10sChiro’s Return to Indian Wells

Written by: on 26th March 2012
Sony Ericsson Open
10sChiro's Return to Indian Wells

epa03157959 Novak Djokovic of Serbia returns the ball to Marcos Bagdatis of Cyprus during their match at the Sony Ericsson Open on Key Biscayne, Florida, USA, 24 March 2012. Djokovic won in straight sets 6-4, 6-4. EPA/RHONA WISE  |

I promised you a little review of my trip to Indian Wells.  As I said in my report on the finals, I got sidetracked by that virus going around Coachella Valley during the tournament.  It knocked me out for longer than I thought and then I got busy last week trying to catch up with work.  Those of you who have followed my columns here since I started writing for 10sBalls.com last July may know why I am “TennisChiro”, but most of you don’t.  I teach tennis in Los Angeles at Griffith Park as my primary occupation, but I spend somewhat less time working as a chiropractor.  I got sidetracked in my career as a chiropractor by the tennis tournament I directed in NY for 20 years, the Huggy Bears.  Fifteen of those years were right after I  graduated from chiropractic college and failed in trying to start my own practice.   Instead I built a pretty good backyard pro-am that donated over $15,000,000 net to children’s charities those last 15 years I ran the event.  I resigned as TD in 2004 mostly because of disagreements with the sponsor of the event, but partly because I needed to stay home to take care of my mother, who died a year ago at age 96.

Well, you say, what has that got to do with BNP Paribas?  Actually, for me, a lot.  As part of my duties as Huggy Bears tournament director I had to get world class pros to come play with our “ams” and “ex-pros”.  From 1990 to 2004, I spent at least 5 full days each at the Indian Wells and Miami events to begin my recruiting process for HB.  Over the years I also went to other events later in the year including one trip to Wimbledon and 4 years to Stella Artois at Queens Club.  I usually went to these events with coach’s credentials that allowed me access to the  player’s lounge and locker room as well as preferential seating.  In addition, in the early years, I stayed in the player’s hotels so I would have additional opportunities to run into them in an elevator or on a shuttle back and forth to the courts.  And for the most part, the players were very good to me.  We gave good appearance fees and great prize money to players that otherwise would be stuck with very few alternatives for the week before the US Open.  I made it a point to send lots of “swag” to the ATP offices every year so that I had good cooperation from the ATP staff; they could be invaluable when you have to get a message to a player or even just to find someone.  I went around the agents directly to the players; that didn’t earn me much favor with IMG, ProServe or Advantage, but it saved a lot of the players the usual 25% fee the agents got for “exhibitions”.  And my strategy worked pretty well; during the last 10 years that I ran HB, I usually had 5 of the top 10, 10 of the top 20 and 15 of the top 30 currently ranked doubles players in the world playing in my field.   There were some years that I had more than 20 players in my draw who had been ranked #1 in the world in doubles.  On top of that, there were legends like Rosewall, Segura, Gonzales, Santana, Roche, Olmedo, Nastase and Stolle.

Over time many of those players became my buddies.  I shared meals with them and sat through their matches, sometimes with them as they supported one another.   I arranged housing for them and got to know their families as well.  Gradually, HB became an “unofficial” segment of the ATP schedule.  And I also became an “accepted” member of the pro tennis subculture.  I wasn’t on the tournament scene all that much, but I was always there at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.  You have to understand my status in that subculture prior to HB.  It was zero.  I had been a good small college player who became a teaching pro in NY and got exposed to some unusual experiences rubbing elbows with some pretty high profile individuals because I could hit a tennis ball.  But I was just a “wannabe” as a player.  I was never good enough to make a living playing and was just another paying customer at most pro tennis events I attended; a knowledgeable one, but still on the outside looking in.  Having this kind of access to the inside of the game and developing a certain level of respect from the players was very satisfying for me.  I felt like I had the best job in tennis.  It was difficult and challenging at times; the pressure to pull everything together and keep people happy could be absolutely overwhelming; but I loved my job and I was good at it!

And Indian Wells was where I officially announced each year that there was another HB event, handed out my little pamphlets with cumulative HB records and began to recruit players for that year’s event.  And it was the first place I would see many good friends after six months of being “out of circulation” since the last HB in August of the previous year.  After I resigned from HB in 2004, it was kind of like going through withdrawal.  I was able to spend a few days at Indian Wells in 2007, but I no longer had a “seat at the table”.  I caught a few matches at the LA ATP event in July each year, but it just wasn’t the same.  I didn’t have any function in pro tennis.  I still loved going to the matches at Indian Wells because it was one of the best places I have ever seen to study what the players are doing as well as to just sit back and enjoy the matches.  But as my mother’s condition worsened, I had to be home every night and I didn’t spend more than one or two nights in total away from home after the 2007 Indian Wells tournament.  And probably not even a single night away the last three years up until the trip to BNP Paribas this March.  So going back for almost a full week was really exciting for me.

So now you have a little understanding of how important this little trip to the tournament was for me.  Now, imagine if you haven’t made an overnight trip in over 3 years; plus you have to take a van full of equipment with you just in case someone asks to avail themselves of your services.  I teach tennis with a dual  ball machine system that is unusual to say the the least (www.tennisteachinginstitute.com) and I had to take that equipment with me just in case I would get a chance to show the system to one of the coaches (didn’t happen) and I also had to take my chiropractic goodies just in case someone needed my services in that realm (that didn’t happen either).  I had planned to be on the road by 11 AM and didn’t make it until almost 2 PM putting me right into the teeth of the Friday afternoon traffic; the 2 hour trip was nearly doubled.  I didn’t get to the site until almost 6PM, but the credentialing process went smoothly and I was watching tennis before 7 PM.

Now I hadn’t been back in over three years.  Things have changed.  Instead of 3 courts with stadium seating, there are now two more small stadiums just to the east of Stadium 3  They used to use those courts for matches the first couple of days of the tournament, but there was little seating.  Now they can get a couple of thousand additional people into seating on courts 7 and 8.  Spectators can no longer gather around the west side of the front practice courts, but there are bleachers with much more seating on those courts to accommodate a lot more people.  The open grassy area east of the main stadium used to be a flat expanse of green with a few spindly trees, but is now a shaded grove that is an excellent place to lay down on a blanket and take a nap in the middle of the afternoon; and there are plenty of people doing exactly that. (Note: you may need that blanket for the night matches.)  There is a huge video wall on the east side of the stadium with literally hundreds of chaise lounges laid out for the general public, kind of like an Indian Wells version of Henman Hill or Murray Mound, but with wonderful shade beginning about 3:30 in the afternoon and 3 screens instead of just 1.  It would be a good idea to bring a small cushion for your neck to support you while you lay back and look up at those screens.   If you get blocked out of a match on Stadium 2 or 3, you can probably get a good look at it by going to the video wall.  In the Village near all the concessionaires and food outlets is a large canopied area where hundreds of people can sit and enjoy a meal while surrounded by large screens displaying current matches in each corner.

If you are marking your calendar for next year and have a choice, the time to go is Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.  The women’s round of 16 matches are played on Tuesday and the men’s on Wednesday.  After that you won’t see as many players out on the practice courts and you will not see many singles matches outside the center court.  There are a lot more players the first weekend, but there are also an awful lot of people.  Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday you can snag a great seat with general admission and get a close look at some of the best players in the world playing tightly and fiercely contested matches.  There are some of those, but it’s less likely the first couple of days of the tournament.

Over the next few days, I got more than my full share of spectating.  One other thing you want to remember if you are planning on watching matches on the outside courts, a portable stadium seat.  I had found one online the week before the tournament, but then forgot to order it.  Unless you have great box seats, take one of those foldable portable seats that gives you a little back support and a cushion for you bum; I would love to have the concession for selling something like that at the site!  Also, be sure to have layers of clothes with you and a tote or shoulder bag of some kind that you can carry them in.  It can get really warm in the afternoon, but go all the way down to the low 50’s in the evening.  Once the sun goes down, the temperature drops at least 20 degrees in a flash.  If there is any wind, it is absolutely brutal.  You need to be prepared.

I’ve lost my timeliness with the tardiness on this review, so I’m not going to take you through my journey day by day.  But I do want to tell you it was wonderful to see so many old friends from those HB days.  I ran into a couple of players I had met more than 20 years ago.  A Frenchman, Jacques Hervet was coaching 3 up and comers sponsored by the ITF, from Asia, Africa and other less developed countries.  I would sit on benches on distant outside courts with Jacques and watch those players trying to qualify for Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.  I knew they would be good doubles players someday and I wanted them for Huggy Bears.  They were struggling but the three players would all go on to be ranked number 1 in the world and win multiple grand slam doubles trophies (and play for me at Huggy Bears): Byron Black of Zimbabwe, Mark Knowles of the Bahamas and Leander Paes of India.  So I was especially thrilled to be warmly greeted by Leander with a query as to when I was going to run another event.  I caught up with Mark as he was hitting on one of the practice courts.  Then I got to watch both of them play matches up close.  It’s amazing that they are still able to compete at the top levels of the game.  And I got to see so many more old friends, some still  playing, some working as coaches or commentators: Max Mirnyi, Daniel Nestor, Paul Hanley, Rick Leach, Robbie Koenig, Justin Gimelstob, Pancho Segura, Vic Braden, Doug Adler, Danie Visser, Ray Moore, Darren Cahill, Tony Roche, Josh Eagle.  Also agents, ATP officials and umpires like Greg Sharko, Jim Dicker, Benji Robbins, Tom Davidson, Jim Flood.  Each day I would run into someone else I hadn’t seen in a long time.  That was fun.  I got to watch matches with fellow teaching pros like John Yandell, Dave Hagler and Tom Ritz and our own Thomas Shubert.  That was fun. I actually love just sitting in the stands and striking up a conversation with strangers about the match we are watching. There is a kind of shared love for the game that binds everyone in the stands together.  Then through 10sBalls, I got to meet some new people like Sven Groenveld and his parents.  More fun.  In retrospect it is a little overwhelming being around so many people and seeing so many old friends.  It’s kind of a shock to the system when you go back to the normal everyday grind.  Of course, I didn’t get to notice that shock as I was dealing with the “Curse of Coachella Valley” for 4 days.  Now that things are settling down, I am kind of missing the “circus” again.

As for the tennis, I’ll give you my thoughts on  the American men after seeing them in person and, in a subsequent piece, I’ll give you my impressions of the top players, in general, that I got to see in person for the first time in a long time.  But this piece got way too long already.

The American men.  At the top we have Fish, Isner and Roddick.  Donald Young is not that far behind in the rankings, but it is a significant drop from there to the remaining 3 Americans in the  top 100: Blake, Harrison and Sweeting and Sam Querry just outside at 102.  Except for the Houston tournament in a couple of weeks, these players will have a hard time picking up any points on the main ATP Tour until the circuit hits the grass courts in June.  I’m afraid if Sweeting doesn’t at least reach the finals at Houston where he picked up 250 points winning the event, he will be in qualifying for Wimbledon.  He’s a great physical talent, but he hasn’t cleaned up the deficiencies in his serve to enable him to take advantage of the last 9 months where he has gotten straight into so many big tournaments.  A lot of Blake’s points are from challengers and short of some tremendous unexpected surge in a  single tournament, Blake will soon be out of the top 100.  He’s just not winning matches.

Roddick’s trials and tribulations are well documented and he is facing a very tough stretch in the near future as his ranking leaves him unseeded in any of the bigger events which means he could run into seeded players in his first match.  Fish has got to step up and begin to win some matches pretty soon.  He is going to have a lot of points to defend this summer and he lost a lot of good opportunities through the indoor season in recent months to create a little cushion for himself. He needs to get healthy and find some confidence to stay in the top 10.  I had hoped Mardy would be able to go a little higher, but now it seems clear it will be a major accomplishment for him to just stay in the top 10 through next year’s US Open. (Note: as I complete this article, Andy has had a great win in Miami upsetting Federer in 3 sets.)

Isner is the new great American hope and it is absolutely fantastic what he has accomplished.  He has worked really hard and made himself a better athlete and developed some great weapons.  He has to continue to do that, but no matter how hard he works, I don’t think he will ever be quick on the court.  But he can learn to follow his approaches a little better and stretch forward and to the side to low volleys a little better.  It takes phenomenal development of his core musculature to control that big body like that, but I think he is capable of doing that; however, it is very difficult.  Trying to turn him into someone who recovers and defends better is pretty much a lost cause; he’s just not quick enough; he has to stay in control of the point to have a chance against these top players.  If he does that, I think he can earn a solid place among the second five players in the world, but not in the top 5.  He also needs to develop a little better backhand; he should continue to run around it and hit his forehand as much as possible, but when he can’t he needs to roll a little more aggressive backhand deep into the court to get another chance to hit his forehand.  He’s shown he can get wins against the top 5, but it is just too much to ask for him to do it on a regular basis.  Perhaps he can turn his body into a oversize version of the physique of Monfils over the next 2 years, but short of that kind of radical transformation, his speed is going to limit his ultimate potential.

So that leaves us with questions about Querry, the former top 20 player, Young and Harrison.  I made it a point to watch each of them in singles play at Indian Wells and came away with some definite impressions.  I only saw a few games of Sam’s 3-set loss to Nicolas Almagro, but I was really disappointed.  Sam used to be a smart player who knew how to hide his weaknesses and emphasize his strengths.  He would work a point until he was in a position to deliver a devastating blow with that big forehand.  He coupled that with an awesome first serve and pretty good reach around the court to earn that top 20 ranking before he began to have his injury problems about 2 years ago.  I saw a few of those great forehands in his match, but if I saw some terrible ones too; the worst thing was that the fact that he hit one well didn’t seem to be any kind of indication of what he was going to do on the next ball.  Someone described it to me pretty well: Sam was just trying to hit individual shots.  To me, tennis is a conversation you have with your opponent.  In this day of power tennis, there is a little too much of “Playing my game” where players try to hit their shot rather than engaging their opponent in a battle to create the perfect opportunity to execute that special shot or concluder.  Sam lost again this week in 3 sets in the second round, this time to Kevin Anderson.  He’s still got the weapons, but he has to start to win some of these 3 set matches against the better players to get back in the top 100, much less in the top 50.  I think a lot of it is the incessant pressure which forces a player to try to do too much instead of patiently waiting for the chance to play their shot appropriately.  If he could just win a couple of these 3-setters against top 50 players, it would do wonders for Sam.  But, after Houston, he faces a long slog on slow European clay and then grass before he gets to his more comfortable US hardcourts again.

Next we come to Donald Young.  I’ve watched him on and off since he was about 15 at the Easter Bowl.  He just never impressed me as being solid enough; just a little too much of the wise guy with the hat cocked off to the side just a bit.  But he really turned it around quite a bit the last two years moving into the top 100 and now the top 50 players in the world.  He reached the semis at Washington D.C. and the finals in Bangkok last year, but aside from a round of 16 showing at the US Open and despite an upset of Andy Murray at Indian Wells last year, he failed to reach the round of 16 in any major or ATP1000.  So I was really eager to sit down and watch his match against Steve Darcis in the first round at IWTG.  He has lots of tools; he can serve and volley, he can bring the big serve, he can break off the wicked lefty serve, he can hit through the forehand or put tons of spin on it and bounce it high; he even has a nice backhand slice.  But he is making the wrong choices.  Players need to have a regular ball that they hit in neutral situations in a rally; a good ball comes into them and they return it, but it is difficult for them to take control on such a ball; nevertheless, a good player will not give up control of the point on such a ball.  We’ll call that the 6-7-8 ball.  Then there is a ball that is hit when you are in real trouble; it is your 4-5-6 ball; you get it back, but with more spin and you are still alive, but definitely at a disadvantage; this ball has more of an arc and more spin.  Then there is the 8-9-10 ball which you hit when you attack or get a chance to move up in front of the baseline; this ball has less spin and penetrates the courts much more quickly.  For the players at the top of the pyramid, let’s say the top 7 or 8 players in the world, the 6-7-8 ball is more like an 8.  For the guys ranked in the second 50 in the world, it is more like a 6.  And so forth.  So Djokovic’s or Nadal’s defensive ball has the degree of difficulty of an neutral ball from someone ranked about 50 in the world.  And their neutral ball is almost like an attacking ball for that lower ranked player.  They hit the ball a little deeper, a little harder and a lot more accurately and consistently.

So what does all that say about Donald Young.  Donald can hit all the various shots.  Unfortunately, he is so busy mixing it up that he never hits enough of the solid aggressive balls.  When he gets the chance to hit the 6-7-8 ball, he might hit a 5 or he might hit a 9; certainly he might hit a 7 as well, but where he should be hitting the 7 or 8 (if he can) in that situation 60 to 70% of the time, he hits the 5 40% of the time, the 9 10% of the time, the 6 30% of the time and the 7 or 8 just 20% of the time.  This is great for variety, but it is too easy on his opponent and doesn’t set him up well to be able to go after his 8-9-10 shot when he needs it.  He has the ability to hit the driving concluder, but he hits through the ball so rarely, when he needs to step up and flatten out the shot to end the point, he does not have enough confidence and either misses the shot too often or plays it too carefully to finish the point.  The top guys pound the ball the majority of the time and keep the pressure on their opponent.  When they get the chance to move up in front of the baseline and release an aggressive shot through the court with a little less spin, it is easy for them to do.  Not so for Donald.  Similarly, he has the ability to hit 130 MPH serves, but he does it very inconsistently and just uses his serve to put the ball in play way too much of the time.  He needs to get a little more boring in the way he hits big serves time after time, stretching righties with his big lefty slice.  He kicks it up way too much.  I think he has the equipment to make it to the top 20.  But he needs a complete mind overhaul.  That’s tough.  And it’s going to take a very special coach.

Finally, we get to Ryan Harrison.  Ryan is the youngest of the current crop of top 100 Americans and, except for Isner, arguably has the best recent results.  He’s got a nice serve and seems to be a great competitor, at least on the surface.  But I’m not convinced the many petty displays of anger are such a good indicator of a competitor; more like someone improperly focusing his energy.  I saw a major shortcoming on his forehand.  He doesn’t have the ability to flatten out his 6-7-8 ball and hit a winner through the court when he gets a ball up in front of the baseline without swinging really hard and using an awful lot of spin.  The best players will simply release that shot with a little less spin and speed that ball through the court with an apparently effortless stroke.  Harrison makes plays there, but only by swinging much harder than he should for the occasion.  The result is the ball sits a little too much against the best players and he makes more mistakes than he should when he tries to get that ball past top 20 opponents.  This is different from the problem I think Donald Young has of bad choices; Ryan simply does not have the ability to hit through his forehand.  He hits through the backhand pretty well, but according to me, he’s got too much wiper and not enough penetration on his forehand to succeed against the best players in the world.  I hope I am dead wrong in this, but I think he is going to experience more and more frustration with his results against top players who are going to exploit that inability to hit through the ball. It’s not a problem which will be solved by the prevalent “game based approach” to coaching.  He’s done very well lately for a 19 year old rookie (his birthday is in May), but his aspirations are much higher than 73 in the world.  He’s gotten a lot of publicity for being a net charging, aggressive young American.  It’s great that he likes to go forward, but his volleys really aren’t that good.  Kind of surprising growing up at the John Newcombe Tennis Academy, but it does seem to be a dying art.  I understand he likes to work hard and I think he’s got a new coach who understands the game pretty well.  I just hope they work hard and Ryan is receptive to change.  I think he needs to install some new weapons.  That’s very tough to do at this stage of his development.

So, all in all, I’m pretty negative on the state of the American men.  Isner could be in the top 15 for the next two to three years, but it’s going to be very hard for him to get above 6 or break through all those guys in the top 4 to win a major.  He could with a little help.  I do think it will be fun to watch him if he continues to improve his fitness and mobility.  He’s already averaging 70% on his first serve percentage and with his height he might be able to get that even higher.  He just has to get a little better returning serve to make a significant improvement in his results.  If Fish doesn’t make a good move this week, I think he is going to fade out ot the top 10 in the next few months.  With Roddick beating Federer today, Fish or Roddick has a good opportunity to reach the semis in Miami.  Roddick faces Monaco and Fish faces Almagro.  It would be great for American tennis if they could meet in the quarters.  Obviously, it’s an excellent result for Andy to beat Roger and it may be the start of a resurgence for him; but it takes more than one match.  In one sense, Monaco is the perfect foil for Andy to show that he is back to being a force to reckon with, at least on hardcourts.

After Fish, Isner and Roddick, I think we are in big trouble.  There is no great player on the horizon.  Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray had all notched top 10 wins by the time they were 19; in fact, probably before they were all 19.  Certainly, they had shown a lot more promise than anyone we have in the pipeline right now.  Perhaps some of the younger kids are tearing up the 14s and 16s and we haven’t seen them yet, but the current crop doesn’t give me much hope.  I like the guys at the top of the game right now, but we need an American star to keep interest high in the United States.

In the meantime, we will root for a Fish/Roddick quarterfinal in Miami.  The men’s round of 16 is being played in entirety on Tuesday.

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