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Tilting at Windmills

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July 21, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

TENNIS WONKERY....Mark Starr chides Americans for being such sports provincialists:

As a result, we are missing out on a newborn rivalry that not only looms as possibly one of the best in the history of tennis, but quite likely the best individual rivalry in sports today: Switzerland's Roger Federer vs. Spain's Rafael Nadal. It's only natural that America would prefer the pinnacle of rivalry to have a homier caste. I, too, can wax nostalgic about olden days when Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl dueled Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe for court supremacy. Or for Chrissie-Martina. But Federer and Nadal are playing the game at such a transcendent level that issues of nationality should fade away. Genius should always trump parochial attachments.

Well, sure, I agree. Federer is already playing for the history books and not much else, and Nadal is giving every sign of being the real deal rather than just the latest two-year wonder. For the time being, it's one of the best sports rivalries around.

Still, I have to demur at least slightly from Starr's conclusion. The current lack of top American tennis players is certainly one reason that American interest in tennis has waned, but there's another reason too: the game itself has lost the contrast of styles that was at the center of so many of its most brilliant rivalries. Borg-McEnroe was a great rivalry for a lot of reasons, but one of them was because Borg was the metronomic baseliner who never missed pitted against McEnroe's dazzling serve-and-volley shotmaking. Ditto for Sampras-Agassi and Evert-Navratilova.

But the serve-and-volleyers are all gone now. The last crop in the men's game Sampras, Pat Rafter, Richard Krajicek, Todd Martin, all of them top 20 players in the late 90s are retired now. Instead, virtually every top player today is a "power baseliner," a style perfected in the 80s and 90s that teaches its students exactly what it sounds like it teaches: stay behind the baseline and whack the absolute shit out of every ball that comes your way. There's no questioning the skill and athleticism of its practitioners, but it nonetheless gets a wee bit tedious when every single player in the world plays the same way no matter what the surface. Federer is the closest thing we have left to a full-court player, and even he comes to the net only under duress.

Sigh. I miss the old brilliance, and the new brilliance seems pale and monochromatic by comparison. But new racket technology and new coaching styles have given the edge to the baseliners, and there's no going back. In the meantime, Federer-Nadal is, indeed, as good as it gets.

POSTSCRIPT: Meanwhile, Tiger Woods is leading the British Open after chipping in for an eagle on the 14th, and Floyd Landis is a mere 30 seconds behind the leader in the Tour de France after a brilliant come-from-behind performance on Thursday. So there are plenty of Americans left to root for in other sports!

Kevin Drum 6:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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*I think that was a 4-iron that Tiger holed on the 14th. So he was probably some 200+ yards out.

Posted by: obscure on July 21, 2006 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

Federer doesn't come into the net only under duress, but he doesn't play "serve and volley". His signature shot is the attacking forehand from midcourt, played with heavy topspin, and he invariably attacks the net behind that shot. See, for example, two winning volleys against Nadal in the 4-1 game of the 4th set at Wimbledon.

What is distinctive about the Federer-Nadal rivalry is how far ahead the two seem from the next tier. I don't recall any period in Men's tennis (certainly in the Open era) when this was the case.

Posted by: Andrew on July 21, 2006 at 6:56 PM | PERMALINK

Bank of the West Classic right in my back yard. Davenport and Clijsters always play great matches.

Posted by: gq on July 21, 2006 at 6:56 PM | PERMALINK

As a golfer, I must take exception to your description of Tiger's 209-yard 4-iron as "chipping in." I have been known to chip in, but I can't hit a ball 209 yards from the fairway, and it was a totally transcendent shot. Go Tiger!!!!

Posted by: Don on July 21, 2006 at 6:56 PM | PERMALINK

The racket technology is too bad. When wider, stiffer, and more powerful rackets starting arriving in the late 80s, Sampras and other server/volly types didn't use them because they didn't offer enough control. Now, everyone uses them but have to stay off the net due to the insanely fast ground shots and the lack of flex needed to place volleys.

Anyway, it was a nice transition period between wood and composite and oversize and overwide, but now that the equipment is so powerful, and the court the same size, it is really hard to justify attacking the net, even behind a 150mph serve.

Posted by: abjectfunk on July 21, 2006 at 7:01 PM | PERMALINK

Andrew: I dunno. I watched Wimbledon too and I sure didn't see Federer come in to the net very often. And that's on grass. He's obviously capable of fine net play, but he comes in rarely.

Don: For Tiger, that was a chip-in! (Actually, I just didn't read the story. I didn't realize he had hit it in from 200 yards.)

Posted by: Kevin Drum on July 21, 2006 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

Some Americans get depressed about the course of our nation over political developments. I instead get depressed over developments in sports. I mean, when a blog post about great sports rivalries mentions tennis, cycling, and golf, what are we coming to? Not to start a 'what constitutes a sport' argument, but a minimum requirement should be head to head competition, in which one competitor can prevent another competitor from winning (in other words, you can play defense). To hell with golf, in other words. Besides, I don't care if it's gone through a populist phase of late; golf is for rich, elitist pricks. To paraphrase George Carlin, if you play golf without fitting that description, shame on you.

This is July. It's baseball season. In September it will be baseball and football season. The great rivalries to talk about now are Red Sox-Yankees, and coming up soon, Patriots-Steelers or Packers-Bears. And not to start

Even ESPN's Sports Guy just inexplicably wrote a soccer article, well after the World Cup ended. I weep for our country...

Posted by: ChiSox Fan in LA on July 21, 2006 at 7:18 PM | PERMALINK

Woods is in for the day with a 65. At 12 under for just two rounds, and the heat wave in the UK due to continue through the weekend, Woods and the top five in the Open are likely to destroy the previous scoring record for the tournament.

Posted by: JeffII on July 21, 2006 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

This is an excellent post Kevin.

You are good on politics.

You are very good on sports.

Personally I would like to read more of you on sports. Yglesias is a piker. You get it.

Posted by: Armando on July 21, 2006 at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, watch the 1980 Borg-McEnroe wimbledon final. Borg served and volleyed on pretty much all his first serves. He did not want McEnroe chipping and charging.

Yes, it is sad to see serve and volley dying but it is a puzzle why. The newer rackets are only a partial explanation. Watching the Federer -Roddick wimbledon final last year, there were a lot of service returns on which both Federer and Roddick could have come to the net. i.e. basically floaters. Instead they both opted to stay back and slug it out.

Against Nadal, if Federer plays from behind the baseline he will lose. Serve and volley or not, Federer needs to volley more.

Posted by: ppk on July 21, 2006 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK


Tiger has never lost a major when he's in the lead at the 1/2 way point ; )


Forget the sports and stick to blogging for the Republicans!

Posted by: GOP on July 21, 2006 at 7:56 PM | PERMALINK

My guess is that you have it backwards on American tennis. We haven't lost interest because we lack players, we lack players because we've lost interest in the sport. In the 70's in many cities it was extremely difficult to get court time because all were booked up, similar to golf today. That type of local, grassroots play, produces players in the same way in other sports (basketball, football, baseball, etc.) Now court time is no problem and sales of equipment (rackets and tennis shoes) are quite low. With fewer people actually playing the sport the pool of potential players shrinks. Baseball has run into exactly the same problem for the same reason with the dwindling number of American blacks in MLB.

Posted by: robertl on July 21, 2006 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

"but a minimum requirement should be head to head competition, in which one competitor can prevent another competitor from winning"

No, really, it shouldn't. Lots of different kinds of sports, good for different kinds of reasons.

Posted by: Total on July 21, 2006 at 8:02 PM | PERMALINK

Dear Kevin: At my nice suburban town's recreation complex, everything is full in the summer, from the softball diamond to the skateboard park-except for the dozen tennis courts, which are never full, never more than half full.
I blame the anterior cruciate ligament. That's what too many former tennis players tore during the tennis boom of the late '70s-early '80s. Fewer tennis players equals fewer tennis parents equals fewer tennis stars.

Posted by: JMG on July 21, 2006 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, as ppk points out, Borg served and volleyed on grass. That's why he was one of the best ever - he changed his style when he needed to. Andy Roddick should give it a try..

McEnroe has suggested, only half jokingly, that the pros return to wooden rackets. That would certainly put the focus on skill as opposed to power. Federer would of course still be the top player if such a change was made.

Posted by: bobinnv on July 21, 2006 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

Don't think there are any "new coaching styles." If there was any coaching going on, you'd see as much serve and volleying as there ever was. A quick mental review will reveal that it is not as if a bunch of serve and volleyers were "forced" back to the baseline. Sampras played the same way until he retired.

Roddick never served and volleyed, and for that matter it pretty much looks like he never evern learned to volley in the first place.

What happened was that the rackets made it easier for the average 14-16 yeard old junior boy to end the rally with a hard groundstroke. At that age, the testosterone starts to kick in and prior to the age of graphite rackets, you'd get impatient, tall kids starting to experiment with getting into the net to finish the point off.

If the coaches were actually coaching, they'd still advise going in, especialy since these days most of the player's couldn't hit a passing shot to save their lives.

But, although a lot of lessons are given, very few junior player actually have top level coaches watching them play.

Posted by: hank on July 21, 2006 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK

But McEnroe was spouting the "back to wood rackets" thing since the early 90s. Back then we were being told that racket technology was responsible for big serve and volley players dominating the game, points being too short, no baseliner or man under 6' tall would ever win Wimbledon again, etc. etc.

Posted by: Jim on July 21, 2006 at 8:34 PM | PERMALINK

Two probs with tennis: Too many chances on the serve and too many screamers.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on July 21, 2006 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

You can't go too far wrong in tennis if you pay no attention at all to "what you're told" at least during the typical U.S. network telecast.

Posted by: hank on July 21, 2006 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

The way tennis is being played now, it's like watching NASCAR, without the wrecks.

Posted by: bigcat on July 21, 2006 at 8:43 PM | PERMALINK

ChiSox Fan: I don't care if it's gone through a populist phase of late; golf is for rich, elitist pricks.

That's an outdated stereotype. I bought my clubs ten years ago. They have long-since been amortized. Greens fees at a local muni run me $20-$30 bucks, for 5 hours of enjoyment. That works out to be about as cheap as your latest blockbuster at the local googleplex. Now, if I could just cut back on the amount I spend on beer while I'm on the course!

Posted by: bigcat on July 21, 2006 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

ppk: Yes, rackets are only part of the answer. However, I think they're the nub of the problem.

What happened is that lighter, whippier rackets improved the return of serve and allowed baseliners to make running shots they couldn't with heavier wooden rackets. In the 80s, a few coaches (most famously, Nick Bollettieri) started to realize that this could form the basis for a new style of play that relied solely on speed and huge groundstrokes. Over time, this took over the game, and today virtually every teenager is taught this style of play.

This makes net play harder because (a) most players haven't practiced it much and (b) their opponents (like them) hit terrific passing shots. In addition, good net play is hard if you hit a two-handed backhand, which is a standard part of the power baseline game.

So rackets came first, and inspired a new style of coaching, which finished the job. Today it's nothing but baseliners.

robertl and others: The 70s tennis boom was over long ago, and there's no question that tennis popularity has dropped since then. However, it's dropped even more recently, and Starr is probably right to blame this (partly) on the lack of recognizable American stars. However, the same thing happened in the late 80s. These things go in cycles and I'm sure American tennis will come around sometime soon.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on July 21, 2006 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK


I thought you hit the nail on the head with regards to Federer-Nadal. They not only have incredibly contrasting styles, but in the style in which they are not accustomed to playing (Federer-clay and Nadal-grass), they are still the 2nd best player in the world. Nobody else is really even in the conversation.

Interest in tennis has been down since the mid-80s with a slight blip in the mid-90s. Part of it is the fault of tennis, but a lot of it is the growth of golf with Woods. He single-handedly captured a huge swath of followers in the late 90's and early 00's. There's only so many sports the casual fan is going to follow and watch and right now golf is much higher on the pecking order.

Posted by: Double B on July 21, 2006 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK

I blame the increasing laziness of so many people for the decline of tennis as a participant sport. It actually takes some physical effort to play tennis. Playing golf - sorry, "cartball" - takes next to nothing.

Posted by: Peter on July 22, 2006 at 1:15 AM | PERMALINK

I am not a serve-and-vollier by nature so I love the baseline play. I find it more fun to watch.

Posted by: MNPundit on July 22, 2006 at 2:04 AM | PERMALINK

i think that in america, and perhaps elsewhere, we need to be familiar with the personality in order to care about the athlete. landis is a great example. his exploit on joux-plane this week was, probably, the greatest single day performance in the tour since (at least) lemond's come-from-behind time trial victory in 89. probably even better. but landis, although american, is not a household name, so his accomplishment gets little notice in the american press - even though it was much more exciting and dramatic than anything armstrong did. (not to take away anything from armstrong; he never had the need to do what landis did this week.) if it were a non-american that did what landis did, it wouldn't even be mentioned in the american sports press, aside from a few comments on the second to last page. regionalism is definately a major factor in sports spectatorship, but it's just as important for fans to have a sense of who the athlete is. it's modern-day homer.

Posted by: kevin on July 22, 2006 at 2:29 AM | PERMALINK

Country club sports are for children who's parents don't want them to get hurt. Golf is something to take up after your out of cartilage and can no do anything else.

Posted by: Danny Noonan on July 22, 2006 at 3:40 AM | PERMALINK

How provisional are Americans? We're just like any other country, I suppose- we have our moments and our favorites. But in fairness, it's a mixed bag. Americans didn't flock to tennis during the Sampras-Agassi rivalry; two great American players didn't alter the terrain. Rather, M. Jordan dominated our sports landscape. I like Federer-Nadal. I rooted for Montie to win the US (golf) Open but I hope Tiger wins the British. Go figure.

As for tennis, the greatest sport ever, racquet technology has altered the game, probably as much as club/ball technology has changed golf (a pitching wedge from 175 yds? Gimme a break.) Agassi's graceless power baseline game wasn't possible with a wooden racquet. So what? I prefer shot creation; I'm not a fan of topspin. But it's effective- and the current crop use the shot marvelously.

Frankly, Kevin, good riddance to serve-and-volley, though I loved McEnroe and enjoyed Martin. The style bored me. (Sampras was lousy for the game. Agassi was much more interesting because of his personal flair and competitiveness, in contrast to his brutish, unstylish game.) At least Federer's game is dazzling and interesting to watch.

Americans loved McEnroe and Connors as much for their personalities as their tennis styles (which were quite different). In addition to being great players, they were rebels, emotional bad boys, tirelessly competitive. Federer is a robot in a tradition of European robots (Borg, Lendl). While his tennis talent is undeniable, he doesn't capture our hearts. It's not his fault. At the end of the day, Americans want that rare combination of great talent, enormous competitiveness and an interesting even flawed personality (Ruth, Mantle, Palmer, Jordan, Woods). It doesn't happen often.

Posted by: kreiz on July 22, 2006 at 7:44 AM | PERMALINK

I don't pay attention to tennis--particularly men's tennis--because it's usually boring. Serve, return, maybe another return, point. No lengthy volleys. It's all a matter of muscle--hit the ball hard enough to get it past the other guy and you get the point--not strategy. Boring as hell.

Posted by: raj on July 22, 2006 at 8:11 AM | PERMALINK

Even Tim Henman has ratcheted back on pure serve and volley as a strategy. The change in string technology allows players to hit with more spin as well as greater power. The returner can place a dipping return in front of the server's feet: this creates a more difficult half-volley rather than a low volley. Net attacks now become more tactical than strategic - you come in against an out of position and/or off balance opponent.

One of Nadal's strengths is his ability to hit passing shots off either wing, even when out of position. Federer has great respect for this - he was broken in his first service game of the Wimbledon second set by accurate passes, and became more circumspect.

An interesting sideline is the influence of technology on different sports. Compare, for example, tennis and rugby vs soccer, football, baseball and golf. I'd argue that the two former sports have changed very dramatically in the last 30 years, while the other sports have seen very small incremental changes, mostly related to player size and conditioning. The Tennis Channel shows "You've Come A Long Way, Baby" from 1973 - fascinating not just for the unconcious sexism but the strokes and form of both women and men players. Ken Rosewall played a completely different game to Lleyton Hewitt.

IMV, There's been no significant change in soccer over the same period. Football has seen new offensive and defensive styles (West Coast Offense, zone blitzes), but it's recognizably the same game.

Posted by: Andrew on July 22, 2006 at 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

1. It's not the racquet technology, it's the strings. The rackets are bascially the same as they were ten years ago when you had serve and volleyers;

2. Serve-and-volley can be damned boring. Most boring match I ever saw was '85 Wimbledon finals, Becker v. Curran. Almost no ralley more than three shots in the whole match;

3. America is in decline in all sports. Golf is about the only sport left where Americans dominate and that's because of Woods and Mickleson, both of who are in their 30's. America has half as many players in the golf top ten as it did five years ago and half as many in the top twenty-five. It's the video games, I tell ya!

Posted by: Jose Padilla on July 22, 2006 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

Peter: Playing golf - sorry, "cartball" - takes next to nothing.

I'll concede that older golfers use carts. Usually out of necessity. For myself, I carry my bag, usually with a sixer in it, for eighteen holes(although there are considerably fewer by the time we're finished). I'm 48 years old, and I'm not alone.

Get out and try the game. You might be surprised by how physical it is.

Posted by: bigcat on July 22, 2006 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK


When did Todd Martin become a serve-and-volleyer? He pretty much used to whack the ball from the baseline, it seems to me.

Posted by: scritic on July 22, 2006 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

Am I the only one that noticed that Nadal came to the net much, much more at Wimbledon than he ever has before? He's still young, and his game is still developing. He's clearly willing to remake and add to his game to challenge Federer.

Yes, pure serve and volleyers are gone (for now). But that doesn't mean that the best players won't learn to come to the net when it makes sense -- on grass.

BTW, tennis is still huge in ver specific regions. I live in Atlanta, where tennis is BY FAR the biggest adult sport. The growth boom here coincided with the popular age of tennis, so the vast majority of subdivisions have their own tennis courts, and neighborhood teams compete against each other. My subdivision has 10-20 teams (different levels, ages, m/f), depending on the season.

Posted by: dmoore on July 22, 2006 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Wow. Lots & lots of tennis fans here.

Most folks missed it, but this year's Tour was absolutely incredible -- due largely to factors no one could have predicted: expulsions, crashes, and unrelenting temperatures. The most amazing part, though, was watching Landis lay waste to the field on Stage 17. The stage covered 120 miles & 13,000 feet of climbing on a day that saw temperatures well into the 90's. After surrendering over 8 minutes to the leader on the previous day, Landis rode away from the main pack, caught an escape group that was 10 minutes in front of him, dropped them, and soloed to the day's victory, regaining all but 30 seconds of what he had lost the day before. And this on the last of three days which saw riders climbing a total of 34,000 feet -- that's the altitude at which commercial airliners fly. Living legends of the sport -- Merckx, Hinault, & Lemond -- are already talking about the historical significance of that ride.

Today, Landis put a minute & a half on the race leader, pretty much assuring his overall victory after tomorrow's largely ceremonial stage. Barring an act of God, he will stand atop the podium tomorrow. Man, does he ever deserve it.

Posted by: chaunceyatrest on July 22, 2006 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

dmoore, let's here it for ALTA (Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association)! Sometimes it feels like Atlanta's only meaningful civic organization.

Gosh I loves me some ALTA!

Posted by: wetzel on July 22, 2006 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

Get out and try the game. You might be surprised by how physical it is.

Fifteen years ago, when I was in my early 30's, I was in an after-work golf league for a few months and found it to be no physical workout at all. We played nine rather than 18 holes, but on a very hilly course. And back then, I was a totally out-of-shape couch potato with a nonexistent level of physical fitness.
It's funny, today I'm 49 years old but in FAR better shape than I was 15 years ago, today I powerlift, run, and work a heavy punching bag.

BTW, tennis is still huge in ver specific regions. I live in Atlanta, where tennis is BY FAR the biggest adult sport. The growth boom here coincided with the popular age of tennis, so the vast majority of subdivisions have their own tennis courts, and neighborhood teams compete against each other. My subdivision has 10-20 teams (different levels, ages, m/f), depending on the season.

That's very impressive. If only things were like that where I live (Long Island); here, the only participant sport for adults is "cartball."

Posted by: Peter on July 22, 2006 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

bfd, Kevin. Much ado about nothing.

Posted by: /b on July 23, 2006 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

raj: you obviously didn't see, e.g., the Federer-Nadal final. Or any of the French Open. The world simply isn't how you say it is.

hank: you're so right on the money on American tennis commentary. Why it's so awful is a complete mystery. You'd think that former players like McEnroe and Courier would know what they're talking about. Half the time, they're doing cheap psychoanalysis and celebrity gossip. Disgraceful.

Posted by: c-monkey on July 23, 2006 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

Here's something to feed the provincial fires:

With Floyd Landis's win in this year's Tour de France, an American has won 11 of the last 21 Tours de France. The American winners:

Greg Lemond 1986/1989/1990
Lance Armstrong 1999-2005
Floyd Landis 2006

Posted by: Kurzleg on July 24, 2006 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

And let's also not forget Nicky Hayden who won the American GP race in California on Sunday. He also leads in the Championship.

Posted by: 1SG on July 24, 2006 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK



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