Monthly Archives: December 2006

2007 Adelaide, Doha and Chennai: let’s get it started!

Tennis started off with a bang this week. Not one not two but three different events that span the world from Adelaide, Australia to Doha, Qatar and, finally, Chennai, India. Adelaide is hosting the first experiment in round robin format and Chennai and Doha are using old-fashioned single elimination.

Can Lleyton come back from an annoying mix of injuries or has his body had enough and his mind moved on to marriage, family and tennis afterlife?

Since today on the west coast of the US was yesterday in Australia, Adelaide is well underway and what a confusing mess we have in the new hybrid round robin format. First let me introduce you to the three classes of players:

  • Sixteen qualifiers play in a single elimination qualifying tournament to win one of four qualifying spots.
  • Twelve direct entry players plus the four qualifiers play in a one round main draw elimination playoff for eight spots in round robin play.
  • Sixteen players go directly into one of the eight round robin groups – I like to call them the ruling class – and the winner of each round robin group goes into the quarterfinals of the finals playoff.

That’s the format, now let’s look at the schedule. First of all Adelaide starts on Sunday and ends on Sunday so tournaments can get that extra bit of weekend media coverage. Today, which was actually yesterday, saw the last half of qualifying and the first half of the main draw elimination round. When the ATP fantasy tennis game starts up it’s going to be crazy trying to pick the draw because there are now four parts to it when before there were only two. Before we only had to worry about guessing which qualifiers would get into the main draw and who would get to the round of sixteen or the quarterfinals. Now we have to guess the qualifiers, pick the winners of the main draw elimination round, pick the winner of each group and, finally, pick the winner of the finals playoff. Look at this page and this page for a graphic representation of the format. I warn you, it’s not pretty.

I half expect players to get so confused they’ll miss their matches and lose their place in the draw. Kind of like those Olympic athletes who train all their life for a chance at a gold medal then miss their competition because their coach mixed up the start times. If that happened to me, I’d commit hara-kiri.

There are a few interesting stories in Adelaide aside from the hybrid format confusion. Joachim Johansson has returned to the tour after a shoulder injury and it’ll be interesting to see if he can return to the level that put him in the top 10. Do surgically repaired shoulders hold up to the long tennis season? We’ll find out. I’d have bet on Joachim this week. He has an 8-2 record at Adelaide. He’s comfortable here in Lleyton Hewitt’s home town as he used to be the boyfriend of Lleyton’s sister Jaslyn.

Lleyton himself is the other story. He’s down to number 20 in the world which is only good enough for the fourth seed here. Can Lleyton come back from an annoying mix of injuries or has his body had enough and his mind moved on to marriage, family and tennis afterlife? I think he can get to the bottom end of the top 10 or near it because he’s such a combative little bugger, but he doesn’t have the firepower to hang out with James Blake or Andy Roddick or even Novak Djokovic who is the top seed here.

Speaking of rankings, 6 of the top 10 players are active this week. That’s not bad I suppose but this week’s schedule points out the perennial problem with the ATP: too many events in different corners of the world and not enough top players to go around. There are actually four events this week. Hopman Cup in Western Australia is an exhibition rather than a regular ATP event and number 7 Tommy Robredo and number 8 David Nalbandian (that seems strange to write) are in Western Australia instead of Adelaide. And that’s a shame because Adelaide has exactly no players from the top ten. Their highest ranked player is Djokovic at 16. If Adelaide is a symbol of the ATP’s new approach to giving fans more of their top players through round robin play, this is a funny way to show it.

2007: predicting the future in tennis Part I

We’ve been looking back at 2006 lately but it’s almost New Year’s Eve so it’s time to look forward and make a few hapless predictions for 2007. I’m not being self-effacing about my predictive abilities as much as realistic. Last year, Philip Tetlock published a book called Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? After studying predictions of political pundits for twenty years he discovered that experts were no better an predicting the outcome of world events than a well-informed intelligent adult. Too bad we didn’t know this before the war Iraq.

Will Roger Federer continue his reign?Is Wimbledon played on grass?

Luckily, James Surowiecki published a book called The Wisdom of Crowds and that’s where you the reader come in. Surowiecki showed that the best predictions come from a large group of independent people. The large group should include experts but it should also include non-experts and even a few idiots here and there.

So, I’m going to make a few predictions and your job is to join in and voice your opinion and together we’ll do a much better job of predicting the future than any of us could do alone.

Will Andy Murray get over himself? When his game is off Murray frequently launches into a non-stop barrage of verbal self-flagellation loud enough for television cameras to overhear. His coach Brad Gilbert isn’t the quietest guy in the world either. In between telling Murray when to challenge calls and his own ongoing nonstop chatter, the ATP has its own entertaining version of Laurel and Hardy. It’s unlikely that Murray’s personality will change. Has Tommy Haas changed? Has Nicolas Kiefer changed? No they haven’t but I do expect Murray’s game to improve and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him win a Masters title this year

Will Ivan Ljubicic get over his Rodney Dangerfield complex? Even when he was ranked number three in the world, tournament workers confused him with the qualifiers. He don’t get no respect and he won’t get any until he wins a big one. He’s one of those players who are perennially ranked high but don’t have a lot to show for it. Davydenko used to fit into that category before he won a Masters Series Title and doubled his career titles in 2006. David Nalbandian is another though he did win the Tennis Masters Cup in 2005. Ljubicic doesn’t have to win a slam, that might be asking too much, but one of the indoor Masters Series titles on the slick fast carpet surface should be within his reach. In my expert opinion, though, the window of opportunity might be closing for him. I expect one of the younger players to pick up a Masters shield instead of Mr. Ljubicic.

Djokovic, Gasquet or Baghdatis? So which of these young players will it be? Gasquet has never met an injury that didn’t have his name on it. I can’t think of another tennis player who’s been injured so much. Baghdatis can rise to the occasion like nobody’s business, his interest perks up considerably when a slam comes round, but he won’t win any big titles until he gets into better shape and stays there. That leaves us with Djokovic and he’s either an idiot or he’s supremely confident. He had the audacity to suggest that he was in control of his quarterfinal match with Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros despite the fact that he lost the first two sets and retired in the third. I’m going with confident and I predict he’ll be the first young player to break through with a big title. That is, after Andy Murray.

Will Roger Federer continue his reign? Is Wimbledon played on grass? Expect three more slams.

Will the Williams sisters rejoin the tour and play a significant schedule?Too late to put the cat back in the bag. Serena and Venus carried women’s tennis into the prime time, they did their job and they did it well, and now it’s time for someone else to come along and take over. Lindsay Davenport is pregnant and the rest of the US women are either over the hill or too short. Honestly, Shenay Perry is 5’7” and she’s taller than Jamea Jackson and Vania King. Martina Hingis is 5’7” and she looks like a shrimp out there. I forgot about Justine Henin-Hardenne (5’4 ¾”) so maybe my theory is falling apart, it’s just that it doesn’t look that promising. The best thing the US can hope for is to lure Maria Sharapova into becoming a US citizen. It’s only fair. She’s trained in the US since she was 7 years old. Look for her to win a another slam this year too.

I’ll be back with more predictions next week. Meanwhile, throw in some of your own and we’ll argue about them.

The WTA’s Quest For Love

Next year is bringing some new changes to the women’s tour and while change in sport is normally a good thing, some of the proposed changes are already setting teeth on edge. My teeth have been in a roil since the WTA announced plans to experiment further with on-court coaching during matches.

For much of the season we have heard from the top female players (for the most part they are against it). Several of the commentators have spoken out against it too, notably Mary Carillo, who was quoted as saying:

“I don’t like this one bit. It goes against everything I truly respect about my sport. I was raised as a tennis player by the late, great Harry Hopman, the Aussie coach who taught us that if you walk out on the court, you are declaring yourself ready to play, no injuries, no excuses.”

Yesterday in a telephone interview, Larry Scott, the WTA head, said, “We didn’t start out with a goal of legalizing coaching, but as we got into it, and after what happened at the U.S. Open, we had to ask, if there’s a benefit to it why wouldn’t you?”

I love that one, don’t you? Let’s do it because…because it’s – there. And now that we’ve established that, let’s give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back, shall we? “We realize we’re pushing the envelope in terms of the culture and tradition of the sport,” Scott said. Groundbreakers for sure, those WTA board members.

They plan to lay out clear rules for when and how the coaching takes place. “Nothing about this do we want to be disruptive,” said Scott.

But I would argue that the whole idea is already disruptive enough. For one thing it is based on the rather spurious notion that something is not quite right with the state of tennis these days; we need to goose it up somehow, in the interests of making it more “fan friendly.”

The fact I oppose on court coaching for the women’s tour may mean I support tennis as an elitist kind of sport. We should not be ashamed of this aspect. Nor should we want to see the powers that be turn it into a Walmart in the sporting world. Tennis is unique and interesting because it is so idiosyncratic, starting with the players. They get wrapped up in their own styles of playing, some of them handle pressure, many of them don’t. Each one is on a personal journey and that is why we love to follow them. Where will they go?

It has been argued that other individual sports allow coaching and everything is hunky dory there, so why not tennis? Golfers strategize endlessly with their caddies, boxers get counsel in between rounds of pummeling, why not tennis players? But why does tennis need to be like those sports? Can’t we be different? Is it not ok to be different anymore?

What really offends me about this proposal is the idea lurking in back of it which seems to be that we’re dealing with very young and un-worldly girls who can’t figure things out on their own, they need guidance every step of the way. Well excuse me, I thought that’s why people went into tennis, because it is an individual sport and you have to bring a unique mentality to it.

If you have a problem during a match – for example, you’re getting your butt kicked – you have to figure out the response by yourself. You go from an extreme state of being inundated with people around you – your trainer, your coach, your nutritionist, your psychologist, your dog, your dog handler (have we left anyone out, yes, the most important element, THE PARENT(S) – to being totally alone once you are on the court.

Does the WTA think this shift is too much for the 16-year-olds on tour to manage? They must, although it’s not really phrased that way. The WTA people are bringing this to us as something that will be “good for the game.” That is an argument I for one just don’t get. How on earth is this good for the long-term health of the game? Do they really think they can sell one more seat just because Sharapova’s dad could come on court and coach her? (A misnomer in his case, as it will be a lecture). And if we don’t want to go along with it, does this make us bad for the game? Are we the ones being the curmudgeons and anti-progress?”

What exactly do they mean by implying that tennis is not a perfect institution, that it may in fact be a little, well, a LOT, elitist, God forbid. Somehow they are tiptoeing around like there is something evil and wicked about this. People might not like us. We can’t have that. We need to be more down to earth, just folks, if we can humble ourselves abjectly enough, we can draw more fans.

It won’t be the silly gimmicks that draw new fans, it will be the usual standard stuff, like showing the “good” match-ups on TV rather than the ones the network schedules because: a) it’s got a highly ranked American in it, b) it’s got an American in it. Instead, you get interesting match-ups that the networks don’t acknowledge, or if they do it is briefly, more in passing.

The networks have to get over the fact that most matches worthy of televising these days are going to be played by European or South American players. I’d rather watch two foreigners well-matched than a rout where Andy Roddick disembowels some lowly ranked player from Pachooch. If you want to attract fans by selling them on how good tennis can be, then showing them good tennis would be a good idea for starters. Show the good match-ups, no matter what their nationalities. Otherwise you won’t attract new fans. And you will never attract fans by selling tennis thru gimmicks, like on court coaching.

The WTA wants to make me feel guilty that tennis is the way it is and I resent that. We snotty types, we don’t want the game tinkered with, keep yo mama off that court! Whereas the official pov for want of a better name, is to indulge in a policy of appeasement. And there is more appeasement on the way, just step right up and hold your plate out. Now the WTA is thinking of allowing coaching from the stands as well as on-court coaching.

They will come up with new and devastating ways to undermine the basic integrity of the game, all to attract some of those beerswilling NASCAR guys, as if they are going to stay longer than it takes to check out Sharapova’s legs.

Because the WTA no longer seems really committed to the welfare of the sport, they may indeed attract new fans, but those fans really won’t have the interest to stick with it over time. The WTA crowd wants to be liked(!) But will tennis be liked at the end of all this nonsense? On court coaching will give those NASCAR boys a good block of time to run and buy some snacks. It extends the coffee break. If this is what they think will save tennis, then let’s just let it sink instead, shall we?

See also:
The WTA Gets A Grip

Memento 2006: transcendent moments in tennis part III

Just because you’re a tennis player doesn’t mean you can avoid war.

I’m still in the small town of Menomonie, a river town in the western part of Wisconsin in the U.S. I’m staying with a family of Norwegian heritage so Christmas Eve dinner was a smorgasbord of elk burger meatballs, boiled shrimp, crackers and artichoke dip, chocolate covered almonds, a cranberry and pear sparkling beverage and those peanut butter chocolate kiss cookies I mentioned last time.

We spent the evening watching the first season of The Jetsons, a futuristic animated series of 24 episodes that ran during 1962 and ‘63. Life hasn’t progressed as far as The Jetsons predicted. Flying pizzas don’t pop out of the Food-A-Rac-A-Cycle instantly and young Elroy isn’t transported to the Little Dipper elementary school via pneumatic tube. We do have robotic vacuum cleaners but we don’t have Rosey the Robot maids. There are a number of other ways we’ve fallen short so let’s get to part III of this year’s tennis retrospective and see what happened.

Just because you’re a tennis player doesn’t mean you can avoid war. We certainly haven’t made much progress in preventing war. The U.S. can’t even end the wars it starts. For the second decade in a row we’re fighting Iraq (see Operation Desert Storm for the first version). In many wars government officials and other high profile citizens become targets of attack and that can includes athletes. In May, the coach of Iraq’s national tennis team and two of his players were gunned down in southwestern Baghdad by unnamed assailants. Two weeks ago, the coach of Iraq’s Olympic cycling squad was kidnapped and killed. He had just returned with his team from the Asian Games. War spares no one and for athletes it’s harder to hide. They might be figureheads even though they may have no connection to the warring factions. They make good bargaining chips for a ransom and notable targets for retaliation. The saddest thing of all? These athletes are probably being targeted because the insurgents are running out of high profile targets since so many civilians have already been killed.

”It’s not the equipment, dude.” This was Andy Roddick speaking in an interview with Peter Bodo earlier this month. You can’t blame the current speed of tennis on the equipment because most players have been using the same rackets for years. They may paint their racket to look like a current model but it’s just a paint job. No, it’s the courts. They’re slooooow. The courts are slower and the balls are bigger. You slow a court down by making it less slick and increasing the bounciness. Balls that used to bounce a few times at Wimbledon now bounce three or four times which is perfect for the moonballer Rafael Nadal and helps explain his unexpected run to the Wimbledon final. You can also slow the game down by making the balls bigger. That makes it harder to hit a 150mph serve and gives the returner more time to react. You could also doctor the balls. Britain’s perennial Wimbledon disappointment, Tim Henman, was shocked to learn that Wimbledon officials were storing game balls in a cooler before the tournament started. His own country was undermining its serve and volley master by putting the balls on ice. Did they want him to win his home tournament or not? No, they didn’t. Not if it meant another Wimbledon featuring matches with four or five aces in a row and rallies ending after two or three strokes. I suppose I understand. You want to see someone do something more than slam serves to win the vaunted Wimbledon title. But the grass court season is only four weeks long. Can’t we have slam bang tennis at least four weeks out of the year?

See also:
Memento 2006: Transcendental Moments In Tennis Part II
Memento 2006: Transcendental Moments In Tennis Part I

The New Ruling Class: round robin format arrives

Before there were two classes – qualifiers and direct entries – and now there are three: qualifiers, direct entries, and the “ruling class”.

I’m spending Christmas in the small town of Menomonie, Wisconsin, U.S.A. It sits on the beautiful Menomonie River as you can see here. This is the kind of town where people make peanut butter chocolate chip kiss cookies for holiday gatherings (one stick of butter, a few cups of brown sugar, Hershey’s kisses, and a huge mound of peanut butter) and the local sports section runs an apology from the Department of Natural Resources to local hunters who recently donated deer heads to a study on Chronic Wasting Disease. Evidently some hunters were not told that the deer processing plant was not accepting headless deer from the study and so they were left with a headless body and nowhere to put it.

This year it’s a brown Christmas in Menomonie – snow has not yet arrived – so it’s easy to get around. I must say, though, that I’m concerned about walking through the woods and stumbling over a headless deer.

I’m returning home next Wednesday and by the end of the week the new tennis season will be upon us. Jeez, they can’t even wait till next year. The event in Adelaide, Australia, starts on Sunday, New Year’s Eve, and it’ll be a round robin tournament. A “32-Player Hybrid Format Round Robin” event to be exact and it’s no easier to explain than it is to say. The tournament has four parts:

  1. Qualifying: 16 players, 4 qualifiers progress to playoff round.
  2. Play-off round: 16 players (12 direct entry, 4 qualifiers) play one match for 8 play-off spots in the round-robin.
  3. Round-robin: 24 players in 8 groups of 3. Each player will have two round robin matches against the other players in their group.
  4. Knockoff round: the 8 winners of each group progress to a single elimination playoff starting with quarterfinals.

What this means is that 16 players will enter the qualifying tournament for 4 spots in the tournament, same as usual. That’s followed by a one round playoff of 8 matches with the 4 qualifiers and 12 direct entry players. The 8 players who win their playoff match will then go into one of 8 round robin groups with 3 players in each group. The winner of each group then gets into the quarterfinals of the single elimination knockoff round.

The first thing to note is that there is new class of ATP player. Before there were two classes – qualifiers and direct entries – and now there are three: qualifiers (they have to qualify and win a playoff round), direct entries (they have to win a playoff round) and the “ruling class” (they go directly into round robin play). The second thing to note (besides the fact that this whole thing seems ridiculously complicated) is that qualifiers and direct entries have to win 6 matches to win the tournament and a member of the ruling class only has to win 5.

I grew up in England in a working class family so I’m no fan of class systems but I approve of this change and here’s why. When I write my fantasy tennis posts every Sunday during the season, I keep track of something called a Zero Counter: the number of matches between players who’ve never met each other before. Last year, almost 30% of the matches in 32 player tournaments were Zero Counter matches. That is ridiculous because tennis doesn’t have any rivalries. How you have rivalries when players never meet each other?

Tennis is also short on marquis celebrities. If the tournament is filled with the recognizable names of top players instead of nameless qualifiers and lower ranked players, tennis should be able to build better name recognition and sell a better product.

Notice also that the 16 player ruling class is guaranteed to play at least two matches. A qualifier could fail to get into the tournament, a direct entry could go out in the playoff round, but the ruling class will always play the other two members of their group. This helps sell tickets because fans know they can see Roger Federer or Andy Roddick or Rafael Nadal at least twice during the week.

That’s about the only thing you can be sure of. What if you play fantasy tennis and you’d like to know who’s going to be in round robin play? First of all, you don’t know who the qualifiers are when you submit your team because the submission deadline is on Saturday and qualifying isn’t complete until Saturday. Second, you don’t know which players will get out of the playoff round. The only players you know for sure are the 16 ruling class players.

And that’s the point of this whole complex ordeal: put the focus on the best players on the tour. It’s entertainment folks. People want to see Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, not Andreas Seppi and Potito Starace.

Meanwhile, let’s keep our eye on the ruling class and see how the experiment in tennis class warfare plays out.