Monday, August 16, 2010

Pull her wide and the point is over

This article is a follow-up to the one I wrote yesterday. I realized after the fact that I was really writing about two different issues and that I combined them in such a way that neither point may have been clear. Apologies for that. Here’s the second go-round.

The first issue that I was addressing was my own difficulty with transitioning from the current crop of dominant players. Although I know that there is a lotta tennis left in all of my faves, I also enjoy mentally lining up the players who will replace them in my heart. I enjoy identifying the players who seem talented enough to carry me through the transition from one generation of tennis players to the next. But the current abundance and awesome diversity of talent on the tour has been making this a more difficult prospect than I have hitherto experienced. That was my first point.

The second point was that I am also frustrated with the lack of variety of playing styles among the newcomers to the tour. All of the newbies seem to be nothing but baseline bashers, particularly on the women’s side of the tour. It’s hard to pick a potential favorite when all of the options seem to be carbon copies of each other. This was my second point.

This latter point unfortunately became conflated with the first, such that the issue of transition was not addressed separately and apart from the problem of the dominance of baseline bashing as the premier mode of playing tennis at this point in time. Again, I apologize for any lack of clarity.

And it occurred to me after the fact as well that I never addressed why baseline bashing has become the dominant mode of playing tennis. I mentioned the fact of it but not the why. Why do you think that so many of the current crop of tennis players are all baseline bashers? Why is it that if you attend any junior tennis academy, the majority of the training time is now spent at the baseline, hitting hundreds and hundreds of balls? Whatever happened to serve-and-volley tennis?

Indeed, given that Pete Sampras was the dominant player for so many years in the US, why is that there are no upcoming serve-and-volley players in this country? Where are the French girls who were inspired by Amelie Mauresmo’s playing style? What happened to the Aussies who grew up watching Patrick Rafter or the Brits who were influenced by Tim Henman? What exactly has led to the almost complete phasing out of serve-and-volley tennis?

It’s kind of sad that so many of even the best players don’t have a clue how to volley. They plant themselves at the baseline, only venture in to net in response to a short ball, and immediately retreat back to the baseline instead of continuing to move in. Even many doubles players often plant themselves at the baseline and play the trams. What has caused this complete evolution in the way we play tennis?

The simple answer is technology. Rackets have gotten better and more powerful, and strings have gotten faster. Back in the day, the time it took for Sampras to hit the ball and for the ball to start coming back to him was more than enough for him to get to the net and play the volley return. But today’s tennis is a whole lot faster. Any player who ventures to net risks facing a return while she or he is still in no-man’s-land. This is never a good place to be in tennis. Of course there is always the option of going in to net behind a slower ball, but that presents its own risks because the returner will have better control of the play. Hence, the majority of players stay back. It’s not that folks are necessarily afraid of the net (although I believe that some are). It’s that serve-and-volley tennis has become riskier. And if you’re playing doubles, there’s always the risk of getting hit in the face by a ball coming at you at warp speed.

But there is nothing original in the above observation. Others before me have pointed out the impact of technology on the speed of the game. But I believe that despite the speed, it is always possible to mix things up with the judicious use of the serve-and-volley tactic. It keeps your opponent on her toes, unsure as to what you may do next. But if every time you go in after a short ball your first instinct is to run back to the safety zone behind the baseline, that too sends a signal. And, particularly on the women’s side of the fence, the message sent is that the way to beat you is to pull you wide.

Watch almost any women’s match – and also many of the men's – and you will notice a single baseline strategy that wins the point over and over and over. Pull a player wide to the forehand or backhand and the point is practically over. The majority of players who get to these shots end up playing a weak defensive return – if they get to the ball at all. And when a single strategy remains so effective against 99.9% of players on the tour, there is no need to become anything other than a baseline basher. This I believe is the second reason why so many junior players now spend hours practicing how to nail the lines from one side of the court to the other, and practice running drills going from side to side. That is the new tennis.

I watched the match yesterday between Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova. Other than big-serving, this was the single strategy each woman deployed against the other. Pull her wide and the point was over. Wide to the forehand and then wide to the backhand. Over and over. Rinse and repeat. And it worked. First Maria did it to Kim with fantastic results. But all that running back-and-forth took a toll and Maria started fading. Then Clijsters took over. Pull Maria wide and the point was over. Maria started going for more frantic power. Pull her wide and the point was over. And then Kim won.

Of course there is one outstanding exception to this often exciting but essentially monotonous strategy. Her name is Serena Williams. Pull her wide and the point has only just begun. And her response is never predictable. She can play every kind of shot, including the occasional serve-and-volley. Which is why I can’t wait to meet the player who has the guts to pattern her game after Serena’s. That’s the transition person I am looking for.


TennisAce said...

I had to laugh when I read this because I can see Serena pulling her opponents out wide and daring them to do the same thing. What they usually do is start playing down the middle to take away the angles, and when they do that, as long as her feet are in the right position she can take that ball down the line for a winner, cross court for a winner or just slice and move in behind it and take over the point.

She is without a doubt a true and remarkable No.1 and her game is just growing in leaps and bounds.

It is the strings and racquet technology that has changed the game. Hopefully the ITF will do something about it similar to what they are now doing with golf.

Anonymous said...

And then, along came Kvitova.

Anonymous said...

Why no mention of Petra Kvitova? She comes in quite a bit and does it well. See her matches in Linz for fantastic volleys. Also a few on YouTube. Kvitova aside, your points are well-made and taken.

Doug Messenger said...

Hmm. Think Sampras when you think about Kvitova. Big forehand, big serve, comes to net very well, rises to the occasion at the business end of sets and matches, has learned how not to go on walkabouts. It took Pete a little longer, but the similarities are there. Oh, they are both modest though driven.

Anonymous said...

Agnieszka Radwanska. Granted when this was written Radwanska was sort of going into obscurity. I would mention Woznicki, but she isn't really great at anything except dinking it from the baseline.

Seriously though, in the current top 10, less than half actually have a net game - Serena, Radwanska, Stosur and Kvitova.