Monthly Archives: December 2007

Predictions for 2008

Let’s use quality points to see how some players might perform next year.

Who would have picked David Nalbandian to win two Masters Series events after never having one before? Not I.

We’re always looking for predictors in sports. Predictors are statistics that will predict future outcomes. The most valuable predictor in tennis tells you who’s going to get better and who’s going to get worse. I’m not smart enough to come up with such things but I have a secret weapon: Bob Larson’s Daily Tennis News. It has the results of every professional tennis match in existence and periodic statistical analysis of those results.

Tennis News has found that quality points are a good predictor of movement up or down the rankings. At least they were in the women’s game when quality points were part of the rankings. The ATP never used them as far as I know. Quality points are points that get added to a ranking based on the ranking of an opponent. If you beat the number one player, for instance, you get 100 quality points added to your ranking. If you beat the number 50 player you get only 10 quality points.

Tennis News calculated the quality points rankings for 2007 and found that Nalbandian would have been ranked number four instead of number nine if we added quality points to his ranking. That means he beat a whole lot of highly ranked players. In fact, he beat the number one, two and three ranked players in Madrid.

Andy Murray is another player who would have ranked higher with quality points. But what about the downward movers? Richard Gasquet beat up on a lot of lower ranked players and would have been ranked number 19 with his quality points instead of his real ranking of number eight. That’s a big difference. Nikolay Davydenko would have fallen even farther to number 24.

On the women’s side, Venus and Serena Williams beat a lot of highly ranked players – no surprise there – while Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic beat up on a bunch of lower ranked players.

What’s the point of all this? If quality points are good predictors, then Gasquet, Davydenko, Kuznetsova and Jankovic will fall in the rankings next year while Nalbandian, Murray, and the Williams sisters will rise.

Of course, it depends. Nalbandian was injured for part of the last year and the Williams sisters are in a perpetual state of injury. Still, it means that Nalbandian could do very well in the Australian Open and Murray will continue to climb.

You might not need statistics to come to these conclusions. You know the Williams sisters will take home slams when they’re healthy and motivated. You know that Jankovic is not likely to reach number one because she doesn’t have enough offense and Ana Ivanovic is nipping at her heels. You know that Murray is only going to get better.

Davydenko is a little harder to figure out. He gets his high ranking by playing a million tournaments. He went into free fall at the end of the year due to the pressure of being the focus of an endless gambling investigation. Until the ATP comes up with a verdict, he’s likely to keep sinking.

Gasquet is a surprise. I figured he was in the top ten to stay. Check back at the end of next year and see if he is or not.

What do you think? Are these predictions accurate?

Awards, Awards

I’ve closed out voting for the Most Improved Player Teddy Award so it is now time to vote for the Most Disappointing Player of 2007. Please go to the right side of the page and lay down your vote.

By the way, I have been nominated for the Ladbroke’s Sportingo Author of 2007 Award. Please help me out by going here and voting for moi (Nina Rota) on the right side of the page. I need some help. One guy seems to have half of India voting for him.

In the Flow, In the Zone, Out of Your Head, etc.

Many people have tried to describe the state of being in the flow, in the zone, or whatever you want to call it. The game flows to you and you act without thinking. You’re in a heightened state of attention but totally relaxed. If you can keep it up, you win. Here’s a particularly good description of the state from Chip Brown. He wrote it in an article about basketball player Steve Nash in the November edition of Play Magazine:

Flow, of course, being shorthand for that state of mind that artists and athletes strive to enter into, and which in full flood entails an ecstatic expansion of consciousness that releases them from confines of the self and produces crowning moments of creation and performance.

It never occurred to me that it was an egoless state but it should have been obvious. It’s hard to be egotistical if you’re not thinking and are just doing. Too bad it’s such an elusive state. I’d like to visit it much more often.

Two or Three Things About the Russian Mafia

Lots of Russians pop up when the conversation switches to match fixing.

I’ve been to a lot of self-help workshops in my life, everything from a Sluts and Goddesses workshop to something called Opening the Heart. At one of these workshops we broke into an inner and outer circle. The people in the inner circle rotated to one person at a time in the outer circle and told them one thing they noticed about them.

The organizers of the workshop told us not to get a swell head if one person said something wonderful about us. But they also said that if two or three people said the same thing, there’s probably truth to it. If two or three people think you’re funny, you probably are. If two or three people think your hairpiece looks ridiculous, it probably does.

Since Nikolay Davydenko kicked off the gambling issue in professional tennis after Betfair voided all bets on his match with Martin Vassallo-Arguello in August, the Russian Mafia’s involvement in match fixing has been mentioned at least two or three times.

I’m beginning to think there’s truth to it.

When the first reports came out about Davydenko’s match, they mentioned Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a Russian mafia figure who’d been implicated in the bribery of ice skating judges in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Tokhtakhounov has some connections to the Russian tennis federation. Russian player Andrei Medvedev gave him a Mercedes Benz and Yevgeny Kafelnikov calls him a good friend.

Here’s a good indication that Tokhtakhounov is a mobster: he was jailed twice in the 1970’s and 1980’s for parasitism. At that time it was a crime to be unemployed in Russia because the unemployed were viewed as parasites, but parasitism also describes the mafia perfectly. They make a living by skimming money off the top of other people’s work.

Kafelnikov actually preceded Davydenko in the suspicious match department. Betting on a first round match between Kafelnikov and Fernando Vicente in 2003 was suspended by bookmakers because large bets were placed on Vicente even though he’d lost his eleven previous matches. Curiously, Betfair was the only betting exchange that stayed open throughout that match.

Why didn’t Kafelnikov’s match kick off the gambling controversy instead of Davydenko’s match? Why didn’t the ATP create a gambling czar and hire experts to monitor betting patterns in 2003?

I can think of a few reasons. The money wagered on tennis was nowhere near as great in 2003 and it is now and online betting exchanges have a lot to do with that. Also, players didn’t come forward in 2003 and say that they’d been approached by people wanting them to influence the outcome of a match. Given the number of players who’ve come forward since the Davydenko match, you have to think that there wasn’t widespread match fixing in 2003 because we’d have heard something about it.

As far as I remember, all of the players that came forward after the Davydenko match were ATP players. Now players in the WTA have come forward. Larry Scott, the CEO of the WTA, told the Daily Mail that “quite a few players” had come forward and there were “quite a few approaches.”.

The women evidently are not media hogs like the ATP players are because they told the WTA directly about being approached instead of going to the media first. Maybe that’s why the ATP passed the forty eight hour rule: players are required to notify the ATP if anyone approaches them and asks them to throw a match within 48 hours. The ATP was probably tired of hearing about match-fixing attempts from the media instead of the players themselves.

Scott also said something that fits into our theme of the day: “’We have got particular concerns about Russia, there’s a lot of activity that comes out of there but it is not the only country.”

I’m assuming Scott’s comments refer to players being approached in Russia rather than any concrete information about match fixing but we are beginning to get some bits of concrete information. The ATP told Davydenko that it has found nine Betfair accounts owned by Russians who would have won $1.5 million if Betfair had paid out on his match with Vassallo-Arguello.

Maybe the Russian mafia has lost some of its business or maybe more people are going into the business and need new opportunities. Whatever the reason, tennis has become a hot commodity because there a lot of people who say they’ve been approached and offered money.

Gambling has been biggest news in tennis this year. I’d love to see the numbers waged on tennis matches versus total television contracts and tournament prize money. I’m willing to bet that gambling money outdoes all other tennis income by millions.

Andy Murray: I Did it My Way

I was watching Allen Iverson drop 51 points on the Los Angeles Lakers last week and I wondered what Iverson could have done as a player if he’d been more willing to play a team game. When Iverson played for the Philadelphia 76ers, the team switched its practices to the afternoon because Iverson slept in late. Not that it helped much.

When his coach at the time, Larry Brown, criticized him for missing practices, Iverson went on a two and a half minute rant about the insignificance of practice in which he mentioned the word practice 19 times in some variation of the following sentence:

We talking about practice, man. How silly is that?

The best NBA player in history was Michael Jordan and he was the first NBA player who was promoted as a global individual star. The players around Jordan were role players, Jordan most certainly was not.

Bill Russell was the second best player in NBA history in my book. He won nine championships as a player and two more as a player-coach. But he was a role player, believe it or not. He rebounded and played defense.

There was no free agency in Russell’s time, the players did whatever management told them to do and the league marketed teams rather than players. Today it’s the opposite: players dictate team moves, individual stars are marketed globally, and it’s the stars who determine what time practice starts.

Is tennis developing the same star syndrome? Tennis is obviously an individual sport but are its young stars dictating their own careers to their detriment?

I’m thinking, in particular, of Andy Murray. He recently fired his coach Brad Gilbert and announced that he has assembled a team of advisors instead of hiring a new coach. Murray is essentially decentralizing the power a coach would have and placing himself in charge:

I wanted to take the opportunity to be in control of what I was doing. I feel much more relaxed about my tennis now, as I feel like I’m in charge of the decisions. The responsibility is on me to sort things out, and that’s the way I wanted it to be.

Is this a good thing? Can Murray continue to improve if his coach has little effective power?

Roger Federer manages without a coach just fine but he is the very, very rare exception and he had already won slams by the time he jettisoned his first coach, Peter Lundgren, and hired Tony Roche to work with him part-time.

Murray is 20 years old and somewhat immature. His tennis isn’t immature, his mind is. He rants and raves at himself and generally gets in his own way. Twice this year he bageled an opponent but lost the match. I’d wonder what goes through his mind but I don’t have to, he spits it out for everyone to hear.

Gilbert’s method of dealing with Murray’s raving was to tell Murray to direct it at him. Part of what the British Lawn Tennis Association got when it was paying Gilbert $1 million was a conduit for Murray’s frustration. As Murray walked off the court after injuring his wrist in Hamburg, you could hear him swearing at Gilbert.

Murray is a pretty smart tennis player and he might make this work. But my guess is that he could use stronger direction than he’s going to get on two fronts. First, he needs strong direction to prod him into maturing mentally. Second, he not only needs to improve his conditioning to play longer matches better but to avoid injuries.

I’ve gotten to the point that I roll my eyes when he tweaks yet another body part on the court but manages to win the match anyway.

What do you think? Is Murray ready to be the master of his own ship at 20 years old?

Player of the Year

Okay, nominations are in. Please go to the poll on the right side of the page and vote away for the first Teddy awards category.

Tennis Diary “Teddy” Awards 2007

If Sports Illustrated won’t give the Sportsman of the Year award to tennis players, we’ll hand out our own awards, thank you very much.

National Football League player Brett Favre has been chosen as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. At this rate, Roger Federer will have to win the grand salami – all four slams in one year – to get the award and that’s if Tom Brady doesn’t lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl in January.

Roger should be sure to throw in the Olympic gold medal and get himself a golden slam while he’s at it. Let’s see if SI would be dumb enough to ignore that too. They probably would be. SI has given out the award for 53 years and it’s gone to exactly three tennis players: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Arthur Ashe.

Oh well, let’s just hand out our own awards shall we? Let’s call them the Tennis Diary Awards –Teddys – and let’s do this all together.

Pat and I will lay out the categories and we’ll all nominate the best players for each category. Leave a comment with your choices and your reasons for those choices. The better the reason, the better your nominee will do. Then we’ll put a poll up for each category and we can choose the winners.

Pat and I will, of course, join in. Prediction market theory suggests that the best predictions come from a group of independent people who range from experts to idiots. I’m not exactly sure where I fit in there but I’m sure that between all of us, we can cover that spectrum.

Oh, and if you have a category you think we’ve missed, suggest that too. These are coed awards. Men and women will be competing in the same categories except in the centerfold category. It’s probably unfair to make Ana Ivanovic duke it out with Feliciano Lopez in the looks department. Besides, our sexual preferences differ.

Okay, here we go. Here are the categories for the 2007 Teddys.

Player of the Year
Most Improved Player
Most Disappointing Player
Most Surprising Player
Male Centerfold of the Year
Female Centerfold of the Year
Player in Most Need of a New Coach
Player Most Likely to Succeed in 2008
Player Who Should Really Think About Retiring

One last comment. The Sportsman of the Year SI has exactly one page of Davis Cup coverage. That’s two pages less than the high school sports section. Pretty amazing considering that Davis Cup is an international title. That tells you where tennis ranks in the U.S.: below high school sports.

Davis Cup Slows Down

Davis Cup hard courts will be just right from now on, not too fast and not too slow. Boring!

After the U.S. won the Davis Cup title in smashing fashion by winning the first three rubbers in the final, I asked the following question: Can the U.S. win the Davis Cup again next year? I gave it a less than 50/50 shot at it because U.S. players are terrible on clay court surfaces.

I forgot that Davis Cup organizers at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) are adding rules to regulate hard court speeds. Now it’ll be even harder for the U.S. to repeat.

This year’s final was a home court event for the U.S. so they got to choose the playing surface. You can be sure they chose the fastest hard court they could get their hands on. If an ice skating rink had been available, they’d have used that.

In the future, Davis Cup rules will prevent countries from choosing a hard court surface that is too fast or too slow.

This hurts the U.S. because they specialize in hard servers and big hitters and they’ll be forced to choose a slower court next time. No word yet on what range of speeds is acceptable but it makes a difference. Roger Federer complained about the slowness of the court in Paris after he lost to David Nalbandian there.

I notice that the ITF hasn’t mentioned regulating the speed of clay courts. The indoor clay court Belgium used against the U.S. last year looked like a bunch of kids had thrown some loose clay on a gym floor so they could wallow around in it. At this point, the ruling change appears to benefit South America and Spain which have the largest number of clay court lovers.

If Spain met Argentina at home in Davis Cup next year, I wonder if they’d choose grass courts so Nadal could beat up on Argentina since he almost beat Federer at Wimbledon? Even better, why not just use that half-grass half-clay concoction Federer and Rafael Nadal played on last year?

Remember that the ITF will not allow countries to choose hard courts that are too slow either. I’m not sure I see the point of this. If a country wants a slow court, all they have to do is choose a clay court.

I’m also not sure I like the changes. Tennis is becoming too regimented. Grass courts are slowing down. Davis Cup has unlimited challenges making linespeople secondary. How long will it be before all lines are called electronically? Round robin tennis was booted out before it even got started.

It’s no fun anymore. You can’t watch someone hit ace after ace on a fast grass court. You can’t even argue a call or cheat at Davis Cup.

I guess that’s the point.

Here are my previous last thoughts about the Davis Cup final.