The stars have aligned for tennis' Big Four to wage an extended, epic campaign across Europe this summer, beginning with Roland Garros going on now in Paris. The sport's pinnacle is populated by a quartet of gentleman who each, in their own unique ways, offer sporting audiences what many have long missed.
We live in a time of great tennis champions but, sadly, that is often overlooked by the mainstream sports media which focuses on the machinations of big business team sports. Sport, even at the college level, has been reduced to a commodity to be bought and traded, wagered and weighed. This has led to too many televised games and too little real drama and interest for the casual viewer like me.
In attempts to remedy this, manufactured melodrama like ESPN human interest pieces like Outside The Lines seem designed to generate real fan interest in what has long been a very migratory, mercenary endeavour which leaves fans like me increasingly detached. So, either the action has been compressed into Sports Center clips or the games drag on and on. And those sports writers who are interested in real sports drama seem stuck in time warped sports eddies like baseball or boxing. This may be because it often seems sports like baseball are more about looking back than enjoying greatness today.
Where are the intense battles waged upon epic stages that are tailor made for the typewritten sports column or the beautifully photographed coffee table book? Baseball used to be that sport, certainly, but where can one look to find that mix of emotion, ballet and aggressive kinetic force applied to a ball?
Today's men's professional tennis is that sport and there are a number of reasons for this. While the U.S. often still sees its best athletes go to bigger money team sports, the rest of the world has seen some of the very best athletic talent gravitating toward tennis while, at the same time, tennis fitness and strength training have been made a huge priority for everyone from high school players to touring pros. On top of that, athletic performance is correlated to practice and tennis players practice ball striking much, much more than any other major sport. From a cocktail napkin calculation, I would guess that a junior tennis player strikes a bill with his racquet well over a million times by the time he ARRIVES in high school. For the most talented, this type of repetitive hitting practice translates into amazing shot-making feats displayed during matches.
Men's tennis has not always been what it is now. I played high school and college tennis and all facets of the game; from fitness to coaching to strength training to equipment, have vastly improved. Also, the way the game was played was different. Tennis in the 1940s, say, was all-court and featured volleying with baseline rallies but it had a slower pace and a 'badminton' feel about it. Today's women's tennis is stricken with the same problem, in my opinion. This is because it is dominated by methodical base liners who belt the ball back and forth and eventually net it or hit it wide. -Not too exciting, sometimes. Men's tennis in the past was also dominated by big serve and volley players like Pete Sampras. While this could be exciting, it could also be kind of boring due to all of the aces and balls hit wide.
That changed with Andre Agassi in the Early Nineties where aggression and pin-point accuracy met. He ushered in our current era where top ATP players are part magician and part diplomat who travel the world spreading the word about what the sport offers to today's sports fan. While players had long been international stars such as John McEnroe, this new breed just seems classier both on the court and off. This led the way for the arrival of The Meistro, Rafa and Nole. These three have won an incredible 27 of the last 28 Majors.
Roger Federer is, and will probably always be, my favorite tennis player because he brought the game into the 21st Century by pulling from its past (if you think I don't have an allegiance, check out my socks). An absurd combination of athletic brilliance and elegance, he is the perfect bridge between the past, present and future. His all court game would be right at home with that of Bill Tilden or Don Budge but brought up to the Digital Age. His strokes are classic yet modern in their engineering. It seems fitting that he endorses Rolex - Swiss, classic perfection. -His off court demeanor is no less elegant. If James Bond ever took up tennis professionally, he would BE Roger Federer. A finalist at Roland Garros in 2011, Roger has the best record on the tour since the US Open.
Raphael Nadal is perhaps the Anti-Federer. Defending and six-time champ Rafael Nadal is ranked No. 2, after beating top-seeded Novak Djokovic in the finals in Rome on May 21. He is fiery on the court, yet gracious to a fault. His game is that of a Spanish bull, inhuman endurance and will coupled with unequaled torque applied to the ball from his leftie ground strokes. Those who have never played advanced level tennis simply cannot understand what an oppressive advantage his ground strokes are. His corkscrew, leftie serve and strokes spin THE OPPOSITE direction from 'normal' strokes while the brick heavy top spin must be counter-acted ON EVERY SHOT returned back to Nadal. Throw in his incredible endurance over five sets in a major like Roland Garros and his invincibility on clay becomes understandable.
Novac Djokovic has bettered both players over the last 24 months with his own unique style and personality. He has won the last three Majors but has never reached the final in Paris. His athletic gifts are absolutely incredible. His fitness is amazing while his variety and mastery of every conceivable tennis shot is jaw-dropping. If you had a room full of super computers, one could not replicate the calculations necessary to generate one of Djokovic's backhand drives to his opponent's baseline or touch volleys just out of reach of his opponent's outstretched racquet head. Off the court, he is perhaps the best natural comedian in sports today and does spot-on impersonations of everyone from Nadal to Sharapova. Novac takes the game, but not himself, very seriously.
That's the Big Three. But there's a fourth wild card just waiting to be dealt into the mix this summer. Andy Murray is similar to all three of these gentleman but very different. Arguably, he's as strong as Nadal, as pinpoint accurate as Djokovic and has the strategic court sense of Federer. Plus, he's a little pugnacious. A boxing aficionado, Murray relishes the combat of the sport and is prone to fiery outbursts aimed at himself or perhaps his coach. There's definitely a little 'Willie The Groundskeeper' in Scot Andy Murray! Like a Kentucky thoroughbred, he has been bred for play on the grass (although his formative years were actually spent on Spanish clay) of Wimbledon which will see action TWICE this summer. The hopes of Great Britain will again be on his shoulders but he seems revel in the opportunity to be the first Brit since Fred Perry to win Wimbledon. -Maybe since it's the Queen's Jubilee year, it's his to win.
Tennis is truly in one of sports' golden ages and there is no reason why Roland Garros 2012 should not be a thrilling, opening salvo in an epic battle to be waged on fiery, red dirt this summer.