Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - UTennis: The Lux Life
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UTennis: The Lux Life 10/09/2009 - 2:42 PM

It’s the solemn duty of every sportswriter to discover—or failing that, to create out of thin air—“turning points” in the history of competitive athletics. This may sound like a laborious task, but we have many tools at our disposal. There is the “changing of the guard.” There is the “end of an era.” There is the “new generation” of "young guns" and "hot shots," or, in the unfortunate case of tennis 10 years ago, “new balls.” Never mind that some of these hot shots and new balls may be only two or three years younger than the last generation; it’s all about finding the new, the different, the improved.

Tennis in particular lends itself to the turning point; the sport’s eras have been easy to designate in recent decades. One player—Sampras, Graf, Federer, Serena—will become the face of the game for a certain period. When that player loses his or her grip on the tour, there may be a brief sorting out process, out of which will rise a new champion for a new era.

There are also obvious broader changes that have transformed the sport and created dividing lines between eras. With each decade, the players have gotten stronger, and so has the equipment. The most dramatic of these transitions happened in the 1980s, when the pros switched from small wooden racquets to larger-headed graphite frames. Watch a clip of the all-wood 1980 Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final. Then watch a clip of the no-wood 1988 Masters final between Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl. (Were the late-80s and early-90s the most entertaining era in tennis, after all? I smell a topic for investigation during the off-season.) Finally, watch a men’s match from China this weekend. You’ll see that more changed in that first, eight-year interval than in the last 21 years.

But there has been one significant changing of the technological guard during that second span, even if it’s impossible to notice at first glance. It’s in the strings. The crucial moment came at the 1997 French Open, when an unknown 20-year-old Brazilian named Gustavo Kuerten showed up in Paris with polyesther strings made by a Belgian company called Luxilon—previously famous for making bra straps—and won the French Open.

The clip above is from Guga’s semifinal that year against Filip Dewulf. Can we see a “turning point” in the making?

—First we remember the clothes. The bright blue and yellow, like a burst of Technicolor in the middle of a black-and-white film. Also, his ensemble was more original and easier on the eye than Andre Agassi’s ill-begotten forays into loudness earlier in the decade.

—Next we remember the Guga grunt, which would be extended into a long sigh in future years.

—Then we see the face and the long hair, still straight to his shoulders at this point, like he’d just wandered off the beach looking to hitch a ride back to his parents' place. The Parisian crowd embraced Kuerten, and he embraced them back. His free-spirited nature boy style must have appealed to their artistic sense.

—Then there’s the light-on-his-feet movement across the baseline, helped by the most natural of slides. I’d forgotten how open Guga’s stance was on his forehand. Did this contribute to his subsequent hip problems?

—Now we take a second, one second, to acknowledge the guy across the net. Filip Dewulf. Also out of nowhere. But lacking the bold clothes or the stylish game or the je ne sais quoi—it’s hard to recall a funkier serve or forehand.

—OK, back to Guga. There are signs here that he’s doing things that hadn’t been done consistently in the past. Watch the backhand down the line winner from behind the baseline. That had generally been reserved for guys with two-handers. Then watch Kuerten’s forehands and backhands dip as they head for the sidelines. While he doesn’t generate the same kind of heavy spin that Rafael Nadal does today, Guga's strokes are still more reminiscent of 2009 than they are of 1989.

—So is Luxilon the key ingredient? Are we now watching a power polyester game—virtually every pro today uses Lux in some form—as opposed to the finesse-oriented gut game of the 50s, 60s, and 70s? There are conflicting theories on the subject, some of which were addressed in a Time Magazine article in June called, naturally and dully, "The String Theory." (It's available online, but it won't open  for me right now.) There’s no proof that polyester does anything to the ball to increase spin, and one researcher maintains that the pros are still adapting to a more fundamental change, the widening of the racquet face in the early 80s.

Still, when I tried a full set of Luxilon, I did generate more spin, both top and slice (but mainly top). I also generated a sore shoulder, so I switched to Lux in the main strings and a durable synthetic in the crosses, a blend that I’ve used for four years. Of course, the extra spin could also be a product of the “dead” feel that polys are famous for, which induces players to swing harder (and get sore arms).

—Whether or not this is an important moment in the evolution of tennis is up for debate. What isn’t debatable is the bittersweet nature of seeing a young, fresh Kuerten dancing across the clay at Roland Garros. Was he a casualty of the modern power game he helped create? Was he a guy with a body built for an earlier era who accidentally started a new, more physical one? Sportswriters can place Kuerten on a tennis time line like any other champion. We can reduce his backhand and his string choice to evolutionary steps in the sport. But why would we want to do that? 

This clip shows that, for me at least, the blue-shirted beach bum from Brazil will always exist just a little outside of tennis time, free of its conventions. We identify most of the top players—Rafa, Roger, Steffi, Martina—with a single name. But with Kuerten we only needed two syllables. Whomever coined it, the combination of "goo-goo" with "gaga," of the childlike with the exuberant, was a perfect fit. It let you know you one thing right away: You were probably going to like watching this guy play tennis.

***

Have a good weekend. Lots of matches coming up on the Tennis Channel. But if you get a spare moment, say a prayer for the Philadelphia Phillies, too. Thanks.


 
14
Comments
 

Posted by reckoner 10/09/2009 at 03:08 PM

first ?

Posted by CL 10/09/2009 at 03:23 PM

Steve - to answer your question about Guga's open stance and late hip problems...in a word...yes. Of course it is impossible to draw a direct line to any one attribute A to get to result B, but an open stance is definitely taxing on the hips. Somewhere in the NY Times archives there is an article about the kind of 'new' injuries tennis players are subject to just because of the new equipment...less tennis elbow and more 'core' related stress.

Now off to watch Guga...one of my all time fave. And Filip Dewulf??!! Wow...couldn't have dragged that name from my memory cells with a oil drill and a fork lift.

Posted by linex 10/09/2009 at 03:45 PM

A beautiful post Steve. I remember very well that 1997 French Open because it was the first time I saw two of my all time favourites play on Tv Martina Hingis and Guga Kuerten. Later on, in 2001 I saw both live at the Us Open but none of them won the title that year. The stands in the Grandstand were full of brazilians chanting and rooting for Guga I had a great time that day. I´ll watch the video now.

Carefuly, because there are 2 equally famous Martinas. And of course the younger one was named after the elder one.

Posted by Raven 10/09/2009 at 04:42 PM

Steve,

To fall back on a previous post of yours-Filip Dewulf, that is one of the great names if not one of the great players of tennis history.

Posted by fc_tennis 10/09/2009 at 05:08 PM

"String theory" article seems to be available online...

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1899876,00.html

Posted by manuelsantanafan 10/09/2009 at 07:07 PM

Borg and Vilas in the crowd, as shown less than 45 seconds into the video clip.

Posted by ncot 10/10/2009 at 01:31 AM

thank you steve. kuerten is my all-time favorite.:)

Posted by Corrie 10/10/2009 at 05:15 AM

I agree Linex, Hingis and Guga were two of my greatest favourites. I always regretted that I could never see Guga emulate my other greatest faves at the AO, Hingis, and before that, Seles and Edberg, and do really well there. But I saw him the first time he won the French, and it was extraordinary.

Posted by Corrie 10/10/2009 at 05:15 AM

I agree Linex, Hingis and Guga were two of my greatest favourites. I always regretted that I could never see Guga emulate my other greatest faves at the AO, Hingis, and before that, Seles and Edberg, and do really well there. But I saw him the first time he won the French, and it was extraordinary.

Posted by Red 10/10/2009 at 11:06 AM

Steve,
Thank you for this piece.
Favourite lines..
"for me at least, the blue-shirted beach bum from Brazil will always exist just a little outside of tennis time, free of its conventions...We identify most of the top players—with a single name. But with Kuerten we only needed two syllables. Whomever coined it, the combination of "goo-goo" with "gaga," of the childlike with the exuberant, was a perfect fit. It let you know you one thing right away: You were probably going to like watching this guy play tennis.
Amen.

Posted by Andrew 10/10/2009 at 03:32 PM

Hi, Steve.

Kuerten's outfit is instantly recognizable to a soccer fan as being derived from the Brazilian soccer kit. The blue stripes add a touch of pizzazz, and aren't (in my view) over the top.

Kuerten was a future number 1 and three time winner at RG, but for the 1997 tournament he came out of nowhere - RG was his first ATP final. That SF featured a match between the then no 66 and no 122: if this were to happen today, Peter Luczak of Austria would face off against his compatriot, Stefan Koubek. One huge change at RG in the last five years has been the way the top guns of the ATP have come through to the final stages of the tournament, rather than making the French Open a haven for specialists.

I'd contrast this match with the Borg-Lendl 1981 Final, snippets of which are shown here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kW4z0FnUz4o

Although Borg (especially) and Lendl were both quick men, that isn't what you see in the 1981 match. Dan Maskell says "unbelievably strenuous rallies, these," but you have a sense that it's the athleticism of a 10000M race, not an 800M one. The footspeed of Nadal, Djokovic or Murray shows up only in brief flashes - notice how Lendl's feet almost seem to come to a complete stop in some of the rallies. The final point has a 34 shot rally, but the trajectory of the ball is fantastically different to today's rallies, or those in the 1997 Kuerten-DeWulf match.

Starting at 0:20, Kuerten and DeWulf play a 10 stroke rally ending in a DeWulf FH winner to ad. I'd be surprised if the ball travels more than 4 feet above the net in the rally. For Lendl-Borg, most of the topspin GS were 8 feet above the net, or more.

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Me likey the Asian Swing 10/12/2009 at 06:52 AM

Thanks Steve

Kurten was a fav player of mine or Guga lol! yes his colour combo had you wearing your dark sunnies.

I think too his "open stance" led to him having those hip problems and finally retirement and surgery.I read once he said that pain was soo bad he could hardly stand let alone sit down.

Yes I did notice like Manuel my fav all time player Borg Major Sigh who could also play a bit on the clay.

Posted by Chris 10/12/2009 at 11:45 AM

As someone who quit playing tennis after a Division 1 college career in the 80s, and then picked it up again in the mid-2000s after an 18-year hiatus, I think I've got a good perspective on the impact of changes in technology (since I didn't go through all the subtle improvements made during my absence but skipped several generations at once).

I can assure you, it's the strings, not the racquets!

My Prince O3 (and other frames I've tried) plays essentially the same way as my original Prince Graphite did in the 80s. But with polyester strings I can swing for the fences and not hit the ball out. Plus all the spin you can generate is incredible. I assume part of this is because you string the racquet about 10 lbs looser than you do with conventional nylon or gut strings.

Posted by Andre 10/12/2009 at 02:06 PM

Guga is the common nickname in Brazil for people named Gustavo, there's no magic to it...


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