Tennis hasn’t always been played this way.
The history of the sport of tennis is typically divided into two eras with the dawn of “The Open Era”, a sort of Anno Domini that began when Roland Garros became the first tournament to open its doors to professionals in 1968. However, the game that was played in 1968 hardly resembles the game that is played today.
We all know that the change from wooden racquets to modern technology in the 1980s had an incredible impact on the sport – perhaps an impact leading to the most significant change of any widely played modern sport. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the ancient method of serving and volleying, a tactic that had brought so many so much success, was beginning to be viewed as an outdated strategy to win matches at the highest level of the sport.
This wasn’t just down to the new racquet technology. Yes, players were getting better at dismantling and expecting serving and volleying when returning, such as Marat Safin’s rout of Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final. But they were also starting to find more success by staying at the back of the court when serving. This has little to do with a purposeful tactical shift and everything to do with the increased strength, speed and stamina of players in the modern sporting age. Simply put, tennis players weren’t just great tennis players anymore – they were also elite athletes.
Perhaps the best example comes from Andre Agassi’s book “Open”, where he recounts his wild drop in ranking and success. Agassi wasn’t playing well, but above all else, wasn’t fit enough. His rise from the embers of the Challenger circuit were widely down to the success of his trainer Gil Reyes who had Agassi completing vigourous workouts specifically designed for tennis players, eating properly, and hydrating properly on court with something that Agassi affectionately called “Gil Juice”.
Today, the practices that Reyes employed are a given for all players (and still employed with the Adidas team). However, at the time, they were seen as progressive and even revolutionary. That was less than 20 years ago.
Today there can be no doubt that the top tennis players are among the upper tiers of the world’s best athletes.
In 2013, Roger Federer had his worst year since 2002. Was it the back? Was it the racquet? Could he find a way to play more aggressively? Could he improve his serve? People wanted answers. After his defeat of Andy Murray at this year’s 2014 Australian Open, the narrative was simple – the aggressive play we come to expect from Federer was back. Federer was back to his old self. Before his semifinal match against Nadal, commentator Nick Lester, while also stating Nadal’s blister and perceived lack of freshness, went as far to say “the way Federer has played here… I think he has a real shot here. If I was putting my money down, I’d be looking at Federer in 3 of 4 sets.” Federer was then dismissed with ease as Nadal won in straight sets.
We know that sports science has pushed the athletic heights of tennis into the stratosphere. Despite all of this, there has been little talk about perhaps the most obvious and least sexy topics when it comes to Federer: he’s getting older. So what can we learn from other major sports when it comes to aging and decline?
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