Welcome to Underrated Week! From May 4 through 8, TENNIS.com is focusing on the most overlooked aspects of the sport, from stats to achievements to tactics, and beyond. We're also featuring 10 players because of something they do extremely well, but which isn't their signature quality. It's a series we're calling the Underrated Traits of the Greats.
In the absence of tour-level tennis, my first question to you: Where would we be without YouTube? These last few weeks, I’ve been part of an informal tennis film-studies course that would please an NFL coach.
A good friend has recently been sending me vintage World Team Tennis matches from the 1970s, featuring Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King and Rod Laver. Another mate just told me he spent the last two nights watching the infamous 2001 Wimbledon match between Roger Federer and Pete Sampras (their only official meeting), followed by Sampras beating Andre Agassi in what proved Pete’s farewell, the 2002 US Open final. I’ve also watched various segments starring Jimmy Connors, Monica Seles, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Justine Henin, Serena Williams and many other tennis legends.
The natural approach is to note everyone's strengths—Serena’s deceptive and powerful serve, Agassi’s lashing groundstrokes, King’s nimble volleys, etc.
But there’s another, less apparent dimension, to what made many of these greats so successful. Arthur Ashe and John Newcombe were two of the best servers of the 1960s and ’70s. On the fast courts of those days, with aces, service winners and brisk serve-volley points flying by, their matches appeared to resemble quick-fire shootouts, apparently decided by one sharp return, missed volley or big serve.
Newcombe won 12 of their 18 matches. As Ashe explained quite profoundly, the telling difference was Newcombe’s tactical acuity. In his book, Portrait in Motion, Ashe took note of the occasional shifts Newcombe would make when returning serve.
“In ways like this,” wrote Ashe, “Newcombe distracts you and makes you think ahead, wondering what he is going to come up with next. It’s a great psychological trick, for you may do more damage to yourself worrying when he is going to run around his backhand than when in fact he does it. Matches with Newcombe may never look subtle, but there is much more there than is apparent.”
If you consider Ashe’s assessment of Newcombe’s match management skills a prologue, our story this week will take a closer look at many of the underrated traits of a wide range of great tennis players. It was fun working with our editors to build a slate of players, assets and stories.
So I’ll pass the baton now to you, Steve, for your thoughts on a contemporary champion who’ll kick off Underrated Week.
If we want to talk about underrated, we can start with YouTube itself, which has changed the world more than anyone under, say, 30, may realize—or at least it has changed my world. Was there really a time when I couldn’t just type in the name of an album and immediately be able to listen to it for free? In the past, when I wanted to hear a song, did I actually have to own it, or hope that a radio station happened to play it while I was flipping past it on the dial? How mind-bogglingly limited my world was.
The same goes for tennis. In the past, if you wanted to know why the 1926 Suzanne Lenglen-Helen Wills “Match of the Century” was so mythic, you had to read James Thurber’s dispatch from Cannes. Now you can watch the real thing, as it happened, on YouTube. The 1969 Pancho Gonzalez-Charlie Pasarell epic at Wimbledon that the writers of my youth waxed so poetically about? YouTube has 40 minutes of it.
In general, if there’s one thing that amazes me about tennis in the old days, it’s the pace of play. What was the average time between points in the 1960s and ’70s? Five seconds? Three seconds? On the one hand, compared to the pre-serve rituals we see today, it’s refreshingly no-nonsense. On the other hand, it’s also jarringly casual. You want a little bit of build-up and suspense, don’t you?
Speaking of moving quickly from one point to the next, Simona Halep might have been right at home in the turbo-charged game of 50 years ago. Especially when she’s losing; that’s when the Romanian really starts rushing between points. I mention Halep because she also seems to fit our underrated theme as well as any other player today. Maybe it’s because of her height, or relative lack of it. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t have an intimidating personality or a powerful, aggressive playing style. Maybe it’s because her second serve can be a bloop. For whatever reason, Halep’s game still seems underrated, despite the fact that it has won her two Grand Slam titles, taken her to No. 1, and kept her in the Top 10 for the better part of a decade.
Of course, just to be called underrated, or to have any part of your game called underrated, is a compliment. There aren’t that many players who are good enough to be rated in the first place. Can you imagine someone saying that one aspect of your game was underrated, Joel? I would feel honored that anyone had taken the time to notice.
But is there a part of Halep’s game you think is particularly underappreciated? For me, it’s her ability not just to run shots down, but to do creative things with her responses, and put the ball in surprising places. That was never on greater display than when she beat Serena Williams in—talk about fast—55 minutes in last year’s Wimbledon final.
Wimbledon Rewind: Halep stops Serena in straight sets for 2019 Wimbledon title
Simona Halep has rewritten the tennis dictionary. For to watch Halep closely is to see how such terms as “retriever,” “counterpuncher” and “defense to offense” have taken on a very different meaning.
As a start, it’s easy to think that Halep’s size—5’6”—would naturally make her less likely to be aggressive or powerful. But why? Repeatedly throughout tennis history, we have seen how height meant little in determining the technical proficiency of such greats as Maureen Connolly, Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Jennifer Capriati. Though none of these four Hall of Famers stood more than 5’7” tall, each during her prime years ranked among the hardest hitters in the game. And while Halep is competing in era when players are taller and arguably stronger (whatever that means), it remains the case that tennis is less a game of height and strength and more one of movement and timing.
Halep plays today’s tennis. Tactical guru Craig O’Shannessy’s extensive research has shown that the vast majority of points played at the pro level these days last a mere zero to four shots. What this tells me is that the so-called “neutral” ball—typically aimed high, deep and close to the middle of the court—accomplishes very little. In other words, rallies in contemporary professional tennis often boil down to this: I better hurt you before you hurt me. Halep knows this too.
To be sure, Halep covers lots of court. This is different than, for example, Karolina Pliskova, who comes from what I’ll call the “Stand and Deliver School”—a prosecutor of sorts, trotting out evidence in the form of hard, flat groundstrokes, aimed deep to the corners.
But let us not confuse a capacity for court coverage with defense. Halep isn’t merely countering or retrieving. On the move, she initiates, frequently striking the ball very forcefully. This is hardly getting back to neutral, a la Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, or even the more recent Caroline Wozniacki.
Another term Halep’s groundstrokes redefine: bold. That often comes off as a word used to describe a player hitting out of her comfort zone—the kind of aggression we hoped to see from Wozniacki but rarely did.
Halep doesn’t need to red-line with her forehand and backhand. She is skilled, merely hitting the ball in the comfortable way she has been taught—flat, aimed deep, her ball speed likely also aided by the dead, Luxilon strings she uses that reward taking a big cut at the ball.
As I write this, I also see that Halep is yet another example of how pros play a very different kind of tennis than we recreational players. In our world, it’s quite viable to frequently reset the direction of the point with soft, high, deep groundstrokes. As befits a pro, Halep is a descendant of the man who hastened the end of groundstroke neutrality, Agassi. But again, repeated baseline force is only possible if you have world class technique and the ability to consistently hit the ball as proficiently as an Agassi or Halep.
You mentioned Halep’s weak second serve, Steve. Besides that, how else do you think she might dimensionalize her game in the years to come? Or, now that’s won two Grand Slam singles titles, will she?
Roland Garros Rewind: Halep gets the major championship monkey off her back
“Halep plays today’s tennis.” I think that’s right, and a good way of describing her.
Most of us have defined “today’s tennis” by how the men play it, in particular Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray—Federer’s style, even after all of the adaptations he’s made to it, is still a throwback to the 1990s. More than anyone before them, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray have erased the line between offense and defense, attack and retrieving. The combination of their skill, athleticism, equipment and technique—Western forehands, two-handed backhands—has allowed them to do both at once.
But Halep, with much less fanfare, does something similar. She’s smaller than the guys are, which means she’s more defensive, but just like them she loves running, and she wins with her legs. Like Djokovic, Halep is also exceptionally good at changing directions with the ball. Her game has an appealing balance of speed and ball-striking.
For me, that’s a big part of what makes Halep fun to watch. The other parts are her personality and her attitude toward competing. Yes, she can be too much of a perfectionist. She doesn’t always react to adversity in the cool, calm way one might hope. She can spend too much time raging at her coaches. She can rush so quickly between points that it looks as if she just wants to get off the court. But the important thing is that Halep always cares, and always gives the audience a competitive effort for their money.
I like watching Halep try to rein in her emotions and channel them into something positive. Sometimes she succeeds, sometimes she doesn’t, which makes the journey unpredictable and interesting. It also produces a lot of really good matches. When I put together a list of the 10 best matches of the last decade, Halep figured in more than her share—against Sloane Stephens, against Angelique Kerber, against Serena, against Vika, against Lauren Davis, and in half a dozen other classics I’m sure I’m forgetting. (Editor's Note: against Jelena Ostapenko, at the 2017 French Open, and against Maria Sharapova, at the 2014 French Open.)
Then there’s Halep’s personality. Some WTA fans wish she were more progressive and politically engaged, and that’s fair. But I like her honesty, her sense of humor, and her resilience—none of those traits, no matter how badly things go on court, ever seem to desert her.
Halep was interviewed during the lockdown in Bucharest (where she has donated medical equipment), and she talked about how nervous she is, how seriously she’s taking the quarantine, and how she doesn’t want to read anything about what’s happening because it scares her. All of those responses, at least to me, were highly relatable. They also made me admire the fact that she has overcome her natural anxieties to become a champion in such an anxiety-riddled sport.
I’d say Halep is underrated not just as a player, but also as a person.
More from Underrated Week
UNDERRATED TRAITS OF THE GREATS: Roger Federer—Winning ugly | Simona Halep—Boldness | Rafael Nadal—When to come to net | Sofia Kenin—Variety | Pete Sampras—Movement | Serena Williams—Plan B | Novak Djokovic—Forehand versatility | Chris Evert—Athleticism | Daniil Medvedev—Reading the room | Naomi Osaka—Return of serve