Nadal, magnifico! But where’s Boris Becker?

Señor Rafa—like the Spanish footballers now in the FIFA World Cup semis, the Spanish cyclist at the Tour de France named Alberto Contador, the Spanish 7-footer Pau Gasol of the LA Lakers—was estupendo! Campeon! Excelente!

Nadal, who owns eight Grand Slam crowns at only 24 years young, is the King of Clay, the Prince of Grass, the world’s No. 1… And that’s why I detest his game.

On clay, yes, his all-spin, lefty, walloping groundstrokes which pain opponents to labor left, slave to the right, toil forward, excruciate moving back, is unmatched. His topspin is relentless, his doggedness pulverizes the hapless enemy salivating across the net, his strength of brain guarantees $1,000,000.

But I don’t like his style. Not on grass. You know why? I miss Stefan Edberg. I miss Martina Navratilova. I miss that German wunderkind who dove, bruised his knees, and smashed his way to Wimbledon glory as a 17-year-old qualifier. I miss Henman, Rafter, and the lady whom I named my daughter after, Jana Novotna. I miss Goran’s first serve, Goran’s second serve, Goran’s double fault.

This isn’t Rafa’s fault. It’s nobody’s. But I miss the type of game called Serve And Volley. As the S and the V imply, this style means to blast a 128-mph service bomb down the T, dash to the net like Usain, catch the ball before it dips, and knock off that McEnroe-like volley.

In the 1980s and 1990s, “Wimbledon” and “serve-and-volley” were twins. Synonyms. In fact, players who stayed at the baseline were disallowed from winning London. It was the law! Thus, when you scan the list of champions from 1981 through 2001, everybody—except Connors and Agassi—served-and-volleyed: McEnroe, Becker, Cash, Edberg, Stich, Krajicek, Goran and a seven-time winner named Pete.

This was then. When the music of Tears For Fears and AHA played on Y101. Now, grass tennis has turned gaga… Lady Gaga. What happened?

“The courts are getting a bit slower, the balls are getting a bit slower, that’s something I don’t like as a spectator and as a former player,” said Michael Stich, the 1991 Wimbledon winner. “What is happening on court is more predictable and less exciting. In those matches we played in my time, Boris against Stefan, me against Pete, there was a lot of serve-and-volley, obviously a lot of aces, and people loved it.

“When Goran hit his 35th ace in a match people were screaming, and when Agassi managed to get a return back it was, like, wow. Now the serve is more often just being used to get the ball into play. For me, that’s clay-court tennis, not typical grass-court tennis, and I find that sad.”

Me, too. Gone were the days when Becker dove like a German goalie, when Rafter spun his kick second serve to attack, when Sampras served four aces bang-bang-bang-bang, when Agassi rifled a passing shot, when drop volleys and half volleys were exquisite. Today, players serve to start the point. Before, they served to end a point.

The questions are why and how? Is it the a) slower grass? b) hi-tech Babolat and Wilson rackets? c) Western-grip topspin shots that twirl the ball like the Jabulani? d) rise of the two-handed backhands?

All of the above. But here’s another query: If somebody possessed the 142-mph serve of an Andy Roddick and the volleying prowess of a Pete Sampras, would that American be able to supplant Roger and Rafa?

On grass, I believe so. The sad part is, none of today’s ATP players are willing to venture forward. (Funny: In the ‘80s/90s, the grass near the service box looked just as brown and denuded as the baseline area; today, they’re as green as the Pebble Beach putting area.)

Wimbledon today is not as acrobatic and stylish, offering contrasting styles. Today’s green grass is just like the blue cement of New York and Melbourne, the red clay of Paris.

My point? This column’s Match Point? To challenge R & R, who’ve won the last eight titles and renamed Wimbledon as The House of Roger and Rafa, let’s wish for a Boris or Pete.

2 thoughts on “Nadal, magnifico! But where’s Boris Becker?

  1. I have to disagree with your conclusion, but not your lament. I too, wish there was more serve/volley tennis, if only at Wimbledon. But I doubt you will see it again any time soon. If ever.
    There are many, many reasons, more than the 4 your mention here. They are all part of the puzzle. You mentioned the racquet technology, along with the poly strings, which give players a free swing a the ball, tremendous spin. But to get that spin requires some pretty extreme grips that make volleying difficult at best. Yes they can change grips if they come to the net, and many do. But it’s one more thing to have to remember, and to remember requires practice. Not enough attention is paid in practice to the art of playing tennis at the net. Movement is mechanical, and doesn’t really follow the ball. No longer do players think about a volley to set up a winning volley. Volleys are no put aways after a big forehand or backhand.
    This is especially true on the WTA where it seems as if, when a player is knocked off balance, or has to improvise, they are clueless. Players are taught the technique of serve, jab step, and bounce back to hit a forehand, not serve, and use the forward momentum to get to the net.
    Because of all this and more, I think sever/volley tennis is extinct in tennis, along with the one handed backhand (which is on it’s last legs as well). Tennis has become very one dimensional, and unless radical changes are made, like lighter balls, or not allowing pros to use frames bigger than 95 or even 90 sq inches. It’s only going to get more programmed, and tuned to the thing that has the biggest return on investment. That is standing on the baseline, and pounding groundies, and only coming to the net to shake hands (that, of course, is an exaggeration….).

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