The last decade in the world of men’s tennis has been unlike any other. Records have tumbled, players have accumulated Grand Slams like nobody’s business (Federer has 20!). The tennis narrative, and rightly so, has been about the Big Four, namely, Roger, Rafa, Novak, and Andy. The only person who has upset the dominance of the aforementioned is Stan Wawrinka. In fact, a lot of tennis journalists have used the phrase the “Big Five” from time to time. All the adulation is richly deserved, however, in the midst of it all, we do tend to gloss over a lot of amazing things that other players are doing.
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A lot of people like Federer because he is almost a “throwback” player. You can visualize him with a wooden racket in black and white recording, and it will not look odd. People tend to look down upon the modern generation and its powerful baseline duels, with players hammering the cover of the ball. However, the recently concluded Australian Open Championships reconfirmed something that has been gnawing at me for a long time. It is the fact that baseline hitting has provided the game with the kind of drama and theatre that has made tennis the most popular individual sport on the planet. And, more than the defensive baseline styles of Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray, it is the offensive baseline game of the bigger, taller players that attracts. It is about that point in time when players with easy power line up with the ball and let it rip. The ball seems to be transfixed for that fleeting moment and then down comes the racket, blasting the projectile to the other side of the net. And as the stroke elicits a defensive response from the opponent, you are transfixed as well, following the path of the ball, as each and every shot is hit harder, with more venom, with a bigger clang from the strings, till it becomes a winner. This Australian Open showcased the talents of two such players, namely Maric Cilic and Tomas Berdych.
Cilic is 6’ 6”, Berdych is marginally shorter at 6’5”. Both have long wingspans, and boy can both of them tonk the ball! Yes, they did end up losing to Federer, but this is not about how good these players are. This post is about nuances of a sport that is a smorgasbord of so many attributes which arise from the basest of rules, hitting the ball across the net. The Berdych was Del Potro match was supposed to be a tussle of two titans, giants who can move mountains with their forehands. However, Berdych mauled Del Potro, with rallies highlighting the very quality I have mentioned. Berdych would hit a shot to Del Potro’s backhand, he would slice the ball, Berdych would get time to set himself up and then fire his forehand. Del Potro could only come up with an average reply and then the next shot would be hit with more vengeance. And this would continue, till Juan was pushed into a corner and could handle it no more. The highlight of the night for me was a running forehand hit at 150 kmph!!
Cilic highlighted the same aspect in his match with Nadal. It is a tribute to Rafa’s defensive skills that he took the match to the fifth set. Cilic hit more than 80 winners against one of the best defenders the game has ever seen!! Rafa would loop his forehands on the fast Australian court, and Cilic would run around his forehand and pulverize it. Rally after rally, it was the big man firing bullets and the smaller, faster guy trying to escape. The shots were occupied by the same intoxicating, mesmerizing power hitting, building momentum as one followed the other. This match reminded me of the Federer v Safin semi-final of the 2005 Australian Open, when by the 5th set Federer was almost worn down by the power of Mighty Marat! Was Rafa’s injury due to Cilic’s beat down? We will never know. However, I don’t think Nadal would have won that day even if he was fit.
The game of tennis gives us many facets to enjoy. It gives us unbridled joy, athleticism, power, mental fortitude and so on. However, if you look deeper, it also has the ability to give you something to think about after each point. And it is here, that the power hitters occupy a different place. They can inject vengeance and furiosity in the game, and that makes for gripping viewing. Berdych and Cilic are just two examples of this, with other names like Del Potro, Tsonga, and players from the newer generation, like Kyrgios, Rublev, and Edmund. What this does mean is that we have more reasons than the big 5 to switch on our TVs to watch a tennis match, and that can never be a bad thing. Can it?