What can one match tell us about how men’s tennis has changed in the last decade?
The 2006 men’s final at Wimbledon between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, though not the greatest match those two ever played, begat perhaps the greatest tennis essay ever written.
David Foster Wallace’s “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” is an absolute must read for anyone who appreciates tennis. Or sports in general. Or written words. Or, honestly, anyone who is currently alive.
It manages to describe in beautiful detail the indescribable, beautiful details that overwhelm your senses when you see professional tennis played live, in person. It’s a long essay; there are a lot of details.
Spending the first 24 years of my life having watched tennis exclusively on television, I knew I was missing something. David Foster Wallace told me as much, and I believed him but not really, you know?
He was right. Ten years later, some of the characters have been swapped out, the location has been shifted from rainy London to sunny New York, and some of the plot line has been rearranged, but the cinematography is still outrageously stunning.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
And it turns out I really only went to this movie for the pretty pictures anyway.
1. EXT. US OPEN 4TH ROUND – DAY
“Special” Kei Nishikori plays the main character. A man of unimaginable fame in his home country of Japan, it’s hard not to root for Nishikori.
On television he looks so tiny and friendly. With a smile that’s just an inch too big for the rest of his body, he looks like one of the nicest guys on tour.
As Nishikori stepped out from the cramped, winding Louis Armstrong Stadium corridors and into the heavy, 1:00pm, New York City sun, the first thing I noticed was that tiny little Nishikori wasn’t so tiny after all.
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He looked rock solid, like he’d spent the last couple years slowly adding ultra-dense musculature to every square inch of his body in the most space-efficient way possible.
No, not like Nadal with his cartoon superhero biceps that you can see from a mile away; more like a Greek sculpture — I’m thinking Laocoön but with less hair.
Anyway, he looked like somebody who would beat every inhabitant of planet Earth at every single measure of athletic ability (except for maybe a few of those decathlon guys), let alone tennis.
2. EXT. US OPEN 4TH ROUND - DAY
The villain for today’s movie would be “Dr.” Ivo Karlovic, the 6‘11” Croatian. A man of unimaginable consistency with his powerful serve, it’s really hard to root for Karlovic.
On television he looks so huge and evil. With that face of, well, every Eastern European movie villain ever, he just doesn’t look like the nicest guy on tour.
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As Karlovic stepped onto the court, the first thing I noticed was that, goodness gracious, this man is really is enormous.
3. EXT. US OPEN 4TH ROUND – DAY
GAME ONE: ENCOURAGING START
Kei served first. From the get-go, the not-so-tiny Japanese man imposed his aggressive style of play on the pace of the points through the sheer and uninhibited ferocity of his groundstrokes.
Nishikori’s backhand is regarded as one of the best on the tour, if not the best. This fact became obvious within seconds.
His backhand starts innocently enough, with a relatively short backswing, then it absolutely erupts through the ball. The power primarily comes from his torso: the violence of his stroke causes Nishikori to follow through with a spectacular Rory McIlroy-like contortion of his body.
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The end result is a hard, flat ball that stays low over the net and penetrates deep into the court, which, when combined with exquisite placement, is Nishikori’s most dangerous weapon.
Nishikori’s forehand, though, despite appearing to rely on a similarly violent stroke, produces a very different ball.
Like his backhand, Nishikori’s forehand starts out quietly, with a short, simple backswing that belies an explosive, whiplike followthrough. The upward-tilted swing plane of his forehand — unlike the flatter plane of his backhand — has several repercussions.
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The upward, twisting force of Nishikori’s forehand often brings both of his feet flying off the ground as his entire body follows his rotating arm and torso in a way that would intimidate the living daylights out of me if I had to go out there and play tennis against him. He looks like Taz from “The Looney Tunes.”
The sound that the ball makes is completely unlike the solid thump of his backhand. Nishikori’s forehands can only be described as hissing. The upward plane of his swing and the angle of his racquet at impact cause the strings of his racquet to grab and scrape against the ball in a way that’s strangely quiet except for the hiss that the ball makes as it goes whirring over the net with incredible topspin.
The ball crosses over the net with significant room to spare: so much so that it would appear that, considering the height of the ball and the speed at which it’s flying, it has no chance of landing inside the court. But then the ball goes and ignores your rudimentary mental parabolic projections and gets yanked out of the sky as if someone had pulled it down with a string, causing it to land well inside the baseline.
Special Kei held the first game of the match without losing a single point. But now it was time for Dr. Ivo to serve, and everybody in the stadium knew that this was where things would get interesting.
4. EXT. US OPEN 4TH ROUND – DAY
It’s no surprise that as the tallest tennis player ever, Karlovic has an extremely effective serve. In fact, he might be the best server of all time. Here are some more fun Karlovic serving stats:
His career average of over 19 aces per match is better than anyone on ATP tour since the ace became an officially-recorded stat in 1991.
Karlovic is number one on the career ace list despite having played fewer matches than anyone else in the top five.
Karlovic has led the ATP Tour in aces for the year five times.
- Only two players have had more than 50 aces in a match more than once. John Isner has done it twice, Karlovic five times.
Karlovic has the record for most aces in a three-set match (45).
Karlovic has the record for most aces in a French Open match, and most aces in a US Open match.
Oh, and that record for most aces in a US Open match? He had set that record just days prior. During his first round matchup with Yen-Hsun Lu, Karlovic pounded 61 aces against the 33-year-old from Taipei. Karlovic has been on a roll lately.
He became the oldest man since 1979 to capture an ATP singles title by winning at Newport in July, which he followed up with a runner-up finish at the Citi Open the very next week, beating three Top 25 players along the way.
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In fact, despite being the oldest player ranked within the top 100 of the ATP World Tour Rankings (he’s 37 years old), Karlovic is playing some of the best tennis of his career. In 2015 Karlovic broke into the top 20 for the first time since 2008, and he was ranked 23rd in the world heading into the this year’s US Open.
In short: Nishikori would have his hands full trying to return Karlovic’s serve.
5. EXT. US OPEN 4TH ROUND – DAY
GAME TWO: POTENTIAL CRISIS FOR PROTAGONIST
Karlovic walked up to the service line, doubled at his waist, reached out with his left hand, bounced the ball three times, and then once more. On this fourth and final bounce, Karlovic did something peculiar, something I’d never noticed when watching him on TV.
Instead of catching the ball on the rise as he’d done on the previous two bounces (and as most players do during their pre-serve routines), Karlovic let the ball rise well above where it started from before allowing it to fall gently back down into his upturned hand.
Jerry Lai-USA Today Sports
Typically, the pre-serve routine follows a consistent rhythm. Nishikori, for example, is in 3/4: he bounces the ball three times on beat in the first measure, tosses the ball up on the first beat of the second measure, winds up on beat two, takes a step forward on beat three, and then strikes the ball on the downbeat of the third measure.
The entire service game is supposed to be on-rhythm for the server. He dictates the pace and controls the flow of the game. Just like how in baseball the pitcher is responsible for the pace of play, a tennis match is said to follow the ‘server’s pace.’
At the same time, not unlike an on-deck batter watching the pitcher and timing his practice swings, the returner begins to rely on the consistent rhythm of the server.
It looks like he’s in 4/4, but then the last note carries over into the second measure but only for an eighth note and now all of a sudden everything’s all syncopated and you don’t know what’s coming next.
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Just watching Karlovic made me uncomfortable. For the first few games I felt like I was going to fall out of my chair every time he did that long bounce — I can only imagine what it would feel like trying to play against him.
All his opponents want to do is to get the serve over with, and yet he makes them wait there for an extra fraction of a second. It must be torture.
Besides the long bounce’s disturbing physiological effects, it sent a sort of subtle philosophical message, too. By passively allowing the ball to fall into his hand instead of catching on the way up, Karlovic seemed to be saying to his opponents,
“Your fate is not within my control. Gravity is the almighty ruler of the empirical world, and I am but Gravity’s humble servant. Gravity uses my two-hundred and eleven centimeters of leverage as an instrument of destruction in order to impart forces of cosmic proportions on a small yellow ball. Fear Gravity’s power.”
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After the half-second pause that feels like an hour, Karlovic tosses the ball into the air and then robotically transfers the potential energy from his racquet to the ball via an instantaneous shoulder internal rotation.
As the ball dive-bombs over the net, Karlovic follows it in, although not with the urgency or aggression that you might expect to see in a typical serve-and-volleyer. It’s almost as if Karlovic knows he’ll win the point. Charging the net is a mere formality.
And win the point, he did. Leaping up at the ball as it bounces practically over his head, Kei barely made contact. Out.
I think people have slightly misinformed notions of what makes tall people better at serving. Sure, having longer arms generates more velocity, but the sheer ability to hit the ball harder is not the primary advantage of being taller.
The first and foremost advantage is most easily illustrated by imagining extreme exaggerations of the serving scenario.
If you’re impossibly short — say, one inch tall — how fast could you hit your serve while keeping it in the service box? You’d have to lob it in there, right?
Take away the net and assume you could theoretically hit the ball a million MPH from one inch off the ground; the surface area in which the ball must land is rendered effectively paper thin by the angle of approach. If your vertical angle is off by just one degree, you’re going to miss the box for sure.
But if you’re impossibly tall — say, 50 feet tall — things are much easier.
From that height, you’re essentially looking straight down at the service box. The box looks much bigger from that angle, so you have a much wider margin for error.
Tall players don’t have an advantage because they can hit it harder; they have an advantage because when they do hit it harder, it’s easier for them to hit it in.
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The other advantage is that starting from a higher point forces taller players to hit their serves with a sharper angle of descent, which means a sharper angle of ascent after the ball bounces.
This nuance is totally lost when watching tennis on TV; the elevated position of the primary camera angle gives absolutely no sense of height.
Karlovic’s serves, as much as they wanted to plow straight down through the court and drill their way to China, bounced up so high that they looked like they were going to sail clear over Nishikori’s head.
The 5‘10” Nishikori had three choices in how he wanted to deal with that height: two were impossible, and one was merely extremely difficult.
Move way back and wait for the ball to come back down to earth after bouncing. These would require superhuman speed to cover the range of horizontal angles Karlovic could put on the ball, since the farther ball travels along that angle, the farther it deviates from the center.
Move way forward and hit the ball on the rise, before it gets too high. This would require superhuman reaction time to even get his hands on the ball, since the closer he gets to Karlovic, the less time it takes his serve to arrive.
Stand where he normally stands and just jump.
Nishikori went with option three and spent most of the match jumping around like some sort of grasshopper, bouncing off the ground not with muscled effort but with springy instincts.
When Karlovic started his syncopated ball bouncing routine, Nishikori dipped into a deep crouch with his right foot staggered well behind his left, just like Andy Murray does but infinitely cooler.
As Karlovic craned towards the sky, Nishikori took one step and a hop toward the baseline, ready to attack.
One particular jump Nishikori had to employ somewhat frequently was incredibly impressive to see live: a leaping two-handed backhand. Now, if you’ve ever seen Monfils play, you’ve probably seen this shot before, but never quite like this.
If Karlovic hit a kick serve to Nishikori’s backhand, Nishikori had to leap up into the air and simultaneously spin counterclockwise to get his body facing the right direction. Of course, that meant that the direction of his mid-air rotation was opposite the way he wanted to be turning when he actually hit the ball. The solution?
More ridiculous contortionist things. So Nishikori’s lower body is spinning one direction, nothing much he can do about that, right? But what he can do is crank his upper body the opposite direction.
Nishikori managed to generate unbelievable power on this jumping backhand despite being twisted up like a pool towel in possession of that kid on the JV swim team.
I couldn’t help but feel like I was witnessing some sort of martial arts master who just happened to be playing tennis. The Japanese flag-colored headband, the crouching tiger return of serve, the nunchuck-like whip in his forehand, the ridiculous acrobatics involved in seemingly every shot he hit, the whole thing was all very karate-ish.
Karlovic held his first service game to even it at 1-1 in the first set, but by the time his second service game rolled around, Nishikori and his brutal, unrelating game of ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK had started to get to Karlovic. Once Nishikori figured out how to return Karlovic’s serves, it was game over.
It was obvious that Karlovic never wanted to get stuck in a baseline-to-baseline rally with Nishikori — in fact, I don’t think any player in the world thinks he’d have the upper hand over Nishikori in such a rally.
This meant Karlovic wanted desperately to get to the net in order to end points quicker and avoid those long rallies.
But Nishikori never gave him an opening: no short balls, no slow, looping, defensive shots, nothing that allowed Karlovic to move in. It seemed like any time he tried charging the net, Nishikori would just rip an untouchable winner in one direction or the other.
And even if by some miracle Karlovic did make it to the net and by some miracle did get his racquet on a volley, he still had immense trouble putting the points away. You see, Karlovic is a serve-and-volleyer who never really had to get that good at volleying since his serve was so good.
Anthony Grupposo-USA TODAY Sports
Considering how damn hard Nishikori hits his ground strokes and how much topspin he can put on them, somebody who is merely a “pretty good” volleyer is going to have a world of trouble making good contact on a ball when their available time to react is effectively cut in half by standing so close.
It’d be like trying to bunt for a hit on a Pedro Martinez slider standing 20 feet in front of home plate — good luck even making contact with the ball, let alone directing it away from the pitcher while keeping it in fair territory and hitting it soft enough that the third baseman can’t easily throw you out but hard enough that the catcher can’t get there in time while trying avoiding popping it up so that no one can catch it in the air and also avoiding hitting it straight down in a way that the catcher could easily grab it.
6. EXT. OUTER COURTS AT WIMBLEDON - DAY
B-STORY: AN ASIDE FROM A WRITER
Wallace ended his piece with a brief mention of the prospects of the future of men’s tennis as as he saw it in the youngsters at Wimbledon.
While many experts in the tennis world lamented the death of the artistic side of tennis — the finesse, the variety of shots, the extreme angles, you know, the stuff of Borg and McEnroe — as it was being replaced by the mindless power baseline game as made possible by technological advancements in racquets and strings of the 2000s, Wallace was optimistic.
Rather than a bunch of little Nadal clones pounding extreme topspin groundstrokes from the baseline until their arms came unscrewed from their shoulders, Wallace found that the junior circuit had more so taken after Federer and his more aesthetically pleasing style of play.
“You should have seen, on the grounds’ outside courts, the variegated ballet that was this year’s Junior Wimbledon. Drop volleys and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three shots ahead — all as well as the standard-issue grunts and booming balls.”
Wallace was right in predicting that this particular style of tennis — let’s call it “Nadalism” — would not come to singularly dominate the men’s tour. A quick glance at the top 10 of the current ATP Rankings reveals 10 completely different players: hardly the Rafapocolypse foretold by the tennis world.
But I think Wallace would have been quite surprised to hear who exactly would be part of the next generation of stars. It turns out that today’s stars, for the most part, are the same guys who were the stars of the previous generation.
When Wallace wrote his piece on Federer, the top 10 players in the world were on average, 24 years old. At the start of this year’s US Open, the average age of the top 10 had jumped to 29.
At the age of 27, Radek Stepanek was the oldest player in the top 10 in 2006. That’s two whole years younger than anyone in today’s top five.
Let’s look at it another way. Among the 128 players in this year’s US Open men’s singles draw, 21% of them were also in that men’s singles draw in 2006 at Wimbledon. Compare that to the under 8% of those at Wimbledon in 2006 were also at the 1996 US Open.
And it’s not just the stars like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray who are playing top-level tennis for longer than previous generations’ stars. Scrolling through that 2006 Wimbledon draw you find names of players who span the entire tennis hierarchy who’ve extended their careers for over a decade.
It’s no surprise to see Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, and Stan Wawrinka show up 10 years ago, but perhaps Marcos Baghdatis, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, or Phillip Kohlschreiber would catch your eye.
But what about Carlos Berlocq, Nicolas Almagro, Marcel Granollers, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Nicolas Mahut, or our good pals Ivo Karlovic and Lu Yen-hsun? Nobody in 2006 would have predicted these guys would still be good enough to qualify for the US Open in 2016.
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It turns out that athletes in anaerobic sports (e.g., powerlifting, sprinting, etc.) typically reach their peak performance at a significantly earlier age than aerobic athletes (endurance sports), and it would appear that tennis is shifting from the anaerobic game of the 90s (Serve, sprint, slam!) towards a much more aerobic game.
This is at least partially due to the courts playing significantly slower than they were just 15 years ago, which creates a fun sort of positive feedback loop: slower courts means it’s easier to get to more balls, which extends rallies, which tires out the players, which means they can’t hit the ball as hard, which means it’s easier to get to more balls, which extends rallies, which…
Well, which is how you end up with Nadal and Djokovic needing almost six hours to play the 2012 Australian Open final despite only one of the five sets going to a tiebreaker. You need incredible stamina — and consistency — to play the modern game at a high level.
Since points likely can’t be ended with sheer power alone anymore, the longer rallies also put a larger emphasis on other secondary skills, like placement, control, spin, the use of angles, and the ability to plan ahead multiple shots.
From our good buddy Wallace, on one of Federer’s secondary skills,
“What’s harder to appreciate on TV is that these spectacular-looking angles and winners are not coming from nowhere — they’re often set up several shots ahead, and depend as much on Federer’s manipulation of opponents’ positions as they do on the pace or placement of the coup de grâce. And understanding how and why Federer is able to move other world-class athletes around this way requires, in turn, a better technical understanding of the modern power-baseline game than TV — again — is set up to provide.”
Sure, young guys can still blast their way onto the pro circuit, relying on nothing but athleticism (see: 8th-ranked player in the world circa August 2014, Dimitrov, Grigor), but if they quickly burn out if they don’t develop sufficient consistency and other secondary skills (see: 40th-ranked player in the world circa July 2016, Dimitrov, Grigor).
They just can’t compete with the old guys.
How did tennis get to this point? And how do we understand it in the context of the history of the game?
7. INT. MY BEDROOM – NIGHT
The history of tennis has been evolutionary, not revolutionary. Every great player has taken the style of a great player from the past and added to it, creating his own, new style.
Nor is tennis linear. Trends ebb and flow, styles appear and disappear and then reappear. As soon as tennis looks like it’s reached a competitive equilibrium, something disrupts it — a technological advancement, a change in court composition, a wave of new athletes, etc.
But for the early part of tennis’s history, the one strategy was so much better than all the others that it was totally ubiquitous. This strategy could be summarized pretty succinctly: get to the net. Once you got there, the point was as good as yours.
The serve was just the thing you used to make it easier to get to the net. Groundstrokes were just the things you tried to not mess up while you worked your way to the net. That’s it.
Jimmy Conners started to change that. He relied on hard, low, flat, precise groundstrokes from the baseline, beating his opponents with shot placement and defense, and affixed himself at or near the very top of the ATP Rankings for the better part of two decades.
Bjorn Borg took the Conners baseline game and added topspin to his forehand and backhand, which gave him more margin for error and allowed him to be more aggressive in his passing shots.
Borg’s creativity and versatility made him uniquely well-suited to play well on all surfaces, and as a result he dominated the Grand Slams unlike anyone who’d come before him and unlike anyone who’d follow for decades.
John McEnroe, Borg’s antithesis, became the next evolution of the old-school, charge-the-net game, bringing a devastatingly deceptive left-handed serve to the table. McEnroe’s success was probably one of the primary factors driving Borg to his retirement at the age of 26, while McEnroe continued to be successful well into his 30s.
As racquets and strings improved and players began hitting the ball harder and with more spin, other strategies began to emerge. Ivan Lendl pioneered the modern ground game, rarely coming to the net, a strategy that proved more suited to the tennis landscape of the late 80s and early 90s than McEnroe’s.
McEnroe was paradoxically both a throwback and ahead of his time, and he was still hanging around in the early 90s to usher in the next serve-and-volley generation, which would dominate the game for the next decade.
As racquet and string technology improved to allow for faster and harder serves than ever before, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, and Jim Courier took turns at the top of the ATP Rankings for a few years, all relying on the serve and volley.
They were quickly overwhelmed by Pete Sampras, who took McEnroe’s approach and injected a overdose of athleticism. His ridiculously quick hands came into play from the baseline and at the net, and the accuracy, consistency, and power of his serves was unmatched.
But the lasting image of Sampras for many people has to be the Sampras Slam Dunk, which sums up his game pretty nicely.
Andre Agassi, perhaps inspired by Connors’ hard-nosed baseline tactics, quickly became Sampras’s only true rival, relying on his unmatched return of serve and precise groundstrokes to build a smart, defensive style of play that was pretty much the exact opposite of Sampras’s aggressive game.
Agassi led the way for the return of the baseliners in the early 2000s, which saw Marat Safin, Gustavo Kuerten, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Andy Roddick take the top spots in the world rankings before ultimately bowing down to The Great One.
Roger Federer dominated the men’s game so overwhelmingly and so thoroughly that he’s still the most popular player on tour even without having won a Grand Slam in over four years — and even though he has one of the least interesting, least controversial personalities in all of professional sports.
Like all those who came before him, Federer built on the tactics of past stars. He took the athleticism, aggressiveness, quick hands, and dominant serving of Sampras and combined it with the control, stoicism, and magical shotmaking of Borg and then threw in a touch of take-it-on-the-rise-ability of Connors and Agassi.
Not only did Federer have every shot in the book, he went and authored a few additional chapters himself. His reign during the mid 2000s seemed unassailable.
However, one Rafael Nadal Parera soon showed up and challenged for the throne by building on the Lendl baseline game and becoming essentially a Federer kryptonite.
Nadal’s outrageous defense and court coverage would have made for a world-class player on its own, but when you throw in the unprecedented extreme topspin Nadal could consistently generate with his forehand, you’ve got a player who doesn’t even need to bother to play offense to bludgeon all who stand in his path.
Nadal was perfectly suited to the modern tennis game. The endurance and quickness of a Barcelona midfielder and the strength of an NFL free safety made him the most physically intimidating player in the game despite having perhaps the least intimidating serve of his generation — and despite, you know, playing tennis with the wrong hand.
So unstoppable was Nadalism that the Rafapocolypse seemed inevitable. It was hard to imagine anybody having the game to consistently beat this guy.
To the endurance and defense of Nadal and the return of serve of Agassi, Djokovic added a totally unique ability: counterattacking.
Djokovic can turn defense into offense unlike anyone the world has ever seen, sending winners flying back at opponents who were sure they’d already won the point.
As Nadal and Federer start their (much delayed) decline, Djokovic ushers in a new era of men’s tennis: a golden age, honestly. I’m going to call it the “Kill The Carrier” era. (If you think of a better name, go find me on Twitter. Please think of a better name.)
Tennis is at its most interesting when there is a strongly contrasting rivalry at the top of the game — McEnroe-Borg, Sampras-Agassi, Federer-Nadal, when those rivalries commended all the attention, tennis was at its peak.
Less talked about are the rivalries between players of similar styles, such as Connors-Borg, Becker-Edberg, or Nadal-Djokovic.
Although he’s generally a pretty likable guy, Djokovic is still the villain in the eyes of many tennis fans. He’s smart, funny, fluent in five languages, and willing to speak his mind, and yet I can’t remember the last time the majority of the crowd was cheering for him.
Whether that’s carryover from his days as “that guy who got in the way of a Fed-Nadal final” or his penchant for theatrics when injured, Djokovic can’t seem to get on the people’s good side.
And as much as I like Djokovic, I’m totally OK with him playing the bad guy.
8. INT. MY BEDROOM – NIGHT
A-STORY AND B-STORY CONVERGE: PLOT TWIST
Djokovic is, at the moment, without a true rival. That’s not to say nobody has challenged him during his almost two-year reign as number one in the world rankings, but no one player has truly shown himself to be his equal.
But that’s the fun part: Djokovic might be the unquestioned best in the world, but dozens of players have a serious chance at beating him.
The talent in today’s men’s tennis is much less top heavy than it was even a few years ago, and the longevity afforded by the shift away from the power game of the 90s and early 2000s towards a more endurance-based game has extended the careers of many of the games best players.
Put simply, men’s tennis is better today than it’s ever been.
In 2006, the tour was made up almost entirely of the best players born between 1978 and 1987. Today, it’s the best players born between 1978 and 1997.
(Side note: It might not be fair to label the entire generation of players between the ages of 24 and 29 “The Lost Boys.” It’s just that the talent pool that they have to compete with has been effectively doubled compared to a decade ago.)
The elongated careers of the top players has appears to have given players time to develop their own unique styles, and the end result is a wildly varied men’s game.
Everyone’s gunning for the crown, and Djokovic is the target. And the wonderful thing is that everyone’s taking a totally different approach.
Andy Murray could outwork him, as he did at Wimbledon a few years ago. Federer could harness some old Fed magic, as he did twice in 2015. Stan Wawrinka could bulldoze right through him, as he’s done once a year in a Grand Slam for the last three years.
Nishikori could bully him around, like he did in the 2014 US Open semifinals. Nadal could regain his confidence coming back from his latest injury, like he did in 2013-14. Milos Raonic could serve the lights out, like he did at Wimbledon this year.
Tomas Berdych could bore him to death. Monfils could Monfils. Dominic Thiem could keep trying all those ridiculous shots that he tries and actually hit them in.
Nick Kyrgios could put down the Pokemon Go and decide he feels like practicing (not that I have a problem with his attitude—au contraire). Feliciano Lopez could beat him with his old school, no nonsense, serve-and-volley tactics. Benoit Paire could remember how to hit a forehand.
David Ferrer could outrun him. Bernard Tomic could outthink him. Jack Sock could out-spin him. Viktor Troicki could out-yell him.
Fabio Fognini could get in his head. Juan Martin del Potro could give him a concussion with a walloped forehand. Gilles Simon could fluster him with floaty knuckleballs.
Huh. It turns out Karlovic isn’t the villain after all.
9. EXT. US OPEN 4TH ROUND – DAY
Early on in the second set, it was clear that this was not going to be Karlovic’s day. Nishikori had won the first set without really breaking a sweat, then went out and immediately broke Karlovic in the first game of the second set.
Nishikori had figured out how to get Karlovic’s serve back in play, and once the points got started, Nishikori almost never lost a rally. It was almost as if they were playing two totally different sports, Nishikori thrashing around like a lunatic, Karlovic calmly approaching the net and promptly losing the point.
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Nishikori held the second game at love to make it 2-0 in the second. Karlovic’s serve appeared to be running out of steam as he fell behind 15-40 in the third game.
As Karlovic walked up to the service line, the strong Japanese contingent who’d bought up virtually all of the reserved seats directly behind where Karlovic was standing started a “Kei! Kei! Kei! Kei!” chant, as they had done with some regularity throughout the match.
Karlovic stopped in his tracks, turned around, smiled at the Nishikori supporters with their headbands and traditional-style fans, and did a sarcastic ‘Raise the roof!’ gesture with his arms as if to say, “Come on, guys, can I get some love, too?”
The non-Japanese NYC crowd, which had been quietly non-partisan up to this point, jumped to life. Perhaps feeling a bit of sympathy for Karlovic — the subject of almost none of the tickatickatickatickas that pitter-pattered from the row of 30 some odd Nikons and Canons literally every single time Nishikori hit a ball — the crowd started chanting in unison.
“Let’s go, Ivo! CLAP CLAP, CLAP CLAP CLAP
The rest of the match did not fare much better for Karlovic, as he went on to lose 3-6,4-6,6-7(4-7), but the fans continued to urge him on nonetheless — perhaps less out of true desire to see him actually win the match, but more for entertainment’s sake.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Because if you had asked them if they honestly wanted Karlovic to win the match, I’m sure most would have said no. They’d much rather see Nishikori matched up with Murray in the next round, which everyone knew would be a great match.
But in the moment, everybody wanted to see the underdog put up a good fight. They wanted to see the old guy, the overmatched, over-the-hill giant make the little tornado human just a little bit nervous.
They wanted to enjoy this clash of styles, a clash that would only be possible in this new golden age, for just a little bit longer.
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