Peter Bodo's TennisWorld - Au Revoir, Paris
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Au Revoir, Paris 06/12/2007 - 3:10 PM

Greetings, everyone. I just dropped in to say Hi, I'm home,and getting in a grass-court frame of mind. I'll have a post on the Queens Club tournament from David Law, coming up later in the day (I have an appointment to make in 45 minutes, then I'll be back).

I talked with Pete Sampras a little earlier today. He watched the early part of the Roland Garros men's final, and told me:

It  looked tough playing Nadal, he's pretty aggressive, and he's one of those guys who grew up using the big racquet. Together with the new strings, it adds up to a very heavy ball he hits. That puts a lot of pressure on you, especially on holding serve. So if you're not right on top of things, you can find yourself in a pretty big hole, pretty fast. And before you know it, you're pressing, and that's never a comfortable position. Nadal is going to win that tournament a few more times, for sure. I still think Roger can win there (Paris). The guy grew up playing on clay, so that's not an issue. Oddly enough, I used to think that the place where Roger might struggle some is at Wimbledon, because he was never really an aggressive, attacking player, even though he had all the tools.

Pete's comment underscored something I didn't highlight on Sunday, The Mighty Fed's observation that Nadal, with his lefty shots and heavy spins, is not just a great opponent, but one with game different enough to make you uncomfortable (the comment is there in his presser transcript). That really rings true - just picturing Nadal's game in your mind ought to drive that point home, because he may have the most distinctive, individualistic game (stroke-production-wise) on the tour.

I'll be back later, everyone. Nice to be home!

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Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 03:05 PM

Dunlop: I don't see it as anywhere near a foot. It's a waist-up thing, and your total arm span is about your height, and divided by two, on the arms. Nor are players bent over double on these shots, unless they are going to fall to the ground. I'll take the smaller, faster player with net skills any day over the tall player.

The foot advantage only applies on the serve, where you have the longer arms added to the six inch shoulder height, and even then it's not a foot, but probably 9" if the height difference is six inches.

The great male volleyers have not been outlandishly tall. They have been taller than average, but I regard that as having more to do with their big serves (setting up and encouraging volleys), than with any "reach" advantage on the volley. I've never seen a tall female player with great net skills, and would put Justine ahead of all the current players, with Amelie next (not an unusually tall player). There is nothing like speed, acceleration, direction change, and great hands when you are playing singles and coming in, and of course you need to recognize the time and hit the approach. It's a total package. Sometimes it looks so easy. Justine's championship point at the FO is an example. The return wasn't deep enough, so she fired that forehand and came in and that was it.

Posted by Andrew 06/13/2007 at 03:07 PM

Bob: your 2:11pm post I think clarifies where you and I differ. It may just be in terms of the way we use words, so I'd like to be careful in exploring this.

You write "If you are going to be a truly great player, you had better show it while you are a teenager, and don't expect to get much better than that, in terms of talent."

I think when you're using the term "improvement" you mean with respect to some innate quality - let's call it "talent" - which manifests itself typically by the time a player is 20. At this point, the basic characteristics of a players game are set (DM might argue that this is the case earlier, say by 15).

If you want to put a young, talented player in a match where he/she is playing well, isolate on a game out of the match, then fast forward say five years, you probably won't see a huge difference. So, if that's your criterion, I'd agree that "talent" doesn't change much and can't be acquired.

But what one does with the talent is a whole different story. Roger Federer is TMF because of the disciplined approach he's used to honing that talent - meaning he can hit more balls to the desired spot today (98/100) than he could do three years ago (94/100).

Someone without his talent might be able to do so 15 times out of 100. Now, the gap between 94 and 98 times out of 100 might not seem like much - but see DM's 2:47pm above: "If you reach one more ball per set that could be all it takes."

I suggest that Federer was reaching two additional balls a set per year from 2003 - 2006. It added up.

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 03:10 PM

temes: Perhaps it's not "beyond dispute", but when I see the net skills of really tall players and compare them to the smaller players, especially with balls hit at them or low, it seems pretty apparent to me.

Guards in basketball have much better shooting skills than the taller players. They need them to compete at that level. These are hand skills. When you are disadvantaged in the size department in almost any sport, you need superior skills in other departments to compete. We do see great hand skills from lots of forwards, but overall it's the guards who have the hand skills.

Posted by temes 06/13/2007 at 03:10 PM

Bob: Also to claim that smaller players can react faster or have better reflexes or whatever you are trying to say is just ridiculous in my humble opinion.
I do think that in general smaller players are better movers(expections Nadal, Federer), but this is at the baseline, it's easy for gigantic player to rush the net, as the distance is quite small and they have only one clear direction to pursue with determination. I think long legs help you to the net very quickly.

Posted by temes 06/13/2007 at 03:14 PM

But Bob, it's not like tall players can't have great hand skills, it completely depends on the persons talent, it has absolutely nothing to do with size. A player can be 9'5 and have superior skills. Although I do agree low balls are pretty tough in this case.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 06/13/2007 at 03:18 PM

When will the love-fest end?

Bob, I'm not sure we disagree. One reason no dominant 6"8" player ever emerged, even when everyone was serving and volleying all the time, was that there was this little problem called, for lack of a better word "the low volley." Before you can camp out at net, you need to navigate the first volley, and the taller you are the more bending down is a problem. Back in the day, of the 77 U.S. players in the main draw of the 1981 U.S. Open, there were a number over 6'3" in height, but all of them ultimately had a problem making their additional reach pay off, because what the gained in lateral reach they gave back in touch on low balls.

You are correct, its the totality of coverage.


We all agree, my man. Again, next time Bob lobs in that comment, its NOT going to be in response to someone who wonders whether a 20 year old who has gotten to the final of Tournament X (say, for example, our man Djokivic) can some day win Tournament X, its going to be in response to someone who implies that BECAUSE DJOKOVIC IS ONLY 20, HIS GAME IS GOING TO BE TWICE AS GOOD AT AGE 23 AS IT IS NOW. Which we all agree is not supportable by any example, even Federers.

Also, this is of course a debate of players already in the top 10. I am firmly of the opinion that a guy like Sam Querrey has huge potential for improvement rankings-wise and in terms of level. But Querrey is in a whole other category than Nadal and Djokovic, to pick just two.

Posted by Andrew 06/13/2007 at 03:32 PM

DM: if we're on the same page (and I think we are, God love us), Hallelujah.

Mind, I'm going to wait for Bob to chime in before breaking out Handel's Messiah....

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 03:33 PM

Andrew: I don't know how anyone could say Federer can hit to the desired spot x times now as compared to y times then; given the incredible variety of opponents, conditions, and situations involved. Somebody would really have to set forth some solid statistics for me to believe that.

We had a discussion about accuracy/placement last year, after I had watched several games of a match and noted and posted where the balls landed on each shot, estimating that on the average, the player seemed to hit for a spot about 7 feet from the baseline. Many people were vehement that these players (and the posters) could hit closer than that, but the reality is that if they can, why don't they do it? These posters are not returning shots hit by world class players, for one thing. I'd be happy to do the same thing at Wimbledon. Whatever a player "should/might" be able to do, the bottom line is "what do they actually do in an actual slam match?"

Sometimes they try to hit closer, but when they do, they are playing poor percentage tennis, and end up with 60 unforced errors sometimes; perhaps because they have no choice. I'll make notes when Eastbourne comes on of a match, and see what the top women do. It seemed to me that Justine was hitting closer than that at the FO, but we tend to forget the shots which hit near the service line, 15 feet from the baseline. I'd be very interested in a test involving a player like Federer, with somebody hitting hard balls at him, and seeing how close he can hit to the baseline and still keep the ball in virtually all of the time, while also hitting the ball hard enough to approximate the speeds of a match.

DM and I both agree that truly great talent establishes itself when you are very young, but you are growing in these years, so you never know for sure what's going to result. Unfortunately, except for the occasional anecdote (such as Justine served for a match against Davenport when she was 15 or whatever), the media really doesn't discuss much about the backgrounds of the great players.

I frankly don't know if Federer has improved his game. I really haven't seen any appreciable improvement from him, nor from Nadal, nor from Justine, nor Serena, nor any of the great players, since they were about 20-21, and often younger. I've never seen it from any truly great player in tennis history.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 06/13/2007 at 03:44 PM

Andrew, if, for any reason you are not resting on your well deserved laurels from the picks game, I think this is statistically testable.

Basically, without looking at the ATP site (yet) which, has, as to every player a simple compilation of "rankings history" -- I would say that:

"of all the players who ever reach the top ten on the ATP computer, and remain there for twelve months, some very high percentage, easily in the 95+% range, were already in the top 50 by age 19"

If you want to say "win a Slam" it might be more like 100%.

That's my hypothesis. Can't test it at the moment. I know though, that Blake is one of the 5%, which is why I like him so much.

Posted by flink 06/13/2007 at 04:05 PM

nadal's challenge ***
For the third year in a row, Nadal and Federer clashed at Roland Garros. Two years ago, they met in the semifinals. Last year they faced other in the final. And so it was again this year as the two best players on the planet took each other on in the title match.
On all three occasions, Nadal toppled Federer in four sets and now the left-handed Spaniard has secured three straight French Open championships. He joins Bjorn Borg as the only player to win three or more Roland Garros titles in a row. Why has Nadal won six of seven clay court meetings with Federer, and how has he managed to beat such a towering big match player thrice on the Paris clay? To me, the answer is not that complicated. The recurring image that keeps flashing in my mind is that of Federer’s contact point off both sides during these matches.

time and again, Nadal forces Federer to play those impossibly high balls off both sides. The pattern which works best for Nadal is his heavy topspin crosscourt forehand which goes to Federer’s backhand. Federer is not confident trying to respond with slice backhands, so he goes for the topspin backhand and misses constantly. Otherwise, the Swiss makes a short reply, which Nadal demolishes with his inside-out, flattened-out forehand. Some critics contend that Federer needs to force the issue more, to attack with more conviction and regularity, to take Nadal out of his comfort zone.

which is easier said than done. Nadal’s shots are bounding so high and often landing so deep that it is an arduous task for Federer to find a way to get in. He did selectively serve-and-volley at unexpected moments. He did try some variation of his own from the baseline, angling his backhand sharply crosscourt to take Nadal off the court when the Spaniard was looking for Federer to go to his backhand. Federer also attempted some high trajectory topspin shots which forced Nadal to reach up uncomfortably for his two-hander, and the Spaniard missed his share of those.

bottom line is that Nadal largely controls the tempo in his clay court duels with Federer. Much was made out of Federer failing to convert 16 of 17 break point opportunities, with ten of those missed opportunities occurring in the first set. Many felt that Federer might have prevailed had he broken Nadal in the opening set and thus moved out in front. But last year, he did take his early chances, sweeping through the first set 6-1. Nadal still came back to take the next three sets. Federer needed that first set in many ways while Nadal did not.

yet, Federer still came back gamely to win a hard fought second set. He was back to one set all, and in essence a brand new, best of three set match had begun. But Federer was clearly drained by nearly two hours of strenuous rallies with his adversary. He was thoroughly outplayed the last two sets by a stronger and more durable opponent. Nadal closed out that contest with growing assurance, winning comfortably 6-3,4-6,6-3,6-4. He won 16 of his last 18 service points after saving a break point in the second game of the fourth set.

now Nadal holds an 8-4 lead in this career series. On surfaces other than clay, Federer has a 3-2 edge. The hope here is that Nadal finds a way to finish this year with more energy and effectiveness. A year ago, after losing the Wimbledon final to Federer, Nadal never made it to another final the rest of the year. Federer lost only one more match after Wimbledon, and the rivalry between these two great players fizzled. They had played each other five times through Wimbledon in 2006, but met only once more as the Spaniard lost his edge.

i don’t expect anything like that to happen again this year. Federer is surely the big favorite to win a fifth consecutive Wimbledon crown, and he will be the favorite at the U.S. Open as well. In New York, he will go for a fourth title in a row. But Nadal is fully capable of making it back to the Wimbledon final, and is long overdue to show us his best stuff in New York. If Nadal does not get injured or exhausted--- those are two big ifs-- he has an opportunity to chase Federer down to the wire for the 2007 No. 1 world ranking.

Federer is nearly five years older than Nadal. He will be 26 in August. Nadal has just turned 21. So there is still at least a three year window for these two to stage some classics, as long as Nadal plays the kind of hard court tennis that brought him the Masters Series title at Indian Wells back in March. I hope over these next few years that this rivalry will grow into something of lasting value and become a great historical series.

The estimable Australians Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall had a stirring series starting in 1963 (when Laver turned pro) extending into the 1970’s with some classic contests, most notably their final round epic at Dallas in 1972 when Rosewall recouped from 3-5 down in the final set tie-break to win four points in a row for the title at the WCT Finals. The left-handed Laver’s explosive game blended beautifully with Rosewall’s pure shot making and incomparable sliced backhand.

From 1978-81, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe celebrated a sparkling rivalry that ended at 7-7. Like Federer and Nadal now, they towered above the field in their time. They met in back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1980 and 1981, with Borg overcoming McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final 1-6,7-5,6-3,6-7(16-18),8-6. I am among those who believe that was the greatest tennis match of all time. It was always a delight to watch these two men of sharply contrasting styles in combat against each other, with McEnroe always coming forward and Borg countering with his astonishing passing shots.

In a very similar way, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert captured the public imagination in their unsurpassed series from 1973-88. These two all time greats played each other no fewer than 80 times in that span, with Navratilova victorious 43 times. They battled against each other 14 times in major finals. Like Borg and McEnroe, a big battle of wills and contrasting playing methodology was showcased whenever Evert and Navratilova clashed as Martina imposed her supreme attacking style while Chris answered with her precise and unerring ground game and glorious passing shots.

From 1989-2002, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi brought their appealingly different personalities and playing styles into the arena against each other. Agassi had perhaps the best return of serve of all time while Sampras was arguably the finest server the game has ever seen. Sampras was the premier serve-and-volleyer and Agassi was the quintessential baseliner. Sampras was victorious in 20 of 34 meetings, defeating Agassi twice at Wimbledon and four times (including three finals) at the U.S. Open. Whenever they played, the atmosphere was electric.

Will Nadal and Federer reach the lofty level of these other historic rivalries? Only time will tell. They have moved into the fourth year of their series, and they have met in majors for three straight years. They play the game so differently that it is always fascinating to watch them probing in their duels. Federer’s elegant artistry is always challenged by Nadal’s speed and topspin wizardry. It will be up to Nadal to take it all to another level. He must prove that he belongs on the other surfaces, show that he can earn the right to play Federer more often on faster courts, demonstrate that he has the necessary versatility. I believe he will.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 06/13/2007 at 04:14 PM

Flink, I think the Mod Squad will be here in a moment to ask for a cite.

Andrew and Bob,

I already proved myself wrong, so you won't have to!

Here are the current top ten, working the way down the rankings to safin, to include guys who were in the top ten for more than one year, and whether they were in the top 50 at age 19

Federer Y (barely)
Nadal Y
Davydenko N
Djokovic Y
Roddick Y
Gonzalez N
Robredo Y
Blake N
Murray Y
Haas Y
Ljubacic N
Hewitt Y
Ferraro Y
Moya N
Safin Y

That's not 95%. However it is interesting to see how few guys ever make it to the top ten and stay there.

Posted by Andrew 06/13/2007 at 04:19 PM

Bob: "hitting the desired spot" is the crux of the matter.

The term I use is Circular Error Probable - - defined as "radius of a circle into which a missile, bomb, or projectile will land at least half the time."

In our case, of course, the projectile is a tennis ball.

No pro's CEP is the diameter of a tennis ball, or probably even a basketball. I think it's smaller than a quarter of the available court, just based on my own ability. I remember reading somewhere (quick Google search hasn't helped) that Agassi had about a +/- 2 feet margin for baseline accuracy.

DM: workin' on it. More in a little while.

Posted by Beth 06/13/2007 at 04:19 PM

guys - I have read virtually every word of what you have written here. And after careful thought , this whole argument boils down to nature vs nurture. The key ingredient in reaching the top ten in tennis , or any other elite sport is innate, god given talent. It cannot be learned, it cannot be taught. Talent , for anything - sport , music, art, dance or science - is some thing you are born with.That part of the equation is unequally distributed to a certain few- some born with more( the geniuses) and some born with less. Even among the genius level their are gradations.What the person with the talent does with that gift is a whole different story. Everyone here can think of a supremely talented individual who has squandered talent . It is not a pretty sight.But that is beside the point .Here is the crux of this argument. Over time a person with talent , say Federer, Nadal or Djokovic- can maximize what they were born with.Through fitness training, proper diet and motivation. Up to a point. By the time they have reached their peak, someone else with a different set of talents and different motivation will knock them off the pedastal.That is the nature of life- sport in particular.
Then you throw in luck and timing to really confuse the issue.But- bottom line - in all things - it is what you make of what you are born with that really matters in the end.
Enough philosophy for now - back to tennis!
Ok examples-
Safin - wasted genius
Federer - genius maximized
Nadal - Djokovic- genius in development
Hewitt - maximized talent - not necessarily genius
Does this make sense?

Posted by Andrew 06/13/2007 at 04:54 PM


Since the start of 2000, these players have been in the ATP top 10 for more than 52 weeks:

Player Age reached top 50 (Y, M)
Agassi, Andre 17 5
Hewitt, Lleyton 18 2
Federer, Roger 18 7
Roddick, Andy 18 8
Safin, Marat 18 9
Henman, Tim 21 10
Nalbandian, David 19 10
Ferrero, Juan Carlos 19 8
Kafelnikov, Yevgeny 20 0
Coria, Guillermo 19 1
Moya, Carlos 19 8
Kuerten, Gustavo 20 9
Nadal, Rafael 17 2
Grosjean, Sebastien 20 8
Davydenko, Nikolay 21 8
Sampras, Pete 18 3
Gaudio, Gaston 21 3
Ljubicic, Ivan 22 3
Norman, Magnus 21 1
Haas, Tommy 19 5
Blake, James 23 3

Average 19 years 11 months
95th percentile 22 years 4 months.

Sub 18: Nadal, Agassi
Sub 19: Hewitt, Sampras, Federer, Roddick, Safin.

All Tier 1 players in their time (Safin, Roddick just about).

Current Young Guns:

Djokovic, Novak 19 0
Gasquet, Richard 18 11
Murray, Andy 18 9
Monfils, Gael 18 11
Baghdatis, Marcos 20 7

Posted by Moderator 06/13/2007 at 04:59 PM

flink: if that's all your own work, interesting. If not, please post a short paragraph or two to whet our appetites, with a link to the original. Thanks.

Posted by Samantha 06/13/2007 at 05:02 PM

I've to agree that forward movement is difficult for tall players and low balls are almost impossible. I've lost so many matches because my opponents will hit low balls to me. But there is a huge advantage in being tall when you serve or for drop shots.

Posted by Andrea 06/13/2007 at 05:04 PM

Beth- I agree with your philosophy for the most part. Except I think Hewitt is not innately/naturally talented, but instead got to where he was by fitness, counterpunching, etc. He's like Davydenko, except with two slams. I think Hewitt and Roddick are the biggest "overachievers" because they got to a very a high level with limited talent. And I say that as a fan of both guys.

Posted by Samantha 06/13/2007 at 05:07 PM

I forgot to add, Justine is truly rare, you don't see many small, and short players at the top of the ranking. Being tall is a definite advantage. Sometimes you can be too tall like Sharapova which hurts your movement.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 06/13/2007 at 05:11 PM

Well done Andrew. What is interesting is that the past "prior to age 19 group" of Hewitt, Sampras, Federer, Roddick, Safin group is backward looking, and all have won a Slam title. The Djokovic, Gasquet, Murray, Monfils group is completely forward looking.

Hold on. Its not that intersting. Obviously, the group of "was in the top ten for 52 weeks AND broke into the top 50 prior to age 19" group has two qualifiers, and the "broke into the top 50 at age 19 or earlier" only has one.

To quote the immortal Homer Simpson, D'oh!

Still interesting, though.

Posted by Beth 06/13/2007 at 05:17 PM

Andrea - I don't think we disagree at all - perhaps I was unclear- Hewiit was my example of a person who although not inately gifted with genius - maximized the skills he had through hard work to reach the top of his profession.
Say what you will about the guy's in your face style - he made the most out of his skills doing exactly what you said.

Posted by Sherlock 06/13/2007 at 05:36 PM

Andrew & Dunlop, great stuff. very interesting numbers. Henman was almost 22? Wow.

Posted by Matt Zemek 06/13/2007 at 05:43 PM

Bob, Andrew, Dunlop, Skip, Beth, Temes, Robin Pratt:

Great, great stuff. What a gift to be able to read this.

(Skip's final line to his last post was an all-time classic).

I can't render a definitive verdict on Wimbledon's court speed, but in the meantime, two things that are definitely clear are the slower balls being used, and the lack of serve-and-volley play translating into an even surface condition around the service lines (and an accordingly worse and worn surface condition, i.e., dirt and sand, around the baseline) at the end of the Wimbledon fortnight.

These court conditions, combined with the slower balls, have in themselves made Wimbledon much more accessible and palatable for baseliners and clay-courters.

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 07:19 PM

Beth: I really think we're speculating when we say that a particular player maximized his/her talents, though I'd agree that Safin isn't exactly the role model of tennis. What happened to Hewitt and Roddick is that Roger Federer arrived (and I concede did seem to take until about 22 to truly reach his peak (but in my view that was more mental than physical). I can't remember the numbe of times Hewitt has lost in slams to the eventual champion. I think Hewitt is always dangerous to several of the top players. He will never be dangerous to Federer. The huge question is "what was out there which we never saw?" It seems that nearly all of the great players started playing tennis when they were young kids. I never started playing tennis until I got to high school. Otherwise I might have risen to #1,000,000, rather than the miserable ranking I would have had if they'd had rankings which stretched into seven figures.

Is it the parents? Is it essential to start a truly great player out before 10 or something? At what ages did the true greats first hit a tennis ball? Just from general TV commentary, it seems that most of them were hitting tennis balls at very young ages. We all know that there are crucial eras for learning certain motor skills in every child. Is what it takes to be one of the great players in history (whatever that is) something which somehow needs to be offered to the player at these very early ages? If so, then that's a parental limitation. A child will not play with a toy unless you give the child that toy or the child sees the toy somewhere used and asks for the toy. Is there an age past which a kid cannot ever become a great player unless (s)he takes up tennis by that age?

Is tennis watched more in Eastern Europe and Russia than in the US; and/or is it viewed generally as a major sport in those nations, such that a child will be more drawn to it (and/or the parents will be more likely to encourage it at young ages), and is this perhaps one major reason that the top players, and perhaps great players, are emerging from those nations. I'm not an expert on motor skills and child development, but these critical stages do exist physically and mentally with kids. We've really seen it in extreme sports. The greatest athletes in the world could never compete on these skateboards, bikes, and other stuff with these young kids, no matter how much they tried. You need to learn this stuff when you are very young, to be truly great at it. Perhaps it's the same with tennis,and/or golf, basketball, and many other sports. Tennis is not that popular in the US. It doesn't have the team aspect, where an average athlete can be part of something better than he is as an individual, make lots of friends, and have lots of fun for years. It takes travel, and somebody to play with. How I wished I had some type of backboard when I was a kid. The only backboard was at the end of the public courts a mile and a half away, and you couldn't use it if that end court was occupied. I would try the garage door. I would try almost anything, but nothing was the same as a backboard. It was easy however to go a few houses away and shoot basketballs for hours.

Perhaps it was already too late for me to maximize my tennis though, since I was 14 or so before I ever took up the game. By that age I'd been playing neighborhood football and casual and competitive basketball for years.

Ana Ivanovic has said Monica Seles was her idol. Well, Monica won all of her grand slam titles except one before Ana was five years old. Does this mean that Ana's parents watched Monica when Ana was very young, and Ana started playing very young? I don't know. However I do know that most of the great players I know of started playing tennis when they were very young. I see on Wikipedia that Monica started playing when she was six.

It may be that the parents of this world are determining who will be the great players, not the players.

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 07:25 PM

Andrew: The problem with your analysis is that it's applicable to objects which are fired with precision. Even a golf ball is not fired with precision, and it's standing still when you hit it. To say that Agassi had a 2' margin for error is absurd. From where? Hitting what type of shot? Moving at what speed? Hitting a ball coming at him at what speed and/or angle.

I'll post where the ball lands at Eastbourne, if they televise it, in Justine's matches, for both players for several games. Whatever that means, it will be a set of facts we can discuss. You really have to write quickly, and judgment is subject to a huge margin for error. I use the 15' service line and estimate from that, since without it you'll be wrong. The TV perspective makes that distance look like about 8 feet.

Posted by Bismarck 06/13/2007 at 07:28 PM

i think ivsnovic saw seles on tv when she was five years old and was that fascinated that she looked up the telephone number of a tennisclub herself and asked her parents to let her play. i remember reading some story like that during the FO.
i have always wondered how some parents figured out that they have such talented kids - for example hingis and graf started at the age of 2 (!) years. incredible.

Posted by Beth 06/13/2007 at 07:38 PM

Bob - interesting points - and yes - I think parents do make an important contribution. but sometimes it can backfire - a too pushy parent - forcing a child into some thing they don't want - those stories are out there too.
I still maintain that natural athletic ability is not learned. Some kids just have it - eye hand coordination , speed , strength - all those basic tools that go into creating an athlete - whatever sport they choose.And while I have no firm data to support it - I would be willing to bet that a person with those gifts could take up whatever sport they chose- individual , team or extreme- and become a success at it. Some people are just better athletes than others - no matter how much you work or how many lessons your parents pay for.
Did you ever see Amadeus ? Not about athletics - but the talent issue certainly plays a major role in the theme of that movie.

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 07:40 PM

Bismarck: The ages are amazing. Perhaps they are in fact determinative, as a limiting factor on genetic potential. Decisions made one way or the other by parents before a child is 8 may give us the next Federer, or stop him in his tracks forever. In the US, we not only have all these new sports for kids (generally team games), but we've had computers, and even athletic boys enjoy obliterating an enemy soldier on a computer screen or video game. In my youth, it was hard to keep boys indoors. These days, it's often hard to get them outdoors. Athletics was a huge part of my happiness as a kid. We didn't have all the amazing stuff they have now, and in fact had a black and white TV which got three channels until I was almost 17, when we got a color TV which got three channels. I was almost 20 before cable emerged. I actually remember when we got our first television, when I was 5 years old. We were one of the first families on the block to have this new thing called television.

I loved to read, but any kid with any athletic ability played lots of sports.

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 07:45 PM

Beth: I agree that it's genetic, but would also contend that if you don't present (push) tennis (or perhaps several types of sports/activities) on a young child, then perhaps you are in those years destroying any chance that child has of being a great player. Perhaps you need to give a young child a chance to play tennis (whether he likes it or not), or the door is forever closed on greatness.

Has there ever been a truly great player who did not learn the game at a very young age? I don't know of any. That's something to ponder.

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 06/13/2007 at 07:54 PM

Bob just keeps hitting interesting notes. If you guys actually chart where balls land, that would be interesting. The other day I was fooling around with my son, and we decided to do target practice. Some random results for me:

1. I can hit an empty ball can with a 100 mph plus serve about once every 30 to 35 serves. I can hit a five-gallon paint bucket about once every 15 serves. If the question is, what can you hit 9 out of 10, I would say its would be a circle with a diameter of about four feet. Interestingly, I've never found slowing the serve down helps with accuracy.

2. On other shots, the question is, what is the speed of shot you are "responding to" and what exactly are you "aiming at" most shots, other than the serve, which you control the toss, are aimed at an imaginary space over the net. I'd say my margin for error at the moment is again, about four feet wide. Depth, that is a different story. Depth requiries not only mechanics but touch. Don't have the touch any more. After I got off of the tour, I took the USPTA exam. I was playing alot at the time, had the touch pretty well dialed in. One of the tests was that off of a fed, low volley, about knee height, you had to hit 7 out of ten volleys within six feet of the baseline. I thought that was fairly easy, and hit ten of ten within one foot.

3. Of course, you, or me, for that matter, are not going to hit ten out of ten within one foot volleying one of Nadal's forehands, which is where this whole analysis breaks down. Its not abstract target hitting ability, its target hitting ability in the tactical situation which counts.

Nevertheless, when you play as much as the pros play, your accuracy is pretty high off of routine shots. My service toss used to be so consistent I would impress students by hitting five second serves in blindfolded. Not that that is any big deal, pretty much any good college player could do it.

Posted by Beth 06/13/2007 at 07:59 PM

Bob - don't know about tennis champs who did not learn it early - but I do know a few dancers - particularly males - who took up ballet in their teens and became great. Clearly the talent was there . Barishnykov.

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 08:03 PM

Beth: Yes, I did see Amadeus.

I've always regarded these critical motor skill periods as nearly all-important when it comes to world class talent. It was why I could accept my favorite fictional character, Tarzan of the Apes. Burroughs gave you a reason to accept him, and as a teenager I was willing to make that leap of faith (and still am). I wrote a novel with a Tarzan-type character, but I took the concept further. It wasn't a natural experience. My character, "Tarak", was captured by a brutal scientist at about 2, and for the next several years he was put in one life-threatening situation after another, so that he either had to increase his fighting skills constantly, or perish. The scientist put innumerable captive children through these experiments, fighting animals and stuff; and of course all of them eventually died when the scientist miscalculated, or the child simply reached potentials, or whatever. Tarak always survived, sometimes by pure fortune. The kids can never be saved. It must be clear to them they they either get better or they die. The result was an adult who was the greatest fighter/killer you can imagine, and then he escapes and has adventures and stuff.

It might be a sobering limitation on the "pool" from which the great athletes emerge, a pool which has perhaps dried up a great deal in the US. How many adults present very young children with the chance to play tennis? How many of those children enjoy it enough at that tender age to play lots of it, even to the exclusion of some other much more popular/appealing sports.

How can a parent know what sport their child might have genetic potential to be great at, in any event? It's certainly something to think about.

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 08:16 PM

Beth: One has to wonder if these dancers might have been even better if they'd started younger, though (excepting Barishnykov). I really don't know. If we examined the New York theater of ballet or whatever, and asked the top dancers, we might have some data. I do enjoy ballet. My favorite film dancer by a long shot was Cyd Charisse, and it was her ballet background which made her so amazing to watch. She was female personified when she danced. It's too bad she was pregnant when they made An American in Paris. I just love to watch her dance. Normally in a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly film, you watch them; but not when Cyd is in the film. She just takes your breath away (at least if you are a guy).

Posted by Beth 06/13/2007 at 08:17 PM

Bob - I don't know if it will produce great tennis champs - but I think if more parents would encourage outdoor play and physical activity - introduced very young - just fun movement - simple things such as running , hopping , skipping , climbing , throwing- kids with athletic talent would show up. Too many kids spend way too much time in front of an electronic babysitter . Or they have the fun of sport " organized" for them - at too early an age competition takes all the fun out of it. I don' t know if it would help - but it sure could not hurt. We might not get another Federer out of it - but there would be a few more with the chance.
I know my own kids started taking tennis lessons at age 5 - they liked it - but my son preferred the more traditional team sports , and my daughter showed some talent as a dancer . so tennis became secondary. Both still play occasionally - the ground strokes are still there - muscle memory is a good thing. If they returned to the game they would be decent club players - but by no means elite. That was obvious even then -

Posted by Beth 06/13/2007 at 08:25 PM

Bob - you have hit on the one area I have some knowledge . Most little girls start ballet around age 4 - before that - they are not learning ballet - just movement - wearing tights . Even at 4 or 5 to call what they are taught " ballet " is a stretch. True ballet classes begin closer to age 7or 8 - pointe work ( the toe shoes ) should never be brought in before a girl reaches puberty. The stress is way to much on their young softer bones.
I remember seeing Cyd Charisse - her movement was beautiful - and she was lovely anyway. so I understand.

Posted by Bob 06/13/2007 at 08:32 PM

Dunlop: I'll chart the shots for some of Justine's play. I always tape her matches, so actually I could do it for one of the final three matches at the FO.

As you note, you can be very accurate in controlled situations, just as a good golfer can be very accurate in controlled situations. The key to one's golf season is to play enough and practice enough pitching that you can get the ball reasonably near the pin. You don't have a club to do it automatically (within ten yards), as with full power shots. It takes practice, and lots of muscle memory, and you want to get it much closer than ten yards.

In tennis however, you have a match to win or lose, and except for the serve, you are facing all kinds of shots from all kinds of opponents, and are moving in various directions, and keeping the opponent in your peripheral vision, and you know that you CANNOT hit it out too often. You must give yourself a margin for error which is pretty near 100% unless you are going for a winner or trying to end the point for some other reason.

Obviously, if Roger Federer tried to actually hit the baseline during play, he will hit it a tiny percentage of the time, but nearly 50% of the time it will be in, and nearly 50% of the time it will go long. That's not going to win anything, so he'll obviously pull back quite a bit, to work the point for a shot which might win the point. He needs also to make these decision in a split second, as he watches the ball come at him, and the opponent moving in the background.

As I recall, the distance averaged about 7 feet on all shots, except I didn't count drop shots. Since it's hard to judge, that might be six or eight feet, or even a larger margin. I don't think I counted volleys, either. You can hit closer with a volley, but at the same time often don't need to; so I don't use them as a measure, since they are very different. I'll certainly watch Justine's FO matches again, and I'll post what I find.

Posted by Andrew 06/13/2007 at 11:12 PM

Bob, DM: I tracked down the article I recalled Scroll down to "HOW ACCURATE ARE AGASSI'S GROUNDSTROKES?" The author looks at set 5 of Agassi - Baghdatis, USO 2006 and estimates that Agassi is aiming 9 inches short of the baseline (hard court, of course).

"By doing that most of his shots (88 percent) will land inside the baseline, and he will hit the line about 10 percent of the time. Given this strategy, and his level of accuracy, Agassi's shots will be called out roughly two percent of the time (because he hit the ball more than 14 inches beyond what he intended). We again know from the properties of the normal curve that two thirds of Agassi's shots will be within 6.82 inches of where he is trying to hit the ball."

He also estimates that club players should be aiming about 3 feet from the lines.

Nine inches sounds close to me, but read the article. I'm prepared to bet that Agassi's aim point is a good deal closer to the baseline than 7 feet.

Posted by Maplesugar 06/14/2007 at 08:10 AM

Bob, I am really enjoying your posts. You are indeed hitting on some very interesting points.

Thanks for the brain candy.

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