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Between The Lines
July 31, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Midsummer Notebook 2006

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Ray Bowers

Here are some late-July observations on our wondrous sport.

SINGLES RACES

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.

DOUBLES

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 goal.

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 Group.

SOME SURPRISES

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 calculations?

It is a mystery that I cannot solve. Perhaps a Tennis Server reader can offer an answer.

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.

Cincinnati, 19.43%
Canada, 18.21% (Toronto 19.73%, Montreal 16.69%)
U.S. Open, 16.58%
Miami, 16.63%
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 Wimbledon 06.

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.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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