Scratching Beneath The Surface – Part I

In 1991, Arthur Ashe, the Wimbledon champion 16 years earlier, stated the obvious when he wrote that the semi-finals of that year’s Championship were boring. Improved racket technology, allied to 10 days of near-constant rain that had deadened the ball bounce, had increased the potency of the serve to the extent that, in seven sets of semi-final action, Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich, David Wheaton, and Boris Becker managed just three breaks of serve between them. Indeed, in his 4-set victory over Edberg, Stich, the eventual champion, did not break serve at all. A few years, Ashe’s assessment of the men’s game had become widespread, with the later stages of Wimbledon being dominated by unreturnable serves, short points, and precious few breaks of serve. In Pete Sampras’s seven title-winning years, the first set of the final ended in a tie-break on five occasions, and the second set went the same way in four of those five matches.

Fast forward to 2013, however, and the popular view seems to be that these problems are a thing of the past. We are, or so we are constantly told, living in a golden era of men’s tennis, with two strong candidates for the label of “GOAT,” and a Big Four of unparalleled quality. Furthermore, rather than the dull, serve-dominated, non-rallies of the 1990s, we are now regularly treated to such gems as the 54-shot epic between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in last month’s US Open final.

Such is the discussion that dominates the media coverage of men’s tennis today, at least. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and a different story is told. On a variety of tennis blogs and online discussion boards, an increasingly vocal group of fans is complaining that men’s tennis today is, in a very different way, more boring than it used to be. The claim is that, now, all the courts play in the same way as each other, and are more similar to clay courts than to any other type of tennis surface. As a result, the average length of rally has risen far too much. Far from being contenders for the “greatest point of all time,” rallies such as the 54-shot one between Djokovic and Nadal are really little more than training drills, and highlight the fact that men’s tennis now has become extremely defensive, with players shying away from the net as though it were electrified, topspin predominating in baseline rallies, and winners increasingly hard to come by.

Now, that there has been a change in the game is undeniable, as any casual fan can note and many have noted, with the length of rallies increasing drastically in the last 20 years or so. But what’s controversial is why. Alongside a group of tennis fans who insist that the cause is in large part that courts have got slower sits another group who claim that no such thing has happened, and that any change is due to superior fitness, strength, and overall athleticism, as well as greater use of topspin. On this account, the decrease in court speed cannot be proven and is not borne out by evidence. A study of the number of aces, double faults, and tie-breaks conducted by the University of Sydney is occasionally cited as proof that there has been no change, because the number of aces has continued to rise over the last two decades. That studies can be found here. Furthermore, on this view, the idea that player and commentator statements to the effect that courts have got slower are not to be counted because players often make mistakes.

The second view is one with which I cannot quibble, but nonetheless I want here to argue that the search for a “scientific” metric by which we can measure court surfaces is misguided, and that expert testimony to changes in court conditions is all we can ask for. Moreover, the evidence presented by the University of Sydney is compatible with the view that court speeds have decreased and homogenized. I conclude that we have good reason to think that changes to the courts have occurred and that those changes are potentially reversible, and should in fact be reversed, at least to some degree.

Why do I think this? Well, first, the idea that the only “proof” we could have that court speeds are changing is statistical is based on a rather old-fashioned theory of knowledge and philosophy of science, in that it implicitly supposes that the data can speak for themselves. But, in fact, all data must be interpreted, and will be interpreted differently depending on the assumptions we bring to the table. Why don’t the data speak for themselves? Because there’s no one uniquely obvious way to ask, “Have the courts been slowed down?” and so any measure will be at best an illustrative guide. Furthermore, there is no way to measure the effect of one variable independently of the other, and there will be no such way short of inventing a time machine. For example, rackets, strings, balls, and courts have all been adduced as causes of a change in playing conditions. Unless someone is storing the US Open courts from, say, 2002 in their backyard, we can’t go and test them using the new rackets, strings, and balls. Even if we could test those courts, we could not prove scientifically how fast they are, because courts will react in different ways to different spins, so any single metric that we might used to measure them would be a composite measure based on a particular view of which spins are important.

(To Be Continued…….)

- Toby Reiner 

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6 thoughts on “Scratching Beneath The Surface – Part I

  1. Wonderful article to read and very relevant. The slowing down of surfaces is one dimension in a number of changes that have lead to the game favouring the defensive minded players and making the rallies more physical and demanding.

    Given that even Nadal says he likes fast courts, why are the courts being slowed? :)

  2. The points of view here are interesting. That 54 shot rally was considered a classic by most viewers, which I think could be because they have forgotten the first-strike tennis of the 1990s on hard courts. More and more players are now adept at playing on all surfaces and their style of play is rather inevitably defensive. One thing we have already begun to miss is the clash of the surface specialist versus the generalist. The ATP really must do something about this.

  3. Pingback: Scratching Beneath The Surface – Finale | SportzCosmos

  4. This is an excellent article which highlights the perception of some fans that tennis cannot be enjoyable unless the top 4 guys duke it out with each other, thus producing 5-6 hour long matches.

    It’s quite obvious that the courts have been slowed down to give a much needed assist to the clay-courters who like to engage in long, arduous rallies. and thus producing more defensive than offensive type tennis. Pong style tennis is now the norm, albeit devoid of the artistry and finesse, which are the very foundation of the sport. The crux of the matter is that tennis is now a mano e mano/gladiatorial war of attrition with the players engaging in long, ruthless rallies and the reason for extended breaks between points. Hence, ATP’s new time rule. Sad to say that with Federer’s lack of domination and his impending retirement the long rallies will become par for the course unless, and until, the light bulb is turned on for the ATP whereby such counter-productivity, e.g., scheduling problems caused by long,and umpires begin requesting more remuneration for 6 hour match officiating as opposed to the past 2-3 hour matches. ATP needs a panacea for what ails the sport and the the imbalance that has been created. .

  5. Good one Toby!

    Probably the courts are being slowed to generate more ad revenue – the matches get longer :P just a thought u see

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