With Gustavo Kuerten likely headed to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, I thought I would ask who has the best one-handed backhand on tour today.
Youtube Tennis: Here is a New Feature
3-5 Good Youtube Videos on Tennis Each Week
* – YouTennis.com is a website so I changed the name of this feature
Around the Net Shots
I attended a high spirited clash of regional high school volleyball powers this past week. To be sure about two things, not all net sports are the same, and I prefer tennis to volleyball by a wide margin. Having said that, the games were fun and the student sections were animated. One thing that bothered me as a tennis player was the volleyball rule about not hitting certain angles to get over the net. A volleyball net has antennae sticking up that the ball cannot touch. In volleyball, the ball cannot go around the net, but the ball cannot even go over the portion of the net that lies outside of the court’s lines. There must be reasons for this, but I have to think that volleyball is missing out on a lot of imaginative and exciting plays by stifling how one team can get the ball into the court being defended by the other. Consider these shots:
Why would a sport not want to add those type of options to one’s defense or attack?
Adapting the Backhand Overhead
If solely from the point of view of surprise, I think employing some version of the backhand overhead to either defend against shots that seemingly make it past a player or as an unexpected offensive attack would be good for volleyball. As a sport, virtually every volleyball team tries to execute the same game plan and strategy. It just comes down to who has taller or higher jumping players. Has conventional wisdom won out to such a point in volleyball that potentially effective avenues of attack are ignored or shunned? Volleyball could stand to add a little heterodox variety.
Incorporating a backhanded spike or backhanded defensive layout into volleyball could not hurt anything could it? At a minimum, it would give the defensive players one more thing to try to anticipate.
Wait Until the Year Ends or Did 2011 End in NY?
There may be wisdom in letting the rest of 2011 play out before selecting Novak Djokovic’s awesome season as the best ever single season. Novak won the season ending championship in 2008 and adding a second season ending title would be a significant achievement. Still, Novak’s 2011 has featured 3 Grand Slam titles with general domination over his peers at the top of the ranking list. Novak has also won a record 5 Masters 1000/Masters Series/Super 9 events* with 2 more of these events remaining on the calendar. This grouping of 9 more important events has only existed since 1990, but it is still significant that he has set this record so early in the season.
What About 2006?
Roger Federer did have a lower winning percentage in 2006 than Novak’s in 2011. However, Roger reached all 4 Grand Slam finals and was 2 sets removed from a calendar Grand Slam. Roger won 4 Masters 1000 (Masters Series) events and won the season ending Masters Cup. To be sure, reaching all 4 slam finals is better than not doing so. I think winning 4 Masters 1000 point events and the Masters Cup/World Tour Finals is better than winning 5 Masters 1000 events. Novak dominated his top competition more in 2011 than Roger did in 2006. Roger won 12 titles in 2006 and to this point Novak has 10 titles. My prudential judgment is that if Novak wins the season ending title or sweeps some other events remaining on the calendar he can pass what Roger achieved in 2006, but that Novak has not quite surpassed Roger’s 2006.
2 of 3 Losses Have Been Retirements
In one sense, Novak Djokovic only losing 1 match point all season is in his favor despite 3 losses showing up on his ledger. In another sense, losing 2 matches based on an inability to physically finish is a strike against having the greatest year ever. It is not as if the final of Cincinnati and a pivotal Davis Cup match were matches of low importance. Novak could have won 6 out of 7 Masters 1000 events had he won Cincinnati. He could have swept the 4 North American Masters 1000 events for the first time ever. He could have swept the 6 most important outdoor hard court events in a single year for the first time ever. Granted had he won Cincinnati, maybe his shoulder gives out in New York.
The match retirement versus Juan Martin del Potro in Davis Cup is more problematic. The grueling match with Nadal undoubtedly makes this mid-match retirement quite understandable. Still, Davis Cup success in 2010 is what propelled Novak in early 2011. This was not a meaningless retirement. The fact that Nadal and Federer completed 2 singles matches after the US Open ended also sends a cautionary note.
Titles in 2012 > Praise from ‘Experts’ in 2011
That US Open final was brutal on both players. Nadal looked gassed at the end of the second set and somehow dug deep enough to come back from a break down 3 different times in the 3rd set. Nadal had nothing left to give in the 4th set. Novak was injured at some point in the 3rd set. Credit Novak for finishing, but the brand of tennis they played was both electric and career shortening. If I were part of Djokovic’s team, I might simply shut things down for 2011 with the possible exception of London. Novak logged a lot of miles in 2011. What good is the greatest year ever, if Novak’s 2012 is hampered by a bad back, shoulder or hip? The title of greatest __________ ever is something people create and debate. No one will debate who won the 2012 Australian Open once it is in the books. I think Novak would be better served to follow sound medical advice (whatever it may be) regarding the remainder of 2011 so that he can parlay as much momentum and good health as possible into 2012.
* – Did the ATP ever consider that constantly changing the name of this series of tournaments hurts continuity. I half expect the name Masters 1000 to be replaced by Masters Pi= 3.14 in the near future.
Roger Federer: Platonic Form and Trusted Man
I know Roger Federer would like to get one more run at #1 to tie or break Pete Sampras’ record 286 weeks as the top player in the world. Somehow, I think Roger must be excited about being the second most respected person in the world!?!?! Nelson Mandela is #1 in the recent survey, but Federer at #2 is pretty awesome for the Fed and for tennis in general. How much does this end the once popular notion of tennis players all being self-absorbed petulant people with a knack for throwing memorable temper tantrums?
Can He Catch Mandela?
I like Roger’s chances on grass against Mandela. Still, Roger trails Mandela by a decent margin. Bill Gates is always a threat to go deep and help Rotary International eradicate polio. Richard Branson is launching a project to innovate how humans produce electricity. Bono is always a factor. Still, none of these contenders are the Platonic Form of a tennis player like Federer.
Tennis and the Common Good
In all seriousness, Federer’s organization of the Hit for Haiti, the tennis efforts after the 2005 Tsunami as well as efforts aimed at Chile, Japan and Australia during various disasters is something special. Federer, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Roddick among others all have active foundations. If one adds the work of Arthur Ashe and Billy Jean King, it is plausible to say that tennis is the socially conscious sport.
Does this Mean Anything in the GOAT Debate?
Probably not, but Roger Federer’s good citizenship is obviously part of his legacy.
Career High 18
John Isner is the #18 player in the world. This is his highest career ranking. Isner followed a disappointing Wimbledon with titles in Newport and Winston-Salem. Isner was also runner-up in Atlanta and a semifinalist in Washington, DC. Those four events alone netted Isner 830 points. He garnered 360 points from his best ever Grand Slam showing with a quarterfinal finish at the 2011 US Open. 1190 of Isner’s 1815 rankings points come from just 5 events.
The Blake-Fish Path Forward
James Blake spent significant time ranked in the top 10. Mardy Fish is currently there. Each man reached such lofty heights by primarily performing well in events played on North American soil. It is no secret that most of today’s elite players hail from Europe and that many events on US soil after the Australian Open but prior to Indian Wells boast less than difficult fields. If Isner can max-out his best countable results from 250 point events on US soil, he can keep his top 20 ranking without much effort. All he needs to do is add one or two solid showings at the first 3 slam events of 2012 and/or Indian Wells and Miami to climb close to the top 10. If Isner puts in a good showing at the 2011 Paris Indoor, his ranking will continue to climb. He is currently only 1005 points behind world #7 Mardy Fish. It is not hard to see how Isner could combine some weak fields and 250 point results with solid Masters 1000 event showings or a big Australian Open and suddenly find himself in the top 10.
Could There Be More for Isner?
I am not knocking Mardy Fish or James Blake’s paths into the top 10. I do think that until a player has one massive win he is not viewed as a legitimate threat for Grand Slam glory. I do not think Blake or Fish have ever reached that level as a contender. Since Roger Federer began winning so many majors and 1000 point events, the gap between top tier and top 10 has grown. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have added to this phenomenon. I do not see Isner as a contender for Grand Slam titles.
Still, there could be more to his rise than the lower portion of the top 10. Isner is easily the least favorite draw or match-up outside of the top 5 for many players. No one wants to face him in an early round. Isner led Nadal 2 sets to 1 at the French Open this year. He is one of the few guys who can pound enough service winners and aces to ride the 1990′s strategy of hold serve until the other guy gives you a look or the tiebreaker begins. Being able to ride a now unorthodox strategy to victories gives Isner a puncher’s chance against anyone.
Breaking into the top 10 is a realistic possibility for Isner. To be in the top 10 in any profession is an otherworldly accomplishment. Never the less, Isner could be a guy just outside of the slam contenders that no one wants to play. Isner could however be a bit of throwback Monster of the Midway player who is a match-up nightmare for the next 24 months. I think this goal is more of a stretch, but he could carve out a greater legacy for himself if this is where the next two years lead.
Review of Unmatched Directed and Produced by
Lisa Lax and Nancy Sterm Winters
It was by accident that I got to watch this great sports documentary. Considering that Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova won 36 combined singles Grand Slam titles and faced one another 80 times, their rivalry merits exploration on numbers alone. Still, two things struck me while watching the documentary. First, the public perceptions of each player were often the opposite of reality. Evert was the strong willed competitor and Navratilova was often the soft-hearted emotional player. No one ever accused Chris Evert of being soft, but Martina’s muscles and Slavic accent gave Cold War-era US fans the sense that she was tough and unfeeling. Second, these two champions have true affection for one another. This is remarkable given the number of losses each player handed to the other.
Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova combined to create the greatest rivalry in tennis and in women’s sports. Sure Tennessee and UConn NCAA women’s basketball has its moments, but this rivalry propelled women’s sports into the spotlight for over a decade. Some rivalries such the LA Lakers versus the Boston Celtics may have as much history, but tennis being an individual sport makes a huge difference in considering the magnitude of 80 meetings. This rivalry is the top head-to-head battle in tennis history (male or female) and one of the top rivalries in the history of sports.
Two key moments stood out to me in the rivalry. Each of these moments surfaced when Martina and Chris’ relationship soured to a degree. Chris Evert stopped playing doubles with Martina in the mid 1970′s after Martina began to win some matches against her. Chris admitted that this was not the most admirable thing she had ever done. By the early 1980′s, Martina Navratilova began to work with Nancy Lieberman (a watershed moment in women’s sports worthy of further investigation). This led to a cooling in their friendship due to Lieberman’s insistence that Evert was the enemy. Navratilova’s emotions were near the surface throughout her career. Her increased fitness and killer instinct of Lieberman helped push Navratilova to unquestioned supremacy in women’s tennis before Steffi Graf’s emergence. These two moments stood out to me because the warm friendship and support that was the norm in their careers was not present for two brief periods of time.
Tennis and the Cold War
My favorite moment in the documentary was Chris Evert and the US Federation Cup Team traveling to then Czechoslovakia in 1986. Martina was able to show her teammates her childhood home after being barred for 10 years from such travel. Navratilova cried during the Czech anthem. Chris Evert kept an eye on the crowd who embraced Martina and the government officials who initially snubbed her. By the end of the event, even the government officials cheered Martina’s play. Chris Evert being the one to notice this and relay this information to her longtime rival was a special aspect of this documentary.
There is More to Say
Unmatched is filmed with great style. It is told from the perspective of two all-time greats talking to each other more than 20 years after Evert retired. It was remarkable to hear Chris Evert say that Martina’s best days as a player were better than hers even if she hated to say it. I could hear that the competitive fires are still present for both women, but the friendship each has for the other is a more powerful factor in each woman’s life than their desire to compete.
I highly recommend Unmatched to both tennis fans and sports fans who may not follow tennis closely. It tells the story of the most unique rivalry in sports in a unique manner.
Graf-esque (esque and fjord need more uses)
Samantha Stosur put together a comprehensive win against the most dominant female player since the Graf-Seles Era. She did it by hitting big forehands and serves, moving well, being fit, and slicing her backhand. Sound like anyone else? Sure Sam can hit a two handed topspin drive, but she sliced the ball a lot to keep it low and take pace off of the ball in a match between arguably the two most powerful players in women’s tennis. However, her game had a Steffi Graf flavor to it versus Serena Williams in her 6-2, 6-3 victory.
GOAT – Wertheim 15 Months Later
I will make it clear that Jon Wertheim is my favorite current tennis writer and his work on a weekly basis is a great service to tennis fans. He correctly divides any GOAT debate into two separate but related questions regarding qualitative and quantitative results. Wertheim admitted that Serena trailed many players in accomplishments, but that Serena was qualitatively the GOAT for women’s tennis.
I think the qualitative argument can be made about any solid number 1 in the men’s game. One would have to update for advances in off court training, sports medicine, and equipment to allow champions from the past to compete with today’s top players. Is the same true for Serena Williams?
To Be Blunt – No
Serena Williams is one of the top tier female players of all-time. However, quantitatively she still trails Graf, Navratilova, Evert and Court. If doubles gets a serious nod, Serena gains some on Graf and Evert, but she falls further behind Navratilova, Court and King. Still, the qualitative argument runs into a problem when one considers how Sam Stosur beat Serena Williams.
If Stosur could defeat Serena with clutch serving, a big forehand, good movement, strong fitness and a slice backhand, couldn’t Steffi Graf in her prime execute that same strategy versus Serena Williams? It might take Steffi some time to adjust to Serena’s power, but Steffi had Olympic sprinter speed during her prime. Steffi also developed a strong serve after her 1987 Wimbledon final loss to Navratilova. Steffi was mentally tougher during her prime than any player Serena currently faces in women’s tennis. That adds up in my mind to Steffi being able to play a higher level of qualitative tennis than Serena Williams has reached.
Counter Factual Time – An Updated Graf
Even if Steffi Graf without any updating likely played at a level better than Serena, what would Steffi’s game look like if she played now? If Steffi Graf’s knees and thumb were given today’s advances in surgical techniques and physical therapy, she likely would have maintained her top speed and stamina deeper into her career. If Steffi had today’s strings, her slice backhand might be used less often as generating topspin would be easier. Mixing up her backhand spins would make the famous Steffi-slice more effective as a player could not bank on seeing it 95% of the time. Finally, Steffi’s serve and forehand would benefit from today’s major string advances and modest racket advances. All in all, Steffi with today’s technology would be a dominating number 1 because of her skill set, her athleticism and her dedication to tennis. Steffi would not take breaks in her focus and that would allow for her to put up similar numbers to those she put up in the 80′s and 90′s. This is no slight to Serena who is a legitimate top pantheon champion in tennis history, but Steffi Graf is the GOAT unless doubles gets serious consideration.
Post Script – Stosur Going Forward
I am hesitant to predict big things for Stosur because many first time slam winners in the women’s game look poised to be consistent performers on tour only to fade back into the pack for one reason or another. However, Stosur is fit and strong. She is not super young at 27, but aside from Serena, is there a power player who moves or serves as well as Stosur? Her biggest drawback has been mental toughness. This is a big IF in my mind, but if Stosur plays with fewer nerves than she did prior to winning a major, she can win several more slams. I think Stosur is the favorite at next year’s French Open and should be among the favorites at the other three slams in 2012. Stosur should win at least one slam in 2012 so long as success reduces her nerves while not causing her to lose motivation.
Preface – Who Put the Puritans in Charge of ITF Scheduling?
Tennis has the best sense of scheduling of any global sport as fans can build up to big events and then ease off for a few weeks before building up again
How can we be less than one week removed from one of the most physical US Open matches in recent memory and both combatants now potentially play 5 set matches in Europe? That US Open final was so draining that both guys should take some time off, but the ITF scheduling of Grand Slams and international team competitions defies logic every year. If one throws in the ATP and WTA schedules, things get even more convoluted.
France versus Spain – The Pyrenees Are No More
This feels like the heavy weight match-up of the semifinal ties despite Serbia being defending champion with a world #1 player and Argentina having a sleeping giant in Juan Martin del Potro. France might be able to pull the upset if they lock up the doubles point. To do so, Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will need to use their net skills to dominate on the road and on clay. I think France will win the doubles point. Gilles Simon is the type of player Rafael Nadal may not want to face days after the US Open final. Simon will play a lot of long points and he fights hard even if he gets behind. Still, France’s best path to victory lies in winning the two non-Nadal singles matches. Expecting to beat Nadal on clay is a strategy no one would call sound. Therefore, Simon and likely Gasquet (due to surface) will need to beat David Ferrer. Tsonga may play Nadal just to have a punchers chance. Still, I think Spain wins 3-2 with Nadal winning 2 matches and Ferrer winning 1 match.
Serbia versus Argentina – The Order of Saint Sava
Serbia-Argentina is an intriguing match-up for a few reasons. David Nalbandian is talented enough to pull of an upset or two. Juan Martin del Potro is not quite back to top form, but if and when he gets there tennis will have a new contender for Grand Slam glory. Still, Serbia should win this tie in large part because it is in Serbia. Even if Janko Tipsarevic is injured, Viktor Troicki should be able to get 1 point for Serbia in singles. Nenad Zimonjic is one of the top doubles players in the world. That should give Serbia 2 points. Even a tired and potentially gluten laden Novak Djokovic should win 1 point. Therefore, even in the worst case scenario, I think Serbia gets at least 3 points.
This is also going to be a love fest and a bit of a victory lap for Novak Djokovic who has to be the most decorated athlete in Serbia’s history. He has 2 Australian Open titles, 1 Wimbledon title, 1 US Open title, an Olympic Bronze Medal and helped lead Serbia to a Davis Cup title in 2010. The fans should be manic for Nole’s success and this will help versus Argentina.
Spain versus Serbia in the Final ? That would be fun…