Sunday, May 22, 2011

As California Goes

As California tennis goes, so goes American tennis.  Simplification?  Sure.  But California is our most populous state and a state with a long and rich tennis history.  It's reasonable to expect great American tennis players to come from California.  They have in the past.

California tennis is played on hard courts.  Players generally hit the ball fairly flat and take the ball on the rise.  They hug the baseline and play a forcing style of play.  That's what Tom Stow taught in Northern California and I think Robert Landsdorp favors that style in Southern California, too.  I don't think that's an unfair or misleading characterization of California tennis.

So how does that style of play work at the top levels of tennis in 2011?  I think not well.

Two primary changes in the tennis environment have worked against the California style.  The first is the strings.  The new co-polyester strings allow for much greater spin generation.  This allows players to hit with higher ball speeds and get the ball over the net and into the court.  The second change is to the court surfaces.  The hard courts are far slower than in the past and even Wimbledon's grass courts favor baseline players.

Playing up near the baseline, taking the ball on the rise, and attacking behind those sorts of groundstrokes is very difficult now.  Players who grew up on clay, playing well behind the baseline, have time to get to the ball and rip shots with their co-poly strings.  The neutral balls from these types of players even give the California-style player a lot of trouble.  A ball hit fairly high over the net with a lot of speed and spin is extremely difficult to hit on the rise, with authority, and adequate margin of safety to keep errors low enough to win.

Unless California tennis changes to reflect the new conditions under which top-level tennis is played, I don't think we can expect many great players to come from California.  That dramatically reduces the chance of there being any great American players in the near future.

If the conditions on tour change maybe the California-style will re-emerge as dominant.  If not, the players and coaches in California will have to change or be selected against by the very competitive tennis environment.

UPDATE:  This is awesome.  As soon as you write something it can become obsolete.  I turned on the French Open a few minutes ago to watch Ferrer and Nieminen play.  Brad Gilbert says that he's seeing more and more hard court tennis being played on clay this year.  The balls on tour are quicker than the last few years and the clay courts are playing much quicker.  So players, like Djokovic and Ferrer, are moving up onto the baseline much more consistently.  Gilbert says that he's seeing a lot more "one two" tennis, meaning serve and forehands ending points.

I saw one point where Nieminen hit a second serve and Ferrer ripped a return from inside the baseline.  Nieminen got the ball back, but weekly and Ferrer unloaded on another forehand from inside the court.  This time Nieminen barely got the ball back and Ferrer finished him off with a high forehand winner from about the service line.  One, two, three.  Receiving.  On the clay of Roland Garros.

Can the return of the dominant Californian be far behind?

The landscape can change quickly.  What does that mean for the USTA Player Development system?  The subject of another post...


Anonymous said...

Interesting. It's tennis evolution and I wonder if we could apply some evolutionary concepts to predict the future of the game...certainly the court surface has a large impact on playing styles and success, as well as strings and rackets. But how much has high speed video analysis or ball tracking (speed, spin, etc) had on the game. How much is due to random success and how much to planned success...just typing out loud here.
Finally, I think the real draw back in the California game is in part due to the hard courts being too hard on the body, ending dreams early, and forcing a shift in the tennis base of players and fans to other activities that are in Japan (hint to who this is) tennis is extremely popular, much more than in the states, and most courts are not hard courts, and they have soft tennis as well...

Bob said...

I think the effect of high-speed video analysis and so forth, on the very top of the game, has been zero. I could be wrong, but I haven't heard of Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic, the current top of the game, making use of high-speed video. It's possible that the use of such tools in the US has contributed to our lack of success.

Let me play devil's advocate regarding Japanese tennis. Where are the great Japanese players? One woman and one or two men in the top hundred in the last twenty years? Is that about right? If tennis is so popular in Japan, why is the top of the mountain so low?

I have a question regarding "soft tennis" over there. Do you know the specs of the balls, specifically the mass and rebound of the balls. The Tretorn Fun Lite is supposedly about 50 g (compared to about 58 g for a standard ball) with about 75% compression. I guess that means a rebound of roughly 42 inches instead of 55-56 inches from a height of 100 inches. I have a couple of them and they are more like 56 g with low compression and I love them as low-altitude-simulator balls.

After about ten years I think I'm finally catching up to you regarding the Fun Lite ball. If we who live above 5,000 ft want to train tennis players to succeed at sea level, I think we must use the Fun Lite ball or an equivalent. The standard high altitude ball doesn't cut it. Too quick through our thin air.

Finally I'm totally on board with the soft courts. The culture of tennis in the US, especially the Western US, is hard courts. Great traction and perfect bounces. I would LOVE to see that culture switch to softer surfaces with lower coefficients of friction. I think that means carpets with inlays of rubber and overlays of sand. Our dry climate in the Western half of the US will not support clay courts. It's way too expensive for them to become common with the cost of watering systems, maintenance of top dressing, etc. Just won't happen. The artificial clay/grass surface is the way to go. But it's different so people, most people, hate it. Until that changes, we're going to be stuck with a fringe game that beats up its adherents.