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A Hawk-Eye Look at 2012 Wimbledon
“In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” — Bertrand Russell, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
Wimbledon provided the stage for tennis immortals Roger Federer and Serena Williams to show age hasn’t diminished their extraordinary skills or unquenchable wills. At the other extreme, virtual nonentities Frederik Nielsen and Jonathan Marray, who had never before played a Tour-level tournament together, won the doubles title. Upsets abounded, but none more shocking than 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol overpowering two-time champ Rafael Nadal in five sets.
ESPN’s stellar analysts, mostly former stars and prominent coaches, shared their inside information and thought-provoking expertise. Love them or hate them—and some fans hit the mute button occasionally—these commentators and opinionated players fired plenty of verbal volleys during the fortnight. Were their assertions and arguments right? Let’s find out.
The Comfort Zone
"Everyone has to come out of their comfort zones when they play Serena at her best," Chris Evert maintained when Agnieszka Radwanska, trailing 3-0, 15-0, attacked and forced an error from Williams. With the score 1-1 in the third set, suddenly aggressive Radwanska fought off two break points and held serve by forcing a Williams error and belting a forehand winner and backhand winner. "She knows she has to take first-strike tennis, but it goes against her nature," pointed out Evert.
The brief offensive burst proved too little and too late, though. Serena blasted an astounding four straight service aces against the shell-shocked Pole (who often didn’t move an inch) in the next game and prevailed 6-1, 5-7, 6-2.
Click photo: Serena blasted an astounding four straight service aces against the shell-shocked Radwanska.
But what should the consistent, clever counterpuncher have done to defuse Serena’s ferocious power as well as put her on the defensive? More relevant, what could Radwanska have done?
Since Radwanska’s second serve averaged only 76 miles per hour, increasing it to the low 80s would have made it more difficult for Serena to attack. With more speed, spin, accuracy and depth, Radwanska likely would have won more than a mediocre 37% (10 of 27) of her second serve points.
Radwanska should have hit her backhand, her best weapon, harder and more often down the line because Serena’s backhand was more effective than her forehand. That added offense would also have enabled Radwanska to rush the net more often, a smart tactic because she won 62% (13 of 21) of her points at net.
Finally, since Serena’s least effective first serve targets the wide corner in the ad court, Radwanska should have positioned herself a couple feet closer to the center strip. That would have helped her reach some of the rocket serves up the middle and also would have induced Serena to serve wide more often to her least effective spot.
Rafael Nadal also has to leave a comfort zone: returning serve from 10 feet behind the baseline. Uncle Toni, his lifelong coach, rightly pointed out Rafa won the French Open and defeated 2011 nemesis Novak Djokovic three straight times because Rafa improved his backhand and serve this year. However, Nadal quickly founded out that the service return position that worked on clay didn't work on grass. He had big problems returning wide serves, particularly in the deuce court, and many of his successful returns landed short. The 11-time major champion will likely have to leave this comfort zone to win the London Olympics on grass or the US Open on hard courts.
When you’re forced to come out of your comfort zone, the key is to determine the right stroke or strokes to become more aggressive with and the right tactical and positional changes. For power players, that can mean dialing down the power and playing more consistently. Either way, it can backfire. But even if it does, you will soon learn that if you expand your comfort zone and become more versatile, you’ll be able to beat opponents you never beat before.
The Right Attitude
Before playing Federer in the French Open fourth round, giant-killer David Goffin commented, "Of course, I have nothing to lose." The cliché became contagious at Wimbledon where Evert offered, "Radwanska has nothing to lose. Kerber is the one who should be nervous." Evert didn't explain why third-seeded Radwanska had nothing to lose when she faced eighth-seeded Kerber in the semifinals of the world's most prestigious tournament. Perhaps Evert concluded that if you feel you have something to lose, you become nervous. Others concluded Radwanska had the biggest match in her career to lose as well as, of course, to win. And, importantly, Radwanska should relish the opportunity and challenge.
To complicate matters, Kerber didn’t feel she should be nervous. On the contrary, Kerber chimed in: “It’s for sure one of my best things in my career right now to be in the second semis at the Grand Slams. Actually, I have nothing to lose right now.” Nothing to lose? Her self-satisfaction presumably decreased after she lost 6-3, 6-4 to Radwanska.
What about Radwanska? Before the Wimbledon final against Serena, a heavy 1-7 betting favorite according to oddsmakers, Radwanska claimed, “I don’t really have anything to lose, so I’m just going to try my best.” Nothing to lose? A victory would have brought her first major title and the No. 1 ranking.
Nothing to lose? No way, says Ryan Harrison, the promising 20-year-old American.
Talking about her Wimbledon experience this year after she dethroned 2011 champion Petra Kvitova 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals, even Serena said, “I have absolutely nothing to lose, so it’s really fun.” Since she’s our sport’s top quotes machine whose quotes sometimes contradict her quotes and she’s a fierce competitor who hates losing, I wondered if she really meant or understood what she said.
But Cliff Drysdale didn’t wonder. He staunchly defended those who insisted they “have nothing to lose.” Drysdale also noted that every time he used that controversial catchphrase, broadcasting colleague Patrick McEnroe rolled his eyes dismissively.
It took Ryan Harrison, a promising 20-year-old American, to lend some perceptive perspective. Before losing 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon second round, Harrison said: “I don’t like that nothing-to-lose mentality. I’ve never told myself in a match, ‘Oh, you know, I can just swing out because if I lose this one, everyone expected me to, he’s No. 1 in the world,’ all that stuff. I’m going to be playing with my expectations of myself. And I don’t really care if anyone thinks I’m going to win or not.” Hurray, I say.
The pressure of being the underdog, even a huge underdog, ignited—rather than deflated—the swaggering Rosol who repeatedly aced Nadal in his last two service games. Afterwards, he said, “Nadal is only human. We’re all humans. Everyone can beat everyone.” That should be the credo and catchphrase of every player.
Click photo: The pressure of being the underdog, even a huge underdog, ignited—rather than deflated—the swaggering Rosol who repeatedly aced Nadal in his last two service games.
Player Challenges Reconsidered
Although Lindsay Davenport didn't use the magic words—Player Challenges—during the Serena's 6-7, 6-2, 9-7 victory over Zheng Jie, she averred: "I'm a firm believer that if the technology exists, you have to use it. I think, at times in tennis, maybe starting at 4-all in a set, or in the third set, maybe let it take over naturally. To put it [line-calling] in the players' hands at these critical junctures is asking a lot."
Basically, Davenport is advocating the abolition of Player Challenges, but only at certain “critical junctures,” as she puts it. Of course, that prompts the crucial question: If it’s the right thing to do then, why isn’t it the right thing to do for the entire match?
The raison d’etre of sports officiating is fairness by means of the impartial application of the rules. For tennis line-calling, fairness means accuracy, getting it right—all the time.
Hawk-Eye’s 10 high-resolution cameras track the trajectory of the ball and exact location of the bounce to within 3 millimeters.
Happily, Hawk-Eye’s 10 high-resolution cameras track the trajectory of the ball and exact location of the bounce to within 3 millimeters. That is near-perfect 99.9 percent accuracy! Replays can be shown from any angle within two seconds and can be sent to a monitor, handheld device, or mobile phone. In theory, players shouldn’t have to worry about a thing. And they certainly shouldn’t have to call their own lines or challenge questionable line calls made by others. As Mary Carillo once famously said: “Hey, Roger, while you’re down on the court making history, can you also call your own lines—even the ones 80 feet away?”
Therefore, it’s nothing less than a tragic irony that Player Challenges, the system used to implement marvelous Hawk-Eye technology, frequently result in bad line calls. About 30 percent of the Player Challenges at Wimbledon were upheld, somewhat less than the average at tournaments since the Player Challenge System was adopted. To compound the problem, players sometimes cost themselves points when they fail to challenge when they should—such as Federer after hitting an ace, clipping the line, that was called out at 2-2, 0-15 in the final. Chair umpires also make errors of commission and omission.
Thirteen different factors make accurate line-calling difficult and sometimes virtually impossible for tennis players, as Davenport suggested. They are the parallax factor, the angle factor, the distance factor, the occlusion factor, the speed factor, the height factor, the depth perception factor, the light factor, the shadow factor, the weather factor, the color contrast factor, the focus factor, and the interactive factor. (For an essay on this topic, read pages 24-30 of Tennis Confidential II.)
What is the solution? Keep Hawk-Eye, instant replay, and the indispensable linespeople. Get rid of unfair and gimmicky Player Challenges. Armed with a court-side computer monitor displaying Hawk-Eye’s results, the chair umpire should immediately overrule errors by linespeople, clicking a button and instantly putting Hawk-Eye’s image of the correct call on the stadium video board. When a line call is correct but a player protests—in the traditional manner—the umpire also displays Hawk-Eye on the stadium video board. If tennis fans yearn for even more Hawk-Eye, tournaments should display it whenever balls land within 3 (or 4 or 5) inches of the outer edge of the lines.
Used wisely as a means for accurate line-calling, Hawk-Eye improves our sport.
Misused alongside Player Challenges, it gives tennis a black eye.
Are Two Hands Better Than One?
Watching Roger Federer hit his one-handed backhand better than ever, and often gloriously, during the semifinals and final, one would be tempted to conclude this highly endangered stroke is alive and well. Not so fast! Federer, a super athlete with astounding racket skills, capitalized on advantages he seldom enjoys. Grass courts give his backhand an easier-to-hit lower bounce and make his slice backhand skid low and fast, and an indoor environment (for almost half of the final) without wind that hampers one-handed backhands. “Indoor grass—how much better can it get!” Federer told Tennis Channel. The Swiss Maestro also wasn’t facing Nadal whose vicious topspin exploits his one-handed backhand.
To understand how greatly attitudes about the two-handed backhand have changed, consider what Australian Davis Cupper John Alexander wrote in the June 1973 issue of Tennis magazine: “It is incredible to me to see how many players with a two-handed backhand have appeared on the American scene in the past few years. It seems that American coaches encourage young people who start with two hands to continue to stroke the ball that way even when they outgrow the need for it. In Australia, it is a far different story. A professional license would be denied to any coach who recommends any two-handed shot under any circumstances.”
In the U.S. such coaches became prescient pioneers because America’s new two-handed brigade featured champions Evert, Jimmy Connors and Tracy Austin, plus top-10 players Harold Solomon, Eddie Dibbs, Gene Mayer and Andrea Jaeger. In sharp contrast, the absence of elite two-handed players set once-mighty Australian tennis back for a generation.
“Serve and volleying is dead. The one-handed backhand is dead. You can’t even complain to umpires anymore.” — John McEnroe
John McEnroe, who used a one-handed backhand to win seven major singles titles during 1979-84 and now owns a tennis academy in New York, reconsidered his long-held views, and said, “I’d be hard-pressed to look a young player in the eye and tell him he’d be better off to have a one-handed backhand.”
When Federer served and volleyed and Djokovic belted an easy backhand passing shot past him in the semis, the inimitable McEnroe summed up the changing times: “This is getting depressing for the old Johnny Mac. Serve and volleying is dead. The one-handed backhand is dead. You can’t even complain to umpires anymore.”
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The Serve and Volley in the Modern Game
If you are like most players, you probably learned that the key to serve and volleying successfully was to get to the service line, split step, then move forward into the volley. However, that is not the way things work at the pro level or even at higher levels at your local club. The fact is that the ball is traveling much to fast and there really isn't enough time. Former touring pro, Jeff Salzenstein explains.
How to Go From Good to Great
There is a particular body motion in almost every sport or physical activity that a gifted athlete performs intuitively. They know it by feel. People call these players "natural athletes" or, in the case of tennis, they call him Roger Federer. But this specific body motion goes completely unseen by those of us watching. However, this unique motion is not exclusive to top athletes. It can be learned by virtually anyone. — Jack Broudy
ProStrokes 2.0 — Juan Ignacio Chela, Serve
A pro since 1998, Juan Ignacio Chela has experienced sporadic success on tour. Hitting and playing fairly conventional tennis (strong semi western grip forehand, conventional two-handed backhand), Chela’s best surface, not surprisingly, is clay. Growing up and living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Chela was taught as a junior on the predominant clay courts that are the norm in South America. He has had two quarter-final appearances at Roland Garros, (’04 and ’11) and another at the U.S. Open in 2007. Chela’s ranking has fluctuated between a high of #15 in ’04 and a low of #146 in ’08. Chela is currently hovering around #80 in the world. New this issue, Chela's Serve.
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