Tag Archives: tennis

Competitiveness: Tsonga and Dimitrov at Wimbledon

I love competition.* In athletics competition provides a picture of justice; there is no place for mercy. At its highest level the goal in competition is to exploit, with honor, any weakness that can be exploited. It is the duty of an athlete to pursue victory, anything less than complete effort is disrespectful to the opponent and to the sport itself. This does not apply to recreational athletics, where the primary goal is usually recreation instead of competition.**

Today at Wimbledon Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Grigor Dimitrov competed. I only saw the final set, but it was very entertaining. Both players were playing the highest quality tennis. Passing shots were flying, diving volleys were made, and both players showed controlled abandon on the court. What really made the match great though, was the ending.

In a fourth set extended tie break Tsonga finally prevailed after a long rally. The match was over. Dimitrov had fought off five match points up to then, and after all the high pressure tennis and exertion he just collapsed to the ground as his last shot missed. He had given everything he had and lost. Tsonga raised his arms in celebration. It is a scene of victory common in tennis tournaments.

But then it become extraordinary. Tsonga noticed Dimitrov fall to the ground, he ran forward and jumped over the net, knelt beside his opponent and offered a hand to help him up. Then he gave him a hug, not a wimpy and awkward hug but a real one. As they walked off the court Tsonga patted Dimitrov’s back while offering some words of encouragement. It was a touching scene.

I love what that moment captured. While the match was under way Tsonga strove to defeat Dimitrov. He had no mercy. Yet as soon as the match ended he offered genuine sympathy and encouragement to the man he had bested. It fulfilled the conscientious competitor’s goal: I will crush you and comfort you.

*In some respects I am ridiculously competitive, yet I can normally turn it off when I want to, because of this many people think I’m not competitive. I find outlets for it where I am not likely to alienate others. I think a strong desire to win is not a bad thing in itself, but it can be dangerous.

**A major source of contention is the mixing of people with a primary goal of serious competition  with those that are seeking mere recreation. The two are often incompatible. In athletics I love ruthless competition, so I’ve usually stayed away from organized recreational sports. It pains me greatly to hear “Nice try!” and “Good job!” being offered as encouragement to athletes who failed due to lack of effort or terrible technique.

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Smoking Aces: Isner vs Mahut

Over the past few days John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played an epic first round Wimbledon match. Records fell like confetti. Longest match, longest set, most aces in a match, most aces in a set, most winners in a match, most winners in a set, and likely others that I missed. In the end Isner was victorious, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.

I did not see the first two days of the match live because I was working. Last night I reviewed most of it on ESPN3 to get a feel for it before watching the conclusion this morning. For some reason my internet connection failed right as Isner hit his serve for what would be the winning point, so I did not see the final rally live (when my service was restored a few moments later the match was over, talk about anti-climactic).

The match was most definitely historic. Nothing like that has happened before, and I doubt anything like it will happen again in my lifetime. After the match ended I was left wondering what I had just seen. Was it a great match? Was it an example of good tennis?

The match took  11 hours and 5 minutes to play (that’s court time, it actually stretched over three days). In that amount of time you could watch The Godfather trilogy, Zoolander, and an episode of The Office and still have a few minutes left over.

The final set alone was 8 hours and 11 minutes long. If you had begun watching The English Patient at the start of the 5th set you could have seen the movie three times and then watched the final game of the set.

So does longer mean better? No. I found this match interesting because of the perfect storm that occurred, but it was not tennis at its best. Isner has a massive serve and mediocre court movement. Mahut has a lesser serve but better court movement. Isner caused the high ace count. On his own serve he hit the ball very hard with precision and on Mahut’s serve his court movement became very poor late in the match, which resulted in aces.

The previous Wimbledon record for aces in a match was held by Ivo Karlovic, with 51 in 2005. Federer had 50 aces against Andy Roddick in his classic Wimbledon final last year. Ivo Karlovic also held the record for most aces in a match at any venue, he registered 78 at the 2009 Davis Cup.

Isner and Mahut now sit atop the list when it comes to aces.

During the 5th set Mahut looked to be in much better physical shape than Isner. He was able to move quickly, kept his head up, and seemed very determined to win the match. Isner looked extremely fatigued, slow, and unable to make adjustments.

If you do not have time to watch the entire match but you want to get a feel for how it transpired just watch this:

Isner had the big serve, which was a huge advantage, equivalent to the gun. Isner would win his service game every time, making Mahut serve to stay in the match. At times Mahut seemd finished, but he bounced back again and again. In a final choke-hold-with-fingers-in-the-nose moment Isner secured victory.

That match likely effectively knocked both players out of the tournament, for the physical toll was extraordinary. Isner will get to play a second round opponent in De Bakker who went a long five sets in the first round too, though his match ended at a mere 16-14 in the 5th.


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Retirements in Men’s Tennis Majors

At the conclusion of the Australian Open I wrote a post about the tournament. In a comment one of my friends raised questions about withdrawals due to injury in tennis and whether they are increasing and Nadal’s potential role in that. This made me very curious about trends in tennis withdrawals. Are retirements in men’s tennis increasing? Are the best players retiring more frequently?

I looked for stats on this and could not find them. I decided to compile my own. After some thought I decided to start my study with a 20 year sample size (1990-2009). I went through the results of every match played in every major (Australian Open, Wimbledon, French Open, U.S. Open) during that period.

Disclaimer: There is a chance that at some point during the hours of scouring old match results I made a transcription error, and my statistical analysis was done very quickly and is most definitely not publishable beyond the blog level.

Fasten your seatbelts, we’re about to embark on a wild ride through tennis stats.


We’ll start by getting on the same page with terminology. There are numerous ways to have a match end without a resolution on court. A walkover occurs when a player withdrawals before a match begins. A retirement occurs when a player decides to stop playing during a match due to injury or some other reason. A default occurs when a player is ejected from a match. A true withdrawal occurs when an invited player chooses not to play in a tournament before it begins. I was not able to find a way to effectively collect data on withdrawals. I tabulated retirements, walkovers, and defaults for the past 20 years. Walkovers and defaults are rare and almost perfectly evenly distributed over the last two decades, so I decided to use retirements as my main data set.

At times I will refer to seeded and unseeded players. For this discussion seeded players refers to players seeded #1 through #16. These are the elite players in the tournament, the upper 12.5% .

Distribution of Retirements

By my tabulation there were 322 retirements at tennis majors between 1990 and 2009. Seeded players accounted for 31 retirements (9.6%). At first glance this might seem to say that seeded players are less likely to retire, however a goodness of fit test reveals this statement cannot be made (p=0.11).

Statistically speaking retirements are equally distributed across the majors (Figure 1). The Australian Open has 83, Wimbledon has 62, the French Open has 87, and the U.S. Open has 90. This surprised me. I expected the hard court tournaments at the beginning and end of the season to have higher numbers.

Figure 1. Distribution of retirements in men's tennis majors (1990-2009).

The Leading Retirees

In the past 20 years the most frequent major retiree has been Wayne Ferreira. He has retired 7 times, completing a retirement career grand slam (retiring from all four majors). The only other player in the past 20 years to compile a retirement career grand slam is Andrei Pavel, who has only retired 5 times. The second highest number of major retirements in the past 20 years was accrued by Jerome Golmard with 6 (though he failed to retire in the French Open, shattering his grand slam hopes).


The data were very interesting. When I charted simple line graphs for each tournament it seemed like retirements were increasing, but it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on. Wimbledon and the French Open both had more notable increases, yet the numbers tended to fluctuate greatly year-to-year, resulting in a messy chart with high peaks and low valleys. The Australian Open and U.S. Open were very difficult to read.

Running regressions on the numbers over time yielded a surprise. I played around with various trend lines and finally settled on a linear set-up.  Wimbledon was the only major with a significant increase in retirements. The French Open narrowly missed being significant, and both the Australian Open (Figure 2) and U.S. Open (Figure 3) had were far from significant.

Figure 2. Australian Open retirements over time (R2=0.09; p=0.20).

Figure 3. U.S. Open retirements over time (R2=0.003; p=0.81).

My next step was to combine all the data from the four majors to run a cumulative retirement regression (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Cumulative tennis major retirements over time (R2=0.47; p=0.001).

So it appears across all majors that an increase is happening in retirements. The two majors that are contributing the most to this are Wimbledon and the French Open.

This leads to another question: are seeded players more likely to retire now than they were in the past? I isolated the retirements of seeded players and ran a linear regression. The results indicate that there has not been an increase in seeded players retiring (R2=0.004; p=0.79).

My next move was to compare decades. I split the data into a 1990s group and a 2000s group. I then looked at retirements by decade, continuing to isolate seeded players. It turns out that retirements significantly increased among unseeded players in the 2000s (p=0.005), though there was not an increase in seeded players (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Tennis retirements by decade.


To answer the questions I started this study with:

Are retirements in men’s tennis increasing? Retirements in men’s tennis majors have increased over the past 20 years. The greatest increases have come at Wimbledon and the French Open.

Are the best players retiring more frequently? The increase in retirements is something that is occurring among unseeded players.

What is Nadal’s role? Nadal has only retired from one major (he also has withdrawn once). The current elite player most prone to retire is Novak Djokovic, who has retired from majors 4 times. Djokovic has greatly improved his fitness over the past two years, however, so hopefully major retirements are a thing of the past.

I suspect the long season and rise of the hard court are partially to blame for the increase in retirements. The best way for a player to improve his ranking (and paycheck) is to play a lot of tennis. Hard court tournaments have become more common than clay or grass tournaments here in the U.S. and numerous tournaments abroad that had been clay or grass based have switched to hard courts.

It is undeniable that a change in attitude toward injury has happened in the past decade. The players of the past must marvel at the frequent injury timeouts and mid-match sessions with trainers, both of which did not exist all that long ago.

One Last Parting Note of Interest

In the past 20 years there has been only one major in which every match of the tournament was played to completion on the court. That was the 1993 French Open, in which Sergi Bruguera won the title in a five set final over Jim Courier. The 1990 Wimbledon tournament was the only other retirement-free major in the past 20 years, but it featured a walkover in the second round.


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Thoughts on the 2010 Australian Open

Early this morning the 2010 Australian Open wrapped up. I set my alarm for 3:30am to watch the men’s final, Roger Federer against Andy Murray. Roger was in pursuit of his 16th major championship while Andy was trying to win the first major for Great Britain since 1936. The match only went three sets, with Federer winning 6-3, 6-4, 7-6. At first glance those scores might look very lopsided but it was really a very close match. Both players made some extraordinary shots. Some of the classic matches Federer has had recently with Nadal and Roddick might have made this final seem anti-climatic.

While the commentators on television were rather critical of how Murray played I felt he played a respectable match. They thought he was tense, overly cautious, not aggressive enough, and feigning injury. I don’t think he played his best match, but he did force Roger to beat him. He did not self-destruct. He was picked apart by the greatest tennis player that has ever walked on the face of the earth. Murray has nothing to be ashamed of.

I’ve never been a Murray fan. When he first came onto the tennis scene as a brash, arrogant teenager I always rooted against him. His huge comeback win at Wimbledon two years ago against Gasquet started to win me over. He has matured as a person and as a tennis player, and his comments after the match this morning officially won me over. He was gracious toward Federer and grateful to his fans. I hope he wins a major in the next couple of years.

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Serena Williams won the women’s title, beating Justine Henin 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. I saw many of Serena’s matches during the tournament and she was hitting the ball well. In her semi-final match against Li Na she seemed to hit a wall of exhaustion, and I thought she might be in serious trouble in the final. But she improved her career Aussie Open final record to 5-0, pretty impressive.

Venus and Serena won the women’s doubles title and the Bryan brothers won the men’s doubles. This means that the four major titles (men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles) were won by a collective three last names (Federer, Williams, and Bryan). My research indicates this is an Australian Open record.

I thoroughly enjoyed the tournament. Now that I won’t be catching tennis at all hours of the evening and morning I can try to get back to a normal schedule. The 2010 Australian Open left me sleep-deprived and suffering from tennis withdrawal since the winter in State College is not conducive to playing tennis. But that happens every year.


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Venus Williams’ New Clothes

Tennis is a sport where the athletes have considerable freedom in designing their apparel. Sometimes this results in poor choices, like Venus Williams’ decision to create the illusion she is playing the Australian Open commando.

And this is a deliberate illusion. Take a look at her recent Twitter status history:

So “the full effect” is that there is nothing underneath that dress. Here is the outfit in question:

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In this picture the undergarment can be seen, for it is a high resolution image taken while she is standing still. Problems develop during match play. When she is in motion the deep v-neck and remaining pieces of her skirt create all sorts of optical illusions. I watched two games of one of her early matches on ESPN360 before switching to another match. Her most recent match I skipped.

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On television it appears to be a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed for her, even though she is creating this illusion on purpose. Venus, what are you thinking?

As I sorted through the pictures from the Australian Open that are available for public use I noticed that editors or discerning photographers had refrained from posting shots of the most revealing scenes from the match. Instead they posted photos carefully timed to maximize the coverage of the fringed skirt.

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I think it’s time for someone in her family to hold an intervention. Seriously.

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