Here are some late-July observations on our wondrous sport.
It is a rare time in tennis history when two players of extraordinary ability
stand almost equal at the very top of the men's game. Roger Federer and
Rafael Nadal, who were far ahead of all other male stars in 2005, are even more so
in the standings for 2006 to date. Roger, now 24, and Rafael, just 20, between
them have captured the last six Slams.
We are witnessing what could become tennis history's greatest individual
rivalry. In the count of career Slam triumphs, Roger currently leads Rafael by
seven Slams to two. (Note that at age 20 Roger had not yet won his first Slam.)
Past matches between the two have been wonderful affairs, perhaps just a notch
or so below classic perfection, shaped by their very different playing
strengths. Rafael has won six of eight meetings to date, but many chapters lie ahead
before the final accounting.
The North American summer could bring the two together at Toronto,
Cincinnati, and U.S. Open. (Last year Federer captured Cincinnati and the Open, while
Nadal won in Canada.) Rafael's relentless pounding will be hard to withstand on
the hot, hard surfaces, where his heavily overspinning strikes will bounce
high and fast. Meanwhile, Rafael's excellent mobility will help him extend points
and make it hard for Roger to produce winners, while Rafael's
counter-punching ability will discourage Roger from attacking. On the other hand, Roger will
bring high serving ability and a superior attacking game, which includes
excellent volleying. To beat Rafael, Roger must employ these strengths heavily,
primarily by attacking early in points, coming forward unhesitantly behind severe
attacking shots. These tactics served him well in the recent Wimbledon final,
where he also mixed in periods of patient play exploiting his one-handed
backhand slice, which is biting.
The women's race is broader, where about seven superstars seem closely
matched in ability. This is the time of year when the year-to-date standings become
meaningful. The current leaders are Henin-Hardenne, who was a finalist in all
three Slams 06, winning Garros, and Mauresmo, who won Australian Open and
Wimbledon. A triumph at U.S. Open by either woman would almost--but not
quite--settle the year's overall crown. Kuznetsova, runner-up at Garros 06 and a former
U.S. Open champion, is third in the year-to-date, Sharapova fourth. Winning the
Open by either Russian player would set up a three-player run to the finish.
Petrova, Clijsters, and Hingis complete the top seven in the current race.
All seven leaders must be seen as strong candidates in the late-summer events,
along with Davenport and the Williamses, whose activities in 2006 have been
restricted by injuries. Serena's return to action in mid-July produced two
promising wins and a third-round loss to Zvonareva. Certainly a summer contender
will be Nicole Vaidisova, 17, from Prague.
The Bryan brothers, now age 28, have delighted American fans amid anotherwise
bleak U.S. tennis year. The twins have captured Australian Open and Wimbledon
06 and were runners-up at Garros. Their brand of aggressive, hard-hitting
doubles remains the model for aspiring champions and lifts a part of pro tennis
that seems threatened today.
Second to the Bryans in the 2006 standings is the pair
Bjorkman-Mirnyi--winners at Garros this year as well as last. Bjorkman, who is now 34, has been
Australian Open doubles champion with three different partners and won Wimbledon
three times with Todd Woodbridge. Current partner Max Mirnyi at 6-5 brings
crushing power in serving and smashing along with strong net skills. Another
veteran pair, Knowles-Nestor, currently ranks third. (Knowles is 34, Nestor 33).
All, like the Bryans, play a net-attacking style with quickness and power.
At Wimbledon all men's doubles matches are best-of-five sets, to my strongest
approval. At all other tournaments men's doubles is best-of-three sets.
(Davis Cup doubles are best-of-five sets.) Tiebreakers are not used in fifth sets
at Wimbledon, so that an occasional match becomes absurdly long.
(Knowles-Nestor won the fifth set of their quarter-final this year by score 23-21.)
In my opinion, the serving pair in pro doubles has too great an advantage.
Too often, matches offer dreary stretches of easy service holds. Thus I agree
with the use of "no-ad" scoring at lesser ATP events this year, where the
slightly greater possibility of breaking serve helps keep things interesting. My
thoughts remain open on the question, however, pending watching the Legg Mason
here this week. Probably there are other and better alternatives to help the
receiving pair. But in another matter, I'm sure I'll continue to agree with what
seems a universal dislike of another ATP experiment--the notion of replacing
third sets with single tiebreaker games. Perhaps this violation of tradition
will help induce singles stars to play doubles, but to me this is itself a wrong
Fans are disappointed when late-round doubles matches are cancelled so that a
player can be fresh for forthcoming singles. To Andy Roddick's credit, he
remained in the doubles draw to the end at torrid Indianapolis last week, winning
with partner Bobby Reynolds. But he probably should have withdrawn, as he
lost his final-round singles in a narrowest of third-set tiebreakers. His
opponent, James Blake, played no doubles during the week.
The Roddick-Blake singles final at Indy was a wonderful affair. But it seems
to me that a slightly fresher Roddick in the singles final along with a
doubles final between, say, the Bryans and another of the world's top-eight pairs
would have shown greater respect to watchers.
FED CUP/DAVIS CUP
The four surviving World Group nations of Fed Cup 06 reduced themselves to
two during the weekend after Wimbledon, 15-16 July. The Belgian women
comfortably swept aside the Americans, playing indoors at Ostend, behind four singles
wins by Clijsters and Flipkins. Absent were Wimbledon runner-up Henin-Hardenne
and American superstars Davenport and the Williamses. Meanwhile the Italians
showed their clay-court abilities against host Spain in Zaragoza. Both Flavia
Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone had been impressive earlier on Garros clay (and
Pennetta as well on Wimbledon grass), and now Pennetta won two singles and
Schiavone one to carry the Italian team through.
Italy and Belgium will meet in the final round 16-17 September in Belgium,
probably on outdoor hard courts. Clijsters will be favored to win her two
singles matches, though both Pennetta and Schiavone are capable of testing Kim
sternly. Both Italian starters should defeat Flipkins. Thus both nations should be
thinking and preparing for the likelihood that the concluding match will
decide things--i.e., the doubles. Clijsters was World #1 in doubles three years ago
but has competed in doubles only occasionally since. Both Pennetta and
Schiavone have achieved good success in doubles with various partners but not with
each other. It should be an intriguing weekend.
Davis Cup matters are momentarily quiet. The four surviving nations will play
the World Group semi-finals 22-24 September. Americans Blake and Roddick will
be nonfavorites on indoor clay in Moscow against the likes of Davydenko and
Safin, while Australia appears even more disadvantaged on outdoor clay in
Buenos Aires. Meanwhile the promotion/relegation round will be played at eight
locations, where the eight first-round losers of this year's World Group and eight
winners from zonal groups will strive for membership in next year's World
At almost any level, especially among the pros, court-surface differences
spell different advantages for different players. Most basically, players with
very fast serves prefer grass or smooth hard courts, where the serve's forward
velocity upon bouncing remains fast. Meanwhile skilled defenders prefer
slow-bouncing clay, where serves are slowed in bouncing and where attacking
ground-strokes are less likely to be winners.
It has been said that the grass at Wimbledon and the clay at Garros are
becoming more alike in their bounce characteristics. We note that the same two
players reached the men's singles final in both tournaments this year, and that
the two tournaments this year correlated with each other unusually well in their
outcomes. Are Wimbledon and Garros indeed coming closer together in the speed
of their bounces?
A convenient measure of the advantage of servers during a given tournament is
how frequently sets reach tiebreaker (or six-games-all). Such sets are over
2.5 times more likely to happen, for example, where server's probability of
holding serve in a given game is 90 percent rather than 80 percent.
Listed here are the percentages of sets reaching tiebreaker (including fifth
sets that reach six-games-all) in the men's singles at Roland Garros and at
Wimbledon for the past six years. The values show good consistency over the six
years and thus seem persuasive.
2001: RG 13.7%, Wim 19.7%
2002: RG 14.6%, Wim 18.3%
2003: RG 11.2%, Wim 19.9%
2004: RG 13.6%, Wim 19.6%
2005: RG 11.5%, Wim 20.0%
2006: RG 13.7%, Wim 20.3%
The above values show no indication that holding serve is becoming more
difficult at Wimbledon or that the servers at Garros are holding serve more easily.
If anything, the trends appear to be slightly the opposite.
Data from Australian Open provide another surprise. Years ago, it was
intended that the Rebound Ace surface at Melbourne Park provide a slowish bounce,
intermediate between Garros on one hand and Wimbledon and U.S. Open on the other.
But the high-friction surface was later smoothed in order to reduce
lower-extremity injuries to players. Indeed, extensive data analyzed elsewhere show
that Australian Open over the years has correlated closely in its results with
Wimbledon and U.S. Open but poorly with Garros.
But the tiebreaker percentages from recent Australian Opens, shown here,
point differently. (Also listed are data from the last six U.S. Opens.)
2000: US 18.54%
2001: Aus 13.3%, US 16.59%
2002: Aus 15.2%, US 15.15%
2003: Aus 10.4%, US 17.62%
2004: Aus 16.1%, US 13.17%
2005: Aus 14.7%, US 19.45%
2006: Aus 12.8%
Again, the data seem reasonably consistent. The above values show that
holding serve on the Rebound Ace at Melbourne has been almost as difficult as on
the notorious red clay at Garros, much harder than at U.S. Open. How can this
be so, contradicting all supposition and the evidence of the correlations
It is a mystery that I cannot solve. Perhaps a Tennis Server reader can offer
Finally, we can compare tiebreak frequency, our proxy for court speed and
ease of holding serve, at recent U.S. Opens with those at other hard-court events
in North America. Averaged here are the frequencies of sets reaching
six-games-all over the last six years.
Canada, 18.21% (Toronto 19.73%, Montreal 16.69%)
U.S. Open, 16.58%
Indian Wells, 14.94%
The above values show that courts at both Cincinnati and Toronto (site of
this year's Canadian Open) have been slightly faster on average than those at
U.S. Open. Service breaks are distinctly fewer at Indian Wells than at Miami,
where the break frequency is very similar to U.S. Open's.
LEGG MASON TOURNAMENT
I plan to attend the Legg Mason across the river in Washington this coming
week. Wisely, tournament organizers avoid daytime heat by not starting play
until late afternoon most dates. The event has a good community feel, bringing
together tennis people from the entire Mid-Atlantic Section, and there is strong
awareness of responsibilities to youth and the disadvantaged. Programs
supported by such events hereabouts have helped in developing players of the recent
U.S. Fed Cup squad as well as the farthest-advancing U.S. female player at
Andre Agassi is expected to perform here, which will greatly help in filling
seats, along with Blake, Roddick, Ginepri, and Hewitt. There is usually an
excellent contingent of the sport's best young players, as well as a sampling of
Europeans, though neither Federer nor Nadal will be here.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.