US Open 2018: Americans need to move beyond unidimensional attacking style of tennis, adapt to all-court game

The USA may once have been considered a breeding ground for talent and indeed, American players — both male and female — dominated the scene for quite a while. In fact, the USA had one of tennis’ earliest big stars: “Big Bill” Tilden, who is widely considered one of the Greatest of All Time. The former World No 1 was active in the late 1920s and through the 1930s, and was at the top of the rankings for a significant six-year period.

Since then, of course, the USA has had a great number of World No 1s in the ATP and WTA rankings. Names like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Christine Evert and Pam Shriver will not be unknown to many, and indeed Connors, McEnroe and Evert dominated the scene during their active years — with Evert still active in tennis commentary. In the years that followed McEnroe and Connors’ domination, we saw the iconic Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, both of whom are frequently listed among fans’ favourite tennis players. And then there was also Jim Courier, who, like Agassi and to an extent, Sampras, was quite the exception to the unidimensional rule.

Representative image. Reuters

Representative image. Reuters

Today, apart from Serena Williams, there is truly no American tennis ace who could be considered an all-surface, all-game player. But the last few years have seen increasingly fewer big game players. The Bryan brothers have excelled in the doubles, but apart from a transitionary Andy Roddick, then John Isner, and to a lesser extent Sam Querrey, no American in the past decade has really been able to fire an all-court game.

Most are big servers, and few, if any, focus on footwork or cross-court movement and are able to use it as a weapon as their counterparts from the rest of the world — among them the greats, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Apart from Agassi, who was a clay-court magician, no player was able to fire much on any surface apart from hard courts either.

Hard courts, which most American players train on, promote big shot-tennis and quick movement of the ball, meaning that most players who are either from the country or train in it, and through that system, tend to work on it. This starts early on, especially in the specialised tennis academies of the United States. The IMG academy, run by the iconic tennis coach Nick Bolletieri, is located in Florida and is perhaps the most noted tennis academy in the country. Bolletieri is, worldwide, considered a definitive name in coaching in the sport.

Saddlebrook is yet another tennis academy in the United States, as is the McEnroe academy. In fact, many tennis talents from around the country are even scouted as potential recruits for these academies. But this may be doing more harm than good, because that concentrates the tennis talent on those academies rather than having a centralised training system like, say, Russia has today, as do many countries in Europe, which consistently produce a number of tennis champions year after year.

Junior competition promotes fast, hard court play

It is not unheard of, but quite uncommon, for USA tennis players to go the route of Futures and Challenger tournaments. Most tend to go from tennis academies to collegiate tennis, and indeed, even a number of Indian players have gone the USA college route. The number of collegiate tennis players who do well on the ATP is comparatively lower, with both Isner and Kevin Anderson currently bucking that trend, but it still is, in fact, a trend.

Of the top 20 players on the ATP circuit, you could count on your fingers the number of players who went through collegiate tennis. Anderson came through the college circuit and so did Isner. While Anderson studied and played on the circuit at the University of Illinois, Isner did the same at Georgia.

Going through the futures and challenger circuits as a younger player means that that player has access to a larger variety of surfaces, opponents, and overall tennis experience. As a young player, if one were up against a number of all-court players, one might learn to adapt, at the very least, certain aspects of the game against those opponents. Focusing on big serving games against opponents who are trained in that exact same sector serves further to make one’s game one-dimensional and while not unexciting, a little low on ‘flavour’, so to speak.

American players, as a result of working with fast-moving courts, become experts in what is known as “First-strike tennis” which places the most importance, as the name suggests, on the first shot and return. Rallies are shorter than before. During points, players only make a handful of changes of directions This means that they are looking to play attacking tennis from the get-go, and with tennis in the last few years appearing to see quite a shift to attacking tennis, this might well work out in terms of a strategy.

However, it really does not leave much to on-court movement, with footwork, and relies instead on the player just delivering consistent big shots over and over and over again. That eventually leads, more often than not, to brutal, long matches that stretch on over hours, tiebreakers, and some-times even days, and delivers to the viewer a rather unidimensional game.

The coaching style in the USA, focused, as I said, on a few academies, emphasises on big serving, fore-hand play. This makes for good offensive, attacking tennis, but players tend to run around backhands as a result, and do not learn — or play — much defense or defensive tennis. As a result, they rely largely on big-stroke tennis for winners, and are unable to construct points — taking away, thus, from an all-round game.

Hard courts make for quick movement of the tennis ball, but not so much for human feet! Therefore, footwork is neglected too and as a watcher of the “American style” of tennis, you really will not see much movement around the court at all.

Last, but not the least, America as a country is no longer particularly focused on tennis. Sports like American football and baseball take pride of place, while gymnastics, athletics and swimming are also given some amount of focus and better training structures. With not as much interest in the sport in terms of the public consciousness, there is also not as much interest in terms of younger inductees into the sport. A handful of American tennis players have joined the system following their idols — for example, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens — who both idolise Serena. But in the collective mind, tennis is perhaps far down the list of ‘interesting’ sports.

Tennis is also a more expensive sport, and needs consistent investment by the family of the player, and for a significant time without any returns, to be able to see future results. Not everyone is afforded that luxury in a country where the academy-style system is the norm, as opposed to centralised academies that are more accessible socio-economically. This automatically alienates a large number of people and therefore narrows down a potential pool of talent.

The “American” style of attacking tennis is of course not exclusive to American players, and of course has its own fans. It would be remiss to dismiss that strategy entirely — of course, it paid off for a number of players and fans have seen periods where Americans dominated the tennis stage. But for now, it is perhaps an all-court game that is crucial to tennis success.

Of course, on the women’s side, Stephens and Keys are the ‘new generation’ of tennis, while Serena, the ‘old generation’, continues to mount a mammoth, and quite successful comeback. On the men’s, players like Frances Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson and Tommy Paul have been making their own inroads as the old guard change hands. What the future holds, one will have to wait and see. The talent is there, but perhaps it will need to adapt better.


Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 18:27 PM

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