Maybe it’s become a niche sport. Outside of the Grand Slam tournaments does anybody pay attention to tennis anymore?
It seems not.
John McEnroe even thanked Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what they did for tennis playing their epic, 5-set Wimbledon final on Sunday.
But did it matter?
I certainly hope so.
Despite the numerous disparaging remarks regarding the game of tennis itself, the match was an athletic achievement that is nearly unmatched. Just two weeks ago, fans were lauding Tiger Woods’ effort in the US Open playoff and ratcheted that up another notch when news of his knee problems broke. That was a stunning individual achievement up against adversity and pain. Yes, there was an opponent, but the real opponent for Tiger was the golf course, not Rocco.
In the Wimbledon final, both players had to play offense and defense. They had to endure delays, highs and lows to their own play and they had to weather streaky play by their opponent.
“Maybe the best match I’ve ever seen,” former Wimbledon champ Tony Trabert told me on the phone Sunday night.
“They hit shots that were just unbelievable. Match point against him and Federer just fires one down the line, six inches inside the sideline and six inches inside the baseline. Incredible! Great confidence and execution.”
Trabert won three legs of the Grand Slam and served as the top tennis analyst for CBS and in Australia for more than 30 years. He’s seen a lot of tennis. So to say it’s one of the best ever, that’s something.
When the game went to the “Open Era” in 1968, it changed the competitions, allowing everybody to play. Before that, only “amateurs” were allowed in the big tournaments. McEnroe alluded to that when he talked about his conversation with Bjorn Borg earlier in the day Sunday.
“There’s much more emphasis on the Grand Slam tournament now,” the former Wimbledon champ said. “How many would Rod Laver have won if he had been able to play in all of them? Now it’s open and everybody’s interested.”
The game changed again when steel and wooden rackets were put away in favor of carbon and other materials. The ball was faster and the game became very power-oriented. So much so that finesse was taken out of tennis and replaced with a bunch of bangers. There were some exceptions, Pete Sampras being one, but mostly everybody moved to the baseline and just fired away. That’s because the technology was better than the players.
I think tennis players are underrated when it comes to their athletic ability and specifically their fitness but as athletes they lagged behind the technology that their equipment exhibited. It allowed average, one-dimensional players to be competitive.
In the wooden racket era, top athletes dominated. Trabert, Pancho Gonzalez, Arthur Ashe all used their athletic ability to create and win.
And that’s where tennis is back to.
Federer and Nadal were able to play such a thrilling, close match because for the first time their athletic ability has caught up to the technology. Maybe Nadal even more than Federer, but both certainly qualify. They’re both great tennis players but perhaps they’re even better athletes.
Ivan Lendl probably qualifies as one great athlete who was playing tennis in the last twenty years. Maybe Mal Washington, Patrick Rafter and certainly Boris Becker.
McEnroe would probably admit that he was a tennis player first and an athlete second, at least until later in his career.
But this is a new level for tennis.
Much like in golf where great athletes will choose the sport because of the money making potential as professionals, same thing with tennis.
Federer, and now Nadal are just the beginning.