Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Marcos Baghdatis and the End of Tennis History
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Marcos Baghdatis and the End of Tennis History 03/14/2010 - 9:00 PM

Mb It’s tough on the ATP these days. So tough, according to 24-year-old Marcos Baghdatis, a seven-year veteran of the tour, that he couldn’t even spare the few minutes of sleep it would have taken for him to stay up and watch the infamous Hit for Haiti on Friday.

“I watched the women,” Baghdatis says, “but I couldn’t make it later. I wish I would have seen it, though,” he adds with a broad smile. “It sounds nice. Pete and Andre had a good fight!”

Baghdatis played his cards right, because he needed all of his energy today to escape the first set against Arnaud Clement. The two of them were first up this morning at 11:00 A.M. sharp on Stadium 3, a modest gem of a venue out near the spot where the courts run smack up against dry land. Baghdatis is ranked No. 33 and the veteran Clement a surprisingly lowly No. 76 at the moment. The motoring Frenchman may be 32 years old, but judging by the way he was hitting and moving for the better part of an hour and a half today, it’s hard to believe there are 75 better tennis players in the world. But there are.

“Look how good the guys are today,” Baghdatis says, raising his arm but keeping the smile intact. “There’s no space between most of them.”

There isn’t a whole lot that separates the men stylistically these days either, a fact that was amply demonstrated by this match. No tennis fan would ever say that Baghdatis and Clement were similar players, or even in the same genre. The Cypriot has a reputation as a streaky shot-maker with an equally streaky work ethic. The Frenchman is a smooth, steady undersized defender. But if you knew nothing of tennis-player classifications, you might have thought they were twins [non-identical] who had the same game drilled into them by the same coach.

Each hit their forehands with a moderate loop and moderate topspin. Each used a compact backswing on their relatively flat two-handed backhands. Their shots were low-trajectory and medium paced, they stayed away from big cuts, they rarely aimed for the lines, they used a slice as a change-of-pace but not as an approach, and when the score got tight, they got tight and played even safer. After 90 minutes in the peaking heat, after many long games and multiple break points, Baghdatis won the set because on a mishit. Luck was what separated them in the end.

“It was a little bit of a mishit,” Baghdatis says, nodding guiltily. His command of the nuances of English is much better than I remembered. “But it was a great point, and it got me the set.” The point he’s referring to came when he was down 5-6 in the tiebreaker, which, because these guys had put so much into the set, had the feel of a match point. Baghdatis and Clement played tighter and safer than ever, placing the ball back into the middle of the court—they were guiding it rather ripping it—before slowly getting a little riskier from there. It ended when Baghdatis shanked, just slightly, a forehand down the line. The crowd gasped when it heard the sound of the ball off his strings/frame, thinking it was going to fly long. But it didn’t, and Baghdatis eventually won the breaker 9-7.

But Baghdatis is taking it. “These are the kind of matches my coaches and I have focused on winning,” he says. “I’ve been consistent in the early rounds, and that’s the first goal.”

Baghdatis has suffered injuries over the years, but he has been playing full-time for seven months. He’s won a title this season, in Sydney, but he seems more focused on the week-to-week.

“I need matches most of all,” he says. “I need to beat the guys in the first rounds so I can start to test myself against the better guys, and then take the next step after that.”

How did Baghdatis, a former No. 1 junior in the world, Australian Open finalist, and Top Tenner, come to have such modest goals? There were the injuries, yes. And yes, there was some less-than Spartan training over the years; he's still built more like a halfback than a tennis player. But Baghdatis might not have fallen quite so far if the tour hadn’t become more about physical strength, speed, and stamina at the same time.

“Since 2006, the tour has changed so much,” he says, referring to his breakthrough season. “Players are so much stronger, the style is much tougher, the courts are slower, nothing is easy.”

His last point, that the courts are slower, has long been cited as a primary reason for the demise of the creative and the rise of the safe and solid in men’s tennis. And a turn around the grounds at Indian Wells, which may own the very slowest hard courts on  tour, is powerful proof of this thesis. As much as commentators talk about how the players should learn to move forward more, to add a net game to their arsenals, it’s the guys who have moved back recently, the guys who have solidified what they already did well, who have prospered.

Andy Murray won today while playing deep in the hinterlands behind the baseline. In the last year or so, he has reached his highest ranking while playing some of his most defensive tennis. Last night Novak Djokovic did the same. This season, the Serb has played more passively than ever, forgoing his famous change-of-direction down the line forays. And like Murray, he’s been successful with it. Gael Monfils, someone with the height and wingspan of a born serve-and-volleyer, spent his loss today even farther from the net than Murray or Djokovic. For the last year or so, Andy Roddick has followed the same formula and lost no ground. The list, as you know, goes on. The guy at the top of that list, Roger Federer, still embodies tennis creativity, but what has his signature macro-tactical shift been since he first won Wimbledon in 2003? To come to the net less often.

Is this, as the now-disproven cliché once went, the end of men’s tennis history? Has the old dialectic between baseline play and serve and volley, been resolved in favor of the safe and solid, in favor of the return of serve, in favor of the two-handed backhand, in favor of the tall and rangy and reliable, rather than the risky and the brilliant? Will even the dictating forehand, which is slowly seeming less crucial than all-around competence, also go the way of the slice approach.

Like I said, it turned out that there was no end to history, and there will be another John McEnroe, another genius with a one-handed backhand who upends the consensus of what can win on a tennis court. Federer has shown what's possible with the power-baseline game. I await the player who shows us what can be done with something different. But I have trouble picturing him.

As for Baghdatis, his win today has given him what he wanted. He'll face a first-tier player, named Roger Federer. He might want to be careful what he wishes for in the future.


Posted by Jesse 03/14/2010 at 09:47 PM

WOW.. tennis becoming a baseline game. Groundbreaking stuff Steve.

Posted by Sunny 03/14/2010 at 10:38 PM


Posted by athan from Philippines 03/14/2010 at 10:40 PM

Timely indeed. We were just resting between sets yesterday at the tennis club and we were discussing the difficulty of winning points from the baseline if the match is balanced. We observed how both of us can be more sure of winning the point only if we come to the net to take charge. And these are club players who are talking, putting premium on charging the net.

We also commented on the lack of net-rushers particularly at the women's tour. How points are won by hitting harder and harder from the baseline until one commits error. No more construction of points, no more thinking of the next 2 to 3 points. No more Hingis, no more Mc Enroe.

We also acknowledeged that technology has a lot to answer for these problems now.

That is really sad.

Posted by jcjslacker 03/14/2010 at 11:57 PM

so here's the thing imho.

soon, some tournament director will figure out that they want to be the
"fast court tourney" and bill it as 'the fastest court east of england'
or some such thing. personally, i think it would be great if it was miami
so we could have an american slow court / american fast court combo...

Posted by JimF 03/15/2010 at 12:27 AM

Imagine if the Wilson introduced a football that allowed 90 yard field goals, and stuck to the backs of receivers' hands so no one ever dropped a football. Do you think the NFL would allow it to be used -- and destroy the sport?

Equipment manufacturers are dictating far too much to the tennis tournaments.

To compensate, they're slowing the courts: Wimbledon is slower than the French Open (until the grass wears off by the semis), and the Australian Open is slower still.

Hitting 90 MPH groundstrokes on balls 6 inches off the ground, from 10 feet behind the baseline, combined with slow courts everywhere makes for bland, homogenous tennis. If the ITF/ATP won't control the equipment, they need to test changing dimensions (net height, service line) something.

Posted by Josef 03/15/2010 at 01:09 AM

I remember sometime around 1990, the worry was that male tennis was becoming dominated by serve-and-volleyers and getting very boring, with points at Wimbledon lasting about 3 seconds on average. There was talk of eliminating the second serve, shortening the service box... That sort of puts things in a different perspective. I don't think we have anything to worry about.

Posted by Mike Hunt from Haiti 03/15/2010 at 01:11 AM

Thhhhteve, no gratuitous bashing of tea parties? You're slipping, bro.
Way to alienate 70% of your demographic. There are only so many limousine liberals with trust funds and other people's money out there to be your fans.

Looking forward to your next foray into politics, nerdo!

Gee, why is this guy so mad? Gee, why did Pete get so mad?
My invitation to Port-Au-Prince still stands, I'm not that mad. Come on over, won't you?

Posted by lol 03/15/2010 at 01:57 AM

the article is so biased. suddenly djokovic becomes a synonym for 'defensive player' and nadal doesn't get even mentioned in the subject?

Posted by Charles 03/15/2010 at 03:14 AM

I suspect that a volleyer (maybe even a sav-er) might thrive on the pro circuit if that person had the right gifts. A greater problem might be how that person would ever learn it. When players are growing up and a little weak or undersized, the baseline game is maybe easier to win with. But a full-grown adult might be able to win with volleying - but how would they have learned it - players start the game as kids - who changes their game after 18?

Posted by Johnny 03/15/2010 at 03:56 AM

Court slow or fast makes no difference for Djokovic because he can adjust his game to any surface. Besides, did Tignor watch his match last night at all? Couple of shots per point, no long rallies therefore we can't talk about typical baseline play. You can't expect him to return from service box or to play s/v, no one does that these days. Attackers vs defenders division is entirely obsolete today. Top players are capable of attacking while defending practically any time. Federer says he's a baseliner, but is he a defender? I don't think so. Same applies to Djokovic and Murray. They are modern days attackers.

Posted by Mario Ljubicic 03/15/2010 at 04:16 AM

How's our projected winner Cilic going over there in IW? I hope slow courts are still suitable for his combinatorial game and he bagels everyone all the way to the finals with Murray. Murray will beat Roger in semi, even though we saw last year Murray can't play in the wind. Cilic will beat Davydenko in other semi. Vote Cilic for the champion!!! And Henin too!!!

Posted by VC 03/15/2010 at 08:48 AM

Fed was 21/24 at net yesterday and hit some excellent volleys. Granted it was only Hanescu. But it was very aggressive, entertaining tennis.

Posted by Master Ace 03/15/2010 at 09:23 AM

Roger should get a stiff test from Marcos tomorrow.

Posted by Ian 03/15/2010 at 09:26 AM

Steve's writing is as consistant as Baghdatis's "shot-making."

Posted by Nikos 03/15/2010 at 10:06 AM

Marcos tomorrow , will do his miracle.....!!!!

Posted by TILDEN'S GHOST 03/15/2010 at 01:13 PM

Despite his early exit to a guy who'd gone 1-5 this year I'm still picking Cilic to win this thing. Somehow time and space will collapse and create a parallel world in which everything is opposite. Loser chumps will prevail and bad writers/prognosticators will flourish. Your time has come Stevie baby. Oh look.....monkeys are flying out of my butt! Oh well, it was a nice dream..........Toodles

Posted by BrooklynNY 03/15/2010 at 02:24 PM

Radioactive ping pong is cool, but I miss tennis.

Posted by Cami 03/15/2010 at 02:33 PM

Johnny, well said.

Otherwise, I don't think boring tennis depends on the style of play (baseline or s/v). For me personally, two of the most boring players to watch were Courier and Ivanisevic! As different as night and day, and I coulnd't sit through their matches.

It's all up to personal taste, I think. I find Baghdatis and Nalbandian (when they are at the top of their games) very entertainig to watch. Even Davydenko, lately...But for some reason, I cannot warm up to David Ferrer or Leyton Hewitt, and they're baseliners, too.

Technology and fitness may have changed the game, but there will always be a few talented players who will bring their unique style to the game. Just look at Federer, Nadal, Djoko and Murray. I think they all have very distinctive playing syles.

Posted by amanaceo 03/15/2010 at 03:49 PM

Mike Hunt for Haiti - take your baggage to drudgereport or foxnews.

Posted by NickR 03/15/2010 at 04:31 PM

Steve, nice work. I enjoy all your posts, even the more "controversial" ones. I don't think a lot of these readers — especially the ones who consistently spew insults — understand that you're trying to write about something different every day, but you're only covering one sport with an unchanging cast of characters. Therefore, sometimes you have to reach. I'd challenge anyone out there to produce columns as well-written and insightful as yours. Most work, some are tougher to grasp, but they're all very good. Don't let any of these classless malcontents bother you....they just need lives.

Posted by rkfg 03/15/2010 at 04:42 PM

Anyone has a similar thought on that the next phase of evolution after serve and volley and baseline is players frequently hit from no man's land?

Posted by Charlie Mueller 03/15/2010 at 05:01 PM

Why are they slowing down the courts so much? Isn't it more enteraining and intesting to have changes in the surfaces- such as is so obvious with the hard court, clay, and grass season transitions. I heard that at Wimbledon they open the balls two weeks before the event to slow them down (even more than their heavier weight does). I guess those who manage to pro tour think uniform surfaces are better for the game.

It is almsot killing the women's game. I feel like except for the talented few like the Willians sisters, Clisters, and Henin they are all interchangeable. It IS boring.

Posted by TennisFan 03/15/2010 at 11:03 PM

So what exactly do you miss Steve? Ace 15-0, Ace 30-0, Ace 40-0, Ace game, games? Or Serve-volley 15-0, server-volley 30-0, server-volley 40-0, serve-volley - game games?

With guys like Roger and Rafa tennis has become more interesting. These are all surface guys, ooh-aah rally guys. So what exactly is wrong with power baseline game? Which of Rafa-Roger 5 setters did you find boring?

Reporters like Steve were the ones who were clamoring for reducing the serves to a single serve in Sampras era as tennis was become boring boom-boom game.

If anyhting, todays 30 stroke rallies, unbelievable angles and craft is better than yesteryears.

And guys who add more craft to raw baseline hitting, mainly Roger, and sometimes Rafa, show us how much further apart they can be from others.

If someone believes that today's guys cannot volley - they should look at the highlight point of 'hit for hiati' match and look at Roger's volleying.

Tennis has evolved for better - and will always evolve for better. Everything does. There would be more amazing Rogers to come. And the current Roger has been acknowledged by most past players as better than them.

Only some curmudgeons stick to the past nostalgia. Someone send these guys to postal mail era.

Posted by JJ 03/17/2010 at 10:26 AM

I guess Marcos's "style" wasn't too bad after all...

Posted by Ryan 03/25/2010 at 06:21 PM

Geez. Steve is the best writer on this site, and people trash him left and right. You people are losers.

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