By Isaac Butler
One of the odd things about tennis is how often dramatic changes in the sport can come about as a result of external factors that many watching know nothing about. No where is this clearer than in the surfaces the athletes play on.
While it's a big deal-- and somewhat controversial-- within the sport itself, a lot of folks tuning in to ESPN to watch some of Wimbledon or the occasional US Open match don't know that the surfaces have been slowed down over the course of the last few years. What this means is that they've altered and, at times, replaced the surfaces the sport is played on, making the surfaces more absorbent, which in turn makes the ball bounce slower after it hits the court, which in turn slows the sport down.
This leads to longer points and, often, more dramatic rallies. But it has also completely destroyed the classic art of serve and volley tennis, the tennis of John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. It's hard not to imagine that, in a different era, Roger Federer's relentless, beautiful angle-cutting offense wouldn't've found more regular expression at the net, for example.
I'm making my way through David Foster Wallace's posthumous book of essays Both Flesh and Not, and rereading his Federer profile for the 11th time, and he mentions a match I had never watched, the 2005 US Open final between Agassi and Federer. I looked up the highlights, and it is remarkable how much faster the game was, even seven years ago. Here's highlight video from that match:
And here's highlight video from Djokovic-Murray in 2012:
Now, the other major change to the sport is, of course, in the rackets. Those changes have increased the initial speed of the ball (and its propensity to bounce wildly). These two things have made serve and volley tennis practically impossible to use as a dominant play style. Basically, the ball is coming too fast at the person at the net, and the ball hit by the person at the net then bounces, making it slower and easier to deal with.