Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tennis talking points

So Djokovic racked up another major title on Sunday by beating Murray. I correctly picked a 3-1 win for Djokovic but the match didn't pan out as I imagined it might. I never expected two such brilliant returners to hold serve 31 consecutive times before Djokovic finally broke. A turning point came in the second tie-break where Murray picked up a rogue feather off the court between his first and second serves, then promptly double-faulted. That's a situation I often encountered in my low-grade stuff: a leaf, a bug or (most commonly) an errant ball would stray onto the court after I missed my first serve. Do I remove the offending object (upsetting upset my rhythm, making a double fault more likely) or pretend it isn't there?
I'd say Murray is now world number two behind Djokovic, even if the official rankings say something else. His serve has become a lethal weapon of late; it'll make him increasingly difficult to beat.

Here are a few talking points (Warning: if you don't like tennis, please click the back button!)

The first time I went to Wimbledon I saw a match on an outside court between two Latin Americans who would have better suited to a clay court. I couldn’t get over how hard they were larruping that ball and how fast they were moving, usually behind the baseline. Until then I’d only seen professional tennis on TV, which simply doesn’t do justice to the power and athleticism on show. That was in 1998; since then the physicality of men’s tennis has moved to another level – it’s almost like boxing now.

Equal prize money
This issue keeps coming up. Men play best-of-five at the Slams and women play best-of-three, so men work harder, so they should get paid more. Right? Well I happen to agree that men should get paid more than women currently, not because they play longer matches but because they offer a far more attractive product right now (ugh, please excuse the marketing speak). Since 2005 we’ve seen no end of awe-inspiring edge-of-the-seat men’s matches, but over the same period on the women’s side I’m really racking my brains. Certainly Venus v Davenport in the 2005 Wimbledon final, but then I’m struggling. And which female players really bring in the crowds any more? Sharapova, the Williams sisters, and that’s about it. It wasn’t always like this. In the nineties there were so many great matches involving Graf, Sanchez-Vicario, Seles, Novotna – even Hingis had her moments – while some of the men’s finals (like Sampras v Ivanisevic in the 1994 Wimbledon final) were sleep-inducing.

Three sets or five?
This follows on from the prize-money issue. To make things “fairer”, it has been suggested that women play best-of-five at the majors or that men play best-of-three.
I don’t think women playing five sets throughout the tournament would get bums on seats, so I reckon that’s a non-starter at this point in time. Plenty of early-round women’s matches finish 6-0 6-1 (or similar); I’m not sure what playing another set would achieve. However I could certainly see them playing five sets in grand slam finals and probably semi-finals as well. Too often a women’s final is over in no time.

As for men playing the shorter format, for the love of god NO! Yes it’s hard to win seven best-of-fives in a row, but winning a major is supposed to be hard. The longer format allows for so many more twists and turns, and it’s those fluctuations that make for classic matches. To illustrate, there are three ways of winning a best-of-three-set match: WW, WLW and LWW. But go to a best-of-five and there are ten ways: WWW, WWLW, WLWW, LWWW, WWLLW, WLWLW, WLLWW, LWWLW, LWLWW and LLWWW. If matches are going too long, change the court surface, the balls, the rackets, the strings, whatever, don’t change the match format.
I also think the Masters Series events (or whatever they call them now) need to have five-set finals and the season-ending championships absolutely need one.

What a great invention the tie-break was. Some people liken it to a football penalty shoot-out but in reality it’s nothing of the sort. A penalty shoot-out bears little resemblance to what came before (and is therefore, in my opinion, a really crappy way to decide a match) whereas a tennis tie-break is … more tennis! (A couple of caveats here: I’m happy for deciding sets of big tournaments to be tie-break-free, and as for the super tie-break that some events use to replace deciding sets, well that’s an abomination).

The very fact that two players have reached 6-6 in a set would suggest that they are evenly matched, so you’d expect most people to win roughly half their tie-breaks over a large sample size. But this clearly isn’t the case. Pete Sampras had a very impressive record, as does Roger Federer who’s won almost two-thirds of his 500-odd tie-breaks. What’s even more impressive about Federer’s record is how many of those tie-break wins have come at the business end of grand slams (he won all four breakers he played in the quarters and semis in Melbourne). How has he managed it? I’m guessing his mental fortitude has a lot to do with it. He also has a presence, an aura, which comes with being the Greatest of All Time, and I’m sure that intimidates opponents at the crucial moments of matches.

It’s often been said that tie-breaks favour the better server. I think that’s a myth; it has no logic behind it that I can see. If anything the tie-break should help the returner, who now longer has to win (at least) four points against the serve to prevail. Yes, John Isner (big server) is up there on the list, but Ivo Karlovic (another huge server) isn’t.

The calendar
There is often talk of player burn-out, and it’s one reason why some people want to eliminate five-setters on the men’s tour. I don’t think the match format needs changing, I think the calendar does. For a start, why does one of the biggest tournaments take place two weeks into the season? They should move the Aussie Open to November or March (when it isn’t stupidly hot) or, if they must keep it in January when people are in holiday mode, move the off-season to February and March. The tennis season doesn’t have to run on a calendar-year basis – look at other sports like football. There needs to be another week (or two) between the French Open and Wimbledon to give players more time on grass. Perhaps most importantly, they need to reduce the overall number of tournaments.

How you enforce it I don’t know (decibel meter?) but something needs to be done. It’s not fair on the opponents of grunters and it’s not helping the image of women’s tennis at all. I saw a match between Maria Sharapova and Li Na at the Australian Open in 2005 and Sharapova’s grunting was so loud as to make the actual game secondary.

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