If you can't see the serves, is it fun to watch?
New rackets and sculpted bodies produce howitzer shots, but tennis has lost its finesse - and many fans.
NEW YORK — At the US Open tennis tournament, raindrops were falling on heads, and no one was playing on the glossy wet courts. So the ubiquitous TVs mounted around the grounds were in rerun mode. On-screen was a classic 1980 showdown between a frizzy-haired John McEnroe and stone-faced Swede Björn Borg. When Borg hits a ball short, McEnroe pounces, rushing to the net to put away a sharply angled winner. But McEnroe can't have his way all the time: Borg can sting returns off either his forehand or backhand. Will aggressive serve-and-volleyer McEnroe win out, or will base-line counterpuncher Borg?
That variety of playing styles is something that many say is missing from the men's game today. Players who dare venture up to the net to volley - once considered the key to dominating a match - have become an endangered species. Armed with high-tech, large-headed rackets, 21st-century players rifle balls so hard that they threaten to leave sonic booms in their wake.
Strategy is simple: Crank up a superserve, preferably 125 miles per hour or faster. If that fails to win the point outright, slug away from behind the base line until one player can't handle the blistering pace.
The trouble, say many who follow the game closely, is that despite all the tremendous athleticism on display, the game can be boring. And it's shown among fans. Though interest in the women's game has spiked since emergence of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, the men's game has languished.
In July, the Wimbledon men's final, which rivals the US Open for the most prestigious event in tennis - wasn't even the most-watched sports program on TV that day, trailing NASCAR racing. Over the past two decades, US Open finals ratings have drifted downward since their all-time high in 1980.
A certain "blandness" has overtaken the sport, says McEnroe in his 2002 book, "You Cannot Be Serious." Now a tennis commentator, he recommends a return to the wooden rackets of yesteryear. "You need strategy and technique," McEnroe says. But right now, tennis is a "wham, bam" game.
"I don't think that you have to serve-and-volley [all the time], but you have to have people coming to the net sometime," says Bud Collins with a hint of frustration in his voice. "They don't seem to want to do that now."
Mr. Collins, a tennis author, journalist, and TV commentator for the past four decades, points out that last year Lleyton Hewitt won Wimbledon without playing a single serve-and-volley point. "What I think the game is suffering from is what I call the 'ugly-fication' of topspin," says the dean of tennis journalists. "That's what to me makes the game dull." The intense spin players can create using the larger rackets lets them hit tremendously hard without their shots sailing into the grandstands.
Today's rackets, built to bulk up base-line bashing, mean "you're not going to have another McEnroe," says Collins.
Of course, a few brave souls still find their way to the net. England's Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski venture forward voluntarily. So will young American Taylor Dent, though Andre Agassi, the No. 1 seed at the US Open and a confirmed backcourt player, calls Dent's style "smash and volley," mostly featuring a "monster serve." Adds Agassi: "I don't think Taylor is too interested in hitting a volley."
"If you talk to young players, they say, 'Yeah, I like to play an all-court game," says Brian Gottfried, a classic serve-and-volley player who ranked in the top 10 for three years in the late 1970s. "But they'll never, ever serve-and-volley. So you never see that variety."
Two serve-and-volleyers playing each other can be boring too, Mr. Gottfried points out. "To me, the entertainment is when you see the one style versus the other.... I think what's happening today is that there are very few serve-and-volleyers, so you see very little contrast."
With opponents capable of blowing the ball by, "It's tough to get to the net," he says. "You're getting a lot of tougher shots down at your feet." In addition, courts are slower, balls are heavier, and serve-and-volley play isn't being taught as much. "It's all related in some way."
A lack of variety in playing styles isn't the only thing the men's game needs, Collins and other close observers say. New rivalries need to develop. The "Golden Triangle" of Borg, McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors in the '80s heightened interest in the game. And colorful, telegenic personalities help too.
At 21, Andy Roddick, seeded No. 4 here, shows intensity and humor on the court, along with notable athleticism. Such a showman can help the game, Collins says. "It's nice to have a few of them around. And I don't think he's [Roddick] bad: He's never been foul like McEnroe and [Jimmy] Connors."
Collins and Gottfried are among those who admire newly crowned Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, seeded No. 2 at the US Open, whose immense talent allows him to take to the net despite the dangers there.
"Federer gives us hope," Collins says. The Swiss player "may turn out to be a genius," he says. "He understands serve-and-volley. He understands chipping and charging. He's a good volleyer."
In fact, a US Open final this weekend between "Agassi and Federer would be a wonderful contrast in styles," he says.
Though McEnroe's suggestion to return to wooden rackets is "impractical," Collins says, limiting today's rackets, which are made from high-tech alloys, to the same dimensions as the old woodies - 27 in. long by 9 in. wide - would help.
"They couldn't do what they're doing now," he says. "They'd have to show a little ingenuity."