Power Baseliners and the Wave of the Future

Rob YorkSenior Writer IAugust 18, 2008


This is the fourth 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.

When fans and commentators are asked to name the greatest tennis player of all time, Jimmy Connors is usually not one of those selected. He won eight major titles, a considerable haul, but significantly less than Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Also, unlike those more complete players, his mediocre serve and awkward-looking volleys also disqualify him in the minds of most experts.

Back in 1974, however, it appeared that Connors might dominate the sport for all time, having won every grand slam event contested that year save Roland Garros, where he chose not to play. In both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, Connors destroyed another all-time great, the Australian Ken Rosewall. At nearly 40 years of age, the Rosewall probably no longer had the endurance to play his best tennis throughout a two-week event. Even so, it was shocking to see an eight-time grand slam champion acquire a total of eight games in six sets against the hard-hitting American.

Connors would never have much of a serve or textbook volleys. However, his strengths – the never-before-seen aggression on service returns, the flat, overpowering groundstroke, and the bulldog tenacity amounted to much more than the sum of their parts. In a game of counterpunchers and serve-and-volleyers, Connors’ aggressive baseliner approach was revolutionary and it took time for the other players to catch up with it.

In time, other players would find ways of countering Connors’ game plan, but his was the beginning of the movement that would eventually take over tennis. While he may not have been the greatest of all time, he now appears to have been one of the most influential. Besides Connors, there were four other events that lead to the ascension of the power baseliner.

Ivan LendlLendl’s return of serve was somewhat less brilliant than Connors’, but the iron Czech had a bigger serve and a trend-setting level of fitness. He introduced the sport to the concept of the “big forehand,” which replaced the volley, and eventually the serve as the primary offensive weapon in the sport.

Lendl also didn’t do what Connors did best, which was to turn the atmosphere at his matches into prizefights in which Jimbo would assume the role of Ali. On the other hand, Lendl’s businesslike approach to the game kept him at No. 1 for 270 weeks, took him to a record 19 Grand Slam finals and made him immune to the off-speed pitches of players like Miloslav Mecir and Brad Gilbert.

Gilbert, who had solid records against Connors, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, lost all 16 of his matches with Lendl. In his book, Winning Ugly, Gilbert referred the Czech as “The Terminator.” He was considered less talented than John McEnroe and Boris Becker, and designation he doesn’t mind, especially since he won more major singles titles than either of them. As he once told Tennis magazine, “I had a talent for hard work.”

Jim CourierCourier is the least distinguished name on this list, with “only” four Grand Slam wins and a career that began its descent only two years after his first major title. Even so, there’s no disputing Courier’s evolutionary role in the sport. He won the 1991 Roland Garros title by taking Lendl’s fitness and forehand-centered approach to the game to the nth degree. In Winning Ugly, Gilbert referred to Courier as “Terminator II.” After bulldozing his way to two Roland Garros wins, two Australian Open titles and the No. 1 ranking, his approach caught on.

By the mid-1990s, Courier’s more talented peers like Sampras and Agassi began incorporating his fitness and determination into their games. Then, dirt-baller's like Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster, who were power baseliners with games custom-built for clay, made Courier obsolete in Paris, the scene of his greatest triumphs. By the mid-90s, the huge hitters like Thomas Enqvist and Tommy Haas may not have had Courier’s winning instincts, but their game plans made his untenable.

Courier’s legacy, however, would live on.

Andre Agassi – Had Agassi not enjoyed his late-‘90s resurgence, his return of serve and ability to strike the ball earlier than anyone else might still have revolutionized the game. His eventual success at winning all four majors, however, showed that it was the power baseliner approach that would allow players to contend on all surfaces, rather than specializing in just one or two (a point later proved by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic).

Even at his best, it would appear that Agassi’s game did not match up well against Sampras: the latter had a better serve, better volleys, and better lateral movement. He could also generate more power off the forehand. How then, was Agassi able to test Sampras and become No. 1? Because, like Connors, his strengths weren’t just good; they were unprecedented. Agassi’s ability to return 130 mph serves harder and more accurately than they arrived, plus his ability to hit the ball earlier and more accurately than any other player made him one of a kind.

When Agassi truly learned the lesson provided by Jim Courier and became the fittest player on tour in 1999, he showed the level of dedication that would be necessary to dominate from here on. Today, the failure of unquestionably gifted players like Marcos Baghdatis and David Nalbandian to put up consistent results have shown that talent, not sufficiently trained, will never be enough again.

Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal– Many tennis purists will criticize the decision to lump these two together: Federer is their last, best hope for tradition, while Nadal is seen as a kind of muscular, sleeveless-shirt-wearing and trophy-biting antichrist. Federer is technically perfect, overwhelming opponents with the greatest array of weapons ever assembled in one man. Nadal’s strokes are wholly unorthodox, but his speed and the topspin in his groundstroke is as revolutionary as the Connors backhand or the Agassi return.

There is at least one way in which these two men are alike.

Throughout the open era, those players described as greatest athletes or greatest talents have traditionally taken the aggressive approach: Laver, McEnroe and Sampras were considered the greatest talents of their respective ages, and net-rushers like Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Patrick Rafter often had the word “athletic” used to describe their play.

Though they are different in many ways, Federer and Nadal both seek to win by overpowering their opponents from the baseline. Also, they both represent the pinnacle of not only athletic ability in today’s game, but also fitness and determination. Certain players, like Marat Safin, Gael Monfils and the surging Juan Martin del Potro appear to have the athletic ability to rival the top players, but none of them has yet shown the commitment needed to dominate.

They have adopted the approach that was invented by Connors and then modified by Lendl, Courier and Agassi, propelling it to new heights of athletic ability. Because both men are baseliners, their points are longer than those between net rushers. Because of their similar physical and mental gifts, their match at Wimbledon is already being called the best of all time. The practitioners of other styles, like big servers, serve and volleyers and counterpunchers have been driven from the top ranks with no return on the horizon.

This creates an environment in which nearly everyone plays the game in the same way, making it harder to find a contrast in styles, like there was between Sampras/Agassi or Connors/McEnroe. It also means that players like Nadal and Federer face less imposing competition in the early rounds: After all, if they can defeat the Lleyton Hewitts and the James Blakes in the latter rounds, what threat do the Jarkko Nieminens pose in round three?

The parity has done some good things for the sport, however. There is much more to show on the highlight reels than there was during the days when Boris Becker was facing Goran Ivanisevic in the latter rounds of events. The game has become truly international, with Europeans staring down North Americans, South Americans and Asian/Pacific contenders. Also, rangy, imposing new athletes like del Potro show the potential to take the game to greater heights than ever before.

The other styles of play are gone, and may be missed occasionally. However, with the new power baseliners, the future of tennis looks brighter than ever.