Style of the Men’s Game

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.

ten_guga_div62There 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?


7 thoughts on “Style of the Men’s Game

  1. Caligula

    Good read my good sir!

    And I feel we have already been down this rabbit hole regarding ancient roman steam-powered technology revolutionizing the physicality part of the sport, throwing these less fortunate players a bone or two, whilst stealing the limelight of finesse, technique and tactical abilities employed by the greats of old.

    As Federer is most certainly an old-timer, who in his formative years played the tennis of old (90’s golden era), the “Oomph” factor has been both a blessing and a curse for the Swiss. He may have lamented the rise of Nadal, Djoker and Murray (to an extent, 2012 Olympics), his ability to “serve bot” and mimic legend Pistol Pete’s playbook in the tail end of his career, thanks to “Oomph” technology, is astonishing in of itself!

    I always think back to what we have said in past years on this blog, “Federer only needs to outlive them to regain dominance”, for what he lacked in pure physicality he easily made up with technical and tactical brilliance. Indeed, if Pistol Pete, Agassi, McEnroe, Becker, Lendl et al. had played and peaked in the 2000-era, Federer would have been in far more trouble than he would be with the current crop of baseline grinders.

    As much as I hate the fact that the guy is persistent, and that new blood hasn’t shown the same spark of brilliance, I can’t but applaud the old gladiator for showing what smart planning, finesse and persistency can do as long as you don’t play a style designed to ravage your body.


    1. The point is most players (youngers) have been brought-up in this BL style and it’s not good for the sport. There has been a clear assault on the classical style. What could be very illustrative of a demise in the sport is the comeback of Djokovic. If he is unable to mount enough physical presence on the court, proceeds to get out Djokered by the youngers playing the same kind of tennis he made famous — there you have it.

      Nadal is unique in that he is just unique. He has clay and a more developed game – from playing at the net more, to his 20 ft behind the BL ROS.

      Murray and Nole need all kinds of physical strength to defend like demons and have enough to put their opponents away. Can they continue to play long ball, get into these hitting and defending contests with 24 year-olds? We’ll see.


      1. Caligula

        Am I reading this correctly? Are you putting Nadal in front of the Djoker in the “Me Tarzan, you Jane!” category of players? That is mighty generous, so is the Spaniard nearing redemption as far as street cred is concerned?

        And I mean this with candor, since Nadal did have a mean streak against Nole, and it took some beatings for him to find a better game plan. Fed would have adapted much sooner IMHO, but when you write unique, then I guess you mean the dirt + inhuman (at peak) physicality combo factor that he has going for him. I think that does put him above the Djoker in the overall scheme of things.

        The senate has voted, and the consensus has been reached! The new crop of players will soon have forgotten about the techniques and strategies which made the men’s game so legendary to start with. Heavens forbid we have a WTA on our hands with the only difference being tighter first serve margins, faster groundstrokes and overall more body hair.

        I will drink poison before it comes to that.


    2. Other than the Djoker fanclub, most reasonable people have Nadal as a more successful tennis career than Novak’s.

      If Novak can win a few more majors, this would help his legacy (not in that GOAT debate which is pretty flawed, but just in terms of the big numbers). The Novak slam is a huge marker, for sure, but really just about anyone in the sport, who knows and cares about the sport, who is not a hysterical fangirl, probably concedes Nadal as the more successful lad. 2017 (and we’ll see how 2018 plays out) only support this view.

      Agian, the Djokollapse was CRUSHING. If he could have at least won the 2016 WTF, would have been a big turn of events for the Serb. But as we know, he was circling the drain at that point and still hasn’t recovered fully.

      I wrote a ton about this collapse. No one really talked much about it: had massive consequence on Djokovic’s legacy.

      Like I’ve said about Nadal, I can bitch and moan about the guy’s tennis, he has gobs of quality and numbers to shut-up even someone as charming as me! 😀


      1. dlima1987

        Interesting post Matt.

        Could you elaborate where you stand on Rafa?

        I get the feeling that your views on him keep changing..

        Btw, agree on the Djokovic front, however unlike Murray and Stan I do think the Djoker will be back at a very high level


  2. No, my views on Rafa won’t change. Ever.

    Some of what I have written with regards to Nadal have been aimed at the notorious TSQ or Tennis Status Quo (search that on the blog). In other words, I have aimed some of that harsher criticism of Rafa’s tennis at the Rafa fans and tennis fans in general (prior to 2017, the idea that Rafa was the GOAT, owned Roger, etc., was fairly common, even among the tennis intelligentsia).
    So, I may have come across as a more anti-Nadal.

    I have always believed his tennis was quite inferior to other greats, especially Roger’s.

    However, and this is where you may think I keep changing/wavering, Rafa has to be respected for his fight and his quality that’s netted him many many big titles, 16 of which are majors.

    Novak has a more pure game probably than Rafa, and Novak has seemed to gain the upper-hand in their match-up, but Novak has work to do if we’re comparing legacies. Novak is 12-9 in majors.
    That says two things to me: he’s lost more of those finals than he should have (2 to Andy and 2 to Stan) and he has played a lot of big matches, which speaks to that mileage.

    After the 2016 USO, I argued that he might have trouble winning another major, as crazy as that sounded. I had no idea he would sink so low, but he looked utterly broken in that final v Stan. He runs a lot. Rafa does too, but Rafa has taken more time off. And his 16-7 in majors speaks to that more efficient tennis (of course Roland Garros does always play a big role there).

    So, no wavering with Rafa. He’s got some big flaws, but you can’t deny his place in the game.

    I don’t play the fanclub card over here. So, I can criticize but I have to be honest.

    Liked by 1 person

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