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 third in a five-part series examining such possibilities.
Why: Both men’s and women’s tennis once had clear-cut dichotomies in playing style: The aggressive net-rusher (think John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova) against the defensive-minded baseliner (Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert).
As racket technology progressed, the baseliners divided into those who were more defensive-minded (Michael Chang and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario) and those who used their groundstrokes offensively (Andre Agassi and Monica Seles).
Classic serve and volley tennis has largely disappeared from both the men’s and women’s tours; phased out by today’s baseliners (Roger Federer and the Williams sisters), who are capable of great movement, huge serving and heavy groundstrokes.
In the women’s game, one phase of this evolution was skipped entirely: what I like to call the Pure Power Player (PPP), who served huge, had flat, hard groundies, a very good volley, and a net-rushing mentality. Their movement was also good, but used offensively; every one of their shots was designed to hit a winner.
What woman fits this bill that has won majors? Non-slam winner Brenda Schultz-McCarthy doesn’t count; among champions, Navratilova is the closest to fitting the bill.
Physical Characteristics: At 6’3, professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece combines size and athleticism rarely seen in women’s tennis.
Though mainly known for her modeling career (YouTube features an untold number of videos related to her modeling career, plus her exercise routines and media appearances, but scarcely any of her playing volleyball) and perhaps a brief relationship with Superman, her sports statistics are what put her on this list.
Reece is the same height as the original PPP, Becker. Though it is rather unlikely that she could achieve the kind of serving power Boom-Boom used to attain, her status as a former Women’s Beach Volleyball League’s leader in kills (as well as blocks) suggests that, had she trained for tennis from a young age, her serve, overhead and net coverage would be highly formidable.
At 6’3, slightly taller than Lindsey Davenport (6’ 2 1⁄2"), defensive movement would probably not be her strength, but few PPP’s, from Becker to Sampras to Tsonga, have made defense the core of their games.
Mental Characteristics: With its nearly year-round schedule, tennis requires a degree of commitment that many other sports do not. Though they are roundly criticized for not focusing on the sport, it’s actually a credit to the Williams sisters that they are able to maintain such a busy life away from tennis and still win majors.
Reece has also known a great deal of success as a model, an actress, and in producing exercise videos for expectant mothers. Would a player of her pedigree be cut from the same cloth as the sisters, capturing Wimbledons regularly despite a full schedule away from the court? If not, an athlete of her competitive nature would probably elect to focus on tennis, at least during her prime playing years.
Either way, athletes of Reece’s size will probably be seen near the top of women’s tennis eventually.
A Note: On Thursday I’ll be back with part four, featuring the Roger Federer of running backs.
For Part 1, Usain Bolt, click here.
For Part 2, Lance Armstrong, click here.