No one could have worn the crown with greater dignity.”

Through a large chunk of that important chapter, Evans informs the reader thoroughly and discernibly about the ATP Wimbledon boycott of 1973, when more than 80 of the leading players including John Newcombe, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe and Rosewall removed their names from the original draw and withdrew from the world’s most prestigious tournament in a unified stand on behalf of Nikki Pilic, who was controversially barred from competing in the tournament. Evans gets to the heart of the boycott in one clarifying sentence among his many lucid paragraphs: “The immediate result of the boycott was to highlight a fact that reactionaries in the amateur establishment did not want to countenance—namely, that the players had to have a say in the running of the game.”

The women needed to carve out their own niche in that same era as the “Original Nine” signed professional contracts with World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman in 1970 which led to their own tour, and later with the establishment of the WTA in 1973. Billie Jean King, of course, was a central figure in both cases, settling herself apart as a towering player and a formidable leader, becoming the first WTA President. Evans lauds King for her contributions but fittingly reserves high praise for Heldman, writing, “It was no exaggeration to call Gladys Heldman a mover and a shaker, and she was about to shake the women’s game to its core.”

Evans later zeroes in on Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and their incomparable 80 match rivalry which lasted from 1973-88. He writes, “In style and personality, they were polar opposites, but throughout most of their time as deadly rivals they established a friendship that would last a lifetime.”

Naturally, Evans soon moves on to the spellbinding 1980 Wimbledon final between Borg and John McEnroe as the centerpiece of his 1980’s coverage, which also includes the industrious Ivan Lendl, the brilliant Boris Becker and the fascinating Mats Wilander. The Borg-McEnroe battle featured their unsurpassed 18-16 fourth set tie-break won by McEnroe, who saved five match points in that sequence after wiping away two match points when Borg served for the match at 5-4 in that set— only to lose 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6 to the imperturbable Swede.

Evans gets to the essence of the confrontation, writing, “The duel had become a classic contest between a player whose instincts were to stay back and pass against the all-out aggression of a natural serve-and-volleyer. Speed of eye and foot were of the essence and both men were so fast it was impossible to determine who was reacting quicker to the thrust and counter-thrust.”

In his “Women in the Eighties” chapter, Evans writes more on the enduring Navratilova-Evert presence but also brings in the tenacious Tracy Austin, the free-flowing Hana Mandlikova and, of course, Steffi Graf, who won the “Golden Slam” in 1988 by taking all four majors along with a gold medal at the Olympic Games.

Chris Evert

Even more compelling is his chapter on women in the 1990’s. Here Evans writes poignantly on the Graf-Monica Seles rivalry and the tragic stabbing of Seles in the spring of 1993 that permanently altered the mindset of the dynamic left-hander with the two-fisted shots off both sides.

Commenting on the aftermath of the stabbing and Seles’s inevitable and understandable decline as a champion, Evans writes, “Graf reclaimed her dominance over the women’s game without ever having the chance to show that she could have challenged Seles for the No. 1 spot—if, indeed, she could have. Given her talent and champion’s determination to fight through adversity, Graf might have worked out a method of dealing with the Serbian whirlwind, but the question mark will remain forever.”

That was some thoughtful analysis. I believe that Graf had already made some inroads in the rivalry in the year leading up to the tragedy, losing an epic 1992 French Open final to Seles 10-8 in the final set at Roland Garros, crushing Monica in the Wimbledon final at the cost of only three games, and falling marginally short in a hard fought, three set Australian Open final in 1993. In my view, the two extraordinary champions were heading for a new phase of their rivalry which would have been magnificent. In my view, Graf would have held her own.

Across the 377 pages of “The History of Tennis” I found myself largely in accord with the judgments of Evans. One glaring exception concerned his assessment of the two greatest Americans of the nineties and beyond— Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Evans deservedly lauds Agassi for becoming only the fifth man in tennis history to win all four major championships (the list, of course, has grown to eight with the arrival of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic). He credits Agassi rightfully for his versatility in taking his major titles on two different hard court surfaces— in Melbourne and New York— as well as the clay of Roland Garros and the lawns of Wimbledon.

As Evans concludes, “By the time they [Sampras and Agassi] retired, it was what separated Agassi from Sampras, who had a 20-14 winning record over him but never even reached a Roland Garros final. Agassi had the ability to win everywhere, on anything.  Sampras tended to dominate when they met in Slams and had the bigger, more spectacular game. Who was better? The argument will rage for as long as the game is discussed.”

On this one I have a serious quibble. Sampras won 14 major titles, six more than Agassi. He also upended Agassi in four of their five head to head meetings in major finals, including three on the hard courts at the U.S. Open which suited both players so well. Moreover, Sampras concluded no fewer than six years at No. 1 in the world while Agassi realized that feat only once.

In my view, as a fellow historian, there is no debate whatsoever; Sampras was clearly the better player and his superiority in their most consequential skirmishes sets him far apart from his countryman. The lingering debate is not about Agassi versus Sampras, but Agassi measured against McEnroe and Connors. Agassi and Connors both won eight majors while McEnroe garnered seven. Agassi’s surface adaptability is more pertinent when compared to his two left-handed fellow champions, although Connors did win majors on clay, grass and hard courts. Sampras demonstrably surpassed Agassi over and over again when it mattered the most.

Roger Federer

Be that as it may, Evans leaves no stone unturned in his historical overview of the sport. He makes the case that there is really a “Big Four” rather than a “Big Three” in the men’s hierarchy, putting Andy Murray in that exclusive club along with Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic despite their much wider range of accomplishments. Murray has garnered three major titles across his distinguished career (along with two Olympic gold medals) while Federer and Nadal have 20 Grand Slam titles each with Djokovic only two behind.

Evans defends his decision with clarity. “There will be question marks raised against Murray’s inclusion, which statistically seem obvious, “he writes. “My reason for doing so is based on many factors, the first being that it is difficult to exclude from the equation a man who appeared in eleven Grand Slam finals and 21 Masters 1000 finals during that period. Not only was Murray always in the mix, rarely losing to anyone other than his three rivals, but injury forced him to miss 13 Grand Slams as opposed to six for Nadal, four for Federer and one for Djokovic.”

Evans is making a compelling case for Murray to be linked with the three icons. I have my doubts because the gap is so wide between Murray and the towering trio above him, although Murray did also manage to finish 2016 at No. 1 in the world. That was no mean feat as he moved past Djokovic down the stretch. Some would be in accord with the Evans assessment of Murray, many would probably disagree, but Evans is well reasoned in his argument.

He also does a first rate job of writing on both the men and women in the 21st Century, praising Maria Sharapova effusively for her professionalism and temerity on a tennis court, writing, “Maria Sharapova  epitomized much of what was happening in the women’s game, not least with an ambition and work ethic only a few had been able to surpass in the previous decades.”

Every bit as perceptive in his chapter on the Williams sisters. Evans refers to what seemed like outlandish claims from their father, Richard, who predicted when they were respectively ten and nine years old that both would win Wimbledon. Evans writes, “Yet Venus and Serena achieved exactly what Daddy had said they would. And they did it in a way that strained credulity still further. Mr. and Mrs. Williams defied every norm and, according to current wisdom of the time, did everything wrong. For a start, they took them out of all junior competition.” This is a book which belongs prominently in every sports fan’s tennis library. In addition to the elegant and learned prose of Evans, the photography is splendid. In “The History of Tennis”, Richard Evans draws on his lifelong treasure chest of tennis experiences and remembrances to capture the essence of the sport with a mastery few in his field could match.


Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

Editorial

EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players

The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.

 

The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.

“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.

“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”

In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.  

The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.

“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.

“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”

Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.

Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.  

“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.

“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”

The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready. 

Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.

There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”

The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013. 

“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue.  I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis. 

The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.

Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.

More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.

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Editorial

Statistical Profiles: Alexander Zverev

What is keeping the Tokyo 2020 gold medalist from winning a Grand Slam title?

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At twenty-four, Alexander “Sascha” Zverev is clearly among the best five players in the world, having achieved in 2017 his best ranking of world N.3 and having recently won the gold medal at the Olympics in Tokyo. This would be enough, perhaps, to highlight the talent of the young German of Russian origins, but there is much more to it: he can attack from the baseline with great ease both from the forehand and the backhand sides, and combines these skills with one of the most powerful serves on tour. After his first appearance in an ATP tournament (he won his first match in Hamburg in 2014 as a wild card), many foresaw a bright future for him.

 

Instead, in spite of 17 career titles, Zverev has not yet been able to win a Major, the Litmus test for every great champion. Even in the last edition of Wimbledon, Zverev succumbed to underdog Félix Auger-Aliassime in a five-setter.

Let’s look for an explanation within the data, particularly those that refer to the 79 singles matches he has played so far in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, in order to try to better understand the causes of this discordant note in what is already a great career nonetheless.

RESUMÉ

Before focusing on Grand Slam matches, it is worth mentioning that the German number one has already won five Masters 1000 titles: the first on clay in Rome in 2017, defeating Djokovic in the final in straight sets; the same year, he won the tournament in Montrèal (on hardcourts), this time beating Federer. Then he won in Madrid twice, in 2018 and 2021 on clay, beating Thiem in 2018 and Berrettini in 2021, before recently winning in Cincinnati against Rublev. Not to be forgotten are the most precious jewels of Zverev’s collection, namely the triumph of the ATP Finals 2018 – once again defeating Djokovic after having eliminated Federer in the semis – plus the aforementioned Olympic gold medal, beating Djokovic once more before dispatching Khachanov in the final.

It was precisely the win at the O2 Arena three years ago that seemed to have definitively propelled Sascha to the pinnacle of world tennis, not only because of the wins per se, but also for the extraordinary quality of play he expressed in all areas of the court. Instead, something seemed to stop working.

In 2019, Zverev reached “only” three finals: in Geneva, in Acapulco, and at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai. However, only in Switzerland he could get to the title (in a third-set tiebreaker against Nicolás Jarry), while he was soundly defeated by Kyrgios in Acapulco and by Medvedev – in steamroller mode – in Shanghai.

In 2020, a season marked by the pandemic, Zverev seemed close to a big break. He first reached the semifinals at the Australian Open (his first at a Major) and then reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first (and currently, only) time at the US Open. In both circumstances, he faced his good friend (and rival) Dominic Thiem. The fast surface should have, on paper, given an edge to Zverev, who in fact won the opening two sets in Flushing Meadows with a score of 6-2 6-4. At that point, once again, the tune changed: Thiem found new energies, while Zverev struggled. After tying the score, it was the Austrian who won the decisive tiebreaker, denying Zverev the trophy.

The 2021 season seems to fit into the same pattern: Zverev has already won four finals including two at Masters 1000 events, he is fourth in the Race and won gold in Tokyo, and yet he couldn’t go past the quarter finals in Australia, the semifinals in Paris (defeated by Tsitsipas in five sets), and the aforementioned 4th round at Wimbledon. So, a great regularity at high levels but with no real peak (compared to the level of play that he is able to express). Let’s now take a closer look at the data to try to better understand this dynamic.

OVERVIEW

Before delving into the analysis in search of winning and losing patterns, an overview will be presented, framing Zverev’s style of play with a series of statistics, the average values of which are shown in Figure 1, separately by surface.

FIGURE 1 – Average match statistics for Alexander Zverev at Grand Slam tournaments (click to enlarge)

It can be observed how both the average number of aces (in particular on fast courts) and that of double faults is quite high, proving that the serve is, in a way, both a blessing and a curse for the German player. He gets many points from it but, at the same time, it is that very stroke which sometimes puts him in danger, especially in clutch moments. 

Comparing different surfaces, a good balance can be observed: of course the number of winners is bigger on hard and grass, due to the specificities of these surfaces, and the difference in the number of net points is also easy to understand (albeit quite marked): almost absent on clay, definitely more frequent on hard, and even more on grass. A second set of statistics, shown in Figure 2, can help us get an even more precise idea:

FIGURE 2 – Second set of statistics for Alexander Zverev at Grand Slam tournaments (click to enlarge)

We note, in particular, a significant decrease in the percentage of points won with the second serve, compared to the percentage of points won with the first serve. On all surfaces, Zverev wins more than 70% of points with the first serve, while only on grass he exceeds 60% with the second, falling under 50% on clay.

It is only natural to attribute this difference to psychological factors too, given that in his first 1000 final, on the Rome clay in 2017, in a best-of-three tournament against the best returner on tour (and probably the greatest returner of all-time, Novak Djokovic), Zverev managed to win 69.2% of points on his second serve. The underdog role he played that day perhaps allowed him to play with less pressure and to showcase his qualities.

To be noted is a good effectiveness for Zverev at the net, particularly on hardcourts, where he wins over 70% of such points. Let’s now try to deepen the analysis, looking for patterns related to a Zverev win or defeat in a best-of-five match.

MOST SIGNIFICANT PATTERNS, THE KEY ELEMENTS OF ZVEREV’S GAME

So far, we have focused on Zverev’s game one aspect at a time. In this section, with the help of technology, we will consider more aspects simultaneously in order to develop a multivariate analysis. In particular, we will try to find out which of the various match statistics (which represent our input variables) are decisive, and how so, with respect to victory or defeat (which represent our output variables).

For greater clarity, we will ensure that the classification algorithm used will automatically return – based on the available variables – a model consisting of a set of rules which represent the statistically most significant patterns that lead the German to winning or to losing. Below, we illustrate the three most significant rules calculated as follows:

1 – “If Zverev wins at least 4.7% more points than his opponent with his first serve and hits fewer than 15 double faults, then he wins the match.” This pattern is quite general but extremely precise: it occurs in more than half of the matches won by Zverev in Grand Slam tournaments (to be precise, in 56%, corresponding to 38 matches) and in none of his 22 losses.

2 – “If Zverev hits at least 3.2 more winners than his opponent per set, then he wins the match.” This pattern is extremely precise: it occurred in 18 cases and Zverev won every time.

3 – “If Zverev does not win at least 2.1% more points than his opponent with his first serve, if he hits fewer than 43 winners, and if he amasses more than 27 unforced errors, then he loses the match.” This pattern is even more specific but, once more, there are no exceptions: it occurred six times and Zverev lost in all circumstances.

The more a stat appears as a relevant condition within these patterns, the more we can define it as a key element of Zverev’s game. We will therefore be able, on the basis of the data, to draw up a feature ranking of the various aspects of his game, distinguishing those that, to a greater extent, alone or in combination with others, prove to be decisive.

FIGURE 3 – Feature ranking of Zverev’s Grand Slam matches. The length of the bar represents the relevance of the feature, the direction represents the direction of the correlation (direct correlation bars extend to the right, reverse correlation bars to the left)

As can be seen in Figure 3, the most important element for Zverev turns out to be the difference in performance compared to the opponent in terms of the points won with his first serve. Of course, as this difference increases, the probability of victory also increases, and that is why the corresponding bar of the graph (the top one) points to the right, indicating a direct correlation. On the contrary, the second bar indicates an inverse correlation with respect to the average number of shots per rally: in other words, the shorter the rallies, the likelier Zverev is to win the match. Examining the other three bars which constitute the feature ranking, we can identify, as other items of interest, the difference with the opponent in terms of the number of winners (direct correlation) and unforced errors (inverse correlation) and, albeit more weakly, in terms of the number of net points played by the opponent (inverse correlation).

Trying to interpret these results, we are led to deduce that, from a more general perspective, the key element for Zverev may be his level of initiative. In other words, if the German looks to win many quick points, shortening the rally and not offering to his opponent the opportunity to get to the net too often, as the data also tells us, he has a very good chance of winning the match. Of course, unforced errors also have a weight: this attitude must not become too wasteful in terms of points gifted to the opponent.

Trying to summarize further and to move from data analysis to tactical choices, one could perhaps venture a piece of advice to Zverev, actually often reiterated by many experts: he should try to play as close as possible to the baseline. In fact, it is from that position that he manages to be aggressive without forcing too much and without letting himself be trapped in a thick web of long rallies. Who knows whether Sascha, mindful of his loss against Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon, will decide to give this tactic a try, perhaps as early as the upcoming US Open.

Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Alessandro Valentini; edited by Tommaso Villa

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It’s Possible That Roger Federer May Never Again Be The Player He Once Was

Further surgery is set to sideline the Swiss Maestro from the Tour for ‘many months’ as he faces a very uncertain future.

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Roger Federer (SUI) waves to the crowd as he leaves the court after being defeated by Hubert Hurkacz (POL) in the quarter-final of the Gentlemen's Singles on Centre Court at The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Day 9 Wednesday 07/07/2021. Credit: AELTC/Ben Solomon

As the weeks passed since Wimbledon, the news about Roger Federer became increasingly worrisome to his wide legion of admirers all over the globe. He had reached the quarterfinals at the All England’s Club, and that was no mean feat. About one month shy of his 40th birthday, Federer established himself as the oldest man to reach the last eight at Wimbledon in the Open Era, and the oldest at any major since 43-year-old Ken Rosewall at the Australian Open in December of 1977.

 

But I digress. Despite his remarkable showing at Wimbledon, the fact remained that the Swiss Maestro performed abysmally toward the end of his straight set skirmish against Hubert Hurkacz, dropping the third and last set 6-0. Federer would say not long after that disconcerting day that he had aggravated his knee during the grass court season, but some insiders are suggesting that the injury occurred during his defeat against Hurkacz. 

Whether that was the case or not, Federer’s comeback after enduring two knee surgeries across 2020 had been halted. Soon he would pull out of Toronto and Cincinnati on the ATP Tour, and it was apparent that he would either come to the U.S. Open badly prepared, or not go to New York at all.

Now we know that Federer will not be among the 128 players in the men’s draw at the Open because he will be soon undergoing  yet another knee surgery in the hopes that he might improbably return to the ATP Tour next year. As he addressed his multitude  of followers on social media a few days ago, Federer sounded realistic about his aspirations. He simply wanted to let his fans know what was going on in Federer World and give them the benefit of seeing him on camera and hearing how he felt about his current predicament.

Federer did not let his admirers down. He spoke to the public graciously on social media without looking through rose-tinted lenses. He said, “I’ve been doing a lot of checks with the doctors, as well, on my knee, getting all the information as I hurt myself during the grass court season and Wimbledon. Unfortunately, they told me for the medium to long term, to feel better I will need surgery, so I decided to do it. I will be on crutches for many weeks and then also out of the game for many months.”

He spoke about his desire to be physically healthy, and then added, “I want to give myself a glimmer of hope, also, to return to the tour in some shape or form. I am realistic, don’t get me wrong. I know how difficult it is at this age right now to do another surgery and try it [making a comeback].”

https://twitter.com/TennisChannel/status/1426995174501019648

Those were poignant words from a champion who knows what he is confronting, realizes that returning to big time tennis and living up to his lofty standards will be arduous, and understands the immense size of the challenge ahead. Listening to the Swiss conveying his thoughts, I had the distinct feeling that Federer is bracing himself for the likelihood that he will never again be even remotely what he once was.

Beyond that, Federer was simply dealing with a harsh reality he could not have imagined when he left Wimbledon after a reasonably good run. To be sure, he knew that he was ailing, but he hoped having another surgery would not be part of the equation. And yet, here he is now, facing the future with cautious optimism, trying to figure out a path to lead him back toward where he wants to be, hoping he can reinvent himself convincingly, and determined to recover from another surgery and perform at least selectively on his own majestic terms.

Keep in mind that Federer has been through this routine too many times over the years. In 2016, he was playing with his children a day after losing in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, and he felt something strange in his knee. That led to a February 3 surgery for a torn meniscus. He returned in the spring but had to close that season down after a semifinal defeat at the hands of Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.

Federer took an awkward fall during that loss to the Canadian and had to do rehabilitation on the knee. He did not play again in 2016 but remarkably returned in Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open and improbably pulled off no fewer than three five set victories in his spectacularly triumphant run, toppling Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in those memorable contests. His rescue mission from 1-3 down in the fifth against Nadal when he captured five games in a row for his fifth Australian Open crown was a career defining moment.

The resurgent Federer secured an eighth Wimbledon title later that year and then defended his Australian Open title with a five set triumph over Marin Cilic at the start of 2018. He very nearly achieved a career groundbreaking honor at Wimbledon in 2019 when he reached his twelfth final on the Centre Court by ousting Nadal in a sterling semifinal performance. In the final, he served for the match at 8-7 in the fifth set, reaching 40-15 and double match point on his serve against Novak Djokovic in the sixteenth game, only to lose that stirring encounter with the Serbian. Federer had never stopped Nadal and Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament, and so his historic bid fell narrowly and agonizingly short.

Be that as it may, his body was holding up surprisingly well in that stretch from 2017-2019. But then he suffered a setback at the start of 2020 after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open, and was out for the remainder of that season. In that period he had two more knee surgeries. Federer was not ready to play at the Australian Open this year. He made his comeback in Doha this year on the hard courts, losing to Nikoloz Basilashvili in the quarter finals. His knee was still burdensome so Federer waited until Geneva on the clay to appear again, dropping his first match there in the round of 16 to Pablo Andujar.

Then Federer managed to record three match triumphs at Roland Garros on his way to the round of 16, but, concerned that he could hurt himself again, he defaulted against Matteo Berrettini in the round of 16. On to Halle he went, but Federer won only one match there before bowing out against Felix Auger-Aliassime. He did manage to move on to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon which was no mean feat under the circumstances, but his knee was acting up again. And so now he is where he is after all of the stopping and starting. Even for someone of Federer’s stature and stability, these are daunting times. For more than a year-and-a-half, he has been thrown into a world of uncertainty.

Roger Federer (SUI) Credit: AELTC/Jed Leicester

And so he will take it step by step in the months ahead, recognizing that things might not turn out quite the way he wants. But Federer surely knows that, even if he had stayed healthy, collecting more major titles was going to be awfully tough at his age. If he has the good fortune to emerge from his upcoming knee surgery with a clean bill of health for most of 2022, Federer may need to accept a standard that he would have scoffed at in days gone by. After every match victory at Wimbledon this year, Federer seemed to savor the moment more thoroughly than ever before, perhaps feeling internally that this was as much as he could ask of himself.

The feeling grows that Federer will not play on much longer. It is entirely possible that one way or another he won’t play much in 2022. Even in a best case scenario, it is hard to imagine him playing beyond next year. If that is the case, he should have few regrets.

He might be somewhat dismayed that Djokovic and probably Nadal will surpass him at the majors in the next year and beyond. All three superstars have secured 20 career majors, but this three-way tie could well be broken by Djokovic at the U.S. Open. Yet there are so many achievements Federer can celebrate— and console himself with— if his career is indeed almost over now.

He has won 103 tournaments across the years, and that is second only to Jimmy Connors (109) in the Open Era among the men. He holds the record for most Wimbledon singles titles taken by a man with eight. He has had winning streaks of five titles in a row at both Wimbledon (2003- 2007) and the U.S. Open (2004-2008), a feat unmatched by anyone in the history of the game. 

There is more. Federer’s consistency across his prime at the majors was unparalleled. He set an astonishing record by reaching 23 consecutive semifinals at the Grand Slam events (2004-2010) and he also advanced to at least the quarterfinals of 36 straight majors (2004-2013). His consistency from his early twenties through his thirties was astounding. His longevity is beyond reproach; Federer established himself as the oldest man ever to reside at No. 1 in the ATP Rankings at the age of 36 in 2018.

On the flip side of the coin, Federer will almost certainly finish behind both Nadal and Djokovic in his career head to head meetings against his two foremost rivals. Nadal currently leads Federer 24-16 in their rivalry, including triumphs in six of their nine finals at the Grand Slam tournaments. Federer also trails Djokovic in their career series—the Serbian is ahead 27-23. Moreover, Djokovic has the edge over Federer 4-1 in final round duels at the majors.

Be that as it may, Federer should feel awfully proud of what he has done, and not the least bit regretful if he is unable to ever compete again on the premier stages—or anywhere else for that matter. Roger Federer has been a singularly popular player for the bulk of his career, cheered on vociferously by audiences everywhere he goes, buoyed by his vast appeal as the sport’s most elegant stylist, inspired above all else by knowing that his artistry has never been taken for granted by learned tennis observers.

If Federer is able to play on for another year, he should consider himself one fortunate fellow. If not, he must meet that moment of departure with equanimity, and remind himself that playing such a transcendent role in the game’s evolution as the most revered tennis figure of modern times is perhaps Federer’s largest contribution to a game that he loves unabashedly.

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Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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