Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A new prize money debate

For reasons that are beyond me, prize money is the biggest source of debate in tennis. For some reason, we care more about how much athletes are paid than the sport they actually play. Prize money is an important issue that is worth talking about, but it should never be more important than the sport itself. That's why I have been relatively silent on the topic on this blog (I have however been dragged into the discussion frequently on Twitter).

Today, I'm breaking my silence on the issue to talk about prize money in a new way. Most discussions about prize money are about how much men get compared to women or how much the best in the world get compared to those that are struggling to break through. However, very few people talk about the distribution of money within a tournament.

I believe that winners of tournaments and those that lose in the first round are both receiving too much money, while everyone in between and qualifiers are not making enough. My solution is to tie ranking points and prize money together. In other words, the amount of prize money a player receives should be directly proportional to the amount of ranking points he earned.

In a Utopian world, the ATP could simply say that each ranking point is worth 700 dollars (the average value of a ranking point in Cincinnati was $693.21), whether that ranking point is earned by winning a first round futures match or if that ranking point is one of 2000 that are the result of winning a major.

A $700 payday for a first round win in a futures event would be a huge change. Currently, a player has to reach the final to earn that kind of money. However, the ATP has very little control of how much prize money is given out, that is determined by each tournament.

Still, that doesn't mean that individual tournaments can't adopt this model. Instead of giving disproportionately high amounts of money to tournament champions and first-round losers, tournaments should give out points based on the amount of ranking points earned.

Let's look at the tournament in Cincinnati from a week ago as the example. It is a Masters Series 1000 event that gives out a total of $3,216,490 in prize money. Here is a break down of the distribution of ranking points and prize money.

Winner: 21.5% of ranking points and 25.9% of prize money ($834.70 per point)
Runner-up: 12.9% of ranking points and 12.7% of prize money ($682.12 per point)
Semifinalist: 7.8% of ranking points and 6.4% of prize money ($572.17 per point)
Quarterfinalist: 3.9% of ranking points and 3.3% of prize money ($581.89 per point)
Third Round: 1.9% of ranking points and 1.7% of prize money ($604.33 per point)
Second Round: 0.97% of ranking points and 0.89% of prize money ($637.22 per point)
First Round: 0.21% of ranking points and 0.48% of prize money ($1548 per point)
Average: 2.1% of ranking points and 2.1% of prize money ($693.21 per point)

Based on this, the players that didn't win a single match in the main draw are the ones that received the most money per ranking point. Meanwhile, the winner is the only other player that is paid above average. In fact, the winner gets more than double the prize money of the runner up despite spending essentially the same amount of time on court and getting much less than double the amount of ranking points.

There are three main reasons that this issue needs to be addressed, which are betting in tennis, retirements, and player motivation.

PLAYER MOTIVATION

Why do players want to win matches? It is not to lift trophies, because if that were the case, players would save their celebrations for winning the final. That would be the only win worth celebrating. Instead, what we see is lower ranked players fall to the ground after upsetting an opponent at a big tournament. Remember when Janowicz ripped off his shirt after beating Tsonga in the early rounds of a Masters Series 1000?

He wasn't motivated by winning a trophy, but instead by the fact that he just earned a massive amount of ranking points and prize money. Those two things, ranking points and prize money, is what motivates every player. Those two things in large part determine the importance of each and every match. As a result, more important tournaments offer more prize money and more ranking points.

Therefore, both rewards should motivate players proportionally. As it stands now, a player will by mainly motivated to win a first round match by ranking points. However, in the final their main motivation switches to prize money. The amount of motivation a player receives from both should be consistent throughout the tournament.

The truth is that some players are motivated by ranking points while others are motivated by prize money. A player that wants to pay for a coach to travel with him to make him a better player, will by motivated by prize money, so that he can get that. A player that gets a coach for free from the USTA, but doesn't have a high enough ranking to get directly into the main draw of a Challenger Tour event will be motivated by prize money. Thus the player motivated by prize money will go to the tournaments that offer the most prize money, but will get crushed by the better competition. Meanwhile, the other player will travel to the ends of the world to find a tournament with a weak draw and win the title easily.

The result of this is inaccurate rankings. The player in need of money will be ranked lower than he should be and the player with support from his country will be overrated. This may seem like no big deal, but ranking determines a player's ability to enter tournaments and eventually break through in the sport. So many players never break through, because they can't get their ranking up, because they don't have enough money to go with their coaPches to the easiest tournaments. Imagine how much better our sport would be if we had the best athletes in the world competing on the top level instead of only the best athletes from the countries that put the most money into tennis.

Fixing prize money distribution at individual tournaments would do very little to fix this overarching issue, but it is one of many steps in the right direction that can be taken.

BETTING

Being a professional tennis player is a full time job, which means professional tennis players need salaries. However, because of the format of the sport, that is not possible. As a result, many players get that money they need then by betting on themselves to lose a point, game, set or even sometimes a match.

This is one of the ugliest realities of the sport. Thankfully, the vast majority of incidences happen at the lower levels of the sport. There is no perfect solution to the problem. Many tournaments are sponsored by betting sites. Although some players like Novak Djokovic have decided not to be represented by any betting organization, most players don't have such a high moral standard or enough money to have the right to be picky.

As a result, it is impossible to completely separate the sport from betting. However, tennis can reward more prize money for winning and less for losing to diminish the incentive to throw away games, sets or matches. If the amount of money you receive in prize money depends very little on the result of the match, the players will be less likely to care about the result. However, if $700 depends on even the least important matches, gaining $500 from a bet is not worth it anymore.

With the example of Cincinnati, you get $28,675 for winning your first round match and $15,480 for losing it. So if a gambler offers you $20,000 to throw the match, it is very tempting.

If my system were adopted, a first round win would be worth $31,194.45 and losing would be worth $6932.09. That means a gambler would have to offer at least $25,000 for the player to gain any money at all.

The same is true on a smaller level for challenger and futures tournaments.Gamblers will have to start offering way more money to control what a player does on court, which would seriously damage their illegal business and clean up the sport quickly.

RETIREMENTS
This issue applies most directly to the grand slams. Since the US Open is going on, we will use that as the example. If prize money was proportional to ranking points, each player would earn $3290.22 per point, which is a massive improvement from Cincinnati.

Side note: I'm fine with the gap between money per point at Cincinnati and the US Open. Grand Slams are unique. Nothing competes with a grand slam. Players don't have the option of playing smaller events during a grand slam unless they go all the way down to the Challenger Tour. Ideally though, even those events shouldn't be happening during the first week of a major.

If my model was adopted for the US Open, the first round loser would earn $32,902.17 and the winner would earn $148,059.78. Instead the loser gets $43,313 and the winner gets $77,188.

What's the result of this? Players carrying serious injuries show up to the US Open, knowing they have no chance of winning a match. They play tennis for a set, soak up the experience, then retire from their match and grab their check, leaving fans disappointed and lower-ranked players wishing they had been given a chance to play instead. This year, two players retired without even playing a set.

I'm sure Sugita and Kravchuk would have much preferred to get directly into the main draw rather than both lose in the second round of qualifying. I'm also sure they could have given the fans a better performance than half a set of limping around the court.

How serious is this problem? Well, first round matches make up half of the matches in a tournament, but 73% of the retirements in the year following the most recent boost to first-round prize money. The reason so many retirements happen in the first round is because players have the injuries before they arrive at the tournaments.

Some people have proposed getting rid of prize money for players who retire from matches in the first round. However, that will only cause players to play through injuries longer and try to lose faster, while players that have legitimate serious injuries on court, not only lose the match, but also lose their money.

The only solution is to stop paying players massive amounts of money for losing.

Let's take for example Leonardo Mayer, who has finished all of his grand slam matches, but has lost all of them in 2016. Through those three losses, he has earned $101,023. For the rest of his season, he has won 11 ATP World Tour matches and six Challenger Tour matches for a Race Ranking of No. 117. In total, he has earned $297,872 this season. That means 34% of his earnings this season come from three losses, while the other 68% comes from 31 matches on the ATP and Challenger tours, not even counting qualifying matches.

When any player is presented with the option of losing a match for 34% of his salary or withdrawing from the tournament and forfeiting that part of his salary, which one do you think he will take?

The best solution (though it is not perfect) is to stop paying players so much to lose.

CONCLUSION

The most fair way distribute prize money is to make ranking points and prize money proportional rewards for all professional tennis players. It will clean up the lower levels of the game, it will give players with less money a better shot to succeed, and it reduces the incentive to play tournaments while injured.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Tennis' Top 20 Under 20: 5th Edition

The most popular series on this blog continues with its fifth edition. This biannual series updates who the 20 most promising teenagers are in men's tennis after every Australian Open and Wimbledon. With each passing edition, the field continues to get stronger.

However, that wasn't exactly the case for this, the fifth edition. Of the last set of 20 players from January, five have since turned 20, two have been plagued by injuries (plus Mikael Ymer who was 14th in the 3rd edition), and many others have had poor results over the summer.

Still, there are three teenagers in the top 60 of the ATP right now and a total of nine inside the top 200. That's a massive improvement from just a few years ago when not a single teenager ranked inside the top 200. Now, Duckhee Lee has well established himself inside the top 200 at just 18 years old and he still isn't on many tennis fans radars and (spoiler alert) only barely made this list.

Previous Top 20 Under 20
No. July 2014Feb. 2015 July 2015Feb. 2016
1. Nick Kyrgios Nick Kyrgios Borna Coric Alexander Zverev
2.Alexander Zverev Borna Coric Andrey Rublev Borna Coric
3.Borna CoricRoman Safiullin Alexander Zverev Taylor Fritz
4. Andrey RublevAndrey Rublev Jared Donaldson Frances Tiafoe
5. Christian Garin Jared DonaldsonHyeon Chung Felix AA
6. Jared Donaldson Alexander Zverev T. Kokkinakis Hyeon Chung
7. Frances TiafoeHyeon Chung Taylor Fritz Andrey Rublev
8. T. KokkinakisY. NishiokaFrances Tiafoe Jared Donaldson
9. Nikola Milojevic T. Kokkinakis Elias YmerRoman Safiullin
10. Stefan KozlovElias Ymer Roman Safiullin T. Kokkinakis
11. Hyeon Chung Christian Garin Omar Jasika Elias Ymer
12. Noah Rubin Laslo Djere Duckhee Lee Noah Rubin
13. Kyle EdmundFrances Tiafoe Y. Nishioka Oliver Anderson
14. Gianluigi Quinzi Taylor Fritz Mikael Ymer Karen Khachanov
15. Roman Safiullin Stefan Kozlov Tommy Paul Rayane Roumane
16.Yunseong Chung Seong Chan Hong Reilly Opelka Stefanos Tsitsipas
17. Elias Ymer Duckhee LeeStefan Kozlov M. Kecmanovic
18. Laslo Djere Ernesto Escobedo M. Kecmanovic Quinten Halys
19. Johan Tatlot Yun Seong Chung Stefanos Tsitsipas Duckhee Lee
20. Nicolas Jarry Noah Rubin Felix AA Michael Mmoh

The 20 most promising tennis players under the age of 20 years old, as of August 28, 2016.

1. Alexander Zverev (GER) Age: 19, Rank 28
A teenager being ranked 28th in the world is no small accomplishment. However, it's not a guarantee of future success either. The last teenager to be seeded at a major was Bernard Tomic, who so far in his career has failed to live up to what were once very high expectations. Zverev had a very successful junior career and had his big professional breakthrough in the summer of 2014, landing the German the No. 2 spot on this list in its first edition. Zverev has since endured the typical sophomore slump and has built his ranking with consistent results instead of occasional breakout performances. The 19-year old has reached two finals this year and three semifinals to go along with third-round appearances at each of the last two majors. That's not to say his 2016 season has lacked for big results. In the semifinals of Halle, Zverev defeated Roger Federer at his most successful tournament in three sets to advance to the final.

What makes Zverev so successful on court is his combination of size, speed, and power. That might sound like a better description for a running back in the NFL than a tennis player, but at 6-foot-6, Zverev produces easy power, while still being able to move better than anyone else his size. Zverev is quick enough and solid enough that he could win matches by simply grinding from the back of the court. When you add his serve, which has been clocked at 142 mph, and the ability to rip the ball off both wings without littering the stat sheet with errors, he becomes one of the toughest players to beat on the ATP. The area where the German will have to improve the most to reach the top 10 is his serve. Despite being able to reach back and light up the radar gun, his serve ranks behind even David Ferrer's at 46th on the ATP website. A big reason for that is that when he flattens out his first serve, he makes a very low percentage. Since he is 6-foot-6 this is an issue that should be relatively easy to fix. Whether he rises or falls in the rankings in the next six months will correlate directly with his ability to improve his serve.

2. Taylor Fritz (USA) Age: 18, Rank 54
Fritz's rapid rise up the rankings caught everyone by surprise, and the American keeps moving up on this list. Fritz had been on tennis fans radars for a long time after a note-worthy junior career, but even his most optimistic fans didn't dare hope his ascension to the top tier of the sport would be this fast. Less than a year ago in October, Fritz was ranked 694. Just four months later, the 18-year old was into the top 100 and he hasn't looked back since steadily climbing to a career-high of No. 54 following a quarterfinal run at Atlanta. During his run to the top 100, Fritz went on a run of 30-7, culminating in a run to the final in Memphis, where he rushed out of the gates to a dominant lead over Kei Nishikori, before eventually falling to the No. 1 seed in his first career final. Fritz has now earned a total of 13 tour-level victories this season after having only previously played twice in tour-level events.

Fritz has great strokes and can produce winners off the return just as easily as his serve. However, when the points last more than a few shots, Fritz's poor movement gets exposed. It's hardly a fatal flaw, but it limits what he can do tactically. He has to go for more early in rallies and can't afford to be patient. Movement is something that can improve over time, but he will never be able to move like Coric and Tiafoe. Still, Fritz put on a dominant performance against Tiafoe in Winston-Salem, showing speed isn't everything, while Tiafoe for the first time in his career in eight tries. Fritz has a big strike zone on the backhand side, doing a great job of getting down for low slices to his backhand and driving them cross court, while also using his height and left wrist to punish anything that is left up around his shoulders. That in particular is what allows him to hit so many return winners off the second serve, which is a big reason why he is winning 50% of second serve return points on hard courts. For Fritz, it isn't a question of how many short rallies will he win, but how many rallies can he keep short without piling on the unforced errors. Fritz is also one of the few players on tour who does a better job saving break points than winning normal service points, making him harder to break despite sometimes getting a handful of opportunities. That speaks a lot to how advanced Fritz is for his age mentally and tactically, which spells good things for the future as his body starts to catch up.

3. Borna Coric (CRO) Age: 19, Rank 40
This time last year, Coric was No. 1 on this list and he didn't drop because of bad results. He simply got passed by two younger players. That doesn't mean his future is any less bright. Coric already has 55 tour-level victories, which is the most of any active teenager, and he is certainly the most acclimated to the pro game of any player on this list. Just last week he reached the quarterfinals in Cincinnati with wins over Paire, Kyrgios and Nadal. Coric was once No. 2 on this list behind Kyrgios, but the Croat saved match point to defeat the No. 16 player in the world 7-6(2), 4-6, 7-6(6). In July, Coric helped lead Croatia to a win over the United States in Davis Cup with a four-set win over Jack Sock, who just a four years ago was atop many people's lists for best teenager. Go back a little farther to Roland Garros, where Coric defeated Fritz in three easy sets and then came from behind to defeat Tomic, who was also considered to be the best teenager only a few years ago. Coric twice defeated Vesely, who was the No. 1 junior in the world in 2011, and before that he crushed 22-year old Pouille in Indian Wells. The 19-year old right-hander also has wins over Zverev, Schwartzman, Kozlov and Janowicz. In other words, Coric seems to have the head-to-head advantage against all of his peers. Once the players born in the '80s get out of the way, Coric will certainly be capable of hauling in some big prizes, including at the majors.

4. Frances Tiafoe (USA) Age: 18, Rank 125
Tiafoe has been the victim of some brutal draws on the ATP World Tour, which is only bad news for players on the Challenger Tour. The American has won only one match on the tour-level this year in five tournaments and he just drew Isner at the US Open, so that's not likely to change soon. Meanwhile, players battling through the Challenger Tour are becoming Tiafoe's biggest fans, because they don't want to have to face him anymore. The 18-year old has gone 29-12 on the Challenger Tour and reached four finals. He has also reached a total of eight quarterfinals and won 13 of his last 16 matches, catapulting him to a career-high ranking of 123. Tiafoe's one tour-level victory came against Fritz. It was Tiafoe's seventh consecutive win against Fritz before the No. 2 player on this list returned the favor in Winston-Salem. The biggest worry for Tiafoe right now is that all of his success is coming in North America, he is just 3-3 on the other side of the pond and hasn't played a main draw tour-level match on another continent this season. After the US Open, Tiafoe doesn't have a lot of options within the United States, so this will be a good time for him to start earning some wins and confidence abroad. Despite some technical flaws in his serve, forehand, and backhand, his athleticism is the best of any teenager since Monfils.

5. Denis Shapovalov (CAN) Age: 17, Rank 246
This is the first time a player has shown up on the top five of this list after not even making the previous list. Previously, the highest a player had ever been ranked after not being on the list before was Yoshihito Nishioka, who came in the eighth slot in February 2015. Shapovalov is also the fourth youngest player to appear in the top five after countryman Auger Aliassime, Rublev, and Zverev. Shapovalov's biggest win came just a month ago when he defeated Kyrgios 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-3. You know the future is brighter than ever before when a 17-year beats a player that was twice No. 1 on this list, but still only lands the No. 5 spot. However, even without that win against Kyrgios, Shapovalov would have found a spot in the top five given his dominance at the futures events. Shapovalov has won three titles already this season and has shown proficiency on both clay and hard courts. His most impressive run was in Orange Park, when he defeated Kecmanovic in the final 7-5, 2-6, 7-6(6) just a week after turning 17. However, the week before turning 17, Shapovalov defeated Sandgren 7-6(4), 7-6(4) for the futures title in Memphis. In his first title run, the Canadian won all 10 sets while dropping only 22 games. Shapovalov is also cleaning up the Junior ranks, winning Wimbledon with wins over Chung, Valkusz, Tsitsipas and De Minaur, while also reaching the doubles final. He also won Roehampton without dropping a set and led Canada to the Junior Davis Cup title. That's a long way to come from having to go through qualifying at the US Open the year before, where he and Auger Aliassime won the doubles title. He is currently the No. 2 junior in the world, but hasn't played on the junior tour since winning Wimbledon. Shapovalov is a left-hander with a one-handed backhand, which has become a rarity in tennis today. Only two lefties in the top 100 use a one-handed backhand and both are well into their 30's in age. However, getting to Shapovalov's backhand is not an easy thing to do. Shapovalov is just as good as Nadal or Verdasco at running around his opponent's return to start the point with a forehand. From there he controls the point and it isn't easy to wrestle it away from him. Five years from now, Coric will be one of the only players who is able to regularly break the Shapovalov serve, because of his ability to move opponents around with effective returns.

6. Jared Donaldson (USA) Age: 19, Rank 122
A year and a half ago, Donaldson crashed the top 200 following an incredible 2014 season, but over the next year his ranking only went up 17 spots. That sophomore slump seems to be over now as Donaldson has climbed to the No. 122 spot in the world, which will only go higher after having qualified for the US Open. The draw did not treat him well, giving him Goffin after his wildcard was given away to Del Potro,  who wouldn't have needed it if the Olympics still gave out ranking points. Donaldson has had a good year on the tour-level though more than doubling his total number of wins with five this year including three at ATP Masters Series 1000 events. He has beaten Almagro and Fognini, while also scoring wins over Sandgren, Smyczek, Rublev, Jaziri, Young and Harrison. Donaldson earned 115 ranking points in Canada, but hasn't earned more than 60 points at any other single event, which is good for two reason. First, he has built his ranking on consistent solid results and not just one big run. Also, his biggest chunk of points will stay with him for the next 11 months, giving him a solid base start a run to the top 100. He is currently ranked 115 in the Race Rankings and has next to nothing to defend in the first two months of the 2017 season, meaning he could even get direct acceptance into both Indian Wells and Miami. He will turn 20 in just over a month, so this is the time for Donaldson to start realizing all of the promise that has landed him in the top 10 of this list all five times.

7. Felix Auger Aliassime (CAN) Age: 16, Rank 741
Felix is putting together a dominant junior career that includes two Grade 1 titles on hard and clay courts, a Roland Garros finals appearance, a doubles title at the US Open, doubles finals appearance at Wimbledon, and a Davis Cup title. In just one year, Felix has done more on the junior tour than even players like Nishikori have done in his entire professional career. At the professional level, things are going at their own pace. More than a year after being the youngest player to qualify for the main draw of a Challenger event, he hasn't won a single Challenger Tour match this season. Meanwhile, May wasn't a month that treated him well despite reaching the junior Roland Garros final. In May, it was released that he is battling a heart disease called tachycardia, which is already affecting him on court. Then in the Roland Garros final, Felix held a match point but eventually lost 6-8 in the deciding set to be denied his first major singles crown. Since then he has just one professional win in a Challenger qualifying match and also won three routine matches before falling in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. He is now in Canada for the national junior championships where he is getting ready for the US Open against a tough field, which includes Ulises Blanch and Ryan James Storrie, who defeated Felix in the first round of Roehampton. How his heart disease will affect him is completely unknown at this point, but he did sound positive about it when speaking to reporters about it in Paris.

8. Andrey Rublev (RUS) Age: 19, Rank 186
On each of the first three posts in this series, many people told me I had Rublev too high, and it looks like they were right, and I've dropped him down to No. 8. There are only three players in the world younger than Rublev that are ranked higher than him. However, he is ranked lower now than he was almost a year ago following the US Open. He also lost in the first round of qualifying at the US Open, meaning he might drop out of the top 200, so this is more than just a little slump. His 2016 season has had one big highlight though. In February, he came through qualifying to win the Quimper Challenger with wins over Khachanov, Lacko, and Mathieu in the final, coming back from down a set against the No. 69 player in the world at the time. However, since then he got crushed by both Donaldson and Zverev and hasn't really had a noteworthy win. Rublev has already been compared to Safin and his sporadic results only strengthen the comparison. That being said, world No. 1, two-time major champion and five-time Masters Series champion isn't a bad career to aspire.

9. Reilly Opelka (USA) Age: 19, Rank 292
Isner. Okay, I've said it. It's impossible to talk about Opelka without comparing him to his countryman, but that comparison has already been done by everyone who has seen the tallest tennis player ever grace the court. Opelka has been getting attention for his height for a long time, but it wasn't until he won the junior Wimbledon title that many people starting giving him attention for his tennis. Since then he only played one more junior event, but it still took a while for him to break through on the ATP World Tour. Until this August. Opelka won five tour-level matches this month, including four against top 100 players like Anderson and Chardy. He also took a set off the player I promised not to mention again and was never broken in two sets against world No. 10 Tsonga, saving seven break points. However, he is not No. 9 for his results on the court, but because of his game. At 6-foot-11 and counting, his serve is a given. Add to that better than expected touch and technically solid ground strokes. Also common sense would suggest that tall players would make good returners because their long wing span makes them almost impossible to ace. Up until now, it has never worked out that way, but Opelka possesses quick reactions that suggest he could be the one to break that mold. Imagine a tennis player that can hold serve more than 90% of the time and is just as imposing on the return. Quite simply, he could ruin tennis.

10. Miomir Kecmanovic (SRB) Age: 16, Rank 851
The 2015 Orange Bowl Champion and countryman of current world No. 1 Djokovic is starting to have the expectations piled onto him. At 16 years old, he is handling it well. This week he won the Grade 1 title at College Park without dropping a set and only losing 19 games. Not a bad way to get ready for the US Open where he will be among the favorites despite likely being the fifth youngest player in the main draw with Felix being the only player younger and ranked higher. He has also started to see some success at the professional level, most notably reaching the final of the futures event in Orange Park before narrowly falling to Shapovalov in the third-set tiebreaker 6-8. Overall he is 12-7 on the futures tour bouncing back and forth between Serbia and the United States to play tournaments. Once he starts playing a full professional schedule, his ranking will start to rise considerably.

11. Stefan Kozlov (USA) Age: 18, Rank 154
I might be being a little harsh on Kozlov putting him outside the top 10. He arguably deserved a wildcard into the US Open before he was eliminated in the first round of qualifying by a seeded veteran. Still, that takes nothing away from what a marvelous season Kozlov has had to reach a career-high ranking of 154 at just 18 years and six months of age. Kozlov has notched an impressive 3-2 record at the tour-level after losing his first four matches at the highest tier. Kozlov crushed former NCAA standout Benjamin Becker 6-1, 6-2 at Newport after beating the greatest college tennis player ever Johnson 6-3, 6-4 in s-Hertogenbosch to reach the quarterfinals. Kozlov's three tour-level wins on grass along with winning records on clay and hard courts on the Challenger Tour show his ability to win on any surface, which is a positive sign for when he no longer has the option to pick tournaments based on surface on the ATP World Tour. Kozlov has great variety in his game, which means it may take him a little longer to learn how to utilize it best. Since the average age of professional tennis players has gone up dramatically in the last 10 years, there is no hurry. Kozlov could definitely be the kind of player that doesn't peak until his late 20's while still having a very solid career up until then like Fish or Wawrinka or at worst like Robert.

12. Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) Age: 18, Rank 335
If you want serve-and-volley tennis to make a comeback, your hopes ride on this player alone. The future of tennis on the ATP is going to be about hitting the ball with power from the baseline. It's going to be as if everyone were Berdych, Del Potro, Soderling, Gonzalez and Cilic. One of the few exceptions though is Tsitsipas, who might be caught in the wrong era. His one-handed backhand and persistence on coming to the night are a throwback to a tennis that few have played since he was born. It's working fairly well though, leading the 6-foot-4 player to the No. 1 ranking in juniors, which he has held for the last three months. He has struggled at the majors, which is where juniors get the most attention, causing many to overlook his game. However, he did capture a Grade A title in Italy, defeating Blanch in the final 6-4, 6-3. He also reached the final of the Orange Bowl, beating then No. 1 Valkusz  and Shapovalov before falling in a third-set tiebreaker to Kecmanovic. He is also tearing it up at futures events, recording a record of 25-5 with three titles, while defending the No. 1 ranking in juniors. He also has a 10-2 record (3-1 on the Challenger Tour) in tiebreakers this season, suggesting he knows how to raise his level when it really matters. His willingness to come to the net even in tiebreakers keeps the pressure on his opponents, when they are most likely to get nervous. It's an uphill battle to try to win with this style, but he is the one teenager that might be able to pull it off some day.

13. Michael Mmoh (USA) Age: 19, Rank 384
The first 12 players all made the list with little thought, so from here is where it gets interesting and there is lots of room for debate (not that there isn't tons of room for debate in the first 12). Mmoh got the top spot despite being on a seven-match losing streak and a 10-match losing streak in non-futures events.That's mainly because when he has played well, he has been good enough to beat anyone on this list. Just this year, he has beaten both Ruud and Kozlov and nearly beat Zverev. In the past, he has also defeated Opelka, Tsitsipas, Paul and Rublev. His backhand is still a weakness and while he can get to a lot of balls, he frequently finds himself in defensive positions  because he can leave the ball hanging off both wings. He has a long way to go to develop his game technically and some might argue that at 19-years old, it's already too late. However, the old saying is that speed never slumps. He is incredibly athletic, so if he can use that as the base and develop his skills around that, he can have a very successful professional career.

14. Quentin Halys (FRA) Age: 19, Rank 136
The serve is often the shot that juniors struggle with and then improve as a professional. Halys doesn't have to worry about that though. He had no trouble holding serve when he faced Djokovic this year, so the only question is if he can develop his return game enough. He is currently winning just 33% of return points on the tour-level, but few players his age have even played as many tour-level matches as Halys. He has gone 3-5 this year with two wins coming at majors, setting his career-high ranking this summer at 136. His main issue is that his game simply lacks variety, which makes game-planning easy for him, but that also means it's equally easy for his opponents. As a teenager, not having a lot of options is a good thing, but at some point, he is going to need to develop more weapons. His six-match losing streak might be exactly the thing that gets him to start working towards developing those other weapons.

15. Casper Ruud (NOR) Age: 17, Rank 450
I resisted putting Ruud on this list for a long time, but with so many other players falling off the list, it was his time to make his debut in the Top 20 Under 20. His father won over 100 tour-level matches and was ranked inside the top 40 at one point just over 20 years ago and is now coaching his son. Ruud simply has not performed well against the best players his age, which was why I left him off the list, but this year, he has been more focused on the professional level, where he has found success against players much older than him. Despite being just 17 years old, he has two tour-level victories already and has gone 29-9 in futures events, reaching five finals and winning two. He is clearly most comfortable on clay, but clay specialist is now a dead career and previous clay specialists that have made this list have been the worst busts (Garin, Quinzi, Milojevic, Tatlot). However, in his one hard court event, he did reach the final and at just 16 years old won a Grade A event on hard courts in Japan. He certainly is one of the more hopeful talents of his age group, but it is a cautious hope. In January, Ruud made a recruiting video for college, but I would be surprised if he chose that route now.

16. Alex De Minaur (AUS) Age: 17, Rank 614
Shapovalov is the only player in tennis younger than De Minaur that is ranked higher than him, which made De Minaur a serious candidate for this list from the beginning. He would have been a slam dunk if not for having zero wins on the Challenger Tour still. He has proved himself on the futures level though, going 22-12 and reaching two finals to steadily build his ranking to a career-high 614. He also has had a great junior career reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and the final at Wimbledon. He defeated Tsitsipas in Melbourne and took a set off Shapovalov at Wimbledon. At Roland Garros, he lost to a Spaniard in the second round, which only confirms the fact that De Minaur is Australian. He's now among the favorites to win the US Open, which both Jasika and Tomic have won, ending a long Aussie drought in Flushing Meadows. Last year, De Minaur reached the semifinal of the US Open as a qualifier and no other semifinalist will be in the draw this year. It's only a matter of time before he starts to convert his success in juniors and futures to the Challenger Tour and beyond.

17. Tommy Paul (USA) Age: 19, Rank 213
You look at the ranking and you are impressed; you watch him play a match and all you can say is "how?" Paul has put up some great results and even has a nice looking strokes. However, the positive results of those nice strokes are scattered between many many head-scratching decisions. Still, he is a teenager that has cracked the top 200 (and since fallen out), so there has to be something to this. He is currently on a five-match losing streak and he hasn't won a match on the Challenger Tour since June. That win came on clay, which is the same surface on which he won a junior grand slam. He might be the first clay specialist to come out of the United States in ages. If that is the case, the height of his possibilities is pretty low. To reach the top 10 of the ATP, you have to win on hard courts regularly. Paul's ranking doesn't lie, but how much higher can it actually go?

18. Rudolf Molleker (GER) Age: 15, Rank 1537
At 15-years old, taking a set off Jasika and beating two players inside the top 1000 is a pretty big deal. On top of that, he is the youngest player inside the top 100 of the junior rankings, coming in at No. 33. He has won two junior events this summer and reached the round of 16 as a qualifier in the Orange Bowl last year, beating Ponwith in straight set along the way. The other good news is that he can hide behind Zverev and quietly go about his business without facing the pressure of being for a country that has been waiting a long time for the next Boris Becker. After Haas, Mayer, and Kohschreiber all failed to bring home a major title, the pressure of being from the same country as Becker has fallen on the next generation, but Molleker is going to be able to stay out of the spotlight for a while longer.

19. Duckhee Lee (KOR) Age: 18, Rank 191
Established inside the top 200 at 18-years old does not sound like the description of someone as low as 19th on this list. However, there is just no way to know what to make of these Korean teenagers. There are enough futures and Challenger Tour events for east Asian players to never have to travel and few players from Europe or North America are willing to travel to Asia to play those events, which leads to very little crossover of the two continents. As a result, Lee has reached the top 200 mainly by beating other Koreans. There is a whole group of young Korean players that have earned good rankings, and Lee is certainly the best of the crop. Since there has been such little crossover, its possible that this group of Korean players are actually far better than the rest, but they are beating each other up and essentially holding each other down. However, from the small sample size that we have, that doesn't seem to be the case. Against Europeans and North Americans, he is just 7-10 this year despite just one of those 17 matches coming against someone ranked higher than him. Even against Australians, he is just 2-3 with a win against John-Patrick Smith as his most noteworthy. After losing in the second round of the US Open qualifying, he went straight to Thailand, where he was the No. 3 seed at a Challenger. Lee is clearly talented, but we will never know how much until he starts to test himself against players from other countries. It could turn out that he is better than his European and North American peers.

20. Zane Khan (USA) Age: 14, Rank N/A
At just 14 and a half years old, Kahn is already getting attention as the No. 2 player in his recruiting class and the No. 1 player in the Gulf States. A lot of times players can get that kind of recognition simply by having an early growth spurt and then usually pan out to be only decent tennis players. However, Khan is not physically advanced for his age, meaning his success is built on real raw tennis skill. Last year Khan won the Coupe Le Blanc and this year reached the semifinals as a qualifier in the International Grass Court Championships, while is a Grade 4 junior event. He also won a Grade 4 title in doubles in Delray Beach. His junior ranking is 1152 as a result of little experience at the junior level. He also played in Le Petit As, and though he lost in the first round, his lost came against the eventual runner up. It may be way too early to know just what to expect from Khan, but he clearly knows how to wield a racket. If he grows into an athletic frame, he could certainly have a very successful professional career.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

ATP Country Power Rankings

This is my update to my ranking of the best countries on the ATP right now. The rankings are all based on a simple formula. Each country is ranked by the sum of all the singles ranking points earned by each player from that country that is ranked within the top 140.

Spain has been on top of this list since I started calculating it in 2011. Now, with most Spaniards into their 30s, it's just a matter of time before some other country supplants them. France has always been the biggest threat to Spain, but now that Djokovic is dominating more than ever before and Troicki is back, Serbia also has a chance. In fact, through the top 78 in the world, Serbia is ahead of Spain.

The United States is also doing better than at any other time since I began compiling this list. USA comes in fourth place and also has 14 players in the top 140, which is second only to Spain. Through the top 123, the United States actually has the most representatives with 13, while Spain and France both have 12.

Here are the rankings as of Aug. 1:

1. Spain
2. Serbia
3. France
4. United States
5. Great Britain
6. Switzerland
7. Argentina
8. Japan
9. Germany
10. Czech Republic
11. Croatia
12. Canada
13. Australia
14. Russia
15. Italy
16. Austria
17. Belgium
18. Slovakia
19. Ukraine
20. Brazil
21. Portugal
22. Uruguay
23. South Africa
24. Netherlands
25. Bulgaria
26. Luxembourg
27. Cyprus
28. Tunisia
29. Latvia
30. Israel
31. Chinese Taipei
32. Kazakhstan
33. Lithuania
34. Bosnia & Herzegovina
35. Dominican Republic
36. Maldova
37. Uzbekistan
38. Georgia
39. South Korea
40. Colombia