Slaves to Surface

Friday, November 29, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The Big Four have achieved great things in recent years and brought the men’s game into what has often been called a “golden age.” But I can’t help but wonder if the era isn’t also less interesting than it might be under other circumstances.

For example, is it a good thing for tennis that Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer have so dominated the landscape that the six other members of the Top 10 have a grand total of one Grand Slam title—No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro’s 2009 U.S. Open triumph—and just three Masters 1000 titles among them? (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, and David Ferrer have each won the Paris Masters.)

Is it a good thing that Tomas Berdych, No. 7 for 2013, didn’t win a single tournament this year? Or that Stanislas Wawrinka is 3-40 against Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer? At what point does thorough domination by an elite group not only become tiresome, but also suggest that the game has been rigged to cater to their talents—fundamental as those talents may be?

It’s an interesting question, and one I’ve been thinking about ever since the Wimbledon final. The Wimbledon women’s final, that is. As awful as that match between Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki turned out to be, it certainly felt like a breath of fresh air. We watched two somewhat familiar yet unexpected talents facing the chance of a lifetime. 

This is something we’ve been conditioned not to seek among the men anymore, what with all the hype about the Nadal vs. Federer and then the Nadal vs. Djokovic rivalries. At Wimbledon, the familiarity problem was compounded by the overwhelming (and justified) amount of attention paid to the “will he or won’t he” question hovering over Murray.

Now, with Murray having satisfied the ghost of Fred Perry, sentimentalists around the world, and a few million British subjects, it seems appropriate to ask if it might not be more fun next year to see a Wimbledon final pitting, say, Jerzy Janowicz against Milos Raonic than, say, Nadal against Djokovic.

Wimbledon this year underscored a few things for me, not least of which is that, as much as I enjoy the rivalries at the top of the men’s game, the fall off below the Big Four is becoming a bore. It’s so dramatic and has been proven so predictable that the women’s game as a whole is simply more interesting. I’ve wondered why.

If you happen to be one of those people who doubt that the game has changed all that much in the past decade or two, just consider the role reversal of the two tours. It used to be said that all the women seemed to play the same way, but now it’s the top men who have largely created a template for success. While it’s true that the women are loaded at the top (with Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka), they can’t hold a candle to the men in terms of overall superiority. The women have more formidable, proven contenders than do their male counterparts.

Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Sara Errani, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, Bartoli (who declared for retirement shortly after she won Wimbledon, much to everyone’s surprise), Lisicki, Ana Ivanovic, Sam Stosur, and Svetlana Kuznetsova are all Grand Slam champions or finalists in the WTA Top 25. Counting the Top 3, the WTA fielded 14 proven contenders in the Top 25 in 2013.

Now, let’s compare the men: The top seven men all have played major finals, as has No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But that’s it. Nobody ranked between 11 and 25 has made the breakthrough. 

You can put that down to the “golden age.” You can come up with half-baked theories about the WTA having more volatile drama queens and head cases. But you can also look at it another way: The women have so many more dangerous players because they represent a much broader spectrum of playing styles. The difference between Nadal and, say, Berdych simply isn’t nearly as profound as the contrast presented by Serena and Errani. And you can take the comparisons down the line.

But the real 800-pound gorilla in this room isn’t style, per se—it’s the thing that makes stylistic variety and problem solving possible. And that’s surface. The dramatic slowing of the surfaces has imposed a kind of realpolitik on men’s tennis. You need not apply unless you’re a beast with great defense and an aggressive, baseline game. The greatest beneficiary of this has been Djokovic, although Nadal, Murray, Ferrer, and even del Potro have also reaped the rewards. 

Those men are tailor-made for the kinds of surfaces that have come to dominate the calendar. You could say that the surface and height-of-bounce issues have created a truly level playing field, and we now have a much more accurate—and fair—standard for judging skill, talent, and fitness. But do we really want that? After all, the challenge to win on different surfaces was always considered a valuable, unique feature that made the game more exciting.

It still does. Except it does so on the WTA tour.

I don’t want to oversell the idea here. It isn’t as if the women are serving-and-volleying like crazy, or radically changing their games to suit the surface. But the reality is that surface has never played the same role in the two branches of the pro game, and that’s been borne out in the results. I’m not even sure that what we mean by “style” isn’t just as much about what the player projects as what tactical choices he or she makes. And in the end it probably doesn’t matter all that much.

The bottom line seems to be that the men are slaves to surface far more than are the women, which is why their game has become more predictable and, perhaps, less interesting.

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