Better to embrace the here and now!

Roger Federer was the public favourite at Wimbledon.-PICS: GETTY IMAGES

Tennis, like everything else, has evolved and will continue to. Training methods are better and nutrition has improved. There is a greater scientific understanding and the resulting improvement in performance and technique is as good as inevitable. The differences in games are not as stark as they were before but very subtle. The ultimate goal is to become an all-court expert, writes N. Sudarshan.

Romanticising the past is as old a human trait as human civilization itself. It was way better back then, more glorious, a lot purer and innocent is a refrain that is hard to miss in those taken over by nostalgia. It’s no different in sport. Perhaps, this kind of sentimental revision and craving for the yesteryear is best seen through sport. And in modern day tennis lies its best example.

“Real sports fans” would root for Roger Federer felt London’s Daily Mail on the morning of the Federer-Novak Djokovic Wimbledon singles final. “Federer is supposed to have been overtaken by the gym rats and the musclemen, the men who awe us with their stamina and their shot-making. No one means it as a sign of disrespect to Djokovic but most people who love sport will be hoping Federer makes it a record eight,” it said.

At once it seems like a simplistic argument which trashes in one stroke the Djokovic-phenomenon and the supernatural levels to which it has elevated tennis in recent years. But not for the purist, who is tired of the monotonously long baseline slugfests that supposedly dominate tennis today.

It is no coincidence that such arguments fill the air during the Wimbledon fortnight. For, no other place has kept its links intact to the game’s origins as much as SW19. And it is a given that every perceptible shift in the game will be viewed through the Wimbledon prism.

In 2001, Federer beat the serve-and-volley of Pete Sampras and went on to lose to the serve-and-volley of Tim Henman, who went on to lose to the serve-and-volley of Goran Ivanisevic, who went on to beat the serve-and-volley of Pat Rafter, to win the title. In the 2002 final between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian there was not a single serve-and-volley point.

It was also at this edition that the mix of the grass was changed from a quick 70% rye / 30% creeping red fescue, to a slower 100% perennial ryegrass and a larger tennis ball, called the Type 3, which travelled more slowly through the air, was developed. Federer in fact served and volleyed 80.8 per cent of the times in 2002. In the 2015 edition it was a little over 10 per cent.

The above two instances do serve up as evidence to buttress the fact that tennis has changed beyond recognition — from the time Federer won his first Wimbledon in 2003 till now, from the time Serena Williams won her first ‘Serena Slam’ in 2002-03 till now. But is it to the detriment of the game as it is being projected? Shorn of variety, yes. But of excitement, not really.

Tennis as a game didn’t exactly start off as being predominantly serve-and-volley. Fred Perry and Don Budge, the 1930s greats, were known for their ‘backhands and forehands that never went off’. Both seldom followed their serve to the net. Perry came in to the net only for the assured kill. In fact Perry’s groundstrokes were such that he never had to volley competently.

“In any match between the perfect baseline player and the perfect net-rusher, I would take the baseliner every time,” said ‘Big Bill’ Tilden many years ago. “The future will see a growth of hard-court play the world over,” said Bill Tilden, in his book The Art of Lawn Tennis. “Grass must fight to hold its position.” Note that in the 1920s Tilden was considered an ‘artist’ and was overwhelmingly voted the greatest tennis player of the first half of the 20th century in an Associated Press poll.

The Kramer theory of modern tennis in the 1940s and 1950s was what completely changed the game’s complexion. His style of play came to be known as ‘The Big Game’ — a cannonball serve followed by a decisive volley. There were many attacking players before Kramer, but none who consistently came in behind every serve.

Novak Djokovic may primarily be a baseline slugger, but there is also a charm in this approach.-

Then followed the decades-long domination from the likes of Tony Roche, John Newcombe, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras. (Note: Rod Laver was never an out-and-out serve-and-volleyer).

It is this era that a certain generation of fans yearns for, calling it aesthetically pleasing. But aesthetic sense is subjective. Why serve and volley was lapped up then was because it was a winning tactic. The courts were fast and racquet technology was yet to see advancement. “The game we play — I play, the Australians play — is to pressure an opponent,” said Newcombe. “Serve and volley works best — so we use it. But it’s just a means to an end. We could change.”

In the eyes of the current generation, the change, in the early 2000s is like a course correction. Because in the 1994 Wimbledon final between Sampras and Ivanisevic only three of the 206 points lasted more than four shots. In fact matches between the two were described as three hours of serve and ten minutes of tennis.

“Aces were once that single unanswerable assertion of dominance or defiance, and were remarkable for the surprise and thrill of their appearance,” wrote Paul Fein in his book Tennis Confidential. “These days, if they were a golf stroke, they’d be a tap-in.”

The changes in the last decade and a half have made it a baseliner’s game again. For example, those with big serves, but devoid of a return game don’t win much anymore. Djokovic, who once had the dubious record of having served more double-faults than aces in a single season, hit 13 aces to Federer’s 14 in that Sunday’s final. Most of it was clutch serving, like he saved two set points at 5-6 in the first set with back-to-back service winners.

What this suggests is that tennis, like everything else, has evolved and will continue to. It has always marched with the times. Training methods are better and nutrition has improved. There is a greater scientific understanding and the resulting improvement in performance and technique is as good as inevitable. The differences in games are not as stark as they were before but very subtle. The ultimate goal is to become an all-court expert.

True it might not have the variety of say a Borg-McEnroe clash or that of a Sampras-Agassi or even a Federer-Nadal. That may be due to homogenising of the courts but it is also because perfection has become so commonplace. The idea of a glorious past is fine, but only a cynic will refuse to see the greatness around him.