Monday, July 07, 2008

Best Tennis Ever?

I accidentally saw the last hour of the Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer and, in spite of my prejudices, I was gripped.  I was also intrigued. The commentators said several times that this was the best tennis ever played. Ever? Is this possible? One assumes that great talent is more or less evenly and sparsely spread across the generations. Did they mean that Federer and Nadal are the greatest tennis players ever and they just happen to be playing at the same time? Or does the technique of the game advance over the years so that if, say, Rod Laver were playing now he would be a better player? I suppose I am asking, is tennis an art or a science? Science advances, art does not. Or is this all just contemporary vanity? We want to believe that the best happens to us rather than to our forebears.


  1. It was F-ing brilliant, even without paragraphs.

  2. Yes, I've gradually lost interest in Wimbledon over the years, but that was astonishing sport and had me hooked.

    Comparing 'greatness' across eras is problematic, but I've definitely never seen two players consitently hit and return the ball with that amount of power and accuracy.

  3. A bloke without a hat whacked a ball at a bloke with a hat, harder than balls had been whacked before, apparently. After a while one got a plate, the other a cup, some old blonde broad stuck a microphone under their beaks and they prattled, followed by the Vicar of Dibley. Sunday, bloody Sunday.

  4. In the early 1970's when Bill Shankly was running Liverpool he was told by a scout that they had spotted a player who was as good as Tom Finney. Shankly, who revered Finney, replied 'Aye, but you must allow that Tom is now in his fifties'.

    Coaching, diet and fitness are better than yesteryear in most sports. A recent BBC4 documentary compared the 1957 Cup Final (Man Utd's legendary babes v Villa) with 2007. They found the '57 passing woeful. The awesome Colin Meads wouldn't be big enough for the current New Zealand pack, and Olympic records continue to be broken.

    A useful comparison might be movies. The special effects of the original King Kong look amateurish by modern standards. It is still a great movie, but of it's time. Similarly the 1960 Real Madrid side look slow to the modern eye - but they remaian compelling and mythical team. The advancement of science can enhance artistry. And Nadal and Federer were superb - even though I hate tennis.

  5. There's a bit of art and a bit of science in it, isn't there? In most sports, especially when they become professional, competitors get fitter, stronger, have better equipment, train more etc. Records get broken all the time. (The 'Bradman problem' is an interesting anomoly.) There's no doubt that Federer sent back in a time machine would thrash Borg or Laver, and even the worst Premiership sides now would slaughter the best of 20 years ago.

    But mental toughness, overcoming adversity, dominance over contemporaries, innovation and aesthetic quality all play a part in the subjective side of 'greatness'.

    I don't think there's much of a 'contemporary vanity' thing where we ascribe greatness willy-nilly - if anything nostalgia means we exaggerate the qualities of past heroes.

    (malty - do you find that people tend not to invite you to things any more, perchance?)

  6. Tennis at the highest level is the ultimate battle of wills, and Fed and Rafa the ultimate rivals of the their era. We can't help but seek the narrative in such contests, and they spun a modern epic.

    The breathless superlatives, I think, are acknowledgment both of witnessing the something quite rare and a need to be a part of and share in the experience.

    Contemporary vanity distorts it to a point, but it's interesting to see how it has been transformed - for better or worse - by technology, with people able to share the moment in any number of ways.

    Having just moved, and with neither the internet nor TV set up, I was reduced to following the game via frantic refreshing of the BBC live text on my phone without seeing a single point played. It was like a form of self-harm, but still I clicked away.

    And the vast majority of Facebook status updates amongst my friends made during the clash reflected its ebb and flow. A BBC journalist I have on there, who was on Centre Court, was even updating to say which player Jonathan Ross was rooting for from the stands.

    It's intriguing, if ultimately rather sad.

  7. I don't know if it was the best ever tennis but these are definitely the golden years for Spanish sport: European champions,Tour de France, Motorcycling, Nadal Gasol...etc.

    Good job they don't play cricket.

  8. Instead of following my natural selfish instincts and watching the men's final, I followed your colleague Simon Jenkins' advice and, with my youngest son and a few of his friends, we drifted down to a damp field in Kent to listen to the great Neil Young - but live or digital, the commentators had no business declaiming it the best tennis ever played, any more than Fed or Rafa can be described as 'the greatest'.
    Yes Bryan, the technique of the game has advanced, but in tandem with a huge improvement in racquet and ball technology and, fortunately, only slight tinkering with the near-perfect scoring system, in the shape of the time-shrinking tie-break.
    It is neither an art nor a science by my understanding of these terms(it is a sport, as suggested by Neil Forsyth),but that is not to say that there are not players in the modern game who could be described as artists (Santoro), or those that are the beneficiaries of the scientific advances primarily, and base their game around the power that can be generated with modern racquets (Roddick).
    Laver, at the age of 22, equipped with a modern racquet, and a left-arm such as he possessed, would be too hot for Rafa to handle I think

  9. Tennis is all very well, but the Tour de France is on at the moment and I can ride a bike.

  10. manzanal, you are indeed correct, I for one am willing Alessandro Valverde onto the podium in Paris in the yellow jersey, at the end of what still is the greatest and toughest of the spectator sports. Even though it has become tainted in recent years it still remains, by a large margin, the most physically and mentally demanding spectator sport.
    Valverde has the potential for greatness, maybe equal to the greatest of all, Jaques Anquetil. He certainly will surpass Miguel Indurain.
    Some mention is made, in relation to tennis, of the mindset required to succeed, really? do they mean a "sports psychologist" screaming in ears "repeat after me, I'm the f.....g greatest!!" The sport poses no threat to life so the only mind game to be played is to reprimand yourself for dropping a point. For me tennis was a no go area when Borg arrived on the scene, automaton extraordinaire, ten grand for wearing a sweatband.
    We now come to an area of human endeavour, mountaineering, that it could possibly be said to be unfair to call a sport, it most certainly is not a spectator sport, immediately removing from it accusations of crowd pleasing.
    At its highest level this activity requires a degree of mental and physical toughness that is difficult to comprehend. The greatest ever climber, Reinehold Messner conquered all fourteen of the eight thousand meter peaks, an achievement that makes all others pale into insignificance.
    Hence my earlier comment.

  11. Some of the best tennis ever played simultaneously between two opponents, now and then. But then the best play and players should be contemporary until advances in equipment, training etc become negligible. There might be another factor regarding improvement in tennis in that I understand it's important in all ball sports to play a lot at a young age, particularly at around nine or ten. No doubt there's been an increasing amount of that in tennis in recent decades.

  12. When this old chestnut arises, I find it useful to distinguish between sports and games.

    Running, jumping, throwing stuff - they're just sports. Physical techniques.

    Games involve some sort of tactics and direct interaction with an opponent - so tennis, football, cricket and chess are games. Games are generally much more enjoyable for the spectator.

    The distinction does blur though. The Tour de France is interesting because although it looks merely sport-y on the surface, there is a surprising amount of tactics, which takes it some way into the realm of the game.

    I'm not sure that mountaineering counts as either a sport or a game. It's either exploration or a really daft hobby.

  13. It's pure hyperbole to say the Nadal Federer match was the greatest tennis final ever but it's probably the best in recent years. I still think the Borg McEnroe final I watched when I was about 8 was the best but I might be wrong.
    As several people have already mentioned here it's difficult to judge relative levels of greatness with athletes from different eras;you can only judge them on what they achieved in their time.
    The computer program that "proves" that Mike Tyson would beat Mohammed Ali is besides the point, so massive have heavyweight boxers become nowadays that Ali would probably only be a cruiserweight in terms of size.