Strange Bedfellows—or Not?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 /by
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Has any sport evolved to the same degree as tennis, through a combination of advances in equipment, technique, and training? It’s an interesting question.

Take baseball, for example. The lords of the game drew a line in the sand at the dawn of the metal-bat era and consciously encased the game in aspic. They did this mainly because they knew that the aluminum bat would transform the game, and they weren’t willing to bet the house on the fact that it would end up a better game.

Unfortunately, it seems that the biggest change in baseball in decades was an unexpected and unwanted one—the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and the impact they had on individual statistics. Other than that, if you discount the typical bells and whistles added to make the game more appealing to fans, little has changed in the way the game is played.

Soccer is another good example of the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach to sports. So is American pigskin football. Basketball, though, is different, especially at the NBA level. Evolution has been fluid, dynamic, and profound in both the NBA and pro tennis, and that raises an interesting point.

As professional enterprises, they’re the true sister sports, in spite of the socio-economic albatross that keeps insisting that tennis and golf are next of kin, with tennis as a kind of golf for people who can run. Golf, incidentally, seems to have changed very little, and certainly far less than tennis.

True, the equipment in the NBA (unlike in tennis) has had only a cursory impact in basketball. But some of the technique-related advances in basketball have had a seismic impact: The slam dunk, the flashy dribble, and particularly the jump shot. Something similar has happened in tennis (more about that a little later).

Radical rule changes, like the prohibition of zone play in the NBA (until recently, and it's never become more than a trend) or the introduction of the shot clock, have impacted basketball, perhaps even more significantly than comparable changes in tennis: The introduction of tiebreaker, electronic line-calling protocols, tennis’ own “shot clock”—the time violation rules—bathroom breaks, and an allowance for medical timeouts. All that in a sport where not so long ago they didn’t even have chairs to flop onto for a quick towel and gulp on changeovers. The players just walked around the net post and carried on.

The rising tide of enormously gifted African-Americans entering basketball also had a gradual transformational impact on the NBA. It’s a short hop from there to a discussion of how Serena and Venus Williams’ serving prowess might be influencing the way tennis is taught to young girls.

Of course, basketball is a team sport, which may make it seem like this relationship is more like a step-sister thing. But the comparison is still delicious in various ways. Basketball once relied upon somewhat dreary if admirable team play (endless passing leading to a layup); it now trades heavily on spectacular and creative individual play. A Bob Cousy or Elgin Baylor might not recognize the game at which he excelled; the same might be said for a Don Budge, a Helen Wills Moody, or a Fred Perry.

The unusually long time it took for tennis to embrace professionalism (in this, a comparison with golf is illuminating) was an overall drag on the development of the game. For one thing, while players were more dedicated to fitness than we assume, they simply didn’t start as young or hit nearly as many balls as today's aspiring pros. That helps explain the velocity of today’s game. Sure, the changes in the racquet frame and strings have helped, but I’d like to see a twice-a-week player hit a forehand like Rafael Nadal—and I don’t care if his racquet has a head the size of a tractor tire and the strings impregnated with gunpowder.

Even into the early years of the Open era, tennis strokes were taught in a truly formal manner. You turned perpendicular to the net and stepped across your body with the opposite foot when you hit a forehand or a backhand. You tried to “hold” the ball at contact. You hit a long, controlled stroke and followed through so that, on the forehand, your racquet ended up on the opposite side of your body, pointing at the sky. This was the fundamental shot in tennis for most of its history, just as the two-handed set shot was once the basic shot in basketball.

Back then, you ran to the net to volley if you hit a good strong first serve, or if you had your opponent out of position. This remains a valuable thing to keep in mind, but by no means is it any longer a reliable strategy. Blame it on the evolution of the game and the equipment. For today’s pro, net-rushing is an almost irrelevant as a strategy except in the most obvious of circumstances.

Tennis as it is played today bears almost no relation to the game that ruled right up through most of the 1980s. In its own way, it has abandoned the conventions that once ruled; Roger Federer hits a forehand as different in all respects from the one John Newcombe used as Bob Cousy’s set shot is different from a Carmelo Anthony jumper. This is pretty incredible, if for no other reason than that nobody could have predicted it. Who knew you could play tennis in so many different ways?

Just as the jump shot has come to rule basketball, the forehand has evolved from the most basic tool into the most dangerous weapon (after the serve) in tennis. This makes me wonder if the backhand, particularly the one-handed backhand, isn’t going the way of the set shot. Do you think all those ambitious coaches out there are oblivious to the constant, nearly Grecian chorus lamenting how the gorgeous backhand of the greatest Grand Slam champion in tennis also is his Achilles heel?

The two-handed backhand is the off-side weapon of choice now, but I’m thinking that we may just be in a transition period, and that ultimately players will develop two forehands and hit no backhands at all. One thing that might help accelerate this process is the role the open stance has in today’s game. If you no longer have to turn your shoulders perpendicular to the net, why not just switch hands and whale away, facing the net?

There have been some two-forehand players throughout history (you can read a previous column on the subject here). It’s only a matter of time, I think, before someone takes an ambidextrous kid and trains him to hit two forehands. It may not lead to a prettier game, and it may inspire a thousand panegyrics to the one-handed backhand, accompanied by sepia-toned photos of Federer, Ricard Gasquet, or Grigor Dimitrov. But I have no doubt it could work. And tennis has always been ruled by what works.

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