Roger and Me

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SEPTEMBER 3, 2007

Roger and Me

I was born in 1979, which makes me too young to remember the golden age of tennis--the years, stretching from the 1970s through the mid-'80s, when, thanks to the outsized talents and personalities of stars like Borg, Connors, McEnroe, King, Evert, and Navratilova, the game was transformed from a niche sport followed mainly by country club elites into a full-fledged industry occupying a prominent place in American culture; the years when Connors and Evert were a celebrity couple, and King struck a blow for feminism by defeating Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, and McEnroe taunted umpires with his signature phrase, "You cannot be serious!"

I managed to catch the tail end of the fun--the era's last gasp was surely Connors's brilliant 1991 U.S. Open run--but, by the time I started paying attention in the late '80s, there were already signs that the game was in trouble. The elegance of the serve-and-volley style--perfected by McEnroe and Navratilova--was in decline. With the rise of Ivan Lendl, the sport had begun a long retreat to the baseline--where, in the early '90s, a new generation of players, inspired by Florida tennis guru Nick Bollettieri and aided by rapid changes in racket technology, would set up shop and proceed to crush the ball with all their might. Yes, there were exceptions to this trend--most prominently Pete Sampras, who dominated the sport throughout the '90s with an all-court game. But Sampras, while a brilliant talent, was a thoroughly boring public figure, completely devoid of charisma or charm. By the mid-'90s, the sport over which he presided was in crisis.

None of this went undiscussed at the time. Perhaps because its fan base is composed disproportionately of people with too much time on their hands, tennis seems to generate an unusual level of hand-wringing about its overall health. Ever since the golden age ended in the mid-'80s, journalists and various tennis eminences have consistently warned that the sport is dangerously ill, near death, or actually deceased. This sentiment probably reached its apotheosis in May 1994, when the cover of Sports Illustrated famously asked, "Is Tennis Dying?" But versions of that question continued to be posed in subsequent years, and the judgments would only grow more pessimistic. In 2004, on the tenth anniversary of the Sports Illustrated article, its author, Sally Jenkins, wrote: "Tennis is dead. It has been dead before, but at the moment it's dead without precedent." Filip Bondy, a Daily News sports writer, put it this way six weeks ago: "Like horse racing or boxing, tennis lives mostly on past glories and graying celebrities."

The hand-wringers did have a point. Fans stopped paying attention during the '90s because the sport became, on the whole, dramatically less enjoyable to watch. But sometimes people say things for so long that they forget to stop saying them when they are no longer true. And so, even as pessimistic commentators have continued to pronounce the sport dead, an unexpected thing has happened: Tennis has suddenly come back to life.

 

To understand why, you have to go back to the '90s, when Sampras and the Bollettieri disciples were in their prime. Of course, tennis had its share of amazing contests and compelling narratives during this decade--the 1992 duel between Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang that lasted five-and-a-half hours; the 1996 match when Sampras vomited from dehydration during a fifth-set tiebreaker before somehow pulling out a victory over unheralded Spaniard Alex Corretja; the multiple rebirths of Andre Agassi, who matured from a shallow, overhyped teenager into the most sympathetic, intelligent, and willful tennis personality of his generation.

But these bright spots provided only partial relief from a fundamental problem: The professional game was changing in ways that made it progressively less appealing to watch. With the exception of Wimbledon (where serve and volleyers could still thrive, thanks to the grass courts) and Sampras (who continued to serve and volley, albeit with a hulking, passionless efficiency that turned off many fans), the game was increasingly dominated by big servers and baseliners. As rackets continued to improve and as players got stronger and stronger--serious weight training came later to tennis than to other major sports--the serves only got bigger and the danger of approaching the net only became more pronounced. The result was that, by the late '90s, tennis appeared headed toward an oppressive homogeneity. And the strategic complexity inherent in a match-up between contrasting styles--say, the serve-and-volley game of Navratilova versus the baseline game of Evert--seemed like it could become a thing of the past.

There were other causes for concern, too. People tend to forget this now, but at the dawn of the decade--as the reign of Sampras, Agassi, and Graf drew to a close--the future of tennis appeared to rest in the hands of the charmless Andy Roddick, the racist Lleyton Hewitt, the sullen Marat Safin, the sneering Martina Hingis, and the beautiful Anna Kournikova, who, alas, wasn't much of a tennis player. If there were rivalries among this new generation of players, they weren't nearly compelling enough to attract the attention of the average fan in the way McEnroe's years-long duel with Borg had. Actually, the only rivalry worth watching was the one between Venus and Serena Williams, eccentric (if not exactly appealing) sisters with bold and innovative styles of play. Unfortunately, they never performed well against each other--which was a serious problem, since there was a time when it seemed probable they would meet in the finals of every Grand Slam tournament from 2001 through 2011.

And then along came Roger Federer. He hasn't saved tennis alone, but the story of the sport's revival begins with him. At 26, Federer is well on his way to becoming the greatest tennis player of all time, yet the astounding way in which he towers over tennis history isn't the most surprising thing about him. The key point about Federer was made by David Foster Wallace last year in a wonderful New York Times essay. Federer, Wallace explained, represents a revolutionary break with the style of play that preceded him. Yes, his serve is powerful, and yes his groundstrokes are punishing. But his major innovation has been to marry the power of the modern game to a finesse that harkens back to the era of McEnroe and the serve-and-volley specialists. In other words, he has used elements of the old to create something completely new. By taking tennis backward, he has moved the sport forward.

Federer has also changed the games of other top players for the better. Because he surpasses every other player so profoundly in natural talent, his rivals have needed to search for clever ways to beat him. This has forced strategy back to the fore of men's tennis. And so you had the spectacle of Roddick--a confirmed baseliner who is coached by Connors, another confirmed baseliner--rushing the net madly this week in a bid to disrupt Federer's rhythm. (It almost worked.) And you have the spectacle of Rafael Nadal, raised to be a conventional baseliner on the clay courts of Mallorca, slowly transforming himself into an all-court player in order to challenge Federer on hard courts and grass. During Nadal's round-of-sixteen match this week with countryman David Ferrer, McEnroe--the serve-and-volley-purist-turned-commentator--remarked with evident glee that he couldn't believe he was watching two players from Spain volleying so much.

Nadal himself is another key to the sport's revival. Federer alone would be exciting enough. But, in Nadal, Federer has the perfect rival: someone who is capable of occasionally beating him, and whose strength (clay) coincides with his only weakness. This is a rarity in any sport--for the greatest player of all time to have a contemporaneous rival worthy of his talents. (If Michael Jordan had faced such a rival, maybe he wouldn't have lost interest in basketball--twice--during the prime of his career.) For years, the French Open was dominated by European clay court specialists whom few Americans could tell apart. Suddenly, thanks to Federer's inability to overcome Nadal on clay, the French Open is arguably the most exciting tennis event of the year.

The Federer-Nadal era represents a break with the past in one other respect. Previously, tennis fans had to choose between charisma (Connors, McEnroe) and manners (Sampras), but rarely could they have both. Agassi was, in his later years, an exception to this rule but by the time he transformed from an obnoxious brat into the game's elder statesman, his best years of tennis were behind him. Federer and Nadal have ushered in a new paradigm: the magnetic, intense, competitive, but also classy, modest, self-aware tennis star. These days, most sports fans are just grateful if their favorite athletes aren't running dog-fighting rings. In Federer and Nadal, tennis has found something even better: stars who aren't merely civil, but actually likeable.

Other, smaller things have gone right for tennis in recent years as well. In most sports, ex-players who want to stay involved become coaches. In tennis, they become avuncular spokesmen for the game as a whole, a role that McEnroe has fulfilled with relish, to the benefit of viewers everywhere. The advent of instant-replay--with players each receiving a certain number of challenges per set--has also added a welcome element of strategy and drama to the game, not to mention an assurance that big matches will not be decided by blown calls.

To be sure, the women's side lacks a transformative figure like Federer. But there are bright spots here as well. The Williams sisters never took over the women's game but neither did they abandon it; and their dual revival in 2007 was one of the year's best storylines. Their most consistent rival is Justine Henin, a fierce competitor whose one-handed backhand may be the single most beautiful shot in the history of either the men's or women's games. Changes on the women's side have, to some degree, paralleled changes on the men's side. Two nights ago, I watched Venus Williams edge past Jelena Jankovic by forcing her way to net with frequency, something you rarely saw on the women's tour in the mid-'90s heyday of Graf and Seles. And last year Amelie Mauresmo won Wimbledon the way Navratilova did so many times: with an elegant yet powerful serve-and-volley style.

 

Is it a stretch to say that tennis is going through a second golden age? Yes and no. It seems unlikely that the sport will ever again enjoy the cultural salience that it earned in the '70s and '80s. That salience, after all, was about more than the pro game: Average Americans weren't just watching Grand Slams in those years; they were also playing tennis in unprecedented numbers. It would be naive to predict that the influence of Federer could possibly trickle down that far today. (Part of the problem is that he is Swiss, whereas the great stars of decades past were American.) Around the margins, the changes he has kick-started may result in higher ratings or increased attention in the nation's sports pages. But tennis fans grasp the reality that their sport will never again be as big a deal as it once was, at least here in the United States. And most of us are willing to accept that.

At the same time, the pro game itself has never been more fun to watch. And so, if you're a lapsed tennis fan, I suggest turning on the television this weekend for the final rounds of the U.S. Open. You'll see a game that is more powerful than ever before and also more beautiful--a game whose greatest historical figure is in the prime of his career, surrounded by a supporting cast that is pushing him to new heights of achievement. This is a dying sport? You cannot be serious.

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