The Decade That Was: Of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and Of Serve and Volley

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The Decade That Was: Of  Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and Of Serve and Volley
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
At the turn of another decade, the realm of men's tennis looks much different than it did in Y2K.  It has been somewhat cruel to two individuals, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick.  Sampras was the man of the 90's, and after assembling an unprecedented 14 Grand Slam titles, one would have thought he would have been able to enjoy the view from his lofty perch for decades to come.  But we all know what, or more accurately, who, came next. 
But it's not just Roger Federer. It is, for lack of a better word, Europeans.  Rewind to the 1994 Wimbledon Final between Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic, where the longest rally was four strokes.  This was to be the endgame of all the advances in equipment and player development, and that even had a name, 21st Century Tennis. In 21st Century Tennis, all you needed was a huge forehand and an even bigger serve. 
Andy Roddick duly obliged that vision by winning the 2003 US Open the year after Sampras retired, and ending the year ranked Number 1.  But we all know what, or more importantly, who, happened next.
The 2000's was truly the decade of Roger Federer.  There is no need to go over the statistics, which read more like fan fiction, and every once in awhile you have to pinch yourself to be reminded that yes, he is real.  But best of all is how he does it. There has never been so complete a player, and never has one made the game look so beautiful.  Watching Sampras through the years was to realize the pursuit of history. To watch Federer play but a single match is to see the creation of it. 
Which actually says a lot about Rafael Nadal, whose game is every bit as compelling. It helps to look to some antecedents from the 90's for perspective.  Jim Courier had brute physicality, Michael Chang was blindingly fast, Thomas Muster had an iron will. However, these attributes in those proportions are childlike in comparison to the soft spoken Mallorcan. 
Consider that were it nor for Nadal, Federer would likely have a better French Open resume than any of these three.  A comparison to the Sampras-Andre Agassi rivalry provides more insight.  Whenever they met sporadically in a major final, Agassi never really troubled Sampras while Nadal plays Federer regularly in such situations, and has proven to be his Achilles heel. 
The zenith of Sampras Agassi, the 2001 US Open quarterfinal, provided breathtaking tennis, but the 2008 Wimbledon Final is simply the greatest tennis match ever played.
These are heady times for fans of men's tennis. The vision of Wimbledon '94 never came to pass, and where once it was thought that power and offence would rule all, instead at the turn of the decade, the game is ruled by variety, speed, and defence. 
For proof, take Andy Roddick, who has admirably rounded out his game. Roddick circa 2009 is a much better player than that of 2003, yet when it's time to bid for the major titles, it's hard for him to get a word in edgewise.
But that doesn't mean that all is well.  Particularly missed at this time is the serve and volleyer.  The 90's had Stefan Edberg, Patrick Rafter, and of course, Pete Sampras. Today?  We have Taylor Dent, who pales in comparison to even Tim Henman. 
The reasons for the demise of net play are manifold.  Within every generation, a handful of individuals rise to the top, and in this case those players simply don't engage in that art.  Serve and volley takes much time to master, and in today's age of hyperaccelerated juniors, a prospect may not have the time to take such a patient approach. 
But one cannot ignore technology in the form of two things, polyester string and the Babolat Pure Drive.  The Pure Drive, and its progeny, has redefined the amount of help you can get from a player's racquet, while Andre Agassi once said that polyester simply "makes it hard to miss".  These advances have helped the passing shot much more than the volley.  Forays to the net are still part of the game, but only allied with the element of surprise. 
And one cannot forget the Hawkeye replay system.  with its coming, the tennis brat has seemingly gone .  Arguing a line call was a piece of gamesmanship perfected  by John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, often used to disrupt the dynamics of a match by slowing it down or changing the emotional makeup.  Though tennis won nothing through these infamous tirades, the fan often did.
There are few greater spectacles than to be witness to the tortures of genius, but to that end, enfants will be terrible. In spite of the Hawkeye, they will simply find another way.
In the next decade, it will be fascinating to see how Nadal deals with the toll his game takes on his body.  He has the shots and the humility to make changes to his game.  But the real question is one of motivation. His game is driven by an almost frightening will, and it's difficult to reconcile that with a mentality where one has to pick his spots.
If Federer were to quit tennis today, he would still be the greatest. Where his legacy ultimately ends up is a question that will be answered in the next 10 years. 
At age 33, Agassi was the oldest No. 1. Is that record beyond Federer?  From 28 to 33, Agassi won five of 20 Slams.  From 2005 to 2009 Federer has won 11 of 20.  To do what Agassi did, Federer would have to be half as good as he has been the last five years. 
Given that Federer has been injured much less, moves smoother, and has more game, it does not seem like a difficult prospect.  But there is no predicting the future.  At the end of 2004, it seemed like nothing could stop him from winning the next 20 slams, but we all know what, or who, happened next.  And that's what makes being a fan so fun. 
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