Chip comes charging back to tennis?


The Australian Open 2012 final was received with much fanfare.  It had a battleground-esque ferocity and ruthlessness rarely seen in tennis, especially outside the Davis Cup (the Del Potro-Nadal match in the Davis Cup final last year was similar in terms of electrifying atmosphere).   At the same time, it got some people, mostly traditionalists worried about the direction of tennis.  If this was how much top players had to punish themselves physically to win a slam, tennis would see too many injuries, they reasoned.  I guess the sight of such supreme athletes as Djoko and Nadal feeling too tired to even remain standing during the presentation must have been scary.

Whatever….what seems to be unfolding, instead, is a renewed thrust on forward movement, on attacking the short ball.   If you think tennis has gotten even more brutal since that Australian Open final, you probably missed either or all of these moments:  (a) Federer chipping a return to take the net against Murray and smoothly drive volley his weak second shot (Wimbledon) (b) Tsonga bravely coming in behind a second serve in a crucial hold against Murray (Wimbledon)  (c)  Nadal going for a drop shot from the baseline against Djokovic! (French Open).

This last Nadal exhibit is especially interesting, as he has always preferred to play the percentages.  He reasoned after losing the Wimbleon 2007 final narrowly to Federer that he ought to wait longer in a rally for an opportunity to make a winner than to take a risk or attempt something uncharacteristic.    As he subsequently turned the tables on Federer on hard court and grass court, Federer too began to cut risk and play the percentages.   Working an opponent out of court became the magic mantra rather than strokemaking.

Instead, players are ‘going back’ to a more aggressive approach in terms of court position.   I put the words going back in quotes because I cannot remember when last Nadal hit a drop shot off the baseline.  It’s something I expect from Djoko or Federer but not Nadal, especially not at his fortress in Paris.    And it’s not just those three exhibits; both French Open and Wimbledon saw many passages of attacking tennis.   Players serve-volleyed, albeit intermittently, on clay…and I mean, clay court specialists like David Ferrer, not a Sampras going for serve volley because it was his best strategy.   At Wimbledon, the one handed backhand slice made a grand comeback and was frequently put to use.  Players took to the net more often and also flattened out the ball for outright winners from the baseline (instead of going for heavy topspin).

So…what happened to percentages?  To the new brand of brutal tennis that both Djokovic and Nadal claimed to love and hoped to repeat in many more encounters?  The players themselves would obviously be in the best position to give an answer. But my guess is that, simply, tennis has a set of well known formulae and strategies and there comes a point when (a) players know the current strategy too well and it starts to lose its effectiveness and (b) old, abandoned strategies catch players by surprise when resurrected and suddenly become the ‘new strategy’.

Hand in hand, Nadal’s defeats at Halle and Wimbledon and Djokovic’s to Federer at Wimbledon might point to the resurgence of serve as a crucial weapon to win, especially on hard and grass court.   There have been indications of this in the last few months, as Isner reached the Indian Wells final and Raonic consistently stretched top ranked players.   For the last couple of years, the return of serve and baseline depth seemed to have become the most crucial weapons for a tennis player and serve, much less so.   The first mentioned attributes would still remain important to top players but the serve might just regain a bit of the balance.  For that matter, Nadal served really well throughout the clay court season, which was one of the reasons for his near-total domination of it.

Irrespective of whether the prospect of even more physical, brutal tennis had you invoking George Orwell or licking your lips in anticipation, MAYBE it won’t be the future direction of tennis after all.  Perhaps, serve, strokemaking and risk taking will increase in importance to reduce the need to play grinding tennis.   As usual, I am dead neutral about this.  If it’s Federer/Tsonga-like brilliance to watch out for, that would be great…and not so much if it means a Roddick-like ace battery.   I will stay tuned.










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