About 11 years ago, after Pete Sampras had wrapped up a thoroughly dominant win at Wimbledon, Tennis Magazine proclaimed that he was the only true "tennis player" in a sport full of "tennis-playing athletes," at least in the men's game.
The distinction between these two phrases — one being a gifted athlete who happened to choose tennis, the other being an athlete who was conditioned to play tennis exclusively — had implications that the writer of that piece probably never imagined.
In fact, that distinction is important in order to understand both the factors at play in the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer thus far, and why Sunday's Wimbledon final may have been a significant turning point in the sport.
It's true that while Roger Federer was a child he considered a career as a footballer, but eventually decided tennis was where his future lay. Since the retirement of Sampras, Federer has replaced him as the game's purest tennis player. He hits with plenty of the modern topspin in his strokes, but they, particularly his backhand, appear to be straight out of a textbook.
His forehand, perhaps the game's best ever, spins heavily but is utilized through a more conservative grip than Nadal's. His on-court demeanor (at least in recent years) is very measured, very rarely resulting in outbursts (although, in all fairness, he's had far fewer reasons for histrionics than most other players). In keeping with today's racquet technology and baseline oriented play, he comes to net less frequently than those such as Sampras, but the technique he displays once he gets there is among the best in the world.
For all his speed and coordination, it's difficult to imagine Federer playing another sport. He can cover great distances on court quickly, but his great talent in this department is reaction time and the ability to get into position to hit the best shot possible, be it his slice backhand or devastating forehand. Perhaps he could have been successful in another athletic endeavor, but the mental image does not lend itself easily. He appears born to play tennis.
Nadal also enjoyed the non-American variety of football as a child, but there's evidence that is was his sport of choice, even if tennis was his greater talent. His serve (perhaps in part because he's naturally right-handed, but plays lefty) is the weakest shot in his game, though it no longer seems to present a weakness. Some of the punch that his serve might normally have is stolen by his delivery, which involves too much effort as his left arm goes up and not enough action as he swings through the ball.
His groundstrokes, currently the game's most devastating, should come with a "Do Not Try This at Home" disclaimer. Most players, even those who utilize heavy topspin, hit up-and-forward on the forehand; Nadal primarily hits up. Through his incredible acceleration and enormous strength, this technique allows his to hit incredible topspin, more than anybody who has ever played the game (Igor Andreev has a similar weapon in his forehand, but due to other deficiencies in his game he suffers in comparison to Rafa).
The sleeveless shirt look, pioneered by players like Tommy Haas and Carlos Moya in 2002-03 is most fully realized in Nadal, who has the best pair of biceps of any professional tennis player ever. At 6’1 and nearly 190 pounds, his BMI is greater than nearly any other in the world (try comparing it to the 170-pound Sampras, or the taller and lighter former French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten).
Watching him clench his fist after an important point, it’s not hard to picture him as a successful body builder. Seeing him chase down ball after ball on European clay indicates that he could be a champion sprinter. It could be that this match represents a turning point in terms of athletic ability, meaning that technique and tradition will soon give way to athletic ability and technology.
It appears that, 11 years after Tennis magazine’s proclamation, the Tennis-Playing Athlete is taking his revenge.
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