How Andy Murray Tempered my Interests in the GOAT Debate
I saw something at the 2009 ATP Masters 1000 Miami (formerly known as a Masters Series/Super 9/Lipton Tea/Pi=3.16 event) that adjusted my attitude on the GOAT debate. Twice during the first set of the championship match Novak Djokovic crushed a ground stroke with great power and placement. Each time Andy Murray was well behind the baseline and pulled beyond the sideline when he made contact. Murray getting his racket on the ball was a testament to his foot speed as this could have been a clean winner. Djokovic did what every tennis player who strikes such a shot is told to do from a young age – he moved forward. Nole was passed at net by a clean winner from Murray on each occasion.
What about Rafa?
I have seen Rafael Nadal hit these type of winners over the past few years, but a single player hitting winners from spots where all conventional wisdom dictates the point should be lost does not make a trend. Nadal being naturally right handed allows for his two handed backhand to get some odd action even from seemingly losing positions on the court. As far as I know, Murray’s left hand is not his dominant hand when he is not playing tennis.
Something Old, Something New
It was not easy for Murray to hit these two winners. However, Murray hit a winner and made it look like something he could do 30% of the time off of a shot that would have in most eras of tennis elicited at best a weak defensive lob. Michael Chang on a full run might have hit a winner 5% of the time from the spots Murray was striking these two winners. Chang may have been able to throw a good defensive lob into the air and extend the point, but the shot Murray hit was a shoe string shot in which he had enough speed and strength to hit a winner past an excellent player doing the right thing in terms of maximizing a court positioning advantage.
I asked Jon Wertheim about what I saw and he was kind enough to answer. His response was more or less “thank/blame the Luxilon.” Wanting confirmation, I asked a former top 50 junior and current Atlantic 10 NCAA tennis player. He said it was unreal how much more spin he generated when using Luxilon. I am not saying both Murray and Djokovic would not have preferred to be in Djokovic’s position during those two points, but if the probability of an elite player hitting a winner from Murray’s court position was 5% in 1996 and it is 30% in 2009, the math of how to win enough points to win a match has changed. The math changed because Djokovic’s shot, while excellent, was a shot players could hit in previous eras whereas Murray’s response was something utterly new.
The sport has changed enough in a short period of time to ask if tennis fans can accurately compare eras right next to one another. Luxilon helped extend Andre Agassi’s career, but what would Agassi’s game resemble if he had been using those strings during his formative years? What if Jim Courier or Thomas Muster had been able to generate a lot more power without sacrificing spin? No one can answer these questions.
Five Other Key Paradigm Shifts Leading Up to the Present
(In Chronological Order)
1. 1989 Becker Serves Big and Hits Heavy Ground Strokes – Boris Becker won the U.S. Open by overwhelming Ivan Lendl with his huge serve, imposing presence at the net and heavy ground strokes. Becker seemed to be playing at the time a type of tennis for which no one had an answer.
2. 1990 Pete Sampras Adds Greater Mobility – Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open playing tennis that looked a lot like Becker’s one year earlier except Sampras was only 19 and was faster than Becker. Sampras was 14 when Becker won Wimbledon in 1985, and it undoubtedly impacted his development as a player.
3. 1991 Courier and Agassi Take it on the Rise - Jim Courier defeated Andre Agassi in Five sets to win the 1991 French Open. Courier and Agassi had been making inroads, but this was the year that each combined enough patience with the Bollettieri power baseline game to cast aside European and South American clay court specialists. The results: everyone taking the ball on the rise, a lot of baseball caps on court, and European baseliners starting to play a bigger game.
4.1998 Shorter Players Have Big Serves Too – Marcello Rios had a great start to 1998. He returned well, took the ball on the rise, and showed deft angles and changed the direction of the ball with ease during rallies. Rios also was clocking serves above 115 mph with regularity. Michael Chang had spent most of ten years working on adding pop to his serve. Rios seemed to simply have the bigger serve Chang desired due to growing up in an era where more and more players served with greater pace.
5.1998 Spain Reigns on Clay– Carlos Moya won the French Open beating Felix Mantilla and Alex Corretja back-to-back. Spanish players learned their lessons from Agassi and Courier. I know that Sergi Bruguera had already won 2 French Open titles, but he did not hit with the power that Moya and Corretja did. Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Rafael Nadal also integrated the classical clay court stamina game with a power baseline approach.
These five events bring us to the cusp of the use of Luxilon. New string technology has undermined he tactics brought on by some of the paradigm shifts I lisetd. Taking the ball on the rise still has a place in tennis, but if power can be generated deeper in the court with an added margin for error, the days of climbing all over the baseline might be over. Also, players can more easily hit outright winners from the baseline. Therefore, the put away volley is not used as often.
Think about how Jimmy Connors played. He did hit clean winners off of the return of serve if his opponent was coming to net. He hit winners on passing shots and lobs. He did hit baseline winners by running his opponent side to side and then either hitting behind his fatigued opponent or simply hitting cross court too sharply for a worn out player to chase.
Connors also won a lot of points by following a great ground stroke into the net and volleying off a sitter. Jimbo did not have great hands at net, but he ended a lot of points at the net. Like Connors, Djokovic did the age old ploy of following a big ground stroke to net versus Murray except the sitter never arrived. Instead, Murray whipped a seemingly impossible angle passed Nole’s feet. Those two points are why I am not thrilled to discuss tennis’ GOAT unless a player grows a great goatee.
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