Defense is Not Enough
This is the third in a four-part series of articles about the abundance of power-baseliners in professional tennis today, the absence of other styles of play and what this means for the game.
Watching clips from Roland Garros in the late 70s/early ‘80s, viewers accustomed to today’s big power game will probably first notice how slowly the players seem to be hitting the ball.
With repeated viewings, however, such viewers should be struck by length of their rallies; all the more exceptional due to the microscopic size of their racquets. Those competing at Roland Garros during this period had to be long-distance runners to even be in contention. Bjorn Borg, the stoic Swede who won the last six French championships he contested, however, was more like the track itself.
Certain players lasted longer against him than others, but sooner or later the runner relents and the track remains. Watching from a television or computer screen, the amount of pace they were playing with was deceptive, but they clearly weren’t crushing forehand and backhand winners regularly. In such a matchup, Borg, the world’s fastest, most durable player was almost certain to prevail.
In 1978, Borg not only won every set he contested in Paris, he won all but 32 games. Only the hard-serving Roscoe Tanner, who probably didn’t bother to test his endurance against Borg’s, took the Swede to a tie-breaker. In the final, Guillermo Vilas, the tournament’s defending champion, took a grand total of five games. Though he was one of history’s elite clay-courters, Vilas was second-best on nearly every point played that day.
Borg was best known for his Wimbledon heroics, especially his matches with John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in London. This is probably because a) it was a greater accomplishment for a baseliner like Borg to win Wimbledon and b) there was little drama at Roland Garros because Borg wouldn’t allow the matches to become close.
It’s important to watch his clay court triumphs, however, because they display the art of counterpunching at its zenith. In all likelihood, Borg will be the last counterpuncher to be considered an all-time great. In his last title in Paris, Borg was pushed to five sets by Ivan Lendl, the avatar of the style that would one day drive all other methods from the top of the game.
Lendl’s last shot of the match was an awkward forehand slice that looked more like a concession than an attempt to win the point. Though Lendl was beaten into submission that day, his progeny, the power baseliners, would eventually take their revenge. Mats Wilander, Borg’s Swedish counterpunching successor, would be the last of his kind to dominate, when he won three of the four majors in 1988.
By the 1990s, the baseliner who did not have an offensive weapon, instead relying on speed, consistency and toughness (both physical and mental) would be overcome again and again by players with less patience but more firepower. Michael Chang would best exemplify the counterpuncher’s plight during that decade.
After his near-miraculous run through the 1989 French Open, Chang would become one of the 1990s most consistent competitors. He captured 34 titles, won more than 660 matches, got to three more major finals and eventually reached No. 2 in the world. Even so, the second major title of his career and the No. 1 ranking never came, despite his undying effort.
From 1991-94, and then again in 1996-97, the eventual U.S. Open champion had to beat Chang before taking the title. In those defeats, along with his losses in the 1995 Roland Garros and 1996 Australian Open, Chang was overpowered. None of those who defeated him, be they Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Thomas Muster or Pete Sampras, had more tenacity, and none of them could have beaten Chang in a sprint. However, both racquets and players had grown in size, and Chang would never again hoist a Grand Slam trophy above his five-foot-nine-inch frame.
At the turn of the century, there were signs that speed, consistency and determination could propel a player into the winner’s circle at majors. Lleyton Hewitt, whose two extra inches gave him a better serve and better net coverage than Chang, humbled Sampras in the 2001 U.S. Open final. Also, unlike Chang the Aussie thrived on grass, plowing through the field at the 2002 Wimbledon, losing only two sets. His opponent in that final, David Nalbandian, had also counterpunched his way there, showing that the nature of the game was drifting more and more towards the baseline.
Hewitt’s ascent, however, was well-timed: the Sampras he'd dominated in 2001 was an older, more tired version of the player who blown Chang off the court repeatedly in the 1990s. A Swiss prodigy named Roger Federer was still in the process of developing a champion’s game plan and mental strength.
Even before that, Hewitt had shown the ability to dominate individual tournaments, like 2002’s Wimbledon and Indian Wells events, but he had not swept away the competition like Wilander 14 years earlier. Later, after Federer turned into the package we’ve all become used to watching, Hewitt and all other counterpunchers would be playing for second.
The Australian lost to Federer at five of the major events played in 2004-05. In each case, it was clear that the Swiss had all of Hewitt’s strengths: his speed, his return, his passing shots and his grit, plus he could dominate with his serve and forehand. To this day, when counterpunchers like Hewitt and David Ferrer face an in-form Federer or Rafael Nadal, it’s clear that counterpunching hasn’t so much been eliminated as absorbed into the power baseliner’s arsenal. Fed and Nadal show that quickness and defense are still useful, but much more so when there’s a big forehand to go with them.
Perhaps the fact that Nikolay Davydenko is considered a counterpuncher says the most about the power in today’s game. Yes, Davydenko is fast and consistent, and yes, he doesn’t generate a ton of power with his serve. While he may not hit his groundstrokes harder than James Blake or Fernando Gonzalez, he does hit them better.
In fact, with the retirement of Andre Agassi and the decline of Marat Safin, Davydenko is cleanest hitter on tour. It is his early, sweet hitting of the ball that propelled him to No. 3 in the world for a time and helped him win two Master’s Series events, not his defense.
Nalbandian generates little pace of his own, but is swift, steady and supremely accurate, representing the best chance for a counterpuncher to reach the top of the game. However, his competitive instincts (not to mention his diet plan, evidently) show no signs of matching his talent.
It’s less noticeable than the lack of big servers or serve-and-volleyers, but the counterpuncher is going extinct, and it appears to be the natural result of the sport’s progression. Borg’s serve and groundstrokes were very heavy for his time; had he grown up with a 110-square inch graphite stick in his hand, he probably would not have become a counterpuncher. Wilander might have, but it’s doubtful he would have won seven majors with that strategy.
If games centered on big serving, volleying or defense all disappear, what will fans of the men’s game be left with?
Next week we’ll find out.
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