Chaos Theory

Have Roger Federer’s difficulties thrown the tour into chaos?

Early in the 20th Century, Henri Poincare discovered that a small perturbation – a small change in a system – can lead to chaos which is characterized by random behavior. A few people on this site wondered if Roger Federer’s difficulties have caused a ripple effect on the ATP tour leading to unpredictable events. I wondered if players are feeling additional pressure because now they are expected to excel whereas before they had a built in excuse: if they didn’t win a tournament, who could blame them because Federer always won.

Two weeks ago, Andy Roddick won the tournament in Dubai and beat the number 2 and 3 ranked players in the process then lost his first match in Indian Wells. Mardy Fish got to the final in Indian Wells and lost his first match in Miami. Novak Djokovic won the title in Indian Wells and he lost his first match in Miami too. We just finished the round of 64 at Miami and already David Ferrer, Andy Murray, Tommy Robredo, and Richard Gasquet are gone.

Djokovic’s loss is a big deal because he won the title in Miami last year and he had a chance to catch up with Rafael Nadal at the end of the clay court season if he did well at Miami and earned a lot of points on clay, but now he’ll lose valuable points. Nadal himself has to win all of the clay court tournaments he enters except Hamburg where he needs to reach the final else he’ll lose points. Federer is not as dead as we may have thought.

Federer started his Miami journey with a match against Gael Monfils. Monfils got an absolute sitter right on top of the net in the first set. He smashed it hard but the ball bounced right near Federer who stuck out his racket and bunted the ball over Monfils’ head right onto the baseline. Monfils couldn’t get the ball back.

Monfils is like a bounding Bambi. At one point he attempted a jump backhand while running from one side of the court to the other and another point had him doing a cartwheel in an attempt to reverse direction. You’ll also see him sliding and flailing and falling. When was the last time you saw, oh let’s say, David Nalbandian, lying flat on his stomach on the court as Monfils was today? He’s a bounding, boisterous youngster with a youngster’s typical lack of direction.

He should be peaking with his good friend Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and here he is ranked in the 60’s when he was, at one time, in the low 20’s. He changes coaches more often than Andy Murray. In the last two years he moved from Thierry Champion to Pier Gauthier to Tarik Benhabiles then back to Champion – there may have been a few more I don’t know about – and his ranking has gone back and forth between the 70’s and the 30’s. He didn’t play badly but he lost in straight sets to Federer by the score of 6-3, 6-4.

When I was in Indian Wells last week, the organizers of the tournament explained that they switched from ESPN to Fox Sports because ESPN would only give them eight hours of live coverage and four hours tape delayed total – the men’s semifinals would have been broadcast at 3am. That’s looking pretty good at the moment. Fox Sports substituted hockey for tennis today and the Tennis Channel broadcast the Federer match then switched to an interview with Mats Wilander instead of giving us two full hours of tennis.

The announcers, Doug Adler and Robbie Koenig, also couldn’t pronounce Monfils’ name. The correct pronunciation is “Monfees” but they preferred “Monfee” which would incorrect even if the name did not have an irregular pronunciation. It shouldn’t be so hard you know, every other word in English is irregular. The announcers did help out in one way. One of them had a conversation with Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, who lamented the fact that everyone thinks Federer is losing it. According to Godsick, Federer is not losing it, he’s just a step slow because he’s been ill.

When Federer lost to Mardy Fish in Indian Wells, the measurement was probably closer to two or three steps but his point is well taken. For all the mental aspects of Federer’s game we could talk about, his most important asset is his movement. His smooth moves get him into position to run around his backhand and give him time to choose which shot he wants to use.

Why don’t other players have as many shots as Federer does? Andy Murray has the variety but not the power and most players have the typical threesome: power forehand, power backhand, and backhand slice. (I’m ignoring Fabrice Santoro because no matter how diverse his game, he has yet to make it to a Masters Series final let alone win one of those things and I’m talking about baseline shots here.) Players may change the speed of their shots and the arc and move the ball around, and Nadal, for sure, flattens his ball out for hard court and grass, but few players change the spin on their ball throughout a match as Federer does and few players use such a variety of slices.

Fish put it this way after beating Federer last week:

He just puts so much topspin on it and he can flatten it out and he can spin it. Nadal has a spinny forehand like that, as well. He always spins it and it’s always heavy. Roger can flatten it out. You have no clue where he’s hitting it. He can pull it up the line on you as quick as he can hit it inside out.

Are players lazy? Are they keeping their game simple to insure proper execution under stressful conditions such as a third set tiebreaker in a Masters Series final? I’m gonna say that movement is part of the issue here. If you want to play with a variety of shots and spins, you need early preparation and that means superior movement. There’s lot of quick players on tour but it’s not just an issue of speed.

David Ferrer is quick but that doesn’t make him a good mover. A good mover is balletic and nimble and that does not describe Ferrer. It doesn’t describe many players. Instead of working at gym, players could be working at the barre if there weren’t such a stigma attached to ballet because agile feet will save you a lot of time. Monfils is quick and he’s rubbery, but he doesn’t get to balls in any way that could be described as graceful. Pete Sampras was graceful and Tsonga fits the description too and that’s one reason they’re such a joy to watch.

Who’s the most graceful player you’ve ever seen in the tennis world?

The drawback with lots of spins and shots is the simplicity factor I mentioned above. When your game goes off, it’s harder to get back and Federer is having trouble re-establishing his rhythm. He looked pretty good against Monfils today and he spent much more time at the net than usual. The way this tournament is shaking out, the chaos he seems to have kicked off may end up clearing the draw and going some distance to restoring the order we’ve become accustomed to. I’m not happy about that, I’m enjoying the chaos.

Dead Tennis Balls

Here’s a list of 50 great things you never knew you could do with a tennis ball. Can anyone add anything to the list besides unlocking your car when you’ve left your keys inside? Keep it clean, this is a G-rated blog.

I still didn’t get to rankings bonus points but I will because I think the ATP is going to reinstate them and they will affect the rankings as we know them today. Cheers, and if there’s anyone on site in Miami, check in.