Category Archives: Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Importance of Scouting & Knowing the Opponent’s Game

The Case of Zarina Diyas (#52) vs. Irina-Carmelia Begu (#62) – WTA Cincinnati 2014, First Round – Diyas wins 7/6 7/6

On a rather windy morning, two players that have never met each before entered Court 10, one of the “outside” courts at the Western & Southern Open WTA Premier Event. Both Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan and Irina Begu of Romania came through the qualifying draw. On the one hand, since this is their first meeting, I can understand (to a degree) that they may not know each other’s’ strengths or weaknesses down to the last detail. On the other hand, isn’t that why the players have coaches? Isn’t that why they talk to other players or coaches on the tour to get bits and pieces of information on the next opponent? I am not sure if this was the case for Diyas, but there is no doubt that Begu could have benefited from some quality scouting, especially in a match like this where the balance hangs on a very small number of points.

Diyas is a solid baseliner who likes to drive the ball on both sides rather flat, with some spin at times. Her shots can penetrate the court and derail an opponent because they do not bounce particularly high. She is a short girl and likes to contact the ball below the shoulder level, preferably low. Needless to say, her best results have come on fast surfaces, with a third-round breakthrough appearance at this year’s Australian’s Open and a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon little over a month ago. She likes to direct the point with her forehand and driving through the ball, especially if she can make contact with the ball at about hip or knee level. Begu is also a baseliner who has more variety in her game, very characteristic of players with a European pedigree, having developed skills by practicing mostly on red clay. She can hit drop shots, heavy topspin, angle shots, and even mix in an occasional slice.

As the match began and I saw point after point, I was a bit surprised that Begu kept on holding rallies with Diyas where she was hitting the ball with the same pace, trying to be aggressive at times, and going for winners at others. This type of game played into Diyas’ hands as she gained momentum and began to strike the balls with perfect timing. My surprise turned to downright bewilderment by the end of the match, because Begu attempted to play a Sharapova-like game, in other words, hit the balls hard to the corners, and go for winners by out-hitting Diyas. She did not drop shot or use angles much, but more importantly, she did not try to make Diyas hit the kind of shot that makes her uncomfortable, which is any ball above her shoulder, especially on the forehand side! As you can see in this picture, Diyas hits an open-stance forehand which gathers force from the right foot rotation:
Diyas 8

Watch also in this clip how essential the right-foot push is to Diyas’ forehand at her comfort zone, as she hits the low forehand on the baseline to force her opponent into a mistake:

A high ball which forces Diyas to make contact above the shoulder may cause her balance to be slightly off, thus take away her control and power. Strangely, Begu forced Diyas to hit forehands above the shoulder level only three times the whole match! First one was at 5-5 in the first set, and it resulted in a short ball by Diyas which allowed Begu to hit a winner. The second was at 4-2 for Diyas in the tiebreaker of the first, and Begu’s high and loopy topspin forehand resulted in a direct error by Diyas! The third time and only other time Diyas had to hit a forehand above the shoulder level is in the clip below. You will see Diyas’ forehand return fall short because she had to hit it above the shoulder level, out of her comfort zone. Begu should have taken advantage of the short ball and gone for the kill but instead she gives Diyas a second chance, and Diyas ultimately wins the point on yet another forehand from her comfort zone around the hip level:

It’s a mystery to me why Begu never centered on hitting high balls to Diyas on both sides and set up the short ball to put the pressure on her opponent? She definitely has that shot in her repertoire and in fact, she used it occasionally against Kimiko Date-Krumm in the first round of qualifying. Yet, she did exactly the opposite against Diyas, mostly hitting the ball hard and going for winners. To exasperate things further, she played that style trying to break Diyas’ forehand down (it’s the only explanation that comes to mind since almost 80% of Begu’s shots went to Diyas’ deuce side as you can see in all of the clips in this article too). Without any surprise, Diyas felt right at home, hitting the type of forehands that she likes, at the pace that she likes, moving the ball around at will. Spectators saw plenty of points like the ones in the three clips below. See how Diyas continuously gets to hit precisely the type of ball that she likes, at the same sweet zone, over and over again even though she remains on defense in this first clip:

And now check out this rally where Diyas gets to play a mixture of offense and defense, always in control of the point because what you don’t see is Begu running from corner to corner on the other side of the net:

In this next rally, see Diyas as the aggressor, stepping inside the baseline, mounting the pressure, and eventually hitting a forehand winner:

As these clips show, the match was played on Diyas’ terms. Considering how versatile her game is, Begu would have done herself a favor by utilizing the full arsenal of shots that she has in her depot, especially the high topspin off-pace ball that she uses on and off on clay courts. Furthermore, a little scouting would have directed the Begu camp in the right path beforehand. Diyas played another Romanian player Monica Niculescu in the last round of qualifying. A close look at that encounter, or some advice from Niculescu’s camp would have pointed to Diyas’ strengths and weaknesses and helped Begu prepare better for the match. Despite the pattern of points in Diyas’ favor, the match’s outcome rested on a handful of points and it was decided in two tight tiebreakers. Thus, the right type of scouting and game-plan preparation could have made the difference between winning and losing. That game plan would not have included allowing Diyas to dictate points with below-the-shoulder level strokes, since she is a rather small girl who has no trouble bending her knees if necessary, as this picture shows:
Diyas 5

I spoke to Diyas after the match and asked her if she felt comfortable with the type of ball that she was receiving from her opponent. She responded “yes” and when I vaguely touched on the above, she remembered the point in the tiebreaker where she made the mistake on the high ball, and did not really have an answer as to why her opponent did not hit higher balls. She did point out that it was windy and that perhaps it was not easy to direct the ball in Begu’s defense, however her response clearly showed that she was very much aware of the fact that she was getting to play match on her terms.

Until next time…

Tactical Analysis: When One Sticks Too Long with the Wrong Strategy

The Case of Caroline Garcia (#48) vs. Timea Babos (#102) – WTA Cincinnati 2014 Qualifying 1st Round – Babos wins 6-4 6-3

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When Caroline Garcia (picture above) stepped on the court for her first round match in Cincinnati, she was on paper the clear favorite as the seventh seed against the Hungarian Timea Babos who was one of the lowest-ranked players in the qualifying draw. After getting broken in the first game and subsequently going down 2-0, Garcia won three games in a row and went up 3-2. At that point, everything seemed in order for the 20-year-old French player. In that stretch of three games won by Garcia, one of them was a return game in which Garcia hit a forehand return winner and one other return that forced an error from her opponent. Those were aggressive returns, taken very early, with Garcia being at least two or three steps inside the baseline. In other words, being extra-aggressive on returns worked for that one game. Ironically, it would also play a major role in Garcia’s downfall over the duration of the match. Garcia insisted on going for too much on returns, often trying to step far inside the baseline, especially on second serves, to hit return winners that frequently resulted in direct errors such as the one you can see in the clip below:

Click here (11 seconds)

It is possible that Garcia is currently working on improving her aggressive returns in the long run and that in order to attain that goal her coach told her to keep going for the returns regardless of how many errors she may make. If that is the case, I am usually for the idea of sacrifice in the short run if that points to the possibility of adding a new dimension to the game in the long run. However, this tournament was not the right time. Cincinnati is a WTA Premier Tier event. Garcia has been in the mix with the likes of Eugenie Bouchard, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, and the rest of the “new generation” as an up-and-coming player in the last couple of years. She cannot afford the luxury to lose a match in a tournament of such importance, a match in which she would have greatly improved her chances had she simply made one minor adjustment: move back on the returns and put the return in play to construct the point later. Furthermore, Garcia’s confidence cannot be that high since she has recorded mixed results this year so far, on the heels of a very promising 2013 campaign. This was a case where the importance of winning the current match trumped the promise of a long-term goal. Going for broke on every return simply did not translate into winning games.

In any case, Garcia kept on taking high risks on returns, either making direct mistakes (such as the one in the clip earlier) or putting herself in a defensive position from the first shot in the point because her return was turned out to be dismal. In the following clip, we see just that, Garcia trying to do too much with the return on a first serve by Babos, and resulting in a bad return that allows Babos to force an error out of Garcia on the next shot:

Click here (10 seconds)

Ultimately, this wrong strategy gave confidence to Babos who actually started the match not serving particularly well – she made all three double faults in the first two serving games –, but as the match progressed, felt more and more comfortable on her serves because she understood that if she hit a solid enough serve she could collect the error from Garcia or get a ball back that she could attack immediately.

SAM_2540Timea Babos

This particular tactic of going for the big return may not have been the only cause for Garcia’s straight-set loss, but there is no doubt that it had a snow ball effect as Babos felt less and less pressure on her serve. In the first set, Babos faced four break points, whereas in the second set, there was only one that was wasted away once again by Garcia’s missed return. Considering what little it takes to turn matches around in tennis, this was a good case of a match where Garcia could have moved back a bit and modified her returns to put the ball back in play. Perhaps, it could have been enough to win the match and build some momentum going into the U.S. Open in two weeks from now. I have been a fan of Garcia for a couple of years in that I believe she has the athleticism and the fundamentals to transform into a big-time player in the women’s circuit. However, this match was a step in the wrong direction, one that should indicate to her camp that setbacks of this type can be avoided with a little flexibility in the tactical preparation.