How can Sharapova beat Williams? Analytics man may have solution
How do you solve a problem like Maria? Serena Williams has the answer. She, of course, has beaten Maria Sharapova 12 straight times over the last nine years.
How do you solve a problem like Serena? Craig O'Shannessy has some thoughts. An Australian now based in Austin, Texas, O'Shannessy goes where staggeringly few in tennis care to venture. He sparks up Dartfish software so common in other sports; he watches video of matches; then he unpacks the data and uses analytics -- not intuition -- to crack tennis' mysteries. Serena versus Maria? O'Shannessy can pop open his laptop and offer a dissertation. But here are two keys:
1) When Serena serves to the deuce court, virtually every first serve is aimed wide to the forehand. And virtually every second serve is up the tee to the backhand. So if Sharapova were inclined, she could position herself accordingly.
2) During the rallies, Sharapova consistently loses when she's seduced into thinking she has an open court. (Serena not only gets to the ball in time but then has angles as options.) "When Sharapova makes Serena stop, start and reorganize," said O'Shannessy, "she is far more successful."
O'Shannessy has similar observations watching Roger Federer play Rafael Nadal and then studying the data. When the two met in Rome, Federer won six of eight serve-and-volley points. He also won 11 of his 21 net approaches. So even though he lost 6-1, 6-3, Federer won 17 of 29 net approaches. Another bit of helpful data: Nadal hit each of 11 second serves to Federer's backhand. (Federer went around seven of the 11 and hit forehands.) Remember how Federer spent all those years chipping his backhands, which gave Nadal time to line up a forehand? In Rome, Federer "hit over" 25 of his 29 backhands. "The scoreline didn't show it," O'Shannessy said, "but that was the right play."
Still, more interesting are O'Shannessy's generic findings. Consider:
? Using the IBM data from the 2012 U.S. Open, he discovered that only seven of the 128 male competitors won more than half of the baseline rallies they played. Yet only seven male competitors won fewer than half their net approaches. (Think about this. And think about this again the next time you hear that the rackets and string technology have made approaching the net a fool's errand.)
? The No. 1 player in the world is lucky to win 55 percent of the points he plays in the course of a year. In 2011, Nadal won the French Open, taking 21 of 21 sets, 100 percent. Yet, he won only 56 percent of the points he played. "Not every point is equal. Some mean everything, some mean nothing."
? Overwhelmingly, the player who hits more second serves loses the match.
This isn't exactly the height of advanced statistics. And yet these nuggets tell such compelling stories. Tennis, O'Shannessy reckons, is half chess, half poker. Some of the sport is about moves and countermoves and grasping strategy. But it's also about knowing the percentages.
"Would you want to know that your opponent is serving every ball to the same place?"
It should be a rhetorical question. But it isn't. Walking through the players' lounge here, O'Shannessy, 46, goes unnoticed. He's another tanned, fit-looking coach with a low-riding ballcap and works with two players, Rajeev Ram and Alex Kuznetsov. (Ram went from No. 272 to No. 93; Kuznetsov has risen 100 spots in the last six weeks.) But players should be lining up to avail themselves to his wisdom.
"In other sports, video and analytics are so important," O'Shannessy said. "In tennis there's too much emphasis on how do I feel? Or, what were the conditions? Data is not part of the culture."
? Good point. A few weeks ago we discussed how Federer's head-to-head against Nadal undercuts his GOAT credentials. Here's an example of a bolstering piece of evidence:
The French is Federer's worst major. His results since 2005: one quarterfinal, two semifinals, four finals, one win.
If we say the U.S. Open is Nadal's worst major, here are his results since 2005: one third round, one fourth round, one quarterfinal, two semifinals, one final, one win, one absence.
Djokovic in Paris: one second round, one third round, two quarterfinals, three semifinals, one final.
? New rule: you can't use "puleez" and then accuse someone else of trying too hard. But here's a dirty secret of writing in general and sportswriting in particular. There are a finite number of basic acts. Half the fun of the craft, if we can call it that, is coming up with new ways to express familiar concepts. That could just be me, imparting spin.
? As Robson lost -- with surprisingly little resistance -- to Caroline Wozniacki in round one, she cut an all-too-familiar figure: the up-and-comer who has a hit rough spot. She's no longer the wide-eyed doe fresh off the juniors. But neither is where she wants to be. External pressures are mounting. She feels the effect of defending points and media/sponsor/agent obligations. She'll get through it, but tennis is feeling more like a job now.
As for her coaching situation, she recently split with Zeljko Krajan. The story I was told: earlier this spring, he was "disappointed" with her play, and, in a attempt to motivate, threatened not to attend her next match. She basically said, "Fine. And don't bother coming back." Then she went out and thumped Agnieszka Radwanska.
Now, there are a number of aides-de-camp. Her mother, Judy Murray, doubles partner Lisa Raymond. But no full-timer. After Wimbledon she'll make a decision. Meanwhile, I would think that she'll have her choice of coach. An up-and-coming lefty with encouraging results, a pleasant disposition and few economic pressures, is an enticing proposition for, hypothetically, a Michael Joyce type. Or John Tortorella. He's available.
? Non grande.
? In a word: no. And who can forget this classic?
If you really want to gesticulations between points, watch Bartoli's father. He looked like a third-base coach yesterday. Anna Medina Garrigues accused him of violating the spirit of the law.
? With that, I'm out like a Rob Ford staffer.
? No Roddick. No Fish. No Venus. No problem. More Americans are left in the draw (13 at this writing) than any year since 2003.
? The Gael Monfils funride continues. He beats Ernests Gulbis in a fun match (and took iPhone video of the French crowd doing the wave). If you get a chance, read Gulbis' press conference.
? If you haven't seen Benoit Paire, do so. Anyone who hits a behind-the-baseline dropshot as a weapon is worth your time.