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 (this week is an exception). You can find past editions of The Backboard here.
How Do the Houston Semifinalists Use Video and Stats?
As you know, I’m more than a little fixated on the use of statistics and video in sports. I wondered in this same space whether tennis was in the dark ages in terms of using such contemporary tools. Well, last week I had a chance to go gather some information from the players themselves.
While I was covering the Houston ATP 250, also known as the US Men’s Clay Court Championship, I took the opportunity to ask the four men who made the semifinals of the event the same question regarding stats and video. It was simple:
“Do you and/or your team look at statistics or video (of you or your opponents) for scouting, or your own development?”
The answers, unsurprisingly, were quite different. The four men, in case you forgot, were:
– Nicolás Almagro
– Juan Mónaco
– John Isner, and
– Rhyne Williams
A Spaniard, an Argentine, and two Americans. Their respective ages? 27, 29, 27 and 22 (though Isner will turn 28 in less than two weeks).
Since I didn’t want the language barrier to get in the way of the quality of the answer, I asked the question in Spanish to Almagro and Mónaco, and translated their answers below.
Without further ado, here is what these four pros told me:
“We don’t really look at video of other players. But we do have the Players’ Week of every week that has statistics on who’s the best server, I don’t know if you’ve seen them, first serve percentage, among others – they have a lot about return of serve. And well, we do look at that. In fact, at the end of last year we agreed on improving certain aspects this year that I think are improving. Anyway, anything that helps you improve is welcome.
It’s clear that I’m not the kind of player that likes to be watching tennis on TV. I really don’t enjoy that. And them (his team), when we get together to watch and talk about these things, they know how to get straight to the point: looking at the important points, from which I can learn more. That’s what really helps me and makes me improve.”
I thought Almagro’s answer was quite interesting, in many ways. First, I hadn’t heard about this weekly publication of sorts that the players receive, but it sounds like it’s just the round-up of the official stats kept by the ATP, which can be found here. These stats get tallied at the end of every week, once tournaments end. Also, near the end of the tournament, Pete Holtermann, Media Director of the US Men’s Clay Court Championship, would circulate these stats (as pertaining to the event) around the press room, which was really great to see.
As you can guess, I regret not asking Almagro which elements of his game that are measured by these stats he’s trying to improve during 2013. My guess? Everything involving return of serve. For example, in 2012, Almagro was ranked 30th in Percentage of Return Points Won, per tennisabstract.com. That’s quite a ways away from his #12 overall ranking. But we can see that in 2013, the Spaniard is already up to the 22nd spot.
I am not surprised Almagro doesn’t spend a whole lot of time watching tennis – he seems like a man who is diligent about his job (in Houston, I saw him practice every single day since Friday of the week before the tournament began. Sometimes he was booked for more than one session), but one that has a wide array of interests outside the tennis court (he mentioned that he enjoyed Houston a lot, and said how he got a chance to do other stuff that he normally wouldn’t be able to during a tournament). It’s also interesting to see that his team knows how to approach these video sessions he mentions: nothing extensive, and just focused on specific situations. I also like how they’ve used the weekly stats reports as motivation for him to get better in certain areas.
“This is a good question for my coach (Gustavo Marcaccio). I’m the player, and this is their job (the coaches). But yes, my team does a lot of analysis of my rivals, also of my game, so I can keep improving. I think this is a good thing, at this point in my career, that my coach studies my rivals a lot, that he can propose a tactical gameplan according to the match statistics from other previous matches that I’ve played against a given opponent. As the years go by, I’ve practically played everyone (Juan has played 463 tour matches in his 11 years as a pro). It’s also good to refresh one’s memory about the last time I faced an opponent. And well, if you have video or statistics, remembering the match becomes much easier. And well, that’s their job (the coaches).”
I did get a chance to ask Juan a follow-up question in terms of how the information he talked about is presented to him. A funny exchange ensued, mainly because I made an educated guess and suggested that perhaps Mónaco’s team gives him a sort of summary about all these things he just mentioned. He retorted that yes, he gets a summary, but that he didn’t know how I found that out, since not many people know about said summary. I laughed and said that I had just guessed it.
Juan did not seem all that amused.
Regardless, you see how the oldest player of this small batch is probably the least involved in the whole process. He seems mainly concerned about past history against rivals, but is also open to tactical advice from his team. Juan seems to make a clear separation between what he expects his team to do and what he’s supposed to do in terms of match analysis and the fine-tuning of his game: he’s the guy who plays, and his team is in charge of figuring out how he can improve and how he should approach matches. There’s a clear division of labor.
“Not so much of my opponents, but I think, that’s something that I haven’t done in the past, but I’ve actually, as of recently, started to do a little bit more. I’ve watched some tape of myself when I was playing very well. It sounds kind of stupid, like, I’ve YouTube-d myself, but I was told to do that, just to see highlights of when I was playing very well. And something I’ve never done in the past. And I think it is a good thing. I’ve always been one not to think too much about, you know, how I’m playing and what not, and I think it can help, so if I can watch myself and see what I was doing.
Mainly, other than that, it’s really seeing that when I play my best is when I’m most composed on the court, and I don’t let things bother me. And so really, that’s what I was looking for.”
I told John as he left the press room that looking at old videos of himself on YouTube wasn’t stupid at all. It’s a smart play by his team, given Isner’s recent slump. As he said in an earlier presser in Houston, he thought that besides his knee injury, his issues at the beginning of 2013 had become “mental,” too. Hence, any ploy to try and get John to recover some confidence and remind himself that at one point he did make the top 10 is a good one.
Absent from John’s answer is any mention of stats, which is not that surprising. Though he could surely benefit from looking at return stats over at tennisabstract.com. He’s at or near the bottom of most return categories.
“Oh, absolutely. Not so much opponents, but my coach videos just about every match I play. A lot of practices, too. So we constantly are looking at video of me to work on things and notice patterns and stuff like that. But, as for opponents, you just gotta ask around. I mean, I’ve seen Almagro play on TV several times, so I kinda know – everyone kinda knows everybody. You can always get some tips from a couple players here and there. But the videoing of my own stuff has been huge for me.”
This was a fascinating answer, and something that had a familiar ring to me. Just days before, I had seen how Craig O’Shannessy (who writes his Brain Game columns for the ATP site as well as for the New York Times Straights Sets blog) unmounted a video camera from the back fence of the court that had just seen his pupil Connor Curry (a high-school junior from Texas) lose his first round qualifying match at the Houston event. Given the equipment Craig had there, it didn’t seem like it was the first time he was taping a tennis match.
Maybe this is the new trend of American coaching: watching a lot of video of the player in question and figuring out where things are problematic, and using all the visual information to fine tune a young person’s game.
Regardless, it was interesting to hear how in Isner and Williams’ case, both players seemed quite engaged with (and happy to acknowledge the positive effect of) their use of video. It also seemed like their relationship with their teams wasn’t as role-defined as in the case of Almagro and Mónaco.
It’s also noteworthy to point out that Almagro and his team seemed to be the only ones who looked at stats in a regular manner (even though it seems like they were looking only at the “official” stats – nothing fancy).
The other perspective, naturally, is to acknowledge that coaches are the ones who might be looking at video and more sophisticated stats. The coaches also have to have to find ways to make whatever information they compile digestible for their players. As we’ve seen in many sports, very few players are into advanced stats – though a lot of athletes across different sports are indeed interested in the thorough study of video (football quarterbacks and a significant portion of NBA players).
The degree of difficulty for tennis coaches, naturally, is that they’re employed by the players they’re supposed to mold. A player isn’t forced to comply with whatever his or her coach is trying to convey: if they don’t like what they’re hearing, they can just get rid of the coach. Hence, if a player like Almagro doesn’t like watching a whole lot of video, then you have to find ways to engage him using a different approach that might yield the expected result.
This will be an ongoing quest of mine, and hopefully we can get more answers. Naturally, it would be fascinating to ask coaches, though I wonder how much they’re willing to share. After all, anything that works as a competitive advantage should be kept a secret, no?
Read Heard Recently That Made Me Think
Since I was at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships all of last week, I really didn’t have a whole lot of time to read much of anything. Hence, here’s a selection of quotes from pressers that kept going through my head days after they happened:
What makes a great returner – by Lleyton Hewitt (after losing to Martín Alund in the Houston first round)
“Anticipation has a lot to do with it, obviously. Everyone’s got big serves out there these days. There’s not many guys who can’t hit a few aces in every match so a lot is a matter of getting your racquet on the ball, and then getting it back as well as possible and make them play an extra shot.”
My original plan was to have a longer conversation with Lleyton about the return of serve, but since he lost to Martín Alund in the first round of Houston after enduring a hellish weekend in Uzbekistan with the Australian Davis Cup team, the former number 1 wasn’t in the greatest of moods (though he was kind enough to answer this one question).
Still, it’s interesting to note that “anticipation” was the main quality mentioned. Of course, you need to be agile to be able to act on your anticipation – big guys will always be on a disadvantage in that department. I also wonder how much of all the efforts put into anticipating someone’s serve are analytical (identifying patterns, for example), or instinctive (reading a toss, or just plain guessing).
As much as I was glad for Martín Alund to get such a great win (one that he’ll remember forever), I now find myself wishing that Lleyton had won that match. We could’ve had such a nice geek-out about return of serve.
Why Nicolás Almagro’s serve is so great – by Rhyne Williams (after losing to Nicolás Almagro in the Houston semifinals)
“It’s such a quick motion that you don’t really have time to anticipate. Maybe some other guys have longer motions and you can kind of tell with the toss where they’re going to go. But his (Almagro’s) is so rapid-fire, so it’s just….I mean, it doesn’t look like he’s going to crush it, but it comes in so fast, and he can pretty much hit every serve, so, uh, I mean…it’s a darn good shot.”
I asked Rhyne about Almagro’s powerful serve after the former Tennessee man lost in the semifinals to the Houston top seed. Given the quality of Williams’ answers in previous days, I was intrigued to hear what the youngster thought about this most unique (and potent) weapon of the ATP World Tour. Rhyne did not disappoint.
Nicolás Almagro, lest we forget, is still leading the tour in the aces category this season (he’s got an 8 ace lead over John Isner), even though he’s played all but three of his events this year on clay (those being the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami). I watched Almagro serve in practice, and obviously during matches, and I couldn’t help but marvel at how great his serve is. Almagro is 6 feet tall – not a huge guy. It’s just incredible how his arm and torso just hammer the ball so violently (and accurately) over and over again. .
Sadly, Almagro’s serve did let the Spaniard down in the final: of his four double faults in the deciding match, three came in games where he got broken. Two of them in the key 5-all game in the second set.
Tweet That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
this would be the list of all active players who have won monte carlo: rafael nadal #freakinhilarious
— tennistweets.com (@tennistweetscom) April 15, 2013
Just pause for a moment and think about how insane that little fact is. In case you were wondering, the last person other than Nadal to win the Monte Carlo tournament was Guillermo Coria in 2004. Prior to that, Juan Carlos Ferrero won it twice in a row.
But since 2005, the winner has been one and the same: the greatest clay court player of all time.
Rafael Nadal became the first man in the open era to win a tournament eight years in a row with his 2012 Monte Carlo win, and even though that’s an obviously incredible statistic, one must remember that Monte Carlo isn’t just any tournament: it’s a Masters 1000 event, and one of the most traditional, venerated and prestigious clay court events in the world. If you look at the past winners, you get an idea of what I’m talking about.
Every year that goes by and Nadal comes out of the principality with a winner’s trophy, I keep thinking that not enough is made out of this unique accomplishment. Simply put, it’s one of the great achievements of the modern era, and one of the most incredible streaks we’ll ever get a chance to witness.
Music Used to Write this Column
As in everything regarding life on this earth, luck often leads to much happiness. I remember being stuck in the Houston ATP 250 press room without my laptop, needing to write something on my tablet, and finding it hard to focus on the task at hand with so many people around me. I needed music. I had the Spotify app, but it won’t play anything on demand: only their radio service was available. I was desperate, so I chose a radio station based on Grizzly Bear, since that’s what I had been listening to all week (I saw them live last Tuesday night – they were wonderful). To my surprise, I got hooked to the very first song that popped up, from a band I didn’t know anything about.
The song is called “Undertow”, and it’s by the Los Angeles band Warpaint. I fell in love with it immediately, and I was able to finally get moving on whatever it was I was trying to accomplish. In subsequent days, when I had my laptop with me, I found the album that contains “Undertow”: it’s called The Fool, and it’s pretty fantastic. I highly recommend it. The Fool was my writing aid for the rest of the week, for which I’m quite grateful.
Out of said 2010 album, here’s “Undertow”: