“Each hit their forehands with a moderate loop and moderate topspin. Each used a compact backswing on their relatively flat two-handed backhands. Their shots were low-trajectory and medium paced, they stayed away from big cuts, they rarely aimed for the lines, they used a slice as a change-of-pace but not as an approach, and when the score got tight, they got tight and played even safer.”
So said Steve Tignor in describing an early-round encounter between Marcos Baghdatis and Arnaud Clement at this year’s Indian Wells. Though Baghdatis is known as a streaky shotmaker and Clement a plucky counterpuncher, Tignor used this match to illustrate a point that many have made about modern tennis: the power baseliners have taken over, and squeezed out everyone else.
So, which speedy guy between the height of 6’0” and 6’2” used his big forehand, safe serve and solid backhand to win the greatest percentage of backcourt rallies, combined with a good number of safe volley putaways?
Wait a minute … Ivan Ljubicic? That can’t be right. He’s 6’4” and never been known for his movement or his forehand. His game is so ’90s, what with the aces and all the net-rushing. He’s got a pretty good backhand, but I hear he likes to slice it a lot of the time, and sometimes even goes for winners when he doesn’t have a short ball!
Well, surely order was restored in Miami. Yeah, I hear Andy Roddick won there! He’s got a Big Forehand! Wait, you’re telling me he relied on a slice backhand much of the time? And against Rafael Nadal he won by … charging the net?! That can’t be right! Thanks to string technology, charging the net is no longer a viable technique for winning tennis matches!
Or so we’ve heard. The point of this exercise is not to ridicule Tignor, whose description of the Baghdatis-Clement encounter was probably accurate, and who could not have predicted that a 31-year-old who had never won a Masters shield would catch fire, beating Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Roddick in the process.
Nor could he have guessed that Roddick’s steady evolution from a one-note serve-and-forehand combination into the master of guile and underspin would pay off so richly two weeks later. But don’t these results mean we ought to start re-examining our assumptions about the modern game?
More importantly, shouldn’t tennis parents and coaches re-evaluate what young players should be taught? Changes in technology are likely to make hard-hitting baseline play the norm, but that actually contributes toward making the recent play of Roddick and Ljubicic so effective.
The serve-and-volley approach was rare in the middle of the decade, but in 2004 Tim Henman reached the semifinals not only on the fast hard courts of the US Open, but also the groundstroker’s heaven of Roland Garros. In the process, he showed that many of today’s players are often not prepared for the kind of net coverage a great athlete can provide, particularly if he hits slice or flat approach shots that don’t sit up in the opponent’s strike zone. And few would put Henman in the same class as the great serve and volleyers from the past couple of generations, Patrick Rafter and Stefan Edberg.
Likewise, Ljubicic and Roddick demonstrated that a hard server who tries to break up a baseline-bound opponent’s rhythm with off-speed shots and sudden attempts at winners can know considerable success. And few say that Ljubicic and Roddick have as many options as the big servers Boris Becker and Pete Sampras.
That’s not to say that a couple of great net rushers can change tennis completely, nor that I want it to. The big baseliners have given us plenty of great matches in recent years, Nadal’s overcoming of Fernando Verdasco at the 2009 Australian Open being a representative example.
What I am saying is that diversity is good: An aggressive net-rusher is unlikely to displace Federer and Nadal from the top of the men’s game, but he could still make achieve some great results and make a good living.
And if he gave us some great matches featuring a contrast in styles, like Becker-Lendl or Rafter-Agassi, so much the better.