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Thinking different: Tsitsipas and Djokovic raise questions of style
What took place in the Serb and the Greek's respective fourth-round matches revealed much about playing styles—and, perhaps, though only perhaps, insights into how tennis might look in the years to come.
Published Oct 05, 2020
The two men’s round of 16 singles matches won today on Court Philippe Chatrier by Stefanos Tsitsipas and Novak Djokovic were each won in straight sets. But more pointedly, what took place revealed much about playing styles—and, perhaps, though only perhaps, insights into how tennis might look in the years to come.
First, Tsitsipas took on his fellow one-hander, Grigor Dimitrov. Often, when players with one-handed backhands go far in majors, I receive messages from friends who are convinced that the one-hander remains a far better shot than the two-hander—often because they perceive it as far more elegant than what they view as a garish two-hander. This aesthetic desire is frequently stated more as fact than opinion.
Though I’m tempted to reply that the one-handed backhand is less in vogue among world-class players than a FAX machine, I know that’s not exactly accurate. Currently, there are six one-handers in the ATP top 20. Besides Tsitsipas and Dimitrov, there’s recent US Open champion Dominic Thiem, Roger Federer, Denis Shapovalov, and Stan Wawrinka. Let it be noted that none of these one-handers is merely adequate. Each is fantastic, a sizzling drive certain to generate coverage on many a highlight show.
Hence my reply to those who consider the one-hander as a bastion of civilization versus the barbaric two-hander: If you seek to hit one and be a great player, you better make it a Maserati. Those armed with such a weapon are often granted a label that is both blessing and curse—shot-maker.
So it was that Tsitsipas and Dimitrov played two hours and 26 minutes of lively, engaging tennis. From a spectator’s standpoint, there was a lot to enjoy in this match. Tsitsipas, seven years younger, was the one with more power and aggressive court positioning, particularly when he was able to lacerate his forehand. The second-set tiebreaker was a gem, a rollercoaster that the Greek at last won 11-9. The final score: 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-2.
There was also more drama. Again, this is pleasing to viewers. But it also creates tremendous stress for a competitor, a challenging mix of labor, struggle and pressure—the need to win not just with routine shots, but with stupendous drives, court coverage, angles, spin, movement. Save for the incredible Federer and possibly, the ascending Thiem, in today’s game, with players like this, it’s tricky to find the safe and manageable margin. Should you invest in a shot-maker and the precious one-hander, be prepared for plenty of market volatility and those days when you won’t even want to look at your portfolio.
Next, Novak Djokovic took on 16th-ranked Karen Khachanov. This was a demonstration of pragmatic, contemporary tennis. The baseline revolution in men’s game began decades ago with Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas. It continued with Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi. As courts have gotten slower, as Grand Slam surfaces have grown more homogenous, frequent volleyers have largely vanished and big-time tennis currently manifests itself in a form of what could be called forceful defense.
Djokovic is the kingpin, in recent years occasionally challenged, but rarely outshined, by the likes of Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, David Ferrer, Kei Nishikori, David Goffin, Diego Schwartzman, Pablo Carreno Busta, Roberto Bautista Agut and a host of others who made their way in and out of the Top 20.
Hand it to the nimble Murray for earning three Grand Slam titles, including two finals over Djokovic. Consider Daniil Medvedev an intriguing variation, armed with eclectic tactics and a powerful serve. Tomas Berdych was a taller, big-serving version, as is Alexander Zverev. Ditto for the 6’ 6” Khachanov, who today threw plenty at Djokovic, but scarcely disrupted him, the No. 1 seed winning it 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
The game Djokovic has mastered is tennis’ prevailing style, as much a pacesetter among men in the 21st century as Chris Evert’s first-rate baseline game was for decades of aspiring women. Though Djokovic hits a reasonable amount of sparkling winners, no one would dare call him a shot-maker. Djokovic’s genius is based on sustainability—subtle but profound assets such as balance, footwork and, tennis’ greatest weapon, depth. It makes the way he plays points as much house money as the body serve and first volley to the backhand were in the days when three of the majors were played on grass. Were you to show a 12-year-old how to play tennis the way it is currently played, Djokovic is the model. As was once said in the corporate world, no one ever got fired for buying IBM.
So here we come to the developmental dilemma: Learn the game of today that works so well for so many? Simply attempt to build a better version of it, with more power and a big serve the way Zverev has (that is, when he’s not yipping)? Enhance it from a young age with doubles? Add a slice backhand the way Wilander did?
Rublev defeats Tsitsipas in the Hamburg final:
Or, find the antidote to today’s game and immediately begin to build what could be the game of tomorrow? For if in some ways the one-handed playing style of someone like Tsitsipas points back to such free-flowing talents as Rod Laver and Ilie Nastase, the dynamic aspect of Tsitsipas’ game also suggests future answers to current questions asked by the likes of Djokovic and his many stylistic siblings. Again, is it better to study from the game in front of you, or ponder one all your own—even if you know it differs from convention? Per another example from the world of business and technology, Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs pinned his hopes on this tagline: “Think different.”
Quite pleasing is that in two days we’ll see many of these questions play out when Tsitsipas takes on Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. In many ways, Rublev is an upgraded version of Ferrer, a pit bull-like competitor with ferocious groundstrokes. Just prior to Roland Garros—actually, during Roland Garros, as they played on a Sunday—Rublev beat Tsitsipas in the Hamburg final in one of the best matches of 2020. Tsitsipas served for the title at 5-4 in the third, only to see Rublev take the next three and win his third title of the year. Pondering the matchup, Tsitsipas noted how the two have a history that goes back to the juniors, adding that Rublev is “a tough cookie.”
The contrast between Tsitsipas and Rublev at this early stage of each player’s career summons up other past rivalries between the aspirational one-hander and the rock-solid two-hander. In his formative years, Roger Federer worked hard to overcome such gritty peers as Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian. Further back, long before Pete Sampras’ rivalry with Andre Agassi went supernova, Sampras dug deep versus Courier and Michael Chang.
That said, as time goes on, Tsitsipas will likely want to shed the shotmaker concept and drift closer to the enduring excellence of a Laver than the mercurial Nastase. Shotmakers? Let them play for your pleasure. Champions? Those are the ones you want playing for your life.