The Benefits of a Varied Tennis Game
by Dan Martin | June 27th, 2008, 3:33 pm

English Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead thought that beauty was determined by an entity or community’s ability to harmonize contrasting elements. Therefore, ugliness could come from either an excess of order that would lead to monotony or an excess of chaos that leads to confusion. I think Whitehead would have had a lot to say about Maria Sharapova has an odd habit of either dominating big tennis events such as her title runs at the 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian Open or her penchant for upset losses 2007 U.S. Open and 2008 Wimbledon. Sharapova seems to win or lose in a one-sided fashion. She might crush Justine Henin while Henin is riding a historic winning streak or she might be trounced by Serena Williams or Ana Ivanovic at the 2007 Australian and French Opens.
The reason for this is Sharapova can only play one way. When that way is working, when she has perfect conditions, feels healthy, is moving reasonably well and picking her spots with her serve she can humble a great player. When any of that is not working and she is forced to move during points and is not able to dictate right off of the serve or return, Sharapova looks very average. She has a monotonous game. Jim Courier called it “ball machine tennis” last summer.

If I am reading Courier correctly, he thinks Sharapova and other practitioners of “ball machine tennis” like the ball in certain spots and attempt to rip winners as though they were being fed balls. The problem is a good or even decent opponent can hit balls to a player that do not land in the predictable spot of a ball machine’s placement pattern. Therefore, Sharapova when serving and returning well can force her opponents to hit defensive shots to predictable spots on the court and the rest is easy. If the surface, clay especially, or her opponent are able to absorb the first strike and do something with the ball, Sharapova’s simple plan of attack gets exposed. Whitehead would say she suffers from an ugliness of monotony.

If we are looking for games on the WTA that harmonize contrasts, Henin and the Mauresmo of 2006 come to mind. Kim Clijsters at her best could play great defense and also crack the ball when given the opportunity. Steffi Graf before her knee injuries could run all day with Olympic levels of speed and slice the ball back until she got an opening. One of my favorite Graf moments came when she had lost a lot of her speed and was down 4-6, 4-5 Martina Hingis in the 1999 French Open final. Hingis came to net and Graf needed to hit a backhand passing shot despite almost exclusively hitting a one handed slice. Graf prepared well and hit a textbook top spin passing shot to win the point. All players have their tendencies, but when Graf was faced with a key point in which the match and championship were hanging in the balance she used variety and hit the right shot for the situation rather than hitting the comfortable shot. She played the shot for the situation despite pressure to rely on old habits. Situational recognition is something that ball machine tennis will never produce.

If I look at the ATP side of things, Roger Federer’s game obviously harmonizes a wide variety of shots even if a shot-maker such as James Blake occasionally lapses into chaos. Rafael Nadal should be commended for playing doubles over the past few years to help his short game and for developing a counter-intuitive ability to flatten out his strokes when the surface or situation might demand it. Great players normally win when everything is going well. Champions can win when things are not going well. Heart has a lot to do with this quality of a champion, but so too does variety. Players who are too patterned or too chaotic fail to be as viable in most situations as players that have developed true variety.

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17 Comments for The Benefits of a Varied Tennis Game

andrea Says:

i get all misty reading about graf….my all time favorite.

i find that at the grand slams, more often than not, one person on the men’s or women’s side just starts to play like they are on fire (usually after the third round) and they become either the winner or the other finalist.

baghdatis at the 06 AO
safin at the 05 AO
serena at the 06 AO
venus at wimby 07
sharapova at the 07 AO
gonzalez at the 07 AO
djokovic at the 08 AO

…and the list goes on. (for some reason i have lots of AO examples.)

i don’t see the real exemplary tennis from anyone on the women’s side yet at wimbledon.

on the men’s, i kind of have a feeling what the finals match up will be, but i still have a week to be surprised.

Oswald Says:

I love it when people use Philosophy to explain Tennis…

freakyfrites Says:

Thanks for taking a close look at the women’s game.

I wonder who will be the next woman to show some variety to match her power on court (with Justine and Martina out and Amelie fading.) Perhaps Alize Cornet, since she’s French?

Any ideas?

jane Says:

I miss Graf all the time…

Maybe Jankovic can string something together? She does have variety but tends to be too defensive. If she could add aggression to her game – maybe draw on her doubles experience (after all she was the mixed doubles wimby champ last year) – then we’d have something.

wyska Says:

Aaargh! Stop calling it ‘wimby’. You make it sound like a very poor quality fast food chain.

The variety thing is one of the reasons that Andy Murray has frustrated so many people – his game has variety in spades. Dropshot, slice, front and back hand, big serve, baseline, net. He can easily deal with players like Roddick and Karlovic because he can out manouvre them. But he is still learning how to turn that guile into being a killer. Tommy Haas tomorrow – we’ll see how far he has come along.

jane Says:

“Therefore, ugliness could come from…an excess of order that would lead to monotony ” – indeed.

jane Says:

wyska – got another acceptable shorthand? hear Wimbledon called that all the time, even by the Brits.

jane Says:

I hope Murray can get to the quarters at SW19 (okay?); I love the variety in his game and look forward to the day he handles it expertly. Funny – it’s almost the opposite problem that Maria has: no variety vs. too much. But, better to be the latter and just learn when/how to use it. I think Murray will.

Ra Says:

In relation to variety and that prior discussion of the “buggy whip” forehand, did anyone else note that cross-court topspin winner Federer hit with Gicqel serving at 15-0 and down 2-5? I love it when he pulls that shot out of his bag of tricks… Though he seemed to use it a fair amount in the first half of the clay season, it’s been a little absent since then as far as my recollection serves me. I’m glad to have seen it again, because if he does end up facing Nadal at the final stage, he’s gonna need it. Sometimes he seems to under-utilize his full arsenal in my opinion; Though not to the same extreme, it’s the polar opposite of what Jane has mentioned (and I agree with) about Murray.

jane Says:


Was it at MC that Fed was using that cross-court topspin forehand (sharp angle)? If so, I remember that. He didn’t use it a lot but it seemed effective when he did.

jane Says:

And I should thank you, Vulcan, for that apt description of Rafa’s “buggy whip” – it was instantly recognizable once you clarified.

Ra Says:


Yes, and at Estoril,too, if my memory serves… Yes, it was very effective, for sure, as it seems to be for anyone who pulls it off, actually. I mean, after all, if it’s a sharp angle like that, the ball-boys/girls are really the only ones ever in a position to make a play on it.

Ra Says:

So, I’m looking at the smaller side of the draw, and I’m thinking:

Federer overcomes Ancic in the quarters while Safin falls to Baghdatis. That’ll set up an inspired grass-court semifinal as far as I’m concerned.

In the other half:

There are too many hot contests ahead for me to even begin to hazard a guess in that bottom quarter, but on top I’m thinking Tipsarevic may very well be looking at his first GS semifinal if he can just ride the wave… Good for him, then, because it’d be nice to see him get his best results if he had to take Roddick out en route either way.

Dan Martin Says:

I tried to throw in some philosophy to change things up. I figure it can’t hurt.

Von Says:

Philosophy can explain and clarify our thoughts more effectively. It cuts right down to the core of what we’re endeavoring to get across in our thought processes.

Bob Lewis Says:

Maybe Jankovic can string something together? She does have variety but tends to be too defensive.

I think she will always struggle against bigger, stronger girls. Henin was able to do it but was physically tougher, I think.

We get used to it, but some of the girls out there are relative giants and very powerful. Extreme size and power is becoming common among both genders. Being avaerage size is a disadvantage now.

The other thing is pace. The more petite women have to practice with men in order to warm up for some of these matches with big, strong opponents. It might be a female sport, but to say it is a ladies sport is becoming a stretch. Most of the dominant girls are jocks in every sense. The cutie pies of more common stature are lucky to be barely competitive. If well ranked, it may not be because they actually ever won anything. They were eventually eliminated, some sooner than others. What they are is relatively consistent, always a threat in the early rounds.

Dan Martin Says:

Von thanks. Graf is my all time favorite female player and maybe all time favorite regardless of gender (I’d have to think about that).

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