Sunday, August 26, 2012

What is this B.S. about Big Man Tennis?

Justin Gimmelstob seems to the forerunner in the promotion of this notion. Him and Brad Gilbert keep flapping their gums about some fellas on the ATP who are supposedly playing "Big Man Tennis". As opposed to what - Little Man Tennis? Small Boy Tennis? Tiny Toddler Tennis? What the heck is this supposed to mean and how does it add any meaningful value to the viewer's understanding of the sport?

Of course the entire thing is nothing but a rip-off of the concept of "Big Babe Tennis", credited to Mary Carrillo, who made this observation about the era of women's tennis dominated by the big games of tall powerful players like Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters. The term became widely adopted and promulgated and has been applied to such current players as Maria Sharapova and lately Petra Kvitova.

The term "Big Babe Tennis" (BBT) is now used by all and sundry, to include those plagiaristic male commentators who would have us believe that there is an equation on the men's side of the tour. I say there Isn't. I call bulls**t.

For a start, BBT implied that there was a distinct difference between the way these women played versus their counterparts. As a result, it became possible to acknowledge those smaller women who actually played a BBT-style of game. Justine Henin comes to mind. Justine would not in any context be described as a Big Babe. But put her on some clay -- and set aside any demands for truthfulness and honesty -- and Justine could produce some of the most fearless, dominant, scintillating tennis that would make your head spin. She wasn't a Big Babe but there were moments when she could play like one.

Second, Carillo never referred to these women as playing Big Woman Tennis. That would have been pejorative to the other women on the tour, because it would have implied that they were mere girls (although, to be fair, many of them actually are). I've always assumed that Carrillo meant Big Babe Tennis as a tongue-in-cheek, affectionate reference to gender without actually getting hung up on this. At issue was less their gender and more so a particular style of play -- a special kind of hitting out, a fearlessness, a dominance. So if there were such a thing -- and I personally don't believe there is -- the male equivalent would be "Big Dude Tennis" I suppose?

But even then, what the hell is that? And why are men so threatened by the notion of BBT that they had to run off and make up (cough, copy) their own stupid repetition? To explain what? To capture what phenomenon? To explain what period of distinctiveness?

These were my thoughts on Saturday as I sat courtside and watched John Isner beat Jo Wilfred Tsonga at the Winston-Salem Open. And I found myself having the same thoughts that evening as I watched Tomas Berdych take out Sam Querrey. Were these the Big Men that Gilbert has been chattering on about? Were they playing Big Man Tennis? Certainly there were some fearsome rallies. Definitely the balls flew. Clearly there were huge serves landing above 130mph. And yes they crushed the balls so hard that I wondered if the ATP would ever consider exchanging the balls after every three games instead of after every six.

But I also found that there was nothing distinctive about any of these mens' games. Mens' tennis, with few exceptions, looks very much alike to me. It's the era of the big serve, big baseline rallies, big double-handed backhands that can go cross-court or down-the-line with similar ease, and the rinse-and-repeat strategy of moving your opponent from side to side to mind-numbing side. Does mastering that mean that one is playing BMT? (Freud would have a field day with those two letters).

And how does the notion of BMT accommodate the fact that lately men appear to have rediscovered the dropshot? Do Big Men only play the hardcore, baseline, hard-driving, albeit repetitive formula?

Nadal stood out because his game was a refreshing change. Federer stands as as one of the few players with a single-handed backhand, a phenomenal slice, and a willingness to move into the net. But the majority of players on the ATP play exactly the way Tsonga and Querrey and Berdych and Isner were playing on Saturday. Some, like Djokovic, do it better than others. But the formula essentially remains the same.

So you can understand why I find myself wondering why Gimmelstob and his ilk keep trying to make "Big Man Tennis" happen. It's almost as if these men are threatened by the Big Babes of the WTA. If I didn't know better I'd say they were suffering vagina envy.

(photo copyright tennischick)

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