A Change in Pace.
March 30, 2009 · Print This Article
One cannot use the term “Speed kills”, to describe the current state of men’s tennis anymore. Now don’t get me wrong, certainly returning a 140 m.p.h. serve is not an easy task; but the days of sheer power and pace ruling the men’s game are all but over. The primary reason for ball speed not being as significant of factor as it once was, can be attributed to the slowing down of the court surfaces. Let’s call it “court unification”, if that’s allowed, as it is apparent that the hardcourts (except at the U.S. Open), have zero penetration left in them, and the claycourts and grasscourts are basically playing like one another.
A prime example of how the equal playing field has changed the game is the current dominating force of the ATP World Tour, Rafael Nadal. I will be the first one to admit that Nadal is a fantastic champion, his effort and talent level are beyond the mere mortals that he goes into combat with on a daily basis. However, as great as Nadal is, I do not think he would have the same kind of results that he is having today if he was playing, say back in 1997. His clay court results would have been similar, but his hardcourt and grasscourt success would have been pale in comparison.
Turning back the clock, names such as Mark Philippoussis and Greg Rusedski had remarkable success just over a decade ago as a result of the hardcourts playing much faster. The grasscourts were nothing like they are today, as the very slick and low bouncing surface benefited the big flat ball. The obvious leader of the “fast movement” was none other than 14-time grand slam champ Pete Sampras. In fact, Pistol Pete captured half of his major titles on the lawns of the Big W, as the points were short, and his worldly serve was untouchable.
Moving forward again, the last four to five years on the men’s tour have certainly seen a different kind of champion in the winners column, as opposed to the Sampras era. It is without question that current great Roger Federer (who is a Sampras type player), picked up on the fact that with the composition of the courts slowing down, his ability to get into the net was becoming less and less productive. Therefore a more consistent and baseline approach was adopted by the 13-time (and counting), major champion.
Recalling back to the the first and only time, Federer battled Sampras, (which was at Wimbledon in the round of sixteen in 2001), a point did not go by in which Sampras or Roger did not come into the net after their first or second serve deliveries. In fact the average rally in that match lasted under four strokes. Compare that with the baseline bashing that has gone on in the past three Wimbledon finals between Rafa and Roger, and one does not have to look any further to discover that lawns in England have definitely decreased in speed.
This change to capture a more unified court surface, has also brought forth success and failure to many tour players. A player who has suffered greatly as a result of the slower court surfaces is a player like Ivo Karlovic. Dr. Ivo has never made it past the fourth round at any major, and would have excelled even further at Wimbledon if he were playing in the days of Goran Ivan-ace-ovic and the aforementioned Philippoussis and Rusedski. There is no question that Karlovic is not better off of the ground or any facet of the game, than Goran, or Philipousis, but he certainly does have a better serve, which would have been more than good enough to capture at least a semi-final result in England.
The slowing down of the courts around the world has not only hurt a player like Karlovic, but it has effected players who reside at the top of the game as well. Case and point Andy Roddick. When the big serving American, first came on tour there was not be a match that went by that A-Rod did not strike at least 15 aces. Nowadays Roddick is lucky if he creeps into the double digits with aces on any given day.
To Andy’s credit, he has learned in recent times to deal with not depending on his power to win tennis matches. Roddick made reference towards the changing times, and his approach to the game as he discussed his game plan via his new coach Larry Stefanki, at the Miami Masters 1000, in Key Biscayne, Florida this week.
“Larry recognized there is a change in the game,” Roddick said. “It seems like everything is slowing down a little bit as far as surface and balls, and therefore you see a lot more guys dependent upon their running ability and their legs.
“So we’re just trying to keep up. It has worked so far, but we’re talking about 2 1/2 months. It needs to be proven for a little bit longer than that to consider it an ultimate success.”
With that being said, it is no wonder that the top four players in the world are also the best movers in the game. Along with Nadal and Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray certainly have proven that their court coverage is the single greatest asset which they all prosper in. All four of these players can rip the cover off of the ball at will, but that is in no way, shape or form, how they all win over 60 tennis matches per year.
One player who has certainly dealt with the new composition of the professional courts around the world with great success, is Rafael Nadal. Watching Rafa carve up the field last week in Indian Wells, I couldn’t help but notice, that A) his first concern was the get in as many first serves in as possible, and B) he was very keen on hitting his slice backhand. This thought process to me was designed around the premise of promoting spin and consistency. These are also the key elements to technically winning tennis matches for the Spaniard on hardcourts. Nadal certainly has the wheels, and with his ability to be solid as a rock off of the baseline, he will without question, be at that top of the game for many years to come.
Although men’s tennis has always been known for big aces and rocket forehands, I challenge all of you out there to pay close attention to the lack of penetration that the court surfaces around the world are providing. In fact, let your first lesson be watching this weeks Miami Masters 1000, tournament and observing how most matches are won with movement and spin, as opposed to sheer brute force. You will also notice that names such as Ivo Karlovic, John Isner and Sam Querrey, are no longer left in the draw. I caution you to also not look at this as a fluke or coincidence, but rather that the courts at Crandon Park , in Key Biscayne, Florida are not allowing the pace that once ruled the tour a decade ago to sabotage the many great rallies and defensive replies that will take place for the remainder of this weeks event.