Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - A Taste of the Old
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A Taste of the Old 08/12/2010 - 6:01 PM

Ml For anyone who thinks the life of a professional athlete is by nature brutish, short, and occasionally nasty, you don’t know your French tennis players. On the whole, they consider the game more than merely a profession, or a competition where the sole goal is to line their bank accounts for the long retirement to come. Most of them enjoy singles and doubles. They play every week well into their 30s. They come out for each other’s matches. They give thoughtful press conferences. And they retain a sense of the game’s history—it makes some kind of sense that they excel on its original surface, grass. Just as, according to the phrase, “life is meant to be lived,” the French tend to believe that tennis is meant to be played.

The recently retired Fabrice Santoro exemplified all of these qualities, but there was more than a little of the spirit of Santoro in the match between Roger Federer and Michael Llodra in Toronto on Thursday. Santoro was famous for relishing his time across the net from Federer to the hilt. He thought of those matches as opportunities to play the “most perfect” player, and admitted that he loved to see Federer’s “beautiful” game, even if Federer was thrashing him with it.

What Santoro couldn’t do, for all of his tricks, was turn the tables and get Federer on the run. That’s where Llodra came in today. His lefty serve-and-volley game gave his opponent fits for most of the first set, a set that Llodra led 4-1. The veteran doubles specialist with the smooth serve, uncluttered technique, and backhand volley for the ages took Federer back to his roots, and the sport’s roots, by playing a game where there’s a premium on every shot.

“It’s fun playing that kind of style occasionally,” Federer said afterward, “You want to try to move forward early on in the point, because otherwise if you play just one shot a bit passive, he’ll be the one making the move, and then you have to come up with a passing shot on the run. That’s not something you want to do. This is how it used to be played.”

The name of the game with two baseliners is to impose your version of that game. The name of the game for a serve-and-volleyer against a baseliner is to take the baseliner out of his game. Llodra, 30, did that in masterly fashion against Almagro in the previous round, and he had Federer talking to himself for the first five games. Swinging him out of his strike zone with his serve, chipping and charging on his return, he made Federer something he’s so often not: uncomfortable.

“I knew before the match that I have to be aggressive,” Llodra said, “and at the beginning, he made a double fault because I think he knew I’m gonna do chip and charge. So it’s different, you know."

At 4-2, Llodra committed a rally-killing double fault. The air went out of his forward-flying sails. But his early success makes you wonder what a younger and more talented serve-and-volleyer could do to Federer. We’ll likely never know, as Federer, unlike Bjorn Borg, never faced a version of John McEnroe, a guy who could see what Borg did best—win baseline points—and rob him of his edge by denying him those baseline points in the first place. As Federer said today, he had been forced to go in the opposite direction at the start of his career. He misses the days when tennis emphasized placement and creativity as much as physical prowess.

“I remember that’s how I played [rushing the net] the whole time coming up,” he said, “and then I had to improve so much on my baseline game because all the guys leading the rankings were all playing from the baseline. [In the past] you had to maneuver the opponents around and be smart about it. So it was a really fun match [today].”

It's been fun to watch Llodra the last few days. Along with his vintage game, there’s a laconic, unhurried manner to his way around the court which is closer to that of the old serve-and-volleyers than it is to the fired-up baseliners we see today. Most of all, what a guy like Llodra brings is a different rhythm to tennis. He comes in with a one-two punch rather than a roundhouse. He brings a cause and effect, a relationship between one shot and the next. Watching a serve-and-volleyer, you’re reminded that there are many more possibilities—angles, tactics, strokes—in tennis than you normally get to see today.

Like Santoro once did, Llodra sat back this afternoon and answered questions in a thoughtful whisper—or maybe he was just searching for the right English words, who knows. He said he tried an underhand serve at the end of the match because he wanted to create something “special.” And he asked Federer for his shirt afterward so he could give something of the great man’s to his kids—“Roger is in the legends,” Llodra said. 

In a sense, Federer is a transitional figure. He began by modeling himself after Sampras and playing the all-court game, but had to adjust to power-baseline tennis. It’s a credit to his talent that he could pull this off. You wonder whether the skills he learned in the old style—volleying, improvisation, proactive rallying—have given him a crucial edge over his opponents in the new.

Obviously Federer has mastered today’s game, but he has his regrets about leaving the old behind. He may have been even more remarkable as an entertainer if he’d been allowed to develop as a serve-and-volleyer. His sense of fun on court, of tennis as an athletic adventure, was clearly engaged by Llodra, as it used to be by Santoro. At 29, Federer still plays to win and detests losing, and he’s made a ton of money. But his smile when he talks about a match like today’s shows he’s a lover of the sport, and if you’re looking for a reason for his unprecedented consistency over a long period of time, you don’t need to look further than that.

Today Federer was asked, “I watched you practice a little bit in Miami this year . . . you were just having a great time . . . ”

Federer started to laugh and cut the questioner off.

“I like tennis, you know," he said. For those of you who think the life of the average pro athlete is nasty, brutish, short, and devoted to the almighty dollar, you don't know your Roger Federer.


Posted by naughty T....urbane gentleman 08/12/2010 at 06:12 PM

Steve you are Federerlike this week.
*For those of you who think the life of the average pro athlete is nasty, brutish, short, and devoted to the almighty dollar, you don't know your Roger Federer.* FLOVES

Posted by the fan child 08/12/2010 at 06:14 PM

I thought Llodra was going to get it done when he took the lead in the first. His Davis Cup performance vs. Spain was pretty unbelievable. I was sorry to see the match turn into a trick show clinic for him, as I thought he could have been way more constructive in the second set. But at least he kept it entertaining and positive.

Posted by fedfan 08/12/2010 at 06:19 PM

Lovely post. Unlike many of my country men I've always enjoyed the French. French tennis players have flair and technique, even if they don't frequently produce the relentless champions of the sport.

Posted by Chany 08/12/2010 at 06:26 PM

Agreed Fedfan - I like the French too. But as you all know Rafa is my flove. Talking about Rafa - does anyone know if its going to be on TV? ESPN is showing baseball :(
If about a link...?

Posted by naughty T....urbane gentleman 08/12/2010 at 06:50 PM

How rude!

Posted by Tomas 08/12/2010 at 06:54 PM

the fan child, don´t let yourself be misguided by France´s victory over Spain in the Davis Cup quarterfinals, it is way overrated. Not to take credit away from Llodra and the other french who did their share, but Verdasco, Lopez and whoever played that tie where unfocused and distracted as their soccer National team was about to play in the World Cup Finals in South Africa just about the same time. And being Spain a soccer loving country, it could be really hard to focus on tennis while your nation has the first ocassion ever to become world champions.

Posted by Tomas 08/12/2010 at 07:00 PM

Of course,a professional athlete should be commited with the task at hand, but that´s not always the case..just ask fat Dave´s tanking against Verdasco in Wimbledon´s third round on purpose just to get in time to watch one of Argentina´s matches in the world cup, against Serbia I guess.
It´s a pity, but it is what it is.

Posted by Mike 08/12/2010 at 07:01 PM

Chany, you'll find links to all matches including Rafa's here -

Posted by antoinette 08/12/2010 at 07:01 PM

Great post Steve.....I have always had a soft spot for the French players and generally enjoy watching them ( with the exception of Clement).

And Roger's intense almost boyish love of the game is one of the reasons I am fan.

Posted by AceHunter 08/12/2010 at 07:02 PM

I love watching serve and volleying as much as the next guy..particularly post-Sampras - But, I want to ask something about this sentence - "Obviously Federer has mastered today’s game, but he has his regrets about leaving the old behind. He may have been even more remarkable as an entertainer if he’d been allowed to develop as a serve-and-volleyer."..I think the regret is kind of the "good old days" feeling particularly because Federer as a junior and afterwards (before winning his first slam) was never an outright serve-and-volleyer. His coach at that time talked about how Federer felt very uncomfortable at the net. No one was holding a gun to his head to play baseline tennis..the reason he choose to do that was others ranked better were doing that and to cope with them, he choose baseline tennis over the serve and volley style..It kind of hits home the point that baseline tennis with modern strings beats serve-and-volleying for the most part...I just keep getting frustated hearing commentators and other pundits saying that nowadays tennis players are not so creative or smart, but just physical specimens..I think it goes against common sense--in any sport, the evolution generally makes the game better...I think it would be very hard to play as Johnny Mac did against Borg because of better ground strokes...I do think the quality of current tour professionals is high and they would be playing more serve-and-volley if it consistently yielded rewards in today's game. The fact that they dont is because they believe it does not work consistently enough (as Fed did).

Posted by Tomas 08/12/2010 at 07:09 PM

French players do have flair and are pretty flamboyant, though fedfan is right saying that hardly ever France has produced any consistent champion..They are abundant in the tour but not quite fulfil their potential in most of cases, i.e. Gasquet, Monfils, Mathieu. They seem to lack that competitive edge that distinguish champions from mere wannabes.

Posted by adb 08/12/2010 at 07:14 PM

Looks like the Fed/Nalbandian match won't be televised tomorrow night, thanks to ESPN2. Friday, they're broadcasting only 4 hours, from 1 to 5 EDT. The WTA only gets 2 hours tomorrow. What a bummer. Wish The Tennis Channel would step up (or ESPN2 would step down) and share the wealth. Apparently Little League Baseball is more important.

Jon Wertheim, over at Sports Illustrated, frequently passes on fans' complaints about TV coverage for tennis, and adds his own opinion about paltry coverage for ATP/WTA tournaments. How about you guys chiming in? Thx.

Posted by Kombo 08/12/2010 at 07:18 PM

new strings give baseliners so much purchase on the ball they can make passing shots and blast back approach shots unlike ever before. An approach shot that would draw a weak reply a tennis generation ago, now gets ripped for a winner or sent back at the net-rusher's feet.

Technology FTW

Posted by CWATC 08/12/2010 at 08:07 PM

I have to say Steve, you're on a bit of a roll lately with your articles on the Fed.
Throughout his career he has been praised in lots of ways I find over-the-top and not entirely accurate, but one of my favorite things about him has always been the genuine love of and enthusiasm for the game, including the strong aesthetic preferences for certains styles of play that he considers "beautiful" or "fun." The guy was stealing his parents' tennis balls to hit them against closet doors as a kid; it's always been about a lot more than the money for him.

Posted by FED FRED 08/12/2010 at 08:26 PM

Fed is going to take Berdych back to his roots.

FED will Czech mate the B man out of Toronto.

My prediction FED wins 6-0, 6-0
Wimbledon was a fluke.

Posted by Red⁺ = Legacy Solidified 08/12/2010 at 08:40 PM

Fantastic photo!!!!

Posted by Miles 08/12/2010 at 09:14 PM

I just realized Nadal could win this tournament without facing a seeded player until the final
(If Murray lost to Nalbandian)
Talk about a cake draw and tournament to ease into the hardcourt season
I hope Nalbandian can show the top players when he is on, he's quick, powerful, and punishing.

Posted by Voltaire 08/12/2010 at 09:50 PM

Enjoyed the Hobbes reference!

Posted by Nik 08/12/2010 at 11:02 PM

The tennis in this match was often spectacular, and if only Llodra had managed to keep his level up for longer, it might have been a closer match in the second set. I got the sense that much of the crowd was smiling during the match - either with bemusement because such matches are rarities nowadays, or with a sense of familiarity that never leaves you like when you bump into an old friend.

You make a good point about Federer transitioning from a S&V style player to a baseliner and how that shows his ability to adapt. When he has gone on his minor losing streaks (in 2008, and now more recently), much has been said about how he is stubborn and not easily coached - which never seemed to gel with the persona he projects on court and in press conferences.

Posted by Syd 08/12/2010 at 11:06 PM

Cool article Steve and yeh, great pix of Llorda.

Thought Fed modeled his game on Edberg's though. *shrugs*

Posted by Miles2Know 08/12/2010 at 11:09 PM

Great post.
I think the "baseline game" vs. "serve and volley" characterization of a players game is a bit illogical. Sampras and Mcenroe and Laver and Newcombe and Roche etal. played serve and volley but how would you characterize their return game - did they have a serve and volley return game (I really don't know actually...didn't catch them to many times)? Aside from technology, it has been an important factor in the way tennis is played for sure, isn't this about imposing your understanding of depth whether serving or returning? I think Rogers best "serve and volley" style is when he is receiving.

Posted by Sher 08/12/2010 at 11:53 PM

[“I like tennis, you know," he said. For those of you who think the life of the average pro athlete is nasty, brutish, short, and devoted to the almighty dollar, you don't know your Roger Federer.]


Posted by Amoureux de tennis 08/13/2010 at 12:04 AM

Watched the Federer-Llodra match taped. What a treat! Chany at 6:26- are you from Stanford, CA?Knew someone by that unusual name back in 1998-1999.

Posted by Sher 08/13/2010 at 12:11 AM

[Q. Earlier this week Federer was in this room and he was asked a question, Would you guys ever get together as a team to play doubles? He says, and I quote, the media wouldn't like it because we see you guys as rivals, but he said, Yeah, I would team up with him. So what do you say? When is the dream team getting together?
RAFAEL NADAL: (Through translation.) Well, I never had any problem, for sure. I will be I would love to play with Roger. I think we had a lot of important moments. We lived a lot of important moments together in our career, so that's good life experience to play with him, too.
I did with Novak. I played doubles with different partners, so I love play doubles. For me, gonna be a pleasure if any day Roger wants to play with me.]

Who's the reporter determinedly working on getting them to play doubles? I'd like to know so I can send him a fruit basket! LOL

Posted by Andrew 08/13/2010 at 12:19 AM

I got to see the match live: big corporate meeting started precisely three minutes after the two gentlemen swapped shirts. I use the term gentlemen with appreciation, because the two men played like sportsmen enjoying an afternoon's entertainment as much as hard driven pros battling for a QF place. Smiles all round, including after the cheeky Llodra underarm serve.

I continue to love the fact that Federer is taking great pleasure in the act of playing professional tennis. John McEnroe, famously, could not; Pete Sampras apparently didn't, and we know now how much pleasure Andre Agassi got from his profession. With any luck, part of Federer's legacy for the next 10-15 years will be a set of players who grew up knowing that a large part of the object of the game is to enjoy playing, not just having won, a match.

Posted by Sher 08/13/2010 at 12:24 AM

[players who grew up knowing that a large part of the object of the game is to enjoy playing, not just having won, a match.]

Yes, I think that's a huge part of my enjoying watching some players. For example, no matter Santoro's style, I could always tune in and watch him because of his dedication and love of the game.

Posted by zenggi 08/13/2010 at 12:56 AM

Great article, Steve.

I second everything Andrew said. Roger approaches tennis as a fun job. Even discussing his tennis outfits is a fun thing for him. On the other hand he is up there with the seriousness involved in making his career a huge success because he works so hard (fitness, training, tactics). He is been blessed with a huge talent for the game but he's working so hard for 2/3 of his life to convert that talent into a winning task.

I love French tennis. They wouldn't be so spectacular and graceful to watch if they had adopted the Bolletieri Academy style. They are so proud in their chauvinism that they refuse to cooperate and adapt to the game played now on the Tour. In Michael's case because he is "old" to change his beautiful game. Tsonga is the only exception to the rule, I think. I'm also following Jeremy Chardy because he is playing a very modern kind of tennis for a French. I miss Fabrice's explosiveness. He was fun to watch even if he gave fits to his opponents. Marat's comments, everyone?

If I want to have a "fun" moment I only have to replay this match on my DVR

Posted by Pasi 08/13/2010 at 01:01 AM

No wonder Llodra drew instant reminders of Santoro: another one of those Frenchmen whom Federer loves to play because he so easily beats them, who are in awe of Federer and who inevitably turn their matches into party tricks night.

For the love of the game? They can to that on senior tour with Bahrami. The point is to compete, not to clown around. Clowning is not "love of the game", it's simply masking the fact you're not good enough. The moment that competitiveness went out of the window, clowning started. Before that, they were both deadly serious.

Posted by pov 08/13/2010 at 01:24 AM

To assess that "in any sport, the evolution generally makes the game better" would depend on what one considers better. Using tennis as an example, if one considers more power to be betterm then "evolution" has done that. If however one considers more skill, strategy and variety of shots to be better, than "evolution" has failed - miserably.

Posted by Tarun 08/13/2010 at 01:26 AM

It was very refreshing to see Roger play the way he did - although he did falter on cruical points (double fault in 1st set to give the game away etc).

If you notice, he was using the slice return of serve less and less and also trying to force the issue.

I always thought that federer had so much unused energy at the end of every match, which if he used would let him finish the match earlier or sometimes to avoid losses. In this match he was going one step further (expending more energy ), killing those balls he normally would just place.

Like it, but lets see if he can old his own against Berdy and Nadal. Murray I am not so concerned.


Posted by Fudoshin 08/13/2010 at 02:55 AM

Llodra doesn't get enough credit for his game. I always think he is technically better (and classier) than most of his younger compatriots.

Posted by Gabor 08/13/2010 at 03:07 AM

Wow. Great post, Steve.

Posted by rg.nadal 08/13/2010 at 03:23 AM

Hi all!

Personally think Roger can easily win 20 slams.

Posted by cheapjordanshoes 08/13/2010 at 03:50 AM

I really like this article, I was a tennis fan, I like tennis

Posted by river 08/13/2010 at 04:56 AM

am in india and ten sports is telecasting the tournament......... what really sucked was they started showing golf instead of tennis half way through murray's game and never showed tennis again.... it was 1.30 am in the morning... who the hell would watch golf at 2 am in the morning .... what a priority!!!!.. these tv guys need to check their heads...

Posted by rg.nadal 08/13/2010 at 05:16 AM

As always, a great article from you, Steve.

Posted by Geellis 08/13/2010 at 05:23 AM

@ace hunter
I've been saying that all along, namely, S&V is gone today because it loses against H2H assuming the players are of equal skill. Now, it's quite likely that the new strings and rackets have a lot to do with that. Ok, so be it. However, I'd also suggest another issue. S&V is just not a style that can be deployed for the totality of one's career. Once you become even a step slow, you're toast. You go from routinely picking volleys out of the air, to taking them off your shoestrings. And that is not percentage tennis. Seeking then to transition to a more baseline game, after having played most of your life S&V, is also not a winning formula. So it makes sense that the pros of today are not playing S&V. Finally, tennis players and academies do not throw away styles because of aesthetics but rather because of efficacy.

Posted by Geellis 08/13/2010 at 05:26 AM

I think Djokovic/Nadal's crash in the first round v. unknown doubles players admonishes us to hold our exaggerated expectations of the degree to which great singles players would automatically dominate in doubles. That said, it would be interesting to see how much better Nadal/Djokovic would play if they routinely began playing together. That said, it's almost impossible to imagine. Federer and Djokovic perhaps. But Nadal's game is simply too hard on his knees to see him going deep in doubles at the majors.

Posted by Tuulia 08/13/2010 at 07:49 AM

I suspect Rafole weren't planning on domination ;) they were just having a bit of fun and got some nice practice, too. Surely they would be a better team if they practiced and played together more. Rafa has done well in singles (Nole less), and he did better than this last year in Canada with Francis Roig :) ...Rafa and Francis obviously know each other very, very well, and work together a lot, so they were already a team before they played those doubles... Rafa and Nole don't know each other anywhere near that well and don't normally work together, so it's hardly surprising if they didn't instantly become a great team together.

Roger's explanation why he and Rafa haven't played doubles was interesting and revealing. I still hope they would now that Roger is... how did he put it... more calm/relaxed. Rafa already wanted to play with him years ago and still does so it's always been up to Roger. World domination in doubles not expected or needed. :)

I certainly wouldn't expect top ranked singles players on the men's side who aspire to win in singles to also play doubles in slams. That has nothing to do with Rafa's knees. (There was an article in El País last Sunday about those, btw, things might really get better on that front, doctors sounded very optimistic.) Smaller tournaments would be a wiser choice. Not that Masters are really "small", but at least the singles are best of 3. :) Rafa already has a couple of doubles Masters, too, and may well get some more sooner or later, with someone or other. He absolutely loves playing doubles, so won't stop playing them for sure.

Posted by Puffin 08/13/2010 at 08:45 AM

Thanks very much, Steve - very nice article! I think you've captured, perfectly, what Roger, on a tennis court, is all about.

Posted by Nik 08/13/2010 at 09:12 AM

Hey Steve, when are you going to write about the changes you see in Fed's game since Annacone came on board?
Like - He is driving his BH returns more, more S&V, finishing the points quicker etc. :)

Posted by Paul 08/13/2010 at 09:50 AM

I'm only a relatively new reader of Steve Tignor's writing but boy, deosn't he write a terrific piece.
Nice point about Federer being a transitional figure.

Posted by AceHunter 08/13/2010 at 10:51 AM


Agree with your comments on why we are seeing less serve and volley style of tennis

Posted by fedfan 08/13/2010 at 10:58 AM

Agreed that the photo is great. Whoever is the photo editor at Tennis mag has been doing a great job.

Posted by Vinay G 08/13/2010 at 11:01 AM

I remember Devin Britton from USA playing Fed in the US open first round. Quite an entertaining match that was, hope he improves his ranking. Would be nice to have a young serve-volleyer.

Posted by AceHunter 08/13/2010 at 11:11 AM

@pov If however one considers more skill, strategy and variety of shots to be better, than "evolution" has failed - miserably.

Lets talk of skills: Serve - the average pro serve of today has more power, variety and consistency (% of first serves made) than in the 70s & 80s. Fed himself referred to that in Toronto press conference after the march
Ground Strokes - Pros today use a lot of topspin (partly because of better equipment) that allows for better angles, power and depth of shot..Is that not more variety..lets consider the S&V ganme: if you always serve and volley and then chip and that not less variety..a return that stays low...ur opponent knows that you are always going to come up. Paul Annacone's game was as one-dimensional as say a pure baseliner's game..if you do just one thing, it is not more creative just because you are at the net
Strategy - Clay court tennis is generally agreed to be the most tactical form of tennis as the big shots (serve, forehand) do less on a clay court (unless ur Soderling)..Why is it the best of SW players - Johnny Mac or Pete Sampras never did well..if they had the ball skills, creativity, flair and all the attributes that a lot of people feel nostalgic for..
I love both those players but I think sometimes we underestimate today's game

Posted by goldengirl 08/13/2010 at 11:21 AM

A great website to watch almost all tennis tournaments (often with a choice of matches to watch) is: No signup required. Don't be discouraged if you check the website & no match is listed at a specific time. The matches only show up during the warm-up or as the match is starting. I have been watching the Toronto (ATP) & Cincy (WTA) matches on it all week.

Posted by skip1515 08/13/2010 at 01:02 PM

Steve, I could not agree more with your suggestion that a more talented player than Llodra would have success at a very high level today. And I say this with no disrespect to Llodra; he has made an honorable and worthy career out of his strengths, but they have never been enough to bring him top ten status.

I was lucky enough to watch him play Grosjean at Wimbledon in 2005, on Court 1. The two of them put on a great show of grass court tennis - as you say, the French can surprise us by their comfort on grass - which was all the more enjoyable because of the infrequent opportunities to see that kind of brinkmanship tennis.

Top shelf article. It reminds us of how we should all enjoy the playing of the game.

Posted by Amused 08/13/2010 at 02:33 PM

Thanks for a great piece, Steve.

Posted by Ellie Bean 08/13/2010 at 05:00 PM

Wonderful match with Llodra both during and after. What fun they had on court. And such friendship and laughter afterwards. Now, that is what I call a tennis match.

Posted by goldengirl 08/14/2010 at 12:25 AM

Sorry, the website is:

Posted by michael jordan shoes 08/14/2010 at 06:12 AM

This is a good article, I like it very much, thank you for sharing.

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