French Open, Steve Flink: “Nadal is the clear favourite, but Tsitsipas and Djokovic have a shot” - UBITENNIS
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French Open, Steve Flink: “Nadal is the clear favourite, but Tsitsipas and Djokovic have a shot”

A recap of what’s happened in Paris so far. What will decide the 58th match between Nadal and Djokovic? Can Tsitsipas and Sakkari score a Greek brace?

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The 2021 French Open is almost over – this is the time to discuss the tournament’s key points and to make the final predictions. The men’s and women’s semifinals will offer opposite pictures – the latter has four underdogs, while the former will be contested by the players who were thought to be the main contenders all along. As usual, Steve Flink joined Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta (who is in Paris) to talk about the most momentous topics, such as Federer’s withdrawal and the lack of continuity among the stars of the WTA Tour. Here’s their video: 

 

VIDEO SCHEDULE

1:10 – The Djokovic-Berrettini match: “I was surprised with Berrettini’ level in the third and fourth set…”

3:40 – What lay behind Djokovic’s vocal celebration?

6:20 – The fans had to leave the stadium halfway through the fourth set – could have the organisers done a better scheduling job? “TV money is important, but such a big tournament should have the power to change the schedule, if necessary.”

11:15 – “I was surprised by Tsitsipas as well, he contained Medvedev’s attempted comeback very impressively.” Is he a bonafide contender? What about Zverev

16:05 – Lorenzo Musetti was a pleasant surprise before retiring in the decider against Djokovic – was he actually injured? Ubaldo Scanagatta spoke to him and his coach…

22:50 – Who will have the edge between Nadal and Djokovic?

28:15 – On Federer’s withdrawal: “He might have played his last French Open match without a crowd – it was quite sad.” Was it fair to withdraw without being injured?

36:00 – Semifinal predictions: “Djokovic needs to win the opening set more than Nadal does. As for Zverev v Tsitsipas, they are both high on confidence right now, it’s very close.”

40:20 – The women’s draw: “These semifinals feel out of place in a Slam, and they are the symbol of the crisis OF the WTA.”

45:40 – “The next two Majors will be important for women’s tennis – we need big rivalries.”

48:35 – Coco Gauff reached the quarter finals – is she going to be a contender in the next Slams?

50:30 – Jannik Sinner disappointed against Nadal – where does he need to improve?

52:20 – A prediction on the women’s tournament – can Sakkari and Tsitsipas clinch a Greek double?

Transcript by Giuseppe Di Paola; translated and edited by Tommaso Villa

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A Look at the Numbers: the Second Serve Is the Key to Victory for the Best in the Business

We conducted a comparative analysis of time periods, surfaces and player rankings. It turned out that the serve is becoming more and more important. However, the situation is different when it comes to matches between Top 10 players.

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We often muse about the evolution of the style of play over the last few decades. It is relatively simple to identify a turning point in the introduction of new materials, which progressively led to the obsolescence of wooden racquets starting in the 1980s. It can be said that the swan song of the old wooden racquets took place with Miloslav Mecir’s victory at Indian Wells in 1989 (a player as talented as he is unjustly forgotten). From that moment on, all the major tournaments were won by athletes brandishing a more modern racquet with a bigger sweet spot, a much wider point of impact at maximum effectiveness, which now extends to pretty much the whole of the racquet head.

 

From that moment on, the tennis style, at least at the highest levels and in particular for men (who traditionally hit harder) changed in favour of baseline rallies instead of net play, following in Bjorn Borg’s footsteps (thanks to the greater effectiveness of topspin shots which, because of new technologies, can be successful even from defensive positions). The 90s were mostly characterised by the Sampras-Agassi dualism, i.e. the challenge between an extraordinary server and an exceptional returner. After a short interregnum, Federer, Nadal and then Djokovic appeared on the scene, three players who have broken almost every record, especially in the Slams.

However, these three legends are quite difficult to classify in their playing styles – the same cannot be said for their competition, though. In the same period, we can identify, just behind them, players such as Murray, Roddick, Del Potro, Wawrinka: all equipped with a very solid first serve. And the same can be said for the elusive Next Gen, which has been awaited to take over for a few years, although at the moment it seems that they’ll still have to wait awhile. Likewise, the majority of the new contenders make the serve a cornerstone of their game: think for example of Medvedev, Sascha Zverev, Tsitsipas or Thiem.

Is the serve becoming increasingly important over time? The data made available on the ATP website, which include rather detailed statistics on all the matches held from 1991 to 2017, allow us to test this hypothesis more systematically. For this purpose, we will distinguish three periods within our analysis: 1991-1999, 2000-2009 and 2010-2017. We will compare them in statistical and data-driven terms, with a careful look at the role of the serve.

ACE RATES

Picture 1. Average difference in terms of ace between winner and loser

First of all, we can verify whether, and to what extent, the winner is also the player who hits the most aces: even if there are different degrees, this is the case in all three periods considered. In the 1990s, in fact, the average difference between the winner and the loser in terms of ace is 1.44. It reaches 1.64 in the first ten years of the new millennium (marking a strong growth, +13.8%) and 1.71 in the last period considered, from 2010 to 2017. It would therefore be tempting to conclude that the serve, in its most direct manifestation of effectiveness (the ace), has gained an increasing weight in determining the winner of a high-level match.
But what happens if we narrow the analysis to the Grand Slam tournaments, which represent the most important moments of the season, with all the big players competing (injuries notwithstanding)? In this case, the result is diametrically opposite: the difference measured in the 90s is 2.35 and decreases to 2.29 in the early 2000s. This difference settles, on average, at 2.15 in the last period considered.

At this point, however, we are reminded of the words of Andre Agassi, who often received comments related to the not exceptional effectiveness of his serve compared to the rest of his game. The American acutely observed that very often, and in particular when he was able to hit a first serve, even if he did not get a direct point, he put himself in a position to play an easy shot immediately after the serve. Considering the effectiveness of his groundstrokes, this was more than enough to make it difficult for the opponent to break his serve and to put him under pressure. On this basis, let’s try to delve more deeply by focusing on another stat, which is more indicative of serve performance overall and not just in terms of direct points: the percentage of points won with the first serve.

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS WON WITH THE FIRST SERVE

Picture 2. Average difference in terms of percentage of points won on first serve between winner and loser

By repeating the analysis and applying it to this new statistic, we actually obtain a concordant result, both considering the totality of the tournaments or just the Slams. Considering every tournament, in the 1990s the winner of a match gets a percentage of points with the first serve that exceeds that of the losing player by 10.8%. In the early 2000s, the gap rises to 11.1%, reaching 11.5% in the third period considered (2011-2017). Focusing on Grand Slam tournaments, the trend remains similar in relative terms, although starting from a slightly lower base: the initial average difference is 10.4% in the 1990s, which grows to 10.7% and finally to 11.2% in the two subsequent periods considered.

We can conclude that, in average terms, the player who wins the match is the one who manages to get points from his first serve, thus imposing his game on the opponent. Once again, let’s try to re-read the data between the lines, considering another observation made by a great tennis player, former world number three and now Roger Federer’s coach: Ivan Ljubičić. During an interview, he was asked to compare Federer’s serve to that of other players, including Stan Wawrinka. Ljubo highlighted that, even though Wawrinka was able to reach higher speeds on the first ball, Federer was gifted with a more complete and unpredictable serve. But that’s not all.

One of the strengths of Federer’s serve is the second ball. “On Roger’s second ball“, concluded the Croatian coach, “it may be relatively simple to return, but it is still very complicated to attack“. In this sense, we look at another aspect of the serve: not only as a definitive shot (ace) or an aggressive one (first ball), but also as a tool to avoid being a victim of the opponent’s aggressive return: in a certain sense, it is a maneuvering shot, if not an outright defensive one. So, let’s try to ask ourselves if, especially at high levels, the second serve is key to victory, and the weight it takes throughout the years.

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS WON WITH THE SECOND SERVE

Picture 3. Average difference in terms of percentage of points won on second serve between winner and loser

Again, we will first examine all the tournaments, and then focus on the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. Considering the former, we identify a decisive step forward between the 1990s and the early 2000s, with the difference in terms of the percentage of points won on the second serve which goes up, on average, from 10% to 11%. Over the following years, up to 2017, there was still a slight growth, which leads to an average gap of 11.1%.

Focusing on the Grand Slam tournaments, we register a similar dynamic but, in this case, starting from a higher base: we go from an average gap of 11% (90s) to 11.8% (early 2000s), to reach an average difference of 12% on the points won with the second serve in the period 2010-2017.
Thinking back to what we observed in terms of percentage of points won on the first serve, we can assume that, in a best-of-five event, especially in the advanced stages of a match, players lose both brilliance and precision. It is therefore not surprising that the longer rallies, which start from a second and not from a first serve, end up determining the result of a match.

Starting from a first intuitive observation based on the evolution of playing styles, we have collected evidence that seems to support, in different forms, that the pattern suggested by intuition (the growing importance of the serve) is reflected in the data. Now let’s try to take a step back and, buoyed by this, ask ourselves: considering that more and more top players are focusing on their serve, is this shot assuming an increasing importance even in matches between Top 10 players

THE TOP 10

Picture 4. Average difference in terms of ace (top) and percentage of points won on the first and second serves (bottom) between a top 10 winner and loser

By examining picture 4, it can be noticed how the evolution of the role of the serve seems to be characterised in a different way, at least in the last three decades, in matches between Top 10 players. As for the difference in terms of aces between winners and losers, we witnessed a growth in the early 2000s, followed by a marked decrease in the period 2010-17.

It is also worth noting how the average values ​​associated with Top 10 matches are higher than the average values, ​​considering all the matches in the first two decades. In other words: in the 1990s and in the early 2000s, the difference in terms of aces between winner and loser in a Top 10 match was on average twice as much as the difference between aces in any other match. Between 2011 and 2017, however, the difference for the Top 10 is less than half of that associated with a generic match. The statistics relating to the points won on the first and on the second serve confirm this. The first serve becomes almost a “must have” at a high level and, for this reason, it cannot be the shot that “makes the difference” – because everybody has it.

The percentage of points won with the first serve grew from 8.1% in the 1990s to 9% in the early 2000s, then decreased to 8.5% in the year 2010-2017. On the contrary, the performance with the second serve grew in both decades, with an acceleration in the last analysed timespan. On average, we move from a 9% difference in the 90s to a 9.9% difference between 2000 and 2009. Then we reach an 11.8% difference between 2010 and 2017. We would therefore conclude that the serve has become a sort of business card to be presented at the entrance of the club of the best players in the world: a shot that cannot be ignored but that is not enough to beat the opponents, and thus to conquer Grand Slams et similia.

Let’s now try to verify this hypothesis once again by recalculating the statistics about the effectiveness of the serve, this time making a distinction between surfaces. In other words, let’s try to answer this question: is what we have deduced valid both on grass, on hard, and on clay?

GRASS, HARD AND CLAY

Picture 5. Average difference in aces between winner and loser, distribution by surface

By observing the trend of the difference in aces between winner and loser by surface, we observe how the gap between clay and hard court is roughly constant. This would raise more doubts over the theory according to which surfaces tend to be more and more alike over the last few years. There is a dissonant dynamic with regards to grass, in contrast with the other surfaces and the global average analyzed in section 2. In this regard, it can be observed that there are fewer and fewer serve & volley players, even on grass. In this sense, therefore, we can imagine that even a mediocre server will look to hit an ace when he hits the first serve on that surface. Consequently, he won’t want or need to end the point at the net. Due to the decreasing frequency of net approaches, the service box, especially in the final rounds of the tournaments, tends to return higher speeds than the baseline, an area where the grass is worn out and thus slower. Hitting a very fast first serve and going for an ace can therefore be the way to go for many players. It should also be noted, however, that even during the last period covered the difference in aces, in absolute terms, is greater on grass than on hard and clay, despite a downward trend.

Picture 6. Average difference in terms of points won on the first between winner and loser, distribution by surface

Considering the average difference in terms of percentage of points won with the first serve, and making a distinction not only by period but also by surface, we observe a different trend. On grass and on clay, the gap tends to grow (particularly on clay, from the 1990s to the first years of 2000s), while for hardcourts the statistics are more or less stable, with a slight decline in the early 2000s followed by a small increase starting in 2010. Perhaps it is the statistics about the clay that deserve specific reflection. While trying to analyse this growth, we can reflect on the fact that the early 2000s marked the success of players on clay courts (apart from Nadal) who make the power of their shots a winning card. The dirt aficionado, therefore, is no longer a Sergi Bruguera or a Thomas Muster, who were pure pushers, but rather players who attacks from the baseline: from this point of view, we can just recall the remarkable results of Wawrinka, or even of Federer himself. In this sense, therefore, even if the surface tends to reduce the number of direct points with the serve, it can be understood how these players end up creating a gap between themselves and the opposition in terms of percentage of points won with the first serve.

Picture 7. Average difference in terms of points won on the second between winner and loser, distribution by surface

The difference in terms of points won on the second serve shows similar trends between the three surfaces. In all three periods considered, the greatest difference is on clay, followed by hard and grass. Grass is experiencing a significant growth (from 9.7% to 11.2%) from the early 2000s, perhaps due to the fact that more and more players, even on grass, play from the baseline.

Given all the previous considerations, it could perhaps be observed that, at least starting from the early 2000s, despite the growing importance of the serve, the greatest difference between winner and loser is in terms of percentage of points won on the second serve, and not on the first one. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in Top 10 matches. This is what the data are telling us. However, we should try not to receive them like a verdict, but rather to interpret them like a story. As Dostoevsky recalled in Crime and Punishment, “Facts are not everything – at least half the business lies in how you interpret them.”

Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Luca Rossi; edited by Tommaso Villa

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The Other Side of Press Conferences

American author and journalist Mike Mewshaw gives his take on the controversy that surfaced at this year’s French Open

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After Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, the debate about press conferences keeps cropping up.  Pressers have been analyzed from more angles than Rafa’s forehand or Serena’s backhand.  Players, both active and retired, have weighed in with their opinions, along with coaches and sports therapists.  The consensus is that tennis reporters are insensitive, disrespectful, sexist, racist, and eager to provoke controversy.

 

The constant threat of illness, the absence of fans, the isolation, and loss of income has certainly added to impatience with reporters.  Venus Williams tartly suggested she maintained her composure during interviews by realizing she could beat any hack in the room; none of them could hold a candle to her. 

But this sort of disrespect runs in both directions.  While players view reporters as pesky publicity machines, at best, or gossip-hounds at worst, some journalists regard players as spoiled high school dropouts who couldn’t write a grammatically correct paragraph if their endorsement contracts depended on it. With all due deference to Naomi Osaka, I would urge her and her colleagues on the ATP and WTA tours to view things from a different perspective.  The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the press just as it has on them.  Plenty of tennis reporters have lost their jobs.  Almost all of them earn less income.  They face the same risks of infection and submit to enough Covid tests to leave them as red-nosed as Rudolph.

Under the circumstances, reporters who travel the tour, along with those covering matches remotely from their basements, have done a creditable job.  Sure, they sometimes sound testy, just as the players do.  Of course their questions can be repetitious, just as the players answers can be. 

Over the past four decades, I’ve covered more press conferences than I now have white hairs on my head.  I’ve heard racist comments, sexist remarks and massively insulting accusations.  But more often than not, the putdowns were aimed at reporters or at other players.  In the old days, these seldom made it into newspapers, and the really offensive quotes and admissions of rule breaking were deleted from press conference transcripts.  In that politically incorrect era, Arthur Ashe, for instance, came in for a raft of prejudice.  Ilie Nastase openly referred to him as negroni.

Although it’s now largely forgotten, Billie Jean King’s sexuality was accepted by the press long before many on the women’s tour spoke up in her defense.  While male journalists can be appallingly insensitive—Italian Hall of Fame journalist Gianni Clerici used to print Steffi Graf’s menstrual cycle in La Repubblica—it would be difficult to find anything less “woke” than Martina Hingis’ description of Amélie Mauresmo as a “half-man” who “travels with her girlfriend.”  Or Lindsay Davenport’s comment after Mauresmo beat her, “I thought I was playing a guy.”

Predictably, both women walked back these quotes, accusing the press of taking their words out of context.  That’s an ancient canard on the circuit—shoot off your mouth, then claim you were misquoted.  I remember Buster Mottram, then the British Number One, complaining about rowdy fans in Rome, accusing Italians of being animals.  At his next press conference he carefully parsed the remark.  Suddenly the voice of reason, he observed that human beings were all, anthropologically speaking, animals. 

If Buster had won a few majors, his quotes might have been immortalized, like Andre Agassi’s wisecrack at the French Open, “I’m happy as a faggot in a submarine.”  That line made the list of Esquire Magazine’s annual Dubious Achievement Awards. 

John McEnroe’s infamously objectionable conference quotes could only be contained on a wall as vast as the Vietnam War Memorial.  Even if one had the space and energy to chisel them in stone, many would have to be bowdlerized.  One that barely passes the censor’s blue pencil is his barbarous backhand at a female reporter who had the impertinence to question him.  “Lady, you need to get laid.”

In some cases actions speak louder and more loathsome than words.  After a match in Milan, a local female journalist asked Jimmy Connors, “Why do you always touch yourself in a particular place?”  Jimmy shoved a hand down his shorts and gave his genitals a good shake.  “It feels good.  You should try it.”

To repeat, I empathize with Naomi Osaka’s aversion to press conferences.  More than she might imagine I agree that they can be frustrating, stress producing, depressing, and borderline transgressive.  I accept the sage advice of deep-think editorials and socially conscious scribes that reporters need to raise the level of their game.  But so do players who could profit from sensitivity training, anger management, and basic etiquette lessons.  With mutual respect for all those who share a rough road toward an uncertain future, the tour could become a better place for everybody.


Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, among them AD IN AD OUT, a collection of his tennis articles, now available as an e-book.

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French Open, Steve Flink: “The Third Set of the Semifinal Was the Best in the Djokovic-Nadal Rivalry”

A final recap on the Parisian Major. Can Djokovic clinch a calendar year Grand Slam? Krejcikova’s double win and Zverev’s shortcomings

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The 2021 French Open was one for the history books, with countless historical milestones and topics. Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta and Steve Flink have summed it all up, touching on Novak Djokovic’s three comebacks and the interruption to Rafa Nadal’s Roland Garros reign, while keeping an eye on the upcoming Championships at Wimbledon. Here’s their chat:  

 

VIDEO SCHEDULE

1:14 – On the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal: “The third set was the best in their rivalry, and even Djokovic highlighted this match as one of the best he has played at the French Open.”

4:40 – “I thought that whoever won the third set tie-breaker would have won the match, although Nadal came out strong at the beginning of the fourth, before running out of gas…” Was the Spaniard uncharacteristically dispirited?

08:40 – Can Djokovic win all four Majors like Rod Laver did in 1969, becoming the only man in the Open Era to complete a Calendar Grand Slam?

09:40 – On the final against Tsitsipas: “That break of serve in the third set really changed the tide for good…”

11:50 – “There were two Novaks in this tournament…”

17:00 – “The Serbian will remember this win as one of his best, both because of his win against Nadal and because of his comebacks against Musetti and Tsitsipas.”

18:50 – Djokovic was criticised for his behaviour during the match against Berrettini – are the media and the fans too tough on him?

24:45 – On Zverev vs Tsitsipas: “Had the German broken in the opening game of the decider, it would have been him facing Djokovic on Sunday.”

26:00 – “Zverev can’t really expect to beat someone like Tsitsipas after failing to show up for two sets, he needs to work on the mental aspect of his game.”

28:20 – Again on Djokovic and the Grand Slam. He’s been here before, in 2016: can he go all the way this time?

34:45 – The women’s tournament: “The Krejcikova-Pavlyuchekova final was a good match, the Czech player should be proud of what she has achieved.”

Transcript by Giuseppe Di Paola; translated and edited by Tommaso Villa

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