seeded players

US Open: Why Top Players Lose

At the start of every tournament, a player’s slate is cleaned. Whether they’ve won the previous week’s tournament or failed to even qualify, in tennis, everything can change in a week. Player’s go on hot-streaks as well as cold-runs, losing to lower-ranked opponents who simply took advantage of the opportunity to play a big name in a big stadium at a big tournament. And this was the case in the opening rounds at this year’s US Open, where several seeds took early surprise exits.

On this big of a world stage, anything can happen: youngsters take out veterans and darkhorses, players finally fulfill their potential and take out higher-ranked opponents, and heat favors the mentally strong ones. But why do the game’s elite succumb to players sometimes ranked 200 spots below them? It is simply nerves? Yes and no.

After a loss, we sometimes hear the top-seeded players give the easy answer: blaming the wind and crowd, grasping at any phantom injury they could think of, and overall citing their games’ weaknesses instead of their opponents’ clear strengths as the deciding factor. What they fail to mention, is the state of their psyche. For a sport so dependent on mental strength, it seems strange that players don’t talk about that more often. Mental fortitude was clearly the culprit that kept Tomas Berdych from breaking through until earlier this year in Miami. Like him, many players have the talent, the tennis I.Q., the physical strength, yet simply lack the stability in the mind to come back from 0-5, 0-40 down. After all, tennis players are still human, though as fans, we tend to build them into superheroes. But, as evident by Roger Federer’s struggles this year claiming only two titles, even superheroes can falter.

Kei Nishikori of Japan. September 2, 2010

Take, for example, Kei Nishikori’s second round defeat of #11 Marin Cilic yesterday. Not only did the match almost break the record for the longest match at the US Open at a whopping 4 hours and 59 minutes, but Nishikori handed Cilic a breadstick in the fifth set, 6-1. Cilic is no slacker however. He overtook both Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick at the year’s first slam, the Australian Open, to reach the semis, beat Rafael Nadal in Beijing last October, took out Andy Murray in straight sets at last year’s US Open, and has been firmly planted in the top 20 since January of 2009. Nishikori, on the other hand, is ranked #147 in the world and even fell out of the rankings earlier this year due to an elbow injury sustained last year. He’s on a comeback trail and clearly using his experiences away from tennis to fire himself up in his game. After the 3-hour mark of a match, fitness can no longer be cited as the culprit for a player’s loss, as clearly both are fit to last the scorching New York sun. After 4 hours, it’s all about mental strength and who can stay focused and ‘win ugly’ better. With the first four sets being marginally close, the 6-1 score in the fifth set is pretty telling of who lasted longer mentally.

Americans Ryan Harrison and Beatrice Capra

Then, there are those youngsters who have absolutely nothing to prove and walk away with a great victory over a top player. Ryan Harrison’s defeat of #15 Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, or Beatrice Capra’s advancement to the second round including a win over #18 Arvane Rezai shows another side to why seemingly great and capable players lose to relative nobodys. After having lost her chance to get a wildcard into the US Open by losing in the Girls’ 18 national tournament, Capra went home to Ellicott City, MD to “chill.” She then received a call from the USTA to play in their wildcard playoff tournament and voila, she got into the main draw as a wildcard after all. Harrison, on the other hand, went through the qualifying tournament and had match-play under his belt when he took on Ljubicic. With both Rezai and Ljubicic, you could say the heat and nerves were a factor as neither had played a match in days and perhaps weren’t acclimated. But with their gutsy defeats, Harrison and Capra say the rest is “just bonus.” The youngsters had more time on court, nothing to lose, and increased confidence in their game. Their competitors simply weren’t prepared and couldn’t study their opponents in time.

World #214, Andreas Haider-Maurer. August 30, 2010

And that brings up another reason why top players struggle in the opening rounds: the relative lack of knowledge about their lower-ranked opponents’ game. The elite play each other week-in and week-out, and know what to expect in another’s shots, playing style and strategy. Journeymen, however, travel the futures and challengers circuits struggling to win but tend to have a strange familiarity with the top players’ games when they are slated against each other. The journeymen already know the ins and outs of the top opponent’s play, as they’ve either watched them live, on tv, or perhaps even grown up admiring them. The top dog, on the other hand, may never have even heard of his opponent. Now, how do you study and learn someone’s game who you’ve never even heard of? Well, if you have a smart enough coach, you would scope out the player’s previous match. This can be time-consuming and even often prove unreliable since players at that level are inconsistent and may simply win by default because of their opponent’s more aggressive, but error-filled, play. All in all, if you’re a ‘Djokovic’ taking on a ‘Jesse Witten’ like in last year’s third round at the US Open, you may become easily frustrated when your 276-ranked opponent is blowing you off the court with his forehand and unexpected lateral speed. Four days ago, we saw a similar pattern in Robin Soderling’s opening match against 23-year-old Austrian Andreas Haider-Maurer. Haider-Maurer, currently ranked 214, not only won the third set tiebreak but also won the fourth set, forcing a fifth. He barely lost 6-4 in the fifth to a man who has commandingly beaten both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in recent times. It’s interesting watching Haider-Maurer stay cool and collected while Soderling scrambled to figure out his opponent.

Another factor during a match also includes the high heat and humidity, but which player does this favor, the journeyman or top dog? In short, neither. While it’s easy to think that the top players have gotten to the top precisely because their fitness overcame the heat, in reality, fitness almost becomes null at this level of the game. It’s a strange concept to analyze, but it makes more sense when you realize that the scorching heat envelopes everyone’s lungs, legs and head in the same way. Rarely do players have the upper hand when play gets heavy, dragged out, sloppy and almost slow-motion. The big guys, like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling seem to be exceptions and all have speed, strength and stamina. But how do players like Michael Llodra outplay and outwit ones like #7 Tomas Berdych in the first round? Or how Robert Kendrick was able to take Gael Monfils to 6-4 in the fifth set, or Viktor Troicki take Novak Djokovic to 6-3 in the fifth as well? Or even how newly-fit Mardy Fish was forced to five sets against Jan Hajek, even while winning three of them 6-0, 6-0, 6-1? Tennis is a strange sport and it is hard enough picking winners on any given day when the weather is mild. Throw in 140-degree temperatures on-court with not a single cloud in the sky, and you have the recipe for any top player’s nightmare. At these temperatures it’s hard to argue that a win comes about because of fitness or physical capabilities when neither player retires from the match. Instead it seems to favor the one who is able to squeak by with a few more winners and more playing experience on a big stage. Both players are battling the same demon and this is when mental toughness sets the two players apart.

Tomas Berdych. September 1, 2010

The first three days at the US Open were filled with storylines about cinderella stories and other notable exits by top players, such as Andy Roddick going out to Janko Tipsarevic in surprising fashion. But as tennis fans we expect this sort of drama to happen. In fact, it’s almost a pre-requisite to viewer involvement; it’s what makes tennis so exciting and unpredictable. But then one question still remains for me: why do we insist on calling all of these losses ‘surprise exits’ if we expect them to inevitably happen? What’s your take?

AROUND THE CORNER: MEN READY FOR BATTLE IN INDIAN WELLS

Alright everybody it’s time again for some tennis that really matters at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. Both the ATP and WTA Tour’s are in the house and that should make for a great week of coverage for our sport. This has always been a terrific event and it set the record for attendance outside of a Grand Slam event in 2008 with over 300,000 spectators during a twelve day period.

Let’s have a look at the men’s draw and see how things shape up.

Roger Federer is back on the scene for the first time since his Australian Open title at the end of January. The world number one has just overcome an apparent lung infection and coupled with his recent inactivity I don’t think we should expect all that much from him. Yes, he will likely make it deep into the draw, but I would be surprised if Roger made it past the semi-finals here this year. Roger gets a first round bye as do all thirty-two seeded players in the tournament. His first capable opponent could be Marcos Baghdatis in the third round.

Also in the top-half of the draw are the two Andy’s – 4th seeded Murray and 7th seeded Roddick. Murray tanked in Dubai in his only appearance since losing in the finals of the Aussie Open to Federer, while Roddick has played a fairly heavy schedule on the hard-courts of North America.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga also lurks in the top-half while David Nalbandian seems ready to return to tournament play. Coming back in February after nine months away from the game due to hip surgery, Nalbandian withdrew before his third round match in Buenos Aires with a leg injury. The talented Nalbandian played the role of hero this past week in Davis Cup play as he closed out a victory over Sweden with a four set win over Andreas Vinciguerra. If he can stay healthy for an extended period, look for Nalbandian to quickly return to his typical top-twenty form.

The bottom-half of the draw contains 2nd seeded Novak Djokovic who recently defended his title in Dubai and seems poised for a bigger result here on the Masters Series stage. Right behind him is 3rd seed, Rafael Nadal, who returns to the tour after a recurring knee injury forced him to withdraw in Australia where he trailed Andy Murray in the quarter-finals. Expectations are low for Nadal as he has been away from the game for over a month and let’s just hope he can finish the tournament on his own terms. Defending his title in India Wells from 2009 is simply not going to happen.

Playing on fire so far this year and also in the bottom section is hard-serving John Isner of the United States and veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain. Isner won his first career title in Auckland in January and then was a finalist in Memphis, while Ferrero won back-to-back clay events in Costa Do Sauipe and Buenos Aires.

Also worth watching is Nikolay Davydenko who is likely still kicking himself for self-destructing against Federer in Melbourne and youngster Marin Cilic who made the semi-finals down-under and is ready to assert himself as a top-level threat in every event he enters.

I feel that with players like Federer, Nadal and Davydenko dealing with recent injuries or illnesses we are in for a Djokovic/Roddick final in Indian Wells. Those are my picks in the ATP World Tour Fantasy Challenge that begins Thursday at 2pm ET. Who will you choose?

Clijsters comes through again, reaches Open semis

Kim Clijsters pulled off another upset that didn’t really look like one. Now, she’s only two wins from a U.S. Open title hardly anyone could have seen coming.

The mother of 18-month-old Jada, Clijsters dismantled 18th-seeded Li Na, 6-2, 6-4 in the quarterfinals Tuesday, punishing China’s top tennis star with deep, stinging groundstrokes that were part of a game that looked about like it did when Clijsters retired two years ago.

Or maybe better.

The 26-year-old Belgian is back at the U.S. Open for the first time since 2005, when she won the tournament, and now has a winning streak of 12 matches at Flushing Meadows. Her next match will be against the winner between No. 2 Serena Williams and No. 10 Flavia Pennetta.

Clijsters has already beaten No. 3 Venus Williams and two other seeded players, and nothing seems like too big a stretch at this point.

“I’m glad I got through it again, stayed focused on my game,” Clijsters said. “I wanted to be aggressive and I think that’s what helped winning those important points today.”

The few important points there were in this one came midway through the second set, after Clijsters had lost a break to turn a 3-1 lead into a 4-4 tie. Li responded with four unforced errors to give away the ninth game and the match was over a few minutes later.

Clijsters became the first unseeded player to make the U.S. Open semifinals since Elena Dementieva in 2000. Clijsters was unranked because she hadn’t played enough tournaments in her comeback to get on the board, but she’ll be in the low-50s or better when the next rankings come out.

As efficient as she has been—moving better now than she did when she was constantly battling injuries toward the end of her last stint—her run through this tournament might also be seen as a statement about the state of women’s tennis.

Serena Williams is the only top-five seed left. Three of the players on the opposite side of the draw—the “Melanie Oudin side”—are ranked 50 or higher, joined by No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki. All are playing in their first major quarterfinals.

“I saw her when she came back in her first tournament,” Li said, referring to Clijsters. “I knew she was at a high level. She’s much stronger than other girls, so I knew, if she was going to come back, it must be a strong comeback.”

The men’s tournament, meanwhile, is going much more to form.

Roger Federer breezed through his fourth-round match Monday with a 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 victory over No. 14 Tommy Robredo for his 38th straight win at the U.S. Open. The world’s top player is going for his sixth straight title at Flushing Meadows.

Clijsters’ match was followed by one between No. 2 Andy Murray and No. 16 Marin Cilic.

Third-seeded Rafael Nadal, winning less impressively so far—possibly because of an abdominal injury that caused him to call for the trainer in his last match—had a match against No. 13 Gael Monfils later Tuesday.