It’s a privilege to watch two of tennis’ greatest athletes and craftsmen still delivering. Tennis has always had standout athletes like Jimmy Connors and Ken Rosewall, who were able to play with longevity and a pure love of the game. That’s what I see in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. They are two people who have everything that anyone could hope for in terms of off-court money and happiness, but they are still driven by the will to play great tennis and to win.
But why are the current playing group (barring Andy, Novak and Stan) unable to catch up to them?
As a keen tennis strategist – both as a player and a commentator – I see a clear reason why these two were able to take some time away, rejuvenate their bodies and come back and dominate. It comes down to their ability to adapt their skill sets.
When I watch a lot of the Next Gen players, they play homogenised tennis. It can be hard to distinguish between two different players wearing the same outfit at times. They do not have the ability to create, and they lack the magic hands and deft touches that can change a match.
When I watch Roger, I see a guy who has developed a backhand return during the last twelve months that he never had before – taking it early and hitting the off-backhand. He has learnt to throw in more chip-charges than he had done previously.
I watch Rafa and see the way he changes his court positions when he has needed to. As a younger player Nadal was not a very good volleyer – he was adequate at best. Now he’s a great volleyer – he can make tough volleys in difficult situations and finish points at net when he needs to.
Roger and Rafa’s ability to adapt has given them a greater skill set.
This current group of young athletes are not being coached to have that depth in their game.
But coaching is about more than just a swing path and good ball strike. It is teaching tactical prowess – what to look for on court, where to hit the next ball, or how to create a strategy. As a coach you are also an off-court guide, trying to give young players the understanding of how to manage their life and businesses.
When I grew up, coaching was largely given to us by the former playing group. They coached through experience, so you were learning the ropes of how to get by on the road, how to socialise with people, how to build your brand. We were taught all of these things based on coaches’ careers and experiences, not by a homogenised sports agent.
That said, there is one player who is starting to turn into a standout: Sasha Zverev. He grew up travelling with his brother and has been coached by his father (who would have been a world class tennis player if he had been allowed to travel more). He has a massive passion for the game and a respect for the sport – and the people in it. When you talk to him he asks you questions about tennis; he is a student of the sport. He watches Federer and Nadal, constantly looking at ways to add to his game. I don’t see that in a lot of younger players and he is turning into a really nice package.
At some point tennis will evolve. There will be a moment in time – perhaps it will happen very quickly – when things will change. But for the time being Roger and Rafa are still going, and they are still keen and eager. We should relish that.
And the answer to the question of ‘why hasn’t anyone caught them?’ is, quite obviously, that their skill sets are better than everyone else.
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