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Archive for the ‘Tennis & Life’ Category

The big news at this year’s Australian Open has been the weather. For four days temperatures hovered above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, peaking at 111 before breaking for the second week of play. These extreme conditions hobbled many competitors in both the ladies’ and gentlemen’s draws. The players in the Oz Open are all finely conditioned athletes, but the top players are also the most fit. Grand Slam champions win many matches with physicality rather than stroke production .

Many spectators are not aware that whatever the ambient temperature, it feels much warmer on the court. The Plexi-Cushion surface is an acrylic paint on top of a ground rubber cushion layer laid over an asphalt base. A thermometer hung off the net post would register 12-15 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, while the surface of the court would have been 140-150 degrees F. during this period. Caroline Wozniaki claimed that she put a plastic water bottle on the court surface and it melted. Many players came to the court with multiple pairs of shoes because their feet blistered while frying on the court. Ice vests were placed over the competitors at changeovers. Even a couple of the ball kids passed out.

Using Ice to Battle the Heat in Oz c. Firstpost Australia

Under WTA rules the women (who play best 2 of 3 set matches) can get a 10 minute break after the second set in the heat. Men playing best of 5 sets (and getting equal pay) get no such accommodation. Players who have competitive 5 set encounters will be on court for around four hours. Expecting players to compete at such a high level for so long under ordinary summer conditions is tough enough. To do so in this level of heat borders on the ridiculous in that it ceases to be about the tennis and becomes strictly a test of endurance.

Early on the second day of the heat wave, Australian Open tournament officials invoked their “Extreme Heat Policy”. First introduced in 1998 at the insistence of the players, the EHP comes into play when a combination of temperature and heat stress makes play dangerous. They calculate the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature which is a combination of ambient temperature, wind speed, humidity and the intensity of solar radiation.  A combination of the WBGT with the actual air temperature is used to decide whether the EHP is activated. On Tuesday, the 109 degree F. ambient temperature was high enough, but the WBGT was not, presumably because the humidity level was only 44%. On Wednesday, with temperatures at 111 degrees and humidity on the rise, play was stopped for several hours on the outside courts.

“Grinding” an opponent by extending rallies and refusing to miss is a time tested low risk strategy for well conditioned competitors to play their matches. Many top players who are also extremely fit welcome the heat. Jim Courier, known as a physically intimidating presence while on the tour and a resident of Florida, won the Oz Open twice. In 1993, the tournament discussed closing the roof of the arena to lower the court surface temperature. At the time the world #1 ranked player, Courier declared his refusal to play the final if that were done. The court stayed hot and he won. Today’s classic grinder is David Ferrer, the number 3 seed who today advanced to the quarterfinals.

Fitness can vary dependent upon training, and adaptations can improve resistance, but some players (as all people) are more susceptible to heat than others. Heat of 110+ degrees F. will eventually cause dehydration  in all athletes. The symptoms include headaches, dizziness and cramping, which can set in even after the match ends. Part of the code of tennis etiquette is that default is anathema. If you are still on your feet, always believe that you can come back…and win! But when dehydration sets in, your brain becomes fuzzy. That can be dangerous, because if one continues to play, heat stroke or worse can follow.

Although they dread it, most competitors are prepared to suffer to win. They recognize that fitness is a weapon honorably employed. The television audience was treated to the gladiatorial spectacle of athletes struggling to stay coherent in the heat, even as the live audience was surely discomforted almost as much as the players. Diogenes believes that Grand Slam matches are tough enough and that play should be stopped at temperatures above 100 degrees F. If it’s sufficiently hot that a sensible individual wouldn’t volunteer to venture out anywhere other than to a beach or pool, then it’s just too hot to play!

What would happen if heat delays the competition early in the tournament? At the Oz Open, play could continue around the clock inside the two enclosed arenas (a third stadium will be finished by next year). The players are used to extended delays and playing at odd hours around the globe. Most of the television audience watches the matches on tape delays because of the time difference from Australia to the rest of the world. The Grand Slams are all grueling competitions. They should be more about tennis skills than physical endurance.

As in other sports, rule and equipment changes have periodically modified how tennis is played. Fifty years ago, Diogenes first used a 65 square inch wooden racquet with strings made from sheep’s guts and used it to strike white balls. The professional tours adopted yellow balls in 1972 because they provided more contrast and were easier to see on color televisions. Over the next several years, yellow balls were adopted by most recreational players. In the late 1970s, the game migrated to graphite racquets with about 100 square inch heads, allowing players to hit much harder with greater spin and consistency.

By the 1980s, nylon strings replaced natural gut strings for most recreational players. They were less expensive and not as sensitive to moisture degradation as gut. Co-polyester strings were widely adopted by professionals in the early 2000s, although nylon is still used by most recreational players. Polyester strings are very stiff and have very little elasticity.  This is what makes them popular with big hitters. Because of this lack of elasticity, the ball doesn’t trampoline off the stringbed, so a player can take a big swing at the ball without it sailing long.  The stiff string also digs into the ball generating more spin as the strings brush across the ball. Most recreational players find that this stiffness requires taking bigger swings at the ball or the resulting shot lands short in the court, which is a weak shot. Not only do they have to work harder, but the string’s stiffness results in more shock transfer to the player which can result in shoulder, wrist or elbow injuries.

The search for increased control by using more spin has been a constant quest by string and racquet companies for years. Tennis researcher John Yandell analyzed slow-motion video and determined that current world #1 Rafael Nadal hits his average forehand with 3200 rotations per minute (rpm) and sometimes reaches a mind-boggling 4900 rpm. By comparison, Roger Federer’s forehand averages 2700. And Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, two of the America’s greatest players ever, hit their forehands at a mere 1800 rpm, imparting slightly more than half as much spin as Nadal. When we talk about spin, mostly we are referring to topspin. Although underspin (slice) is a solid occasional play, chipping the ball is as often as not  a defensive stroke. This is so because of the trajectories of balls struck with topspin versus one struck without spin, as shown in the chart below.

A flat tennis ball has a lower margin of error to both clear the net and land inside the baseline. A ball hit with more topspin will travel higher over the net and bounce higher,  making it more difficult for the opponent to hit. (This is so because most strokes should be hit at a height between the player’s knees and below the chest in order to create a low-to-high loop. When the ball bounces above the shoulder, a player can choose to hit a weaker, higher shot, or retreat in the court in order to create the proper contact height.) In the past, the combination of smaller head size, lower powered racquets and lower technology strings prevented players from being able to easily access spin.

Dr. Rod Cross, co-author of The Physics and Technology of Tennis, demonstrated through lab research that as a ball is about to leave the strings, the main strings snap back and give the ball a sideways kick, thereby increasing the rate at which the ball spins as it comes off the strings. In other words, about 80% of the spin, and control of a ball is determined by the mains, or vertical strings in the racquet. A looser pattern imparts more spin, but lower control. In the past, players chose between tight string patterns such as 18 mains X 20 crosses in order to maximize control, or looser string patterns such as 16 mains X 18 crosses to increase power. These trade-offs could be somewhat mitigated by other variables such as string tension (looser for power; tighter for more control), string type, frame size, beam width and racquet weight. As a DIY racquet stringer, Diogenes has considered what enhancements could boost effectiveness.  The holy grail would be to retain control while increasing spin or power. Other stringers had suggested to Diogenes that one could achieve that end by either skipping the first and last crosses, or skipping every fourth cross. The results from these experiments were not good.

In early 2013, Wilson put out the Steam 99S, a racquet that had a 16 X 16 string pattern. Intended for intermediate players, the results were too powerful for Diogenes. Prince jumped on the idea, and about a month ago introduced several racquets with fewer cross strings. Two weeks ago, Wilson introduced the 6.1 95S, with an 18 X 16 string pattern geared towards more advanced players. “For every 100 r.p.m.’s of topspin you can put on the ball, you can reduce the flight distance by 6 to 12 inches,”  Bob Thurman, Wilson VP for R&D said. The goal, is to reduce the coefficient of friction between the strings and allow them to move more, which creates more force when they snap back. In other words, to create more spin without a change in one’s swing. Wilson has attempted to solve this problem for control players by creating a racquet with fewer cross strings than vertical main strings.

A few days ago, for the first time, Diogenes purchased a racquet without first demoing it. The new 95S has the potential to radically improve his mediocre strokes without making changes in how he strikes the ball. Many iterations of stringing may be required to achieve that result, but that is part of the fun of a winter indoor season. Testing and adjusting to new equipment is a routine practice from the pro tour down to lesser players. Sometimes it works, and sometimes not, but the pleasure is in the process of finding things out. Ain’t life just grand?

Many Americans were painfully aware of the dispute between Time Warner Cable and CBS which was finally resolved this week. The network attempted to sharply increase fees paid to it by TWC to transmit CBS’s programming, demanding $2/head. Time Warner knew that it would not to able to pass along this cost to subscribers and allowed the network to go black for subscribers.

TWC had many reasons to fight. It argued that the networks have traditionally been advertising based revenue models who provided their programming free to local over-the-air broadcast stations. The cable companies have for years paid small fees for bundles of the networks’ channels, but CBS wanted a substantial increase.

The biggest reason TWC was resisting the new fee demands is that many of its subscribers now consider cutting the cord on cable television monthly fees altogether. Paid television peaked at 86% of households a few years ago, but are now shedding subscribers, and as the following chart shows, nearly 20% of US households will no longer pay for television by 2017.

 

For anyone who has been tethered to cable or other paid TV most or all of their life, cutting the cord is liberating. Alternative technology allows one to time or place shift consumption of any media. Many consumers today believe that paying for media in any place should entitle them to consume/watch or listen to that media anywhere and anytime so long as it is not done so in the context of a commercial enterprise.

How then does one go about actually cutting the cord without becoming a hippy or an “intellectual” who proudly doesn’t even own a TV? Aereo.com is an intriguingly simple solution to local, public and broadcast network programming with a DVR function at a cost $8/month. With Netflix, a la cart purchase options from I-Tunes and the Google Play store, and free online distribution, many techies believe most content should be advertising supported and freely available. To such viewers, any amount paid for cable is too much in an age ofMiracast bluetooth wireless display from an Android phone to a big screen TV.

Alternatives to cable TV can even be an improvement to the viewing experience. For example, coverage of the US Open Tennis Tournament has been confusingly split between CBS, ESPN, ESPN2 and The Tennis Channel. Parts of the coverage are overlapping, with The Tennis Channel and ESPN showing different matches at the same time. Web simulcasts on ESPN3 are available when ESPN cable channels are showing live matches. Earlier in the two week long event, internet viewers had a choice of as many as six different matches, which were also available for replay shortly after the matches finished. The weekend coverage, which migrated to CBS, could not be viewed on Time Warner Cable a few days ago, but five courts had internet webcasts available from USOpen.org. In this day of 4G wireless, the high definition signal was stunningly sharp.

Cable and other paid TV growth has slowed in the USas alternatives have appeared. The experience can be better on the internet, as is the case with the US Open, but the changes have been driven as much by economics as by technology. Paid television costs have risen by an average of 6% over the last 17 years, far outpacing inflation according to NPD. The average US cable bill was $86 in 2011. NPD projects that monthly cost to increase to $123/month in 2015, and to reach $200/month in 2020. It’s no wonder many Americans would rather pay around $25 or less/month to consume their media without cable TV. By using a combination of Aereo, Netflix, and Itunes, they are easily able to do so while consuming media when and where they choose.

Sports viewing constitutes a significant portion of TV consumption. The ESPN franchise, owned by Disney, has become the single most valuable media property in the world, with average cost to cable households of over $5/month of their cable bill, whereas the average cable channel costs consumers $0.26/month. ESPN recently announced an 11 year deal starting in 2015 with the USTA for total coverage rights to the US Open. Every match on all 17 courts will be available on the web, and it is likely that by then ESPN’s revenue model will include an internet only option, as the technology continues evolving to present more content at lower prices and in more convenient ways. The cord cutters among us can’t wait.

Equal pay for equal work has long been considered an international human right. 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the US Equal Pay Act which states that “employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment.” Despite this law and others since, women in the American workforce earn only 77% on average of the earnings of men, so that it is rare to discover a situation where women are paid more than men for equal work.

Tennis professional tour events utilize a best of three sets format for both men and women for all tournaments except for the four “Grand Slam” major events (Wimbledon, the Australian, US and French Open championships). In these “majors”, the women play best of 3 sets as they always do, while the men play best of 5 sets. The lengthier format for men was once used for many other tournaments, but as most tournaments changed from grass to hard courts, the shorter format was adopted almost everywhere. Traditionalists managed to keep the format unchanged from amateur days for the majors and for Davis Cup play.

All of the grand slam tournaments have paid the men’s and women’s champions equal prize money since  2007. While few players dare to publicly disparage the equal pay, many believe it is unfair to the men not to be paid more, since they are playing more sets on the court. Furthermore, Wimbledon charges considerably more for tickets to the gentlemen’s final than for the ladies’ final, and it is argued that this reflects their relative appeal and should affect the prize money paid out to each gender.

The primary argument in favor of continuing best of 5 set matches at the majors is that the longer format is a bigger test of mental and physical endurance which more often allows the better players to prevail. Unfortunately the evidence does not support this theory. Best of 3 sets format was instituted for doubles at every tour event for the past several years. It was generally expected that the shorter formats would disadvantage the top teams, but there turned out to be no effect at all. The best players before the format change continued to top the rankings.

Diogenes believes the equal pay argument is a canard. Rather than considering paying women less, the question of pay should be re-framed as to what is best for tennis, and for the fans whose ticket purchases and TV viewership support the game? Clearly, what needs to be done is to amend men’s competitions in all events to best of three sets.

Almost nobody ever plays best of 5 set matches. 70% of all play in the US is on public courts where someone is usually waiting to take over your court after only an hour of play. Each set on the pro tour is far more grueling, and the players wear out with best of 5 sets matches. Almost every player who manages to win a long 5 set match at the majors goes on to lose in the next round to a fresher opponent.

The fan experience would also be enhanced by shortening matches. Except for die-hard fans, who wants to spend four or five hours watching long five set matches? For many viewers, a decisive third set climax two hours in would be just great.

A serendipitous byproduct of shortening the men’s format in the majors would be an increased incentive for the top players to participate in doubles at the slams. At other longer events where players do not have singles matches every day such as at Miami and Indian Wells, the top singles players also play doubles to the delight of the fans. Few do so in the slams because they fear the longer format.

Tennis is one of the only sports followed and played by both men and women, together and separately. The ATP Tour needs to adopt the best of 3 sets format for all events, including the majors. It would be a boon for players and the fans, and it’s the right thing to do to signal the sport’s commitment to support and practice equal pay for equal work.

It is common in tennis, and other sports, for players to think they can approximate their performance against other players based on results against common opponents. Let’s say Adam (A) plays and beats Brad (B) Mathematically, this is can be expressed as A > B. Then Brad plays and beats Charlie (C). Therefore B>C. Adam hears the second match result and is sure that he will beat Charlie when they play. If A>B, and B>C, then A>C.

Tennis is a sport where the better player usually, though not always wins. One would think that Adam would beat Charlie when they play. But it is not uncommon for Charlie to beat Adam. Because tennis, like most of life, is not transitive.

What can explain such results? Well, each player is a mix of strengths and weaknesses. One might have a terrific serve, along with poor volley skills. Another has a great forehand which he uses to hide a weak backhand. Winning matches requires a player to determine where he has an advantage over his opponent and exploit those match-ups repeatedly until the other player responds by changing his patterns of play and/or exploits a counter weakness. If the other player won’t or can’t do so, he loses.

It’s like the children’s game of rock, paper, scissors, also known internationally as roshambo. Used instead of a coin toss or drawing straws, players “throw” gestures with their hands to determine the winner: rock breaks scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock. Pure match-ups. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. No strategy always wins.

All players have performance ranges, and some days are better than others. On any given day, a player could  feel that he played much better than average (for himself), and on other days he might feel that he performed poorly relative to his own standards. Part of being able to perform well is understanding the patterns of play you are initiating as well as those of your opponent. A player “plays well” when he is dictating, and “plays poorly” when the opponent forces him to hit his least favorite shots. So, within a range of abilities, a player does not beat the same player every time. He might beat the opponent when they are both playing well, or both playing poorly, but not win when the opponent plays well and he does not.

Diogenes is delighted that tennis is not transitive. How glorious to be forced to figure things out! The thrill of matching wits with someone else of relatively equal ability is the essence of competition and part of the enduring appeal of sports.

On this last day of the year, Diogenes was delighted that the ATP World Tour has resumed after its annual six week off-season. Live play began today from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a relatively secular Arab state with a striking new skyline of eclectic modern skyscrapers. The incredibly international nature of the tour was reinforced while watching the first televised match on the Tennis Channel between the Italian Simone Bolelli and Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

A new rule was put into effect for this season that ought to improve the viewing experience for the fans. The server has 25 seconds from the end of the last point to put the ball in play. Players today are mostly the products of academies that teach students to employ serving rituals to focus their attention as they step up to serve. Until this year, tour players regularly took three or four balls from ball kids to choose which two to use, even though six balls are used in tour matches and changed every 9 games, so there is not a lot or difference between them. In addition, many players toweled off between almost every point whether or not they were profusely perspiring. These routines sometimes elongated time between play to 45 seconds. (Imagine club play with opponents taking these kinds of delays, especially in New York, where we pay for court time by the hour and someone is always waiting to take your court when your time is up. In the absence of umpires, many would be tempted to club their opponents!)

Until now, umpires would issue a warning to players for time code violations. Additional time delays were supposed to be progressive in that they would result in the loss of the point. As a result, it was very rare for umpires to call second time violations. The new rule calls for umpires to start a clock which only they can see at the end of a point, and call a time violation at 25 seconds if the ball is not in play. The penalty is loss of the first serve. Subsequent violations are not progressive and results in loss of the next serve whether it is a first or second.

Tennis is one of few sports where there is no time limit to finish. Players must win 2 of 3 sets in regular tournaments, and 3 of 5 sets in Grans Slam events. This can sometimes result in very long matches. At the 2012 Australian Open final in January, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafa Nadal (two notoriously slow players) in the longest slam match in history, needing 5 hours and 53 minutes to prevail. In addition to scheduled 90 second breaks every two games, each player routinely took 30 or 40 seconds to serve, so the actual time the ball was in play was likely less than an hour. Such matches are almost as difficult for the spectators as for the players. Shortening them with faster play improves the game for everyone.

In the Bolelli v. Gimeno-Traver match today, time violations were called several times, particularly at crucial break point junctures. This was terrific to see. Diogenes expects that basketball-like countdown shot clocks will be put at court side by next season to further engage spectators and allow the players to time their actions to avoid the penalties. At the end of the day, it’s not just sport. It’s entertainment!

Diogenes is a long time resident of a New York apartment building which has the wonderful amenity of a fitness room in its basement. First established nearly 20 years ago, this gym had deteriorated over the years through lack of updates into a slightly dingy and depressing, albeit functional place. One feature of the health club that regular users cherished was that each of 12 aerobic machine stations had its own small TV and VCR/DVD player, allowing users to record their own media and watch it while working out. A long overdue refurbishing of the gym at the end of the summer yielded flat screen TVs with no speakers and no media inputs. It seems that the remodeling committee decided that users (their neighbors) could not be trusted to comply with facility rules requiring headset use. Additionally, some few of us were spending too much time on any one machine, and perhaps grunting overly or perspiring too much while doing so.

Initially, Diogenes was outraged at this small infringement of his right to sweat profusely. Of course, the reality is that anything that governs any action is a limit on liberty, which is why the Founding Fathers held the idea of limited government as a basic tenet of the foundation of our republic. “Civil society” regulates our activities in countless ways, so why was Diogenes annoyed? It was because he had seen this problem coming and tried to head it off. As an original member of the committee that planned the construction of the gym, he had long ago specified the equipment to be replaced. Diogenes wrote letters to the current committee asking for slight changes to accommodate personal media. In a West Side building this input would have likely been debated intensely, but in this East Side coop, Diogenes was ignored, probably due to a lack of technical knowledge.

The simple answer to the equipment change in the gym would be to purchase new media from iTunes for every use of the facility. But Diogenes is rarely simple. This would constitute a new tax when he already paid for cable and NetFlix. Accepting the self imposed challenge to find a solution to the new equipment required Diogenes to exercise his brain, a far more daunting task than beating up his body. It had been years since Diogenes had considered the topic of video capture, and most of what he knew involved recording in old, “standard” definition of 480 lines of resolution. His first attempt involved the purchase of a TV tuner for a laptop. It would not record through the cable box, and so would only record unencrypted basic 2-13 channels. Not good enough.

The wonder of the internet is the ability to teach yourself almost anything without leaving your desk. Eventually, Diogenes purchased a high definition video capture device intended for gamers. It allowed the recording of signals through the cable box to a laptop. Unfortunately, the recorded media was not in a format to be transferred into an I-Pad. Further research yielded a separate media conversion software program that did the trick.

Diogenes wound up spending as much for hardware and software to record and view media as he would have to simply buy it for a year or so. But as noted physicist and polymath Richard Feynman wrote in 1981, sometimes “the pleasure of finding things out” is its own reward. Every time Diogenes forces himself to overcome his inertia to use the gym, he chuckles to himself as he watches…whatever he wants. He thanks the committee for prodding him to expand his knowledge, and upgrade his viewing experience.

The US Anti Doping Agency on October 10 made public hundreds of pages of documents of evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) by Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service team that won seven Tour De France crowns. Included was testimony given by eleven of his teammates that Armstrong and the other riders used steroids and growth hormones. Further, they performed transfusions of their own blood in a well organized program to enhance their performance over the grueling three week event. Despite hundreds of tests performed in and out of competition over many years, these men evaded detection. How did they do that?

History of Performance Enhancing Drug usage

Doping in sport is not a new phenomenon. Ancient Olympians were reputed to eat a lizard meat that provided a special edge. The popularity of endurance sports at the turn of the 20th century gave rise to open usage of various substances, including cocaine, that might keep competitors upright. In the modern Olympics, the winner of the 1904 marathon was given brandy and strychnine by his coach during the race. During World War II, US soldiers and airmen were routinely given amphetamines in order to better endure long hours in combat operations.

Steroid usage in sports was first utilized by East German weightlifters in the late 1940s and was later expanded to swimmers and track and field athletes. Following widespread calls for action,  the International Olympic Committee finally banned PEDs in 1967. Enforcement was inconsistent until athletes, sports governing bodies and international organizations formed the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999 to codify what substances were to be banned and to administer uniform testing methodologies for possible violations.  As the creators of PEDs continue to improve their sophistication, potency and transparency, WADA and its constituencies also innovate new ways to detect these drugs. It publishes an updated “Prohibited List” annually. Because WADA is unable to anticipate all possible new developments, the first page of the list states

“Any pharmacological substance which is not addressed by any of the subsequent sections of the List and with no current approval by any governmental regulatory health authority for human therapeutic use (e.g drugs under pre clinical or clinical development or discontinued, designer drugs, substances approved only for veterinary use) is prohibited at all times.”

What drugs/procedures are prohibited and why?

The drugs taken by athletes differ widely based on the performance needs of the sport. Erythropoietin (EPO) is largely taken by endurance athletes who seek a higher level of red blood cells, which leads to more oxygenated blood, and a higher VO2 max, which increases the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the blood during exercise. EPO has become popular among athletes who choose to juice because it has a low degree of detectability when compared to other methods of doping such as blood transfusions. EPO is believed to have been widely used by athletes in the 1990s, in large part because there was not a way to directly test for the drug until 2002.  EPO is very dangerous because it increases the viscosity of blood, leading to seizures and heart attacks, and has been linked to the deaths of 18 pro cyclists in the last fifteen years.

In sports which physical strength is favored, athletes have resorted to anabolic steroids, known for their ability to increase physical strength and muscle mass. The drugs mimic the effect of naturally occurring  testosterone in the body.  Anabolic steroids were developed as a solution to the extensive side effects of testosterone use, although they are far from completely safe. Their many negative side effects in men include, but are not limited to, acne, impaired liver function, impotency, breast formation (gynecomastia), erectile dysfunction and baldness.

Athletes seeking to avoid testing positive for doping use various methods to cheat on the drug tests. The most common methods include urine replacement, diuretics (which are used to cleanse the body before having to provide samples) and blood transfusions, which also increase the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity (in turn increasing endurance without the presence of drugs that could trigger a positive test result.)

Some Other Considerations

Despite the health problem brought by PEDs, some athletes point to the already dangerous environment in sports like football and martial arts and wonder if there is a double standard. Health concerns brought by the aggressive nature of these sports is deemed acceptable but PEDs are not. They point out that protective headgear results in both more dangerous and greater numbers of head and neck injuries in football than if no helmets were used.

Many top athletes also believe the doping rules are somewhat arbitrary. Changes in diet such as consuming whole grains or eating gluten free are acceptable choices while the sweetener Stevia (found in energy drinks) was once prohibited. Ill athletes are generally loathe to take anything more than aspirin because decongestants and asthma medications require specific WADA waivers. Sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber to increase the supply of oxygen in the blood is acceptable, though not accessible to most, while low cost drugs to achieve the same effect are banned.

The Morality Issues

The world governing body of professional cycling, the UCI, recently stripped Lance Armstrong of his record seven Tour de France titles. The UCI decided that no winners would be declared for those years because the use of PEDs was so pervasive that it was likely that anyone near the top of the standings was similarly tainted. Lance won those races by spending countless hours training and six or seven hours on the saddle most days of those Tours. If he had not “juiced” with PEDs, it is almost certain that he would not have crossed the finish line a winner. If he wanted to win, he had to juice. Because everyone else was too. He could simply have walked away, and refused to participate. Every elite athlete has a precious window of time in which to potentially dominate. This was his time. So is he guilty or is he a victim of circumstance? Don’t the governing bodies have an obligation to provide for a “level playing field” so that athletes who abide by the prohibitions have a reasonable chance to win?

What of the future? In London last July, Oscar Pistorius of South Africa became the first double amputee to run in an Olympic track event after winning a court appeal against the IAAF (track and field’s world governing body). The IAAF had maintained that his carbon fiber prosthetic legs gave Pistorius an unfair advantage over other athletes.

The reasons for the ban on PEDs are primarily the health risks of usage and the desire for equality of opportunity for athletes. In the coming years sports governing bodies will be forced to deal with genetic enhancements and other mechanical changes to the human body. Authorities will be hard pressed to decide what regulations to enforce when changes made by athletes are both permanent and not health risks. Violators of any standards will almost always be one step ahead of the testers, and regulatory bodies would do well to use a light touch rather than a heavy hand. The moral issues are far from straightforward, and there will be many valid opinions as to what is right or wrong. What do you think? How far would you go to be a champion?

One of the many problems of aging athletes is the simple inability to move as quickly as they did in their physical prime. Many tennis players respond to the ravages of time by trying to play more doubles. But the challenge of switching to doubles is the difficulty of organizing four players of remotely equal abilities at just the time when a court is available.

Diogenes believes that the ultimate solution to this problem is a new format that is easier for old bodies to play. Called One-on-One Doubles®, also known as Ghost Doubles, the game’s rules were developed and trademarked by former Harvard Women’s Coach Ed Krass, who is also a USTA High Performance Coach, and the Director of College Tennis Exposure Camps.

1-0n-1 Doubles Tennis is the first alternative, competitive format to singles and doubles since the inception of the game in the 1870s. 1-0n-1 Doubles Tennis is a half-court, serve-and-volley singles competition played on a doubles court. 1-on-1 Doubles Tennis can be played in both tournament and league format.

The half-court, serve-and-volley singles game played on the doubles court is strictly a cross court competition with new game dimensions. There is a divisible line drawn through the middle of the court from the center service line to the middle of the baseline. On clay, one can use a regular court liner to make this divisible line through the middle (informally players can just scrape a line with the edge of their shoe). On hard courts, one can use chalk or white athletic/trainers’ tape to mark off the middle line (or informally, just pretend the line is there). All points are played cross court with the alley included. All players must serve and volley on both first and second serves. Half-volleys are permitted. The returner can stay back or come into the net.

In singles a player must defend a space 27 feet wide by 39 feet deep; a total area of 1053 square feet. In one on one doubles, a player defends a space of 18 feet by 39 feet; a total area of 702 SF, 1/3 less than in singles. This means that 3 steps gets to any ball instead of the four it often takes in singles.

Speed and power advantages of younger players are blunted, allowing older players to compete more evenly with youngsters. The angles are better too. It is harder to hit winners through the court so placement is more critical than pace.

The 1-0n-1 format forces players to hit to a specific target, and to focus on how to “not miss”. One is always required to hit a cross court shot over the lower part of the net, which is what most players should do on about 90% of ground strokes but probably only do 60% of the time. Hitting up the line, or straight through the court requires crossing your ball over the higher part of the net and bringing it down in a shorter distance than hitting cross court. As a result, even on the ATP tour, where all the competitors have exquisite skills, about 80% of ground stroke errors occur when a player chooses to change direction and NOT hit cross court.

The 1-0n-1 game provides a competitive format of play combining both singles and doubles skills all within one game. It places a premium on hand and racquet skills that can be improved at any age. Because winners are very hard to hit, the rallies tend to be longer, yielding play that is higher intensity with lower impact on older bodies. Many players who want to play on consecutive days (weekends) are more easily able to do so without pain. Did I mention that One-0n-One Doubles is also great fun? The points are quick and more varied than in singles, with both players often ending at the net with smiles on their faces.

This week’s Mutua Madrid Open tournament inaugurates a stunning technological move forward for a tradition bound game. For the first time, an ATP Tour event will be played on blue clay. The announced reason for the change is to enhance the contrast to the yellow balls for both the players and the television audience. The playing characteristics of the surface are said to be identical to that of traditional red clay, also known as “terre batu.”

Blue Clay in Madrid

The change came about at the initiative of former player and now billionaire businessman Ion Tiriac, the owner of the tournament. Known as “Count Dracula” because of his Transylvanian roots and trademark mustache, he has sparked other innovations in this Masters Series event, which is one of 13 tournaments ranked in importance just behind the 4 Grand Slams.

At most tour events, ball boys and girls are either promising local junior players or members of the club where the event is held. Several years ago, Madrid inaugurated the use of professional models for televised matches. Seeing the very slim, pretty girls next to the tour players made the athletes appear even more superhuman. While the mostly male audience clearly approved of the models, by the second year, the models were selected with an eye toward their ability to throw and catch tennis balls. By the third year of the change, male models were used for the WTA Tour event, to the delight of female audiences.

In 2009, the Madrid Open moved into “La Caja Magica” (the Magic Box), a stunning, $200 million structure that is the most modern municipal tennis facility in the world. Although the tournament is an outdoor event,  La Caja has three stadium courts with retractable roofs that lift away like giant lids to a box.

Traditional red clay courts are made not of natural clay but of crushed bricks fired from red clay. The crushed brick is then covered with a topping of other crushed particles. American green clay courts (Har-Tru) are constructed similarly using crushed basalt that is faster drying, but also harder and “faster” (the balls bounce lower so a player has less time to get to it).

The blue Madrid clay courts are also made from red clay, but iron oxide is removed from it before the bricks are made, resulting in a “white” clay. The white clay compound is immersed in a water soluble blue dye for 24 hours before being formed in bricks and fired. The bricks are dyed again after firing before they are crushed to form the court surface.

Mr. Tiriac has a long history of tennis innovation, claiming that 25 years ago he was the first to use a blue surface for an indoor hard court tournament in Stuttgart. Since that time, blue hard courts have been widely adopted around the world and are used for the US Open and the Australian Open events. Says Tiriac “for the players on the court, it’s about a 22 percent improvement. For the television viewer, it’s even more: about 27 percent.”

The bounce of the ball on the new blue clay courts is supposed to be exactly the same as for red clay. But playing conditions are always affected by altitude, humidity, wind, temperature and other local conditions, and some of the players are not happy about the change in Madrid. Most vocal has been French Open defending champion Rafa Nadal, arguably the best clay court player ever. Nadal thinks the conditions in Madrid are already hard to adjust to because of the altitude (2200 feet), and that yet another variable such as the blue clay provides another unnecessary distraction in the middle of the clay court season. Of course, if you are a creature of habit and legendary ritualized behaviors such as Nadal, why would you want any changes in the game?

I applaud the effort to make  tennis more video friendly. My favorite parts of the tour are the “dirt ball” events of the clay court season because the slow surface forces the players to construct long grinding points that showcase the range of their skills. But there are many televised matches I have stopped watching because it is just too hard to follow the ball on my screen. This week Diogenes will be in blue heaven.