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.
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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