The top two male tennis players are going at it right now in Flushing, New York, home of the U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam of the year. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will vie for the title tonight, and if there are two things for certain, they are this: 1) I will DVR-watch starting at 8pm; 2) the fast-forward button on my remote will get a serious workout. Because not only are these two the fittest players on the tour, meaning there will be a bevy of 20-30 shot rallies, they are also among the slowest, meaning they will take their time between points. Nadal is especially guilty of delays, as he features a litany of OCD-like rituals before each serve.
And there will be much serving and hitting and rallying. Louisa Thomas over at Grantland recently wrote about what I bet many fans are feeling – the sameness of it all. I have no beef against rivalries – I enjoyed Sampras vs. Agassi as much as any fan. I also enjoyed Roger Federer vs. Nadal. But this latest head to head between Novak and Rafa is just too drawn out, too much of the same styles of play. Both of these men come, as most top players now do, from the School of Attrition, where they grind their opponent down with their dogged retrieving and clocklike consistency. In Djokovic’s previous semifinal match against Stanislas Wawrinka, there was a 35-shot rally. Impressive, yes, but not exactly entertaining. The majority of the shots bounced on or around the service line, meaning both players were content to strike their safe shots to each other. Granted, they were making small moves with their hits to eventually get the other out of position, but it just took too long. I believe the sweet spot for rallies is around 10, with a max of 15. Anything more than this, the shine of the exchange fades.
I’m not saying I miss the tennis of the early 90’s, when players like Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic blasted their rocket serves and followed up with a kill volley. In that case, there were too few rallies and the game became robotic in a different yet ultimately same way. What we need to make this game more entertaining and interesting now is to find a happier middle. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will happen anytime soon. With Roger Federer on his way out, what we have left is the three-headed human-machine-ball monster of Djokovic-Nadal-Murray. It’s possible that Juan Martin del Potro may make that a foursome, or perhaps Tomas Berdych will, but all of these men are built to trade groundstrokes with each other in the back court. None of them are shotmakers in the mold of Federer, who at his prime loved to strike short balls to draw his opponents into the net, where he’d then pass them with a wicked angled forehand.
The game has changed, and of course will change again. But for me, right now is not the Golden Age of tennis. Instead, it is the Interminable Age of tennis.