Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tennis' Top 20 Under 20: 3rd Edition

This time last year, I posted a ranking of the 20 best teenagers on the ATP at the time, and then six months later, I updated the list, taking into consideration the new results.  This is now the third edition of the series that takes a look into the future of the ATP and it's stars. This is not a ranking of their current form (there is already a computer ranking for that), but rather a ranking of what their future form could be.

The dynamic of teenagers in tennis has changed drastically over the last 18 months, which is what prompted me to start compiling this list of teenagers. Just a couple years ago, there were several months, where there wasn't a single teenager ranked in the top 200. However, this new crop of teenagers hasn't been so shy to break through with a total of nine teenagers now in the top 200 and three in the top 100. In total, the teenagers have more than 50 tour-level wins this year, whereas in early 2013, it was newsworthy when a teenager even made the main draw of a tournament. When making this list, I started with over 50 players, analyzing their results and watching videos on YouTube to find the best 20 out of the group. The analysis is based far more on the results, but that alone certainly doesn't tell the whole story. Anyways, let's get started.

This is my list of the 20 most promising talents in tennis that are under 20 years old.
1. Borna Coric (CRO) Age: 18, Rank 36 -- The Croat already has claimed wins over Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray in the last 12 months, and is now on the bubble for a seed at the US Open. Coric came in at No. 3 on my first list and has finally made his way up to No. 1, and even if Nick Kyrgios hadn't graduated from this group, Coric would still be No. 1. He's shown he belongs in the top 50 on the ATP World Tour and it's no longer an upset when he wins matches. The most impressive part of what Coric has done is that he isn't just winning a bunch at one event, but he is doing well on a weekly basis regardless of conditions or draw, which is how success is truly defined for the top players on the ATP World Tour.

2. Andrey Rublev (RUS) Age: 17, Rank 190 -- Being a great juniors player does not always translate into a great professional career in tennis, but so far, it has been a smooth transition for Rublev, who has climbed into the top 200 of the rankings this month. At just 17 years old, he already has seven tour-level victories this season. Tournament directors are starting to see the talent of Rublev, which has resulted in a limitless amount of wildcards being thrown his way, and he is making good use of them, beating Fernando Verdasco in Barcelona as a qualifier and reaching the semifinals in Moscow. Rublev's overall record this year is 23-14 and only five of his losses have come to players outside the top 100 and only one of those players was not inside the top 200. Yet despite facing a tougher schedule than any 17 year old has faced since Rafael Nadal this year, Rublev's ranking has continued to improve almost every week in 2015.

3. Alexander Zverev (GER) Age: 18, Rank 123 -- It has been a year now since Zverev's appearance in the Hamburg semifinals that made the tennis world stop to watch a part of the season that typically generates the least amount of interest. Since then, Zverev has struggled to live up to the hype with a 7-9 record on the tour-level and just one appearance in a grand slam main draw this year. However, if you take away all the hype and expectations and analyze him like any other teenager, this would be considered a breakout season. He is No. 86 in the YTD rankings after having just beaten Juan Monaco on clay. Also, after entering the season 11-12 on the Challenger Tour, he has gone 11-4 with a title in Heilbronn. There are still some questions about his ability on hard and grass courts, but he is still much further along on those surfaces than other clay specialists his age, like Orlando Luz, Christian Garin, and Nicolas Jarry, who each just missed out on making the list because of questions about their abilities on other surfaces.

4. Jared Donaldson (USA) Age: 18, Rank 160 -- There was definitely a lot of consideration in putting Donaldson ahead of Zverev for the No. 3 spot, especially considering that he is already having a lot of success on both clay and hard courts. Ultimately, Zverev got the nod for the No. 3 spot, because he is already competing on the ATP World Tour. While, Donaldson has an incredible record in 2015, he is still playing primarily on the Challenger Tour. That's why Zverev got the edge, but that's not to say Donaldson isn't having an incredible season. He has tour-level victories in Newport and London, which are both grass events, he won the title at the Maui Challenger on hard courts, and he crushed Hyeon Chung 6-0, 6-1 in the first round of Roland Garros qualifying after reaching the quarterfinals or better at every event in the America Har-Tru series on green clay. The United States is loaded with young tennis talents, and Donaldson is the best candidate to have a great career on the ATP.

5. Hyeon Chung (KOR) Age: 19, Rank 79 -- A year ago, Chung came in at the No. 11 spot, and the only reason he wasn't higher was because he completely lacked good results on clay courts. However, he has proven to be a force on the clay courts as well after he qualified for the main draw in Houston and then beat Argentine Facundo Arguello, who is a clay specialist, in his first round match before falling in a tight match against Fernando Verdasco. A couple weeks later, he cruised to the title on the green clay of the Savannah Challenger. He has cooled off since May, but during the US Open Series, he could really start to make a name for himself among the more casual tennis fans. He has always played his best tennis on the hard courts, compiling a 94-35 record in all main draw matches on hard courts as a professional. If he is healthy throughout the swing, he could soon be in the top 50.

6. Thanasi Kokkinakis (AUS) Age: 19, Rank 72 -- The Australian is tied for the most grand slam victories of anyone on this list with four, and the tennis world stopped to watch all four of them, which is why most people would put him higher than sixth on their lists. There is right now, among teenagers, the main six guys, and after these six players, there is a significant drop off. That is to say that most people would have the same top six, but the only question is the order, so many will disagree with having Kokkinakis at the bottom of this group. His career record in all professional main draw matches in his career is 55-53, which doesn't compare well to the five players above him. He has some great individual wins in dramatic fashion, but he lacks the day-in-day-out victories that the other five have. What has been impressive about Kokkinakis' 2015 season is his perfect 15-0 record in qualifying and he won the title as a qualifier at the only Challenger event he played this year.

7. Taylor Fritz (USA) Age: 17, Rank 678 -- I had the chance to see Fritz play in January, and I was impressed, but not blown away by what I saw in his straight-set defeat of Stefan Kozlov. However, since then, his results are blowing away a lot of tennis fans, which has seen his rise to the No. 1 spot in the junior rankings. Then last month, he won his first tour-level match before he had ever even entered the main draw of a Challenger event. Since April, Fritz has reached the semifinals of the Italian Open and Junior Wimbledon, the final of Junior Roland Garros, and won the title at the Easter Bowl. The American has dominated his peers, but has also done well against some of his more veteran opponents with wins over Dudi Sela, Pablo Carreno Busta, and Dennis Novikov. His style of play is big showing that while he has already achieved great success, he still has so much more that he can keep improving to become an elite talent on the ATP.

8. Frances Tiafoe (USA) Age: 17, Rank 284 -- The American has the ability to end up being the best of any on this list. He is a perfect 3-0 in his career against those ranked ahead of him on this list with two wins over Fritz and a win over Rublev all on the junior circuit. 2015 has been a breakout season for Tiafoe, who registered a 30-8 record to start the season, which included his dominant stretch during the Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge, which he won. Tiafoe's best results in his short time as a professional have come on the clay courts, but everybody knows his best surface is hard, making him formidable wherever he goes. He has incredible movement and great hands to go along with a lethal forehand. There are some issues in his technique that might be too late to fix, but he does an excellent job protecting those weaknesses with his athleticism. Maybe when he starts playing more tour-level events, those weaknesses will get exposed. For now, it hasn't stopped him from skyrocketing more than 850 spots in the rankings already this year.

9. Elias Ymer (SWE) Age: 19, Rank 133 -- Over the years, a lot of great players have come out of Sweden such as Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, and more recently Robin Soderling. The older Ymer brother is looking to add his name to that list. He is already the fifth highest-ranked teenager in the world and currently ranked No. 93 in the YTD rankings. Although a large part of the tennis world already know who he is, he hasn't had one big result that has grabbed everyone's attention yet, which has allowed him to quietly improve without having to face too much pressure. This year, he has already collected wins over Benoit Paire, Hyeon Chung, Igor Sijsling, Jurgen Melzer, Daniel Gimeno-Traver, and Nick Kyrgios. Then last month, he won a Challenger title in Caltanissetta, Italy despite inheriting a very challenging draw with Guido Pella, Albert Ramos, and Bjorn Fratangelo in the last three rounds. It's just a matter of time before he has his big breakthrough moment, because he certainly has the talent and athleticism to do damage on the ATP.

10. Roman Safiullin (RUS) Age: 17, Rank 393 -- This is a tricky one. Six months ago, Safiullin sat comfortably at the No. 3 position on my list ahead of Chung, Donaldson, Zverev, and even Rublev after having debuted on my lists at the No. 15 spot a year ago. However, since the last list came out six months ago, Safiullin hasn't played a single match of competitive tennis, and there has been no update on his condition. The talent and ability are certainly there, and I wasn't the only one saying that he had a ton of promise. However, he is missing out on a crucial time to develop his game and sharpen his tools against the best in the world. Right now it is hard to know what to expect out of the Russian, but if he can get healthy, there is no reason he won't be a force on the professional tour like he was as a junior.

11. Omar Jasika (AUS) Age: 18, Rank 283 -- In each of my first two lists, Jasika just missed out on making the top 20, but what he has done in the last six months is enough to move him all the way up to No. 11 on the list. Since the last list came out, Jasika has gone 15-2 in futures with two titles and one loss in a final. His most recent futures title came in Canada, where he defeated 2014 NCAA men's singles Marcos Giron in the semifinals and then in the final, defeated Eric Quigley, who is a five-time all-American from Kentucky. He hasn't had a ton of success on the Challenger Tour, but in Le Gosier, he reached the main draw as a qualifier before beating Chung in a tight three-set match. The last time he played a juniors event was at the 2014 US Open, where he defeated Donaldson and Duck Hee Lee en route to the final, where he defeated Quentin Halys. Earlier in 2014, he defeated Rublev, Seong Chan Hong, and Jaume Munar all in the same event.

12. Duck Hee Lee (KOR) Age: 17, Rank 290 -- Just a week ago, Lee was the second highest ranked player that hadn't hit their 18th birthday yet, trailing only Andrey Rublev. However, he probably isn't quite as strong as his ranking suggests. The Korean has built his ranking with almost exclusively futures-level results, and while it does require a great amount of success at the futures level to crack the top 300, ranking doesn't tell the whole story. He is playing futures events in countries in east Asia that aren't known for producing particularly strong fields at those events. Even as a junior, the events where he had most success were in China, Japan, and Korea, while in all the Grade A events, he never did better than the quarterfinals. He has proven that he is among the best of the east Asian players, but it's hard to know how good he truly is since he isn't getting out to face players from other parts of the world. It doesn't help his case that in what little Asian teenagers have clashed against players from other parts of the world, the Asians have not fared too well as a group.

13. Yoshihito Nishioka (JPN) Age: 19, Rank 145 -- The Japanese No. 5 has dropped on this list since taking the No. 8 spot six months ago. He reached the quarterfinals of Delray Beach as a qualifier right after the list came out, but the Japanese hasn't done much since then, losing seven of his next nine matches. He has done well enough since then to earn the No. 13 spot this time around however. He qualified for Roland Garros and reached the semifinals of Heilbron. He then defeated four top 200 players during the grass swing, so there are enough good results to show that he is still progressing. He is only 5-foot-7, which isn't much of a factor on the junior tour, but there does seem to be a limit for how much a player that size can progress on the ATP. He certainly could be a player like David Ferrer or Kei Nishikori that breaks the mold of players 6-foot-2 or taller on tour. However, it is more typical that players his size peak at an early age like Donald Young, Michael Russell, or Diego Schwartzman.

14. Mikael Ymer (SWE) Age: 16, Rank 766 -- The younger Ymer brother is making his debut on this list shortly after reaching the junior Wimbledon final. There is currently nobody on the ATP that is ranked higher than Ymer that is younger than him. Shortly before reaching the final at Wimbledon, the Swede won a title in Belgium, defeating Nathan Ponwith and Ryan Storrie along the way. Then in the final, he defeated the third member of the trio of Chilean teen stars, Marcelo Tomas Barrios Vera. He also has wins on the junior circuit against Roman Safiullin, Yunseong Chung, and both of the Corentins from France. As a professional, he already has a futures title and a total of 14 victories. I don't expect Mikael to be as successful as his older brother, but they certainly have the chance to be two of the most successful brothers on the singles side that the ATP has seen in recent memory.

15. Tommy Paul (USA) Age: 18, Rank 454 -- There are a total of six players from the United States on this the third edition of this list and a total of eight different Americans that have been on the last two lists. All eight of them are still teenagers and there is another group of prominent American teenagers like Nathan Ponwith, Michael Mmoh, Collin Altamirano, and William Blumberg. So choosing which of that group will make this list is the most difficult part. After just missing out on the top 20 the last two times, Paul has earned his No. 15 ranking on the third try. He defeated two of those American peers en route to the Junior Roland Garros title, defeating Mmoh in the semifinals and Fritz in the final. Also, he has had a lot of success on European clay as a professional, which has been a rarity for Americans. He won futures titles in Spain and Italy and reached the semifinals at another futures event in Italy. Overall, he is 24-8 in futures events and has two main draw wins on the Challenger Tour.

16. Reilly Opelka (USA) Age: 17, Rank 1109 -- There's more than one way to win on the ATP World Tour, and every way of doing it is legitimate. Opelka seems to have already found his way. Many would call it serve-botting, which isn't entirely wrong since he is 6-foot-10 and has the best serve of any teenager in the world. However, he also has a very powerful forehand and better-than-expected movement for a giant. All of this was on display when Opelka defeated Mikael Ymer for the Junior Wimbledon title. He is now the No. 4-ranked junior in the world after defeating Fritz, Denolly, and Blumberg on his way to the final at Wimbledon. He also defeated Denolly and Stefanos Tsitsipas earlier in the grass swing before falling in the semifinals to Mmoh. However, he isn't a grass specialist. At Roland Garros, he defeated Mikael Ymer and Orlando Luz, who was the favorite of many to win the tournament. Success hasn't come as quickly for Opelka as a professional, but he has reached the quarterfinals of four different futures events in the United States. With his height and serve though, results aren't too important. His game is still developing and when it all comes together, he is going to wreck draws on the ATP World Tour.

17. Stefan Kozlov (USA) Age: 17, Rank 358 -- Sometimes it's easy to forget that Kozlov is still just 17 years old, because his name was popping up in tennis circles more than three years ago. Over time, however, the hype surrounding the American that was born in Macedonia has died down. The hype reached a peak last September, when at 16 years old he reached the final of the Challenger event in Sacramento with wins over four established professionals. He has backed up that result since going pro at the end of 2014, which is why he is in the top 500 of the YTD rankings. He has also improved his serve as he continues to grow physically. Still, No. 17 is the lowest that he has shown up on this list, and that drop is  the result of a number of things. First, everyone around him has improved in this era where teenagers aren't asking permission to be great. Also, while his first serve has significantly more pop that before, he still lacks a true second-serve kick. Lleyton Hewitt is evidence that you can't dominate on the ATP anymore without a good second serve. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the Australian legend and the American prodigy beyond just the serve. Both are very solid with the two-handed backhand and are great counter-punchers, not just retrievers. Hewitt seems to be committed to helping the next generation of Australians, but it would be interesting to see Hewitt take Kozlov under his wing at some point.

18. Miomir Kecmanovic (SRB) Age: 15, Rank 1876 -- The last wave of Serbian teenagers, which were Miki Jakovic, Pedja Krstin, Nikola Milojevic, and Laslo Djere, have not lived up to the expectations so far, but that's not an issue for Serbian tennis fans, who have a menu of options when it comes to young teenagers to put their hope in. Kecmanovic is the latest to be picked off the Serbian menu. He is the youngest player ranked in the top 50 of the junior rankings, coming in at No. 24. In fact, the next youngest player in the ITF juniors top 50 is Casper Ruud, who is eight months older than the Serb. Kecmanovic already has two futures victories, including one this week before getting blasted by his countryman Jankovic. Back in December, Kecmanovic lost a narrow lost a tight battle with Andrey Rublev 6-7(2), 2-6, but did have a pair of impressive wins earlier in that month over Denolly and Ruud. Kecmanovic doesn't have the great movement or backhand that characterize many Serbs, but he has excellent technique, which gives him a solid foundation to develop upon as he continues to grow physically.

19. Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) Age: 16, 1022 -- The Greek just missed out on the list last time, and he really hasn't done much in the last six months of note, but as time goes by, what he did last year looks better and better. At the Orange Bowl last year, Tsitsipas went on a run to the final that I certainly didn't fully appreciate at the time. In the opening round, he defeated Ulises Blanch, who is another one of the American teenagers to keep an eye on and is ranked No. 31 among juniors. After that, he survived another long three-setter against Bjorn Thompson before he really started to dominate. In the third round, he defeated Tommy Paul 7-5, 7-6(4). Then in the quarterfinals, he defeated Talor Fritz 6-3, 6-4, before eliminated Andrey Rublev with a 6-4, 7-5 victory in the semifinals. His giant-slaying run came to an end when he ran out of steam in a 6-2, 3-6, 2-6 loss to Stefan Kozlov. He hasn't been able to quite capture that same level of magic since then, but he remains in the top 20 of the junior rankings at just 16 years old and he also has a total of nine main draw victories on the futures level.

20. Felix Auger Aliassime (CAN) Age: 14, Rank 1237 -- I was tempted to close my eyes and pick at random for the 20th spot. Cutting this list to just 20 players was much harder this time around than it was even just a year ago. However, this list would have no credibility if Canadian sensaiton Felix Auger Aliassime didn't show up on this list somewhere. Earlier this year, he became the youngest player to ever qualify for the main draw of a Challenger event, defeating Chris Guccione to qualify at Drummondville at just 14 years old. He eventually pulled out of the event before playing in the main draw, maintaining his perfect record as a professional. To this day, he remains perfect as a professional, and he is back at it this week. He won both of his qualifying matches in Granby in straight sets to get another main draw appearance on the Challenger Tour. Then on Tuesday, he became the youngest player in tennis history to win a main draw match on the Challenger Tour. But he wasn't done there. He did it again today, upsetting the No. 205 player in the world Darian King 7-5, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals of the $100K event. He is scheduled to play Yoshihito Nishioka on Friday, and you can expect all of Canada to be tuned in to see the two teenagers square off. If FAA pulls off the upset tomorrow, then he certainly deserves a much better spot on this list than No. 20. For now, however, he is only 14 years old and isn't done growing, making it impossible to know just how good he is going to be. Media is already identifying him as tennis' next star after Nick Kyrgios, which seems a little premature since Kyrgios has barely turned 20 years old, but these results he has this week are certainly worthy of turning heads.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic make up the three best rivalries of the Open Era

For fans of any sport, it is normal to think that they grew up in the "golden era" of that sport. It frequently happens that older people look back on the "good old days," while younger people tend to not care about what happened before they were born.

Being fully aware of this phenomena, I try to look at the different eras of tennis as all being entertaining, exciting, and memorable each for different reasons. And what makes the current era of men's tennis so great is that it contains the greatest rivalries tennis has ever seen. In fact, I'm claiming that the three greatest rivalries that tennis has ever seen belong to this era.

The last decade of tennis has been characterized by the dominance of the "Big Four," but three in particular have established themselves among the all-time greats: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. All three of them rank in the top 10 of just about anybody's list of the greatest male tennis players of the Open Era, and since June of 2005, at least two of them have been ranked in the top four in the world.

The best part about these three is that unlike other greats whose peaks only overlap for a few years, Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer have been the best three players in tennis for the last eight years, starting with the 2007 US Open.

As a result of the extended amount of time that their careers overlap, their rivalries have had more time to develop, creating the most storied and competitive rivalries that played out on the biggest stages. Those are the three main criteria for determining a great rivalry: large sample size, maintained parity throughout the series history, and importance of the matches played.

The rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal certainly has all three of those. The two have already played a record 44 times and neither of them have turned 30 yet. On top of that, thejr head-to-head series is nearly even with Nadal holding a slight 23-21 edge. Djokovic's 21 wins against Nadal is the most wins by any player against the same opponent without leading the series history.

The rivalry between Federer and Nadal is still considered by many to be the greatest of all-time. Though they have only faced off 33 times, which still ranks eighth all-time, the rivalry has a record eight meetings in Grand Slam finals. The rivalry includes three of the best five-set matches in tennis history with the 2007 and 2008 Wimbledon championships along with the 2006 Rome final, which is widely considered the greatest non-slam tennis match ever.

The third rivalry is the most competitive of them all, with Djokovic and Federer each claiming 20 wins in their 40 encounters. Although they have only met in three slam finals, they tied the record of Nadal and Djokovic for most meetings in slams at 13. Many fans will say that today's rivalries lack the fire and passion of rivalries of decades past, but that isn't the case with this rivalry.

The other great rivalries of the last 47 years that some might argue would be ones like John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, but those two met a total of just 14 times. Others might mention Agassi and Sampras, who had more total meetings than Federer and Nadal with a much more even series history, but the American pair met half as many times in grand slam finals and lack a great five-set classic.

What we have right now with the three current rivalries is something tennis has never seen before and will likely never see again. The three combinations of rivalries created by Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer are the three greatest tennis rivalries of the last half-century.

Here are some statistical lists for greatest rivalries of all time:

Most meetings in a rivalry
1. Nadal/Djokovic 44 (23-21)
2. Federer/Djokovic 40 (20-20)
3. Lendl/McEnroe 36 (21-15)
4. Becker/Edberg 35 (25-10)
5. Lendl/Connors 35 (22-13)
6. Sampras/Agassi 34 (20-14)
7. McEnroe/Connors 34 (20-14)
8. Nadal/Federer 33 (23-10)
9. Djokovic/Murray 27 (19-8)
10. Edberg/Lendl 27 (14-13)
10. Federer/Hewitt 27 (18-9)

Most meetings in Grand Slam finals
1. Nadal/Federer 8
2. Nadal/Djokovic 7
3. Djokovic/Murray 5
3. Lendl/Wilander 5
5. Sampras/Agassi 4
5. Federer/Roddick 4
5. Borg/Connors 4
5. McEnroe/Borg 4
9. Federer/Djokovic 3
9. Lendl/McEnroe 3
9. Becker/Edberg 3
9. Federer/Murray 3
9. Lendl/Becker 3

Most meetings in grand slam tournaments
1. Nadal/Djokovic 13
1. Federer/Djokovic 13
3. Nadal/Federer 11
4. Lendl/McEnroe 10
5. Lendl/Wilander 9
5. Sampras/Agassi 9
5. McEnroe/Connors 9
8. Djokovic/Murray 8
8. Federer/Roddick 8
8. Borg/Connors 8
8. Five more with... 8

Most meetings in finals
1. Nadal/Djokovic 22
2. Nadal/Federer 20
2. Lendl/McEnroe 20
4. Becker/Edberg 19
5. Sampras/Agassi 16
6. McEnroe/Connors 15
7. Djokovic/Federer 14
8. Borg/Connors 13
8. Lendl/Becker 13
10. Djokovic/Murray 11
10. Laver/Rosewall 11

Monday, July 20, 2015

Future of the ATP heads to Binghamton

Typically, it's the Grade A events on the Junior Tour that are the best preview of the future of tennis, but this week the Binghamton Challenger has an all-star line-up of the young stars on the ATP World Tour and it is getting under way with the main draw action today.

Here is a breakdown of the line-up at Binghamton:

Kyle Edmund - The tournament's top seed took a wild card to get the chance to be a part of the this incredible list of players. The 20-year old, ranked just outside the top 100 at 113, is the hope of British tennis fans, who want to see another Wimbledon champion from their country. Edmund reached the semifinals of the junior Wimbledon tournament in 2013, but has yet to get through the first round in the gentlemen's draw. Unlike most British players, Edmund actually plays just as well on clay as he does on hard courts, making his future particularly bright.

Bjorn Fratangelo - The No. 2 seed in Binghamton is the top hope of the home fans at Binghamton to take the title. The American is ranked No. 125 in the world at just 22-years old. He captured his first Challenger Tour title in February this year in Australia and has continued to build his ranking. He has a lot of ranking points to defend in September, so his best shot to crack the top 100 for the first time is in these next few weeks.

Liam Broady - The 21-year old left-hander is the tournament's No. 3 seed. The Brit is enjoying a career-high ranking of 159 after getting his first grand slam victory with a five-set win over Marinko Matosevic after trailing two sets to love. Now, it's time to see how he will back up that incredible win as he makes a push for the top 100.

Guilherme Clezar - The Brazilian completes the quartet of top four seeds that are 22-years old or younger. Clezar is out of his niche a little bit being in a hard-court event in North America. He has not successfully qualified for a grand slam in 10 tries in his career, so the decision to play Binghampton was probably motivated by getting himself prepared to qualify for the US Open. It will be interesting to see if the decision pays off.

Jared Donaldson - The No. 5 seed is the highest ranked teenager in the draw and he is only 18-years old. In fact, there are only two players in the world younger than Donaldson that are ranked higher than him. The American captured his first Challenger Tour title earlier this year at Maui. He has a good spot in the draw and could certainly make a run this week.

Ernesto Escobedo - The 19-year old qualified for the main draw this morning and then drew the top seed, making for an exciting first-round match. Escobedo's last year has been plagued by injuries and coaching changes, but his results of late have been much better as he has gone 15-6 going back to May. He is still one of the best teenagers in the world and a big source of hope for American tennis fans.

Omar Jasika - The former junior US Open champion has translated nicely to the ATP World Tour, reaching a career-high ranking this week of 283 at just 18-years old. He has won back-to-back futures events, and pulled off one of the biggest upsets on the Challenger Tour of the year back in March, when, as a qualifier, he took out Hyeon Chung in the first round in Le Gosier.

Noah Rubin - The former junior Wimbledon champion spent most of his 2015 tennis season playing for Wake Forest instead of playing professional tennis, but earlier this year he did reach a career-high ranking of 532. He got a wildcard into the main draw and will face Jasika in a first-round blockbuster.

Tommy Paul - Just weeks after winning the junior Roland Garros title, the American is back to playing a professional tournament for the first time. The last time he was playing a professional event, he was winning a futures title in Italy. In fact, he went 13-1 on the futures tour in the month of May. He hasn't reached that level of success on the Challenger Tour yet, but a wildcard into Binghampton could help change that.

Mitchell Krueger - The 21-year old American is enjoying the best year of his career, ranking No. 220 in the YTD rankings. As a junior, he defeated Kyle Edmund at Wimbledon and he could face the Brit again in the quarterfinals.

Dennis Novikov - The UCLA tennis star cracked the top 200 earlier this year. The 6-foot-4 American is best known for his win over Jerzy Janowicz at the US Open in 2012. He's now 21-years old and playing a full schedule of events. His first-round match is against former University of Michigan star Jason Jung, which will be a thrilling match for all college tennis fans.

Reilly Opelka - Fresh off his junior Wimbledon title, the American giant is received a wildcard into his first Challenger Tour main draw. The 17-year old that stands at 6-foot-10 will face a qualifier in the first round. Opelka is already drawing comparisons to John Isner and as he continues to develop, he could certainly become as successful as the top-ranked American.

Marcos Giron - The 21-year old is one of the best college tennis players since Steve Johnson and is just now getting his first full season as a professional. Just a couple weeks ago at the Winnetka Challenger, Giron got through qualifying and then earned his first main draw victory in a Challenger event of the season. He reached the main draw in Binghamton as a qualifier after collecting a pair of straight-set wins.

Nicolas Jarry - The 19-year old Chilean has had very little success in his career on hard courts, but that hasn't stopped him from crashing the top 200 earlier this season. This is only his fourth career main draw appearance at a hard court event as a professional and his only win so far came on the futures tour. He gets Nicolas Meister in the first round, who was another former college player to qualify.

Frances Tiafoe - This 17-year old American is probably the biggest single reason to watch the action in Binghamton. He just reached a career-high ranking of 284 after starting the year ranked outside of the top 1000. He has only played one hard court event on the Challenger Tour so far and lost in the first round. On the futures tour, however, he reached finals of back-to-back hard court tournaments and won the title at the first of the two.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Djokovic's 2015 Among Best Seasons Ever

Immediately after Novak Djokovic's victory in the Wimbledon final over Roger Federer on Sunday, comparisons were being made between what Djokovic did to start 2011 and what he has done so far this year.

I wanted to take an in depth look at that comparison, but I realized that would almost be insulting to Djokovic. He isn't only having arguably the best start to a season of his career - he's having arguably the best start to a season ever.

I should clarify after using a loaded work like "ever". When comparing specifics of just a portion of a season, it becomes drastically harder to compare players from different generations. Although I am a firm believer that comparing a player's career from the 1970s with a current player is very doable, it isn't so simple when you are only comparing a portion of a season. So for this research piece, I only focused on results since 1990, when the Masters Series format was introduced.

I looked at how every year-end champion did from the start of the season to the end of Wimbledon and compared their results.
All ranking points are adjusted as best as possible to equal the
current ranking system. It's not perfect, but it was my best attempt.
Djokovic's 2015 season ranks at the top for ranking points earned to start a season as well as wins against top 10 opponents in that span. For total wins in such a span, Federer's 2005 season leads the way with 59 wins, but for win percentage, Djokovic's 2011 sets the top mark after winning 48-of-49 matches. In titles, Pete Sampras' 1994, Djokovic's 2011, and Federer's 2005 all have eight.

What Federer did in 2006 and what Rafael Nadal did in 2008 each rank among the top in several categories as well. Those six half seasons represent the best tennis has ever seen, so I limited the rest of my research to a more detailed breakdown of those six seasons.

The main problem with the stats in the table above is the limitation of the "top 10 wins" stat. That category treats a win over the No. 11 as equal to a win over the No. 111 and a win over the No. 1 as equal to a win over the No. 10. What's so magical about the top 10?

So I did a more detailed break down of the difficulty of opponents.
I looked at the ranking of each of their opponents and calculated the mean and median of their ranking. I also looked at what percentage of their opponents faced were ranked in the top 10, top 20, and top 30.

The two seasons that stand out for toughest schedule both belong to Djokovic. In his 2011 season, he faced the lowest ranked opponents on average, and had the highest percentage of opponents being ranked in the top 30. Yet that season, he had the best record of anyone going 48-1.

The 2015 season for Djokovic has arguably been the tougher of the two in terms of difficulty of opponent with the Serb facing opponents with a median ranking of 25. He has also had to face by far the highest percentage of top 10 opponents this season as well as the most top 20 opponents.

The only season that comes close in difficulty of schedule is Nadal's 2008 season in which he suffered seven losses before the end of Wimbledon and failed to collect 9000 ranking points.
Federer's 2006 season features one of the easiest schedules on this list, which takes away from the incredible results the Swiss posted in the first half of that season.

If the way to measure the greatness of a season is degree of success compared to degree of difficulty, what Novak Djokovic did in the first half of 2011 and so far in 2015 is by far the best tennis has ever seen. Djokovic this year has faced double the percentage of top 10 players that Federer faced in 2006 and has still managed a higher winning percentage, the same number of titles, and more total ranking points earned despite playing one less tournament.

If the current world No. 1 can keep up the pace for the rest of this 2015 season (which certainly seems possible since the rest of the season will be played on his favorite surface), we could be watching the greatest single season of tennis in at least the last 25 years.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Novak Djokovic as World No. 1

While the proposition of having to face Roger Federer in a Wimbledon final is a difficult one for Novak Djokovic, there is some benefit for the Serb in Andy Murray's loss. The Brit presents Djokovic's biggest mathematical threat for the No. 1 ranking, but after outlasting Murray in his home touranment, Djokovic has extended his lead over the current world No. 3.

Following Roland Garros, the Serb had the No. 1 ranking clinched going into the US Open, and following the semifinal matches at Wimbledon, Djokovic's is guaranteed to remain ranked ahead of Murray until October 12.

Djokovic's lead is greater than that though. Even if Murray wins all of his matches for the rest of the year, he won't have as many ranking points as Djokovic has now. The maximum possible year-end ranking points Murray can get is 13,350. And even if Murray does win every match for the rest of the year, it's still possible that Djokovic will hold him off for the year-end No. 1.

From the start of the Australian Open to the end of Monte Carlo, Djokovic will have far more points to defend than Murray with his only chance to gain points coming in Dubai. That means that while Djokovic's No. 1 spot is safe for the next few months, Murray or even potentially Roger Federer could be making a run for that No. 1 ranking in the early parts of the 2016 season.

*There is one possibility for Federer to get to be the world No. 1, which would be one week after the US Open. However, the very next week he is guaranteed to lose the No. 1 ranking to Djokovic if that scenario does play out, because he will be losing his 1000 points from Shanghai before he has a chance to defend them. His next chance to get it back would come the week after Shanghai after he has the chance to gain those points back. In order for Federer to gain enough points for that to even be possible, Murray would be completely out of the hunt with no better than finalists appearances in every tournament.

Djokovic against one-handers

The 2015 Wimbledon final is set with Serbian Novak Djokovic taking on the No. 2 seed Roger Federer from Switzerland as they meet in the final of tennis' most prestigious tournament for the second time in a row.

The two top-ranked players are meeting for the 40th time in their careers, becoming just the second pair in the Open Era to meet each other 40 times, while the other pair is Djokovic and his primary rival, Rafael Nadal.

One of the important aspects of this
match will be the Federer-backhand. However, unlike when Federer plays Nadal, it's not a weakness to be attacked, but a weapon that's a cause for concern for the Serb.

The Swiss has held serve in 89-of-90 service games en route to his 10th career final at the All England Club this fortnight, meaning the pressure will be on the defending champion to keep pace on his own serve.
Federer's one-hander won't be such a problem for Djokovic in the long rallies, but it will be when Federer is returning. The key to holding serve over and over on grass is being able to count on getting free points off the serve. However, nobody is harder to get free points against with serve than Federer.

Since he has a one-handed backhand, he has more reach on the backhand side than most two-handed players, allowing him to cover the forehand side without having to worry about exposing himself to aces on the other side.

The other area, where Djokovic will have trouble with the seven-time champion's backhand is with his slice return. Federer uses the slice to return on both first and second serves and he isn't afraid to follow it into the net. Federer had success with that tactic against Djokovic at Indian Wells, and it will be even more effective on the grass.

Since the start of 2014, eight of Djokovic's 11 losses have come against players that possess one-handed backhands. Four of those losses came to Federer himself, and two others came in majors agaisnt Stan Wawrinka, who also frequently chips off the backhand side.

Though 73% of Djokovic's losses in the last year and a half have come against players with one-handed backhands, those players make up a very small portion of the top 100. However, Djokovic just ran into one of the players that make up that very small portion when he faced Richard Gasquet in the semifinals.

Djokovic has also had problems in his career
with players like Tommy Haas and Grigor Dimitrov.
Gasquet lacks the wingspan of Federer and doesn't chip on his returns as well or as often, but Djokovic's form on serve in the match was very convincing. The Serb won 70% of points on serve and despite facing four break points in the match, was only broken once.

In the first round, Djokovic met German Philipp Kohlschreiber, whose return game is much more comparable to Federer's, and Djokovic again won 70% of points on serve, but was also broken twice. Against players with two-handed backhands, the Serb has had much more success this fortnight, winning 78% against Marin Cilic and 77% against Bernard Tomic.

Throughout the final on Sunday, it will be interesting to see how much Djokovic dares to go into the Federer forehand return, particularly with his second serve, or if Djokovic is willing to battle out long rallies that Federer starts with his backhand slice return.

ATP Challenger Tour

An interesting twitter discussion was sparked today centered around the crowd size (or lack there of) at Jared Hiltzik's quarterfinal match against Adrien Bossel in the Winnetka Challenger. Hiltzik, who turned 21-years old yesterday received a wildcard into the main draw of the tournament and has made the most of it, reaching the quarterfinals in the tournament in his home state.

Hiltzik grew up in Illinois and now plays for the Fighting Illini's men's tennis team, and now is playing in the most important match of his professional career in that same state, but you wouldn't know it by the crowd. At least that's what twitter is saying.

It's easy to feel for Hiltzik, who is getting less than the deserved support in such an important moment, and rightfully so. However, that is not a bash on the people of Illinois that weren't in attendance, but more of a comment on the state of the ATP Challenger Tour.

The tour provides some of the best tennis on the planet without doubt, yet it is often thought of or treated like a minor league. However, that is simply not the case. At the tournament, all of the top five seeds are ranked between 100 and 129. I'm certain that five of the top 200 players in any sport have every played in the same minor league game.

In fact, according to the CBS fantasy baseball rankings, the top 8 seeds in Winnetka are the equivalent of having Chris Davis, Jay Bruce, Gio Gonzalez, Jered Weaver, Jimmy Rollins, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, and Joe Mauer all play in a baseball game.

Here's the catch though: All eight of those players have been named to all-star teams with a grand total of 28 all-star selections between the teams. So which is it, are they minor leaguers or all-stars?

I would argue that it is a lot closer to the latter. However, I don't need to explain how big the difference is between attention given to the MLB all-star game compared to even the most important Challenger Tour match.

So what's the problem? It certainly isn't the fault of the fans, but more of a journalism problem. The Challenger Tour is presented on the ATP website like it were the minor leagues. It's in the names even. The website is called the ATP World Tour, and calling events worth less than 250 points "the Challenger Tour" certainly gives off the affect that these are players who have not yet arrived on the big stage.

This problem is made worse by a lot of former players (the current players do a great job giving lower ranked players deserved credit). The worst of all is John McEnroe, who frequently calls anyone not ranked in the top 50 a "no-name player,"

Tennis is a sport driven by names and not uniform colors, but that doesn't mean that two players ranked outside the top 100 can't put on a very high quality display of tennis. Even the players outside the top 100 are more than capable of drawing in new fans. I got excited about junior level Grade 4 qualifying action in Costa Rica that I got to watch. I know not everyone on earth shares my passion for tennis, but what the Challenger Tour in person has to offer is enough to "Wow" even someone who has never seen tennis before.

If the Challenger Tour weren't seen or treated like the minor leagues of tennis, it certainly has all the aspects to draw in tennis fans around the world and sell tickets almost as much as any 250 event can. I don't expect that we will see the ATP make that change and start promoting the Challenger Tour much more than they already do, simply because there is a limited amount of man power to generate content on the website and on other platforms, but that is certainly one method to help grow the sport.