Practical Concerns: What the US Open can tell us about where hockey is headed

2014 US Open (Tennis) - Tournament - Roberto Bautista Agut (14914449990)

I’m a big believer in looking to other sports for inspiration and ideas, whether it’s in terms of cross-training or in terms of analytics. Many smart hockey people I know are big baseball and soccer fans. I’ve never sat through an entire MLB game, and the part that fascinates me the most about soccer is the penalty shootout, so I’m not really part of that group. I think hockey has a lot to learn from Formula One in terms of how to adopt new technology, but I really wished more folks in hockey would pay closer attention to what is going on in tennis.

Roberto Bautista Agut: The true importance of QoC

You could be excused for never having heard of this guy. He’s never won a major tournament, never beaten a top player, and was just sent packing in four sets by Novak Djokovic in the fourth round of the US Open. So what’s so special about him?

For one thing, despite having a rather bland-looking game, Bautista Agut is the most underrated player in tennis. Between the start of 2015 and the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Bautista Agut has held serve 83 per cent of the time, more often than Grigor Dimitrov and David Ferrer. In the same span, he has put 67 per cent of first serves in play, tied with World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Ivo Karlovic, the most fearsome server in the history of tennis. When he does need to go to his second serve, he has won 54 per cent of points, a superior conversion rate to that of Andy Murray. If he were a baseball player, Bautista Agut would be as picky at the plate as Scott Hatteberg. If he were a hockey player, his possession stats may rival those of Patrice Bergeron.

Bautista Agut’s patience, risk management and shot selection is rivaled by very few players, and allowed him to top off at No. 14 in the world despite rather pedestrian ball-striking abilities. But therein lies the problem. After losing to Djokovic on Sunday night, RBA is now 3-20 in career meetings against Top-10 competition, having lost the last 14 of those matches. His “tennis sense” and ability to punch above his weight class carries him just far enough for him to get caved in by a player with better physical tools, and that’s probably why you’ve never heard of him.

In hockey terms, RBA might be an AHL player or European pro who is remarkably good at driving play at a lower level, but who is completely unable to keep up with the Quality of Competition in the NHL.

Different people (fans, managers, head coaches and skills coaches) have different ideas on what skills translate from lower leagues to the NHL and which do not, and figuring things out would serve to amplify the effects of some of the tools we already have at our disposal (CHL possession, PCS, in-person scouting, video scouting, combine data, etc.). I don’t have any definitive answers on which types of players “hold up” better when promoted, but at least it’s a question worth posing.

Eugenie Bouchard: Regression to the mean & the mind-body connection

In 2014, Bouchard became the highest-ranked Canadian tennis player in history by cracking the Top 5. 12 months later, after a positively miserable season, she leaves the US Open concussed and ranked No. 25 in the world. It’s been a rough year for Genie.

But you may have seen it coming, if you were looking closely at the underlying numbers. While she excelled at the lucrative (both in rankings points and prize money) Grand Slam events in 2014, her results in smaller tournaments were just okay. She might have consciously peaked at the biggest tournaments, but most likely she got a few nice draws and a few lucky breaks. To make a clumsy analogy, she ran at a 105 PDO in 2014, and this year it dropped down to around 95.

Earlier this year, someone working in an NHL front office actually asked me what was wrong with Genie, and I told him what I wrote in the previous paragraphs in as many words. But what we didn’t talk about was what needed to happen for her to get back on track, something that NHLers can learn from as well.

Since the end of 2014, Genie made about three coaching changes, with no discernable improvements in results. The biggest difference-maker, at least in my opinion, was when she decided to play mixed doubles with Nick Kyrgios (who’s had some problems of his own) at the US Open earlier this week. They played one match together, and anyone who’s a strong doubles player would’ve been appalled at their tactics and shot selection (which was decided un-Bautista Agut-like), but Genie seemed to be enjoying herself on a match court in a way I hadn’t seen since last year. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but maybe rediscovering her love for the game for just an instant could be a turning point.

It happens all the time in hockey, as well.

Devan Dubnyk was miscast in Edmonton, underutilized in Nashville and demoted to the AHL by Montreal in 2013-14. He ended up going home instead of watching the Habs’ playoff run from the press box. Then, he became a father, Phoenix took a chance on him, and a new teammate did something very kind for him upon his arrival in Minnesota. And all of a sudden Dubnyk was a Vezina candidate.

Ryan Pilon is a New York Islanders prospect who had an excellent PCS rating, given his size and offensive output as a defenseman. But recently he decided to pack it in and go home, not because he wasn’t good enough to make it to the NHL, but because he just didn’t want to play hockey anymore.

Phil Kessel is a Pittsburgh Penguin now, and will play with a top center on a good team for the first time since leaving Boston. He will no longer need to worry about being accused of liking hot dogs, which probably comes as a relief.

Stefan Wolejszo’s article “Person, Player, Pineapple” sheds some more light on the matter. As much as a player’s stats tells us about his abilities, they’re probably a better indication of who they could be than who they will be. While “feel good, play good” is an over-simplification of Bouchard’s, Dubnyk’s, Pilon’s or Kessel’s stories, it would be unreasonable to expect an elite athlete to keep executing at the very best of his/her abilities when there are major imbalances in their lives.

Roger Federer: Changing the aging curve

Hockey is a young man’s game, but so is tennis. Or at least it used to be.

We agree that NHL players, as a group, peak at age 25, but tennis players’ primes used to come even earlier. In the late 80s, it wasn’t unheard of for teenagers to win Grand Slam titles and for guys not yet old enough to drink in the US to hold the No. 1 ranking.  However, everything changed when Federer took over the sport 12 years ago.

In 2003, the average age of the ATP’s Top-100 was 25.5 years. By 2014, it is just under 28 years. Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray were still the Big Four dominating the sport, even though were all technically past their primes. Stan Wawrinka came out of nowhere to win not one, but two Grand Slams after turning 29. Ivo Karlovic, Feliciano Lopez, Victor Estrella-Burgos were playing the best tennis of their careers on the wrong side of 33. It wasn’t isolated cases – tennis as a whole got significantly older in a generation.

Whether it is better nutrition, better recovery (ice baths after a match are now part of every player’s routine) or better communication technology alleviating some of the loneliness of travelling the tour, what is happening in tennis is something worth investigating for people looking for an edge in other sports.

*** 

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.

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