How Tennis Has Evolved in the Last Two Decades: Part I

Tribal TechContributor IIIDecember 6, 2010

Pat Rafter wins 1998 US Open
Pat Rafter wins 1998 US OpenGary M. Prior/Getty Images

As 2010 draws to a close, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how tennis has changed from the 1990s to today in terms of technology and strategy.

If you take a simplistic view (many people do including certain sections of the media), then you can say the 1990s was the decade of the big serve and the 2000s was the decade of the big ground strokes and staying away from net.

It’s a bit more complex than that, but the change in technology and surfaces has meant tennis is now a different game than 15 years ago, and even 10 years ago.  Tennis was a more diverse game with different styles of play in the top 10 with the surfaces varying quite a lot throughout the year.

Throughout the 1990s the top 10 revolved around Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang, Patrick Rafter, Richard Krajicek, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Gustavo Kuerten, Alex Corretja, Sergei Brugera, Michael Stich, Marcelo Rios, Tim Henman, Goran Ivanisevic, Thomas Muster and Carlos Moya.

The 1990s was the era of fast grass, indoor carpet, rebound ace, medium-paced hard courts and slow red clay.  The top reflected that there was a lot of diversity in styles of play with the battle lines very much drawn between attackers and baseliners. However, during this particular era, it was the all court players who gravitated towards attacking net play.

There was also the attempt to slow the game down as early as 1994 when the Wimbledon final was contested on a very hot day between Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic, which had zero rallies and serves consistently between 125–135 mph.  I remember back in 1995 there were reports that Wimbledon had changed the composition of the grass to slow down the game.  

During that period, the Australian Open was played on rather slow high bouncing rebound ace, which was introduced in 1988 and definitely helped the baseliners. Winners included Ivan Lendl in 1990, Jim Courier in 1992 and 1993, Andre Agassi in 1995, Petra Kora in 1998 and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 1999.

Pete Sampras won the event twice in 1994 and 1997, but served and volleyed nowhere near as much as he did at Wimbledon.  The same can be said of Boris Becker, who won the event in 1991 by beating Ivan Lendl in a baseline bash.  Becker also won in 1996, defeating Michael Chang in four sets.

Red clay during the 1990s was very much the domain of the European and South American players.  Jim Courier won the event twice in 1991 and 1992 with his great forehand and Andre Agassi made the final three times, finally winning in 1999. 

Besides that, the event was dominated by Europeans and South Americans from Andres Gomez in 1990 to Carlos Moya in 1998. Brugera in 1993 and 1994, Muster in 1995 and Kafelnikov in 1996 make up the list of winners.  Back then it was virtually impossible for an attacking player to win the French Open.  

Sampras, Krajicek, Becker, Rafter all made semifinals but no further.  Michael Stich got to the final in 1996 but lost to Kafelnikov.  The interesting thing is that it’s reported the balls used were quite heavy back then compared to today.

Meanwhile at Wimbledon it was the opposite.  Only three baseliners made it to the finals in 10 years.  Andre Agassi beat Goran Ivanesivic in 1992 in five sets, Jim Courier lost to Sampras in 1993 and Malavai Washington lost to Krajicek in 1996.  Cedric Pioline got to the final in 1997 losing to Sampras, but Cedric is in the Todd Martin camp of all court player who could play from net and baseline with equal aplomb. 

Sampras won the tournament six out of 10 years in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998 and 1999, whilst Edberg won in 1990, Michael Stich in 1991 and Richard Krajicek in 1996.

The US Open was seen as the leveler, the surface that offered all types of players an equal chance to succeed.  However, it used to be said that only the best players win the US Open (and that still applies).  It was certainly true that in the other three major tournaments, you could have a winner who would never win another major tournament anywhere else, but that wasn’t true of the US Open. 

The tournament was primarily dominated by attacking players with Sampras winning in 1990, 1993, 1995 and 1996, Edberg in 1991 and 1992 and Rafter in 1997 and 1998.  Andre Agassi bucked that trend winning in 1994 and 1999.

Looking at the list of winners at major championships in the 1990s, you clearly see that attacking players dominated Wimbledon and US Open, whilst baseliners dominated Australian and French Open.  Becker and Sampras were the only two attacking players to win at the Australian Open, because both players were good from the baseline as well which is always needed on a higher bouncing surface.

In the women's game, the pattern of the 1990s really followed the pattern of the 1980s where very few players dominated the rest of the field: Steffi Graf and Monica Seles in the first half of the decade, Hingis from 1997 to 1999. 

However, by the end of 1997, a new type of power player was emerging on the women's tour with players like Mary Pierce, Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams.  Those players made it much harder for Martina Hingis to dominate after 1997 and set the way women's tennis would be played in the 2000s, where power and athleticism became the most important aspects of women's Tennis.

Other key developments of the 1990s included the advancements in racket and string technology.  By the end of the decade, many of the top players were playing with vastly different racquets and strings, which were much more flexible and strung at lower tensions.  Carlos Moya played with an early Babolat frame in the 1997 Australian Open final.

Remarkably, Sampras bucked that trend with a very heavy racket loaded with lead tape.  Incidentally, the racket he used (Wilson Pro Staff 85) ceased production in St. Vincent in 1988!  And Sampras bought a huge stash.  So it's incredible Sampras stayed ahead so long with that racket using natural gut strings and strung very tightly.  Needless to say his skill level was exceptional.

Lastly, many exceptionally skilled servers were around in the 1990s.  It’s as if all of the greatest serves in tennis history were crammed into one 10-year period.  Servers included Sampras, Mark Phillippoussis, Greg Rusedeski, Richard Krajicek, Michael Stich, Boris Becker and Goran Ivanesivic.  Even the likes of Todd Martin, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier had very good serves as well.  The one thing these players possessed was the ability to combine slice and topspin at pace. 

It was all part of the skills set—applying slice to volleys to keep the ball low, plus the slice backhand strategy.  But the ability to swing the ball with slice away from the returner on the ad court at pace is one of the most vital skills of these guys and Sampras in particular, allowing him to hit big second serves, including aces. It's the one serve which is almost impossible to return and one skill that diminished in the 2000s.

I will cover the Noughties (2000s) in my next article and how tennis has changed further still in terms of surfaces and playing styles.

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