It’s always nice for a tennis fan when this time of year rolls around and the TTC begins to air live tennis, much of which is from down under, though the pro tours are going through parts of Asia and the Middle East as well. So you may have seen some action from Qatar last week, you may have seen some tennis at AIRCEL/Chennai, but most of it has come on those spongey blue Plexicushion courts that have now seemingly covered the entire southern hemisphere in blue mush.
Catch 22 for us, really. We despise this surface. This surface promotes defensive play, rally tennis, and a bland, homogenized version of the game that has practically seen the extinction of the volley, one handed tennis, and namely, the one handed backhand. We’re not going to leave it at it’s Australia’s prerogative. Sorry. There’s plenty of Plexicushion all over the world, and sickeningly enough, we have to watch the atrocious American swing that includes Indian Wells–a putrid Plexicushion event that diminishes the talent of the worthy and rewards the meek–and Miami (Key Biscayne), which is probably an even slower, and more terrible surface, if it can be so, on that retched Defense-Pro. If you smirk at this, recall a practically unbeatable Roger Federer, mid prime, losing to journeyman grunt Guillermo Canas in successive weeks in 2007. But, Australia was more than happy to sell out to Plexicushion, for fear of having a tournament “too similar” to the U.S. Open. God forbid the most successful tournament in the world be the model, but what do we know?
The Australian legacy is grass court tennis and this major was played on grass in all of its years until 1987. Maybe Australia can find the pattern when it comes to moving away from fast surfaces. Because moving away from fast surfaces damages tennis talent, and Australia is largely irrelevant as a tennis nation in singles (the top Australian male is Bernard Tomic at #64; there are 2 Australian women in the top 100), and hasn’t produced any of the attack style players that make their legacy since they transitioned from grass to … plastic. Once, the Aussies owned the game. Even if that time is long passed, most people my age can vouch for Pat Cash and Patrick Rafter. But Australia sought to destroy their legacy with bouncy surfaces–first Rebound Ace and now Plexicushion–and so now Australia produces two handed hackers like everywhere else, hardly any of them being good.
The Australians, for all their grand history are little more than tennis morons who have contributed to the ruination of the game, in a nutshell, but we can’t let it bother us too much, except insofar as it has diluted the talent pool and complexity of talent beyond repair. The Aussie legends themselves, old men like Laver and Newcombe, were given free Plexicushion courts and since they are now 80 years old or so, they just love how “spring-y” Plexicushion is on their joints, and so they endorse putting Plexicushion in just about every development. But ask Rafael Nadal how Plexicushion is working out for him, should you need the word of a player. Nadal skipped this season entirely, and frankly, if we are to believe the Rafa injury timeline, he hasn’t been himself since he left Australia last year. We even hear that Nadal’s stomach virus is largely bogus and that he is already practicing heartily on red clay in Spain. A curious thing for a guy to forego all of those points to defend, lest he truly despises the surface and is trying to prolong his career. Or ask Lleyton Hewitt, who has complained vociferously about the surface being too slow. What really can we expect from Australia though, a depressed nation economically, in a bitter fight to keep their major, who has mismanaged the game in their country woefully to the point where there is basically no talent on either side, and who had to rebrand the AO as the “South Pacific/Pan Asian” major in an attempt to stave off the oil rich nations who have sought to downgrade Australia to a Super 9 and to re-organize the majors so that the Australian Open becomes “The Major at Dubai” or Beijing. Also why, if you’re wondering, Tennis Australia rushed to up the prize pot when Roger Federer suggested this past summer that players may be willing to skip Melbourne if the lower round payouts were not seriously increased. Obviously Australia is the only major any players of note would ever seriously consider boycotting, and Tennis Australia knew it, and did the right thing. In this case. Check out the article below in which luminaries from Federer to Wilander, a defensive style player, to Paul McNamee and a host of others scratch their heads over the inscrutable choice of Plexicushion for Melbourne.
Nadals and Hewitts, pushers, counter attackers, are guys who generally favor a slower track. But not at the expense of their health or ability to end points. Nadal sometimes needs a miracle to finish a point, and Hewitt can use the pace of a quick court to his advantage, because his balls need a little help getting through the court, help he does not get on the Plex because one is left to generate all of the pace, pretty much, on their own. Or, as we shift the focus of this piece more to one handers, it can’t be of little consequence that Roger Federer has skipped all the Plexicushion warmups this year, and that he has already announced that he is skipping Key Biscayne, despite whatever the given reasons, because the surface is too slow. Federer suffered his worst hard court loss ever there to Nadal, in a match where conditions suited Rafa better than slow red clay. Federer also lost to Andy Roddick on that Defense Pro, which had not happened in some 10 years prior, and it was also the scene of Roger’s notorious racquet smashing incident. While we expect Roger at Kooyong next week (an exo, not a tournament), we definitely feel there is a lot to Federer skipping these events when healthy. Especially missing Miami, which we see as a huge statement on the surface issue.
Kudos to Roger, really. As the world’s foremost tennis God, Federer’s decisions resound loudly. Really, the people in Florida and California are no brighter than those in Australia, and they are all guilty of homogenizing the game with slow courts that have become the norm, and with safe, baseline philosophy, the hallmark of which is the dreaded two handed backhand, which leaves players moored to the back of the court, and so the result is players like Sharapova, whose fundamentals are an absolute disgrace, an embarrassment to tennis, having to hit groundstroke after groundstroke to win and then re-win the same point, because no one bothered to teach her how to take 3 steps inside the court and take the ball out of the air. And if you don’t think that has a great deal to do with her injuries, her chronic shoulder situation, and the fact that she isn’t playing now, then you are deluding yourself.
The AO wants 6 hour finals and 60 shot rallies and that’s too much tennis. Here’s a novel concept: courts that promote shot making, where players actually finish points and can get done with their business before they develop tendinitis of one sort or other. A court that promotes the high bounce may seem to favor defensive tennis in the short term, but what of the long term consequence, in terms of degrading players’ health past the point of their ability to compete. Obviously Nadal has been degraded, with his puke style and slow high bounce surfaces to thank. Last year Djokovic was clearly not the same in Flushing after such a long, grueling season, and since he is the better player, vastly superior to Andy Murray, we can’t see how justice is done when safe, bland Murray style tennis wins out. Grigor Dimitrov, who checked in at #48 last week (now #41), and who we should congratulate for making his 1st tour final, lost Saturday night in a tight 7-6, 6-4 decision to Andy Murray, who used the “strategy” of lofting top spin up to Dimitrov’s backhand side, to force errors. As was reported late last night by our main man Down Under, Matt Cronin, Dimitrov was right there with Murray, until 4 consecutive UFE’s on the backhand wing off high top spin did him in (9th game, 2nd set). Still, we’re happy to see the improvement from Dimitrov, who we’ve long regarded as one of the only up and coming one handers in the game. Like Serena, we’ve seen an improvement in Dimitrov since making the switch to Patrick Mouratoglou, who seems to be more mature, and stronger shot to shot. Making such an early final in 2013 does wonders for Dimitrov’s confidence, whose trajectory toward the top 20 seems imminent. Dimitrov, largely schooled on clay, is well suited to survive slow courts as long as he, like Federer, moves around the backhand in the ad court, which should leave him poised to make a nice run come the better grass and hard courts of the summer season. BTW, Dimitrov’s draw sprang open when he upset Milos Raonic early in the week. The notable stat we took from that encounter was that Dimitrov out aced Raonic 10-4. If you can out serve Raonic, you’ve definitely got him. Says something for Dimitrov’s return game as well. And while we are on Raonic, we find it curious that he did not roll out to Chennai, as he usually does, and where he usually goes deep, last year picking up the hardware there. But Chennai is only a 250, and they play on acrylic hard courts (more similar to the faster–notice we didn’t exactly say fast though–US Open Decoturf courts), not synthetic ones, so Raonic’s team felt it might be better to get the kid in against better competition on more representative courts of what is to come in Melbourne. The result happened to be that Raonic has gotten off to his worst start to a year yet, but we’ve quibbled with it enough for now. We trust Galo Blanco’s stewardship of Raonic, and don’t necessary mean to criticize the team as much as highlight the fact that Raonic has had enormous success in the years where he has gotten off to flying starts.
We noticed a very impressive young German one hander the other day, Daniel Brands, who is 6’5, and at 25 years old, is finally coming into his talent, a taller order for skilled players who develop later, than for hacks who just play the ball back with regularity. Like James Blake, who we are still waiting on to really develop. LOL. It takes time to craft the all court game, which Brands, who at world #153 (now #131) has now seemed to have done, bowing out in the semis at Qatar, a result that saw him rise up the ATP rankings some, after a stunning 6-1, 7-5 victory over Gael Monfils, in which Brands dominated the match at net and with his one handed backhand, which looked to us to be as good as practically anyone’s on tour at this time. While it is hard to chirp about the world #153, that is the sorry state of one handed tennis in today’s bland, boring tennis world. Also, a little easier, since a Brands roars out of the gate in the new year. We’ve seen many guys who weren’t really on the radar, and girls, who have gotten it together in style when the new year rolled around. Raonic would be a great example of one. Brands lost in the semis to eventual champion Richard Gasquet, who is world #10 and who, in all likelihood, is the 2nd best one hander in the game today. Gasquet defeated Nikolay Davydenko, who seems to be in a bit of a renaissance himself of late, in a workman like 3 sets. Davydenko has obviously worked hard to try to recapture the attention to detail needed to play war of attrition tennis, and some days, like against Ferrer in the semis, he has seemed to find the fountain of youth. But Gasquet is a guy groomed on clay, suited to hit a lot of shots, and so we were happy to see him stay with that match yesterday, of the opinion that Davydenko could be worn down by guys who stay with the program. Ironic indeed, since a beautiful shot maker like Gasquet is forced to outlast a hack like Davydenko, but such is the game. Consequently, Gasquet has had a great start to 2013 and we feel very good about his chances going forward, a skilled shot maker and net player indeed, but who also has the requisite grit today’s game requires to stay on the court, match after match, with guys whose best strategy is to get one more ball back.
While it has seemed that certain developments have foretold some dissatisfaction with the prevalence toward slow courts, like the blue clay in Madrid, the very fast Paris Indoor, and the roof at Wimbledon, which no doubt helped Roger Federer collect his 7th singles crown there, the damage has already been done. The game is all 2-handers, weak 2nd servers, top spins and high bounces, and baseline baseline baseline. Even kids who grew up idolizing Roger are adopting 2 hand backhands, as more of the one handers on the scene go the way of the dinosaur each year. We actually feel that they’ve sped up the clay a bit, as well, as the powers that be are tired of seeing Nadal style tennis win out match after match, but the horse has long since left the barn.
That’s part of why we feel a lot better about clay than we do about Plexicushion at the moment. Players have served big on clay lately, especially taller players, and all the height in the game has somewhat negated the Nadal, Murray strategy of getting the ball up high to guys with spin on the backhand side. Monfils was trying to do it to Brands, but good luck finding the high backhand on a guy six and a half feet tall. And clay is a surface where the drop shot really holds, and where, because of change of direction issues, you always have a play at a winner by going behind your opponent. Plexicushion has taken these plays away, meaning that only brute power the likes of no one but Serena possesses, and endurance, are the deciding factors.
So, is 2013 a good year for one handers? Well, Saturday wasn’t bad, we’ll admit. Maybe it has even been a great start to the season for one handers, though let’s not get crazy. The surface issues and Chris Evert Academy type coaching philosophies that have left the game bereft of diverse talent and attack style tennis have really decimated the game for traditional tennis fans who can’t stand watching 5 hour matches in which players don’t get to net 10 times, and that’s only getting worse, despite the occasional glimmers of hope we see from time to time.
But at least there are a few bright lights still out there. Especially Roger Federer, who we feel, will have a very good opportunity to take his 5th Aussie title in a few weeks and his 18th major title, especially if he can stick to the hard slice in the inevitable Djoker, Murray matchups, forcing those players to make their own pace exclusively, without an opportunity to use Federer’s pace against him.
Lamenting the State of Tennis,