Today tennis is being played at a standard of athleticism and fitness never seen before. There is, however, always room for growth, and other sports may show the way. This is the first in a five-part series examining such possibilities.
Why: Once there was a time when there were players in men’s tennis who did one thing extremely well and the other things fairly well: In the 1990s Jim Courier had overpowering groundstrokes, Michael Chang great speed and Goran Ivanisevic a tremendous serve. They each occupied a slot near the top of the game, but it was Pete Sampras, who had each of these qualities in excess, who clung to the top spot.
In the 21st century, players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are proving that players must do multiple things at an extremely high level to win majors and stay in the top 5. Along with great groundstrokes, excellent movement has become a prerequisite for winning.
Physical Characteristics: Usain Bolt is currently the world’s fastest human, but what may be truly revolutionary about him is his height: He is 6’5, significantly taller than past sprinting greats like Carl Lewis (6’2), Donovan Bailey (6’1) and Michael Johnson (6’1). Great speed has not traditionally been the domain of the very tall, and that extends to tennis.
Players known for their speed, like Nadal, Chang, Bjorn Borg and Lleyton Hewitt, have traditionally been 6’1 or shorter. In recent years, though, more big men are being recognized for their swiftness.
Younes El Aynaoui, Marat Safin and especially Gael Monfils are all successful players who are 6’4 and are known for exceptional movement. Unlike shorter men such as Hewitt and Chang, who counterpunched, they employ their speed offensively, easily reaching—and crushing—balls that put lesser movers on the defensive.
It is therefore not a bad guess that as a tennis player Bolt would be similar to Monfils: His height should allow him a big serve, his speed great defensive skills, and his overall athleticism the ability to quickly shift from defense to offense.
Mental Characteristics: What separates Bolt from Monfils, not to mention nearly all the towering players previously mentioned, is his champion’s mentality. This state of mind is difficult to quantify, but it allows all the greats, from Montana to Jordan to Nadal, to bring their best performances on the biggest stages, when the opportunity for recognition best presents itself.
Monfils is a charming character and, by all accounts, a standup guy. One would like to see him get a little more bothered by his losses, though, and vow to improve on them.
Bolt needs no improvement in this regard. Though his achievements were somewhat outshined by the more prolific gold-winner Michael Phelps, the Jamaican's feats should not be understated: He set a new world record (despite unfavorable wind) in every area he competed in, be it the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4 x 100 meter relay.
In the 100 meters, his performance was so dominant that he actually set the record despite slowing down to celebrate a fraction of a second before reaching the finish line. This kind of athletic ability, coupled with a performance this appropriate in the grandest arenas, could represent the next evolution of tennis.
A Note: Look for Part 2 this weekend, featuring the athlete who best defines “perseverance.”