In most of his matches, John Isner makes his opponents look short and their serves look weak. What happens, then, when his opponent really is short, with one of the weakest serves in the game?
Third up on grandstand today, Isner takes on Filippo Volandri, the man who sets records Isner will never reach. Three years ago, the Italian failed to hit a single ace for 19 straight matches. Volandri may not be as short as some players on tour–the ATP site lists him at six feet–but it’s more common for him to fail to hit an ace in a match than it is for him to hit one.
In the last year, Isner has hit nearly 19% of his first serves for aces, good for best among tour regulars. In the top 50, the other extreme is represented by Nikolay Davydenko, whose rate is just under 3%. Volandri–despite playing many weaker opponents on the Challenger tour–sits at 0.8%.
The good news for Big John is that the 31-year-old Volandri is a nonentity on hard courts, having not played on the surface since losing in the first round of the Australian. The bad news? He’ll have to hit a lot of returns today.
As my forecast very delicately predicted, Fernando Verdasco didn’t live up to his seed, losing to the barely-unseeded Ivan Dodig yesterday in five sets. That’s the fourth slam this year in which he’s lost in a five-setter.
Verdasco, with his flashy talent and underwhelming results, comes in for his share of fan mockery. But this is one time he doesn’t deserve it. Out of the several dozen players who enter all four slams each year, almost all will lose four matches. While it may be frustrating to lose in five, losing in five, all else equal, says better things about your game than losing in three.
One of those five-set losses this year was to Andy Murray at Wimbledon; the other two previous contests were against Janko Tipsarevic and Kevin Anderson. Perhaps Fernando should have finished off at least one of those matches, but none of his four slam losses this year are nearly as groan-inducing as, say, Ernests Gulbis‘s disaster yesterday against Andreas Haider-Maurer. And his record is nothing compared to Marinko Matosevic‘s streak of 11 losses in 11 slam appearances.
Verdasco is the sixth man in the Open era to complete this distinctive slam feat, and he’s not in bad company. Last year, Isner did it–and added an exclamation point with a five-set loss in Davis Cup. Before that, the most recent were Fernando Gonzalez in 2006 and Tim Henman in 2000. Not bad company.
Anyway, if you’re drawn to this unusual feat, don’t miss Steve Johnson‘s first-round match with Tobias Kamke. It’s last on Court 13 today. Johnson is three-quarters of the way to the Fernando slam, losing all three of his matches at majors this year in five sets. If he completes the set, it will be particularly impressive for at least one man: Kamke has won only two five-setters in his career.
As part of IBM’s ham-handed PR push leading up to another slam, the company gave analyst and coach Craig O’Shannessy some data. He reported some results on both the ATP site and the New York Times Straight Sets blog.
This is a huge step up from the thinly-veiled advertisement I highlighted yesterday. But it still, frustratingly, falls short.
One of the major points of Craig’s ATP piece is summarized at the beginning: “Most baseline points are a losing proposition,” and “Approaching the net is a goldmine.” Later, he continues, “It seems amazing that players don’t venture forward more often to capitalize on the far higher winning percentage approaching offers over baseline play.”
Is this the data-driven, actionable advice I pleaded for last week? Not quite.
As I’m sure Craig would agree, opportunities to come to net aren’t always available, and they don’t arise in a vacuum. Especially in today’s baseline-focused game, net points tend to occur when one player hits a particularly weak shot. So if most net points end in victory for the player who approaches, is that because of the choice to come to net, or the weak shot that generated that opportunity?
Think about it probabilistically. When Djokovic serves against Tsonga, let’s say he has a 75% chance of winning a first serve point. If Tsonga hits a weak chip return in the middle of the court, allowing Novak to take several steps forward, we could figure that Djokovic’s chance of winning the point increases to 95%–perhaps higher. When Novak puts away his second shot, he wins the point. Formally speaking, his chance of winning jumps to 100%.
Now, in that example, what do you credit as the reason for Djokovic winning the point? Landing a solid first serve, which gives him a 75% chance of winning instead of, say, 60%? A particularly good first serve, which forced the weak return? Tsonga’s poor return? Or Novak’s “choice” to approach the net?
That final choice is laughable. And this is the data he’s drawing from. Aside from a few particularly aggressive players on tour, that’s the profile of a net point in 2013.
So, what’s the actionable advice here? You probably shouldn’t approach the net without a reasonable opening, so … hit bigger serves to get more weak returns? Hit deep groundstrokes into corners? Take advantage of short balls?
These are the benefits we reap from “Big Data?”
IBM clearly wants to wow us with this stuff. Yet the “findings” are so elementary as to be useless. The solution is so simple: release the data, let fans and analysts innovate, and watch the quality of this work go through the roof.