This article makes a valid point and should be read by any people with an interest in tennis. Taking into account the latest discussions amongst fans about the state of tennis today and the direction is it going, I ask you is this the best tennis we have ever seen? Legends seem to think that it is. Still some people can't find a way to appreciate this golden era of tennis and complain about court surfaces and the new physicality of the game imposed by Rafa and Novak, two players who are reshaping tennis as we know it. Read carefully and discuss intelligently please.
Glory in golden era of men's tennis
CHIP LE GRAND From: The Australian February 04, 2012 12:00AM
WHEN Jim Courier and Ivan Lendl bumped into each other on their way back to the US this week, they asked each other a question that would have been nagging all retired tennis champions who watched Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in one of the most extraordinary matches ever played: could I have done that?
In their world-beating days, both men were renowned as among the fittest players on tour. Courier twice ground his way to Australian Open titles at the height of brutal summers. Lendl held the No 1 ranking for a total of 270 weeks and staged, with Sweden's Mats Wilander, the previous longest slam final.
The short answer? Not a chance. As Courier put it: "Neither of us felt like we could have possibly made it through the way those guys did."
There is ongoing debate over whether last Sunday's Australian Open final was the best match ever played. Some tennis pundits found fault with the lack of variety compared with the great Pete Sampras versus Andre Agassi duels, or a fabled storyline like the one that coursed through John McEnroe's Wimbledon final loss to Bjorn Borg in 1980. Others have taken issue with the 5 hour 53 minutes taken to decide the match, arguing that if Djokovic and Nadal hadn't dawdled between points, it would have been over a lot quicker.
Deep within tennis geekdom, there is a group of fans convinced that this men's final was an epic demonstration of all that is wrong with tennis. They yearn for another time when hard courts were faster and it only took one brilliant shot -- rather than a dozen -- to win a point. "The Pandora's box has now been opened," bemoaned one contributor to a popular online forum. "The Australian Open got such great press that I fear the courts will be slowed down even further in order to assure five-hour finals."
There is no right or wrong answer to these arguments, which are based on aesthetics, tennis preference and taste. For as long as tennis has been played, there has never been agreement on what is the most attractive game style. Some find beauty on a baseline, others in the increasingly rare moments when Roger Federer ventures to the net.
Yet by any objective view of tennis, the sport has never been faster, stronger or more skilful. In pure athletic terms, last Sunday's final was played at a pace and intensity that stunned not only observers but greats of the game and professionals still competing at the top levels of the sport.
This from Agassi: "I have played opponents who can play marathon matches. These guys played a whole marathon like a sprint."
This from Andy Roddick on Twitter: "Djokovic and rafa. Absolute war. Physicality of tennis has been taken to another level in the past 5 years. 6 straight hours of power/speed."
This from John McEnroe: "The shots that these guys can come up with . . . is phenomenal. They have taken the baseline game to a whole new level."
This from Rod Laver: "We will never see something better than what we just saw."
So how did tennis get here? Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, who has worked for 35 years as a tennis administrator, coach and player, tells The Weekend Australian it is man responding to machine. Where the much-discussed improvement in racquet and string technology since Borg's days has enabled players to hit with ballistic power and fierce spin, less appreciated is the hidden revolution taking place in the physiology of players and how they train and prepare to make best use of these high-tech tools.
Where today's poly-strung, graphite racquets were originally envisioned as offensive weapons -- lightweight cannons capable of firing a 240km Roddick serve and loading Nadal's forehand with 3200rpm's of top spin, it is the defensive arts that are defining tennis. Players are training to new, elite levels of fitness not to win matches, but to stay in them. The best understand that so long as you are still in a point, you have never lost it. Shots that would have been clean winners five years ago are gettable.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than the return of serve; the only match statistic where you'll find Djokovic, Andy Murray and Nadal at the top of the tennis tree, and Federer not far behind.
"Big serves are still big serves but what has got bigger is returns," Tiley explains. "With science and technology in the sport now you can start to determine where a player is directing their serves and where their tendencies are, and players can respond to those tendencies. There is no question that the advantage of the serve has been taken away a little bit by the ability of players to defend. So the next stage of the sport will probably be the serve becoming even bigger."
McEnroe, speaking to a tennis academy in New York this week, declared Djokovic the best returner of serve the game had seen -- better than Agassi, better than Jimmy Connors. Nadal said much the same thing after dragging himself off the Rod Laver Arena close to 2am on Monday morning. "Is something unbelievable how he returns, no? His return is probably one of the best in history."
Comparisons have been drawn between the raw physical demands of Sunday's match and other elite sports. Tennis Australia high performance manager Machar Reid, who as part of his work analyses Hawk-Eye tracking data on ball and player movements in matches, estimates that Djokovic and Nadal would have covered anywhere between 8km and 10km each during their five sets. The critical difference with professional tennis is the abrupt, high-speed changes in direction required to stay in a rally. Each time Djokovic slid to a halt and powered back the other way, his bracing leg absorbed about 2 1/2 times his body weight. That happened, on average, four to eight times each point. There were 369 points in the match.
"You have got those stopping and starting movements associated with the lower limbs and then you have got your upper limbs rotating at really high speed to produce the racquet and ball velocity that they do," Reid says. "To be honest, I'm not sure there is any real parallel with other sports."
Two significant advances in the physiology of today's players is their capacity for high-intensity repetitions and the balance and strength they have in what Reid calls their "end range" -- the body position a player adopts to hit back a ball at the limit of their reach.
"The guys are far stronger and more stable in those positions than the players of yesteryear," he says. "That is by virtue of needing to find solution and reshaping their training programs in the gym and on court. The guys can turn on a dime. That is something that has evolved over time."
The evolution of tennis has rendered meaningless many of the statistics traditionally used to measure matches and individual performance. Still reckon it comes down to a big first serve? If you look at tennis's big four, only Federer ranked in the top 10 last year in both aces hit and first service points won. Djokovic, the best player in the game, ranked 26th in aces and 21st for first service points. Still think winners minus errors is a good way to track the quality of a match? Between them, Djokovic and Nadal hit 39 more unforced errors than winners on Sunday night. But as Laver marvelled the morning after the match, both players were hitting endless "winners" -- the ball just kept coming back.
Tiley says some of the points played in the men's final would have been impossible not long ago. The combination of the ball being hit harder, players running faster and improved anticipation and defensive shot making is, in effect, shrinking the tennis court before our eyes.
"The game has evolved with greater speed and velocity and now players, with their skills, are countering that speed and velocity and adding some of their own. Some of those rallies between Nadal and Djokovic, we would never have seen those 10, 15 years ago. Not at that pace and not at that duration. There was one 37 ball rally where Djokovic almost won the point eight times and Nadal was able to defend."
Another misleading statistic in tennis, though the only one that ultimately matters, is the string of tournaments won by Djokovic. Djokovic last year had one of the most dominant seasons in ATP history, winning 10 tournaments including the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, and losing just six matches for the year. He has begun this season the same way.
Yet men's tennis is far from one Djoker and the pack. The quality of last Sunday's final and the two epic semi-finals that preceded it were the product not of one dominant player being challenged by the rest but four rarely gifted players pushing each other and the game into a very uncomfortable place.
The ruling order in tennis is shaped by a rock-paper-scissors relationship between Djokovic who beats Nadal, Nadal who beats Federer, and Federer who is the only player to beat Djokovic in a slam last year since 2010. The power balance is fragile, as Nadal can ruefully attest after narrowly missing a makeable backhand pass that would have put him 5-2 up in the fifth set against Djokovic. Then there is the emerging Murray, who according to McEnroe played the best match of his career against Djokovic in their oscillating semi-final, and came within a couple of points of winning.
Pete Sampras, a man who physically monstered tennis in another era, saw the future at Wimbledon last year when he said of Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer: "Those four guys are just better movers than everyone else. They are better athletes."
Competition theory says that so long as the big four stay healthy, tennis can only get better. That means more matches comparable to last week's Australian Open final and more arguments about which match is the greatest. The one thing not to do is spend this "golden era" of men's tennis -- as Tiley and others have dubbed it -- wishing the game was played another way. "I think it is an incredible time," McEnroe says.
"I think we (had) better enjoy it while it lasts."