Tennis is Better than Ever

I have taken-up the argument of this Roger-is-now-better-than-ever debate and declared it bankrupt.  It’s complete wizardry, poppycock and tomfoolery.  People, don’t believe a word of it. It’s an episode of Mission Impossible where all the cool agents get smashed and killed.  Roger is quite advanced in age when it comes to competing on a regular basis vs. the top of the ATP.  If you can’t see that, I can’t help you.  I guess time will be the best rhetor in this case.  Stay tuned.

However, the game of tennis is better than ever. I’m pretty sure.

I am referring to the level of tennis on the court, along with some generic philosophy and a bit of analysis.  We arrive at this conclusion, I believe, holding the sparkling example of Novak Djokovic in our minds, who has a very worldly sense of the game, and finds himself in quite the opportunistic situation playing perhaps the best tennis, pound-for-pound, of all time.

If you ask me this next Wednesday, I might waver a bit; but I think this is the case.

In a different article I plan to examine the style component of the game, hopefully provide some clarification as to why Roger and Pete are often so high on people’s lists (certainly on mine).  If you look at varying lists, the top 3-4 usually include Roger, Pete, Rafa and Laver; certainly you will almost always see Roger, Pete, and Rafa at the top.  The rest of the list is just your basic gathering of other greats: Lendl, Borg, Johnny Mac, Agassi, Conners, maybe Emerson.  Djokovic is usually in these top tens, but apparently hasn’t reached the top of the mountain in this collective tennis consciousness.

Granted, this is all debatable and who in the hell is making these lists in the first place?  My point is most lists – use several different “credible” perspectives if you’d like – tend to have a general consensus.  Because the truth is usually right there, in the pudding (numbers).

And to their collective points regarding Novak, he still has work to do.  If he laid his racquet down today, he’d be somewhere in the top five or ten.  Tough to argue otherwise. A lot of us avid fans are “seeing” his career play out in-front, projecting into the future.  We know what he is capable of, what he’s most likely to do.  Nothing is guaranteed, but the future looks very bright for the superb Serb.

But I’m wanting to go in a slightly different direction here.

I read an interview of one of my favorite players of all-time, Ivan Lendl.  The interviewer asked if the players today could beat the players of yesteryear.  This is a touchy subject, especially if you are “tight” with a player from the past.  Again, ask me next Wednesday about this question of eras, and I might go pull my wooden racquet out of the basement and defend the wall.

Lendl very clearly answered, “Yes” to this question of players and eras.  He briefly, in his orderly efficiency (resembling his great game), explained players are just better today.  I wasn’t so sure I could agree, wanting to reach for a new racquet and hand it to him, or Borg, or even Pete, perhaps dig-up some current state-of-the-art discourse on sports nutrition and sports science, so they could update their “greatness,” fashion a more “current” form for this strange, hypothetical match for the ages that we play in our imaginations constantly.

But Lendl is right, I’m afraid. After all, who’s going to disagree with this man amongst men?  No one may know the game as well as he. My proof? He orchestrated a couple major championships and an Olympic gold for the handicapped Andy Murray.  That is some incredible coaching, perhaps Lendl’s greatest tennis achievement.  Ok, I’m being sarcastic.  But you know what I mean.

This little epiphany of mine about the current state of tennis, in historical perspective, took another step forward after watching the Sampras v Agassi 2000 AO SF this past weekend.  Have you seen this tilt?

ShakeAOThe clip below contains the pivotal 4th set TB.  A pretty epic match of pure rivalry between two foes who, sure they respect one another, don’t really like each other, especially during a match like this.  The body language/facial expressions are a great read on their personalities, the roles they play in the grand narrative that is men’s tennis, the drama of this match.

I’d like to direct your attention to a few points from this clip.  This TB is fairly representative of the match as a whole and probably their games, in general.  Let’s start with Pete.  His game has so much intimidation.  When I write the word “intimidation” I think of Rafa, but Pete’s was of a different kind, a more lethal variety.  In fact, the best way to differentiate between Pete and Rafa’s intimidation is one’s was offensive and the other’s defensive (this is what makes Rafa’s game so much less interesting and inferior, imho.  His mental game is perhaps unmatched, but his tennis was almost purely a kind of anti-Roger brand of tennis, built for that player and that era).

Pete’s offensive weapons were GOAT.  Watch his serve during this TB. I watched the entire match and this TB is representative, as I said.  He finished the match with 30+ aces.  A stat I do not have, but this is what, to me, makes Pete so deadly, is his second serve ace count.  His confidence is incredible.  He will mark the T with a 118 mph second serve. If he DF, he’s coming again.  This also refers to his serve and volley.  He’s hitting his first serve 125+ and he’s coming in to net, probably 80% of the time.  Here he comes.  Andre passes, brilliantly.  But he’s then getting ready for another 125 first, 117 second and Pete’s coming to net on both serves, most likely. His net game, remember, with such incredible touch and class, is probably the best net game of all time (made better by that serve), which includes big overhead smashes to go along with his long, athletic frame.  Just a beast. Very intimidating.

What you’ll see, however, is his lack of baseline game.  We know his ground strokes were incredible.  The forehand (the running forehand) and his big OHBH are legendary.  But you’ll see he just can’t quite hit with Andre consistently, so he’s forced to come to net, which wasn’t a bad strategy, but. . .

His return of serve is a liability, too.  If he can break serve more consistently, it’s over.  But he’s forced to go to TB twice here and the second proves too much in the end.  The return is straight-up liability.  Most of his return BH are slice.  You’ll see him hit a few with top spin and these prove to be more effective. This style varied some through out his career, but that was his approach more or less.  The baseline and return were not big confidence builders.  This certainly kept hope alive for Agassi.  This is all he had as he’d often just watch 3-4 serves blow by with out a whiff at much of any kind of exchange.

Agassi was all baseline attack. I got into some exchanges online with people who did not think Andre was a great returner.  Andre Agassi is not one of the greatest returns of serve of all time?  Good luck with that.  Along with this great ground game, his serve improved later in his career.  Some of his game, the power, the angles, and the return of serve remind me of Djokovic and Nadal.  Sure it’s a bit of simplification, but Nole and Nadal followed Andre in this two player-type paradigm and Roger followed Pete (though Roger abandoned his S&V until more recently).

Great match, but Pete and Andre both show big vulnerability.  I focus on Pete here because I think we all think that Nole is gunning for that top of the food chain legacy.  Pete’s game (take a gander at the clip and other evidence) was so big, yet so full of style, class, panache and confidence.  He did not think Andre belonged on that court after the 2nd set.  And after the 3rd set TB.  This one was going to Pete.  But Andre battled, ala Novak and Nadal.

God forbid Nadal and Andre ever did have some kind of illegal “lift” to their games to compete and beat Roger and Pete, respectively.  That’s not the point here.  I’m still so impressed with Pete.  Andre, too.  These are all great players with different games, different styles.NovakESPN

Novak, however, seems to be devoted to completing his game.  No weaknesses.  Already, we see so much balance and very little weakness. His serve has improved and he’s coming to net more, certainly with the help of Boris and others.

To reduce the Agassi/Sampras match down to a very tangible discussion, the THBH just looks less vulnerable than the OHBH. I will attach to this the return of serve since the THBH often supports a more effective service return.  That’s what kept Agassi in that match and many others vs. Pete, imo.  That’s dealt, we all know, so much difficulty Roger’s way, which probably kept him from winning 20+ majors.  I use Pete in this analysis, but we know the same issues with OHBH and return of serve, to a certain extent, apply to Roger, as well. Novak is more than just the defensive player ala Andre or Rafa. He’s taking tennis to that next level: Pete. . Roger. . Novak.

Novak has perhaps the greatest THBH ever and the greatest return of serve of all time. As he improves the rest of his game, which is already #1 in the world, FH, serve, 2nd serve, S&V, mental strength, fitness, etc., it’s tough to disagree with Lendl.

3 comments

  1. Great post, Matt. I agree with most of your points. I have a few that may add to the discussion.

    I think the level of excellence that an athlete achieves is influenced greatly by the quality and the kind of opposition they face. Put Rod Laver circa 1962 on court against Novak 2015 and it’s pretty obvious that he would lose. Why? These are a bunch of reasons, without doing any deep analysis:

    1) That was an era of tennis where the vast majority of players were serve-and-volleyers and even the so-called baseliners used to come to the net a lot more than someone like Michel Llodra does today. It was simply not a viable strategy to play eight feet behind the baseline with those racquets and guts. Most players hit flat and fled the baseline at the first chance to do so.

    2) The kind of tennis Laver played, therefore, was designed to beat his opposition and them alone. Throughout his career, three of the four majors were played on grass. Never mind that it was debatable that the Aussie Open was even a major in the 60s and 70s.

    3) As you indicated in your post, tennis wasn’t the pot of gold it is now. The players therefore spent less on equipment, nutrition and coaching. In fact, a majority played without coaches. Moreover, the nature of the game and the quality of the opposition determined the levels of fitness and agility.

    The only fair comparison would be between a Laver born in the 80s and the Novak of today. A Laver who grew up in a similar era, whose coaching was updated with similar insights and whose conditioning was at par with the standards of today. This is why I detest the GOAT debate. Sure, it kills time, but most of the opinions you find are based on only a few of the facts. There’s simply no way of knowing how good someone like Borg would be today, if he grew up playing the kind of tennis that is played in 2015. Something like “Could there be someone like Miloslav Mecir today?” is, IMO, the wrong question. Miloslav mecir would be a different player if he were playing today. His game would probably be something close to a Tomic or Murray’s games.

    As you recall, Lendl was among the first to play with a graphite racquet. I wasn’t alive when he was playing, but it’s easy to see how different he was from Connors, McEnroe, Borg, etc. The amounts of top sin that he managed to put on the ball were unheard of (Nadal’s FH would probably have been impossible). He single-handedly changed both tactics the margins of error that one could play with forever. He played a brand of baseline tennis that was very, very different from Borg’s more traditional style. The kick serve, the emphasis on nutrition, fitness and preparation, etc. were all popularized by him (and made possible by the kind of equipment he used). In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that he was the most influential player of the 80s and 90s. He’s the godfather of modern power baseliners. The Novaks, Murrays, Nadals, Couriers, Agassis, etc. all owe something to him.

    Despite Lendl’s efforts, the 90s were still an era of specialists. Lendl himself famously never won Wimbledon and said that “grass is for cows.” He even started skipping it later in his career to keep it from affecting his USO prep. Pete was quite hopeless on clay because his defense wasn’t good enough and he could never quite adapt his game to the dirt. Andre somehow won the French, but there was never a period of sustained excellence on the surface for him. You had a HUGE cast of players (some mediocre – Gaston Gaudio, anyone?) winning the French before Nadal in 2005, with Guga among the few multiple time winners.

    That all changed with Roger’s emergence in 2003. He demolished the old order, dominated his own generation – all while playing a brand of tennis that no one had ever seen one guy playing before, on all surfaces. Just look at this highlights reel from the Masters Cup Final against in Toronto, 2003.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZsdoK2DTRM

    This kind of tennis would beat 95% of the tour even today. Never before had such a combo of speed, economy, agility, tactical nous, sustained brilliant shot-making and all-around balletic grace been seen before. All of this with unparalleled sportsmanship and a commitment to fair play. It’s interesting that he played this match with basically the same racquet that Pete used in the match against Agassi that you speak of in this post.

    This is why I regard Roger as the single-greatest transforming force in the game since Lendl. Sure, Pete was indisputably the greatest exponent of the all-court, primarily S&V tennis played by Becker, Edberg, Rafter and others. He probably had the greatest first and definitely the greatest second serve of all time, along with an indomitable will and the instincts of a predator. But Roger’s impact transcends the sport. He’s the reason why most athletes, not just tennis players, are PR bots today. He’s the reason why defenses have become nigh-impregnable. He’s the reason, along with Wawrinka, for the survival of the SHBH. He’s the reason why an increasing number of players use the slice offensively today. He’s played excellently in three different eras against several different generations. I could go on and on.

    In conclusion, I agree with you. Tennis IS better than ever. BUT it’s because players today have to return an ever-increasing number of balls coming back; they invest more money, time and energy in staying in shape; they play on slightly slower surfaces that do not reward attacking play like the surfaces of the past; and lastly, they play with equipment that allows them to play this way.

    1. Good stuff. How does anyone watch that footage and come to some kind of reasonable decision that he’s better in 2015. His ability to shape angles and the depth on his shots are both incredible. Baseline mastery. The SHBH/OHBH is tennis royalty. It’s definitely preference but I’ll make a stab at an argument that it’s the highest form.
      Here’s a link to the 2001 Pete v Roger. Roger showed some serious S&V here. Wondering if it was a nod to the grass or an homage to Pete. Again, his baseline play is on another level. This is the passing of the torch, even though the start of Roger’s run was a couple of years away.

    2. My point in this post is that Lendl’s probably right for obvious reasons. Novak definitely has an ideal era in which to mature, with two of the greatest athletes of all time.

      But the breaking of records is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine. Athletes coming through the years upon records to be broken have such an advantage. They have these targets. It’s apples and oranges really. I watched Kobe for years take aim at MJs records (the several). It was so calculated. He sacrificed his team’s success to get his numbers (number of consecutive games w/ over 40 points, etc.). I’m such a believer in the eye test. Kobe wasn’t half of MJ. Young Roger is unbelievable and I think the match of the ages is a Roger 2003-4 v Novak 2015.

      My next post was supposed to follow the Paris QF. It’s about the Rafa Stan QF Paris. Lovely stuff. Stan’s attitude toward Rafa is great theatre. Making fun of his moonballs, going after Rafa whenever he can, the distinctive “Come Ons!” Too bad he’s not 27-28.

      Looking forward to this WTF. Nice little draw there for the Spaniard 😉

What say you?