Tuesday, November 18, 2014

2014 Davis Cup Final preview

The ATP World Tour Finals last week were a big disappointment with predictable results, slow surface not providing attractive tennis, and the final being a walkover. But there is still one big event of 2014 left, the Davis Cup Final which will hopefully be more interesting. France will be hosting Switzerland on indoor clay. Until last Saturday, I would've said everything looks fine for Switzerland. Federer was playing excellent tennis and Wawrinka had found his lost form. But Federer has injured his back and there are reports about Federer and Wawrinka having had some conflict after the Tour Finals semifinal. For sure those controversies don't do good for the team spirit but I am even more worried about Federer's back. Without Federer, it would be hard for Switzerand to get the needed three points.

As for France, Tsonga seems like an obvious choice for singles. The other singles player could be the French No. 2 Gael Monfils but they could also pick Richard Gasquet who played well in the Davis Cup semifinal on clay. France will probably need a singles player also in doubles. Tsonga/Gasquet won the doubles rubber in the semifinal so they might be the best option. But if they want to rest either of these, they might pick Benneteau to doubles.

Switzerland has also a dilemma around doubles. Whether to play with Federer/Wawrinka or rest Federer and play with Chiudinelli/Wawrinka, like in the semifinal? Or even rest both Federer and Wawrinka and play with Chiudinelli/Lammer like on the first round? Switzerland have better chances in singles, so resting makes sense but is risky if they aren't 2-0 after Friday.

The first day looks like it will be Monfils or Gasquet vs. Federer and Tsonga vs. Wawrinka. Assuming Federer's back is OK, he should win. The other match can be trickier to predict. Wawrinka should be the favourite but Tsonga seems like the better player under pressure. Given Wawrinka's promising form at the Tour Finals, I give this to Stan, but Jo can be just as good as Stan.

Doubles is hard to predict. Federer/Wawrinka can be a good team but France should have a good team, too. If Federer or Wawrinka rests, then I give this to France.

The final day seems like it is Tsonga vs. Federer and Monfils or Gasquet vs. Wawrinka. On paper, that should be two points for Switzerland but with Wawrinka's fluctuations in form, you never know. Tsonga is a player who has beaten Federer on clay but Federer is the favourite. If France want to win the title, they had better lead before Sunday.

My prediction is that Federer will finish it for Switzerland in the fourth rubber. But if he isn't healthy, then France will win.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The flaws of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup

Now I'm writing about a series I am not so familiar with. NASCAR, I mean. But I'll write anyway, sometimes it's easier for an outsider to see flaws (or an outsider just can't see why they really aren't flaws).

The Chase for the Sprint Cup will get its conclusion next Sunday at Homestead-Miami. Or should I rather call it the Sprint for the Chase Cup as after 26 races, the title is decided in the last ten races. Anyway, I spotted this interesting statistic:

Qualified for the Championship round:
Logano - 5 wins - 15 times in top 5
Harvick - 4 wins - 13 times in top 5
Hamlin - 1 wins - 7 times in top 5
Newman - 0 wins - 4 times in top 5

Eliminated after the Eliminator round:
Keselowski - 6 wins - 16 times in top 5
Gordon - 4 wins - 14 times in top 5
Edwards - 2 wins - 7 times in top 5
Kenseth - 0 wins - 13 times in top 5

So, it seems like the eliminated drivers form a stronger lineup than the Championship round lineup. I think that highlights the biggest flaw of the current Chase system. It's just crazy that after 26 races, the advancing drivers are decided in three-race elimination rounds, and in the end, the title is decided in one race. I'm not saying the Chase is a bad system; I rather think it could be a great system. Extending the title battle to the last race and eliminating four drivers after every third race makes the end of the season exciting and keeps the title battle more open. It may not be the fairest system but it's balancing between having a fair and an entertaining system. That's why team sports have the playoffs and so has the PGA Tour, too, and those systems work.

I think the Chase system should reward the entire season's success more. Somebody with Gordon's season shouldn't be out of the title contention while Newman is in the final four with no wins. So, instead of resetting all drivers' points to the same amount between the elimination rounds, don't reset them or reset them so that the best drivers of the season have a significant advantage but even the last qualifier has a chance to win the title.

Also, I don't like how the title is decided in the final race. While winning the title by finishing 7th with even 11th place being enough while the main rival wins would be anticlimatic, winning the title just by finishing ahead of the other contenders doesn't feel right if they've had a better season until then. Have it like in the previous elimination rounds, you're through if you win, otherwise points decide.

So basically, give more importance for the entire season's performances. For example, don't reset the points but allow advancing to the next elimination round and winning the title by winning a race if a driver doesn't otherwise have enough points for that. That kind of a system would reward having a great season but would also reward winning.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

2014 ATP World Tour Finals preview

The 2014 ATP World Tour season will get its conclusion next week at the World Tour Finals in London's O2 Arena. The groups have been released:

Group A: Djokovic, Wawrinka, Berdych, Cilic

This seems like the weaker of the groups, despite having three of this year's Grand Slam champions. But of those champions, only the World No. 1, Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic has been impressive lately and he comes to London as the champion of last week's Paris Masters. He has is also the champion of the last two World Tour Finals.

The Australian Open champion, Stan Wawrinka has been very inconsistent this year, and after the Monte Carlo Masters title, he is yet to reach a semifinal. After making the quarterfinals at the US Open, he has won only two matches, so his form doesn't look too good for the Tour Finals. He has played some great matches against Djokovic and finally at this year's Australian Open, he beat him, but in his current form it is hard to see him beating Djokovic.

But this group might still offer Stan a chance to make his second Tour Finals semifinal in a row. The third Grand Slam champion in this group, the US Open champion Marin Cilic won a 250-point title in Moscow but otherwise his results after the US Open have been mediocre, and he missed the Paris Masters due to a right-arm injury.

The fourth player of the group is Tomas Berdych. After Djokovic, he has recently been the most consistent of this group's players: quarterfinals at the US Open, final at Beijing 500, quarterfinal at the Shanghai Masters, title at Stockholm 500, semifinal at the Paris Masters. Still, he seems like the least capable for upsetting Djokovic; Djokovic beat him in the Beijing final 6-0, 6-2. His consistent form can get him through from this group but Wawrinka and Cilic have the abilities to beat him, like they both did on their way to Grand Slam titles.

Group B: Federer, Nishikori, Murray, Raonic

This seems like the tougher group. Federer has been playing a great season but he has suffered losses to Nishikori in Miami in March and Raonic last week in Paris. Given the level of tennis these three have played recently, advancing from this group will be a big task for Murray.

Roger Federer must be the favourite to win this group. After the French Open, he has been very consistent and reaching the Wimbledon final plus winning two Masters titles have been the highlights of his season. Nishikori and Raonic have beaten him this year but more often than not, Roger should beat those players.

Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic are playing their first ATP World Tour Finals. Especially Nishikori of these two has had some great results this year; he made the Madrid final which he would have won without getting injured and later this year he made the US Open final by beating World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinal. Raonic has also had some good results, like reaching the final at last week's Paris Masters. With Federer in the group, it is hard to see both of them through even though it's not impossible. Yet, these two and Federer will make it hard for Murray to advance from the group.

Andy Murray had played a mediocre season and after the US Open, he wasn't even qualifying for the Tour Finals. Then, titles at Shenzen 250, Vienna 250, and Valencia 500 put him in a position to secure his Tour Finals place at Paris Masters. Still, his performances in big events have been mediocre with his only semifinal in a mandatory event having been at the French Open. Given his poor record against top players this year, it is hard to see him succeeding here, and I'd be surprised if he even made it past the round robin.

Semifinals and the final

It seems like the biggest favorites for the title are the World No. 1, three-time champion Djokovic and the World No. 2, six-time champion Federer. Federer outplayed Djokovic in their last meeting in the Shanghai Masters semifinals and won in two sets. But this time I give the edge to Djokovic. The surface at the O2 Arena is usually pretty slow favoring Djokovic and he also had a better warm-up at the Paris Masters, a title compared to Federer losing in the quarterfinals. Murray and Berdych seem like the most certain players not to win the title; they haven't been able to win big matches this year. Nishikori and Raonic have been in a good form recently but they would need to play their best tennis to have a chance to win the title in the presence of Djokovic and Federer. Wawrinka and Cilic haven't been in a great form recently but if they somehow found their form, they could beat any of their opponents.

If any of the underdogs were to win the title, I think beating Djokovic or Federer in the round robin might help. That way having to play Djokovic and Federer consecutively in the semifinal and the final would be less likely, and Djokovic and Federer might have to play against each other in the semifinals.

Anyway, my  pick for the title is Djokovic but Federer can beat him. But if these two didn't play up to their potential, there are some players who could have the game to beat them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Alpine skiing season starts

The Alpine skiing season starts next weekend and I will write some texts about Alpine skiing during winter. I have already added a Google Calendar including all the World Cup and World Championship race dates. Later in November I will also add the ski jumping World Cup to the calendar.

Once the season has started, I will make the projected final World Cup standings to reduce the distortion caused by the different number of races in each discipline, to give a better picture of who are the strongest contenders for the overall title.

Friday, October 10, 2014

New feature: Sports calendars for Google Calendar

I have made a Google Calendar of the FIA World Endurance Championship season including the 2015 race dates plus the qualifying and race times of the rest of the 2014 season. You can import the calendar to your Google Calendar.

I will later add also some other series. These are based on my interests, series whose calendars I want to have in my own Google Calendar. I will add the 2015 IndyCar calendar once it's released and later this month I will add Alpine skiing World Cup calendars.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thoughts about IndyCar schedule

The IndyCar season ended over two weeks ago, which is very early given that e.g. NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup started only last weekend and will finish in mid-November. IndyCar wanted to have the season finale in late August to get the season finished before the American football season begins.

The early season finish has been criticized a lot but I can understand the reasons behind it. One can say the IndyCar fans would watch IndyCar also after the football season has started but that argument doesn't take casual fans into account. Once the football season has started, it is harder to make casual fans watch IndyCar as well as it is harder to get attention for IndyCar. The season ending in late August can help to get more attention for the season finish.

But the early season finish has also its disadvantages. Even if it enabled to get more attention for the season finish, it means the offseason will be longer than the race season if the next season begins in March.

I think the season should be seven to eight months long. Usually that means a season from March to October or November. But I think the season could also begin earlier to shorten the offseason after an August finish. In that case, even a February start would be too early but the season could begin in January or December. A longer season would allow more time between races. I think two weeks is ideal for the gap between races. A race every week feels too often; a race doesn't feel so special when there was one in the previous week and another in the following one. A race every two weeks feels right; it would feel more special yet the races would be often enough to keep the interest up. Yet, a winter start wouldn't completely be without problems. There are IndyCar drivers participating the 24 Hours of Daytona so a January start would be problematic. Besides weather would rule out many tracks for races in winter.

Weather leads to another topic. Should IndyCar expand overseas? There could be races e.g. in South America during winter.

I think IndyCar should concentrate on the USA, their key market is there. But there could be some overseas races to increase the series' international recognition. I think Latin America would be a good option for international races. The races would be in the same time zones as the USA so it wouldn't make much difference for an American TV viewer. Brazil had a race in Sao Paulo until last year and next year there will probably be a race in the city of Brasilia. Another Latin American country where I would like to see a race is Colombia as they have three drivers in the series. Mexico as the USA's neighboring country would also be quite a natural option for an abroad race. Yet, the former Champ Car venue Autodromo Hermanos Rodrigues in Mexico City will be hosting F1 starting from the next year, so that track obviously isn't an option for IndyCar.

As for overseas races, I think Australia and Japan could also be good additions to the calendar. Surfers Paradise and Motegi have already previously hosted IndyCar and CART races. Those races' time zones might be somewhat problematic for the American TV audience but I am pretty sure late Saturday night is better than early Sunday morning. Because of the difficult time zone, I don't think IndyCar should consider expansion to Europe. Another reason is that IndyCar isn't very popular in Europe and I doubt the races would draw enough audience to be worth flying the cars to Europe.

All in all, I think the season ending in late August may have some advantages but the long offseason has its disadvantages. Starting the season earlier could be a solution to avoid the long offseason of the August finish. Yet finding tracks for a winter start might be more difficult than extending the season until October or November with a March start. My opinion is that the offseason must not exceed five months. If you cannot do it with an August finish, then extend the season into October or November.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My review of the 2014 men's US Open and some thoughts on the future

The most memorable thing of this year's US Open was two first-time Grand Slam finalists with Marin Cilic winning his first Grand Slam title. This was the first time since the 2005 Australian Open when none of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic made the final at a Grand Slam tournament. Unfortunately this wasn't otherwise a particularly interesting tournament, and despite an interesting match-up, the final was pretty one-sided.

In my preview, I pointed out a player who has been troubling the best players during this summer, yet hasn't achieved big success. He was Marin Cilic. After a five-setter against Gilles Simon on the round of 16, he was superb in the last three matches and is a deserving champion. It is always nice to see an offensive player succeeding instead of a player who rather waits for the opponent's errors. But there is a stain in Cilic's career. Last year he failed a drug test during the tournament in Munich. The substance was nikethamide which Cilic said was from incautious use of glucose tablets. As I am not an expert in doping, I cannot question the decision to reduce his ban to only four months because the use was said to be unintended and not to enhance performance. But how the ATP/ITF were hiding his doping case didn't give a good image of the transparency of their anti-doping work.

The runner-up Nishikori had a great tournament despite not winning the title. He beat three top 6 players on his way to the final. On the round of 16, he beat the World No. 6 Milos Raonic in five sets. In the quarterfinal, he beat the No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in five sets, and in the semifinal he beat the World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in four sets. Those long matches may account for his lame performance in the final, even though Cilic was so good that Nishikori would have had trouble even if he had been completely fresh.

It was a pity that the final was so one-sided, it was nice to have two fresh faces in the final. After the final, some people might have said to have actually preferred a final involving two of the big four. While I must say that I preferred the Djokovic-Federer final at Wimbledon, having two big names doesn't always guarantee a great final. From recent years, the 2013 Australian Open final Djokovic-Murray wasn't particularly exciting whereas Nishikori's first 500-level final in Tokyo in 2012 against another first-time 500 finalist Milos Raonic was one of the matches I enjoyed the most that year. I want to see fresh faces on the top of the tour. Nishikori was already in the Madrid Masters final but an injury cost him that match after being a set and a break up against Nadal. That injury forced him aside from the French Open, after having a great start to the clay season with a 500 title in Barcelona. If he could avoid injuries, he would have potential to be on the top of the tour. Cilic is yet to prove he can stay on the top of the tour. Low ranking and tough draws had made it difficult for him to make it to the late rounds in big events. Now with his improved ranking, he should be able to have deep runs more often and he definitely has the potential to win more big titles.

Novak Djokovic is the World No. 1 but he hasn't been playing his best tennis this summer after winning Wimbledon. It is hard to say what was wrong with him on North America's hard courts. He had just won Wimbledon so he should be in a good form but maybe getting married has taken some focus away from tennis. As his fan, I wouldn't be worried yet. He still has a great chance to finish this year as the World No. 1. And at this point of his career, his big goal should be to complete the Career Grand Slam at the French Open. He can still play great tennis and only Nadal has a better peak level on clay. It is hard for Novak to reach Nadal's peak level on clay but if he can avoid heavy decline longer than Nadal, he should have a great chance to win the French Open.

Roger Federer was the player with the best results in the pre-US Open Masters tournaments. But as I said in the preview, he isn't way above the field. I think his current peak level isn't anymore among the very best on the tour. Otherwise he is just another top 10 player but with his consistency he is No. 3 and being the most successful player of all time puts pressure on his opponents. This tournament with Djokovic not playing his best tennis, Nadal aside, and Andy Murray being hardly on top-10 level, was a great opportunity for Roger to win his 18th Grand Slam title but he wasn't just good enough. And maybe this was his last chance, at least outside Wimbledon. I can't see him anymore improving for the next season. On Wimbledon's grass he might still win a title if Djokovic has a bad tournament and Murray cannot anymore find his best level. And if Roger himself plays his best tennis. That may be too many ifs.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka were the players I expected to be the most dangerous title rivals for Federer and Djokovic. Tsonga was playing decently on the first three rounds but on the round of 16, he didn't have enough consistency against well-defending Andy Murray. Wawrinka was like he has been most of the season. Great at his best but sloppy at times. That was enough to make the quarterfinals but in the quarters he lost a tight five-setter to Nishikori. Wawrinka's season has been a bit disappointing after winning the Australian Open and the Monte Carlo Masters which made him the No. 1 in the Race to London. After Monte Carlo he is yet to win a title and has had some big disappointments like losing on the first round at the French Open. But with a Grand Slam and a Masters title, I don't consider his season as a disappointment. He has taken a step forward this season, now he can win big titles. He will most likely never dominate the tour but he can win any event he enters if he manages to play his best tennis. I wouldn't be surprised if he won some of the remaining Masters events this year or the World Tour Finals. Tsonga's season has also turned into a good one as he won his second Masters title in Toronto after a bad first half of the season. My expectations for him for the rest of the season are pretty similar to Wawrinka. If he had a great week, he could win some big event.

This season has been a breakthrough for Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov. They have made the top 10 and they both made their first Grand Slam semifinals at Wimbledon. The US Open was a decent performance by both. Neither of them can be happy with a round of 16 exit but they weren't really underperforming. Raonic took the eventual finalist Nishikori to five sets whereas Dimitrov lost to well-playing Gael Monfils.

Monfils was a positive surprise at the US Open. He was yet to drop a set after the second set of his quarterfinal match against Federer. Unfortunately he couldn't keep his level up to win the match but he lost it in five sets, after having match points in Federer's serve in the fourth set. He is such an interesting player that I would love him to succeed but he is already 28, so the time is running out for him to achieve something big. Still, this was his first season with two Grand Slam quarterfinals, so hopefully he can have some good results in the near future.

All in all, it was very nice to see fresh faces succeeding. Unfortunately there weren't particularly memorable matches. Nishikori beating unusually bad Djokovic or Cilic beating 33-year-old Federer isn't as impressive as Robin Söderling beating Nadal at Roland Garros or Wawrinka beating Djokovic at the Australian Open, beating players at a tournament that they have dominated in the previous years. But it is nice that each slam had a different champion this year, not only on men's but also on women's side. And it is also nice that this is the first season since 2003 with two new Grand Slam champions.