Big serve equals big bore!

This past week has been filled with amazing matches, the WTA in Singapore and the ATP in Basel and Valencia. The match between Roger Federer and Ivo Karlovic was not one of them, in fact I found myself bored during this match. It wasn’t that the players were having bad days or it was a lopsided match. The problem was Karlovic was serving big. In fact too big for my liking.

There is a difference to me between big serving and good serving. The big servers blast high speed bombs one after the other and win numerous points without ever hitting a forehand or backhand. Think Karlovic, John Isner and Milos Raonic. These players have weak return games and do not do well in long rallies that require a variety of shots. Players like this just want to get the set to a tiebreak where they figure the odds are in their favour.

So why was I bored? In the three sets that Karlovic and Federer played Ivo hit 33 aces. The minimum number of points in a game is 4, this means that karlovic served 8 games worth of aces. He served 15 total games during the match. So basically he aced his way through half of his service games. Probably less than two seconds for each point. No return of serve, no ground strokes, no approach shots no volleys no overheads….nothing. I wanted to watch tennis. I wanted to watch Federer make a solid return and then watch the construction of the point. I wanted to see how Federer’s opponent would handle his lethal forehand or perhaps a slice backhand. I wanted to see Federer charge the net and end the point with a touch volley. But on those 33 points all I got to see was Federer turn away and walk over to prepare to try to return the next serve.
In contrast Federer is what I would call a good server. His serve may not break speed records but it’s placement in the service box is precise. It is also reliable, how many time have you seen him get out of trouble by a beautifully executed serve? And rarely does he double fault in those critical moments, something which cost Karlovic points at crucial times during the match.
So an accurate serve with good pace to set up the point in my view is more exciting and intriguing than a big serve which to me is just a big bore.

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What is going on in Singapore?

In my last post I expressed my opinion that Genie Bouchard would advance out of the Red round robin group at the WTA Finals and that she probably would lose out in the semifinals to either Maria Sharapova or Petra Kvitova.   I also previously noted that the outcome of many matches could depend on the fitness and the injury status of the players involved.

In her first match Genie struggled against Simona Halep and her second match against Ana Ivanovic was similar in nature. Genie committed numerous unforced errors in both her matches and heavy strapping could be seen on her injured thigh.  Bouchard also has commented that she has had limited training time on the court due to her thigh injury and felt unprepared for this event.  Simona also withdrew from a recent tournament with a hip injury following  a number of poor showings that seemed to indicate a lack of confidence in her game. It seemed in their match that as long as Simona kept the ball in play Genie would make the error.  But i certainly was taken by surprise by the dominant win today by Simona over Serena Williams. Serena appeared fit in her win over Ana Invanovic on Monday showing no signs of the knee injury that caused her withdrawal from an earlier tournament.

As the Red group stands now, Simona is in the lead with 2 victories, Serena and Ana each have one win and one loss and Genie has two losses. So the match between Simona and Ana looks to be the deciding match as far as who will head to the semifinals from this group, while Genie could spoil Serena’s chance to advance.

The White group has also had surprising results. Petra Kvitova has been playing well following up her Wimbledon victory with a championship in Wuhan, China. In contrast Agnieszka Radwanska has struggled this season, winning only one title with a 46-19 record for the year.  But when the two met on Tuesday, it was Radwanska that used her all round game to defeat the powerful Kvitova.  The match between Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova was a classic struggle between the two players with Caroline coming out victorious. Going forward Petra will have to defeat Caroline and Maria to reclaim the title she won in 2011, also the year she won her first Wimbledon title.  Maria will have to defeat Petra and Aga to keep her hope of the title and possibly the number one ranking alive.

Predictions in sport are always fun, but if we knew what was going to happen, we would not have to play the game and thats the great part, the results are always a surprise.

Can Bouchard make noise at the WTA finals?

As I looked at the list of qualifiers for the WTA finals I started to wonder if Genie could do any damage at this tournament. I decided to wait until the two round robin groups had been set before I began to make any predictions.
So Genie finds herself in the Red group with none other than Serena Williams, the current number one, along with Simona Halep and Ana Ivanovic.
The top two players after round robin play will face off against the top two from the White group in the semifinals and finals.
Serena and Genie have never played. When Serena is in top form I have no doubt she could defeat Genie, but Serena pulled out of her last two tournaments with an illness followed by a knee injury. When Genie plays Serena in the round robin she could take advantage of Serena’s lack of tournament play but she will need to be aggressive right from the start. Genie has a 2-0 winning record against Ana, but the last time they played was a 3 set match early in the season at the Australian Open and Ana has been playing great tennis for most of 2014. Genie has a 1-1 record against Simona this year, winning the Wimbledon semifinal but losing in the round of 16 at Indian Wells, however Simona has lost a lot of confidence in her game which has resulted in poor showings at her last tournaments.

With all of the above taken into consideration i expect Genie to advance out of the Red round robin group and into the semifinals. She could face Maria Sharapova or Petra Kvitova in the semis if the White group plays out as I expect. Genie has an 0-2 record against Maria and an 0-3 record against Kvitova including the Wimbledon final and more recently the final in Wuhan. In 2014 Genie only has 6 wins over top ten players and to win this event her level of play would have to be consistently high. So although i think she will make it out of her round robin group i don’t expect her to get past the semifinals.

WTA Championships, will the top players play?

The WTA Championship event starts October 17, 2014 and is set to feature the top eight singles players and the top eight doubles teams on the women’s professional tennis tour. The tournament will be played in Singapore this year, with $6.5 millionUSD up for grabs. This tournament is situated at the end of a long year of events and at this point in the year there are a lot of injured players. So, will we really see the top players?

The singles players that have qualified are, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Eugenie Bouchard, Agnieszka Radwanska, Ana Ivanovic, and Caroline Wozniacki and two alternates, the first to be named is Angelique Kerber.

In the last month, four of these players have withdrawn from tournaments due to injury.

On October 3 2014, Serena Williams withdrew from the China Open due to an injury. Williams defeated Lucie Safarova on October 2 but was unable to play her quarterfinal match against Sam Stosur.  Williams stated she began feeling pain in her knee earlier in the week and the pain became more intense as she continued to play. Williams was heading to Europe for an MRI, but indicated she could miss the rest of the season and even the championships depending on the results of the scan.

Simona Halep also pulled out of the China Open after a tough three set match against Andrea Petkovic. Halep took a medical timeout during the match for a hip injury and was able to complete the victory,  but stated it would be too risky for her to continue in the tournament.

Ana Ivanovic also pulled out of her last tournament with a hip injury on Oct 8. After winning her first match at the Linz Open in Austria Ivanovic withdrew from the tournament indicating that she had been dealing with the hip injury all summer and was unable to continue playing.

Eugenie Bouchard joined in the withdrawal brigade a day after Invanovic, also ending her run at the Linz tournament. Bouchard played her first match with a taped up thigh and said that the morning after the match her injury felt much worse. She felt it in her best interests to pull out of the tournament in an attempt to be ready for the WTA Championships in Singapore, for which she had already qualified.

From a field of eight, clearly half are suffering with some sort of injury putting their complete participation in jeopardy.
The format of the tournament has the players divided into two groups for round robin play.  The top two players in each group play in the semi-finals and ultimately in the finals. That is a lot of matches to play for an injured body.
If all of the players mentioned are dealing with substantial injuries then the championships could also suffer from the withdrawal syndrome, hence the reason for two alternate players.
If on the other hand all the withdrawals were the result of players saving their bodies for the championships the issue becomes a bit different. Are the smaller tournaments leading into the WTA finals being damaged by players choosing to preserve their bodies for a bigger event.
I am looking forward to great matches between the best players at the championships but not completely convinced that is what I am going to get to see.

Is Tennis too fast and too hard?

As the ATP and WTA continue the season with the Asian swing of this year’s tour leading into the tour championships it’s hard to ignore the signs of  stress on the players’ bodies.
Several top players have been conspicuously absent from tournament play for a number of months due to physical injuries.
On the men’s side Rafa Nadal has just returned after missing all tournaments since Wimbledon in July due to a wrist injury incurred in practice.
Andy Murray has spent a lot of this season trying to regain his form after undergoing back surgery a year ago. It appears that the Shenzhen Open may have been the first real indicator that Murray is back to full health.
Juan Martin del Potro has missed an extended period due to a troubling wrist injury. This injury first surfaced at the beginning of 2010 in Australia.  After missing all the tournaments that followed the Australian Open Del Potro had wrist surgery in May of 2010. Del Potro did not return to competitive tennis for nine months. After working hard to regain form and ranking points by 2012 Del Potro was firmly in the top ten.  In 2014 the injury resurfaced and a second surgery took place in the spring. Del Potro had planned to return to the tour during the Asian swing but his return has been postponed.

On the women’s side former number two Vera Zvonareva who had been sidelined for well over a year is trying to get back into match shape. Zvonareva withdrew form the 2013 Australian Open with a shoulder injury which required surgery.
Victoria Azarenka has suffered two injuries this year limiting her to a minimal number of tournaments. The first injury, a foot injury, resulted in a five month layoff. In her return to competition she fell during a match in Montreal and injured her knee. The culmination of the two injuries has forced Azarenka to call it quits for the season so she can properly heal.
Li Na surprised everyone by announcing her retirement from professional tennis a couple of weeks ago just as the Asian tournaments were about to begin. After dealing with right knee injuries for several years,  a new left knee injury became just too much for her to overcome.
One must also remember that a serious shoulder injury requiring surgery took Maria Sharapova off the circuit for a  lengthy chunk of time and once she returned it took her a couple of years to regain her pre surgery form.

All sports evolve over time. One of the key factors contributing to the evolution of tennis is the change in racquet technology. One is only required to look back to the 1970’s when wood racquets were mainstream. The force these racquets generated was much reduced compared to the racquets today which are made of a variety of materials, including graphite, Kevlar and fibreglass.  The lighter weight frames allow for increased racquet head speed, which increases the force transferred to the ball and increases the weight and speed of the shot. With the change in racquet technology has also come a change in the composition of strings. Strings have moved away from the softer natural gut to a variety of synthetics. Strings can be monofilament, multi filaments, textured and/or composite, with the newer strings gripping the ball better imparting even more spin. Adjustments in tension can alter the power produced.

Back to basic physics.  Force = mass x acceleration. Since the mass of the tennis ball has remained unchanged over the years the added force the new racquets and strings produce has resulted in increased ball speed. This in turn has put more force on the athletes’s bodies.

A look back at the 1970s and the only injury I could find for Bjorn Borg was a shoulder injury incurred while water skiing. I could not find a serious injury for John McEnroe. Ditto on the women’s side. No mention of serious injuries for Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova.

Perhaps its time to let the athletes bodies catch up to the evolution of the equipment as it is becoming very apparent that even though these athletes are in incredible physical condition they cannot compete with the new technology of the game.