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Karthika Muthukumaraswamy Headshot

Professional Tennis Today: A Grueling Season or a Grueling Style?

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The aftermath of the Australian Open -- as well as the exceedingly long men's final that brought it to a close -- makes this as good a time as any to focus on the long drawn-out tennis season that follows the first major of the year.

Several players, not least of them, Rafael Nadal -- more than a willing participant in the six-hour trading of baseline shots that went well into the 1 a.m. hour at the Championship match in Melbourne last month -- have expressed their grievances about the 11-month long tennis season. But the Spaniard, who seems to take an almost singular pride in making his body pay a heavy price for tournament titles ("bring your body to the limit of its chances" as he described recently in his own unique way) is hardly the only one complaining.

World no. 1 Novak Djokovic, who got the better of Nadal in the marathon match, has also been pushing for a shorter season despite his prevailing invincibility, which includes an astounding 77-6 win-loss record since the beginning of last year. Britain's Andy Murray and American Andy Roddick are among those who have voiced their concerns, even going so far as to threaten an ATP strike to resolve the issue.

This is no new concern. Players of yester years -- Jim Courier, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras among them -- agree that this has been an ongoing problem in professional tennis for decades. But this new urgency to revise the schedule may have more to do with changing player styles than the season's duration itself.

As the New York Times' Juliet Macur pointed out, today's players don't necessarily play more matches as they do longer, more physically demanding ones.

The six-hour match between Djokovic and Nadal may have made the record books for the longest final in grand slam history, but the exceedingly defensive, error-drawing playing styles of the world's top two players virtually rules out a lesser contest between them. The duo's notoriously long intervals between points notwithstanding, no major clash between them in recent years has been a cakewalk in terms of length or physicality.

Or as Daniel Seidel more brutally puts it in The Atlantic, "Nadal and Djokovic, playing a grueling series of matches in the last couple of years on hard courts, have likely shortened each other's careers."

Roger Federer, still in form at age 30 and in little danger of a premature end to his career, is the only player at the top who hasn't complained about the lengthy season. And why would he? Federer has not missed a single major tournament due to injury or fatigue since 2000. Federer's professional tennis dominance over the last decade has allowed him to hold the record in what history may well judge as even more significant than his tally of grand slam trophies: his streak of reaching 23 consecutive semi-finals and 31 straight quarters in majors, a feat that no other player has come close to.

Federer took some heat about his silence on the issue of schedule reform from his less fortunate peers who have battled injuries and burnout, most notably, the otherwise amicable Nadal, who expressed frustration that his Swiss rival -- who has come to be regarded as an ambassador for the sport -- wasn't speaking out against the ATP calendar.

It's no coincidence that the latter seems to glide on a tennis court with the greatest of ease while the former's grinding, grunting style, accompanied by a relentlessness to chase every ball, sends palpable shockwaves through his knees, even as he goes about trading injuries for trophies.

Amid the current crop of players, the Swiss man represents a dying breed, emphasizing finesse, artful shotmaking and mental acumen over the power-driven baseline game that seems to exemplify the tennis player of the 2000s. As Jake Niall aptly (if somewhat dramatically) notes, such players have "taken once-genteel tennis into the realm of extreme sport, like mountain climbing without oxygen."

The extreme-sport mentality that has crept into this gentleman's game may have more to do with tennis technology than the players themselves.

In recent years, the combination of racket frame and string science have meant that a player can hit the ball harder and faster than ever before, while still keeping it in play. The latest fad in tennis (other than Milos Raonic) is the synthetic copolyester string. Stiffer and more slippery than traditional nylon or natural gut, it can generate extraordinary topspin by sliding sideways and imparting less friction on the ball.

These strings have virtually defined modern players like Nadal, who rely less on deft athleticism and shotmaking prowess than on brute force and new technology to add more power and variation to their strokes. Polyester strings have brought about a transition similar to the shift from wood to graphite in the seventies, when the graphite racket's larger head, strength and lightness allowed players to swing faster to achieve higher speeds.

Polyester strings today generate angles and dives that were only possible through subtlety of touch just a few years ago. This has allowed the "new string generation" -- as Federer calls them -- to easily counter net-rushing big servers, since the high spin on returns is hard to answer with a volley.

Talking of the demise of the serve and volley, another big change happened in tennis almost a decade ago. Wimbledon, the only grass-court major, and up until recently the Mecca of the serve and volley player, decided to slow down its courts.

Until the nineties, the lower bounce of the ball on grass offered an almost unquestionable advantage to big-serving, quick-thinking players at the All England Club. Known as one of Wimbledon's many whims (amid rained-out matches and the sudden appearance of royalty), the slick, natural grass and its fickle blades could throw up unpredictable bounces, favoring quick thinking and improvisation from players. The low-skidding balls made groundstrokes tricky, encouraging players to charge the net and take balls early.

This was what enabled Pete Sampras, the classic serve-volleyer who was also known for his tactical brain, often thinking and adapting his game mid-match, to win 55 out of 56 matches here in eight straight years.

But in 2001, the lawns of Wimbledon underwent a makeover, switching to 100 percent perennial rye grass for easier maintenance. This made the turf firmer and drier, likening it to clay and hard courts, and resulting in higher, more predictable bounces. Even the split second achieved through the higher bounce resulted in longer points, dispelling any advantage for quick-thinking tacticians who had reigned supreme for years.

And, in turn, allowing defensive, power-baseliners like Rafa Nadal to gain ascendancy.

So, while graphite supplies the power and synthetic strings achieve the angles, a lot of tennis these days is about new and changing technology. The jury is still out on what came first. Did players start playing a powerful ground game due to the tennis gear available on the market? Or did they choose power groundstrokes with heavy spins over traditional playing styles, which involved taking risks by coming to the net or thinking your way through a complicated rally, prompting the tennis industry to follow suit with technology?

No matter what the answer, we can safely say we are not going back to the serve and volley. "No, it's not coming back. It's a different game now," says Nick Bollettieri (who some credit along with his star pupil Andre Agassi for the rise of the power baseliner).

Nadal and Djokovic, while blessed with enviable endurance and amazing abilities to defend and prolong matches, have effectively threatened the brilliance of mental acuity and shot-making on the fly, exemplified by more cerebral players like Federer and Andy Murray, who favor tactics and touch over the mere strategy of drawing errors while running down and wearing out opponents.

In fact, one could argue that "thinkers" like Federer, who rely on good court sense and anticipation combined with an ability to mix up shots are effectively stifled by the sheer power and endurance of defenders like Rafa and Novak, for under the pressure of a big match with high stakes, it's far easier to rely on mindless physical ability than mental acumen.

Little wonder then, that for tennis purists and Federer fans (the overlap is staggering!), it's hard to digest these changes that shift the focus from natural skill and ability to power and endurance -- likening tennis to almost every other sport that pits brawn against brawn.

Shortening the season -- if it happens -- may just be the final step in legitimizing this transition to power tennis.

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