Thailand Open: Raonic’s Triumph, the Streakiness of Doubles, and How Hawk-Eye Works

James Pham is on the ground in Bangkok. He’s writing about the Thailand Open this week for The Changeover.

Pro doubles is a weird animal. Average tennis fans don’t recognize hardly any of the names, save for when one of the top singles players deigns to step over to the Dark Side, more often than not treating it as an extra practice session. The players’ physiques lean more towards the pudgy than the lean (see: Paes, Leander), the faces weathered rather than the fresh. And the scoring is different, with a deciding point played at deuce and a third set replaced by a super tiebreak. If one team gets hot for 90 seconds, the set is most likely over. It’s almost like they’re playing a different game entirely which is why pro doubles oftentimes gets no respect, even though the average club player probably plays more doubles than singles.

This week, though, I’ve gotten a look at some of the doubles teams up close, and even though the purse is small (losing first round nets $2,970 and champions take home $31,100 per team), the desire to win is just as strong as on the singles side.

The finals today pits #3 seeds Jamie Murray and John Peers (AUS) against #4 seeds Bednarek and Brunstrom. The Bangkok crowd is appreciative, a goodly number turning out for the doubles which is played before the singles final. Murray / Peers make it to the finals by beating #2 Paes / Bracciali in the semis in a battle of consistency over finesse. Throughout the week, it’s been Jamie who’s been the shotmaker, smothering the net with his acrobatics, taking returns early and displaying some impenetrable service games (and I’m not just saying that because he was nice to me earlier in the week!). But he falters on serve in the second set, sending it to a super tiebreak which Murray / Peers win handily on a quickfire four-men at net final point. Go, Jamie!

The stadium is darkened for the players’ entrance before the finals. With the disco lights and the blaring techno-pop, it has all the drama worthy of an O2 WTFs. Two male Thai merry-makers have been brought in to rile up the crowd. In true Thai style, one is decked out in a glittery pink mini-dress. They both have vuvuzelas and get the crowd to start the wave even before the first point.

The Rocky theme song that blares as players make their entrance presages the battle to come. There’s a lot at stake for both of these guys. Raonic is trying to add all-important points to make the year-end finals for the first time (where he’s about 500 points out of 8th place) and Berdych wants to shed the dubious title of being the only Top 14 player this year not to have won a title.

Raonic wins the coin toss but elects to receive. It’s pretty obvious his strategy is going to be to hold his own serve and try to get a look at Berdych’s. But in a contest of the Raonic serve versus Berdych’s groundstrokes, both men hold easily until Berdych comes back from 40-0 on Raonic’s serve at 5-6 to earn a singular break/set point. I start writing post-match interview questions for Berdych.

Pre-mature. Raonic swats the set point away with a solid first serve. The serving arm is obviously feeling good. He’s averaging 2-3 aces per game (he ends up with 18 for the match), as the set goes to the inevitable tiebreak. On the very first point, Raonic goes for broke and lands a surprise return right in the corner off a Berdych first serve. Given how he’s serving, I start writing interview questions for Raonic now. The one mini-break is all he needs as he rides it out to take the first.

With a set to the good, Raonic plays even freer in the second. He immediately breaks Berdych and doesn’t look back. It’s over so quickly that the Thai merry-makers don’t even get a chance to bust out any of their Michael Jackson inspired dances. Game, set, match, Raonic for his first Thailand Open win. The topper is the trophy is presented by a Thai princess.

I catch up with both men after the trophy presentation.

The Changeover: You’re now less than 500 points outside of 8th place, if Murray doesn’t come back in time. How much would it mean to you to make it to the World Tour Finals?

Raonic: I’ve done a lot of great things ever since Montreal. I wasn’t playing my best there, but I’ve worked up my confidence, and being back on hardcourts after 4-5 months, gives me a bit of ease.

[Making the Tour Finals] would mean a lot. It was a goal, definitely after clay and grass, it seemed distant, but I’ve put a lot of very good results together and done a lot of good things. I’m just focusing match by match. It’s still a long ways away. A lot of it is out of my control. Those guys are picking up points as well.

The Changeover: You must have been feeling pretty confident in your serve since you elected to receive at the beginning of the match. He only had one breakpoint all match. Were you feeling pretty invincible today?

Raonic: I think I struggled a lot more than him at the beginning. He was finding his rhythm better. The tiebreaker came down to one return. It gave me a boost and I was trying to aggress more.

The Changeover: For a few years now, lots of people have identified you as one of the best of the next generation. Is all that expectation a good or bad thing?

Raonic: I think it’s good to hear. But at the same time, it’s really what you make of it. People talk about the next generation but my focus is not the guys of my age but to compete with the four guys that everyone talks about. That’s what I work on every day, to be able to be successful against those guys.

During the presser, Raonic remembers that he played a Challenger in 2009 right across the road from today’s final. You’ve come a long (short?) way, baby!

On to Berdych…

The Changeover: How frustrating was it today to play against his serve?

Berdych: Know his serve is really great, so tough to break him. Today it was even more exceptional, serving very well and didn’t give me much chances. I was serving quite well, too. The match was [decided on] about two points and Milos played better and deserved to win.

The Changeover: Not having won a title yet this year, is that added pressure?

Berdych: It’s kind of a good problem to have, playing the finals and trying to win a title. I haven’t won this year but it’s already third final. Consistency of results is more important. How the system works, it’s basically better. Of course, I would like to have a title but my goal is to be as high as possible in the ranking and titles are just a plus.

Pressers this week have been fun. There hasn’t been a huge amount of media, and the Thai journalists are a hoot. You never know what they’re going to say. One young television reporter was apparently blinded by Berdych’s dazzling good looks up close. The first thing she blurted out to him was, “You look so good. Better than on TV. You are smart.” Berdych’s frozen reaction was priceless.

Another journalist today said to Raonic: “Your coach, Ivan Ljubicic only got to the finals. Now you did better than him. How do you feel?” to which Milos quickly replied, “Yeah, but he got up to #3 in the world, so what can I say?”

It’s been a great week, with lots of tennis, lots of junk food (I blame YOU and your delicious donut holes, Dunkin Donuts), too many cups of iced chai and excellent media support (Basil chicken bento boxes FTW!) I got to thinking about the other men and women who watch tennis day in and day out, like the umpires, linesmen, the statisticians, etc. During transport today, I talked to some of them and (as usual) peppered them with questions…

Earlier in the week, Berdych was receiving a returnable second serve that was called out by the linesman but overruled by the chair umpire. He challenged it, got it wrong and briefly appealed when the chair ump gave his opponent a first serve. I asked umpire Fergus Murphy about it and he confirmed that that’s always the case. The challenge on a 2nd serve acts as a delay in play, so almost better not to challenge in that case…

*****

All week, I’ve been seeing three mop-headed guys around, always together like some Borg collective, too young to be officials but too White to be ballboys. It turns out they’re the Hawk-Eye crew and we share transport to the arena. During the 25-minute ride, I find out:

It takes 3 days to set up the system at a cost of about $20,000-25,000 per court, setting up cameras, running tests, calibrating to “known values” (best done at night, under the lights to get the best images)

It takes 3 to run the team: one to calibrate the 10 cameras (esp. in sunny or cloudy conditions), one to run the software and check the 10 monitors that show every impact during the point and a third to create the virtual environment whenever a challenge is lodged (the system is also used to generate stats for TV, like service placement and hit positions)

This team works non-stop, with one week to set up, followed by working the event. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This same team watches every ball of every match of every tournament day, singles and doubles (yikes!) This week, matches have started at noon and ended around 10:30 or 11pm. That’s a lotta tennis!

There’s no chance of tampering because there’s an ATP umpire sitting there who verifies that the image they pull up is indeed the ball that was challenged (Silly me was picturing a rabid fan / Hawk-Eye tech just slyly moving the cursor 1-2mm to either side…)

There is the possibility of human error, though, as even though the process is straightforward 90% of the time, sometimes there are missing frames or cameras lose track of the ball and human decisions need to be made re: filters and other factors

According to one of the technicians, men’s tennis is so much better because the women make so many unforced errors. “With the top 10 guys, almost every point is a winner”

I imagine that after hours and hours of Hawk-Eye, the techs would start to view tennis with a Terminator-like display in real-time, but they actually think their work makes them appreciate tennis more

Hawk-Eye measures impact point, not ball mark, which makes it problematic to use on clay as people are so used to believing what they see. Once a ball touches the surface, it needs to roll a bit to create a mark. High-speed cameras have shown that the difference between impact point and ball mark may be as much as 10cm (as opposed to the 1-3mm over/under value that Hawk-Eye is supposed to have). And yes, that is NOT a typo. He said 10cm (3-4 inches)!

During long days of play, they “root for the guy who wins the first set”

That’s it for me this week, readers! Let’s do this again next year!

When James Pham isn’t aiming swing volleys directly at opponents, he’s editing a magazine in Saigon, Vietnam and traveling the world as a writer and photographer. He spent his youth ushering tournaments around the Washington D.C. area (and perhaps even skipped school to do so, but don’t tell his mom!) and remembers when the WTA Tour was sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes and you had to screw your wooden racquet into its frame after play. He blogs about his on- and off-court adventures at www.flyicarusfly.com.

3 Responses

  1. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne September 30, 2013 at 6:16 pm |

    James, thanks for all the interesting articles this week!

  2. Jess
    Jess October 1, 2013 at 12:42 am |

    My friends and I were there at the stadium everyday as spectators. We had so much fun. Love your insights.

  3. Shirley Hartt
    Shirley Hartt October 1, 2013 at 8:02 am |

    Thank you for a terrific series. Is there any chance of James covering other Asian tournaments? Am looking forward to any future posts from him.

Comments are closed.

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