Tennis Needs to Speed Up Its Courts
“Consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative.” Oscar Wilde
Just because it sounds like a complaint doesn't mean it's not accurate.
This thought came to mind recently when Roger Federer, following his loss to Novak Djokovic in the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London earlier in November, bemoaned the increasing homogeneity of court surfaces, whereby the sport is producing a more one-dimensional style of play - that of the powerful, defensive-but-aggressive baseliner who is an accomplished practioner in the war of attrition during rallies; a style of play that admittedly has provided the game with extraordinary thrills these last several years.
More specifically, Federer was discussing how even grass and indoor carpet, traditionally the two fastest surfaces in the sport, no longer seem to give an advantage to the player who seeks to end a point in the forecourt. While Federer was clearly frustrated by losing to Djokovic - and taking losses gracefully has never been a strong suit for the otherwise gracious Federer - his comments on the state of the sport were absolutely correct.
"Just make quicker courts, then it's hard to defend. Then attacking style is more important," said Federer. "It's only on this type of slow courts that you can defend the way we are all doing right now. I think it's exciting, but no doubt about it, it's tough. What you don't want is that you hit 15 great shots and at the end, it ends up in an error. I've played on all different speeds. But I think some variety would be nice, some really slow stuff and then some really fast stuff, instead of trying to make everything sort of the same.
"You sort of protect the top guys, really, by doing that because you have the best possible chance to have them in the semis at this point. But should that be the goal? I'm not sure."
Not surprisingly, just a couple of weeks after Federer's slow-court woes, the Spanish Davis Cup team, which clearly resides on the other end of the court spectrum, were miffed by the slick-as-ice courts that were in play during the Davis Cup final in the Czech Republic.
For Federer and those of his ilk, the last few years have played out as a requiem for the type of serve-and-volley, quick-strike tennis that has been on the endangered species list for some time now in the sport.
What's ironic about Federer's lament is that he himself has adopted an increasingly defensive posture through the years. While he's never been confused for John McEnroe or Stefan Edberg as epitomizing the forecourt game, Federer did have - I'd say - a 50/50 baseline vs. volley tennis makeup when he started winning Slams in 2003. But now he often appears just as reluctant a volleyer as the rest of the field - in fact, his great rival Rafael Nadal, the ultimate baseliner, has actually become as adept a volleyer as Federer in terms of winning points at the net during Wimbledon.
And even Nadal's adjustment from the red clay of Paris to Wimbledon grass seems like something from the distant past. Determined to not be viewed as a one-surface player, Nadal changed his game to adapt to Wimbledon. He positioned himself closer to the baseline and greatly improved his already underrated volleying skills. And it worked, as he made the finals of Wimbledon five consecutive times he played it (2006-2011) and winning the most coveted title in tennis twice.
Contrast this with Djokovic, whose defending skills are otherworldly as not even Nadal is as adept at prolonging a point. Djokovic's forecourt game has never been a strong suit. But he didn't really need to adjust and vary his game when he won his Wimbledon title in 2011. He basically just stuck with what has worked during his ascent to the top of the sport; relentless defense and the finest return of serve in the game. For Djokovic it was simple - why try to improve at the net if it's not necessary?
Federer, when at his supreme best, is a true all-court player. Not a serve-and-volley tactician or a baseline grinder, but a player who is skilled at every tennis shot and is most himself when he's able to execute his entire repertoire of shots during a match.
And there's no question that tennis - or any sport for that matter - functions beset when the full art of the game is displayed. And Federer is correct in that the game loses something, diminishes itself to a degree, if it renders obsolete once-foundational shots.
It's not some arcane or nostalgic longing to demand some more volleying in the sport; this isn't like football fans aching to see the return of the single wing offense. There aren't many shots in tennis and losing the volley is robbing the sport part of its essence.
What can be done to bring back the volley or at least reward the quick-strike, reflex-oriented players? With the oft talked about racquet technology having such a direct and far-reaching impact on the sport it'll be tough to go back and reverse course.
The only solution is likely in altering the court surfaces, in addition to scheduling more events on faster surfaces. There's a glimmer of hope in this regard when Wimbledon decided to move back its event an addition week starting in 2014 to allow for a grass court Masters tournament to be contested beforehand. This is a start, however feeble, to shift the power of influence among the surfaces. Wimbledon can also make their grass a bit less true-bouncing, which has also made players feel comfortable lingering on the baseline at the Big W.
I'd also like to see the U.S. Open return to a slicker court. Hard courts have traditionally been something of an equalizer, an all-parties-are-welcome surface as the tournament has produced a wide range of styles in their champions.
What’s tough in all this is that the sport - the men's game, that is - is still in the midst of its latest Golden Age. The brilliant and epic matches and the rivalries that have developed amongst Federer, Nadal and Djokovic (and Andy Murray may be added to that list soon) have come to life during this era of homogenized courts. It's been thrilling to witness this unique era. Many may not want to see things change - after all, if we're getting riveting matches, why mess with it?
Why? Because it just isn’t right. And we should care about the sport for future generations. One shouldn’t mess with tennis’ ecosystem and forever alter the environment of the sport. I shudder at the thought that my son will grow up playing the sport and never know that you don’t have to wait for the ball to bounce before hitting it.