Perhaps I should have titled this post ‘Maybe I’m Just Getting Old’. When I first started to get interested in tennis (both playing and watching), pro tennis was more of a genteel game with a lot of touch, feel, strategy, thoughtfulness and natural shot making. This was back in the early to mid 1980s – Evert, Navratilova, Becker, McInroe, Wilander, Edberg. Even after Steffi Graf (admittedly my favourite female player of all time) came on the scene with her blistering forehand, there was still an element of that old school touch, feel and strategy.
Something changed however at the turn of the decade. Monica Seles’ ‘go for broke on both wings until you tear the cover off the tennis ball’ style of play was kind of a foreshadowing of things to come at the end of the decade. She was in an element all her own, for no one else played like that – until the end of 1990s with the arrival of Lindsay Davenport, Serena and Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce – all big hitters, or as Mary Carillo called it ‘big babe tennis’. It was exciting for sure, but part of me grew tired of it and I guess I’m just a little bored by it now. 15 years of slugging and hammering the hell out of the ball is not what I call thoughtful tennis.
I thought that by 2013 the crushing style of play that is the norm in tennis today would have worn out its welcome. Alas, it is far from over. Even Roger Federer (who started out as an old throwback, but who could rip the ball with the best of them) is not immune to the effects of slash and burn tennis. At the very top of the men’s game, it seems that he has been forced into playing this type of tennis that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray do so well. In the end, in playing this type of slash and burn tennis, he has not seemed like the Federer that he once was when he imposed his game on his opponents. It may be because of his age, but last year at Wimbledon, even Federer (for the first time I can recall in his career) called for the trainer to work his aching back.
Is it any wonder that players are constantly calling for the trainer in the middle of matches? When I first started watching tennis, this never happened. Retiring from matches, withdrawing from tournaments, constantly injuring themselves and then taking months off of the tour – this isn’t what I remember even as far back as the 1990s. Is it any wonder Nadal’s knees are shot? How can a player like him or Djokovic even consider a lengthy career when their bodies, most importantly their arms and legs, are contorted into impossibly, unnatural positions just to pound the hell out of the ball to win a point? The human body wasn’t meant to move that way and they will (and are) pay a price for that.
On the women’s side, slash and burn tennis is just as ferocious. It’s possible that the decibel level of the shrieking has something to do with it. Again, you can thank Seles for that. Her grunting was legendary. It seems that as the grunting/shrieking gets louder, the hitting gets bigger – there’s a direct correlation between the two. Beginning in the late 1990s, as sledgehammer tennis took over the game, the vocal prowess increased – and it hasn’t stopped – it’s gotten worse. It’s no wonder there have been hindrance calls in women’s tennis during matches – the shrieking of one player goes on for so long that it ends as the other player is hitting the ball back – with another extended shriek. It’s a shriekfest out there. You have to wonder how much success Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka would have if they played with their mouths shut. Their semifinal at the 2013 French Open was… I had to turn the sound down.
I don’t know when sledgehammer tennis is going to come to an end. I hope it’s soon. The players will probably be the ones who will end it because the toll it takes on their bodies will force them to end their careers. I said back in 2009 when Nadal first had knee issues that he’d be gone from the game in 5 years. I stand by that. I don’t see him playing beyond 2014. The sledgehammer tennis that he and others play will ultimately be their downfall. The generation that came before me was probably annoyed with the style of play in the 1980s and 1990s. Now entering the second decade of sledgehammer tennis, there has got to be a new wave or style on the horizon to replace it. I’m patiently waiting.
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