Monthly Archives: August 2005

should racket technology be regulated?

Just before Frankie Rodriguez struck out Javier Lopez for the last out in a game between the Angels and Orioles last night, Miguel Tejada hit a grand slam to close the gap to 7-6. Like all major league baseball players, Tejada hit the grand slam with a wooden bat.

Miyamoto Musashi was a famous Samurai warrior who lived in seventeenth century Japan. He is the author of the martial arts treatise, The Book of Five Rings. His most famous fight came against Sasaki Kojiro in 1612. Kojiro was known for his bone crushing expertise with an exceptionally long sword. They agreed to fight on a small island called Funa jima. Musashi is said to have fashioned a fighting staff out of an oar on the boat ride over to the island and killed the famous swordfighter with one blow.

Wood is good enough for major league baseball players and victorious Samurai but tennis players wield rackets made of titanium, glass fibers, and carbon fibers among other materials. The United States Tennis Association limits racket length to 32 inches and racket width to 12.5 inches. The string surface is limited to 15.5 inches in length and 11.5 inches in width. That’s it. There are no regulations for racket material. You could make it out of flubber if you wanted to.

Composite rackets arrived in the 1980’s and have had a huge effect on the game. In the September issue of Tennis Magazine there is a table of statistics gauging the increase in service speed from 1989 to the present. In 1989, two male tennis pros could hit a serve over 130 mph. By 2004, one hundred and four could do it. Unlike baseball, we know that steroid use is not an issue. Nobody has been complaining about bulked up, bloated tennis players. Andy Roddick is probably one of the few tennis players weighing over two hundred pounds. We can blame the rackets.

Let’s look at two questions that could dictate a limit on racket power: do players suffer and does the game suffer?

Composite rackets are lighter but they are also much stiffer. When somebody smashes a heat seeking ground stroke at you with a Wilson Hyper Hammer racket, your body has to absorb a lot more force than one hit with a Spalding wooden racket. Since we know which racket players use, we should be able to look at the number of injuries and see whether they have increased with the power of the racket.

In 1989, two male tennis pros could hit a serve over 130 mph. By 2004, one hundred and four could do it.

In the women’s game, five of the top ten ranked players entered in the Rogers Cup event dropped out due to injury and the epidemic of injuries has been the hot subject all summer. The women seem to be suffering more than the men. Racket technology might contribute to this. Women are using the same rackets as men but they’re bodies are smaller and less muscular. The grueling tournament schedule might also be responsible. A study should be able to determine this since we know how many matches each player has played.

There has been a curious mix that has developed with the changes in racket technology. Players can serve the ball much harder but the power of the ground strokes has turned tennis into a culture of baseline players. In the quarterfinals of the Cincinnati Masters event last week, Olivier Rochus came to the net against Roger Federer on a hard hit approach shot only to see Federer hit a passing shot so hard that Rochus didn’t even have time to move towards the ball even though it wasn’t that far from him.

The Tennis Magazine article gives the following statistics for net approaches per ten points played: in 1997 it was 3.79 for men and 2.68 for women, in 2003 it was 2.82 and 1.82. That’s a 34% drop for men and a 47% drop for women. The bigger drop for women is evident in their game. We now have a bunch of Russian women players, four of the top ten players and ten in the top fifty, who stand at the baseline and hit cannons back and forth till they force their opponent into an error. It’s not just the Russians. Lindsay Davenport, Venus Willams and Serena Williams have the same game.

There is pressure in the men’s game to develop an all-round game because Roger Federer has won twenty-two straight tournament finals with his mix of superb ground strokes, movement and net play. Some players are adjusting their game to try to beat him. Roddick came to the net on every point he served in a tiebreaker with Lleyton Hewitt last week, for instance. But this is unlikely to have a significant effect on the game.

In the hard court final in Montreal two weeks ago between Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi, two noted ground strokers, fifty eight percent of the points ended with five or fewer strokes, twenty four percent ended with six to ten strokes and eighteen percent ended with more than twenty strokes.

More than half of the points ended with less than five strokes. This demonstrates the power of the serve. My tennis-playing friends suggest limiting the serve to one attempt and putting lets into play. It would improve the game by eliminating dead time and increase the action by lengthening rallies. Of course, players would probably want to look at four or five balls before each serve instead of the three they now insist on examining, mainly to take time to recover between points.

Limiting the speed of the ball is the better option. If the power of the racket was limited, skill in different strokes would become more valuable. We’d see a more complete player on the court. The PGA has been limiting the speed that a driver can hit a golf ball for some time. The USTA doesn’t have to regulate racket material, only the power a racket generates.

The game does appear to be suffering. The women’s game is suffering from a high incidence of injury and the pro tour in general suffers from a lack of all-court players that leads to a predictable, sometimes boring baseline game.

When was the last rules change in pro singles tennis? O.k., they did join the World Anti-Doping Agency and eliminate the sit down after the first game in each set. But other sports make rules changes every year. Tennis needs to join the crowd.

Roddick and Mauresmo – mental relativity

Today we’re going to look at the end of the Andy Roddick – Lleyton Hewitt semifinal at the Cincinnati Masters event and see if Hewitt manages to get under Roddick’s skin and beat him in yet another semifinal. Then we are going to look at the Amelie Mauresmo – Justine Henin-Hardenne semifinal in Toronto. What happens when one of the mentally toughest players on the tour, Henin-Hardenne, plays the more mentally fragile Mauresmo? To say that Mauresmo is mentally fragile is a relative statement. Relative to Justine Henin-Hardenne, 98% of the population is mentally fragile. I get nervous every time I get the lead in a match.

Roddick is a very gracious competitor. His former coach, Brad Gilbert, didn’t like Roddick’s habit of applauding his opponent’s good shots. Hewitt can be a jerk. If you get annoyed when he celebrates your errors, and who wouldn’t, he’ll get combative and celebrate more. Hewitt uses his emotions to push himself to fight harder. Roddick’s emotions derail him. If he gets a bad call or tangles with an obnoxious opponent, he gets frustrated.

We join Roddick and Hewitt with Roddick serving at 5-6, 15-15 to stay in the second set. Roddick has already won the first set 6-4.

One of Hewitt’s mental strengths is his relentlessness. He goes after everything that moves. Right away he gets an impossible pickup. Roddick chips and charges a low ball to the corner. Hewitt manages to get over to the ball then flick it up off the ground and past Roddick for a winner.

Roddick’s record against Hewitt is 1-6. Against Federer it’s 1-10. If he can’t add something to his game, those results will not change. When you can serve over 150 mph, one obvious tactic to try is attacking the net on your serve. Which is what Roddick does for the next three points to win the game and get to the tiebreaker.

Roddick continues his Pete Sampras imitation and comes in every point on his serve in the tiebreaker, including a serve and volley on second serve. He wins the tiebreaker and match, 6-4, 7-6(4).

Roddick’s new aggressiveness doesn’t work against Federer in the final, Federer will win his fourth Masters Series tournament of the year and take his first Cincinnati championship. But it’s a good development for Roddick. He has more game than Hewitt and should beat him most of the time. If he continues to develop the attacking part of his game, he’ll be a better match for Federer.

Relative to Justine Henin-Hardenne, 98% of the population is mentally fragile. I get nervous every time I get the lead in a match

Mauresmo is the defending champion and loves to play in Canada. Well, Montreal anyway. She’s won this tournament twice when it was in Montreal. Henin-Hardenne has won four of the six tournaments she’s entered this year including her fourth grand slam title at the French Open. This should be a good match.

Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne have the best one-handed backhands in the game are also two of the best shotmakers. They throw high loopers, flat angled shots and slices at each other and come to the net four time between them in the first game alone. Mauresmo is the first one to crack. She hits a load of errors and loses her second service game at love to go down 1-2.

Henin-Hardenne is an aggressive player. She takes chances to go for winners and comes to the net at any opportunity. She is clearly here to win this match as soon as she can. Mauresmo is not as aggressive, relatively speaking. She stays back and hits more shots to the center of the court. It doesn’t help that she’s getting less than 50% of her first serves in.

Up 4-3, Henin-Hardenne lets a ball get away from her and gives Mauresmo a break point. Mauresmo then does something unusual. She moves way over to the center tee to challenge Henin-Hardenne’s favorite serve down the middle. Henin-Hardenne hits the serve right at Mauresmo. The ploy works, Henin-Hardenne hits another error to give the break back.

Serving at 5-5, Mauresemo is faced with a break point when she finally decides it would be a good time to come to the net only to be passed by a gorgeous backhand down the line. Henin-Hardenne serves out and wins the first set 7-5.

Mauresmo gives up a break in the first game of the second set as Henin-Hardenne picks up where she left off – going for winners. In the second game, Mauresmo should have let an overhead bounce. Instead, she hits it into the middle of the court and Henin-Hardenne returns it so hard that Mauresmo can only send it wide.

Then the momentum changes. Mauresmo increases her first serve percentage significantly and begins to take the net away from Henin-Hardenne who starts spraying forehands everywhere but the court. Mauresmo wins five straight games before Henin-Hardenne finally remembers what got her there and starts going for more winners and coming to the net again. You have to appreciate this. The net is not the easiest place for a 5’5” player to camp out and Henin-Hardenne is not that comfortable there but she’s willing to do whatever it takes to win.

Henin-Hardenne wins one more game before losing the second set, 3-6, but then Mauresmo completely falls apart. She loses the third set 1-6 winning her lone game on a break of serve. Mauresmo wins only half the points on her first serve and no points at all on her second serve.

In some sports competitions, the difference in score between second and first place can be very small, a tenth of a point in a gymnastics competition for instance. But the difference between first and second place can be huge because the first place finisher is a champion in their mind. They’ll do whatever it takes to win.

Mauresmo is ranked number three in the world but the distance between her and the number one ranked players is at least as big as the distance between Roddick and Federer.

more drug hysteria

A man named Serge called in to Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton’s sports radio show yesterday and actually supported the use of marijuana. Serge was calling about Randy Moss’s interview with Bryant Gumbel on HBO because he wanted to express his solidarity. Moss admitted using marijuana since he has been in the National Football League and said that he uses it “once in a blue moon”. His agent immediately when into spin mode by calling HBO a dying network and insisting that Moss was talking about his past but, of course, his client was talking about past and current habits.

Hacksaw (where does that name come from?) asked Serge the usual question: “What if your children saw you smoking marijuana? Do you want them to do what you do?” I find this amusing. Most sports show hosts have at least three flat screen televisions lined up in their den so they can sit back and watch all the games simultaneously and throw back a few beers. Serving beer to minors is illegal. Alcohol can be addictive. In 2002 there were 150,000 A.A. groups in 150 countries. Do you want your children to grow up and do alcohol?

Hacksaw then asked the other common question about marijuana. “Doesn’t marijuana lead to taking other drugs?” The better question might be: “Is marijuana addictive?” A 1999 study of medicine and marijuana by the Institute of Medicine, an affiliate of The National Academy of Sciences, found that marijuana users were forty percent less likely to become dependent than alcohol users.

A 1999 study of medicine and marijuana by the Institute of Medicine, an affiliate of The National Academy of Sciences, found that marijuana users were forty percent less likely to become dependent than alcohol users.

This is a tough time for marijuana users. Marijuana has medical benefits for certain medical conditions. Californians can obtain marijuana legally to deal with such problems as nausea, dizziness and migraine headaches. One of the ways they distribute marijuna to patients is by giving them marijuana chocolate bars. How great is that? And yet the Supreme Court ruled that federal anti-drug laws overrule state anti-drug laws effectively ending California’s medical marijuana program. It seems that state’s rights are more important at the moment unless the issue is drugs. Then it’s important to take away state’s rights.

Research into the benefits and dangers of steroids has been limited because of anti-drug laws banning steroids. There has been a lot of research into marijuana, though, because of it’s medical benefits. Even if you don’t think marijuana should be legalized, taking it away from medical patients seems punitive if not just plain crazy.

I bet there are a lot of quiet, non-controversial NFL players who are very pissed off at Randy Moss right now. They’ve been kicking back and toking up in the off-season with no fears because the league tests for marijuana in-season only. After Moss’ interview, the league, and even congress the way they’ve been going, might decide to expand testing to off-season.

It seems silly for Moss to bring attention to an illegal activity he indulges in when he’s tested positive before, though he’s never been suspended from the league. Why tempt fate? I can’t help but think that Randy was tired of Terrell Owens taking up all the attention and wanted to direct some of it his way.

Federer and Rochus – bored in Cincinnati

Randy Moss smokes marijuana. That’s a big surprise. Terrell Owens wants a new contract one year after signing it and threatens to be a very unhappy teammate if his demands are not met. Another surprise. One thing you can say about the National Football League: things are never dull when you have Moss and T.O. to kick around.

Here at the ATP, we have racket-throwing fits by Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt’s rudeness and the ongoing reality show that is Venus and Serena. We’ve had some two-year suspensions for steroid use and the usual lame denials that accompany them. Altogether pretty boring. Boris Becker is not in trouble with the German tax authorities or off on another sexual escapade. Even Roscoe Tanner has returned to California to deal with an arrest warrant for back payment of child support.

The only controversy here is the epidemic of injuries and calls for a lighter tournament schedule. I wanted to weigh in at the Rogers Cup women’s event in Toronto but Maria Sharapova, Serena and Venus Williams, Mary Pierce and Lindsay Davenport have dropped out due to injury and Svetlana Kuznetsova lost a match because her back is hurt. Amelie Mauresmo is still around. Pat Davis, the co-writer of this column, and I will be spending a few days discussing her psyche. That should be entertaining.

The men of the ATP are in Cincinatti this week and the field is so loaded that the semis will probably look like a grand slam. Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Roger Federer and Marat Safin are through to the quarterfinals. Robbie Ginepri is still ascending, he’s playing Safin in the quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal finally ran out of gas and lost to Tomas Berdych in the first round. The last time we heard from Berdych he was knocking Federer out of the 2004 Olympics.

I’m not the maternal type but I do worry about Nadal. I worry that he will wear himself out and have an immensely successful but short career. Nadal gets a lot of wear and tear running around like he does and all those championship Sundays on clay take a toll. Nadal’s game is not like Federer’s. Federer is a smooth mover with classical strokes. Nadal runs hard all over the place and uses extreme spin.

Boris Becker is not in trouble with the German tax authorities or off on another sexual escapade. Even Roscoe Tanner has returned to California to deal with an arrest warrant for back payment of child support.

I couldn’t track down footage of Nadal’s loss so tonight we are checking in with Federer. This is his first tournament since Wimbledon and he’s had his problems so far. He started off slowly against Blake – he swung at a ball and hit it with the bottom of his racket at one point – and lost the first set to Nicolas Kiefer.

His opponent is Olivier Rochus, the diminutive but very effective Belgian. I don’t mean to make his size a big deal but I can’t help it. He’s only got an inch and a half on me. At five foot five, he’s the shortest guy on the tour.

Both players have one-handed backhands. Thanks heavens there are still some graceful backhand strokes on tour. Rochus covers the court very well, hits hard, steady ground strokes and has a good second serve. O.k., more about height. Earlier this year Rochus beat Ivo Karlic, he is six foot ten, without losing serve. Not only that but Rochus’ listed height of five foot five is wishful thinking according to most observers. There is hope for us short people.

Winner, ace, winner, ace – that’s the tally for Federer’s first game. He’s not starting slowly tonight. He doesn’t lose a point in his first three service games. He’s not a grinder, he depends on rhythm, and he’s trying to find it here before defending his US Open title.

With Rochus serving at 3-4, Federer starts to find his forehand at the same time that Rochus gets a bit sloppy. Rochus hits a ball long then double faults to go down a break at 3-5. Federer hits another ace on set point and finishes the first set with fifteen winners to one for Rochus.

Most of the winners are aces and service winners and herein lies the two-fold problem facing shorter people in the game of tennis. Rochus’ serve is not as powerful as Roddick and Federer because he has to hit up on the ball more. My martial arts teacher once told the tallest and shortest person in the room to sit down on the floor side by side. He was showing us that the difference between short and tall people is usually the length of their limbs, not their torso. Rochus’ limbs are not as long as other players so he is at a disadvantage on service returns when reaching for serves hit wide and down the middle.

Federer seems to increase his approaches to the net with each tournament he plays. At 1-1 in the second set, he hits a backhand slice off a second serve and comes to the net but Rochus is too good, he passes him. Federer tries it again two points later and this time Rochus doesn’t get by him. Federer lunges for the volley at the net and Rochus drives him back with a lob but Federer comes in on the next stroke yet again and hits an inside out forehand winner to get a break point. Another good inside out forehand gets Federer his second break of the match. That’s all he’ll need.

You can see Federer’s movement and court vision return as the match progresses. In the next game, he hits a high looper to Rochus’ backhand side. That is the hardest shot for us short people and Rochus hits it long. Later in the game, Rochus hits a hard approach shot only to see Federer return it harder. Rochus didn’t have time to make a move toward the ball even though it wasn’t that far from him. After the point, he stands at the net, shakes his head then walks back to the baseline. What can you do?

Federer wins the match, 6-3, 6-4. After more than a month off, he’s almost back to Federer form after only three matches.

I feel privileged to watch Roger Federer play tennis. He is a once in a lifetime player. I love Nadal’s passion for the game. I enjoy watching Hewitt mess with Roddick’s mind. And I don’t want Terrell Owens to take up tennis tomorrow or see the second coming of John McEnroe’s temperament. It’s just that I don’t see a lot of individuality on the tour today. There are precious few psyches worth investigating and there is only so much wonderful tennis to report before I find myself looking for something more. Something different.

Rogers Cup Montreal – the Legend and the Kid

So far there this year there have been six ATP Masters events. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have won all of them. Nadal has won three, all of on clay. Federer has won one on clay and two on hard courts. Including the improbable comeback win from two sets down to Nadal at the Nasdaq 100 in Miami.

Federer is still nursing sore feet, he is playing in the next tournament in Cincinnati, and Andy Roddick lost to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round. That opened up the draw for Andre Agassi who is playing Nadal in the final here in Montreal at the Rogers Cup Masters.

Agassi left the tour for eight weeks after the French Open with an inflamed nerve – sciatica to us recreational tennis players who are only too familiar with it – and returned to win the Mercedes Benz Cup tournament in Los Angeles. He was the only top 25 ranked player in that tournament but here in Montreal, there are a lot of ranked players and here he is in the final again. It’s similar to Roger Clemens who is 43 years old and he has a 1.32 earned run average for the Houston Astros. Unbelievable. It’s not unheard of in tennis. Jimmy Conners won his last grand slam at age 30 but he kicked up a storm with a string of improbable come-from-behind matches and made it to the semis at the US Open at the age of 39. In today’s game, players drop like flies due to injury or weariness at a much earlier age. Sometimes they just disappear one day (Bjorn Borg) or retire and become poker players (Yevgeny Kafelnikov).

Agassi has not been able to beat Federer. Can he beat Nadal in their first ever meeting? Better that he meet Nadal on a hardcourt than on clay but Nadal’s ball is bouncing high on these courts and that’s a problem because Agassi will need to step inside the baseline and take the ball on the rise to give the speedy Nadal less time to track down the ball.

The stadium is full again and everyone is up to give A.A. a standing ovation before the match even starts. Agassi was never a run of the mill player, he started out as a flashy long haired guy with a superficial image and grew into a legend, but I’m sure he would be happier if people just expected him to be in the final instead of applauding him for doing it.

Besides winning all of those tournaments on clay, Nadal has been improving his game. His serve is stronger and, while not overpowering, the spin and placement make it very hard to read. His ground strokes still kick up very high but now they land deeper in the court.

Agassi starts out by attacking Nadal’s backhand and running him side to side but Nadal is so quick he gets to everything. Agassi makes enough errors trying to play keep-away that he gives up a break in the fourth game.

Nadal is able to transform his transcendent clay court game to the hard court because he’s so good at turning defense into offense. He covers the court so well that even if you do run him wide, he gets to the ball soon enough to wind up and hit a sharp crosscourt shot or down the line winner. He holds onto the break to win the first set 6-3.

He plays one set with a guy he’s never played before then he gets an opportunity to sit down with his coach for an hour to review his strategy and make adjustments.

Montreal weather now gives Agassi a break and starts raining heavily. How perfect is that? He plays one set with a guy he’s never played before then he gets an opportunity to sit down with his coach for an hour to review his strategy and make adjustments. Here’s how the conversation could have gone: “O.k., Andre, your first serve is working well but you won only 30% of your second serves and you’re having trouble with high bouncing balls to your backhand. Keep doing what you’re doing but come to the net more to cut off those very annoying topspin kickers.”

And that is what he does. He continues to serve well but he attacks the net more, even sneaking in at times. Nadal feels the pressure and hits two net chords and two errors in the sixth game to give Agassi two break points. Nadal recovers to win the game but the momentum is changing. On his next service game Nadal has to hit a spectacular shot to win the game. He runs all the way to the opposite side of the court to get to a volley hit into the corner and hits a running forehand winner down the line that Agassi is guarding. Agassi has to smile about that.

With Nadal serving at 4-5, the pressure finally pays off. Nadal hits errors and Agassi wins the second set, 6-4, and evens the match.

Each player has taken a set and now they settle in for a battle. With Agassi serving at 1-1, they slam balls at each other as hard as they can for twenty strokes as Nadal runs from side to side and Agassi short hops the ball until Nadal ends it with a hard shot down the line. After an Agassi double fault and another Nadal winner at the end of an even longer rally, Agassi is broken.

Serving at 1-3, Agassi hits a crosscourt shot at such a sharp angle that Nadal has to run out of the court to run around his backhand and hit down the line. Agassi puts up a lob and Nadal manages to twist and reach back for an overhead. Agassi gets to the ball then approaches and hits a drop volley at an even sharper angle to end the point. But Agassi serves up another double fault and Nadal rattles him by taking a long time in between serves to get his breath. The Kid is smart. Agassi wins only two points in the game and goes down a second break.

Even smarter, Nadal tightens up his service game by repeatedly serving Agassi wide then hitting winners into the open court. He loses only four points on his serve in the deciding set and wins the match, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.

Agassi threw everything but the kitchen sink at Nadal and Agassi is the one who’s sore. His back is hurting again after the match and he pulls out of the tournament in Cincinnati. Doesn’t that just piss you off? You run the other guy into the ground and you’re the one who’s hurting.

Nadal is not a serve and volleyer and he doesn’t have all of Federer’s shots, but he has more game than anyone else but Federer. Marat Safin has shown that he can beat Federer but Nadal would probably test Safin’s patience with his defense. I’m looking forward to another five set final between Federer and Nadal, this time at the US Open.