Lleyton Hewitt and the Triple-Hundred Club

Fascinating & obscure tennis factoids.

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Lleyton Hewitt and the Elusive Triple-Hundred
Heavy Topspin blog
06/05/2014

Lleyton Hewitt is within a whisker of qualifying for a very elite club–players who have won 100 matches on each of the three major tennis surfaces, hard, clay, and grass. He has 367 on hard, 120 on grass, and 98 on clay. If he manages to reach this milestone, he’ll be the last player to do so for a long time.

Roger Federer, of course, is already a member. Hewitt would become only the seventh, joining Fed, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, John Alexander, and Stan Smith. Arthur Ashe and Stefan Edberg are close: both retired with 99 grass-court wins.

Typically, the grass-court threshold is the most difficult to reach, but that’s not the issue for Hewitt. In fact, the Aussie is one of only 16 players in ATP history to win 100 or more matches on grass courts.

Federer has 123 career wins on grass, good for second of all time, behind Connors. Hewitt, at 120, is the only other active player even close. Next on the active list is Andy Murray at 74, followed by Novak Djokovic, Mikhail Youzhny, and Tommy Haas, all tied at 53. Of the 80 players in ATP history who have won at least 50 matches on grass, 73 are retired.

Of the active players with 50 or more grass-court wins, only Hewitt and Murray have won more matches on grass than on clay. That’s all a long-winded way of saying, if someone’s going to reach the 100-win milestone on three surfaces, you wouldn’t expect them to need a few more wins on clay.

No other active players are anywhere near striking distance of the 3×100 mark. While Murray could reach 100 wins on grass with a few more good seasons, his clay win total lags far behind–on that surface, he only recently got to 50. And as we’ve seen, no other active player has more than 53 career wins on grass. The extended grass-court season, starting next year, will help players like Djokovic, but it’s safe to say that Haas’s window has closed.

In an era that barely rewards grass-court specialists, Hewitt has put himself in position to join this elite group by performing at a very high level on the surface. It’s ironic, then, that he’ll cross into such rarefied territory with a win on red clay.

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Nadal vs Gasquet – aged 13

They were already a lot better than I am…

Lewis Hamilton – why new F1 rules make life tough for drivers

A fascinating insight into modern F1 driving from Hamilton.

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Lewis Hamilton column: why new F1 rules make life tough for drivers
BBC Sport
28/03/2014

There has been a lot of discussion and controversy about the changes that have been made to Formula 1 this year. But don’t believe anyone who tells you it’s no longer a challenge for the drivers. In many ways, it is tougher than before.

The cars are immensely complicated, so there is a lot more work needed to understand how best to use them. And there are new challenges in driving them as well. As you may know, we have new engines this year and we have to complete the races using no more than 100kg of fuel – about 35% less than last year.

The new V6 turbo hybrid engines are more powerful and have much more torque – or ‘push’ when you go on the throttle – and the cars have less aerodynamic downforce, so have less grip. They still drive like an F1 car, but you have to really hone your technique, especially when it comes to using the fuel as efficiently as possible – or ‘fuel saving’, as we call it.

There are all sorts of ways to affect that: how late or early you change gears, what gear you take a corner in – and in particular, when you’re braking and using a technique called ‘lift and coast’. I’m sure hardly anyone knows what that means. Despite the name, ‘lift and coast’ does not mean cruising. You’re trying to be as fast as you can, and you’re still going through the corner on the limit, but you have to approach the corner slightly differently otherwise you won’t make the end of the race.

It is nothing new – we’ve been doing it for years, because it’s quicker to run the car with less fuel. But this year we are doing it a little bit more – although not as much as people are making out – and it is more of a hot topic because of the rule change.

You save most fuel by lifting and coasting in the heavy braking zones at the end of long straights into slow corners. When you’re driving absolutely flat out, such as on a qualifying lap, you would brake at, say, 80m from the corner, come straight off the throttle and get on the brakes, almost instantly together.

But on a fuel-saving lap in the race you’ll lift at, say, 200m, and coast to the braking zone. In an F1 car, just lifting off the throttle decelerates the car by 1G, so you still slow down quite a lot. That means you start braking at a different place – you have to brake later than before or you’ll slow down too much. So the trick is to know how much later you have to brake depending on where you lifted. You’re trying to get that to the optimum so you’re not locking the brakes, and so you’re losing as little time as possible with the lift and coast technique. That is the challenge and it is not easy.

It has a knock-on effect on how you set the car up, too, because its behaviour changes between qualifying and race day. In qualifying, you are stabbing the brakes, getting the car to move and pitch when you’re in the braking zone. It’s right on the nose into the apex of the corner. But when you lift and coast, it feels different. You are trying to be on the limit. But it is like doing it handicapped, so it’s really difficult. You’re still pushing, but when you hit the brakes the weight transfer is different, and it changes the way the car behaves going into the corner. The balance shifts.

All in all, racing with lift and coast is actually harder.

On the limit in qualifying

The cars are very different to drive in qualifying this year, too. Last year’s V8 engines had very little torque, so we were always as high in the rev band as possible. This year, the torque is much lower in the rev band and there is so much more of it. We also have a lot less downforce.

That means we use the engines very differently – we rev them much less, and we change gears much sooner, so at the same point on the track we’re often in a higher gear than last year. This is called short-shifting, and it allows you better control of the torque of the engine.

If we had as much downforce as last year, we would not have to short-shift as much. But we have lost a lot of grip, especially at the rear, with the restrictions on aerodynamics. It’s really difficult to put into words exactly how you judge when you need to short-shift, because it’s all done on feel.

From experience, you know where the car’s limitations are, you know where it breaks traction, you know if you go aggressively on the throttle, or past a certain percentage, that you’re going to break traction in first, second and third gear. Your mind sets those limits and you’re always trying to push them. You want to pull out of the corner with a little bit of slip, but not so much it unsettles the car. Getting that exactly right is what makes us good drivers.

On the big noise debate

Since I started driving in F1 in 2006-07, the cars have got slower and easier to drive. In 2007, we had more downforce, the speed through corners was faster, the races were a series of sprints between fuel stops.

Now, it’s still very physical, but for someone who trains a lot, like all the drivers do, it’s nowhere near as demanding. We all say, “that race was easy”, or “it’s easy to drive the car now”.

It’s all relative, of course. You still have to be very fit – if a normal person got in the car, it would destroy them. But while we’re not as stretched physically, don’t think we’re not on the limit. Whatever I drive, I will push to the limit.

This year, I am pushed more in the technical sense, in terms of the need to understand the car and all the things to optimise it, but I am still on the edge of what’s humanly possible.

As for the criticisms of the sound of the new engines, it is what it is. Every year, things change. The V10s from the early 2000s sounded better than the V8s which F1 used from 2006-13. Then we got used to the V8s and now we have gone to the turbo. It still sounds good. When I first came to an F1 race, the first thing I noticed was the noise vibrated my chest. I was 11 years old and it nearly burst my ear drums, and that excited me so much.

But people watching on TV don’t get that – even if they have the very best sound system. You only get that at the track. Now, they won’t have that. But the races still look cool.

Some people will say they just want the loudest cars they can have, but we also have to think of the wider world and F1 is now at the forefront of developing great engines with lots of power but excellent fuel consumption. What we have been able to achieve with these engines is incredible – we get the same power, if not more, out of a V6 than a V8 and use 30% less fuel. That’s fantastic. And the new era of road cars will benefit.

F1 has always been about pushing technical boundaries, and that’s what we’re doing with these new engines.

Rod Laver vs. Jimmy Connors

Found a fascinating challenge match, in which Jimmy Connors beat Rod Laver, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, February 2 1975. The footage is a video camera pointing at the TV – but you can see the shots surprisingly well.

As the (excellent) comment thread points out, Laver was well over the hill at this point (whereas Connors was Wimbledon champion), but you get a sense for why many regard Laver as the greatest ever. Even here his movement (especially at the net) is phenomenal, and for all that his technique sometimes looks odd to modern eyes (where is his front arm on the forehand groundstroke?), the power and placement is there, even with those crappy old rackets.

Dog Parkour

This is a slightly odd post for a sports blog, but as part of my mini-project to gather together top Parkour videos, this one belongs; “dog parkour” is the only way you can possibly describe this.

Brian Moore on rugby

Brian Moore is my favourite Union TV commentator, with his trenchant opinions, Yorkie “it’s a bloody spade” attitude, and deep knowledge, especially of the scrum (where frankly I’m lost).

I thoroughly recommend his autobiography, and his Desert Island Discs episode is probably the best I’ve heard. He’s a very unusual and honest guy, with a mixed background (he is, for example, a qualified nail technician) and lots of good stories.

I include a snippet from a recent article below – because it made me laugh.

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England 29 Wales 18: Triple Crowns don’t mean anything – only Six Nations titles and Grand Slams count
Telegraph
by Brian Moore
09 Mar 2014

Though you would need a heart of stone not to feel for Scotland, you would also need a similar brain not to understand they were, again, largely the authors of their loss.

Trott on exhaustion and Mitchell Johnson

Interesting interview with Trott, whose ‘stress-related condition’ that led to him to leave England’s disastrous Ashes tour now seems to have been exhaustion, rather than clinical depression.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview transcript where he talks about his issues with Mitchell Johnson:

Trott feared career was over
Cricinfo
by George Dobell
March 13, 2014

Trott denied that his struggles against Mitchell Johnson’s pace were relevant to his decision to return home. “He’s a very good bowler,” Trott said. “You’ve seen lots of batsmen struggle against him. In normal circumstances I would have been fine. I’m not saying I would have scored lots of runs, but I’d have gone out there with confidence.

“But I couldn’t think. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t stand still or watch the ball. Everything I had practised went out of the window. In those circumstances, any problem you have with your technique – and when I’m out of form I tend to fall over to the off side – is magnified and you saw me walking towards him, stepping across my stumps and trying to hit everything into the leg side. It wasn’t that I was scared or anything, it was just the result of a cluttered mind. It would have been the same against any bowler.”

Tennis’s one-handed backhand – a dying art?

Tennis’s one-handed backhand – a dying art, (briefly) revived
Economist
Jan 28th 2014

The rise and fall of the one-handed backhand

The rise and fall of the one-handed backhand

To general surprise, Stanislas Wawrinka won the men’s Australian Open tennis championship on Sunday. In doing so, the Swiss player captured his first grand-slam singles title and beat Rafael Nadal, the world number one. It was a strange match, rendered less competitive by an injury to Mr Nadal. The suspicion is that Mr Wawrinka, for all his fine play, would not have won against a fit opponent—not only because of his previous 0-12 record against the Spaniard, but because Mr Wawrinka attacks with a one-handed backhand, a stroke some consider a liability in the modern game.

The one-handed backhand drive—hit with topspin, rather than sliced defensively—is perhaps the most elegant shot in tennis. Mr Wawrinka’s is a model of the genre: a flowing, full-blooded sweep of the racquet that marries power and timing. Yet despite its appeal to purists, the one-hander is unpopular with professional players. It is more difficult, with a much smaller margin for error, than its two-fisted counterpart. Most prefer the more compact and clinical two-hander. Of the 50 top-ranked men players, only 12 use one-handed backhands. In the women’s game, only three players in the top 50 hit one-handed.

That the one-hander is effective, given a talented-enough ball-striker, is beyond dispute. Roger Federer, also of Switzerland, has used his to win more grand-slam titles than any other man. It is only in recent years, as the game has become even more physical, and as new strings have allowed players to impart more spin on their shots, that the two-hander has gained ascendancy. (Indeed, as our chart shows, part of the fascination of tennis from the 1970s all the way through to the 2000s was the unresolved duel between languid one-handers, like Pete Sampras, and two-handed sluggers like Andre Agassi.) Yet as Mr Federer’s powers fade—he has won only two majors since 2010—there are mutterings that inherent limitations in his classic style of play, previously masked by exceptional talent, may be causing grief. Did he win 17 majors despite, rather than because of, his pretty backhand? Nick Bollettieri, a famous American coach, thinks Mr Federer could have had even more success two-handed.

The implications for mere mortals are ominous. Pundits gave Mr Wawrinka little chance of winning the Australian final precisely because the high-bouncing, viciously topspun shots in which Mr Nadal specialises are difficult for players with single-handed backhands to return with interest. No matter how good the one-handed backhand, the errors will creep in. (Most believe this is why Mr Federer’s head-to-head record against Mr Nadal is poor.)

Yet critics of the one-hander should remember that Mr Wawrinka thoroughly outplayed his opponent for much of the match. He did this by making a virtue of his weakness. Instead of trying to outlast his rival, he played aggressively and looked to take the initiative early in the point. It helps that the one-handed backhand demands early ball contact; if executed well, this hurries one’s opponent. Mr Wawrinka was equally aggressive with the rest of his game. He served 19 aces (versus just one for Mr Nadal), and hit 53 winners (versus 19), even surviving a mid-match dip in form as he struggled to finish off his stricken opponent.

Sadly, none of this makes continued glory for many of tennis’s one-handers likely. The shot’s mechanical complexity means its exponents must perform at their best for longer than their opponents. A strategy dependent on being in the elusive state sportsmen call “the zone” is hardly a recipe for success. (In winning the Australian final, Mr Wawrinka also hit 49 unforced errors, compared with 32 by his opponent.) Mr Federer recently switched to a larger racquet in search of more consistency. Little surprise, then, that most coaches will keep playing the averages. With youngsters now routinely learning the two-hander—in part because most children lack the strength to play any other way—the pool of one-handers will remain small. Mr Wawrinka has given brief joy to connoisseurs of tennis’s most delightful shot, but one title does not a trend make.

Pernell Whitaker, boxing great

I saw a reference in a BBC article to a boxer I know little about, Pernell Whitaker:

But even in the brutal world of boxing, there are some who are able to look both sweet and scientific. The beauty of Floyd Mayweather is that he manages to make the almost impossible – hitting without being hit – look simple. But perhaps boxing’s greatest beauty was Mayweather’s fellow American Pernell Whitaker, who won world titles at four different weights in the 1980s and 90s.

“Whitaker’s moves,” wrote boxing historian Bert Sugar, “were pure poetry in motion. Or, more correctly, pure poetry in many motions. Whitaker did for boxing what Edgar Degas did for ballerinas and Vincent van Gogh for sunflowers.” In truth, what Whitaker did defied description. Get on YouTube and see for yourself.

Whitaker was able to appear weightless in the most oppressive situations. He made fellow legends – Oscar de la Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez among them – look like they were plodding after him in diver’s boots.

So I looked the guy up, and he’s remarkable. Shades of Ali & Sugar Ray Leonard in the way he ducks and sways and makes the other guy look a fool.

Nadal – tennis GOAT?

The guy makes a strong case for Nadal as tennis GOAT.

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Rafael Nadal Might Just Be the Best Ever
Bryan Tarmen Graham
10/09/13

Monday’s [2013 US Open] final [where Nadal beat Djokovic] was the 37th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, surpassing John McEnroe-Ivan Lendl as the Open era’s most prolific—if not romantic—rivalry. Unlike McEnroe and Lendl, however, their familiarity has bred not disdain but a mutual respect. Both employ similar pugilistic, power-baseline styles, stripping their matches of the stylistic and poetic contrasts that made the Nadal’s meetings with Federer such attractive (and accessible) theater. Both have forced each other to improve and innovate, each one retooling his game in an effort to best the other. They have spent most of the past few years dragging each other into deep waters at the end of tennis’s biggest tournaments, Djokovic winning seven straight meetings in 2011 and 2012, Nadal taking six of the past seven. The struggle was no different Monday, even if this one didn’t extend five sets. “Between Novak and me, every point is fighting, every point is long rally, every point is more strategy,” Nadal said last night. “This is very tough.”

All the strongest arguments for Nadal as the best to ever do it were on full display throughout Monday’s final.

It started with his superior physicality. One hundred eighty-eight pounds of fast-twitch muscles and bravado, Nadal generates enough spin on his groundstrokes to cheat space-time, like the Euclid-defying overhead he struck from 10 feet behind the baseline in his first-round win over Ryan Harrison. He broke Djokovic twice in the opening set as the shadows grew long over Ashe, curling shots drizzled with topspin into the corners while making just four unforced errors.

It continued with his mental and tactical agility, his refined gift for making adjustments on the fly—sometimes in the middle of a point. Consider the run of play near the end of the second set, when Djokovic had warmed to the moment and was striking his forehand with loose, fluid abandon. When he broke Nadal to take the set and broke at love to open the third, Djokovic began dictating the baseline points and pushing his opponent around. One hundred forty points had been played midway through the third set. Nadal had won 70. Djokovic had won 70. But just as the Serb had wrested the momentum, it was Nadal who began mixing in the slice brilliantly, changing pace and keeping Djokovic off balance. No small feat for a player once derided for smashing the ball pell-mell at every opportunity with little taste for variety.

And then, of course, there was ample evidence of Nadal’s legendary between-the-ears fortitude. Late in the third, Djokovic had triple-break point to serve for a two-sets-to-one lead. Nadal saved all three break points, held serve, and broke the Serb for the set. He never looked back.

Nadal was once a bit of a curiosity: a clay-court specialist known as much for his innumerable tics and quirky rituals as his terre battue mastery. Even Monday, he was a slave to his routines, touching his crotch and shirt then fingering his hair before every serve—while obsessively making sure everything remained feng shui around his chair during changeovers. (And then making sure again.)

There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer as tennis’s greatest ever. Yet many have wondered how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he’s not conclusively the best of his time.

Yet these days he’s evolved into nothing less than an all-court phenomenon. This season, he’s 22-0 on hard courts, traditionally his weakest surface. He’s just the second man to win multiple titles on three different surfaces. His lifetime winning percentage, currently an absurd 83.7 percent, is better than anyone in the sport today. Incredibly, he entered the U.S. Open with a winning record against each of the other 127 players in the field.

There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer—a man whose game has been described as porn for aesthetes—as tennis’s greatest, certainly as long as the Swiss maestro remains atop the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard with 17 trophies. Yet consider that Nadal has beaten Federer in 21 of their 31 meetings—and eight of their 10 matches at Grand Slams. Or that Nadal has won Olympic gold in singles and Federer hasn’t. Or that Nadal has won four more Davis Cups than Federer’s zero. Many have wondered aloud how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he’s not conclusively the best of his time.

Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Great Britain’s Andy Murray together account for 34 of the past 35 Grand Slam championships. Such hegemony is unprecedented. (Consider that, over the same span, 24 different golfers have won majors.) The Big Four have turned the sport into their own crash test laboratory, challenging one another and raising the bar to heights previously thought impossible.

Could Nadal’s progression from raw athletic specimen to adaptable, intelligent all-around player be the finest product of his era? Barring injury, he should win at least a few more French Opens, where he’s lost exactly once in 60 career matches. (He’s already the odds-on favorite for next year’s tourney.) Five more majors overall is a tall order, but you’d be mad to bet against him.

“I’m gonna keep working hard, I’m gonna keep doing my things to have more chances in the future to be competitive and win tournaments,” he said, with a wry grin, after last night’s match. “But let me enjoy today.”