Friday, 12 December 2008

The Black Rock Master Class...

I've never really followed the Black Rock Masters that closely, which is quite surprising considering:
  1. I have a vested interest in one handed backhands.
  2. It's held in the Royal Albert Hall just yards away from from my old University and just happens to have been the venue for my Convocation Ceremony. Some resonance then, when I see Pioline and Rusedski squaring off there? Oh yeah.
The Black Rock Masters was first held in December of 1997; had it been a year (or even three months) earlier and I can easily conceive of myself skipping the odd lecture on Moment-Generating Functions in favour of a slightly different and more thrilling type of education.

The tennis this year (like others I imagine), didn't disappoint. Yes everyone's a step slower, the maximum amount of play is limited to 2 sets (one set each and a first-to-ten tiebreak) and it does at times feel that although they're all great serve and volleyers, it is perhaps a little too taxing for most there to hold a rally of more than about 6-8 balls and nigh impossible to recollect themselves immediately after it.

But here's the thing: not only is the brand of tennis on offer drastically different to anything you see nowadays - that much is to be expected; it's more that the players somehow
still exhibit the complex set of skills that that style of play demands.

The way for example, players like Jeremy Bates were able to nonchalantly (and at times with the air of irritation one might adopt when swatting a fly) pull off shots at the net that would befuddle all but a handful of players today.

Jeremy Bates is my countryman, but I'd be lying if I said that I had much time for him in the early 90s. He reached his career best ranking of 54 in 1995 but was little more than a curious afterthought (if that) as I would review the days play at Wimbledon.

But it wasn't just the net play (where most of these guys are after all specialists) I found enriching. It was the thought that went into, and the execution of the resultant shots from the baseline (particularly from Forget) that really proved captivating, and little by little I found myself questioning certain aspects of the quality on offer these days.

It's not just the fact that their tennis is sometimes easier on the eye, and believe me it's got
nothing to do with attention to things like 'classical form'. It's just that apart from a very few players at the top, there's a certain type of thoughtlessness and over reliance on physical endurance that characterises much of what we see on court these days: a kind of uber confidence in one's physical abilities that gives rise to the idea that you can continue to run balls down without much of a game plan and will eventually find a way to win the point - and when you do see someone trying to shorten a point it often results in an unforced error.

Much of this is of course, to do with the way tennis has become more physical - the athleticism of this age is frankly light years ahead of what it was even 10 years; and we all know of the impact that
racquet technology has had. But has it also unwittingly encouraged a certain type of mental lethargy in players - not the Federers and the Nadals but in the rank and file of the game? They're not always capable of shortening points at will, because they're more inclined to want to 'muscle' their way through a gladiatorial style of rally and are as a result, well, out of practice.

It's not that the talent is not there - it's more to do with players being less desirous of their tennis evolving that way, which in today's more physical game is not altogther surprising.

A large number of them (though not all) also tend to be spent after around three sets of this gruelling style of play, and so quite predictably suffer a premature drop in quality. Contrast this with the more 'lightweight' style of years gone by that lends itself to a process of pacing oneself more effectively over 5 sets.

I don't often have these thoughts - I like most of what I see these days and frankly found serve and volley a little boring at times. Old, I find is
quite often, but not always gold, but that doesn't mean that there aren't things to be learnt from that era.

Take for example the way Forget uses his backhand slice: not just as a way of staying in the point, not
even as it is mostly used today to confuse and disrupt your opponent. You often hear about backhand slices being 'knifed' back into court - the warlike metaphor giving rise to colourful imagery of pierced hearts and bloodied battlefields.

Well it's no
exaggeration to say that at times, Forget uses his backhand slice to 'torpedo' his opponent - its not just kept low, its well struck and an extremely aggressive passing shot that usually lands close to the baseline; and it's usually timed to convert defence into offence.

That's just one example of the kind of thought process largely missing today. I tried hard and could only think of
one player capable of producing that kind of stroke (his name begins with 'F' and ends in 'R').

I've often had nostalgic 'what-if' recollections of my time at University and sometimes (rather impractically it has to be said) thought of possible reasons to return - funnily enough, until now, a chance at witnessing quality tennis has never featured amongst them...
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