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June 19, 2009
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Predicting Wimbledon '09
by Ray Bowers
The Championships at the All England Club began in 1877 and have been played annually since then except in wartime. Wimbledon remains the only Slam still played on grass. For traditionalists, grass-court tennis remains the classic expression of the game, though the low and fast grass-court bounce alters how the game is played.
In general, grass and other fast courts help the attacking player, while slow courts, like clay, favor the defender. The ball bouncing on grass retains more of its forward velocity than on most other surfaces, producing a skid, making the ball difficult to reach and return. Also the bounce is often irregular. Thus coming to net becomes more advantageous than on other surfaces. The net player not only avoids the miseries of the grass-court bounce, but also sees his or her own volleys skid rapidly across opponent's terrain or, if hit softly, stay low after bouncing.
Further, on grass the sliced serve gains over the overspin serve in exploiting the skid effect, while backhands with underspin likewise gain over the power stroke. Finally, with less time for shot preparation and execution than on slower, truer surfaces, short backswings help in reducing errors in ground-stroking. Rallies tend to be short.
Serve-and-volley tennis--attacking net directly behind one's serve--was once almost universal among top players, especially on grass. In the years after World War II when three of the four Slams were played on that surface, first the post-war Americans led by Kramer, then the parade of Australians starting with Sedgman, became world champions behind serve-and-volley styles. The trend remained strong in the early Open Era, well into the 1990's.
Various factors explained a shift to a baseline-oriented style, which became complete in the early 2000's. More powerful rackets made of metal or composite materials became widely used, which helped serve-returners more than servers, baseline strokers more than net artists. Also the shift away from grass courts at U.S. and Australian Opens caused aspiring pros to focus their training on skills and styles tuned to other surfaces. Finally, the grass-court bounce at Wimbledon has been slightly slowed of late with the introduction of grass varieties that are rougher in texture and tournament balls that are softer.
But if the bounce speed on grass has been slowed, it remains faster at Wimbledon than at the other Slams. A good indicator is the effectiveness of the serve, where data from the last four rounds of recent Slams show that the percentages of points won by aces is still greatest at Wimbledon:
--Wimbledon 06-08, 8.9%
--U.S. Open 06-08, 7.8%
--Australian Open 06-09, 7.3%
--French Open 06-09, 5.5%
Data obtained starting in 2001 showing percentages of games and points won by servers yield the same order among the Slams.
But seemingly paradoxically, some recent data show that net play has been less frequent at Wimbledon than at Australian Open, and not much more frequent than at U.S. Open. Here are values, again from the last four rounds of recent Slams, giving total of net approaches per total points played:
--Australian Open 06-09, 0.301
The above data appear to illustrate the modern style of attacking tennis, where the serve-and-volley pattern has been replaced by "first-strike tennis." After delivering a high-velocity first or a kicking second serve, the server regains his or her balance (1) ready to defend against a strong return but also, more importantly, (2) ready to step forward if the reply is soft. In the latter case, the server promptly attacks from inside baseline by ripping his initial forehand into a vulnerable corner. Plenty of energy--both pace and overspin--is applied, in preference to using a classic approach shot, delivered with underspin for control and to keep the bounce low. Having seized the initiative, the attacker then seeks to retain and strengthen it, typically moving forward to net for the coup.
--Wimbledon 06-08, 0.265
--U.S. Open 06-08, 0.253
--French Open 06-09, 0.229
Surely contributing significantly in the popularity of these tactics is the newer composition string, which enhances the ability to generate topspin. The pattern encourages players inside baseline to employ the swinging volley, a powerful shot once a rarity. Today's aggressiveness, which entails playing from on or inside baseline while forcing opponent deep, also invites the aggressive use of the drop shot, which often produces interesting cat-and-mouse sequels.
We can expect to see these attacking tactics regularly among the top males at Wimbledon 09. Defenders will try to answer by keeping serve-returns low, away from center, or deep. In cases where the server's initial edge is neutralized, extended baseline exchanges may emerge, far more often than once was the case on grass. Typically the emphasis is on controlled forcefulness, avoiding error while awaiting opportunity to strike or luring opponent into unwise risk. But sooner than on other surfaces, one player will "strike first." A serve-and-volley sally will be only a variant, and only a few noble warriors will provide frequent such excursions. It is unlikely that any of these types will survive to the final weekend (unless the practitioner is Roger Federer). There will be occasional stretches where the serve-returner rushes net more often than the server.
First-strike tennis is seen on all surfaces. As playing styles and strengths become more nearly common across the surfaces, we are measuring higher correlations in match outcomes across tournaments played on different surfaces. The phenomenon is consistent with the amazing happening where both finalists were identical at both Garros and Wimbledon, which are played on surfaces of opposite speeds, in each of the last three years prior to 2009--a circumstance grossly outside past experience.
In recent years the best predictor of results at Wimbledon has been the preceding year's Wimbledon. Other good predictors have been Australian Open and the two-year-previous Wimbledon, along with U.S. Open, the grass-court tune-ups, Indian Wells, and Miami, in that order. Here, we use the measured historical correlations for weighting results of the past year in predicting outcomes at Wimbledon 09. Shown below are the weighted scores, Sc, predicting each player's probable forthcoming success there. (Also shown are odds for winning the tournament, calculated from the Sc values after calibration.)
THE SIX PRIMES
The withdrawal of Rafael Nadal, the defending champion, shortly after the official draw, spoils what seemed likely to become another Wimbledon for the ages. The chances of the other top contenders thus improved greatly.
#1. Roger Federer, 27, Sc 5.98, odds even. Sir Roger's recent triumph in Paris crowned his magnificent career to date. He had to overcame several serious challenges enroute to the final, however, illustrating the dangers he faces from the growing number of annual cohorts that have entered the sport since he himself came on the scene. To capture his sixth Wimbledon crown, he must repeatedly produce his best tennis. He has done so regularly in the past, but the reality is by no means certain.
#2. Andy Murray, 22, Sc 4.26, odds 8-1. Andy missed Wimbledon 07 with a wrist injury. Last year he withdrew from Queen's with a bad thumb and then lost to Nadal in straight sets in the Wimby quarters. This year he won Queen's without loss of a set, showing excellent defensive ability in grass-court rallying along with his usual fine timing and power. His preference for patient backcourt play may hurt him on grass against strong and relentless attackers.
#3. Novak Djokovic, 22, Sc 3.89, odds 11-1. After strong performances in the first half of 2009, Novak lost unexpectedly in the third round in Paris. He then won four matches at the Halle grass-court tune-up but lost to Haas in a split-set final. His is a game of controlled power, persistently applied, mixing patience with excellent first-strike ability.
#4. Andy Roddick, 26, Sc 3.23, odds 24-1. Andy won three matches at Queen's 09 but then withdrew against James Blake with an injured ankle. His superior serving ability, along with his potent ground and overhead games, make him dangerous on grass. This will be his ninth Wimbledon, where he has twice reached the final round, losing to Federer both times.
#5. Fernando Verdasco, 25, Sc 3.09, odds 30-1. Fernando lost his memorable five-set duel with Nadal in the semis in Australia early this year. Since then he has regularly reached the quarters in tournaments, falling one round short of that level at Garros. He won a total of eight matches in the last three Wimbledons. This year he played in the grass tune-ups, showing little success--losing in the first round at Halle and second round at s'Hertogenbosch, respectively.
#6. Juan Martin Del Potro, 20, Sc 2.92, odds 37-1. A very strong server and stroker from both sides, at height 6-6 del Potro enters the prime group as its youngest member. At Garros 09 he lost in the semis to Federer after winning two of the first three sets. He did not compete in the current grass-court tune-ups. As a teenager last year he won four matches at the Nottingham grass event, losing closely in the final, prior to a second-round loss at Wimbledon.
SIX OTHERS TO WATCH
Odds for all players outside the Prime Six are 100-1 or longer. Here are seven having special credentials perhaps not fully recognized in our calculations.
--Marin Cilic, 20, Sc 2.05. At height 6-5, is very similar to del Potro in age, strengths, and playing style.
--Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 24, Sc 1.90. Can be unbeatable when at his best but is susceptible to periods of excessive errors.
--Robin Soderling, 24, Sc 1.43. Showed extremely potent stroking in reaching the final at Garros 09, including in his historic upset of Nadal. The fast and low bounce at Wimbledon will make it hard for him to find the same excellence.
--Marat Safin, 29, Sc 1.68. Superb physical talent but seldom produces commensurate results. Semi-finalist at Wimbledon 08, losing to Federer. Missed Queen's 09 with bad back.
--Ivo Karlovic, 30, Sc 1.71. At height 6-10, has the game's best serve, and over the years has improved in the other areas. He is certain to score the most aces per matches played in any event he enters, and he could set serving records on grass.
--Tommy Haas, 31, Sc 2.13. Currently amid a career rebirth after many and long periods of injury. Played well in taking Federer to five sets at Garros 09, and defeated Djokovic to win the Halle grass-court tune-up.
PREDICTIONS: TOP QUARTER
Members of the quarter are listed in order of official seed. Our calculated Sc is shown. Likely outcomes of the more interesting possible match-ups are then indicated.
Del Potro 2.92, Roddick 3.23, Ferrer 2.09, Berdych 1.62, Davydenko 1.32, Stepanek 1.31. Nadal's withdrawal caused Del Potro's move into this quarter. Ferrer remains in this half of the quarter along with Stepanek, who has shown success on fast surfaces by aggressive net attack. Andy Roddick, himself troubled with recent ankle injury, remains the favorite in the other half, his edge in the quarter-finals over Del Potro owed to his greater experience on grass.
Stepanek over Ferrer (judgment contradicts seeded order and Sc values here)
Del Potro over Stepanek
Davydenko over Berdych (Nicolay leads by 8-0 in past head-to-heads)
Roddick over Davydenko
Roddick over Del Potro
Murray 4.26, Simon 2.11, Gonzalez 2.07, Safin 1.68, Wawrinka 2.03. Recent play on clay argues that Gonzalez is undervalued here in both seeding and Sc value. But the big backswing must be tempered on grass. Fernando has reached the quarters only once in eight Wimby tries.
Safin over Wawrinka
Murray over Safin
Gonzalez over Simon (contradicting the Sc)
Murray over Gonzalez
Djokovic 3.89, Blake 1.93, Cilic 2.05, Robredo 1.77, Schuettler 1.04, Haas 2.01, Fish 1.30, Andreev 1.42. Djokovic deserves his higher seeding, but the dangers from below are strong--in Cilic, Haas, and Fish.
Cilic over Haas (Sc rules, closely)
Cilic over Blake (Sc rules again)
Djokovic over Fish
Djokovic over Cilic (where the margin is closer than Sc shows)
Federer 5.98, Verdasco 3.08, Tsonga 1.90, Soderling 1.43, F. Lopez 1.21, Karlovic 1.71, Kohlschreiber 1.65. It is hard to see serious trouble here for Roger, unless Tsonga is able consistently to summon his best over several dates.
Tsonga over Karlovic
Verdasco over Tsonga (won head-to-head in Australia 09)
Federer over Soderling (repeats Garros final)
Federer over Verdasco
Andy Murray brings impressive and varied grass-court weapons to his probable semi-final against Roddick's superior serving and stroking power. Murray's serve-returning is comparable in excellence to Roddick's serving, so the edge remains with the wonderful court coverage and variety of Murray, who should win this battle of the Andys.
Novak Djokovic reached the semis at Wimbledon 07. With two additional years of top-level experience, he now presents a huge obstacle for Roger. The recent Halle tournament added experience but also showed limitations--i.e., Novak had to overcome five match points to survive in the second round, and then succumbed to the highly experienced Haas, score 61 in the third set. Federer leads in head-to-head play but Djokovic won four of last seven including the last two. If both men are at their best, on grass Federer can and should defeat Djokovic.
A Murray-Federer final-round meeting seems ahead. Our calculations favor Federer, winner of five consecutive Wimbledon crowns prior to last year's narrow loss--all testimony to Federer's grass-court greatness. Andy will enjoy home-nation support from the gallery under heavy pressure to succeed. Perhaps surprisingly Andy leads Roger in career head-to-head wins, having won six of their eight meetings to date, including their last four, all on paved courts. But it seems to me that the edge remains with Roger in view of his much greater experience and past success on grass and at Wimbledon. But assuredly, Roger must find his best attacking game, without concern for failure.
One year ago, Venus Williams acquired her fifth Wimbledon crown by defeating sister Serena in a straight-set final. Neither sister had lost a set enroute to their final-round meeting. Thus, one or the other has won the tournament in seven of nine consecutive years, including when Serena beat Venus in the final rounds of 2002 and 2003. Plainly, the power serving and stroking of the sisters, especially Venus, have been well suited to the grass courts at Wimbledon.
Venus and Serena, now aged 29 and 27, respectively, now bid to continue the family run. At Roland Garros recently, Serena--showing no outward evidence of her past knee and leg troubles--lost in the quarters to Svetlana Kuznetsova, the eventual champion, in three close sets. Venus--never a Garros champion--lost early.
Prominent among other prime contenders at Wimbledon will be several Russian stars--Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and runner-up Dinara Safina, heavy hitters both, along with Elena Dementieva, whose chronically troubled serve should gain in effectiveness on the grass. Elena was a semi-finalist last year, losing to Venus Williams in straight sets. Kuznetsova and Dementieva exited early from the Eastbourne tune-up, while Safina won her first three matches at s'Hertogenbosch, still in progress.
Maria Sharapova, who won Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17, has progressed reasonably well in her current return from shoulder surgery, having won four matches before losing at the recent tune-up in Birmingham. Seemingly less dangerous are the Serbian stars, Ivanovic and Jankovic, whose performances in 2009 have fallen off from successes last year. Both lost early at Eastbourne.
The fast rise of several newcomers has raised attention. Atop this group is Victoria Azarenka, 19, who beat a gimpy Serena in capturing the tournament at Miami this spring. She then beat Ivanovic at Garros and won the first set before fading emotionally against Safina. Victoria has the strong serving and stroking essential to success on any surface, with a particularly devastating backhand. Not far behind Victoria are other risers--Wozniacki of Denmark, Cibulkova of Slovak Republic, and Agniesz Radwanska of Poland, who defeated Kuznetsova at Wimbledon last year. Samantha Stosur was strong in reaching the semis at Garros behind a superior serve, which should be an even more valuable asset on grass. She and Wozniacki played a three-setter at Eastbourne, won by the latter.
Here are odds, reached by judgment mainly based on past results, for winning the women's crown at Wimbledon 09.
S. Williams, 5-1
V. Williams, 6-1
Dementieva, Kuznetsova, each 10-1
Azarenka, Sharapova, each 15-1
Ivanovic, Jankovic, each 25-1
A. Radwanska, Wozniacki, Bartoli, Petrova, Stosur, each 50-1
Mauresmo, Cibulkova, Zvonareva, each 75-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
PREDICTIONS: TOP QUARTER
Players are listed in order of official seed (shown).
Safina (1), Kuznetsova (5), Wozniacki (9), Pennetta (15), Mauresmo (17). Safina and Kuznetsova met in four recent finals, all on clay. Kuznetsova won at Garros and Stuttgart, Safina at Rome and Madrid. Kuznetsova then fared poorly on grass at Eastbourne, where Wozniacki won her first two starts. At Wimby, Wozniacki should closely defeat Kuznetsova in fourth round. Safina should then prevail over either Wozniacki or Kuznetsova in finals of the quarter, thereby reaching tournament final four.
V. Williams (3), Jankovic (6), A. Radwanska (11), Ivanovic (13), Stosur (18). A quarter-finalist at Wimby 08, Radwanska reached third round to date at the current Eastbourne tournament, which included a first-round loss by Jankovic and a second-round loss by Stosur, both placed in this quarter. A Radwanska-Venus meeting seems possible here, where the advantage of the American in grass-court aptitude and experience should decide.
Dementieva (4), Zvonareva (7), Bartoli (12), Cibulkova (14). Clearly the softest quarter, where Dementieva--the superior mover and stroker, and a semi-finalist last year--is the clear favorite.
S. Williams (2), Azarenka (8), Petrova (10), Zheng (11), Cirstea (18), Sharapova (24). All the above save Williams and Zheng are in the upper half of this quarter, which points to a comfortable advance by Serena. Azarenka is probably ready to assert herself over the others, having pressed Safina in the Garros quarters, but she withdrew from Madrid just before Garros and from Eastbourne just after with knee problems. Serena is favored to win this quarter and should do so after a tough meeting with Azarenka.
Both semi-finals should be close. Venus's past greatness at Wimbledon argues against Safina's chances in their likely semi-final, although Dinara won their most recent meeting, on clay at Rome 09. Similar reasoning favors Serena over Dementieva, Serena having won ten career Slams, Dementieva none, both being of the same age. But Dementieva has won four of their last five head-to-head meetings. For me, Serena's success in major events argues the more strongly.
Which sister will claim the crown? In the Wimbledon final one year ago, Venus squeezed out the first set, then managed to maintain her advantage against a Serena raging against her own inabilities. But since then Serena has added two more Slam conquests, while Venus has sometimes competed well but often faded in the middle rounds. Serena also showed better at the recent Garros 09. It seems to me that the auspices lie with Serena.
Highest-seeded in the men's doubles are (1) the brothers Bryan and (2) Nestor-Zimonjic. They are the two pairs who clearly ruled the game at the end of 2008 and at Australian Open 09. Both pairs have fallen off in their results since then, but both should again show superior results under the best-of-five-set format at Wimbledon. The winning pair at Wimby 08, Nestor-Zimonjic, should be favored. In the women's doubles, top-seeded and properly the favorite is the pair Black-Huber, who find themselves in the same half with the sisters Williams. Leading the other half are the Australian pair Stosur-Stubbs and the Spanish duo Medina Pascual and Ruano Pascual.
The Russian women have finished ahead of the second-place Americans in the tally of matches won at the last five Wimbledons. Last year the margin was small-- 39.0 matches won vs. 36.0, where the Williams sisters provided both singles finalists and the doubles champion pair. Superior Russian depth appears likely to prevail once again. It will be interesting to compare the final Russian total with that of women from the combined countries of eastern Europe excluding Russia, who outscored the Russkayas at Garros.
Three different nations in the last three years have provided the leader among the males. U.S.A. led in 2006 over second-place Czech Republic, France led in 2007 over second-place U.S.A., and Spain led in 2008 over second-place Germany. With Monfils sidelined by injuries and Gasquet by suspension, and with Nadal out, neither France nor Spain will be at full strength. If the members of the Armada aside from Nadal can match their 2008 performances, including a strong contribution from Feliciano Lopez, Spain should narrowly succeed. U.S.A., primarily with Roddick, Blake, and the Bryans, could contend.
ANOTHER HISTORIC WIMBLEDON?
Without Nadal and with the women's field seemingly formless, Wimbledon 09 seems unlikely to match the magnificence of last year's version. But given its first use of the new, convertible roof at Centre Court, the ever-higher level of play each year, and the usual degree of high drama, Wimbledon 09 will as always capture the world's fascination as our sport's highest representation.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX: Weights used in the prediction.
Correlations data from the past nine years yield the following weights, used here in predicting the men's singles at Wimbledon 09:
Wimbledon 08, 11.6%
Australian Open 09, 10.6%
Wimbledon 07, 9.6%
U.S. Open 08, 9.0%
Queen's/Halla 09, 8.4%
Indian Wells, Miami 09, each 8.3%
Queen's/Halla, Nottingham/s'Hertogenbosch 08, each 7.1%
Garros 09, 6.2%
Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid 09, each 4.6%
The odds for winning the tournament given in the text are derived from the above after calibrating using estimated even odds for the indicated favorite, Federer.
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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.