Thursday, August 22, 2013

State of American tennis

We are nearing the tenth anniversary of the last time an American tennis player won the US Open, when Andy Roddick did it in 2003, which is by far the longest drought in the Open Era. On top of that, until just last week, there wasn't a single US representative in the top 20 of the world for the first time in the Open Era.

When American tennis fans hear about these numbers, it is easy to go into panic mode. Tennis fans are looking for someone or something to blame. They want to find a reason why the ATP isn't dominated by Americans right now. The main scapegoat has been the US player development, which couldn't be more unfair.

In fact, I believe that the US has the best player development in the world. Player development is often judged on how many grand slam champions or top ten players it produces. So few players in the history of tennis ever win a grand slam event or even reach the top ten in the world. It isn't the job of player development to simply create a champion. It is their job to put a player in a position to break through and become one of the top tennis players in the world, and that is exactly what the US has done.

In the top 100 of the Year-to-Date Challenger Rankings, no country has more representation than the US, which has 12 players. These are the guys who are set to make a breakthrough into the ATP World Tour. There are 16 player from the US ranked between 86 and 185, which are roughly the top 100 players that can't directly get into any world tour tournament that they want.

The US player development has plenty of players primed to make a breakthrough any year, so there is no question that they are doing their job, and they are probably doing it better than any other country.

When you look at why there are only two players that are truly a part of the world tour, you have to take a more case-by-case approach. There is no blanket answer that explains why each of the men in position to breakthrough haven't yet. Each player has their own story and own reasons.

For players like Rajeev Ram, Michael Russell, and James Blake, they are well past their primes and are just living off of wild cards and challenger tournaments to keep their careers alive a little longer. For Brian Baker and Mardy Fish, injury has been a major stumbling block. Steve Johnson and Bradley Klahn each prioritized their college early in their careers. Players like Tim Smyczek, Alex Kuznetsov, and Bobby Reynolds did good just to make it to the top of the challenger level and were never real threats to play for titles on the world tour.

Then there are the remaining guys that are still young and still have a chance. Some of them have taken one giant step forward as teenagers and have since taken several steps back such as Ryan Harrison, Donald Young, and Ryan Sweeting. The rest still have a chance to be the next US representative in the top ten. These are guys like Jack Sock, Rhyne Williams, Denis Kudla, or even someone like Dennis Novikov. None of those guys are super young, but there aren't a lot of other players their age from other countries that are breaking through.

This has been an era that has been tough for players to breakthrough in before they turn 25. There may not be a lot of good results for the young Americans to get excited about, but their chance is coming soon. 2013 may be the worst year in US tennis history, but it does not indicate a downward trend. The US is still in position to get back to being the best tennis country in the world at any time.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Super Nine Sweep

Every year on the ATP World Tour since 1990, there are nine events across the planet in which all of the top players in tennis compete. Following Novak Djokovic's triumph in Monte Carlo, he is missing just one title to become the first player to win all nine events in his career. That one missing title is the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where Djokovic has lost in the final four times in his career.

Overall, Djokovic has a record of 188-51 with 14 titles in these Masters Series 1000 events. He won his first in just his 11th try at the 2007 tournament in Miami. Later that year, Djokovic claimed the title in Canada with his first career win against Roger Federer.

As the Serb, began his 2008 season, he showed that he was ready to compete at the top level of the sport. Following his first grand slam title, Djokovic defeated Mardy Fish for the title at Indian Wells. The emerging star claimed his fourth Masters Series title at a different event in Rome. Djokovic also reached the Cincinnati final for the first time, losing in two tiebreak sets to Andy Murray.

In 2009, the world No. 3 added a title in Paris to his resume after losing in a final in Cincinnati for a second time. He now had won a Masters Series 1000 tournament in all but four cities, which was tied for the closest any player had gotten.

It was in 2011, when Djokovic became one of the most dominant players at the Masters Series 1000 events. The Serb won all of the first five events of the series that he played in on his way to becoming the No. 1 player in the world. His title in Madrid, where he beat Rafael Nadal in straight sets, pushed his total to six different titles. His five titles in one season is the record for most won in one year.

Djokovic has now won nine of the last 24 Masters Series titles since the start of the 2011 season. In 2012, the Serb saved five championship points in the second set against Andy Murray  in Shanghai as he came back to win the title for the first time.

Coming into this year, Djokovic was missing just two titles from completing the Super Nine Sweep, which was by far the closest any player has come. In Monte Carlo, he elected to play the event despite having an ankle injury. After struggling to get past the first two rounds, he routed Rafael Nadal in the final, ending the Spaniards eight-year undefeated stretch and claiming the title for himself for the first time. After the match, Djokovic said it was the best decision of his career so far to play in the tournament.

Now Djokovic enters Cincinnati, which is the only tournament missing from his collection of Masters Series titles. He plays his first match on Wednesday against Juan Monaco. The Serb enters the tournament with a great chance of reaching the final for a fifth time in his career. Djokovic has just Juan Martin Del Potro on his side of the draw that presents a serious threat. After that, he could meet Nadal, Federer, or Murray in the final for a chance to complete the Career Masters Slam.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Finally, this rivalry is returning to the hard courts. The clay has been fun, but Rafael Nadal has a clear advantage when playing on his favorite surface. Now that the rivalry is back on Novak Djokovic's preferred surface, the Serb has to be the heavy favorite going into this matchup.

Djokovic has a four-match winning streak against the Spaniard on hard courts, the last of which was the near six-hour epic in the 2012 Australian Open final. Their last five meetings have all been on clay, and Nadal has won all except for the Monte Carlo final. That match is the one that has the most similarities to tonight's matchup.

Both matches are best two out of three ATP Masters Aeries 1000 matches, but the similarities are much more than just that. Both tournaments are the first big tournaments in the lead up to a slam, which means the players are still getting adjusted to the surface. This is usually a big advantage to Djokovic, because he adjusts to different surfaces more quickly than Nadal. The No. 4 player in the world almost always plays lead up events before a big tournament, and when he didn't this year for Wimbledon, he had his worst result of his career in any major. Djokovic, though, almost never plays lead ups and it doesn't affect his play.

In both tournaments, the players don't get a day off between matches. Although both players are extremely fit, this is a clear advantage to Djokovic, who thrives when playing consecutive days. Nadal, however, clearly prefers having a day off to get a practice and prepare for a new opponent. Nadal has a combined career record of 70-14 with three titles in Miami and Indian Wells, where he gets a day off. In Canada and Cincinnati, where he doesn't get a day off in between matches, Nadal has a record of 34-14 with two titles.

The final advantage for the world No. 1 is a small one, but could be a factor. The match will be played under the lights like in the 2012 match in Melbourne. Even when their rivalry first began to take off in 2007, Djokovic had an advantage in the night matches. Both of Djokovic's first two wins over Nadal were at night in Miami and in Montreal.

Everything seems to be an advantage to Djokovic so far before the coin toss, but anything can happen once the ball is tossed for the first serve. One thing is for sure, and that is that both players need this match. In a battle for the year-end No. 1 that gets more exciting each day, a chance to deny the other a win is just as important as a chance to reach the final of a Masters Series event. Whoever wins the match tonight will be the favorite to finish as the world No. 1 for the rest of the 2013 season.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Baseball vs. Tennis: Lying in sports

Today Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic admitted that he knew he won a point that he shouldn't have, but refused give the point to his opponent. After chasing down a drop shot, Raonic touched the net as he hit a winner. Because he touched the net, he should have lost the point, but the chair umpire missed the call. Even though Raonic admits he knew what he did, he refused to give the point to his opponent. After the match, Raonic said "It was a big point. If you were in that situation, down a break, would you have called that on yourself?"

Many tennis fans were outraged by what Raonic did, calling him a cheater, which made me think about the differences in the way lying is viewed in baseball and in tennis.

In tennis, lying is considered as bad as taking steroids to most players and fans at all levels. However, in baseball, lying is something coaches tell players to do. Coaches even teaches players to lie even in Little League. Coaches teach catchers to frame pitches and teach pitchers how to do a balk-pick. They also teach players to pretend like they caught balls that they trapped and like they tagged players when they completely whiff a swipe tag. Even when Derek Jeter fakes getting hit by a pitch, he is admired by some fans by his ability to deceive the umpire. Now umpires will check to see if there is a mark on the players.

The first time I was taught to lie in baseball was on my nine-year old all-star team. In practice I was chasing a runner and tagged him on the back, but the runner didn't feel it and continued to run. Even though I had already tagged the player I chased him to try to tag him again, but he reached base safely. My coach said to me "Why did you chase him? Didn't you tag him?" I said yes, to which he replied, "Even if you had missed on the tag, don't chase him. Just hold up your glove to the umpire, and he will be called out every time. If you chase the runner, it looks like you missed the tag."

This is part of the human element that fans love about umpiring in baseball. Sometimes lying is the best way to get a competitive edge in baseball. In baseball, lying isn't immoral, it is "heads up baseball."

One of my favorite memories from playing baseball was one of my coach taking advantage of the "human element" in baseball. One of the umpires in our league was an older man, who wore coke bottle glasses and a chest protector over his uniform. The umpire was very slow to call balls and strikes, and my coach realized that he could influence the umpire's calls on border pitches. Whenever our pitcher threw a pitch on the edge of the zone, my coach would yell "great pitch," and whenever a batter took a close pitch, he would yell "good eye." It worked for a while before the umpire finally picked up on what was going on.

One of the reasons that lying in baseball and in tennis is viewed so differently is because every junior tennis player plays without an umpire, while baseball players have umpires at every game by the time they turn seven. Almost every tennis match before the professional level is played without line judges, which means that the players on the court are the umpires. Every amateur tennis match is played based on the honor code. Without the honor code, playing a tennis match would be impossible. Because of that, a tennis player that lies is a cheater.

But what about when there is an umpire and line judges? Is it "heads up tennis" to lie to a chair umpire? In the NBA, players are fined for flopping.  The truth is that, while Raonic didn't deserve the point according to the rule book, he did deserve the point. He reached the drop shot and he hit the winner. His foot tapping the net did not affect the point. It took a little bit of poor sportsmanship, but the right player won the point.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Montreal Day 2 Preview

Every year, this tournament is the beginning of the run to the US Open for most players. While a handful of players play in the smaller events of the US Open Series or play in some European clay tournaments, most players treat the time between Wimbledon and the Roger's Cup as a short off season. This tournament represents the start of the second half of the season, which is all on hard courts. For Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, this will be the launching ground for their race for the year-end No. 1, while others will be simply looking to get their hard court season off to a good start.
There are 16 matches on the docket for day two of the ATP Masters Series 1000 Montreal, featuring Djokovic and seven other seeds. The first round matches will be concluded today, while Richard Gasquet, Djokovic, and Kei Nishikori will all have their second round matches.

Jerzy Janowicz and Julien Benneteau are first on Court Central. This will be the first time Janowicz is back on the court since his incredible run to the semifinals at Wimbledon. One of the big match ups to look forward to in this tournament would be Janowicz and Nadal, so a win today from Janowicz makes that a greater possibility.

The big-serving John Isner is up next against Vasek Pospisil. As always, this is Isner's best time of year, and he is going north of the border on fire. Since exiting Wimbledon with a knee injury, Isner has won 11 of his last 13 matches. That will be followed by Canada's own big server, Milos Raonic, against Jeremy Chardy. Both players are defending good results at this event last year, so a first round loss for either will do a lot of damage to their ranking.

The final match on Court Central will see Djokovic square up against Florian Mayer, who defeated Bernard Tomic in three sets yesterday. The pair met in the 2012 Wimbledon quarterfinals and three other matches and it has always been Djokovic winning in straight sets. Mayer takes a lot of time to prepare his groundstrokes and Djokovic does an excellent job to take his time away. Mayer beats a lot of players with his creativity, but Djokovic always seems one step ahead when they are on the court.

 On BN Court, Martin Klizan is back in action after his thrilling win in a third set tiebreaker against Thomaz Bellucci yesterday. He will be taking on Richard Gasquet, who is defending 600 points from last year's final. It is a tough draw for Gasquet. He would have to reach the quarterfinals (Where he would likely face Djokovic) to guarantee that he stays in the top ten. Nishikori is the player threatening to knock Gasquet out of the top ten, and they could meet in the round of 16 if they both win today. Nishikori will be taking on Andreas Seppi not before 2:00 p.m.

Also on the schedule today will be Grigor Dimitrov, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Fabio Fognini, Marcos Baghdatis, Gilles Simon, and a Davis Cup rematch for Nicolas Almagro and Radek Stepanek.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Montreal Day 1 preview

The main draw of the tournament hasn't even begun yet and the biggest news of the tournament has already happened. Roger Federer announced without explanation that he will be skipping the Roger's Cup, where he doesn't have any points to defend. The most plausible explanation is that Federer is giving his back some time to recover, but even without the 17-time grand slam champion, the tournament will have plenty of excitement.

Every year, this tournament is the beginning of the run to the US Open for most players. While a handful of players play in the smaller events of the US Open Series or play in some European clay tournaments, most players treat the time between Wimbledon and the Roger's Cup as a short offseason. This tournament represents the start of the second half of the season, which is all on hard courts. For Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, this will be the launching ground for their race for the year-end No. 1, while others will be simply looking to get their hard court season off to a good start.

11 matches are on the schedule for tomorrow's play with a day session that features some of the best shot-makers outside of the top ten such as Bernard Tomic, Florian Mayer, Ernests Gulbis, Thomaz Bellucci, and Benoit Paire. Play starts at noon local time with play on three courts.

Tomic and Mayer open up play on court central at noon. This is their fifth meeting in the last three years. Mayer won the first three meetings in straight sets before Tomic got his first win in Sydney this year against the German, 7-6(4), 6-2. Mayer leads 2-1 on hard courts and won 6-4, 6-0 in their only other masters series 1000 meeting back in 2012 in Shanghai. Mayer lost in the first round last year, while Tomic advanced to the third round where he lost to Novak Djokovic, who by the way is the winner's second round opponent.

The second match on court central is between two player who can lose to anybody and beat anybody on any given day, Gulbis and Lopez. It is impossible to predict a result when these two step on court. At one point this year, Gulbis lost in the first round of a challenger, then came through qualifying to win a tour level event less than a month later. Gulbis  has two top ten wins, but is riding a two-match losing streak into the US Open Series. Feliciano Lopez isn't any better in the consistency department. He had a five-match losing streak earlier in the year, then immediately won 11 of his next 13 matches and even had a top ten win in his last tournament. Gulbis leads the all-time head-to-head between these two 3-1, including a 6-3, 6-2 win in Indian Wells earlier this year.

Third on will be Janko Tipsarevic taking on Denis Istomin. Tipsarevic is having the worst season of his career since 2007, leaving the door open for Istomin to be the first player to knock out a seeded player in the tournament. However, he Istomin hasn't had any success against Tipsarevic earlier in their careers, losing to the Serb on all three occasions. For Tipsarevic, Canada has been a good place in the last two years. The No. 16 seed reached the semifinals in each of the last two years in Canada, defeating five players in the top 30. Istomin on the other hand has nothing to defend giving him a great chance to boost his ranking and confidence before the US Open.

Kei Nishikori will finish play for the day at the main stadium against a qualifier to be named later tonight. Pablo Andujar will also take on a qualifier on court 9 before two qualifiers square off against each other for the third match on court 9. Leading things off on that court will be Grega Zemlja and Ivan Dodig, who won their only previous meeting in the second round of the 2010 Wimbledon qualifying. Dodig has become a regular part of the top 100 in the last 12 months and is currently having the best year of his career as he pushes for a crack at the top 30 for the first time. The last time the tournament was held in Montreal, Dodig made a name for himself among tennis fans when he defeated No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal 1-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(5) with aggressive serve-and-volley play. Meanwhile Zemlja has a lot of pressure on his back as he tries to stay ranked in the top 100 in the second half of the season.

BN Court features four matches that could all go the distance. Andreas Seppi and Lukas Rosol lead things off. Seppi may be the higher ranked player, but Rosol leads the head-to-head 2-1. This will be their third meeting this year after splitting the first two. They will be followed by south paws Thomaz Bellucci and Martin Klizan. The pair split their previous two meetings and are looking to rebound from a brutal first half of the season. Bellucci recently saw his ranking drop outside of the top 100, so it will be tough for Bellucci to get into the main draw of another masters series 1000 tournament, putting a lot of pressure on the Brazilian to make the most of this opportunity. Meanwhile, Klizan, who his big break through in the second half of 2012, has almost all of his points left to defend before the end of the season, putting just as much pressure on the Slovakian.

With a lot of entertaining matches set for day one at the Roger's Cup, the second half of the season for many players will kick off tomorrow. For some players this second half will be a chance to push for a career-high ranking, while others will be battling just to defend their points from last year and keep their ranking high enough to qualify for these tournaments.