Ernests Gulbis Storms Back; Grunting Still an Issue — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Stuttering Finish

With many of the world’s top-ranked female stars in attendance, the BNP Paribas Open started off so promising. It’s losing steam as it heads to the finale, however, thanks to a couple of key upsets and unfortunate withdrawals. Kirilenko upset both Aga Radwanska and Kvitova to set up a semifinal clash with Sharapova, which is a matchup the World No. 3 likely prefers with the No. 2 ranking up for grabs should she advance to the final. On the opposite side of the draw, Kerber and Wozniacki find themselves in the semis after both Stosur and Azarenka withdrew with leg and ankle injuries. All four women are accomplished players, but with only one of the top-four-ranked women present in the semis, the tournament no longer possesses quite the same level of excitement. It’s a shame for the tournament organizers, but if one person can take these lemons and turn them into lemonade, it’s Sharapova, who is now the strong favorite to take home the title.

Just Won’t Die

Just when you thought that ugly issue would go away, the topic of grunting is once again making tennis headlines. This time, it’s actual grunting, with the latest complaint coming from Murray against ATP pro Berlocq. Murray was moved to complain about the Argentine’s long and loud grunts after his opponent complained to the umpire that he thought Murray was taking longer than the permitted 25 second between points. Irrespective of what prompted the complaint, it was legitimate. But Berlocq isn’t the only loud competitor on the ATP World Tour. Granollers has long been touted as having one of the most distracting grunts, and others, like Nadal, Djokovic, and Ferrer, have also been known to get a little too vocal. Federer hit the nail on the head when he said it’s all about respecting your opponent and suggested that there is such a thing has being too loud. Unfortunately, the ATP players are less likely to pursue a solution to the grunting problem, but with any luck, perhaps they will. Pursuing a solution might then have a spillover effect to the WTA and force the governing bodies to do something now. There are too many positives in the sport for it to be hounded by this issue, but there’s no denying its impact on the sport is growing, and not for the better.

One to Watch

Okay, Ernests Gulbis has been “one to watch” on more than one occasion throughout his career, but after a thirteen match win-streak and a near upset of Nadal in the Round of 16 in Indian Wells, maybe this time, the label will stick. The Latvian may lack the looks and some of the charm of Marat Safin, but he’s definitely the closest thing tennis currently has to the charismatic Russian. He’s unabashedly confident and honest, from declaring he didn’t fear Nadal and had the goods to beat the Spaniard, to his calling out his peers for what he perceives to be fake congratulations. Love him or hate him, he calls it like he sees it. He’s also always had the talent to pull off a plethora of shots to flummox his opponents and thrill the crowds, but the consistency has been lacking. After winning a title in Delray Beach and nearly booking a quarterfinal berth in Indian Wells, however, things could be turning around. At 24, Gulbis is starting to mature. He’s starting to make strides at controlling his temper and keeping the bad patches of play short and to a minimum over the course of a match. We’ll have to wait and see how he fares in the coming weeks, but if this guy has truly put it together, the rest of the field better be on alert.

Bated Breath

Mardy Fish fans will be anxious as the Miami Masters approaches, as the second Masters of 2013 may ultimately turn out to be the American’s last tournament as a professional. Fish has in no way committed to anything, but he made it clear that he hasn’t ruled out walking away from the game after just his second event this season. After Miami, he plans to assess where he is, if he feels comfortable competing and can do so at a high level. After his stint at Indian Wells, things certainly look dicey. He did win a match, and if you just saw the score line, you’d be impressed that he took a player of Tsonga’s caliber to two tiebreak sets in the third round. But Fish blew a 4-0 lead in the second, and he also served for it at 5-4. That may haunt him as he takes to the court in Florida, which given all that he’s dealing with, will make competing there all the more difficult. Hopefully Fish won’t be ready to throw in the towel. Even if he opts to skip the clay court season, it would be nice to see him give it one last go on the lawns of Wimbledon or see if he can rediscover some magic during the US Open Series. But he’s got to feel comfortable with it, and based on the statements he’s made of late, his fans would be well served to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Professional Perspective

With 2012 finalist Isner being bounced out of Indian Wells early (and projected to fall out of the top 20 as a result), Sam Querrey will become the new No. 1 for the United States next week. It’s a great achievement for Querrey, who has had his ups and down with injuries and mental attitude. But what was even better was Querrey’s response to becoming the top American. He recognized it for the honor that it is but was quick to point out that with tennis being such a global sport, what really matters is the world ranking. On that front, Querrey still has plenty of work to do, but with a Round of 16 showing in Indian Wells, he’s moving in the right direction. He’ll be looking to post a respectable result in Miami, and if he can continue to grow and improve, he could be poised for a big summer.

“Bark or Bite?”: A Defense of Bojana Jovanovski

Yesterday, the up-and-coming Sloane Stephens fought off a mid-match surge from a game opponent to reach her debut Grand Slam quarterfinal. After taking the deciding set 7-5, the bubbly American was pleased to have put on a show for the crowd, and promised another one when she played her mentor and idol, Serena Williams.

Leave it to the media to turn a show into a circus.

As the match unfolded, Stephens seemed to establish an unassailable advantage over her equally inexperienced opponent, Bojana Jovanovski. A heavy hitting but inconsistent player from Serbia, Jovanovski was deemed a beatable foe, one who would easily bend to the will of the quickly rising American teenager.

As the second set reached a critical juncture, however, Stephens began to retreat and revert to a safer, more defensive style. Jovanovski had been missing badly up to that point, so waiting for the error was not a completely ill conceived strategy. Yet, in doing so, she made an almost fatal mistake: giving Bojana Jovanovski a short ball is like feeding live bait to a shark.

The No. 3 Serb hits groundstrokes like missiles, and is an exciting player to watch when she is striking the ball well. Most comfortable playing in Australia, she had her breakthrough tournament in Sydney two years ago where, as a qualifier, she reached her first Premier semifinal. A week later, she pushed then-world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva to three tight sets at this very tournament. Since then, she won her first WTA title last summer in Baku and is also a player on the rise, give or take a few hiccups and patches of poor form.

Despite her obvious talent, she is still better known for the quirkier aspects of her life and bio. For one, not a televised match of Jovanovski’s goes by without a retelling of the embarrassing story where the Serb traveled to the famed WTA event in San Diego via Carlsbad only to wind up in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Quirkier still is her unusual grunt. Oft-described as a sound similar to a sneeze (“ha-choo!”), it is definitely one of the stranger sounds one hears during a tennis match, but is not nearly as off-putting as many seem to think. Having watched the majority of her US Open singles campaign, I can say that it was hardly as noticeable in person as it is when amplified by the on-court microphones.

But as Jovanovski began to take control of a match she seemed well and truly out of last night, the focus centered not on her screaming winners, but on the alleged screaming itself. Stephens lost the plot and allowed her fiery opponent back into the match. Instead of giving praise to Jovanovski for not giving up and playing some inspiring offense, she was castigated, mocked and name-called for her grunting.

A lot of people take issue over noises that aren’t perceived to imply exertion. “How does shrieking assist a person in hitting a ball?” asks a public often corralled by visibly disgusted commentators (for more on grunting and the hindrance rule, I refer you to unseededandlooming’s comprehensive take on the matter). But as bizarre as Jovanovski’s grunt sounds, it is still a grunt at its very core.

And if you stopped to watch the Serbian bombshell scurry about the baseline, you would see a shockingly high level of exertion, mixed with some extreme torque and intensity.

What makes Jovanovski so electrifying on the court is the reckless abandon with which she hits every ball. The notion that “a tennis ball is there to be hit” is taken to delirious extremes during her matches, much to the delight of those who enjoy “Big Babe Tennis.” In fact, it was her tentative serve, the one shot in her repertoire that lacks her almost hysterical punch, that did her in late in the third set against the American, who eventually regrouped to serve out the match herself.

In her first Slam fourth round appearance, Bojana Jovanovski did herself proud. She recovered from a lackluster beginning and found her range in impressive fashion, only to fall just short of the finish line. In all, the week that the Serbian star had was a tremendous effort, and definitely as much noise with her tennis as she did with her grunting.

You may not like Bojana’s grunt from an aesthetic point of view, but it is hard to argue that her bite doesn’t match her bark.

What’s to come for Novak Djokovic and Agnieszka Radwanska? — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Brain Over Brawn

Unfortunately for Maria Sharapova, “Aga” Radwanska wasn’t “back in Poland” this past Saturday.  Instead, she stood across the net and ultimately proved too much for the lanky Russian to handle in the Miami final.  In what was a classic triumph of brain over brawn, Radwanska used everything in her bag of tricks to outwit and frustrate her opponent to claim the biggest title of her career.  Cynics will look at Sharapova’s unforced error count along with the low number of winners from Radwanska and say Sharapova lost the match rather than Radwanska winning it, but to do so is to shortchange the Pole.  Many of Sharapova’s errors came at the end of extended rallies, and nearly all of them can be chalked up to the pressure she felt to hit the ball harder and closer to the lines in an attempt to keep it out of the reach of Radwanska, whose anticipation skills are second to none.  Radwanska definitely won the match – she just did it in a way we’re not used to seeing in this era of hit ‘em bang ‘em tennis.  With the confidence flowing and only four losses on the season (with all four losses coming to Azarenka), Aga will be one to watch at any event, including the majors.  Having been voted Fan Favorite Singles Player in 2011, it’s clear this is a change many will look forward to and enjoy.

The Forgotten One

With Murray’s hiring of Lendl, Federer’s stellar past six months, Azarenka’s streak, and the recent coolness that has enveloped the Federer/Nadal rivalry, Novak Djokovic has barely been a blip on the tennis radar.  But the Serb has laid claim to two of the three biggest tournaments in the first quarter of the season, securing that second title with his victory over Murray in the Miami final.  Though Djokovic struggled to close out matches at the business end of the tournament, he showed why he’s number one, calmly and quickly steadying himself to defend his title without the loss of a set.  He reminded everyone that he’s still leader of the pack, and while his 2012 hasn’t been as dominant as 2011 (who actually expected it to be?), he looks like he’s still going to be the player to beat heading into the clay court season.

Crisis Point

He’s still No. 2, and he put together an admirable 2011 that only stopped short of being another banner year thanks to one player named Novak Djokovic.  But despite all of this, Rafael Nadal is approaching what arguably is one of the most pivotal points in his career.  After semifinal showing at both Indian Wells and Miami, he heads into his beloved clay court season surrounded by question marks.  He withdrew before his semifinal match in Miami citing left knee trouble, but the bigger concern for Nadal may be his his mental state.  He has frequently appeared as what can only be described as disgruntled in 2012.  From his pre-Australian statements and subsequent barbs traded with Federer, to his abrupt resignation from the ATP Players Council, he doesn’t appear to be enjoying his job.  The good news for Nadal fans is that the knee isn’t as bad as in 2009, and his decision to withdraw from Miami to recover and hit the dirt early signifies his recognition of the added importance the 2012 clay court swing takes on for him.  Be sure to keep tabs on him, as the loss of his Roland Garros crown or early tournament exits to players not named Djokovic could see the wheels start to come off.

Smoke  & Mirrors

If you were foolish enough like me to get your hopes up when you saw the headline “WTA Addresses Grunting Issue in Meeting,” then you were sorely disappointed.  All that appeared to come out of the meeting was the establishment’s acknowledgement that the shrieking is having a negative impact from the fan point of view, they don’t have a concrete plan to fix the problem, and they’d still like to primarily focus on remedying the problem at the junior level.  I sympathize with the fact that it’s a delicate problem to fix given that Azarenka and Sharapova currently hold the top two rankings, and the WTA is reliant on their top stars to promote the tour.  But grow a backbone!  The WTA’s VP of Communications, Andrew Walker, suggested docking points at the junior level for players who make excessive noise, stating that when that happens, they “won’t care what their role models do.”  Why not apply the same logic at the upper echelons of the game?  I highly doubt Sharapova or Azarenka are going to hang it up simply because they have to tone down the shrieking.  Not to mention, best to handle it now, as given the relatively young ages of both Azarenka and Sharapova, it might well be too little, too late if the WTA waits to rectify the situation through education of the juniors.

Opportunity Knocks

Sadly, Mardy Fish won’t be competing for the United States in Davis Cup against France, having suffered  a health scare the night after his loss to Monaco in Miami (though it appears he will thankfully be ready to go in Houston next week).  Fish’s loss may be Ryan Harrison’s gain, with Courier picking the young American to replace Fish in the tie this weekend.  Harrison has already shown a ton of promise, and a weekend spent with more mature and experienced players, not to mention the tutelage of Jim Courier could do wonders towards improving his temperament on the court.  We’ve all seen how success in Davis Cup can be a springboard to launching fruitful careers, so keep an eye on Harrison this weekend.  It may turn into something special.

Analyzing Time of Match Between Djokovic-Nadal

by Matthew Laird

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic contested their third consecutive Grand Slam final at the recently concluded 2012 Australian Open. It was by a wide margin their most competitive and exciting meeting at this stage. There was a great deal of high drama, multiple swings in momentum, and no shortage of stellar shot-making from both players. It was an epic match and will surely be remembered among the most exciting Grand Slam finals of all time. The match also had its place in history assured because it shattered the previous record for the longest Grand Slam final of all time, breaking the previous record set by Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl at the 1988 US Open by nearly an hour.*

It should come as no surprise that the length of the Nadal-Djokovic final, which was seven minutes short of six hours, was not due entirely to the quality of play. Both Nadal and Djokovic are known for their pace of play, which is – not to put too fine a point on it – quite slow. There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the amount of time taken between points, and Nadal and Djokovic are usually at the center of these complaints.

For anyone who may not be aware, there is a rule in both the ITF and the ATP rulebooks that states “play shall be continuous” and that limits the amount of time a server should be allowed between the end of one point and the beginning of the next to either 20 or 25 seconds, depending on which set of rules is being followed during the match (Grand Slam matches take place under ITF auspices). Both Nadal and Djokovic routinely go over this time constraint.

It is difficult for a casual tennis observer to try to figure out whether or not these delays are truly egregious, because the amount of statistical data that we have easy access to is severely limited. We cannot see precisely how much time is expended by each player in between points, how long points take on average, or any number of other stats that would be useful in trying to parse the seriousness of these concerns.

I’ve come up with a simple, blunt method of estimating the amount of time taken between points, using only data that’s available on either the ATP or Australian Open websites. To find the average length of a point, just take the match length and divide it by the total number of points. Granted, this includes the amount of time that the ball was actually in play in addition to the time taken in between points, so it is not as sophisticated a measurement as I would prefer, but it is the best method that I could come up with, given the information available.

Given that there were 369 points played over 5 hours and 54 minutes, the average length of each point in the Nadal-Djokovic final was 57.4 seconds – nearly a minute per point played. This is the longest amount of time per point for any Grand Slam final since the ATP started keeping track of these statistics. To fully understand whether or not that is an unusual stat, more historical data is necessary.

Prior to 2009, the seven slowest finals had all taken place at the French Open, which is as it should be, considering the court conditions at Roland Garros lead to more long, drawn-out rallies than at the other majors. The slowest-played finals up to that point were Nadal-Federer in 2006 and Kuerten-Corretja in 2001, which both took about 47 seconds per point. The fastest-played finals have been at Wimbledon (again, no surprise there), where Sampras-Becker in 1995 took 29 seconds for each point, Agassi-Ivanisevic in 1992 took 27, and Sampras-Ivanisevic in 1998 took 25.5 seconds.

The trend over the last twenty years has generally been towards slower matches. This is partly because the serve-and-volley game has become significantly less common, so that almost all points are decided by baseline rallies, which necessarily take up more time. But I don’t think that fully explains the extent to which the pace of play has dropped.

While the most recent Grand Slam final was the slowest-played on record, it is important to note that the top six slowest are also the six most recent. The 2011 Djokovic-Nadal US Open took 56 seconds per point, their 2010 US Open meeting took 52.4, the 2011 Australian Open between Djokovic and Murray took 51.8, the 2011 Djokovic-Nadal final at Wimbledon took 50.2, and the 2011 French Open between Nadal and Federer took 48 seconds for each point.

Before the 2010 US Open, no Grand Slam final had been ever played at a pace of 50 seconds per point or slower. Since then, all of them except one have. That one involved Roger Federer, who is a very quick player and was able to bring the average down, even though he was playing on the red clay of Roland Garros. The other five finals all involved Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray, all of whom take their time between points.

In all of these finals, there were many long, grinding rallies. All three of the players I just mentioned are fantastic defenders, but I have trouble believing that the rallies in all of these recent finals were so historically lengthy, on average, that they should be solely responsible for the unprecedented slow pace of the last half-dozen Grand Slam finals. It has to come down to the amount of time that these players are taking in between points.

I do not recall a single instance in the final of the umpire giving either Nadal or Djokovic a warning about taking too much time. Honestly, I can’t remember that happening in any of the six most recent finals. This is not a situation like what is happening with grunting in the women’s game, where people are saying that there ought to be a rule to deal with this behavior. There is a rule, it’s just being ignored.

There are some commentators (like Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim) who find the pace of play on the men’s side to be as frustrating as the grunting or shrieking on the women’s side. I think there’s an argument to be made that the time limit as it currently stands is no longer appropriate. The game has gotten significantly more athletically-demanding in the last ten or fifteen years, so perhaps players do need more recovery time between points. However, I do think that the ATP and the ITF should either change the rule or enforce it, because simply ignoring it because the game’s top players flout it so consistently is not an appropriate response.

Petra Kvitova poised to dominate, Stacey Allaster backpedals on grunting issue – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Poised to Dominate?

Last week marked an impressive run by young Czech Petra Kvitova, as she stormed to the WTA Championships title without the loss of a match. Kvitova has always had a big game, but en route to the title, the reigning Wimbledon champion also showed some great hands at the net, as well as some deft touch and feel that seems to be lacking in so many of the game’s other big hitters. Throughout the week, it appeared her biggest hurdle had nothing to do with who was on the other side of the net so much as what was going on between her ears. Her win in Istanbul also puts her just a mere 115 points behind current No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, and while no offense to Wozniacki, the WTA would probably appreciate Kvitova bypassing her to quiet the murmurs about a sport that has a No. 1 who lacks a major title. Kvitova definitely has the game to raise the bar and spark a new generation to follow her lead to create another great decade in women’s tennis. But don’t buy into her just yet. We’ve seen this kind of run from her before, and it’s always been followed by a severe dip in results. The start of 2012 may tell the tale. Hopefully she can strengthen the mental part of her game and firmly become the leader of the pack.

Discouraging Retreat

After some positive statements about the WTA looking into the grunting issue, WTA CEO Stacey Allaster has backpedaled to the point that it sounds like little will be done about the problem. Allaster has done well with the WTA, but she’s way off on this issue. Her argument that all of the “grunting” is a natural byproduct of how hard the players are hitting the ball is for the birds. If a player the size of Henin can slug it out with the likes of the Williams Sisters and Sharapova and hardly utter a sound, you can’t tell me the “grunting” is necessary. The argument that it’s okay that the women do it because the men do too is also lacking. While the difference in vocal registers means that grunting in the men’s game doesn’t garner has much attention as it does in women’s, it’s a problem that should be addressed on that our as well. And finally, just because the other players aren’t coming to complain to her or chair umpires about the noise level on court doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. With the game’s greatest stars and top-ranked players being the biggest culprits, it’s unlikely the quieter players will speak up. Rules never seem to apply in the same way to the stars as they do to everyone else, and the player who complains runs the risk of coming out on the shorter end of the stick. Allaster needs to open her eyes and fix the problem. There are too many other potential great things going on in the game to have something like this be one of the hottest topics dominating the sport.

Shaking off the Rust

After lengthy layoffs, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have returned to action this week in Basel. While neither has looked anywhere near their best, it’s apparent that they are starting to find the range once again. This is a special blessing for Djokovic, who earlier this week stated that he was coming back from the most serious injury of his career. The other positive for these two players is that their stiffest competition will be going into the ATP World Tour Finals fairly cold. Murray pulled out of Basel with a right gluteal muscle strain, while Nadal has pulled out of the Paris Masters in order to better focus for London. It’s going to be interesting coming down the stretch of the 2011 season.

Scrambling to London

And speaking of making it interesting down the stretch, that’s exactly what the remaining London hopefuls are doing in the final weeks of the regular season. In fact, they’re making it a little too interesting, much to the chagrin of the people in their respective camps. Fish, teetering in the eighth spot, was forced to withdraw from Basel with an injury, as did Tipsarevic. Meanwhile, Tsonga struggled to win his first round match against a Spanish teenager in Valencia before bowing out to Querrey in the following round. Simon also failed to capitalize on his opportunities this week, as did Berdych, and a handful of other London hopefuls. Injuries aside, the inability of many of these players to produce their best when the chips are down is disappointing. It may make for an exciting finish to the race, but it is also a blatant example of why the gap is so big between the top four players and the rest of the field.

Bizarre Category

One of the more absurd pieces of news this week was the story that Serena Williams locked herself in her panic room when she thought a burglar was attempting to break into her home. The alleged burglar was in reality a drug tester, who showed up at 6am for one of the required random drug tests that tennis players must submit to. Undoubtedly the ITF’s anti-doping program is too extreme, and 6am does seem a ludicrous time to request a sample.  But some should also question if Serena didn’t overreact. In many of the anti-doping stories, players have frequently cited the random drug testing as an annoyance, specifically mentioning that 6am call. Given Serena’s status as a veteran of the game, it’s difficult to believe this is the first time someone has come knocking at that hour of the morning. But when you’ve had to file a restraining order against someone, perhaps locking yourself in the panic room is the logical step. Either way, we’re used to the fact that there’s no shortage of drama where Serena Williams is concerned.