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. You can find past editions of The Backboard here. Let’s get started!
Andy Murray’s fantastic gameplan … that didn’t work
Ahead of his semifinal encounter with Juan Martín del Potro, World No. 3 and current US Open Champion Andy Murray knew that he had never lost to the Argentine on a hard court. The two men had played on the harsh surface four times in the past. The man from Dunblane had lost a set in all of those encounters, but had always found ways to come out with the win against his old-time rival (Murray and Del Potro have been battling each other since their junior days).
Tactically, Murray knows that Del Potro loves to engage in Ad court rallies, where the Argentine can drive his cross-court backhand to Murray’s backhand, or run around his two-hander and belt inside-out forehands. The Scot likes this pattern just as much as Del Potro, since his great two-handed backhand can withstand pace, and tends to be rock solid. Murray also loves to slice his cross-court backhand and trigger some mistakes and short balls with that change-of-pace shot. The fascinating dynamic in this match-up is that neither player is all that interested in hitting many down the line backhands or inside-in forehands into the Deuce court, even though their predilection for Ad court positioning leaves loads of real estate to exploit with either of those shots.
As a way to highlight this trend, I decided to track how many backhands down the line and inside-in forehands were hit by either player during their match last Friday. I also checked whether those shots landed in or out, and whether the player executing those shots won the point as a direct consequence of deciding to use those strokes. Here is my pre-match hypothesis:
Neither Andy Murray nor Juan Martín del Potro will hit all that many backhands down the line or inside-in forehands. They loathe to stray from their Ad court patterns, even if it hasn’t worked particularly well for Del Potro in their previous matches. Neither player hits their backhand down the line with a whole lot of confidence or frequency, and while the inside-in forehand is a valid alternative, it will go unused. Both players would stick with what is familiar.
Interestingly enough, the first set would already prove me wrong. I found myself noting many more backhands down the line and inside-in forehands than I expected, as you can see from my first set scorecard:
Why did this happen? Here a few theories:
- For some reason, Andy Murray doesn’t trust his backhand slice at Indian Wells. He’s mentioned how the slice tends to sit up on the gritty hard court laid out in the California desert, which makes it easy to attack. Without that tool, he probably thought that he had to find ways to force errors and frustrate Del Potro using other shots. This is why his 21 attempted backhands down the line in the first set make a lot of sense, without ceasing to be surprising. That’s a really, really high number for Murray, who again, isn’t too fond of using that shot all that frequently.
- Del Potro was getting the better of Murray on Ad court rallies, since the Tower of Tandil was using his own backhand slice quite effectively. Del Potro has resorted to more and more backhand slices in the previous months because of his ongoing troubles with his left wrist. At Indian Wells, Del Potro realized that the surface wasn’t hurting his slice, and a big reason why this was happening was that Del Potro was getting good depth with those single-handed backhands. Murray’s problem was finding ways to hurt Del Potro whenever the tall Argentine sent a backhand slice his way, and he wasn’t finding many answers.
But why couldn’t Murray attack Del Potro’s backhand slices? One issue is that Murray found it difficult to hit angled backhands to pull Del Potro away from the middle of the court (something that Nadal did achieve in the final, taking advantage of his wicked lefty forehand), and couldn’t consistently run around his backhand to hit aggressive inside-out forehands instead. On the other hand, it was Del Potro who was being able to run around his backhand and belt inside-out forehand missiles, since Murray was having trouble getting depth with his Ad court shots.
With this in mind, Murray tried to hit his backhand down the line way more often than usual, and even mixed in some inside-in forehands for good measure, as well as some timely forays into the net. And it was working! As you can see from that first set scorecard, Murray wasn’t even making many errors with either the backhand down the line or the inside-in forehand. Notice also the row for the first set tiebreaker: Murray attempted a total of seven shots that were either down the line backhands or inside-in forehands. How many did Del Potro attempt?
Murray made life difficult for himself in that tiebreaker, making a couple of loose errors and tossing in a double fault for good measure. But what I found interesting about that breaker was that Del Potro ran way from his own tactical wrinkle: his use of the inside-in forehand.
As we know, Juan Martín del Potro has never been fond to hit his drive backhand down the line. And now with the problems he’s having with his left wrist, he even has a medical excuse to avoid that shot. However, he and Franco Davín, his coach, must have realized something: Del Potro could use his inside-in forehand instead. Of course, the key is his footwork: Del Potro needs to be able to run around his backhand, which requires more effort than just setting up for a normal two-hander. However, once there, Del Potro can blast away with his trusty forehand, and even use some more spin to make sure he clears the highest part of the net. As you see, Del Potro attempted nine of these shots in the first set, and only missed once.
Now, what happened in the next two sets with both the backhands down the line and the inside-in forehands? Here is a graph detailing the number of backhands down the line attempted per set:
Again, what I find surprising is the first set numbers for Murray, something that the Scot couldn’t keep up in the two sets that he lost. Del Potro more or less followed the patterns he’s shown throughout his career: he would end up with just 10 attempted backhands down the line. It should be said that of those 10, at least half were either sliced backhands or passing shots. The drive two-hander down the line from Del Potro was a rarity as a regular rally shot.
However, things do get interesting when we look at the number of inside-in forehands that were attempted per set:
Here you can see the tactical progress of Juan Martín del Potro. When he wasn’t winning Ad court rallies with a mixture of his backhand slice or brutal forehands, Del Potro was forcing Murray to defend his Deuce court, which would offer Del Potro further chances to attack, given that Murray would be hard pressed to hit a deep running forehand off of a Del Potro inside-in forehand missile.
Still, you can see that Murray was hitting a fair amount of inside-in forehands himself, and that he even tried more of those shots in the third set than in either of the first two. Murray was definitely playing the right way, implementing the right gameplan. And if you look at the total match numbers for the shots I tracked, he wasn’t even making many errors with these shots:
As you can see, Murray attempted a combined 61 backhands down the line and inside-in forehands, and only made mistakes on 11 of them. That’s a success rate of 82%. So why did Andy Murray lose the match?
One clue can be found in Del Potro’s numbers: the Argentine ended up hitting far fewer backhands down the line, but he did hit one more inside-in forehand than Murray. More importantly, Del Potro’s efficiency with these shots was remarkable: the Tower of Tandil only missed two of his 34 attempts, good for a 94% success rate.
Juan Martín del Potro correctly executed all 15 inside-out forehands that he used in the second and third sets. That’s staggering. But the final clue as to why Andy Murray’s interesting and appropriate gameplan didn’t work can be found in the final match stats:
Andy Murray produced eight double faults in the match, and two of those were quite crucial: the pivotal break of serve in the second set was handed over via a double, and so was match point. You can also see that while Murray hit 60% of the winners in the match (something that is quite surprising, given the opposition), the Scot was also responsible for 64% of the unforced errors of the contest. Murray will be particularly pained to see the 19 backhand unforced errors that he leaked from the cornerstone of his baseline game: his two-handed backhand.
(Interestingly enough, Novak Djokovic would produce a similar number of backhand unforced errors in his semifinal loss to Del Potro: the World No. 1 ended with 17 backhand unforced errors).
Now, remember that Murray had an 82% success rate in the two shots I tracked, both of which are outside of the Scot’s comfort zone. This will show you that Murray’s errors came mostly from his “bread and butter” shots: cross court backhands, and cross court forehands.
This match made me think about something: I love to dream about every player implementing the perfect gameplan for every match. But what if the correct gameplan involves using shots that aren’t part of a player’s normal repertoire? Could the rest of a player’s game crumble becauseof focusing too much on unfamiliar shots?
I have no idea. But this would explain why it’s such a rarity when a player adopts a completely different gameplan than what we’re used to seeing from him or her.
We do know that success comes when the right plans are executed correctly. Heck, sometimes success comes when there is no plan, so long as all the actions are executed properly. Andy Murray had a great scheme for this quarterfinal match. Yet it didn’t work.
With this in mind, it was nice to hear Murray blame the execution and not the gameplan in his post-match presser:
“There was a few things maybe not necessarily tactically I would have liked to have done better.”
Yep. The plan was great. The execution, well, that’s a different story.
Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think
Many rules of tennis a mystery to the game’s stars - Douglas Robson (USA Today)
Beyond the obvious laughs that this piece produces (I mean, how can the pros be so oblivious about some pretty basic rules of their own sport?), there were a few things that I found interesting. When asked whether it would serve players better to know the rules with arguing with the umpires, Paul Annacone, Roger Federer’s coach, produced this fascinating quote:
“That’s how people deal with pressure,” said Annacone. “They complain.”
This was particularly true for Annacone’s charge during his Round of 16 match against compatriot Stan Wawrinka. At a crucial juncture of the match, 0-30 in the first game of the third set, Federer served and came in after his delivery. Wawrinka hit a decent return, and Federer botched the volley. It was clear to everyone that the 17-time major champion made a play for that volley. However, as soon as Federer’s shot landed in the net, Federer challenged … his own serve. The umpire, who I believe was Fergus Murphy, denied him the opportunity, correctly pointing out that Federer had made a play on the volley, and in doing so, lost his chance at challenging the serve. Federer was not pleased:
The four-time Indian Wells champion argued that it was a really quick play, and that he challenged in time. Murphy correctly pointed out that the issue was not timeliness, but having made a play on the volley. And moments after the Nike-clad man argued fruitlessly the chair umpire, Wawrinka went up a break to start the deciding set.
Unfortunately for the less famous Swiss, Federer ended up winning the match anyway.
Still, this sequence exemplified exactly what Paul Annacone was saying in that Robson piece: Federer was in a pressure-filled situation, and complained in vain about a most correct ruling that went against him. Annacone probably thought that this was a good way for Federer to let go of the frustration of having served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, and having to play an extra set of tennis with an iffy back against an opponent who seemed to be gaining in confidence.
The funny part of it all was that had Federer not made a play for the volley, his challenge would’ve been proven correct: the serve was indeed out.
Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
To offer some context, this episode took place in the first set of the Nadia Petrova – Caroline Wozniacki Round of 16 match just a few days ago at Indian Wells. Wozniacki ended up winning the match 7-6 (3), 6-3.
Now, I’m not a fan of the WTA coaching visits, for a few reasons: I think they disrupt the rhythm of a match (including the rhythm of the player calling for said coaching visit), and players can’t use the visits at Slams. What’s the point of getting used to an important tool that’s unavailable at the four biggest tournaments of the sport? Yes, coaching visits have provided endless amounts of entertainment (for example, whenever Piotr Wozniacki shows up), and they have also caused a bit of controversy (for example, this episode).
Now, I don’t want to be confused for somebody who is against on-court coaching in tennis: for many years I’ve thought that all coaching from the player’s box should be legalized. The rule needed for this to work is simple: whatever instruction takes place cannot interfere with the normal flow of the match. I firmly believe that this would improve the quality of the product: matches that seem like they’re destined for a lopsided victory might become tighter when the losing player makes a few adjustments. An interesting example to follow would be what the NBA does with their coaches: for nationally televised games, the coaches wear a microphone, and we get to hear snippets of what they tell the players during time outs.
But coming back to the tweet, one has to question what Petrova’s coach was thinking when she mentioned a potential issue with her service toss, just as Petrova is set to produce a most key hold in the game. It’s pretty evident that Petrova got a little more tense about her delivery, and the three double faults speak for themselves. At that point of the match, I think only positive encouragement was needed – you can’t add more pressure to an already pressurized situation.
Music Used to Write this Column
All I listened to while I compiled the stats and wrote this column was Kanye West’s sophomore album, Late Registration, as well as his first one, The College Dropout. Both are excellent, the former in particular. Late Registration is such a masterpiece. Here is Kanye rocking my favorite track from that album, “Late,” while being backed up by an all-female string section: