Category Archives: Tennis

Uh oh Serena lost. 

http://lastwordonsports.com/2015/08/16/is-serena-another-case-of-lost-confidence/

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Is The Indian Wells BNP Paribas tennis tourney just bigger or is it better too? 

The first time I headed to the desert to watch tennis in 2008, the somewhat smaller tournament held in Indian Wells California was known as the Pacific Life Open. Even back then the combined ATP and WTA event attracted the top players but it wasn’t a big hit with the fans. Wow have things changed in the desert.

With a change in the prime sponsor to BNPParibas, the tournament has become a fan favourite.

I remember that first visit, the main stadium which seats 16,100 was only about 1/3 to 1/2 full for most matches. Wandering around the grounds there was one other temporary show court that was packed and lots of matches were played on side courts with no viewing stands. On the grounds there were about five or six small flimsy retail tents and one large retail tent with tennis clothes and tournament souvenirs. I honestly cannot remember the food stands. One of the most endearing things about the tourney was that the majority of the staff, from concession stand workers to stadium ushers, were retired seniors living in the area.

I went back to Indian Wells in 2013 and by then big changes were already in progress. Besides an increase in fan attendance, including various celebrities, the tournament grounds now had a plaza area with a big screen broadcasting the match on stadium court. There were plans to build another stadium court as well as other upgrades to the grounds.

This year, 2015, my third visit to the tourney in the desert revealed a tournament that now sits among the best on both the ATP tour and the WTA tour.

The new stadium that was completed in time for last year’s edition of the tournament, seats 8,000 fans and includes Nobu Japanese restaurant which boasts a never ending line to get in. The grounds have undergone numerous fan friendly changes. There are 19,000 square feet of shaded plaza areas, live music entertains fans between matches, as do various other acts including drummers and “stilted tennis players” reaching nearly 8 feet in height. Numerous food outlets and retail outlets surround the plaza area.  The main retail clothing tent features all the top brands and features a huge Nike section. The lineup in this store can appear to go on forever, but the system at the cashes makes checkout super speedy. I can think of lots of other event venues that could learn from this event.

As always the staff of the event is primarily composed of local retirees from the surrounding area. Not only were they happy to be involved with the tournament they were always smiling no matter what job they were doing.

In contrast to many other tournaments, all match courts have hawk eye line calling technology. Practice court schedules are posted for the fans. Free wifi is available on the grounds and there is even live streaming of a few matches. The tournament app is one of the best providing live scores, match updates and tournament news.

This tournament definitely ranks up there in my favourites, it is not the US Open without thousands of people everywhere you turn and it is not Roland Garros with three huge stadiums. It is however a fan friendly tourney with great tennis. If you decide to head to the desert for next year’s event check out the following blog for lots of good advice. http://ihaveatennisaddiction.blogspot.ca/2015/03/tips-for-enjoying-and-surviving-bnp.html?m=1

Ball kid or towel dummy?

I cannot clearly remember when it started. You know the signal to the ball kid, usually a hand wiping the face and then the ball kid dutifully appearing with the towel and then waiting while the player towels down and then catching the now sweaty towel as the player tosses it away.
In my mind I imagine it was probably during a brutal five set match at the U.S. Open on a sweltering August day with the humidex reaching into the 40 centrigade degree range or the 110 Fahrenheit range. The kind of day that caused profuse sweating resulting in drops of sweat producing a burning sensation as they rolled into the players eyes.
I wonder which player it was that brought the towel from his chair and stashed it at the back of the court within easy reach for a quick wipe between points. I bet that player had no idea what he/she was starting.
Sometime between that day and today the towel wipe has become an integral part of each match and in some cases an integral part of each point.
It did not take long until players figured out a towel wipe was a great stall technique giving them a few added precious seconds between gruelling points. Pretty soon every player was storing a towel at the back of court and players were toweling off between every point even if that point consisted of a single stroke a cool day.
The ATP trying to speed up the game instituted the 25 second rule which requires the server to begin his service motion within 25 seconds of the end of the previous point. Instead of giving up on the towel wipe the players began to require that the towel be brought to them. And so the ball kids acquired a new job. Towel delivery.
After the towel wipe the player often just tosses the towel in the direction of the ball kid without even making eye contact. The ball kid is expected to dutifully pick up the towel and store it out of sight until the next point. I personally think it is disgusting and degrading that the ball kids have to handle the sweaty towels.
My solution. Have a stand placed at the back of the court for the towel. The stand could be sponsored by a prominent towel company or a store like Bed Bath and Beyond. The player can get the towel when he/she needs it and place it back on the stand when done. All on their own and within the 25 sec time limit.
I tried to think of any other sport that provides towel service and I cannot come up with one. It’s time to take the onus of towel service off the ball kids and put it back on the players.

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.

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.

Changes I would make to pro tennis

First and foremost to me, tennis is a sport. But the world of professional tennis is a balance of sport and entertainment. And really it is the entertainment side of the game that brings in the dollars that keep the circuit functioning. With that in mind I started to think about relatively minor changes that both the WTA and the ATP could make to attract new followers to pro tennis.
Player identification
When a casual fan views a football game or hockey game on television or in the stadium it is easy to identify the members of each team primarily based on their the team’s colours and the team uniforms that are emblazoned with the team logo and the player’s name and number. But tennis, being an individual sport does not have that feature. Players are free to wear what they choose or as is more the norm what their clothing sponsor chooses for them to wear.
Over the past few years athletic companies have created player outfit kits specific for each grand slam tournament. The problem is that all the players sponsored by a specific company are wearing the same kit, save for the very top players who receive an outfit that only they wear.
For example at Roland Garros this year all the Adidas female athletes were wearing a purple skirt and orange top combo with matching shoes. Even for a regular tournament attendee it is often difficult to distinguish one player from the other. A number of the players who were wearing this particular outfit also sported long dark hair which was tied back in a braid or ponytail ( Christina McHale, Garbine Muguruza and Sorana Cirstea) held in place by the colour coordinated visor.
Also at Roland garros the “in” colours for the men were black and neon yellow. Watching on television I could not differentiate the two players on court , I finally noticed that their wristbands were different so that is how I could tell who was who.
Wimbledon also presents a similar challenge to the casual fan and sometimes to the dedicated fan as well. All players dressed in all white. Combine that with the numerous blonde ponytails (Bouchard, Wozniacki Kerber, Kvitova, Kirilenko, Lisicki, Makarova….it can be near impossible to tell one player from the other.

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If you combine the similar outfits with players that are continually changing ends of the court you cannot blame the casual fan for being totally confused.
Perhaps companies could provide two colour palettes and the higher seeded player would get to choose their preferred palette.
Alternatively the player’s name could be placed on the back of the top making it nice and clear who is who.

Intermission

Another thing I would change would be to increase the time of the break between sets. Not only would this allow the players a bathroom break I would do this for the fans.

The two minute break on changeovers and between sets does not allow the fans in attendance enough time to get refreshments or use the facilities. If a fan waits until the set is over to refuel it means they cannot get back to their seats for at least three games and in some matches that could be half the set. Extending the time between sets to five to seven minutes could alleviate this problem.

This would also allow fans watching on television to grab a snack or throw in a load of laundry before settling back down to watch the next set.

Player withdrawals
Another problem that needs to be addressed is the cancellation of matches when a player withdraws prior to the match.
At the Sony Open in Miami this year the afternoon mens semi final was cancelled when Kei Nishikori withdrew due to an injury he incurred during his match the night before against Roger Federer. Then the evening semi final with Nadal was cancelled when his opponent Thomas Berdych withdrew with a stomach ailment. This left ticket holders with no matches to see and the tournament substituted ladies doubles for the evening match.
This problem of ticket holders with no match to see could be alleviated if the lucky loser from the match before could fill in the spot. For example in the Nishikori match the lucky loser would have been Roger Federer and that would have created a Federer – Nadal semi final. Ranking points would have to be adjusted for this format to work.

Davis cup and Fed cup
In order to increase the fan base of these two country based events I think it would be beneficial to combine them. Davis cup for the men and Fed cup for the women combined would make for a more exciting weekend of tennis. From an organizational standpoint it would be easier to set up one temporary venue for the event instead of the case now where the events are held in different locations in the same host country. But what would make this better from the entertainment viewpoint is that this format would allow the inclusion of mixed doubles.

 

These are just a few of my ideas to increase the tennis fan base, minor changes that could have a big impact. Let me know what you think.