Baseline-powered and it feels so good

Andre Agassi, who was in Melbourne for the open, insisted that the quality and texture of men's Tennis had evolved beyond recognition. He gave away the prizes to Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.-AP

Clearly, this is a golden age; and there’s every chance it will go down as the greatest era ever in tennis. S. Ram Mahesh takes stock.

This was a win Novak Djokovic desperately needed. For, after a sterling 2011, there were worrying signs last year that his past — the mental fade-aways, the physical let-downs — hadn’t been put to rest. With two defeats in major finals, to Rafael Nadal in Paris and Andy Murray in New York, and semifinal losses to Roger Federer at Wimbledon and Murray in the Olympics (also to Juan Martin Del Potro in the bronze medal match), Djokovic had been divested of his bullet-proof vest. Had he failed to defend his Australian Open title, he would have been 5-5 in Grand Slam finals. More to the point, he would have lost his last three, which for a World No.1 with designs of being the best ever is emasculating.

In surviving Stanislas Wawrinka before eventually beating Murray in the final, finding, when threatened, the desperate menace so reminiscent of 2011, Djokovic stayed on the track laid down by his ambition. For men’s tennis, however, the result of the final didn’t matter. Although Nadal wasn’t present, the way the 2013 Australian Open turned out was merely further corroboration that the Big Four have elevated tennis to heights never previously achieved. This wasn’t the speculation of immature, febrile minds; this was the considered thought of the standard-bearers of previous generations.

Andre Agassi, who was in Melbourne for the Open, insisted that the quality and texture of men’s tennis had evolved beyond recognition. And he was around till 2006! He made the point that, tactically and strategically, rallies were being constructed differently in this era — that defence and offence were no longer disparate parts played by dissimilar players. They were merely part of a fluid transition the Big Four, and especially Djokovic, were adept at.

“In my day somebody who ran well was [Michael] Chang,” said Agassi. “Once you have him running, I didn’t care. That’s great. He’s fast. He’s just going to get to one more ball, but that’s his problem if he wants to run one more time, you know, it’s not mine. And then you see it go to Lleyton Hewitt, who would move even better. But if you just were off on one, he would then move forward in the court and turn a point around. Now you got problems if you don’t keep him on the defence. And then you take that to a guy like Djokovic, who probably moves better than Hewitt ever moved and doesn’t need to turn a point around. When he’s on defence he can actually win the point with one shot. That’s an evolution of the game.”

Agassi sharpened the idea with the observation that modern-day tennis was driven by the legs. “You know, when I played, my whole game was based on playing with that sense of urgency and forcing guys to be ballistic out there, to treat a marathon like a sprint. (These days) they’re much better athletes. They appear to be a lot stronger in the lower body than I was; upper body probably not as much. But my game was never about using my legs as much as it was, you know, bullying the ball around the court.”

From having experienced first-hand both his era — which spanned Sampras, Courier, Chang, Stich, Ivanisevic, Becker, Edberg, the later Lendl, almost-retired Connors and McEnroe — and the formation of the current era, Agassi is well placed to compare the two, qualitatively.

“I had the luxury of playing against Federer, and that was off the heels of competing against Pete (Sampras). There’s just no safe place to go on the court. It used to leave my racquet, and I knew exactly to a minute detail how opportunistic I could be about the next shot. With Federer, it wasn’t the case. Fed raised it; Nadal matched and raised it; Djokovic, for that intense little period of time, even raised it. You’re talking about arguably the three best guys. If you’re having that discussion in the same generation, it’s remarkable. And now all of a sudden Murray is in the equation — where is he going to go?”

Rod Laver, till recently Federer’s only competition for being considered the greatest ever, knows what it’s like to be constantly pushed to get better. Even with the division of amateurs and professionals in his time, his, too, was a golden age. Although the primes of Pancho Gonzales (significantly older than the others but still competitive), Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Frank Sedgman, and Laver didn’t intersect as frequently, they managed to play each other in several highly regarded matches. But Laver, who follows the modern game, said it was superior to anything he had seen or been part of.

“It's incredible what today’s players are doing. They’re fitter, stronger, and certainly they’re taller, and they’ve just perfected what you can do with these rackets and strings,” he said. “It’s uncanny. Every ball is within a foot of the baseline. You just feel like you can’t keep doing that! In my mind, the way I had to play, it just wasn’t possible. This is the highest level.”

Watching Djokovic and Murray pull each other around Rod Laver Arena there was a sense that this was baseline tennis at the very edge of its conceivable limits; here was athleticism and technology, as the great Laver said, working to make routine the ridiculous. And yet, there was a feeling of disquiet. There is a danger in excellence becoming commonplace, for the ability to appreciate it as it truly is diminishes. But this wasn’t that. The disquiet related to the apparent standardising of the style required for success. Federer occasionally doesn’t conform — for he hits the backhand one-handed and can still win matches doing many things, at least against anyone outside the top five — but tennis is tending to a pattern. There are still fine differences, in how early or late the ball is taken, in the amount of topspin imparted, in how frequently direction is changed, or when the trigger is pulled. But there isn’t the contrast in style Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Lendl, and Wilander showed in the other great era of men’s tennis.

Federer put it down to the dwindling variety of playing surfaces. “I came through in an era where I had to base my game against Sampras, Agassi, those kinds of guys, and not the roadrunners. They came at the same time with me. Courts were faster then. It was more absorbing the pace and creating something with it. Obviously times have changed. It’s very much become a game of movement today. Maybe the top guys just move a tiny bit better than the rest of the guys. The conditions have slowed down. That gives you an opportunity to maybe be more consistent in all four majors, when before we had the clay-court specialists, the fast-court players. I truly believe things are a bit easier to play more consistent today.”

Tennis has been played in the past on grass, asphalt, clay, canvas over wood, indoor carpet, and wood parquet, which allowed for a range of speeds and bounces. This ensured that different styles found success and that everyone needed to adapt when moving from one surface to another. But with the change of grass at Wimbledon in 2001 and the proliferation of easy-to-maintain hard-courts, the medium-paced, high-bouncing ball has become de rigueur. Along with larger racquet-heads and springier string-beds, which enable high power at great control (thanks to top-spin, which gets even viciously hit balls to drop into court), the percentages favour the baseliner.

As a result, the serve-and-volleyer has left the game. The touch artist, who creates by borrowing and redirecting pace, like Federer said, has been impaired as well. Despite wrong-footing and off-setting his opponents with court-craft and feel, he is frequently out-rallied for they have time to recover and steadily wear him down. Indeed even Federer, who plays his version of the modern baseline style, has experienced this with Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray. It’s no surprise that — barring the 2011 French Open semifinal against Djokovic, which was the rare, magnificent work of a master removed from his comforts — Federer has needed quicker conditions over the last three years to beat the other three.

Clearly, this is a golden age; and there’s every chance it will go down as the greatest era ever. But unless those who administer tennis aren’t careful, their move to address one perceived problem will have created another. The uniform slowing of conditions (including balls) was to extend the point beyond first-strike play, to de-emphasise the serve. They were worried tennis would be overwhelmed by a style they thought spectators wouldn’t care for. Instead it has been beset by another. There’s now an assembly line of baseliners who hit similar looking strokes and play tactically alike tennis. It’s important we delight in the Big Four. But it’s just as important that steps are taken to ensure the sport doesn’t become monotone.