Djokovic Wins, Nadal Injured Again

Novak Djokovic has added to his amazing year with another big victory at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. The champion from the little country of Serbia has asserted his dominance and is now the top player in the world. From all accounts, this was only a matter of time. And that time is now.

By vanquishing Scot Andy Murray in Miami, Djokovic displayed a game that is built for today. Powerful shot-making, heavy serves, and incredible fitness. Murray is a competitor, but comes short in the power and fitness category.

Rafael Nadal withdrew from the semifinal with Murray due to injury, another in the long line that the champion Spaniard has suffered during his meteoric yet brief career. A powerful shot-maker and maybe the fastest man on the tour, his band and run style has already taken a toll on his young body.

The nearly six-hour final at the Australian Open between Nadal and Djokovic has led many former tennis champions to question the format of the game of tennis today. The most recent commentary was made by Angela Buxton, a former major doubles champion from the 1950s and a tennis commentator extraordinaire. Buxton believes that epic finals like the 2012 Aussie men's final are not only not good for the players, but also not good for the sport.

I would argue the point quite vociferously. As a former player and coach, I understand well the toll that playing any sport, let alone tennis, that is paid by your body when played at the elite levels of the game. You must maintain near perfect condition at all times, you must work longer and harder than anyone else, and you typically go so deep in every tournament you play that you get virtually no rest. After just a few short years, that can be quite a pounding on a body.

This to me, though, is where all the players and pundits are wrong. The game of tennis today is dominated by one style of play. Bang and run. With the exception of Roger Federer, there are no players on either the men's or women's side who have a complete game. There are no players who can hit with touch, feel, none who can play the net competently, none who understand how to truly construct a point. If there were, many matches would actually be shorter. When the object is to work quickly to the net and a position of easy winners, points are naturally shorter. Pete Sampras was so dominant because he played mainly a serve-and-volley style. He could hit with the best of them, as evidenced by his win at the 2001 U.S. Open where no player broke the other's serve, yet he won out against maybe the best returner and ground game to that point.

Since the choice of many players today is to just sit at the baseline and hit groundstrokes until someone misses or they hit an atomic winner, then I say the price they pay is infinitely long matches that place extraordinary stress on their arms, shoulders, and bodies. This is the game they choose, and now it seems at the top levels that requires a full workday to triumph. Good.

There have been many other champions of the past who played these grueling groundstroke games, only to shorten their great careers due to stress injury. Tony Roche, maybe the best Aussie ever on clay, had tennis elbow and while a Hall of Famer, could have had an even better final record. Guillermo Vilas, the bull of the pampas, also played a game based on brute spinning shots and running everything down. His light burned bright, but quickly, as well.

Djokovic has recovered and is still dominating, with little sign so far of great bodily wear. So it is shown that you can play today's style of tennis and win, and do so without injury. For how long? That is another question.

So Angela, we and the game need not protect the players, or the top-tier stars. If they cannot adapt, they will burn out. So let's not change the game to shorten it, let's not change the game to save the players from themselves. Let's see how long it takes the players to change themselves. it can be done. I learned that from William Tatem Tilden.

Comments and Conversation

April 3, 2012

Larry Davis:

Vilas was a pro from 1969-88. How can you say his “light burned bright, but quickly.” Someone did not do their research. He’s one of few pros to play 1000 career matches or more and was in the top ten for almost 10 consecutive years and won 62 pro tournaments. Does not sound like someone who burnt out quickly to me.

April 4, 2012

Jaime Gubbins:

I certainly agree that players like Federer are rare these days. Nadal has claimed that Federer is lucky, that his body holds better than most. Completely disagree. Federer’s body holds out because of how he moves, how he strikes the ball and how he constructs the points. An important example for the new generations that seems to go unnoticed. They prefer to go the bang and run model, with all its consequences…

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