Few sports have undergone as much change in the last 30 years as tennis. From wooden rackets to graphite, from a game of finesse to one of power and explosiveness, the game has evolved tremendously. Though there are many factors to consider, technology has had the biggest role in the vast difference between tennis then and tennis now.
TENNIS THEN - BRIEF HISTORY
Tennis then (30 years ago) was played at a much slower pace than tennis now. Power was a small part of the game that only a few of the elites relied on to win points. Most points were won at the net after a succession of volleys. Finesse and touch were the strategic traits that top professionals deemed most important. A tennis match was like a chess match, always thinking two or three moves ahead.
They used wooden-framed rackets, which were always 9 inches wide and 27 inches long. The center net of the racket was made of natural gut, a delicate stringing material. Natural gut is affected by the weather conditions and is not durable enough for modern day tennis. However, natural gut stringing responds well to the shots in tennis that require great touch, an essential in the classical version of the game.
Tennis then relied solely on the umpires who sat high in their chairs to make the right calls. Players and fans would sometimes ridicule the umpires publicly for missing close calls. However, there was always an appeal to the beautifully flawed 'human aspect' of the game.
If you look up the tennis calendars from 30 years ago, you will find a great versatility in the surfaces played on: hard, clay, grass, and indoor carpet.
The aesthetics and fashion trends have changed with the times. Old-school tennis players always wore white. The women wore long, white dresses and the men would feel comfortable in white trousers and sweater-vests on a cold day.
The media in tennis 30 years ago was limited to BBC1 and 2, a few newspaper tennis columns, and a limited number of tennis magazines. The top players would get interviewed at big tournaments.
TENNIS NOW - WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO
Tennis now is a fast-paced game of power, stamina, and mental toughness. An average rally at a major tournament consists of explosive exchanges from the baseline, instead of strategic volleys by the net. A great touch player of that earlier generation like Ken Rosewall would find it hard to survive in today's power-centric game. This can be mostly attributed to the technological advancements of the rackets.
The rackets used now are made of graphite and composite materials making them much lighter. Most rackets are still 27 inches long, but they are now 10-12 inches wide as opposed to 9 inches. This allows current players to swing the racket faster and have a larger surface area to make good contact. When players started swinging their rackets faster, they noticed something interesting: they generated more topspin on the ball. A ball with topspin will dive down over the net at a steeper angle than a ball without topspin. This allowed players to hit the ball harder and still land it within the other court. Furthermore, due to the increased width of the rackets, they could add this extra velocity and topspin without sacrificing accuracy; the possibility of a mis-hit became less likely. This led to the explosive, high-speed style of play we see in tennis now.
In order to compete in a game where players are slugging the ball back and forth from the baseline, players need to be much more in shape than players of the past. Playing professional tennis now requires elite lateral movement, footwork, and overall strength. Accordingly, many of the world's best tennis players follow a strict exercise and diet regimen and have personal trainers to help them with strength training. Footwork and lateral movement drills are a staple of modern day tennis whereas 30 years ago footwork was an afterthought.
Technology has also changed the way the game is ruled. Tennis now is much less susceptible to human error. Hawk-Eye technology has improved the quality and accuracy of line calls almost to the point of perfection. Public ridicule of the referees is a thing of the past.
Tennis now is played mostly on hard surfaces. With the exception of Wimbledon - which is rich with tradition and will forever play on grass - and a few other spring tournaments leading up to Wimbledon, the pro tour plays on one surface: hard.
Fashion has arguably undergone the most drastic change besides the new rackets and the style of play aforementioned. Players are becoming more and more adventurous with their on-court attire. From colorful outfits to Serena Williams' catsuit from the 2002 US open to Rafael Nadal's sleeveless shirts and long shorts from early in his career, it is clear tennis outfits are not what they used to be. Some traditionalists of the game think lowly of these new fashion trends as they cling to the all-white, proper dress code of tennis. However, tennis, like most things in life, is changing with time. We are seeing increasingly more colors, prints, and patterns on the tennis court.
The media of the 21st century has also inspired a lot of change in tennis. TV, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are now the dominant sources for tennis content. Media access to players, press conferences, and autograph sessions are the norm. Players have to deal with much more of these intrusive things than in the past. For instance, practice sessions are streamed in select tournaments, allowing the press to be present when a player is practicing. We are also seeing boxing-like introductions to the players, music on changeovers and signed balls being hit into the crowd by the winner of the match. This all provides more entertainment value for the sport of tennis and makes it more easily marketable, but puts an extra level of stress on the players that the players from 30 years ago did not have to deal with. However, some players may thrive off the attention and perform better that way. The extra media attention can be a good or bad thing for a player; it depends on the player and how they handle that attention.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
The first thing that changed was the rackets. After the introduction of the lighter, wider, graphite rackets, the game would never be the same. It allowed for stronger forehands and more topspin, moving the game from around the net to behind the baseline. The transition to this new style of play led to bigger, faster, and stronger tennis players. The attire and playing surfaces have also changed in the last 30 years. Few major tennis tournaments remain that play on clay or grass; a hard surface is now the norm. Also, clothing has moved on from the standard all-white look (except of course at Wimbledon).
The next biggest contributor to the evolution of tennis is technology like the Hawk-Eye referee challenge system. That has changed the way tennis is ruled and greatly improved call accuracy. Along with innovations like the Hawk-Eye, social media and the internet have played a large part in changing the landscape of tennis.
Another change has been the shift from doubles to singles tennis. The major tournaments now save center courts and the big secondary courts for the singles matches. It's only the finals weekend that doubles get to be showcased. Tennis 30 years ago used to give equal attention to all disciplines, tennis now clearly favors singles matches. Perhaps it's the aesthetic of a one-on-one tennis match or the gritty competitiveness of one-on-one. Whatever it is, the scheduling of singles matches on center court is a product of a change in fan interest and ticket sales.
One of the happier and more noteworthy changes happened off the court. In 2007, Wimbledon agreed to pay equal prize money to men and women. Thanks to the relentless efforts of Billie Jean King, stars like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, along with many other female players, have won millions in prize money. Tennis 30 years ago used to pay the women half of what they rewarded the men. Tennis now can be proud as a community knowing they are leading the way in men and women's equal rights, especially in the sports sector of society.
While there have been countless changes in the game of tennis now compared to the game 30 years ago, many things have remained the same over the period. Sets (non-tie-break ones) still involve the winner winning six games, umpires still rule the roost from their high chairs and Wimbledon is still just tennis in an English garden. Part of the beauty of tennis is being able to balance tradition with evolving developments. Tennis then and tennis now is much different yet still so much the same. It's a game that is very secure in its past and excited about its future.