Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and Victoria Azarenka.
What do these three tennis players have in common? They all pulled out of Madrid, citing some injury or ailment. Tennis might not be a contact sport, but it is an athletic sport; demanding a fine mixture of explosiveness, power, multi-directional changes, repeated limb – hip rotations and the occasional aerial leaps. Bottom line, there are bound to be injuries every now and then. Yet the recent spate of withdrawals due to injuries has to have tournament organizers, fans and perhaps tennis players, worrying a bit.
It is easy to chalk up Roger and Serena’s challenges to age, but what about the younger and recently far more dangerous Azarenka? Remember, she just came back from an injury hiatus. I’m hard pressed to believe age is the problem in all cases. I also don’t believe the often talked about length of the season has anything to do with it. In fact, I never believed it did. If, as a professional player your body is too worn out to participate in the last few masters tournaments of the season, but you can stroll into a grandiose after season exhibition for a hefty appearance fee, then there is a bit of a contradiction. However, I digress. The real issue lies within the recent evolution of tennis itself.
Over the last two decades or so, tennis has slowly but surely changed from the sport that dominated the early open era, to what it is today. In fact, if you were watching side by side YouTube highlights of a match played in 1970, and a match played yesterday, you’d be hard pressed to believe it was the same sport. The first thing you will probably notice, is the tennis playing style and patterns.
Early on, tennis was a game of angles, explosiveness and a willingness to come forward. It was an attack minded game with a premium on short high octane points that rewarded daring, sharp reflexes and a crafty mind, over patience, grinding and risk aversion. Did you have to be physically fit? Yes! But in a different way. The emphasis was on footwork (as it was understood back in the day), so strong legs were always an advantage. Today, tennis is a game of spin. Opponents send deep probing shots that dovetail onto the court, just inside the baseline. They continually redirect the ball, yanking each other back and forth along the back court, with the occasional angled shot aimed to expose the open court. The initiative is not to strike a decisive blow, but to wear down the opponent, over time. What’s more, they can do this for hours on end.
If you stepped through a time capsule from 1970 till now, found out about WordPress, are reading this blog and wondering how the hell tennis got to be played this way, I’ll introduce you to the next big change. Racket and string technology. In retrospect, the style of tennis today is not just a change, but a resultant change of this particularly paradigm shifting event. New materials (composites) for making rackets were discovered. These were lighter and invariably led to bigger rackets that could be wielded more efficiently than their wooden counterparts. Strings, not to be left behind, also experienced advances that diversified from the original natural gut feel to give a varied array of power and control that was virtually unthinkable prior to their development. The sweet spot got bigger. This translated very obviously to the receiver, and to the rallies. Shots could be controlled from any part of the court, and with more power, players could flat out scorch the court with outright winners from the baseline. The beginning of the end for S&V.
Finally, the tennis court decided to join in on the act. With a clamor from fans to make the game more… ‘interesting’ tennis’s ruling bodies have slowed down the naturally faster courts so much so, that they play like clay courts – the naturally slowest of the courts. The result? More rallies, less efficiency in S&V and what we have today – A monotony of tennis styles that save for the top flight guys, can leave one feeling… less than interested. To be fair, the slowing down of the courts has been met with mixed results. It is riveting when you have natural shot makers who revel in finding the angles, making incredible gets and orchestrating spectacular winners. It can also be a drag when you’ve got conservative players who won’t hit a single winner, during a match.
Like I said earlier, the fitness requirements for tennis in the early open era, is very different from what it is today. With the advent of baseline rallying and increased all court coverage, the tennis player had to rely not just on short little steps and split steps, but on long strides, slides, lunges, and twists on a dime. This puts a lot of strain on the body and that finally leads us full circle. The evolutionary trend has made the tennis player more vulnerable to injuries ranging from mild to career defining. Playing such a style – no matter how rewarding it might be – eventually has its drawbacks. The body just can’t keep up for so long and as it ages, this becomes even more true.
Bottom line, they have got to speed up the court again. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like it was in the early open era, but it should make a world of difference for the players who beat up on their own bodies day after day. They might be at their absolute physical peak, but even the greatest of them have breaking points.
What do you think? Share your thoughts below!