There is this fantastic scene in Top Gun, just after the best fighter pilots in the country arrive in Miramar, where Chief Instructor Mike “Viper” Metcalf explains the objective of the Top Gun program. Essentially, with the advent of heat seeking missiles, fighter pilots lost touch with the nuance of flying jets. They let the technology do all the work and, as a result, U.S. fighter pilot records dipped sharply during the Vietnam War (or so says the film). Top Gun was created to train pilots in the art of dog fighting, shifting the emphasis back on individual performance. Success rates (again, according to the movie) radically improved.
Remarkably, men’s professional tennis has gone through a similar transformation. If you’ve never had the chance to YouTube tennis highlights from the early- and mid-1980s, I highly recommend you try it soon. It will startle you how different the game is. Points last two or three strokes — serve, return, volley off the side of the court. Rackets of this era are indistinguishable from badminton rackets, and provide almost no pace to groundstrokes. It’s all about technique — a chess game, or an episode of cat-and-mouse.
Then came graphite rackets, with oversized heads and polyester strings, and players were free to pummel the ball into oblivion. The result was a game played almost exclusively from the baseline — guys trading bombs for fifteen, twenty, thirty strokes, playing a game of “Who will blink first?” (Sadly, it was often the people watching these painful matches, who would then forget to open their eyes back up again.) This sort of flat, static game — all the movement on the tennis court was horizontal — allowed room for anyone and everyone at the top. Starting in 1999, there was a four-year stretch where ten different players inhabited the world No. 1 ranking.
The enhanced technology had turned tennis circa 2002 into the U.S. Navy (according to Top Gun) of the Vietnam War. Dependent on these advanced rackets, players were hypnotizing each other with baseline blasts. How in the world could anyone sustain interest in this kind of game?
Apart from being the best player ever, Roger Federer is also the savior of modern tennis. When he officially arrived in 2003 by winning Wimbledon in command fashion, he did so with a variety to his game that was completely befuddling. He hit with overwhelming amounts of power, but he did so from all over the court, exposing head splitting angles inside the baseline.
The verticality was back in tennis, as Federer was always the aggressor — hitting approaches deep to the corner then ghosting to the net with otherworldly quickness, anxious to put the point away. Suddenly, you could not hope to win a major, let alone own the world No. 1 ranking, without some sort of variety to your game. The men’s tennis equivalent of the Top Gun program was in session.
Fast forward to today. It has taken eight years, but the ATP World Tour has now caught up with the magnificent Federer. Once Roger asserted his dominance, there grew this urgency to retool — place your serve, move your opponents, mix your spins and pace, and always come in when possible. It has happened in shifts, with Rafael Nadal leading the charge, but now the field is deep enough with enough weapons to make tennis interesting again. Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, Andy Murray, et al., each posses the all court game necessary to win big tournaments in this era.
It has come at a high cost — Nadal, for instance, has ruined his knees with the effort it has taken to evolve his game into something varied enough to compete with Federer outside of clay. Where the cost is not physical, it often manifests itself emotionally — ask either of the Andys (Murray or Roddick) after a Grand Slam final loss to Federer. Both have slipped into undeniable post match swoons that sometimes last entire seasons.
But what is emerging out of the wreckage is a scintillating brand of tennis with endless potential to entertain. Yesterday, in Indian Wells, 18 year-old Ryan Harrison played 20 year-old Milos Raonic — he of the baby face, yet with a superhuman serve. I watched every captivating second. Both emulation of and desire to compete with Roger Federer were evident on each point. Serves out wide, masterful approaches, and physics-defying passing shots betrayed a generation that has adapted to the new landscape Federer has created for the game.
It is remarkable that a third round match in a non-Slam event could command such an audience — in addition to myself watching on my computer, the stadium was packed and thousands more were in line hoping to get seated. They waited in vain. No one was giving up his or her seat for this barn-burner.
Who knows? Maybe we were watching Iceman trading blows with Maverick out there on a tennis court in the middle of the California desert.
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