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How to Improve Tennis

14 September 2010

12:42 AM

14 September 2010

12:42 AM

Kevin Drum is in danger of becoming a lapsed tennis-fan. In particular he laments the elimination of the serve-and-volley style of play:

[…] I find myself following tennis less and less every year. Why? Because it’s gotten boring. Sure, today’s players are phenomenal athletes, covering the court like gazelles and routinely hitting breathtaking shots. But every match is the same, what I’ve come to think of as "thug tennis": huge topspin forehands, booming two-handed backhands, and endless baseline rallies. The power and shotmaking are mesmerizing at times, but in the end, I can hardly tell the players apart these days.

[…] I know the current state of the game has lots of fans, but aside from an intellectual admiration I just can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm these days. In the end, new racket technology and the coaching that went along with it have finally conspired to spoil the game for me.

I’m not sure I’m wholly persuaded by this, not least because advances in string-technology allow players to play remarkable shots from remarkable angles. For that matter, tennis in the Federer-Nadal era (with, latterly, Djokovic and Murray as a fine supporting cast) has provided great dollops of compelling drama and extraordinary tennis. In many ways tennis – at least men’s tennis – is much better than it was a decade ago. When the top four are playing one another it can be pretty damn spectacular. (Tonight’s US Open final confirms this view.)

Nevertheless, Kevin has a point: the disappearance of serve and volley tennis has to be regretted. The power game is only part of the matter. Modifying the balls at Wimbledon had helped reduce the importance of the serve and so, more significantly, has the slowing of the courts but fitness, strength and the ability to generate extraordinary amounts of topspin have conspired to eliminate serve-and-volley tennis even on grass. And so, as Kevin says, the aesthetically pleasing contrast in styles between a McEnroe and a Borg or an Edberg and a Wilander doesn’t exist anymore.

So if this variety is considered important, how do you subtly encourage it? The obvious answer, I think, would be to make the court narrower. Not by much. Perhaps by as little as six inches. A small change that might have large consequences. It’s top-spin that makes venturing to the net a foolhardy proposition these days since previously impossible passing shots have become routine. So narrowing the court, even just a little, might permit players to come to the net with less risk of embarrassment (since they could cover more angles) and consequently help improve the aesthetics of tennis. (If you think aesthetics need encouragement, of course.)

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