Category Archives: American tennis

Dodig’s Consistency, IBM’s Offensive, and Hopeless Wild Cards

Ivan Dodig just missed out on a seeding at this year’s US Open.  Ranked 37th when seeds were assigned, he had ascended as high as #35, largely on the strength of his fourth-round showing at Wimbledon.

While the Croatian could have drawn any seed as early as the first round, he got lucky, pulling 27th-seeded Fernando Verdasco.  My forecast underlines his fortune, giving him a 51% chance to advance to the round of 64, then roughly even odds again to make the round of 32 against (probably) Nikolay Davydenko–another player who fell just outside the seed cut.

Making the Dodig-Verdasco comparison more interesting is that in the last 52 weeks, the unseeded player has won more matches (38 to 29) with a higher winning percentage (58% to 56%).  What the Spaniard has done, however, is bunch his wins much more effectively than his first round opponent.  While Dodig achieved a career highlight with his R16 showing in London, Verdasco made the quarters.  Fernando reached the final in Bastad, and earlier in the year, won two matches at the Madrid Masters.

A telling comparison is that while Dodig has lost five opening-round matches in the last year, Verdasco has lost nine.  As Carl Bialik explained two years ago, consistency isn’t such a great thing in tennis.  Certainly, the ATP rankings–and the seedings that utilize them–prefer inconsistency.

You know there’s a Grand Slam in the offing when the PR pieces from IBM start to appear.  Last week, a particularly bald-faced plant showed up in the New York Times, a publication that–one fervently hopes–should know better.

This particular piece includes such hard-hitting journalism as, “The keys are updated during matches to track any shift in momentum, and they correlate well with the final outcome,” and “These extra features are likely to drive traffic to the event’s Web site, USOpen.org, and its various mobile versions. “

The Times should be embarrassed.  What makes this particularly frustrating to the statistically-oriented fan is that while IBM speaks the right language, the results of this effort to “fulfill fans’ desire for deeper knowledge” are so disappointing.

The much-vaunted Keys to the Match are frequently arbitrary, often bizarre.  In Kei Nishikori‘s second-round match at Wimbledon, one of his “Keys” was to “Win between 71 and 89 of winners on the forehand side.”  He didn’t do that–whatever it means, exactly. He didn’t meet the goals set by his two other Keys, either, yet he won the match in straight sets.

Most frustrating to those of us who want actual analysis, the underlying data–to the extent it is available at all–is buried almost beyond the possibility of a fan’s use.  IBM–like Hawkeye–is collecting so much data, yet doing so little with it.

Lots of fans do desire more statistical insight. Much more. The raw material is increasingly collected, yet the deeper knowledge remains elusive.

Stay with me as I leap from one hobby-horse to another.

Wild cards cropped up as a topic of conversation last weekend, largely thanks to Lindsay Gibbs’s piece for Sports on Earth, in which Jose Higueras said, “If it was up to me, there would be no wild cards. Wild cards create entitlement for the kids. I think you should be in the draw if you actually are good enough to get in the draw.”

I don’t object to wild cards used as rewards, like the one that goes to the USTA Boys’ 18s champion, or the ones that the USTA awards based on Challenger performance in a set series of events.  There’s even a place for WCs as a way to get former greats into the draw. James Blake shouldn’t have gotten the deluge of free passes that he has received in the last few years, but it’s probably good for the sport to have him in more top-level events than he strictly deserves.

The problem stems from all the other wild cards, and not just from a player development perspective.  Are fans going to get that much enjoyment out of one or two matches from the likes of Rhyne Williams and Ryan Harrison, Americans who didn’t have a high enough ranking to make the cut?  Of the fourteen Americans in the men’s main draw, six were wild cards, and it would shock no one if those six guys failed to win a single match.

There are further effects, as well.  By exempting Williams, Harrison, Tim Smyczek, and Brian Baker from the qualifying tournament, fans seeking quality American tennis last week barely got to see any.  Donald Young–who has received far too many wild cards himself–was the only American to qualify, largely because the US players at the same level as the other would-be qualifiers didn’t have to compete.  The remaining Americans were in over their heads.

This leads me to a great alternative suggested by Juan José Vallejo on Twitter: Be liberal with free passes in qualifying, and take the opportunity to promote those early rounds much more.  At the Citi Open a few weeks ago, the crowds on Saturday and Sunday for qualifying were comparable to those Monday and Tuesday.  Because qualifying often falls on the weekend, the crowds are there.  But if they want to see Jack Sock play, they’ve got to come back Tuesday night (and spend a lot more money), and they’re much more likely to see him overmatched by a better, more experienced player.

Cut the entitlement, improve the quality of main draw play, and give the fans more chances to watch up-and-coming stars.  I wish there was a chance this would happen.

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How Much Do Wild Cards Matter?

Last week, I presented a lot of data that demonstrated how American (and to a lesser extent, French, Australian, and British) players receive the bulk of ATP wild cards, mostly because there are so many tournaments in these countries.  That leaves nationals of other countries to fight their way up through the rankings more slowly, earning less money and facing tougher odds.

How bad is it?  Does it really help to get a handful of free entries, especially if most wild cards are doomed to lose in the first round or two?

To get a sense of the effect, let’s take a look at Jack Sock, the most gifted recipient of wild cards in 2012.  He entered seven tour-level events this year, all on free passes.  (He was also wildcarded into another three challengers and the Cincinnati Masters qualifying draw.)  If you take away the wild cards, he would’ve played a couple of challengers, some qualifying draws for US 250s, leaving him to fill most of his calendar with futures.

As it is, Sock has boosted his ranking from 381 to 164 in a single year, earning $137,000 along the way.  About half of that comes from his third-round showing at the US Open, which required him to beat Florian Mayer (who retired) and Flavio Cipolla, not a particularly tall order (as it were).  Another $27,000 came entirely from first-round losses–tournaments that he didn’t earn his way into, and where he failed to win a match.

I don’t mean to pick on Sock.  Kudos to him for winning as many matches as he has this year and establishing himself as one of the better prospects in the game.  But if he weren’t from a Grand Slam-hosting country, he would have been lucky to get a single wild card, perhaps benefiting from two or three freebies at the challenger level.  He would have spent most of 2012 on the futures circuit, hoping to pick up the occasional $1,300 winner’s check.

What would have happened then?  A handy test case is Diego Sebastian Schwartzman, a young Argentine about one month older than Sock.  At the end of last year, Schwartzman was ranked 371 to Sock’s 381.  Schwartzman doesn’t exactly constitute a scientific control group, but as a point of reference, we couldn’t ask for much more.

In terms of on-court performance, Schwartzman may well have had a better 2012 than Sock did.  The Argentine won six Futures events on the South American clay, and he added another four doubles titles at that level.  He wasn’t nearly as successful at the next level, going 5-10 in Challenger and ATP qualifiying matches.  Perhaps he was a bit worn down from his 49 Futures singles matches this year.

It’s an open question whether Sock or Schwartzman had the more impressive year.  Some might prefer the American’s challenger title and handful of top-100 scalps; others would prefer Schwartzman’s 30-match winning streak at the Futures level.

But here’s the kicker: While Sock made $137,000 and raised his ranking to #164, Schwartzman made $17,000 and is currently ranked #245.  By showing up at the Indian Wells Masters and losing in the first round, Sock made about as much money as Schwartzman did by winning six tournaments.

The rankings differential isn’t as striking, but it is just as important for both players in the near future.  Sock was able to earn direct entry in the Tiburon Challenger earlier this month.  A ranking inside the top 200 is good enough to get into almost all Challengers and a substantial number of ATP qualifiers.  245 will get you into many of the Challenger events with lower stakes (read: less money, fewer points on offer) and a much smaller number of ATP qualifiers.

Thus, the favors handed to the American–and never considered for the Argentine–will effect the trajectory of both players’ careers for some time to come.

Andrea Collarini, perhaps you’d like to reconsider?

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Filed under American tennis, Diego Sebastian Schwartzman, Jack Sock, Wild cards

What Grega Zemlja Can Tell Us About American Tennis

Last week, virtually unknown Slovenian qualifier Grega Zemlja reached the final in Vienna.  Like many players–Eastern Europeans in particular–in the back half of the top 100, he has finally established a toehold on tour after putting together a good sequence of challenger results.

The final run in Vienna–only his 16th tour-level event–will help keep him in the top 100 for most of the next year, earning him direct entries into all of the Grand Slams and many smaller ATP events.

Zemlja turned 26 one month ago, so he is hardly a “prospect.”  But I call your attention to him because he has achieved his new berth in the top 50 almost entirely by merit.  When the AELTC awarded him a wild card into the Wimbledon main draw this summer, it was the first tour-level wild card of his career.  In fact, he has only received a single wild card into a challenger main draw.

While the Slovenian has been a fixture in the top 200 since the end of 2008, he hasn’t gotten any favors.

The distribution of wild cards

As it turns out, he’s not alone.  21 players in the top 100 (including Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic) didn’t receive a single tour-level wild card before their 25th birthday.  Another 16 (Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer among them) got only one, and yet another 23 received only two.

When I started researching this post, I expected to find that Zemlja was uniquely disadvantaged.  But no: Wild cards are the privilege of players who happen to be born in the right places.  Free entries tend to go to home favorites, with a few more awarded to star youngsters like Grigor Dimitrov.

Thus, the geographical distribution of wild cards has everything to do with where tournaments are located.  And tournament locations have an awful lot to do with where the tennis world was centered 20, 50, or even 100 years ago.

The U.S. of Assistance

Much has been said of Donald Young‘s 27 tour-level wild cards.  (Some of it by Patrick McEnroe, recipient of 37.)  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Did you know that the seven active players who received the most wild cards before age 25 play for the USA?  Young is followed by Mardy Fish, Ryan Harrison, Sam Querrey, Jesse Levine, John Isner, and James Blake.  (Blake has been handed by far the most career wild cards, but the majority have come in his more recent comeback attempts.)

The current top 200 players received 748 wild cards before the age of 25.  139, or 18.6% of those, have gone to these seven, or 3.5% of players.

Put simply, the distribution of tennis tournaments doesn’t match the distribution of tennis talent.  The US is the only country with more than one Masters 1000 event–it has three.  Plus a slam.  And two 500s.  And another seven 250s, at least in 2012.

All those tournaments have at least three wild cards to give out.  This year, seven of them handed main draw spots to Jack Sock, who at age 20 has already amassed 10 career tour-level wild cards, more WCs than 90% of the top 200 have received.

A structural problem

This is an easy subject to get worked up about, especially if you prefer to root for players like Zemlja.  Yet it’s difficult to blame anyone in particular.

Tournaments fiercely guard the few wild card spots they are given, so it would be difficult for the ATP to meddle.  The events want to attract fans, and an up-and-comer with an easy-to-pronounce name is a great way to sell tickets.  And you certainly can’t blame a player for accepting main draw berths.

Here’s a modest proposal: Convert a few more “wild card” spots to merit-based spots.  The USTA is doing more of this, setting up playoffs for reciprocal wild card placements at the Australian and French Opens, among other strategies.  But that doesn’t help with geographical distribution, since only Americans can compete!

Better yet is a version of how Zemlja got into Wimbledon.  He won the Nottingham challenger two weeks previous, and the AELTC wasn’t going to give away all the free spots to Brits.  The Slovenian was a deserving up-and-comer, even though he doesn’t play under the right flag.

Perhaps every Slam and Masters event should reserve a spot for the winner of a corresponding challenger.  Or every tournament with a 48-or-bigger draw should be required to hand at least one wild card to a non-national.

If a player is good enough, he’ll break in eventually.  But wouldn’t the sport be better off if some players didn’t have to wait longer than others, based simply on how many tournaments are played in the country they play for?

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Tuesday Topspin: Catching Up

Rankings report: It’s a fascinating time of the year in the rankings, as the French Open approaches and the value of a ranking in the top 32 (or 34 or 35, depending on injuries) rises.  As I wrote in February, a seed increases a player’s chances of advancing further in the tournament.  The benefit is most marked in the 30-35 range, where #32 won’t have to face another seed until the third round, while #35 could draw Rafael Nadal in the first round.

By winning in Estoril and Munich, respectively, both Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko bounced back into the top 32–Davydenko up 12 places to #28, and Delpo up 14 to #32.  Florian Mayer, the other finalist in Munich, also moved up from #35 to #30 on last week’s result.

Another big gainer was James Blake, up 40 spots to #109 on the strength of his title in Sarasota.  The losing finalist at that tournament, Alex Bogomolov, rose to #91, his career high.  Also marking a career best is Benoit Paire, who reached the semifinal in Ostrava, good enough to get him to #99, his first time in the top 100.

Big losers include Fernando Verdasco, down yet another two spots to #17, and Ernests Gulbis, who fell a whopping 31 places down to #64.  At the rate he’s going, he’ll have to qualify for Masters 1000 events this summer.

Pobrecitos: Every year, I go into the clay court season knowing it will be bad for Americans, yet every year, the top Americans manage to disappoint.  Andy Roddick may have reached a new low, losing to qualifer Flavio Cipolla.  I love Cipolla, but I root for him with full knowledge of his limitations, and those limitations should include an inability to beat Roddick.  Yet the Italian came through a very tight match, breaking four times to Andy’s two.

In the second round, Cipolla will face Michael Llodra, who had a much easier time dispatching his American opponent, allowing Sam Querrey only five games.  Querrey won only 51% of his service points, a disappointing number regardless of surface.  The only American in the second round is John Isner, who served his way past Mardy Fish.

Matches to watch: The first round isn’t quite over,  and the remaining matches include many blockbusters.  On the card for tomorrow:

  • del Potro vs Mikhail Youhzny.  The Russian hasn’t shown much in months, while Delpo sent the rest of the field a message with his 6-2 6-2 drubbing of Verdasco in the Estoril final.
  • Milos Raonic vs Feliciano Lopez.  Lopez is playing well, challenging Novak Djokovic in the Belgrade final and reaching the quarters in Barcelona.  Assuming Raonic’s back holds up, his recent results suggest he should make this match a close one.  They’ll play each other in doubles, as well, Raonic with Nicholas Almagro, and Lopez with Verdasco.
  • Kevin Anderson vs Olivier Rochus. If nothing else, it should be entertaining to watch Rochus threaten a guy more than a foot taller than he is.  The winner gets Djokovic
  • Guillermo Garcia-Lopez vs Thiemo de Bakker.  This second-rounder features two guys who weren’t favored to get there.  GGL beat 14th seed Stanislas Wawrinka (who is having an awful clay season), while de Bakker won a three-setter over Juan Carlos Ferrero.  Both guys are capable of playing at a top-20 level, and both have already recorded solid victories this week.
Two’s are wild: There are some great, bizarre doubles pairings this week.  Roddick played with Mark Knowles, becoming one of the first doubles losers of the tournament on Sunday.  Fish and Delpo are teaming up; they’ll face the equally star-studded team of Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  It isn’t quite the doubles fiesta of Indian Wells, but we’ll get to see plenty of top singles players out of their comfort zones.

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Friday Topspin: Youth is Returned

Goodbye, Americans: Jack Sock had his chance, and he let it slip away.  The Miami draw gave him a great chance of racking up plenty of ranking points through a first-round matchup with Carlos Berlocq, a clay-court specialist.  Neither player made more than 55% of first serves, and Sock won barely half of his first-serve points.

It gets worse.  The American earned 13 break points, of which he only converted three.  I don’t want to be too hard on Sock–he’s 18 and ranked outside of the top 500, so it’s not like he came in with high expectations.  Yet, I’m sure he knows as well as the fans do that he was awfully close to a 1000-level win.

Measured by points, Sock outperformed his countryman Ryan Harrison, who fell 7-5 6-2 to Rainer Schuettler.  As in Sock’s match, the culprit was the first serve percentage: Harrison barely made half.  Schuettler is too consistent and too smart to lose when he gets all those second balls.

Youth, gone: It wasn’t a good day for other youngsters, either.  Grigor Dimitrov lost in straights to Sergiy Stakhovsky, and Richard Berankis failed to convert a second-set tiebreak and lost to Feliciano Lopez in three.

The result I’m happy to see is Kei Nishikori over Jeremy Chardy.  If nothing else, it tells us that Nishikori is able to successfully focus on tennis very shortly after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Kei’s performance is the flip side of Sock’s and Harrison’s: He made 78% of his first serves, a figure that may have made the difference in a fairly close match.

As a reward for his hard work, Nishikori gets to face Rafael Nadal tomorrow.

One more: Just when you think Ivo Karlovic is unstoppable, he reminds you that the serve is fallible and the rest of his game will never save him.  Florian Mayer, who my hard court rankings place in the top 25, took down the Croat in straights, withstood 10 aces and took advantage of Karlovic’s weak return game.  Mayer won an astounding 86% of his own service points.

Today: Half of the seeds are in action, each facing one of Wednesday’s winners.  In a way, the second round of these 96-player events is less exiting than the first, because so many of the seconder-rounders seem to be lopsided.  Still, here are a few matches worth following today:

  • Milos Raonic vs Somdev Devvarman: Before Indian Wells, Raonic was hot; after, Devvarman’s the one with the momentum.  I suspect that Devvarman’s speed won’t play terribly well against the Canadian’s big game, meaning that the result will depend heavily on whether Raonic is able to bring the game that won him so many indoor matches.
  • Philipp Kohlschreiber vs Juan Martin del Potro: Last week, this was one of the highlights of the tournament, as Del Potro fought with stomach issues to defeat the German in two tiebreaks.  Kohlschreiber should feel like he has a chance here.
  • Thomaz Bellucci vs James Blake: Bellucci has yet to post many good results on hard courts, and Blake is unlikely to be fazed by the lefty spin off the Brazilian’s racquet.  It’s about a good a draw as Blake could have hoped for.
  • Mikhail Kukushkin vs Sam Querrey: If you’re looking for a possible upset, look no further.  Kukushkin is about an anonymous a player as you can be inside the top 100, yet he snuck by Jarkko Nieminen to reach the second round.  And as we’ve seen, Querrey has it in him to lose to almost anybody.
  • Igor Andreev vs John Isner: Another upset chance.  Andreev has a solid return game and, when he’s on his game, he’s remarkably resourceful on the court.  Not a very favorable first match for Isner.

As you can see, lots of good tennis today, especially if you’re willing to look past the lopsided matches on center court.

Stebe watch: Regular readers will have noticed that I’m obsessed with the progress of the young German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe.  Last week, he reached his second straight semifinal then lost 6-2 6-0 to Uladzimir Ignatik.  This week, in Pingguo, he got to the quarters, where last night, he faced Ignatik once again.

Apparently the German learned something: He beat Ignatik in three sets, winning the first and losing the second in tiebreaks.  In the semifinals, he’ll face top seed Go Soeda, who he defeated in the semifinals two weeks ago in Kyoto.

See you tomorrow!

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Wednesday Topspin: Young Sneaks In

Miami draw is set: All 96 players, including 12 qualifiers, are placed.  Matches begin with the first round of the bottom half of the draw in a couple of hours.

One of the few surprises out of qualifying was another strong effort from Donald Young.  Unseeded, he advanced into the main draw by beating Frank Dancevic, 6-1 1-6 7-5.  Young faces Denis Istomin today, setting up a possible second-rounder with Novak Djokovic.

Young is one of five Americans who made it through qualifying. Robert Kendrick, Michael Russell, and Ryan Sweeting were all seeded in the top 12, and they won the matches they were supposed to win.  Alex Bogomolov scored a minor upset with his three-setter over Simone Bolleli.  The only U.S. player to lose yesterday was Tim Smyczek, who put up another strong effort in forcing Olivier Rochus to a third set.

Rochus, you may recall, had a big tournament in Miami last year, beating Richard Gasquet in the first round and then shocking Djokovic in the second.  He’s coming off a challenger victory last week, and is in a relatively weak section of the draw.  He’ll open the tournament tomorrow against Blaz Kavcic; if he wins, he’ll face Marcos Baghdatis, and the winner of that contest is seeded for a third-rounder with Mikhail Youzhny.

The big picture: As was the case in Indian Wells last week, all the action was in one half of the draw.  This week, the bottom half is by far the more fluid of the two.  The top half seeds Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for a semifinal matchup, and with the possible exceptions of Ivo Karlovic and Tomas Berdych in Nadal’s quarter and Andy Roddick in Roger’s, there isn’t much in their way.

The bottom half, despite featuring Djokovic, is much less likely to go as planned.  Juan Martin del Potro opens the tournament today against Ricardo Mello; if he wins, he faces Philipp Kohlschreiber (again!).  The winner of that match gets a third-rounder with Robin Soderling.  To say the least, this is not the draw Soderling would’ve hoped for.

Also in Soderling’s quarter are Gasquet, David Ferrer, and Milos Raonic.

Djokovic doesn’t have quite as hard going, at least until a possible quarterfinal with Andy Murray.  Other possibilities there are John Isner and Fernando Verdasco.

In a few hours, I’ll run predictions on the draw and post my forecast for the tournament.

A dozen Americans: There are a total of 12 U.S. players in the draw: the five qualifiers, the familiar four seeds, plus three wild cards in Ryan Harrison, James Blake, and Jack Sock.  Blake faces Russell today, while Harrison opens against Rainer Schuettler for a chance to face Gilles Simon.  Given the draw, I have a hard time seeing Ryan match his success from last week–both players are smart counterpunchers who will be able to outlast the youngster.

Sock, the youngest player in the draw, is the one who has been granted a big opportunity.  He faces Carlos Berlocq, a clay court specialist whose challenger-level success has gotten him inside the top 75.  Here’s an amazing bit of trivia: Berlocq hasn’t won an ATP main draw match on hard courts in five years.  The kicker: That last win was a 6-0 6-0 drubbing of a 16-year-old American wild card … in Miami.  That time, it was Donald Young.  Blake avenged Young’s loss by double-bagelling Berlocq in the following round.

New wild card: Turns out Raonic didn’t need his wild card after all; a last-minute withdrawal got him in to the tournament the old-fashioned way.  He’s the 31st seed, set to face Ferrer in the third round.  Karlovic was granted the newly-available ticket in, and he’ll face Florian Mayer tomorrow for a shot at Albert Montanes.

Enjoy the tennis, and remember to check back later today for my complete draw forecast!

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Sunday Topspin: Young and Restless

Upset central: Indian Wells is turning into a huge event for American tennis.  As I noted yesterday, U.S. players took six of their seven first round matches.  I assumed that all those qualifiers and wild cards would collapse in the second round once they started playing the big boys.

Not exactly.  To start with, Donald Young beat Andy Murray in straight sets.  I was only able to watch the first-set tiebreak, but as usual, we can cast this match as a Murray disappointment, not necessarily a Young triumph.  The Brit was counterpunching against a guy without a lot of big weapons, and wasn’t doing it well enough.

Murray made fewer than half of first serves, and even against a qualifier, that’s not going to do the job.  Young made only 53% of his first offerings, but managed to win nearly half of his second serve points, while Murray won nearly a quarter.  Ugly match for Andy.

That said, it is a huge step for Young.  After that tiebreak, I assumed Murray would put his game back together and Young would collapse under the pressure.  If anything, the exact opposite happened.  The upset is the best result of Young’s career–by far–and allows us all to remember that he’s still only 21, younger than the likes of Alexandr Dolgopolov, Ernests Gulbis, and Thiemo de Bakker, and only a few months older than Kei Nishikori.

Murray was the American’s first top-10 scalp–indeed, the only matches I found where Donald beat a top-50 player were two victories over Feliciano Lopez.  Wow.

The other two American qualifiers in action went to three sets in equally surprising fashion.  Ryan Sweeting, coming off a solid week in Delray Beach and a clean win over Marcel Granollers, beat Juan Monaco with one of the weirdest scores you’ll ever see: 6-1, 0-6, 6-1.  Despite his reputation as a clay-courter, Monaco has posted some good results on hard courts, so I didn’t see this one coming.

Tim Smyczek lost his match to Phillip Kohlschreiber, but he will go home proud of his effort.  Outside of the top 150 for his entire career, he edged past Ilya Marchenko in the first round, and took Kohlschreiber to a third-set tiebreak.

Finally, if we’re keeping score for the Americans, we have to mention Sam Querrey‘s straight-set win over Janko Tipsarevic and Michael Russell‘s loss to Nicholas Almagro.  That’s 9 wins in 12 matches so far for the locals.

More upsets: Somdev Devvarman scored a victory almost as big as Young’s.  Marcos Baghdatis is as inconsistent as it gets, and Devvarman simply outran him, winning the second set 6-0.  Perhaps the Indian’s solid showing against Federer in Dubai and in Davis Cup have given him some confidence; it’s quite possibly his best career match result, and only the second time he’s beaten a top-20 player.

Two matches I didn’t see: David Ferrer lost to Ivo Karlovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga fell to Xavier Malisse.

All these upsets really open up the draw.  Tsonga and Baghdatis were set up for a third-round match; instead, it’s Devvarman and Malisse.  The winner will face Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, meaning that Rafa (assuming he beats Sweeting tomorrow) won’t face a seeded player until at least the quarters.

What to watch: For the second, round, there are some phenomenal matches on the slate:

  • Milos Raonic vs. Mardy Fish: A big test for the Canadian.  Sportsbooks give Raonic a 58% chance of winning; that’s really saying something against a hard-court-friendly U.S. player inside the top 20.  The winner is probably punching his ticket to a fourth-round matchup with Roger Federer.
  • Nikolay Davydenko vs. Stanislas Wawrinka: My ranking system still loves Davydenko on hard courts, thanks in part to his win over Nadal in January.  Wawrinka, though, has to be considered the steadier player at this point; Vegas odds favor the Swiss at about 57%.
  • Andy Roddick vs. James Blake: Even though we know how this one’s going to turn out, there will be some spectacular shotmaking along the way, and the crowd will love it.
  • Novak Djokovic vs. Andrey Golubev: Remember, Golubev just won two matches in Davis Cup, including the triumph against Tomas Berdych.  He’ll make Djokovic work for this one.

See you tomorrow!

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Saturday Topspin: American Underdogs

Good day for teens: It wasn’t easy, but both Bernard Tomic and Ryan Harrison find themselves in the second round at Indian Wells.  Tomic had a  hard-fought match against surprise qualifier and doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna, splitting two tiebreaks before the Aussie came out ahead in the third.  The two players won 75% of points on serve, an astonishingly high number for both sides to sustain.

Harrison’s match looks similar–two tiebreaks then a third set with a wider margin, but the profile is far different.  He and Jeremy Chardy broke each other seven times in a total of 22 break chances.  Harrison advances to face Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, while Tomic draws Viktor Troicki.

Doubles upsets: When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal win matches, you usually don’t think of them as upsets, but when they are playing doubles against the likes of Mirnyi/Nestor and Fyrstenberg/Matkowski?  Not only did Federer and Nadal win their matches, but Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray did, as well.

Come to think of it, this doubles draw is astonishingly good, and not just in the sense that it’s star-studded.  Tournament organizers like their top seeds to play doubles to draw the crowds, and often those players make quick exits, as when Djokovic partnered with his brother in Dubai.  But Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka are Olympic champions, Nadal and Marc Lopez are the defending champions, and Murray and his brother won a title recently.

Most of the marquee doubles matches were on yesterday’s schedule, but today, Bopanna and Aisam Qureshi play their, opener, and the Bryan Brothers face the very unlikely team of Feliciano Lopez and Milos Raonic.  Is that more or less likely than Harrison and Thomaz Bellucci?  If only there were more televised doubles.

Home court advantage: Not only did Harrison win yesterday, but James Blake was also victorious.  Blake broke Chris Guccione three times, somehow winning 39% of return points.  That sounds a bit like the Blake of old, and we’ll probably get to enjoy it for exactly one more match this week, as he’ll play Andy Roddick in a promoter’s dream match tomorrow.

If my count is right, that’s six wins in seven tries for Americans so far–only Alex Bogomolov failed to advance.  Even more impressive, virtually every one of those Americans was the underdog, at least on paper.  Of the six winners, four were qualifiers and two were wild cards.

Of course, there are four more Americans in the draw; they got to the second round by virtue of their seeding.  Of those four, Sam Querrey is the only one in action today, playing Janko Tipsarevic; as a sign of how far Querrey’s stock has fallen, sportsbooks are giving Tipsarevic a 59% chance of winning the match.

Yes, he won: No shocker here, Raonic defeated Marsel Ilhan in straight sets.  It was his first 1000-level win.  He recorded 10 aces in the process, perhaps on his way to setting more records.  Sunday he faces Mardy Fish.

Elsewhere: Qualifer Cedrik-Marcel Stebe defeated top seed Go Soeda in Kyoto to reach the final there.  It’s only Stebe’s third tournament this year and his first challenger, but he’s undefeated thus far.  He’ll play countryman Dominik Meffert today for the title.

At the Sarajevo challenger, the scores are more interesting than the players.  All four quarterfinal matches were decided in straight sets, and six of those eight sets were won in tiebreaks.  Dmitri Tursunov lost to Bosnian wild card Mirza Basic; the second set tiebreak went to 13-11.

Today’s matches: Now that the seeds are in action, there are some higher-profile contests.  My pick is the first match on Stadium 2, pitting Fernando Verdasco against Richard Berankis.  Verdasco hasn’t won a match since his back-to-back losses against Raonic.  You have to imagine the Spainard will come through (sportsbooks give him a 75% chance), but you never really know where Verdasco’s head is.

Enjoy the tennis!

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Wednesday Topspin: Young Americans

Before we continue with our Davis Cup preview, let’s start with the young Americans in Dallas.

Harrison and Kudla: Nothing came easy, but it has been a good tournament so far for the local teens.  Yesterday afternoon, Denis Kudla beat Izak van der Merwe, looking strong as he served out the third set.  That’s a big result for someone outside the top 400.  In fact, it’s Kudla first match win at the challenger level.

After one set, it didn’t look nearly as rosy for Ryan Harrison.  Robert Kendrick was serving well, crushing forehands all over the court.  Ultimately, Ryan wore him down, serving a little better and playing more consistently while Kendrick did the opposite.  Harrison took the match in a lopsided (7-1) third-set tiebreak.

Kendrick is always frustrating to watch–such big shots, so little to show for it.  He can play a string of points that makes you wonder why he never cracked the top 20, and then, as we saw last night, he starts playing (and acting) like a frustrated rookie.  With a bit of recent success and a strong history in Dallas, I thought he would overcome Harrison.

American tennis: What follows is all speculation.  I’d love to be able to prove it, but I’m not sure how.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing of late about the dearth of strong young American tennis players–with the exception of Harrison, of course.  John Isner and Sam Querrey are solid, but it’s tough to see them making it much further than they have already.  Yet, there always seem to be young Americans have some success; we just haven’t seen anyone take it to the top 10 since Andy Roddick and James Blake.

Here’s my theory.  The rigid structure of youth tennis in the U.S. allows fast-developing (often tall, big-serving) players to win early, which in turn encourages them to keep playing, and attracts the attention of coaches.  That’s how you have Querrey.  That’s how Isner got good in a relatively short period of time.  You see the same thing in Australia, I think, with the likes of Carsten Ball, Chris Guccione, and Greg Jones.

The problem isn’t attracting kids to tennis–it’s keeping them.  As a 13-year-old, I lost my share of matches to guys who were way bigger than I was, and would win service games at love while I waved hopelessly at their serves.  The big guys have skills that will lead to success in juniors, in college, and for some, a degree of success in the pros, but will only take them so far.

What I will figure out a way to study is this: What are the career patterns of very tall (and/or big-serving) players?  It seems that they rise fast, stagnate, and retire young.  A generation ago, someone like Mark Philippoussis could live on only a serve; now, the return game has been forced to improve, meaning that the big servers themselves have to improve the rest of their game.  If my theory about the career patterns of this sort of player is true, American tennis is a breeding ground for kids who will be impressive 21-year-olds and fizzle early.

That’s what’s gratifying about watching the 6’0″ Harrison and the 5’11″ Kudla win matches–they don’t fit that mold.

Back to Davis Cup!

Davis Cup: Czech Republic vs. Kazakhstan: When Kazakhstan is in the world group, you know things have changed.  They dominated a Federer-less Swiss team last fall, and they might get lucky again this weekend.

The Czech team is already without Radek Stepanek, and you have to wonder about the availability of Tomas Berdych, who was forced to retire in the semifinals of Dubai.  Without Stepanek, it’s possible Kazakhstan could beat a Czech team with Berdych.

The Kazakhs feature Andrey Goloubev and Mikhail Kukushkin, both 21-year-olds on the way up.  Both have proven they will show up in Davis Cup play, having defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in their last tie.  There’s no obvious doubles team, but neither does the Czech team have one.

Perhaps more than any other tie this weekend, this contest rests in the hands of one player: Berdych.  If he’s healthy, he will probably be asked to play two singles matches and a doubles match.  If he does, the Czechs will probably win.  If he only plays his two singles matches, that leaves the door open for Kazakhstan; if he can’t play two singles matches, then we can look forward to the unlikely event of Kazakhstan in the world group quarterfinals.

My prediction: Czech Republic, 3-2.

Belgium vs. Spain: This reminds me of those matches I mentioned earlier, when I was 13, losing comprehensively to kids who were six inches taller than I was.  I can identify with the Belgians.

Rafael Nadal playing Davis Cup is good for Spain and good for the sport.  But this week, it’s just rubbing salt in the wound.  Spain boasts three players in the top 10, plus a very good singles and doubles player in Feliciano Lopez.  Belgium has a 30-year-old Xavier Malisse.

You’ll be shocked to find that I predict: Spain, 5-0.

Serbia update: Apparently, Novak Djokovic may not play this weekend.  That has to give India a bit of hope, but Serbia’s other singles players will still prove too strong.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the remaining European ties and keep tabs on the challenger action.  See you then!

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