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Tennis

Impact of innovation, technology forces sport of tennis to evolve

Photo: Caryn Levy/SI

The single-hand backhand has become a historical touchstone of sorts, demarcating an era gone by.

The halls of Wimbledon are lined with history: compelling photographs of past champions in their glory, rising to stardom at the world's most prestigious tournament. There's a thread of continuity to these museum pieces, particularly the grass surface and cherished landmarks in the background, but certain images -- dated clothing, or a backhand struck with just a single hand -- speak to a time before technological advances changed the game forever.

The signs of revolution become even more conspicuous once those grainy images are set in motion. Watch any video from the heyday of Rod Laver, John McEnroe or Chris Evert, and you're stunned by the pace of play. "This looks awful," McEnroe once said, half-jokingly, as he viewed one of his historic matches. "Were we really that bad?"

Of course not. In any era, the world's elite players were the envy of everyone who ever picked up a racket. But it's an entirely new game we're witnessing at this year's Wimbledon, and at every other stop on the men's and women's tours. It's a slam-bang showcase of raw power and astonishing athleticism. Traditionalists will always lament the absence of touch, finesse and variety, but there is no harnessing the impact of innovation and technological progress.

Let's take a moment to review what caused such drastic change in the sport:

Rackets

Few adjustments were made to elite-level rackets between the late 1870s, when frame size and shape were largely standardized, and the 1960s. The Jack Kramer Autograph, launched by Wilson in 1948, enjoyed a run of some 35 years as the most popular wooden racket. The wheels of change were set in motion with Wilson's steel-framed T-2000 in 1967, but the real breakthrough can be traced to Howard Head, a Harvard-educated engineer who switched his attention from skis to tennis rackets as he reached his mid-50s.

Finding the game more difficult than it looked, Head blamed his equipment, and set about designing an oversized racket with a significantly larger "sweet spot." In 1975, Head registered his revolutionary frame with the U.S. patent office, and when it hit the market a year later -- the Prince Classic -- the act of striking a tennis ball would never be quite the same. The Prince racket gained notoriety in 1978, when 16-year-old Pam Shriver used it to reach the U.S. Open final, and by 1982, Head's Prince company had cornered 30 percent of the market.

Imitators followed suit, in droves, signaling the end of a long and distinguished era. The 1981 U.S. Open is most remembered as Bjorn Borg's last match -- he retired from the sport after losing the final to McEnroe -- but that also marked the last time a player won the Open with a wooden racket.

GALLERY: The evolution of the tennis racket

Strings

As the rackets became larger, long-accepted natural gut strings gave way to polyester and other synthetic brands. Imagine a ball sinking deeper into the strings and lingering there for an extra millisecond; suddenly, players enjoyed not only a larger "sweet spot" but far more control. The wooden-racket era required precise strokes with little margin for error. New racket technology meant players were cutting loose with all their might, enjoying more power and hitting wicked topspin shots like never before.

"You had players pounding away from the baseline, because they were able to hit outright winners from there," said Andy Murray. "And it totally changed the game. It's so hard now to play well going forward, because guys are so quick, hitting the ball so hard and with so much spin. You can't really cover at the net, so you're quite reluctant to go up there."

The change also produced a generation of dynamic service returners. From a time in which the great ones (notably Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi) were easy to spot, now any given player could crank up a massive return because there was no pressure to hit a target.

"What I noticed over the last five years of my career," Agassi told Tennis.com, "was the influence of polyester strings and how much action guys can put on the ball. When you played with gut strings, you had to worry about control -- and the harder you swung, the more you had to worry. Now you're rewarded for taking big swings. The bigger the swing, the more control you have. The bottom line is that if you can swing big without fear, it's just target practice when a guy comes to the net against you."

As the big Grand Slam matches became baseline wars, traditionalists were crestfallen. Gone were the days of elegant serve-and-volley displays from the likes of Kramer, Laver, John Newcombe, McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Patrick Rafter. That dashing, all-court element had practically gone missing. Rex Bellamy, the gifted tennis writer of the London Times, described this new era as "joylessly negative tennis," crafted an image of "bouncers outside the stadium throwing people back in," and admitted to actually leaving an important match at the French Open "without shame, escaping for half an hour to a leafy cabin in the Bois de Boulogne and lunching on pate and coffee, with a dog's head on my lap and optimistic sparrows hopping across the table. They were better company than Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander."

It was possible, certainly, to become overly sentimental on the subject. "Nothing is intrinsically boring," historian Joel Drucker told me. "Serve-and-volley tennis is not purely pleasing all the time. Watch the Stan Smith-John Newcombe 1971 Wimbledon final, and you tell me that's delightful."

From a player's standpoint, Connors recently lamented, "Everybody plays the same now. Our attitudes were different, and nobody played the same. We had variety and we had charisma. I would think that it's a little bit easier now. You don't have to deal with playing McEnroe one way and then Lendl one way and then Borg one way and then Eddie Dibbs another way."

Few would argue, though, that the major confrontations in today's Grand Slam tournaments aren't wondrous to behold. The endurance, the sensational returning, the transition from suffocating offense to aggressive defense -- it all makes for great theater. And while we miss the sight of a textbook volley, struck with just the proper touch, today's tennis definitely puts those old films to shame.

"With this string technology, I can hit shots that I never could hit in my career," said Pat Cash, who won the 1987 Wimbledon in a net-rushing fury. "I can honestly say that now, at the back of the court, I could beat myself when I won that title."

Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Serena Williams has one of the most powerful two-handed backhands in the women's game.

The two-handed backhand

You wonder why it took so long for this shot to became popular. Perhaps the sheer elegance of the sport, at its core, preserved tradition through the decades. Photographs capture the majesty of a sweeping, dismissive backhand from the likes of Ken Rosewall, Pete Sampras or Justine Henin with their one-handed grace. Every time I saw a photo of Monica Seles' backhand on impact, it appeared she was trying to strangle the racket in a two-fisted rage.

The aesthetic element tends to diminish, however, if the results aren't there. "Two hands are better than one," coaches tell their young students, and although we still see elements of the one-handed shot on tour, it's remarkable how few young players care to imitate Roger Federer or Martina Navratilova -- each with a strong case as the greatest player of all time. The two-handed backhand is far easier to learn, produces more immediate results and becomes a weapon not easily discarded once the player starts winning.

In a recent New York Times piece, Chris Clarey noted that Australian men's star Viv McGrath was the first noteworthy player to use a two-handed backhand, back in the 1930s. It never really caught on -- again, it wasn't so pleasing to the eye -- until the 1970s, when Evert and Connors tore through elite fields with such single-minded dominance. The advantages are obvious: more power, more accuracy (in most cases), radically increased topspin, and the opportunity to return a big serve with authority.

A number of two-handed practitioners occasionally fall back to the one-handed slice, still an effective shot when executed to perfection. One wonders if, someday, we'll see a player who rotates effortlessly between the two, confident enough to hit either at any time. "I wish my wife had used the two-hander," said Agassi, referring to the great Steffi Graf, in an interview with Inside Tennis. "She had the best slice backhand, but it didn't always work offensively. A two-hander would have helped her on the second-serve return, which is a huge shot in women's tennis. She could have pounded it."

Nutrition and fitness

There was never an era in which the top tennis players were slovenly, out-of-shape types. Having a few beers after the match, or perhaps an exotic drug of choice? That's a different story. But nutrition has come to the forefront in modern times. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are just two players who feel revitalized through gluten-free diets. Some players are workout fanatics, terrified to lose a physical edge of any kind. That goes back to the days of Martina Navratilova, whose chiseled frame was quite the revelation in the 1980s, and more recently the Williams sisters. "Venus and Serena raised the bar for everyone," Kim Clijsters noted before her retirement. "We all had to go back to the gym. Young players saw that, and now they're hitting harder and harder."

Other innovations have significantly changed the face of tennis. Jimmy Van Alen, the man who invented the International Tennis Hall of Fame, came up with the tiebreaker concept in 1967 -- "a summer of Social Security number scores that drove schedule-making tournament referees wild," Bud Collins wrote in his History of Tennis. It was a three-set match at Southampton, N.Y., that helped put Van Alen over the edge (scores: 32-30, 3-6, 19-17), not to mention a 48-46 set at that same locale. The tiebreaker proved to be of great relief to both players and fans, although there remains some resistance to the concept. The U.S. Open remains the only major to employ a fifth-set tiebreaker, which is we saw John Isner win a 70-68 set from Nicolas Mahut at the All England Club three years ago.

Instant replay has added a fascinating element to the sport, as well. This dates back to a 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati, a match riddled with inexcusable calls (Maria Alves, the chair umpire in question, was banned from that role for the remainder of the tournament). That controversy provided the impetus for Hawk-Eye replay technology, and aside from the obvious benefits of getting calls right, it has changed the dynamic of the on-court dispute. "Can you imagine this with me and Connors?" McEnroe said. "We'd have no one to yell at. Even I might have been better behaved if Hawk-Eye had been around back then."

As Wimbledon moves forward with the times, routinely tearing down ages-old structures for the sake of modernization and placing a roof on Centre Court, it's only fitting. Things can't ever stay the same, in any sport, and it's best to ride out progress with a smile. One of the game's top analysts, Mary Carillo, has expressed her reservations over the years, but she keeps the proper perspective. "I have a hard time denouncing the new technology the way a lot of people do," she said. "You can't un-ring the technology bell."

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