Sunday, June 16, 2013

The combination of power and finesse

What stood out for me at the 2013 Roland Garros finals between Serena and Sharapova, was that Sharapova played a purely power game while Serena mixed in finesse. For a good portion of that match, Serena returned the ball placidly, measuredly. Power, like finesse, was something she turned on and off, as needed.

But when folks talk about Serena, all they allude to is her power. It’s almost as if some are incapable of perceiving finesse points when the player doesn’t physically look the part.

Which is why I think that it is beyond simplistic to divide professional tennis players into one of two of these narrow categories: They’re either hitting the ball hard like Sharapova or they’re playing exclusively with finesse…like…whom?

I can’t think of s single player who is currently in the top echelons of tennis who plays exclusively with finesse. The pure finesse game just doesn’t exist in the top tiers of tennis anymore. It didn’t exist during the era of Navratilova and Evert. It certainly wasn’t around by the time of Seles and Graf came on the scene. And we can’t conveniently decide that Errani and Ferrer play finesse games just because they faced opponents who outclassed them.

I’m not saying that there weren’t then or aren’t now, exclusively finesse players on the tour. I’m just saying that they stopped being dominant forces in the game probably since Suzanne Lenglen hung up her corset.

The game of tennis changed the minute a guy named Rene Lacoste came up with an alternative to the wood racquet. As racquet technologies keep improving and string technology keeps changing, the sport has become faster, harder, and more powerful.

And yes, this has led to the increasing dominance of the power game. But the very best players win because they know the exact moment to introduce a touch of the old finesse to their tactics.

Roger Federer became a dominant force in tennis because of his combination of powerful serves and forehands with deft backhand slices. And while he long remained a holdout against the drop shot, it has now become a play he can go to in moments of clutch. The same can be said for Djokovic, Nadal, and yes, even Ferrer.

It is her blend of powerful physicality with unexpected dropshots and sweet slices that makes Serena Williams such a dominant tennis player. She does not win by force alone. That is a myth, a misperception, a perpetuation of racist notions of African brute force.

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. fifth best. But it was not power vs. finesse. Both Nadal and Ferrer played with a combination of both styles of play. The problem for Ferrer was that Nadal did it ten times better.

(Part 2 of 2)


Klaas said...

Great to discover you are back, not in the least for us, your readers!

Two of the best matches I saw during the French Open, mens and womens double finals, proved your point: in modern protennis you need both power and finesse to succeed in the very top, but let us not forget being able to use that gray matter,and react on it, in the heat of the battle, which decided both these matches.

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