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Between The Lines
October 31, 2006 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Predicting the Year End Championships

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Ray Bowers

November brings the season-ending championship tournaments--the Masters Cup in Shanghai and the comparable women's event in Madrid, where the year-to-date's highest performers assemble for a week of face-to-face competition. Both events have intrinsic importance, ranking in prestige below only the four Slams, even as they cement the final standings in the year's points races. In many years the tennis is played indoors on hard court, so that fans see breathtaking displays of skill, free from hindrances of wind, sun, and bad bounces.

MASTERS CUP

The Masters Cup, November 12-19, 2006, will for the second year be held in the stunning Qi Zhong complex near Shanghai. The format calls for the eight highest performers in the men's singles race to divide into two round-robin groups. Two players from each group will advance to the weekend semi-finals and final.

Last year the convertible roof of the brand-new stadium was kept closed to head off any malfunctioning. The entry field was disappointing. Top-rated Roger Federer was on hand, but the next three in the year-to-date rankings were absent (Nadal, Roddick, and Hewitt), and the #5 player, Agassi, withdrew after his first match. David Nalbandian, one of four starters from Argentina, defeated Federer on the final day to become champion of the event, scores 67 67 62 61 76.

There should be fewer absentees this year, as nearly all members of the current top eight seem close to full physical readiness. Federer is once again the leader in the year-to-date points race. With the Paris indoors tournament now in progress (the last event prior to Shanghai), listed here are the current first eight: the leaders Federer and Nadal, eastern Europeans Ljubicic and Davydenko, Americans Roddick and Blake, and, from Spanish-speaking countries, Robredo and Nalbandian. After Federer and Nadal, all are grouped closely in the year-to-date race. Though there has been some shifting in position, the group's membership has not changed since early October.

Recent indoor events in Europe, many of them seen here on Tennis Channel, helped toward solidifying the field and gave clues as to likely outcomes at Shanghai. The week of October 9-16 brought three tournaments. All were won by members of the top group. Davydenko won at Moscow, Ljubicic at Vienna, and Blake in Stockholm, while Nalbandian won two matches before losing to Gonzalez in Vienna, thereby strengthening his narrow hold on eighth place. Players just outside the first eight generally did poorly, though Gonzalez and Berdych gained on the others.

All eight primes competed in the Madrid Masters the next week. All were seeded, with first-round byes. The elevation and slow bounce at Madrid seemed to trouble the headliners against second-round opponents who had already played and won first-round matches. Thus the three tournament winners of the previous week (Davydenko, Ljubicic, and Blake) became early losers, beaten in their first match by non-seeded opponents.

Meanwhile both Gonzalez and Berdych moved closer to the top group. Berdych defeated first Roddick and then Nadal. Against Nadal, the serving and ground power of the tall 21-year-old produced frequent weak replies, which Tomas then dispatched wickedly to the corners. Berdych then lost to Gonzalez, where Tomas was surely affected by a noisy and unfairly hostile gallery. Federer then comfortably dispatched Gonzalez in their final-round meeting after a close first set. It had been a good week for Fernando, however, whose big-swinging power game seemed tempered by greater variety and consistency than seen in the past. Gonzalez finished the week at #9 in the race.

Several of the contenders sat out the next week, October 23-29. In Basle, Gonzalez was again runner-up to Federer, again gaining in the race but still at position #9. Ancic won the tournament at St. Petersburg, rising to #10. Thus with the Paris indoor Masters now starting, five players have been publicly certified as having qualified for Shanghai. Here is a summary, as of October 31:

--Five players are assured of places at Shanghai--Federer, Nadal, Ljubicic, Roddick, Davydenko
--Nalbandian at #6 is almost certain of qualifying
--Two players reside tenuously at #7 and #8--Blake and Robredo
--Still in the running--Gonzalez, Ancic, Haas, Berdych
--Must win Paris indoors for any chance--several others

Both Blake and Robredo almost surely must win at least one or two matches at Paris this week to avoid being passed in the standings. All four players listed just behind them are also competing in Paris, all with first-round byes. Note that Berdych won at Paris last year and by repeating would assuredly qualify for Shanghai 06.

Federer's margin is large enough that he will finish the year as #1 whatever happens at Shanghai. Rafael Nadal, the precocious Mallorcan, will be placed in the opposite foursome from Roger for the round-robin phase, so that if the two leaders meet on-court, it will be in the closing weekend. Nadal withdrew from Paris indoors this week, citing an abdominal tear. His ability to compete at Shanghai thus remains uncertain and is probably unknown even to Rafael himself.

A blemish in Federer's 2006 record lies in his head-to-head performance against Nadal. The two megastars played each other five times during the year. Rafael won at Monte Carlo, Rome, and Garros, all on clay, and in their final on hard court at Dubai. Roger won their final-round match at Wimbledon 06. In addition, there were six other tournaments where both men entered but did not play against each other. Federer became champion in five of these events, Nadal in none. Other than his losses to Rafael, Roger lost only one other match in 2006--to Andy Murray at Cincinnati immediately after a strenuous week where Roger won the tournament in Toronto. If Nadal is unquestionably the clay-court champion for 2006, Roger clearly proved himself the year's second-best player on clay. The same cannot be confidently said of Rafael on nonclay courts.

I am scarcely alone in making Federer the odds-on favorite to capture Masters Cup 06, Roger having reached the final of all four Slams 2006 and won three of them. Who, then, has the best chance of surpassing or replacing Nadal as runner-up? Two players, neither yet assured of a place at Shanghai, offer interesting credentials from head-to-head play against Rafael. James Blake defeated Rafael in straight sets at Indian Wells in the year's only meeting between the two, while Tomas Berdych twice defeated Nadal, at Toronto and indoors at Madrid, the latter an event won in 2005 by Rafael.

Here are odds for winning at Shanghai, assuming an entry field made up of the present top eight. The values are primarily from calculations weighting each player's results of the last 12 months. (See footnote on the calculations.)

Federer, 2-3 (odds-on)
Nadal, 7-1
Nalbandian, 11-1
Roddick, 11-1
Robredo, 19-1
Ljubicic, 34-1
Davydenko, 59-1
Blake, 118-1

Should Gonzalez, Ancic, or Berdych displace one or two of the above by virtue of results in Paris, that player's calculated odds at Shanghai would be approximately 46-1,.140-1, or 59-1, respectively. Note that the results at Paris as well as any change from the above entry field will require a full recalculation, though the above values would change only moderately. (Logic suggests that the above calculated odds are too short in the case of Robredo, whose winning of German Open is probably overweighted here, and probably too long in the cases of Ljubicic and Blake.)

WTA CHAMPIONSHIPS, MADRID

The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships, November 7-12, will be held indoors in Madrid, after four years at Staples Center, Los Angeles. The format for singles will be the same as that used for the men in Shanghai, described above. As has been the case for several years now, the relentless problem in predicting outcomes in top-level women's tennis lies in judging the likely effects of current injuries.

From the happenings of the past 12 months, three superstars are marked as the favorites to win at Madrid. These are the year's three Slam winners--Mauresmo won Australia and Wimbledon 06, Henin-Hardenne won at Garros, and Sharapova won U.S. Open. The same three superstars are currently grouped atop the year's official points race, atop head-to-head analysis of the past twelve months, and atop our calculations weighting past results. Injury questions, however, along with recent tournament results in October, lead to a somewhat different picture.

Sharapova seems currently stronger than all others, having beaten both Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne at U.S. Open and then dominating in the recent European indoor events. She withdrew from the Tier One event in Moscow with a foot/ankle injury, but otherwise her W-L record since the Open is 9-0. She captured the Tier One in Zurich, overcoming a strong final-round performance by Hantuchova in a match featuring spells of utterly spectacular hitting by both competitors. Maria then won the tournament at Linz, defeating Patty Schnyder in two close sets and overwhelming Nadia Petrova in a straight-set final where Maria's superior power and ability to rip back forcing shots from the corners blunted Petrova's attacking game. Sharapova's aggressive style of serving and stroking seems ideally suited for indoor play. Indeed, she was champion at Staples Center in 2004 at age 17 and was a semi-finalist last year.

Absent from Madrid will be Lindsay Davenport, the Williams sisters, and last year's runner-up, Mary Pierce, all troubled by injuries for much or part of the year. Meanwhile superstars Mauresmo, Henin-Hardenne, and Clijsters have all qualified for Madrid, but in all three cases injury uncertainties intrude.

Amelie Mauresmo, now 27, was last year's champion at the Staples and a semi-finalist there in 2004. Her recent history has not been encouraging, however, where in October she withdrew at Stuttgart with shoulder trouble and then in Moscow lost in a third-set tiebreaker before the excellent serving and stroking power of Nicole Vaidisova, 17. A week later Amelie withdrew after winning one match at Zurich, her withdrawal again caused by the troublesome right shoulder. She has not competed since, though she is expected to play in Madrid.

Henin-Hardenne, who reached the finals of all four Slams this year, has been out of action with knee trouble since Fed Cup in September. She has been working to be ready for Madrid, but has not yet returned to competition and indeed missed the current tune-up event at Hasselt, not far from her birthplace in Liege. Justine, now 24, has shown her magnificent competitive ability many times in big events, and has usually returned from injury-related absences to perform well. Meanwhile Justine's country-woman Kim Clijsters has been out of action since mid-summer with renewed left-wrist trouble. Kim is returning to action this week at Hasselt, however, presumably testing her readiness for Madrid.

Martina Hingis at #7 has also qualified for Madrid, along with three Russian veterans. Nadia Petrova, 24, showed how effective can be her freely delivered serve indoors, winning the tournament at Stuttgart in October. She volleyed well in defeating Kuznetsova closely in their semi, and managed to defeat Golovin after turning an ankle toward the end of their final. She reappeared a few days later in Moscow, winning a difficult semi-final over Vaidisova. It was a match where two strong, athletic women with tall shoulders fiercely hit away amid excellent coverage by both. A week later in Linz, Nadia advanced well before losing to Sharapova in the final.

Meanwhile Svetlana Kuznetsova, 21, and Elena Dementieva, 24, showed unexciting results in the recent events but played well enough to confirm their places at Madrid. Svetlana beat Hingis at Zurich but was then outplayed by Hantuchova in the semis. Dementieva's serving has improved, but it remains a weakness against top-level opponents.

A major surprise happened at Moscow, where Moscow-born Anna Chakvetadze, 19, defeated both Dementieva and Petrova to win the tournament. Anna showed a Hingis-like style built on placement, angles, and quickness to the ball. Although her shoulders are five or six inches lower to the ground than Petrova's, Anna kept her second serve consistently deep and showed a nice knack for deception in her stroking. Anna, however, was too far back in the standings to make a run for Madrid.

If injuries force absences among the first eight, Patty Schnyder and Nicole Vaidisova are the likely replacements. Hingis lost to Kuznetsova in Zurich in October, while Schnyder lost to Hantuchova. Patty's left-handed stroking carries good variety, and she held up well in losing to Sharapova in Linz. Vaidisova's recent record marks her dangerous for anyone, though at Linz she was clearly inferior to Petrova in body control and athleticism.

Here are my current odds for winning the championship at Madrid, subjectively reached and significantly influenced from watching the principal matches of October.

Sharapova, 2-1
Mauresmo, 3-1
Petrova, 5-1
Henin-Hardenne, 10-1
Kuznetsova, 15-1
Clijsters, 25-1
Hingis, 25-1
Dementieva, 60-1

If one or more of the above require replacement, Schnyder's odds for winning would be about 50-1, Vaidisova's 20-1.

DOUBLES

Eight male pairs will compete for the Masters Cup in doubles under the same round-robin scheme used in singles. The top eight in the year-to-date race all played at the Madrid Masters, which thus became a good indicator of what is likely to happen at Shanghai. Adhering to form, the top four in the rankings became the tournament's four semi-finalists. The Bryan twins won the championship by defeating Knowles-Nestor in the final round. The field at the Paris Masters indoors this week is almost identical, and the results there should be similarly predictive. For now, I'll pick the Bryans at Shanghai.

Four women's pairs will compete at Madrid in single-elimination knock-out doubles competition. Here are the records of head-to-head play among the four pairs over the last twelve months:

Raymond-Stosur, 5-2
Yan-Zheng, 3-1
Black-Stubbs, 2-5
Peschke-Schiavone, 1-3

The counter-intuitive choice goes to Yan-Zheng, who won both their matches against Raymond-Stosur, at Australian Open and New Haven 06, winning four of five sets.

TV IN AMERICA

There should be good watching ahead. ESPN2 will carry the Masters Cup each day. Tennis Channel has programmed Paris each day, as well as the doubles at Madrid and Masters Cup. The Madrid singles is scheduled for Versus, a channel I have never viewed.

Best wishes to all for a fascinating November, with Davis Cup to follow on Tennis Channel in early December.

--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, USA
October 31, 2006

FOOTNOTE ON CALCULATING ODDS

To reach the odds shown for Masters Cup, I determined how well the Slams and Masters tournaments over the last nine years correctly predicted the winners, finalists, and semi-finalists at the following Masters Cups. (The best predictors were Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Cincinnati Masters, and preceding year's Masters Cup, in that order.) Next, by weighting player performances at the predictor tournaments of the last twelve months accordingly, I reached raw scores predicting each contender's success at Shanghai 06.

A calibration factor was needed to convert the raw scores to numerical odds. I obtained the factor by separately ascertaining that Federer's probability becoming champion at Shanghai 06 was 60%. This was product of an estimated 0.95 probability for Roger's reaching the semis out of his round-robin group, a 0.85 probability for his winning his semi, and a 0.75 probability for his winning the final. The raw scores of all eight participants were then adjusted using a common exponent to reach an overall probability of 1.0.

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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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