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Tennis in 2013 was crazy.

We could analyse what happened in tennis in 2013, but that idea is fundamentalist – we can analyse anything that has happened in the past with confidence.

Instead, based on what has happened in 2013, this post aims to look at what tennis will bring in the year 2014.

As indicated in the title, the key word for 2014 will be risk. The year 2014 (and future years) in tennis will be all about how players hedge their risk when playing. Such a concept is explained in finer detail. Also listed are predictions for the upcoming new year and how my predictions faired last year – and what it all meant.

Predictions from 2013

Around twelve months ago I made a series of predictions for 2013 – the post can be found here. Let us discuss some of the predictions.

Prediction 1: Court speeds stay the same.

This prediction was very accurate. Court speeds did not change much. Yet, courts that were historically known for being quick  (Cincinnati, Paris, Dubai, Madrid) all caused problems to reactive, modern baseliners such as Murray, Djokovic, Nadal. Despite the homogenisation, courts cannot be exactly alike.

Prediction 2: The rise of younger, exotic players

Listed immediately below are some of the youngest players in the tour during the start of 2013 and their rankings, respectively.

Dimitrov –  42Raonic – 15
Janowicz – 26
Klizan – 30
Belluci – 32
Paire – 46
Goffin – 50
Tomic – 63

And now are the current rankings of the mentioned players.

Dimitrov –  23
Raonic – 11
Janowicz – 21
Klizan – 108
Belluci – 125
Paire – 26
Goffin – 110
Tomic – 51

The average of the rankings (of these selected players) at the start of 2013 was 38 and the standard deviation (how far the players fluctuated away from the average ranking of 38) was 15.2.

Similarly, the average of the rankings at the start of 2014 is 59.4 and the standard deviation is 47.1.

The analysis is simple and obvious – and the numbers confirm our suspicions. Here is some quick analysis.

  • Raonic is the highest ranked and it is not a surprise – he is by far the most professional. His career can be seen as slow improvement followed by a big jolt and now again, small improvement, which is to be expected. Raonic is getting used to the tour and big things are expected of him.
  • Dimitrov improved his attitude and fitness and as a result, everything else improved for him. Splitting up from the academy in Sweden may not have been the best choice – but he won his first title there. He is currently working with Roger Rasheed, who is known to excel at fitness training. If Dimitrov can further improve his fitness, his ranking should increase. Everything else about his game is impressive. He played superb against Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in 2013. Perhaps Dimitrov will be a big match player. Big things are expected of him. Watch out for his fitness and attitude this year.
  • Several players – Klizan, Belluci, Goffin and to some extent, given how talented he is, Tomic, have not impressed. My purposed reason for the first three failing to improve is a concept known as ‘regression towards the mean’, which is a mathematical touch to the assertion that, on average, you show yourself to be who you are. Goffin is not really the player he was during that magical French Open, nor are Klizan or Belluci during their respective tournaments. They need time to improve – their success is essentially based on risk. To hedge their risk (i.e. to remove the risk), they simply need to become better players.
  • The change in standard deviation from 15.2 to 47.1 is helpful to see that the real ‘pack’ of successful, top players is seemingly the Dimitrov, Raonic, Janowicz combination with Paire and Tomic hanging around somewhere. The others have shown themselves to be not good enough.

Prediction 3: Del Potro, Djokovic, Gasquet

Del Potro enjoyed a fantastic 2013, barring a poor loss in the US Open and a disappointing loss to Federer in the World Tour Finals. His rampant battle with Djokovic in the semi finals of Wimbledon was fantastic. The highlights are posted immediately below.

Del Potro needs to sharpen his focus and improve his net game. His slice has developed and it would be encouraging to see him use it more often to change the pace of a rally.

Also mentioned was how Djokovic is attempting to volley more. Well, his volleying skills (basically) lost him the Wimbledon title. But they have improved and with the addition of Becker to his team (more on this later), they should keep on improving.

I predicted Gasquet to do well and Gasquet did not disappoint – he had a better mentality on any tennis court in 2013. He is extremely professional and would be more respected if he posed a bigger challenge to the top, top players. A change in coach (not his decision) should remain beneficial as his new coach, Sergi Bruguera, was extremely talented as a player.

Hedging risk

Tennis is becoming more scientific in the sense that the concept of risk  – which was once just seen an unforced error, is now fitness, preparation, tactics, diet and so on. Players want to eliminate all risks – they want to do their best but they also want to be at their most efficient.

Eliminating risk leads to more efficient play. It is a different outlook to accepting your style and trying to maximise your potential – i.e. playing your best. Eliminating risk can be thought of as a homogenisation of players. Here are a couple of ways in which it can be done:

  • Hiring an extremely talented coach. On the men’s side, Federer is now working with Edberg, Djokovic with Becker, on top of Murray with Lendl, Gasquet with Bruguera, Wawrinka with Norman. On the women’s side, Stephens is working with Annacone, Sharapova with Groeneveld, Wozniacki with Hogstedt. The list is endless. Each coach has some idea to eliminate the risk associated to each player.
  • Becoming extremely fit. This one is obvious but is understated – when your body can take more punishment, you can dig deeper into matches. Fernando Verdasco’s famous run in the Australian Open 2009 came down to his fantastic physical preparation work. Becoming extremely fit applies especially to the younger players – Dimitrov and Raonic both need to up their fitness, as do many female counterparts – Robson, Watson, Hampton and so on.
  • Smart scheduling decisions. If afforded the luxury of being able to choose where you can play (which many of the lower ranked professionals do not have), a smart schedule can be very beneficial. Players want to maximise their performance over a season. Their schedule dictates where they play – and if they organise it sensibly, they should find a way to play good tennis. It is not fixed what a ‘smart’ schedule is – what is smart for one player may not be so for another.

Being efficient is more economical than being the best. Why frustrate yourself trying to play your best when there is a different approach which leads to you becoming more consistent? Many players have big risks attached to their name.

Nadal faced the risk of being blown away by an aggressive baseliner and has hedged this risk by becoming more aggressive himself.

Murray’s biggest risk was his emotional state and his lack of a killer forehand – he hedged the chance of these affecting him by working with a coach who mastered both of those problems.

Federer is another example. At a young age he had a risk of not being able to play against baseliners – the likes of Hewitt, Agassi, Nalbandian and so on. He eliminated this risk by playing with a different style (changing serve and volley into baseline). This does not mean he played his best – his best may have come as a result of improving his serve and volley style. When he lost ‘control’ of his game, he hired different coaches with different ideas – Jose Higueras helped him integrate the dropshot into his game, Paul Annacone stabilised his game and made him become more attacking. Stefan Edberg is now working with him and should provide some new ideas. For Federer, his ‘best’ does not require much coaching nor intellect to understand – he just does not many errors and bamboozles opponents the way we know he can. Federer’s risk is unique to him.

The concept of eliminating risk can be seen as follows. Suppose an opponent drags you out wide to your forehand corner – instead of lining up a sweet but risky down the line forehand winner, you try your best to hit a spinny cross-court forehand that puts you back into the rally and neutralises your opponent. Instead of going for something that is risky and requires you to play very well, you focus on making things that you should make into you will make.

2014 will be about how players can respond to risk.


One Comment

  1. The predictions become more accurate. Top coaches are contesting US OPEN final, Ivanesevic with Cilic, Chang with Nishikori. Both are minimising long term risk, Cilic by reconstructing his service motion to ensure his serve doesn’t break down, Nishikori doing gym work to ensure his body doesn’t. It also appears that Goffin is back on the rise, judging by his incredible summer. Some of it off clay, rather surprisingly.

    As always, thanks for the many wonderful posts.

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