Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Rear View Mirror - 2014

by Savannah

via AFP photo 82420c95-3229-4ca5-bc00-652086cc5560_zpsec6b85a5.jpg
via AFP

Transition years. They mean many things to many people. For the most part they bring uncertainty. Who will win the Slams? For the ATP the next question is who will dominate the Master 1000 events? For the WTA it means who will find her way to the top of the heap and will she get there by winning a Slam or will she simply play enough tournaments to give her the points to be named top dog? The ATP came close to having a slamless number one and suddenly all the mockery and scorn for the WTA and it's roster of slamless number ones disappeared. It didn't happen but the double standard between women's tennis and men's tennis is as real as it ever was. More on that later.

Nishikori Kei didn't win a Slam but he made the Final of the US Open. He beat the best clay courter ever on his best surface. No matter how he did it it was a win. He finished the year ranked fifth in the world. And no one doubts he's due to win a Slam, maybe in 2015. It's going to be interesting to see how he handles going from the hunter to the hunted, and whether his body will withstand the beating it will have to take to stay at the top of the men's game. And he's doing it with a celebrity coach or "super coach" as they're being called now, Michael Chang in his employ. Chang won the French and is an example of what a small man can do when he puts his mind to it. Of course the tennis of his time is not the tennis of today but he seems to be able to prepare his charge for today's physical game. The knock on Asian men in tennis has always been size but do the really big men of the West dominate the sport? Not really. Marin Ćilić, the US Open champion, is the exceptional big man who has won a Slam. The top male players are physical specimens but they're not "big men". John Isner is a big man. So is Milos Raonic. People want these men to do well but right now other than the hit and hit harder mindset they haven't shown themselves to be able to withstand the grind mentally.

But I digress. I think Nishikori is the ATP Player of the Year, Slam or no Slam. I'm sure there are those who will pick someone else, someone who has won a Slam, or holds the top ranking, or is considered a demigod. This was a transition year. And the man who is poised to take advantage of this time is Nishikori. I say this not as a big fan of his, I'm not, but it is what it is. Now it's Nishikori's turn to prove that 2014 was not a fluke, that he's ready to step up.

 photo ecdb5523-1b70-4b91-befe-ddbc6e90f496_zps51a35861.jpg
via Jen Pottheiser

This was not an easy decision. I know it should have been but it wasn't. I started this end of year post talking about transition and chose a man who hasn't won a Slam as my ATP Player of the Year. In the end though Serena Williams proved beyond a doubt that she is the dominant female player of her generation. In a year where mental fatigue showed, in a year where there was just a whiff of drama in her camp, in a year where the pack was nipping at her heels she somehow found a way to hold on to the top spot via convincing wins at the US Open and the YEC. She survived a year where coaches openly told their charges to tank matches, with no consequences from the subservient tennis press or the WTA, so that she would not win a the year end tournament. There was the usual hating from the usual corners of the tennis world, dank dark places where her dominace is looked on with hatred and envy, who want anyone but Serena at the top of the women's game. But there she sits, and the haters have, for now, retreated to their caves and are plotting for 2015.

Who else did I think of? Surprisingly Caroline Wozniacki who refocused on her game and gave players fits at the end of the year. Simona Halep didn't make the cut with me because she has not shown that she can mentally handle that Sunday afternoon match with all eyes on her. Petra Kvitova? It looks as if she's finally working on her fitness. Her inability to move is what's holding her back. Maria Sharapova? She's not able to bully players anymore and that could mean trouble for her in 2015. Ana Ivanovic? I can hear it now. "You picked Nishikori for ATP Player of the Year so why not Ana who really fought her way back into the top five?" I think her being able to do that without changing much if anything about her game points to the weakness and mental frailty of everyone ranked below Serena. "But Maria is tough!" I hear you saying. She knows who she can bully and who she can't. She's in Halep's head. Kvitova has to be interested in order to win those big matches. If you scream and holler at Ivanovic she cracks.

This is why, despite the good year many in the top five had in the end I had to choose Serena Williams. Her team has her ready for just about every match. Yes she has bad days, we all do. But when it matters, when winning is the only option, a win it will be. Looking ahead I don't think she's going to play as much in 2015. She'll play the Slams, she'll play the big tournaments but right now her strategy has to be to stay healthy mentally and physically. It's not going to get any easier for her. She is vulnerable, but I feel that Serena will find a way to stay within the top five.

This and That

It's been an interesting "off season" hasn't it? To get this out of the way I haven't watched one second of the IPTL event in Asia and didn't intend to. The 2015 season starts in a few weeks and it's going to be a month of living backwards - sleeping in the day and up at night. I'm not going to do that for exhibition matches. I didn't watch the event in London either.

Not that I haven't been paying attention though. I've been Tweeting and keeping up with current events in tennis, which seems to mean keeping up with who is coaching who for 2015. So let's discuss that for a few minutes.

The most recent news is that Martina Navratilova will be joining Agniezska Radwanska's team on a part time basis. Aga has seen the WTA pass her by and while she is a mere ten points behind Ivanovic in the rankings most of the wins she has are against up and comers who haven't figured her out yet. The top women don't have big problems with her anymore. Navratilova has made no secret of wanting to coach and taking on Aga is going to be an interesting experiment. I guess Aga wants to improve her aggression the way Ivanovic and Wozniacki have so she has a better chance of winning seven matches instead of five at a Slam. I don't expect to see much in Melbourne since they won't have had much time to work together. At least that's how it looks from the outside.

Then there was the intriguing he is then he isn't situation with Sloane Stephens and Nick Saviano. Sloane was seen working at his academy and as quick as you can type 140 characters it was being reported that Saviano was her new coach. Then came the clarification: He's not her coach, not really. She's at his Academy but he's not officially her coach. Got that? This is after Thomas Högstedt was announced as her coach but he then signed on to "consult" with Simona Halep who said she must have a Romanian coach since only a Romanian can understand her. Capiche? So right now Sloane has no coach. This young woman had better remove her head from her posterior and realize the WTA has truly passed her by and that she's joined the ranks of American players who serve as cannon fodder for the real contenders on the tour. It makes no sense to be uncoachable when you haven't won a damn thing.

The other coachless wonder is Eugenie Bouchard, the latest WTA special snowflake. I really think the WTA has created a monster with Ms Bouchard. At the YEC she was heard asking then coach Saviano why they played the event. At the YEC! You're one of the best, one of the top eight women in the world, and you're not honored to make the cut, you don't get that you're in elite company, that everyone ranked below you wants to be where you are? As if that wasn't bad enough she posted a Tweet jokingly proclaiming a ball machine as her new coach. Talk about disrespectful.
Yes she's done more than Sloane but at least Sloane doesn't disrespect the sport that is allowing her to live a life many dream of. Oh wait, Bouchard already lived that life. Maybe that's it. It's not a big deal for her to be treated differently from others so the things that get other players excited don't move her. I wonder if Tennis Canada wants her to choose a Canadian? I wonder if some US based coach thinks he can work with her. As I write this she and the machine are still working together.

Wim Fissette, who famously encouraged Simona Halep to throw a match to stop Serena Williams from making the final of the YEC, advice that to her credit she ignored, will now be working with Madison Keys when she plays out of the United States. Lindsay Davenport will work with her in the US. Madison Keys is, in my opinion, the best hope for the United States as long as she stays out of the clutches of the USTA and it's coaches. She has the killer instinct, she just doesn't know how to harness and control it. I'm glad she's made moves to improve her game.

On December 9 the WTA announced a deal with London based Perform Group worth $525 million dollars. To quote from the press release
Perform is paying the rights fees and guaranteeing money to produce all 2,000 main-draw singles matches and 300 semifinals and finals of doubles matches each year. Networks that choose to produce tournaments on their own will receive subsidies from the venture, which is called WTA Media.
There's no word yet on what this will cost fans to get access to the streams. It's a good move by the WTA. This will make sure women's tennis gets more exposure. I hope it will mean higher quality tennis as well. If we return to the style of tennis that was the norm before the modern era I don't know that many people who are not already fans will be motivated to watch. No one wants to see what one tennishead called "strike and push" tennis anymore.

On the men's side there hasn't been much change. The former players who became coaches this year seem to be keeping their jobs for now so no drama there.

Andy Roddick, the last American man to win a Slam back in the dark ages of 2003, was made an honorary member of Wimbledon. That's your year end proof that the old boy tennis network is alive and well.

Meanwhile Pete Sampras lobbed a few over the wall. With Isner the highest ranked US man at nineteen Sampras said the outlook for US tennis on the mens side is bleak. He was quoted as saying the following:

"I don't see anyone, I don't really know anyone that even people are talking about to break through even into the top 10.

"We're not into the 90s anymore. It will be quite a while to see American tennis back to where it was," said the 14-times major winner who is in India to take part in the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL).

"I think the game has got so international, so global that a lot of kids are playing tennis all around the world. So it makes it tougher for the Americans.

"Maybe the world is more hungry and for whatever reasons, we are not producing juniors, young pros with potential. It's just a phase and hopefully doesn't last that long."

No one talks that bluntly about the state of mens tennis in the United States. I'm sure a lot of folks got the vapors after reading that.

Speaking of talking bluntly and the old boy tennis network Romanian player Marius Copil told the following story about Bernard Tomic to a Romanian reporter. It shows why some juniors are legends in their own minds and have a difficult transition to the Main Tour. The translation I'm using is from an article posted by Filippo Scala and appears on the site.

Q. Some players from your generation like Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Bernard Tomic have already achieved great results. What do you think made the difference compared to you?

A. Let me make you an example. In 2009, I played a Semifinal in Cremona, Italy, against Tomic, who was ranked No. 170 at that time. I was somewhere around No. 200. Do you know how many people he had with him? 6! I only had a physical coach. This is the difference. Tomic told me that he received a credit card from the Australian Tennis Federation and had already spent $ 1.5 million. It was a card with unlimited amount! On top of that, he had signed a contract with Nike since he was a junior. Had he been ranked between 50 and 100, he would have received € 300.000 a year, which would have doubled in case he had broken into the top-50. On the contrary, I receive $15.000 from my sponsor and I have to give 20% to my manager. This, I think, says it all.

Of course in the world of tennis his saying somewhere else in the interview that Sharapova isn't his type got more attention than the statement about Tomic and Tennis Australia.

Oh yeah about Grigor Dimitrov. I still don't see it. With Borna Ćorić and Alexander Zverev I see it. Both will have to create public personas that will resonate with Western audiences though. They have a bit of star power that is sorely lacking among up and comers at the moment.

That said I do see a period of mediocrity for both men's and women's tennis arriving sooner than people want to believe. I don't see superstars like we have now, men and women who transcend their sport. But who knows?

Anyway Brisbane starts in a few weeks. I'd better rest up.


Randy Burgess said...

Don't agree that Fed as a slamless #1 would have indicated a double-standard vis-a-vis the likes of Woz over in the WTA. Several differences: First, Fed has multiple majors in his pocket whereas Woz and Safina had none (if you don't count Safina's doubles win at the US Open, which I had to look up to be sure of). Second, I think there was in fact some tut-tutting about the possibility - I know for sure that the question was raised about what it would mean - so he wasn't going to get a total free pass. And third, I think we all knew it was never going to happen unless Djokovic had a mental breakdown and started gorging on pasta again or broke his ankle or whatever.

I do agree about both Dimitrov and Ćorić. Dimitrov, I just wonder about. His succession of hot shots in Stockholm was unreal. But you don't win titles with flash and no stomach. His win over Murray at Wimbledon seemed more about Murray not being all the way back then about Dimitrov showing he has it. I just don't get him.

Ćorić on the other hand has been impressive. I know Nadal was sick when Ćorić beat him, but even so, the kid was 17 at the time! And he had beaten Gulbis the match before that. And yes I hear Gulbis had something wrong with him too . . . but even so. Ćorić seems like he might have something. Then again I thought the same about Nick Kyrgios and he seems to have vanished from the face of the earth. Maybe that's just temporary and he'll be back. I don't really know much about him, other than he loves name-dropping and snappy purple jackets.

I do wish the WTA were more watchable. It's probably just me getting old. I don't know what came over me, but a couple of days ago I went and downloaded the full match from January of Azarenka getting toasted by Radwanska. But what I realized as I watched was that Azarenka was so far off her normal form that it was impossible to tell if Azarenka was really playing great or just taking advantage. I should love her touch and her creativity, but I'm left cold. Outside of Serena and Halep, and now and then Kvitova, I am unsure of who in the WTA I'd really want to watch play a full match. Let alone root for. Well, I did like Duval; maybe she will make progress now?

Randy Burgess said...

P.S. - Oops, that comment of mine just now should have said "if Radwanska was really playing great or just taking advantage," not "Azarenka."

Savannah said...

Ćorić has the potential to be a big deal if he's managed properly.

If you can before Brisbane try and catch Zverev. He had a good run in Hamburg making the semi final where he got trounced by Ferrer. He beat Youzhny, Giraldo and Kamke, not a bad run for a 17 year old.

As for the women I'm afraid you're on point. I like what I saw of Duval too and I'm glad she's back practicing. It's going to be interesting to see how she's managed this year too.

I think that the new media deal the WTA signed is great but if the product does nothing but inspire yawns it's all for naught.

Karen Williams said...

As a big fan of women's tennis, people can't just tune into a match and expect to be entertained, especially if you know nothing of the player. The thing about the WTA is that you have to become a fan of the women's game. You have to watch almost every match, read up on the players, follow them on social media to find out what it is about their games that you like. I have been blogging about women's tennis since 2009. I watch almost every single player that I can. I don't go around watching players who everyone hypes. For example, before Halep became the people's darling, I was a fan of hers since junior days. Same with Svitolina, Muguruza etc. People who do not watch the women's game every day become disappointed when they tune in to some hyped up player and expect to be entertained. That is not only unfair to said player, but unfair to the women's Tour as a whole. I challenge everyone this year to tune into a WTA match. Don't even think about who is playing, just watch. You may be surprised at what you see.

Savannah said...

Thank you Karen! I don't know anyone who is more dedicated to women's tennis and has been for a long time.

The problem with women's tennis is seeing the matches. For many years ESPN has been the main venue for both casual and serious fans to see women play. It's part of basic cable here in the States and when there's a big tournament - a Slam, IW, Miami, Rome they cover it. And when I say cover it they focus on American men and sometimes American women and male international players. That means that as far as the average fan is concerned women's tennis is defined by Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Simona who? Garbiñe? How do you even say her name? That is why someone like John McEnroe who should know better rolls into the broadcast booth and spouts inanities for the entire match and gets away with it. I mean he didn't even know Venus had been diagnosed with Sjögrens for pete's sake and she's an American.

I'm hoping this new deal will allow people to do what you ask, tune in and watch a women's match. What I'm concerned about is the cost. If it turns out to be prohibitive I'm afraid that the viewership for women's tennis won't get any better.

Karen Williams said...

I don't think it will be as prohibitive as people think. I recall when the ATP had Masters Series TV, people shelled out a lot of money just to watch the men play. In those halycon days you were entertained. never mattered who was playing. I know I for one paid a lot of money just to be able to watch tennis. The WTA has been doing a much better job of focusing on every single player and they are to be commended for that. They have used social media to highlight players and the players themselves have really taken to showcasing us their personalities, which then draws the casual fan into the game. If I have to pay 20 or 30 per month just to be able to watch a stream at any hour of the day or night, no matter where I am, I think I could live with that because the downside to that is constantly watching the Champions Tour or constant repeats on Tennis Channel.

Speaking of ... I love that they have been showcasing the best of 2014, both on the regular Tour and the Slams. They deserve kudos for that.

Randy Burgess said...

Karen, you make a good point. My lack of player knowledge and my disinterest in many matches probably does hinder my ability to enjoy the current WTA.

On the other hand, sometimes all it takes is one match, one player, to get you hooked. I remember that back in 2004, I hadn't watched any tennis at all for something like 10 years. By chance I tuned into the U.S. Open on TV during an Agassi match. I'd heard of him but had never seen him. He was returning - I forget who the opponent was - and it took about 30 seconds for me to get hypnotized by his intensity. That one match revived my interest in tennis after it had slept for so many years.

Before then, as a teenager I actually watched more women's tennis than men's. The players I liked most were the obvious ones - King and Navratilova, then later on Graf and Seles. After Seles got hurt and Graf retired I lost interest. Or it might be more accurate to say I switched my interest to basketball, which I had started to play a lot of.

These days I actually do tune in fairly often to women's matches via streaming. But I just don't get enthralled that often. Sometimes a match will grip me when I don't expect it to, like Madison Keys beating Kerber this year, or Duval beating Stosur, or in 2011 when Stosur unexpectedly put together the match of her life in beating Serena. But there is no player today outside of Serena and Halep who I pay consistent attention to. Someone like Kvitova is the definition of erratic. Imagine if the ATP was made up only of head cases like Tsonga and Gulbis and that would be the picture to me of too much of the WTA.

One thing that especially bothers me about the WTA is that too many women are pure baseliners with one-dimensional games. It's a problem on the men's side too, but it's not as bad over there. On the women's side, players like Azarenka and Sharapova seem allergic to the net. One thing I liked about Li Na was that she was truly awful at net for a long while, but she obviously worked her butt off and got a lot better there in the last couple of years before she retired. I can't imagine Sharapova ever bothering to do the same. If you play only on the baseline it is just so much harder to construct a point. And players who don't construct points are boring. This goes for both men and women, but the sad fact is I simply see less point construction in the WTA. I like Halep because she does know how to build a point. To me she is similar to Nishikori. Those sorts of players, I will watch, men or women.