Friday Topspin: Resurgence, Opportunity, and Russia

The big man is back: Juan Martin Del Potro reached the semifinals in his last two tournaments, but it took a 6-1 6-1 drubbing of Teymuraz Gabashvili to convince me that he is back in form.  I didn’t expect the Russian to win, or even to take Del Potro to a third set, but if the Argentine is winning 69% of points against a credible opponent, that tells me a return to the top ten is just a matter of time.

It was a surprisingly quick day in Delray Beach, as none of the four second-round matches went to a third set–and no set even went as far as 5-5!  Mardy Fish is easily through to a quarterfinal matchup with Colombian lefty Alejandro Falla.

While the finalist from the bottom half looks like it will be either Del Potro or Fish, the top half of the draw offers an opportunity to a handful of remaining players.  Ivan Dodig will have to get past Janko Tipsarevic to stay alive; in the other quarter, Ryan Sweeting takes on Kei Nishikori.  It’s a big chance for guys whose original draw put them in the same half as Andy Roddick, Sam Querrey, and James Blake.

Youhzny out of Davis Cup: Mikhail Youhzny has announced that he’s no longer playing Davis Cup.  After what feels like a generation of Russia near the top of the Davis Cup rankings, the guard is changing.  Nikolay Davydenko is still a dangerous player, but now a less consistent one.  The next Russians in the rankings are Gabashvili, Igor Andreev, and Igor Kunitsyn.  Not exactly the fearsome team Russia could put on the court five years ago.

Looking forward a few years, there is something to look forward to in Russian tennis.  Two of the most promising youngsters in the game, Andrey Kuznetsov and Alexander Lobkov, are potential team members in another year or two.  Ranked 230 and 249, respectively, neither has reached his 21st birthday; Kuznetsov just turned 20 on Tuesday.  That makes them two of the top 15 under-21s in the game.

In the meantime, Russia could suffer the ignominy of losing to a squad like the Ukraine’s (Alexander Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky) or Kazakhstan’s (Andrey Golubev and Mikhail Kukushkin).

What Youhzny’s recovering from: It would be understandable if Youhzny made his announcement after reached the semifinal in Dubai, but no, he lost to Gilles Simon in the first round.  With Stakhovsky, he has had more success in doubles, reaching the final earlier today over Dick Norman and Marcel Granollers.

The other semifinal is taking place later today, between the team of Michael Llodra and Nenad Zimonjic and the team of Jeremy Chardy and Feliciano Lopez.  Chardy/Lopez doesn’t sound like a world-beating doubles team, but they’ve already taken out Mariusz Fyrstenburg/Marcin Matkowski and Rohan Bopanna/Aisam Qureshi.  An impressive week, even if they don’t go any further.

Other results: Semifinalists were determined in both Dubai and Acupulco yesterday.  Each one features a set of usual suspects plus one outsider.  In Dubai, Richard Gasquet beat Simon to set up a match today with Roger Federer.  In Acupulco, Thomaz Bellucci snuck through another match to set up a semifinal with the master of the Golden Swing, Nicholas Almagro.

I watched a good chunk of the Stanislas Wawrinka/Dolgopolov match last night.  Dolgopolov wasn’t in absolute top form, but playing the way he is at age 22, you have to wonder if we’re looking at a future French Open winner.  He can play from the baseline like a South American, but he isn’t afraid to move around the court.  The commentators were getting down on him for some bad volley errors, but what I saw was a player who was creating opportunities for himself at the net.  He’s got time to iron out the wrinkles in that part of his game.

Today: If your goal is to watch beautiful tennis strokes, the match of the day is between Federer and Gasquet.  They’re playing for a spot in the finals against Novak Djokovic.

If you want the potential for a long, hard-fought match that could go either way, the obvious choice is in Acupulco, between Dolgopolov and David Ferrer.  The two have played twice, both on hard courts last summer.  Ferrer won in straight sets at the US Open, but Dolgo took him to three in Cincinnati.  On a different surface, and as well as the Russian has played of late, I think we can throw those results away.

See you tomorrow!

Thursday Topspin: Challenges and 21-year-olds

Unusual challenge: In his match yesterday against Marcel Granollers, Roger Federer used a challenge on his own first serve–nothing unusual there.  But in this case, the original call had been “in!”  Fed thought it was out and stopped playing the point accordingly.

He challenged, and he was right.  On his second delivery, he ended up losing the point anyway.

More Americans out: I mentioned yesterday that the way things have turned out, it hasn’t been a promoter’s dream in Delray Beach.  Andy Roddick withdrew, John Isner lost in the first round, and yesterday, both Sam Querrey and James Blake were defeated.  Blake, at least, fell to the popular Kei Nishikori, arguably the best young player not named Milos.

In fact, I was playing with rankings last night, and came up with something interesting.  Of players who have not yet reached their 22nd birthday, this is the top 10 in the world:

37   Milos Raonic        CAN  12/27/90  
66   Kei Nishikori       JPN  12/29/89  
74   Richard Berankis    LTU   6/21/90  
81   Grigor Dimitrov     BUL   5/16/91  
120  Benoit Paire        FRA    5/8/89  
138  Donald Young        USA   7/23/89  
143  Federico del Bonis  ARG   10/5/90  
148  Jerzy Janowicz      POL  11/13/90  
150  Ryan Harrison       USA    5/7/92  
160  Thomas Schoorel     NED    4/8/89

That’s pretty much a “who’s who” of up-and-coming young stars.  What it highlights for me is just how young some of these guys still are.  Sure, we all know that Raonic and Dimitrov are the wave of the future, but we’ve been following Nishikori for years.  He’s still this young, and if he can stay injury-free, he has a lot of time to climb to the top.

It’s even more surprising to see Donald Young here.  He’s been around forever, but he doesn’t turn 22 until July.  Put that in perspective: Had he gone to college and stayed for four years, he’d be in his junior or senior year right now, probably leading Georgia to the national title.

Seedless: The top-ranked players are having a tough time in Wolfsburg this week.  In the first round alone, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd seeds feel.  5th-seeded Steve Darcis lost in the second round, leaving HT.com favorite Jesse Huta Galung as the presumptive favorite.

Yesterday: The biggest upset of the day was Ryan Sweeting‘s victory over Querrey.  In a minor coup, Sergey Stakhovsky defeated Ernests Gulbis in Dubai; for his efforts, he gets to face Federer in a few hours.  In Acupulco, Stanislas Wawrinka had to work hard, but he eventually got past Fabio Fognini 7-5 in the third.

Today: We’re mostly in quarterfinals now, so things are starting to get interesting.  After the Fed-Stakhovsky match, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon duke it out for a spot in the semis.  I’ll be watching.

In Mexico, Wawrinka next has to face Alexander Dolgopolov, the most compelling matchup of the day in that tournament.  And in Delray, they are finishing up the second round.  Mardy Fish has what should be an easy match against Ricardo Mello, while Juan Martin Del Potro will be challenged by Teymuraz Gabashvili.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday Topspin: Counterpunchers and Clay Specialists

Counterpunching to the top: I watched parts of two matches yesterday, first Roger Federer (mostly) cruising through his first rounder with Somdev Devvarman, then Gilles Simon finally defeating Mikhail Youhzny.

During the Federer match, the commentators got to talking about how high Devvarman could climb in the rankings.  One guys suggested he could break the top 40, implying he would have a hard time getting any higher.  Based on what we’ve seen so far, that seems like a fair assessment.

Given the state of the top 10 in men’s tennis right now, it would be easy to conclude that to reach that level, you need at least one major weapon, especially if most of your success comes on hard courts.  That’s something Devvarman will probably never have, which is part of the reason that we watch guys like that and assume they will only climb so far.

Then there’s Simon.  He has broken into the top 10, and has spent a lot of time in the top 20.  Yet, where’s the weapon?  Like Andy Murray, he succeeds by getting one more ball back, but unlike Murray, he doesn’t have a big serve.  If Simon has a world-class weapon, it’s his speed.  That has been enough for him to take down the top players in the world, at least when healthy.

A world of clay: Since Milos Raonic withdrew from Acupulco, that meant Carlos Berlocq‘s first-round matchup was another clay-focused player, Daniel Munoz de la Nava.  It took three sets, but Berlocq took the victory.  He’ll face Alexander Dolgopolov today.

In looking at some numbers yesterday, I happened to notice that Berlocq played 85 matches last year–84 of which were on clay.  Yes, he spent an entire season playing tournaments on clay, only pausing once when his ranking was sufficient to get him into the main draw of the US Open.

He has already played a couple more matches on hard court this year.  His ranking crept into the 60s, meaning it’s probably smarter for him to take direct entry into 250s (and, of course, grand slams) than to keep playing challengers.  What amazed me what that it is even possible to play so much on clay.

Many players around #100 in the world manage to put together a similar season, but no one’s 2010 was as extreme as Berlocq’s.  In fact, Munoz de la Nava played 40 of his 46 matches last year on clay.  Another extreme example is Pere Riba.  71 of his 77 matches last year, including all 49 of his victories, came on the red stuff.

Yesterday: The big upset of the day was Thomaz Bellucci over Fernando Verdasco.  Also in Acupulco, Nicholas Almagro and Stanislas Wawrinka advanced to the second round.

In Delray Beach, Janko Tipsarevic needed to win a first-set tiebreak 16-14 to get past Ivo Karlovic.  Dudi Sela took advantage of Andy Roddick‘s withdrawal and got past Marinko Matosevic in three.

Viktor Troicki was the only seed who struggled in Dubai, losing at the hands of Phillip Kohlschreiber.

Today: Kohlschreiber is already gone, losing today to countryman Phillip Petzschner.  The most compelling match on the schedule in Mexico is Wawrinka against Fabio Fognini.

In Florida, the organizers have to be disappointed with Sela versus Ivan Dodig, as that was supposed to be Roddick’s second rounder.  But as some consolation, we have Kei Nishikori up against James Blake, a nice contrast of youth and age, speed and power.  ESPN had a nice feature on Blake yesterday.  It would be nice to see him play more consistently; he’s not a top ten guy anymore, but if he stays healthy, I could see him in the top 40 or 50.

Futures: If all goes according to plan here at HeavyTopspin, I’m going to do a little commentary even on the lowest rung of professional tennis, the Futures circuit.  By Wednesday, the draws are in place, so I can pass along what I find.

Most notable this week is Croatia F2, which has a surprisingly strong field–the cut was barely above 500, and recognizable names such as David Guez and Michael Lammer are playing.

In Brownsville, Texas, USA F5 has a typical smattering of notable players.  Among the seeds are Moldovan hero Roman Bormanov and young Indian hope Yuki Bhambri.  Former NCAA champ Devin Britton is in the draw as well.  Wayne Odesnik was on the entry list for qualifying, but it seems that he didn’t play.

See you tomorrow!

Tuesday Morning: Withdrawals and Third-Set Tiebreaks

Pulling out: I guess we won’t be seeing Milos Raonic play on clay after all, at least not for another several weeks.  He withdrew from Acupulco with a shoulder injury.  That makes room for yet another lucky loser–the third in Mexico, to go along with three in Delray Beach.

Andy Roddick also withdrew from his tournament, but Americans still make up the top three seeds.  John Isner, however, is already gone, double-faulting away match point in a third set tiebreak against Teymuraz Gabashvili.  Also out of the Delray Beach draw is Ryan Harrison, who lost a three-setter against Florent Serra.  Too bad for Harrison, losing a winnable match on home turf.

Today: Half of the Dubai action is over, but still coming is Roger Federer‘s first match since the Australian Open, in which he faces HT.com favorite Somdev Devvarman.  I was going to make a comment about how Devvarman’s chances of winning barely merited making the trip, but then I looked it up.  First-round losers in Dubai take home better than $11,000 for their efforts.  Not bad.

Speaking of Dubai, file this under “matches I want on DVD.”  Richard Gasquet made handy work of Grigor Dimitrov–nothing too surprising or thrilling, but imagine what a clinic that was for those of us with one-handed backhands!

In Acupulco, Nicholas Almagro works toward a third straight title by facing Victor Hanescu.  You have to wonder why Hanescu chose the golden swing: He lost in the first round in Brazil, then the second round in Buenos Aires, and now he’s almost guaranteed a third-straight early exit.  The best match of the day follows Almagro’s, as a battle of the lefties features Fernando Verdasco and Thomaz Bellucci.

Finally, the headliner in Delray is Juan Martin Del Potro against Richard Berankis.  Del Potro is starting to look strong again, and with Roddick out of the draw, you might have to consider him a favorite.  Crazy as it sounds, if Berankis plays well, he may prove to be Del Potro’s toughest opponent of the week.

Challengers: With three ATP-level tournaments going on, there aren’t a lot of “name” players in the Casablanca and Wolfsburg challengers this week.  What there is: Polish 20-year-old Jerzy Janowicz is playing in Wolfsburg, and he beat Olivier Rochus in a third-set tiebreak yesterday to open his week.  He’s likely to face Sebastian Rieschick in the next round.

See you tomorrow!

Monday Morning: Roddick, Raonic, Rankings

Raonic and Roddick: The big story from the weekend is, once again, Milos Raonic.  He fought Andy Roddick to a third set in the Memphis final, before falling to this highlight reel shot.  While he didn’t match his result from San Jose, his run in Memphis was more impressive, as he beat Fernando Verdasco (again), Radek Stepanek, and Mardy Fish to get as far as he did.

Raonic has climbed all the way to 37 in the ATP rankings, guaranteeing him entry to just about every tournament for the rest of the year.  This week, he’s one of the few players jumping to Acupulco, where he’ll meet Carlos Berlocq in the first round and face a possible second-round matchup with Alexander Dolgopolov.

Given Milos’s extreme serve-oriented game, it’s tough to imagine him having much success on clay–at least right now.  Indeed, he only played two matches on clay in all of 2010, and those were Davis Cup against Colombia.  (He lost both.)  You have to go back to 2009 to find some tournament results on clay, and let’s just say those aren’t pretty.

Elsewhere: In other finals yesterday, Robin Soderling beat Marin Cilic, and Nicholas Almagro beat Juan Ignacio Chela.  Both men won their second consecutive tournament.  Raonic ensured that the US circuit has gotten the most attention, but the quality of play in Europe and South America has probably been higher.  Marseilles was only an ATP 250, but four of the top 11 players, plus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, were in the draw.

Wozniacki #1: Caroline Wozniacki won in Dubai, giving her the #1 spot in the WTA rankings.  That sparked a lengthy back-and-forth at Tennis.com which reveals one problem with any ranking system: It’s not at all clear what it’s supposed to accomplish.  It is supposed to be fair, whatever that means?  Should it work like a club ladder?  Which sorts of players should it allow into tournaments?

These are all tough questions, and the presence of Kim Clijsters and the Williams sisters–extremely talented players who are not #1 but could win any tournament they enter–makes it all the more complicated on the women’s side.

I’ve tinkered a fair bit with alternative methods of ranking players, and a frequent surprise is that the rankings are actually pretty good at predicting who will win any given match.  There are various ways to make them a little better, but if a primary goal of the rankings is to present an understandable system to the fans, nothing I’ve devised constitutes an improvement.

This week: The men are playing in Acupulco, Delray Beach, and Dubai.  The lineups in Acupulco and Delray Beach look familiar, since they aren’t that different from Buenos Aires and Memphis, respectively.

Dubai, though, looks like they spent some serious money on appearance fees, with both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic on board.  It’s too bad Soderling is taking the week off; it would be nice to see him in his current form against one or both of those guys.

Most of the top women are in Doha, including Wozniacki, while Acupulco is hosting a WTA event as well.

Check back tomorrow for updates on these tournaments, and more.

Introduction to Heavy Topspin!

My name is Jeff Sackmann, and I am fascinated by professional tennis.

The goal of HeavyTopspin.com is to provide running commentary on the tennis world, from an analytical perspective.  As a hardcore fan and a numbers guy, I’ve often been frustrated by the lack of tennis statistics.  While entire industries have sprung up offering quantitative analysis of sports such as baseball and football, we still talk about tennis more or less the same way we always have.

Don’t worry–this site isn’t going to be full of equations, computer code, and decimal points.  (Okay, there might be a bit of that.)  On the flip side, we won’t be discussing who’s dating whom, or why Serena is going out in public dressed like that.

I’ll be writing about what happens on court, and I’ll try to make some sense out of it as we go along.

You can subscribe to the site with this RSS feed, and you should follow me on Twitter.

Talk to me in the comments, in this post or any post.  And enjoy!