The charm of top-class sport was on display over the last two days. It didn’t just inhere in the mental fortitude and technical brilliance on display during the matches themselves, but also in the immediate aftermath of the matches when the players let their guards down and revealed the impact of the released weight of realised dreams, broken ceilings, shattered hopes and crushing defeat. Nowhere was this conflictual mass of human emotion that underpins the wonder of these sports more poignantly evident than Novak Djokovic’s reaction to the applause the French Open crowd gave him upon receiving his loser’s medal. Aware of Djokovic’s history of disappointments and close calls at the French Open, the crowd lavished him with a full-hearted round of applause that continued past the ordinary length for such events. Djokovic acknowledged their applause with the grace and decorum that a champion is expected to muster, but it was only upon the breaking of the third wave of their applause that stretched beyond the conventional limit that the crowd’s affection for him and his disappointment became too much for him to handle. He visibly broke down under the weight of what he was feeling, and had to struggle to fight back the tears amidst his gracious smiles. He wasn’t alone either, and therein lies the majesty of sport: its ability to raise in us the same hopes, fears, dream and herculean responses to challenges. With the startling contrast between his controlled grace and subsequent visible emotion during those two long minutes, Djokovic made his way into our hearts. Stanislas Wawrinka was a worthy and heroic champion, but both players in their attitude on and off the court were a testament to tennis and the fine attributes sport can invoke in men.
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.
Sports fans have short memories and are quick to move on, but both Rafael Nadal’s stature and the nature of the injury suffered calls for a moment to pause and consider. What made Nadal’s initial withdrawal, from the Olympics, all the more worrisome was that it had swiftly followed a Wimbledon match he had completed without sustaining any obvious injury. In football, some of the most damaging injuries are those sustained by players for whom there was no obvious external cause – such as an opposition stud or a dangerous tackle. They suggest chronic, deeper-lying structural flaws that cannot be totally overcome by surgery, nor detected until they flare up again, nor calmed without the passage of time. Nadal’s passage has now extended from the Olympics to the Rogers Cup, to Cincinnati and now the US Open. What kind of injury worsens, or simply doesn’t go away even when the player is resting?
His absence was easily forgotten in the heat of Murray-mania during the tournaments at Wimbledon this summer, but will slowly extend a shadow over the ATP the longer he stays away. If Roger Federer continues his excellent form, fans will look for confirmation of the worth of this late-period revival in the form of a contest against his most testing opponent. Andy Murray might initially take a first major on the back of defeating one or both of Federer and Djokovic, but consistently holding sway with every member of the big three will be a challenge denied him in full until the return of its longstanding member. Part of the appeal of the top four players in men’s tennis is the way in which they constantly push each other to new levels of greatness in unfailingly epic encounters, which provides a preferable option to when one player lords it over the rest. Nadal is a vital part of this competitive appeal.
Apart from all that, it is never nice to see a player – particularly one as lodged in the affections of the fans as Nadal – suffer such unplanned changes of direction to their career. Sportsmen take pride in shaping their own destiny, and it would be cruel to see the most hardworking tennis player of all be denied the chance to play out the second half of his career on his terms.