Tennis Wonkery

TENNIS WONKERY….Mark Starr chides Americans for being such sports provincialists:

As a result, we are missing out on a newborn rivalry that not only looms as possibly one of the best in the history of tennis, but quite likely the best individual rivalry in sports today: Switzerland’s Roger Federer vs. Spain’s Rafael Nadal. It’s only natural that America would prefer the pinnacle of rivalry to have a homier caste. I, too, can wax nostalgic about olden days when Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl dueled Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe for court supremacy. Or for Chrissie-Martina. But Federer and Nadal are playing the game at such a transcendent level that issues of nationality should fade away. Genius should always trump parochial attachments.

Well, sure, I agree. Federer is already playing for the history books and not much else, and Nadal is giving every sign of being the real deal rather than just the latest two-year wonder. For the time being, it’s one of the best sports rivalries around.

Still, I have to demur at least slightly from Starr’s conclusion. The current lack of top American tennis players is certainly one reason that American interest in tennis has waned, but there’s another reason too: the game itself has lost the contrast of styles that was at the center of so many of its most brilliant rivalries. Borg-McEnroe was a great rivalry for a lot of reasons, but one of them was because Borg was the metronomic baseliner who never missed pitted against McEnroe’s dazzling serve-and-volley shotmaking. Ditto for Sampras-Agassi and Evert-Navratilova.

But the serve-and-volleyers are all gone now. The last crop in the men’s game ? Sampras, Pat Rafter, Richard Krajicek, Todd Martin, all of them top 20 players in the late 90s ? are retired now. Instead, virtually every top player today is a “power baseliner,” a style perfected in the 80s and 90s that teaches its students exactly what it sounds like it teaches: stay behind the baseline and whack the absolute shit out of every ball that comes your way. There’s no questioning the skill and athleticism of its practitioners, but it nonetheless gets a wee bit tedious when every single player in the world plays the same way no matter what the surface. Federer is the closest thing we have left to a full-court player, and even he comes to the net only under duress.

Sigh. I miss the old brilliance, and the new brilliance seems pale and monochromatic by comparison. But new racket technology and new coaching styles have given the edge to the baseliners, and there’s no going back. In the meantime, Federer-Nadal is, indeed, as good as it gets.

POSTSCRIPT: Meanwhile, Tiger Woods is leading the British Open after chipping in for an eagle on the 14th, and Floyd Landis is a mere 30 seconds behind the leader in the Tour de France after a brilliant come-from-behind performance on Thursday. So there are plenty of Americans left to root for in other sports!