Baseline Epics Spur a Debate About Court Speed
With another ATP Tour season set to finish Monday at the World Tour Finals in London, there would seem little cause for concern for men’s tennis.
The extended tussle with the Grand Slam events over prize money ended this year with a series of major raises for the players. A new tour president is expected to be announced soon after a lengthy, sometimes-testy debate.
Above all, in this great tennis era fueled by dependable star power and keepsake matches, the four men who have been the driving forces — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — remain in the mix and motivated, even if Murray is missing the finals as he recovers from back surgery.
But with the Big Four accounted for and many a big issue resolved, there is increasing discussion behind the scenes about the future. How to proceed when Federer, 32 and ranked seventh, finally decides that he has nothing left to prove to himself, much less anybody else? How to recover when Nadal’s knees stop carrying him to all corners?
The sport will have to keep moving, keep attracting, and one concern that keeps resurfacing is court speed.
“If you ask me, it’s become too homogenized,” said Paul Annacone, who long coached Pete Sampras and recently split with Federer.
Even the grass at Wimbledon is no longer so quick, with a higher bounce that has helped Nadal win it twice. Meanwhile, clay-court tennis has generally become faster, in part because of ball choice. Whatever the particulars, in the medium-paced conditions that now predominate, the hallmark of today’s tennis is baseline tussles that often lengthen into marathons.
For archetypal moments, see the 5-hour-53-minute Australian Open final between Nadal and Djokovic in 2012, or their 54-shot rally in this year’s United States Open final.
The playing styles, body types and court-shrinking defensive skills of Djokovic and Murray are so similar that there can be a mirror-image quality to their lengthy exchanges.
But is grueling, winner-thwarting baseline tennis — no matter how athletically impressive — the way forward, particularly when the megastars are gone? Many in the game have doubts, and there is a push to encourage more variety in play and court speed with an eye on the net and an eye on the clock.
“I think it has gone too much one way and the tournaments need to correct it,” said Craig Tiley, the tournament director of the Australian Open. “But I think it’s dangerous when you correct it and go too far too quickly.”
Tiley has been one of the forces behind a moderate increase in pace in recent years at the Australian Open, pushed along in part by a ball change. At least two top tournaments have taken more drastic action. The first to speed up conditions significantly in an attempt to encourage the attack was the 2010 indoor Masters 1000 event in Paris, although it later retrenched in the face of player criticism. The most recent move came at this year’s Masters 1000 event in Shanghai, where Djokovic beat Juan Martín del Potro in the final last month. Shanghai, like Paris, is played on hardcourts, and this time, there was no backlash.
“We set it up faster than we’ve ever done before,” said Charles Smith, an American who is part of the Shanghai tournament’s leadership group and is also on the ATP board of directors. “We were medium fast last year and fast this year, and I think it was a negative historically for people if you had a fast court. And this is part of the narrative people are coming to grips with. Even with fast courts, you still get 20-shot rallies and beautiful points. These guys are just such good defenders. Novak is as fast as any guy I’ve seen side to side, so part of this is trying to keep up with the players and their evolution.”
Smith said the decision to speed up the court was made after consulting with players, fans and members of the news media, and it was done by play testing and then lowering the silicone, or grit, content in the cushioned acrylic surface.
Smith said he was surprised to see rallies still extending past 15 strokes on a “very quick court.”
“But I think our semifinal match with Rafa and Juan Martín was one of the best matches of the year,” he said. “Juan Martín was just pounding the ball, and it was fantastic tennis because it is what you want: transition tennis. You want guys to attack and play aggressive tennis. I think that’s what fans want to see.”
There is still a strong desire in some quarters to preserve serve-and-volley as a tactical option. It is perhaps no coincidence that a number of tournament directors — Michael Stich in Hamburg, Richard Krajicek in Rotterdam, Guy Forget in Paris — were once top-5 players who spent plenty of time rushing the net.
Pat Cash, another former Wimbledon champion and serve-and-volleyer, has called for a ban on certain types of modern polyester strings to make it more difficult to hit passing shots. Others have called for the pace of grass courts to be increased, particularly with an extra week of grass-court tennis being added to the circuit in 2015.
But Brad Gilbert, a prominent coach and former top-five player himself, said it would be misguided to turn back the clock. The primary reason tournament directors slowed down courts in the 1990s was their concern that too many big servers and too much staccato tennis were killing the spectacle. “I’m not living in the stone age, wanting to see guys go back to serve-and-volley and play one-shot tennis,” Gilbert said. “Boring!”
The debate over court speed also extends to potential health concerns and even to worries that the emphasis on the physical over the tactical could tempt players to dope.
“I believe these slower courts, meaning more physical play and more shots and more abrupt stopping and starting with more sand in the courts, just makes it really tough,” said Justin Gimelstob, a commentator and former American player now on the ATP board. “Combine that with how many quality shots it takes to win points, and it’s going to eventually be a player health issue. I’m thinking of the N.F.L. and concussions. The real information can be 10 years down the road.”
But Gilbert points to the increasing number of successful older players and says it is serve-and-volley that is harder on the body.
“We’re seeing guys now playing well into their 30s, and I think it’s because of the slower courts, and because guys are playing more rallies and not sprinting forward all the time,” he said. There is also the school of thought that the smaller differences in court speeds on tour have actually contributed to this remarkable phase in the men’s game: allowing a small group of great players to meet regularly in the decisive stages of major events. Djokovic and Nadal have played 38 times, with Nadal winning 22. Federer and Nadal have played 31 times, with Nadal winning 21. Federer and Djokovic have played 30 times, with Federer winning 16.
What does seem desirable is a contrast of styles: Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe; Pat Rafter versus Andre Agassi. That will be gone if players cannot make a consistent living in the forecourt or perhaps fans will have to settle for the contrast provided by men willing to take bigger risks than opponents from the baseline (see del Potro).
“In all sports, contrasting styles make the matchups,” Gimelstob said. “With Federer and Nadal, at least there’s something there. You have the righty-lefty. But Murray-Djokovic, it’s incredible tennis, but every point looks exactly the same.”