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Hitting a little green ball with a racquet over a net and the ball not being returned by an opponent seems so simple. Yet with years and years of different personalities in the game, we have different styles, ranging from counter-punchers (Hewitt, for the most part of his career, Chang, Simon), aggressive baseliners (Safin, Soderling, Tsonga, etc), S&V players (Sampras, Edberg, etc). In theory, we could make a Venn diagram to show what the styles were (the 2 missing spaces are not covered because it is pointless to categorize someone S&V who also counter-punches, it doesn’t really serve a purpose other than just a match strategy):

For a long, long time, tennis fans have known that the “all-court” or “complete” player is the one hardest to beat; and the theory is correct when we consider for one to be a “complete” or “all-court” player, they must have: having determination, a great serve + backhand + forehand and good fitness and good agility on all surfaces is generally what qualifies players such as Federer above others.

But how else do we explain cases such as Richard Gasquet, who has reached a semi final on a major grass tournament (Wimbledon), reached 2 Master Series finals on hard-court and quarter finals of the US Open, and reached a Master Series final on clay, too, yet Gasquet is a mentally fragile player with a forehand that sometimes lacks penetration or power, yet he still qualifies as a complete player, for he is sufficient on all surfaces. There are several other players who are just like Gasquet, who play well in all-courts and generally can be aggressive and counter-punch at the same time -> Nadal, Djokovic, Murray are proficient on all surfaces, as are Soderling, Monfils, Haas, Ferrero, or if we go back in time, Lendl, Agassi, etc, but these are not complete or all-court players, they are modern baseliners.

When watching Lendl-Borg compared to watching Sampras-Lendl, Lendl tended to be more aggressive against Sampras, he wasn’t afraid to just push the ball back against Borg and play defensive cross-court tennis, as the follow video shows.

Lendl was perhaps the first to promote a heavy baseline approach, yet the idea of a modern baseliner has only took place in the last 10 years or so, and thus we examine what a modern baseliner is, why they are coming now and not 20-50 years ago.

A player who can apply consistent controlled aggression (heavy inside-out forehands, powerful DTL backhands, are just 2 strokes a player who can hit aggressively, will hit with no problem), who can apply the finesse of the superb fitness required for long clay-court grinding matches, and a player who can apply the defensive, reactive-style of a counter-puncher would count as a modern baseliner. Essentially, a versatile baseliner.

There are numerous examples to give, however one of the best definitions of a modern baseliner is Andy Murray, in the first video he employs a heavy S&V style on the fast-courts of Paris to beat David Nalbandian, yet on the second video where he beats Federer in the Shanghai final, he uses the pace on Federer’s groundstrokes to generate winners and by consistently making Federer hit aggressive shots, it results in a lot of unforced errors, on the third video, Murray beats Nalbandian on a different court by just being aggressive from his serve, finishing anything mid-court with his forehand and using the backhand DTL to make winners, 3 styles in 3 matches . Murray does it so well, you cannot well if he is a S&V player (first video), a counter-puncher (second video), or an aggressive baseliner (third video).

Djokovic employed a heavy aggressive approach against Lu in his 2010 QF Wimbledon match and won in straight sets, yet he played a counter-punching baseline game against Berdych in the semi finals and lost in straight sets.

Another question must be asked, why have modern baseliners such as Djokovic and Nadal only popped up now, and not 30 years ago?

The answer lies in the change of the default style, many years ago the usual style (99% of the time) was Serve & volley, and with heavy domination of the net, skip to now, and the baseline approach is the way to be successful, thus the reason for modern baseliners existing now is for 2 main reasons: 1) the courts are slower, which promote staying back on the court to win more points, there are more styles and ideas applicable to staying at the back of the court than the front and more importantly 2) if everyone uses a heavy-baseline approach, players who are versatile and can apply many strategies will be the ones who succeed, with baseline tennis growing stronger and stronger, it takes more and more time for a modern baseliner to truly exist.

So keep in mind, when watching Nadal push against player A with around 10 unforced errors in a whole match, then hit aggressively and hit over 30 unforced errors against player B, you’re not necessarily watching a player with differing levels of confidence, you’re watching a player who is employing different strategies for different opponents, which is essentially reactive-tennis (responding to a situation, such as choosing to S&V like Murray did against Nalbandian in the first video, rater than play your usual game, which for Murray is counter-punching, which could be proactive), reactive tennis is more pragmatic, yet more successful

Out of the current top 4 in Men’s Singles, Murray, Nadal and Djokovic all play pragmatic, reactive tennis, it is only Federer who uses a proactive style. From this, a valid opinion would be that reactive tennis is more successful than proactive, that responding to different situations with different strategies is better than having one main strategy for all situations, but we are only looking at 4 players from a million, thus the sample is too small to have any real stance as being proof.


One Comment

  1. Very nice analysis. It appears that Djokovic right now is THE modern basiliner. While Nadal seems naturally be a defensive minded player, the Serb is perfectly willing to play both types of baseline tennis. This is especially evident in his seemingly effortless transition from defense to offence.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Nadal is partly misunderstood by some, it is unfair to label Nadal as an attacking baseliner or defensive baseliner – he is neither, rather he is a modern baseliner, a new type of player only around in the last 10/20 years, as this article explains. […]

  2. By Pushing The Boundaries « Tennis Analysis on 30 Jul 2011 at 5:44 pm

    […] the net, able to use a reactive baseline style which brings success in the modern game (explained here), combined with a great serve and a great return of […]

  3. By Destination Unknown « Tennis Analysis on 30 Jul 2012 at 1:21 am

    […] hitting, big serving and variety confused Federer, he lost his proactive style and reacted to the opponent imposing his own […]

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