Thursday, September 08, 2011

Deuce! On tennis narratives and rivalries (and Steve Tignor's High Strung)

[Did a version of this piece for Forbes India. Here's the - slightly shorter - magazine version]

Nearly every time I hear or read (or participate in) a sports-related discussion, I’m reminded of a single-panel comic I saw once on a website. “A weighted random number generator just produced a new batch of numbers,” one stick figure says. “Let’s use them to build narratives!” replies his companion.

The descriptor at the bottom? “All Sports Commentary.”

Building narratives is something sports fans spend a lot of time doing; one can argue that sports-watching wouldn’t be much fun if we didn’t do it. We are all guilty of reading too much into statistics, or tossing off smug statements about this or that player. (Try counting the number of times you’ve heard the remark “He can’t handle pressure”, made about someone who has been ranked in the top 10 of a sport for years.) In cricket, when a strike bowler gets a star batsman out a few times – even if a couple of those dismissals were lucky – it becomes accepted that the former is “in the latter’s head”. We think we know what is going on in the minds of our favourite players, and we make whimsical connections between athletes who lived decades apart. Even the more balanced, self-aware viewers frequently succumb to the human tendency to see patterns.

Aiding us in this is the sports media, which specialises in creating stories with a dramatic arc (they’d be out of a job if they didn’t). Thus we regularly get eye-catching headlines about eras ending and batons passing rapidly from one champion to another – when in fact sports history is more often marked by slow, incremental changes. The careers of top players overlap for long periods; a champion may begin his decline or get overtaken, but then return for a last hurrah when no one expects it. When he entered the 2002 US Open, Pete Sampras had gone 33 tournaments without a title – the “Sampras Era” was well and truly over – but he won that trophy against all expectations. Jimmy Connors reached the semi-finals of the 1991 USO at age 39, eight years after his last Slam win and more than 15 years after his peak. Sporting narratives are rarely cut and dried.

All that said, it’s easy to see why so many tennis experts consider the 1981 US Open a historically significant tournament, and the end of an important era in the men’s game. It was the last major, or Slam, played by Bjorn Borg, who had been the dominant male player of the previous few years. Borg's rock star-like status had defined the first decade of the Open Era, a period when the sport’s class division came to an end and some drastic changes did take place. And his own career, unlike those of most athletes, ended on a genuinely dramatic note: shortly after losing the USO final to his younger rival and nemesis John McEnroe, he announced his retirement, aged only 25.

It’s no surprise, then, that Stephen Tignor – one of the best tennis writers at work today – has written a book that dwells on the 1981 USO as the culmination of a dynamic decade, as well as a harbinger of the decade to come. But in looking at the period through the prism of its most celebrated rivalry, Tignor’s High Strung also recognises that the friction between great competitors is what makes sporting contests so compelling.

The Borg-McEnroe story had every element you’d want from a dramatic storyline – not least an attention-grabbing contrast in personalities. Anyone familiar with Tignor’s work for Tennis magazine will know that he is a writer with a real head for nuance, but even he can’t resist titling the first chapter of his book “The Angel and the Brat”, and setting one legendary persona against another: Borg the Ice Man, under whose imperturbable surface burnt hidden fires, versus McEnroe the Superbrat, perpetually on edge, scourge of umpires and genteel viewers. Weaving in and out of this story is the other top player of the time, and the Open Era’s first blue-collar brat: the mercurial Connors, who had separate intriguing rivalries with Borg and McEnroe. But there’s no question who the two protagonists are.

There is a temptation in sports writing – particularly in individual sports – to cast major rivals as doppelgangers with an almost mystical bond; as players who form an ambivalent relationship as they come to realise that their names will always be linked together. Describing McEnroe’s pursuit of Borg, Tignor writes: “At its deepest psychological level the match was a case of a little brother trying to slay a big brother, an acolyte attempting to kill an idol.” McEnroe had looked up to Borg, holding him as a personal standard, ever since he had served as a ball-boy during one of the Swede’s earliest matches; for him, the only truly meaningful way to reach the apex of his sport was by conquering his idol.

This romantic view of sporting conflict has it that Borg’s sudden retirement was a case of a champion crushed by the emergence of a rival capable of beating him. But Borg’s exit was equally the result of well-chronicled factors in his personal life. Even before McEnroe became a serious threat, there had been signs that the reticent Swede was being worn down by the grind of the celebrity life; twenty-five may not have felt very young to someone who, making his Wimbledon debut at 17, had been assaulted by hundreds of screaming schoolgirls in the first manifestation of a decade-long phenomenon called the “Borgasm”. (See photo near the end of this post.)

Even so, the rivalry was majestic on sporting grounds alone. Borg’s frustratingly consistent, error-proof baseline play contrasted well with McEnroe’s fine touches and all-court artistry – they played two classic five-set Slam finals in 1980, and their head-to-head record would end at seven matches each. After McEnroe swiped the Wimbledon title from Borg, it seemed almost predestined that Borg would return the favour at the USO. But that didn’t happen. And so, Bjorn Borg – who still holds the record for the highest percentage of Slam matches won – walked away defeated from his last major. For the sport – which had the young future champion Ivan Lendl waiting in the wings, as well as a new era of graphite racquets to come – it was an end and a beginning.


This month’s edition of the US Open marks exactly 30 years since that fateful tournament, and once again we narrative hounds are on the scent of a Big Story. The interim decades did see a number of intriguing rivalries in the men's game – most notably the ones between Sampras and Andre Agassi, and between Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker – but they were relatively low-intensity or confined to specific venues; both players were rarely at their absolute peaks at the same time, and one never quite had a sense of big things at stake for the sport. However, the past few years have seen a rivalry that in some ways has eclipsed even Borg-McEnroe. And there are signs that the era it defined is ending.

For nearly seven seasons – a vast stretch of time in an athletic sport – tennis lovers have been riveted by the saga of Switzerland’s Roger Federer and Spain’s Rafael Nadal. Federer has overtaken Pete Sampras’s Slam record and set new standards for tennis dominance, holding the number one spot for 237 consecutive weeks and reaching an incredible 23 straight semi-finals at majors (for comparison, Sampras never made more than four semis in a row). But even in his peak years, the one player the Swiss could never dominate was Nadal, whose defence-to-offence baseline play, mental tenacity and powerful top-spin seemed almost laboratory-created to break down Federer’s more subtle game. In Federer’s greatest year, 2006, he lost just five matches in all – and four of them were to Nadal, all in finals, and most of them on clay, the surface where the Spaniard was best able to exploit the advantages his left-handed forehand gave him against Federer’s one-handed backhand.

Between them, these two men won 23 of the 26 majors that were contested between the 2004 Wimbledon and the 2010 US Open, and they maintained a stranglehold on the top two ranking spots for most of this time – a duopoly unprecedented over any comparable period in tennis history. In just five years, they played each other in a record eight Slam finals, on all surfaces. (The leading rivals of the 1990s, Sampras and Agassi, contested five finals over a 12-year period.) And there have been irresistible parallels with Borg-McEnroe: Borg took his fifth straight Wimbledon title in 1980, winning a classic five-setter against the young McEnroe; Federer won his fifth straight Wimbledon in 2007, beating off a similar challenge from Nadal; and in 1981 and 2008 respectively, the younger man reversed the result.

There are other similarities. At one point, Tignor suggests that McEnroe was at his best when he was the hunter, not the hunted – when he had a player ahead of him, whom he could run down – and that he was never quite the same after Borg had retired. Many have said exactly the same thing about Nadal, who appeared more carefree when he was ranked number two than when he took over the top spot. Perhaps he needed the mountain of Federer ahead of him.

But sporting comparisons are never so facile, and there is simultaneously a counter-narrative that casts Nadal as the modern-day Borg. There is a thirty-year age difference between these two champions, almost to the day, and both were teenage superstars. Like Borg, Nadal is a master of the natural surfaces, a clay-court monster (he recently equalled the Swede’s record of winning six French Opens, on the surface where it’s hardest to sustain excellence over a period of time) who successfully adapted his game to grass. The words used by Time magazine to describe Borg in 1980 – “an inexorable force that is one part speed, one part topspin and two parts iron will” – read like a sketch of the Spaniard.

Neither man ever seemed as comfortable on hard or synthetic courts: Borg’s Waterloo was the US Open, where he finished as runner-up four times; until last year it seemed like the same would be true for Nadal, but he completed his career Slam by beating Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in the US Open final.

Now, however, the same Djokovic is threatening to end the Federer-Nadal era. He has utterly dominated the men’s tour this year, beating Nadal in five finals, and the events of the past few months have raised the question: is history being rewritten on the 1981 palimpsest? Nadal is now 25 – the same age that Borg was when he abruptly hung up his racquets. Could it be that Rafa now has a “McEnroe” of his own?


Ultimately, these stories can be spun in many different ways. What’s more interesting is how tennis rivalries – and our perceptions of them – have altered in the past three decades. In the Internet age, sports fandom is more intense and in-your-face. Everyone has not just an opinion but a public forum to immediately express it in; fans around the world can access even the smallest tournaments and discuss matches “live” on message-boards. Everyone becomes a psychologist when it comes to analysing the behaviour of their favourite – and least favourite – sportsmen. Thus, Federer fans see him as humble while his dislikers proclaim with equal confidence that he is unbearably arrogant. Nadal’s on-court mannerisms such as the vigorous fist pumps and shouts of “Vamos!” are decried by those who don’t care for his playing style, but his fans point out that these self-motivating gestures are never directed at his opponents, and that he is well-behaved off the court.

Leading players have always been cast into images that are impossible to break out of. Borg, for instance, was mythologised as having a resting pulse rate that never rose above 35 – a claim that is about as accurate as the one that he had ice in his veins. High Strung indicates how this reputation developed (“a two-inch dip in his chin after a missed shot was the equivalent of a racquet hurled over the fence for most players ... if he stared for a not-absolutely-necessary extra split-second at a line judge after a close call, it had approximately the same effect as a 10-minute profanity-laced tirade from McEnroe”), but there are also vignettes that show another side to the player – such as a remarkable photograph of a young boy looking more shy (and dazed) than aloof as police keep hordes of those schoolgirls away from him.

Simplifications have also plagued the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic rivalries. Nadal has been labelled the unrelenting “bull” (zoopomorphizing a Spanish athlete thus is an ancient tradition in sports writing), while Federer is the ballet dancer with the smooth and seemingly effortless game. Djokovic’s name has only just entered the great-player discussions, but a few years ago he drew attention for his locker-room imitations of other players’ mannerisms, including Nadal’s butt-picking gesture. This writer (a big Nadal fan) thought them funny, but people with thinner skins saw the imitations as disrespectful. At any rate, the Serb’s reputation has been fixed for all time in some minds: as the Djoker.

There have, of course, been positive changes in our perceptions too. Tignor’s book reminds us that Borg and McEnroe were friends off-court, but for most fans the dominant image of their rivalry is that of an undemonstrative or even sullen handshake at the net. Today, however, there is so much more coverage – not just on official media but through fans’ reports, photographs and videos – that we are constantly exposed to the goofier sides of players. We see them fooling around at exhibitions, participating in musical sideshows on the eve of a tournament, or having a casual courtside chat shortly after a seemingly acrimonious match – and so it becomes more difficult to sustain notions of deep hatred between rivals.

It helps that today’s top players have consistently been fine sportsmen – or “good boys”. The mutual respect between Federer and Nadal in particular contrasts strongly with the acrimony that dotted some player relationships in the past (and their hugs at the net have even spawned homoerotic online fan fiction that would have had Connors and McEnroe barfing into their racquet bags – but I’ll let that pass for now).

At this point, though, tennis belongs to neither Nadal nor Federer. With a 53-1 win-loss record for the year (at the time of writing), Djokovic is the clear favourite to take the US Open title. If he does (which will mean winning three out of four majors in a calendar year – something Federer and Nadal have both done in recent times but such greats as Borg, McEnroe and Sampras never achieved), it will be possible to speak of 2011 as another major shift in the sport’s history.

And then the weighted random number generator will probably kick in again, and we’ll have a completely different narrative to follow next year.


  1. superb piece...bit sad to see this era end.

  2. Brilliant write-up!

  3. Pessimist Fool, Indisch: thanks - glad you liked it. Have a couple more tennis-related pieces coming up - nice little break from the usual film-and-literature stuff.

  4. The way Federer's playing, I won't be surprised if the Djoker has to wait a while before he makes 3 Grand Slams in the year.

  5. Brilliant writeup, though the pedant in me will point out that Djokovic lost 2 matches this year, the second being against Murray (Retired).

  6. Anon: I said "With a 53-1 win-loss record for the year (at the time of writing)". This piece was done a month ago.

  7. Nice piece.
    The decade that has just gone by (2000-2010) defies sporting logic in many ways. One would've expected the "depth of quality" in the top 100 and even the top 20 to be higher than ever before in this era of powerful racquets and intense professionalism.

    Yet, we've seen a duopoly in the Grand Slams that is without precedent not just in the Open Era but also in the eras of Tilden, Budge and Laver!

    Difficult to rationalise.

  8. I thought it was Agassi vs Becker! Never thought someone could break the Federer - Rafa dominance. But someone has! That shows that what goes up has to come down eventually... Nice write up man... Though I couldn't be fully convinced that someone could end their career because a bunch of school girls were howling at him!

  9. ES: where did I say Borg quit because a bunch of schoolgirls were howling at hiom? :)