Match Tough

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Sometimes, the best measure of how much the game of tennis has changed is provided by small or obtuse details. It's easy to talk about and debate the big stuff, like the apparent demise of the serve-and-volley game. But it may say even more about how the game has evolved that one of the most popular and common expressions of the recent past (the late amateur and early pro eras) is never used anymore.

When was the last time you heard anyone referred to as. . . match tough.

Back in the day, players would consider it an asset to have played three, four, or more tournaments before a big meeting. Actually, they generally assumed it a prerequisite for success. And one of the ranking cliches right up into the 1980s was that a contender was "match tough" because he had been playing—and winning—a large number of matches. Conversely, if you weren't match tough, your chances were downgraded.

As well, the players wanted to go into those Grand Slam events, and other major events, in rhythm and on a roll. They believed that the way to compete at your absolute best was not necessarily through training and practice, but by immersing yourself in competition.

Injuries seemed less common (or were less talked about) in the early Open era, but at least one potential GOAT candidate was waylaid by a career-ending injury. Aussie Lew Hoad was a contemporary of Ken Rosewall; as prodigies, they were wildly successful and rather romantically dubbed "the gold-dust twins" (eat your hearts out, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) or, simply, the "tennis twins."

Although Hoad's career was tragically cut short by a bad back; many pundits from that era said he was, on a given day, even better than Rosewall and even that paragon and peer, Rod Laver. At his peak at age 31 in 1969, Laver amassed a record of 106-16, a great record but not one of the all-time winning percentages. But the volume of play is amazing. Laver lost 16 matches on his way to a career year; that's 16 events in which he lost. Last year, Roger Federer played a grand total of just 19 events.

And lest you think that was an aberration, or a testament to the transitional nature of the era, look at Guillermo Vilas. In 1977, almost a decade into Open tennis, he was a mind-boggling 145-15. That's 160 matches—more than twice the number Novak Djokovic played last year. As late as 1982, Ivan Lendl (known to a new generation of fans as Andy Murray's coach) played 115 matches. No wonder these men were described, positively, as being "match tough."

So what happened? Money happened, that's what, and I don't mean that in a cynical or critical way.

Players who cultivated match toughness weren't just preparing for majors according to the conventional wisdom, they were also making a living. Once the big money began pouring into the game, the pressure on the players to enter events gradually diminished. That probably accelerated the evolution of the game because with more time to train (and, very soon, with superior equipment), the pros were able to really push the envelope, to explore the outer edges of technique and fitness. If you want to assign blame for how physical and punishing the game is today, blame it on the prize and endorsement money. 

Follow this line of reasoning and you can see how the great pros of the future might play just six or eight or 10 tournaments a year. I'm not quite sure how the economics would work out, for either the individuals or the ATP tour. But if a prizefighter can work once a year, or less, why not a tennis player? The major difference is that tennis is built on four Grand Slam events (and a supporting tour), rather than one-off championship fights. But most of us would still be shocked if we got to the point where the players play only those big four events every year. Don't think it can't happen. From my reading of the game, were heading more toward than away from such a development.

The top contenders for the men's singles title in Australia in a week's time will have one thing in common. Not a single one of them has played more than one warm-up tournament, and the defending champion himself (Djokovic) has played none.

Very clearly, "match toughness" can no longer be considered a key ingredient for success at big events, yet the game is certainly played at a higher level than ever before. Is there any better testament to the way and degree to which times have changed?

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