Monday, June 10, 2013

Errani, Ferrer, and the re-definition of finesse?

There are so many paths to tennis success, so many different styles of playing and winning. Just think of the top ten women right now and it becomes easy to identify ways in which their games are totally different from each other’s. Radwanska’s style of play is as different from Kerber’s as Na Li’s is from Sharapova’s.

And while the latter’s game probably most closely resembles that of Azarenka, it is in many ways distinct from that of Kirilenko, Errani, and Kvitova. Heck, throw Wozniacki and Serena in the mix, and you have a top ten field that
represents the beautiful diversity of tennis.

And while this diversity may be more readily visible among the women, it is not non-existent on the ATP side of the fence. I raise you one Nadal or Gasquet for every Del Potro or Berdych.

But to hear some folks tell it, there are only two types of pro tennis players: those who play with power, and those who play with finesse. At least that was the conversation at my tennis club over the weekend. In between shielding myself from the penetrating rays of the sun, I found myself in the middle of a discussion of the similarities between Errani and Ferrer.

This is not the first time that folks have noted similarities between these two scrappy grinders with their similar diminutive heights, speedy movements, topspin forehands – and of course respective losses to physically more dominant opponents. But the comparison that caught me by surprise was the conclusion that Errani and Ferrer had lost because they were playing finesse tennis against more brawny and powerful opponents. I totally disagreed.

A more accurate observation may have that offered by John McEnroe who noted that Nadal vs. Ferrer was “like a heavyweight vs. a welterweight.” It was the best vs. don’t stand a chance. But it was not power vs. finesse. Both Nadal and Ferrer played with a combination of both. The problem for Ferrer was that Nadal did it ten times better.

It is a simplistic and insulting reduction of both Errani’s and Ferrer’s games to state that they do not play with power. Ferrer’s serve closely matched Nadal’s in the finals of Roland Garros. And Errani may not serve big but she can hit the ball plenty hard. Her game is clever but it is no more correct to call it “finesse” than it is to characterize Rafa’s and Serena’s games as purely power-based.

I first remember hearing about this business of brawn vs. finesse when Martina Navratilova started using her physicality and net game to beat the apparently more girlie Chris Evert who happily seemed to dress the part of the all-American princess. The comparisons were then a pejorative attempt to sideline Martina whose sexual orientation made the sport uncomfortable.

But the drumbeat of brawn vs. finesse really rose to a crescendo when the William Sisters came on the scene. The chorus in waiting soon piped up comparisons between the delicacy and intelligence of Hingis’ finesse game with the screaming power of the two Black hulks. It was racism disguised as tennis commentary, no different from the underhanded discrimination faced by Navratilova a generation earlier.

Because the truth was that while Hingis’ serve was pitiful at times, once the ball was in play, my girl gave as good as she got. And yes she would mix in some junk from time to time to throw her opponents off kilter, but she hit the ball plenty hard when she needed to do so. You don’t win five Slams by being a delicate rose. 
(Part 1 of 2)