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Weapon of Choice 01/18/2010 - 5:17 PM

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Howdy, everyone.  Thanks for getting the Australian Open off to a great start - over 2,000 comments on a table-setting post. That's something to crow about. I expect more of the same tonight, and this will be your venue. I watched last night, of  course, and thought that Maria Sharapova's loss was a little sad - not because I have a particular soft spot for Sharapova, but because of what I'll call the Arias Syndrome. Those of you who remember Jimmy, one of Nick Bollettieri's first successful proteges, may already know what I mean.

Jimmy reached as high as No. 5 and was in the Top 10 for two years in the early '80s. He pre-figured the game to come with his huge forehand and emphasis on racket-head speed - no mean feat back in the day when most pros still played the standard-sized rackets and sought to control, rather than liberate, their swings. But the outburst of innovation that brought us mid-sized and larger rackets raced through the game like a prairie fire, and soon everyone was swinging from the heels, using large-head rackets, different new string combinations, and frames made from exotic materials.

I simplify, of course, but Jimmy felt (rightly, I believe) that he lost a big advantage when others could get comparable pace with more forgiving rackets and other technological aids. Technology leveled the playing field. Jimmy came along a few critical years too late, but late enough to show the way to the emerging gestalt. He got caught up in the gears of change.

I thought about Jimmy watching Sharapova last night, because I think she's in similar trouble. This time, though, the issue is less about gear and more the evolution of women's tennis (although I'm sure polyester strings have some role in this - can anyone shed light on that for us?). Some time in the last few years the women as a group figured out that they didn't have to work extra hard, and often with scant reward, to develop the same chief attack weapon the men use, the serve. They would focus instead on the return. Built-in limitations on power make owning a big serve an unattainable dream for most women, but the return, which feeds off the pace of the serve, can be transformed into a fearsome weapon even a woman with less than outstanding power can have.

Or, let's put it this way: Given reasonable mechanics, a player (man or woman) can work his tail off and realize perhaps a four or six percent gain in serving velocity and spin; bump that up to eight or ten percent if we include second serve quality and placement. Most players of either gender basically serve with what Godot gave 'em.

But the return - that can be improved more dramatically, partly because the returner isn't obliged to provide all the power, and thus face a self-determined ceiling. When you return, you're not just trying to get the most out of your shot; you're trying to get the most out of your opponent's shot (the serve) as well. This is a dangerous gambit among the men, because great serving can shut down great returning. But since very few women can serve an opponent off the court, the serve -- especially on the second ball -- is clay with which the returner can work.

This explains quite a few things about women's tennis, including the nearly comical way (from a narrow, traditional and gender-blind view) that service holds sometimes seems a more important stat than breaks of serve.The most dangerous shot in men's tennis remains the serve. Among the women (with a few choice exceptions, led by Serena Wiliams), the most dangerous shot is the return. Remember that big story that developed at the last U.S. Open, about why women had such miserable serving statistics? The answer is fear - fear of the return. It's as if the WTA rank-and-file realized, heck, why bang our heads against the wall, trying to become something beyond our grasp? Let's be something attainable - great returners.

And that's where Sharapova is in trouble, any time she can't serve at her absolute best. If she were, say, Justine Henin, she might be able to compensate for this vulnerability with other elements in her game. But given her limitations as an athlete, she has a declining ability to repel attacking returners.

There was a moment last night when Mary Jo Ferandez, Mary Carillo, Brad Gilbert and Pat McEnroe were discussing Sharapova's loss to Maria Kirilenko, and about three-quarters of the way through the analyses, McEnroe cut to the chase. Watching the match, he and Gilbert decided that Sharapova simply didn't move well enough when Kirilenko managed to pressure her. That, to me, was the key to the match. And more and more these days, when it comes to attacking, the service return is weapon of choice.

Thus, it was poignant when Sharapova, in a revealing moment of bitterness, said in her presser that she would be back to play on the second Saturday in Australia one day. She even added something like, "you just watch." More power to her if she can; she certainly works hard enough to maximize her potential. And she's an extremely determined and focused individual. But, like Arias, she may be a victim of history - caught in the gears of a churning, ever-moving game. 

-- Pete


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Posted by Jenni 01/19/2010 at 01:21 PM

I don't know, given a choice between Andreev and Karlovic I think I'd take Andreev every time.

Posted by VC 01/19/2010 at 01:21 PM

I was a bit surprised to see Andreev ranked in the top 40 actually. I don't remember him doing anything in a long, long time, and he lost some 8 or 9 consecutive matches recently. But he sure played up to his ranking yesterday. Carsten Ball and Michael Russell were also really good, much better than their rankings would suggest. Gulbis on the other hand... how he can seem to possess a top-10 caliber game and still play so poorly, I don't know.

Posted by Nic 01/19/2010 at 01:26 PM

The Sod picture you guys mention is included in this blog post http://tinyurl.com/yz8ldlc and credited to the mothership.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 01/19/2010 at 01:28 PM

Andreev's been as high as 18, back in 2008.

Posted by sod'sfriend 01/19/2010 at 01:28 PM

beth, i see you are fired up for your man. he was struggling last night during the time sod was "winning," (2 sets up, etc.) just before i went to bed. reversal of fortunes after i went to sleep - your man turns it around, my man folds!

i guess one should never count their chickens until they are hatched!

Posted by Alexis 01/19/2010 at 01:31 PM

Also, I didn't see any of the Youznhy/Gasquet match but it looks like a barn-burner. Sad to see Gasquet out so early, but when Youznhy is playing well, he's pretty darn good.

Posted by Pspace (The Curse of Tommy Robredo) 01/19/2010 at 01:31 PM

Can't wait for Roddick vs Bellucci! Go Thomaz.

And, of course, the main course *drum roll* Elena vs Justine. I'm picking Elena to win, but would be fine either way.

Posted by VC 01/19/2010 at 01:32 PM

LOL, those picture captions are awesome. Finding Nemo! :-)

Posted by mcakron 01/19/2010 at 01:37 PM

Yeah, some intriguing match-ups today/tonight. Obviously, Henin/Demmy is the marquee one, but Blake/DelPo might be worth a look if the latter's nicked. Also, Wickmayer/Pannetta could be interesting.

Hi, Jewell.

Posted by Nic 01/19/2010 at 01:42 PM

Okies. This is a tabloidy snippet from today's Daily Telegraph. But as it's nice and cute I'm happy to go along with it.

"Roger Federer's mum and dad were fixturs in his player's box yesterday, along with his wife Mirka, but keen observers noted that Robert Federerer sat several rows behind wife Lynette. We hear the reason is that Lynette talks toomuch during her son's matches.
Federer's arch-rival Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, had a nice chat with Robert when the pair bumped into one another in a hallway, courteously asking after Robert's new twin granddaughters."

Posted by Anne 01/19/2010 at 01:43 PM

This is a great opportunity for James Blake (if he doesn't go all mental-casey on us). He's got the goods to go after a wounded (is it the wrist?) Delpo. I'm hoping for Demmy all the way-like James, no mental issues, please. I thought Wickmayer was banned from tennis?

Posted by Nic 01/19/2010 at 01:44 PM

Oh dear, my typing skills rapidly degenerate with tiredness.
*fixtures, Federer, too much.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 01/19/2010 at 01:47 PM

Thanks, Nic. :)

*waves to mcakron* How are you?

Pennetta v Wicky should be fun - tough draw for Pennetta all the way through, I think. Also, Pavlyuchenkova and Kuzzy could be interesting - it might be good or it might be an utter mess. :)

I guess Monday's rain delayed the schedule a bit as they are still playing some women's first-rounders.

I think Lukas Lacko has superseded Ryler de Heart as my favourite tennis name.

Posted by Sweet 16 01/19/2010 at 01:50 PM

Merci, Nic, for posting that hilarious link. That pic of Le Sod over the fence made me fall in violent like with the guy, he's a cute one (dour, who...?) My word, wonder what NP would say about that particular blogger's rabid fanaticism....? ;) She (you know it's a she!) sure is a funny one!

CL, do my eyes deceive me or... were those emoticons dotting your posts?!? Pigs do fly, don't they! ;) and ;o right back atcha, dear emoting CL! (OT-alert: I've recently re-discovered Leonard Cohen, his London concert is stupendous, luuuuuuuurve his low ramblings, I should sooo like to see our Roger show that kinda longevity! **burns candles**)

Posted by mcakron 01/19/2010 at 01:54 PM

Ryler de Heart. That's funny. Or if you were ever looking for a name straight out of Zorro, how about Rosanna de los Rios? Only knew of her because I happened to click on a stream of Maid Marion last night.

Posted by greenhopper 01/19/2010 at 01:56 PM

Thanks for that Nic.
I LOVE Papa Fed. They should make stuffed toys after him. I'd prolly buy it inspite of the monogram it's sure to have on it.

Posted by VC 01/19/2010 at 02:07 PM

Blake, if he's playing well and brings his brains along, should provide a different kind of matchup challenge to Del Potro. He crushes the ball hard and flat and also has great wheels, though not that great a defensive game. The question as always will be whether he can choose the right moments to attack and keep the errors down.

Posted by Cosi 01/19/2010 at 02:12 PM

Maria Sharapova is not Jimmy Arias or ever going to be Jimmy Arias, Maria Sharapova has won three slams by age 22 and been the number one player, Arias never got close to winning a slam. she will probably win more slams if her shoulder holds up and she gets her confidence back, she wasn't outplayed because of her lack of movement, she was outplayed because she missed on the big points and her opponent played the match of her life. Maria IS better than Dementieva because she has proven to be able to play the big points in big matches and win those points. Maria= 3 slam wins, Elena = 0 slam wins. Please have some perspective, Maria is battling back after a major tennis injury that has stopped some other player's careers permanently, you can't judge her as if everything is normal for her and she's just declining now for this reason or that regarding her "game style". She was obviously nervous in that match with Kirilenko, she had the lead in the first set and the third set, and lost both those sets, she wouldn't have done that before and she's the SAME athlete today she was before, just less sure of herself. It didn't help her to get as a first round, a girl that has knocked on t he door of the top ten who played nearly a flawless third set, Kirilenko couldn't miss in the third, it's hard to play people when they are that hot, especially when you're nervous in your first round at a slam.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 01/19/2010 at 02:13 PM

Morning Everyone,

Nic thanks for that link,great stuff

Sweet Sixteen aka Siggy Cohens dvd concert is just amamzing.To think this time last year I saw him Live in Australia.Age 74 and still brillant as ever.

Still trying to get my head around the loss of Molik I went to bed when she was about to serve fot the match.

Posted by robbyfan 01/19/2010 at 02:18 PM

Nic-good stuff. I thought I read somewhere that Robert Federer was banned to his own row because he kept asking how Roger was doing and what the score meant!

Posted by Peg 01/19/2010 at 02:27 PM

Nic - *love* the snippet! Thanks for sharing it.

Posted by Pspace (The Curse of Tommy Robredo) 01/19/2010 at 02:31 PM

LOL, Playstation should win Oz, if only for the reason that he'll get more interviews. Hilarious:

"""
"I am not Paris Hilton," the world number six told reporters after he dismantled German qualifier Dieter Kindlmann 6-1 6-0 6-3 in the Australian Open first round Tuesday.

"I don't want to be like this. I don't want to be like (Rafa) Nadal, (Roger) Federer. These guys I never see by breakfast. They stay in the room and take room service.

"For me better go downstairs take breakfast, or dinner to go somewhere -- not to be so much famous."

....

"I want to be fast. I want to be running fast," Davydenko said. "Del Potro told me now I am like PlayStation 3. Everybody is thinking I am very fast on the court.

"Now I try to be faster and faster and come to level PlayStation 4. I hope I can do this. It's very important to me."
"""

http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60I0MX20100119?type=sportsNews

Posted by Alexis 01/19/2010 at 02:34 PM

I always read that Lynette and Robert Federer didn't sit next to each other during Roger's matches because Robert gets too nervous and fidgety. Lynette is much more calm.

Remember, Robert Federer wouldn't even come to Roger's first couple of GS wins because he was too nervous. Roger even mentioned it in his oncourt speech after winning his first title at Wimbledon.

Posted by Master Ace 01/19/2010 at 02:34 PM

Looking at the stats from the battle of Marias and translating them into Andrew's positive points ratio

Maria Sharapova - 118 pts won(Makiri 41 UFEs) = 65%
Maria Kirilenko - 117 pts won(Masha 77 UFEs) = 34%

Therefore, as most people know by now that the match was decided on Masha's racquet. Makiri did force her into some long rallies by pushing her off the baseline.

Posted by Alexis 01/19/2010 at 02:36 PM

This has probably been mentioned but since I haven't been here in a few days, I'll go ahead and say it. What was up with Maria Sharapova's outfit? Truly one of the ugliest ones she has ever worn.

Posted by robbyfan 01/19/2010 at 02:37 PM

I heard Nike ran out of money and had to give her rags.

Posted by Diane 01/19/2010 at 02:40 PM

"Does Maria K. always shriek that loud or was she just keeping pace?"

We must have watched different matches. Kirilenko grunts in a traditional, tennis-grunting kind of way, sometimes with an extra syllable, but I've never heard her shriek.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 01/19/2010 at 02:40 PM

robbyfan Word is that Maria is to get $70 million new sponsership deal with Nike

Very expensive rags to me lol!

Posted by robbyfan 01/19/2010 at 02:42 PM

AM-I know-that is why Nike is out of money for her clothes. They already wrote her a big check. I wonder if there was a "performance" clause.

Posted by VC 01/19/2010 at 02:43 PM

LOL at Kolya's quotes.

Posted by robbyfan 01/19/2010 at 02:43 PM

Diane-I thought both Marias were shreiking pretty loudly. I love the silent men with just the puff of air as they exhale

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 01/19/2010 at 02:43 PM

Robbyfan Nah I think she has to keep the tall blonde thingy going lol!

She is one of the highest paid woman athletes going

Make hay while the sunshines lol!

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 01/19/2010 at 02:45 PM

Well Mari K was playing against one of the "all time shriekers" in Maria S

I suppose its just catching lol!

Posted by robbyfan 01/19/2010 at 02:46 PM

A friend sent me different countries reactions to terror levels. I loved the Aussie one:

Australia , meanwhile, has raised its security level from "No worries" to "She'll be right, mate".
Three more escalation levels remain: "Crikey!', "I think we'll need to cancel the barbie this weekend" and "The barbie is cancelled". So far no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 01/19/2010 at 02:48 PM

Robbyfan LOL!!! they are spot on.We have a very laid back attitude even we it comes to terrorists.

Posted by Jerell 01/19/2010 at 03:13 PM

Encouraging win for Donald Young today over Chris Rochus. In the past, he would have lost that match in 4 sets after losing the 1st set like he did. But credit to him showing some maturity against never an easy player in Rochus. That was a good win.

Looking to round 2 (with a few women's 1st round matches still in the balance), a quality match overshadowed by Henin-Dementieva is Pennetta-Wickmayer.....Wickmayer thorougly outclassed Pennetta a few weeks ago in Auckland, so it should be interesting to see what happens in this match. I think it will be a little tigher, but Wickmayer wins in straights.

Posted by TripleF(FedFanForever): Tears of joy in '10! 01/19/2010 at 03:32 PM

mckron
The 'seeding' is only for the top 32. Four brackets of 8. After that it is a crap shoot. Me like not. Like you said, Fed is through and that's what counts. Doesn't Wimby pick each 8 in the order of ranking and let the dice roll without that 8? Am sure there's an orderly way to create this 'gamble' of knock-outs.

Posted by TripleF(FedFanForever): Tears of joy in '10! 01/19/2010 at 03:44 PM

mckron
The 'seeding' is only for the top 32. Four brackets of 8. After that it is a crap shoot. Me like not. Like you said, Fed is through and that's what counts. Doesn't Wimby pick each 8 in the order of ranking and let the dice roll without that 8? Am sure there's an orderly way to create this 'gamble' of knock-outs.

Posted by Sweet 16 01/19/2010 at 04:15 PM

AM, you saw The Old Man live, wow... I envy you. 74 and still going, gaaah. Tennis age is kinda like dog age, isn't it, grrrr. I take comfort in knowing that Roger is an old dog already, and is not gonna play dead. What he's lost in vim and vigor, he's gonna make up in crafty old, well, doggedness!

I have to say I see Mr. Bodo's point about Maria being a victim of the historical times she happens to inhabit. There are times she really reminds me of Roddick... and really, Rafa in some ways, too, that is... the Rafa before he turned into an all-court threat. She needs to diversify her game, but can she? Can old dogs learn new tricks? (Gaaah, Maria old, that would make me like... postiviely prehistoric!)

Posted by willie 01/19/2010 at 10:50 PM

Sharapovaa does not need to win every match she plays; after all, she is the Goddess! Who else on tour (ATP/WTA) makes as much money as Maria does? Both the WTA and ATP tour should be glad she still is willing to play the game of tennis! Most tennis commentators are not worthy to shine maria's shoes.

Posted by willie 01/19/2010 at 10:56 PM

Now that Justine and Kim are back everyone seems to have jumped ship all of a sudden off of Maria's deck. Maria is a better all around player than Kim and Justine!!

Posted by MIchael H. 01/21/2010 at 09:54 AM

Honestly, I have never been a fan of Sharapova. I think that she is overrated. I think that the current state of her game demonstrates that she has received more credit (and Grand Slam titles) than her talent rightly warrants. Bless her if she is able to rebound, but I doubt it.

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