I consider it a sign of maturity that you can like someone an awful lot and not like everything about them. With that in mind, I welcome you to Change One Thing, a feature in which we imagine the one thing we wish our favorite players would do differently.
Today, we’ll start with the top players in the men’s game, beginning with:
Rafael Nadal: I’d improve his English fluency, as I think this is the only thing keeping him from being huge (or, should I say, huger than he is already) stateside.
This is a very personal qualm for me, as I played four years of high school tennis in agrarian West Tennessee. There, where football and bull riding rule, I encountered an untold number of less-enlightened folk who said things like, “Tennis is a (insert impolite synonym for "kitty cat") sport!”
One thinks that a few television ads of a shirtless player like Rafa could change their views of our favorite game in a way that, say, John McEnroe could not.
To get more ads in America, however, he’d need to speak English very well. If there’s one thing Americans can’t stand more than skinny people, it’s people who can’t speak the only language they know.
Roger Federer: I’d give him a Warrior Moment; it is perhaps the one thing his career doesn’t really have (besides a Roland Garros title).
He’s won his share of five set matches, and even tense four setters, but most of the five set matches he has won have been due to him facing a hot opponent who eventually succumbed to Federer’s drive and more well-rounded game (see Andreev at the U.S. Open or Berdych at the AO).
What we’re talking about here is a match in which the great Swiss is clearly struggling—not necessarily with illness or injury; it could just be an abysmally off day—and guts it out through sheer will. It doesn’t have to be Sampras-Corretja 1996; I’d settle for Agassi-Medvedev 1999.
Some seized upon Federer’s post-match tears in Australia as reason for criticism. Personally, I felt the opposite: As graceful and easy as it appears for him to win matches, his tears made it clear that, underneath his calm and quiet, he wants it as badly anyone does.
Perhaps now that he’s dissecting opponents with less consistency than in, say, 2006, he’ll have more opportunities to channel that will on the court.
Furthermore, a Warrior Moment may be necessary for him to add that missing win in Paris.
Novak Djokovic: The Change One Thing idea actually begins with the Djoker, and after his bogus Australian journey, it’s probably not hard to imagine why.
I’d make Nole a fan of the Rocky movies and have him watch them before every tournament. Since his maddening exit from the AO, he’s signaled his intent to improve his fitness, but it’s the opinion of most of us that his issues are far more mental than physical.
He’s clearly expressed his intent to be the best, but his history of withdrawals suggests that he doesn’t realize that good things come to those who don’t quit.
Lots of us have expressed a desire to see him fight harder, but perhaps watching Sylvester Stallone refuse to surrender despite getting his face bashed in by Carl Weathers and Dolph Lundgren will convince Djokovic in a way our words cannot.
Andy Roddick: I’d have him explain what happened to his forehand. In 2004 and prior, it was bigger than anyone’s save Fernando Gonzalez, and better than anyone’s save Federer’s. Along with his serve, it was his forehand that carried him to the U.S. Open title in 2003 and then the No. 1 ranking.
When those two were leading the way, it actually improved the weaker parts of his game (the backhand and the volley, specifically), as he could swing more freely.
It recent years, there definitely has been an influx of (sigh) Big Forehands on tour, but Roddick been playing a lot less aggressively. Steve Tignor of Tennis.com recently called his game “schizophrenic,” describing it as “biggest serve ever, then pure defense afterward.”
It’s my opinion, probably shared by others, that this is part of Roddick’s attempts, begun under Brad Gilbert, to add “depth” to his game.
Unfortunately, his attempts at adding “depth” to his playing style have helped his ranking about as much as Metallica’s attempt to “progress” musically helped their critical reputation in the 1990s. The problem in both cases is that they both, in attempting to grow, got away from their strengths.
I’d like to see this addressed in some way. If he can’t crush the ball like he did in the old days, can’t he at least explain to us why he can’t?
And now, it’s time for Change One Thing, Senior Tour Edition, in which we speculate on what some of the all-time greats could've done differently, starting with:
Pete Sampras: No, I wouldn't have asked that his game be less serve-reliant or that he try to act more like Chris Rock while on court. His personality and playing style were what I appreciated about him the most.
What I would’ve liked to have seen, though, would have been a little less stubbornness, especially near the end of his career. During his two-year title drought from 2000-02, many asked why his results were slipping.
Considering that he was using the same racket he started playing with in the '80s, it’s a testament to him as a competitor that he won anything: He was bringing a musket to a machine gun fight.
At the start of 1999, he skipped the AO to recover after his push to finish 1998 as the No. 1 player for a record sixth-straight year. At that point, with that bit of pressure off his back, he could’ve begun training with a newer, bigger racket.
During his dry spell at the start of this decade, the fact that he played a game with little margin for error was evident, as his diminished speed resulted in a loss of timing and many, many more errors.
For anyone who respected his achievements, early-round losses to Andrew Ilie and George Bastl were not fun to watch. A few more inches of strings to hit might’ve made a big difference.
Andre Agassi: I’d have had him not hit tennis balls at those linespeople who reported his use of not-so-nice language during the Wimbledon semi in 2001. Other than that, I’m cool with what he did in his career.
But that’s just me.
What about you? What would you change about your favorite tennis player, men’s or women’s, or at least a player you like a lot who happens to have a characteristic you don’t enjoy?
I’d love to hear from you, so please send me your contribution, with the subject of Change One Thing at rjamesyork(at)gmail.com and we’ll publish the results here next week.
Explain what you’d change if you could in anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph. Your message may be edited for typos or spelling but the message will be left intact.
Please note, however, that with each of the above persons I did not ask for any of their natural gifts to be changed: Yes, some of us may wish Roddick had better touch at net or that Federer could telekinetically counter Nadal’s topspin, but let’s try to limit these to realistic suggestions, like their approach to the game or their personalities.