Friday, December 5, 2008

WHERE TENNIS WENT WRONG

At the start of the open era, in 1968, tennis had an opportunity to do what was done in baseball when technology threatened to destroy the integrity of the game. With radical changes in equipment composition resulting in even more radical changes in the game itself there was an opportunity. And had the game been organized under a single sensible umbrella of administrators who cared about the game, more than they did the size of their own coffers, they would have done something that may very well have changed the game for the better:

Forced all professional players to use wood racquets and standardized their composition.

Now before you yell at your screen at the thought, consider this: ironically the racquets are about the only piece of equipment in tennis that goes largely unregulated in the professional game. Players are restricted on what kinds of shoes they may wear on different surfaces, the balls are standardized (they are loosely so in soccer), the court dimensions are rigidly standardized (they are loosely so in baseball), and even the surfaces are highly regulated.

So does it make any sense that the one piece of equipment that may have turned tennis in to the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am young man's game it is today, is the one piece of equipment that's largely unregulated?

One of the reasons why so many great players of yore were serve and volleyers, was that most major tournaments were played on grass, and everyone used a wood racquet. To use a wood racquet is akin to a professional baseball player using a wooden bat - only the most skillful, athletic and learned players in the world can wield this weapon with proficiency, and only the least skillful, athletic and learned players used composites...or so it was.

If you compare the overall playing ability of players who learned the game with wood racquets, with the last generation (born after, say, after 1978) the breadth of skills has most certainly suffered the consequences.  I mean, it's almost as if any idiot with a big serve and mindlessly wielded forehand, can make a living playing professional tennis. Gone are the days when various spins, angles, court coverage and the desperately lost art of serve and volley, were prerequisites to success at the highest levels of tennis. You can probably blame this on two players who ultimately changed the game for the worse, despite their undeniable tennis talent and performance: Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.

Up until these two quick and devilishly monotonous baseliners came along, most players had the ability to do many things with a tennis racquet. Both of these players had plenty of variation in their strokes, but they were the first two, in at least two to three generations anyway, to master the art of dominating from the back court, albeit in very different ways. And it's no irony that both initiated changes in racquet technology that ultimately morphed the game into something that would be scarcely recognizable to them in their heyday.

Connors mastered the Wilson T-2000 steel frame - a frame so heavy, fidgety and with such a small sweet spot, that he was the only player in the world (that's the world, not just professional tennis) still using it long after it went out of production. The frame was heavier than a wood racquet, which made it hard to maintain racquet head acceleration through the stroke, but Connors with his excellent vision and fully rotating body through the point contact, was able to make violently beautiful music with an instrument that most would have a hard time carrying a tune.

The frame was also very malleable through the stroke and at the point of contact, creating a whipping effect that increased acceleration of the racquet head and imparted huge force on the ball that was unseen to that point. Nobody in the world had seen a player hitting outright winners from the baseline as Connors did with regularity. Facilitated by hitting a two-handed backhand, and rotating through his forehand in a manner that is common place today, Connors beat back both of these disadvantages and turned them into weapons of mass destruction that lay waste to his opponents for 5 years as he remained the dominant figure and #1 ranked player in men's tennis from 1974 to 1977.

Both the changes in stroke production and the introduction of his two-handed backhand heralded a new era in tennis, due not the least of which to his choice of racquet composition.

Bjorn Borg retired using a wood racquet, but he too violently thrust his body at the ball in a way not seen in tennis to that point, only he used that force to impart more topspin on the ball than any player in history. Accompanied by his supreme athleticism and speed, Borg became (and in my opinion remains today) the greatest clay court player in the history of the game. The combination of spin, force, and court coverage was dastardly, and resulted in him losing just 2 out of the 9 years he played at Roland Garros (both losses, in 1973 and 1976 were to the Italian Adriano Panatta - he didn't enter the field in 1977).

The secret to the spin Borg created was the obscenely tight racquet string tension he used. Rumored to be somewhere in the 85 - 90 psi range, his racquets often broke from the force of the string tension at high altitude tournaments, or in airplanes. The reason for the tight tension on the strings lies in the need to impart spin on the ball consistently - to do this, the racquet must first crush, then rotate the ball at the point of contact in a way the trampoline effect of a lower tension stringing cannot - imagine the difference between running into the net and bouncing straight back the way you came, and running into a concrete wall of the same height - you'd be crushed and probably flip over it - as does the ball - although the flipping effect, is more accurately embodied by the rotation of the ball and hence the spin.

Now most players seeking to compete with Connors and Borg's power and spin respectively, had no chance - first both players used a western grip to close the racquet head face at the point of contact, while most used a continental grip keeping it open to maximize the trampoline effect, but minimizing the crushing of the ball required to get the spin to keep the ball in court. So to compensate, racquet manufactures realized they could do two things - stiffen up the frame to create less vibration and maintain racquet head control, loosen the tension to create the trampoline effect, alter the composition of the strings themselves to assist with the creation of spin, and finally lighten the frame with a composite to increase racquet head acceleration.

The problem, of course, with increasing racquet head acceleration is that unless you are a player of the highest level of talent, it is difficult to hit the sweet spot of the racquet with the frames that were in use in those days, and any bigger frame on a wood racquet made it heavier and more prone to vibrations, diminishing control. To facilitate the ability to compete of players around the world who paled in comparison to the talent of these two titans, racquet manufactures increased the typical racquet head face size from 85 to 100+ sq. in. Once that happened, everyone and his brother became capable of hitting the ball like a ton of bricks, and staying in the back court just like Connors and Borg. Serve and volleyers also benefited, but the big benefit came in the form of oh-so many Bolletieri academy dead-heads who were taught to hit the ball hard with these new fangled composite racquets, and if that didn't work, hit it harder.

Don't bother coming to net Aaron Krickstein, don't bother learning how to hit an effective backhand Jimmy Arias, and never, under any circumstances, ever serve and volley Andre. Now, Agassi may very well have been capable of developing a more rounded game than his now-no-name Bolletieri predecessors, but why bother - with eyesight and hand eye coordination similar to Connors, he never had to, and the effects of these tools in his hands were exponentially beneficial to a man of his level of talent - much more so than it would have been to say, someone like David Wheaton, who beyond a big serve and big forehand, was about as useless on a tennis court as tits on a bull.

Had tennis had the foresight to restrict racquet equipment the way bats were restricted in baseball, we may very well still be watching the likes of Pete Sampras competing with the half-witted skill-challenged dolts who masquerade as professionals in the modern game. Have you ever seen James Blake execute a volley in a singles match? He looks like a club player. And Roddick looks more like someone with a death wish with his kamikaze forays to the net. Never has a player so committed to coming to net been passed so often.

In fact, even Federer, with all his talent and ability, has to force himself to come to net, and when he does, if he has to hit more than one volley, he's more likely than not, to get passed. I can only think of two true serve and volleyers to day in the top 50, Feliciano Lopez and Radek Stepanek, and they can hardly be considered the more talented players on the tour. They win matches against top opponents because they're able to put pressure by approaching consistently and with intelligence, and if they had any talent, may even find themselves in the top 10. Unfortunately for both of them, their talent sorely lags behind their skill set, and as a result they are destined to fall short at the feet of more brainless ball bashers who just close their eyes and swing as hard as they can.

Not only would we see top players compete longer, but we'd also see a different class of top player, if they were restricted to wood racquets, because when your strategy is to hit is as hard as you can, and doing so delivers hardly enough power to win points from the back court, they'd have to find other ways, more resourceful ways, to win points. This resourcefulness, or more accurately the lack there of, is why there is so little difference between the players in the top 50, but as a result, those who do have a brain have a huge advantage over even the second-best players in the world today. There would always be exceptions to the rules - just as Borg and Connors found ways to turn an era of serve-and volleyers into an era of baseline bashers, I'm certain that Nadal would have figured out a way to bang and spin with relatively equal venom as he does today. But how about Fernando Gonzalez? Or James Blake? Or even Lleyton Hewitt?

Do you honestly believe that these players would have careers as they do now if they when they laid the wood to the ball it was actual...wood?

Tennis lost a golden opportunity to preserve itself in 1968, when open tennis began. As long as they were changing the rules on eligibility, they could have done the same on equipment. But here's what might be very interesting - when players join the senior circuit, let's turn the clock all the way back and make them use wood racquets. Maybe Sampras, 12 years the junior of McEnroe, would still beat him black and blue with a wood frame...but I'm not so sure, and I for one would love to see that.
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