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September 21 01:45
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On Court Chess Moves

It's Football Season: can tennis learn anything from football stats?

September 21, 2011 | 05:46 AM

I don't watch much football, but the confession I want to make isn't about not watching it or thinking it's dumb (it's not dumb: it's elaborate play-making like chess, only with eleven (is that right?) living, thinking players on each side). I confess I'm no good at chess, and so I'll never be able to follow what's going on in football well enough to feel the appreciation of anything more than the sheer beauty of a long run or kick (wow) or a touchdown pass (how did he ever catch that?). I don't understand soccer much better, but at least soccer has a spatial flow which makes it easier to appreciate. Football action is chopped up into plays which makes it a little more like tennis. Better schooled football fans or experienced players get excited about all kinds of things which affect the outcome of the drives and the games, some of which may be described and quantified by commentators who are well-prepped before games and receive all kinds of help from stats and diagrams before, during and after the action. As I read one columnist's detailed grading of the Pat's most recent play against the Chargers (by Boston Globe writer Greg Bedard), I couldn't help but get excited about trying to translate some of football's descriptive stats and jargon into tennis terminology. Knowledgeable tennis fans are already excited about such things while playing or watching, but the common vocabulary to describe the action and quantify some of it into meaningful statistics has only recently begun to improve, in my opinion.

Joking aside, perhaps some of this kind of translation could better inform tactical play-by-play analysis and add color to the strategic execution of different game plans of the kind Craig O'Shannessy described in his columns on Joker's final matches in the open for the NYT blog, Straight Sets.

OFFENSIVE stats (S) and colorful descriptors (D)*

FOOTBALL Term TENNIS equivalent (these don't necessarily mean the attacker won the point

Pressures Forced Plays (S): the total # of shots forcing returns to be hit too quickly

Average Release Time Strokes before Forcing Shots (S): how quick a player is to make and take chances

Yards after the Catch Rally length (S): # of strokes after the serve or return before the point is won/lost

Drops & Wrong Hole Picks Botched Open Court Put-aways (S): either missed or hit to the opponent

Blitzes Run-arounds, Sneaky Rushes, Poaches (D): the whole list grows with doubles

Pump-fakes Holds (S): a player sets up to be able to hit one shot and hits another

Hail Mary's Joker's (S): back-against-the-wall shot-making under pressure (think Joker's

forehand return off Roger's 1st serve on match point at 40-15 in the 5th set;

these used to be called Federer's; think his down-the-line backhand passing shot

on Rafa's 3rd consecutive match point in the 5th set of the '08 Wimbledon final)

DEFENSIVE Stats (S) and colorful descriptors (D)

FOOTBALL Term TENNIS equivalent (these don't necessarily mean the defender won the point)

Hurries Parried Attacks (D): offensive lobs, balls taken on the rise, counter-attacks

Feigned Coverage Head/Body Fakes (D): a defender's spontaneous effort to draw the ball to him

Draw Plays Positioning Fakes, Faked Poaches (D): these may reflect tactical/strategic decisions

Key Run Stops Key Passing Shots or Counterattacks (S): these winners change momentum

Losing Track of the Ball Fake Outs (D): Not all aces/winners are too good or intended to be unreturnable

Impact Plays Rafa's (S): Break Point Conversions have been around as a useful stat, but don't

tell the whole story in a match with a lot of breaks (think what Rafa does to de-

moralize opponents - the scrambles and miracle gets that frustrates opponents'

best offensive efforts)

* The distinction between stats (S) and descriptors (D) is that the former can be objectively quantified, not necessarily by the outcome of the point


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