The media is a fickle thing. Much like poets, our words have an impact and that can be both a highly positive thing, and at the same time a terrible one.
On our good days we write pieces that inspire. Some of the articles are filled with great truths, some are poetic, and some are even damning. But as with most things in life, there is a flip side and therein lies the problem.
The media creates for its readers the lasting words and legacies of sport's greatest legends, which naturally includes tennis.
It's odd how we boil down a player to a few quick descriptive phrases. We marginalize their other considerable talents on the court in favor of the ones we find to be their greatest, most impressive, or most unique. In a sense we label them, and after a while, these players become the embodiment of these phrases and labels and we eventually see little else.
Here is a question.
Have you read an article about Pete Sampras lately? If not you might want to check one out. The best are from back during his days as a player.
We always hear about Pete's amazing serve and net game, but do you remember much else? How about that nice forehand or that deceptively effective backhand?
Yeah, if you have seen him play or are a big fan, then you already know that Sampras had much more than a serve and an impressive net game. And yet, anyone who is too young to have watched him play might not know he had an all-around great game.
Roger Federer is "balletic elegance personified." His amazing forehand and elegant playing style have been waxed about for so long that you forget sometimes that Federer can slug it out toe-to-toe with the best of them like he did in Toronto this past week against Thomas Berdych.
He has amazing footwork, great touch at the net, and so many more skills beyond his forehand, and yet, his amazing abilities are already beginning to boil down to just a couple of the amazing things he can do.
Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, has been reduced to the image of little more than a fleet-footed and powerful barbarian with a wicked forehand and a never say die attitude.
Is it true?
Yes, to a degree, but it's the oversimplification and disregard of his other skills that annoys this writer.
The fact is that this type of description five years ago would have been much more accurate. Back when he won his maiden slam he was a highly talented, yet unpolished athlete who used his defensive skills to stay in and win a match. However, over the last three years or so, and especially these days, Nadal is highly proficient in almost every part of his game.
That serve, which could barely top 105 mph as a teenager, is now regularly in the 115-120 range, and getting better every year. Instead of standing 15 feet behind the baseline, Nadal is often seen standing right on or behind the baseline and is a much more aggressive player these days.
While his forehand has improved as well, it's his backhand and net skills that have made the biggest leap in the last several years. Once, the backhand was used as a way to keep the point going and nothing more, but now it's a brutal weapon. When Nadal flattens it out and hits it cross-court, it is often for a winner.
As for his net skills, he is now as comfortable at the net as just about anyone in the game and has no trouble coming in when the moment requires it.
Nadal is simply a much better player and has more weapons to be feared and respected than the couple that people seem to think are indicative of his legacy. And that really goes with any player.
It's possible that some of this is not the media's fault though. We now live in a baseline power tennis world. In this world the forehand, backhand, and serve are the biggest weapons a player can possess. Serve and volley are nearly extinct, and the net game is not used as it once was. So it is true that part of this is due to the game changing over the years to revolve around different skills needed to win and dominate.
But even these days you need a fully varied game to win. Some matches you can win by just hammering your ground strokes, while others are tougher and you might need a wicked slice or excellent volley skills in your arsenal to win that coveted slam title.
Any player who accomplishes so much should be widely lauded for all of the skills that they possess that help them break the records, gain the fame and the enduring legacy they have worked so hard to achieve.
Nadal and Federer have honed their game over the last decade to shape it into what it needs to be in order to compete and win. Their games are varied, nuanced, and can morph and change from match to match to what is required to win. Anyone who possesses skills like that is far more than a famous forehand, a legendary serve, or an awe-inspiring backhand.
I have taken the time as of late to make sure that I don't ignore all of the skills that Federer, Nadal, and a few other players possess—that I have seen the improvement and that they truly have a full and frightening array of weapons on their hands. I hope the media starts to notice it too.
So what should the media start doing?
Doing more to let it be known that even a player who possesses the greatest forehand, backhand or serve in the history of the game has other skills as well. When you go on and on about only one thing in their arsenal, it starts to sound as if it's the only thing worth mentioning about them.
When we talk or write about players, we should make it a priority to talk about how amazing that backhand has improved or how it's not the forehand but how much better that serve has become.
I think we simply need to show that we notice how many great skills these players have instead of the two or three that have made them famous and formidable.