For decades, the game of tennis had little changed.
The court dimensions and the net height still remained unchanged. We still use the same silly scoring system.
But in many fundamental ways, 21st century tennis is not the same sport it was just a couple of decades ago.
Even as recently as the 1990s.
But first, let’s “frame” this discussion.
Historically, virtually all tennis rackets were made of wood with leather grips. Rackets were typically 27 inches in length, had a head size of about 65 square inches, and weighed about 13 ounces.
In the early 1970's, Jimmy Connors pioneered the Wilson T2000 steel racket—a frame that set the wood racket traditionalists on their ears with its lightweight steel construction and slender framework that meant less wind resistance.
The floodgates had opened.
Jimbo was still playing with his chrome tubular steel racket until 1984. But by then, his T2000 had the aura of a dinosaur and most pros had shifted to newer racket technologies, materials, and designs.
Manufacturers came out with frames of new composite materials and we all scrambled to learn new words like Kevlar. Since then, we’ve seen almost endless combinations of graphite composite materials and designs in an attempt to further improve racket performance.
Other changes were in the dimensions of the head size. Light, oversize rackets weighing 10 or 11 ounces, with a typical head size of 110 square inches became very popular.
While few of the pros have adopted the more extreme designs—those are reserved for us “weekend warriors”—it’s no longer even possible to buy a "conventional" wooden frame rackets at your local sport store.
Don’t take my word: go out and try and buy “black & white” TV set today.
But the tennis "make-over” story wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.
In just the first years of the 21st century, we’ve seen an equally profound change in tennis technology: now it’s a revolution in racket strings.
Time was when the pros played with gut. These highly resilient “lively” strings added both control and buoyancy.
Yes, spin was deployed back ‘in the day’, but the ideal game was to drive through the ball and create attack opportunities via penetrating shots.
And then came Luxilon—the so-called “dead” string.
Some pundits are calling Luxilon a development that’s creating a complete change in the game.
Here’s why. With dead threads, a player can swing loose and hard with more dip, whip and power. The ball jumps dramatically—unbelievably so. A ball that looks long, suddenly dips and drops like a stone inside the court.
Combined that with an ultra-light frame, learn how to whip it like a windshield wiper, and spin can now be created that's nothing short of amazing.
Nadal’s topspin has been laser measured at 3,200 rpm. Compare that with previous 1990’s topspin wizard Agassi: his “gut string” spin was clocked at some 1,900 rpm.
In today’s game, strings are very much attached. They do make a decided difference.
Sampras, who played most of his tennis with traditional “lively” gut strings, noted the dead string’s ability to turn defensive base liners into forceful counter-punchers. A new string that let yesterday’s defenders became today’s attackers.
Pete dubbed Luxilon “Cheatalon.”
Indeed, for current pros, the use of Luxilon and similar “dead “strings is today a pragmatic necessity. Sampras today uses a mix of gut and Luxilon strings in his senior and exhibition matches.
To understand 21st century tennis, let’s factor in one final technical consideration: the “speed” of the courts.
Back in the 1990s, a not insignificant number of fans were deserting men’s tennis as big powerful serves were shortening the points.
This was the time of “wham, bam, point over Sam!”
You had to go over to the women’s game to see a decent rally.
To arrest declining interest, tournament directors everywhere began to slow down their courts. The Australian Open this past February introduced a newer—somewhat slower—hard court surface.
Wimbledon has been using different grass and at different lengths to slow the grass game down. Slick carpets have been pulled up for surfaces of less speed.
And with the predominance of European players, “slow” red clay, always popular on the continent, has been rejuvenated.
Slower courts take more effort to generate pace. Combined that with “dead strings” ability to really hammer the ball...have it stay in the court...with sudden deep drops...add tons of amazing topspin...that's the stuff that today’s game is made of.
Many of McEnroe’s titles were won on fast courts. There the ball speed is aided by the very quickness of the courts. These rapidly disappearing fast bouncing courts help provide a pace that made Mac's or Sampras's or Edberg’s serve and volley great in their day--and almost an obsolete today.
This ongoing tech revolution is a crucial factor when comparing “greats” from different eras.
Comparing the wood racket gut string tennis of say a Rod Laver to the technology that a Nadal using to produce the game’s greatest topspin is akin to comparing the Enfield rife of the American Civil War to an AK-47.
I believe it would be pretty easy to predict the outcome of that contest.
String theory helps explain why Nadal’s and Federer’s games are so different today. The Fed started his career modeled on his idol Sampras, among other greats.
Federer tends to hit his ground strokes early, while the ball is still on the rise. This allows him to take the ball closer to the net and reduces the reaction time of his opponents. They, in turn, are limited in how they can return such a stroke which typically produces a weak return that has allowed Rog to pounce with the angled winners that are a trademark of his game.
One reason why Nadal has been successful is that the master of dead strings hammers the ball with deadly power, generating unbelievable topspin.
Rafa’s shots tend to land short of the baseline—advantageous in that less balls tend to sail long. Moreover, these shots drop suddenly and and do with an uncharacteristically high bounce. This can force his opponent into returning an "above shoulder height" ball--a shot where they have less power and less control. This mitigates the ability to take the ball early on the rise.
Roger started out with gut strings. He’s since changed to a gut/Luxilon, vertical/horizontal mix as many contemporary pros use.
But, like everything else, practice makes perfect.
He’s had to adapt mid-career to the power of these new strings. Some observers have pointed out the Roger does not play as aggressively now than at the beginning of his career. He now employs a very effective mix of defense, patience and power offense.
“I realized things were slowing down,” Federer said, “The new string generation came along where returning and passing shots were made easier. It was harder to attack in some ways.”
Nadal, five years his junior, has had the advantage to develop a complete game around a strategy on these strings. We're witnessing the first great player to use dead strings his entire pro career.
He very likely won’t be the last!
Looking into tennis crystal ball, I see a future with a lot more Nadal wanna-be’s coming down the road.
Today, it’s a whole new ball game.