Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For the sake of the fans, Davis Cup should retain its format

The ITF is planning a major overhaul of the Davis Cup with the backing of the investment group Kosmos, founded by the soccer star Gerard Piqué. In a 25-year, $3 billion partnership with Kosmos, the Davis Cup World Group would abandon its current format in favor of a seven-day season-ending World Cup of Tennis event, played at a neutral venue with 18 teams. The zone group competition would continue with the current format of home and away ties.

Home and away ties have been the identity of the Davis Cup. The home crowds have created a unique atmosphere for the Davis Cup ties, and those ties have been an opportunity for fans in countries without big tournaments to see their favorites playing important matches against some of the best players in the world.

However, the Davis Cup has been lacking the participation of the big names of the game. Despite the great heritage of the tournament, it has not been among the top priorities of the players. Surface changes, distant locations, scheduling issues, and lack of capable teammates have led to infrequent participation by top players and some former champions. Though rising stars of the game, like Nick Kyrgios and David Goffin, have shown commitment to the Davis Cup as they are still to win the title.

Better scheduling, reinstating ranking points, and even introducing individual prize money could have been solutions to make the Davis Cup more attractive to players without changing the format. Though scheduling and awarding points is up to another organization, the ATP, while a modest prize money might not be enough to attract the biggest stars of the game.

A switch to a single-week, neutral-venue format might help to attract the big names joining their national teams for the event, although the week after the Nitto ATP Finals creates scheduling difficulties. Another thing is if the World Cup of Tennis made the Davis Cup a better event.

If the World Cup format led to a frequent participation of the big names, it could boost the TV ratings. As big as the Davis Cup ties can be in the participating countries, the casual fans around the world want to see the biggest stars of the game.

However, even the greatest participation of star players wouldn't necessarily guarantee seeing them in the final. A France-Belgium final at a neutral venue would hardly interest the casual fans outside those countries any more than last year's final did, except that the neutral venue won't have the passionate fans of the local team.

If the atmosphere reminiscent of soccer matches has made the Davis Cup a unique event in the tennis schedule, you can't expect the same at a neutral venue. Singapore is believed to be the likely host for the first editions of the World Cup format tournaments. It is hard to see legions of fans arriving there from overseas when you can't even know if and when your favorite team is playing after the round robin. It will likely be your typical Asian tennis crowd for the event without the passion of the home crowd that you can expect with the current format.

You can't compare the proposed World Cup of Tennis with the FIFA World Cup. Yes, fans travel even to the other side of the world to cheer for their favorite soccer team. But the FIFA World Cup takes place only every four years, making each edition more special. And the World Cup is the biggest event in soccer, the Davis Cup isn't that in tennis, no matter what format it uses. And soccer is a team sport, tennis is primarily an individual sport.

It would be a pity to lose the current Davis Cup format which is something unique in tennis. I'm not convinced the single-week format would take the public interest in the Davis Cup to a greater level. If anything, the event would lose its best selling point, your national team playing on the home soil.

It's up to the ITF annual general meeting to accept or reject this proposal with a two-thirds majority needed for the overhaul of the Davis Cup. It would surely be hard to reject a 25-year, $3 billion investment into the sport, though André Stein, the president of the Belgian Tennis Federation, has already said he will vote against the proposal and he thinks a lot of the European federations will do the same.

For the sake of tradition and fans, I hope the World Cup proposal gets rejected and the Davis Cup retains its current format. Once the past decade's top players have retired, a new generation will take the attention. And their pursue of the Davis Cup can take the event to a greater level, regardless of the format.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Olympics don't mean everything in ski sports

The Olympics put athletes from less mainstream sports into limelight for two weeks. Sports like luge, skeleton, and bobsled, or the likes of shooting or fencing in the Summer Games, hardly get lots of worldwide exposure apart from their Olympic events which are broadcast on major channels around the world. Even sports like athletics and swimming are more or less niche sports outside the major events, and the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps wouldn't be such huge stars without their Olympic success, and to a lesser extent their World Championship success.

Ski sports are highly popular in Central and Northern Europe with lots of media coverage even outside the Olympics and the Worlds. But outside their heartlands, the ski sports become mainstream only once in four years during the Winter Olympics. And in the eyes of those once-in-four-years fans, even the greatest career can be seen as mediocre if the success at the Olympics has eluded.

Olympic and World Championship success is a great way to determine athletes' greatness in sports like athletics and swimming. Those are sports where athletes set their goals in succeeding at the major events. I don't really like putting Olympic success way over World Championship success because an unfortunate injury may ruin your Olympic season and four years is a long period until your next chance at the Olympics. You may get fewer chances at the Olympics, though it still takes the same effort to win at the Worlds. Though winning gold medals at two consecutive Olympics probably makes you a bigger legend than gold medals from three consecutive world championships, although both achievements take the same time.

Ski sports are different from athletics or swimming. Regardless of the venue, the running track is 400 meters and the Olympic pool is 50 meters. In ski sports, every venue is different, favoring different athletes. Some alpine skiers do better on steep slopes, others on flat ones. In cross-country skiing a tough course allows the athletes with better endurance to break away from the field while easier courses allow the best sprinters to stay in the leading group throughout the race to win it in the last kilometer. And every ski jumper has hills that suit them better and hills that don't suit them that well.

Besides, the ski sports have highly important season-long circuits, the World Cup tours. In a season-long circuit you will face venues that suit you better and venues that don't suit you so well. The World Cup rewards those who can do well at most venues and have the consistency to perform at their best throughout the winter. You can see one-hit wonders winning Olympic gold medals, though you can't see them winning World Cup titles.

I am one who puts the World Cup titles above everything else in ski sports. If you're good on certain types of hills or courses, you can win multiple gold medals in your career but winning World Cup titles requires a more complete set of skills and season-long consistency. Four-time Olympic silver medalist and the 2003 World gold medalist in slalom, Ivica Kostelić, has said the lack of an Olympic gold medal doesn't matter that much because he's won the biggest prize in the sport, the World Cup overall title. Olympic and World Championship medals are awarded in single disciplines; the overall World Cup title requires success in multiple disciplines in the same season. Kostelić skipping his preferred disciplines slalom and combined at the 2011 Worlds after the super-G bronze medal in order to concentrate on winning the World Cup overall title further highlights the importance of the big crystal globe.

For sure the Olympic and World Championship medals aren't meaningless alongside the World Cup titles. Firstly, especially the Olympics are the most-viewed competitions in the sport. I bet most Americans know Ted Ligety as a two-time Olympic gold medalist rather than as a five-time World Cup giant slalom champion.

Secondly, the major championships are a different challenge compared to the World Cup tour. If you're dominating your sport, you don't need to bring out your best at every race to win World Cup titles. At the Olympics or Worlds, you can't win with mediocrity. Lara Gut is leading the super-G standings in the World Cup, yet 0.12 seconds separated her from the Olympic gold medal, eventually finishing fourth and missing the bronze medal by 0.01 seconds.

Seeing athletes with a big disparity between their World Cup and major championship achievements probably tells something about them. Peter Fill has only three wins on the World Cup tour, though he's won two titles in downhill and one in alpine combined. He doesn't finish in the front very often, though his consistency has won him World Cup titles. Though that's not how you succeed in major championships; Fill's medal record of one silver and one bronze in the Worlds is quite mediocre for one with three small crystal globes.

On the other hand, Mario Matt never won a crystal globe in the World Cup and finished only twice in the top three in the slalom standings, though his two World gold medals and one Olympic gold medal in the span of 13 years plus 15 race wins in the World Cup surely put him above some of the World Cup champions whose heyday lasted only a few years and who never broke into double digits in their victory count.

The Olympics and the Worlds don't present the greatest challenges in the sport to athletes. When the venues need to accommodate men's and women's races in different disciplines, not all major championship slopes can be among the most challenging ones in the sport. The challenge to the athletes isn't even that high on the list of priorities when commercial interests play a big role when selecting the host venue. The Olympics may have the most important single races for the athletes but the Jeongseon downhill course doesn't reflect that, being among the easiest in top-level ski racing.

I am one of those who put winning the Hahnenkamm downhill at least on the level of an Olympic or World gold medal if not even above. That race is the biggest challenge in alpine skiing. A major gold medal doesn't prove you as a skier the way winning on the Streif does. A flawless and fast run on an easy course can win you a gold medal but you may be struggling with the challenges the most challenging courses present. And Hahnenkamm matters to skiers; that's where every downhill skier wants to win.

Didier Cuche won four World Cup titles in downhill plus one in super-G and one in giant slalom between 2007 and 2011. Still his medal record isn't that exceptional; one gold, two silver, and one bronze medal in the Worlds and an Olympic silver medal dating back to 1998. However his four wins on the Streif between 2008 and 2012 show why he was the best downhill skier of that era. You could beat him on easier courses, like Wengen where he never won, though he dominated the most challenging courses.

It's difficult, or rather impossible, to put achievements in any absolute order. I'm one who puts World Cup titles above gold medals, though you need to look at the bigger picture. Sports are about winning; achieving World Cup titles purely with consistency and never succeeding big time at major championships isn't that impressive while a great medal record can make up the lack of crystal globes. Elisabeth Görgl never won a World Cup title, though has a solid medal record from 2009 to 2011 and her double gold medal at the 2011 Worlds shows that success wasn't a fluke. That puts her above some of the weaker World Cup champions in my eyes.

I truly admire Marc Girardelli's career. Five overall titles in the World Cup, two discipline titles in downhill, one in giant slalom, three in slalom, three times the runner-up in super-G, and four times topping the combined standings. That's accompanied by 11 World Championship medals from all five disciplines, including three gold medals in combined and one in slalom plus he's one of the rare skiers to win the downhills in Kitzbühel and Wengen the same season, winning actually two downhill races in Wengen in 1989. But he never won the gold medal at the Olympics, achieving only the silver medals in super-G and giant slalom in 1992. However, the lack of Olympic gold doesn't affect to my impression of his career. The sport is about more than two weeks every four years.

It's the same in other ski sports too. Janne Ahonen is a two-time World Cup overall champion in ski jumping and the five Four Hills titles stand out the most from his resume. In addition to that his medal record features two individual World gold medals, though he's never won at the Olympics or even achieved an individual medal. Still, his achievements show he can deliver under pressure. If anything, the Four Hills titles have required the same abilities than any major gold medal but also consistency. One single bad day can ruin your Four Hills campaign, at the Olympics or Worlds there's still another competition. However needing to have consistency for one week prevents the kind of flukish wins you can see at the Olympics or Worlds. Yes, even Thomas Diethart wasn't a fluke but the best ski jumper in the world for one week.

There's been criticism over Kaisa Mäkäräinen's performance in biathlon in PyeongChang where she failed once again to win an Olympic medal. Some of the criticism is justified. The best result of a 10th place isn't really what you'd expect from the World Cup leader. But never winning an Olympic medal isn't really such a big failure in the big picture of her career. She's won two World Cup overall titles, five discipline titles, a World gold medal, and a total of six medals at the Worlds. If I had to point out a failure from her resume, it's winning only one major gold medal despite all her World Cup success. An Olympic gold medal would have fixed that, a silver or bronze medal wouldn't have. But who am I to blame one of the top biathletes of this decade?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

FIS let the speed specialists down in combined. Once again

Men's alpine combined finally started the alpine skiing events at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Although it was a close fight between Marcel Hirscher and Alexis Pinturault for the win with the six-time World Cup overall champion Hirscher claiming his first Olympic gold medal by 0.23 seconds, the race was a controversial one with the shortened downhill preventing the speed specialists building enough gap for the slalom leg to race for the victory.

The heavy wind had obviously made it necessary to lower the downhill start and use a racing line bypassing the biggest jumps of the course. The Jeongseon downhill course is already a short one with a run of one minute, 40 seconds; using the super-G start shortened it by further 20 seconds and bypassing the big jumps made it easier for less routined downhill skiers. Yet this is where the logic of the International Ski Federation fails, and this was not the first time. Despite the shortened downhill, the slalom leg was on a full course. This very much handed the medals to slalom specialists. The top six of the race were also the six fastest men on the slalom course.

I'm not sure the top two would've been any different with a full downhill course. Alexis Pinturault was 1.04 seconds and Marcel Hirscher 1.32 seconds behind Thomas Dreßen, the leader after the downhill leg. With downhill specialists losing over three seconds in the slalom leg, they might not have been able to build enough lead even on the full downhill course. Of course, it appeared the wind conditions were affecting the downhill with those starting among the first 10, like Dreßen, Hirscher, and Pinturault, being favored by their starting position.

However, the shortened downhill may still have decided the victory. While Pinturault is better in slalom than downhill, he can finish the downhill leg even on a full course close enough the leaders to overtake them in the slalom. His strength against Hirscher is the downhill. On a full course, he might have been able to build enough gap to Hirscher to stay ahead in the slalom leg.

This was not the first farcical alpine combined at major championships. Last two men's combined races at the World Championships have been won by the 30th skiers of the downhill leg who were able to benefit greatly from being the first skiers on the slalom leg in warm conditions with the course deteriorating rapidly. The Olympic combined could have been different with the slalom course holding up well in the cold Korean weather. A pity it was ruined by a shortened downhill.

I'm not the first to cry about unfair conditions. It's unfortunate for the fans who have come to watch a race to see it canceled. If this had been a regular World Cup race, I'd have been fine with it; do whatever you need to get the race safely carried out. But when it's the highlight of the year, or four years in the case of the Olympics, the athletes deserve a fair race.

I don't think the downhill leg should have taken place as scheduled with the wind affecting the results. They could have started with the slalom leg as scheduled and have the downhill leg another day like has happened before in similar situations. That would actually have been even fairer as the slalom specialists barely making the top 30 in the downhill, like the bronze medalist Victor Muffat-Jeandet, wouldn't get such a big advantage from their starting position. And even if starting with a shortened downhill was the right decision, the slalom leg should have been shortened respectively.

The FIS clearly has a strange view about what is a fair race. The combined format has some major flaws, yet the FIS has done nothing to fix those issues. At least there won't be many farces like this remaining as the alpine combined will likely be gone by the 2021 World Championships. Though it's a pity because it could be a great event. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of examples of how the FIS fails to provide a level playing field for the speed specialists against the technicians.

World Cup skewed in favor of technical specialists

The men's World Cup has been dominated by technical specialists this decade. After the speed specialist Carlo Janka won the 2010 overall title, technical specialists have claimed the big crystal globe with Ivica Kostelić winning in 2011 and Marcel Hirscher every season since 2012.

The World Cup schedule has more races in technical disciplines than in speed ones. That's nothing new, although the introduction of parallel races has added to the number of technical races. Yet what is different is the evolution of giant slalom. Speed specialists used to have success also in giant slalom, boosting their overall title campaigns. Benjamin Raich in 2006 was the only speed specialist winning the overall title in the 00s. Yet ever since the the GS equipment changed from the 28-meter radius skis to longer 35-meter radius skis in the 2012-13 season, speed specialists have been struggling in that discipline, hurting their overall title chances.

The radius of GS skis was shortened to 30 meters starting from this season. Although the equipment is now closer to the old skis, it seems like the speed specialists are still no longer able to succeed in giant slalom. That is very harmful for their chances for the big crystal globe as meanwhile there are technical specialists like Hirscher or Pinturault who can even win in super-G on some of the more technical courses. When you see a World Cup champion like Aksel Lund Svindal and another Olympic medalist Kjetil Jansrud struggling to make the second round in giant slalom, you know the discipline is different than what it was in their heyday in giant slalom.

With speed specialists no longer succeeding in giant slalom, the only way to give them an equal chance to race for the overall title would seem to be adding speed races into the schedule. An equal number of races in each discipline should be the priority of scheduling, or at least an equal number between speed and technical disciplines. It can't be so difficult. At least the long-term calendar for the 2020-21 season seems better in that regard for men, although the parallel races still skew the schedule in favor of technical specialists.

It's not only the scheduling but also the replacement policy. Last season one of the scheduled men's downhill races ended up being permanently canceled. The schedule should leave enough space for replacement dates because every canceled race is one less scoring opportunity for the specialists in that discipline. And with the speed disciplines more prone to weather-related cancellations, that's yet another factor against speed specialists overall title hopes.

What's even worse is the replacement policy at the World Cup Finals, leading to some farcical season finales. In 2013 the speed races had to be canceled at the Finals in Lenzerheide, denying Aksel Lund Svindal his last opportunity to challenge Marcel Hirscher for the overall title while securing the downhill title without having to race for it. In 2011, also in Lenzerheide, Maria Riesch (now Höfl-Riesch) celebrated her only World Cup overall title by three points over Lindsey Vonn after the season-ending giant slalom was canceled, a discipline where Vonn had the advantage over Riesch.

In both cases, and many others, the final races were not rescheduled because the FIS rules don't allow it. I get it, the TV channels want the titles being decided in Sunday's technical races and there are probably some logistical issues as well. But a cancellation is an unfortunate way to decide the crystal globe. I'm sure the fans would rather have the titles decided by racing, even if they missed it when at work on Monday as a cancellation means they didn't see racing anyway. They don't tune in to see the trophy presented, they tune in to see the skiers racing for the trophy.

I'm not sure what it takes for the FIS to realize the speed specialists are at a disadvantage in the overall title hunt and make it a level playing field between speed and technical specialists. It's a pity that those speed specialists, not only risking their health but even their lives, are constantly being put at a disadvantage by the sanctioning body. The FIS failed to provide a fair race for the Olympic medals in men's combined but that's just one more example of how the FIS lets the weather ruin speed specialists' chances for success.

The Austrian Ski Federation is usually vocal when things don't go their way. Maybe things would start happening if there was a big star in the Austrian speed team. But as long as Austria's biggest star is a technical specialist, the current situation is fine for the ÖSV.

Monday, January 29, 2018

What next for Federer after the #20?

Roger Federer became the first male tennis player to reach 20 major titles by defeating Marin Čilić for a record-equaling sixth Australian Open championship. Following Federer's straight-sets win over Čilić in last year's Wimbledon final, the Australian final must have exceeded the expectation.

Following the lopsided first set, Čilić did well to regroup himself in the second set. He did exactly what he needed to do, being able to hold his serve and use the opportunities presented by Federer in the tiebreak. After Federer took the third set and led the fourth with a break, it looked like all Federer would need was cruising through his service games. Yet Čilić was finally able to break Federer's serve to level the set and with another break he could take the match into the fifth set.

The momentum was on Čilić's side after the fourth set and he had break points again in the opening game of the fifth set. Federer save those break points and immediately broke the Croat's serve. As the set progressed, the momentum got back to Federer's side and he took the final set 6-1 equal Roy Emerson and Novak Djokovic at six Australian Open men's singles titles with his 20th major title overall.

With the 20th major now in Federer's bag, the question is, what next? The hot questions for the upcoming months are if he claims the No. 1 ranking and if he plays on clay?

Will Federer claim the No. 1 ranking?

Following the Australian Open, Roger Federer trails the World No. 1 Rafael Nadal by mere 155 points. Neither player has points to defend before the last week of February. Nadal is defending 300 points from the Acapulco final and he's scheduled to return to courts again in Acapulco. Federer is defending only 45 points from Dubai's round of 16. Federer has not signed to play in Dubai this year, although he may still enter with a wild card.

If Nadal, injured at the Australian Open, didn't play Acapulco or didn't reach the semifinals there, Federer would automatically become the No. 1. If Nadal played Acapulco and won the 500 title, Federer could become the No. 1 by winning the Dubai 500 title, assuming he'd take the wild card.

Rankings weren't Federer's priority last year as he skipped the entire clay season and skipped the Paris Masters, very much handing the year-end No. 1 ranking to Nadal. But now that he's so close to the No. 1 ranking, at the age of 36, it might be too attractive an opportunity to pass.

Federer could become the oldest player to reach the No. 1 ranking, a record currently held by Andre Agassi who was the No. 1 at the age of 33. I think that is a record worth chasing for Federer now that he's so close to it. There is still a month to Dubai; he should have recovered from the Australian Open by then. Dubai has been a happy hunting ground for Federer; although he lost on the round of 16 last year, he's a seven-time champion there.

Should Federer play on clay?

Last year after winning the Indian Wells-Miami double, Federer took a break from the tour and later announced he will not play at the French Open, starting to prepare for the grass season. That appears to have been a smart decision as he won Wimbledon without dropping a set. As that worked last year, the question is if it makes sense for Federer to play on clay this year either.

Now that he's achieved the 20th major title, Federer should have less pressure to succeed at Wimbledon, especially as he won the record-breaking eighth title last year. If he wants to have one last good run at Roland Garros, there will be no better time for it, he's not getting any younger.

Federer has not made it past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros since 2012. Then again, he's playing better now than in those years. With question marks over Wawrinka's, Djokovic's and even Nadal's fitness, the draw could be open for Federer although he's at his most vulnerable on that surface.

I think this year could be Federer's last chance for a good run at Roland Garros and he should play clay tournaments. Even if he could play great tennis beyond this year, this year could present the most open draw given the current state of the tour.

I'd like to see Federer skipping Miami, especially if he plays Dubai, and measuring his clay performance at Monte Carlo. If he's good enough on clay, he should continue on clay and play either Madrid or Rome before Roland Garros. And if his chances for Roland Garros don't look good, then he could skip it and start preparing for the grass season. But I'd like to see Federer giving clay a try this year, just to see how well he could do on that surface with his current game.

That being said, I'm rather expecting Federer to follow a successful formula from last year, skipping clay to prepare well for grass. At the age of 36, he must be careful with scheduling. Winning Roland Garros is a long shot whereas he's the favorite at Wimbledon, and the physical demands of clay tennis may compromise his preparation for the grass season.

How long can Federer keep on winning slams?

Federer has won three of the last five majors and there are not many players who can beat him when he's on top of his game, despite his age. If he stays healthy and in form, he's the favorite to win at Wimbledon next July. The US Open is possible for him, although it will be ten years since his last title in New York this year. Last year the US Open was the slower of the two hardcourt majors, making it the more difficult one for Federer.

Smart scheduling allowed Federer to start the 2018 season fresh after the successful 2017. The same can't be said about Nadal who played a heavier schedule and has a more physical playing style. That being said, I'm not sure how much longer Federer can continue this great run he's been having since the start of last year.

Since his injury comeback last year, Federer has shown so much love for tennis that I believe it overcomes any desire to walk away after a great season, like 2018 may be. I believe Federer will keep on playing as long as he can contend for major titles. I believe Federer will still have few more years of great chances at Wimbledon. But the physical demands make it more difficult for the ageing Federer to win more slams outside grass, although the Australian Open showed it's still possible. And given his age, any injury can end Federer's flight on top of the game.

I think one or two more majors is still possible for Federer, even three if he won two more this season. He can still outplay anybody but he must stay healthy and fit. Though if some dominant player or players emerge from those in their mid-to-late 20s' physical peak, like Djokovic in the first half of this decade, then the days of Federer winning slams may be over.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Does alpine combined have a future?

The future of alpine combined has been questioned several times this decade. With skiers specializing more and more in speed or technical disciplines, a discipline requiring all-round skills makes them less sense.

In theory, alpine combined is a great discipline, measuring the skiers' all-round skills. Speed and technical skills are well-balanced in the format of one downhill and one slalom run.

However, alpine combined is not in a good health. The risks of downhill are keeping some of the best technical skiers away from the discipline. The need to complete the downhill training runs before the combined races further discourages technical specialists to participate in combined when the schedule is already taxing. There have been combined races of super-G and slalom that don't require training runs, though that format is also less neutral, favoring technical specialists.

Alexis Pinturault gave up his hopes of winning the World Cup discipline title in combined in order to get time for training. Marcel Hirscher, world gold and silver medalist in the discipline, has competed only rarely in the discipline in the World Cup, mostly only when it's been a combined of super-G and slalom, requiring no training runs.

For speed specialists the barrier to enter combined races is lower. They need to participate in the training anyway for the downhill races. Combined gives them one more run to train for the downhill race and the risks are low in slalom. Still, despite speed specialists making up most of the field in combined races, those races often end up being won by a technical specialist.

The last two World Championship combined races have been won by Marcel Hirscher and Luca Aerni, both finishing 30th in the downhill leg and getting to start the slalom leg in conditions where the course deteriorated rapidly. The reversed starting order for the top 30 gives an advantage for those slalom specialists who finish the speed leg barely inside the top 30. Not only they are better slalom skiers than the speed specialists but they also get to have their run in the best conditions.

The combined race in Bormio in December was combined at its best. Alexis Pinturault, probably the best all-round skier in men's side, made big progress in slalom to win, though the conditions allowed also the best downhill skiers to challenge him. The second combined race of the winter in Wengen was more like combined at its worst. The winner Victor Muffat-Jeandet was 27th and the second-place Pavel Trikhichev 29th in the downhill leg, yet the best downhill skiers couldn't challenge them on the deteriorating slalom course.

The starting order wouldn't be such a big issue if there were well-capable slalom skiers in the top 10 of the downhill. If that was the case, winning from outside the top 20 would be almost impossible. The conditions wouldn't anymore change that much during the top ten and they would decide the victory. However, there are hardly any skiers on the men's tour who can score points in both downhill and slalom, let alone be top-10 contenders in both disciplines.

All-round talent in women's side justifies combined

While the men's tour lacks all-round skiers, the women's tour has more all-round talent. The likes of Lindsey Vonn and Tina Maze are recent examples of skiers winning races in all disciplines. This season Mikaela Shiffrin became the latest skier to have won World Cup races in both slalom and downhill, as well as in giant slalom and combined. Michelle Gisin is another young skier who has shown skills both in speed and technical disciplines, making her a strong combined skier.

If men's combined comes down to who is least bad in his worse discipline, women's combined is more about who is the best in two disciplines like it should be. If you barely make the top 30 in the downhill leg, you probably can't win a women's combined, there's enough slalom talent in the downhill top 10. With hardly any all-round skiers on the men's tour, it's justifiable to question the existence of alpine combined. Yet the all-round talent on the women's tour justifies its existence.

Should combined stay in the schedule?

The future of alpine combined has often been questioned this decade. I think it belongs to the World Championships and the Olympics, just like decathlon and heptathlon in athletics. The Worlds and the Olympics have no overall winner, the combined winner is closest to that.

Another thing is if combined should be featured in the World Cup and if it should have a crystal globe.

The World Cup already has an award for all-round skills, it's the overall crystal globe. However, the overall standings rather favor specializing and succeeding in two disciplines rather than consistent scoring in three or four. Alexis Pinturault is probably the best all-round skier on the men's tour, having finished on top of the combined standings four times in the five previous seasons. Yet he has never finished higher than third in the overall standings.

If there were more combined races in the schedule, it might encourage skiers to improve their all-round skills. With more combined races, there would be more races awarding points towards the overall title. Then again, there was an increase in the number of combined races when the current super combined format was introduced, yet most skiers concentrated on speed or technical disciplines with little focus on combined. And without true all-round skiers, combined isn't very attractive.

As for the discipline title in combined, I think it could make sense if there were more combined races, like at least five. It would reward all-round skills more than the overall title does. But right now with two races it doesn't make sense, as shown by Pinturault prioritizing training over racing for the title.

I wouldn't like combined to disappear completely. It can still provide some great races, more commonly on women's side. Though I'm afraid the sport is going into that direction. The FIS is pushing for more parallel races and you can't expand the schedule endlessly. I wouldn't be surprised to see alpine combined replaced by a parallel race at the Worlds and the Olympics in the future.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Is it Hirscher vs. Kristoffersen for the Ski World Cup overall title?

11 races into the 2017-18 Alpine Skiing World Cup season, the Austrian Marcel Hirscher has returned from an ankle injury to lead the overall standings. The six-time World Cup overall champion broke his left ankle in a training accident in mid-August and he wasn't initially expected to return before December, putting his title defense in jeopardy. However, he returned already in early November at Levi, and thanks to the cancellation of the opening GS in Sölden, he didn't miss a race.

After a short preparation, Hirscher was only 17th in the slalom at Levi, though his four starts since then, he has achieved three wins and a third place. Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, another skier returning from an injury, shares the overall lead with Hirscher. However, the rest of the season is more favorable for the technical specialist Hirscher with eight slalom and five giant slalom races remaining as opposed to six downhill and three super-G races remaining in the speed disciplines. Besides there will be three parallel races and two combined races.

The remaining schedule makes it difficult for Svindal to match Hirscher. It seems like the Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen, currently nine points behind the leaders, will be Hirscher's biggest rival. The table below shows the projected final points based on the average points scores in each discipline so far this season.

Parallel and combined races not included.

The table excludes the parallel races because of their unpredictable nature. Combined is excluded because no races in the discipline have taken place so far this season. Also, that is the projected points for the current top 10; skiers from outside might be inside the top 10 in the projected points, though hardly contend for the top positions.

History on Hirscher's side vs. Kristoffersen

The projected points show an advantage for Kristoffersen in the overall title race against Hirscher. However, there are many factors making Hirscher the favorite. Hirscher's 14th place at Levi brings down his average score in slalom; last season his worst result was a sixth place as he finished all other races in the top four.

That doesn't mean Kristoffersen can't outscore him in slalom. Kristoffersen won the 2015-16 slalom title ahead of Hirscher and won five slalom races last season as opposed to Hirscher winning only two. Though Hirscher is ahead of Kristoffersen in consistency. Besides, Hirscher is the better parallel racer, which may be decisive in this rivalry.

Although a win is missing so far this season, Kristoffersen is probably having his best season in GS. It's not easy to beat Hirscher in GS, though Kristoffersen can beat anybody else in GS. So far Kristoffersen has two second places and a fifth place. He needs to keep up his GS form to stay within a striking distance from Hirscher.

Kristoffersen needs to continue his good performances in GS and produce a season similar to 2015-16 in slalom to contend for the big crystal globe against Hirscher. That being said, Hirscher's consistently great performances are hard to match over the full season. Hirscher also has the benefit of being able to score points in super-G and combined, although he hasn't raced in super-G so far this season, probably as a precaution after the injury break. I'd expect to see him in some super-G races later this season if the title race requires it. On the other hand, Hirscher has never raced on the Bormio and Wengen downhill courses so he may not start in any combined race in this winter's World Cup.

If Hirscher stays fit, he's the favorite to win his seventh consecutive World Cup overall title. But I don't completely rule out Kristoffersen beating him if Kristoffersen can produce the best season of his career.

Speed specialists lack good giant slalom results

The two-time World Cup overall champion Aksel Lund Svindal shares the lead with Hirscher, though it seems like this season will follow the familiar storyline. The early season has had one speed race more than technical races and he's leading the overall standings, though he can't keep up with Hirscher as the remainder of the season will have four more technical races plus the three parallel races.

Svindal has had a great start for his campaign in downhill with a third place followed by two wins. His super-G hasn't been up there yet; despite top-10 finishes in all three races so far, he's yet to make the podium in super-G.

Two-time overall runner-up Kjetil Jansrud has usually had the same storyline in his seasons as the countryman Svindal. Once the season gets more tech-favoring, Jansrud's overall title challenge has dried up.

Jansrud is leading the super-G standings with a win and a second place from the North American races, though he also missed the points with his 35th-place finish in Val Gardena. Downhill has been less successful for the last season's downhill runner-up Jansrud, though his first podium with the second place in Val Gardena promoted him into third place in the discipline standings.

What Svindal and Jansrud need to keep their overall title campaign alive is strong results in both speed disciplines. And even then, the lack of good giant slalom results keeps them out of the title contention in the tech-favoring remainder of the season. Speed specialists who won the overall title traditionally had success also in GS, for example Svindal won the GS title on his way to the 2007 overall title. However, Svindal hasn't started in GS this season following his knee injuries while the 2010 Olympic silver medalist Jansrud has not qualified for the second run in his two GS starts this season.

The 2016 World Cup super-G champion Aleksander Aamodt Kilde might be the best candidate to end Ivica Kostelić and Marcel Hirscher's streak of seven overall titles for technical specialists since he's shown most promise of speed specialists in giant slalom in last seasons. He was able to score some points with the 26th place in the Beaver Creek GS, though didn't make the second run in Alta Badia. The new GS skis, closer to the pre-2012-spec skis, have not boosted speed specialists' GS performances as much as one might have hoped. That being said, sixth in the super-G and 15th in the downhill standings this season is not good enough for Kilde to contend for the overall title.

Pinturault needs consistency and another strong discipline

The Frenchman Alexis Pinturault may be the best all-round skier in the World Cup at the moment, as shown by wins in all disciplines but downhill and by finishing on top of the combined standings four times in the last five seasons. However, giant slalom is the only discipline where he's an absolute top contender and he's lacked the kind of consistency the likes of Hirscher, Svindal, and Jansrud have showed.

Although Pinturault has shown skills to match Hirscher's performances in giant slalom in last two seasons, inconsistency over the season has kept him from contending for the GS title. That seems to be the case also this season. He achieved an impressive victory in Val-d'Isère, though ninth and 12th places from the other races aren't enough to contend for the discipline title and also cost him in the overall title battle.

Pinturault can be a winner on a good day also in slalom and super-G, however he is very inconsistent in those disciplines. He finished as high as fifth in the Beaver Creek super-G, though he was only 27th in his other super-G start in Val Gardena. Pinturault started his slalom season with a promising eighth place at Levi and he was ninth after the first run in Val-d'Isère but didn't finish the second run.

Pinturault may be the best all-round skier in the World Cup, though the points system rewards finishing high in races. Pinturault needs another discipline where he's a frontrunner. Slalom offers better chances for him to score points. It's still a better discipline than super-G for him. Besides, slalom races outnumber super-G races by ten to six.

142 points may not be a totally impossible gap at this point of the season. Pinturault can score good points in the combined and parallel races, though he'd need to start beating Hirscher and Kristoffersen in slalom and giant slalom, which is a big task. To contend for the overall title in the future, he needs more consistency, and he needs to reach his maximum in slalom consistently to score high points.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Does tennis fanbase have an age problem?

SportsBusiness Daily has reported earlier this year about the demographics of major sports' fanbases in the United States. Tennis has one of the oldest fanbases of all sports with an average age of 61 for the ATP's TV viewers and an average age of 55 for the WTA. The only major sport with older TV viewers than the ATP is the PGA Tour with an average of 64 years. The ATP's average has increased by five percent since 2006. The WTA is at least showing a positive trend by being the only major sport where the average age has decreased, by eight percent since 2006.

Of course, those are only American numbers but I'm still a bit surprised by how old the fanbase of tennis is in the USA. Tennis has traditionally been a game of young players, dominated by players in their 20s, although 2017 saw players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and the Williams sisters having great success still in their 30s.

In the American market, global sports tend to have a younger audience than North American sports, soccer and Formula One being examples of that. That makes it somewhat surprising how old the tennis fanbase in the USA is. On the other hand, the USA has greater traditions in tennis than in many other global sports, explaining the older fanbase.

There is a trend in many sports that younger fans tune in only for something big. Those young adults with work and kids don't want to spend all their spare time watching sports. As an example from tennis, the Wednesday night session featuring the Keys-Kanepi and Federer-Del Potro quarterfinals was the most-viewed US Open telecast both overall and in the 18-49 age group, though the women's semifinals and the final had more viewers in the non-18-49 demographics. Young adults wanted to see the much-anticipated Federer-Del Potro match; for comparison, the Nadal-Anderson final had only half of the 18-49 audience of the Federer-Del Potro quarterfinal.

Lack of American stars may explain why the WTA's fanbase in the USA is younger. Ever since Andy Roddick won the 2003 US Open, no American man has won a Grand Slam tournament whereas American women have achieved a total of 21 Grand Slam titles since 2004. The WTA provides more must-see matches for American people than the ATP does. The Stephens-Keys US Open final had 25 percent more viewers than the Nadal-Anderson men's final, in the 18-49 age group it had 58 percent more viewers.

Young adults are likely able to spend less time watching TV than retired old people. That may be the reason for the increased cord cutting, especially among young adults. Why pay for cable channels you don't have time to watch? Streaming services will be a big part of the future of sports broadcasting. People want to be able to watch from their mobile devices wherever they are and they don't want to pay for content they aren't watching.

All the numbers above are from the USA but it's easy to assume there are some global trends there. Streaming services are replacing traditional subscription channels around the world. Young, working adults with small children don't have as much time to watch sports as retired people have. Yet still, young adults are fascinated by major sports events and want to watch them.

Tennis needs young stars

With the average age of the fans increasing, the sanctioning bodies of tennis are trying to make the sport more appealing to younger generations. The ATP experimented some rule changes at the Next Gen Finals, including no-ad scoring, a best-of-five format with sets played to four games, and on-court coaching.

I'm not sure tennis needs those rule changes. A match played as best of five sets to four games will be 12 to 35 games, with the current rules of best of three sets to six games it's 12 to 39 games. No big difference there. No-ad scoring would shorten the matches, though it would come at the expense of thrilling extended games. Hardly an improvement.

What I think tennis needs to attract younger generations is young stars. After all the years they have spent on the top of the game, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray don't appear as young and exciting.

Tennis needs young stars whom young adults and teenagers can identify with. But how can the sanctioning bodies get them when the old guard is still too strong?

It's almost crazy how fit some players in their 30s are. Federer, Wawrinka, and Nadal would be retired at their age if they were 1990s players, yet they can beat younger players with their stamina. Today's tennis is very physical and players in their late teens or early 20s aren't ready to win major titles. Stan Wawrinka won his first slam at the age of 28; that's the age when players had usually reached their peak and started to decline. Grigor Dimitrov won his first Masters 1000 title at the age of 26 after years of big expectations.

Tennis needs to become less physical to help young players to break through (among many other reasons). Speeding up the courts would help in that. A young player who has the skills but not the stamina would be more capable of beating seasoned veterans if the game was less grueling.