As the official countdown to the 40th edition of Rogers Cup at IGA Stadium ticks away, we’re reliving some of the tournament’s highlights.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, in the past 40 years, Montréal’s most seasoned spectators have witnessed some of the game’s ground-breaking developments, and we couldn’t think of a better reason to take a look back!
In the early 80s, which happen to coincide with equipment innovations we’ll touch upon a little later, two types of players emerged. On one side, the baseline counter-punchers—the most illustrious of which were Lendl (a four-time champion in Montréal and more of a counter-attacker than a pusher), Connors and Wilander.
On the other, the more traditional net rushers like McEnroe and Navratilova, who could alternate between flat shots and chip and charge.
Though they clashed until the late 90s, the two playing styles shifted dramatically in the late 80s as the game got faster with the advent of serve-and-volley driven by power and explosiveness and embodied by the likes of Boris Becker.
This increase in speed brought about by new state-of-the-art racquets benefitted serve-and-volleyers. Indeed, Edberg and especially Sampras would each dominate the Tour for close to a decade, though their respective reigns were still threatened by baseline hitters who could assert their power early with their returns. Reared by Nick Bollettieri, players like Agassi, Courier and Monica Seles foreshadowed the modern era of offensive baseliners.
At the turn of the new millennium, the game became more uniform with a single overriding style on both the men’s and women’s circuits. Two matches in particular illustrate the changing of the guard and gradual slowing of the courts.
The first is the 2001 Wimbledon final, in which Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter, who almost systematically relied on serve-and-volley and return-and-volley, went head-to-head. Little did the tennis world know that the match would be one of the last demonstrations of serve-and-volley on grass (a surface traditionally favourable to the playing style).
In contrast, just a year later, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian fought for the Wimbledon Cup in a duel that heralded the dawn of a new era of all-court players focused on rhythm and offense.
The next few years only confirmed the trend. Tennis bid farewell to its Krajiceks, Henmans, Philipoussis and Novotnas and started handing out winner’s trophies to baseliners—a phenomenon that’s perfectly illustrated by the rise of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic triumvirate that has lorded over the ATP for nearly 15 years. The same is true on the women’s side with the ascents of Venus and Serena Williams and the successive supremacies of Capriati, Davenport and Clijsters at the apex of the global hierarchy.
But that’s not to say that everyone plays the same game. Federer is the master of the modern attack game, lethal from the baseline and at the net. Players like Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori tend to counterpunch (Hewitt 2.0), while Nadal remains a true baseliner raised on clay (like Muster or Courier) who is able to deploy his game plan on the faster courts.
Faster? Is any surface truly faster? Some will say court speeds have all caught up to each other. It’s become much easier to build the same game on clay, grass, DecoTurf and Plexicushion.
Of course, the athletic aspect of tennis, which has reached a peak, can never be discounted. Even the most exceptional raw talents can’t afford to forgo painstaking physical training. In the early 80s, Lendl played close to 150 matches a year. Today, Federer and Djokovic play 60 to 70. Serena, about 50. Play less to play longer?
Game development factors vary so tremendously that only the bold dare to compare eras. Still, the list of champions in Montréal reflects the structural domination of back court players: a prevailing trend that only gained momentum as the surfaces were slowed to stop the game from picking up too much speed.
Proclaiming how far John McEnroe would go in 2019 or what Sharapova could have accomplished in 1982 is, in fact, more within the realm of science fiction than observation.
Feature photo : Bernard Brault