Wooden rackets and bullet-hard rubber balls have long given way to graphite frames and high-bouncing rallies, yet still the game continues to evolve. Rio 2016 mixed doubles champion Bethanie Mattek-Sands has always embraced change and now spends much of her time watching the young guns for tips.
The USA’s nine-time Grand Slam doubles champion Bethanie Mattek-Sands turned pro in the last century. More than two decades later, she can hardly believe the progress tennis has made.
“The whole game has changed,” the Olympic Games Rio 2016 gold medal-winner said. “If you watch videos of the ’80s, ’90s, you can see we have different equipment, different strings, different styles. I’ve been around for so long it’s been fun to see the transition.
“When I first started the power game was coming on, but you still had someone like Martina Hingis whose court sense and court awareness was so superior it kept her on top despite her not being a powerful player.”
Hingis, the former long-time world No.1-ranked women’s singles player and five-time women’s singles Grand Slam champion, is a fascinating example. The Swiss star dominated as a teenager in the late 1990s, her supreme court craft, which Mattek-Sands highlights, making her the youngest-ever Grand Slam champion and world No.1.
Then, after first retiring in 2003 having struggled with injury and seemingly hit off the court by the all-power games of rivals such as the Williams sisters, she returned for the second time in 2013. For the final stage of her career she reinvented herself as a doubles magician and claimed an extraordinary 10 additional Grand Slam doubles titles.
“It just shows that you can be tall and big and strong, but tennis has such a wide skillset that if you move well, if you are smooth, if you have great timing it’s not always about bigger, stronger, faster,” Mattek-Sands said of Hingis, who also won silver in the women’s doubles at Rio 2016.
The racket is clearly a key factor in determining each era’s prevailing style. It has come a long way from the solid-wood version introduced by Major Wingfield in England in 1874. Laminated wood was a game-changer in the 1940s, with an elegant all-court game illuminated some years later by the likes of Australia’s Rod Laver and Margaret Court taking centre stage in the 1960s. But it was the unveiling of the first widely available steel racket in 1967 – immediately adopted by star USA baseliner Jimmy Connors – which ushered in another new style.
Graphite frames hit the market in the early 1980s and have provided the bedrock of modern rackets ever since. Allied to the fast surfaces prevalent around the world, big-serving, attacking players blessed with razor-sharp volleys, led by the legendary Pete Sampras, dominated through most of the 1990s. However, with concerns lingering that the public were getting bored with the endless barrage of aces, steps were taken to reduce the pace of play.
Surfaces, even Wimbledon’s famous grass courts, were slowed down and slightly bigger tennis balls introduced at the beginning of the 21st century. These alterations, combined with the ever-increasing athleticism of the modern player, resulted in power becoming the critical factor. From the extraordinary Serena and Venus Williams, who have to date won four Olympic gold medals each (three in tandem in the women’s doubles), to the likes of serial Grand Slam winners Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the headline players in recent years have all spent most of their time smashing the ball from the back of the court.
Yet, it would, as Mattek-Sands is quick to point out, be far too simple to suggest brute force is the key to success in the modern game. Just look at the all-conquering Roger Federer.
“There are so many skillsets you can see in tennis. You see some players standing way back on returns and some players standing way in and chipping it early. You see slicing coming in a lot, you still see the odd serve-and-volley,” said Mattek-Sands, who has always loved to advance to the net.
Modern strings and string tension play a big role in ensuring this variety continues to flourish.
“You have all these polys [polyesters]. You have people who still play with gut. I don’t know too many players who play with full gut any more, but I play with half gut and half poly and it’s added the spin dynamic which you wouldn’t have got with the older frames and the older strings in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s,” Mattek-Sands explained. “That is what is causing everyone to have to become so much better at moving. You can get all this extra spin. You can really work people wide off the court.
“I mean you have to move the cameras back just to get Rafa [Nadal] in the picture sometimes.”
Such dynamic movement has forced the footwear to adapt as well.
“Look at all the players, how they move and slide on the hard courts, even. The shoe has to keep up with you, you can’t have shoes blowing up,” Mattek-Sands explained, laughing.
That brings the doubles specialist on to one of her favourite topics: outfits. These have changed significantly since the days of women in long flowing dresses and men in trousers and pressed shirts. And the exuberant, colourful Mattek-Sands, famous for her knee-high socks, could not be happier.
“A lot of people feel like tennis is this uppity, preppy sport but when they go to the US Open or the Australian Open you see these outgoing personalities who are super athletic, super passionate. It’s only fitting the attire matches it,” the 35-year-old said.
“Outfits are a big way to separate yourself from the crowd and to be yourself. When I am myself and I feel good and look good, I play well.”
All this and much more will be on show when the world’s best players gather in Tokyo next year and Mattek-Sands, having loved every moment in Rio, cannot wait.
“The whole thing was the biggest team event I had ever been a part of, so much bigger than you,” she said. “I did get the gold with Jack [Sock] and that was a unique and special experience, but I can’t really put that on top of the pedestal because it was really about the whole 10 days.”