Fifty Years in the Game: A Meditation on Tennis

By Daniel A. Kaufman

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Anyone who knows me knows that I am tennis player and enthusiast of long standing. [I have been playing the game since around 1974.] You will also know that I think tennis is in decline, despite the efforts of the contemporary ATP and sports media [and fandom] to convince everyone that Novak Djokovic is the Greatest Of All Time or Roger Federer or Serena Williams or whoever else. They are not. And understanding why will go a long way towards understanding the ways in which the game went wrong over the many decades through which I have watched and played it.

But, first I want to say something more general about sports, because my criticisms of the current state of tennis are situated among more general considerations about the nature and purpose of competitive, spectator-oriented athletics. Relatively speaking, human beings are not physically impressive. Any number of animals are faster [e.g. cheetahs], stronger [e.g. bears], more agile [e.g. gazelles], and more dexterous [e.g. monkeys], and for this reason, the “pure” sports – running, jumping, weightlifting, and the like – are of the least interest to me. How impressive is it to be the “World’s Strongest Man” or UFC champion or some other such thing, when the feeblest orangutan or gorilla can rip your arm out of its socket, without any effort? Or to be the world’s fastest woman, when the slowest gazelle or cheetah can leave you in the dust? Or the best swimmer, when there are … dolphins?

Where humans impress is in the intersection of our physicality and our intelligence, and consequently, the most interesting and exciting of the professional sports are those in which this intersection is being tested. This means games that involve a substantially strategic and tactical approach to the application of physical prowess, and tennis is such a game.

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Tennis goes back at least as far as the Tudors, but the game as we know it began just prior to the “Open Era” with the arrival on the scene of a group of Australian players, including Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, and Tony Roche, whose style and quality of play laid the foundation for the tennis of today, in the sense that the game finally shed its genteel, clubby identity and became like other professional sports. [1] Especially impressive were the Davis Cup teams Australia fielded from this group, under Harry Hopman, who later emigrated to the US and taught at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, where he trained future tennis stars like Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe and thereby influenced the way the sport would be played in the 1970’s and 80’s.

It was an all-court game – baseline, serve/volley, and everything in-between – played on surfaces that behaved so differently that different play styles and tactics were needed to succeed on each. Grass courts played nothing like clay courts, which played entirely differently from hard courts. If a baseline-heavy player wanted to have any chance on grass, he would have to serve and volley, which is why Guillermo Vilas, a legendary baseliner, played an almost entirely serve/volley game in order to beat Ilie Nastase and take the 1974 Masters trophy on grass.

1974 Masters Final [Nastase vs. Vilas]

Racquets were made of wood, with small heads [68 inches average], strung with natural gut strings. With such a small head and even smaller sweet spot, proper form and eyes locked on the ball were a must if one was to hit cleanly and not mishit. Relatively compact swings were necessary – you can’t swing these racquets with the exotic, looping motion of a Rafael Nadal, without mishitting – so they favored flat and slice strokes over topspin, which meant balls stayed quite low to the ground, requiring players to remain crouched in order to make their shots. The fact that racquets were composed entirely of natural materials meant that they offered great feel and zero additives: the racquet did what you did and nothing more.

With the introduction of synthetic materials into racquet and string production and with racquet-head sizes expanding to over 100 square inches, racquets today do so much that one spends as much effort controlling them as one does on tactics and gameplay. With a wood racquet, I can return a hard-hit drive from my opponent with a cream-puff drop shot [if at the baseline] or a drop volley [if at net]. With a contemporary racquet, you have to put enormous amounts of underspin on the balls to effect this, or else the racquet will spray them out of bounds. Indeed, one reason why there is such overuse of topspin from the baseline today is to keep the ball in the court, as the racquets are so overpowered that balls will sail out otherwise, if hit with any pace. You could only hit so hard with wood and gut strings, so it wasn’t possible simply to overpower your opponent. Service aces were much more a matter of placement than sheer speed – compare an ace by John McEnroe to one by, say, Andy Roddick – and you had to construct and set up points in order to finish another player off. This remained true, even with the introduction of metal racquets into the game, like the Wilson T2000 and the AMF Head Professional, which gave a bit more power, but at the cost of diminished control. [And their head-sizes were consistent with their wood counterparts.]

Court conditions could be quite rough: grass courts because they became torn up and full of divots once a tournament had gotten underway, and clay courts were a serious fall-risk if they were too wet or too dry. In this match between Rod Laver and Tony Roche, the court was so treacherous that cleats became necessary midway through, because of the number of slips and falls.

1969 US Open Final [Laver v. Roche]

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This era of tennis – the Open/Wood Racquet era [the 1970’s and early 80’s] – represents the game’s high point. Its equipment and settings and training regimen highlighted the elements that I earlier suggested make a professional sport interesting: it required athleticism, but one could not rise to the highest levels on that alone or even mainly; the very different challenges posed by the different surfaces required one to have not just an A game, but a B and C game, as well a large toolset, in terms of the varieties of shots one could hit from different positions; and the fact that racquets and strings did nothing more than what you did meant that you couldn’t just blow people off the court, so the tactical game beat the power game every time. [This point was made most effectively in the famous 1975 Wimbledon final, where Arthur Ashe defeated the much more powerful Jimmy Connors with cunning and guile.] [2]

1975 Wimbledon Final [Ashe v. Connors]

Things remained relatively stable into the 1980’s, even with the shift to graphite racquets in the middle of the decade. These racquets offered more power and somewhat diminished control, but within a range that still demanded tactical play. The next generation played essentially the same game as their immediate predecessors but a little harder and a little faster. The athleticism required also ticked up a notch. But when you watched a Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg or Pete Sampras play, you were watching essentially the same game that had been played by Connors, McEnroe, and Borg.

This situation wouldn’t last. The combination of the new, synthetic racquet materials and the increased emphasis on strength- and fitness-training meant that players like Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Philippoussis served at speeds that would turn matches into first-serve percentage contests, which started a service arms race. Get your first serve in and win the match! would not be a recipe for interesting tennis in the 1990’s.

What happened next was a kind of domino effect resulting from this development. First, the grass court tournaments largely disappeared. Originally, three of the four Grand Slam tournaments – the sport’s most prestigious events – had been on grass: The US Open; Australian Open; and Wimbledon. For a brief period, the US Open became a clay [Har-Tru] tournament, but then both it and the Australian Open switched to hardcourts, so today, three out of four of the Grand Slams are played on hardcourts and just one is on [red] clay. Second, the grass courts that remained were made slower and hardier, meaning that they played more like the other surfaces in terms of speed and bounce and would remain in a relatively pristine condition, even well into a tournament. You’ll never see grass courts in a major tournament today torn up like they were in earlier eras.

Finally, racquet technology advanced even further, and most importantly, a new generation of synthetic strings that “grabbed” the ball made it possible to hit groundstrokes at a very high pace without missing, so the former tradeoff between increased power and diminished control was substantially mitigated.

When combined, these developments caused a dramatic change in the game. Serve and volley was halted in its tracks, as the slower surfaces and super-powerful racquets and grabby strings made a big serve not only much easier to return, but passing shots against an approaching volleyer much easier to make. And though the strings made it easier to keep the ball in the court while blasting it a hundred miles an hour from the baseline, the stiff, brittle quality of the synthetic frames and the wildly elevated pace of play reduced shot variety to a mere handful of viable shots and made setups very hard to pull off. Add to the mix the homogenized surfaces, and the game devolved into a baseline-bash-and-grind that rewarded fitness and consistency above all else. So, with the exception, perhaps, of the game’s current top-tier geniuses – including Roger, Rafa, and at times, Andy Murray – it is no longer the case that tennis is a game in which tactics trump power. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: in tennis, today, power and endurance trump tactics most of the time. [3] The balance between physicality and intelligence that I spoke of earlier has become skewed heavily towards the former, and the game has been diminished as a result, something that is reflected in decreased public interest, the height of which was in the 1970’s and 80’s, when the top players enjoyed celebrity well beyond the tennis world. [4]

The short-lived romance between Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert had the world’s attention.

I haven’t said anything yet about the women’s game, which underwent roughly the same trajectory but suffered its effects even worse. Lacking the physical strength, endurance, and speed of the men, women’s tennis was even more tactical and shot-selection rich and felt like an entirely different game: slower, more patient, and more dependent on precision, skill, and smarts. There has never been – or ever will be – a better baseliner [of either sex] than Chris Evert who, in her prime could hit a dime anywhere on the court, and there never was nor will there be a player as impressive, overall [and again, of either sex], as Martina Navratilova. [The rivalry between the two remains the greatest in the history of the sport.] Evonne Goolagong had some of the most beautiful strokes and movement in the game, and Hana Mandlikova was one of the most naturally gifted players ever to be on the tour.

It is because the women’s game was even more tactical and dependent on shot-selection than the men’s that the impact of the synthetic racquet/string revolution, changes in court surfaces, increased emphasis on fitness, and super-high pace of play was also greater. Power became everything, beginning with Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, but it really hit its game-destroying peak with the dominance of Serena Williams, whose physicality and strength were so overwhelming that the same baseline-bash-and-grind game into which the men’s game had slid, became even more prominent on the women’s side. And now that Serena is hardly playing anymore, it’s become painfully clear that women’s tennis today is little more than an inferior version of the men’s game. So bad is it, indeed, that I can’t bear to watch it anymore.

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Returning to the question of “Greatest of all Time,” it should be clear at this point why any such assessment is entirely useless. How could one possibly tell who is a better player, Bjorn Borg or Novak Djokovic or Martina Navratilova or Serena Williams, unless one could see how Djok/Serena would have played with the old equipment and on the old surfaces and how a young Borg/Navratilova would have played with and on the new ones? Given how much more difficult the game was with the earlier equipment and on the earlier versions of the court surfaces, if we are to guess, the presumption has to be in favor of Borg/Navratilova. I alternate every few months between playing with wood and contemporary racquets [a Wilson Chris Evert model and a pro-stock Head Prestige], and the difference in difficulty is profound. Beyond narrowing and shrinking the game, the new racquets and strings have also made it easy for players to develop lazy swings and footwork, as they allow you to get away with things that you simply cannot get away with playing with wood, something you realize immediately when you switch from one to the other. And don’t even get me started on what it would be like to try and play on grass courts in the condition of the one on which Laver and Roche played the 1969 US Open Final.

The current trend of determining who is the Greatest of all Time by counting Grand Slam singles titles is mindless and reveals little of value. Why should this, rather than any number of other statistics — consecutive weeks at #1; number of tournaments won; number of matches won; winning percentage; total number of singles & doubles titles won; etc. — be the basis on which such a judgment is made? And am I really supposed to believe that someone who racked up all their victories during an era when there was little competition [as Steffi Graf did, after Monica Seles was stabbed by a deranged fan and left the game] is better than a counterpart from a different era who has lower numbers but played in a much more competitive field [like Evert or Navratilova]?

It is my view [one expressed often by John McEnroe] that tennis made a mistake in allowing oversized racquets and synthetic frames and strings, which set in motion the changes to the sport that we have been talking about. It is worth observing that Major League Baseball did not make this mistake when it found itself faced with a similar challenge [high-quality metal bats], and for reasons of both safety and quality of gameplay, it remains wood-bats-only to this day. If professional tennis had done the same – required racquets and strings to be made of wood and gut with a standardized, small head-size – perhaps it could have avoided arriving at the unenviable place in which it finds itself now. [5]

With my partner/pro, John Xu and our wood racquets.

Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tennis#Tournaments_and_tours_of_the_pre-Open_Era

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tennis#Open_Era

In retirement, Roche would coach the likes of Ivan Lendl, Pat Rafter, and Roger Federer.

[2] Matts Wilander, former world #1, offers an excellent analysis of Ashe’s tactics here:

[3] This may be changing with the newest crop of players, who seem to be returning to a more all-court style of play [and particularly Carlos Alcaraz and Sebastian Korda], though it will be interesting to see how far they get in this regard, given contemporary racquet and string technologies.

[4] https://www.sportingnews.com/us/more/news/why-isnt-tennis-as-popular-as-it-was-in-the-70s-80s-and-90s/e8du281iaaen1kexw0stfyqqz#:~:text=While%20tennis%20definitely%20experienced%20a,and%20numbers%20started%20tailing%20off.

[5] https://www.essentiallysports.com/us-sports-news-baseball-mlb-news-why-are-metal-bats-banned-in-mlb/

30 comments

  1. Really great essay! If I’m understanding the first comment, it’s presupposing that talent in professional sports can’t go downhill. And I can see why someone would say that — we understand more about the human body than we used to, we have better drugs and supplement, people are, on average, bigger and stronger than they used to be, and we have the whole past to look at and learn from. So why wouldn’t athletes in every sport get better?

    But Dan obviously made the case for why this happened in tennis: surfaces became more homogeneous and pristine, thereby simplifying the game, and rackets got bigger, which reduced the skill required. One thing I was not clear on from Dan’s article, though, is why this happened.

    That said, the same thing happened in boxing: the high point of talented boxing was the 1950s-70s. The 80s were great too, but by then lots of other sports were getting quite lucrative and Muhammed Ali was an object lesson in the negative effects of boxing. So, if I’m a very talented athlete, why box when I could play baseball or basketball or football (back then, the negative effects of football weren’t known)? So, talent drained from boxing to these other sports.

    Charles Farrell, a boxing promoter, tells the story of Floyd Mayweather here (https://deadspin.com/why-floyd-mayweather-is-the-last-of-a-kind-1700672546). It’s a wonderfully written and informative article, but this part on Floyd Mayweather’s relative talent level is worth excerpting at length:

    “How would the Floyd Mayweather, Jr. we’ll see on May 2nd [2015] against Manny Pacquiao—exactly as he is, not as how he would have been thrust into different circumstances, where his training and options would have been much different—have fared if he could be transported to tougher times? Where in the group [of the greatest light- and welterweight boxers of all time] would one place him?

    “He’d go somewhere in the upper third, or possibly a bit higher. He definitely belongs; he’s good enough to factor into the mix in any era. He’ll make the IBHOF in his first year of eligibility. There’s no question that he should. But he’s nowhere near being a top-tier all-time great.

    “To put some perspective on it, at lightweight, he has no business being mentioned in the same breath as Joe Gans, Benny Leonard, Henry Armstrong, Ike Williams, or Roberto Duran, all of whom would probably have knocked him out. The same can be said of him at welterweight when placed against Ray Robinson or Mickey Walker, both of whom would also have knocked him out. But six of these seven guys are among the top 10 fighters of all time (and the one who, arguably, isn’t—Ike Williams—had to throw fights at times, and is still probably in the top 20).

    “One more comparative measure of all-time greatness: it has taken Floyd Mayweather nearly 19 years to get to 47-0. In TWO years, 1919 and 1920, middleweight Harry Greb went 45-0, beating a number of guys who were better than anyone Mayweather has ever faced. Greb died at 32, having had 298 recorded fights. Among his victims was Gene Tunney, who would become the heavyweight champion by beating Jack Dempsey, who he would again beat in their rematch.

    “If we move off the greatest of the greats (against whom no one had a chance), we encounter the greats who can be seen as mere mortals.

    “During the days of my boxing youth in the early ’60s, Mayweather would have had to contend with Emile Griffith and Luis Rodriguez at welterweight, both of whom would have beaten him every time they fought. They were too strong, too experienced, and much too aggressive for him to have defended against. If Jose Luis Castillo and Marcos Maidana troubled Mayweather, Griffith would have walked right through him. And Rodriguez wasn’t just much busier than Mayweather, he also did everything better. Losing to these two is no embarrassment; both were great fighters. And I think Mayweather would have lasted the distance with both, although it’s hard to imagine him hearing the final bell against Thomas Hearns.

    “None of this is meant to denigrate Mayweather. He learned from the ground up. As much a creation of his own media manipulation as he’s been, there’s nothing about him as a boxer that isn’t entirely real. Aside from what he says about himself as a fighter, there is no smoke and mirror artifice. He can fight.”

    Honestly, Floyd Mayweather isn’t even as good as Manny Pacquiao. Sure, Mayweather beat him, but they fought at welterweight [147 pounds]. Keep this in mind: Floyd started his career as a lightweight [135 pounds]. Manny started as a junior flyweight [108 pounds]!

    Anyway, to go the exact opposite direction from tennis, we have baseball. I suspect that the best baseball teams today would beat the best baseball teams of the past, not because of superior athleticism, but mainly because of tactics (indeed, I suspect baseball players of today have better training but may be less athletic than baseball players of the 40s-70s, when it was America’s game). Starting pitchers nowadays only throw about 85 pitches per game (as opposed to 120-150 in the past). If you get five innings out of a starting pitcher, that’s a great success. What this means is that you not protect pitchers’ arms more, but batters generally only get two looks at them. It’s a lot harder to hit a pitcher’s stuff on the first or second look than it is on the third or fourth. And then you have fifteen-pitch slider monsters inserted as relievers to baffle hitters even more. Batters’ heat charts are now thoroughly known by every team, so teams employ the shift to reduce the chance of a hitter hitting to where he wants even further. The result of this is that baseball teams’ tactics are much more analytically sound than they used to be, and the game is absolutely terrible, a point made by Freddie DeBoer here (https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/yes-sabermetrics-ruined-baseball?s=r).

    Long story short: yes, it’s possible that the talent in a sport could decline.

    1. I thought I explained in the essay, Robert, that the technology led to a different kind of play — “win by first serve” — which then led to changes in the surfaces, which were then followed by even more technology that led the game to the bash-and-grind model we have today.

      1. Thankfuly, my memory is still working. I just checked to make sure that I had remembered the following correctly:in the 1983 Wimbledon final, in which McEnroe beat Chris Lews by 6-2,6-2,6-2, McEnroe won 81 points, Lewis 43.
        McEnroe serve-volleyed off *all* serves, Lewis off *all but* 2 second serves. 124 points, only two of which involved a rally.

        Funnily enough, I love serve and volley, which is why Stefan Edberg was my favorite player. Volleying a shot from your ankles (that’s come at you with pace) to within a few inches of the baseline, while still keeping it low, is one of the most difficult feats in the game. But almost no current players can — or need to — do be able to do it.

        McEnroe likes to talk about how he would love to have seen Borg play with a more powerful racket, given that Borg (in the eyes of McEnroe) introduced the technique of taking the ball on the rise. Given that Borg, who was a clay court player par excellence, won 5 consecutive Wimbledons — when Wimbledon was played on super fast serve-and-volley grass — is without a doubt one of the greatest achievements in the history of the game.

        A McEnroe anecdote: in 1977 in the Spring (late April-May) he came to play at my high school. We all had heard about this guy who was the number three ranked under-18 player in the country, so we went to see him play. Obviously, he easily dispatched the number one player on our team. Less than two months later he was in the semifinals of Wimbledon.

        Putting aside ‘the greatest ever arguments’, I think we can all agree that Roger Federer is one of the most aesthetically pleasing athletes to have ever played any sport.

        P.S. I also would go to the U.S Open in Forest Hills. I would sneak in 😉 I remember discovering and liking
        Wojciech Fibak and Vijay Amritraj.

        1. Edberg had some of the most beautiful strokes and serve in the game. Love him!

          I started at Port Washington Tennis Academy in 1976, in the cohort right behind McEnroe.

          1. Hmm. I don’t think I fully grasp the “Because they could” answer. College baseball uses aluminum bats and they have players who have batting averages in the .500s. MLB hasn’t used this technology, even though they could.

  2. Excellent read. Who knew any of this? Not me.

    As far as the athletic ability of our species as compared to the amazing Physical prowess observed in the animal kingdom let’s not sell ourselves short. Armed with a large brain and an amazingly generalized anatomy, humans are certainly the most adaptable and versatile jack of all trades, if not the master of one.

    As to tennis and sports in general, the object is to win by any means for glory and the all important buck. What you say plagues the purity of the game of tennis is to a lesser or greater degree found in all other competitive and professional sport. I see little difference in smashing a serve thanks to greater muscle size abetted with high tech materials and racket design, and pituitary giants slam dunking a basketball through a hoop ostensibly designed for shorter players. The size of the hockey goalie and padding compared to the goal has also become a matter of controversy. There’s questions about the composition of baseballs and golf balls which certainly stymie the bar room talk about the good old days and who or how you can compare the players of the past with the new crop. Somewhat off “tack” I’ve been watching the new generation of America’s Cup entries on YouTube. You can kiss comparisons and old records goodbye. I’ve always been a fan of archery; compound bows with sites. One can have never held a bow in one’s hands before and with about an hours worth of instruction you can rival Robin Hood. (I wouldn’t advise an apple on the head, Mr Tell).

    Putting all that aside, I definitely get your point, if Robert didn’t, that the game of tennis which mutually included and needed not only the physical expertise but also the mental skill of strategy to reach the summit of championship play and, a purist lover of the mental aspect of the game can only be disappointed at what has basically become a game of brute endurance and a slug fest. What confuses me and seems counter intuitive is that pro sports always follows the money. You have to offer up what the crowd demands or you go to the beach and play volleyball. So, when you say this latest iteration of the sport towards more power, blazing speed and audible grunts is losing favor with the audience, do you mean those knowing devotees such as yourself or the greater oblivious general public? Are the stadiums still putting asses in the seats and are the media ratings on a downward spiral? If so, I really can’t understand why the Tennis Association and big money aren’t initiating needed changes to the game. Or, as I suspect, the plebes like the more muscular displays like in basketball. One reason I enjoy watching women’s basketball is they have to deploy more strategy and shooting skill to earn their points since they can’t look down at the hoop.

    I’m curious about a specific thing concerning racquet size. I remember the popularity of the Arthur Ash teardrop racquet in the 70’s. My very dear friend was crying for one for his birthday. How does that fit in with your general overview of size and manner of hitting the ball, sweet spot etc..

    Also, you might find this interesting on a personal level: In the late 70’s I lived a long block away from the Forest Hills stadium in Queens while attending York College, Jamaica Queens. I could watch the matches on TV and listen to the crowd applause wafting through the open window. Audio 3D.

    1. I never played with the Ashe racquet, but some of the aluminum racquets in the 70’s had that teardrop shape. Never played with one though.

      As for your question, the sport is less popular now, in terms of ticket-sales and other financial indicators, than it was in the era I described as the sport’s high point. Why they continue pushing a losing formula is anyone’s guess. I suspect at this point, there are so many powerful financial interests in the racquet and string technology that to dial things back at this point would be impossible. They are just accepting a less popular, lower profit margin game as the status quo.

  3. Is there a relation between the technological changes you mention and the – to my mind – quite remarkable longevity of some players’ careers? Nadal is 36, Serena Williams 41, Federer played the Wimbledon final in 2019 when he was 38, Djokovic is “only” 35 … but he played his first grand slam final in 2008 and his last in 2021. That’s 14 yrs. at the top of the game. If I’m not mistaken, Serena played the final of the US Open in 1999 for the first time, and in 2019 for the last.

    To me, this is mind-boggling (and to be honest, slightly suspect).

      1. I can imagine that players compensate the loss of strength and endurance that comes with age, in game that’s more evenly balanced between power, intelligence and tactical insight. But you write “… in tennis, today, power and endurance trump tactics most of the time.”

        That make the longevity of those careers even more remarkable. I’m willing to believe that technological changes made physicality dominant in tennis. What’s hard to understand is why those same changes made physicality at the same time *less* important. Every athlete who reaches the top is a physiological freak. But even freaks get old, lose strength and endurance. In a one-one-one game dominated by physicality, a 35+ player at the top should be a rare exception. What makes tennis different?

        Of course, tennis has the reputation of having quite lax doping controls. Maybe the “technological changes” in the backroom – anabolic steroids etc. – are part of the explanation why tennis is so physical today, and why some people stay at the top forever.

        1. I think lack of young talent is also helping. Don’t get me wrong the Big 3 are great but they’d lose to a decade younger version of themselves. If an equivalent young talent showed up they would have no problem winning against them

  4. Interesting points. I believe the women’s game would definitely benefit from playing on fast low bouncing courts. The men’s game can’t play too fast because the rackets allow you to finish off shots in one or two points. However because the women are weaker there is more scope for tactics. The problem is they are playing on very slow courts where power and endurance decide everything. If they played on slick courts where slices and other tactics are effective it would massively increase interest.

  5. Dan: That’s a great article. I have a comment and a memory.

    The comment is that Ash Barty is the great exception to everything you say. She is like the great players of the era you are praising. It is a delight to watch her take apart the baseliners, especially if they are grunters, with low backhand slices. A credit to her coach Craig Tyzzer as well as to her determination. Let’s hope she returns to the game.

    The memory is of seeing Laver versus Emerson in an exhibition game sometime in the 1960s. A long rally ended with both at the net. Emerson lobbed into the back corner and raised his ams to the crowd, assuming he had won the point. Laver scrambled back and whipped the ball past him.

    Emerson won 28 Grand Slam titles, the all-time male record. He tends to be forgotten. You might have aded Lew Hoad to your list of great Australian men of that era.

    Alan

  6. I wonder how much of the technology change comes from the fact that, on the margin, everyone would rather see and play in a game with more successes than failures. A great shot or return that no one could return is more fun than an unforced error. In football, a complete pass or even an interception is more fun than a bad pass. In basketball a block is more fun than a brick. So everyone, especially starting at the lower levels, looks for ways to make success more likely. So you have a creep toward bigger rackets with bigger sweet spots, rules that make complete passes more likely in football, etc.

    It’s a bit surprising that at the higher levels there aren’t more attempts to make success at least a little harder. Basketball hoops are 8 ft for little kids, and 10 feet all the way from middle school to the NBA. It seems easier to limit racket designs for pro tennis players than to have a 12 foot hoop option for basketball courts. But maybe there’s also fun for the fans knowing they are playing the same game as the pros.

  7. I am just reminded of a part-time ski instructor who was telling me (who has skied exactly once) about how the newer style of skis made it so much easier for complete beginners to take up and enjoy that activity. So, do beginner and poor players have more enjoyable games using the new rackets? With a utilitarian hat on, does that outweigh a change in the pleasures at the top, or should there be “old” and “new” equipped circuits? And anyway, is the professionalization of tennis and most other sports the real problem – specifically the winner-takes-all prize monies?

    1. I think this evolution in tennis was partly or even mostly driven by commercial motives.

      Manufacturers want to make money, and it’s easier to make money if you regularly invent something new & better, making recreational players ditch their old racquets for this new & better thing.

      Professional tennis plays an important role in this commercial logic. Nadal etc. are among other things also promotional tools for the manufacturers. If they play with the newest carbon gizmo “developed on a supercomputer with finite element analysis” or whatever, every ambitious recreational player wants the same gizmo (and is often willing to pay a steep price for it). Perhaps it has a negative influence on the game, but who cares when it has a positive influence on sales?

      Of course, it helps if the new gizmo indeed makes these recreational players better, or at least gives them the feeling it does.

      I don’t blame the professional players. They’re sponsored and I imagine they sometimes just play with the stuff the sponsor wants to promote. In cycling, the pro peloton initially was not happy about the introduction of disc brakes. But the sponsors/manufacturers decided disc brakes were going to be the standard, and now (almost) every pro is riding them (almost) all the time. The results are visible in the showroom of every cycling shop: race bikes with rim brakes disappeared and were replaced by bikes with disc brakes – and a price tag that’s EUR 500 or more higher.

  8. I agree with Dan on the unfortunate role that changing technologies have had on the evolution of tennis. One commenter (couvent2104) suggests that commercial motives may have been the main drivers of this change.

    Manufacturers want to make money, and it’s easier to make money if you regularly invent something new & better, making recreational players ditch their old racquets for this new & better thing. [The top players] are among other things […] promotional tools for the manufacturers.

    Commercialization goes hand in hand with professionalization, a process that took place slowly throughout the last century and which (I agree with David Duffy on this point) has had unfortunate consequences.

    One is the fixation on raw physicality and on technologies for enhancing physical performance. Athletes become less like us. The focus moves away from the *human* qualities of the athlete or sportsman. Raw physicality and technology dominate.

    Moral and personal qualities count for less in this context. Tactics and strategy likewise.

  9. Tennis was never big in the south suburbs of Chicago where I grew up and I never cared for the brats who played it. But I picked up the game almost 4 years ago and have been really enjoying it.

    Last night I watched some footage of women’s matches from the 70s. I agree with you the lobs and placement were key. And those racquet heads were tiny.

    But was physicality less important? I don’t know. Consider this: If we assume men have more physical abilities to play tennis can we say women played closer to the same level as men back then as compared to now?

    If you don’t want to assume that men might have better physical abilities in tennis then consider just the women’s game. Margaret Court seemed to dominate more than any other female player in history after taking physical conditioning very seriously.

    On the other hand, it seems surreal to see Billie Jean King going toe to toe with her at Wimbledon all the while keeping her glasses perched on her nose! I am assuming they had to be strapped to her head but I am not sure.

    https://youtu.be/gzbw0OH76Og

    Do you play USTA tennis? I am captaining my own team and having some fun with it. We play some guys out of Quincy Illinois that also play in Missouri maybe you have played some of the same people when you were at NE Missouri state?

    1. I don’t play USTA now. I did when I was a Junior, back in the early 1980’s.

      The differences in male and female physiology/anatomy make almost all athletic competition across sexes unfair, with just a few exceptions.

      Chris Evert dominated the 1970’s until Navratilova came along. But there were terrific female players post-Court, including BJK, Virginia Wade, Evonne Goolagong and others.

    2. Also, I teach at Missouri State University, in Springfield, which is the third largest city. It used to be Southwest Missouri State. I’ve never been at NE MO state. And I grew up in NY, so when I played the Junior circuit, it was on the East Coast. I was trained at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, from the 4th grade through the end of High School.

  10. The sport of tennis less popular now? Shurely shome mishtake. I think you only have the US market in mind here, as tennis has never been more popular overall in world.

      1. No doubt, but that’s not the case here in Europe, for instance. Might comment on some of the other points you make in the article later on or tomorrow, as I have a different perspective on some issues.

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