Welcome to The Backboard, the new home for some of my tennis thoughts and musings. This column will appear every Tuesday here at The Changeover. You can find past editions of The Backboard here.
Those Lucrative Wildcards
Tomorrow, Kudla will be ranked ~115, having received one WC in last 12 months.Sock will be at ~118, after 9 tour-level WCs in last 12 mo.
— Jeff Sackmann (@tennisabstract) May 5, 2013
Denis Kudla, a 20-year-old American born in the Ukraine, ended up ranked at No. 116 in the world after winning the Tallahassee Challenger last week. This ranking is Kudla’s career-high. The main draw wildcard Jeff mentions is the one he got into the 2012 US Open (sadly, Kudla lost in the first round to Marcel Granollers). Thanks to said wildcard, Kudla received a check for $23,000, the same as everyone else who loses in the first round of the US Open.
Jack Sock, a 20-year-old American born in Nebraska, ended up ranked at No. 118 in the world after losing in the first round of the Tallahassee Challenger. This is two spots below Socks’ career-high ranking of, you guessed it, No. 116. Sock is on a four match losing streak at the moment. His last win was in Houston, against fellow American youngster Bradley Klahn. Here is a table which includes all nine wildcards received by Sock in the past 12 months (five of which have come in 2013), along with some additional information:
Here are a few observations:
1. Jack Sock’s wild cards guaranteed him over three times as much money as the lone wild card Denis Kudla received. The exact figure for the difference in guaranteed money is $48,610. Not exactly pocket change for youngsters trying to make it in the big leagues.
2. Sock more than doubled the amount he would have received had he lost in the first round of all nine tournaments by winning six out of nine of those matches, as well as making the third round three times. And while Sock never won more than two matches at any of these events, his two wins at the US Open and his two wins in Memphis provided a significant boost in prize money. You could say that he took advantage of the many opportunities he was given.
3. Jack Sock has received a wildcard into every type of ATP event (Indian Wells is a Masters 1000, Memphis is an ATP 500, and everything else except the US Open is an ATP 250).
4. I noticed that Sock has a 10-15 all-time ATP record. 18 of those 25 ATP main draw matches came through the nine wildcards listed above. On average, Sock played two matches whenever he got into a main draw via a wildcard.
What I find fascinating is that even though there’s a significant discrepancy in Sock’s favor in terms of money earned, it’s Kudla who is ranked higher, even though he’s 0-1 in ATP main draw matches in 2013, while Sock is 4-5. And it’s worth noting that Kudla’s lone 2013 main draw appearance (in Brisbane) was due to coming through the qualies, whereas all of Socks’ 2013 main draw appearances have been due to wildcards.
Going back to 2012, a similar pattern emerges. All seven main draw appearances by Jack Sock were due to wildcards (it’s important to note that Jack had to have elbow surgery and dealt with an abdominal injury. Due to these physical issues, Sock was out of competition for four months, and returned to the tour in July of last year). On the other hand, Denis Kudla got into three main draws after going through qualies, and received three main draw wilcards.
I have a lot of questions, naturally. I don’t know the answers, and if someone does, please feel free to leave them in the comments section:
– Why did Sock receive so many wildcards?
– Why did Kudla receive so few?
– Did both youngsters have the same opportunities for main draw wildcards, but only one of them took them?
– Did all these wildcards help or hinder Jack Sock’s progress?
– As a follow-up to that last one: is it a good thing that Jack Sock has never made a single ATP main draw without the help of a wildcard? Stop and think about that for a second. Sock, one of the main American prospects, has never earned his way into an ATP main draw. Not once since he turned pro in 2011.
– Did the lack of wildcards help or hinder Denis Kudla’s development?
About this last question, we see that both 20-year-olds are more or less side by side in the rankings. They both arrived there through very different paths. What are the lessons learned from their experience in the last 12 months of their careers?
While I was covering Houston, I determined that if I ran an ATP event, I’d never give main draw wildcards to youngsters. But I’d make it a point to give the kids as many wildcards into the qualies as I could. The point is simple: you can’t skip steps on your way to the top. You have to really appreciate how difficult it is to play three qualifying matches on consecutive days on outer courts against veteran opposition. The qualifying draws for most events are always littered with vets who’ve been in the top 100, top 50 (or even the top 10). It’s very important for a youngster to get a chance to beat that kind of opponent in a meaningful match and rightfully earn a spot in an ATP main draw.
I remember the case of Steve Johnson, the young American who played a lot of college tennis and is just now starting his pro career: he received a wildcard into the Houston main draw and was drawn to play Fernando Verdasco in the first round. Naturally, that match was scheduled as part of a night session.
The main Stadium was packed. Johnson ended up losing a very winnable match, and I couldn’t help but think that it would’ve been so much more valuable for him to arrive to that same stage with a couple of wins under his belt after sweating his way through the qualies. It has to be a very bizarre experience as an ATP rookie to play your first match against a former top 10 guy in front of a packed stadium.
What would I do with the main draw wildcards? I’d save them for all the veterans whose rankings have plummeted due to injury or illness. They’ve already paid their dues, and the road back into the game is hard enough as it is.
A Glimpse of the Future
On Sunday, American Madison Keys received 10 minutes’ notice to get ready for a first round match against World No. 5 Li Na. Keys had lost in the final round of qualifying for the Madrid Premier Mandatory, her first event on red clay since she was 14 years old, to Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
As the legend goes, Madison was doing her algebra homework when she received a text message indicating she had 10 minutes to get ready to play. Tamira Paszek had withdrawn, and now Keys had a chance to impress on the big stage. Even better than that, Madison was playing with house money.
Impress she did, as Keys won 6-3, 6-2.
Sure, you can talk about how well players play when there’s nothing to lose (this is accentuated in Madison’s case, since she had already lost), and how awful Li Na was. Still, to me this simply indicated how much of a sure thing Madison Keys is. It speaks volumes of her talent that she can easily brush aside a former Roland Garros champion (and top 5 member) when she’s able to just let her talent flow freely.
To the surprise of no one, Madison Keys lost today to Spanish vet Anabel Medina Garrigues 7-6 (3), 6-3. She probably felt pressure to back up her big win, and she was dealing with a very experienced player who loves to play on the red clay and was playing at home. In many ways, it was much more difficult to win today’s match than it was to knock out Li Na after being given 10 minutes to prepare.
Sure, it’s going to be a long process until Madison learns how to arrive to that carefree state of mind consistently. It takes years of experience, as all the greats of the game can attest.
And I’m not betting against her.
Things I’ve Read Recently That Made Me Think
I highly recommend checking out Damien’s piece on how Kafka-esque his ongoing search for Hawk-Eye data has become. If you recall, I’ve written before on this same space about how I think tennis is in the analytical dark ages, and pieces like this one reenforce the belief. The key nugget here is that there doesn’t seem to be an interest from the tennis establishment – be it Tennis Properties, the company that handles the ATP’s business and owns the Hawk-Eye data for all the Masters 1000 or Tennis Australia, which handles the Australian Open – to make the information they have available to third parties. They don’t want to make that information public. It’s not even a case of not wanting to give it up for free, it seems: they just don’t want to give it up at all.
I completely agree with Damien on pretty much everything in his post, but especially when he says that “unlocking Hawk-Eye data is a natural evolution for tennis.” Like Damien, I believe that inevitably the tennis establishment will see the light. There’s too much to gain, and very little (if anything) to lose. Tennis has become a baseline game in which tactics play a key part. I do think that the next step in the evolution of the sport is to become much more tactically complex, with tennis pros who make better decisions in every single point.
More than that, fans and media will gain tools to better understand the game, much like what has happened in other sports that have been more analytic-friendly. The discussion about the game will become much more sophisticated, and there will be evidence to back up someone’s claim. Also, broadcasts will inevitably follow suit and offer more than the same tired platitudes to discuss a match.
We might be nearing a tipping point in this battle. As we know from history, change takes awhile to happen, and processes take time to gather momentum. Then an event opens the floodgates, and we will move forward. The demand for more sophisticated stats is out there (I see it every day on Twitter and on the feedback we’ve gotten to our stats pieces on this site): people will always be in the market for knowledge that helps them understand the mysteries of life, or in this case, our sport.
Hence, I’d like to join Damien in inviting Tennis Properties, the Grand Slams, and the ATP 500s to unlock the Hawk-Eye data. There are plenty of people like Damien who would do amazing things with it. Everyone wins, at little to no cost to you. In crowdsourcing we trust!
Tweets That Got Favorited For Very Obvious Reasons
— Tumaini (@tumcarayol) May 5, 2013
And here is the full quote:
Tumaini Carayol is covering Madrid for Tennis Panorama, and he was kind enough to relay this quote from the World No. 3. Murray’s answer actually made me think about the question, and specifically, what the pros might understand when they are asked about “stats.”
As you might recall, I asked four pros (Almagro, Isner, Mónaco and Rhyne Williams) whether they used stats or video for player development or for scouting. Their answers are here, and they’re not all that different from what Murray just said. But it might be that when a tennis pro hears “stats,” all he can think of are the official stats kept by the ATP tour, which are the only set of stats that are widely available in the sport (as we know, Jeff Sackmann has done a wonderful job with tennisabstract.com, but those stats are still only derived from the “official” set of stats from the tours). In which case, the official stats don’t tell players much of anything, and are not that useful for player development or scouting.
I guess a better question would be, “Do you think that the current stats made available by the ATP are useful to you for your development as well as for scouting your opponents?” Followed by, “Would you like to have access to unconventional stats such as the amount of times Jo-Wilfried Tsonga approaches the net on a cross-court forehand? Or, what’s Novak Djokovic’s ratio of backhands down the line versus cross court? Or, a complete breakdown of Roger Federer’s serving patterns?”
I can see why a pro wouldn’t be all that interested in looking at the official stats. But I’m pretty sure a guy like Murray would love to have a detailed, evidence-based breakdown of what a specific opponent likes to do. And if tennis stats resembled the amazing NBA stats site, Murray could even look at detailed stats of specific players solely in the matches played against him.
I feel like any player would find it hard to turn down that kind of valuable, evidence-based information.
Music Used to Write this Column
I love it when you fall in love with a band through one of their albums and then that album forever lodges itself in your heart as a consequence. It might not even be that band’s best offering (even though you’ll argue to the death that it is).
This happened to me with the Decemberists’ The Crane Wife. Others claim that their previous album, Picaresque, was better. Some will say that The Hazards of Love is the pinnacle of their creativity. But I got to know that band through The Crane Wife, and I’m reminded of those happy days every time I play that CD. Hence, I will always claim it’s the best Decemberists album. If anything, it’s their most unpredictable album.
Here’s one of the very underrated songs off of The Crane Wife, the very eerie “Shankill Butchers.” For full effect, play this song during a very dark night: