Attraction lies in its styles

Style is everything in tennis, not so much the dress, but the varying ways in which players dress down their rivals. Everyone operates within the same dimensions, but no one relies on the same method. And in this variety of shot, and diversity of philosophies, is found tennis' pleasure, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Maria Sharapova evidently stopped at the US Open en route to a society dinner, for who else would dare to play tennis in a shimmering black cocktail dress, long earrings and lipstick. If they'd let her onto the court in her Manolo Blahnik stilettos, she might have done that, too. Match done, a wipe of the sweaty face and she was ready for dinner. Presumably she doesn't grunt while polishing off her ravioli.

Sharapova has style, which is possibly why she earns more in endorsement dollars than all the pouting locker room put together, though elegance never enters any conversation on her game. For a pretty girl at standstill, she is ungainly on the move, her tennis a full-throated assault that can be bruising yet limited because it is one-dimensional. To use a cruel analogy, if she had as many strokes and ideas as she probably has shoes she would be an outrageous player.

Style is everything in tennis, not so much the dress, but the varying ways in which players dress down their rivals. Everyone operates within the same dimensions, but no one relies on the same method. And in this variety of shot, and diversity of philosophies, is found tennis' pleasure.

Slapped flat forehands from one side and hissing, kicking ones from the other; abbreviated back-swings duelling with long, loopy preparations; two-handed backhands arguing angles with one-handed ones; hectoring big hitters (Berdych) being conned by counter-punching shot-makers (see Rochus brothers), some who slyly promise one shot and then deliver another (Santoro the subtle).

There are long-winded, conversational fellows who settle in for the 40-shot rally (Nadal) and others who prefer to speak in explosive monosyllables (Philippoussis is not called Scud for nothing). There are grumblers (Hewitt), and grunters (Venus), smilers (Hingis, like she's just feasted on two canaries) and jesters (Baghdatis, in whose personable hands Agassi said he is happy to leave the game).

There are some who bounce the ball 30 times before serving (Novak Djokovic) and others who appear to tug at every earlobe and lock of hair before tossing the ball (Mary Pierce). There are those with the face of a serial killer (Henin) and those with the dramatic range of Marlon Brando (Safin). There are fellows with one special stroke, a few with two big shots (usually serve, and forehand), a handful with three weapons. And then there is Roger.

Fernando Gonzales plays the most delightful tennis because he believes defence is an unmanly art. Armed with a forehand that can be found listed under Jane's Missiles and Rockets, and unafraid of the unforced error, he attacks as if tennis can be played no other way. Alas, there is recent dismaying news that he is seeing the light of percentage tennis. Nevertheless, some Spanish claycourters must watch him and feel part-envy (for they seem trained to be cautious) and part-contempt (tennis, they might insist, is a sport of deliberation).

Some grinders may leave the senses untouched, but certainly they are worth respect; it takes an unwavering thirst within the soul, and a certain-sized chip on the shoulder, to be born without height, or stroke fluency, or muscle, and still assume greatness. Hewitt, at his peak, had an awful beauty, a game plain yet persistent. God compensates. He gave the Australian nothing but speed and an outlaw's heart.

No one has everything, so almost everyone wins despite weakness. Courier's sledgehammer forehand came with a backhand better suited to baseball cages; Roddick knows the feeling. Edberg shovelled a hideous forehand. Sampras spent a career searching for an adequate rolled backhand; Dementieva has reached Grand Slams finals without a serve.

Players change, but it is so subtle, so slight, that only when coaches refer to it, or a former practitioner of these arts picks it up, do we recognise it.

Hewitt worked hard to develop a forehand down the line, and muscle. Safin would embrace patience, then banish it. Roddick slowly shifted further and further behind the baseline. At Wimbledon, Nadal edged closer. Double-handed backhanders turn up some seasons with a slice attached. Hingis is wise still, but hits harder than she once did. So does Henin. Davenport lost weight and learnt to move quicker. Mauresmo physically had it all, but it was confidence that unlocked her game.

Women may understandably hit the ball with less velocity, yet it is the men whose games are invested with greater diversity. Bizarre as it may seem, but, like golf, men have better touch, they are more accomplished at finesse. One thing great players of both sexes do which staggers most of all is how their confidence translates: simply, when in trouble they hit harder, more forcefully, their joints not infected by doubt.

Agassi showed this when 0-4 down in the third set to Andre Pavel in the first round. As the Romanian said: "He always came out with the shots on the line or winners. He still went for his shots the same way as if it was maybe three-all not four-love." Of course, two days later, Agassi choked briefly against Baghdatis. Everyone does. Great players just do it when it doesn't cost as much and he escaped. If Federer intimidates with variety, Agassi did with icy, imperious control. In his prime, and occasionally these days, Agassi stood in the centre of the court, and had his opponent functioning like a windscreen wiper, scampering from one end of the court to the other, eventually arriving breathless and late for a shot. In his own way, this bald bandit had a style that was easy on the eye.