Just before Frankie Rodriguez struck out Javier Lopez for the last out in a game between the Angels and Orioles last night, Miguel Tejada hit a grand slam to close the gap to 7-6. Like all major league baseball players, Tejada hit the grand slam with a wooden bat.
Miyamoto Musashi was a famous Samurai warrior who lived in seventeenth century Japan. He is the author of the martial arts treatise, The Book of Five Rings. His most famous fight came against Sasaki Kojiro in 1612. Kojiro was known for his bone crushing expertise with an exceptionally long sword. They agreed to fight on a small island called Funa jima. Musashi is said to have fashioned a fighting staff out of an oar on the boat ride over to the island and killed the famous swordfighter with one blow.
Wood is good enough for major league baseball players and victorious Samurai but tennis players wield rackets made of titanium, glass fibers, and carbon fibers among other materials. The United States Tennis Association limits racket length to 32 inches and racket width to 12.5 inches. The string surface is limited to 15.5 inches in length and 11.5 inches in width. That’s it. There are no regulations for racket material. You could make it out of flubber if you wanted to.
Composite rackets arrived in the 1980’s and have had a huge effect on the game. In the September issue of Tennis Magazine there is a table of statistics gauging the increase in service speed from 1989 to the present. In 1989, two male tennis pros could hit a serve over 130 mph. By 2004, one hundred and four could do it. Unlike baseball, we know that steroid use is not an issue. Nobody has been complaining about bulked up, bloated tennis players. Andy Roddick is probably one of the few tennis players weighing over two hundred pounds. We can blame the rackets.
Let’s look at two questions that could dictate a limit on racket power: do players suffer and does the game suffer?
Composite rackets are lighter but they are also much stiffer. When somebody smashes a heat seeking ground stroke at you with a Wilson Hyper Hammer racket, your body has to absorb a lot more force than one hit with a Spalding wooden racket. Since we know which racket players use, we should be able to look at the number of injuries and see whether they have increased with the power of the racket.
In 1989, two male tennis pros could hit a serve over 130 mph. By 2004, one hundred and four could do it.
In the women’s game, five of the top ten ranked players entered in the Rogers Cup event dropped out due to injury and the epidemic of injuries has been the hot subject all summer. The women seem to be suffering more than the men. Racket technology might contribute to this. Women are using the same rackets as men but they’re bodies are smaller and less muscular. The grueling tournament schedule might also be responsible. A study should be able to determine this since we know how many matches each player has played.
There has been a curious mix that has developed with the changes in racket technology. Players can serve the ball much harder but the power of the ground strokes has turned tennis into a culture of baseline players. In the quarterfinals of the Cincinnati Masters event last week, Olivier Rochus came to the net against Roger Federer on a hard hit approach shot only to see Federer hit a passing shot so hard that Rochus didn’t even have time to move towards the ball even though it wasn’t that far from him.
The Tennis Magazine article gives the following statistics for net approaches per ten points played: in 1997 it was 3.79 for men and 2.68 for women, in 2003 it was 2.82 and 1.82. That’s a 34% drop for men and a 47% drop for women. The bigger drop for women is evident in their game. We now have a bunch of Russian women players, four of the top ten players and ten in the top fifty, who stand at the baseline and hit cannons back and forth till they force their opponent into an error. It’s not just the Russians. Lindsay Davenport, Venus Willams and Serena Williams have the same game.
There is pressure in the men’s game to develop an all-round game because Roger Federer has won twenty-two straight tournament finals with his mix of superb ground strokes, movement and net play. Some players are adjusting their game to try to beat him. Roddick came to the net on every point he served in a tiebreaker with Lleyton Hewitt last week, for instance. But this is unlikely to have a significant effect on the game.
In the hard court final in Montreal two weeks ago between Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi, two noted ground strokers, fifty eight percent of the points ended with five or fewer strokes, twenty four percent ended with six to ten strokes and eighteen percent ended with more than twenty strokes.
More than half of the points ended with less than five strokes. This demonstrates the power of the serve. My tennis-playing friends suggest limiting the serve to one attempt and putting lets into play. It would improve the game by eliminating dead time and increase the action by lengthening rallies. Of course, players would probably want to look at four or five balls before each serve instead of the three they now insist on examining, mainly to take time to recover between points.
Limiting the speed of the ball is the better option. If the power of the racket was limited, skill in different strokes would become more valuable. We’d see a more complete player on the court. The PGA has been limiting the speed that a driver can hit a golf ball for some time. The USTA doesn’t have to regulate racket material, only the power a racket generates.
The game does appear to be suffering. The women’s game is suffering from a high incidence of injury and the pro tour in general suffers from a lack of all-court players that leads to a predictable, sometimes boring baseline game.
When was the last rules change in pro singles tennis? O.k., they did join the World Anti-Doping Agency and eliminate the sit down after the first game in each set. But other sports make rules changes every year. Tennis needs to join the crowd.