Category Archives: ATP

Of the Importance of 2nd Serves…

Back in my college coaching days, my ex-roommate and life-long friend named Michael Kreider originally from Buffalo, NY, and a current tennis pro in Atlanta, said to me one time “you are only as good as your second serve.” At the time, I would make my team practice second serves as part of our daily serving routine. However, after Michael’s reminder, I began designing drills specifically geared towards making my players feel under pressure, and force them to serve second serves under those circumstances. Eventually, I got on the same page with Michael and began believing that second serves were just as important as any other single shot in tennis, if not more. You may have even read one of my pieces where I praise Raonic, Federer, and Isner for being, in my opinion, the best second-serve hitters in the game.

Let’s take a quick look at the Wimbledon Men’s Draw from the perspective of second serves.

2nd serve

There is a stat called “2nd serve points won” and you can find it on Wimbledon’s website. Three of the quarter-finalists are in the top 8 of that list (see picture above). At number 1, there is Tatsuma Ito whose percentage is based on one match only since he lost in the first round, thus not very indicative of the overall second-serve effectiveness. At number 2, 3, and 4, we have Roger Federer (68%), Feliciano Lopez who lost today (66%), and Milos Raonic (65%). At number 7, there is the guy who took Lopez out, Stan Wawrinka (62%). I will also add as a side note that, on the women’s list in the same category, after Kristina Pliskova, who also played only one round, you can find Petra Kvitova at #2 with 64%, and Simona Halep at #3 with 63%.

But wait! It does not end there.

It is generally accepted that the serve is an essential factor in playing successful tiebreaks. Until today, Lopez was 6 out of 7 in tiebreakers in his first three rounds. Today he lost two tiebreakers to Wawrinka who is third on the list among the players still alive in the tournament. Additionally, Federer is the leader of the career tiebreak winning percentage category on the ATP Tour.

No, it still does not end there.

Here is an incredible stat from today: against Tommy Robredo, Federer lost only one – yes, ONE – point on his second-serve points in the first two sets combined! Furthermore, since second serve is the shot that determines if you double fault or not, I should add that Federer had 0 – yes, zero! – double faults today, despite hitting them well enough to serve-and-volley on several of them. In fact, today’s four quarterfinal winners had a total of only 8 double faults between them. Half of those came from Nick Kyrgios who more than made up for that with his 37 aces against Rafael Nadal.

Is it becoming clear how important second serves are yet? If not, here is one last tidbit…

Out of all 8 men left in the singles draw, Dimitrov and Kyrgios have the highest number of double faults per match. They both average just below four double faults a match. They also average 10 aces (Dimitrov) and 26 aces (Kyrgios) per match. Next, there is Marin Cilic at less than 3 double faults per match and he is averaging 24,5 aces per match. The other five quarterfinalists are averaging less than two double faults per match.

Three of them are still in the tournament in the men’s draw. Watch Raonic, Wawrinka, and Federer, on their second serves, and you will see the variation on the spin, slice, speed, and placement. That is why these three players love the pattern of putting the next shot away with their big forehands (or even volleys in Federer’s case who serves-and-volleys on second serve occasionally), because they get a number of returns back from their second serves that are placed exactly where they want them for the winning shot.

Does all this mean that a tour player cannot win without a terrific second serve? No, but it does mean that if a player wants to succeed at the highest level, second serves will have to be incorporated into his/her practice routine, just like any other shot in tennis. Not just “serves,” but specifically “second serves”.

Roger Federer, a Master of Public Relations

Roger Federer may have missed his best chance to add the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 title to his resume by losing in the finals to his compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, but there is little doubt that he is the ultimate winner in terms of managing his public profile more profitably than any other athlete in tennis – perhaps in sports. The number of records held by the 17-time Slam winner probably overlaps that of any other player in the history of the game. Nevertheless, his career earnings in prize money from his athletic performances pale in comparison to his yearly income from endorsements from companies such as Nike, Rolex, Credit Suisse, Moet & Chandon and Wilson. In fact, the amount that he earns from endorsements in just two years – around $95 million – surpasses the amount that he has earned throughout his career in prize money – over $80 million and counting.

If one needed an example of how Federer & his PR team successfully negotiate his impeccable image, they need not look any further back then the series of announcements and press conferences since Federer’s public acknowledgement back in December of 2013 that he and his wife were expecting their third child. The brief and celebratory announcement that hit the waves via twitter included one sentence: “Mirka and I are very happy to share the news that Myla & Charlene will be big sisters in 2014! Happy Holidays.” No other information was provided and there is good reason for that.

Since then, Federer, who notoriously – and rightfully – draws a clear line between his public and private life, rarely mentioned anything about his wife’s pregnancy during any press conference, outside of a few words here and there indicating how happy they are. He made statements that were designed to uphold the image of a tightly-knit family, and that image is not hard to maintain because it comes naturally. Federer has always affirmed how much his family means to him, and he has frequently praised Mirka’s role in his success. There is no doubt that the happiness that Roger and Mirka and their children display has very little to do with image. They are a very close family.

Peculiarly, or so it seemed at first, none of the announcements included a due date. In this day of improved medical technology, due dates can often be estimated to the exact date, if not within a week of delivery date. However, on each occasion that a journalist initiated the ‘when-abouts’ of the due date during the press conferences, Federer’s reply has been a consistent “I don’t know.” Some saw it as pandering to the media, while others simply felt that he could opt for honesty and choose to say that he refuses to answer the question. I believe anyone who has had any experience with the media can agree that the latter option goes nowhere with media members. The pandering option is not Federer’s style either. He is no Vitas Gerulaitis who gave details of his night life or Boris Becker who has a reputation for wanting to be in front of any camera including the one that you set up in your garage. In fact, when journalists insisted in the Indian Wells tournament, he simply said that even if he knew the date he would not tell them. It’s his way of saying “move on to the next question.”

Shortly before the Monte Carlo Masters, the tournament organizers announced that Federer will indeed be a part of the field, accepting a Wild Card. In the social media, some speculated that it may have to do with his intention of solidifying his ranking in the top 4 (he is currently ranked #4). There were others that he wanted to try one more time to see if he could capture one of the rare titles that have eluded him. On the Tennis Channel they speculated that he wants to gain more points in case he has to miss a big tournament due to the delivery of their child. However, if I am connecting the dots correctly, I see an even more nuanced picture, one in which the Federer camp is carefully treading the line between providing too much information to the media and making sure that he can make the most of the clay court season during a period where the delivery date falls on a delicate time.

After his second round win over Radek Stepanek, Federer had to deal once again with more questions on the expected delivery date. Once again, he handled them masterfully. He revealed that he would put the birth of their third child ahead of any tournament saying all the right things about how supporting his wife was a “priority” to him. When pushed a bit further and asked if he was willing to miss the French Open specifically, he once again crafted his message to imply that the questions should stop there as politely as possible: ”Yeah, let’s talk about it when it would happen. At the moment we hope it’s not going to be that way.” Then, he added ”If it is, that’s what it is, you know.” He essentially came across as a great family man, a dedicated competitor, while not committing to any obligations before due time.

Seeing how delicately Federer is handling the flow of information, I do not believe it is a stretch to assume that the delivery date falls around the French Open: perhaps around the beginning, or late in the second week. If Federer were to announce the date, it would put him in the position of either withdrawing prior to the French Open, or forfeiting a match late in the tournament, making him appear somewhat inconsiderate since everyone would know that he went into the tournament with the knowledge that he would not play it out. If my speculation (and it is not much more than that at this point) turns out to be the case, it would make sense for Federer to avoid revealing the date in order to keep his options open.

For example, if the due date coincides with the final weekend at Roland Garros and Federer has made it that far, it would certainly render his decision to play the final (again, if he makes it that far) more acceptable in the eyes of the public. In another case, if the due date falls within the first couple of days of the tournament, I believe the tournament director would gladly honor his request to schedule his match on the last day of the first round matches, or even in an unusual move, schedule it on the first day of second rounds (provided ATP regulations has no mandate against that). Neither the participants nor the tennis world would perceive that as preferential treatment in the case of a man who puts his child’s birth ahead of his work. French open tournament director Gilbert Ysern would happily make that adjustment rather than lose a prime name in the draw. However, none of those options would remain if he were to make an early announcement about the date, basically forcing him to withdraw earlier, even if in hindsight, the actual delivery date would have shown that decision to be a hasty one. Of course, these are mere speculations and Federer may announce the date sooner than later. The string of announcements do however show an intention by the Federer camp to wait as long as possible prior to making a final decision in order to keep the options open.

In any case, this article does not intend to judge Federer’s business decisions or his decision-making process in family matters. It simply shows how well he and his camp are handling the situation despite him being the highest-profiled tennis player, and one of the most prominent sportsmen and/or celebrities in the world (a google search will reveal several Forbes’ rankings indicating just that). Whatever the outcome of his child’s birth, he will come out of this squeaky clean, with his image untarnished, as well as with earning the maximum amount of points to keep his ranking up, thus remain a contender on the tour. The case of the timing of the birth of the Swiss star’s third child and how efficiently Federer’s PR strategy relates to it should be a case study for all other sports celebrities in order to analyze how they could improve theirs.

2013-08-15aFedererFederer signing autographs for his fans in Cincinnati (2013)

Invented Categories: Diluting the Greatest Player of All-Time Debate

Is it Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, or Roger Federer? Will Novak Djokovic soon be added to the list? In any case, the Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) debate has been alive since the mid-1990s and furiously kicking since the second half of the 2000s. While the debate has mobilized some intriguing research with regards to the history of men’s tennis in the Open era and stirred considerable passion for the sport, the partisanship in the debate has in many ways hurt the objectivity of the public opinion.

The most glaring examples of this “my-guy-must-be-the-greatest” anxiety come in the form of invented or overrated categories that have, in reality, no business in the GOAT debate if reason and objectivity were to prevail. This article will not make a case for any one player; instead, it will attempt to foreground the problems of partisanship’s over-involvement in the debate by pinpointing to a few of those artificially created measuring sticks.

Davis Cup Titles

This is one category that has no place in the GOAT debate, yet through the “if-repeated-enough-people-will-swallow” tactic, it has made its way into the debate as many times as it should have never been a part of it. First of all, no player wins the Davis Cup, officially or unofficially. In the tennis record books, you don’t see that “Borg has won the Davis Cup”; instead, it reads that Sweden has won it. Second, this category is not only inaccurate, but also non-existent. It was born out of the desire of John McEnroe fans back in the early 1980s to lift their player above his main American rival, Jimmy Connors, who regularly snubbed the Davis Cup, and further strengthened in the late 2000s by the wishes of the fans of players other than Federer, with the aim to place their chosen player ahead of Federer in the debate.

There is no doubt that when a player wins both his singles and doubles matches, he plays a major role in his team’s march to the Davis Cup title (for example Borg in 1975, and McEnroe in 1982); but “he” does not win the title!  There are four players and a captain on the team, contributing to the victory, and the country’s name goes on the records as having won the title.  A player wins two matches maximum by himself, which is neither enough to win a single tie nor to win a title.

The fans of this category somehow try to paint a portrait that shows their man winning the tie/title by themselves, which shows disrespect to the team and the country since on the Cup the country’s name is carved and not the player’s name. It also inaccurately assumes that a particular doubles competition — that of the Davis Cup encounter on the middle Saturday — somehow has more value than any other doubles matches or titles. Doubles play no role in the GOAT debate. If it did, one would need to include Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan individually in the debate since they would then have more Slam titles to their names than Sampras or Nadal and more Grand Slams to their names than any other player in the Open era (not to mention their Davis Cup titles — not the USA’s!), and John McEnroe would be looking better than ever with a total of 16 Slam titles and several Davis Cup titles.

But this is not how the GOAT debate operates because doubles’ results are not included in the debate. McEnroe’s doubles titles do not get weighed in when discussing his GOAT status versus Borg or Andre Agassi. Whether doubles should be included or not, that is a debate for another day, but the way the GOAT debate is conducted today, doubles are basically a non-factor, thus so should the doubles match in Davis Cup, effectively erasing any illusion that a single player wins the Davis Cup. But again, one does not have to go that far to see that Davis Cup titles have no place as a measuring category in the GOAT debate. As noted earlier, it is a category that does not exist. A country, not a player, wins the Davis Cup, and so it goes into the records, period.

Slam Titles

This is the most ironic category in the sense that the same group of experts who pushed this category’s rise to the dominant category in the determination of the GOAT probably now regret that they ever did it. While this is certainly not an invented category and should definitely contribute to determining the GOAT, the impression that exists today that this has always been the determinant category could not be more false.

In the 1970s and 1980s, accolades such as the number of Slams won in succession, the amount of time spent at No. 1, and achieving the Grand Slam outclassed the number of Slams won as far as the players and fans were concerned. From mid-1970s to mid-1980s, most top players did not even play the Australian Open, simply because its timing was odd and it was considered too far away. Borg openly said that he would only consider playing the Australian Open if he won the U.S. Open and had a chance to complete the Grand Slam. He never won the U.S. Open, thus he never played the Australian Open, except one time in 1973 as a youngster. As a result, he won 11 Slams in eight years, playing only three Slams per year. McEnroe played the Australian Open for the first time in 1983, and Jimmy Connors never played it after 1975.

The importance of Slam titles got put on a pedestal when Pete Sampras began collecting Slam titles in the 1990s.  The American media galvanized its viewers once they saw that one of their own could come out of the shadows of Borg and Laver that Connors and McEnroe could never quite surpass, and grab the GOAT title by focusing on the number of Slams.  The likes of Bud Collins, Brad Gilbert, Patrick McEnroe and Mary Carillo quickly reduced all statistics-related discourse to the number of Slam titles.

In this tactic, they saw the means to quicken the process of officially naming their man the GOAT.  As soon as Sampras surpassed Borg’s 11 Slam titles, he was essentially declared the GOAT; the 13th and 14th titles were the icing on the cake.  The American media clung on the number of Slam titles as long as it could, in the name of keeping an American as the GOAT.  The reality was that by the time Roger Federer won his 12th and 13th Slam titles, his list of accomplishments was already superior to that of Sampras, including titles on a surface that Sampras never came close to mastering.  But all that mattered was the number 14, and the American media reminded the public at each opportunity, through eye-catching graphics and colorful vocabulary, that Sampras was still the GOAT due to his 14 Slam titles.

The irony is, several years later, what Federer fans considered a farcical tactic to keep their man behind Sampras in the GOAT debate became their biggest asset when their man began collecting loss after loss against his main rival Nadal.  It seems that in the next couple of years, the number of Slams will remain Federer fans’ biggest ally.  Once again, the partisanship in the GOAT debate has accorded a category more importance than it deserves.  The number of Slams was not the most important category for two and a half decades into the Open era.

Even after two decades of a powerful push by the American-led tennis media, the number of Slams should still not be the central factor in determining the GOAT.  Sampras should not have kept the GOAT status when Federer had 12 or 13 Slam Titles, and Federer should not keep the GOAT status simply because Nadal’s titles (possibly) remain below 17.  On a similar note, I would not hesitate to already put Nadal ahead of Sampras, albeit by a small margin, even though the latter has more Slam titles to his name.  Nadal’s ability to win on all surfaces and his career Grand Slam, along with his record as the most Masters Series titles should at least be enough to trump Sampras’ one more Slam title over Nadal.

Head-to-Head

While this category shows who you may pick in a match between two players if your life depended on it, it does not say much about which player should be considered in a higher status than the other in the GOAT debate.  A given player becomes great not by consistently beating one player, but by consistently outperforming the rest of the field against which he is competing.  Once again, this is an invented category that Nadal fans cling on to due to their player’s fantastic head-to-head record against Federer.

Currently, it will matter in roundtable debates since both players are active and their fans can banter on message boards and blogs.  But tennis historiography shows that, twenty years from now, it will matter very little.  Guillermo Vilas, the player that history considers as one of the top 5 clay court players in the Open era had a 5-8 record on clay against Manuel Orantes, with one of the five wins coming in a walk-over, and another on an abandoned match.  Despite this one-sided head-to-head record, history would hardly consider Orantes a better clay-court player than Vilas.  Would anybody consider Vitas Gerulaitis ahead of Ilie Nastase in the ranking of the best players in the Open era?  I hardly doubt it and so would most tennis historians.  Yet, Gerulaitis had a crushing 10-1 record against Nastase, simply because he would endlessly chip-and-charge to Nastase’s backhand force ‘Nasty’ to use his weakest shot to pass him, the one-handed backhand topspin off of a slice that stays extremely low.  The bottom line is that history accords, and rightfully so, very little importance to the head-to-head record between two players.  Tennis rankings are not determined by how well a specific player does against another specific player; they are determined by how a player performs against the rest of the ensemble of ATP players.

I am sure others can find more frivolous, overrated, or invented ‘false’ categories if needed.  The truth is that partisanship consistently hurts the older players on the hand – how many ‘Laver fans’ or ‘Borg fans’ remain today compared to Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic fans? – and hinders analysis based on facts by diluting the debate with unhealthy emotions and inaccurate (and sometimes false!) data on the other.  It is understandable that fans of particular players fall into this trap.  After all, they have the right to be emotional, which is a major component of fandom.  However, it is utterly worrisome that the leading figures in the tennis media fall into this trap and wrongly influence the public opinion.

The Most Famous #100 Player in ATP History

Derek Tarr and his daughter (2013)

Derek Tarr and his daughter (2013)

The year is 1984 and the location is the U.S. Open in New York. In the first round, the 12th-seeded player and one of the most buoyant characters of the Golden Age of tennis “Disco” Vitas Gerulaitis plays a little-known South African player by the name of Derek Tarr (pictured in 2013 with his daughter Lauren). Gerulaitis wins in three straight sets and Tarr gets in his car later that day to drive back to his residence in Birmingham, Alabama. He plans to drive for a day, take a break, and arrive the next day to his destination.

At the press conference, a journalist asks Gerulaitis to compare the skills of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova who happen to be the number 1 players in the world in men and women respectively. The days of being politically correct have not quite arrived yet and women’s tennis is still climbing the steep hill to equal prize money in tournaments. Gerulaitis bluntly says that Navratilova is so dominant because 95% of the women don’t know how to play tennis, and insists that men’s tennis rankings are much deeper. Then he casually adds fuel to the fire by claiming that he bets his 2-million-dollar home in Long Island that the number-100 men’s player in the world would beat Navratilova! Ironically, he is not aware that the guy he has just beaten in the first round, Derek Tarr, happens to be ranked 100 in ATP that week. Wheels begin turning in the media and Gerulaitis’ claim is all over the wires. Everyone has an opinion, including well-known players of the period. Harold Salomon, ex-French Open finalist who was contemplating retirement claims he can take Navratilova on “anytime, anywhere”. Ilie Nastase says he will put on a skirt and still beat Navratilova. Navratilova claims on a given surface she could have a chance to win. Chris Evert-Lloyd disagrees with her rival and says that even male college players or some men over 40 could beat the top women. Derek Tarr’s name gets around in the media, but he is nowhere to be found.

I recently talked to Derek, whom I have known for a long time, about those days. He has been an American citizen since 1986 and still lives in Birmingham, Alabama. He never left the world of tennis: he coaches the University of Alabama in Birmingham Men’s Tennis Team and he is the Tennis Director at Brook Highland Racquet Club.

Before getting into what Derek had to say about the episode, let’s clarify the chronological context. The concept of “social media” is about two decades into the future, internet has yet to be invented, and the only cell phones in the early 1980s are the size of a large coffee maker. The idea of carrying around a cell phone has not integrated into everyday life. Thus, while Derek is driving back to Birmingham for a day and a half, he is completely oblivious to the mayhem back in New York gravitating around Gerulaitis, Navratilova, and his name. He arrives the next day and finds himself baffled when a friend asks him if he would play “that” match with Navratilova. After inquiring about what his friend meant, Derek slowly begins to understand that while he was on the road, there has been a lot of noise about an encounter between him and Navratilova back in New York. He even tries to get in touch with Gerulaitis to learn directly from the source what has precisely taken place, but Gerulaitis’ mom answers and says that her son is not at home. Gerulaitis later distorts the purpose of the call to the media saying that Derek called to talk to his mom and that “he is so nervous he can’t sleep”! When I talk to Derek, he quickly sets the record straight by pointing out that it must be either Gerulaitis’ mother who misinterpreted or Gerulaitis who tried to entertain the journalists. Derek simply wanted to talk to Gerulaitis to get the full scoop. In any case, Derek takes a break for a few days to rest at his place. Eventually, the tournament moves on and other stories take over – this is the year of the famous “Super Saturday” at the U.S. Open.

In retrospect, Derek regrets not having pursued the affair while it was hot and on the front page. He was in and out of top 100 few times in the early 1980s and his career-high ranking was 87 in 1983. He has notable ATP wins over Tim Mayotte, Henri Leconte, and a young Andre Agassi, and had a respectable doubles career, reaching the quarter finals of the French Open in 1982 with partner Brad Guan of Australia. He says that, on the days following Gerulaitis’ quote, he should have gone straight back to New York and “talked it up”, and promote the idea of a possible battle of the sexes match between him, the number 100 player, and Navratilova, keeping Gerulaitis’ claim on the front page. Back then only a small portion of the player had agents, and Derek was not one of them. He adds that having an agent would have helped in this particular situation. The agent would have known with whom to get in touch and what is required to increase the chances of such an encounter taking place. Few weeks later, Derek did indeed get in touch with an agent who, in turn, got in touch with Navratilova’s agent. The latter said that Navratilova had no plans to play any male player under any circumstances at any moment in the future (although she did in 1992 against Jimmy Connors in Las Vegas). Derek admits that he may have missed a potentially lucrative opportunity by not adding fuel to the fire when the topic was hot. Then, he smiles and adds: “I guess I had my 15 minutes of fame.”

Wimbledon 1913 and 2013 in Men’s Tennis: Pioneers of a Century Ago and Today

One of the many surprises during Wimbledon’s first week was the defeat of the defending champion Roger Federer at the hands of the Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky. The 116-ranked Stakhovsky, who has never before reached third round at Wimbledon in his career, ended perhaps the most impressive record in tennis, Federer’s streak of getting to the quarterfinals or better, 36 Slams in succession. While millions around the world viewed this match, very few of them knew that the two players have been involved in a major battle that lasted over 15 months on a different platform – and this time not as adversaries but rather side by side – one that will prove to be much more important for the development of the sport than their 4-set encounter on that Thursday afternoon. Before I explain further, let me start with a simple example: if a guy like Lukasz Kubot, ranked 130 in the world and no appearance in the second week of a Slam tournament in his 11-year career, is able to make more money (around $310,000) by reaching the quarterfinals in Wimbledon than he has made during the six previous months of 2013 up to that point, it’s largely thanks to Federer and Stakhovsky, along with a few other select individuals.

Both players are members of the ATP Player’s Council and have actively pursued for higher prize money distribution to players in the Slam tournaments. Although the Council did not obtain from the negotiations exactly what it was initially seeking (who does in negotiations?), there is no doubt that it came out as the winning side; and their biggest victory came at Wimbledon. Increasing a tournament’s prize money is nothing new in tennis, but the distribution pattern of this particular increase is unprecedented.

In a competitive environment, one of the concrete rules is that if the aim is for those few who rise up above the rest of the competition pool to provide top-quality goods and/or services, one must first and foremost make sure that so-called ‘competition pool’ has high standard of quality. It is precisely in this sense that the 2013 Wimbledon prize money increase excels beyond all the others in the past. In tennis, the quality of the tennis played by the highly-ranked players depends very much on the “push” initiated by the 100 to 150 players ranked below them. Thus, the example of Kubot proves how essential a role the prize money increase in Wimbledon plays to those players ranked below the top 10 that have often been forgotten in the previous negotiations of this type. But let’s leave the quarterfinals aside and go further back to the first rounds.

By reaching the third round of Wimbledon, Stakhovsky pocketed approximately $95,000 which exceeds half of his earnings prior to Wimbledon in all of 2013! Take a guess how much he would have earned for the same outcome had the prize money structure remained the same as last year: around $58,600! Now, try to imagine the extra bit of motivation that the extra $36,400 in prize money signifies to a player who has been journeying in the 50 to 150 range in the ATP rankings. In fact, we don’t even have to imagine: let’s revisit Stakhovsky’s comments on the issue, three days before Wimbledon began, in other words, at a time where he couldn’t maybe even dream of beating Federer and reaching the third round in the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. As a member of the ATP Player’s Council, when asked about some of the criticism directed at the $35,440 prize money offered to the first round loser at this year’s Wimbledon, Stakhovsky poetically struck back. He said that the top-10 players already benefit from exclusive sponsor contracts and added that “the rest of the top 100 guys don’t have the lifestyle of superstars. They have the life of humans.” He also said in an interview with a Ukrainian sports writer back in 2012 that he came out in the red from his trip to the Indian Wells and the Miami Masters Series tournaments, even though he made the second round in the first tournament and made around $20,000 in prize money from the two tournaments combined. Once again, he contrasted the top players and the rest of the guys: “Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray – that’s simply another world. We simply don’t exist in comparison with them.” For Stakhovsky, the image that the general public has about tennis players “making big money” was nothing more than an “illusion”. Stakhovsky’s comments clearly show what this current prize money increase in the Slams, and especially at Wimbledon, mean to the lower-ranked players.

Yet, it seems that the historical significance of this increase will only be understood in the future, when one takes a retroactive look back at the sport. Many will agree that, for a few years and running, men’s tennis has been going through a period of success in popularity, first one of this magnitude since its golden age during the years of the Borg – McEnroe – Connors rivalries and others surrounding them. It would be very tempting for the leading figures of the sport to sit back and collect the fruits of this kind of productive period. However, this current period led by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer, and Andy Murray is likely to reach its conclusion in the next few years, if not in less time. From that perspective, the effort of the ATP Player’s Council having the vision to safeguard the future of the sport, and to diminish the chances of a potentially-somber period, by protecting the interests of the larger pool of lower-ranked players before all else, is to be applauded.

There is one extra factor that most people forget, one that did not escape Darren Cahill, the ESPN analyst, ex-professional player and a successful coach on the tour. He insisted on TV during the second week of broadcasting that the top 4 superstar players on the tour, Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Murray, have all played significant roles in the success of the negotiations by either using their influence within the ATP Council (such as Federer, and Nadal until 2012), or clearly voicing their support for the increase from the outside in the case of Djokovic and Murray. In other words, the top 4 put aside their own interests and cared for the progress of the sport by supporting an increase in prize money that favors the lower-ranked players more than themselves – Jimmy Connors who consistently demanded more for himself and the top few while he was at the top of the game, and who at times claimed to never even having heard of some of the players outside the top 30, comes to mind.

Exactly one century ago, the New Zealander Anthony Wilding won his fourth Wimbledon title in a row. What only a few people know about “Captain Wilding” is that during the two years prior to his title in 1913, he was a loud voice taking a position on two sensitive issues that did not necessarily benefit him, but were bound to make the sport better. The first one involved the removal of the Challenge round system that was in place back in those days. For those who may not know it, back in the days, the players participated in a draw called the “All Comers”, and the winner of the draw would then play a one-match Challenge round against the previous year’s title holder, the winner crowned as the Wimbledon champion. Wilding won Wimbledon for the first time in 1910, earning his title through the All Comers draw and winning the Challenge match against the 1909 title-holder Arthur Gore. In 1911, he sat and watched as all other players battled through the All Comers draw. The British player Herbert Roper-Barrett won the All Comers draw after a fierce 5-set battle against his compatriot Charles Dixon, coming back from two sets and 3/4 down in the third set. When the 38-year-old Roper-Barrett had to play the Challenge match against Wilding the next day, with the temperature reaching 31 degrees in the shade, and the match extended to a fifth set, an exhausted Roper-Barrett could no longer play and retired at the end of the fourth set. Wilding then began a loud campaign in favor of eliminating the Challenge system and giving every player an equal chance at winning the title by going through full draw, even though he was the one clearly benefiting from the existing system! The second one concerned a concept that was foreign back then, but one that has become second-nature today: the seeding system. Wilding, also writing articles for tennis publications in his home country and abroad (a common practice for players back then to add an extra source of income), continuously raised the issue of placing the best players in the draw to avoid early round match-ups between them, thus raising the level of play as the tournament progressed and diminishing the chances of a quick final rounds where one player outmatched the other.

His first wish came true in 1922, 4 Wimbledons after he played his last final in 1914 (the tournament was not held during the World War I years), and the second one came to fruition in 1927, when the “crocodile” René Lacoste and “Big” Bill Tilden were seeded one and two respectively, along with six other players. Unfortunately, Wilding never had a chance to see the positive results of either campaign that he pioneered in their beginnings. On the advice of the Duke of Westminster, and discussions with the then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, Wilding joined the Naval Brigade branch of the British Forces later in 1914, and he was killed during a battle in France, in May of 1915, less than a year after playing his last Wimbledon final.

A century goes by, the technology advances, new rackets come and go, courts get renewed, facilities improve, rules change, and tennis progresses. During the 100 years, many champions lifted trophies. But not all of them were necessarily pioneers of the game. In this state of continuous flux, there are still some “constants”. One of those constants is the on-and-off appearance of personages who go beyond their “champion” status to pave the way for the progress of men’s tennis. It seems that few champions such as Wilding, and the top 4 players a century later, manifest that character by putting the interest of others and the sport ahead of their own. And for players such as Stakhovsky and Kubot, and a few hundred others, this “constant” definitely serves its purpose.

The US vs. Serbia Davis Cup Tie Aftermath: A Closer Look with Jim Moortgat

It’s done. The unthinkable happened. No, I don’t mean that it’s unthinkable that Serbia led by the world’s number one player Novak Djokovic would defeat U.S.A led by number 20 Sam Querrey and number 23 John Isner in Davis Cup, but that the world’s number one ranked doubles team Bob and Mike Bryan twins would lose on Saturday to a doubles tandem composed of Nenad Zimonjic, and some guy named Ilija Bozoljac (many pundits nicknamed him “Bozo”) who is ranked number 1150 in the ATP doubles rankings, and a mere 335 in singles! But anyone who has watched the matches over the weekend and who has read about it is aware of the headline tidbits. So, let’s go beyond the doubles upset or the retrospective obvious.

I caught up with Jim Moortgat, an old friend who currently runs a tennis academy in Boise, Idaho where the tie took place. He resides in Boise, thus he attended the Davis Cup weekend and was in charge of the ball kids. Jim is a well-known figure amongst tennis coaches and circles at the national level. Since the late 1970s, Jim has been involved in tennis as a competitor for a few years, and since then as a coach at many levels, including a successful career as a college coach, and a 5-year stint with the USTA Player Development Program. Tennis is an essential component of his life, and coaching is his passion. I asked him to reflect on what happened during the weekend, and below is what he had to say.

Jim what was the most striking memory of this Davis Cup tie for you?

JM: What struck me most actually happened before the weekend, and it has to do with Novak Djokovic. But before I get to that, let me add this: we live in a soft culture in the USA, and when you add the tennis arena into it, it becomes even a softer culture. There are no other sports where the player “drives the bus” so to speak. Everything revolves around what the player wants, the player tells the coach what he wants to work on, the coach is the player’s employee in a sense, and the coach can’t “bench” the player for bad play as is the case in many sports. American professional tennis players subscribe fully to this notion.

Then, you have a player like Novak Djokovic, head and shoulders above the rest of the players involved in the weekend. He is the earliest one to come to Boise to get used to the altitude. In Miami the week before, he stayed in the tournament longer than Isner, and lost in the same round as Querrey. Yet he gets to the site days before any Americans and starts training Monday night. He wants to run EVERY stadium stair here at Boise State stadium. To have access to the stadium, one has to get special clearance, and get the security personnel to open the doors. He actually takes the trouble to arrange all that, just so he can get in his necessary workout. I see this, and I am wondering what the American players are doing on Monday night wherever they are, but they are definitely not in Boise. Novak is out the next morning for practice again. If you want to be like everyone else than do what everyone else is doing. If you want to be #1 in the world, than be an outlier! That is the lesson to learn from Novak’s pre-weekend preparation. His training is very different from the Americans, both outside the top 20. We have a guy like Jim Courier at the helm who used to outwork everybody in his days, and yet there is not one American guy who works as hard as the other top guys.

That brings me to my next question: with all due respect and in all fairness to Jim Courier, how much influence the Davis Cup Captain has in the development of American players? To what end does the buck stop with him for this weekend’s loss?

JM: I am not sure how much of the blame/credit can be placed on the Captain. If there is blame, it certainly does not lie with Courier alone. Courier has the players for less than a week. He could demand that they come a bit earlier, but again, that goes back to what I was saying previously. The players drive the bus. Jay Berger is the head responsible of USTA Player Development program. Technically, he is Courier’s boss. All coaches in the program should demand more from the players, and in my opinion, they simply do not. When Courier was a player, the knock on him was that he did not have “enough talent”, similar to Ivan Lendl when he played. Yet, both of these guys rose to number one and overachieved through sheer determination, will, and pure hard work. Since 1968, this is the first time we have never had a player in the top 20. Perhaps we need to realize that “working hard” is also a talent, perhaps the most essential one. The buck stops with the governing body.

It seemed that the American’s hopes of defeating the Serbs rested on winning the doubles point. It was a massive upset win for the Serbs. What do you make of that?

JM: This relates a bit to the previous question’s comments, but before I get there, let me tell you a quick story. There are very few people that I really look up to with their tennis knowledge and the guy that shared the first-hand knowledge of this story was a friend of mine named Steve Smith from Tampa, Florida. Steve told me that long time ago, when Gabriela Sabatini was number two player in the world, she asked Jack Kramer to evaluate her game. Kramer bluntly told her that her serve was terrible and that she did not know how to play the court. He added that he would not help her because he felt that it would take a year of adjustments to add those aspects to her game. Sabatini replied that she was number two player in the world, so she must be doing something right. Kramer said that rankings had nothing to do with it, either you can or not. The implication was that she could either rest on her ranking based on a comparison to the players below her, or take the extra step.

Now, why do I bring this up? Because there are very few coaches, hardly any, who are willing to do what Kramer did, i.e. demand the best player to do something ‘more’ regardless of how well they do many other things compared to the players below them. They feel like leaving them alone on certain things is the safest way to go. Jim Courier fell into this trap during doubles. His team may well be the world’s best doubles team but on Saturday, the best doubles player on the court was Nenad (Zimonjic), and the second best one was his partner Bozoljac. Why? Because our team made them play well. Mike and Bob kept serving to Bozoljac’s backhand and he was on fire with the returns. In a crucial point in the first set, the Americans served to his backhand he once again hit a scorching backhand return winner. You would think that Jim Courier would notice that, but yet, they kept serving to his backhand and through his returns, Bozoljac’s confidence soared and he started serving and stroking the ball in a zone. Then comes late fifth set, and once again on a crucial point, another serve to the backhand and another return winner. When you are on the bench, even if you coach the number one team in the world, you have to demand more, still strive for perfection. That includes sometimes that the coach demand his team to do something out of their Plan A but one that will make the opponent uncomfortable and take them out of their zone. Courier and the Bryans never did that. As a result, their opponents who, under normal conditions, are not as skilled as the Bryans in doubles, found their perfect rythm and overachieved.

Any last thoughts?

JM: Yes, there is one more area where they overachieved, or we underachieved, depending on one’s perspective. The Serbians wanted it more than us. Their awareness of what a Davis Cup tie means was tremendous. On the bench, they had 18-20 people, always invested emotionally in the match, vocal and enthusiastic, creating extra energy for their players on crucial points. Djokovic was eating inside when the second set tiebreaker began, and he ran to the bench with his food to encourage and cheer his teammates because he knew how primordial that tiebreaker was to the outcome of the tie. The Serbians sure as heck knew who they were playing against and what was needed. In contrast, our bench was subdued for the most part, except on few important games and the extension of the fifth set tiebreaker, and we never had more than 10 people on our bench who were far less vocal than their counterparts. The tie was held at an 11,000+ seat arena. There were around 100 Serbians in the crowd, yet several times in the match, it felt like we were playing an away game. Our approach to Davis Cup paled in comparison to how the Serbs approached it.