A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

8 Thoughts from Indian Wells

with 4 comments




I’m lucky enough to be living in Southern California, and among the many perks of this, is that we have one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world in our backyard. So my dad and I made the road trip out to desert to be able to see the men’s and women’s finals of the Indian Wells on Sunday. Some reflections:

1. The picture above gives some perspective on the stadium here. I’m always blown away. In the middle of the desert, they built a tennis stadium bigger than any grand slam stadium except the Arthur Ashe in New York. As a result, the tennis tournament played out here has come to usurp the formerly big tournaments that used to exist in Los Angeles and San Diego. This would never fly in a sport where you actually had a multiple month season of events, but since in tennis, the big players rarely play in near locations within the same year, making everyone trek out to the desert once a year isn’t that inconvenient, and obviously building something this size on more congested real estate would be difficult.

2. Typically the weather out here is ridiculously hot, however today it’s overcast and there is a threat of rain. It’s nice actually, but I find myself realizing that if it actually starts raining how screwed we are. There’s no way we could come back the next day see the matches finish. Lucky for us, it didn’t start raining until the drive home.

3. We get seats on the side of the court (as opposed to the end). Specifically we get the cheapest seats possible on the side of the court. That means we’re quite far away, but I always marvel at how much superior it is to watch tennis from this vantage point than it is from the end view shown on television. Begs the question: Why does television still film from that angle? I get that when they first started televising tennis, TVs were smaller with much weaker resolution. Thus, shooting from the end allowed for maximum zoom in while maintaining complete coverage. I think we’re well past the point where a side view would be technically feasible though. I’d guess TV still films the same way because that’s how they’ve always done it, but I don’t think you really get tennis until you’ve seen the pros play from the side.

From the end, tennis looks like a genteel little past time. From the side, you see how brutal the contortions caused by rapid change are. You can feel your knee start to ache just watching the play, and it’s quite clear how these players are getting injured.

4. The women’s final has Caroline Wozniacki going up against a resurgent Marion Bartoli. This is the 2nd year in a row we’ve seen Woz in the finals. She lost last year, she pulled it off this year. I’m always pulling for her. A beautiful young female tennis player who actually seems to have a friendly attitude? Exactly what the sport needs – beauty isn’t that hard to come by in tennis actually, but from Hingis to Kournikova to the Williams sisters, they were all so damn arrogant when they arrived on the scene.

Despite the win though, I remain only mildly optimistic about Woz. We’re still waiting on the next great talent to emerge nearly a decade since the last really great players emerged. It’s really an incredible gap in the premier sport in existence for women who want to use athletics to achieve maximal fame and profit.

5. Getting to see Rafael Nadal take on Novak Djokovic. I was actually hoping to have the tell-your-grandkids privilege of seeing Rafa taking on Roger Federer, but that is a bit silly since at this point Djokovic is clearly superior to Fed. Getting to see the two best players in the world play a single match where the winner nets over $300,000 is a fantastic experience.

6. When Nadal goes up a set looking like his peak self, I comment to my dad about how hard it is to imagine Nadal losing the next two sets. Then Nadal’s serve proceeds to completely disappear. If memory serves, Nadal’s 1st serve percentage was at 25% for the second set, and Djokovic won the set winning 33 points to Nadal’s 29. Not to take anything away from Djokovic, but clearly a Nadal completely on his game makes the results here a very different story.

7. I’m well past the point of giving Nadal excuses though – which sounds harsher than I mean. He is amazing, but there’s a tendency to think he’s unbeatable unless he faces a serious injury. The reality is that on hard court, more often than not, something goes wrong and he doesn’t win the tournament, just like the almost everyone in history other than prim Federer. He’s fully capable of winning a calendar Grand Slam, but even with Federer showing his age, Djokovic taking that next step makes clear that Nadal will have to expect to continue facing level talent on the other side of the next to win hard court tournaments.

8. Djokovic is now 18-0 for the year, having beaten Nadal & Murray once, and Federer 3 times. At this point I think you’ve got to consider him the best hard court player in the world. I still don’t expect him to ever become the top player in the world as long as Nadal remains healthy in his prime, but I fully expect to win several more major titles before he’s done.


4 Responses

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  1. That sounds like a really cool experience. I’ve always wanted to see a professional tennis match.

    I hate to sound like I’m bludgeoning basketball into the discussion, but how do the movements of the players in pro tennis compare to the movements of pro basketball players? I’m talking about change of direction, acceleration, balance, etc.


    March 23, 2011 at 12:43 am

  2. Hehe, I don’t mind the basketball getting brought into it. I actually looking forward to doing more comparisons like these lines.

    I think there’s two really key things here that make it hard to have a meaningful answer:

    1) The average tennis player is a lot shorter than the average basketball player because height is so valuable in basketball. (There are benefits to greater height in tennis, but also drawbacks, and so the average height for top players has been at about 6’1″ for quite a while.)

    2) The short basketball players tend to have to be ridiculously athletic in order to make up for their lack of height.

    So average to average, I think you’ve got to say tennis players are more agile, and height to height basketball players are more agile.

    There’s also the matter that talent is easier to identify in basketball, it takes less practice to become good in basketball, and there’s a lot more money to be made for the non-elites in basketball than tennis (Federer out earned all basketball players in 2009, that money falls off a cliff pretty quickly for lesser tennis players). Bottom line, it’s my opinion that the most impressive athletes in the world tend to go into basketball.

    As far as what’s most important in the two sports, hmm, still having trouble. When it comes to acceleration & deceleration, I might say perimeter defense in basketball needs it most, then tennis, then the rest of basketball. I tend to acceleration in general as something that’s overrated on offense of most sports, and that includes tennis – but in tennis defense truly is half of the game for everyone.

    Balance, well if you’re serious about winning clay courts, then you need balance more than basketball players. It’s like playing on roller skates man. On the other courts, not as crucial. Still beneficial obviously, but if you’re a basketball player who bobs & weaves with the ball it’s probably more important for you than it is for tennis players on those other courts.

    Let’s see what else, jumping? Clearly basketball.

    Ah, here’s one, let’s call it fluidity. The ability to use your arm and racket like a whip are huge. It gets called “strength”, but it’s not like bench pressing. People see Nadal’s biceps and see how he moves and think he must overpower opponents, but he doesn’t really. His “tennis strength” is stronger than most but there are others stronger, it’s his defensive game, his extreme agility & balance that nullifies their superior “tennis strength”.

    Who am I thinking of when I think of whiplink arms? Andy Roddick. Dude’s 6’2″, clearly couldn’t benchpress like Nadal, and until recently he had the biggest serve in history. That’s insane. Typically it’s the taller guys with the biggest serve. (Ivo Karlovic is the current king, he’ 6’10”)

    Matt Johnson

    March 25, 2011 at 11:11 pm

  3. Hmm, interesting. It appears you definitely need to take factors like environment (for tennis) and position (for basketball) into account when putting a value on certain athletic traits. Makes sense.

    The whip-like strength in tennis reminds me of those wiry-strong players in basketball. They aren’t really huge, and they probably couldn’t bench more than the average person. But when you watch them, you see them play through contact well. And when you play against them, their screens are surprisingly strong, their rebounds shockingly snapped from the air. Kind of like younger Durant or young Jordan.

    I agree that professional basketball players on average are probably the most impressive athletes in sports.


    March 28, 2011 at 12:11 am

    • Hmm, interesting comparison. I really don’t know which basketball players have the best fluidity for the kind of whip-crack motion in tennis, or how much it benefits them. It’s easier for me to see comparisons in sports where you want to make an object leave your hand with maximal speed. Would be fascinating to take some volume shooters & pure shooters who haven’t played tennis, and just see how hard they could hit the ball.

      Matt Johnson

      March 29, 2011 at 11:36 pm

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