The Decline of the Power Player in Men's Tennis

Rob YorkSenior Writer IJuly 28, 2008

This is the first 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.

Boris Becker’s victory in the 1985 Wimbledon championships was remarkable in many ways. He was the first unseeded player to win the title, the first German, and at 17 years and 7 months, he was at the time the youngest-ever Grand Slam champion.

More than any of this, Becker’s win ushered in a style of play that was seemingly destined to take over the game. Players of this style were repeatedly referred to (and often derisively) as “big servers,” the implication being that they could do little else; that serving alone took them to the top of the sport.

Truly, for most of these players, the serve was the biggest gun in their arsenal: Becker’s huge first service and far from weak second delivery were his trademarks.

However, Becker was actually a Pure Power Player: his forehand was overwhelming, his backhand quite effective and he covered the net extremely well. In essence, his game was designed to hit winners, and he could do so with each shot.

Becker went on to win two more Wimbledons, plus a single U.S. Open and two Australian Opens, reaching the No. 1 ranking in 1991. By that year, other PPPs like Michael Stich, Goran Ivanisevic, Richard Krajicek, and guy named Sampras (more on him later) were making themselves known.

The PPPs, joined in the mid-1990s by Mark Philippoussis and Greg Rusedski, shared the big serving, penetrating ground strokes and net-attacking style that Becker had popularized. It’s true that some, particularly Rusedski, were far weaker on the backhand wing than the forehand. Others, Ivanisevic in particular, used their unbelievable serving to mask only-adequate volleys, but they affected other players in much the same way.

Throughout the decade, the PPPs were able to blast ace after ace by baseliners and pure serve-and-volleyers (who possessed greater speed and touch at net, but less potent serves and groundstrokes). Their opponents were forced to play solid tennis with few unforced errors and hope that the PPP on the other side of the net couldn’t string-together four big service returns in a single game.

While watching a PPP square off with a great baseliner made for an interesting contrast, matches featuring two of them simultaneously were often considered yawners, as points rarely lasted longer than four strokes. Many pundits feared that the PPPs would one day dominate the sport, making the game virtually unwatchable.

This never came to pass. Stich, Krajicek and eventually Ivanisevic captured only one Wimbledon apiece. Becker, who won five major titles by age 23, only added one more after that. Rusedski reached one major final and Philippoussis two, and in each case they were thoroughly outclassed by more complete players (the serving-and-volleying Patrick Rafter twice, and the indefinable style of Roger Federer once).

While these players could overpower nearly anyone, only Becker and Sampras managed to develop the hearts and minds of champions in the process. The others were prone to misfiring on big occasions and not finding ways to win when on days when they didn’t have their A games.

Also, the sheer size and aggressive style of these players made them injury-prone. Stich, Krajicek, Philippoussis (apparently) and, later, Joachim Johansson had their careers ended by chronic health problems. Players like Ivanisevic and Todd Martin (who didn’t serve as big as the others, but returned serve much better) had huge gaps in their playing exploits due to injuries.

Also, with the exception of Sampras, none of them were great movers. Thus, their purely offensive approach was necessary, as defense was a task they weren’t built to perform.

Sampras had all the strengths of PPPs and few of their weaknesses. The fact that he could hit winners at virtually any moment and moved better than many baseliners is the reason for many of his titles, while his sheer determination, especially near the end of his career, earned him the all-time record for grand slam titles (at least until Roger Federer surpasses it).

The tide began to turn against the PPP in 2000, when Marat Safin won a shockingly one-sided match over Sampras in the U.S. Open final. Ivanisevic finally got his Wimbledon in 2001, and Sampras took the Open in 2002, but Federer humbled Philippoussis at the 2003 Wimbledon, which now appears to be the PPP’s last gasp.

Safin and Federer have all the assets of a PPP: they can overpower opponents from anywhere, including the net (Safin lacks perfect form at net, but is blessed with naturally good touch). Unlike PPPs past, who were almost defined by their inability to rally indefinitely, Safin and Federer move well enough win matches from the back court. This gives them the ability to come to net only when in excellent position to do so, unlike PPPs, who sometimes came in behind less suitable approach shots.

Racquet technology proliferated, making longer rallies and more accurate passing shots possible. The Wimbledon courts were designed to play slower, and big guns like Sampras, Ivanisevic and Krajicek retired, ushering in the PPP's disappearance.

Ivo Karlovic, probably the most one-dimensional player in tennis history, represents the last of this style in the top 100, along with Ivan Ljubicic, Mario Ancic and a few others.

The previously mentioned Johansson and Paradorn Srichaphan vanished after repeated injuries. The occasionally brilliant Ljubicic and Ancic are unable to serve and volley their way past Federer and Rafael Nadal.

When Andy Roddick won his lone U.S. Open in 2003, he did so with a suspect backhand and a non-net rushing style; he was like Jim Courier with a rocket launcher for a serving arm. His subsequent attempts to improve his backhand and volleys have not brought him back to the top of the game; occasionally the results have been disastrous.

However, few tennis fans mourn the passing of this type of player. PPPs drove men’s tennis out of the public eye in the 1990s, and despite this style’s disappearance, the sport has yet to return to popularity. Most fans say a heartfelt “Good riddance” to these players, due to Federer and Nadal’s much more watchable brilliance.

Matchups between PPP’s and players with contrasting styles often led to interesting matches. Andre Agassi in particular had an untold number of great matches with Sampras, Becker, Ivanisevic, then later Philippoussis and Johansson. Even mid-90s matches between Sampras and Becker today seem revelatory in terms of the service placement, touch volleys and the passing shot angles on display.

The brilliant run of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at this year’s Australian Open shows that the PPP style can still make an impact, especially when there’s a whole field of players who never before had to adopt a strategy to counter it. Tsonga, sadly, has been injured almost ever since.

The baseline-oriented nature of today’s game has done great things for the sport, as highlight reels have much more to show, especially at Wimbledon. Every now and then, though, a difference in style is fun to watch. Once in awhile, the game could use a dose of pure power.

Just not too much.

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Visit my blog at www.rjamesyork.blogspot.com or contact me at rjamesyork@gmail.com.

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