Monday, January 30, 2012

The Case for Tennis Pros as Great(est) Athletes

Posted By on Mon, Jan 30, 2012 at 11:01 AM

Andy Roddick
  • Andy Roddick
This won't go down well with football and basketball fans, but the best pro athletes in Memphis — counting coordination, stamina, nerves, and agility — may be the tennis players coming to the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at the Racquet Club in February.

I know this is preposterous to those who watched Derrick Rose and DeAngelo Williams at University of Memphis or Rudy Gay and Mike Conley with the Grizzlies or Albert Pujols in a brief stay with the Redbirds or Peyton Manning in a (losing) game against U of M several years ago. And a strong case can be made for contestants in the Iron Man and the Tour de France, but that challenge is mental and stamina. There's no ball or hand-eye coordination involved.

Tennis gets at least a place at the table thanks to the astounding 5-hour and 53 minute final in the Australian Open Sunday between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The winner, Djokovic, had been on the court more than ten hours in three days, counting his win in the semifinals over Andy Murray.

It wasn't the flat abs and pecs the players showed when they stripped off their shirts after the match. You can see hard bodies at the gym. It was the combination of physical and mental skills under pressure and fatigue and one-on-one competition. No disrespect to any other sport, but this is why I'm voting for tennis.

First, I excluded any "sport" involving motor oil and gasoline. Sorry NASCAR fans.

Second, I dismissed golf, popular as it is. Golfers have coordination and nerves of steel, but most tournaments are 72 holes played over four days. The last 36-hole final day of the U.S. Open was in 1964. And one shot in the water can sink you, whereas in tennis you can lose a set 6-0 and come back and win the match. Plus, someone else carries your bag, and you can take an eternity to hit each shot.

Third, I grant that ultimate fighting, boxing, hockey, downhill skiing, and football involve greater risk of physical injury and even death. But I discounted the physical fear factor for purposes of this argument.

Instead, I considered:

Margin of error. Djokovic and Nadal had several rallies of 25 or more shots, with baseline shots skimming the net and nicking the lines. And they did it off of shots traveling faster than 80 miles an hour with lots of spin.

Stamina: The 2011 Regions Morgan Keegan Championship final featuring Andy Roddick and Milos Raonic was one of the best matches ever at the Racquet Club. Roddick won 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 on a diving winner on match point that he called the best shot he ever hit. The match took 2 hours and 36 minutes. The Aussie final took more than twice as long. Counting changeovers and time between points, the ball is in play in tennis much longer than it is in football or baseball or basketball. Someone else will have to make the case for soccer.

Court size. A singles tennis court is 27 feet by 78 feet, so each player's half is 27 by 39. A racquetball court is 20 by 40 feet, and the ball comes back to you off the walls. A squash court is slightly smaller, 21 feet by 32 feet, and the pros rarely run they move so well. In the 2008 U.S. Open Racquetball tournament in Memphis, champion Kane Waselenchuck, like former world champion (and Memphian) Andy Roberts before him, won the majority of the points in four shots or less.

"Even though racquetball has evolved into a serve and blast style of game, the top pro players could compete with any top pro in another sport regarding stamina and over all fitness," says Memphian Randy Stafford, a former pro and unofficial historian of the sport.

"It may not look like squash players are working that hard, but they are," says Ted Gross, a former squash professional and editor of The Daily Squash Report. "Squash is built on disguising the shot, so the cumulative effect of the change-of-direction can be brutal. Also, the up-and-back burst, a basic of the game, rarely happens in tennis, where 95% of the movement is side to side. On the rare times in tennis when there is an up and back exchange, the announcer invariably shouts, "Oh, the point of the tournament!", or sometimes Patrick McEnroe shouts, "Oh, the squash point!".

In a squash match in 1983, Jahangir Khan played Gamal Awad and the first point lasted seven minutes and ended in a let. The first game took 75 minutes and the match took 2 hours and 46 minutes. Again, the Aussie final was twice as long. And running down a crosscourt followed by a dropshot means sprinting 20 yards or more. When you're tired. After one point, the television monitor said the players each ran more than 300 feet, or the length of a football field.

Strength. Rod Laver, the Australian tennis great for whom the stadium is named, was about 5-8 and 160 pounds. Roddick is 6-2 and a shade under 200, and far from the biggest player on the tour. Baseball is obsessed with "pitch count" and pitchers rarely throw more than 125 pitches in a game. Then they rest three or four days. The standard for iron man pitchers is a 1963 game featuring Hall of Famers Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal. It went 16 innings, with both men going the distance. Spahn, 42, at the time, threw 201 pitches and lost the game on the last one, a home run by Willie Mays. Tennis pros serve 300 times or more in a five-setter, and Roddick routinely tops 130 miles an hour. Then they go out and do it again a day later. John Isner, who is playing in this year's Regions Morgan Keegan Championships, played an 11 hour and 5 minute match in the opening round of Wimbledon in 2010, winning the fifth set 70-68. He was still serving 120.

Incredible. And simple physics and leverage, according to my friend Shubho Banerjee, a physicist at Rhodes College.

"In a 120 mph tennis serve the racquet head has to move at about 60 mph and the serving hand is only moving at about 30 mph," he said. "In a baseball pitch the pitcher's hand has to be moving at 80-90 mph. Some advantage is gained by moving forward but not much. So in a tennis serve the energy is spent moving a heavier object, a tennis racquet, at a lower speed. In a baseball pitch about the same energy is spent into moving a smaller object, the baseball, at a higher speed."

Does this theory of tennis supremacy go for women athletes? I think so, having watched Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova at the Racquet Club, along with doubles specialists such as Lisa Raymond and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who just won the Australian Mixed Doubles title. Roddick, by the way, is going to play mixed doubles in the Olympics with Serena Williams. That's surely the most athletic male-female pairing ever.

"Tennis players, like athletes in all sports, are now bigger, faster and stronger than ever before," says tournament director Peter Lebedevs. "The average height and weight is up compared to 15 years ago. They are hitting the ball harder than ever before and doing so on every shot. Players are now hitting forehands in a rally at over 80 mph which is tremendous. Tennis players need aerobic and anaerobic fitness as well as strength and flexibility, balance and hand-eye coordination. The reaction time on a serve is less than half a second and the range they need to cover is over 20 feet. There is no other sport I know of that has those elements."

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