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: