Seven Tennis Pandemics

Steffi Graf tennis player

At the moment, the entire world is consumed by the novel coronavirus. Government mandated social isolation and quarantines have temporarily altered every aspect of our lives. In the sports world, all college and professional sporting events have either been suspended or cancelled—this includes the postponement of the ATP and WTA tours and the cancellation of Wimbledon for the first time since World War II.

Like any new virus, Covid-19 has an origin story—a “patient zero.” Epidemiologists posit the outbreak started at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China—where a singular action set in motion a pandemic that has impacted everyone across the globe.

Novel ideas are similar to novel viral infections in two ways: they have the potential to spread quickly and they spread exponentially from host to host. Throughout tennis history, there have been certain ideas that have spread like viruses: traveling from person to person until they reached pandemic proportions. Seven specific actions, moments, and events had such an enormous impact that they changed the sport forever. Here are the Seven Tennis Pandemics:

THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES (1973)

The year is 1973: U.S involvement in the Vietnam War has officially ended, Archie Bunker is America’s favorite “lovable bigot,” and professional tennis is stumbling through the early days of its “Open Era.” The late summer of ’73 brought us one of the most iconic moments in sports history and women’s rights—a showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, dubbed, “The Battle of the Sexes.”

Battle of the Sexes Seven Tennis Pandemics
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs promoting “The Battle of the Sexes” (AP)

King was the presiding world number one and Riggs was a former Wimbledon champion and self-proclaimed male chauvinist. Riggs starred in the shameless promoter role, with lines like: “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.” The match was played at the Houston Astrodome to a packed house and broadcast to an estimated 90 million people worldwide. Both players entered the court with the pomp and circumstance of prize fighters. King would ultimately win the contest in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She later described the immense pressure she felt, saying that if she lost, “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

The sociological impact of King’s victory resonates until this day: female participation in sports continues to rise and women now receive equal prize money at the Grand Slams. Outside of sports, massive strides have been made with opportunities and compensation for women in the workplace. While there is still work to be done, “The Battle of the Sexes” provided the women’s liberation movement with a much needed early cornerstone moment.

“The Battle of the Sexes” was also one of several moments that ignited the “tennis boom”—with the star power of characters like Borg, McEnroe, Evert, and Navratilova providing the kerosene. The boom was the single most important era for tennis—helping to transform it from a venerable pastime to a viable professional sport.

TELEVISION & THE TWO-HANDER (1974 – 1981)

Tennis may never know a bigger rockstar than Bjorn Borg—or have a bigger sweetheart than Chrissie Evert. Both players were blonde, beautiful, and possessed a stroke that was quite unusual for their time—the two-handed backhand. Add the arrogant, outspoken, and controversial Jimmy Connors to the mix, and three of the most recognizable players of the “tennis boom” were two-handers. Their prevalence would impact game style for generations to come.

Bjorn Borg Seven Tennis Pandemics
Bjorn Borg and a young Andre Agassi (Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine today, but during the tennis boom, people didn’t have televisions in their pockets. TVs were gargantuan things often encased in wood; they only offered three channels and you had to get off the couch to change between them. From the mid 70s to early 80s, sports enthusiasts and tennis fans would be lucky to be exposed to a few matches on TV per year—the finals of the four Grand Slams being the most typical times to gather around and watch.

From 1974 – 1981, TV sets around the world showcased Evert, Borg, and Connors in Grand Slam finals a combined 41 times—pretty impressive considering they only participated Down Under a combined 5 times prior to ’82. As their matches were broadcast into living rooms worldwide, the next generations’ champions were the ones most eagerly affixed to the screen.

The numbers tell the tale: in 1980, only 11% of male professionals and 20% of females were two-handed. By 1998, as the products of the boom became professionals themselves, the numbers had skyrocketed to 56% of men and 70% of women. The popularity of the two-handed backhand has continued to increase until today: 85 of the top 100 men play two-handed, while the one-hander has all but disappeared from the women’s game—with only 3 of the top 100 women using a single-handed backhand.

Over time, advances in racquet technology have certainly made the two-handed backhand a more attractive option, but we cannot deny the influence of the highly visible trendsetters, who, while wielding cumbersome racquets with minuscule heads, bucked the trend of the time and elected to go to battle with two hands rather than one.

FROM ARIAS TO AGASSI TO ALL (1978 – 1992)

Buffalo, New York might not seem like the most likely place for a tennis pandemic to start—but don’t tell that to former world number five Jimmy Arias. Arias grew up in Buffalo, where every winter tennis courts would disappear under mountains of lake effect snow. Jimmy’s father, Antonio, was a tennis fan and engineer by trade who quickly realized that the old-school forehand being taught to his son was not optimal. Antonio had an innovative idea—he encouraged his son to relax on the follow through and swing fluidly to produce as much force as possible.

Meanwhile, in Sarasota, Florida, former Army Paratrooper and tennis coach Nick Bollettieri had an equally crazy idea—gather together throngs of talented juniors, sequester them away from their parents, and have them beat up on each other every day until the alpha dog emerged.

Arias Agassi Tennis Pandemics
Players at Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Jimmy Arias stands to the left of coach, Nick Bollettieri (James Bollettieri)

Nick’s venue for this ambitious venture was the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. The owner of the Colony was former orthodontist turned entrepreneur, Murf Klauber. Klauber was from—you guessed it—Buffalo, NY. Friends of Klauber urged the then 13-year-old Arias to pay Bollettieri a visit in Sarasota. Bollettieri’s famous foresight served him well again, as he instantly recognized Jimmy’s explosive forehand as the shot of the future. Bollettieri offered Jimmy a full scholarship and told his friends they could come for free too—they acquiesced and the world’s first tennis factory was born. The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy even had its own trademark shot—”the Arias forehand” was quickly rebranded as “the Bollettieri forehand.”

Five years later, Bollettieri would recruit a brash Vegas bad-boy with a bleach blonde mullet. His name was Andre Agassi. Agassi was the alpha dog Bollettieri had been searching for—their relationship culminated with the pair winning Wimbledon together in 1992. Bollettieri used the Arias blueprint to weaponize Andre’s already fierce forehand—encouraging him to attack whenever possible. Donning acid-washed jean shorts, Agassi’s flashy forehand and rebellious attitude made for marketing gold during the image conscious era that was the 80s. Agassi’s success and worldwide popularity would spell the end for the old-school forehand—the very forehand that Antonio Arias had opposed many years ago.

MCENROE & GRAF-ITE (1983 – 1988)

By 1980, the traditional wooden tennis racquet had undergone several iterations: the steel Wilson T-2000, the oversized aluminum Prince Pro, and even the controversial spaghetti strung racquets. None of these variations successfully put old faithful out to pasture. Jimmy Connors developed an obsession with the T-2000, but most players found it too heavy and a burden to string. The Prince Pro was much lighter than its steel predecessor, but its flexible construction made it too unreliable for top players to trust. The revolutionary process of molding graphite composite into powerful, lightweight frames was the technology that would finally render wood ineffective.

The early graphite racquet that trumped them all, was the Dunlop Max 200G. Two of the 80s best players—John McEnroe and Steffi Graf—arguably had their best years in ’84 and ’88 respectively, using this stick. The racquet, with its 85 square inch head and 12.5 ounce weight, provided the perfect blend of power and control. The Max 200G and other composite offerings from Yonex, Prince, and Wilson widened the chasm between wood and graphite. Serve speeds surged, ace totals ballooned, and game styles began to change: the power era was born.

Steffi Graf tennis
Steffi Graf playing with the Dunlop Max 200G (JÝRÝME PREVOST/GETTY IMAGES)

This disparity in power was vast. It was most noticeable when Borg attempted a comeback using his old wood frames at the Monte Carlo Open in 1991. He was overwhelmed by world number 52, Jordi Arrese, in the first round. Pre-tournament sparring partner, German Boris Becker, said it best, bluntly quipping that: “[Borg] hits with no power.”

Graphite is still used in racquet composition to this day, while wood racquets are more readily found at your neighborhood garage sale.

TEAM NAVRATILOVA (1981 – 1988)

By 1981, Martina Navratilova hadn’t yet reached legend status. She was a perennial contender, but not the dominant force that she would ultimately become. Her primary rival, Chris Evert, was the woman to beat—holding a lopsided 28-13 head-to-head advantage over Martina.

Martina hit rock bottom after suffering an embarrassing double bagel loss to Evert at Amelia Island. Shortly after, she sparked a friendship with professional basketball player, Nancy Lieberman. Their friendship would help transform Martina’s body and career.

Lieberman was a hard-nosed competitor from Queens, NY, who quickly discovered that Martina’s training regime was anemic at best. Lieberman believed Navratilova was squandering her potential, and set out to help her reach it. She helped Navratilova institute a fitness routine involving basketball style workouts. They even cross-trained—playing full court games of basketball for conditioning.

Team Navratilova
Navratilova at the 1983 French Open (Getty Images)

Around the same time, Navratilova would enlist the help of Dr. Renee Richards as a hitting partner and tactician. Richards helped refine Martina’s match strategy. To complete her transformation, Martina hired nutritionist, Robert Haas, to design a more healthy and optimal dietary plan. Martina was initially mocked for surrounding herself with unprecedented support—but she would have the last laugh.

Between ’82 – ’87, “Team Navratilova” would win 14 slams and final in six others. In ’83, she compiled an astounding 86-1 record. Her ’83 season is considered by most to be the most dominant year in tennis history. As far as Chris Evert, Martina would go 30-9 against her over the second half of their 15 year rivalry—to bring their career head-to-head to 43-37. Advantage Martina.

After Navratilova’s tremendous success, her contemporaries were no longer laughing—they were starting to copy her instead. Today, players boxes are packed with coaches, physios, and other specialists. Anytime a player makes an acceptance speech, the first thing they do is thank their “team.” For an individual sport, where “team” used to be a dirty word, that’s extraordinary. Martina was the first to do it—and possibly the best.

WALLS COME DOWN (1989 – 1991)

The success of communist countries in sport, particularly at the Olympic Games, is well-documented. Success in sport is a source of national pride and is recognized as a valuable contribution to the emotional welfare of the state. The athletic dominance of the Soviet Union throughout the 70s and 80s, lead to intent study by the west. Their methods were seen as progressive and were ultimately adopted by sporting nations around the world.

All those Olympic medals came with steep price tag: Communist policies strictly regulated their athletes’ lives and training—so strictly, that athletes couldn’t travel freely for competition or pursue professional careers for personal gain. In the sport of professional tennis, this of course can create problems. Czech players, Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova, famously defected to gain the freedom to choose. This was no easy task—as they left not knowing if they’d ever see their families again.

In the second half of the 80s, the Soviet Union was beginning to dissolve. The collapse of the Berlin wall in ’89 being the most poignant symbol of the rapidly changing demographics of Central and Eastern Europe. The official dissolution of the USSR would follow on December 26, 1991.

Berlin wall tennis pandemic
Protestors take down a segment of the Berlin Wall on November 11, 1989 (Associated Press/Lionel Cironneau)

The democratization of Eastern Europe, the opening of its borders, and the relaxation of communist policies would dramatically impact the landscape of professional tennis—most significantly on the women’s side. In 1990—before the dissolution—only 16 of the top 100 women were from countries in the Soviet Bloc. Fast forward to 2019, players in the top 100 had increased threefold to 48.

American author and journalist, Daniel Coyle, famously highlighted the 21st century success of one particular club in Moscow, called the Spartak Tennis Club. In contrast to the expansive and posh tennis academies of the west, Spartak crammed its players onto two modest indoor courts. Even with limited resources and subarctic winter conditions, during the early 2000s, Spartak had produced more top-20 female players than the entire United States. Coyle attributes their players’ success to what he calls the Russian Formula:

  1. Start young.
  2. Have driven parents.
  3. Receive powerful, consistent coaching.
  4. Be raised in a culture of toughness.

Coupling their new found freedoms with renowned cultural toughness, many players from countries formerly under communist rule, have risen from bleak situations to become independently wealthy professional athletes. For example, former world number one, Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic, had to contest with her practices being interrupted by bomb sirens. Her regular training ground was a makeshift tennis court inside an empty swimming pool. Stories like Ivanovic’s are common for players from her region. The adversity they experienced isn’t an inhibitor to their success—rather, combined with freedom of choice, a slight glimmer of hope, and a bit of luck—it’s their superpower.

GUGA’S POLY-AMORY (1997 – 2000)

At the ’97 French Open, a little known gangly Brazilian with a megawatt smile made a surprise run to the championship. Entering the tournament, Gustavo Kuerten was ranked 66th in the world and had yet to win an ATP title. Guga defeated three former French Open champs en route to capturing the crown. He also captured the hearts of the French fans along the way.

Luxilon polyester strings
Kuerten celebrating at the 1997 French Open (Getty Images)

At the time, the French fans were most likely unaware that Guga had a secret weapon—his strings. Guga’s racquets were strung with a polyester string called Luxilon original. Compared to traditional multi-filament strings, polyester helped Kuerten create tremendous amounts of spin—manipulating the ball in a way players using gut couldn’t. Guga wasn’t the only clay-courter to use poly at the time, but he was the first to break through at a major with it. In 2000, when Kuerten dismantled Sampras and Agassi indoors at the Masters Cup, it was clear polyester wasn’t just suited for clay—and it was here to stay. Today, every player on tour uses polyester—or blends it with gut for increased feel.

Whereas the introduction of the graphite racquet in the 80s ushered in the modern power game, polyester strings pushed the game even further forward. Graphite racquets strung with polyester allowed players to create wicked angles and devastating passing shots that Rod Laver could’ve only dreamed of. This deadly racquet and string combination has lead to the extinction of the pure serve and volleyer and to the near extinction of the one-handed backhand.

IN CONCLUSION

In the spirit of Gladwell, we’ve drawn parallels between how a viral pandemic spreads and how ideological pandemics have spread in tennis. I’d be remiss not to address some of the major differences between the coronavirus pandemic and our “seven tennis pandemics.” Here are three:

  1. Tennis is just a sport. The events outlined—while some of the most significant moments in our sport’s history—pale in comparison to the physiological, sociological, and economical impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on us as a collective.
  2. None of the aforementioned seven tennis pandemics involved the shortage of toilet paper.
  3. Unlike the seven tennis pandemics, we will contain the spread of the coronavirus. We will defeat it and our lives will return to normal. Maybe not tomorrow or the next day—but we will triumph and comeback stronger than ever. In comparison, the chances of chauvinism, cat gut strings, and wooden racquets making a comeback isn’t as promising.

Thank you for reading. I hope this post finds you healthy and well. During these challenging times, we must be there for one another. Reach out to us at info@fm-tennis if you have any questions, or just want to talk tennis. Also, if you’re hankering for a tennis specific workout, make sure to follow us @fmtennisfl for some creative workout tips.

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