10 Questions with Darren Cahill

On the Baseline Tennis News

In an exclusive Q&A with On the Baseline, Paula Vergara spoke to ESPN tennis analyst, coach, and former pro player, Darren Cahill about his thoughts on Wimbledon and the women’s game.

OTB: Justine Henin has set her sights on winning Wimbledon this year. She came close a few times in previous years, making it to the final in 2001 and 2006. Do you think she has a legitimate shot at the title? 

Darren Cahill: Absolutely. Justine is a class player. She certainly has the ability to step up to the challenge. Winning Wimbledon is a dream of hers. When she gets to Wimbledon, she needs to let her game go and not be restricted. I think in Paris, we saw her play within herself. Probably the nerves and expectations got to her a little bit. At Wimbledon, she can get rid of that, and really free up her swing and free up her game plan. Wimbledon is not hers to lose; it’s everybody’s to gain. She’s got to go out there and take it from everyone.

OTB: What types of weapons does Caroline Wozniacki need to develop to become a serious contender at Wimbledon?

Darren Cahill: I think she needs to develop a little more pace and power on her first serve to give her some free points. To me, Caroline is a very similar female version to what Lleyton Hewitt was six or seven years ago. They play a very similar type of game. Lleyton had the ability on grass to get the free points off the first serve. While his first serve percentage was never great, (around the 55% mark), he could always rely on it. If he made the first serve, he would hit the lines and he had great direction with it, and he would get a bunch of free points. Caroline doesn’t get the free points that she looks for on the first serve. I know she’s been working really hard on trying to develop five or six more miles per hour, and to hit her spots on her serve. That will free up the rest of her game as well. A lot of the time she relies on making her side of the court feel extremely small to her opponent. She uses her legs really well, she defends extremely well, and she makes the opposition have to hit five, six, or seven great shots to win a point. It’s a bit tougher to defend on grass because of the footing issue. I think she hits a great cross-court, but when the ball is there to take it up the line, she second-guesses herself a little bit. If she can stay a little bit more committed to that particular shot, that could be a match winning shot for her.

OTB: Would you say that grass is a more difficult surface to master than clay?

Darren Cahill: Yes, especially for this generation of player. They never get a chance to play on grass, apart from the four weeks of the year leading into Wimbledon. Because most of today’s game is played from the baseline, and because of the technology, and the strings more than anything else, people are taking such big swings and generating more pace and power from the back of the court, and more spin as well. So it’s a little harder to approach the net. Instead of playing volleys around the waist level, most of the time you’re playing volleys around the knee level, and that makes it a much tougher volley to make. So most of the tennis these days is played from the back of the court. And if it’s going to be played from the back of the court, you need to be able to move well. There is an art to moving well on grass. You don’t get that from just playing on it four weeks of the year. You really have to spend some time on it, and feel the grass under the feet, and feel how much you can slide or when you don’t need to slide. The players who do well at Wimbledon are the ones who move well.

OTB: Sam Stosur has done well at Wimbledon–in doubles. She’s made it to the final for the past two years. Do you think she can carry over her recent singles success at the French Open into Wimbledon?

Darren Cahill: I think she’s riding a wave at the moment. Sam is believing in herself much more than she probably did a year or two years ago. We’ve all believed that she’s had the weapons and the talent to be a top-10 player, but she’s now a Grand Slam contender. And she’s earned that the hard way. So there’s no question that when she gets to Wimbledon, she’s going to be a factor there. But grass is probably her least favorite surface. Clay works very well for her, because it gives her a little more time to set up, especially on the forehand and also to get around the backhand and hit that forehand. She hits the forehand much better from the backhand side of the court, and grass doesn’t really allow you to do that, because of the unreliable bounce of the ball, and you don’t get as much time to set up. That doesn’t mean she can’t win on it. It just means she’ll just have to really bear down in those two lead up tournaments, and really work hard on movement and bending the legs little more. Her particular style of game can do well on grass. It’s just making sure that she can get through and have one or two big wins on the stuff, and then you start to believe in yourself much more.

OTB: Do you see any potential for the up-and-comers to dominate this year at Wimbledon?

Darren Cahill: The ladies’ game this year has been really fascinating. You can argue that it’s been more interesting than the men’s game in 2010. I think that’s partly because for the last 2-3 years, we’ve had Serena and Venus really dominating the game. But with Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, and Maria Sharapova coming back, it’s added a lot more flare to the women’s game. I think it’s still going to be the people that we expect to be in the second week that will still be there. Sharapova has a great game for grass. She’s going to be a factor. We’re just waiting for her to make that breakthrough. I thought that what we saw of her game in Paris was very impressive. She was maybe just a point away from beating Justine in the third round, and was hitting the ball great. She won a clay court tournament going into the French Open, so she’s obviously playing well.

OTB: What types of playing styles are well suited to grass?
Darren Cahill: You’ve got to move well and serve well. The big servers normally dominate, especially in the women’s game, and even in the men’s game as well. The people who can step up to the plate and hit their spots, get the free points on the serve. It’s very difficult when you get behind on the point on grass, to turn it around to get it back in your favor. So if you can step up and hit the big serve and get on top of the point instantly, then you’re in a great position to win that point. That’s why Serena and Venus have dominated Wimbledon for the last number of years. That’s why Sharapova is going to be a factor, and why Kim (if she’s playing well) is a factor and Justine as well. They either serve huge, or they hit that first shot and get on top of the point instantly.

OTB: Do you think Ana Ivanovic will get her game back on track soon or is she still struggling?

Darren Cahill: I have no doubt she’ll get it back. She’s got a top-10 game. She hits the ball great. She has just as much power as any player in the game and she’s got the will and the desire. It’s just a matter of time for Ana. At the moment, she steps onto the court and is not quite sure what’s going to happen. When it’s pretty clear what you’re going to accomplish on the court, and you step onto the court and you know what your base level is, then you know what to expect of yourself. You know you have 2-3 levels to go up from there. There’s no going down from there, but you can certainly come up from there. Once she finds that base level that she can rely on, she can be much freer on the court and expect more of herself. Ana is in great hands with Heinz Gunthardt. I think he’s a wonderful coach.

OTB: What weapons does Venus Williams have in her game that makes her so hard to beat on grass?

Darren Cahill: She moves great. The small things that she normally struggles with on hard courts–the second serve, and the forehand a little bit–they seem to disappear when she steps onto the courts at Wimbledon. She’s a different person. It doesn’t matter how much you’re struggling with your game. When you turn up to a tournament where you’ve done well previously, you instantly feel good about your tennis game. It’s like you never left the place. It seems that way for Venus—she crushes the forehand, she moves inside the baseline and takes player’s times away. She serves well, she doesn’t have nearly as much trouble with the second serve, and she just imposes her game. She doesn’t let anybody play their game. Everybody pretty much is relying upon how Venus is going to play.

OTB: What types of match statistics seem to be the most important in analyzing a match and why?

Darren Cahill: It varies with every single match and every single player. What works for Justine doesn’t work for Kim. And what works for Venus probably doesn’t work for Serena. Some [statistics] stand out and some are glaringly obvious, but there are certain statistics where you really have to go behind the scenes. At the top level, you’re only looking at 4 or 5 points making a huge difference in turning a result around. That could be: How close are you getting to the net? Or where are you serving for the big point? Or what type of serve are you serving? That’s what makes tennis such a great game. The variables are maybe more than in any other sport. Not only the variables on your side of the court, you’ve got to worry about the variables on the other side of the court as well. The one statistic that you can pretty much rely on that’s going to be very effective as to whether you win or lose, is second serve points won or lost. If you’re winning the vast majority of your second serve points and your opponent’s second serve points, you’re probably winning most of your matches.

OTB: Lindsay Davenport will be playing mixed doubles at Wimbledon with Bob Bryan. Any thoughts on that?

Darren Cahill: That doesn’t surprise me. I saw her in Paris, and she looked to be in great shape. She was doing some commentary over there as well, and she was enjoying life. If she wants to get out there and challenge herself again, I think it’s great to see her back. I think she’s an inspiration for everybody when she steps onto the tennis court.

Caroline Wozniacki: How Good Does She Have to Be?

On the Baseline Tennis News

She’s been called a pusher, accused of not being aggressive enough with her shots, and criticized for not approaching the net as often as she could. Yet, at age 19, Caroline Wozniacki has held the No. 2 ranking, earned seven career titles, and is the only teenager ranked in the top 25. Is the media being too hard on Wozniacki? Let’s take a look at what’s been happening with her game.

Wozniacki seemed to be on the right track, achieving a career-high ranking of No. 2 in March of this year, after reaching the final at Indian Wells. She won the title in Ponte Vedra Beach for the second year in a row. In mid-April, she suffered a serious setback during her semifinal match in Charleston, where she sustained a bad ankle sprain. As a result, her clay court game suffered during the European clay court season. Wozniacki ended up with early round losses in Stuttgart, Rome and Madrid and won just one match in Warsaw, and retired in her next match due to ongoing ankle problems. Those losses pulled her world ranking down a notch to No. 3.

Fortunately, now that the grass court season is underway, Wozniacki seems to be back to full health, and has the potential to be a major threat at Wimbledon. Back in 2006, Wozniacki won the Wimbledon singles title as a junior (at age 15). Wozniacki’s results from Wimbledon as a WTA Tour player have shown that she has taken the slow and steady route, advancing one additional round each year since 2007. Wozniacki has proven that her game is well suited to grass, winning Eastbourne in 2009, and making it to the fourth round at Wimbledon the same year. Wozniacki admits that she always feels good on grass, and it is by far, one of her favorite surfaces (next to hard courts). It will be interesting to see if she can defend her title at Eastbourne, and get past Kim Clijsters, who took the title there in 2005.

As an accomplished baseliner, Wozniacki hits with depth and has superb ball placement. She is also able to mix up the pace and spin with her shots. Consistency and mental tenacity are her strengths, along with footwork, speed, anticipation, and hard-hitting ground strokes. She rarely makes a large number of unforced errors, and she has shown up and fought through matches to the best of her ability, week after week, pushing through her injuries.

Wozniacki’s ankle problems haven’t allowed her to play at her best level in recent months, but she has shown a marked improvement, making it to the quarterfinals at the French Open. She has stepped out of her comfort zone at the baseline a bit more, and is slowly taking more risks at the net. The speed on Wozniacki’s serve has also shown improvement, reaching speeds as high as 118 mph at the French Open, up from 107-110 mph at the Australian Open.

The question is, how good does Caroline Wozniacki have to be to win her first Grand Slam singles title and/or achieve the world No. 1 ranking? I agree that Wozniacki needs to develop more weapons, or, even one BIG weapon. She also needs to be the one dictating points more often than her opponent.

To fairly assess Wozniacki’s game, you also have to look at those players who are currently ranked No. 1 and 2 in the world. What do Serena and Venus have that Wozniacki doesn’t? Experience. Venus has been on the WTA Tour for 16 years, Serena, 15. Even Sam Stosur, who is having the best year of her career, has been on the Tour for 11 years. Serena didn’t achieve the No. 1 ranking (for the first time) until 2002. By that point, Serena had been on the Tour for seven years.

Wozniacki definitely has more match experience than she had a year ago, but with so many players who have so many more years of experience under their belt, it’s understandable that Wozniacki’s game, by comparison, may not seem to be where it should be. But in tennis, when you weigh experience vs. age, experience usually wins. In time, Wozniacki will be as good as she has to be.

French Open 2010 Rewind

It’s funny how the end of a Grand Slam tournament always seems to have an anti-climactic quality to it—the intensity, drama, upsets, rain delays, injuries, not to mention the Twitter updates, midnight article edits, and lack of sleep, all come to a screeching halt on the last day of the fortnight.

I’ve grown accustomed to this sudden shift in activity, but when it’s all said and done, it’s hard to shut off the rewind button inside my head. What really lingers in my mind for weeks after a Grand Slam ends isn’t who won or lost in the final, but rather, where history was made. In tennis, history-making moments are quite often found in statistics or broken records, but sometimes they can be found in something as offbeat as a gold lame tennis outfit.

Let the Rewind Begin.

One of the best performances in a 5-setter came from Andy Murray in his first round match vs. Richard Gasquet. If Andy plays like that at Wimbledon, he may be hoisting the trophy.

Victoria Azarenka was fined $4,000 for failing to attend her post-match press conference after losing her first round match to Gisela Dulko. Sour grapes = a lighter wallet.

Fastest serve speed: 149mph, by Taylor Dent. He lost in the second round at the French Open, but no one (not even Andy Roddick) was able to top that speed.

Sam Querrey lost his first round match, then caught a flight home instead of playing doubles with John Isner. The number of times Sam Querrey will will look back on the 2010 French Open and kick himself: 2,010 (at least).

One of the biggest nail-biters of the tournament: Gail “La Monf” Monfils was at 5-5 in the fifth set of his second round match vs. Fabio Fognini of Italy, only to have his match suspended due to darkness. Someone goofed on the timing of that call.

Talk about mental fortitude: John Isner had three consecutive tie break sets in his second round match vs. Marco Chiudinelli, then went on to win the match.

Justine Henin had her 24-match winning streak at the French Open snapped by Sam Stosur in the fourth round. Most people know by now that Henin v.2 still has some bugs that need to be worked out.

Robby Ginepri must have been eating from the same pasta bowl as Francesca Schiavone. The 27-year-old had his best French Open result to date, and upset Juan Carlos Ferrero and Sam Querrey along the way. He was the last American male standing at the French Open before losing in the fourth round to No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic. 

Aravane Rezai finally got more attention for her game than for being the only player at the French Open wearing a gold lame tennis outfit.

Roger Federer was ousted by Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals. That’s something I wish I could have deleted from the rewind. On the plus side, Federer had already racked up 23 Grand Slam semifinal appearances before his quarterfinal loss.

Sam Stosur may have been denied the French Open title this year, but she did manage to beat former champions Justine Henin and Serena Williams, as well as former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic on her way to the final. There’s always a silver lining somewhere.

Just a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday, Francesca Schiavone became the first Italian woman in history to win the French Open, as well as the first Italian woman in to win any Major. In the process, she proved that age is just a number.

This was the first French Open women’s final since 2004 to be played by two first-time Grand Slam finalists. (Anastasia Myskina def. Elena Dementieva in 2004.) Translation: everyone’s pick for the women's final didn’t make it to the final.

Venus Williams gained international attention during the French Open, but mostly for the wrong reasons. By the way, illusions are for magicians, not tennis players.

Robin Soderling was the ace leader at the French Open, racking up a total of 82 aces. Unfortunately for Soderling, his serving skills weren’t enough to beat Rafa in the final.

Veteran player Elena Dementieva played her 46th consecutive Grand Slam tournament this year at the French Open. Her streak began at the 1999 Australian Open. There should be an award for this achievement.

Rafael Nadal won his fifth French Open title and did not drop a set during the entire tournament. Nadal also became the second man in history to win at least five French Open titles (Bjorn Borg has six). At age 24, Nadal is well on his way to breaking every record in tennis.