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Bill Colson
August 20, 1990
Unfortunately, the game has become two sports
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August 20, 1990

The Specialization Of Tennis

Unfortunately, the game has become two sports

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What tennis has on its hands today is a slew of clay-court artists, primarily Europeans and South Americans, who have taken baseline tennis to unforeseen heights. Because they have no need to worry about other surfaces, these players are taught as youngsters to use extreme grips, on both the forehand and backhand, that are most effective on a slow court. Serve-and-volleyers, no matter how proficient, are usually no match for these human backboards on clay. Hence, the first-round defeats of Becker and Stefan Edberg at Roland Garros, the first time in history that the top two seeds lost in the opening round of a Grand Slam tournament. If these two upsets weren't predictable, they were hardly surprising. With one tournament victory in 23 attempts, Edberg's clay-court record is nearly as disappointing as Becker's.

One could argue that, just as third-down specialists make NFL defenses better, surface specialization makes for a higher caliber of tennis by discouraging players from entering tournaments held on courts on which they are not proficient. Too often, though, players with glaring weaknesses are winning those tournaments. Too often clay-courters look as if they're trying to catch a butterfly when they venture to the net, while many fast-court specialists (read: Americans and South Africans, most of whom grew up swinging for the fences on hard courts) don't have a clue as to how to win a match with patience, endurance and guile.

The most unfortunate consequence of this schism is that the all-court player is quickly becoming an endangered species. Think about it: How many players have the ability to win on grass and clay, the game's fastest and slowest surfaces? As the number of all-court players diminishes, so does the game's appeal, for matches involving players who can hit all the shots—who can crack an ace and feather a drop shot, slide a forehand approach into the corner and flick an offensive lob—are inevitably more engaging than those involving one-dimensional players.

Lest we be accused of sexism, it should be noted that the women—with the exception of Steffi Graf, who, despite her rocky summer, is the premier all-court player, man or woman, of the last 30 years—are moving in the same direction. Like Lendl, Martina Navratilova bypassed the French Open to prepare for Wimbledon. But her extra work on the grass paid off, unlike Lendl's; she won a record ninth All England singles title. The other Wimbledon finalist was Zina Garrison, a first-round loser at Roland Garros whose career tournament record on clay stands at 1-42. Monica Seles, this year's French champion, reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon before falling to Garrison, but her unorthodox backcourt game is particularly ill-suited to grass. Ever see Seles try to hit a volley? It is not a pretty sight.

Bjorn Borg, winner of six French Opens, was no Lew Hoad at the net, either, but he volleyed well enough to win five Wimbledon crowns in a row—three in the same summers that he won at Roland Garros. Today, the notion of a male French Open winner prevailing at Wimbledon only four weeks later is almost laughable. Indeed, this year's champ, Andres Gomez, was routed in the first round at Wimbledon by Jim Grabb, a hard-hitting American who hadn't fared any better at Roland Garros.

Chances are, Gomez will fare better at the U.S. Open—he reached the quarters there in 1984. Baseliners have won Flushing Meadow ( Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander), as have net rushers ( McEnroe and Becker). The court is fast enough to keep the rallies from becoming tedious, and slow enough to make accuracy as vital as power. Sure, the tournament can be aggravating both to watch and to play, but it's also the place where two sports converge to produce the finest and most entertaining tennis found anywhere among the Grand Slam championships.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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