Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Big Babe Tennis vs. Hitting the Ball Hard

A friend writes to ask why I do not like Maria Sharapova. She writes that all I do is criticize Maria and points out that I have never had anything good to say about the woman who may very well end up winning the US Open this year. My friend does not believe that anyone else in the draw has the fire power to stop Maria from winning another Slam. So why is the Tennis Chick not jumping on the bandwagon?

To be honest, I kind of ignored this entire section of her email. Even while reading it I found myself sucking my teeth as I recalled ESPN’s recent replay of the 2009 Roger’s Cup finals between Sharapova and Dementieva. Maria played the stupidest and most ill-timed drop shot I have ever seen, and lost the match. As I read my friend’s email, I found myself muttering to myself, “Well, if she could only think her way out of a paper bag, I might come to respect her”.

But I took the email more seriously when I got to the end. My friend closed by pointing out an apparent inconsistency in my position. How come, she wrote, you say that you’re a fan of Big Babe Tennis and yet you have so little good to say about one of the biggest babes around?

Well that is a very fair question, no? And it is true. I am a huge fan of Big Babe Tennis (BBT). I have always been. And I know that it is popular to credit the William sisters with introducing BBT, but I think that a fairer statement is that they perfected it. There is no doubt in my mind that Monica Seles played BBT. So did Steffi Graf, her nemesis. So did Lindsay Davenport. What the Williams sisters did, in my opinion, was add a layer of muscle and fitness that did not exist to that extent before. They introduced to tennis what Tiger Woods did to golf, and both sports have forever been changed.

Which is not to say that women tennis players were not generally fit during the pre-Williams era. But you would be hard-pressed to find a current male tennis player who would dare disparage the women in the way that Marcelo Rios and Richard Krajicek once notoriously did their female cohorts. And it is for that that I credit the William sisters. They took BBT to a whole new level, and the rest of the field is still playing catch-up.

Does Maria Sharapova play Big Babe Tennis? Well, to the extent that she is very fit and tries always, on almost every shot, to hit the ball very hard, yes she does. But is that all there is to Big Babe Tennis? Does it require only that a player be spectacularly muscled and that she hit the ball with all her might?

Clearly for many the answer is yes. Today’s New York Times features an article titled “Women Who Hit Hard”, which unfortunately reinforces this notion that Big Babe Tennis consists of nothing more than hitting the ball hard. No wonder the injury rate has sky-rocketed in women’s tennis. This type of baseline bashing BBT comes at a serious cost.

The article also includes an interesting quote from an interview with Vanderbilt University coach, Geoff MacDonald, who points out that it is cheaper and easier to produce an aggressive baseline basher than it is to develop a player with a complete tennis game: “The challenge is that an all-around game — learning not just to hit aggressive ground strokes but to serve and volley and have the whole package — takes longer to develop, and lots of people on tour calculate that it doesn’t pay to spend an extra three or four years grooming a player when she is already winning and maybe already being marketed by the tour. I’m sure someone will come along, the way Federer did on the men’s side, who’s faster, plays an all-around game, who knows how to play defensively and not just rip at every ball.”

But until that person shows up on the women’s tour – and yes, I’ve been obsessing about this issue lately, long before this New York Times writer found himself inspired along similar lines – we seem to be stuck with a slew of women tennis players for whom Big Babe Tennis means only hitting the ball very hard. And my most consistent criticism of Maria Sharapova has been that her game seems to be defined by this limited definition of what it means to play Big Babe Tennis. She is all brawn and no brain. And to be fair, she is not alone. This is indeed the new BBT.

But isn't it intriguing that some of the same people who have embraced Sharapova’s style of Big Babe Tennis were the very ones who used to criticize the Williams sisters for being nothing but power? Alanis Morrisette might have called this ironic.

For the sake of clarity (and fewer annoying emails from friends), the kind of BBT to which I am partial is a lot more creative and intelligent than merely muscling the ball. Playing Big Babe Tennis does not mean that one stops strategizing. It does not mean relying on a single technique – pull her wide and the point is over. It does not mean planting oneself at the baseline, moving in only when that becomes inevitable, and running back to the baseline as soon as possible. And the reason I don’t include Jankovic on the list of BBT players whose style I admire is because for me true BBT tennis is neither purely defensive nor timid, no matter how hard you hit the damn ball.

And in this I’d like to believe that I am not in the minority. For new fans of tennis who may not understand the intricacies of the sport, it may seem from the outside that all that the better players are doing is hitting the ball harder. I beg to differ. Serena Williams, as the prototype of what I mean by Big Babe Tennis, does a whole lot more than just muscle the ball. Serena also studies her opponent and figures out a winning game plan against that particular individual. Her computer of a brain crunches the numbers, calculating vulnerabilities and coming up with a plan to exploit them. And yes, she does try to overpower her opponent when executing her game plan. But never doubt the mindfulness and intelligence that have gone into her craft, or the completeness of the game she proceeds to execute.

1 comment:

Doug Messenger said...

Serena has company as a powerful player who strategizes and has a nice boxful of options from which to draw: Petra Kvitova They can keep the philistines at bay.