Thoughts on Tennis as the Olympic Games End and the US Open Begins
by Dan Martin | August 25th, 2008
  • 17 Comments

Tennis to my mind is a most excellent sport. I thought this before the 2008 Summer Olympics, but certain observations during the games only reinforced my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun watching a variety of sports and enjoyed seeing the excellence Olympic athletes pursue. I especially liked seeing Usain Bolt’s electrifying sprinting. The Gold Medal match in Table Tennis was also interesting.


Tennis Has No Rigid Approach to Technique

As much as I loved watching many different sports, I am excited about the start of the U.S. Open. A key advantage tennis holds over many sports is that it invites multiple techniques from its players. A sport such as the High Jump mainly tests how well a competitor can condition his or her body to perform the “Fosbury Flop.” Genetics also plays a big role in technique specific sports such as the high jump. Many sports have one set technique, and therefore an ideal body type for that sport emerges. A young woman who is 6’2” is unlikely to do well in gymnastics, but if she is 4’10” she is not going to be on an Olympic volleyball team.

Elite tennis players have used a variety of stroke mechanics and tactics to succeed. Therefore, different physiques have been seen frequenting the winner’s circle in tennis. Boris Becker, Gustavo Kuerten, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi did not have similar body types, but each won a lot of big matches. Even if I avoid the extreme examples among current players one can’t deny that David Ferrer is listed at 5’9” 160 lbs. and is the 4th seed at the U.S. Open or that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is listed at 6’2” 200 lbs. and reached the finals of the 2008 Australian Open. Both men are successful, but Tsonga plays an attacking style and hits a one handed backhand. Ferrer is a counter puncher who hits a two handed backhand. If Ferrer had to adopt Tsonga’s techniques and tactics he would certainly be more than a proficient tennis player, but he would almost certainly not be ranked in the top 100.

Honest Self-Expression

Body type is not the only factor contributing to a player’s chosen techniques and tactics. The world’s top 3 players, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are all within 1 inch and 12 lbs. of each other. Yet, each has recognizably different mechanics and tactics. In the past 4 Grand Slam events those 3 men have combined to reach 10 semifinals and win all 4 titles. Their different techniques and tactics seem to work at least reasonably well on all surfaces. If Djokovic had grown up hitting a one handed backhand, he likely could have been an elite player, but such tennis might not match his personality terribly well.

Bruce Lee once described the goal of martial arts to be “honestly expressing yourself.” Tennis is a sport that allows for honest self-expression. Pete Sampras has said on more than one occasion that when he was hitting a two handed backhand he was hot tempered on the court. His demeanor is pretty low key so one can imagine more free flowing shot production appealing to Sampras’ instincts. Jim Courier is a guy who learned French on his own, who learned to play the drums, who learned to play guitar, and who has produced a pretty good documentary. Jim Courier is a person who sets goals and works doggedly to achieve them. His grinding style of tennis and commitment to physical fitness were an outgrowth of his workhorse personality. Sampras and Courier both achieved great success in part through honest self-expression on the tennis court.

Balance Between Offense and Defense

Setting aside sports in which one competitor cannot directly impact the results of his or her opposition, tennis and basketball seem to have the best balance of offense and defense among the various sports. For instance, beach volleyball is almost entirely biased in favor of offense. A competent volleyball offense can be run with 2 players, but defending the court with 2 people is not easy. Beach volleyball produces few long rallies, and if the returning team plays its cards right it should always side out.* Indoor volleyball allows 6 people to defend a 30’x30’ space from the opposing team. This does allow for longer rallies than beach volleyball, but having that many people defend such a small space seems out of balance to me. Rafael Nadal does a good job of playing offensive or defensive tennis when staking claim to his 39’x27’ side of the net.

Stefan Edberg is a player who desired to attack the net as often as possible, but how many unforced errors did he make when he had to bide his time to get to the net? Steffi Graf in her best years had a feared forehand and big serve, but also had the sprinting speed to run down shots and only go for winners when the opportunity presented itself. Lleyton Hewitt’s time at number 1 was marked by great defensive tennis, but he hit winners when a short ball or poor approach shot were offered to him.

Indeterminacy and One on One Competition

Tennis matches require the winning player to win the final point of the match while some other sports allow the clock to be milked in order to protect a large lead. If one adds the fact that tennis does not allow for coaching or substitutions, tennis must be thought of as a true one on one sport. It also allows for different techniques, styles and physiques while promoting at least a rough balance between offensive and defensive skills. Tennis combines a lot of positive factors that allow for masterpieces to occur on court. Few matches rise to that level, but the frontier of possibilities for a tennis match is greater than in many other sports. The 2007 Wimbledon final was impressive and the 2008 Wimbledon final was more than riveting, but a classic tennis match does not always require #1 vs. #2. Tommy Haas vs. James Blake, Mardy Fish vs. Tommy Robredo and Novak Djokovic vs. Radek Stepanek were all gems produced at the 2007 U.S. Open. Every U.S. Open seems to offer several matches of high quality and drama. This year ought to be no different.

* – Also, how can anyone take a sport seriously when the commentators use the term “sizzled the pits” while keeping a straight face?


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17 Comments for Thoughts on Tennis as the Olympic Games End and the US Open Begins

rc Says:

nice blog

rc

trading tennis blog


Dan Martin Says:

RC thanks I was worried no one would comment. I know it is not U.S. Open draw specific, but people can comment on matches in progress here as well….


jane Says:

Dan,

I haven’t had a chance to read your post carefully until now. I like the way you play up the variety tennis allows for, in physique, technique, talent, work ethic etc.

I also agree with this statement 100%, and it’s part of the reason I enjoy the early rounds of the slams so much, the surprise match ups, wins and losses, or seemingly endless battles.

“a classic tennis match does not always require #1 vs. #2. Tommy Haas vs. James Blake, Mardy Fish vs. Tommy Robredo and Novak Djokovic vs. Radek Stepanek were all gems produced at the 2007 U.S. Open. Every U.S. Open seems to offer several matches of high quality and drama. This year ought to be no different.”

That Djokovic vs. Stepanek match last year was a dog fight until the end, very, very exciting to watch, as was Haas vs. Blake.

I think Novak learned to shorten up matches and points after that match in particular.


Dan Martin Says:

Jane you are too kind.


jane Says:

Dan,

No I am not; I wish I could comment more in depth about the technical aspects of the game you know so well. But I play virtually not at all, only for fun once in a while.

By pointing out the similarity in the weight and height of the top three are you suggesting that maybe there is a physique more suited to success in tennis? It’d be interesting to trace the top three physiques over the years and see if there is a pattern.


Dan Martin Says:

Jane,

The past three dominant/long lasting number 1 players, Lendl (6’2″ 175 lbs. listed) , Sampras (6’1″ 170 lbs. listed) and Federer (6’1″ 177 lbs. listed), seem to fit the ideal physique in that they can hit with power, but do not have a large body like Boris Becker that might strain the knees with lots of impact. They can also cover the court without facing the bullying that Chang, Hewitt and other shorter players sometimes faced. Having said that Agassi was 5’11″ but through weight training became a thick guy with great longevity. Hewitt finished 2 years at #1. The 6’3″ burly Becker won Grand Slams almost 11 years apart. I think Sampras-Federer-Lendl’s build might allow for more sustained play, but other body types can win big too.

Jane the general civility and spirit of this website really pumps me up. I am happy when writing my columns and am always thinking about what to cover or throw out there next because the readers’ comments are so darn good. This is just a great site because of your responses and posts.


jane Says:

Dan, you’re too kind – lol.


jane Says:

I guess Djoko would fit into that ideal body type too, though he’s a bit lanky maybe and has those breathing issues. Rafa is a little more burly, like Becker, but obviously that works to his advantage at the moment.

It does seem like the slightly bigger players, like Safin and Tsonga or even Rafter, off the top of my head, are perhaps more prone to injuries. Again, it’d be interesting to track that sort of thing.


Alex Says:

“If Djokovic had grown up hitting a one handed backhand, he likely could have been an elite player”

I don’t quite get the above statement, Dan or anyone care to enlighten?


Dan Martin Says:

Alex, My point was that there is not only one way to play tennis. Djokovic is talented enough had he grown up with different techniques he would still likely be a great player. My thought is that Djokovic consciously selected some of his techniques and tactics. Novak said he liked the idea that he could serve like Sampras and return like Agassi. Therefore, I think Novak’s powerful serve and sharp ground strokes reflect a lot of what his vision of great tennis is. He could be great had he come up through the ranks hitting a one handed backhand, but it would not have been a type of tennis that reflected his outlook on how to play tennis.


Alex Says:

ok, thanks for explaining. :)


freakyfrites Says:

I love this post! I too, was kind of mulling this over during the Olympics – especially with the scoring controversies in boxing (a one-on-one) and gymnastics (a technique driven sport where you can’t directly affect your opponents’ results) and of course, all that beach volleyball NBC put on during prime time. Basketball is one of my favorite team sports, and you made me realize why – that beautiful balance of offense and defense.

Great piece on a great (the best!) sport.


Charles Says:

I can’t believe no one caught this…”Both men are successful, but Tsonga plays an attacking style and hits a one handed backhand.” Has Dan Martin ever watched Tsonga play? He hits a two handed backhand in a similar style to Safin.


Simon Says:

Tsonga, a one handed backhand??? I dont think so


Dan Martin Says:

Sorry on the first draft I used Ferrer and Gonzalez, but decided I wanted a bigger size difference and switched Gonzo out for Tsonga but forgot to edit the backhand information.

Freaky thanks for the love. Charles and Simon I should have caught that.


Mike de Paris Says:

Greatest sport ever = race-walking. Debate over.


JCF Says:

Anyone think that only women should be allowed to play Beach Volleyball?

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