It would have been a stretch, back in Tokyo fifty years ago, to envisage the scene we witnessed on Sunday in London’s Docklands. At The O2 Arena, the ATP’s most elite tournament produced a new champion in the shape of a 6’ 6” Russian called Daniil Medvedev, who beat an equally powerful athlete, Dominic Thiem, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4.
Each shot echoed like gunfire around the empty arena, emphasizing the explosive power with which today’s game is played—a game that struggles for comparison with the style of tennis I witnessed in an equally cavernous, albeit it populated, indoor stadium in 1970.
If anyone is in a position to make a comparison it is Rod Laver, the little left-handed Australian who is on most people’s list as the one of the greatest players of all time. Statistically, he has to be. Only the man they call Rocket has achieved the Grand Slam—winning all four majors in a calendar year—twice. The only other person to do so? The lanky Californian Don Budge in 1938.
The 1970 ATP Finals (or Masters as it was known) was comprised, for the first year only, of just the six top ranked finishers for the year playing a purely round-robin format. Mathematically, it came down to Stan Smith playing Laver for the title, and Smith won.
“I don’t remember too much about the match except for the fact that we were playing a different game,” Laver, a fit 82-year-old now, told me on the phone from La Jolla, Calif. before setting out for a round of golf. “I think I had switched from my wood Dunlop Maxply to a metal framed racquet by 1970 but even so there was no way in the world we could have come up with the kind power-driven rallies, hitting ball after ball a yard from the baseline with such speed, like these guys do.”
Laver had watched what many observers feel might be a changing of the guard at the Nitto ATP Finals with Medvedev beating Rafael Nadal and Thiem ousting Novak Djokovic in tight semifinal duels and, not for the first time in the last couple of years, he was astounded.
“It’s the big headed racquets that have made the most difference,” he said while admitting that the abrasive synthetic strings, which help generate almost as much topspin as the revolutionary and quickly banned Spaghetti stringing of the 1970s, also play a big part in the modern power game.
“The big racquet heads enable the strings to absorb the power of the shots and put more spin on the ball,” said Laver who once told me that he was almost never allowed an opponent to hit a winner if he was on the baseline.
“Not that I hung around there that much!” Laver chuckled. “My game was to get to the net at the first opportunity but it is true that, when we used a wood frame, not many players were going to hit it passed you if you stood on the baseline.”
Laver was as quick as light, of course, and could run down anything. But even so, the fact that baseline to baseline winners simply did not feature in the tennis of his day offers the starkest contrast in style between the two generations. With little height to work with (about 5’ 9”) and a moderate serve, the red-headed Queenslander relied on placement and spin to give him the chance to dart into the net. Once there, the clinical volley, struck with a PopEye left arm, did the rest. And he was able to fashion his passing shots with such venom because he was the first left-hander to attack the ball on the rise with topspin, leaving opponents with dipping balls and nasty angles to deal with.
Laver feels it was the virtual abandonment of Nadal’s trademark shot—the whirring topspun ground stroke —in favor of too much slice that proved fatal for the Spaniard in his defeat to Medvedev. ”The slice can be effective under certain circumstances but it is not going to set anything up for you,” Laver insisted. “Medvedev uses his power well and knows when to play safe.”
That much was evident in an enthralling final that was far from a back-court slog. Both Medvedev and Thiem know how to mix it up but it was the Russian who proved himself more willing, and able, to vary his ground strokes, mixing slice and top with consistent changes of pace. One rally of 24 strokes midway through the second set which ended up creating a break point for Medvedev offered an example of just about every manner in which one can hit a tennis ball, cutting, slicing, and topspinning shots with incredible accuracy.
As the 24-year-old’s game continues to evolve, it will be fascinating to see to what extent Medvedev can build on this triumph, remembering that, just twelve months ago, it was the Greek, Stefanos Tsitsipas, only 21 at the time, who had got the better of Thiem in the same situation.
And the younger generation has even more to offer. Another Russian, Andrey Rublev, has also caught Laver’s eye which was hardly surprising as the 23-year-old won a stream of titles after the tour's restart in Hamburg, St. Petersburg and Vienna to bring his season haul to five. “He just seemed to keep on winning,” observed Laver. “He has a big forehand and good serve and an obvious feel for the game.”
Laver’s eye for talent and enthusiasm for the game remains undiminished across a celebrated life time of achievement. That should serve as an inspiration for today’s generation, so different in so many aspects, as they carve out their own careers.