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When it comes to sports analytics, tennis remains behind curve


Programming note: Caroline Wozniacki guests hosts at the Mailbag next week. Send your questions.

While thinking that if Ryan Harrison-Milos Raonic is the future, we'll stick around, thanks ...

As a fellow stat geek, I question the legitimacy of the unforced error stat in tennis. First, it is highly subjective to begin with. Second, and more importantly, if you are running out of ideas against your opponent or feel you need to go for winners and in doing so, you hit an easy ground stroke into the net, is that an unforced error? I would argue that it is a forced error -- forced by your opponent's level of play. Is this stat given much credence in the sport?--Sergi, Brooklyn, N.Y.

• I was at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT last weekend -- the ESPN-sponsored "Dork-A-Palooza."

It's just a terrific event. A lot of heavy hitters; a lot of cutting-edge research; a lot of "What's Next?" talk. I was disheartened by the absence of tennis. Every sport was well-represented. There was entire golf analytics panel. Yet there was no one from the ITF, ATP, WTA or USTA. Sadly this seems to be representative. Tennis took the lead on Hawk-Eye and electronic officiating but is way behind the times in terms of data. There are a few voices in the wilderness -- Greg Sharko and Kevin Fischer -- but overall, the sport needs to get with it. At a time when many fans have an insatiable appetite for analytics, tennis traffics in the same old statistics. And even then, they're terribly difficult to access.

As for Sergi's question, unforced errors are indeed highly subjective. And even if accurate, they can be of minimal value. It's entirely possible to get thumped, and yet commit very few errors -- mostly because your lame shots are enabling the opponent to crank winners. Conversely, you might dictate play and win handily, yet commit many unforced errors, because at 40-0 or 40-15 and miss by a few inches. No shame there.

Just came from the Nike exhibition at the Night Arena. Any chance Nike will move a tennis tourney here in the winter/early spring? One great question was asked to Roger Federer on a changeover. It pretty much was, "Given that you have achieved everything anyone could ever achieve in tennis, what keeps you going and motivated?" Federer's response: "Well, right now I'm up 3-2." Also I'm hopeful Federer makes good on his promise to come watch the Ducks play in the fall.--Benjamin Hansen, Eugene, Ore.

• You say that jokingly but tennis is so ill-served in the Pacific Northwest. Between the Nike presence, the strong tennis community, the agreeable weather and the overall awesomeness of Oregon ... I say why not. Love the idea Federer at a football game at Phil Knight State, University of Oregon. How he fits that into his schedule, I'm not so sure.

How does winning another Challenger this past week affect Grigor Dimitrov's stock. He's done this before but not yet made the big break through into consistent wins on the main tour.--Robert, Boston, Mass.

• It's funny. As much as we like to hype prospects in the Republic of Tennis, Dimitrov has been (cliché alert) flying well below the radar. He attacks an official, shoving him in the chest and it barely rates a mention. He wins a string of challengers and boosts his ranking to his present No. 71 and that, too, doesn't get a ton of attention. Who's this guy's publicist, anyway?

I think a few things are going on here. If he were from the U.S. or the U.K. or Spain or Germany or Japan or Australia or Italy or China or India or ... the hype would be considerable. Less hype when you're from Bulgaria. It is what it is. He went through a rough patch last year (which may ultimately be a disguised blessing) but some of the attention definitely dissipated. Finally, his progress has been steady but he hasn't exactly crushed it at the big events or won a breakthrough match yet. If he's ranked 71 but reached the second week of a Slam or beat a Fernando Verdasco-caliber player (see: Raonic, Milos), it's a different story. Having said all that, Dimitrov is, undeniably, a real talent. Watch for him.

I am planning a weekend out to see this year's Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Does any of your readers have any tips on moving around in Miami and having the best tennis experience? Ideally I would like to stay in South Beach and enjoy some night life and tennis during the day. Thanks in advance for your response.--Tyson Stone, Atlanta

• Taking your talents to South Beach, are you? I think your ambitions are reasonable. Have some loose change ready for the causeways but otherwise you'll be fine. I'd be lying if I said South Beach was my scene; I'm more cut out for this. But if anyone in a younger, tauter, tanner demographic has tips for Tyson, fire away!

I find it striking that (former Illini) Rajeev Ram and Scott Lipsky go from three straight tour-level doubles finals, winning two of them, to the Dallas Challenger. I recognize that the competition was not particularly stiff at the SA Open or even perhaps Delray. But I'd be curious to know if there is a rule that restricts a certain level of player from playing the minor leagues? Could Fed/Rafa enter the doubles draw of the Champaign Challenger?--Mary Ann Royse, Champaign, Ill.

• The Sharko-rater says: Yes, they could. However, they couldn't play singles at a Challenger as Top 10 players are not allowed to play Challenger events. So unless they want to play doubles only this can't be done by the likes of Fed/Rafa.

For the first time ever I must respectfully disagree with you with regards to your comments [in Monday's Best of Three]. I find it perplexing that the men's top seeds are playing doubles. Why would the top seeds (a) risk injury, especially since the next Grand Slam is on clay, not hardcourt and (b) risk wearing themselves out given the string of top their hardcourt events coming up? I'm a huge Rafa fan, but if he injuries himself I'll have absolutely no sympathy for him.--Kris, Norwalk, Conn.

• First time ever? You must be a new reader. I don't disagree that it gets harder to gripe about the length of the season when you elect to play doubles. But overall I think it's great. The fans have twice as many chances to see their favorite players. The stars get to work on components of their game, but in a competitive circumstance. They get used to the court. And, truth be told, the matches seldom last more than an hour given the quick points and super tiebreak. They're only covering half the court as well. If Nadal or whomever breaks down in September, I think it's hard to blame a few sets of doubles in March.

I also noticed all those big names playing doubles. I thought it was an unofficial warm-up for 2012 Olympics -- a good time to get in some doubles practice while the next Slam is still a couple of months away.--Michael Everett, Santa Monica, Calif.

• Another reader suggested they were motivated by Michelle Obama's PSA.

Mr. W: Reading your entry on Federer makes me think about how athletes could prolong their fame when their physical magic wanes -- wouldn't it be awesome if Federer becomes an active volunteer (not just being a talking head) for projects such as Medecin Sans Frontiers or a writer of analytical brilliance on sports culture? Athletes have such short life span compared to writers (yourself) or professors or even actors or lawyers (see Mario Ancic's new career). It's as if when their muscles atrophy, they have nothing else. Sad.--M Ng, Vancouver, Canada

• I'm fascinated by the career arc of an athlete. If you're not careful, you peak in your 20s, retire in your 30s and say, "What the hell am I going to do for the next 50 years?" There's only so much golf you can play; there's only so much money you can lose with your production company; there are only so many TV analyst positions out there. If you're savvier, you can bring your "sports lessons" and connections to bear and parlay that into Career 2.0. Tennis is filled with examples of both. There are players who leave the sport and go into deep depression unable to replicate the surge of competition, the notoriety, the satisfaction working a "regular" job. There are others who transition quite gracefully into another line of work.

You mention Federer. I would think he's uniquely well-suited to succeed after tennis. He's bright. He's rational. He's philanthropic. Above all, he's curious.

This time of year is good for tennis minutiae, and here's my contribution. Why do the players insist on the no-eye-contact, tepid, limp-wristed handshakes with the umpires at the end of matches? Acting as if the umpires are beneath their contempt seems to me highly unsporting. Are there no players who would take the high ground here?--Leonard, Burlington, Vt.

• What time of year ISN'T good for tennis minutiae. I've often wondered the same. This poor soul has been positioned in that lifeguard chair, sitting in the blistering sun, deprived of a bathroom privileges as their bladder expands like a balloon. All to facilitate your well-compensated ball-striking. As you clock out after your shift, the least you could do is acknowledge them with some eye contact. (Anticipated player response: I've been fighting my guts out for a few hours. I'm dealing with the realization that I've won/lost. My chemicals levels are in free fall. Forgive me if etiquette isn't top of mind.)

In the last few weeks alone, we've gotten emails about players' shabby treatment of ballkids (consider this a public shaming, Victoria Azarenka?), handshakes at the net, reactions to winning and losing, the positioning of player chairs and now, the limp handshake of the chair umpire. Moral: fans are watching and making inferences about much than forehands and backhands. If I'm an agent -- or the hypothetical WTA and ATP media consultant -- I'm telling players that, for better or worse, they are creating impressions during the duration of the on-court appearance.

Although it will not happen due to the USTA forfeiting a site fee, the USA/Spain Davis Cup quarter would be an awesome spectacle under the lights at Louis Armstrong Stadium. A definite sell out and a chance for the old stadium to show everyone that it still has some chops! I guess a measly $250,000 and 100 degrees in Austin takes the cake. Too bad.--JT, NYC

• Agree. Totally. Reminded me of this.

In fairness, I was in Austin last week and always have a good time there. If you plan on attending the Davis Cup, see you online here.

• For anyone interested in donating for Japan earthquake victims, here is a list of various options (due credit to Stefanie Graf for posting on her Facebook).

• Who wants to be my guest at the 2011 U.S. Open? (Fundraiser for a good NYC cause.)

• Richard Hanson OF Charleston, W.Va.: "Regarding players who won the next major after winning their first: For the women, you and a reader noted Jennifer Capriati and Venus Williams. Prior to those two, you have Hana Mandlikova ('80 Australian and '81 French), Chris Evert ('74 French and '74 Wimbledon) and Evonne Goolagong ('71 French and '71 Wimbledon)."

• Wackiest Tennis-related press release I got this week: "Entrepreneur Dr. Jim Bahcall has come out with a solution for active Americans. A dentist by trade, Dr. Bahcall is an avid cyclist in his free time. He used to carry instant hand sanitizer or wet wipes around in order to clean off his hands and body after ridinG -- but was frustrated that his hands and body were then wet. He wanted to have a package that included both a wet, soapy towel as well as a dry towel. Nothing like this existed on the market, so he created it. Paper Shower is the world's first combination wet and dry towelette pack and is designed to provide a refreshing body wipe when on-the-go. Paper Shower is perfect for tennis fanatic who wants to freshen up between sets and stay clean on the court while away from a shower or sink."

• Nice to see Dinara Safina winning a big match. Think she owes it to her unique training regimen?

• Good Scott Draper read.

• good to see Michael Barkann.

• Leif Wellington Haase of Berkeley, Calif.: Here's the visual proof of Dirk's visit to the Dallas Challenger ... not a cameo either.

• Kim Clijsters, new haircut.

• A tap of the racket to Larry Ellison. Note these middle week attendance figures at the BNP Paribas event:

Friday day: 22,465Friday night: 14,645Saturday day: 23,466Saturday night: 17,326Sunday day: 23,391Sunday night: 14,628

• Viv of Dublin, Ireland: "Remember the letter about the top five men's players all coming from countries that start with the letter S? Now seven (!) of the guys in the top 10 are from those countries. (Granted, three of them hail from Spain.)"

• In an effort to eliminate extreme poverty in Latin America, Un Techo Para Mi País (UTPMP) will host "Break Point: Let's win the match against poverty", an event that will help raise funds to help needy families throughout Latin America. The event will feature world renowned tennis stars who will gather in Miami during the Sony Ericsson Open. Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Feliciano López, Fernando Verdasco, David Nalbandian and Juan Martin Del Potro are among the players who will participate. It will be held at the Novecento Brickell on March 22 at 8:30 p.m.

• This week's Long Lost Siblings via Twitter: Bencs writes: "Are Philipp Kohlschreiber and Sergiy Stakhovsky twins? They look EXACTLY the same."

Have a great week everyone!