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    Endurance Topspin

    The promoters of the Australian Open should be awfully pleased. Often—too often—the women's final in a major is a dud. Usually the semis are better matches, and one player freezes up to play a bad match in the final. But even though the 2012 women's final was a 6-3, 6-0 rout, a new Number One was crowned, and the match wasn't completely awful. Maria Sharapova wasn't dumping serves into the net, was returning well, and hit a few winners—she was simply led into a boatload of errors. The NY Times' Straight Sets blog offered the theory that Victoria Azarenka won mostly because she hit with more topspin than Sharapova. Even though she obviously does hit with topspin, Sharapova is considered a flat hitter in the modern game. My feeling was that Azarenka covered the court a lot better than Sharapova, while hitting the ball just as powerfully (and shrieking just as loudly).

    The men's semifinals were excellent, and the final may be one for the ages. The Atlantic speculates that this final may portend the new look of men's tennis: as an endurance sport. Even given that both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal took a lot of time between points, the match took almost six hours, and many of the points involved over twenty shots, even thirty shots. A popular tennis coach once noted that, statistically speaking, for the average player the point will end on the next shot. For these guys, it seems that no matter how well they hit the ball, the point will go on at least another six shots. Part of that is because the tennis authorities have slowed down the courts, and part of that is because these guys are very fast and very fit, and part is because they are hitting with extremely exaggerated topspin.

    Topspin is not even close to being new. One of the first tennis books I read was Don Budge's Tennis Memoir, in which he extolled the virtues of hitting with topspin instead of slicing with backspin. His idol, Ellsworth Vines, had hit with topspin. Bill Tilden hit with all sorts of spins. Rod Laver hit his backhand with pronounced topspin while Ken Rosewall hit his with pronounced slice, but both men had their share of success.

    When I first started playing, we were supposed to emulate the clean strokes of Stan Smith, who hit with moderate topspin off of both sides. What we saw on TV, though, was that Jimmy Connors was known for hitting flat while Bjorn Borg hit with heavy topspin. Connors didn't put much spin on the ball; he didn't seem to lift up the racquet as he struck the ball. Borg whipped the racquet from low to high like a hockey stick and his high arcing balls seemed to be pulled down inbounds at the last minute by an unseen force. Which they were. And Borg soon owned Connors. And then we saw that Ivan Lendl dominated McEnroe once Lendl replaced his slice backhand with a dipping topspin shot. In other words, topspin ruled, and the more the better. But how to get it?

    In 1987, Howard Brody, author of Tennis Science for Tennis Players, considered 1000 rpm (16 rps, actually) to be moderate topspin—and I'd guess that Budge and Smith were moderate—and 2,000 rpm to be extreme topspin—and I'd guess that Borg and Lendl were extreme. I am guessing because I don't know whether accurate measurements of tennis ball rpm were widely taken back then. One tennis article I found on paper at a club listed these measurements of more recent players:

    3331 rpm Sergi Bruguera
    2882 rpm Tomas Muster      
    2647 rpm Marcelos Rios     
    2527 rpm Jim Courier       
    2334 rpm Michael Chang     
    1842 rpm Pete Sampras      
    1718 rpm Andre Agassi      
    1659 rpm Todd Martin       

    2154 rpm Venus Williams    
    1941 rpm Mary Pierce       
    1916 rpm Arantxa Sanchez   
    1713 rpm Anna Kournikova   
    1673 rpm Jana Novotna      
    1346 rpm Lindsay Davenport
    1215 rpm Monica Seles      
    1147 rpm Martina Hingis    

    A more recent list shows that current players' topspin has become more than extreme:
    2,500 - 2700 rpm Roger Federer
    3,200 - 5000 rpm Rafael Nadal  

    There have always been spin artists, but spin alone means nothing. Anyone can spin the ball a lot with a whippy forehand, but the ball might not go past the net. Sergi Bruguera is cited as generating 3,331 rpm—but Sergi's shots weren't hit all that fast and he was most successful on slow clay. Fed and Rafa hit with spin and pace and usually good depth. The increase in rpm from Sampras and Agassi to Federer and Nadal may have to do with polymer string technology, or a combination/evolution of those strings, racquets and court speed.

    Agassi used kevlar strings, and most of today's professionals use polymer. Both kevlar and polymer feel deadened, and are often called dead strings. Newer polymer strings are also very slippery, behaving a bit like the spaghetti stringing patterns that were banned in 1978, and like spaghetti stringing, that slipperiness increases spin on the ball—by ten or twenty percent. (But those dead strings are also very hard on your arms and shoulders. Djokovic's shoulder problems at the end of last season may well be due to his strings.)

    When a sliced ball bounces, it catches on the court and then spins forward with very moderate topspin. After a ball of moderate topspin bounces, it spins with more topspin. After balls with extreme or more than extreme topspin bounce, they seem to leap forward and down. You can't simply block such a ball back. You have to stroke it with authority or it will fly off your racquet. I found that out playing the Borg wannabes in tennis leagues.

    When you strike a heavily spun ball, you have to use part of your contact time—a split second—to stop that spin, then you can impart the spin you want. If you are late to the ball, you may not have time to impose your spin on the ball. As a result, much of what really happens in these long rallies is invisible unless you can read how fast the ball is spinning.

    Say Sharapova hits with 1000 rpm, which bounces at 2000 rpm. Azarenka runs to the ball, sets up, and hits with enough spin-effort to reverse that spin to 2000 rpm and places it far from Sharapova. The ball bounces and spins up to 2500 rpm. Sharapova gets to the ball, but can only manage an abbreviated swing, and imparts less spin or pace or both than she needs to trouble Azarenka. Azarenka sees an almost flat ball or a very short ball coming back and creams it. You can see when Sharapova hits short, but it is a lot harder to tell when she hits a deep, low-spin ball that is easier for her opponent to handle.

    Simply hitting deep used to be a safe play, but now you also need spin, pace or perfect placement to avoid a crushing reply. And if your opponent is fast, you need to hit three crushing replies to finish the point.

    So in the modern baseline game, strategy is not just about attacking your opponent's weakness, but about maneuvering your opponent into eventually playing into your strengths—then still being strong enough to take advantage. Straight Sets also theorizes that Federer stubbornly repeats a key tactical error by hitting into the open court against Nadal. Nadal, you see, is protecting his backhand, so hitting into the "open" court means that you are giving Rafa the chance and the angle to unload with his forehand—if he can cover the open court—which he often can. Djokovic, though, seems to take a longer term strategy against Rafa, hitting early and stealing time on every shot, and waiting patiently until Rafa (finally) gives him an attackable ball. He can do that because he hits with as much topspin as Nadal, while standing in closer.

    And don't even start talking about sidespin.



    In the average NFL football game each team has the ball for about 70 plays. Figure thirty-five each for offense and defense. Figure that a long play would last for twenty seconds. So, if a player was to play every single down he would be exerting himself about as hard as he was capable of doing for about eleven and a half minutes spread over three and a half hours.
    About midway in the final of the tennis match they showed a graphic that said Nadal was taking just under thirty-five seconds between points and that other guy, Joko something, only a few seconds less. Even with extended time between change-overs they must have been in strenuous action for at least two hours of their five hour and fifty- three minute match. Probably longer. They were sprinting virtually all that time.
     That was a tremendously impressive match. A few years ago there was much talk that rules would have to be changed or court dimensions or something because with the modern equipment the balls were just coming too fast. Now the players have caught up.
     I wasn't making fun of what's his name, just too lazy to look up the correct spelling. I like your tennis posts but for a bit I was afraid this one was going to be about why topspin makes a ball dip.  In case anyone wonders, it aint Bernoulli's principle.

    Well as I mentioned, they have slowed down the fast courts. In fact the courts at the four majors play more alike than they ever have, which might explain why there are fewer fast or slow court specialists upsetting the draws.

    Yeah, I guess that court speed doesn't register quite as significant for me although I know it is  a deal changer at higher levels. I noticed the difference in surface speed once and that was coming off a slick city concrete court that had the paint worn of in big spots. it was fast. I got to play once on clay coming off that surface. The main thing I liked was the way it was possible to slide to a shot.

     Tennis would be bigger as a spectator sport if the length of the matches could be regulated with any consistency. I wouldn't expect a rule change that made six hour matches more common but on the women's side I think they could change up and start not playing tie breakers, but instead play it out and stay at two out of three sets.

    As noted, topspin isn't new.  What is new is the power topspin, plus a strategy that is safe with an edge of danger.  

    The modern power topspin forehand ground stroke breaks down into two separate actions -- the opposite arm is stretched out towards the path of the incoming ball, then it is forcefully tucked unto it's side, much like a skater does to initiate a spin.  This opposite arm movement provides an axis of rotational power to the core and shoulder which powers up the racquet arm to unsung speed, without requiring any power from the racquet arm.  This motion also provides stability and consistency to the player's core rotation -- resulting in more power AND accuracy -- errors tend to run lateral, rather than short or deep.   Furthermore, this motion's time frame can be purposefully adjusted from early to right on with the ball contact to help direct the ball to one side or the other of the court in a disguised fashion.  The racquet arm's basic task is to set the amount of spin plus additional power according to how much or little low to high action is desired for the shot. Let it also be mentioned that another oft overlooked key in the modern power topspin is core movement from low to high by the knees and legs.  Even a flat shot gets topspin when the legs are moving the core upwards.  

    This is all fine and dandy, but doesn't necessarily win you points or games or matches.  The next key to the modern game is a safe but dangerous strategy -- hit the baskets.  Divide the baseline/service court box in half down the tee, and put a basket in the middle of each of the two boxes that are defined.  Then just hit the ball as hard as you can with varied spin and power at the baskets.  The modern power topspin groundies make this a relatively easy task for accomplished players.  If you miss wide -- whoops, a wide winner near the lines, or a set up for subsequent winner.  If you miss down the middle, whoops, a tough to handle jam -- if you hit the basket, the opponent has to gage the power and spin to make a return that minimally keeps the ball in play, ideally repeats the process to prolong the rally.   If a return opens up an opportunity for a winner or setup for winner, take it, otherwise, just play another shot to the baskets... 

    "Playing to the baskets" as noted above isn't particularly complex strategy.  It takes into account how small variants of the modern power topspin can safely win or set up winning points by accident as much as on purpose.  Opponents who can't keep up with the power and accuracy while running from basket to basket at the baseline are forced to attempt risky shots from behind the baseline that end in error more than as success.  Errors either directly end the point, or provide an opening for a passing shot, particularly for the player who is at or near the baseline to take time away from the opponent.  Attempts to change the pace or muck up timing with slice or side spin may occasionally cause an error, but more likely than not, the result is just another ball safely returned to the baskets and the point continues. 

    Where the intrigue in this sort of battle is when you've got two equally fit players who are both very capable players to the baskets as well as finishers outside the basket game.  Pretty soon, even they start to wear down and are forced by fatigue to shorten points by forcing the issue one way or another to go "outside the baskets"...  Such was the essence of the AO Finals -- great strategy pairs up with great technique until fatigue takes it's toll, then it's guts versus guts...   

    O'Shannessy, at the Straight Sets blog, credits the Djokovic return game:

    Novak Djokovic’s heroic victory over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open singles final was one of the best performances returning serve in the history of the game.

    Djokovic’s spectacular return of serve was the engine room for his victory, constantly putting Nadal on defense with his first groundstroke after the serve, enabling Djokovic to establish superior court position closer to the baseline for the rest of the point.

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