One Small Voice: Modern technology has seen tennis lose its artistry and touch

2008-07-11 00:00

John McEnroe described it as the greatest match in the history of the game. He cannot be serious. Perhaps the American tennis legend-turned-television commentator feels a contractual obligation to be enthusiastic and to replace the crude expletives in his vocabulary with gushing superlatives.

There is no question that last Sunday’s Wimbledon men’s singles final was a truly extraordinary sporting occasion. The five-set contest between Rafa Nadal’s amazing athleticism and power and Roger Federer’s class and sheer refusal to be overcome was never less than enthralling and wondrous.

Great sporting occasions seem to engrave themselves on the memory, never to be erased … Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier, the 1970 Fifa World Cup final, Nicklaus and Watson at Turnberry in 1977, the 1995 Rugby World Cup final etcetera; in terms of excitement and quality, Nadal-Federer can be added to the list.

However, the greatest match in the history of tennis? No.

Why not? Simply because the match was almost totally lacking in volleys and lobs, and was therefore almost completely bereft of touch and artistry. Until recently, the Championships at Wimbledon represented a two-week oasis of skill and variety in the otherwise featureless, drab desert of regular ATP tour events around the world; now even the famous ivy-clad walls of the All England club have been scaled by modern technology.

As a result, where once entertainers like of Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Boris Becker and others elegantly danced to the net and triumphed, last Sunday’s “classic” encounter was dominated by relentless bludgeoning from baseline to baseline. It was impressive, but not thrilling.

The players cannot be blamed. At various stages, Federer seemed inclined to follow a deep serve or a searching approach shot to the net, but whenever he did, he found himself either passed with ridiculous ease or having to scrape a volley from his toes to stay in the rally.

It is the nature of men’s tennis that has changed, and it is the double-edged sword of “modern technology” that has dramatically changed the game. It is true that rallies are faster, the balls are hit harder and the pin-point accuracy of ground shot, after ground shot after ground shot, is greater. However, nobody can deny the spectacle has been diminished. Subtlety has fled. Power reigns.

Professor Nick Buenfeld, of Imperial College, London, pointed out in a letter to The Times on Thursday that modern players have learned to impart more spin and power than their predecessors because “composite materials have replaced the wood and metal used 25 years ago, producing lighter and stiffer rackets with larger heads”.

He continued: “Increased stiffness means less energy lost to the racket frame and so more power. A larger head creates a larger sweet spot with more margin for error, enabling a player to use a greater proportion of his strength without mishitting. Crucially, a larger head also allows more top spin to be applied so the greater power can be controlled.

“In the past the focus of shot-making was on precision, swinging ‘through the ball’ to maximise the odds of hitting the sweet spot. Emphasis is now on racket speed and spin. Grips have changed. Now most players have a two-handed backhand and a more open stance on their forehand, hitting across the ball, making it swerve through the air.”

You don’t have to believe a humble columnist — take it from the scientist. At times on Sunday, Nadal was generating so much spin, he may as well have been playing table tennis. It is no wonder that, when Federer did get to the net, he resembled nothing so much as a sitting duck, a pitiable relic from a bygone age when the world’s leading players dared to volley and lob, when craft could outwit power.

So what? the tennis community may say. Wimbledon was watched by a TV audience of billions. What’s the problem?

Well, the problem may emerge when the public gets bored. Then, perhaps, historians will reflect on the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final not as the “greatest match in history”, but as the moment when people began to fall out of love with the game, not as an unforgettable highlight, but as the dawn of indifference.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SATV sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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