The power game

I have just watched the quarterfinal match between the reigning King of Clay and double-defending champion of the French Open, Rafael Nadal, and the man he used to look up to as a young boy, Carlos Moya, who is also a previous winner of the French Open.

What was interesting about this contest—besides the contrasting styles of play and the fact that mentor was up against student—was the number of winners to marvel at in the first two sets of the match Nadal won quite easily (6-4, 6-3, 6-0).

It is not just the fact that some of those winners were simply incredible but that, as incongruous as this might sound, there were so many winners at this early stage of the contest.

You see, tennis is a funny game.
The person who eventually wins the match could well be the one who has hit the least winners. You may, in fact, choose not to go for winners at all. Instead you could force your opponent to make costly errors.

When Andre Agassi matured as a player and learned that power and eye-catching winners were not all there was to the game—and that he could be smart and play in such a way that his opposite number would commit numerous unforced errors—he employed this tactic a lot, particularly against younger and less experienced foes. But this is where the similarities end between Agassi and most of today’s players. Their games are based on power rather than finesse, variety, a deftness of touch and the sublime ingenuity of thought and execution that can make tennis such a beguilingly sweet sport to watch.

The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, arrived on the circuit with the aggressive, power-based approach that, in the long run, would not prove to be good for the game. The way some of the women players serve is just plain unbelievable. Such is the power they pack into their shots that the hugely talented player with an excellent all-court game, Martina Hingis, once famously (and controversially) compared Amelie Mauresmo to a man because of her imposing physique.

Is it any wonder then that Hingis, small and delicately built, could not compete against the Williams sisters. Just look at what happened on Tuesday when Serena Williams faced the Belgian, Justine Henin, in the women’s quarterfinals. Four or five years ago Williams would arguably have easily dispatched Henin. But because they realised a long time ago that power was the name of the game, the women players went to work on their upper body strength. So whoever hits the ball the hardest, with a little bit of accuracy, stands the best chance of winning. Is it any wonder then that those who win these days tend to do so because their opponent relied solely on power, thereby failing to control their strokes.

Of course, the whole concept of power in tennis is not new. Just look at how manufacturers have made balls lighter, racquets bigger and courts faster—especially the rebound hard courts. And, yes, there have always been heavy hitters in tennis.

Remember those intense clashes between the legendary Steffi Graf of Germany and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario of Spain? Those women could hit the ball as hard as many of today’s players. But they could do more than that: a half-volley here, a drop shot there, a lob or some devilishly angled winner. One could watch not once, but many times over, long and arresting rallies of every stroke imaginable.

As you read this, chances are Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova might have already qualified for the final. Both are immensely talented and ambitious players capable of upsetting each other. Whether or not they will stick to the baseline and try to out-grunt and out-power each other is moot. But since very few players serve and volley or even attack the net these days, expect a contest that will be fought mainly from the baseline.

Nothing wrong with that; after all, some of the public’s favourite players have been baseliners. But there is more to the game of tennis than just pounding the damn ball. And if it is Rodger Federer versus Nadal, as expected, on Sunday, then at least we know one of them stands the chance of winning as many points at the net as from the baseline. And yes, there will be a great number of clear winning shots.

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