Tennis is a sport to be enjoyed for a lifetime both in and out of competition, which means player sustainability is inherent. I suspect this is overlooked, that people have come to see some of these male professionals as practically of a different species, supernatural, and mythical.
This seems to go hand-in-hand with the oversized celebrity of the sport and the perpetuation of this perception (and lack of self-reflection).
The reign of Nadal and Novak has institutionalized a tennis of ruthless physicality that has worn down the two greats along with putting the entire sport in a kind of perilous trap behind the BL, players now too unfamiliar, afraid or nonathletic to play the sport the way it’s meant to be played.
Many factors play into this historical development.
Steve Tignor wrote a solid account of the introduction of Luxilon Original at the 1997 French Open and how this string evolution has changed the sport. There’s several interesting points to be had in that discussion, which parallels a lot of what I have argued over the last few years here on my blog and elsewhere.
One of these points is, admittedly, a double-edged sword that both enhances, and, certainly in my view, diminishes the sport: leveling the playing field, giving less talented players a bigger shot (enhances) and the flip-side of that: dumbing-down the sport (diminishes).
Furthermore, given where this string was introduced, and who initially benefited from this technology, Roland Garros gained prominence. Is this bad? That’s up for you to decide, but these are facts.
There was much controversy surrounding this new string technology. This added to the newer oversized racquets made of metal and eventually graphite. The strings, so the story goes, enabled players to reach for a lighter racquet since the “this ultra-stiff thread made from a polyester-like material gave [them] the freedom to swing as hard as [they] wanted, while also creating the topspin needed to keep the ball in.” Sound familiar? This is our sport today.
I heard an interview with Mary Carillo where this topic came-up. Can we reverse technology? She actually referred to Agassi who, when commenting on Guga’s 1997 string revolution, said it should be illegal. Think of the shock there in Paris in 1997. Kuerten was ranked #66 in the world and took care of two-time FO winner Brugera easily in the final, 3 4 and 2.
One should see, again, both the positive and negative effects of this event and movement.
Can the sport reverse technology? When has this ever happened in society? There are probably many examples; Carillo referenced to the Concorde supersonic jet as an example. She simultaneously insisted that cultures generally don’t and shouldn’t reverse technological advancement.
We’re almost certainly not going to see any of this tennis technology reversed or banned from the sport; these developments (racquet and strings) have become as much a part of the sport as any other developments.
But some will continue to remind us of a particular cause-and-effect. Taken from Tignor’s article:
“[Darren] Cahill speaks for the traditionalists when he says that, ‘Overall, poly has had a net negative effect.’ He mourns the contrasts in styles that came with the serve and volley.”
There are other factors in this current state of the sport, where players are camped behind the BL throwing everything they have in the form of huge FH and THBH ground strokes.
This more sedentary and defensive style is propelled along by an unearthly player endurance and an overall training and nutrition protocol that has entrenched this prototype.
Students of the sport will have all sorts of theories and explanations, if one even cares about this conversation. Many, of course, are concerned, mostly because of the current plague of injury wreaking havoc on the ATP.
Some, such as Federer, point to the age of the players injured as part of this trend. Despite some people’s theories (that most likely originate in some half-assed defense of their player) that the prime of a professional tennis player has been extended in this golden era (some of the increased focus on strength, nutrition, physio and racquet/string technology almost certainly has prolonged careers), these 30-somethings are naturally going to start breaking-down due to age and wear-and-tear, especially with the sport’s more physical style.
This blog, given my continued pursuit of the time and energy to write, has given me the opportunity to develop some arguments, which I have already talked about turning into books.
How Roger Ruined Tennis is a gem. Again, written in 2016, value the insight there (when the Maestro had but only 17 majors — mind you: the damage had already been done).
I haven’t written the Djokovic chapter of that saga, and perhaps Djokollapse is part of that book. But this 2016 to present melt-down of the Serb could be another book, entirely.
This discussion of style has landed in my brain as a book to be produced, as well. Again, I need the motivation, time and audience (thanks for reading, folks), but this just seems all so interesting, especially as this golden era comes sputtering to an end (or will it?).
The way I probably arch the narrative (one can see Tignor’s sketch of the history of style in that article referenced above), generally speaking, involves Federer as a link to the pre-Luxilon Original era, even though this string had already landed. Federer is clearly both in age and style reminiscent of that older era.
But by the late 90s and early 2000s, the assault on the serve & volley was in full-swing.
Without going into full detail here (preserved for the book, God willing), remember that the change to tennis court surface had begun, as well, the Wimbledon grass a perfect example. This change was to, allegedly, discourage the big serve-and-volley games of the Sampras era (this is pretty well documented and Pete even addresses this in his book, Pete Sampras: A Champion’s Mind. He refutes this trend, pointing-out that it wasn’t just the big S&V players that won big tournaments back then; the players that won were simply better tennis players).
The string revolution continued this tennis style transformation on the ATP and now, heading into the Fedal era, to be joined by Djokovic, today’s game was zooming into focus.
I think it’s fair to say that Nadal and Djokovic have defined today’s BL heavy style; ironically, Nadal has a very effective come-to-net element to his style, but that we know has developed over the years.
The arch of this history takes us into those 2011-2013 years as very illustrative, perhaps the peak, using Nadal v Djokovic matches to see how such a physically brutal style became synonymous with sport dominance. There are several examples.
The 2012 Australian Open final and 2013 French Open semi-final showcase the tennis we’re talking about.
This is unsustainable tennis. Novak recently joked about this claim.
Guys need to develop more variety and skill with which to develop their and the sport’s health and sophistication.
As Tignor’s article points-out, once this dirtballer’s tennis paradise of the Luxilon Original moved from clay to the other surfaces (he references Kuerten’s victory over Sampras at the end-of-season indoor Tennis Masters Cup of 2000), the proverbial shit had sorta hit the fan, so to speak.
Again, this is a double-edged sword. But it has evolved into an unsustainable style of tennis. Unless you have other theories.
The injuries are but one obvious example of this flawed approach to the game.
Watching Khachanov v Goffin last night in a Montpellier QF (on tape), one could see the limits of the Russian’s game. When he’s in control of his game, he can hit his opponent off the court. Goffin’s maturity and guile made this a fairly one-sided affair.
This same observation dominates my view of much of the play.
Interesting that with Nadal and Djokovic (among others) struggling with injury, the top of the sport has been the likes of Federer, Cilic and even Dimitrov to a certain extent: more full-court tennis.
As for some of this week’s tournament play, Quito (clay) is a dirt-baller’s circus (I watched Monfils get dismissed by a Thiago Monteiro).
Elsewhere, looks like Tsonga had to retire in his Montpellier SF with Pouille, which he was leading, so Lucas will face the surging Dicky Gasquet in that all-French final.
And although we saw some signs of life from Stan in Sofia, he fell to a qualifier whose last name is Basic. Enough said.
Yet there’s so much to discuss, no?