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The Isner-Mahut Epic: Drama or Overkill?
“There are some very valuable things of the past that have been lost in the wild scramble for speed and power.” − Bill Tilden (1950)
In my 1998 essay, “OVERKILL: The Power Crisis Facing Tennis,” I wrote:
Fast forward to the 2020 Wimbledon Championships. Ace Jordan, the 6'9"
son of basketball legend Air Jordan, is literally taking apart 7'1" Killer
Ivanadisco in the fifth set of their vicious final on Centre Court.
Although Killer earned his nickname by beheading a net judge and a doubles
opponent with errant 175-mile-per-hour serves, he's taking a terrible beating
now. Ace has knocked him down 14 times – 11 requiring emergency medical
treatment – with rocket serves that smacked him in the groin, mouth, stomach,
and eye. Bloodied and groggy, Killer finally throws in the towel after holding
serve at 21-all, and Ace, with a record-breaking 83 aces, prevails.
The future of tennis? Not if sanity prevails – but perhaps it will be if men's
tennis keeps evolving from a sport of diverse styles and stylists to one of brutish
power and vanishing rallies.
Andy Roddick predicted that record, 183 total games, will never be broken. Not even close!”
Future shock arrived a decade earlier than I predicted. During their 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 first-round Wimbledon marathon, 6'9", 245-pound giant John Isner blasted 113 aces and slender 6'3", 176-pound Nicolas Mahut whacked 103 more. The previous record for combined aces in a match? A mere 96 smacked by 6'10" Ivo Karlovic and 6'1" Radek Stepanek on clay a year ago. The historic Isner-Mahut encounter lasted an astounding 11 hours, 5 minutes and required three days.
"Normally you say sports records will eventually be broken. That record [183 total games] will never be broken. Not even close!" predicted Andy Roddick, another master blaster who owns the record for the fastest serve, 155 mph.
Don't be so sure, A-Rod. Mahut survived a 24-22 deciding set in the qualifying event, and then ironically predicted, "The longest match I'll play." Isner's opponent after his debilitating ordeal with Mahut was Thiemo de Bakker, who had prevailed in his relatively quick 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 16-14 first-round duel.
In 1998, John Barrett, a 1950s British Davis Cup player and later a respected journalist, warned that "the modern game is a
one-dimensional slugfest, exciting at times, occasionally brilliant, but tediously
In 1998, John Barrett, a 1950s British Davis Cup player and later a respected BBC-TV commentator and journalist, warned in ITF World of Tennis:
Today power is all. On every surface, from grass to clay, the modern game is a
one-dimensional slugfest, exciting at times, occasionally brilliant, but tediously
Subtlety, finesse, tactical awareness – all those things that made tennis a
three-dimensional delight – are, at best, only fleetingly observed. Power has
killed the artist. There will never be another Santana, Larsen, Pietrangeli,
Nastase, or McEnroe to delight us with their chessboard skills.
Since 1998, advanced technology has produced even more powerful racquets and strings, players are taller and stronger, and serves and ground strokes rocket faster than ever. Even Roger Federer, a mere 6'1", pounded 50 aces when he outlasted Roddick 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14 in the Wimbledon final a year ago. The women can bring it, too. Serena Williams, who once quipped that Roddick envied her muscular biceps, averaged more aces per service game, 1.35, for seven matches at Wimbledon, than did Isner in his mind-boggling marathon, 1.22.
The longest match in tennis history undeniably created a buzz during the first week. Even after The Championships, an impressed Nadal enthused: "Unbelievable. They show amazing good spirit for the crowd, for the young people, because the attitude was very positive and fighting a lot every point, like for 10 hours or 11 hours. Just amazing."
Even so, this marathon match re-introduced questions about what's best for tournament and TV scheduling, the health of players, and spectators not enthralled by marathon matches dominated by unreturned serves. Awesome power may thrill the crowd in many sports – the knockout punch in boxing, the home run in baseball and the slam dunk in basketball – but an endless barrage of service aces and winners in tennis disproves Mae West's wisecrack that too much of a good thing is wonderful.
What then should tennis do so matches don't turn into little more than monotonous serving contests that can last days?
In 1978, the International Tennis Federation wisely banned the notorious double-strung "spaghetti racquet" because it produced wildly erratic and unpredictable bounces that changed the character of the sport. Regrettably, it missed a golden opportunity for another much-needed rule change in 2003.
Eight Wimbledon singles champions, including McEnroe, Navratilova, and Boris Becker urged the ITF to consider reducing the width of the head of the racquet from its present limit of 12.5 inches to 9 inches.
Eight Wimbledon singles champions, including McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pat Cash and Martina Navratilova, were among more than 30 well-known tennis figures who signed an open letter, drafted by Barrett, urging the ITF to "consider reducing the width of the head of the racquet from its present limit of 12.5 inches to 9 inches, perhaps in stages over four or five years." They also advocated reducing the maximum racquet length from 29 to 27 inches.
They contended pro tennis had become one-dimensional, played mostly from the baseline, because racquets give power an undue influence over skill. They also argued that serving and volleying is uncommon in men's tennis and virtually extinct in women's tennis – "because it is so easy and effective to hit topspin drives, players are reluctant to come to the net."
Click photo: In his marathon match against Nicolas Mahut, John Isner blasted a record 113 aces.
That protest failed. But the Isner-Mahut spectacle or debacle (take your pick) should ignite another campaign to reduce racquet-head width, this time to a fairer, yet effective, 9.5" maximum.
"The only way to put a ceiling on power and topspin is by better governing the materials used in tennis racquets and strings," agrees Mary Carillo, the authoritative TV tennis analyst. "I can only imagine that this would be savagely fought in the courts by the manufacturers."
However, Carillo proposes an ingenious solution that could both save pro tennis from boring overkill and keep profit-minded manufacturers happy. "Perhaps there could be separate racquet divisions – powerful, wide frames for the recreational player, and Professional Grade racquets for the pros," says Carillo. "If the manufacturers were smart enough, they'd sell them this way. It would attract good juniors to the pro specs early, and it would still leave room for most other players to find the larger sweet spots and easier-playing frames that they seek. Most important, it would bring strategy, nuance and variety back into the professional game."
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The Slice Backhand
Watching the recent championships at the All England Club, one couldn't help but notice how often the one-handed underspin backhand came into play, as a defensive stroke, a neutralizing shot, or an approach. And this was true even for two-handed players. In this in-depth video analysis, Christophe Delavaut talks about the common threads of this stroke. Components you need in order to hit the perfect underspin stroke.
The Backhand Overhead
Often thought to be one of the most difficult shots in tennis, the backhand overhead is indeed one of the most often missed shots – but it doesn't have to be. Aside from the technical aspects, the main problem here is that the shot is not hit very often in match play and it is practiced even less. Tell the truth, when was the last time you went out on the court to specifically work on this shot? Dave Smith explains the nuts and bolts.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Francesca Schiavone's Net Game
What a performance capturing the 2010 French Open. Francesca Schiavone is 30, and that is somewhat old within the women’s ranks, and to keep this unusual thread going, she plays with a one-handed backhand. She has captured just four singles titles and prior to this breakout performance she has been a doubles specialist. But, I guess, “Nothing is Impossible” and certainly that was the case for a player who had lost in the first round of this same tournament the previous year. But with wins over Stosur, Dementieva, and Wozniacki we can only wonder what the rest of the year will have in store. New this issue, Schiavone's net game.
TennisOne Writers Store
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