Tennis has turned into a busy sport.
Commercial commitments and post-season leagues leave barely a few weeks on the calendar for players to cool their heels and recalibrate. Even as the biggest stars of tennis prepare for another quest for glory in 2016, we reflect on the evolution of the sport in this millennium. With 41 majors between them, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have clearly defined this era with their insatiable hunger for greatness.
Consistency has been underlying theme for tennis since the turn of the millennium, with Federer showing the way. Racquet technology and advances in analytics have allowed coaches to work on specific detail to help players achieve hitherto unseen levels of success. There is no comparable era in tennis where three gladiators have won more than 10 major titles each, underlining the stranglehold of the men at the top.
As the transition took shape, there was indeed a period of flux. A pony tailed Federer made a massive impression when he ousted Pete Sampras from Wimbledon with a memorable 7-6 (7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 victory. He was marking the beginning of a new era, but he still had to wait for nearly three years for his own coronation as the new king of tennis.
The intervening period was marked by the emergence of players such as Andy Roddick and Marat Safin. But the most telltale sign of the changed dynamics of tennis came in the form of Lleyton Hewitt’s victory at Wimbledon in 2002. The Aussie used his footspeed and agility to control the baseline and script a storied victory.
Emergence of baseline bombers
If the period through the late 1980s and 90s started to witness the dramatic decline of forecourt tennis, the early part of this millennium saw the complete death of serve-and-volley tennis. Power and spin took centre-stage, as players found it relatively easier to stay their ground and strike or slice ferociously, colluding with improved racket strings and lighter composite rackets.
Carbon graphite composites for the racket head and polyester blends for strings have become a concoction that allow players better control over flight path and spin. Hewitt’s ability to hug the baseline and dictate terms on the meadows of South London in 2002 heralded the beginning of a shift in court craft.
By 2003, Federer had adapted his genius to the forces of the time, deciding to sacrifice touch for power as he too moved his camp to the baseline. Just as serve and volley turned passé, so too was the one handed backhand. The fact that Federer enjoyed such prolific success with one of the most elegant one handed backhands ever seen in tennis in this era is simply remarkable.
The reign of Federer was disrupted by a resilient Spanish invader with an enormous ability to create spin and bounce. Nadal, a left hander, used his power and topspin to great effect. He pummeled Federer’s backhand — spitting venom with his topspin forehand.
Nadal has been clocked between 3,200 to 5,000 rpm — nearly double the speed of Sampras and Andre Agassi. The revs on his spinning ball are 20 percent better than most of his contemporaries, including Federer and Djokovic. As the ball gripped the surface and jumped high, Federer’s one-handed backhand turned into a liability that led to severe punishment.
Most of it was facilitated by a new generation of rackets with a large head and strings designed to flex apart and snap back into position just as the racket made contact with the ball. The polyester strings have helped players reduce the tension on the strings, allowing for higher spin and a near trampoline effect as they strike the ball. Technology has enabled players to adapt the “windshield wiper” technique, brushing over the ball even as they strike it.
"The most unique part of the new strings is the way players are able to accelerate so violently and bring the ball up and down so severely,” said Justin Gimelstob to the WSJ in 2012. “It's one of the reasons it's so tough to attack the net because in a way the dimensions of the court have been altered. Angles now exist that didn't years ago."
Deepening power of technology
Nadal overpowered the elegant Swiss with his brute force, deepening the culture of tennis motored from behind the baseline. Even as Nadal and Federer were battling for supremacy, Djokovic made a statement by winning the Australian Open in 2008. But he was a player that lacked the genius of Federer or the resilience of Nadal.
The one thing the Serbian had in plenty was a hunger for success. And in solving the riddle of his physical and mental struggles, Djokovic unlocked a new frontier for tennis. The determined young man adopted a strict regimen of exercise and diet to address his struggle with allergies and a fragile mind.
In 2011, Djokovic established a vice like grip over the sport, dominating it in the same mould as Federer and Nadal before him. His gluten free diet, CVAC hyperbaric chamber and hours of technology driven training have created a player that seems like the first template into the future of the sport.
As tennis evolved, the focus of technology remained the tools of the trade – ball, surface, racket head and strings. Over the past five years, this has extended into the domain of the player himself.
Gordon Uehling III’s facility in Alpine, an exclusive neighbourhood in New Jersey is one of several developments that are working to take tennis to the next level. The modern tennis camp uses cutting edge technology to study player mechanics, racket movement, ball flight and work load to arrive at scientific conclusions about the subject player.
Djokovic’s success by following a near military grade fitness regimen, disciplined diet, and suave use of technology combined with hours of practice has created a staggering new generation tennis player. The manner of his dominance in 2015 has been nothing short of insane.
At 16,585 points the Serbian is head and shoulders above competition with the second ranked Andy Murray trailing him by an enormous 7,640 points. That is nearly an equivalent of four Grand Slam titles — a gap that has been unheard of since the beginning of the rankings system.
Shoe as a weapon
As footwork gains more prominence in the arsenal of tennis players, so too has the value of the shoe as an ally to the player. There have been significant advances in the technology surrounding shoes, from the days of flat, non-marking shoes.
The modern player travels approximately two miles per match, sliding and turning his frame from one side to the other. Often they need to stretch their limbs very wide before recovering quickly to regain position to stay in the rally. The shoe is an important element in managing the tension and stress from hundreds of directional changes over a short stretch of time.
Advances in the footwork of modern player has challenged shoe manufacturers to produce tougher shoes without making them too heavy on the foot. The patterns on the sole are designed specifically to facilitate easy sliding across the court while the material used absorbs the heat and abrasion from the constant movement of the player.
Smart systems could redefine the future
Over the next few years sensor driven technologies could alter the tennis landscape. Technology is seeping into every aspect of tennis, providing unprecedented levels of information and analytics.
The growth of Nano-technology promises to embed electronics into every component of tennis – the court, balls, rackets, shoes, clothing and the players themselves – could offer coaches unparalleled insight into player performance in the years to come.
Short careers of extra-ordinary brilliance could be the template for the future with athletes performing at exceptionally high levels for a duration of time before the next big champion arrives with a new trick for the season.