Friday Topspin: Cheap Points

Easy going: I mentioned earlier in the week that the Recife challenger has a particularly weak field, with a cut over 400 and a top seed ranked #147.  As you might expect, most of the seeds are progressing easily–four of the top five are in the quarters.

It’s a mess at the top of the draw, though.  No one has benefited more than Brazilian wild card Tiago Fernandes.  Fernandes, ranked #509, drew German qualifier Lars Uebel.  Uebel is unranked, though he did beat two ranked players to get through qualifying.  But Uebel withdrew, leaving Fernandes to face lucky loser Tiago Lopes, ranked #534.

In the second round, Fernandes faced fellow local wild card Bruno Sant’Anna, another man without a ranking point to his name.  Now, in the quarters, he’ll face Guilherme Clezar, yet another Brailizian WC, ranked #724 in the world.  Clezar faced Marco Chiudinelli in the first round, winning a set before the Swiss retired.  Whichever of the wild cards wins today will receive the same number of points as the semifinalists in Monza, where just about everyone in the draw is superior to anyone left in Recife.

Colombia: Also in South America, the Pereira challenger is generating some interesting results.  I mentioned yesterday the success of local wild card Eduardo Struvay.  Another major upset in the second round came when young Argentine Facundo Bagnis knocked out Colombian top seed Alejandro Falla.  Bagnis won a challenger event last week and will ascend to at least #178 with this week’s result.

Today, Bagnis faces 5th-seeded Italian Paolo Lorenzi.  The oddsmakers have noticed the Argentine’s hot streak and give him about a 60% chance of advancing to the semis.

ATP: Finishing off the second round in Houston yesterday, all four matches went to the seeded player.  Pablo Cuevas didn’t mess around in getting past James Blake–he won 84% of service points, allowing the American only two break chances.

Cuevas’s opponent today is Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, winner of the latest ugly match in Houston.  GGL landed only 38% of his first serves, yet somehow allowed Somdev Devvarman only two break chances.  Devvarman converted both, but it wasn’t enough, as Garcia-Lopez broke five times, eventually winning 6-4 6-1.

The other winners yesterday were Kei Nishikori and Mardy Fish, both of whom advanced in straight sets, and will face each other today.  Given some of the serving performances in Houston, you have to wonder if there’s a strobe light just off center court.  In losing to Fish, Albert Ramos made only 44% of first serves; at least Nishikori and his opponent, Igor Andreev, were both comfortably above 60%.

That’s all I’ve got for today.  Monte Carlo (more important: televised matches from Monte Carlo) can’t arrive soon enough!

Thursday Topspin: 13 Feet, 5 Inches

Tall dudes: In a week where the best players are resting, at least the tallest players are in action.  In the round of 16 in Houston yesterday, both Ivo Karlovic and John Isner advanced, over Igor Kunitsyn and Horacio Zeballos, respectively.  You may be surprised, as I was, that neither match required a tiebreak.

Tomorrow, Karlovic and Isner will play each other, for 13 feet, 5 inches of service-domination ridiculousness.  Yesterday, Karlovic won a modest (for him) 71% of points on serve, though he lost only five times when his first offering went in.  Isner was more decisive, winning more than 80% of points on serve.  I really thought Zeballos would do better.

The two big men have played each other twice before, and their record is tied.  Isner won in Memphis last year, and Ivo was victorious back in 2008 in New Haven.  Both matches, of course, included a tiebreak.

Shorter dudes: The other two singles matches in Houston were upsets.  Ryan Sweeting once again beat his friend Sam Querrey, and Teymuraz Gabashvili defeated Grigor Dimitrov.  The latter match must have been a mess–17 double faults, and barely half of total points were won by the server.  Sure, it’s clay, but that’s just sloppy tennis.

Sloppy isn’t even the word for what happened to Querrey.  He had twenty-four break points, and converted only six of them.  I don’t know whether to give credit to Sweeting or criticize Querrey, but clearly somebody was reacting to the pressure.  To put that in perspective, Sweeting won almost exactly half of his service points when it wasn’t a break chance, but 75% when Querrey held a break point.

Sweeting and Gabashvili both have a big opportunity tomorrow, as they’ll face each other.  It would be Sweeting’s first ATP-level semifinal.

Casablanca: I continue to be unenthralled with this field, so I’ll focus on a young underdog, 20-year-old Andrey Kuznetsov.  Tomorrow he’ll face Victor Hanescu, the only seeded player to win a match yesterday.  His good week so far–three wins in qualifying and two so far in the main draw–will gain him at least 21 places in next week’s rankings, and a win over Hanescu would get him 16 more, putting him on the brink of cracking the top 200.

My other favorite 20-year-old Russian: The strongest Challenger field this week is in Monza; stacked with second-tier clay court specialists, the level of play probably isn’t much behind that of either of this week’s ATP events.

Both of the top two seeds in Monza have been eliminated, leaving two title contenders in their place at the top and bottom of the draw.  The man who took out top seed Jan Hajek is local boy Alessio di Mauro, a 33-year-old who reached the final in Casablanca’s challenger event a couple of months ago.  At the bottom of the draw is Evgeny Donskoy, the man who beat di Mauro in that final.

Another one to watch: The Colombians continue to fare well in their home event at Pereira.  Into the quarterfinals already are two locals, Juan Sebastian Cabal and Eduardo Struvay, while top seed Alejandro Falla plays his 2nd-round match today.

462nd-ranked Struvay, yet another 20-year-old, entered the event on a wild card.  He hasn’t advanced cheaply, beating two veterans: Martin Vassallo Arguello in the first round and Eric Prodon in the second.  Vassallo Arguello posted solid results after qualifying  last week, and Prodon is a clay specialist near his career high ranking.

Today: Mardy Fish will finally get underway in Houston, taking on the Spaniard Albert Ramos.  But first, James Blake will play Pablo Cuevas.  If Blake can beat Carlos Berlocq, he has a good shot against Cuevas, right?  Oddsmakers don’t think so, setting Blake’s chances at about 28%.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday Topspin: Looking Up

Backtrack: If you haven’t read it yet, you should check out the piece I wrote yesterday afternoon about net-rushing, and the way we’ll someday be able to analyze the strategy.  There’s some great stuff in the comments, as well.

Feeling small: It was a rough day in Houston yesterday for Benjamin Becker.  The #5 seed lost his singles match to Ivo Karlovic, winning only eight return points.  Becker is the only seed to fall in the first round, and Ivo was the only qualifier to reach the round of 16.

It didn’t get any easier for Becker in the doubles.  Teaming with Igor Kunitsyn, he lost to John Isner and Sam Querrey in straight sets.  At least in that match he got a few break points.

More from Houston: Of the nine first-round singles matches yesterday, only one went to three sets.  That was the tilt between Carlos Berlocq and James Blake.  Berlocq won a first-set tiebreak before Blake came charging back, eventually winning 6-7 6-3 6-4.  The numbers from that match are positively bizarre.  Blake made only 47% of first serves, and faced twenty break points.  Berlocq only converted two of them.

Ryan Harrison had just as bad a day as Becker did.  He lost in straights to Horacio Zeballos, then dropped his doubles match against … Zeballos.  It will be interesting to see if Harrison is able to make any kind of statement on clay this year, as he won’t have the benefit of the wild cards he has received stateside.

Today’s schedule consists of the bottom half of the draw–four singles matches including Isner’s and Querrey’s.  Querrey will face a rematch of his Delray Beach loss against Ryan Sweeting, while Isner confronts Zeballos.  Karlovic should coast into the quarterfinals thanks to a matchup with Kunitsyn.

Getting interesting: I mentioned yesterday that the field is Casablanca isn’t very compelling.  A trio of upsets already today have lowered the quality, but perhaps they have made the event more interesting.

In three singles matches so far today, the 2nd, 4th, and 6th seeds have all lost.  #2 seed Marcos Baghdatis fell in three sets to 20-year-old Russian qualifier Andrey Kuznetsov, and #4 seed Andrey Golubev lost to Pere Riba after bagelling Riba in the first set.

8th seed Victor Hanescu plays Michael Berrer in a little while, and given the way things have gone so far today, he should be very concerned.

We’ll check back in with the challengers tomorrow–see you then!

Net-rushing, or The Stats We Don’t Have

In yesterday’s morning recap, I made the following comment about Nadal’s baseline game:

The one baffling thing is Nadal’s reluctance to come to net.   He was often standing right on the baseline, even hitting groundstrokes from a step inside the baseline.  Yet he almost never came forward unless forced.  Even with an imperfect net game, even against the passing-shot machine that is Djokovic, I think he would’ve been more successful taking advantage of some of those offensive positions.

In the comments, Tom Welsh laid out the flip side of the argument concisely:

During the Nadal-Djokovic match yesterday I noticed several occasions when each of those brilliant players came in to the net and was left looking like a hopeless beginner – either by a passing shot, or a sizzling ground stroke to the short ribs, or by a perfect lob landing just a couple of feet inside the baseline. I’m not tennis player, but it seems to me that no one can afford to come in these days unless the opponent is stretched to the breaking point. Even then, it’s taking a big risk.

That’s the argument in a nutshell.  Even more briefly:

  • PRO: Players should be more aggressive and come forward more often.
  • CON: In the modern-day game, approaching the net is usually too risky.

Which is it?

Pick your poison

The first thing that needs to be understood is that, against an elite tennis player, anything is a risk.  Short of a decisive smash, any shot you hit is likely to come back, and there’s a non-zero chance that what comes back is going to be a winner.  Choosing to come forward isn’t a decision between risk and no risk, it’s a matter of degree.

The main difference is that, if you come forward and fail, you’ll look like a fool, and your opponent will look brilliant, in the ways Tom described.  If you stay back and fail, it’s somehow more understandable–in a 15-stroke rally between top players, somebody has to lose.  Of course, you lose the point either way.

One of the problems of arguing this point with anecdotal evidence is that I think we, as both fans and players, remember the brilliant passing shots and jaw-dropping lobs.  If you rush the net and your opponent misses what would’ve been a sensational running forehand, you remember the amazing shot-that-almost-was.  Human brains don’t default to probabilistic calculations, while brilliant moments catch and keep our attention.

Commentators, steeped in strategy of the 70’s and 80’s, will always want too much net-rushing.  Most players will tend to stay back too much.  If we can ever establish the proper opportunities to come forward, the “correct” answer will turn out to be somewhere in between.

Where the stats fail

Answering the question analytically will be very difficult, and given the information currently out there, it’s flat-out impossible.

In the meantime, let’s think through what it would take to answer the question.  Starting with what I take to be the question itself:

Given his skillset, his opponent’s skillset, and each player’s position on the court, when should a player come forward?

That’s a lot of stuff we can’t quantify.  Even if we posit a couple of generic pro players, it’s still an unanswerable question.

Particularly useless are existing net stats.  Occasionally during a match, a broadcast will show us that so-and-so has won 5 out of 8 points at net.  The commentators reliably chime in, usually suggesting that the player has better net skills that we give him credit for (perhaps he’s been playing some doubles lately), and that he would benefit by coming in more.

In most cases, those 8 points couldn’t be less relevant.  Think back to Sunday’s Nadal-Djokovic match.  Much of the time Nadal came forward, it was in response to a Djokovic drop shot.  In other words, Nadal came forward on the defense!  I’m guessing he lost most of those points.  On the flip side, imagine Del Potro cracking a serve out wide, then coming in behind it to hit a swinging volley winner.  That’s 1-for-1 on the net point tally, but it doesn’t say a thing about Delpo’s deftness of touch around the net.

A framework

Let’s imagine that we suddenly had access to Hawkeye’s shot-by-shot data.  We’d know the hit point for every ball of every point of every match where the Hawkeye system was installed.  (Drool.)

If we knew that, we could come up with a fairly simple model to estimate the likelihood of winning a point from any position on the court, against a certain quality of shot.  Standing at the middle of the baseline smacking a 60 mph service return, you might have a 70% chance of winning the point.  Stuck in the backhand corner after your opponent has cracked a 90mph groundstroke, and it might be more like 20%.

The details of the model aren’t important.  What matters is that, with a certain data set, we could estimate the probability of winning a point given a variety of conditions.

Extending this framework to analyze a tactic like net-rushing wouldn’t be that complicated.  Let’s say Nadal is standing on the baseline with a 70% chance of winning the point.  No matter what he does afterward, he will probably hit a forehand into one corner or the other, after which we can once again estimate his probability of winning the point.  From there, he has two choices: Come forward, or stay back.  Some game theory might get involved, since his opponent will probably see him approach the net and may change his own strategy accordingly.

Again, we can work out the details when there is data to play with.  Given these relatively simple figures, we could estimate Nadal’s probability of winning the point coming forward behind his forehand and staying back after hitting the shot.

The numbers would give a better way of judging whether a particular play is advisable.  For Nadal, it may turn out that staying back is always smarter–after all, the numbers will probably tell us that, from any given position, he has a better chance than nearly anyone else of winning the point.  But, say, Ivo Karlovic may be better off coming in behind the exact same shot from the same position.  There’s a continuum between the extremes, of course, and we’ll need to know a lot more before we know what that looks like.

In the meantime, I’d still like to see Nadal come forward–and I’ll try harder to remember the times when his opponent goes for a blistering passing shot and misses.

Tuesday Topspin: Seeing Red

ATP: A couple of days ago, I suggested that Grigor Dimitrov might have trouble with Rainer Schuettler in his opening round match in Houston.  I’m sorry, Grigor; I’ve been shown the error of my ways.  Dimitrov won 6-0 6-2.

Dimitrov’s was one of only a handful of main draw matches played in Houston yesterday, while the four qualifying matches took center stage.  An American was in each of the four, but only one U.S. player came out of qualifying.  Tim Smyczek scored the victory over Frank Dancevic, his first straight-setter of the week.  Smyczek plays Ryan Sweeting in the first round today.

The player who made a statement in qualifying was Ivo Karlovic.  He didn’t lose serve in three matches and handily disposed of Donald Young yesterday, 6-4 6-4.  (For Ivo, that’s a blowout.)  He draws Benjamin Becker today, in a match that may set records for most aces on clay.

A couple more highlights of the day in Houston are James Blake vs Carlos Berlocq, and Ryan Harrison vs Horacio Zeballos.  (I commented on those a couple of days ago.) Nine of the 28 players in the main draw are Americans, which is by far the highest proportion you’ll see all year for a clay court event.

Most of the first round is complete is Casablanca, as well.  I can’t imagine a more yawn-inducing draw.

Wild cards: By contrast, the Monte Carlo Masters, taking place next week, has a positively electrifying draw, and it just got better.  Neither Andy Murray nor Tomas Berdych were originally intending to play, but both have accepted wild cards.  That means nine of the ATP top 10–that is, everyone but Robin Soderling–is slated to be there.

Challengers: The strongest Challenger field this week is in Monza, Italy.  The most notable entrant, however, is the lowest-ranked man in the draw.  The tournament gave another wild card to Thomas Muster, who plays his opening-round match against Frenchman David Guez.  Also of interest in Monza is young Russian Evgeny Donskoy, who easily handled Lithuanian wild card Laurynas Grigelis, 6-1 6-2.

Two other challengers are taking place in South America.  The event in Pereira, Colombia is mostly worth mentioning because tournament organizers did what the planners in Barranquilla did not: They stacked the draw with Colombians.  Seven of 32 contestants are local boys, including top seed Alejandro Falla and three wild cards.  They are still drastically outnumbered by the Argentines, of whom 12 are in the main draw.

Finally, the challenger in Recife, Brazil, started out with a weak field and has already gotten weaker.  The cut was over 400, and top seed Marco Chiudinelli retired from his first-round match.  That leaves the highest-ranked player in the draw as #166 Tatsuma Ito.  There are futures events that are not so heavily tilted toward local players: 16 of the 32 men in the main draw are Brazilians.

Interview: Last week, I did a Q&A for a site called The Let Tennis about statistics in tennis.  You can read it here.

Finally, check back later today — I’ll be posting something this afternoon.  See you then!

Monday Topspin: Thriller

Djokovic undefeated: Novak Djokovic has yet to lose a match this season, and now holds two consecutive masters crowns.  In the process, he opened up some distance between himself and Roger Federer in the ATP rankings, and planted the seed in some people’s minds that he might be deserving of the #1 spot.  By just about any standard, he’s already the best player in the world on hard courts.

It wasn’t easy.  As in Indian Wells two weeks ago, Rafael Nadal came out in fine form, taking the first set after racing to a 5-1, double-break lead.  Djokovic narrowed the gap but was unable to make up the difference.  The Serbian won a hard-fought second set, then the two players settled in to trade service holds up to a tiebreak.  Djokovic got a couple of mini-breaks, including one on a Nadal double fault, and won the match 4-6 6-3 7-6(4).

What amazes me is how anybody beats either of these guys, particularly Nadal.  I know from the stats that he made his share of unforced errors (including several double faults), but I can’t remember very many of them.  What sticks in the mind is Rafa running down everything, turning defensive positions into offensive shots, over and over again.  Both players were near the top of their game yesterday, and Djokovic was able to rack up a just a few more winners.

The one baffling thing is Nadal’s reluctance to come to net.  (I know, I’m starting to sound like a TV announcer–I promise it’s just a coincidence that I’m making this sort of comment two days in a row.)  He was often standing right on the baseline, even hitting groundstrokes from a step inside the baseline.  Yet he almost never came forward unless forced.  Even with an imperfect net game, even against the passing-shot machine that is Djokovic, I think he would’ve been more successful taking advantage of some of those offensive positions.

Now, we have two streaks to watch going into the clay-court season.  Both players will be at the Monte Carlo Masters, where Djokovic will try to build on his 26-match winning streak.  Nadal has a 24-match winning streak on clay, including every match he played last year plus two Davis Cup rubbers in 2009.  One of them will have to fall by this time two weeks from now, and I suspect it will be Djokovic’s turn to play runner-up.

Rankings: The major storyline this week is the arrival of a new American #1.  Mardy Fish jumped four spots to #11 with his semifinal showing in Miami, while Andy Roddick fell to #14 by failing to defend his title.  That’s Roddick’s lowest ranking since Wimbledon, 2002, and it’s Fish’s career high.

Robin Soderling also failed to defend his 2010 points, and handed the #4 spot back to Andy Murray.

Other gainers this week are Gilles Simon (up 4 to #23), Kevin Anderson (up 7 to #33), Janko Tipsarevic (up 6 to #38), Juan Martin del Potro (up 6 to #45), and Olivier Rochus (up 13 to #73).

Four players hit important milestones with Challenger-level wins.  Andreas Haider-Maurer broke into the top 100 for the first time with a win at Caltanissetta and a semifinal showing at Barletta.  Facundo Bagnis and Maxime Teixeira won tournaments in Barranquilla and St. Brieuc, respectively, each reaching the top 200 for the first time in their young careers.  The most remarkable result belongs to Aljaz Bedene, a Slovenian who won in Barletta on a wild card.  Bedene ascends 206 ranking spots to #282, only 16 off his career high.

Houston qualifying: By the end of the day, the last four players will be entered into the draw at the U.S. Clay Court Championships.  The final four qualifying matches each have one American, with Alex Bogomolov, Donald Young, Tim Smyczek, and Rajeev Ram still in the running.  It won’t be easy for these guys to make the main draw, however, as Young must defeat Ivo Karlovic, and Ram needs to beat Paul Capdeville.

With less tennis to watch this week, I’m hoping to break out some clay-court rankings by next Monday, as well as a couple of other mini-studies I’m working on.  Stay tuned!

Sunday Topspin: Another Showdown

Top two: At 1:00 PM today, Novak Djokovic will attempt to remain undefeated for the season, and Rafael Nadal will try to claim his first title of 2011.  Neither will prove to be an easy task.

The top two players in the world last met two weeks ago, in the final at Indian Wells, where Djokovic won after dropping the first set.  Today may be more favorable to Nadal, given the humid conditions in Miami and the confidence gained by a thorough drubbing of Roger Federer.

For all that, I have a hard time picking Nadal for the win.  Djokovic has been so dominant this week as to be boring.  A few bagels make news until they are so routine that you stop noticing.  The Serbian hasn’t been pushed beyond 6-4 in any set, and has dropped only 18 games in five matches.  Nadal has been impressive, as well, but the set he lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals remind us that he’s human.

The oddsmakers give Nadal a slender advantage, suggesting he has a 53% chance of winning.  I think Djokovic will triumph again–a short-lived victory, since their next meeting is likely to come on clay, where the percentages associated with Nadal will be much higher than 53%.

Challengers: In Barletta, the final will be contested today between Filippo Volandri and a surprise contender, Slovenian wild card Aljaz Bedene.  Bedene is currently ranked outside top 400, and has a career high in the 200s.  He is only 21, and appears to be coming back from an injury that kept him out of action for the entire second half of 2010.  It’s been a solid run to get him to the final, including victories over Albert Ramos and Alessio di Mauro, neither one an easy opponent on clay.

The final at St. Brieuc involves another up-and-comer, 22-year-old Frenchman Maxime Teixeira, who will face the younger, more heralded Benoit Paire.  Paire is hoping to inch a couple of spots closer to the top 100, while his opponent has more conservative goals.  A win for Paire would move him to #115, while Teixeira, who started last week at #267 and also reached the final in Marrakech, could climb as high as #189.

Finally, the Barranquilla challenger will be between two Argentines, Facundo Bagnis and Diego Junquiera.  Bagnis is yet another prospect, a 21-year-old who will break into the top 200 with his performance this week.  Bagnis shut down the persistent Flavio Cipolla in the semifinals, while Junquiera needed three sets (and two tiebreaks) to win his match with second-seeded Horacio Zeballos.

Clay already: Once the yellow fuzz is settled in Miami, our attention will turn to the clay-court season, with 250-level events in Casablanca and Houston.  The level of play will probably be higher in Casablanca, as more clay-courters will be there, but Houston is likely to host more intriguing matchups, for the very same reason.

The draws are already out; here are a few of the first-rounders in Texas:

  • James Blake vs Carlos Berlocq.  As we saw last week, Berlocq isn’t even an easy win on hard courts, and he’s had a ton of success lately in clay-court challengers.
  • Ryan Harrison vs Zeballos.  As I’ve said before, I’m not sure why Zeballos plays so much on clay; his game seems more versatile than that.  In any event, he wins a lot of matches against better clay-courters than Harrison.
  • Grigor Dimitrov vs Rainer Schuettler.  This probably isn’t a good draw for Dimitrov.  I suspect the Bulgarian could beat a lot of guys at this tournament, but Schuettler may be too consistent for him.

In a second-round qualifying match today, veterans Ivo Karlovic and Jose Acasuso will face off.  Also in action: top qualifying seed Alex Bogomolov will play Nicholas Massu.  Paul Capdeville is also in qualies, meaning that there could be a few dangerous guys coming out of qualifying, as well.

Bookmark it: A few days ago in the comments, Olivier called my attention to this site, which updates ATP rankings live.  Very impressive.  I’m already a frequent visitor.

See you tomorrow!