A lot has been made made over the last four to five years about the decline of the artful player and the replacement of talent by hard work as the most important key to success at the top of the game. Many have decried the apparent influx into tennis of ultra physicality, while some have being put off tennis by the playing styles of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. However, there are signs of change in 2013.
What is Beauty?
What is beauty? Something intangible in the eyes of a beholder? Something unique to each individual? How long is a piece of string?
For much of the early part of this still-young century, Roger Federer was the pioneer of a brand of tennis that was in equal measure graceful, brutal and effortless. It involved puppet master-like control of a match from start to finish, without any fear of the end result.
It was a brand of tennis that was purposely built for admiration and for that period in time. That element of power, of control over one's destiny appealed to our collective senses—in the wider world, we were finally muscling the agents of terror as we'd imagined for years that we'd do and at home we were buying houses and cars because "we could".
Numerous titles and numerous accolades sold that brand of tennis to the hip crowd as the new cool and before long, Federer's effortlessness was taken in as the next step from Sampras' efficiency.
And so it was until the water stirred and the global banking crisis hit. People's everyday lives had become a fight, so their tennis had to mirror this. People were spending most of their days down in the dirt, so a slow but clamorous appreciation for the style of the dirt began to grow.
There was a real need from fans and viewers for something more rigorous, something for the people to get their teeth into, something to embody their frustration and anger about their lives and there was just that thing. Nadal's grinding, repetitive, wearing-down style embodied that state of mind. It appealed to our mental picture of who we wanted to be: fighters, pirates, a people who could win against all odds.
Prior to this, Nadal was just the one-slam-a-year guy, lauded for his tenaciousness on clay, but under-appreciated outside the dirt. It changed though. Titles and accolades sold that brand of tennis to us and we accepted it. There was no place in the world for Federer's fairyland tennis. There was a need for practicality, for roll-your-sleeve-up tennis.
In 2011, things changed a bit. Nadal's powers began to wane and Federer wasn't really a viable option. Djokovic's playing style in 2011 seemed much too similar to Nadal's and Andy Murray's was leaning towards Nadal as well.
However, it was in the Australian Open final in 2012 that things dawned. Djokovic had introduced an attrition-based, ultra-physical playing style—even more physical than Nadal's. And while we have watched with awe, it remains to be seen if we will adopt it, if it resonates with any area of our lives.
Nadal's camp admit that Djokovic's way is better and have adopted it. But no one realized just how self-destructive it also was. Today, Nadal licks his wounds—a stretch of eight months outside of competitive tennis being the price to pay—while Djokovic is in a spot of bother himself.
However, great art though comes from great pain and it is why I believe that 2013 will be the year of the aesthete player.