Monday, July 10, 2006

The Grassy Knoll

Saturday I set my DVR to record The Gentlemen's Finals of Wimbledon. NBC listed it as a six hour affair for some reason. My wife became a little anxious about dropping six hours of HD programming on the DVR, but the machine assured us that it had enough space on its hard drive.

So this let me get up at 8 on Sunday morning to watch the finals, instead of getting up at 6 to see it live. That's nice. I was eager to see a re-match of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Their match in the French Open finals was disappointing. Not because Nadal won, but because the quality of tennis seemed low. However, part of that is because it was clay court tennis and the slowness of clay makes it hard to hit winners and thus more inevitably more points end with errors. Still, it made me wonder if the reason that Federer and Nadal were so dominant was not because they were such great players as most thought, but because tennis is particularly weak these days.

Wimbledon is on grass, of course. Grass has the opposite effect of clay. It is very fast and so it is much easier to hit winners and fewer points end with errors. So not surprisingly, Federer-Nadal was much more enjoyable to watch. The fast surface clearly favored Federer, much as the clay clearly favored Nadal. So it wasn't too surprising that Federer finally beat Nadal in four sets.

The match still left me wondering about how good these two players really were. I was very surprised to see Federer stay behind the baseline. Not only did he not serve-and-volley much, but he didn't even approach the net that much (33 approaches in four sets.) Looking at the match statistics, none of them are that amazing. One could argue that Federer simply won because he has a better second serve -- about 13mph faster than Nadal's and thus he won 57% of his second serve points vs. 42% for Nadal.

It's funny how things change in tennis. I remember a decade ago when people were complaining about the speed of men's tennis. They said that Wimbledon was the worst. Men had such huge serves that it was rare for the opponent to even return it and trivial to volley it away when they did. People complained about Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Richard Kraijeck, and Goran Ivanisevic. They pointed to women's tennis as being more interesting because there were still rallies.

In this year's Wimbledon, the last serve-and-volley player in the men's draw was Radek Stepanek, who lost to Jonas Bjorkman in the quarterfinals. The women's game is hardly dominated by big serves, but yet both finalists came to net more often in three sets than Federer did in four sets.

So how would Federer fare against Pete Sampras at Wimbledon? Not well I think. For that matter, I have a hard time imagining him doing well against Becker in his prime either. Even other guys like Ivanisevic and Kraijcek would be tough on Federer I think. Andy Roddick has a big serve like those guys, but he is a baseliner at heart, just like Federer.

Now don't let me sell Federer too short. His game is amazing, especially his forehand. The best forehand ever? Maybe. It reminds me of Steffi Graf's forehand. Actually his game in general is similar to Steffi's, though he probably has a better backhand (though she made a lot less mistakes with her backhand than he does.) He is a lot of fun to watch play. I think he would be tough for mid 90's Sampras on hard courts, but I just don't think he would ever be able to break Sampras on grass. Ever. His return is not good enough and Sampras would swing for the fences so to speak on Federer's serve. And Federer does not seem mentally tough (unlike Nadal.) That was what made last year's US Open final so interesting. Everybody thought that Andre Agassi stood no chance, but then he took a set. You just knew that if he forced a fifth, then either Federer would have to show mental toughness that he had never shown before, or the A-Train would have rolled.

One final note on Wimbledon. This year was the first Wimbledon where I watched most of it in HD. Last year I saw some of the highlights, but usually on the SDTV in my bedroom. I was in Bakersfield during the finals. This year I saw a lot of early round action in HD, and watched all the finals in HD. Tennis is a spectacular sport in HD. It was amazing to see the cracked dirt on the worn parts of Centre Court, and to see the dust and grass fly as players ran down balls. There were also a couple of points they replayed in super-slow as Federer or Nadal hit shots. It was incredibly to see their muscles rippling as they hit forehands and backhands.

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