One of the most noteworthy qualities of tennis, and unlike most long-lived sports, is its ability to stay fresh. In tennis this has generally been due to racket and string technology, even court surfaces.
These changes lead to transitions in how the game is played, and though the changes may take time to have an impact, the players that utilize these changes prosper before their peers. These are transitional periods in tennis.
Two athletes that have utilized these transitional periods extremely well are Roger Federer and Martina Hingis, and there are a number of similarities between Federer and Hingis. Obviously both are Swiss, smart, shot-makers, great athletes. Both have classic, if slightly underpowered, games by today’s standards.
Hingis hit her peak in the transitional era between the Graf, Seles period and the Williams/Russian Amazonian era. Federer hit his stride at the end of the Sampras/Agassi era and just prior to the new era of incredibly fit, extremely powerful, men’s game.
Hingis quickly faded from the upper echelon of women’s tennis as the other players gained control of their games and power. It was Hingis inability to close out the finals in slams where her weakness showed.
With the advent of the women’s power game, Hingis, though without a doubt one the most skilled players just couldn’t stand up to the overwhelming power that the new crop of ladies was producing.
Federer has had a longer transitional period to utilize but is now having the same difficulty in the final phase of tournaments. He has prospered longer than Hingis because of the lack of top level talents in his immediate age pool.
His contemporaries were Roddick, Hewitt and Nalbandian, good players but not great players in any era. It was also the beginning of the weakest era of American and Australian tennis, the fading of the hard court game and the rise of the dirt game.
Now Federer struggles against players that have a physicality he just can’t match. Like the women’s game before, the men’s game has moved into the era of uber-athleticism.
Federer’s longevity can be attributed, in part, because men develop slower than women so the new younger players just couldn’t threaten him physically early on, except for one glaring example, and because they couldn’t quickly get some wins over Fed, he was able to psychologically dominate the field.
Obviously Federer is one of the greatest and it is doubtful anyone will match his record, but all greats records in any sport are usually set in a period where sports are transitioning. Whether it’s fitness, equipment, or environmental changes, the players that can capitalize on these changes come out ahead.
Looking back at the early years of Federer’s career you see one of the greatest ages of men’s tennis coming to a close. The Era of Sampras/Agassi and a smattering of other great players like Safin, Rafter, Courier and Ivanisevic.
It was an era of new racket technology and the beginning of the power game, brought on by rackets made of space age materials.
In players like Federer and Hewitt we saw all court players that had been raised on the power game and thrived. And of course an enigma in the big serving American, Roddick.
Of the three, Hewitt was the first to break through holding the number one spot for 80 weeks, and then Roddick for 13, all while Federer straightened out the many idiosyncrasies of his superlative game. Once he did, the Grand Slams fell in rapid succession.
It was going to be several years before a new crop would start to rise and in this period Federer capitalized. There is of course the one player who stymied Federer and that was Nadal—a precursor to the current standard of tennis—in both men and women’s, power. He plays with a physicality and extreme style of game that takes the best that clay court playing had to offer and combines it with never before seen power.
Federer is a classic tennis player. He embodies everything that most love about tennis; power, elegance, shot making, and court control. He never seems to sweat or to be overly extended. He is grace personified. But, Nadal is the future, and will go down as the most influential players of all time, in terms of how the game of tennis is played.
He is the first clay court player to truly raise beyond the dirt, to really utilize all the great aspects of the clay into an all court game—point development, endurance, patience, defense to offense transitioning and most of all, court speed.
The new era of tennis is not about big serves and fast points or smooth gracefulness, though it certainly incorporates those qualities. It’s about really, really, fit, fast, strong, hard-hitting players, that return 140 mph serves easily and have 120 mph forehands.
What’s going to be exciting is how far these futuristic athletes can push their bodies, and how those bodies will hold up to a schedule that was not based on the kind of wear and tear these players must subject their bodies to.
I wonder if the next period of tennis will be built around a physio-technology that helps bodies to sustain under these tremendous strains. Regardless we are entering the greatest era of tennis ever.