Agassi serves up a fault with claim that men’s tennis has never been better

The great Andre Agassi passed some interesting remarks on the lavish state of men’s tennis currently, and in doing so, effectively dismissed his own era as not comparable in quality. This was some judgement to pass, considering that his era contained players of the talent and imagination of Pete Sampras, Agassi himself, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Gustavo Kuerten and Michael Chang, and so his comments beg closer scrutiny.

Agassi drew a fascinating tactical comparison between how the game was played in his day, and how the range of shots that players can pull off now has rendered those tactics redundant and triggered an “evolution” of the game:

“In my day, somebody who ran well was [Michael] Chang,” Agassi said. “He’s just going to get to one more ball, but that’s his problem if he wants to run one more time, you know. It’s not mine.

“And then you saw it go to Lleyton Hewitt, who would move even better. If you just were off on one [shot], he would then move forward in the court and turn a point around. Now you got problems if you don’t keep him on the defensive. And then you take that to a guy like Djokovic, who probably moves even better than Hewitt ever moved and doesn’t need to turn a point around. When he’s on defence, he can actually win the point with one shot. That’s an evolution of the game.”

Such insight from the eight-time Grand Slam winner suggests he is a fantastic pundit in the making, and the sight of his familiar shaved pate at Melbourne Park as prize-giver to the finalists was a stirring and timely reminder of an era of men’s tennis that could certainly hold its own to this one when it came to dynamic personalities and compelling rivalries, as well as perhaps providing ample ammunition against the growing number of claimants – Agassi now among them – that it was impoverished in comparison to the modern day in its standard of tennis. For while few would argue that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s 2008 Wimbledon epic stands head and shoulders above most other claimants as the purest display of tennis excellence in the modern era, who could equally say that the latent enmity detectable in every match-up between two players and people as markedly different as black and white as Sampras and Agassi were was anything short of pure sporting drama? The quality of matches they put on also challenges the notion that anything Nadal and Federer produced in their titanic clashes was somehow on another plane; Sampras’s straight-set evisceration of Agassi at the 1999 Wimbledon final had commentators ooo’ing and aaah’ing far before Federer elicited the same sounds from them, and the two Americans’ five-set clash at the very same Australian Open where Agassi was consigning his era to the ashes of memory still stands as a shining monument to how sport played between the very best can thrill and inspire. Agassi was dressed in black that day, Sampras in white and the two knights of American tennis duelled back and forth with their unforgettable confrontation of imaginative shot-making of the highest order (Sampras) and nearly inhuman returning and retrieving capabilities that stretched each point to fever pitch (Agassi).

It is the way this generation, led by Djokovic, has improved on the retrieving capabilities that he was so famed for and upon whom Andy Murray, among others, modelled his game that Agassi has now settled to pitch his argument that tennis has moved on. Michael Chang used to be able to return one well-struck ball with his athletic ability, Lleyton Hewitt pushed that further to being able to return and move forward, and now Djokovic can simply reach a potential winner and smack a winner back from an impossible angle with his dizzying mix of athletic ability and shot-making talent. In Agassi’s eyes, the difference between offence and defence has therefore narrowed, and the game has become nearly impossible to plan in a tactical sense. One explosive winner may simply be returned by another explosive winner, and so players stop thinking about dictating points and more about hitting off pure instinct. His theory is borne out by what we saw in the men’s final yesterday, which was a continuation of the mind-blowing, hit-first-look-later, ping-pong rallies that have characterised Djokovic and Murray’s recent encounters.

Agassi’s analysis of the game and its changes is as shrewd as you might expect from one of the most gifted tennis players of the last twenty years; where he falls short, however, is in his attribution of the causes for this “evolution.” In only fleetingly attempting to shed light on what has been behind the change – his remark that he would “have had to have a different body [to play now]” alone pointing the way to the vast improvements in sports science and recovery potential that form part of the reason – , he leaves us with the impression that it is largely to do with the inherent quality of this generation’s set of players over any other factor. Indeed, he even distinguishes between the big four, claiming that while “Fed raised [the standard]”, Nadal “matched and raised it, [and] Djokovic, for that intense period of time, even raised it.” To suggest that Nadal and Djokovic have somehow taken tennis to a level that even Federer could not reach, and that a pattern of constant improvement in the quality of players will be evident so that those following the Big Four will be even better than them (“Something tells me it’s not going to stop here…every five years it seems to click up a different level”) should give everyone pause for thought. Is Agassi not doing a disservice to every great in the history of a great game – including, in that penultimate quotation, Federer, by suggesting that they bear no comparison to anything the latest in the game can produce? Is he not, in fact, talking about the changes that technology and sports science have foisted on tennis, and how it is this, rather than any gigantic leap in the quality of individuals that has transformed the face of the game?

For every time we see Djokovic miraculously sliding across the surface to smack back a ball seemingly already past him to the opposite side of the net with interest, or Murray make a dramatic forehand pass down the line whilst on the run, we marvel at what these players can do and inevitably allow the talents of the Sampras-Agassi generation to dwindle by comparison in our impressionable minds. However, it is abundantly clear that these scarcely believable feats of athletic prowess and tennis ability have almost as much to do with the most dedicated professionals amongst today’s batch taking full advantage of the gargantuan leaps in sports science and racket technology as inherent ability. A cursory glance at the eclectic combination of sprints and tailored weights that comprise Murray’s fitness regimen reveals the extent to which fitness trainers have zeroed in on the kind of body the tennis player of today requires: 4/10’s sprinter (explosive speed), 3/10’s footballer (sudden changes of movement), 3/10’s boxer (cardio and upper body strength). In Sampras’s day, a player would perhaps travel with his coach but now two or three fitness trainers can sometimes be seen sitting in Murray’s box and the benefit of these additions is reflected in the additional balls he reaches from the back of the court in such superhuman fashion.

Once he gets there, however, he still has to make the shot and that is where the racket comes in. Christopher Clarey of The New York Times has reported on how “strings are the real breakthrough in the past decade” and specifically, how “the development of polyester strings has changed the game by allowing players to take bigger cuts without bigger risks.” Thus all those shots that have audience members gasping out loud – Djokovic running like lightning across the baseline to smack a backhand winner that lands flush on the line, or Murray taking an explosive swing at the ball to increase its pace but still landing it in the corner – must be taken with a pinch of salt. How do they reproduce the impossible on such a regular basis, the audience wonders? How have they improved tennis so much? Players from the 90’s may have had access to the same wide frames characterising Djokovic and Nadal’s rackets that also help improve margin for error on shots, but polyester strings have apparently taken it to another level. The game has become punishingly athletic as a result, with stronger athletes being allowed to smack the ball back without finesse to destructive effect and those favouring shots such as the one-handed backhand being forced to discard it simply because the ball is coming back quicker, and net play becoming redundant as coming forward risks being passed by another polyester-aided, perfectly placed pass.

This is not to detract from anything that Djokovic, Nadal and Murray are producing now; given their gifts and searing ambition, they would have adapted and succeeded in any era, just as Sampras and Agassi would have moulded the quantum leaps in rackets and sports science to their inherently superior advantage if they were playing now. However, dubbing any era as a “golden age for tennis” has to speak for human qualities alone, and there is no doubt that people’s perception of soaring standards has been deceptively skewed by factors that are anything but. Shot-making is at an all-time high, but it is also easier to strike a ball with the perfect combination of power and accuracy than it was ten years ago. Players from outside the Big Four are able to produce great shots without necessarily being great, thus devaluing the art and our ability to distinguish true genius or improvisation from that which has been powdered over by technology to appear so. Any comparisons of Nadal and Djokovic to previous generations would therefore have to accept the premise that they are benefitting from a perfect fusion of (admittedly unique) sporting talent with significant breakthroughs in racket technology and sports science to a much greater extent than anyone before them. They are both tennis player and athlete, and it is becoming increasingly hard to separate the two. The aesthetic change accompanying the evolving landscape may not be to everyone’s taste either –  yesterday’s match between Murray and Djokovic was stunning, but also brutalizing; finesse was lost in the constant barrage of shots, and the everyday tennis player might have felt alienated from the turbo-charged game they were watching on television. It was a far cry from the purer form of the game that was practised in Agassi’s time, and it is worth bearing this in mind as we shower unchecked praise on the feats of the modern generation.

5 thoughts on “Agassi serves up a fault with claim that men’s tennis has never been better

  1. Some great points in there! One of the key differences, for me, is that courts have gotten progressively slower since Agassi’s day- so that guy getting one more ball isnt getting it because he is so much superior physically (yes it helps), but the court allows them to get it. Also I wonder what the extent of doping is in the sport (today and Agassi’s day)? Tennis has a drugs problem raises some good questions on that. At the end of the day- tennis Golden age? Not for me.

    • Good point Chris! I hadn’t thought of the slower courts when writing this article, but that definitely is one of the most important factors shaping the path the game’s taking. I’m not sure whether the rise in slower courts is caused despite the groundsmen’s best efforts, or because of them; cricket is suffering from precisely the same problem where slower, bastmen-friendly tracks have disadvantaged bowlers and led to complaints that the game is too boring. There is a theory however that spectators want to see batsmen hitting boundaries and knocking up big totals, so I sometimes wonder how much is done to ensure there is something in the pitch for the bowlers. Similarly in tennis, perhaps some administrators have figured out that the longer the points are, the more coverage their events get. Alternatively, it could entirely be down to climate change but it does seem strange to me that in this era of precise science and improving technology around sport, they haven’t found a solution to this problem. There was one rare point played at the net yesterday, where one of the two (can’t remember who) served and volleyed, and that to me was such a refreshing change from the endless baseline barrage. I’d like to see more of that.

      As for drugs, the thought crossed my mind yesterday as I thought about how buff these guys have got and the post-Armstrong cynic in me warned me not to trust anything I saw, no matter how amiable or ostensibly honest these guys are. I then put that all to one side, because it would be difficult for me to enjoy the spectacle if I was second-guessing everything. I just hope, for the sake of your enjoyment and mine, that the administrators are doing everything to get the right balance between fast and slow speeds on the courts, to catch dopers and match-fixers, and to get a handle on racket technology before it gets out of hand!

      • Yes agreed on the both the cricket and drugs front. With regards to courts/wickets, a balance must be struck. Being a cynic about drugs, as you say, will ruin the spectacle. I do think that increased levels of sports science has had an influence in all sports. A great post though, looking forward to the next one.

  2. Pingback: Counterpoint: Is Agassi Right In Calling This The Greatest Era Of Tennis? — Rain Stops Play

  3. Thanks so much for the encouraging words Chris, which mean all the more to me coming from someone who’s a tennis fan and who knows a thing or two about racket sports himself (a couple of embarrassingly one-sided thrashings at table tennis in New Hall spring to mind).

    Totally agree with you that sports science has had an influence on all sports, and as long as it doesn’t affect the fundamentals of the game itself, I’m all for it. Where I get worried for example, is when I read about a new high-tech swimsuit causing all known records in swimming to fall within a year. Though not directly the fault of sports science, I was also startled to read that footballers take caffeine pills moments before matches begin to maintain their energy levels. I would have thought that such a sudden rush of energy adds a dangerous edge to flying tackles, and the need to take it was also a sign that footballers were overplayed and being forced to resort to dangerous methods to stave off fatigue. Tennis has much the same problem with overexerting its stars, so I hope all the relevant administrators are looking at these issues.

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