ATP 2014: Natural order reasserting itself?

For the last few years, older fans or younger fans of the old tennis have lamented the increasing uniformity in tennis.  They have decried the domination of baseline tennis (and along with, the decline of serve and volley) across the board , be it hard court, grass court or clay.  Some go to the extent of saying only clay court specialists play on all surfaces.  Which is pretty extreme when you apply it to players like Roger Federer.

 

On the other hand, the ATP has appeared to be on a mission to ensure long rallies don’t go anywhere, no matter what.  There have been feelers of caution whenever any big serving player starts to win a few matches.  This, I must say, is stretching things to another extreme and such paranoia over big serving players wasn’t there even as late as say 2006-07 when Federer dominated the field…beating big serving opponents most of the time.  It would be myopic to the core to completely deny the attacking dimension of tennis but that, however, was (is?) what seemed to be happening over the last few years.  Rafael Nadal helpfully chipped in to express his utter disdain and dislike of the Pete Sampras brand of tennis.  I am not sure he would like it very much if somebody bashed his brand of defensive baseline tennis as dismissively as he wrote off Sampras, one of the legends of the game.

 

As much as I have written to support the current era of tennis, even I had begun to wonder if things were not drifting too far in one direction.  Because it IS tennis at the end of the day and tennis is a game of shots, not a long distance running race.   To pretend that shots somehow ruin the game and make it boring (because  outright winners nip rallies in the bud) would be extremely naive to say the least.

 

However, change seems to be at hand this year.  It began with Stanislas Wawrinka lording over the field with, shock and horror, a one handed backhand at the Australian Open.  More shocking was his success with a judicious use of the serve and volley tactic against Nadal at the final.

 

Normal service appeared to have resumed when Nadal pocketed yet another French Open title, sealing his clay court invincibility if at all it needed to be bolstered any further.  But Wimbledon proved this was not quite the case.  Nadal,as has been his wont the last couple of years, exited without reaching even the quarters.  Actually, his fourth round exit was an improvement over the last two years.

 

What had changed was this time, he did not play badly to lose.  He had in fact managed to overcome initial hiccups to dismiss his 2012 nemesis Lukas Rosol.  But he was up against a 19 year old wildcard from Australia, Nick Kyrgios.  Kyrgios blasted 37 aces and 68 unreturned serves against Nadal.  Indeed, the sound of the ball landing on the wall after Kyrgios’s darts would have evoked sweet nostalgia for old timers – boom, boom, boom.  There was not much, if any, serve and volley but the approach was certainly more reminiscent of an older style of tennis.  It was attack from the word go.  In fact, Nadal got the farthest in the draw of all clay court specialists in the tournament, with compatriots Ferrer and Verdasco perishing much earlier.  No clay court specialist reached the quarter finals of Wimbledon this year.

 

So Kyrgios wasn’t the only one.  Raonic reached the semis, beating Kyrgios en route.  Grigor Dimitrov was the other first time semi finalist at SW19 and the other to have not yet won a slam.  To put that in perspective, we haven’t had two ‘slamless’ semi finalists in the men’s event at Wimbledon since 2010, when Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray made it to that stage.  And even they were more fancied names than either Dimitrov or Raonic.  Perhaps 2007 when Djokovic and Gasquet were thought of as promising players but not quite ready to take the next step.

And on cue, Federer and Djokovic reached the finals this year as well.  For good measure, Federer took a dig at the all the youth brigade talk and claimed the Big Four were good to dominate for a few more years.  But in order to underline this, Federer and Djokovic had to dig deep into their reserves of talent and produced, in the process, the first truly memorable Wimbledon final since 2009.  If that last point is debatable, I will not dwell on it further as I need to move on to…Washington DC!

 

At Washington DC, the boom boom brigade has once again asserted itself.  Admittedly in conditions that suited them as the court is one of the quicker ones on the tour.  But that’s kind of the whole point as we seemed to be getting into a phase where no court was fast enough for the power oriented players to win.  Anyhow, Richard Gasquet was the only one of the more recognised older names to reach the semi final even as Berdych was knocked out.  Raonic once again and the big hitting Vasek Pospisil have made it an all Canadian final.  There is a promise of plenty of aces and unreturned (unreturnable?) serves in the final once again.  In other words, back to the very thing that the ATP appears to dread (by the by, injury will keep Nadal out of Toronto and Cincinnati this year).

 

But should they, really?  There may have been a time when the audience felt weary of non stop power hitting, lightning fast tennis but that time is not now.  For now, at least going by crowd reactions, they seem to find it fresh and exciting.  Besides, even though somebody like Raonic may volley behind the serve from time to time, nobody still does it as often as in the 90s.

 

Should the ATP really be so paranoid about this aspect of the game?  Shouldn’t they simply accept that this is the natural order of the game?  Attacking players are bound to have their day, especially on relatively faster surfaces, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Besides, it adds an exciting dimension to the game.  It is in trying to take risks to finish off a point that the players have to improvise and come up with great shots on the spur of the moment.  And the act of doing so adds some much needed unpredictability to the contest.  If all players had all the time in the world to choose their shot and predictably chose the optimum option without fail, it might keep the percentages in their favour but it would make for very boring viewing.

 

Today, men’s tennis still retains an exciting technical edge.  Players, including the much reviled baseliners like Djokovic, exploit different angles with their serve.  They try to change up things with slices and drops to save time and effort for themselves and also to win tactical mini-battles within the war.  The Djokovic-Nadal finals that ageists dread are brilliant tactical exhibitions of almost chess-like finesse. The same cannot quite be said with as much certainty of women’s tennis.  This year’s French Open final was a case in point.  It was appalling to see how few times both players even did something as elementary as attempting a wide serve.  Both players showed quite an incredible reluctance to break the pattern and move away from set strategies to find a way to win.  It was as a contest more closely fought than the men’s final but from a tennis fan’s point of view quite painful to watch, frankly.

 

If men’s tennis is to not go down that road, then perhaps the ATP needs to take a leap of faith and…just let things be.  Constantly attempting to manage the product that is finally consumed by TV viewers may not produce desirable results in the long run.  Attack and defence represent in equal measure the natural order of tennis.  There is no point in denying the natural order of tennis and, in fact, painting it as an evil to be warded off with heavier balls.  What next, should players have to hit shotput balls to make sure the rallies never end?  ATP should, like most of us fans, just sit back and enjoy the tennis.  The game will find its own level, as it always has.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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