SWISS PRECISION

Ken Hoffman sets up tennis star with 15 questions

Tennis star Belinda Bencic takes a swing at Hoffman's queries. Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

Belinda Bencic is in top form, finally, working her way back to the Top 10 of women's tennis after injuries sidelined her for much of 2016 and 2017. The Swiss star won a tournament last week in Las Vegas and she’s the No. 1 seed at this week's Oracle Challenger Series at Rice University.

Talk about a fan-friendly event — parking and entry are free — with big name players from both the men’s and women’s tour in action. Bencic set to play Allie Kiick of the U.S. on November 13.

Bencic, who reached No. 7 in the world as an 18-year-old in 2016, has a remarkable record against the sport’s brightest names. She boasts a winning record against former No. 1’s Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber. She’s beaten No. 1’s Garbine Muguruza and both Serena and Venus Williams. In 2015, she won the Rogers Cup in Canada, defeating four Top 10 players, Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Serena and Simona Halep along the way.

Bencic, still only 21, debuted with the Swiss Federation Cup team in 2012, and won the French Open and Wimbledon girls title that year. Two years later, she made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, beating two Top 10 players. Oh, and for the past two years, she’s represented Switzerland in the international Hopman Cup tournament in Australia. Her partner in mixed doubles? Some guy named Federer.

As Houston's leading tennis journalist, I had to ask Bencic the tough questions. We sat down after her practice session Monday, November 12. Usually, I limit my questions to 10, but since tennis is the greatest sport ever... she gets 15.

Ken Hoffman: Can you settle the Great Tennis Debate? Is a tennis ball yellow or green? Houston barbecue artiste Yonny Demeris constantly tells me the ball is green. I think he needs to wear goggles when he's near the restaurant's smoker. I say yellow. So?

Belinda Bencic: It’s yellow. Green? No, it’s bright yellow. (Note: If you look at a can of tennis balls, the label says “optic yellow.”)

KH: How do you explain your success against Top 10 players?

BB: I’m not sure why. Everybody is intimidated the first time they play the top players, of course. I was very young my first times. I was 16 when I played Petra Kvitova. I was 17 when I played Serena the first time. I lost both matches. But the next time I played them, I knew what to expect. So I was able to focus on what I had to do.

I definitely love the big crowd and the atmosphere of big matches. I don’t have a problem with being intimidated. Also, you’re much freer when you play the top players. If you lose, nothing happens. If you win, wow, it’s amazing. So I go on the court with a much easier attitude when I play them.

KH: Tennis has a new rule: now, players have to get their own towels from back of the court. Ball kids are no longer running back and forth with towels, they can concentrate on retrieving balls. I think fans will like the new rule because they don’t have to watch some players dry off after every point. It's kind of ridiculous. How do you feel about the new rule?

BB: There are two sides to the story. Sometimes players go to the towels because they want a break. But there are times when you play in Cincinnati and it’s 89 percent humidity, and you need a towel. I’m sweating a lot in Cincinnati. I won’t mind getting my own towel. But it’s a difficult situation now because there’s another rule that we have only 25 seconds between points.

Between points, you need time to breathe, to take the towel, to take the balls and start the point. We get fined if we take longer than 25 seconds. It has to be clear, after a long rally, the referee can’t say you have 25 seconds. The referee can let you have a little extra time. I think the 25-second rule is okay, but the rule has to have a brain.

KH: I play tennis for fun. You play tennis for work. Is tennis fun for you?

BB: It is fun, but not every day. Sometimes there are days when you don’t want to play. A person like you, when you don’t want to play, you just don’t play. But we have to go to work every day. I definitely appreciate that I do something I like, so I’m having fun in my job.

I think most of the people in the world are not happy with their job, so I’m very happy to be a tennis player. But everybody has their days when they just don’t want to go to work.

KH: Tennis is weird. It’s the only sport I can think of where opponents dress in the same locker room and warm up with each other. You don’t see LeBron James and Stephen Curry doing layup drills together before a game. How do you stop your opponent from eavesdropping on your coach talking with you?

BB: It is strange. Soccer teams don’t see each other before the match. They have their own locker rooms and their own warmup area. In tennis, you’re in the same shower, the same locker room, you may even share the same warmup court. It’s weird, but I’ve been doing it since I was small, so I’m used to it. When I think about how other sports do it, yes, tennis is weird.

As for eavesdropping on your opponents, we try not to talk tactics in front of other players. One physical therapist may work with a lot of players at a tournament. When you walk in the locker room, he may ask, ‘How’s your foot?’ in front of your opponent, so they know you have a foot injury. It’s not ideal, but unfortunately, it’s like that. Before a match, I just block everything out and I don’t talk to my opponent.

KH: Here’s something else that’s weird about tennis. It’s the only sport where opponents are wearing the identical uniform. If you stand back from the TV, and you’re not familiar with the players, it’s difficult to tell them apart.

BB: Everybody has the sponsors. Nike will have a new collection and you have to wear that collection at a tournament. If you’re a top player like Serena or Sharapova, you have your own line and no one else is wearing it. If you’re not at that level, you get what everybody else gets. So many players are wearing the same thing. I’m fortunate because Nike gave me a line that only a few other players are wearing. It’s a line for younger generation players.

KH: You play tournaments around the world. What is your favorite city?

BB: New York! New York has everything, the shopping, just everything. You can go where there’s lot of people, go to the park, yes, the pizza. It’s a very special city, I feel the energy when I’m there. I really want to go to New York City when it’s Christmas.

KH: Do you ever wake up and have no idea what city you’re in?

BB: All the time. I wake up in a new bed and ask myself, ‘Where am I? Oh, I’m in Tyler, Texas or another city for another tournament.'  Thank God I’m not a singer, where every night is a different city. With me, it’s just every week is different.

KH: Switzerland is right in the middle of everything in Europe. How many languages do you speak? When you talk to the crowd, is it difficult to be funny in different languages?

BB: I speak English, German, Swiss German, Slovakian and I understand French a little, but not enough for me to speak it. Back home with my friends, I speak Swiss German. With my parents and family, we speak Slovakian. Humor is hard. Sometimes I try to make a joke and it doesn’t go well. Plus you don’t know local expressions and funny words. But I’m getting more comfortable with English.

KH: This is winter for Houston. It’s about 55 degrees and overcast. What’s the craziest weather you’ve played a match in?

BB: In April, in Prague, we played a match and it was zero degrees Celsius (32 F) and snowing. When my opponent was serving and looking up, I could see her breath and the snow flakes coming down.

KH: You’re not a grunter, but a lot of women players are. Do you think grunting gives a player an unfair advantage?

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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