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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 Sweet 16 (Siggy dreaming) 01/18/2010 at 08:31 PM

Lynn, more proof for whatzzzzhername's thesis, are men necessary? :) Well, that is, men other than dear old Roger and Rafa! ;)

Posted by ssk 01/18/2010 at 08:31 PM

I am sure some of you are aware of this, if you want livestream and want to see multiple matches , try www.espn360.com , not even registration required.

Posted by TripleF(FedFanForever): Tears of joy in '10! 01/18/2010 at 08:31 PM

Stowser...finish it off. It's already 8:30 EST. I say Serena starts aroudn 9:15...and Fed starts no later than 11 or 11:30. Yayayayayayayay!

Here's my declaration:
Fed in straights. And a breadstick in that!

Takers?

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:31 PM

Makarova wins.

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:32 PM

OK, I'm not going crazy. Stupid Sports Mix has Bartoli/DeLos Rios in one of the six squares only it's not them. It's Nieminen (sp?) and his opponent. Or it was for a few seconds. Now no names are up there. I'm just rabbiting on and on here, right?

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:32 PM

Pfft I am stuck with the most boring game on the planet

Has anyone got a link to Carstens match please

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:32 PM

"I always thought that semi was a bit overrated as well."
You do very well ducking. Hiding would probably help too. HOW DARE YOU!!!!

FeVer holds at love to get to 3-3. He should try to avoid the TB in this set. In what i've seen, he hasnt really had that much trouble when he's serving. He just needs to find a way to break. Not that it's easy the way Ball is serving.

Posted by Karen 01/18/2010 at 08:32 PM

MartinaN, give it a break. Sveta lost. The fact that the roof was opened and then closed is of no importance. You are just pissed that Serena won the darned tournament. Get over it. Gah I cannot stand this woman. How the hell does she sleep at night thinking about all the wrongs that have happened to her and the ones she loved. If my memory serves me correctly Sveta was up in that match and served for the freaking match and still lost. Whatever

Posted by Papo (Got Nadal?) 01/18/2010 at 08:32 PM

Is it me or does it look like tennis is on the verge of being overrun by big serving giants?

Posted by TripleF(FedFanForever): Tears of joy in '10! 01/18/2010 at 08:33 PM

Ok. If Ball moves this well, volley this good, groundies this decent...mmmmm....I think at this point, I am tipping him

Posted by Pspace (The Curse of Tommy Robredo) 01/18/2010 at 08:34 PM

Nando will be having a nightmare flashback to his match against Ivo in Wimby.

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:34 PM

Nah, no chance, apparently. Ball keeps serving big, Nando has problems to return succesfully, and Ball holds at love to go up 4-3 in the 2nd set.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:34 PM

Sam has not shown enough variety in her game,its the same old stuff

Storsur 2-1 3rd set

Posted by Sweet 16 01/18/2010 at 08:34 PM

Holy cow, I'm up at the top, this makes me feel really important, definitely channeling 23 and 16! **lights up candles**

Posted by crazyone 01/18/2010 at 08:35 PM

Pspace: Ball is way more fun to watch than Ivo, IMO.

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:35 PM

What happened to Monfils' hair explosion? I'm not liking this short hair look on him. It's just too conventional

Posted by Karen 01/18/2010 at 08:35 PM

Man posts are moving too fast for me right now. Codge, he just creeps me out with the whole "we can do it, if you can do it, and you are really ready, we can do it".
Martina bitching about the fact that no one seems to be tuning into the match just because they are not responding to the question of the day. She speculates that people are TVOing. No, it could be that because TC is not available to a lot of people and they have to be stealing internet feeds in order to watch the darned matches. Hows them apples?

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:35 PM

Hehe, Mr. X. I know, it's just me. Maybe my bias is playing tricks on me here and I may have wanted another finalist... ;-)

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:36 PM

Petrova wins.

Posted by Pspace (The Curse of Tommy Robredo) 01/18/2010 at 08:37 PM

c1, yeah, for sure. He actually has to hit the volley a few times ;-). Problem with Nando is that he throws in a lot of off-speed crap with his serve...not a good idea when Ball needs just one point in the TB.

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:37 PM

And another love hold, this time for Verdasco, who brought out some heavy weapons in that game, mainly with the serve. Also, nice BH passing in the 1st point when Ball was attacking a 2nd serve.
4-4 in the 2nd set.

Posted by london 01/18/2010 at 08:37 PM

kerber wins!

Posted by sokol 01/18/2010 at 08:37 PM

Nadia wins!

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:38 PM

Lauryn: Shhh don't tell her; you'll scare her.

Congrats to Petrova!! And to sokol for hanging in there with you when nobody else would.

Posted by london 01/18/2010 at 08:39 PM

what happened to gavortsova. she really just didnt bring her A game today. another dissapointing loss for the worlds most famous tennis player ever.

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:39 PM

LOL, Carnap.

Errani wins.

Posted by Pspace (The Curse of Tommy Robredo) 01/18/2010 at 08:40 PM

That's crazy...no way the ump should allow Nando to switch racquets there, unless it's a broken string. Rubbish. Anyways, Ball comes up with a couple of bombs to erase the BPs.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:41 PM

Sam breaks

Sam 3-1 3rd set

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeee!!!) 01/18/2010 at 08:41 PM

*loves pissy Karen* :)

Re: Gil Reyes. Seems like a cool cat and I love the results he gets from his protegees (sp?), but yes, the Gil lore is a bit much at times ("Gil Water," running hills, therapese, "It's on, brother," etc.) It's one of the things I disliked about "Open," actually.

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:42 PM

Nieminen wins in straight sets.

Posted by Pspace (The Curse of Tommy Robredo) 01/18/2010 at 08:42 PM

And, Nando breaks. Phew.

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:43 PM

AM: Nando with a break at 5-4 and will serve for the second set after the break. Ball took the first set.

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:43 PM

Ball should have challenged that lob that was called out. It could have been good.
And then, FeVer connects 2 good returns, and he has 3 BPs. You must do it now, man.
Ball saves the first 2 with big serves. Make that all 3 of them. Ace to save the last one, unsuccesfully challenged by the Sauce.
Now, Ball tries to play s&v on 2nd serve, Fer hits a good return, and it's another BP. Do it now, man!
Nah, too short 2nd serve return (Rafa-like, actually), and Ball kills it to save the 4th BP of the game.
They engage in a baseline rally, and Ball misses a FH to the net. Yet another BP.
This time, even if he wasnt as agressive as he probably should have been, Verdasco gets an error from Ball, and he breaks.
FeVer is 5-4 up in the 2nd set, and will try to serve it out next.

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:43 PM

"That's crazy...no way the ump should allow Nando to switch racquets there, unless it's a broken string."

Pspace : Is that a rule about racquets or just because of unnecessary delaying tactics?

Verdasco finally breaks for 5-4. Ball fought off 4 or 5 BPs in that game.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:44 PM

Stosur 4-1,3rd set

Posted by Karen 01/18/2010 at 08:44 PM

OK switching back to that Stosur match. This one is getting a tad tedious

Posted by Codge 01/18/2010 at 08:44 PM

Karen it's to early to let the commies give you agita.

Although, Carillo did make me yell at the computer (briefly) last night.

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:44 PM

Looks like Verdasco broke. Serving for the second set.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:45 PM

Thanks guys for the updates on Carstens match

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:45 PM

Now Ball has a 0-30.

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:45 PM

Sela and Sergeyev in a second set tiebreak.

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:46 PM

Great aggressive tennis from Ball starting with deep returns. 0-40.

Posted by Karen 01/18/2010 at 08:47 PM

LOL at the commies
it is frustrating when you have no tennis on your tv and sitting at the computer watching freezing streams is not my idea of fun.
Man, I thought the American commentators were bad with their players but listening to the AO radio during this Stosur match you would think that Stosur is a world beater. Dang, there is belief and then there is ... she is playing a qualifier for goodness sake. A player whose ranking was not even high enough to enter the tournament directly, she should not be struggling like this.

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:47 PM

Ball breaks back.

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:48 PM

AM: Ball broke back. It's 5 all in the second set, now.

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:48 PM

Captain Costa in the stands. We are TMS, baby!:)

Fer starts playing with his 2nd serve, and Ball dominates the point from the return with his BH, till Fer cant answer. 0-15.
DF. 0-30. WTF??
Another 2nd serve. Ball kills the FH return, takes control of the point, and Verdasco has no answer. 0-40.
FINALLY, a good first serve, that Ball cant return. 15-40.
Ball comes to the net, Verdasco tries to pass him, but sends it out and gets broken. It's 5-5 in the second.
That was shameful, Verdasco. Getting a first serve in the first 3 points would have helped, you know.

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:48 PM

Breaks back! Brilliant. He takes a chance, comes in and hits a good stretch-volley and Verdasco puts the passing shot wide.

Posted by toonie 01/18/2010 at 08:48 PM

Whew! Took me an hour to catch up reading posts!! Why is it that I actually recognize the name of the player that Fed is playing? Shouldn't he be playing some unknown qualifer or Ensign(sp?) Fodder (usually Canadian)?

Posted by evie 01/18/2010 at 08:48 PM

Verdasco fell apart when serving out the set. Carsten hanging tough.

Posted by phillykat 01/18/2010 at 08:48 PM

carnap, LaMonf looks really cute now with the shorter haircut, like "hot" quality now. looks more like a grown-up now too, not that lost dear in the headlights (Bambi!) look.

IMO

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:49 PM

LOL Karen...glad to see hype is a universal thing.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:49 PM

Han holds serve

Stosur 4-2,3rd set

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:49 PM

Ball is pretty good. Verdasco is going to have to gut out a tough tiebreak or two to get through this one.

Posted by crazyone 01/18/2010 at 08:50 PM

Is it just me, or does Carsten move pretty well, or is Verdasco just not exposing his lack of movement?

Posted by evie 01/18/2010 at 08:50 PM

Nice volley, Carsten! The boy's got touch.

Posted by GB 01/18/2010 at 08:50 PM

WTF Fer? WTF!

Posted by Texastennis 01/18/2010 at 08:50 PM

Really terrible game from Verdasco serving for the set. Talk about tight. Hasn't he ever head of lobbing?
(Just started watching on ESPN360 while watching for the actual tv espn broadcast to start. Thanks for the hint!)

Posted by Karen 01/18/2010 at 08:50 PM

so it takes Verdasco almost 2 hours to break his opponent and no time at all for his opponent to break right back. now Nando is feeling the pressure. this carsten fellow is playing really well

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

And, Sela, my suicide pool pick, is down two sets.

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

Ball holds at 30 to go up 6-5 in the 2nd, closing the game with a very good point, finished with a nice volley. He went back to serving big and not giving many chances to Dasco, in spite of making a DF. That was an enormous wasted chance, Fer.

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

phillykat: I preferred La Monf's mattress explosion hairdo...more edgy..more in your face...more see if i care. A rebel without a razor kinda thing.

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

I'm really liking his game. Good serve, solid groundies and picks the right times to be aggressive and end points at the net.

Posted by Angel of the Surf (A Complete Bobblehead) 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

thanks for match calling, quips and anything else that amuses me during my day.

Looks like Ball is taking it right up to FeVer.

Posted by phillykat 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

And...LaMonf has THE BEST UPPERBODY on the ATP!

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

Karen This just pitiful to watch from Sam,she hasnt found any form like last year.Her confidence is at a all time low.

Posted by sokol 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

WTH! Sela lost 2nd set as well, dang it...

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:51 PM

Berdych wins in straight sets over Hasse.

Posted by CL 01/18/2010 at 08:52 PM

TennisFan2 - ESPN has a nearly unbroken record of going away from real live tennis to show real dead puff pieces. You have to tip your hat at their consistency ...if you hat is full of rotten eggs that is.

sblily - agree about those specifics re Gil...yet the larger portrait of him in Open is very engaging.

Carston MUCH more interesting than Ivo. Much to Verdasco's annoyance.

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:52 PM

Isner lost the third set. He's up 2 sets to 1 over Seppi.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:52 PM

Sam holds

Stosur 5-2,3rd set

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeee!!!) 01/18/2010 at 08:52 PM

Carsten's playing some smart points - when Sauce has to run, he's toast.

Vamos Sauce! Do not do this to me. :/

Posted by sokol 01/18/2010 at 08:53 PM

Congrats to Tomas and fans

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:53 PM

phillykat: better tone that down. the rafagurls will have something to say about who has the best upper body in the ATP.

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:53 PM

Good service game there from Verdasco, TB time.

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:53 PM

FH winner, ace, easy FH winner after a good serve, return out, Verdasco holds at love to get to the TB. Where was this game earlier, smart guy?

Posted by TripleF(FedFanForever): Tears of joy in '10! 01/18/2010 at 08:53 PM

Cilic is doing the honors. For the frenchy magician.

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:54 PM

Verdasco in a second set tiebreak over Ball.

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:54 PM

Congrats to Bye Bye Berdy.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:54 PM

About time too Tomas and still mad at you losing in 3 sets to PeterL at Medibank.pfft.

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:55 PM

Ball's gonna flatten Nando, methinks. First upset for the boyz is looming.

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:55 PM

Verdasco now takes control with that mighty forehand, 3-0 up in the TB.

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeee!!!) 01/18/2010 at 08:55 PM

Dammnit, Dudi. :(

My future in suicide pool is looking very bleak indeed.

Posted by izidane 01/18/2010 at 08:55 PM

Hi all.
Did TTC just throw in a commercial at the start of a TB, making us miss the first point?!
Boy they're precious.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/18/2010 at 08:56 PM

Stosur d Han 6-1,3-6,6-2

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:56 PM

Stosur wins.

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:56 PM

Ball starts the TB with a DF. 1-0, Verdasco.
2 great FH winners in a row. Finally, the FH is looking as good as it can be. Verdasco up 3-0.
Ball sends a BH to the net. 4-0, Verdasco.
FeVer vsends a 2nd serve return long. 4-1, Verdasco. Dont mess up this one.
Ball hits a BH wide, and they change sides with Verdasco up 5-1.
He cant screw up this time, can he?

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:56 PM

Davydenko up a break already at 1-0

Posted by phillykat 01/18/2010 at 08:56 PM

hehe carnap. I def don't want the rafa fan club after me.

Posted by crazyone 01/18/2010 at 08:57 PM

Ball's playing a mighty poor tiebreak.

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:57 PM

Congrats Sam.

Posted by Pspace (The Curse of Tommy Robredo) 01/18/2010 at 08:57 PM

VC, yeah, I was thinking abt the delay.

Posted by Karen 01/18/2010 at 08:57 PM

OK going somewhere a tad more comfortable to watch Mesdames Willams. Will be back to cheer on Olivia in her match against Sorana

Posted by carnap - Jan. 25th - Burns' Supper 01/18/2010 at 08:57 PM

second set to Nando

Posted by Lauryn 01/18/2010 at 08:58 PM

Verdasco wins the second set tiebreak.

Posted by VC 01/18/2010 at 08:58 PM

Easy enough TB for Verdasco as Ball has made a few UFEs. 6-1. And he wins it with a good pass as Ball puts the volley wide. Good tennis from both players, Ball paid for playing a loose TB.

Posted by phillykat 01/18/2010 at 08:58 PM

Davydenko starting off good. would love to see him go far if not win it (want to see Pete eat crow)

Posted by Karen 01/18/2010 at 08:59 PM

Dang, I missed the semis of the billiards. Forgot that it was on. Oh well, at least I am seeing the supershot *rolls eyes

Posted by sokol 01/18/2010 at 08:59 PM

Davai, Kolya!

Posted by izidane 01/18/2010 at 08:59 PM

Things just went "splooosh" in Carsten's head during that TB, and then it was over.
Good fightback Hotty.

Posted by Mr. X 01/18/2010 at 08:59 PM

Ball nets a FH when he was on the move. Verdasco has 5 SPs. And he takes the first one after Ball cant answer his passing attemp and sends the volley wide.
Verdasco wins the 2nd set, 7-6. That was a lucky escape, FeVer. You could have gotten in serious trouble after that lousy game when trying to serve out the set, but Ball played a very bad TB. The DF in the first point hurt him, apparently.
Ball only had 37% of his 1st serves in in that set. If Fer hadnt won it, he could as well have left.
Let's see if Ball's serve keeps being less effective as the match adavances.

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