Tennis Aced By Evert, Connors, Borg's Two-Fisters and Technology

James FriedmanContributor IJune 3, 2010

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I remember when tennis was on television every weekend. I could watch Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. I end the litany with Evert, Connors and Borg because, in retrospect, their revolutionary two-fisted backhands unwittingly and regrettably have eroded tennis’ popularity. Exploiting this unconventional stroke, Evert, Connors and Borg captivated audiences with their precise shot placements, inscrutable stamina and uncommon determination.


But it would be a mistake to characterize stamina and determination as being synonymous with supreme athleticism. The two-handed backhand is easier to master than a one-handed backhand, and its shorter stroke was ready-made for the shift to composite racquet technology that emerged in the mid-1980s. There is little need for baseliners to gain expertise in a serve and volley skill set, and so Evert begat Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and countless baseliners who thrive now. Even Serena and Venus Williams, ranked first and second in the world, and who possess superb volleys (as a team they have won eleven Grand Slam doubles titles), do not venture to net in singles with much frequency given composite racquet technology. No current female players emulate the games of Navratilova, Margaret Smith Court or King. Connors and Borg spawned Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal, among many other automatons. 


There are notable exceptions that have demonstrated an aggressive, attacking, all-court game, such as Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, and at times, Roger Federer. But not enough contemporary players employ sufficient diversity in their games to inspire me to watch. I’d prefer to have 24’s Jack Bauer rip off my fingernails with needle nose pliers than watch the mind-numbing, baseline tennis of today. And millions would seem to agree: for example, reports television viewership was “5.8% of all U.S. households tuning in per telecast” of the 1980 and 1981 U.S Opens and “by 2007, the average rating had decreased to 1.7%.”


While Evert, Connors and Borg’s two-fisters fundamentally altered tennis, racquet technology has robbed the sport of dynamic, all-court performers. Because racquets constructed with high-tech materials (graphite, fiberglass, boron and Kevlar) that provide power far exceeding that created by wood racquets, tennis has changed radically. It has become increasingly difficult for players using serve and volley strategies to get to net in time to execute a first volley. Often, the service return struck by bulked up players armed with powerful composite racquets fly by their opponents who rush the net. According to, contemporary composite racquets have up to 40% larger heads, increasing the size of the “sweet spot” and allowing off-center shots to be as effective as ones hit cleanly. Today’s racquets also are stiffer—hence, more powerful—and are as much as 30% lighter than the “woodies” of the pre-composite era.  And so, players who would have been inclined to exploit skillful net play are reticent to do so because of returns zipping past them at the highest speeds in the history of the game.


And then there is the serve. The ten fastest serves ever recorded each have occurred during the composite racquet era. Roddick tops the list with a 155 mph serve launched in 2004. Players with few other weapons can enjoy long careers if armed with powerful serves. Unreturnable serves and bonehead strategies have made tennis unwatchable.


I won’t be tuning in to the French Open or any other of this year’s Grand Slams. Though Serena Williams and Andy Murray may rush net every so often and remind me of those long ago intriguing matches between Laver and Rosewall and King and Court, I wouldn’t count on it. There are far too many Nadalesque matches with countless, predictable baseline exchanges and too many of Roddick’s irretrievable cannonball serves to distract me from the excitement of the Cooking Channel.