Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 2, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

THE PROBLEM WITH (MEN'S) TENNIS....Let's change the subject. Nick Schulz writes in Slate today about how racket technology is ruining tennis:

This year's men's draw at Wimbledon is more a serving contest than a tennis tournament. Defending champion Roger Federer, who has won 106 of his last 107 service games at the All England Club, will likely face Andy Roddick and his 153 mph serve in Sunday's final. Expect a lot of short points.

Nick thinks men's tennis is being ruined by ever-improving racket technology, and he's not alone in thinking this. The thing is, though, it's not the serve that's the problem.

The fact is that points at Wimbledon have always been short. With the exception of the almost inhuman Bjorn Borg in the late 70s, Wimbledon's fast grass surface has always been the private domain of serve-and-volleyers, players who rush the net after the serve and put the point away immediately (assuming they haven't won it already with an ace). What's more, new rackets haven't really changed this very much. Service speeds today are only slightly faster than they were in the wooden racket era.

Rather, it's the groundstrokes that have changed most dramatically. Modern rackets are so light and powerful that players can flick forehands and backhands on the run with spin and power that were unheard of with heavier wooden rackets. This helps the return of serve much more than the serve, which means that Wimbledon may actually be the one tournament that's benefited from newer rackets. Sure, there may be a few more aces than in the past, but a lot more balls are put back into play too. Overall, it may actually be a net plus for a server's paradise like Wimbledon.

It's on other surfaces which is to say, every other tournament in the world that the problems arise. In the past, the serve and return of serve were fairly evenly matched, which in turn meant that serve-and-volleyers and groundstrokers were fairly evenly matched. This made for interesting tennis.

But newer rackets have given enough of an advantage to the return of serve that virtually no one plays the serve-and-volley game anymore. What's left is a monotonous world in which nearly everyone plays exactly the same kind of tennis: big, powerful, looping groundstrokes that almost never miss. In fact, this "power ground" style is nearly the only game taught to youngsters these days.

Nick lists several possible rule changes that could change this, and correctly dismisses nearly all of them as infeasible. But as long as we're talking about infeasible rule changes, here's the one that would really improve the game: standardize the surface. Aside from Wimbledon, which is an anachronistic freak, major tournaments today are all played on two vastly different surfaces: clay and hard courts. There are two problems with this.

First, clay is such a slow surface that even in the wooden racket era it favored groundstrokers heavily. Today, with the advantage of modern rackets, it's laughable to even try and play any other kind of game. Pete Sampras may have been the best male tennis player in history, but he never even made the finals of the clay court French Open, let alone won it. That's ridiculous.

Second, even among groundstrokers play has become so specialized that the clay season and the hardcourt season might as well be different tours. You're either trained as a clay player or a hardcourt player these days, and there are very few top players who do consistently well on both.

The answer if it weren't impossible is to standardize the surface for the pro tour. The Australian Open is widely considered to be the best of the four grand slam tournaments, and one reason is that it's played on a fast hardcourt surface that evenly matches both groundstrokers and serve-and-volleyers. Pete Sampras and Boris Becker both won the Australian Open, but so did Jim Courier and Andre Agassi. Anyone can win, and it's the matchup of contrasting styles that makes it such a fun tournament.

So forget the different sized balls or raising the net or going back to wooden rackets, and stop obsessing about the serve, which is the least of modern tennis' problems. Instead, mandate a reasonable range of surface speeds, rip out all those clay courts, and turn tennis into a single sport again. If not for ourselves, let's do it for the children. Please?

(And as for Roger Federer, the reason he's won 106 of his last 107 service games at Wimbledon isn't because he uses a wicked racket. It's because he's such a damn good player it's almost scary. Look for him to take home the trophy on Sunday rain permitting, of course.)

Kevin Drum 1:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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