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 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 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 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.

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