The Five: Trends To Track in Oz

Tuesday, January 08, 2013 /by

Tennis trends can be hard to predict, tricky to launch, and impossible to sustain. Who ever thought that compression shorts would become all the rage thanks to Andre Agassi—and then disappear so quickly in the rear-view mirror? Didn’t some of us also brace for an onslaught of young WTA pros wearing below-the-knee running tights under their tennis skirts, following the lead of Victoria Azarenka?

Mercifully, that one never happened, and not just because most male fans would tell you that, when it comes to Azarenka’s legs, there’s no such thing as too much. But trends aren’t just matters of fashion. Time was, and not so long ago, that the copper bracelet that was said to diminish the chance of incurring elbow problems was a ubiquitous item on the ATP tour.

And who might have imagined that what once was called the “Bucharest backfire”—after the first man to hit the shot regularly in big matches, Ilie Nastase—would morph into the “’tweener”? These days, it seems like even far-flung journeymen spend a lot of time getting a slow start and running wide of a lob in order to fire off a ‘tweener, court position or percentages be danged. “Oohs-and-aaahs” are a lot harder to come by than points, though.

And if nothing else, there’s the very word, “’tweener.” Is there a more lame word in the language?

I rant. Some trends are not just valid (meaning productive and useful), but definitive of the evolution of the game. Count the inside-out forehand at the top of that list, although one of the greatest and most obvious “trends” (if you can still call it that) is the shift to the two-handed backhand. We tend to forget that until the holy trinity of Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and Bjorn Borg came along, the two-hander was a much less common stroke. Just think of all the great backhands leading up to that era that began in the 1970s. Margaret Court, Rod Laver, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Nastase, Jan Kodes, Rosie Casals, John Newcombe, Evonne Goolagong, Ken Rosewall—they all played the backhand with one hand on the handle.

With all that in mind, let’s look at five trends we might spot at the upcoming Australian Open:

1. Diminished grunting by WTA players.

Word is out: Grunting isn’t cool, even if Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are the league leaders at the practice—as well as the top-ranked women. We’ve gone from the point where shrieks and grunts were an amusing, quip-worthy byproduct of women’s tennis to the point where they are—justly and accurately—considered a serious impediment to the popularity, growth, and appeal of the game.

More to the point, more discreet players have been increasingly vocal about their objection to grunting on grounds that go beyond aesthetics and manners to the question of sportsmanship. More and more women insist that grunting qualifies as a distraction that ought not be allowed.

Last year, Sabine Lisicki complained to an umpire at Wimbledon that Bojana Jovanovski’s grunting was distracting and, well, just “too loud.” And one reason Azarenka has been pummeling her former friend Agnieszka Radwanska so mercilessly in recent matches seems to be because of the Polish girl’s much-publicized criticism her grunting last year.

Now that the WTA has announced that it’s taking the grunting issue seriously, look for a gradual lowering of the volume on those ecstatic ululations and war cries.

2. More and more slice.

Have you noticed that the slice backhand is back, and in a big way? Just last week, David Ferrer, who’s made an incredible living off his trusty two-hander, tried to work his way out of trouble against Nikolay Davydenko in Doha by using slice to slow the frenetic pace the Russian had imposed on the rallies.

Okay, so that didn’t work out so well. The reality still is that everyone from Rafael Nadal to Jerzy Janowicz is re-discovering the uses of slice, even if the desire to simply buy time or hit the reset button in a rally has become a more common goal than getting to the net to hit a volley.

This makes sense given the overall evolution of the backhand, a shot that the two-handers transformed from a multi-purpose tool into a, well, cannon. Drunk with the newfound power available when you keep two hands on the grip, the pendulum swung wildly to the flat and topspin side of the meter. Now, the one-handed slice has become the latest “must-have” shot for…two-handers.

3. A blight of injuries.

Did you notice that before even the first week of the new year was out, Sharapova, Azarenka, John Isner, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all pulled out of tournaments with injury?

Granted, two of those players quit the Hopman Cup, an ITF mixed team event that offers no ranking points and is largely an exhibition. Tsonga left Perth nursing a hamstring that also caused him to miss this week’s event in Sydney. Isner withdrew with an aching knee (it may or may not be tendinitis), but he’s the top seed in Sydney. Sharapova had a collarbone injury that led to her withdrawal from Brisbane last week, where Azarenka also quit with a big toe infection.

If you want to look on the bright side, consider some or all of these breakdowns minor in this era of the “precautionary” withdrawal or retirement. But if you believe in self-fulfilling prophecies, or the power of positive (or negative) thinking, this rash of injuries is bad news that is only likely to get worse. The only explanation for it, really, is the demands put upon the players by the contemporary game, what with all those hard courts, hard polyester strings, hard groundstrokes, and perhaps even hard workouts.

4. Sunglasses catching on.

Given the stakes (long-term vision and eye-care wise), I’m surprised sunglasses aren’t more popular on the pro tours. But I have a feeling that we’re entering into a new era in that regard. Bernard Tomic, the 20-year-old Aussie, and Yaroslava Shvedova are the latest pros to further the trend (Shvedova also has eye problems unrelated to the sun, which require her to wear prescription sunglasses).

I think this was all launched by Arnaud Clement, and soon thereafter picked up by a few of his French pals. More recently, Sam Stosur and Janko Tisparevic took to wearing sunglasses regularly. The long-standing prejudice against sunglasses was born of concern over fogging and perspiration and how they affect the wearer, but as these players have shown, today’s technologies make it perfectly easy to play wearing eye protection.

Note that two of the most prominent sunglass-wearers are Aussies, obliged by geography to pay attention to sun-related cautions. I’m not sure we’ll ever see Robin Soderling in shades (heck, I’m not even sure we’ll ever see Soderling again), but more and more pros are likely to follow in Clement’s footsteps.

5. Lots of post-match dancing.

The post-match cha-cha (although it’s now more likely to be a hip-hop shuffle, or the Gangnam Style dance—see below) has become almost obligatory. Blame it all on the ladies, particularly Venus Williams and Andrea Petkovic. But you know things are really “trending” when the world’s top male junior breaks out his dance moves, as Filip Peliwo did following a Davis Cup match in Montreal last September.

I’m not sure about his future in tennis, but he gets top marks for going all in—way beyond the customary 10-seconds granted us by most dancing fools (in tennis).

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