Medium Cool

by: Steve Tignor | May 27, 2006

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Sunday, March 26

Remember the days when the men's game was too fast? It's still the cliché of the day, of course, the first thing every casual fan mentions when he finds out you like tennis. “It's boring with the new racquets, the guys just serve rockets. Nobody works the point anymore.”

Like that other cliché, about tennis being a sport for clueless preppies, this one is now officially over. The pro game has made changes to counter it. Court surfaces, from the Australian Open's high-bouncing Rebound Ace to the grass at Wimbledon, have been slowed, and the balls made heavier. Medium pace is now the rule when it comes to hard courts; we're even beginning to hear complaints about it from big-name players like Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt.

The Nasdaq-100 is representative of the speed of the game today. The surface is “slow” from a hard-courter's perspective, “neutral” from a clay-courter's. Two years ago, Argentine dirtballer Guillermo Coria reached the final, and in 2005 two Spanish clay specialists, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, faced off in the semifinals. Still, the winners those two years were hard-court guys named Roddick and Federer. America's most Latin-flavored event doesn't discriminate.

Sunday on the stadium court you could see what this type of game has produced. The first match was between David Nalbandian and Tomas Berdych, the second between Nikolay Davydenko and Marcos Baghdatis. These are the rank-and-file of the ATP's top tier, youngish guys hovering within the Top 30 (and higher) who have developed their games during this decade. While they come from different countries, their styles are generally similar, and they're built for this type of surface.

Each guy has a solid serve modeled on the depth, placement, and variety of Pete Sampras and Federer rather than the all-out velocity of Roddick. They can win points outright with their serves, but they don't need to. On these courts, leaning on your serve is risky—the return is equally critical now, and Nalbandian, Berdych, Davydenko, and Baghdatis all have two-handed backhands, which helps immeasurably on the return.

From the ground, their backhands are as lethal as their forehands. It's much more difficult than it was in the days of Jim Courier and Ivan Lendl for guys to break open a match with the inside-out forehand alone. You can see that in the way Andre Agassi has adapted his game from the forehand gunslinging of his early years to the disciplined all-around baseline style he uses now. The matches in the stadium today were a series of baseline body blows; no one could find a place to land a knockout punch. All over the courts this weekend, you could see men from all parts of the world playing this type of tennis: Nicolas Kiefer, Florent Serra, Igor Andreev, Mario Ancic, Fernando Gonzalez, Richard Gasquet, Dmitry Tursunov, Sebastien Grosjean, Xavier Malisse, Carlos Moya, and Tommy Haas, to name a few.

Is this something we should welcome? Is today's men's game entertaining enough to convince casual fans that tennis isn't just a glorified rock fight? On the “yes” side, I'd say that all four players I watched on the stadium yesterday are smooth movers and clean ball-strikers. They're never out of position, their strokes are attractive, they have power and touch from both sides, and they're proficient with every shot. Rallies, rather than serves, are the name of the game, but they aren't the tediously grinding variety that clay can inspire. Good shots and pace are rewarded, but if a ball isn't hit perfectly, there's time for defense.

So what's not to like? There's a sameness to the game, obviously, with everyone doing a variant on one thing. Shot-making isn't rewarded as much as it is on faster courts. High-flying players like Sampras, Federer, and John McEnroe have always been at their best on fast surfaces. Federer aside, there's also less unique artistry and idiosyncrasy—who can imagine players with the strange talents of McEnroe or Connors reaching the top now? What I noticed most about Nalbandian, Baghdatis, and Davydenko was how compact and utilitarian all of their strokes are. They're built to take pace, give it back, and get them in position for the next shot.

This may sound like a recipe for a new round of insults-“They all play the same way now, forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand, it's boring.” And a lot of these guys are for aficionados only. Who else is going to appreciate the effortlessness of Berdych's power; the way Nalbandian, with his ridiculously good positioning, seems to have a half-second to gather himself before every shot; how early Davydenko can take a backhand on the run?

If only there were more Baghdatises in the world. Amidst a lot of great tennis Sunday, the most memorable and fan-friendly moment came when the Cypriot decided to challenge a line call. He walked toward the umpire, who asked him if he wanted to make a challenge. Baghdatis shrugged his shoulders, pursed his lips, and nodded—a “sure, what the hell” look. When the replay showed he was right, Baghdatis pumped his fist and looked up into the crowd with a huge grin. He shook his head and smiled like he was having fun with a new toy. The crowd loved it. Of course, Baghdatis eventually lost after being up 4-2 in the third, in part because he was too loose and relaxed at the end. Unfortunately, as Sampras and every other great player learned, you don't get any points for pleasing the fans.

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