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Sunday, June 08, 2008

French Open 2008 - Finals recap

Four games: What is the Swiss word for "annihilation"?

Four games is all it took, and Rafael Nadal rubber-stamped, underlined, and highlighted his complete dominance on the red clay by winning the 2008 French Open. That is how many games the world number ONE player, Roger Federer of Switzerland, was able to take off the now four-time French Open Champion.

On Thursday last week, I did a post looking forward to the Men's Final, which at that stage was undecided. I'd hoped for a Federer-Nadal rematch of the last two Finals, and so it turned out. But what did not materialize was an epic battle between number 1 and 2. Instead, it was a rout, a brutal dismembering of Federer, who is called the greatest ever, by Rafael Nadal, who must without doubt be the greatest ever, on this particular surface.

The statistics - telling the story of the carnage in Paris

The stats from the match are remarkable, even if taken in isolation. Consider the following:

  • 35 Unforced errors compared to SEVEN
  • Only five points won on the second serve in the WHOLE MATCH
  • 31% of points won when receiving serve, compared to 60% by opponent
  • 52 points won in the match, compared to 92
  • Only managed to see FOUR break points, compared to 17

Those stats would be remarkable enough in any game, but when you consider that it's Roger Federer whose numbers are shown first in the above list, compared to Nadal's, then you get an idea of the total domination enjoyed by the Spaniard. Federer only won 5 points on his second serve in the whole match, and won almost half the number of points won by Nadal.

If those numbers don't tell the story, then these do:

6-1, 6-3, 6-0

because that was the final score. When was the last time the world number ONE managed to win only four games in any match, let alone a big final? And when last did a world number one get bumped to love in any set of a competitve match? It was a truly remarkable match, for reasons I really did not expect last week. I expected a Nadal victory, sure, but the manner of the win was quite eye-opening.

Implications of the result: Doubt and confidence

It leaves Federer in pretty much the same place he's been every June for the last four years - contemplating the only Grand Slam to elude him, and wondering how on earth he is going to even compete with, let alone beat, Nadal. The last two finals have been much closer - four sets last year, and he was competitive for most of the match, bar one set. This year, six games in the second set gave the neutral and Swiss fans hope, because Federer fought back from a break down, and then threatened to break again. But that was the sum of his resistance and pretty soon, the heavy hitting and precision by Nadal, combined with a wild forehand by Federer, counted for too much.

Once Nadal broke to go 5-3 clear in the second, he never looked back, winning the final eight games, handing Federer his worst defeat since his arrival as tennis' number one, and so the truth is that Federer is probably not in the same place he usually is in June - he's much further back.

As for Nadal, he now heads into the grass court season having built his legacy yet again. He suffered only 1 defeat all season on the clay, and that was largely due to blisters that prevented him from walking, let alone running. For the rest of the year, he was challenged, but always responded, and then on the biggest stage, he simply blasted everyone away.

Consider that in all his matches in this tournament, he made only 98 unforced errors! In 21 sets of play, that's fewer than 5 mistakes a set (I am a little sceptical of those numbers, to be honest, but the point is, Federer made 35 in three sets today). He doesn't miss, chases everything down, hits with power, accuracy and aggression, and the opponent has little choice but to become increasingly desperate in trying to win points, let alone games.

Consider also that he lost only 22 games in his last four rounds - 3 to Verdasco, 3 to Almagro, 12 to Djokovic (he must have played poorly that match!), and now 4 to Federer - and you get an idea of how utterly superior he has been.

He goes into the Wimbledon campaign on a serious high then. Last year, he pushed Federer to five sets in the final, and that will give him heart. Add today's whitewash third set to that, and you have the makings of a real challenge to Federer's crown on grass. What may ultimately determine the outcome at Wimbledon is the draw, because Djokovic will be the "floating" seed in third, and he will either play Federer or Nadal in a big semi-final. Whoever avoids Djokovic therefore has to win only really one BIG game, and if that is Nadal, then I'd say the odds are pretty close to 50-50.

Then again, Federer may have given himself a close to 50% chance of winning this final. He never knew what hit him.

Last word on the ladies: Ivanovic claims number 1 and maiden Slam

On the ladies' side, it was Serbia's Ana Ivanovic who triumphed in a nervy final against first time finallist Dinara Safina of Russia. The game was not particularly memorable, as both ladies seemed very hesitant and there were numerous errors. In the end, it was experience and slightly superior athleticism that won out, and Ivanovic crowned her new number 1 ranking with her first Grand Slam title.

Please stop the reliance/dependence relationships - you're all big girls and boys...

Just a note on the game in general here, and it's particularly relevant to Ivanovic. Am I the only one who finds it increasingly annoying how reliant the players seem to be on their coaching staff and support teams DURING matches? I remember seeing it at the Australian Open earlier this year, and now again in France, but every time the player wins a point, they pump the fist, and look up at their box and family and coaches for some kind of telepathic support. When things go badly, the same happens - look up to the coach and support team.

Now, to me, this seems like some kind of dysfunctional "Freudian" need, when a professional player has to look for invisible help that often. Ivanovic, in all her matches, must look at her box about 150 times in the match. For everything - line calls, points won, points lost, first serves missed, crowd noise. You name it, she's looking. It was similar for Djokovic in the Australian Open.

And it was Dinara Safina who actually put it best, when in her speech at the prize-giving, congratulated Ivanovic and her team, and then said "even though the team was really annoying sometimes". I second that!

Tennis has always had this tendency to produce somewhat dodgy parent/coach-player relationships, but it seems to have gotten worse of late - I don't recall the likes of Steffi and Monica Seles being quite so dependent on people in the crowd! But watching Ivanovic's completely dependent demeanour towards her team made me pretty annoyed as a spectator too. Federer and Nadal showed the way - play the game, play the opponent, and be a big girl/boy, and look after yourself.

Bring on Wimbledon!



DT said...

It's sad to see Roger again be denied by that massive doper. Someday Nadal will be exposed.

Anonymous said...

good thing you have Ph.D.s, this tennis blog was just chockablock full of science.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment on this post.

Alas, you have caught us out indeed again as you did with our minor grammatical error on our 2008 Prefontaine post.

You are correct that this post is short on science, although we would prefer that you please leave behind the sarcasm when making criticisms.

Although part of our mission is "scientific comment and analysis," we have found it useful over the past year to write posts occasionally that have more of a news feel. It keeps the tone lighter and also helps to communicate important details about the topics we cover here.

In the past we have received many constructive comments and requests from our readers, and we welcome these. However, if you would like us to take more of a scientific approach on all of our posts, please can you rather request this in a constructive manner and again leave behind the sarcasm.

Alternatively, since you appear to dislike our general approach and writing style, we wonder why you are even reading our blog, especially since you do not appear to be interested in debating and engaging in meaningful ways.

Nevertheless, thanks again for visiting.

Kind Regards,

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi DT,

Thanks for commenting here at The Science of Sport.

You raise a valid point here, and I assume you are referring to Nadal's alleged involvement in the Operacion Puerto affair.

I do recall his name coming up somewhere, but there did not seem to be much more said about it from any of the sides involved, and we normally do not cover tennis too much here.

Unfortunately in this era of doping rings, undectable drugs, and unscrupulous governing bodies, you are right to be skeptical of such dominant performances.

I wonder if you can elaborate on any info you read about his involvement in Operacion Puerto, or any other doping allegations?

Kind Regards,

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Just thought I'd echo Jonathan's earlier response to this comment, and to the others you made on other posts.

If you refer to the Mission and Vision tabs on the front page of the blog, you'll see that our objective is to take sports news and apply our own interpretation to it. That interpretation is always biased scientifically, with more analysis than you might find elsewhere (we'd hope so, anyway). But it's not about the science, and this blog was never supposed to take the form of a scientific journal.

If you're interested in that aspect of tennis, then I'll gladly direct you to some studies on the sport. We might even tackle some of those in the future, who knows?

But I certainly don't wish to apologize for the perceived "lack of science" in anything we write, it's perhaps the key part of what we try to do.

That said, our bias is towards the science, and if this particular post strikes you as lacking objectivity, then please let us know (without sarcasm). But it's not our purpose to ram scientific graphs and facts down people's throats - the so-called "ivory tower" of academia does that better than we do, and far more than we'd like!

Our purpose is information and analysis, and this post meets both, I'm sorry you felt different.


Ryan said...

As a former Tennis player, I don't quite understand "dt"s issue with Nadal being a possible doper. Doping, frankly, does not provide measurable benefits to a Tennis player, other than maybe being slightly quicker on your feet to get to the ball and faster recovery after a 5 set match.

You simply don't want to be a wound up muscleheaded brute in Tennis, you want lean coordinated muscle. Tennis is more of a game of skill and smart, than it is of brawn.

Steroids would not help you hit the ball harder or more accurately.

Look at Andy Roddick, holder of the fastest serve on record -155mph. He is a wire.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ryan

Not 100% sure about that, certainly the steroids wouldn't help acutely with performance given the strong emphasis on timing and technique. I agree on that one.

but two areas where doping would have an impact:

first, injury recovery. A number of cricket players have used steroids to help with shoulder and elbow injuries, and the same would go for tennis. So i wouldn't discount a little out-of-season/competition steroid use to help with injury rehab, and also in training, to get stronger and thus prevent those injuries in the future.

The second might be EPO, simply because it allows higher quality of training for longer. If a guy can get 4 hours a day in instead of 3, then that's a benefit, and if EPO allows it, then the effect exists. It's interesting to note, for example, that sprinters like Chambers and Kelli White have both recently admitted to EPO use, and it used to be thought that EPO was solely an "endurance" drug. Tennis is certainly further on the endurance spectrum than sprints, so i expect there would be some benefit, again, in training.

having said all this, I share your feelings about attributing Nadal's superiority to doping. I think he completely outplayed Federer in that game, and no drug that Federer could take would ever narrow the gap, which in my mind (as a tennis player of no great ability, and as a scientist) is due to far more than simply doping. Also, if drugs like steroids are used for injury treatment and to help with recovery, then I guess there's as much chance of Federer using than anyone else. Same goes for EPO. The fact that Nadal's name came up might be entirely co-incidental, or it might be the tip of the iceberg!

But I'm with you - performance wise, little impact, and certainly, not the reason Nadal won the French Open.


Colenso said...

I'm a bit surprised by Anon's sarky comment. OK, there wasn't anything in the article about the players' biodynamics, physiological response, intrinsic or extrinisc factors affecting thermal laoding etc, but I found the statistical analysis of Federer's points very interesting and intriguing. Much of so-called science isn't really true science anyway, according to Mach, Popper and Kuhn once you have left theoretical physics behind. Pure science becomes particularly difficult in the life sciences because it becomes so difficult to establish cause and effect incontrovertibly due to the large number, uncountable in fact, of potential factors. Then there are all the ethical constraints on experimenting on human subjects, plus the lack of direct applicability of evidence to human studies from non-human animal studies. All in all, another very enjoyable and worthwhile article from Ross and Jonathan - well done lads! (And, I am sure I am not alone in wishing I had a PhD to put proudly after my name. Might not have ended up as a bloody school teacher ...)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Colenso

Given your comments on this blog, since way back when we were just starting out, I'd give you three letters courtesy SoS if you'd like! Your comments are always among the most insightful and thoughtful we get! School teacher or not, three letters wouldn't be wasted!

I think you'll find that anon had a bit of an axe to grind with us over Oscar Pistorius - he/she posted on another article dealing with pistorius and I suspect it's just a case of sarcasm induced by hostility...!

Anyway, what can you do! But thanks a million for the kind words, I'm really glad you enjoyed the article!


Colenso said...

Thanks Ross.

I would also agree with your comment that it is extremely irritating the way that so many (female) players now seem to need the continuous approval of their entourage when on court. But then, I would argue, that’s today’s pro-tennis for you. While females elsewhere have almost caught up with males in the duration of events they complete in serious sports like athletics, females in tennis still only play three sets instead of five. Evidence of the mind set amongst tournament organisers that women tennis players are not up to competing on the same level as the men is that many (most?) tournaments still formally refer to the women players as “ladies” (I find this anachronism particularly irritating – how often today are men in general still referred to as “gentlemen”?) Bring back Margaret, Billy-Jean and Martina, I say – now these women were truly great athletes worth watching!

But most irritating of all about today’s pro-tennis, apart from the many idiot spectators who now barrack shamelessly on court for their favourites like so many English football fans, is the organisers’ insistence on referring to each of the majors as a ‘Grand-Slam’. In my book, winning a Grand-Slam means winning every one of the major tournaments in a single season – not just one of them. This is a feat achieved by very few, even amongst the greatest. Federer hasn’t done it – which is why for all his undoubted greatness I would question the claim that he is the greatest ever. All in all, the antics of some of the female players and their entourage plus all the dishonest hyperbole of the pro-circuit organisers is one of the reasons why I now watch tennis a lot less than I used to.