Men's tennis is as entertaining as it has ever been. But are we paying attention?
It's the angles, the geometry. It just makes no sense to me.
A decade or so ago, I fancied myself a decent lyricist. I couldn't play an instrument, and I couldn't really sing, but I enjoyed it. I wrote (and, on rare occasion, recorded) just enough songs to find myself improving at it and find myself listening to music differently. I would start to understand just how Musician A came to write Song B, and it was rewarding. It didn't really go anywhere, but that wasn't exactly the point. (OK, I may have thought it was exactly the point at the time, but that's neither here nor there.)
Occasionally I would come across a song that just made perfect sense, one I would find myself wishing I had written. And on rare occasion I would hear something that just blew my mind. It made no sense. I could not for the life of me figure out how Musician C would have possibly written Song D.
Before I ever put pen (fingers) to paper (keyboard), however, there was tennis. I played for years growing up -- it was the one sport at which I was better than others, and I liked that -- and, beginning around 1988 or so, I started obsessing over the professional version of the sport. It was an easy No. 2 to college football for me, and for a while it may have even been No. 1. Steffi Graf peaked during my formative years. I watched Michael Chang upset Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open from a New Mexico hotel room during a family vacation. I watched Andre Agassi's star rise, plummet, rise again, fall again, then rise about six more times. I patterned my game after Boris Becker, attempting to boom in first serves despite the fact that my first-serve percentage was probably about eight percent and I had no second serve (oh, but I won damn near every point when I got that first serve in). (And no, I did not remain better than everybody else for very long with this approach.)
This was tennis to me. It made sense. I worshiped the players whose games I could pretend to imitate -- Becker, Mats Wilander, Agassi -- and rooted against the serve-and-volleyers (Martina Navratilova and that damn Stefan Edberg, to name two) I could not even pretend to emulate.
Through most of the 1990s, when I had summers (and Januarys) off because of school, I was able to keep up with grand slams and summer tournaments. The game became more and more intuitive. Oh, here's where Agassi steps into Random Opponent's second serve and puts the match away. Sampras is on his run to the right; here's where he uncorks a cross-court forehand winner. Here's where Pat Rafter pounces with his chip and charge. Any moment now, an opponent is going to dump a forehand into the net because Michael Chang has chased down his last 17 shots. Here's where Goran Ivanišević starts to falter. Here's where Boris Becker booms an ace down the T.
As the Sampras-Agassi-Chang-Ivanišević-Yevgeny Kafelnikov crowd began to age a decade ago, the sport underwent a pretty serious transition. Andy Roddick, playing a game that obviously made quite a bit of sense to me, surged, winning the 2003 U.S. Open with Mandy Moore in the stands. Sampras continued to dominate Wimbledon for a while longer than he probably should have. An infinite number of South Americans and Spaniards dominated the French Open (Argentinians made up half of the quarterfinals in 2004, with Gastón Gaudio beating countryman Guillermo Coria in the finals). Counterpuncher Lleyton Hewitt ground out a couple of grand slam titles. Generally speaking, with power seemingly at its saturation point (new racquets and good training meant that everybody had it to a certain degree), the game became as much about defense and foot speed, about who could chase down more shots.
Around this time, my relationship with the sport changed. Not only did I enjoy this 'new' tennis a little less, but thanks to a full-time job in a cubicle, I watched infinitely less of it. I caught grand slam finals on the weekend and kept up with results, but that was about it. I enjoyed Roddick's run, I naturally despised Hewitt for getting in Roddick's way a few times, and I still cared, but I do think my love of the sport began to change a little bit.
Until Roger Federer, anyway.
At first, I don't think I quite understood what he was. I knew he was dominant -- once he broke through at Wimbledon in 2003, the slams started piling up quickly -- but I wasn't paying full attention at first. Perhaps it was his 2005 U.S. Open final win over Agassi, or his 2005 Wimbledon win over Roddick, when it struck me: this guy just makes no sense. When a player is approaching a ball, I still basically know what shots are available to him (or her). But Federer created new ones. He invented angles that I didn't learn in my ninth-grade geometry class. This was mid-1960s, "jewels and binoculars," "everybody is making love or else expecting rain" Dylan stuff. In an arena I knew very well, he just did things I didn't understand.
I didn't find myself thinking, "I wish I could hit that shot" like I did with Roddick's serve, Agassi's backhand, or Sampras' running forehand. I found myself thinking, "How did he even think to try that?" He made me gasp. I don't gasp!
Unlike mid-1960s Dylan, Federer didn't flame out in a couple of years. He didn't tease us with greatness like stars in other sports; he just kept going. Three slams in 2004, two in 2005, three in 2006, three in 2007. Five years later, after we all figured he would lose his way, he continues to play at an elite level. My relationship with the game changed again around this time. I wasn't playing much anymore (work, relationship, music, the lack of willing tennis partners, and eventually blogging all got in the way), but my pursuit of the game on television became entirely single-minded: exactly how do you beat this guy? I understood that Rafael Nadal was a force on clay, but I simply assumed that, as with so many other clay-first players, his impact would be limited on other surfaces.
But Nadal kept getting stronger and stronger. Whereas Federer hit shots you didn't see coming, Nadal mastered the art of the 1-2 punch. He hits deep, hard and repeatedly. He corners you. He limits your options to a single shot, and he's there to respond with a winner before you even hit it. Federer has always been good enough to see what Nadal is trying to do and attempt to counter, but there's a reason why Federer always makes more errors against Nadal than, seemingly, everybody else combined: countering Nadal is really, really difficult.
Like many, I began to resent Nadal for any number of reasons. He was threatening Federer's legacy. He was countering art with brute strength. It was almost a relief when his body began to randomly betray him, not because it gave Federer more slam opportunities, but because it also made no sense to me that a body could accomplish what Nadal forces his to do for five hours at a time. He was so strong and so devastating that I began to wonder how, when he was healthy, anybody could beat him consistently.
And then Novak Djokovic raised his game. Until 2011, I felt bad for Djokovic, a speedy, consistently solid player who may have dominated the game in 2002. Like Roddick, Djokovic was robbed of multiple slams simply because he was born in the wrong decade. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, however, he got better. Much, much better. He became the most fit player on tour. He suddenly became Michael Chang on defense, Andre Agassi on offense. He beat Nadal by deflecting every 1-2 punch, by outlasting him, by turning defense into offense faster than anybody I have ever seen. He accomplished more in 2011 than Federer or Nadal ever did in a single year.
So here we are. Three players are playing at a level higher than anything I've really ever experienced. And Andy Murray, when healthy, has almost caught them as well. I caught hell in January, both in comments and on Twitter, for saying that the men's game has never, ever been better.
I officially became obsessed with tennis in 1988. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were fading but still relevant, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander were at their peak, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg had come on very strong, and a nice crop of Americans (Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang) was on its way. For about the next decade, men's tennis was consistently interesting and fun. And aside from MAYBE Agassi and Lendl, none of those players would have been able to even think about cracking the top five today.
You are not allowed to have any weaknesses in today's men's game. None. You are not allowed to be one-dimensional. You are not allowed to specialize on one type of surface. Edberg, a serve-and-volley master, would have ranked about 15th today. Becker would have been Andy Roddick, good enough to make a few slam semifinals and maybe a couple of finals, but never good enough to consistently break through. Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten might not have won even one title at Roland Garros if he were 10 years younger. I idolized so many of the men in the above paragraph, and they just could not hold a candle to the quality you see today.
Perhaps that was unfair. Perhaps I was underestimating Stefan Edberg's baseline abilities, or the well-roundedness of Pete Sampras' game. Perhaps, with today's training, nutrition and equipment (and, of course, competition), players like Sampras and Edberg would have become just as elite in 2012 as they were in their respective eras. Perhaps I was failing to take era into account; the 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide would have crushed the 1987 Miami Hurricanes, for instance, simply because of the athleticism of their respective eras -- players have gotten bigger, faster, stronger, etc. When comparing eras, one cannot simply say that today's players are better because of physical ability. More should go into it than that. (Says the guy who continues to assert that the 1959 Ole Miss Rebels were the greatest college football team of all-time.)
But I said what I said for one simple reason: for the first 15 years of my hardcore tennis fandom, things made sense to me. But for the last five to 10 years, the game has gone to a new place, first because of Federer, then because of the collective raising-of-the-game that Federer forced.
As I said in January, "of the [Australian Open's] final three men's matches (two semifinals, one finale) a gripping four-setter (which included two 7-5 tie-breakers) between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal -- Federer and Nadal! -- was easily the least-entertaining match." Today's top three make me gasp, ooh and ahh more than I ever have watching tennis. Physicality is certainly part of it, but the combination of creativity, offense and defense these three bring to the table just wows me. And after years of wailing away at each other, they are still doing it.
Jo-Wilifried Tsonga, Tomáš Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and the currently mono-stricken Robin Soderling are some of the biggest hitters the game has ever seen. Watch Berdych play against somebody outside of the top three at some point. When he's on (and clearly he's not always on), he is incredible. He has lost 16 games in six sets at this year's French Open despite the fact that a power game is not supposed to thrive on clay. But to date, he has made the semifinals of just two slams, the finals of one. Tsonga has made three semis, one final. Soderling has made two finals. Only del Potro has even won a single slam -- he's the only player outside of the Big Three to take a slam in seven years.
The first week of the 2012 French Open has been perfectly entertaining in all the ways that the first week of a slam typically is. You've had a marquee upset (Serena Williams), you've had fun displays of dominance (Maria Sharapova losing just 18 points in her first-round match, Nadal losing nine games in first six sets), and you've had no-names blowing each other's brains out just for the honor of losing in the second round (Jeremy Chardy, for instance, beat Yen-Hsun Lu, 11-9 in the fifth set; his reward: a matchup with No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic).
It has all been an undercard, however, for what happens late next week. Though he rallied on Thursday, Andy Murray is struggling with a back injury, so perhaps we get a different name in the semifinals (No. 6 David Ferrer, perhaps; Ferrer is every bit as tenacious as those early-'00s grinders who dominated the French, but he has yet to advance beyond the quarterfinals at the French). And, who knows, perhaps we get a major upset among the top three; if it's going to happen, it will probably be at the typically upset-prone Roland Garros, where Djokovic and Federer have each already dropped a set despite not playing particularly poorly. But most likely, we are simply building up to what we saw in Australian: four incredibly enjoyable, mostly competitive men's quarterfinal matchups, two wonderful semifinals, and an amazing final.
(Where do the women fit in on this fight card? We'll talk about that tomorrow.)
Part of the reason I mourn the current downfall (or, if I'm feeling optimistic, down cycle) of American tennis is because I am a benevolent sports fan. I want others to enjoy the sport as much as I do. And I know that, for Americans to give their undivided attention to something, Americans probably need to be involved. Soccer has gained steam in the States, partially because of the U.S.-based drama in 2010 World Cup and the 2011 Women's World Cup, and partially because they have more television access to truly great soccer (the Champions League on Fox, the upcoming Euro 2012 on the ESPN family). Obviously the latter is true with tennis, too -- you don't have to go out of your way to catch these great matches on television (then again, I don't get the Tennis Channel, so I missed Serena's defeat). But without the former, Americans will only be so invested. And I want them to invest. With tennis, it's personal. It's mine. And I want others to see what I see.
Today's tennis is incredible, deep and easily accessible. In writing for SB Nation, I have had the opportunity to reinvest in the game, and it has already been wonderfully rewarding. But I wonder how much others are paying attention.