Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Monday here at The Changeover. Let’s get started!
Kei Nishikori as a Young Player
It seems to me that we tend to forget just how young Kei Nishikori is. The greatest male Japanese tennis player of all time turned 23 this past December. However, it seems like Nishikori has been around forever, and he’s rarely (if ever) included in the conversation of ATP prospects. Why is that? Simple answer: the 2008 Delray Beach title. Once a pro gets that first trophy, we tend to think that they’ve arrived. It’s a graduation of sorts (Julien Benneteau keeps flunking senior year, sadly). However, Kei was just 18 years old when he lifted the Delray Beach crown, and had to play three rounds of qualies just to make the main draw. Here’s how his run to the title looked:
Did you notice Nishikori’s ranking at the time? He was ranked 244th! Delray Beach was just the sixth ATP event Nishikori had played in his career up to that point. All I can think of while I write this is that Nishikori was way ahead of schedule during that week of February five years ago. Delray Beach was a sort of a good aberration, a happy accident. But it wasn’t supposed to happen.
And here is the same table, sorted by number of matches:
Isn’t it interesting that the two 20 year-olds (Tomic and Harrison) have not only crossed the triple digit barrier in number of matches, but that they have significantly more experience than people two and three years older than them (Janowicz, Klizan, Paire, etc)? Still, you can see that even though Nishikori has played the exact same number of matches as Dolgopolov, who is a year older and also trying to establish himself around the top 20, he is almost 200 matches behind Cilic and Del Potro, who are not that much older than him. And let’s not forget the fact that Del Po missed almost an entire year due to injury.
You might think that Nishikori should have played more matches by now, given his age. This is one of the main reasons I think he’s part of the “prospects” group: Kei has played a number of matches more appropriate for someone one or two years younger than he is. Why has this happened? Simple answer: injuries. Staying healthy has been Kei’s biggest challenge until now. See for yourself.
Here’s another handy visual aid: the number of matches that Kei has played per season:
It’s interesting to note that the combined number of matches from the 2009 and 2010 seasons don’t even match the season total for 2008, the year of the Delray Beach title. In a way, it makes more sense for him to go from the total number of matches played in 2008 (28) to the number of matches played in 2011 (58). That would’ve been similar to what Djokovic went through in 2005 (22 matches played) and 2006 (58 matches played). The difference for Djokovic was that he didn’t win his first career title until after Wimbledon 2006.
Provided he stays healthy, this could be the Japan Number One’s consolidation season. He’s ranked 16th in the world after his Memphis win, and isn’t defending much of anything until Tokyo. The M1000s seem to be a great place for him to collect points and keep climbing: Nishikori made the round of 16 in four of them last year, but that’s as far as he got. Also, he didn’t even play Rome or Madrid.
For one, I’m thrilled that there’s at least one ATP young guy who can actually return serve. Maybe that competitive advantage will be pivotal in the next few years, as Nishikori plays his peers – most of whom can’t return serve to save their life – more often.
Artificial Turf for tennis?
A few days ago, my brother-in-law asked my wife why tennis hadn’t explored using artificial turf (also known as AstroTurf or FieldTurf) as a substitute for grass court tournaments. When my wife relayed the question to me, I didn’t really have an answer. Why did tennis go from grass to hard court instead of at least trying artificial grass first? I have no idea. However, I did some Googling, and found out a few things.
The most surprising thing I found is that apparently, artificial turf tennis courts are already a thing: according to this Dow report, ” the amount of artificial turf used for tennis in 2006 was 4% of the total market.” Which is fascinating. Another Google search revealed that there are many vendors ready to sell you an artificial turf tennis court. Here’s the FieldTurf version. And another brand. And yet another one. There are plenty, believe me.
The Wikipedia page on artificial turf is quite interesting, too. It’s funny to read about how baseball players started complaining about how the initial Astroturf (laid in the 70s) was harsh on their bodies as compared to their usual grass. I wanted to tell them “you try playing on hard courts for most of your career, like they do in tennis!” It’s interesting to see how the materials have developed: artificial turf has improved a lot throughout the years. Right now there’s a third generation of the material available, and it seems like American Football has taken quite a liking to it (soccer, not so much).
I have a few questions about this:
– Why haven’t we seen/heard of any experiments of tournaments with artificial turf? Particularly these days, when there are serious discussions about surfaces and what’s best for the long-term health of the players. Third generation artificial turf isn’t a replacement for grass – it’s still a somewhat hard surface. But you can bet that it offers more cushion than a normal hard court. Why isn’t artificial turf seen as a potential compromise surface – a true “intermediate” alternative to hard courts and clay?
– Surely artificial turf is more expensive to lay out than a hard court, but it’s still cheaper than clay or grass. Why hasn’t the ATP looked into it? Seems to me like it would be a bolder initiative than something so superfluous and ridiculous as the blue clay of Madrid last year. Also, the ITF is aware of the surfaces – one of the vendors listed above claims ITF approval for their products.
– Has anybody out there played on an artificial turf tennis court? How was it? And if you have … do you know how old the court was?
Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think
Quisner and the Current State of American Men’s Tennis – by Lindsay Gibbs
Lindsay did a great job looking at the current (dire) state of American men’s tennis, and tried to figure out why exactly the Quisner era has been laid out before us. A few questions popped into my head:
1. Why isn’t anybody questioning the coaching American juniors are receiving? Why is it that we keep seeing guys pop up who are variations of the same model: huge serve, huge forehand, bad backhand, limited movement, and raw point construction skills? Have American coaches stopped watching tennis in the past decade? It seems to me that the same recipe that worked in previous decades is still used these days, even though it’s fairly obvious that you can’t even graze the top of men’s tennis (or get near a big trophy like a Masters 1000) without being a truly complete player. The Spaniards have recognized the sign of the times, and developed a wide array of players. So have the French. Why not the US?
Also, we need to stop thinking of American College Tennis as a viable development for elite talent. Should someone like Somdev Devvarman go to college in the US on a tennis scholarship? Of course he should! If you’ve ever watched him play, you can see that he’s a top-50 talent, at most. But I don’t think any player with an elite skillset should use up four years of their formative period by playing college tennis, which has little to no correlation to what life on the pro tour is like. This is why I think Sam Querrey was right in going pro early, and John Isner was not.
I also don’t think Steve Johnson should have gone to college, either. When I saw him play at the Australian Open, where he took Nicolás Almagro to a fifth set, I was wondering why someone with his serve and forehand would even consider going to college instead of turning pro and developing the rest of his game. I saw a ton of potential, but I also saw the problems with his backhand and his overall tactical naivete, which were more appropriate for a teenager . The problem is, Steve Johnson is 23 years old already.
Did Steve Johnson and John Isner have a great time in college? Sure. They’ll probably never forget some of the memories there. But I don’t think those years set them up to be the best professional tennis players they can be.
The other aspect that stood out to me was how it’s somehow a negative thing to turn pro while you’re in your teens. Here’s a newsflash: all elite talents turn pro early. Here’s the current ATP top 10, along with the age they turned pro:
Enough said, no? Also something to notice: no Americans are in that list.
I think everyone involved with tennis in the United States needs to take a hard look at the kind of coaching it’s proving to its players, and try to find ways to replicate the success achieved by some countries abroad to better cope with the demands of contemporary tennis. The current modus operandi is just not good enough.
The Rally: Big Doings in the Desert – by Steve Tignor and Kamakshi Tandon
Steve and Kamakshi had a lively exchange of emails about the backstage developments surrounding Indian Wells’ initiative to raise prize money for this year’s event. In case you forgot, the ATP rejected the increase at first, in a vote that saw a huge divide between the players (who voted in favor of it) and the tournaments (who voted against it). The initiative was put to a second vote, and this time it passed (Indian Wells had threatened to drop their prize money to 2011 levels if they didn’t get their way).
Kamakshi says that the main problem she has with Indian Wells doing things like this is that the tournament is trying to separate itself from the other Masters 1000, and that “they’re not quite playing on the same field as everyone else”. The sacred equality among the Masters 1000s should be protected, since not all of them can keep up with Indian Wells in terms of funding, and the viability of this select group of tournaments (which I think are the crown jewel of the ATP) could be threatened by the return of guarantees (a.k.a appearance fees).
As someone who actually loves the concept of the M1000s, I couldn’t disagree more with this stance. First of all, this “equality” among M1000s is not actually real. Here is why:
– Indian Wells and Miami are already different than the other seven, simply because they have a larger draw size than the rest and need a week and a half of the calendar to take place.
– Some M1000 are combined ATP and WTA events, while others aren’t.
– The slot in the calendar isn’t the same for all of them. Does anybody think that Paris and Shanghai would choose their current slots if they had a choice?
– Last but not least, Monte Carlo isn’t even mandatory!
To me, the sanctitiy of the M1000s has to be protected in three very basic ways: 1) All M1000s need to be the only tournament going on in that particular week (something that already happens), 2) There needs to be a standard minimum set for prize money (but not a maximum – let them raise the prize money as they wish), and 3) Keep the current mandatory status for eight of the nine, but rotate which one isn’t mandatory every year. Everything else is fair game.
How can it possibly be a bad thing for the ATP if a tournament has set attendance goals that would surpass two Grand Slams (none of which are within their jurisdiction)? I also find it hard to chastise an event that, in its owner’s words, is “trying to be the best Masters 1000.” Does anybody else have that aim, or are they all happy with the status quo?
Kamakshi rightfully points out that it should be the ATP who sets the standards, in order to avoid rogue initiatives like this Indian Wells issue. I doubt the ATP will do anything about it, though: it has been little more than an inefficient mediator in all of this.
Here’s another thought about the ATP and its weird relationship with the M1000s: in my mind, they heavily under-promote these nine select tournaments, and instead insist on selling a bloated tour comprised of endless events that only the hard-core fans can (barely) keep track of. There’s a clear stratification process going on in the ATP, but you wouldn’t notice it by looking at their advertisement efforts (it seems like the only event the ATP is interested in promoting is the World Tour Finals, a tournament that has a different format than the rest of the tour. Go figure).
I don’t think there’s a clear strategy for the growth and goals of the M1000s. In my mind, this unique set of tournaments should be what the ATP uses to gain leverage against the Slams. They should try to get as many M1000s to be as big as the four majors (particularly those that are combined), even if they won’t adopt the best-of-five format. So if an ambitious tournament like Indian Wells is ready to lead the way, by all means, it’s a welcome development.
Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
Radwanska does a lot of watching and walking in a 2 & 4 loss to Kvitova. 37 winners for Petra, 6 for Aga. #wta
— Steve Tignor (@SteveTignor) February 21, 2013
Steve absolutely nailed it with this succinct verdict on how powerless the fourth-best player in the world looked against Petra Kvitova during their quarterfinal match in Dubai last week. I’m a firm believer that Radwanska can do more to trouble the big hitters: her second serve placement can get a whole lot better, and she could use her unique ball striking skills (changing direction and spins) in a more proactive way than she’s used to. Whether Radwanska makes these adjustments will determine how much “watching and walking” she does in the future when she plays a big hitter, and if she’ll ever really threaten to win a Slam.
Music Used to Write this Column
Two albums: Kendrick Lamar’s excellent good kid, m.a.a.d city, and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Here’s Kendrick Lamar being awesome on Saturday Night Live a few months ago:
Really enjoyed this. Good luck with the column. I was especially taken with your comments about the coaching of new American players. He’s struggling a bit right now, but I watched Goffin at the last US Open and thoroughly enjoyed the variety in his game and wondered why more Americans didin’t play like that.
I’m glad you liked it, Deborah, and many thanks for the well wishes! There is one ultra-talented American that went unnamed in this column: Donald Young. He was the kid who was supposed to be the big talent for this era of tennis. But we all know the many issues around Young’s “coaching”.
The other day, Justin Gimmelstob (yep, he actually said something interesting) commented that American tennis needs to start developing around an individual’s personality and strengths, and not follow a one method-fits-all philosophy. The reality is that a lot of tennis greats have developed in a sort of isolated way. Tennis is, after all, an individual sport where the players develop better when they have the right people around them. That doesn’t mean having all the players go to a specific academy and follow a generic program. We’ll see if anything changes in the next few years.
As someone who has trained primarily on astro-turf for around 6 years, I can say that it isn’t really similar to grass at all in terms of how it plays. It depends on the hardness of the surface, but it can range from playing like a deader/more skidding hard court to pseudo-carpet. If it’s wet it plays ridiculously fast though. And it’s definitely much easier on your legs than hard. By a long way.
That’s fascinating, Ilija. The part about it being easier on your legs than hard court is what I think should be the selling point of the surface to the tour. If it contributes to lengthen careers and avoid injuries, why not give it a try? Plus, it seems like you can make the court be as slow or as fast as you can, just like hard.
I played on astro turf at Lexmark of all places. (Lexmark is in Lexington, KY). Anyway, I played on astro turf as a way to get ready for the National Grass Courts in Philly. I am old so this was a long time ago: 1987. Also, Lexington, Kentucky does not have grass courts. The three things I remembered was 1) It smelled like mildew. It was disgusting. Yuck. 2) There was sand everywhere. I am not sure why. Of course there were some hard courts with a little sand in Lexington which was not a good thing. 3) As far as the way they played, it was different from grass. It bounced much higher than on grass. It was fast, but I cannot remember if it skidded like grass. I want to say it did not. But I really do not remember.
I remembered it was not a good way to prepare for grass. I do not know whether it would be safer than hard courts. I guess the fact there may be some cushion but it also had that sand. And I am sure it was concrete under the astro turf. It may be a little safer but not a lot. Today may be a better time to look at it since things may have improved but I have no idea.
Bottom line. The smell. Whenever I smell mildew, I am reminded of the Lexmark courts. And it was not a good memory.
Thanks for that, Wendy! If it was 1987, that was probably either first or second generation Astroturf. The mildew smell sounds absolutely awful. The sand component is interesting, because I don’t think sand is in the third generation artificial turf surfaces anymore. They use more rubber. Thanks again!
I played on astroturf once a few years ago, on a court in Washington, DC. I remember enjoying the experience. The court played fast, but you got a better/higher bounce than you would on a grass court. The downside is that I got a lot of sand in my shoes. I don’t know if this particular astroturf court was sanded down to prevent sliding, or all astroturf courts have that, but my lasting memory was of the sand in my shoes.
Thanks for that, RZ – sand again, just like in Wendy’s case! I wonder if it’s an older artificial turf court, instead of the new ones that have rubber. Was the sand in your shoes different than what you get on clay courts? I played on red clay in Ecuador, and while the shoes and socks definitely got red, I don’t remember any clay getting inside the shoe!
Hi Juan Jose, the sand was very much like the sand at the beach, not at all like red clay (or green clay, for that matter).
I (rather shamefully) keep on forgetting about Nishikori because he always seems to be on injury leave. But you’re right; if he can stay injury-free for a significant amount of time, he has real Top 10 potential.
Radwanska reminds me a lot of David Ferrer, especially in how Ferrer was similarly helpless against an on-fire Davydenko in their Doha match. Of course, Ferrer has better movement than Radwanska and he’s proven quite adept at dealing with big hitters like del Potro and Berdych, but he suffers from a similar lack of offensive power. In a way, Radwanska has it even worse than Ferrer does as “Big Babe” tennis is so prevalent amongst her peers whereas many of the “Big Men” Ferrer plays are more “little men” in their tactics and execution, a game he’s better at than they are.
I agree about Nishikori being top-10 potential, Ophelia. To me, his skillset is very conducive to success in this era.
The comparison between Ferrer and Radwanska are quite adept. The difference (and this is what I expect from Radwanska), is that Ferrer beats the big hitters by putting a lot of pressure on their serve, and then making them hit almost exclusively on the run. Ferrer rarely plays one of those guys by just sending the ball back and hoping for a mistake. This is what I’d love for Radwanska to do: keep the pressure up on the return, and then make people always hit on the run, by changing the direction of the ball almost on every shot. Mix that in with some spins, and she could achieve the same kind of success has against big-hitters.
Ferrer loses to guys he can’t out-maneuver (the Big 4, essentially). The elite moves too well, can be too consistent with their aggressive shots and will punish Ferrer’s 2nd serve (this part is very much like what happens to Radwanska). My issue with the ex-Ninja is that she sure can outmaneuver Kvitova or Sharapova, neither of whom move all that well. Azarenka is the toughest match-up: it’s like watching Ferrer play Federer.
Nice sum-up on Nishikori. I’ve also noticed that some think of him older than he actually is. Apparently even Lopez was surprised to find out Nishikori is still 23. As you wrote, it could be because of his 2008 title…but, it also seems that it’s because people simply don’t know about him well.
I think he’s very funny generally, but he is very passionate about success in his tennis career more than many realize. I wish many more people can read and understand his blog 🙂
Thank you, proton. Nishikori has a blog? Is it in Japanese? Kei does seem like a pretty neat individual. I do agree with the part about people not knowing him all too well – I think IMG has focused more on maximizing his exposure in his home country instead of here in the US. However, if Kei keeps climbing up the rankings and doing well in the big tournaments, my guess is that we’ll see way more of him.
Fascinating point about field turf, Juan Jose.
I’ve never played tennis on the surface, but you’ve penetrated my consciousness on the topic.
The versions of field turf I’ve seen (soccer/lacrosse fields) are fluffy, with the rubberized/synthetic bed underneath the green fake-grass giving rise to small bursts of black granules when a ball is hit or kicked. I’m not sure the field turf seen on a wide level is currently able to sustain a normal tennis bounce.
You’ve penetrated my consciousness, though, because one would surely think that a better, more tennis-specific version of field turf can be created for tennis. The technology clearly exists, and this is something which could, in due time, replace hardcourt events with field turf events, which would prolong careers.
As for Indian Wells, I couldn’t agree with you more for all the reasons you stated.
Glad you went through the same process I did, Matt! It’s really fascinating how this hasn’t been discussed at the pro level, even though there are apparently many artificial turf courts out there. It’s a little baffling.
I’ve played soccer on the kind of surface you describe: the one with the little rubber granules all over the place. I thought it was interesting, but would always prefer natural grass for that specific sport. However, it did feel a heck of a lot better on your joints than running around on a normal public hard court. I think the field I played in was third generation artificial turf, which would explain those black little things.
Thank you for posting a great article about Kei Nishikori. Did you watch the Memphis final? Nishikori played almost perfect and won the title. He was so fast that he did not give F. Lopez any opportunities to be aggressive and attack.
However, as you pointed out, his issue is health. If he can sustain injury free, he might achieve his goal top 10.
Thank you very much! I’m glad you liked it. I actually did watch the Memphis final – Kei was really impressive in it. I talked about it in more detail during our Changeover Podcast, which you can listen to by going here: http://www.changeovertennis.com/changeover-podcast-wrapping-up-marseille-dubai-predictions-and-more/
“if i told you that a flowered bloomed in a dark room would you trust it?”
not gonna lie, that song is my jam right now. part of it is janet’s backing vocals from “anytime, anyplace” because, yeah, huge janet jackson fan here. and a bigger part is kendrick lamar. i only heard about him because of you when you first mentioned him last year. so thanks for that. (i even like drake in that song!)
the american tennis question is interesting, only in that living here in the us we’re bombarded with the “when will the next great american player come along” bs every time a tennis tournament gets aired. something isn’t working. i remember seeing some mini doc on a player working with the usta and how p-mac was trying to get the players to play more on clay after he had realized just how successful spain has been churning out players and how it was better to develop on clay than on hard court or something to that affect (it was one of those nyt stories that had a vid feature with it). he even talked about bringing on non-american coaches and…i dunno. it’s nice that the usta realizes that something isn’t working, but can training on clay with non-american coaches (which i take to mean coaches that realize that there’s more to tennis than a big serve and a big forehand) enough to raise the next insert great player here? special players have it in them from the get go, and coaching them up isn’t just the answer (can’t believe i just dropped a coaching them up in a tennis discussion. i’ve been in sec country too damn long.)
I couldn’t be any happier that you listened to Kendrick Lamar through me, SA! That’s awesome. About Drake…this is the first I hear of him (outside of those Sprite commercials), which I guess is kind of a feat, since he’s a big deal and all. Not the biggest fan, but everything about “Poetic Justice” is awesome.
About the USTA stuff – you’re very right that PMac and Higueras have embarked on an ambitious plan that for once looks abroad for answers. But I agree with you in that the plan to have a centralized system churn out elite players just isn’t realistic. There is no way to produce elite players – but you can certainly produce top 20, top 30 talent. I guess the biggest problem in the US is that tennis is so openly overshadowed by other sports that maybe not enough kids get exposed to it to begin with. This country produces plenty of elite athletes – the problem is getting them to play tennis!
The other issue is that a tennis upbringing isn’t really conducive to the normal kind of upbringing a kid in the US has – the training is just too demanding. Hence, I can see why parents would prefer if their kids at least finished high school and played a sport that fits within those minimum requirements.
Anyway, thanks for all of this – and sorry for the very late reply!
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