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September 29, 2011

Book Notes: The changing sport of tennis

—  Few sports have experienced as much of a metamorphosis as tennis over the last 40 years. Not only has it grown to become a truly international game, but technology and money have changed the way the game is played and marketed. Where tennis was once a mixture of power and finesse it has now become a game of sheer power.

Kids today don’t hit the ball with the traditional forehand and backhand grip. They use an exaggerated “western” or “eastern” grip with the idea of developing greater topspin on the ball. I can’t really explain the grips except they look like the equivalent of a pro wrestler getting his arm twisted off by an opponent.

If you can master the shot, perhaps by practicing eight hours a day for 10 years, you might be as successful as Spain’s Rafael Nadal, winner of 10 grand slam events. But  since most people do nothave that sort of dedication,  it’s more likely you’ll put 10balls over the fence for every winner you hit.

The most unfortunate part of today’s game is the loss of the serve and volley. With so many young players content to blast away from the baseline they apparently have either never heard of a volley or simply can’t execute one.

The change in technology is so complete that the last true serve and volley player retired last year.

Back in 1980 tennis was in the midst of a golden era where space-age racquets and big money were just beginning to make an impact. Wood racquets were still commonplace, as were players with colorful (i.e., obnoxious) personalities and all-around games.

Put together it provided fans with some of the most memorable rivalries and matches imaginable.

Matthew Cronin, a tennis columnist for Fox Sports and Inside Sports magazine, has written a tome to that bygone era, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.” Its focus is two “epic” matches played by McEnroe and Borg in the finals of the 1980 Wimbledon and U.S. Open tournaments.

Their fourth set tiebreaker at Wimbledon, won 18-16 by McEnroe, is considered the greatest tiebreaker of all time.

The book is much more than just a rehashing of two incredible matches. It discusses the elevation in tennis’s popularity, the developing rivalries that fed the rise of the sport, and the disparate personalities and their effect on the game. The one thing that tennis had back then, for better or worse, was the characters the sport endured.

John McEnroe is considered one of the best analysts in tennis today. He knows the game and players and isn’t hesitant to praise or criticize.

However, back in his playing days he was considered one of the biggest jerks (a kind way of putting it) to ever hold a racquet. The British tabloids called him “Super Brat,” a moniker he richly deserved.

McEnroe was apparently a nice guy off the court, but he couldn’t control his temper on it. He gave a new meaning to the word “whining.” He constantly harassed umpires and linesmen and disrupted opponents with his antics. Many of his contemporaries are still bitter today over his behavior.

Jimmy Connors was another tennis superstar and he was even worse than McEnroe. At least McEnroe’s outbursts appeared to be unrehearsed. Conners’ were calculated. He knew how to get a crowd riled up and psych out an opponent.  Of course it was especially“fun” when these two “characters” matched up mano-amano.

They literally despised each other. McEnroe referred to Connors as a “complete [bleep]” and Connors called McEnroe a “[bleepin’] brat.” Their matches provided not only scintillating tennis, but great theater.

Into this mix came Sweden’s Bjorn Borg, who was the consummate gentleman. He had ice in his veins. He was the equivalent of Roger Federer today, an incredibly talented player, who is so well-mannered that you instinctively root for him.

Both McEnroe and Connors tended to be on their best behavior when they played him. Borg commanded that kind of respect.

I remember watching a retrospective of the epic Wimbledon tiebreaker between McEnroe and Borg. Not only was there no whining, but  neither player ever stoppedto get a drink or towel off between points. That was how the game was played back then. Today toweling off after every point is considered a divine right.

Cronin’s reflections don’t mean that today’s game isn’t better than it was 30 years ago. Nadal, Federer, and recent Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic may well be the best players of all-time.

But there was something special about that era when the various styles of play and personalities stood out. “Epic” is simply a bit of nostalgia that reminds us how entertaining a game tennis can be.