Today's pro tennis is played on three different kinds of court surfaces--clay, grass, and hard. How each surface affects the horizontal velocity of the ball in bouncing greatly affects the play. The ball is most slowed on clay, thereby favoring the defensive player, while the bounce is fastest on grass, favoring the attacker. The bounce speed is intermediate on hard courts, almost always much faster than on clay. The principal clay season, in Europe, begins each year in April and largely ends two months later. A five-week grass season follows.
But for the rest of the year nearly all pro tennis is played on hard courts, whether indoors or out. Looking at the fourteen prime men's tournaments held annually--the Slams and the Masters events--only one is played on grass, four are played on clay, and nine are played on hard courts (seven outdoors, two indoors). A fifteenth prime tournament was held in 2008--the Olympics in China, also on outdoor hard courts. Plainly the dominant playing surface in today's pro tennis is hard.
What amounts to a long, hard-court "super-season" has emerged, starting each mid-July in North America, continuing to a several-week break in December. The cycle resumes in January in Australia, continuing mainly indoors and ending with the Indian Wells and Miami outdoor hard-court tournaments in North American spring. Thus we are now approaching the end of the hard-court super-season that began last summer. And, as a way of exploring the notion, we should now examine the question who will become the current super-season's unofficial champion.
The leaders in the cycle to date have been the game's two megastars--Rafael Nadal, winner of Australian Open 09, and Roger Federer, who won U.S. Open 08. Not far behind in their accomplishments have been two 21-year-olders--Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Grouped well behind the top four are a dozen or other contenders--high achievers who reached the deep rounds of a Slam or other leading hard-court events since mid-July.
We obtain a current order of rank among the principals by weighting and tallying results to date at the main hard-court events of the super-season. Our tally also offers a numerical way of estimating each player's chances at Indian Wells and Miami--the concluding events of the cycle. Shown with the discussions below are the scores from our computation, representing each player's performance so far in the super-season. Also given are odds for winning Indian Wells (or Miami) calculated from these scores.
#1. RAFAEL NADAL , age 22 (score 5.47, odds 3-1)
Nadal is first in our rank, having captured last summer's Olympics and the recent Australian Open. At Melbourne Rafa bested Roger Federer in a five-set final, thereby winning his first hard-court Slam. He also triumphed at Canadian Open 08 and recorded semi-final finishes at U.S. Open and the Cincinnati Masters.
Rafa's strengths and favorite style of play are of course better suited to clay than hard courts. His relentless high-energy topspin grips a clay surface to produce a high bounce that is slowed very little horizontally. Opponents find themselves worn down by the weight of Rafa's blows and their own inability to strike winners on the slow clay in the face of Rafa's superior court coverage. Nadal has never lost at the French Open, for example, having captured that clay-court Slam the last four years.
On hard courts, however, Rafa's heavy spin is partly marginalized, and an opponent's flatter shots have lower trajectory, making it easier for the opponent to find extreme depth. The flat hitter attains greater velocity for comparable effort, as energy is not consumed in generating spin. Nadal, however, at Australia 09 and elsewhere on hard courts, has shown his ability to reduce his extreme topspin, regularly flattening out his own shots for greater velocity, and he also often employed a sliced backhand as a low-bouncing variant. He has also stepped up his serving velocities at some expense in spin, as extreme pace produces greater rewards on hard courts than on clay. But despite these adjustments to hard-court play, Rafa still shows his tendency to prefer patience and the defensive, where his mobility and shot-making skills often translate into dazzling counter-punching.
Rafael has proven he can win Indian Wells and Miami, having captured the former in 2007 and reached the final at the latter last year. In his only tournament since Australia 09, he defeated Monfils and Tsonga at Rotterdam but lost to Murray in the final round amid some leg discomfort.
#2. ROGER FEDERER, 27 (score 4.56, odds 5-1)
The magnificent Federer at age 27 has won eight hard-court Slams to go with his five Wimbledons. His past triumphs also include three at Indian Wells and two at Miami. Set back by sickness in early 2008, he regained top form in winning U.S. Open 08, and despite intervening back trouble he reached the final at Australia 09. There, he lost to Nadal in five sets, unable at the finish to summon his past greatness. Federer and Nadal have split their six head-to-head meetings on hard courts.
Roger has near-absolute ability in every department of the game. On hard courts he is especially strong in attacking, exploiting his excellent serve. His forehand can be an unusual weapon, delivered with a blend of extreme pace and extreme topspin that causes the ball to seem to dive abruptly downward toward the lines after crossing the net at relatively low trajectory. He is often restrained in attacking early in sets and matches, reserving his best artillery for when needed most. Perhaps this tempered approach helps explain his ability to sustain championship performance over the long term with few interruptions from injury or tiredness.
But the back problem that troubled Federer at the end of 2008 has persisted. Roger has not competed since Australia, and he has just announced his non-availability for Switzerland's Davis Cup meeting with United States in early March. His full readiness for Indian Wells and Miami remains uncertain.
#3. NOVAK DJOKOVIC, 21 (score 4.34, odds 5-1)
In early 2008 Novak Djokovic at age 20 captured Australian Open and Indian Wells. These triumphs came in the super-season prior to the current one and do not count in our tally here, and Novak's results later declined amid injury difficulties. But even so, his current hard-court super-season record places him just an eyelash out of second place in our rank order. (Novak was finalist at Cincinnati 08, reached the semis at the Olympics and U.S. Open, and won Masters Cup.)
At Melbourne Park in January, Djokovic survived several difficult matches before retiring amid apparent fatigue in the fourth set against Andy Roddick. There had been earlier instances where Novak experienced breathing problems during matches. But when he is healthy and playing his best, Djokovic's powerful and relentless serving and stroking make him extremely strong on hard courts. He returned to action in mid-February at Marseille, where he lost closely to Tsonga, and he won his first three matches at Dubai, including a worthy quarter-final win over rising Cilic.
#4. ANDY MURRAY, 21 (score 4.15, odds 6-1)
Following intermittent injury problems over several years, Andy Murray vindicated past expectations on the hard courts of summer 2008. He was runner-up to Nadal at Canadian Open in Toronto, champion the next week at Cincinnati, runner-up to Federer at U.S. Open, and again champion at Madrid indoors, beating Federer enroute. Andy's run slowed thereafter, but there were good performances at the late-year events and a triumph at Doha in January which included wins over Federer and Andy Roddick. Murray brilliantly defeated Nadal in the final at Rotterdam in February, and won his first two matches at Dubai late in that month prior to withdrawing with virus illness.
Murray and Djokovic are almost exact contemporaries, and the two seem destined to meet often in the future, perhaps in a historic rivalry comparable to that of Federer and Nadal . Andy's game is comparable in its weight to Djokovic's, where an edge should probably be given to Andy's in its tactical variety. Both youths are fine movers, the edge here probably to Murray, and both are able and willing to sustain long exchanges of heavy blows with good patience. Andy is usually the more inclined to come forward in attacking and is probably the abler in doing so. Djokovic won their first four career meetings, three of them on hard courts. But Murray won the last two, in claiming his summer triumphs at Toronto and Cincinnati.
THE NEXT SIX
#5. Gilles Simon, 24 (score 2.91, odds 20-1). Nicely balanced mix of control and attack. W-L record 3-3 against Big Four (2-0 against Federer) in current hard-court super-season.
#6. Andy Roddick, 26 (2.41, odds 30-1). Severe serve, attacking forehand, increasingly seen at net. Beat Djokovic, lost to Federer at Australia 09. Captured Memphis 09, reversing recent loss to Stepanek.
#7. James Blake, 29 (2.37, odds 30-1). Relentless back-court attacker. Beat Federer at Olympics but lost in semis. Lost to Tsonga at Paris indoors and Australia 09.
#8. Gael Monfils, 23 (2.19, odds 40-1). Capable of strong attack but often prefers defensive role. Extremely fast mover. Three wins at each of Olympics, U.S. Open 08, Madrid indoors 08, Australia 09, losing to Djokovic, Fish, Murray, Roddick, respectively. Beat Nadal at Doha 09, and although sick played him closely at Rotterdam.
#9. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 23 (2.11, odds 50-1). Talent, athleticism, extreme power. Held back by injuries after strong play at Australia 08 and Indian Wells 08, losing in split sets to Djokovic and Nadal, respectively. Won Paris indoors. Four wins at Australia 09, losing to Verdasco in four sets. Lost to Nadal at Rotterdam but beat Djokovic in capturing Marseille in February.
#10. Juan Martin del Potro, 20 (2.07, odds 60-1). Well-controlled power in serving and stroking from both sides. Four wins at both U.S. Open 08 and Australia 09, losing to Murray and Federer, respectively.
#11. Fernando Gonzalez, 28 (score 1.99, odds 60-1)
#12. Igor Andreev, 25 (1.95, odds 70-1)
#13. Nicolay Davydenko, 27 (1.94, odds 70-1)
#14. Fernando Verdasco, 25 (1.93, odds 70-1)
#15. Marin Cilic, 20 (1.88, odds 80-1)
#16. Tommy Robredo, 26 (1.65, odds 100-1)
#17. David Nalbandian, 27 (1.53, odds 200-1)
#18. Tomas Berdych, 23 (1.49, odds 200-1)
#19. Stan Wawrinka, 23 (1.50, odds 200-1)
#20. Ivo Karlovic, 30 (1.31, odds 400-1)
#21. Mardy Fish, 27 (1.29, odds 500-1)
#22. Jurgen Melzer, 27 (1.29, odds 500-1)
#23. Radek Stepanek, 30 (1.19, odds <500-1)
#24. David Ferrer, 26 (1.18, odds <500-1).
The odds quoted above are calculated from our super-season performance scores without any adjustment. Judgment would suggest upgrade to recognize #14 Fernando Verdasco's wonderful run at Australia 09, which included wins over Murray and Tsonga before a loss to Nadal in five fierce sets. But an ankle injury has kept Fernando on the sidelines since then. Almost certainly meriting upgrade is #15, tall Marin Cilic, a vastly promising contemporary of del Potro, with similar serving and stroking prowess. Also worthy of extra credit was the February run of #21 Mardy Fish at San Jose, where he defeated Blake and del Potro, and the triumph there of #23 Radek Stepanek, age 30, who defeated Roddick and Fish. Stepanek then beat del Potro to reach the final at Memphis, losing there to Roddick.
The computed odds are plausible, above, making Nadal the favorite at the forthcoming events. But both Djokovic and Murray have shown that they are already close to surpassing the Top Two on hard courts. Youth is on their side against Federer, and their natural hard-court strengths seem slightly ahead of Nadal's. Perhaps we are still a year away. But it seems to me that Murray's fine win over Nadal at Rotterdam gives the deciding clue--that Andy seems to understand how to defeat Rafa. I pick Djokovic to repeat as champion at Indian Wells, and with Andy's viral sickness and sore ankle now overcome, for Murray to triumph at Miami. Meanwhile, in choosing the most likely outsider to intrude into the Final Four at the forthcoming events, I'll pick Tsonga in both cases.
If my picking is correct, then the leaders would finish the Super-season in something very close to a four-way tie.
The women's hard-court super-season likewise began last July. Featured in its first half were six prime events, won by five different players, here enumerated:
Montreal Tier One -- Safina
Olympics 08 -- Dementieva
U.S. Open -- Serena Williams
Tokyo Tier One -- Safina
Moscow Tier One -- Jankovic
Doha Year-end, -- Venus Williams
Starting in January 2009, most of the former Tier One women's events along with a number of others became "Premier" tournaments. Our hard-court super-season, however, continued with four more prime tournaments, adding one additional name as a champion, as follows:
Sydney Premier -- Dementieva
Australian Open -- Serena Williams
Paris indoors Premier -- Mauresmo
Dubai Premier -- Venus Williams
Notably absent from our roll of champions are Sharapova and Ivanovic, both injury-troubled in later 2008. Maria has not yet returned to competition but may do so soon, while Ana in her 2009 play has been slow to regain her past heights.
The women's hard-court super-season will close with Indian Wells and Miami. Both are designated "Premier Mandatory" tournaments, and both are co-located with simultaneous men's events. The emergent super-season champion will be either Serena, Venus, or Safina if one of them captures either event. A double-triumph by one of the aforementioned others could lift that individual to the top.
Predicting the performance of Serena or Venus Williams remains mostly guesswork. I had picked Venus to capture Australian Open off her strong play in late 2008 and at Hong Kong in early January. But Venus lost unexpectedly in the second round at Melbourne, while Serena won the tournament. In subsequent weeks, the sisters were absent when the U.S. women defeated Argentina in Fed Cup, then Serena retired with knee/leg trouble at Paris indoors, and Venus won the tournament at Dubai, defeating Serena (closely) and Dementieva enroute. The sisters will probably not play Indian Wells, where they have not performed since a controversial and probably unwise withdrawal by Venus in 2001. Serena should be favored at Miami, having captured that event five times in the last seven years. (Venus won in three of the four years prior to that.)
Indian Wells in contrast seems wide open, where the foremost candidates are the players from Russia and eastern Europe named in the above list of tournament winners. Kuznetsova and Zvonareva have been strong contenders but are missing from the list. French stars Razzano, who beat Safina and reached the final at Dubai, and Mauresmo, who won Paris indoors in February, should also intrude. Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, age 19, seems ready to move upward, having (1) finished 2008 at #15, (2) taken a set from Serena before retiring at Australia 09, and (3) won the February indoor tournament in Memphis.
I'll pick Kuznetsova to win at Indian Wells (March 9-22) and Venus Williams to win at Miami (March 23-April 5). For most likely intruder into Final Four, my choice is Azarenka.
The March calendar starts with an one-night performance at Madison Square Garden featuring the female Serbian stars and the Williamses. Recent performance points to an all-Williams final, the outcome as always unpredictable.
Davis Cup weekend on 6-8 March will match the sixteen nations of this year's World Group. The eight winners will advance to the quarter-finals in July. Probably the most interesting meeting will pit defending-champion-nation Spain against a strong Serbian team led by Djokovic. The expected brilliance of Nadal on Spain's red clay should give the Cup holders the clear edge. Meanwhile France can draw on excellent depth for a difficult meeting with Czech Republic, featuring Berdych and Stepanek, on indoor carpet in Ostrava. A strong Croatian squad including Cilic and Ancic should be safe in hosting Argentina without del Potro on an outdoor hard court. Most disappointingly, Federer's bad back spoils what might have been a historic engagement in Birmingham, Alabama.
Here's to an exciting finish to the Super-season in the California desert and Florida coast.
FOOTNOTE: BOUNCE-SPEED COMPARISONS
An indirect measure of bounce speed is how often sets reach score six-games-all (ordinarily triggering tiebreakers). Fast courts increase the chances that servers will hold serving games, thereby increasing the likelihood of reaching tiebreaker. Here are the percentages of sets that reached 6-all in various men's singles events, averaged over several years:
Paris indoors 01-08, 21.4%
Cincinnati 01-08, 20.7%
Madrid indoors 02-08, 20.4% (tournament started in 2002)
Wimbledon 01-08, 19.9%
Canada 01-08 even years, 17.6% (Montreal)
Canada 01-08 odd years, 17.4% (Toronto)
Miami 01-08, 17.02%
U.S. Open 01-08, 16.4%
Indian Wells 01-08, 16.1%
Australian Open 08-09, 15.1% (Plexicushion)
Australian Open 01-07, 13.9%% (Rebound Ace)
Garros 01-08, 13.3%
Monte Carlo 01-08, 12.3%
Italian Open 01-08, 12.1%
German Open 01-08, 10.8%
The above tabulation offers a few insights. Little difference is seen between tiebreak frequency (i.e., court speeds) at Montreal and Toronto, which alternate in hosting Canadian Open. Meanwhile the new Plexicushion courts at Melbourne Park appear somewhat faster than the previous Rebound Ace courts. Miami appears only slightly faster than Indian Wells. That Cincinnati has the fastest outdoor hard courts seems clear.
The server's edge at an event varies not only with court speed but also with ball design and atmospheric conditions (air temperature, humidity, and pressure). The high values seen here for the indoor events probably reflect the absence of sun and wind as handicaps to strong serving.