How Tennis Has Evolved over the Last Two Decades Part 2

Tribal TechContributor IIIDecember 13, 2010

Goran Ivanisevic wins 2001 Wimbledon
Goran Ivanisevic wins 2001 WimbledonGary M. Prior/Getty Images

In Part one of my article, I took a look at tennis in the 1990s and how it developed throughout that decade in terms of playing styles, technology and surfaces.  For those who missed it, please see the link here http://bleacherreport.com/articles/536539-how-tennis-has-evolved-in-the-last-two-decades-pt-1.  I would like to take a look at how tennis has moved on in the 2000s and what we can expect for the future.

Well, there is always a period of transition.  In 1990, we had established players like Lendl, Becker and Edberg fighting it out at the top with young talent emerging from Europe and America. In 2000, the established players were Sampras, Agassi, Rafter, and emerging players included Gustavo Kuerten, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, who won the 2000 US open and fought with Kuerten for the year end number one spot. 

In 2001, more new names emerged in Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Federer upset Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon and Hewitt won the US Open beating Sampras in the final. 

We also had one of the greatest Wimbledon finals of all time between Ivanisevic and Rafter, played on the third Monday because of rain.  It became known as the people’s Monday. The atmosphere will probably be never seen again in a Grand Slam final; it was more like the Davis cup.  Meanwhile, Agassi retained his Australian Open title.

The predictions of the attacking player’s demise was virtually sealed in 2002,  Pat Rafter took six months off to assess his future, Ivanisevic’s shoulder finally gave in, and Sampras was struggling (although he won the US Open).  Becker had already retired in 1999 and Krajicek was having elbow trouble.

This was symbolised in the 2002 Wimbledon final between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian   No one would have predicted that final, but it was said that with no serve and volleyers coming through, this is how Tennis would be played for the foreseeable future on all surfaces.

In the 1990s, players often changed their game depending on the surface. I discussed how players like Sampras and Becker won the Australian Open by playing much more from the baseline, and players like Kafelnikov would go to the net much more at Wimbledon.  But now it was more a case of a playing your game regardless of the surface.

In 2003, Federer won his first slam at Wimbledon. There was a lot of excitement because he played Mark Phillippoussis, with both players looking to serve and volley on first serve (Phillippoussis on both serves).  The weather was hot that year and the court was playing hard and quick.  But it would prove to be a false dawn as far as attacking tennis goes.

Federer would really find his feet in 2004 and go on a run of major wins, which hasn’t been seen before and may not be seen for some time to come in such a short period of time.  Federer dominated all of his contemporaries including Safin, Hewitt and Roddick, and won virtually every tournament he entered bar the premier clay tournaments. 

With Rafael Nadal’s arrival in 2005, who won the French Open for the first time, defeating Federer along the way, we would see a period of dominance in the men's game by two players which I haven’t seen before.  Remarkably, we’ve come to the end of 2010 and these two players are still the two to beat.  Nadal’s willingness to improve on other surfaces meant he would eventually overtake Federer as the world’s top player.

There have been new challengers emerging in the late 2000s from talented players like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Joe Wilfred Tsonga and Gael Monfils, but none of these players have been able to make an impression for the top spot.  Juan Martin Del Potro looks capable after his US Open win in 2009 but has been injured all year and will need time to re-establish himself.

Why has men's tennis evolved in this direction? There are a few factors which need to be considered.

In 2001, some clay court-based players including Alex Corretja boycotted Wimbledon, complaining about the seeding system.  Then world number one Gustavo Kuerten skipped Wimbledon for a break, citing fatigue after his French Open triumph.  That forced the Committee to come up with 32 seedings instead of 16.  But it also seems to correspond with Wimbledon attempting to slow down the grass further, with the view of getting the clay players to play every year.

Indoor surfaces were also getting slower and slower.  By 2004, many tournaments which traditionally used indoor carpet had torn it up for harder surfaces instead.  Stuttgart lost its status to Madrid, who used a hard court.  It was getting more difficult to play attacking tennis anywhere on the tour.  Whereas in the past, clay players would play all year in Europe and South America to gain points, they were now able to play on other surfaces and make an impression.

At the same time, the serve and volley tactic was no longer adopted by the all-court players with superior skills, but unfortunately was to become the domain of the journeyman with players like Max Myrni, Wesley Moody, Micahel Llodra and Taylor Dent. 

Serve and volleyers were now no longer able to return serve well, and had suspect groundstrokes and movement, a far cry from an Edberg, who has one of the best backhands of all time despite being an attacking player.  Slower surfaces and modern polyester strings also meant it was relatively easier to return serve and hit passing shots, even though guys serve fast.

Therefore, in the last eight years, there has been a homogenization of surfaces in terms of pace.  Even the Australian Open which had its own unique high bouncing rebound ace, has now become a medium paced hard court since 2008.  Tennis is now virtually played on two surfaces all year round, a variety of outdoor and indoor hard courts, and clay in Europe and South America. 

These changes have coincided with the fact the men's game is not as versatile as before and net play a surprise tactic if anything. Also, players with great net skills like Tsonga, Gasquet and Murray have not gravitated to attacking play as they might have done in previous generations.

The ranking points system has also undergone two sets of changes since 2000, where players now get 1000 points for winning a Masters tournament and 2000 for a major tournament. 

In 1994 when Sampras won Miami, he got 350 points! I also wrote an article earlier this year, where I argued that the best-of-three-sets format of the Masters finals is hindering the development of younger players due to the fact they are not getting experience of five set finals. 

I believe this has also allowed Federer and Nadal to stay ahead because they had experience before the changes in 2007, these changes have not helped players like Andy Murray. 

The women's game has been particularly competitive in the 2000s in a way that hasn’t happened previously since rankings began in the 1970s.  The top spot has revolved around Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati, Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

2000 through 2003 was a particularly strong period for women's tennis. Serena Williams won four slams in a row from 2002 to 2003 but injuries prevented her from long term domination.  The pack just behind Serena was particularly strong and I think will go down as one of the best generation of players in history.

Unfortunately for Martina Hingis, her time at the top really came to an end in 2001. She was continually thwarted at Grand Slam level, and her painful loss to Jennifer Capriati in the 2002 Australian Open final was very much the end for her. There were also great matches and rivalries between Capriati and Serena Williams, Henin and Mauresmo, Henin and Clisjters, Davenport and Henin, Davenport and Serena Willaims, plus Davenport and Venus Williams.

2004 saw the arrival of the Russians with Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova winning slam tournaments.  Other players like Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva and Nadia Petrova were also making impressions at the highest level.  That’s reflected in the fact that Russia would win the Federation cup in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008.  However, it can also be said that despite such strength in depth, the Russian players have not demonstrated the temperament required to become dominant players.

One of the things that mark out the generation of the early 2000s is the versatility. It reminds me of the men's game of the early 1990s in that respect.  You had the power and athleticism of Venus Williams, the tactical nous and power of Serena Williams (who has the greatest serve in women's Tennis), the ball striking ability of Davenport and Clisjters, the determination of Capriati, the guile of Hingis and the all court games of Henin and Mauresmo with great one hand backhands and net play.

With so much variation it was impossible for any one player to dominate as in previous decades. Unfortunately, with so many players retiring early (and making comebacks!), plus major injuries, the level of women's tennis has dropped quite markedly since the end of 2007 when Henin and Sharapova played the amazing WTA final in Madrid ( I was fortunate to be there). 

We’ve now seen a succession of number one players who don’t appear to have the game to win major titles or don’t seem to handle pressure well.  These players are Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic and now Caroline Wozniacki.  Ana Ivanovic won the French Open in 2008 and got to world number one, but went on an incredible slump in form and confidence. 

There is also a lack of versatility currently since the retirement of Amelie Mauresmo.  I am impressed with the commitment to aggressive play by Vera Zvonareva and Victoria Azarenka, but time will tell whether they can win major titles.

Well, that’s a comprehensive round up of the last two decades of professional tennis.  It will be interesting to see what the next nine years bring, and which young players will be challenging the top spots in future. History suggests that the changing of the guard usually takes place in the third year of each decade.  Let’s see what happens.

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