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July 08, 2006

Men's Singles

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For the first time in decades I find myself more interested in men's tennis than in the women's game. That's because two great and attractive players, lots of drama, a galvanizing new rivalry, and a surprising amount of class are currently on display. The two greats are Switzerland's Roger Federer and Spain's Rafael Nadal, and the rivalry is between the two of them; they meet in tomorrow's Wimbledon final. Nifty fact: Though Federer is easily the world's #1, he has lost to #2 Nadal in six out of their seven matches. Hot stuff!

Since, by god, if there's one thing I know about in this world it's how to watch tennis, I'm going to blab for a bit about it.

The lowkey, dark-haired Federer isn't just a class act, he's an almost superhuman act. He seems to have descended to earth from another dimension where reactions, skills, perceptions, and wit are routinely 50% better than what we're familiar with here. When Federer is on -- and he's on almost all the time -- he makes amazing athletes look like lead-footed hacks. Check out, for example, this brief set of highlights of a match during which Federer dismembered the very gifted James Blake. He's such a wizard that he seems to observe his own triumphs and talents with a certain amount of dispassionate amazement.

For all his prowess, though, Federer is a player of the cool-technician school -- which may mean, as a practical audience matter, that he's hard for anyone who hasn't played tennis him/herself to love. Unless you can tune into what he's up to in tennis-playing terms, what's to cheer for, except the occasional stunt-shot?

The immediate question for Federer -- sometimes described as the greatest tennis player ever, and, in any case, in the midst of a four-year reign as king of the hill -- is: How will he do when he's tested? You can never know how a godlike winner will perform under serious stress until the actual moment comes along. (Some years back, when Martina Hingis had the run of women's tennis, it looked like she would go on to have a career as iron-clad as Steffi Graf's. But when the other women started rising to her level, she fell apart.) With Nadal turning up the heat, will Federer be able to retain his sang-froid? Perhaps he'll get even better. But perhaps he can only play well when he's challenged yet able to remain relatively unruffled. Being-above-it-all and operating-on-another-plane can look unbeatable. But it can also be a weakness.

The man who is currently challenging Federer is the 20 year old Spaniard Rafael Nadal. While the 24 year old Federer is aiming for his fourth Wimbledon title in a row, Nadal has emerged as a force only in the last year and a half. Nadal is one hot piece of manhood: muscled, earthy, lithe, explosively athletic -- he's like a glam male equivalent of a Williams sister, making up for his relative lack of finesse with power, spirit, and tenacity. Nadal looks like a romance-novel-cover hunk; he wears Euro-sleaze hair and clothing styles, and he indulges in a lot of fist-pumping. But he's endearing nonetheless. He always speaks modestly and appreciatively of his opponents -- he was movingly respectful of Andre Agassi the other day even while handily defeating him. He's an audience-pleaser, a gorgeous combo of glitz and class. (My mother-in-law, who is very smart about sports and tennis, is seldom happier than when she's cheering on Nadal.) I wonder if it's fair to say that Federer is the guy the tennis-appreciators love, while Nadal is the man whom the people who love athletic spectacle go for.

There are two main questions about Nadal. The more immediate one is: What's his future on surfaces that aren't clay? Tip for newbies: Tennis is played on three kinds of surfaces, and surfaces have a striking effect on the game itself. The players who excel on one surface often aren't at their best on others. Federer, for instance, can sometimes look semi-human on clay. Clay slows the game down, and it tends to favors spinners and tacticians; Spaniards like Nadal often triumph on clay, which they grow up playing on. Hard courts (concrete, artificial: our usual surfaces in the States) are faster, and lend themselves to a power game, zzzzzzzzzz.

Grass, which is played-on only at Wimbledom and a few other tournaments, is the most indiosyncratic of the surfaces. On grass, the ball skids through low and heavy. Spin doesn't count for much, while players endowed with speed, touch, and instinct (and the ability to get physically down to where the ball is) tend to shine. Players on grass need quickness and adaptability too. Since grass courts get beaten-up over the course of a tournament, by the time the finals come around they're kicking up a lot of unpredictable and hard-to-handle bounces.

So: Can Nadal -- raised on and currently unbeatable on clay -- adapt to faster courts? Last year it looked like the answer might be no, and that his big successes might be confined to the clay-court parts of the tour. This year, though, he has looked like a very quick learner.

Question #2 for Nadal is: What will become of him once he starts to injure himself? (All tennis players injure themselves. It's a very unnatural game -- maybe as unnatural as ballet. And, like ballet, it puts bizarre stresses on bodies.) Someone as reliant on sheer athleticism as Nadal can fall apart when he discovers that he isn't physically un-hurtable. Is his technique (and is his temperament) solid enough to see him through such challenges? The awesomeness of the Williams sisters has declined considerably since they started to develop injuries, for example. This isn't just because of the injuries themselves. It's because players, once they've learned they can be physically hurt, tend to pull back a bit. Pain will do that. And if the success of your game depends on your ability to execute physically risky moves, pulling back can open up a lot of opportunities that other players will be fast to take advantage of.

Tomorrow's final is a contest then between the cool, inspired, out-of-this world technician and the hot-blooded and explosive but surprisingly-mature-and-in-charge-of-himself upstart. Let me repeat again how great I find it that neither guy is a brash loudmouth, and that, as sportsmen, they have both shown tons of couth. This is just me, of course, but: One of the reasons I took to tennis as a kid was that it's a quieter and more traditional game than most sports are. Gentlemanliness and sweat strike me as a nice combo, as well as something I might enjoy taking part in myself. Besides, it's a lot more fun being irreverent in such a context than in a world where everyone's a wise guy. When uber-brats Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe came along, they pained me. As talented as they were, they seemed to me to soil and crass-ify a beautiful game. (McEnroe has proven to be one of the great tennis comentators, though.) So these days, following the careers of Federer and Nadal, I'm in tennis-pig heaven.

IMHO, too many people who watch tennis watch it as though it's pro wrestling -- a matter of showboating, ka-pow, and shazaam. That's too bad. If you'll forgive a moment of nose-in-the-air pretentiousness ... Real tennis lovers know that there's a choreography side, and even a chess-playing side, to tennis. They also know how to perceive these sides and enjoy them. Learning how to tune into this aspect of the game can be wonderful; it can deepen your enjoyment of the game. For us Real Tennis Lovers, watching a Martina Hingis, for example, play can be bliss even when she isn't at her best, because Hingis doesn't just throw herself around, she thinks. Halfway-limited in terms of power and athleticism, Martina is one of the most brilliant thinking-players ever to come along. She doesn't just scramble and hit; she hits the ball on a number of levels. While the rubes are yelling themselves hoarse over the power game, we snobs are watching Martina, thinking, "Now that's real tennis!"

Here's my good deed for the day: a few tips that may enhance your appreciation of tennis. Try 'em out tomorrow and let me know how they work for you!

  • As the ball rockets back and forth, ask yourself occasionally, "Who's in charge of this point?" The answer is usually obvious -- either an even-Steven tussle is going on, or one guy is running the other guy around. This little exercise confers no magic predictive power, btw: that's not the point of it. The Williams sisters are seldom in charge of a point; they're usually just chasing the ball down. Yet because of their power they win many more points than they lose.

    But asking the question and letting the answer emerge from what you're witnessing can be an effective way of enticing your brain and your perceptual apparatus into the innards -- the phsychology, the strategy, and the logistics -- of a match. You may start to experience what far-gone tennis fans do: You lose your fixation on the damn ball, and you start to pick up instead on the invisibles -- how the momentum, the intiative, and the command pile up, shift, and grow. Now that's drama!

  • And here's another exercise to experiment with now and then. Occasionally stop watching the point and focus instead on one player. Do this if you can (it takes concentration) for a few points; even better, do it for an entire game. Let the points happen -- don't worry about them. Watch instead how the player moves. You'll likely find yourself even more wowed than usual by the player's skill and athleticism. More important, you'll likely start to see through the exterior of the game and pick up evidence of strategizing -- of thinking, planning, anticipation, and placement -- in a way you can't when you're hypnotized by the ball.

    The announcers aren't just making it up when they talk about players "constructing points." Most good players are genuinely doing their best to construct points; they're trained to do this. (The other player, of course, is generally doing his best to wreck player #1's plan, even while constructing his own point.) Watching Federer, you might be reminded of Wayne Gretzky in his great days. He often seems to know in advance what the ball is going to do, and what direction the point is likely to take. He floats and darts; he seems to hover over the game even while taking part in it. Nadal meanwhile, is earthbound in a lusty and appealing way. Beyond tough, he's strong, pantherlike, and dynamic. He's the rare player who makes effort look silky and beautiful.

Here's the Wimbledon website. Here's a short video showing Roger Federer hitting some shots in extremely slow motion. Watch it in a state of proper reverence.



posted by Michael at July 8, 2006


Federer and Nadal may be superb players, but they're not American, which doesn't help the popularity of tennis in this country. Men's tennis, at least; I get the impression that the women's game is a bigger sport, thanks mainly to the glam factor.
From what I understand, the relative decline in popularity of professional tennis has contributed to the decline in tennis as a participant sport. It wasn't all that long ago that public courts most everywhere were booked up long in advance. Today none of them ever seem to be in use very much. Granted, slumping interest in the pro game is hardly the sole factor behind the decline in participation, the off-the-charts explosive growth of "cartball" certainly hasn't helped :(

Posted by: Peter on July 8, 2006 3:25 PM

I only watch tennis for the legs. Women's legs to be more specific. Maria Sharapovich legs to be even more specific.

Posted by: Mr. Casey on July 8, 2006 6:55 PM

I tuned into Wimbledon this year for the first time in years (I used to be an addict) and was delighted by what I saw. The agonizingly boring days of Pete Sampras (and, actually, in my opinion, Graf and the Williams sisters) and midsize rackets seem to be behind us---we seem to have come back to a place where strategy and skill have become important again. The contrasting styles, emotions, nerves, ambition. The days of Evert vs. Goolagong, and Borg vs. McEnroe. And all of this along with the increased speed and power of players. I thought the womens final this year was quite a treat as well. When you say, ask yourself who is in charge of this point? the answer was paralyzingly easy for too long in the sport---the server was. Particularly Sampras on grass. Watching Sampras on grass was like watching Evert in her heyday on clay---they always won, yes, it was intellectually impressive, and god what you wouldn't have given for someone to upset them, add some spice, something. Truthfully, Becker and Edburg were rather dull, too, sluggers with no finesse, but at least you could count on Boris to fall apart from time to time.

But players now seem to have caught up to their muscles and equipment--finesse, thinking, stategy, artful shots, gracefulness, have become achievable again with greater power. I really enjoyed Wimbledon this year.

Posted by: annette on July 9, 2006 12:48 PM

Great bit of tennis commentary, Michael. I took your helpful hints section and thoroughly enjoyed the Federer-Natal match, specifically the middle two where the powers of will and point construction (and destruction) were well in evidence. As you, I've wondered about Natal's physical well-being as well. Perhaps he'll grow into tennis sagedom as Becker and Agassi did; both were intense physical competitors early in their careers and gradually learned to do more with less in their later years.

Just interested. Were you a player in the Ivy League days?

Posted by: DarkoV on July 10, 2006 7:52 AM

With two teens in the house who are avid tennis players, Kman and I are kept in the loop quite well.

We watched the Nadal/Federer match and it was really great fun!

Good sportsmen, too.

Thanks for the hints, I used them!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on July 10, 2006 10:26 AM

Very nice commentary, Michael. As someone new to tennis-watching (my new husband plays in a senior league), I appreciate your tips. I enjoyed the finals yesterday -- I really couldn't decide who I was rooting for. Nadal looks like someone I usually wouldn't like, for the reasons you say -- young, brash, snotty, arrogant -- but wait, he's *not* those things (except young). He really seems like a nice kid, so it's hard not to like him. And Federer -- well, you can't help but admire him. I like my newly adopted sport, even if I don't play.

Posted by: missgrundy on July 10, 2006 12:19 PM

Peter -- Funny how tennis' popularity comes and goes, isn't it? It seems like a more dramatic up and down than most sports have (I wonder if that's true). Weirdo that I am, I've always kind of liked it when tennis has been ignored, and regretted it when its been in the ascendancy. I wonder why it has such dramatic ups and downs. Any idea?

Mr. Casey -- Maria's got legs enough for three or four competitors, that's for sure. And it's a great point too: how much of a role does sex appeal (and aesthetic appreciation) play in our/your/my enjoyment of sport? I generally like watching girls a lot more than guys. They're more expressive and emotional and dramatic, for one thing. For another: those gazelle-like bods ... Woof!

Annette -- You write "players now seem to have caught up to their muscles and equipment--finesse, thinking, stategy, artful shots, gracefulness, have become achievable again with greater power." That's summing up a lot, and it's so true. Can I put you in the booth next to McEnroe and have you do commentary? Could you believe what an idiot the guy narrating with McEnroe was yesterday? All he did was pump up the most stupid amazement-and-drama aspects of the day. I'd turn the sound of ... But McEnroe is so good, and the sound of the rackets and bounces add so much ...

DarkoV -- Those middle two sets were amazing, weren't they? The struggle to get going ... It was a real wrestling match there for a while. I was amazed that Nadal didn't take the second set -- Federer was floundering a bit and Nadal was smokin'. Federer looked to me like he felt lucky to sneak by. Nadal had a few moments when he looked like he wanted to cry. What a great show. Oh, I was never anything more than a good public high-school player -- er, a good public high school player for the Northeast. I thought I was OK-to-hot-stuff until I started running into Californians and rich kids who'd had coaching since the age of five ... By the time I was in college I was just a good intramural player. The intercollegiate players were worlds above me, alas. Do you play yourself?

Pattie -- Nothing like having a couple of tennis nuts in the family to keep you tuned into the sport yourself. It's fun having close-and-loved ones pull you into their interets, isn't it? You get to go along for the ride.

MissGrundy -- That's a great way of evoking Nadal's appeal. I always wonder how people who come to tennis after adolescence react to it, since it really isn't a terribly telegenic sport (part of what I like about it is that the broadcasters have never figured out how to hype or jazz it up too much). Does it look dull? Intriguing? Mystifying?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 10, 2006 2:55 PM

No I don't play anymore; old soccer (football) injuries are a killer on one's lateral movement. I do go out on occassion with the daughter and torture her with slicing returns that have her threatening to throw her racket at the codger on the other side of the net. Nothing like a bit 'o English on the racket to see the herky-jerky reaction on the other side. Though my admiration for Federer is strong, I tear up watching Nadal. Oh, to have all of that energy and manner.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 10, 2006 3:49 PM

Michael -
Tennis certainly does seem to go up and down in terms of its popularity. One theory is that the popularity of the amateur game closely tracks the popularity of the professional game. When professional tennis is a big, high-profile sport, as it was during the 1970's (even if some of the attention was of the negative variety, e.g. McEnroe's antics), many people are tempted to give it a try. When the pro game is in a bit of a slump, as seems to have been the case in recent years, fewer weekend warriors show any interest in participating. Whether Federer and Nadal can prove popular enough to spark an amateur revival is an open question, though the fact that both are foreigners isn't a positive sign.
In a sense, the decline of amateur tennis may be self-perpetuating. One characteristic of tennis is that both opponents have to be of roughly equivalent skill level for playing to be enjoyable. The fewer the number of people playing, the harder it will be to find good matches. Finally, no matter what happens within the tennis realm itself, the explosive growth in "cartball" means that tennis faces a VERY large rival for peoples' attention.

Posted by: Peter on July 10, 2006 4:19 PM

I recommend David Foster Wallace's superb essay called 'Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm for Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness'; it's in his book of essays titled 'A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again'. The essay lives up to its title. It's one of the best pieces of sports writing (as opposed to sportswriting, if you know what I mean) I've ever read.

Posted by: Mr Tall on July 11, 2006 2:35 AM

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