Podcast Episode 83: Is the Practice Court Broken?

Episode 83 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast features co-host Carl Bialik, of the Thirty Love podcast, and guest Jeff McFarland of Hidden Game of Tennis. This week we dip our collective toe into a debate in the tennis coaching world.

With rallies short and aggressive, should players be using practice time differently? What types of skills can still be improved, once a player has reached the top? What tactics can a coach teach their charges, and which ones are too deeply ingrained in the physical nature of hitting the shots? The line between technique and tactics may not be a clear-cut as we think.

Is a 3- or 4-shot rally qualitatively different from a 5- or more-shot rally? How would you teach Madison Keys to retain the positives of her aggressive style while dialing back the aggression a bit? We offer more questions than answers, which seems appropriate for a topic that is far from settled, and is likely to remain controversial for years to come.

Thanks for listening!

(Note: this week’s episode is about 67 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.

Podcast Episode 82: ATP Cup and WTA Season Preview

Episode 82 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast tests out a new format for the new year, featuring co-host Carl Bialik, of the Thirty Love podcast, and guest Jeff McFarland of Hidden Game of Tennis.

The three of us dig into the new ATP Cup, considering whether the format is appealing to players and fans, how we should feel about odd matchups between players hundreds of ranking places apart, and–most importantly–what captains should be doing with the stats available to them.

We also look at the top of the WTA ranking table, considering whether Ashleigh Barty will continue her reign for another twelve months, or if Bianca Andreescu–or Karolina Pliskova–will topple her. We also debate where Caroline Wozniacki stands among Open-era greats, as one of the few women to hang on to the number one ranking for more than a full year.

Thanks for listening!

(Note: this week’s episode is about 66 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.

Most Popular Podcast Episodes of 2019

Based on my download numbers, a shocking number of you are regular listeners of the Tennis Abstract Podcast. Thanks! I rarely look at my stats, because I’m more focused on optimizing for a podcast that I personally find interesting and enjoyable to create than on maximizing the size of the audience. That said, I think (I hope?) those two goals overlap.

With this year’s podcasting in the books, I dug into the logs for the last 12 months to see which episodes drew the most listeners. I don’t have any way of tracking how much of each episode you listen to, so it’s possible that I’m learning more about which topics are most popular, not the content itself. Also, some people tend to download and listen long after episodes are released, so while none of the last few episodes made the 2019 top-ten list, they would likely climb higher if I updated this list in another month or two.

I recorded a total of 40 episodes this year. Here are the top ten episodes of 2019, ranked by number of downloads:

  1. Ep 76: US Open Recap
  2. Ep 75: US Open Preview
  3. Ep 74: More Aggression For Medvedev, More Control For Madison Keys
  4. Ep 70: Djokovic, Federer, Simona, Serena, and a Wimbledon Finals Weekend to Remember
  5. Ep 56: Gender Differences in Surface Differences
  6. Ep 54: Miami At the Half-Way Point
  7. Ep 55: Miami Titles for Barty and Federer
  8. Ep 53: Indian Wells in Review
  9. Ep 52: The Unpredictable WTA of Osaka, Stephens, and Sasnovich
  10. Ep 51: 100 For Federer, and 50.4% for Kyrgios

Nine of these ten episodes were recorded with Carl Bialik, of the Thirty Love podcast, and the tenth–episode 52–was recorded with Jeff McFarland of Hidden Game of Tennis.

Check back in a few weeks for more episodes!

Podcast Episode 81: Joshua Robinson on Diriyah Cup and the Ethics of Sports in Saudi Arabia

Episode 81 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast welcomes Joshua Robinson (@joshrobinson23), European sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal and co-author of the book The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports. (It’s a great book, and I’m not just saying that because he did the show. I’m not even a soccer fan, and I could hardly put it down.)

We hear from Josh in between his trips to the Gulf, just back from the boxing prize-fight at Diriyah Arena, the venue for the Diriyah Cup, the first professional tennis tournament in Saudi Arabia. We talk about how and why oil-rich states use athletic spectacles to “sportswash” their reputations, and what it means for the sporting organizations and athletes that help them do it. A few megastars–including Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer–have so far steered clear of Saudi money, but they are already in the minority, and Josh explains why it only gets easier for the big names to take the payday and avoid too many tough questions.

We also consider the effect on the fan experience, with what Josh calls the “Qatar-ification” of global sports–events produced in empty arenas for far-off audiences, in wholly unsuitable climates. It’s easy to ignore this stuff during exhibition season, but these are important issues that transcend sport. Exhos aren’t very interesting to me, but these types of questions are.

Thanks for listening — both to this episode and for all of 2019. This makes 40 episodes since the beginning of the year, and unless Aryna Sabalenka calls and demands to record an episode, it wraps up the Tennis Abstract Podcast for the year. (Hi Aryna!) See you in January for more tennis talk.

(Note: this week’s episode is about 50 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.

Podcast Episode 80: Martin Ingram on Predicting Match Outcomes, Bayesian Style

Episode 80 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast features Martin Ingram (@xenophar), author of a recent academic paper, A point-based Bayesian hierarchical model to predict the outcome of tennis matches.

If you’re interested in learning more about what goes into a forecasting system, this one’s for you. We start with a discussion of the advantages as well as the limitations of the common “iid” assumption, that points are independent and identically distributed. Martin’s model, which relies on the iid assumption, incorporates each player’s serve and return skill, in addition to surface preferences and tournament-specific characteristics. In our conversation, he explains how it works, and why this sort of model is able to provide reasonable forecasts even with limited data.

That’s just the beginning. Martin suggests several possible additions to his model, and we close by considering the importance of domain knowledge in this sort of statistical work.

Thanks for listening!

(Note: this week’s episode is about 65 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.

Podcast Episode 79: Paul Timmons on the Broken Structure of Pro Tennis

Episode 79 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast features Paul Timmons (@PaulT_Tennis), author of the My Tennis Adventures blog, about many of the problems facing professional tennis–and some obvious fixes that no one seems interested in making.

We start with the failures of the ITF to provide a logical structure for up-and-coming players, including gender inequality that makes it much more difficult for women to make a living at the equivalent of the ATP Challenger level. We discuss how some national federations are centralizing when they should be localizing, and how match-fixing is inevitable when live data provides so much of the sport’s revenue. We also touch on several up-and-coming players, the likely next men’s major winner, and why the Davis Cup Finals–for all its flaws–is superior to the upcoming ATP Cup.

Thanks for listening!

(Note: this week’s episode is about 65 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.

Podcast Episode 78: The Davis Cup Finals

In Episode 78 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast, I am joined by Peter Wetz, making his third appearance on the show. Peter and I take a deep dive into the first edition of the new Davis Cup Finals, talking about Rafael Nadal’s dominance in both singles and doubles, the surprise heroics of Vasek Pospisil, and why the #2 singles players may be the key to a side’s success.

We also take a close look at the format, considering various ways the tournament–and especially the qualification rules–could be tweaked, and what effect that will have on the doubles. Almost every aspect of the event has been controversial, but we can’t help but admit that it made for entertaining tennis that we’re looking forward to seeing again next year.

Thanks for listening!

(Note: this week’s episode is about 75 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.

Podcast Episode 77: Erik Jonsson on Swedish Tennis and the NextGen Finals

Episode 77 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast is an interview with Erik Jonsson (@erktennis), of Tennisportalen and the Source podcast, about last week’s ATP NextGen Finals, which included up-and-coming Swedish star Mikael Ymer. We talk about the stunning rise of Jannik Sinner, the progress shown by Alex De Minaur, and we consider the advantages and disadvantages of a whole slew of the rule innovations that are employed at the NextGen event in Milan.

We also delve into Mikael Ymer’s potential, whether older brother Elias could still become a top-100 player, and if there is any reason why so many prominent umpires hail from Sweden. Finally, we chat about Erik’s Tennis Hipster Handbook, and we wonder whether it’s possible to follow tennis anymore without Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

(Note: this week’s episode is about 65 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.

Podcast Episode 76: US Open Recap

Episode 76 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast, with Carl Bialik of the Thirty Love podcast, reviews the memorable US Open men’s final, featuring a resurgent Daniil Medvedev and a resilient Rafael Nadal, both of whom emptied their tactical toolboxes in Sunday’s five-hour marathon. We cover Nadal’s path to the all-time grand slam lead, whether Medvedev can become the tallest #1 of all time, and whether fellow first-time semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini is in the same league as the Russian.

On the women’s final, we consider whether Serena Williams offered a fair assessment of her own game, and just how high champion Bianca Andreescu can climb. We also touch on Taylor Townsend’s strategic flexibility and Naomi Osaka’s step backward.

Thanks for listening!

(Note: this week’s episode is about 70 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.

Podcast Episode 75: US Open Preview

Episode 75 of the Tennis Abstract Podcast, with Carl Bialik of the Thirty Love podcast, starts by previewing the new Tennis Abstract player pages, which you can expect to see roll out over the next few days. Look forward to tons of new stats, plus new ways of looking at traditional numbers.

Most of the episode is devoted to our US Open preview. We consider much Novak Djokovic’s chances are hurt by the draw, in particular his likelihood of facing Daniil Medvedev again in the quarter-finals. We highlight some notable early-round matches in both the men’s and women’s draws, and talk in further depth about Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens, Serena Williams, Karolina Muchova, and Su-Wei Hsieh.

Finally, we touch on the lingering Serena/Ramos controversy (the focus of an upcoming Thirty Love episode) and which players were worth watching in last week’s qualifying rounds.

Thanks for listening!

(Note: this week’s episode is about 64 minutes long; in some browsers the audio player may display a different length. Sorry about that!)

Click to listen, subscribe on iTunes, or use our feed to get updates on your favorite podcast software.