Prologue: History in Flux
A lot of record breaking events have come in tennis ever since Andre Agassi won his Career Grand Slam in 1999 and Pete Sampras won his then record 13th Grand Slam singles title in 2000. Sampras of course took a 14th major in 2002. Since then, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have all done their share of record re-writing on the men’s tour. It is important to note that this trio shares the top 3 spots for Masters 1000 Shields. More impressively: Djokovic holds the most Australian titles of the Open Era, Nadal holds the most Roland Garros titles of all-time, and Federer is tied for the most Wimbledon titles of all-time and is tied for the most US titles of the Open Era. Three contemporary players holding the Open Era records for all 4 Grand Slams is staggering to consider.
Throw the old grass court playbook out the window
The Standard Line: This is the Most Taxing Era Ever
It is common to hear that tennis today is the most physically taxing it has ever been. This taxing game causes the cream to rise as top players are harder to eliminate with the tennis equivalent of a lucky punch. I am not going to dispute this fact, but I do think some nuance needs to be added. The standard line is that slower hard and grass courts prevent most players from solely riding a big serve to victory. Indoor courts no longer boast lightening fast carpet surfaces. Clay has sped up from the days of Borg vs. Vilas. Therefore, a sort of surface speed uniformity is present in tennis today that never existed in previous eras.
Similar playing conditions undoubtedly help prevent situations such as Wayne Arthurs using a huge lefty serve to beat world #1 Gustavo Kuerten in the first round of the 2000 US Open. Specialists have a harder time upsetting the most well-rounded players. Hence the big three (or four) tend to occupy the final weekends at many top events.*
These generally slower hard and grass courts have led to longer points and harder matches. While this hampers one-dimensional big servers, these court conditions also prevent some excitement as a less physically mature player is unlikely to ride a live arm to a major title and do what Boris Becker did in 1985 and Pete Sampras did in 1990. Conversely with faster conditions on clay, a 17-year-old is unlikely to be able to run down every ball in Paris as Wilander and Chang did to win Roland Garros titles. Of course, Rafa won Roland Garros at 19, but Rafa’s physique in 2005 was quite different from Chang’s in 1988 or Wilander’s in 1982.
Great match, but would anyone want to do this while trying to peak for Roland Garros?
Masters 1000 Byes and 3 Set Finals Make these Events Less Taxing
The logic of today’s surfaces favoring the most complete players is sound. Still, I think in some ways tennis is less physical than it was. Super 9/Masters Series/Masters 1000 events have changed over the years. First, seeded players did not receive first round “byes”. Patrick Rafter won the 1998 shields in Canada and Cincinnati by winning 12 hard court matches in summer heat over 14 days in 2 different cities. That is far more taxing than needing to win 10 hard court matches in summer heat over 14 days in 2 cities as Rafa did in 2013. Both are impressive accomplishments, but one scenario offers no real down time between events as travel soaked up Rafter’s only off day in Cincinnati.
Many Masters 1000 events used to have best of 5 set championship matches. Everyone knew Nadal and Federer would pull out of the 2006 Hamburg event due to their 5 set classic. With 2 of 3 set finals, those type of taxing matches are not going to occur with any frequency. The 2009 Madrid semifinal between Djokovic and Nadal is the only exception that comes to mind. With top players needing to win 1 fewer match for a title while being able to avoid 4 and 5 set encounters, Masters shields are easier to come by than in the past. Therefore, seeing top players stockpile these titles should not be shocking. By the old rules, I would expect some winning players to either withdraw from or lose early at a Masters 1000 event held immediately after a Masters 1000 win. Now, going for two consecutive Masters 1000 wins is not nearly as daunting.
The season finale will not ever go this long today
World Tour Finals are a Bit Easier Too
The Masters/ATP World Championships/Masters Cup/World Tour Finals championship match used to have a 3 out of 5 set format. Under today’s rules Roger Federer would have 7 season ending titles because he won the first two sets of his 2005 match with David Nalbandian despite playing on a bad ankle. Instead, Nalbandian rallied to take that match. Similarly, Ivan Lendl won 2 of the first 3 sets versus Boris Becker in the 1988 Masters Final despite losing the match. Lendl could have 6 season ending titles and be tied with Federer. Roger’s 2003, 2006, and 2007 World Tour Finals title were won with a 3 of 5 set championship match. His other three World Tour Finals titles came in a 2 of 3 set format. Novak Djokovic holds an impressive 4 World Tour Finals, but none of these wins required Nole to win more than 2 sets to take the crown. This is not a massive shift as the round robin format and semifinal rules have not changed, but winning 3 sets to beat someone is harder than winning 2.
I think the changes in Masters 1000 formats and to a lesser extent the World Tour Finals make winning these events easier than in previous eras. Surface speed uniformity helps players have a good look at 3 or 4 majors per year instead of needing to focus on 1 or 2 that suited a player’s game. Surface uniformity has created a very taxing game, but some of that grind has been alleviated by making many of tennis’ biggest prizes less draining.
Post Script: Grand Slams Now Seed 32 vs. Seeding 16
A top ten player need not worry about anyone ranked 17-32 before the 3rd round. This was not the case for many years.
* – I think today’s surface situation is preferable to watching Greg Rusedski ride a serve to a massive upset of a more skilled player. If my twitter feed during the Miami match between Raonic and Isner is to be believed, few tennis fans want to go back to serve wars.