Category Archives: Challengers

Margin of Error Podcast: Episode Two

This week’s podcast is ready for listening!

Amy’s and my guest for Episode Two is JJ of Challenger Tennis — read his blog here and follow him on twitter here.  We chat with him about how he got interested in the lower tiers of the pro game, the struggles of life on the Challenger tour, and some players to watch outside of the usual suspects.  Thanks, JJ, for joining us.

You can find the podcast and subscribe with iTunes here. Otherwise, keep an eye out for a new episode early each week, which I’ll post here on the blog.

Click here to listen.

1 Comment

Filed under Challengers, Margin of Error podcast

Challenger Tour Finals Forecast

I wrote an extensive preview of this week’s Challenger Tour Finals for The Changeover, so you should check that out first.  (Also worth a read is the preview at Foot Soldiers of Tennis.)

Because so much less separates players at this level (compared to those at last year’s World Tour Finals), my forecast stops just short of throwing its hands up in dismay.  Coming into the event, Italian clay specialist Filippo Volandri was the favorite, with a 15.5% chance of winning the event.  He lost today to Alejandro Gonzalez, making it much less likely that he’ll progress out of the round-robin stage.

Today’s other winners were top seed Teymuraz Gabashvili, Oleksandr Nedovyesov, and Jesse Huta Galung.  My numbers now consider Huta Galung the favorite, with a better than 20% chance of winning the title.  The situation in Grupo Verde will become much more clear after tomorrow’s night match between Gabashvili and Nedovyesov.

Here is the pre-tournament forecast:

Player       3-0  2-1  1-2  0-3     SF      F      W  
Gabashvili   12%  38%  37%  13%  49.8%  24.3%  12.0%  
Volandri     15%  40%  35%  10%  55.3%  29.3%  15.5%  
Nedovyesov   14%  39%  36%  11%  53.0%  26.9%  13.7%  
Huta Galung  14%  39%  36%  11%  53.8%  28.2%  14.6%  
Gonzalez     10%  35%  40%  15%  45.0%  21.8%  10.4%  
Ungur        10%  35%  40%  15%  45.0%  20.9%   9.8%  
Martin       11%  36%  39%  14%  46.0%  22.4%  10.7%  
Clezar       13%  38%  37%  11%  52.2%  26.3%  13.3%

And here is the forecast updated with the results of today’s four matches:

Player       3-0  2-1  1-2  0-3     SF      F      W  
Gabashvili   24%  50%  26%   0%  71.5%  35.0%  17.1%  
Volandri      0%  27%  50%  23%  30.2%  16.2%   8.6%  
Nedovyesov   28%  50%  22%   0%  75.7%  38.3%  19.5%  
Huta Galung  27%  50%  23%   0%  74.7%  39.0%  20.5%  
Gonzalez     23%  50%  27%   0%  70.1%  33.7%  15.8%  
Ungur         0%  22%  50%  29%  23.1%  10.8%   5.1%  
Martin        0%  23%  50%  27%  25.1%  12.2%   5.9%  
Clezar        0%  27%  50%  23%  29.6%  14.9%   7.4%

(My algorithm doesn’t implement the details of the number-of-sets-won tiebreaker, so Guilherme Clezar, the only loser today to win a set, probably has a slightly better chance of advancing than these numbers give him credit for.)

Challenger charting: The most interesting match of the day–if not the cleanest–was the last one, between Nedovyesov and Clezar.  I charted it, so you can check out detailed serve, return, and shot-by-shot stats for that contest.

And if you’re really into this stuff–Challengers and/or charting–here are my stat reports from yesterday’s first-round matches in Champaign between Ram and Giron and Sandgren and Peliwo.

Leave a comment

Filed under Challengers, Elsewhere, Forecasting

Yen Hsun Lu’s Challenger Choices

Yen Hsun Lu has played in a lot of tournaments with fields that look like this month’s Leon and Guadalajara Challengers.  Ranked in the bottom half of the top 100, he is often the only top-100 player in the draw.  In fact, he has been the top seed in every Challenger he’s played for more than a year.

Top seeded or not, Lu seems to really like Challengers.  When other players at his level are contesting ATP 250s or Masters-level qualifying draws, the Taiwanese #1 is demonstrating his dominance of the minor leagues.  And it’s working: In large part thanks to titles in places such as Shanghai, Ningbo, Seoul, and Singapore, he has kept his ranking in the top 100 for about three years.

Lu’s combination of consistency near the top and Challenger preference is unusual but not unique.  He is one of 14 players who, since 2007, have played at least 20 Challenger events while ranked inside the top 100.  He is, however, the most extreme member of the group. This week’s Guadalajara event will be his 40th Challenger as a member of the top 100.  Dudi Sela, also in Guadalajara but currently outside the top 100, has played 31 while part of that more elite club.

Almost every week of the season, there is some tour-level event, and usually, anyone in the top 100 would make the cut for qualifying, if not necessarily the main draw.  But for Lu, the ATP option isn’t always so inviting.  He hates clay, with only two career wins on the surface, one of which was twelve years ago in a Davis Cup Group 2 tie against Pakistan.  (No, not against Qureshi. He lost to Qureshi.)  Despite five entries and a valiant effort in a fifth-set, 11-9 defeat against Jeremy Chardy last year, he has never won a match at Roland Garros.

His Challenger preferences are even more extreme: Out of 137 career events at this level, only two have come on clay.  He is the Alessio Di Mauro of hard courts.

While Sela has a longer track record (and a bit more success) on dirt, his current preferences are very similar.  Given the choice between a hard-court Challenger and anything on clay, and he’ll take the Challenger.  While there aren’t as many tour-level events on clay as Rafael Nadal might like, there are enough to keep Lu and Sela on the lower circuit for several months of the year.

Most of the other players who rack up extensive Challenger records while ranked in the top 100 have the opposite preference.  Filippo Volandri and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo are the most extreme.  While ranked that high, each has only played three ATP qualifying events, despite entering 29 and 27 Challenger events, respectively, since 2007.  (RRH’s career figures are higher; I’m using the time span since 2007 because my qualifying database only goes back that far.)

Here’s the list of all players who have contested 20 or more Challengers while ranked in the top 100 since 2007, along with the number of ATP qualifying draws they entered while in the top 100 and the rate at which they chose Challengers out of these two options.

Player                 CHs  Qs  CH+Qs  CH/CH+Q  
Yen Hsun Lu             38  10     48      79%  
Dudi Sela               30   6     36      83%  
Filippo Volandri        29   3     32      91%  
Carlos Berlocq          29   5     34      85%  
Michael Russell         28  25     53      53%  
Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo   27   3     30      90%  
Frederico Gil           26  12     38      68%  
Daniel Gimeno Traver    26  21     47      55%  
Nicolas Mahut           22   7     29      76%  
Oscar Hernandez         22   8     30      73%  
Pere Riba               22  11     33      67%  
Tobias Kamke            22  18     40      55%  
Diego Junqueira         21   2     23      91%  
Olivier Rochus          21  11     32      66%

6 Comments

Filed under Challengers

National Showdowns in Challenger Finals

If Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub both win their semifinal matches at the Leon Challenger today–against Donald Young and Jimmy Wang, respectively–it would the first time that two Israelis face off in a Challenger final, at least since the beginning of 1991, when my challenger database begins.

In over 2800 Challengers in that time span, 407 of them have ended with finals contested between countrymen.  As you might guess, all-USA finals have been the most common, at 84, partly due to the former dominance of Americans in the sport and also owing to the large number of Challengers held on US soil.  Next in line are Argentina (59) and Spain (52), two countries with the key combination of many events and a large pool of second-tier pros.

Perhaps more interesting are the countries at the bottom of list.  Nations like Slovenia*, Taiwan, and Slovakia have more in common with Israel–few events in-country, with just a handful of players contesting Challengers.  Those are the three most recent countries to join the list.  Given the contemporary Challenger field, even more surprising are inclusions such as Norway, Denmark, Mexico, and Morocco, all of which enjoyed all-national Challenger finals in the 90s.

*Slovenia is increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with.  Led by the underrated Grega Zemlja, it is one of only 12 countries with three players in the ATP top 100.

Given that 29 countries have experienced such a final, we might expect some nations that aren’t on the list.  A few that come to mind are Switzerland (usually better represented than the current two players ranked between 20 and 300), Ukraine (currently six players between #98 and #300), and Portugal (surely Rui Machado and Frederico Gil will meet in a final eventually).

Here’s the full list, including the most recent final for each country:

Country  CH Fs  Date      Event            Winner              Runner-up                
USA      84     20130204  Dallas CH        Rhyne Williams      Robby Ginepri            
ARG      59     20120730  Manta CH         Guido Pella         Maximiliano Estevez      
ESP      52     20121112  Marbella CH      Albert Montanes     Daniel Munoz De La Nava  
GER      39     20130121  Heilbronn CH     Michael Berrer      Jan Lennard Struff       
FRA      36     20121001  Mons CH          Kenny De Schepper   Michael Llodra           
ITA      31     20110718  Orbetello CH     Filippo Volandri    Matteo Viola             
CZE      24     20120312  Sarajevo CH      Jan Hernych         Jan Mertl                
BRA      20     20120910  Cali CH          Joao Souza          Thiago Alves             
AUS      17     20130225  Sydney1 CH       Nick Kyrgios        Matt Reid                
NED      5      20100906  Alphen CH        Jesse Huta Galung   Thomas Schoorel          
BEL      4      20120924  Orleans CH       David Goffin        Ruben Bemelmans          
ROU      4      20120806  Sibiu CH         Adrian Ungur        Victor Hanescu           
AUT      4      20070716  Rimini CH        Oliver Marach       Daniel Koellerer         
COL      3      20120709  Bogota CH        Alejandro Falla     Santiago Giraldo         
JPN      3      20120423  Kaohsiung CH     Go Soeda            Tatsuma Ito              
RSA      3      20110411  Johannesburg CH  Izak Van Der Merwe  Rik De Voest             
SWE      3      19931101  Aachen CH        Jonas Bjorkman      Jan Apell                
RUS      2      20100823  Astana CH        Igor Kunitsyn       Konstantin Kravchuk      
GBR      2      20050704  Nottingham CH    Alex Bogdanovic     Mark Hilton              
CAN      2      19991129  Urbana CH        Frederic Niemeyer   Sebastien Lareau         
IND      2      19990412  New Delhi CH     Leander Paes        Mahesh Bhupathi          
SLO      1      20120716  An-Ning CH       Grega Zemlja        Aljaz Bedene             
TPE      1      20111017  Seoul CH         Yen Hsun Lu         Jimmy Wang               
SVK      1      20100809  Samarkand CH     Andrej Martin       Marek Semjan             
NOR      1      19980601  Furth CH         Christian Ruud      Jan Frode Andersen       
ECU      1      19960715  Quito CH         Pablo Campana       Luis Adrian Morejon      
DEN      1      19960226  Hamburg CH       Kenneth Carlsen     Frederik Fetterlein      
MAR      1      19950814  Geneva CH        Younes El Aynaoui   Karim Alami              
MEX      1      19920427  Acapulco CH      Leonardo Lavalle    Luis Herrera

TennisAbstract.com update: If you like ATP stats, you’ll love the new leaders page.  It allows you to compare the ATP top 50 across nearly 60 different metrics, and filter matches in all the same ways you can on player pages.  Find out who hits the most aces on  clay, who plays the most tiebreaks in Masters events, who has faced the toughest opponents, or just spend the rest of your afternoon tinkering with the thousands of possible permutations.  It’s very much a work in progress, so (a) let me know if you have suggestions or come across a bug; and (b) don’t be shocked if I occasionally break it while trying to improve it.

Also, I’ve created a “current tournaments” page that aggregates all matches (completed and upcoming) at this week’s events.  It’s a great way to get a quick overview of what’s happening this week, and with next week’s qualifying draws released, you can also use the filters to zero in on, say, all Americans who are still alive in some ATP, WTA, or Challenger event.

Finally, don’t miss the Player Schedules page, which aggregates ATP and Challenger entry lists to show you who is playing where for the next six weeks.

Leave a comment

Filed under Challengers, Tennis Abstract

The Historically Strong Dallas Challenger

All eyes are on Indian Wells this week, with seven of the top eight-ranked men in the world in the quarterfinals.  (Oh, and one epic streak coming to an end.)  Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll find another ATP event in progress, this one under the guise of a Challenger tournament.

By just about every metric imaginable, this week’s Dallas Challenger has one of the strongest Challenger fields ever assembled.  Many ATP 250s–and a few 500s–are barely at the same level.

Because of Dallas’s timing in between the opening rounds of Indian Wells and the beginning of the Miami Masters, special rules apply to tournament entries.  Higher-ranked players are able to make last-minute decisions to compete, hence the presence of the two top seeds, Marcos Baghdatis and Thomaz Bellucci.  Many other tour-level pros choose to make the stop in Dallas to get a couple of matches under their belt to compensate for a disappointing showing in the California desert.

Measuring field quality is tricky, but here we’re not working with subtle differences.  Here are some simple metrics we could use to the compare main draw strength of the 2500 or so Challenger events since 1991:

  • Average ATP Rank. In Dallas this year, it’s 103, the best ever in a Challenger event.  Second best is 109–that was the same event last year.  Only eight Challengers have ever had an average rank below 130, and the average is a whopping 290.
  • Median ATP Rank. Similar deal, without the risk of a few top players skewing the results.  Dallas’s median is 90; last year it was 90.5–best and second-best ever.  Only two others come in under 100, and the average is 239.
  • 8th seed ATP Rank. I like this metric as it indicates the presumed quality of the quarterfinals–every guy in the last 8 is either this good or has to beat someone this good.  Dallas’s 8-seed this year is #62 Lukas Rosol, the highest-ranked 8-seed ever in a challenger event.  Second place, once again, is the same event last year, where #69 Lukas Lacko was seeded eighth.  Only 18 events have ever had an 8-seed in the top 80, and the historical average is 180.
  • Average seed ATP Rank. Another angle: here Dallas is ousted, coming in 3rd of the 2500 events, at 48.  The 1991 Johannesburg Challenger (46.5) and 1994 Andorra Challenger (47.5) just barely beat it out.  Only 17 events have had an average seed rank better than 60, and the average is 145.
  • Number of top 50 players. Dallas is only the 3rd Challenger event to ever have five top 50 players, after 1991 Jo’burg and 2004 Dnepropetrovsk.  Only 66 Challengers have ever had multiple top-50 competititors, and fewer than 1 in 10 Challengers have a single one.  The average Challenger top seed is ranked #97.
  • Number of top 75/100/125 players.  12 players in the main draw this week are ranked in the top 75, 18 in the top 100, and 25 in the top 125.  All are either new records or tied with the old record.  The average challenger event has 0.13 top-50s, 0.57 top-75s, 1.71 top 100′s, and 3.81 top 125′s.

The one way in which this week’s tournament in Dallas doesn’t rank amongst the best is by a more sophisticated approach, the one that I use in my Challenger strength report on TennisAbstract.com.  By simulating the tournament draw several thousand times, we can estimate the likelihood of a certain level of player winning the event.  For instance, had the 50th-best player in the world entered the Burnie or West Lakes Challenger this year, he would have had about a 25% chance of winning.   But against the more competitive field in Quimper, that number drops to 12%–about the same as the 50th-best player’s chance in the unusually weak Los Angeles ATP event last year.

This week, Jurgen Melzer–ranked in the mid-40s on hard courts by my rating system–had a 9.3% chance of winning the title according to my pre-tourney simulations.  (Go to the tournament forecast page and click ‘R32′ under the ‘Forecast’ header.)  That puts Dallas comfortably among the top 10 toughest Challenger draws in the last year–and better than LA–but nowhere near the top.

It’s one thing to have a deep draw, but another thing entirely to have a tournament that is particularly hard to win.   For the latter, an event needs one or two very highly-ranked players, like Marin Cilic at last year’s Dallas Challenger, or Fernando Verdasco in Prostejov last year.  In theory, if not in practice, someone ranked in the top 20 should waltz to a title, offering an insurmountable obstacle to your typical Challenger-level player.

Dallas may not be the most difficult Challenger event to win, but by any measure of field quality and depth,  it’s one of the very strongest in ATP history.  The fans in Dallas are very fortunate this week.

Leave a comment

Filed under Challengers, Dallas, Tournament Strength

Nick Kyrgios and the Youngest Challenger Titlists

Last week at the Sydney Challenger, 17-year-old Nick Kyrgios won the title while only dropping a single set.  The young man has been on quite the run, first winning the Australian Open boy’s singles title, reaching the semifinals at his first challenger, then winning in Sydney.

Claiming a title at this level–even against a relatively weak challenger field like that in Sydney–is an impressive feat for any teenager, let alone a 17-year-0ld playing only his second challenger.  And while much has been made of the increasing age of the top ATP contenders, winning a challenger at 17 has never been a common feat.

In fact, this is only the 27th time it has happened, and Kyrgios is only the 16th man to do it.  The list he joins of previous 16- and 17-year-old winners is littered with some of the game’s contemporary greats.  (On Twitter earlier, I offered slightly different numbers; I mistakenly included Donald Young, who won a challenger on his 18th birthday.)

See below for the full list, or click here for a sortable table.

Date      Tournament         Winner                  Age  
20130225  Sydney CH          Nick Kyrgios           17.8  
20100201  Burnie CH          Bernard Tomic          17.3  
20090223  Melbourne CH       Bernard Tomic          16.4  
20060731  Segovia CH         Juan Martin Del Potro  17.9  
20060403  Aguascalientes CH  Juan Martin Del Potro  17.5  
20051031  Montevideo CH      Juan Martin Del Potro  17.1  
20051031  Aachen CH          Evgeny Korolev         17.7  
20050509  San Remo CH        Novak Djokovic         18.0 [17.98]  
20041101  Aachen CH          Novak Djokovic         17.5  
20040517  Budapest CH        Novak Djokovic         17.0  
20030922  Grenoble CH        Richard Gasquet        17.3  
20030811  Graz CH            Tomas Berdych          17.9  
20030728  Segovia CH         Rafael Nadal           17.2  
20030714  Olbia CH           Nicolas Almagro        17.9  
20030714  Budaors CH         Tomas Berdych          17.8  
20030623  Reggio Emilia CH   Richard Gasquet        17.0  
20030421  Napoli CH          Richard Gasquet        16.9  
20030324  Barletta CH        Rafael Nadal           16.8  
20030310  Sarajevo CH        Richard Gasquet        16.7  
20020701  Montauban CH       Richard Gasquet        16.0  
20020513  Fergana CH         Jimmy Wang             17.3  
20020204  Belgrade CH        Mario Ancic            17.9  
20000515  Samarkand CH       Mikhail Youzhny        17.9  
19981207  Perth CH           Lleyton Hewitt         17.8  
19970908  Espinho CH         Marat Safin            17.6  
19950306  Garmisch CH        Nicolas Kiefer         17.7  
19920803  Ribeirao CH        Gabriel Silberstein    17.8

Leave a comment

Filed under Challengers, Nick Kyrgios, Records

Sao Paulo Challenger: Day Two

In Sao Paulo, Tuesday brought the second half of first-round singles, a scattering of interesting doubles matches, and inexplicable swarms of gnats.  The gnats were almost as aggravating as the singles matches.

Click here for my reports on day one matches.

Renzo Olivo (ARG) vs Julio Cesar Campozano (ECU)

The question of the day was, “Who knows how to play tennis on hard courts?”  The answers were not encouraging.

Olivo is one of only 18 players under the age of 21 inside the ATP top 300, and it only takes a few minutes to realize he got there based on clay-court results.  That’s the generous assumption, anyway, since he looked simply dreadful.

His groundstrokes and movement looked as if somehow told him to try playing closer to the baseline, and he was trying it for the first time.  He missed easy forehands in every direction, often misjudging the bounce.  As the situation grew increasingly bleak (he ultimately lost the match 6-2 6-0), he went for more and more drop shot/lob combinations.  This was particularly painful since he missed most of the drop shots and then, when he made one, managed to miss the lob.

Perhaps Olivo is a future star, but that future isn’t any time soon.

Campozano isn’t a future star either–he’ll turn 27 later this month and has yet to crack the top 200–but he looked much more comfortable on the surface.  In fact, he looked like a good doubles player trying his hand at singles, with a consistent, well-placed serve and aggressive, compact groundstrokes.  His movement to the backhand was particularly impressive.

Perhaps Campozano’s most notable achievement in this first-round match was to stay steady through Olivo’s barrage of random unforced errors.  A lesser players would have let his level slip after an easy 6-2 first set; the Ecuadorian simply kept up the same style, letting Olivo lose the second set the same way he lost the first.

Devin Britton (USA) vs Jorge Aguilar (COL)

This was the strangest match I saw at the tournament.  If such a thing is possible, Aguilar looked worse than Olivo.  Sure, Aguilar has much more experience on clay, but he has a winning record in challenger-level hard court matches.  Whether it was the beginning of the season or Britton’s game, the Colombian never found a rhythm.

For the American, let’s start with the positive.  Throughout the match, he served wonderfully, utilizing the slice out wide in the deuce court repeatedly, especially once he learned Aguilar was never going to get it back.

Beyond that, however, I don’t see the weapons that will make Britton a future top player.  Even his serve, well-placed as it was, didn’t look like a first-class weapon.  In build and game plan, he’s a bit like Sam Querrey, but without nearly as much power.  When it came time to get aggressive on the ground, he seemed even less sure of himself than some of the awkward clay-courters in the draw.  While I wasn’t able to watch the entire match (Olivo-Campozano started at the same time), I’m not sure I saw a single clean forehand winner from Britton.  To succeed, his game will need to be built around quick points that end that way, so that’s an enormous gap.

As far as Aguilar is concerned, the less said, the better.

Austin Krajicek (USA) vs Horacio Zeballos (ARG)

As noted yesterday, I’m not impressed by Krajicek’s game.  But his performance against the #1 seed (and the only top-100 player in the draw) gave me some reasons to reevaluate my opinion.

Even when every player in the draw is within a fairly narrow range of about #100 to #400 in the world, it’s remarkable how much the better players stand out.  Zeballos is in a class by himself, especially in the way he moves around the court.  He simply makes the game look easier than anyone else at this event.  And for all that, he barely squeaked past the American.

Against a better player than the day before, Krajicek’s forehand was a bigger weapon, even if he doesn’t yet have the tactical sense or net game to follow up some opportunities.  Most impressive, though, was his mental steadiness at a time when many–far superior–players would have wilted.

At 2-2 in the second set tiebreak, Zeballos hit an “ace” that dribbled off the net cord.  Krajicek had fought hard just to get to that tiebreak, and now luck turned against him.  On the next point, he hit an ace to even the score.  Then, after a couple of clunky points, he hit two more aces to save the first two match points at 6-3.  It wasn’t good enough, as Zeballos took the breaker 7-5, but it made for a good showing against a very talented top-100 player.

Guido Andreozzi (ARG) vs Rafael Camilo (BRA)

Two years ago, Camilo reached the finals of this event as a qualifier.  In this, his first match returning from an injury that kept him off tour for nearly 15 months, he showed no signs of the talent required to reach those heights.

Camilo has much in common with Adam Kellner, not even close to an appropriate fitness level for a pro tennis player, relying on one or two big (erratic) weapons to win points.  The Brazilian did collect his share of cheap points off the serve.  When forced to hit a second shot (or, heaven forbid, return a serve), the ball was more likely to end up in the hands of a fan than a ballboy.

As for Andreozzi, it was difficult to evaluate a player who was able to sit back and watch his opponent lose the match.  The Argentine’s motions are bit unorthodox–his forehand reminds me of Marsel Ilhan‘s, if not quite that unusual–and he wasn’t quite comfortable with the surface.  He also seemed a bit overwhelmed by the power of Camilo’s serve.

There must be more to Andreozzi, as he’s reached the top 200 at age 21, and is playing a tight quarterfinal match with Zeballos as I write this.  Alas, he didn’t have to play much tennis to reach the second round.

Assorted doubles notes

Simon Stadler and Rameez Junaid squeaked by Facundo Bagnis and Alejandro Gonzalez.  Junaid, who I’m embarrassed to admit I had never even heard of, is now a full-time doubles specialist, and appears to have the skills to reach the next level.  Stadler seemed less sure of himself on the doubles court, while Junaid took control of the net like a pro.

Rik De Voest, the record-holder for most career challenger doubles titles, was in action with Marcelo Demoliner, against Marco Trungelliti and Ariel Behar.  It was a rather mediocre match, with few entertaining points and a fair bit of sloppy play.  But what caught my eye was De Voest’s absolutely relentless efforts to keep his partner in the right frame of mind.  The veteran South African was joking and smiling throughout the entire match, redoubling (ahem) his efforts whenever Demoliner seemed the least bit frustrated.  De Voest and Demoliner ended  up losing in the second round to Britton and Krajicek, but I’ll bet they were smiling until the end.

Finally, the day ended with the top-ranked doubles team of James Cerretani and Adil Shamasdin against the Brazilians Julio Silva and Thiago Alves.  In this case, it was the Brazilians joking around and the North Americans showing intensity.  In fact, Cerretani may be the most intense player I have ever seen on a tennis court.  A few ballboys from that match are probably still suffering nightmares in which they simply can’t find his towel.

More relevant to the outcome of the match, Cerretani and Shamasdin were by far the most professional doubles team in the draw.  They moved forward like the Bryans, at the slightest opportunity and as an imposing unit.  Both–and especially Cerretani–are absolute magicians at net, making for several entertaining points against the loose and talented Brazilians.

The bad news for the North Americans is that apart from doubles tactics and net play, they don’t have much to fall back on.  Even accounting for the precision required from doubles groundstrokes, their unforced error rates from the baseline were outrageous.  Neither had a particularly strong serve, and Shamasdin mixed in too many double faults for comfort.  It’s perhaps indicative of their general level that, despite looking like the far superior team, they needed a match tiebreak to win–and in the tiebreak, the lost the first four match points at 9-3.

More on the rule changes

Despite the occasional lucky point, like Zeballos’s ace against Krajicek, the players seem completely unfazed by playing service lets.  It eliminates arguments, speeds up the game, and doesn’t strongly favor any particular kind of player.  I’m afraid the traditionalists may win this round and prevent wider use of no-let service rules, but I’m convinced the sport will be better off as soon as we get rid of lets altogether.

The 25-second warning is a different issue altogether.  It sounds fine on paper, giving chair umpires a way to draw attention to a player’s slow pace without immediately affecting the course of the match.  But in practice, it simply opens more doors to pointless arguments–that, incidentally, slow down the game.

On Tuesday, umpires gave time warnings to two players, Andreozzi and Cerretani.  Andreozzi hadn’t been playing particularly slowly, and he certainly wasn’t gaining any advantage from it.  When the warning was called, it took another minute for the player to talk it out with the umpire.  In the second set of an otherwise brisk, lopsided match, it was unnecessary and bizarre.

Cerretani’s warning came near the business end of the match and raised more difficult issues.  Cerretani and Shamasdin play at a very deliberate pace, and while it didn’t occur to me to clock them between points, there’s no doubt they were regularly exceeding 25 seconds.  Cerretani, in particular, asked for the towel after nearly every point, and the ballboys weren’t very quick about it.  That, in fact, was his complaint to the umpire when the warning was called–that the ballboy was slow.

More troubling, though, is that the umpire seemed to call that warning at the immediate behest of the opposing team.  I didn’t understand the Portuguese, but it seemed as if Silva felt he’d been waiting too long, asked the umpire if he was going to call a time violation, and the ump immediately did so.  So that’s what the official was waiting for?

And of course, Cerretani had to argue about it, giving him another 30 seconds or more to rest before the next point.

I understand the arguments against a shot clock, especially if the clock were to be prominently displayed and generate excitement as it crept down to zero.  But the problem with the current system, regardless of the penalty for a first or second violation, is that it is so discretionary.  Sure, there are reasons that more time is required before some points, like moving the balls to the correct end of the court, or distractions in the audience.  So let the umpire (or some other official) reset the clock when those delays occur.

If tennis needs a time limit between points, that limit needs to be enforced fairly and consistently.  Until it is, no minor rule tweak is going to stop officials from selectively applying it–or ignoring it altogether.

8 Comments

Filed under Challengers, Match reports, The Rules

Sao Paulo Challenger: Day One

Happy new year, fellow tennis geeks!

By chance, I found myself in Sao Paulo at the same time as the beginning of the first challenger of 2013.  Plenty of challengers these days are streamed online, so if you really want to see these guys play, you can swing it, but there’s still some magic to watching the action live.

Ok, well, “magic” might be a little strong for the first round of a South American challenger.  You know what I mean.

Before I dig into my notes on specific players, a couple of general issues:

Brazilian style. Brazil hasn’t had a major tennis star since the retirement of Gustavo Kuerten.  Many of the highest-ranked Brazilians are in Sao Paulo this week–on hard courts.  While Brazil, like the rest of South America, has traditionally been associated with clay courts, that is changing.  The 2016 Olympics event will be held on a hard surface, and Sao Paulo has hosted the challenger tour finals on indoor hard courts.

In time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see hard-court specialists emerge from this country and make an impact at the top range of the ATP rankings.  Many of the Brazilians kicking around the 100-200 range (Joao Souza, Rogerio Dutra Silva, Ricardo Hocevar) have an unworkable combination of hard-court games and clay-court tactics.  These aren’t Argentinian-style dirtballers–they back up their booming serves with aggressive groundstrokes and are rarely spotted more than a few feet behind the baseline.  But they still aren’t as aggressive as their games merit.  While Thomaz Bellucci has had the most success of his generation, his game has some of the same limitations.

As we’ll see in a moment, the next generation of Brazilians might have more pure hard-court success.  The additional hard-court exposure they are getting at home these days can’t hurt.

No-let serving. Finally, the ATP is following the lead of World Team Tennis and the NCAA … at least a little bit.  For the first quarter of this year, Challenger tournaments will abandon the “let” rule on serves.  If the ball lands in, it’s good, regardless of whether it made contact with the net.

In seven hours of tennis yesterday, I expected to see plenty of awkwardness around the no-let rule, since players haven’t had much time to adjust.  But that wasn’t the case.  Only once did a serve dribble over the net cord for an easy ace.  One or two other times the server had a late reaction, hitting a weak defensive return that he might improve on in another few weeks.  For the most part, the no-let rule didn’t raise an eyebrow.

The advantages are minor but very real.  I don’t think any fans like to see players argue pointlessly with chair umpires, and lets (real and imagined) have always been a source of friction.  No-let serving gives us smoother matches with fewer of those sorts of hiccups.

Now, on to the matches.

Guilherme Clezar (BRA) vs Thiago Monteiro (BRA)

The future of Brazilian tennis got off to an early start this morning.  Clezar, 20, was the top-ranked teenager in the world until his birthday yesterday.  Monteiro, 18, is the third-ranked 18-year-old in the world.

Both players have monster games, with big serves and crushing groundstrokes.  Monteiro, in particular, is capable of doing violence to the ball on his first offering.  And in fact, frequently Monteiro looked like the superior player, comfortably running around forehands to hit winners on tight angles.  But in this match, Clezar was the wily veteran, somehow breaking twice for the 6-4 6-4 win.

For all of Monteiro’s potential, he was erratic.  His low service toss led to a few patches of missed first serves. He lost his temper and earned a ball abuse violation when failing to run down a drop shot on an unimportant point early in the second set.

By comparison, Clezar played the part of the wily veteran.  The ball didn’t make quite as much noise off of his racquet, but he still hits awfully hard.  While Monteiro is a pure hard-courter, Clezar comes closer to the mold I mentioned above, using hard-court weapons in an occasionally clay-court manner.

Clezar’s groundstrokes were surprisingly varied, often dropping two or three forehands in a row within inches of the baseball, then hitting a heavier topspin shot that dropped short.  For all of his capabilities, though, he missed a lot of opportunities to follow up a strong serve with an equally aggressive second or third shot.  In this match, it didn’t stop him; against better players, it’s a major area for improvement.

Clezar’s impressive ranking (for a just-turned 20-year-old) is no mirage–he has the highest ceiling of any player I saw yesterday.  He has the raw tools for a Nicolas Almagro type of game; the next few years will show us whether he can be that good.

Diego Sebastian Schwartzman (ARG) vs Marcelo Demoliner (BRA)

The 20-year-old Schwartzman had an epic season at the futures level last year, and finally made any impact at higher levels in winning the Buenos Aires Challenger late last year.  Seeing him on a hard court, it’s tough to imagine him stringing those wins together.

The Argentine is short–5’6″ on the high side.  And while he does a lot with the limited tools he’s been given, he has a long way to go to get to the level of a once-in-a-generation talent like Olivier Rochus.  Schwartzman has the weakest serve I’ve ever seen in professional tennis, not putting much on first serves, but still frequently missing them.  He doesn’t even use a great deal of spin.

Demoliner, a big Brazilian who looks a bit like Juan Martin Del Potro, is hardly a top talent, but he didn’t have any trouble putting Schwartzman away.  To his credit, as the match progressed, he took a bit of gas off the serve and went for angles and spin, often leaving the Argentine to swing (and occasionally miss) at balls above his head.

The best comp for Schwartzman is probably Juan Ignacio Chela … with the caveat that Chela is tall.  Given the opportunity, I would imagine DSS sits back as far as he can go and outlasts his opponents.  It was clear yesterday that he’s very steady on the ground and is mentally strong for a 20-year-old, staying relatively focused under an attack he’s wasn’t going to overcome.  On slow clay, that’s a recipe for success, at least in challengers.  On any hard court, it’s barely worth showing up.  Indeed, it was only his fourth career pro match on hard, moving his record to 0-4.

Despite winning this match, Demoliner didn’t do much to impress.  As noted, he served intelligently, and often looked good coming forward, but he needed to be dragged to the net.  Again, we see a Brazilian with a big game who is reluctant to use it.

Martin Alund (ARG) vs Fabiano De Paula (BRA)

In pushing his ranking up to a career-high 119 last year, Alund played only two matches off of clay–first-round losses Wimbledon and US Open qualies.  For all that, he seemed surprisingly comfortable on hard courts.

That isn’t to say he was any more aggressive than the battalion of Brazilians I’ve commented on so far.  He has some of the tools for it, especially a big serve that he is able to effortlessly place in the wide corner.  His biggest advantage yesterday, though, was an opponent even less well-suited for the surface than he was.

De Paula occasionally looked great, stepping inside the baseline to hit one-handed backhand winners, and mixing in some impressive serving of his own.  More typically, you could see him four feet behind the baseline wondering what to do next.  Despite Alund’s passivity, De Paula proved he could play even more conservative tennis, squandering opportunities and trying to win 15-shot rallies that tended to end with an error on the 7th shot.

Alund, at 27, is unlikely to advance much further in the rankings, though he could easily hang around his current ranking by continuing his success in South American challengers.  De Paula has yet to break into the top 200, and he will need a new game plan if he’s going to help out his ranking with his hard-court performance.

Pedro Sousa (POR) vs Marco Trungelliti (ARG)

After watching so many players squander their firepower with poor tactics on Sao Paulo’s fast courts, it was refreshing to watch Trungelliti, a classic dirtballer who seemed happily unaware that he wasn’t playing on dirt.  Ultimately, he fell to Sousa in three sets, but by simply playing his game–unsuitable as it was–he looked more assured on the surface than the majority of others in the draw.

Sousa wasn’t comfortable at all.  He hit great shots, especially forehand winners from every position in every direction.  In trying, he sent balls sailing in every direction outside of the lines, as well.  He gave every evidence of mental instability as well, incessantly chattering at himself, and once standing at the net for 30 seconds trying to hit a ball to a ballboy with the grip of his racquet.

Both players, but especially Sousa, looked great when hitting groundstrokes in their strike zone; in less natural contact points, the results were less predictable.  Sousa’s forehand and Trungelliti’s two-hander could be particularly impressive.

Austin Krajicek (USA) vs Patricio Heras (ARG)

One final note, on a qualifying match that kicked off the day.  Three and a half years ago, I saw Krajicek in his first professional match, at US Open qualifying.  I left with a negative impression of an immature teenager with nothing like the game it would take to compete professionally, but then again, he was 18.

After a few years at Texas A&M, Krajicek is more mature, and has a few weapons that make him competitive at the challenger level.  But his game still seems awfully small for contemporary pro tennis.  Some first serves were strong, yet every second serve was weakly spun in.  He crushed some forehands, but almost every backhand was a defensive slice.  In a first-set tiebreak, he came to the net four times … only once behind a sufficiently good approach.

At 22, Krajicek has more time to develop, but for now, he’s far down the list of young Americans to watch.

2 Comments

Filed under Challengers, Match reports, The Rules

A Quarter of Missing Challengers

The ATP Challenger calendar (PDF) has been released for the first quarter of 2013, and it looks mighty thin.

In the next three months, we can expect 21 challenger events, compared to 30 in Q1 2012 and 33 in Q1 2011.  (Thanks to Foot Soldiers of Tennis for raising the issue.)  For those challenger fans among us, that’s clearly bad news.  Less competitive tennis always is.  It could also hurt many up-and-coming players, which means it should concern all fans of men’s tennis.

For the last twenty years, challenger tennis has generally been on the rise, with 147 tournaments at that level last year compared to only 88 in 1992.  The number peaked in 2007 and 2008 with 173 and 175 challenger events, respectively.

Challenger tournaments per year, 1991-2013

However, while the challenger circuit has grown in size and importance, the ATP tour has shrunk.  Most of that movement occurred more than a decade ago.  The tour has remained steady with between 65 and 67 events each year since 2002.  As recently as 1994, though, there were 90 ATP events, which offered 36% more main draw places than did 2012′s 65 tournaments.

In other words, the growth of the challenger tour hasn’t substantially expanded opportunities for players outside the sport’s elite, it has simply filled the gap left by all those missing ATP events.  The number of challengers increased by 35% from 1992 to 2002, but the number of main draw places in ATP and challenger tourneys combined rose by only 6%.  Account for the reduction of tour-level qualifying events, and you probably have a net loss in point- and money-earning opportunities for tour pros.

The following five years brought the explosion of challengers noted above, but the pullback to 2012′s level of 65 ATP and 147 challenger events has reduced the field to only 7432 total main draw places, a 9.5% increase over ten years earlier.

A 10% jump over the course of a decade may be enough to keep pace with the global spread of tennis, but it won’t be if the current downward trend persists.

That’s the reason for concern.  21 first-quarter challengers represents a 30% decrease from 2012.  Drop 30% of the challenger events from the entire 2012 calendar, and you have only 103 events, the lowest number since 1996, where there were 97 challengers but a whopping 84 tour-level tournaments.

The ripple effect

So, when the size of the top-tier tennis world shrinks, who suffers?

Small as these paydays are, when the number of challenger-tour paydays drops, some fringe-level players earn fewer of them.  The relevant “fringe” here is the ranking range between 200 and 300, the guys who often make the main draw cut of a challenger when there were two or three in one week, but are relegated to a futures or (unpaid) qualifying draw when there is only one.

Less obvious is that even the top-ranked challenger-level contenders suffer.  Fewer tournaments generally means more travel–that is, greater travel expenses.  For Roger Federer, that’s just a different balance on his NetJets account.  For Diego Schwartzman, it means more weeks where he loses money playing competitive tennis, and fewer upper-level events that are feasible opportunities for him.

Needless to say, there are far more Schwartzmans than there are Federers.

And that brings us to the groups that really get hurt when the tennis calendar shrinks: Those who pay many of their own costs and those who don’t live in hotbeds of tennis.

Players who are heavily supported by the USTA might object to additional flight time, but they don’t feel the pain of travel expenses.  Someone who can easily reach the plethora of challenger events in Western Europe will find it easy to reach plenty of playing opportunities.  An up-and-comer in the the US and Australia will get just as many wild cards as he would have five or ten years ago.

But competitors from much of South America, the Balkans, and the former USSR often do not have any of those things going for them.  With every loss of a net-profitable playing opportunity, those guys are a little less likely to stick with professional tennis.  If Gregoire Burquier decided to pack it in, most tennis fans wouldn’t notice.  But what about the next Radek Stepanek, who ten years ago was within a whisker of running out of money and hanging up the racquet?

Let’s hope the decrease in challengers early in 2013 is a blip, not a trend.  It isn’t something anyone will talk about in the next big debate about prize money, but the quality of tennis and all professional levels depends on it.

3 Comments

Filed under Challengers, Prize money

Graduating From Challengers

The best players don’t take long before they show you how good they are.  Tennis fans are rightfully excited about guys like Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic, youngsters who have already established themselves at ATP level–if they are this good at 18, or 21, imagine how good they will be.

I’m always looking for ways to quantify that promise.  In the past, I’ve focused on the rankings, noticing that nearly everyone who reached #1 had broken into the top 100 before their 19th birthday.  Another angle is to see how long a player lasts at the challenger level.

The best players seem to skip the challenger level altogether.  It’s a bit like baseball players and Triple-A: some prospects are ready for the big time, so they never play in the highest level of the minor leagues.  Roger Federer only played eight events in his challenger career, Nadal played 12, and Djokovic played 11–out of which he won three titles.  Andy Roddick also won three challenger titles in only six events at that level.

A player can only move so quickly if they gain entry to tour-level events and they take advantage of the opportunities.  Roddick won 20 matches as a wild card in 2001.  Djokovic reached the third round of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open on his first try.  A few accomplishments like that, plus the points from a couple of challenger titles, and you’re ranked in the top 100, good enough to earn direct entry into most ATP events.  That’s essentially what happened to Milos Raonic after he reached the fourth round in Melbourne last year.

This suggests a new type of filter to separate the prospects from the wannabes.  If someone takes two years to consistently go deep at challenger events and fails to make an impact at the ATP level, they probably aren’t headed for the top 10.  But if someone gets into the top 50 or 60 with only a couple dozen challengers in their past, they just might be something special.

I investigated the challenger careers of everyone currently in the ATP top 100.  Eight of the ten guys who played the fewest challengers are (in order): Roddick, Federer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Djokovic, Nadal, Gael Monfils, Andy Murray, and Juan Monaco.

The other two? Milos Raonic and Bernard Tomic, who played 16 and 18 challengers, respectively.  Other prospects in the same range are Kei Nishikori (22), Cedrik-Marcel Stebe (25), and Ryan Harrison (28).  While Stebe and Harrison may play a few more, they still haven’t reached the totals of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (29), Richard Gasquet (32), or David Ferrer (34).  Nikolay Davydenko spent even longer (41 events) on the challenger tour before beginning his ascent to world #3.

More than half of the top 100 played at least 50 challengers, and that’s generally the half you don’t want to be in.  The most promising career trajectory for challenger vets is that of Janko Tipsarevic, who played 89 challengers (winning 10) before putting it all behind him.  Most of the men near him on the list (Tobias Kamke, 88; Andreas Beck, 90; Dudi Sela, 90) can only dream of doing so well.

With a few exceptions like Tipsarevic (and Monaco, who largely skipped the challenger tour but hasn’t become a consistent threat on tour), this is a filter with some potential.  It overlaps quite a bit with age–if you see a 20-year-old in the top 100, he probably hasn’t played nearly as many challengers as a 27-year-old who finally broke in.  Where “number of challengers” might trump age is when comparing players who–for reasons that may not be purely attributable to talent–started playing professionally at much different times.  John Isner, for example, has only played 20 challengers, but didn’t break into the top 100 until he was nearly 23.  His advanced age would have told us he had little potential while hiding the fact he spent years playing college tennis.  The length of his challenger tour career indicates that once he went pro, it wasn’t long before he was ready to play with the big boys.

Whichever metric (age or challenger experience) you prefer, it’s tough to get excited about someone like Alex Bogomolov Jr., who was 28 when he first cracked the top 100, after a career including 151 challengers.  Among the current top 100, only Michael Russell and Ricardo Mello have played more.  Another man with little promise is (I’m sad to say) Flavio Cipolla, 28 years old and #75 in the world.  The Italian has played 136 challengers and won only 51% of his matches in those events.

Another lesson from these numbers is that you can watch a whole lot of challenger-level matches without seeing any real prospects.  (That isn’t to say that Kenny de Schepper versus Michael Yani isn’t entertaining.  It is.)  If future top-tenners play only a handful of challenger events, your average player in a challenger is a guy whose best hope is a peek into the top 50.  Or–if you’re lucky–Janko Tipsarevic.

1 Comment

Filed under Challengers, Research