The U.S. Open tennis tournament is underway in the big complex at the former World’s Fair site in the New York borough of Queens, but I am more concerned with other things, such as the homestretch of the baseball regular season (bye-bye Cubs and Sox) and the start of the NFL’s.
Such wasn’t always the case. During my columnizing days the tournament was a highlight of my year, and not just because it meant I got to spend two weeks in glorious Gotham on an expense account. A tennis player myself then, I loved watching the game in any way, shape or form, and pursued it in as many venues as I could.
The first week of the Open was my favorite because there was action all over the multi-court grounds, involving not only the certified stars but other players, both up-and-comers and old timers on their way out, and I was there watching whether or not I planned to write about what I saw. When I scanned the small-print results of the first- and second-round matches I had well-rounded pictures to go with names that meant little to more-casual fans. Heck, I even knew the juniors, and could converse knowledgably about which might succeed, and which not.
Unfortunately, though, top-flight tennis has changed since, and not for the better. Advances in racket technology have all but erased stylistic differences among players, turning every match into a virtual copy of the one before, and the one after. When the players don’t wear different-colored outfits it’s tough to tell them apart.
The racket revolution began around 1970, when traditional wood frames gave way to steel or aluminum. The initial change was widely noted and much commented upon, and gave players a bit more bang for their bucks, but its effects were small compared with what was to follow. Starting around 1990 such exotically named materials as titanium, boron, Kevlar, graphite and Hypercarbon increasingly came into use, often in combinations. This allowed racket frames to become much bigger, stronger, lighter and more flexible than before, and “sweet spots” (areas of maximum impact) to grow. Grips and strings improved, too, magnifying the results.
In “woody” days, the typical racket had about a 65-square-inch frame and weighed about 13 ounces. Today’s frames run to 145 square inches (although most pros use ones smaller than that) and weights have dropped to 10 or 11 ounces. The term “trampoline effect” has come into use, vividly describing what the new weaponry has wrought in the hands of the athletically gifted.
Most observers initially predicted that better rackets would give the edge to big servers and cause the serve-and-volley game to flourish. The reality has been quite the opposite. Sure, service speeds are up, but today’s top players nullify that by retreating behind the baseline a step or two, then trampolining the serves back faster than they come in, relatively speaking. Rushing the net has become akin to charging a machine-gun nest, and about as productive. It has all but been abandoned as a regular offensive tactic.
The great tennis rivalries of the recent past were between serve-and-volleyers and baseliners, which translated neatly into the puncher-boxer dichotomy that enlivens many sports: think McEnroe-Borg, Navratilova-Evert and Sampras-Agassi. Now there are only baseliners, hitting back and forth, ad infinitum.
Stylistic contrast hasn’t been the only casualty of the new era. The term “touch” is little heard any more, and smallish players like Ken Rosewall, Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis, who depended on it, are all but extinct. The top level of the women’s game has come to be the sole province of such strapping bashers as the Williams sisters and the East European “evas” and “ovas” who have the muscle to stay on the court with them.
Among the men stamina is all, with matches in the brutal, best-of-five-set Grand Slam format often topping three grueling hours. Injuries are rife and just about everybody has them some of the time. To me, the most remarkable thing about Roger Federer’s recent dominance of the sport hasn’t been his considerable skill but his ability to soldier on as those about him falter.
Golf also has undergone a technological revolution but has accommodated itself to it by lengthening and tightening championship courses. Tennis can’t change its dimensions, and with the money at stake in its equipment business it’s not about to turn back the clock, so like it or not only more of the same is in prospect. I’ll probably be watching the Open finals, but not much until then.