Sunday, June 22, 2008

Wimbledon's Men's Preview, and the impact of Mononucleosis on elite tennis players

I am more excited about the women's tournament than the men's. I just think the women's game has more interesting figures. Jelena Jankovic may the best charismatic star since at least Andre Agassi, maybe even John McEnroe. The top star, Ana Ivanovic, has compelling rivalries with pretty much all of the other top players, including Sharapova, Jankovic, Safina, and the Williams Sisters.

The men's game has been relatively dull, and that is mostly because of the dominance of Roger Federer. Unlike the previous dominant player, Pete Sampras, Federer actually has a very exciting style of play, based largely on his tremendous range and ability to hit winners at every angle. Like Sampras, he is a classy individual, who represents everything you want in a nephew- he is courteous, respectful. Unfortunately, his personality is also pretty boring. I think the game is more interesting when you're top player is bit more mentally unstable, which is why I always rooted for Lleyton Hewitt or Marat Safin to beat Federer.

When it comes the Wimbledon preview, the underlying question is similar to that on the women's side- do you base performance on recent performance, or do you base it on a longer track record? On the women's side, Ivanovic is the best player if you look at recent performance, but to argue in her favor requires one to assume that her recent increase in performance is a real phenomenon. Similarly, Roger Federer has been the dominant grass player for 5 years, and his level of dominance is historic in stature. To argue that he has fallen back to the pack (in this case, the pack being Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Roddick), one would need to feel that Federer's drop in performance is real. I think it is.

My guess (and it is just a guess) is that Roger's recent bout with mononucleosis has had far more impact on his game than many have realized, and I don't think he will ever be the same player again. He started at such a high perch- probably the highest any male tennis player has ever attained, that he can drop off and still be one of the top 2-3 players in the world, but I think his reign as the Tiger Woods of tennis is over.

For me, the 2 lasting images of the 2008 tennis season are Federer getting overwhelmed against Djokovic at the Australian Open, and even more Federer not even trying to get at some winner's Nadal blew by him in the 3rd set of the French Open final. Many commentators have attributed his performance at the Australian Open to mono, but instead attributed Federer's performance at the French to a lack of heart. I think it's far more likely that Federer is just dealing with the consequences of decreased endurance and increasing fatigue, rather than suddenly he's lost his competitive spirit.

I will digress a moment for a personal anecdote. I had mono when I was 24 years old. I am obviously nowhere near the athlete that Federer is, but the one athletic attribute I did have was endurance. As a younger man, it was pretty much impossible to tire me out, and my recovery rate was very fast. As a marginal triathlete, for example, I could pretty easily work out at 75% of my max heart rate for over 5-6 hours (my training rides would sometimes be in the 8-10 hour range, and my heart rate was regularly in the 150-168 range).

Mono was probably the most unpleasant experience I ever had. I remember that I could barely walk for several weeks, and that I needed my then girlfriend to help me so that I could walk a mile to get lunch outside my house in Long Island. And I've never fully recovered. I've done a few century rides on my bike since then, but I have to keep my heart rate at a much lower level in my target range (typically 60%, rarely going over 70%). Part of that might be that I am no longer training as hard, but I've had periods where I've tried to up my training, and my body simply won't let me anymore. And it takes me much longer to recover from the workouts.

It's conceivable (heck, it's even likely) that I've just grown soft, but I think at least part of my decreasing endurance is a lingering effect from the mono, given that it has such a clear demarcation point.

As another aside, I think the same thing has happened to Justine Henin. Henin is one of my all time least favorite players, so I hate saying anything nice about her (I am an Amelie Mauresmo fan, and I thought the way she quit in the 2006 Australian Open was one of the most distasteful things I've ever witnessed as a fan). But if one reviews her career from the perspective of how she has coped with mono, it does give one cause for admiration.

Henin's first run as a dominant player began in 2003, and for a period of about a year, she had supplanted Serena Williams as the dominant player in the game. However, by mid-2004, she had contracted cytomegalovirus (CMV), which causes symptomology that is essentially the same as the mononucleosis that is more traditionally caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (which is what both Roger Federer and I have had). By the end of 2004, she had to take a leave of absence to try and recover.

Because Henin was still winning majors (namely the French), the depth of her drop in performance has not always been appreciated.

Looking at her win-loss records from 2003-2008:
2003: 75-11 (87%), year-end ranking #1, 2 Slam Wins
2004: 35-4 (90%), year-end ranking #8, 1 Slam Win
2005: 34-5 (87%), year-end ranking #6, 1 Slam Win
2006: 60-8 (88%), year-end ranking #1, 1 Slam Win
2007: 63-4 (94%), year-end ranking #1, 2 Slam Wins
2008: 16-4 (80%), withdrew as #1 player (with a huge lead)

As a frame of reference, the players who supplanted Henin in the period she was out of the #1 spot (when I am assuming she was most affected by mono) were Amelie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, and Maria Sharapova. There records for 2004 and 2005

Amelie Mauresmo:
2004: 59-11 (84%), no slams
2005: 53-16 (77%), no slams
2006: 50-13 (79%), 2 slams- I include this year, since it was Mauresmo's best year, and Henin still outplayed her

Lindsay Davenport:
2004: 63-9 (88%), no Slams
2005: 60-10 (86%), no Slams

Kim Clijsters:
2004: 20-2 (91%)
2005: 67-9 (88%), 1 slam win

Maria Sharapova:
2004: 55-15 (79%), 1 slam win
2005: 53-12 (82%)

So, what do I make of this? During the period after which she contracted mono, she was playing at least as well as any the women who supplanted her as #1, only she played less frequently. She had a higher winning % than any of her chief rivals except Clijsters, and won more Slams than any of them. By 2006, she restored her dominance, and was clearly the best player on the tour when retired.

What if games are dangerous territory, and unfortunate as it may be, things like contracting mono happens. This doesn't seem the same to me, for example, as what happened to Monica Seles. Monica Seles missed several years from the prime of her career because someone stabbed her for the express purpose of making sure she wouldn't be the #1 player. I think you have to factor that in when assessing her as an all-time great. Henin's a health issue, and should be evaluated similarly to an ankle injury. But because she kept winning slams and winning at a high rate, I think the impact of the mono on her greatness has been underestimated.

And since I am still in the realm of speculation, I think it is why she retired at such a young age. She is coming off her best year ever (and one of the great years in the history of women's tennis), but I don't think it is unreasonable to take her at her word when she says she is just exhausted. And I think mono has a lot to do with it.

As one more aside before I get back to Federer- where should Henin rank amongst the all-time greats? I think the game has changed enough since hte beginning of the WTA rankings in 1975 that I am only considering players from that period on (since, at this point, I am not sure what to do with players like Maureen Connolly, Eve Goolagong, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, and Althea Gibson). After that period, I think there are clusters:

Tier I: Chris Evert, Martina Navrilotolova, and Steffi Graf. These are the 3 players who can make a legitimate claim to be the best ever.

Tier II: Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Justine Henin. These are the players who had periods of dominance that were as high the top 3, but didn't have the sustained dominance. Monica Seles is the hardest to evaluate, because we will never know what would have happened if she wasn't stabbed.

Tier III: Venus Williams is at the top of this group, but would also include people like Arantxa Sanchex Vicario, Lindsay Davenport, and Maria Sharapova.

I am pretty comfortable that Ana Ivanovic will make Tier III. My question is whether she will make it into Tier II (which I think she will), or even Tier I (possible, but not likely).

Ok, enough asides- back to Roger Federer

I think Roger Federer now is in a similar place to where Justine Henin was in 2004-5. He started at such a high level that when he falls, he's still as good as anybody at his best, but he is no longer heads-and-shoulders above everyone like he has been.

Furthermore, the players below him have ascended. Rafael Nadal is clearly better than he was a year ago, and he was already pretty close to Federer. Novak Djokovic is similarly just coming into his own as a player. And Andy Roddick is recovering from injuries and should be a solid threat in the tournament.

I think at this point, then, the perception that Nadal is a better player than Federer is probably real, even on grass. Both Nadal and Federer both won grass tournaments as Wimbledon tune-ups, but Nadal had to beat both Roddick and Djokovic to do it, whereas Federer played a much weaker field.

All in all, I think Nadal is the best player now. Given that Federer also has the tougher draw, with Djokovic on his half of the draw, I think Nadal has to be considered a solid favorite to win Wimbledon.

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