Category Archives: American tennis

Donald Young’s Perpetual Hopes and the Lefty Serve That Isn’t

Donald Young celebrated his 25th birthday last week, and if you’ve been following the ATP for any part of the last decade, you know all about his talent, his potential, and his underwhelming results. Every time he goes deep in a tournament–as he has in Washington this week, upsetting Kevin Anderson in three sets today–all that upside talk gets dredged up again.  Is this finally the breakthrough for which we’ve waited so long?

In general, it’s a safe bet to watch longer-term trends more closely than short-term peaks and valleys. So the short, obvious answer is: No, it’s unlikely to be a sign of much greater things to come. Still, Young has beaten three top-50 players this week, and it’s a good time to take a closer look at what might be holding him back.

A prime obstacle isn’t hard to identify. Donald has one of the weakest serves on the ATP tour. While that doesn’t automatically keep him out of the top fifty in the world, it sure doesn’t help. Young’s year-to-date ace percentage, 3.4%, is among the ten worst on tour, and with the exception of David Ferrer and Roberto Bautista Agut, none of the other players on that list are inside the top 35. This year’s number is no slump, as Young’s ace rate has been below 4% every year since 2009.

Another metric to indicate the effectiveness of a player’s service game is the ratio of service winning percentage to return winning percentage (SW/RW). If a player wins lots of service points, it might be due to a good serve, or it might owe to a strong overall game. This ratio gives us a rough measure of how much a player’s success on serve is due to the serve itself.

Coming into Washington this week, Young’s SW/RW was 1.49, one of the lowest marks of any left-handed tour regular in the last ten years. A few right-handers succeed while winning only 50% more service points than return points–including Ferrer and, for one season, Andy Murray–but the average player on tour wins roughly 73% more serve points than return points. Even Rafael Nadal hasn’t fallen below the 1.5 mark since 2005.

As Ferrer has demonstrated, a player with Young’s level of service success can have a very good career on tour. Yet Ferrer’s skillset is unusual, and importantly, he’s a righty.

Not every successful ATP left-hander is a big server. Nadal won dozens of titles before fully developing the serve he uses today. Neither Fernando Verdasco nor Jurgen Melzer, two lefties who cracked the top ten, are known for overpowering deliveries. But in the last decade, Nadal is the only left-hander to consistently succeed with a SW/RW under 1.6.

It’s a different story for righties. As we’ve seen, Ferrer is a perennial top player despite Young-like serve stats. Fabio Fognini, Nikolay Davydenko, and Lleyton Hewitt have all enjoyed solid seasons without greater serve dominance than Young. (Though Hewitt has racked up better ace totals.)

Surprisingly, it isn’t that lefties are bigger servers. On average, both lefties and righties win about 73% more service points than return points. The tentative conclusion I see from these numbers is that lefties–with the typical exception of Rafa–can’t get away with a weak serve the way that right-handers can.

Young’s SW/RW this week of 1.69 suggests that, despite only 13 aces in four matches, he’s playing well behind his serve, and the results have followed.  It may be, though, that a modest improvement to his serve–or perhaps his tactics behind the serve–would be particularly valuable, seizing whatever specific advantages worked for guys like Verdasco and Melzer.

If Young is (finally) to take a big step forward, he’ll need to do more with his serve for a season–not just a week. He doesn’t need to become the next Feliciano Lopez; he just needs to be a little less like a left-handed Fognini.

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Filed under American tennis, Serve statistics, Washington

Serve-and-Pray: The Quirks of Isner’s Early Exit

The big story after Steve Johnson‘s upset of John Isner today was Isner’s unhappiness with his court assignment. Still, for those of us more interested in the game itself than in post-match carping, Johnson’s surprise victory was plenty notable.

Almost every Isner match is a serve-dominated, one-dimensional contest. This one was even more unidimensional than usual. Both players won 89% of first-serve points, a combined mark that stands as the most extreme of the season. Two players haven’t combined to win more than 89.2% of first serve points since Brisbane early last season, when Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic combined for an outrageous 94.0% of first-serve points won.

The difference between Isner and Johnson–slim as it was–appears in their success rate on second-serve points. Johnson won an impressive 68% of second offerings, while Isner won only 43%. That typically doesn’t do the job–since 2010, Isner has won only eight of 36 matches when he wins fewer than 45% of second-serve points. Still, he managed to avoid clustering too many of those ineffective second serves, allowing Johnson only two break points.

As bad as that second-serve winning percentage is, it would often by sufficient when combined with that other-worldly win rate on first serves. Taken together, he won 73% of service points, which–barring particularly good or bad streaks–translates to a hold of serve in 93% of service games. That’s Isner’s hold rate for the season so far, and sure enough, it was his hold rate today, when he was broken only once in 16 tries.

While Big John often seems unbreakable, he typically loses a service game or two in every match–even on the days he wins. He’s been broken exactly once in nine hard-court matches this year, and he’s won seven of those matches.  Since 2010, he’s won 45 of the 60 matches in which his opponent broke him exactly one time–many of them thanks to his excellent tiebreak record.

But today, his opponent really was unbreakable. Compared to Johnson’s service numbers, Isner’s look positively pedestrian. Steve won 80% of service points, which–again, barring too much streakiness–translates to a hold of service in an incredible 97.8% of service games. Put another way, that’s one break of serve every eight sets or so.  (For reference, Isner’s 93% season-to-date average is best on tour, and no one topped 92% for the 2013 season.)

Johnson’s not usually that good–Isner’s indifferent return game explains much of the magnitude of these numbers. Still, it’s an extremely bad return performance by any standard. It’s only the fifth time since 2010 that Isner has won so few return points in a match he completed, and it’s only the second time this year he has failed to earn a single break point. Remarkably, that last aspect of return futility isn’t always enough to keep him out of the win column: Three times, he has won a tour-level match without earning any break points.

Today, despite the lack of break points, despite the dismal second-serve percentage, despite winning 12 fewer points than his opponent, he found himself in a third-set tiebreak, two points away from victory. Big John’s game isn’t much fun to watch–while this all transpired, I was across the grounds taking in a doubles match–but on paper, his results are endlessly fascinating.

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Filed under American tennis, John Isner

First Look: Francis Tiafoe

Last night at the Citi Open in Washington, Francis Tiafoe played his first tour-level main draw match. For a 16-year-old with almost no professional experience, he put on a good show, making Evgeny Donskoy work hard for his 6-4 6-4 victory.

Tiafoe is one of a few young American men viewed as rising stars. He doesn’t have the professional experience of Stefan Kozlov or Jared Donaldson, but he has nonetheless racked up some impressive feats in the last eight months, claiming the title at the Orange Bowl in December and another big win at the Easter Bowl in April.

His game, as viewers discovered last night, is a work in progress. He lit up the radar gun with both serves and forehands, but neither was steady enough to avoid getting broken by Donskoy three times. His backhand, the less showy but more consistent half of his ground game, was sufficiently solid to keep him in points, but it aside from a couple of down-the-line bullets, it was rarely enough to win them.

Both serve and forehand are, at this stage of his development, very complicated shots. His serve is a bit jerky, and his second serve is particularly erratic. A more offensive kick serve would do wonders for his service game–he won barely 40% of second-serve points yesterday.

The forehand is an even bigger problem. It’s easy to get fooled by the occasional big winner–he did hit some sensational shots from that wing last night. The bigger picture, though, is that his big, not-very-fluid windup prevents him from hitting the effective rallying shots that are absolutely necessary to compete at this level. Compared to top-100 players, Donskoy is not a particularly tough test, and Tiafoe hit 19 unforced errors from that side alone. That’s 20% of his total forehands in the match–double the tour-average rate of forehand unforced errors. They also accounted for one-third of all the points he lost.

It could have been worse. Donskoy, whether because he feared the forehand or because he stuck with familiar patterns, tended to rally back to Tiafoe’s backhand. That shot is far smoother, simpler, and much, much more consistent. While he didn’t try for nearly as much off that wing, he did hit four winners–and only four unforced errors.

He tended to play far behind the baseline, so it was a rare point that displayed other aspects of his game. In the second set, he opted for a few more slice backhands, a shot he seemed to have a decent feel for. He hit one very slick backhand drop shot for a winner, but more often when he ventured inside the baseline, he didn’t appear to have a natural sense for smart, reasonably-high-percentage plays.

It’s important to keep all this in perspective, though. Tiafoe is the youngest man to play an ATP main-draw match this year–nine months younger than Alexander Zverev, for instance. Donskoy was his first top-300 opponent and last night was only his 15th professional match. If he didn’t look particularly poised rushing between points, I think we can let it slide.

As strong a player as Tiafoe is for his age, the inconsistency of both serve and forehand will likely keep him out of the spotlight for another few years. Unlike Zverev and Borna Coric, he won’t be challenging top-50 players before his 18th birthday. Still, there are a lot of good qualities to build on, and when he hits his twenties, he could well be part of the next great generation of American players on the ATP tour.

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Filed under American tennis, Match reports, Prospects

Teenagers, Thirty-Somethings, and Americans at Grand Slams

I’ve put together a few reports showing how age distributions and US presence have changed over the years at Grand Slams.  Let’s start with player age.

The average age of players in the Wimbledon men’s singles draw is 27.7 years, which is just short of the all-time record, 27.8, set at Roland Garros last month, and equal to last year’s figure at Wimbledon. There are two teens in the draw (up one from last year), and 34 thirty-somethings, which is tied for third-most since 1982.

This report shows the complete year-by-year breakdown for the last 30 years’ worth of men’s slam draws.

The average age in the Wimbledon women’s draw is also very high by historical standards.  At 25.2 years, it’s tied with this year’s French Open and 2012 Wimbledon for the highest ever.  43-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm moves the needle all by herself; without her, the average would be 25.0, still considerably higher than any other pre-2010 slam.

There are ten teenagers in the draw, which is very low for the WTA, but safely above the all-time low of 7, set at Wimbledon two years ago. The total of 16 players aged 30 or over is good for third-most of all time, behind this year’s and last year’s French Opens.

Here’s the WTA report showing these numbers for each slam in the last 30 years.

(All of the figures above for 2014 Wimbledon could change slightly if more lucky losers are added to the draw.)

I also put together a couple of reports showing the number of Americans in each slam draw, broken down by direct entrants, qualifiers, lucky losers, and wild cards, along with the top seed, the number of seeds (and top 16 seeds), plus the number of Americans in each round:

Enjoy!

 

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Filed under Aging trends, American tennis, Grand Slams, Wimbledon

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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Filed under American tennis, U.S. Open, Wild cards

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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Filed under American tennis, Wild cards

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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Filed under American tennis, Daily recaps, Doubles, Madrid

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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