Modern Tennis: 5 Key Changes Since the Creation of "Le Jeu De Palm"

Eduardo AfiniContributor IIIOctober 6, 2011

Modern Tennis: 5 Key Changes Since the Creation of "Le Jeu De Palm"

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    The earliest known form of tennis is a game called “le jeu de paume,” which is French for “game of the palm” and was played in 13th-century France, solely by people of nobility, who used to strike the ball with their hands.

    The racket was eventually incorporated into the game, and it was spread through the other social classes. Nevertheless, it was played solely in the amateur level until the first quarter of the 20th century.

    American Bill Tilden was he first player to turn professional, in 1930. In 1932 he promoted his own tour, playing around the world against Czechoslovakia’s Karel Kusuluth.

    Tilden's pioneering move worked as a springboard for names like Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales to start pursuing their own professional careers.

    Until late in the 1960s, only amateurs were allowed to play in the events organized by the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF), the governing body of tennis at the time, so professional tennis was purely played as head-to-head duels.

    The year of 1968 represents the beginning of the Open Era in tennis, with the French Open being the first Grand Slam tournament to be played by both amateurs and professionals.

    Without getting too technical in the analysis, this slideshow will illustrate five key changes in the game that have taken place as tennis evolved into the modern era. 

1) Shot Variation

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    Modern tennis is characterized by powerful ground strokes and short points, with players attempting to go for winners very early in the rally.

    A play called “one-two punch” (the name was inherited from boxing), in which a big service sets up a forehand winner, best describes how the game is played today.

    Back in the 1960s and even early 1970s, it was possible to see a wider range of shots. The same point could include a top spin, a slice, a drop shot, a volley and a lob.

    As the players were not as strong and the wood rackets did not generate as much power as today, better strategy and a lot more patience were required in order for a single point to be won.

2) Net Game

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    Modern equipment and the advent of the two-handed backhand made the life of purely serve-and-volley players as miserable as it can be.

    Players like John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, and more recently Patrick Rafter and Tim Henman were once considered aggressive due to their constant charges to the net.

    With the evolution of the return of service and passing shots, again largely triggered by equipment evolution and two-handed backhands, these aggressive players paradoxically became the ones being attacked, and their style of play vanished from the game. 

3) Physical Conditioning

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    Prior to the 1980s, players' preoccupation with their physical fitness was mainly related to quickness on their feet and cardiovascular conditioning, which would make them fast enough to run balls down and play through long matches.

    It wasn’t until the mid-80s that the gym became part of the daily routine of the players. In addition to quickness and stamina, priorities included muscle building, upper-body strength, massage, specific fatigue-recovery exercises, and special care with nutrition.

    Today’s players are true athletes, and the top ones travel with entourages that includes a physical trainer, physical therapist and nutritionist. Back in the days, coaches and wives were lucky if hey saw their players perform in a different country.

4) Players' Relationships

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    Today’s professional approach to the game leads players to be publicly respectful of each other, with interviews and press conferences full of clichés and politically correct statements.

    In addition, particularly on the top level of the game, since players travel with a full team that includes family and friends, it is rare to see rivals socializing off the court.

    Perhaps most people would agree that the more open rivalry and back-and-forth trash talk that existed in the Connors-McEnroe-Lendl era brought some extra spice and attractiveness to the game.

    A great story from 1979 US Open, often told by John McEnroe, recounts a match between Big Mac and Ilie Nastase in which the wild Romanian was disqualified from the match after refusing to continue play due to an umpire’s decision (Nastase said he wasn’t ready for a service return and wanted the point played over).

    Amazingly, the tournament director overturned the umpire’s decision, the match continued and McEnroe eventually won.

    But the best part is when both players met in the locker room after the match and Nastase simply asked McEnroe, as if nothing extraordinary had happened: “Okay, John, where are we going to dinner tonight?" And of course McEnroe had a good laugh, and they did go eat together.

    It is also known that, a little further back, in the 1950s and early 1960s, players used to gather for night outs in which lots of partying and drinking were part of their schedule.

5) Money

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    Bjorn Borg is considered one of the most accomplished players of all time, despite what Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been doing. When he retired, his career earnings accounted for a little over $3,500,000.

    Andy Murray has made nearly the same amount of money in 2011 alone, with only two titles in the year, and has yet to win a Grand Slam tournament in his career.

    Thirty years ago, John McEnroe made around US$30,000 for his US Open win. Novak Djokovic made US$1,800,000 for his 2011 title alone, and an extra US$500,000 for being runner up to Mardy Fish in the US Open series.

    These figures speak for themselves and give the dimension of the kind of business the game has become. And probably how much the players from the past regret not having been born a few years later!

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