The curtain came down on a stellar year for men’s tennis on Monday night, one that saw four different winners of the grand slams and many unforgettable duels, but Roger Federer believes 2013 could be even better if court surfaces were made faster.
Not that long ago, men’s tennis was dominated by big servers and natural volleyers such as Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg and even the baseliners like Andre Agassi and Jim Courier had naturally aggressive styles. Before that, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl all played front-foot tennis with rallies usually decided after four or five strikes of the ball.
Nowadays, baseline exchanges of 20 plus strokes are commonplace, shots that used to be clean winners are coming back and matches are stretching longer and longer. The year began with a near six-hour Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, while the US Open final between Andy Murray and Djokovic was only slightly shorter. More recently, the Shanghai Masters final between Murray and Djokovic went to three and a half hours and that was only a best of three set contest. Federer believes slower courts and balls, combined with improved fitness levels, may have tipped the balance too far in favour of those for whom no ball is unreachable.
Speaking after his 7-6, 7-5 loss in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals to Novak Djokovic in another epic, Federer said there was an easy fix to reward the risk-takers. “Just make quicker courts, then it’s hard to defend. Then attacking style is more important,” the 31-year-old Swiss, a free-hitting shot-maker whose defensive skills cannot be overlooked in his 17 grand slam titles, told reporters. “It’s only on this type of slow court that you can defend the way we are all doing right now. I think it’s exciting but, no doubt about it, it’s tough. What you don’t want is that you hit 15 great shots and at the end, it ends up in an error.
“I think sometimes quicker courts do help the cause. I think it would help from time to time to move to something faster. That would help players learn different styles, to realise that coming to the net is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
With the US Open, Australian Open and so many of the Masters Series tournaments being played on medium-paced hardcourts, Federer said there was a danger of styles becoming homogenised, especially with Wimbledon’s grass now suiting baseliners. “I’ve played on all different speeds. But I think some variety would be nice, some really slow stuff and then some really fast stuff, instead of trying to make everything sort of the same,” Federer said. “You sort of protect the top guys really by doing that because you have the best possible chance to have them in the semis at this point. But should that be the goal? I’m not sure.”
World No 1 Djokovic is the best in the business at getting back one more ball, often launching attacks from improbable positions. His fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic agrees that the modern player’s priority is to be able to retrieve rather than strike loads of winners. “In my opinion, the point which improved or the level that increased in the last ten years is not the offence, it’s the defence,” he said last week. “Even the tall guys like [Juan Martin] Del Potro, [Tomas] Berdych and [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga are defending incredibly well. If you look at Sampras and Agassi, all these guys before, they used to be very aggressive, but couldn’t really defend.”
Djokovic finished 2011 with three grand slam titles and ten titles overall and many wondered how he would follow it up in 2012, but he has had another outstanding season. He successfully defended his Australian Open title in January, reached two more grand slam finals in Paris and New York and won more matches than he managed last season.
He said: “I feel even more satisfied right now than last year, even though I had an incredible 2011. I feel this year, considering the circumstances that I had to face on and off the court, expectations, all these things, I believe this year has been even more successful.”
Djokovic left London yesterday to visit his father, Srdjan, who has been seriously ill with a respiratory condition, before heading to Brazil. As well as an exhibition match against three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, he will also have the chance to play football alongside the likes of Bebeto, Cafu and Zico. He said: “Hopefully all these legends of that sport will be there. I’m a big football fan. I’ve played a couple times only on the big pitch. I’m terrible. But I try to enjoy the moment.”