Hello and welcome to the 24th issue of Tennis inbox. This week we take a look at statistics which show that today’s tennis players are spending more time on hardcourts, ponder whether Gilles Simon is correct in his assessments of Federer’s fandom, and congratulate Russian Andrey Rublev. Read on to find out more.
Today’s players are racking up more mileage on their bodies at a younger age
Tennis has changed quite a bit over the past four decades. A revolution in racquet technology—and more importantly, string technology—has transformed our game into one that was dominated by serve & volleyers to one that is controlled by grueling baseline tennis. Aggressive players who try to explicitly keep points short are now the outliers as opposed to the norm.
Factor in more tournaments and more players across the globe, slower, fluffier tennis balls and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a higher frequency of competitive play and more tennis matches that result in long, baseline duels.
Lost in all this talk about technological advancement and the global spread of tennis is the impact that this new way of playing the game has had on our top athletes’ bodies. Sure, tennis technology has changed. But the human body has stayed reliably static. Luckily for us, there are smart people keeping track.
Dr. Stephanie Kovalchik is a data scientist at the Tennis Australia Game Insight Group, where she uses statistics in insightful ways to tell the stories that are taking place right in front of our eyes on tennis courts—stories which we might not able to see on the micro-scale but are easier to understand once they’re presented to us in their entirety, over many years of competition.
For example, an interesting stat that she covered in 2018 was that of a Game Age. Dr. Kovalchik defines Game Age as “the number of professional games played up to a certain age.” Her Game Age factor compares how long it took professional players from the 1970s against current players when it came to accumulating 10,000 games on tour.
The results indicate what we can already guess with our intuitions—that tennis players today are competing more, and accumulating more mileage on their bodies at a younger age. Dr. Kovalchik writes:
“In the time of Björn Borg-John McEnroe, for example, top players were usually 25 years or older before they had accumulated 10,000 games played. In the Murray-Djokovic era that age has dropped to 23.”
Of course a counterpoint here is that in the Borg-McEnroe era there weren’t nearly as many events available to younger players. The tournaments available on tour today (when the world isn’t ravaged by a coronavirus) are spread out far and wide across the globe. If one has the resources or can win enough, they can play pretty much every week of the year. I don’t think this was the case in the 70s and 80s. This is my only objection and I’m not sure whether Dr. Kovalchik’s data account for Challenger and Futures level competition while giving today’s players a lower age of accumulating 10,000 games.
But even if we’re unsure of whether her data take that into account, there’s no denying that today’s players have participated in a vastly different style of tennis than that of players 40 years ago. It’s a lot more physically demanding; rallies are longer. Dr. Kovalchik makes this point herself, saying:
“[E]ven an equal game age today isn’t necessarily equal to the same game age of past players. The main reason is that, over time, players are not only bigger and stronger, they are also playing a more gruelling style of tennis. Long points at the baseline are more common than ever before.”
What we can definitively say is that regardless of the generation a player competed in, tennis players have to play a lot. I know that my body is sore for days after a weekend tournament. I can’t imagine doing that for more than 40 weeks of the year. Given how long the seasons are, it’s almost a wonder that players are not injured more often. Dr. Kovalchik’s Game Age doesn’t even account for all the training and practice sets that players partake in. If you add those in, too, I’m sure that it becomes more and more evident that tennis players’ bodies take incredible beatings.
Court surface also factors into how tennis players’ bodies react and hardcourts are usually considered the worst. Dr. Kovalchik writes that, “the disparity between accumulated games played on hard court across generations is even greater than all surfaces combined. Today’s players are reaching 10,000 games on hard court nearly five years earlier than players from several decades earlier.”
So, if we take Dr. Kovalchik’s data to heart, not only are professionals racking up the mileage on their bodies at earlier ages, they’re also doing it more often on a surface that’s less forgiving on the human body. Interesting stuff!
As an aside: I’m fascinated by Dr. Kovalchik’s data and plan to factor them into a longer analysis article that I’m writing on Andy Murray. That’ll be out in the next couple of weeks.
French player Gilles Simon thinks that the tennis world idolizes Federer too much. Is he right?
Gilles Simon has had a successful career. Close to two decades on tour. Wins over the best players in the world. A career-high ranking of #6 and earnings of more than $15 million. His latest foray in the tennis world? A book titled, This Sport that Makes you Crazy.
A chapter in it titled, “The Federer Myth” is causing some talk in tennis circles. In it, Simon makes the point that the tennis world mythifies Roger Federer and that he would like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to overtake the Swiss so that there is more variety in terms of what is appreciated. Simon writes:
“If Federer’s records fall, then we will no longer be able to pretend, we will no longer be able to limit tennis to one player. We agree that the game proposed by Federer is without doubt the most pleasant to watch, but it is not necessarily the most effective. Novak Djokovic, it may be less dreamy, but it is no less effective. And if he exceeds him in terms of Grand Slam victories (because ultimately that’s what counts), then we will no longer be able to hide our face. Federer, who keeps his records, means that for generations to come, they will put him in all the sauce. And I don’t want that. I would like a kid who is forced to play like Federer (to be able to) answer: ‘Yes but Novak and Rafa have won 21 titles by playing differently.'”
I agree with Simon’s sentiment that we should appreciate all members of the Big 3. Federer’s style of play probably gets more attention because of how aesthetically pleasing it is. In contrast, Djokovic almost plays like a robot (a killer robot). Is it really the case, though, that kids will be—and are being—forced to play like Roger? I don’t think so. The obsession with Federer, in my mind at least, exists mostly in the tennis writer/purist class. Take a walk through a junior academy or any courts around the world and you’ll see far more juniors who try to emulate Rafa and Djokovic than they do Federer. To them, Federer is just some old guy that their dad likes too much. Nadal, Djokovic, and a promising crop of new players are much more exciting to them.
It could be that the coaches Simon has seen encourage Federer’s style of play within their charges. But from my experience, coaches—in general—are not that one dimensional. They know that tennis can be played in many different ways that are just as effective.
Change of Ends with Connor Bond
If you could change one thing about the way that tennis is taught today, what would it be? Why?
This is a complex question where even the common, surface-level answers such as coaches not believing in the importance of R.O.G. (Redball, Orangeball, Greenball) or lack of focus placed in lessons on the point-starting shots (serves and returns) can be turned into books and essays. For me as a junior coach however, it is the general mindset of coaches that I would like to see changed. I realize this is not a popular belief among my fellow coaches, but our lack of collaboration with each other and our stuck-in-our-ways stubbornness to seek further education and enrichment may have led us to wonderful individual careers, but has only added to the large national decline of junior tennis.
Speaking generally, what stops promising juniors from transitioning successfully to “adult” tennis?
I think there is a consensus in the adult league and tournament community that junior tennis, while technically beautiful and extremely smooth, is easily beaten by any savvy adult. Generally speaking, this is because juniors are often unable to construct points in meaningful and thoughtful ways. Wiser adults are frequently able to more accurately evaluate their own ability and shortcomings to change gears and game plans to keep up with or position themselves for success against their opponents. It is because of this that I will often connect my students with higher-level adults for match play, as the junior ecosystem keeps them from being aware of these weaknesses.
Name a recent professional match that you watched. If you could have on-court coached the player who lost, what would you have told them to change? Why?
It’s really hard to watch a John Isner match and not want to be on his coaching staff for an understanding of his practice regimen and game-planning procedures. I have always felt that in any tournament he enters, he is the most dangerous floating player in the draw. I doubt anybody currently in the top 10 wants to play him (especially early in an event) as he doesn’t create any rhythm and is always one break away from winning a set or match. I would love to see him chip & charge everything or go for broke and gamble on return games.
Have a question you’d like a coach to answer? Are you a coach who’d like to contribute? Email email@example.com
Andrey Rublev is one of this season’s top performers
I felt bad for Andrey Rublev when the pandemic struck. The 23-year-old Russian had been having an electrifying start to the season before tournaments were canned for the foreseeable future.
When the tours resumed, it was difficult to know whether he’d be playing with the same quality that he had shown at the start of the year. Thankfully for Rublev, he has.
On Monday, he won the St. Petersberg Open, defeating Borna Coric 7–6 (5), 6–4. In doing so, Rublev picked up his fourth title for 2020 (and his second ATP 500 crown of the year). Rublev is tied this year for the most match wins on tour with 34, has entrenched himself into the top 10 (he’s now at #8), and his chances to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals are looking very good.
Though Rublev’s grunt can get a little annoying at times, it’s gratifying to see younger players starting to perform consistently well. After all, these are the faces that we’ll be supporting for the next decade or so. We might as well start that support now.