There’s a smart way to play tennis. For a game that’s as much geometry as gym class, it’s suitable that it would eventually be—for lack of a better word—solved. The two best players in the men’s game today,* Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, have both the solution and the means to exact it; their philosophical predecessor, Rafael Nadal, has the former but, increasingly, lacks the latter. These three have comprised 75 percent of tennis’s Big Four for the past decade or so, with a strategic philosophy based around (1) cautious initial rallies to prevent early errors, (2) tremendous foot speed and viselike court coverage that frustrate opponents, encouraging riskier and riskier shots tucked just inside the boundary, and, if necessary, (3) counterpunching winners, hit almost reluctantly, once the opponent has overstretched himself. Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal have combined to win 29 Grand Slam titles in this manner (Djokovic and Nadal have 26); at various points, the three have combined to deliver strings of nine, five, and five-and-counting consecutive major titles.
It is a ruthlessly successful strategy that is on par, excitement-wise, with a long-standing project with an above-average middle manager, or the release of a new Vanguard fund. It’s far inferior to the best tennis strategy there is: going for broke on every point.
Tennis is a game that, to a degree, defies the standard sportswriter fallbacks. Principles of team sports are, of course, irrelevant—sacrifice and complementary play are inconsequential. The battle versus the self—i.e., the golf truth–and all its accompanying self-doubt is there in the lead-up to the point, e.g., on a changeover during a fifth-set tiebreaker, but once the ball’s in play, the biggest adverse factor is the guy on the other side of the net. The fallback is tennis as a representation of The Human Spirit and Which Guy Wants It More, sort of a gladiatorial roleplay hilariously enacted in Lacoste polos. More to the point, it’s hard for that idea to take off when tennis is a non-contact sport, with the players always separated from each other by a center barrier.
No, tennis is mostly an artistic endeavor, a means for the player to express himself on the court. As with most global sports, there are fun, sweeping cultural statements to be made based on this expression: the Spanish (Nadal, David Ferrer), dryly combative; the French (Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils), equal parts graceful and feckless; the Americans (John Isner, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Andy Roddick, James Blake), obstinately maintaining a notion of their dominance even as their obsolescence comes into full view.
Below the national surface, there are stylistic nuances: for almost every pair of players, one can easily be identified as the aggressor, the other more passive and trying to reduce erroneous strokes. Winning, aggressive tennis is a hard style to play, requiring power and precision in near-equal measure. The high degree of difficulty it entails versus, say, that of a relentless retriever—who can merely wait for the opposition’s power or precision to dwindle—makes it inadvisable to attempt it over a long period, let alone a fortnight. There’s simply too much that can go wrong.
Given these odds, those players who nevertheless try to play in such a hopefully aggressive manner are inspiring, even honorable. Their manner-of-play is almost trying to better the game of tennis, providing magical shots beyond the bounds of what was previously conceived. Some of the best matches ever—Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe, Roger Federer vs. Nadal—were a tug-of-war between the prudent and the potent. The passive player’s job is to cause the opposition’s failure; the aggressor’s job is to evade failure indefinitely. As such, the match is a high-wire act, with the aggressor inevitably providing the most breathtaking moments.
While matches can drag with two “passives” on the court waiting for the other to seize control (hot take: the nearly six-hour 2012 Australian Open Final between Nadal and Djokovic was trash), pit two aggressive, shot-making players against each other and great, gorgeous things will happen. Perhaps the best recent example was at this year’s Wimbledon, when (the Australian) Nick Kyrgios and (the German) Dustin Brown faced off in the second round. The match was one of the greatest, most impressive displays ever—Brown hitting drop volleys and tweener half-volleys from increasingly ridiculous court positions, Kyrgios cracking the hardest forehands possible two shots into the rally, or one, or just off the goddamn serve, the two entering into an informal one-upsmanship stretched over five sets.
The issue, then, is that even though the two are notorious shot-makers on tour, the 21-year-old Kyrgios has earned, due mostly to his on-court behavior, a reputation as a wasteful hothead, while Brown is viewed as an unpredictable live wire. A few weeks ago, a New York Times Magazine profile of Kyrgios painted him as a frustrated malcontent, a sports version of the article that desperately tries to “understand” “millennials” while talking to as few young folks as possible. In the piece, the match between Kyrgios and Brown is painted as a lowlight–“a showboating extravaganza”—and, infuriatingly, the author states that “a coach would have implored Kyrgios to play plain vanilla tennis,” somehow failing to see that as a bad thing.
Because, ultimately, tennis is about shot-making. Characters like Brown and Kyrgios and Tsonga and Sock are not the most successful, but they have good intentions; while the top players of this era succeed by minimizing risk and exercising patience, believing that the opposition hitting winner after winner is impossible, the go-for-brokers believe it is possible. They’re going for the amazing stroke on almost every point, and if they want to do so, there’s no reason they shouldn’t—they alone bear the blame when it inevitably fails. And yet, commentators will incessantly second-guess a player who goes for it all in big moments, failing to see the joy, optimism, and belief that going for broke successfully brings these players. It is, again, a choice of expression–one that can be viewed as a flawed attempt at rational strategy, or an honest embracing of irrationality and, thus, human nature.
The other 25 percent of tennis’s Big Four is, of course, Roger Federer—arguably the greatest tennis player of all-time. Innumerable words have been spilled trying to locate what made Federer’s game so beautiful,** but I think the simplest summation is that he plays how anyone who has ever picked up a racket wants to play. No beginner dreams of Nadal’s ceaseless bludgeoning, or Djokovic’s indefatigability, or Murray’s constant cat-and-mouse game. Their styles are complex, and negative and cynical, paradigms designed to tackle tennis’s simplistic goal: winning each point.
Federer—much like Brown, Kyrgios, and Tsonga—demonstrated a simple attitude toward winning tennis: attack. He hit winners off short returns and long rallies, on serves, on volleys, on inventive forehands, on looping backhands, on tweeners. He believed that he was never far from hitting a winner, no matter his position, and he made a shockingly high proportion of those shots he went for. In this manner, Federer was the proxy, and the inspiration, for every weekend hacker who maybe lacked the fundamentals, but still knew what shot would be fun to play in every situation.
He was, of course, a singular talent, and it’s impossible to predict whether the current wave of aggressors will ever experience remotely comparable success. It’s probably, and almost certainly, unlikely, but let’s root for them. At the very worst, the outcome will still be more flavorful than plain vanilla.
*The focus for the article will be on the men’s game, because the solution for winning on the women’s side is merely “be Serena Williams.”
**With Federer’s future up in the air, I’ll be using the past tense here.
Lucas Hubbard is a writer and all-time great of high-school tennis. You should follow him on Twitter.
Image credit: Robbie Mendelson