Risk tennis a lost art form

Earlier this year I wrote an article about the pace of indoor surfaces and the demise of indoor carpet on the ATP and WTA tours. (see article here) Quick indoor carpet has been completely phased out in favour of medium paced indoor hardcourts based on the plexicushion surface. The slowing down in surfaces has led to a convergence in style of play and allowed defensive minded players to get to the very top of the game and stay there.

Recently Roger Federer called for surfaces to speeded up once again “It’s an easy fix. Just make quicker courts, then it’s hard to defend,” Federer said. “Attacking style is more important. It’s only on this type of slow courts that you can defend the way we are all doing right now.”

Roger Federer

When I spoke to the ATP spokesman back in February, he clearly gave the view the surfaces were slowed down and carpet phased out because there were too many complaints that the big serve was dominating tennis. That is a pity because my article clearly dispelled the myth that faster surfaces were only dominated by big servers, I pointed out that many baseliners loved the quicker surfaces.

Players like Ivan Lendl won over 30 tournaments on indoor carpet, much more tournaments on one surface than most players win in an entire career. Lendl won 5 year end Masters titles (ATP World Tour) and played in 8 straight finals between 1982 and 1989. Also Lendl won these titles against the likes of John McEnroe, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg.

Monica Seles was another player who excelled on indoor carpet, and yet both she and Lendl won multiple titles at the French Open, the slowest surface on tour. Martina Hingis also excelled on indoor carpet. In the mens game, Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten, Lleyton Hewitt and Alex Corretja won the year end championships indoors whilst Jim Courier played in finals in 1991 and 1992 and Michael Chang in 1995.

During the US Open in September, I watched a first round match involving Andy Murray and Alex Bogomolov. The analyst was ex American player Taylor Dent, and he made really interesting comments. Dent said Murray stated that players from the early 2000s did not have the same athleticism as players today due to court speeds. Players today had to be fitter because rallies are much longer and they have to do a lot more retrieving. The US Open final which was 5 hours long is a perfect example of the way the game is played today.

Today’s rallies often are played more or less down the middle of the court and within very strict parameters well within the lines of the court. Even though incredible athleticism is required to keep rallies going, when Murray and Djokovic play eachother, neither are going close to the lines too often, retrieving is spectacular but is doable, Murray in particular is prepared to float the forehand often to keep the rally going.
Novak Djokovic has perfected this style of play as has Victoria Azarenka in the womens game. In the US Open womens final, this tactic almost paid off against Serena Williams who was played a classic risk and reward with immaculate and going for lines wherever possible.

Victoria Azarenka

With the game becoming more conservative, two things have happened in the last few years. The first is that double faults are a thing of the past because players are putting in safe 2nd serves over and over. The second thing is that players can put in safe 2nd serves because hitting return winners and attacking 2nd serves have also become almost extinct at the top level.

Ironically, Federer defeated Murray in the Wimbledon final precisely through the tactics of attacking Murray’s 2nd serve with drive returns and chip and charge manoeuvres and attacking the net. We haven’t seen Federer play so aggressively for a number of years and it was great to watch, a triumph for attacking play.
Federer’s argument would be that he would like to employ these tactics more often but is very difficult as courts play at a slow medium pace everywhere on all surfaces including indoors where you would expect it to be quicker.
The theory is that it takes longer to perfect a risk and reward game. When it comes off it looks spectacular but can look extremely erratic when it doesn’t work. Now with slower conditions, there is no incentive for coaches to encourage players to learn a risk game. In the last two decades, many players who came out of Northern Europe and North America had an identifiable style, which was to be aggressive either through attacking the net or from the baseline with flatter shots.

Today, most players coming out of North America and Northern Europe reflect the Spanish claycourt style of play with heavy topspin and western grips. Petra Kvitova and Milos Raonic are the only players under the age of 25 who play risk and reward game. Kvitova is still finding the best way to use her many skills, weapons and temperament. Players with a solid game tend to come through much earlier at elite level, but players who play risk and reward in the past have come through later but stayed at the top longer.

It will be interesting to see what decisions are taken when Roger Federer eventually is no longer in the top 4. There is a dearth of players coming through who play risk and reward tennis. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fish have done well but neither have been able to make a big breakthrough to win a major tournament. In Tsonga’s case, he is not able to use his net skills as much as he would like due to the slower courts. Also the fans love to see a clash of styles and when Federer leaves the scene, that will no longer be the case in major finals.

Jo Wilfried Tsonga

Hopefully the authorities take note of Federer’s comments because it is not only about now, it is also about inspiring the next generation and like boxing, tennis has always been about different tactics and different styles of play, being diversified. The danger is that diversity is slowly dying in tennis, this needs to be addressed.

Article by Laurie B
Photos by Tennis Buzz (Roger Federer French Open 2012, Victoria Azarenka French Open 2012, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga French Open 2011)

One Response
  1. Jovica says:

    Nice one, well said

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