As a tennis watcher, the one thing I hear as frequently as talk of the dying art of serve and volley is that the courts have slowed down. The question is, have they indeed, and how much of the changed nature of tennis is on account of other factors?
Because a lot of things have changed over the last ten years, not just the courts. Racquets have improved, players do cover a lot more ground and also keep up the intensity for longer into the match. When people lament the slowness of the court, they are really lamenting about the style of play more than anything. So how much would the style of play have changed had it not been for the courts?
And as I think about this, I remember the very interesting Mr.Gustavo Kuerten. I think Kuerten is the missing link in this discussion. Kuerten is remembered for his French Open conquests but there are some other achievements of his that tend to get glossed over, probably because he is best known as a clay court player. He made the quarter finals of both Wimbledon and US Open in 1999, supposedly Pete Sampras’s den. And – this is the biggie – he won the Year Ending Championships at an indoor court at Lisbon in 2000, beating Sampras and Agassi and finishing the year ranked no.1.
Why this is interesting is at that time nobody gave him a chance against Agassi and Sampras. Today, old timers lament the lack of diversity in the tour, believing that all players seem to be baseliners but I do not remember that they were all quite so kind to Kuerten back then. His defensive, top spin oriented style was written off, at least so far as the second half of the tour was concerned and yet he triumphed indoors against opponents he would be least expected to beat in those conditions.
More interesting is to observe his style of play in these matches. He would appear to be the forerunner to Rafael Nadal, slowing down the serve with heavy topspin and extracting high bounce from his shots. If you listened to old timers, it would apparently be impossible for Nadal to employ these tactics in the 90s on hard courts and he would hence never have won Wimbledon or US Open but for slow courts but that is exactly what Kuerten did and successfully at that. It is important to note that Kuerten didn’t have a huge serve and he also didn’t move as well as Nadal and maybe he could have stormed the bastion with a more complete game.
Somebody might claim now that the courts had slowed down in 2000 already but even if that were true, it was certainly not the talk of tennis town at that time. In 2000, Sampras beat Rafter at Wimbledon and it was Ivanisevic’s turn the year next. And in 2002, of course, Sampras won his last Grand Slam at the US Open.
Coming to Wimbledon, what has changed is the court has become harder and produces more consistent bounce. The bad bounce of the ‘good old days’ has disappeared for good. This in turn makes it easier for players to send back the serve with heavy topspin because they have more height to work with. And when there are topspin rallies going on, the game does slow down. As it did when Kuerten beat Sampras and Agassi at Lisbon.
To test this theory, I looked at a match played in the ‘old style’ in the noughties – Agassi v/s Federer, Australian Open 2005. By now, the slowing down of courts was well and truly in progress as per the theories floating on the net. And yet, Agassi and Federer played the game at a rather frenetic pace. It looks perceptibly faster than the Agassi-Kuerten match from Lisbon but the Australian Open surface has traditionally been on the slower side.
This is because, as I said, their tactics were very similar to those used in the 90s by hard court players. They relied more on forward than lateral movement, didn’t go for the corners and hit the ball flat and hard. Their rally hit point was generally around the baseline or even inside while today players like to stand well behind the baseline. Even today, if players did hit the ball flat and hard, they would generate that kind of pace. Del Potro does, for instance, and so does Raonic.
A possibility that: perhaps, as Djokovic and Nadal get older and slow down, and Raonic emerges as the new star, the fast and furious hard court game of old may make a comeback. Perhaps. I am not even sure if I would necessarily rejoice at that. Or will it be Bernard Tomic’s slice and dice taking over the tour?