Monthly Archives: October 2006

We’ll Always Have Paris, Yes No Maybe?

Some of us may have Paris, the rest of us will be down to the scrapings of Paris as we rummage around in the nether regions of the draw, trying to round up a few good men for our Fantasy Tennis league that we have not used up yet. Or squandered, if you prefer.

This week we are shuffling through more unknown quantities than usual because most of the Top Ten has already pulled out. Gone are Ljubicic, Roddick, Baghdatis, Nalbandian, Nadal. Roger Federer was the last to decide he would bail. He apologized profusely. He’s that kind of guy. So did Nadal. So much for Paris, Humphrey. This week they couldn’t give her away. I would have thought Madrid last week would see a few withdrawals, not Paris. Wouldn’t you rather play in the latter than the former? I would, but then I’m one of those disgusting Californians who prefers French over California wines, so sue me.

Now we are getting acquainted with the likes of Robin Soderling, Stanislas Wawrinka and Marc Gicquel. What, you say bells of recognition aren’t ringing in your head yet? Actually there is no reason they couldn’t become familiar names in tennis. Soderling has steadily been showing up in the middle rounds of events lately, Gicquel made it to his first final last week even though he lost, and Wawrinka seems inspired lately by the play of his co-Swiss Mr. Federer. Hell, I even went for Bjorn Phau last week. Mostly because I hoped anyone named Bjorn in the world of tennis would be a good luck charm. He’s not Swedish, though, he’s German. On second thought, I decided to insert Henman in his place but missed the deadline. Bjorn it had to be. Until he exited of course, in the very first round.

Necessity therefore moved into the Fantasy selection process this week. I found I had only three somewhat big names I could still pick: Djokovic, Murray and Gasquet. I picked them as my main courses. Around them are a few tasty little appetizer sorts, namely Grosjean, Almagro, Mirnyi, Verdasco and Safin. As of Monday, Mirnyi and Verdasco were already gone. Almagro barely survived a squeaker with Bjorkman. (Today, Tuesday, Almagro had to retire from his match with Tursunov).

There are a good handful of Frenchmen in the draw but Gasquet is the only one I feel will get further along, and I would not necessarily bet my all on him. He’s in that corner of the draw where Wawrinka and Gicquel are playing; they face each other in the opening round. It will be interesting to see if Gicquel is still fired up after his success last week – and also whether he has enough stamina to make his way through the Paris draw. It could go either way. What the lesser ranked guys may possess in desire they may lack in stamina, simply because they usually aren’t around very long in most draws. (A close match, in which Wawrinka prevailed).

Some good rounds to watch for would be Gasquet facing Safin (I am still keen on Safin’s chances, as I question Gasquet’s consistency from week to week); Blake should get by Haas if they meet in the Round of 16; Djokovic (who can beat Robredo I think) will probably face Nieminen and beat him; Ginepri could face Berdych, assuming he can get by Ferrer and I think he can. (Ginepri beat Ferrer today).

The ATP Tour site apparently decided to add the Paris tournament to their online viewing package, so those of you without The Tennis Channel can probably see the Gonzalez-Ancic match this week. It will be a good one. I’ll get up at the crack of dawn for that one.

Fernando Gonzalez could have a shot at winning this tournament. He is probably salivating at the thought of making it into a final where the opponent won’t be named Roger, whom he has lost to in the last two weeks in finals at both Basel and Madrid, or Ljubicic, who beat him in the final in Vienna the week before that. Gonzalez has won 7 titles in his career, but never a Masters Series event. His appearance in three Masters finals in a row would suggest it’s high time he took home the trophy. He shows up week after week and he plays hard. Does he have enough energy to carry on through Paris? I hope so, the man has some heart.

A darker horse to pick to win all the marbles would be Safin. In fact, right now a Safin-Gonzalez final would be something to look forward to. Gonzalez has the edge in their duels, especially this year, having beaten the big Russian on all three surfaces. Just because Roger and Rafa aren’t here does not mean we are suffering a lack of good match-ups. The week may turn out to be more competitive than we think, as the players scramble around trying to seize the advantage in this event without the big names. Here’s your chance, guys, grab it!

2006 ATP Fantasy Tennis: Paris Masters

People left my house around 3am this morning after hanging onto the last gasp of our “Last Night at CBGB’s” Halloween party. CBGB’s was a legendary rock club in New York’s lower east side that recently closed. We had a few Joey Ramones and Andy Warhol turned up. Andy was a bit confused. He thought he was going to Club 54 but ended up at our party instead. Too many drugs poor guy.

My feet are killing me this morning and I can barely keep my eyes open. Worst of all, I woke up to my worst nightmare. I have a habit of forgetting to submit my team once I’ve written this column. Dumb, I know, but it means that I still had a Rafael Nadal, an Ivan Ljubicic, an Andy Roddick and a David Nalbandian to use in this very last week of the ATP fantasy tennis season. Alas, all four players are gone.

Ljubicic pulled out four days ago with a throat infection. Gimme a break, he’s already into the year-end tournament in Shanghai and doesn’t want to play. I don’t know what Nadal, Roddick and Nalbandian came up with as excuses.

Now you know. Never hold onto big players for the last tournament of the season.

Igor Andreev returns to the tour this week for the first time since April after having knee surgery. If I’d had knee surgery, I would not come back for the last tournament of the year against the best players in a Masters Series event. He hasn’t even played any challenger warmups. I hope he’s not coming back too early.

If Andy Murray can get by Paradorn Srichaphan, he can get to the quarterfinals. That’s not so easy, Srichaphan has two semifinals this fall and Murray hasn’t done anything. Still, Murray beat Srichaphan in Thailand last year in their only meeting so I’m picking Murray. Gael Monfils is lurking but that ankle looked so bad when he turned it at Madrid, I don’t see how he can play.

I also have Murray over Tomas Berdych but only because Berdych is defending a title here and he’s not shown me that he deals with such pressures very well.

How about adding trading capacity to the ATP fantasy league? Let’s say I decided to trade one Roddick for a Fernando Gonzalez earlier this season because I predicted that Larry Stefanki would push Gonzalez up the rankings. Of course I would have saved a few Roddicks for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but right now I’d be cleaning up because Gonzalez is playing well and Roddick is breaking down as he tends to do at the end of the year.

Which brings us to the biggest match of the tournament: Fernando Gonzalez versus Mario Ancic. Gonzalez is ninth in the race to Shanghai and Ancic is tenth. There are only eight spots available. Tommy Robredo is in the eighth spot and I have him going out to Sebastien Grosjean so this match is very important. Ancic won the title in St. Peterburg this week but Gonzalez has been to three straight finals. I’m going with Gonzalez.

If Gonzalez and Nikolay Davydenko meet in the quarterfinals there’ll be a few interesting subtexts. Davydenko injured his foot last week in St. Petersburg and retired. If Davydenko gets to the quarterfinals, he gets into Shanghai. It’s to his advantage to get to the quarterfinals then quit or, at least, underplay, because he still has to play in Shanghai and after Shanghai, he’ll play in the Davis Cup final. We know Davydenko isn’t that concerned about Davis Cup because he played in Beijing the week before the semifinals and was too tired to play, but I doubt he’d put himself through a semifinal in Paris if it impaired his chances in Shanghai.

Therefore, even though Davydenko is 3-0 lifetime over Gonzalez, I’m going with Gonzalez.

I ignored home court advantage for Richard Gasquet last week – he won the title in Lyon – but I’m not doing it this week. If Marat Safin gets by Robin Soderling he’ll meet Gasquet in the third round. Even though Marat Safin is 3-0 over Gasquet, I’m going with Gasquet because Paris is in France and two of Safin’s wins were in 2002.

Gasquet versus James Blake is hard to pick because four of the Shanghai spots are up for grabs and Blake is currently in seventh place. By the time this match is played, Blake might already have a spot in Shanghai and let up enough mentally to give the match to Gasquet. Gasquet is 1-0 over Blake and I think Blake will have hit spot in Shanghai if he gets to the quarterfinals so I have Gasquet all the way to the final.

Don’t be shocked if Federer loses this final if he meets Gasquet. Federer had a very tough time with Srichaphan last week, he barely pulled the match out in a third set tiebreaker.

Zero Counter

Each week we add up the number of matches between players who’ve never played each other before in an attempt to explain why there aren’t many rivalries on the tour – players don’t meet each other enough – and also show that there are too many tournaments with too few top ranked players to go around.

This week 20% of the matches are Zero Counter matches. That’s the same result we got for the Madrid Masters. The lower tiered tournaments have been averaging 33% Zero Counter matches.

There is one egregious example this week: Fabrice Santoro and Fernando Gonzalez have never played each other despite a combined total of twenty-four years on the tour. That is absurd.


Top tier picks (not that anyone has any left, mind you): Federer, Novak Djokovic, Davydenko, Gonzalez, Berdych, Murray, Blake, Gasquet. Second tier picks: Safin, Ancic, Robbie Ginepri, Srichaphan, Tommy Haas, Sebastien Grosjean.

Creeping fantasy sports disease

I was flipping channels the other night when I happened to see the show Arli$$. The main character, Arliss Michaels, is a sports agent. In this particular episode, Arliss was so intent on winning his National League-only fantasy baseball league that he maneuvered a trade to send one of his real-life clients to the American League.

I could sell the grass-court naming rights to Miracle-Gro or maybe High Times magazine. Just think of it, the ATP High Times Grass Court Top 100.

I can relate to that. I’ve been waking up in the morning thinking of new statistical methods I can use to propel myself to the top of the ATP Fantasy Tennis Season next year. One morning I woke up wondering if I could predict grand slam winners by looking at players’ records in Masters Series events. Then I went further. What about looking at their Masters Series records on different surfaces? And how about a surface adjusted ranking (SAR)? Take the top 100 players, upload all of their ATP points on the five different surfaces, then create a separate top 100 for clay court, outdoor hard court, grass court and indoor hard court.

I could sell the naming rights to four top 100 rankings instead of just one. I could sell the grass-court naming rights to Miracle-Gro or maybe High Times magazine. Just think of it, the ATP High Times Grass Court Top 100.

Yes, I’m turning into a fantasy sport fanatic. I’m beginning to understand why fantasy gamers hire biomathematicians at NASA.

Another morning I woke up thinking that I should be able to develop an algorithm to pick my tennis fantasy team. To test it out, I could run it on every tournament this past year and see how much prize money it wins. (ATP fantasy tennis gamers are ranked by the amount of prize money their players win.) Isn’t there a computer program of some sort that can look at the variables in my algorithm, assign weight to their importance, then adjust the weights until my algorithm generates the maximum prize money?

Yes there is.

In the October 16th issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about a system that analyzes the scripts of big budget movies and predicts their gross income. The process involves using a computer program known as a neural network. The article also describes a neural network that predicts winners at the dog track using the same variables that greyhound experts use.

Now that I have CFSD (creeping fantasy sports disease), I want to do the same thing for my fantasy tennis team. My algorithm would mirror the process I already use to pick my fantasy team.

I start by picking winners in the draw of each tournament and that already presents a problem. There are thirty-one matches in a thirty-two player tournament and I have to pull up three web pages of statistics for each match. If there are three tournaments that week, that means I have to look at two hundred and seventy-three web pages. That’s totally ridiculous, it takes forever. What to do? I don’t need a biomathematician but I have contracted someone to write a screen scraper program. All I have to do is enter the names of the players and the program will go to the website and download all my data into one file.

Not only is my head now filled with arcane statistical possibilities, but everything I read goes through the CFSD filter. The ATP recently announced that thirteen tournaments will use the round robin format next season. That’s a problem for my algorithm. Each tournament has at least four qualifiers in the first round but when I pick the draw on Sunday morning, I don’t know who those qualifiers are because qualifying doesn’t finish till Sunday afternoon. Most of the time qualifiers lose in the first round and it’s not a big deal, but in a round-robin tournament every one plays at least twice so the qualifier will have a greater effect on the outcome. Also, if the tournament is a twenty-four player tournament, as some of the round robins are, qualifiers will be higher ranked players and that’ll make my predictions even less accurate.

I should be thinking about whether round-robin tournaments will increase the popularity of tennis. Tennis is losing traction in the U.S. ESPN dropped French Open coverage as of next year and though it’s been picked up by The Tennis Channel, it’ll reach far fewer households and viewers will have to pay extra to subscribe to the channel. Instead, I’m worrying about how round-robins will affect my algorithm and thinking of flying to Wisconsin at Christmas and freezing my patootie off just so I can hang out with my friend Billy and get help with this whole computer modeling thing.

I’m supposed to be a sports journalist and that means looking for a good story and showing the human side of sports. The subjects people really care about are the personalities, the drama and, let’s face it, the gossip.

Last week I wrote about a dustup between Mark Philippoussis and Nathan Healey at the Calabasas challenger. I got two email responses from the column. One woman wanted photos for her Philippoussis website and another was interested in pursuing the subject of sportsmanship in tennis. Nobody left me a message suggesting they were wowed by my statistical brilliance.

Two e-mails to zero. Maybe I should pay more attention to that statistic.

See also:
2006 ATP Fantasy Tennis: St. Petersburg, Lyon and Basel
2006 ATP Fantasy Tennis: Madrid Masters

A Constant Heart: Roger, Once Again

Seems like only yesterday when my co-writer Nina Rota and I were bubbling happily about the prospect of another Roger Nadal final in Madrid. After all, I reminded her, Roger had “only” Nalbandian to climb over while Rafa could face either Djokovic or Gonzalez once he got by Tomas Berdych. How hard could that be, said I, tra la la la. Harder than we think, said Mr. Berdych, who had other ideas in mind and proceeded to take down the Number Two seed Nadal in straight sets.

Not only did Berdych beat Nadal with a game as powerful from the baseline as his own, Berdych managed to tweak Nadal a bit in the personality department. Too bad for Nadal that Berdych did not make the finger to the lips gesture during the match, instead of over the hand-shake at the end; it might have fired Nadal up. As it was, he could only sullenly call Berdych a “bad boy” at the end for his silencing gesture.

I’m waiting for the day when more players are going to complain about all the time Nadal takes between points. Butt picking, line cleaning and taking his own sweet time is something one could legitimately rant about. Instead Berdych went after the crowd. Maybe Berdych is better suited to team sports; he would rather have hundreds of people on his case instead of just one opponent.

I did not have a problem with Berdych’s gesture. It’s just that he should be prepared for the heat that comes with a gesture like that. The crowd gave him some flame. So far Berdych doesn’t seem able to cash in that anger and turn it back into his game the way McEnroe did. He’s at the stage now where it just festers inside him and gets in the way of his winning matches.

Too bad, because the guy has a great-looking game and we have been waiting on his “arrival” for a while now. As Nina Rota pointed out in her piece, though, he wins a big match then slips back several notches. Consistency is still a stretch for Berdych. Mentally he is suspect; the guy has the look of a brooder about him. A choir boy in search of the proper choir for his talent to shine forth in. But he showed some real smooth power in his strokes against Nadal and his footwork is really nice for a guy who is nearly 6’6″. Smooth quick little steps that seem effortless. No wonder he’s touted as a more powerful version of Roger Federer. Now if only his head could catch up. Berdych became the 8th man to beat Nadal this year and the only one to have done it three times.

I felt absolutely crestfallen. Why can’t the second best player in the world get into more finals so he can give battle to the number one player? The person who was most disappointed, after me, was probably Federer himself. Just when he was starting to learn, at Wimbledon, how to break down Nadal’s game and give him a fit or two. Roger was probably eager as can be to lay further hands upon Nadal.

But Nadal has not materialized in a semi-final since Wimbledon. If this keeps up we may start to think, “Hhmmm, did that Federer win at Wimbledon get inside Rafa’s head a bit?” Does he want to see more Fed? Or would he rather lose to a motley crew like Moya, Berdych, Joachim Johansson, Youzhny, Ferrero, Blake and Clement before he gets to Federer? I am beginning to wonder.

Once again, dear readers, we get the typical Federer final which seems to occur a lot these days when the opponent is not named Nadal. Sunday the victim was Gonzalez, who has not played badly at all this year and may be our pick for the most improved player. But on this day Gonzo saw all his good efforts in the first set go for naught. He fell into the Federer threshing machine and the pattern goes like this: we race through the first set, both players are showing their stuff, it’s neck and neck until….well, usually it happens in a heartbeat.

In Gonzo’s case, it was a sitting forehand that he could not direct up the line for a winner. This would have given him game point at 5-6 in the first set. He wiggled out of that momentarily but a few points later Gonzalez dug more trouble for himself by attempting a backhand dropshot that didn’t drop enough, and Roger nailed it up the line for a winner. Then Roger got a second serve and put away an overhead for the only break and the set is his, 7-5.

After that, you see the air almost literally rush out of Federer’s opponents. Their spirit is crushed, the train now leaves the station and they may as well kiss the match goodbye. Gonzo seemed ready to battle on early in the second set, or maybe it was just his death throes. In any event, he snagged only one game in the second set before getting the bagel in the third.

For Gonzalez it was still a pretty decent day, even though his losing streak to the Fed now goes to 0 and 7. This was his first Masters Series final and it was about time, guy. He threw his all at Federer in the first set; the problem was doing it for five. The man has come a long way this year. He has lost weight but he could still lose a bit more. He has worked hard to tone down the brute force that seemed to come with every shot and he is picking up touch, which he showed on a number of forays to the net and in his use of drop shots. He has learned to make adjustments and hopefully now it will begin to pay off. See you in Shanghai, Gonzo.

As for Federer, he left the field in his dust. Sigh. Maybe Shanghai will provide us with that Roger-Rafa final we have been craving. But don’t count your chickens like I did. As the fall season wears on, it is clear now there is only one constant heart beating in the men’s game and it’s the man from Switzerland.

– – – – –

If you are deprived of the Tennis Channel because your cable provider does not provide it, or your satellite people can’t set up at your apartment or house, then the ATP Tour site has a nifty little viewing program you may want to check out. For about eight bucks a day you could have signed up to see the Madrid matches on your computer screen. No, really, it’s not as bad as you think. The worst part is getting up real early out here on the west coast to catch it live from overseas.

The viewing is not as clear as on TV, but it’s better than you think. Certainly better than I thought. I wasn’t sure how I would like sitting upright for hours at a desk viewing it. I am a tennis slut, and this week I really needed a good fix of something, so I was happy to try the system out. Periodically you have to refresh your screen to keep it large but not having commercials is really nice. And having Brit commentators is nice too because they have a long tradition of being laconic on the air. Much as I often love the non-stop commentary of Pat and Cliff and Mary and John and Jim, sometimes I just wish….they’d shut up already. Please.

See also:
2006 Madrid Quarterfinals: Is Berdych Better Than Nadal?

2006 Calabasas and Madrid

The Madrid semifinals, and final for that matter, were not interesting. I was more affected by the news that Chris Evert is divorcing her husband Andy Mill after eighteen years of marriage. It pains me when things change unexpectedly. Not that I would have known if the couple had been having problems. Last summer, two couples I know broke up when one member of each couple decided to fall in love with each other. I was the last to know and that was discomforting also.

The semifinals continued one of Madrid’s themes – bad crowd behavior. The crowd booed throughout Tomas Berdych’s first service game and increased the volume when he made a mistake. It wasn’t unexpected considering Berdych kissed off the crowd at the end of his victory over Rafael Nadal. That also may not have been Berdych’s problem. He has a habit of getting a big win then losing easily in the next round. Fernando Gonzalez beat him, 6-3, 6-1.

In the other semifinal, Roger Federer beat David Nalbandian, 6-4, 6-0, then laid another bagel on Gonzalez in the final, 7-5, 6-1, 6-0. As you can see, that match went from o.k. to bad to just plain awful. Federer won the last eleven games. The only excitement happened after the match when Gonzalez accidentally aimed a sharp spray of champagne into Federer’s eye during the postmatch celebration and momentarily stunned him.

I saw more fireworks at the Calabasas Challenger, an event held about 30 minutes north of Los Angeles. Challengers are one level below regular ATP tour events.

Late in the second set semifinal between Mark Philippoussis and fellow Australian Nathan Healey, Healey complained to the umpire that Philippoussis was moving too much and distracting his serve. The umpire warned Philippoussis and he erupted. “Look, I’ve been doing this for twelve years. Please sit up there and do your job. Don’t tell me how to play tennis,” he said loudly, “I’ve never heard of this before.” Healey then walked towards Philippoussis and pretty soon the umpire had to jump down out of his chair and separate the two players.

Philippoussis was sitting in the tournament office after the match still complaining to an umpire when he said something that made the situation much clearer. Philippoussis said that Healey began to move laterally during his serve to distract him and he thought to himself, That’s a good idea, I think I’ll do that too. Then Healey complained about him to the umpire.

That’s pretty smart if you think about it. First distract your opponent during his serve then complain when he does the same thing to you. It has multiple levels of gamesmanship. It didn’t work, though, Philippoussis won the match, 6-2, 7-5, then took the Calabasas title with a 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 6-3 win over Amer Delic.

I spoke to Philippoussis after his semifinal. (Click on the video above to see Philippoussis play a point in the match. Video has replaced photo in the sports column world.) He’s been going to Las Vegas and working out with Andre Agassi’s team in Las Vegas, in particular, coach Darren Cahill and trainer Gil Reyes. We wondered what that crew might do after Andre retired and it’s not clear yet, but a tennis training center wouldn’t be unexpected.

Philippoussis’s goal is the same as everyone else’s in challengers: get into the top 100 and earn direct entry into ATP tour events instead of having to slog through qualifiers. The main thing he’s working on at the moment is getting back to playing as aggressively as possible after a slide down the rankings the past two years.

The ATP has slowed the game down since Philippoussis first joined the tour in 1994. Balls are bigger and the courts are slower. I asked him if he thought this was a good thing since he’s a serve and volleyer. He agreed that they’d slowed the game down to make the competition more even but, he said, “the good news is that they’re starting to quicken up again.”

He thought the American hard court season had quicker courts this year and he also said that the Australian Open court will be faster in 2007. I don’t know if the summer hard court season was faster, it seemed like wishful thinking to me, but if it helps him to think that, good enough.

I wouldn’t usually trade Calabasas for Madrid, but this weekend I preferred it.

See also:
2006 Madrid Quarterfinals: Is Berdych Better Than Nadal?
2006 Madrid Third Round: The Young And The Talented
2006 Madrid Second Round: Everything Is Upside Down
2006 Madrid First Round: Don’t Jump
2006 ATP Fantasy Tennis: Madrid Masters