Friday, February 28, 2014

They're Still Trying

by Savannah

I don't think it's a secret that I find much of John McEnroe's commentary lacking to put it mildly. He seems to have no idea what is going on in the modern game and who is playing if they're not from the United States. He also seems to want to turn back the clock on the game, to do away with modern racquets and go back to the days of small, preferably wooden ones. He advocates the return of serve and volley as the primary method of play upgrading it from what it is now, a tactic, a part of a players game not the be all and end all of the game, the only way to play.

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photo via Warren Little Getty Images

It turns out that I was right. I came across an article written by Mark McClusky in 2003 entitle "Tennis Swaps Grace for Strength". It's an interesting read.

...McEnroe, along with several other prominent retired players, is challenging the game's international governing body, the International Tennis Federation, to do something to rein in the power provided by today's tennis rackets. As the U.S. Open gets underway this week, McEnroe wonders if rackets haven't become too big a factor in the game.

"I think that the sport has lost something," said McEnroe of the changes wrought by the current rackets. "It's lost some subtlety, some strategy, some of the nuance."

There are surprisingly few rules governing the size, shape and construction of a tennis racket. According to the rules published by the ITF, a racket can't be longer than 29 inches, and the hitting surface of the racket can't be larger than 15.5 inches long and 11.5 inches wide.

Additionally, rules prohibit any device that changes the racket's shape or weight distribution. And no power sources, such as batteries or solar cells, are allowed to be incorporated into the racket.

Obviously, those guidelines allow for a great deal of experimentation. Rackets today allow players to launch the ball at previously unthinkable speeds, approaching 150 mph. They're high-tech weapons made of graphite, Kevlar, titanium and exotic alloys. There's even a racket with a chip built into the handle that allows the racket to stiffen upon impact with the ball.

All of this technology has led to major changes in how the game is played at the top level. Today, almost every player is content to stay at the baseline and pound the ball in long rallies with the opponent, hitting crushing shots with a great deal of topspin. The aggressive serve-and-volley game has almost completely disappeared.

"It's very hard to volley against all this pace and topspin," said Bud Collins, the tennis writer for the Boston Globe and the dean of American tennis journalists. "It's an easier game to play from the baseline because you aren't taking chances. That's what I don't like: No one is taking chances. It's very difficult to serve and volley. You have so many people playing the same way now, and that's the problem."

This Homogeneity means that a match like the 1980 Wimbledon final, which matched the serve-and-volleyer McEnroe with the baseliner Björn Borg, might never take place again. That match is widely considered the greatest ever played.

"I don't think we're going to see anybody like McEnroe or like Pete Sampras," said Collins. "It's going to be very difficult to develop those games."

Ironically, while the rackets might be turning the professional men's game into monotonous slugfests, they have led to a boom in the popularity of the women's game, as players like the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati have boosted the power and athleticism of the sport, with the help of high-tech rackets.

"If the power has killed the men's game, it's really helped the women's," said Jon Wertheim, senior tennis writer at Sports Illustrated. "The women are at just the right spot -- no one is just looping the ball back and forth like they used to. The only thing is, in 10 years, the women will get to the same point that the men are now."

Many in the game have been advocating that rackets be more tightly controlled. Earlier this year, several former top players -- including McEnroe, Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova -- sent a letter to the ITF encouraging the governing body to revisit the question of rackets.

In the letter, the players wrote that tennis has become "unbalanced and one-dimensional."

"The reason for this change is clear to see," they wrote. "Over a period of years, modern racket technology has developed powerful, light, wide-bodied rackets that are easier to wield than wooden rackets were and have a much larger effective hitting area.

Nara Kurumi Getty Images Rio 2014 photo a9cdd234-2b62-4d56-82e3-83a85ddbacad_zps16ede1b2.jpg
Photo via Getty Images

"From the spectators' point of view the game has become one-dimensional so that even on fast courts 90 percent of the matches are baseline contests," it said, adding that on slower court surfaces such as clay, matches have become "tedious and even boring."

Current players have been mostly silent regarding the state of the racket. Of course, they're enjoying success with the current equipment. Andy Roddick, who holds the record for the fastest serve on the men's tour at 149 mph, dismissed the concerns of the former players.

"I don't know if the ITF is going to take it too seriously," Roddick told Agence France-Presse in July. "I find it kind of surprising that they would go through the full-out effort and make it something to be talked about."

The ITF last addressed the question of racket size in 1996, when they lowered the maximum allowable length of a racket from 32 inches to the present 29 inches. But Collins thinks they haven't gone far enough to "disarm," as he puts it.

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Photo by J Pat Carter AP

"I think we should go to a racket no longer than 27 inches, or no wider than 9 inches," said Collins. "That would take away a lot of the hitting space, and you'd be forced to play a more attractive game. Players would have to be more accurate in their strokes, hit it more in the middle of the racket face. They wouldn't be able to hit the passing shots they hit now. And the serve and volleyer would have a better chance."

No one who is advocating taming rackets in the professional game thinks that recreational players should stop using them. The analogy that both McEnroe and Collins make is to baseball, where aluminum bats are used at every level except the pros, where wood is used.

They envision a system allowing weekend tennis players to continue enjoying the increased power and control allowed by larger rackets, while the pros would use slightly different tools to balance the game. Current players would certainly have an adjustment period, but McEnroe doesn't think it would be too much of a problem.

"I think that the top players, most of them, would still be great players whatever they played with," he said.


"The idea behind the letter was to simply continue to press them to come up with some guidelines or something so the game wouldn't continue to go in this direction," said McEnroe. "We wanted to show the game the best that it could be."

ernests Gulbis Marseille 2014 photo 7ed2d47a-c2a1-4c4d-b0d6-f4d6dcdde4eb_zps360d62d4.jpg

Fast forward to today. John McEnroe has his own academy and works as a commentator for major tennis tournaments. Martina Navratilova makes her living as a commentator also mostly during majors. And Boris Becker is coaching a player in the Top 3 of the ATP but was formerly a - you got it - commentator. Of the three Becker would seem to be in the right place to try to effect the change his friends advocated. It remains to be seen if he has any influence over whether or not the modern game will revert to the "grace" and "aggressive" play of the past. I'm going to say he won't because modern players are more fit, more athletic, and mentally strong. Looking at the current spate of British, American and Australian players I'd say that those countries embrace of an older style has hindered their ability to compete at the highest level, seeming to excel only at the smaller national tournaments where they play each other. Move them to big international events and they're nothing more than fodder for the best in the world.
The only American players able to compete internationally are surnamed Williams, the same ones featured in the link above.

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Source: Buda Mendes/Getty Images South America

When you've done something well and dominated an individual sport you like to think your way will be emulated by future generations. It doesn't always work that way. I grew up with milk delivered to my door. The junk man and his horse drawn wagon showed up once a week. He also sharpened knives. Times have obviously changed and will continue to do just that. The huge heavy consoles that housed televisions, record players and radios have given way to flat screens, video games and Roku or AppleTV. Landlines are almost a thing of the past. I think these people, who are still trying to bring back wooden racquets would do best to apply the creativity they used to defeat their opponents back in the day to help modernize their thinking and their countries approach to tennis. Baseball, the United States somewhat fading national past time, is not the same game it was when Babe Ruth played. Tennis should not be held hostage to a past that can't come back. Babe Ruth is still considered a great of his sport. The tennis players from a prior age will still be considered stars but should recognize the need to stop trying to hold back progress.

The Week In Review

So far anyway.

The Golden Swing is still taking place with WTA International and ATP 250 tournaments taking place in Florianopolis and Sao Paulo Brazil. Acapulco is now a hard court tournament and has been dominated by Spaniards for a few years. As I lamented last week it's now a hard court event. It's also claimed it's first victim. David Ferrer injured himself trying to win the event again. Reports are it's a strained adductor muscle, presumably in his hip. He played one more tournament on the Golden Swing than was indicated on his public schedule and I thought he'd do well to pass up Acapulco. As one tennis head I know said Venus Williams is just now recovering from a similar injury she suffered back in 2010.

The Acapulco Final four is an interesting lot. Alexandr Dolgopolov, Grigor Dimitrov, Andy Murray and Kevin Anderson who is into the semifinals due to Ferrer's injury and withdrawal. The much anticipated match between Dimitrov and Ernests Gulbis was a bust. Gulbis had flown half way around the world to play this tournament and it caught up with him. Dimitrov had no choice but to win.

Oh I almost forgot. There is a women's tournament, International Level, taking place in Acapulco as well. The only way you can watch it is if you find ESPN Deportes stream in your internet travels. TennisTV isn't showing any of it. In fact on Thursday all of the women's matches were on the Grandstand Court while all of the men's semifinals were on Cancha Central. It's a little more balanced Friday with Dominika Cibulkova, Zhang Shuai, Caroline Garcia and Christina McHale joining the men on Cancha Central. Those big gaps you'll see in TV coverage in the United States are when the women are playing.

There is one woman who isn't supposed to be there though and that's Caroline Garcia of France. She beat the new WTA Golden Girl Eugenie Bouchard of Canada 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. If you got a chance to see any of the WTA matches there is a very nice clip provided by the WTA of Bouchard being fawned over by photographers as she poses on a Mexican beach. Someone had better get hold of this young woman and tell her that right now her focus should be on tennis not photo ops and promotional junkets. I know she's trying to do what her tour wants her to but she'd better look at what happened to some of the other WTA Golden Girls. And I'm not referring to their ages.

There's another big tournament, the ATP Dubai M1000. The Final will feature Roger Federer vs Tomas Berdych.

Venus Williams has opted to play Kuala Lumpur instead of Fed Cup. Pearls are being clutched as I type this. She's right though. She wants the points and since she's feeling well wants to keep her hot streak going. Besides it's time that the young ones show the USTA that the money that's been spent on them has been worth it.

Referencing the article I led this post with there are fans now calling for Boris Becker's head after his charges loss to Federer today in Dubai. That didn't take long.

Fernando Verdasco has hired Sweden's Thomas Enqvist as his new coach. His time with the Adidas Team was disastrous in my very humble opinion.

The BNP Paribas Open known to tennis fans as Indian Wells begins on March 6. Let the complaints about the slowness of the courts, the superiority of serve and volley vs baseline focused tennis, grunting and the usual bullshit begin.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Savannah, I agree with McEnroe, there needs to be some form of limit on the issue of racquet technology. Tennis is not just about staying on the baseline and slugging it out. There are wonderful variations to the game and the racquet technology has taken all of that away. Frankly, I think it is akin to cheating to see some people with racquets so long that it actually looks bigger than the player swinging it. You need only look at Cibulkova for an example.

In addition to taking away the nuance from the game, the technology that is being used are causing the players all kinds of problems. For as long as Serena has been playing, have you ever seen her having back problems? How about Federer, and now Nadal? It is now 2 months into the season, the first Masters event is yet to be played, and already we are seeing injuries on both Tours. Something has got to give. Tennis has now become a sport of last past the post injury free wins. I say enough with the technology. Bring the sport back to where there was strategy being employed instead of people using stamina to get ahead.