Humid or Heavy?: How Air Really Affects Tennis

Cool temperatures and showers during the first week of Roland Garros this year have had a mass of pundits and players talking about the “heavy” playing conditions. Some said those conditions favored players who hit the ball especially hard, or implied they needed to be “hit through”. Andy Murray described the conditions as both “heavy” and “slow”, implying that the balls moved more slowly than usual or that rallies tended to be longer.

Are these remarks consistent with the physics of how the ball moves through the air? Are they even consistent with each other? What specific effects do so-called “heavy conditions” have on the way a tennis match unfolds? Let’s examine how various atmospheric conditions really influence the game.

A Quick Introduction to Aerodynamics

First, we’ll need to understand a few basic things about how the air affects a ball’s flight path. Once it leaves a player’s racket, a ball naturally tends to fall due to gravity, but it also loses speed due to friction with the air. If the ball is moving anywhere near the speeds seen in a typical professional match, this drag force is greater than the force of gravity. It can be described by this formula:


CD is the ball’s drag coefficient
ρ is the air density
r is the ball’s radius, and
v is the ball’s speed, relative to the air

Notice that the drag force is proportional to the air density—a 10% increase in density, for example, causes a 10% increase in drag.

Also, notice that the drag force is proportional to the square of the speed, meaning that a 10% increase in speed causes a 21% increase in drag. One practical result of this is to level the playing field somewhat between players who hit with exceptional power and those who don’t. Balls might leave a player’s racket with 10% more speed than her opponent’s, but those shots experience disproportionately more drag, and arrive at the opposite baseline carrying only about 7% more speed. This equalizing effect is only magnified by slow conditions in which the drag force is stronger. Just like a slow court surface, slow dense air helps defensive players who play with less power by minimizing the advantage wielded by bigger-hitting opponents. Players trying to “hit through” dense air are likely to be frustrated—their shots will reach the other end of the court a bit faster, but generally not enough to justify the extra effort and loss of accuracy.

Why Spin Makes Balls Curve

When the ball is spinning, there is also a lift force that acts at right angles to the ball’s motion:

As you may have guessed, CL is the lift coefficient. Unlike the drag coefficient, which is fairly constant over the range of speeds tennis balls travel, the lift coefficient varies, roughly in proportion to the spin coefficient. If the ball’s rate of spin ω is expressed in terms of radians, the spin coefficient can be calculated simply as:

Most commonly in modern tennis, balls are hit with topspin, which causes them to curve downwards, allowing them to be hit with more net clearance and still land in play. Balls can also curve sideways due to sidespin—most often seen with slice serves and kick serves—but no matter what the force’s direction, aerodynamicists still call it the lift force. To see what causes this force and why it works in the direction it does, let’s look at how air flows around a spinning ball. In this diagram, based on photographs taken in a wind tunnel where streams of smoke were injected into the air, the blue areas represent layers of air moving around the ball:

As the air moves past the widest part of the ball, it rushes to fill the hole punched by the ball’s motion. The back of a sphere is blunt enough that if it’s moving with any speed, the air doesn’t have time to fill the space smoothly, with its layers intact. Instead, its flow becomes turbulent, tumbling chaotically like churning water in the wake of a speedboat, and leaves a low-pressure area behind the ball. The difference in pressure between the front and back sides of the ball is the main contributor to the drag force.

If the ball is spinning, the air moves faster relative to the ball’s surface on the side that’s spinning into the airflow. This causes the airflow to become turbulent earlier on that side, shifting the low pressure wake toward that side as well. On the other side of the ball, the airflow stays smooth longer, allowing it to follow some of the curve on the back surface of the ball. In the case of the topspin shown in the diagram, the net effect is to deflect the air upwards as it flows around the ball, and the reaction force pushes the ball downward.

This phenomenon is called the Magnus Effect, and it’s also responsible for curveballs in baseball and swing pitches in cricket (although in some sports, it’s triggered more by careful placement of seams or other textural elements on the ball surface than it is by spin). The fuzz on a tennis ball strengthens the Magnus Effect, by helping to break up the otherwise smooth airflow around the sides of the ball.

By creating more turbulence, the fuzz also causes tennis balls to experience more drag (higher drag coefficients) than smoother balls. On the other hand, by creating a relatively thick turbulent zone around the ball at a wide range of speeds, the fuzz also makes the drag coefficient of a tennis ball vary much less with changes in speed, compared to balls in other sports. This makes the flight path of a tennis ball easier for players to anticipate. (Interestingly, the dimples on the surface of a golf ball have the opposite effect: they create a thin, turbulent boundary layer, which helps pull the bulk of the airflow smoothly into the ball’s wake, and dramatically reduces the drag coefficient at higher speeds.)

Now, back to those atmospheric conditions.


When people in the sport talk about “heavy” playing conditions, humidity is the atmospheric variable they mention most often. It comes up during rainy weather like at this year’s Roland Garros, in the sauna-like conditions that often prevail on the US east coast during the hardcourt season, and has even been blamed for slowing down play when the roof closes at Wimbledon. Conversely, one popular justification for the widespread belief that balls tend to fly further than normal at Indian Wells is the dry desert air.

There are two problems with such theories. Most importantly, they’re backwards. Contrary to common intuition, humid air is less dense than dry air, and therefore creates less drag on a ball. This is a consequence of the ideal gas law, which implies that at a given pressure and temperature, a given volume of any gas contains the same number of molecules. Dry air consists almost entirely of nitrogen molecules (N2, molecular weight 28) and oxygen molecules (O2, molecular weight 32). Diluting it with molecules of water vapor (H2O, molecular weight 18) makes it lighter.

The other problem with blaming humidity for slowing down or speeding up play is that, in the conditions under which most tennis matches are played, the effect of humidity on air density is very small. At 70°F (21°C), a change in the humidity from 0% to 100% decreases the air density by a mere 1%, which increases the speed at which a fast groundstroke arrives at the opposite baseline by less than 0.3 mph (0.5 km/h).

At very high temperatures, the effect is larger because hot air at 100% humidity holds more water than cooler air at 100% humidity. But heat combined with high humidity is so hard on the human body that WTA rules, at least, require suspension of play under such conditions (see below).

The reason humid air feels heavy to our senses isn’t because of its density or viscosity—it’s because the more water is already in the air, the less sweat evaporates from our skin. That forces our bodies to sweat harder and do more work to keep cool, leaving less energy available for athletic performance. Taken to the extreme, it causes dehydration and excess body temperature, which can cause the body’s mechanisms to malfunction altogether.

Humidity does have some effect on the surface characteristics and mass of the ball, as well as the air density, but these effects turn out to be very small and largely cancel each other out. More on this later.

It seems Stephane Bohli described humidity’s effects on the game more accurately than most while playing a Challenger tournament in New York last year, saying “You feel like your racket is a little bit heavier… that your legs are a little bit heavier, everything is a little bit heavier.” It’s more about humidity’s effect on a player’s body than it is about the effect on the ball.

Temperature and Pressure

As you can see in the diagram above, temperature has a much stronger effect on the air density than humidity does. A change in temperature from 50°F (10°C) to 100°F (38°C) reduces the air density by 10%. That makes a fast groundstroke arrive at the opposite baseline traveling a noticeable 2–3 mph (3–5 km/h) faster, depending on the spin and depth it’s hit with. The effect of the cool temperatures this past week at Roland Garros dwarfs the small opposing effect of the moderately high humidity, and is undoubtedly the main contributor to the slow playing conditions many have observed.

Another significant contributor is an atmospheric variable I’ve never heard mentioned in tennis, whether by a player, coach, or commentator: the barometric pressure. The ideal gas law tells us that the density of a gas is directly proportional to its pressure. For most locations on Earth, the barometric pressure (corrected for altitude) stays between 29 and 31 in Hg (980 and 1050 mb) the vast majority of the time. (Much lower pressures have been measured, but in places like the eyes of hurricanes and typhoons, circumstances under which tennis is unlikely to be played.) Typical variations in pressure lead to a potential variation of nearly 7% in the density of the air.

Pressures have been moderate during Roland Garros so far this year, staying between 29.74 and 30.19 in Hg (1007 and 1022 mb), but particularly in the first week, they were higher than the pressures usually seen during wet weather, and that may have contributed to the perception that conditions have been unusually slow.


The biggest differences in air density from one tournament to the next are caused by altitude. Tennis commentators talk about altitude most often in reference to Madrid, the only Masters 1000/Premier Mandatory level tournament held at significant altitude. The Caja Mágica in Madrid is at 1860 ft (567 m), where the air density is more than 6% lower than at sea level, but it’s far from the highest venue on the tour. Here are the altitudes and relative air densities of the actual tournament sites for every currently- or recently-held tour-level event above 1000 ft, or 300 m:

Tournament Altitude, ft Altitude, m Air Density, % of sea level
Nürnberg 1056 322 96.2
Marrakech 1508 460 94.7
Tashkent 1601 488 94.4
Munich 1635 498 94.2
Sofia 1792 546 93.7
Madrid 1860 567 93.5
Monterrey 2020 616 92.9
Kitzbühel 2485 757 91.3
São Paulo 2500 762 91.3
Bad Gastein 2822 860 90.2
Gstaad 3438 1048 88.2
Johannesburg 4860 1481 83.6
Quito 7780 2371 74.9
Bogotá 8393 2558 73.2

As you can see, events like Kitzbühel, São Paulo, and Bad Gastein are at significantly higher altitudes than Madrid, and the air density at these tournaments in very cold temperatures is as low as it would be in very hot conditions at sea level. Bogotá, Colombia and Quito, Ecuador host by far the highest events on the main tours, with air nearly three times thinner still.

Such altitudes make enough difference in the flight paths of tennis balls that we can easily see the effects visually, as well as in quantitative measurements. Using an evolved version of the computer model I developed for my analysis of court surface speeds, I examined how high altitude affects groundstrokes with varying kinds of spin. First, a flat shot with no spin (with the vertical scale magnified to emphasize differences in shape):

At high altitude, the ball experiences less drag, lands deeper in the court, and retains more speed. This shot, aimed to bounce 14 inches (36 cm) inside the baseline at sea level, lands nearly an inch (2 cm) beyond the baseline in Madrid, and over 4 feet (1.3 m) long in Bogotá.

Now, let’s look at a shot with heavy topspin:

Many people think topspin shots, with their higher net clearance, are inherently safer shots in a more general sense. But any shot played close to the lines or near the limits of a player’s ability is risky. Here we see that topspin actually makes a ball more sensitive to changes in air density. Topspin shots are struck at a higher initial angle, and rely on both aerodynamic drag and downforce from the spin to shorten their flight and pull them back down into the court. Thinner air weakens both of these forces. The topspin shot lands 19 inches (48 cm) long in Madrid and nearly 12 feet (3.6 m) long in Bogotá.

Finally, here’s a heavy slice:

A hard slice shot can actually be launched downward, relying on its aerodynamic lift to carry it over the net. As it continues into the opponent’s side of the court, drag slows it down, which sharply reduces the amount of lift it experiences, and it falls into the court. Since slices are aimed more directly in line which their intended landing point, they rely less on drag to keep them from going out of play. Instead, in thinner air, the loss of lift early in their flight makes balls land shorter in the court, even though they retain more speed. A hard slice aimed to land nearly 14 inches (34 cm) inside the baseline at sea level lands 2.7 feet (84 cm) inside the line in Madrid, even though it’s moving 2.2 mph (3.5 km/h) faster. In Bogotá, the shot just barely clears the net, and lands 8.9 feet (2.7 m) inside the baseline, carrying 9.7 mph (16 km/h) more speed.

What About Indian Wells?

Some of you may have noticed that Indian Wells does not appear in the table of tournaments at significant altitude. Indian Wells has an oft-repeated reputation as a place where balls fly further than players expect, and reputable news organizations, coaches, and star players like Murray and Maria Sharapova have all casually and erroneously asserted that this perceived behavior is due to high altitude. I’m not sure why. Because there are mountains visible on the horizon? Southern California has what the locals call a “high desert”, but it’s on the other side of those mountains to the north. The tournament site is at 145 ft (44 m), which accounts for a mere 0.5% difference in air density, compared to sea level. Nearby the Salton Sea, a salt lake with no outlet, lies 226 feet (69 m) below sea level.

In case you’re wondering, Roland Garros is the highest of the slam tournament venues, at 123 ft (37 m).

How Does Humidity Affect the Ball Itself?

Atmospheric factors alone simply cannot explain the perception that “balls fly” at Indian Wells, or the association of humidity with “heavy” conditions. It has been suggested that humidity might make the fuzz on the surface of the ball fluff up, increasing the ball’s effective diameter and therefore the drag it experiences.

I conducted my own experiments to test this idea. I opened cans of Wilson US Open Extra Duty balls at low and moderately high humidity levels and tumbled them in a clothes dryer, on the no-heat setting, to simulate the surface wear they experience during a match. I maintained the initial humidity inside the dryer throughout each test, and took high-resolution photographs of each ball before and after the tumbling process. After carefully measuring the effective diameter of the fuzz on each ball, I found that balls used at 61% humidity were effectively 0.6 mm smaller on average than balls used at 25% humidity. This difference is small, and just barely statistically significant—it’s only slightly larger than the typical variation between the individual balls I tested. But to the extent it affects balls’ behavior in the air, it only adds to the density-reducing effect of humidity, making balls travel further and faster.

Here are images and measurements of typical balls from the test. (The differences in color are due to different lighting conditions and the fact that I processed the images to optimize contrast of the fuzz fibers, not due to any difference in wear between the balls.)

High humidity has other effects, beyond this surprising reduction in the effective diameter of balls measured at rest. In humid conditions, the fuzz on a ball absorbs a measurable amount of water, increasing its mass slightly. At 27% humidity, I shaved as much fuzz off a ball as I could and gathered it into a small container. I weighed it on a high-precision scale, and then exposed it to 93% humidity for about 15 minutes, sealed the container, and weighed it again. It absorbed 0.04 grams of water, increasing its mass by 7%. This represents a mere 0.07% increase in the mass of the entire ball, which by itself isn’t enough to have a noticeable effect on the ball’s flight.

But it does affect the way the fuzz interacts with the air as the ball is in flight. Wind tunnel tests have shown that spinning balls have higher drag coefficients than balls with no spin. This is because the centrifugal effect makes the fuzz stand up off the surface of a spinning ball, creating extra disruption in the air flow around it. There are dramatic high-speed-camera photographs of this effect here (see Figure 12 in the link). By making the fuzz heavier, humidity enhances the centrifugal effect and makes the fuzz stand up higher.

I modified my computer model to take this into account and see how much it affects balls’ flight paths and speed in a match. The effect is measurable, but small. It’s just enough to nearly cancel out the effect of humid air’s lower density. The net result of all of these effects is that at 75°F (24°F), changing the humidity from 10% to 90% makes a deep topspin groundstroke land less than 11 inches (27 cm) deeper in the court, and increases its speed at the baseline by less than 0.6 mph (1 km/h). Other shots are affected significantly less. Once again, the results disprove the popular perception that humidity makes playing conditions slower, but the effect is so small it’s unlikely to make much difference in a match.

Do Heavy Balls Create Heavy Conditions?

Sometimes humid air is accompanied by rain, which potentially increases the mass of balls much more than humidity alone. On hard courts or grass, it doesn’t take much rain to stop play. But grass might still be damp enough when play resumes to get the balls wet. Saturated with water, but not actually dripping, a tennis ball weighs about 1 gram, or 1.8%, more than a dry ball. This further increases the degree to which the fuzz on a spinning ball stands up in flight, and the increased mass is also enough to reduce the speed with which balls come off a given player’s racket by nearly 1%.

This combination of increased drag and decreased initial speed is enough to noticeably slow the ball’s flight, but not as much as you might expect. To some extent, the extra mass of the ball helps it resist the tendency of the added drag to slow it down. In humid conditions, a wet ball hit deep with heavy topspin lands 8 inches (20 cm) shorter than a dry ball in dry air, takes 0.03 seconds longer to reach the baseline, and arrives traveling 1.7 mph (2.7 km/h) slower. Flat shots are affected less, but slices are affected even more, landing 4.6 feet (1.4 m) shorter, and reaching the baseline 0.05 seconds later with 2.5 mph (4.0 km/h) less speed.

On clay, matches can continue during light rain, and wet balls can pick up clay particles, adding somewhat more mass and slowing play even further. On the other hand, the significance of these effects in a match is limited by the fact that the balls don’t stay this wet for long. The impact of the racket strings and the spin flings much of the water off of them. If the humidity falls significantly after a shower, the air flowing around the ball in flight will dry the fuzz even further.

The added mass of a wet ball probably has a stronger effect on the way it feels on a player’s racket. If the ball is heavier, a player has to hit it harder to impart the same speed. More importantly, the water is all on the outer surface of the ball, where its added mass makes the greatest possible difference to the ball’s moment of inertia, or resistance to changes in spin. Adding 1 g of water increases a ball’s moment of inertia by 2.1%. The resulting 1% reduction in spin imparted to the ball by a given stroke doesn’t have a noticeable effect on the ball’s trajectory. But the extra resistance makes it noticeably more difficult to add spin to the ball, or even to neutralize the spin applied to it by an opponent’s racket and by its bounce off the court surface. Over the course of a match, this could help a strong player’s ability to wear down an opponent with a barrage of spin and power. The effect is felt as stronger recoil through the racket frame, contributing to greater fatigue in players’ arms. Here it actually makes sense to describe playing conditions as “heavy”, rather than slow or fast.


Like a lot of tennis lore, prevailing beliefs about how atmospheric conditions affect the game are a combination of truths, half-truths, and delusions made credible by repetition and recirculation. Scientific analysis reveals that many effects are more complicated than they appear, and often subtler than we expect. Often quantifiable reality differs from the tactile perceptions of players in the rush of battle. High altitude, high temperatures, and low pressures can all speed up play, in that order. Humidity has very little practical effect. Heavy balls, especially if they’re heavy because they’re wet, can make playing conditions heavier in a very real sense. But that’s a different kind of effect, sapping the strength of players more than it changes the flight of balls.

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The Physics and Perception of Court Speed

What’s big, flat, never moves, and yet has a speed debated hotly by thousands of people? Tennis fans know the answer to the riddle is a court surface.

Fans, players, coaches, and pundits often have strong opinions about court speed. As powerful servers increasingly dominated the game in the 1990s, many insisted the faster surfaces needed to be slowed down to preserve rallies and level the playing field. Today it’s fashionable to bemoan the “homogenization” of tennis courts, and there’s a growing belief that every tournament’s surface plays like “fast clay” or “slow hard court”, reducing the variety in playing styles. Some such criticism is based on the hasty impressions of fans who think they know the speed of a court after watching one set on a fuzzy internet video stream—even when that impression is as physically implausible as that of an aspiring journalist who once told me that the indoor hard court at the WTA Championships in Istanbul played slower than the red clay at Roland Garros.

At the same time, players who play and practice on these courts day after day continue to perceive significant differences in surfaces that are theoretically identical. Last year, Paris-Bercy tournament director Guy Forget insisted the court surface at his event was deliberately made to be exactly the same as that used the following week in London for the ATP World Tour Finals. Rafael Nadal said the court in London was slower. Novak Djokovic said it was faster. How is this possible? Are the players imagining things? Are the tournament directors lying? Or are there other factors besides the courts themselves that come into play?

Can Court Speed Be Measured?

Like many terms in tennis, court speed—or more broadly, the speed of playing conditions—is a phrase that’s widely used but whose precise meaning is often left unclear. Is a fast court one that favors shorter points, leading matches to be completed in less time? Is it one that favors playing styles (serve and volley!) traditionally associated with fast courts? Is it one on which players serve more aces? Is it one on which balls retain more of their initial speed after they bounce? Is it one on which balls bounce lower? Generally speaking, all of these factors are related, but they are not the same, and in some circumstances they can even work against each other.

Some readers will be aware that the International Tennis Federation measures and classifies the speed of various surfaces. These ratings are most often seen in Davis Cup and Fed Cup, where they give visiting players and fans a rough idea what to expect from the court the host team has selected. The ITF calculates these ratings using this formula:

Court Pace Rating = 100(1 – µ) + a(be)

Courts that yield a rating of 45 or higher are classified as “fast”, those with a rating of less than 30 are “slow”, and there are three more categories in between.

That seems pretty objective so far, and sounds even better if you know that µ (the coefficient of friction) and e (the coefficient of restitution) are calculated from actual tests where “high-specification balls”, with essentially no spin, are fired at the court surface in a repeatable way at a specified angle using a pneumatic cannon, and the balls’ speed, angle, and spin after they bounce are all measured precisely.

Things get a little sketchier when one learns that b, which is equal to 0.81, is supposedly the average coefficient of restitution “for all surface types”. Which surface types? All the ones the ITF has measured? All the ones that are used in professional tournaments? Is the average weighted to take into account that some surface types are more commonly used than others?

Never mind, because the game is really up when one discovers that a is called the “pace perception constant”, and is set to the very arbitrary-looking value of 150. So after all of this careful procedure with specially selected balls, calibrated pneumatic cannons, laser velocity sensors, high-speed cameras, and probably white lab coats, the final result comes down to a quantified admission that the whole enterprise is subjective?

But, wait. Court speed isn’t merely a matter of perception. Points tend to be longer if defending players have more time to get to balls and do enough with them to prolong the rally. Let’s look at the physics of how different surfaces contribute or take away critical hundredths of a second.

Physics to the Rescue

In the ideal world of many academic physics problems, where objects are rigid and have perfect geometric shapes and collisions are perfectly elastic, balls would retain all their speed when they bounced and leave the court at the same angle they landed. In the real world, tennis balls stay in contact with the court for a significant time as they bounce, and some of their energy is dissipated as they skid and flex and, in some cases, as the court surface deforms. These effects occur on a molecular level in non-homogeneous materials, and are impractical to model precisely. But by indirectly measuring the total forces acting on the ball through the entire duration of the bounce, we can create a simplified mathematical model that approximates the ball’s behavior well enough to resolve most of the mystery about court surfaces. Here’s a diagram of the forces involved:

The two small arrows shown in the center of the ball represent the forces of gravity and aerodynamic drag, both of which are critical to understanding the ball’s trajectory in the air, but which are small enough to be ignored during the bounce, which lasts only about 6 thousandths of a second. The way the ball bounces is determined overwhelmingly by two forces acting where the ball contacts the surface—the force of sliding friction (ƒ), which slows the ball’s horizontal speed and also tends to add topspin (ω), and the so-called “normal” force N, applied by the court and by the ball as it resists compression, stopping the ball’s descent and redirecting it upward. The friction force is equal to N multiplied by µ, the coefficient of sliding friction. N varies throughout the bounce in a way that’s hard to model, but its average value can be calculated from e, the coefficient of restitution, which is obtained simply by dividing the ball’s vertical speed before the bounce by its vertical speed after the bounce. These two coefficients, µ and e, are the key variables in the ITF’s Court Pace Rating formula.

Unfortunately, the ITF simplifies the measurements and calculations it needs to make by basing them on an oversimplified model of the physics involved, which limits the model’s usefulness in understanding how the ball behaves in a typical tennis match. One problem is that it assumes the court surface is perfectly rigid. This is a pretty good assumption with regard to common hard courts, but it breaks down on clay, where the ball digs visible craters as it bounces. This absorbs some of the ball’s energy, but also reconfigures the geometry of the bounce. As the ball rebounds, it must climb out of a depression, which causes it to bounce higher and slower as if it were bouncing off of an inclined surface (see illustration below). Of course, clay courts differ from each other, and the phenomenon is very difficult to model. To some degree, it can be addressed by incorporating its effect into the measurements of µ and e.

The ITF also assumes that the ball stays rigid and spherical throughout its bounce, rather than compressing as I show in the diagram. Even worse, it assumes that the ball slides against the court surface throughout the bounce. In reality, as the friction force adds spin to the ball, the rearward rotation of the bottom of the ball tends to approach the value of the ball’s horizontal linear speed. If these two values become equal, the ball stops sliding and starts rolling like a wheel, and the friction force drops to essentially zero. The more topspin the ball starts with, and the higher the angle at which it lands, the sooner this transition occurs, and the less effect friction has on the bounce. In fact, a shot that lands with enough topspin to roll during the bounce on a slippery surface will rebound with essentially the same horizontal speed as if it had bounced off a higher-friction (slower) surface. This effect turns out to be very important to the way balls bounce in real matches and the way different players perceive court speed. Indeed, the ITF only gets away with ignoring it in their tests because they require the tests to be conducted under conditions where it doesn’t happen—balls bouncing at high speeds (67 mph or 108 km/h, much faster than groundstrokes generally land), low angles (16°), and no initial spin.

I addressed these two most serious limitations of the ITF’s model (using mathematics I’ll spare you from here) and combined this ball-bounce model with an aerodynamic model of the ball’s behavior in flight (which I discuss here) to develop a computer simulation of a tennis shot’s entire trajectory. This allows me to investigate what kind of difference varying the court surface makes to the behavior of otherwise identical shots.


To get a feel for the general effects of different surfaces, let’s compare the trajectories of a hard crosscourt groundstroke, after it bounces off of a fast grass court or a slow clay court. First, a “flat” shot hit with no spin: (The vertical scale is stretched to magnify the differences in shape.)

On clay, such a shot loses more of its speed during the bounce than it does on grass, and therefore takes significantly longer to reach the baseline. It also bounces higher, which gives a defending player even more time to reach it before it bounces again or leaves the playing area. Up to a point, the extra height also places it closer to the defending player’s ideal hitting zone.

Now, to show that spin is at least as important as the surface in determining how balls bounce in today’s game, here’s a shot launched at the same speed and landing in the same spot near midcourt, but with heavy topspin:

Compared to the equivalent flat shot, the topspin shot bounces higher. Contrary to a widespread misconception, this is due less to any vertical “kick” the spin creates against the court than it is to the fact that topspin makes the ball curve downward as it flies through the air, increasing the angle at which it strikes the surface. On slower surfaces, the topspin shot also retains more of its speed after the bounce, because it transitions from sliding to rolling motion sooner and experiences less friction than the equivalent shot hit with no spin. Indeed, a topspin shot like this one has essentially the same horizontal speed after the bounce, and very nearly the same speed at the baseline, no matter what the court surface is. On slower surfaces, the topspin shot does stay in the air a bit longer before it goes out of play, but this is due more to the fact that the higher-bouncing shot takes a longer path than due to any difference in speed.

Already we can see that players who use a lot of topspin are unlikely to notice differences in the coefficient of friction, µ between two surfaces (unless a court is so slippery that they fall down while running for the ball). Instead, their impressions of court speed will be dominated by differences in the coefficient of restitution, e. Higher values of e will make their shots bounce higher and stay in play longer, an effect magnified by the fact that their high-topspin shots inherently tend to bounce higher anyway. Players who use less spin will see µ as much more important, because it makes more difference in the speed their shots carry after they bounce.

Can Modern Surfaces Really Be Distinguished From One Another?

The real teeth-gnashing about court surfaces doesn’t start until we discuss the variation in playing speed among surfaces of the same general class, and the extent to which one kind of surface can play like another. To get an idea of how much of such variation and overlap there is, I hunted down measurements of court surface characteristics from several different sources, and diagrammed them below:

As one might expect from a living surface that’s especially sensitive to changing moisture levels and atmospheric conditions, grass shows the most variability, at least in terms of restitution, or how high balls bounce.

“Natural” clay, usually made of either crushed brick (red clay) or crushed stone (green clay), shows relatively little variation, though of course clay is sensitive to moisture levels as well. Green clay is generally thought to play faster than typical red clay, but I can’t find any hard data to confirm this. Indeed, the data indicate that all natural clay courts have playing speeds well within the ITF “slow” category. “Artificial” clay, which is composed partly or entirely of more modern synthetic materials, can play somewhat faster (not shown in the diagram).

Grass and hard courts show the most overlap in terms of their playing characteristics. The ITF even reports that the average court among all grass courts it has tested has playing characteristics within the range covered by hard courts, and the average hard court has characteristics well inside the range measured for grass courts. As I hinted earlier, I’m skeptical of this averaging of results from multiple courts, particularly since we don’t know what fraction of the courts they’ve measured are used in tour-level tournaments. I’m particularly skeptical of their data on grass courts, which is largely inconsistent with measurements from other sources. Their testing methodology may not provide a realistic idea of the way grass courts play as balls bounce with wider ranges of speed and angle in real matches. The ITF has recently classified the playing speed of Wimbledon’s courts as “medium”, which implies they play significantly slower than either the courts at the US Open (fast) or the Australian Open (medium-fast). This is simply not consistent with match results at these events.

There is a narrow sliver of the graph where all three surface types overlap, suggesting it is possible to prepare courts of all three types whose bounciness and friction characteristics are essentially the same. But it seems most clay courts are still significantly slower than the other court types.

Not All “Medium”s Are Created Equal

Perhaps what surprised me the most about these court measurements is how much variation there is in the coefficients of friction between different hard courts. Hard courts span the whole range of the ITF’s five court pace categories, though none of them play as slow as typical clay courts or as fast as faster grass courts. More significantly, hard courts that are all in the same pace category can have very different combinations of characteristics—some slippery but bouncy, some grippy but with a low bounce, and some in the middle.

How much effect do such differences have? Let’s do some more simulations. First, here are the court parameters I used for the simulations below:

Surface e µ Court Pace Rating
Fast grass 0.70 0.55 61.5
Hard (slippery, high bounce) 0.87 0.55 36.5
Typical medium-pace hard court 0.80 0.65 36.5
Hard (grippy, low bounce) 0.73 0.76 36.5
Slow clay 0.88 0.76 13.5

Notice that all three hard courts have identical ITF pace ratings, even though one’s coefficient of friction is the same as that of a slow clay court and another’s is the same as that of a fast grass court. Now, here’s how the same groundstrokes whose trajectories I plotted above play on these five surfaces:

Crosscourt Groundstroke, No Spin
Surface Speed at baseline, mph Height at baseline, ft Time to baseline, s Final speed, mph Total time in play, s
Fast grass 37.2 1.3 0.975 34.7 1.186
Slippery, bouncy hard 36.3 2.1 0.983 32.8 1.310
Typical medium hard 34.7 1.8 0.996 32.0 1.272
Grippy, mushy hard 33.2 1.5 1.010 31.2 1.228
Slow clay 32.1 2.3 1.022 29.5 1.352
Crosscourt Groundstroke, Heavy Topspin
Surface Speed at baseline, mph Height at baseline, ft Time to baseline, s Final speed, mph Total time in play, s
Fast grass 36.6 2.8 0.998 32.0 1.432
Slippery, bouncy hard 36.8 3.9 0.998 31.6 1.448
Typical medium hard 36.6 3.5 1.000 31.6 1.452
Grippy, mushy hard 36.3 3.0 1.001 31.6 1.457
Slow clay 36.5 4.0 1.001 31.3 1.455

Once again the heavy topspin shots, landing at an angle of 18.1°, are rolling rather than sliding by the time they rebound, no matter what the court surface is, and therefore they all carry very similar speeds to the baseline. Even the variations in the total time a defender has to hit them before they go out of play are fairly small. The main difference in how such shots play on the various surfaces are in the height of the bounce—a higher bounce keeps the ball in a convenient hitting zone for the defender for a longer period of time, and therefore contributes to longer, more neutral rallies. Thus in matches involving heavy topspin, players are likely to perceive the slippery, high-bouncing hard court as playing significantly slower than the other hard courts, even though it has the same ITF pace rating as the other hard courts and the same coefficient of friction as the grass court.

The flat shots, landing in the same place in the court at a lower angle of 11.9°, continue sliding throughout the bounce on every surface. This means they’re slowed by friction over a more extended time span, and they show bigger variations in speed. Since they bounce lower, the variations in their height at the baseline are also smaller. Defenders in flat-hitting matches are more likely to perceive the differences between the courts in terms of how much time they have to reach the ball than in how high it is when they get there. At least when playing near the baseline, they are more likely to perceive the grippy, low-bouncing hard court as playing slower than the other hard courts, even though it has the same pace rating as the other hard courts and a coefficient of restitution similar to the grass court.

Blame the String Manufacturers

The influence of topspin on how balls bounce and the extent to which court surfaces affect play during a match is usually overlooked by fans and pundits. Modern synthetic racket strings are more elastic and create less friction where they rub against each other, allowing them to return more of the energy of a player’s swing to the ball, and making it easier for more players to generate more spin. Topspin is defined as spin in which the top surface of the ball is rotating in the same direction as the ball’s linear motion. Therefore defending players have to swing their rackets faster to effectively return heavy topspin shots, because they must reverse the spin their opponents put on the ball in order to flatten out a shot or create topspin of their own. As players start using more topspin, it creates an arms race in which more players adopt slick new strings and make more effort to develop more topspin. The result is that most tour-level matches today occur between players using significant topspin at least part of the time, and in such matches the differences in friction between various surfaces may have little enough effect to go unnoticed by players and fans alike.

If many matches nowadays seem to unfold in similar ways on different surfaces, the effect of increasing topspin probably bears more responsibility for it than any conspiracy to homogenize court surfaces. Blame the string manufacturers, not the court surface technicians or tournament directors.

Indoor Courts, Natural Surfaces, and Predictability

One issue that remains to be addressed is the widespread impression that indoor courts play faster than outdoor courts (and that even closing a retractable stadium roof has a dramatic effect on play). One obvious difference is that there’s no wind indoors. To some extent this can help aggressive players shorten points, since it allows them to aim closer to the lines and helps them serve more precisely (especially for players with high ball tosses). Yet a lack of wind can also help defenders extend points, by helping them anticipate the trajectory of their opponents’ shots and hit them cleanly. Other atmospheric parameters can also affect play indoors, in both directions, and I’ll address these in another post.

A more important factor in indoor events is the fact that typical indoor surfaces are not constructed in the same way as permanent outdoor surfaces, even if the visible material on top is identical. Very few indoor arenas are built exclusively for tennis—most spend more time hosting concerts, conferences, basketball games, hockey games, or other events than they do tennis tournaments. Thus the tennis playing surface must be laid on relatively thin, portable panels that can be removed and stored when not in use. Such a surface is unlikely to be as rigid as a permanent surface, and therefore is likely to generate lower bounces. Even more importantly, such temporary surfaces are unlikely to be perfectly flat, and will flex to different degrees in different places. This leads to less predictable bounces, which favor shorter points by drawing more frequent mis-hits and whiffed swings from defending players.

Although it’s very difficult to measure or model, predictability of a surface can be just as important a factor as friction and bounciness on outdoor surfaces as well. Made of non-homogeneous materials and varying particle sizes, sensitive to moisture levels and maintenance practices, and suffering significant wear during a single match, clay courts don’t play the same way in every spot where a ball might bounce. In some cases this may make them effectively play faster than measurements would indicate. With a living, reacting surface on a soil substrate subject to most of the same variations as clay, grass is the most unpredictable surface of all, and this undoubtedly contributes to its reputation as the sport’s fastest surface.

Final Note

I should give credit to Rod Cross, a physicist at the University of Sydney who has made an outstanding effort to model how balls bounce and many other phenomena in tennis, and whose work has been the best single guide in my own study of the subject. His model eliminates more simplifying assumptions and is therefore more sophisticated than mine. Unfortunately, the application of such advanced models is limited by the fact that many of the (few) measured values we have for µ and e for various court surfaces were measured by the ITF, and calculated using its own theoretical assumptions. Therefore, those assumptions are to some extent “cooked into” the measured values, and lead to inaccurate results when these values are fed into more sophisticated models.

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Fed Cup Round 1 Preview

Olympics Schmolympics. This week’s Fed Cup ties feature enough star players, close matchups, and interesting storylines to deserve tennis fans’ attention. Even some countries still looking for a way into the elite World Groups are fielding high-powered teams—most notably in the Europe/Africa Zone Group I tournament, which begins on Tuesday. Here’s a guide to the format, the matchups, and what’s likely to happen.

World Group I

In the highest level of Fed Cup, the eight teams in World Group I play each other in a single-elimination format. From its four players, each team nominates two singles players, each of which plays one opponent on Saturday and the other on Sunday (with potential player substitutions). Any ties that are level after the four singles matches are decided by a doubles match. Winning teams advance to April semifinals, and potentially to the final in November.

Let’s look at the contestants:

Slovak Republic vs. Germany
in Bratislava, Slovakia on indoor hard court
Ranking Slovakia Germany Ranking
13 Dominika Cibulkova Angelique Kerber 9
30 Daniela Hantuchova Andrea Petkovic 36
32 Magdalena Rybarikova Julia Goerges 88
82 Jana Cepelova Anna-Lena Groenefeld 14 (doubles)

This tie is the hardest to predict. Especially given the fast indoor conditions, Germany will miss Sabine Lisicki, who withdrew with a shoulder injury. Combined with captain Barbara Rittner’s selection of doubles specialist Groenefeld as a replacement, the result is that the Slovak Republic will be the deeper of the closely matched teams, at least on paper. Top Slovak player Cibulkova is coming off the biggest success of her career with a giant-slaying run to the Australian Open final, but has a mixed history in Fed Cup. She said nerves contributed to the full-body cramps that forced her to retire from last-year’s first-round tie against Serbia while serving for the match, but she also says this year she’s learned how to focus on her game, point by point, rather than getting nervous about the score or the stakes of a match. Hantuchova has a 30–13 singles record in Fed Cup, but could struggle here—she hasn’t beaten a higher-ranked opponent since June. Fielding singles players whose games are more suited to slower conditions, Germany will have to hope they can build on their clutch Fed Cup performances last year and take advantage of any stumbles by the home team.

There’s a good chance this tie will be decided by the doubles, where Germany’s most likely pairing of Goerges and Groenefeld will have an edge in experience over any pair the Slovaks can nominate.

Prediction: Germany d. Slovak Republic, 3–2

Spain vs. Czech Republic
in Seville, Spain on clay
Ranking Spain Czech Republic Ranking
17 Carla Suarez Navarro Lucie Safarova 28
66 Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor Klara Zakopalova 34
77 Silvia Soler-Espinosa Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 69
95 Lara Arruabarrena Andrea Hlavackova 109

This is likely to be another close contest. On paper, Zakopalova would seem to give the Czechs an advantage, being more powerful and considerably higher ranked than any of Spain’s potential second singles players. (Petra Kvitova withdrew due to the same respiratory illness that took her out of Paris last week.) On the other hand, playing at home on their favorite surface should help Spain’s team of solid clay-courters. The tie is likely to hinge on the performance of Lucie Safarova, who has played well lately—beating Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets in Sydney and having a match point against eventual champion Li Na at the Australian Open. To my surprise, in the two matches they’ve played (including one on clay), Suarez Navarro has never won a set from Safarova. If Safarova keeps up her recent form—and this is always a question mark with her—she should win both her singles matches and put the Czech Republic on the brink of victory. If Safarova loses a singles match, the Czechs might have to hope Suarez Navarro is too tired to play doubles on Sunday, something that would give any combination of Czech doubles players an advantage.

Prediction: Czech Republic d. Spain, 3–2

United States vs. Italy
in Cleveland, Ohio on indoor hard court
Ranking USA Italy Ranking
37 Madison Keys Karin Knapp 40
46 Alison Riske Camila Giorgi 84
59 Lauren Davis Nastassja Burnett 161
62 Christina McHale Alice Matteucci 704

After three championships and two semifinals in the last five years, it seems Italy’s top players have decided to take a break from Fed Cup. This means a U.S. team missing its own three highest-ranked players will nevertheless be favored to win. (Sloane Stephens is recovering from a wrist injury she sustained a month ago in Hopman Cup, and Jamie Hampton has been out of action for a month with a hip injury. Serena and Venus Williams aren’t playing, either.)

Each team has only one player with Fed Cup experience: McHale has a 4–3 record (2–1 in live rubbers), and Knapp lost her one singles match, a live rubber in 2008. Italy’s selection of 18-year-old Alice Matteucci is somewhat puzzling, as Italy has quite a few higher-ranked and more experienced players it could have chosen. Matteucci has played mostly $10k ITF events at the professional level, and her record in major junior events wasn’t particularly distinguished. However, she seems to be a serviceable doubles player, and the Italian squad may see her as a valuable asset worth developing for a larger role in the future.

Keys, Riske, and Davis have all had solid results on hard courts this year—Keys reaching the Sydney semifinals, and Riske and Davis both reaching the third round at the Australian Open. Knapp’s and Giorgi’s recent results have been less impressive, though Knapp has faced some tough draws. The indoor hard courts do suit Knapp’s and Giorgi’s aggressive game styles, however, and if they play their best they can both be genuine threats. Most likely the more consistent Americans will prevail without too much trouble, and will be reassured by their greater number of options should the tie be decided in the doubles—Knapp has the best doubles ranking on the Italian team at #269.

Prediction: United States d. Italy, 3–1

Australia vs. Russia
in Hobart, Tasmania on hard court
Ranking Australia Russia Ranking
16 Samantha Stosur Victoria Kan 158
80 Casey Dellacqua Irina Khromacheva 241
154 Ashleigh Barty Valeria Solovyeva 259
203 Storm Sanders Veronika Kudermetova 650

I’m not sure exactly what’s wrong with the politics inside Russian tennis at the moment, but their top players have lost all interest in playing Fed Cup. After being forced to rely on the country’s 10th- and 15th-highest-ranked players Alexandra Panova and Alisa Kleybanova in last year’s final against Italy, captain Shamil Tarpischev fields an even weaker team this year. They’ll be lucky to win a match against a strong Australian team composed of players who have all shown improving form over the last few months.

Prediction: Australia d. Russia, 4–0

World Group II

In the second tier of Fed Cup, teams pair off this weekend, with winning World Group II teams playing first-round losers from World Group I in April to decide the composition of next year’s World Group I. Losing World Group II teams play teams advancing from Zone Group I tournaments in three regions around the world for the right to stay in World Group II.

France vs. Switzerland
in Paris on indoor hard court
Ranking France Switzerland Ranking
25 Alizé Cornet Stefanie Voegele 47
72 Kristina Mladenovic Belinda Bencic 139
76 Caroline Garcia Viktorija Golubic 164
87 Virginie Razzano Timea Bacsinszky 196

Of the World Group II ties, this one has the most star power. Switzerland fields an interesting and multi-talented team, with all-court fighter Voegele backed by promising 16-year-old Bencic and former #37 Bacsinszky. Hosts France clearly have the higher-powered team, however, and have the additional advantage of playing on the very same court as last week’s Paris WTA tournament, where Cornet took third seed Sara Errani to a third-set tiebreak in the semifinals and Mladenovic (barely off the plane after winning the Australian Open mixed doubles title with Daniel Nestor) scored a surprising victory over fifth seed Simona Halep.

Prediction: France d. Switzerland, 3–1

Canada vs. Serbia
in Montréal on indoor hard court
Ranking Canada Serbia Ranking
19 Eugenie Bouchard Vesna Dolonc 117
112 Sharon Fichman Jovana Jaksic 149
224 Gabriela Dabrowski Aleksandra Krunic 152
274 Aleksandra Wozniak Nina Stojanovic

Australian Open semifinalist Bouchard should make a splash playing at home in this tie, and is likely to win both of her singles matches.

Friday update: Bojana Jovanovski has withdrawn. This means Fichman or former #21 Wozniak have a real chance to clinch the tie for Canada by winning a singles match. If not, the likely Canadian doubles team of Dabrowski and Fichman are likely to secure victory. The pair have the highest doubles rankings of anyone in the tie, at #61 and #62 respectively, and upset top seeds Errani and Roberta Vinci on their way to the Toronto semifinals last year. Still, Serbia’s supporting cast has pulled off several clutch doubles victories in the past, and can’t be overlooked.

Prediction: Canada d. Serbia, 3–1

Argentina vs. Japan
in Buenos Aires on clay
Ranking Argentina Japan Ranking
60 Paula Ormaechea Kurumi Nara 65
173 Maria Irigoyen Misaki Doi 102
195 Florencia Molinero Risa Ozaki 170
295 Catalina Pella Shuko Aoyama 36 (doubles)

Japan has the stronger team on paper, while Argentina have the best single clay-court player in Ormaechea. The clay may not hurt this Japanese squad as much as the home team hopes, however—last year Nara won a $50k ITF title on the surface, and Doi reached the quarterfinals in Strasbourg. Argentina should hope Irigoyen and/or Molinero can score clutch wins in singles, as each did at home on clay in Fed Cup last year. If the tie comes down to the doubles, likely Japanese pair Aoyama and Doi have the best rankings and have the advantage of having played together recently, winning a $75k title in November.

Prediction: Argentina d. Japan, 3–2

Sweden vs. Poland
in Borashallen, Sweden on indoor hard court
Ranking Sweden Poland Ranking
85 Johanna Larsson Agnieszka Radwanska 4
135 Sofia Arvidsson Katarzyna Piter 110
257 Rebecca Peterson Paula Kania 171
418 Hilda Melander Alicja Rosolska 46 (doubles)

With Agnieszka Radwanska on the team, Poland are the clear favorites in this tie. (Sister Urszula is still recovering from shoulder surgery.) It’s hard to imagine Aga losing either of her singles matches. Larsson and Arvidsson have put in clutch Fed Cup performances for Sweden in the past, but Arvidsson has slumped badly over the past year. For Sweden to win, everything has to come together perfectly for them: Larsson has to beat Piter in singles, the indoor conditions have to suddenly inspire two-time Memphis champion Arvidsson, and both have to have enough energy to play doubles at the end of the weekend. Any other doubles team the Swedes could field would have little chance against veteran doubles specialist Rosolska and whoever the Poles choose to pair her with.

Prediction: Poland d. Sweden, 3–1

Europe/Africa Zone Group I

Of the three regional zones, Europe/Africa is the most consistently competitive and features better-known players. This year’s Europe/Africa Zone Group I tournament takes place on indoor hard courts in Budapest, Hungary, and is already underway. Teams are divided into four pools, and each team plays all the other teams in its pool in a round-robin format. Pool winners advance to playoff ties, with the two playoff winners advancing to play losing teams from World Group II in April for a chance at promotion.

Pool B has the most star power, with the Romanian team the favorites: Simona Halep, Sorana Cirstea, Monica Niculescu, and Irina-Camelia Begu. It won’t be a cakewalk for the Romanians, though—Halep suffered a disappointing loss to Kristina Mladenovic last week in Paris, and while Cirstea stopped a five-month losing streak in Pattaya City, she also showed inconsistency and mental fragility there losing to Karolina Pliskova, 6-0 in the third set. The toughest challenge is likely to come from Great Britain, whose highest-ranked team member is Johanna Konta. While Konta is a threat when playing her best, she lost the only Fed Cup live rubber she’s played so far, and the British are likely to look to the more experienced and consistent Heather Watson for leadership. (Laura Robson is still out of action with a wrist injury).

Pool A also contains plenty of highly ranked players. The Belgians are the favorites, with Yanina Wickmayer backed by promising 19-year-olds Alison Van Uytvanck and An-Sophie Mestach (Kirsten Flipkens withdrew with a knee injury). They’ll face a challenge from the Netherlands, whose team features the powerful Kiki Bertens and Michaella Krajicek. As I wrote this, the Dutch unexpectedly swept the also-dangerous Croatian team, with Bertens beating 17-year-old prospect Donna Vekic, and surprising 21-year-old hero #205 Richel Hogenkamp upsetting the inconsistent Petra Martic.

Pool C is likely to be the most competitive. I expect Austria to prevail, led by rock-solid counterpuncher Yvonne Meusburger, resurgent Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, and the unpredictable Tamira Paszek. But Ukraine fields a deep team, with #39 Elina Svitolina backed by Olga Savchuk, who took eventual champion Ekaterina Makarova to a close third set last week in Pattaya, and promising 21-year-old twins Nadiya and Lyudmyla Kichenok. Israel could pose a serious threat as well—its leading players, Shahar Peer and Julia Glushko, have had disappointing results lately, but always play hard in Fed Cup.

Pool D is relatively weak, but could be competitive as well. Led by Michelle Larcher de Brito and Maria Joao Koehler, Portugal look most likely to prevail. But Belarus will pose a threat, with Olga Govortsova backed by 19-year-old prospect Aliaksandra Sasnovich. And it would be a mistake to count out the Turkish team, led by Cagla Buyukakcay and Pemra Ozgen.

Other Zonal Contests

It’s also worth mentioning tournaments held in the other two zones. In the Asia/Oceania Zone Group I, China fields a strong team with Peng Shuai, Zhang Shuai, Zheng Saisai, and Wang Qiang, and should dominate Uzbekistan, Taiwan, and South Korea in Pool B. Pool A, however, could feature a close battle. Hosts Kazakhstan have the stronger team on paper, led by Galina Voskoboeva and Yaroslava Shvedova. But the Kazakhs could face a real threat from a Thai team featuring Luksika Kumkhum—who turned heads upsetting Petra Kvitova at the Australian Open—backed by veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn (who has focused on doubles lately), 2009 Wimbledon girls’ champion Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, and Nicha Lertpitaksinchai, who competed well against Elena Vesnina in Pattaya.

In the Americas Zone, both Pools feature competitive contests. Pool B is likely to be decided between Brazil, led by Teliana Pereira, and Colombia, led by Mariana Duque-Marino and Catalina Castaño. All three teams in Pool A should be competitive. Hosts Paraguay have the highest-ranked player in the pool in #180 Veronica Cepede Royg, but Venezuela is close behind with #191 Adriana Perez, and Mexico arguably fields a deeper team.

Finally, the Europe/Africa Zone Group III tournament in Estonia features two top-30 players returning to Fed Cup competition and looking to bring their teams up from the bottom level—Caroline Wozniacki for Denmark and Kaia Kanepi for Estonia (capably backed by promising 18-year-old Anett Kontaveit). Denmark has the tougher draw, with a solid Norwegian team in its pool. If both teams advance from their pools, they’ll play each other to determine who advances to the zone’s Group II.

Thursday Update: Wozniacki isn’t playing for Denmark, after all, even though she was listed on the official Fed Cup website on Tuesday. Then again, the two players who led me to characterize Norway as a solid team—Ulrikke Eikeri and Emma Flood—aren’t playing either.

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Australian Open Women’s Draw Analysis

It’s slam time again, and while on-site reporters are badgering players for their inevitably subjective impressions of court speed (a subject I’ll address another time), hardcore fans are poring over drawsheets. As usual, I analyze the women’s draw by focusing on the early rounds and possible upsets, one eighth at a time. For every player I think has a decent chance to reach the third round, I list a form score, which indicates which players have been performing above expectations at their ranking (scores above 5) or below expectations (scores below 4).

At the end, I make predictions for the later rounds, and summarize the players who are currently out of action due to injuries.

The broiling Australian sun promises to have an even bigger impact on the tournament this year than usual, and certainly will have a stronger effect than any subtle variations in court speed. Temperatures will be hot today, and are forecast to be much hotter for most of the week—reaching well over 100°F or 40°C Tuesday through Friday.

Monday update: This post is now complete, updated to include analysis of the bottom half, which starts play later today (Tuesday in Australia). I did pretty well with my first-round predictions, though I failed to anticipate Julia Goerges’ easy upset of Sara Errani. I also didn’t expect Petra Kvitova to lose this early, though I did talk up Luksika Kumkhum a few weeks ago.

Williams’ Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Williams, S 1 1 5.7
Ivanovic 14 14 6.5
Stosur 17 17 7.2
Hantuchova 31 33 3.0
Zakopalova 32 6.3
Pironkova 57 17.3
Pliskova, Ka 70 2.8

Serena Williams has started this season as dominant as she finished the last, beating Dominika Cibulkova, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka in succession to win the Brisbane title without losing a set. Serena was hampered by injuries and suffered early losses (by her standards) in her last two Australian Opens, but is the overwhelming favorite this year barring more calamities. Williams opens against 17-year-old Australian Ashleigh Barty, who has exceptional all-court versatility for her age. Over the past year, Barty has improved her ability to defend against tour-level power-hitters and use precise placement to gain control of points. But unless Serena plays very poorly, she should overwhelm the diminutive Barty in straight sets. Williams is unlikely to have any more difficulty in the second round, against either the aggressive but inconsistent Vesna Dolonc or clay-court specialist Lara Arruabarrena.

By seeding, Williams should face Daniela Hantuchova in the third round. But Hantuchova has started the season very poorly with a pair of erratic first-round losses, and will have her hands full in the first round with qualifier Heather Watson. Watson has spent most of the past year fighting her way back from mononucleosis, but will make Hantuchova win every one of her points. Whoever wins that match could face a challenge by big-serving Karolina Pliskova in the second round. But any of these players would have to play the match of her career to threaten Serena.

After years of nerves and disappointment in front of her home crowd, Sam Stosur has had her best lead-in to the Australian Open since 2007, winning three matches to reach the Hobart semifinals (after inauspiciously tallying an 0-3 singles record in Hopman Cup the previous week). But Stosur needed third-set tiebreaks to beat #147 qualifier Madison Brengle in the Hobart first round and the struggling Kristina Mladenovic in the second. More worryingly, Stosur fell in straight sets in the semifinals to dangerous but inconsistent shotmaker Klara Zakopalova—who she faces again in Melbourne’s first round. Stosur still has a 3–2 career record against Zakopalova, with every match having been decided in straight sets. The outcome this time will come down to who plays better today. Zakopalova will certainly feel less pressure than Stosur, surrounded by the afternoon crowd in Rod Laver Arena.

Whoever survives that contest is likely to face the surprise Sydney champion, Tsvetana Pironkova. Known mostly for her successes on grass, Pironkova finished last year in dismal form, and just two weeks ago lost in Shenzhen qualifying to #196 Viktorija Golubic. Pironkova had some luck with the draw in Sydney, benefiting from Ayumi Morita’s retirement with a wrist injury in qualifying, Sara Errani’s struggle with a back injury in the quarterfinals, and an unusually poor performance by Petra Kvitova in the semifinals. Nevertheless, Tsveti took maximum advantage of the opportunity, serving well and playing with an unusually good combination of power and control. She raised her game enough to frustrate left-hander Angelique Kerber in the final, hitting backhand winners past her opponent, whose inclination to hit crosscourt forehands under pressure played into Pironkova’s strength.

As well as she played last week, Pironkova is hardly known for week-to-week consistency. Assuming she gets past the solid clay-court specialist Silvia Soler-Espinosa in the first round, Pironkova will have a tough match against Zakopalova or Stosur, either of whom will find it easier than Kerber did to exploit Tsveti’s weaker forehand side.

Whoever wins that match is likely to face Ana Ivanovic in the third round. Ivanovic should outclass the powerful but struggling Kiki Bertens in her first match. In the second round, Ana will face either all-court counterpuncher Annika Beck, whom she should be able to overpower, or the technically talented but inconsistent Petra Martic. Martic won a set from Ivanovic last year at Roland Garros, but Ana’s form and confidence have improved since then, and Martic lacks the tactical initiative to be a likely threat.

Ivanovic has a tight 3–4 record against Stosur, and the pair split two hardcourt matches late last year in Moscow and Sofia. Ana has never lost a set to Zakopalova, and never lost a set on hard court to Pironkova.

Predicted fourth round: S. Williams d. Ivanovic
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Zakopalova
Not to be counted out: Stosur, Pironkova

Errani’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Errani 7 7 2.7
Vinci 12 12 2.2
Flipkens 18 19 3.1
Bouchard 30 31 5.4
Keys 36 9.0
Robson 48 2.7
Zheng J. 56 3.7
Davis 68 9.0
Goerges 73 2.7

After facing each other in the first round in Sydney, friends and doubles partners Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci must have blurted plenty more curses a few days later when they were drawn into the same eighth in Melbourne. Then again, with both having started the season poorly, there’s a good chance neither of them will reach their appointed clash in the fourth round.

Errani opens against Julia Goerges, who at her best certainly has the power to be a threat. However, after a nightmare 2013 season, the signs of improvement for Goerges this year are modest—an Auckland victory over Karin Knapp in a third-set tiebreak, and one good set in Sydney against Caroline Wozniacki, a player she hadn’t lost to in over three years. Goerges has never beaten Errani on any surface but grass. The match will come down to whether Sarita is still bothered by last week’s back injury. Somehow, after two and a half years in the top 10 and a US Open semifinal, Errani is still an underrated player on hard courts. If she’s healthy, she’ll draw enough errors from Goerges to prevail.

Whoever wins is likely to face Lauren Davis in the second round, one of the few players on the tour who can make Sarita feel tall. Like Barty, Davis wins matches with a combination of defensive speed, all-court skill, exceptional precision, and the ability to create sharp angles on offense. Errani beat Davis in straight sets last week in Sydney, and her strong topspin can lift balls out of Davis’ strike zone. Davis has never played Goerges, but like Errani should combine enough consistency and pressure to break down Goerges’ fragile execution.

The survivor of that section is likely to face the tournament’s only seeded teenager, Eugenie Bouchard. Bouchard started her season well, compiling a 2–1 singles record against a strong field in Hopman Cup, before suffering a nervous and erratic loss to an in-form Bethanie Mattek-Sands last week in Sydney. Powerful, already successful against top-20 players, and making quick progress eliminating the weaknesses in her game, Genie has an excellent opportunity to restore her confidence in Melbourne’s early rounds. She opens against fellow 19-year-old and #431 Tang Hao Chen, who won her wild card in November’s Asia-Pacific playoff—an event where she scored the only victory of her career over a top-200 player, another 19-year-old, #187 Risa Ozaki. Bouchard is unlikely to be troubled much more in the second round, against either Alison Van Uytvanck, yet another promising but relatively unproven 19-year-old, or veteran Virginie Razzano. When she plays at her best, Razzano can be a very dangerous opponent—but lately that happens only briefly and infrequently.

Bouchard lost the only match she’s played against Errani, in Acapulco last year on clay, a surface that definitely favors the Italian. Genie has never played Goerges or Davis. By the time that third-round match takes place, I expect Bouchard will playing well enough to be the favorite.

Vinci has an even tougher draw than Errani, opening against Zheng Jie, who has won all three matches the pair have played on surfaces other than clay. Vinci’s most natural game relies heavily on her slice backhand, a shot that tends to hover right in the quick and compact Zheng’s strike zone. Still looking for her first singles victory of the year, Vinci’s best hope lies in the fact that Zheng hasn’t been playing very well either, with no victories over top-30 players since May.

Whoever wins will likely face an even greater battle in the second round against 18-year-old powerhouse Madison Keys, who rolled over seventh seed Simona Halep on her way to the Sydney semifinals last week. Keys dominated her last two matches against Zheng, for whom her kick serve presents a serious problem. Vinci is better equipped to expose the rough edges that remain in Keys’ game, but to do so she would have to play much better than she has so far this year.

The winner of that match is most likely to face Kirsten Flipkens in the third round. While Flipkens has yet to duplicate the form that took her to last year’s Wimbledon semifinals, the gutsy all-court player has battled her way to solid results so far this season, reaching semifinals in Auckland (losing to Ivanovic) and quarterfinals in Hobart (losing to on-fire eventual champion Garbiñe Muguruza). Flipkens won her only match against Keys, last spring on clay in Brussels in three sets, but the fast-developing Keys may be the stronger player now. Flipkens and Vinci have split their two WTA-level matches, with Vinci winning on indoor hard court in 2010 and Flipkens on grass in 2012. Flipkens has never played Zheng.

On the other hand, Flipkens herself has a difficult path to the third round. She opens against powerful left-hander Laura Robson, who plays a good all-court game herself. But Robson had somewhat disappointing results late last year, and hasn’t finished a match yet this year, withdrawing from Auckland and retiring from the Hobart first round due to a wrist injury. Robson asserts that the injury is “all good now”, but her vague and somewhat inconsistent statements are not entirely reassuring, and in any case she’s likely to need more matches before she’s ready to beat a player at Flipkens’ level.

One more potential obstacle looms in the second round for Flipkens: former #2 Vera Zvonareva, who will be playing only her second match after taking a year and a half off to deal with injuries and illnesses. Zvonareva had the misfortune to draw top seed and ultimate champion Li Na in an internationally untelevised first-round match two weeks ago in Shenzhen, so her form and fitness are still largely unknown. I suspect she might have her hands full in the first round with resurgent and clever Australian left-hander Casey Dellacqua.

Predicted fourth round: Bouchard d. Keys
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Flipkens
Not to be counted out: Errani, Davis, Zheng J.

Li’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Li 4 4 7.2
Lisicki 15 15 3.5
Makarova 22 22 5.8
Safarova 26 26 6.3
Williams, V 37 12.3
Niculescu 64 5.2
Vekic 94 1.1

Li Na plays a hotly anticipated first-round match against powerful and talented Croatian Ana Konjuh, who just turned 16 but has already beaten two top-40 players, Urszula Radwanska last year in Fed Cup and Vinci two weeks ago in Auckland. Konjuh is also the reigning junior champion of both the Australian and US Opens, and has the fearlessness and shotmaking ability to compete with Li from the baseline. However, Li has the advantage in experience and consistency, and if Konjuh’s second-round Auckland loss to Davis is any indication, Li’s newfound willingness to force points to their conclusion by moving to the net may be just the thing to break up Konjuh’s attack. The youngster will make the match entertaining and competitive, but I have little doubt Li will find a way to win.

Li’s next opponent will be the winner of another intriguing first-round match between evergreen 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm and another 16-year-old, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland. Bencic holds the junior Wimbledon and Roland Garros titles, and has a more subtle and varied game than Konjuh, though her achievements at the professional level so far are a bit more modest. Of course, Date-Krumm has a few tricks up her sleeves as well, though her recent results have been mixed. The match should be entertaining and tactically complex, and the outcome is difficult to predict. Li should outclass either player, however.

Li’s most likely third-round opponent is the dangerous but wildly inconsistent left-hander Lucie Safarova. If Safarova plays her best, the match will be a competitive shotmaking display—but Li has beaten Safarova six straight times since 2005. If Safarova has one of her erratic weeks, she could fall to the aggressive but slumping Julia Glushko in the first round, or to 17-year-old potential star Donna Vekic or inconsistent powerhouse Lucie Hradecka in the second.

Known best for her big serve, flat-hitting forehand, and game that can be aggressive to a fault, Sabine Lisicki is being coached on a trial basis in Melbourne by Martina Hingis. It will be interesting to see if the tactical master’s input leads to noticeable changes in Sabine’s game. Lisicki opens against aging former #32 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who still occasionally controls her powerful groundstrokes well enough to upset a top player, but more likely will be too inconsistent to stay with the German. In the second round, Lisicki is most likely to face Monica Niculescu, who is a crafty and unconventional fighter but is likely to find herself overpowered.

Next Sabine is almost certain to face the winner of a first-round showdown between two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova and and 2003 finalist Venus Williams, who also reached the final in Auckland two weeks ago. Venus is still capable of playing at a top-20 level, but can’t sustain it from one match to the next as well as she used to. She holds a 2–0 record against Makarova, but they’ve never played each other on hard court, let alone in Melbourne—an environment that seems to bring out the best in the versatile Russian left-hander. Makarova can defend or attack from the baseline, can hit winners on the run, can control points from the net, and has upset at least one seeded player at the Australian Open every year since 2010. Lisicki would surely prefer to play Williams, whom she beat on her way to her first title in Charleston in 2009, and dominated last year in Beijing. Makarova, on the other hand, beat Lisicki in straight sets last year at the US Open, and is likely to handle the Melbourne heat a bit better.

Predicted fourth round: Li d. Makarova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Lisicki
Not to be counted out: V. Williams

Kvitova’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Kvitova 6 6 6.4
Kerber 9 9 6.7
Vesnina 23 28 3.8
Pennetta 28 29 5.6
Zhang 51 7.0
Riske 53 3.6
Puig 58 1.5
Wickmayer 63 6.8

Petra Kvitova started the year well, tallying a 3–0 singles record in Hopman Cup, but played a woeful semifinal against Pironkova last week in Sydney. Missed groundstrokes and struggles to control her service games aren’t unusual for the inconsistent Czech, but her strange lack of either emotional investment in the match or willingness to stick to her aggressive game were much more of a concern. Hopefully the 2011 Wimbledon champion has recovered from whatever mental or physical malady bothered her last week, and is ready to put her best into another slam campaign.

Petra should have a good opportunity to work her way into the tournament, playing 20-year-old Thai Luksika Kumkhum in the first round. Kumkhum bookended her 2013 season with increasingly impressive results, partly at the ITF level. But the best player Kumkhum has beaten was #39 Sofia Arvidsson in last year’s Australian Open, when Sofia was already entering the slump that has now removed her from the top 100.

Kvitova could have a tougher second match against either the lanky and aggressive Zhang Shuai or the talented but struggling Mona Barthel. Either could be a genuine threat unless Petra plays her very best—and by the time that match takes place the Melbourne temperature should be more than hot enough to bother the asthmatic Kvitova.

The winner of that match is likely to face the winner of an interesting second-round match between versatile former #10 Flavia Pennetta and the compact but power-packed Monica Puig. Puig made perhaps the biggest splash of her young career when she took fifth seed Kerber deep into a third-set tiebreak a year ago in Brisbane, and for the last few months her results have been solid but less impressive. If Pennetta is healthy and duplicates the form she showed beating Stosur in Hopman Cup two weeks ago, the Italian should prevail. But Flavia retired from her third Hopman Cup match and then withdrew from Hobart with an injury to the same wrist she had surgery on in 2012, and it remains to be seen whether she’ll be up to the tough baseline battle she’ll face from Puig.

When I looked at Kerber’s section of the draw, my first reaction was, “Oh, poor Jarka.” The aggressive and talented but inconsistent Jarmila Gajdosova is doing a good job working her way back after missing six months with mononucleosis, but Angie’s combination of pressuring groundstrokes, defensive speed, and unyielding determination is the perfect formula to expose Jarka’s weaknesses in the first round. Kerber is unlikely to have much more trouble in her second match, against either Caroline Garcia, whose game resembles Gajdosova’s in some ways, or big-serving but one-dimensional qualifier Alla Kudryavtseva.

Angie’s third-round opponent is most likely to be the winner of the first-round match between Elena Vesnina and Alison Riske. Vesnina had the best year of her career last year, finding new confidence, becoming more strategically robust, and winning her first two WTA singles titles. But Lena’s form and health are in doubt at the moment after she withdrew from Auckland with an ankle injury, and then retired from her second-round match in Hobart with a hip injury. Dangerous on grass for the last three years now, Riske is in a breakout phase herself, finding major success on outdoor hard courts for the first time over the past few months. Riske upset Barthel and Kvitova at the US Open, and took out fourth seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on her way to the Hobart quarterfinals last week. The American should be well positioned to take advantage of any weaknesses Vesnina reveals.

Either player could face a challenge in the second round from the powerful Yanina Wickmayer. But so far this year the injury-prone Wickmayer hasn’t shown any sign of improving on her mostly poor 2013 season, during which she lost her matches against Vesnina and Riske, both convincingly in straight sets.

Most likely Kerber will outclass any of these women in the third round. But Vesnina and Riske, in particular, have enough versatility and offensive ability to take advantage if Angie has an off day or her confidence falters—as it did last summer, during which she fell in straight sets to Vesnina in New Haven.

Predicted fourth round: Kerber d. Zhang
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Kvitova
Not to be counted out: Vesnina, Pennetta, Puig, Riske

Jankovic’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Jankovic 8 8 4.6
Halep 11 11 6.2
Cirstea 21 21 1.5
Rybarikova 32 35 2.4
Petkovic 40 5.5
Peng 43 5.8
Lepchenko 50 3.5
Diyas 152 7.3

Jelena Jankovic hasn’t been beyond the fourth round of any slam other than Roland Garros since 2008. She’s playing better lately, reaching the Beijing final and beating Kerber on her way to the Brisbane semifinals two weeks ago, but I don’t expect her to break her late-round slam drought this year in Melbourne. She opens against improving left-hander Misaki Doi, who could be a threat if JJ is off her game. But most likely Jankovic will prevail without major difficulty and move on to the second round, where her most likely opponent is Ayumi Morita. If Morita has recovered from the wrist injury that took her out of qualifying in Sydney last week, she could be a greater threat. It could be an entertaining match, with Ayumi looking to dictate points by stepping forward and hitting sharp angles and JJ waiting for opportunities to hit down-the-line winners past her. On the other hand, if Morita isn’t fully healthy, she could fall in the first round to Nadiya Kichenok, a promising young player who is probably not ready to be a threat to someone of Jankovic’s caliber.

By seeding, JJ’s third-round opponent should be the versatile but sometimes underachieving Magdalena Rybarikova. But Rybarikova faces a tough battle in the first round from former #9 Andrea Petkovic, who is still working her way back from a series of injuries but played well in Brisbane two weeks ago. Rybarikova won the only match the two have played, last year in Washington in two tight sets, but her 6-0 6-2 loss to Niculescu last week in Hobart suggests she’s nowhere near the exceptional form she was in in DC. Ultimately, I expect Petkovic to advance to the second round, where she’s most likely to face another tricky opponent, Peng Shuai. Peng played pretty well two weeks ago in Shenzhen—until she injured her hip in the final against Li. After a long and hasty trip to Hobart, Peng lost in the first round the following week to #234 Australian wild card Storm Sanders. If Peng hasn’t recovered from her injury, she could fall to Kurumi Nara in the first round. In any case, I expect Petkovic to combine enough power and consistency to fight her way to the third round. Petkovic seems to have good formula for beating Jankovic, having won their last two matches in straight sets.

After a stellar 2013 that brought her to the threshold of the top 10, Simona Halep hasn’t gotten fully up to speed yet this season, having failed to recover from a disastrous first set against Keys last week in Sydney. In Melbourne she should have a considerably easier opening match against qualifier Katerzyna Piter, who is not yet a fully fledged tour-level player. But Piter did upset #20 Flipkens in Luxembourg late last year, and could make things difficult if Simona plays poorly. Things could get a bit more difficult in the second round, most likely against Varvara Lepchenko. But while Lepchenko had a good run in Sydney, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova as a qualifier, the American is at her best on clay, and the heat should favor the more compact and efficient Halep.

By seeding, Halep should meet fellow Romanian Sorana Cirstea in the third round. Cirstea is an extremely talented but inconsistent player whose evident off-court intelligence puzzlingly fails to translate into tactical adaptability on the court. She has a dismal 3–8 match record since her career-topping run to last year’s Toronto final, with four of those losses coming to players ranked outside the top 100. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cirstea falls in the first round to aggressive all-court player Marina Erakovic, even though the New Zealander’s recent results haven’t been very good either.

The winner of that match could be vulnerable in the second round as well, facing the winner of a first-round battle between two promising young players who made strong runs through qualifying, 17-year-old Czech Katerina Siniakova and 20-year-old Kazakh Zarina Diyas. Siniakova reached the final of the junior Australian Open last year, but Diyas is my favorite. Her game has some weaknesses, but she’s a fighter and her backhand can be lethal, as she’s proven in the past by upsetting Jankovic and Peng, both in straight sets.

By the time Halep reaches the third round, she should be playing well enough to outclass whichever opponent she faces. (She trails the head-to-head against Cirstea, 1–2, but they haven’t played since 2010, and Simona’s offensive capability has shown a bigger improvement since then.) A victory there would bring Halep into the second week of a slam for the second straight time, and she has 2–1 records against both of her most likely fourth-round opponents, Petkovic and Jankovic. Convincingly, she beat Petkovic in their last two matches, both last year, both in straight sets.

Predicted fourth round: Halep d. Petkovic
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Jankovic
Not to be counted out: Peng, Rybarikova, Lepchenko

Sharapova’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Sharapova 3 3 4.3
Suarez Navarro 16 16 4.4
Cibulkova 20 24 3.1
Cornet 25 25 2.8
Voegele 46 8.0
Mattek-Sands 41 7.2
King 71 12.4
Giorgi 99 6.3

Playing just her second tournament after missing four months with a shoulder injury, Maria Sharapova looks ready for another good run at a slam. She survived a tough test by an in-form Kaia Kanepi two weeks ago to reach the Brisbane semifinals, where she predictably fell to Serena Williams. Maria faces another tough test in Melbourne’s first round from Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who kept her gutsy all-court game under exceptional control last week in Sydney, upsetting Bouchard and top seed Agnieszka Radwanska. Sharapova will need to strike hard early in points to keep the American from dictating from the net. But Mattek-Sands retired from her Sydney quarterfinal against Keys with a back injury, and Sharapova has lost only one set to her in the five matches they’ve played. Maria’s second match should be easier, against either clay-court specialist Paula Ormaechea or the powerful but rough-edged Karin Knapp.

Sharapova’s most likely third-round opponent is Alizé Cornet. Cornet played with more confidence last year and seems to have gained a better sense of when to use her versatile shotmaking ability rather than relying exclusively on her defensive speed. But Cornet’s recent results have been mixed—she played an excellent match to take Kvitova deep into a third set two weeks ago in Hopman Cup, then fell to Christina McHale in the Sydney first round, also in three sets.

Under other circumstances, I’d say Cornet’s first match against the multitalented Polona Hercog could be tricky. But Hercog will be playing her first match of the year after dealing with a rib injury, and is unlikely to be in good enough form to present a serious threat.

Cornet’s most likely second-round opponent is Camila Giorgi, whose hyperaggressive game has allowed her to upset three seeded players during attention-getting runs at Wimbledon the past two years. After her run to the US Open fourth round last year (beating Caroline Wozniacki), it’s tempting to conclude that she rises to the occasion at slams. But for a player as inherently inconsistent as Giorgi, that run of form could just as easily be a coincidence. At her best, Giorgi certainly has the offensive firepower to upset Cornet, but it’s more likely she’ll make enough errors to take herself out of contention. It’s also quite possible Giorgi will fall in the first round to 19-year-old Australian wild card Storm Sanders, who just won her first tour-level main-draw match last week against a tired Peng.

Sharapova should be able to dictate points and overpower Cornet without too much trouble, and her greater height and reach and better serve would leave even an in-form Giorgi at a loss for answers.

Carla Suarez Navarro has started the season with solid results, but won’t have an easy first match against resurgent and clever all-court player Vania King. Two weeks ago in Shenzhen, King upset Errani, who plays a style similar to Suarez Navarro. On the other hand, King later retired from her Shenzhen semifinal with a thigh injury. Should Suarez Navarro pass that test, she’ll likely face another in the second round from the tricky Galina Voskoboeva. But despite some solid results lately, Voskoboeva isn’t quite the threat she was two or three years ago, and the talented Spaniard with the famous backhand will most likely find a way to advance to the third round.

There Suarez Navarro is most likely to meet Dominika Cibulkova, who has also made a solid start this year, reaching the Brisbane quarterfinals and giving Kerber a tough first-round battle in Sydney. Domi’s draw is packed with difficult opponents, but she’s never lost to either first-round foe Francesca Schiavone or likely second-round opponent Stefanie Voegele. Schiavone is a poorer player than she was when she last played Cibulkova in 2011. In a way, Voegele is a similar player to Cibulkova, able to run down a lot of balls defensively and basing her offense primarily on ambitious placement, and the pair’s previous matches have been very close. But Domi has a dramatic advantage in power that should carry her through. Surprisingly, Cibulkova has never played Suarez Navarro, but the relatively fast surface should favor the Slovakian’s flatter hitting and preference for shorter points.

A fourth-round match between Sharapova and Cibulkova would be a remarkable hard-hitting spectacle pairing one of the tour’s tallest players against one of its shortest. Maria has a 2–2 record against Domi on clay, a 1–0 record on grass, and the two have never played on hard court. Domi’s two wins came in 2009 and 2011, however, when Sharapova was still struggling to rebuild her serve after shoulder surgery. If Maria is healthy and in form, she’ll have the edge.

Predicted fourth round: Sharapova d. Cibulkova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Suarez Navarro
Not to be counted out: Voegele, King, Cornet

Radwanska’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Radwanska, A 5 5 2.6
Wozniacki 10 10 5.4
Kanepi 24 23 3.5
Pavlyuchenkova 29 30 5.1
Muguruza 38 24.6
McHale 62 4.2

It’s hard to know how well Agnieszka Radwanska will play in Melbourne. She looked good winning all four of her singles matches against a strong field two weeks ago in Hopman Cup, then suffered a disappointing straight-sets loss to Mattek-Sands in Sydney. Fortunately, her early draw presents few problems. She opens against pugnacious 19-year-old Yulia Putintseva, whose results since the clay-court season have failed to live up to the hype promoting her as an imminent star. Aga’s second-round match might be even easier, against either of two tall players whose limited movement and consistency she can expose—Olga Govortsova or qualifier Duan Ying-Ying.

Radwanska’s likely third-round opponent is Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, another powerful but relatively one-dimensional player, who will pose a stronger threat but who hasn’t beaten Aga since 2009. Pavlyuchenkova relies heavily on her serve and her ability to hit winners when she needs them. But even a hitter as talented as the Russian can be outmaneuvered, and when her go-to shots aren’t working, matches can slip away from her in a hurry.

The signs about Caroline Wozniacki’s early 2014 form are as mixed as they are for her friend Radwanska. Caro withdrew from Brisbane with a sore shoulder, then in Sydney outlasted one shotmaker who has been her nemesis in recent years (Goerges) only to fall in straight sets in the second round to another (Safarova). Most likely Caro will get through her opening match against clay-court specialist Lourdes Dominguez Lino with little difficulty, but she could have a much harder time against likely second-round opponent Christina McHale. McHale has a 2–1 record against Wozniacki, with all three matches having been close. Especially in Melbourne’s hot conditions, Caro will need to seize an aggressive forward court position and put her greater muscle mass into her shots early in points, or she’ll find herself pulled into desperate defensive rallies by the angles McHale can generate. Wozniacki would probably prefer to play her other possible second-round opponent, the occasionally dangerous but injury-prone Chan Yung-Jan, against whom she has never lost.

If Wozniacki survives that test, she’s likely to face the winner of an exciting first-round match between two powerful, aggressive baseliners, the veteran Kaia Kanepi and 20-year-old upstart Garbiñe Muguruza. Both have proven they’re capable of overpowering the Danish counterpuncher, Kanepi having gone 2–2 against her since 2011 and Muguruza having won her only match against Caro in straight sets, last year in Miami. Hobart champion Muguruza, in particular, has improved since her last meeting with Wozniacki, playing more proactive defense and hitting more effective approach shots.

Neither Kanepi nor Muguruza has ever beaten Radwanska, but with Aga’s confidence looking more vulnerable lately and Kanepi’s and Muguruza’s games becoming more complete, this year could be the best opportunity yet if one of them gets that far. If not, Wozniacki has had some tough, long battles with Radwanska in the past, and they could well have another. But Aga has won their last three matches, the last two in straight sets. Both players know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well, but lately Radwanska has had the more varied tools necessary to exploit that knowledge.

Predicted fourth round: A. Radwanska d. Muguruza
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Kanepi
Not to be counted out: Wozniacki, McHale

Azarenka’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Azarenka 2 2 3.3
Stephens 13 13 3.5
Kuznetsova 19 20 4.1
Jovanovski 33 34 5.6
Meusburger 49 3.5
Cepelova 69 8.2
Tomljanovic 67 6.2
Shvedova 82 3.1

After disappointing performances late last year, Victoria Azarenka made progress getting her game back on track two weeks ago, reaching the final in Brisbane (where she lost in two close sets to Serena Williams). She didn’t do it without showing vulnerability to lower-ranked opponents though, losing a set to Voegele in the quarterfinals and surrendering a 6-1 set to Jankovic before recovering in the semifinals. Like several of her top-10 rivals, Vika will be glad she won’t face too many major threats in the early rounds. In her opening match, she should have little problem overpowering inconsistent counterpuncher Johanna Larsson, who is generally at her best on clay. In the second round, Azarenka will face one of two crafty and unconventional players, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova or Hsieh Su-Wei. Neither can match Vika’s power. Hsieh’s confidence and form have eroded over the past year, and the resurgent Zahlavova Strycova is unlikely to match Azarenka’s competitive resolve if the contest gets close.

Vika’s most likely third-round opponent, the streaky but often formidable baseliner Bojana Jovanovski, could pose a greater threat, especially if Vika doesn’t serve well. But Azarenka has enough intelligence and versatility that she should be able to break down Jovanovski’s relatively simple game. Indeed, Jovanovski could lose in the first round to skilled and aggressive 20-year-old Jana Cepelova, or in the second to clever defender Yvonne Meusburger, who has played the best tennis of her career over the past seven months.

It’s not clear whether 2013 semifinalist Sloane Stephens will be physically capable of another impressive performance in Melbourne this year. She retired from her third match in Hopman Cup two weeks ago with a wrist injury, and then withdrew from Sydney. Christopher Clarey reports that she is, in his words, “feeling good enough about her wrist to play,” which doesn’t sound all that optimistic. If she’s healthy, Sloane’s early draw doesn’t look too bad. Both her opening opponent, Yaroslava Shvedova, and her most likely second opponent, Ajla Tomljanovic, are talented and dangerous shotmakers. But both are also very inconsistent players who are likely to be pressured into errors by Stephens’ natural power-grinding game, and unlikely to regroup with a plan B. However, if Stephens’ wrist is still painful or weak, either opponent may have enough sheer power to worsen the injury. Stephens’ likely third-round opponent, Svetlana Kuznetsova, will pose a greater threat, combining similar power with heavier spin and the experience and adaptability to put up a much more formidable fight. Then again, Sveta is hardly known for consistency, either, and suffered a disappointing first-round loss to Lepchenko in Sydney.

Even if Sloane successfully runs that gauntlet, she’s unlikely to fare any better against Vika than she did in last year’s Melbourne semifinal. Azarenka’s defensive ability neutralizes Stephens’ natural game style, forcing her to apply her power more aggressively and go for riskier shots earlier in points. Even when fully healthy and facing opponents less formidable than the defending champion, Stephens has been reluctant to play that way.

Predicted fourth round: Azarenka d. Kuznetsova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Tomljanovic
Not to be counted out: Jovanovski

Quarterfinal Predictions

S. Williams d. Bouchard
Li d. Kerber
Sharapova d. Halep
Azarenka d. A. Radwanska

Semifinal Predictions

S. Williams d. Li (but see below)
Sharapova d. Azarenka

Final Prediction

My head tells me I have sound reasons for my fourth-round and quarterfinal predictions, and that those lead inevitably to the conclusion that Serena Williams will win the 2014 Australian Open. My gut, however, tells me that Li Na‘s game is getting more complete and more formidable all the time, and that this might just be her time to break her six-year, nine-match losing streak to Serena. It’s also worth noting that there are significant reasons to doubt the health, form, or consistency of many of the top seeds in the bottom half, where the draw could break wide open and create a golden opportunity for an upstart like Halep or Muguruza.

Roster of the Missing

Maria Kirilenko withdrew with an injury which has been reported by various sources to be to her knee or ankle.

Jamie Hampton withdrew, presumably due to the hip injury she sustained in Auckland.

Urszula Radwanska withdrew to give herself more time to recover from shoulder surgery she had in October.

Romina Oprandi has been off the tour since Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.

Nadia Petrova, who has played only one match since Wimbledon due to a back injury, withdrew from all of this month’s tournaments citing her mother’s death last month in a traffic accident.

Iveta Melzer (née Benesova) has been out for a year and a half with a shoulder injury.

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WTA Players to Watch in 2014

A year ago I started this blog by introducing a way to quantify which players are playing better or worse than their rankings would lead us to expect, based on their results over the previous 15 weeks. Players whose resulting form score is above 5 can be expected to upset higher-ranked players and improve their own rankings; players scoring below 4 are vulnerable to disappointing losses and falling rankings.

Like most events in the real world, tennis matches are complex, and not every aspect of a player’s quality or development can be captured by a single number. Nor can any measurement of past results infallibly predict the future. But my system has proven to be a useful way of spotting trends that suggest certain unheralded players may be making a breakthrough, or indicate certain established stars may be ripe for a slump.

With qualifying for the first tournament of 2014 already underway in Brisbane, it’s time to look at which players fans should expect big things from in the new year, starting with the WTA. In the first two categories below, I’ve listed every top-70 woman with a form score over 6, along with a discussion based on my qualitative observations. At the end, I discuss some star players whose recent results should prepare their fans for further disappointment, as well as a few interesting players returning from extended injuries.

Players to Watch as the New Year Begins

Player Ranking Age Form Score
Li 3 31 7.0
Wozniacki 10 23 6.8
Halep 11 22 8.1
Bouchard 32 19 7.6
Keys 38 18 6.3
Knapp 41 26 7.0
Zhang 52 24 9.6
Kumkhum 89 20 16.7

Working with coach Carlos Rodriguez, Li Na has become a more confident and much more consistent player. She’s getting comfortable and increasingly effective approaching the net more frequently, which adds a new dimension to her game. Since June, she has lost only once to a player ranked outside the top 7—in Toronto to Sorana Cirstea, who was absolutely on fire that week. After reaching semifinals in Toronto, Cincinnati, and at the US Open, Li finished the year by taking Serena Williams to a third set in the final of the WTA Championships. Na has a lot of ranking points to defend in January, but missed a month and a half after spraining her ankle in last year’s Australian Open final. If she fails to match her impressive start to last season, she’ll have plenty of opportunity to make up for it in Indian Wells or February’s Middle Eastern tournaments.

After a dreadful spring and early summer, Caroline Wozniacki finished last season on a stronger note, reaching the Tokyo semifinals and winning the Luxembourg title. Playing once again with Babolat rackets as she did to achieve her early success, and facing less pressure and scrutiny now than she did when she held the #1 ranking and immediately after she lost it, Caro looks more confident on court lately. She continues, bit by bit, to add more aggressive court positioning and shotmaking to her game, which for long stretches of her career has been overly predictable. With new coach Thomas Högstedt, she has a chance to make a stronger break out of her rut and regain the creative spark and optimism she had in 2009. Even if things don’t work out that well, look for Wozniacki to avoid last year’s level of embarrassing losses and solidify her position in the top 10.

Among players who dramatically improved last season, no one can match Simona Halep. For years Halep has had most of the components of a top-level game—all-court versatility, defensive speed, and impressive capacity for aggressive shotmaking given her 5’6″ (1.68 m) frame. Beginning with a run to the Rome semifinals in May, Simona suddenly put it all together, gaining new confidence and consistency and finding an optimal balance between offense and defense. In six months she beat 15 top-20 players and won six titles on three different surfaces, including two Premier events and the Tournament of Champions. It’s a sign of how good Halep has become that some have criticized her for blowing an opportunity in a US Open loss to Flavia Pennetta, who echoed her former top-10 form there on her way to the semifinals—her best ever performance in a slam. Simona’s 2013 season will be a tough act to follow, and confidence and tactical balance can be lost as quickly as they can be found. But with the technical tools and the on-court relentlessness she’s always had, now backed by a strong record of success and the ranking and seedings to match, Halep should be a threat to nearly anyone this year.

Looking at Eugenie Bouchard’s current ranking and her victories over top-20 players Sam Stosur (by retirement), Ana Ivanovic, Sloane Stephens, and Jelena Jankovic, along with winning sets from Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, it’s easy to forget that she started 2013 ranked #147. Genie is supplementing her powerful and consistent baseline groundstrokes with improving touch and foot speed, skills she has plenty of time to develop at age 19. Having established herself as a factor at the tour level last season and showing exceptionally steady confidence on court and off, it seems inevitable that Bouchard will be an even more frequent threat to top players this year.

After starting last season well, Madison Keys had a somewhat disappointing summer. But she got back on track late in the season, upsetting Carla Suarez Navarro, Dominika Cibulkova, and Peng Shuai, and finishing with a run to the Osaka semifinals. Keys needs to add more consistency and versatility to back up her fearsome power, but that’s to be expected—she’s the youngest player on this list. With a serve already among the best on tour and able to hit through many high-quality opponents from the baseline, Keys will be a growing threat.

Since 2008, Karin Knapp had accomplished little at the WTA Tour level until her breakout run at Wimbledon last season, in which she upset 27th seed Lucie Safarova on her way to the fourth round. Knapp is a big and powerful player whose fitness and consistency have limited her in the past. But she seems to have addressed these weaknesses, and backed up her Wimbledon run with solid performances over the rest of the season, beating six top-50 opponents (most notably Elena Vesnina at the US Open), reaching the semifinals in Bad Gastein and the quarters in Luxembourg. Look for Knapp to be a consistent factor in smaller events and spring a few significant upsets in 2014.

Zhang Shuai got her aggressive game firing on all cylinders at the end of the year, compiling a 19–4 match record in September and October, winning her first WTA title in Guangzhou, and adding a $125K title in Nanjing. Along the way she beat Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie, Hsieh Su-Wei, and Yanina Wickmayer. In an unusual choice, especially for an East Asian player, Zhang chose to skip the Australian swing last season, instead playing clay-court ITF tournaments in the United States. This choice paid off when she made a solid run to the second round in Brussels as a qualifier, and it also means she has very few points to defend until May. If she comes anywhere near maintaining her form, Zhang will keep ascending the rankings.

Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand started last season by breaking into the top 200 with notable upsets of Keys, Sofia Arvidsson, and Casey Dellacqua. She finished the year even more dramatically, upsetting Ayumi Morita, Vania King, and Yaroslava Shvedova, and breaking into the top 100 by winning a $75K ITF title in Toyota, by far the biggest of her career. Based on her results and youth, I expect Kumkhum to be the next player to graduate from the ITF level and become a full-time WTA-Tour player.

Players Whose High Scores Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Player Ranking Age Form Score
Kvitova 6 23 6.5
Stosur 18 29 7.3
Safarova 29 26 7.5
Jovanovski 36 21 7.0
Williams, V 47 33 8.6
Wickmayer 51 24 7.9
Hercog 65 22 8.8

Petra Kvitova ended the year on a high note, winning the Tokyo title, scoring good wins over Sara Errani and Li in Beijing, and reaching the WTA Championships semifinals by beating Agnieszka Radwanska and Kerber. But she did it without convincing me that she’s put the past two years’ questions about her consistency and fitness behind her. Three of the four match victories I just mentioned were in close third sets, and the other came on Petra’s best surface against a very burned-out-looking Radwanska.

Since overcoming some injuries in April, Sam Stosur has actually had pretty solid results on the whole. She only had five losses in the last seven months to players ranked outside the top 25, and three of those were to her left-handed nemesis Safarova, against whom she has a career record of 2–8. But there’s far more cause for concern in the other two losses, to the technically and mentally erratic #83 Olga Govortsova at Stanford and to 18-year-old counterpuncher Victoria Duval, then ranked #296, in the first round of the US Open. It’s hard to pick Stosur to start any season well until she proves she can overcome the pressure and perform well in front of her home crowd in Australia.

After a dismal first 8 months of the year in which she earned more points winning an ITF title in Prague than she did in any WTA event, Safarova had a sudden run of success in September, winning the Quebec City title and scoring three top-20 victories (two against Stosur) on her way to quarterfinals in Tokyo and Beijing. Then she proved she’s still the talented but chronically inconsistent player she’s always been, ending her season with a loss to counterpuncher Annika Beck in the second round of Luxembourg.

Bojana Jovanovski is a streaky player, but when her timing is on she can rifle returns and down-the-line groundstrokes that can hurt nearly any opponent in baseline rallies. But although she’s made some progress in other aspects of her game, clever opponents can still expose significant weaknesses in her fore-and-aft movement and volleying skills by forcing her off the baseline. Until Jovanovski can add more week-to-week consistency or more tactical options to her game, I expect her current career-high ranking to be about her limit.

With Venus Williams’ still-exceptional power, reach, and big-match experience, she’ll continue to be a threat to star players as long as she stays in the game. But as the oldest player on this list, and with her energy and recovery ability limited by chronic Sjögren’s Syndrome, she won’t be able to play a full schedule and will seldom last long enough to reach the late rounds of big tournaments.

At the end of a mostly awful season, Yanina Wickmayer boosted her form score with runs to the semifinals of a $125K event in Nanjing and to the final of another in Taipei. But her final three losses of the season can’t be seen as positive signs for the former #12, who fell to Zhang in Nanjing, #129 Alison Van Uytvanck in Taipei, and #144 Katarzyna Piter in Luxembourg. With an apparently chronic back problem that hinders her serve and movement, and a still one-dimensional game, Wickmayer’s prospects for a major resurgence are limited.

The talented but inconsistent and frequently injured Polona Hercog finished last season well, reaching quarterfinals in Quebec City and Osaka and the third round in Tokyo, and upsetting Ana Ivanovic and Kirsten Flipkens. But sitting out the warmup events before the Australian Open to recover from a suspected stress fracture to her ribs is not a promising way for her to start 2014.

Top Players In Danger of Losing Ground

Player Ranking Age Form Score
Azarenka 2 24 2.6
Radwanska, A 5 24 3.2
Errani 7 26 2.8
Kirilenko 19 26 1.7
Flipkens 20 27 1.3
Cirstea 22 23 3.1
Cibulkova 23 24 2.6

Victoria Azarenka’s run to the title in Cincinnati, where she beat Serena Williams in the final, looks now like the lone interruption of an extended slump since Wimbledon, rather than the birth of a new rivalry that it seemed at the time. Vika reached the US Open final (where she lost to Serena, 6-1 in the third set), but the only top-40 players she faced on her way there were Alizé Cornet and Ivanovic. Since the US Open she has compiled a 1–4 match record, most disappointingly losing to Andrea Petkovic in Beijing. To maintain her #2 ranking, let alone defend her Australian Open title, Azarenka will have to play with more motivation and initiative than she did in the second half of 2013.

Since she reached the peak of her on-court “ninja” powers (with either her 2011 Tokyo title or her run to the 2012 Wimbledon final, take your pick), I’ve defended Agnieszka Radwanska against criticism of her slam record and the seeming futility of her matchups against Serena Williams (0–8), Azarenka (3–12), and Maria Sharapova (2–8). She’s struggled the last two years with recurring shoulder pain, but largely managed to play her best when she needs to in big events. But the way she finished last season, losing to Ekaterina Makarova in straight sets in the fourth round of the US Open and listlessly failing to win a set in three round-robin matches at the WTA Championships, is cause for concern. Perhaps the strain she put on her body to achieve her success over the last two years is a bit more than it can sustain.

A year ago I was not among those predicting that Sara Errani’s breakthrough would prove to be a fluke, or that she would promptly lose her place in the top 10. As it turned out, she finished 2013 at exactly the same ranking she started it with. But in 2012, she used her newly aggressive game to tally impressive results on hard courts as well as clay, beating five top-20 players after July and reaching the US Open semifinals. Since July 2013, she has beaten only two top-20 players and reached only one quarterfinal, in Toronto. That’s partly due to matchup issues (particularly her losses to Flavia Pennetta at the US Open and Svetlana Kuznetsova in Tokyo). But there are growing reasons to question Sarita’s belief that she can compete with top players on faster surfaces. With her fighting qualities and all-court skills, she’ll continue to win a lot of matches, but she may become more dependent on clay-court events and struggle to stay in the top 10 in 2014.

Maria Kirilenko started last season in the best form of her career, in Pattaya City winning her first singles title since 2008, and breaking into the top 10 for the first time after reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals. A former top-10 doubles player, she played doubles in only three events in 2013, saying the extra recovery time would help her stay healthy and concentrate on her singles career. It didn’t work though, as she never regained her form after a recurring knee injury flared up at Wimbledon. She retired after playing five games in her last event of the year in Sofia, saying she had re-injured her knee, and has now withdrawn from all of January’s tournaments with what most reports say is an ankle injury.

Kirsten Flipkens also started last season well, combining patient backhand slices with more frequent and aggressive charges to the net to take better advantage of her all-court skills. She peaked at the perfect time, vaulting to a career-high ranking of #13 after runs to the final of ’s-Hertogenbosch and to the semifinals of Wimbledon. After the grass-court season though, she lost that form precipitously, finishing the season with a 3–7 match record after Toronto.

Pegged early in her career as a talented future star, and then over the past few years as a reckless and inconsistent occasional giant-slayer, in the middle of last summer Sorana Cirstea started to look like she might become a true star of the sport after all. She followed solid results at Stanford and in Washington, DC with a scintillating run to the final in Toronto, where she upset four top-20 players in a row. But two weeks later she retired from her first-round match in New Haven with an abdominal injury. After that she compiled a 3–5 match record to end her season, suffering particularly disappointing losses to #109 Kurumi Nara at the US Open and #107 Patricia Mayr-Achleitner in Linz.

Dominika Cibulkova had a year of ups and downs. But the ups (reaching the Sydney final, winning the Stanford title by avenging her 6-0 6-0 loss to Radwanska in Sydney, and upsetting Kerber and Roberta Vinci in Toronto) were much more fleeting than the downs, which consisted of long stretches of disappointing early round losses. Domi has become a more frequent threat to top players over the last few years by going for riskier, more aggressive shots, but playing that kind of game depends on confidence. Unfortunately, Cibulkova’s confidence is easily shaken.

Interesting Players Whose Form is Anyone’s Guess

Player Ranking Age
Sharapova 4 26
Muguruza 63 20
Zvonareva 29

These three players have all been inactive long enough that they will need to reestablish their form as they start the new season.

Maria Sharapova has played only one official match since Wimbledon, a three-set loss to Sloane Stephens in Cincinnati in August. Since then she has been resting an inflamed right shoulder. She has also hired Sven Groeneveld as her new coach. Many regard Groeneveld as one of the sport’s best coaches, but I’m not sure he’s well suited to boosting Sharapova’s game at this stage of her career. After briefly coaching Monica Seles in 1992 when she was already a dominant player, Groeneveld went on to work with Mary Pierce, Ivanovic, and Wozniacki as each made her meteoric early splash on the WTA Tour. Groeneveld undoubtedly helped each of these players maximize her natural physical gifts, but arguably failed to help any of them address her technical weaknesses or tactical limitations enough to back up her early success. If Sharapova wants to find a way to challenge Serena Williams’ dominance while limiting the strain on her injury-prone shoulder, she’ll have to hope Groeneveld can do a better job adding such versatility to her game than he did with his previous charges.

Garbiñe Muguruza returns to the tour after undergoing surgery to correct a painful ankle disorder in July. Judging by her Twitter updates, she’s been training enthusiastically and at full speed, most recently with no ankle brace. Movement was her major weakness before the surgery, and if the procedure allows her to add more leg strength and speed to her powerful baseline game, she could become a consistent threat to top-30 players.

Former #2 Vera Zvonareva has missed a year and a half with a series of injuries and illnesses. Barring further calamities, she’s too skilled and smart a player not to make a significant impact at some point this season. But more than some other players, her game depends on fitness, and she may start the season at a significant disadvantage in that department.

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Preseason Preview

It’s been only a month since the ATP World Tour Finals, the last event of the season for the sport’s top two professional tours. It’s been only two weeks since the last ATP Challenger and women’s ITF tournaments above the $25k level. Yet players are already arriving in Australia to train for the 2014 season. For some former stars and young talents not ranked high enough for direct entry into the 2014 Australian Open draw—and for hardcore tennis fans who need a fix—meaningful tournaments start up again this week. Tennis never stops.

Tennis Australia, the United States Tennis Association, and the Fédération Française de Tennis have agreed to provide wild cards for one man and one woman from each of their countries in each of the slam tournaments they run. The French simply nominate their wild cards, but for the Australian Open the American wild cards and two of the Australian wild cards go to winners of playoff tournaments.

The first such playoff is the Australian one, and it’s held this week at Melbourne Park. Monday is dedicated to the men’s first round, with play starting at 10:00 am local time. (Monday update: Matches will be streamed live on the Australian Open Youtube channel.)

The player field is highlighted by former #25 Jarmila Gajdosova, who returned to action in the Nanjing WTA $125k event in late October after missing six months with mononucleosis, and former #4 Jelena Dokic, who has missed nearly two years due to injuries and family problems. Unfortunately, with Dokic unranked and unseeded, they drew each other in the first round. The women’s field also features top seed Casey Dellacqua, sisters Anastasia and Arina Rodionova, and 19-year-olds Storm Sanders and Viktorija Rajicic.

The men’s field is led by John-Patrick Smith and Matt Reid, and features 19-year-olds Jordan Thompson and Luke Saville. Eighteen-year-old Nick Kyrgios withdrew with an elbow injury.

The draws are here:

Australian Wild Card Playoff Women’s Draw

Australian Wild Card Playoff Men’s Draw

The American playoff begins on Friday, December 20th in Atlanta, and is likely to be streamed as well.

(Monday update: Chase Buchanan completes the field.)

(December 19 update: The order of play is here. Julia Cohen has withdrawn, and is replaced by Sanaz Marand.)

Here’s the player lineup:

USTA Wild Card Playoff
Ranking Women Men Ranking
125 Shelby Rogers Dennis Kudla 114
150 Madison Brengle Rhyne Williams 131
154 Grace Min Steve Johnson 156
168 Victoria Duval Tennys Sandgren 183
175 Maria Sanchez Austin Krajicek 241
185 Nicole Gibbs Bjorn Fratangelo 303
196 Sachia Vickery Chase Buchanan 306
301 Sanaz Marand Jarmare Jenkins 339

Melanie Oudin had been scheduled to play in the USTA wild card playoff, but her offseason was derailed two weeks ago when she was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which damaged muscle cells break down rapidly. The dying cells release a flood of chemical breakdown products into the bloodstream, which in some cases can lead to kidney failure. The disorder can be triggered by multiple factors, including physical trauma and certain drugs, but Oudin believes her case was triggered by overtraining, possibly combined with dehydration. Fortunately, she says she has been cleared by her doctor to resume training. But she’ll need time to recover lost strength, and her readiness to compete by January is in doubt.

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Llagostera Vives Suspended for Positive Test

The International Tennis Federation announced today that doubles specialist Nuria Llagostera Vives has been suspended from the sport for two years after testing positive for d-methamphetamine during the Stanford tournament on July 23. The suspension is backdated to begin on September 8th, the day the ITF imposed a mandatory provisional suspension pending a hearing before its independent tribunal, and therefore Llagostera Vives will be eligible to play again on September 8th, 2015. However, the 33-year-old Llagostera Vives told the tribunal during her defense that such a suspension would effectively end her career.

Llagostera Vives is currently ranked #40 in doubles, and achieved career-high rankings of #5 in doubles in 2009, the year she won the WTA Championships with María José Martínez Sánchez, and #35 in singles in 2005.

The stimulant d-methamphetamine is better known as the widely illegal street drug (crystal) “meth”. The director of a Quebec doping control laboratory, Christiane Ayotte, testified that aside from being rarely prescribed for certain psychological disorders, it is “not something that athletes or normal people… would be exposed to,” and not an ingredient in any supplements she was aware of. Llagostera Vives did not have a therapeutic use exemption for d-methamphetamine. She claimed she must have ingested it accidentally, but could offer only the thinnest possible speculation regarding how this could have happened.

The ITF tribunal’s full decision contains a few more interesting details. Stanford was Llagostera Vives’ first tournament after she had wrist surgery in March. She actually withdrew from Stanford before her first match on Tuesday, July 23, citing her partner Francesca Schiavone’s viral illness. (On Monday, Schiavone had defeated former Stanford student Mallory Burdette in singles, and on Wednesday evening she lost to Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-4 6-3.) Llagostera Vives did not learn until later in the day on Tuesday that she had already been selected for a doping test before she withdrew.

When she arrived to give her urine sample late Tuesday afternoon, Llagostera Vives drew a slash through the section of the doping control form that asked her to list “any prescription/non-prescription medications or supplements” she had taken in the last seven days. The doping control officer told her that if she hadn’t taken anything, she should say so in words. She then wrote “No” in the box. It turned out during the tribunal hearing that she had in fact taken over-the-counter pain relievers and vitamin supplements during this period. She told the tribunal that she “did not think it was that crucial” to report those substances because she had cleared them with her doctor and “did not think [she] would get in trouble because of that.” Under cross-examination by her attorney, she testified that she had never received “official advice” (as he put it) from the WTA or the ITF about how to fill out doping control forms.

The testing laboratory reported on August 21 that Llagostera Vives’ sample had tested positive. After an independent review board found no problems with the test, the ITF imposed a mandatory provisional suspension on September 8, by which time Llagostera Vives had played five more tournaments—Carlsbad, Toronto, Cincinnati, New Haven, and the US Open. Playing with Liezel Huber, she reached the quarterfinals of Cincinnati, the semifinals of New Haven, and the third round of the US Open. The tribunal held its hearing on October 29.

In the hearing, Llagostera Vives did not contest the ITF’s charge that she had committed a doping violation. She argued that the standard two-year suspension would be disproportionate in her case, and should be reduced based on her claim that she ingested the d-methamphetamine accidentally. But the relevant ITF anti-doping rules specify explicitly that in order to qualify for a reduced punishment, Llagostera Vives would have to “establish how the Prohibited Substance entered [her] system” (Articles 10.5.1 and 10.5.2). The ITF tribunal pointed out that athletes must bear the burden of proof on this issue, “otherwise the system of doping control… would be rendered futile.” It also cited a precedent in which the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that this burden on athletes is “proportionate” on its face, because “the possible unfairness to [victims of spiking] is outweighed by unfairness to all athletes if [potentially] untruthful explanations of spiking are too readily accepted.”

Llagostera Vives also argued, with the support of testimony by pharmaceutical chemist Dr. Giuseppe Pieraccini, that the fact that her sample contained a low concentration of d-methamphetamine (and also a trace of a metabolite) proved that she had taken it at least two days before she was tested, and without any intent to enhance her sporting performance. However, Professor Ayotte contested Dr. Pieraccini’s reasoning, and he ended up conceding that his conclusion “involved an element of speculation and supposition on his part”, that “it was not possible to establish from [a single urine test], where, how or how much of the Prohibited Substance had been ingested”, and that while the presence of the metabolite “might suggest that the ingestion had not been as recent as 30 minutes prior to the test… even that was no more than an educated guess” (tribunal’s words).

Finally, Llagostera Vives argued that because she had submitted two negative samples after Stanford and because she didn’t find out about her positive test until she received the ITF’s notice of her impending provisional suspension on August 28, “fairness required” that her results in the five tournaments she played after Stanford should be allowed to stand. Oddly, the ITF accepted that she should retain her results from the two tournaments at which she was tested, Toronto and Cincinnati (even though negative samples taken on particular days during those tournaments don’t necessarily prove she didn’t use banned substances at other times during those same tournaments). In the end, the tribunal appears to have yielded primarily to its sympathy over the fact that the two-year suspension will likely end Llagostera Vives’ career. It allowed all five results to stand, saying that while “it would appear to make no practical difference whether she retains the ranking points…, it would not be fair in all the circumstances to deprive her of the” $34,340 in prize money she collected.

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