Monthly Archives: December 2008

“I’m Back and Off to a Winning Start But I Hope I’m Not Boring”

Can you learn much about a player by reading his blog?

The video above shows Rafael Nadal playing a junior tournament in Barcelona ten years ago. Not much has changed, except that he lost the match. Uncle Toni was sitting courtside ten years ago just as he does today. Rafa was cute to die for then and he’s cute to die for now. He was already a good returner as you can see with that forehand stab return on a point he ended up winning, though it’s hard to tell because the wide shot is a serve to the ad court while the close up is a serve to the deuce court. The editor obviously was not a tennis player.

Rafa may not shrug his shoulders in media sessions today as much today as he did during this interview on Spanish television, but the look on his face is the same. It’s the facial expression that accompanies a shoulder shrug, a facial shrug let’s call it. Usually a shrug means “I don’t know” or “I don’t care,” but when Rafa does it, it means, “Do you really want to know the answer to that question? It’s not that interesting.” Or, “Am I being boring?”

Thus the title of this piece: “I’m Back and Off to a Winning Start But I Hope I’m Not Boring,” which is the title of a 2008 US Open post to Rafa’s blog on Rafa’s official website. Clearly he’s still concerned that he might be boring us.

Here’s the question: How much can you learn about a player from their blog? Or, to put it another way: Can you learn just as much watching a video of the player when he was 12 years old?

Because there’s a lot on this video. Rafa is already precocious and famous. He’s the star here even though his opponent won the match because Rafa is only 12 years old while his opponent is 15. And Rafa’s not all that worried that he lost:

Today I haven’t played as good as I have [played] before, but…well, I don’t care. From 9 o’clock until 12 at noon I am at school, and so from 4-8pm I play tennis.

I always thought Rafa showed great patience and equanimity during his three year stay at number two. It must have been exceptionally frustrating to come along at the same time as Roger Federer and find yourself literally stuck in place and stuck there for three years. I can’t think of anyone else who went through the same thing, can you? And yet he never showed frustration in media sessions and he never seemed to be discouraged.

On the other hand, maybe we never knew because he doesn’t tell us all that much in media sessions. Does he tell us any more in his blog? In our title post he teases us a bit:

[This blog is] also a good way to let my fans know, first hand, what I think and do. I don’t think this will be a very deep blog if you know what I mean.

He’s gonna let us know what he thinks but it isn’t going to be very deep. He did discuss his decision to play Toronto, Cincinnati, the Beijing Olympics, and the US Open without a break:

[My team] thought and I agreed that the best is to keep with the good swing and the results. My uncle always say that you have to take the good moments and I was feeling strong enough to do this.

Presumably this also explains why Rafa played himself into the ground at the end of the year and ended up hurting himself badly enough that he had to drop out of the Davis Cup final. If I’d been reading the blog at the time, I’d have sent along the following question: “Do you think you might have something to learn from Roger Federer when it comes to planning a judicious yet effective playing schedule?”

I’d love to hear analysis of other players’ games too but this is the tenor of the discussion about Andy Murray as an example:

Some people do not really appreciate the game that Andy has. He is really good, very good.

I think we knew that already. Along with player analysis, it would also be nice to get match analysis from the people playing the match. This is what Rafa has to say about his US Open match against Sam Querrey:

Well it has been a very difficult day with a difficult match played. I started playing pretty well and for those of you who have seen the match I ended playing not that great. I played good the first set but mid second I could not find my game, played with bad intensity and made too many mistakes.

I’d love to know more about intensity, in particular, what makes Rafa the player with the strongest mental focus – and thus intensity – in the game? Short of Dmitry Tursunov, who should have been a writer/performer/comedian or even blogger rather than a tennis player, professional tennis players are good at tennis, not writing or journalism. They can analyze a match but that doesn’t mean they can analyze themselves.

Give me the video any day. The information I want is in the player’s movement, facial expression, and their game, it’s not in their blog.

Tracy Austin and Why Ex-Players Aren’t Always Good Explainers

Why tennis players don’t always make the best tennis commentators.

Tracy Austin was a roving reporter at the WTA year-end championships this year. I often watch sports on television while I’m doing paperwork and answering my email, so much of the time I listened to Tracy rather than watching her. I would have been listening even if I hadn’t been multitasking because most of her commentary flew over the onscreen tennis action, and maybe it’s not fair to critique someone without paying full attention, but I have always found her commentary very vanilla relative to the fierceness that must reside somewhere in her body and mind given her remarkable playing career.

Which, by the way, looked like this:

Age 4: Appeared on the cover of World Tennis Magazine

Age 10: Won the national girls 12 and under

Age 14: Entered her first professional tournament as a qualifier and won the title

Age 16: Won the US Open

Age 17: Reached the number one ranking in the world

She won her second US Open in 1981 at the age of 18 but it was all downhill from there as injury after injury of the “overuse” variety – back injuries and sciatica in particular – left her sidelined for long periods of time. She won her last even in 1982.

I was thinking about Austin because I’m reading Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, known in these parts for the quasi-devotional piece in the unfortunately now defunct Play Magazine about Roger Federer. In the book, DWF completely slams Austin’s 1992 “written with” sports autobiography in a piece titled How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.

It’s not just Austin, DWF laments the perennial disappointment that comes with reading any sports memoir. We desperately want to get into the head of a champion and see what made them exceptional because we all want to be exceptional. My favorite reading in the world is a New Yorker profile because I’m looking for a “manual for life.” What makes Michael Moschen the most original juggler in the world? How could Lionel Trilling hate himself so much yet be so successful? And, consequently, can a self-critical being like me ever succeed?

But players seldom deliver the goods. Being a good tennis player doesn’t make you a good journalist or psychologist, it just makes you a good tennis player. And it’s celebrity that sells books. Readers want inspirational tales something like a longhand version of a People Magazine story, not an analysis of greatness.

DWF is not entirely correct, there are good sports memoirs out there and we saw one just this year. Pete Sampras’s memoir, A Champion’s Mind, does in fact give you good insight into the clear divide between the champion’s mind and the runnerup’s mind. Sampras suffered a competitive crisis after winning his first slam – which he won under no pressure at all because no one expected him to do it. It took him another three years before he figured out what it took to win a slam and whether or not he was up to it.

It doesn’t look like Austin had any such crisis. Whatever she put her mind to, she could do. Her game was grinding, outlasting her opponent, keeping the ball in play, and driving herself to perfection on the practice court. It wore Austin’s body down to the point that her career never got past her teenage years and you might think that the disappointment would have led to some reflection on her part. “Did I drive myself too hard?” “Did my family push me too hard?” But it didn’t. As DWF points out, the same mentality that drove her to greatness is the same mentality she used to deal with a near-fatal car accident that smashed her leg and derailed a comeback in the late 1980’s. She told herself that there was nothing she could do about it but accept it and that’s exactly what she did. The endless inner mental warfare ran along at a lower volume in her head.

Lack of self-reflection doesn’t make for good sports commentary. Some people have way too much self-reflection, you could even call them tortured, and they are the better candidates. Of course, I’m talking about John McEnroe and the volume in his head leans toward overload. And you have to be a bit nasty. Not nasty, exactly, but Austin’s sweetness keeps her from challenging players as much as she could.

In the video clip above, Austin is willing to give Agnieszka Radwansks a pass after Radwanska did her best to annoy Maria Sharapova’s serve at the US Open last year by creeping up to the service line. As far as Austin is concerned, it’s within the rules and that’s enough for her. I don’t want to turn her into Jim Courier, who postures unpleasantly here and dismisses Austin’s take, I just want her to be willing to have someone mad at her now and then.

How to Rack Up Ranking Points in 2009

The rankings will be a bit different next year. Here’s how.

According to Bob Larson’s Tennis News, the world of tennis is making big changes to the points system which determines a player’s ranking. I say “according to” because there hasn’t been an official announcement yet. Let’s assume this information is correct – which isn’t much of a stretch considering that the ATP tournament entry for the 2009 Australian Open shows the new point totals – and see what it means and whether we like it or not.

Here, in a nutshell, are the changes:

1. Slams (and most events) will be worth twice as many points next year on both the ATP and the WTA tour.
2. The ATP (and not the WTA) is increasing the value of winning an event by reducing the number of points earned by everyone below the winner. For instance, if you won a slam in 2008, you earned 1000 points and the finalist earned 700 points – 70% of the winner’s take. In 2009, the winner will earn 2000 points and the finalist 1200 points – 60% of the winner’s take. The semifinalist, quarterfinalist, etc. will also earn proportionally less.
3. The ATP is reducing the points earned in challengers.
4. The WTA is reducing the points earned in Tier II events.

Except to say that I’ve always been surprised at the number of players who make it into the top 100 mainly on challenger results instead of having to win more main draw matches to get there – meaning that I endorse number 3 because challengers are probably not as good a predictor of future success as qualifier events, I’m going to skip numbers 3 and 4 and focus on numbers 1 and 2.

There are two essential changes here. Most tournaments will double the points earned. The proportion of points awarded in a tournament will change in ATP events.

The question is: why do both? Since you’re doubling the point value at most events, what’s the purpose? None that I can think of.

Giving the winner more points proportionately emphasizes quality over quantity and that’s a good thing. It should be harder for Nikolay Davydenko to get the number five ranking without getting past the fourth round of a slam (hence the video above), as he did this year. If the same changes in the points system had been made this year instead of next, Bob Larson’s preliminary statistics show that Davydenko would have had the smallest increase in points amongst the top five players, so the new system does help, but he would still have ended the year at number five. So does the new system go far enough?

If the WTA had instituted these changes, it’s less likely that Jelena Jankovic would be the year-end number one. She got to number one without winning a slam. I tried to figure out the last time an ATP player had the year end ranking without winning a slam in the same year and I got as far back as 1992 before I gave up. Here’s the listing of ATP year end number ones. You figure it out, please. Whereas the WTA had the same situation in 2004 and 2005 when Lindsay Davenport ended both years at number one without winning a slam.

Given all that, why didn’t the WTA make the same changes to the points system? The WTA has already agreed to a greater number of combined men’s and women’s events and god knows I’d love it if they combined their websites too so I could, for instance, easily pull up each player’s performance in slams as I can on the ATP website. I’m guessing that the WTA and ATP will eventually look very much alike, but making the same changes to the points system looked a little too cozy for the WTA at the moment. It is courting the ATP but it isn’t quite ready to commit to an intimate relationship yet.

Perhaps the WTA will do the ATP one better and resuscitate quality points instead. I say resuscitate because they did exist at one time and if any points changes were to be made, they’re the more obvious choice. Quality points are points given in proportion to the quality of an opponent. The higher the ranking of your opponent, the more quality points you get if you beat them. Conversely, if most of your victories are over lower ranked players, you’d probably sink in the rankings.

So what’s the difference between quality points and giving the winner of an event a higher proportion of points: quality points reward victories over higher ranked players whereas giving the winner more points rewards going deeper in tournaments.

If I had a hireling who was willing to enter all of the appropriate data into a huge Excel file, then calculate the difference in rankings if quality points had been resuscitated instead of instituting proportional changes in points, well, I wouldn’t do it. (Unless one of you would like to volunteer, that is. You can find all necessary data at and I’d be happy to supervise your effort.) For right now, I’d rather take that money and spend it on a new aluminum MacBook Pro with its excellent webcam, then hire a tennis expert with good verbal skills – something I’m a bit deficient in owing to, among other things, poor memory – and beam Tennis Diary TV to your living room instead of making you read this text stuff all the time.

I will tell you this, though. Quality points would affect the rankings of every player. As it is, or will be in about three weeks time, winners of tournaments – and particularly slams – get a much needed boost up the rankings, but players in the middle of the pack will get fewer points with no way to distinguish them from all of the other players who win a tournament or two, or maybe no tournament at all. And those players, by far, constitute the bulk of the top 100.

The solution: go ahead and change the proportional value of winning a tournament if you like, but throw out the stupid points inflation, and, for heaven’s sake, bring back quality points. Or better yet, just bring back quality points. It’s much easier.