by Vic Braden
Contributing Tennis Writer
In my sixty-three years of coaching tennis, I've never had my pharmacist, physician and gardener ask me if I saw the great Wimbledon finals, but it did happen this time with the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon finals. What a match!
There's talk about that battle being the greatest of all time, but it's important that we put it into proper perspective and realize that most who watched were not there to see other great and close encounters of another kind. Today's tennis simply can't be compared to some of the outstanding matches of the past because of the equipment. In former times, the players were using thirteen to fifteen ounce wooden rackets. Just ask the physicist how much energy is needed to hit a hard shot with a fifteen ounce racket. There were only four or five players who could put the ball away from the baseline in the "wooden era." Wood? You heard me. You see, a racket has to be stiff to gain the greatest power and, so, the manufacturers added more wood for stiffness. Fortunately, today's players owe a great deal to the NASA engineers who developed stiff metal rackets that weighed almost one half of the old wooden ones. Now, the modern day players can swing with abandon and be aggressive from the baseline. Enter Nadal.
|Rafael Nadar could supplant Roger Federer as the #1 player in the World with his win at Wimbledon.
The heavy rackets also made it easier to throw in a high kicker serve to the backhand and the slower speed on the service return made it easier for the server to rush the net. When a player is stretched wide, the forces increase dramatically on the player's arm, especially when playing with heavy wood. Not only did the scientists develop a better racket, but some smart young players like Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg showed the world that a two handed backhand could handle the high kickers with ease. Another issue is that, in former times, the grass at Wimbledon was much faster and the balls were heavier. C'mon! Would I make that up?
I will never forget putting one of the new stiff, and light, rackets in the hands of an aging Pancho Gonzales. He hit a couple of balls, turned to Jack Kramer and said, in all seriousness, "In your lifetime, do you think you could miss a volley with this racket?" He wasn't kidding.
Another important issue is called the "pre-stretch forehand." The best players today use the "pre-stretch" on the forehand; e.g. Federer. Because the ball is traveling so fast, the best players have learned to shorten their forehand stroke by moving their forearm forward while the racket is going backwards. This movement stretches the forearm muscles and the result is more racket head speed. When Andre Agassi and Boris Becker were using heavier rackets, they both broke their wrist on the hitting arm. Watch carefully the next time you observe many of the top players and you will see the "pre-stretch" in action.
Jack Kramer always talked about one of the most exciting matches of his time and that was when Aussie great, Frank Sedgman, had match point on American Ted Schroeder in the 1949 Wimbledon quarter-finals. On Schroeder's first serve, a foot fault was called. The gutsy Schroeder wasn't fazed. He kicked in his second serve and attacked the net. He won that point and, eventually, the match.
I loved the Federer-Nadal match, but errors still outnumbered placements and forced errors. However, the spectacular shots and gutsy play kept everyone on the edge of their seats. I would certainly rank it ahead of other matches I have seen with the new equipment. I constantly read about the new game and the "Open Stance" advantage. Let me explain one disadvantage. When one hits the forehand approach shot hard while hitting with an open stance, that normally moves the hitter's center of gravity towards the center of the court. In our research project, the player who hits the approach shot while moving towards the net averages nine feet closer to the net for his/her volley. In the Federer match, when he hit with the "Open Stance" and then moved towards the net, he was passed many times while only reaching the service line. That means he would have to take three steps to reach a crosscourt passing shot. But, if he were nine feet further in most crosscourt passing shots could be reached with one step. Needing three steps at the net to beat Nasal's angles is only wishful thinking.
The bottom line - I rank the Federer-Nadal match number one in the new equipment era. Now my dream is to see Federer play Nadal one day while both are using fifteen ounce rackets. Nice thought but not likely.