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By David Zakhodin
Despite the aura of excitement that surrounded the French Open final when Novak Djokovic captured his elusive Roland Garros title to complete the career Grand Slam, this past fortnight in Paris did not feel like it featured a premier tennis event. When looking forward to watching the world’s top players, we tennis fans usually think of the four Grand Slams as the pillars of the collective pleasure we obtain from watching our favorite players compete at the highest level. However, these past several years the French Open has failed to hold up its end of the bargain in terms of creating excitement and drama. While the lack of energy at Roland Garros can be pinned on a variety of factors, the bulk of the blame begins with a series of poor decisions made by the French Federation of Tennis.
In order to analyze the state of incompetence surrounding Roland Garros, we must begin by highlighting what has been already discussed extensively in the tennis world. For several years now the French Federation of Tennis (which we will from now on call FFT) has pondered the idea of either moving the tournament to a new venue in Paris or putting a roof on Court Philippe Chatrier as a part of a whole renovation process. While the latter proposal has been avidly condemned by residents of Boulogne, the neighborhood in which Roland Garros is located, there has also been a lack of enthusiasm or capital to begin the process of relocating the tournament to another venue. So now the FFT is stuck in an inconvenient arrondissement of Paris with a tournament venue that is the smallest of the four Slams and has limited potential for innovation. Since they’re unwilling to expediently invest in new facilities (there are vague plans in place for 2020), perhaps the organizers of the tournament define innovation as opening a new Snapchat account this year and using clever emoticons on player’s faces to entertain their mobile fans.
Having already identified the French Open’s lack of desire to rapidly improve, let’s examine arguably the most culpable group of all: the fans. In the speech following any championship match, the finalists of a tournament always proclaim how much they appreciate the fans and say how without them, the tournament would not be possible. At the French Open, we are clearly seeing the tournament go forward this year without the help of fans. First, it began with the event’s first day when defending champion Stan Wawrinka took the court for a compelling five set match against the feisty Lukas Rosol. A murky day filled with rain delays made the absence of fans in nosebleed seats permissible, but the most disgraceful image was the empty Presidents’ Box (the set of black colored seats in the lowest section behind the player on the far end of the court) that includes seats reserved for FFT dignitaries. If I recall correctly, never have I seen the Royal Box at Wimbledon empty when the defending champion has played his opening match. At Roland Garros, there was nearly no one. If the people to whom the tournament belongs aren’t going to show any enthusiasm for the product they are putting out, what sort of message does it send to the fans who paid ridiculous prices to get those seats?
While the narrative is trending toward fans being at fault for the incompetence at Roland Garros, evidence has shown otherwise. Over the course of the French Open’s history, the French public has often been depicted as extremely critical of players and sometimes extremely unkind. Say what you want about the crowd, but it was their attitude that always brought a special signature to the epic matches that have taken place on Court Philippe Chatrier. However, this signature quality may also be the French crowd’s biggest flaw, its cynicism. If the French public has overtly been criticized for failing to embrace a legend in nine-time champion Rafael Nadal who showed them his love by burying himself in clay after every victory, why would they inconvenience themselves and come watch the one-time champion Stan Wawrinka on a typical rainy day in Paris?
This brings us to the next issue that has plagued the French Open: miserable weather. However, we have an example of three other Majors who have many a time been delayed by rain. The Australian Open was the first to act and now has three stadiums covered by retractable roofs. The U.S. Open had to play the men’s championship on a Monday for five consecutive years due to weather delays, and now they are in the process of installing a retractable roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium. But Wimbledon, I bet the FFT thought that never in a million years would the All England Club, the epitome of old school tradition, invest an unreasonable amount of money to address something as unpredictable as the weather. Yet they did. Not only has the roof at Wimbledon allowed play to continue in the gloomy London summer, but it has also created an atmosphere in which matches can continue past twilight. They were proactive and prudent; Jean Gachassin, the FFT president, was too busy talking on the phone mid match during Sunday’s final and upgrading to an ugly shaped podium for trophy ceremonies.
In conjunction with the lack of innovation and proactivity at Roland Garros, the previously mentioned twilight remains an issue for the tournament year after year. Even though some may argue that the threat of darkness enhances the drama and quality of a match (e.g. Nadal vs Djokovic 2012), we get too many extreme cases of the tournament being delayed the following day as a result of bad weather and matches postponed due to darkness. Additionally, this builds unnecessary angst in players who often complain about the rescheduling of postponed matches as well as poor court conditions through which they are forced to play through a drizzle due to the tournament being behind schedule. I’m not saying this isn’t a problem at Wimbledon, the other major that does not sport a night session, but the darkness issue is magnified at Roland Garros where there is neither a roof nor light to protect certain matches from the elements.
For years now all of these combined external factors have begun to build a grey cloud over the French Open, and for the first time it seems that the cloud is seeping through our television and affecting the experience of us viewers. Believe it or not, it’s difficult to get pumped for a quarterfinal match between Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych when there is nearly no one in the stands for the first set and a half, and the weather is once again damp and reminiscent of a typical rainy day in Paris. In fact, in just this year’s French Open there has already been one full washout day (the first of its kind in sixteen years) and two days where tennis was played for little more than several hours.
Ultimately, despite all the negative vibes surrounding the season’s second Grand Slam, there is one entity that has the power to enhance our experience in a way that may supersede all of the tournament’s other shortcomings: the media. Just as we’ve seen the media elevate Donald Trump to a presidential candidacy in this country, we’ve seen the media turn sport into a paramount part of our daily lives. However, with the French Open, nothing could be further from the truth. The source of the problem is a dumbfounding tug of war battle between ESPN, TennisChannel, and NBC for majority television rights of the tournament. First, there’s NBC who has consistently televised the final with the intention of building a championship sports network. Props to NBC for having a stronghold on the second weekend of the tournament, but to allow them to have multiple days of coverage (including a men’s semifinal match) where the match is only shown live on the east coast is a terrible experience for viewers on the other side of the country who want to watch live or on DVR. Then, there’s TennisChannel which has lost virtually all of its live match coverage at the other slams and is desperately clinging on to Roland Garros for pride purposes. Well, here’s an idea Tennis Channel: if you want to televise the French Open live, spend more money to beat out the other networks and spend less on Bill Macatee’s failed French Open Tonight show (which has since been cancelled). And for ESPN it’s very simple; if they’re not going to outspend FOX for the rights to televise Big Ten College Football or U.S. Open Golf, then maybe they ought to buy first to last ball coverage of the French Open from NBC and TennisChannel. We’ve seen how successful ESPN has been televising the other three majors for a whole fortnight; there’s no reason they wouldn’t be able to do the same in Paris while simultaneously making something out of nothing in terms of the current viewer experience. The platform is there, but it’s difficult to make use of it when ESPN3 doesn’t televise the outside courts or when ESPN only has a coverage window of three hours at a time when most of us are still asleep. Because these three media conglomerates would rather cut their own costs than swallow their pride and come to a contractual conclusion for finding an optimal way to televise the tournament, French Open coverage will continue to be ragged. Thus, disenchanted viewers will have nothing to keep them in front of the TV whereas the hardcore fans will watch in misery. And if the lack of coherence in American television wasn’t enough to detract the French Open, then look no further than French television who on this Sunday’s final assigned journalist Nelson Monfort to interview Murray’s camp during the match. Not only is such an interview inappropriate during the championship match (usually happens in earlier rounds), but it caused such a stir that Murray yelled and complained to the chair umpire in between points about Monfort’s presence in his box.
If a combination of poor location, arrogant fans, bad weather, and disappointing media coverage weren’t enough to drag the French Open into the dirt (pun intended), then here are two final examples as to why the FFT is the worst run tennis organization (and that’s saying something considering the USTA is in play). The French Open does this idiotic scheduling where they have both men’s and women’s quarterfinals, on their respective day, playing simultaneously on Court Philippe Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen. In 2012, I came back from school and had to switch channels back and forth (ESPN3 had been shut off at this junction of the tournament) between two five set marathons featuring Djokovic vs. Tsonga and Federer vs. Del Potro. Why the FFT would schedule two primetime matches featuring the best players in the world at the same time when there was an opportunity to attract more fans had the matches been played at different times is beyond me.
Lastly, perhaps you the optimistic reader may be telling yourself that the FFT has a lot of room for improvement considering its current inadequacies. However, let us not forget that this is an organization whose internal controls are so bad that they allowed two security threats to take place on Court Philippe Chatrier within the span of four years. First, it allowed a clown on the court to not only threaten Roger Federer in the 2009 final but to also run across the net without being taken down for over fifteen seconds. And if that wasn’t bad enough, then recall the 2013 final when a protester with a flare got onto the court and came within several yards of Rafael Nadal. Seeing these perfect examples of an inability to secure the event is a final summation of the incompetence revolving around Roland Garros and why this tournament is light years behind the other Slams in nearly all categories. Several months ago Novak Djokovic proclaimed that the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells had merit to be elevated to a level higher than the Masters series events because of its well-run organization and prestige. It definitely has enough merit to replace the French Open as the fourth Slam at this point.
Perhaps the saddest part of this whole Roland Garros conundrum is that the tournament has always been defined by the passion of the fans and by historical moments. If this year’s men’s final is not enough evidence, then recall the 2009 final when Roger Federer cemented his status as the most decorated player in history by completing the Career Slam and tying Pete Sampras’ record fourteen Grand Slam titles. Or the 1999 final when Andre Agassi completed his own Career Slam after a remarkable five set comeback against Andriy Medvedev. And the 1989 tournament when teenager Michael Chang improbably won with remarkable five set victories over legends Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg. Over the course of every decade this event has been able to rewrite the history books of tennis, and its clay court surface has fostered a high level of physical and mental battle that only the toughest of champions have been able to withstand. Unfortunately, the best features of this tournament are now infected with incompetence on all levels. So for the sake of Roland Garros and the entire tennis community, now more than ever, we need the French Open to become great again.
By David Zakhodin
With the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters in the rearview mirror, the ATP tour has now begun the long and arduous grind that is the European clay court season. Featuring two more back to back Masters events and a prestigious 500 level tournament in Barcelona as a means of tune up for the year’s second Grand Slam, competition on the red clay presents a very unique challenge for the four elites who have dominated the sport for the last decade. The European red clay has been a source of both immense joy and heart-shattering pain for each one of The Big Four, and this upcoming season’s impact on their careers seems rather unpredictable. Now that the hard court season is on hold until July, the clay courts will serve as a determinant for which of The Big Four finishes the first half of the season on a high and moves into Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics with the most confidence. Listed below in order of lowest to highest hopes are the latest stories surrounding each of the Big Four going into Madrid, Rome, and Roland Garros.
Andy Murray: Mutua Madrid Masters champion
Andy Murray came into the clay court season on what could be considered a considerable slide. While we have become used to seeing Andy have a post-Australian Open final hangover, he usually finds himself right in the mix of things by the time the Miami Open, his second home, appears on the schedule. However, Andy bowed out early at both hard court Masters events and came into Monte Carlo with little confidence and few matches under his belt. Despite not having his best during an opening round match against Benoit Paire, Andy recovered and made a deep run all the way to the semifinals where he even won the first set off a surging Rafa. Next for the Scottishman lies the defense of the Madrid title which he won so convincingly last year against his Spanish buddy. While that result was arguably the most pleasantly surprising of his clay court career, it is going to be very difficult for Andy to replicate the same success because of his recently inconsistent play. And even though Andy has proven in recent years that he can play more disciplined tennis on the dirt, it’s safe to say that he cannot break his ceiling of getting to the semifinals of Roland Garros. While pushing Novak to five sets in last year’s epic battle was a positive sign, I don’t see Andy as a contender to host the Coupe des Mousquetaires this June.
Roger Federer: French Open champion and two-time Mutua Madrid Masters champion
After an extremely successful 2015 season and a strong start to this year down under, Roger fell off the radar in large part due to a freak knee injury that forced him out for the remainder of the hard court season. While it may appear that a long period of rest and rehabilitation was a blessing in disguise for the 34-year-old Federer, the knee injury actually disrupted Roger’s master plan for 2016. His original schedule, one that originally had many fans startled, included only one clay court tournament: Roland Garros. By way of being above a certain age and achieving a certain number of career match wins, Roger was eligible to skip all three clay court Masters series events without penalty from the ATP Tour. Hence, the plan was to limit the physical strain and effort dedicated to the clay in order to play two tune-up grass court events (Halle and Stuttgart) prior to Wimbledon and to begin gearing up for the summer hard courts featuring the Rio Olympics. Following the injury, Roger adjusted his schedule to fit in Monte Carlo and showed up in shaky match form. His first two victories featured bouts of shanks and unforced errors, and in the quarterfinals he was unable to get away with making a multitude of errors on big points against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Looking ahead, I wouldn’t rule out Roger finding a way to make a deep run in Paris because he’s come up with the goods before when we least expected it. However, this clay court season appears to be nothing but a building block for finding the level necessary to make a big run at SW19 and Rio.
Rafael Nadal: Nine-time French Open champion, nine-time Monte Carlo Rolex Masters champion, three-time Mutua Madrid Masters champion, seven-time Italian Open champion
It is not often that the greatest player in the history of the surface is doubted coming into two and a half straight months of play on the red clay, but such was the case with Rafa. He didn’t gain any confidence from his poor play in Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires during the short clay court circuit in February, and the hard court season in between then and now was defined by a thrashing at the hands of Novak in Indian Wells and a retirement in Miami. In fact, this was perhaps the first clay court season where Rafa was not a favorite or co-favorite to win any of the three Masters series events or Roland Garros. For years the Mallorcan has relied on his phenomenal retrieval skills far behind the baseline to bait opponents into attacking at inopportune moments. Additionally, what truly made him the King of Clay was his ability to dictate off both wings with shots so heavy that only one player (Novak) had been able to defend and hold the baseline. However, the recently missing ingredient in Rafa’s recipe to so many titles is the depth of his shots. As mentioned previously, Novak used to be the only player with the capability of pushing Rafa around the court on clay, but now any player who commits to being aggressive and staying on the baseline can force Rafa into trouble. And now that I’ve set up Rafa to fail miserably this clay court season, I will acknowledge that he just won Monte Carlo in extremely impressive fashion. Not only was he able to dictate play with depth from the forehand side, but he was resilient and able to problem-solve in multiple matches after losing sets (something he hadn’t done in earlier events this season). Therefore, despite all of his recent struggles and bouts of looking lost on the clay, Rafa seems to have regained some confidence by winning his first title in ten months and cannot be counted out when Roland Garros comes around. After all, if there is anyone who knows how to win there and rebound after a disappointing loss, it’s Rafael Nadal.
Novak Djokovic: Two-time Monte Carlo Rolex Masters champion, Mutua Madrid Masters champion, four-time Italian Open champion
Just as STARZ produced a dramatic TV show in Da Vinci’s Demons, the subject of this polarizing exposition can easily be called Djokovic’s Demons. At the end of the day, the only way to judge Novak’s clay court season is to see if he can finally vanquish his past failures at Roland Garros and hoist the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Perhaps losing to young Jiri Vesely in his opening match at Monte Carlo wasn’t the worst thing for Novak because the common theme of his recent losses at Roland Garros has been mental fatigue. Whether it be attempting to end points too early during last year’s final against Stan Wawrinka or being unable to consolidate breaks in previous finals against Rafa, Novak has looked worn out by the time the second week of Roland Garros came around. So maybe getting another week off was a good way for him to refresh and take his mind off the race for more Masters crowns. The bottom line is that Novak’s 2016 season is not going to be defined by how many Masters series events he wins or by his gap atop the world rankings. Instead, the season will be defined by how Novak responds at two tournaments where he has faced adversity: Roland Garros and the Olympics. If he can find a way to enter the deep rounds of these events in the right state of mind, then he will win and officially become a candidate for the GOAT. Just as Roger is looking ahead to Rio by treating the clay court season as a building block, Novak needs to set himself up for the tough summer schedule (featuring his Wimbledon title defense) by finally getting over the hump and finding a way to win the last point at Roland Garros.
Having dissected the status of The Big Four heading into the clay court season, it’s clear that this surface will challenge both the physical and mental resolve of each player. And just because these players have dictated terms in tennis for the past decade, it does not mean that there cannot be outsiders who utilize the unpredictability of the clay court season to their advantage. We cannot forget how Stan Wawrinka shocked the tennis world last year with his brilliant play to capture the Roland Garros title. This result shows us that the pure attrition that comes with the European red clay can knock down any of The Big Four and simultaneously elevate any contender willing to seize a new opportunity. Today, we sometimes wonder not which member of The Big Four will come out on top, but whether or not a member of The Big Four will triumph at all. Watch the grinding tennis on the terre battue these next several weeks to find the answer.
by Brice Polender
Novak Djokovic had what he considers to be the best season of his life in 2015 and what has been hailed by many as the greatest calendar year performance in the history of men’s tennis. With his victory at the 2016 Australian Open, Djokovic appears to be gunning for a year even greater than the one he had in 2015. At the top of his priority list, lie Roland Garros and the Rio Olympic Games.
Since the onset of 2015, the only blemish in Djokovic’s otherwise perfect run has been his loss in the final of Roland Garros. This is undoubtedly one of the greatest stretches ever, but it is not unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. For example, this current run parallels Djokovic’s own 2011, in which he won three majors and lost in the semifinals of the French to Federer. Federer himself has won three out of the four majors in a calendar year on three different occasions, and his 2006 can go punch for punch with Djokovic’s 2015 season in terms of the season as a whole. Both made all four major finals with the French proving elusive yet finished the season by capturing the ATP World Tour Finals. Federer finished 92-5 with four Masters Series 1000 titles and twelve titles overall. Djokovic, in comparison, won six Masters Series 1000s en route to an 82-6 record and eleven titles overall. Although Djokovic found more success at the Masters Series events, Federer undoubtedly was more dominant from opponent to opponent and had an ethereal aura surrounding him that even moved legendary writer David Foster Wallace to write about Roger Federer as a “religious experience”. Like Djokovic following up his 2015 with a title at the Australian Open to start 2016, Federer followed up his 2006 with a Slam win down under to start 2007. Ultimately, when stacked up against each other, it’s a toss up as to who had the superior season.
Regardless of who had the “better” season between Federer’s 2006 and Djokovic’s 2015, Djokovic’s run, although magnificent, is not the first of its kind. On the other hand, the stretch Federer has been on starting a year ago in Dubai has been groundbreaking. In all three majors that Djokovic won and the year-end Tour Finals, he has had to go through Roger: in the finals of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, Tour Finals, and in the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. At Roland Garros, the one major not won by Djokovic, Federer again lost to the eventual champion in Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. So over the course of the last four majors, Roger Federer has posted results of quarter-finalist, finalist, finalist, and semi-finalist each time losing to the eventual champion. Modern men’s tennis has never seen results of this caliber and at this level of consistency coming from a 34 year old, which is why Roger Federer is once again in a realm that we have not seen before in men’s tennis.
One of the most emphasized aspects of what Novak Djokovic is accomplishing is that it is occurring against the toughest competition in tennis history, both in the caliber of players at the top, as well as the depth of the top 50. What has seldom been highlighted is the fact that Roger Federer is having the success that he is having against a field that is so strong and deep. He went 63-11 on the year with 6 titles including a Masters Series 1000 trophy in Cincinnati. His head to head records against the game’s best, all of whom are at least four years younger than him, were very telling. Federer went 3-1 against Wawrinka including dismantling him at the U.S. Open 6-4, 6-3, 6-1. Against Murray he was 2-0 defeating him in straight sets each time at both Wimbledon and the Cincinnati Masters 1000. In his one match against his career-kryptonite in Nadal, Federer emerged victorious in the finals of the Swiss Indoors. Against Djokovic in the “best” season of his career, a 33/34 year old Federer went 3-5, handing Djokovic half of his losses for the season in addition to being the only player to beat Novak more than once in 2015.
Despite not beating Djokovic in the Majors, the very fact that a 34 year old Federer has given himself chances to win against a player in Djokovic that is playing the best tennis of his life, is remarkable. No match better encapsulated this like their semifinal match in this year’s Australian Open. Djokovic came out on fire playing perfect tennis and taking a two set to love lead with scores of 6-1 and 6-2. Despite Djokovic playing near flawless tennis, through different changes of pace and construction of points, Federer was able to raise his own level and disrupt Djokovic enough to take the third set 6-3. Despite losing the fourth set, Federer hung in there and gave himself chances. The set came down to a few points that very well could have gone Federer’s way. And besides the results of the match, Federer certainly passed the eye test when it came down to playing at a level and pulling off shots that we have never seen before from a 34 year-old.
To put the performance of Federer over the last twelve months into historic perspective, let’s examine other tennis legends who have had this kind of sustained success at age 33 or older. Ken Rosewall won 4 majors after age 33 from 1968-1972, and Andres Gimeno won the 1972 French Open at age 34. Those are the only two players in the Open Era to have won a slam after turning 33. Those slam victories are without a doubt impressive, but the role of physicality in tennis in the early seventies is just not comparable to that in tennis today. The importance of power, balance, flexibility, and explosiveness in today’s game makes the physical prowess that comes with being in one’s prime age so much more vital. This is why Roger Federer’s results at his age are so absurd.
The only player in the modern game to be in the same ballpark as Roger Federer when it comes to success in his mid-thirties is Andre Agassi. From his 33rd birthday until his retirement at age 36, Agassi made three grand slam quarterfinals, two grand slam semi-finals, and a lone grand slam final at the 2005 U.S. Open where he fell to Federer. No player in the prior 30 years had ever made a major final after turning 33, and Federer is the sole player to have done so since.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Agassi-Federer comparison is that after age 33, Agassi made his lone slam final at age 35. Federer still has a year until he reaches that age and has shown no sign of slowing down from his current level on court. It seems that the only legitimate roadblock to Federer’s ability to further build on his precedent of success in one’s mid-thirties is injury. Despite Roger requiring surgery for a torn meniscus, we have reason to be optimistic that it isn’t too serious, as he is scheduled to return in Miami only six weeks removed from the surgery. Regardless of what the future holds, the past twelve months of men’s tennis should be highlighted just as much by Federer as it has been by Djokovic. Although the spotlight has been on Djokovic’s dominance, Federer continues to add to the list of unrivaled feats that comprise his status as the greatest tennis player of all time.
by David Zakhodin
When we American tennis fans watch the best players in the sport compete for the highest stakes, we often see the above snapshot. On the stage where the men separate themselves from the boys, a recurring pattern occurs: Americans are nowhere to be seen. This decade of tennis has been categorized by so many underwhelming performances from American players that soon we’ll be discussing droughts the way the British did before Andy Murray appeared. But in order to truly understand the currently bleak state of American tennis, we must traverse history to examine America’s rise to tennis supremacy.
As the Grand Slam tournaments arose, four countries ruled the sport. Between 1877 (the first year of Wimbledon) and 1960, only eight players won a Slam who were not American, Australian, British, or French. Even though these four nations were equally successful at their respective Slams, Americans had begun to distinguish themselves as the hallmarks of the sport from the onset. When Open Era tennis began in 1968, two Americans had already become prominent icons: Bill Tilden and Don Budge. Tilden’s reign in the 1920’s was highlighted by world #1 status and leadership of the U.S. Davis Cup team in its heated rivalry against France. Budge dominated the sport in the years prior to World War II and established his longevity by playing well after serving in the Air Force. Both players not only won Slams but also gave rise to a sport in America defined by elegance and beauty.
While Tilden and Budge put American tennis on the map, the years immediately leading up to the start of Open Era were dominated by the great Aussies: Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, and Tony Roche. However, in the late 1960’s came two Americans who would become tennis cornerstones: Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. The former with the grit and fire that gave the sport energy it had never seen before; the latter with ever steady composure and grace that extended both on and off the court.
In addition to re-installing America to the winner’s circle of Grand Slams with their combined eleven victories, Connors and Ashe elevated American interest and passion for the game with their personal rivalry, which culminated in Ashe’s upset triumph in the 1975 Wimbledon final. While Ashe left the sport early to pursue an historic humanitarian agenda as a result of his battle with HIV, Connors paved the way for a new polarizing American tennis legend: Johnny Mac. When most people remember John McEnroe, they recall his rivalry with Bjorn Borg, but it was Connors who gave McEnroe the edge he needed to become a winner of seven Slams himself.
By the late 1970’s, Connors-McEnroe became the epicenter of American tennis. Featuring heated confrontations and meltdowns on court, this rivalry demonstrated contrasting styles of play that foreshadowed alternatives to serve-and-volley tactics. It was McEnroe who played the traditional serve-and-volley thanks to the best pair of hands tennis had seen to that point while Connors relied on a superb return game and his ability to put the ball in any spot in the court. Unfortunately, the six year age difference between the two titled the rivalry in favor of McEnroe toward the end of Connors’ career, and McEnroe was left standing as the only top notch American throughout the 80’s. Despite becoming world #1 and winning seven Slams, McEnroe’s volatile attitude and questionable commitment to tennis opened the 80’s to an era of European dominance that planted the seeds for Europe’s dominance today. With Bjorn Borg mastering Roland Garros and Wimbledon, tennis popularity grew in Sweden where Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg took the reigns. Other European icons such as Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker made their way to the pinnacle of the sport by reaching world #1 and winning multiple Slams while America was left in the dust aside from a fluke Roland Garros title from Michael Chang.
As bleak as the late 80’s may have looked for American tennis, we kept producing future prospects. In fact, the 90’s yielded a powerful resurgence that led to the Golden Age of American Tennis defined by a new rivalry more heated rivalry than Connors-McEnroe. Enter Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. If you thought Connors and McEnroe were polar opposites, then Sampras and Agassi definitely raised you a couple grand at the poker table. The former pairing at least featured similarly fiery maniacs both on and off the court. With the latter, it was night and day. A soft-spoken gentle giant from southern California against a flamboyant, swashbuckler turned bad boy from Vegas. Before illustrating how Pete and Andre gave birth to the Golden Age, an honorable mention must be given to Jim Courier. For a guy whose backhand was worse than most juniors playing three times a week, Courier grinded out four Slams with minimal talent and pushed Pete and Andre to develop into more resilient competitors as a result of their many encounters both at the junior level and on the professional tour.
When comparing the two legends of America’s Golden Age of Tennis, it may seem that Pete’s fourteen Slams trump Andre’s eight. However, evidence suggests that pure numbers fail to characterize this rivalry. Pete won the head-to-head and spent more time as world #1, but it was Andre who accomplished the feat of winning the career Grand Slam. What captivated fans around the world was the fact that these two were the best the world had ever seen at their style of play. Pete Sampras had the best serve-and-volley combination of all time; Andre Agassi was the best ever ball-striker and returner. During their matches, there were periods where points would last a maximum of three shots, and then all of a sudden there would be an extremely crucial long rally that would decide the outcome of the match. This level of excitement combined with the known fact that the two were not especially fond of one another both on and off the court is what drove this rivalry to captivate and define American reign over tennis. Not only was it something to relish, but it was a part of the sport’s history to be enormously proud of.
Therefore, it’s only fitting that these two legends each won their last respective Grand Slams back to back. Pete beat Andre in his last career match to win the 2002 U.S. Open; Andre followed up by winning the following Australian Open and would only reach one more U.S. Open Final in 2005 where he was by then clearly outmatched by rising phenom Roger Federer. As expected, Sampras walked away from the game graciously and quietly. Agassi’s exit was anything but that. The physical and emotional pain he went through during that last run at Flushing Meadows followed by one of the greatest speeches ever given by an athlete marked the official end of the aforementioned Golden Era. Pete and Andre had hung up the sneakers, and a void had been created that has yet to be filled.
During the period in the early 2000’s when Pete retired and when Andre’s results began to plateau, a new hope for American tennis had already emerged. All eyes were on young Andy Roddick who captivated fans with a funky service motion that rocked the radar gun. In addition to having a big serve, Roddick was a baseliner who relied heavily on dictating the point with his forehand. Perhaps the biggest transition from the 90’s to the new century was the disappearance of serve-and-volley tactics. After the turn of the century, only Goran Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras (who combined for three Slams during this period) were serve and volley Grand Slam champions. What drove the sport away from serve-and-volley tactics and toward the era of long rallies from the baseline was the improvement in the technology of strings and racquets. While Americans were quick to adopt the technology, they were very slow to adapt to the new philosophy of the game and thus dug themselves a hole that they have yet to rise from.
by David Zakhodin
In the years following the end of the Golden Age, American tennis has steadily fallen. While the new generation of rising Europeans was outside of our control, America dropped the ball when it came to filling the shoes of Pete and Andre. Andy Roddick was a one Slam wonder who lost a lopsided head to head battle against Federer in Grand Slams. He gave us a small thrill in the dramatic 2009 Wimbledon final but faded away rather quickly afterward. James Blake and Robby Ginepri made some in-roads in a couple Grand Slams and established reputable rankings but lacked the longevity to become staples of American tennis history. I’ll cut American tennis some slack for not winning Slams since 2003 in the sense that we entered an era where four players have single handedly dominated the game for the better part of ten years. But to not have anyone ranked in the top eight or to not have a single player in the second week of a Slam is downright disgraceful for a country that has established such a rich history in the sport.
The past five years we’ve been banging our heads having to watch the unwatchable John Isner, the enigmatic Sam Querrey, the overachieving Stevie Johnson, and the underwhelming Donald Young. While Isner has hung around the top ten for a consistent stretch of his career, his lack of skill set and awkward size has put him in a position of weakness against higher ranked opponents despite his big serve and forehand. Perhaps an even bigger result of Isner’s relative success on the tour is that many American tennis players now believe they can win by playing a brand of first strike tennis that de-incentivizes them to work on their weaknesses or on their fitness.
Despite the head-scratching results of the past five years, there seems to be some enthusiasm for American tennis today as a result of up-and-coming players. Jack Sock’s rise into the top 25 is exciting, but as sexy as his forehand may be, a guy with a backhand worse than Courier’s was cannot crack the top eight and become a Grand Slam title contender. We hear about some rising junior stars coming up the ranks, but we’ll get to them later because the first thing we have to understand is that the system of player development in American tennis is broken. In order for Americans to break into the elite stratosphere of European players who are dominating the top of the rankings, we must first identify why the status quo is not good enough.
The biggest reason why America has ceased to produce players of the highest caliber is because coaches all across the country ingrain a very naïve philosophy into the minds of our young players. While all European players are taught to play long points where they have the ability to furnish both offensive and defensive patterns, American tennis is all about playing shorter points and employing what we refer to as first strike tennis. Every ounce of energy is dedicated toward finding ways to hit the ball bigger, dictating with the forehand, and finding ways to end the point faster in order to preserve energy and not have to play long points when they can be easily avoided. This is a great philosophy for players with limited all-court skills or glaring weaknesses, but do we really want future generations to be a carbon copy of the playing styles of John Isner and Sam Querrey? It is reasonable to work on maximizing strengths rather than improving weaknesses in the short term, but we can’t expect to produce Grand Slam champions who miss two backhands and two returns every other game.
Moreover, the American tennis brass fails to accept the fact that the playing style of European clay courters is superior. Because the Europeans cater their way of coaching to produce versatile players who can grind all day on clay while simultaneously adjusting to the fast speed of hard courts, it is no surprise to see European players still perform extremely well year-round whereas Americans look like fish out of water when they play on European clay courts. ESPN commentators are quick to point out that players like Isner and Querrey play better on US hard courts because they have a personal comfort playing in the States as opposed to overseas. Excuses aside, it’s admirable that USTA Player Development has put a lot of emphasis on playing more on clay courts. However, what’s the point of playing on low quality clay that hardly resembles the kind in Europe if our players don’t even know how to properly move their feet on it? Brad Gilbert talks about the “California slide” or the act of sliding after hitting a shot as opposed to sliding into the shot before hitting it as something that American players often do out of pure habit. This technique of sliding after hitting the ball not only puts the player out of position for the next shot but also shows how poorly Americans are at adapting to conditions where they cannot simply stand in one part of the court smacking forehands or hitting aces. As a result of these technical shortcomings, the clay court season simply becomes a smudge in the schedule of most American tennis players that is taken for granted by both fans and the players themselves.
Perhaps my biggest beef with the philosophy of American tennis is that our coaches try to cover up and compensate for flaws in a player’s game (such as the California slide) rather than fixing them. In recent years, increased data from the ATP and WTA has come out regarding the advanced analytics behind the game. Now, American tennis coaches (especially college coaches looking to fire up a team with a lacking talent level) love telling the story of how 70% of the points end in the first four shots. I agree that this metric is valuable for assessing the importance of making first serves and starting the point, but it completely goes against the idea that we need to learn to work the point in order to produce Grand Slam champions. These college tennis coaches feed the flawed narrative that you can be a one-dimensional player with a pathetic excuse for a backhand and still be a good player. Well, the reality is that in Europe there is no such thing as college tennis. Aside from the European players who come to play Division I college tennis in the United States for a free education, there are few European junior tennis stars who are content to finish their playing career at age 22 without having a shot at the pro tour. Instead, they establish the good philosophy and fundamentals at a young age in order to increase the potential of their players. On the flip side, American players are brainwashed into thinking that they can still succeed in spite of their technical flaws as long as they “try harder” or “hit bigger.”
The biggest proponents of the “try harder” or “hit bigger” philosophies are the college tennis coaches, predominantly at the Division I level, who feel that the energy and sheer adrenaline of playing on a big stage will bring the most out of their players. As someone who plays college tennis and has seen it live, I can affirm that the energy aspect of college tennis makes it a very thrilling activity, but it is in no way a means of preparing for a career on the pro tour. In nearly every major American sport, being a college athlete is seen as a stepping-stone to developing into a professional. However, in tennis, playing in college is analogous to putting a pair of ankle weights on a player’s development. That’s not a knock on getting an education or being a student-athlete; it’s a knock on those who have real aspirations for becoming successful on the pro tour. In spite of the present day shortcomings of college tennis, people will say that this judgment makes no sense considering the likes of Connors and McEnroe played at UCLA and Stanford, respectively, and even today’s players Steve Johnson and John Isner have been relatively successful after playing four years of Division I tennis.
Nonetheless, I say that Division I tennis has become a clown show when it comes to serving as a means of preparation for the pro tour. With the ITA’s new rules of no warm-ups, shorter sets, and matches ending at decision, it’s hard to call what goes on there as tennis. While there have been many admirable attempts to make tennis a team sport, no proposition can simulate the feeling that a tour level player experiences of traveling around the world only to end up losing nearly every week. Several weeks ago I watched the Ohio State Buckeyes play against the Texas Longhorns, and the match of the highest quality there was the match that took place between the #2 singles players of each team. The Ohio State player won the first set convincingly but lost the second after having match points on his racquet. During the first game of the third set, with all the momentum swinging in favor of the player from Texas, Ohio State clinched the dual match with a win at #4 singles. That’s it. The #2 match wasn’t even finished; the competitors shook hands and walked off the court to join their respective teams in the showers. Something tells me Roger Federer doesn’t get to walk off the court mid match after blowing match point opportunities against Novak Djokovic just to live to fight another day. Hence, as positive of an experience as college tennis can be for top American junior players, the spirit and nature of the competition fails to produce the type of player necessary to make noise atop the men’s game.
Ultimately, the biggest issue with American tennis aside from all the tangible pieces that factor into our current national incompetence in the sport is the way our media portrays it to our fans. Whether it was Patrick McEnroe declaring Donald Young as the next Roger Federer or Justin Gimelstob saying that John Isner would win a Grand Slam after he beat Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic within the span of two months in 2012, these commentators have ruined players with potential. While some of this criticism applies more to the portrayal of American women seeking to take the torch from the Williams sisters, it most definitely applies to the men as well. About a month ago, up and coming youngster Taylor Fritz (who happens to have a good backhand and not just a serve and a forehand) reached the final of the Memphis Open and put up a good fight against Kei Nishikori. The very next day, Steve Tignor of TENNIS.com wrote an article titled “Taylor Fritz calls to mind a young Pete Sampras.” Fritz, who has yet to crack the top 100 as of the release of this article, is already being compared to Pete Sampras. Are we really that desperate that we need to make up whatever outrageous comparisons come to mind just to convince ourselves that there is hope? The media sets these high expectations for teenage players with comparisons to the sport’s legends hoping to draw attention when they really underestimate the difficulties of the pro tour and stunt the players’ development.
And if the media isn’t busy talking up future prospects over social media, they’re sitting in the broadcast booth foaming at the mouth every time someone slaps a forehand winner. Listening to courtside reporters murmur how “the big fella” (Isner) has been “thumping” the ball or “redlining” on big points is like watching a situation room exchange between the President and the Joint Chiefs. Just as generals salivate and drool when the President orders military action, our tennis commentators go into their happy place when players run around their backhands to “smoke” forehands and shorten points. This sort of obsession with a flawed philosophy is what continues to prevent American tennis from re-establishing an era of dominance.
As we look beyond the philosophy of American tennis and its portrayal in the media, it is evident that changes have to be made to remove American tennis from the limbo in which it currently resides. We can’t expect to keep the status quo and wave a magic wand that will all of a sudden return us to the Golden Age we had in the 90’s with Sampras, Agassi, and Courier. The current culture and analysis of the game blinds our players to playing the right way, and until the elites of American tennis admit to their flaws in both their perception and implementation of the sport, we will not be challenging for Grand Slam titles or breaking into the next “Big Four.”