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HALEP-STEPHENS: A CONTEST OF COMBINATIONS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Whenever spectators are fanning themselves, you know the weather is hot. Spectators in Montreal were indeed fanning themselves throughout Sunday’s Premier 5 final between Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens. As is often the case in big-time professional tennis, a significant tournament was played in a locality during that locality’s hottest time of year. Touring professionals have come to expect that when they pack their bags and hop on a plane to the next city on tour, they will often step into a flaming den of hot sun, maybe also searing humidity. The effort involved in playing attritional tennis at the highest level means that after 20 minutes of very hard work — chasing down that forehand, scrambling to hit the next backhand, straining to hit a huge serve down break point — their attire will be soaked.

Sweating in copious quantities is healthy — it is how the body cools itself down, part of how our biological mechanisms are wondrously structured. Yet, a sweat-soaked piece of athletic apparel also means that an athlete is playing with added weight. I never made the tennis team in high school — I was on the student newspaper, as you might well expect; I wasn’t a jock — but I don’t have to have played competitive tennis to tell you that a sweat-soaked shirt weighs a lot more than a dry shirt that has been freshly clean. I know that from having mowed my mother’s lawn a few times this summer in 105-degree Phoenix heat.

Beyond the added weight of a sweat-soaked top, WTA superstars such as Halep and Stephens have to play with ample taping on their feet, given the punishment they put themselves through. Halep needed a retaping during Sunday’s final, having picked up blisters earlier in the tournament, one in which she had to play two matches in one day and then make a very short turnaround between a Friday night quarterfinal and an early-afternoon semifinal on Saturday.

Why go through these details, you might reasonably ask? So much of the experience of playing tennis involves immense physical output and strain. The athlete puts her body through the wringer simply through the actual process of playing, and also through playing at the hottest time of year. Those details and actions described above are normal parts of playing tennis… and they don’t even touch on the reality of facing a particular — and particularly skilled — opponent.

Does this begin to fully encompass the holistic challenge Halep and Stephens faced on Sunday in Quebec? You be the judge.

If it DOES, simply know that there’s more to the story. If it DOESN’T, what follows might begin to satisfy your sense of the scene in Montreal.

Bud Collins, the late, great tennis historian and commentator who chronicled the Open Era of professional tennis for American audiences since its very start in 1968, famously called tennis “boxing without the blood.” The savage, attritional elements of tennis described above are relevant in that they unpack the taxing and sometimes torturous nature of playing professional tennis. They feed into the boxing analogy, but they don’t entirely COMPLETE it.

When two high-level players stand in the tennis rectangle — aka, the boxing ring — the analogy is brought to full life.

What was always easy for me to appreciate about the “boxing without the blood” analogy: Every shot hit by players was a punch. POW! Take that! And THAT! And THAT! Of course every smack of the ball would be compared to a jab or a roundhouse or an uppercut, the various kinds of punches boxers throw at each other. Of course tennis uses the term “counterpuncher,” which is what Halep and Stephens both do very well — it doesn’t completely define them as tennis players, but they are both very skilled at the practice. If you watched both the French Open final and Sunday’s clash in Montreal, you surely noticed that the player who hit the first ambitious shot in a rally and tried to dictate the point did not enjoy overwhelming success.

Yes, it is quite true that Halep found some cheap points on serve late in the third set, including an ace at *3-2 and later a serve-and-forehand 1-2 combo at *5-4, 15-15 which helped her get to the finish line, but those were exceptional moments and not routine occurrences. In many points during the match, one player tried to open up the court, but the opponent got to the ball and redirected it such that the initial striker had to switch from offense to defense and hit an uncomfortable shot on the run, which she often missed. The player who displayed initiative by trying to throw the first punch often lost that point three to five shots later. “Being aggressive” sounds great, but Halep and Stephens both know they have to pick their spots in order to be effective against each other.

This last point unearths a new level of detail in the “boxing without the blood” analogy which is so apt in professional tennis.

As noted above, I could always identify with the idea that every shot is a punch. That’s easy. That’s Tennis 101, an entry-level freshman-year course. The new layer of insight into the boxing analogy provided by the Montreal final is that much as boxers are always trying to find the right combinations of punches, tennis players try to do the same. The particular use of “combinations” is part of a Tennis 201 course, or maybe even 301.

Think about it: Boxers, when they stare at each other and dance around a boxing ring, have a scouting report just as tennis players do.

“This fighter is good at blocking eye-level punches, especially from his left side, which is the opponent’s right hand.”

“That fighter is good at blocking body punches from his right side, the opponent’s left hand.”

Between rounds — much as Darren Cahill (Halep) or Kamau Murray (Stephens) instructed their charges during this Montreal match — a boxing trainer will tell his fighter to get the opponent on the ropes, or keep the opponent moving instead of allowing him to stand. Some fighters are better lateral movers, while others prefer to stand in the middle of the ring and let the opponent come to them. Trainers will therefore tell their boxers to do what the opponent is not inclined to like.

Can we see how the tennis-boxing comparisons take on much deeper texture when seen in this light?

Halep would rather hit a backhand than a forehand if she had to choose between those shots. Stephens would rather move a lot during a point than stand still. These are only two tendencies out of several which Halep and Stephens display, but they might reasonably be viewed as the two central tendencies which shaped how the rest of Sunday’s match — and the French Open final — was played. Halep tried to hit in the middle third of the court to keep Stephens from moving, but when Stephens was able to get on the run, especially to the deuce corner, she would regularly hit crosscourt, not down the line, in order to force Halep to her forehand side. Stephens almost won the first set due to a bunch of Halep forehand errors, but Sloane flinched late in the set, which forced her to battle uphill for most of the next hour. Stephens played spectacular tennis to take the second set, and she had game point for 3-2 in the third, but just when it seemed she was making a decisive run, errors flooded her game, and Halep served better in the subsequent 20 to 25 minutes to finish off the win.

2018 Roland Garros - 5 Jun

Image – Jimmie 48

The match was a study in combinations. Both players knew what the bread-and-butter combinations were on each side, so they usually trusted those combinations in moments of importance. Yet, over the course of over two and a half hours in very difficult weather conditions, not every combination can be the same. Yes, a boxer might use a scouting report to throw the combinations of punches the opponent is weaker at defending, but over the course of 15 rounds, he has to mix up those combinations to set up a winning sequence which can land a telling blow. So it also is in tennis, and so it also was in Halep-Stephens.

Halep threw in a few drop shots late in the second set, an abrupt change of tactics. Stephens ran down those drop shots and produced some of the best points of the match, but Halep made Stephens work to win the second set. Halep also made Stephens realize that while running laterally is her most natural way of playing a point, she might have to run vertically within the court (forward and backward). That was all part of the test to see if an athlete is vulnerable to certain kinds of movements or patterns.

Another variation came midway through the third set: Most of the time when serving from the ad court in an important moment, Halep goes for a T serve, but at *3-2 and 30-15, trying to protect the break lead she had just gained when Stephens briefly lost focus at 2-2, Halep went for the wide serve to the corner of the box. She aced Stephens and held for 4-2, consolidating her advantage but also gaining the inner boost of knowing she could win points easily in the midst of this prolonged heavyweight bout. Hitting that ace was like hitting Stephens in the face with a jab — not a massive punch, but one which scored points on all judges’ cards and tilted the psychological balance late in a close contest.

Halep had thrown a punch to the right spot, properly anticipating that Stephens expected it to come from a different angle.

Boxing — I mean tennis — in its eternal search for combinations, staged against the backdrop of extreme bodily attrition, was never more real than it was in Montreal on Sunday.

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Agnieszka Radwanska Gave Tennis a Vivid Visualization of Variety

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Women’s tennis is in a very good place these days. Quality, depth, youth, competitive chops — they exist in abundance on a WTA Tour which has made the notion of an “easy draw” almost unheard of in 2018. Within this environment, Agnieszka Radwanska has found it hard to endure. That’s no criticism of her. Every athlete has a different shelf life, and Radwanska — who won her first WTA Tour title in 2007 at the age of 18 — enjoyed more than 10 years in the big leagues. That’s not exactly a brief career, even if Radwanska ended it on Wednesday at the age of 29.

Radwanska was a fixture in women’s tennis this decade, a regular presence in the sport’s most important tournaments until very recently. She never did chase down the major title Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep nabbed, but her legacy will be much greater than any attempt to bean-count tournaments won or lost.

Radwanska — playing in the late-career golden age of Serena Williams — picked the wrong time to be a thriving professional tennis player in the heart of her prime. If she had been born a few years earlier or later, she might have had better chances to win more of the most prestigious tournaments in the sport. As it is, she still battled Serena well in her one major final, the 2012 Wimbledon championship match which went to a third set. Radwanska was still relevant in 2016, making the Australian Open semifinals before Serena played her best tennis and defeated Poland’s 21st-century tennis star.

A 2015 WTA Finals champion and a five-time Premier Mandatory/5 winner, Radwanska — once the World No. 2 player at the height of her powers — did more than merely survive on tour for roughly a decade. No, she didn’t quite conquer the sport and lay it at her feet, but she made a very comfortable place for herself on a tour which did not play the way she played.

Radwanska carved out her own path, a reality which should serve as a lesson to younger players today.

Yes, Angelique Kerber drop-shotted Serena to death in the Wimbledon final. Yes, Magdalena Rybarikova made an out-of-nowhere run to the 2017 Wimbledon semifinals. Yes, Timea Bacsinszky has reached the Roland Garros semifinals. There are terrific practitioners of all-shot excellence in women’s tennis who have used their deft touch and clever play to achieve well… but Radwanska is the foremost exemplar of this way of being. She got more mileage out of it than her peers who tried the same approach.

Ultimately, Radwanska is the best embodiment in modern women’s tennis of how far variety can carry a player in what is often a cookie-cutter sport.

Women’s tennis is very healthy, as I noted at the start of this piece. Yet, when considering how it could become even better, an answer which always rises to the surface of consciousness is the addition of more variety into rallies.

So many women’s tennis matches put the ball on a string. Forehands and backhands, hit hard and consistently and well, from two players who move laterally just behind the baseline, create powerful and involving exchanges. The drama is considerable and the intensity unmistakable… but are the two players using the best, most direct route to winning a point? Not all the time. When two players are on the same level in terms of talent or the present day’s form, it makes sense to want to trade punches and see if your strength is stronger than your opponent’s strength. The natural and sound logic behind that approach is obvious: If you can break down your opponent’s strength, you win every important battle in a match — the tactical battle, the mental battle, the physical battle. If you are on even terms with another player and you think your strength can win the day, sure, go for it. That’s smart.

When variety comes into the picture is when the other player is more talented or — if not necessarily TALENTED — physically imposing. When you know another athlete has a higher ceiling of skill and potential and is demonstrating the capacity to actualize said potential, you can’t go blow for blow with that superior game. You, as the opponent, have to find ways to disrupt that superior game and get the better athlete to hesitate, doubt and overthink.

Tennis, like baseball, is a sport played with a stick the athlete swings in order to hit a ball hard. In baseball, the old saying is that “Good pitching stops good hitting.” Pitchers try to throw pitches at speeds and locations which cause talented hitters to hesitate, doubt, and overthink. The hitter who is comfortable will hit the ball hard and squarely. The hitter who is uncomfortable will still hit the ball, but not on the sweet spot of the bat. A hitter aspires to hit the ball very long or very hard, if not both. A good pitcher causes hitters to hit the ball short distances, generally on the ground, and with very little velocity.

It is much the same in tennis. How can a player hit shots the opponent will struggle to handle? How can a player cause her opponent to make more errors, or to hit short balls which can be turned into winners? How can a player turn a ferocious hitter into a hesitant, error-spraying machine who is completely off balance?

Variety — that’s how.

Not feeding pace — that’s how.

Angles — that’s how.

Taking the ball early to deprive the opponent of extra time in which to retrieve a shot — that’s how.

Agnieszka Radwanska, the queen of court craft, studied and developed those arts to near-perfection. Her low and deep knee bends enabled her to quickly and accurately redirect a screaming return of serve hit right at her. The quickness of the redirection deprived the opponent of time to reset after hitting that go-for-broke return. Radwanska turned her opponents’ power against them.

Radwanska realized better than most that on a tour loaded with powerful baseline hitters who loved the ball-on-a-string nature of traditional diagonal rallies and patterns, an ability to change speeds and create angles would get those hitters out of their strike zones. Radwanska used all of a ball to shape her shots. She used a fuller arsenal of speed variations and placements than most. She incorporated net play into her game more than most.

What was the result of this constant offering of variety? Radwanska made a lot out of a career which regularly lacked an imposing serve. To be more precise, few players in recent memory got more out of an assortment of tennis skills which did not include a particularly effective serve.

So many players — men in particular, but women as well — fit into the category of players who need their serve to be effective in order to win matches. A broader layer of players don’t necessarily need their serve to be great, but they do need to hit a very hard, flat assortment of groundstrokes in order to feel they are in control of a match. If their powerful shots aren’t finding the mark, they don’t have a Plan B.

Agnieszka Radwanska never ran into that problem. Despite a serve which constantly limited her margin for error, she attained World No. 2, battled Serena for a Wimbledon title, and produced an outrageously successful career.

This is how far variety can take a tennis player. Young tennis players can learn a lot from Aga.

If young players can learn an enormous amount from your career, your legacy in the larger run of tennis history is substantial.

This is what the name “Radwanska” will continue to mean 20, 30 and 50 years from now.

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Darren Cahill Writes a Story of Evolution and Elasticity

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Great coaches in any sport certainly have a few things in common, but when I compare tennis coaches to coaches in other sports, I usually keep coming back to basketball.

Why is this?

American-style football involves mass-scale organizational skills and a lot of delegating to assistants who help the operation go forward. This isn’t to say that delegating and teamwork aren’t part of tennis coaching staffs, but 53-man NFL rosters and 85-man college rosters are very different beasts compared to tennis player management.

Baseball gets into hands-on intervention in players’ situations. Managers must tightly manage pitch counts and engineer matchups within games. They are immersed in each game — their imprints are all over the little plot twists which comprise a baseball game in ways that tennis coaches aren’t, at least at the major-tournament level. American football, baseball, and also hockey are so much about who plays — and how often — and in what combinations. Those sports distance themselves from the solo-athlete arena of tennis.

Of the various team sports I study, basketball is the one which most closely resembles tennis in terms of the relationship between the coach and the athlete.

Like hockey, basketball is 5-on-5, but unlike hockey, basketball involves a much smaller rotation of players during a game, often less than half of the players who rotate in and out of a hockey game. When the NBA basketball playoffs arise, it is relatively common for only seven or eight players to play extended minutes (more than 20 in a 48-minute game). Yes, there is in-game coaching, unlike tennis. Yes, coaches are intervening in the action and trying to create favorable matchups, unlike tennis.

Yet, so much of the battle in basketball comes down to a coach’s ability to get the most out of one or two great players and find ways to build a small supporting cast around the superstar or two stars.

Is this not what Steve Kerr, for example, has done with the Golden State Warriors?

Mark Jackson, Kerr’s predecessor, had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green on his roster in 2014. That team did not win a single playoff series. Kerr stepped in the very next year and won 67 of 82 regular-season games, giving Golden State the best record in the league and a world championship.

The talent was already there. It took a person to get through to those two shooters — Curry and Thompson — and enable Green to figure out how to blend with them. As soon as the right person arrived as a teacher, a very small group of athletes took off.

No, basketball isn’t a solo-athlete sport — it is a team game — but it comes very close to tennis in some ways.

With this being said, Darren Cahill — whose partnership with WTA No. 1 Simona Halep ended this past week due to a desire to spend more time with family — is in many ways the Gregg Popovich of tennis.

Why this comparison and not a comparison to other great professional basketball coaches in recent years?

Here is the explanation:

Popovich, the longtime coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has shown a constant ability to adjust to players… and enable players to adjust to situations. A few details shine through in Popovich’s career which magnify that statement.

Popovich won his first NBA title in 1999, his most recent in 2014, a 15-year span. He has therefore remained relevant and able to exist in the constraints of the present moment. Industries can and do change over 15 years, so an ability to adapt is an absolute necessity for high-quality longevity, as opposed to a short burst of three or four years when a coach simply has the best players and can ride that wave. Succeeding over 15 years requires something more. Popovich has shown that.

What emerges more precisely in Pop’s prosperous basketball journey is that he has mentored athletes in their very early years, their mid-career primes, and their late-career years.

Popovich coached a very young Tim Duncan to the 1999 NBA title. He coached Duncan as an old-man athlete to the 2014 NBA title. Duncan won that 2014 championship just after turning 38, which Roger Federer will turn next August.

Popovich coached a very young Tony Parker to the 2003 NBA championship. He was there with Parker 11 years later for the 2014 title run with the Spurs. Manu Ginobili was in his prime with the Spurs in 2003. He played until age 40 under Popovich’s guidance.

The one other particularly defining aspect of Popovich’s career is that he was able to win in different ways. The first four NBA championship teams Pop had with the Spurs were defense-first teams which focused on relentless pressure and robust effort in rebounding the ball. It’s not as though the Spurs de-emphasized rebounding or effort in the latter years of the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio, but they did become an offense-first team which played at a faster pace, tried to win games with scoring, and paid new attention to 3-point shooting. Pop readjusted his priorities and gave his aging players more freedom on offense, changing the way his team normally played. Basic principles didn’t leave the picture, but the change freshened the minds and bodies of the older Spurs, who continued to win large numbers of games and remained a foremost contender for NBA titles.

In these details, one can find some strong connections with Darren Cahill’s coaching career.

First of all, Cahill won a major title with Lleyton Hewitt at the 2001 U.S. Open. He won a major with Simona Halep at the 2018 Roland Garros tournament. That 17-year gap is similar to Popovich’s 15-year run with titles at both ends of that time span.

Much as Popovich won with very young, middle-aged (in an athlete’s terms, not a biological human being’s terms), and old athletes, Cahill did the very same thing. He won big with a young Hewitt. Then he won with an old, late-career version of Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open. In 2018, he won with the 26-year-old Halep at the French Open, one year after guiding her to year-end World No. 1, which Halep replicated this season.

Cahill took on three very distinct challenges and met them all. It’s not so much that he won major titles with three different players; it’s that he won titles with three different players at three very distinct stages of experience and understanding. THAT is the more specific connection with Popovich which stands above everything else.

Another potent and important detail: Cahill won with players on both the ATP and WTA Tours. In that sense, he crossed a bridge from one form of tennis to another, akin to Popovich winning with one style in the first decade of this century and then with a noticeably different style in the second decade of this century. (The Spurs’ reinvention occurred in their 2010-2011 season.)

Richard Williams, Marian Vajda, Toni Nadal, Tony Roche, and Paul Annacone have won larger amounts of major titles as tennis coaches. That makes them a lot like Phil Jackson, who has won several more titles than Popovich. Jackson, though, hitched his wagon to superstars to win his titles: Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls, then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson won because he knew how to make use of the overwhelming athletic abilities of the men who were the best players in the NBA when in their primes. That applied to Jordan in the early 1990s, Shaq circa 2000, and Kobe in 2009 and 2010.

Popovich did have great players, but his great players were not takeover artists who physically dominated their opponents the way Jordan, Shaq and Kobe did. Popovich cultivated players who played blended games and had to problem-solve to succeed. That’s the Cahill way, which emerged in players who either weren’t very tall, couldn’t serve huge on a consistent basis, or both.

Hewitt’s rise to major-tournament glory at age 20 in late 2001 is — viewed through the lens of the Big 3 era — a relatively rare achievement. Agassi’s productive endurance and headline-generating resilience into his age-35 season felt like an astounding feat at the time. Cahill squeezed that out of Andre. The idea that Halep would ascend to the top of the sport and cement that rise with a major tournament championship was something plenty of tennis people always thought was possible, but no one could have known for sure. It wasn’t exactly — to borrow a basketball term — a slam dunk. Yet, Cahill got Halep over the threshold.

Cahill isn’t a wandering nomad the way Wim Fissette is. I compared Fissette to another basketball coach at Tennis With An Accent.

Cahill walked a lot of miles with a few players and enabled them to reach their potential. He won with youngsters and oldsters and athletes in between. He won at the very start of this century and was still winning in 2018 before he took this break from coaching.

Gregg Popovich set a very high standard in basketball. Darren Cahill’s coaching quality is worthy of a comparison with the sage of San Antonio.

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Svitolina and Stephens in Singapore — A Story of Belonging And Letting Go

Briana Foust

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

As the WTA celebrated its final year-end championship in Singapore, a new chapter seems to hover over the tour. After an era dominated by powerful offensive groundstrokes and larger-than-life personalities, the crystal ball vision of the future is becoming clearer for the WTA.

With the WTA rankings having only two 30-year-olds left in the top 20, experience has been replaced with newfound opportunity. Athleticism, shot selection, stamina, mental toughness, and counterpunching have emerged as essential weapons for the top 8 women. Aided by a WTA Finals court which is tailored to topspin and longer rallies, Elina Svitolina and Sloane Stephens emerged as the last finalists Singapore would showcase.

Svitolina and Stephens both emerged from round-robin play with 3-0 records, but their journeys to the final round were anything but secure. Svitolina and Stephens both qualified for the WTA Finals at the very last moment of opportunity. Normally in tennis, players hold their own fates in their hands in the race to the year-end championships. Yet Sloane Stephens almost singlehandedly kept Elina Svitolina out of the tournament by taking one of the last remaining wildcards into Moscow and leaving Svitolina to watch the results of Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova to learn her fate. If Bertens and Pliskova had made the semifinals of the Russian tournament, then Svitolina’s only chance of participating in the finals would have been as an alternate.

So why exactly were these two on the borderline for Singapore? Well, among all of the qualifiers, they posted the lowest amount of match wins coming into the tournament. Svitolina had 39 wins and Stephens 33. Based on recent form, they would not have been the bettors’ favorites as the final two, either. Questions surrounded whether Svitolina could win matches, let alone go 3-0 against the best players in the world. She had fired her coach, there were physical fitness concerns, and there was also pressure to break through at one of the biggest events.

As told to Sport 360, Svitolina’s confidence was affected by the conversations around her 2018 season, but she wanted to use the last event of the year as testing ground for herself and the doubters.

“When I qualified for this tournament, definitely decided that I’m going to just go for it and, you know, I’m good enough, I’m going to trust my game, gonna trust myself,” she said.

Stephens also had a point to prove. She had never brought her full-flight brand of tennis to the Asian swing of tournaments. This year she won her first match during this part of the schedule in three years. In 2018, she showed frustration with those struggles and knew she could play better.

As told to Sport 360, “I think my biggest thing was obviously after the U.S. Open last year, everyone was, like, ‘Oh, she’s a one-hit wonder, she’ll never do anything again, it was just lucky, no one was playing, blah, blah, blah,’ and I think this season I was just like I really want to play a little more consistent, I want to have some better results in the bigger tournaments and just do better and show that I’m, you know, I’m a top-10 player or top whatever player.”

It is evident now that the tennis in Singapore was a secondary matter this week. What mattered the most for the two finalists was honing skills as competitors and proving to themselves that they truly belong.

It seems dissonant that Svitolina and Stephens, who have both won multiple times on the WTA’s biggest stages, feel like underachievers when they may be closer than perceived to establishing a new standard for this generation. Only time will tell, but if it is anything like this last final in Singapore on Sunday, how can you not be entertained?

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