Tennis needs to be more forward thinking
Serve-and-volley players are more than an endangered species; they're all but extinct. And that isn't good for the sport's health.
March 22, 2008
Tennis and the Southern California desert should fit like hand in glove.
In March, the desert is perfect. But is today's game of tennis?
Certainly, the balls move faster, and so do the players. The rackets are more flexible, producing more power. Balls used to fly off rackets, now they rocket.
More and more, events such as this Pacific Life Open are in places like the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. The desert Taj Mahal.
The sport even has its own Tiger Woods, which is a good thing, because, without Roger Federer, tennis would be hearing over and over about how badly it pales in comparison to golf.
Indian Wells is tennis heaven: A 16,000-seat stadium with unobstructed sightlines and state-of-the-art suites. Matches almost always played under cloudless skies. Shopping everywhere. Restaurants, too. And Bud Collins interviewing Rod Laver for your entertainment while you munch.
Nor is this tournament the exception. It is an almost-major, perhaps the sixth-most-important event of the year, depending on who's measuring. The four Grand Slam events have all this, plus bigger stadiums and even more buzz. These tennis people really know how to put on the dog.
The fan base is solid. The U.S. Open in New York measures its profits not in dollars, but in Brink's trucks. Indian Wells is projected to attract around 320,000 fans in these two weeks, up from 303,000 a year ago.
So, with all this, could there be any criticism? Matter of fact, yes.
It seems that tennis, while constantly improving its infrastructure, marketing, restaurants, shopping and even player exposure, is doing little to diversify its game. Not its players. Its game.
Here, and everywhere, there is a sameness to the matches. They are metronomes of swings and grunts from the baseline that, in many cases, go on interminably. It seems the players are so good at what they do that they refuse to do anything else. Or even try.
Such as approaching the net. Hitting a volley. Forcing the issue from the service line instead of the baseline. A player plays an entire match that way about every full moon now.
Wednesday, when the world's No. 2-ranked player, Rafael Nadal, held off newcomer Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, it was three hours of wows. Many fans left more drained than Nadal and Tsonga. Same with Nadal-James Blake the next night.
But those are exceptions. The norm is three hours of David Nalbandian and Richard Gasquet. Or Nalbandian and anybody.
This is not the fault of the players as much as the people who run the game. They have made the courts slower, the balls heavier and the bounces higher. The rackets, once instruments of touch, are now slingshots that can maim. Players used to come to the net to attack. Now, it can be life-threatening.
Players, and the game, are slaves to new-age equipment that has almost ruled out an entire style of play, one that used to stamp the game with athleticism. It was called serving and volleying. Remember?
Not long ago, the sport was criticized for the boredom of too much of that. Big serve, angled volley, end of point. How boring, people said.
Now, when you see a player try that, you say a silent prayer for his or her well-being. Tennis needed to be careful what it wished for.
If there is a serve-and-volleyer on the horizon, there will certainly be a coach, telling him the facts of life. Rackets and strings don't allow that anymore. You can make the best volley in the world and the ball will bounce up high on a court surface mixed with more sand than Laguna Beach.
These days, the last remnants of players who actually follow their serves to the net tend to leave the building like Elvis. Fast.
Good old Jonas Bjorkman, the Swede who has been setting his jaw and coming forward since 1991, will turn 36 Sunday. No, he won't be able to celebrate with an appearance in the final. He was banged out of the tournament from the baseline in the second round.
Gone are the days when Pete Sampras took the court against Australian lefty Wayne Arthurs, who also spent less time at the baseline than a surfer on a river, and said game on. In a 2000 Australian Open match, neither hit a ground stroke other than a service return. It was high noon, Main Street, guns cocked.
It wasn't boring.
It's hard to argue with success, and tennis currently has plenty of it. But the most successful business, or sport, keeps thinking of ways to make things better, even when they are good.
Tennis is a fastball pitcher in need of a changeup. Not every pitch. Not every pitcher. Just sometimes.
Right now, there are only so many big, looping swings from the baseline that the average tennis fan can watch before brains turn to mush.
Right now, our world has at least two things that are perfectly homogenized. Milk and the sport of tennis.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at email@example.com
. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.